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THE SITUATION ROOM
House Votes on Economic Stimulus Plan; President Obama Meets With Business Leaders
Aired January 28, 2009 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Do you still see hope, not despair?
JIMMY CARTER, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I do. I do.
And the basic change is -- the biggest change is the inauguration of a new president.
BLITZER: The former president of the United States, Jimmy Carter, speaking with me earlier -- more of that interview coming up in THE SITUATION ROOM Saturday, 6:00 p.m. Eastern.
Happening now: breaking news. The president's economic rescue plan is being put to the test. As the House casts votes right now, we are breaking down the numbers and we're examining the projects that are raising red flags even among some Democrats.
Plus, a new source of outrage over the financial bailout. Insurance giant AIG is handing out some pretty significant, some say massive, bonuses to keep some employees on the job, after accepting billions of dollars in government money.
And the commander in chief visits the military brass on their own turf -- this hour, the president's relationship with the Pentagon and what it may mean for U.S. troops -- all that and the best political team on television.
We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You are in THE SITUATION ROOM.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: But we begin with breaking news right now.
On the floor of the House of Representatives, they have started voting on the president's massive economic recovery plan, the stakes very, very high right now for lots and lots of Americans, especially those who are out of work, out of cash, and so many Americans right now simply out of hope.
The president's economic fix-it plan is on track to clear a major hurdle with a vote in the House of Representatives. But the question is, will Republicans jump on board or will they oppose the president?
Let's go to Dana Bash, who is watching the roll call, watching everything else for us.
All right, what is going on, Dana?
DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: What is going on, Wolf, is that I'm actually just steps away from the House floor, where they are getting ready to have that final vote on this first step of the stimulus plan.
And the reality is that there is little question that it will pass the House right now, this huge $500 billion in spending, nearly $300 billion in tax cuts. Nevertheless, this is just the beginning of a vigorous debate on the details.
BASH (voice-over): For Barack Obama, victory in the first major test of his plan to heal the ailing economy.
REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), HOUSE SPEAKER: We are passing historic legislation that honors the promises our new president made from the steps of the Capitol, promises to make the future better for our children and our grandchildren.
BASH: But the president's promise to end polarizing partisanship in Washington, not yet, not even close.
REP. JOHN CULBERSON (R), TEXAS: This 647-page bill represents one of the worst abuses of power I think that we've probably ever seen.
BASH: Moderate Republicans like Mark Kirk, from an Illinois district Mr. Obama won big, says he can't support an 800-plus billion dollar bill he calls a social grab bag of excess spending.
REP. MARK KIRK (R), ILLINOIS: The president remains very popular. I like him, but up on Capitol Hill, details matter. And some of these details don't pass muster.
BASH: Details like $355 million for education on sexually transmitted diseases, $650 million for digital TV coupons, and $50 million for the National Endowment for the Arts.
Democrats who wrote the bill insist those projects do have economic benefits.
REP. DAVID OBEY (D), APPROPRIATIONS CHAIRMAN: People ask, well, what does funding for the arts have anything to do with jobs? It's very simple. People in the arts field are losing their jobs just like anybody else.
REP. JIM COOPER (D), TENNESSEE: I'm trying to work my way through this 647-page monster here.
BASH: But even some conservative Democrats like Jim Cooper called this economic plan a nightmare filled with pork barrel projects and blames his own Democratic leaders. COOPER: And here we are in the first week of the most exciting new presidency in a half-century, and the old bulls are back trying to conduct business as usual.
BASH: Now, Wolf, I don't know if you can hear the buzzers ringing. That is a buzzer telling members of the House of Representatives that they are going to begin to vote on final passage for this economic stimulus plan as we speak.
And one of the questions that we're going to be looking at is whether or not that congressman you just heard, Congressman Cooper of Tennessee, a so-called Blue Dog conservative Democrat, whether he will vote for this or whether he will side with Republicans. He told us he was undecided.
But, nevertheless, again, this is just step one. And when this goes over to the Senate, which will happen really momentarily, there is a little bit more of a bipartisan tone and it is actually even bigger, in terms of the size of the bill. It's about $900 billion over there. So it will certainly be interesting to see what happens when it gets to that next step.
BLITZER: Right. It is going to have to pass the House. Then a different version will pass the Senate. Then they will get together, come up with yet a third version and go back and forth. So, it's not over with yet.
Dana, thanks very much.
Let's bring in our chief national correspondent, John King.
It's clear that this president as popular as he is, he still has an enormous challenge up on Capitol Hill, and not just with Republicans, but some of those so-called moderate or Blue Dog Democrats as well.
JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: President Obama has the wind behind his back right now, Wolf. And he can do almost anything in this town. And he will get this legislation, but it will be interesting to watch as this vote goes on how many Democrats vote no and how many Republicans can he get to vote yes.
