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President Obama Defends Affordable Care Act; Nuclear Waste Controversy; Detroit's New Mayor

Aired November 6, 2013 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, the Obama White House launches a new offensive just hours after a stressful election night, pushing back against the idea that Obamacare may be costing Democrats votes. Plus a new demand for answers about the Benghazi attack, as critics question whether blatant lies were told on national television.

And desperate times in the bankrupt city of Detroit. Voters have done something right now that they haven't done in 40 years.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. We're in the SITUATION ROOM.

The president may come out swinging when he holds a new Obamacare event in Texas very soon. He'll face the public for the first time since the 2013 election results came in. Those results helped stir Democrats' fear that they may eventually pay a price for the health care fiasco, but the White House is pushing back, trying to reassure members of the president's own party and turn the tables on the Republicans.

Let's bring in our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta. He's been watching the story all day.

What's the latest, Jim?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, all we can say right now is the president has landed in Dallas. He will be speaking within the hour on Obamacare down in Texas.

He will be talking about that state's large uninsured population. It's a safe bet that the president will once again address the continuing problems with the rollout of health care reform, sound contrite about those problems. Meanwhile, we should also point out something very interesting happened at the White House today.

As the White House was throwing cold water on the notion that Virginia's governor-elect, Terry McAuliffe, nearly lost his race due to Obamacare, the president was holding an unannounced meeting with 16 Democratic senators, nearly all of whom who are up for reelection next year.

The subject of that meeting, of course it was Obamacare's messy rollout and the program's security concerns. I talked to a Democratic staffer with knowledge of that meeting who said basically these reelection concerns were a big part for that gathering to be held. All of this happened as Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was hammered again during a congressional hearing where Republicans accused the White House of dishonesty on the president's pledge if you like your plan, you can keep it.

But some of that frustration was bipartisan, as Montana Democrat Max Baucus also chimed in that the administration has not been playing it straight.


SEN. MAX BAUCUS (D-MT), FINANCE COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: When we asked for updates on the marketplaces, the responses we got were totally unsatisfactory. We heard multiple times that everything was on track. We now know that was not the case.

SEN. JOHN THUNE (R), SOUTH DAKOTA: This is a dishonesty. You have been misleading the American people and the president has over and over and over again. I would much rather you just come up and say, yes, we were wrong, yes, we didn't tell the truth.


ACOSTA: Another embarrassing revelation when Sebelius acknowledged that HHS is not doing background checks on the administration's navigators who are helping Americans sign up for insurance through Obamacare. Here's how that exchanged played out.


SEN. JOHN CORNYN (R), TEXAS: So a convicted felon could be a navigator and could acquire sensitive personal information from an individual unbeknownst to them?



ACOSTA: Now Secretary Sebelius predicted that due to all the problems with Obamacare, the administration's rollout numbers -- excuse me -- enrollment numbers will be "very low" when they are released next week. She also mentioned that HHS has what she called a very aggressive schedule to meet the November 30 deadline of fixing the Web site.

That is an indication that this will be very tight for officials over and HHS. Meanwhile, CNN has learned an official in charge of technology over at the agency that developed, that Web site, that person is stepping down, perhaps one of the some heads that may be rolling in the administration due to the disastrous rollout of Obamacare, Wolf.

BLITZER: And the president now in Dallas, he's going to do this event in support of the Affordable Care Act, and he's going to be meeting with some of those so-called navigators, people who help folks sign up for health insurance, right? ACOSTA: That's right. I think it's a safe bet that we're going to hear the president, as we heard on Monday night when he was speaking to the group of post-campaign volunteers, that he is basically acknowledging that there are problems with the Web site, problems with the rollout of Obamacare, but, Wolf, what will be very interesting to watch is whether or not the president goes back and talks about that pledge that he made time and again, if you like your plan, you can keep it.

He is scheduled to make some remarks within the hour. He's running late because he left the White House late, but I think that is what a lot of people will be focusing on, not just here in Washington, here at the White House, but up on Capitol Hill as well.

BLITZER: These are live pictures we're showing our viewers. The president just landed in Dallas. You saw him walk down those stairs from Air Force One, get in the limo, drive over to the event. We will stand by and we will have coverage here on CNN.

Jim Acosta, thank you.

Meanwhile, a new demand to get answers about the deadly attack on U.S. diplomats in Benghazi more than a year later. We're now told some Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee are frustrated. They still feel they are not getting the truth from the Obama administration.

One member has now sent a letter to the House speaker outlining the most critical questions still hanging out there from this member's perspective, this as serious concerns are raised now about a "60 Minutes" report on Benghazi and whether it contained what the critics are calling lies.

