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Interview With Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley; Republicans Crafting Secret Health Care Bill; GA Polls Closing Soon In Priciest House Race Ever; Armed Russian Jet Flies Within 5 Feet of U.S. Spy Plane; Pressure on U.S. To Take Action After Warmbier Death; Tropical Storm Cindy Threatens Gulf Coast. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired June 20, 2017 - 16:30   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Now, that process was not enough for then- Congressman and currently the vice president, Mike Pence, who in early 2010 tweeted: "It's simply wrong for legislation that will affect 100 percent of the American people to be negotiated behind closed doors."

And that was right, what Congressman Pence said. And it's right now, as was this from then-Congressman, now Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services Tom Price -- quote -- "With Democrats discussing health care in secret, they're sacrificing the trust of the American people."

Or, for instance, Senator Orrin Hatch, now the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, who wrote back then -- quote -- "The real bill is currently being written behind closed doors in the dark corners of the Capitol."

I could do this all day, frankly.

But what about today? What does Hatch have to say today, such as, for instance, this month when he was challenged about whether his committee would hold a public hearing?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Will there be a hearing?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Democrats have been invited to participate in this process, and we are open to all ideas and suggestions.

SEN. ORRIN HATCH (R), UTAH: Well, I don't know that there's going to be another hearing, but we have been invited you to participate.


TAPPER: The only thing that's changed is the party affiliations of those behind closed doors and those locked out.

If you apply a principle only to your opponents, it's not a principle. It's just a cheap partisan attack.

Senate Republicans say a bill could go to the Congressional Budget Office for analysis as soon as this week.

CNN's Phil Mattingly is live on Capitol Hill.

And, Phil, Republicans want estimates from the CBO before a vote. That would leave them with about seven or eight working days before the July 4 recess. Is that enough time to debate such a huge piece of legislation?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Jake, the most interesting element probably of the last week or so is the number of Republicans who have voiced their own unease about this process, acknowledging it's too secretive, acknowledging particularly rank-and-file members have no idea where this is all going to end up, despite the fact that senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced today that there would be a working draft available to everybody on Thursday.

And there still are major key outstanding issues, major issues that need to be resolved before Thursday. An interesting element here is really twofold, Jake, first off, the frustration about the process, and second off, that they're not there yet. Take a listen to this.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But when the Affordable Care Act came through, so- called Obamacare, fellows, just give us a sense of that process compared to...


MATTINGLY: Jake, one of the elements here is when you talk to people like Senator John McCain, very frustrated with the process, very sarcastic with us all day today, but not willing to acknowledge that they will stand in the way of the process moving forward.

Here's kind of the cold reality here. If three Republican senators out of 52 tell the Senate majority leader, look, we need to slow down, we need to wait until after we have full amounts of time to digest the bill or have a hearing on this bill, then that would be what would happen.

The only goal here is to get 50 senators in line. And if three say no, then they don't really have an option. Up to this point, despite the frustration we've heard publicly, no senator has actually come out and said that.

And another key element here, as I noted, they don't have final agreement on some of these key outstanding issues. Short of that, it's tough to figure out how they are going to get 50 votes. But one thing was made clear by the Senate majority leader today, Jake. They're moving forward. They expect to have a CBO score at some point next week. And they expect a vote on this as well.

TAPPER: We haven't seen a draft of the legislation. In that, we're no different than Senator Mike Lee.

But Republicans aides are saying that being considered are deeper Medicaid cuts than the House bill. Is that getting any pushback on Capitol Hill?

MATTINGLY: No question about it.

Look, this is something that conservatives look very favorable towards, and it's how they would peg the growth rate. As it currently stands, at least in the House legislation, it would be pegged to inflation, plus -- or medical inflation, essentially.

What the Senate is actually considering right now is pegging it to just inflation. Now, the House bill, Jake, would cut $800 billion over the course of 10 years. That has moderate senators concerned on its own.

