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Country Prepares for Another Storm; State Dinner at the White House; New Christie Remarks On Widening Scandal; Clean Debt Limit Vote Passes In The House; Clean Debt Ceiling Vote Passes in the House; Another Obamacare Delay; Attorney General Pushes for Letting Ex- Convicts Vote; Justice Clarence Thomas Talks About Race; Why Fed Don't Do What American Want?; Hospital May Have Exposed Patients to Deadly Disease

Aired February 11, 2014 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: All right, Jake.

Thanks very much.

Happening now, breaking news, a catastrophic storm. The South is in the bull's eye right now. The East Coast is coming up next. Millions of people are at risk for dangerous ice, paralyzing snow and massive power outages.

Plus, the widening scandal -- the governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, answering questions about Bridge Gate, as we learn new details about the investigation and a slew of brand new subpoenas.

And should ex-convicts get to vote?

The Obama administration takes a new stand, coming down on the side of former inmates and Tea Party conservatives.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.


It could be the most dangerous ice storm in the South in at least a decade. And it's pushing deep, deep right now into the South. And by the end of the week, a huge chunk of the country may be reeling, including here in the Northeast. Forecasters are warning of a treacherous mix of rain and sleet and ice and snow. At least seven states already have declared emergencies, from Mississippi and Alabama into Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia.

This hour, the focus of our attention is on Atlanta, where snow and ice shut down the city two weeks ago. This storm, though, could be even worse, with massive power outages on top of paralyzing conditions.

CNN's Ed Lavandera is standing by in Atlanta.

But let's go to our severe weather, Chad Myers, for the very latest -- Chad. CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Wolf, how this storm is different is that the last storm was snow. Not much, this much, but two inches made slick roads. We're not going to have people skidding all over the roads, because there aren't going to be any people on the roads this time. They know an ice storm is coming and it means something to Texas. That means something to Louisiana, and, also, of course, to Georgia.

When you hear the word ice, we already realize that we can't drive on it. And by tomorrow, 7:00 a.m., there will be a half an inch of ice everywhere. So people aren't going to go out like they tried to last time. They will be stuck at home. And they're going to stay there.

Then the snow, tomorrow night, gets to you, DC, 11:00; New York City, 7:00 a.m., by the time Thursday morning rolls around.

This is a large storm that makes the big left hand turn. That's the storm that's going to make the ice.

But here's the treachery, right through here. Through North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, that spot right there is three quarters of an inch to one inch of ice everywhere -- all the power lines, all the trees, all the houses, all -- everything that's in the sky is going to have three quarters of an inch to an inch of ice on it. And all of those things are going to come crashing down. All the trees around Augusta, around Atlanta, around Columbia, South Carolina into Wilmington, into North Carolina, all of those trees are going to come down and so will the power lines.

When that happens, we're going to have millions -- millions of people without power. And it's going to be a long power outage. This isn't going to be a one or two day. There are going to be so many power lines to put back up, it's going to take a long time.

And then there's your snow, DC, Philadelphia and New York City, all between eight and 10 inches of snow, all expected between Wednesday and Thursday night. So it doesn't matter where you go up and down I- 95, you're going to see a lot of snow up there.

Down here, along 85 and 75, it's all ice -- Wolf.

BLITZER: It's hard to believe, but I mean they're already canceling flights. This is going to be a massive flight setback for a lot of folks who were planning on traveling.

MYERS: I don't think -- and this is my opinion -- I don't think we'll get 10 percent of the flights through Atlanta that we should on a given day. There is just no chance. We don't have the equipment for the deicing, for one thing. We have some, but not a lot. And you're not going to want to put planes on the tarmac and have them sit there and get coated in inch of an ice that may take a half a week to get rid of. They don't want those planes sitting there encased in that ice. Planes aren't even coming in tonight. We're already getting cancellations on the way in, because they don't want those planes sitting there overnight and getting completely encased.

BLITZER: All right, chad, we're going to get back to you.

I know you're getting new information all the time.

But let's go to the streets of Atlanta right now, where officials say they're more prepared for this storm after the winter travel debacle only two weeks ago.

CNN's Ed Lavandera is on the scene for us.

What's it like in Atlanta -- Ed?

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the scene you see behind me, it might not look like much, but it really kind of tells the story. This is rush hour traffic, essentially, here in Atlanta. This is an Interstate shooting out the north side of downtown Atlanta.

