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African-American Lawmakers' Warning to President Obama; Health Care Reform Loophole

Aired December 11, 2009 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: That was Anderson Cooper reporting. And he will have more on the tunnels later tonight, 10:00 p.m. Eastern, on "A.C. 360."

Happening now: We now go inside the mosque where five Muslim Americans embraced religion and allegedly jihad. This hour, how they wound up in a Pakistan jail accused of planning acts of terror.

The president's pay czar cracking down on firms that got the biggest bailout from taxpayers. Is he asking for enough sacrifice from the highest earners?

And African-American lawmakers telling the president enough is enough, their new wakeup call for the White House about misery in the black community.

We want to welcome our viewers from the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You are in THE SITUATION ROOM.

But first, the war on terror. A U.S. official tells CNN there are now strong indications a senior al Qaeda operative is dead, killed in a missile strike conducted by the CIA earlier this week. Saleh al- Somali is described as part of al Qaeda's core leadership cadre.

Let's go to our Pentagon correspondent, Chris Lawrence. He has got more details.

Chris, it sounds like a big deal.

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: It is, Wolf, if it is true. This counterterrorism official says that al-Somali would have been involved in probably plotting attacks all around the world, including the United States and Europe, that he was such a part of that inner circle of al Qaeda, he would have been taking strategic guidance directly from al Qaeda's leadership and then translating that to operational blueprints for potential attacks.

And we are also hearing today from the secretary of defense, himself, that events going on inside Pakistan may be pushing more al Qaeda fighters back over the border, to where American troops are fighting in Afghanistan.


LAWRENCE (voice-over): American officials are ramping up the counterterrorism fight in Afghanistan trying to find and kill fighters so extreme they will never negotiate or give up.

GENERAL DAVID PETRAEUS, COMMANDER, U.S. CENTRAL COMMAND: We will have additional national mission force elements to do that when the spring rolls around.

LAWRENCE: National mission force elements, that is just code for the kind of troops that don't get named, like Delta Force and SEALs. And there may be more al Qaeda for them to target beyond the 100 fighters now believed to be in Afghanistan.

For two months the Pakistani army has been taking on insurgents in its tribal areas, and U.S. officials now say that offensive has put al Qaeda on the run and got them talking about escaping back to Afghanistan.

ROBERT GATES, U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: It kind of stirred up the nest there, and I think that is a good thing.

LAWRENCE: But the primary way the U.S. targets terrorists remains unmanned CIA drones, like the Predator and Reaper.

NICHOLAS SCHMIDLE, NEW AMERICA FOUNDATION: This administration has used drones considerably more than during the first seven years of the Bush administration.

LAWRENCE: Nicholas Schmidle is an analyst at the New America Foundation. He says President Bush authorized three drone strikes in 2007 and 34 last year. President Obama has already OKed 48 strikes in Pakistan, including one in August that killed former Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud.

SCHMIDLE: What is interesting is that the intelligence is getting significantly better, which to me suggests that the Pakistani Taliban and al Qaeda that are being based in the tribal areas are becoming increasingly unpopular.


LAWRENCE: In other words, the only way that Pakistani villagers share information is if the insurgents are not welcome. But those drone strikes are politically sensitive because they too are unpopular with a lot of the Pakistani people -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Chris, Chris Lawrence, working the story. We are going to get more information on this supposed killing of this high-ranking al Qaeda official described by some as the number-five guy on the CIA's list. We are watching this story. We will bring you more information when we get it.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is firing a strong verbal shot across Iran's bow. There was a dramatic shift in tone today as she warned Latin America leaders against closer ties with Tehran, which she is flatly accusing of exporting terror.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) HILLARY CLINTON, SECRETARY OF STATE: We also are well aware of Iran's interests in promoting itself with a number of other countries, Venezuela and Bolivia, as you mentioned. And we can only say that that is a really bad idea for the countries involved, and we hope that there will be a recognition that this is the major supporter, promoter and exporter of terrorism in the world today.

The Revolutionary Guard of Iran, which is increasing its control over the country because of the elections, which were a stark example of the of abuse of human rights in action, is deeply involved in the economy, as well as the security issues of Iran. And I think that if people want to flirt with Iran, they should take a look at what the consequences might well be for them. And we hope that they will think twice, and we're going to support them if they do.


BLITZER: Secretary Clinton's comments come as the U.S. is trying to line up support for tough new sanctions against Iran for moving forward on its nuclear program against international demands. The clock is ticking. The Iranians have, according to the Obama administration, until the end of the month.

