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Will Backroom Deals Lead to Health Care Reform?; Interview With Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood; Controversy Over Free Medical Care; What U.S. Troops Face in Afghanistan; Thousands of Train Riders Stranded in Europe

Aired December 21, 2009 - 16:00   ET


SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now: the backroom deals that got the Democrats where they are today on health care reform. The Senate now is on track to pass a bill by Christmas, thanks to some last-minute gifts and goodies for key lawmakers. Plus, the federal government orders new protection for frustrated airline passengers in the midst of the holiday travel season and a blizzard of delays.

And big question, will a New Jersey man finally be able to take his son home from Brazil? We're standing by for a verdict in this gut-wrenching international custody case.

Wolf Blitzer is off today. I'm Suzanne Malveaux. And you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Well, it's going to be a heck of a Christmas Eve here in Washington. A lot of us will end up working. The Senate now is expected to approve a massive health care overhaul on Thursday, after a crucial and successful test vote at 1:00 in the morning this morning. Democrats locked up that 60-vote margin they need to push the bill forward without any Republican support.

It took a lot of compromise, deal-making to get there.

I want to bring in our senior congressional correspondent, Dana Bash, but first to my colleague at the White House Dan Lothian.

And, obviously, Dan, the White House is trying to paint this as a holiday gift for the president.


And I can tell you, according to a top aide, that the president was up very late last night. He did watch that vote come in. And, today, he talked about that vote and what it means for the American people, saying that they now are one step closer to getting quality health insurance that will make their lives better.

At an event here at the White House that was really a moment for the president to talk about, really turning around this economy, the president then went on to talk about some of the points of this health care reform that he says will help all Americans. For instance, those who have insurance, it will be more stability for them. For those who have preexisting conditions, well, they won't be denied coverage. And then, for those who have serious illnesses, then they won't lose their insurance at all.

But, you know, there is a lot of criticism out there, loud voices coming from up on Capitol Hill, Republicans saying that this was rushed, that this happened in the middle of the night, that this is the kind of bill that will only bankrupt the country in the long run.

To that point, the president fired back.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I just want to be clear, for all those who are continually carping about how this is somehow a big-spending government bill, this cuts our deficit by $132 billion the first 10 years and by over a trillion in the second. That argument that opponents are making against this bill does not hold water.


MALVEAUX: So, Dan, is there any concern among the White House that this is really a fragile alliance between the Democrats? Can they really hold this together?

LOTHIAN: Well, you know, that's what a lot of people are saying. And I did ask the White House that particular question, because, you know, Senator Ben Nelson, who was that potential holdout, who could have really -- was -- provided that 60th vote that was so crucial is now saying, listen, I reserve the right to change my mind if there are any material changes in this.

The White House not willing to get into that debate at all, but what White House spokesman Robert Gibbs did want to talk about in this new poll from CNN that shows that, in terms of the American public, that they have seen the increase in support for this Senate bill by six points since early December.

Now, the majority of Americans still don't like this bill. But what the White House believes is that the more that the American people learn about this bill, the more they will like it.

MALVEAUX: OK, Dan, thank you so much for standing by with us.

Another shot of momentum for the president's health care plan, it's the American Medical Association. It now says that it's supporting that bill now making its way through the Senate. Now, the doctors group has worked with the Obama administration, with Democratic congressional leaders on overhauling health care after historically opposing reform measures. So, this is significant for the White House.

Well, you can call them deals. You can call them perks. You can even call them Christmas gifts if you want. There are key senators that are getting something extra in the health care reform bill, the incentive that they apparently needed to put a vote of yes.

Well, our senior congressional correspondent Dana Bash, she has been covering this story day and night. And I kid you not, she has literally been up day and night, that 1:00 in the morning vote.

Dana, obviously, you have gotten a full sense of how this all went down. Tell us about it.

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, there are actually a lot of special deals hidden in this health care compromise, Suzanne.

And, actually, they're not easy to find. In fact, for example, if you search the word Nebraska, it doesn't come up online, because the word is hyphenated. But guess what? We found it and a lot more.


BASH (voice-over): It was a series of backroom deals that secured Ben Nelson's vote, the last Democratic holdout. One sweetener was given only to his home state of Nebraska, here on page 98 of the compromise. The federal government will pay 100 percent of Nebraska's tab indefinitely for expanding Medicaid for low-income Americans.

And when we asked the Democratic leader, he revealed Nelson wasn't the only one getting special deals.

