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President Obama Confronts Black Critics; Backroom Deals on Health Care Reform; Holiday Rush on Health Care; "Christmas Miracle" For Air Travelers

Aired December 21, 2009 - 18:00   ET


SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now: President Obama confronts criticism within the African-American community, defending himself against a charge that he's not much different than George W. Bush.

Plus, the Senate now is on track to pass a health care bill by Christmas. Now, this hour, the backroom deals and perks that make it possible.

And the controversy over snowballs. D.C. police investigate whether an off-duty police officer pulled out his gun after his car was hit by snowballs.

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

This hour, a brand-new interview with President Obama drives home the pushback that he's getting from some African-Americans, the great expectations of electing the first black president now giving way to criticism and disappointment among some voters who celebrated his victory.

Our White House correspondent Dan Lothian, he is here. He has got the very latest about this interview and what the president said.

Hey, Dan.


Well, some members of the Congressional Black Caucus have been criticizing the administration for not doing enough to pay attention to some of the problems that are unique to the African-American community, for example, the unemployment rate, which is about 16 percent, much higher than the national average.

And then there are those in Hollywood, supporters like Danny Glover, who also believe that this administration's efforts to bail out Wall Street and also their foreign policy in Afghanistan makes the Obama administration look much like the Bush administration.

Well, April Ryan of American Urban Radio Networks asked the president about these issues when she sat down for an interview today.


APRIL RYAN, AMERICAN URBAN RADIO NETWORKS: What are your thoughts about the fact that black leadership is grumbling and the fact that people are concerned with you being the first African-American president and they thought that there would be a little bit more compassion for black issues?

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, first of all, April, I think you just engaged in a big generalization in terms of how you asked that question.

If you want me to line up all the black actors, for example, who support me and put them on one side of the room and a couple who are grumbling on the other, I'm happy to have that.

I think, if you look at the polling in terms of how the attitudes of the African-American community, there's overwhelming support for what we've tried to do.

And, so, is there grumbling? Of course, there's grumbling, because we just went through the first -- the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.


LOTHIAN: Now, the president says that some -- the notion that somehow his administration has been neglectful of the African-American community because there hasn't been an overnight transformation is simply not accurate.

Is he completely happy? No, he isn't, but he says that things that this administration has done, such as focusing on education, such as the stimulus plan, such as what he's trying to do with health care reform, he thinks has helped all of America, including African- Americans -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: And, Dan, interestingly enough, in covering the campaign, it started out not a lot of African-Americans knew him. He didn't have a lot of support, but eventually he got overwhelming support from the black community. So, we will see if that looks overall, if that picture changes.

Real quick turn here. I understand that the president and the first lady got their H1N1 flu shots today. Is that right?>

LOTHIAN: That's right. That is something that also came out in that interview with the president today. We had known now that for a couple of months or so, that the first kids, the daughters had already received their shots because, of course, children and the elderly were those who got them first.

Well, the president again saying that over the weekend that he and the first lady did get their shots, and also trying to sort of dispel any sort of fears out there in the African-American community that somehow by taking this shot you might get hurt, it might damage you. The president says it's completely safe.

MALVEAUX: All right, Dan, thank you so much, Dan Lothian at the White House.

President Obama is getting an early holiday gift. The Senate now is expected to approve a massive health care overhaul on Christmas Eve after a crucial and successful test vote at 1:00 in the morning this morning, Democrats locked up that 60-vote margin that they need to push this bill forward without any Republican support, however.


OBAMA: The United States Senate knocked down a filibuster aimed at blocking a final vote on health care reform and scored a big victory for the American people. By standing up to special interests who have prevented reform for decades and were furiously lobbying against it now, the Senate moved us closer to reform that makes a tremendous difference for families, for seniors, for businesses, and for the country as a whole.


MALVEAUX: Well, that victory certainly came at a price. There are lots of compromises, backroom deals that were struck.

I want to bring in our senior congressional correspondent, Dana Bash, who has got the very latest on all the deal-making and how this unfolded.

You were there early in the morning, Dana. What came out of all of this?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, look, cutting special deals, Suzanne, as you know, it's nothing new. It's the way business has been done around here forever.

But because President Obama as a candidate promised that things would be different if he were in the White House, Republicans are seizing on this. They're trying to get political mileage, not just out of Democrats and their health care policy changes, but the way they cut secret deals.


