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Supreme Court to Hear Obamacare Provision Case; Winter Weather Threatens Holiday Travel

Aired November 26, 2013 - 13:00   ET


JIM ACOSTA, CNN ANCHOR: We start with the Supreme Court agreeing to hear another appeal over the Affordable Care Act. This one centers on contraception. The Obama administration is appealing the decision in a case brought by the Hobby Lobby store chain. A federal appeals court said Hobby Lobby has the right to refuse to provide mandated coverage for birth control without a copay to its employees. Hobby Lobby's owners say that mandate is at odds with their religious beliefs. The Supreme Court will review that provision in the Affordable Care Act. That is what is at issue here.

Let me bring in CNN Legal Analyst Paul Callan in New York to talk about this. Paul, it does not sound like, from all of this, that the entire law is at risk here, that it's in peril. So, what exactly -- we did sort of lay out what the court is going to look at. Is it -- is it possible that this provision of Obamacare could be thrown out?

PAUL CALLAN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, it's possible. I mean, the big surprise here is the Supreme Court, you know, already heard this monster case about the Affordable Care Act, upheld its constitutionality and now here we are a year later, they're taking another case. And this is an important provision of the law, because it says basically that you have to provide certain kinds of coverage such as contraception and now along comes this corporation. And they're basically saying, hey, we're a person under the constitution. And they're really claiming that a corporation has the right to have religious beliefs which --

ACOSTA: And that --

CALLAN: -- hasn't been decided by the court previously.

ACOSTA: Right. And that's the crux of the issue here. Hobby Lobby is -- you know, they are closed on Sundays for their religious beliefs. So is Chick-fil-A. There are other companies that do I guess express their religious beliefs in their business practices. I guess what is legally wrong with Hobby Lobby saying we just object to this part of the law. We're not going to abide by this provision of the law. Why can't they just do that?

CALLAN: Well, I think the weakness, of course, in their argument is that we generally don't let corporations cherry pick certain provisions of laws and say, well, we're not going to abide by that because our religious beliefs prohibit this. We just haven't recognized that previously in this country. However, there is, Hobby Lobby says a precedent, Citizen United of course, which is that famous case involving funding of political campaigns by corporations. The Supreme Court there said, hey, a corporation is a person and has a right to political views. So, if they can have political views, why not religious views says Hobby Lobby. And the Tenth Circuit which is a big federal district out west, Colorado, Oklahoma, Kansas, Wyoming, agreed with Hobby Lobby sort of forcing the Supreme Court to take a look at this issue to see if there's any legitimacy to the argument.

ACOSTA: OK. Paul Callan in New York. Thank you very much.

Another threat to Obamacare. We bring in our Political Director CNN's Mark Preston. And here it is, another headache for the Obama administration over Obamacare. It sounds like, from what Paul Callan is saying, the entire law is not at risk. That was the big issue that we were dealing with last summer, as you know. But no question, you know, with all of the other issues with Obamacare right now, it's one more thing. This is not something that they want to see right now.

MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Well, not something they want to see but it's one of these political issues that could actually become beneficial perhaps to Democrats heading into the midterm elections. We've already seen the White House comment on it. In fact, let's take a like look, Jim, at what the White House has just released. They don't often, you know, talk about Supreme Court cases but here they are right now.

Earlier this year, the Obama administration asked the Supreme Court to consider a legal challenge to the health care's requirement that for profit corporations include birth control coverage and insurance available to their employees. Basically, what the White House is saying right now that it is essential to the law and essential to women's health. This becomes a very big issue heading into the midterm elections because Democrats are going to talk about reproductive rights while you are going to see a certain segment of the Republican Party talk about maintaining values and not be supportive of birth --

ACOSTA: And remember last year during the presidential race, during Congressional elections, this was a major land mine -- you know, mine field for the Republicans on this issue. We saw a variety of Republican candidates go down in flames basically because they tangled with this issue of contraception and the Democrats found themselves on top. Let me ask you about these poll numbers that have come out this morning, the new CNN ORC poll numbers which basically show that, you know, after the shutdown occurred, most Americans out there, they preferred to have Democrats in control of Congress.

