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Obama Meets with GOP; Time to Vote against Incumbents? Representative Buyer Calls it Quits; Haitian Aid; Wasteful Stimulus Spending

Aired January 29, 2010 - 19:00   ET


DAN SIMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): That full service even offers classes on growing marijuana like a computer store that teaches you how to use your PC. Well here, they're doing the same thing, just substitute marijuana for the computer.

(on camera): So you bought all your equipment and you know what you're doing, at the end of the day you're going to have a room that looks like this.

(voice-over): C.J. Miller is a proud member of the Grow Squad. We're on the ground floor of his townhouse. He candidly admits to making a killing selling his crop to local dispensaries.

C.J. MILLER, GROW SQUAD: The average, it's about 40 to $45,000 every eight to 10 weeks.

SIMON: Or as he says, a quarter of a million dollars a year for growing cannabis. That's right, I-Grow (ph) is hoping to lure customers who hope to make a different kind of green, as in cash.


SIMON: Well when they opened the doors here, it was almost like the day after Thanksgiving, people streaming in, basically standing room only. If you're wondering how the community is reacting to all of this, well they had three Oakland City Council members here, if that gives you any indication. They're obviously very much in favor of cannabis here in the city of Oakland and the San Francisco Bay area -- Wolf.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Dan Simon thanks very much.

And happening now, the tension that's in the air after the president's remarkable Q&A session with House Republicans. This hour, you'll hear more of the blunt, sometimes heated give and take, and we'll find out what, if anything was accomplished.

Toyota tries to find a way out of its recall nightmare. Millions of drivers want to know will their cars be fixed, will they be fixed soon? We're tracking new developments in this new crisis within the car industry.

I'm Wolf Blitzer and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM. Today we saw a very unusual attempt to change the slash and burn tone here in Washington. And it was even more unusual because cameras were rolling. President Obama agreed to answer questions at a House Republican retreat. It started out on a light note.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I very much am appreciative of not only the tone of your introduction, John, but also the invitation that you extended to me. You know what they say. Keep your friends close, but visit the Republican Caucus every few months.



BLITZER: But not long after that, the divisions between the president and the House Republicans started to surface. You can get a taste of what went on by listening to this tough exchange.


REP. JEB HENSARLING (R), TEXAS: But this is what I don't understand, Mr. President. After that discussion, your administration proposed a budget that would triple the national debt over the next 10 years. Surely, you don't believe 10 years from now we will still be mired in this recession, to proposed new entitlement spending, and move the cost of government to almost 24.5 percent of the economy. Now, very soon, Mr. President, you're due to submit a new budget and my question is...

OBAMA: Jeb, I know there's a question in there somewhere, because you're making a whole bunch of assertions...


OBAMA: ... half of which I disagree with, and I'm having to sit here listening to them. At some point, I know you're going to let me answer. All right...

HENSARLING: That's the question. You're soon to submit a new budget, Mr. President. Will that new budget, like your old budget triple the national debt and continue to take us down the path of increasing the cost of government to almost 25 percent of our economy? That's the question, Mr. President.

OBAMA: Jeb, I -- with all due respect, I've just got to take this last question as an example of how it's very hard to have the kind of bipartisan work that we're going to do, because the whole question was structured as a talking point for running a campaign. Now, look, let's talk about the budget once again, because I'll go through it with you line by line.

The fact of the matter is, is that when we came into office, the deficit was $1.3 trillion, 1.3. So when you say that suddenly I've got a monthly budget that is higher than the -- or a monthly deficit that's higher than the annual deficit left by the Republicans, that's factually just not true.


BLITZER: Our congressional correspondent, Brianna Keilar, is joining us now from Baltimore. She was there during this remarkable session. All right -- I guess the bottom line question, Brianna, is there any possibility, any shot at bipartisanship now?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, looking at that exchange, obviously, there were some tense moments. There were some other testy exchanges as well, especially on the issue of health care reform. In fact, President Obama very pointedly said to Republicans that they had looked at the Democrats' health care reform proposal and called it, essentially, quote, "a Bolshevik (ph) plot" He said that Republicans have been telling their constituents that the president was quote, "doing all kinds of crazy stuff that's going to destroy America." And he told Republicans they paint themselves into a corner by demonizing him, but then you know not being able to work with someone you demonize.

He also said it's the same situation for Democrats as well. We asked -- we talked with Republican leader John Boehner. He spoke with reporters, and he said he is very happy about the overtures of bipartisanship that we did hear today from the president, but he said it really comes down to what he and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi can work out. We do know, Wolf, they have a previously scheduled meeting. They're going to be meeting next week on Capitol Hill.

BLITZER: You also had a chance to speak with some other Republicans who were there, including some who asked some of those pointed questions.

