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THE SITUATION ROOM

The Fight for Afghanistan; President Obama's Health Care Push

Aired September 8, 2009 - 18:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And the fight for Afghanistan, as you will see it only here on CNN, growing concerns right now about voter fraud and whether the U.S. war strategy is working. Our Anderson Cooper is on the ground getting the story, asking tough questions.

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

First, the breaking news this hour: President Obama is injecting a big shot of adrenaline into the talks on health care reform. He's a little over 24 hours away from addressing Congress and providing new details on exactly what he wants in the legislation.

Six key U.S. senators are trying to beat him to the punch and hammer out what they call a bipartisan compromise before his big speech. It's been a whirlwind day of high-level talks over at the White House and on Capitol Hill. And America's medical care hangs very much in the balance.

Our senior White House correspondent, Ed Henry, is standing by, but let's go to our senior White House correspondent, Dana Bash, first.

Dana, you've been staking out those six senators and they are coming up with ideas. A lot of people think, though, could be too little, too late.

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's certainly what the White House has believed for some time. Nevertheless, in this room behind me, those six senators did meet for several hours this afternoon, and they talked about this proposal, this 18-page proposal that was sent around by the chairman of the Finance Committee, Max Baucus.

This is something that would cover nearly 90 percent of Americans. It would require individuals to get health care, but not employers -- not mandate that employers do it.

So, what happened in this room behind me which just broke up a little while ago is that the chairman, Max Baucus, said to the five other senators that -- there certainly were some agreements. He said that he wants them to come back with counterproposals by tomorrow morning at 10:00 a.m., and then they will meet tomorrow afternoon, with the hope, the hope of potentially getting something -- getting a deal potentially by the time the president speaks tomorrow night.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. MAX BAUCUS (D), MONTANA: My own personal view is that a lot of this comes down to political...

(CROSSTALK)

BAUCUS: I'm just hopeful that when the president gives his statement tomorrow night, that that's going to help move the ball forward and very expeditiously, because the rubber is starting to meet the road here.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BASH: Now, not a lot of people actually think that they can actually get this deal by tomorrow, but the senator made clear that he is going to move forward potentially without Republicans in this critical Senate committee if that doesn't happen.

BLITZER: We know, Dana, that one proposal coming out of these talks is something the Republicans say they can't live with.

BASH: That's right.

At least early on, and we still believe this is the case, one of the key Republicans here, Senator Max -- Charles Grassley, rather -- he's the top Republican on this committee -- he saw this proposal over the weekend and he said that there is -- he saw that there's a $6 billion tax on insurance companies, on the insurance industry to help pay for coverage for more Americans and he says that that is something that is not something he likes, because he says it will just be passed on to the consumer.

He also thinks that the nearly $900 billion price tag is still too high. That's something that he's going to try to whittle down. That might be something that he's going to do again probably in the next 24 hours or he might not be at the table anymore.

BLITZER: Ed, I know you're doing a lot of reporting over there at the White House.

What are you hearing? What specifically will the president say in his address before Congress tomorrow night about the so-called public option, a government-run health insurance company that would compete with the private companies?

ED HENRY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Very interesting, because what we're hearing from top advisers to the president is that he's still going to say that a public option is a valuable tool to in their words keep insurance companies honest, but he's clearly not going say that it's a deal breaker if it's not in there.

And that's different from what one of the key participants in an urgent Oval Office meeting today said. Speaker Pelosi came out of that meeting with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the president and the vice president, and she was once again adamant about saying a public option must be in the bill.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: On the public option, I believe that a public option will be essential to our passing a bill in the House of Representatives, because, as the president heard said -- and -- and I listened to him very carefully -- he believes that the public option is the best way to keep the insurance companies honest and to increase competition in order to lower costs, improve quality, retain choice -- if you like what you have, you can keep it -- and expand coverage in a fiscally sound, that it saves money.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HENRY: So we're still where we have been for quite some time. Liberals led by Speaker Pelosi adamantly want that public option, while conservative Democrats in the Senate, like Ben Nelson of Nebraska, don't want that, and that's why the president will be walking such a tightrope tomorrow night -- Wolf.

BLITZER: It's interesting, Dana, that the number-two Democrat in the House of Representatives, the majority leader, Steny Hoyer, he said this today, in marked contrast to what the speaker said, Steny Hoyer saying, if the public option weren't in there, "I still could support a bill because I think there's a lot in there that's good."

Is there a disconnect between Steny Hoyer and Nancy Pelosi?

