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Top U.S. General Fired; Health Care Reform Reversal

Aired May 11, 2009 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates says the president's new strategy in Afghanistan needs a new commander to carry it out. So, he gave General David McKiernan his marching orders, firing him from a job he's held for less than a year.

Let's go to our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr. She's working this story for us.

Barbara, I watched the briefing earlier. You tried to get the defense secretary, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, to explain precisely why they decided to fire General McKiernan. I didn't hear that precise answer.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, Wolf, that's very interesting, because there is no precise answer here at the Pentagon.

It was just 11 months ago that Bob Gates selected General McKiernan to head the war in Afghanistan. Today, it was a different story.


STARR (voice-over): A grim-faced Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced he was firing General David McKiernan, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, but struggled to explain his reasons.

ROBERT GATES, U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: First of all, I would say nothing went wrong and there was nothing specific.

STARR: Gates says he wanted to see a new commander in a war going badly. Some criticized McKiernan for pressing too hard for more combat power. But, when we talked to him last November, he made clear Afghanistan needed more attention.


GEN. DAVID MCKIERNAN, COMMANDER, U.S. FORCES IN AFGHANISTAN: This is more than just a matter of bringing additional military capabilities to Afghanistan, although we desperately need additional military capabilities. It's also about, ultimately, a political solution.


STARR: But still, Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says he told Gates McKiernan had to go.

ADMIRAL MICHAEL MULLEN, JOINTS CHIEFS CHAIRMAN: I thought there was a need for new leadership.

STARR: The new leadership? Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal, a senior official on Mullen's staff with vast experience in counterinsurgency warfare, which many say is urgently needed in Afghanistan.

McChrystal commanded covert military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. He led the group that killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Retired Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt has known McChrystal for decades.

BRIGADIER GENERAL MARK KIMMITT (RET.), FORMER U.S. CENTRAL COMMAND DEPUTY DIRECTOR FOR PLANS AND STRATEGY: I believe that Stan was selected for the job because of his fundamental leadership competence, whether it's in counterinsurgency or special forces.

STARR: McChrystal's challenge is the new counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan, which means winning the hearts and minds of the people, while killing off the growing Taliban threat once and for all.


STARR: Well, Wolf, the new bottom line, this is now 100 percent President Obama's war for the first time. It's his hand-picked commander in charge on the ground. It will be up to General McChrystal to try and make it one more time all work -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Barbara, thanks.

It was only a week ago that "TIME" magazine cited General McKiernan as one of the hundred most influential people in the world.

President Obama today is welcoming a new move by the health care industry to start reforming itself. It's a $2 trillion offer to cut costs and it represents a major about-face from the Clinton era, when the industry rallied against reform.

Let's go to CNN's Jill Dougherty. She's over at the White House, watching what's going on.

A lot of people are saying that this new president learned from former President Bill Clinton's mistakes.


Remember, 15 years ago, Wolf, they tried to get health care reform passed, but it went down in flames. And you and I remember that very well, because we were covering the White House at the time.

Now President Obama is trying his hand at it. But the political winds are shifting.


DOUGHERTY (voice-over): The president stood side by side with leaders from six major health care trade organizations.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: What's brought us all together today is a recognition that we can't continue down the same dangerous road we have been traveling for so many years, that costs are out of control, and that reform is not a luxury that can be postponed but a necessity that cannot wait.

DOUGHERTY: Fifteen years ago, some of these leaders helped kill the Clinton administration's attempts at reform with the so-called Harry and Louise ads.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Coverage we can keep even if we change or lose our jobs. Coverage we can afford.

DOUGHERTY: Their pledge now, reduce the growth in health care spending and save $2 trillion over 10 years. It's all voluntary, and House Republican Leader John Boehner says there's no enforcement mechanism.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Listen to those who already have government- run health care.

DOUGHERTY: And there's a new group called Conservatives for Patients' Rights that plans to spend $15 million to $20 million on TV and Internet ads.

RICK SCOTT, CONSERVATIVES FOR PATIENTS' RIGHTS: We have a system that works. It doesn't work perfectly. So let's solve those -- fix those problems, not change the whole system.

DOUGHERTY: This time, Democrats control Capitol Hill, but the president says, there's work to do.

OBAMA: The only way these steps will have an enduring impact is if they are taken, not in isolation, but as part of a broader effort to reform our entire health care system.


DOUGHERTY: Now, the president wants comprehensive health care reform by the end of the year, but the details, that's the question. The details still are not clear. Promises aside, it's really still a big question mark -- back to you, Wolf.

BLITZER: We are going to go in-depth later on this story, an important story, health care reform. Jill, thanks very much.