KEILAR: That's right. One of them, Congressman Paul Ryan, who asked about the budget, and he really sort of had an exchange with him, but what he said was something that we heard from a lot of Republicans after this. You know Republicans have been -- pardon me -- fighting this label of being the party of know, and so they were really happy that President Obama acknowledged some of the solutions or the ideas that they have. Here's what he said.


REP. PAUL RYAN (R), WISCONSIN: I'm very pleased the president said that he had read my plan and called it a very credible plan. We've sent it to him a number of times, but we've never gotten any dialogue from the White House. This is the first time I've talked to the president or any of his senior advisers about how it works. So the fact that we're just now beginning a dialogue in an acknowledgement of the ideas we're proposing is a good step in the right direction. Because all last year, the ideas and the solutions we've been sending to the White House have been largely ignored.


KEILAR: Talked to Republicans, and they say that is a huge success for them, they consider today a success because of that. On the flip side, though, President Obama was really effective at when Republicans would raise issues with, be it health care or energy climate change. He would focus on what he has in common with Republicans. Some of the things that they may like that are in the bills, really making the point, as he sees it that they are disagreeing with him on politics rather than principle -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Brianna, thank you. Our senior White House correspondent, Ed Henry is here. Ed, walk us through. This was a pretty remarkable situation. I don't remember the last time the president went into the lion's den, if you will...


BLITZER: ... met with House Republicans and then took their questions. It's happened before, but I don't remember when TV cameras were inside letting the whole world watch.

HENRY: It's rare, you're right. Former President Bush did go to a Democratic retreat, one or two of those retreats early in his administration, but we didn't really see the cameras come in for that kind of Q&A. And what was fascinating is the president trying to send a lot of messages. The White House actually requested that the Q&A be open. And when you talk to top officials, they're telling me, basically, they think this shows the president at his best.

Sort of mixing it up with Republicans and sending a signal because a lot of Democrats have been saying, maybe this president is too cerebral, he's not standing up to Republicans on these issues, as Brianna said. He certainly pushed back, for example, there's an exchange with Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee. She got pretty tough with the president on health care and he sort of gave as good as he got. Take a listen.


OBAMA: If you were to listen to the debate, and frankly, how some of you went after this bill, you'd think that this thing was some Bolshevik (ph) plot. No, I mean that's how you guys -- that's how you guys presented it. And so I'm thinking to myself, well, how is it that a plan that is pretty centrist -- no, look, I mean, I'm just saying, I know you guys disagree, but if you look at the facts of this bill, most independent observers would say, this is actually what many Republicans -- it is similar to what many Republicans proposed to Bill Clinton when he was doing his debate on health care. So all I'm saying is we've got to close the gap a little bit between the rhetoric and the reality.


HENRY: So the key is, he was pushing back, but he never once said, my door is closed, we're not going to try to work out a deal, and that's important. Because those independent voters that he's trying to reach, they want to see the parties working together. So the president is pushing back here and making his points, but it never got disrespectful. BLITZER: He did also try and I think very aggressively, started off in the State of the Union address, but now even more so today in Baltimore to reach out to the other side.

HENRY: Absolutely and in fact, what I'm hearing inside the White House is that in recent days, after Scott Brown's election in Massachusetts, one thing we're learning is that some Republican senators have started calling some of the president's top aides saying, look, we've been saying no on everything, we've been voting against the president, but we realize the dynamic has changed.

There's now 41 Republican votes, so Republicans can't just say the Democrats have the votes to pass everything. That supermajority is gone. So in the words of some White House aides, there's now accountability for Republicans. They have to see -- seem like they're meeting the president halfway, so what we really saw today, we saw in the State of the Union, this president sort of challenging them.

And what I thought was really interesting is at the end of all this, our congressional producer Evan Glass (ph) noted on Twitter, Virginia Foxx, one of the House Republicans, put out this tweet. Quote "President gave us another lecture. Our guys asked great questions. Need independent fact checker for his comments, got autograph."

So she was sort of hitting him saying, you know she didn't like a lot of what he said, but she got his autograph at the end. This president tried to keep it respectful, it was a nice back and forth. They disagreed on the issues, but this is why the White House wanted those cameras in. They think this shows him at his best, Wolf.

BLITZER: It was the closest we've seen to a British prime minister going...


BLITZER: ... to the House of Commons for the question-and-answer sessions that they have there and this worked out pretty well I think for both sides...

HENRY: Absolutely...


HENRY: A lot more Republicans were very respectful...


HENRY: ... of this president as well.