BASH: I think what is happening is that Steny Hoyer is frankly reflecting a shift in the Democrats, even in the House of Representatives.

Just like Ed said, there's no question there are entrenched liberals or progressives who are saying that they will vote for nothing if it doesn't have that so-called government-run health care option. But I can tell you just in talking to even Democrats, even liberal Democrats coming back from recess, they are more and more likely and willing to have a compromise that doesn't include a public option or at least something short of that.

We're definitely hearing that, and I think that's what the number-two Democrat in the House was reflecting when he said that. It sounds a little bit different from Nancy Pelosi, but there's some politicking going on there.

BLITZER: Yes, I think he's a little bit more moderate than Nancy Pelosi is in terms of his own politics.

But, Ed, do we expect the president in his speech tomorrow night to actually reach out to Republicans?

HENRY: Yes. I just talked to a senior aide to the president who is saying that he will still make what might be one last shot at trying to win Republicans over, maybe reach out to them on an issue like tort reform, lawsuit abuses, the kind of thing that Republicans have been pushing for so long, to say, look, I want to give this one last try. But, frankly, in the West Wing, they're not hopeful they're going to be get a lot of Republican support. These folks are not seeing eye to eye, and that's happened throughout the debate. But the stakes are so high for Democrats, because, let's face it, you will remember, it was 16 years ago this month that Bill Clinton used the very same venue, a joint session of Congress, to try and push health reform.

That, of course, failed. And the message I'm hearing from senior advisers to the president is there's telling Democrats on the Hill one of the reasons why Democrats took so many losses in '94 is they got nothing don, and they're saying now failure is not an option -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Ed Henry, thank you.

Dana Bash, thanks to you as well.

BLITZER: This health care reform battle is on track to become the most expensive fight over an issue ever to hit Congress. Watchdog groups report more than $375 million have been spent so far on lobbyist TV ads and political donations. The biggest spenders include drug companies, hospitals, and doctors' groups, as well as advocates for unions, immigrants and retirees.

CNNMoney.com reports the $375 billion price tag, by the way, is enough to pay the entire insurance tab for about 30,000 families a year.

The Republican response to President Obama's address tomorrow night will be given by a doctor turned congressman. Charles Boustany of Louisiana is a heart surgeon with more than 20 years experience. On his Web site, Boustany says his goal is to lower costs and improve care by focusing on the doctor-patient relationship and by working in a bipartisan way.

By the way, stay with CNN for complete coverage of the president's health care address to Congress and the Republican response. We will be right here tomorrow night at 8:00 p.m. Eastern, along with the best political team on television.

Let's go to the war zone right now, the war zone in Afghanistan. Look and listen to this ferocious attack in Kunar Province. That's the area where four U.S. service members were killed in fighting today. August was the deadliest month for American troops in Afghanistan in almost eight years of war. September could be as bad, maybe even worse, as U.S.-led forces step up their fight against the Taliban.

CNN has an extensive team of reporters on the ground in Afghanistan right now, including Anderson Cooper. Anderson is joining us now on what's going on.

Based on what you and the team, Anderson, have been seeing over these past few days, does it look like the president's strategy in Afghanistan is working?

ANDERSON COOPER, HOST, "ANDERSON COOPER 360": Well, U.S. officials don't certainly use the term winning. You don't hear that very much at all.

As you know, Admiral Mike Mullen says the situation here militarily on the ground is actually deteriorating. We're seeing the Taliban spreading into areas beyond their traditional strongholds here in the south and Helmand Province, moving up into the north, moving into the west, areas that they traditionally have not been in over the last couple years.

So, that is certainly a situation of deep concern for military officials on the ground. The Marines in Helmand Province say it's basically a mixed picture. What you have is in certain areas, like the one we're in, Patrol Base Jaker, they have been able to push Taliban elements outside of this area, so they're not actually now engaged in daily firefights like they were when they first arrived in early July.

But the battle here is really a battle of hearts and minds, that old term. It's about trying to convince local Afghans that the central government cares about their needs and that the Marines are here to support the transition to this central government, and that life without the Taliban will improve and the Taliban's not going to return.

It's really trying to build the confidence in local residents here to support the government. But right now you talk to Marines, you go out on patrols -- we have for the last couple days, Wolf -- and you talk to local Afghans, they are really on the fence. They are not sure that the Marines are here to stay and they're not sure that the Afghan government is really going to provide them any services that's going to change their lives -- Wolf.

BLITZER: As you know, the president, Hamid Karzai, says he's been reelected. They say he got 54 percent of the vote, more than 50 percent. They don't need another vote, another recount.

