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Soon: Clinton, Sanders Face Off In CNN Debate; Nation Mourns Former First Lady Nancy Reagan; Cruz Cranks Up Pressure on Trump as Rubio Fades Water Relief, Money Delayed in Congress; Doctor Who Blew Whistle on Flint Water. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired March 6, 2016 - 18:00   ET


[18:00:03] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer, reporting to you tonight live from Flint, Michigan, the site of tonight's Democratic presidential debate, now just two hours away. We're counting down to the debate.

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders coming face to face in a bid to win minority and working class voters among others.

The host city's devastating toxic water crisis will certainly be center stage. Residents here in Flint, they still cannot drink what comes out of their faucets.

Plus, we're following the breaking news: the death of the former first lady of the United States, Nancy Reagan, wife of the nation's 40th president. She passed away from congestive heart failure at the age of 94. Later this hour, we'll take a closer look at her esteemed legacy.

But, right now, let's begin with the presidential debate that's coming up. I want to bring in our political panel, our senior political reporter Nia-Malika Henderson, our CNN political director David Chalian, CNN Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger, our senior political correspondent Brianna Keilar.

Brianna, you're already there in what's called the spin room at this Democratic presidential debate site here in Flint, Michigan.

Walk around a little bit. Show us what they do there, what we anticipate will happen following the course of this debate.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, this is the media row here in this room, Wolf. You can see all of the different networks. This is CNN's live shot location. We actually have two here, FOX and CBS here at the end.

And we're actually on a basketball court. This is the rec center at the University of Michigan, Flint.

Come over here with me, I just want to show you where all of the media is camped out, and just how many people are covering this debate. What is really going to be a special debate, it's certainly one that has an emotional element because of the national consciousness that Flint, Michigan, has come into because of their toxic water crisis. Actually, to that point, we were just outside, Wolf, Chelsea Clinton came by to thank volunteers who have been out and about in Flint, Michigan, and the surrounding areas. That's not something that happens very often.

So, I think we're going to be hearing from these candidates some specific proposals for how to deal with the Flint, Michigan, situation, also how to stop it from happening in other places. You're just seeing a lot of people. I think this spin room is going to be busy very, very tonight, even busier than usual because of the overtones of this debate.

BLITZER: All right. We're going to get back to you Brianna. Stand by. Brianna Keilar is over there in the spin already.

Gloria, Hillary Clinton -- she's doing well in the delegates. She's ahead, especially if you add the super delegates. She's way ahead of Bernie Sanders right now. But one of the problems in the exit polls is this level of trust voters have for her. How would she build on that and improve that specific part of her campaign?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: You know, that is no doubt her Achilles heel. I think there's no easy answer. I think she's got to point back to history and say to people, I've been on your side for decades and decades. I'm not new to this game. I'm somebody who's fought in the civil rights movement. I'm somebody who's been on the side of economic justice.

And so, you know, I think that she has to remind people of what she has done in the past. And you kind of have to earn that trust back. But there's no sort of easy answer to say, oh, suddenly, trust me. She understands she's got this trust deficit.

They're very well aware of it in the campaign. And there just isn't any answer. Should she become the nominee, she can always say compared to what. Bernie Sanders is better trusted with this electorate right now. So, it's an issue for her.

BLITZER: The fact of this debate taking place here in Flint, Michigan, where there's been this awful, awful toxic water crisis affecting tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands. Hard to believe this is happening here in the United States, but it is happening right here. How does that play into this debate?

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: Well, I think there's going to be a lot of emotion here in the room tonight. We'll have audience members asking questions of these candidates and really asking these candidates to argue why they should be president, why they could make a difference in the lives of these individuals voters.

So, in that way, I think we're going to see an emotional and intimate debate tonight. But it is going to be a debate, and there are going to be differences. And you saw Bernie Sanders for instance coming to Michigan, trying to make an issue of NAFTA and trade and trying to have daylight here with Hillary Clinton who historically has been on a different side. She's trying to reframe that debate too.

So, I think we're going to see fireworks on the one hand but also some real kind of intimacy and emotion as well.

BLITZER: Because this is an emotional issue.

Jeff Zeleny is with us. He's covering Bernie Sanders for us.

Jeff, tell our viewers where you are right now and what you're seeing. Because we do anticipate Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton fairly soon they'll be arriving here at the debate site.

