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Lawmakers Grill Web Site Contractors; Pass Immigration Reform; Obama Says We Should Work Together; Obama Asked To Delay Individual Mandate; Merkel Responds To Spying Allegations; Wire Tapping Allegations; Sparks Fly at Obamacare Hearing; Interview with Rep. Joe Pitts
Aired October 24, 2013 - 13:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer reporting today from Washington. The contractors behind the Obamacare Web site, they get grilled over the technical blunders surrounding the launch of HealthCare.gov. Executives from four companies were called to testify today before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Company officials tried to deflect blame for the problems. Some lawmakers sniped at one another for the reasons for holding the hearing.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REP. JOE PITTS (R), PENNSYLVANIA: The botched rollout is all the more reason that the individual mandate penalty should be delayed. Average Americans deserve a waiver from Obamacare, too, it's only fair, when the exchanges are such a mess.
REP. FRANK PALLONE (D), NEW JERSEY: You know, here we go again, another cynical effort by the Republicans to delay, defund, or ultimately repeal the Affordable Care Act. I'd like to think that somehow this hearing is above board and legitimate but it's not.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Tough exchange there. Joe Johns is here with me watching what's going on. You've been monitoring this hearing all morning. Are they getting good answers from these four contractors?
JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, this is a massive project. And when you look at it, there are about 55 companies that have been signed up to work on HealthCare.gov. Only four witnesses at witness table so far really representing five companies. And there has been some finger pointing today but no one really stepped up and took responsibility for the problems with the Web site. Take a listen.
CHERYL CAMPBELL, SENIOR VICE PRESIDENT, CGI FEDERAL: The Federal Exchange, including the FFM, is not a standard consumer Web site.
ANDREW SLAVITT, GROUP EXECUTIVE VICE PRESIDENT, OPTUM, QSSI: It's one of the reasons for the high concurrent volume that the registration system was a late decision requiring consumers to register for an account before they could browse for insurance products.
LYNN SPELLECY, CORPORATE COUNSEL, EQUIFAX WORKFORCE SOLUTIONS: Equifax Workforce Solutions' role in the federally facilitated marketplace is limited.
JOHN LAU, PROGRAM DIRECTOR, SERCO: We have no role in the development of the Web site. We have no role in determination of eligibility. And we have no role in health plan selection.
JOHNS: In fairness, one company, CGI, did say the problem started with the gateway portal to the site and pointed out that another contractor was responsible for that. That contractor responsible was Quantum QSSI. They say the problem occurred because the government made change, a very late change, requiring people to register on the Web site before they would be allowed to browse for insurance.
And we now know from testimony that the government, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, asked for that most important change just two weeks before the site was scheduled to go live and it created a logjam, apparently. What we don't know right now is who made that decision to require registration to happen so late. We know that person apparently was at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.
BLITZER: You should not have to give the private password information just to do window shopping for options. You should be able to go there, check out various options. And then, when you make a decision, then you go in there. You put the password, the Social Security number, all of that very confidential information, and that decision was made only two weeks before October 1st.
BLITZER: That's a blunder. That's a huge blunder.
JOHNS: Absolutely. Right.
BLITZER: Who is responsible for that?
JOHNS: That's the million dollar question right there. Apparently someone at CMS. We don't know who. The witnesses said they didn't know who. And we've asked before, you know, who was the project manager?
BLITZER: So, it was --
JOHNS: Who was the individual in charge?
BLITZER: -- some person at Department of Health and Human Services.
JOHNS: Right, exactly.
BLITZER: It was a government employee, not a contractor, made that obviously that horrible decision.
JOHNS: That is what the witnesses said.
BLITZER: So, they're -- the committee is trying to find that out.
JOHNS: That's right.
BLITZER: All right. Bottom line, do we have a better idea when these contractors believe all of the problems will be fixed?
JOHNS: The message they're giving, Wolf, is the very same message we've been getting from the White House. Things are getting better incrementally every day but no one is willing to put an end date on when they're going to have all of the problems will be fixed because if they do that, they're going to have to stick to that and it could be a problem.