On any given day, this would be packed with cars at this time of day. But look how freely rolling everything is right now. You can see just a light mist and drizzle throughout much of the day, which hasn't frozen over just yet. Temperatures haven't dropped that low.

But this is really an indication of just how seriously people across the region are taking the threat of this storm and getting ready in advance.

Many schools throughout the region shut down today; businesses, as well. A lot of advanced closures already announced for tomorrow, as well.

The governor says they brought in about 180 tons of extra sand and salt to help clear off the roadways, or at least make the roadways more drivable. And state officials and city officials insist that people need to take precautions.


GOV. NATHAN DEAL (R), GEORGIA: I would simply say to them, we're not kidding, we're not just crying wolf. It is serious business and it is something that the greatest cooperation that we can receive from the public will be our best asset.


LAVANDERA: And, Wolf, as Chad mentioned, the brunt of this storm will really, in the most severe parts, start hitting in the overnight hours into early tomorrow. So when people wake up tomorrow, we'll have a much better sense of just how severe and how much ice we will be dealing with throughout the day tomorrow -- Wolf.

BLITZER: As you know, Ed, people in the Atlanta area, they went through hell just a couple of weeks ago.

How are they reacting to the current forecast?

LAVANDERA: Well, you know, this interstate you see behind me was one of those places with those notorious images of people stranded along the highway. And highways have been turned into parking lots. We've seen people who are expecting to be kind of trapped in their homes for the next couple of days make runs at grocery stores for all of -- bread, milk, all the basic and essentials, pictures of the empty store shelves, pictures of parking lots at these grocery stores packed with cars. So people are really heeding the warnings this time around and making sure that they're prepared just in case they have to deal with some really treacherous and dangerous situations over the next couple of days.

BLITZER: Ed Lavandera in Atlanta for us.

Ed, we'll check back with you, as well, before the bad weather hits here in the Washington, DC area.

A rare and glamorous event over at the White House tonight. The Obamas are hosting a state dinner for the visiting French president. Guests are arriving soon.

The gala party coming after a joint news conference by the two leaders.

Details on that from our senior White House correspondent, Brianna Keilar.


BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): During a press conference with visiting French President Francois Hollande, President Obama was anything but subtle, warning companies around the globe against doing business with Iran.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I can tell you that they do so at their own peril right now, because we will come down on them like a ton of bricks, you know, with respect to the sanctions that we control.

KEILAR: The smack-down was prompted by French business leaders who visited Iran last week, as the U.S., France and other countries try to broker a long-term deal designed to keep Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.

With a civil war raging in Syria for almost three years now, Obama and Hollande admitted frustration, but offered no clear way forward.

OBAMA: The horrendous situation on the ground in Syria. Right now, we don't think that there is a military solution, per se, to the problem. But the situation is fluid and we are continuing to explore every possible avenue.

KEILAR: Obama invited Hollande to the U.S. for the state visit in November, a few months after the French leader backed U.S. plans to launch air strikes on Syria, when Great Britain did not. Ultimately, Obama decided not to strike, but the move cost Hollande political capital at home.

One French reporter asked Obama if he now considers France a better friend than Britain.

OBAMA: I have two daughters and they are both gorgeous and wonderful. And I would never choose between them. And that's how I feel about my outstanding European partners.

KEILAR: Many in France were outraged when a newspaper revealed the NSA had swept up 70 million records of French phone calls. Last month, Obama assured allies of new privacy protections for non-US citizens, and both Obama and Hollande tried to put the issue to rest.

PRES. FRANCOIS HOLLANDE, FRANCE (through translator): Following the revelations that appeared due to Mr. Snowden, we clarified things. President Obama and myself clarified things. Then, this was in the past.


KEILAR: But perhaps a sign that things weren't entirely in the past, Wolf, a French reporter asked President Obama if perhaps a no spying agreement that the U.S. has with the U.K. might be extended to France. This was shorthand for an intel sharing agreement that the U.S. has with Canada, with the U.K., New Zealand and Australia.

And President Obama said, quote, Wolf, "It's not actually correct to say that we have a, quote/unquote, 'no spy agreement.' That's not actually what happens," making it clear that there really is no commitment on the part of the U.S. to not spy on other governments, including allies.

BLITZER: But there's no doubt -- there's no doubt that France is not in that elite category of those four other English speaking countries you discussed?

KEILAR: No, that's right, they aren't. And one of the things that we heard from President Hollande today that I thought sort of -- we heard a couple of times. He was talking about cooperation in intelligence.