[18:05:02] JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Right. Wolf, I'm in the debate hall, just below you actually.

You can see behind me here, I believe, the crowd of people starting to come in, starting to take their seats in anticipation of this debate. And a lot of debates happen in states that are having primaries, but few less than 48 hours before an actual primary. This Michigan primary on Tuesday is a critical moment of this campaign. In fact, the whole week is. We have the debate tonight, our big round of campaigning tomorrow, the Michigan primary on Tuesday, another debate on Thursday and then a town hall on Sunday. So, the next week here in this Democratic race is critical for both sides.

And Bernie Sanders is coming off of a strong Super Saturday. He won in Kansas. He won in Nebraska. Hillary Clinton, of course, won in Louisiana and netted more delegates because there are more delegates in Louisiana.

So, tonight is an opportunity for Bernie Sanders to remind Democrats why he's in the race. He's been saying don't write us off, we are still in this race. Only 28 percent of the delegates have been chosen. So, the Sanders campaign is really going to great lengths to say -- to try and put the brakes on this assumption that this Democratic nominating fight is almost over.

But the reality here is for Bernie Sanders, he needs to show that he can win a more diverse electorate. And Michigan is a great opportunity for him to do that, Wolf. So, tonight he's going to talk about how he is outraged by the crisis here in Flint. He's also going to press his economic message.

They believe that Michigan is a good laboratory for this economic message here. He'll be talking about the trade policies, how they have not been good for Michigan workers. The challenges, though, trade is not at the center of the agenda here. So, he will try and make people pay attention to those trade pacts.

You can see the people taking their seats, taking pictures of this great debate stage behind me, Wolf. It will be a moment for Bernie Sanders to try and reassert himself in this Democratic race.

BLITZER: It's a beautiful hall where this debate is taking place. And the people are now walking in. They're gathering. You can hear that arrival.

Donna, you're a vice chair of the DNC. This was not supposed to happen, this debate. It was recently added. And a lot of the observers think it's going to potentially help Bernie Sanders. He's a very good debater. Hillary Clinton is a very good debater as well.

But the front runners usually don't want these additional debates.

DONNA BRAZILE, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: I understand why some people, and maybe frontrunners, are not comfortable adding more debates. But think about the Democratic Party, think about the voters out there who are looking for candidates with real ideas, real policy solutions.

Unlike the Republicans, they're in a turmoil, as we know. They've been doing a little of fighting, a little third grade -- well, I don't even it's third grade. I think it was a kindergarten type conversation.

We offer opportunities for Americans to hear cogent ideas of how to move the country forward. They're going to talk about job creation, they're going to talk about preserving and expanding and protecting Obamacare. And that's really needed in a town like Flint now when so many have been poisoned.

And, of course, they're going to talk about issues that we don't talk about often in a Republican debate, how to protect abortion rights, gay rights, civil rights, voting rights. This is the anniversary of Bloody Sunday.

So, I'm proud that the Democratic Party is holding this debate. I'm looking forward to the debate next week in Florida and any other debates that CNN and town hall that CNN will hold so that we can once again get our message out.

BLITZER: The fear that the front runners usually have, David Chalian, is that the person who's coming up will be aggressive and expose weaknesses. In this particular case, Bernie Sanders going after weaknesses of Hillary Clinton.

But the question is, how tough will he be? For example, he's avoided the whole e-mail controversy.


BLITZER: He says I'm not get into that. I don't know if he's going to change his strategy or not. What do you think?

CHALIAN: And, remember, that was on the debate stage where he made that clear when CNN hosted the first Democratic debate that he didn't want to touch the e-mail controversy.

Bernie Sanders has to walk a line here. He's still got to make an argument for why he's staying in that race against Hillary Clinton. And yet, he has to be wary of Democrats who probably see Hillary Clinton's significant lead right now and don't want her to take too much incoming from her Democratic opponent. So, he has to really calibrate how aggressive he wants to get with

her, because if he starts a slash and burn, which is not anything we've really seen from him so far, but if he were all of a sudden start getting really aggressive and try to slash and burn approach, I think he would hear from a lot of Democrats who would say, you know what, this is not what we need right now. We've got to keep the focus on the Republicans, is what the Democrats would say to him.

But listen, he also has to make a rational and an argument for why he's keeping up this fight against her.