The most sweeping changes to America's financial regulation system since the New Deal approved by the House of Representatives today. It passed by a party-line vote, 223 in favor, 202 against, a year after Wall Street failures helped plunge the nation into recession.

The legislation would give government new powers to break up companies that threaten the economy and it would impose more oversight on the largest banks and Wall Street financial firms. Lawmakers used the vote as an opportunity to argue about the merits of extending the Wall Street bailout, also known as TARP.


REP. BARNEY FRANK (D-MA), FINANCIAL SERVICES COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: Will someone tell the minority leader, it ain't over until it is over on Main Street, all throughout America. Maybe...


FRANK: Maybe when the Republicans had that meeting with a group of financial lobbyists, they took some time out to celebrate the ending of the emergency, but most of us know the emergency is not over.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), HOUSE MINORITY LEADER: And, so, I am going to ask my colleagues, if you have had enough of the bailouts, if you have had enough of TARP, let's do the right thing for the American people. They are already saying enough is enough. Let's end TARP. Let's pay down the deficit.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: Well, the Senate is expected to act on its version of overhauling financial regulation early next year, different ideas in the Senate than in the House. It's not surprising.

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

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: I have a rhetorical question. Why is it always that the party who is not in power wants to take the moral high road, if they're not in power?

BLITZER: Because they are not in power.

CAFFERTY: But the minute they get in power, got no time for the high road.

BLITZER: They have got more responsibility.

CAFFERTY: That's right. I am going to talk about your nephew later this hour, too.

When it comes to ethics, Congress scores lower than car salesmen. This is not breaking news. But, for the first time in Gallup's annual poll, a majority of those surveyed, 55 percent, say the honesty and ethical standards of members of Congress are low or very low. And that number has doubled, plus, since just 2000.

The decline in Congress' ethics rating in the past year has occurred almost equally among Republicans, Democrats, and independents.

The most-highly rated professions include nurses, pharmacists, doctors, police officers and engineers. Scraping the bottom of the barrel, along with members of Congress, car and insurance salespeople, stockbrokers, HMO managers, and of course lawyers. Telemarketers and lobbyists weren't included in the poll, but they have received even lower ratings than Congress in past polls.

It's a sad reflection of how Americans view the people they send to Washington to represent them and to run their government. But it should come as no surprise, considering the shenanigans that go on in the Capitol, former Congressman William Jefferson sentenced to 13 years in prison in a corruption case they found him with 90 grand in cash in his freezer.

Senator John Ensign of Nevada admitted to an affair with the wife of a staffer, paid the family almost 100 grand, then allegedly got the husband of the woman he was having the affair with a lobbying job, where he then lobbied Senator Ensign. Congressman Charlie Rangel up to his ears in ethics violations or investigations tied to his personal finances, and Senator Max Baucus of Montana, who faces accusations that he nominated his girlfriend for a U.S. attorney job.

And that's just skimming the surface. We didn't mention Larry Craig, or Mark Foley, or David Vitter. It's a very long list.

The question is this: Ethically speaking, what does it mean that members of Congress rank lower than car salesmen?

Go to and try and bring some yucks to your e-mail.

BLITZER: A little technical nuance. I think it was John Ensign's father who paid the $100,000 to this guy.

CAFFERTY: Well, yes, his mom and dad.


BLITZER: His family, the same family, just a technical...


CAFFERTY: Well, thank you. I need a little looking after.


BLITZER: Not all federal employees are bad, by the way. A lot of them work very -- I work in Washington. I have some relatives who work in the federal government as well. They work really hard. We are talking about what...


BLITZER: We talked about whether or not government employees at all levels are accountable enough. And the context of the question was the people in the security administration who put this manual on the Internet showing how to, you know, get past the screeners at the airports, the idea being that, once the bad ones get in, you can't get them out.

Now, your nephew, I have on good authority, is a terrific government employee.

BLITZER: Hardworking.

CAFFERTY: Us taxpayers are getting our money's worth from your nephew.

BLITZER: More than.

CAFFERTY: But it's the one who -- the slackers.

BLITZER: A few others, yes.

CAFFERTY: And you can't get them out. And that was the...


BLITZER: A lot of these millions of federal workers -- and there are millions of them.

CAFFERTY: Yes, there are.

BLITZER: They work hard.

CAFFERTY: You know the other thing I saw today?


CAFFERTY: The average federal employee makes $71,000 a year. You know what the average private sector employee makes?


CAFFERTY: Forty-one thousand.

BLITZER: That is a good question for next week.

CAFFERTY: There you go.

BLITZER: All right, Jack, thank you.