BLITZER: Yes. One of the things that sort of jumped out to me listening to this hearing was when one of the contractors said, well, a lot of people are now just doing it the old fashioned way on paper.
BLITZER: They are filling out forms. But then, when they -- when the professionals, the contractors, take those forms and put data into the computers, guess what? They got problems with the computers.
JOHNS: They still have problems. Yes, exactly.
BLITZER: So, you and I -- so, some person can fill out a form and get -- think it's done. But guess what? It's not necessarily done.
JOHNS: Right. And it's a very complex project. I mean, there are people are saying all of this information in one place really has never been tried before. So, there are some challenges. Similar things have been done. Equifax, the credit agency, has gotten a lot of information to be able to -- been able to process it very quickly. But this is coming from a bunch of different areas and you're dealing with government and private enterprises. It's very complicated.
BLITZER: Joe Johns monitoring the hearing for us and doing an excellent job. Thank you.
Republicans and some Democrats want President Obama to delay the date that penalties kick in if you don't have health insurance. But there has been some confusion over when the deadline is. Now, the White House is trying to clear up the confusion. Some people thought you needed to buy insurance by February 15th so that it would take -- it would have time to take effect. But the White House now says as long as you buy insurance by March 31st, you won't have to pay a penalty.
After the government shutdown deal was signed, President Obama laid out his priorities going forward. Among them, comprehensive immigration reform. And just a little while ago, the president talked about the Senate bill that passed and the need to stop avoiding a fix for comprehensive immigration.
(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Obviously, just because something is smart and fair and good for the economy and fiscally responsible and supported by business and labor and the evangelical community and many Democrats and many Republicans, that does not mean that it will actually get done. This is Washington after all.
So, everything tends to be viewed through a political prism. And everybody's been looking at the politics of this. And I know that there are some folks in this town are primed (ph) to think, well, if Obama is for it, then I'm against it. But, you know, I'd remind everybody that my Republican predecessor was also for it when he proposed reforms like this almost a decade ago. And I joined with 23 Senate Republicans back then to support that reform. I'd remind you that this reform, won more than a dozen Republican votes in the Senate in June. I'm not running for office again. I just believe this is right thing to do.
BLITZER: Let's go to the White House. Athena Jones is standing by. Athena, the president admitted that everyone didn't get what they wanted in the Senate immigration bill. Does he still want, though, that to be the basis for the final plan? Because, obviously, it's a much tougher sell in the House of Representatives.
ATHENA JONES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Wolf. Well, it is a tougher sell but this is the bill the president was touting during those brief remarks. And so, he does still want this to be a model. This Senate bill takes a comprehensive approach. And we've heard a lot of talk about comprehensive immigration reform.
This bill passed by a big margin, 68 to 32, with a lot of Republican support, 14 Republicans. It would do -- among other things, it would strengthen border security. It would create a 13-year path to citizenship for the undocumented. It would raise the cap on high- skilled visas, visas for high-skilled workers and create a new visa program for low-skilled workers.
And so, he said, you know, this doesn't do everything I want it to do but it's a big, good start. He also made the -- this economic argument saying that independent economists had estimate -- have estimated that if this bill becomes law, within two decades, it would add $1.4 trillion more to the U.S. economy than without the bill. So, that's what's part of his big push and that's what he wants to see done -- Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, Athena, thank you.
The president clearly challenging Congress to get work done on this immigration reform. Let's continue the conversation with our Chief Political Analyst, Gloria Borger. Doable or not doable, Gloria? Can he get it done anytime soon?
GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: OK, I hesitate to predict that in Congress anything can get done anytime soon. But I'd have to say that, look, you had an overwhelming majority in the Senate. You have the group, the hell no caucus in the House. They're not going to vote for this any way, shape, or form.
However, I do think that there are national Republicans and the business community who really wants this to get done. And I think once they can get in place some kind of border enforcement that they all trust, that they believe will actually work, then you can move on to the other parts of immigration reform.
So, I'm not saying they can get a huge comprehensive measure through but I do believe that if they attack this and kind of a piecemeal way, we might just be surprised and they might be able to do something because, after all, I think Congress acts when it's in their own self- interest. And I think lots of members of Congress, particularly from the west, who see the changing demographics, understand that if they're going to win a presidential election, and if they're going to win re-election in their changing communities, they've got to fix this.
