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Interview with Senator John Thune; White House Warns Syria Could Be Planning Another Chemical Weapons Attack. Aired 10:30-11a ET

Aired June 27, 2017 - 10:30   ET



[10:32:01] POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: As the public debate escalates over the Senate health care bill, there are questions over whether the official debate will even get off the ground in the Senate.

We're joined by one of the Republican senators, who was one of the architects of this bill. He is now working to garner support for it, Senator John Thune, Republican of South Dakota and chairman of the Senate Republican Conference joins me.

Thank you for being here, Senator.

SEN. JOHN THUNE (R), SOUTH DAKOTA: Good morning, Poppy. You're welcome.

HARLOW: Good morning. So you were one of the 13 in those closed door meetings. Now as you know this bill is struggling to get enough support from your fellow Republican senators to even reach the point of debate on the floor.

Looking back, do you think it would have behooved you and been better for you had this been a more open dialogue, open discussion, not crafted behind closed doors?

THUNE: Well, if you look at what actually happened, Poppy, there were -- there was a working group that sort of developed organically. But the leader made it open to anyone. And then, of course, we had countless meetings with all 52 Republican senators. Everybody had input into this. So it wasn't -- this is the product of something that occurred literally over about 30 different meetings of all of our members with all kinds of different points of view. And this is I think represents as close as we could get to striking a balance between the very diverse group of views that we have within our conference.

But it's -- you know, it is -- you are never going to get something that you're entirely 100 percent happy with. At some point you have to decide, is this better than the status quo? And clearly, it is an improvement over what we have today, which is failing.

HARLOW: That's what you think. But Senator Collins, as you know, doesn't think so. I mean, she said she'll vote in a tweet last night no on the motion to proceed. This is one thing you wrote yesterday, "It's time to rescue Americans from the mess of Obamacare." Do you think that this Senate bill rescues enough Americans?

THUNE: Well, it clearly takes the mandates that they are living under. There are 19 million Americans who chose not to subscribe to or pay the individual or to adhere to the individual mandate. In other words they pay the penalty, about six million pay the penalty or the fine for not getting insurance. Another 13 million found out ways to get waivers, to find out ways around it.

There are a lot of mandates in Obamacare that the American people were asking to be rescued from. And if you look at the impact of what this has had, even for those who are able to get insurance, in many cases the premiums are going through the roof. They've literally doubled in the individual market the last four years and you also got deductibles of people who might even have a policy, can't use it because the deductibles are so high.

HARLOW: So I get that. I get that. I have been in these states. I have been in Kentucky talking to families who tell me I cannot afford coverage. OK. I understand that. And this bill saves a lot of money, $321 billion for the federal deficit over a decade. However, when you put out your statement last night on the CBO score which found 22 million more Americans will not have any health insurance in a decade under this than if we kept the existing policy, you didn't mention that once.

[10:35:02] You write, "The bill will enable them to access more affordable, patient-centered health care?" But what about those 22 million Americans? Are you worried about them?

THUNE: Fourteen million of the 22 the CBO pointed out wouldn't be covered because they chose not to be covered. And basically what we're saying in this bill is that people shouldn't have to buy something they don't want and can't afford.

HARLOW: OK. So let me ask you about the eight million Americans. Are you worried about eight million Americans?

THUNE: Of course we are. We're worried about every American. We want to make sure that every American has access to affordable health care. And I think the one thing that the CBO doesn't take into consideration is if you get a competitive market place and you start driving down premiums, then more people are going to want to buy health insurance.

The reason that many of them don't buy today is they're priced out of the market. They just flat can't afford these premiums and these deductibles and these out-of-pocket costs. So we think that restoring free market competition to the health care economy in this country puts downward pressure on premiums, which ultimately is the goal I think in all of this. The thing that we hear the most from people back home is that we want more affordability in health care insurance coverage.

HARLOW: So I would note --

THUNE: And we don't have it today. HARLOW: I would note that while the CBO did find that this Senate

bill would stabilize the individual marketplace over the decade, these premiums would rise next year still under it, and then they would go down from there. As you know, the president called the House health care bill, the House Republican health care bill mean and he confirmed that he said that this week.

The Senate version leaves almost as many Americans uninsured. It was 23 million more uninsured under the House version. It's 22 million according to CBO under Senate. Do you think that the same word apply here? The president is calling the House bill mean and this Senate bill mean as well?