Take a look at this. Back in 1994, when Hillary Clinton was spearheading health care reform, the United States spent more than 13 percent of its gross domestic product only on health care. By 2006, the U.S. spent 16 percent of the GDP on health care. And a federal agency estimates that by the year 2017, more than 19 percent of America's economic output will be devoted to health care spending, unless changes are made.

We want to hear from you. What do you think about President Obama's health care pledge? Does he have the political capital he needs to follow through on his promises? Submit your video comments to Watch the program tomorrow to see if your comments get on the air.

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

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: You know where this program's being watched right this minute?

BLITZER: All over the world.

CAFFERTY: Well, I know, but one specific place is the -- I think they call it the Crown Room of Delta Air Lines in the Tampa-St. Petersburg Airport.

And, until a few minutes ago, they had it on one of the other cable news channels, but a friend of mine went over and said: "I want to watch CNN. Would you switch it?" And they did. Don't ever watch that other cable channel again, ever, or I'm coming down there.

BLITZER: All right, good.

CAFFERTY: All right.

As the recession forces states to slash education funding, more school districts are considering cutting the school week back to four days as a way to save money. "Los Angeles Times" reports only about 100 of the nation's 15,000 school districts now use a four-day schedule, most of them, small rural districts. But that could change, some districts now throwing around the idea of serving more suburban or urban areas, including suburbs of Denver, Portland, Oregon, even the country's fifth largest school system in Florida's Broward County.

Usually, schools that go over to four-day week extend their hours 60 to 90 minutes a day. Experts say there's no proof whether or not the shorter week helps or hurts students. Some worry, though, that especially younger students will lose focus with a longer day.

I remember I was no good after lunch, period. And we didn't get out until 3:00, but if we didn't have the classes that I was interested in, in the morning, I was dead.

Many parents don't like the idea, because it means they would have to find another child care option for the extra day. It's also why schools are considering other options, like ending sports, mandatory furloughs for employees, and renegotiating some union contracts. When you consider the below-average results a lot of the public schools are already turning out every year, it would seem logical that less time in school is hardly the answer. But education spending makes up the biggest share of states' budgets nationwide and the 50 states are facing a combined $350 billion deficit over the next three years. They're also planning to eliminate close to 600,000 jobs.

So, with all that in mind, here's the question. In light of reduced education budgets, is a four-day school week a good idea?

Go to Post a comment on my blog.

Were you a good student, Wolf?

BLITZER: I was not a great student, but I was decent.

CAFFERTY: Were you good in the afternoon? I could never get it together after lunch. I would just want to go to sleep.

BLITZER: Yes. No, I -- I was all right in the afternoons.

CAFFERTY: You were all right.

BLITZER: Yes, because...


CAFFERTY: That's why you're anchoring and I'm here up here doing this.


BLITZER: I played football at Kenmore Junior High in ninth grade.


BLITZER: Not well. But I did play.

CAFFERTY: What position?

BLITZER: Linebacker. Well, a blitz -- you know, blitzing linebacker.


CAFFERTY: Well, of course. What other position would it be?

BLITZER: Yes, of course. What else could I do?



BLITZER: Jack, stand by. Thank you. On his first trip to the Middle East as pope, Pope Benedict tries to ease some tensions with Jews, but some say he's not doing enough. We are going to go to Jerusalem for a full report.

Moments of prayer after a walk through hell -- they are children with no home, but lucky to be alive amid violence in Pakistan. Wait until you hear their story.

And does the pilot of your plane have enough training? After a deadly crash, shocking questions about pilots and their ability to get out of an emergency.


BLITZER: There's a surprising twist regarding an American journalist accused of being a spy for the United States and jailed in Iran for months. She's now free. President Obama is said to be relieved.

Let's bring in Brian Todd. He's who's working the story for us.

I'm pretty happy about this, Brian.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: They are here, Wolf. And they might even be relieved in Tehran, too. There had been a huge public outcry over the detention of Roxana Saberi. But, after months of intrigue surrounding her case, she is now getting ready to return to the United States.


TODD (voice-over): A three-and-a-half month detention that included a hunger strike, an espionage conviction, and an eight-year sentence, comes to an end for Iranian-American reporter Roxana Saberi. She's not seen leaving Tehran's notorious Evin prison after her sentence is suspended by an Iranian court, but her father talks about her condition.

REZA SABERI, ROXANA SABERI'S FATHER: Roxana is fine, and there's no problem. And we will be getting ready to leave the country soon.

TODD: Reza Saberi says his daughter will be seeing a psychologist. A journalism advocacy group says she was first arrested for buying a bottle of wine, then charged with not having proper journalist credentials, then with spying. Saberi and U.S. officials still maintain the charges were bogus.

