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Swine Flu Cases Jump in U.S.; GOP Senator Switches to Dems; Fears of Full-Blown Pandemic

Aired April 28, 2009 - 15:59   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, disturbing new information about the way swine flu is spreading right here in the United States. Hundreds of schoolchildren now believed to be effected.

We'll be speaking with a World Health Organization official who's warning there's no region on the planet where people are safe from infection.

And a veteran Republican senator reveals he's switching parties. Democrats are celebrating Arlen Specter's decision. This hour, what it means for his political future and for the balance of power in Washington.

And President Obama said to be furious about a fly-over that gave New Yorkers 9/11 flashbacks. The White House official who approved the stunt is being accused of, and I'm quoting now, "felony stupidity."

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

New evidence that the swine flu may be racing across parts of the United States right now. New York City's health commissioner says many hundreds of schoolchildren now are sick and are suspected to have the virus.

California's governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, has declared a state of emergency as the state investigates whether a man's death was caused by swine flu. If confirmed, it could be the first death from this outbreak here in the United States.

More than 150 deaths from swine flu are suspected in Mexico. That's ground zero for what could be a global epidemic very soon. And a top U.S. health official says he fully expects to see deaths from the disease in this country.

Let's begin our coverage this hour with our homeland security correspondent, Jeanne Meserve.

Jeanne, the Obama administration making major announcements today on money going to deal with this crisis.

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. As more and more cases pop out, the White House is requesting $1.5 billion from Congress.


MESERVE (voice-over): Custodians disinfect a school in California, trying to stop the spread of swine flu. But cases continue to pop up across the country.

This virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control official statistics, has now sickened 64 people in five states, with five hospitalized. But New York City officials say hundreds of schoolchildren appear to have contracted it. All are recovering.

MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG (I), NEW YORK: Swine flu seems to spread similarly to seasonal garden-variety flu that we regularly see in our city. And we have no reason at the moment to believe from what we have seen so far here that its symptoms are any more severe.

MESERVE: But in California, the governor is declaring a state of emergency as health officials investigate whether two deaths were caused by swine flu.

DR. RICHARD BESSER, CDC: That's not something I've heard. But as I continue to say, as this moves forward, I fully expect that we will see deaths from this infection. They are seeing many deaths in Mexico.

MESERVE: As a command center at the Department of Health and Human Services tracks the illnesses spread, the White House is asking for $1.5 billion.

ROBERT GIBBS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: It's for moving infrastructure around the country to ensure that we have the resources, if needed, to produce additional antiviral drugs, to ramp up the production of a vaccine.


MESERVE: The federal government is already distributing antiviral medicines and medical supplies from its national stockpile. Texas and California are expected to get their shipments today. All states will have theirs by May 3rd.

And a warning today, Wolf, from the secretary of homeland security. She says this is a marathon. It isn't going to end soon.

BLITZER: Because she made the point, Jeanne, that this is the end of the flu season right now, but it will come back later in the year. And there could, what some experts say, be a second wave of this swine flu that could potentially be more serious here in the United States than the current wave.

MESERVE: That's exactly right. That's right. That's exactly what happened in 1918. It's happened in other flu epidemics as well.

And they are afraid that could be the pattern here. But no one knows for sure. They want to be ready. They want to make sure they have in their back pocket what they need to fight it if it does come back. BLITZER: We're going to be speaking with a top official of the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland, momentarily. He's got some fearful things to say about what's going on not only here, but around the world.

Stand by. We'll go to Geneva shortly. We're also going to go out to Mexico and to California.

A lot more coming up.

But let me move on to another important story unfolding right now. The Pennsylvania senator Arlen Specter says his decision to bail on the Republicans and join the Democratic Party was not an easy one.

Specter's move puts the Democrats on the brink of achieving a long-sought goal: a filibuster-proof, 60-seat majority in the Senate, assuming the party's apparent Senate win in Minnesota becomes official. That certainly helps explain why the GOP leader in the Senate is calling Specter's switch, and I'm quoting now, "... a threat to the country."

Our Senior Congressional Correspondent Dana Bash is covering this story for us.

It sort of came out of the blue today. A lot of us were pretty surprised, Dana, but the ramifications are enormous.

DANA BASH, CNN SR. CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. I think that the earth is still shaking here underneath the Capitol, Wolf.

But you talked about the Republican leader, Mitch McConnell. He said today that Senator Specter told him he switched because polling showed him that he could not win a Republican primary and he could not win as an Independent.