Remember, this is the first step. And even many of the liberal Democrats, the chairmen of the committees, those putting their programs in, they know the Senate is a more moderate body. They're going to get something different back. So, on the one hand, they are overreaching on purpose, because they know the Senate is going to take some of this out.
But it's interesting to watch. You heard the Republicans yesterday. They are giving President Obama high marks. They say they actually think he is genuine right now when he says, I want to work with you. But they blame Nancy Pelosi. They blame David Obey. They're blaming the speaker and the chairman of the Democrats who they think, we have the power. We don't need Republican votes. We are going to do this our way and not include your ideas.
They can get away with that on this bill. Over time, if that attitude continues and if more and more conservative Democrats start to say, wait a minute, this is not what the people back home where I live want, then you will see some friction and some fraying. This is a first marker down. There will be a lot more -- a lot of changes in the Senate, but it is fascinating to watch as everybody adjusts to the new roles here.
BLITZER: Yes. I want to see how this vote unfolds. They're voting on the House floor right now. And they do it electronically in the House as opposed to the Senate. So we should get the results, the final number very, very soon.
In fact, I think we're getting some of those numbers right now, if you take a look, Democrats 199 yea. Seven Democrats have now voted nay. They voted against the president. Republicans, 154 nay. I don't see any Republicans so far voting in favor of this legislation.
KING: And if you are President Obama, you would look at the numbers and you are a little bit troubled in the sense that you have promised to govern from the center. You have promised to reach out to the other party. You have promised to end the divide that existed not only through the eight years of George W. Bush, but also through the eight years largely of Bill Clinton.
So, you look at those numbers, yes, you're going to get a victory. You're going to get your program. But if you are thinking long term, Wolf, when we get to much more difficult issues like health care, like climate change, issues where the president would very much like to have Republican votes, so that those lawmakers go home to more difficult, contested part of the country and say, this is important, if you are trying to build a foundation for bipartisanship, you don't want to get off on such a wildly partisan beginning.
BLITZER: There it is, 219. That means it has passed, because they need 218 to get that majority in the House of Representatives. So, we can now report -- 221. So, the president and the Democrats, they have seen their legislation approved by the House of Representatives, but they must be very disappointed. I know President Obama must be very disappointed that so far 168 Republicans have voted against him, and no Republican so far has voted with the president of the United States.
KING: And there are still, what, eight, looks like eight Republicans still who have not cast their ballots. And someone could come up and change their ballot, so there is no question this is going to pass. They have a little more than a minute left on the clock. And, as you know, Wolf...
BLITZER: They can change their minds, yes.
KING: Yes. Sometimes, when the clock runs out, the vote goes on a bit longer while they try -- especially if they need to twist arms.
BLITZER: Right now, 227, 228.
Dana Bash is still watching what is going on.
Give us your take on what's going on, Dana.
BASH: Well, the fact that I think we now see eight or maybe nine Democrats voting against it, that's interesting to me because the Democratic leadership really thought that they would lose maybe a dozen to two dozen Democratic votes. Again in the scheme of things, you are talking to 90 to 95 percent of the Democratic Caucus voting with their party and with their new president.
But the fact that you don't see any Republican votes for this, again, given the dynamic that we have been talking about and reporting on for the past couple of days, it's not a big surprise, because they have been for the most part lockstep and adamant, even the moderate Republicans that I have spoken to, people who come from districts where Barack Obama is incredibly popular.
They say, look, there is just too much spending in this that they don't think really does what it takes to create jobs.
BLITZER: Two hundred and thirty-eight Democrats have voted in favor. As a result, this is going to pass. They only needed 218.
But we will continue to watch over the next few minutes to see if any Republicans join. Yesterday, the White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs, predicted there would be Republican support. So far, no Republican support. It's pretty impressive if you are the Republican leader, John Boehner, or Eric Cantor, the number two, that they have managed to keep their conference, as it's called, intact.
That's pretty impressive work from their point of view.
And as Dana has been reporting, their message -- Leader Boehner's message to his members is, don't vote for this, because if -- we have to convince the president, if he wants our votes, he has to embrace our ideas, not just come to the meetings, not just reach out and talk to us, but actually go to Nancy Pelosi and say put some of their proposals in the legislation.
So, everybody is laying down a marker here. Speaker Pelosi is laying down a marker saying, I have the votes. I don't need you.
Republicans are saying, if you want us down the road, you better start listening to us now.
BLITZER: We will stay on top of this. John, thanks very much.
Let's check with Jack. He's got "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.
JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint said in a speech this week that the Obama administration is creating crisis and widespread panic in order to push this economic stimulus package along. He likens the air of urgency to previous tactics that were used by the Bush administration to get the people in Congress to go along with whatever they wanted, particularly things that had to do with the war in Iraq, domestic surveillance, et cetera.
