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Health Care Reform Debate; Obama and Congress' Ratings; High Energy on Health Care; Countdown to the Big Day

Aired March 19, 2010 - 19:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, President Obama tries to light a fire under Democrats still on the fence about health care reform, this hour, the countdown to the weekend vote, the super high stakes, and the last-meant declarations of support.

Don't hold your breath for your income tax refund. Some cash- poor states are planning to keep your money as long as they can. Stand by to see if you'll feel the pinch.

And if you build it, tourists will come. How world-class golf courses put Alabama on the map.

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

The number three Democrat in the House says his party now has the big mo, as the clock ticks toward a make or break vote in the House on Sunday. Right now, the president is front and center, trying to lead his team to victory. But like that other March madness, anything can still happen. Just ask those surprise first-round losers from Georgetown.


BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Right now, we are at the point where we are going to do something historic this weekend. That's what this health care vote is all about.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Yes, we can. Yes, we can. Yes, we can. Yes, we can. Yes, we can. Yes, we can.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), MINORITY LEADER: But this vote isn't about saving a presidency or saving a politician. This is about doing the right thing for the American people. And so, Americans are jamming the phone lines here on Capitol Hill. They're screaming at the top of their lungs to say, stop, just stop! Republicans are listening and we're standing with them.


BLITZER: Take a look at these faces. These are the House Democrats who could decide the fate of health care reform, one way or another. By CNN's count, more than 30 of them are on the fence, so, or are refusing to say which way they'll vote. Let's bring in our senior congressional correspondent Dana Bash. She's been looking at this story for us. Lots of tough votes, especially for those Democrats who are vulnerable come November, Dana.

DANA BASH, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, many of them who are vulnerable and especially for the freshmen. Freshmen of course gave the House Democrats their very, very large majority here in the House and many of them won Republican districts. And so this vote really is -- it has on the line for them nothing short potentially of their job. So we talked to several of them today, including Mary Jo Kilroy. And guess what, we just got a release from her. She is voting yes on health care reform and some of those we talked to today, they are, too.



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Good morning, Congresswoman Kilroy's office. OK, well I can definitely pass the message along to the congresswoman for you. And could I just get your name and address, please?

BASH: You're a new member of Congress, you're from a -- you're from the swing district and the swing state.


BASH: There's a lot of pressure on you politically, and you could lose your seat over that.

REP. MARY JO KILROY (D), OHIO: When I campaigned for my seat I said that I was going to work for jobs for our community. That I was going to help to work to improve our economy, that I understood the many people who are just a pink slip away from losing their health insurance.

BASH: Tom Perriello is another freshman Democrat who voted for the health care bill in November, and got pounded for it in his conservative Virginia district. Still, on a conference call here, he said he would vote yes again.

REP. TOM PERRIELLO (D), VIRGINIA: I think at the end of the day this is vital for the working families of our district, for the hospitals and clinics of our district, for the doctors and nurses of our district.

BASH: Freshman Democrat John Boccieri is from a Republican- leaning district in Ohio who voted no on health care in November but revealed he's switching to yes.

REP. JOHN BOCCIERI (D), OHIO: A lot of people are telling me this decision could cost me my job. The pressure I felt was back in the district, from the families who have called me and who have written to me, who have told me that they want me to be with them and not the insurance companies. BASH (voice-over): How much angst do these freshmen Democrats have? We asked Dina Titus who barely won her seat and already has an uphill battle to get re-elected.

(on camera): How much pressure are you feeling back home? You're in a -- you're one of those Democrats who is in a pretty tough position --

REP. DINA TITUS (D), NEVADA: We're getting lots of phone calls and there's about $1 million worth of TV ads running against it.

BASH: Are you worried about losing your seat?

TITUS: I think there are more important things than my reelection and the health of the people in this country would certainly be one of those.


BASH: Now Titus also announced after we spoke to her that she is going to vote yes as well. Again, that's four freshmen Democrats we talked to today, started the day, some of them, undecided and ended up voting yes. But not every vulnerable Democrat, Wolf, freshman or otherwise is breaking for the Democratic leadership or the president.

