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Senate Finance Committee Passes Major Health Care Reform Bill; Russia Balks at Iran Sanctions

Aired October 13, 2009 - 16:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news: A Senate panel passes a major health care reform bill. The nation is now one step closer to covering tens of millions more Americans. We're standing by for the president of the United States to talk about this milestone. You will see it live right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton travels to Russia hoping for something, but ends up a bit empty-handed. What she and the U.S. want from Russia concerning Iran, Russia is now rebuffing.

And a "Desperate Housewife"'s determination -- the actress Eva Longoria Parker sits down with me. Wait until you hear what she wants for the nation's Latinos.

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.

Right now, such a major moment for health care reform - "The Washington Post" dramatically put it this way -- and let me quote -- "Not since Theodore Roosevelt proposed universal health care during the 1912 presidential campaign has any such bill come this far."

We're following breaking news right now.

A Senate panel passes an $829 billion health care bill designed to cover millions more Americans.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. Chairman, the final at ally is 14 ayes, nine nays.

SEN. MAX BAUCUS (D-MT), FINANCE COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: The ayes have it. And the mark is ordered reported. And I will consent that staff will be granted authority to make (INAUDIBLE) confirming the budgetary changes. Without objection, it is so ordered.

And thank all senators.



BLITZER: But the fight is by no means over. Lawmakers must now negotiate this bill with others before any final bill can emerge. History, though, is calling. Even Senator Olympia Snowe acknowledged that, being the only Republican on this panel who voted for it.

Our Ed Henry is standing by over at the White House, but let's begin our coverage this hour with our congressional correspondent, Brianna Keilar.

Brianna, this is a critical moment right now for the life and death -- or death -- of health care reform.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Critical, Wolf, because this was the last of five congressional committees to vote a bill out of committee, so this moves health care reform to a new phase now.

This was also significant because this is a very different bill than the others, a more conservative bill, one seen as having more support among Democrats in the Senate because it doesn't include -- among those centrist Democrats who have this concern, it does not include that government-run insurance plan, that public option.

Instead, it includes non-profit health care cooperatives. It also includes an individual mandate that says Americans must buy insurance or pay a penalty. But it doesn't include a similar mandate for employers to help provide that insurance for their employees.

And, finally, the price tag, $829 billion, the only price tag of any bill that falls beneath that $900 billion cutoff that President Obama set. And also a couple of really important points for consumers out there, under this bill, as the others, it would force insurance companies to not deny coverage on the basis of preexisting conditions or cap those annual or lifetime benefits you can receive -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Brianna, Democrats will certainly describe Republican Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine as a profile in courage, in being the only Republican on this committee to vote in favor of this health care reform package, but her support is conditional, isn't it?

KEILAR: It is conditional, and she made that clear, saying that she considers this whole bill a work in progress, that it can be moved further to her liking, or away from her liking, and that just because she voted yes today in this committee doesn't mean that she will necessarily vote yes for it before the full Senate.

And the next process here, Wolf, is going to happen under the watchful eye of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, along with the key negotiator from the Senate Health Committee, which has had a more liberal bill, and the chairman of this committee, Senator Max Baucus. They will meet tomorrow with White House officials to begin the process of blending these two bills.

Senator Snowe will not have a seat at that table tomorrow, we understand, but she will throughout this process.

BLITZER: Brianna Keilar doing an excellent job of covering the story for us up on the Hill -- thank you, Brianna. Over at the White House, President Obama certainly pleased with the Senate panel's efforts towards health care reform, and he's getting ready to go into the Rose -- Rose Garden and speak to reporters.

Let's bring in our senior White House correspondent, Ed Henry.

Ed, they must be pretty happy over there, where you are.


And I have talked to top White House aides here who believe this is a real turning point in this debate that's had so many zigs and zags, first of all, because the president has been criticized again and again for not being aggressive enough.

Top aides here say he's going to really add some urgency to this debate, and we're going to see that at 5:10 Eastern time, as you said, in the Rose Garden, where he's really going to lay out the stakes and really try to, after not being involved in the health care debate for a few weeks now, talking about Afghanistan and other subjects, really get back in there, and, secondly, a turning point as well, because now they believe they finally have some momentum.

They spent so much time trying to bring aboard Republicans, trying to get some bipartisanship, repeatedly came up empty in this process. Finally, after spending so much time on Olympia Snowe, they did get her, though the president earlier today was trying to be very cautiously optimistic, because he knows this could change down the road.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think not only Chairman Baucus and others, but, in particular, Senator Snowe has been extraordinarily diligent in working together, so that we can reduce costs of health care, make sure that people who don't have it are covered, make sure that people who do have insurance have more security and stability, and that, over the long term, we're saving families, businesses and our government money.

