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Interview With Senator John McCain; Senate Changes Filibuster Rules; U.S. Vet Held By North Korea

Aired November 21, 2013 - 18:00   ET



SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Now there are no rules in the Senate.



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: The Senate may look the same, but it just went -- underwent a historic change in rules on approving many presidential nominees.

Republican Senator John McCain will join us live this hour. He's clearly fuming, and he's warning that Democrats may go even farther to change the rules to their liking.

Plus, new efforts under way to try to free an 85-year-old American veteran now being held in North Korea. Just as he was ending what he called the trip of a lifetime, authorities in North Korea mysteriously yanked him off a plane.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

After years of threats, the nuclear option is a reality in the United States Senate right now. Democrats blew up long-standing rules so they could stop Republicans from blocking presidential judicial nominees. Now GOP senators are going nuclear over losing a powerful tool for the minority party, the filibuster.

Under the new rules, it takes just 51 votes to end that stalling tactic, instead of 60.

Our senior White House correspondent, Brianna Keilar, is standing by, but let's go to our chief congressional correspondent, Dana Bash first.

Dana, this is a huge step for Democrats. On both sides, they have been thinking about doing this for decades. It took today for it to happen. It could come back, though, to bite those Democrats if they become the minority in the Senate.

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It sure could. Democrats know this could be a moment they could ultimately regret when they lose control of the Senate, they're in the minority and if they have a Republican in the White House, but they made the calculation that because the number of presidential nominees since the president has been in office has spiked so much, that this was the best way to go forward, for a lot of reasons, most of them, as you can imagine political.

They understand, though, if and when the shoe is on the other foot, things could be very different. They will not have the rights that they had before when they were in the minority.

BLITZER: You know, Dana, the Democrats say they're doing this to make things work in the Senate, but a lot of folks think this is only going to make that poisonous atmosphere up there even worse.

BASH: It very well could. The only way we will or maybe the best way to answer that is wait and see what the Republicans are most likely to work with the Democrats say.

But I could say that already we're hearing from some of them. And they're really angry. John McCain, for example, Lindsey Graham, who have worked across the aisle on legislation, controversial legislation, are already saying this will have a chilling effect on that. The other potential thing that could happen from this, Wolf, is that although this deal, this change doesn't include Supreme Court nominees, it's a slippery slope.

It could in the future. Somebody could raise their hand and I want to change the rules for that, or it could ultimately be changed for legislation, preventing the minority from blocking legislation, which would really change the way the Senate is run and ultimately the way things are done in Washington.

BLITZER: Yes, the ramifications are huge. John McCain will be joining us live this hour. Thanks very much for that, Dana.

Let's bring in our senior White House correspondent, Brianna Keilar.

The president knew there would be fallout. He supported this move by the Democrats in the Senate to use the nuclear option, and he came into the Briefing Room to explain why. Tell us what he said.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, he's been very frustrated. That's not been a secret for a very long time, frustrated by not being able to fill these appointments in his administration, and also these judicial appointments that really, and it's true, by when you look at the numbers, he has had more appointments blocked by the opposing party than any other president.

And here's how he explained this today.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's not what our founders envisioned. A deliberate and determined effort to obstruct everything, no matter what the merits, just to refight the results of an election is not normal. And for the sake of future generations, we can't let it become normal. The vote today I think is an indication that a majority of senators believe, as I believe, that enough is enough.


KEILAR: Now, the last few weeks here were really the breaking points -- the breaking point, I should say, three appointments blocked to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, which because it considers important federal matters, is considered second in importance only to the Supreme Court.

Of course, Wolf, there's also another thing going on here, and that that's this is, in a way, some drama that may be welcomed, as the president's administration is really sort of getting piled on because of the status of the Obamacare Web site, still not up and running, they're looking at a deadline at the end of the month and it's dragging down the president's approval ratings.

They're really looking for anything to change the subject.

BLITZER: Yes, those approval numbers are going down, including in our new poll that we released today.

The president on this issue of using the nuclear option, Brianna, he had a very different view when he was a senator from Illinois.

