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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Dennis Rodman Gets No Face Time With "Dear Leader"; Obama Signs Up For Obamacare; Pope To Priests: Cut The Gossip

Aired December 23, 2013 - 16:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

DANA BASH, CNN GUEST HOST: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Dana Bash in for Jake today.

The World Lead. Dennis Rodman has left North Korea after sizing up the nation's top basketball players without getting any face time with the dictator, Kim Jong-un. Rodman's already spent more time with the "dear leader" than any other American ever has, and some were hoping Rodman could speak to his "friend for life" about some very serious issues, like the detention of Korean American Kenneth Bae.

Anna Coren has the latest, live from Seoul, South Korea. So Anna, what is Dennis Rodman saying about this trip, considering the fact that he didn't meet with the "dear leader"?

ANNA COREN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, surprising Dana, isn't it, considering that there was all this talk that he would actually meet with Kim Jong-un, his close friend. But in actual fact, he came out of Pyongyang, arrived in Beijing, mobbed by reporters, and they said that or he said that the trip was awesome and that he would be returning in a week's time to celebrate the birthday of Kim Jong-un next month. Of course, he was over there to train with the basketball team, the national basketball team, in preparation for that birthday.

But interestingly enough, in the last hour or so, Dana, we got word from Patti Powell, which is the company sponsoring this event, sponsoring Dennis Rodman. And it has withdrawn from the event. Citing changed circumstances, that they got this wrong, they didn't anticipate the condemnation towards the North Korean regime, which is a little surprising, considering it is one of the most repressive regimes in the world.

But they say that they will honor their contractual agreements with Dennis Rodman and with the team. What does this mean, we just don't know. Dennis Rodman has made no comment, nor has the manager. But will that exhibition game go on on the 8th of January to celebrate the birthday of Kim Jong-un? Dana, we just do not know.

BASH: Anna Coren in Seoul, thank you very much. It is always fascinating to read the tea leaves in such a closed society.

Now turning to our politics lead, it is quiet here in Washington, very quiet, with both the House and the Senate gone for the holiday break. And although they left on somewhat of a high note, passing a defense bill, a two-year budget, confirming some of the president's nominees, they left a lot on the table. Immigration reform, raising the debt ceiling and a farm bill to name a few.

Before he left town, I sat down with the number two Republican in the House, Eric Cantor to talk about what you may call the dysfunctional Congress of 2013 and whether 2014 will be any different.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BASH: It is your responsibility to make the schedule on the House floor. And you probably know that by most accounts, this has so far been the most unproductive Congress in like 40 years. You bear some responsibility for that?

REP. ERIC CANTOR (R-VA), MAJORITY LEADER: You know, I think if you look, Dana, at the record in the House, we have over 140-some bills that have been passed in the House, sitting in the Senate. And the majority leader in the Senate just won't take them up.

BASH: To be fair, about a third of those were repeal or replace or do something to Obamacare, which are showboats because you know it's not going to pass the Senate. And if it did, it certainly wouldn't get signed by the president. And a lot of others were renaming courthouses in Texas and Minnesota. So, I mean, when you talk about substantive work that you actually expect to get someplace, a lot of those --

CANTOR: Dana, Dana, there has been -- first of all, on the bills having to do with the health care law, the Senate doesn't even take up any to try and address the problems that we're seeing, okay? So whether -- I don't think it's the House's role to say what the Senate can or can't do.

BASH: One of the things the Senate actually did do was immigration reform. The year went by, you all have not brought anything to the floor. Are you as majority leader committed to bringing immigration reform to the House floor next year?

CANTOR: Well, we have already said we're not going to bring the Senate bill up.

BASH: Right. I know you are going to do piecemeal, but anything addressing the issue, you know Hispanic voters and broadly, voters wanted addressed?

CANTOR: What I have always said is we need to deal with this in a much smarter approach than what the Senate bill does. And certainly there are questions having to do with the enforcement of the law. I think most Americans would say that goes to the fabric of who we are as a country.

But I also think there are serious questions of a broken system. I am for starting where I think most members can agree, which is with the kids. We have the kids act that I'm working on with the chairman Bob Goodlatte, which basically says our country doesn't believe in holding kids liable for the misdeeds or acts of their parents. So, I'm looking forward to hopefully bringing that forward --

BASH: Next year?