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: And it doesn't stop there. There are also things like extra Medicare funds for states like Montana, North and South Dakota.

And, Suzanne, the Senate Democratic leader, Harry Reid, he is unapologetic. He says this is just the way things work. He said it's the art of compromise. And listen to this. He also said -- quote -- "'I don't know if there is a senator that doesn't have something important in it to them. If they don't, it doesn't speak well of them," kind of mocking people who maybe didn't come and ask him for something.

MALVEAUX: OK. Thanks, Dana. I appreciate it.

Another shot at momentum for the president's health care plan, the American Medical Association, it now says that it's supporting the bill that is making its way through the Senate. Now, this doctors group, it has worked with the Obama administration and with the Democratic congressional leaders on overhauling health care after historically opposing these reform measures, a change in tune. Well, if you want to win something really big in one challenge, if you win, everybody wins, at least the American taxpayer scoring big savings when government waste is exposed. That at least is what the Obama administration is saying. And it hopes to do something about it.

Well, we want to bring in our CNN national political correspondent, Jessica Yellin, who has a little bit more details about all this -- Jessica.


It's sort of like the Darwin awards, but for government. The White House ran a contest asking regular folks to point out absurd ways the government is blowing through money -- and I guess this is our image of the government blowing through money -- so they can fix it.

The winner is this woman who met with the president today. She works at a veterans hospital in Colorado and says at her hospital and at veterans hospital when patients are discharged, they have to leave behind all the prescription medications they got. And those meds, they go right in the garbage.

President Obama says that's completely wasteful.


OBAMA: Whenever patients left the hospital, leftover medications, like eyedrops or inhalers, were just thrown away. And often veterans would have to go right back to the pharmacy to refill what was discarded. So, the VA is paying twice. It's waste, plain and simple.


YELLIN: The White House proposes an obvious fix, let folks take their meds with them.

Some, other top proposals that regular folks wrote in with, apparently, if you run a low-income housing unit that gets money from, say, three different offices inside the Department of Housing and Urban, Well, HUD will send out three different inspectors to check out your property. Solution, name one inspector per site.

OK, call the Social Security Administration for an appointment, you could find yourself on eternal hold. One suggestion, how about letting people make appointments online, just like you can do for a restaurant or for an airline?

And another winner of the contest, at many government office buildings, you probably know this already, there is just no way to turn off the lights in the hallway at night and you are also required to keep your computers on all night for updates. Why not add an off button?

OK, none of this is going to solve the problem of the deficit, but there are simple solutions for some waste and efficiency. These were the picks of the Office of Management and Budget.

But, Suzanne, we see some other ways the government is being inefficient right here this week. For example, from the Democrats, late-night debates and proposed Christmas Eve votes? Doesn't that mean staff works overtime? Think cafeteria workers and Capitol police. Just how much could have been saved if they reached a health care deal in August, the president's original deadline?

And then the Republicans, this bill, how many times have they printed it out to show just how long the health care bill really is? What a waste of paper. OK, so, we're asking, do you see other ways the government is wasting money or being inefficient? You can be serious. You can be funny. I know it's hard to imagine government inefficiency, but write us with your ideas and we will post the most creative ones online or maybe even mention them here on air -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: I like the idea of the off button. That's a good one.

YELLIN: The off button, right? Why not?

MALVEAUX: OK. Thank you, Jessica.

Well, first, a climate deal, now an airing of some complaints here regarding the global warming deal reached in Copenhagen. Britain's prime minister is revealing that those talks could have collapsed because he says the deal was held ransom by a handful of countries. Find out who Gordon Brown is talking about.


MALVEAUX: President Obama has tried to put a good face on the climate accord worked out with great difficulty in Copenhagen. But the nonbinding agreement is leaving many leaders in a sour mood.

One of America's closest allies, for example, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, is saying this. And I'm quoting: "Never again should we face the deadlock that threatened to pull down those talks. Never again should we let a global deal to move towards a greener future be held to ransom by only a handful of countries."

I want to bring in our CNN senior political analyst, David Gergen.

David, who's looking for ransom at Copenhagen? Who is the prime minister referring to here?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: That's a good question. He doesn't designate the countries as such.

But what I will say is this. Looking at the totality of what he's been saying over the last 24 hours, in contrast to American environmentalists who are coming home and many of them saying that President Obama saved this, the talks in Copenhagen, from collapsing, didn't come home with everything that anybody wanted, far short of what was hoped, but at least didn't collapse. In Europe, led by Gordon Brown and the U.K., they are actually blaming the United States for not being ambitious enough, blaming China for not being ambitious, not setting high enough targets.

