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GOP Hours Away from Passing Tax Reform; Soon: Investigators to Question Crew of Wrecked Train; House GOP Leaders Speak ahead of Tax Bill Vote; Senate to Vote Tonight on Tax Reform: Expected to Pass. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired December 19, 2017 - 10:00   ET



JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Good morning, everyone. I'm John Berman.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Poppy Harlow. Top of the hour, in moments, House Speaker Paul Ryan will take reporters' questions as the House prepares to vote on and very likely pass the Republican tax bill. Later today, Republicans are on the brink of handing the president his first major legislative win.

BERMAN: What will they win? A new CNN poll finds 55 percent of Americans oppose this tax bill, top the others thinking 10 points in just a month. Our David Chalian will join us in a moment to break down the new polling. But we want to begin with Sunlen Serfaty on Capitol Hill with more on today's vote. Sunlen?

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, Republicans have the support that they need in the House. They have the support they need in the Senate. All that's left for today is the actual voting. And today we'll see them move very quickly through all of this.

First the House will have their vote today around the 1:00 p.m. hour. It will pass through. Send it over to the Senate. There will be 10 hours of debate in the Senate, sometime could be yielded back to quicken up the pace of all of this but likely the Senate will be voting either late tonight or early tomorrow morning. This sets up the final bill for President Trump's signature to his desk at some point on Wednesday. In this hour we'll likely hear from Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, certainly a big day for him, a big moment for him and certainly a big legislative win for the Trump White House, the first legislative victory of the Trump administration, and not the least of which is the first rewrite of the tax code in more than 30 years. John and Poppy?

BERMAN: All right, Sunlen Serfaty for us on Capitol Hill.

With us now, CNN political director David Chalian, a big legislative win, but the American people saying in our polling that they don't want this kind of win. They don't actually like this tax bill, David?

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: That's right, John. Take a look at just the overall number of favor versus oppose. 33 percent in our brand new CNN poll conducted by SSRS, a third of Americans tested said they favor this bill. 55 percent as you noted at the top are opposed to this bill. That's a majority of the American people opposed to this bill. And when you look at that opposition number, break it up by party, and across all groups, opposition has grown.

Take a look among Republicans, 7 percent were opposed in November, now it's 13 percent. Independent opposition grew by 12 points in the last month and Democratic opposition by 10. I should note that even though Republican opposition grew, it grew even more in favor of the bill among Republicans over that same time as well.

We also asked of course whether people are seeing this bill as helping the middle class or more skewed to the wealthy and once again where you sit in partisan America tells your answer to this question. Overall, Americans see this bill as skewed towards the wealthy. Broken out by party, 60 percent of Republicans see the bill as benefiting the middle class, the way the president and Republicans in Congress say it will. Only 27 percent of Republicans say it is a bill for the wealthy. Take a look at the Democrats there. Nearly every Democrat in the poll, 95 percent say this bill is skewed to help the wealthy, guys.

HARLOW: The approval ratings for the president on this, you know, he gets this legislative win but to John's point at the top, how much does he, how much does the party actually win? The president at the lowest approval rating, David, we've seen in CNN's polling, 35 percent, and historically lower than any other president, right, at this point at least?

CHALIAN: At this point in the presidency, that's absolutely right. So that 35 percent that is a numeric low in our polling throughout the course of the Trump presidency and you see it stacked up there. President Trump against all this modern predecessors he is well at the bottom of the chart in this December of the first year at this point in the presidency. I will note though, if you look who's just above him, and although they are significantly above him, they're towards the bottom of the chart, Obama, Clinton, Reagan, they all got re- elected to a second term. There is time here for Donald Trump to improve his numbers. But that 35 percent number, Poppy, that is a number that reflects the strategy we have seen from Donald Trump this year, which is playing to the base. When you play to just that most ardent supporting slice, that's the number you get overall because you're not creating policies, positions or actions that are about broadening that support.

HARLOW: David Chalian, thank you for walking us through all of this polling. It is fascinating. We appreciate it.

We'll get to much more of it in just a moment. But we do want to take you to Washington State where as soon as today investigators will interview the crew of that Amtrak Train that jumped the tracks yesterday over Interstate 5. Three people were killed. This was the inaugural run of the Seattle to Portland route. It had just been re- routed on what was supposed to be improved new tracks for speed. Speed is where the case is squarely focused.

BERMAN: The headline here is this train was going 80 miles an hour in a 30 mile an hour zone, 80 in a 30 mile an hour zone.

