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THE SITUATION ROOM

President Obama Honors Reagan Legacy; Search Continues For Air France Plane

Aired June 2, 2009 - 18:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: This hour, the search for clues about what went wrong and whether turbulence was a factor.

Also, the president's Supreme Court nominee is asked directly about conservative claims she's a racist -- what Sonia Sotomayor said in public and in private on Capitol Hill today.

And President Obama honors the Reagan legacy. He welcomes Nancy Reagan to the White House and proves what he and the late president have in common.

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

But, first, the breaking news this hour: a first step in solving the Air France mystery, confirmation from Brazil that the plane indeed crashed in the Atlantic. We're told investigators found strong indications that debris found in the ocean came from Flight 447. All 228 people on board are feared dead.

Now a race against the clock is under way to find the so-called black box recorders, in hopes of figuring out what caused this disaster.

Our Brian Todd has been looking into one possible factor. And that would be extreme turbulence.

Brian, what are you discovering?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, experts we spoke to today say, you can never rule anything out. When it comes to the possibility of turbulence actually breaking the plane apart, they say that's unlikely. But turbulence can still play a major factor in these accidents.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): The head of Air France says Flight 447 encountered heavy turbulence early Monday, about three hours after takeoff. Could that by itself have brought the aircraft down? Experts say the wings of commercial planes are far more flexible than you might expect. We're told they can bend 20 feet up or down without breaking.

Here's how a manufacturer makes sure a wing is strong enough, this video, posted on Boeing's Web site, a static test for a new plane that's not yet in service. They use hydraulic jacks to put pressure on the wing and slowly increase the pressure. It can take several days as they keep pushing it until it breaks.

ROBERT FRANCIS, FORMER NTSB VICE CHAIRMAN: They're going to take and go considerably beyond the most that an airplane has ever been exposed to when they do that -- when they do that static test. It's not just wings. And it's not just the fuselage. But they also test the horizontal stabilizer on the back of the airplane, the tail, the vertical stabilizer.

TODD: A plane has to be able to withstand one-and-a-half times the worst-case stresses it will encounter in real life before it's certified by the FAA.

So, when it comes to turbulence, like that shown on this passenger video on YouTube from another flight, experts say the threat may not be so much that it would break up a plane, but that it could make it harder to fly.

DENNIS FITCH, FORMER AIRLINE PILOT: The turbulence can be so much so that the pilot has lost control of the aircraft. In other words, the updrafts, downdrafts and all the violence that are -- are ensuing in the middle of the thunderstorm will -- beyond the capability of a pilot to control a plane through its flight controls.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: But, again, while data from the Air France plane suggests turbulence was present, at this point, there's no way to know if it played a direct role in what happened this week -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We know those planes called hurricane hunters, Brian, they fly directly into these hurricanes.

TODD: Right.

BLITZER: What kind of stress do they have to endure?

TODD: Well, we did speak to the pilot of a hurricane hunter plane today, who said that their planes had registered G-forces as high as about six times the force of gravity in Hurricane Hugo in 1989. Now, those planes are specially equipped. But one other expert told us today that a standard airliner can withstand more forces than a human body can.

BLITZER: Brian Todd, thanks very much.

Let's talk about this more with a former National Transportation Safety Board managing director, Peter Goelz. He's here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Peter, thanks very much for coming back.

PETER GOELZ, FORMER MANAGING DIRECTOR, NATIONAL TRANSPORTATION SAFETY BOARD: Thank you.

BLITZER: All right, 24 hours -- we spoke yesterday -- what do you think we know today that we didn't know yesterday?

GOELZ: Well, we're getting a little more information. Hopefully they're going to be able to identify that that debris is absolutely from the aircraft, perhaps trace it back to where it might have hit the ocean and start looking for those black boxes.

But it's still a very deep mystery today.

BLITZER: The fact that it's scattered over this wide range, miles in the Atlantic Ocean, and the pieces are really small, a seat here, a life preserver there...

GOELZ: Right.

BLITZER: ... what does that say?

GOELZ: Well, I think that that indicates that something happened at altitude, particularly...

BLITZER: When you say at altitude, at 38,000 to 39,000 feet?

(CROSSTALK)

GOELZ: ... flying at 35,000, 38,000 feet.

BLITZER: That's when it broke up, the plane?

GOELZ: And it starred to break up then, because you also had those indicators that were sent back to the base that said there was a -- perhaps there a depressurization issue, that there might have been something with the electrical system. That might have been the event that was starting.

BLITZER: Because there was no formal communication, verbal communication from the cockpit, from the pilots, saying, mayday, mayday, mayday, anything like that.

