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Day 3 of Sonia Sotomayor Confirmation Hearings; Awaiting Critical Space Mission

Aired July 15, 2009 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: In the meantime, we're watching the confirmation hearings of Sonia Sotomayor. She's the nominee-to-become the next associate justice of the United States Supreme Court.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is now in recess for a few moments. They're taking a break. They'll resume questioning in this, the second round of questioning by the senators of the judge.

The senior Democrat, Dianne Feinstein, of California, she's up next. She's one of two women on the committee so she's going to be asking her questions. She's a strong supporter of Sonia Sotomayor. She'll be followed by Chuck Grassley, one of the senior Republicans. Then they'll go back and forth.

We're anxious, later today, if we get that far, depending on when they call a recess for the day, Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator from South Carolina, we'll be anxious to hear his questions. Yesterday, he was very dramatic and very pointed in his questioning -- some very tough questions for Sonia Sotomayor.

So a lot still to come in these historic hearings.

So let's talk a little bit about what had just happened. Most recently, Orrin Hatch was asking questions -- John King, he's one of three Republicans -- Senate Republicans on this committee -- one of three potentially that could vote to confirm.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: If you were watching the questioning, you might think he's inclined to be against her, because he asked some tough questions. He made clear that he wasn't satisfied or didn't think she was telling him enough -- giving him enough information at some points. But that has been his trademark over the years, in that he does ask tough questions in a gentlemanly way.

But, again, he ascribes to the theory that presidents who win elections should get their picks. And he has voted for every Supreme Court nomination in his long tenure on the Committee, whether the Republicans were in the majority -- he has been the chairman. Now they are in the minority and outnumbered by a big number in the Senate, 60-40.

But his rule is a president gets his pick. I look at the qualifications -- is the person qualified, not what I would pick, not would I support them, and to do I have differences with this judge, male or female, but is it a qualified person. And he tends to vote yes when it comes to the Supreme Court picks.

There's every indication he will be as consistent as he has been throughout his career.

BLITZER: He voted to confirm the two Bill Clinton nominees...


BLITZER: ...Stephen Breyer...

BORGER: He did.

BLITZER: ...and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

BORGER: But it's interesting, when she was up for a position on the lower court in 1998, he voted...

BLITZER: We're talking about Sonia Sotomayor.

BORGER: Sonia Sotomayor -- he voted to oppose her. And there was lots of concern among Republicans then that they didn't want to put her on that court because she might, indeed, become a Supreme Court nominee, which has occurred.

So it will be interesting to see if he's old school, as we keep saying, and he will stick to the advise and consent and the president gets his prerogative, whether he abides by his -- his own rule or whether he uses the Obama standard.

KING: She was -- the president talked to Orrin Hatch, among other Republicans. He's talked to a great number of Republicans. And Judge Sotomayor was among the sitting appeals court judges that Orrin Hatch said would most likely be acceptable to the Senate. He did not say he would vote for her, but he did give the president a recommendation, if you nominated people like this, they would most likely be acceptable to the Senate. And she was one of them.

BLITZER: Is it too early, Jeff Toobin, to start looking ahead to a potentially second nominee that the president, Barack Obama, might put forward?

Because there -- there are some current members of the Supreme Court who may be retiring perhaps in the not too distant future.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: John Paul Stevens is 89 years old. Ruth Ginsburg is 76. And the administration identified the four finalists for this role. The three who didn't get it were Janet Napolitano, the secretary of Homeland Security, former governor of Arizona; Elena Kagan, the solicitor general, former dean of Harvard Law School; and...


TOOBIN: ...Diane Wood, a judge on the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago. I think if you go by past experience, the finalists tend to get it the next time. Stephen Breyer was certainly a finalist for the appointment that went to Ruth Ginsburg. Samuel Alito was considered for the spot that went to John Roberts.

So you'd have to think one of those three would be the frontrunner if...

BORGER: Well, they were all women, though.


BORGER: They were all women, so because -- because she would be replacing a woman.

So the question...


BORGER: ...wouldn't...


TOOBIN: I don't think that's a (INAUDIBLE)...

BORGER: ...would he appoint another woman?

TOOBIN: I think he would appoint another woman. You know, almost half the lawyers in this country are women.


BORGER: Right.


TOOBIN: And more than half the law students are women. So -- so...

BORGER: I'm just saying the pool might grow.

TOOBIN: The pool might grow. But, you know, you -- when you look at people like Wood, like Kagan, like Napolitano, it's not like you're sacrificing quality...

BORGER: Oh, absolutely.

TOOBIN: ...or qualifications.

BORGER: No, no, no.


BORGER: Absolutely.

BLITZER: Does it make any difference...