And also there is a general sense that Gordon Brown is talking about this ransom, that China joined together with South Africa, Brazil and India and essentially forged a deal with President Obama, that the U.K. was left out of the -- wasn't at the table. And the European Union wasn't at the table. And they don't like it.

And it has consequences from their point of view, Suzanne, that are pretty profound.

MALVEAUX: Well, what does it mean for Great Britain? They feel obviously left out of the process. There are other players as well. It looks like what's happening, what is emerging is the United States and China as major players on the world stage here, not only when it comes to global warming, but perhaps future trade pacts, that these are going to be the two powers that are out in front.

GERGEN: I think that's right. And in the last -- in recent years back all the way back to the early 1990s, this effort to reach a global trade agreement has been done through the U.N. There have been 15 such meetings like Copenhagen. Copenhagen was going to be a climactic meeting.

And there is a now sense that the U.N. process is failing and that it really ought to be done by the chief emitters. Maybe 15 or 20 countries have to cut a deal, of whom the two most important would be the U.S. and China. The U.S. and China account for about 40 percent of the carbon emissions in the world, the two biggest emitters.

But let me go back to this on -- what Europe feels -- and you see this across Europe -- is that they have said, we are willing to cut our carbon emissions by 20 percent by 2020 based on 1990.


GERGEN: But what the U.S. and China are doing are encouraging people to in effect do set very low-range expectations. And it's, we are only going to cut about 3 percent by 2020. And that's going to leave us in a dangerous position, whereas if we were willing to be more ambitious, we can get up very close to 20 percent worldwide, and that would come within a whisker of what all the scientists believe is desirable.

MALVEAUX: And, David, I want to go back to that point you were making before, because obviously Gordon Brown and some other leaders were saying they don't believe that the U.N. is really the best vehicle, the body to deal with climate change. And you have got 193 countries getting together, trying to come up with some sort of statement here.

Do you think the president essentially walked into a political trap by showing up in Copenhagen, the expectations were not met on anybody's side, that he comes back and perhaps loses a little bit of that political capital that he was hoping for? GERGEN: I think that is a very, very hard question.

I must say there are some who came away from Copenhagen thinking it was going to help him back here with the Senate this next year on cap and trade. There are others who came back and said, cap and trade is practically dead next year as a result of this emptiness of the Copenhagen thing.

I do think you have to give him some credit for salvaging this so it did not collapse. But, clearly, he didn't get all that he wanted or anywhere close to what he wanted.

MALVEAUX: OK. All right. David Gergen, thank you so much for joining us.

GERGEN: Thank you.

MALVEAUX: Buyouts and early requirement -- still facing weak sales, Ford Motor Company is looking for ways to cut its work force. We're going to tell you who faces some of those tough decisions.


MALVEAUX: Well, we have got the real story on what's going on in Afghanistan right now. Our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr, she just got back from the war zone and she's going to tell us what she saw and learned about the challenges for U.S. troops.


MALVEAUX: Happening now, brand-new poll numbers on President Obama's job approval rating. Is the battle over health care reform taking a toll?

Also, efforts to bring much-needed free medical care to the nation's capital, well, it's running into some unexpected obstacles -- details of the free clinic controversy.

Plus, fighting snowballs with gunpowder? Well, a Washington, D.C., detective is now under fire for drawing his weapon during a snowball fight.

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

Thousands more U.S. troops are getting ready to head to Afghanistan and our CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr, she just got back from there. She tells us what she saw up close, what U.S. troops are facing.

Thanks for joining us. What did you see on the ground?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, Suzanne, we see a lot on the news about what is going on in Southern Afghanistan, Helmand Province, Kandahar Province, where violence is at record high levels. We spent a lot of time traveling through the eastern sector of Afghanistan, along the Pakistan border, where basically two things are under way that are very interesting. U.S. troops are trying to turn over area to the Afghans in places where they see violence declining. And on the other side of the border, the Pakistanis are fighting the Taliban. What's the bottom line here?

They are seeing a number of insurgents, if you will, come back across the border, and they are very concerned about a new safe haven developing. We ran into General David Petraeus on the road and asked him about this. Listen to what he had to say.