GOELZ: Exactly. Yes. In almost every occurrence, when a pilot, when a flight crew has the time, they make the call, because they know that they're going to need some help.

And in this case, we got no call whatsoever from the flight crew, which would indicate something that dramatic had happened awfully quickly.

BLITZER: During the course of today, we did learn about an incident last October involving a Qantas Airbus, the same kind, an A- 330, that they had an incident. It was flying along. Something happened. It nosedived. The pilots managed to get it back. Then it nosedived again. They got it back.

And there was a directive, an air directive, that was issued in the aftermath.

GOELZ: Right. BLITZER: And people are now wondering, maybe something similar happened between that Qantas A-330 that was flying over the Pacific and this Air France A-330 that was flying over the Atlantic.

GOELZ: Well, in that case, it's been identified that it was a different manufacturer...

BLITZER: Of a piece of hardware.

GOELZ: ... of the piece of equipment that apparently failed.

And the airworthiness directive identified procedures that the flight crew could take that would really minimize if that occurred again. I think they will look at that, but I think they are going to move on pretty quickly.

BLITZER: Move on to what?

GOELZ: Well, we don't know that yet. That's the problem.

They are going to look at -- they will have meteorologist studying that weather to see was there was some sort of extraordinary weather event? So far, they haven't seen anything. And I think the most important thing that can take place is, they got to find out where that plane hit the water and try and get those flight data recorder and the voice recorder, because as was identified earlier, there's about a 30-day lifespan on the emergency batteries that power those locators. So, we got to get out searching for them soon.

BLITZER: That's critical. And that would hold the key, presumably, in determining -- in letting the world know what happened, so that lessons could be learned from that.

GOELZ: Absolutely.

On this aircraft, the flight data recorder covers every aspect of -- of flight. And, without that, this is going to be a mystery that may not be solved.

BLITZER: I'm getting e-mails from a lot of our viewers in the United States and around the world. And they know you're our expert on this, and some of them are saying, you know what, they're scheduled to fly on an Airbus A-330 in the coming days. And they want me to ask Peter Goelz, should they get on that plane? Is it safe?

GOELZ: If I were flying tomorrow and getting on an A-330, I would get on it with complete confidence. There is nothing that has happened in the last 48 hours that would indicate that this plane is not a first-rate aircraft and safe to fly.

BLITZER: It's got an excellent track record.

(CROSSTALK)

GOELZ: It's got a wonderful track record. And there is -- I would have absolutely no question about getting on it myself or putting my family on it.

BLITZER: Which raises one question that I have also been getting e-mail from, from viewers around the world. Is it possible that pilot error could have contributed to this disaster?

GOELZ: I would hate to speculate on that, because I have such admiration for the flight crews that fly these planes, because I have seen and heard and read the transcripts of -- of the black box, the flight data with the voice recorders, just how courageous and professional these guys are. So, no, I'm not going to even -- even go there.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: And these pilots were very experienced.

GOELZ: They were great.

BLITZER: Peter, thanks very much for helping us.

GOELZ: Thank you.

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

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Well, this may ruin your appetite for dinner. Dick Cheney says he doesn't think Saddam Hussein was involved in the 9/11 attacks.

Six-plus years after the Bush administration took us to war in Iraq, 4,310 Americans died there, and with U.S. troops possibly staying in that country for years to come, the former vice president says the Iraqi dictator had nothing to do with the planning or execution of the terror attacks.

Shortly after 9/11, Cheney was singing a different tune. Back then, he said it was -- quote -- "pretty well confirmed" that one of the leaders of the attack, Mohamed Atta, had met with a senior Iraqi intelligence official in Prague in 2000.

Nonetheless, Cheney continues to defend the Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq, saying that Saddam's previous support for known terrorists was a real threat after 9/11. And he insists there was an ongoing relationship that went back years between al Qaeda and Iraq, saying that information -- that information came primarily from CIA Director George Tenet.

The former vice president's now explaining away the early uncertainty of the Iraq-9/11 link by saying that intelligence gathering is -- quote -- "more an art form than a science" -- unquote. But he failed to mention those Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Those never seemed to materialize either, and another supposed reason that we invaded that country.

Here's the question. Six years after the invasion of Iraq, how does it make you feel when Dick Cheney says there was no link between Saddam Hussein and 9/11?

Go to CNN.com/caffertyfile and post a comment on my blog -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jack, thank you.

In Afghanistan, ruthless extremists say they crave American blood, but how can they be stopped? Wait until you hear the strategy from President Obama's pick to lead the fight in Afghanistan. He faced some tough questioning today.

Also ahead: He's accused of the capital murder of an American soldier and engaging in a terrorist act. There's an equally shocking twist in this story.