The Senate bill, if it were to follow through with this proposal that I'm told is on the table right now, would cut it a lot more. You talk to senators like Rob Portman of Ohio, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, they made very clear today that they don't think they can support something like that.

So, the big question is, will that be taken off the table before that discussion draft leaves the premises or at least comes out on Thursday? And obviously we're keeping an eye on Democrats, too. You kind of highlighted their frustration through all of this.

They don't have much of a role here. They can try and slow things down. They can try not and draw attention to the process. And that's pretty much what they're doing. Today, we had senator Cory Booker, Senator Brian Schatz and Senator Chris Murphy actually go on a scavenger hunt of sorts over to the CBO office trying to track down some of the drafts of certain provisions of this legislation in order to get some sense of what's in the bill.

They failed in that process, just as just about everybody in the Senate has up to this point. It looks we're all going to have to wait and see until at least Thursday morning what's actually in the bill.


TAPPER: All right, Phil Mattingly on Capitol Hill for us, thank you so much.

One of the Democrats speaking out on the Senate floor last night and again this afternoon was Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon, who joins me now from Capitol Hill.

Senator, thanks for joining us.

In response to complaints about transparency, the majority leader, Mitch McConnell, said that there will be -- quote -- "ample opportunity to read and amend the bill."

Your response?

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY (D), OREGON: Hi. Greetings, Jake. Pleasure to be with you. I got to tell you, it's incredible secrecy that we're engaged in. And

I heard that clip that you had with Senator Hatch saying that we're welcome to participate. I believe Senator Thune said we are welcome to the meetings.

So, I have got my RSVP card here. I have already signed it. I just need to know what the date is and what the location is, because, despite the invitation, so far have absolutely no idea how to participate.

This is the secret 13 holding these meetings and deciding what's going to happen in health care in America with absolutely no committee hearing, no opportunity for the public to weigh in. This is not the way a legislature is supposed to operate in a we the people republic.

TAPPER: Looking back on it, did Democrats make a mistake by not opening the process more open and having more debate and having more openness and transparency when Obamacare was being written?

MERKLEY: Let's count the ways that we were open.

In the Senate alone, we had over committee meetings, roundtables and walk-throughs. We considered over 300 amendments in a public setting. We considered over 300 Republican amendments. We adopted over 100 Republican amendments. We went to the floor with 25 days of debate.

People held town halls back home. The public weighed in. It was about as lengthy a process as you have seen in modern United States history. This is the opposite end. This is zero, zero, zero.

TAPPER: Isn't this an example of elections having consequences? The Republicans control the Senate, and it does seem, according to many polls, that Americans do want Obamacare overhauled, if not replaced.

MERKLEY: Well, just I would invite to join me on my town halls out in Oregon. This weekend, I was in four conservative counties, four red counties, completely open town hall. Everybody knew about them.

And people came out. And they terrified, absolutely terrified of this secret process and what might happen to their health care. So, I think it's very clear, whatever polling there might have been in the past, right now, the Trumpcare is creating enormous anxiety and opposition at grassroots rural America.

TAPPER: What do you think Republicans could do that would satisfy you and your Democratic colleagues? Even if there were public hearings, you would still oppose their efforts to change Obamacare or undermine Obamacare on such a grand scale.

MERKLEY: There's so many ways that the current health care system can be improved.

So, what I would like to say, at a minimum, one month for the public to weigh in, one month for the two committees to hold hearings and take expert testimony, one month for us to hold town halls and discussions among ourselves and offer amendments in those two committees. Then bring it to the floor. That's not too much to ask.

TAPPER: So, there are problems with Obamacare, you acknowledge, and, as you must know, premiums are rising up to 30 percent in your home state of Oregon. What changes would you make, if you could make them right now?

MERKLEY: The first is that there has to be a lockdown on cost- sharing.

Companies are bailing out of states because the president will not commit to cost-sharing. That's the difference between, say, a 7 percent and a 30 percent rise in the cost of health care.

