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White House Won't Say if Trump has Confidence in Priebus; Senate GOP Scrambling Ahead of Vote on Narrow Health Repeal; Graham: 'Skinny' Obamacare Repeal Bill a Disaster, a Fraud. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired July 27, 2017 - 17:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[17:00:04] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news, voting for voting's sake. The Senate is standing by the act of the latest Republican health care bill, but no one exactly what's in it, and Republican leaders don't want it to become law. So what is their strategy?

Family feud. Stunning White House infighting with the president's new communications director, suggesting the White House chief of staff is leaking to the news media. So who will come out on top in this very public battle?

Holy hell to pay. A dire warning from a top GOP senator amid deep concerns President Trump may fire his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, and replace him in a recess appointment. Now Sessions is speaking out about the president's humiliating criticism of him. How long is he willing to take it?

And Zinke's folly. Republican senator and health care holdout Lisa Murkowski reveals new details in what she calls a difficult call from the interior secretary, Ryan Zinke. Murkowski says it was an unpleasant conversation. Did it include a direct threat?

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: We're following breaking news. The latest effort by Senate Republicans to pass a health care bill after repeated failures. Lawmakers are now standing by to vote on still another measure. This one more limited and targeting Obamacare's mandates. Republican leaders are clear they don't want the bill to become law, but only to serve as the steppingstone to brokering a better bill with the House of Representatives.

Ahead of that, the Senate is standing by to vote on a Russia sanctions bill, this hour. The vote is on the verge of being passed the House yesterday, punishing Moscow for its meddling in the U.S. presidential election. The White House won't say if President Trump will sign the bill.

Also, the White House won't say right now whether President Trump has confidence in his chief of staff, Reince Priebus. His future is now being questioned after the new communications director, Anthony Scaramucci, seemed to suggest in a tweet that Priebus is leaking information.

And the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, now breaking his silence on the unrelenting criticism he's facing from President Trump. In a series of interviews, Sessions says the president's public shaming of him is, quote, "kind of hurtful." But he also says he will serve as long as the president wants him.

We're covering all of that, much more this hour with our guests, including Congressman Jim Himes of the House Intelligence Committee. And our correspondents and specialists are also standing by.

Let's begin with the intensifying infighting among the Trump team. Our senior White House correspondent, Jeff Zeleny, is working the story for us.

Jeff, the palace intrigue is overshadowing any message the White House is trying to get out. Update us.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, good afternoon. I mean, with a major health care debate looming with decisions on Afghanistan and other national security challenges facing this White House, that was not the subject of conversation here today in the White House, in the West Wing among top advisors.

One thing above all is consuming them. That's a family feud that appears to be worsening.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ZELENY: A new wave of drama spilling over at the White House. Less than a week on the job, new communications director Anthony Scaramucci locked in a bitter and remarkably public feud with chief of staff, Reince Priebus.

ANTHONY SCARAMUCCI, WHITE HOUSE COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: Now if you want to talk about the chief of staff, we have had odds. We have had differences. When I said we were brothers from the podium, that's because we're rough on each other. Some brothers are like Cain and Abel, other brothers can fight with each other and get along.

ZELENY: The divisions laid bare during new day where Scaramucci suggested the president's chief of staff might be the source of leaks from the White House.

SCARAMUCCI: If Reince wants to explain that he's not a leaker, let him do that. Let me tell you something about myself, I am a straight shooter. All right -- I'll go right to the heart of the matter.

ZELENY: Priebus, seen during an event in the East Room today, did not respond. And President Trump did not weigh in. Even as Priebus allies like Speaker Paul Ryan came to his defense.

REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: Reince is doing a fantastic job at the White House, and I believe he has the president's confidence. So if those two gentlemen have differences, my advice would be to sit down and settle their differences. ZELENY: Tonight Priebus's standing in the West Wing is uncertain.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders did not say whether the president had confidence in his chief of staff.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: We all serve at the pleasure of the president. And if it gets to a place where that isn't the case, he'll let you know.

ZELENY: On Twitter Wednesday night, Scaramucci picked a fight with Priebus, who had tried to block his hiring last week. Scaramucci suggested Priebus leaked his personal financial disclosure, a form that's actually public. He tweeted, "In light of the leak of my financial disclosure info, which is a felony, I will be contacting the FBI and the Justice Department." He tagged Priebus before ultimately deleting it.

Sanders downplayed the divisions inside the White House, even suggesting the infighting was a good thing.

SANDERS: This is a White House that has a lot of different perspectives, because the president hires the very best people. They're not always going to agree. We all come and have a chance to voice those ideas, voice those perspectives and have a lot of healthy competition, and with that competition, you usually get the best results.

ZELENY: But that's not how many Republicans on Capitol Hill see it, including one of the party's newest senators, John Kennedy of Louisiana.

SEN. JOHN KENNEDY (R), LOUISIANA: You have all these aides that work for the president, and they want daddy to love them best. And so they fight over turf. And they try to hurt each other. It looks to me like this is -- in this White House, it's out of control.

ZELENY: The latest clash comes after the president has spent a week expressing disappointment with his own attorney general, Jeff Sessions, whose standing also remains unclear. He talked the criticism today.

JEFF SESSIONS, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: Well, it's kind of hurtful, but the president of the United States is a strong leader.

ZELENY: Republican senators have been rushing to Sessions' aid, warning the president against removing his attorney general or Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who's leading the Russia investigation.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: If Jeff Sessions is fired, there will be holy hell to pay. Any effort to go after Mueller could be the beginning of the end of the Trump presidency.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZELENY: And Wolf, the list of people here inside the West Wing who aren't sure where they stand is growing. That divide that we've seen between Washington and the New York loyalists is still more obvious than ever, Wolf, but some supporters of this president are not pleased at all by this new tone from Anthony Scaramucci.

