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Obama's Nominee Makes Rounds on Capitol Hill; Interview with Senator Patrick Leahy; State Department: ISIS Atrocities Are Genocide; Lawmakers Grill Michigan Governor, EPA Administrator; SeaWorld Ending Controversial Orca Breeding. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired March 17, 2016 - 16:30   ET



[16:33:54] JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper. We're going to stay with our politics lead.

Moments ago, Judge Merrick Garland, President Obama's choice for the U.S. Supreme Court, met with Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid. The 63-year-old Garland is making the rounds on Capitol Hill, trying to get Democrats on his side and pressure Republicans to hold hearings on his nomination.

Let's get right to CNN justice correspondent Pamela Brown.

Pamela, there are some Republicans willing to break ranks just on the issue of whether or not they would meet with Garland.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: That's right. There seems to be a divide in the Republican on that front. Some Republicans are softening their positions, they're considering at least meeting in private with the president's nominee. This as Judge Garland as we saw spent his first afternoon on Capitol Hill, meeting with Democratic senators in his push for support.


BROWN (voice-over): President Obama's new Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, is meeting privately with Senate Democrats Patrick Leahy and Harry Reid, as he lobbies for support in the face of fierce opposition.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D-VT), RANKING MEMBER, JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: We could easily have the hearings, the debate, the background and the vote by Memorial Day.

BROWN: Republican leadership in the Senate is refusing to budge on giving Judge Garland a hearing, saying it's not about the person, it's about the principle.

[16:35:06] But there are subtle cracks in the GOP blockade. While Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says he won't sit down with Garland, a handful of Republicans are open to meeting with him, including some who are up for re-election, like Judiciary Committee chair Chuck Grassley. SEN. CHUCK GRASSLEY (R-IA), CHAIRMAN, JUDICIARY MEMBER: If I can meet

with a dictator in Uganda, I can surely meet with a decent person in America.

BROWN: Senator McConnell wrote an op-ed in "USA Today" saying, quote, "The American people deserve a voice in such a momentous decision." But President Obama says the voters did have a voice when they elected him. On a phone call with supporters he said, quote, "They didn't add a caveat that said we want you to be president except for your last 300 days in office, when you don't have to fulfill your duties."

On the steps of the Supreme Court today, Democrats said Republicans are putting politics above the law.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D), NEW YORK: Judge Garland is a widely respected legal mind who puts the law above ideology, exactly the type of nominee that Republicans profess to love when it comes to the Supreme Court. You simply can't lay a glove on them.


TAPPER: Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid speaking now up on Capitol Hill. Let's take that live.

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MINORITY LEADER: -- make sure Obama was not reelected, they failed miserably at that and he's going to also fail miserably at this. They cannot succeed in the position they have taken. It's just totally against the American people. So, it doesn't matter how much money the Koch brothers spend, we're going to continue with our message that all we want them to do is their jobs.

REPORTER: Senator Reid, could you talk about what the strategy is for Democrats here in the next two weeks while Republicans are back home? How specifically will you try to apply pressure to them and how do you think that that's going to be successful?

REID: A lot of the pressure is being applied by you folks. I think the stories have been commendable, recognizing what an important issue this is.

And I'm going to try to -- when I go home, I'm going to make sure that you have more o talk about. I'm going to do an event or two or three in Nevada. We already have the locations we're going to do them. I think they'll be good events.

My caucus is doing that all around the country. We have one day, I'm going to be traveling that day, and I'll have to do it long -- from long distance, where we're going to have a day of -- we have a petition signed by lots and lots of people and we're going to join with that.

TAPPER: All right, that's Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid making the case for U.S. Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland.

Let's bring in Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont. He's the ranking member, the Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Senator Leahy, thanks so much for being here. We appreciate it.

LEAH: Happy to be.

TAPPER: So, you just left a meeting with Judge Garland. Republicans say they will not hold hearings. So what is the Democratic game plan here, sir?

LEAHY: I don't think it's a game plan. We're saying the Constitution requires the president nominate somebody. He fulfilled the Constitution. They talk about advice and consent, which we've done for -- ever since there's been a judiciary committee.

But Democrats are saying we should do our job. We did when there were Republican presidents as well as Democratic presidents. We're not afraid to do our job. I think if we take a few less recesses around here and actually do what we're paid to do and vote up or vote down.

TAPPER: But do you see any sign that Republicans are going to give on this point and hold hearings? Have you had conversations with Republican colleagues that lead you to believe that if you keep up this campaign, they might actually blink?

LEAHY: I don't think it's so much a campaign or blinking. I know there's a number of Republicans I've talked with who privately will tell you they're disturbed by this, disturbed by setting any kind of a precedent like this. In fact, Senator Lindsey Graham said publicly it's a precedent, a new precedent.

I think they ought to look at the fact, for example, the Democrats were in control of the Senate in President Reagan's last term. We put through his nominee. We didn't say, well, it's your last year of your last term. We put him through.

We've had a dozen times where there's been a nominee in the last year of a president's term. We've always voted to -- you know, we've taken an oath to uphold the Constitution.