BLITZER: I think we're going to see more of this with TV cameras. That's good for all of us. I have no doubt about that. By the way, if our viewers want to see it tomorrow, 6:00 p.m. Eastern, THE SITUATION ROOM on Saturday, we're going to replay most of that for you. You'll have a chance to see this remarkable session in Baltimore, the president and the House Republicans. Very cool TV. Toyota is swamped with calls from drivers demanding to know how they can make their cars safe again. Just ahead, the automaker's new plan to try to solve its recall crisis.

And Republican Congressman Steve Buyer (ph) calls it quits. We've been digging deeper into questions about his charitable foundation. Stand by for more of our reporting and Buyer's (ph) reason for calling it quits today.

And an attempt by the White House to try to show it's being open. Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Let's check in with Jack for "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, it turns out that the Democrats were a little too clever by half. In four vacant Senate seats, they have managed to go four for four in putting people into those seats who have virtually no chance of being re-elected. Not bad enough that the midterm elections are already shaping up as a bloodbath for the Democrats, now they're going to be forced to defend what should have been safe Senate seats in some of the bluest states in the country -- Joe Biden's old seat in Delaware, Hillary Clinton's old Senate seat in New York.

They managed to put a moron into President Obama's old Senate seat in Illinois, thank you, Rod Blagojevich, and one of the Senate seats in Colorado could also fall to the Republicans. And they just lost Ted Kennedy's Senate seat in Massachusetts, and they lost the governorship in New Jersey and they lost the governorship in Virginia. They're on a roll.

Of course, voting against incumbents has a certain appeal, a lot actually. Our government's broken. The only way to fix its term limits, the problem is there's no way that the weasels in Congress will ever agree to do away with their own jobs so that leaves it up to us. Scott Brown certainly got everybody's attention, didn't he?

The Senate seat he won had already been held by the late Edward Kennedy for only 46 years, so you see it can be done. It is possible for us, the voters, to create some real change that we can believe in. All we have to do is get passed this stupid idea that because somebody has been there, they should always be there.

Here's the question: Are you willing to vote against the incumbent in this year's midterm election? Go to Post a comment on my blog -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Jack, thank you. A lot of your viewers, our viewers are going to certainly say yes.

An emotional announcement today by Congressman Steve Buyer, the Indiana Republican says he won't run for re-election this fall. If Buyer's name sounds familiar to you, our viewers here in THE SITUATION ROOM, it may be because we reported on questions about his charitable foundation only yesterday. Lisa Sylvester was working on that story yesterday. She shared it with us. But today there was a dramatic new development.

LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Indeed, there was, Wolf. You know, complaints have been filed with the IRS and the office of Congressional Ethics asking them to look into a private charity founded by Representative Buyer. Now, we've been looking into the allegations of potential conflict of interest, but today, as Wolf mentioned, there has been a new major development.


SYLVESTER (voice-over): Indiana Congressman Steve Buyer with his wife by his side announced this will be his last year in Congress. Buyer's reason -- his wife's health.

REP. STEVE BUYER (R), INDIANA: Jonie (ph) has been diagnosed with what doctors call an -- an incurable autoimmune disease. While Jonie's (ph) sister died from this disease 21 months ago, I'm not going to call it incurable.

SYLVESTER: Representative Buyer did not elaborate about his wife's illness, but said she'd been advised to de-stress her life. Buyer has been in Congress 18 years. He's easily won re-election for nearly all of his terms, but as we reported just yesterday here on THE SITUATION ROOM recent questions have surfaced over a charity he started.

The Frontier Foundation (ph) was set up to give scholarships to Indiana students. More than $800,000 raised but no scholarships yet awarded. Buyer's foundation did, however, hold fund-raising golf events in places like the Bahamas and Disney World. And most of the donors are companies that have issues before the committee he serves on, the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health. He denies any impropriety and says the accusations against him are politically motivated.

BUYER: Politically, the easiest thing for me to do would have been to run again, especially with the present wave that is coming from the American people who are eager to take back their country.

SYLVESTER: Representative Buyer making today's announcement did not address the issues with his charity and left without taking any questions. Buyer's district strongly leans Republican. His decision to not run again throws the Republican field wide open. On the Democratic side is David Sanders, who has been defeated twice by Buyer and is running again this year.

DAVID SANDERS (D), INDIANA CONG. CANDIDATE: People would come up to me, say, I'm a lifelong Republican. I'm not going to support Congressman Buyer again because of this foundation. So I think it was a serious concern. My thoughts are that I wish him success in his future endeavors and that my heart goes out to him and his family.

SYLVESTER: Buyer will complete his term. (END VIDEOTAPE)

SYLVESTER: Today, the Indiana Republican Party chairman had this statement. Quote, "while we're sad to see him go, we understand his desire to be with his wife through her illness. We thank Steve for his service to our state and wish him all the best in the future" -- that statement coming from the chairman.