Newt Gingrich, a supporter of this president, he said in a radio interview that Anthony Scaramucci is being more pugnacious than effective. And he warned him to learn the business of Washington -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Jeff, thanks very much. Jeff Zeleny at the White House.

Quickly, want to go to Capitol Hill right now, where Senate Republicans are scrambling ahead of a vote on a more limited health care bill aimed at dismantling just a few provisions of Obamacare.

CNN's Ryan Nobles is joining us. Ryan, now Republican senators are openly warning House Republicans, not -- repeat not -- to pass the bill that they actually might vote for themselves in the Senate. So what's going on here?

RYAN NOBLES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Strange times on Capitol Hill for sure, Wolf. Senate Republicans right now are pushing to pass a bill that they do not want to become law. And that's the skinny repeal that we've been talking about for the past several days. They're desperately worried that, if they pass the bill and it gets sent to the House, instead of it going to a conference committee, where both House and Senate members will hash out a more grand bargain, they're concerned that the House will just pass the bill and send it to President Trump.

Now Mitch McConnell has given his members assurances that that won't happen, but Wolf, we're standing by here in the next ten minutes. A group of five Republican senators are set to have a press conference where they're going to address this skinny repeal.

And this is an interesting group. You have both moderate and conservatives in this group. Among them, John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, David Perdue of Georgia. And then the conservatives, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Mike Lee of Utah. This is a group that have all played an important role in this conversation about health care. They're set to reveal something here in the next few minutes, and it could play a big role as to whether or not this skinny repeal bill ultimately passes later today.

BLITZER: We'll see what these five Republican senators have to say. If they come out and say, for example, they're opposed. They're not going to vote for this skinny repeal legislation. What happens then? That seems to be the last hope that the Republican leadership and the president, at least right now have.

NOBLES: That's absolutely right, Wolf. If those five senators are not going to vote for the bill, there's no way it can pass. It will likely mean that once again Mitch McConnell is going to go -- have to go back to the drawing board and come up with another plan.

But there could be a curve ball thrown here, Wolf. There could be something where both Lindsey Graham and some of these conservatives say that they've agreed on some sort of an alternative plan to push forward. Keep in mind that Graham himself has really been pushing an alternative plan that would give more power back to the states as it relates to health care spending. So perhaps that's what they're ready to unveil. At this point, we don't know.

And Wolf, frankly, there's a lot we haven't known about this health care process, much of it been done behind closed doors.

BLITZER: Ryan, Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska was reportedly sent a rather troubling message by the president's interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, over her position on the bill. What do we know about that?

NOBLES: Yes, that's right. She got a phone call from Zinke where he essentially warned Murkowski that, if she did not get on board with health care, that that would mean that there would be trouble from the Interior Department. And of course, the Interior Department plays a big role in Alaska there. That's one of the department's central responsibilities.

[17:10:14] But, you know, Murkowski's no wilting flower by any stretch of the imagination. She is the chairperson of the Energy Committee. There was supposed to be a hearing today where they would discuss critical appointments to the Interior Department, and she postponed that hearing.

Now, Murkowski herself said that there was nothing to do with this phone call from President Trump, but the timing of it is certainly suspect. And, Wolf, at the very least, Murkowski demonstrating that the Congress is a co-equal branch of government and that she's not going to be pushed around by the White House.

BLITZER: Ryan Nobles reporting for us. Ryan, thanks very much. Quickly, I want to go to Dana Bash who's following these developments. Dana, you're getting some information on what these five Republican senators are about to tell us?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. I just was talking to a source with one of the senators who said that what they're going to make clear in public, just as they apparently have in private, is that they will go along with this so-called skinny Obamacare repeal and replace bill. But just as a vehicle to get it to the conference, meaning to get it to a place where the House and Senate can try to work out differences in their bills. They are not voting for this because they think that this should be the law of the land.

So, I think that they're trying to get on record, in public, a message to the Republican leadership, a message to the White House, and maybe even a message to House Republicans that that's the only reason why they're doing this. It is a leap of faith, I have to say, because when you vote for something -- and you know this, Wolf -- in the United States Senate, then you have to assume that what you're voting for has a chance, for whatever reason, of becoming law.

It is possible, not probable, but there is an outside chance that if they vote for this very sort of drilled-down bill to replace Obamacare, that they don't support, but again, they're just doing it as a way to get into conference. It is possible at some point that the House could try to just take it up and say, "Forget it. This is all we've got" and send it to the White House.

So, you know, we'll see what they say, but that is basically what their message, I'm told, is going to be. To explain why they're doing what they're doing tonight. And make clear that it's not because they support the substance of what they're voting on.

BLITZER: Well, how realistic is that potential fear, Dana, that the House of Representatives, if they have nothing else, will simply pass what the Senate might pass, the so-called skinny repeal legislation? That would then go to the president for his signature.

BASH: The truth is, it's not that realistic. And my sense is -- and if I were to guess -- we're probably going to hear these senators talk about the fact that they will work with conservatives in the House, who certainly knows how to block legislation when they want to, and others to make sure that this doesn't end up on the president's desk. It doesn't end up just going through the House and getting to the president's desk.

My sense is that that is part of the strategy, to kind of hold hands and block this together and really try to come together in the conference to figure out a way to get legislation that enough Republicans like to get back out to the Senate and the House and then potentially to the president's desk.

Though given the fact that we are six months into that this process, maybe you can even say seven years into this process, and repealing Obamacare, and they don't have a sense of what that replacement is, I don't think we should hold our breath that that would happen any time soon.