Senator James Inhofe, from Oklahoma, said that this was the same tactic used by the Bush administration to get that $700 billion TARP bill passed in October, the one most of these Republicans voted for. It has left some Republican lawmakers, though, with buyer's remorse.
The senators admit that it's hard to know how things would have played out if the bill had not passed. But that's not the point. DeMint is pointing his finger, not at his colleagues on the Hill, but at Bush and former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson for saying the world economy would collapse if you didn't do this thing.
Sounding somewhat parental, DeMint said -- quote -- "I've been around long enough to know, whenever someone tells me I have to make a decision right away, my response is no" -- unquote.
But DeMint's real point in all this is to say the stimulus plan that's on the table won't stimulate the economy at all, in his opinion. Rather, it's filled with big-government wasteful spending projects. Only time will tell if that's the case. And, as has been discussed, this thing will take several forms before it ever becomes law, if in fact it does.
In the meantime, here's the question: Is President Obama exaggerating the economic crisis in order to get Congress to act?
Go to CNN.com/caffertyfile. Post a comment on my blog.
BLITZER: Jack, thanks very much. It's your money. Can you spare about $1 million? For many workers, at a company, that's what was bailed out.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JAMES REDA, EXECUTIVE COMPENSATION CONSULTANT: I don't buy the argument that you have to pay these bonuses for retention. Where are these people going to go? And it just doesn't make any sense.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: So, is AIG doing the right thing with taxpayer funds?
And only days into President Barack Obama's presidency, Iran's president is mocking him and accusing the U.S. of crimes. Wait until you hear what Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is saying.
And the commander in chief makes his first visit to the Pentagon. What might he have discussed with the military brass?
Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: President Obama says Congress doesn't have a moment to spare in passing his recovering package. He says this is a perilous moment for the economy and the nation. You are going to be hearing extensively from President Obama on what he says about all of this. That's coming up this hour.
The president met today with business leaders on the front lines of this entire financial meltdown.
Let's go to our White House correspondent Dan Lothian.
Dan, it was an important session for the president with these big-time CEOs.
DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, business leaders, CEOs from some of the top companies around the country.
The White House was really trying to show the president trying to get input from these business leaders as he shapes this stimulus package. The news he got was grim.
LOTHIAN (voice-over): It wasn't too long ago that these companies were giddy as their stock prices soared to new heights, Google, IBM, Motorola.
But a much different tone now at the White House as CEOs and other company leaders painted a sobering picture amid unending reports of job losses.
DAVE COTE, CEO, HONEYWELL: Economically, clearly, the situation is dire. No company is immune. Everybody is being touched by this.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We all agree we need to reignite growth in our country.
LOTHIAN: Ahead of the House vote on the $819 billion stimulus plan, Mr. Obama was drumming up support from the nation's business leaders and talking tough about the need to act quickly.
OBAMA: The businesses that are shedding jobs to stay afloat, they can't afford inaction or delay. The workers who are returning home to tell their husbands and wives that they no longer have a job, they are looking to Washington for action, bold and swift.
LOTHIAN: The consensus among these business leaders seems to be support for Obama's efforts to stimulate the economy, but there is also uncertainty about the details and the promised results.
ERIC SCHMIDT, CEO, GOOGLE: I'm sure that it will not be perfect. I'm sure that there will be some things that over the two-year period won't do as well as the others. You just can't get -- it's happening too fast.
LOTHIAN: The president did score points with the business leaders by reinforcing his pledge to be transparent in how the billions of taxpayer dollars will be spent. And the White House launched a new Web site, recovery.gov, still under construction to help Americans track every penny once the plan is in place.
OBAMA: Because I firmly believe what Justice Louis Brandeis once said, that sunlight is the best disinfectant.
LOTHIAN: I asked Google's CEO, Eric Schmidt, what advice he had for the president. He said he told the president to -- quote -- "move quickly." He also told the president that it's not possible to get all of this right in the first round, so -- quote -- "Measure it, test it and adjust it as you go along" -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Dan Lothian is over at the White House. Thanks very much.
Let's head up to New York.
Mary Snow is standing by, the story involving AIG, the insurance giant. They received a lot of money from American taxpayers, but they have done something pretty controversial right now -- Mary.
MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And that is, Wolf, bonuses. And it's not just that a bailout recipient is issuing bonuses. It's where the bonuses are going that is sparking anger.
SNOW (voice-over): It's taken billions in government money to prevent collapse. But American International Group is paying bonuses to its financial products unit. That same unit racked up huge losses. A source familiar with the matter puts the figure at $450 million.
The company is not saying exactly how the money will be paid out, but, if evenly distributed, it would average roughly $1 million per employee. AIG says it needs to retain workers, but it's a hard sell for this executive compensation consultant.