CNN's Stephanie Elam there with the very latest. Stephanie?

[10:05:03] STEPHANIE ELAM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, John and Poppy. That is correct. The National Transportation Safety Board saying they were able to access that data recorder from the back of the train. That is how we know that the train was going 80 miles per hour in a zone it should have gone just 30 miles per hour. The other issue is something we keep hearing about today and that is the positive train control. And this is a system that can actually help slow down a train if it's going too fast for a certain area of track. We know that that was installed on the track by the operator of the track, but it was not operative on the trains yet and that was expected to happen in this upcoming spring. Nationwide, it's supposed to be in effect a year from now in December of 2018.

We also know from the National Transportation Safety Board that they have yet to interview the engineer. What they want to find out? Was there any human error involved? Was it a mechanical error? They plan on doing that interview with the engineer within the next day or so. And they are going to look at everything, as you might expect. They're going to look to check his or her blood alcohol. They will check to see if they were distracted by their phones, all of those situations, all of those things that could play into what happened here. This tragedy here, they're going to be investigating that. But over that, it will be about seven to 10 days before the NTSB is done with this investigation. John and Poppy?

HARLOW: And Stephanie, you know we are just starting now, right, you're hearing from some of the survivors, you had so many people on this train commuting to and from work, typical, what they thought was a Monday morning commute, et cetera. What are they saying?

ELAM: Right. And think about people who were just excited, remember this was the maiden voyage of the new Amtrak service between Portland and Seattle, right? So you have one couple who survived. They're telling one of our affiliates, Beverly Heebner and Charlie Heebner, they're 78, 79 years old. Take a listen to what they said it was like being there on that train during this derailment?


CHARLIE HEEBNER, DERAILMENT SURVIVOR: It was like being inside an exploding bomb.

BEVERLY HEEBNER, DERAILMENT SURVIVOR: All of a sudden it was just crash and there I was down, and the train went like this. There was this body lying there. I mean it was -- he hardly had any clothes on. The clothes had been ripped off him. And he was, obviously, dead.

CHARLIE: I think we were lucky to be getting out of here alive.


ELAM: And they went on to say Charlie had -- going on to say that he doesn't think it was actually luck, that they were just fortunate that they were able to make it out and that they are both alive, very, very scary turn of events for people who just wanted to take the maiden voyage because they were excited about this new train line. Poppy and John?

HARLOW: Stephanie Elam, thank you for the reporting there in DuPont, Washington. We appreciate it.

With us now is Russ Quimby, the former rail accident investigator for the NTSB. So you used to do exactly what those folks are doing now. How can a train be going 80 miles an hour in a 30-mile-an-hour turn?

RUSS QUIMBY, FORMER NTSB RAIL ACCIDENT INVESTIGATOR: Well, in this particular case, since there was no positive train control, it's all up to the engineer. And if he's distracted, asleep, or maybe medically disabled for some reason, there's nothing to prevent this kind of an accident.

BERMAN: Yes. Again, we can talk about positive train control in one second, it wasn't implemented here, probably would have saved a lot of lives or saved three lives at least and many injuries there. I still can't get my head around the fact that on this train's maiden voyage, right, you wouldn't think that the conductor would be or the engineer would be distracted on day one. That they will be extra focused. I just don't get how that could slide there, that someone could be going 80 in a 30-mile-an-hour zone?

QUIMBY: Yes. That's going to be the focus of the investigation. And I personally know the human performance investigator is going to be involved in this accident, and he's excellent, so they'll find out.

HARLOW: When you talk about positive train control, you know we were talking earlier and I said would this ever be allowed to fly, you know, if this had to do with planes, no pun intended, meaning if there was something that was known to be sort of the backup, right, the failsafe, that would stop something like this, but instead multiple crashes in the last few years that could have been stopped by positive train control, were not, simply because Congress pushed this legislation from 2015 when it was supposed to have been mandated to the end of next year. I mean, what's your read on this? Was there any legitimate reason to have pushed out the necessity and the implementation of positive train control?

QUIMBY: Well, a good part of it was technical because as upgrades kept coming on, the railroads would have to modify their systems, technical and hardware became available. The other thing, of course, was money and last but not least is the fact that you can only do things so fast. And this is a huge, huge project. This involved a lot of people and a lot of logistics. So it just couldn't go, you know, instantaneously. It was more of a software fix, this was a major project.