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MAJORITY LEADER: Dana, I would say this. If you will read the bill, you will find a number of states are treated differently than other states. That's what legislation is all about, compromise. It's compromise. It's -- I -- we -- we worked on different things to get a number of people's votes.

BASH: Like Bernie Sanders. The liberal Democrat was unhappy party leaders dropped a public option, and said this a few days ago.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I), VERMONT: It is not for sure that I will vote for that bill.

BASH: Suddenly, his home state of Vermont got some extra help for Medicaid, too. But to clinch Sanders' vote, Democrats added his pet project, $10 billion for community health centers nationwide.

SANDERS: One new provision that was placed in the health care reform bill by Majority Leader Reid, and I want to thank him very much.

BASH: Republicans accuse Democrats of bribery.

SEN. ORRIN HATCH (R), UTAH: Chicago-style backroom buy-offs, at the expense of the American taxpayers.

SEN. JOHN CORNYN (R), TEXAS: And then we find out there are other sweetheart deals which make this thing begin to stink to high heaven. BASH: But Democrats didn't just slip things in to win votes to pass health care. Leading Democrats also added provisions aimed at helping themselves back home. Chris Dodd's support was never in doubt.

SEN. CHRISTOPHER DODD (D), CONNECTICUT: This bill is long overdue and critically important.

BASH: But the Connecticut Democrat facing a tough reelection battle buried $100 million in the measure for a new hospital. Other states can compete for it, but he put it in hoping Connecticut gets the hospital.

DODD: This isn't about just my state, although my state is very interested.


BASH: Now, it doesn't stop there. There are specific issues and items in here, for example, hospitals, help for hospitals for states like Montana, North and South Dakota.

And, Suzanne, the Democratic leader, Harry Reid, he is unapologetic about this. He said it's just the way it is. It's the art of compromise. And listen to this. He says I don't know there's a senator that doesn't have something important in it for them. If they don't, it doesn't speak well of them -- Suzanne.


MALVEAUX: Good point, Dana.

Obviously, some people call this business as usual. Other people say this is the way business gets done surely on Capitol Hill.

BASH: Exactly.

MALVEAUX: What is next in this process?

BASH: Well, there are going to be a series of votes that will continue probably through the week, likely until Christmas Eve, about 7:00 Christmas Eve. But the big vote, the one that really was the telltale sign that this bill, barring anything that we don't know about, that this is going to pass, that was last night -- or early this morning, depending on how you look at it.


BASH: So, we expect the next procedural vote to be tomorrow morning, and there will be a couple others along the way. Final passage, again, though, we believe at this point will probably be Christmas Eve.

MALVEAUX: All right, Dana, we expect that we're not going to be getting too much sleep between now and then. So, thank you very much, Dana. BASH: Thanks, Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Well, check out the big dig that is under way right now here in the D.C. area and much across the East Coast. It is the first official day of winter, but with two feet of snow on the ground in some places, it really feels like it started yesterday.

At least four deaths have been linked to this massive winter storm that struck over the weekend, and the nightmare is continuing now for many holiday travelers. Airlines are still scrambling to get their flyers to their destinations after hundreds of flights were canceled. And you should watch out. There is another fierce winter storm. It's expected to strike tomorrow affecting the Central Plains and the Midwest.

The federal government is setting a new limit on how long airlines can keep passengers stuck on a plane that's delayed on the tarmac. Well, I'm going to ask Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood about the new rules and what price that these airlines are going to pay if they break them.

Plus, a father's long and painful battle for custody of his son -- a verdict is expected very soon in Brazil's highest court. And we're going to bring that to you when it happens.

And why thousands of people here in the D.C. area may be deprived of free medical care.



MALVEAUX: It's being called -- quote -- "a Christmas miracle," especially after the so-called flight from hell. You may recall that. That was back in August. Forty-seven passengers spent nearly six hours on a plane in Rochester, Minnesota, with very little to eat, a toilet that actually broke.

And the government never wants that to happen again. So, it is now announcing a new rule that says, if you're stuck on the tarmac, you can't sit there for more than three hours. It applies to U.S. air carriers on domestic routes. And there are only exceptions for safety, as well as security.


MALVEAUX: Secretary Ray LaHood here in THE SITUATION ROOM, thank you so much for joining us.

As we know, we all have nightmare stories about being stuck on a plane out on the tarmac for hours and hours. This is a relief to a lot of people who are hoping for a better experience on the airlines.

But what can you do, the Department of Transportation, to enforce this, if we're on a plane more than three hours, before they bring us back to the tarmac? RAY LAHOOD, U.S. SECRETARY OF TRANSPORTATION: Well, we're going to have strong enforcement here.