But there's a lot of allegations that there was massive fraud under way. And now officials are calling for a recount of at least some of those ballots. How much does this complicate the entire military strategy under way?

COOPER: It complicates this a lot.

This is a Karzai area, so locals here are actually very supportive of President Karzai in the vote, those who did turn out to vote. But since the entire U.S. strategy is really based on the legitimacy of the Afghan government and convincing people here that the Afghan government is legitimate, that it does care about their needs, and that it's going to improve their lives with basic services, anything that threatens the stability of the government, whether it's Hamid Karzai or Abdullah Abdullah, whoever is elected president, anything which makes that government look not legitimate and unstable makes the U.S. effort all the more difficult.

You know, Wolf, it's really a clear hold and build strategy. The Marines are moving into areas. They're clearing it of Taliban, but they're only moving into areas that they can also hold, stay in and try to build some infrastructure in. And that requires troops and right now they don't have all the forces that they need to be able to move into all the areas where the Taliban is. It's that simple.

BLITZER: Anderson Cooper doing some amazing reporting for us on the scene. Anderson, thank you very much.

Anderson, by the way, is going to take all of us inside Afghanistan's battle zone live later tonight. It's an "A.C. 360" special report all this week, in fact, at 10:00 p.m. Eastern only on CNN, bringing you global coverage like no other news network.

Let's bring you back to Jack Cafferty right now for "The Cafferty File."

It's fair to say Anderson Cooper, Michael Ware, Peter Bergen, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, they're all there right now this week. They're all risking their lives to get the story to our viewers.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Yes. Journalistically speaking, it's men again the boys, CNN against the competition.

At some point, the American public is going to be asked to approve additional troops for that war if we're going to stay there and try to win it. If we're not, then we will have to get out. But if we're going to stay there and try to win, it's going to take more troops. And it's going to be interesting to see whether the American public has the stomach to commit more soldiers to what is now going on a nine-year-old war in Afghanistan. We shall see.

The stakes couldn't be much higher when it comes to President Obama's speech on health care reform to a joint session of Congress tomorrow night, a speech you can see here on CNN.

If the president's call to action doesn't get more lawmakers on board, if some kind of health care reform legislation doesn't come out of all this, the political damage to Mr. Obama could be significant.

Meanwhile, critics are after the president for what they see as a wide range of missteps in his eight months since taking office. Some say President Obama made a tactical mistake, putting Congress in charge of the details on a key issue like health care reform.

Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer in a column in "The Washington Post" writes that President Obama is in trouble and it's not Congress' fault. He says the president is to blame for an agenda too far to the left for what is a center-right country.

He says Mr. Obama misread the election results, that he was not given a mandate to make sweeping changes to the American system, enlarge the government, spend trillions of dollars we don't have. Krauthammer suggests the president is jeopardizing the trust of the people who elected him.

He writes this -- quoting here -- "Let's be clear. This is a fall, not a collapse. He's not been repudiated or even defeated. He will likely regroup, pass some version of health insurance reform that will restore some of his clout and popularity. But what has occurred -- irreversibly -- is this: He's become ordinary. The spell is broken. The charismatic conjurer of 2008 has shed his magic" -- unquote.

In other words, he says President Obama is a mere mortal, a politician, just like all the others.

So, here's the question: Has President Obama overplayed his hand?

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

I'm not so sure this first eight months is turning out like he imagined it might have.

BLITZER: But he's been underestimated before.

(CROSSTALK)

CAFFERTY: Game not over yet, but he's got to get his fastball working.

BLITZER: Yes, I think you're right. Jack, thank you.

The fear, America's defense could be in danger, but the secret weapon could be your children. You need to hear what our Pentagon correspondent Chris Lawrence is reporting.

And sign right here. Supporters want you to sign on to the president's health care agenda. Are their tactics bringing you on board or are they turning you off?

And as the president talks to schoolchildren, we have the kid whose question to the president may have created the most memorable moment of the day.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: President Obama today urged America's students to study harder, figure out what they're good at and never give up. It was a pretty straightforward pep talk, after critics warned him not to drag politics into the schools.

The president did offer something unexpected.

Our Brian Todd is over at the school where the president spoke.

Brian, I take it you interviewed that student who asked the president a very personal question.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We did, Wolf and it became the real story coming out of this event. This speech had received much more advance scrutiny, much more criticism than probably anyone had anticipated. But once the president set foot inside this school, it was his interaction with students and in particular that one young man that stole the show. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): The political buildup was all the talk around this event, critics charging the president and his team of politicizing a back-to-school speech. The White House denied that, but did change the wording of its guide for teachers and parents, taking out a phrase about what kids could do to help the president.

