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Where Supreme Court Nominee Stands on Abortion; President Seeks Arab 'Down Payment'; Line of Attack Against Sotomayor

Aired May 28, 2009 - 15:59   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, new mystery surrounding the president's Supreme Court nominee. Where exactly does Sonia Sotomayor stand on abortion rights? This hour, the question President Obama never asked.

Plus, American schoolchildren quarantined in China right now. Swine flu fears derail a class trip, but no one is sick. Is Beijing overreacting?

And Britons say their queen is being snubbed by France. The upcoming anniversary of D-Day sparks a feud between World War II allies.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in CNN's command center for breaking news, politics and extraordinary reports from around the world.


Right now, abortion rights advocates are asking some serious questions about the Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, and some were wondering if President Obama should have done the same thing. Sotomayor's very lengthy paper trail doesn't offer a whole lot of clues about her opinion of Rowe vs. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court decision authorizing, allowing abortion in the United States.

By the way, on the bottom of your screen you're going to see a lot more information throughout these coming hours on the Supreme Court nominee.

Let's go to our White House correspondent, Dan Lothian. He's taking a closer look at this mystery for us.

Generating some nervousness among pro-abortion rights advocates, Dan.

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right. You know, Wolf, the abortion debate is always simmering, but things are heating up as the president seeks to fill that vacancy on the Supreme Court. There are many unknowns, and both sides are seeking answers.


LOTHIAN (voice-over): There are no direct rulings to help paint a clear picture of where Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor stands on abortion rights. Yet, President Obama, who as a candidate said this on abortion in the courts... BARACK H. OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I won't back down when it comes to defending the freedom of women.

LOTHIAN: ... and this...

OBAMA: I'm committed to appointing judges who understand how our laws operate in our daily lives.

LOTHIAN: ... and at the same Florida event, even noted that, "Five men on the Supreme Court don't know better than women and their doctors," never talked to Sotomayor about this polarizing issue or the right to privacy.

(on camera): Why wasn't it important for him to ask her about where she stood on abortion?

ROBERT GIBBS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Well, I think the president believed it was exceedingly important to get her views on how she interprets the living document of the Constitution of the United States of America.

LOTHIAN (voice-over): Robert Gibbs defense? The president is comfortable with her judicial philosophy. Anti-abortion and abortion rights groups seem to be united behind one question: Where does Sotomayor stand?

RICHARD LAND, SOUTHERN BAPTIST CONVENTION: Well, we don't have a definitive word on where she stands. Well, I'd like to know more.

LOTHIAN: In the most recent CNN poll, the majority of Americans, 68 percent, don't think the Supreme Court should overturn Roe v. Wade. With a divided court, Sotomayor's vote could be pivotal. Where she stands or, more importantly, how she rules on this issue will be closely probed on Capitol Hill, during her upcoming confirmation process.


BLITZER: Dan, I've got to believe, given the fact the president has been thinking about this nominee for months now, long before David Souter informally and then formally notified the White House he was going to retire, that in the course of these many months, word must have somehow gotten back to the president that, yes, this woman will support Roe v. Wade. But what's the bottom line here? What are you hearing?

LOTHIAN: Well, clearly, Wolf, the word certainly has gotten back to the president. You know, clearly, there's politics at play here.

While the spokesman, Robert Gibbs, saying that they did not speak explicitly about abortion, the White House really is trying to send a message out there to the public that the president really does believe -- he's very comfortable with his decision here, and that there won't be any surprises at all if she is confirmed.

BLITZER: All right. We're going to have more on this part of the story coming up later.

Thanks very much for that, Dan.

This hour, the president meets behind closed doors with the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas. They'll be in the Oval Office over at the White House, and the conversation could be somewhat uncomfortable, in part because Israel has now flatly rejected a U.S. and Palestinian demand that Israel stop building Jewish settlements on the West Bank.

Let's go to our foreign affairs correspondent, Jill Dougherty.

Jill, what are you hearing?

JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, it is a difficult moment, you have to say that. And over the past two weeks, the president has brought almost all of the key players on Mideast peace to the White House. Today, it's the Palestinian leaders turn, and if Mr. Obama appears to be especially supportive, you're right.


DOUGHERTY (voice-over): Half his territory is controlled by Hamas, the militant group the U.S. considers a terrorist organization. His term of office ran out in January. Politically, he's living on borrowed time.

HILLARY CLINTON, SECRETARY OF STATE: We believe strongly in a two-state solution.