Some top executives are put on warning. The so-called White House pay czar is cracking down on paychecks or executives at -- of the those executives of the bailed-out companies. Wait until you hear the exact facts the figures and the reason why.


BLITZER: They are being described as -- quote -- "regular kids," but these five Muslim Americans now at the center of a terror investigation here in the United States and Pakistan.

A U.S. law enforcement officer source tells CNN a decision on whether to file charges will likely be made in Virginia, but perhaps not any time soon. We are learning more about the suspects and their journey from Washington, D.C., from the area around Washington to a jail cell in Pakistan.

Our Brian Todd spoke today with leaders of the mosque where the suspects worshipped -- Brian.


BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we have confirmed that all five young men who went missing from this area late last month and were arrested in Pakistan worshipped at this mosque.

But leaders here insist, this is not a breeding ground for extremism.

(voice-over): At a small ranch-style house just yards away from a strip of suburban sprawl outside Washington, worshipers arrived for Friday prayers, this house converted to a mosque, the place where five young men arrested in Pakistan prayed, bonded and according to leaders here who know them acted like a lot of guys their age.

MUSTAFA ABU MARYAM, VOLUNTEER YOUTH COORDINATOR: They were wholesome kids, very goofy, you know, talked about, you know, girls, you know? TODD: Mustafa Abu Maryam, youth coordinator for the local chapter of the Islamic Circle of North America, has known these five young men for years. He says, in his dealings with them, they were interested in basketball, swimming, helping out at mosque functions, never in conflict or politics.

He says he never suspected they would harm anyone, but in an interrogation report, Pakistani officials say the five were of the opinion that a jihad must be waged against so-called infidels who commit atrocity against Muslims, that they planned to go to Afghanistan and that one of them, Ahmed Abdullah Minni, went online to praise attacks against Americans.

None has been charged, but they remain detained in Pakistan. It was from this community that Minni and the four went missing late last month. We pressed mosque leaders on whether they may have been radicalized at this place.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think that the community, this mosque especially, has been very vigilant in taking it upon themselves to look into this and find out where the radicalization was coming from, if indeed there was radicalization in this situation. But, certainly, it doesn't come from the mosque.

TODD: Mosque attorney Ashraf Nubani (ph) says U.S. law enforcement backs him up on that. Radical is not a word local Muslim leader Mahdi Bray would use to describe one of the men, Ramy Zamzam, who Bray said he saw at several functions.

MAHDI BRAY, MUSLIM AMERICAN SOCIETY: I thought he was very articulate. I also thought that he had leadership potentials and things of that nature.

TODD: The man who mentored Zamzam and his friends says he still is in shock.

MARYAM: I have always known these kids as fun-loving, career- focused children that had a bright future for themselves. You know, I hope all of this is not true. I hope it's not what it seems to be.

TODD (on camera): Leaders here said that the families of these young men were not yet ready to speak publicly. They say that while the law enforcement investigation proceeds, they will conduct their own internal probe to make sure that this mosque is not connected to any kind of extremism -- Wolf.


BLITZER: Brian Todd on the scene for us outside Washington, D.C., in Northern Virginia.

We are digging deeper into the Senate's new health care reform compromise. A loophole has been discovered tucked into the massive legislation, 2,000 pages, that could limit spending to treat cancer and other costly illnesses.

What is going on? Let's bring in our congressional correspondent, Brianna Keilar.

Brianna, tell us who is responsible for this change in the Senate bill.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's the thing, Wolf. We don't know exactly whose idea this was, because it was put in place, this change, behind closed doors when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid met with some key Democrats and also some White House officials to bring together some Senate committee health care bills into the one that the Senate is now debating on the floor.

But it was a cancer patients advocacy group that discovered it and brought it to light.


SEN. CHRISTOPHER DODD (D), CONNECTICUT: If you are a citizen of the United States, and you get sick, you ought not to be shoved into bankruptcy.

KEILAR (voice-over): It is a frequent call of top Democrats as they push to overhaul the nation's health care system. One of the ways they have said they would protect Americans was by stopping an insurance company practice of limiting a patient's insurance coverage both over a lifetime and annually.

In November, the House passed a bill that would do just that, but in the bill now up for debate on the Senate floor under the section that plainly states no lifetime or annual limits, it says insurance companies may not establish unreasonable annual limits.

That one word, unreasonable, opens up a loophole for insurance companies to cap annual benefits.

(on camera): What does unreasonable mean?

STEPHEN FINAN, AMERICAN CANCER SOCIETY: We have no idea. And that is part of the problem.

KEILAR (voice-over): The American Cancer Society's Cancer Action Network is up in arms about the change, worried it will cost patients.