TOOBIN: There are not a lot of men out there...

BLITZER: Does it make any difference -- and I want to bring...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I will not argue with that.

TOOBIN: No, that's...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I would not argue with that.

BLITZER: ...Maria Echaveste into this conversation.

Does it make a difference that someone like Janet Napolitano, for example, is a politician -- really has never been a judge?

ECHAVESTE: Well, I -- when the vacancy first opened, I actually wrote, saying that what we needed was someone who was not coming from the Court of Appeals, because I think it would be time to have someone who's stood for office, who's had the balance.

And if you look at Sandra Day O'Connor, she actually had experience that perhaps served her well in building consensus. She'd been in county government. She'd had local office. And I want to go back to those days, to have -- mix up the experiences, which we've talked about how important that is.

CASTELLANOS: And, Wolf, if Judge Sotomayor is confirmed here, one of the first cases they may hear is a political case -- is a case of in a conservative organization that made a movie about Hilary Clinton. And it's Citizens United, I think, versus the Federal Election Commission.

Now, there's -- the campaigns are not just TV commercials anymore. They're movies. It's the Internet.

What kind of speech should be regulated in campaigns?

Are they part of campaigns or not?

And this could be one of her first tests. And we'll find out if she's a judicial activist or not.

BLITZER: Yes. There's a lot of the hot cases out there that -- that are coming up. And one of the reasons she's ducking a lot of the questions today and yesterday is -- and she makes the point, as others have made before her, you know what, these are issues that will come before the Supreme Court. And as a result, I don't want to prejudge where I would stand. I want to hear all the arguments, the fact, and then we'll talk about it.

So it's a convenient way, Candy, for these -- these nominees, whether Alito or Roberts or now Sotomayor, to simply say no comment.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: It has worked very well for many nominees since Robert Bork and I don't see it changing anytime soon, unless Jeffrey, you know, gets, what, nominated and he goes ahead and talks.

TOOBIN: And I am available.



TOOBIN: So, I mean I -- that's, you know...

CROWLEY: You know, it's would...

TOOBIN: Not to drop a hint or anything.

CROWLEY: As we're kind of looking forward on this, not just to the Supreme Court, it sort of seems to me that the tone of this hearing -- of these hearings has been pretty important for the Republicans, who went in wanting to ask the tough questions that their conservative base is skeptical about when it comes to Sotomayor's record without looking like mean old white men picking on her.

And I think we have seen that repeatedly -- the exercise of (INAUDIBLE). We heard Coburn today saying, I'm so sorry for the outbursts that came during this hearing.

BLITZER: All right. Hold on a second, because Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator from South Carolina, is speaking to reporters outside the hearing room during this break.

Let's listen in.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: ...time on the district court or the circuit court to make major policy changes.

But when you look at the position she has taken as an advocate regarding the death penalty, if she had have been on the Supreme Court, where they were looking at whether or not the death penalty violates the cruel and unusual component of the Eighth Amendment, I think her advocacy positions tell you a lot.

The speeches are edgy. That's the point we're trying to make here, is that when she was an advocate, she took -- and the Puerto Rican Legal Defense Fund took some pretty, I think, edgy positions on quotas, on abortion, on the death penalty. The speeches are outside precedent and the advocacy role is outside precedent.

So when -- if she does sit on the court and determines what a fundamental right is regarding the Second Amendment, the speeches and her advocacy positions tell us a lot about what she would do when she's not bound by precedent.

That's why we're talking about this. That's why it's relevant to find out what causes she embraced.

And here's the point I'm trying to make to the country -- what do you expect? President Obama won the election. So I expect someone to be chosen who would have been on the other side of an abortion case than me, as an advocate. I would expect someone, potentially, to have a different view of the death penalty than I would if you're writing a memorandum or giving a speech.

What I am concerned about and what I have to be satisfied of is that even though we would be different as advocates, we do share some common understanding that being a judge is different and that you are bound by things bigger than your preferences. And at the end of the day, that's what I have to be convinced of.


GRAHAM: Well, has she gotten there yet?

Well, I'll let you know after my last round of questioning. But elections do matter. And that's the point, that -- that the president has earned the right to pick somebody different than I would have picked. And the balance of power of the court's not going to change dramatically if she gets on the court. But in other circumstances, it might.

QUESTION: Has she shown that she's been willing to be bound by precedent in her ruling?

GRAHAM: Yes, I think she has. But her speeches are very edgy, where she has a view of the law and judging that I completely feel uncomfortable with. And the advocacy positions are, quite frankly, not traditional in terms of being pro-choice. They were -- you know, some of these briefs and some of the positions about hiring were well beyond sort of the mainstream positions they have taken. And we'll talk a little more about that.


