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Poll Numbers on President's Side; Toxic Assets Poison Lending; "We Cannot Afford Failure"; 3,600 Face U.S. Deportation; Key Vote Underway on Economic Rescue

Aired February 9, 2009 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now, a critical Senate vote on President Obama's latest effort to get his economic stimulus passed through the Senate. We expect that vote this hour. We'll have live coverage from the floor of the Senate.

Also, the first lady, Michelle Obama -- she's doing her part right now to try to pitch this economic recovery plan. She was making the rounds in Washington earlier today. You're going to hear from the first lady in her own words. That's coming up this hour.

And a brutal and very bloody war that sent thousands and thousands of people to their death and many thousands fleeing to the United States. Now, almost two decades later, some may be forced to return have ripping their families apart. We have the story.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.


It's the next major hurdle President Obama's economic recovery plan will have to clear -- a critical Senate vote expected this hour. Stand by for live coverage.

And while we wait for the lawmakers to have their say, Americans are voicing their opinion on the massive spending plan, as well as on President Obama himself.

Let's go to our senior political correspondent, Candy Crowley.

She's working this story for us -- Candy, a brand new CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll with some fascinating new numbers.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. You know, the prevailing wisdom here in Washington is that, in the end, when this stimulus package hits President Obama's desk, he will get pretty much most of what he wants. And the new poll numbers tell us why.


CROWLEY (voice-over): He enjoys powerful support among Americans, though it does not entirely carry over into the stimulus package. BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: So we've had a good debate. Now it's time to act.

CROWLEY: As he presses Congress to move things along, new polling by CNN and Opinion Research Corporation shows President Barack Obama has substantial political wind behind him. Seventy-six percent of Americans approve of the way he is handling the job. The stimulus plan he is pushing fares well, but not as well. Asked about the $800 billion Senate plan, 54 percent of Americans said they support it.

The party breakdown speaks to a country still divided and offers explanation for the resistance of Republican lawmakers. Three quarters of Democrats polled said they support the Senate version. Only a third of Republicans do. Independents split right down the middle.

OBAMA: I mean it's coming out of Washington. It's going through Congress.


OBAMA: You know, look, it's not perfect.

CROWLEY: The 22-point gap between approval of the president and approval of the stimulus plan, in some part, is due to this. Fifty- five 55 percent of Americans think that $800 billion price tag is too high.

But in the end, the president's language in his Elkhart, Indiana town hall meeting seemed less about gathering support for the substance of the stimulus plan -- almost certain to pass -- than about the speed with which it passes. It is a message for Congressional Democrats who are poised to enter what is often a lengthy process -- the conference committee, which settles differences between House and Senate bills.

Whatever emerges for a final vote is not likely to have much Republican support.


Him worry?

He doesn't have to. Seventy-four percent of Americans think the president is doing enough to work with Republicans. Thirty-nine percent say Republicans are doing enough to work with him.


CROWLEY: And one more thing we learned from these polls, and that is, most Americans still have a pretty low opinion of Congress, but they rate Democratic leaders far more favorably than Republican -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Candy.

Thanks very much. Let's go back to Mary Snow.

She's working another critically important part of this story -- how to help the financial sector and what the Treasury secretary might be announcing as early as tomorrow.

What are you picking up -- Mary?

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, this is part two of the bank bailout plan. And, as you said, the Treasury secretary set to unveil what is being touted as a massive overhaul of this plan.

Now, part one went out in the fall. As you can see, more than $350 billion given out to more than 300 banks -- with Citigroup, AIG, Bank of America getting large sums.

Part two, a lot of question marks -- still a lot of sketchy details about exactly where it's going. But this part could include a new plan to take care of those so-called toxic assets.


SNOW (voice-over): It's been compared to reviving a sick patient -- the patient being banks. And as former labor Secretary Robert Reich explains, they aren't lending.

ROBERT REICH, FORMER LABOR SECRETARY: The banks are not going to really get back into the business of lending until they clean up their balance sheets -- until they get rid of all of these toxic assets.

SNOW: Those are the home mortgages -- many high risk -- that have plummeted in value because homeowners can't make their payments. One new idea being talked about is to have the private sector work with the government to get these toxic assets off balance sheets of banks.

Let's say there's a security for $100. A private investor buys them at 20 cents at the dollar, but with the government insurance.

REICH: If the government came along right behind you and said, if you make a bad bet -- if it turns out that these securities are worth actually less than 18 cents, we will back you up. You're not going to lose more than two cents.

SNOW: The big wild card is determining the value or price of these toxic assets. So it's still a big gamble. But some economists say that the government, working with the private sector, it could make these private investors feel more comfortable about buying these toxic assets.