Well, I spoke to a Republican strategist intimately involved with Senator Specter, who said that they never really polled on the question of running as an Independent for re-election, but it was very clear that he was down by about 25 points in the Republican primary challenge that he was facing. And the strategist I talked to said that he was almost surely destined to lose his seat as a Republican.


BASH (voice-over): Calling his decision painful, Arlen Specter announced that, as a moderate, he no longer felt welcomed in the GOP.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER (D), PENNSYLVANIA: I have found myself increasingly at odds with the Republican philosophy and more in line with the philosophy of the Democratic Party.

BASH: But the reality is that Specter's decision to bolt the Republican Party is more about raw politics than philosophy. Specter admitted he made up his mind to become a Democrat this past weekend, after receiving news from his pollster Friday that he would likely lose the Republican primary in Pennsylvania.

SPECTER: The prospects for winning the Republican primary are bleak. I am not prepared to have my 29-year record in the United States Senate decided by the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate.

BASH: Specter's GOP colleagues slammed him for playing crass politics.

SEN. JOHN CORNYN (R), TEXAS: This was simply nothing more, nothing less than political self-preservation.

BASH: Democrats are rejoicing that Specter's move gets them tantalizing close to a 60-seat filibuster-proof majority, which many Democrats say would make it easier to pass President Obama's agenda. Not so fast, says Specter, who has long been known as unpredictable. He said that will not change.

SPECTER: I want to emphasize that I will not be changing my own personal independence or my own approach to individual issues. I will not be an automatic 60th vote.


BASH: And to be sure, there were a lot of senators on the Democratic side walking through the halls today, Wolf. Certainly happy, but also very clear that this may not be a transformational decision when it comes to the balance of power, because when you think about it, there are a lot of life-long Democrats who have not been voting with President Obama, or on key parts of his agenda.

BLITZER: Dana, what was the last straw for Senator Specter?

BASH: Absolutely his vote for President Obama's stimulus package. You remember we reported that he was in a pickle, a political pickle, when he decided to go ahead and support that, because he knew that he would be in big trouble back home with Republicans. Well, I spoke to this Republican strategist who knew the data and said there is no question that Republicans in Pennsylvania said that they did not support Arlen Specter, for the most part, because he supported $787 billion in that stimulus package.

BLITZER: Not very popular among a lot of Republicans, but pretty popular with a bunch of Democrats in Pennsylvania.

BASH: And that's a point Arlen Specter was happy to make today.

BLITZER: That's right.

All right, Dana. Thanks very much.

Let's check in with Jack. He has "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, drastic measures being taken to prevent the spread of swine flu in many countries around the world, including Mexico, which is the eye of the swine flu hurricane. But here in the United States, the response has been more muted.

Only 64 cases of swine flu have been diagnosed here so far. We have a population of more than 300 million. There are 64 cases confirmed so far. That's not very many.

The majority of these people apparently got the disease after traveling to Mexico. Compare that to Mexico's 1,600 cases. More than 150 deaths there because of the swine flu.

"Newsweek" magazine reports public health officials suggest the virus probably will not hit us as hard as our neighbors to the south. For one thing, the anti-terror training that took place after 9/11 makes American hospitals better prepared to handle a pandemic.

The U.S. also has more resources, more hospitals, facilities for doctors and nurses, better critical care, and large quantities of drugs that can treat influenza. And the government's declaring a public health emergency ought to help as well because now it can act more aggressively. If people are freaking out a little bit, well, that's not all bad. They are likely to wash their hands more often, get treated earlier, et cetera, all of which can help keep swine flu from spreading.

In this country, some schools have closed. Others have told kids not to shake hands. Pharmacies in New York report those paper face masks are selling by the box-full. And New Mexico has actually set up a swine flu hotline. One Chicago hospital requiring anyone that enters the building to use a liquid disinfectant.

So here's the question. Has the fear of swine flu changed your life in any way?

Go to and post a comment on my blog -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I don't know about you, but I'm washing my hands all the time.

CAFFERTY: Well, you should do that anyway.

BLITZER: I know. But I'm doing it a little bit more now.

CAFFERTY: Like mother told you, wash your hands.

BLITZER: You're washing your hands, too, right?

CAFFERTY: Absolutely.

BLITZER: I'm not shaking hands with you.

CAFFERTY: Don't touch me.

BLITZER: All right, Jack. Thanks.

