Return to Transcripts main page

THE SITUATION ROOM

White House Wants to Set Record Straight on Health Care Debate; Senator Grassley's Critical Role in Health Reform; Push to Kill 'Death Panel' Claim

Aired August 12, 2009 - 16:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, rage and resentment with a twist. Health care protesters now have New targets and a New theme.

Stand by.

They both were number two on a presidential ticket, but guess what else Sarah Palin and Dan Quayle have in common? And it's not necessarily all that good for Sarah Palin. It's what virtually no politician would want.

And hardened prisoners, including convicted killers, become enraged, so they riot, igniting fires, trashing rooms, and causing stab wounds. You're going to see the first glimpse of the prison riot. One official says it's likely to have been among the worst ever.

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

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Show them the money and don't break the bank. That's the latest argument emerging in this make-or-break debate over health care reform. Protesters are now turning their attention to dollars, cents, and common sense, confronting lawmakers to ask who will pay for expensive health care reform and what makes the most sense.

Listen to this exchange in Maryland.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The question is, under your and the Congress' involvement in our lives, you've racked up $12 trillion of debt.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes.

You're adding it to now. Structurally -- the "USA Today" report put this out -- we're $99 trillion in debt. How are you going to look at my children, in their eyes, and tell them they're going to have a better future with $99 trillion?

Say it with me, $99 trillion that you did and your cohorts up there on Capitol Hill. How are you going to look at my children?

SEN. BEN CARDIN (D), MARYLAND: I think this is a very important question. I think it's -- first of all, as far as -- I think it's an important question. I think it's an important question as to the debt.

If we don't get health care costs under control, our national debt will continue to grow. Health care reform that brings down the growth rate of health care costs will help our children and grandchildren in affording health care and having less debt. I said before, and I'll repeat again, I am not going to vote for any bill that adds to the national debt.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Democratic Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland.

In terms of what makes sense, some protesters now question if the estimated 46 million uninsured Americans should get universal health care.

This exchange from Iowa.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Like I said, I'm a dumb southern Iowa redneck, and I see nowhere in the Constitution where health care is a right.

SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY (R), IOWA: We would have a bill through the United States Senate. Probably not one I would not have voted for. So, if anybody is criticizing me for negotiating, you've got six weeks to look at a bill that you wouldn't otherwise have, and I don't think that you would have -- I'd have 150 people at my town meeting or maybe 300 people here at my town meeting.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: One clarification. Of the 46 million people in the United States without health insurance, not all of them are Americans. Some of them are undocumented or illegal immigrants in the United States. Exactly how many, that's a subject for debate, but it does go into the millions.

Talk of death panels, government takeover of health care. Those and other things have been mentioned amid the debate, but how do you know what's true and what's not? The White House wants to set the record straight.

Let's go to our White House correspondent, Dan Lothian. He's working this part of the story.

Lots of fury out there, lots of claims, and everyone's trying to keep their cool.

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right. A lot of fury out there. And the White House is spending a lot of time trying to clean up the health care reform message, because now, after more than a half-dozen town hall meetings across the country, some Americans are still skeptical.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You don't know. You don't know.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You don't know.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER (D), PENNSYLVANIA: Nobody 74 is going to be written off because they have cancer.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Why don't they take the health care being forced down our throats?

SEN. CLAIRE MCCASKILL (D), MISSOURI: You don't trust me?

LOTHIAN (voice-over): There's a lot of noise in the health care debate, some of which the White House is calling misinformation that could muddle the message.

(on camera): Is there any concern at all that if this misinformation machine continues, and the record can't be corrected as the White House would like it to be, that it could potentially make it more difficult to get health care reform across?

ROBERT GIBBS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Well, look, if the debate is dominated by something that's not true, of course.

LOTHIAN (voice-over): But White House spokesman Robert Gibbs hopes public support for health care reform will hinge on the facts.

GIBBS: I don't think the president, believes, though, that when all is said and done, that most people will make their decisions on something that is false and something that has been said as false.

LOTHIAN: But even as the president was trying to set the record straight at a town hall in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Tuesday, his own facts were fuzzy.

This is what he said about the AARP...

BARACK H. OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: AARP would not be endorsing a bill if it was undermining Medicare. OK? So, I just want seniors to be clear about this.

LOTHIAN: While the AARP agrees it would never support a bill that undermines Medicare, in a statement, its chief operating officer called any suggestion of an endorsement "inaccurate."

Gibbs cleaned it up this way...

GIBBS: I don't think the president meant to imply anything untoward.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He just misspoke?

GIBBS: Right.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

LOTHIAN: Now, the White House says that these town halls that the president has been hosting around the country are valuable, a way for him to provide information, and also knock down what they see as false information about health care reform. So, to that end, the president hits the road again for this weekend, for two town hall meetings, first on Friday in Bozeman, Montana, then Saturday in Grand Junction, Colorado -- Wolf.