Jason Altmire, he voted no for the House health care bill in November. He very publicly entertained the idea of voting yes. He just released a statement saying, sorry, he's still going to be a no. And there are plenty of other Democrats who are endangered this election year who have not said they are undeclared, and they are also not that eager to talk to the press, as they ponder their decision.

BLITZER: And Bart Stupak, the Democrat from Michigan, who voted yes the last time, he says he's still going to vote no this time because of the abortion language the Senate used -- the Senate used?

BASH: Exactly. He is still saying that because he does not believe that the abortion language in the Senate bill, which he is going to be asked to vote on and is not being changed he believes it does not go far enough in making sure that taxpayer funding for abortion is not allowed. He says he will vote no and frankly, some of the other Democrats, especially the freshmen who are on the bubble who have not declared, abortion for them is a big, big issue.

BLITZER: All right Dana, stand by. We'll get more on this story. We're also standing by more for more on how President Obama is campaigning for every health care vote before D-Day on Sunday. That includes phone calls to Democrats who are undeclared or wavering. But some lawmakers aren't willing to be lobbied, even by the commander in chief.

Take a look at this. One congressman, Henry Cuellar of Texas says he received a phone call from the White House but so far Congressman Cuellar hasn't returned that phone call. He says he'll only talk to the president, only talk to the president, if he has to. But he's still obviously not ready to make a commitment. The president, by the way, will be heading up to Capitol Hill tomorrow in mid afternoon to meet with all of the House Democrats to try to solidify their support. Remember, they need 216 votes in the House of Representatives on Sunday. If they don't have 216 votes, this will go down. Some Democrats have come forward today to declare which way they'll vote.

You heard Dana report that, but the head count still remains fluent -- fluid right now. We're joined by a key player in all of this, Congressman Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, who's chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, one of the leaders on the Democratic side. Congressman, thanks very much for coming in.

REP. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (D), MARYLAND: Good to be with you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Let me just -- I'm still a little confused about what's going to happen after 2:00 p.m. on Sunday afternoon. Will there be one vote or two votes?

VAN HOLLEN: Well, there will be two votes after -- at that point in time. One vote would be to pass essentially the Senate bill with the understanding that it will be modified, in other words, the issue you've been hearing a lot about, and then you have the reconciliation bill, the amendments. The first vote is to make sure we pass the Senate bill with the understanding that it will only come out of the House if the amendments to it are also adopted --

BLITZER: So we're basically talking what's called the deem-and- pass. That's going to be the first vote, is that what you're saying?

VAN HOLLEN: Well I wouldn't call it deem-and-pass. There's been a lot of misinformation about this. What it is essentially is it says that the Senate bill will come out of the House but only, only, if it's been modified. You know just as if you're going to buy a house and you sign a contract, but you also have a provision right there in the contract that says you're not going to go through with it unless it passes an inspection. We're not --

BLITZER: Explain -- Congressman, explain to our viewers why not simply have two votes, you're going to have two votes anyhow, one passing the Senate version as passed by the Senate Christmas Eve, then a second immediate vote right afterwards on the so-called fixes, or the amendments to that Senate legislation? Why not do it in a relatively clean way like that?

VAN HOLLEN: Well, this is a clean way. In fact, it's a process that's been used since the 1930s. It's a process that our Republican colleagues used as recently as 2006 as part of a reconciliation bill, because what the other side's trying to do is create the false impression that the bill, the product that is passing out of the House is the Senate bill by itself. And that just is not true.

And that's why we're saying, we're going to pass the Senate bill as modified. And there are lots of changes to the Senate bill. And the other side wants to do nothing better than to try and suggest that you're not going to get rid of the Nebraska deal, which we are. That we're not going to get rid of some of the other deals the Senate put out but we are going to get rid of them. And that's just -- that's just an attempt to create a false impression. So we're going to get the package through. And I'm confident that the momentum is building in the right direction.