GENERAL DAVID PETRAEUS, COMMANDER, U.S. CENTRAL COMMAND: Well, indeed, there is some possibility of cross-border movement. And one of the reasons for being here, of course, will be to compare notes with the intelligence elements that are here to see if that's been confirmed.


STARR: General Petraeus looking at all of this, really trying to strike that delicate balance and determine what is really going on. Every place in Afghanistan just a little bit different, very complicated for the troops on the ground.

MALVEAUX: And real quick, Barbara, what was the thing that most surprised you no your visit?

STARR: We went on a couple of foot patrols. The new General McChrystal strategy, get out of those armored vehicles, go on the ground with the troops. You find yourself a little bit unsettled, because those armored vehicles aren't around to protect you, but that's the way the troops are moving. We went along with them.

MALVEAUX: All right, thank you so much, Barbara Starr.

'Tis the season for giving and one group wants to give many unfortunate people the gift of better health, but it seems that free could become a big cost for some.

I want to bring in our Brian Todd, who has the bottom line on this story -- Brian.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Suzanne, this is a very popular medical clinic that's had success all over the country. Organizers had hoped to bring it here to Washington, D.C., to the D.C. Armory and potentially offer free medical care to thousands of people, but those plans have hit several snags.


TODD (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 have never incurred anywhere else.

BROCK: And our position is that because we are 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 and when RAM answers certain questions the cost issue will be resolved.

In a statement, another city official says the Health Department hasn't 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 about coming 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.

Vincent Keane runs Unity Health Care, a nonprofit that treats more than 80,000 people a year in D.C. He says he applauds RAM's effort but doesn't think the group has done enough to make sure patients gets follow-up care after RAM leaves the city. Still...

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

VINCENT KEANE, CEO, UNITY HEALTH CARE: And 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 is committed to making sure patients do get follow-up care and CNN has learned that in at least one city, Los Angeles, RAM's doctors did provide patients with instructions on follow-up care and the phone numbers of agencies where to get it.

Now, Brock says he's run out of time to stage this clinic here in January, in late January in Washington, and he now hopes that he does not have to take it out of the city. He's looking now, if he holds it in the city, Suzanne, maybe doing it sometime in March. But he doesn't want to -- you know, he doesn't want to take it outside the city if he doesn't have to.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN ANCHOR: OK. We'll see how that goes for him. Thank you so much, Brian.

Well, the Senate is heading towards a Christmas Eve showdown on health care reform. The best political team on television is standing by.


MALVEAUX: Senate Democrats are determined to pass their health reform bill, possibly Christmas Eve. Republicans say they are determined to stop it. The opposition party threatens to delay passage of this bill.

And is either side going to blink? We just don't know.

Well, joining me now is CNN senior political analyst Gloria Borger, CNN political contributor and Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, Republican strategist Rich Galen, and national political correspondent Jessica Yellin.

I want to start off first, obviously, there are a lot of people who are quite upset that Christmas Eve, this is happening. Seven o'clock, the vote is going to down on Christmas Eve. Journalists are working, people on the Hill are working, families are complaining here.

You have Republicans say Democrats are rushing it through. Democrats say, look, you know, the Republicans are guilty of stalling tactics.

Who's going to pay for this politically when they all go and realize that the holiday in some ways has been ruined?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, you're already -- look at the approval rating for Congress, it's not particularly high. I spoke with the Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell who blamed the Democrats and said, "Look, if they weren't so determined to ram this bill through by Christmas, we could all go home. So, it's not our fault."

And I think the American public just sits back and says, "Wait a minute, this is one-sixth of the American economy. This is a 2,000- page bill. You're inserting special provisions for members of Congress in it. Why don't you guys actually do it the right way and take your time?"

Except we see what happens when they don't meet deadlines. It opens a whole Pandora's Box and the president doesn't want that to happen.

DONNA BRAZILE, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: There are three or four more p procedural votes and they will require the Democrats to keep that 60 coalition. And once the Democrats hold the votes tomorrow at 7:15 a.m. -- I'm sure the time might change -- another procedural vote on Wednesday will clear the path for us to get this bill done by Christmas Eve.

Now, look, the Republicans can agree to cooperate, Rich, send them a message. They could go down to Harry Reid's office and say, you know what, we give up being obstructionists, we want to go home, we want to see our families, so let's move all these procedural hurdles, get this bill done so that we can go and start celebrating the holidays.