QUESTION: (INAUDIBLE) a pretty powerful symbol today when the New Haven firefighters came in and they sat in the guest area. And Mr. Ricci is on the guest list tomorrow.


QUESTION: Is there a message there?

GRAHAM: Well, I think he deserves his chance to tell the American people how he felt about being denied his promotion and why he filed suit and what he did to -- to make himself a better candidate for the test.

And here's the complexity that we're dealing with here. No matter how smart you were and no matter how capable you were, in the past, if you were an African-American or an Hispanic member of the police department or fire department in a lot of places in this country, no matter how the test was constructed, you couldn't make it.

So we're trying to do better as a nation. So we're coming up with tests. And this idea of disparate impact is something to consider. You want to make sure the test is not rigged, that it's fair, that if everybody studied hard, they'd have a decent chance of passing.

The problem I have with Judge Sotomayor's decision in the "Ricci" case is that it's jumping out at you -- it is a new and novel concept. Disparate impact and disparate treatment are finally coming together and she took a pass.

QUESTION: And what do you think it says (INAUDIBLE)?

GRAHAM: Well, I think it...


GRAHAM: I think it's good. I think a lot of Americans would like to hear what he's got to say. And I think a lot of Americans have a lot of sympathy for him. But he's not owed sympathy, as Justice Alito said. He's owed a fair interpretation of law. And I don't think she gave him one.

I think she took a pass. I think she understood the consequences of rendering her decision in that case as to how it might affect her future aspirations. And, quite frankly, she took a pass.

And that's not -- that's not -- she's not the first one to have done that, let's put it that way. And that's not good for the country, but I think that's exactly what's going on here.

Now, about that case, the one thing that Justice Alito pointed out is that, are you going to allow cities to set aside the result because you have some loud person in town who's threatening the elected officials that if my -- the guy I like or the gal I like doesn't get promoted, I'm going to make life hell for you and sue you?

I am so glad the Supreme Court said you just can't listen to a few people and give in to threats by a few. So that's (INAUDIBLE).


BLITZER: All right. Lindsey Graham offering some thoughts on what's going on. He's getting ready himself, in the next hour or so, to ask his own questions in this, the second round of questions for Sonia Sotomayor.

And we're getting sort of -- I have to say, Candy, you've studied Lindsey Graham, as all of us have, for a long time -- conflicting signals from him, whether he's inclined to vote to confirm or reject.

CROWLEY: That's the money bite I think, and the one that will be played over and over, not just for the public consumption, but for consumption by Republicans in the Senate, as the one that says, you know, all things being equal, I think the president certainly is -- should be given his choice.

And I also think that, in the end, some of these things he's -- I mean, he obviously told us what his problems were with her, which -- which we knew.

But this does not sound like a man who is going to turn her down, certainly. In the -- in the one part of it we saw he was pretty strong.

BLITZER: And for those who don't work in television, the words money bite...

CROWLEY: Oh, sorry.


BLITZER: Yes. That is like the key sound bite.


CROWLEY: I'm just so comfortable around the table...

BLITZER: The major...

CROWLEY: -- you know?

BLITZER: The major sound bite before a clip or quote that he made was the one that Candy referred to.

All right. We'll take another quick break. Remember, we're going to know very, very soon whether the space shuttle Endeavour will or will not be launched today. It's supposed to launch at 6:03 p.m. Eastern, less than an hour from now. But they're going to give us an update very soon. Stand by.

Our coverage of that and the confirmation hearings and a lot more continues after this.


BLITZER: Senator Chuck Grassley has just asked Sonia Sotomayor a sensitive question. It's the first time it's come up so far -- the issue of same-sex marriage and should it be judged in the states, the federal government.

Listen to this.

SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY (R), INDIANA: ...whether it was "Roe v. Wade," whether it was "Chevron," whether it's a whole bunch of other cases that you made reference to, the "Casey" case, the "Gonzalez" case, the "Leegin Creative Leather Products" case, the "Kelo" case -- and you made that case to me. You said these are precedents.

Now are you saying to me that "Baker v. Nelson" is not a precedent?

SOTOMAYOR: No, sir. I just haven't reviewed "Baker" in a while. And so I actually don't know what the status is.

If it is the court's precedent, as I've indicated in all of my answers, I will apply that precedent to the facts of any new situation that implicates it.

Always the first question...

GRASSLEY: Well, then tell me...


GRASSLEY: Tell me what sort of a process you might go through if a case -- a marriage case came to the Supreme Court of whether "Baker" versus Nelson is precedent or not, because I assume if it is precedent, based on everything you told us yesterday, you're going to follow it.