BLITZER: He's going to be busy at both of those meetings and other stops, as well.

Thanks very much, Dan Lothian, for that.

Let's check in with Jack Cafferty right now. He's got "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: There is another view of all this, of course. When it comes to these town hall meetings on health care reform, the Democrats might want to rethink their strategy.

Democratic Senators Arlen Specter and Claire McCaskill are among the latest to be drowned out by increasingly angry protesters. One woman in Missouri told Senator McCaskill, "If they don't let us vent our frustrations out, they will have a revolution." McCaskill's saying she's seeing a lot of mistrust of government and a lot of cynicism.

Protesters at Arlen Specter's meeting said they think the Obama administration is going too far with health care reform. One woman shouted out, "This is about dismantling this country!" Specter said he thinks the people proetsdsing are "not necessarily representative of America," but he thinks they should be heard.

President Obama and the Democrats seem to face an increasingly uphill battle with selling health care reform to a skeptical public. People don't know what's in these bills because the Democrats haven't done a good job of explaining that to us.

For his part, the president's urging people to ignore those who are trying to scare and mislead the public. Obama says what's truly scary is if we do nothing, but the public is pretty split on this, and there are a few more nays than yeas.

A new Gallup poll shows more Americans disapprove than approve of the way the president's handling health care reform by a margin of 49 percent to 43 percent. And what's interesting here is these numbers are virtually unchanged from three weeks ago, before the administration stepped up its effort to win support and before all the anger boiled over at these town hall meetings.

So, here's the question: Are the town hall meetings helping or hurting health care reform?

Go to CNN.com/caffertyfile. You can post a comment on my blog.

BLITZER: One of the problems, Jack, and I don't know if you agree, is that there are so many different versions out there. There are five different versions in the House, another version floating around the Senate, some compromises out there. The president hasn't come forward with a specific piece of legislation that he likes.

As a result, people are just sort of picking and choosing legislation that's never going to get anywhere. There's going to be a deal down the road. So, that complicates and confuses a lot of folks out there.

CAFFERTY: Well, we talked yesterday about the fact that when you have a vacuum, dirt tends to fill the space. And these bills are, what, 1,000 pages long?

The people drafting them, it's doubtful any of them have read them, let alone the average citizen who's trying to get questions answered about what kind of health care is going to be available to him in the event that he needs it. So, the administration, I think, made a critical error in not being very clear from the get-go, this is what we want to do, this is what we're not going to do, this is what it will cost, and then maybe you have a debate on how to pay for it. But I think the first three things they dropped the ball pretty badly on.

BLITZER: Yes. A lot of people are agreeing with you, Jack. Thank you.

CNN could be coming to a place near you. Our Ali Velshi is driving around the country to get your thoughts on health care reform. You're going to find out if he's in your neighborhood and what people like you are saying.

And U.S. Marines versus the Taliban militants. There's a dramatic new operation under way in Afghanistan right now. We're learning the details. It involves a daring new tactic by those U.S. Marines.

And how could a ship weighing thousands of pounds simply vanish? There's a frantic search for a vessel after its crew members reported they were hijacked. I should say thousands of tons.

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Many people just like you are getting involved. Let's get back to our top story right now, the debate over health care reform.

Today, in Iowa, Senator Chuck Grassley's town hall meeting took place and two women had opposing views on reform.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I have a family of four. I have been trying to buy my own health insurance for me and my children and my husband. Primarily my children.

I did estimates, and the cheapest insurance that doesn't have a $10,000-a-year deductible per person is $830-some-odd. This is a problem.

I can't take my children to the doctor with no insurance. I would be more than glad to buy my own insurance if it was more cost-effective. I need to know, what are you doing to these insurance companies that are putting everything in their pocket and just laughing at everybody else?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Proponents of this bill seem to think that those of us who oppose it are somehow evil, we want to see people die, we don't care about people. The gal over there who couldn't get a premium for under $800 a month, I believe it was, according to the most recent AHIP study, the average premium is $2,613 for single coverage.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Nobody has that.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You're not AHIP.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thanks for you input.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There are roughly, as Stan (ph) said, eight million people who don't have insurance and want insurance. Simple math even for this southern Iowa redneck shows that we can do -- we can cover the people who want coverage with a private policy cheaper by one-third for what the government's proposing.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right. Let's go to the scene of Senator Grassley's next town hall in Iowa. That was at an earlier one today.

Candy is our senior political correspondent.