BLITZER: All right, so that will be two votes, one sort of stapling together these two pieces of legislation and then a second vote on the amendments, the fixes. Let's talk about some of those modifications. You mentioned Ben Nelson and Nebraska, the cornhusker kickback as it's called. That's been removed, is that right?

VAN HOLLEN: Yes, it has.

BLITZER: All right, now what about Mary Landrieu and the Louisiana Purchase? Has that been removed?

VAN HOLLEN: My understanding on that provision is it's drafted in a way to make sure that any state, any state that experiences a kind of natural disaster like Katrina and therefore as a result of that natural disaster, which would lose some of the Medicaid benefits that any state in that situation would be able to qualify and so it would apply generally to any state that suffered that kind of natural disaster.

BLITZER: But right now --


BLITZER: Right now only Louisiana qualifies?

VAN HOLLEN: Well, but that's because Louisiana took a huge hit in terms of the federal share of Medicaid as a result of Hurricane Katrina. And what this provision says is if another state experiences that kind of hit, they will also benefit from essentially restoring the Medicaid support that the federal government had provided before a natural disaster.

BLITZER: What about for Florida, the 800,000 seniors that are supposed to get this privileged Medicare Plus benefit, is that staying in?

VAN HOLLEN: That is not staying in. There is a provision that had a special benefit under Medicare Advantage for Florida, I believe also for New York, and that special provision that applied to those two states is not in.

BLITZER: What about the $100 million hospital for Connecticut?

VAN HOLLEN: My understanding is that is now a grant program, in other words, you will have a competitive grant, so it is not fixed on Connecticut alone.

BLITZER: A lot of Democrats in the House, and you know them much better than I do obviously they're really worried that they can't trust their Democratic colleagues in the Senate. Do you have a letter from 51 Democratic senators promising them if they make this tough vote and pass this legislation, the Senate will follow suit?

VAN HOLLEN: Well we don't have it in hand yet, Wolf, but you're absolutely right. From our perspective, it's trust but verify. And we want something in the form of a letter with 51 senators signing it or having 51 senators co-sponsoring the budget reconciliation bill, the amendments that we're all adopting, as a condition of moving forward because we do want those assurances.

Look, we talked a lot about these special provisions that have been added in the Senate. One of the lessons that's clearly been learned, I hope, and one of the lessons that the House has transmitted to the Senate is enough of the deal making. We want to adopt a bill that has important general rules that apply across the board. And then that's what we're doing --

BLITZER: All right -- I just want to be precise -- without that letter you're not going to vote on Sunday, is that right?

VAN HOLLEN: Without some very concrete form of assurance from the senators, it could be in the form of a letter or maybe they'll put their names as co-sponsors on the reconciliation package on the amendments, some very concrete form of assurance, without that, House members will not feel confident moving forward.

BLITZER: We're out of time, but are you -- what -- about a half a dozen votes shy still? Is that the number?

VAN HOLLEN: We don't have any particular number on it. Just say -- let's just say it's moving in the right direction.

BLITZER: Congressman Van Hollen thanks very much for joining us.

VAN HOLLEN: It's good to be with you.

BLITZER: Chris Van Hollen is one of the leaders of the Democrats in the House. And stay with CNN Sunday for full coverage of the health care vote and what happens next. I'll be here. I'll be anchoring our coverage together with the best political team on television. We'll have coverage on Sunday, live. This is going to be historic and we'll be here to cover it.

Jack Cafferty is standing by with "The Cafferty File", plus the president's 2010 campaign. How far is he willing to go to make health care reform a reality?

And states that are making tough choices in these hard, economic times. But with tax day approaching some states are making choices that could deprive you of some cold, hard cash.


BLITZER: Let's get right to Jack Cafferty for "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: On the eve of that historic vote Sunday on health care reform, the American people are pretty much fed up with Washington. A new Gallup poll shows President Obama with the worst job approval rating of his presidency, 46 percent approve of what he's doing, 48 percent disapprove. Congress, well, Americans think even less of them. Only 16 percent approve, that's close to an all-time low.