BLITZER: Yes. Remember, George W. Bush tried. And he had John McCain. He had Ted Kennedy. He had a -- he had a lot of bipartisan. It didn't exactly work out then. We'll see if this president can achieve that goal of comprehensive immigration reform.
Let's get back to the Obamacare hearings, the Web site hearings.
BLITZER: Lively testimony today from these four contractors, as you saw. Kathleen Sebelius, she'll testify later next week.
BLITZER: But today, she's out in Arizona at a call center promoting Obamacare. Is that the right signal to be --
BORGER: Call center, right?
BLITZER: -- which is when people call in --
BORGER: Call me, is that what it is?
BLITZER: -- and they put the information over the phone, the old sort of 1980s style.
BORGER: The old fashioned way. Look, when you're trying to attract young people to enroll, because what you need to make this work is young, healthy people, the way to do it is obviously, Wolf, over the Internet not through call centers. They have no choice, though, right now, to promote it through those call centers.
What they're trying to do by sending cabinet members out, by sending Kathleen Sebelius out is to say, Obamacare is not just the Web site. Obamacare is a plan that will work for you. And what's the one question you are not asked? The one question you are not asked is whether you have a preexisting condition and that should be liberating for you. So, this is a message that they are trying to take to the American public and say, look, you have a bunch of time now to get this done. Don't be discouraged. This is really good for you so keep trying. Whatever way you can.
BLITZER: The longer -- the longer the fix is not completely there, --
BORGER: Oh, yes.
BLITZER: -- the greater the pressure will be to delay the penalties, the individual mandate. That pressure already growing.
BORGER: Growing from Democrats, --
BORGER: -- I would say. I mean, it's just --
BLITZER: Especially Democrats up for re-election next year.
BORGER: This is -- that's right. This isn't about defunding Obamacare from the House Republicans. This is from Democrats who are up for re-election who are getting a lot of pressure at home, and particularly in red state, red state Democrats. But somebody like Jeanne Shaheen from New Hampshire has said you ought to extend enrollment because they believe this isn't fair and certainly you can't penalize people who haven't been able to log on and get in. So, you know, I wouldn't be surprised if eventually, if this continues, that they do -- they do make some amendments. But now --
BLITZER: Yes, the president --
BORGER: -- they've got --
BLITZER: -- the president has that authority. He has that ability --
BLITZER: -- to do it through executive action as he did with the employer plan dates. He can just make a decision to delay it if he wants.
BLITZER: But he hasn't made that decision (INAUDIBLE.)
BORGER: And what was interesting was that yesterday, the White House finally met with the insurance company executives to ask them for help. I mean, these are the people who actually know how to do this kind of stuff. And they're teaming up to come up with some kind of technical way to fix all of this within the next few weeks. We'll see if they can do it.
BLITZER: We'll see what happens -- in the course of today, we'll see what happens.
BLITZER: Gloria, thank you.
High stakes allegations between a very close ally. Germany is accusing the United States of eavesdropping on the chancellor. What Angela Merkel has to say about it, that's next.
BLITZER: The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, says trust between the United States and Europe has to be, in her word, "re-established," after allegations that the United States tapped her cell phone. She made the comments this morning as she arrived at a summit of EU leaders in Brussels. Angela Merkel called President Obama when she first heard about the allegations and he assured her it wasn't true, but it appears she might not be buying that explanation. Moments ago, the White House press secretary, Jay Carney, was asked about whether her communications have been monitored in the past. Listen closely to what he said.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: We are not going to comment publicly on every specified, alleged intelligence activity. And as a matter of policy, we have made clear that the United States gathers foreign intelligence of the type gathered by all nations.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: David Ignatius is the associate editor of "The Washington Post" and a columnist.
David, thanks for joining us. Let me get your take on clearly a tense moment in U.S.-German, shall I say U.S.-European relations?