DOUGHERTY: But from a dinner with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to a high-profile White House meeting this afternoon with the president, the Obama administration is bucking up Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, hoping he'll be strong enough to make peace with Israel. Yet, until Israel freezes its settlements in disputed territories, Abbas refuses to talk with the Israelis.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says no more new settlements, but he wants to allow what he calls their natural growth. Here's how his spokesman explains it.

MARK REGEV, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER'S SPOKESMAN: As to existing settlements, it's clear their status will be determined in negotiations between us and the Palestinians. In the interim period, normal life in those communities should continue.

DOUGHERTY: Secretary of State Clinton cuts to the quick.

CLINTON: Not some settlements. Not outposts. Not natural growth exceptions.

DOUGHERTY: One Mideast watcher predicts a rocky ride to peace.

AARON DAVID MILLER, WOODROW WILSON INTERNATIONAL CENTER: This process is going to be like 1,000 days of root canals. It's going to be excruciatingly painful. The chances of success are very low, but the administration has clearly made this a priority.


DOUGHERTY: And Secretary of State's Clinton's comments are a good barometer, Wolf, of where this administration is headed -- a tougher approach to Israel, more support for the Palestinian leader, and regional approach that includes a peace initiative from the Arab world -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And we might be getting some more clues within the hour or so. That's when reporters will be allowed into the Oval Office. And presumably, we'll hear from the president of the United States and the president of the Palestinian Authority. They'll be taking questions as well, and we'll go there and see what they have to say.

This is a critically important meeting.

Our White House correspondent, Dan Lothian, by the way, will be in the Oval Office for that meeting as well with the reporters.

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

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, the idea of a national sales tax as a way to attack deficits which could total $4 trillion over the next five years, and pay for health care reform, it's an idea that seems to be gaining some traction. "The Washington Post" reports this morning some lawmakers and experts suggest that such a tax is one of the only ways to right our financial ship.

A value-added tax, or VAT, is a tax on the transfer of goods and services. That would include everything from a gallon of milk to a consultation with your lawyer.

This kind of tax is used in more than 130 countries. It ranges from five percent in Japan, to 25 percent in Hungary and parts of Scandinavia.

One downside is that a national sales tax will fall more heavily on the poor, but supporters say that could be offset by using the proceeds to pay for health care reform and provide health care for every American. Other potential advantages are that this kind of tax is hard to dodge, and it punishes spending and encourages saving, which is something the Obama administration wants to do.

Also, some economists say the threat of a value-added tax could help pull the country out of a recession sooner by making consumers spend before the tax hits. Depending on what percentage the value- added tax would be, it could exempt millions of Americans from paying income tax at all and lower the top income bracket for wealthier people.

Top government officials including former Fed chairman Paul Volcker and the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee have expressed interest in exploring the idea further.

So here's the question: Is a national sales tax the answer to reducing deficits and paying for health care reform?

Go to and post a comment on my blog.

It's an idea that's been around for a long time. Steve Forbes, when he ran for president, advocated a value-added or national sales tax. It would be a shame though to do away with the IRS code. Don't you agree?

BLITZER: We love the IRS.


BLITZER: All right, Jack. Thanks very much.

Most people probably would say that having empathy is an asset. That is unless you're a nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court.

Ahead, questions about Sonia Sotomayor's personal agenda and whether a justice should feel your pain.

Plus, with General Motors on the verge of bankruptcy here in the United States, the carmaker is now revving up production in China.

And a world renowned priest at the center of a scandal finds a way to keep preaching the gospel without returning to celibacy.


BLITZER: A full-court press is now under way over at the White House to rebut charges that Sonia Sotomayor would bring a personal agenda to the U.S. Supreme Court, but some argue that all public officials are influenced to some degree by their background and their experiences.

Our National Political Correspondent Jessica Yellin is digging deeper into this debate for us.

Jessica, what are you finding out?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, as you know, from the start, President Obama said he wanted his Supreme Court nominee to have empathy. When he introduced Judge Sotomayor, he said she has that quality.


YELLIN (voice-over): Should empathy matter? President Obama says yes, and he praised Judge Sonia Sotomayor for considering the real word effects of her rulings. Or as he put it...

OBAMA: ... a practical understanding of how the law works in the everyday lives of the American people.

YELLIN: Sotomayor considers that real world empathy essential. She says her own biography has helped inform the way she understand the law. JUDGE SONIA SOTOMAYOR, SUPREME COURT NOMINEE: I strive never to forget the real world consequences of my decisions on individuals, businesses and government.

YELLIN: But to Sotomayor's critics, that's outrageous. Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh believe the law is to be dispassionately analyzed, not judge from a point of view. But how different is Judge Sotomayor's view from what Justice Samuel Alito said in his confirmation?