FINAN: A stage three colon cancer can cost over $200,000. That's obviously a lot of money. What happens if the annual limit is $100,000?

KEILAR: We asked Senator Tom Harkin, the chairman of the Senate Health Committee.

(on camera): What is this going to mean for say the colon cancer patient whose bills top $200,000 a year?

SEN. TOM HARKIN (D), IOWA: Well, again, one of the compromises we had to make, we do have no lifetime caps, and we put in there no unreasonable annual caps.

KEILAR: But what does that mean?

HARKIN: Well, that's to be developed by the secretary of health and human services.


KEILAR: Now, Democrats say they had to make this compromise, because telling insurance companies to get rid of annual caps altogether would have significantly increased the cost of premiums for all Americans -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We will see what happens as this legislation continues to go through the process.

Brianna, thank you.

They accepted a government bailout. Now the Barack Obama administration is slapping some tough and controversial new pay rules on four giant companies. There they are.



BLITZER: Is President Obama feeling pressure after being scolded by African-American lawmakers? Just ahead, they're warning the White House is not doing enough to combat the problems within the black community.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Our community is bleeding. And we are the worst-hit. The old adage, someone has a cold; we have got H1N1.



BLITZER: Happening now: tough new rules on executive pay for companies that took billions of government bailout dollars, but is the Obama administration now micromanaging some of the country's biggest corporations?

Also, growing tension between President Obama and members of the Congressional Black Caucus. They're getting increasingly vocal about their displeasure with the White House agenda.

And the Mormon senator who has composed a Hanukkah song some are calling a new holiday hit. He explains what compelled him to write it.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You are in THE SITUATION ROOM.

A new crackdown by the Obama administration on huge paychecks at bailed-out companies. The president's so-called pay czar is targeting four companies and their highest paid employees.

Our senior White House correspondent, Ed Henry, is here.

Ed, you had a chance to speak with that pay czar, Ken Feinberg.


And Ken Feinberg is very powerful. You will remember back in October he slashed the pay of the top 25 executives at some of these bailed-out banks and other firms. Now he is going after the next level of officials at some of these firms, because he believes it is time to bring some balance back to Wall Street compensation.


HENRY (voice-over): While the president is only turning up the heat on four companies that got the biggest taxpayer bailouts, he's trying to send a message to corporate boards all across America.

KENNETH FEINBERG, SPECIAL MASTER FOR EXECUTIVE COMPENSATION: We have to rein in excessive compensation practices and tie compensation not to some guaranteed cash, but to long-term performance, so that, as the company thrives, the individual in the company thrives as well.

HENRY: The new restrictions impact the 26th through 100th top earners at AIG, Citigroup, General Motors and GMAC. Their Cash salaries are now limited to $500,000 a year, and cash only make up 45 percent of the total pay package. But there could be a loophole, because there's no cap on supersized bonuses.

FEINBERG: It really isn't the role of the federal government to determine how much of a bonus in -- within that pool that person should get or that person should get. We're not micromanaging.

HENRY: But the new restrictions seem to micromanage in other ways. In addition to the cash salary cap, bonuses cannot be redeemed for three years and must come from a pool of money based on long-term performance, a contradiction we pressed pay czar Kenneth Feinberg about.

(on camera): But you are micromanaging, it appears, their salary. You're saying a cap.

FEINBERG: Well, what we're doing is saying this. First, in the great majority of cases, with all due respect, a $500,000 maximum base cash salary is -- is more than reasonable as a limitation. Secondly, if there's an exceptional case where an additional amount should be allocated in base salary, we will review that.

HENRY (voice-over): Feinberg said he's encouraged by Goldman Sachs' voluntary decision to skip cash bonuses. But he understands the anger about others raking in big bucks during 10 percent unemployment.

FEINBERG: I am doing what I can under the law to try and right -- somewhat right that balance, and hopefully we will see some long- term impact on excessive Wall Street compensation.


HENRY: Now, the big picture here is that the president and his top aides realize that, heading into a midterm election year, it does not look good to have so many people hurting on Main Street, while people on Wall Street are once again getting some big paychecks. That is why, on Monday, the president is also going to be calling in the heads of a dozen top banks in the United States.

He is going to be pressing them to start lending to more small businesses, more consumers, help troubled homeowners, to say, look, the government bailed you out; it's time to help more people -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Ed Henry is working the story at the White House.

Let's talk about it with the best political team on television. Joining us, our senior political analyst, Gloria Borger, our CNN national political correspondent, Jessica Yellin, our senior political correspondent, Candy Crowley, and CNN's Joe Johns.