DIANE SWONK, CHIEF ECONOMIST, MESIROW FINANCIAL: This is the government's attempt to put a little greater level of trust, to get the markets that are there functioning again.

SNOW: Brian Sterling works for a private firm advising banks that have taken federal bailout money. He says if all this works, it should spur lending. BRIAN STERLING, SANDLER O'NEILL & PARTNERS: What we're looking for here is to get the banks in a position to make loans and continue to -- to grow their balance sheets and grow their lending books.


SNOW: Now, one other aspect that the new round of bailout money could include is help for homeowners. The president's top economic adviser, Larry Summers, has said that the president has committed to at least $50 billion to support the housing economy. And that help cannot come soon enough. Estimates show roughly 2.3 million foreclosure notices were sent out last year alone -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And they're trying desperately to prevent that this year.

All right, Mary.

Thanks very much.

Let's go back to Jack for "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: The stimulus debate rages on, even though the Senate is expected to eventually pass its $827 billion version of this thing.

President Obama hit the road today -- town hall-style meetings to try to sell it. He'll address the nation tonight in a prime time news conference. You can see that here on CNN.

The president insists this stimulus package will help pull the current economy out of its current tailspin. But most Republicans continue to slam the plan for what they believe is excessive spending that will not fix our economic problems.

Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama says the package will: "put us on a road to financial disaster."

That's as opposed to the road we're on now.

The head of President Obama's National Economic Council, Lawrence Summers, says the Republicans have no credibility on this issue after the previous administrations racked up trillions of dollars in debt over the past eight years.

The bottom line, though, is there's a real sense of urgency that this thing pass -- and soon. The Senate may have a test vote later today. The final vote in the Senate could come tomorrow.

But even now, Congressional aides are already at work reconciling the Senate version with the House's.

Meanwhile, the Republicans might want to tone down the whining. A new CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll shows that a measly 39 percent of Americans think that Republicans are doing enough to cooperate with President Obama. Only 44 percent approve of how Republican leaders are handling their job. That compares to 60 percent of Democratic leaders in Congress and a whopping 76 percent approval rating for President Obama.

So here's the question -- how important is it that Congress move quickly to pass the stimulus plan?

Go to, where you can post a comment on my blog.

We need to get this table fixed, because it's...


CAFFERTY: ...there's something loose here.

BLITZER: We're going to get it fixed.


BLITZER: We're going to get it fixed.


BLITZER: All right. Thank you.

I think they heard you.

Jack Cafferty, thank you.

The first lady venturing into new territory and taking on policies -- she's lending her star power to her husband's stimulus sales pitch. You're going to hear what she said in her own words.

Also, a really stunning admission from baseball's highest paid player -- the New York Yankee, Alex Rodriguez -- he's coming clean about steroid use. We have the videotape.

Plus, the grandmother of those California octuplets speaking out -- what's really going on right now in their family of 14 kids.

Stay with us.



BLITZER: Huge, huge challenges facing President Obama in terms of Afghanistan and what's going on there right now.

Let's go to our Pentagon correspondent, Chris Lawrence.

He's working this story for us.

What is the latest on this front, because it's potentially a nightmare?


And right now, President Obama is still examining the military's review of Afghanistan strategy. Now, envoy Richard Holbrook is in Pakistan right now. And the findings that he relays back could move that troop decision along.

But it is clear two decisions have already been made -- one, get the American people prepared for a very tough fight in Afghanistan; and tone down expectations.


LAWRENCE (voice-over): Officials say President Obama has delayed a decision on sending large numbers of troops until he's confident a successful end goal has been agreed on. At a European conference this weekend, General David Petraeus said the security is getting worse: "Arresting and then reversing the downward spiral in security in Afghanistan thus will require not just additional military forces, but also more civilian contributions."

Many of the president's national security team echo Petraeus' concerns.

GEN. JAMES JONES (RET.), NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: We cannot afford failure in Afghanistan.

LAWRENCE: That was President Obama's national security adviser. The president's envoy to Afghanistan, Richard Holbrook, is on his first trip to the region. And he's warning that succeeding in Afghanistan will be: "much tougher than Iraq."

As far back as last fall, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan has been saying there's a desperate need for more troops and help.

GEN. DAVID MCKIERNAN, COMMANDER, U.S. FORCES, AFGHANISTAN: Although we desperately need additional military capabilities, it's also about, ultimately, a political solution in Afghanistan.


LAWRENCE: Defense Secretary Robert Gates himself said that the goal now -- the more modest goal is not turning Afghanistan into some sort of democracy, it's just to make sure it is not a sanctuary for radical insurgents.

