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Political Stakes Seem To Be Enormous For President Bush Tomorrow Night; U.S. And Iraqi Troops Fight Pitched Battle With Diehard Insurgents In Center Of Baghdad; Max Cleland Interview; John Cornyn Interview; Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger Calling For Universal Health Insurance In California
Aired January 9, 2007 - 17:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM, where new pictures and information are arriving all the time. Standing by, CNN reporters across the United States and around the world to bring you today's top stories.
Happening now, it's 5:00 p.m. here in Washington, where the battle lines are forming over the Bush administration's new strategy for Iraq. As the president gets ready to present his plan, key Democrats are digging in their heels. We'll hear from both sides this hour.
It's 1:00 a.m. in Iraq, where U.S. forces are involved in a ferocious fight with insurgents right in the heart of Baghdad.
Will that boost the president's case for boosting U.S. troop levels?
And it's 2:00 p.m. in California, where the governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, proposes sweeping health care reform.
Are Republicans already out in front on this hot button issue?
I'm Wolf Blitzer.
You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
It was all out war today in the center of Baghdad, where U.S. and Iraqi troops backed by missile firing helicopters battled insurgents and foreign fighters. That fierce fight comes as President Bush prepares to go public with his plan for trying to quell the violence, a plan that sources say involves a lot more troops and a lot more money.
Meantime, some Democrats are preparing for a political fight over what they're calling an escalation in the war in Iraq.
Our senior national correspondent, John Roberts, is standing by.
So is CNN's Arwa Damon in Baghdad.
But let's begin this hour with CNN's Brian Todd in Washington -- Brian. BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, for a man who's not running for office, the political stakes seem to be enormous for President Bush tomorrow night. A gathering sense that this will determine whether Iraq's fortunes and this president's legacy can turn a corner.
TODD (voice-over): Fine tuning what many believe is a make or break plan for stabilizing Iraq, the president works behind closed doors. Democrats and Republicans from Congress shuttle in and out to consult.
REP. MIKE PENCE (R-IA), INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS COMMITTEE: This is a commander-in-chief who has decided not to fail in Iraq. I was -- I found his arguments and his strategies persuasive.
TODD: More daylight from White House officials, who refused to characterize this as a last ditch plan. But they say the speech will acknowledge that the president's optimism on Iraq has been tempered by events of the past year.
TONY SNOW, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The terrorists did succeed in unleashing sectarian violence. And now that has created a new sense -- a new set of realities that one must contend with, and the president will talk about that.
TODD: A new set of realities that Mr. Bush will address, sources say, by sending at least 20,000 more troops, announcing a billion dollar jobs program, an ambitious reconstruction effort. But already, what the president is calling is "New Way Forward" faces a potential roadblock -- a bill proposed by Senator Ted Kennedy to force the president to seek Congressional approval for his planned influx of troops.
SEN. TED KENNEDY (D), MASSACHUSETTS: And we get real accountability and we'll find out who is standing up for the American people and who is going to be continuing to support this administration's failed and flawed policy.
TODD: Kennedy's effort will likely fail, but does put Democrats on record against escalation. A new "USA Today" poll shows a majority of Americans are already in that camp.
How can the president turn the tide?
SIMON HENDERSON, WASHINGTON INSTITUTE FOR NEAR EAST POLICY: He's got to give this plan a real push and put it over with conviction. Mr. Bush might not talk of timetables, but there is a timetable out there. It's the timetable of the next presidential election.
TODD: Analysts say that means this plan might be what determines whether the next president inherits a successful turnaround in Iraq or more sectarian violence that could spill beyond Iraq's borders -- Wolf. BLITZER: Brian, thank you.
Brian Todd reporting tonight.
In some of the fiercest fighting in months -- almost 1,000 U.S. and Iraqi troops today fought a pitched battle with diehard insurgents right in the center of the Iraqi capital.
CNN's Arwa Damon is embedded with U.S. troops there -- Arwa.
ARWA DAMON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it was the most intense firefight that the capital has seen in quite some time, happening right in the heart of Baghdad on Haifa Street, pitting Sunni extremists against U.S. and Iraqi security forces.
The gun battle lasted for some 10 hours. The intensity of the firefight, at times, it seemed that the shots were just coming from all directions, pinning U.S. and Iraqi forces on rooftops. They came under sniper fire, rocket propelled grenade fire, mortar rounds that shook the buildings, machine gun fire and small arms fire.
They say that the enemy that they were facing out there was a sophisticated one. Their movements, they say, indicative of individuals who have received prior military training.
Now, this is an area that is under Iraqi control. However, over the last period of time, security there has deteriorated. The Iraqi Army wanted to go in and clear a two mile stretch of it of all weapons once and for all. They asked for American help to get that job done.
They wanted the American weapons, the American sophistication of firepower, air power, as well as help with coordination to get the job done -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Thank you, Arwa, for that.