SAMUEL ALITO, SUPREME COURT NOMINEE: When I have cases involving children, I can't help but think of my own children, and think about my children being treated in the way that children may be treated in the case that's before me.

YELLIN: Or what Justice Clarence Thomas said about growing up in the segregated South.

CLARENCE THOMAS, SUPREME COURT NOMINEE: The judge must get the decision right, because when all is said and done, the real people of America will be affected.

YELLIN: Critics like Newt Gingrich also charge Sotomayor with racism because she said her experiences as a Latina lead her to make different rulings than a white man might. Her defenders say, well, compare that to these comments from Samuel Alito during his confirmation hearing...

ALITO: When I get a case about discrimination, I have to think about people in my own family who suffered discrimination because of their ethnic background or because of religion.


YELLIN: And Wolf, Sotomayor's defenders say is it really possible to judge any law without letting your own life experiences come into play? That is one of the issues that will continue as this controversy evolves -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Because in the end, even Supreme Court justices are human beings.

Let's talk a little bit about what's going on with Gloria Borger.

This whole issue, Gloria, of empathy, is this going to be the major line of attack from her opponents?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, it is going to be a main line of attack from her opponents. And conservatives I've spoken with say that the president has actually set up this argument up for them.

Conservatives believe that empathy is about feelings, and that feelings have no place when you're deciding the law. On the other hand, the White House says that empathy is about understanding what other people are thinking, and that's a very good thing for a judge to have.

The real question is, can the opponents draw a direct line between the things she has said in some of her speeches which may be controversial and her court rulings over the last 17 years? If they can't do that, this empathy argument could be a real loser for them.

BLITZER: You were over at the White House today. On this issue of abortion, because she doesn't have a lot there in terms of her official record, where she stands on Roe v. Wade, for example, what are they saying to you over there?

BORGER: Well, for some reason -- and I really can't figure out why -- it's a little maddening for journalists because they won't draw a direct line. And that's probably because the president has said that there would be no litmus test.

They say that she has a strong belief in settled law, that she is "in the mainstream." Now, we have polls that show that a majority of the public believes that Roe v. Wade is settled law, and was rightly decided, as the president believes.

But the president himself had an hour-long discussion with her. No aide was in the room. That's probably on purpose. And we were told today it was a dense constitutional discussion about the way she judges.

He was impressed with her precision in the way she judges. But right now, they've got pro-choice people and pro-life people both asking the same question, where does she stand on abortion? And politically, that's probably not a bad place for them to be right now.

BLITZER: Yes, probably right. And we did hear earlier here in THE SITUATION ROOM, earlier in the week, from David Axelrod, the president's top adviser over there at the White House, that he never asked flat out the question, "Do you support Roe v. Wade or not?"

That did not come up. The president deciding, apparently, that was not an appropriate question.

Thanks very much, Gloria, for that.


BLITZER: Republicans are taking their attacks on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to a new level, hoping to use her to hurt other Democrats.

Our Senior Political Analyst Bill Schneider is joining us now.

Bill, are we beginning to see a strategy for next year's midterm election?

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, we are. Republicans are going on the attack, but not against President Obama.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) SCHNEIDER (voice-over): The House Republican Campaign Committee has found a target for 2010.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), HOUSE SPEAKER: On the subject that you asked, I made the statement that I'm going to make. I won't have anything more to say about it. I won't have anything more to say about it.

SCHNEIDER: Remember "Mission Possible," about an agent who betrays the CIA? Republicans are running this ad linking a Maryland Democrat to Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Republicans are running radio ads targeting six Democrats in five states.

ANNOUNCER: Teague voted to protect Pelosi. Why? My sources say Teague votes with Pelosi 92 percent of the time. Case closed.

SCHNEIDER: Why Pelosi? Why don't they target the big guy? Because 62 percent approve of the job President Obama is doing. Speaker Pelosi, 39 percent. Forty-eight percent disapprove.

The speaker's popularity has been going down since she took on the CIA. We've seen this before.

Back in 1982, Republicans ran ads targeting House Speaker Tip O'Neill rather than President Ronald Reagan. It didn't work. Democrats gained House seats.

Right now, Republicans are getting only about a third of the congressional vote, but nearly half the voters have a negative opinion of Speaker Pelosi. The Republicans' mission, which they have chosen to accept, is to transform negative opinion of Pelosi into votes for House Republicans.


SCHNEIDER: In a statement to CNN, the speaker's office dismissed the Republican ads as "just an attempt to distract from the progress President Obama, Speaker Pelosi and the Democratic Congress are making."

You'll notice President Obama gets prominent mention there -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Bill Schneider, thanks for that, reporting for us.