BLITZER: Let me go back up to Ryan Nobles who's up on Capitol Hill right now. So what are you hearing, Ryan, they need 50, 50 Republican senators to vote for this skinny repeal legislation, as it's called. If they don't get 50, it's all over, at least from now.

So you think they have 50, especially now that we're hearing these five Republican senators, including Lindsey Graham, John McCain, Sonny Perdue, Ron Johnson, Mike Lee, that they are going to basically -- David Perdue, I should say, David Perdue -- they're going to hold their nose and go ahead and vote for the skinny repeal legislation?

NOBLES: Well, to Dana's point, Wolf, we have these five senators that are going to come out and make this bold statement that they can't support the bill unless they can be assured that it's going to go to conference.

It's not reserved to these five senators. I've talked to a number of Republican senators today. In fact, every Republican senator that I've talked to today said that they do not want this bill to become law, the skinny repeal. That they only want to use it as a vehicle to get into the conference committee, where they can hash it out with their House colleagues and come up with something that is something that's a little bit more palatable, that would be both a repeal and a replacement.

I talked specifically to Mike Rounds of South Dakota, who said that he has great concerns that, if the skinny repeal were passed into law, that it would really disrupt the insurance markets and also be dangerous for Medicaid. He definitely doesn't want it to become law.

So the fact that you see a group of very powerful Republican senators -- and these are all well-known Republican senators -- that are essentially going to come out and do a press conference arm in arm, they're sending a message here to the House of Representatives and to Speaker Paul Ryan specifically, saying, "We are only voting for this, because we trust that you guys are going to go into this conference committee."

But this also shows how concerned they are that they will lose control of this process once they vote for this bill. So they are basically asking here, for some sort of concrete assurance that it will go to a conference committee because they are scared that if it gets to the House, that it will pass.

BLITZER: On top of all of this, Ryan, the House also were going to take up the House version of the Russia, North Korea, Iran sanctions bill. Presumably that's going to pass overwhelmingly.

NOBLES: Yes, that should pass. And there was a bit of a scuttle related to that as well because there was a dust-up between Bob Corker and between Kevin McCarthy the House majority leader. They settled their differences on that and now the bill will finally get passed. And that's something that should have overwhelming bipartisan support, the the first incarnation of this bill passed through the Senate with only two senators voting against it. So, that's something that should sail through.

And then it will be headed towards President Trump's desk, and obviously, we've heard some mixed signals from the White House as to whether or not he will sign it into law. So that will be a rare, bipartisan moment up here on Capitol Hill over the next several hours, as they continue to hash out the future of health care.

BLITZER: A lot going on over there. Thanks very much. Ryan, we'll get back to you.

Dana, we're going to get back to you.

I want to bring in Democratic Congressman Jim Himes of Connecticut right now. He's a member of the House Intelligence Committee.

Congressman, thanks for joining us.

REP. JIM HIMES (D), CONNECTICUT: Hi Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. So the House majority leader, Kevin McCarthy, asks members to remain flexible in case the House is under pressure to act on health care. Are you worried that House Republicans could try to ram through what's called the skinny repeal legislation? HIMES: Yes, of course, I am. You know, Wolf, this has been true for

the last couple of months here. As is evidenced by every single thing that has happened down here, it does not matter to the Republicans what is in a health care bill. What matters is that they pass something that they can tell the Republican base, which is actually a relatively small group of people, that they can tell them it is repeal.

It doesn't matter if it's going to, you know, throw 15 million people off their insurance, if it's going to raise everybody's premiums 20 percent the way the CBO says this skinny repeal would do. It is almost a religious, almost cult-like obsession with passing something that they can call repeal.

Here we are at the end of a legislative process. You know, the Senate is just about done with no bill. I'm not sure this has ever happened in American history.

BLITZER: Well, they're about to vote on the so-called skinny repeal legislation. We're about to hear from five Republican senators who we're told will basically say they're holding their nose, they're going to vote for it so that it can go to the House where you guys in the House can at least have a conference committee deliberation with your colleagues in the Senate.

Let's listen in. Lindsey Graham and the other senators are now there.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: So, third amigo. Here's the state at play. All three of us support the idea of continuing the process to get a good outcome for the American people when it comes to replacing Obamacare, to find a product that's better for the American people. I have a bunch of ideas; everybody has ideas.

We've been asked by our leadership for days now to vote on the least common denominator, the skinny bill, because the pitch is, if you vote for this skinny bill, then we can go to conference. Then we can get my bill scored. We can get Ted Cruz's bill scored. We can get other people's bills scored that has promise of, you know, maybe bringing us together, but they're not ready to be -- they're not scored yet.

That makes imminent sense to me with one condition: we actually go to conference. There's increasing concern on my part, and others, that what the House will do is take whatever we pass, the so-called skinny bill, not take it to conference, go directly to the House floor, vote on it, and that goes to the president's desk with the argument this is better than doing nothing.

Here's my response. The skinny bill as policy is a disaster. The skinny bill as a replacement for Obamacare is a fraud. The skinny bill is a vehicle to get in conference to find a replacement. It is not a replacement in of itself. The policy is terrible, because you eliminate the individual employer mandate, which we all want eliminated, but we actually have an overall solution to the problem of Obamacare.

So you're going to have increased premiums, and most of Obamacare stays in place if the skinny bill becomes law. Not only do we not replace Obamacare; we politically own the collapse of health care. I'd rather get out of the way and let it collapse then have a half- assed approach where it is now our problem.

[17:20:10] So, we're not going to do that with our vote. What we will do is move the process along. Our Freedom Caucus friends, who I disagree with a lot, but sometimes I agree with them. Here's what Mark Meadows said: "We would send a skinny bill to the president is the question, the answer is no. So it becomes the vehicle for conference."