CANTOR: I certainly am.

BASH: Let me ask you broadly about your party. My understanding is that as the shutdown was coming to an end, you addressed your caucus and basically said come on, guys, we have to stop eating our own.

CANTOR: I think the message that I was about was saying look, differences that may exist between us pale in comparison to the differences that we have with the president and his policies. We are very much focused on upward mobility. We're focused on an environment for job creation.

BASH: How do you convince, though, for lack of a better way to say it, Tea Party-backed Republicans to go along with that when they look at you and say he's just the Republican establishment. I'm not going to listen to him.

CANTOR: I think that there is a general sense among all of our members and throughout our party, the purpose for our being here is to promote a conservative view that helps people. Elections are won and lost and determined by whether people have the confidence in your leadership, whether they have the confidence in a party's ability to help them.

BASH: The problem is the Republican Party is not telegraphing that you're there to help them?

CANTOR: I can tell you in Virginia, when we look at the two elections that occurred, the state elections, I will say in our state I don't think that the electorate heard us as to how our policy solutions can help in terms of everyday problems that working middle-class Virginians are having.

BASH: I have one last question. The NRCC also is selling things online that say -- I think they're T-shirts. The NRCC is selling T- shirts that say "Happy holidays is what liberals say," and the back says, "Merry Christmas."

You're the highest ranking Jewish member in the Republican Party. Does that offend you that your party is doing that?

CANTOR: Look, it's the holiday season. I celebrate Hanukkah. People wish me Happy Hanukkah. I wish people Merry Christmas, Happy New Year. I think --

BASH: But are you a liberal if you say happy holidays?

(LAUGHTER)

CANTOR: No. I think again, Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, we should all, like, not take ourselves too seriously here and just enjoy the holiday season.

BASH: All right, well, in the spirit of that, happy holidays. CANTOR: And to you. Happy Hanukkah and Happy New Year.

BASH: Thank you.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BASH: And coming up next on THE LEAD, procrastinators, this one's for you. The White House extends the deadline to sign up for Obamacare hours before the deadline. So why the last-minute change?

Plus, you might say he's a redneck but he doesn't want to be called uneducated. Phil Robertson speaks out for the first time since his television suspension. How the "Duck Dynasty" patriarch is defending himself.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BASH: Welcome back to THE LEAD. Another day, another huge Obamacare deadline delay. You needed to sign up by the end of today on the federal exchange in order to have coverage by January 1st, but now it looks like tomorrow works, too. A spokesperson for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which runs the site, said quote, "Anticipating the high demand and the fact that consumers may be enrolling from multiple time zones, we have taken steps to make sure that those who select a plan through tomorrow will get coverage for January 1st." Now, an administration official told CNN that the deadline is technically today, but it's sort of like Election Day when you're in line and the polls close, you still get to vote.

The White House also announced today that the president signed up himself for Obamacare through the D.C. exchange, but then they clarified that, telling CNN, the president's staff signed him up in person through the D.C. exchange over the weekend. Like some Americans, the complicated nature of the president's case required an in-person signup.

Let's bring in our political panel to talk about all this, CNN political commentator and Democratic strategist, Maria Cardona, CNN political commentator and Republican strategist, Kevin Madden and CNN political commentator and Washington correspondent for "The New Yorker" Ryan Lizza.

I just have to share, I checked with her, an e-mail that Candy Crowley sent which said it all. I'm confused, talking about the president. He signs up for the health insurance he doesn't need, but he can't do it because he has to do it in person, and he's not in person, and then they send an unknown staffer there to verify it because it's not really him. The White House thought this was a good idea? Maria, sorry, you're on the hot seat since you're the Democrat here.

MARIA CARDONA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I figured. They didn't need to do that. Obviously it was symbolic. But the fact that you just read that e-mail I think signifies that the story's not what they would have wanted.

BASH: You think? CARDONA: They just shouldn't have done that. They should have focused on there is some good news today about Obamacare. They had over a million visits to the web site just over the weekend and they had more than 200,000 calls to the call centers. There is massive interest in this. They have now over a million people who have actually signed up, 500,000 have gotten coverage in less than three weeks. So those are the numbers they should focus on and they should focus on the benefits that all of the uninsured are starting to get because of this. They didn't need to do this.

