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Republicans Targeting Health Care; Special Counsel Focusing on Trump's Actions in Office; Hurricane Maria Slams Puerto Rico; Search for Survivors Following Mexico Earthquake; Vote on Senate GOP Health Care Bill Expected Next Week; Dems Want Review of Health Secretary's Use of Private Jets. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired September 20, 2017 - 18:00   ET

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


[18:00:00]

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Struggle to survive -- a desperate search in Mexico City for people possibly buried alive in the rubble of buildings that collapsed in a powerful earthquake. Tonight, the death toll is climbing. Will aftershocks claim even more lives?

Private briefings. A new report says that former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort offered updates on the presidential race to a Russian billionaire with close ties to the Kremlin.

And tonight there's also a report that the special counsel wants White House documents on some of President Trump's actions.

And down to the wire. The Senate is now expected to vote next week on a last-ditch Republican effort to repeal Obamacare, but with a looming deadline and a razor-thin margin for support, the outcome is uncertain.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: We're following the breaking news.

The entire island of Puerto Rico and its more than three-and-a-half million Americans are without power tonight after Hurricane Maria unleashed what one official is calling total devastation. The strongest storm to hit the island in 85 years ripped trees from the ground and has triggered widespread flooding.

We're also following the very desperate search for survivors of the magnitude-7.1 earthquake that rocked Mexico City and the surrounding area, killing at least 225 people. Dozens of buildings collapsed, including a school where 21 children died and where rescuers are working right now by hand to reach a young girl believed trapped alive.

There's also breaking news in the Russia investigation. "The Washington Post" is reporting that former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort offered to give a Russian billionaire with close ties to the Kremlin private briefings on the presidential race.

And "The New York Times" reports that special counsel Robert Mueller has asked the White House for documents about some of President Trump's actions, including the firings of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and FBI Director James Comey.

We're covering all of that, much more this with our guests, including former Defense Secretary and former CIA Director Leon Panetta. And our correspondents and our specialists are also standing by.

But let's begin with Puerto Rico now reeling from Hurricane Maria.

CNN's Polo Sandoval is in the nearby Dominican Republic also being lashed by the storm.

Polo, seeing a new round of devastation in the Caribbean.

POLO SANDOVAL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, Wolf.

What's important to keep in mind here is that the actual eye of Hurricane Maria will not make landfall in the Dominican Republic. But that certainly does not mean that there is no threat. Already, thousands of tourists have been stranded here in the Dominican Republic.

And then you look off the coast here, you can see some wicked waves. That Category 2 storm is just 75 miles east of where we are here in Punta Cana.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SANDOVAL (voice-over): Hurricane Maria ripped through Puerto Rico, making landfall as a Category 4 hurricane with winds up to 155 miles per hour, leaving the island completely dark with no electricity.

The hurricane also dumping over a foot of rain, causing flash flooding and mudslides, downing trees and ripping fences away from homes. The storm even knocked out two of the National Weather Service's radars on the island.

GOV. RICARDO ROSSELLO, PUERTO RICO: This is the most devastating storm either in a century or quite frankly in modern history.

SANDOVAL: Maria damaged much of Puerto Rico's infrastructure which had already been weakened by Hurricane Irma.

CARLOS MERCADER, PUERTO RICO GUBERNATORIAL SPOKESMAN: This is total devastation. In terms of the infrastructure, it will not be the same as the one that we lived yesterday.

SANDOVAL: Puerto Rico's governor saying in a tweet he's asking President Trump to declare the island a disaster zone.

The Caribbean island of Dominica also taking a direct from Maria, which made landfall as a Category 5, knocking out the country's communications with the rest of the world. This aerial tour shows the devastation across the island. Officials estimating that at least 70 percent of the buildings were damaged by the storm.

Tonight, Hurricane Maria is barrelling towards the Dominican Republic. Puerto Rico's governor warns the worst has yet to come.