Now, because of Obamacare, it's almost a complete -- let's look at this poll. The CNN ORC poll shows Republicans now have a 49 to 47 edge over Democrats in a generic 2014 match-up. A month ago, look at these numbers, look at the change. Democrats held a 50 to 42 advantage over the Republicans who, of course, took heat for the debt ceiling and the government shutdown. Mark, what does this mean? I mean obviously this is the Obamacare effect on the Democratic Party. PRESTON: And it is. And it's interesting, just a month ago, Democrats were very gleeful that, you know, when they were talking to you and talking to me, they said, we're so happy. The Republicans have really dug themselves a big hole. They're not going to get out of it. Well, it appears like Democrats have reached down into the hole and they have pulled the Republicans out of it with the idea that the health care rollout has been an absolute disaster. The Web site doesn't work. We will have Kathleen Sebelius, the head of HHS, on the phone as we speak right now talking to reporters --

ACOSTA: Right.

PRESTON: -- trying to it out (ph) it. Democrats are nervous in Congress right now. We've seen that for many of them. And let's not forget, heading into the midterm elections, specifically in the Senate, there are several senators that are in danger of losing their seats. If Democrats lose, you know, five or six seats, they lose control.

ACOSTA: And I've talked to administration officials who believe that once they get the Web site fixed that not all of their problems will be solved but things are going to get much better. And that when people start to see that this law is working and that the Web site is working, yes, there are these folks who lost their health care coverage and that was not good for the president but they feel like some of this could stabilize. Do you think that there is some truth to that?

PRESTON: I think that's true. But the one problem right now though that you have to take into account for the Democrats is that the narrative is being drawn right now. So, even if it does stabilize, there's still going to be an after effect. There is still going to be ill will towards this law and there's still going to be the Obama administration trying to explain it and trying to get Democrats to be support of it. Even though Democrats are there, the real problem for them though is those independent voters, right? They're the ones in the middle that are going to decide the election. They don't want a bad taste in their mouth. And that's why the Obama administration is really working hard to make this work.

ACOSTA: That's right. And before the Democrats were talking about maybe we can take the house in 2014. Now, it's the Democrats saying, boy, let's hope we can hold onto the Senate in 2014.


ACOSTA: In the next few days, 10s of millions of people will hit it the roads for the Thanksgiving holiday. But rain, sleet and snow, that is also on the menu. You might want to rethink your plans. We'll show you where the trouble spots are coming up next.


ACOSTA: This year might be the year for people to start rethinking those Thanksgiving traditions. Stay at home, maybe consider not going to grandma's house, although that won't be the case in my household. Unless, of course, you like to battle airport delays, cancellations, icy roads, car wrecks. That is what many of you have been dealing with already. And guess what? More of this is on the way, especially in the Northeast. We've seen snow across the Midwest and into the Mid-Atlantic, and while the south has also seen some snow, rain and ice. And for everyone, even if you're being careful, traveling has been treacherous. We've already seen that today.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I got on the highway and the next thing I know I'm spinning.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There's a point where there's just nothing you can do. It's just glare ice and you're just a passenger in your own car.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What do you have to say to Mother Nature right now?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't know. I can't -- I don't want to say that on T.V.


ACOSTA: Now, that's just part of the storm story. We have our Alina Machado watching dangerous roads and heavy rains in Atlanta. Our Shannon Travis braving the snow outside of Pittsburgh and our Chad Myers is in the CNN Severe Weather Center.

Chad, let's start with you. What are the dangerous areas right now that people should be aware of?

CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: It's Pennsylvania and upstate New York right now. But there's an awful lot of rain still coming down in the Shenandoah Valley and parts of just west of D.C. and it's 33. When the sun sets, it's not going to be 33. It's going to be 32. It's going to be 31. And that's going to freeze. So, yes, we're still seeing is the snow up here across Pennsylvania. I mean, Altoona, Dubois, all these areas here, that's all snow and all coming down.

What you're seeing with Shannon is some of the melting on the roadways but that melting will stop when the sun sets. That's Pittsburgh. And everything else all down here, that's all rain. And you think, oh, it's just rain. That's no big deal. Well, this is a map of Atlanta in the rain. Here's the center of Atlanta right there. That's what we call the perimeter. And here's one major artery, I-85, shut down right there because of two tractor-trailers that collided just northeast of Atlanta, Georgia. Probably shut down in the southbound direction until 3:00 p.m. Look at your clock. That's a ways away.

Here comes the rain. Charleston back into -- even rain can make a big problem. And here's the snow back into parts of Ohio, back into Pittsburgh, still snowing there. And that snow will continue for a lot of the day. I don't think we're going to get a lot of changeover here in upstate New York. This is where the bulk of the snow will be. For a while, the rain will come into our forecast for New York City, even into Philadelphia. And I think that stays rain. I-95 stays rain but everything west of there, west of probably 84, 81, especially right through you, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse. That's all snow all the time.