SOTOMAYOR: The question on a marriage issue will be -- two sides will come in. One will say, "Baker" applies. Another will say this court's precedent applies to this factual situation, whatever the factual situation is before the court. They'll argue about what the meaning of that precedent is, how it applies to the regulation that's at issue.

And then the court will look at whatever it is that the state has done, what law it has passed on this issue of marriage and decide, OK, which precedent controls this outcome?

It's not that I'm attempting not to answer your question, Senator Grassley. I'm trying to explain the process that would be used.

Again, this question of how and what is Constitutional or not or how a court will approach a case and what precedent to apply to it is going to depend on what's at issue before the court.

Could the state do what it did?

GRASSLEY: Can I interrupt you again?

Following what you said yesterday, that certain things are precedent, I assume that you've answered a lot of questions before this committee about -- even after you said that certain things were precedent -- of things that are going to come before the court down the road when -- if you're on the Supreme Court. You didn't seem to compromise or hedge on those things being precedent.

Why are you hedging on this?

SOTOMAYOR: I'm not on this because the holding of "Baker v. Nelson" is its holding. As a holding, it would control any similar issue that came up.

It's been a while since I've looked at that case, so I can't, as I could with some of the more recent precedents of the court or the more core holdings of the court on a variety of different issues, answer exactly what the holding was and what the situation that it applied to.

I would be happy, Senator, as a follow-up to a written letter or to give me the opportunity to come back tomorrow and just address that issue. I'd have to look at "Baker" again.

GRASSLEY: I would appreciate it.

SOTOMAYOR: It's been too long since I've looked at it...

GRASSLEY: Yes. You're...

SOTOMAYOR: And so it may have been, sir, as far back as law school, which was...

GRASSLEY: Well, you were probably in grade...

SOTOMAYOR: ...30 years.

GRASSLEY: ...probably in grade school, you were, at that time.

SOTOMAYOR: Yes. It was -- no, that I looked at it, sir.


GRASSLEY: OK. OK. I want to go on and...

BLITZER: All right. So that was the first time the issue of same-sex marriage came up -- a very sensitive issue, likely to become -- come before the Supreme Court one of these days. And you heard Sonia Sotomayor say, you know, she really hasn't studied the precedents. She really hasn't studied it. She's willing to take a closer look at it. It's been since law school, she said at the end, since she reviewed that one sensitive case.

But maybe tomorrow, she says, if you want to follow up with that she'll be able to follow up.

But she did dodge that issue, Maria Echaveste. She -- she didn't want to answer the question, basically.

ECHAVESTE: Right. No, I -- and especially since, I think, all the experts around the table think that this issue will likely come up as -- whether it percolates its way through California or Iowa, you know, as it moves its way across the country.

So certainly on this one she was, I have to say, right to try to avoid answering, because it's likely she's going to rule on it.

BLITZER: If -- if it did come up before the Supreme Court, given the split, 5-4, usually, on some of these sensitive issues, Jeff, how would the current court -- assuming she becomes a member of the current court, succeeding David Souter on the Supreme Court -- how do you think they would -- they would decide the issue of same-sex marriage?

TOOBIN: Well, if -- if the question was directly posed, does the refusal to allow gay people to get married violate the United States Constitution, I think, at this point, it's inconceivable that the court would rule in -- in favor of same-sex marriage. I think they are nowhere near that point. And the closest issue that they have come is -- is 2003, the case of "Lawrence v. Texas," where a person was charged with the criminal offense of -- of consensual sodomy in Texas. And Justice Kennedy's opinion said you can't -- that there is a privacy right to do that.

But he very explicitly in that opinion, he said, we're not ruling on anything relating to marriage. This relates to criminal prosecution for consensual gay sex.

I don't think this court is going to rule that there's a federal right to gay marriage...

BLITZER: Yes and that...

TOOBIN: ...even with her confirmed.

BLITZER: And, Candy, from her perspective, to just dodge this issue is wise.


CROWLEY: That's it. Absolutely. I mean, these are the simmering issues -- abortion, the right to bear arms, gay marriage. They really are percolating in the pipeline. And I don't know if they'll do it in the next two or three years. Jeffrey is probably better at that.

But there are, all over this country, states in court grappling with all of these issues. And -- and you can say all you want that she didn't answer the question or that Justice Roberts didn't answer the questions. But I think it would be -- they would be hard-pressed to say, yes, I actually think I agree with that, because then doesn't that prejudice...


CROWLEY: -- how they're going to hear the cases when they get there?

CASTELLANOS: Politically, I think you'd find it hard to find a -- a Republican or a conservative side -- anyone that would fault her for saying that this...

BLITZER: All right, guys...

CASTELLANOS: -- is coming up (INAUDIBLE).

BLITZER: Hold your thoughts for a second, because we're going to take another short break.

