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President Obama Giving Perks to Big Democratic Donors?; Deadly Terror Attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan; Opinion of Sarah Palin; Claim of 'Deceptive' Credit Card Acts; NASA Launches World's Largest Rocket

Aired October 28, 2009 - 16:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, HOST, THE SITUATION ROOM: Happening now: an explosion of terror in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Separate attacks leave a volatile region spattered with more blood and bodies and fear -- this hour, why the timing couldn't be much worse for the United States.

New weapons in the fight against pirates. Our Brian Todd gets some exclusive access as a captain and his crew learn to protect their ship themselves.

And President Obama promised that his White House would be different, but he's carrying on a controversial tradition. We have new information about big donors getting big perks.

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.

A car bomb explodes in a busy Pakistan market, a suicide attack on a U.N. guest house in Afghanistan, two deadly assaults today in a region where the United States is at a crossroads in the war against terror -- Afghan police responding to gunfire, as Taliban militants stormed that guest house in Kabul. Eight people were killed, including five United Nations workers, one of them an American.

Three attackers also are dead. One American says he used an AK- 47 to hold off a group of attackers long enough to allow some people to escape. This is the worst in a series of attacks designed to destabilize Afghanistan before the presidential runoff election next week. President Hamid Karzai called the attack an inhuman act.

And this was the scene in northwestern Pakistan when that car bomb ripped through a crowded market. At least 100 people were killed, mostly women and children. It happened soon after the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, landed in Pakistan.

Our foreign affairs correspondent, Jill Dougherty, is traveling with the secretary -- Jill.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Secretary Clinton is here in Pakistan with a message: Convince Pakistanis their relationship with the United States goes a lot deeper than simply fighting terrorism, but today it was a real challenge to make that case.

(voice-over): Hours after the secretary of state arrives in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, a massive car bomb explodes in a crowded market frequented by women in the northwest city of Peshawar, a two-hour drive away, the city near Pakistan's tribal areas where al Qaeda and other extremist groups are believed to be hiding.

Condemning what she calls vicious attacks, Hillary Clinton says those who carry them out are cowards.

HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: They are not courageous. They are cowardly. If the people behind these attacks were so sure of their beliefs, let them join the political process. Let them come forth to the people of Pakistan and this democracy and make their case that they don't want girls to go to school, that they want women to be kept back.

SHAH MAHMOOD QURESHI, PAKISTANI FOREIGN MINISTER: A critical phase.

DOUGHERTY: An angry Pakistani foreign minister challenges extremists who he claims are on the run, defeated in major military operations carried out this spring in the Swat Valley, and, he promises, facing defeat in current operations in South Waziristan.

QURESHI: We will not buckle. We will -- we will fight you. We will fight you because we want stability and peace in Pakistan.

DOUGHERTY: But, on this trip, Secretary Clinton says she wants to turn the page on a U.S.-Pakistan relationship focused so far on fighting extremism, offering U.S. help on another threat to the well- being of Pakistanis, lack of electricity -- Clinton's mission, to clear up what she calls misperceptions that cooperating with the U.S. can jeopardize Pakistanis' own security.

CLINTON: We are going to reach out and make clear, as best as I can, what our intentions are and what our commitments are.

DOUGHERTY (on camera): And reach out, she is, Secretary Clinton here in Pakistan launching a media blitz, trying to pull back on track this relationship, which she says has a lot of scar tissue -- Wolf.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Jill Dougherty reporting for us from Islamabad. She's traveling with the secretary of state.

We're joined now by CNN's national security analyst, Peter Bergen.

Peter, these attacks in Pakistan, who is really responsible for those?

PETER BERGEN, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: The Pakistani Taliban. There's no -- no doubt about it, although...

BLITZER: You say the Pakistani Taliban. What does that mean? As opposed to the Afghan Taliban?

BERGEN: Yes. I mean, it means that it's a kind of artificial distinction, because many of the Afghan Taliban are headquartered in -- in Pakistan. But the Pakistani Taliban tends to focus on attacking the Pakistani state, government, military, civilians.

BLITZER: So, by going in this market largely dominated by -- by women and children, who were out there just shopping for their -- for their produce or whatever, what -- what are they trying to do here?

BERGEN: Well, it's inexplicable. I mean, if they're trying to -- if you were trying to do an information operations campaign against the Pakistani Taliban, you know, the Pakistani Taliban is doing -- doing it themselves, I mean, killing hundreds of innocent women and children.

You know, if you're a Pakistani parent this week, you got a text message saying, keep your kids out of school. And, so, all over Pakistan, not in -- just in the area where the Taliban are, Pakistani parents were keeping their children out of school.

