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GOP Scrambles For Health Bill Support As Vote Nears; WSJ: Trump Falsehoods Eroding His Credibility; Trump To Skeptical GOP: I'll Have Your Back; Soon: Gorsuch Faces Another Grilling From Lawmakers. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired March 22, 2017 - 09:00   ET


[09:00:01] CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Time for CNN NEWSROOM. Wolf Blitzer continues our coverage right now.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: We're following breaking news. We want to welcome our viewers. I'm Wolf Blitzer reporting from Washington. This is CNN's special coverage of another critically important day for the Trump administration.

The President puts his deal-making skills to the test and issues this warning to Republicans. If they fail to repeal and replace ObamaCare during tomorrow's crucial vote, they'll pay for it at the ballot box.

The next 24 hours are critical, and the White House knows it. They're scrambling to lock in members of their own party before tomorrow's house vote. They could only afford 21 GOP no's.

And another round for the U.S. Supreme Court pick Neil Gorsuch. These are live pictures coming in from Capitol Hill. Right now, in minutes, Gorsuch returns to the hot seat to face yet another round of grilling by Senate lawmakers. His message so far, nobody is above the law, not even the President of the United States.

We're covering all of that. Much more this hour with our team of reporters. Let's start with our congressional correspondent, Phil Mattingly. He's joining us from Capitol Hill.

Phil, right now for the President and for the Republican leadership, the stakes are enormous.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, they couldn't be higher right now. And it's white-knuckle time both at the White House and here on Capitol Hill.

Going into this day, House leadership sources are acknowledging to me that they don't have the votes. They need 216 to get this passed on Thursday in the House, and they're not yet there. But there is frantic work going on behind the scenes and their greatest ally, they're willing to acknowledge, is the President, who had this to say last night.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: By delivering the House, the Senate, and the White House, the American people gave us clear instructions. It's time to get busy, get to work, and to get the job done. The House bill ends the ObamaCare nightmare. These are the conservative solutions the American people asked us as a group to deliver.


MATTINGLY: And, Wolf, that's a key message we're hearing not just from the White House but really, from leaders on Capitol Hill as well. These are the promises you made in 2010, in 2014, and in 2016, and it's time to deliver.

But the problems, they remain the same, and it's really kind of the two opposite pulls of the Republican House conference -- the moderates who are very concerned about coverage issues, very concerned about Americans in their 50s and lower 60s, their ability to afford health care coverage, and the conservatives who say this bill does not go far enough to repeal the infrastructure of ObamaCare.

Here's what we know right now, Wolf. There are no major changes planned to the House bill. They feel very tied in, in terms of what they can actually do to gain any more votes.

They feel like they've done what they can. Move one way to the right, start losing moderates. Move a little bit more to the left, all of a sudden, you start losing conservatives. And that makes what's going on behind the scenes all the more important.

You have Speaker Ryan's top allies meeting face to face, texting, using phone calls trying to get those who are leaning no to come back over to the other side. The biggest question right now is, Wolf, can they get those who now say, particularly on the conservative side, they are hardnosed to move as well? That will be required over the course of the next 36 hours if they want to actually get this done.

And I think it's worth noting, Wolf, usually, when the house Republicans or any House conference is about to hold a big house vote, they have a good idea. Maybe there's some no's that will be there for leadership if they have to get those final two or three votes. Maybe they know whether or not these caucuses are actually serious with their threats.

This is the first major vote this House Republican conference is taking. They are working on a blind spot here in terms of whether or not their members will eventually come along. That's a very dangerous place to be. But, again, I want to stress, House leaders say they believe they can get there, but this is an all-out blitz in these final closing hours, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, by no means a done deal yet. Phil Mattingly, we'll get back to you. Let's bring in our panel.

And, Gloria Borger, let me start with you. Normally, the Republican speaker, the Republican majority leader Kevin McCarthy, they wouldn't allow a vote to come up as critically important as this if they didn't feel they had the 216 votes needed to get it passed. In this particular case, there may be some doubt.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, there is. And, look, I'm not so sure that they would bring it up if they didn't have the votes, honestly, Wolf. But we'll see how things go in the rules committee.

And it's not odd that a vote that's this important and this big goes down to the wire in Congress. It always does. I think the question here is, will they, as the phrase goes, win one for the gipper as it used to be with Ronald Reagan? And will they do it for Donald Trump? And will they do it for Paul Ryan?

And, as we know, it took the President a little bit of time to kind of embrace this bill, but now he has wholeheartedly. And what he was saying to them behind closed doors is, look, guys, if you don't vote for this, you're going to lose. You're going to endanger the majority.