Gloria, what does he need to do Monday, when he meets with these bankers?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, he's going to tell them -- he's going to scold them a little bit. I think he -- he's going to say they need to start lending more and they need to be a little bit more responsible about their executive pay. There's not much he can really do, Wolf, though, because they're not talking about legislation on Monday.

But in back of the banker's mind is the knowledge that there's a lot of talk right now about a windfall profits tax on banks. And, you know, they do not want that to happen. So essentially the president could say to them, you know, shape up, because there's a lot of stuff floating out there that you might not like.

BLITZER: I think, Candy, the president certainly appreciates the anger that is out there. In this interview that he's given to "60 Minutes," which will air Sunday night -- they've released excerpts. He says this. He says: "I did not run for office to be helping out a bunch of fat cat bankers on Wall Street."

Pretty tough talk from the -- from the president -- Candy.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: It is. And pretty popular talk at this point. I mean it's safe to go after bankers when we're still talking about bonuses and how even though they got all this bailout money, they aren't helping people get loans.

And I've changed my e-mail address, so nobody can e-mail address so nobody can write me after I sort of stand up in defense of bankers here, but a lot of them -- and I talked to a couple of them today that said, listen, we're crunched here. Because, on the one hand, we have these regulations saying get your assets in -- under control, you know, we want to see a better ratio of assets to the -- the debt that you have out there. We're being told to be more careful about who we lend to.

And guess what?

The best people to lend to, the people with the best credit rating right now, aren't borrowing. So they're having -- they say they're having a problem there.

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: The other piece of it is that there's a sense that the -- they're lobbying very hard against financial reform. And a top White House source says one of the things the president will push these folks very hard on on Monday is to back off and let some of the financial reform go through the Senate without such vigorous lobbying...

BORGER: Right.

YELLIN: ...against it, because there is a general agreement that if Wall Street is not going to cooperate on changing our economic system a little, then it is all-out war.

JOE JOHNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And if you look at his speeches, too, in the past, he's pretty much said that the banks did all this lending at the very outset and actually helped to -- to mess up the economy. And now they've moved completely to the other side, basically not making loans hardly at all. So the question is whether they should just come back to the middle a little bit more...

CROWLEY: What's the right...


JOHNS: ...which seems to be it.

BORGER: Well, and I'm told by...


BORGER: a Treasury source that they're looking for ways to kind of incentivize responsible lending, so that maybe this -- the lending would ease up from the banks, because the banks, as Candy points out, are rightly asking, look, we were too loose back then. That was the problem. And now you're saying we're too tight. So we need to find -- we need to find a -- a middle ground here.

CROWLEY: The Goldilocks (ph) solution is what they're looking for.

BORGER: Right. Exactly. Exactly.

BLITZER: You know, Candy, as the president gets ready -- assuming he's going to get some version of health care reform -- this whole issue of the financial regulation, the House of Representatives passed legislation today, but it's by -- by no means a done deal. The Senate -- the guys in the Senate and the gals in the Senate, they very often have a different perspective. CROWLEY: Yes, they do. And they also have a very different process. And that's why it always takes so much longer in the Senate and why the Senate bills tend to look a lot less like the House bills. They're generally a lot less liberal. They're generally a little more pro-company, pro-corporate.

So, look, it's not going to happen this year. That much we know. And -- and there hasn't -- they've lost the kind of fire for it is part of the problem. There's not this -- it's one thing to say we need to get jobs and we need to get this health care bill done and it's another thing to go and yes, yes, rah, rah, financial regulation. The -- the White House and the folks pushing it on Capitol Hill are going to have to find some way to kind of bring this issue home.


YELLIN: Almost 30 Democrats voted no today in the House of Representatives -- voted against the president's bill. The bill before the Senate is so very different from the one in the House. It does not have a lot of Democratic support yet.

BORGER: It makes you wonder why...

BLITZER: Guy -- guys, stand by...

BORGER: ...they didn't do it sooner, like after the financial crisis hit...



BORGER: ...then you could do the regulation and get it through.

BLITZER: And so far, it's taken a year -- or almost exactly a year since -- since the economy basically collapsed. And they're still waiting for financial reform.

Stand by. We have so much more to discuss, including the president having some potentially serious problems with members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Listen to this.

We're going to talk about it in a moment.


REP. MAXINE WATERS (D), CALIFORNIA: We finally are waking up to the fact that despite the fact we are loyal, consistent members of this Congress and of our caucus and of that committee, that we are not paying enough attention to the misery in our communities. And as we have said, that day is over.


BLITZER: We're back with the best political team on television.