Let's bring in our chief national correspondent, Jim Sciutto. He's been looking at all of this for us.

What are you seeing over there, Jim?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, as you know, the Benghazi story has been infused with politics since the beginning.

Today, there are new questions about the account of one of the key witnesses and now new accusations that even some of those questions are politically motivated. We talked to the key witness at the center of the attack and others to get at the truth.


SCIUTTO (voice-over): The question has hounded the administration since the night Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed in Benghazi. Why didn't the U.S. do more to keep them safe? A CBS "60 Minutes" story reignited the debate citing repeated security warnings before the attack by a private contractor. But now parts of that story are being called into question. The contractor, who used the pseudonym Morgan Jones, for his safety, trained local guards there.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They were saying these guys are no good, you need to get them out of here.

SCIUTTO: Ambassador Stevens' deputy and a top U.S. security official in Libya told CBS they had made similar dire warnings about security at the compound, accounts which together prompted renewed demands from Republicans for access to witnesses, with Senator Lindsey Graham even threatening to hold up all administration nominees.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Not because I want to shut anything down, because I want to open something up. It's important. I want to open up the truth about Benghazi.

SCIUTTO: However, an incident record obtained by CNN and first reported by "The Washington Post" revealed inconsistencies in Jones' account. In his book and to CBS, he said he went to the hospital after the attack where he saw Stevens' dead body, and then returned to the compound, scaling a wall and assaulting one of the militants. The incident report which also reviewed his real name, Dylan Davies, states those things never happened.

In a statement to CNN, Jones said -- quote -- "The account in my book is consistent with what I gave to the FBI and U.S. authorities about what happened in Benghazi." Hi co-author, Damien Lewis, told us Jones has never wavered in his story.

DAMIEN LEWIS, AUTHOR: He's been absolutely consistent in his story from the word go. Not only that. He's the kind of guy who downplays his role.

SCIUTTO: Jones says he never saw or signed the incident report, but the version of events in it matches lies he told his supervisor to hide the fact that he disobeyed his orders not to enter the compound that night.

Jones has said that releasing report without redacting his real name has put him into danger. Republican Congressman Jason Chaffetz, a vocal critic of the administration's handling of Benghazi, sees politics at play.

REP. JASON CHAFFETZ (R), UTAH: To take a covert operator and purposely release his real name for the -- for the consequence of endangering he life and his family's life is intolerable. I believe it's retribution for coming out against the administration.


SCIUTTO: Well, the administration would not comment on that allegation, but today one more revelation, that CBS had failed to disclose that Jones' book is being published by a CBS-owned company. In an interview with "The New York Times," CBS correspondent Lara Logan admitted that was a mistake not to disclose. However, CBS News chairman and "60 Minutes" executive producer Jeff Fager told CNN in a statement -- quote -- "We are proud of the reporting that went into the story and have confidence that our sources told accurate versions of what happened that night."

We heard the same thing, Wolf, from Jones' co-author, but still some questions certainly to be answered here.

BLITZER: Jim Sciutto reporting for us, thank you.

Still ahead, media coverage of Obamacare now in the crosshairs. Are reports too tough? Are they not tough enough? The debate is intense. We will have details.

And an historic vote for change spurs talks about race, the surprising election results in Detroit.


BLITZER: New Jersey Chris Christie says he won't be distracted by all the speculation about whether he will run for president . On the day after his big reelection win, Christie appeared at a local school, told reporters he hasn't made any long-term political plans yet.


GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), NEW JERSEY: I got reelected to do a job last night. That's the job I'm going to do. I'm not worried about all this other stuff. And if the time comes where I change my mind on that and I decide I want to do something else, I will tell the people of New Jersey I want to do something else.


BLITZER: Stand by for more on the election and the historic vote for change.


BLITZER: With all the buzz about the votes in New Jersey and Virginia, you may have missed the history-making election in the struggling city of Detroit.

For the first time in four decades, voters chose a white mayor.

Chris Lawrence grew up in Detroit. He's been following this story for us. He's here in THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

Detroit is struggling, as I said, right now.

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Wolf, in my lifetime, I have never known anything besides a black mayor in Detroit.

And here, Mike Duggan wins by 10 points. Wolf, some folks thought this could never happen. But I spoke with several Detroit voters today who told me a white candidate, black candidate, they just didn't care.


LAWRENCE (voice-over): Detroit's voters destroyed the theory that a white candidate could never win there, easily electing Mike Duggan as mayor.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He has a plan for change. You know, he's talking about changing the way we do things, the way we work in Detroit.

LAWRENCE: Duggan won over an electorate that's 83 percent black.

MIKE DUGGAN (D), DETROIT MAYOR-ELECT: I was not under any illusion about the racial division in this community or this country.