BRAZILE: Hillary is very well -- she's well-liked, well-respected within the Democratic Party. There's, of course, this issue of trust that I do believe that she will be able to overcome that hurdle.

But just remember, I have to say this, because I like to say this. She has received more votes this time than any of the other candidates, both Democrats and --

CHALIAN: She likes to say that too.


[18:10:00] BRAZILE: Well, you know what? She should.

BORGER: But you know, on the trust issue, one of the ways Bernie Sanders can play into it is say look at how your positions have shifted to the left to agree with me, as Bernie Sanders. And maybe that kind of plays into the trust issue without him having to come out and say --


BLITZER: All right, guys. Stand by. We're getting ready for this debate, a historic moment in this race for the White House. We'll take a quick break. Much more coming up.

Also, we're watching all sorts of news here in Flint, Michigan, including what's going on in the Republican race for the White House too close to call and far nastier what we've seen from the Democrats at least so far. Now, there are sharp calls for Marco Rubio to actually drop out of the Republican contest. We're going to assess that and a whole lot more.

Also, why Flint? How this city's crisis has become a symbol of governor incompetence and mistrust. How that is playing out in this Democratic presidential contest.

And both parties of the nation mourning today Nancy Reagan, the former first lady of the United States, an icon in her own right. We're going to talk about her life and her legacy and much more right after the break.


[18:15:26] BLITZER: The former First Lady Nancy Reagan died today of congestive heart failure at the age of 94. The wife of President Ronald Reagan, she made tackling illegal drugs her signature cause while she was in the White House, famously asking America's school children to just say no.

Years later, she worked tirelessly for a cure to Alzheimer's disease which claimed her husband's life.

Our political commentator Jeffrey Lord worked in the Reagan White House. He's joining us once again, along with our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger.

Jeffrey, let's talk about the legacy of Nancy Reagan, what she meant to the country. You worked with President Reagan. You remember her. What memories stick out in your mind on this day?

JEFFREY LORD, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, there are a couple, Wolf. I mean, one, I was there during the Iran Contra scandal and she most decidedly had come to the conclusion that Don Regan should not be the White House chief of staff. And I think she was absolutely right and was pushing for the president to fire him.

But I do think she gets a bit of a bomb rap here. She certainly wasn't the only one. Don Regan who was a very smart guy and very talented, he was a good secretary of treasury, he was not the guy to be White House chief of staff.

And I confess, aside from being in the White House staff at that point, I came from a little bit of personal bias because my earlier boss in life was Drew Lewis, who just passed away quite recently. And in the fall of 1984 s, after the elections, it was said that Drew Lewis was going to be the choice to be the new White House chief of staff.

And to our surprise one day, he called me into his office and we watched the president there with Regan and Jim Baker switching jobs. And later that day drew -- I was present for a phone call that he had with Jim Baker and he said, well, it might be a good day for you, Jim, but I'm not so sure it's good for the president -- because he didn't really think Don Regan was the right guy for the job.

So, Mrs. Reagan definitely wanted Donald Regan out but so did a lot of people in Washington. His relations with the media, his relations with Congress were just terrible. And eventually, I think President Reagan -- not I think, I know, President Regan came to share that view and he was gone.

BLITZER: She was certainly a forceful influential figure behind the scenes in the White House. We all know that.

Gloria, as far as her work on behalf of just say no, that cause that she created to deal with drug abuse and alcohol abuse, by the end of the Reagan administration in January 1989 there were more than 12,000 just say no clubs that had been formed worldwide. She really put her heart and soul into that while she was in the White House and then she worked for Alzheimer's cures afterwards. BORGER: You know, we're now used to first ladies taking up causes.

You know, we have Michelle Obama talking about veterans. We saw Hillary Clinton getting very involved in health care reform, obviously.

When Nancy Reagan did this, it wasn't such a regular thing. Lady Bird Johnson did parks, right? And she put her heart and soul into this question of stopping drug abuse among children. And it was really for me sort of the first time that I actually sort of saw a first lady stand up and say, oh, I'm going to actually take an affirmative public role on something.

And so, not only did she have that role, but as Jeffrey was just talking about, behind the scenes she was quite a powerful women, quite influential. And when people wanted to get a message to the president of the United States, very often they would go through his wife, which was kind of smart because she wanted to protect him. And after he died, she protected his legacy as well.