We're going to continue our coverage of the Sonia Sotomayor confirmation hearings.

We're also watching what's happening down at the Kennedy Space Center. You're looking at live pictures of the shuttle Endeavour. They're about to make a decision whether it will launch at 6:03 p.m. Eastern, a little more than a half an hour or so from now. If it does, you'll see that launch live in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Our coverage continues after this.


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

Happening now, day three of the confirmation hearings for Judge Sonia Sotomayor. The Supreme Court nominee is pressed for her views on abortion and gun control and lots of other sensitive issues, but avoids, by and large, providing some direct answers.

Explosive allegations from Michael Jackson's father and sister that their son and brother was the victim of foul play.

Is the probe into the pop singer's death on the verge of becoming a homicide case?

We're taking a closer look at where the investigation stands right now.

And the space shuttle Endeavour prepared for a launch. But weather could make liftoff no-go for the sixth time. We're about to go live to the Kennedy Space Center.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.


Right now, NASA officials consider history as they consider some very serious concerns. Very soon, we could see the spectacular launch of a critical mission for the space shuttle Endeavour or we could hear NASA officials groaning from yet another delay.

Endeavour is ready to launch from the same spot that launched Apollo 11. That liftoff -- we'll see its 40th anniversary tomorrow. It pert -- it put the first men on the moon.

CNN's John Zarrella is over at the Kennedy Space Center right now watching what's going on -- John, how does -- how does it look?

JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, if there's going to be a delay in today's launch, it's not likely to be from the weather. Finally, some good news for NASA as far as the weather is concerned. All of those storm clouds that we saw earlier in the week, they're not around today. There were some earlier in the day, but they have cleared off.

Right now, the Air Force meteorological team right here is giving NASA an 80 percent chance that they will be able to go, from a weather standpoint. We are in the last of the built-in holds at the t-minus nine-minute mark and holding. We'll be coming out of that hold in roughly 20 minutes or so, aiming for a 6:03 p.m. Eastern Time liftoff. The astronauts have been on board the shuttle now for about 2 1/2 hours. They're strapped in. They're ready to go again. And, Wolf, looks like right now, unless something else crops up, that "Endeavour" will be on its way on a 16-day mission to the international space station. Wolf?

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: The skies look very clear behind you over there, John. Let's bring in our severe weather expert, Chad Myers, for a little forecast over the next 20, 30 minutes. Chad, what do we see?

CHAD MYERS, CNN SEVERE WEATHER EXPERT: The old saying, if you don't like the weather, wait five minutes. Well, we do like the weather, so maybe we can wait 35 minutes. There were many showers here about two hours ago. We were in violation of cumulus clouds, of lightning and cirrus. The cirrus clouds came from this mess and they were heading over the Kennedy Space Center there. What I want to show you now is that the cloud cover is just this cirrus cloud deck. It's those icy clouds you see way up in the sky. Believe it or not, you can't fly through those icy clouds because you don't want to have anything in those engines at all. But for right now, we are in good shape. There are some lightning strikes to the north, way up north, and well south into west palm, but we are in this very little, nice little section right here right over the cape, and we will hope that that lasts for another 30, 31 minutes.

BLITZER: 6:03 p.m. eastern, almost exactly 30 minutes from now. It's a spectacular, spectacular sight whenever you see it. Let's go back to John Zarrella.

John, if you look at the sky, any clouds up there?

ZARRELLA: Just those high clouds that you guys were talking about, and that's about it. We'll probably see a pretty good launch from here, at least, you know, quite a bit of the way up. But not too many high clouds, just some high clouds around and that's it, Wolf. That's pretty good.

BLITZER: And if they can't do it at 6:03 p.m. eastern, what's next?

ZARRELLA: Well, they'll try again tomorrow at 5:32 p.m. eastern time. And then if they cannot go tomorrow, that's it, they're done until the end of the month because Russian progress resupply ship will then take priority to go to the international space station on that resupply mission. So, they'll have to stand down roughly the 25th or 26th of the month if for some reason they can't go today or tomorrow.

BLITZER: But everybody's on board, all the crew members. They're ready to go. Right?

ZARRELLA: Yeah. They really are, Wolf. You know, they've been down this road before. They've been on that vehicle, you know, the last couple of days. They tried it, couldn't do it. So, you know, they walked out today. They still were smiling when they came out of the operations and checkout building, waving to the crowd, led by Commander Mark Polanski. Dave Wolf, a veteran of three flights, he's the main spacewalker, he pumped his fists a couple times. They were all encouraged, and seemed to have a pretty good feeling about today's weather cooperating enough that they would -- that they'd get off the ground. I tell you, Wolf, you know, they're on board that vehicle, sitting in those seats strapped in for three hours before liftoff. To me, that's got to be an awful long, excruciating time. Lying on your back, facing up in that space shuttle for a good three hours they've been on board. Well, 2 1/2 hours now they've been on the board vehicle.

