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Senate Sets Date For Health Care Vote; Economic Rebound Weakens; Hackers & Cybercriminals: Beware; GOP Leader's Reported Fees Criticized

Aired December 22, 2009 - 16:00   ET


SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN ANCHOR: Happening know: The Senate moves up its big vote on health care reform. Lawmakers are showing the stress of voting at odds hours just days before Christmas.

Plus, the economic rebound loses some steam. We're going to make sense of a grab bag of financial reports and whether Americans have hope for the new year.

And why the holidays can be deadly. Our Sanjay Gupta explains why you are more likely to have a heart attack this Friday than any other day of the year.

Wolf Blitzer is off. I'm Suzanne Malveaux and you are in THE SITUATION ROOM.

MALVEAUX: OK, so maybe senators didn't want to work late on Christmas Eve any more than the rest of us did. We learned just a short while ago that their big vote on health care reform has been scheduled for 8:00 a.m. on Thursday. Now, there had been some talk it would happen later in the evening.

It has been a really hectic week for senators. They have been working strange hours, including a vote that was early this morning, another hurdle toward reform that has been cleared.

Our senior congressional correspondent, Dana Bash, she's been covering this story almost 24/7, no joke about that, absolutely serious.

Now, Dana, I know when we heard the news that the vote was going to move up, there was a cheer in the newsroom. What was the mood like there? Tell us a little bit behind the scenes what happened.

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I think people are too tired to cheer here. That's the honest truth, Suzanne.

Look, this time of year, senators are usually long gone. They're home with their families for the holidays. The fact that they had been working around the clock here on such a highly partisan issue, like health care, means that the atmosphere is very tough.

In fact, it feels anything like Christmas cheer.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) BASH (voice-over): The sun was barely peeking through when senators dragged themselves back in for this day's odd-hour vote.

SEN. JIM WEBB (D), VIRGINIA: Good morning. Another day in paradise.

BASH: Sarcasm from a punchy senator, hardly rare during this marathon health care debate colliding with Christmas. Sometimes, you do still see this, a gentlemanly gesture even across party lines. But, inside, tensions are flaring.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I don't know what's happening here in this body, but I think it's wrong.

BASH: Nerves are raw.

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

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN (D), ILLINOIS: I don't think we should be wishing misfortune on any of our Senate colleagues on either side of the aisle.

BASH: This senator expressed his frustration with a Christmas poem.

SEN. ROLAND BURRIS (D), ILLINOIS: 'Twas the night before Christmas and all through the Senate, the right help up our health care bill, no matter what was in it.

BASH: The Democratic leader made this appeal.

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MAJORITY LEADER: I would hope that everyone would go back to their gentlemanly ways. I have said to a number of people, Rodney King, let's just all try to get along.

BASH: Some rancor is fueled by fatigue. Signs of exhaustion are everywhere.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Section 2717 of the Public Health Service Act.

BASH: From the clerks forced to read a nearly 400-page amendment out loud...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't know where I am.

BASH: ... to the Senate majority leader's 1:00 a.m. blunder.

REID: These are some of the reasons the AARP, the American Association for the Advancement of Colored People -- I'm sorry -- American Association of Retired People.

BASH (on camera): Is the reality that the House is going to have to -- to get it back through the Senate, the House is going to have accept much of what you're doing? REID: No matter how many ways you ask the question, you are going to get the same answer. We are focused on passing this bill in the Senate.


BASH: Now, despite all the tension and exhaustions -- exhaustion, rather -- you can hear it -- I have it, too -- Republicans say that they won't vote again until the morning before Christmas.

And it's not that Republican senators, of course, think that they can stop Democrats from passing health care, Suzanne. They just think it is good political strategy to delay it a little bit, especially strategy for next year, next year being an election year -- U.S..

MALVEAUX: All right, well, Dana, congratulations to you for holding up as long as you have. Great job. Thanks, Dana.

BASH: Thanks.

MALVEAUX: Now that the Senate health care vote is set for 8:00 a.m. on Thursday, President Obama may be able to start his Hawaiian vacation just a little bit earlier than he expected, but he had vowed this morning to stay in Washington as long as the senators did.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I will not leave until my friends in the Senate have completed their work. My attitude is, is that if they're making these sacrifices to provide health care to all Americans, then the least I can do is to be around and provide them any encouragement and last-minute help where necessary.


MALVEAUX: Now I want to talk about another top priority for the president and the country.

We have new snapshots of a still volatile economy. This is two years after America plunged into recession. Now, check this out. The government is now reporting that the gross domestic product grew an annual rate of just 2.2 percent from July through September.

Now, that is lower than an earlier forecast for economic growth during that period. But this is the other fact here. Sales of existing homes, they're on the rise. They jumped 7.4 percent in November, that after a big increase in the month before.