BLITZER: She was his biggest backer, biggest protector.

BORGER: She was.

BLITZER: There's no doubt about that.

Gloria, Jeffrey, thanks very much.

We're going to continue to watch what's going on here in Flint, Michigan.

We're also watching the state of the GOP. Marco Rubio, he wins Puerto Rico today. That's the second victory in the presidential primary season. Is it too little, is it too late? We'll assess that.

A whole lot more when we come back.


[18:24:06] BLITZER: Welcome back to our special coverage. Just ahead of tonight's Democratic presidential debate here in Flint, Michigan, one of four states to hold presidential contests this coming Tuesday.

For the Republicans, the stakes couldn't be higher. Donald Trump still remains the front-runner. But the pressure is clearly building. Ted Cruz stealing some of Trump's thunder on Super Saturday, winning two of the four latest contests. Both Trump and Cruz are calling for Rubio now to get out of this presidential raise as Rubio picks up his second win today with a victory in the Puerto Rico primary.

Let's discuss all of this and the state of the GOP. Joining us are CNN political commentator Jeffrey Lord, our chief political analyst Gloria Borger, our senior political reporter, Nia-Malika Henderson, and our CNN political commentator and national security editor for, Buck Sexton.

[18:25:00] Gloria, Cruz clearly seems to be chipping away a little bit. He did well, relatively speaking, yesterday. Is he making significant inroads, though as of now in Trump's armor?

BORGER: He did well in Kansas and Maine last night. The problem for Cruz, he is chipping away at Trump. But the problem for Cruz is he was supposed to have been further along than he is right now, because he had a Southern strategy, a huge amount of evangelical support. And all of the Republican candidates right now, Wolf, are heading into the rust belt, right here in Michigan.

And Trump is very popular with blue collar voters in the Republican Party. And Cruz is going to have to see, as well as Rubio, going to have to see if they can make inroads with those voters. And don't forget, this is a place where John Kasich, who didn't play at all last night -- this is a place where John Kasich actually believes he can make a play.

BLITZER: Twice elected governor of Ohio, not very far away from Michigan.

BORGER: So, not so easy for Cruz.

BLITZER: Jeffrey, you think we'll see Hillary Clinton on this stage behind us here try to make some clear contrast between herself and Donald Trump pivoting ahead of a Democratic contest to a general election?

LORD: Absolutely, absolutely. I think she's going to do that. And from her perspective, there's reason to do it, not just because it appears at this point Donald Trump might be her opponent in the fall. But she's in Michigan.

And if I'm correct in my geography, relatively near where you are is a place called Birch Run, Michigan. And if you'll recall, Wolf, CNN carried a Trump rally there some time this summer that was filled, you know, to capacity, one of these big Trump rallies in the early stages.

And we learned at the time that it was reported in "The Washington Post" and other places that this is a Democratic area. It has a Democratic congressman. It has a lot of union members, a lot of working class, blue collar folks. And they were very enthusiastic about Donald Trump.

So, she really needs to get on the ball if she thinks she's going to carry Michigan, because I think Donald Trump represents a real threat to her.

So, yes, I do expect her to attack him.

BLITZER: I suspect Trump's name is probably going to be mentioned on this stage behind me in an hour and a half or so once this debate begins.

Buck, Rubio did win impressively today Puerto Rico, his second win. He won the caucuses in Minnesota earlier. Is it too little too late for the Florida senator?

BUCK SEXTON, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: It certainly looks that way, Wolf. There's no way that Marco Rubio has any clear path to the nomination right now. So, all he can hope for is a long, drawn-out war of attrition to majority before the convention.

I know that he's pinning and the campaign is pinning their hopes on a big win in Florida. The Cruz campaign, as has been reportedly, is also trying to prevent that big win from happening. But Marco Rubio realizes that Florida is essentially waterloo for his campaign. If he doesn't come out with a victory there, it's not going to happen. But at that point, it may be too late.

So, there's a lot of pressure building from the other campaigns and for a lot of Republican voters and strategists and everybody watching this to say, look, we need one person to stand up and try to be the hope of the non-Trump voter. And it has to happen soon. There's a timeliness to this.

So, Marco Rubio, OK, he won Puerto Rico, he's won Minnesota. He hasn't won anywhere else and doesn't look like he's going to win anywhere else until Florida. And there's even a chance he might not win that, Wolf. So, if that's the case, he will have denied Trump opposition a chance to really get ahead of this thing before Donald becomes the de facto nominee.