LAWRENCE: Detroit hasn't elected a white mayor since 1970, when Richard Nixon was president.

RICHARD NIXON, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I have concluded that the time has come for action.

LAWRENCE: "Three Dog Night" topped the charts and "Hawaii Five-0" was a hit show.

Duggan was facing off against a fellow Democrat, the county sheriff.

BILL BALLENGER, "INSIDE MICHIGAN POLITICS": The white candidate was the one who convinced them he had the right stuff to turn Detroit around.

LAWRENCE: A former mayor went to jail on corruption charges. Detroit's poverty rate is at 40 percent, and it has $18 billion in debt.

BALLENGER: Mike Duggan has built a reputation as a turnaround artist, a Mr. Fix-It.

LAWRENCE: But he will be forced to work under an emergency manager appointed by Michigan's Republican governor to take control of the city's budget.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Enough is enough. Let's stabilize and grow Detroit.

LAWRENCE: Duggan will have to work with city residents and that manager, who trumps even the mayor's authority.

DUGGAN: There's no doubt what we have in common is much more powerful than what divides us.


LAWRENCE: Now, power is an interesting word, because initially Duggan is not going to have much. Anything that he does that costs money, like tearing down thousands of vacant homes, he has to get that emergency manager's approval.

But that manager's term is likely up in September, Wolf, and the fact that Duggan took, say, the medical center with a $500 million deficit and turned eight years of profits may give him some standing with the governor to exert some more authority before then.

BLITZER: I would love to see Detroit turn around and come back.


BLITZER: It's a great, great city, as you well know. Chris Lawrence, thank you very much.

By the way, CNN's Anthony Bourdain got a taste of the ups and downs in drought Detroit. His visit to the Motor City is featured in the season finale of "PARTS UNKNOWN." That's coming up Sunday night, this Sunday night, 9:00 p.m. Eastern only here on CNN.

Those of us who cover politics are used to hearing criticism. People say we're being too tough or too soft on a particular candidate or issue. That kind of debate is swirling again right now over media coverage of Obamacare.

Tom Foreman is here in THE SITUATION ROOM. He's been looking into the arguments on both sides.

What are you seeing?

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, you can go online for just a few minutes, and you will find many, many, many furious voices out there convinced that Obamacare is being covered by the media in a fundamentally unfair way.

But as much as people may argue about false equivalency, it is absolutely true to say millions of people that the media is being too easy on it. And millions others say we're being way too hard.


FOREMAN (voice-over): In "Wall Street Journal," an article explaining how Obamacare is falling short. In "New York Times," another about how it is working.

Depending on which headlines you read, health care reform is either a debacle with a few bright spots or a raging success with a few rough patches.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: There is no way to fix this monstrosity.

MARILYN TAVENNER, ADMINISTRATOR, CENTERS FOR MEDICARE AND MEDICAID SERVICES: I think that we are extremely pleased with the product.

SEN. TOM HARKIN (D), IOWA: This is a machine that will be fixed.

FOREMAN: And on both sides, partisans are blaming the media for twisting the truth. But Frank Sesno, who runs the Center for Media and Public Relations at George Washington University, is not sure that's fair, either.

FRANK SESNO, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY: The media's coverage of Obamacare is reflecting the larger story here, which, it's all over the place.

FOREMAN: Problem one, the sheer scope of Obamacare. This is a multibillion-dollar government program. Some parts are working well, some aren't, but at the moment, the trouble Web site is the latest big piece to be unveiled.

SESNO: If there's a central bias in media coverage is a bias towards the negative. And this is totally understandable. We say that the story is the 500 planes that land on time. The story is the one plane that crashes.

FOREMAN: Problem two, the law contains popular provisions that allow young people to stay on their parent's health policies longer, that prevent denial of coverage based on preexisting conditions, that provide free preventative care, but all of those are old news.

Problem three, this is a long-term program. It will likely be years before we know if it really reduces medical costs or improves the health of the population. And problem four, most people have their own biases about Obamacare even before all the evidence is in. A recent CNN/Opinion Research Council poll found 77 percent of Democrats like the law, and even more Republicans don't.


FOREMAN: Yes. Some coverage is unfair. We have all heard complaints about this, but the real problem here, Wolf, is there are very few hard numbers, and some of those numbers we won't have for years. This reflects the uncertainty of this law going forward I think more than it does people trying to push it one way or the other in many cases.

BLITZER: We will learn more in the years to come, as they say. Tom, thanks, thanks very much.

Just ahead, why is there nuclear waste behind this plant that just may be in your own backyard? CNN is investigating.


BLITZER: We're going to find out what Drew Griffin discovered as far as nuclear power plants are concerned when we come back.


