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Counting Health Care Votes; Obama's Overseas Trip; Unease between Israel and the U.S.; Health Care by the Rules; Car Company in Alabama; Health Care Reform

Aired March 17, 2010 - 19:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, the president's most intense and important fight for votes since the day he was elected -- this hour Democrats are tallying the yes's and the no's on health care reform and are we. Stand by for CNN's up to the minute analysis.

Filmmaker Michael Moore tells me the health care reform bill is horrible, in his words, and a joke, but he still hopes it passes anyway. Are liberals helping the president's cause or hurting it. Stand by.

And on this St. Patrick's Day, you don't have to be Irish to dance like this. The jig is up on this multi ethnic group of school kids who performed over at the White House.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Check out the president's unlikely new ally in health care reform. It's his former 2008 primary rival, Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich, the high profile liberal Democrat today announced he'll vote for the Senate reform plan awaiting action in the House of Representatives despite his strong doubts about it. Supporters and opponents of the bill both are working to reach that magic number of 216 just over half of the number of seats currently filled in the House.

The yes votes still are very, very fluid. So CNN is keeping tabs of House members who appear to set the no vote. That includes all 178 Republicans of the House. Every single one of them and 27 Democrats who are now already openly against the bill as it stands right now. That would put opponents 11 votes short of the 216 they need to kill reform. But some Democrats could change their minds and dozens of others still are undecided.

Counting votes in Congress can be a full time job, especially at critical times like this. Our congressional correspondent Brianna Keilar has been talking to someone who made a living at it. It's called whipping, whipping the vote. Let's explain to our viewers, Brianna, what is going on right now, because this could still go either way.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, we call it whipping, we call it arm twisting, very visual terms to describe this process of rounding up the votes here on Capitol Hill. And this is such an important process that each party has a top leadership position that's called the whip and they're helped out by a team of members of Congress and aides whose sole job is to secure a vote for or against a bill.



KEILAR (voice-over): In the words of the 80's group Divo (ph), that's just what Democratic leaders are doing.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), HOUSE SPEAKER: I never stop whipping. There's no beginning. There's no middle and there's no end.

KEILAR: With many rank and file Democrats on the fence about whether to support the health care reform package, Democratic leaders will be counting the yeas and nays, whipping their members until the bill hits the floor for a vote.

JAIME HARRISON, FORMER HOUSE FLOOR DIRECTOR: There have been difficult whip counts, ones that I was part of it in the last Congress, but I think in terms of this Congress, it's the most difficult.

KEILAR: Jaime Harrison is a former whip director for Democrats responsible for identifying which members need convincing.

HARRISON: That's when you are basically finding out who is their best buddy in the Congress. And you're sending that person to go talk to them to tell them how important it is to the Democratic Caucus.

KEILAR: And if that doesn't work.

HARRISON: You know you go up this chain of command and so it'll start off with the regional whip and then move up to one of the chief deputy whips. And then you get to the big enchiladas, you go to the speaker, the leader and the majority whip --

KEILAR (on camera): And the next thing you know -- the next thing you know Speaker Pelosi is calling you into her office.

HARRISON: Calling to chat with you, to see how you can be supportive of this legislation.

KEILAR: That's mighty uncomfortable, isn't it?

HARRISON: Yes, she's very persistent and I wouldn't want to be the one called into her office.

KEILAR (voice-over): Because years before she we wielded the gavel as speaker, Nancy Pelosi held the position of Democratic Whip.



KEILAR: Little fun there with that, but the informal process of whipping, Wolf, has already begun, of course Democratic leaders trying to pin down members wherever they can. Speaker Pelosi talking to them even on the House floor out of the range of course of reporters who can hear what they're saying. But the official process of whipping really begins with this. This is just an example of something called a whip question sent to members asking them whether they're basically going to be voting yes or no.

And then that's when the heavy whipping and arm twisting begins. And you start seeing members being brought into the speaker's office for those sit-down meetings. And this process, Wolf, isn't going to begin until we get of course the bill and those all important CBO numbers, the price tag for this bill. We did just learn a short time ago from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi there appears to be a slight delay. She had said that she would have thought it would be any minute, but now it's going to take a little more time. And that's really all that she would say.

BLITZER: Are they still living up to that commitment that it would -- they would give all the members 72 hours to review this price tag from the Congressional Budget Office before a final vote, because obviously three days, they would have to wait three days before the vote.