Mark Meadows agreed the skinny appeal would be dead on arrival in the House, but he understands it's just a vehicle for a conference.

Here's the problem. The whip in the House is suggesting to some that whatever we send becomes the final product; there will be no conference. And I am not going to vote for the skinny bill if I am not assured by the House there will be a conference where my idea and other ideas can be taken up so we can actually replace Obamacare.

I am not going to vote for a bill that is terrible policy and horrible politics, just because we have to get something done.

So all three of us want to move the process along. We were encouraged by our leadership to be team players. They're coming up with a skinny bill that changes by the moment, but none of us believe it actually replaces Obamacare. Neither does the Freedom Caucus. And I need assurances from the speaker of the House, and his team, that if I vote for the skinny bill, it will not become the final product; it will be the vehicle to have a conference between the House and Senate, where we consider, can consider a true replacement.

If I don't get those assurances, I'm a "no," because I'm not going to vote for a pig in a poke, and I'm not going to tell people back in South Carolina that this product actually replaces Obamacare, because it does not. It is a fraud. And with that, I'll turn over to my great friend, John McCain.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I have nothing to add.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What is there to add?

MCCAIN: As I stated earlier this week, I'm not supportive of the legislation as it stands today. I am in close consultation with Arizona Governor Doug Doocy, regarding the so-called skinny repeal and its potential impact on the state of Arizona.

My position on this proposal would be largely guided by Governor Doocy's analysis of how it would impact the people of our state. My friends, this is legislation that directly affects the lives of the people in my state. I trust my governor. I trust his people.

And he is looking carefully at this. He is looking carefully at the skinny bill repeal, but he's also looking at steps that need to be taken in addition to it. So, I am convinced that we can move forward, but we have to have an

assurance that it will go to a normal conference. Right now, that is not the case. And we do not have the assurance that is the case.

I believe that one of the major problems with Obamacare was that it was rammed through Congress by Democrats without a single Republican vote. I believe we shouldn't make that similar mistake again.

[CELL PHONE RINGING]

MCCAIN: And if necessary, this is -- you're now about to hear from an antique phone that very few Americans -- that there's very few Americans anywhere in the world. I believe there's a person in Togo who also has, who has this phone.

GRAHAM: And humor.

MCCAIN: Look, we can't make the same mistake that we inflicted in 2009. We've got to have some bipartisanship. All of you saw my speech, which I will be glad to provide you with every recording of, in case you missed it, in case you have insomnia. But the point is -- but the point is, we've got to have Republicans and Democrats sit down together and come up with a bill that gets a majority in both Houses. Otherwise, we're going to see this continuous gridlock.

And I don't want to go on and on, but when we passed Obamacare in 2009, it split us. It split us dramatically, and it split us for years. It's time we sat down together and came up with a piece of legislation that addresses this issue.

And don't think this issue is just out there sitting by itself. In my state, we are down to one health care provider in every county. Co- pays are going up by hundreds of thousands -- you're late. You see the freshmen show -- Freshmen show no respect for their -- for their elders.

[17:25:03] Finally, I'd just like to say, again, in my state, Obamacare is a failure. It needs to be fixed. We have fixes, but it's got to be done in the normal process.

And what I'm afraid of, of course, is that if this thing dies this week, and then it sits out there over the August recess or whatever it is. It's time we sat down together and came up with solutions that the American people overall would support.

I guarantee you, in my state, the status quo is not satisfactory. And that's one of the major reasons why I've been in constant contact with the governor of the state of Arizona, who bears large responsibility.

Now, as is keeping with our seniority, we will allow the two additional senators, 30 -- 30 seconds each.

SEN. RON JOHNSON (R), WISCONSIN: Thanks. Well, first of all, John, it was great seeing you come back, and I've told you a number of times, it's just an honor to be able to serve with you. Listen, I'm happy to join Lindsey and John and Senator Cassidy, just

asking a very simple request: give us assurance, give us a guarantee that whatever we pass out of the Senate is going to go to conference so we can work on, for example, the great ideas that these two gentlemen have been working hard with our governors, something I think can really get a great deal of support.

The fact of the matter is, the status quo is unacceptable. Obamacare markets are collapsing. Let me just tell you a little story, a woman that I spoke to for the first time on Tuesday. Sherry and Vern Colby from River Falls, Wisconsin, contacted our office, and I called her up; and she conveyed her story to me. Had some preexisting conditions in 2014. They signed up for Obamacare. I won't go through all the troubles they had signing up. Paid their premiums, sent in their check stubs to make sure they qualified for the subsidies. Did their taxes in March of 2015, got the bad news that they made too much money, and had to pay $15,000 back to the IRS.

Now the IRS isn't real kind about being real forgiving about it, so in order to pay that $15,000 back, because again, they made too much money, they first depleted their 401k. Then they had to sell their home that they intended to live in for the rest of their life, so they wouldn't lose their home. I mean, think about that.

Now, now Sherry and Vern are the forgotten men and women, the same folks that Bill Clinton was talking about, you know, the ones that are busting it. Vern works 60 or 70 hours a week driving milk trucks. Sherry works 30 hours a week as a florist. They're busting it. They work in those hours. They've seen their premiums double or more. Their coverage cut in half. They depleted their 401. They lost their house. That's why the status quo is not acceptable.

And I'm sorry: the skinny bill in the Senate doesn't even come close to honoring our promise of repealing Obamacare, those market reforms that have increased their premiums, and nothing we're doing, virtually nothing we're doing in any of these bills, and the proposals, are addressing the challenges, the problems, the damage done to people like Sherry and Vern.