On stage, Mr. Obama never strayed from his central message.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If you quit on school, you're not just quitting on yourself. You're quitting on your country.

TODD (on camera): Inside these hallways you wouldn't really know this is ground zero for the great education speech debate. Here at Wakefield High School, the kids were really just buzzed about seeing the president up close, hearing his message about personal responsibility, and for some of them engaging him on a personal level.

(voice-over): The most poignant moment, not about education or politic, but the deeply personal. It came during a roundtable with ninth-graders before the speech. A 15-year-old boldly asked the president of the United States about his own father.

BRANDON CORTS, HIGH SCHOOL FRESHMAN: How do you think your life would have been different if he would have been there for you?

TODD: It brought a remarkably candid answer?

OBAMA: He was a very, very smart man. He was sort of arrogant and kind of overbearing. And he had his own problems and his own issues. So, my mother always used to say that, if he had been around, I probably would have been having a lot of arguments with him all the time.

TODD: I later caught up with freshman Brandon Corts.

(on camera): What inspired you to ask him that question?

CORTS: His -- just the way that he had the same problem that I had, you know, not really having his dad in his life, but he still ended up becoming the president.

TODD (voice-over): Brandon talked about his parents' divorce, a dad who moved away several years ago, a single mom raising him and his younger sister. He said he will never forget his unscripted moment with the president.

CORTS: He made me feel real responsible for taking care of myself and my family, because my mom works really hard.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: And this all comes on a very intimidating day for this young man. It's his first day of high school. It's his first every day of public school. Brandon previously went to a church school with a graduating class of seven. He now joins a high school here with nearly 1,400 students, quite a first impression he made on this very intimidating day -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And the president also gave some surprising personal information to another student as well, didn't he?

TODD: He certainly did. A student said, look, Mr. President, I want your job someday. What practical advice can you give me? The president said, of all things, be careful what you post of Facebook, because in this YouTube era, you never know whether it's going to be pulled up later again later in your life. He said he's heard of a lot of young people who put things on Facebook that are sometimes foolish and they kind of get burned when they go apply for a job.

And that kind of brought kind of a rousing response from the crowd.

BLITZER: Once it's out there on the Internet, it will always be there. Good advice from the president.

Brian, thanks very much.

We want you to hear another really interesting question the president received today from one of those ninth graders and listen to the question and the answer.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

QUESTION: Hi. I'm Lily (ph). And if you could have dinner with anyone, dead or alive, who would it be?

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: Dinner with anyone dead or alive?

Well, you know, dead or alive, that's a pretty big list.

(LAUGHTER)

You know, I...

(LAUGHTER)

I think that it might be Gandhi, who is a real hero of mine. Now, it would probably be a really small meal.

(LAUGHTER)

He didn't eat a lot.

But, you know, he's somebody who I find a lot of inspiration in. He inspired Dr. King.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: The president added that he's always interested in people who would bring about change through the force of their personality and their strong ethical and moral stances.

BLITZER: When it comes to math and sciences, American students are falling behind much of the world. Will that put America behind when it comes to national defense?

And she put up her life's work as collateral for a $24 million loan. Could the photographer Annie Leibovitz lose it all?

Plus, comedian turn U.S. Senator Al Franken can draw a detailed map of the U.S. in under two minutes while telling jokes. It's "Moost Unusual."

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

BLITZER: The U.S. military right now is testing a new missile. It will be better able to shoot down unmanned drones. And the program also is proving to be a secret weapon against another threat to national security. There's a shortage of American students who have the science and math skills necessary to build weapons in the future.

Let's go to our Pentagon correspondent, Chris Lawrence. He's working the story for us.

What exactly is going on, Chris?

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, this lack of American math and science students could mean huge problems down the road for the defense industry.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LAWRENCE (voice-over): The Navy's newest missile is one step closer to being fired in combat. But it takes scientists to build these weapons. And the brains behind America's arms are in danger.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You don't need a calculator.

LAWRENCE: A new report shows American students have fallen behind other countries in science. High schoolers rank near the bottom in math, behinds Estonia, Finland and China. That could leave American defense contractors with a dangerous lack of potential workers.

(on camera): A lot of companies in other industries just go to India.

KEVIN PEPPE, RAYTHEON COMPANY: We have a very, very interesting challenge that's not shared about a bunch of our industry peers.

LAWRENCE: Google can grab the best brains from anywhere in the world. That won't fly when you're working on the Pentagon's classified projects. So, defense contractors need a large pool of American math and science whizzes.