HILLARY CLINTON, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: We continue to take issues with the charges against her and the verdicts rendered, but we are very heartened that she has been released.

TODD: U.S. officials say there were no behind-the-scenes deals made for Saberi's release, but they say they did work the case through the Swiss Embassy in Tehran, and that officials from Japan and Russia played positive roles. One analyst believes Iran's leaders made this move now to separate the Saberi case from any talks that might occur with the U.S. over Iran's nuclear program.

CLIFF KUPCHAN, EURASIA GROUP: The Iranians don't want their political system, they don't want human rights to be part of the negotiation. They want to deal on the nuclear issue if they can get one on their terms. This release gets the Saberi issue out of the way.


TODD: But there are still some human rights cases still pending, including those of a missing FBI agent, Robert Levinson. He is in Iran. The regime's detention of Cal State grad student Esha Momeni on a traffic charge. And the Americans are still holding some members of Iran's special forces who they captured in Iraq more than two years ago. Those issues still outstanding -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian, thanks very much for that.

There are ongoing calls for the release of two other American journalists. North Korea is holding Laura Ling and Euna Lee. The state-run news service reports they will stand trial and that their alleged crime is entering North Korea illegally, intending what they call hostile acts. Ling and Lee were taken into custody March 17 along the Chinese-North Korean border.

As Pakistan's military continues its assault on the Taliban, the United Nations Refugee Agency says it will airlift 120 tons of relief supplies to aid civilians fleeing the fighting.

CNN's Ivan Watson hears from children who have made it out of the war zone -- Ivan.


IVAN WATSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the United Nations says more than 360,000 Pakistanis have fled the northwest of the country over the last week-and-a-half. That's roughly the population of Minneapolis. We spoke with a group of orphans who recently escaped the Swat Valley.

(voice-over): These boys are orphans and are lucky to be alive. Just three days ago, they escaped from Pakistan's Swat Valley, traumatized after their orphanage ended up on the front line of the government's war with the Taliban.

(on camera): This is a moment of peace and calm for 23 boys who spent days and nights terrified in the middle of a gun battle between Taliban militants and Pakistan army soldiers. They have been describing to me what that was like and how the children were crying at night from the sound of the explosions and the bullets whizzing past.

For fighting, yes?

(voice-over): Over a simple lunch of flatbread and beans, the boys tell me how Pakistani soldiers set up sandbags on the roof of their orphanage, a four-story building that offered a lookout over the neighborhood.

The boys hid in a backroom for days, as the Taliban laid siege to the orphanage. These kids have seen more than their share of violence in the Swat Valley over the past two years. When I asked what the worst part of the fighting was, they say it was the suicide bombers.

(on camera): Scary, huh?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. Yes. This is very dangerous.

WATSON (voice-over): These boys finally escaped with several teachers by first clinging to the roof of a bus, and then hitching a ride in the back of a vegetable truck.

Orphanage director Mohammed Ali is overwhelmed. He worries these children may end up homeless, as the conflict threatens to tear this country apart.

The call to prayer brings these orphans back together and raises hope that the boys from Swat may one day be able to go home.

(on camera): And, Wolf, this dramatic story isn't over.

We learned that 24 other orphans who had been stuck in Swat just arrived to the relative safety of Peshawar. They had to walk out of the conflict zone an estimated 20 miles before they could get a vehicle to bring them out.

One sad footnote, however, one of the children, a 14-year-old, had to stay behind. He got lost from the group. And he's back at the orphanage, now being cared for by Pakistani soldiers -- Wolf.


BLITZER: What a report, Ivan Watson reporting from Islamabad in Pakistan.

Pope Benedict is in the Holy Land. He makes a plea for the future and tries to end controversy from the past with a visit to Israel's Holocaust memorial.

And a space mission so risky that one shuttle is standing by in case it's needed to speed to the rescue.

And they have been two titans of the Republican Party. What's behind the very vocal rift between Colin Powell and Dick Cheney?


BLITZER: Pope Benedict XVI today began a visit to the Holy Land, urging Israelis and Palestinians to find a just resolution of their conflict. The pope spoke of the future with both people living in peace in a homeland of their own, but he also looked to the past, as CNN's Ben Wedeman reports from Jerusalem.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Before the eternal flame at Jerusalem's Yad Vashem memorial to the victims of the Nazi Holocaust, Pope Benedict tries to put out a fire of controversy.

POPE BENEDICT XVI, LEADER OF CATHOLIC CHURCH: As we stand here in silence, their cry still echoes in our hearts. And it is a cry raised against every act of injustice and violence and. It is a perpetual reproach against the spilling of innocent blood.