So in a way, you sort of see, following this fallout from the U.S. gathering of French phone records, you see France trying to pivot now to say we would like to do more cooperation, and the U.S. and France trying to frame their relationship when it comes to intelligence in that way instead -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And the president made a point of announcing he'll be in France in June for the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion during World War II. So he'll be off to France for that.

Brianna, thanks very much for that.

A critical vote is underway for the House of Representatives to raise the nation's debt ceiling. That roll call has just started. They need, what, 218 votes to raise the nation's debt ceiling. The president said he wanted what's called a clean bill, no strings attached.

The speaker of the House is allowing that clean bill to go forward right now. We're all over this story. It's very important.

If it fails, there could be a serious, serious downgrading of the U.S. credit rating worldwide. There is fear of a potential default. But if they have the votes, obviously, the debt ceiling will be raised.

Stand by.

We'll have much more on that.

Also, the governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, speaking out for the first time in weeks about the scandal engulfing his administration and his presidential hopes. we'll tell you what he's saying.

And more than a dozen patients went into this hospital for brain surgery and they were exposed to a deadly disorder.

Our own Dr. Sanjay Gupta, he's a neurosurgeon. He's standing by to explain what happened, what patients can do to protect themselves.

How could this happen?


BLITZER: The New Jersey governor, Chris Christie, insists he's moving forward despite the scandal rocking his administration right now. The possible Republican presidential contender went to Chicago today even if the so-called Bridgegate controversy intensified back in his home state.

We have team coverage of Christie's remarks, the political fallout he's facing. We also have new details on the investigation. First, let's go to our chief Congressional correspondent, Dana Bash. She's in Chicago. She's been watching Christie all day. How did it go?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it was interesting because Chris Christie used this appearance to promise to make public the internal investigation his office is doing into Bridgegate, while at the same time, saying that it's not a distraction from his second term, the term that he was hoping to use to prove that he can get things done in a blue state.


BASH (voice-over): Chris Christie tried to frame his handling of the scandal that exploded around him as a sign of strength.

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE, (R) NEW JERSEY: If you're a leader, you have to try to get a handle on the story and then take decisive action which we did by letting people go and talking to the public about it. If there's more action that needs to be taken, I'll take it.

BASH: Christie only got one question about September's lane closing controversy during this hour at the Chicago Economic Club, a friendly forum. The questioner, Greg Brown, is someone Christie appointed to the Rutgers University Board of Governors in 2012. CHRISTIE: Last six week, it's not been the most enjoyable of my life, I can guarantee you. On the other hand, the fact is, we need to do our work.

BASH: This Illinois trip follows two others to Florida and Texas where Christie's meetings with Republicans stayed behind closed doors, something Democrats are using to label him as a pariah.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Rather than greet his fellow governor in public.

BASH: But here, GOP gubernatorial candidate, Bill Brady, did come to show his support.

You are the only Republican running for office, so far, to appear in a public place with Chris Christie. Why?

BILL BRADY, (R) ILLINOIS GUBERNATORIAL CANDIDATE: I don't understand why anyone wouldn't. He's head of the Republican Governors association which is going to raise a lot of money to help elect a Republican governor here in Illinois.

BASH: Democrats are determined to keep the pressure on Christie, even sending former Ohio governor, Ted Strickland, 350 miles to taunt him.

Governor, why exactly are you here?

TED STRICKLAND, (D) FORMER OHIO GOVERNOR: I'm here because Governor Chris Christie, his office at least, engaged in reprehensible behavior.

BASH: As for Christie, most of this appearance was a chance to be the straight talking politician that made him a national figure in the first place, like criticizing Washington.

CHRISTIE: Because they either have to change themselves or they have to be replaced.

BASH: Even if some comments may now have a different context.

CHRISTIE: Voting, especially for an executive, a governor, or a president is a visceral action. People look at the person and say, do I like the person? Do I trust him?


BASH (on-camera): Now, Christie also, he praised on the last Republican president, George W. Bush, calling him grossly underappreciated as president and also made a point of saying that he handled his post-presidency with class by not butting in. But as for the current president, Barack Obama, he also sounded pretty partisan, like most Republicans would at saying that he is to blame for the partisanship and the toxic atmosphere in Washington -- Wolf.