If there is a violation, there's a fine of $27,500 per violation. So, that means if there's 150 people on the plane, it's 150 times $27,500. That's a huge amount of money. And the airline has to post it on their Web site that they arrived back at the terminal late or that people did not get food and a drink within two hours of the time that they boarded the plane. That's the other aspect of it.

MALVEAUX: And what kind of foods or drinks are we talking about here?

LAHOOD: Probably peanuts, pretzels, a snack, some kind of a snack, but at least something. Many people sit for seven and eight hours with absolutely nothing to eat. They get sick. They faint. The restrooms end up not working. And it's just a horrible experience for people.

MALVEAUX: Now, we get charged fees for everything. You're talking about bags. Sometimes, it's food or drink or whatever. We're just bombarded with fees when we travel here.

So, how do you assure the American traveling public here that these fees are not going to be passed along if these airlines say, you know what, it's more expensive to follow this rule; we're going to pass the cost along to consumers?

LAHOOD: Well, we will keep an eye on this. The airlines ought to get with this and say to the passengers, we agree with the Department of Transportation. This is a lousy way to treat people. This is a good enforcement, it's a good rule, and we're going to abide by it, rather than trying to figure out ways to punish the passengers. They ought to try and figure out ways to be helpful here.

MALVEAUX: But how can you prevent those airlines from passing along those fees, if it's more expensive for them, they're doing business, it's the way that they do business now, that we get stuck with these fees?

LAHOOD: Well, we will work with the airlines on this. And we -- they have been notified today of this enforcement, this new rule. And I think the last thing they want to do now is try and stick it to passengers.

They have already, you know, been through so much torture already as a result of being delayed on planes.

MALVEAUX: So, if there's a scenario where you're on a plane and they say, OK, it's two hours, two-and-a-half-hours, they bring you back to the terminal because of this new rule here, you go from being number five in line to take off. Now you're back at the terminal, you go back, and now you're 30 in line, there are even more delays.

How does this actually prevent that from happening, where you have got further delays and a backlog? How does the FAA handle this? LAHOOD: Well, look, I think that airports now, once they have determined that this rule is out there, they are going to figure out ways to make sure that planes are in the right queue and that there are more opportunities for planes to take off on time.

But we don't see this causing further delay. We think this causes passengers to have more options. They can go back to the terminal, reboard the next day, go home, or figure out if they want to get back on this flight, if they know it's going to be delayed. It gives them the option, so they're not sitting there trying to figure out what's happening in their life.

MALVEAUX: Are you concerned at all that some of these airlines, they are going to realize, OK, we're running out of time here, we have got to take off, and that they're going to make some bad decisions based on bad weather, perhaps take off when they shouldn't take off? You say that this is an exception for safety. But if they're looking at the clock there, are you worried that they might make those kinds of decisions?

LAHOOD: Absolutely not. Safety is always number one with pilots. It's always number one with our air traffic controllers. Safety will not be compromised as a result of this rule. Safety will always be the number-one priority.

MALVEAUX: How can you guarantee that?


LAHOOD: Because I have talked enough with pilots and air traffic controllers. They're well-trained around the idea that safety has to be number one. And they get that and they will never compromise safety as a result of a rule like this.

MALVEAUX: Have you been met with any resistance from the airlines so far?

LAHOOD: Well, we have heard some disgruntled airlines speaking out today.


MALVEAUX: Which ones?

LAHOOD: Oh, the Air Transport Association put out a release. And my point to them is, you ought to get with it. This is about passengers. This is about the people that help you make a living and keep your airlines going. They ought to be stepping up and saying, this is a good idea, because it helps passengers.

MALVEAUX: Final question here. We had a monster snowstorm, as you realize here, in the District and all of Northeast. What is the situation like now in terms of traveling for the holidays?

LAHOOD: Well, there are still delays today. There will probably be a few delays tomorrow. People are just trying to get back on track.

I would say, within the next 48 hours, things will be back to normal. They're not back to normal today, though. There are still long lines and long delays. But the airlines are getting the planes back in the air.

MALVEAUX: All right, Mr. Secretary, thank you so much for joining us.

LAHOOD: Thank you. Thank you.

MALVEAUX: Happy holidays.

LAHOOD: Thank you. Happy holidays.

MALVEAUX: Nice jacket.

LAHOOD: Thank you.



MALVEAUX: Bad weather is stranding hordes of passengers here in the United States. And the same is true in Europe. A train system you might compare to Amtrak is suspended, with tens of thousands of travelers now stranded.

