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GOP Leaders Scramble to Save Bill; Paul Urges Negotiations; House Bill Close to Defeat; Chemical Attack in Syria Possible. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired June 27, 2017 - 12:00   ET



[12:00:00] JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm John King. Thanks for sharing your day with us.

A very busy hour ahead, including this stern White House warning to the Syrian regime -- if you use chemical weapons again, prepare to pay a heavy price.

Up first, though, a critical meeting at this hour as Senate Republican plans to replace Obamacare teeters on the brink of collapse. The leadership plan was to pass the bill this week. But not only are Republicans short the votes to pass it, they head into a big lunch meeting this hour short the votes even to bring it to the floor for debate. At least four Republican senators who don't like the bill say absent changes thy would defy their leadership and vote no on the procedural motion necessary to start debate. The four are an ideological mix underscoring the big policy divide in the Republican ranks. Moderates Dean Heller of Nevada, Susan Collins of Maine, they say the legislation cuts Medicaid too much and will knock too many people off health insurance. Conservatives, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, they say the bill still has too many federal mandates. Johnson is among the Republicans asking the leadership for more time.


SEN. RON JOHNSON (R), WISCONSIN: I've told them, don't jam me. We need better information at the start of the process. If you have that information, you define the problem, you set the goals, then you devise the legislation. We just do it completely backwards and we end up with this result.


KING: Let's go straight to CNN's MJ Lee tracking the health care debate on Capitol Hill.

MJ, senators heading into what could be a very critical hour ahead.

MJ LEE, CNN NATIONAL POLITICS REPORTER: A very critical hour in a week that has really been filled with bad news for Mitch McConnell and it's only Tuesday. First, we have the CBO report that came out yesterday that showed that 22 million fewer people would be covered under the Senate Republican bill. And since that point we have seen a number of Senate Republicans come out to say that they would vote against the motion to proceed on this bill. You mentioned some of them earlier. Ron Johnson, Susan Collins, Dean Heller and Rand Paul.

Now, I just want to stress for a second how significant this is. They are not only saying that they are opposed to the bill, they are saying that they don't even want to move forward to begin debate on this bill. Now, having said all of that, Senate Republican leadership still saying that they want to move full-steam ahead with a vote this week. My colleague, Manu Raju, caught up briefly earlier today with John Cornyn. Take a listen to what he said.


SEN. JOHN CORNYN (R), TEXAS: Well, I think we should vote this week. We've been debating this issue for seven years. I'm assuming we're going to be successful because, to me, the alternative is just simply not -- it's unthinkable.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: How much harder would it be if it hangs out over recess?

CORNYN: Well, I think it would be a mistake. We all have the basic information we need now.


LEE: As you said, John, this Senate lunch is going to be so critically important because as Senate Republicans come out of this meeting, we will probably get a better sense of what kind of concessions, if any, Mitch McConnell is willing to make. And will those concessions go out mostly to moderates or to the conservatives? And I think you will also get a better sense of whether some of these Senate Republicans, who have been very critical of this room -- of this bill, rather, have some wiggle room if they are willing to give a little bit. For the time being, though, John, this is a numbers game and Mitch McConnell simply does not have the math working out for him right now.

KING: And, MJ, the math was bad yesterday for Mitch McConnell. How much more complicated is it now that the Congressional Budget Office score is out there. The big headline -- there are a number of pieces of it, but the biggest headline, 22 million people estimated would lose their health insurance. Has that made the math even worse or are we essentially where we were yesterday?

LEE: Well, this was terrible news for Senate Republicans, to put it simply. You know, we were wandering the halls yesterday the moment that the CBO report came out and not a single Senate Republican could really give a good answer to how to defend the CBO score. I think that the 22 million number was worse than what a lot of Senate Republicans had expected and they're looking back at how House Republicans handled this. Remember, the number there was 23 million. So really, 22 million, 23 million, not so different in terms of just how bad this is for the coverage numbers. So for a lot of Senate Republicans you can imagine if they were already on the fence, sitting on the fence and undecided, that CBO score simply did not help their decisions.

KING: MJ Lee live on Capitol Hill for us. MJ, if you can grab any senators on the way in or out of that lunch, grab -- pull them over, give us a shout, we'll get you back on, track this breaking news.

LEE: We'll do.

KING: With me here in studio to share their reporting and their insights, Maggie Haberman of "The New York Times," Shelby Holliday of "The Wall Street Journal," and Betsy Woodruff of "The Daily Beast."