Again, if you were trying to design a campaign against the Pakistani Taliban, that would be part of it. So, they are losing popular support. Any -- they did have sort of a Robin Hood image at one point. That has completely evaporated.

BLITZER: The Pakistani Taliban, as you call it.

BERGEN: Yes.

BLITZER: Now, in Afghanistan, we have seen an uptick in -- in terrorist attacks the past few days.

BERGEN: Yes.

BLITZER: Who is responsible for these?

BERGEN: Well, I mean, it's the -- the Afghan Taliban. Could be elements of the Pakistani Taliban, because a lot of the suicide bombers that come into Afghanistan are actually recruited in the tribal areas in Pakistan. So, you know, but the Taliban, writ large.

BLITZER: Is there a coordination between the terror attacks in Pakistan and the terror attacks in Afghanistan?

BERGEN: Not all the time, but, I mean, they all take -- they all pay religious homage to Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban, on both sides of the border.

BLITZER: Who is still at large.

BERGEN: Who is still at large.

BLITZER: Mullah Mohammed Omar.

BERGEN: Yes. And, you know, something as strategic as attacking the U.N. in Afghanistan, that was planned in Afghanistan -- in Pakistan, almost certainly.

BLITZER: And the word al -- the word al Qaeda...

BERGEN: Yes.

BLITZER: ... we don't hear that. Is that part of this equation right now?

BERGEN: Well, al Qaeda functions like U.S. special forces for the Taliban, in the sense that they embed themselves -- relatively small in number. They embed themselves in larger Taliban units. They are force multipliers. They give IED technology. They train these guys.

You know, so, al Qaeda -- and, of course, look at tactics. It's all al Qaeda tactics, suicide attacks, attacking civilians. I mean, this is stuff that the Taliban generally wasn't doing until about the last three or four years.

BLITZER: You -- you saw the story on the front page of "The New York Times" today that the brother of Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan, who is facing his runoff election on November 7, that the brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, who is, by all accounts, a drug dealer over there, but has actually been on the payroll of the CIA for years.

I don't know if that's true or not true, but that's -- that's a pretty amazing story.

BERGEN: Well, I just fell off my chair when I read that story.

And, you know, the reporters involved, Dexter Filkins, Mark Mazzetti, Jim Risen, these are three of the most experienced reporters at "The New York Times." That must have gone through a lot of editorial review to put that in the paper. So, I think it -- you know, I -- I believe it to be the case.

BLITZER: You believe that -- that it is true, that this guy has been on the CIA payroll?

BERGEN: They wouldn't -- I mean, it would be -- I would find it very hard to believe that they would make a mistake about something like this.

BLITZER: And, so, what does that mean, though, in a nutshell, that he's a good guy? Because everyone always assumed that Hamid Karzai may be a good guy, but this guy was a bad guy, because he's a big opium dealer?

BERGEN: Well, I -- it's extraordinary. You know, it sort of leaves me speechless. I don't know quite what to say.

BLITZER: It left a lot of people speechless. It led "The New York Times" today, as you saw.

BERGEN: Yes.

BLITZER: Appreciate it, Peter. When you can get some words out on this subject, we will continue this discussion.

(LAUGHTER)

BERGEN: Thank you.

BLITZER: Let's go to Jack Cafferty right now.

He's got "The Cafferty File." You saw that story in "The New York Times, didn't you, Jack?

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Absolutely remarkable. That's Pulitzer Prize material. That's a great piece of reporting "The Times" did. And -- and I'm like your guest there.

I mean, what the hell do you say when you find out that the brother of the guy we're supporting to run the Afghan government is the biggest drug dealer in the country over there? I mean, no wonder we don't defoliate those poppy fields and kill off all that opium. I mean, it would run counter to the first family of Afghanistan, wouldn't it?

It's -- it's just -- how do we get into these things? And -- and Karzai's brother reportedly has been taking money from the CIA for eight years. That would, coincidentally, be when the Afghan war started.

BLITZER: Yes.

CAFFERTY: Go figure. All right.

When it comes to health care reform, there are few issues that are more explosive than abortion. Democratic Congressman Bart Stupak of Michigan says he wants to make sure taxpayer dollars don't pay for abortions. Stupak says some of his fellow Democrats, including the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, are not happy with his public campaign to change the bill in the House.

He says he's been working with party leaders on a compromise, but, so far, nothing. The congressman says, if there's no vote on abortion funding, as many as 40 Democrats in the House could vote against the health care bill in its entirety.

Over in the Senate, the Finance Committee bill contains provisions that Democrats insist would keep federal money from covering abortions, but Republicans and other critics say those measures don't go far enough.

President Obama has vowed that -- quote -- "no federal dollars will be used to fund abortions" -- unquote. That's been the law of the land for decades now -- 1976, the Hyde amendment prohibits the use of federal money for abortions through Medicaid, except in cases of rape, incest, or medical necessity.

