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Government Shutdown; Interview With Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders

Aired October 10, 2013 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

House GOP leaders went to the White House about an hour-and-a- half or so ago with a new offer in their pockets, and no assurances that the president was ready to make a deal.

We're waiting for them to come out of the West Wing of the White House, tell us if the two sides are any closer to a compromise. Republicans say they would cast a short-term increase in the debt limit if, if the president agrees to negotiate on other issues, including an end to the partial government shutdown.

Our chief congressional correspondent Dana Bash is standing by, but let's bring in our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.

Jim, it looks like that meeting may be wrapping up, may be already wrapped up. Some are suggesting that the speaker may already have slipped out without going to the microphones.


One of our photojournalists, Tim Garraty, who has the fence cam position here at the White House, Wolf, says he spotted House Speaker John Boehner leaving out the side, without making a statement at that stakeout microphone position in the driveway at the White House in the last several minutes. Can't read into that whether that is a good sign or not.

As you know, Wolf, the other day when John Boehner was over here with congressional leadership, he did at least come out and make a brief statement. So we're going to have to find out what all of that means as soon as we hear from his staff or hear from the speaker himself. That stakeout position is still set up. Congressional leaders may still come out on the Republican side and talk to the cameras. We will have to wait and see whether or not that happens.

But, Wolf, all of this is very important because this was a critical meeting between House Republican leaders and President Obama. Vice President Joe Biden was also in the room talking about this House Republican plan for what appears to be a six-week increase in the nation's debt ceiling. The president, according to White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, would likely sign that, but as the press secretary was telling us in the Briefing Room earlier today, the president wants to see that legislation first, an indication that there's not a lot of trust between the White House and House Republicans.

Here's how Jay Carney put it earlier today.


JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: If a clean debt limit bill is passed, he would likely sign it. Again, we would have to see it. We're speaking of a bill that does not at this point exist. And it's not at all clear based on what the speaker said that that's what we're going to see.


ACOSTA: The issue here is whether or not there would be a bill accompanying a measure to raise the nation's debt ceiling that also reopens the government. At this point, prospects for that seemed very gloomy at this point, Wolf, and this question was posed to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

He was, of course, here earlier this afternoon with Senate Democrats meeting with the president. He was asked whether or not Democrats would get involved in discussions on a bill to reopen the government that is not clean, that there would be some sort of bill to reopen the government that had conditions attached to it. Here is how Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid answered that question.


QUESTION: You have the very position, the president had a very clear position, which is give me a clean C.R. You need to open the government before you will engage and negotiate. Republicans were pretty clear earlier today they want to negotiate before you reopen the government.

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MAJORITY LEADER: Not going to happen.


ACOSTA: So that a very, very abrupt answer from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Wolf, that is an indication that while we may get the debt ceiling raised, we may not get a deal to reopen the government, at least not in the short term. Wolf, I'm hearing from our photojournalist Tim Garraty, who was watching House Republicans leave here at the White House, that now it appears that all House Republicans who were here at the White House, all 18 have left without making a statement. We don't expect them to come to the microphones at this point, Wolf.

We're just going to have to wait to see what that means. It could mean that perhaps there was not the breakthrough that we were all anticipating earlier in the day. But, as you mentioned earlier, perhaps House Republicans will be making that statement over at the Capitol. We will just have to wait and see, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, sometimes, they prefer going back to Capitol Hill to make a statement following a meeting with the president. Sometimes they're willing to go to the microphones in the driveway there outside the West Wing. We will stand by. We saw that little bus leave with the Republican members of the House in that bus. We earlier saw the speaker leave as well. We will stand by to see what they say, if anything, up on Capitol Hill.

Let's go to Capitol Hill right now.

Our chief congressional correspondent, Dana Bash, is standing by.

I don't know if we can read too much into no comments, no statements coming out of that Republican leadership directly at the White House, Dana, may be good news, may be bad news, but we do know what the offer was that the speaker put on the table earlier today.

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. And that offer, as Jim was just talking about, was to agree to pass what they call a clean debt ceiling, or at least what Republicans call a clean debt ceiling. Democrats are not so sure, because they haven't seen the language of it, but a debt ceiling that doesn't have the kind of spending cuts and other strings attached that some conservatives have been demanding.