BLITZER: We wish his wife only the best as well. Lisa thanks very much for that report.

The world's most notorious terrorist shocks the world again -- I guess you could say that. Wait until you hear what Osama bin Laden apparently is now saying -- his message on the environment. Stick around. It doesn't sound necessarily like a terrorist so much. We'll tell you what he's saying.

And pitching a hand to provide a helping hand in Haiti, we're talking about. Crews beef up relief efforts and you'll meet one man who's critical in determining who gets what and when.


BLITZER: Lisa Sylvester is monitoring some of the other top stories here in THE SITUATION ROOM right now. Lisa, what else is going on?

SYLVESTER: Hi, Wolf. Well the White House is releasing thousands of new visitor records. They show a wide range of guests to President Obama and his aides, although most came for tours. The White House is releasing the records periodically to help meet the president's promise of transparency.

Anti-abortion activist Scott Roeder (ph) has been found guilty of first first-degree murder. A jury convicted him of gunning down Dr. George Tiller, who performed late-term abortions. Roeder (ph) testified he felt Tiller was a danger to unborn children. The jury took less than an hour to reach a verdict. Roeder (ph) now faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison.

And Oklahoma City's Will Rogers Airport (ph) is closed as a major winter storm moves through. More than 140,000 homes and businesses in Oklahoma have lost power. The storm is expected to drop up to a foot of snow as it moves into the Southeast tonight and tomorrow. Ice accumulations are expected to cause hazardous conditions in the North Georgia Mountains, Tennessee, West Virginia, the Carolinas, and other areas -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Lisa thanks very much.

In Haiti right now, the tragic irony, people who survived the earthquake could die from infections and disease. Officials cite too few medical supplies. Meanwhile, CNN's Gary Tuchman introduces us to one man who's critical in determining who gets what and when.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) GARY TUCHMAN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The man encouraging these young Haitians to eat is a good man to know these days in this earthquake-ravaged country.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We need to get more to them and as quickly as possible.

TUCHMAN: His name is Tony Banbury, an American, who is the principle deputy special representative of the United Nations secretary general.

TONY BANBURY, U.N. PEACEKEEPING MISSION IN HAITI: The international community is responding, aid is getting out, but we still need to do more.

TUCHMAN: I sit next to him in this chopper as we fly to the coastal town of Jacmel (ph), Haiti where his observations will have a lot to do with how much help the town will get. A town of 167,000 people, with hundreds of deaths, and more than half the homes destroyed. Talk to the residents in the displaced persons camp here and you'll hear this.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): There is not enough. We need more food, water, we need sheets and tents.

TUCHMAN: They also need help in their hospital, which has been heavily damaged. Listen to this doctor from Delaware.

DR. NANCY FLEURANCOIS: We're seeing everything, but a lot of traumatic fractures, crushed injuries, amputations, a lot of you know broken bones in all different parts -- sorry -- all different parts of the limb.

TUCHMAN: There are also not enough antibiotics. This baby is getting his share, but there are other babies who are not.


TUCHMAN: Many more shipments are coming in. The Dominican Red Cross is off-loading supplies here in Jacmel (ph). More tents have been delivered to the airport. But in a disaster of this magnitude, this U.N. boss knows more is needed and he says he will send the word, more is needed immediately.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But it can't be done. It's not pie in the sky to (INAUDIBLE) a few days.

BANBURY: It's not pie in the sky at all because it's happening already, lots is happening. More needs to be done, but the organizations are here, the systems are in place, the assistance is being delivered, but more is needed and the U.N. won't be satisfied until everything that the people here need is at their disposal.

TUCHMAN (on camera): It's hard to blame the people who work for the U.N. if they take this tragedy more personally than some other disasters. That's because at least 83 U.N. personnel were killed in the earthquake and some 50 others are still missing.

(voice-over): And that's the reason the U.N. boss couldn't stay longer in Jacmel (ph). He had to fly back to Port-au-Prince to a memorial service for his coworkers who died.

Gary Tuchman, CNN, Jacmel, Haiti.


BLITZER: Major new developments in the massive recall that's bringing Toyota to its knees. Could a fix to those sticking gas pedals now be near? Stand by.

It's on the fast track to stimulus controversy. We're taking you on a ride to the Napa Valley Wine (ph) train.


BLITZER: All this week CNN is your stimulus watchdog. With hundreds of our anchors, correspondents, producers, photographers tracking where your tax dollars are going as part of President Obama's stimulus package. Some projects have come under sharp partisan criticism, like one in California's exclusive Napa Valley. Here's CNN's Randi Kaye.


RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Our search for stimulus money leads to, of all places, the Napa Valley and the Wine Train. It's lunchtime. Chef Kelly McDonald (ph) is hustling, 30 minutes to whip up about 120 meals.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I have a medium meat coming.

KAYE: Passengers pay about $100 for a four-course meal and choose from 100 different wines.

(on camera): And this is your whole work space right here...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (INAUDIBLE) one of three kitchens, but this is the muscle kitchen on the Wine Train.


KAYE (voice-over): It is a three-hour journey, winding through the beautiful Napa Valley. But we climbed aboard because the Wine Train has a prominent place on a list of stimulus projects labeled as wasteful or silly, leading some to call it the stimulus waste express.


KAYE: Melanie Hilton (ph) handles P.R. for the Wine Train and can thank Republican Senators John McCain and Tom Coburn for the negative publicity. In their stimulus checkup report from December, the senators questioned 100 projects. The Napa Wine Train ranks number 11. (on camera): So when the report came out putting your wine train on the list, how did you feel?

MELANIE HILTON, NAPA VALLEY WINE TRAIN: Oh, well it's never fun to wake up and find that you're an object of national scorn. I mean, it was shocking.

KAYE: It's easy to see why this may look as though precious stimulus dollars are being spent on wealthy tourists. After all, lunch on the wine train is pretty fancy. Here's a steak with a Brazilian lobster cake on top, a grass of cabernet and a glass of sparkly. But in fact, not a single stimulus is being spent on the wine train.

(voice-over): In fact, the stimulus money is really for a massive flood control project for the valley. The wine train's track happens to be in the way, so they have to elevate the tracks and move them 33 feet. It's that simple, but not cheap -- $54 million stimulus are being used.

HILTON: The person who did the research for the senators didn't do a thorough job, and I think if they had done a thorough job, we wouldn't have been on the list at all.

KAYE: Keeping them honest, we called the senators to ask them why this project made their list. Senator Coburn's spokesman told us the whole project is a, "misplaced priority."

Barry Martin is with the Napa River Flood Control Project. He's called the senators' report, "deliberate deception."

(on camera): Is this a frivolous project?


KAYE: Is this a waste of stimulus dollars?

MARTIN: Absolutely not. This is perfectly fitting into what stimulus was intended to do. As you can see and hear, people are on the job working today who might not be otherwise.

KAYE: Here in Napa, supporters of the project say the stimulus funds will create at least 600 jobs. And those jobs are expected to last two to three years, until the project is done.

(voice-over): But that's for the whole flood project. The contractor expects the track work will employ some 200 people. Once complete, it should mean Napa won't flood every few years. In 1986, flood damage cost $100 million, a 2005 flood, $115 million.

HILTON: Y'all look pretty good coming into 100.


KAYE: Back on the train, Melodie tells us no one from the Napa Valley Wine Train ever received a call from the senators' offices asking for information, so she wrote this letter to Senator McCain. "...Since you have thrown down the gauntlet and made accusations, learn what is really going on. It is your right and your responsibility."

HILTON: We all have the same goal. Nobody, nobody appreciates waste, and if they came out and explored this, I'm not sure that we would have been on this list.

KAYE: And maybe then nobody would be whining about how Napa Valley is wasting your money.

Randi Kaye, CNN, Napa Valley.


BLITZER: On our "Stimulus Desk," right now, every day this week, we've been sifting through the raw data so you don't have to, then reporting on the stories you want to know about.

Let's go to CNN's Tom Foreman, he's at the "Stimulus Desk," right now.

It's the end of the week, Tom. How does this story stack up with all the others you've been researching all week?

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, first of all, that was a tough assignment for Randi, riding on the train, drinking wine, eating lobster.

Well, I'll tell you, Wolf, really, what you see as you look through all of these stories is that there are just so many differences between them that it's very hard, often, to compare them. For example, remember yesterday when the president unveiled this big idea about spending $8 billion and then some more from the federal government on top of that to hook up all these places with high-speed rail systems? Well, that's something that undeniably, if you spend that kind of money will create a lot of work and could create a lot of jobs over a long period of time. What it will not create for $8 billion is any trains running anywhere in here, because from all we can see in our research, these kind of systems just cost way too much for that. So, if you just want to create jobs, in this case, you'll create them and you'll get a very tiny start on a huge project for your money.

On the other hand, look at this. We looked at this up in Connecticut, a project to revitalize this railroad trestle, about $70 million. The company that's in charge of doing this says that it would cost them about -- that it would produce about 25 jobs, right now -- here it is, up in Branford, Connecticut -- and maybe about 100 over the summer. So then you start saying, $70 million to create 125 jobs.