Eighty percent of Americans disapprove of the job Congress is doing. There are more signs that incumbents better watch their backs come November. I love this. A "Wall Street Journal"/NBC News poll asks if there was a line on the ballot that would let you vote out every single member of Congress, including your own representative would you do it. Half of the people surveyed said yes.

As the piece in "The Journal" suggests, quote, "Congress always looks worse when it's in the middle of making the sausage known as legislation. By contrast lawmakers usually look better when the sausage is finished, packaged and displayed on the store shelf", unquote. What is unclear is whether the American people will look more favorably on the president and Congress, if, and it's still a big if, if they can make the sausage, also known as health care reform.

Democratic Congressman Tom Perriello of Virginia summed up the way a lot of people feel about our lawmakers when he said this. Quote, "If you don't tie our hands we will keep stealing", unquote. He was talking about how the only way for Congress to be fiscally responsible is to give them no choice. So here's the question. What does it say that on the eve of the health care vote, President Obama's approval rating in one poll is the lowest of his presidency and Congress' approval rating is nearing an all-time low? Go to and post a comment on my blog.

BLITZER: Jack Cafferty, thank you.

Check out President Obama's high energy pitch for health care reform in Northern Virginia earlier today, these the final critical days before Sunday's big vote. He's trying to prove he has plenty of fight in him but he bristles when anyone compares his health care showdown to a game.


OBAMA: A lot of reporting in Washington, it's just like sports center. You know, it's considered a sport. And who's up and who's down and everybody's keeping score, and you've got the teams going at it, it's rock 'em, sock 'em robots, you know.


BLITZER: On his way to that event in Virginia, by the way, the president didn't waste any time lobbying. He needed to lobby and he did. This photo, by the way, shows him on the phone with an undisclosed member of Congress trying to get that critical vote.

Let's go to our senior White House correspondent, Ed Henry. Ed, we saw a lot of energy from the president today. Tell us what he's planning to do tomorrow and Sunday. ED HENRY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, he's going to have a little bit more energy, I think, on the Hill tomorrow, 3:00 p.m. Eastern. He's going to go behind closed doors with House Democrats try to build some momentum before that final vote on Sunday. But what's interesting, two things. On Sunday, he's not playing a high energy rally. No sort of pep rally here at the White House, if the House passes this.

I'm told by top aides that the president has been telling his staff he doesn't want to sort of count the chickens because he realizes that the Senate still has to finish this, even if the House passes it on Sunday -- number one. And number two, I'm told that tomorrow on the Hill, when the president heads up there to talk to House Democrats, he's also inviting one key senator, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

In fact, the White House had him cancel a fund-raiser that was scheduled in Florida on Saturday. Why do they want him there? I'm told it's not so subtle pressure from here at this end of Pennsylvania Avenue to show Senator Reid, look, these House Democrats, as you just heard from Chris Van Hollen, are countering on you to finish this. You have to give them your word, whether it's in the form of a letter, a signed letter or whether it's just look them in the eye and saying, look, once you do this on Sunday, the Senate will follow up next week. A lot of mistrust between House and Senate Democrats, it's really critical that the White House is making sure Senator Reid is there as well tomorrow -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, we'll all be working hard over the next several days. Thanks very much, Ed Henry.

If you're traveling this weekend, by the way, you need to hear this, especially if you're flying British Airways. You can pack some extra patience. You could be grounded for a while.


BLITZER: Jessica Yellin is monitoring some of the other top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM right now. Jessica, what's go on?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hey Wolf, a federal judge in New York is rejecting a proposed legal settlement for workers who were sickened by ash and dust from the World Trade Center collapse. The judge said that in the settlement lawyers' fees would eat up too much of the money and would not give enough to the 10,000 victims. The proposed settlement was worth up to $657 million with at least a third expected to go to lawyers.