Arwa is embedded with U.S. forces in Baghdad watching all of this unfold.
Turkey's Foreign Ministry says at least 30 people died when a chartered plane crashed in heavy fog near Balad in Iraq. A Turkish official says the plane, operated by a Moldova (ph) based company, carried 30 passengers and five crew members. An Iraqi insurgent group insists it shot down the plane. No comment on that from either Turkey or the U.S. military.
CNN and the SITUATION ROOM will bring you complete coverage of the president's address to the nation tomorrow night. I'll be joined here by Paula Zahn and the best political team on television. Tomorrow, our coverage starts 7:00 p.m. Eastern.
You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Jack Cafferty is in New York once again with The Cafferty File -- Jack.
JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks, Wolf.
It may just become the next front in the war on terror. The Pentagon says the U.S. launched air strikes on Sunday against suspected al Qaeda targets inside Somalia. The suspects are believed to be the ones behind the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya.
A Pentagon spokesman said: "We're going to remain committed to reducing terrorist capabilities where and when we find them." However, they have not said if that air strike was successful on Sunday or if the U.S. military has launched any additional attacks since then. Somali villagers did report more air strikes there today. It's the first overt U.S. military intervention in Somalia since the disastrous peacekeeping mission that ended in 1994. Remember "Blackhawk Down"?
And it may not be over. The Pentagon has moved an aircraft carrier to the region and there are four more Navy warships stationed off the coast of Somalia.
So here's the question -- should the United States launch attacks on al Qaeda targets inside Somalia?
E-mail your thoughts on that to CaffertyFile@CNN.com or go to CNN.com/CaffertyFile -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Jack, thank you for that.
And to our viewers, remember, if you want a sneak preview of Jack's questions plus an early read on the day's political news and what's ahead in THE SITUATION ROOM, you can do that by signing up for our daily e-mail alert. Just go to CNN.com/situation room.
Still ahead, first Massachusetts, now California -- looking to universal health insurance.
Will the Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's ambitious plan catch on in the rest of the country?
Also, how can President Bush convince Congress and the country that more troops could be the answer for Iraq?
I'll ask Republican Senator Jon Cornyn and I'll also speak live this hour about that with former Democratic Senator Max Cleland.
Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: If the United States redoubles its efforts in Iraq, it will come at a price. The president's Iraq strategy may involve putting more American lives at risk. And then there's also the matter of the cost in currency.
For more on that, let's turn to our senior national correspondent, John Roberts -- John. JOHN ROBERTS, SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Good afternoon to you, Wolf.
It looks like the president is going to include in his new plans for Iraq an economic initiative to spread some money around local neighborhoods, as much as a billion dollars.
The question -- will the money go where it's supposed to and will it make a difference?
ROBERTS (voice-over): In Iraq's tattered economy, militias and insurgent groups are about the best employers around. They'll pay $500 to $5,000 to plant roadside bombs and good money just to videotape the attack. The goal of this new jobs initiative is to give poor Iraqis an alternative.
FRED BARTON, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC AND INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: I think it's too little too late. We've tried this before. We've had as many as 40,000 to 60,000 Iraqis in sort of make work jobs. That's not what people are looking for right now. We -- they're looking for something that's going to be a bit more promising, that has a bit more of a future.
ROBERTS: And how to ensure the money goes where it's supposed to?
Iraq has been something of a black hole for reconstruction funds. In 2003-04, the U.S. coalition Provisional Authority lost track of $8.8 billion raised from Iraq's Oil For Food Program. The money is still unaccounted for.
Following the dollars remains a huge challenge, says the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction.
STUART BOWEN, INSPECTOR GENERAL FOR IRAQ RECONSTRUCTION: It's a mixed story. There's no one place to -- to point the finger. The fact is, is that the Iraqis need to get their house better in order to manage their own infrastructure. And it's very difficult to do that in the unstable environment that is Iraq today.
ROBERTS: In the early going, coalition employees were part of the problem. In one Iraqi town where nearly $100 million went unaccounted for, $7 million of it outright missing, the inspector general's office seized money, weapons, expensive watches, cars, even a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, and brought charges against several American officials.
In Iraq, the bad guys don't go away, they just change faces and names.
BOWEN: Corruption continues to be an issue within the Iraq government. It's been an issue for a couple of years now and that's part of the effort of my office, is to bolster the anti-corruption entities in Iraq. ROBERTS: If the Bush economic proposal goes through, U.S. patrols could soon be carrying thousands in cash to spread around Iraqi streets. The plan is to clear and secure neighborhoods and hire locals to clean up garbage, paint schools or other odd jobs.
But how to ensure the money goes into the pockets of residents and not the coffers of local militias?
BARTON: We should be giving the money to existing employers -- hospitals, businesses, grants and loans to them, so they hire more employees. That's a much better way of doing it than saying we're going the clean the streets for the next six weeks and then we go back to another model.