So, I never count -- count chickens before they are hatched, but this is obviously another step forward in bringing about a better deal for the American people.


HENRY: And this could also be a turning point, because, for the first time we're really going see top aides here get much more actively involved in the negotiations up there on Capitol Hill. In fact, aides here at the White House now telling me that, as soon as tomorrow morning, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel is going to be up there working with Senate leaders, figuring out how to merge these various bills, getting their fingernails more dirty than we have seen before -- Wolf. BLITZER: Meanwhile, we will stand by to hear from the president in the Rose Garden. We will have live coverage of that, Ed, once he goes outside.

Amid all this history, there was another dramatic twist today. Some of the people who typically support the president and the Democrats won't necessarily support the Democratically-backed bill, the bill that passed the Senate Finance Committee today. We're talking about labor unions.

Among their gripes, unions want a public option. They say that, since this bill does not contain that public option, they are going to run ads against it.

Let's bring in our senior political correspondent, Candy Crowley.

So, from the left, the president is facing a bit of a revolt right now.


We heard from the insurance companies yesterday. And they may begin running ads talking about what they don't like about it, but here's the union problem. It's not just that there isn't a public option. It is the way the Senate Baucus bill goes about financing this, at least in part, and that's with the tax on these so-called Cadillac plans, the high-end health insurance companies.

Well, guess what? Over the past couple of decades, unions, instead of taking huge pay increases, have gone for what? Health care benefits. So, typically, unions have lower deductibles. They -- they can get in and out of, say, a heart surgery procedure at maybe a third less of out-of-pocket expenses than others.

Is that a Cadillac plan? And that's what the unions are worried about, that, in fact, many of these plans are going to be taxed. And these are not what they consider to say -- well, they may be going after Goldman Sachs people, but what they are getting are union workers, so they don't like the way this is configured.

It's all going to boil down to what exactly is a Cadillac plan. And you know, in the House side, they don't like it at all. We're already beginning to hear that -- from House people, House leaders, saying, no Cadillac plan tax here.

What they want, of course, is that surcharge on -- so-called millionaire surcharge, which actually starts at $500,000. So, two key issues on both sides of this debate. One is, how are you going to pay for this, and the other is, will there be a publicly financed health care option?

So, that's where this huge battle to begin, in that little room with those four guys Brianna was talking about.

BLITZER: Yes. Those are huge issues.


BLITZER: There's no doubt about that, so the fighting will continue. Thanks very much, Candy, for that.

Happy to report that Jack Cafferty is back today with "The Cafferty File."

Jack, welcome back. We missed you.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Did you. I was going to ask, did you miss me?

BLITZER: We did miss.

CAFFERTY: Well, thank you. It's nice to be missed.

BLITZER: We always miss you.

CAFFERTY: President...


CAFFERTY: President Obama doesn't have any shortage of critical issues to deal with right now, the aforementioned health care reform, the economy, job creation, possibly sending as many as 40,000 to 60,000 more troops to Afghanistan.

But the president is choosing this moment to wade into yet another heated debate, that of gay rights. In a speech to an advocacy group, Mr. Obama promised to end the military's policy of don't ask, don't tell. He did not say when or how, but he did promise to end it.

Carl Levin, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, says he expects that ban to be lifted, but he says it's critical for military leaders to agree on the policy change. President Obama is also calling on Congress to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act. The 1996 law signed by President Clinton defines marriage as being between a man and a woman and make sure that states don't have to recognize same-sex marriages that are performed in other states.

President Obama doesn't support same-sex marriage, said he thinks marriage is between a man and a woman, but he does back the civil unions that offer similar rights to gay couples. And, just this weekend, Mr. Obama called for a law to extend benefits to domestic partners.

Meanwhile, some gay rights activists are getting impatient with the president, saying they have heard his promises before. Now they want a timeline.

So, here's the question. Is this the right time for President Obama to wade into the issue of gay rights? Go to You can post a comment on my blog.

He has a lot of balls in the air, this president of ours. BLITZER: He certainly does, and -- and each one of these issues by themselves could be enough to consume all of his time. Together, it's -- it's amazing how much he's got in front of him right now, domestic and national security.

CAFFERTY: A lot of stuff.

BLITZER: All right, Jack, thanks. As I said, good to have you back.

What Hillary Clinton wants, she can't yet have from Russia. The secretary of state travels there seeking agreement over a key issue regarding Iran, but Russia is not necessarily on board, despite earlier comments.

And Latino leaders against the president and Congress -- wait until you hear what bold actions some Latino leaders are urging from millions of illegal immigrants.