KEILAR: We heard from a top aide, a top Democratic aide that they are going to abide by that. So what that means is that if Democrats are going to hit their mark of having a vote on Saturday, we have to get these CBO numbers sometime today -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And if they don't do it today, the vote would have to be delayed until Sunday if they can get that CBO number tomorrow. Thanks, very much Brianna for that.

The health care clock is ticking for President Obama. At last word, he was scheduled to leave for an overseas trip on Sunday, that's three days later than originally planned. Let's bring in our senior White House correspondent Ed Henry. Ed, I take it the trip is still on?

ED HENRY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It is, Wolf. I've got my bags packed personally and I'm hoping that we still are leaving Sunday morning, but there is some confusion about whether it will be delayed. Some rumors flying around town whether it will be cancelled altogether. Now White House officials are insisting this president is going on the trip one way or another, but I think the question is whether or not he delays it at all.

Right now, when you talk to top Democrats, the strategy here at the White House and on the Hill is that the House would move forward on all of this late Saturday or early Sunday, hoping that the president could then sign the Senate bill into law Sunday morning or Sunday afternoon before he heads to Guam and Indonesia and then on to Australia. And then the Senate would come back next weekend to push through the reconciliation fixes to that original Senate bill, then there would be a separate bill signing then.

All of this though could be disrupted by what Brianna was just saying. If the CBO can't get those numbers back to leaders and that gets delayed that pushes that 72-hour window to post the bill online. If that happens, it's conceivable the president could leave much later on Sunday, could be pushed back to Monday. All of this is really fast and furious flying around -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And a quick question on the so called Cadillac plans, the labor unions, and a lot of their members have what they call those Cadillac plans, really terrific insurance policies. And there's some notion of taxing those policies. What's the latest? Are the unions on board right now?

HENRY: That is a big question. I just picked up from a Democratic official involved in the health care talks that Rich Trumpka (ph), the head of the AFL-CIO, a big union leader is headed over to the White House right now to meet with White House officials. Now they won't get into specifically what it is. But I'm picking up from other aides on the Hill, others close to negotiations that there is some question about that fix to the Cadillac tax, the so-called Cadillac tax where you would tax the plans that are not just good for business but good for union employees.

These union leaders want to make sure that the tax is not implemented until much later on because they're worried that it will hurt their union members. Well the fear may be that if you push it down the road, it's not going to raise enough money in the short term to pay for what the president wants to do. That could mess things up as well. And that's why the unions are probably here right now trying to figure all this out -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, it's a complicated -- complicated mission for all of these people. Thanks very much, Ed Henry will be stay on top of this for us at the White House.

House leaders are studying their rule books and they're pondering a controversial way to try to pass health care reform. Could it turn into a constitutional show down?

And more pressure on the president and Congress from African- Americans to help minority groups that are jobless and hurting. Is Washington turning a blind eye? Donna Brazile and Bill Bennett, they are standing by for our "Strategy Session".


BLITZER: Jack Cafferty is here with "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: With diplomatic tensions rising, both the United States and Israel are trying to tamp down the flames. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton now insists that the two nations enjoy a close unshakeable bond. But when Israel announced it was going ahead with the building or more settlements over the objection of the United States, and when they chose to make that announcement while Vice President Joe Biden was visiting their country, Mrs. Clinton called Israel's actions insulting to the United States and they clearly were. In a game of cover your whatever, the Israeli ambassador to the United States now denies making statements that relations between the two countries are in a crisis. But whatever state relations are in, it ain't good. Some are suggesting it's time for the United States to get tougher with Israel. One Middle East expert wonders if the flare up between the two countries means the Obama administration might be seeking regime change in Israel. Want to really get tough and send message -- start cutting back on the approximately $2.5 billion in aid that we give Israel every year.

In today's "New York Times" columnist Maureen Dowd (ph) quotes one Obama official as saying that's not how you treat your best friend when describing Israel's recent construction announcement of 1,600 more homes in the disputed East Jerusalem. In her piece called "Bebe's Tense Times Out" (ph), a reference to Bebe Netanyahu (ph), Dowd (ph) writes the White House is quote "appalled at Israel's self absorption and its failure to notice that America is not only protecting Israel from Iran, fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also dealing with a miasma (ph) of horrible problems at home", unquote.