The deal also gave the plaintiffs 90 days to accept or reject it. The judge said that was just too short a time to decide. Well if you're booked to fly on British Airways, brace yourself for a strike. Many cabin crew members will walk off the job this weekend over working conditions. Talks between their union and the airline have fallen apart so union members intend to strike for three days starting just a few hours from now and then again next weekend. British Airways plans to try to minimize those effects which include rebooking passengers on other carriers.

Federal safety investigators say when this gray Toyota Prius crashed in suburban New York City last week, the driver was not actually pressing down on the brake. And that's contrary to what the driver had said. The announcement prompted an angry response from police who say their investigation is ongoing and that driver error had not yet been established.

Listen to this one, Wolf, "Forbes" magazine says he is the third richest man in the world. But Warren Buffett is now singing for his supper, sort of. Geico, a subsidiary of Buffett's company Berkshire Hathaway and a major insurance company has cast its company chairman in a music video. Watch.




YELLIN: That's amazing. He's looking a little more Axel Rose than oracle of Omaha with that bandanna and hair, but Wolf we're told that that's really Warren Buffett's voice. He's really singing, no lip syncing happening in this video.

BLITZER: He looks good.

YELLIN: It's pretty funny.


YELLIN: Have you ever had to sing on TV?



BLITZER: You don't want to hear me sing --


BLITZER: Definitely not. Thanks.

If you filed your tax returns early, don't necessarily get all excited about a speedy refund. We're investigating the choices states are now making to keep their budgets from drowning in red ink and you might suffer.

After a very public spat between Israel and the U.S., tensions cooling down. Did either side blink? Paul Begala and John Feehery, they're standing by for our "Strategy Session".


BLITZER: To our viewers here in THE SITUATION ROOM, happening now, states feel the weight of a slow economy and make some tough decisions. If you're due for a tax refund, you may have to wait and wait.

The White House could be close to an agreement with senators to close the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center and begin military trials for its residents -- why a deal could be a blow to the Obama administration. What's going on?

And he took a pension fund that was struggling and turned it into a gold mine for the state of Alabama, building up America with the lure of the links.

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

Here in THE SITUATION ROOM we're counting down to the big day. Yes, we know there's a high-stakes health care vote on Sunday, but on Monday "JOHN KING, USA" joins the CNN lineup to cover this very important story and a lot of other stories, as well. John is here, fresh from his online preview of his show today, which I watched, which was very good.


BLITZER: Let's discuss later. But let's a little bit talk about the big drama, the health care drama, that's playing out. It's playing out in some key districts right now.

KING: It is. It is a crackling emotional debate here in Washington, Wolf, and that is represented also when you get out in the country and go to these key districts and it is a fascinating story. Take, for example, John Boccieri, he is a House member, a Democrat, he is vulnerable. His district is in the Canton, Ohio area, the farmlands around it, severely punishing manufacturing job losses in recent years. He is very vulnerable, yet today here in Washington he decided ultimately to vote yes. Now, that will endanger him come November. So, I want to show you some video. Our producer Laura Bernadine, who was out in the district. This is a Service Employees International Union rally organized by health care supporters. And if you watch closely, you will see among these signs urging him to vote yes, there's one that says, John, we've got your back. And that's a key question, Wolf. Can the labor movement, the intensity right now is on the right, the conservatives, opponents of health care, can the labor movement and other Democratic allies muster the energy to raise the money, turn out troops and build a grassroots organization to help John Boccieri? So, this is a glimpse of his district, today, a fascinating dynamic to watch between now and November.

BLITZER: It's not just his district; the whole state of Ohio is a key test right now.

KING: You could camp out in Ohio between now and November and learn everything you need to know about the health care debate, the economy debate. Let's stick on health care right now and let's move down to Cincinnati.

Steve Chabot is the former Republican congressman in that district, he's running again. The freshman Democrat is a man named Steve Driehaus. He's running in that district again and has had Republican representation before he came in the 2008 sweep. He is up now. Watch this scene at this office. I'll pause just for a second so you can hear the noise. The phones have been ringing off the hook for days.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Congressman Steve Driehaus's office, this is (INAUDIBLE).