[10:10:06] BERMAN: You did note the train engineer has not been interviewed yet. What are the types of questions that you think are essential to answer here.

QUIMBY: Well I think a part of that is going to be when the recorder gets downloaded and they can see what he was doing. It will tell them something about whether he was responding before the curve, such as blowing the whistle for crossings and things of that nature, making a throttle manipulations, did he attempt to do any kind braking at all. And once they get that background information they can focus the questioning more -- be more focused and ask him specific questions. It will take a little while for the toxicology tests to come back to see if he had any drugs or alcohol in his system. They'll also find out if he was on any particular medications and if he was taking his medications. They'll do a 48-hour history to determine whether he had what kind of work/rest cycle he did. They may even question his family.

BERMAN: All right. Russ Quimby thanks so much for being with us. Appreciate it.

QUIMBY: You bet.

BERMAN: All right. Lawyers for President Trump will meet with lawyers for the Special Counsel's Office this week. That will be an interesting meeting. The White House with was hoping the probe would be over soon, but there are reports that that's not even close to being the case.

New details about how much you, the taxpayer, paid to settle sexual harassment claims on Capitol Hill, tens of thousands of dollars. We have new reporting.

HARLOW: Any minute, House Speaker Paul Ryan addresses reporters ahead of the vote in the House on this Republican tax plan. What he will say, what they will ask, how he will defend this, ahead.


[10:16:08] HARLOW: New developments this morning about how much you, the taxpayer, has paid out in claims of sexual harassment against members of Congress. We are learning all of this just coming in in the last few moments.

BERMAN: Our MJ Lee on Capitol Hill. MJ, what are you learning?

MJ LEE, CNN NATIONAL POLITICS REPORTER: Well, we're getting just a little bit of new information about this very secretive process in which sexual harassment complaints can be settled on Capitol Hill. The chairman of the House Administration Committee, Congressman Gregg Harper, says that he just received new information from the Office of Compliance about some of these cases going back some years. Now the Office of Compliance, the OOC, is the office that a member, staffer, somebody on Capitol Hill, would turn to if they had a complaint to lodge that was workplace related.

Now the new information is this, from 2008 to 2012, so in a span of five years, there were three sexual harassment related settlements. They were totaling respectively $85,000, $10,000 and $20,000, so for a total of $115,000 over a period of five years. Now what we knew previous to today was that from 2013 and onwards there was one sexual harassment-related claim that was settled through the OOC for a total of $84,000. We, of course, subsequently learned that this case was related to Congressman Blake Farenthold of Texas who was accused of sexual harassment by a former aide.

Now just to be emphatic about this, this is taxpayer dollars gone towards the settlements. This is a fund that was set up through the OOC for the specific case of settling these kinds of cases. But just a couple of important caveats on just how much we don't know still. We don't know when these settlements were made. We don't know who these settlements involved, whether it was a lawmaker or a staffer. And this information only pertains to the House. So we don't have comparable information coming out of the Senate yet.

And also, these are not just representative of the totality of the kinds of sexual harassment cases that can be and have been brought up on Capitol Hill because not everyone necessarily reports these complaints through the OOC and not all of them are necessarily settled. So it's possible that a staffer, for example, will lodge a complaint through the OOC, perhaps against a member, and then they decide to pull their case or not go through with their case through the OOC. Obviously this has been a very hot issue on Capitol Hill and a lot of lawmakers want to change the fact that there's little transparency and the fact that taxpayer dollars have been going towards these settlements. John and Poppy?

BERMAN: One thing we do know, again, it is our money. It is taxpayer money. We know its taxpayer money that we don't know where it's going those two facts alone of great concern to a great many people. MJ Lee, thank you so much for your reporting. Really appreciate it.

All right, joining us now to talk about this but also the tax bill, that will take its first major step towards passage today, CNN political commentators Angela Rye and Ben Ferguson, Also with us, CNN contributor Bianna Golodryga.

Ben, I want to start with you, you know as we wait what will be a legislative victory for the president here, you know, we are struck by the fact that his approval rating is 35 percent, right. This is the lowest ever in CNN polling, historically low for any president at this point in his term. You know your reaction to these numbers? Do they surprise you that he's doing as badly as the polling says he is?

BEN FERGUSON, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: No. They don't surprise me, but I also think that's because the president fights an awful lot with narratives and things that he disagrees with. And so, when you're adversarial like he is there are people that have strong opinions about you.