JAMES REDA, EXECUTIVE COMPENSATION CONSULTANT: I don't buy the argument that you have to pay these bonuses for retention. Where are these people going to go? And it just doesn't make any sense.
SNOW: With millions of Americans out of work and thousands of jobs cut daily, retention bonuses have came under sharp scrutiny, especially at financial companies relying on the government to survive. AIG declined our interview request, but in a statement said it disclosed its retention program months before the government gave AIG money. They explained the bonuses this way.
"It was clear given the market environment that we would need to retain employees to manage the complex issues arising in our financial products business, which we are now unwinding."
Congressman Elijah Cummings calls it disturbing, but not surprising. He is on the House Oversight and Governor Reform Committee.
REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGS (D), MARYLAND: My constituents are concerned about...
SNOW: He has been a vocal critic of AIG, demanding answers for taxpayers as to how the $152 billion in bailout money AIG has received is being spent.
CUMMINGS: I don't know of any job or any employer in the world where, when you mess up and basically do things that literally destroy the company, that not only do you get to keep your job, but you get a bonus.
SNOW: Now, asked to respond to the criticism, AIG summed it up this way. It makes the case that it's in taxpayers' interests for the company to run its business successfully in order to repay its government loan.
And, Wolf, the company also points out that most senior employees at the company, their compensation levels have decreased more than 50 percent -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Mary Snow, working that story on AIG, thank you.
And as Mary just reported, AIG's financial rescue package is valued at about $152 billion. So, how does that compare to money the government spends on major federal agencies? In 2008, the Department of Health and Human Services almost $172 billion. The Department of Education spent just more than $57 billion. The Justice Department, by the way, spent more than $22 billion. The total money of those three agencies almost $152 billion, that's the same as AIG's rescue package in terms of U.S. taxpayer dollars.
Iran's president makes his first public comments since Barack Obama took office. And he's lashing out at America. He is demanding an apology and that's just for starters.
And major dollars go for aging schools -- why the economic stimulus package could be a shot in the arm for the nation's entire education system.
Stay with us. You are in THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: He is known for controversial comments. And Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is wasting little time putting out more just days into Barack Obama's presidency. He said something today that prompted this response from former President Jimmy Carter, whom I spoke to just a short while ago.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JIMMY CARTER, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There's no question that the president of Iran is the most irresponsible blabbermouth in the world. You know, you can't put any credence in what he says.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Let's find out what he said.
Zain Verjee is here in THE SITUATION ROOM.
What did President Ahmadinejad have to say for himself on this day?
ZAIN VERJEE, CNN STATE DEPARTMENT CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, they were really his first comments since President Obama took office. Iran's president really blasting the U.S.. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says he wants an apology from the U.S. for he calls crimes they have committed against the Iranian nation. He also slammed U.S. support for Israel.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD, IRANIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): If you are talking about change, you have to give up your support for these Zionists, which have no root, are uncultured, are fabricated, are murderous. They are killers of children and men and women. Stop supporting them.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
VERJEE: Ahmadinejad, who is also campaigning for reelection, demanded an end to U.S. military presence around the world as well in that speech. He didn't actually mention Mr. Obama by name, but his comments come just a day after the U.S. president reached out to the Muslim world, including Iran.
Now, the State Department is saying that it's reviewing these comments, as well as U.S.-Iran policy. One analyst I spoke to today says just because the U.S. says it wants to engage doesn't mean that Iran is going to be a willing partner -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Do Iranians -- I know it's hard to gauge what's going on really inside Iran right now. But do they sense there is a change in U.S. policy?
VERJEE: Well, there is such a wide range of views. There were comments in the Iranian papers today that really doubted whether the talk of change in the U.S. and its attitude towards Iran was really real or serious. Some of them felt that there may be a change in tactics, but the overall goals the Bush administration had been pursuing would stay the same in the Obama administration. But many Iranians are really looking for engagement with the U.S., particularly economic.
One interesting thing I learned, Wolf, is that the name Obama is pronounced in Persian "Ubama," which translates into "He is with us."
BLITZER: Interesting stuff. Leave it to Zain to figure that out.
BLITZER: All right, thanks very much for that.
The House of Representatives passes an economic rescue plan after another urgent appeal from the president.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
OBAMA: We don't have a moment to spare. The businesses that are shedding jobs to stay afloat, they can't afford inaction or delay.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: We are going to follow the breaking news, passage of this legislation. We're going to hear directly from President Obama himself at length about the state of the U.S. economy. You are going to want to hear this.
And the future of your child's school could depend on that economic fix-it plan. We're looking at where the money is supposed to go.
And why President Obama just doesn't get it. The Chicagoan speaks out about a snow day here in Washington. Yes, we will tell you about that as well.
BLITZER: To our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Happening now: The Federal Reserve is vowing to keep a key interest rates near zero percent.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is calling for a complete review of past ethical misconduct over at the Interior Department. The department has been rocked by several scandals in recent years.