ROBERTS: During his first tour of duty, General David Petraeus ran a similar program in Mosul that was pretty successful. But the money ran out, Petraeus left, Mosul went downhill. While Petraeus would oversee this new jobs program, since he has been out of the country, the militias have become far more powerful and sectarian divisions far more passionate -- Wolf.
BLITZER: John, thank you for that.
John Roberts reporting tonight.
With their veteran party war horse, Senator Ted Kennedy, leading the charge, key Democrats are rallying against the president's new Iraq plan even before it's formally announced.
Are they going too far in demanding that any troop increase must be approved by the Congress?
Joining us now is former Democratic Senator Max Cleland, a veteran of another controversial war. That would be the war in victim.
Senator, thanks for coming in.
MAX CLELAND (D), FORMER U.S. SENATOR: Thanks, Wolf.
BLITZER: Do you think it's appropriate -- and having lived through Vietnam, the bitter battles there, cutting off funds for what would effectively be U.S. troops in -- in battle right now, is it appropriate what Senator Kennedy is recommending?
CLELAND: It's appropriate for the Congress to exercise its constitutional responsibility as the holder of the purse strings. The president is the commander-in-chief in terms of our military forces. But the Congress raises the money, under our constitution, for the Army and the Navy and out military forces.
It is highly appropriate for the Congress not only to make sure it exercises its constitutional responsibility in terms of money going to the war, but actually in terms of oversight about how that money is spent.
And in terms of the cost of the war, I just got back from Walter Reed this afternoon. If I could take every member of the Congress by Walter Reed just what I saw -- to see just what I saw this afternoon, they wouldn't vote for a surge in war, which means a surge in casualties and deaths. They would vote to redeploy our troops...
BLITZER: Tell our...
CLELAND: ... which is exactly what we ought to be doing.
BLITZER: Tell us what you saw.
CLELAND: I saw young men 19 years of age, bandages around their head, legs off, other legs so fractured with shrapnel they had to be extended, and nurses pushing them. I saw that in the wake of the Vietnam War. I was one of those people.
And for me to see that again, really just gets me. I can't stand it.
So I can't believe that in the wake of the American people's rejection of the direction this president is taking this country in terms of the war and the election of a Democratic Congress and the report of the Iraq Study Group that says more diplomacy rather than a military build-up, that we are actually going the route of a military build-up. And that is exactly the wrong direction. It'll make more casualties. It won't make anything safer in Iraq.
As a matter of fact, the National Intelligence Estimate says we're doing more harm than good there. So it's time to redeploy the forces out of harm's way and stop killing 100 kids a month.
BLITZER: This is really a difficult balancing act for Democrats...
CLELAND: It is, yes.
BLITZER: Right now when you're dealing with troops in harm's way...
CLELAND: Yes, yes.
BLITZER: ... funding for those troops, putting a cap on getting reinforcements if they need more.
BLITZER: Nancy Pelosi, the new speaker of the House, said, "I'm going to be very clear. Democrats will not cut off funding for our troops. Nearly 150,000 American men and women in uniform are in Iraq and they will be there with our full support."
CLELAND: But you can't give them a blank check. You can't give the president a blank check, which is what, in effect, was done four years ago. We're going onto the fourth year of this war now come April and the president is still trying to develop a strategy that works.
the fact of the matter is he's pouring good money after bad, money down a rat hole. As we just saw, we don't even know where billions of dollars are going.
So, the key, to me, though, is you stop the killing of American lives. There is no indication that more lives committed in Iraq will mean less casualties or a safer Iraq. No way, indeed, does anybody that I know in the military or in responsible positions of government argue that point, except this president. It's the wrong direction.
BLITZER: So is it over? I mean can this war in Iraq still be won?
BLITZER: So if it...
CLELAND: Because, no.
You know why?
Because this -- the Iraqis have been there for 5,000 years. They aren't going home. We're going home. One of these days we're going home. We're going to have an exit strategy, for better or for worse. We're not -- we can't make Iraq the 51st state and that's exactly what the president wants to do. He wants to pour more money in there and more lives and that is bad money after good.
And you've got to make sure you withdraw the forces and stop the killing of American forces...
BLITZER: Does the United...
CLELAND: ... and the ruining of people that go to Walter Reed in Bethesda that -- it just breaks your heart.
BLITZER: Does the United States have a moral responsibility to Iraqis who cooperated with us, who've worked with us, who risked their lives with us, to try to help those people right now?
CLELAND: Well, the truth of the matter is they're Iraqis. They're going to settle this themselves. We aren't going to settle it for them. They're going to settle it. They've been battling among each other for a thousand years -- the Kurds, the Shiites, the Sunnis.
This is the internal strife. It is something we ought not to be engaged in.