Second of all, a company can't go into a new market without re- insurance in case they get a disproportionate share of sick individuals. And the Republicans destroyed the re-insurance program in Obamacare.

And so those are just two examples of ways that currently the administration and my Republican colleagues are undermining the exchanges.

And, by the way, those exchanges were the Republican idea for health care. Marketplace, where private companies compete, that was their idea. But they chose, on a completely partisan basis, to instead just try to undermine a presidency, rather than do the responsible thing and work together to make health care that will serve, affordable quality health care for every American.

TAPPER: Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon, thank you so much. Good luck with that RSVP card.

MERKLEY: You're welcome. Thank you. I'm hoping to get that date and time.

TAPPER: Georgia is on Republicans' mind and Democrats' minds tonight, as voters head to the polls in the most expensive U.S. House race in American history. But will the results be a referendum for either party? Stay with us.



TAPPER: Welcome back.

We're back with more in the politics lead now.

In Georgia, it is Election Day between two candidates who apparently don't like tough questions from the fourth estate, each banning reporters from their events in the final hours of the campaign.

Kira Lerner from the progressive outlet ThinkProgress asked Republican candidate Karen Handel about the Republican health care bill, an issue that the reporter says Handel has been reluctant to discuss. At the final event that day, the Handel campaign blocked her from attending. Handel spokeswoman Kate Constantini told CNN that, in the future, ThinkProgress should RSVP for events.

On the other side of the aisle, Brent Scher, a reporter from the conservative "Washington Free Beacon," fact-checked Democrat Jon Ossoff's claim that he lives down the street from the district he is running to represent, but doesn't currently live in, documenting all 3.2 miles, by Scher's account.

And last night, he, too, was blocked from entering an Ossoff campaign event. Ossoff communications director Sacha Haworth claiming that the campaign did not see his press credentials.

A grand display in Georgia of bipartisan petulance and thin skin, where politicians hide from challenging questions.

[16:45:00] Whoever wins tonight, it will be a politician whose campaign barred a reporter for asking tough questions and if you can't take tough questions, maybe Washington isn't the place for you. But their ability to deal with tough questions notwithstanding one of these two will be elected to represent the Northern Atlanta suburbs, but who? With most polls outdated, there is no true indicator which way the results will go tonight. CNN's Jason Carroll is live for us in Marietta, Georgia. And Jason, many outsiders see this race as a litmus test on national politics. Even President Trump has been weighing in today, but the candidates trying to keep the focus on themselves and their opponents.

JASON CARROLL, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, absolutely. The candidates are doing all that they can to say that this race is not about the other person. But voters know better out here on the streets Jake, and certainly, political operatives of both sides of the isle know very well what's at stake here.


CARROLL: It's decision day in the Georgia's high stakes Special Election. 30-year-old Democrat Jon Ossoff is hoping to harness his party's energy against President Trump to flip a seat that has been held by Republicans for nearly 40 years.

JOHN OSSOFF (D) GEORGIA CONGRESSIONAL CANDIDATE: With all the good luck and disarray and dysfunction in Washington, now more than ever we need fresh leadership rather than another career politician.

CARROLL: Republican challenger Karen Handel is counting on the district's conservative-leaning tilt to carry her campaign to victory.

KAREN HANDEL (R), GEORGIA CONGRESSIONAL CANDIDATE: My husband and I have lived here for almost 25 years. That's longer than my opponent pretty much has been alive.

CARROLL: With the contest being so closely watched for national implications, both candidates have spent the closing days of the campaign trying to keep focus on local issues.

HANDEL: It's not about the national implications, it's about who is best suited to represent them in Washington.

OSSOFF: I'm sure there will be implications. What those implications are, I'll leave to national strategists and pundits.

CARROLL: President Trump is keeping an eye on the race, this morning tweeting his support for Handel charging that Ossoff wants to raise your taxes to the highest level and is weak on crime and security, doesn't even live in the district. The President isn't the only one weighing in on this. firefighters is the most expensive House race in history with more than $50 million spent by the campaigns and outside groups.