She spent four months in an Iranian prison. Now the American journalist Roxana Saberi is talking publicly about her ordeal. She says she was pressured into a false confession.

Plus, a popular priest who was seen in a romantic embrace with a woman is leaving the Catholic Church. The man known as "Father Oprah" says he's becoming an Episcopalian.



Happening now, Americans quarantined in China. Students and teachers from a Maryland school are being confined to their hotel rooms because of concerns over swine flu.

Militants keep up their attacks in Pakistan. At least eight people are killed in another bombing, and Pakistan's military says more attacks are expected.

Former President George W. Bush is heading to Canada for what's being called a conversation. Joining him will be his predecessor, former President Bill Clinton.

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

There's a new deal between General Motors and its bondholders, but the agreement is unlikely to keep GM out of bankruptcy. It would give bondholders up to a 15 percent stake in GM if they don't fight the government's plans for a quick bankruptcy at the company. This week, GM bondholders rejected a proposal that would have given them only a 10 percent stake.

While GM is the number one automaker here in the United States, there's an increasing chance that the next GM vehicles you buy could be made in China, and that's angering America's top consumer advocate and others.

CNN's Jim Acosta is following this story for us -- Jim.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, bailed out to the tune of nearly $20 billion, GM has earned its nickname, "Government Motors." But one of the nation's most well-known customer watchdogs is warning the auto giant could soon have a new name -- "General Mandarin."


ACOSTA: For all its problems, General Motors can speak Chinese. GM is now vying to become the number one carmaker in the communist country. Consumer advocate Ralph Nader warns GM is on its way to saying good-bye, USA, and ni hao, or hello, China.

RALPH NADER, CONSUMER ADVOCATE: Where's our self-respect as a nation?

ACOSTA: After taking billions in bailout money and announcing thousands of layoffs, GM has plans to ramp up production in China to build cars for U.S. consumers. This recently amended agreement between the United Auto Workers Union and GM says, both parties discussed the company's plan to import certain vehicles from China.

Nader says a GM in bankruptcy would allow the carmaker to shift its China plans into overdrive.

NADER: Do we really want the United States of America export its auto industry, paid for by the taxpayer and unemployed workers to a dictatorship and a country like China?

ACOSTA: And the cars GM is building in China, like the Chevy Spark, are the very vehicles President Obama would like to see stay in the U.S.

BARACK H. OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The path I'm laying out today is our best chance to make sure that the cars of the future are built where they've always been built, in Detroit and across the Midwest.

ACOSTA: Industry analysts say GM is simply focusing on what's working.

CHRIS ISIDORE, CNNMONEY.COM: The main thing that GM plants in China are shipping to the U.S. are not cars. It's money, that there are profits being made in China by GM's operations which are being used to support the company here.

ACOSTA: Ohio Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown wants to slam on the brakes.

SEN. SHERROD BROWN (D), OHIO: That cannot be part of the restructuring of this company. Their business plan cannot include more outsourcing of jobs while taking U.S. tax dollars.


NARRATOR: The compact car that people could count on.


ACOSTA: After fighting for seat belts in GM products decades ago, Nader is concerned about the safety of Chinese cars.

RALPH NADER, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Very much of a concern. There's been contaminated fish, contaminated food.

ACOSTA: But he's more worried about the future of the American autoworker.

NADER: We will look back on this bankruptcy as a death star that has emerged to -- to empty out jobs in communities all over the country.

ACOSTA (on camera): As a concession to its unions, GM has agreed to keep open one U.S. plant it had slated to close to build some of the cars it's already making in China. Estimates vary as to how many cars GM wants to import from its Chinese factories. The company did not respond to our request for a comment -- Wolf.


BLITZER: Thanks very much, Jim Acosta, reporting for us.

To -- let's get to California right now, a state staring at financial disaster. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is proposing a new plan to deal with California's ballooning deficit, which approaching a staggering $24.3 billion. He's proposing cuts to welfare programs and health insurance. The governor also wants to eliminate cash grants to college students.

CNN's Dan Simon is joining us with that part of the story.

All right, Dan, what is going on.

DAN SIMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, eliminating billions of dollars from the state budget is going to have some serious consequences. Some high school students are learning that firsthand. For some, their ambition of getting a college education might be compromised if some of these proposed cuts go through.


SIMON (voice-over): Romell Moore grew up on the rough-and-tumble streets of Oakland, California. He says a strong grandmother kept him out of trouble.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm strict with him.

SIMON: When he graduates from high school next month -- he's number three in his class -- Romell would be the first person in his family to go to college. He's been accepted at U.C. Santa Cruz.