So the senators are going into what is normally their friendly Tuesday lunch, but they have an internal revolt in the Republican ranks.

Maggie, this is not only a test for Mitch McConnell, but it's a test for the entire Republican Party, which has said, we will repeal and replace Obamacare. I'm struck by the fact that even on the procedural vote, defying your leadership is a big deal. Whether the issue is widgets and gadgets or something big like repealing Obamacare, that you have four and maybe a growing list of senators willing to say, sorry, Leader McConnell, we won't even take this to the floor. What does that tell you?

MAGGIE HABERMAN, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Well, it tells me that this is not an easy thing. As we know, it has not been an easy issue for some time. And while Republicans have campaigned on repealing this root and branch for, I think it's three cycles now, it is not that easy. There are some voters, as we saw during the 2016 cycle, who really don't like Obamacare. Who -- I spoke to a lot of voters at the time, Trump supporters, who would say, the reason I like him is, I am opposed to Obamacare. You have other voters, in states like Arkansas, Tom Cotton's state, who say, I like Obamacare. It has been good for me. It has help me get insurance. You make no mistake about this, when you change an entitlement program, it is incredibly hard because you are taking something away from people and that is what you are seeing. This is not just a procedural vote. This actually involves a human toll.

[12:05:30] KING: Right. And part of this -- the success of the Republican Party is, there are more of them, and what -- but what -- but when there are more of them, they're from different parts of the country.

HABERMAN: That's right.

KING: So you have people from the rural states who are dealing with this Medicaid issue. You have Susan Collins from Maine, a moderate anyway, but from a rural state tweeting out after the CBO came out yesterday, "I want to work with my GOP and Democrats colleagues," the Democratic part's not going to happen, but "Democratic colleagues to fix the flaws in the Affordable Care Act. CBO analysis shows Senate bill wont' do it. I will vote no. That's on the procedural motion. The CBO says 22 million people lose insurance. Medicaid cuts hurt most vulnerable Americans. Access to health care in rural areas threatened. Senate doesn't fix ACA problems for rural Maine. Our hospitals are struggling." Here's a Republican who says she's on the fence, but she's helping,

helping opponents make the public case that this bill is not worth it.

BETSY WOODRUFF, "THE DAILY BEAST": Exactly. And the fact that the CBO director was so critical of this legislation cuts really close to Republicans. Many health care -- Republican health care wants push really hard back at the end of 2014, beginning of 2015, to get rid of the Obama era CBO director and bring in somebody who'd be more conservative. They wanted someone who they thought would be helpful if they ever found themselves in the situation where they're in, where they have a chance to repeal it. But now the CBO is basically knifing them over it and it makes it more awkward for them to call the CBO fake news.

SHELBY HOLLIDAY, "THE WALL STREET JOURNAL": I also think it's really striking that the narrative is all about the top numbers at the CBO report. The number who will lose -- the 22 million who would lose insurance or be left with no insurance, and the deficit number. But people aren't so focused on that. If you read into the CBO report, you see that premiums are expected to rise for the next two years, but they're also expected to fall. Republicans have just totally lost control of the narrative here. All they hear are Democrats attacking them for this bill, killing people, and looking at the number of people who would not have Medicaid. Regardless of the phase-out and the number of years people would have to figure it out, Republicans just simply aren't making the case for why they want to overhaul health care in the first place.

KING: I think losing the narrative part is very important because you do have Speaker Paul Ryan, the philosophical conservatives, saying, of course more people will have -- of course fewer people have health insurance because we're dropping the mandates. We're going to leave this up to people. And if they exercise that choice, the more people will not have health care. But many Republicans don't want to make the argument.

I want to bring into this debate Rand Paul. One of the big stories in American politics a few years ago was that Rand Paul, a Tea Party guy, knocked off Mitch McConnell's candidate in the primary, that somehow made detente, if not peace, with the majority leader and his fellow Kentuckian. Well, Rand Paul, number one, is mad at the leadership. Listen here. He says, if they want to cut a deal, they need to negotiate. So why aren't they calling me?


SEN. RAND PAUL (R), KENTUCKY: So far the Senate leadership is not negotiating with our office. I'm trying to negotiate with the president. But really the president is going to have to tell leadership they're going to have to negotiate with some of us who don't see this bill as being good for the country.


KING: He says leadership. He doesn't name his home state senator by name. But, guess what, Senator McConnell wanted the president to stay out of this, to let him do this as an internal Senate deal and then maybe help at the last minute. Rand Paul's on his way to the White House to meet with the president.