And for anyone questioning why President Obama was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize, the panel that picked now defending it.


COOPER: A setback today: a closed-door diplomatic meeting today between two nuclear powerhouses, but still no firm agreement on how to cope with Iran's nuclear program.

The secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, meeting today with her Russian counterpart in Moscow.

Our foreign affairs correspondent Jill Dougherty, is traveling with Secretary Clinton -- Jill.


JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, President Obama put Hillary Clinton in charge of U.S.-Russian relations, and, so far, own this very quick visit to Moscow, it does appear the two countries are making some progress, but they still haven't reached a meeting of the minds on Iran.

(voice-over): Hillary Clinton, across the table from Russia's foreign minister, gives a shorthand version of U.S.-Russian relations based on her recently broken elbow.

HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: Now both my elbow and our relationship are reset.


CLINTON: And we're moving forward, which I greatly welcome.

DOUGHERTY: But on the key issue of Iran, that reset doesn't give the secretary of state what a senior official says she came for, clarity from the Russians on what specific forms of pressure they would be willing to sign on to if Iran doesn't come clean on its nuclear program -- Clinton's strategy, a dual-track approach.

CLINTON: We are aware that we might not be as successful as we need to be, so we have always looked at the potential of sanctions in the event that we are not successful, that we cannot assure ourselves and others that Iran has decided not to pursue nuclear weapons.

DOUGHERTY: But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says, threats of sanctions and pressure right now would be counterproductive.

SERGEI LAVROV, RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTER (through translator): The threats of sanctions, imposing sanctions or pressure, are counterproductive.

DOUGHERTY: Diplomacy, the Russians say, is working so far.

The evidence? Iran's agreement to let U.N. inspectors see its previously undisclosed uranium-enrichment facility. At his residence in the Moscow suburbs, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev welcomed Secretary Clinton and says his country and the U.S. are ready together to find answers to the most pressing and difficult issues on the international agenda, including Iran.

But he does not repeat what he told President Barack Obama in September, that sometimes, sanctions may be inevitable.

DMITRY MEDVEDEV, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): We are disposed to find answers to the most topical questions of the international agenda, the most difficult questions, and we are very interested in discussion of those.

DOUGHERTY (on camera): Clinton, too, says that, while Iran is willing to show some openness on its nuclear program, it's not yet time for tougher sanctions. But the Obama administration says it's not willing to wait for Iran indefinitely. Just how long Moscow is willing to wait isn't clear -- Wolf.


BLITZER: Jill Dougherty in Moscow for us working the story.

A deepening rift between rival Palestinian factions appears to be dashing any hope of reconciliation. In the latest salvo, the Palestinian president and Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas today called Hamas-controlled Gaza -- and I'm quoting him now -- "an emirate of darkness." He also accused Hamas fighters of fleeing during Israel's unrelenting offensive in the region last winter.

Abbas' remarks follow Hamas' criticism of his decision to withdraw support for a U.N. report on suspected war crimes during the Israeli offensive. Abbas later reversed that position.

Going back to our top story, health care clearing a congressional committee, but the battle is certainly far from over. We're taking a closer look at the long road to reform. And we're waiting for President Obama. He's going to be going out into the Rose Garden to make a statement. We will carry it live once it begins.


BLITZER: Just want to remind you, President Obama getting ready to go into the Rose Garden to speak to all of us about the status of health care reform, the Senate Finance Committee today passing its version of health care reform. We will have the president's remarks live once he's there. That will happen here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

In the meantime, let's check in with Betty Nguyen. She's monitoring some other important stories incoming to THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

Hi, Betty. What's going on?

BETTY NGUYEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi there, Wolf. Well, he didn't look particularly happy. That's how one of the Nobel Peace Prize judges describes President Obama as he appeared in the Rose Garden to acknowledge his unexpected award.

However, members of the Nobel Committee told the Associated Press that President Obama was a unanimous choice. Now, another committee member said most of the criticism was coming from the media and political rivals.

Well, the Pentagon announced today that, for the first time since the all-volunteer military was formed back in 1973, all active and reserve military branches met their recruiting goals. And the Air Force, the Navy, as well as the Marine Corps, recruited 100 percent of their targets. The Army got more than it was expecting, 108 percent. That alone translates to just more than 70,000 young men and women headed to boot camp.

And in Deerfield Beach, Florida, a 15-year-old boy -- listen to this -- was splashed with rubbing alcohol and then set on fire, possibly because he stopped some other boys from stealing his father's bicycle. A neighbor heard his screams and put out the flames with the fire extinguisher, but not before Michael Brewer was burned over three-quarters of his body. Police say this afternoon that five juveniles are in custody and charged in that attack.