MOORE: ... I did the -- that it was doing the right stuff and doing all the hard work to go and, that maybe I could be a guidance to my younger cousins and nephews, that maybe they will want to go to college, too.

SIMON: He wants to become a lawyer, but that dream could be shattered because of California's budget woes. The state facing an unprecedented deficit is looking at ways to save billions.

And Governor Schwarzenegger has proposed slashing what are called Cal Grants, maybe that helps pay tuition for students from low-income families. Two hundred thousand students statewide could lose all or part of the Cal Grants they were counting on to pay for college this fall.

MOORE: The whole way through school, like, they -- the teachers and all that tell you, as long as you get good grades and all that, the state and the system will find a way to send you to school.

SIMON: A promise that would have to be taken back if the proposed cuts happened -- without Cal Grants, Romell would lose nearly a third of the money for his $27,000-a-year tuition and other expenses.

Nancy Roman is the college counselor at Romell's school. She says the ripple effects would be enormous.

NANCY ROMAN, COLLEGE COUNSELOR OF HIGH SCHOOL SENIOR ROMELL MOORE: Our main problem is getting students to even look at college, because, in their head already, it's been ingrained about it's too expensive, as well as with parents. They don't want their students to apply because, "Oh, it's too expensive." And, so, we always talk about Cal Grants.

SIMON: Romell has this message for lawmakers making the tough choices.

MOORE: By helping me send -- go to school, they won't have another person that's on welfare just taking the state money to survive. They will have a person who's working and making money for the state.


BLITZER: Dan, are there alternatives to these proposed cuts?

SIMON: Well, first of all, Governor Schwarzenegger has called these cuts painful, but unavoidable, especially given the fact that he's opposed to any new taxes.

But, Democrats, they are pushing back hard, trying to keep some of these programs. One thing that -- that they're looking at is possibly a new soda tax. They're also looking at possibly taxing oil production.

Bottom line here, we're looking at a huge fight gearing up in the legislature.


SIMON: Wolf.

BLITZER: ... a huge deficit in California.

Thanks very much, Dan Simon.

The people of Britain, at least a lot of folks over there, are fuming about a royal snub -- Queen Elizabeth at the center of a feud that has our Richard Quest and the tabloids, they're all fired up.


RICHARD QUEST, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It's got it all, Wolf. It's got Anglo-French rivalry and hatred. It's got a new U.S. president. It's got jingoism. This is today's "Daily Mail" -- "French D-Day Surrender."

This will get them up in arms.


BLITZER: Also ahead, is it now or never for health care reform? President Obama creates urgency -- in our "Strategy Session."

And a country where no one smiles -- a fascinating look inside the secretive nation of North Korea.


BLITZER: It's a battle between World War II allies just in time for the 65th anniversary of D-Day.

On the one side, Britain defending the honor of the queen, on the other side, France trying to brush off a diplomatic faux pas.


BLITZER: And joining us now from London, our correspondent Richard Quest.

Richard, what are the tabloids, what's the media in Britain saying about what some regard as a snub to the queen to the -- the president of France, Sarkozy, that she's not been invited to France for the 65th anniversary of D-Day?

QUEST: It's got it all, Wolf. It's got Anglo-French rivalry and hatred. It's got a new U.S. president. It's got jingoism. This is today's "Daily Mail" -- "French D-Day Surrender."

This will get them up in arms. And that's because, of course, the French have backtracked now and said that her majesty, the queen, the British royal family would be welcome for the Normandy commemorations.

Unfortunately of course, Buckingham Palace, very snottily, is saying that no royal will be going, not surprising, really, since the invitation looks like it's just about a week before the event.

What everybody here believes is that President Sarkozy of France has kept the queen and anybody else away, so he has maximum time with Barack Obama; he doesn't have to share that limelight.

BLITZER: Interesting stuff.

Some have suggested, also, maybe there's some behind-the-scenes tension between the queen and prime minister of Britain, Gordon Brown?

QUEST: No, I don't think that's a -- a -- a runner on this particular one, whatever the -- the -- Number 10 may say. There is no -- when all is said and done, you have an extremely popular monarch, her majesty, the queen, and an exceptionally unpopular prime minister, Gordon Brown.

If there was a whiff that he was trying to boot her out of the way for his own glory, well, I think it would backfire badly.

BLITZER: And you say there's no chance she will reconsider, even though the invitation is coming rather late, she will reconsider and show up? (CROSSTALK)

QUEST: I -- well, first of all, the diary is done months in advance, if not years in advance, but perhaps send a minor royal, a little prince, a princess or two.

I asked the -- Buckingham Palace exactly that question, Wolf, and they just very tartly said there are no plans for any royals to be in Normandy.