Our chief business correspondent, Ali Velshi, he is standing by to explain what all of this means for us.

But first I want to also bring in our senior political correspondent, Gloria Borger.

Gloria, it's been almost a year since the president took office here and dealt with the economic crisis here. How does the public feel about how he is doing with this, how he's handling it, and how they're dealing with their own lives right now going into the new year?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, they're not feeling really good about the economy right now.

We asked voters about economic conditions today. And when you look at our poll, we asked whether they were good or whether they were poor. Eighty percent -- that's eight in 10 -- think that economic conditions today are poor. A year ago, though -- here's a little bit of the silver lining -- a year ago, that number was 93 percent. So the administration can say, well, look it's headed in the right direction, right?

MALVEAUX: Do they think it is going to get worse?

BORGER: Well, this is the thing about the American people. The American people have this great spirit, that they're optimistic. And when we asked them about economic conditions a year from now, 58 percent said they are going to be good. That's over a majority. And 43 percent said poor.

So, again, a majority of the American public says, things are bad now, but they are bound to get better.

VELSHI: All right, I want to turn this to Ali and talk about the housing market here. Why did we see a big jump in home sales last month? Is that something that we expect is going to last? Are we seeing home prices starting to hit -- bottom out as well?

VELSHI: Yes, I think we are, but I think this was an exception, largely because people knew this homebuyer's, first-time homebuyer's credit is coming to an end, that combined with the fact that we don't know whether prices are going to go up or down next year, but we're pretty sure that interest rates are not going lower than they are, around 5 percent for a 30-years fixed mortgage if you have a good credit.

So, if you take combination of low interest rate, low home prices and the first-time homebuyer credit, it combined to give us a surge in houses, in fact, a much larger number of first-time buyers in this market.

So, it might -- this is the kind of thing that feeds off itself. When people start seeing that homes are selling, they start to do that more. I also want to add to your conversation with Gloria. I think -- I just got off another one of those trips on the CNN Express. Conditions now vs. optimism about the future, two very different things.

Americans are much more optimistic about the future than their evaluations of the current situation. And that's what Americans are good at, getting backed into a corner and realizing we have got to change things. They're making some of this reality for themselves. And that's why you're seeing people buying houses. It's something they can control. (CROSSTALK)

MALVEAUX: Ali, you talk about government moves and the federal tax credit, lower interest rates that are boosting housing.


MALVEAUX: If the federal government didn't intervene, would those numbers look any different now?

VELSHI: Oh, yes, they would look very different. This is absolutely -- the Federal Reserve put in $1.3 trillion into mortgage financing agencies, which is what has kept these interest rates as low as they have been.

They have said they're not going to do this after spring. You are going to see those interest rates moving up and that homebuyer's credit. Without the homebuyer's credit and the low interest rates, we would not be seeing this recovery.

So whatever politically we want to say about government intervention, we're seeing this recovery in housing prices because of it.

MALVEAUX: And, Gloria, I want to speak. The president is talking about -- he's under a lot of pressure to bring down the federal deficit, that Republicans are calling for that. But Americans say they want him to spend money on more jobs, creating jobs. How does the American public see it in terms of priorities?

BORGER: Well, it's an interesting political problem, because the president says health care reform, for example, we have been talking about, in the long term is going to bring down the deficit.

But the American public wants to see jobs and wants to see recovery. We asked people, what is more important for the Obama administration, recovery or reducing the deficit? You see, 57 percent say recovery -- 40 percent say reducing the deficit. Now, that's more than said it a year ago, which shows you that people are really growing much more concerned about deficit spending.

But right now they're looking at their economic futures, their children's economic futures, and they want jobs.


BORGER: And they believe if you have to spend some money, then you're going to have to do it.

MALVEAUX: All right, Gloria, thank you so much.

Ali, thank you for helping us make sense of all of this.

Obviously, we will be keeping a close look at those numbers, but also just talking to folks who are impacted by this on a daily basis. Thank you. President Obama is promising community bankers that he's going to cut the red tape so they can step up their lending and help local businesses grow.

Well, at the meeting at the White House today, I have to say the president struck a friendlier tone than what we had seen when I was covering the recent talks when he was talking to those mega-banks. Take a listen.


OBAMA: What precipitated the crisis on Wall Street don't apply to these smaller banks. Most of them are very supportive of the idea of financial regulatory reform.


MALVEAUX: There are about 8,000 small and community banks across the United States. And together they have assets of less than $5 billion, but here's why they're important. They make up more than half of the loans to small businesses under $100,000.

Well, there are a lot of questions about why the Senate will vote a health care reform earlier than expected. Could it be a rare example of parties working together? We're going to ask the number- two Democrat in the Senate, Majority Whip Dick Durbin.