BASH: All right. Dana, thank you. We're going to get back to you shortly. Let's go to the Jersey, though, right now, in the capital of New Jersey, Trenton, where there are new developments in that so-called Bridgegate scandal. Chris Frates of CNN Investigations is on the scene for us in Trenton. What's the latest, Chris.

CHRIS FRATES, CNN INVESTIGATIONS: Well, I'll tell you, Wolf, some good news for Governor Christie today out of New Jersey. The State Election Commission said that he is allowed to use his campaign funds to answer questions at the U.S. attorney and the state legislative panel have about Bridgegate. So, he's allowed to use about $126,000 that was in his re-election fund to answer those questions.

That's for attorney's fees, for data processing, and he's also allowed to tap into that donor base and ask them for more money should he need it. Now, something important to note here, Wolf, this isn't money that Chris Christie, himself, could use for a personal lawyer and it's not something that any of his former employees, like his campaign manager, Bill Stepien, could use.

This is simply to answer and get records from the re-election campaign. But still, good news for Christie, he doesn't have to go another route to pay for that.

BLITZER: And we know he's also hired some major high-profile attorneys, right?

FRATES: Well, that's right, wolf. He's hired somebody -- his re- election campaign has hired somebody from Pat and Boggs and he's also has a separate attorney for the governor's office. So, there's plenty of lawyers working for Chris Christie, and now, we know that at least one of them, the one representing the re-election campaign, will be able to be paid by money that was left over from his successful run in November.

BLITZER: What's the latest on that rumored helicopter ride he made on September 11th, early reports suggested maybe he flew over the George Washington Bridge traffic scandal. What do we know about that?

FRATES: Well, we know that state lawmakers said yesterday that state lawmakers investigating Bridgegate here in Trenton said that they are interested in whether or not Christie used his helicopter to fly over the George Washington Bridge and whether or not he had anybody in that helicopter with him. Today, the state police put out a statement and said that during the three flights he took that week, none of them went over to George Washington Bridge.

Now, that will be of interest to lawmakers who are wondering, you know, when really did Christie find out about the bridge backups? Did he maybe see them as he went over the bridge? State police saying, no.

BLITZER: And we know that more subpoenas have been issued. Chris Frates in Trenton for us working hard. Thank you.

Coming up, have Republican leaders surrendered on an issue where President Obama staked out a firm line? Plus, the Supreme Court justice, Clarence Thomas, on race in America and hurt feelings.

Also, patients exposed in a hospital to a fatal disorder. Dr. Sanjay Gupta will tell us what went wrong and how dangerous it really may be.


BLITZER: Looking at a live picture right now, 216 votes. They need 218 votes. They're voting on a clean debt limit bill, raising the nation's debt ceiling. No strings attached. That was the demand of President Obama today. The Speaker John Boehner, he accepted earlier they wanted some conditions attached to go ahead with even a vote, but in the end, he agreed to go ahead and allow this vote. 216 votes right now.

Strategically, it could be a strong tactic, though, for the Republicans. They want to move on, get back to Obamacare. They see that as a huge issue looking ahead to the midterm elections in November of this year. Our chief national correspondent, John King, is over at the magic wall to explain what's going on. John, tell our viewers how it looks looking ahead to November. We'll keep an eye on the House floor at the same time.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, as you watch the House floor, let's start with the basic math and we'll show you the United States Senate as we go right now and that's just decided to go south on me. So, I'm not going to be able to show you that. Let me see if I can fix it. Try it again. That's not going to work, so we can't do this.

I will tell you one thing, one of the reasons the Republicans think they have right now, they want to focus on Obamacare, Obamacare, Obamacare between now and the elections. And one of the ways they're trying to do that is with early ads and key target states hitting vulnerable Democrats trying to tie them to the president and the health care plan, Wolf, they hope it's unpopular now than all the way through November. Take a listen.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Kay Hagan, she just doesn't get it.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Kay Hagan (ph), Obamacare hurts North Carolina.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Senator Begich didn't listen. How can I trust him again?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Insisted, she sided with Barack Obama.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: If I had to vote for the bill again, I would vote for it tomorrow.


BLITZER: We're going to get back to John in a moment, John, but there's a breaking news that we're following. They've gone over 218 votes in the House of Representatives. They're at 220 right now. So, they've agreed in the House, 221, to raise the nation's debt ceiling. The legislation will go to the Senate where it's expected to pass as well.