ROSSELLO: People might have a sense that they have gone through the worst part of it, but as we know with hurricanes, it's the flooding, it's the heavy rains that tend to be the number one cause of death.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SANDOVAL: Back out live here in the resort city of Punta Cana, I can tell you that not only this region here, but the entire northern coast of the Dominican Republic remains at its highest alert level, Wolf.

[18:05:01]

In fact, mandatory evacuations already in place as we continue to see the winds kick up here. The real threat with this storm won't necessarily be just these winds, Wolf, but also the flooding as Irma left the Dominican Republic extremely saturated. Any rain that we will see in the next few hours could bring potentially devastating flooding -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, good luck, Polo. Be careful over there. Good luck to all the folks in the Dominican Republic and indeed throughout the Caribbean.

(WEATHER UPDATE)

BLITZER: We're also following the earthquake disaster in Mexico. The death toll has now climbed to at least 225 people, including about two dozen children at an elementary school.

CNN's Ed Lavandera is in Mexico City for us tonight.

Ed, the urgent search for survivors continues more than 24 hours after the quake.

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It does, Wolf.

And I have to speak quietly like this, because rescue workers are pleading with everybody to be as quiet as possible as they continue the searches inside about a block away. And they do this because this allows rescue workers in there the chance to hear anybody crying out for help or any kind of voices that might lead them to the people who are inside the rubble.

It is an amazing scene. There are thousands of people here on the street, everyone incredibly quiet, waiting for any kind of good news to emerge from just a block away.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Ed, let's talk about a little bit -- let's talk about what you're seeing in Mexico City right now, because I understand that, you know, this comes, what, 10 days or so after another earthquake in Mexico, a different part of Mexico, but still the city must be shaken -- I hate to use that word, but shaken as a result of all of this.

LAVANDERA: Yes, there is a great deal of sense -- and in our report here, we can give you the sense of just what this country has been like and this region particularly has been like, given the magnitude of the earthquakes that they have experienced here in the last two weeks.

[18:10:05]

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LAVANDERA (voice-over): Scenes of hope and heartache as a frantic search is under way for survivors of the devastating earthquake.

More than 20 children are confirmed dead after the collapse of this elementary school in Mexico City. But many have been found alive, pulled from the rubble.

As the multistory school building fell, it brought classrooms crashing onto other classrooms. Some are still missing as rescue crews pour through what's left, hoping to find more survivors.

Authorities are calling for quiet as they listen for signs of life, raising their fists in the air as a command for silence. The powerful 7.1-magnitude quake struck about 75 miles southeast of Mexico City in the middle of the day.

ADRIAN WILSON, EARTHQUAKE SURVIVOR: The building started to shake and people started to run. People started to cry, yell, scream.

LAVANDERA: Onlookers in the street watch helplessly as the windows fall from this office building. And outside the city overlooking the historic town of (INAUDIBLE) these panicked tourists run to safety during the moment of impact.

As the search-and-rescue mission continues, residents are cautioned to stay indoors and away from unstable structures, but many are flocking to the hardest-hit areas to help the overstretched emergency crews. As the second major quake to rock the area in as many weeks, Mexico City and much of the region lie crippled.

And President Enrique Pena Nieto is declaring a national emergency. Shelters are packed, makeshift hospitals. Schools are closed indefinitely and millions are without power.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

LAVANDERA: And, Wolf, just a short while ago, there were some cheers emerging from the crowd here, the belief that maybe some good news was emerging from that school scene.

However, we have not be able to confirm whether or not anyone has been pulled out alive here in the last few minutes. But it's definitely much more frantic than it has been over the course of the last hour. There's been a collection of people taking up headlamps to rush into the rescue workers. There's also desperate pleas for oxygen to be brought into the area,

all of that activity as we look back here in the distance as well. There's also more of an onslaught and more of a rush of the medical workers that we see there in the distance as well. So perhaps that is a sign of something developing there, and all of this unfolding as we speak here this afternoon.