I will say this, this president took out Saddam Hussein. Saddam Hussein is now dead. His government is gone.
One could say mission accomplished, let's go home.
But no, this president wants to put more Americans in there. I don't see what that accomplishments at all except more casualties at Walter Reed, and I can't stand that.
BLITZER: A final thought from you on -- if you had your way, right now, and you could hear from the president tomorrow night, what you would want.
You would say just immediately take those 130,000, 140,000 U.S. troops and bring them home?
CLELAND: I would say Mr. President, read the tea leaves. The American people spoke loudly at the polls against you going further in Iraq. Number two, look at the political reality in the Congress. Number three, look at the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan group of people who said more diplomacy.
Read the tea leaves. Adjust to the situation and the reality of the situation. Begin asking the American military to put together an exit strategy over the next six months and let everybody in the world know it, especially the Iraqis, and put them on notice that we're coming out of there, we're not going to lose any more forces over this issue.
BLITZER: Senator Max Cleland, former senator from Georgia, thanks very much for coming in.
CLELAND: Thanks, Wolf.
BLITZER: Good to have you here.
BLITZER: We'll get a different perspective.
Coming up this hour, Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas. He supports the president's new strategy in Iraq. We'll hear from him.
Also, new details of a U.S. air strike against Al Qaeda operatives in Somalia. We're going to show you where the crucial tip came from. Our Barbara Starr is on the scene for us.
Plus, we'll have details of some new data sure to add fuel to the fiery debate over global warming. You're going to want to stick around and hear this.
Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: Let's check back with Carol Costello for another look at some other important stories making news -- Carol.
CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: We've got some baseball news, Wolf.
Tony Gwynn, Cal Ripken receiving baseball's highest honor. Both voted into the Hall of Fame. Ripken was on more than 98 percent of the ballots, the third highest percentage ever. And Gwynn was on more than 97 percent of the ballots. And no surprise here, not making the cut this time, slugger Mark McGwire, who has been dogged by allegations of steroid use. Only 23 percent of voters picked him on his first time out.
The California Santa Ana winds whipped up a wildfire that tore through an exclusive seaside neighborhood in Malibu, and, yes, one of the four seaside mansions destroyed owned by Suzanne Somers and her husband. You see her there. Both of them were out of town at the time of the fire. They're OK. And as you could see, they returned today to view the damage.
Santa Ana winds did fuel the flames, but at this point investigators have not ruled out arson. Fire danger in the area remains very high.
Maybe it was New Jersey, but New York officials cannot prove it. The smell is gone, but the mystery lingers. Officials are still not sure what caused the foul odor that wafted over much of Manhattan and parts of New Jersey yesterday. There was speculation about a gas leak but ConEdison says it can't find any that would have accounted for the stink. One city environmental official is pointing his finger across the Hudson River, though, to New Jersey and it's industrial waterfront.
In Upstate New York, heavy snow. More than a foot is falling in some areas near Buffalo. It forced school closures, shut down part of Interstate 81, which was plagued by accidents. But as bad as this is, there's been relatively little snow this winter.
And, Wolf, when you were a kid in the bad old days, it probably snowed feet every winter, didn't it?
BLITZER: And they never closed the schools in Buffalo when I was a...
COSTELLO: You walked there.
BLITZER: ... kid growing up. The snow shovels were out and full blast, the plows -- for them to close schools in Buffalo, it's got to be a lot, a lot of snow.
Thanks very much for that. And I notice she said near Buffalo, not necessarily in Buffalo, near Buffalo.
2006, by the way, was the warmest year on record for the United States. That according to a new report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Government scientists concluded that global warming contributed to the record.
Our Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton, is tracking the story online -- Abbi, what are you seeing?
ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, well, this online map from NOAA says it all. The warmest on record. And this is the second time the record has been broken in the last 10 years. 1998 had been the warmest until today's report came out. The report says that helping push up these average temperatures, the recent spring like temperatures that we saw in the latter half of December across much of the United States. That made December the fourth warmest on record. Cities like Minneapolis saw temperatures 17 degrees above average. Even the Denver area that, you'll remember, went from a major blizzard, saw temperatures above average.
The new report says that El Nino contributed so some of that recent warm spell. As for the year as a whole, a contributing factor is a long-term warming trend, which is linked to an increase in greenhouse gasses -- Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, Abbi, thank you.
And still to come, Congressional Democrats moving to implement reforms recommended by the 9/11 Commission. We're going to show you why some say the biggest roadblock is Congress itself.
Plus, increasing the U.S. presence in Iraq -- Republican Senator John Cornyn standing by to talk to us about why he thinks the president may be right, right now.
Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: To our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM, where new pictures and information are arriving all the time. Happening now, President Bush poised to announce an increase of U.S. troops in Iraq.
Can he convince a skeptical Congress and an even more skeptical public that it's the right move?