And the judge meets with those who will be judging her. What might the Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor be telling senators about her controversial remarks?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: It's a very tough war, so the man tapped to wage it is facing some tough questions. He's the president's pick to try to turn around the worsening conditions in Afghanistan, and he was grilled today up on Capitol Hill.

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

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, General McChrystal says he cannot let the Taliban run Afghanistan, even if they kicked out al Qaeda, but he could accept some former Taliban members joining the government.

(voice-over): From the man tapped to lead the fight in Afghanistan, some blunt talk about what it takes to win.

LIEUTENANT GENERAL STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL, U.S. ARMY: Success will not be quick or easy. Casualties will likely increase. We will make mistakes.

LAWRENCE: How would U.S. strategy change if General Stanley McChrystal is confirmed? The former Green Beret says he would use limited airstrikes and small-unit searches to minimize civilian casualties.

MCCHRYSTAL: This is a critical point. It may be the critical point. This is a struggle for the support of the Afghan people.

LAWRENCE: McChrystal's support is increasing the size of the Afghan force well beyond what's already been approved. But senators asked one critical question.

SEN. MARK UDALL (D), COLORADO: How would we pay for it? MCCHRYSTAL: Resourcing it I think is going to be a challenge. And I'm not -- I have not really seen a solid recommendation for that yet.

LAWRENCE: Before he could turn to the future, McChrystal had to answer for the past, how he approved a Silver Star for former NFL star Pat Tillman worded to say Tillman was killed by enemy fire.

SEN. JIM WEBB (D), VIRGINIA: When the knowledge was going up through the chain of command that this was a friendly-fire incident?

LAWRENCE: The investigation cleared McChrystal, but he was faulted for not immediately notifying Tillman's family of the truth.

MCCHRYSTAL: We failed the family. And I was a part of that, and I apologize for it.

LAWRENCE (on camera): This was the first time McChrystal talked publicly about Tillman, who was killed by friendly-fire five years ago. The general said he and others made mistakes, but says he did not see any Army officers trying to deceive the family -- Wolf.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: All right, Chris, thank you.

Also involving the military, this man will be the next secretary of the Army, if President Obama gets his way. The president today nominated Congressman John McHugh of New York for the post. McHugh is a Republican who's the number-two person in the House Armed Services Committee. McHugh's nomination for Army secretary must be approved by the U.S. Senate.

Private William Long, a 23-year-old Arkansas man, has been arraigned in a shooting that left one U.S. soldier dead and another wounded. The self-avowed convert to Islam faces a litany of charges, and he reportedly has been very candid with police about his intentions.

CNN's David Mattingly is joining us now from Little Rock with more.

First of all, David, what's the latest on this investigation?

DAVID MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad -- excuse me -- told me -- or told police that he was intending to kill U.S. soldiers on American soil and that he wished that he had the opportunity to kill more.

He pulled up outside of a recruiting office yesterday afternoon and opened fire, kill -- killing one recruiter and wounding another. He also told police that he was a practicing Muslim and that he was angry because of the treatment by the U.S. military toward Muslims in the past. He didn't elaborate, but that was his intention. This was a religiously motivated crime, and police are treating it so. They are charging him with homicide, also with multiple terrorist acts because of the people that were inside that he threatened with the gunfire that he was aiming in their direction.

BLITZER: What can you tell us about the FBI investigation into this suspect?

MATTINGLY: That FBI investigation, according to a law enforcement source, it was because that this man went to Yemen.

And you know that that is a hotbed for al Qaeda and a magnet for Muslim extremists. It's not known yet why he went there, what he did while he was there. But the fact that he went there, came back to the United States, and then committed this act of violence is raising a great deal of red flags for investigators.

Here in Little Rock, police earlier said that they believed that he acted alone, that this was sort of a lone gunman type of act, not part of a bigger operation. But, nonetheless, Army recruiters here say they are being extra vigilant today, and they are relying on their training that tells them that they need to be ready to fight wherever and whenever the enemy decides to bring the fight to them.

BLITZER: All right, I just want to clarify, also, Private William Long, he's the victim of this shooting. Abdulhakim Muhammad is the suspect in the shooting. I just want to be precise with that, David.

Are they convinced that was what they would call a lone gunman acting in isolation, acting alone, or part of some sort of broader conspiracy?

MATTINGLY: Experts and investigators have all said this has all the signs that was a lone act, a lone gunman, a lone wolf terrorist, if you want to call him that. But at this point, he is charged with multiple acts of terrorism and one homicide.

Police say they don't believe it was any bigger than that, that his intention was to go there and inflict as much harm as he possibly could with the firearms that he had available to him.