The swine flu outbreak is a ticking time bomb. At least some believe it is. Will it explode into a full-fledged global epidemic? And if so, how soon? I'll ask a top official with the World Health Organization, the man responsible for raising the pandemic alert level.

Also, a high-tech way to detect travelers with a fever, and possibly the swine flu. Is thermal screening worth the cost and the manpower?

And the president orders an investigation into a fly-over of New York City that left many people feeling like it was 9/11 all over again.


BLITZER: There's enormous concern in Mexico right now, increasing concern here in the United States and, indeed, there's fear all over the world right now that the world could be facing a pandemic.


BLITZER: And joining us now from Geneva, Switzerland, the acting assistant director general for health security and environment of the World Health Organization, Dr. Keiji Fukuda.

Dr. Fukuda, thanks very much for joining us.

How worried are you right now that this crisis involving the swine flu will actually develop into a full-blown pandemic around the world?

DR. KEIJI FUKUDA, WHO: Wolf, well, we're taking the situation very seriously. I think the assessment is that the situation is evolving quite rapidly, and we are monitoring it very closely. I think that we don't feel that we're quite there yet, but we are looking at the different outbreaks and the different cases being reported. And so it's quite a concern.

BLITZER: Are you more concerned today than you were yesterday?

FUKUDA: Well, I think that over the last couple of days, we have been, again, paying a lot of attention to this, and have been very concerned about it from beginning -- from the beginning. But I think that we are hoping to see that this would just slow down and disappear, but it doesn't show any signs of doing that so far. So, yes, I would say that we are, you know, quite concerned about it.

BLITZER: Yesterday you raised that threat level of a possible pandemic from a 3 to a 4. The most serious level would be a 6.

What would it take for you to go now to the next level, which would be a five?

FUKUDA: Well, one of the things that we're looking for is that we see signs of established transmission from person to person in multiple countries. The signal from going from 3 to 4 told us that the virus had changed its behavior considerably and was showing the ability to transmit from person to person. And now what we're looking for is evidence that this kind of a pattern is occurring in multiple countries.

BLITZER: Why have there been so many deaths in Mexico but so far no deaths in the United States?

FUKUDA: I'd say that we're really quite early in the characterization of this disease. This is a new infection. We haven't heard about it or seen it before. And so we're just really into it in a very short way.

This is one of the big issues, however. What is the relationship of this virus to mild cases and to serious cases? And so hopefully in the days and weeks to come, we'll understand how often this leads to a serious infection versus a more mild infection. Right now we don't know.

BLITZER: Does the World Health Organization believe that people should be putting up barriers to travel right now, to prevent people, for example, from visiting Mexico or coming out of Mexico, or the United States, for that matter?

FUKUDA: The WHO is not recommending any restrictions to travel, and we are not recommending any border closures. We believe at this point, based on much of the work which has been done over the past few years to study pandemics, and what can be done to control them, that travel restrictions at this point would not significantly hamper the movement of this virus.

On the other hand, we are quite concerned about the safety of people who might be infected, and so we are stressing that people who are feeling sick should seriously consider deferring travel, while travelers who become ill on their journeys upon returning should seek proper medical attention, both to get the care that they need or deserve and then, in addition, possibly to see whether they have this new infection.

BLITZER: To our viewers here in the United States, Dr. Fukuda, what do the next two weeks realistically look like?

FUKUDA: I think it's hard to predict what's going to happen over the next two weeks. But if we see the establishment of person-to- person transmission in multiple countries, then this really is the signal for moving up to an even higher phase.

But I want to point out that these phases really should be seen as signals to countries and to organizations about getting themselves ready for a pandemic. And so they are really planning tools. And so over the next few days, over the next few weeks, this could happen, or we could still stay at a phase 4 situation. I think it's very hard to predict right now.

BLITZER: What about the worst-case scenario from your perspective and the perspective of the World Health Organization? What is that? FUKUDA: The worst-case scenario is that we do move into a pandemic situation and the pandemic is severe. When we go back to the 20th century, we see that there were three pandemics in that century, and they ranged from being relatively mild to quite severe.

The first pandemic, the one which occurred in '19, received the most attention and has been discussed a lot in the last few years because it led to a large number of serious illnesses and deaths, and especially in young and healthy people. And so that -- you know, some kind of repeat of that scenario would be the worst of all possibilities.

BLITZER: Is the world ready for this?