KING: Now, this has been playing out hour after hour, and day after day. His state director says it's about 50/50, a lot of advertisements on the air in Cincinnati. And so, not only do you have all these phone calls coming in, but in the Cincinnati district, the Congressman Driehaus faces a very tough critic in a very prominent conservative radio host Bill Cunningham. Let's listen.


BILL CUNNINGHAM, CONSERVATIVE RADIO HOST: Steve Driehaus, have you been told politically that, if you vote yes on this bill that you're a dead man walking?

REP STEVE DRIEHAUS (D), OHIO: No, no, not at all. I mean I hear different things from different folks. I'm getting half of the people calling the office saying they absolutely want me to vote for the bill, half of the people saying absolutely not.


KING: Driehaus, for the record, says as of now, Wolf, he's voting no. He's one of the antiabortion Democrats who don't like the language in the Senate bill. They think it is less restrictive then the House bill the originally passed. So, we'll watch Congressman Driehaus to see if he stays in the no column. He is today. That little glimpse, right there, another shot of the grassroots activity.

Talk radio, very important in the -- especially influential in that district. Again, a big debate here in Washington. We'll watch the debate and the votes over the weekend, but then we need to watch in all of these districts with these vulnerable Democrats between now and November.

BLITZER: And the fallout will be intense. You'll be covering it. I'll be covering it. You all set for the launch of JOHN KING USA Monday night?

KING: We're very excited. A great story, a great political environment to do it in. as you mentioned, we had a great test online, today. Good reaction from the community. It's a ton of fun and as you know, there's so many stories to cover right now. We'll have some energy and some fun doing it.

BLITZER: Good luck, we'll be watching.

KING: Thank you.

BLITZER: John King's new show, JOHN KING USA premieres Monday night 7:00 p.m. Eastern, right here on CNN. States feeling the pinch of a slow economy are being forced right now into some major, tough decisions. New York State, for instance, hanging on to tax refund money as long as they possibly can. Let's go to New York, CNN's Mary Snow is watching all of this unfold.

How long can these states hold on to taxpayers money -- Mary.

MARY SNOW, CNN NEWS CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, Wolf it really depends. Here in New York, for some New Yorkers, it's going to mean weeks for these refunds. In at least one state refunds are being delayed for months.


(voice-over): Jeffrey Wolf says, he was surprised to learn New York State was delaying sending out tax refunds for some hundreds of thousands of people who filed their taxes early. And he's hearing complaints from clients.

JEFFREY WOLF, GAF FINANCIAL: Yes, it is only a couple of weeks but, as you can imagine, these days people live pay collect to paycheck and they're sort of counting on the money coming in immediately.

SNOW: New York facing a $9 billion budget deficit. State is delaying some refunds until April 1 to ensure it has enough cash on hand. And it's not alone. Hawaii won't send out tax refunds until July 1. North Carolina says, on its Web site, that the state continues to feel effects of the slow economy and is managing refunds on a week-to-week basis.

John Shure is with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

JOHN SHURE, CTR ON BUDGET AND POLICY PRIORITIES: This is one more symptom of the terrible toll the recession is taking on states. State revenue has collapses over the last year or so. We've never seen a drop in state revenues like we've seen now really since the Great Depression.

SNOW: With states strapped for cash, they're turning to cuts and other measures to save money. California is looking to increase the cost of college by 32 percent. Arizona is reportedly dropping its children's health insurance program, and facing a shortfall of more than $2 billion. And some states are releasing nonviolent prisoners early. Kentucky is considering releasing thousands of prisoners in a move to save millions.

And even though the overall economy may be improving, Brian Sigritz from the National Association of Budget Officers says states won't see much improvement until more people get jobs.