BLITZER: It seems like Trump and Cruz have one thing at least in common, they both want Rubio out of this contest. So, they're not even worried that much about Kasich presumably because they think one on one, they could do better.

HENDERSON: You know, they kind of have a case, because if you look at all these returns from this contest, Cruz has won six, I think Trump has won something like 12, Marco Rubio at two, and if you look at the share of the votes, these outsiders, Trump and Cruz just do so much better. They're getting a big plurality in the establishment, doesn't even add up to over taking those two.

So, you have last night, Donald Trump actively calling on Marco Rubio to drop out of this race in saying he wanted to take Ted Cruz on one on one. And Marco Rubio's campaign, of course, taking that as a sign of, his strength, and saying that he's a threat and that beyond Florida, not only Florida but beyond Florida, he sees a real path to victory.

But as we know, John King has done the math. He would have to pretty much clear, run the table with all those states after Florida to actually deny Trump fro getting those 1,237 delegates.

BORGER: What we learned last night was that suddenly Cruz has set up a dozen offices or so in Florida. He's decided to contest Florida.

[18:30:00] Whether he's going to be the spoiler, I think is an interesting question. And you know, Trump is leading in a lot of polls in Florida. And so the question now is, OK, does Rubio get out if he doesn't win his home state? And could Cruz actually finish very close to Rubio or even ahead of him. And I think that would sort of be the final blow that the -- that the Cruz people want to make against Marco Rubio. But we just don't know yet. BLITZER: And Trump keeps calling Marco Rubio Little Marco.

BORGER: I know. That's --

BLITZER: He keeps calling Ted Cruz Lying Ted. All that presumably is going to continue as well.

BORGER: Yes. Actually --

BLITZER: All right, guys. Don't go too far away. Gloria Borger, Jeffrey Lord, Nia-Malika Henderson and Buck Sexton, thanks to all of you very much.

Here in Flint, Flint's toxic water crisis expected to take center stage at tonight's debate just an hour and a half from now. It's also played a critically important role in the presidential contest. Could this devastated city make or break a presidential contest?

That and a whole lot more when we come back.


[18:35:26] BLITZER: Welcome back to this special CNN coverage from Flint, Michigan. This is the site of tonight's Democratic presidential debate. The showdown between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders starts in just a little bit less than 90 minutes from now. The candidates undoubtedly will use this debate to court minority and working class voters, among others. And it comes ahead of the critical Michigan primary. That's coming up this coming Tuesday. And against the backdrop of the massive toxic water crisis gripping this host city of Flint, Michigan.

Let's talk more about all of this, the role of the devastating toxic water crisis in Flint, how it's playing out in the presidential election.

Joining us now, CNN's senior media correspondent, the host of CNN's "RELIABLE SOURCES," Brian Stelter.

Our chief political analyst Gloria Borger is still with us. Our CNN political commentator, the former Obama administration official Van Jones is here. And CNN Politics executive editor Mark Preston is here.

Mark, why did the Democrats decide to have this debate here tonight in Flint?

MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICS EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR: Well, certainly this was a late add. The Democratic National Committee had only scheduled six debates. They thought that this race was over, that Bernie Sanders wouldn't have the burn. And guess what? He had the burn. So they needed to find a place to do it. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders both suggested that they would like to do it here.

It made sense. It dropped in the schedule. And quite frankly, we're better place to have one than a place that has been left behind by the federal government, by the state government, and by the local government.

BLITZER: But they also want to showcase the devastating problem here in Flint. And their hearts, like all of our hearts go out to the people of Flint. But they also have a political rationale to try to underscore the differences between the Republicans --


BLITZER: -- might handle this crisis than the Democrats might handle this crisis.

PRESTON: No doubt. And I think you'll see from the stage behind us tonight you will hear Bernie Sanders and you will hear Hillary Clinton talk about how they will, if elected president, will do what they can do to try to make water palatable again, that you can actually consume water. It's amazing you can't do that. The Republican side now is going to have to answer questions that they have one of their own holding up a funding bill right now in the United States Senate. So it's a different message.

BLITZER: Gloria, are there significant differences between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton on how they want to deal with this water crisis here?