RICHARD GALEN, REPUBLICAN STRATEGITST: Yes, well, before we all start crying crocodile tears for how hard these poor people are working, they have to work on Christmas Eve, they work three days a week usually, on a good week. And they don't work every week, by the way.

So, if they were really serious about it, they could have -- they could have gone back to April and started working five days a week. And they would have been out of here at Thanksgiving.

MALVEAUX: And you're talking Republicans and Democrats, right, Rich?

GALEN: Well, Republicans wish that they -- no, I have no idea. I mean, this is what happens. I mean, it -- and the same thing happens when Republicans were in charge. The entire system, I think, is due for an upgrade. I know these are -- this is the -- this is the most deliberative body in the world. It is deliberately making fools out of them.

MALVEAUX: Jessica, jump in. JESSICA YELLIN, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: It's a Beltway obsession. When they vote on this, it's something that matters to us in the media because we have to work, to folks who are on the staffs because they have to change the airline ticket home. I don't think the average American at home really cares when the vote comes. It just confirms to them that the system is a mess, the sausage-making process is ugly...


YELLIN: ... and they just want to keep this moving.

BORGER: And they want to know what's in the bill.


BORGER: That's what the American public wants to know, if I earn X, well, how will this affect my insurance premiums?

MALVEAUX: And even if they are confused and they don't know, here's the latest CNN/Opinion Research Corporation Poll that shows that just a couple of weeks, you know, you got more people who now are on board who favor the Senate health care bill, favor 42 percent now as opposed to 36 percent some weeks ago, opposing 56 percent as opposed to 61 percent.

BORGER: But it's still 56 percent which, in my book, is a majority of people in this country oppose this bill. And what you've seen, which is why the Democrats want to keep to a deadline here is that the longer it hangs out there, the more people have questions with it.


MALVEAUX: But why did you guys -- why do you see this turn here? I mean, is there -- the president has been putting this out saying...


GALEN: ... still less than half are favored. I'm sorry. Donna, go ahead.

BRAZILE: But, look, I think, as more Americans come to understand what's in the bill, not the sausage-making, this has been like making bone-in sausage.


BRAZILE: A real bad deal. But I think, once they learn that their kids will not be discriminated against if they have asthma, epilepsy, diabetes; that their premiums will be lower, that people currently -- seniors will find that the donut hole has been covered; once they learn what's in the bill for them, I think you'll see those numbers improve.

YELLIN: The most relevant part of this poll, I think, for Democrats is a part that says, I believe it's one-third of Americans believe that this bill will affect their own personal health care situation, that's what matters for both parties actually. If Americans decide it's affecting them in a bad way, that's good for the Republicans next year at the polls, vice versa for the Democrats. It's all about how it hits home.


BORGER: Thirty-seven percent say worse.

GALEN: I'm on the downward -- I'm on the downward slope of health care here. I mean, I'm on the final approach. I'm like a pilot. I'm at altitude ideas and airspeed. I don't want anybody messing around with my Medicaid, my Medicare, I mean, because I'm going out of here in a couple of years and I want it to be there.


GALEN: I'm going to drive my "cash for clunkers" car that I bought to the doctor's office.

BRAZILE: We need more Republicans like you.

MALVEAUX: We got one more poll here that I want to bring up because, obviously, the president has -- puts his own popularity, he uses to his benefit. He talks about health care reform. It looks like approval numbers are going up here from just a couple of weeks ago from the beginning of the month. Now his approval rating up to 54 percent as well as -- that from 48 percent.

Is that working? Is the charm offensive working?

GALEN: Well, I'll tell you what, if you would have asked this administration or any administration, for that matter, but this administration, in January, if they would be satisfied with 54 percent going into Christmas and they went, "We'll never be down that low." They are thrilled to be anywhere near 50 percent.

MALVEAUX: OK. I'm going to leave it there. You get the last word because it's your birthday. Happy Birthday!


MALVEAUX: So, thank you very much.

GALEN: Thank you very much. Very kind.

BRAZILE: Fifty, 49, huh?

GALEN: Going 60 (ph).


MALVEAUX: All right. Thanks again, guys.

An 85-year-old man faces prison time for looting his late mother's multimillion fortune. That's coming up next. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: Jessica Yellin is following some of the other top stories that are coming in THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

Hey, Jessica. What are you watching?

YELLIN: Hi, Suzanne.

The 85-year-old son of the late philanthropist Brooke Astor will serve up to three years in prison for bilking his mother's 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.