THUNE: Well, if you look at what the Senate bill does, and again, you can compare it to present law or you can compare it to the House passed version from earlier this year, but I'll give you an example from my home state of South Dakota. We have over 30,000 people that will now have access to refundable tax credit to help them buy insurance that don't have it under Obamacare. And that's because we allow the tax credit people to buy it from 100 percent to 350 percent of the federal poverty level.

That opens it up to in my state 33,000 people. So the people are going to look at this differently depending on where they are. But overall what we are trying to do really is stabilize the market, which this does, and yes, there's a slight spike in premiums next year but then the CBO said in 2020, they come down 30 percent. And in 2026, they come down 20 percent.

So you start to see that reduction in premiums. And we make Medicaid more sustainable, which right now it isn't. And it gives states more flexibility to design their own program.


HARLOW: You cut -- it cuts 26 percent of federal funding from Medicaid over the next decade. Any way you slice it, it is less money going into Medicaid. Would you concede that and are you concerned about people that rely on Medicaid especially -- for example, for opioid treatment and addiction, which you know is devastating some states?

THUNE: Right. And we've got members in the Senate who are trying to make sure that we add dollars for opioid and substance abuse. But, remember, overall Medicaid spending between now and 2026 goes up by 26 percent. It increases every year over year at the rate of inflation. So it's -- the slowing the rate of growth is giving governors and state legislatures more flexibility to design programs where they can save money.

And honestly, you have to acknowledge there are states around the country that because of innovations in their states right now have come up with solutions on Medicaid and where they are managing care and they're running at a much more efficient and cost effective way. We want to allow that to happen in a more -- in a bigger way than it is today already. HARLOW: All right. Senator, if you can stay with me, I want to go

listen to two key governors in all of this. Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper and Ohio Governor John Kasich who have been very critical of both the House and Senate measures on health care. Let's listen to what they have to say.

GOV. JOHN KASICH (R), OHIO: Got all worked up. My job is to be intellectually honest through this process. That's what I intend to do. John Hickenlooper is -- I'm grateful to be teamed with him. I think I love the way he thinks. I love the way that he does his job as governor and isn't it great? Isn't it refreshing to realize that Republicans and Democrats can stand on the same podium on a very tough issue and get along and be constructive.

This is the way it used to be. So while I don't want to go backwards, maybe in some sense going back to the future might be the way to be able to solve many of these big, looming problems that are right over across the landscape of America. We can get this done. John?

GOV. JOHN HICKENLOOPER (D), COLORADO: Thank you, Governor. And I can't easily express how grateful I am. Governor Kasich has been a leader on this and working on it a long time. And this notion that, you know, the Senate is going to do a bill in secret in a very short amount of period of time and then bring it out and have it, you know, try to sell the notion that this is an improvement in health care is a bad joke.

[10:40:04] We have been calling this the unhealth care bill just because there's no improvements and pretty much only cuts. And I think it takes tremendous amount of courage to stand up like Governor Kasich or Governor Sandoval of Nevada, the others, other Republican governors who, you know, clearly --

KASICH: Governor Snyder.

HICKENLOOPER: Yes, Governor Baker, Governor Snyder, you know, Governor Hutchinson has had, you know, serious conversations around these bill. That courage, I mean, that's what it comes down to. It's a basic -- I mean, it's in your marrow that this isn't a political decision, it's a -- it's a moral issue. And if you look at -- I wrote down some of the numbers that Colorado would see.

We would see a reduction of rough justice of 188,000 people in Colorado. More than half of them would be in rural parts of the state. Again, that's the place where it's hardest to get good medical coverage as it is. We'd lose about 50,000 people that right now are through our private exchanges. By not giving them stability, we're going to end up cutting coverage. And again, that's not improving anything.

At a certain point, if this bill went through as it is, you would have, you know, a level of -- some estimates over 100,000 deaths over the next 10 years. And governors would be in that difficult position, impossible position to try to allocate resources where you know you're going to be -- you are not going to have the coverage. And ultimately, you know, Governor Kasich and I are not going to agree on everything. And if we were writing this bill, we'd have to spend a lot of work trying to figure out what are the compromises and how can we get to that place.

Well, we both agree that we've got to control the rise in health care at all levels, but certainly in terms of the private exchanges and certainly in terms of Medicaid. But we've got to make sure that we also don't roll back coverage. That's immoral. And I think to try and push that on the country, really for the benefit of -- I mean, who is benefiting from this bill? It's not improving health care. $230 billion for the highest earners and the people that have a large amount of unearned income.