[09:05:07] He didn't take the step further and really come out and say, well, you know, you're going to be primaried and maybe, I would support your primary opponent. He did not do that because he doesn't want to lose his majority in the House, but he did kind of put it all on the line out there.

And these people have to say, even if it's imperfect, these conservatives, who don't like it, they did go out there and campaign for the last eight years about running against ObamaCare. And so it's a question of how pure do they want to be, or do they want to keep their campaign promise?

BLITZER: The other question that's come up, because of the President's problems now with his own credibility, is how much clout does he really have with these dissenting Republicans?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think we're close enough to the election that just passed that he still has a fair amount of clout, particularly when you're talking about House Republicans and drilling down even further, the House Republicans sort of to the right of the caucus that he needs.

Why? Because they are from the reddest of red districts and those are Trump districts. Those are places where he won, you know, by probably 20 points or more, probably a lot more than that. So that's why he has the capital with these members right now.

And that's why, my understanding is that, it's not so much, you know, the Lyndon Johnson approach which is twist your arm and threaten. It's I'm going to have your back, I'm going to be there. Remember, I'm really popular in your district. It's that kind of message.

My understanding from some sources inside the administration, who are being very, very diligent about vote counting, is that their vote count is where our's is. They don't have the votes. They I simply do not have the votes right now.

Their hope is that, as they come to the actual vote tomorrow, that the holdouts, the sort of leaning nose, not hard nose, who are doing so to try to get something, will either figure out a way to sort of extract something from the President or from the leadership. Whether it's on this or something else, it's called horse-trading, it's the way it's done. Or they will just simply realize that it's too hard for them to vote against this whether because they have been promising to repeal and replace ObamaCare or because they don't want to go up against the President.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: Yes. Do they want to be the Republican who stops this train from leaving the station? This project that the Republicans have been working on for many, many years, do they want to stop it?

I mean, what we do know is that if you look, I mean, sort at the grand history of health care, they've a long way to go. I mean, this has been something that goes back to Truman. If you look at what happened with Obama, that was a project that was many years in the making.

And here we are now. So even if they're able to get over this finish line out of the House, still a lot of problems in the Senate. People from the Senate already saying that this particular bill, whatever makes it out of the House, is dead on arrival.

But, you know, obviously, the folks in the House have got some real soul searching to do. This House Freedom Caucus, are they going to stay together? It's about 40 or so members. They're the ones who are concerned about government intervention and a government hand in health care and deficit spending. And so they've got some real soul searching, but, you know, we'll see what happens on Thursday, whether or not they're able to get that 216.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I'll go back to Dana's point about the proximity to the last election, though. She's right about Trump's popularity out there. But the other flip side of that coin is, for eight years, you had a Democratic President.

More than 60 percent of the members of the House have never operated with a Republican president. They are being asked to not let the perfect or their policy particulars get in the way of passing a bill the President wants to pass to prove, I'm in Washington, I promised to change Washington, we're going to keep this promise.

But the Republicans, this is a serious policy fight. This is not just about politics. The conservatives think this is ObamaCare Lite.

They think it is too much government. They think it is too much regulation. It's not free market enough for them. And the question is, will they move? Will they accept the Speaker's guidance?

This is round one. Let's get this out of the House. Let's go to the Senate. We'll have actually a couple more months, he's saying, to work on this, at least a few more weeks. Let's keep the ball moving.

Will they accept that argument or will they say, no way? Because this is imperfect to begin with, we're going to send it to the Senate, they're going to water it down. But one of the fascinating dynamics here is, the club for growth, the

conservative organization that is always a thorn in the establishment side, they invited Mike Pence down to their meeting the other night, the Vice President of the United States.

They said, please come speak to our meeting. He speaks to the meeting. He thanks them for their help making the bill better. He leaves. They're now running ads against 10 House members saying don't vote for this bill.

So you still have this civil war within the Republican Party, and it's about policy. The one other quick thing, when the Democrats came over late in the ObamaCare debate, a lot of Democrats held out to the very end. They, at least, thought it was going to make it better, but most of them were single payer Democrats.

They wanted a single payer health care. They didn't think the ObamaCare bill was liberal enough. They voted yes in the end because they said, this doesn't give me what I want but it's going to make things better in their view. These Republicans are saying, they don't think this bill is going to make it better. So it's different than the ObamaCare debate in that regard.