Susanne with -- San Diego Christmas boat parade is cut short when Coast Guard patrol and a pleasure boat collided, killing an 8-year-old boy. The boy's father was driving the 26-foot Sea Ray last night when he says the 33-foot Coast Guard vessel turned and slammed into him. Five people including two children were seriously injured. The Coast Guard is investigating the crash.

And evangelist Oral Roberts was remembered today at a memorial held at the university he founded and which bears his name. Fellow evangelist Pat Robertson told thousands of mourners Roberts was a man who walked with God but never gave up the common touch. Roberts died last week of complications from pneumonia. He was 91.

Suzanne, back to you.

MALVEAUX: OK. Thank you, Jessica.

I want to go straight to Erica Hill in New York.

Erica, what are you working on for this next hour?

ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: Hi, Suzanne. Coming up at the top of the hour: from deal-breakers to dealmakers, we are going to continue to cover the story you've been giving a lot of coverage to, of course, this afternoon in THE SITUATION ROOM, Democrats winning one of receive big votes on health care reform. Of course, it didn't come cheap. Maybe some early Christmas presents doled out to party holdouts in return for support.

Meantime, irate Republicans are calling it the sweetheart deals, nothing more than political payoffs. Some, in fact, are comparing this to the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme. We'll break down just which lawmakers' votes on health care have been taking home the most pork for the holidays.

Please join us for all that and more coming up at the top of the hour -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: All right. Thank you so much, Erica. A holiday gift for travelers: the government announces a new rule to keep you from being forced to sit on the tarmac for hours. We're going to hear from Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

Plus, it was advertised online. And hundreds turned out for a snowball fight and frolic, but it ended suddenly when a detective drew a gun. Now, he's appearing online.


MALVEAUX: It's being called, quote, "A Christmas miracle," especially after a so-called "flight from hell." You may recall, in August, 47 passengers spent nearly six hours on a plane in Manchester, Minnesota. That little to eat, the toilet broke, the government never wants that to happen again.

So, it's now announced a new rule that says you can't sit on a tarmac for more than three hours. It applies to U.S. air carriers on domestic routes. And the only exceptions are for safety and security. The airlines violating this rule, well, they could be fined $27,500 per passenger per violation.

Well, today, I spoke with the Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood about this.


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

RAY LAHOOD, TRANSPORTATION SECRETARY: Well, we'll 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 trying to stick it to passengers. They've already -- and you know -- have 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 five in line to take-off. Now, you are back at the terminal, you go back and now, you're 30 in line, and there are even more delays.

How does this actually prevent that from happening where you've got further delays and a backlog? How does the FAA handle this?

LAHOOD: Well, look, I think that airports, once they have determined this rule is out there, they're 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, re-board 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're going to realize, OK, we're running out of time here, we've 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 -- how can you guarantee that? How can you enforce that?

LAHOOD: Because I've talked enough with pilots and air traffic controllers. They are 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've heard some disgruntled airlines speaking out today...

MALVEAUX: Which ones?

LAHOOD: 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 monstrous snowstorm as you realize here in the district and all of Northeast. So, 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. 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.

MALVEAUX: Happy holidays.

LAHOOD: Thank you. Happy Holidays.

MALVEAUX: Nice jacket.

LAHOOD: Thank you.



MALVEAUX: I want to go straight to Jessica Yellin with the "Political Ticker."

Hey, Jessica.

YELLIN: That was quite a friendly Christmas jacket, isn't it?

All right. Top story: Dick Cheney has always been a hit with the Republican right. But nearly a year after leaving office, his stock may actually be going up. That's thanks to all the griping about President Obama. The former vice president has been named Conservative of the Year by "Human Events" magazine. It salutes Cheney's frequent warnings about the Obama administration's national security policies and -- get this -- the magazine recruited another vocal critic of the president to write the article on Cheney, former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton.

So, how far will Republicans go to defeat health care reform? In the heat of debate last night, Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma seemed to be wishing that something bad might happen to one of his Democratic colleagues.

Listen to this.


SEN. TOM COBURN (R), OKLAHOMA: What the American people ought to pray is that somebody can't make the vote tonight. That's what they ought to pray.


YELLIN: Now, some Democrats wondered if Coburn might be referring to 92-year-old Senator Robert Byrd, a Democrat who has been sick and in- and-out of the hospital. Coburn's office has said he meant nothing of the sort. But either way, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin said Coburn's remark, quote, "crossed the line."