FUKUDA: The world has been paying attention to avian influenza for the past four or five years, and countries have been working really very hard to strengthen their defenses and their preparedness. So I would say that we can never be fully ready for this kind of situation. We're always taken by surprise when large, urgent outbreaks or epidemics begin.

On the other hand, I would say we are so much better prepared than we would have been if this occurred 10 years ago. So I would say, overall, we are much better prepared than before. But if we do move into a pandemic, it is going to be hard times for a while.

BLITZER: Dr. Keiji Fukuda, thanks very much. Good luck.

FUKUDA: Thank you.


BLITZER: Mexico is at the epicenter of the outbreak and so far has been hit the hardest. Now it faces a devastating economic impact as well.

I'll speak live with Mexico's ambassador to the United States. That's coming up. We're following the breaking news.

One person calls it an exceptional accomplishment. As time ticks toward a possible bankruptcy for Chrysler, a major deal is reached to help save the automaker.

And in terms of swine flu, the worst could be around the corner. So health officials hope to do the near impossible: predict the path of the swine flu outbreak.



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

Happening now, death, devastation and dire consequences for Mexico's economy -- the triple threat caused by swine flu. How is Mexico faring/ How might it recover? I'll speak with Mexico's ambassador to the United States.

The House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, says she's excited. That's what she tells CNN about Senator Arlen Specter's turning his back on Republicans and becoming a Democrat. You're going to hear Pelosi explain why.

And look at this, a high-speed chase through roads near Atlanta. A man clings for his life on a big-rig truck. and ultimately police tackle a suspect. Wait until you hear what exactly happened.

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

Ominous new warnings from officials across the United States that swine flu is here, it's spreading, and it's likely only a matter of time before Americans die from this virus.

In Mexico, the epicenter of the outbreak, the number of deaths apparently linked to swine flu has shot up to above 150. More than 1,600 people are sick.

Here in the United States, the number of confirmed cases of swine flu has risen above 60, but hundreds more cases are suspected right now as the disease spreads across several states.

World health officials note an alarming new trend. Many sick students in New York did not contract swine flu by traveling to Mexico. That means the virus is spreading from person to person here in the United States right now.

Some countries are going to dramatic lengths to screen travelers who might be carrying the swine flu virus. It's a high-tech way of finding people who are running a fever.

Brian Todd has been looking into thermal imaging for us.

Some controversy over this technology, Brian. What do we know?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, health officials have not been able to stop the swine flu from traveling. And they obviously can't stop people from doing that either.

So, they're scrambling to hold this virus off at some critical entry points. And they are using some of that creative technology.


TODD (voice-over): A critical front line between an outbreak and a possible pandemic. At major airports in Asia, thermal imaging devices screen passengers for symptoms of swine flu.

BLAIR JENNINGS, FLIR SYSTEMS: Once the camera is in focus, it is measuring the hottest and coldest spot in the area that we define on the image.

TODD: Blair Jennings is with FLIR Systems, which makes detectors used a few years ago during the SARS virus scare in Asia. Jennings says the Centers for Disease Control has bought one of their units and is testing it.

The infrared scanners are color-coded. When I walk in front of one with a hot beverage, it touches off a green reading.

(on camera): What is this device looking for in an average airline passenger coming off the plane?

JENNINGS: The camera is measuring temperature and it's specifically looking for temperature variances, establishing a baseline, using the tear duct as the focal point, and establishing what would be a problem, a temperature variance over that.

TODD (voice-over): Jennings says the device would register a body temperature of over 101 degrees Fahrenheit for possible fevers. Jennings acknowledges, it's not foolproof. It can miss potential fevers, especially if someone is wearing glasses to shield their tear duct. People also have to be completely stationary to be scanned.

Homeland security expert Randy Larson points to another big drawback.

COLONEL RANDY LARSEN (RET.), CENTER FOR BIOSECURITY: People who feel ill, have, you know, fever, chills, whatever, they take things like aspirin, Tylenol, and Motrin, which would mask, temporarily, that temperature.

TODD: Another problem, says Larsen, with some types of flu virus, people are often contagious before they show symptoms. These detectors, he says, wouldn't work on them either.


TODD: Larsen says, in his mind, it's also not cost-effective.

Blair Jennings says the average unit, including scanner and software, costs up to $20,000. And, at some airports, you would have to multiply that several times, obviously. But Jennings and others with that company, FLIR Systems, say thermal imaging devices, they are just one tool in detecting swine flu. If it can help maybe screen one or maybe a few people, Wolf, at a given airport, it will help.