And so, all we're asking leadership, and this is a very simple request. Just give us the assurance that whatever we pass tonight will go to conference, and so, the good ideas of people like Senator Lindsey Graham and Senator Cassidy here can get scored, can have a chance to be argued, and hopefully, can replace Obamacare with something that actually works for folks like Sherry and Vern.

And at that, I'm happy to introduce Senator Cassidy, doing some great work coming up with an alternative.

SEN. BILL CASSIDY (R), LOUISIANA: And I just want to look at the potential of what would happen, should it go to conference. Again, Senator Graham, Nelson, Heller and I have been working on a provision which, frankly, will take a little bit longer to be scored. The process, as you know, requires that to occur. And it could be overlaid upon the bill that would be passed tonight. And in that, we hope to take all the dollars that would go to a state

and deliver to the state. The state would have to use their own health care, but then allow that state to come up with a solution particular for their state.

What happens in Alaska, with less than one person per square mile, is very different than what happens in Washington, D.C. Over 100,000 people per square mile, which is different than South Carolina, Louisiana, Wisconsin, and Arizona. Those states should decide what's best for those states.

We can do that through this process, if indeed, we pass the bill tonight. And then it goes to conference committee, and then we can overlay this. We think this is the way to fulfill the promise President Trump made to the American people to actually repeal. And that's our commitment. We hope -- we hope this process allows it.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Senator McCain, Senator McCain.

MCCAIN: Right here.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You said that you have increasing concerns that you will pass this bill and that it will not go to conference. Did something happen to make you feel that way that...

GRAHAM: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What is it that happened?

GRAHAM: Mark Meadows, who has become a good friend, he's from North Carolina. He's a really good conservative. He's in the Freedom Caucus. He's been suggesting that nobody in the Freedom Caucus sees this as a viable replacement. I don't think governor Doocy is going to say that the skinny bill is -- fixes Arizona's problem.

I know it won't fix Jerry's problem. We're just trying to create a vehicle so we can take our bill which hasn't been scored that Governor Doocy likes and see if we can come up with a block grant approach. Four states get 40 percent of the Obamacare dollars. We're trying to level that out.

So Mark called me and said that he was concerned. That there's a move in the House to take whatever we pass in the Senate and pass, not go to conference. We have been trying to communicate to the speaker. We've asked our leader point blank, and he says the speaker, you know, prefers to go to the conference, intends to go to the conference. I want to know, like, are you going to go to the conference?

I want to know that because I am not going to vote for a piece of legislation that I believe is not a replacement that politically would be the dumbest thing in history to throw this out there, collapse the individual market, and own the problem at a time when Obamacare is collapsing. So, I think Senator McCain is dead right.

If you listen to Governor Doocy, John's going to have a pretty good decision to make. The governor's going to look at our new approach overlaid and he's going to tell John that works for Arizona. I can tell you right now, the skinny bill doesn't work for any state. It's never meant to be the final outcome, it's meant to be part of a process to get a better outcome.

My bill hasn't been scored, our bill hasn't been scored, Ted Cruz's bill hasn't been scored. So we're buying time to get there, but that requires the House to actually go to conference. And if they don't go to conference, then I'm not going to vote.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are any of you -- are any three of you worried about - if there are concerns if you three block the replacement attempt tonight that you will then have to be accountable to voters who really want Obamacare replaced.

GRAHAM: Yes, I do this with joy in my heart. I'm going to go back to South Carolina and say that the skinny bill does not replace Obamacare. The skinny bill leads most of the Obamacare infrastructure in place. It's a disaster for premiums in South Carolina, it was never sold to be the final product. That I was told that if I vote for the skinny bill, I'd get a chance to put in play my block grant approach. So, I'm not the bad guy here. I'm actually a team player. I am trying to honor the request by our leadership to keep the process alive. And as we get to -- near the goal line here, this will surprise people in South Carolina. You need to trust, but verify in Washington.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How do you verify?

SEN. RON JOHNSON (R), WISCONSIN: You get to get -- by the way, let me -- let me just confirm what Lindsey said. This has been sold to us as the vehicle to get to conference. So we can have the time. You know, because CBO has to be able to score things. We have 22 Senators sign a letter that I asked the CBO to score this full repeal of Obamacare back in March, never got the score.

We've been told this is the vehicle to give us the time to get those scores. We can take away these other alternatives. And so, again, all we're looking for is a pretty simple guarantee. We're not trying to tank anything here. We're trying to do positively, we'll vote yes, as long as we get that guarantee.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Wait a minute, wait a minute, let me ask you -- wait a minute --

JOHNSON: He wants to ask a question.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you believe the skinny bill is an actual replacement for Obamacare and will it fix the problem?

JOHNSON: It absolutely would not, Senator Graham.

(CROSSTALK)

GRAHAM: I got to go.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He said one more question. Come on -- come on here.

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Senator McCain, what do you say people who (INAUDIBLE) want to work with Democrats.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What do you say to people who say, then you should vote no, and send this thing back to committee --

MCCAIN: Right now, I am -- right now, as I've mentioned earlier, I am voting no, unless I see that there's a path to a conference that will come out with a result that will address the challenges. The status quo in my state is unsatisfactory. That's why I'm working with the governor of my state who has posed three different amendments which I will be putting up for bills -- votes as we go through. And if it satisfies the governor, then I would be satisfied. Right now, my governor is not satisfied.

GRAHAM: One last question from South Carolina.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How's the parliamentarian says that your amendment with Bill Cassidy would be comprehensible?