And early voting in Iraq for provisional elections today. Millions of people are expected to vote Saturday as well -- all of this coming up, plus the best political team on television.
I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
President Obama says the nation right now is at a perilous moment when it comes to the economy. And he's warning -- and let me quote him -- "We don't have a moment to spare."
Listen to this sense of urgency after he met with top notch business CEOs.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: A few moments ago, I met
with some of the leading business executives in the country. And it was a sober meeting because these companies and the workers they employ are going through times more trying than any that we've seen in a long, long while.
Just the other day, seven of our largest corporations announced they were making major job cuts. Some of the business leaders in this room have had to do the same. And yet even as we discussed the seriousness of this challenge, we left our meeting confident that we can turn our economy around. But each of us, as Dave indicated, are going to have to do our share.
Part of what led our economy to this perilous moment was a sense of irresponsibility that prevailed in Wall Street, and in Washington. And that's why I called for a new era of responsibility in my inaugural address last week --an era where each of us chips in so that we can climb our way out of this crisis --executives and factory floor workers, educators and engineers, health care professionals and legislated officials.
As we discussed in our meeting a few minutes ago, corporate America will have to accept its own responsibilities to its workers and the American public. But these executives also understand that without wise leadership in Washington, even the best run businesses can't do as well as they might. They understand that what makes an idea sound is not whether it's Democrat or Republican, but whether it makes good economic sense for their workers and companies. And they understand that when it comes to rebuilding our economy, we don't have a moment to spare.
The businesses that are shedding jobs to stay afloat, they can't afford inaction or delay. The workers who are returning home to tell their husbands and wives and children that they no longer have a job and all those who live in fear that their job will be next on the cutting blocks, they need help now. They are looking to Washington for action -- bold and swift. And that is why I hope to sign an American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan into law in the next few weeks.
And most of the money that we're investing as part of this plan will get out the door immediately and go directly to job creation, generating or saving three to four million new jobs. And the vast majority of these jobs will be created in the private sector, because, as these CEOs well know, business, not government, is the engine of growth in this country.
But even as this plan puts Americans back to work, it will also make the critical investments in alternative energy and safer roads, better health care and modern schools, that will lay the foundation for long-term growth and prosperity. And it will invest in broadband and emerging technologies, like the ones imagined and introduced to the world by people like Sam and so many of the CEOs here today, because that's how America will retain and regain its competitive edge in the 21st century.
I know that there are some who are skeptical of the size and scale of this recovery plan. And I understand that skepticism given some of the things that have happened in this town in the past. And that's why this recovery plan will include unprecedented measures that will allow the American people to hold my administration accountable.
Instead of just throwing money at our problems, we'll try something new in Washington -- we will invest in what works. Instead of politicians doling out money behind a veil of secrecy, decisions about where we invest will be made public on the Internet and will be informed by independent experts whenever possible.
And we will launch a sweeping effort to root out waste, inefficiency and unnecessary spending in our government. And every American will be able to see how and where we spend taxpayer dollars by going to a new website called recovery.gov.
Because I firmly believe in what Justice Lewis Brandeis once said, that sunlight is the best disinfectant. And I know that restoring transparency is not only the surest way to achieve results, but also to earn back the trust in government without which we cannot deliver the changes the American people sent us here to make.
In the end, the answer to our economic troubles rests less in my hands or in the hands of our legislators than it does with America's workers and the businesses that employ them. They are the ones whose efforts and ideas will determine our economic destiny, just as they always have. For in the end, it's businesses -- large and small -- that generate the jobs, provide the salaries and serve as the foundation on which the American people's lives and dreams depend.
All we can do -- those of us here in Washington -- is to help create a favorable climate in which workers can prosper, businesses can thrive and our economy can grow. And that is exactly what the recovery plan I proposed is intended to do. And that's exactly what I intend to achieve soon.
Thank you very much for being here.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: And the White House has just reacted in a statement from the press secretary -- or a statement from the president of the United States of the House passage of the economic stimulus plan. Only Democrats voted for it. No Republicans voted for it.
The president welcoming the passage of the legislation: "I'm grateful to the House of Representatives for moving the American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan forward." He goes on to note that it now goes to the Senate, where there will be changes. He looks forward to working swiftly with both chambers of the Congress to make sure this legislation is enacted very, very quickly.
At the same time, the president also has been turning his attention, at least for much of this day, from the economy to the military matters -- the national security issues facing the country, including two wars.
Let's go to our Pentagon correspondent, Chris Lawrence.
The president wrapped up a meeting with members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff just a little while ago and then he spoke out -- Chris, tell our viewers what happened.
CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the president said he and his military leaders face some very tough decisions in Iraq and Afghanistan and those decisions are coming soon.