BLITZER: Five times it's been delayed. Let's hope the sixth time tomb, 6:03 p.m. eastern, is the charm. You can follow this mission much closer. Our commission commander has been updating the launch all day on twitter. Abbi Tatton has more on what he's been saying.

What has he been saying?

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, the latest tweet from Commander Mark Polanski was cautiously optimistic saying I hope the next tweet is going to come from orbit and not from the ground. He's certainly got a lot of followers here. Mark Polanski has 30,000 people watching him, reading the updates coming on twitter, and they wanted to be seeing what was happening on the international space station, but for the last few days they've just been getting these informational updates every hour or two about all the delays, all the scrubbed attempts. I'll show you what we're talking about. Over the last three days, we've seen Polanski put the suit on once, take it off again, do it again Monday, he's put it on for the third time. He said this takes a little bit out of you physically, to suit up, then to get the delays over and over again. He just hopes the third time is the charm for this mission and hopefully the next thing we'll see will be coming from orbit.

BLITZER: We wish Mark Polanski and the entire crew all only the best. We'll watch it every step of the way. Once again, 6:03 p.m. eastern, if it launches, you'll see it live. That's coming up here in THE SITUATION ROOM. We'll show it to you. You'll see it obviously when we see it and that will be live.

Shocking claims of abuse by foreign exchange students who have come to the United States. Their disturbing stories have resulted now in a criminal investigation.

And the search for clues in the murder of a Florida couple who were the adoptive parents of a dozen chirp with special needs. Federal drug agents are now joining the case, and police are focusing in on another person of interest in the investigation.


BLITZER: Their dream of spending a year getting to know the United States of America is turning into a nightmare. Four foreign exchange students were placed in unfit homes. Drew Griffin has been looking at this story. Pretty shocking and very explosive allegations.

DREW GRIFFIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. A criminal case under way. There's calls for an inspector general over at the state department. But more, Wolf, this is becoming a big embarrassment for the U.S. state department. And when you see the conditions these kids were living under, you'll understand why.


GRIFFIN: One was told he'd be living with a pre-screened loving family. He ended in a second-floor apartment with a 72-year-old man and hardly any food. You're the guy that passed out in track?


GRIFFIN: Carlos Villarreal came here from Colombia for a year in high school. It cost his family $13,000.

CARLOS VILLARREAL, FOREIGN EXCHANGE STUDENT: I ended up in a house living with a couple of ex-convicts with low amounts of food, which I lost a lot of body weight. And an unsafe environment.

GRIFFIN: There was a drug bust on this street the week Carlos moved in. His host, a local reverend who, according to the local prosecutor, also houses his drug-dealing grandson. Did you starve him?


GRIFFIN: Were you not feeding him?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Bull [ bleep ]. You think I would have a kid and not feed him? I have two of my own. He it a. I bought -- get that camera off me, will you, please?

VILLARREAL: We signed up for a family that was going to transport us from our homes to school, that was going to feed us three times a day, and basically that was going to be a family.

GRIFFIN: This Norwegian girl, who doesn't want us to show her face, found herself in a sort of flop house and took pictures of the dog droppings all over the floor. The mother and her daughter slept in the couch, you slept in a bed and a man who stayed somewhere else in the house?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: In a three-room apartment.

GRIFFIN: Health officials in Scranton actually condemned part of the house, and county officials say the girl and four other students were taken out of their host homes. What happened to these guests of the U.S. is now a criminal investigation.

ANDREW JARBOLA, JR., LACKAWANNA COUNTY DISTRICT ATTORNEY: They expected to get certain degree of quality of life for the money that they provided and obviously weren't. That's one possible crime that we'd be looking at, as well.

GRIFFIN: This is the local placement agent who placed youngsters in the homes of ex-cons and rooming houses and was paid $400 per student. She kicked a local television station out of her home and so far has not responded to calls and door knocks from CNN. She worked for Aspect, a San Francisco firm that takes in millions of dollars bringing students here with a state department approval. While local prosecutors are looking at charges against aspect and its placement director in Scranton, there is a much bigger question going on in Washington.

SEN. BOB CASEY (D), PENNSYLVANIA: It's inexcusable that our government didn't do a better job of oversight and it's inexcusable that this foundation hasn't done the job to provide basic protection for children.

