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Presidents Get Together; Democrats Now Willing to Accept Would- be Obama Replacement?

Aired January 7, 2009 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And, to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Happening now: Barack Obama joins the exclusive presidents club, while promising to break with the past of wasteful government spending. This hour, the president-elect's historic meeting and his trillion-dollar challenge.

Plus, a dramatic turnaround -- top Democrats come to a new meeting of the minds about the fate of the Senate appointee they barred only a day earlier. The best political team on television is standing by.

And there's breaking news on the warfare in Gaza, late word from the United Nations about cease-fire talks.

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

Thirteen days before his inauguration, Barack Obama has been consulting with the men who best understand the hard work and enormous responsibility he's taking on. With the economy reeling, the president-elect is promising to tackle a longstanding burden on America's finances, wasteful spending.

Let's bring in our national political correspondent, Jessica Yellin.

She's looking at this story for us. And he's naming names. He wants someone to watch out for all of us taxpayers.

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. He's very concerned about wasteful spending. He says that it's possible to spend billions on his massive stimulus plan and still cut down on waste. But top economists say, it's not going to be easy.


YELLIN (voice-over): On the economy, no happy talk from the incoming president.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENT-ELECT: We have an economic situation that is dire.

YELLIN: He's trying to build public support for a stimulus that could cost as much as $800 billion. But don't worry about waste. He promises discipline. OBAMA: We must scour this budget line by line, eliminating what we don't need or what doesn't work.

YELLIN: Today, he named a spending watchdog. Nancy Killefer will take the new role of chief performance officer. She'll decide which programs are worth funding over the long term. But the stimulus is a different story. To work, that money has to go out the door, fast. Even supporters say that leads to waste.

REBECCA BLANK, SENIOR FELLOW, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: You know, whenever you try to spend a lot of money fast, some of it is going to be spent in ways that you might not put it there if you were being a little bit more thoughtful and taking a little bit more time.

YELLIN: Possible examples from this list of ready-to-go projects compiled by the nation's mayors, a $20 million Minor League Baseball museum; a $4. 8 million polar bear exhibit, $500,000 for environmentally friendly golf courses in Dayton, Ohio. The mayors insist projects like these will jump-start the economy.

MANNY DIAZ, MAYOR OF MIAMI, FLORIDA: We must invest where we get the greatest return.

YELLIN: And some economists say a little bit of waste is worth it if it gets the economy back on its feet.

BLANK: If the objective is money spent in the economy that's going to create demand and buy services from businesses and stimulate consumer spending, it probably matters a little less that those are the most thoughtful projects.


YELLIN: Now, I should make clear the projects I listed have not been approved for funding. They're just on the mayor's dream list. Multiple Obama aides do tell me that they're working with Congress now to devise an oversight plan and determine which projects should get funded.

One proposal would be to require that every project get approved first by federal agencies, not by local politicians. The Obama team, Wolf, is insistent that money will not be handed out based on whose congressional district gets it.

BLITZER: Let's see. We will see and we will watch very closely. You will stay on top of it. Jessica Yellin, thank you.


BLITZER: Now to that historic power lunch for current, future and past presidents.

Let's bring in our senior White House correspondent, Ed Henry.

What kind of read are you getting on that historic meeting in the Oval Office, Ed? ED HENRY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, Obama advisers are saying that the president-elect really got some good information here philosophically. His predecessors were telling him all about how to get ready for this pressure-packed job, but also, practically, they gave him some insights into how to deal with some big challenges, like the economy and the Mideast.


HENRY (voice-over): A dramatic passing of the torch. Four white men welcoming the first African-American into one of the world's most exclusive clubs.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: One message that I have and I think we all share is that we want you to succeed. Whether we're a Democrat or Republican, we care deeply about this country.

HENRY: The gravity of the moment, the first such meeting since 1981, was sinking in for President-elect Barack Obama.

OBAMA: All the gentlemen here understand both the pressures and possibilities of this office. And for me to have the opportunity to get advice, good counsel and fellowship with these individuals is extraordinary.

HENRY: Lots of smiles, despite potshots and petty rivalries of the past. At lunch afterwards, down the hall from the Oval Office, aides say the men traded war stories and chewed over issues like the crisis in Gaza.

DANA PERINO, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Every one of these presidents has dealt with the challenges there as they have evolved over time.

HENRY: And every one of them learned there are few easy answers, something Mr. Obama realized earlier in the day when a reporter pressed on why he's not speaking out more on the Mideast.

OBAMA: I'm doing everything that we have to do to make sure that the day that I take office, we are prepared to engage immediately in trying to deal with the situation there. But until I take office, it would be imprudent of me to start sending out signals that somehow we are running foreign policy.

HENRY: While the presidents lunched, incoming White House press secretary Robert Gibbs dined with outgoing spokeswoman Dana Perino and got a few pointers at the podium for the battles ahead.