So sad.

Well, when police stopped by near Laredo, Texas, this bogus school bus was carrying more than 5,000 pounds of marijuana. The driver took off, abandoning the cargo estimated to be worth $1.7 million. Police say they are pursuing several leads.

Hmm -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Pretty clever to try to hide all that pot...

NGUYEN: In a school bus. BLITZER: ... in a school bus, because...


BLITZER: ... who is going to stop a school bus? That seems like a pretty safe -- pretty clever on their part. But...

NGUYEN: Well, apparently, they were on to it.


BLITZER: Yes, not clever enough.


BLITZER: That's a lot of pot.

NGUYEN: Uh-huh.

BLITZER: All right, thanks very much, Betty, for that.

After today's historic vote on health care reform in the Senate, what's next? Two senators, they are here to debate. One is a Republican, the other an independent, who also supports socialism.

We're going to have a -- a good debate on this subject.

Also, an open display, anger and hate, a swastika carved into a field next to President Obama's name -- what should the Secret Service do about these hateful acts?


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

Happening now, a flash, then fear. The flight engineer of a hijacked plane tells his story, vivid memories, even 41 years later.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signs a measure cracking down on paparazzi in California. Critics say it's a First Amendment threat.

And Eva Longoria Parker far from desperate and on a mission here in Washington -- she says the time has come for the Latino community to have its own museum here in the nation's capital. She will join me in THE SITUATION ROOM.

I'm Wolf Blitzer, and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

The nation is now one step closer to millions and millions more Americans having health care insurance. We're covering the breaking news this hour. A Senate panel passes an $829 billion health care reform bill. This fight, though, is certainly far from over, as lawmakers must now negotiate this bill with four others before any final bill can emerge. Still, this is a major step forward on a journey that's been long in the making.

Let's bring in our national political correspondent, Jessica Yellin. She's got more on this story -- Jessica.


Momentous, big news, a victory for the Democrats, those are just some of the headlines already out about the health care bill passed today. A lot of excitement. So, what happens next? A lot.


YELLIN (voice-over): It's been 223 days since President Obama started the race to pass health care reform this year.

OBAMA: This time is different.

YELLIN: There have been at least 60 hearings, more than $124 million of TV ads, one presidential address, and an unknowable number of status updates.

Finally, it's game day. Off the blocks, Chairman Baucus was feeling strong.

QUESTION: It's going to pass today?

BAUCUS: Yes, yes, yes. Big day.

YELLIN: But all eyes were on Senator Olympia Snowe, the one Republican who might vote yes. Would she?

SEN. OLYMPIA SNOWE (R), MAINE: Let's say I'm sorting through all the issues.

YELLIN: All this attention, all this interest.

BAUCUS: The meeting will come to order.

YELLIN: This must be the final decision on health care reform, right?


(on camera): This is just the vote of one Senate committee. Next, their bill has to be stitched together with another bill passed by a different Senate committee, and that new health care bill will go to a full vote of the U.S. Senate.

So, you think that's it, one more vote and health care reform is done? Oh, no. Over here at the House of Representatives, they are working on their own health care bill that would be paid for differently and include some type of public option. If that passes, then you have two health care bills, one from the House and one from the Senate.

Here's the homestretch. Those two bills have to be merged before the full Congress can make the big vote on health care reform. Simple, right?

(voice-over): So, why is everyone taking this vote so seriously?

UNIDENTIFIED MALES AND FEMALES (singing): Happy birthday, dear Maria.

YELLIN: Well, most of it was serious. That was for Senator Cantwell's birthday.

It's serious because this committee has been the biggest roadblock to passing health care reform. And Republican Olympia Snowe announced she's voting yes.

SNOWE: They want us to continue working.

YELLIN: At least for now, the White House can claim a smidge of bipartisan support, and health care inches forward to the next step.


YELLIN: And, now, the Democrats' goal is to get it all done, have the big bill passed by Congress before their winter holiday, so it can then go to the White House for the president's signature this year. In other words, they want this bill done and off the table before 2010, because, Wolf, you know what happens in 2010 -- another election.

BLITZER: A big challenge. Not a done deal, but a step along the road.

Jessica, thanks very much.

Let's go to Capitol Hill right now, talk a little bit more about health care reform, what it might look like as this process continues to move forward over the next several weeks, maybe even months.

Senator Bernie Sanders is joining us. He's an Independent from Vermont who caucuses with the Democrats. And Republican Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, he's also a physician.

Senator Barrasso, five committees have now taken this up, three in the House, two in the Senate. They've all passed various versions. Does it look like this train is leaving the station and you and the Republicans are going to be left behind?