BORGER: No. Look, I think Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton believe the government has a role in trying to fix the problem here and trying to make sure that it doesn't happen again. And the big argument in Congress is Republicans -- some Republicans are saying that the state ought to pay for this. And the Democrats are saying this is -- this is an emergency and it ought to be funded by the federal government, like emergencies are. Like tornados, like hurricanes.

And -- but Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are on the same side of that argument tonight. And I think when they talk about this, they're going to be talking about the Republican Party's different reaction to this.

BLITZER: But this is part of a much bigger problem, Van, that the infrastructure here in the United States is crumbling, whether the roads, the bridges, water pipes. It's not just here in Flint. This is a much bigger problem.

VAN JONES, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: It is a much bigger problem. But you also have to realize that I think that if you're Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton, you want to make an argument against a certain style of governance. You have -- Snyder came in, he says, I'm a business guy. The governor here. I'm a business guy. I'm going to run government like a business.

Here's the problem with that. With a business you're supposed to make a lot of money. You make money by cutting costs. Sometimes you cut costs, you wind up undermining the ability of the government to protect kids from being poisoned. And so they want to make it a political argument. But I'll tell you what, once they get here and they hear from folks here, turning this thing into a political football is not going to work. I'm going to tell you what, they might have zingers lined up. They

may have -- they make get some applause lines attacking this governor. But there is real pain here. You see people coming in here, little kids, people on walkers. You can't drink poisoned water for two years without having everybody, not just the children, but the adults who were affected. That will impact this debate.

BLITZER: Brian, I was watching "RELIABLE SOURCES" this morning. The media has played a significant role in highlighting this crisis, the local newspaper.


BLITZER: But not just the local newspaper, that's one of the reasons we're here right now.

STELTER: There's almost a literal spotlight now, a national media spotlight, on Flint thanks to this debate. In many ways national news outlets were slow to realize the enormity of this crisis. Local media was on it from the beginning. The editor of the "Flint Journal" has been in CNN's debate prep sessions, giving local input, helping with the questions, helping with the ideas for this debate.

[18:40:03] And he says he is happy to have a moment where the whole nation has to pay attention to how the government failed the people here.

You know oftentimes in campaigns we hear about the middle class, all about the middle class. We don't hear as often about poor people, about lower income people. This is an opportunity to have that conversation in a sustained way. There is only one question at the GOP debate the other day about this water crisis, this ongoing disaster. Here I would expect certainly we'll hear much more than one question.

BORGER: No. It is not just state and local governments. But you can also make the case that the federal government failed here. That the EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency, should have been more robust in policing this, in overseeing this. And Congress should have been. So this is a failure at every level. And the EPA is under the -- is a Democratic administration.

JONES: What's so striking is you have a local government that essentially goes bankrupt because all the jobs leave.

BORGER: Right.

JONES: Then the state government takes it over and appoints an emergency manager that has power even over the mayor, over the city council. That manager reports to the governor, the governor says let's save money. Let's try this new way of doing it. They overrule the city council. But then that's a government thing from the state level with Republicans, and yet the EPA doesn't come in. That's the Democrats. So nobody --

(CROSSTALK) BLITZER: Plenty of blame to go for this crisis. They've got to fix it, they got to make sure it doesn't happen any place else. That's the challenge. And we'll see what these two presidential candidates say about it tonight.

Guys, thanks very much. Gloria Borger, Brian Stelter, Van Jones, Mark Preston with us.

Just ahead, America was stunned when it learned of this lead poisoning of the tap water here in Flint, Michigan. Why is a bill to help Flint, Michigan, stalled in Congress right now?

We'll explain when we come back.


[18:46:10] BLITZER: The federal government has been asked to pitch in to help the people here in Flint, Michigan, stem its water woes. And they are enormous. With lead contaminating the city's water system, it might seem like a no-brainer. But as CNN's Manu Raju reports, approving a bill that members of both parties can support is a whole lot easier said than done.


MAYOR KAREN WEAVER (D), FLINT, MICHIGAN: So far what we've had is band-aid fixes.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: The mayor of Flint, Michigan, made a desperate plea last December. Federal help to deal with the city's toxic water crisis.

WEAVER: I, Karen W. Weaver, mayor of the city of Flint, declare a state of emergency in the city of Flint.