For now, however, everyone can still focus on the trappings of office, including the interior decorations. Former President Bill Clinton was overheard complimenting Mr. Bush on the carpet he selected for the Oval Office.


HENRY: Now it's back to business for the president-elect. CNN has learned that tomorrow he will be heading to the Democratic National Committee to hand off the chairmanship of the party to Governor Tim Kaine of Virginia. He's also giving a major speech on the economy, flesh out a little bit of the detail of what he's going to be doing down the road with the stimulus plan.

It's obviously going to be the first big test of his clout, whether he can get that through the Congress -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We will have extensive coverage of all of that tomorrow right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

All right, thanks, very much, Ed, for that.

This may be a source of comfort for President Bush, in these, the final days of his office. Americans now see past Presidents Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush in a better light than they did when they left office.

Our brand-new CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll shows 69 percent now approve of the way Bill Clinton handled the presidency, up a few points from the end of his second term. President Carter and the first President Bush now get approval ratings of 64 percent and 60 percent respectively. Their approval ratings were only in the 30s when they were voted out of office.

Today marks the first time all the living former presidents have gathered at the White House since 1981, when Ronald Reagan hosted Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter after the assassination of the Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.

In 1993, Ford, Carter and George Herbert Walker Bush joined President Clinton at the White House for the signing of the NAFTA trade agreement. President Reagan was not there. Reagan also wasn't able to attend a presidential reunion in 2000, in honor of the 200th anniversary of the White House.

Let's go to Jack Cafferty right now. He has got "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Maybe they will bring it to Broadway one day, call it "The Minnesota Follies."

The land of 10,000 lakes and the wrestler/Governor Jesse Ventura is now threatening to give us a senator from "Saturday Night Live." What's wrong up there? Two months after the election, they're still trying to figure out who won. I mean, how tough can this be? It's not like counting all the votes in China. It's Minnesota.

The contest between incumbent Norm Coleman, Democratic challenger Al Franken is beginning to resemble the telethon for Jerry's kids. On Monday, the state canvassing board certified the recount, declared Al Franken the winner. Coleman won't go away. He is filing a lawsuit to challenge the recount of the recount, a move that could drag this thing out until spring.

In fact, Coleman's lawyers say the process is just beginning. That's what lawyers do, you know. The longer they drag things out, the more money they make.

The rest of the country managed to elect their lawmakers without a problem in November, a couple of months ago. Georgia had a runoff. That's long since over. It is now January and the 111th Congress has convened. When it comes to elections, Minnesota is starting to make Florida look respectable.

Here's the question: Why is it taking Minnesota so long to elect a senator? Go to Post a comment on my blog -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jack, thank you.

A cold front appears to be lifting. One day after Roland Burris was left out in the rain, literally, today, he found some sunshine in the U.S. Senate. It appears the storm clouds are clearing, as he hopes for a seat in the Senate. We will tell you exactly what's going on right now.

They are said to be among the world's most dangerous terrorists, and they want freedom. What might Barack Obama do with them?

And they may be all smiles today, but not long again, Barack Obama was attacking President Bush's policies. So, what gives? What's going on? John King is standing by. He will explain right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: He was turned away from the Senate only yesterday, but today a very, very different story. It's like a warm embrace among the Democrats.

After essentially getting the door slammed on him, Roland Burris not only makes it behind Senate doors, but, right now, he appears to be one step closer to becoming a United States senator.

Our senior congressional correspondent, Dana Bash, is up on Capitol Hill.

Dana, what a difference 24 hours makes.


Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid brought Roland Burris out of the rain into his office, and, not only that, at the last minute, invited our cameras to document it as well. It's all part of a change to designed to stop what Harry Reid admitted today is a political distraction.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) BASH (voice-over): One look at their smiles and it was clear. Democratic leaders wanted to calm the controversy over keeping Roland Burris out of the Senate.

REID: We're happy to have the opportunity to meet with Mr. Burris.

BASH: Forty-five minutes later, Democratic leaders announced they were changing course, laying out a path that would allow Burris to become senator.

REID: There's going to come a time when the entire Senate is going to have to act on this, and that day, I hope, would come sooner rather than later.

BASH: Even entertaining the idea of seating Burris is a dramatic reversal. Just last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said, "... anyone appointed by Governor Blagojevich cannot be an effective representative of the people of Illinois and, as we have said, will not be seated by the Democratic Caucus."

But a senior Democratic source admits to CNN Rod Blagojevich called their bluff by appointing Burris, despite their warnings.

SEN. DICK DURBIN (D), MAJORITY WHIP: No appointment by this governor, under these circumstances, could produce a credible replacement. BASH: Democratic sources acknowledge all the hype -- images of a rain-soaked fellow Democrat turned away from the Senate -- was incredibly problematic. So were accusations of racism which Democratic leaders raised unsolicited.