And you may not know his face, but he comes from one of the most famous families in America. He is 85 years old and has just been sentenced to prison for a shocking crime.


MALVEAUX: In Brazil right now, a New Jersey dad is waiting for a verdict on whether he will finally get custody of his son. After years of fighting and having his hopes raised and then dashed, David Goldman's battle has touched a nerve for many parents in this country and around the world.

Ines Ferre is following the story.

And, Ines, what can we expect today?

INES FERRE, CNN ESPANOL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Suzanne, today, we may expect a decision from the Supreme Court. It might be as early as today or perhaps tomorrow or the next day.

David Goldman, the father of 9-year-old Sean, is in Brazil, anxiously awaiting a Supreme Court decision on whether his son stays or comes back to the U.S. with him. That decision is expected soon. The court could rule as early at 5:00 p.m. Eastern time today.

The past week has really been a roller coaster for David Goldman, the father of 9-year-old Sean. Last week, in a unanimous decision, a court ruled that Sean was to be returned to his biological father in New Jersey. A day later, the Supreme Court in Brazil granted a stay for the boy while the court considered whether to hear the boy's testimony.

Goldman then filed an appeal. And now, today, we may find out if the Supreme Court reverses that stay or not. The lawyer for the Brazilian family said if this stay is lifted, he already has documents ready to appeal.

It's been a long road for everyone involved in this case, for family members in Brazil, as well as of course family members here in the U.S., his paternal grandparents in New Jersey anxiously awaiting to see what the judge says -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Is the family feeling optimistic at this point that they will be able to take him back to the United States for the holidays? What do they think this next turn is going to be like?

FERRE: Well, the family is hopeful. But, as you can imagine, they're really exhausted. It's been a roller coaster for them of emotions. They have fought five long years to bring Sean back to the U.S. They have had past rulings in their favor. But, still, they haven't been able to bring Sean back to the United States. So, they're hopeful, but they're very cautious as well.

MALVEAUX: All right, well, as soon as the news breaks, I'm sure you will be there for us. Thanks so much, Ines. Appreciate it.

FERRE: You're welcome.

MALVEAUX: Jessica Yellin, she is following all the other top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM that are coming in.

And, Jessica, what do you have for us?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Suzanne, a sentence handed out in New York. The 85-year-old son of the late philanthropist Brooke Astor will serve up to three years in prison for bilking her multimillion-dollar estate.

Today, Anthony Marshall escaped the more serious sentence of 25 years behind bars after he was convicted of grand larceny and scheming to defraud. Restitution has not been settled. Marshall is to report to prison in January.

Well, with unemployment high, you might think that there's more time and drive for crime. But, actually, it's quite the opposite. The FBI reports that murder rates dropped 10 percent in the first half of 2009. And overall crime rates are the lowest since the 1960s. Some are crediting the statistics to extended unemployment benefits or unemployed homebodies giving thieves less opportunity.

And right now, Suzanne, thousands are poked into the Oklahoma memorial for evangelist Oral Roberts. Fellow evangelist Pat Robertson opened the service this afternoon at Oral Roberts University, describing Roberts as a man who walked with God, but never gave up the common touch. Roberts died in California last week of complications from pneumonia. He was 91 -- back to you, Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: All right, thank you, Jessica.

Well, it sounds like a great deal for people in the nation's capital. It's a volunteer program providing thousands with free medical care. So, why are D.C. officials putting up roadblocks?

And how closely is the president's popularity tied to health care reform? Stand by for our brand new poll numbers.



Happening now: at a funeral in Iran, heartache and hatred. A revered cleric dies and his supporters mourn in a holy city. Why are they shouting death to the dictator?

There are many things that can land you in jail, but getting pregnant? A new rule says that if a female soldier serving in northern Iraq gets pregnant, the military can punish her, as well as the man who got her pregnant.

And the latest on what's being done right now to answer this question. How did 32-year-old Hollywood actress Brittany Murphy collapse and die?

I'm Suzanne Malveaux. And you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Well, Democrats get that Christmas gift, a big Christmas gift that they have long wanted.

Well, more now on our top story. The Senate is expecting to approve a massive, massive health care bill on Christmas Eve, after a successful test vote that happened this morning.

Now, could this potential breakthrough be impacting President Obama's job approval rating, perhaps a higher rating? It's up now. The president has a 54 percent approval rating. That is up six points since just under three weeks ago in our new CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll.

Well, I want to bring in senior political analyst Gloria Borger to explain all of this.