GRIFFIN: Aspect gave conflicting responses to CNN. While calling the Scranton situation deplorable, it also said based on its investigation and talks with county officials no student was abused, malnourished or dehydrated. That, county officials repeatedly told CNN, is just not true. Aspect says it fired its local agent and two other of its officers that resigned. But that was after the fact. CNN has learned Aspect knew about the problems in Scranton way back in October, when a student sent photos and an e-mail pleading for help and the state department, which spends $34 million a year on exchange programs, well, it knew, too.

CASEY: I'm the father of four daughters, okay? I would never want my daughter, nor would any parent want their daughter or son exposed to these kinds of conditions.

Senator Casey says e-mails show the state department knew about the problems here since last October and did nothing for months. And then the state department allowed Aspect, the agency that placed the students in these homes, to investigate itself. P.J. Crowley, assistant secretary of state for public affairs, says that was a mistake.

P.J. CROWLEY, ASST. SECY. OF STATE FOR PUBLIC AFFAIRS: I think in large respect because we put too much emphasis on the program agents to police themselves, we recognize that that has not worked properly.

GRIFFIN: Danielle Grijalva, who had been tracking exchange student abuse for years, says the typical scenario is kids complain, the state department does nothing, and agencies around the country keep recruiting students.

DANIELLE GRIJALVA, CMTE. FOR SAFETY OF FOREIGN EXCHANGE STUDENTS: It's self-regulated, unmonitored, underreported, students becoming raped, placed in the homes of convicted felons, placed in the homes of registered sex offenders. Come to the United States and lose 20, 30, 40 pounds.

GRIFFIN: This student says despite the living conditions he loved his time in the U.S.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All the people are good.

GRIFFIN: He plans to come back but next time, he says, not to a home where he needs to wonder where his next meal is coming from. (END VIDEOTAPE)

GRIFFIN: Wolf, 30,000 students are on the way to the U.S. for next year. Senator Casey wants a full review of the state department to make sure nothing like this could possibly happen again. Wolf?

What a story. Drew Griffin, thanks very much for bringing it to us.

Disturbing news coming from Capitol Hill. The Associated Press reporting that police have sealed off some of the entrances to the U.S. capitol after reports of gunfire only a few blocks away. There were no immediate reports of possible injuries, although numerous emergency vehicles were visible in the nearby streets that were getting producers and reporters to this area to check out what's going on. But once again, police have sealed off parts of the entrances to the various house and senate buildings on Capitol Hill because of reports of gunfire only a few blocks away. We'll update you on what we know as we get more information. Stand by.

It was the accident many believed sent Michael Jackson on the road to eviction, that infamous Pepsi commercial where his hair caught fire. We have new video, amazing video, I should say, of that accident that few people have ever seen before.

Also, police called her a person of interest in the murder of a couple with 16 children. Now that person has been located. So, we ask this question -- what might she know about the shocking crime?

And we're counting down for the launch of the space shuttle "Endeavour." Scrubbed five times, will this finally be a successful attempt? Supposed to take off at 6:03 p.m. eastern. That's only in a few minutes.


BLITZER: You are looking at live pictures of Capitol Hill right now as the "Associated Press" has reported that police have sealed off some of the entrances to the U.S. capitol after reports of gunfire a few blocks away. Numerous emergency vehicles are seen in the nearby streets. CNN photographer Kim Uhl is on the scene. What do you see?

KIM UHL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Capitol Hill police coming out around New Jersey and Louisiana Avenue on Capitol Hill. An eyewitness was saying he saw, Robert Drum, said he saw a white Mercedes flying down Louisiana Avenue heading west, took a left on New Jersey. He heard a crash. Him and his family are here on vacation. Then, heard multiple shots fired, approximately ten and then all of the sudden, him and his family were pushed off. I came running to the building. We came over here and started speaking with this gentleman. He saw them put an African-American male in an ambulance. They took him away. We are waiting for more information.

BLITZER: There are lots of emergency vehicles and police visible? UHL: Yes. Wolf, there are police all over the place and I can see at least 8 to 10 police cars and ambulances still hanging out, special operations vehicle, undercover cars and multiple media out here.

BLITZER: So if you ran out of the Russell center office building, this activity is going on closer to the senate side as opposed to the house side?

UHL: Correct, Wolf. It is on the senate side. We were up doing live shots for the Sotomayor live hearing and we got words of shots fired. I ran across the way, across the park. They pushed me out of the park. I ran without a camera, because we were doing live shots up there. This is where I ended up and found in eye witness.

BLITZER: The Sotomayor hearings, they have broken up for the day. That hearing took place in the hart senate office building, which is much further away from this activity that is going on near the streets of Capitol Hill. They are going to resume the hearings tomorrow morning, 9:30 a.m. eastern. The hearings have now broken up for the day. We are waiting to get more information on what's going on. Kim, right now, it just looked like a lot of activity. Law enforcement, emergency vehicles, and does it looks like they are searching for someone or anything like that?