And, also, there are challenges that come with that, in terms of moving those combat brigades in. They want to have enough troops to secure areas and protect some of the Afghans who will have been cooperating with U.S. forces, but not so many that the Afghan people start to look at it as an occupation. And it's not just a matter of moving combat brigades. You've got to have engineers and aviation units in there to build up the infrastructure and also medical evacuation units to make sure that when troops are wounded there, they get medical attention within about an hour -- like the troops do in Iraq -- Wolf. BLITZER: It's going to cost a fortune, no doubt about that -- a lot more money. And the terrain in Afghanistan is daunting. No doubt about that, as well.

All right, thanks very much.

Chris Lawrence working the story at the Pentagon.

Years of deadly fighting -- scenes like this brought thousands of Liberians to the United States back in the 1990s. Now the war is over there and a March deadline could see 3,600 people sent back to Liberia from the United States, splintering the families they've made here in the United States.

CNN's homeland security correspondent, Jeanne Meserve has the story -- Jeanne.

JEANNE MESERVE, HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the West African nation of Liberia was founded in 1920 by free African- Americans and freed slaves. But despite that special connection, some Liberians in the U.S. are in limbo -- waiting to see if they'll be forced to leave the country they've lived in legally for almost two decades.


MESERVE (voice-over): In the early 1990s, more than 200,000 Liberians died in a bloody and cruel civil war.

CORVAH AKOIWAL, FACING DEPORTATION: They dragged us out of our homes, held us at gunpoint on the road and they were shooting -- shooting around us, stating that they were going to have us killed.

MESERVE: Corvah Akoiwal was among more than 10,000 Liberians who fled to the U.S. In 1991, they were granted temporary protective status, which let them live and work here legally. Akoiwal built an engineering career, had a family, as the Liberians' protected status was renewed year after year -- until 2006. Their deportation was delayed, but that may soon change.

DAN STEIN, PRESIDENT, FAIR: It's time for people to go back and rebuild their country.

MESERVE: Liberia is at peace now, with a democratically elected government. But crime and unemployment are high, electricity and clean water are scarce.


MESERVE: In communities like Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, where Liberians have put down roots, there is growing fear. Jobs here help support relatives back home. And many Liberians, like Akoiwal, have American-born children with American citizenship.

AKOIWAL: You know, who am I going to leave them with?

I want to stay here and see them grow up and be a responsible citizens and then I can go back.

MESERVE: Democratic Senator Jack Reed, a champion of the Liberians, is sponsoring legislation to give them permanent residency status.

SEN. JACK REED (D), RHODE ISLAND: They have worked very hard. They've played by the rules. They've paid their taxes. They're here legally. I think they should -- that should be considered.

MESERVE: But critics underline the temporary in temporary protected status. They say for Liberians to stay when their country is at peace is an abuse of U.S. hospitality.

STEIN: It makes a mockery of the concept of short-term, temporary humanitarian protection.


MESERVE: If they are not granted a reprieve, the Liberians are facing a deadline of March 31st. At that point, they'll face a choice -- stay in the U.S. illegally and go underground or go back home -- Wolf, back to you.

BLITZER: All right, Jeanne.

Thanks very much.

Jeanne Meserve reporting.

A baseball superstar confirms years of rumor and speculation. Alex Rodriguez now admitting to steroid use and trying to explain why he did. You're going to hear from him in his own words.

Plus, Republicans lining up in opposition to President Obama's stimulus plan -- but what if it works?

What's at risk for the GOP?

Paul Begala and Ed Rollins -- they're here to discuss.

Stay with us.



BLITZER: We're standing by.

They're getting ready to vote on the floor of the U.S. Senate momentarily. It's a make or break vote. It's a procedural vote to end debate. But if the Democrats don't get 60 votes, it could be very, very dicey for the president's economic stimulus package.

We'll go there once the roll call begins. That's coming up momentarily -- a critical vote on the floor of the U.S. Senate. Meanwhile, in Southeastern Australia, deadly wildfires in the State of Victoria killed at least 170 people and left thousands more homeless. Investigators suspect some of the fires were set on purpose -- acts the prime minister is calling mass murder.

Our Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton, has more on this story -- Abbi, what are you -- what are we seeing?

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, there are nine major fires burning across the state and then dozens of smaller blazes, as well. So that means you have residents -- sometimes firefighters -- recording images, posting updates online as they see these blazes coming toward their communities.

Take a look at this one posted on YouTube.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is nuts. I'm friends with the girl that used to live in that house.


TATTON: It's a YouTube video from (INAUDIBLE). This is in the suburbs of Melbourne. He said the flames here jumped so quickly that the cars were still on the roads. No one had time to escape from it. And he's posting multiple updates on the video sharing Web site, YouTube.

Another one, further afield. This is the massive Churchill Blaze, further to the east, being recorded there from Ingrid, who was just sitting on her back porch.