Meanwhile, one 2003 study found that 46 percent of insured workers had coverage for abortions. Supporters of abortion rights say, if the government bans plans that offer abortions, it would mean millions of women could lose the benefit they currently get.

This much is sure. Until abortion is resolved as an issue in health care reform, there won't be any.

Here's the question: How should health care reform handle the issue of abortion? Go to CNN.com/caffertyfile, where you can post a comment on my blog.

It's kind of the 800-pound gorilla in this health care debate, and you don't hear it talked about publicly too much.

BLITZER: Yes.

CAFFERTY: But it's there.

BLITZER: Yes. It's the most -- potentially, the most sensitive issue out there as well...

CAFFERTY: Could be.

BLITZER: ... that they are going to have to finesse that. There's some talk of having an abortion-neutral piece of legislation. That's what they are all saying. I'm not sure how you do that, but they will try to figure it out.

CAFFERTY: Well, I'm -- yes, I'm sure they will. And the question, of course, is, how do you -- if you have that, who monitors -- monitors it? How do you know that the money is not being used for this?

I mean, it would just be another bureaucratic ball of twine, I guess.

BLITZER: Yes.

Jack Cafferty, thank you.

CAFFERTY: Sure.

BLITZER: Being a top Democratic donor has its rewards, and that apparently hasn't changed under the Obama administration -- just ahead, new information we're getting about the perks of giving, including visits to the White House.

And we have some brand-new poll numbers that may throw very cold water on Sarah Palin's presidential hopes, but there is something in the survey the former Alaska governor can feel good about.

And our Brian Todd right in the thick of the fight against pirates -- he trained with crews learning the latest tactics to stop crime on the high seas.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Right now, the White House and the nation dissecting a potentially problematic report regarding the administration that promised to change the way Washington works.

A newspaper says it's doing exactly the same thing other presidents did. It involves controversial treats given to top donors and fund-raisers.

Let's go straight to our White House correspondent, Dan Lothian. He is working this story for us.

All right, Dan, give us the background. What's going on?

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the White House is pushing back hard, after being hit with these questions about high-powered donors gaining access, not only to the White House, but also to some top advisers -- White House spokesman Robert Gibbs saying that there's no quid pro quo here, that gaining access or contributing to this White House or to the Democratic National Committee does not give access to the White House, nor does it preclude it.

Now, "The Washington Times" reviewed some documents by the Democratic National Committee and found that some donors were being offered access to the White House in exchange for raising or donating $30,000 or helping to raise $300,000 for the 2010 midterm elections.

They even highlighted a couple of cases, one individual who gained access to the bowling alley at the White House complex, another one that got a birthday visit to the Oval Office.

But Robert Gibbs fired back, saying that this is an administration that has been really tough in trying to bring out transparency. And he pointed to a new policy whereby all the names of visitors to the White House will be made public.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERT GIBBS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: As we did this briefing in August, I will remind you that the WAVES records will denote who that person is, when they came, how long they were here, and who they met with -- again, a standard not met by any other previous White House.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LOTHIAN: Now, I just received this from the Democratic National Committee. And it's a statement, Wolf.

And it reads, in part: "The DNC routinely identifies appropriate opportunities for party supporters to meet their leaders in the administration and the Democratic congressional majority. This is true for donors, grassroots activists, and others who are engaged and active on behalf our party in different ways and who welcome the chance to meet their leadership."

Now, I should point out, Wolf, that other presidents have done this kind of thing. We saw President Clinton and the Lincoln Bedroom. President Bush used to invite top donors out to the ranch. But what's different here is that this is a president who said he was coming to Washington to shake things up, to change the way that things work inside the beltway. And that's why this is getting so much attention -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Dan, when can we expect the names to be released?

LOTHIAN: Well, we're being told that the names of all the visitors who have been here to the White House will be released or posted online in December.

But what's interesting here is, the White House, at least one aide, pointing out that some of the names that will be posted will turn out to be very close friends of the president, people who were close to him long before he had any political aspirations.

And, so, for example, in the article, it pointed to some people who were here, donors who were watching a movie, and they point out these were two close friends, including Eric Whitaker, who the president has known for quite some time.

BLITZER: Dan Lothian is our man at the White House.

Thanks, Dan, very much.

In another story we're following, pirates thirsty for profit pillage container ships out there on the high seas, but commercial shipping lines are determined not to simply be pirate prey. They are looking at new ways to try to beat back piracy out there on the high seas.

Our Brian Todd took us to Puerto Rico for a firsthand look.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, you could be looking at the future of maritime security right here in San Juan Harbor.