ACOSTA: That looks like a big mess. All right, Chad, thank you very much. As Chad said, Pittsburgh and its surrounding areas are already experiencing some flurries. And when all of this, you know, stops melting later tonight, it could ice up and get even worse. Our Shannon Travis has been out braving the roads. He's in Irwin, Pennsylvania, about 22 miles southeast of Pittsburgh. Shannon, how is it looking out there? You don't look too happy right now.

SHANNON TRAVIS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, not so happy. And, Jim, if you're one of those folks who thinks Thanksgiving isn't quite the Thanksgiving without a little snow, consider this Mother Nature's gift. As you mentioned, we're in Irwin, Pennsylvania, about 20 miles outside of Pittsburgh. We're on Interstate 76. It goes right into Pittsburgh.

As we were driving in, there was nothing essentially, Jim, but just like annoying rain. But when we got here, there was this. This snow coming down. It isn't coming down so heavy right now but it's been coming down fairly steady. I'm going to use a very unofficial ruler, my finger, because I left my trusty ruler at home. But it's getting pretty deep as you can see it on here. I a few minutes ago, only half my finger stuck down in there, Jim. And now, it's almost the whole thing. We estimate, very unofficially, about three inches or so. We are in Irwin, as I mentioned. This is in West Moreland County. Pittsburgh is nearby. That's in Allegheny County. Obviously, they are getting hit. They're under a winter storm warning right now, potentially forecast five to nine inches possibly there.

I spoke to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. They tell me that in the county, they're going to deploy about 80 trucks, 135 crews. They'll be working in 12 hour shifts back to back in (INAUDIBLE) Ohio. Get this, Jim. I spoke with an official there. They told me that they've dropped over 21,000 tons of salt across the state for the season so far. So, get ready for Thanksgiving and a very white Christmas probably also.

ACOSTA: OK. And our Chad Myers might take exception to your scientific methods out there, Shannon Travis, in terms of your measuring the snowfall. But we appreciate it very much. Thanks for that live look in the very important Pittsburgh area. A lot of people travelling through that area this time of year.

One of the areas also feeling the weather right now and what's happening is the Atlanta area. As Chad mentioned, Alina Machado is there standing outside in the cold and rain -- I'm sorry to hear that, Alina - near Interstate 75 and 85.

It's above freezing rights now. Could that change? What does that mean for the folks in that area? Because there's a lot of people, as we know, moving through those highways over the next 24 hours.

ALINA MACHADO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jim, a bit of good news. It appears that the temperature will stay above freezing. So all this water that we've gotten so far today will not be freezing anytime soon.

Take a look at the scene behind me. This is a major thoroughfare here. You can see traffic is starting to build. And this is what we're going to be seeing throughout the south. People seem to be slowing down, taking it easy. And that's exactly what you need to be doing in these weather conditions.

Here in Atlanta, we're getting rain. If you head a little bit north, you're going to be getting a little bit of a mix of sleet and rain and possibly some ice and snow. So it all depends on where you're going to be.

But wherever you are, you can expect to have plenty of company. The AAA says there's going to be more than 43 million people expected to travel for the Thanksgiving holiday. About 90 percent of those people will be getting in their cars and driving somewhere. So, Jim, the bottom line is, take it easy on the roads. Make sure you know what the forecast is like where you're going. And if you're not - if you're heading out today and maybe see that you're going to be running into some trouble with this storm, you might want to consider leaving tomorrow depending on where you are throughout the country.

ACOSTA: All right, very good advice. Thank you very much to all of our folks watching the weather, Chad Myers, Shannon Travis and Alina Machado. All of you, please stay safe and have a happy Thanksgiving. Thank you very much.

Still ahead, if you're worried about getting stranded because of the storm this week, don't panic. Up next, we will get some great advice on how to avoid the worst case scenario.


ACOSTA: The storm bearing down on the East Coast has the potential to delay or strand millions of air travelers in the next couple of days. But if your travel plans are in jeopardy, there is something you can do about it. Rick Seaney is the CEO of He joins us now from Dallas.

And, Rick, you avoid travel trouble for a living. What is your advice if someone is worried about their flight over the next few days? Is there anything that can be done about it?