KEILAR: That's right. He did. He made his view known on the Senate floor in 2005 against this nuclear option.

He made it very clear he was against it then. He talked about why it's an important tool for the minority that the filibuster is a very important tool. Here's what he said.


OBAMA: But if the right of free and open debate is taken away from the minority party and the millions of Americans who ask us to be their voice, I fear that the already partisan atmosphere in Washington will be poisoned to the point where no one will be able to agree on anything.

That doesn't serve anyone's best interests and it certainly isn't what the patriots who founded this democracy had in mind. We owe the people who sent us here more than that. We owe them much more.


KEILAR: And I know that may seem hypocritical, Wolf, to some people who look at the statement today and the statement from years ago, but White House officials say it's different now, that this ballooning opposition to the president's appointments, unprecedented opposition really tips the scale in favor of the nuclear option, and that's what's different.

You just heard Dana talk about the double-edged sword here, that if Democrats are in the minority, what this will mean for them. It's interesting, Wolf. I asked Josh Earnest, White House spokesman, if this is considered by President Obama to be a temporary fix or a permanent solution, and he wouldn't say.

BLITZER: All right. Brianna Keilar at the White House, thanks very much.

Coming up, Senator John McCain, he is standing by to join us live here in THE SITUATION ROOM. As you can expect, he's pretty furious about the use of this nuclear option, and he's warning that it will backfire on Democrats.


MCCAIN: They will pay a very, very heavy price for it.



BLITZER: Senator John McCain is warning that Democrats will be -- this could come back to haunt them, this ""nuclear option"" that the Democrats used today.

The Arizona Republican is joining us now in THE SITUATION ROOM from Capitol Hill.

Hey, senator, thanks very much.

When you say this could come back to haunt the Democrats, quickly explain what you have in mind.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, R-ARIZONA: Well, if in -- - in by chance the 2014 elections give us the majority in the United States Senate, which the scenario is certainly out there. I'm not predicting it, but if that happens, then, obviously, they could see a reversal of roles. And if in 2016, we elected a Republican president, then you would see people that -- well, you know, there was Judge Bork that was blocked and a number of others, high visibility nominees that were blocked in the past, John Bolton and many others that, obviously, would only require 51 votes.

But more than that, this -- I read on the floor of the Senate today a letter that Robert Byrd wrote three months before he died about the absolute necessity of preserving the rights of the minority and how that was really the essence of the United States Senate.

I wish every one of my colleagues, particularly the newer ones -- remember that, Wolf, that over 60 percent of the members of the Senate have all -- been there six years or less -- that they could have heard the words of Robert Byrd. And if they had, I don't think we would have voted the way...

BLITZER: All right...

MCCAIN: -- we did today. BLITZER: -- listen to the words of President Obama today in justifying what the Senate Democrats did.


OBAMA: I realize that neither party has been blameless for these tactics. They've developed over years. And it seems as if they've continually escalate -- escalated. But today's pattern of obstruction, it just isn't normal.


BLITZER: Is he right?

MCCAIN: Well, you know, again, I guess it's not where you stand, it's where you sit, because then Senator Obama, in 2005, said if the right of free and open debate is taken away from the minority party and the millions of Americans who asked us to be their voice, I fear that the already partisan atmosphere in Washington will be poisoned to the point where no one will be able to agree on anything, -- blah, blah, blah.

We owe the people who sent us here more than that. So I accuse all -- many of them...


MCCAIN: -- of outright hypocrisy (INAUDIBLE)...

BLITZER: -- but what he's -- what he's saying -- and I think what Harry Reid is saying is that they -- they -- the president has three openings on the DC Court of Appeals, the second most important court in the land. And not because these three candidates that he nominated were disqualified or not appropriate, but simply because the Republicans didn't want to fill these seats and give the Democrats a bit more power in the judicial branch, they went ahead and obstructed, used filibusters, to delay their nomination.

Is that right?

MCCAIN: That's correct. And if you might look at the record, a few years ago, the Democrats, Senator Leahy, then Senator Obama, and Senator Reid, did the exact same thing.