BLITZER: All right, a little sensitive over there.

All right, Richard, thanks very much.

QUEST: Thanks, Wolf.


BLITZER: The United States and South Korea put their military forces on high alert today, this after North Korea renounced a truce that's kept peace on the peninsula for over half-a-century. There's renewed curiosity about Kim Jong Il's communist regime since North Korea's latest nuclear taunts of the world.

Our Brian Todd has been taking a closer at some very revealing photos by a photographer who visited the country, a country where he says no one smiles.


TOMAS VAN HOUTRYVE, AWARD-WINNING PHOTOGRAPHER: You never see any advertising. Instead, you see propaganda posters and -- or -- or propaganda mosaics and posters and billboards.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Photograph Tomas Van Houtryve traveled to North Korea last year and the year before to record the secretive country's conditions.

VAN HOUTRYVE: Kim Il-Sung Square, you will often see the news when they have huge parades there, with the missiles going by, with tens of thousands of people behind waving -- waving flags. But, on this day, it was just a normal Sunday, and streets were dead, dead, dead. You know, I counted 10 minutes between when one car drove by.

TODD: In Kaesong, an economic development zone was started with South Korean investment, but elsewhere:

VAN HOUTRYVE: Most of the machinery seems to be -- you know, hasn't been updated since the Soviet period or the Eastern Bloc period. The trucks that I saw broken down seemed to be old Russian trucks.

TODD: Security is ubiquitous, Van Houtryve says. He was not allowed to leave his hotel without a government agent and only spoke to a few people, whom he describes as joyless. VAN HOUTRYVE: Sometimes, you would walk around in North Korea, and it would -- felt like you were on your way to a funeral or something like that. Everybody was sort of cold and silent.

Almost all of the Koreans out on the streets or -- or in the metro seemed to be dressed in very dark colors, either blues or blacks, basically. And, of course, as a photographer, I saw this splash of color, a woman with a bouquet, and -- and that caught my eye.


BLITZER: That was our Brian Todd reporting.

He says, by the way, that the photographer revealed to him that, at one point, he was taking pictures too indiscreetly and was detained and questioned. After four hours, he was released, minus a few photos that were deleted.

They went to China on a class trip, and now they're under quarantine -- just ahead, how students from a U.S. school have been trapped in the swine flu panic.

And George W. Bush is getting busy. He's speaking out, and he's also teaming up with Bill Clinton -- why he's stepping up his public profile right now.


BLITZER: Let's right to our "Strategy Session."

Joining us now, our CNN political contributor the Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, and Republican strategist and former adviser to the McCain campaign Nancy Pfotenhauer.

Guys, thanks very much for coming in.


BLITZER: The president is quoted by AP as calling his supporters from -- from aboard Air Force One -- he's flying from L.A. back to Washington -- earlier, saying, "If we don't get it done this year, we're not going to get it done." He's referring to health care reform.

Is -- is that -- what is that -- what's behind that? Just to pressure everybody in Congress to try to get it done this year by strategy, if you don't it now, it will never happen?

DONNA BRAZILE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: As you know, President Obama has a massive campaign list over at the DNC in Organizing For America.

And they are mobilizing now, Wolf, to educate fellow citizens about the need for health care. So, I think, on June 6, they're planning house parties and all kind of other events to try to highlight the importance of providing health insurance for all Americans.

BLITZER: A lot of people know that Ted -- Senator Ted Kennedy obviously is obviously very sick...


BLITZER: ... has a brain tumor, but he's still the face on -- in the Senate when it comes to health-related issues.

Here's the question, Nancy. Because he is so -- so out there, and because he is as sick as he is, does that pose a problem to Republicans who might obviously want to oppose some of President Obama's health care reform ideas?

PFOTENHAUER: I -- I really don't believe so, because I believe that Senator Kennedy would -- would be the first person who said, if you had a principled opposition to legislation that was moving through the Senate, then, it's your duty to stand up and oppose it.

And I -- I have to respectfully disagree with Donna on the health care reform issue, and just say that I think what -- what the president is saying is really a total -- total artificial construct. There's no reason on earth if it doesn't go through this year, it couldn't go through next year or the year after that.

It's designed to basically create political pressure in order to rush through legislation that's going to impact every single American. And this is not just about, can we help the uninsured? Everyone wants to do that. This is about, do they change the system for everyone and potentially push us all into a government plan?

And, you know, with the political impacts of getting...

BLITZER: I -- I...

PFOTENHAUER: ... this the wrong way are legendary.


PFOTENHAUER: We're old enough to remember that, catastrophic care.