The president will sign it into law and there will not be any problem with the nation's credit worthiness, no degrading of the nation's credit worthiness right now. So, obviously, a very important development for U.S. economic policy. The treasury secretary, Jack Lew, had said they need to do this by the end of February. They now have done it in the House of Representatives.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: On this vote, the yeas are 221, the nays are 201. The bill has passed without objection. The motion to reconsider is laid on the table.


BLITZER: All right. There you have it. It's passed the House of Representatives. They got more than the 218 votes. Got to go to the Senate. Already some members of the Senate indicating they may try to filibuster, meaning, they would need 60 votes to get it passed in the Senate, 55 Democrats, 53 Democrats and two independents who side with the Democrats.

Dana Bash, you're our chief Congressional correspondent, I assume they have 60 Democrats and Republicans in the Senate to pass this?

BASH: Likely so. But as you said, it is not going to be easy. It's not just going to fly through the Senate. Our Ted Barrett who covers the Senate just talked to Ted Cruz of Texas who, not surprisingly, is saying that he will make sure that it will be a 60-vote threshold required to pass this in the Senate. But just sort of taking a moment to talk about what just happened on the House floor and the numbers that we saw, Wolf, only 28 Republicans votes yes, 199 voted no.

So, the vast, vast majority, almost all Republicans voted against this clean debt ceiling increase. They needed so many Democratic votes, 192 Democratic votes to pass this. So, you know, we've certainly been looking at this, asking why John Boehner, the House Speaker, decided to go ahead and do this and the answer is actually pretty simple. He has set from the get-go that he did not want a fight on this.

He understood the importance of this country not defaulting on its debt. He understood also the political liability for Republicans if they had a big brinksmanship fight once again on something that is so important. So, that is why he did this. Now, certainly, there were a lot of discussions over the past two weeks, serious discussions within the House Republican caucus about various conditions that they could try to put on this.

But the reality is, they were going through the motions, Wolf, because privately, Republican leadership sources were telling us a couple of weeks ago that they simply did not see the votes being there for any kind of condition along with this debt ceiling within the Republican Party because there were so many people who would not vote for any increase in the debt ceiling no matter what was attached to it.

So the discussions were going through the motion. John Boehner and his colleagues knew pretty much all along that they would have to practically pull off the band-aid and do this which would be a short- term disappointment but maybe a long-term positive thing, he thought, for the Republican Party.

BLITZER: Yes. That -- they don't have to worry about that, at least in the House of Representatives. It goes to the Senate, they'll need five moderate Republicans to go ahead and join the Democrats to break that 60-vote filibuster. Let's see what happens tomorrow.

That's Dana. Thanks very much.

Let's go back to John King over at the magic wall.

John, we were talking about the midterm elections and how the Republicans, they are sensing not only can keep their majority in the House but they may become the majority in the Senate.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: And right. That's why Speaker Boehner is taking a lot of grief from conservatives. They wanted to get more from the debt ceiling vote. He wants to get to November and avoid any landmines like the debt ceiling, like his about-face on immigration the other day.

Let's look at the Senate calculation and let's look right now at the current math. You have Democrats at 55, that's counting the two independents who side with the Democrats. And here's what the Republicans are thinking. They think this map is going to help them.

Here's what's up this year. Thirty-six seats up, a lot of Republican seats up, but if you look at the early terrain, a lot can change between February and November but these are the races. You see the white races. These are the ones that are viewed right now as potentially in play. Only two of them, Kentucky and Georgia, are Republican seats.

So the Republicans need plus six. Look at all these Democratic terrain. The Republicans think it's almost automatic that they pick up this South Dakota seat now held by a Democrat. They think it's almost automatic that they pick up this West Virginia seat, now held by a retiring Democrat. They're very confident, although the Democrat say this could be a tougher one. The Republicans are confident they could pick up Montana.

Where does that get you? That's 46-44.

Let's keep going through the math. This will be a tough fight all the way through. The Republicans think they can get Mary Landrieu, the incumbent in Louisiana. They also think they can defeat Mark Begich. Again, let's see how the Republican primary turns out. But Republicans think they can pick up Alaska. So then you're looking at a map where Arkansas would be their next target and Mark Pryor. I'll stop here after switching this one. Again, this hypothetical Democrats. Don't get nervous. But if they got those, Wolf, which is a big but, 49-44 and then you're looking at North Carolina, Michigan, New Hampshire, Virginia, and Iowa. Now should Republicans be confident they can get those states, let's look at it this way. These are the 12 states. See the blue highlights?