BASH: Is that penetrating?

RYAN LIZZA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I don't think so. I think people are still hung up more on the problems and if the goal today with Obama doing this was a symbolic sort of to tell people that you should be able to sign up and it's not confusing, it seems to have had the opposite impact. Frankly, the president doesn't need Obamacare. He has a sort of special set of doctors and health care providers. Maybe in 2017, he can sign up. I think even after you served your term you get pretty good health care as an ex-president. So it had the opposite effect instead of sending a message --

BASH: But to be fair --

KEVIN MADDEN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Let's not forget, the interest has been mandated by the government. The government is making you do this. This is an individual mandate that President Obama and the Democrats wrote into law so this is not some sort of, you know, an interest that is at its genesis people wanting to find out more about their health coverage. They have to buy it. The government is now making them.

CARDONA: Let's be clear about something here, too. A lot of people are saying the uninsured isn't going to sign up. That's not true. Most people who don't have coverage --

MADDEN: The problem is --

CARDONA: -- want coverage.

MADDEN: More people are losing it because of this law than are actually signing up for it.

CARDONA: No, that's a small amount of people.

MADDEN: Millions of people.

CARDONA: Millions of people.

MADDEN: That's not a small amount.

CARDONA: It's 5 percent of the American population, very important, which is why the administration did the fix that they did. Let me -- but the uninsured want to get coverage.

LIZZA: One thing, there's no doubt this has been a mess of a rollout but what happens, Kevin, for Republicans next year, what if the technical issues, because they are technical issues, what happens if those get solved and the debate comes back to Washington? Is there an onus on Republicans to say OK, we got to make this better, or is the debate in the Republican Party simply we got to repeal it all together? It seems like this debate has sucked a lot of Republicans who hated Obamacare into a conversation of how to fix it.

MADDEN: One of the problems is I don't think any of these technical issues, doesn't seem there's a plan right now to actually fix them. I think the other big problem for this law is that a number of the mileposts, for example, the small business mandate that's coming up, how the rates are going to be affected for 2015 because of a lot of the disruptions in the markets. I think that's going to make people even -- continue -- people are going to continue to have a very bad experience with this law.

I think Republicans, when they recognize the best way to go about this, the best way to go about fixing the law is to repeal it and start over, having more patient-centric care. There are a number of plans out there by folks like Senator Coburn and Paul Ryan as well as Congressman Tom Price, that focus on their solution.

I think that's a much better political play for Republicans is that they can actually be reminded of the fact that health care is a value- centric issue, where people have to go out and talk about what would I do differently. We haven't done that as well in the past. I think we will continue to do more of that in 2014.

BASH: I want to change topics to the Twitterverse. As we all know, Washington is empty of its members of Congress, most of them, in fact, Rand Paul was leaving, he got in his own car, drove away. I watched him do it on Friday along with other senators. He's driving his own car. But guess what, he can't leave Washington even though he doesn't like it.

On Twitter, he had a Twitter war with Cory Booker, the new senator from New Jersey. One more festivous grievance about bipartisanship, Cory Booker doesn't retweet me enough. Are we all in seventh grade? Booker responded, you, me and feats of strength, Senate floor, name the time. Responding, it then turned into a conversation about reforming drug sentencing laws.

Booker tweeted here's to a 2014 where we take on the failed war on drugs. Now, first of all, I don't even know where to start with this. But let's just try to be positive and say that these -- this is one of the most liberal Democrats, one of the most conservative Republicans, having a conversation Twitter or not, 140 characters or not.

LIZZA: Look, Rand Paul is one of these younger members of the Senate. He understands the new media universe. Cory booker, same thing, younger generation. A lot of the colleagues are 30 and 40 years older than these guys. This is a great way for them to get an issue that is not high profile on the radar. Here we are talking about it. Mandatory minimum in sentencing needs to be fixed.

CARDONA: I think it's the beginning of a budding bipartisan bromance. I actually --

BASH: Maybe TMI.

CARDONA: I think Chris Christie might be getting a little jealous because he used to be the go-to bipartisan bromance partner for Cory Booker.