BLITZER: David Mattingly on the scene for us in Little Rock, Arkansas.

GM is shipping the Hummer off to China -- just ahead, the bankrupt automaker's new deal and why it may be controversial.

President Obama summons Democrats to the White House to try to heal some rifts over health care reform. We will tell you what's happening right now.

And the former first lady Nancy Reagan returns to the White House. What message is President Obama sending about Ronald Reagan's legacy?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) (NEWS BREAK)

BLITZER: The president's Supreme Court nominee makes a promise to senators. We're going to tell you what Sonia Sotomayor is revealing to lawmakers behind closed doors.

Democrats at odds over a plan to tax employer-provided medical benefits, what could it mean for you and for health care reform?

And al Qaeda's warning to President Obama about his plan to reach out to Muslims this week.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says Cuba must make big Democratic reforms before returning to the Organization of American States, including releasing political prisoners and respecting human rights.

One day after filing bankruptcy, General Motors sells its Hummer division to a private Chinese industrial machinery company. GM will keep building the sport utility vehicles at its Louisiana plant for the new owners at least through next year.

The U.S. Navy now investigating what happened to some $30,000 taken by Somali pirates from the Maersk Alabama along with the ship's captain -- all of this, plus the best political team on television.

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

The president's Supreme Court nominee went face to face today with some of the senators who will be judging her. In private talks, Sonia Sotomayor addressed what one Democrat calls -- quote -- "vicious attacks" involving race, gender and how they influence her rulings.

Let's go straight to our senior congressional correspondent, Dana Bash.

Dana, where's the judge right now?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, she's right behind me. She's in Senator Dianne Feinstein's office. And this is the last stop that she's got of a very long day of Senate courtesy calls, a jam-packed day, in which some of her allies here decided to use these meetings to try to quell some of the controversy surrounding her.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BASH (voice-over): One Senate office to another, Judge Sonia Sotomayor sat, smiled and made small talk for the cameras before meeting privately with the senators now judging her. As she made her rounds, Sotomayor would not answer questions publicly, not even about incendiary charges against her. QUESTION: What do you think of the fact that two prominent conservatives have called you a racist?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thanks, everybody.

BASH: But the majority Democrats, first on her calling card, made a preemptive move to address the controversy figuring prominently in Republican attacks, her quote from a 2001 speech suggesting as a Latina woman, she would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D-VT), CHAIRMAN, JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: I did raise that question.

BASH: Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy told reporters he asked her about it, and he announced her response.

LEAHY: What she said was, of course one's life experience shapes who you are. But, ultimately and completely -- and she used those words -- ultimately and completely, as a judge, you follow the law.

BASH: A senior Democratic source tells CNN Democrats made a tactical decision to have Leahy ask Sotomayor about the controversy so he could portray her answer before Republicans did. Ironically, the lead Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee didn't go there.

(on camera): Did you directly ask her about the comments that she made in 2001?

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS (R), ALABAMA: No, not directly. We talked about the idea and the concept of personal feelings and -- to some degree. You know, how that influences a decision, how it should not.

BASH (voice-over): He's saving pointed questions for later. He called Sotomayor delightful after cameras captured this:

SESSIONS: You saw Senator Leahy before you got here. And that's as -- he's -- he's as knowledgeable about this process as anybody you will find. That's for sure.

JUDGE SONIA SOTOMAYOR, SUPREME COURT NOMINEE: Next to you, sir.

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BASH: Now it is about 6:30 Eastern and we are still here because Judge Sotomayor is still here. And, again, she is inside this office -- Senator Dianne Feinstein's office. She is one of the many members of the Senate Judiciary Committee that met with the judge today. And it's going to be very interesting to see what happens when Senator Feinstein comes out, because most of these Senators have come out and talked to us after their meetings.

Senator Feinstein, Wolf, told us earlier that she had some pretty important questions to ask the judge, not just about the controversy surrounding her, but also some explosive issues, even abortion.

BLITZER: All right, Dana.

Let us know what she says.

Thanks very much.

We're following another important story of concern to every American -- health care. President Obama wants to fix what's wrong, but time and even his fellow Democrats may be some -- may be providing some roadblocks.

Let's go straight to our White House correspondent, Suzanne Malveaux.

It was an issue on the president's agenda today -- Suzanne.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: And, Wolf, what the president is trying to do is really put as much pressure as possible on Congress to make this part of their agenda -- health care reform. He believes that it is key to fixing the economy. And that is why he invited Democrats here today to the White House and emphasized, he said, that now there is no time to put this off.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MALVEAUX (voice-over): With 46 million Americans without health care insurance, the battle over reforming the broken health care system is on.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This is a necessity. This is something that has to be done.