HABERMAN: Right. Right.

KING: That is another poke at Leader McConnell. You're elevating the president in a debate when many of those more moderate members don't trust the president in this debate because of what he did on the House side, celebrate the bill and then call it mean.

HABERMAN: We have seen Rand Paul over many years do what is sort of politically crafty in terms of his constituency. I don't think it's really a surprise that you see any politician act in their own interests. He has, as you say, decided that the leader -- that the interest of the Senate majority leader is not necessarily his.

Rand Paul is actually very good historically at seeing where something is about to head --

KING: Right.

HABERMAN: And I think that this is part of why he is such a significant indicator. This is a meeting that he is having with the president that I'm told by a Senate aide was requested by the president, which is also interesting --

KING: Right.

HABERMAN: Because the president has been comparatively pretty hands off. If you think about how he was on that very first go around on the AHCA, the one that didn't get voted on, the president did not do -- you know, the president -- excuse me, was very involved. He did a lot of arm-twisting. They found that that was not necessarily the best approach to have him so publicly expend so much capital. He's been a little more behind the scenes here. But I think you are right, you are seeing the schism not just between Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell but the president and Mitch McConnell.

WOODRUFF: What's also important to remember with Rand Paul as well is that in McConnell world he was viewed as ungettable. In the lead-up to this health care bill coming together --

HABERMAN: That's right.

WOODRUFF: They basically started with the assumption that they only had 51 votes in the Senate because Rand Paul would never get onboard. So the fact that Rand Paul is belly-aching about them not negotiating with him --


WOODRUFF: Is actually a little surprising because it wasn't expected.

KING: Maybe disingenuous, maybe surprising, but to the calculated part --


KING: No he gets the president involved.


KING: And then others Republicans start thinking, well, if the president's involved, Mitch McConnell offered me this deal, I was about to take it, but if the president's still open for business, I can continue the negotiations. That's what happened to the first House bill where it went off the rails because everyone thought negotiating season is open.

[12:10:14] I want to get to some of the substance of this because the CBO report and the White House and some Republicans on Capitol Hill say the CBO never gets this exactly right. However, it is the official score of this legislation. And if you have to go home and explain it to people, it is hard to explain, especially older voters, key part of the Republican constituency. CBO says a 64-year-old buying the average insurance plan with an annual income in the $56,000 a year range, their net premium under the Senate Republican bill would be $20,500. Their net premium under the existing Obamacare, $6,800. That is a tough sell.

WOODRUFF: It's bad. And I think what else is important here is that for a lot of conservatives who are critical or skeptical about the Senate bill, premiums are the number one thing.

HABERMAN: Exactly.

WOODRUFF: You look at the House Freedom Caucus. You look at Ted Cruz. What they talk about, they don't talking about health care freedom, right, because that's a bad messaging point.


WOODRUFF: They talk about how the number one thing they want is to lower premiums. And numbers like that, I think it's an incredibly difficult sell. And even if premiums start going down in 2020, a lot of these guys have realize that in 2018 they don't necessarily have the luxury of saying, well, your premiums doubled this year, but in two years things will be better. That just doesn't really work.

HOLLIDAY: Well, and what's tricky too here is these older voters have more sway than younger voters. We saw this when the Affordable Care Act passed as well. The AARP is a really powerful voice but there's no sort of lobbying group for younger people. And younger people are much better off under this health care bill. But -- and also insurance companies look to young people to stabilize their marketplace. So we haven't heard anything from sort of a younger perspective here. But if younger people do buy insurance, if this is more affordable, if they can get these skinny plans, maybe the markets are more stabilized, maybe premiums are better off overall. It's just somebody we don't focus on because older Americans are the ones who get hit.

HABERMAN: I think that's true and I also think though to the point of who actually gets hit in this, I keep coming back to the -- what we did here from the president in the last week on this plan, on the Senate version, which is that it's -- he not only confirmed that he had said the word "mean" about this plan. He said that President Obama had stolen that term from him. And it was a strange moment of trying to seize ownership of something that is going to be really, really complicating for members of his own party who are up for re-elect next year, both in the House and in the Senate. You now have video of the president calling this bill "mean."

KING: Right.

HABERMAN: So if you are a moderate, I mean to put aside the conservative members because we know what their concerns are. But if you were a moderate in one of these districts, in the House or in a purple state, has a vote next year for their own seat, do you want to be explaining why you walked the plank for something that the president himself has calmed "mean"? I think that that is complicated.