[09:10:02] BORGER: And you know what's going to happen. They're going to sit in the back row, as they always do in the House, and say, OK, if you need my vote, you can get it. But some of these real conservatives, who are ideological and believe this really is ObamaCare Lite, they believe they can make the case in their district very convincingly, and they're not going to give Paul Ryan their vote, unless it's absolutely needed.

BLITZER: And, Alice, I want to bring you into this because you hear Republican senators, like Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Rand Paul of Kentucky, tell their fellow Republicans in the House this is ObamaCare Lite. If you're going to do it, do it right. This is a failure, don't do this.

And they keep hitting not just those two senators but a bunch of others. They're not happy with this at all.

ALICE STEWART, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Mike Lee of Utah, Ted Cruz of Texas, they're saying let's not walk the plank on this. We made a promise to our constituent to do this, but we need to do it right.

The key here with this passing the House, while the Republican Study Committee is a larger group, they don't have the 216 votes necessary to pass it. It's the Freedom Caucus that is the key here. So smaller group, but without their united front, it's not going to pass. They are on their way to the White House this morning, meeting with administration officials to make sure that what they want gets in here.

And there have been some concessions over the past few days, the responsible work requirements for those who get Medicaid and more of an immediate rollback of Medicaid, that's what they want. But they need guarantees that the premiums will be lower in this, and they don't see that right now.

BLITZER: So do you think it'll pass?

STEWART: If they get their concessions. They have to have guarantee of lower premiums. This is what they promised their constituents, and without that, it's not going to pass. And the fact they're at the White House today goes to show that the administration is trying to make it work because they know it won't pass without them.

BLITZER: Our working assumption, Karen, is that no Democrats will vote for this in the House and presumably in the Senate.


BLITZER: Do you know of one Democrat who is on the fence at all?



FINNEY: Not one. And they don't have to be, right? Because, again, it is about a civil war within the Republican Party.

And this issue of the President's credibility is actually quite important. Why? If you're a House member and you think you can go -- if you voted against it, you're going to be safe in your own district, and you can go ahead and make the case to your constituent why you voted against it.

When you're dealing with a president -- look at what the first 60 days of this presidency has brought for the Republican Party. How many days? They do not want to spend days talking about Russian intervention and Paul Manafort and the President's tweets and lies. That's not the way they expected to be spending the first 60 days of having a Republican president.

You know, again, looking at, am I going to take a tough vote for this President, or am I going to do what I think is right whether it's based on politics or policy because I believe that I can defend myself and I can win in my district? I don't need this President's help.

BLITZER: But, you know, Jeffrey Toobin, this is not the first president, President Trump, who's had a problem with health care reform in the first year of the new administration.


BLITZER: President Obama, he got it through eventually. But remember, President Clinton, he tried it with HillaryCare in '93 and that turned out to be a total failure.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: It was. But, you know, I think, you know, we talk about the strategy and who is going to get to 216 and who will get to 218. Let's talk at least a little bit about what this bill actually will do. The Congressional Budget Office says 24 million Americans are going to

lose their health insurance because of this bill. That's a big deal. That's going to affect people's lives. That's going to mean people don't get chemotherapy when they have cancer.

That's something that I think is worth mentioning in this debate. And, you know, you can see why it's difficult to get them to vote for it.

BLITZER: That's what the Congressional Budget Office estimates over 10 years.

TOOBIN: Right.

BLITZER: All right. Alice, go ahead. You're a good Republican, respond to that.

STEWART: Well, I think, certainly, want to make sure that everyone continues to be covered. The key for those that are standing firm is making sure they have lower premiums.

Look, under ObamaCare, a lot of people had a card but did not have care. And that's critical when they can't afford the coverage that they have, it doesn't mean anything. So the key is keeping people covered but also making sure that they can afford it.

FINNEY: Well, now, I mean, to Jeffrey's point, we're talking about you might be able afford it but you're going to actually get less care. So that's not actually a good response either. And obviously, in terms of women's health care, we know that it is detrimental.

I mean, in addition to those Republicans who are trying to defend this based on, you know, the Freedom Caucus and their policy positions, there actually are some Republicans who believe that this is going to be detrimental to their constituents.

BASH: Right. Which is why this is --

FINNEY: This will actually hurt people.

BLITZER: Go ahead, Dana.

FINNEY: And how are you going to defend that when people are paying more for less?

BASH: Which is why it's -- like with any piece of very tough legislation, it's the whack-a-mole game, right? I mean, they, the White House and, they, the House Republican leadership, are trying to placate the larger part of the caucus, the Freedom Caucus or the conservatives. But there are plenty of Republicans, Jeff, who agree with exactly what you said --

[09:15:00] STEWART: That's right.