WEDEMAN: Present at the ceremony, six survivors of that dark chapter in history.

Many Jews were angered by the pontiff's decision earlier this year to lift the excommunication of the British Bishop Richard Williamson, who had publicly questioned whether the Holocaust occurred.

At Yad Vashem, Pope Benedict made clear where he stands.

POPE BENEDICT: May the names of the victims never perish. May their suffering never be denied, belittled or forgotten. And may all people of goodwill remain vigilant in rooting out from the heart of men anything that could lead to tragedies such as this.

WEDEMAN: Nearby, a small group of protesters, including the children of Holocaust survivors, insisted they wanted more than words from the pope.

SHMUEL SOREK, SON OF HOLOCAUST SURVIVOR: It's not enough. We want to see acts. We want the people in the whole world to see that the pope really believes what he says.

WEDEMAN: Many were less critical, but found the pope's comments failed to address today's concerns.

YOSSI KLEIN HALEVY, SENIOR FELLOW, SHAMEL CENTRE: What Israelis were hoping for was much -- a much more personal, emotional connection to Jewish fears, to the growing Jewish sense of the renewed insecurity that Jews around the world are feeling, and particularly in Israel. And this is an issue that would have been natural for the pope to address at Yad Vashem.

WEDEMAN (on camera): The ties between the Jews and the Vatican have improved dramatically in the last half-century. And that's what Pope Benedict and his host are trying to emphasize, not the smoldering outstanding differences.

Ben Wedeman, CNN, Jerusalem.


BLITZER: New information about a deadly plane crash raising concerns about pilot training and the safety of future flights.

Plus, will President Obama succeed where the Clintons failed? The best political team on television is standing by to consider if now is the time for health care reform.

And a shuttle mission that could take the Hubble space telescope to new scientific heights, we're going to tell you why it's so incredibly risky.


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

Happening now: Authorities are preparing to deport 89-year-old John Demjanjuk to Germany. The suspected Nazi death camp guard was taken by ambulance today from his home in suburban Cleveland. He was driven to a U.S. immigration office.

New developments concerning former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling -- his attorney tells CNN Skilling has filed an appeal with the Supreme Court over his 2006 conviction for insider trading.

And a U.S. soldier is in custody after allegedly killing five fellow soldiers at Camp Liberty in Baghdad -- all of this, plus the best political team on television.

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

The space shuttle Atlantis is on its way to space, its mission, a complicated, risky job on an almost 20-year-old space telescope. But, for the first time ever, another shuttle is standing by for a possible rescue mission, because there's so much risk and danger involved.

CNN's John Zarrella is over at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida watching what's going on.

It was a dramatic scene earlier in the day, John.

JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN MIAMI BUREAU CHIEF: Yes, no question about it, Wolf, Atlantis lifting off just after 2:00 Eastern time here.

It's on its way now towards a rendezvous with the Hubble space telescope. Before they actually do that rendezvous, the astronauts' first order of business is going to be to use the shuttle's robot arm to check for any kind of damage that might have been caused on ascent into orbit.

And if you look, back over my left shoulder here is the shuttle Endeavour. And it is sitting on the launchpad, as you mentioned, at the ready, in case it's needed to go rescue the astronauts. And this is the first time in the history of any space program that a vehicle has been ready for a last-ditch attempt to rescue astronauts.


ZARRELLA (voice-over): If something goes wrong endangering the Atlantis crew on their mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope, Endeavour would be launched within days in a last-ditch attempt to save them. CHRIS FERGUSON, ENDEAVOUR COMMANDER: I feel as confident about our ability to pull this off, if need be, as I would any other mission.

ZARRELLA: The need for a rescue vehicle standing by at the ready grew out of the Columbia disaster. But until now, there's been no need. All the previous missions since Columbia have gone to the International Space Station.

The crew of a damaged shuttle there could take refuge there for months, if need be, until another shuttle was ready to go get them. But Atlantis going to Hubble won't be anywhere near the station and can't get there.

FERGUSON: In this case, it's a much shorter fuse, because the Shuttle crew -- the Hubble crew would only have their vehicle to survive aboard.

ZARRELLA: Consumables like food and oxygen would run out quickly. For Atlantis commander Scott Altman, it feels good knowing Endeavour is ready.

SCOTT ALTMAN, ATLANTIS COORDINATOR: Even in the worst possible imaginable case, we can stay up there and last until somebody comes up and gets us. So it feels like we've got all our bases covered.