So we will continue to monitor and bring you that development as soon as we get it -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We will get right back to you as soon as you get final word on that.

Thanks very much, Ed Lavandera, in Mexico City.

There's other breaking news we're following, including new developments in the Russia investigation, including an alleged offer by the then Trump campaign chairman to privately brief a Russia billionaire with close ties to the Kremlin.

Plus, President Trump says he has reached a decision on the Iran nuclear deal, but won't reveal what that decision is.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:17:59]

BLITZER: There's breaking news tonight in the Russia investigation.

"The Washington Post" is reporting that former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort offered to give a Russia billionaire with close ties to the Kremlin private briefings on the presidential race.

And "The New York Times" is reporting that special counsel Robert Mueller has asked the White House for documents about some of President Trump's actions, including the firings of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and FBI Director James Comey.

Our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, is over at Trump Tower in New York for us.

Jim, the president is wrapping up his visit to the United Nations and it certainly has not been without controversy.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.

And so far, the Trump administration has not responded to those breaking stories you just mentioned. We should point out that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is set to brief reporters later on this evening here in New York City.

At the same time, the president would obviously like to focus on other foreign policy challenges. Earlier today, he was dropping more hints that he may pull the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear deal, a decision that would have major global consequences.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA (voice-over): Listening to President Trump talk about the Iran nuclear deal, it sounds as if he's setting up another reality-TV style cliffhanger.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I have decided. I will let you know. I will let you know.

ACOSTA: All week long at the United Nations, the president has signaled he may be on the verge of scrapping the Obama administration agreement designed to pause Iran's nuclear weapons program.

Adding to the rising tensions, Iran's president condemned Mr. Trump's speech to the U.N.

HASSAN ROUHANI, IRANIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): The ignorant, absurd and hateful rhetoric filled with ridiculously baseless allegations.

ACOSTA: The president is offering no apologies for his U.N. address.

D. TRUMP: Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime.

ACOSTA: Despite the complains from Democrats.

JOHN KERRY, FORMER U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: You have to ask yourself, is America safer because of Rocket Man? Did we bring anybody to the table as a result of that language?

[18:20:01]

ACOSTA: Including Hillary Clinton.

HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D), FORMER U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: I thought it was very dark, dangerous, not the kind of message that the leader of the greatest nation in the world should be delivering.

ACOSTA: Top Trump administration surrogates appear to be attempting to soften some of the president's tough talk.

Take U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley's caution on the Iran nuclear deal.

NIKKI HALEY, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED NATIONS: It's not a clear signal that he plans to withdraw. What it is, is a clear signal that he's not happy with the deal and that the United States is not safer because of it.

ACOSTA: Making a rare public appearance in New York, former President Barack Obama didn't mention his successor by name, but he seemed to call on the world to reject the divisive politics that launched Mr. Trump into power.

BARACK OBAMA, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The rise of nationalism and xenophobia and a politics that says it's not we, but us and them. ACOSTA: Across town, the first lady was giving a speech about

children being exposed to the dangers of bullying on, of all places, social media.

MELANIA TRUMP, FIRST LADY: We must turn our focus right now to the message and content they're exposed to a daily basis through social media, the bullying, the experience online and in person.

ACOSTA: Critics wonder whether those pleas to stop bullying should be directed to the president, who just last night slammed the Emmy Awards, tweeting: "I was saddened to see how bad the ratings were on the Emmys last night, the worst ever. Smartest people of them all are the deplorables."

Perhaps the president wasn't a big fan of former Press Secretary Sean Spicer's latest spin at the podium.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA: Now, as for the prospect of the U.S. pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal, the Iranians are balking at the idea of crafting some sort of new agreement.

Iran's president told reporters earlier today it's just not realistic to think that his country would enter into a new round of negotiations -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Jim, thank you, Jim Acosta over in New York City.

Let's get some more on all of this.

The former defense secretary, the former CIA director, Leon Panetta is joining us.

Mr. Secretary, thanks for joining us.