This is the Horizon Producer, a cargo ship that is outfitted with a special security system to combat against piracy. You see a wall of water there. That is to knock pirates off balance as they try to scale this vessel. It's got a blast-proof bridge, surveillance cameras.

Also, the crew is specially trained on how to react if a pirate attack occurs. Part of the package is, if a shipping line wants to do it, they can pay for a special security team to come on board. This is all part of a package that's being offered to shipping lines.

Now, if you get that full package, it costs between $200,000 and $300,000 per vessel. It seems like a lot of money, but when you factor in the cost of delays in the shipping system when a pirate attack occurs and other things, ransom included, it's not such a bad deal, according to the security company and according to the shipping lines -- Wolf.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Brian Todd is going to have a full report on this coming up in the next hour. You are going to want to stick around and see that -- some pretty impressive stuff going on, training for pirates.

Imagine you're driving your daily commute, and a 5,000-pound piece of metal falls from the sky and crashes in front of you. That happened out there on the San Francisco Bay Bridge. Guess what? Now it's closed, and hundreds of thousands of commuters are scrambling to try to get to work and to get home.

And, attention, shoppers. Costco is doing something new and special that may help 36 million Americans.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Fredricka Whitfield is monitoring some other important stories incoming to THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

Fred, what's going on?

FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hello to you, Wolf.

Hello, everyone.

Distracted drivers, 18 states have already passed laws against texting while driving. Well, now the U.S. Transportation Department announces it will also look into train engineers, bus drivers, and, yes, airplane pilots misusing personal electronic devices -- this move inspired by the two Northwest Airlines pilots who allegedly got distracted by their laptop computers and overshot their landing by 150 miles.

And already outspoken on foreign policy, former Vice President Dick Cheney is plunging back into politics as well. CNN has confirmed that Cheney will support Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison's run for the Republican nomination for governor of Texas. Senator Hutchison is running against the incumbent, Rick Perry. Her campaign said, Cheney will announce his support at a fund-raiser next month.

And Maryland state officials announced today that two more adults have died from the H1N1 virus, commonly known as swine flu. And the Associated Press reports, a woman who died in Delaware also tested positive for the disease, although she also had other medical problems. U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius admits production of the swine flu vaccine is behind schedule.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KATHLEEN SEBELIUS, U.S. HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES SECRETARY: Vaccine production has been more unpredictable than we would have liked. And there's no question that the vaccine has taken longer to produce in volume than the manufacturers estimated. The good news for the American public is that we know we have a safe and secure vaccine. (END VIDEO CLIP)

WHITFIELD: The secretary says she shares the frustration of Americans eager to be vaccinated and that all involved are working around the clock to satisfy demand.

And, finally, another sign of the changes in American life due to the long recession -- Costco is now accepting food stamps. Managers of the wholesale stores, which generally cater to upscale bargain- hunters, say that they were surprised by how many of their members were using the stamps, which are generally distributed in a more discrete debit card.

A record 36 million Americans are now receiving some form of government food assistance -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I didn't know that? Thirty-six million Americans...

WHITFIELD: I know. That's a pretty huge number.

BLITZER: That's a huge number.

All right, thanks very much, Fred, for that.

Sarah Palin is preparing to release her new book. It's entitled "Going Rogue." She may also be hoping to set the stage for a presidential bid in 2012. We have some brand-new poll numbers on whether the American public thinks she's ready to lead.

And liftoff for what NASA calls the world's largest rocket -- just ahead, the mission and the payoff.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

Happening now: Are football players paying for all those hard hits? Some say yes, citing dementia and memory problems. Kate Bolduan reports on this troubling situation. Stand by.

We just showed you some of the Brian Todd's reporting about how to keep a ship safe from modern-day pirates. We have much more coming up, as Brian goes to sea to check out the latest defenses.

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

If Sarah Palin decides to run for president, she will have a lot of work to do convincing a lot of people. We're seeing potentially worrisome results for her in a fresh CNN poll from CNN and Opinion Research Corporation.

Though it shows that many of you think Sarah Palin cares about people and is a good role model for women, it also shows that 71 percent of you do not think she's qualified to be president of the United States.

Let's bring in our senior political correspondent, Candy Crowley. She's taken a closer look at these polls.

I guess a little good news for Sarah Palin, but a lot of bad news, if -- and it's still a huge if -- if she decides to seek the Republican presidential nomination.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Exactly.

And -- and what seems to be happening here is that, when it comes to those personal attributes that you're talking about, Sarah Palin actually does very well. When you say to people, "Do you think that she's a typical politician?" Sixty-five percent say, no, she is not a typical politician. A good role model for women? Sixty-four percent say she is. Cares about people? Fifty-six percent agree with that. Is she honest and trustworthy? Fifty-five percent of Americans say yes, she is.