Is there a growing rift between White House and the members of the Congressional Black Caucus on various issues, including jobs creation and health care reform -- Joe, I want to pick this up with you.

Listen to what the -- the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, Barbara Lee, the Congresswoman from Oakland, California, told me earlier here in THE SITUATION ROOM.


REP. BARBARA LEE (D), CALIFORNIA: We have to have what the elements are of a public option. I support a public option. We have to have a strong public option, otherwise, why are we doing this?


BLITZER: A lot of members of the Congressional Black Caucus feel they're being taken for granted right now by their friends.

JOHNS: Well, yes. I mean the -- and it's been personal and it's been for a while, since before Barack Obama was president of the United States. There are members of the Congressional Black Caucus who have sort of made their careers, for good or for bad, on the sort of racial identity politics, to at least some degree. And Barack Obama has always kind of run away from that. And that's created a very natural sort of friction or -- or rift between some of these members. They don't like the way he does some things.

On the other hand, he's very popular in many of these African- American majority districts, so they can't say too much bad about the man, because he's the first black president of the United States. They'll tell you officially, you know, that there's a continuing and constant friction between Congress and the executive branch and that's what this is all about. But behind-the-scenes, there are some issues here.

BORGER: It's -- it's really, I think it is personal. When you look at kind of the argument -- the public argument that President Obama has been having with John Conyers of Michigan, where Conyers went on a radio show and kind of said, you know, holding hands and beer on Friday nights in the White House and bowing down to every nutty right-wing proposal about health care, blah, blah, blah, is not the Barack Obama I knew. And the president called him and essentially had a conversation, in which I think he said to Conyers, at least according to Conyers, to -- asked him to stop demeaning him.

So it is -- it is getting kind of personal and uncomfortable.

JOHNS: Well, and...

CROWLEY: Well, I mean one of the things, also, is -- is that -- I agree with you, Joe, that there is obviously overwhelming support for the president in the districts of -- of many of these members of the Black Congressional Caucus. The problem is that it's not forever, because the hopes were as high as the support was.

And so I think they may, perhaps, they are a little ahead of the curve, but there is certainly, out there in these districts and elsewhere, a disappoint that is beginning to build and -- and perhaps it is reflected, you know, nationwide, because we do see the polls going down. But there is a reflection among black voters that -- that there is some disappointment here in this...


CROWLEY: Obviously, their response is (INAUDIBLE)...

BORGER: There's the unemployment rate.


YELLIN: The black unemployment rate is right now 16 percent almost.


YELLIN: It's much higher than...

CROWLEY: And it's always been that way, but they just had higher hopes for this guy, that he would pay more attention.

YELLIN: And they'd like to see some of this funding...


YELLIN: ...going directly...

BLITZER: Jessica...

YELLIN: their districts.

BLITZER: Jessica, what they're really concerned about is that the White House and the leadership in the Senate and the House, the Democratic leadership -- forget about the Republicans right now -- they seem to be more concerned about winning over those moderate or conservative Democrats, as opposed to what they -- they call the Progressive Caucus, the liberals, including the Congressional Black Caucus.

YELLIN: That's right. And the way they're seeing that happen, the liberals, the Progressive Black Caucus, they're seeing money going to projects and programs that don't directly help inner cities, that don't directly help the most impoverished communities. And they want to see actual dollars going to the areas that are hardest hit.

The problem is, every time the president is asked about this, he says what will help the minority communities is improving the economy overall. So he's not given them an inch there...

BORGER: Well...

YELLIN: ...and it's very frustrating for them.

BORGER: And I think health care is -- is another problem because members of the Congressional Black Caucus support the public option. Many of them supported single payer...


CROWLEY: But that's the White House's problem.


CROWLEY: They should...


BORGER: ...Barack Obama supported it.

CROWLEY: ...the public option from the beginning...

BORGER: Well, exactly.

CROWLEY: ...instead of making it the be and end all.

BLITZER: All right...

JOHNS: Well...

BLITZER: Let's leave it on that note, guys.


BLITZER: We've got to -- we've got to leave it on that note, because we're out of time.

Thanks very much.

J.T. Don't go away. We've got you and Orrin Hatch coming in shortly.

Let's bring in Deborah Feyerick right now.

She's monitoring some other top stories incoming into THE SITUATION ROOM -- Deb.

FEYERICK: Well, Wolf, visiting Northern Iraq, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he does expect Iran to face significant new sanctions over its nuclear program. And he told U.S. Troops that their mission in Iraq remains critical, despite a renewed focus on Afghanistan. Gates spoke after talks with Iraq's prime minister. Nuri Al-Maliki had canceled his meeting with Gates a day earlier to meet with lawmakers over Tuesday's deadly bombings. A group linked to al Qaeda said today it had carried out those attacks.