The president had an important win this morning. What does this mean, however, for the Senate Democrats and this health care reform bill that's making its way through?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, you know the old adage be careful what you wish for because you may get it? Well, our polls show that the health care reform itself is not really popular. Take a look at this. When you look at the people who favor and oppose health care reform: favor, only 42 percent now; oppose, 56 percent. That's a 14-point difference. It's up a little bit from early December.

But you can see, Suzanne, that the American public has a problem with this bill. And let me tell you why, very quickly. When you look and you ask people, what's the effect of this bill on my family, how my family is going to do? About 76 percent of the folks we interviewed said change for the worse, no change at all. Only 22 percent believe it's going to make their lives better.

And that's a very, very big hurdle for the president and the Democrats to get over.

MALVEAUX: So, why do you suppose that the American people, that this is becoming more divided over this president?

BORGER: Well, I think the American people -- the longer this thing has lingered out there, the more questions they have been able to raise about it and about President Obama.

Let me show you one other poll. Question: Obama has fallen short of your expectations. Now 48 percent say he has. In May, that number was only 28 percent. So, that's a really big problem for him. He's a victim of his own high expectations and maybe of his own big agenda.

MALVEAUX: All right, we are going to have to leave it there. Thank you so much, Gloria.


MALVEAUX: I appreciate that.

Meanwhile, here in Washington, D.C., there's controversy over an effort to charge a volunteer corps to hold a free medical clinic.

Our Brian Todd has more of that story.


BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Suzanne, this is a very popular clinic that has had success all over the country. The organizers had hoped to bring it here to the D.C. Armory and potentially administer free medical care to thousands of people. But those plans have hit several snags.

(voice-over): They wait in line outside to come in and wait some more for free dental care, eyeglasses and other treatments.


TODD: But those plans have hit several snags. They wait in line outside to come in and wait some more for free dental care, eyeglasses and other treatment.


TODD (voice-over): Have a seat right here for me.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Have a seat right here.

TODD: For more than 20 years, these free clinics have opened for a few days at a time in cities and towns across America, courtesy of a nonprofit group called RAM, the Remote Area Medical and Volunteer Corps. It's run by Stan Brock, who was once a star on the popular network show "Wild Kingdom."

STAN BROCK, "WILD KINGDOM": So who's got number one?


BROCK: OK. Come on down.

TODD: Brock says his clinics have treated more than 400,000 patients, many of whom don't have insurance. For years, he's wanted to come to Washington, and Brock says he thought he had after arrangement to hold a free clinic in January at the D.C. Armory. But he says the D.C.'s government has put up some hurdles.

BROCK: Well, it is frustrating. You know, it's extraordinary how difficult it can be sometimes to help people.

TODD: Brock says D.C. officials first asked RAM to pay to use the armory, including for each table and chair. He says the D.C. government has since waived some of those fees, but says he's still being asked to pay tens of thousands of dollars for staffing and security, costs they've never incurred anywhere else.

TODD: Our position is that because we're providing a public service, that these charges should be waived.

TODD: Contacted by CNN, one D.C. city official said Brock is blowing this out of proportion, that when RAM answers certain questions, the cost issue will be resolved.

In a statement, another city official says the health department hasn't yet received assurances "... on how RAM Will ensure quality oversight of unlicensed doctors and the safety of our residents while receiving services." Brock says all of his doctors are board certified. He says the "unlicensed" phrase refers to doctors who haven't been granted permission to practice across state lines, and he says he's gotten a waiver for that from D.C. health officials.

But there are other snags.

(on camera): Part of the concern over RAM's idea to come here extends beyond the armory to health care clinics like this nonprofit that happens to be right next door. The concern here is over the long-term care that RAM's patients may or may not get. (voice-over): Vincent Keene runs Unity Healthcare, a nonprofit that treats more than 80,000 people a year in D.C. He says he applauds RAM's efforts but doesn't think they group's done enough to make sure patients get follow-up care after RAM leaves the city.


(on camera): Isn't it better for them to come and have this clinic than for them not to come at all?

VINCENT KEENE, UNITY HEALTHCARE: Again, I can't really answer that question. I mean, if I was to say, for instance, somebody gets diagnosed and can't get the care, are they better off? Probably, they are better off to get diagnosed. But I sure would want that diagnosis to be followed up.


TODD: Brock says he's committed to making sure that patients get follow-up care. And CNN has learned that in at least one city, Los Angeles, RAM's doctors provided patients for follow-up care and the number of agencies where they could get it. Brock says time has already run out to arrange his clinic here by late January, and he hopes not to have to take it somewhere outside D.C. -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Thanks, Brian.