And this is not just Republicans. This is across the board.

So, the sticking point, as you mentioned, Wolf, comes when you ask, is Palin qualified to be president? And here's the answer. Only 29 percent of Americans think that Sarah Palin is qualified. Astonishingly, 71 percent say she is not qualified to be vice president -- sorry, to be president, which is a pretty high number for a woman who just about a year ago was running to be vice president.

What's going on it seems, Wolf, when you look at these numbers, is that people make a differentiation between personal traits -- honest and trustworthy, she cares about people -- and presidential traits, because when you say, well, is she a strong leader, does she share your values? Under 50 percent, that's when she goes below the 50 percent mark.

However, don't tell that to Republicans, because we also asked just Republicans in this poll, who would you prefer? Who do you see as a presidential candidate coming up? Sarah Palin number, two behind Mike Huckabee and just in front of Mitt Romney. The bad news here for Palin here in this poll is that when you ask people the approval and disapproval rating, her disapproval rating is at 51 percent, which is higher than any of the people you see on that screen.

BLITZER: She'll have some work to do.

CROWLEY: Lots of work, if she wants it, which I think a lot of us really doubt she does. And by the way, another number that she's going to like right now, as of this moment, the last time we looked, number two on Amazon list of bestsellers, that book that's coming out next month.

BLITZER: She wants to be number one though.

CROWLEY: Well, you know, it's not out there yet.

BLITZER: A couple weeks.

All right. Thanks very much, Candy. In a fight between everyday people versus their massive credit card companies, score one for the little guy right now. CNN recently told you what happened to a couple ahead of a key deadline intended to stop so-called credit card company abuses. Well, it appears the company was in fact watching CNN.

Our national political correspondent, Jessica Yellin, is here with more on this story.

They were watching you, Jessica, and they have now responded.

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. As you know, we've been reporting on how credit card companies have been jacking up payments, increasing rates, adding new fees before these new consumer protection rules go into effect. Well, it seems there is now good news for the one couple we profiled. They tell us because of our story, the bank is helping them out.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

YELLIN (voice-over): Remember we told you about Chuck and Jean Lane, a couple that's played by the rules? But their credit card company, like so many others, jacked up their payments before new regulations go into effect next year.

CHUCK LANE, CREDIT CARD CUSTOMER: I'm calling to find out why my payment jumped from $370 to $911 this month.

YELLIN: Now Chuck tells CNN his bank offered to slash his payments to $270 a month, less than before. The bank won't confirm the offer, citing privacy issues, but his congresswoman, Betty Sutton's office, has been in touch with his bank.

REP. BETTY SUTTON (D), OHIO: It wasn't until after CNN aired his story and he came to our office for help, and our intervention, that they did take appropriate action to reduce the payment. But, you know, it's unfortunate that it has to go to that extent.

YELLIN: It's great news for the Lanes, but what about millions of others who are seeing their credit card payments skyrocket? A new study by the Pew Charitable Trust finds across the board, credit card companies are using what Pew calls "... unfair or deceptive practices..." and increasing rates on average 20 percent.

NICK BOURKE, PEW SAFE CREDIT CARDS PROJECT: The bottom line is the credit card companies are doing whatever practices that are most profitable for them as long as they can, and until the law takes effect, that's going to continue.

YELLIN (on camera): And Congress can step in and stop it now?

BOURKE: Congress can step in and stop it now.

YELLIN (voice-over): Some members are trying. Representative Sutton is introducing a bill that would prevent unfair new fees. Representative Betsy Markey also saw our piece and is introducing a bill that would halt rate increases. But so far, neither has become law.

LANE: I know I'm not the only one, and I'm sure there's a lot of other people out there that can't afford an increase of two and a half times what they have put into their budget for a credit card bill.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

YELLIN: Now, Wolf, the lobby that represents credit card companies gave us a statement about this new study by Pew. They say, "Interest rates on credit cards are rising due to increased risk for borrowers and the economy." They say credit card lending is the riskiest type of lending, and they say there's a direct relationship between interest rates and the state of the economy.

So, Wolf, the final point, bottom line right now, is up to the Federal Reserve and Congress. They have the power to change credit card practices immediately, and the most effective way for our viewers to take action is to write a letter to their member of Congress and, of course, write and tell us their story -- Wolf.

BLITZER: The second maybe even more impressive. Good work, Jessica, in changing the situation and improving the lives of some folks out there thanks to you. We're very proud of you. Thanks very much.

It was quick and very expensive. Was the launch of the world's largest new rocket worth it? Stand by for a live report from the Kennedy Space Center.