KING: Right.

HOLLIDAY: It also makes it tricky because he called it mean, yet he wants to say the CBO report isn't true.


KING: Right.

HOLLIDAY: And when you call a bill "mean" based on a CBO report, you get yourself in a little bit of trouble.

HABERMAN: I am stunned that the president has said both things about one thing. That has never happened before.

HOLLIDAY: Can't have it both ways. It's tough.

KING: Only two. That's progress.

In the Senate -- and I'm also interested when you look at those numbers for the -- that was his core constituency, were older Americans, and he --

HABERMAN: That's right. That's right.

KING: He, rightfully so, looked at the map of how he won Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, hold Ohio, Michigan, a lot of older Republican voters there and this is a tough sell for him. So we'll see if the negotiations --

HABERMAN: That's right.

KING: We'll come back to health care in a few minutes.

But next, a White House warning to Syria. The White House says it's been watching, thinks the regime is prepared to use chemical weapons and says, if it does, it will pay a heavy price.


[12:17:58] KING: Welcome back.

Russia and Iran are pushing back after a stern Trump White House warning to the Syrian regime. In a statement last night, the White House said the United States sees evidence the Assad government may be planning another chemical weapons attack on its own people. The White House said the U.S. military operations inside Syria are, at the moment, directed at the Islamic state, but warned, quote, "if however Mr. Assad conducts another mass murder attack using chemical weapons, he and his military will pay a heavy price."

Barbara Starr is live at the Pentagon now with more on just what prompted this unusual White House warning.

Barbara, who saw what I guess is the big question.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: It is indeed, John. And let's start with last night. It was late last night when the White House issued this very unexpected statement that you just referred to causing a lot of questions about what was going on. And what we know now this morning is that the U.S. has been watching intelligence at a Syrian air base. And for the last several days they've seen activity there that suggests another chemical weapons attack was being planned over the last 24 hours. And that leads us to the statement last night, growing, urgent concern.

There was a Syrian aircraft there. There was the possibility of chemical weapons being loaded on to that aircraft. A possibility. And that is what led the White House to put this statement out, taking a much different tact than we'd seen perhaps in the past, trying to say bluntly to the Syrian regime, to Bashar al Assad, we see you, we know what you're doing, don't do it, there will be a price to pay. But also sending a message to Moscow, saying, use your influence with Assad and get him to pull back.

So where we are now is the U.S. military watching this base very, very closely to see what next steps Assad may take. And if he were to take additional steps, if it does look like there's some tact really in the works, that's going to lead to a lot of questions. What does the president do, because now he's put the world on notice that they see the possibility of an attack, and what would a Trump White House do to stop a chemical weapons attack. Sounds an awful lot like the old Obama red line.


[12:20:10] KING: It certainly does, Barbara.

Barbara Starr at the Pentagon. Barbara, keep in touch as we learn more about this.

Let's come into the conversation. To Barbara's point, President Obama drew a red line and then didn't enforce it and undermined his credibility not just with Syria policy but across the Middle East. This president initially sounded reluctant to project American military force, especially in places like Syria. But, obviously, did respond after the last chemical strike. We'll hear more from the president.

But what struck me last night, the White House issues this unusual statement and then we've watched this foreign policy team and how it plays out. Nikki Haley, United Nations ambassador, takes it a step forward. The White House statement is directed at Assad and at the regime. Nikki Haley says, "after any further attacks done to the people of Syria will be blamed on Assad, but also on Russia and Iran, who support him killing his own people." That is tough rhetoric from a White House that, I guess, is diverted here more muscle than we anticipated?

WOODRUFF: There's an emerging perception that Nikki Haley is kind of freelancing here when it comes to some of these statements that she's made, particularly on Iran. Her statement last night was also important because it's like she's laying down her own red line almost analogous to what Obama did during the Assad regime. And so her credibility is really on the line here in terms of what the United States does, if Assad uses chemical weapons again. So that was really consequential.

Speaking more broadly, though, I think one of the essential questions here is, what is our Syria policy? Part of the reason that Obama had so much trouble with Syria is that his administration never really laid out a Syria policy in a clear, coherent way. The Trump administration also has yet to do that, and that causes some confusion and stress.

HOLLIDAY: And pushback from Congress. You saw after that cruise missile strike, which gained bipartisan support, a lot of people in Congress said, great, but we need to talk about this in Congress. We need a plan. We need to be in on this if you want to move forward.