LEON PANETTA, FORMER U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Nice to be with you, Wolf.

BLITZER: So, "The Washington Post" is reporting that former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort actually offered to give private briefings to a Russian billionaire close to the Kremlin.

You served as director of the CIA, among many other positions in government. What do you make of that reported offer?

PANETTA: Well, obviously, it's an additional area for Bob Mueller to look at as part of his investigation.

It simply is part of this drip, drip evidence that we have seen in contacts between people associated with the Trump campaign and Russians. And this comes as just another area to be explored by the special prosecutor.

BLITZER: "The Washington Post" is reporting also there's no evidence the Russian billionaire in question actually accepted Manafort's offer.

But could even an offer that was made by the Trump campaign chairman, could that make that person, maybe the campaign vulnerable to Russian influence?

PANETTA: I just think the mere fact that they would offer a briefing on a political campaign to a Russian billionaire, someone that is obviously related to an adversary of the United States, raises some serious questions about just how much effort was made to try to get the Russians to participate in this last election campaign.

BLITZER: CNN, as you probably know, is reporting that a FISA, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, court granted two, two warrants for the FBI to surveil Manafort, the former campaign chairman.

Is this the type of communication they might have been looking for, what "The Washington Post" is now reporting?

PANETTA: Yes, I wouldn't be surprised by the fact that they would try to determine just one what kind of conversations Paul Manafort had.

Certainly, based on his contacts, based on his relationship with Russians at various levels, it would make a lot of sense for the special prosecutor to be able to see if they could gather additional evidence here.

BLITZER: "The New York Times," meanwhile, is reporting the special counsel, Robert Mueller, is seeking White House documents on the firings of FBI Director James Comey, National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, along with documents from President Trump's meeting with the Russians in the Oval Office in which the president reportedly explained his reasoning for Comey's firing.

So, what does that tell you?

PANETTA: I think it's just more evidence that the special prosecutor is looking at every aspect involved with this Russia investigation, and particularly the area of whether or not there was any kind of obstruction of justice.

[18:25:11]

And, clearly, the firing of Mr. Comey and the reasons for that firing certainly at least raise the implication that that was done in a way to try to stop that investigation from proceeding.

BLITZER: Yesterday, President Trump, at the U.N., at the U.N. General Assembly, called the Iran nuclear deal negotiated during the Obama administration an embarrassment to the United States. He said it was awful.

Today, he said he has actually decide what to do about it, but he won't announce that decision, at least not yet. What would the consequences of breaking that agreement, walking away for that agreement be for the United States? PANETTA: Well, I would hope that the president, and particularly his

national security team, are very careful about taking a step of throwing that agreement out the window.

Look, there are a lot of concerns about that agreement. That's understandable. But the fact is, we do have an agreement, and it has been effective at preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.

As a matter of fact, we have evidence that Iran has abided by that agreement. If the president of the United States decides to get rid of that agreement, then I think he has got to think seriously about the fact that at some point down the road, he will bear responsibility for Iran getting a nuclear weapon. It will be his responsibility if they get that capability.

BLITZER: He has authorized, by the way, his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, not once, but twice so far in this administration to certify that Iran is in fact complying with the nuclear agreement. They have got to make another certification by October 15.

Final question before I let you go, Mr. Secretary. What are the implications of President Trump's threatening to totally destroy North Korea if America needs to defend itself?

PANETTA: You know, Wolf, I think we're in a bad cycle here in dealing with North Korea.

We have got the president using words like fury and fire and now destroying them and Rocket Man. And then North Korea is going to respond with firing missiles and testing nuclear weapons.

This is a dangerous cycle that could result in a miscalculation or a serious mistake that could have us in war. I think efforts ought to be made to break that cycle. I think it's better for the United States, frankly, to speak softly and carry a big stick when it comes to North Korea.

BLITZER: Secretary Panetta, thanks so much for joining us.

PANETTA: Nice to be with you.