Also, some of the fiercest fighting in months in Baghdad. Heated battles pitting U.S. and Iraqi soldiers against insurgents. We're going to show you exactly how it went down.
And health insurance for all -- it's a trend that started in Massachusetts, now moving to California. Will your state be next?
I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Tomorrow night the president tells the nation about his new Iraq strategy. He has his work cut out for him trying to persuade a war- weary nation and a skeptical Congress to back a plan which sources say will put another 20,000 troops in Iraq.
Our Tom Foreman is standing by. So is Republican senator John Cornyn of Texas. He supports the president.
Let's turn to our White House correspondent, Suzanne Malveaux.
First, though, Suzanne, what makes this new strategy different from other Bush administration efforts in Iraq?
SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, those who are familiar with the plan say there are basically two things. They say that the prime minister of Iraq, Nuri al-Maliki, has personally assured President Bush that in the weeks to come, there will be a major redeployment of Iraq troops from other areas of the country to Baghdad to go side by side with those additional U.S. troops. That this will happen within weeks, not months.
And that secondly, Maliki has personally reassured President Bush that there really is a new way of doing business. What he says, the rules of engagements for Iraqi troops have changed. And that is, they will go after -- a commitment to go after the Shiite militia associated with Muqtada al-Sadr. That is something that Maliki has been loath to do -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Suzanne, is there a consensus in the administration based on everything you're hearing that everyone's on board with what the president is planning to outline tomorrow night?
MALVEAUX: Well, you know, publicly, they're certainly signing off on this. But privately, there is not a consensus at all, Wolf.
The office of the Joint Chiefs, I have talked to sources there. They have expressed concern. They say that there's real doubt whether the strategy makes sense or is adequate.
There also inside of the Pentagon who describe it this way, the mood being anxious and nervous. One of them saying, "It's like taking a deep breath before you take that roller-coaster ride."
So there are clearly a lot of doubts within the administration whether or not they're going to pull this off. But sources say that President Bush is optimistic and confident that Maliki will come through. But, of course, as you know, Wolf, that's a big chance, a big risk they're taking.
BLITZER: A huge risk right there itself.
Suzanne, thank you for that.
And on top of all of this, fierce fighting, very fierce fighting right in the heart of the Iraqi capital today. Almost 1,000 American and Iraqi troops battling insurgents in the center of the Iraqi capital.
CNN's Tom Foreman is here in THE SITUATION ROOM to try to show us what exactly has happened -- Tom.
TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We talked about this yesterday with the idea of a troop surge. This is not what's happening in terms of the troops surge, but already the very areas we were talking about are in question.
This is Baghdad. We talked a little bit about the idea that some parts of this are more secure than others. Basically, we've had some control in here, control out here, and control out here by coalition forces. But the areas we have been concerned about have been all through this area. And that's exactly what we're talking about in this case.
If we move in a little bit tighter, you can see this is the center of Baghdad. We talked about it yesterday. This in this area is the palace that we talked about yesterday.
Some of the areas that are in question right now are this particular street, Haifa Street. And I'm going to just turn the picture here so we can follow up the river.
This is the area we're talking about, up alongside the river. And if we go up to the wall, you can see it even more clearly.
There's the palace, and there's Haifa Street running up along the Tigress River. And if we move along the street where this fighting occurred, you can see some of the landmarks there, Ministry of Information, state TV and radio. Both of those bombed very early in the war, as we tried to control information there.
Further up there is the old British embassy. A little further up here, you see some of these tall buildings where you saw some of this fighting going on all day today. One of the issues was snipers on the tops of these buildings. And then a little further up, you move around to see where you see the Haifa palace of -- Saddam's old Haifa palace.
More importantly, though, look at the proximity of this to the areas we talked about yesterday. This is getting up into those troubled spots. The red areas that we said would likely be the spot where there would be big clashes if there was a troop surge.
This is up towards a Sunni area. Some of these are Shia area. The city is majority Shia.
You can already see in what happened today, perhaps, hints of what's going to come if there's a troop surge and a real effort to nail Baghdad down again.
BLITZER: A lot of those Sunnis who lived in Baghdad have fled because they're scared out of their minds right now about what's going on.
FOREMAN: Exactly. As are some Shia who simply want to get away from the violence.
BLITZER: There's been already a certain amount of ethnic cleansing in neighborhoods trying to clean out, as they say, some of those groups. It's a brutal situation.
Tom, thanks very much for that.
And as President Bush prepares to go before the nation with his case for a renewed effort in Iraq, Democrats already lining up to strongly oppose him. Their ranks may be bolstered by some Republicans who also have become critical of the president's policies.
Joining us now from Capitol Hill, though, is a staunch supporter of the president, Republican senator John Cornyn of Texas.
Senator, thanks very much for coming in.
SEN. JOHN CORNYN (R), TEXAS: Thanks, Wolf.