And imagine a 5,000-pound beam crashing down on part of a busy bridge. It did happen, and the first reports are coming out online about it.

Coming up, also, I'll ask the Senate minority leader, the top Republican in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, about a scolding he received today -- a little mild scolding, I should say -- from a 90- year-old former Republican member of the Senate.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Five, four, three, two, one. Ignition and lift off of Ares 1-X, testing concepts for the future...

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Wow! What a spectacular sight.

NASA launched what it's calling the world's largest rocket today. The cost, about $74 million for each of the roughly six minutes the mission lasted. But the payoff could be huge for future space exploration.

We're going to keep playing this video, the pictures for you, as we bring in CNN's John Zarrella. He's over at the Kennedy Space Center. He's joining us live.

John, tell us how this is different than the space shuttle.

JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Oh, Wolf, it is markedly different. Quite frankly, you know, you're looking at it. It's just one single candle, basically, as opposed to the shuttle, which is the orbiter attached to a solid -- two solid rocket boosters and an external tank.

You've got the crew capsule which, ultimately, in 2015, when the first crews fly, will be on the very top of the rocket, as opposed to in the space shuttle vehicle. So it is considered by all of the developers of this and NASA to be 10 times safer for astronauts than what they have to deal with now in the space shuttle.

And the biggest thing of all this, Wolf, space shuttle, only low- earth orbit vehicle. This will be the first vehicle built since the Saturn 5 rockets that can actually take human beings out of low-earth orbit and back to the moon and eventually on to Mars. Major differences.

BLITZER: It comes at a time when the Obama administration is still trying to decide what to do with the entire space program.

ZARRELLA: Yes, that's exactly right. The Obama administration has not yet officially even signed off on whether this is the way it ultimately wants to go.

What the president did was, several months back, asked for a blue-ribbon commission, the Augustine Commission, to give it some options. Now, some of the options that were presented to the president just a week ago do include continuing on with the Ares 1 program, and up to building a new Ares 5, which is a heavy-lift vehicle. But there are other options that say, well, maybe you don't need to build a 1 and a 5. Maybe you build something that's a combination of the two.

But, you know, NASA started four years ago moving in this direction, so they're continuing on until the administration makes that decision, which may not come until January -- Wolf.

BLITZER: John Zarrella is at the Kennedy Space Center. What an amazing day there, amazing pictures.

John, thanks very much.

In San Francisco, 280,000 commuters who use the Bay Bride every day, they're now scrambling to find a new route. The Federal Highway Administration is now investigating why a 5,000-pound piece of metal fell onto the upper deck during rush hour, closing the bridge. No one was seriously injured, but commuters found themselves dodging debris.

Let's bring in our Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton.

Abbi, this is pretty amazing stuff. Some of the earliest reports were, what, on Twitter? ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: That's right, Wolf, from commuters who were traveling across the bridge.

Take a look at this one photo which has been viewed more than 50,000 times through Twitpic. This is from Joe Marshall (ph), who was traveling there, taken less than a minute after that 70-foot section fell onto commuter traffic at 5:33 p.m. local time yesterday.

I'm going to zoom in on this version which is now at CNN's iReport. You can see what Marshall (ph) saw, the cars trying to dodge this piece of debris.

It was these two tie rods, about four or five inches thick, that he could see, plus this three-foot section you'll see right there in front of a truck. And there's also a car there.

Both of these vehicles were damaged, says Marshall (ph), although he saw no injuries, miraculously. No one seriously hurt.

I'm going to show you a video as well that was posted on YouTube. People were sharing this information, trying to let other commuters know what was happening as they were, in some cases there, before authorities.

You can see again there that rod falling. It fell about 100 feet there from the top of the bridge.

Now, transportation authorities out there in the Bay area are trying to share as much information as they can also online with commuters who are struggling to find ways to get to work. What information they can, though, the very latest they have put out on Twitter is that it's still unknown how long repairs will take or when the bridge will reopen -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Wasn't the Bay Bridge closed a month or so ago for repairs?

TATTON: Just over a month ago. It was around Labor Day, scheduled maintenance over the Labor Day holiday weekend.

But it was at that point that authorities found another crack in the bridge and were struggling to repair that, which delayed the reopening by a few hours. This, what happened yesterday, is in the same section as those repairs were happening over Labor Day, so now you can imagine authorities really looking into what on earth happened there.

BLITZER: What a commuter nightmare this is going to be for the folks out there.

TATTON: Absolutely.

BLITZER: We wish them good luck.

Thanks, Abbi, very much. The battle over health care reform has sometimes felt like a food fight. The Senate minority leader, the top Republican in the Senate, heard a powerful warning today to stop playing politics. I'll ask him about that. We'll talk about the battle over health care reform.