So here's the question. Is it time for the United States to get tougher with Israel? Go to and post a comment on my blog -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Jack, thank you. New questions are being raised about the way House leaders may try to pass health care reform. We explained it to you yesterday in detail with a schoolhouse rock twist. But simply put, the House would pass a rule allowing Democrats to deem the Senate version of the bill passed without having to take a direct vote on that Senate bill.

Republicans suggest it isn't ethical. Here's the question though, is it constitutional? Let's bring in our senior political analysts Gloria Borger and David Gergen. Let's talk about this. One constitutional professor at George Washington University Law School, Alan Morrison (ph), David, writes this.

"You run the risk that it could be declared unconstitutional if both Houses vote on the substance of everything, then I'm not troubled, but if it looks like the House is never going to vote on the Senate bill, that's very troubling. I wouldn't want to stake the entire bill on that". Does Professor Morrison (ph) have a good point?

DAVID GERGEN, SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: I think he does, Wolf. I don't think anybody can say with certainty whether it would pass constitutional muster or not. There are arguments on both sides. The question becomes is there a credible argument against it? And experts say that there is a credible argument against it which does mean, Wolf that if the bill is passed in this way, someone could file suit and the courts might take it up.

And this whole health care fight would then be tossed over into the courts and conceivably struck down. There is a precedent from a case 12 years ago in which the court ruled that the House and the Senate have to pass the exact same text and they have to vote on the exact same text. And the question is whether these are. So I think there's a cloud here now, not only is the question as you say is it the right thing to do, but if it's going to be tossed into the courts, is American -- are Americans going to stand for that? Do the Democrats really want to do that?

BLITZER: That's a good question. And Gloria, so why would Nancy Pelosi and her colleagues in the Democratic leadership in the House even take that chance? What would be the gain for them?

GLORIA BORGER, SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well I was talking to some Democrats about that today, Wolf. Clearly they don't have the votes yet and they want to win. And there is some thought that they don't care if they win on a technicality or if they win by casting one vote for essentially two bills. It will raise this constitutional question, you can be sure that there are going to be people who are going to want to throw this into the courts.

And I think on the larger issue, Wolf, it makes the Democrats look, shall we say, a tad desperate or a tad arrogant, and I think this is a larger problem for them because people have been paying attention to the process of health care. You know on a lot of issues they don't pay attention to the process. It's kind of wake me when it's over.

They have watched this play out. And the American public knows Democrats are trolling for votes. And they're going to look at this and say gee, isn't this a little underhanded. If you didn't have the votes, you want to pass it with a rule? Well that's kind of odd.

BLITZER: And this whole process issue, it may help explain why the opinion of Congress in this new NBC News/"Wall Street Journal" poll is so low, do you approve of Congress, 17 percent approve, 77 disapprove, six percent don't know. This is a Democratic-led House and Senate and they only get 17 percent approval, David.

GERGEN: That's an extremely low number taken by Peter Hartman (ph) and Bill McIntyre (ph) who are extremely well respected in their field of polling. And it does suggest that they've got to address this and come up with, in my judgment, with a clean answer. The president has argued for a clean up and down vote. And it seems to me that it would be so much more in the country's interest if they could come up with a clean up or down vote. And it will, I think, increase respect of Congress. If they go this other way, it gets thrown in the courts. We can be looking at 10 or 12 percent approval someday.

BLITZER: Yes, but as you know, there are still a few Democrats out there who under no circumstances say they will vote for that Senate legislation because it contains in there, if you don't -- if you forget about the amendments for the time being, that cornhusker kickback and the Louisiana Purchase and all those special deals.

BORGER: Well you know, you talk to Democrats and they say we don't want to vote for this because then we're going to get tarred with voting for special interest provisions. But when you're elected to be a member of Congress, you should be able to explain your votes. And you go to Congress to vote, unless I'm mistaken here. And so for folks to say we don't want to vote because we're going to have a tough time explaining this is really not a good answer to give to the American public. That's what they --

GERGEN: It's a vote-less vote.

BORGER: Right.

GERGEN: It's a vote-less vote.

BORGER: Exactly and that's what they elected you to do.

BLITZER: Guys, thanks very much.

Ireland's prime minister is here in THE SITUATION ROOM on this St. Patrick's Day. We'll ask Brian Cowen (ph) if there will ever be a united Ireland and we'll also get his reaction to that child abuse scandal that's been rocking the Catholic Church including in Ireland.