BLITZER: Brian, what other methods can be used to detect swine flu at airports?

TODD: Well, Randy Larsen and some other experts tell us one thing that some authorities are doing now is so-called passive screening. They talk to passengers. They ask how they are feeling, where they have been. Obviously, that's not foolproof either.

It gives you kind of an idea of what people are up against at these entry points.

BLITZER: All right, Brian, thank you.

It started with just a handful of cases. Now there are 113 confirmed cases in at least seven different countries, many more, of course, suspected.

Abbi Tatton has a timeline of this outbreak.

Abbi, where did it spread?

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, these are numbers that are now changing almost hourly. But let's take a look to a week ago, to Tuesday, April 21.

That was the date when U.S. officials confirmed two cases here in the United States, in California. Jump ahead to Friday, that number had then risen to eight. And what was disturbing was that the CDC had then established a match between those cases and in California and in Texas and across the border, with 18 confirmed cases at that point, on Friday, in Mexico, but 60 more were dead, hundreds more sickened by this virus.

By the weekend, then, health officials around the United States, around the world, were on alert, and they were testing for suspected cases, and the most case, people who were returning from vacation in Mexico, the numbers there, suspected cases popping up in Canada, in Spain, in Israel, New Zealand, as far away as New Zealand.

And with suspected cases and testing came more confirmation. Twenty-four hours ago, let's look at the pictures, 75 confirmed cases, the U.S. up to 40, still suspected New Zealand, not confirmed there, but, in Europe, three cases at the point.

And now look at the figures today. We have jumped up again. We're now at 113. Add New Zealand. Add Israel to that list. Cases here in the United States spanning five states. And while that number in Mexico remains kind of low in comparison, at 28 confirmed cases, bear in mind that officials say those are just confirmations. They have actually had 152 deaths that they believe related to this illness -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Abbi Tatton, thanks very much.

Public health officials say it's nearly impossible to predict exactly where swine flu will spread next and how quickly. But they try anyway, using sophisticated computer models as a valuable tool.

Our chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, is reporting on this health emergency from Mexico -- Sanjay.


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, these models can be very, very helpful in trying to determine just how bad a potential pandemic can get.

But I think, more importantly, what best can be done to try and stop it?

(voice-over): What you are looking at is not the swine flu that is spreading through North America today. It's a simulation ordered up by the CDC back in 2006, when it was developing a plan to control a serious flu pandemic.

The green areas are healthy, but not for long. In this simulation, 10 isolated cases in Southern California left unchecked sweep across the country in a matter of weeks. By three months, nearly half the population is infected or dead. The assumption is a virus that spreads easily, much like the flu that swept the world in 1918.

Ira Longini is one of the scientists who put this program together.

IRA LONGINI, SCIENTIST: That's a virus that spreads very aggressively throughout the planet, you know, probably makes up to half -- half the population ill, and has a relatively high death rate, say, on the order of -- of 2 percent or 3 percent.

GUPTA: But all is not lost. In another simulation, people infected with the flu are given Tamiflu. That's an antiviral drug. Anyone who has been in close contact with them also gets Tamiflu. And it helps. You can see the difference here. The virus spreads more slowly.

LONGINI: You can see, we cut the epidemic by -- by about two- thirds.

GUPTA: But it doesn't stop it. Neither does a vaccine, as you can see in this third simulation. Once again, the epidemic grows more slowly than if you do nothing, but it's still pretty bad.

A fourth simulation is also alarming. In this one, travel is tightly restricted. Air travel is down 90 percent, but it barely makes a difference. That may be surprising to many people. But it turns out, once the virus is in a city or town, keeping infected people out doesn't help a whole lot.

Now, there's no way to say how closely this applies to the current outbreak of swine flu. The main reason? We don't know how easily the swine flu virus spreads from person to person. But Ira Longini says, measures like closing schools and banning public gatherings can only help.

LONGINI: The name of the game is to slow transmission, until a well-matched vaccine can be made and distributed. Theoretically, that might even push us beyond the flu season.

GUPTA (on camera): So, Wolf, the real takeaway here is that no single approach is probably going to stop an outbreak, but a combination of all those things above seems to make a difference -- a big difference -- Wolf.


BLITZER: Sanjay Gupta, thanks very much. Sanjay is going to be back with us later.