Senator Grassley plays a critical role right now, sort of an uphill struggle. He's among a handful of Republican senators actually trying to forge a compromise with Democrats.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SR. POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Which means he really has a double bind here. A lot of these areas -- and Senator Grassley is doing four town hall meetings today -- are largely in rural, conservative areas of Iowa, outside of Des Moines, an hour, hour and a half. And so, what he has here, and remembering that he is up for re- election next year, is -- well, what we have is Senator Grassley, who is working inside the Senate Finance Committee with other Republicans and Democrats to try to come up with some sort of plan that might pass the Senate.

Well, now he has those in his state who are pushing him to move forward, to get that compromise, to do what he can to come together with Democrats. And then you have the conservatives, many of whom he was talking to today, who say, don't compromise too much, we don't like what we're hearing. And they're afraid he's going to give away the store.

So, he's kind of hearing what other senators are hearing, although I will say, very pointedly but politely, much more politely than some of those things we've been hearing from elsewhere. But he is hearing from both sides and does find himself kind of in that position where he has to defend the fact that he's out there trying to find a compromise. He says, listen, you know, if you're not at the table, you're the menu, so I am there to represent our views. So, it's a tough road for him, at least in August in Iowa.

BLITZER: It was pretty polite earlier today, wasn't it, Candy?

CROWLEY: It was. It was.

I mean, you know, you saw more interaction actually between the people who came to the town hall than any sort of hostility towards the senator. I didn't see any of that.

There were tough questions. There were, what are you going to do about this and what are you going to do about that? But no yelling and screaming and dragging people off.

He said he thinks that's Iowa, but I should point out that Senator Harkin was at a hospital event recently, and there was somebody who shouted him down. So, not entirely are all Iowans ready to make their point peacefully. But certainly for Senator Grassley it has been that way today.

BLITZER: Tom Harkin, the Democratic senator from Iowa. Senator Grassley, the Republican senator from Iowa.

Candy, thanks. We'll check back with you.

Arguments and scenes like these are being watched, and watched by other everyday Americans.

Our chief business correspondent, Ali Velshi, is out talking to many of them. He's traveling on the CNN Express to small towns and places that major media outlets may not necessarily be going to.

Listen to this from Paducah, Kentucky.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ALI VELSHI, CNN SR. BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: This appears to be a healthier debate than a lot of the town hall meetings that some of you have seen on TV, which has not been getting to the point of debate. It's a shout-fest right from the beginning and there doesn't seem to be a hearty discussion.

Why?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It seems it just distracts from the issue. And it's really disturbing, because this is a complex issue. And it's something that's going to affect us for the next generation.

And so, I mean, we really do ourselves a disservice when these town halls -- I saw one with Claire McCaskill today, and one in Pennsylvania. I mean, this is a very complex issue.

Our health care is 16 percent of our GDP. It is way too high. We're higher than any industrialized country. And yet, when we're trying to fix it, we tend to revert to this, I don't know, lack of intelligence, and it's really not doing anything.

VELSHI: What's the problem? Is it that people don't know what it is? Is it that they are not able to research it? Is it, as somebody told me earlier, that it's radio that's influencing this, is I t the media coverage? Is it...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're afraid.

VELSHI: ... we're afraid?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're all afraid that we're going to lose thing something. We're all afraid that my ability to keep my doctor, keep my doctor, keep my insurance if I want to -- I don't know that many people actually believe that that's going to be the case.

VELSHI: But they've said it. People have said...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes.

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Politicians going back on their promises? Come on.

VELSHI: Well, do you think the administration is doing a good enough job? And what else can they do to sell this?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, I am a fan of the administration, but they are not doing a good enough job at winning the battle on PR. Honestly.

I mean, I personally like the single payer plan better. But honestly, whatever they put out right now, if it got passed and if every single American was guaranteed health care, that would be good enough for me.

VELSHI: I feel like we're here not listening to extreme positions. We're listening to what real people have to say. So, this is part of our effort to broadcast this and have people all over America say, wow, that probably sounds like my community, we've probably got ideas.

So, I thank you for this. This has been a very productive discussion. I hope it will continue in your community and I hope we can have this continues on a national stage.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Let's go out to Missouri right now. Ali is standing by live.

First of all, Ali, where are you right now?

VELSHI: I'm in Westville, Missouri, about 35 miles west of St. Louis. And the same thing happened. I talked to you 24 hours ago, and as soon as we got off the conversation on TV, Wolf, that group got together, impromptu. The bar across the road gave us some chairs, we sat down and had a conversation. The same thing. We just pulled into Westville, and I just spoke to the mayor and a bunch of people -- some police officers, some residents, some small businesses. This conversation, for me, at least, in the CNN Express, is being conducted in a very civil and conciliatory manner. People aren't agreeing, but we're having a good conversation.

BLITZER: What are you hearing today in Missouri?

VELSHI: Well, we're still hearing people a little concerned about the tenor of the conversation. They have a lot of questions about what this health care plan is about.

I heard what Jack was saying, and a lot of the people that I'm talking to agree, that government needs to lay out exactly what this is and what it isn't. They feel the government's playing defense and the conversation is sort of a lot hotter than it should be. They want more light than heat.

So, people are very concerned, but I'm meeting a lot of people who say health care needs reform. They want to have this discussion in a slightly different way, and that's helping us, because we pull in and people are desperate to tell us about their concerns and their aspirations for health care in this country.

BLITZER: I love hearing from these people out there. We're going to come back to you soon, Ali. Thanks very much.

Ali's on the road.

And by the way, to see more of this health care debate with Ali Velshi, go to CNNMoney.com. You can get a lot more on the Web at CNNMoney.com.

A close call outside Atlanta. A helicopter goes down just yards from a row of houses. The unbelievable pictures straight ahead.

And shoppers couldn't believe their eyes. A high-definition TV on sale for just under $10? You're going to find out if this bargain was too good to be true.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWSBREAK)

BLITZER: Some people are urging death to the claims of a health care death panel. You've likely heard the phrase even from Sarah Palin. But what's really true about the end-of-life counseling idea proposed for health care reform?

Stand by.

And speaking of Sarah Palin, she now has what virtually no politician really wants. It's something that puts her in the same category as the former vice president Dan Quayle.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now, President Obama says his health care reform plan is backed by the AARP, but that's apparently news to the AARP. We're going to bring you the details behind this discrepancy.

Stand by.

A Brazilian true crime show popular with audiences for capturing compelling crime scene video no one else could get. Police say they now know why. They're accusing the host of the TV show of ordering the crimes to get good ratings. This is a bizarre story and we're going to have details for you coming up.

And a revealing photo of Angela Merkel that some say reveals far too much of the German chancellor. The unauthorized election poster is creating quite a buzz across that country.

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

You want to know what's real in the health care debate, but the White House and others say rumors and misinformation are meant to distort the real issues. Could one of them be a phrase with a very grave name but addressing a very serious issue?

Let's bring in CNN's Mary Snow. She's working this story for us.

Mary, what's going on?

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, there's been so much attention given to this topic, the rumor we've heard about the so- called death panel. The reality, it's a provision. I have it right here.

It's about 15 pages. It's titled "Advanced Care Planning Consultations."

We took a look at the bill and what's really in it.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SNOW (voice-over): Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin introduced the term death panel when she was discussing end-of-life counseling as part of proposed health care reform, and now rumors about euthanasia persists at town hall meetings.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What it says is, as if a 74-year-old man, if you develop cancer, we're pretty much going to write you off.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER (D), PENNSYLVANIA: Well, you're just not right. Nobody 74 is going to be written off because they have cancer. That's a vicious, malicious, untrue rumor.

(APPLAUSE) SNOW: At issue is a provision in the House health care reform bill dealing with end-of-life counseling. What it does state is that it would allow for Medicare to pay doctors for voluntary counseling sessions to explain to patients things such as making a living will to state your own wishes about care if you become unable to, appointing someone as a proxy if you can't make those decisions.

The measure also includes services for families on advanced care planning and, for patients who are terminally ill, information about hospices.

What would change? Doctors would get paid for counseling sessions every five years. And the American Medical Association supports it, because counseling now isn't reimbursed.

DR. CECIL WILSON, PRESIDENT-ELECT, AMERICAN MEDICAL ASSOCIATION: What this does is to recognize that that's a deficiency in Medicare law, and it expands coverage, so that these can be compensated, so that physicians can allot adequate amounts of time to provide this kind of service to their patients.

SNOW: And the AARP, the American Association of Retired Persons, is running ads to dispel myths about the provisions.

The organization has gone out of its way to say it's not endorsed the House health care reform bill, but it does favor the end-of-life counseling provision, and says it does not have a problem with it, because it's voluntary.

JOHN ROTHER, EXECUTIVE VICE PRESIDENT, AMERICAN ASSOCIATION OF RETIRED PERSONS: Instead of having a requirement for a hospital to -- you know, here's a form, fill it out, to have a more personalized conversation with your doctor about what your wishes really are.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SNOW: Now, among the critics of this provision include the National Right to Life Committee. It says it opposes the measure out of concern that these counseling sessions could be used later to pressure patients and older people to reject treatment, but makes no mention, of course, of that so-called death panel -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Mary Snow, thanks very much, all voluntary, too, not mandatory, by any means.

SNOW: Right.

BLITZER: We have got some new poll numbers that are just coming in to THE SITUATION ROOM involving the former Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin.

Let's bring in our CNN deputy political director, Paul Steinhauser.

Paul, what do these numbers show us?

PAUL STEINHAUSER, CNN DEPUTY POLITICAL DIRECTOR: You got it, Wolf, our brand-new numbers from CNN and the Opinion Research Corporation. This is a national poll. And it shows that Sarah Palin's numbers, her favorable rating, is dipping.

Take a look at this. Right now, 39 percent of Americans say they have a favorable opinion of Sarah Palin. But, Wolf, that is down from 46 percent in May. Look at the unfavorables, 48 percent, up from 43 percent in May.

Where is it coming from? Check this out. We break it down just by Republicans here, Wolf. And you can see almost two out of three Republicans have a positive view of her. That's pretty good. But, as you can, it's down from eight in 10, Wolf, back in May.

What's happened since May? Of course, Sarah Palin quit, stepped down early, as governor of Alaska with a year-and-a-half left in her first term. That may be behind this drop.

One thing that isn't, though, Wolf, is her comments, her very controversial comments, about the Obama health care proposals. Those comments she made over the weekend were taken after our poll -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And there's an interesting comparison to the former Republican Vice President Dan Quayle.

STEINHAUSER: Yes, this comes courtesy of Keating Holland, our polling director. He points out that Sarah Palin's 39 percent favorable rating is pretty much where Dan Quayle was in 1993, right after he stepped down from the vice presidency, after the election in '92.

We remember, Dan Quayle went on to run for the nomination, the Republican presidential nomination, but dropped out before the '96 primaries. Sarah Palin, Wolf, as we all know, is somebody we're keeping an eye on. She may want to run for the Republican nomination next time around

BLITZER: Paul Steinhauser, thanks very much for that -- Paul working the numbers.

It really was the best buy, a $2,000 TV listed online this morning at BestBuy.com for about the price of a movie ticket.

Our Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton, is following this story for us.

The deal too good to be true?

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Yes, this was $9.99. That's $9.99, 10 bucks for this 52-inch flat-screen TV listed on BestBuy.com this morning.

Even with shipping, that represents a savings of more than $1,600. Now, as news of this offer spread around the Web this morning, you can imagine that there were people all over the country trying to click on this, and a fair few of us around here desperately trying to get in on this offer.

And a couple people managed it. Eric Van Burgen (ph) Grand Rapids, Michigan, told me today that he bought one at 5:30 a.m., he thought. He ordered one. And, then, when it went through, he promptly ordered a second one.

However, not so fast. Best Buy came out and said that this was a pricing error shortly after the Web site started seizing up, and you couldn't get through. They have apologized to their customers online and in a statement to the media. But they have also made it clear, Wolf, that they will not be honoring that incorrect price.

BLITZER: Even the -- so, the guy like Eric (ph) who bought one for $9.99?

TATTON: They are going to be getting refunds. Best Buy has a policy that is listed on their Web site that says, if they make an error, they can change or revoke an offer. And that seems to be what is happening in this case right here.

But there are many frustrated people online. So, you can imagine that the person that made that error is probably hearing about it today.

BLITZER: Yes. So, the -- the real price was $999; they just added a decimal point? Was that what they did?

TATTON: They haven't explained what happened. The real price is about $1,700. So, the $9.99 just seemed to come out of nowhere.

BLITZER: All right, too bad for those folks who thought they were going to get a nice TV.

TATTON: We were all trying.

BLITZER: Yes, that would have been cool.

All right, thanks very much.

A mystery at sea: A ship disappears after being hijacked by masked men two weeks ago. An international search is now under way.

And the aftermath of a prison riot -- dramatic pictures revealing just how violent the inmates got. We will have a live report.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We all heard about last week's violent prison riot in Chino, California. Now, for the first time, we have images of the aftermath from inside the prison walls. These are startling pictures that clearly show just how violent that riot was.

Let's go to Los Angeles right now. CNN's Ted Rowlands is working the story for us.

How bad was the damage, Ted?

TED ROWLANDS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, boy, you look at these photos, Wolf -- and, you know, fights are fairly common in prison, but this was a doozy. Not only were dozens of inmates hospitalized, but it left the prison itself in shambles.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ROWLANDS (voice-over): This is what's left at the dormitory-style housing units at the California Institution For Men in Southern California, sinks ripped off the bathroom walls, beds destroyed, even fire damage.

Prison officials say the riot started as inmates in one of the housing units were eating.

LIEUTENANT MARK HARGROVE, CALIFORNIA INSTITUTION FOR MEN-CHINO: As it went on, it just continued to the next unit, to the next unit, until, potentially, all of them were actively participating in it.

ROWLANDS: According to prison officials, weapons used in the brawl included shards of broken glass and pipes.

While nobody died, more than 250 inmates were injured, 55 of them hospitalized, with injuries ranging from stab wounds to internal bleeding. The cause of the riot is still under investigation, but the fighting, according to prison officials, was mainly along racial lines.

Tensions between African-Americans and Latinos in California prisons has been a longstanding security concern. There are no cameras at this facility, so finding out exactly what happened may be difficult.

HARGROVE: You have potentially 1,300 suspects or victims, and all of them need to be interviewed in one way or another to find out what information they have that led -- to ultimately determine what caused this riot to happen.

ROWLANDS: By the guards regained control, the damage was so extensive, they lost ability to house 1,200 inmates in the prison that already had twice the number of prisoners it was designed to hold.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ROWLANDS: And they estimate it's going to take about eight months to repair all of the damage.

In the meantime, the prisoners that have been displaced are at different facilities around Southern California. All prisons in Southern California are still on lockdown, Wolf, because guards from the other facilities had to come in to help stop this riot, and until they get back to their home prisons, everything is on lockdown.

But what a fight it was inside -- you can just imagine what it was like when you look at those photos. It must have been pretty scary.

BLITZER: And, as you note, a huge prison population out in California right now.

Ted, thanks very much for that report. Mystery at sea: A cargo ship has simply vanished after its Russian crew reported being hijacked by masked men two weeks ago. An international search is now under way.

Here's CNN's Diana Magnay.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DIANA MAGNAY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: What we do know about this ship's journey is that it set sail from the Baltic Sea, came through the English Channel, made radio contact, saying, all is well, and it was on course for Algeria, where it was set to unload its cargo of timber, but that it never arrived.

Now, questions about hijacking arise because of a bizarre incident reported in the Baltic Sea at the beginning of that journey, when men purporting to be narcotics police supposedly boarded the ship, tied up the crew, beat them up, and searched the vessel for 12 hours before leaving. Now, that certainly was the communication provided by a man purporting to be the ship's captain to the Swedish authorities.

The question is, though, did it actually ever happen, or were these simply pirates using this story, this elaborate tale, as a way of the getting the ship through the English Channel and out onto high waters?

Maritime experts say, it -- if this is piracy, it's a very peculiar form of piracy, indeed.

MIKHAIL VOITENKO, EDITOR, "MARITIME BULLETIN": I think that there was some kind of secret shipment of some cargo, very expensive or very dangerous, or whatever, I don't know what. That is what we are talking act. Besides, to -- to -- to hijack the vessel in European waters, the vessel, which is full with all the electronics possible, with all the communication and navigation systems, just for ordinary criminals, it's impossible. It's impossible. It needs some -- some more serious forces to do it.

MAGNAY: Now, the Russian authorities are, of course, heavily involved in the search for the vessel and for the 15 missing Russian crew members.

They have deployed a patrol vessel from their Black Sea fleet. And say that the defense ministry's detection systems, also, from space are being used to try and locate the vessel -- so far, though, no results.

Diana Magnay, CNN, Dover.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: She talks about being isolated and scared. Laura Ling, the American journalist freed from North Korea's grip, she explains how she endured in a brand-new message.

And, in the health care debate, President Obama wants to clear up some misinformation that's out there, not create more of it. But wait until you hear what the nation's largest group of senior citizens says about something the president said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: ... cherry-picking. They want young, healthy people.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The federal deficit has moved into record higher territory, and that's without any health care reform added in. Will lawmakers ever be able to balance the budget again?

Let's talk about it in our "Strategy Session."

Joining us, the Democratic strategist Jennifer Palmieri and the Republican strategist Rich Galen.

Guys, thanks very much for coming in.

These numbers are staggering right now. The -- they project right now -- and a couple more months to go in this fiscal year -- the budget deficit will get close to $2 trillion -- $1.84 trillion, to be exact. That compares to last year's fiscal year, about $455 billion.

Our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren are going to be paying these huge debts. What -- what's going on?

JENNIFER PALMIERI, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Well, I think that, in terms of -- I mean, it's -- it's -- this is a very serious problem. It's worth noting, in terms of context, that two-thirds of that, of the deficit, is attributable to Bush -- Bush spending proposals. A third is attributable to Obama.

It doesn't mean it's not a problem. It's just...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Do you accept that?

(CROSSTALK)

RICH GALEN, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Well, no, because...

(CROSSTALK)

PALMIERI: But the most important thing...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Hold on. Let him -- let him -- let him make the point.

Do you accept that two-thirds, one-third?

GALEN: Yes, except that the -- the Democrats in the Congress have been in charge of the Budget Committee for the last two budgets. So, I mean, the Democrats had the budget, the budget panel.

PALMIERI: But the spending was the Bush tax cuts and it was not paying for Medicare prescription drugs. That's...

(CROSSTALK)

GALEN: But it had -- but Democrats had control of the Appropriations Committees.

PALMIERI: The spending happened before they did.

GALEN: No, no.

(LAUGHTER)

PALMIERI: But -- the spending did. The deficit spending did.

But the -- but, in terms of how it affects health care reform, you know, the one thing that Peter Orszag and Doug Elmendorf at the CBO agree on is that the most important thing you can do to get federal spending under control in the long term is to control health care costs through health care reform.

So, I think that this is more of an impetus for why you need to act.

(CROSSTALK)

GALEN: I -- I absolutely agree, but I -- you know, I came back to Washington in 1995 and 1996 because Newt Gingrich, for whom I worked, was in a huge fight with Bill Clinton over what? Containing the growth of Medicare, health -- trying to contain health care costs, which the -- the -- the Clinton White House, which included Rahm Emanuel, said that we were cutting Medicare.

So, what Newt was trying to do, you know, almost 10 years -- five years ago, or 10 years, whatever it was, 15 years ago, the administration is trying to do now, still the same problem.

PALMIERI: He actually was cutting benefits...

(CROSSTALK)

GALEN: No, he wasn't.

(CROSSTALK)

PALMIERI: He was cutting the rate of growth in benefits.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Which is what the Obama administration would like to do now over the next 10 years, take hundreds of billions of dollars of projected increases in Medicare, eliminate that to help pay for the costs of insuring millions of other folks.

PALMIERI: Right. Right. But it's not actual benefits. Right now, in terms of with the Medicare Advantage program, that was passed as part of the Medicare prescription drug -- drug bill under Bush...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: But if Medicare is going to have...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Let's say -- hold on a second. If Medicare is going to have, let's say, $500 billion less...

PALMIERI: Right.

BLITZER: ... than what was projected over the next 10 years, that's got to come from somewhere.

(CROSSTALK)

PALMIERI: And it comes from the payments that are going to the insurance companies right now, which are reimbursed at 114 percent rate. That's what their reimbursement rate is. And it's from cuts in what their payments are going to be and cuts...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Because you know a lot of seniors are worried it's going to come from...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: ... from their benefits, from their treatments.

GALEN: As a senior, let me just make this point. Yes, that's exactly -- and that's what's going on now.

And the point you were making earlier with Jack is exactly right. This is so ill-defined that asking especially seniors, who are very concerned about -- you know, they're -- they don't have much -- they're like a pilot on final approach. You don't have much room for mistakes.

And to ask seniors to trust us -- worse yet, trust the Democratic- controlled Congress -- I think they are willing to trust the president, but not the Congress -- without any really good, solid understanding of what all this is going to mean.

PALMIERI: Well, you're going to have a really, good solid understanding, which is why I know AARP has...

(CROSSTALK)

GALEN: Well, they don't now. They're home trying to explain...

(CROSSTALK) PALMIERI: No, but they -- they is why they...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: But, you know, a lot of us remember when Ross Perot, for example, was running. He was so concerned about the national debt and the budget deficit.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: It was what, $100 billion or $200 billion? We're talking now $1.84 trillion this year alone.

PALMIERI: Right.

BLITZER: And -- and that's going to continue for the foreseeable future.

(CROSSTALK)

GALEN: Let me make a defense of this administration, that, you know, we still have a war going on that's extremely expensive. Afghanistan's going to get more expensive.

We have an enormously dangerous economic situation. Do we want to go back to the Grapes Of Wrath" day, where everybody is on their own, where people are driving around in pickups trucks looking for work? No.

We have -- we have -- for better or for worse, we're at a situation where we expect and want the federal government to provide a lot of resources. And it's got to come from somewhere.

PALMIERI: But -- and one thing I would say is that health care reform is the most important thing you can do to get entitlement spending under control.

(CROSSTALK)

PALMIERI: And they are paying for this.

BLITZER: Well, you know, if you say about getting entitlement spending under control, Larry Summers...

PALMIERI: Right.

BLITZER: ... is now raising another issue. If you think health care reform is a sensitive issue, listen to this.

(CROSSTALK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LAWRENCE SUMMERS, DIRECTOR, WHITE HOUSE NATIONAL ECONOMIC COUNCIL: Over the course of the president's term, the administration will -- will, I'm confident, address Social Security. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right, now, that's a sensitive issue, Social Security.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Ask former President Bush about that as well.

(CROSSTALK)

PALMIERI: Right. Right.

But what Bush was trying to do, Bush was trying to privatize part of Social Security. That's making Social Security riskier. I think that what the administration and what -- and what Mr. Summers said, which -- you can't have real economic recovery unless you do have retirement security.

And that's what they want to...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: It takes political guts -- it takes political guts to take on Social Security.

(CROSSTALK)

GALEN: Well, I think Larry wants to be the next Fed chairman. He will say whatever they tell him to say. But the...

(CROSSTALK)

PALMIERI: I don't think they told him to say that.

GALEN: Yes, I do.

The -- but I think what they -- another example of seniors saying, wait a minute, hold it. Where's -- that's going to come out of my hide again.

PALMIERI: No, that's -- this is about shoring up retirement security, so they can make sure that you actually have...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Well, they're going to have to come up...

(CROSSTALK)

GALEN: It's either more taxes or less benefits. Only way to do it.

PALMIERI: Well, but...

BLITZER: Or raising the age of retirement, or something like that, that's going to shore up Social Security.

PALMIERI: Or the fact that...

(CROSSTALK)

PALMIERI: ... as Larry said at the same event, that, if you have health care reform where you're reducing the cost of Medicare, that alone is going to make Social Security more solvent for decades to come.

(CROSSTALK)

PALMIERI: So, these are all...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: I think they're going to punt Social Security down the road.

Right now, they have got health care reform. They have got a bunch of other issues.

(CROSSTALK)

PALMIERI: I think there's enough.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: I think Social Security is going to -- like -- like comprehensive immigration reform, that will have to wait.

PALMIERI: Drafted in 2009, passed in 2010.

BLITZER: Let's see.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: All right, guys. Thanks very much.

GALEN: OK.

BLITZER: Shocking allegations against a TV personality -- officials say he secretly ordered people to be killed, so he could cover the murders and get good ratings on television. What's going on?

And she's one of the most powerful leaders in the world, but her clothing and -- are catching many people's eye, and sparking a bit of an election controversy.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: On our "Political Ticker" right now: a special guest over at the White House today, the new Supreme Court associate justice, Sonia Sotomayor. President Obama and the first lady hosted a reception in her honor.

Here's what she had to say to the crowd gathered there and to the TV audience that was listening in.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SONIA SOTOMAYOR, SUPREME COURT JUSTICE: I am deeply humbled by the sacred responsibility of upholding our laws and safeguarding the rights and freedoms set forth in our Constitution.

I ask not just my family and friend friends, but I ask all Americans, to wish me divine guidance and wisdom in administering my new office.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Justice Sotomayor made history on Saturday, when she was sworn in as the nation's first Hispanic Supreme Court justice and only the third woman to serve on the United States Supreme Court.

Senator Arlen Specter is taking no chances when it comes to his personal safety at these times, and sometimes those rowdy health care town hall meetings are coming into play. At two events in his home state of Pennsylvania yesterday, the senator brought along some Capitol Hill police officers.

The Democrat says he realized extra security was needed after seeing angry outbursts and fights break out at other town hall meetings.

Remember, for the latest political news any time, you can always check out CNNPolitics.com.

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

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: The question is this hour is, are the town hall meetings that we have been covering for it seems like forever helping or hurting health care reform?

Sandra in North Carolina says: "Sadly, they appear to be hurting health care reform. The most publicized events are the embarrassing screaming matches filled with untruths. The louder and more obnoxious, the more frequently we get to see it on TV. I, for one, would like to hear real discussion and maybe even be a part of a town hall meeting, but I don't think I could yell loud enough to be heard."

Eva writes: "Until the final bill comes out and all the misinformation is straightened out, I think the town hall meetings are only hurting the Obama administration. Right now, anyone can say anything about what is in the bill, as there is no bill."

Jacki says: "Most of the angry protesters seem like they are really upset, but, each time they speak about what they are upset about, they say something that has been dispelled as a myth. I feel sorry for them because they have been misinformed, and they are afraid. I think this display will actually, in the long term, help health care reform to happen."

Thomas says: "If I were an opponent of the health care reform effort, I would be emboldened by what I have seen and heard in these town hall reports. The real question is, are the town halls themselves hurting the health care debate, or is it the media's coverage of them that is doing the damage?" Don in Toledo, Ohio: "I think they are hurting, and that's too bad. We need health care reform, but, as you can see, the squeaky wheel gets most of the grease. It is also too bad these noisy individuals are so willing to believe the misinformation that is being put out by the lobbyists for health insurers and right-wing radicals. Too bad President Obama turned such an important issue over to the likes of Representative Pelosi and Senator Reid."

And John writes: "This is what happens when you try to ram stuff down people's throats. Obama and the Democrats are making the Billary health care mistake. The more things change, the more they remain the same."

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

BLITZER: All right, Jack, thank you.

And, to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now: Flaring passions over health care reform reach a disturbing new low: death threats. They have own lawmaker refusing to hold any town hall meetings at all, at least for now.

Also, heavy new fighting in Afghanistan under way right now -- hundreds of American Marines on the move, and fears of growing violence ahead of a presidential election only days away.

And more than six feet of rain triggering deadly flooding. Now frantic efforts to rescue survivors. Can they be reached in time?