HANDEL: Candidly, that's pretty obscene.

CARROLL: This reporter says his vote was for Handel.

DOUG PASCO, REPUBLICAN VOTER: I think she believes what she says and I think she'll do what she says.

CARROLL: Well, this Ossoff voter says he used his ballot to make a statement against the President.

CRAIG ZELLER, DEMOCRATIC VOTER: Well, I voted for Ossoff, you know, just because I don't like the guy that's sitting in the White House right now.

CARROLL: With just hours left, both campaigns are hoping to send a message of their own to Washington.


CARROLL: And both Ossoff and Handel know, Jake, that in order to pull out a win here, what each of them have to do is reach independents or moderates at this point. It's just unclear how successful either one of them have been doing that. The race is just too close to call. Jake?

TAPPER: All right, Jason Carroll in Georgia Six, thank you so much. Just five feet, that's how close a Russian fighter jet flew to and American spy plane in the latest incident of escalating tension, stick around, we'll bring that story.


[16:50:00] TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. Let's tune into our "WORLD LEAD" now. The U.S. is facing new provocations by Russia following the U.S. downing of a Syrian jet. Today we learned that an armed Russian fighter jet flew dangerously close, within five feet, to an American Reconnaissance Plane over the Baltic Sea according to the Pentagon. Let's bring in CNN Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr, and Barbara, Russia, not surprisingly, blaming the U.S.

STARR: Not surprisingly. The problem here, it flew within five feet, it flew fast and it flew erratically making it very unsafe. This intercept do happen, Jake, most of the time they're routine, most of the time they're perfectly safe but when it happens like this, it's a real problem. U.S. Pilots don't know what to expect and they never know when the Russians are going to act up like this.

TAPPER: And Barbara, another dangerous encounter. In Syria, the U.S. had to shoot down a drone that was armed and were told flying dangerously within firing range of U.S. troops. Tell us more about that.

STARR: Shot down the (INAUDIBLE) in self-defense in southern Syria flying again, close to where U.S. troops were, armed, not turning back, coming straight at them. So a U.S. war plane rolled in and did fire at that drone. It makes it the third shoot down in several days. A manned aircraft, two drones, a lot of questions about just how unsettled this area is and whether anybody is really able to control regime and militia forces there, Jake.

TAPPER: And Barbara, we have a shortage of hot spots to discuss. Let's turn to North Korea if we can. You just learned that a U.S. spy satellite has detected new activity in North Korea's underground nuclear test site. What can you tell us about that?

STARR: Unsettling information just coming into CNN, Jake. U.S. officials are telling us that the spy satellites have detected fresh activity in North Korea's underground nuclear test site. Activity at tunnel entrances, the tunnels where underneath, there might be a nuclear device for a sixth North Korean nuclear test. What we also know is this is a real concern, because if there is a sixth test in the coming days, the worry is that this means the Chinese diplomatic initiatives, although they're in their early stages, they're simply not working with the regime. Kim Jong-un is not paying attention. U.S. military commanders have updated military options if there is a nuclear test to present to President Trump. We Want to hasten to add, no indication that the President is about to order military action. It's always the same problem in North Korea. Can you really get to the target and what would North Korea do? Would it unleash against South Korea and that is always one of the big stoppers in any potential idea of retaliating against the North?

TAPPER: Barbara, what would those options -- what might they look like?

STARR: Well, I mean, I suppose the idea is that U.S. spy satellites have very closely been tracking the location of the underground test site, what goes on there, the location of where North Korea is fabricating this fissile material, missile construction sites, missile launchers. The idea would be to take out were North Korea's ability to build and field an intercontinental ballistic with a nuclear warhead, but that is problematic. You have to take it all out at once and you have to do something about North Korea's ability to launch a barrage of artillery attacks against downtown Seoul, South Korea, Jake.