DAVID IGNATIUS, ASSOCIATE EDITOR, "WASHINGTON POST": Well, this does illustrate what I'm told is the first rule of intelligence operations overseas, which is don't get caught, because once you get caught, you're in this kind of situation in which people get furious, they feel that their private communications have been exposed, the U.S. ends up issuing non-denial denials, which is what Jay Carney's comments that you just showed sounded like to me.
The reality is that the United States has extremely aggressive and effective capabilities for surveillance around the world. The NSA is the lead edge of that. But it's not the only part. And it does give the U.S. the ability to capture conversations in Germany, in Brazil, in all these countries that are allies. And as those capabilities get disclosed, they're creating real political backlash.
BLITZER: But we really shouldn't be surprised, David. You and I have covered the U.S. intelligence community, covered intelligence over many, many years. That friendly countries spy on each other. Allies spy on each other. This is nothing new, right?
IGNATIUS: It's nothing new. It's not -- shouldn't necessarily be damaging. Allies like to know what each other are doing. I mean I suppose sometimes you're doing trade negotiations and you want to know what the German trade minister's planning to bring into the next round. But, yes, this is the basic stuff of intelligence activities overseas.
The Germans, in particular, react extremely negatively to this. I've been with German friends over last few months after the NSA disclosures began and they just have been shaking they were so upset. And it may come from their particular experiences with Hitler's Germany and then East Germany, a surveillance state in both cases. Maybe that makes them especially concerned about this and the U.S. has to take that into account.
But the basic answer to your question is, yes, everybody does do this kind of thing. The U.S., through the NSA, does it more aggressively because it's just better at it. It's got more capabilities.
BLITZER: You had a column in which you had an interview with James Clapper, the director of National Intelligence. Let me read a line from your column. "The White House has generally deferred to Clapper, letting him broker deals within the intelligence community rather than try to impose its own management. On redaction of NSA documents, for example, the White House left most decisions with Clapper."
So what do you think? Does he get too much leeway?
IGNATIUS: I think that Clapper is trying to fill what is a bit of a policy vacuum. And that's good, somebody should take charge, and Clapper's an experienced person.
Wolf, the simple point I would make is that most of the U.S. government response, including by Clapper, to the NSA scandal, has focused on domestic reaction in the U.S. Americans who say, wait a minute, you know, we don't want our data, our meta data saying who we called on our cell phones or whatever. We don't want that collected by the NSA. And so Clapper is trying to responded to that. And he's actually, as I report in my column this morning, pushed back against NSA and said, no, you're going to have to disclose more than you're comfortable with.
We haven't done a similar job overseas. And U.S. officials sometimes say things like, look, sorry, the Fourth Amendment against unnecessary search and seizure, that doesn't apply to foreign citizens, that's for American citizens. Well, I think they're going to have to say more to people like Chancellor Angela Merkel, a key U.S. friend and ally, because they're really mad.
BLITZER: Yes. Not only the Germans, the French are mad, the Mexicans are mad, the Brazilians. A lot of countries with good relations to the United States are pretty angry right now.
IGNATIUS: These days, throw a dart at a map of the world and you'll hit a country that's mad at the United States. I hope that doesn't last forever.
BLITZER: Yes, well, I'm sure it won't. They'll get over it at some point.
All right, David, thanks very much. David Ignatius of "The Washington Post" joining us.
IGNATIUS: Thanks, Wolf.
BLITZER: Shocking, new details out today about how a beloved Massachusetts teacher was killed, what her 14-year-old student is accused of doing. We have new information.
BLITZER: Some testy moments during a hearing today on the problems with the Obamacare website. Two House committee members got into a heated exchange over the motives behind the hearings and concerns about protecting people's personal information. Listen to this.
REP. FRANK PALLONE (D), NEW JERSEY: No health information is required in the application process. And why is that? Because pre-existing conditions don't matter. So once again here we have my Republican colleagues trying to scare everybody over -
REP. JOE BARTON (R), TEXAS: Will the gentlemen yield?
PALLONE: No, I will not yield to this monkey court or whatever this thing is.
BARTON: This is not a monkey court.
PALLONE: Do whatever you want. I'm not yielding. I am trying to tell you -
BARTON: (INAUDIBLE). Protecting --
PALLONE: That the problem here --
BARTON: Protecting American citizens --
PALLONE: And no pre-existing condition.