Twelve states now held by Democrats that Republicans will target for the Senate this year. Well, let's take a look. If they are red, that means President Obama lost them twice in 2008 and 2012. So you can understand, especially given the president's standing now, why Republicans are confident about Alaska, Montana, South Dakota, Arkansas, and Louisiana, West Virginia. North Carolina is split because the president won it once and lost it once.

Why are Republicans confident about these blue states, Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, New Hampshire, Virginia, that the president carried twice? Well, because of this. At the end of last year coming into the election year, look at the president's approval rating.

He dropped below 50, Wolf, in all of those states. So that's why the Republicans think if they can keep this focus between now and November on the president and on his health care plan, they can get that plus six in the Senate and keep their House majority. Again, it's early but Republicans think at the moment these numbers and that map favor them.

BLITZER: Yes, they're pretty confident right now but there's a lot that could happen between now and November.

John, come on over here. Our chief political analyst Gloria Borger is here, as well Jeffrey Toobin, our senior legal analyst.

Gloria, Senator Claire McCaskill, she said -- she was asked today if you were in, what, Arkansas, Louisiana, North Carolina, up for reelection --


BLITZER: Would you want the president to come in and campaign with you? She said probably not.

BORGER: Right.

BLITZER: She was pretty blunt.

BORGER: She was being blunt about it and, you know, as John just went through the math over there and it's pretty obvious, four Democrats are going to seek re-election in states that Mitt Romney won. This is difficult for them. They have a fine line to walk, though, which is they want to distance themselves from the president. They don't want to turn him into a lame-duck too early.

They're very worried about this becoming what we call a wave election, which would mean sort of anti-Democrat election, sixth year of a presidency, is always difficult midterm elections for this president. Not only are Obama's approval numbers down, but when you look at his numbers also on competence and trustworthiness, those numbers are down.

So they want to maintain a distance, assert their independence, but they don't want to turn them into somebody who can't do anything for the next few years. So that's a problem for them.

BLITZER: It's a serious problem for them.


BLITZER: Sure. It certainly is.

Jeffrey Toobin, let's talk a little bit about the law in all of this. Specifically on the Affordable Care Act. The president keeps delaying implementation, the various parts of it, even though it was supposed to be fully implemented by, what, 2013?

A couple of questions. And you've studied the law on this. Republicans say this is not really constitutional, either he implements it or he doesn't implement it. And then the other thing is that if there's a Republican elected in 2016, all these executive orders the president signs, delaying or changing or whatever, can a Republican president simply sign another executive order reversing all those decisions in effect killing Obamacare?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, it terms of your first question about how can Obama do this? How can he keep delaying these provisions?

As you'll recall, as the Supreme Court held, Obamacare is fundamentally a tax. It has tax provisions and there is a provision of law that predates Obamacare that says the secretary of the Treasury, who supervises the Internal Revenue Service, can delay, can effectively administer any new provision of tax law. And that is what the Obama administration is putting their -- they are trusting in that piece of legislation which they point out is not new, has applied to all new tax laws for many years and that's why they say this is justifiable.

Now can a Republican president turn it around? Not exactly. Once the law is administered and on the books, it can't be revoked, except by an act of Congress but it can be tweaked. And certainly a Republican president would seek to tweak anything he or she could to make Obamacare at least different if not gone altogether.

BLITZER: John, let me get back to the breaking news. The House of Representatives narrowly passed clean legislation, raising the nation's debt ceiling, which is what the White House -- the president had demanded.

What does it say to you, this narrow approval, now that we -- now we can move on to the Senate?

KING: It says to me that the Republicans and especially Speaker Boehner are willing to take short-term hits. Go to a conservative blog right now, the speaker is taking hits. Why didn't we get something for this? Why didn't you use leverage against the president?

He's tried to get from now to November. If they dragged this out, we've been through this before. The markets get jittery. Things happen and people blame the Republicans. Not quite the size of the scope of the government shutdown but people are pointing their fingers at the Republicans.

Speaker Boehner wants to avoid any possible landmine. Get through the debt ceiling, take any incoming, fine. His idea is get to November and we win. We add -- add seats in the House, add seats in the Senate, then people won't be pointing their fingers at us.


BLITZER: All right --

BORGER: Don't you think Republicans also learned a little something from the shutdown which is that they don't want to go through that again so that even the most conservatives were saying, look, we're going to end up having to hold our noses and vote for something anyways so let's get it over with?