[16:55:50] TAPPER: To say nothing of U.S. troops nearby. Barbara Starr, thank you so much. As North Korea poses this growing threat, President Trump tried to pressure North Korea in a tweet just a few minutes ago saying, quote, while I greatly appreciate the efforts of Chinese President Xi in China to help with North Korea, it has not worked out. At least I know china tried. This announcement comes just a day after American student Otto Warmbier died after being released from North Korean detention. Now his death is prompting outrage and sadness and an intense debate over how the U.S. should respond. CNN's Elise Labott brings us this report.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's a total disgrace what happened to Otto.

ELISE LABOTT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Tonight pressure is building on the White House to hold North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un responsible for the death of Otto Warmbier.

TRUMP: That should never, ever be allowed to happen, and frankly, if he were brought home sooner, I think the result would have been a lot different.

LABOTT: The 22-year-old student seen here at his high school graduation --

OTTO WARMBIER, NORTH KOREAN PRISONER: This is our season finale. wake-up is the end of one great show.

LABOTT: -- was sentenced to hard labor for allegedly pulling down a propaganda banter in a North Korean hotel. And lawmakers are calling his death a wakeup call for action. Senator Marco Rubio tweeting, Otto Warmbier should never have been in jail for tearing down a stupid banner and he most certainly should not have been murdered for it.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: What do you think about someone who comes back totally incomprehensible and with significant brain damage, what would you describe this?

LABOTT: Senator John McCain called it murder, plain and simple but couldn't say how they U.S. should respond.

MCCAIN: We're the most powerful nation on earth, we have lots of options.

LABOTT: With North Korean weapons pointed at South Korea and Japan, Senior U.S. official say the cost of military retaliation is too high. They fear for the safety of the three Americans still being held by North Korea, businessmen Kim Dong Chul and professors Tony Kim and Kim Hak Song. And they hope North Korea decision to release Warmbier, the result of direct talks could pave the way for more dialogue. Just last month, President Trump offered to sit down with Kim in an interview with Bloomberg News.

TRUMP: If it would be appropriate for me to meet with him, I would absolutely --I would be honored to do it.

SPICER: The context in which he said that was if the conditions -- if the right conditions presented themselves, clearly we're moving further away, not closer to, those conditions being in act. So I would not suggest that we're moving any closer. LABOTT: The tour company that brought Otto Warmbier to North Korea now says it will stop trips to the country, and the state department is looking for ways to prevent Americans from traveling there and putting themselves at risk, like an executive order or Visa restriction.

HEATHER NAERT, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESWOMAN: Do not go to North Korea. We can't get to you there. We have to rely on Sweden, and you know what can happen.


LABOTT: Now, let's go back to that tweet from the President. When he says that China's efforts with North Korea hadn't worked out, he seemed to have as President Trump putting the Chinese on the defensive before wide-ranging talks between the U.S. and China tomorrow at the State Department. The U.S. policy on North Korea centers around putting pressure on North Korea through China. So that means using trade with China as a weapon, and if the President is saying that President Xi can't influence North Korea, China won't have a very strong bargaining position at the table. It's a message to the Chinese, they need to step it up, Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Elise Labott, thank you so much. Today is nationally dangerous weather. In two parts of the U.S. heat is scorching the west. Before temperature has even had the chance to soar near record of 119 today. Airlines in Phoenix canceled dozens of flights as a precaution. Most planes need more speed and space to take off in the heat. The runways in Phoenix are simply not long enough. The heat and dry conditions also don't help firefighters in California trying to stop the spread of wildfires. Meanwhile, tropical storm Cindy forms posing a flood threat to the Gulf Coast. There's also tropical storm Bret moving across the Caribbean. This is the first time in 49 years two storms have been named simultaneously in the month of June.

That's it for THE LEAD, I'm Jake Tapper, you can follow me on Twitter @jaketapper or @theleadcnn. We also have a Facebook page. I now turn you over to Wolf Blitzer in "THE SITUATION ROOM." Thanks for watching.