LAWRENCE (voice-over): Afghanistan, Iraq and deployments around the world -- it was all on the table for President Obama's first visit to the Pentagon.
OBAMA: We're going to have some difficult decisions that we're going to have to make surrounding Iraq and Afghanistan most immediately.
LAWRENCE: Military leaders say the Afghanistan situation is deteriorating. Suicide bombings and IED attacks are up and militants are flowing in from Pakistan. Plans are in place to deploy 15,000 to 20,000 more troops to Afghanistan -- plans that need the president's OK, which could come soon.
ROBERT GATES, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: We could have two of those brigades there probably by late spring and potentially a third by midsummer.
LAWRENCE: President Obama has made success in Afghanistan a key goal of his administration.
MICHAEL O'HANLON, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: He views this as the central battleground against Al Qaeda and he's obviously put his own neck on the line in terms of promising results.
LAWRENCE: Military analysts say President Obama could have called the Joint Chiefs to the White House, but it wouldn't have the same effect.
O'HANLON: Going to visit people on their turf, it's a sign of respect.
LAWRENCE: Despite the president's warm welcome, there are issues that could strain his relationship with the military, including severe cuts in the defense budget. But President Obama seemed to signal he won't pull back on certain funding.
OBAMA: We have, for a long time, put enormous pressure on our military to carry out a whole set of missions, sometimes not with the sort of strategic support and the use of all aspects of American power to make sure that they're not carrying the full load.
(END VIDEO TAPE)
LAWRENCE: Now that he's met with his U.S. commanders in Iraq last week and met with the Joint Chiefs today, President Obama has one more major meeting ahead of him -- that with General David McKiernan, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan -- Wolf.
BLITZER: That will be a pretty significant meeting, indeed.
All right. Chris Lawrence at the Pentagon.
The economic stimulus package which has just passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 244 in favor, 188 opposed -- 188. There were no Republicans who voted for this legislation. The legislation contains lots of money for schools out there -- more than double the Education Department's budget this year, from $60 billion to almost $150 billion.
Let's head out to Ted Rowlands.
He's taking a look at the issue of schools and jobs -- Ted, where are you?
What's going on?
TED ROWLANDS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we're in an elementary school basement -- at Humphries Elementary School in Los Angeles. And this is one of the schools that desperately needs help. This sort of scene -- chipped paint, water damage -- is prevalent throughout the school.
And get a load of this thing. This school was built in 1928. This is the original boiler that is expected to heat the school. The custodian here said it works about 60 percent of the time.
There's no doubt that this school and hundreds of others across the country need help -- desperate help.
The question is, if the federal government pays for the help, will that actually stimulate the economy?
ROWLANDS (voice-over): Even from the outside, it's easy to see that Humphries Elementary School in Los Angeles needs help. The windows are so badly worn, many of them are nailed closed. The roof leaks, the asphalt is broken.
School district officials estimate Humphries needs about $7 million in repair work and they think it's a great way to stimulate the economy. The windows require carpenters, painters and glazers, replacing this ancient fire alarm needs electricians to run wiring, people to install wire housing throughout the school, technicians to install the system and people to remove the old one. Replacing the boiler requires electricians, plumbers, pipe fitters, sheet metal workers and lots of labor.
GUY MEHULA, L.A. UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT: We're ready to go.
ROWLANDS: Guy Mehula is the chief facilities executive for the Los Angeles Unified School District. He says the district has already developed the plans to fix dozens of schools. They just need the money to do it.
If the stimulus plan goes through, he expects L.A. will get enough cash to create as many as 9,500 jobs.
MEHULA: Carpenters, electricians, plumbers, pipe fitters, all of those things. But in addition to that, it's the architects. It's the engineers that have to put it together. So it does have a multiplier effect, as we look at other support industries.
ROWLANDS: The stimulus plan calls for $20 billion to be invested in school modernization projects around the country, saving or creating an estimated 250,000 jobs, while saving schools like Humphries from falling into even greater disrepair.
(END VIDEO TAPE)
ROWLANDS: And critics of the plan say that schools should be left to states and local governments, adding another layer of government will create waste -- Wolf, officials say that one thing is clear -- if this is going to work in terms of stimulating the economy, it's got to be clean. It can't be a lot of red tape. They need the money and they'll handle it from there. They're confident -- at least in L.A. -- larger school districts, they have already got the plans set. They just need the cash to hire the people to implement the construction -- Wolf.
BLITZER: And there are schools all over the country in really horrible shape that need a lot of cash.
Thanks very much, Ted, for that.
President Obama using all of his charm to win Congressional support for a stimulus plan.
But here's the question -- is it working?
BLITZER: We'll get to the best political team on television in a moment.
But Lou is getting ready for the show that begins right at the top of the hour and he's standing by with a little preview.