OK. Here's something to pump up President Obama, a pat on the back from Arnold Schwarzenegger. On CNN's "STATE OF THE UNION," the California governor was asked to grade Mr. Obama's first year in office, and unlike many Republicans, Schwarzenegger gives the president an A for effort. He says the president is a great speaker and has great enthusiasm. All right. And this is the cute, warm and fuzzy story of the day. It's the season for warm and fuzzy presidential photo-ops. Mr. Obama dropped by a Washington community center today and visited with kids in the Boys & Girls Club.

In true political fashion, there was something for everyone, a reading from a classic holiday story "The Polar Express."


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: On Christmas Eve, many years ago, I lay quietly in my bed. I did not rustle the sheets. I breathed slowly and silently. I was listening for a sound, a sound a friend told me I'd never hear, the ringing bells of Santa's sleigh.


YELLIN: And how about some cookies? Yes, the president served up gingerbread man, trees and even some cookies shaped like the first dog Bo, and he got something in return: t-shirts for his daughters Sasha and Malia.

And check out this exchange, Suzanne, the famous Obama fist bump comes at the end.


UNIDENTIFIED KID: When you come back, would you like to play me at football?


OBAMA: ... a football play. You know, I hate getting beat.

UNIDENTIFIED KID: I'll let you win.

OBAMA: You'll let...


OBAMA: That's what I'm talking about. Thank you, guys.


YELLIN: Pretty cute. You know, Suzanne, one of the kids -- they all said they wanted iPods or cell phones, the president said, "How about a bike?" And the kids said, "Oh, everybody has a bike."


MALVEAUX: Thank you, Jessica.

Well, it's the last thing you expect to see at a snowball fight. It is a gun. Now, a police detective is under fire by his bosses. Our Jeanne Moos takes a most unusual look.


MALVEAUX: Here is a look at today's "Hot Shots.

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, a U.S. marine stands on guard as sheep passed by.

And in Washington, President Obama receives his H1N1 flu shot.

"Hot Shots," pictures worth a thousand words.

Well, it's all fun and games in the snow until someone pulls a gun. And that someone is a police detective.

CNN's Jeanne Moos takes a most unusual look.


JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): From Times Square to a British talk show -- the snowballs flew.

But in Washington, D.C., they flew until a detective drew. His gun?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do not shoot anyone over snowballs.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (singing): We wish you a Merry Christmas...


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (singing): We wish you a Merry Christmas...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Get his license plate number.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (singing): We wish you a Merry Christmas...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And your buddy over there pulled a (EXPLETIVE DELETED) gun on a snowball fight.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (singing): And a Happy New Year.

MOOS: It started happily enough -- around 200 young people firing snowballs at each other across Washington's 14th street. An invitation to D.C. Snowpocalypse on Facebook and Twitter attracted the snowballers, bring your mittens and killer instinct. No mention of a gun.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's got a gun?

MOOS: A detective's Hummer got smacked by snowballs. Out he came drawing his gun.

In no time, pictures were popping up on YouTube and Flickr. And to think just moments before, the snowballers had rescued a police car. But things turned tense after the detective pulled his gun.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Out on the curve.

MOOS: For video artist Robin Bell, who was taking this video -- at first no one realized he was a detective until someone called 911, reporting a man with a gun at a snowball fight. No wonder uniformed officers arrived with their guns drawn.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And you're guns out? Are you (EXPLETIVE DELETED) kidding me?

MOOS: The uniformed officers looked for the man with the gun.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's got a holster. He got a gun. He's a detective.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My name is Detective Baylor, OK?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Detective Baylor, OK, pulling a gun on a snowball fight.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, I did because I got hit with snowballs.

MOOS: Now, he's being hit with an internal affairs investigation. He's been put on desk duty though he has his offenders.

(on camera): They say you shouldn't have a snowball fight at a major intersection, and it's no picnic fun driving along getting pelted by snowballs. Scary.

(voice-over): Back at the snowball fight. The crowd broke into a chant.

CROWD: Don't bring a gun to a snowball fight.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Throw another snowball. Throw another snowball.




UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All right. You go on with your snowball fight, all right?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm sorry. I'm afraid I'm going to get shot by the police.

MOOS: Jeanne Moos, CNN...

CROWD: Don't bring a gun to a snowball fight.

MOOS: New York.