I've talked to a couple dozen of them. And I asked each one, does it matter when you are making $2 million a year and have a friend or he and his wife together make $300,000 a year and they would save several thousand dollars. They don't care. It's not something they --

HARLOW: All right. We're going to keep monitoring this joint press conference, the Democratic governor of Colorado, Governor Hickenlooper, and Republican governor of Ohio, John Kasich.

Back with me is Republican Senator John Thune who helped craft this legislation.

Your response. You heard Governor Hickenlooper there call it immoral.

THUNE: Right. Well, look, you know, we think it's immoral that people have to pay what they're paying today to get their insurance. And a lot of them are forced out of the market because of that. We want insurance, health care insurance to be affordable to everybody. That's the goal. That's what we've always tried to achieve.

And I think if you look at the CBO score, that happens. That happens starting in 2020 when you see a 20 percent reduction in premiums or 30 percent, I should say, in 2026. When you see 20 percent overall reduction over what we have today. So ultimate goal is to make insurance more affordable to more Americans.

HARLOW: OK, and your --

THUNE: And we think that this bill achieves that.

HARLOW: And your specific response, quickly, because I know you have to go to what Governor Hickenlooper just said, which is that -- he said some estimate there will be 100,000 deaths over the next 10 years if this bill goes through as is. To that, you say?

THUNE: I don't know where he's getting that estimate, Poppy. I think there's a lot of rhetoric being thrown around out there. And you know, look, there's a lot of scare tactics and fear mongering that's being used on this. But the reality is you make Medicaid sustainable, you target it to the people that need it most. You make sure that it's there for not just this generation of Americans but the next generation of Americans.

HARLOW: Yes, but John -- as you know John Kasich said -- (CROSSTALK)

HARLOW: John Kasich says this plan would not make Medicaid sustainable in his state of Ohio which is grappling with a devastating opioid crisis right now. That's a Republican governor saying this does not fund Medicaid enough.

THUNE: And that's why there are members, and we have already added additional money for opioid crisis. Governor Kasich and I worked with John when he was the chairman of the House Budget Committee when I was in the House 20 years ago, the last time we did major entitlement reforms. And you know, obviously, he's got to take care of the people of Ohio and he's looking at the best way to do that.

We think the best way to do that is to give him more flexibility. And they've done some things that are innovative in Ohio. They've done some things that are innovative in Indiana and other states around the country. Let's let the governors do what they do best, and that is come up with solutions that best fit their population. We think that this bill enables them to do that.

HARLOW: Senator John Thune, I appreciate your time and thank you for sticking around so we can get you on the back end of that press conference. Thank you.

THUNE: All right. Thanks, Poppy.

[10:45:03] HARLOW: Both Governor Kasich and Governor Hickenlooper will join Jake Tapper today on "THE LEAD." Be sure to watch that interview 4:00 p.m. Eastern right here on CNN.

Quick break. We'll be right back.


HARLOW: Republican governor of Ohio, John Kasich, just moments ago discussing the Senate health care bill and its impact on Medicaid. Listen.


KASICH: So I think there's things we hear in politics and things that go on, but, you know, the reality of the matter is we better pay attention to people, many of whom feel very disenfranchised in this country. And that doesn't lead to a healthy America, not just a healthy person.


[10:50:01] HARLOW: There you have it. He has been highly critical of this bill and of course the GOP House bill as well. More on that in just a moment. But new this morning, the Pentagon says the White House warning that Syria could be planning another chemical attack under the Bashar al-Assad regime was justified. This is after the U.S. military says it saw activity at the Syrian air base that is at the heart of the chemical weapons attack by the Assad regime back in April.

Now that announcement coming just hours after the White House said Syrian president Bashar al-Assad would pay a, quote, "heavy price" if any chemical weapons attack took place. Now the Trump administration's remarks are sparking swift condemnation from Russia and Iran.

Joining me at the Pentagon is our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr and our senior international correspondent Nick Paton Walsh joins me as well.

So, Barbara, to you, you were just in a briefing a little while ago. What are you learning?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, good morning, Poppy. Look, the opposition to this from Russia and Iran no surprise. Both of those governments ardent supporters of Bashar al-Assad.