Lou, what are you working on?
LOU DOBBS, HOST, "LOU DOBBS TONIGHT": That's right, Wolf.
Coming up tonight, we'll have much more on the House of Representatives' vote to support the president's so-called economic recovery and stimulus plan without any serious analysis. Very few of them have read it. It's a plan that could cost taxpayers and future generations of Americans more than a trillion dollars.
We'll have the politics of fear tonight overtaking the rhetoric of hope. Two leading Congressional opponents of this legislation -- one Democrat and one Republican -- join us.
We'll also be joined by three of the country's best political analysts.
Also tonight, why does the president's economic plan include nearly $400 million for climate change research?
Is that stimulus?
How many jobs will be created?
We'll be taking a look at that in our special coverage, Lou's Line Item Veto.
And rising concern that the Obama administration will threaten the Second Amendment rights of Americans. It has a lot of Americans concerned. And a leading defender of our gun rights, Senator John Barrasso, is among our guests here tonight. Join us for all of that and all the day's news at the top of the hour -- Wolf, back to you.
BLITZER: All right. Lou, thanks.
See you in a few moments.
Let's check in with the best political team on television.
Joining us now our senior political analyst, Gloria Borger; and Steve Hayes of "The Weekly Standard;" and Clarence Page of the "Chicago Tribune."
Were you surprised -- I was surprised -- that not one Republican voted in favor of President Obama's economic stimulus package?
GLORIA BORGER, SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: I -- I was sort of stunned by it. But I was told by a Democratic source that there may have been about 30 Republican who were leaning toward voting for it. But this was a point that the leadership in the House wanted to make -- the Republican leadership -- to vote unanimously against what they called Nancy Pelosi's stimulus package and make a point.
However, Wolf, in the end, the American public doesn't care about whether these Republicans wanted to make a point or not. It could turn out to be a politically tone deaf vote.
Listen to Nancy Pelosi, because she spoke out.
Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: On this vote, the yeas are 244. The nays are 188. The bill is passed without objection. A motion to reconsider is laid upon the table.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: And she looked pretty happy when she read that announcement -- 244, that's a pretty good number. They're all Democrats.
STEPHEN HAYES, SENIOR WRITER AT "THE WEEKLY STANDARD": She lost some Democrats, too. I mean I think this is a testament to the -- to the House Republican leadership, really, in keeping their members in line, particularly Eric Cantor, the whip, on his first major project, keeping all House Republicans together.
I think what has happened with the House Republicans is they've looked at the bill, they've looked at the details. And it feels like, you know, asking your neighbor to come over and water your plants and instead coming home to find your whole first floor is flooded.
It's -- the -- what you're asking them to do isn't exactly what they're delivering. And that's a problem.
BLITZER: But it's going to be a little different when it goes to the Senate now. There will be some Republicans, I assume, in the Senate, who will support the president, don't you think?
CLARENCE PAGE, "CHICAGO TRIBUNE": Yes. And they have -- well, they -- for one thing, the Senate doesn't have as many sitting Republicans who are worried about primary fights coming up. That's the thing. There are -- the House Republicans are more worried about -- about their own base being split in upcoming primaries than they're worried about the fact that, as Rahm Emanuel said, 80 percent of the public supports the stimulus package. It's a popular idea. But they have leaned on ideological and philosophical differences in saying that they oppose the package overall.
BORGER: You know, this is about branding or rebranding of the Republican Party. But don't forget, we're in an economic crisis. It was just announced this week that 70,000 jobs have been lost -- at least. And this is a bill that is supposed to create three million jobs and has $275 billion in tax cuts in it.
You know, my question is, to Republicans, if it works, what do they do then?
HAYES: Well, I think if it works, they're going to be in trouble. The reason I think Republicans grew more confident over the recent days to vote against this because, increasingly, it looks like it's not going to be a stimulus bill with much stimulation, with much -- that's not very stimulative. And we will ultimately find out.
BLITZER: All right. I want to get Clarence to react quickly. I interviewed Jimmy Carter. You met -- you covered him for a long time.
BLITZER: And he's really enthusiastic about President Obama's new outreach to the Mideast. He's happy that he gave this interview to Al Arabiya. He was talking about George Mitchell being a special envoy. I sensed he was a little bit less thrilled about the secretary of State, Hillary Clinton.
Listen to this little exchange.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Do you have confidence in George Mitchell?
JIMMY CARTER, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I have total confidence in him.
BLITZER: And what about Hillary Clinton, the secretary of State?
CARTER: I think she'll comply with the policies established by the president, as will George Mitchell.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: It didn't sound exactly like a rousing endorsement.
PAGE: He's not as enthusiastic.
BLITZER: He wasn't thrilled with her stance on the Middle East.