Plus, has Rudy Giuliani effectively ended his political career? We're going to look at the former New York mayor's big announcement today.

And a House Democrat announces that he is switching parties. What does it say about the Democrats' prospects in next year's elections? Stand by for our "Strategy Session."


MALVEAUX: Christmas is going to likely come early for Democrats.

More now on our top story. The Senate will hold its game- changing vote on health care reform on the morning of Christmas Eve.

I want to bring in the number-two Democrat in the Senate, Dick Durbin of Illinois.

Senator, thank you much for joining us here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

First and foremost, this deal that was made, how did it come about, that you managed to change this time, move up the vote, so that folks can have a little time with their families over the holiday?

DURBIN: Well, it was interesting.

We had early-morning votes starting at about 7:15 this morning, three in a row. And, during that period of time, members on both sides, Democrats and Republicans, talked to one another. And there are an awful lot of us that want to get home to our families.

And we started hearing after that vote that there was a possibility of a storm hitting the Midwest, and so many flights go through Chicago and the Midwest, that we finally reached an agreement. And I'm glad we did, because I think this is going to mean that most members of the Senate will be right where they should be, with their families for Christmas.

MALVEAUX: Was the president involved in any way? I know that he wants to get home to Hawaii for his break. But did you speak with him? Or was he involved?

DURBIN: I didn't speak to him personally.

The president has been actively involved in trying to bring this bill to a conclusion and bring this Senate session to a conclusion. But the matter of scheduling was really an internal matter between the Democrats and Republicans. And, you know, this is a headline. We have reached an agreement.


MALVEAUX: Is this a sign of goodwill, perhaps, the start of something new?

DURBIN: I think it is. Peace on Earth starts with peace in the Senate.



On a more serious note, let's take a look here at the Senate bill here. Obviously, it calls for a cut, $500 billion in Medicare. This is really going to require a commitment by lawmakers, future lawmakers as well.

Here's what "The Washington Post" editorial said: "No one should contemplate without concern a vast new entitlement program when the federal debt has ballooned so dangerously. The measure is paid for, and more, on paper. President Obama was right to insist that it should be. But the tab is paid in large part with $500 billion in Medicare cuts to health care providers, raising the question of whether future Congresses, beseeched to provide relief, will withstand entreaties to soften the hit."

Essentially, how can you guarantee to the American people that lawmakers are going to pull the trigger and actually pay for this?

DURBIN: Well, first off, a third of the savings in Medicare will come when we start to eliminate the subsidy we're paying to private health insurance companies that are basically overcharging the government for a replacement policy called Medicare Advantage.

MALVEAUX: What about the other two-thirds? DURBIN: Well, I can tell you, just take a look at the services available to Medicare patients across America. Why does it cost half as much for exactly the same medical service in Rochester, Minnesota, as it does in Miami, Florida?

MALVEAUX: But are members of Congress, are they going to make a commitment that they're going to cut Medicare by $500 billion?

DURBIN: What we're going to do is find ways for efficiencies and cost savings in Medicare. And believe me, there's waste there. There's abuse there. There's overutilization.

How many times have you seen these ads on late-night television, if you're a Medicare patient, you can get X, Y, Z free, just call this number?

And you think to yourself, is that really needed? You know, we have to ask some hard questions and make sure that Medicare that I truly believe in is a quality program that continues to provide the benefits people need.

MALVEAUX: We have seen reforms obviously in the Senate bill, but the National Nurses United, this is the largest union of nurses, 150,000 represented across the country, sees some real problems with this bill, because they point to the loopholes, provisions permitting insurance companies to more than double charges to employees who have wellness -- failed wellness programs because they have diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol readings, other medical conditions.

They also say that insurers can charge four times more based on age. How is this reform?

DURBIN: Well, it is reform, because, right now, there are no limits.

And when you have this kind of rating disparity, there's rank discrimination. What we're trying to do is to bring this down to a reasonable level.

You know, I'm an age group that probably would be charged a higher premium than my children or grandchildren, and that's understandable. But we want to make sure that there aren't wide disparities here. And that's where the bill moves toward.

Now, I understand where the nurses come down. I'm happy the American Medical Association and the doctors have endorsed this bill. I think we can work with all these medical professionals and work together to make sure we have a good bill for America.

MALVEAUX: All right, Senator, we're going to have to wrap it there. We're going to have leave it there. But have a wonderful holiday season. It looks like you will be able to go home to your family, as many of us will. We all appropriate that.

DURBIN: I can't wait.

MALVEAUX: OK. Thank you so much, Senator.

DURBIN: Thank you.