BLITZER: You know what the critics are saying about the president's new strategy, which he'll unveil tomorrow night. They're insisting, you know what? He's been so wrong on so many other assumptions he's made over the course of three and a half years, why believe him now? Why give him the benefit of the doubt, in other words? His credibility' is on the line.
CORNYN: Well, I understand the skepticism, because what we're doing now is not working. And that's why we need a new strategy. And that's what I think the president will announce tomorrow night.
And contrary to some early reports, this won't be strictly an American or a coalition strategy, this is going to be the Iraqis taking the lead. And the Maliki government has got to take the lead in responsibility, supported by a surge in American forces to help stiffen their spine to do what they say they're going to do. And that's high-stakes drama, no question about it.
BLITZER: You really believe that the prime minister, Nuri al- Maliki, will get tough with Muqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shiite cleric who really controls, what, 20 or 30 seats in the parliament that support Nuri al-Maliki? You think there's going to be Shiite-versus- Shiite fighting in Iraq?
CORNYN: I share your skepticism, Wolf, because of the political realities on the ground. But we -- this is a test for the Maliki government. If they don't do this, then they are not going to be successful at all. But we cannot risk a failed state in Iraq which will endanger the United States, draw a regional conflict in, and perhaps require even greater effort by the United States to try to clean up the mess months and weeks hence.
BLITZER: Because you remember, it was only a few weeks ago that U.S. forces were poised to move into Sadr City. This is the Shiite stronghold of Muqtada al-Sadr. They were looking for some bad guys in there who may have captured American troops.
The government of Iraq, of Nuri al-Maliki, said, don't go in there. And the U.S. backed down, didn't go into Sadr City.
That's raising a lot of serious questions about whether Nuri al- Maliki -- he may talk the talk, but will he walk the walk?
CORNYN: Well, you're exactly right. And this is the test. And I think we would have been better off a long time ago, Iraq would have been better off a long time ago, if al-Sadr had been eliminated from the picture, because, frankly, he's been the sponsor of so much sectarian violence, as you point out, against Sunnis and created a lot of the instability that we current have in Iraq.
BLITZER: Given the role that the Senate of the United States plays in oversight, do you think Harry Reid, the new majority leader's idea of having a sense of the Senate resolution in the coming days on the president's plan for a boost in the number of U.S. troops in Iraq, additional funding for new efforts in Iraq, that that's a good idea? A formal roll call in the Senate on this sensitive issue?
CORNYN: I would have preferred if Harry Reid and the Democrats, who actually won the election on November the 7th, are now in the majority, in charge, would offer a constructive alternative rather than just strictly criticize. That's not what leadership requires.
But, no, I don't think we ought to threaten to cut off the funding for American troops because some people in Congress happen to disagree with the tactics that the president will announce tomorrow. And the fact is, while we've been given some preview of what the president will announce, we haven't heard the whole -- the whole presentation, the whole program. And I would hope that there are some who would at least keep an open mind and listen to what the president proposes before prejudging that it's doomed to failure.
BLITZER: Listen to what Gordon Smith, Republican senator from Oregon, said earlier today on this sensitive matter of whether Congress should vote on the president's proposal.
Listen to Gordon Smith.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. GORDON SMITH (R), OREGON: It allows the Congress to participate in the decision of the surge, it doesn't put you in the catch-22 of having to vote away the bullets when they're in a dangerous place. And you can't honorably do that. But the more the Congress can be involved in the decision-making, the better.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Do you agree or disagree with your colleague?
CORNYN: Well, I respect Senator Smith, but what this demonstrates is the Republicans, like Democrats, are somewhat divided. And certainly many skeptical of our chances for our success.
But I think if we show some progress as a result of this new plan, which is the result of lot of deliberation and consultation over the last weeks, including with the bipartisan Iraqi Study Group, that the American people will get behind it, because they realize that the danger of failure, in terms of what that means to our national security, in terms of what that means about the possibility of another 9/11-type attack on our own soil, realize what's at stake here. And what's at stake is our success and our ability to stabilize a very important region because of the oil and gas resources in the Middle East.
So I think the American people want to see us succeed. And, of course, time will only tell.
BLITZER: Senator Cornyn, I appreciate your coming in. CORNYN: Thanks, Wolf.
BLITZER: Senator John Cornyn of Texas.
This programming note for our viewers. CNN and THE SITUATION ROOM will have special live coverage of the president's address to the nation tomorrow night starting at 7:00 p.m. Eastern. I'll be here, along with Paula Zahn and the best political team on television, with everything you need to know about this major development in the war in Iraq.
7:00 p.m. Eastern tomorrow.
Up ahead, making the nation safer. Congressional Democrats want to turn the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission into law, but is Congress itself standing in the way?
And some high-profile Republicans may have their fingers on the pulse of the nation. Do they have the right prescription for healthcare reform?
Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: Welcome back.