BLITZER: We will have much more on the breaking news coming up, an alleged offer by the former Trump campaign chair to privately brief a Russian billionaire with ties to the Kremlin. What are the implications now for the White House?

And can Senate Republicans muster enough votes for their latest effort to repeal Obamacare? A vote now expected next week, but a deadline is clearly looming.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The breaking news this hour, "The Washington Post" is reporting that former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort offered to give a Russian billionaire with close ties to the Kremlin private briefings on the presidential race. [18:33:10] Let's dig with our specialists and our analysts. And

Bianna Golodryga, let's start with you. How do the Russians view this kind of activity? A Russian billionaire with close ties to the Kremlin, obviously some close ties with Paul Manafort, the campaign chairman, and he supposedly is saying, "We'll give you some special briefings"?

BIANNA GOLODRYGA, YAHOO! NEWS: Well, I'll take that and flip it, Wolf. Because as I've said before, the difference between Russian oligarchs and U.S. billionaires is that there's not really a connection between U.S. businessmen and the government and the president, per se. There is a separation there. Not so much when it comes to Russia.

So Vladimir Putin, if you're a rich businessman in Russia, it will likely be that you know somebody in the government, including somebody as high as Vladimir Putin.

So the question is how did a presidential candidate, even a candidate who was seen as an underdog, who had sort of a scrappy team, manage to have someone like Paul Manafort, who had this history of working with pro-Russian Ukrainians and Deripaska, the Russian oligarch in question right now with the latest reporting. How did somebody like that, who had those kind of ties with Russia become a campaign chairman for a presidential candidate, then the Republican Party nominee?

And then you ask yourself the bigger question. The president, to this day, says that there were no ties that he knew of to Russia. He didn't know Russians. "I never had deals with Russians. I didn't know about any Russian meetings." And it becomes harder and harder to be convinced by that rationing if you see more and more of these kind of stories where there, in fact, could have been a transfer of information from a campaign chairman to a Russian oligarch who then, of course, has connections all the way up to the Kremlin.

BLITZER: Yes. We have a picture, by the way, of that oligarch, Kaitlan Collins, with Putin. We'll put it up on the screen. There you see.

[18:35:03] A spokesman, by the way, for Paul Manafort said that the e- mail exchanges reflected, in the spokesman's word, "an innocuous effort" to collect past debts. "It's no secret Mr. Manafort was owed money by past clients," the spokesman said. "It was just a routine briefing."

But how does this play, as far as all of these allegations of possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia are concerned?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's really the million- dollar question right now. I mean, we're seeing this intense interest from the special counsel on Paul Manafort, who joined in the Trump campaign last March, became the campaign chairman in May and then stayed on for about three months, until August, when he resigned. So this wasn't some low-level staffer. This is the top of the top of the Trump campaign.

And we're seeing someone who was running a U.S. presidential campaign that was creating this opening for Russian interests, essentially.

And the last time we heard from the president about Paul Manafort was after his home was raided by investigators in August, and the president said he thought that Manafort was a decent man. But this sent a very strong signal, that they raided his home.

BLITZER: Your newspaper, David Swerdlick, "The Washington Post," is reporting that Manafort wanted to profit, be repaid some past debts. We just heard a spokesman saying that, insisting there's nothing wrong

with that. But how problematic is it?

DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, Wolf. I mean, this report by my "Post" colleagues, it's three-fold, right?

On the one hand, as Bianna was saying, you have a situation where it undercuts the White House's narrative that there was nothing to do with the campaign with Russia whatsoever.

There's also this -- this information about Manafort wanting to collect the debts, suggesting that he had something personal to gain out of this interaction. Maybe didn't break the law in any way, but something at stake for himself.

And then lastly, we already knew that he had done work, again not illegal, for the pro-Russia side in the Ukrainian political, back and forth, prior to his involvement with President Trump.