MALVEAUX: Well, we're going to have the Republican response in our next hour. Senator John Cornyn earlier said this week that he wanted the vote to be delayed. Well, we're going to hear from him ahead in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Well, how much do you think that your identity is worth to a thief? Well, it can end up costing you thousands of dollars, but a crook can buy your information on the black market for just $10. We're going inside that secret chat room where stolen identities are bought and sold, that up ahead.

Plus, the price of a hoax. Wait until you hear how much the parents of balloon boy might have to pay.


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

Jessica, what are you following?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Suzanne, following up a story we first told you yesterday, officials are investigating whether two EMTs broke the law by refusing to help a pregnant woman who collapsed in a New York City coffee shop. Both have been suspended without pay. The EMTs were on their break when that pregnant woman began having breathing problems. Witnesses say those EMTs told the woman's co-workers to call 911. The woman later died.

Well, that Colorado balloon boy stunt sure proved to be a pricey one. A sheriff's spokesperson says Richard and Mayumi Heene face a tab of, get this, $43,000. That's the cost of the local, state and federal agency responses. The Heenes could also be sentenced to jail tomorrow for fabricating the story about their 6-year-old son in a runaway balloon.

And a judge is rejecting a so-called necessity defense for the man accused of killing a Kansas abortion provider -- 51-year-old Scott Roeder confessed to the may shooting of Dr. George Tiller, saying it was -- quote -- "necessary to save unborn children."

The request was not considered viable under state law, but the judge left the door open to the possibility of allowing evidence on use of force for the defense of another person. That's a story we will continue to follow -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: OK. Thank you, Jessica.

Well, Rudy Giuliani is ending the suspense about his immediate political future. The former New York mayor -- city mayor, rather -- announced today that he's not going to run for political office next year. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RUDOLPH GIULIANI (R), FORMER NEW YORK MAYOR: After careful consideration, I decided that I would not be able to run for either the governorship or the Senate next year. I will be happy to go into more detail about it, but the main reason has to do with my two enterprises, Bracewell Giuliani and Giuliani Partners. I'm very busy in both.


MALVEAUX: Our deputy political director, Paul Steinhauser, is here.

Paul, Giuliani endorsed former Congressman Rick Lazio for New York governor, and we saw him standing side by side with him just a moment ago. How does Giuliani's announcement today in the race in New York, the Senate race, how does it impact that?

PAUL STEINHAUSER, CNN DEPUTY POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Well, it simplifies the governor's race for sure. As you mentioned, you saw Giuliani and Lazio there together. That will take all the drama out of the Republican side on the governor's race.

The drama is now on the Democratic side. Will the current governor, David Paterson, run or will he drop out and the attorney general will run instead? But, on the Senate race, that is where all the drama is now. Republicans really wanted him to run for the Senate. They thought he could beat Kirsten Gillibrand, the Democrat who is up for election next year. Polls indicated he would. It's up in the air now.

MALVEAUX: He says he's going to be concentrate on his businesses. Is he going to -- can we believe that? Or is he going to have a political role of some kind?


STEINHAUSER: He says he's going to have a political role next year in those crucial midterm elections. He says he wants to campaign as much as he can for fellow Republicans. Of course, he will do that in New York State.

He also says he wants to go to Texas and campaign for his good friend Rick Perry, and also to Florida for Charlie Crist.

MALVEAUX: All right. What about another run for the White House? What do you think? You going to put your money on that?

STEINHAUSER: That's what everybody wanted to know. He was asked about that a couple times at the news conference. He said, I'm not ruling anything out.

Listen, Americans remember him from the last presidential campaign, a lot of drama there. They also remember him for his role in New York after 9/11. We will see. This chapter is not closed yet. MALVEAUX: I can imagine it's not closed.

Thank you, Paul. All right.

Iran's leader says he doesn't care about a nuclear deadline set by the United States, saying that he is not afraid of America or the U.N. So, what happens next?

Plus, inside the secret world where identity thieves buy and sell your private information just for a few bucks.



Happening now: a bizarre death wish regarding those five Americans nabbed in Pakistan for allegedly plotting terror attacks. Now, we're told that all of them seemingly have no regrets and one of them wants to eventually be punished with death.

And some American female soldiers get pregnant in Iraq. Well, if they do, they could face touch punishment. Now the military general behind a new directive explains why.

And like many teenage girls, she loves Beyonce, she dreams of becoming a pop star, but she is slammed as chocolate girl, as hateful Internet posts urge her to leave the country. This is one girl's struggle and what a small number of blacks are coping with in China.

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

A combative world leader blows off a serious deadline, effectively saying, who's afraid of the United States or the world? Apparently, Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is not. He's thumbing his nose at the threat of a punishment over Iran's nuclear program.

I want to go straight other our White House correspondent, Dan Lothian.