And a sigh of relief at a small southern town, residents are thrown an economic lifeline after an auto assembly line goes into overdrive.


BLITZER: There is one bill the president knows he'll get to sign. The Senate today gave final approval to a $17.6 billion jobs creation package. The vote 68 to 29, 11 Republicans voted for it. Among other things, the measure would give companies a temporary break from payroll taxes for hiring jobless workers. The bill went through many twists and turns in both chambers in recent weeks. It's now headed to the president's desk and he says he plans to sign it tomorrow.

Hyundai, it's one of the world's most profitable car companies and while it's headquartered in South Korea the automaker is helping to build up America by putting down roots in a small southern town. Let's go to CNN's Tom Foreman.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, my old home state here of Alabama has not done very well in the jobs department. Their unemployment rate is above the national average, but some years ago, local leaders here were watching the rise of Hyundai and wanted to be part of it. So they aggressively went after getting this plant to come to Alabama and the results have been spectacular.


FOREMAN (voice-over): Just south of Montgomery at the gleaming new Hyundai plant, almost every minute, another new car rolls off the line. And just about as often, you can find someone like Yolanda Williams singing the company's praises.

YOLANDA WILLIAMS, HYUNDAI TEAM MEMBER: I love it. I enjoy what I do everyday.

FOREMAN (on camera): Did you ever have any idea you would be making a living from the car industry in southern Alabama?

WILLIAMS: No, I never (INAUDIBLE) and this changed a lot of people's lives down here.

FOREMAN (voice-over): Winning this massive economic prize over other states that wanted it had local leaders scrambling at one point, making sure Hyundai knew how transportation services, power grids and most of all the local community could and would meet all their needs.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So this location was great.

FOREMAN (on camera): And they made sure that you had everything.


FOREMAN: The land, the communications, the transportation.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, utilities.

FOREMAN: And it seems like it's working.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It is working. It's working for them. It's working for us.

FOREMAN (voice-over): Last year, Hyundai was one of just three car companies to increase sales in America, the success for the community --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So you're just looking to see if there's anything wrong with this piece.

FOREMAN: Good jobs.

JASON THOMAS, HYUNDAI TEAM MEMBER: Means the world to me and I know a lot of other people feel the same way.

FOREMAN (on camera): How secure do you feel in your job?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I feel really secure. I really do.

FOREMAN: Enough to buy a house, enough to move forward.


FOREMAN: Hyundai doesn't make everything it needs, so that means that lots of suppliers have sprung up all throughout this region to make bumpers and sun roofs and dashboards and that has created many more jobs.

(voice-over): About 800 have come from MOBIS, another Korean company that followed Hyundai here.

(on camera): I'm guessing a lot of people are pretty happy about this?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, we are. As a matter of fact, I'm one of them.

FOREMAN (voice-over): In all, local officials estimate more than 20,000 jobs have rippled out from the Hyundai deal, building up South Alabama one job, one car, one minute at a time.


FOREMAN: And I know, Wolf, this sounds almost like a company sales pitch, but it's really hard to find anyone here who has anything negative to say about this. The simple truth is this has been a huge blessing for this part of the country and now KIA is opening a plant just across the line in Georgia and that will mean even more jobs -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Tom Foreman reporting for us in Montgomery, Alabama.

He blasted the health care system in his documentary film "Sicko" (ph) and now Michael Moore tells me the Democrats' reform plan is in his word a joke. So why is Moore trying to get the measure passed? Bill Bennett and Donna Brazile, they consider his motives in our "Strategy Session".

And they'll talk about the Democrats' record on jobs and whether they're doing enough to help African-Americans.


BLITZER: All right, let's get to today's "Strategy Session" -- joining us, two CNN political contributors, the Democratic strategist Donna Brazile and the National Talk Radio Host Bill Bennett. Guys thanks very much for coming in. Earlier I spoke to filmmaker Michael Moore and he doesn't really like -- let's put it this way -- he hates this current version of the Democrats' health care reform bill, but he says he still hopes it passes. Listen to what he told me.


MICHAEL MOORE, FILMMAKER: This is not health care reform. The bill is a joke, but at this point it's really just turned into this game between the Republicans trying to do everything they can to stop President Obama from doing some good for this country and frankly, if this -- if this goes down I don't know how the president will recover from that and I don't know what else we're going to be able to get through.


BLITZER: Does he have a point?