MADDEN: I hate to be not an idealist on this, but I just think it's because they have way too much time on their hands. I'm sorry.

BASH: Like go on vacation, guys. Put your iPhones down. No more Twitter. We don't want to hear from you. Maria, Ryan, Kevin, thank you very much. Appreciate it.

Coming up next on THE LEAD, Will Ferrell's months-long PR push wasn't enough to pull in Box Office gold this weekend for "Anchorman 2," the other sequel that did come out on top next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BASH: Welcome back to THE LEAD. In his first Christmas message to the Roman Catholic Church, essentially his state of the union speech, Pope Francis urged priests, cardinals and Vatican staffers to cut the gossip, to adopt the ideals of service and holiness. In his nine months at Holy Father, he's been doing his best to lead by example from driving around in a 20-year-old car to washing prisoners' feet to reportedly sneaking out in the middle of the night to help people.

Barbie Nadeau, the roman bureau chief for the "Daily Beast" joins us live from Rome. It has not been business as usual at all at the Vatican since Pope Francis took over. Barbie, tell us more about his Christmas message.

BARBIE NADEAU, ROMAN BUREAU CHIEF, "DAILY BEAST": You know, he really is just summing up what he's done for the last nine months, which is leading by example. He has made such an effort to tone down the pomp and circumstance at the Vatican, the things that usually go with the type of job he has, by leading by example. He doesn't live in the apartments. He doesn't go around in a fancy car. He does what he wants the priests serving under him to do in their own parishes and around the world.

By bringing the church sort of back down to its roots, by serving the poor and not having cardinals and those in Rome here around him serving themselves. He talks a lot about the ills of professionalism and things like that, how the Vatican, the Holy See is not a career- making job. It's about helping the people. If we are looking at what we can expect in the next, you know, several years, what we have seen in the last nine months is really an incredible change in the status quo, changing the way business is done.

BASH: Barbie, I should tell our viewers, you are standing in front of St. Peter's. The fog just rolled in so that's why it doesn't look like you're in beautiful Rome. Give us the other side or is there another side? Does the pope have any critics there? NADEAU: Well, you know, he's got such high expectations, it will be hard to fulfil all these promises to everyone, but there are a couple groups that do want to see more, one of them of course, victims of the pedophile priest scandal over the years. They will not be happy until there are priests in prison and until the bishops who moved the priests around are reprimanded in some way. Those people are going to be the hardest. Those victims are going to be the hardest to please.

The pope has started his mission with that in terms of setting up a council to help him try to address the problems, but the victims seem to want more. There is also a problem always in the Catholic Church about the equalization of women in roles of leadership within the church, and the pope said last week to an Italian newspaper that no way, no how, that women are not going to become priests and cardinals, certainly not under his reign so women who serve the church, who may want more of equalization and leadership roles are going to be left disappointed with this pope as well.

BASH: Thank you very much. We appreciate it.

A programming note, CNN will be there as Pope Francis gives his first Christmas mass tomorrow at 6:00 p.m. Eastern.

Now it's time for the Pop Culture Lead, what do a dragon and Ron Burgundy have in common besides destructive amounts of hot air that can level whole cities? Both of them have been trying to take down a hobbit. We'll tell you how the dragon fared against Bilbo Baggins, but Ron Burgundy came up short. "The Hobbit" was the top earner at the Box Office, pulling in more than $31 million. "Anchorman 2" finished second with nearly $27 million. "Frozen, American Hustle" and "Saving Mr. Banks" round out the top five.

Phil Robertson of "Duck Dynasty" is speaking out for the first time since his comments about gays got him suspended. "The Daily Mail" is reporting he led a bible study group yesterday and talked about the uproar over his comments about homosexuality being a sin. Robertson said he was quoting the bible and wouldn't back down from his words.

He also added that he loves humanity and isn't a hater. Meantime, the Cracker Barrel restaurant chain is putting duck dynasty merchandise back in the stores. The company pulled the products after the controversy started, but apparently got a lot of backlash from customers. Cracker Barrel said in a statement you told us we made a mistake and you weren't shy about it.

That's it for THE LEAD. I'm Dana Bash. I turn you over to my friend, Brianna Keilar, who is filling in for Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.