Dan, obviously, the White House reacting to more statements coming from Ahmadinejad and the standoff that he has with the United States and the world.

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right. And, as you know, the Obama administration has been trying to rein in Iran with diplomacy, but Iran keeps resisting. President Ahmadinejad says that he does not welcome confrontation, but that he will not surrender to bullying.


LOTHIAN (voice-over): It's Iran's gift to the U.S. and the U.N., more defiance, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad dismissing a year-end deadline to swap its stockpile of enriched uranium, which could be used to build a bomb, for nuclear fuel intended for peaceful purposes.

Speaking to supporters, Ahmadinejad said the West can give Iran "as many deadlines as they want. We don't care," then added, "Who are they anyway?"

The White House has been preparing sanctions in case Iran doesn't abandon its nuclear ambitions.

(on camera): So, it's clear to the White House now that Iran's not going to back down?

ROBERT GIBBS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Well, that's an Iranian decision. We have offered them a different path. If they decide not to take it, then the American -- our delegation, with the P5 plus one, will move accordingly.

LOTHIAN: Iran continues to insist that it has no intention of building a nuclear weapon, Ahmadinejad repeating that claim to ABC's Diane Sawyer.


MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD, IRANIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): You should say something only once. We have said once that we don't want nuclear bomb. We don't accept it. Finished.


LOTHIAN: Iran's president also shot down a document in a British report


MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD, IRANIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): You should say something only once. We have said once that we don't want nuclear bombs, we don't accept it. Finished.

LOTHIAN: Iran's president also shot down a document in a British report, reporting to show plans to test a trigger for a nuclear weapon. He says they are fabricated and disseminated by the American government, and fundamentally not true. But the U.S. and some of its allies believe Iran is trying to weaponize its nuclear program and that it's time for Iran to live up to its responsibilities.


LOTHIAN: China and Russia have resisted any tougher sanctions, opting instead for more time to give talks a chance. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs saying that the deadline is real and that he hopes that Iran will take it as seriously as the U.S. is -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: OK. Thank you, Dan.

Dan Lothian at the White House.

Internet hackers and cybercriminals, beware. There's a new top cybercop that's in town. His name is Howard Schmidt, and he's just been tapped by President Obama to be the so-called cyberczar. His official title is White House Cybersecurity Coordinator, and there is good reason to have a post like this, especially this season.

Our Mary Snow explains.

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Suzanne, because the holiday season sees a peak in online shopping, it's also prime season for cybercriminals. Stealing identities has become such a big business, that vital information is now available for just dollars, and scams often start with a benign-looking e-mail or message.


SNOW (voice-over): When Matt Marquess recently checked the Twitter account he keeps for work, he was surprised to find messages written about him.

MATT MARQUESS, VICTIM OF HACKING: And here's a tweet from one of my friends. It says, "Wondering why @mattmarquess is tweeting about ladies' underwear," which I thought was pretty funny.

SNOW: But he quickly learned it wasn't a joke. His account had been hacked and he was inadvertently sending out a link to a $500 coupon for lingerie.

MARQUESS: It made me just a little upset and concerned that somebody was going to get some sort of malicious software or something downloaded onto their machine.

SNOW: Once links like that are clicked, the door is open for identity theft, and those cybercriminals, say law enforcement officials, are becoming increasingly sophisticated. To make that point, security software make Symantec recently constructed a mockup of the underground cyberworld. It includes what a black market channel looks like where identities are bought and sold.

(on camera): How much is an identity worth?

ROWAN TROLLOPE, VICE PRESIDENT, SYMANTEC: Well, typically, a full identity is available online for sale for $10.

SNOW: Ten dollars?

TROLLOPE: Ten dollars.

SNOW: And that includes Social Security, everything?

TROLLOPE: Social Security number, billing address, current credit card information and bank account data. So, everything that you need to fully steal someone's identify is available for $10.

SNOW (voice-over): Ten dollars for an identity theft that can cause victims thousands of dollars each. Combating that growing black market is a nonstop job.

Austin Berglas is head of the FBI's cybercrime unit in New York.

AUSTIN BERGLAS, FBI CYBERCRIME UNIT: When we feel safe and secure that everything's locked down, there's someone out there who's spending 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, looking for that next hole.

SNOW: Berglas says one of the biggest trends right now involves ATM fraud, with many of the scams originating in Eastern Europe. He gives this example: Let's say 1,000 scam e-mails are sent out with bogus links promises gifts or money. Of that, maybe 10 people click on those link.

As soon as they click on the link, a key logger is installed to record key strokes, capturing information such as passwords from online banking. That information is sent back to the cybercriminal, who puts it up for sale on the black market.