[16:40:03] Some of us sit down there quietly and say, we raised our hand to God, did we mean it or didn't we?

TAPPER: Republicans say that there are plenty of examples of Democrats blocking or making comments about not hearing a Republican nominee. There's one from you in 2004 when you said, quote, "It is a well-established practice that in presidential election years, there comes a point when judicial confirmation hearings are not continued without agreement."

Well, there isn't agreement here.

LEAHY: Let's be serious. For one thing, I spoke and it's obvious, you look at the tape of that, I was teasing those who always talk about the Thurmond Rule. We kept on having hearings.

I give you the best example, two years, or the last two years of President Bush's, George W. Bush's term, I became chairman. I was confirming his judges right up to -- just about the time we left for our own campaigns, 68 of his judges in two years. Look what the Republicans have done. They have allowed 16 of President Obama's.

We've done this, we've had right up until September of election year, we put through -- we put through judges. Look at practice. They blocked Democrats, we put through Republicans.

Let's get back and take the courts out of politics. Let's be above that. Let's worry about the Constitution, not about our political future.

Frankly, I'm sure there are some, maybe some who are running this year, that don't want to have to vote one way or the other. Well, if you get elected to the United States Senate, have the courage to vote.

TAPPER: All right. Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, thank you so much, sir. Appreciate it.

LEAHY: Thank you.

TAPPER: A contentious hearing over Flint's toxic water crisis. Lawmakers demanding multiple resignations as blame was passed around.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You had the authority, you had the backing of the federal government, and you did not act when you had the chance. And if you are going to do the courageous thing, you too should step down.



[16:46:03] TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper. Topping our World Lead today, we have seen them behead women, children, innocent Americans, drown people in cages, burn others alive and now today the U.S. State Department officially designated these ISIS terrorist atrocities as genocide.

This includes attacks against religious groups and minorities in Iraq and Syria. CNN cameras were there in August, 2014, as thousands of trapped Yazidi men, women and children desperately tried to escape, some of them on board a helicopter, to flee the deadly violence.

Let's get right to CNN's chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto. Jim, this is the first genocide declaration by the U.S. since Darfur in the Sudan 12 years ago. Will this have any impact on the U.S. campaign against ISIS?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Not the military campaign. We've asked U.S. officials, no significant effect on the military campaign. They say in the words of John Kirby today, the State Department spokesman that it will have a difference in terms of drawing attention to these crimes. This is for the sake of history. Also to unify the world

against ISIS. But even Secretary Kerry admitted today that the declaration needs to be not just words but to action.


JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: Naming these crimes is important, but what is essential is to stop them. That will require unity in this country and within the countries directly involved, and the determination to act against genocide.


SCIUTTO: To act against genocide that's the key word there. You'll hear that repeated from U.S. Officials. Now on another issue, the State Department says this does not mean that captured ISIS fighters will now be treated as war criminals.

There are separate international legal channels for that and to be clear, Jake, what the U.S. has said throughout this that they are not going to get back into the business of a big detainee operation neither in Iraq or Syria or elsewhere with captured ISIS fighters.

TAPPER: So this will or will not have an impact on how many Syrian refugees are brought from Iraq and Syria? The United States is official saying this is a genocide, one might think that would have a repercussion on that.

SCIUTTO: You think so there might be more political capital or momentum behind it, but it hasn't changed the official U.S. target. For this year, that target remains 10,000 refugees. But the fact is U.S. Officials admit they're really unlikely to make that target.

Here we are middle of March and they have only let in just over about a thousand so if that continues at that rate, they're not going to meet that 10,000 target.

TAPPER: All right, Jim Sciutto, thanks so much.

Turning to our National Lead now, the Flint water crisis front and center today on Capitol Hill along with fireworks and finger pointing as Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy testified in front of the House Oversight Committee.


REPRESENTATIVE ELIJAH CUMMINGS (D), MARYLAND: I agree that the EPA should have done more. They should have rushed in sooner to rescue the people of Michigan from Governor Snyder's vindictive administration and his utter incompetence at every level.


TAPPER: CNN's Sara Ganim is here with me. So Sara, lots of outrage. Any solutions? SARA GANIM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Everybody says that they're working hard now to fix the problem, but the issue at hand is whether they acted fast enough when they learned that the water was toxic, and for that we continue to see a lot of the blame game.


GANIM (voice-over): Governor Rick Snyder desperately trying to hang on to his job faced an angry congressional committee, especially Democrats, demanding answers for why he was so slow to react to Flint's water crisis.

GOVERNOR RICK SNYDER (R), MICHIGAN: I kick myself every single day about what I could have done to do more.

REPRESENTATIVE MATT CARTWRIGHT (D), PENNSYLVANIA: Plausible deniability only works when it's plausible and I've had about enough of your false contrition and your phony apologies.

CUMMINGS: You need to resign.

GANIM: It wasn't just Governor Snyder who faced blame. Republicans mostly focused their sights on President Obama's EPA Administrator, Gina McCarthy.