MALVEAUX: The president wants legislation on his desk in two months. But even members of his own party are at odds with him over how to fix it. He invited them to the White House.

Some Democrats are calling for taxing employer provided benefits, which President Obama opposes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was discussed and it's on the table. It's an option.

MALVEAUX: While some Republicans want deeper cuts in benefits. Mr. Obama presented a new White House report that argued reforming health care was essential to turning around the sluggish economy.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If we don't initiate serious reform, one fifth of our economy is projected to be tied up in our health care system in 10 years -- one fifth.

MALVEAUX: Several Republicans dismissed the report as nothing more than a P.R. campaign. Republican leader John Boehner said in a statement: "This report is nothing more than smoke and mirrors. Everyone agrees that reducing the cost of health care would benefit our economy. But the administration hasn't offered a credible plan to do so without raising taxes or rationing care."

Despite the criticism, President Obama struck an optimistic, but urgent tone.

OBAMA: This window between now and the August recess, I think, is going to be the make or break period.

MALVEAUX: But even those ready to work with the president seemed daunted by the task at hand.

SEN. CHRIS DODD (D), CONNECTICUT: We're going to have to sustain an effort for more than a decade to get this done.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

MALVEAUX: The president, Wolf, recognizes this is going to be a heavy lift. He also says that expanding Medicare and Medicaid is going to be very difficult unless they get these costs under control -- Wolf.

BLITZER: A tough, tough job ahead.

All right, thanks very much for that, Suzanne.

Al Qaeda is slamming President Obama's upcoming speech to the Muslim world, dismissing what it calls "bloody messages and farcical visits." I'll talk about that and more with the best political team on television.

Plus, President Obama and Nancy Reagan together at the White House today -- all smiles. But the former first lady says she felt slighted by Mr. Obama not that long ago. We'll explain what's going on right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich may be slamming President Obama's Supreme Court nominee, but Republican Senators who met with Sonia Sotomayor are taking quite a different tone.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MINORITY LEADER: What an accomplishment. And thank you very much for coming by to see me.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS (R-AL), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: I was very impressed with her knowledge, her experience, her energy level. And it was a delight to talk with her.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right. Let's talk about that and more with our senior political analyst, Gloria Borger; our senior political correspondent, Candy Crowley; and our chief national correspondent, John King, the host of "STATE OF THE UNION."

All right. They've been really charming, the Republican members of the Judiciary Committee. And we interviewed Jeff Sessions, the ranking Republican. He couldn't have been nicer talking about Sonia Sotomayor.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: The charm offensive of the Senate Republicans. I talked with one moderate Senate Republican today, who said that there's a lot of anger in private over what Rush Limbaugh has done and what Newt Gingrich has done. They believe that they've poisoned the well and they've made it very difficult for these senators to raise what could be very legitimate questions about this Supreme Court nominee.

So right now, they're taking the opposite tack and they're trying to change the tone of this debate.

BLITZER: But it's not easy for these guys to basically repudiate Rush Limbaugh -- or Newt Gingrich, for that matter.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, and they actually haven't done it, at least most of them. Mitch McConnell came the closest to it on your show that I heard.

They can't afford to do that. But they can sort of say, well, here's our tone. And just by the way they say the words -- I would not be -- I would be surprised if some of these Senate -- Republican senators vote for her. I think they'll vote against her. I think that's the bottom line.

But they want to do it in a nice way. They can't say no and just look as though they just said no that they wanted to -- that they're the party of no.

I'll tell you, just there was -- there was one Republican person that I talked to today. And I said, what is Newt Gingrich doing here?

And he said, driving up his speaking fees.

They're really angry with him.

BORGER: They're angry.

KING: Well, I mean, this is why they call them courtesy calls. And because of those criticisms, because of the pressure on these Republicans, they're probably being even more courteous than they would have been had that tough talk not come out.

But in the hearings, you can expect, Wolf, very tough dissection of her cases on affirmative action; very tough dissection of a couple of environmental cases; a presidential power case. There are cases which Republicans will go through with fine detail.

And you know what the Democrats say?

That's fine. That's fair game.

BORGER: And...

KING: But there are Republicans who are ready to vote for this nominee as of now. The key question is will any conservative Democrats break?

Because the Democrats have 58, maybe 59 votes. And the Minnesota case may or may not be resolved by the time that comes about. So the Republicans can count. And right now, she is going to be confirmed unless something dramatic happens. So in that environment, you're more cautious. Even if you ask tough questions, you'll be a lot more cautious.

BLITZER: Because you just have to assume people -- Republicans like Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, they're instinctively going to be sympathetic to this justice nominee.