And we've also seen updates from a volunteer firefighter who's been actually inside that blaze fighting that. Some of his posts are heart-wrenching on Twitter: "I returned from the township of Calignie (ph)," he wrote, "where everything is gone. I've experienced and seen things today that no one should ever see."

Five hundred thousand acres burnt so far. That death toll of 170, Wolf, expected to rise.

BLITZER: Our hearts go out to all those folks in Australia.

Thanks very much for that.

We'll stay on top of the story, Abbi.

Mary Snow is monitoring some other important stories incoming to THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

What's going on -- Mary?

SNOW: Well, Wolf, we'll start on Wall Street.

What will Washington's next move be -- that's the question according to plan weighing on investors' minds. The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell slightly today. Other markets closed mixed after the rally last week. The government plans to detail its latest bailout strategies tomorrow.

The top enforcement officer at the Securities and Exchange Commission is stepping down. Linda Chapman Thompson and the entire commission came under sharp criticism for their handling of the Bernard Madoff case. The SEC, meanwhile, says it's reached an agreement with Madoff, which could eventually force the disgraced money manager to pay a civil fine and return money raised from investors. Now, the deal will not affect a continuing criminal investigation of Madoff.

And last night's Grammy Awards were marred by the arrest of a nominee. Singer Chris Brown was arrested on domestic violence charges in Hollywood -- later released on a $50,000 bond. Sources close to the couple confirm the alleged victim in the incident was his girlfriend, singer Rihanna. Both Brown and Rihanna scheduled their canceled performances at last night's Grammys -- Wolf.

BLITZER: That's just too sad.

SNOW: Very sad.

BLITZER: That's very sad.

Thanks very much, Mary.

One of baseball's biggest stars right now admitting to using performance enhancers. The New York Yankees' Alex Rodriguez today responded to reports he tested positive for steroids years ago.

Here's his explanation.


ALEX RODRIGUEZ, NEW YORK YANKEES 3RD BASEMAN: When I arrived in Texas in 2001, I felt an enormous amount of pressure. I felt like I had all the weight of the world on top of me and I needed to perform and perform at a high level every day. Back then, it was a different culture. It was very loose. I was young. I was stupid. I was naive. And I wanted to prove to everyone that, you know, I was worth -- you know, and being one of the greatest players of all time. And I did -- I did take a banned substance. And, you know, for that, I'm very sorry and deeply regretful.


BLITZER: That was Alex Rodriguez in an interview on ESPN.

Rodriguez was responding, by the way, to a "Sports Illustrated" report that he was one of more than 100 players who tested positive during baseball's survey testing -- a process which wasn't subject to discipline and was supposed -- supposed to remain anonymous. It clearly did not remain anonymous. As we keep an eye on the Senate debate, one example of how what happens in Washington has real consequences for American families. Ahead, one man who says the stimulus plan is his lifeline.

Plus, the first lady, Michelle Obama, doing her part -- how she's selling her husband's stimulus plan.

And the grandmother of those octuplets is not very happy. She wants to know how her daughter is going to take care of 14 children. That and a lot more coming up right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: All right, this is it. This is a critical test vote for President Barack Obama. It's happening right now on the Senate floor.

If they get 60 votes, his economic stimulus efforts will survive. If they don't get the 60 votes, it could be over.

Let's check in with our senior Congressional correspondent, Dana Bash.

She's watching all of this together with us.

There are 58 Democrats, as we know, Dana, in the U.S. Senate. They need at least two Republicans to join -- assuming that all 58 Democrats are there and that they all vote in favor of ending this debate now so that the process can move forward.


And, as of now, we believe that three Republicans are planning to join those 58 Democrats to vote for this, bringing it to a total of 61.

Those three Republicans are those who worked in excruciating detail to negotiate this compromise. And the Republicans are Susan Collins of Maine, Olympia Snowe of Maine and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.

They have been talking on the Senate floor over the past couple of minutes about the fact that they understand that this is not perfect. Democrats have been saying the same thing. But they believe this is, for the most part, the right mix of spending and tax cuts to do the trick and at least starting to stimulate the economy.

So there you see the vote. And we do expect, unless something extraordinary happens, for it to eke out a vote -- eke out a win -- a victory. But, again, maybe by just one or two votes.

BLITZER: The Democrats aren't taking any chances, Dana, because we just saw Senator Ted Kennedy. He's come in. He was obviously very, very ill. We remember on Inauguration Day, he suffered a major setback. He was down in Florida but they brought him back to Washington in order to participate for this vote.

BASH: That's right. In fact, I was just down outside of the capitol when Senator Kennedy came in. He was greeted by his colleague from Massachusetts, John Kerry. He came out. He was a little careful in getting out of the car and he was making his way into the capitol. And there were lots of cameras there. And I asked him how do you feel? And he walked right over to the cameras not talking about his health but talking about why it was important for him to be here. Listen.