HENDERSON: Yes. BASH: -- on the more moderate side who say I'm not going to support

this because the people in my district are going to be worse off than they are now and if we're going to do it, if we're going to replace, we want to replace in the a way that makes people better off when it comes to actual health care.

NIA MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: And you see some moves them trying to put more money maybe into this bill to stay off those premium hikes seniors will see, but then again, if you are a real conservative you're concerned that you're putting more money into health care.

And there is this sort of mismatch, I think, between Republican rhetoric on this around the free market, around competition when the reality is what -- does it matter if you have a heart attack at 3:00 a.m., this sort of competitive free market language.

So I think people experience health care in such a visceral way that a lot of times I think some of the language doesn't help with that.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Very quickly speaking about some of the giveaways, upstate New York Republicans got $2 billion as part of the deal to get their votes. They were worried about Medicaid cuts that could affect a lot of folks living outside of New York City including my hometown of Buffalo.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: So the president makes a horse trading promise, that's old school politics and good for him in the sense of trying to put the (inaudible) together to make a deal, that happens in every big piece of legislation.

The question is now that he's done that for them, now you have some of these Southern Democrats saying what about us? Where's our deal? Then to Dana's point, if you make a Freedom Caucus member happy in the House, guess what, you lose Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski in the Senate.

And so then you go over there and what do they want to get this back? And the experience of Obamacare what scares all Republicans? When you do something this big, even with the best of intentions or generally get it right, in the short term you are going to cause turmoil.

Because you're upending a giant piece of the economy. The Republicans look at that and say the Democrats got pummeled for this in four straight elections. We better be careful how we do this.

BLITZER: Just a few minutes ago, the president tweeted "Big day for health care, working hard." Everyone stick around, we're just minutes away from Neil Gorsuch, President Trump's Supreme Court nominee facing a second round of grilling by members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Looking live, pictures coming in from the hearing room. Our special coverage continues right after a quick break.


[09:21:21] BLITZER: We're midway through the most consequential week of Donald Trump's young presidency, one of his biggest campaign promises hanging in the balance is pledge to repeal and replace Obamacare. But at this crucial juncture, is the president playing roulette with his own credibility?

The "Wall Street Journal" editorial page believes he is. This morning, the paper published a very, very tough editorial saying in part, "If President Trump announces that North Korea launched a missile that landed within 100 miles of Hawaii, would most Americans believe him?

We're not sure, which speaks to the damage that Mr. Trump is doing to his presidency with his seemingly endless stream of exaggerations, evidence-free accusations, implausible denials and other falsehoods."

The editorial singled out the president's unsubstantiated claim that President Obama had Trump Tower in New York City wiretapped during the election, a claim the FBI director, the National Security Agency director, the Republican leadership in the House and Senate, the Intelligence Committee members, they have all publicly rejected that in the past few days.

I want to bring back our panel, but Jeff Zeleny, our senior White House correspondent is getting some new information on the president's strategy right now. Jeff, what are you learning?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (via telephone): Wolf, good morning. The president is meeting with several lawmakers really across the spectrum of the House Republican conference trying to bring them on board, but one interesting thing we are hearing is his approach.

It is not necessarily a threat that he would support someone to primary them or run against them in the 2018 reelections but actually the opposite. He is telling people that I will have your back, I will support you if you vote for this.

Basically we are all in this together and, Wolf, talking to some of these lawmakers who have come face to face with the president in the last 24 hours or so, they are describing it as some type of presidential peer pressure, if you will, trying to be aboard with him, that he is urging people to vote with him on this.

Of course, it affects his full agenda but not threatening them simply saying "I will have your back." But Wolf, over the next 24 to 36 hours and, in fact this whole week, he is coming face to face with more lawmakers than he has during this first two months in office.

BLITZER: These are critical hours right now. Every hour counts. All right, Jeff, thanks very much. Getting back to the editorial in the "Wall Street Journal," one line really jumped out at me, the president's assertion about the Obama wiretaps of Trump Tower.

This is from the editorial, "Yet the president clings to his assertion like a drunk to an empty gin bottle, rolling out his press spokesman to make more dubious you claims."

I've read a lot of tough editorials in the "Wall Street Journal" but this one very tough, basically accusing the president of the United States, a Republican, of being a liar.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, and -- yes, and they are saying that he is damaging his own credibility around the world, obviously, with the piece of the editorial you just read. The question is, if there's a crisis in the world, will anyone believe him? Including our allies and including the American public.