Well, if you think that Americans are having a bad holiday travel season, wait until you get a taste of what is going on in Europe. There are thousands of train passengers that are stranded. They're angry and they're confused.

And the real story of what's going on in Afghanistan right now. Our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, she is just back from the war zone. She's in THE SITUATION ROOM to tell us what she saw and learned.

And later, we'll show you how dogs are sniffing out hidden dangers in Afghanistan and saving lives.


MALVEAUX: Thousands more U.S. troops are getting ready to head to Afghanistan. And our CNN Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, she is just back from there. She is here to tell us what she saw up close, what the U.S. troops are facing. She joins us now.

And Barbara, while we were covering the president's announcement about the 30,000 additional U.S. troops out of the White House, you were on the ground. You were with these guys, you were with these women. You know what they're going through.

What really struck you when you were down on the ground? And what did you see?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, Suzanne, after traveling to Afghanistan several times, what really struck us was how complicated the situation is getting.

In the south, look at the map behind me. The south, Kandahar, Helmand province, these are areas that are very violent. We know the Taliban rules many towns, villages and roads there. But the situation is getting more complex for U.S. troops every day.

We went through the eastern sector for about two weeks. Violence has eased in some of these areas we've traveled in. Progress is really being made in some places. I want to show you what one general had to say as we walked through a town that was once ruled by the Taliban.


MAJ. GEN. CURTIS SCAPARROTTI, U.S. ARMY: This is one of the areas that was considered a sanctuary of the Taliban and the enemy. So, we basically fought with them to clear the area, secure the people, protect the population, which they wanted.


STARR: Counterinsurgency strategy of General McChrystal. This is U.S. troops on the ground trying to protect the population. But still, the question is, if they try and turn these areas over, if they get out of these areas, will the Taliban just come back in and will they create a new safe haven? It becomes a very delicate balance.

MALVEAUX: What's the most surprising thing that you learned when you were over in Afghanistan?

STARR: OK. I have to share. Maybe not surprising, but it's going to, I hope, strike some people as humorous.

We were with U.S. troops going on a military flight, and we were going through one of those screening machines, just like you do in the U.S. I'm standing behind a long line of young soldiers. They're unstrapping their M-16s, their ammo belts, their ammo clips, unzipping pockets. Various military items come out.

They all go through the screening machine, all the M-16 rifles. And they're getting this stuff back on the plane, mind you.

It comes to me, I put my backpack on my screening machine, I get stopped. The soldier says to me, "Excuse me, ma'am, do you have a bottle of water in there?"


MALVEAUX: Always get snagged by the bottle of water.

STARR: Right. In Afghanistan, you can take the M-16 on the plane, but you get questioned if you take water. Young troops working very hard.

MALVEAUX: Absolutely. And this is your eighth trip, Barbara, I understand, to Afghanistan? STARR: It is.

MALVEAUX: And what was different about this go-around?

STARR: You know, I think, for me, it was Kabul, the capital city. Very, very busy, full of traffic. Hard to believe you can get stuck in a traffic jam in Kabul, but because the security situation, Suzanne, is so tenuous, it begins to unsettle you just a little bit.

You're in a long line of cars at some stop and you really do begin to worry about attacks. It's a country where the saying is, "Everything is fine until it's not." And then there can be real trouble.

MALVEAUX: Well, Barbara, we're so glad you're back and you're safe. We know that Chris Lawrence as well was out there. And the two of you both did an excellent job. Thank you very much.

STARR: Thank you.


This weekend's snowstorm kept millions of people at home on one of the busiest shopping weekends. Well, we're going to talk about the impact on retail sales that might not be as bad as you think. That's coming up ahead.

And look who is showing off his martial arts skills there. What Vladimir Putin is doing to jump-start his so-called manly image.



MALVEAUX: Another holiday travel crisis caused by winter weather. This one, instead, in Europe.

It's the high-speed train service that links Britain and France. Well, it was canceled for a third day, leaving thousands of passengers stranded.

Now, some service is going to resume tomorrow, but many train riders, passengers, are still furious.

Here's our CNN's Paula Newton.

PAULA NEWTON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Suzanne, even President Nicolas Sarkozy of France saying, look, I want those trains back on the rails. This has really been a desperate situation. Take a look.


NEWTON (voice-over): After getting through 15 winters without service catastrophes, it was a pretty average deep freeze and light snowfall that managed to cripple Europe's high-speed lifeline between Britain and the continent.