SEN. TED KENNEDY (D), MASSACHUSETTS: I'm doing well. Doing well, looking forward to this period of time. 600,000 jobs have been lost in the last month and hundreds of thousands of American families have been hurt by the failure of taking action on the health of the American families. And it's time that we take action now. I think President Obama has demonstrated his strong commitment to making process on these important issues. And I look forward to being a part of the team.


BASH: Senator Kennedy who actually came back from Florida on Friday, Wolf, because Senate Democrats thought that would be when they had the vote. But he stayed in Washington all weekend for this first key test vote which is going on as we speak. We understand he'll be here tomorrow for what they hope will be final passage in the Senate of the President Obama's economic stimulus plan.

BLITZER: We're hearing the roll call as it's being read alphabetically. They always do that. I think they're on Ds right now or a little bit further along in the alphabet. I'm not hearing the yeas or nays. Is that deliberate or is there just an audio problem on the floor of the Senate?

BASH: You know I think there might not be an audio problem but what happens is they begin to call the roll and it takes time for the senators to get from their offices or wherever they are over to the floor. Everybody knew this vote was going to happen. But that's the tradition of the Senate. It might be a little while before we have them go back through the roll call and people are actually on the floor to cast their yea or nay vote.

But again unless something extraordinary happens, we do expect that 58 Democrats will vote yes and three Republicans will vote no. There was some optimism late in the day Wolf I should tell you that maybe more Republicans would vote yes. Richard Lugar of Indiana, the president was in his home state just a couple of hours ago. I saw him on the way over here. And I said will you vote for this? And he said no. At this point, it looks like for this particular volt, just three Republicans --

BLITZER: Even as you reported on Friday, Judd Gregg, the Republican senator from New Hampshire who's been nominated by President Obama to be the commerce secretary, he's not going to vote at all, is that right?

BASH: That's right. His office told our Congressional producer Ted Barrette that his plans when he was nominated were to not vote on anything until his confirmation process is over. Presumably, that will mean not anything at all. They assume he will be confirmed. He will not be lending his future boss a hand in voting for a stimulus plan at this time. He won't do it.

BLITZER: Clearly what's happened is they're reading the roll call, most of the senators haven't even showed up yet. that's why we're not hearing their vote. They'll have a chance to announce their yea or nay at some point down the road. It usually takes about 20 minutes for the entire roll call to go forward. Dana I want you to stand by. Paul Begala our Democratic strategist and Ed Rollins our Republican strategist are watching all of this.

Paul, based on what you're hearing, is it a done deal? Does the president have -- does Harry Reid, the Democratic majority leader in the Senate, have every one of those 58 Democrats surely lined up to vote in favor of ending this debate to move the process forward?

PAUL BEGALA, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Yes, that's what they've been told by their colleagues. You never actually know until they vote. That's just the nature of the Senate or any other legislative body. This is where the Democrats see Harry Reid as their MVP. He's been attacked a lot. But he's held together an incredibly diverse Democratic caucus from Bernie Sanders, an independent and affiliates with the Democrats, all the way to, say, Ben Nelson, a very conservative Democratic senator from Nebraska. Reid, should he get this through as they cast the vote, maybe the president of the United States will send him flowers for Valentine's Day.

BLITZER: Yes. Are you hearing, Ed, anything different than -- more than those three Republican, do you expect more than three Republicans to vote to end this debate, which is what the president wants?

ED ROLLINS, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: No, I don't. I think these three are going to be the targets for the next couple years. Specter has a tough re-election race in 2010. He traditionally has sometimes gone across the aisle. The ladies from Maine basically have been pretty independent over the years. There's a couple of more there are along the line. But Republicans have pretty much determined as Democrats have in the past that our best interest is to lay out our positions and clearly our positions are different than the Democrats' are today.

BLITZER: In Pennsylvania, which is pretty much a Democratic state, don't you think this would help Arlen Specter in his bid to try to get re-elected in 2010, unless he faces a very stiff Republican primary challenge?

ROLLINS: He faced a stiff Republican primary five years ago. And there's always rumblings. I don't know of anybody at this point in time that's going to run. This is not going to help him -- it could help in the general election but not in a potential primary. BLITZER: Here's the latest CNN Opinion Research Corporation Poll numbers, Paul. As far as President Obama is concerned, is President Obama doing enough to cooperate with Republicans, 74 percent say, yes, he is. On the other hand, are Republicans doing enough to cooperate with President Obama? Only 39 percent of the American public think the Republicans are doing enough. How does those two numbers -- how does that translate into legislation and to action in the immediate period ahead?