Well, again, that's the problem. As you go through all of this and you try to figure off the roll-off effect, all the jobs, all the impact, you look at all these dots of all these projects all over the country on, and you find yourself saying, they're really not all the same, and that's what makes it so hard to judge, Wolf, which ones are really worth your tax dollars and which ones may not be.

BLITZER: All right, all week, what's the most amazing thing you've learned about how this stimulus money is going?

FOREMAN: Really, Wolf, I think, I'm going to walk you over here to the books, over here. I want you to just look at this. One of the amazing things, really, is the sheer volume of it -- 15,000 pages, here. This is what we've been looking at, if you've been wondering all week. Pages and pages and pages like this, which list the dollar amounts and then what it's for over here in a very simple form.

And, in this case, we have, you know, well over $1 million for rental assistance. And that speaks to the idea, Wolf, that I was talking about, the variety of all of these. Here we have another one with, let's say, $315,000 for youth work labor sort of thing. When you put all together welcome, some you can see produce jobs, others can't.

Wolf, the biggest thing we've been struck by is that probably nobody in America has read through all of these projects and it's going to be a long time before we know really, whether or not this works.

BLITZER: Tom Foreman, thanks so much for the work you've been doing and your entire team there at the "Stimulus Desk."

He's charged with entering a Democratic senator's office to commit a felony. Now that conservative activist is speaking out, defending his scheme.

And Osama bin Laden is also speaking out on climate change. And guess what, he's blaming the United States for global warming.

And Toyota, looking for ways to fix a gas pedal problem that stalled its factories and dealerships and scared consumers around the world. What's next in the recall crisis involving millions of vehicles?


BLITZER: Let's go back to Lisa. She's monitoring some of the other top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM, right now.

Lisa, what else is going on?

SYLVESTER: Hi there, Wolf. Well, a conservative activist is defending his scheme involving Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu. James O'Keefe and three others are charged with entering her New Orleans office under false pretenses to commit a felony. Two of them posed as phone repairmen.

O'Keefe, who previously targeted advocacy group ACORN, says he only wanted to investigate complaints that constituents calling her couldn't get through. He says he could have used a different approach, but insists he did not try to wiretap her office. Landrieu calls his explanation "feeble."

Osama bin Laden is speaking out on, of all things, climate change. In an audio message, he says the U.S., global corporations, and other nations have caused global warming and he urges a boycott of dollar. The tape, allegedly from the al Qaeda leader, was posted on al Jazeera's Web site, today. Experts say bin laden may be trying to appeal to a wider audience.

And it may be warm enough to swim in West Palm beach, Florida, but is it safe? Take a look at this video. You'll want to check out these aerial shots that you see there of an annual shark migration off Singer Island. Sharks of just about every variety from hammerhead to (INAUDIBLE) lost the picture, there -- follow schools of migrating sharks along the Florida coastline and there have been several beach closings this week.

Well, legendary R&B singer Etta James is in a California hospital with an infection. Her son says the 72-year-old is recovering from sepsis. He expects her to be released soon and he did confirm that James entered a treatment program about a month ago to shake a dependency on painkillers.

You know, whenever I think about her, I always can hear in the background that famous song "At Last." You know, just her belting out "At Last," beautiful, beautiful song.

BLITZER: Amazing singer, and indeed, and a great song. We wish her a speedy recovery, of course. Thanks very much, Lisa, for that.

Crippled by a massive recall, now Toyota says it has a fix for those sticking gas pedals, but that may not necessarily be the end of the company's nightmares, right now.

And details of the economic boom that caught everyone by surprise. What it means for the so-called "great recession."


BLITZER: An impressive new growth spurt for the U.S. economy. The gross domestic product rose at an annual rate of 5.7 percent in the fourth quarter, much better than expected. It's the strongest growth in over six years and it marks the second straight quarter of growth. That's considered a sign that the economy is not only recovering, but that the recession has actually ended, that according to economists.

Major new developments, at the same time, of that massive recall of Toyota cars that's thrown the company into a huge crisis. There's word now of a fix to the problem that may cause cars to accelerate on their own, but that alone may not be enough to get Toyota back on track quickly. CNN's Mary Snow is working the story for us. She's joining us now with more.

Mary, what exactly is the latest?

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the CEO of Toyota made his first public comments today about the recalls, while attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, saying he was very sorry Toyota was making customers feel concerned and that an investigation is underway to resolve those concerns. This is, as the company says, is closer to a resolution of the problems that led to this week's recall.


SNOW (voice-over): With millions of its cars recalled, Toyota now says it has a fix for its sticking gas pedals. In an e-mail to its dealers, the automaker said it met with officials at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and presented a remedy. Toyota didn't offer specifics to consumers, but senior automotive editor of "Popular Mechanics" says assuming it's gas pedals that needs replacing, it won't happen overnight.