BLITZER: So just because the Democrats...

MCCAIN: (INAUDIBLE) blocked expansion...

BLITZER: Just because the Democrats did it then, is it OK for Republicans to do it now?

MCCAIN: No, I don't think it's OK. I don't think it was OK to do it then. And we didn't invoke the "nuclear option." And I don't think it's a reason to invoke the "nuclear option" now, Wolf.

And I would also argue that 99 percent of the nominees before the United States Senate have been approved by Republicans. It's been a very, very small number, less than 1 percent, that have been -- that have been not eventually confirmed by the Senate.

And there is, as Robert Byrd pointed out, advice and consent. And now we have taken away that from that part of "The Constitution" that requires the Senate to have that prerogative.

BLITZER: You worked with the Democrats in the Senate in recent weeks on comprehensive immigration reform, on avoiding discrimination against gays and lesbians. You passed some bipartisan legislation. And I know you tried to avoid this "nuclear option" with Harry Reid. You met with him several times.

But listen to what Harry Reid, the Democratic majority leader, said today.


REID: The most important distinction is between those who are willing to solve this problem and those who defend the status quo.

How could anyone, in good conscience, defend the status quo?


BLITZER: And I know you're not defending the status quo, but -- but you are saying the Democrats will...

MCCAIN: No. But I...

BLITZER: -- will pay for what they did today. And I -- I just want a little more elaboration on how they will pay. Because the president is going get, over the next three years, assuming the Democrats stay in the majority in the Senate, all of his executive branch and judicial branch nominees cleared.

MCCAIN: Well, believe it or not, there's still quite a bit of legislation that goes through the United States Senate. And it's done on the basis of people's agreement and work with one another across the aisle.

This is -- there are going to be difficulties from time to time where cooperation was probably the case in the past and will not be now.

But right now, Republicans are going to feel -- Republicans are going to focus on ObamaCare. We're not going to be diverted by this. We're not going to shut down the Senate. We're not going to do any of those things.

We're going to focus on trying to repair ObamaCare, which is plaguing the lives of millions of Americans.

BLITZER: So when you say repair, does that mean repeal, delay?

What does repair mean? MCCAIN: I mean -- I think it means to put in provisions that are free market-oriented, that are not social engineering, taking money from people who are young and well and giving it to older people, and revamping a system that badly needs to be restructured, so that we can do, as the president promised, and that is, bend the cost care curve down and provide health insurance for every American.

We can do that, but not with ObamaCare.

BLITZER: So when you said earlier today, this changes everything, the use of the "nuclear option" by Harry Reid and the Democrats, does it -- I'm trying to get some clarification right now.

Will you find bipartisan opportunities to work with Democrats to get important legislation passed?

MCCAIN: I will when it's in the interests of the country. When it's in -- solely to the interests of the Democrats, then I think there's going to be significant difficulty. Look, I've built up friendships over the last many years with the members on the other side of the aisle. I'm very close to Carl Levin and many others. It puts a strain on everything.

But most importantly, the damage that it's done to the institution is far more severe than what has been done to either party. That's why everybody should read Robert Byrd's letter.

I'm worried more about the damage to the institution that I am, frankly, to our relationships.

BLITZER: There are some people who are now suggesting that this killing of the filibuster, if you will, on judicial and executive branch nominees, with the exception of Supreme Court justice nominees, could be expanded to also go into legislation itself.

Are you among those worried about that so-called slippery slope?

MCCAIN: I'm very worried about it. And it seems logical that if they're frustrated by the judicial nominees, they're also frustrated by the various parliamentary procedures that hinder legislation from moving forward on the floor of the Senate.

So I'm very worried that they will make that decision on that aspect of it, as well. And then we might as well merge the Senate and the House of Representatives.

BLITZER: Because some people are already saying the Senate is going to turn out to be like the House, where a simple majority rules the day.