Passengers have been stranded for days on both sides of the English Channel fighting boredom and desperation as they try to get where they need to be for the holidays. Some were evacuated from crippled hot trains on the weekend and are back at the station in London, again still stranded.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have searched for planes, boats. But everything is stuck. Just for the moment we are here and we can't do anything.

NEWTON: And on the other side, in Paris, more frustration and questions. Why now?

PETER SKELTON, STRANDED: It's quite pathetic, really, the way that they've acted on it. You know, we've had cold weather in the past. I came two years ago on the Eurostar and it was just as cold as it was now. So, why has it all of the sudden become such an issue that they can't run the trains?

NEWTON: Eurostar, the company that operates the services, says this year, for reasons yet to be explained, insulation and other winterization measures failed. But repairs have been made and some service will resume tomorrow.

RICHARD BROWN, CEO, EUROSTAR: It will be a somewhat limited service because we have to modify the trains to make sure that they're reliable in service.

NEWTON: But the president of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, joined flustered passengers in demanding a return to service and an explanation. As Europe heads into the busy holiday season, a deep freeze and persistent snowfall will continue to make travel of any kind a real challenge.


NEWTON: Suzanne, more headaches to come as they try and work through the backlog. And, really, if you're taking a plane or a train or an automobile, deep-freeze snow sounds a lot like back home, big headache leading up to the busy holiday season -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: OK, thanks. A lot of people can relate to that.

And here are some facts about the Eurostar that you may be interested in.

The passenger rail service, it's jointly owned by railroad entities in the United Kingdom, France and Belgium. In 2008, it carried -- this is a record -- 9.1 million passengers.

Now, that works out to be about 25,000 per day. And it sold $993 million in tickets. It can travel at speeds faster than 186 miles per hour.

Well, the health care bill is taking another critical step forward, but it is not quite the sweeping change that the president had promised. And not a single Republican is on board.

Well, we're going to break all that down for you coming up next.

Plus, punished for getting pregnant, the strict rules that could lead to a court-martial for women in the military.

Plus, it's story time at a boys and girls club. And the guest reader? Well, President Barack Obama himself.

Wait until you hear what he told these kids. You don't want to miss this, ahead on THE SITUATION ROOM.


MALVEAUX: President Obama and Democrats say that the health bill likely to pass the Senate this week will mean positive reform for people without insurance and people who already have health insurance. But, you know, there are some critics who want you to know what's not in this bill, and that that is important as well.

Joining me, our CNN political contributor, Donna Brazile, a Democratic strategist, and Republican strategist John Feehery. He represents clients who do have some health care interests.

Thanks for joining us here.

Obviously -- I don't know if you guys were up at 1:00 in the morning...


MALVEAUX: ... but a lot of people were. Well, we were watching very closely here.

There are some goodies in this, but there are also some things that just are not included in the Senate bill. I want to bring this to the attention of the audience here -- no public option, no expanding Medicare. It would have provided four to five million immediately, within months, cheaper coverage. No universal coverage.

These are the things that Barack Obama, as candidate, when I covered him, promised. This is not the reform that we're seeing when the Senate brings forward this bill.

Donna, can House Democrats live with this?

BRAZILE: Well, I think that the House Democrats will continue to work with the Senate Democrats to bring forward the strongest possible bill. That means that the House will sit down with the Senate to reconcile their differences and to ensure that the bill will provide a lower cost in terms of premiums, which the president also promised, more competition, more choice, and extend the life of Medicare.

So, in the end, I'm optimistic that we will have commonsense health care reform and it will be a good bill for the American people. MALVEAUX: Dr. Howard Dean said over the weekend he thought this was too much compromise. Do you think there's too much that the liberals of the party have given up?

BRAZILE: Well, look, there's no question that many liberals, this one included, wanted to see a strong public option in the Senate bill. But you know what? We've pronounced the public option dead over and over again. It survived in the House.

We'll see what Speaker Pelosi and the majority leader can work out, along with the president. The president will be involved in these negotiations. We will come up with a strong bill.

I'm not disappointed in the bill. I am optimistic that we're going to have a strong bill.

MALVEAUX: John, you spent many times, obviously, on the Hill, many years there. And you take a look at this delicate dance that's going on, the thin margin of error, if you will, with the Blue Dog Democrats, obviously Senator Harry Reid has got to make sure that they're all on board. Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House, as well, she has got to make sure that those liberals are going to sign off on this.

Who has more at stake here? Who has the tougher job? Is it Pelosi or is it Reid?