Part of the House Democrats' ambitious first 100-hour agenda includes implementing reforms called by the 9/11 Commission. But Congress itself may be the biggest obstacle to some of the more important changes.
Our homeland security correspondent, Jeanne Meserve, is joining us now live with details -- Jeanne.
JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the administration now says it cannot support this bill as written. It's a bill that House Democrats say will enact all of the 9/11 Commission recommendations. But it doesn't.
MESERVE (voice-over): In some ways the Democrats' legislation goes beyond what the 9/11 Commission recommended, mandating 100 percent inspecting of cargo on passenger planes within three years and requiring that within five years all cargo containers be screened for radiation before shipment to the U.S.
Some say those deadlines can't be met either because the technology doesn't exist or the costs are too great.
MICHAEL CHERTOFF, HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: You know, at some point, rhetoric has to meet reality. And that usually happens in my department. We have got to make sure that we've met reality.
MESERVE: And what's more, the Democratic bill completely ignores a key 9/11 Commission recommendation that Congress reform itself. Right now, the organizational chart shows a jumble of 86 committees and subcommittees claiming some jurisdiction over homeland security.
MARY FATCHET, 9/11 FAMILY MEMBER: When I first received this, my 15-year-old at the time said, "How do they know who's in charge?"
MESERVE: The overload of oversight means that DHS officials had to attend 207 hearings last year and provided more than 2,000 briefings. By one estimate, it can eat up a quarter of an official's time.
MICHAEL GREENBERGER, UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND: I don't for a minute underestimate the amount of time that's taken away from the real job of the executive branch, which is to protect the country by having to respond to duplicative hearings.
MESERVE: Tom Ridge, the first secretary of Homeland Security, says another problem is the quality of oversight.
TOM RIDGE, FMR. HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: You can't do it when you have got disparate jurisdictions looking at discreet pieces of the pie rather than somebody taking a look at the whole picture.
MESERVE: The House Democrats say down the road they will try to streamline oversight of homeland security, but outside experts are skeptical they'll succeed because money, power and turf are at stake -- Wolf.
BLITZER: We'll keep a close watch on these first 100 hours that the House is in session, the business hours of the House.
Thanks very much, Jeanne Meserve, for that.
And that first 100 hours, by the way, corresponds to about two weeks in the regular calendar.
It's a bold and controversial move. The California governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, calling for universal health insurance in his state. Is it, though, part of a national trend?
Let's turn to CNN's Mary Snow. She's joining us from New York with the story -- Mary.
MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, with no clear solutions in sight, health experts say many states will be looking to California for answers on how to fix healthcare.
SNOW (voice-over): Will California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's universal healthcare plan be a prescription filled by the rest of the country?
GOV. ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER (R), CALIFORNIA: If you can't afford it, the state will help you buy it. But you must be insured.
SNOW: The tab, an estimated $12 billion.
Part of the plan would require employers, doctors and hospitals to contribute toward cost. Whether or not it can be executed is another question, especially since California has about 6.5 million uninsured residents.
PETER HARBAGE, NEW AMERICA FOUNDATION: If California can pull it off, it's a model for other state where those issues really aren't quite so high.
SNOW: Healthcare experts say the key word is "states."
LAURA TOBLER, NATIONAL CONF. OF STATE LEGISLATURES: I think states are taking the leadership on healthcare reform. There has not been a consensus at the national level to reform healthcare in any significant way.
SNOW: The last significant healthcare reform push came in the early 1990s, proposed by then first lady Hillary Clinton.
HILLARY CLINTON, FMR. FIRST LADY: I'm here as a an American citizen. Concerned about the health of her family and the health of her nation.
SNOW: The health care plan never got off the ground, but it did leave a mark.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think it did become somewhat taboo at the federal level, and we haven't actually seen a real break in that taboo yet at the federal level. And there's been a lot more action at the state level.
SNOW: What's also gaining notice, Schwarzenegger is the second Republican governor in two years at the center of healthcare reform. Last year, former Massachusetts governor and now potential Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney signed the most comprehensive plan of its kind, mandating state residents to have health insurance coverage.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The Massachusetts trick on that was to go with this idea of an individual mandate. So we're going to put some money out there, but we're basically going to say to people, you have to have health insurance. And if you don't get it, we're going to penalize you.
SNOW: And in Massachusetts, residents are required to enroll for health insurance by July 1st or face a penalty. The California plan does not call for a penalty -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Thank you for that.
Mary Snow reporting. And remember, Mary Snow and Jeanne Meserve, they are part of the best political team on television.
Lou Dobbs getting ready for his program that begins in a few minutes at the top of the hour. He's here to tell us what he's working on -- Lou.
LOU DOBBS, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, thank you.