BILL BENNETT, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Yes, well sure, I think if it does go down the president is in serious trouble. He will have spent 14 months on it.

BLITZER: But Bill Clinton --

(CROSSTALK) BLITZER: -- in '94 came back after his health care bill went down in flames. He managed to come back and eventually got himself reelected.

BENNETT: Yes, he may get help the same way Bill Clinton did with 52 Republicans coming in, in the fall and helping to shake legislation for the next few years. I think Michael Moore is a joke -- kind of a bad joke myself. I don't think this legislation is a joke. I'm opposed to it. Most of the American people are opposed to it, but it is serious for the president if it doesn't pass. I think it's also serious for the president if it does pass.

BLITZER: Because you had a tweet this week, Donna, that caused a lot of buzz out there, shall we say. You wrote this on Twitter. "If a handful of Democrats decide to defeat this bill, they deserve to get a primary challenge to defend the status quo and insurance industry."

You were laying a direct attack against your fellow Democrats, most of whom the ones who oppose it don't like it from the right because they think it goes too far.

DONNA BRAZILE, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Well Wolf, I was in New Orleans this weekend where, you know, once again, I'm confronted as any American with so many horror stories of people who are struggling to make ends meet and to pay their bills. And I got up that morning to come back to D.C., saw a front page in the paper where we have a Senate candidate and I'm going to name names, Charlie Malasan who my family will likely vote for against David Vitter, but he is on the fence. He's one of those Democrats who said he will not vote for it. There are hundreds of thousands of Louisianans who will benefit if we pass this bill. So many uninsured people, people with pre-existing conditions. 12,000 who live in the city of New Orleans.

BLITZER: Are you saying that David Vitter would be better?

BRAZILE: I'm saying that I hope that Charlie Maloneson will consider voting for this bill because it provides quality care for people without health care. 19 health care centers will have more money in Louisiana. So I support the Democratic, I support all the candidates. I don't speak for the Democratic Party. I'm speaking for myself.

BLITZER: You have seen these fights on the Republican side, too, where a mainstream moderate Republican is attacked from the right because he or she may not be conservative enough.

WILLIAM BENNETT, NATIONAL TALK RADIO HOST: We're going to see some of that in our own party this fall.

BLITZER: It's happening in Arizona.

BENNETT: I'm going out to Indiana, when you see Dan Coates in his challenge against Ellsworth and he's being challenged by a younger guy. The problem with the health care program, Obama care, he's not only opposed by Republicans and independents but you've got wars inside the Democratic Party like this. When you are talking about 16% of the American economy, you want more agreement; you want some more consensus on this than he's got.

BLITZER: When John Boehner, the Republican leader in the house, Donna says there is bipartisan cooperation on health care but it's against the Democrats' health care bill. You got Republicans and you got a few dozen Democrats who don't like it.

BRAZILE: A handful of Democrats. The Democrats have made some tough choices while the Republicans have opted out, sitting on the side, complaining, whining, bed wetting. Democrats have taken on some of the toughest challenges. We won't get every Democrat but we should get Democrats to support this bill because it helps the American people.

BENNETT: We have good plans, tough plans. I thing that was shown at the summit. We weren't allowed to participate in this process. If it fails maybe we'll get a chance to --

BLITZER: Give me your prediction.

BENNETT: I don't think it makes it. I think there are too many Democrats who are reluctant. I hate to see those people driven out of the party.

BRAZILE: A lot of Republican ideas, Republican positions. It is unfortunate that they will not help the American people with this rising health care. We will. No bill it is not, please. It's very simple. There are Republicans ideas in bill.

BENNETT: No, small amendments. The heart of the thing is not consistent. The American people are opposed to this.

BRAZILE: A lot of Americans that support it.

BLITZER: How close now?

BRAZILE: It's a close vote. But Nancy Pelosi will prevail. I hope people stop attacking her simply because she's speaker of the house and using all the procedural rules to get this bill passed.

BENNETT: Including sleazy.

BRAZILE: Sleazy came out of the Republicans, too.

BENNETT: Jack Cafferty talked about it.

BLITZER: We'll talk about it in the next couple days. We've got a big vote coming up this weekend. Guys, thanks very much.

BRAZILE: Thank you.

BLITZER: The embattled governor of New York, David Paterson breaking his silence about one aspect of the scandal swirling around him. We're all Irish on this St. Patrick's Day, but these kids dance like they're Irish all year long even though most of them are Latino and African-American.