I also think it's interesting to note Russia's response and Iran's response to this message last night. Russia said, we know of no intelligence. You know, we have no idea what you're talking about. But Iran's foreign minister came out this morning with some really provocative tweets saying this is a dangerous escalation by the U.S. And, you know, we all talk about the Russia stuff, the investigation, and Comey and the ongoing Mueller probe, but this is actually a huge, physical, tangible source of tension between the U.S. and Russia and how it plays out, could overcome (ph) them (ph).

HABERMAN: That's right. Yes.

KING: And Trump and Putin -- and Trump and Putin are a week away from their first meeting.

HABERMAN: Yes, that's right.

KING: And there's been a lot of tension over how big of a deal to make. The Russians want a full (INAUDIBLE). They want pictures. They want respect. They want stature on the world stage. The inclination seems to be that the president favors that as well, but some are arguing, you know, do this as a pull-aside, which for those of you out in America, it's diplomatic speak but just, you know, fewer cameras, a shorter meeting, not a big -- not big fanfare. But, to your point, there are questions about the investigation and

everything, but this is a huge substance question about, can the United States and Russia at least do business -- they don't have to love each other, but can we do business on important stuff?

HABERMAN: I think the problem here, and this is a really important point as Syria and Russia, is that -- and the investigations is, we have seen this president very reluctant to fulsomely and consistently say, yes, Russia did try to meddle in the 2016 election. He's only said it really in the context -- or repeatedly in the context of blaming the Obama administration.

KING: Right.

HABERMAN: There is plenty to hold the Obama administration accountable for in terms of Syria and also in terms of how they responded to Russian aggression. There were mitigating factors, they -- there was no great answer. But it is now on President Trump to decide what to do. And his decision to stay away from definitively saying, this is what happened in our past, has really delayed and deferred a lot of decisions on everything relating to Russia geopolitically. Among them, a coherent Syrian policy.

KING: Right.

HABERMAN: And so that is really where you see this going ahead. But the only -- one of the many questions about this potential meeting and what it might look like with Vladimir Putin is, not just who's there, which cameras attend, exactly what aspect (ph) it falls under, but what exactly do they discuss and how aggressively will the president -- will the United States president speak against Russian aggression in that meeting. And there are so many other things that have to be answered before you can even get to Syria policy that I think that's the problem.

KING: And one of the -- when the president did launch the cruise missile strikes against this air base, again, he's the new president. We're a little more than five months in.

WOODRUFF: That's right.

KING: It's crises or tests like this where we learn from. But we did see there, we still don't have a coherent Syria strategy, but we did see there a very personal president in the Rose Garden talking about how watching the images of the killed and maimed children affected him.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: When you kill innocent children, innocent babies -- babies, little babies -- with a chemical gas that is so lethal people were shocked to hear what gas it was, that crosses many, many lines, beyond a red line. Many, many lines.

That's a butcher. So I felt we had to do something about it. I have absolutely no doubt we did the right thing. And it was very, very successfully done, as you well know.


[12:25:09] TRUMP: We over say this, but the job dos changes people, especially people who haven't been involved in this. And I guess the strong statement last night, combined with if you listen to the president's emotional reaction back to when this happened, it doesn't leave any doubt in my mind that they mean this.

HABERMAN: I think they mean it. I don't know that -- I think it's a little too soon to say the job has changed him. I do think that you can look at circumstances that are in front of him and I do think that when you -- when you had those strike -- the Tomahawk missile strikes in Syria that was a significant moment for him. And I think it's what he thought the presidency was going to be, which was you take these actions and then people respond to them.

KING: Right.

HABERMAN: I'm not sure what that means on a grander scale.

KING: He didn't get the response, right.

HABERMAN: Correct.

HOLLIDAY: To Maggie's point too, I'm not sure the job has changed him, but it's interesting to watch how he emotionally reacts to the situations and in turn shapes policy because of that. For example, he's talked about the dreamers and he doesn't want to tear people away from their families. He talks about people losing health care. He doesn't want to leave people dead on the streets. He does have this emotional connection to certain policies and, as a result, will say things to his benefit or not, such as the health care bill is mean. But it does pull on him.

KING: Right. It's more -- he has a more visceral reaction than a printed playbook to follow as h goes forward.

HABERMAN: H has a reaction that people in New York City would think of as sort of a big government type of mayoral reaction, frankly, over many years that I think he learned watching mayors in New York.

KING: Mayors -- that's a great observation.

Up next, Speaker Paul Ryan calls repealing Obamacare a signature Republican issue. So what price, then, if the party can't deliver?