BEGALA: I think the Republicans wrongly perceive this as a free vote, that they can vote against President Obama in order to position themselves or to define themselves, not to be pejorative. The president has gone so far to solicit and recruit Republican support. He's put three prominent Republicans in his cabinet. He met privately behind closed doors with all the House Republicans, then all the Senate Republicans. He has jettisoned part of his bill like support for contraception that Republicans attacked and by the way, winning a tax on Obama from the left, Planned Parenthood, attacked the president for that. So he's doing all that the can.

I would also note in the poll, 32 percent of Republicans support this plan. That's a pretty low number, 32 percent. But if only those three senators that you and Ed mentioned, Snow, Collins and Specter from the Republican Party, vote for this, that will mean that 98.6 percent of Washington Republicans oppose the president's plan. So when you're only getting 1.4 percent of the Washington Republicans but 32 percent of the American Republicans, there's a disconnect within the Republican party between their elites who are all opposed to President Obama and their grassroots where Obama has real support.

BLITZER: Ed, how significant is it that President Obama today went to Indiana, tomorrow to Florida, Wednesday I think he's going to Virginia. He's got more trips later in the week. He's going out almost every day to work the American public to try to support this economic recovery plan.

ROLLINS: I think it's a correct strategy. Obviously there's a lot of Americans very concerned about this plan and are confused by it. They don't know whether it's good or bad. I'm not sure anybody can tell you if it's going to work in the end. Even Vice President Biden says there's a better than 30 percent chance of not working. Historically both parties have drawn the line. Ronald Reagan met with Democrats over 450 times in his eight years in office, with the exception of the first two years where house Democrats voted for him. The Senate never gave him votes, maybe once in a while. Republicans voted against Clinton. Democrats voted against Bush. That's the way it is. Democrats have enough votes to push this thing through and the reality is if they don't overstep their bounds in the House, they may get it passed. If they lose one of those Republican, they don't have enough to get passage.

BLITZER: He's painting a very dire assessment, the president, I'm going to play some clips for you of how the president is framing this debate and how the Republicans are framing the debate. Listen to this change.


OBAMA: Endless delay or paralysis in Washington in the face of this crisis will only bring deepening disaster. If we drag our feet and fail to act, this crisis could turn into a catastrophe. If we do not act, a bad situation will become dramatically worse.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This bill is a disaster and I can see it in my colleagues' aisle even on the other side of the aisle.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Mr. President, if this legislation is passed, it will be a very bad day for America.


BLITZER: So it's pretty clear that the strategies on both parts -- how do you read those very, very different assessments of this economic recovery plan, Paul?

BEGALA: Barack Obama sounds like every business person you talk to, every normal American you talk to who says this is a crisis heading for catastrophe. I listen to the Republican politicians and it's like their strategy is deny, delay and do nothing. Deny there's a problem, delay it, try to slow walk this and then do nothing. I saw on our air yesterday John King interviewing Mark Safford, very popular up-and-coming governor of South Carolina who said we should do nothing, there should be no federal roll in this. He said you should do it all at once and let it go and let people suffer. That's their strategy, I guess. Deny, delay and do nothing. I think Obama's got the better of the argument here.

BLITZER: Go ahead, Ed.

ROLLINS: Four trillion dollars have been lent by the Federal Reserve to banks in the last two months. The banks haven't moved money. Either the federal government has to make the banks move the money or local communities aren't going to do well. The idea that the federal government is going to go bailout California and New York and other places is just not going to be long term beneficial to those states. I think we all want this thing to go away and stimulate. But I think the bottom line is it hasn't been open enough and there's so much junk in this bill that people are very concerned about that.

BLITZER: Ed, how about an opt-out? If any state -- if Governor Safford doesn't want federal money, let him do without it. There's almost four billion dollars for Tennessee in there, send it out to where I am in California or to Massachusetts where Ted Kennedy came to vote for this. Why don't we let governors opt out? Keep the federal money out of their states.

ROLLINS: I think he will. At the end of the day, that's what you're going to find.

BEGALA: I'll bet he doesn't opt out.

ROLLINS: He's got a $40 billion shortfall isn't going to do it. BLITZER: We heard Charlie Crist, the popular governor of Florida, say within the past few days he welcomes the money his state desperately needs some infusion of federal cash.

ROLLINS: He's also thinking about running for Senate and leaving Tallahassee.

BLITZER: Obviously different assessments on this.

Let me just reset what's going on right now. The breaking news we're following, a critical vote on the floor of the U.S. Senate right now. At issue, whether or not the debate over the economic stimulus plan will continue or whether it ends right now. Sets the stage for the final vote which we anticipate tomorrow. They need 60 votes, 60 senators voting to end this debate. It looks like the Democrats have 58, assuming all the Democrats show up today. They have, it looks like, three Republicans onboard. That would bring the number to 61. But as everyone knows, you never know how they're going to vote until they actually vote. That's why there is drama unfolding in Washington right now on Capitol Hill. We'll stay on top of this vote, they're continuing the roll call now, waiting for more senators to show up. We'll have the results for you as they come in. Stay with us for that.