President Obama is said to be fuming. And he's ordered an investigation into an airplane photo-op over New York City that gave people flashbacks to 9/11. Should the Obama administration official who gave the go-ahead be fired?

In our "Strategy Session," 99 days into his presidency, does Barack Obama get a passing grade on trying to foster bipartisanship?

And we will meet a 17-year-old who tested positive for swine flu, without ever traveling to Mexico -- just ahead, how he got it and how he's feeling right now.


BLITZER: Heads could roll. The president is said to be furious about that plane incident yesterday. You see the pictures that ignited fears of a 9/11-type episode. And he wants to get to the bottom of it as quickly as possible.

Jill Dougherty is over at the White House. She's working the story for us.

He's said to be furious, Jill.



And, you know, officials say that they made sure they notified federal, state, local officials, everyone, it seems, except for the public.


DOUGHERTY (voice-over): New Yorkers panic as a government photo shoot near the site of the 9/11 attacks brings back heart-stopping nightmares.

The 747 functions as Air Force One when the president is aboard. And aides say President Obama is furious.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It was a mistake, as was -- as was stated. It was something we found out about along with all of you. And it will not happen again.

DOUGHERTY: The White House spokesman says, the president has ordered a review.

ROBERT GIBBS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: To understand, as I said, why that decision was made and to ensure that it never happens again.

DOUGHERTY: The FAA flight notification does note the possibility of public concern regarding Defense Department aircraft flying at low levels, but adds, "No media or press releases are planned."

The Defense Department says, standard operating procedure is to not publicize any movements of Air Force One.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said, someone dropped the ball, but:

MICHAEL BLOOMBERG (I), MAYOR OF NEW YORK: They have said publicly they made a mistake. OK. Now it's the time to go on.

DOUGHERTY: The man responsible for approving the flight says, he's sorry.

Louis Caldera, head of the White House Military office, says, "It's clear that the mission created confusion and disruption."

But a former chief of homeland security, who lost a friend on 9/11, says, it shows crass insensitivity.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Frankly, as I would say as a former prosecutor, I would call this felony stupidity.


DOUGHERTY: And an Air Force source tells CNN that a photo shoot was planned for next week over the monuments here in Washington. But that's now been canceled, Wolf.

BLITZER: It's probably not going to happen for some time, if ever.

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

Senator Arlen Specter is walking away from the Republican Party, and he's leaving mad.


SEN. ARLEN SPECTER (D), PENNSYLVANIA: I am not prepared to have my 29-year record in the United States Senate decided by the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate.


DOUGHERTY: Is Senator Specter's party switch a win-win for him and for Democrats, or could it come back to bite him? Stand by for our "Strategy Session."


BLITZER: We have been following the dramatic development today up on Capitol Hill, Republican Senator Arlen Specter announcing he's going to become a Democratic senator from Pennsylvania. It could affect dramatically the balance of power in the Senate.

Let's go to our White House correspondent, Ed Henry.

Ed, they were pretty happy over at the White House today, weren't they? ED HENRY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: They were, Wolf.

And I think the thumbs-up we saw from the president just a short time ago -- he was walking outside the West Wing here. A reporter shouted about the Specter news. And he gave a quick thumbs-up and a smile. Symbolically, on day 99, for this new White House, it's obviously a very dramatic symbol to suggest he can pull a Republican like this on board, after, quite frankly, he's had mixed success winning Republicans to support his agenda in these early days.

From a practical standpoint, beyond the symbolism, if you have Al Franken, and he's certified as the next Democratic senator from Minnesota, and he's the 59th vote, Specter is the 60th vote, all of a sudden, you have the magic number to cut off filibusters.

Where White House aides believe that could help them most is Specter helping on -- on issues like health care reform, something that is a passion of his, because of the illnesses he's been fighting over the years and winning on, something the president wants to get done this year. They think Specter can help there.

But we have to remember and temper all this Democratic excitement with the fact that not every conservative Democrat in that Senate caucus will support everything that the president wants. And Arlen Specter today insisted he's not going to be an automatic 60th vote.

But I think the fact that the president -- president promised to campaign for him and raise money for him is probably going to help -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Ed, stand by.

I want to bring in Gloria Borger, our senior political analyst. And Paul Begala, our Democratic strategist, he's standing by as well. Nancy Pfotenhauer, is going to be joining us, the Republican strategist, shortly.

Listen to this clip, Gloria. Let me start with you. This is a year or so ago, when I interviewed Senator Specter. And I'm going to play it.