(on camera): Once that information is sold, it's distributed, and here's where law enforcement officials say the next phase of the scam returns to the U.S. Money mules are giving fake bank and credit cards with the stolen information, and then the mules cash out those accounts.

(voice-over): While the mule keeps some of that money, the rest is sent back to the original hacker, in many cases to Eastern Europe. But those mules open a door for law enforcement.

BERGLAS: The lowest-hanging fruit for us is the money mules. So when they get picked up at the ATM machine, we'll interview them, we'll tell them how much jail time they're looking at, and they'll wind up working for the FBI and then giving up their sources.


SNOW: Experts say the economy here in the U.S. and in Eastern Europe is one of the reasons behind the rise in identity thefts, with more people turning to cybercrime to make quick money -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Thank you.

The FBI is opening its files on Michael Jackson. At issue, the old child molestation allegations against the late pop star.

Plus, RNC chairman Michael Steele sparks new anger by getting paid for speeches. Stand by for our "Strategy Session."

And later, an inside look at the holiday decorations at the White House.



MALVEAUX: Well, now a story that is causing some worry, especially for millions of people who are without work. Some state funds that could provide unemployment benefits could soon go broke. According to "The Washington Post," 25 states, plus the Virgin Islands, have already run out of money for their unemployment compensation funds, and they have borrowed over $24 billion from the federal government to keep those funds afloat. And get this -- a total of 40 state jobless funds are reportedly forecast now to run out of money within two years. This forces states to consider either raising taxes or decreasing how much money is paid out in unemployment checks.

Well, a Democrat essentially tells his party, who needs you? A congressman turns his back on Democrats and will become a Republican. Might others also defect?

And Republican Party leader Michael Steele makes more money than many of you. Should he make even more in speaker's fees, between $8,000 and $20,000 a speech?


MALVEAUX: More money, more problems. The organizational leader of the Republican Party makes more money than many Americans will ever see. But, get this -- he even rakes in thousands of dollars for speaking on the side, and he has been taking some heat for this.

Here for our "Strategy Session," CNN political contributor, Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, and Republican strategist John Feehery.

Now, we're going to talk a little bit about Michael Steele here. Obviously, the RNC pays him $223,000. He can make anywhere from $8,000 to, say, $20,000 for a speech. There's some folks, including some former heads of the RNC, who say, you know, they don't think this is appropriate. One of them being Jim Nicholson.

He says that the job "... demands so much of your time that you can work 24/7 and not get everything done. So taking time out to speak for the benefit of one's own bank account is not appropriate."

Is he making a mistake here, John?

JOHN FEEHERY, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: It's not about the money. It's about the focus. And you're focusing on building the party, winning elections, getting the organizational heft behind the party, getting the rhetorical points out there that needs to be done, or are you try to go worry about speeches on the side? I think the focus of the chairman is to grow the party. It shouldn't be about making money on the side.

MALVEAUX: Does it really matter?

DONNA BRAZILE, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Well, I think John is absolutely correct. If he's out there giving speeches -- and I know a little bit about going out there and giving speeches, but I'm not a paid official of the Democratic Party. The only thing the Democrats ever gave me was some business cards, but I can understand. We're Democrats. MALVEAUX: You work very hard, too.

BRAZILE: Absolutely.

But John is absolutely correct. His focus should be on helping the party regain its footing with the American people to come up with ideas. But now I understand why Michael has no time to focus on coming up with alternatives to the Democratic proposals. He's too busy out there giving speeches.

MALVEAUX: Well, that was a crafty turn, I guess, there.

Do you want to respond to that at all?

FEEHERY: Well, his job is to raise money for the party, not raise money for himself.

MALVEAUX: All right.

He's done a number of things here that have caused controversy. He took on Rush Limbaugh earlier on. He has also, just yesterday, said that the Democrats, in the vote for the Senate health care reform bill on Monday, was flipping the bird, he said, to the American people. And now the speech controversy.

Is he becoming a liability here? What does he need to do?

BRAZILE: Look, I think Chairman Steele -- I called him Michael before because I've known him for many years -- he's very charismatic. He also has a way with wording some of his sentences that I think goes against the grain of the Republican Party, and often it irks some of the establishment here inside the beltway. But I think he has been effective at trying to rebuild the base of the party. And remember, his base is outside of Washington, it will never be inside of Washington, D.C.

FEEHERY: His job is not really a policy job. It's really an organizational job.

It's to go out there. It's to go where we need votes, go to different communities around the country.

You're right, his job is not in D.C. It's outside the beltway. And he's got to be the guy that can go and figure out a way to get more votes for Republicans and raise money. It's an organizational job, not a policy job.

MALVEAUX: But is he doing a good job at that?


FEEHERY: Well, I think these distractions hurt him. He's not a pundit, he's an organizer.