BLITZER: Lisa Sylvester is monitoring some of the stories in THE SITUATION ROOM right now. Hi Lisa, what's going on?

LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi there Wolf. The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan says capturing Osama Bin Laden alive and bringing him to justice is his priority. General Stanley McChrystal's statement is at odds with what attorney general Eric Holder said on Capitol Hill yesterday. Holder told lawmakers there was virtually no chance of capturing Bin Laden alive and that he would never see the inside of an American courtroom.

Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke is urging lawmakers on Capitol Hill to let the Fed keep its banking oversight. Bernanke says that role helps the Fed monitor the health of the country's banking system but the Senate banking committee chairman proposes trimming back the Fed's reach. The plan would limit federal oversight to 35 bank holding companies, down from about 5,000.

And for the first time New York Governor David Paterson is speaking out against accusations he interfered with a domestic violence complaint against one of his top aides. On a morning talk show, the embattled Democratic governor said when he spoke with the woman who accused his aide, he didn't try to persuade her to drop her complaint. He says he urged her only to follow the law. Paterson also lost another staff member today, his press secretary.

And we have an update to an emotional story we told you about a few days ago. DNA tests now confirm what the parents of a Haitian baby believed to have been orphaned already knew. Baby Jenny belongs to them. Jenny, you may recall, was just 4 months old when January's massive earthquake separated the trio. Rescuers found her in the rubble and rushed her to the hospital and eventually flew her to Miami for treatment. Jenny's parents will come to the United States to claim her once her treatment is done. That country has suffered so much. Nice to have a bright spot there.

BLITZER: Our medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen did a lot of reporting on that little baby jenny. She did a fabulous job and we're happy that the baby will be reunited with the baby's parents.

SYLVESTER: On another note, happy St. Patrick's Day. I see you have your green tie on.

BLITZER: Lisa O' Sylvester. We're all Irish today. Thanks.

BLITZER: Ireland's prime minister is spending this St. Patrick's day over at the white house on Capitol Hill. And here in THE SITUATION ROOM, this situation room. Hear what he has to say about Irish unity and the child abuse scandal in Europe right now.

Is it time for the U.S. to get tougher with Israel? Jack Cafferty has your email.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: It's a St. Patrick's Day tradition here in Washington. The Irish prime minister pays a visit and meets with the president. Brian Cowen also had lunch with Mr. Obama and members of Congress. They noted it was first St. Patrick's Day without the late Senator Ted Kennedy. The president went on to pay a light-hearted tribute to people of Irish descent and their contributions to politics.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The truth is they weren't always welcome. There were times where the Irish were caricatured and stereotyped and cursed at and blamed for society's ills. So naturally, a good fit for them to go into politics. It made sense.

BLITZER: And joining us now, a special guest here in THE SITUATION ROOM, the prime minister of Ireland, Brian Cowen. Thanks for coming in.

BRIAN COWEN, IRISH PRIME MINISTER: Thank you for having me.

BLITZER: Happy St. Patrick's Day.

COWEN: Same to you. It's a great day.

BLITZER: Is there ever going to be a united Ireland?

COWEN: Not without the consent of the people of Northern Ireland. That's the Democratic deal we've done. Historically, with the partition of the country, we all have views on that, whether that was the right way forward. But the good Friday agreement, St. Andrews agreement makes it very clear that we will have a united Ireland if the majority of the people in northern Ireland so decide.

BLITZER: Do you think that will ever happen?

COWEN: As I say, the great genius of the agreements we've reached is going on a common journey without deciding what the end destination is. Both sides of the equation, if you like, have legitimate aspirations, they have legitimate philosophies. One seeks to retain the union with Great Britain and a large minority would like to see a united Ireland.

BLITZER: You're not happy with the economy right now. Just a little while ago, there was a great success story in Ireland, but things have gone south.

COWEN: Yeah, I mean, we're a small open economy. We've been effected very much by the world downturn.

BLITZER: Who is to blame for that?

COWEN: All of us can look to see could anyone have foreseen Lehman Brothers and the impact that had.

BLITZER: That had a huge impact on Ireland.

COWEN: Huge. BLITZER: So was it external, the problems that you're facing now or was there some internal problems that you can blame yourself?

COWEN: Both external and internal. On the internal front we had a property bubble in the domestic housing market. But we don't have the problem of toxic paper in our banking system. We have distressed assets in the property portfolios of the banks. We have a solution for that that we'll be announcing.