That's coming up live.

And "This Is It." The first clips of the movie that Michael Jackson's farewell performance is all about, we'll show you what we have right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The first African-American elected to the United States Senate is urging lawmakers to stop fighting and start working together. Ninety-year-old former Senator Edward Brooke today received the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest award Congress gives to civilians. Amid the bitter debate over health care reform going on right now, the Massachusetts Republican turned to look at the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, and said this...

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

EDWARD BROOKE (R), FORMER U.S. SENATOR: We can't worry that you all can't get together. We've got to get together. We have no alternative. There's nothing left. It's time for politics to be put aside on the back burner.

(APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Let's bring in the top Republican in the Senate, the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

Senator, thanks very much for coming in.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R,-KY), MINORITY LEADER: Glad to be with you, Wolf.

BLITZER: What did you think when you heard former Senator Brooke say that?

MCCONNELL: He's in great shape, 90 years old, and an articulate speaker. I agreed with him. I was hoping that health care was actually going to go forward on a bipartisan basis, but, unfortunately, that seems to have broken down.

BLITZER: What was the main reason it broke down?

MCCONNELL: Well, I think the problem here is the core of the bill. It's a half a trillion dollars in Medicare cuts, $400 billion in new taxes on individuals and businesses, higher insurance premiums for the 85 percent of Americans who have health insurance. And now they may put in a government-run insurance company on top of it. Wolf, that is not the kind of approach to this problem that is designed to generate bipartisan support. In fact, so far, the only thing bipartisan is the opposition to it. In fact, my counterpart, Senator Reid, is having a hard time convincing his 60 Democrats to even vote to bring the bill up.

BLITZER: Well, here's the question. Do you believe, given the lopsided majorities that the Democrats have in the Senate and the House, do you believe that there's any way you can prevent the president from getting some sort of health care reform legislation signed into law?

MCCONNELL: Well, with the big majorities they have in the House, and the 60 votes -- which is what you need to control the Senate -- they have in the Senate, they ought to be able to do anything they want to, Wolf. The problem they are having is selling it to their own members.

You know, in the Senate, you have to vote to go to a bill. And I'm reminded of that famous quote from John Kerry during the 2004 election where he said he voted for it before he said he voted against it. Senator Reid is trying to convince a number of moderate Democrats to vote to get on the bill, knowing full well that they will later have to explain why they first voted for it and then voted against it.

BLITZER: Well, you're definitely going to filibuster. In other words, that would require 60 votes to break a filibuster, but what I hear you saying is that you, as the Republican leader, you will definitely filibuster this.

MCCONNELL: Well, every measure in the Senate of any degree of controversy, whether my side has been in the majority or the minority, is always subject to 60 votes. That is routine.

BLITZER: That's a filibuster.

MCCONNELL: That's routine in the Senate.

BLITZER: So, you're definitely going to filibuster.

MCCONNELL: That was routine in the Senate, Wolf. That is the way we've operated for many, many years in the Senate, no matter who was in the majority. It's taken 60 votes. In other words, a super majority, to do virtually everything.

BLITZER: Because as you know, some Democrats are saying if push comes to shove, they can go into this legislative procedure known as reconciliation, which would require 51 votes to get it approved.

MCCONNELL: Yes, and the good thing about that is we'd get to start all over, and that's really what ought to be done here. This matter is so controversial, that we really ought to step back and start over with a truly bipartisan process that has an approach to this such as -- that includes at least some of the things we've been recommending that, you know, can get the kind of broad bipartisan support that Ed Brooke and others would like to see. BLITZER: How worried are you that the Democrats who are trying to paint Republicans as the party of no, no to this, no to that, how worried are you that that could stick?

MCCONNELL: I'm not worried about that at all. They have a majority, a super majority in the Senate. They can do anything they want to. Their problem is not with my side. Their problem is with their own side.

BLITZER: We did some checking in your home state of Kentucky. According to the Census Bureau, approximately 570,000 people who live in Kentucky don't have any health insurance at all right now. What -- do you want to help them get health insurance?

MCCONNELL: I sure do. And, you know, there's a better way to get at this.

One of the things we could do would be to equalize the tax code. Right now, if you're working at a company that provides health insurance, that company can deduct the cost of insurance on its corporate tax return. But if you're an individual purchaser of insurance out on the open market, it's not deductible to you.

There are a number of things that we can reduce the number -- do to reduce the number of uninsured. There are 11 million Americans who are eligible for Medicaid, the program for the poor. They just aren't signed up.

I mean, everybody would like to diminish the number of uninsured Americans. The question, Wolf, is, is the approach that the majority is taking the best way to do it? I think the answer is no.

BLITZER: Do you support Senator Leahy's proposal to remove the antitrust exemption for the health insurance industry?