The tills are ringing and that signals a strong start to the holiday shopping season. The Commerce Department says retail sales rose 1.3 percent in November. That's more than double the increase analysts had expected and higher than the 1.1 percent increase in October.

And Diane Sawyer is saying good-bye to early mornings. Today, her co-hosts held back tears as they toasted her last day on "Good Morning America." Later this month, Sawyer will take over for Charles Gibson on ABC's "World News Tonight." She will be only the second woman to solo anchor a major network evening news show. And, of course, folks can TiVo her, since they'll be watching you.

BLITZER: And that's absolutely correct.

Thanks very much.

They don't even have to TiVo her.

Let's check in with Erica Hill to see what's coming up at the top of the hour.

What are you working on -- Erica?

ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: I'm glad to see that Deb has her priorities in order there -- watching Wolf, TiVo the other one.

BLITZER: Good. That's very important.

HILL: Wolf, at the top of the hour, half a million dollars a fortune on Main Street. For some Wall Street execs, though, that sounds kind of like chump -- chump change. But it is a new government imposed pay cut. The White House pay czar hitting companies that took billions in bailout money with new salary caps and limiting those cushy perks. Well, the execs whose bad calls and outrageous greed (AUDIO GAP).

BLITZER: Unfortunately, Erica has disappeared. But she will be here at the top of the hour, "CNN TONIGHT." Don't forget about that. We apologize for the little technical problem.

Vice President Joe Biden gives a frank assessment of embattled Senator Chris Dodd's 2010 re-election bid. That's coming up.


BLITZER: Let's go to Jack Cafferty.

He's got The Cafferty File.

But before we go to The File, I just got Tweet from Michael J.W.J.R.


BLITZER: "I actually watch Wolf Blitzer for Jack Cafferty. He needs a Twitter account."

They want you to Tweet, Jack.

CAFFERTY: That's not going to happen. BLITZER: Tweet.


No, I don't.

The question, ethically speaking, what does it mean that members of Congress rank lower than car salesmen?

There's a Gallup Poll that's out on this.

Doctor -- James writes: "If doctors and nurses rank highest in the poll and members of Congress rank lowest, why is it we trust Congress to remake health care instead of doctors?"

Brian writes: "Our country elects fewer than 600 people on a national level to govern 300 million people. Do you think they can get it right? Do you think they represent the interests of 300 million people? What do 300 million people want anyway?"

Car Salesmen writes: "Why does everybody always beat up on car salesmen? If people weren't able to pay below the sale price, we would not be viewed as we are. People pay the grocer his asking price, the gas station their asking price, the department store their asking price, but very few people pay the asking price on a car. And because of this, salespeople are forced to find ways to get people to pay as close to the asking price as possible just so we can earn a living."

Bobby writes: "Politicians get paid ridiculously high salaries. Talk about Cash for Clunkers."

Chris said: "This is very sad, yet predictable. What's even worse is that we, as Americans, stand by and put up with it. This is our, the people's, fault."

A.J. in New York writes: "Between the staggering giveaways to their Wall Street and banking benefactors and health care reform that's little more than a profit protection plan for the health care cartel, our public servants make members of the oldest profession look like a church choir."

Jim writes from Arkansas: "I was a car salesman many years ago. Please don't disparage car salesmen. Car salesmen are paragons of virtue compared to these guys."

And Greg says: "Ethically speaking about a politician is like talking about accuracy about Fox News -- you cannot be ethical and be a politician."

If you want to read more on this -- there's some pretty funny stuff -- go to the blog at

And I will see you Monday.

BLITZER: Monday. Have a great weekend.

CAFFERTY: You, too, sir.

BLITZER: Thanks, Jack.

Let's check back with Jessica.

She's got our Political Ticker -- Jessica.

YELLIN: Hey, Wolf.

It's been about six months since South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford revealed his extramarital affair with an Argentine woman. Well, now his wife Jenny is calling it quits on their marriage. She announced today that she is filing for divorce. Governor Sanford calls their split "tragic" and says he takes full responsibility for the moral failure that led to this point. So it looks like the Republican gets to keep his job after state lawmakers killed a move to impeach him this week, but he doesn't get to keep his wife.

Vice President Joe Biden is acknowledging today that his long time pal, Senator Chris Dodd, is -- quoting now -- "getting the living hell beat out of him." You can count on him for candor. The vice president appeared at a $500 a person fundraising lunch for Dodd in Connecticut. For months, polls have shown that Dodd's 2010 re- election bid is struggling. And that's, in large part, because of the economic meltdown, his role as Senate Banking Committee chairman, his campaign for president -- so many reasons. Biden told fellow Democrats that Dodd has an uphill race because he takes on the tough issues.