BLITZER: I think the speaker definitely learned that.

All right, guys, stand by.

Up next, should ex-convicts be able to vote? The politics behind the Obama administration's new push.

And the Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas talking about race in the 1960s, where he'd be now if he let his own feelings get hurt.


BLITZER: An unusual alliance today between the attorney general of the United States, Eric Holder, and some leading voices in the Tea Party movement. For the first time Holder is calling for a change in state laws that prevent millions of ex-convicts from voting laws that have the biggest impact on African-American men.

Let's talk about that and more. Joining us our "CROSSFIRE" co-hosts S.E. Cupp and Van Jones, along with our senior legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin, who's still with us.

Jeffrey, you just interviewed the attorney general for the issue of "New Yorker" magazine. I'll put it up on the screen. Among other things he said, "The history of this nation has always been to try to expand the franchise, whether it's freed slaves, women, young people, we've always found ways to make it easier to vote. We've always found ways in which we've made the voting process more inclusive."

So what do you think about this? Is this likely to go anywhere? What is your sense? TOOBIN: Well, he has -- the Justice Department has filed lawsuits against North Carolina and Texas to try to overturn their photo I.D. laws and other laws that were passed in the wake of the Supreme Court's gutting of the Voting Rights Act.

I think the speech today about a felon voting is all part of Eric Holder I think trying to reorient his tenure as attorney general away from things like national security and towards civil rights, which is, I think what he would rather be concentrating on than other areas that have given him a lot of problems.

BLITZER: Where do you stand on this, S.E.? Then I'm going to -- Van, quickly, but S.E. first.

S.E. CUPP, CNN HOST, CROSSFIRE: Well, I think Republicans often get into trouble and I'm not surprised that Rand Paul and Mike Lee are with Holder on this. Republicans often get into trouble and Democrats raise these issues like equal pay, Lilly Ledbetter, violence against women, the voting rights, issues that might be important and should -- deserve debate, but that are generally designed to also make Republicans look very intolerant.

Often we fall into that trap even when we have good arguments against all of this stuff and there are good arguments against felony voting.

VAN JONES, CNN HOST, CROSSFIRE: Well, first of all, I think this is the beginning of something very important. I think you're going to begin to see a left-right alliance. Trying to do something about this out-of-control prejudice. If you're a conservative and you're concerned about big bloated government bureaucracy getting out of control, the prison system really is ripe, should be at the top of your list.

BLITZER: All right. This is going to be a huge debate.


BLITZER: Let me get your quick reaction in Justice Clarence Thomas. He said at Palm Beach Atlantic University, quote, "My sadness is that we are probably today more race and difference-conscious than I was in the 1960s when I went to school. To my knowledge, I was the first black kid in Savannah, Georgia, to go to a white school. Rarely did the issue of race come up."

What's your reaction to that?

JONES: Well, you know, it's interesting. First of all, it could actually be true. People say that's not true. It could be true when you're one out of a couple of hundred. The problem is, we actually have more difference now to manage. When I left the rural south and went to California, I suddenly had to learn that kids from Iran are not Arab. Filipino kids don't speak Spanish. They speak Tagalog.

We have a -- we have the most diverse country probably in the history of the world and when you're trying to figure out how to make that work, you've got to be able to talk about it. BLITZER: We have real three polls that recently came out. I want to get your sense, S.E., because the new poll, the Atlantic Council, asked the American people, would you favor normalizing relations with Cuba? 56 percent favor, 35 percent oppose. A recent CNN/ORC poll, do you want some illegal immigrants to stay in the United States, eventually apply for citizenship? 81 percent favor that, 17 percent oppose. Earlier another CNN poll, tougher background checks to buy guns, 86 percent favor, 14 percent oppose.

JONES: These are -- these are great polls.

BLITZER: None of this stuff -- none of this stuff, though, gets through Congress.

CUPP: Yes.

BLITZER: Even though there seems to be decisive majorities of the American people who want it.

CUPP: Well, American majorities approve of Keystone, American majorities disapprove of Obamacare, American majorities want Iranian sanctions, American majorities want a lot of things. And Congress listens to those majorities as well. And the American people, I hate to say it, don't always get what they want.

It's a divided country. Congress and president has to listen to everyone, not just pick and choose the people they agree with.

JONES: Well, look, I think it's actually telling that things are completely off the table here in Washington, D.C., or actually if you go to luncheon or a barber shop, few things that people are willing to discuss. I do wish the range of options was bigger for the political class. It certainly is for the American people.