BLITZER: I suppose you are really happy you aren't up for reelection this cycle. Given the huge numbers of Democrats that have registered, who are coming out to vote, it's not necessarily going to be all that easy for -- at least right now, for a lot of Republicans, is it?

SPECTER: Well, I think it's very tough. And projecting ahead for a primary, which I always have a tough one -- won my last one by a single percentage point -- he -- they have turned many Republicans who are my voters.

So, we're going to be working very hard to try to -- to try to turn them back. But it's not good, because it creates an artificial imbalance.


BLITZER: All right, Gloria, I guess he concluded there was no way he was going to win a Republican challenge to get the Republican nomination this time.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, it was very, very difficult for him.

He was -- he was being challenged by a conservative Republican. His internal polls, as well as statewide polls that were public, showed him to be about 25 points behind his opponent. And he was really honest today in his press conference, Wolf.

He said, "My prospects for winning a GOP primary are bleak."

So, he knew he wasn't going to get nominated, so he decided to change parties.


And, Paul, this -- for the Democrats, especially for President Obama, the notion that, if Al Franken is the Democratic senator from Minnesota, and -- and Arlen Specter is the Democratic senator from Pennsylvania, you have got 60 Democrats right now, a lopsided majority in the House of Representatives.

This gives him, potentially, an opportunity to really be a transformative leader right now, and get health care, energy, education, all sorts of stuff passed.

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, but let me amplify what Ed was talking about. Sixty is not a magic number. It is in the Senate rules, of course. It takes 60 votes to break a filibuster.

Filibusters used to only be used maybe once a year. Now they're used more than once a week. So, 60 becomes very important for that. But there are still a lot of Democrats on any given issue who may waver. There are still a few Republicans on some issues who may come over. So, it's not -- it's not sort of the perfect break that maybe some people are making it out to be.

The semiotics of the -- of the Specter press conference today were interesting. Usually, when somebody switches -- or very often -- they will have their friends, family, supporters around them, maybe, say, in this case, the Democrats from Pennsylvania in the House, his colleague in the Senate, Bob Casey.

Arlen Specter stood alone. And he knows what he's doing. He's been 30 years here. He's going to stand alone again. Now, I'm glad, as a Democrat, he's coming with the Democrats. But he's still going to be Arlen Specter, a guy who, you know, half the time, will drive you crazy and, half the time, you will love him.

BLITZER: He's always been an independent, sort of maverick... BEGALA: Yes.

BLITZER: ... kind of guy.

Nancy, how big of a deal, from the Republican perspective, is this? How much of a loss is it?

NANCY PFOTENHAUER, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Well, I think everybody is upset today on the Republican side, but I have to agree with Paul on this one.

I mean, I don't believe that Senator Specter is going to be any easier for Harry Reid to control than he was for Mitch McConnell to control. And he -- he really has, particularly on certain issues that are high-profile, like health care reform, he was a leader in fighting back Hillarycare. This is a person who has struggled himself with cancer. And he knows how important it is for a patient and a doctor to be making medical decisions, not a bureaucrat, if you will.

So, I think his -- his electoral future now depends on Pennsylvanians believing that he is going to do what he thinks is right, not just march in lockstep with the Democratic Party.

BORGER: But, you know, he polls very well among Pennsylvania Democrats. His approval among Pennsylvania Democrats is like 60 percent. So, you know, he's doing pretty well in the Democratic Party. And lots of Republicans in that state, the moderate Republicans that are left, like him, too.

BEGALA: Right.

BLITZER: And -- and Gloria had a chance, Paul, to speak with the chairman of the Republican Party, Michael Steele, on the phone earlier today, and get his reaction.

Listen to this.


MICHAEL STEELE, CHAIRMAN, REPUBLICAN NATIONAL COMMITTEE: For the senator to effectively flip the bird back to Senator Cornyn and the Republican Senate leadership -- it's a team that has stood by him, who went to the bat for him in 2004 to save his hide -- to me, is not only disrespectful. It's just downright rude.

I'm sure his momma didn't raise him that way.


BLITZER: All right, those are pretty strong words from Michael Steele, Paul.

BEGALA: Yes, but you have got to -- you know, look, he's the chairman of a shrinking party. His party is collapsing around him. Of course he's going to be angry. I -- Gloria's snagged the interview with Chairman Steele. I actually listened to the real leader of the Republican Party. That would be Rush Limbaugh. And, of course, everybody with AM radio and an I.Q. below 100 can do that, if you just dial the -- the man in.