BORGER: Right. They -- they may well be. But here's where they're holding firm, and that's on the timing of all of this. Because don't forget, she's got 17 years on the bench, 3,000 cases what they want to look at. And what they're saying privately and publicly is it would be a mistake for the Obama administration to rush this through. They're saying have hearings at the end of July, but don't vote in the full Senate until September. And they're going to hold firm on that a lot (ph).

BLITZER: Is that really a big issue, whether she's confirmed in the end of July or September?

Obviously, the Senate goes on recess for most of August.

CROWLEY: I mean, they really need her sitting on the bench in October, because Justice Souter will be gone. But I mean, these things have a way of kind of blowing up, too. I mean presidents want to just do it -- you know, just get it done and get it over with.

KING: Yes.

CROWLEY: They don't want it to linger. So even though it sounds like well, who cares when it happens, as long as it happens when the court opens, they just have a tendency to become issues.

BLITZER: What's realistic in terms of the timing?

What do you think?

KING: Well, Senator Leahy gave a little ground today, saying no hearings in June. Some thought he would try to go very fast. He's -- but the Democrats have the votes. They're in the majority. If he wants to go forward with hearings in July, he will. If he's listening to the Republicans and they make a good case and if the White House gets involved, Wolf, I would anticipate hearings in July right now and a vote -- they'll try to have the vote before the recess in August.

Unless the White House gets involved and says, you know what, everything looks really good right now, we need some help on health care, we need some help on climate change. Maybe -- well, let's be bipartisan here.

But to Candy's point, any time that the White House they think maybe we want to give them a little here -- we'll give a little to the Republicans here, the concern comes up, the longer you're out there, the more possibility of something going wrong.

BORGER: It's kind of interesting you raise those other issues. You know, you're going to have a Supreme Court nominee. You're going to have health care reform. You're going to have energy, cap and trade. It's going to all be on the Senate floor at the same time and I was...

KING: And Iraq and Afghanistan. We need (INAUDIBLE)...

BORGER: And Iraq and Afghanistan.

(CROSSTALK)

BORGER: And I was talking.

CROWLEY: What won't actually be on the floor at the same time?

BORGER: Right.

CROWLEY: They have a problem doing more than one thing.

BORGER: But I've been -- I was talking to a Republican today who said either the White House is brilliant and they're understanding how to divide us on all of these issues or they've just got too much going on.

BLITZER: The president, right now, momentarily, getting ready to leave the South Lawn of the White House. Marine One will take him to Air Force One. And then he will make his way to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

And on the eve of his departure, we get this from the Al Qaeda number two, Ayman Al Zawahiri: "His bloody messages were received and are still being received by Muslims and they will not be concealed by public relations campaigns or by farcical visits or elegant words."

So they're going right after him.

CROWLEY: Well, they are. And this is really a battle for hearts and minds here. I mean this is what President Obama wants to do is engage. And one of the things I thought was really interesting, he's going to give this big speech -- this outreach to the Muslim world, to Arabs and say, listen, we -- you know, the U.S. wants to work with you, here's our commonality, here's where we want to go.

But well, who's he talking to at this university?

I mean what is this about?

Well, the setting is about reaching out to younger Muslims. The median age in Egypt, 24. In Iraq, it's 21. This is about getting that generation not to listen to stuff like this.

KING: And I had the Egyptian ambassador to the United States in this weekend. So I was looking at some of the Arabic media before to prepare for that interview. And it's very interesting if you look. This is President Obama's war in Afghanistan; President Obama's war in Iraq. The drone attacks have continued, if not escalated, against al Qaeda up in that never-never land of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

And Obama, in the Arabic press, is blamed for that. This is not about George W. Bush anymore. And yet he got very favorable Arabic press -- Muslim press -- about sitting there next to President Abbas chastising Israel on settlements. They do view him as more of an honest broker -- more even-handed when it comes to average Israelis.

So in terms of the media reports about him right now, it's a mixed bag.

BLITZER: You know, and as important as that speech will be on Thursday in Cairo addressing the Muslim world, the Arab world, what happens tomorrow in Saudi Arabia when he meets privately with King Abdullah, that could potentially -- depending on if he can get Abdullah to do what he wants him to do -- be maybe even be more important.

BORGER: But all of this, Wolf, is so important, because he's walking such a fine line here. I mean Netanyahu says he's not going to stop the settlements. And then he's got to walk a fine line with Mubarak in Egypt between democracy and human rights and Mubarak there.

This trip -- this entire trip is such a delicate dance for this new president. And one more number. Seventy-eight percent of Egyptians have an unfavorable view of the United States. Talk about changing hearts and minds.