[17:34:45] GRAHAM: I am 99 percent sure that it will get a memo from the parliamentarians saying that the -- Graham, Cassidy, Heller, maybe Johnson bill will be comprehensible. And that block has been checked, and I really wouldn't too much worried about anything above that, until I got a call from Mark Meadows. And I got a call from Mark Meadows who believes like Ron does, and I do, that the skinny bill is not a replacement. That Obamacare is collapsing and the skinny bill won't prevent it from collapsing and in many ways, makes everything worse. So, that part of it, I think, we're good to go. I just need an assurance and what's an assurance? Who asked that? OK. Here's what an assurance would be --

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What is the guarantee?

GRAHAM: OK.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is it blood oath? Is it (INAUDIBLE) I'm serious.

GRAHAM: We don't have it. It's like pornography, you'll know it when you see it. There you go. We got to go.

JOHNSON: Yes.

GRAHAM: We'll go ahead now. Come on. Come on. Go ahead, say whatever you want to say.

JOHNSON: Well, you also asked me, why are we a little concerned? You know, walking up here, somebody asked me that the House is going into martial law. I didn't know that was possible. I guess that would give us a little bit of a concern. I do in remaining moments, I'm happy to give you all these charts. I keep talking about information we need.

This shows you the disaster that is Obamacare in terms of effect of premiums. This was the premium trend prior to Obamacare. This is what we're talking about now. This is why Sherry and Vern can't afford insurance. This is the kind of information we need to make better information, to have a better process, to actually have a replacement that will work for Sherry and Vern.

GRAHAM: And we'll end on this -- we'll end on this, as to the skinny bill being a replacement for Obamacare, actually helping Americans like Sherry, people in my state, that's about as accurate as when President Obama told you if you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor.

JOHNSON: Thanks, much.

UNIDENTIFIED MAL: OK.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: One follow-up.

BLITZER: All right. So, there you have the latest from these key Republican Senators, Lindsey Graham, very, very blunt, saying the skinny bill -- the skinny repeal legislation that is about to come up for a vote on the floor of the U.S. Senate is a fraud. It's a disaster. It's terrible policy.

He and his colleagues say, but, they will vote for it if they get a hard commitment from the House of Representatives, from the Speaker of the House, from the Majority Leader in the House that it's simply a vehicle to a joint House Senate Conference Committee where they could come up with various other plans, but in effect, they're voting for what Lindsey Graham calls a fraud, a disaster, terrible policy, Democratic Congressman Jim Himes Connecticut is still with us. Congressman, you've been patient.

You've been listening to these Republican Senators, let me get your reaction. You're a member of the House of Representatives. Is there a hard commitment from the speaker as far as you know that if they pass the skinny repeal legislation in the Senate, it will then go to a House Senate Conference Committee for weeks and weeks of deliberations and scoring by the Congressional Budget Office, maybe even open hearings before it comes up for a final vote, and a revised version, or is it possible that the Republican leadership and the House will simply bring up for a vote whatever is passed in the Senate, the skinny repeal legislation?

REP. JIM HIMES (D-CT), MEMBER OF DEMOCRATIC INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: Well, Wolf, after what I've just heard, there's no doubt in my mind that the speaker is going to give those Senators the assurance that there will be a conference. Now, that assurance, of course, requires a House vote, and this is a group, of course, that has not always been able to deliver on their House votes.

It's not just, you know, the tea party and the freedom caucus, it's, you know, it's a House vote. But what's really important here, Wolf, the American people need to understand what is happening here. This is a -- let me use Lindsey Graham's football metaphor. Several months ago, you had a kickoff, and they have moved the ball towards the goal line week in and week out with a bunch of terrible ideas.

Ideas that were rejected by the providers, the American Medical Association, the insurance companies have said these ideas don't work. The CBO has said it'll throw millions and millions of Americans off. You heard what Lindsey Graham just called this bill. And by the way, the president of the United States called the House effort, mean. So they've had a collection of really awful ideas.

What you just heard was the Senator saying what we need to do now is we need to get the ball right to the two-yard line. Because somehow in the last play of the game, with two yards left to go, we're going to - we're going to change all of these ideas that we can and we're going come up in the last two yards with a really terrific bunch of ideas.

Well, I'll tell you what, you know, if the American people want to buy that, I've got a bridge I need to try this on. Because what they're trying to do is, they're trying to get right to the point of creating a law without a single idea that isn't putrid, dangerous, and rejected by the American people. And this is why any Senator who respects the process of how law making usually occurs needs to say wait, let's start over.

Let's go back to the idea phase, and until we have a collection of ideas that aren't widely rejected by people like Donald Trump, the insurance companies, and you name it, let's not move the process forward. That would be the prudent, thoughtful way to do this health care fix. And by the way, as a Democrat, I'll be the first to say, there are improvements that can be made to the Affordable Care Act.

That the American people need to understand that what is happening now is, the process is -- the ball is being put on a two-yard line with, you heard Lindsey Graham say it, Mark Meadows, chairman of the freedom caucus, I just need to hear it from him, that we're going to go to conference. Is that something to hang your health care on?

[17:40:11] BLITZER: Well, you know what, stand by, Congressman. I want to get some other reaction to these dramatic developments. David Axelrod, you're with us, have you ever seen anything like this before, where these Senators are going to vote for something that they consider to be a fraud, they consider to be a disaster, they consider to be terrible policy, but they will still vote, yay?

DAVID AXELROD, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I don't think I've seen any, anything like this entire process. It's not just this particular vote, but the halting nature of this whole process, which was shocking, given the fact that they've been voting repeatedly over 50 times to repeal and replace the affordable care act.

You'd think that they would have some concept about how they would want to do that by this point. The thing that I find, sort of, intriguing or confusing, I should say, is that Senator McCain made this fervent plea for bipartisanship. If the Senate votes this down, then the next step would be for Republicans and Democrats to get together.