BLITZER: Let's talk about terrorism. Islamic terrorist suspects in Ireland. How big of a problem is this?

COWEN: I don't think -- let me say, it is part of a bigger problem. Obviously what's happened here --

BLITZER: Is there a network of terrorists operating from Ireland?

COWEN: There's a particular number of -- small number of people who along with strong cooperation of our own security people and security people here, have been keeping a close eye on. We had a couple of arrests to make arising out of conspiracy efforts to try and set up a problem in the Netherlands regarding a journalist.

BLITZER: They were trying to -- the accusation is they wanted to kill a cartoonist who made fun of the prophet Muhammad.

COWEN: That's the accusation. We're investigating it and made arrests. Queer cooperating --

BLITZER: There are Americans involved in this as well?


BLITZER: How many?

COWEN: Well, I mean it's not totally known. There's one particular person, a lady who has been involved in this. I don't want to prejudice the investigation with anything that can be used --

BLITZER: Is there an isolated incident for one conspiracy or part of a bigger problem?

COWEN: From our point of view, we believe it is the only incident that's certainly come to our attention. As I say, a lot of work going on behind the scenes to see how this would emerge. Eventually landed in our area and we dealt with it with the cooperation of the U.S. authorities. But we have a constant -- all of us have to be vigilant. None of us know where these people will try to foment their problems. We have a Muslim community in Ireland. It has assimilated very well. I have to emphasize the vast majority of our people in that ethnic community are decent citizens and work hard. But if there is some element, you see in the UK, where people are UK- born Muslim people who have been, unfortunately, sent down this road of fundamentalist and this cul-de-sac. So we're very conscious and our security people watch this situation closely. BLITZER: We're out of time. A quick question on this sex scandal that's rocking the Catholic Church in Europe right now including in Ireland. It's very disconcerting. What can you tell us?

COWEN: Obviously, the whole question from the state's point of view is we have guidelines in place, we insist on equality before the law. We've had situations in past where clerics have been criminally prosecuted and respective charges that have to be dealt with in the normal way. And as we know, this whole child abuse situation and sex abuse situation is a societal problem as well. It is not simply an issue exclusively for the church authorities to deal with, although in the interests of the authority and the respect and the esteem in which religion is held in our societies, there's a need for people to be as transparent and deal with it as fulsomely as possible. There are issues for the church to make sure that their authority is maintained with their own church-going public from the state's point of view and there's a separate and distinct responsibility to discharge, which is to transparently deal with any issues that arise and deal with them no matter what person's occupation is or where it comes from.

BLITZER: Good luck dealing with that. You got a lot of problems right now, but we're confident that Ireland will do just fine.

COWEN: We're coming through and we intend to be -- when this recession is over, the important point is how do you reposition yourself to take the opportunity when it comes. We're taking major changes in our economy at the moment because we want to make sure that we're competitive, that we put a huge investment in our own people and we have a strong economy that we'll see flourish again as the world economy comes back.

BLITZER: Happy St. Patrick's Day.

COWEN: Same to you, Wolf. Thank you for having us.

BLITZER: Thank you.

By the way, the Irish prime minister and President Obama have something in common. Get this. The president's great-great-great- grandfather on his mother's side came from the same county as Brian Cowen. The two aren't related. Cowen checked. Still the president can boast he's 3.1% Irish based on the calculations of But an Irish band called the Corrigan Brothers thinks that Mr. Obama is 100 percent from the emerald isle. Listen to this.


Cute. On this St. Patrick's Day, also a story to put a spring in your step. We'll meet some kids who are defying expectations and proving you don't have to be Irish to dance like this.


BLITZER: Jack is back with "The Cafferty File" -- Jack?

CAFFERTY: The question this hour: Is it time for the United States to get tougher with Israel?

Dana writes from Oregon: "Yes, Israel has insulted us and further inflamed the Palestinians. I don't understand what the Israelis hope to prove by any of this."

Greg in Minneapolis writes: "Israel need our help to stand on their own two feet when the country was first founded in 1948, but that time has long passed, and they should either do as they're told if they're going to continue to receive foreign welfare from the United States or forgo those funds and support themselves."

Steve in Virginia says: "It's time for the U.S. to live up to the assumed role as an honest broker in the Middle East. Trust and equity must be two components of that role, and both must be applied and enforced equally to Israel. If we support Israel, we support Israel, it's not the other way around. Israel has to demonstrate that it wants peace for themselves as much as we want it for them."