ZARRELLA: But the rescue would be no cakewalk. It would be a series of spacewalks. Endeavour would come up underneath Atlantis and hook on using its robotic arm. Over the course of two days, the seven astronauts would spacewalk to Endeavour -- holding onto a tether line strung between the two vehicles.

FERGUSON: The spacewalkers can come out of Atlantis and go hand over hand on a rope.


BLITZER: It's amazing that -- you know, these guys are really, really heroes, when you think about it.

How long before the -- and we hope it's not necessary -- that that rescue shuttle mission would be actually ready to take off?

ZARRELLA: Yes, they certainly don't want to have to do it. But if they were to, they could be ready to leave here in seven days. And they'd have plenty of time. The first order of business -- get right up to Atlantis, get the crew. And then when they pulled away with the Atlantis crew, then they would have to do an inspection of their vehicle to make sure there was no damage on their ascent into orbit.

But the first order of business -- get to the Atlantis crew as quickly as possible. And then all 11 astronauts -- the four from Endeavour and the seven from Atlantis -- would come home -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And as we said, let's hope that is not necessary. But it's good to know they're ready -- ready to move, if necessary. All right, John.

Thanks very much.

Here are some of the most famous images from the Hubble telescope -- a look deep into space, the birth and death of stars and a comet impacting Jupiter. The clarity of the resolution of the repairs made in 1993. Now, look at these before and after pictures of the galaxy called M100. The upcoming repairs are expected to make the Hubble's telescope up to 90 percent more powerful than it is right now.

Here's something maybe a lot of folks haven't often thought about -- Tweeting from space. One NASA astronaut is updating the shuttle mission on Twitter.

Let's go to our Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton -- Abbi, all right, explain.

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, over the last couple of weeks, a new fixture on Twitter goes by the name Astro Mike. That would be astronaut Mike Massimino, shown here in a NASA video. He's one of the seven member crew on the Hubble mission.

And he's now got more than 200,000 followers receiving his updates on Twitter -- updates for the last couple of weeks that are focused on the training, like this one from Saturday: "Finished my final fit check in my orange space suit, packed my pockets with survival gear."

Massimino doesn't have his battery with him on this mission, so the last post we got was a few hours ago, where he told us: "Next stop, Earth orbit."

But he has promised his followers that he's going to endeavor to post something while he's on this mission, even if it just means e- mailing something to NASA so they can then post it. It's a very busy schedule for this Hubble repairman. He promises reporters he will not be Tweeting during the spacewalks -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Thanks very much.

Twittering -- Twittering from space.

Tomorrow, the National Transportation Safety Board begins a public hearing. At issue -- why did a plane fall from the sky into a house near Buffalo in February. There are questions -- serious questions right now on whether or not the pilot had enough training for a certain kind of emergency.

Our senior correspondent, Allan Chernoff, has more -- Allan.

ALLAN CHERNOFF, CNN SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it appears the pilot was not trained as fully as he could have been, even though his training did meet FAA standards.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) CHERNOFF (voice-over): When Flight 3407 was about to stall, an emergency system called a stick pusher activated to push the aircraft's control column forward. Yet the pilot, Marvin Renslow, had never been trained in a flight simulator to respond to a stick pusher emergency, only in a classroom -- an experience gap that may have been a factor in the pilot's failure to save the aircraft.

DOUG MOSS, COMMERCIAL PILOT: I think that's a -- a significant problem. You can study it academically all you want to, but you really need to -- to develop the proficiency, the skill, the muscle memory required.

CHERNOFF: Colgan Air said: "We stand by our FAA certified crew training programs, which meet or exceed the regulatory requirements for all major airlines and include training on emergency situations."

The FAA concedes its requirements aren't exact enough to demand stick pusher training in a flight simulator.

MOSS: The FAA generally trains to a standard of routine line operations, with only a minimal tolerance for deviation outside the norm. They don't focus at all on the -- on the edges of the envelope, which if they were to do that, it would be costly. But I think it would improve the overall competency of airline pilots.

CHERNOFF: Veteran pilots tell CNN today's cost-conscious regional airlines need to provide more training, because many of their pilots are far less experienced than those at the major airlines. The Regional Airline Association counters that, the Buffalo tragedy notwithstanding, its flights are safer than ever.

ROGER COHEN, PRESIDENT, REGIONAL AIRLINE ASSOCIATION: The training standards for regional airlines, main line airlines, network airlines, low cost airlines, all identical, under the exact same protocols, all approved in the exact same category by the federal Aviation Administration.


CHERNOFF: Pilot training is among the issues that will be discussed at the NTSB hearing beginning tomorrow; also, Captain Renslow's history. Colgan Air says it is true that Captain Renslow failed five pilot exams. But, ultimately, he did pass all the tests he needed to and he was fully accredited to fly the Q400 aircraft -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Allan Chernoff, thanks very much.