REID: So a lot of people tried to make this a racial issue, but Roland Burris has not and will not.

BASH: Reid said Burris could be seated with conditions. Burris makes the case his appointment wasn't tainted when he testifies at Governor Blagojevich's impeachment hearings. And a court forces the Illinois secretary of state to sign Burris' certificate of appointment. Then, the Senate Rules Committee would investigate and the full Senate would vote.

It's unclear if or when that would happen, but Burris told reporters he'll be a senator very shortly.

ROLAND BURRIS (D), ILLINOIS SENATE APPOINTEE: So I'm very pleased this afternoon. I'm happy.

BASH: Burris always insisted he would become a senator, but now says it will happen shortly.


BASH: Now, today, the Congressional Black Caucus overcame internal differences and decided to formally say that they believe Burris should be seated. But the process that the Democratic leadership laid out today, privately, we're told that that could take as long as a month. And the hope still internally is that, by then, Governor Blagojevich will either be impeached or otherwise out of office, and these Democratic leaders will not have to deal with seating the man that he appointed -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Dana Bash, up on Capitol Hill, thank you.

The incoming chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Dianne Feinstein, now says she intends to support Leon Panetta to become the next director of the CIA. Feinstein initially had expressed reservations, saying the former Clinton White House chief of staff lacked experience within the intelligence community.

She also was miffed that the Obama transition team had not consulted her. Feinstein tells CNN she's now confident that Panetta will surround himself with qualified intelligence professionals.

The moment Barack Obama is sworn in, he will face a host of world problems, one of them, what to do with some men accused of being among the most dangerous terrorists in the world.

Brian Todd is here in THE SITUATION ROOM looking into this story.

What are you seeing, Brian?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, as you know, the president- elect has vowed to close Guantanamo Bay. But another facility that will remain open and is in fact expanding may present a real headache for the Obama team.


TODD (voice-over): The sprawling airfield at Bagram, Afghanistan, about 40 miles north of Kabul, one of the most heavily guarded of all U.S. bases, it holds some so-called unlawful 600 enemy combatants. Some have been there since the early days of the war on terror.

And a court case involving a small group of Bagram detainees is presenting a challenge for president-elect Barack Obama, who vows to close America's other controversial holding facility at Guantanamo Bay.

Amin al-Bakri and three others at Bagram are trying to get the same legal standing that Guantanamo prisoners got last summer, the right to challenge their detention in a U.S. court.

We spoke to one of the detainee's lawyers who presented the case to a federal district judge in Washington.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Six years without any due process at all, and this is not U.S. law. It has never been our law.

TODD: The Bush administration is pushing back hard on that, arguing to dismiss this case on the grounds that Bagram is situated in a war zone, and giving detainees the same rights would only hinder America's ability to fight that war.

A former White House lawyer under President Bush agrees.

BRADFORD BERENSON, FORMER ASSOCIATE WHITE HOUSE COUNSEL: It would mean that you could have potentially thousands or tens of thousands of civil lawsuits being filed against the president of the United States military right in the middle of combat. It -- it would be crippling to our ability to fight a war.

TODD: We asked a former Air Force JAG attorney, if those rights are extended to a typical terror suspect at Bagram, what would have to be done with him that's not done with those at Guantanamo.

SCOTT SILLIMAN, PROFESSOR OF THE PRACTICE OF LAW, DUKE UNIVERSITY LAW SCHOOL: You would have to have some kind of testimony from the soldiers that picked him up. There may not be sufficient evidence of any kind of criminality at that point.


TODD: Contacted by CNN, the Obama transition team would not comment on the Bagram case. The Obama team has not decided what to do with the prisoners at Bagram, and won't until after the president- elect takes office.

But it's worth noting, that facility at Bagram is expanding as we speak. A new prison is being built there which will not be completed until well after the Obama team is in the White House, Wolf, yet another headache for them from the get-go.

BLITZER: I can't -- I'm making a list of all the problems he's inheriting, Barack Obama. It's really amazing.


BLITZER: All right, thanks very much, Brian, for that.

Just ahead, strong words of advice for the incoming president from the current vice president. Stand by. We have information.

And we told you how the Obama transition team has approached CNN's senior medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, about becoming the nation's surgeon general. Now we're getting new details. Stand by for that as well.

And John McCain lost his White House bid, but he's taking steps to keep the maverick brand alive and to revitalize the Republican Party. We will tell you what's going on right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.


(NEWS BREAK) BLITZER: There's breaking news we're following on the crisis in the Middle East. We're going to have a live report from the United Nations on talks potentially involving Israel, Hamas, and the Palestinian Authority. Stand by.