I do think thought that these numbers after tax reform actually gets passed and what people actually see what's in it and how it will affect their lives. I think you're going to see the president's approval rating go up. I mean this is going to do a lot for our economy and it's also going to do a lot for the middle class. If you're a family of four and you make $45,000, you're going to have almost $1400 tax break.

[10:20:10] That you're going to get to see when this is passed. So that's real money in Americans' pockets and that's when the poll number really matters. There's a lot of people saying look how low the president's approval rating is or a lot of Americans against this tax reform. There's been a lot of fear mongering over this tax reform as well. But members of Congress and the president, they are not going to pass something that hurts them. They're going to pass something they think the American people are going to like and be in favor of them when they see the money. They're going to be behind this and they're going to see how much it helps this economy and job growth as well.

HARLOW: OK. To Angela, but Ben to your point, if you're rich and you're making three times, you know, what the family you just mentioned is making you're going to get three times the tax cut and it's going to go up and up, in terms of the dollar amount. So the rich are benefiting a lot more than the middle class are benefiting. But I hear you that across the board people will see lower taxes for now. Angela -- those are the facts, Ben.

FERGUSON: I'm not disputing the facts but I also think you have to put it in context and this is where I think it's unfair to this tax break and what the president is doing. Look at what this does for the economy. I mean we've tried big government for the last eight years under Obama. We tried giving the government more money and taking away money from corporations, businesses, those that actually create jobs which usually are the wealthy, and also from the middle class. It was a failure of our economy. -

HARLOW: OK. All right, look stock market booming, economy booming, unemployment around 4 percent. Angela Rye to you --

FERGUSON: Exactly.

HARLOW: Right, under the plan that you didn't like. Angela, to you, this is not going to get any Democrats voting for it today or tomorrow, OK. And it's reminiscent, therefore, of Obamacare and passing strictly on partisan lines. And we've seen part of what's happened with Obamacare is there's been some issues with it, as you know, part is going to be repealed in this tax plan. What do you say?

ANGELA RYE, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I think that that's a false equivalency for a number of reasons that we don't have time to thanks to Ben's very verbose defense of this tax bill, but I will say, that you're right, it's going to be a very partisan bill. I think that what you're seeing are members of Congress who are voting their interests, their interests are a real estate tax deduction, Bob Corker selling out on this tax bill. They're interests are making sure that they protect their very rich corporate donors. Their interests are ensuring -- not that it goes to create jobs in corporations, but that these folks that are saving money on the corporate side now have those moneys passed on to shareholders.

We don't know that this bill is going to create jobs at all. We know what's been said, but we also know what's been said on the other side. I would love to get into the debate about whether or not this is Obamacare on the GOP side, but we don't have time. So I will leave it there, but I will say it's not the same thing. You have a party that's worked diligently to sabotage it to the tune of 60 plus repeal votes. BERMAN: Yielding back the balance of her time is Angela Rye. You know, Bianna, to you, you covered business and Wall Street for years. This is a huge corporate tax cut. Businesses are making a lot of money. Banks are making a lot of money. Goldman Sachs put out a study that says that the country's seven largest banks get a 14 percent increase in earnings right now. We'll come back to this in a second. Paul Ryan the Speaker of the House is talking about this right now.

REP. PAUL RYAN (R), HOUSE SPEAKER: People will see this in their paychecks before too long. Look, you've all heard us say it but it is very true, more than half of the people in this country are living paycheck to paycheck. Almost another half, are people telling us that they're about one paycheck away from living paycheck to paycheck. There's real economic anxiety in America. But there's so much potential for our people, for our country, for our economy.

Small businesses and main street businesses, that's where most of the jobs come from, they get relief in addition to the families. Workers are going to get a more level playing field. That's going to boost wages. That's going to bring more jobs back home. This is going to make such a positive difference in the lives of everyday working Americans from all walks of life. Whether this is your first term or your tenth term, this is why we are here. And this is what I'm excited about at this moment.

We, in 2016, laid out and articulated a vision for what we think is necessary to get this country back on its track. We spent all of our time together in our majority, here's what it's going to take to get America back on its feet, here's what's it's going to take to help people who are struggling, here's what it's going to take to get this economy out of the malaise it's been for a decade to get true growth to hit our potential and we're doing it today.

This is the greatest example of a promise being made and a promise being kept. It's been a long, long time. It's an honor to be Speaker of the House to see this. The last time this got done the job I had, I was working the quart pounder grill at McDonald at the intersection of Highway 14 in Wisconsin. It's a long time in coming.