The former vice president, Dick Cheney, taking a swipe at Colin Powell and siding with Rush Limbaugh, as the battle for the soul of the GOP gets a bit more ugly.

And what President Obama can learn from Hillary Clinton as he picks up where she left off more than a decade ago.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: They were certainly top officials in the Bush administration and they've been titans of the Republican Party -- at least until one of them endorsed a Democrat for president.

Listen to Dick Cheney on CBS yesterday, lashing out at Colin Powell.


DICK CHENEY, FORMER VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If I had to choose, in terms of being a Republican, I'd go with Rush Limbaugh, I think. I think my take on it was Colin had already left the party. I didn't know he was still a Republican.


BLITZER: Colin Powell has been critical of some in his party in the past.

Take a listen to this.


COLIN POWELL, FORMER U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: We have got to stop this kind of nonsense, pull ourselves together and remember that our great strength is in our unity and in our diversity.



POWELL: Taxes are necessary for the common good. And there's nothing wrong with examining what our tax structure is or who should be paying more and who should be paying less. And for us to say that that makes you a socialist, I think, is -- is an unfortunate -- an unfortunate characterization that isn't accurate.



POWELL: And I think that in the latter months of the campaign, the party moved further to the right. Governor Palin, to some extent, pushed the party more to the right. And I think she had something of a polarizing effect when she talked about small town values are good. Well, most of us don't live in small towns. And I was raised in the South Bronx. And there's nothing wrong with my value system from the South Bronx.


BLITZER: All right. Let's talk about this with our political analysts, Gloria Borger; David Gergen; and Roland Martin.

You know, I remember covering them during the first Gulf War, when Dick Cheney was Defense secretary and Colin Powell was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. There's a long history.

And when I heard him tell Bob Schieffer yesterday that he's ready to side with Rush Limbaugh over Colin Powell, Gloria, it was pretty stunning, knowing that history of these two men.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, they do share a long history, although, Wolf, as you know better than I do, they have never been personally close. Colin Powell wrote in his book, I believe, that he had never spent an hour of personal time with the former vice president.

But -- but having said that, look, I think this is -- their fight is indicative of what's going on in the Republican Party right now. There is no way to define a Republican, because Republicans haven't figured out how to recast themselves and grow the party from the base of the party right now, which isn't enough to get them elected to the presidency, that's for sure.

BLITZER: Well, forget about their personal history -- David, but what is better for the Republican Party, to try to have someone like Colin Powell represent you or Rush Limbaugh represent you?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL ADVISER: It seems to me Dick Cheney's answer should have been that the Republican Party wants both people in -- speaking in various public forums. And that -- that's what really surprised me.

I mean, I do want to say one thing about Dick Cheney. Listen, I -- in his defense, he has been -- he has been working hard on behalf of conservatives in the Republican Party for nearly 40 years. And I personally believe he's been justified in speaking out in defense of the Bush administration. I may not agree with everything he said, but he's had -- you know, he's been sort of fighting a lonely fight against a lot of people who have been sort of assaulting the Bush record on national security.

So I think all of that has been fair game.

But to read Colin Powell out of the party -- Colin Powell, while he was in the Bush, Jr. administration, the W. administration -- was the single most respected member of that administration -- the most respected Republican.

Why on Earth would you try to force him out to the sidelines and dismiss him in this way?

I do not understand that.

BLITZER: Well, the reason -- one of the reasons at least, Roland, is because he endorsed Barack Obama. He didn't endorse the Republican presidential nominee.

ROLAND S. MARTIN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: You know what, if Dick Cheney was a child, I would say he needs to be put in a time out box. He is spending more time publicly than, frankly, he did when he was vice president commenting on everything under the sun. Look, the bottom line is this here. This is a party. And if you only want to have Rush Limbaugh, no problem. You can have him and his 14 million followers.

And guess what?

You're going to lose every single election. It is nonsense.

The Democrats tried the exact same thing after '84 and '88, they realized that if you ignore conservative Democrats, if you ignore moderate Democrats and only appeal to liberals, you're going to be a small party.

When they opened up that door, they broadened the tent, they were able to win.

So, hey, Cheney, if you want to hang with the same kind of guys, guess what, go right ahead, but you will lose.

BORGER: You know, Wolf, I remember -- before this election, I was talking to somebody high up in the McCain campaign. And he said to me whether John McCain wins or whether he loses, there's going to be a civil war in the Republican Party. And he said that's a good thing, because we've got to fight out what we believe for the next generation. We have to build on the Republican values that got us to the White House and then can take us to the White House again.