The Congressional Black Caucus jumping into the fray over whether Roland Burris should be seated as a United States senator. The best political team on television is standing by for us to consider the race factor, among other things.

And some tough words for president-elect Barack Obama from Vice President Dick Cheney about his campaign criticism of the Bush administration's tactics in fighting terror.

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: To our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now: diplomats working overtime to get a truce deal in Gaza. Israel agrees to take part in peace talks. Now all eyes are on Hamas to see how it will respond.

And an historic power lunch over at the White House, we are going to take you there, tell you what happened.

And CNN's chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, possibly becoming the chief voice on public health policy in the United States, we have new information for you.

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


OBAMA: We're going to turn the page on the disastrous economic policies on George W. Bush and John McCain.

We can't afford four more years of George Bush foreign policy.

John McCain has ridden shotgun as George Bush has driven our economy towards a cliff.

The biggest gamble we can take is to embrace the same old Bush/McCain policies that have failed us for the last eight years.



BLITZER: Well, that was then. This is now.

Out on the campaign trail, Barack Obama railed against President Bush. But now they're all smiles. Did time really heal political wounds?

Our chief national correspondent, John King, is here in THE SITUATION ROOM taking a look at what's going on.

It is pretty dramatic, what was then and what is now.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this is the kumbaya transition. If you talk to both sides, both Barack Obama's aides and inside the Bush White House, they say this is going remarkably smoothly.

They believe it is unprecedented, the level of cooperation. You talked earlier in the program about the presidents club coming together today in the Oval Office. They ordered off the White House mess menu, your options there, salads, soups, sandwiches, pasta, burgers. Guess what? They won't tell us what the president, president-elect, and the former presidents ordered.

But, while that lunch was going on, Ed Henry talked earlier, Dana Perino, the press secretary, had lunch with Robert Gibbs, who will take her job. David Axelrod, who is Barack Obama's top political strategist, met at the same time with the White House counselor, Ed Gillespie, getting his views on what it takes to communicate from the White House.

And Rahm Emanuel had his second lunch with the chief of staff, Josh Bolten.

So, the cooperation has been extraordinary, not just the showing. That's a public show of cooperation, but they say, the Obama camp, from an information standpoint as well.

However, however -- and there's always a but -- one senior person in the administration also trying to send a signal. The vice president, Dick Cheney, had an interview just released with our good friend Mark Knoller, the legendary CBS Radio reporter, at the White House, and he was talking about any advice, Mark Knoller asked the vice president, for Barack Obama.

And the vice president said this: "He," meaning Obama, "was rather critical during the campaign of some of the policies we pursued, for example, in terms of terrorist surveillance or interrogation of terrorist prisoners. Those were programs that have been absolutely essential to maintaining our capacity to interfere with and defeat all further attacks against the United States."

"If I had advice to give," the vice president said, "it would be before you start to implement your campaign rhetoric, you need to sit down and find out precisely what it is we did and how we did it, because it is going to be vital to keeping the nation safe and secure in the years ahead."

And Mr. Cheney went on to finish: "It would be a tragedy if they threw over those policies simply because they had campaigned against them. I think they need to proceed very cautiously before they begin to change the policies that are in place. They need to know what they're doing."

So cooperation across the administration, but some pretty strong advice there from Vice President Cheney.

BLITZER: Yes. And I suspect we'll get some more on Friday. I'll be sitting down with the vice president for an interview for "LATE EDITION" for Sunday, as well. We'll hear more of what he has to say.

Mark Noeler (ph), by the way, the hardest working journalist I have ever known. You may be a hardworking journalist, I may be a hardworking journalist. But I think you will agree, Mark Noeler (ph) works a lot harder than both of us.

KING: Absolutely.

BLITZER: He's a great guy, too.

KING: Absolutely.

BLITZER: All right.

Let's talk about another hard-working journalist, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, our chief medical correspondent.

What are you hearing?

Yesterday, we reported he's been approached as a possible surgeon general of the United States.

What do we know today?

KING: Almost, Wolf, but not a done deal. Here's what we know.

I am told by sources very close to this process that Sanjay very much wants to do it. He said he wants to come back into public service, he wants to be the next surgeon general. He is having some very difficult conversations at home about the math. He has a baby on the way. He is building a new home in Atlanta. And he's trying to see if he can afford this -- if he and his family can afford this, for him to come to Washington, leave his medical practice and also leave his journalistic career at CNN and come and be the nation's next surgeon general.

My understanding of the deal is the president-elect very much wants him to come -- the driving force, saying you can have a big role in policy, even if you weren't working out of the White House on occasion.

It's Tom Daschle who is taking over the health care reform portfolio.

The deal is this -- they will -- they are going forward with the full thorough vetting of the finances and everything else about Sanjay's life. At the same time, he is doing the accounting -- the math at home, to see if he and his family can afford this. And they will have the final decision in the next couple of days.