RICK SEANEY, CEO, FARECOMPARE.COM: Well, it's sort of hard right now to change your reservation ahead of knowing what's going to happen in the weather. So there's two keys to getting a really good experience. And there's going to be one in five of us delayed tomorrow, which is Wednesday, and probably a little bit fewer Thursday and Friday. That means you have to get good quality information. Sign up for flight status alerts. Monitor the queues at the airport. There's tons of great tools for your smartphone. So the key is getting that good quality information. Many times even before gate agents get it. So if you have tens of thousands of folks all trying to change their plans, you want to be in that first group of those tens of thousands.

Then if you're at the airport, the thing is, is if you have a party of three or four, send somebody outside security, see if you can find one of those scarce humans at the airport to help you rebook. Get on the phone and at the same time get on that tablet and laptop and try to modify those reservations. It's going to be a huge rush of people to make those changes and you need to be first in that line.

ACOSTA: And I always bring plenty of reading material because invariably you're going to get stuck in one of these situations and you might want to have something to read on that tablet as well just to get through it.

SEANEY: Sure. Sure.

ACOSTA: But are airlines at this point likely to waive these change fees for something like this?

SEANEY: They already - sure.

ACOSTA: I mean, what do you know about that?

SEANEY: Yes, no, the airlines are already pre-waiving all the change fees. Many of the airlines have gotten really good with their own meteorologists in house to pre-cancel flights. We're already seeing some flights for tomorrow being canceled. That's good news for consumers. You don't want to be at the airport and then have this issue occur. You want to be able to plan and sort of modify your plans ahead of time. So they're trying to spread out the amount of changes that are occurring in their call centers. It's very difficult today to make those changes on a smartphone. You still need to talk to a human for the most part unless you have a laptop. Some airlines will actually let you change your reservations on a laptop.

ACOSTA: And what is - I mean what is the situation like these days? Are airports seeing more cancellations now than they have before? I mean I feel like we talk about this every year.


ACOSTA: Are the airlines and the airports getting any better at this?

SEANEY: Absolutely. The airlines do not want the news to be full of cots in airport stories. And that's why they're pre-canceling flights, they're pre-sending out status alerts and delays. I'm actually heading out tomorrow morning. I've already got a status alert delay that my flight's already delayed for tomorrow. So I'm having to pre-plan and sort of figure out what we're going to do.

ACOSTA: Those alerts are helpful. You're right about that.

SEANEY: Yes, so, I mean the bottom line is, airlines have done a much better job the last year. They're forgiving revenue for a better experience for the consumer. Overall, it's actually better for consumers. And we have to thank the Department of Transportation with three-hour tarmac rules and these 24-hour guarantees and waiving of fees. They've been much more consumer centric over the last two years.

ACOSTA: All right, I'm all for no more cots in the airport terminals. Very good. All right, Rick Seaney, thank you very much for your time. We appreciate it.


ACOSTA: Your expertise is greatly appreciated, especially this time of year.

For the latest on the weather and a unique look at the world's busiest airport, check this out, You'll want to check that out.

And Obamacare has been a source of anger and frustration for a lot of people, but for those able to get coverage, it has been a relief. We'll bring you stories of two very different Obamacare customers and that is coming up when we return.


ACOSTA: One of the other big stories of the day, Afghanistan's security deal with the United States is in jeopardy. Afghan President Hamid Karzai met with U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice on Monday. And despite the approval of the majority of Afghans elders, Karzai said he won't sign the agreement until certain conditions are met. He wants a promise from the U.S. that there will be no more raids on Afghan homes and that Afghan prisoners will be released from Guantanamo Bay, the detention center there. With the support of the White House, though, Susan Rice said that was not viable.


SUSAN RICE, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: If the agreement isn't signed properly, what I said to the president is, we would have no choice. We would be compelled by necessity, not by our preference, to have to begin to plan for the prospect that we will not be able to keep our troops here because they will not be invited because the BSA (ph) will not have been signed. And then the nature of our partnership and the investments that we have made will be more difficult to sustain.


ACOSTA: So essentially an ultimatum there from Susan Rice. A total withdrawal, by the way, would put Afghanistan at risk of losing billions of dollars in international aid.

Meanwhile, the latest effort to resuscitate Obamacare is taking place this hour. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius just finished a conference call with state and local officials. She said on that call, and this is just being reported now, she said that the site is definitely on track, definitely on track, her words, to have a significantly different user experience by the end of this month, adding that this is not a magic turn on and off switch to fix but that the experience is being vastly improved each day. Those are the words from Kathleen Sebelius on that call. So, again, another White House Obama administration official saying that that website will be ready for the vast majority of users on November 30th.