BRIAN SIGRITZ, NATL ASSN OF BUDGET OFFICERS: Basically, we need to increase job hiring to lead to more personal income tax and when more people are hired they're going to spend more money and that will increase sales tax revenue. So, until there's more job hiring you're really not going to see much of an increase in state revenues. (END VIDEOTAPE)

SNOW: And he expects that to happen in two to three years. Now, some of the experts we spoke with say expect some states to be slower than usual in getting out tax refunds and that's because of the fact that states have been cutting back workers, putting some workers on furlough, and the process may be slower this year -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Obviously. Thanks very much, Mary Snow, for that. All right, here at CNN we're looking at creative ways to build up America, but we wound up on the golf course. What's going on? Just ahead, the link between the game, the profits, and the struggling states.


BLITZER: The strength of retirement funds lies in the strength of their investments. For a series "Building up America" CNN's Tom Foreman traveled to Alabama to learn how one man's vision took the state's pension fund out of the box and on to the links.


TOM FOREMAN, CNN NEWS CORRESPONDENT: Hey wolf, I'm here in the biggest city in Alabama, Birmingham. A lovely place to be and especially lovely if you are a golfer because it is a stop on the Alabama golf trail. This is a unique vision by one man here who had an idea about how he could build up Alabama that has really worked.

(voice-over): Back in the late '80s, when the pension fund for Alabama state employees was small and struggling, the head of the retirement systems teed up an idea about golf. And this is where he works today, one of the most stunning state office buildings you'll ever see where David Bronner sits on an empire of pension money.

DAVID BRONNER, RETIREMENT SYSTEMS OF ALABAMA: Well, you got to keep in mind that if you're near the bottom, you're not going to get out of the bottom unless you do something different, or as I tell the people of Alabama, you have to take risks.

FOREMAN: Here's how it happened: frustrated by tourists just passing through on the way to Florida, Bronner commissioned famed golf course architect Robert Trent Jones to design more than 20 courses all over Alabama to attract tourists and business people.

BRONNER: And my theory there was, can I divert you, can I stop you, can I hold you over?

FORMAN (on camera): And you knew if you could hold those people over, they would leave money in Alabama.

BRONNER: Absolutely. Big money.

FORMAN (voice-over): It worked. Before the golf trail annual tourism under $2 billion. Now is it pushing ten And he's renamed Montgomery's skyline. The new construction and all those buildings with green tops, all built with retirement systems cash. BRONNER: And people think it was the color of money but it has nothing to do with that.

FORMAN: He has invested Alabama's retirement funds in world- class hotels, spas, media, even a landmark office building in New York City.

BRONNER: And I guess what I was trying to do was to pick things that they could be proud of because they're wonderful people in Alabama. They're hard working people.

FORMAN (on camera): This doesn't look like any government building that I've seen pretty much anywhere.

(voice-over): And the pension fund success has helped draw more businesses and investors willing to consider Alabama as a home.

BRONNER: What we'll try to do is have something that would take the potential of a state instead of talking about potential, turn it into a reality.

FORMAN: And that has really put Alabama on the map.

(on camera): This simply does not do justice to the huge impact of David Bronner's investments in this state, but let's put it this way, when he started out, the pension fund was creeping along, like we said. Today it's worth billions and billions of dollars -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Pretty successful story. Tom Foreman, thank you.

It was one of President Obama's key promises, to close Guantanamo Bay Naval Base Detention Center. What if, what if he gets his wish at the cost of shifting a key security policy?

And the U.S. and Israel talking about talking, once again, after a rift of renewed construction. Did somebody blink, here?


BLITZER: A couple what ifs in today's "Strategy Session." Joining me now are Democratic strategist and CNN political contributor, Paul Begala; and John Feehry, he's a Republican strategist, former spokesman for the house speaker, Dennis Hastert.

Guys, thanks very much for coming in. You know the prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, will be here in Washington early next week, he's got an address he's going to deliver before APAC the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee. There's no meeting yet scheduled between the prime minister of Israel and the president of the United States, who was supposed to be in Indonesia, but he's staying here. Is they're going to be such a meeting you think?