And I think that's what we're seeing play out right now.

MARTIN: And after the Civil War, I'll take the guy who put a uniform on versus the guy who skipped military service.


BLITZER: All right...

BORGER: OK, Roland.

BLITZER: Let me...

GERGEN: I don't think we need to get personal about this.

BLITZER: Yes, let me...

MARTIN: That's not personal. It's called a fact.

BLITZER: Let me -- let me move on. I will say this, though, that Dick Cheney has been so hammered -- he's been so criticized, I guess he feels his honor -- his reputation is on the line. There aren't a whole lot of other people coming to his defense, so he feels he's got to make that case. Otherwise, that silence, in effect -- the silence we hear from President Bush, you know, would probably be construed as the accusations are all true. And, as a result, he wants to defend his honor -- defend his reputation. There's no -- no problem with that. But let me get to health care, David, because I want your sense -- can this Obama team, this year, get its act together and get comprehensive health -- health care reform enacted by Congress?

GERGEN: The answer is yes, Wolf. It's still going to be a tough fight. But the president, I think, was right today to very aggressively embrace this -- this offer by the health care industry to cut the rate of inflation by a percentage point-and-a-half out of the GDP every year.

That's a big breakthrough for him. I think he was right to seize on it. It is a bargaining chip on behalf of the health care industry. They want some things from him. We'll see if they get them from the Democrats. They especially -- they want to get rid of this idea of the government setting up an alternative public program for people, which they think will squeeze out the insurers and transform us in -- eventually, into a single payer nation.

BLITZER: And, Gloria, you had a briefing with a high administration official today.


BLITZER: Walk us through.

When is it -- what is their time line? when do they think this can be signed into law?


BLITZER: Any time soon?

BORGER: Well, signed into law -- look, they're very ambitious about this. They believe that this is an opportunity that they have that Hillary Clinton didn't have 15 years ago; that employers are paying a lot more for health care; that you've got the pharmaceutical industry, the hospitals, the doctors, pledging to cut costs.

There is this problem of whether you establish a private insurance pool -- I mean a public insurance pool, essentially. They're saying to me sometime this summer.

Now, that's kind of hard to believe, but they're talking about getting a bill on the floor in late July. So we'll see if that really happens, Wolf.

BLITZER: Roland is -- Roland is going to have a lot more coming up at 8:00 p.m. Eastern on "NO BIAS, NO BULL"

Guys, thanks very much for that.

MARTIN: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Jack Cafferty will be back with your e-mail.

His question this hour -- in light of reduced education budgets, is a four day school week a good idea?

Plus, comic relief for crossing the line -- the White House Correspondents Association Dinner is not a laughing matter to some. CNN's Jeanne Moos is getting ready to take a Moost Unusual look.


LOU DOBBS, CNN ANCHOR: Coming up at the top of the hour tonight, we're reporting on the president's push for what the administration calls a $2 trillion plan to slow the rapid growth of health care spending. We'll tell you what that means. It doesn't mean exactly what it sounds like or what the administration would like you to think it sounds like.

Also, former Vice President Dick Cheney is escalating the conflict over the Republican Party's future. He's taking on Colin Powell -- Cheney, in effect, aligning himself with Rush Limbaugh in this nasty partisan -- well, it's an intrapartisan battle, isn't it?

And Americans' obsession with technology having dangerous and sometimes fatal consequences. We'll have that special report that you don't want to miss tonight.

And the State of California is spiraling out of control -- and that doesn't even include the Miss California controversy. Tonight, we'll have a lively discussion in our Face-Off segment.

Join us for all of that and more coming up at the top of the hour, all the day's news. THE SITUATION ROOM continues in just a moment.


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

CAFFERTY: The question this hour, Wolf: In light of the reduced education budgets around the country, is a four day school week a good idea?

William writes: "Four day weeks represent throwing in the towel on education. Younger kids will lose focus and the end of the day will be wasted on them.

If money is saved but minds, potential and futures are lost -- not to mention safety, given some of the places these kid will hang out when they're not in school -- do we gain anything? It's a seductive, but very bad idea."

Kevin in California writes: "Great idea. We can repeal the child labor laws and on their days off they can make Nikes and get acquainted with competing against their Chinese counterparts."

Yazz writes: "Have we not shortchanged children enough? In a country willing to give billions of dollars to rich companies that are too big to fail, cannot we all agree that our children are too vital to fail?"

Paul in Austin, Texas: "It's a good idea and it works. I lived in a city in Colorado that did it and it worked fine. The only thing is the school day was a little longer and there was only a six week break in the school year."