Everyone wants it to happen. They'll get through those processes over the next few days and make a final decision. BLITZER: And whatever he decides, we wish him, of course, only -- only the best.

KING: Absolutely.

BLITZER: John, thanks very much.

Breaking news -- a brief lull in the fighting brings some relief to Gaza, as the United States is now joining in the push for a full cease-fire. A temporary truce lasted just long enough for trucks to carry food and fuel into Gaza and for medics to recover bodies.

But with the bombs and the rockets falling again in Gaza, as well as in Southern Israel, the United States is now throwing its weight behind an Egyptian/French cease-fire effort.

Here's Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.


CONDOLEEZZA RICE, U.S SECRETARY OF STATE: We are very much applauding the efforts of a number of states, particularly the effort that President Mubarak is making on behalf of Egypt. We're supporting that initiative. I've been in very close discussions with my Arab colleagues, but also with the Israelis, about the importance of moving that initiative forward.


BLITZER: Let's go to our senior United Nations correspondent, Richard Roth, who's watching all of this.

There's an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council.

What exactly do we know about the possibility, Richard, of Israel, Hamas, the Palestinian Authority, the Egyptians, among others, sitting down tomorrow?

RICHARD ROTH, CNN SENIOR UNITED NATIONS CORRESPONDENT: I don't think you will see all of those representatives that you've just named sitting at one table. Look, this is not exactly Sadat going to Israel, but it may be a start. You can call this the fog of the diplomacy. As whirlwind diplomacy was conducted in the hallways and corridors of the United Nations, led by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice from Washington, there is a lot of attention being paid to the Mubarak peace plan that Secretary of State Rice just referred to.

Earlier in the day, as we reported with you, the Egyptian U.N. ambassador said Israel, Hamas and the Palestinians will all meet together.

That was then shot down by his boss, the Egyptian foreign minister, who said the A.P. account of this was wrong. He then said that Israel is definitely sending someone -- not just a technical delegation, as his ambassador said -- someone higher level, but that Hamas -- we don't know if they're accepting, we don't know the format, necessarily.

Look for Israel and Egypt, who have conducted face-to-face talks on many crises, to see if they can make any progress, then widen the circle and bring in other parties. We're still a long way from saying there's a peace deal.

BLITZER: Richard Roth at the United Nations.

Thank you.

Black lawmakers here in Washington adding pressure on Senate leaders to seat the controversial appointee from Illinois, Roland Burris.

But how big of a factor was race?

Plus, Barack Obama set to give a major speech on the economy tomorrow.

What can we expect from the president-elect?

Stick around.



BLITZER: The Congressional Black Caucus has now voted unanimously to support seating Roland Burris, even though some say the office is tainted by allegations the Illinois governor tried to sell it.

Let's talk about that and more with our senior political analyst, Gloria Borger; our CNN political contributor, Steve Hayes of "The Weekly Standard;" and Perry Bacon of "The Washington Post."

I told Dana Bash earlier, what a difference 24 hours makes. Yesterday, he was barred. Today, he's almost warmly welcomed.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Embraced. Embraced. Yes, Wolf, look Blagojevich really outsmarted the United States Senate. He decided that he was going to appoint someone with impeccable credentials and dare the United States Senate not to seat this person. And he won on this one.

So you've got to give it to Blagojevich. I mean he still -- he still may be facing an indictment, but he outsmarted the Senate.

BLITZER: It looks -- it looks like they went eyeball to eyeball. Harry Reid, the majority leader, blinked.

STEPHEN HAYES, SENIOR WRITER AT "THE WEEKLY STANDARD": Yes, well, I think he did. I mean, you saw, gradually, Roland Burris accumulating more support.

First he had, you know, members of the Congressional Black Caucus. He had some members of the Illinois political scene. Then he had Dianne Feinstein. And gradually it just became politically untenable -- not to mention the fact that the legal case for excluding him, I think, was very weak.

BLITZER: And I think the political case that he made -- he was really outspoken, Roland Burris. He did not avoid the news media. He spoke to all of us. And he made a pretty good case for himself.

PERRY BACON, "WASHINGTON POST": I think his press conference in the rain yesterday really helped him and really built his case, really made it seem like the Senate was excluding him. And, also, the law seemed to be on his side. The Senate, at some point, seemed kind of nervous that, you know, Dianne Feinstein just said, hey, I don't see a legal reason how we can block him. The Congressional Black Caucus sort of framed it in terms of less about race, in terms of more about the legal terms. And we're not sure you can block him in that sense, either.

BORGER: I had one Hill staffer say to me, if you're not going to block Al Franken, how can you block Roland Burris?

BACON: Right.

HAYES: Well, he's -- I think the moment that he got in was that press conference at the airport...

BORGER: Right.