RAJU: For Congress, lending a hand has turned into handwringing. A bipartisan bill making its way through the Senate has stalled. Amid objections from some conservatives about government overreach. Still supporters are optimistic that Congress will help Flint and say the time to act is now.

SEN. GARY PETERS (D), MICHIGAN: Well, the residents of Flint are hurting. And hurting in a significant way.

SEN. DEBBIE STABENOW (D), MICHIGAN: This is as much a national crisis as a hurricane or tornado or flood or anything else.

RAJU: In February, Republicans offered their own plan, but Democrats shot it down, disagreeing with how it was structured. Democrats are now holding up a separate energy bill unless a more sweeping proposal to help Flint and other communities passes at the same time.

SEN. JOHN CORNYN (R), TEXAS: This is about trying to embarrass Republicans and to try to make us look bad and act -- and portray us as having no compassion for the poor people of Flint, which is exactly the opposite of true. RAJU: Thirteen senators from both parties are now pushing a bill that

would provide $250 million to Flint and other communities to fix water systems that are falling apart. But there's a problem. Senator Mike Lee, a Tea Party favorite, is holding up the bill because he disagrees with how it would be funded.

Lee and some conservatives don't believe federal aid is needed because Michigan has a rainy day fund. In a statement Lee said, quote, "What's really happening here is that Washington politicians are using the crisis in Flint as an excuse to funnel taxpayer money to their home states and trying to sneak it through the Senate without proper debate and amendment.

DAN HOLLER, HERITAGE ACTION FOR AMERICA: There's a systemic failure of government at pretty much every level. And what you always see in Washington is the response is, how do we spend more money to solve the problem? That ignores that the state of Michigan actually has the resources to solve the problem.

RAJU: Yet other conservatives who support the plan believe Lee will ultimately relent.

SEN. JIM INHOFE (R), OKLAHOMA: It's been highly publicized. So I think it's to his political advantage as well as just -- doing the right thing to do that. So I think that will happen. That's the kind of guy he is.

RAJU: For now, though, patience is wearing thin and the political pressure to act is mounting.

Manu Raju, CNN, Washington.


BLITZER: The crisis here in Flint, Michigan, might have gone on much, much longer if not for the efforts of a doctor who made the link between the health problems here. She was seeing the health problems at her young patients and the water they were drinking.

Joining us now here in Flint is Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha. She's a pediatrician at the Hurley Children's Hospital and Michigan State University. We also have Congressman Dan Kildee of Michigan. He represents the people of Flint, Michigan.

Dr. Mona -- I know you like to be called Dr. Mona. You put two and two together and you discovered the enormity of what was going on.


BLITZER: The people originally, they didn't believe you, did they?

HANNA-ATTISHA: No. So right when we released our research I was attacked just like the people of Flint were attacked for 18 months. The people had been fighting this. The water was brown, it looked gross, it tasted gross. But nobody believed them. And I was attacked as well. I was called unfortunate that I was causing near hysteria.

[18:50:02]But the numbers didn't lie. Our children were being poisoned. And this was bucking every trend in our nation in regards to lead poisoning.

BLITZER: So how long is this going to continue? Are these kids who've grown up with this lead poisoning, is that going to last or is there something that can be done to stop this?

HANNA-ATTISHA: Absolutely.

BLITZER: Will they pass it along?

HANNA-ATTISHA: Yes. So that's the problem with lead. And that's why we advocate for zero lead in a child. There is no safe levels. There's no lead pill. There's no lead antidote. There's nothing that takes it away.

BLITZER: How do you treat these kids now?

HANNA-ATTISHA: You treat them with removing the exposure, stop drinking the water. And the water is still not safe. But then you give them great nutrition and you give them great education and you give them these great wrap-around support services. And that's what these kids need and that's what the federal government and our state government needs to fund because this is not a tomorrow problem. This is a decades, multi-generational problem and we need that support.

BLITZER: So it's a matter of money right now.

HANNA-ATTISHA: Huge. Absolutely.

BLITZER: So what's the problem over here? You're a Democrat. You want this money to come in. You just heard some of the Republicans saying, you know what, Michigan has the money. Michigan was responsible for the problem, let them fix it.

REP. DAN KILDEE (D), MICHIGAN: Well, actually the kids in Flint and none of us here really care who to blame. We need the resources --

BLITZER: How do you do that?