BLITZER: And Bianna, more disturbing reports coming in. "The New York Times" reporting the special counsel, Robert Mueller, is seeking all sorts of White House documents involving the firing of the FBI director James Comey, the firing of Michael Flynn, the national security advisor. What does this tell you about the scope of this overall investigation?

GOLODRYGA: Well, it shows that the scope is very wide. And also what's so extraordinary about this is that it seemed to play out in real time. As we were reporting on television, on air, on -- in newspapers about these meetings with the Russians, about the constant leaking that was coming out of the White House, it turns out that Bob Mueller was finding out about this, as well, in real time.

And, of course, he finds this applicable to his current investigation. The president, his own words being used against him, the interview with Lester Holt where he himself said that, "Yes, Russia was one of the reasons why I fired Comey."

As it turns out, and I'm sure there's a lot more that Mueller knows that we don't, but at least when it comes to some of his logic and some of his decision making, it came in real time as we were learning about these things coming out of the White House, as well.

BLITZER: Yes. He's moving ahead, Robert Mueller, with that team of lawyers he's hired.

Stand by, everybody. Just ahead, former President Obama slamming the Republican effort to repeal major parts of his signature health care law. Could Obamacare be rolled back after all? We'll get an update from Capitol Hill.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:43:02] BLITZER: A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says he fully intends to bring the latest GOP health care bill to the floor next week, just days ahead of the deadline that would require more than a simple majority to pass the measure, which would repeal Obamacare.

Our congressional correspondent, Phil Mattingly, is joining us from Capitol Hill.

Phil, tonight, President Trump is saying he thinks the bill has a good chance of passing, but the votes still aren't there, are they?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's exactly right.

Senator Lindsey Graham, co-author of this health care bill, says there will be a vote next week. As you noted, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell saying it's his intention to hold a vote next week, but the votes, well, they're not there yet. And that's why what's happening right now, Wolf, as we've seen multiple times throughout this process, is perhaps the most important, the behind-the-scenes talks.

Right now, I'm told leaders are gathering information and specific asks from some specific senators that will change this bill in an effort to try and get them on board. Most notably, though, they are targeting Senator Lisa Murkowski. This morning, Murkowski meeting with Senator Lindsey Graham, meeting with Bill Cassidy, the other co- author of the bill, trying to figure out exactly what this bill would do to Alaska and what Republican leaders and administration officials can do to make sure the state is not disproportionately affected by this kind of massive change in the U.S. health care system.

Also, John McCain still telling reporters repeatedly today he is not on board yet. It's all about process with him.

The issues are well known at this point, Wolf. The big question is can anything be done to get them on board? I'm told both administration officials and Republican leaders relying heavily on Lindsey Graham's friendship with John McCain to bring him on board. Administration officials also crafting offers to try and assuage Lisa Murkowski's concerns. If they are able to do that, expect that vote next week. If they aren't, it's anyone's guess at this point, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. In a rare public statement, former President Obama today weighed in on the health care battle. Tell our viewers Phil, what he said.

MATTINGLY: Yes, and keep in mind: this is the cornerstone domestic achievement of President Obama's eight years. And there's certainly no shortage of frustration. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) BARACK OBAMA, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And so when I see people trying to undo that hard-won progress for the 50th or 60th time with bills that would raise costs or reduce coverage, or roll back protections for older Americans, or people with pre-existing conditions -- the cancer survivor, the expecting mom or the child with autism or asthma, for whom coverage once again would be almost unattainable, it is aggravating.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

[18:45:27] PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: And, Wolf, it's frustration and attacks on these efforts that you're hearing from a lot of Democrats right now. And this is really important moment for the Democratic Party and for the outside groups that support them. You only have to look back a couple months ago to see how the outside activists became engage in this debate, really kinds of as one senator said, melted the phone lines here on Capitol Hill to try and put pressure on Republicans, people like Senator Lisa Murkowski and Senator John McCain to vote no on this bill.