And in exchange for that, what Republicans wanted the president to agree to was to sit down and start talking about the big issues they have not been able to come together on frankly for two, three years, big, big issues that everybody believes need to be addressed, but they have very different philosophies on how to do so with regard to entitlements, with regard to taxes, with regard to the overall level of government spending.

Those are the things they wanted to discuss with the president. You know, again, as you and I have talked about so many times over the past 10 days or more, we still have a potential chicken or egg situation. That's sort of the best way I have come up to describe this. Which is going to happen first?

Jim just played a quick sound bite from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who was at the White House earlier saying not going to happen when asked if they would agree to extend the debt ceiling without opening the government. Maybe that was part of the discussion. Maybe the president said, obviously, I don't want to let the country default, but I also want to reopen the government.

We will see. What I can tell you, and this is really, really important to underscore, we are hearing so much more from Republicans on both sides of the Capitol that they are very concerned about the public backlash to them personally, to them politically and to their party in general over the shutdown.

BLITZER: We will see if they speak out once they get back to Capitol Hill. You will let us know, Dana, for sure. Thank you.

Coming up, a crab dinner with beer to wash it down, it sounds delicious, but the government shutdown may, may be getting in the way.

Also, the independent Senator and Obama ally Bernie Sanders, he's standing by to join us live. He has some very strong opinions about the shutdown, who is to blame.

By the way, if you have some questions you want me to ask him, tweet them to me. Don't forget to use the hashtag SITROOM.


BLITZER: Ten days into the partial government shutdown, we're seeing all sorts of unusual ways that Americans are being affected.

CNN's Erin McPike is here. She's keeping tabs on this shutdown fallout.

What do you see?

ERIN MCPIKE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the shutdown has wide- ranging economic impacts all across the country, but it especially hurts small states like Maine, where the governor tried to declare a state of emergency today due to all the federal workers there not getting a paycheck.

Other states with economies dependent on a certain kind of product regulated by the government are feeling the pinch, too.


MCPIKE (voice-over): From South Florida to the last frontier, the shutdown is hitting food producers.

TRACY LABARGE, ALASKA CRAB SHACK OWNER: These guys just need to set these quotas so the guys can get out fishing.

MCPIKE: The "Deadliest Catch" crew and their fellow Alaska crabbers grounded. With no federal quotas issued, they can't get a permit to start the crabbing season, also a concern for restaurants like Tracy's King Crab Shack.

(on camera): What do you think is the worst-case scenario for you in this shutdown?

LABARGE: They don't get crabbing. The crab prices go so high that I am priced out of the market. Since it is my only thing that I sell, you know, I will be priced out. And I don't know that people will be willing to pay that price. So, it could potentially, worst- case scenario, put me out of business.

MCPIKE (voice-over): Down south, citrus growers usually consult the Department of Agriculture's citrus forecast, but the agency's entire Web site is shut down. And the craft beer movement bubbling up all over America is running into problem getting new beers on tap. SMITH MATHEWS, SOUTHBOUND BREWMASTER: We can't, one, put our formula in for the approval or, two, even get a label, so we can register it with the state, so we can sell it to our distributor. So, we're completely prevented from brewing this next beer because of the government shutdown.

MCPIKE: In Utah and elsewhere, shuttering of national parks has locked out hikers and park-goers and hurt local economies, but now some hope. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell will -- quote -- "consider agreements with governors who indicate an interest and ability to fully fund National Park Service personnel to reopen national parks in their state."

Still no luck for this little guy. His picture outside Washington's National Zoo has gone viral, labeled by one tweeter the absolute saddest photo you will see.


MCPIKE: And, today, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel approved a plan to allow military academy intercollegiate sports programs to continue playing their games through the end of the month. Wolf, it's another way Washington is finding a way around the shutdown.

BLITZER: Let's hope that they resolve this matter once and for all completely. Erin, thanks very much.

The Obamacare enrollment process also 10 days old right now. We're still seeing many problems with the program's Web site.

Brian Todd went looking for some answers about the flawed system and its costs.

Brian is here.