MIKE ALLEN, "POPULAR MECHANICS": Once a steady supply of those gas pedals is available, the dealerships are going to have to make appointments with all their customers, get them to come into the dealership, take an hour or so, probably, from the time you get there until the time you can leave for the mechanic to get all the parts installed and all the paperwork done. And that's going to take months to cycle through the entire spectrum of cars that are involved.

SNOW: Millions of cars were recalled this week because of issues with sticking gas pedals, meaning the car may keep accelerating even after you take your foot off the gas. But this came on top of a separate recall in November, of millions of other cars due to gas pedals getting stuck on removable floor mats. There has been much confusion and adding to it, the supplier of the gas pedals, a company called CTS in Elkhart, Indiana, say the pedals aren't the problem.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: CTS was not aware and Toyota has said this also, that there's been any accidents or injuries from that condition of those pedals.

SNOW: CTS says it's supplied gas pedals to Toyota since 2005 and there are reports of problems before that.

Congressman Henry Waxman cites 19 deaths linked to sudden unintended acceleration in Toyota cars in the past decade, based on federal data. Toyota hasn't confirmed that number. Waxman chairs the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, which has called for a hearing on February 25. Questions are being raised about how Toyota handled the recall, something the transportation secretary was asked about, Thursday.

RAY LAHOOD, SECRETARY OF TRANSPORTATION: I have no criticism of Toyota on this. They followed the law and they're doing what they're supposed to do.


SNOW: There was another blow to the carmaker, today. Influential "Consumer Reports" suspended its recommendations for the eight Toyota models that were recalled, and it's advising used car buyers to avoid purchasing any of the affected cars until the issue is resolved -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Mary Snow with the latest on Toyota, a story affecting millions and millions of people, out there.

Jack Cafferty has your e-mail. Are you willing to vote against the incumbent in this year's midterm elections? That's coming up.

And Republican candidates won't be required to pass a so-called "purity test," but party leaders are being urged to keep a close eye on them.


BLITZER: On our "Political Ticker," right now, how many TV news networks can say the president of the United States is using our work to make a point? Currently President Obama is watching CNN, or at least watching our work, because today he said this:


OBAMA: There was an interesting headline in CNN today, "Americans disapprove of stimulus, but like every policy in it." And there was a poll that showed that if you broke it down into its component parts, 80 percent approved of the tax cuts, 80 percent approved of the infrastructure, 80 percent approved of the assistance to the unemployed. Well, that's what the recovery act was. And I -- and let's face it, some of you have been at the ribbon cuttings for some of these important projects in your communities.


BLITZER: That was President Obama, today in Baltimore, meeting with House Republicans and he was noting our CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll. The polling director of CNN, Keating Holland, by the way, notes that the president's recitation of our poll was largely correct. Keating says the president misstated one poll. It found 70 percent of Americans approved of the tax cuts in the stimulus plan, not the 80 percent the president referred to.

The Republican Party has decided not to make its candidates pass a so-called "purity test." The measure would have required GOP candidates to follow a set of conservative principles, but it was withdrawn today at the Republican National Committee's winter meeting in Hawaii. Instead, RNC members approved a compromise that only urges party leaders to carefully screen candidates to make sure they support what are called "core Republican principles."

Let's go to Campbell Brown to see what's coming up at the top of the hour.

Campbell, what are you working on?

CAMPBELL BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: Well, hey, there, Wolf. I know you were watching today, that extraordinary exchange between the president and Republican House members. For all of you out there who were at work and may have missed the president's face-off with congressional Republicans, we're going to play extended portions of this really extraordinary discussion and we'll ask two of the Republican lawmakers who got to question the president, today, if they were satisfied with his answers, what they thought of the back and forth, along with members of CNN east best political team on television, they will be here, as well. We'll see you at the top of the hour -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, good work, Campbell. Thanks very much. Good idea.

Let's check in with Jack right now. He's got "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: The question this hour is: Are you willing to vote against the incumbent in this year's midterm election? Any incumbent, just vote them out of office.

J.J. in Illinois: "With the new 24-hour instant news and social networks, the political parties better learn that things can change very quickly and that any party loyalty is becoming very fleeting. The incumbent Republicans and Democrats better solve some problems together or they'll go down together."

Donald in South Carolina: "I routinely vote against the incumbents. I'm a firm believer in term limits. Unfortunately, my vote doesn't count. I live in an area of South Carolina where knee- jerk conservatives vote for any Republican the party puts on the ballot."

Mark in Naperville, Illinois: "Yes, I always am. The problem the idiot I'm voting against now was once supposedly the candidate of change. He/she got there, got corrupted by the power of special interests, and then became the incumbent that I now despise. It's a sick little cycle that's infected both parties and has no real answer in terms of resolution."