The problem here, I think, and they say Mr. Trump is his own worst political enemy, the problem for Donald Trump is that yes, this worked for him during the campaign but he still seems to be in the middle of the campaign and he is only talking to his base. And it didn't work for the courts because they are taking him literally. Not just seriously but literally.

JOAN BISKUPIC, CNN SUPREME COURT ANALYST: It was used against him in all those lawsuits over the travel ban --

[09:25:06]BORGER: Well, that's it.

BISKUPIC: -- for Muslim countries.

BORGER: And it was used against him by his own FBI director who, by the way, he cannot fire because the FBI director came out and said, well, the president told an untruth.

BLITZER: We're about to have another round of questioning for the Supreme Court nominee, but there's no doubt that a lot of Democrats if they vote against Gorsuch's confirmation it won't be because they have serious problems about Gorsuch. He received the highest rating quality, highly qualified for the American Bar Association, it's because they don't like the president who nominated him.

BISKUPIC: Well, in part. Remember what happened that the president's partner in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, stalled for 10 months on Merrick Garland's nomination which they think was a stolen seat from them. So that's three-fourths of it.

But the other fourth is some Democrats really feel that Judge Gorsuch hasn't shown enough of what he's going to be like. We might see more of that today so it's a couple things but you're absolutely right, it's part Donald Trump, part Merrick Garland who has hung over these hearings.

BLITZER: I want to go to Ariane de Vogue, our Supreme Court reporter. She's there at the Senate Judiciary Committee over there at the hearing. It's about to begin, right, Ariane?

ARIANE DE VOGUE, CNN SUPREME COURT REPORTER: It is about to begin. He came yesterday to answer questions, Wolf, but he also had some talking points of his own. He wanted to make clear, look, I am not a politician, I'm a judge, he was asked a lot about his independence from Trump and he talked about that. Several times he said "no man is above the law." He said that criticism of judges was disheartening and he refused to say how he'd rule on some hot-button issues, issues like abortion, gun rights and the travel ban.

He also talked a little bit about Merrick Garland. He called him an outstanding judge. Here's one exchange he had with Senator Blumenthal.


NEIL GORSUCH, SUPREME COURT NOMINEE: When anyone criticizes the honesty and integrity, the motives of a federal judge, I find that disheartening, I find that demoralizing because I know the truth.

SENATOR RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D), CONNECTICUT: Anyone including the president of the United States?

GORSUCH: Anyone is anyone.

BLUMENTHAL: Because no person is above the law, including the president of the United States?

GORSUCH: That's right, Senator.


DE VOGUE: Trump also referenced yesterday the criticism on judges in a dinner last night hosted by Republicans. Here's what he said.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: We're also taking decisive action to improve our vetting procedures -- the courts are not helping us, I have to be honest with you. It's ridiculous. Somebody said I should not criticize judges, OK, I'll criticize judges to keep criminals and terrorists the hell out of our country.


DE VOGUE: You know, yesterday we went for 12 hours. It was a marathon. We're just starting now but yesterday, Wolf, he really never showed he got rattled. He was able to answer all of those questions pretty calmly -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, I see this hearing is about to begin. I want everybody to weigh in. Ariane, stand by over there. But getting back to this editorial in the "Wall Street Journal," Dana, let me read the last line, "Two months into his presidency, Gallup has Mr. Trump's approval at 39 percent. No doubt Mr. Trump considers that fake news. But if he doesn't show more respect for the truth most Americans may conclude he's a fake president."

BASH: Listen, this is one of the -- actually it is the fundamental question that frankly we don't know the answer to yet, that President Trump, then-Candidate Trump, did very well being who he is, saying things that were absolutely false without much consequence, with the people who mattered to him at that time, for the voters. Can I finish my point?


BASH: That's what we learned in the campaign and he promised in the campaign he was going to be different when he's president and he was going to be so presidential we wouldn't even recognize him. That hasn't happened. It's the opposite.


BASH: So the jury is still out as to whether or not he is going to get punished by the American people.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Can I offer a word of defense for Donald Trump? Who says you can't criticize a judge? These people serve for life. They are unaccountable to anyone and you can't criticize them? Why not? I mean, I think Donald Trump is well within his rights in criticizing judges. That judge in Seattle is a big boy.

BLITZER: So you disagree with Neil Gorsuch?

TOOBIN: Absolutely, I disagree with Neil Gorsuch. This is serious --

BLITZER: It's (inaudible) a court, a federal court and you say this court is political. That's all they are interested in the Ninth Court of Appeals. That's OK from your perspective?

TOOBIN: Totally. Totally. A lot of people agree with him about that.