PEPPE: We're restricted to people's clearances. And most people with clearances generally have to be U.S. citizens.

LAWRENCE: So the real secret weapon in this missile test is a high school math teacher.

Jennie Elrod spent the summer working for Raytheon, getting paid to help the military develop its new missile.

JENNIE ELROD, HIGH SCHOOL MATH TEACHER: Actually tell the Navy crew on the headset, OK, it's doing this; it's verified. And, so, I actually had a role. And it was really exciting.

LAWRENCE: Now, she's taking what she's learned back to her Tucson classroom.

ELROD: Oh, I saw some engineering -- engineers using code when they were interpreting the missile. And they had to know number signs, like integers, for example, which is what I'm teaching today.

LAWRENCE: Jennie is one of 20 teachers selected for the program.

ELROD: So I saw a lot of you with the right answer.

LAWRENCE: Her school is 90 percent Latino and about a third of the students learn English as a second language.

ELROD: Some of my students come in with an identity that I can't do math. I don't -- I don't like math, I can't do it.

LAWRENCE: Compounding the problem, math and science teachers are in short supply. The secretary of Education recently argued it's time to stop paying everyone the same and give more money to teachers like Jennie. The National education Association opposes paying teachers solely based on what they teach. With this program, teachers' salaries stay the same...

ELROD: My internship was at Raytheon.

LAWRENCE: But private companies supplement their incomes over the summer.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

LAWRENCE: Now there was some concern that some of these teachers might just take jobs in the defense industry and give up the classroom entirely. So they all had to sign an agreement not to work for any of the participating companies for five years -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Chris Lawrence, thank you very much.

The war in Afghanistan may be getting even more complicated for President Obama. Just ahead, the election quagmire that may be in the works in Afghanistan, amid allegations of voter fraud and ballot stuffing.

Plus, how much does the president need the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi? The best political team on television tracks the ups and downs of the Obama-Pelosi relationship.

And who knew the Senate's resident former comic had yet another skill?

Al Franken's hidden talent -- it gets mapped out.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Now a political Time Out with our political analysts.

But first, let's go to Deborah Feyerick to kick it all off for us -- Deb.

DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, Nancy Pelosi has been a fan of President Obama since day one.

Remember her speech before a joint session of Congress earlier this year?

She jumped out of her seat more times than anyone. But that doesn't mean she's ready to sit back and let the president run the show. After all, she's worked really hard to get to the top spot. And with that power comes some pull that she's using to push for the public option in health care reform. She's even gone as far as to say that a bill will not pass the House without it.

The problem?

Well, the White House has been wishy-washy on a government-run option -- not ruling it in, but also not ruling it out. The issue was surely on the agenda today as the two met along with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

So here's the question -- how badly does President Obama need Nancy Pelosi -- Wolf?

BLITZER: All right. Let's talk about that with our senior political analyst, Gloria Borger; with former Bush speechwriter, David Frum; and "Washington Post" columnist, E.J. Dionne -- well, let me ask you, how badly does -- E.J., how badly does the president need Nancy Pelosi?

E.J. DIONNE, "WASHINGTON POST" COLUMNIST, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: The president needs Nancy Pelosi. And I really don't think there's a dime's worth of difference between Pelosi and Obama on the core issues of health care. Nancy -- if Democrats all by themselves could write this bill, the vast majority of them would put in a public option. Obama is for it. Pelosi is for it.

But Pelosi, in the part of the clip you didn't play, sent an interesting signal. She said for the moment, however, as far as our house members are concerned...

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. DIONNE: ...what she's saying there is I'm going to fight really hard for the public option, but I'm not going to sabotage health care reform if I have to settle for a trigger.

So I don't think there's a lot of distance there.

BLITZER: Do you agree, David?

DAVID FRUM, FORMER BUSH SPEECHWRITER: Well, I can't recall of when a speaker of the House has so defied a president of the same party in his first year, as -- as -- as has just happened. I mean Denny Hastert never did anything like this to President Bush 43.

BORGER: He's wrong.

FRUM: I can't remember Dick -- Dick Gephardt doing anything like this to Bill Clinton. Maybe Tip O'Neil to Jimmy Carter. I don't know. I mean it is an extraordinary act of -- of defiance. And it raises the question...

DIONNE: Not at all.

FRUM: ...who is it who is in...

BORGER: No, I agree.

FRUM: ...who is in charge of impose...

BORGER: I agree. Not at all.