KILDEE: Well, we need to recognize that these kids are American citizens and so the federal government should help. They're citizens of Michigan and the state of Michigan is principally responsible for this crisis. The governor has a billion dollars that is unbudgeted, unexpected, it's a rainy day fund and unbudgeted surplus. And the people in Flint are in crisis. These children need help. Our families need help. This is a real crisis.

BLITZER: So why won't he allocate those funds?

KILDEE: My view is that they're more concerned about their own reputations and to accept the fact that they created a crisis of this magnitude is just too much for them to accept. It's almost impossible to believe that at this moment a senator in the U.S. Senate or the governor in the statehouse would actually be talking about the politics of this.

BLITZER: Who can put this deal together? The people here in Flint, they have a crisis going on. They need help local, state and federal help. Who can put this together? Do you want the president of the United States to start working with the Republican leadership in the House and Senate and come up with a plan, get them all into the White House and reach an agreement?

KILDEE: Well, I think the president has stepped up. I mean, extending Medicaid, for example, to an additional 15,000 people in Flint. The White House has come through with what they can do. You know, there comes a moment when people just have to act as Americans or the governor as a fellow Michiganian. This is a moment of truth. And -- you know, for example, the governor could say, look, to the state legislature I'm going to do what's right in Flint. And I'm going to fund a big part of this recovery and then call the Senate, the leadership in the Senate and ask them.

BLITZER: They've got to do something.

Dr. Mona, there's going to be a debate here coming up in a little while. What do you hope from your perspective as a pediatrician dealing with little children.

HANNA-ATTISHA: Right. Right.

BLITZER: What do you hope emerges tonight from this debate?

HANNA-ATTISHA: Right. I want to hear investment in our children. So our Flint kids already suffered every disparity in the world, but this investment, poverty, racism, lack of access to care, they had every obstacle to success. And then we gave them lead. So we need a -- how are these future leaders going to invest in our most vulnerable children? This is an American city. This is not a partisan issue. This is not a political issue. This is a humanitarian issue. And what would you as our future leader show us?

BLITZER: So you think that you're going to hear that tonight from these two candidates?

HANNA-ATTISHA: I hope so. That's why we're in Flint. We wouldn't be in Flint otherwise.

BLITZER: But they -- apparently they are on the same position as far as helping the people of Flint otherwise they wouldn't be here. There is a bigger struggle going on elsewhere in Washington, though.

HANNA-ATTISHA: Unbelievable. And it's mind boggling because this is a great American city. These are our children and it's not a political issue. This is a humanitarian issue.

BLITZER: And the U.S., the federal government always comes through for hurricane relief.


BLITZER: Other disasters. But those are natural disasters. They say this was not a natural disaster.

KILDEE: What difference does it make, really? You have people suffering in Flint. We have kids who need help. What difference could it possibly make how it happened? First vote I took, first big vote I took when I went to Congress was to provide relief for the victims of Hurricane Sandy, not Flint. We pitch in as Americans. But only 50 miles away in Lansing is a state government.


KILDEE: That doesn't even recognize the basic humanity of children in Flint enough to step up with money they already have. There is honestly no excuse for allowing the kids of Flint, the people of Flint to continue to wonder whether or not their own state government, the people who actually more than anyone else did this to Flint will do more than just apologize.

BLITZER: Very quickly --

KILDEE: Actually step up.

BLITZER: The kids, who know they have a problem.


[18:55:02] BLITZER: How are they dealing with it?

HANNA-ATTISHA: Well, we're providing hope and reassurance. Not every kid is going to have every problem. And if we can put these support services and right now they're going to be OK. So lots of great nutrition. It's super important right now. Early education, early nursing programs, going to your doctor. This is a city built on resilience and our kids are smart and strong. And we're going to make sure that they grow up strong.

BLITZER: Dr. Mona, thank you so much on behalf of everyone for all the work that you have done and are doing and will continue to do.


BLITZER: Congressman Kildee, thanks very much for joining us.

KILDEE: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Good luck to all of you. Good luck to all the people of Flint.

Just a little bit more than an hour from now until the Democratic presidential debate begins here in Flint, Michigan. We're going to give you a preview. We're talking to people from both camps about what they -- we can expect to hear and see from Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in tonight's pivotal debate.

And after the debate tune in later tonight 10:00 p.m. Eastern for the CNN Original Series "RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE narrated by the Oscar- winning Kevin Spacey. We'll be right back. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)