Well, now, let's look at Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele in a whole new way. This is how RNC interns got to see their boss cutting up for photos instead of cutting into the Democrats' agenda. They kind of look like prom pictures gone awry. We found these shots posted on a number of online sites. He's smiling and mugging for the camera, as you can see, Wolf.

He looks like a pretty cool boss.

Do you think he'd ever pose for pictures with us that way?

BLITZER: I know he would. I know him and he -- he's a very, very nice guy -- a very funny guy, a good sense of humor.

YELLIN: Certainly.

BLITZER: Well liked.

All right, thanks...

YELLIN: And he takes a nice picture.

BLITZER: Don't go away.

We have more with Jessica coming up, including a holiday hit. The Mormon senator, Orrin Hatch, writes a Hanukah song.


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: All right, a statement just coming in from Tiger Woods, saying he's taking an indefinite leave from professional golf.

Let me read the statement to our viewers: "I am deeply aware of the disappointment and hurt that my infidelity has caused to so many people, most of all my wife and children. I want to say again to everyone that I am profoundly sorry and that I ask forgiveness. It may not be possible to repair the damage I've done, but I want to try to -- I want to do my best to try."

The statement goes on, from Tiger Woods: "I would like to ask everyone, including my fans, the good people of my -- my foundation, business partners, the PGA Tour and my fellow competitors for their understanding. What's most important now is that my family has the time, privacy and safe haven we -- we will need for personal healing."

He goes on to say: "After much soul-searching, I have decided to take an indefinite break from professional golf. I need to focus my attention on being a better husband, father and person. Again, I ask for privacy for my family. And I am especially grateful for all of those who have offered compassion and concern during this difficult time."

That statement just posted by Tiger Woods on his Web site.

We'll take a quick break and continue after this.


BLITZER: Senator Orrin Hatch is well-known as a staunch conservative Republican on Capitol Hill. You may not know, though, that he's also a songwriter. The Utah senator, who is a Mormon, has written and recorded a Hanukah song.

And CNN's Jessica Yellin managed to catch up with him -- Jessica, you have the music video, I know that.

YELLIN: Yes, Wolf. We have the music video. And for tonight, the first night of Hanukah, Senator Hatch tells me which superstar he wishes would record his new Hanukah song.


YELLIN (voice-over): Move over, Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel, here comes Orrin Hatch.


YELLIN: It's a new Hanukah song written by the senior senator from Utah.


YELLIN: Yes, Hatch is Mormon, but says he's always felt close to the Jewish community.

SEN. ORRIN HATCH (R-UT), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: We love the Jewish people. We -- we revere what they've been through. We suffered with them.

YELLIN: So how did this happen?


YELLIN: The conservative Republican likes to write spirituals and love songs. When a Jewish reporter suggested he try his hand at this, he decided to tell the story of Hanukah.

HATCH: This is a Menorah that they -- they filled with oil. But they didn't have enough oil to really keep it going.

YELLIN: The song explains what Jews call a miracle -- when, in ancient times, one day's worth of oil stretched for eight days.


YELLIN: Others have tried their hand at Hanukah songs.


YELLIN: And, of course, there's Adam Sandler.


YELLIN: But the Utah senator's tune is winning raves from his peers.

REP. ANTHONY WEINER (D), NEW YORK: I don't know if it's the category of miracles, but having a Mormon member of the United States Senate add to the Hanukah song collection is certainly right up there with the unexpected.

HATCH: Well, I've had people say they just love it. I've been stopped as I've walked through the halls.

YELLIN: He can think of two Jewish singers he'd like to perform the song.

HATCH: I wouldn't mind Madonna singing it. She's a convert to Judaism. She's a great performer and a great singer.

YELLIN: And his favorite, Barbra Streisand.

HATCH: Barbra Streisand has the most beautiful, clear voice I've ever heard. And she probably hates my guts because I'm a conservative Republican.

(END VIDEO TAPE) YELLIN: Now, Wolf, I did ask Senator Hatch if he would sing the song, but he wouldn't. We really did try. He did say, after I asked him, that he would be open to collaborating on another Hanukah song with Adam Sandler or, of course, Barbra Streisand or Madonna -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Good for Orrin Hatch.

He's a very, very nice guy.

And to all of our Jewish viewers out there, once again, Happy Hanukah on this, the first night of Hanukah.

Thanks very much for watching.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Up next, "CNN TONIGHT."