BARTON: Is a legitimate concern of this committee.
PALLONE: The pre-existing conditions don't matter.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Gentlemen, (INAUDIBLE).
PALLONE: HIPAA doesn't apply. There's no health information in the process. You're asked about your address, your date of birth. You're not asked health information. So why are we going down this path? Because you are trying to scare people so they don't apply.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Republican Congressman Joe Pitts of Pennsylvania took part -- has been taking part in the hearings, a member of that committee. He's joining us now from Capitol Hill.
Congressman, thanks very much for coming in.
REP. JOE PITTS, R-PENNSYLVANIA: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be with you.
BLITZER: So what do you think of Congressman Pallone's charge, other Democrat's charge, that you're really not trying to fix this website, you're simply trying to undermine Obamacare?
PITTS: Well, that's from a man, although I highly respect him, who thinks everything's OK and that we shouldn't ask questions. I think oversight, asking questions, is an important role for our committee.
BLITZER: So when you hear him calling this a, quote, "monkey court," what do you say to him?
PITTS: Well, I didn't say anything to him. In the heat of the moment, he used that phrase. It's unfortunate. The Energy and Commerce Committee and the Health Subcommittee have a proper role of oversight in asking questions. And today we had vendors who we had on September 10th come before the subcommittee and say everything was A-OK. Well, we know what has happened with the disastrous rollout and we asked them questions today to try to find out what happened. They were not able to give us answers because they said CMS contracts prohibited them from responding. They pointed the finger at CMS as being the basic problem. So next week, when Secretary Sebelius comes, we'll ask her to respond to those questions.
BLITZER: Did you learn anything substantive, important today?
PITTS: Well, we learned - yes, we learned some things, although their testimony in the beginning seemed to indicate everything was still OK. We were able to drill down and find out more information. But, really, we need CMS, we need Secretary Sebelius to come before us to get the basic answers. We found out that they did not do end to end testing until the very end on a very complex system with multiple agencies and databases and millions of consumers. It's unthinkable, it's very shocking, that they would wait until the last minute to do the end to end testing. And we learned that they made last-minute changes, which complicated things. So, yes, we learned some new information, but we have more questions.
BLITZER: In your opening statement, congressman, you said, among other things, you said you wanted to find out whether or not the administration, in your words, was simply incompetent or were they just lying to the American people? I wonder if you want to explain that second part, lying to the American people? What were you driving at?
PITTS: Well, I think when we got the information from Secretary Sebelius, from the CMS administrator, that everything was ready to roll out, that people could go on their websites and shop and get the information and sign up. Why that was not so. I think we were misled because that has not occurred. In addition to all the other broken promises that if you like your health care, you can keep it, if you like your doctor, you can keep it, that the costs aren't going to go up, and, you know, that's not true. So I think, to some degree, they have misled the American people on this Affordable Care Act.
BLITZER: But was that a deliberate misleading, deliberate lying, if you will, or just blunders, mistakes?
PITTS: I don't know. I wouldn't say - I don't want to impugn any motives here. But they obviously have misled the American people because this is a disaster right now. You can try to go on and we had numerous people mention that they had tried to go on and could not. They had all kinds of problems.
And I think the, you know, the glitches, they call it, it's more than glitches. And this is indicative, it's a good metaphor of what's going to happen with the Affordable Care Act once it's implemented. If they can't set up a website, what do you expect when they control the health care of millions of Americans? It's going to be another problem. And sort of hiding the costs of health care with the information being put out there, I think that's wrong. We should let people go on and browse and see all the different plans, how much it's going to cost, shop, and then register. But that's not what they decided to do.
BLITZER: Yeah, they're fixing that now. But you're right, two weeks before the launch, all of a sudden, they changed it so you had to put a password, personal information in, simply to browse, simply to shop, and that clearly screwed up at least a big chuck of the website.
Congressman, thanks for coming in.
PITTS: Sure. Thank you.
BLITZER: Still ahead, new information on how a beloved Massachusetts teacher was killed. Stay with us.