BLITZER: Now a CNN investigation, potentially dangerous nuclear waste allowed to just sit there for years because the U.S. can't find a place to put it. Could be happening in your own backyard right now.

Here's Drew Griffin of CNN Investigations.


DREW GRIFFIN, CNN INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): This is nuclear waste, the byproduct of nuclear power plants stored above ground at Virginia's North Anna nuclear power station.

(on camera): This is kind of warm.

GERALD BISCHOF, DOMINION GENERATION: It's a little bit bit warm.

Inside here, there's 32 spent nuclear fuel assemblies.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): Jerry Bischof, the man in charge, says it's safe, but it just shouldn't be. In fact, it shouldn't be at any of the nearly 60 sites just like this across the country, storing hot spent nuclear fuel.

BISCHOF: That's right. The federal government was supposed to take possession of spent fuel from commercial nuclear facilities, and it's been a struggle over the years to find the correct site.

GRIFFIN: This is that facility, Yucca Mountain in the deserts of Nevada. Congress has voted three times to ship all the nuclear waste from plants across the country here. It's been the law of the land since 2002, when it passed the House, passed the Senate and was signed by the president.

So why is the fuel still being stored here and at places just like it across the country? One reason. Democratic Senate Leader Harry Reid doesn't like Yucca Mountain, because Yucca Mountain is in his state.

First proposed in 1982, it has been studied, prepared, studied some more, and finally made the law of the land in 2002. But in 2010, it all came to screeching halt. President Obama and Harry Reid's handpicked chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission simply stopped it.

Illinois Republican Congressman John Shimkus says it's just pure politics.

REP. JOHN SHIMKUS (R), ILLINOIS: President Obama got elected. And he cut a deal with Senator Reid to just pull funding, even though the law of the land said Yucca Mountain.

GRIFFIN: Senator Reid's staff told us that the senator was not interested in any interview for this story. Three years ago, he did tell CNN Yucca Mountain was basically a dead issue to him. States with nuclear waste should just keep it right where it is.

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MAJORITY LEADER: You don't have to worry about transporting. It saves the country billions and billions of dollars.

(on camera): Let me ask you a question that maybe Harry Reid would ask you. Why don't we build this in Illinois?

SHIMKUS: If you could find a geological repository, if you could find a desert and a mountain in Illinois that meets all the qualifications for the safety for it to be stored a million years, I don't think we would have a big beef.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): Shimkus' state, Illinois, has more nuclear plants than any other in the nation and 9,000 tons of waste that was supposed to go to Yucca Mountain. In fact, a young senator from Illinois named Barack Obama actually cast two energy bill votes that involved funding Yucca Mountain.

That, says Shimkus, changed when Senator Obama decided to run for president and needed Harry Reid's support, but Harry Reid just didn't bet on one man in the White House to keep his promise to Nevada voters. This is Gregory Jaczko. You might call him Yucca Mountain's hired killer.

GREGORY JACZKO, CHAIRMAN, U.S. NUCLEAR REGULATORY AGENCY: It simply was a project that was going nowhere and is now dad.

GRIFFIN: Jaczko, who has no background in nuclear engineering, was an aide to Harry Reid in 2004, when Senator Reid forced his appointment to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission by holding up dozens of President George Bush's judicial nominees.

(on camera): Were you recruited, promoted, appointed to these positions strictly for one purpose, and that was to stop Yucca Mountain?

JACZKO: You know, I never talked to Senator Reid about what I would do as chairman of in the NRC or even as a commissioner on the NRC. And every issue that came in front of me, I looked at with an independent mind and independent approach.

GRIFFIN: He wanted to get reelected. Nevada politics said as much, and at the end of the day, this law was defunded.

JACZKO: Senator Reid, certainly, from the time that I worked for him to all the time that he's been including, has been a staunch opponent of that site.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): The problem is there are still 60 sites across the country with nuclear waste in temporary storage waiting to be transferred to Yucca Mountain.

ROBERT ALVAREZ, INSTITUTE FOR POLICY STUDIES: They have become -- by virtue of not having credible disposition paths, they have become major radioactive waste management operations and are not being treated as such.

GRIFFIN: but according to one man in the Senate, Harry Reid, the waste is safe right where it is, and not in the $10 billion mountain where Congress voted to put it and taxpayers fund it to build.

Drew Griffin, CNN, North Lake Anna, Virginia.

(END VIDEOTAPE) BLITZER: And be sure to watch a CNN film, "Pandora's Promise," a look at nuclear agency. It airs tomorrow night here at 9:00 p.m. Eastern, only on CNN.

That's it for me. Thanks for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.