And I know, Wolf, and I think others who cover the hill can tell you more about this than I, that Republicans and Democrats are having private discussions about what they would do if this process failed. To vote for this measure today, is to prolong what is, has been a bad and very partisan process, and you know, they're talking about it as a bridge to conference.

It's a bridge to nowhere. The fact is, there's no evidence that they can in conference come up with any consensus, any more than they have through all of these months, and so, you're either going to end up with the skinny bill as law, so they can check the box and say they repealed it, or, or you're going to be right back to square one. So I don't understand why Senator McCain and others who want a bipartisan process wouldn't simply vote to stop this now, and begin the bipartisan consultation.

BLITZER: Let me ask Dana, why is Senator McCain for example, going along with this, even though he says he does want bipartisan cooperation come up with regular order and do it from his perspective, the right way?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's a difficult question to answer. I think that from his perspective, he is looking at this as, in part, in part, regular order. In that, what is supposed to happen is, the House passes a bill, the Senate passes a bill. It comes to conference. They work out their differences and then it goes to the president.

What they are hoping is that part of regular order, you know, continues. And they don't just -- if they agree to pass the skinny bill, as you heard the Senator say it. It doesn't just end up going right back to the House and off to the White House. Having said that, you know, there's difference between regular order and bipartisanship. And they definitely shouldn't be, you know, mixed up.

Would it be great if the parties could come together and work on this incredibly important ideal and this incredibly important policy issue of health care that affects every single one of their constituents? Of course. It didn't happen during the Obama years, it hasn't happened so far in the Trump years, and you know, maybe if they just put a stop to it, the Senators, then that could happen, but it's really unclear.

My sense also, just to knowing what these Senators are working on, particularly Lindsey Graham and John McCain and others, is that they can get this to conference and then push this alternative idea, which right now, doesn't have a lot of Democratic support, if any, to block grant all of this health care and the money from these taxes to the states. That, I think, is their - is their real goal in trying to get that, kind of, in the front of the train as the leading idea once this gets into conference. But that is rolling the dice in a big way.

BLITZER: First -- UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Dana --

BLITZER: Go ahead.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Wolf, if I could just ask Dana a question, if this were to fail in the Senate however, there is a forcing mechanism which is that those exchanges are in some cases, in distress, and they need to be addressed, and all the Senators recognize that Senator McConnell said earlier that if we don't do something, we're going to have to work with Democrats to address the issue of those exchanges.

So, you could, if this bill failed, you could see Democrats and Republicans coming together around some measures to try and shore up those exchanges.

BASH: You could. And, you know, call me a cynic or a skeptic, I think, I just think in this climate--

BLITZER: Or a student - a student of the Congress.

BASH: Or a student of the Congress, it is in this climate, it would be hard to see a real bipartisan effort. Again, it would be nice. It's the way it should be done. It is always the way, really good, important policy of this nature gets done and stays the law of the land for decades, Medicare and others. But, it's hard to see in this climate it happening. I would love to be proved wrong.

[17:50:19] BLITZER: We got Democratic Congressman, Jim Hines, still with us. You see, do you see any bipartisan cooperation down the road? Do you see any opportunity for Democrats and Republicans to work together to improve, to fix the Affordable Care Act?

HIMES: You know, I think there is. And it's sort of surprising that that would be the case because there aren't many issues that have been this divisive that have been this, that have been used as sort of rhetorical, you know, bludgeons quite as much as health care. But I will tell you since I'm here that there have been lots of discussions in, you know, behind closed doors, typically, with some of the more moderate pragmatic groups here. The new Democratic coalition, which I share, work with Republicans in a quiet way to come up with five or six ideas on how to stabilize the exchanges, which is where a lot of the problems really are.

So, I will tell you that there is a group of people here, often sort of at the center of caucuses who want to work together, who understand that there are problems. The question is, really: does the leadership, you know, the leadership which thinks about how the base responds to, you know, compromise, how the base responds to something that might not be a full repeal. Because lo and behold, it turns out that a full repeal would do a lot of people a lot of damage. If the leadership were to give the signal, that there was -- that there could be a compromise, that we could find common ground, I think it might happen.

BLITZER: Congressman Himes, thanks very much for joining us. I know you've got to run. Chris Cillizza does not need to run, so he's still here with us as well.

CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Sedentary.

BLITZER: So far, the Senate, they've rejected the House passed Obamacare repeal and replace. So far, they've decisively rejected the simple repeal. Now, they've got one last chance to at least keep this ball rolling. That's what you heard Lindsey Graham and the others talk about.

CILLIZZA: Two things, to your point, Wolf, this is -- to call the skinny repeal, repeal is really pushing it a little bit. Yes, it would take away the employer mandate, take away the individual mandate, and repeal the medical device tax. It would do many things that are in Obamacare, but this is not the root and branch repeal that was promised -- number one. Number two, it feels like deja vu all over again (INAUDIBLE) in that, wasn't the motion to proceed -- wasn't the justification among the motion to proceed by a lot of these folks on the fence that while we'll pass the motion to proceed. The only reason we're doing that is so that we can have this conversation, this debate, this open process.

Well, now, they're saying, OK, we're only going pass the skinny repeal so that we can get it to the conference. I mean, if I was a Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia or Rob Portman of Ohio, someone who has real political skin in this game, I would be concerned that it feels like each step of the way, it's a, well, we're going to kick the can over here. But don't worry the next step is the step where we really address it. If they had a good idea that would get to 50 on how to replace Obamacare, they would've already done it. They don't all like the sausage-making to be public. So, I do think the tendency to say, we'll just vote on this, but this is really what we care about --it's the next though, but that's not what we care about, is a little bit dangerous politically.