PAGE: He's had more opportunities to have differences with both Bill and Hillary on the Middle East. He did apparently hold back publication of his book so he wouldn't in any way get in the way of Barack Obama's campaign. And he has sounded quite enthusiastic about the prospect of Obama.
So far, though, he's -- has found disagreements with every president who has followed him to the White House. I suspect it's going to happen sooner or later with this White House, too. But Carter, for right now, is optimistic.
BLITZER: We're going to have more of the interview with Jimmy Carter Saturday night, 6:00 p.m. Eastern, in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Guys, thanks very much for that.
Washington schools -- they're closed today because of snow. President Obama is wondering why.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) OBAMA: As my children pointed out, in Chicago, school is never canceled.
OBAMA: In fact, my 7-year-old pointed out that you'd go outside for recess in winter like this.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: A first for the new first family. And President Obama's advice to the nation's capital.
Stay with us.
You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: Let's head over to Jack for the Cafferty File -- Jack.
CAFFERTY: The question this hour -- is President Obama exaggerating the economic crisis in order to get Congress to act favorably on this stimulus bill he wants passed?
Nancy in Colorado: "Where did that question come from?"
I made it up, Nancy.
"How many millions of people are out of work? Believe me, it's trickling down mighty fast throughout the entire country. Crisis is an understatement."
Meg in Ohio says: "I hope it wouldn't take a crisis of this magnitude to get Congress to act. But based on their recent track record, that may be the case. Someone needs to act -- and soon -- or we're going to be talking about our economy and our way of life in the past tense."
Dan writes: "I don't think he's exaggerating about the problem. We're in a serious crisis. However, this bill smells a lot like the last bailout -- rushed out in order to give people the impression that Washington is working for them. Anybody watching the job losses knows what the economy needs is jobs. The entire package should be for public works and other like programs that give people jobs. I want to be taught how to fish, not just given one."
Bruce in St. Paul writes: "The crisis has been coming for an while. In fact, it's been coming down the track since 1981 -- Reaganomics in the '80s and Reaganomics on steroids the last eight years. Most of us quit keeping up with inflation about 2001, survived on our savings, then on borrowing against our inflated home prices. Now we're running on fumes." Spencer says: "Of course he is. In his inaugural speech, Obama compared the present difficulties to Valley Forge, for Pete's sake. Anybody who tells you 8 percent unemployment rivals the Great Depression or Valley Forge either doesn't know their history or thinks you don't know yours."
And Bill in Tampa writes: "I've got a better one for you, Jack. There's a better bet the Republican Party has created a crisis that will force itself to become extinct around the year 2012."
If you didn't see your e-mail here, you can go to my blog at CNN.com/caffertyfile and look for yours there among hundreds of others.
BLITZER: See you tomorrow, Jack.
Let's head over to Samantha Hayes right now.
There is a little snow here in Washington. The president of the United States and his two daughters were stunned by what happened.
What exactly happened -- Sam?
SAMANTHA HAYES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, it was ice. You can hear it coming off the roof of where I'm standing right now. And the Obamas are used to cold weather. They're from Chicago. And their daughters aren't used to getting out of school.
HAYES (voice-over): Winter weather closed schools all over the country today, including parts of Tennessee, Indiana, Ohio and the nation's capital. And that got the president's attention.
OBAMA: My children's school was canceled today, because of what?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Ice.
OBAMA: Some ice?
HAYES: That's right, Malia and Sasha's private school, Sidwell Friends, closed its doors for the day.
OBAMA: As my children pointed out, in Chicago, school is never canceled. In fact, my 7-year-old pointed out that you'd go outside for recess in a winter like this.
OBAMA: You wouldn't even stay indoors.
HAYES: In fairness to the new president, the D.C. area has a reputation for being quick to close schools for bad weather. But most folks aren't complaining.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: I was happy, because I got to sleep in, because I was really tired.
HAYES: To that, the new commander-in-chief says, in essence, Washington, don't be a wimp.
OBAMA: We're going to have to try to apply some flinty Chicago toughness to this town.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Ah, it's nice not to be tough.
(END VIDEO TAPE)
HAYES: Obama may have a point. Chicago public schools haven't been closed for weather since 1999, when they had a bad ice storm -- Wolf.
BLITZER: And I grew up in Buffalo. They never closed school. And we had a ton of snow.
All right. Sam, thanks very much.
The president is absolutely right.
Up next, President Obama adjusting to life over at the White House.
BLITZER: There's always a bit of a period of adjustment. Before we go, we want to show you this photo. Take a look at it. There the president is getting really to go into the Oval Office over at the White House.
But guess what?
He approaches a window. That's a window, not a door. I guess it takes a little while to get used to all the new digs at the White House. The president -- good luck with all of that.
I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Thanks very much for joining us.
See you back here tomorrow.
Up next, "LOU DOBBS TONIGHT" -- LOU.