What did you find out?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, as you know, the Obamacare Web site has been beset with problems, glitches since virtually the moment it came online, people not being able to log on, getting booted on.

So, we pressed the administration's point man on the health care sign-up. His name is David Simas, White House deputy senior adviser for communications and strategy.


DAVID SIMAS, WHITE HOUSE DEPUTY SENIOR COMMUNICATIONS ADVISER: Folks are working 24/7 to address to isolate and to fix problems. People are going through and others aren't. It's not acceptable, which is why they are working across the clock both with hardware and with software.

TODD: But many argue you had many months to get this booted up and to really perfect it. Why, then, still so many problems? SIMAS: We went through a testing period, and during the testing period, you identify problems, created a punch list, fix those things. The president said from the beginning, with a site like this, of course, there were going to be glitches, but let's understand why there was the initial problem.

We had 250,000 concurrent users at one time. I mean, just for perspective, in a given month has five million unique visitors. This in first three days had 8.6 million unique visitors, which speaks tot demand.

TODD (voice-over): But was there a design flaw? One independent expert, Russ Reeder, who designs Web sites for major corporations, had his engineers analyze, and he said it doesn't work at the most basic levels.

RUSSELL REEDER, PRESIDENT, MEDIA TEMPLE: Just from the highest level, looking at the code on the Web site, it was -- to be honest with you, it was pretty sloppy. There were still test code in there. There was a number of times that the Web site would have to go back and hit the server and then come back with too much information. It was just inefficient.

SIMAS: I will let others speak to the efficiency of coding.

Here's what I know. Prior to October 1, if someone who was uninsured or in the individual market wanted to buy insurance, usually it was a mailed-in application with about 30 pages, seven pages of underwriting, only to find out two or three weeks later whether or not you're one of the one in five people denied or your premiums were jacked up.

TODD (on camera): How much did it cost to pay the contractor to set up this Web site?

SIMAS: So, I will refer you back to CMS and HHS for those numbers.

TODD: Was it over 4100 million?

SIMAS: Brian, I will just refer you to them for the numbers.


(voice-over): We haven't been able to get hard numbers from those agencies, but according to a government accountability report issued over the summer, they paid nearly $90 million through March of this year. They have obviously paid more since then. Then there's the potential cyber-security threat.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers says, with all the personal information like your Social Security number, tax information and other you will have to put into this health care database..

(on camera): It's a magnet for hackers, he says. What about the cyber-security?

SIMAS: Built to the highest security standards. That's what this Web site was built upon. And so it's pretty clear that the standards that have been put in place meet the highest and most exacting security standards, and we're comfortable with that.


TODD: Back to the usability question, I asked Simas would he say to me if I was an average user who hasn't been able to log on to or who has been booted off and if I'm about to give up?

He said keep on going back, call a help center, and understand there's a six-month period to sign up. It will continue to improve, he said.

BLITZER: All right, Brian, thanks very much.

I want go right back to Capitol Hill. Dana Bash is getting some news on that meeting that the Republican leadership had over at the White House with the president.

Dana, what are you hearing?

BASH: That's right.

If you look down the hall behind me, that's where House Speaker John Boehner's office is. That's where all of the people, the Republican lawmakers who were at the White House are right now. They all came filing into there. I talked to several of the lawmakers, including the House majority leader, Eric Cantor, who actually said that it was a positive meeting, said they are going to -- it was a good first step, that they're going to continue to have discussions tonight.

There are reports that the president outright rejected the House Republican plan to have a short-term debt limit. As far as these Republican lawmakers are concerned, and these are some key committee chairmen that I'm talking to kind of walking by here, they said they didn't see it that way, and that one even just said to me that they're -- quote, unquote -- "working together" with the president to try to keep working even through the night.

BLITZER: All right, Dana, thanks very much.

Up next, Senator Bernie Sanders, he's here. I will ask him if he would accept a short-term deal to raise the nation's debt limit.


BLITZER: Let's get back to the breaking news.

The House Republican leadership left a crucial meeting with President Obama over at the White House just a little while ago. They didn't make any formal comments about a potential deal on raising the debt limit. We anticipate maybe we will hear something shortly. In the meantime, we're joined by Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. He's an independent, but he caucuses with the Democrats.