HAYES: ...where he said -- he was talking like a senator. And he said -- I mean, he literally said...

BORGER: You mean he was saying nothing?

HAYES: No, no, no.


HAYES: He was actually saying something. He was saying something, but he was asked if he was, you know, angry or -- that people were taking shots at him. He said, no, no I'm happy and I'm enjoying this on behalf of the people of Illinois. So he was already enjoying it (INAUDIBLE).

BORGER: Right.


BLITZER: And you know what, we're looking forward to having him as a frequent visitor here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

BACON: Yes, he's a good character.

He's good television, as well.

Let's talk about good television next week. The confirmation hearings begin. Tuesday, Hillary Clinton goes before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

BORGER: You know, I think there are going to be some tough questions asked of Hillary Clinton, Wolf. Obviously, it's all going to be about Bill. It's all going to be about his foundation. And it's all going to be about whether contributions were made to his foundation to try and influence Hillary Clinton as a senator. And, also, in the future, going forward, how they're going to keep everything separate.

But I believe she's going to get confirmed and I believe there's a lot of goodwill for her in the Senate.

BLITZER: You know, when you have a Senate with either 58, maybe 59 Democrats -- that majority -- it's going to hard to reject any of these Barack Obama nominees.

HAYES: It is. And the Senate, too, I mean, as we all know, the Senate is something of a club. And they rarely reject one of their own. I think it's likely that Republicans right now are going through those contribution lists, you know, one after the other. There was a "New York Times" story last week that raised some questions about one contribution. I think they're looking for others that are like it to at least raise these questions, press her a little bit.


BLITZER: It looks like they are. Arlen Specter, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, they seem to be directing most of their fire at Eric Holder, who is supposed to be the next attorney general.

BACON: That's right. Because they picked their nominee to really have a challenge about. And I think it's Eric Holder, who was involved in the pardons for the -- in the Clinton administration, in the last few days of it. This seems to be the person they've targeted right now. Specter is normally a pretty soft-spoken guy. The fact that he's gotten so strong about Holder today suggests they've really picked him out as the one person they can sort of make a fight about.

BLITZER: A big speech tomorrow -- 11:00 a.m. Eastern, the president-elect will unveil his economic policy.

BORGER: Right.

BLITZER: What are you hearing?

BORGER: Well, I was talking to some folks in the transition who are very involved in this speech. And it was described to me as akin to a campaign announcement. They said think of it as the beginning of a sustained campaign, only this time it's to get the stimulus package passed.

And, Wolf, it's going to be full of specifics. It's going to talk about the short-term problems and the long-term problems. But he's going to talk about exactly what he wants to do. And we've never really seen this before. It's a pre-inaugural inaugural, in a way.


HAYES: And so much for one president at a time, right?

I mean I guess...

BORGER: Well, on domestic policy...

HAYES: I guess that's over with.


HAYES: No, I think it's going to be interesting. He's going to have -- apparently, he's going to have about 12 mayors with him. Some of them are going to be talking about their projects -- specific projects that they've requested. I think there are some problems with that. The mayor of Louisville is going to be there. He's asked for retrofitting for solar-powered, you know, water heaters at golf clubhouses.

Those are the kind of things the Republicans are already looking at.

BLITZER: We'll have live coverage, of course, of that speech tomorrow right here on CNN.

Guys, thanks very much for coming in.


BLITZER: The one-time vice presidential nominee, the former congressman and Housing secretary, Jack Kemp, is fighting cancer. He made the announcement today. Colleagues at his consulting firm say doctors are still working to figure out exactly what kind of cancer he has and that Jack Kemp continues to work. He successfully overcame prostate cancer two years ago.

Jack Kemp -- we're wishing him a speedy recovery. Of course, we wish him the only the best.

He was an unlikely star of the presidential campaign, but now "Joe the Plumber's" got a new job -- one that requires a passport, not a plunger. And details of what he's doing -- that's coming up.

And China at the White House -- the plates, not the country -- why they're sometimes served with a heaping pile of controversy.

Stick around.



BLITZER: Lou Dobbs is getting ready for his show.

It begins right at the top of the hour.

He's got a little preview.

What are you working on -- Lou?

LOU DOBBS, CNN ANCHOR: Thank you, Wolf.

Coming up tonight, we'll have complete coverage, of course, on the stunning retreat by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on allowing Roland Burris to be seated in the U.S. Senate.

Also, a major escalation in the war by the violent Mexican drug cartels -- what is now believed to be the first attack ever on a television station.

And compelling evidence that corporate America is plain wrong in its assertion that there's a shortage of scientists and engineers requiring more H1B visas.

Corporate America -- you guessed it -- trying to force down wages.

And among my guests tonight, conservative columnist and writer, Ann Coulter, author of the provocative new book "Guilty

Liberal Victims and their Assault on America."