Arthur says: "Cutting the school week puts a tremendous burden on working parents and cuts relatively little costs. Why do it then? Who is the real beneficiary of a four day school week? Surprise. It's the teachers. They found a way to get the same money and an extra day a week off. And, as with everything else, they claim that it benefits our children."

David in San Diego: "No. To compete in a world where industrialized and semi-industrialized competitors already outpace us K through 12 in education, we need more, not less, time in school. Saturdays would be a useful addition, as would a longer school year."

And, finally, Brian in Sugarland, Texas: "Hell, no. What your trying to do, kill off all our single parents?"

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

If it's not there, well, it wasn't good enough. That's all there's to it.


BLITZER: See you tomorrow, Jack.

CAFFERTY: All right.

BLITZER: Thank you.

Jack Cafferty with "The Cafferty File."

So here's the question -- when should a president of the United States laugh at a joke?


WANDA SYKES, COMEDIENNE: Rush Limbaugh, one of your big -- big critics -- boy, Rush Limbaugh said he hopes this administration fails...


BLITZER: Jeanne Moos asks when should you wipe the smile off your face?

We'll be right back.


BLITZER: Here's a look at "Hot Shots" coming in from our friends over at the Associated Press.

In Santa Barbara, California, a woman sifts through the debris of her grandmother's home destroyed by the wildfire.

In Florida, children sit in the water as they watch space shuttle Atlantis launch.

In Israel, the silhouette of a Jewish boy is seen as he runs next to a large bonfire during a celebration.

And in Washington, a frog perches on the hand of a biologist over at the National Zoo.

Some of this hour's "Hot Shots" -- pictures worth a thousand words.

Comedienne Wanda Sykes takes on Rush Limbaugh and some of the right take on President Obama for laughing about it.

This raises the "Moost Unusual" question -- when is it OK to laugh?

Here's CNN's Jeanne Moos.


JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It's OK for a president to laugh at a joke about his own anatomy.


SYKES: I don't need to see your nipples.


MOOS: But should he have nipped his smile in the bud when he heard this?


SYKES: Because I think maybe Rush Limbaugh was the 20th hijacker, but he was just so strung out on OxyContin, he missed his flight.



MOOS: Carry that smile in a sip (ph). (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SYKES: Too much.


MOOS: When do you wipe the smile off your face?

9/11 jokes, says the president's press secretary...


ROBERT GIBBS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Better left for serious reflection rather than comedy.


MOOS: But that was after his boss couldn't suppress a grin.


SYKES: Rush Limbaugh, "I hope the country fails."

I hope his kidneys fail, how about that?



BILL BENNETT, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: "I hope his kidneys fail" -- what the hell is that?


MOOS: Rush Limbaugh failed -- failed to take the bait, ignoring comedienne Wanda Sykes' joke, though he did take a jab at the star- studded roast itself.


RUSH LIMBAUGH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: Going into the big White House soiree -- showbiz for ugly people.


MOOS: An event where you cross a Demi Moore and a Wolf Blitzer, an Owen Wilson and a Glenn Beck.

While a Sarah Palin abstinence joke got a mixed reaction...



SYKES: Oh, shut up. You're going to be telling that one tomorrow.


MOOS: ...instead, the Rush Limbaugh jokes were the ones being retold.


SYKES: He needs to go waterboarding, that's what he needs. (END VIDEO CLIP)



JOY BEHAR, CO-HOST: But the audience is laughing hysterically. I don't know if they could hear it at home.

WHOOPI GOLDBERG, CO-HOST: Well, actually, in the...


MOOS (on camera): The president did do a lot of laughing -- many times at his own jokes, while telling them.


MOOS: The president could barely get through the joke about the permanently tanned House minority leader.


OBAMA: He is a person of color, although not a color that appears in the natural world.


MOOS: A perpetual tan -- permission to laugh. Kidney failure -- laughter discretion advised.


SYKES: But you're laughing inside. I know you're laughing.


MOOS: Wanda Sykes got a kiss from the president and a hug from the first lady. And while Secret Service agents kept their smiles secret...


SYKES: God forbid, if -- if Joe Biden falls in the hands of terrorists. God forbid.


MOOS: Some struggle to stifle their laughter even before the punch line.

Jeanne Moos, CNN...



BLITZER: And this final note. Presidents routinely meet with championship sports teams. This photo-op meant something special to Mr. Obama today. He picked the University of North Carolina to win the NCAA championship and they did. But that's the only final four pick that he got right.


OBAMA: Congratulations on bringing Carolina its fifth national championship. And, more importantly, thanks for salvaging my bracket...


OBAMA: ...and vindicating me before the entire nation.



Up next, "LOU DOBBS TONIGHT" - Lou.