SEN. JOHN BARRASSO (R), WYOMING: Everyone believes we need health care reform. There are things we can do, but, Wolf, these bills, this is the wrong way to do the right thing.

There is a right way to do the right thing, and I think we need to make it patient-centered instead of Washington-centered or insurance company-centered. There's a lot we can do, and these bills aren't doing it.

These bills are going to cut Medicare, the care that our seniors depend on, by $500 billion. They are going to raise taxes for $400 billion. And as you said in the introduction, there's going to be insurance for people who don't have it, but it's also very clear today from the discussion in the committee that it's going to raise the prices for people that do have insurance. They are going to end up paying more for insurance than if nothing passed.

BLITZER: But Senator, on the political question, are the Democrats going to get their way? They got one Republican senator on board today. In the end, will the president sign health care reform into law?

BARRASSO: Oh, I think there's going to be something that the president is going to sign, but I really hope that we can, along the way, as Olympia Snowe said, change things, amend things, work to merely make it patient-centered instead of a government-run program, which my concerns are. And we're seeing what is government-forced insurance in the bill that passed today.

BLITZER: Senator Sanders, could you vote for this legislation that passed in the Senate Finance Committee today? It does not have a public option.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I), VERMONT: No. It's a pretty weak bill, and we're going to have to make it a lot stronger.

Remember, Wolf, the United States today is the only country in the industrialized world that does not guarantee health care to all people. While the insurance companies are making huge profits, 45,000 Americans last year died, and we end up spending almost twice as much as any other country on health care and yet our outcomes are worse.

Obviously, we need real health care reform. We need to make it affordable for the middle class. We need a much greater emphasis on prevention and primary health care. And very importantly, we need a public option so that people in 50 states of this country can have the choice about whether they want to continue with their private insurance company or they want a Medicare-type program.

BLITZER: But if that public option can't get 60 votes in the Senate which is needed to break a filibuster, Senator Sanders, here's the question: What would be better, voting against it, defeating that, getting nothing, or getting something that meets some of your goals?

SANDERS: Well, you're raising all kinds of hypotheticals. I don't think that's going to happen. The last poll that I saw had by a 2-1 vote, 62-31, people wanting a Medicare public option, and I think that's what we're going to do.

BLITZER: Quickly respond to that, Senator Barrasso.

BARRASSO: Well, to me, that's a government-run insurance plan. We have them right now. We have Medicare, we have Medicaid.

Medicare, as we know as that model, is going broke. It's unsustainable expenses in the future. With Medicaid, the aid for other people, that's really being forced upon the state. It's going to break the banks of most states, force them into bankruptcy. And 40 percent of doctors in the country won't see these Medicaid patients right now because the reimbursement is so low. And that's why the costs are shifted to people who already have insurance and why the costs for Americans with insurance, Wolf, we know is going to go up if this becomes law.

SANDERS: No, that's -- that's really not quite right. What we're talking about is a Medicare-type program which is going to be funded by premiums. And I think if you give most people the choice in this country of whether they want a private insurance company which denies people insurance with pre-existing conditions, or throws them off of their insurance policies because they were too sick the previous year, you know what? Most people would prefer a Medicare- type program even if it's paid with premiums.

It is not a government program. It is paid for by premiums.

BLITZER: In the Senate Finance Committee bill there is this so- called Cadillac plan, to tax these Cadillac plans. Let me explain to our viewers what we're talking about. A lot of talk about these so- called Cadillac plans.

Critics say that these Cadillac plans, think of them as high-end health insurance plans that are employer-sponsored and strictly for the rich like Wall Street executives. But blue collar workers, including a lot of union members, they are getting -- they can get these Cadillac plans as well. That's because unions often push for them in contract negotiations.

The current bill just passed in the Senate Finance Committee wants to tax these so-called Cadillac plans. The unions don't like this. The goal though would be raising billions of dollars for health care reform.

Senator Sanders, are you with the unions on this...

SANDERS: Absolutely.

BLITZER: ... or are you with the Senate Finance Committee?

SANDERS: No, absolutely. I'm with millions of Americans who have worked very, very hard, have foregone pay increases in order to get good insurance policies, and those insurance policies should not be taxed. In my view, Wolf, there are hundreds of billions of dollars in waste in the current system in terms of administration, profiteering and bureaucracy that we've got to squeeze out of the system, not tax working people who fought very hard to get good insurance programs.

BLITZER: Do you support taxing these so-called Cadillac plans, Senator Barrasso?