Please join us for all of that, all the day's news, at the top of the hour -- Wolf, back to you.

BLITZER: Thanks, Lou.

We'll see you in a few moments.

Call it a heartwarming gift -- a housewarming gift, I should say -- for the Obamas. The first lady, Laura Bush, today unveiled the new set of White House China that she won't get to use much, if at all.

Over the years, presidential place settings have caused quite a stir.

Here's CNN's Amy Holmes.


AMY HOLMES, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST (voice-over): First Lady Laura Bush is setting the table for the Obamas.

LAURA BUSH, FIRST LADY OF THE UNITED STATES: We determined that green was a really good idea.

HOLMES: Less than two weeks before moving out of the White House, she unveiled the brand new Bush presidential China -- not one, but two sets.

L. BUSH: And I hope this next family -- and I know they will be -- they will be happy to have these two sets. HOLMES: Michelle Obama hasn't seen those dishes yet. Talk about bipartisanship. Over the past eight years, the Bushes and their guests have been eating on Johnson, Reagan and Clinton china.

Mary Lincoln was the first first lady to choose White House china -- the royal purple set. Examples of this service, along with others, are in the White House China Room. Lucy Hayes' china, said to be the most unusual, decorated with America's flora and fauna; Lady Bird Johnson, an eagle motif; and the scarlet red set Nancy Reagan bought that caused controversy over the cost.


NANCY REAGAN, FORMER FIRST LADY OF THE UNITED STATES: Most people think that I bought the china.

LARRY KING, CNN ANCHOR: They still think that.

REAGAN: I still read it. I still hear it.

HOLMES: The Bush China price tag?

Around half a million dollars. It's hard to digest spending so much in an economic crisis. During the Great Depression, Eleanor Roosevelt spent $9,000 on China. She explained it was cheaper to buy new than to replace old broken pieces. That appears to be the case today.

L. BUSH: Every once in a while, we've had a really bad accident.

HOLMES: But don't worry -- you taxpayers didn't pay for it. Private foundations did.

Bon apetit.


BLITZER: Amy, that's really nice china, I've got to tell you. I've been privileged to be invited to some of those dinners at the White House and it's always a thrill to see the lovely china.

HOLMES: It is. But here's one more tidbit that I learned, Wolf. To actually take china out of the White House is against federal law. So the next time you're having dinner with that president, don't be tempted to put any in your pocket.

BLITZER: I never would do that. Ever. Ever.

All right, Amy, thanks very much.

HOLMES: Thank you.

BLITZER: And "Joe the Plumber" -- remember him?

He'll soon be known as Joe the war correspondent. Samuel Joe Wurzelbacher, the man made famous by the McCain campaign, is now heading to Israel to cover the conflict in Gaza. I'm not making this up.

Our Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton, is looking into this for us -- Abbi, what is going on?

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, Joe is branching out from plumbing. A spokeswoman for the conservative Web site Pajamas Media says that Wurzelbacher is today getting his passport sorted out so he can spend 10 days in Israel reporting for the site's online channel.

During the campaign, you'll remember, Wurzelbacher lashed remember he lashed out at the media as biased. Now he says he'll be reporting himself to help the Israeli people -- the average Joes, as he calls them -- get their voices heard.


JOE WURZELBACHER "JOE THE PLUMBER": You don't really get the full story. And so I'm going to go over there and interview some Israeli soldiers, civilian population and get their take on what's going on.


TATTON: Since the election, Wurzelbacher has made the most of his fame -- establishing a Web site where he's selling his book

"Fighting for the American Dream," which, his publisher says, is selling in significant numbers for a one time plumber.

He didn't tell us how many, though -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right.

Thanks very much for that, Abbi Tatton.

Let's go to Jack Cafferty.

He's joining us right now for "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: The question this hour is -- why is it taking Minnesota so long to elect a senator?

Dave in Missouri writes: "They're about to put a completely unqualified comedian into the United States Senate. They'd better make sure they get it right."

Glenn in California says: "Why so long? It's a great opportunity for the lawyers to make a windfall profit in these tough economic times. Since Coleman's planning on continuing the fight, the lawyers will milk this cow for as long as they can. At least they're not suffering from the economic crisis that the rest of us are."

Craig in Minnesota -- in Minnesota: "Coleman lost. He ought to step aside. Let's get on with our problems. You've got to feel sorry for old Normy, though. He's the only politician I know of who could use a statewide election to a professional wrestler, sneak in the back door when Paul Wellstone is killed and then lose to another statewide election to a comedian."

Jeff writes: "Calm down, Jack. It's cold up here in Minnesota. Sometimes things move slower than they do in New York. It was a close election and we want to make sure we get the results right. It's a small fraction of 1 percent of the votes that separates the candidates. Democracy's about getting it right. If Norm Coleman wants a court to double check that we've got it, the law allows him to do that. Florida was a fiasco. Minnesota is just meticulous."