Silas in Boston is a Scott Brown voter: "I'll continue voting against incumbents regardless of party. NBC only gave Conan seven months, that's longer than the American people have given Barack Obama," actually, it's not, "and yet we still same the same lobbyist- purchased legislators back to Washington every two years. If they won't give us term limits, all we have to do is fire them. I'm sick of seeing the faces of Pelosi, Reid, Boehner, Cantor, and Specter, just to see a few. Forget Clinton or Bush fatigue, I've got congressional fatigue."

David in Oregon writes, "Not me, Jack. My representatives are perfect, they do everything I want them to. I am positive they don't take money under the table, their wives love them to death, and they never, never kick their dogs."

Debora writes, "Yes, all incumbents have to go. There is rampant corruption in our government. You have no idea how I hate to agree with you."


If you want to read more on this subject, go to the blog at

Well, I'm glad you agree with me, even if it's just this once and we're never friends again.

BLITZER: At least Debora's watching, I got to say that. Thank you Debora on behalf of all of us.

Have a great weekend, Jack.

CAFFERTY: You too, Wolf. See you Monday.

BLITZER: Thank you.

An Oscar-winning filmmaker turns his camera on jailed lobbyist Jack Abramoff. We'll have a preview of "Casino Jack and the United States of Money," an eye-opening look at the scandal.


BLITZER: There is a new movie coming out that some people here in Washington hope you won't see. It's about the former lobbyist and current prison inmate, Jack Abramoff. CNN entertainment correspondent, Brooke Anderson has more -- Brooke.

BROOKE ANDERSON, CNN ENTERTAINMENT CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it's the documentary that has been whispered about in Washington since the controversial filmmaker, Alex Gibney, began work on it a couple years ago. The director of "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room" has now made Jack Abramoff his latest cinematic target.


(voice-over): He was once a Washington super-lobbyist, a staunch conservative with close ties to powerful Republicans like Karl Rove and Tom DeLay. But now, Jack Abramoff's name is synonymous with the shady side of American politics.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I mean, Jack Abramoff could sweet talk a dog off a meat truck. He's that persuasive.

ANDERSON: Oscar-winning filmmaker, Alex Gibny, turned his lens on the disgraced power-broker for his new documentary, "Casino Jack and the United States of Money," which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.

(on camera): Why did you want to make this film?

ALEX GIBNEY, DIRECTOR: It's such an outrageous story. I like to say it's a comedy, but the joke's on us. I mean, the fact, it's a story that shows just how broken the Washington system is, because it's so suffused with money.

ANDERSON (voice-over): The movie is a blistering look at Abramoff's elaborate schemes which lead to guilty pleas on charges he bribed public officials, defrauded American Indians and evaded taxes.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: His activities went far beyond lawful lobbying.

ANDERSON: Gibney says he unveiled never-before-heard audio recordings that shed new light on his web of deceit.


I haven't discussed any fees you have outstanding with us to get that, you know, with the multiple (ph).


ANDERSON: The film is a sweeping indictment, not only of Abramoff, but of key Republican figures he was associated with, including DeLay and former congressman, Bob Ney. But does the film go too far?

(on camera): Do you feel that every claim in the movie is substantiated?

GIBNEY: Absolutely. We went through, on this film, an extraordinary legal review in order to be certain that we were right on all the facts and everything that we claim in the film.

GEORGE W BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I frankly, don't even remember having my picture taken with the guy. I don't know him.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Of course Bush knew him. Absolutely.

ANDERSON: OK, so the film claims that President Bush is lying, essentially. Are you confident in that claim?

GIBNEY: I'm pretty confident in that claim. I think there's no way that Bush didn't know who Jack Abramoff was. He raised so much money for him. You see him in picture after picture after picture.

ANDERSON (voice-over): Sharon Waxman, founder of screened the film and wrote about it on her Web site.

SHARON WAXMAN, THEWRAP.COM: I wouldn't say it makes the Republicans look very good, so if you're saying if feels like it comes from an anti-Republican agenda, it might. But, Alex Gibney as a filmmaker has done many films and as a storyteller, I'm sure he thinks that Jack Abramoff is just a fantastic story and a great character.

ANDERSON: Gibney visited Abramoff in prison, but wasn't allowed to film him for the documentary. Gibney told me that Abramoff naturally has a lot of regrets.

We reached out to President George W. Bush's for his response to the claims about him in the film, but his office had no comment.

Wolf, back over to you.


BLITZER: Brooke Anderson at Sundance. Thanks very much.

Remember you can follow us on Twitter, go to my Tweets at, all one word. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. Up next Campbell Brown.