BLITZER: I suppose his -- his theory is, this is -- this is an opportunity, because he's popular right now. The Democrats have a lopsided majority in the House and Senate. You have got to get it done. Next year is an election year, midterm elections, might not be as opportune, shall we say.

BRAZILE: We have been having this debate for 16 years. And, over the last 16 years, the only thing that's changed is that more people are without health insurance, millions of Americans now health insurance, over 14,000 losing their health insurance each and every day, and the cost of premiums rising. So, this is an opportunity to have a full debate, but also to get something done. And I think the American people are tired of these delaying tactics.

BLITZER: Well, before we move on to another subject, very quickly, will it happen this year?


PFOTENHAUER: I don't believe so. And -- and I think it's because doing this -- doing this the wrong way has political -- political ramifications and policy ramifications.

I was saying earlier we're old enough to remember catastrophic care, where they rushed that through and rubber-stamped it. And Danny Rostenkowski was chased around by the elderly banging on his car.

And then you had Hillarycare that was tried -- that -- when people tried to ram that down the throats of the American people.

BLITZER: All right.

PFOTENHAUER: And it turned the '94 elections and allowed the Republicans to retake the House.


BLITZER: Will it happen this year, because there's, what, seven months left.

BRAZILE: I hope so, Wolf. Six in 10 Americans, according to a Kaiser poll, are skipping or delaying having health coverage because they can't afford it. So, I hope it happens.

BLITZER: Let's talk a little bit about this issue that's come up.

Where exactly does the Supreme Court nominee, Sonia Sotomayor, stand when it comes to Roe vs. Wade, abortion rights for women?

A statement that Nancy Keenan, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America put out: "Discussion about Roe v. Wade will and must part of this nomination process. As you know, choice hangs in the balance on the Supreme Court, as the last two major choice-related cases were decided by a 5-to-4 margin."

There are some pro-abortion-rights groups out there, or at least folks in those groups, who fear -- and they're nervous right now -- that Sonia Sotomayor could be to President Obama what David Souter was to the first President Bush, in other words, on this issue...

PFOTENHAUER: Right. Right.

BLITZER: ... a huge surprise.

PFOTENHAUER: You know, I would be -- I would be shocked if that were the case.

And, Donna, this -- this is kind of a fight within your party, so I would defer to your judgment on this. But I -- I think it -- it would -- I would just be shocked if -- if she wasn't straight up Democratic Party line on this.

If you think of the actions that President Obama has already taken, with repeal of the conscience clause and things like that, it's clear that he is a very pro-abortion president.

BLITZER: It's clear where he is...


BLITZER: ... the president of the United States.



BLITZER: But it's not so clear where -- where she is.

If you read that piece on the front page of "The New York Times" today, on...


BLITZER: ... on the few times that abortion has come up in her decisions, she seems to have sided with abortion opponents.

BRAZILE: And, you know, and the president, like previous presidents, including George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, did not really hold this as a litmus test in his interview with the judge.

I think that we will learn more during the confirmation process. And what Nancy Keenan and others are saying to senator is that this should be part of the confirmation process, that she should be pressed to give an answer. But, right now, we just don't know.

BLITZER: Is it ever appropriate...

PFOTENHAUER: And everybody always is pressed to give an answer on this.

BRAZILE: Absolutely.


BLITZER: Well, they -- they will talk around it...

PFOTENHAUER: Right. Right.

BLITZER: ... but they won't actually get into it.




BLITZER: But they will talk about precedent and stuff like that.

But is it ever appropriate for a president who is interviewing potential nominees to ask flatly, where do you stand, for example, on Roe v. Wade?

PFOTENHAUER: Well, you know, it's interesting. I think they ask on -- on -- on constitutional issues, but they all seemed in recent history to be very leery of -- of -- of the accusation of using this as a litmus test.

So, I -- I don't think I would ask that question. I would look at the rulings that had been made. I would look at what they had written in their own words and see whether this is someone who is going to apply the law...


PFOTENHAUER: ... or try to make policy...

BLITZER: Because...

PFOTENHAUER: ... from the bench...


BLITZER: ... a lot of -- Donna, you know, to average folks out there, this is an important issue to the president of the United States. What's wrong with simply asking someone he's going to nominate for -- for life on the Supreme Court...


BLITZER: ... well, where exactly do you stand when it comes to abortion rights?

BRAZILE: Well, Wolf, I think the president approached this in the right manner, the same way that the previous presidents approached it.

Listen, I'm not ducking the issue, because, as you can tell, I have positions on everything.


PFOTENHAUER: Right. That's right.

BRAZILE: Why is that we have to have positions, and everybody else does...