Gary in Woodhaven, Michigan: "Neither candidate knows how much to pay the governor. Oops, I've got the wrong state. This is between the jester and the jack ass. You pick him."

And Mark in New York writes: "Given Minnesota's inability to govern itself, perhaps it should be folded into North Dakota. Who would really notice?"

If you didn't see your e-mail here, you can go to my blog at and look for yours there among hundreds of others -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I'm flying out to L.A. right after the show tonight.

Ask me why.


BLITZER: Are you interested?

CAFFERTY: Yes. I can hardly wait.

BLITZER: I'm going to do the show tomorrow from L.A. , because then I'm going to tape an episode of "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" -- finally, after a long time of getting ready for this, I'm ready to go on the Ellen show. It will air next Monday, by the way.


CAFFERTY: Well, this will either do wonders for your career or destroy it -- one or the other.

BLITZER: Correct. That is the correct assumption, because you know what?

You've got to dance when you go on that show.

CAFFERTY: You'll make a lovely couple, I'm sure.

BLITZER: Thank you very much for that, Jack.

CAFFERTY: You're welcome.

BLITZER: Wolf and Ellen, next Monday on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show". Maybe she'll come into THE SITUATION ROOM, as well. We'll see.

They're dozing off and Jeanne Moos says those babies, pets and other critters look cute falling asleep. It's "Moost" Unusual.

And a famous Obama campaign poster added to the National Portrait Gallery's collection. Just one of our hot shot -- pictures often worth a thousand words.

Stick around.


BLITZER: Here's a look at some of the "Hot Shots" coming in from our friends over at the Associated Press -- pictures likely to be in your newspapers tomorrow.

In Washington, this image made famous during Barack Obama's presidential campaign is one of the newest additions to the National Portrait Gallery's collection. The portrait will be on view by the inauguration.

In Ghana, a man holds a button reading God's chosen presidents -- with the image of President-Elect Obama alongside Ghana's newly elected president. John Atta Mills won in the country's closest election ever.

And in Switzerland, look at this -- a rail is covered in ice on the boardwalk of Lake Geneva.

And over in Germany, Flocke, the polar bear, gets a new friend at the Nuremberg Zoo.

Some of this hour's hot shots -- pictures worth a thousand words.

Tired of the same old home video competitions on TV and the Internet?

Well, CNN's Jeanne Moos found a Web site that will perk you up by revealing the Moost Unusual images.


JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): If there's one thing better than watching a baby wake up smiling...


MOOS:'s watching cute things falling asleep -- be it a polar bear swimming as it dozes or a snoring dog or a sleepy duck. Videos of a feather flock together at the Web site,


MOOS: It was dreamed up by this California comedy writer. NICK MALIS, CREATOR, CUTETHINGSFALLINGASLEEP.ORG: We call it the head bob that, you know, jerks themselves awake. That's universally funny.

MOOS: Nick Malis rates each video on a one to five scale for cuteness and sleepiness. He's yet to give a perfect five for cuteness. So this Dachshund...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Rusty suffers from narcolepsy.

MOOS: ...scored a five for sleepiness for suddenly keeling over.

MALIS: You get extra cuteness points if you actually fall asleep on something.

MOOS: Whether it's a table or the rung of a chair. It's even better if your head falls off something -- preferably over and over again.


MOOS: What you won't see on the site are adult humans -- no vice president dozing in a cabinet meeting or a former president at a speech.

MALIS: For cuteness, Bill would probably get a three.

MOOS: The Web site favors babies.


MOOS: Parents add their own music.


MOOS: Since the site is called Cute Things Falling Asleep, the idea is not to show things already sleeping.


MOOS: But rating kids for cuteness can be touchy.

MALIS: I gave a baby a two. And then the next day, the mother wrote me and said -- said, you know, I thing my son's a little cuter than a two.


MOOS (on camera): Ah. Now, if you're having trouble falling asleep, maybe you could pop a couple of Ambien and watch a few minutes of Cute Things Falling Asleep right before bedtime.

(voice-over): Some creatures, like this sleepy sloth, are more creepy than cute. This hairless sphinx scored a measly one on the cuteness scale. And any pup who falls asleep in his water bowl deserves kudos... (VIDEO CLIP)

MOOS: ...especially when he manages to do it repeatedly without drowning himself.


MOOS: And don't you just hate it when you're so tired you can't keep your nose off the table?

Jeanne Moos, CNN, New York.


BLITZER: Adorable cute little stuff there.

Thank you, Jeanne.

We want you to check out our political pod cast. To get the best political team to go, you can subscribe at It's still a good idea.

Thanks very much for joining us.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Up next, "LOU DOBBS TONIGHT" -- Lou.