FRUM: ...of imposing this kind of disci -- of imposing some kind of discipline on the liberal members of the Democratic Caucus?

And that is something the White House...

BORGER: Can I...

FRUM: ...normally asks the speaker to do.

BORGER: Can I just say, there's something called a little bit of politics going on here.

DIONNE: Yes.

BORGER: I've spoken to people today who are close to Nancy Pelosi. And she's got to walk a very fine line, just the way President Obama has to walk a fine line. Sure, she wants to keep those 160 or so liberals in the House happy for now. But it's also really, really important to her to keep those 30 or 40 moderate and conservative Democrats happy, because they've got to get re-elected. The liberals are in safe districts.

BLITZER: Here's the difference, David...

BORGER: These are the folks she has to worry about. BLITZER: David, the president of the United States can blame himself if there is a difference with the Congress between the House and the Congress, because he punted. He gave the Congress the option to go ahead and write the legislation. He didn't submit it, as former President Bush used to do -- and Dennis Hastert would say yes, sir.

He said to the Congress -- the House and the Senate -- do what you want and then we'll talk.

So he can blame himself for that, right?

FRUM: Well, he -- he can. But I think he also made an assessment of how much of the bit in their mouth did the liberals in Congress have. He had the option, also, of working from the center outward, which is, I think, a little bit of what Bill Clinton tried to do in 1993 and what President Bush tried to do in 2001.

When -- it is predictable what happens when you give the speaker and the Congressional leadership -- the outer wing of your own party will then write the law and you will be forced to either...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: E.J....

(CROSSTALK)

FRUM: ...or an impossible situation with the rest of the Congress.

BLITZER: Go ahead, E.J..

DIONNE: The president tried the center out thing for months with Max Baucus' committee. Max Baucus practically begged Chuck Grassley and Mike Enzi to support a bill. Maybe they'll do it. I doubt they will.

And the notion that Nancy Pelosi is some kind of ultra left winger, as Gloria said, she's absolutely right. She is very aware of how much her majority depends on those moderate Democrats from swing districts. She is no left-winger and she is going to help produce a health care reform.

FRUM: She's a left-winger from Cal.

DIONNE: I'm sorry?

BLITZER: All right.

FRUM: She's a left-winger from Cal.

DIONNE: She's a progressive who can count.

(CROSSTALK)

BORGER: She's just pragmatic. DIONNE: And so but she doesn't add like them.

Yes?

BORGER: She's pragmatic.

DIONNE: Pragmatic, I agree.

BORGER: And she is -- she's pragmatic. She's not distancing herself from President Obama.

DIONNE: Right.

BORGER: They're going to turn the Senate into the big, bad guy with whom they have to compromise. And she's going to have to go to her liberals at some point and say the perfect is the enemy of the good and we'll come back and fix this.

BLITZER: Hold those thoughts, guys.

We're going to continue with our political Time Out in just a moment.

We'll make a turn to Afghanistan -- what's going on right now?

Our coverage continues.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're back with Gloria, David and E.J..

We'll get back to them in a moment.

But let's go back to Deborah Feyerick first, to see what else is coming up -- Deb.

FEYERICK: Well, Wolf, the presidential election in Afghanistan was supposed to prove one thing -- democracy can work even in a war torn country.

But as reports of voter fraud, ballot stuffing and corruption keep pouring in, it might have proved the opposite.

So how will the Obama administration handle this mess?

Well, for now, the White House is staying out of it, waiting instead to see the results of the Afghan Election Commission's investigation. But that could take months.

And in the end, President Karzai will almost certainly stay in power. That puts President Obama in a tough spot. He is no fan of Karzai's, but he might be stuck defending him.

So the question is this, can the U.S. still work with President Karzai if he's lost legitimacy with his own people -- Wolf?

BLITZER: It's a good question.

David Frum, what do you think?

FRUM: Well, Afghanistan generally has a problem with power holders, both at the national level and at the local level. All of the governors in Afghanistan, for example, are appointed by the president. And he's appointed some very, very dubious characters.

Now, the United States has managed to work with those dubious governors more or less effectively. And I think we are going to be in a similar situation with President Karzai. In one way, it may even be an advantage, that his weakened position means he will be not as well able to protect the more corrupt members of his government and his family when the United States puts pressure on him to say, look, we have the good on this person or that, take them away from a position of public responsibility.

BLITZER: Here's the -- here's the irony right now, E.J.. The president seems to have more support, when it comes to Afghanistan, from Republican conservative -- neo-conservative elements -- than he has from his liberal base.