PFOTENHAUER: I know. They're not -- they don't -- they're not allowed to.

BRAZILE: They don't...



But I -- I think it's appropriate to find out her views, as much she will share with us. And, clearly, she has a record out there.

And, let me just say, I'm impressed with this judge, and I hope that she has a speedy confirmation.

BLITZER: We will have to read in code, I guess, in...


BLITZER: ... the course of her testimony on these sensitive issues to try to figure out where exactly she stands, but there isn't a -- as we say, a whole lot of paper trail out there.

PFOTENHAUER: And -- you know, and it's frequently like that. Let's face it.


PFOTENHAUER: Whoever's up for the -- these -- for these prestigious nominations, it's the same thing. Every adjective...

BLITZER: All right.

PFOTENHAUER: ... is examined.

BLITZER: But, very quickly, Donna, are you hearing also from these pro-abortion groups there's some nervousness right now?


BRAZILE: I don't think they're nervous. And I don't think they're uneasy. I just think that, like everyone else, they want to know her position on privacy.

BLITZER: All right, guys, thanks very much.


BLITZER: We will be covering those hearings...


BLITZER: ... wall to wall.

BRAZILE: Absolutely.

BLITZER: A lost piece of Abraham Lincoln's legacy is found -- what it tells us about the 16th president. Also, a couple of former commanders in chief hit the road -- what we can expect from George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. They're jointly on the lecture circuit right now.

And why it's safe to shop at a busy Baghdad marketplace where deadly attacks were once oh-so-common.


BLITZER: Here's a look at some "Hot Shots."

In Hong Kong, participants get drenched as they compete in the annual Dragon Boat Races.

In Washington, spellers exchange a high give during the National Spelling Bee.

In Moscow, former border guards arm-wrestle during National Border Guard Day.

And, in Paris, a worker pushes a cart of giant tennis balls outside a stadium -- some of this hour's "Hot Shots," pictures worth 1,000 words.

On our "Political Ticker": Pittsburgh will be getting ready to roll out the red carpet. It will be the site of the G-20 Summit in September. The White House says Pittsburgh has seen its share of economic woes in the past, but is now creating the jobs of the future. It also will be a convenient trek for many foreign leaders who already will be in the United States for the U.N. General Assembly meeting. That would be in New York.

President Obama is ordering a review of how the nation keeps and classifies its secret, saying he wants more transparency. Mr. Obama is asking his national security adviser to weigh in what the president calls a national declassification center. He's also creating a task force led by his homeland security secretary and attorney general to standardize data that's considered for official use only.

A missing letter written by President Lincoln has been returned to the National Archives by a private collector. In it, Lincoln asks his treasury secretary to allow the fired head of the U.S. Mint in San Francisco to review his case. The National Archives says it remains a mystery as to why the letter disappeared from the government, saying it was the only item missing from the particular volume. It was dated five days before Lincoln gave his famous Gettysburg Address.

Remember, for the latest political news any time, you can check out

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

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: The question this hour, is a national sales tax the answer to reducing federal deficits and paying for health care reform? It's an idea that is gaining some traction these days in Washington.

Susan in Sequim, Washington, the state: "Sales tax is the ultimate unfair tax. For the poor, it taxes every penny. For the rich, it's a flea bite. Sales tax is the way the rich control the poor. And the middle class is going to get pinched in between. The tax would be a big mistake."

Toni writes: "A national sales tax would be a great idea, no loopholes for anyone, whether it's for yachts or clothes. And illegal aliens, who have never paid for schools and medical care, would have to contribute as well. A fair tax. Exemptions for food and housing could be made."

Graham writes: "If a VAT -- or valued added tax -- is created to replace the current tax code, then please do it tomorrow. Except for H&R Block, IRS employees, and possibly the makers of Xanax, does anyone like dealing with April the 15th? Regardless of the income tax rate, the current tax system will always be unfair to the people who can't afford to hire a CPA to do their taxes."

Molly in Los Angeles: "A thousand times no. Here in California, we at least get some state tax relief in the category of groceries. My blood would boil if these basic necessities were suddenly taxed, too. And let's face it -- these taxes would start at a low percentage, and then just keep going up."

William writes: "Value added tax is a great idea. I'm an American. I live in Heidelberg, Germany. The Germans have a value added tax. It seems to be working fine. I gas up my Ford G.T. Mustang once a week. It costs me about $86 to fill the tank. If you want to bail out companies and create social programs, someone has to pay. The Americans wanted change. Enjoy."

David in Texas: "Jack, I'm filthy rich, so please give my accountants time to figure out if I can avoid this tax before I answer your question."

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

BLITZER: Thank you, Jack.

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