BARRASSO: Well, my concern, Wolf, like Senator Sanders, I'm for the American people. And this plan, this tax, within the next 10 years about 40 percent to 50 percent of all Americans will be paying taxes because the inflation rate on health care has been going up greater than the other inflation rate. So, you're going to see more and more people paying tax, a lot of the hard-working people all across the country. But like Senator Sanders said, there is so much waste and fraud and abuse in Medicare right now. We see the drug dealers in Florida going into Medicare fraud because it's more profitable, there's less chance of getting caught, and if they get caught the punishment is less.

So, we need to clean this up first before we get a whole new government-run plan in place.

SANDERS: But the fraud is also being committed not by little guys who are ripping off the system, but by companies like Pfizer and big drug companies who are also ripping off the system. And my understanding -- when I talk about waste, what I'm talking about is thousands of separate private insurance programs whose goal in life is not to provide health care, it's to make as much money as they possibly can, which, in fact, the insurance companies are doing a very good job at right now. If we squeeze that waste, that administrative, that bureaucratic waste out of the system, we can provide health care to all people without spending a nickel more than we're currently spending.

BLITZER: Good debate.

BARRASSO: And, of course, Wolf, they don't cover -- anywhere in here, they don't look at any of the abuse of lawsuits and the amount of money that can be saved by eliminating so much of this defensive medicine that's practiced. And I was in a hospital yesterday in Wyoming, and we heard from doctors and patients and nurses. All of them are concerned that that's not included really in any of these bills.

SANDERS: Well, we should look at it, but the cost, the savings will be substantially less than many of my Republican friends are talking about.

BLITZER: The Congressional Budget Office...

BARRASSO: Hundreds of billions of dollars.

BLITZER: Senator Sanders, the Congressional Budget Office says it will be $50 billion that Americans will save if there's significant malpractice...

SANDERS: Over a 10-year period.

BLITZER: Yes. That's a lot of money, $50 billion.

SANDERS: Yes, but we're spending $2.5 trillion. So add it up. It's something, ,and we should pursue it, but it's not what the Republicans are talking about.

BLITZER: Senators, thanks to both of you for coming in.

BARRASSO: Thank you, Wolf.

SANDERS: Thank you. BLITZER: The president's name and a swastika carved into a field. Is hate taking over political debate?

We're going to hammer that out in our "Strategy Session."

And a congressman lives out his childhood dream, surviving on a desert island, living off what he can catch with his own hands. We're going to bring you a story right out of "Robinson Crusoe."


BLITZER: We're awaiting President Obama. He's getting ready to go into the Rose Garden over at the White House to speak to all of us about health care reform now that the Senate Finance Committee has passed legislation. It's the fifth committee in the Senate and House to do so.

What comes next? We'll hear from the president shortly. We'll have complete coverage coming up here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

In the meantime, the next U.S. census begins next year. Some Latino leaders are calling on people in their communities to boycott the census. And we want to know why, so we asked CNN's Brian Todd to take a closer look.

Why don't they want everyone to stand up and be counted?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, these leaders say that boycotting the census, illegal immigrants are sending a signal to Washington that whatever resources the government is sending the Latino community in the U.S. are not getting to them. They believe it's the only leverage they have to push immigration reform through.


TODD (voice-over): Miguel Rivera holds an impromptu rally on Capitol Hill for a campaign he never thought he'd take on. Rivera is an Evangelical minister from Bergen County, New Jersey. He leads the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders, and he's leading an effort to get undocumented Latinos in the United States to boycott the census next year. It's a protest, he says, against the Obama administration and Congress for not passing a bill to improve the immigration status of undocumenteds.

(on camera): What have they not done that you believe merits this kind of action?

REV. MIGUEL RIVERA, NATIONAL COALITION OF LATINO CLERGY AND CHRISTIAN LEADERS: They basically have done nothing. And the truth is that, as of now -- as of right now -- I'm sorry -- basically we're not seeing that this is a true priority, nor for the White House or for this Congress.

TODD (voice-over): Contacted by CNN, a White House spokesman flatly refuted the claim, saying President Obama has tasked Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to work with Congress on reform, and "The president has consistently said we would begin work on comprehensive immigration reform this year, and that's what we're doing."

But Rivera's group believes a census boycott is the only bargaining chip undocumented immigrants have to improve their conditions.

(on camera): One Reverend Rivera's biggest complaints is that counting more undocumented immigrants doesn't necessarily give them more power in Congress. They may have more numbers in a given congressional district, but because those people can't vote, they don't really get the representation from their congressmen that they should. He calls those ghost districts.

(voice-over): But several Latino groups are against Rivera's stand. They say it's ludicrous to believe that not getting counted will actually improve access to resources. Gabe Gonzalez of the Center for Community Change also says there's a bigger picture

GABE GONZALEZ, CENTER FOR COMMUNITY CHANGE: But what I do think is fundamentally important is that people participate in every aspect of American society that's open to them. The census, as I said, is part of that participation.