Meanwhile the grandmother of those octuplets isn't very happy. She wants to know how her daughter is going to take care of 14 kids. That's coming up.

Plus, the first lady pitching her husband's economic recovery plan. Her remarks, raw and unfiltered coming up right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Do or die time on the floor of the U.S. Senate right now. At issue, the economic stimulus package that President Obama wants so desperately. The roll call has started. We're waiting for the results. Dana Bash, our senior congressional correspondent, is watching the story unfold as well.

They need 60 votes in order to end this debate and move on to the final votes tomorrow. We assume the Democrats have the votes, right?

BASH: We do. We're watching as the votes are tallied. The three Republicans we thought would vote for this have. Those Republican senators are Olympia Snow and Susan Collins of Maine and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania if there was any concern those Republicans would change their minds at the last minute, they have now voted for the stimulus package. Again, we do believe that those are very likely the only Republicans to go along with most Democrats to vote for this. There had been some question for the past couple of weeks whether or not all Democrat, those conservative Democrats from the fiscally conservative Democrats would go along with it. But, they, too, were brought onboard because of the delicate compromise that was negotiated late on Friday. BLITZER: It looks like by our count, there's 57 senators who vote today end the debate. They need three more votes right now. I guess they're waiting for some more senators to show up. As soon as we get to that magic number, assuming we do, we'll bring it to how viewers.

In the meantime, let's check in with Jack for "The Cafferty File" -- Jack?

CAFFERTY: Coincidentally, the question this hour is: how important is it that Congress move quickly on the stimulus plan?

Bill writes: "How quickly? Ask any of the 20,000 Americans who lost their jobs today. And if not them, any of the 20,000 that will lose their job tomorrow. Or the 20,000 the day after that. And the day after."

Marie in Salt Lake City: "Where were Senator Shelby and the rest of the so called fiscal conservatives when Bush was spending our nation into oblivion? If tax breaks for the powerful and wealthy worked, we wouldn't be in this mess."

Kyle in Dupont, Washington: "It is important to act quickly on a stimulus package, but this one has so much pork in it my arteries hardening. It's like patching the roof of a house when the foundation is crumbling. The real issue declining real estate values is still not addressed. For two-thirds of us, our largest single investments are our homes and we all took a huge loss last year."

J.D. in New Hampshire: "It's vital to move quickly. Those eager to loll away the next few months debating and debating and debating are not the people whose jobs are being lost. They're not the people worrying about putting food on the table. And they're not the people whose homes and savings are gone. Maybe they should be."

Karen in Florida: "Does it make a difference? What makes you think will work any better than the last one?"

Zack writes: "Throwing money we don't have at everything makes little sense. We should target where they money is applied and how before we spend again. A lesson to be learned is from the billions we threw at the banks recently."

Nancy says: "I think they have to pass it fast enough for no one to catch on to what they are doing and where the money is really going."

John in Arizona: "Our economy desperately needs a massive dose of shock and awe, and it needs it yesterday."

If you didn't see your email here, you can go to my blog,, look for it among hundreds of others -- Wolf?

BLITZER: All right. President Obama and the Democrats have won. They have reached 60 votes right now on the floor of the U.S. Senate. That means they are ending the debate. Right now, they're at 61, actually, so they have one more than they really needed in order to end the debate and set the stage for the final vote on this $800 billion plus economic stimulus package. Theoretically, senators could change their votes but in this kind of situation, it's highly unlikely anyone will.

Dana Bash, our senior congressional correspondent, is there.

By our count, 61 senators have now voted to end the debate, moving this process forward, and let's remind our viewers, Dana, this is by no means the end of the program, because even though the Senate has approved its version, the House, as all of our viewers know, last week approved a very different version and now members of the Senate and house have to get together and reconcile their differences, and come up with a final version that has to be passed by both the House and the Senate once again. So this process is by no means yet over.

BASH: That's exactly right. We'll wait to see the final vote here and this is a test vote. There actually won't be final passage in the Senate until tomorrow. But you know what, they're already moving beyond that. Inside the White House and among Democratic leaders in the House and Senate, for the very reason you just said, it is because it was such a delicate compromise that they worked out in the Senate. One that was involving a lot of spending cuts. That is not making house Democrats happy. So it will really fall on President Obama to convince his fellow Democrats to find the right, again, the right compromise to do what you're seeing in the Senate one more time and make sure you have enough Republican votes who can support this.