CROWLEY: He needs from Abdullah to get in on the...

BLITZER: Right.

CROWLEY: I mean the core issue. And that is the Israeli...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Because if he -- if he wants the Israelis to free settlements, for example, and accept a two-state solution, it would help him if the Saudis, for example, had a gesture toward the Israelis.

CROWLEY: Absolutely.

KING: If they would come forward. But, Wolf, you've covered this issue longer than any of us. This is the most complicated chess game in the world.

BLITZER: Right.

KING: And he would like the Arabs to come forward and put pressure on Netanyahu by saying we are ready now to recognize Israel -- the old Saudi peace deal that was Abdullah's idea that put the -- that said the Arab world was ready to recognize Israel. But they want Netanyahu to go first. BORGER: But he's on the record.

KING: Obama would like them to go first.

BLITZER: All right, we'll leave it there.

BORGER: He's on the record.

BLITZER: And we'll talk about it again tomorrow, guys.

KING: OK.

BLITZER: Thanks very much.

Let's check in with Lou to see what's coming up at the top of the hour -- Lou.

LOU DOBBS, HOST, "LOU DOBBS TONIGHT": Wolf, coming up at the top of the hour, we'll have complete coverage of the Supreme Court nominee, Sotomayor's, visit today to Capitol Hill. We'll tell you how the judge is defending herself against charges she puts group and identity politics ahead of the law.

Also, President Obama offering Iran what critics say is yet another concession only days before he is to deliver a major speech from Egypt. We'll have a special report.

And the Obama administration and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce appear to be working together to delay the expansion of the E-Verify program for a fourth time and possibly kill it outright. E-Verify, of course, is the single most effective measure against illegal immigration.

We'll also examine President Obama's push for another immigration enforcement program, while ignoring the gaping holes in our border and port security.

That's our face-off debate tonight.

Please join us for all of that, all the day's news and much more, at the top of the hour -- Wolf, back to you.

BLITZER: Lou, see you in a few moments.

Thank you.

Over at the White House today, President Obama paid homage to a popular predecessor.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: President Reagan understood that while there are often strong disagreements between parties and political adversaries, disagreements that can be a source of conflict and bitterness, it is important to keep in mind all that we share.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: But President Reagan and Obama share maybe more than we think.

And we're going to compare notes.

And a monologue, a band and everything -- Conan O'Brien takes over on "The Tonight Show."

How did he do?

We asked our iReporters.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MELISSA FALZI, IREPORTER: Overall, I have to give Conan O'Brien for tonight a solid C plus. Lots of room for improvement.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

CAFFERTY: Wolf, the question this hour -- six years after the invasion of Iraq, how does it make you feel when Dick Cheney says there was no link between Saddam Hussein and 9/11?

I've got to tell you, there's a lot of hatred in some of these emails for this man.

Sylvain writes: "It makes a pretty good case for war crimes, doesn't it? Why did we kill so many Iraqi civilians again? Oh, yes, weapons of mass destruction. Cheney lied about that, too. The more Darth Vader speaks, the more he incriminates himself."

Darren in Dallas: "The American people are so much biomass to Mr. Cheney and his ilk, only raw ingredients in his money and power making machinery. He cares for the lives and sorrow and pain of the fallen American soldiers and Iraqi civilians about as much as he cares about the cow when he cuts into a steak."

Kris writes: "How does it make me feel? Disgusted, ashamed, angry, humiliated, depressed and, most of all, stupid because I bought everything Bush, Cheney and their cronies sold us about Iraq and I support the invasion. Never again. I used to be a Republican. Now I'm disgusted. Hundreds of billions of dollars we've poured into a pile of sand 6,000 miles away, not to mention the lives that have been lost. And all for what?"

Steve in Florida: "Nauseous. There were a lot of us who wondered from day one why no one ever put the neo-cons' feet to the fire. There was plenty of dissent at the time -- all ignored or written off as being un-American. These men have an awful lot of blood on their hands to be so lackadaisical about the whole thing. The same scenario with the economy. Nauseating is being kind."

Sean writes: "It makes me sick to my stomach. By the way, there are no WMD that Saddam was supposed to have. Where are those? Dick Cheney doesn't give a rat's behind about the 4,000 lives that have been lost plus since the beginning of the war. He only cares about his own image."

And Steve in Colleen, Texas writes: "It disgusts me that I was sent to fight in Iraq -- fight in a war based on lies. And four of my friends are dead because of those lies."

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

BLITZER: A lot of anger out there.

All right, Jack.

CAFFERTY: There is. Yes.

BLITZER: Thank you.

CAFFERTY: Yes. You, too.