[10:25:03] And that's why we're so excited to see this happen because we know this is going to help people. We know this is going to grow our economy, and we know it's going to most of all help the people struggling in this country and that's why we're very, very excited about this historic day. Any questions?

QUESTION: Mr. Speaker, this bill, despite what you just outlined, remains deeply unpopular. Any concerns that this won't translate into a political win for Republicans?

RYAN: No concerns whatsoever. I got to say if people are out there on TV telling mistruths, disguising the facts of this thing, that's going to make it unpopular. As I mentioned before and Steve shows the polling, Steve shows the polling -- sorry, it's funny when that happens, 18 percent of Americans before the Reagan tax cuts thought they would get a tax cut. Look, when you have a sling fest on TV, when pundits are slamming each other about the tax bill before it passes that's what's going to happen. But when we get this done, when people see their withholding improving, when they see the jobs occurring, when they see bigger paychecks, a fairer tax system, a simpler tax code that's what's going to produce the results. Results are going to make this popular.

QUESTION: (INAUDIBLE) On your bill, what do you think of the concepts of getting that through and what do you say to somebody talking about (INAUDIBLE)

RYAN: (INAUDIBLE) I've read the books. Look, it's a (INAUDIBLE) term. This evidence-based policy is very good reform. And by the way, it is done to get ahead of privacy protections, the board that we put together where privacy advocates as well. So what you want to do is get in front of big data to make sure that individual privacy protections are maintained with standards across all of government. But isn't it just rationale that we should measure whether or not our policies are working or not.

How many times in Washington have you seen an effort-based, input- based policy approach? What I mean when I say that is, we've seen measured success on here, especially on poverty fighting programs. How much money are we spending? How many people are going on the programs? Instead of asking the right question, is it working, are we producing the results we want to produce? Are we actually getting people out of poverty?

Well now we have the technology, now we have the data to actually allow researchers to see whether or not what we do works around here to see whether or not we're spending taxpayer dollars efficiently and given the fact that we have technology, let's get ahead of the privacy protections to make sure that people's privacy protections are protected. I do believe -- I think we can get it done.

QUESTION: Speaker Ryan, are you going to run for re-election for your Congressional seat next year?

RYAN: I am not going anywhere any time soon and just let's leave that thing at that.

QUESTION: Why did you feel compelled today to tell your rank and file members -

RYAN: Because I think - I actually think that piece was very irresponsible. It was a speculative piece and it was faulty speculation. I want to put it to rest.

QUESTION: (INAUDIBLE) Can you explain why you think this so important now (INAUDIBLE)

RYAN: Yes.

QUESTION: Some are worried that actually the risk here is on deficit spending. RYAN: It's a really good question, actually. So we have these low unemployment rates and statistics but yet we have slow growth. So how does that factor? Well look behind that statistic. What those unemployment rates are not taking into account there are tens of millions of abled body Americans who are not looking for work, who are not at work, who are not in school to get a skill to go to work.

So we are going to focus next year on people, on getting people from welfare to work, on making sure people get the skills they need to get the jobs they want and get the careers that get them the life they need. But more to the point, we have not had a 3 percent economy since before the last recession, the great recession. Tax reform will get us a 3 percent economy. And never forget the fact that in a 21st century economy we have to be competitive with our countries and when we tax ourselves basically with the worst tax code in the industrialized world, we're doing great damage to the American economy which hurts workers, which hurts upward mobility. Fixing the tax code will help us get that 3 percent economy. You get that faster economic growth, guess what? It bids up wages, it produces more careers, it pulls people who are on the sidelines able bodied people, not being counted by the unemployment statistics into the work force. That's why it helps.


QUESTION: Tim Murphy is home in southwest Pennsylvania, Blake Farenthold is going to stay through the end of next year, John Conyers is home in Detroit, (INAUDIBLE) is going to stay to the end of next year. Can you assess -

RYAN: Yes.

QUESTION: -- how these decisions get made and going forward?

RYAN: It's a completely legitimate question. First of all, each of these members makes their own decisions on how to proceed. That's why we have asked Gregg Harper and other members on a bipartisan basis to come up with standards, come up with a system. We need to update and upgrade the Congressional Accountability Act. That is now happening. You're going to see Chairman Harper roll out a slew of reforms to upgrade this law, so that we have standards, so that we have the right kind of transparency.