PAUL BEGALA, DEMOCRATIC STRATIGIST: I don't know. I always think it's a good idea for allies to talk. I even think it's a good idea for adversaries to talk, so certainly I think we should be talking to our closest ally in the region, if they can make both the diplomacy and the scheduling work. But this has been a really tough time in the American/Israel relationship. But, you know, Tip O'Neill said, that all politics is local. And when Benjamin Netanyahu was prime minister in '90s many observers are think he lost his job because he did not retain a close enough relationship with the Americans. Same thing American, though.

We're the most pro-Israel country, both parties are, in the whole world. I'm happy to say it's a strong bipartisan point of agreement. All Americans statistically, huge majorities, support Israel. So the Obama administration cannot afford politically to be seen as anti- Israel, nor do I think they want to be strategically. So yes, they have to kiss and make up.



BLITZER: He's going to meet the secretary of state, probably meet with the vice president, but it would be a snub, I suspect, do you think, if the president doesn't invite him over.

FEEHERY: I don't like to agree with Paul, it makes me nervous, but they should kiss and make up. I mean, it's bad politics for the president and it's bad politics for Bibi if they don't do that. I think that this got unnecessarily tense, so probably some miscommunication. I think that the secretary of state delivered a very stern message. I think that, you know, we don't -- to get the peace process continuing to move forward and to have good relations with the president and good politics for the president, they ought to kiss and make up.

BLITZER: Let's do another what if. What if the president of the United States decides to reach a deal with not only Democrat, but Republicans, as far as closing Guantanamo Bay? Let me read to you from today's front page of the "Wall Street Journal."

"The White House is nearing a deal with a bipartisan group of senators to close the Guantanamo Bay prison and pave the way for more detainees to be tried before military commissions, a move that would reverse a signature Obama administration security policy."

You think that's going to happen?

BEGALA: And a move that would keep a more important, certainly more public promise. I can't remember an applause line where Barack Obama, maybe he did, but I can't remember the applause line being: and I'll try terrorists in article III courts instead of article I courts. Right? He said I'll close down Guantanamo. Americans like that. I think it helps us strategically around the world and that's the more important promise. So, this is a good deal, Mr. President. I think he ought to take it and then finally, maybe Democrats...

BLITZER: Try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the other masterminds of 9/11 before a military commission as opposed to a civilian trial.

BEGALA: I think if that's the deal, it's a deal worth making and what we're learning from newspaper stories this week is that the Predator drone, that's a different kind of trial, that's a hell fire missile, that's killing them where we live, rather than living where they kill, which is what we're doing when we occupy these big countries. I mean, I think what President Obama is trying to do is slowly move America away from occupying huge countries and toward taking fight to al Qaeda. He has used more lethal force against al Qaeda wherever they are than President Bush ever did with the Predator drones. He's taken out it 12 of the top 20. That's the fight we need.

BLITZER: That is a deal Republicans are going to like?

FEEHERY: I don't know about that. I think Paul's once again right. The president should take any bipartisan deal he can get his hands on with Lindsay Graham, because this takes an issue off the table which that issue has not been playing that well for the president politically.

If you look at the polls, he's kind of sink down a little bit when it comes to national security. You know, he promised to close Guantanamo Bay and then he hasn't and the Republicans have kind of been laying some good fire on him on this issue of national security and where you try these guys. And I think the fact of the matter is, if he can get a deal with Lindsay Graham and other Republicans that's a good deal for the President to have. I don't think it's necessarily a good deal for the Republicans.

BLITZER: Very quickly, we're out of time. Health care passes on Sunday or not?

FEEHERY: You know, that's a tough question. I think right now they're between six and 12 down, those are the toughest to get. And my guess is, my instinct is they get it, I hope they don't, but I think they will.

BLITZER: What do you think?

BEGALA: Yes. I'll be at Sunday mass at St. Luke's praying for it, maybe even to St. Jude, the patron saint for lost causes, but no, it's not a lost cause, they'll get -- Nancy Pelosi will deliver her caucus.

BLITZER: And then we'll see what happens in the Senate.

BEGALA: That's right.

FEEHERY: Nothing will happen in the senate.

BLITZER: That'll be another night. