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New White House Tactic on Health Reform Sparking Some Questions; 'Blue Dog' Sweats Dog Days of Summer; Afghan Drug Lords on 'Kill or Capture' List

Aired August 13, 2009 - 15:59   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, something the White House is doing raising some eyebrows out there. It involves health care reform and possibly your e-mail inbox.

A convicted bomber seeks mercy. He's in prison for a notorious terrorist act, the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, killing a lot of Americans. Now outrage he may soon be set free after serving only about eight years.

And plane down. It ditches in the middle of the sea and the pilot stands on the plane as it sinks. You might not believe what happened next. One witness said -- and I'm quoting now -- "I thought I witnessed death."

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


They are the deciders, but you're essentially the boss. Right now, the people who will decide how or if health care reform will pass are hearing from people who put them in office. And amid this make- or-break month, lawmakers are attending town halls in places like Kansas, New Jersey, Wisconsin, Oklahoma right now. A senator in Oklahoma who's also a doctor explaining his health care prescription.

Meanwhile, check your e-mail. Do you have a message from the White House about health reform and you can't explain why?

Let's go to our White House Correspondent, Dan Lothian. He's got the story for us.

What's going on, Dan?

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, what the White House is doing now, the latest push to try to explain what it believes are myths that are circulating about there among the public. And this is an e-mail that was sent out by David Axelrod, who is a top adviser, a senior adviser for President Obama.

I have a copy of the e-mail here, a very long e-mail. And essentially what he's doing is trying to set the record straight.

I just want to read some of the quotes from this e-mail where he says, "Across the country we are seeing vigorous debate about health insurance reform. Unfortunately, some of the old tactics we know so well are back -- even the viral e-mails that fly unchecked and under the radar, spreading all sorts of lies and distortions. As President said at the town hall in New Hampshire, 'Where we disagree, let's disagree over things that are real, not these wild misrepresentations that bear no resemblance to anything that's actually being proposed."

Now, the White House saying -- in fact, a senior adviser telling me that these e-mails went out to people who had signed up on the White House Web site to get any kind of e-mail alerts. Now, they're also encouraging recipients of this e-mail to not just hang on to it, but to start an e-mail chain, to forward it to other people so that they can spread the message out there.

This is just yet another indication of the concern, perhaps the frustration here at the White House, that their message, the health care reform message, is getting lost in all of the noise. And that's why you're seeing the president holding more town hall meetings and making this push out on the Internet.


ROBERT GIBBS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I think he believes very strongly, as we talked about yesterday, that it is important to address misconceptions or misimpressions that have been left out there about the bills. I do believe that the president feels strongly that when he makes his case, it helps the case for overall health care reform.


LOTHIAN: Now, something that we've seen in the last couple of days, Wolf, is that the White House, and spokesman Robert Gibbs in particular, have been poking sort of fun at the media, perhaps, even telling us that we've been focusing way too much on all of these very loud town halls that congressional leaders have been holding across the country, and saying that, you know, it has not been productive. When, in fact, they believe that those meetings only make up a fraction of these town halls that have been going on across the country, and they believe that a lot of progress is being made out there, that the information is getting out there, and that some of these town hall meetings have been productive -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Dan. Thanks very much. We're going to get back to you.

While the White House may be e-mailing some of you, many of you are e-mailing members of Congress. Americans are literally flooding lawmakers with electronic messages about health care reform, so much so, they're overloading the "Write Your Representative" feature on the House of Representatives Web site. House technical staff are warning that the Web site is simply running slower because of this increased traffic.

A Blue Dog sweats out the dog days of summer, not just the temperature, but heat over health care reform. We're talking about Congressman Mike Ross. He's one of those Blue Dogs, a conservative Democrats with a conservative district. He's a prime player, though, in the reform battle, and he's getting an earful at a gathering today.

Let's go to CNN's congressional correspondent Brianna Keilar. She's in Texarkana, Texas.

I take it you're on the border over there with Arkansas. What exactly is going on, Brianna?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Congressman Mike Ross just told this roundtable of health care professionals, Wolf, that he must be doing something right because he has the extremes from both parties upset with him.

He, of course, is a Blue Dog Democrat, the head of the Blue Dog Democrats, and he is one of the Blue Dogs who stood up to House Democratic leaders right before recess and said, just wait a minute, we are not going to allow you to move this health care reform bill out of a key committee unless you give us some of the things that we want.

A couple of those things that they got -- one, delaying a vote before the full House on health care until after the recess, until September. And the other thing, shaving $100 billion off of the overall price tag, among some other concessions.

But Mike Ross just asked a short time ago at this roundtable how the government is going to pay for this, and he said what he wants to see is leaning on the taxpayer as little as possible.


REP. MIKE ROSS (D), ARKANSAS: Because I think the American people expect us to first squeeze all the inefficiencies that we possibly can out of the current health care system before we ask them to pay more. But personally, I believe that if every American citizen is going to benefit from this, there should be a shared sacrifice.

You know, we all pay into Social Security. We all benefit from Social Security. We all pay into Medicare. We all benefit from Medicare.

And that's the direction that I believe that we should go if we, in fact, do health care reform.


KEILAR: And as you can see from the inside of that meeting, it's a pretty intimate sit-down situation. He's certainly getting some tough questions from these health care professionals. Their pointed, but they're certainly polite, Wolf.

We're expecting it could be a different story tomorrow. He has a big town hall event, a town hall event that could see somewhere in the neighborhood of 900 people -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Basically what he's saying is don't just tax the really rich, as some liberal Democrats are suggesting. Everybody should pay a little bit to try to get this thing done. Brianna, thanks. We're going to check back with you. You've been talking to people there, and we're going to be getting your reaction. That's coming up in a little bit.

More from Brianna Keilar. She's on the road at these town halls.

Congressman Ross, by the way, is one of those Blue Dogs who are being targeted by a new TV campaign. It's a $12 million push in support of health care reform.

A member of the coalition behind a new ad says it's designed to provide cover and support and credit to lawmakers who support President Obama's ideas for reform. The 30-second ad is running for two weeks in states like Arkansas, Colorado, Indiana, Nebraska, and South Dakota.

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

Hi, Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Hi, Wolf. How you doing?

In the midst of perhaps the most contentious national debate since the Vietnam War, the one we're having about health care reform, President Obama has nominated a paid consultant for Burger King to be the nation's top doctor.

Can you spell tone deaf?

Dr. Regina Benjamin has been paid $10,000 since last year to serve on a scientific advisory board for the company that brings us the Whopper and the BK Triple Stacker. According to "The Washington Times," Burger King says the doctor was on the company's nutritional advisory panel which is meant to promote balanced diets and active lifestyle choices.

The Department of Health and Human Services says Dr. Benjamin was advocating for food that is lower in salt and recommending that nutritional information appear on packaging. They add that she'll resign from Burger King once she's confirmed by the Senate as surgeon general and will continue "to promote healthy eating and exercise."

You want fries with that?

But many are not seeing this as anything except a conflict of interest. After all, Burger King is a fast food joint, right? And in a nation where one-third of our adults are obese, fast food restaurants are not helping.

Since her nomination, Dr. Benjamin has won support from both sides of the aisle, especially for running a health clinic for the poor following Hurricane Katrina, but there's also been criticism. As we reported in "The Cafferty File" last month, some think the president's selection of an overweight candidate for the nation's top doctor sends the wrong message, and now we find out she works for Burger King. Here's the question. What does it say that the president's nominee for surgeon general is a paid adviser to Burger King?

Go to and post a comment on my blog.

I should get a gold star, Wolf, for getting through that with a straight face -- almost.

BLITZER: When was the last time you had a Whopper? I haven't had one in years.

CAFFERTY: I love Whoppers. I had one a couple of weeks ago. I love those.

BLITZER: They're delicious.

CAFFERTY: I mean, they're not good for you, but I love them.

BLITZER: But they've got a lot of calories.

CAFFERTY: Oh, yes, but they're great.

BLITZER: All right. Thank you.

Doctors' orders. I'll speak with two doctors with very different thoughts on health care reform. Why does one support President Obama's ideas and why does the other think those ideas are not very good?

And many people have wanted to hear from her. We're talking about President Obama's aunt. She's now speaking out, and we have details.

And a plane ditches in the middle of the sea, and the pilot stands on the plane as it sinks. You might not believe what happens next.


BLITZER: It's a hot question -- will the United States be sending even more troops to Afghanistan anytime soon? The defense secretary, Robert Gates, says there's no specific recommendation in an upcoming ground report from the new U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal. Gates calls the current situation in Afghanistan -- and I'm quoting him now -- "a mixed picture" and says the immediate focus is security for the upcoming presidential election in Afghanistan.


ROBERT GATES, DEFENSE SECRETARY: Due to some of the military operations that have taken place in the Helmand Province and other places in the south, it looks like more Afghans will be able to vote than had been the case before the recent deployment of additional U.S. forces. And obviously that's an encouraging development. In terms of the overall security situation in the country, my view, and I believe the view of most of our military commanders, is that we are looking at a mixed picture. In some parts of Afghanistan, the Taliban have clearly established a presence.


BLITZER: But there's only so much that can be done to turn around Afghanistan without addressing a major source of the country's crime, corruption, and funding for the Taliban. That would be the enormous drug trade.

CNN's Atia Abawi has details of a new plan to try to crack down -- Atia.

ATIA ABAWI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, one major security threat that's often overlooked in Afghanistan is the narcotics industry, a drug trade that has been fueling criminality and a corrupt government that many Afghans fear more than the war between coalition forces and the Taliban. Now the U.S. and NATO have formed a new strategy in defeating the drug war in Afghanistan.


ABAWI (voice-over): Drug smuggling in the most ingenious ways. It's a lucrative business for the drug lords in Afghanistan, but it's also a very deadly business.

Over 90 percent of the world's opium is produced in Afghanistan, and it's no secret that the trade has funded the insurgency and the killing of U.S. and coalition troops. But now in a report by the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, we are learning more about the drug trade in the country.

CNN obtained a copy of this report which indicates that 367 major traffickers have been put on a "kill or capture" list, 50 of them major players who link drugs to the Taliban. This new report reflects a major shift in the American counter-narcotic strategy here. A bolder approach after years of relying on just poppy crop destruction.

But the question remains -- how do you stop a drug trade that many believe is kept alive by corrupt government officials? Rumors have even plagued Afghan President Hamid Karzai about allegations of his own brother's involvement in the drug mafia. Karzai says the rumors are not true.

Colonel Abdul Kadir is the chief of the counter-narcotics police in Helmand Province, and he says that his life is continuously threatened.

COL. ABDUL KADIR, HELMAND COUNTER-NARCOTIC POLICE (through translator): I am under a lot of pressure from corrupt people in charge because it will be their brother or tribal member who is arrested. So they try and make sure that they are released.

ABAWI: The Afghan counter-narcotics teams in the country do not have enough strength in tackling this problem on their own. They are getting assistance from coalition countries.

DAVID WRIGHT, SR. POLICE MENTOR: I think it's basically the security situation. There are very competent and capable officers working down there, but the security area they need to work in, well, it's very limited from where they can work.


ABAWI: But what has caught the eye of many in this new report is the fact that U.S. intelligence believes that al Qaeda has little to no reliance on the drug money, and that the Taliban is actually getting less money from the drug trade than what many studies have suggested in the past -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Atia, thanks very much.

Atia Abawi from Kabul.

We're digging deeper into the situation in Afghanistan. And as part of our reporting, our Chief International Correspondent Christiane Amanpour traveled to a remote corner of the country to visit an American woman trying to prevent some of Afghanistan's one million orphans from falling prey to the Taliban.


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In the mountains of Afghanistan, a young boy is cast out. And this is how the battle begins.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): My stepmother was beating me a lot. And then she forced me to leave the house.

AMANPOUR: Nasim (ph) was just 10 years old when he fled the beatings and the abuse at home.

(on camera): You're just a little boy. It must have been so hard.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Yes, it was very difficult. I was spending my days and nights here and there.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): For months, Nasim (ph) wandered from village to village in search of food and shelter. He became a virtual slave to the townspeople.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): I collected firewood from the mountains, or building materials for their homes.

AMANPOUR (on camera): Did you feel sad?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Very sad. I shouldn't be in this condition.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): But things changed for him when he arrived in the town of Chaghcharan and met Yaseen Fahreed (ph), who works for an American aid group called PARSA.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): He introduced me to the orphanage.

AMANPOUR: Here, 150 boys sleep two to a bunk. They wake up to face each day trying their best to bring some semblance of order to their lives amid the desperation that is Afghanistan.

(on camera): Do you think that you're cracking the back of this beast?

(voice-over): My guide inside this world is Marnie Gustavson, an American who grew up in Afghanistan. Marnie, who runs PARSA, has been rebuilding broken shelters in this broken country shattered by 30 years of war and hobbled by a government that's financially strapped.

(on camera): There are places in many, many parts of the world where condition's are equally poor, equally run down. Why, though, do you think it's so important here to try to rescue these kids?

MARNIE GUSTAVSON, PARSA: I have it connected with if Afghanistan stabilized, my country will be protected. I have that protection.


GUSTAVSON: Absolutely, without a question. This country needs to be stabilized for our safety.


BLITZER: Christiane Amanpour doing some extraordinary reporting for us.

You can see much more of Christiane's reporting later tonight. She reveals the struggle for the hearts and the minds of the next generation of Muslims. "GENERATION ISLAM" we're calling it, tonight, 9:00 p.m. Eastern, 6:00 Pacific, only here on CNN.

I think you'll want to watch it.

A convicted terrorist may soon be released from prison, sparking outrage among relatives o his victims. What they are saying and the reason behind his potential freedom. This is a shocking story.

Plus, a well-known college basketball coach admits to an affair. Now the school is speaking out. Will the University of Louisville stand behind Rick Pitino?



BLITZER: Your doctor surely has an opinion on health reform, so we've asked two doctors to debate what's good about President Obama's ideas on reform and what's not so good about them.

That's coming up.

And many people have wanted to hear from her, and now she's speaking out. We're talking about President Obama's aunt. She's asked about a few topics sparking some controversy out there. The interview, that's coming up as well.


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

Happening now, the remains of a Navy pilot, Scott Speicher, come home 18 years after he disappeared. A wrenching chapter from the first Gulf War now coming to a close.

And a swimsuit under fire, but not for revealing too much. In fact, the opposite. The controversy behind what's being called the Burqini.

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

Relatives of those killed in a horrifying terror attack more than two decades ago are now reliving the nightmare. They're aghast that the man convicted of bringing Pan Am Flight 103 down may soon be released from prison.

CNN's Diana Magnay reports.


DIANA MAGNAY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It was December 1988. Pan Am Flight 103, on its way from London to New York, explodes over the Scottish town of Lockerbie, blown up by a bomb hidden in a suitcase. Two hundred and seventy people were killed, 11 of those residents of Lockerbie on the ground. The bulk of the passengers onboard Pan Am Flight 103, Americans on their way home for Christmas. Lockerbie, from that moment on, would forever be associated with one of the worst terrorist atrocities on British soil.

It wasn't for another 13 years that the man accused of the bombing was found guilty. Abdel Basset Ali Mohamed al-Megrahi, one- time security chief for Libyan Arab Airlines, was sentenced to life in prison with a minimum term of 27 years before he would become eligible for parole. Even then, some relatives of the victims say they weren't sure the right man was ever caught.

PAMELA DIX, VICTIM'S SISTER: I found the trial process confusing and quite difficult to understand, because much of the evidence was circumstantial. So, while the court convicted him, his co- conspirator, who was his co-accused, was found innocent. And the fact of the matter is that Megrahi could not have acted alone.

MAGNAY: Megrahi has always maintained his innocence and is currently appealing his conviction for a second time. Now diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer, he has also requested release on compassionate grounds. Jim Swire, whose daughter Flora (ph) was killed at Lockerbie, says he should be allowed home, but that his appeal must not be dropped.

JOHN SWIRE, FATHER OF PAN AM FLIGHT 103 BOMBING VICTIM: The appeal seems to us to be the way to move forward towards the next stage of finding out what really happened. And for that to stop, I think, would be a disaster, both for us, and for Scotland in the long run.

MAGNAY: But others convinced of Megrahi's guilt are appalled he might ever see freedom.

SUSAN COHEN, MOTHER OF PAN AM FLIGHT 103 BOMBING VICTIM: This man killed 270 people. He's getting medical treatment in Scotland. Oh, oh, woe, woe, so sad. Why aren't you sorry for me? My daughter is dead. She was 20 years old.

MAGNAY: It's believed Megrahi may have just months to live. His fate, though, still tears at the hearts of all those whose lives were wrecked by Pan Am 103's fatal last flight.

Diana Magnay, CNN, London.


BLITZER: Her story first came to light during the presidential campaign, then candidate Barack Obama's Kenyan aunt living illegally in the United States. And now her immigration case is on appeal, and she's breaking her silence for the first time in an interview with CNN affiliate WKYC in Cleveland.

Here's reporter Romona Robinson.




ROBINSON: Romona Robinson.

(voice-over): Zeituni Onyango has a quiet, unassuming presence when she enters the room at an undisclosed location. I can sense her hesitation to trust a reporter, even though her Cleveland relatives have told her I would be objective and treat her fairly.

The 57-year-old Kenyan-born aunt of President Barack Obama quickly flashes a smile when you mention his name.

ONYANGO: Actually, it's phenomenal. Actually, I really love my nephew, and I always pray for him.

ROBINSON: She clutches a double strand of costume pearls she said were a gift from her nephew when he visited his family in Kenya in 1987. He also gave her a book, the Constitution of the United States. And, when asked, she said, yes, the president was born in Hawaii.

ONYANGO: If my brother was in United States, in Honolulu, Hawaii, when Barack was born, how could, and he wasn't in Kenya, who gave birth to Barack in Kenya and is an American white woman? Where was she? How could she have given Barack birth in Kenya, surely? I don't understand the arithmetic.

ROBINSON: She would see him a year later at a fund-raiser in Massachusetts, where he autographed his latest book for her.

Onyango is very protective of her nephew, the president. She won't say whether she's spoken to him since her deportation troubles. And, on the advice of her attorneys, she will say little about her case.

ONYANGO: That one is with the judge, so I can't talk about it.

ROBINSON (on camera): So, you're just waiting to see what's going to happen?

ONYANGO: Exactly.

ROBINSON (voice-over): Onyango is a retired computer programmer who moved to the United States in 2000. Today, she is ill, getting around with the help of a cane. But her spirits are lifted when she talks about the president's father, her late brother, who she says told her many times before he died that young Barack was something special.

Before he died, he told me, Barack is a very bright child. He asked me, sister, you know I have got really bright children. I said, yes, they're all bright. Then he puffed a little and told me, look (INAUDIBLE) this guy will one day lift up my name on top of the world.

ROBINSON: She says she had no idea then that he would become leader of the free world.


BLITZER: That report from Romona Robinson from our affiliate in Cleveland, WKYC.

By the way, a federal immigration judge says President Obama's aunt will be allowed to remain in the country until at least next year. A hearing on her asylum case is scheduled for February.

Jack Cafferty is asking, what does it say that the president's nominee for surgeon general is a paid adviser to Burger King? Jack will be back shortly with your e-mail.

And it's a dramatic airplane accident and rescue not like anything you have ever seen. A plane ditches in the sea, the pilot desperate for a rescue as the plane goes down -- down -- witnesses jumping quickly into action.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: Let's get back to our top story, the president's efforts to get health care reform enacted, and enacted quickly. What's going on?

Joining us, two CNN political contributors, the Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, and the Republican strategist Mary Matalin.

Mary, David Axelrod, a senior adviser to the president, sends out a lengthy e-mail -- I have got a copy of it right here -- with a lot of links, a lot of information. Misinformation that's out there on the Internet, he says he wants to try to correct it. He says, you know what, take this e-mail and forward it to your friends and your neighbors, so this message gets out.

Is there anything wrong with that?

MARY MATALIN, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Well, I don't know if it's illegal. You're not supposed to use federal property for political purposes. Axelrod is a political guy. It's a political document. It's a political tactic.

But, leaving that aside, I don't even know how effective it is. Just because it can get viral doesn't mean that anybody will believe it. People who tend to go to those sources are people who are already for you. But it is indicative of where they think they are in this fight.

BLITZER: But, for that base of the White House supporters, it does provide a lot of information, talking points for them to use at these town halls and to use in their debates with their -- their neighbors and friends.

MATALIN: I think we're past that point. Donna encouraged us to read it. I went and read it. Very boring. Thanks for making me waste a day.


MATALIN: So, people, if they want the information, those who are undecided, will go read the bill. And it doesn't comport in every instance with what the president and Axelrod and everybody out there is saying.

So, those who are going to make the difference, the undecideds, are not going to believe what the White House puts out. This thing is a political tactic. It's necessary...


BLITZER: I assume the legal office over at the White House, the legal advisers, Greg Craig and his team, went through and vetted this and made sure it was legal for David Axelrod to do this, assuming that he did do that, that they -- they checked out the legality of -- of all of that.

But some of the president's supporters have said to me today when they got this, what took them so long? What are they waiting for?


DONNA BRAZILE, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Wolf, I didn't receive mine in the mail yet, so maybe it might be in my spam folder.

But I -- I believe that this -- this e-mail is a very important document. First of all, it corresponds -- corresponds to the legislation that's been introduced, and some of the legislation up on Capitol Hill. It helps voters get the information they need to make an informed decision. There's nothing wrong with this.

This is not political. This is a public policy document that helps to to -- just put the facts on the table and hopefully take some of these lies off the -- the sheet.

BLITZER: There's a new Gallup -- "USA Today"/Gallup poll, a tracking poll, 1,000 Americans asked this question: How do you feel about protesters' views since disturbances have started at these town hall meetings? Thirty-four percent said they were more sympathetic for the protesters. Thirty-six percent, no difference. Twenty-one percent less sympathetic. No opinion, 10 percent.

Are these protests at these town halls, which have received, this week, a lot of coverage, are they working?

MATALIN: Well, I think, if the White House or the Democratic National Committee hadn't called these congregants, if you will, political congregants, un-American mobs and...


BRAZILE: The White House and the DNC did not call them that.

MATALIN: OK. Well, Nancy Pelosi and...

BLITZER: She said some of the activities were un-American.


MATALIN: OK. But we live in this world where it got translated, and there were many Democrat who is called them mobs.

And then you turn on the TV, and you see seniors, and you see stay-at-home moms, and you see people who were previously apolitical, and you have had them on here. So, there is no greater persuasive tactic to a voter than somebody else that looks like them that they know isn't a spinner for either side.

So, yes, it's effective in putting the debate back out there, at a minimum, and, to the positive, probably slowing it down and stopping some of the more egregious expansions of government that are in there.

BLITZER: Is it -- has it been effective?

MATALIN: Well, first of all, I -- I believe in the right to protest and to assemble. I have organized a lot of protests in my life.

BLITZER: In your life.


BLITZER: We know you have.

BRAZILE: And, you know, clearly, my hands are not clean.

But let me just say this. There are a lot of American who want to just go there and get the facts. They're there to listen to their member -- members of Congress. They want to know exactly how this bill will impact their lives and impact their pocketbooks.

And there's no reason why we should break out into fights and arguments, because we're talking about proposed legislation. This legislation has not passed.

BLITZER: You agree that there shouldn't be any, like, swastikas and stuff like that painted, you know, on -- on a congressman's...



And I also disagree with the characterization that this is some right-wing craziness that is doing that. And I also disagree, and I think backfires on them, the Obama tactics to say that this is all just a bunch of organized AstroTurf right-wingery.

It is not.

BLITZER: Because there have been some very thoughtful questions that have been raised at these town halls, tough questions, but that's what they -- they're supposed to do to their lawmakers.

BRAZILE: Well, when the -- when the head of Republican Congressional Campaign Committee basically says that the days of polite town hall meetings are over, when many of the conservative organizations put out press releases basically, you know, telling people, go out there and -- and disrupt these meetings, that's when people say, hey, come on, we can have a conversation. We can have a civil conversation. We don't have to agree...


BLITZER: We are going to continue our civil conversation in the next hour.


BRAZILE: We might not -- never agree, but we...


(LAUGHTER) MATALIN: We arm-wrestle. We have...


MATALIN: ... contests.

BLITZER: All right, guys.


BLITZER: Don't go away. Thank you.


BLITZER: Doctor's orders. I will be speaking with two doctors with very different thoughts about health care reform. Why does one support President Obama, the other one not so much? That's coming up.

And too little clothing at the pool apparently is not the problem, but too much clothing is. A woman is banned apparently because her outfit is covering too much.


BLITZER: All right. You have heard what lawmakers are thinking about the health care reform debate, but what about your own doctor?

Amid all of this debate, we have asked two doctors to join us to discuss.

Joining us from Rochester, New York, Nancy Nielsen is the former president of the American Medical Association. And from Boston, Dr. Daniel Palestrant. He's a surgeon, chief executive officer of, an Internet community where doctors exchange information. He's been on Capitol Hill twice in the last month speaking with lawmakers about health care.

Dr. Nielsen, let me start with you.

The AMA supports what the president is trying to do, and you're working aggressively to -- to make sure this bill, whatever emerges, passes congress. Am I right?


We -- we certainly support the goals of covering everyone and reducing costs and getting better value for our health care dollar. So, yes, we do support those goals.

BLITZER: What's wrong with that, Dr. Palestrant? Because you think the AMA is misguided.

DR. DANIEL PALESTRANT, FOUNDER AND CEO, SERMO, INC.: Well, I think physicians in this country have been long proponents of health care reform, but physicians are also in a unique position, after all. They're on the front lines of health care. And they have some very strong perspectives as to what will actually constitute real health care reform.

And the physicians, the 110,000 physicians on have been very consistent about what's actually needed to do true health care reform, and they point out very consistently that very little in this bill actually addresses that.

BLITZER: Well, when -- when you say very little, what else do you want in this bill that's not there?

PALESTRANT: Well, in the last several weeks, we have seen tens of thousands of physicians weighing in on Sermo. And the Sermo model, we authenticate and credential each physician, so that we know each one is, in fact, a licensed U.S. physician, and it's one physician, one vote.

BLITZER: Give me an example of what you want in the bill that's not there.

PALESTRANT: Well, the physicians have outlined four things.

The first is tort reform. The second one is insurance reform. The third one is transparency in pricing, which would be to remove the current billing coding system. And the fourth is a -- a re- engineering of the payment equation that's thought to be overly complex and arbitrary.

BLITZER: You got a problem, Dr. Nielsen, with any of that?

NIELSEN: Not at all. I think the details, we may differ on, but, in -- in fact, those goals are ones that we would certainly share.

BLITZER: Do you support, Dr. Nielsen, a -- what's called the government option, the public option, where there would be a -- a government-run insurance company, in effect, that would compete with the private insurance companies, like Blue Cross & Blue Shield or Aetna, some of these other private companies?

NIELSEN: We have some reservations about what's been called the public plan, but we await the final defining of what that's going to be. It's our understanding that, in the Senate, it may come out as more of a co-op purchasing capability, and that, we would not have as much trouble with.

The reality is, what we want is, we want people to have access to affordable health insurance. And we certainly don't want government- run health care. There's no question about that. We do want insurance market reform, so that people are not denied because of preexisting conditions.

BLITZER: You heard Dr. Nielsen, Dr. Palestrant, say she doesn't have a problem with the stuff that you want added to this legislation. So, are you and the AMA now on -- on -- on the same page? PALESTRANT: Well, I think that that's part of the challenge of the public option.

On the surface, it would seem to be the best of both worlds. You have got people who like their insurance can keep it; those who don't can choose this public option. The problem is, is that it's -- it's pure fiction. The CBO has come out and said that there's no cost savings in this.

The 11,000 physicians on our Sermo who voted on this have said that it doesn't address the underlying health problems. The other underlying problems are causing inflation in -- in health care costs.

I'm delighted to hear Dr. Nielsen would support the four platform elements that the Sermo community is making, but I'm a little bit confused, because not one of those items is even mentioned in this reform bill.


PALESTRANT: It's 1,000-page reform bill.

BLITZER: I assume -- I -- you're talking about the House version that Henry Waxman's committee supported.

But that's open to a lot of revision in this legislative process, Dr. Nielsen. The Senate has very different ideas, including eliminating completely that so-called public option. So, what I hear you saying -- and I want you to address Dr. Palestrant directly -- is, you want to see these changes that he advocates emerge in the final piece of legislation, whenever that is.

NIELSEN: We do. And some of them, we have already seen.

For example, there is an amendment that addresses -- not as robustly as we would like, but at least addresses the issue of tort reform. That is an issue for every doctor in the country. There isn't anybody...

BLITZER: And just to explain to our viewers what tort reform is, doctors are so nervous about being sued that, very often, they order all sorts of tests that aren't really needed, but they sort of just do it to protect themselves, in case there's a lawsuit down the road.

And what you're saying is that there should be limits on these lawsuits. Is that what you're saying, Dr. Nielsen?

NIELSEN: Well, we have to address that, Wolf, there's no question, because what -- there -- the issue of excessive cost is very real. We have to do something about that in this country. And we know that there are significant costs of defensive medicine, because doctors are afraid of being sued because they get sued. And, so, it's a real problem.

BLITZER: Is that your position as well, Dr. Palestrant? PALESTRANT: Again, I applaud Dr. Nielsen, who's been a longtime advocate of reform, health insurance reform, and physician -- physician rights.

But what I'm puzzled by is that this bill -- this was a 1,000- page bill that came out, and it took the -- 21 members of the -- the AMA board of trustees 36 hours to endorse this. Those things weren't even mentioned.

There was no mention of malpractice reform. And the real question is, what was in it for AMA to endorse this?


BLITZER: Well, let's ask -- let's ask -- let's ask Dr. Nielsen.

Why did the AMA support the House version?

NIELSEN: Well, you -- you make a good distinction, and I need to make sure that the audience understands the distinction between endorse and support.

We did, in fact, endorse the major thrust of HR-3200, recognizing that there were going to be changes. Why? For one, the -- the payment system under which physicians are paid for Medicare services is totally outmoded and is a serious problem that causes us to go back to Congress every year.

Congress doesn't like it. They know it doesn't work. And this bill would, in fact, have essentially poured concrete into that hole. And we could have gone forward together in a different way. So, that's one of the big things.

There's -- there's no question...


PALESTRANT: Actually, Dr. Nielsen, let me...


BLITZER: Just very quickly, very quickly, Dr. Palestrant, because we're out of time.


PALESTRANT: The payment mechanism that you heralded as the big AMA victory, the repeal of the -- what's called the SGR formula, that's been removed in the latest versions.

And, so, the -- the claim that the AMA had was the big victory on behalf of physicians is no longer in the bill. So, it really has left physicians in this country wondering, why did the AMA endorse this? Eleven physicians on Sermo voted. Ninety-four percent of the -- of physicians who voted on that said they don't endorse this bill.

It would seem that the AMA is fundamentally out of step with the physicians in this country.

BLITZER: All right. We're going to have to leave it on that note.

But it's a good point. And we will continue this discussion. I would like to have both of you back to continue this discussion.

Remember, guys, this -- this legislation is working its way through the House and then the Senate. Then, there will be a joint House-Senate conference committee. There's plenty of time over the next several weeks and months for major changes, changes both of you, I think, would like to see. And we will watch it closely, together with both of you.

Thanks to both of you for coming in.

NIELSEN: Thank you, Wolf.

PALESTRANT: Thanks, Wolf, for having us.

BLITZER: Fighting heats up ahead of Afghanistan's presidential election in the coming days, with a deadly toll on U.S. and NATO forces.


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

CAFFERTY: The question this hour, Wolf, what does it say that the president's nominee for surgeon general of the United States is a paid adviser to Burger King?

Walt in California: "Thank goodness fast food restaurants are consulting doctor and nutritionists to help provide healthier choices. When I was a kid, you got fries. Now I see kids have the option of apple slices or yogurt. It is actually possible to get reasonably nutritious meals at fast food places. It's not her fault if a family chooses the Whopper, as you seem to enjoy, over the healthier options that are now available."

Brandon in Washington writes: "Every gym teacher I ever had was overweight. How is this any different? Like so many other things, it's do as I say, not as I do."

Deborah in Los Angeles: "With all of the critical stuff going on in this country and the world, we're going to create a crisis out of this? So, now we are going to criticize Dr. Benjamin for advising Burger King to reduce salt content and post nutrition information on their food? Isn't that what we want fast -- fast food companies to do? Give me a break."

D.S. in San Diego: "Ten thousand dollars, she's being paid? If that's all we have to worry about, after Cheney and Paulson, I can start sleeping again now. What happened to looking at people's qualifications?" Fernando writes: "There's a conflict of interest here. Junk food chain restaurants and giant food corporations are poisoning our lives. They sell cheap food, but at what cost? Rampant obesity, diabetes in children, hormone-pumped meat, poultry, and dairy products."

And Thomas writes: "Having a paid adviser from Burger King as the surgeon general is akin to putting Bernie Madoff in charge of your portfolio, letting Michael Vick watch your dogs, or getting your information about health care from Sarah Palin."

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

BLITZER: Jack, thank you.

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

Happening now: a bloody test of wills in Afghanistan, as Taliban insurgents try to intimidate voters. U.S. troops are fighting to convince Afghans it's safe enough to cast their ballots.

Whipped by fierce winds, a fast-moving wildfire has tripled in size within a few hours. It now threatens hundreds of homes in California.

And amid all those angry outbursts at health care town halls, could the Obama administration be ready to settle for something less than full reform?

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