The big concern right now this came up so quickly, so unexpectedly that those same groups won't bring the same effort this time around. I can tell you, from the president, former president on down, Democrats are trying to very hard right to make sure that doesn't happen. Already, ads playing in Alaska, playing in Arizona, trying to put the pressure on those senators to stay no. But again, in the end, it's up to whether or not those senators get what they want from Republican leadership. And that's simply an answer we don't have yet, Wolf.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Phil Mattingly, thanks very much for that.

Let's get back to our panel.

And, David Swerdlick, we remember that one of the cosponsors, co- authors of this legislation, Senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, himself a physician, he's now in this running battle with Jimmy Kimmel.

I want you to listen to this exchange. Let's listen to Jimmy Kimmel last night.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JIMMY KIMMEL, COMEDIAN: I don't know what happened to Bill Cassidy, but when he was on this publicity tour, he listed his demands for a health care bill clearly. These were his words, he said he wants coverage for all, no discrimination based on preexisting conditions, lower premiums for middle class families and no lifetime caps. And guess what? The new bill does none of those things.

Stop using my name, OK? Because I don't want my name on it. There's a new Jimmy Kimmel test for you, it's called a lie detector test. You're welcome to stop by the studio and take it anytime.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: Senator Cassidy was on CNN's "NEW DAY" this morning. He disputed all of those arguments, who's right?

DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, so I think we still need to get the CBO score and still need to get some of the facts.

But look at this way, Wolf, if Republicans had a magical bill already that brought down premiums, that expanded choice and competition, and that also, you know, covered everybody in the same way the Affordable Care Act does, which Jimmy Kimmel seems skeptical of, they would have introduced it not at 15 minutes to midnight here right before the September 30th deadline. And I think that's why Kimmel is pushing back so hard.

At a minimum, you talk about these, even for people potentially -- I read one analysis that said even for people who have employer-based plans, which most people have, there might be lifetime caps on coverage. That is certainly not something that fits in with what Senator Cassidy earlier about his proposal.

BLITZER: You know, we heard, Kaitlan, we heard that President Trump today say he's upbeat. He thinks it will still pass. There's only a few days left, September 30th is the deadline.

I don't see him taking a lot of direct efforts to engage in this process, sort of delegated the vice president to do it.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Yes, that's true and that's what's often happened in this whole health care battle since Trump has been in office. But a White House official told me just yesterday that they had been working with Senators Graham and Cassidy for weeks on constructing this bill before they introduced it last week. We know that the president has been calling senators urging them really that this could be their last chance to fulfill this process that they have made for seven years to repeal and replace Obamacare.

And this morning, we saw him go after Rand Paul on Twitter, because Rand Paul is a no vote. He's already decided no vote on this bill and Trump said that he's a very negative force on health care. We also know that people in the White House are calling governors of these states, trying to get them to get their senators on board with this legislation. And the White House says if this bill makes it to the president's desk, he will sign it.

BLITZER: Yes, he certainly will. It's got to go through the House of Representatives too without any changes. That deadline continues.

You know, Bianna, what if anything can the Democrats do in various procedural efforts or other efforts to stop it if it looks like it's going forward?

BIANNA GOLODRYGA, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, I think it's caught not only some Republicans and us in the media off-guard in the sense that this is now coming down to just the final days and there's a serious chance of this passing, because just a couple of weeks ago, the odds were slim to none.

I think it caught Democrats off guard as well and I think puts people like Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer in a critical tough spot. They are the ones who have been cozying up, or the president has been cozying up to them, however you'd like to describe it as of it late. We know that health care has come up in their discussions, to see if there's any sort of compromise or any sort of amendments that they could add or change the president's mind.

[18:50:00] But it doesn't put them in a tight spot. We see people like Hillary Clinton weighing in right now. We've seen grassroots efforts as well.

But the ball is in the Republican's court right now and all eyes I would say are on Lisa Murkowski. This has turned into a soap opera and a nail biter at that.

There's a lot to be said about friendships in the Senate, and John McCain not only has the blessing of his state governor right now, but he also is very close with Senator Graham. So, ordinarily, I'd say he's the one to watch, but I think all eyes really are going to be on Murkowski and Democrats are watching as well.