So, here's what Limbaugh said today, though. I agreed with him, by the way. Talent on loan from America's pharmaceutical company was right today. He said, to be a moderate, you have to be a Democrat. And he said, Specter can take McCain, McCain's daughter -- oddly, he was attacking McCain's daughter -- but take John McCain, senator from Arizona, Republican nominee for president.

Limbaugh says he can go to the Democrats, too. And he also mentioned Sam Brownback, a conservative Republican senator from Kansas. Limbaugh wants to get rid of him. I say, amen. Come on over, Senator McCain, Senator Brownback.

BLITZER: Nancy, what do you say?

BEGALA: We would love to have you in the Democratic Party.

PFOTENHAUER: Yes, well, look, look, I mean, I -- Specter has always been a pragmatist. And the ultimate definition of a Senate pragmatist is someone who will change parties in order to hold on to their seats.

This was a shrewd political move. It was not a philosophical embrace. And I think that even the optics of the press conference, as was mentioned, backs that up.

BORGER: But...

PFOTENHAUER: And it's going to come down to, does Specter make independent calls, and does he turn his back on things that he has fought for before, like -- like I said, on health care, where he fought Hillarycare? He was a leader on that one.

BLITZER: All right.

PFOTENHAUER: He's -- I can't see him embracing public plans and winning.

BORGER: But here -- but -- but...

BLITZER: Very quickly, Gloria.

BORGER: But here's the question that Michael Steele really couldn't answer, which is, could the Republican Party, in some way, have saved Arlen Specter?

Maybe Rush Limbaugh doesn't want Arlen Specter in the Republican Party. But could they have helped him more, get through his primary, maybe convince his opponent not to run, cleared the way for Arlen Specter...

BLITZER: All right. BORGER: ... to at least get nominated?

BLITZER: Well, that's a question historians can now assess, looking backwards.


BLITZER: All right, guys, thanks very much.

And, remember, 100 days, 100 days tomorrow, we will have extensive coverage, beginning at 7:00 p.m. Eastern, "CNN National Report Card."

We want you, our viewers, to grade the Obama administration and the Congress. Join us tomorrow night for extensive coverage.

And stand by to meet a 17-year-old suffering from swine flu. His mother is calling it a nightmare that's racing through her family like wildfire.

Also ahead, the Mexican ambassador to the United States on the flu crisis that is paralyzing his country and killing dozens of people.

And the house speaker, Nancy Pelosi, on Senator Specter's switch to her party, a brand-new interview, and a lot more -- coming up.


BLITZER: Let's check in with Jack for "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: The question this hour, Wolf, is, has the fear of swine flu changed your life in any way?

Melissa says: "I think the media is making it worse than it has to be. It's just the flu, like any other. If you cause a general panic just to get ratings, you're going to make it worse. No, it hasn't changed my life. I already do all the suggested things, try to avoid all the media hype about the world ending because of the swine flu."

Brent writes: "Remember SARS? This virus had just as much potential to become a pandemic as the swine flu, but it was contained. I'm not the least bit afraid of this newest virus, and I'm in one of the higher-risk groups who needs to take special care during every flu season."

D. in Atlanta says: "Unfortunately, yes. We have a trip planned to Cancun in the middle of June to celebrate a friend's 25th wedding anniversary and vow-renewal ceremony. However, we're deciding if we are going to cancel the trip or take our chances. The CDC says, we should not plan any trips to affected areas for the next three months. Personally, I don't think it's worth the risk to go."

Donna in Colorado Springs: "No. We all need to keep up with all information available and take ordinary precautions, such as hand- washing and avoidance of people who seem sick, but my everyday life hasn't changed. Maybe this is all being overblown, as some have said, but we should all be cautious right now until we see how bad it might become."

Sherry in California: "Yes, I am one of many who don't have health coverage. I will wear gloves in public markets and anywhere that I have to touch something I know has been touched by another person. Thirty-five thousand people die in this country every year from flu viruses. No crowds for me. I am patient. I know how to stay home."

John in Alabama says: "Jack, I wash my hands more each day. I try to stay out of places where large crowds might gather. And I try to sneeze into something other than my hands. I am also glad I don't have to give up bacon or ham."

And Janet writes, "Yes, I can get a whole seat to myself on the train into work if I sit and oink quietly."

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

BLITZER: All right, Jack, thank you.