BLITZER: We'll see you guys on "CROSSFIRE" after the SITUATION ROOM, 6:30 p.m. Eastern.

JONES: Absolutely.

CUPP: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks very much.

Jeffrey Toobin, as usual, thanks to you as well.

Just ahead, some patients in North Carolina may have been exposed to a fatal brain disease at the hospital. So how could this happen? Our own Dr. Sanjay Gupta is standing live to explain.

And it may be the Winter Olympic Games but it looks more like spring in Sochi. How the 60-degree weather is causing some problems for the athletes.


BLITZER: Imagine going under the knife for brain surgery and waking up to learn you have a chance for a rare incurable neurological disorder. That's the scenario 18 people in North Carolina could be facing.

A Winston Salem hospital is warning 18 patients that they may have been exposed to the fatal disorder that can take years to even show up.

Our chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta is joining us now to explain.

Sanjay, you're a neurosurgeon. Here's the question. How could something like this happen?

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, this was a mistake, Wolf. There's no two ways about it. And the hospital has acknowledged that.

We're talking about an infection of the brain known as Creutzfeldt- Jakob Disease or CJD. This is, as you point out, a very rare neurological disorder.

But what happened in this case, Wolf, is that back on January 18th a patient who is suspected of having this disease underwent an operation. What should have happened to the instruments after that operation is they should have gone through a very specialized cleaning process. That didn't happen. The instruments were then used again on 18 more patients before this problem was recognized.

Those are the 18 patients in question. The original patient was subsequently confirmed to actually have the disease and that's what prompted this new announcement and this warning as you point out to these 18 patients.

BLITZER: How deadly is this CJD, as it's called? What's the likelihood these exposed patients could actually get this fatal disease?

GUPTA: Well, if you get it, it's unfortunately a terrible diagnosis. I mean, this is a disease that could start off with, you know, simple sort of dementia-like symptoms but it progresses very rapidly. That's the bad news. The good news -- to the second part of your question -- is that it's very unlikely for patients to get this disease through contaminated instruments.

In fact we talked to folks at CDC, the Centers for Disease Control, they couldn't find a confirmed case of people getting the disease through contaminated instruments since 1976. So it's concerning, people worry about it, but the likelihood is very low.

What I can tell you, Wolf, is having done brain biopsies myself on patients like this, the psychological impact is hard to overestimate. I mean, you just don't know if you have it or not. It could take years, as you said, for the symptoms to develop. So that's the really tough part for these 18 patients.

Very, very low chance they have it but psychologically they've got to sort of live with that not knowing for a long time.

BLITZER: I've heard of cases, I'm sure you have as well, Sanjay, of people actually purchasing their own surgical equipment before a major surgery so they don't have to worry about infection.

GUPTA: Yes. And, you know, hopefully that wouldn't need to be the case here. But you know, you can understand that concern and you can understand it becoming more of a concern after you hear a story like this. You know, typically when instruments are sterilized it goes through an autoclaving process. They use various chemicals, they heat up the area to about 270 degrees. And that typically takes care of just about every infectious agent.

In this particular scenario, CJD, you're talking about something known as preons. And these preons are just really resistant. That's what causes the infection and you have to use other agents, as well. So I've heard the stories you have, Wolf, but, you know, and as a doctor myself who works in a hospital, I hate to hear stories like that because you'd like to think that we do a good enough job. But in this case they clear didn't.

BLITZER: Clearly. All right. Sanjay, thanks very much.

GUPTA: You got it.

BLITZER: And to our viewers remember you can always see Dr. Sanjay Gupta on his show, "SANJAY GUPTA MD". It airs Saturdays 4:30 p.m. Eastern, Sunday mornings 7:30 a.m. Eastern.

A new spill in West Virginia as officials again worried about the water. Slurry -- sludgy waste left over from coal mining has leaked from a ruptured pipe into a local creek overnight just miles from last month's major chemical spill. And like that one this one contains MCHM, that's a dangerous chemical.

Local officials are on the scene right now containing the spill. They're testing the water. They say it does not affect drinking water. Just more problems for West Virginia.

Coming up, alarming new testimony from the nation's top intelligent official is warning the threat from al Qaeda is growing.

And it may be the Winter Olympic Games but it looks a lot more like spring in Sochi. How the 60-degree weather is causing problems for athletes.