MCCONNELL: I may well end up supporting that. I don't think it will have much to do with the problem.

What we really need is interstate insurance competition, which is another idea Republicans have been promoting. You know, why shouldn't an uninsured person in Kentucky be able to buy insurance from a company in New York, for example? Why don't we have interstate insurance competition?

That would probably be the best thing we could do. And I'm open to discussing the other, but I don't think it will have much of an impact on the problem that we're talking about.

BLITZER: Let me pick your brain for a moment on Afghanistan right now. The president gearing up for a huge decision about potentially sending thousands of additional troops to Afghanistan.

Thomas Friedman, the columnist for "The New York Times," writes this today, and I'll quote a lien from it. "We simply do not have the Afghan partners, the NATO allies, the domestic support, the financial resources or the national interests to justify an enlarged and prolonged nation-building effort in Afghanistan."

Is he right?

MCCONNELL: Well, I'm convinced that a counterinsurgency strategy that seeks to get the loyalty of the Afghan people is the only way we can possibly succeed. It worked in Iraq. It was difficult, but it worked in Iraq. I think it can work in Afghanistan.

I think the best way forward, with all due respect to Tom Friedman, is to follow the advice of our military leaders, as opposed to, you know, everybody else who has got an opinion here. And we need to remember that the 9/11 attacks were launched from Afghanistan. They were launched when the Taliban was in charge of the government. And do we really want to take a chance of going back to a time when a regime like the Taliban, which terrorized women and girls, was in charge in Afghanistan? And by the way, the Taliban over in Pakistan is a threat to that government, too, and it has nuclear weapons.

I'm not sure we've got a good alternative, but to deal with this problem at its source so we don't have to deal with it again here in the United States in years to come.

BLITZER: Senator McConnell, thanks for coming in.

MCCONNELL: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: The wives of the president and the vice president, they are in New York. Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, they are there for a special visit and a closely-watched World Series. We'll tell you what's going on.

Also, a story likely to give chills to anyone who plays football and anyone who cares about the players. Fears of professional college and high school football players being hit in the head. Now the U.S. Congress is demanding to know the real risks.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Checking our "Political Ticker," President Obama is turning to a maverick Republican to help oversee the CIA and other intelligence agencies -- former senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. Today, the president named Hagel as the co-chairman of his intelligence advisory board, along with a former Democratic senator David Boren. The powerful board provides independent advice to the president about the effectiveness of the intelligence community.

Michelle Obama and Jill Biden were touring a veterans hospital in New York just a little while ago. Later today, guess what? The first and second ladies will watch the first game of the World Series. Mrs. Obama is expected to escort Yankee legend Yogi Berra into the team's new stadium tonight.

Wow. It should be a lot of fun.

Remember, for the latest political news any time, you can always check out CNNPolitics.com. Let's go Jack Cafferty. He's getting excited about the World Series tonight, too.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: I am. Been raining here in New York all day, ,but it quit here, it looks like, about an hour ago. So, with any luck, they will get the game in. I think they throw the first pitch around, I don't know, 8:00, something like that tonight.

The question this hour: How should health care reform handle the issue of abortion?

Susi in Tucson writes, "I don't think abortion should be funded by the government if it is used as a tool for birth control. But I do feel it should be covered in case of rape, incest and health issues. For any other reason, the person seeking an abortion should bear the cost."

Theresa says, "Viagra is covered by most health plans, birth control pills are not. Female fertility problems are rarely covered, while male fertility problems are. If men got pregnant, we wouldn't be having this argument. Abortion rights would be written into the Constitution."

Ralph says, "Many of us would like to see abortion covered, but since this is such a hot political issue, it doesn't look likely that health care reform could pass without nixing it. It's a likely topic for compromise in the interests of getting the legislation through Congress this year."

James in New York says, "Abortion ought to be covered only if it's the result of rape or sexual assault. Other than that, people who were against abortion shouldn't have to pay for just anyone who wants to abort a child. I am for a public option, but against abortion."

Eileen says, "Gee, I'm a conscientious objector to war, but I don't get to tell the government not to spend my tax dollars on Iraq or Afghanistan. Why then should a conscientious objector to abortion get to tell the government not to spend their money on a legal medical procedure? Whatever happened to the separation between church and state?"

And Dave says, "I have no problem with taxpayer dollars used for abortion in the first trimester. The alternative will most likely be taxpayer dollars to support the unwanted children. If the abortion issue is a deal-breaker, then let's get it out of the bill."

If you didn't see your e-mail here, check my blog, CNN.com/caffertyfile -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Jack. Thank you.

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

Happening now, Taliban militants armed with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades storm a guest house used by United Nations workers.