Mark in Oklahoma City: "We ought to be helping Israel occupy as much Arab land as possible. Last time I checked, we weren't fighting Jews in the war on terror, we're fighting Muslims. As far as I'm concerned, they can occupy the entire Middle East."

Michael in Florida says: "Maybe someone, anyone, can tell me why we continue to give Israel $2.5 billion a year? They don't have any oil. They won't let us put a huge military base in their country. What strategic value does supporting Israel have for U.S. interests? If the U.S. wants to get tough with Israel, we need to end all aid to that country and insist that they allow the formation of a Palestinian homeland."

Lou says: "It would seem like this country would have some kind of leverage against Israel with the billions of dollars we give to it every year in foreign aid."

And Karl writes: "This should have been done many years ago."

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

BLITZER: You got a lot of e-mail on this one, Jack?

CAFFERTY: Yeah, quite a bit, Wolf.

BLITZER: And most of it was anti-Israel, would you say?

CAFFERTY: Probably more -- more anti- than pro, yeah.

BLITZER: Interesting.

CAFFERTY: This little stunt they pulled with Biden I think got people's attention.

BLITZER: I think you're right. A lot of people were very, very upset about it.


BLITZER: Including, by the way, in Israel.

CAFFERTY: And rightfully so. That's not how you treat a visitor to your country. What is that?

BLITZER: Right. All right, Jack, thank you.

Stepping out on St. Patrick's Day. Dancers from New York are proving you don't have to be Irish to master the moves of Celtic step dancing.


BLITZER: Irish dancing is a common form of entertainment on St. Patrick's Day, but some of the dancers in New York are anything but common. They're a standout group of minority students from a Bronx public school who are stepping up to the stage with some Dublin-style dance moves. Mary Snow's here. She's got more on this story for us -- Mary?

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: These kids were great, Wolf, I had so much fun doing this story, and they have danced their way from the Bronx to the white house.


SNOW: They are unlikely Irish dancers because none of these kids are Irish. Yet the Celtic dreams are in such high demand, they performed Tuesday night for an audience that included Bill and Hillary Clinton before their St. Patrick's Day performance at the white house. 35 kids from the Bronx make up the group. Did it seem a little funny at first?

DIAMOND WALKER, STUDENT/IRISH DANCER: Yeah. I told my mom, it seems like Irish dancing. She was like, everybody doesn't know Irish dancing here.

SNOW: Enter Caroline Duggan. Eight years ago she arrived from Dublin to PS-59, a school largely Hispanic and African-American.

CAROLINE DUGGAN, TEACHER/DANCE INSTRUCTOR: They said, I spoke with an accent. And some of them had no idea what Ireland was, a place of leprechauns and rainbows.

SNOW: Duggan showed them a couple of dance steps and nothing was the same at PS-59. Duggan was supposed to stay only a year and hasn't left. She formed an after-school dance troupe where she and the kids sprinkle in a little salsa, and the kids have added a few of their own hip-hop moves and these kids have now danced their way to the white house.

FATUMATA KARAGA, STUDENT/IRISH DANCER: I'm so grateful that we actually get to walk inside the white house and look around. I want to see everything, but I want to know how it feels to be inside of it.

SNOW: Once a novelty, now the kids have to audition to join. And their school principal says membership comes with conditions.

CHRISTINE MCHUGH, PRINCIPLE, PS-59: They have to have good attendance. They have to wear the school uniform every day. Their grades have to be passing, and they have to be good citizens according to their teachers.

SNOW: Along with performing, Duggan has made all 35 costumes, dancing shoes have been donated, as money donations pay for all their trips. And while the kids toured Washington, some of them leaving the Bronx for the first time, Duggan stayed behind, to get their outfits ready for their white house performance.

DUGGAN: This is a lifelong lesson, what they learn on this is going to go with them for the rest of their lives. The one thing is never give up on a dream.


SNOW: Another invite to the white house is the highlight of their dancing days. This group has already traveled to Ireland two times already.

BLITZER: Very impressive. Thank you.

Tomorrow in THE SITUATION ROOM, I'll sit down with the newest member of the U.S. Senate, the man who brought the Democrats down in Massachusetts, Republican Senator Scott Brown. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Up next, Campbell Brown.