DIONNE: Right. They won't support him when he gives a speech about kids working hard in school, but they do support him on Afghanistan. It's extraordinary. And among Democrats and Independents, there's a lot of opposition to this war.

I think this election rigging charge is really serious, because if there's one metaphor somebody who might support a commitment to Afghanistan does not want to have pop up, it's Vietnam. It's the notion that our troops are there supporting a government that is, in some way, corrupt or illegitimate. And the whole idea of the policy is to strengthen a legitimate government in Afghanistan.

David put a very optimistic spin on it. Maybe he'll be right. But I think this is a real mess for President Obama. I think he's going to try to kick a decision on this down the road a little bit. His own administration is divided on what to do next.

BLITZER: In the meantime, though, Gloria, a lot of U.S. troops are getting killed and injured. The U.S. taxpayers are spending a lot of money. And you keep hearing, especially from the left, analogies to LBJ and the buildup in Vietnam.

BORGER: Right. And I might add that today, the United Nations said that there was clear and convincing evidence of voter fraud in Afghanistan.

Look, the president is going to have to do with Afghanistan what he's going to have to do with health care on -- on Wednesday night. He's going to have to lay out a plan. He's going to have to tell the people on domestic policy what he's going to do on health care, because that's his number one issue and Afghanistan is his number one foreign policy issue.

What the American people need to hear from him -- and I wouldn't be surprised if, at some point, they hear from him in an Oval Office address or in a speech to Congress or whatever, they need to hear from him his plan for Afghanistan, his exit strategy, that's going to get Karzai and the corruption under control in that country, that he's read them the riot act and said, you know, you'd better change your tune here or we can't be here forever.

BLITZER: It's good advice, Gloria.

What do you think, David Frum, does this whole Afghanistan situation turn out well for the president or awful?

FRUM: Look, I -- this is, I think, an example of that Henry Kissinger rule that sometimes the policies are better than the explanation. I mean I think we can see the emergence of a very viable administration plan. They've got a counter-insurgency strategy. They've got the right general in charge. They've learned some of the lessons from Iraq. They have highly motivated American forces in -- in the country. And they are training an Afghan army, where we are beginning to approach that magic one to 50 number of security personnel to indigenous population that is necessary to keep order in -- in a troubled area, that we saw with...

BLITZER: All right...

FRUM: ...a number that was successfully hit, for example, in Iraq.

On the other hand, the president has been very nervous, I think, about speaking too much about this because of trouble from his own party.

And if -- I'm one of the people who signed that letter to him saying that we're Republicans who will support you on this. And I think it's very important that Republicans make sure we do not engage in opportunistic criticisms...

BLITZER: Guys...

FRUM: ...of a war the United States is in. It's not like this is a new question. You're in the middle of this war...

BLITZER: All right...

FRUM: ...even if you wouldn't want it in the first place.

BLITZER: We've got to leave it there, guys. We'll see you back here tomorrow.

Some are calling it Al Franken's party trick.

Where did he learn how to do this?

CNN's Jeanne Moos takes a Moost Unusual look at the senator's unusual talent.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: Lou Dobbs is getting ready for his show that begins at the top of the hour -- Lou, what are you working on?

LOU DOBBS, HOST, "LOU DOBBS TONIGHT": Well, Wolf, thank you very much.

And at the top of the hour, we'll be bringing you the latest on the president putting himself squarely in the midst of the health care debate on the eve of what will certainly be a critical moment in his presidency. The White House says it will now be a more forceful president, as Democrats prepare to push the president's top domestic priority.

Also tonight, the public option -- is it in or is it out?

What's going on?

Supporters say there will be no deal without the public option. Opponents want to kill the public option. Tonight, two of Washington's most influential senators, Republican Judd Gregg and Independent Bernie Sanders join us for the Face-Off debate.

And all the president's czars -- a top adviser quitting, the White House plan of bypassing the vetting process and bypassing Congress raising troubling new questions.

We'll have all of that, all the day's news and much more at the top of the hour.

Please be with us -- Wolf, back to you.

BLITZER: See you then, Lou.

Thank you.

Let's go to Jack once again for The Cafferty File.

CAFFERTY: A related item this hour, the question is, has President Obama overplayed his hand?

Paul writes: "What magic is the right-wing columnist Krauthammer talking about? You know what magic Obama brings to my life personally? A big dose of the real. Here's a president who actually talks to us with some sense and to us, not at us. And you know what? If he were a politician like the rest, he wouldn't have been the first black man in the White House in a country where the Confederate flag is still allowed to be flown."