BRAZILE: Absolutely.

FEEHERY: And if we're going to win, he's got to organize successfully.

MALVEAUX: Is he hurting the party?

FEEHERY: I don't think it's hurting the party necessarily, but it's not helping the party. Let me put it that way.


Let's make a quick turn here.

The Democrats lost one of their own today, Congressman Parker Griffith of Alabama. He barely won in his own district, just by 51 percent, and that state obviously went overwhelmingly in support of McCain. But on the heels of some of the retirement announcements that we've heard from some of the House Democrats, does this bode well, or is it a real problem here, a potential risk for Democrats leaving the party, particularly when it comes to health care reform, the risk of holding on to that health care reform bill that is so unpopular?

BRAZILE: Well, the congressman gave us his reasons, that he disagreed with the party on health care, he disagreed with the party on the stimulus package, and so he disagrees with the Democrats on some of our spending priorities. He now goes over to the Republican Party that created much of the mess that the Democrats are now spending money to clean up.

So, good luck, Congressman.

And by the way, the Democrats raised over $1.2 million last year to save him from some of the smear tactics from the Republicans. We would love to have some of that money back.

FEEHERY: It's fascinating that someone like him would go and become a Republican, when the Republicans in the House are in such a minority. He is so out of step with the Democratic leadership, that he feels much more comfortable as a Republican -- with Republicans in the minority.

This is a move not for political opportunism, but for ideas, and who has the superiority in his mind. I do think that this is a harbinger of things to come. I think that in a lot of these Blue Dog districts, a lot of these Blue Dogs are going to retire or they're going to have a very difficult time getting reelected.

BRAZILE: He voted 85 percent of the time with Democrats. He didn't give the Republicans much of his support. This may -- I think it has a lot to do with his own political self-interest. It is a conservative district, although it's been represented by Democrats for a long, long time.

FEEHERY: Right, it has.

BRAZILE: But this is about his own personal self-interest. And look, I wish him the very best of luck, but a party with no ideas and a party that's losing favor.


MALVEAUX: This is just one individual, but there is a poll that shows there might be a bigger problem for the Democrats, because if you look at this, Americans thought the country would be better off if Democrats controlled the country by a 10 percent margin before. Now it's almost even here, now at 40 percent or so. In August, it was 44 percent.

Why is there less confidence in the Democratic Party?

BRAZILE: We've done a horrible job selling our program, selling the fact that the president and the Congress have worked to keep the economy from going off the cliff. We've done a horrible job in selling it.

This health care bill saves lives, saves money, and will extend the life of Medicare. We've done a horrible job in our messaging. But I think when it comes down to voting next year, the American people will take a look at the two parties and say this party kept us from the verge of collapse.

MALVEAUX: Last sentence.

FEEHERY: Democrats have pushed for higher taxes and bigger government. People don't want higher taxes and bigger government. That's why people like this guy from Alabama is coming our way.

BRAZILE: We've got a big government that will help people, not the balloon deficit that you guys...


FEEHERY: People don't want bigger government. They don't want bigger government.

MALVEAUX: All right. We've got to leave it there. I've got to leave it there, guys. Thank you so much, John and Donna.

BRAZILE: We need more time.

MALVEAUX: Appreciate it. We always need more time. Thank you. Wish we had more time.

Well, President Obama makes a surprise phone call. You're going to hear some of the unexpected chat with Barry.

And later, here's another reason you better watch out this Christmas. It is the number one day of the year for having a heart attack. Find out what you can do to beat those odds.


MALVEAUX: Well, to state the obvious, it could ruin your holiday. More people die of heart attacks on Christmas Day than any other day of the year. The question is why?

I spoke with CNN's chief medical correspondent, Sanjay Gupta.


MALVEAUX: Dr. Sanjay Gupta, thanks so much for joining us, Sanjay, here in THE SITUATION ROOM.


MALVEAUX: First and foremost, all of us have to deal with this. We're talking about holiday, we're talking about the travel, the stress gift-giving.

Is stress the culprit here when you look at something like heart attacks on the holiday?

GUPTA: Well, as far as the stress of gift-giving, just to take some stress off of you, you don't have to get me a gift this year, Suzanne. I just want to take away that burden.

MALVEAUX: I haven't even started my shopping yet. So...

GUPTA: You better get going.

But, you know, there's a lot of reasons why heart attacks and cardiac deaths in general increase on Christmas Day. And I'll add to what you just said, that Christmas Day, number one day, but the day after Christmas, number two, and New Year's Day is number three. So that gives you an idea of just how much of a relationship there is.

Some of the reasons are obvious, some not so obvious.