BLITZER: A lot of coming together of old and new today over at the White House -- the former first lady, Nancy Reagan, was hosted by President Obama in a ceremony honoring her late husband, the former president, Ronald Reagan.

Our senior political analyst, Bill Schneider, is joining us now with more -- Bill, was there a larger political significance to today's ceremony?

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, you know, despite their differences, you'd have to be struck by how much Barack Obama and the late Ronald Reagan had in common.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): It was a touching moment -- Nancy Reagan and President Obama hand in hand. The former first lady told "Vanity Fair" she felt slighted when President Obama did not invite her to an earlier ceremony announcing his new policy allowing embryonic stem cell research.

"I would have gone," Nancy Reagan said. "Politically, it would have been a good thing for him to do. Oh, well, nobody's perfect. He called and thanked for me working it, but he could have gotten more mileage out of it."

The White House's response?

ROBERT GIBBS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Her candor and her courage have been heartening and we certainly meant no slight whatsoever. SCHNEIDER: All seemed to be forgiven.

OBAMA: Nancy Reagan became a voice on behalf of millions of families experiencing the depleting, aching reality of Alzheimer's Disease.

SCHNEIDER: Barack Obama and Ronald Reagan embody opposing political traditions, but they have a lot in common.

Both great communicators.

OBAMA: President Reagan had the ability to communicate directly and movingly to the American people.

SCHNEIDER: And something else. Both Obama and Reagan led political movements, not just campaigns. A campaign is something you support. A movement is something you believe in and belong to. Movements last.

The conservative movement that Reagan brought to power is still a political force. For conservatives, 1980 was the year one -- more or less the way the progressive movement feels right now.

Maybe that thought burst out of Mrs. Reagan's subconscious when she remarked to President Obama: "Oh, you're a lefty."

OBAMA: Because I'm good at this.

NANCY REAGAN, FORMER FIRST LADY OF THE UNITED STATES: Oh, you're a lefty.

OBAMA: And I am a lefty.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

SCHNEIDER: Both Presidents Reagan and Obama had the incredible ability to raise large amounts of money in small contributions from passionate supporters. You know, that's always a sign of a political movement -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And a sign of good politicians as well, Bill.

Thank you.

A new changing of the guard on late night TV here in the United States. It's not complete.

Did Conan O'Brien fill Jay Leno's shoes?

Stand by for the punch lines.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: CNN's Jeanne Moos has a Moost Unusual look at Conan O'Brien's debut as the host of "The Tonight Show."

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JEANNE Universal Studio, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Repeat after me without lapsing into Leno.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: "The Tonight Show" with Conan O'Brien.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: "The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien."

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: With Conan O'Brien.

Universal Studio: Everybody's a critic, especially on the Web.

FALZI: My husband, again, loved Conan O'Brien, laughing hysterically. Me, I was like he-he, ha, heh.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm so excited.

Universal Studio: So was Conan.

(on camera): One thing that's going to be really different -- Jay Leno wasn't the type of host who got off his butt much, but Conan is literally off and running.

(voice-over): He opened his very first show running from New York, across Chicago's Wrigley Field, across the country...

(VIDEO CLIP)

Universal Studio: ...arriving at his new L.A. studio only to find a locked door and his keys back in New York.

Conan hasn't yet found the key to the TV critics' hearts: "Critics Not Laughing," "Conan Unfunny."

Some complained he sacrificed live monologue humor for too many taped bits, for instance, taking over the Universal Studio tour tram.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM "THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH CONAN O'BRIEN," COURTESY NBC)

CONAN O'BRIEN, HOST: (INAUDIBLE) it was either a flash flood or the octo mom's water just broke.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

Universal Studio: But Conan fans say he's edgier and old fogies are stuck on dated monologue jokes.

FALZI: Overall, I have to give Conan O'Brien for tonight a solid C plus.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

Universal Studio: Hey, at least it wasn't a D like the one Conan claimed they lifted the from Hollywood sign.

(VIDEO CLIP)

Universal Studio: As for Conan's main competition...

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM "THE LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN," COURTESY WORLDWIDE PANTS INC.)

DAVID LETTERMAN, HOST: I get a call from mom and mom says, well, David, I see you didn't get "The Tonight Show" again.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

Universal Studio: Conan's debut actually beat "Letterman" in the ratings.

(on camera): "The Tonight Show" is a comedy marathon, not a one night sprint.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I like the water on the lens, though.

Universal Studio (voice-over): For Conan, it's going to be a marathon -- sink or swim.

Jeanne Moos, CNN, New York.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

BLITZER: Good luck to Conan and good luck to Letterman. Good luck to all of them.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Up next, "LOU DOBBS TONIGHT" -- Lou.