Albert in L.A. writes: "No. Recall when McCain tried to suspend his campaign, postpone the debate and hide under the economic crisis? Obama was correct, to be president, you must continue to turn with the world or it will turn without you. Obama won the debate, the election and the lousy hand left to him by George W. Bush and the Republicans. Now, a superman has to play that hand." Andy writes from Hermosa Beach, California: "Obama proved he was a mere mortal when Congress morphed the stimulus and Cap and Trade from meaningful legislation into pork laden garbage. Obama can take back his presidency by taking ownership of the health care issue and being clear and concise on what he wants to see in a bill. He needs to take the reins of the debate and not let Congress steer his proposals."

Toye in Connecticut writes: "On the contrary, Jack, if Obama is able to regroup and get something out of this, it makes him look all the more superhuman in my books. Let's be objective here. In the Democratic-controlled Congress, a mere mortal would have simply rallied the Blue Dogs and the liberals around the agenda and made it an all Democrat affair. But that would have been too easy. Instead, Obama pursued the path of more resistance and the spirit of bipartisanship. Let's give tribute where one is due."

Bob in Miami says: "Yes, he overplayed it, and on the same issue that tripped up the Clinton administration during his first term."

And Tom in Philadelphia writes: "No, not really. President Obama was handed a full plate and he's dealing with it. But while we're on the subject of too much and too many, you take too many days off. Next year I'm going to keep track."

If you didn't see...

(LAUGHTER)

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

BLITZER: Me, too.

CAFFERTY: You, too, what?

BLITZER: I'm going to keep track.

CAFFERTY: You take as many days as I do.

BLITZER: I know. I'm just joking. You deserve it.

Thanks, Jack.

Today, senators did something they rarely ever do -- they stopped talking. The moment of silence was to honor Senator Ted Kennedy. He served in the Senate for nearly 50 years.

Listen to the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, marking the moment and notice the vase of white flowers and a black cloth draped over Senator Kennedy's desk.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MAJORITY LEADER: Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that the Senate now observe a moment of silence in memory of our friend and departed colleague, the late Senator Edward Kennedy.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: He was once a cast member of "Saturday Night Live." But beside comedy and politics, Senator Al Franken has another Moost Unusual talent.

Here's CNN's Jeanne Moos.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Al Franken isn't just a senator, he's a cartographer. Bet you can't do what he did the other day at the Minnesota State Fair. Minnesota Public Radio put it to music.

Senator Franken starts with the state he represents, Minnesota, and draws a map of the U.S. from memory in under two minutes.

(on camera): He's got Cape Cod OK.

(voice-over): He seems to know every cape, every panhandle. The blogs have taken to calling this Senator Franken's party trick. He's been doing it for decades.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A super human trick.

MOOS: Twenty-two years ago, he did it on "Letterman."

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

DAVID LETTERMAN, HOST: Al Franken, go. The United States.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MOOS: Usually he auctions off the maps at fundraisers...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Go.

MOOS: ...for anywhere from $200 to $5,000. But the $64,000 question...

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

LETTERMAN: Why did you learn to do this?

SEN. AL FRANKEN (D), MINNESOTA: A bar bet.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MOOS: In college, he bet someone he could name all of the states, forgot one...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The West is easier. MOOS: And started drawing the map so he'd never forget again.

(VIDEO CLIP)

MOOS: He finished 13 seconds under two minutes. This, in a country where five out of 10 18 to 24-year-olds can't find New York State on a map.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's got to be between here and here.

MOOS (on camera): That's Pennsylvania.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, here's New York right here.

MOOS: No, that's New Jersey.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I mean here's New York...

MOOS: No.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Here's (INAUDIBLE).

MOOS (voice-over): Compared to that, Al Franken is a geography God.

(on camera): Sure, he knows the states of the United States, but could he draw a map of the provinces of Canada?

(voice-over): I asked because, unfortunately, I couldn't. I made the mortifying error of saying a squarely who became an Internet sensation hailed from Vance, British Columbia instead of Alberta. Deepest apologies, Alberta. The squirrel should have spanked me.

But geography whiz Al Franken, not only can he draw the U.S. map in under two minutes, he can banter while he does it, asking why is Minnesota so windy?

FRANKEN: Because the Dakotas blow and Wisconsin stops.

MOOS: So do jokes about geography.

Jeanne Moos, CNN...

(on camera): Virginia, Pennsylvania.

(voice-over): New York?

What's that?

(END VIDEO TAPE)

BLITZER: It's an amazing trick he does, Al Franken -- Senator Al Franken.

That's it for me.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

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