This warning we are told was put out overnight by the White House, also warning -- as a warning to the Syrians and to the Russians to try to make the Syrians back off. U.S. intelligence showed that an aircraft at this particular air base where the last chemical attack originated from was in the position on the air base that was being watched very carefully. That there was chemical agent also nearby. And the concern was that all of this was leading to the possibility, the very real possibility that the Syrians were planning another aerial attack using chemical weapons as they did in April. An aircraft plus the munitions.

So the statement comes out and the hope is that this will be enough to get the Russians to persuade Assad to back off and not do this. The White House being very firm, angry even in its tone, saying that Assad would pay a heavy price, that women and children would be killed. We saw the U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley come out saying that Russia and Iran as supporters of Assad would bear responsibility for this.

So now what it is really is a waiting game to see, will this overnight warning from the White House be enough for Assad to back off or has President Trump, himself, set a new red line and will he have to act -- Poppy.

HARLOW: And Nick, to you, I mean, how do these statements impact America's broader role in Syria, especially Nikki Haley's statement and the president saying that the Assad regime would pay a heavy price?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, certainly risks expanding their role here. That's already happening really after years of the Obama administration trying really to keep the United States out as much as it possibly could of Syria's civil war.

Yes, we've seen them pushing ahead now in the fight against ISIS. They're in the final stages, Iraqi forces, with America backing, kicking them out of Mosul and they've just surrounded the remaining city of Raqqa in Syria. But even in Raqqa, that intervention by the United States has found themselves clashing with regime jets in the sky. One taken out by U.S. fire power recently. That caused threats from the Russians that they would treat any aircraft crossing the Euphrates River there potentially as target.

And we've also heard today from Iran that they consider that statement -- and I'll paraphrase it -- to be frankly a distraction from the role of the Iraqi people and the Syrian people in getting rid of Daesh.

Now of course ISIS is the main target here. Notice speak from that from anybody at this stage possibly apart from the Syrian regime, they're pursuing their own goal on the side. The broader question, what happens after that. There's a large swath of territory. The regime have their eyes clearly on what they want to be considered theirs. They have a lot of Russian backing for that, too. Does that include Raqqa? What's to be made of the Turkish involvement helping Syrian rebels? And quite where does the United States leave its Syrian Kurdish allies, a staunch enemy over their ally Turkey? This is where it gets very complicated.

What happens to all these groups in the territory once ISIS is gone? That is no longer such a distance vision. It could be merely months away. The question is, the United States is slowly finding itself (INAUDIBLE) today, but in the past militarily clashing with the regime in the south to keep their militia away from rebels it backs. Clashing in the north to keep Syrian jets away from the Syrian Kurds that the United States is backing.

Where does it end and what is the final Trump administration end game here inside Syria? Where do they want to find themselves when all this slowly settles in the dust? Unclear at this point. What is clear is the U.S. is slowly finding itself day by day doing more than ever thought. Probably it was going to when Trump talked about America first during his campaign.

HARLOW: Indeed. And Nick, also, I understand there's some new video that shows Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad getting into a fighter jet? What can you tell us about this?

WALSH: Thank you for reminding me. Absolutely. We didn't need a reminder of how the Russians are tight with Bashar al-Assad. Today the Russian chief of staff, General Gerasimov, at the Hmeymim air base.

[10:55:03] We see Bashar al-Assad getting into a jet. Quite a clear demonstration of Russian fire power here, Russian assistance. We've heard Moscow repeatedly say actually we are getting out of town. We have had enough of this. They have their own domestic political concerns with an election coming up. The population less and less understanding why they're in Syria in the first place. But the geopolitical will is absolutely clear here. They want to challenge America in this area. They want to keep their foothold on the Mediterranean with a staunch ally Bashar al-Assad, and they too look to the future now, what is the end game. Back to you.

HARLOW: Nick Paton Walsh in Irbil, Iraq, thank you very much for that, and Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thank you as well. Back to health care in the United States as the battle continues in

Washington. We are on top of all the breaking developments. Much more after this quick break.


KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Kate Bolduan. The breaking news today, hanging by a thread. That's how one Republican aide describes the current state of affairs of the Senate health care bill.

Trouble is in the air, it seems, from Capitol Hill to the White House. And a defining moment could come next hour when all Republican senators are set to sit down for their weekly lunch with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and special guest today, Vice President Mike Pence. Is it kumbaya coming out or is it something more of a revolt? We will soon --