Tonight we're reporting on our farmers' increasing addiction to cheap illegal alien labor, as American farm workers are struggling to find jobs. In point of fact, farmers are so dependent, they say, on illegal aliens, that they have to complain about federal efforts to secure our borders and enforce our immigration laws when they do.
We'll have that special report tonight.
Also, a new threat to the safety of our railroads, the American public. One of the country's largest railroad company wants to outsource safety inspections to Mexico because they say Mexico is too violent for them to get involved.
We'll have that story.
And a rising numbers of states want to sell highways built at your expense to foreign investors. Could those foreign companies soon own critical parts of our national infrastructure and transportation system? If this administration has its way, they will.
That special report, all of the days news, and a great deal more coming up on CNN at the top of the hour. Please join us.
Wolf, back to you.
BLITZER: Thank you very much, Lou. We'll be joining you.
And still to come, a leading Democrat wants the president to get a formal OK from the Congress before ordering any more troops to Iraq. Coming up during our 7:00 p.m. Eastern hour, I'll speak with Senator Ted Kennedy right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Also, a dozen years after U.S. troops pulled out of Somalia, American aircraft are now back, carrying out strikes against suspected al Qaeda targets. Our Barbara Starr is on the scene. We'll get an update from Africa.
We'll be right back.
BLITZER: Getting a little bit more information right now on what the president's planning on saying to the nation tomorrow night.
Let's turn to our White House correspondent once again, Suzanne Malveaux.
What are you picking up, Suzanne?
MALVEAUX: Wolf, a U.S. official really perhaps going out here as far as this administration has on some sort of timetable when it comes to U.S. troops, and as well as the goal. President Bush tomorrow will say part of the plan is to try to get the Iraqi troops to maintain operational command, operational control over Iraq by November.
Now, this administration official says it doesn't mean that that's all. U.S. troops pulling out by then, that that certainly would not be the case. There will always be a force for support, a contingency force inside of Iraq to help the Iraqis. But one of the goals that the president is going to outline is that the Iraq troops, the forces themselves, have control over their own security of the country by November.
Now, this U.S. official also confirmed as well that the plan here is to get those additional U.S. troops deployed to Baghdad and to Anbar province. This by the end of the month.
So we're looking at two very different things here. A distinct timetable. One an immediate timetable, and, of course, a long-term timetable -- Wolf.
BLITZER: We'll stay on top of this story, obviously, Suzanne.
Thank you for that.
We're also learning new details of that U.S. air strike against suspected al Qaeda targets in southern Somalia. The first overt U.S. military action in that country in more than a decade.
Coming up during our 7:00 p.m. Eastern hour, we'll have a special report from our Barbara Starr. She's in East Africa right now.
But up next, Jack Cafferty wants to know, should the U.S. launch attacks on al Qaeda members in Somalia?
Jack with "The Cafferty File" when we come back.
BLITZER: Let's check back with Jack Cafferty for "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.
CAFFERTY: Wolf, the question this hour is: Should the United States launch attacks on al Qaeda members in Somalia?
Brian writes from Coal Valley, Illinois, "Somalia is an opportunity for the U.S. to truly fight the war on terror. This is why we went to war to begin with, I thought. It's sad to think that while we're now debating whether or not to send additional troops to Iraq, the outfit responsible for 9/11 and other terrorist attacks throughout the world is not getting the full attention it should have been all along."
Peter in Chicago, "Yes, I think we should bomb the targets in Somalia. If we don't, there could be a price to pay from having an al Qaeda-run state in Africa."
Jeff in New York, "Hey, Jack, aren't air strikes on another nation an act of war? Doesn't the Congress have to approve any act of war first before the president can order them? What laws are team Bush breaking now? With nobody supporting his desperate troop surge plan in Iraq, Bush seems to be trying to muster support by once again tying al Qaeda and Iraq into one snug, phony package."
G. in Westfield, New Jersey, "Jack, am I the only one who wonders why this attack on al Qaeda comes two days before Mr. Bush is going to tell us about his escalation of the war in Iraq? He's pulled these stunts before when he wanted to frighten us into submission."
Peter in New York, "Attack Somalia? Why not? The American way of life is becoming death and destruction instead of diplomacy. What's next, World War III?"
And David in Ontario, "The U.S. should have launched attacks on al Qaeda strongholds, including Somalia, in 2001. If we had stayed focused on fighting terrorism head on instead of WMD and the Iraq debacle, the world now would be safer. President Bush and Donald Rumsfeld would be great American heroes and George Clooney could stay focused on his acting."
If you didn't see your e-mail here, you can go to CNN.com/CaffertyFile. We posted some more of them online -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Thank you, Jack. We'll see you back here in an hour.
Remember, we're in THE SITUATION ROOM weekday afternoons from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. Eastern. Back at 7:00 p.m. Eastern, my interview with Senator Ted Kennedy. The complete interview airs 7:00 p.m. Eastern, an hour from now.
Let's go to Lou in New York.
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