TODD: Gonzalez's group and many other Latino organizations argue that not participating in the census will only place undocumented immigrants further in the shadows. Most of them, he says, want to be citizens, want to be part of the fabric of the American life, and census boycotting is not the way to go about that -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian, how many undocumented immigrants does Reverend Rivera believe he can convince to participate in this boycott?

TODD: He says that between his group and a coalition of Mexican- American organizations who side with them, that they can get more than two million people to boycott the census. Now, U.S. Census officials tell us the Hispanic community in the United States is already one of the toughest communities to track. This will undoubtedly make it harder if those projections come true.

BLITZER: Yes. I'm sure we have not heard the last of this story by any means.

Brian Todd, thank you.

And we're just days away from "Latino in America," a comprehensive look at how Latinos are changing America. "Latino in America" airs next Wednesday and Thursday at 9:00 p.m. Eastern. It will also be simulcast in Spanish on "CNN en Espanol."

Amid an important vote on health care reform, the president is set to come out into the Rose Garden and make his first comments reacting to it. White House officials tell CNN the president is now about to get far more personally involved in the coming weeks to push health care reform over the finish line.

We're standing by to hear from the president. We'll have live coverage coming up here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

And what does Rush Limbaugh think of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton? He compares her to a famous character in the movie "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." Why this comparison?


BLITZER: A report in a gay publication today says the White House wants to enlist Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut in its quest to do away with the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy banning gay troops from serving openly in the United States military.

Let's talk about this in our "Strategy Session" with Democratic strategist Mo Elleithee. He's now working with the gubernatorial campaign, the Democratic candidate Creigh Deeds in Virginia. And Republican strategist John Feehery, he once served as a spokesman for the former House Speaker Dennis Hastert.

Guys, thanks very much for coming in.

Would it be smart to enlist Joe Lieberman as the point man, in effect, in the Senate to pass legislation doing away with "Don't Ask, Don't Tell?"

MO ELLEITHEE, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Well, you know, Senator Lieberman is a longstanding critic of the current policy, and I think a lot of people agree that the current policy doesn't work. I think the president is right to want to try to reach across party lines and get a bipartisan consensus on this, and I don't think there's anyone out there that would argue Joe Lieberman is a hyper-partisan by any stretch of the imagination. So, using him to help reach out across the aisle is probably going to be helpful.

BLITZER: Because he's wanted to change this for a long time, and he's a member of the Armed Services Committee. He's got good relationship with a bunch of Republicans, including John McCain and Lindsey Graham, as you well know.

JOHN FEEHERY, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: I like him Joe Lieberman. I like him especially now that he came out against the Baucus plan on health care, which is a good thing. And I think on national security issues, he's a very smart guy. So, I think Mo is right. I think this will help gain support if he's going to sign up for the program.

BLITZER: Did you hear Rush Limbaugh when he was asked on "The Today Show" earlier today what he thought about the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton? Saying, and the first words that came out of his mind, "Nurse Ratched from 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?'"

What did think about that?

FEEHERY: I thought it was kind of funny. I mean, obviously, Rush and Hillary Clinton don't have a particularly close relationship. But obviously, Hillary Clinton has been a lightning rod for Republicans for a long time, though I will say she seems like she's the most reasonable one in the Obama cabinet right now. You know, obviously, it's going to be -- it's one of those things where you don't necessarily want to use that language unless you're someone like Rush Limbaugh.

BLITZER: Is Rush Limbaugh and the comments that he makes good for the Democrats going ahead to 2010 or bad for the Democrats in the sense that he can really energize that conservative Republican base?

ELLEITHEE: Well, I think he certainly energizes the Democratic base. I think a lot of people are frustrated out there with the tone coming out of Washington, and he seems to be the cheerleader for those that want to try to use divisive language. It's good for his ratings, I don't think it's good for the country.

BLITZER: Another issue, the hate images that we've seen over these past few months. Now there's been a huge swastika with a picture of Obama on a golf course in Massachusetts. There you see it there, his name, "Obama," and the swastika on a golf course. The Secret Service is investigating.

These are ugly, ugly developments, Mo. I don't know what, if anything, can be done about them but, you know, when you make these kinds of accusations against the president of the United States -- and you see more and more of them come up -- it does not speak well of what's going on, the mood out there.

ELLEITHEE: No. Well, I think that, as were just talking about, there's a certain level of vitriol that's been injected into the national dialogue lately that I don't think is helping the country. I think this type of thing is absolutely repulsive. But, you know, when you start seeing more and more people in public life using hateful language and vitriolic language, I just think it adds to poisoning the environment.