BLITZER: Yes, and they can only lose two given the 52-48 majority that the Republicans have in the Senate. So, it's no surprise that the former president, President Obama, made a rare public statement today, saying in effect, without mentioning Republicans by name or Trump by name, don't do it.

SWERDLICK: Yes. Two things, one, I agree with Bianna about Senator Murkowski, right? She's not been afraid to buck her party on this issue and I think she'll be the sort of key vote.

In terms of President Obama, look, I think that was a shot across the bow today. He's very calm, studied Obama way to say, look, if you go forward with this, it's a you broke it, you brought it type of message from the president.

BLITZER: There's more news we're following, including new problems for a member of President Trump's cabinet. Democrats want to know about reports, the Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price used private jets costing taxpayers thousands of dollars.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:56:08] BLITZER: There are some travel related questions tonight about another member of the Trump administration, the Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price.

CNN's Rene Marsh is working this story for us.

Rene, the Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, he's come under scrutiny for his use of government jets. Now, Tom Price is facing some questions as well.

RENE MARSH, CNN GOVERNMENT REGULATION CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's absolutely right. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price took five work-related trips on private jets last week, paid for with money from the agency's budget and tonight, Democratic members of Congress are preparing to call for an investigation into Price's travel on private planes.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TOM PRICE, HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICE SECRETARY: That's not a way to spend the American hard-earned taxpayer money.

MARSH (voice-over): He was considered a fiscal hawk as a congressman on Capitol Hill. But now, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price is under scrutiny for flying private jets for five government trips, costing taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars more than it would have had he flown commercial.

WALTER SHAUB, FORMER DIRECTOR, OFFICE OF GOVERNMENT ETHICS: He told Congress now that a lot of difficult choices had to be made to cut down the budget. Apparently, those difficult choices didn't include inconveniencing him by having him fly on commercial air instead of chartered flights.

MARSH: Last Wednesday, Price flew on a private jet from the D.C. area to Maine. The next day, he flew from New Hampshire back to D.C. And last Friday, Price flew the short hop from D.C. to Philadelphia and back again on a private jet.

In 2009, Price slammed members of Congress and the use of tax dollars to fly on private jets.

PRICE: This is just another example of a fiscal irresponsibility run amuck in Congress right now.

MARSH: Speaking of Price's recent flights, a health and human services spokeswoman said in a statement, Secretary Price leads a $1.2 trillion agency, the largest agency in government. The travel department continues to check every possible source for travel needs including commercial. But commercial travel is not always feasible.

The agency also says with Price's tight schedule, they cannot risk flight delays or cancellations that are possible on commercial flights. The agency also cited security concerns.

SHAUB: It's very unusual for a secretary of health and human services to decide he needs to take charter flights. But the secretaries of health and human services of the past were much more conservative in their expenditure of public funds.

MARSH: Price is not the only the cabinet secretary under scrutiny. EPA Chief Scott Pruitt is facing questions about his flights home to Oklahoma at taxpayers' expense, as is Treasury Secretary Mnuchin, who inquired about using a government plane for his honeymoon.

The inspectors general for both of those agencies say they're looking into all of it.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MARSH: And as you remember, Vice President Biden, he used to take Amtrak home to Delaware from Washington. We did ask HHS who signed off on the use of a private jet. And we were told that the agency's legal counsel reviewed the request and signed off, Wolf.

BLITZER: So, I guess there's just a message that goes out, just be careful and presumably, they're going to do that, right, Rene?

MARSH: You know, at this point, we know no one can say whether or not something was done inappropriately or not. It certainly does not look good, but at this point, it will be up to the inspector general's office to determine if any regulations, rules were violated.

BLITZER: Rene Marsh reporting for us, good report. Rene, thanks very much.

And to our viewers, thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Let me wish a happy and healthy new year to all our Jewish viewers out there.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.