Before I let you go, Senator, this deal that seems to be in the works in Geneva right now to allow some easing of U.S. sanctions as far as Iran is concerned, in exchange for more transparency, a freeze of their nuclear program, you and a bunch of other senators, including Democrats, are working to strengthen and to heighten some of those sanctions right now. And the administration says if you do that, that will kill this deal.

MCCAIN: Well, we have grave concerns about the provisions of this bill. I share the concerns of the prime minister of Israel. We would like to see, among other things, the Iranians acknowledge they do not have the right -- certain rights that they think that they have. That we think that the centrifuges could be dismantled, not just stopped. We are giving them some relief and they are just pausing.

We have grave concerns. And we will be looking at what happens here in the next couple of weeks.

We're going to go out of session, as you know, in Geneva. But there are grave concerns amongst many of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle.

BLITZER: So when -- you were...

MCCAIN: The right to enrich -- the right to enrich is one of those that we're concerned about.

BLITZER: So you were at the White House the other day and you -- with a bunch of Senators.

You met with the president, right?


BLITZER: Did he make a convincing case to you?

MCCAIN: He made a case, but not strong enough to convince me yet. But I'd be glad to see what their latest negotiating positions are. But not forcing them to renounce the right to enrich, I think, is a fundamental part of it, because they have lied, prevaricated and deceived.

Remember that the president of Iran now, that they call a good guy, was also the same guy that was their negotiator between 2000 and 2003 that bragged in an interview how he deceived the negotiating partners, including the United States of America. And, obviously, the ayatollah's comments yesterday were as harsh as we've heard from him in a long time.

BLITZER: Senator McCain, thanks very much for coming in.

MCCAIN: Thanks for having me on, Wolf.

BLITZER: Just ahead: the mysterious detention of an 85-year-old American in North Korea. He's been held now for nearly a month. We are going to tell you what U.S. officials are trying to do to get him out. Stay with us.


BLITZER: An elderly American mysteriously detained in North Korea. Brian Todd is following the story for us.

What's going on, Brian?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this man, Merrill Newman, is a veteran of the Korean War. His son and others believe something about that experience may well have played into this.


TODD (voice-over): He's an 85-year-old retired tech company executive from Palo Alto, California, a longtime Red Cross volunteer who had been looking forward to a trip to North Korea with a friend.

But Merrill Newman is now a captive in that oppressive country and has been for nearly a month. According to his son, Newman was near the end of an organized, heavily monitored tour of North Korea, when the subject of Newman's status as a U.S. soldier in the Korean War came up at a meeting with North Korean officials.

JEFF NEWMAN, FATHER DETAINED IN NORTH KOREA: The Korean War was discussed and my dad's role in the service. The meeting concluded. I understand that my dad was a bit bothered.

TODD: The next day, his son says, five minutes before his flight was to depart from Pyongyang, Merrill Newman was pulled off the plane. His family hasn't heard from or about him since. What could have provoked the North Koreans to do this?

Analyst Jonathan Pollack, who has been there twice, says Newman could have said something even unwittingly that set them off.

JONATHAN POLLACK, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: He could have said something disparaging about the North. He might have said something about the history of the war, because, again, as the North Koreans would have it, this was a war of national liberation. The North Koreans have all kinds of laws that they can trot out for the occasion, and with North Korea, all prices are subject to change without notice.

TODD: Secretary of State John Kerry calls Newsman's detention disturbing. Former U.N. Ambassador Bill Richardson is working his North Korean contacts to try to win his release. Newman has a heart condition.

Kenneth Bae, another American detained in North Korea, has diabetes and other illnesses.

Pollack has a warning.

POLLACK: The possibility that one or two Americans might die while being held unreasonably in captivity in North Korea is a scenario that I would think that the North Koreans would find deeply troubling.

(END VIDEOTAPE) TODD: Pollack says if that happens, the North Koreans could lose a chance at any kind of renewed contact or cultural exchanges with the U.S., which they badly want.

And he says humanitarian groups, which do so much to help the starving and sick people in North Korea, may cut that off. They also may lose some of that tourist money, Wolf, which they crave.

BLITZER: Brian Todd, thanks very much.