JOHN FEEHERY, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Well, Pelosi has a very difficult job because it only passed by one vote. She had probably some votes in her back pocket, but she, right now -- this is very hard because she's got to manage the expectations of the liberals, as you said. She's also got to manage the expectations of the Blue Dogs, who were saying we're getting hammered back home.

Obviously, Reid, because he has to hit 60 votes, has a very difficult job to corral those folks, and Pelosi has a rules committee, so it's either to ram things through. But right now, to manage the expectations of liberals coming back with this package coming over, that's going to be very hard.

I remember sitting on the House floor when the Senate came over with the prescription drug bill. We waited for three and a half hours before we got that bill passed. This conference report could be that long.

MALVEAUX: Now, we have no Republican support of this legislation. That really -- it stands out. It's remarkable when you look at this potentially could pass, not a single Republican vote.

This is how Senator John McCain put it over the weekend...


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: The president of the United States, when running, said we would have a new way of doing business in Washington. There would be change, we would negotiate across the table, we'd have the C-SPAN cameras in. And obviously, with their majorities -- and I understand majorities -- they decided to govern from the left and without Republican participation. That's why they're in a position of having to purchase the last vote or two.


MALVEAUX: Now, even the fights over Medicare and Social Security, there was significant Republican support here.

What does this president need to do to bring on Republicans? Is he failing in that -- in leadership in that sense, that he's not delivering on that promise of bipartisanship, a new change in Washington?

BRAZILE: Well, Suzanne, I think, with all due respect to Senator McCain, the Republicans have been missing in action. They've been missing in the action in terms of the stimulus and providing job relief, help to homeowners. They've complained from day one that this president was governing from a certain part of the party rather than come to the table willing to work with the president.

This president has bent over backwards so much, that many liberals are frustrated that that's all we believe the president is capable of doing, bending over. So, I don't think Senator McCain has any ground to complain about President Obama when the Senate Republicans had 20 days to offer alternatives. They offered nothing but four amendments, two that helped strengthen the health insurance companies.

So, I think the Republicans need to take a deep look in the mirror and decide how best they will help lead this country, as well as the Democrats.

MALVEAUX: John, do you agree that the president has bent over backwards? I know that John McCain said that he didn't -- you know, he hasn't invited a lot of Republicans into the Oval Office to really have meaningful discussions, that he's picked off one or two, but that he hasn't had a real caucus here.

FEEHERY: The strategy for the Senate Democrats was to get, as you said, one or two Republicans on board, not the whole Republican Caucus. The House, the strategy was, get no Republicans. No bipartisanship, no hint of bipartisanship. Nice try.

MALVEAUX: All right. We've got to leave it there.


BRAZILE: OK. You gave us your amendments, but you won't give us your votes. That's not our fault.

MALVEAUX: All right. We've got to leave it there.

All right. Thank you so much, Donna Brazile, John Feehery, for joining us here.

Well, the first dog show, the first snow. I want you to stand by for our "Political Ticker."


MALVEAUX: Here is a look at some "Hot Shots" coming in from our friends at The Associated Press. These are pictures likely to be in your newspaper tomorrow.

In Romania, a soldier looks out a frozen bus window before visiting a cemetery.

In the Philippines, residents move to safer ground as the country's most active volcano starts to rumble.

In Afghanistan, an armed U.S. soldier keeps watch as sheep pass by in the Helmand province.

And in Britain, Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall and wife of Prince Charles, throws a snowball after attending a tea party for children.

"Hot Shots," pictures worth a thousand words.

On our "Political Ticker," Dick Cheney is honored for his vocal criticism of President Obama. The former vice president has been named Conservative of the Year by "Human Events" magazine.

It says Cheney's warnings about the administration's national security policies make sense to many Americans who fear U.S. interests are being threatened. The article was written by former U.N. ambassador John Bolton. He's also been critical of the president himself.

A new round of name-calling in the health care debate. Republican Party Chairman Michael Steele says that the Democrats are -- and I'm quoting now -- "flipping a bird to the American people."

Steele coming out today to blast the Senate bill that cleared an important test vote overnight. Now, that top Senate Democrat isn't letting Steele's remark go unnoticed or unanswered. I want you to listen to Harry Reid's response.


SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MAJORITY LEADER: I'm disappointed that someone with the title that Mr. Steele has would be so crass and set such a terrible example for the youth of this country.


MALVEAUX: Well, someone was having a little bit of fun at the White House during the big weekend of snow. I want you to check out Bo the dog.

He is frolicking in the drifts of the White House lawn, and the first family's pet proving once again he is living the good life.