Senator, thanks very much for coming in.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I), VERMONT: Good to be with you.

BLITZER: We got a lot of questions. I tweeted, send me a suggested question for you.

Senator Sanders, this came in. "How will you vote on the six- week debt ceiling proposal from House Republicans?"

SANDERS: Let me just say, this whole issue can be resolved if Speaker Boehner allowed the House of Representatives to have a vote. A majority of the members of the House right now are prepared to vote...

BLITZER: But he's not allowing that.

SANDERS: Well, that's the problem.

BLITZER: So, what if the six-week extension, though, does come up?

SANDERS: If he does not agree to end the government shutdown, and allow a million people to get back to work and earn a paycheck, no, I will not support that.

BLITZER: In other words, it's got to be linked? You raise the nation's debt ceiling and you end the government shutdown or nothing?

SANDERS: Wolf, the situation is so pathetic that we see it as a major gift on the part of Republicans that for the first time in the history of the United States, they are prepared not to default.

That's not much of a give. The business community is very clear, everybody is very clear. The economists are telling us it will be a catastrophe. Obviously, what we have to do is pay or bills, but equally important, we have tens of millions of people today who are not getting the government services they paid for.

I am chairman of the Veterans Committee. I worry very much about what is happening to thousands and thousands of veterans. What we have got to do is open the government and of course we have to pay our bills.

BLITZER: But if Boehner doesn't budge on allowing a clean continuing resolution, as it's called, to come up for a vote in the House, isn't it better at least to end the debt ceiling issue and let the money flow for Social Security recipients, for veterans, for foreign investors in the United States who own a lot of these usual treasuries?

SANDERS: And keep tens of millions of people, kids on Head Start not being able to go to Head Start, seniors who are on the Meals on Wheels program not being able to get the food, the nutrition that they need, not having important agencies which protect our health fight against influenza and disease?

No. The Republicans have got to do what the American people want. And that is stop holding this government and the American people hostage. And I think they're, by the way, getting that message.

When Wall Street and the big-money interests who sponsor the Republican Party are coming in and say, you guys are nuts, because if you don't pay our debts, we're going to see an international financial crisis, Republicans are beginning to catch on to reality.

BLITZER: They had that big, big meeting over at the White House, the Republican leadership with the president.

Only moments ago, Eric Cantor, the majority leader in the House, the Republican, he said this. Let me play the clip.


REP. ERIC CANTOR (R-VA), HOUSE MAJORITY LEADER: We had a very useful meeting. It was clarifying, I think, for both sides as to where we are.

And the takeaway from the meeting was our teams are going to be talking further tonight. We will have more discussion. We will come back to have more discussion. The president said that he would go and consult with the administration folks, and hopefully we can see a way forward after that.


BLITZER: All right, so that sounds optimistic. He seems to be inclined that there may be a deal in the works.

SANDERS: Well, I certainly hope that they do what the American people overwhelmingly want them to do, and that is reopen the government and pay our bills.

But here is what I worry about. These guys haven't quite caught on that they lost the last election. What I fear very much is what they are going to now demand is that we cut Social Security, we cut Medicare, and we cut Medicaid, and if you do all of these things that the American people, by the way, are overwhelmingly against, well, we will be nice guys and maybe we will reopen the government.

That is blackmail, and we should not...


BLITZER: But you know that, separate from the debt ceiling, the government shutdown, even the president has been open to some entitlement reform, as it's called, even involving Social Security, cost-of-living index, stuff like that.

You're not very happy with that?

SANDERS: No. I disagree strongly, and so do the American people.

If you want to -- first of all, Social Security has a $2.7 trillion surplus. It can pay out all benefits for the next 20 years. You want to make it solvent for the next 75 years, you know what you do? You lift the cap, and you have people who are making millions of dollars contribute their fair share into the fund.

Look, Wolf, the bottom line is, the middle class in this country is disappearing. Poverty is at an all-time high. The richest people are doing phenomenally well. We cannot balance the budget on the backs of the elderly and the children and the sick and the poor. End of discussion. That is just wrong.

BLITZER: Senator, thanks very much for coming in, Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Always good to have you here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching.

"CROSSFIRE" starts right now.