For example, people tend to be more likely to blow off some of their symptoms during the holidays. They think they can wait until after the new year. They don't want to burden family, for example. Also, hospitals tend to be less staffed as well, Suzanne, so people may not want to go to the hospital, or patients may not get the same care they would get around the rest of the year.

But to the points that you mentioned, absolutely, some of these things are more obvious. Stress, for example, causes inflammation in the body, can interfere with cardiac disease. Travel, cold weather, food, also fireplaces, Suzanne. We put that on the list, in part because people may not suspect this.

But if you have underlying heart disease or lung disease, and you're in a room with a fireplace, it is giving off some carbon monoxide and other chemicals which could be a little bit problematic for you. For most people, not a problem, but, again, if you have a history, these are things to think about.

MALVEAUX: And what are the kinds of things that you can do to limit these risks over the holidays?

GUPTA: Well, some of them are pretty obvious things, but I think the biggest one, and I think hopefully people who are watching will remember this, is to really sort of be aware and to stay alert with regard to your own body and your own symptoms. I think that's probably the biggest one. Don't blow off symptoms just because it's the holiday season.

If you're traveling, take your medications with you for sure. My parents, for example, will be visiting. I may sure they bring those.

Minimize alcohol consumption. If you drink, that's something that maybe goes without saying, but, again, try not to overdo it just because it's the holidays. And keep your family informed. If you're having some sort of trouble, if something is bugging you a little bit, make sure the family knows, because they can hopefully direct you in the proper direction.

MALVEAUX: Well, sure. That's great advice.

What are some of the warning signs if you're seeing a family member who may be in distress? What should we be looking for?

GUPTA: Right. And I'm glad you asked that, because we typically do a segment around the holidays on this all the time, and I get these e-mails afterwards, Suzanne, people telling me they had these exact things happen, and hopefully they were better informed.

But some of them are the obvious things again. With regard to heart disease, having chest pain, having pain in your left arm, the side of your neck, your jaw, light headedness, shortness of breath, excessive sweating, nausea.

And as you look at that list, Suzanne, you may be saying, well, that seems kind of vague. And that's a bit the point here, because when you're talking about cardiac disease, which is the biggest killer in women and men, sometimes the symptoms can be vague.

So, if you have risk factors and something doesn't seem right, get it checked out, even if it's the holiday season.

MALVEAUX: All right. Sanjay Gupta, thanks so much.

GUPTA: Happy holidays.

MALVEAUX: Have a great holiday. Have a happy and safe, a healthy holiday to your family.

GUPTA: Good luck shopping. You too. Thanks, Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Thank you.


MALVEAUX: You know what it's like to decorate your house for the holidays, obviously. Well, imagine having to do it in the White House. It takes dozens of volunteers, a first family's personal touch. But we're going to take you behind the scenes of a White House Christmas, coming up next.

Plus, a very unusual call for a radio talk show today. Well, one hint, the caller's name, Barry from D.C.

Take a listen and take a guess. You're going to hear that right after the break.


MALVEAUX: Here's a look at "Hot Shots" coming in from our friends at The Associated Press, pictures likely to be in your newspaper tomorrow.

In Switzerland, a dog named Lulu braves the elements of strong wind and flurries.

In Florida, at the Gator Bowl, the Florida State coach greets the media as he prepares for his final game.

On the New York Stock Exchange, Darth Vader and Storm Troopers walked the floor after "Star Wars" characters rang the opening bell.

And in Washington, this very high-priced Aston Martin sports car is covered in snow as the area recovers from the weekend storm.

"Hot Shots," pictures worth a thousand words.

On our "Political Ticker," we hear a lot about candidates getting endorsements, but Florida governor Charlie Crist is losing an endorsement. Two Florida congressmen, Mario and Lincoln Diaz-Balart, are taking back their support for Crist's struggling U.S. Senate bid. The brothers are not saying why, other than to reveal that they told Crist about their decision and that he left them no choice.

Outgoing Virginia Governor and Democratic Party Chairman Tim Kaine got quite a surprise today. He was on the radio answering constituents' questions when this call came in from a guy named Barry.

Take a listen.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Governor, let's get back to the phones and let some callers...


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have Barry from D.C. who is calling.

Go ahead, Barry.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, Governor Kaine, this is actually the president of the United States calling.

KAINE: No. Oh my gosh.

OBAMA: You know, I have questions about traffic in northern Virginia.




MALVEAUX: President Obama says he called to congratulate Kaine for his work as governor. Kaine says he was genuinely just stunned.

Well, first lady Michelle Obama and her daughters are spreading holiday cheer today to young patients at the Children's National Medical Center, and they brought Bo the dog along to add to the festivities. And in our next hour, we're going to listen in. We're going to hear Mrs. Obama and Sasha and Malia read holiday classics to those kids.