BLITZER: A key vote on the floor of the Senate has passed, ending this debate. Now they set the stage for the final votes on the economic stimulus package in the Senate tomorrow. We will have much more on this breaking news coming up in a few moments. But there's another story I want to get to right now.

CNN's Samantha Hayes has been working on the subject of the octuplets born in California. There are new developments unfolding. Sam, what's going on?

SAMANTHA HAYES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well Wolf, Nadya Suleman's own mother is asking why did her daughter do this. She says that already she's the one taking care of and footing the bill for her other children.


HAYES (voice-over): When Nadya Suleman looks at her eight newborns, she acknowledges the sacrifices ahead and those already made. She tells NBC's the "Today" show she's had a hard time caring for her other six children.

NADYA SULEMAN, MOTHER OF OCTUPLETS: Struggling. I was struggling but it was OK. It was OK. Thanks to my mother for allowing us to stay in her home.

HAYES: An entertainment news website, has photos that say show the three-bedroom home where they all live, cluttered with cribs, clothes on the floor. The website says Angela Suleman told them in an exclusive interview that it's hard to cope.

ANGELA SULEMAN, NADYA SULEMAN'S MOTHER: I'm really tired of taking care of those six. I need her to really think of what she's going to do and how she's going to provide for these, all these children.

HAYES: Angela Suleman goes on to say she loves her grandchildren, but needs help.

SULEMAN: I would never let anything happen to them. I'm taking care of them, and I have been, and I don't know what the future will bring because hopefully she will get some living accommodations, because it's really a small house.

HAYES: Nadya Suleman's publicist says she plans to move into a large home when the babies are well enough. She says she's not seeking welfare.

SULEMAN: No, I'm not receiving help from the government. There's nothing wrong with that for other people but I am not trying to expect anything from anybody. I just wanted to do it on my own.


HAYES: As for the man Suleman says is the father of all 14 of her children, apparently they don't talk all that often. She says he was speechless when he found out about the octuplets. Wolf?

BLITZER: Samantha Hayes, thanks very much for that.

While President Obama today tried to sell the economic stimulus package to job-starved people in the midwest, his wife had a sales pitch of her own.

Plus, the vice president's high profile trip to Germany was in the spotlight this weekend. So where was the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton?

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


BLITZER: The first lady, Michelle Obama, is doing her part to sell her husband's economic stimulus plan. She was over at the department of the interior earlier today, continuing her meet and greet tour of federal agencies. Listen to what Michelle Obama told workers over there.


MICHELLE OBAMA, FIRST LADY: When Barack and I and the girls, as you may have read, just had a little retreat away. We visited Camp David for the first time and got to experience the beauty of those grounds, and it was just wonderful to get a bit of a break and to spend some quality time as a family in nature. You are also, in addition to helping make those experiences possible for our family, you are at the center of this administration's highest priorities, securing America's energy future. Barack has talked about it time and time again, protecting our natural environment and using the natural resources again as responsibly as we can. These aren't only vital for the survival of our planet as we work to combat climate change, but also incredibly important to strengthen our economy and the wellbeing of our families at a time when so many Americans are out of work, sound energy and environmental policies are going to help create thousands of jobs through the economic recovery and reinvestment plan that Barack is out there promoting today.


BLITZER: The first lady speaking over the interior department earlier today.

Our special correspondent, Soledad O'Brien, is here.

She's making herself very visible and speaking out on substantive issues. She's not just having tea and cookies at the east wing of the White House.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. Remember, this is a visit, sort of disguised as a visit. It's really an opportunity to push her husband's stimulus plan. You continually hear those references in her remarks. She used the same line she used for the department of education when she talked about these great leaders, great leaders are only as good as the people who are holding them up. She continues to do the thank you. Now the hard work begins. It's that sort of two sides of the coin there.

What I thought was interesting was really the difference that you have in the department of the interior, which had scandal 2006, if you remember. There was the scathing report of the inspector general and employees in Denver doing all kinds of taking of gifts and rigging contracts, all these charges, very serious. It really devastated the department of the interior so when she mentioned a new era of reform and renewal, she's speaking to them very specifically. We're not going to play that again. It's a very interesting I think reaching out.

So you can sense that they're going to be -- it's a sort of subliminal message to the folks she's talking to. Rock star, people holding up their cell phones to get a shot of her, but a serious message coming back to support my husband's stimulus plan.

BLITZER: At some point, she will take her show on the road. Right now she's going to the different agencies in Washington but at some point, she's going to go out and speak to the public at large, and of course, she will be a secret weapon, maybe not so secret, for her husband.

O'BRIEN: She got a high approval rating, not as high as his, but very high. They will love her. No question about that.

BLITZER: All right. Soledad, thanks very much.