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: And Chris, I think you bring up a really important point, which is that if you're the House Republicans watching this Senate process unfold, watching Senate Republicans fail to reach any sort of consensus on anything, what gives you the confidence that going to conference is going to make this process any better or easier or more productive? I mean, if I'm the House Republican looking at this, it seems like a total waste of time, potentially, to even go to conference.

CILLIZZA: That's exactly right. And again, just as a reminder, if they had one plan that they could get a majority for in the House and the Senate, they would do it. They're not masochists. They're not -- they haven't gone through -- look how much it took to get it through the House, right? And now, the Senate is going through a similar process; they would if there was one idea that would shoot to the front, and suddenly, oh, this is perfect, we'd do it. They would have already thought it. This idea that they'll get it to conference, everything will be fixed, that just seems very unlikely.

BLITZER: David Axelrod, how do you see the president, President Trump, playing a role in this decisive moment right now? He clearly wants, he wants the repeal and replace of Obamacare, but where do you see him playing that role?

AXELROD: Well, the question is: how much influence does he have at this particular juncture? He's at war with his attorney general who's a popular member, who was a popular former member of the Senate. His communication's director is waging war on his chief of staff. Seems like, he's got a lot going on over there at the White House right now. And I don't know -- you know, I think, increasingly, I think these legislators are making independent judgments about where their political interest lie.

You mentioned that House -- Rebecca mentions the House, they were burned once already. And they were burned by the president. They voted for a bill. The president had a little celebration at the White House, and then weeks later decided that the bill was mean, and that bill is not going to become law. So, I think everybody's going to proceed with great caution here. And I think a lot of the Senators now are weighing whether they want to continue this process or stop because they want to venture more and end up getting burned.

[17:50:41] CILLIZZA: Very quickly to that point, I do think there is a danger, politically speaking, to what David is talking about. It's -- OK, you can say, well, I voted for the motion to proceed, but that was just because I wanted to have the debate. Well, I voted for skinny repeal, but that was just because they told us that we'd get it to the conference. At some point, you start piling up these votes. Politically speaking, if you -- let's say, Dean Heller, who sits in the state Hillary Clinton won in 2016 and is up for re-election in 2018. It becomes harder and harder to defend the further you go down that road.

BLITZER: And you know, Dana -- and David Axelrod makes a fair point, all of this happening as the tensions seem to be exploding between the president and the attorney general, between the president's new communications director and the White House chief of staff. You reported the other day that all of the attacks against Jeff Sessions, former U.S. Senator from Alabama, clearly irritating a lot of his friends, the Republicans, in the U.S. Senate.

BASH: Yes. I mean, you saw that spill out today with what Lindsey Graham said to Manu Raju about the fact that there would be hell to pay if the president ended up getting rid of Jeff Sessions. Look, the tension is high. There is no question about it. And you definitely get the sense, and my colleagues who have covered Congress know this, that after they have been in the trenches for weeks, and weeks, and weeks, when they know there is recess ahead, when they're doing something so incredibly important and consequential like health care it gets pretty ugly sometimes.

And I think you saw part of that in that press conference, and you're going to continue to see that as they go into tonight, and probably tomorrow trying to work out whether or not they, these Senators, feel comfortable with the guarantee or whether they actually get a guarantee. It certainly sounds like it will be hard for them to get an iron clad guarantee. And so this whole thing might fall apart. We'll see. BLITZER: You know, this is -- David, this is Republican on Republican

infighting, which could happen but is being played out on television very visibly being played out on Twitter and social media. It's pretty extraordinary.

AXELROD: Yes. Despite the president's representations, this isn't a finely honed machine on either end of Pennsylvania Avenue. We should point out that Anthony Scaramucci took off after Reince Priebus in the last 24 hours. Reince Priebus is exceptionally close to the speaker of the House. So, you have him going -- the president going after Sessions who is well liked by the Republican Caucus in the Senate, who feel very protective of him. And then, you have Scaramucci, by his own representation, acting on the president's wishes going after the chief of staff who's exceptionally close to the speaker of the House all at a time that the president is counting on them to deliver something so that he can claim victory. It's a very, very tenuous situation.

BLITZER: It certainly is, Rebecca Berg, you know, Reince Priebus from Wisconsin, Paul Ryan from Wisconsin, they're very close friends. And then all of a sudden, the new White House communications director levels this charge against Reince Priebus suggesting that he is responsible for some damaging leaks.

BERG: Well, Anthony Scaramucci has certainly been busy communicating in his first week. Well, if it's not necessarily the message that we would've expected to receive from the White House communications director. I mean, he's coming in, and setting the whole place on fire. And I think David makes an excellent point. I mean, a staff shakeup is not unusual. But to air all this dirty laundry in public at a time when your White House is supposed to be focusing on its landmark -- hallmark piece of legislation, health care reform. And they're distracted by their own fights of their creation and it all looks incredibly petty for me outside-looking at.

CILLIZZA: Rebecca's too nice to say this. So, I'll say it; this is bananas. I mean, the Scaramucci versus Reince stuff -- the average (INAUDIBLE) is think of my parents. My parents aren't following. They're not political. They're not following day in/day out and who says what. But what this reflects, the drama built in here, what Scaramucci is saying about Priebus and all that, I mean, it's just not talking about jobs, not talking about whatever week this is.

BERG: That is how they ran their campaign.

CILLIZZA: I mean, it's literally chaos, and had he not won the presidency, we would say, well, this is a recipe for disaster. I still think it's probably a recipe for disaster, but my gosh.

[17:55:11] BLITZER: It's a dramatic development. We're staying on top of this. This stunning public infighting among top White House officials has President Trump lost confidence in his chief of staff.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Happening now. Breaking news, the bill to nowhere? Tonight, some top GOP Senators are warning that the so-called "skinny Obamacare repeal" legislation would be a disaster if it were to become law.