BLITZER: Is this just the tiny, tiny little fringe element out there, or is it more significant? And you've been -- you've worked in government for a long time. You know what's going on, John.

FEEHERY: You know, it reminds me of the song by Billy Currington, the country song, "God is great, beer is good, and people are crazy." You know, the fact is that there are some people who are completely crazy out there.

And this kind of stuff -- you know, the political process is so important, and civil language is so important, but you're always going to have those elements. From way back when I worked in the early days of the 1990s, I've seen language that's been absolutely terrible, aimed at all sides, and I think the civil discourse is obviously extraordinarily important. This kind of stuff, some people are just completely crazy.

BLITZER: Because there were really ugly accusations hurled against President Bush as well. You know, people going out and demonstrating, "War criminal," stuff like that, against the former president of the United States. So I guess it's not all that unusual.

ELLEITHEE: No. And I think John is right, that there's a certain element of fringe out there that...

BLITZER: Whether on the extreme left or the extreme right.

ELLEITHEE: On both sides that aren't helpful to the debate. If you really want to make a point, there are much more effective ways to do it than that.

BLITZER: Good point.

FEEHERY: One thing I would say about the process, the legislative process has language in it that people have to act responsibly. And I think the most important thing for all politicians, as they do their campaigns, that they all act as responsibly and as civilly as possible.

BLITZER: We'll leave it on that note, guys. Excellent point.


BLITZER: Thank you.

We're waiting for President Obama to appear in the Rose Garden to address the nation about health care reform. When he steps up, we're going to go straight to the White House. You see the podium has already been set up.

A suspect hijacker goes on trial 41 years after the fact. After all that time, one crew member recounts the incident to CNN in vivid detail.

And one U.S. congressman fulfills a lifelong dream and finds out first hand what life is like alone on a deserted island.


BLITZER: On our "Political Ticker," some bad news for Republican Governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger. A new Field Poll finds that only 27 percent of California voters approve of his performance, his lowest approval rating ever. The only governor in recent years to score lower in the Field Poll was Democrat Gray Davis, who hit 22 percent approval shortly before he was recalled by the California voters.

What you're seeing here in these dramatic photographs is the realization of a childhood dream. Republican Congressman Jeff Flake of Arizona had always wanted to live on a deserted island, surviving by catching his own food. And for seven days that's exactly what he did.

Congressman Flake, by the way, will be with us tomorrow, right here in THE SITUATION ROOM, to tell us about this fascinating adventure.

And remember, for the latest political news any time, you can always check out

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

CAFFERTY: He was in danger though. It was only seven days, right?

BLITZER: Seven days, but he survived.

CAFFERTY: I mean, if he didn't eat anything for seven days, he'd still be alive, right?

BLITZER: But he'd be in bad shape.

CAFFERTY: Well, not necessarily.

You know what you should ask him tomorrow? If the next time he goes if he'll take the rest of Congress with him to the deserted island.


CAFFERTY: The question this hour: Is this the right time for President Obama to wade into the issue of gay rights?

Sam in Tempe, Arizona, "Of course it's the right time. We're talking about equal rights for American citizens. There's never a wrong time to weigh in on whether or not our laws are treating every American equally and fairly. That being said, I'm glad the president didn't commit to a definitive timeline for repealing 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell.' All he'd be doing is setting himself up for failure."

R. writes from Griffith, Georgia, "Personally, I think the president should focus on higher priority matters such as the economy, jobs, the wars and health care reform. I don't think gay rights are a priority for this country. However, 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' should be repealed. All Americans ought to be able to serve during wartime, and they should be able to serve openly."

Bill says, "Jack, I'm a gay man, but there are greater issues and problems that our president must confront. I want my rights as a gay man to be recognized, but at the same time I want the other problems that our country is facing to be taken care of first."

Brandon in Ithaca, New York, "When it was not the right time to wade in into civil and equal rights? While I'm encouraged by recent discussions on health care, what's the point if my partner can't be added to my health coverage because we're not married? Although I voted for Obama, I'm sad the issues he promised to light a fire under Congress on are quickly fizzling out."

Michael in Dallas writes, "While opponents claim he's taking on too much, President Obama has little choice but to address all of these problems if we're to maintain our way of life and our respect in the world community. Wading into an issue to assure that our Constitution is enforced is a no-brainer." And Mac writes, "How about we work on private sector jobs so we can get this country rolling again and leave the social agenda to wait for another day? He can even create jobs for gay people, too. It's the economy, stupid."

If you didn't see your e-mail here, you can go to my blog at That's where you can go.

BLITZER: We will do that, Jack. Thank you.