[16:50:06]REPRESENTATIVE JASON CHAFFETZ (R), OVERSIGHT CHAIRMAN: Wow, you just don't get it. You just don't get it. You still don't get it.

REPRESENTATIVE PAUL GOSAR (R), ARIZONA: Not only am I asking you to be fired. If you're not going to resign, you should be impeached.

GANIM: Snyder and McCarthy faced off in the contentious hearing, often bickering over who is more to blame.

SNYDER: Why didn't Administrator McCarthy just get on the phone and call me? This is not a technical compliance again. This is that culture that got us in this mess to start with. Where is common sense?

GINA MCCARTHY, EPA ADMINISTRATOR: I will take responsibility for not pushing hard enough, but I will not take responsibility for causing this problem. It was not EPA at the helm when this happened.

GANIM: McCarthy deflected several questions about whether the EPA did anything wrong.

REPRESENTATIVE BUDDY CARTER (R), GEORGIA: Would common sense not have told you, hey, hey, stop drinking the water.

MCCARTHY: Not at that point in time.

CARTER: Not at that point in time, at what point in time?

GANIM: As the questions continued, Flint residents protested in the hallways like they have been for months. E-mails show Governor Snyder's top staff members knew of

problems for months before action was taken and the public was warned. Some members of the committee weren't buying Snyder's claim that he wasn't looped in.

CUMMINGS: There's no doubt in my mind that if a corporate CEO did what Governor Snyder's administration has done, he would be hauled up on criminal charges.


GANIM: Now, Governor Snyder has said he does not want to resign and you saw Gina McCarthy, she's not even admitting to doing anything wrong here. Jake, you saw a lot of questioning and not a whole lot of answers.

Part of that is because there are many people who still won't talk, 15 either former or current state officials who are really part of this decision-making process who refuse to talk to the committee.

TAPPER: Any lead, any is bad for kids.

GANIM: Absolutely.

TAPPER: And we know that the state knew about it, I believe, in February and the EPA knew about it at the very latest in April.

GANIM: The state actually did testing in January, and the EPA began to receive information about that testing in February. So depending on how you look at it, yes, there were memos that detailed -- gave more details as you get into the spring and summer months. Depending on how you look at it, these officials knew for a really long time on both sides that there was something wrong.

TAPPER: And the key is any amount of lead, any amount is bad for kids. Unbelievable. Sara Ganim, thank you.

In our Money Lead, SeaWorld under fire for years announcing a major change for its killer whales. Why now? That story next.



TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper. Our Money Lead is a whale of a story literally. SeaWorld announcing today that its current generation of killer whales will be the last generation to swim in their pools. Hopefully, they think this will end its controversial breeding program.

Let's bring in CNN's Martin Savidge. Martin, this is a concession on SeaWorld's part. Why the change now?

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I mean, this announcement just to put it in perspective is as big as the creatures that it's about, orcas, because it is huge. Up until now and actually since the '70s the orcas have been the star performance at SeaWorld.

However, there has also been growing controversy over the fact that keeping them captive has been at first upsetting animal advocacy groups, but it was the CNN film documentary "Blackfish" that brought to the forefront and explained this whole controversy of how captivity may be actually corrupting the minds of these creatures.

That's when things began to change. The ticket prices began to go up, the attendance began to go down, the stock value went down and SeaWorld finally got rid of its former CEO and got a new one and that's when everything changed.

And the announcement today saying no more killer whales will be bred and we're cutting back on the performance shows and they are partnering with the Humane Society, which was a long-time adversary. That they're teaming up is almost beyond belief to many.

TAPPER: Martin, what's going to happen to the orcas that are currently in captivity in SeaWorld parks?

SAVIDGE: Yes, that's a big question and a very serious one because they lived for decades. Just because the program ends today, this is still going to be an issue that SeaWorld will have maybe 20, 30 years from now.

There's one still to be born. How you care for them and what is their proper lifestyle after retirement, that's a serious issue for many animal advocacy groups.

They applaud this first step, but there is a long to go and then you know the question will be raised about other mammals, say dolphins or sea lions and other acts near and dear to SeaWorld.

TAPPER: All right, Martin Savidge, thank you so much.

Self-braking cars may soon be the norm in the United States. Twenty automakers representing 99 percent of the U.S. auto market have committed to make automatic emergency braking a standard feature on all new cars by 2022.

The system uses cameras, lasers or radar to detect any possible imminent crash and applies the brakes for the driver. One industry estimate said the move could prevent nearly 10,000 crashes every year.

The Chicago Cubs are the Vegas favorite to win the World Series this year, so it looks like the predictions from "Back to the Future Part 2" might have just been off by a year or two on a couple things.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All right. Power laces, all right.


TAPPER: That was predicted for 2015, but Nike just announced that shoes with self-tying power laces will go on sale later in 2016, just in time for the holiday season. A sensor in the shoes heel detects when someone puts them on so they'll tighten around your foot just in case you have to run away from (inaudible) grandson and his (inaudible).

That's it for THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper turning you over to Wolf Blitzer in "THE SITUATION ROOM."