UHL: Wolf, from what I can see, I am looking down New Jersey avenue. I am looking towards the capitol. You can see the white Mercedes crashed about halfway down the block just south of C Street and some cop cars around trying to figure everything out. I am not exactly sure if he was the person shot. That's what our eyewitness told us. That's who the eyewitness says they loaded into the vehicle, the ambulance.

BLITZER: The "Associated Press" is getting more information, even as we speak. The 18-hour reporting that police have sealed off some of these entrances after this gunfire. Unconfirmed reports of one injury. You saw someone or a tourist saw one individual taken away in an ambulance. I assume the tourist, according to A.P. is now being quoted, there were so many gun shots being fired, my family got down. The tourists also say the one victim, not wearing a police uniform, was taken away in an ambulance.

We will continue to monitor what's going on Capitol Hill. Kim, if you get more information, let us know, Kim Uhl, our photographer who ran out of the Russell center office building to this area on the capitol grounds to see what was going on.

Just want to alert you that the shuttle "Endeavour," and we are going to show you live pictures from Florida, it is now ago. All systems go. 6:03 eastern, 8 minutes and 15 seconds from now, the shuttle will, in fact, take off. The weather good enough for the launch. Finally, they will in 8:00 unless there is some major change over the course of these 8:00 minutes.

John, a lot of smiles right now that they finally got the go? ZARRELLA: A lot of people going, boy, it's about time. They haven't gotten this far in the count in any of those past five attempts to launch "Endeavour." As far as they have gotten in the count, you can see some have of the pictures looking at the hatch. 7:30 before liftoff, Wolf. All the systems on board the shuttle are working fine. There are no issues. So it appears right now headed towards an on-time liftoff at 6:03.

BLITZER: How many astronauts are about to be launched into space and what's their mission?

ZARRELLA: You have seven astronauts on board the space shuttle and six on the space station. You have 13 people who will be in space at one time once they dock with the international space station in a couple of days. That's the largest number of people who will have ever been in space at the same time. A couple other milestones, the first time two Canadians will be in space at the same time. You see the rotating arm there rotated back away from the space shuttle, another milestone towards getting it off the ground. Another big part is the Kibo Laboratory, which means hope in Japanese. That porch will allow astronauts an the cosmonauts on the international space station to put scientific experiments that need to be exposed to space out on that porch up to six, eight experiments at once can be on that porch and it will allow for major science to be accomplished there. So that's going to require five space walks. They are going to be using three different robotic arms. It really is going to be like a construction site out there if you are walking down the street and you see a building under construction and all those big cranes. The only difference here, Wolf, is, instead of wearing hard hats, they are wearing space suits.

BLITZER: They are getting ready to do the job. Steam coming out of these engines right now.

ZARRELLA: You have got the shuttle's three main engines and the two solid rocket boosters. Once you ignite those solid rocket boosters, there is no turning back. You can't shoot them down. You can light the main engines and shut those down. You can shut down the three main engines but not those boosters. They come off at two minutes into flight. You are looking at a vehicle that produces 7 million pounds of thrust at liftoff when all five of the three main engines and two solid rocket boosters are firing at the same time.

BLITZER: I want to bring in a guest, Chris Ferguson, who is, himself an astronaut. Chris, thanks very much. 4:30 to go. Walk us through what is happening right now.

CHRIS FERGUSON, ASTRONAUT: Sure, Wolf. Right now, the pilot is getting ready to start the auxiliary power units which they do just inside 5:00 minutes of launch. They provide hydraulic power for the main engines. Shortly, you will see the main engines going through a little test sequence to make sure they can point in any direction they need to. Also, there is a little cycle of the flight controlled surfaces, to make sure they are all working properly, as well as the rudders. After that, that preprogrammed sequence, the orbiters should be just about ready to go. BLITZER: 3:40 to go from now. The fact, Chris, that there were five delays, this is the sixth time that they are about to and they are in fact moments from now, 3:00 from now about to be launched. How frustrating is it for an' astronaut to go through that and be told to go home?

FERGUSON: The anticipation gets pretty high approaching a mission. We understand it is Florida and it is Florida in the summertime. It is the lightning capital of the world. These kind of things happen. We have usually prepared a year, year an a half for these missions. While we are frustrated when we get a launch delay, we keep the big pick why your in mind and we know eventually the weather will clear and the skies will part tanned will be our turn as it is the turn for this crew here today.

BLITZER: 2:50 to go. I want to just listen to NASA for just a moment, a few seconds, hear what they are saying.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And we are completing the purge of the shuttle main engines.

BLITZER: All right. Well, that's it.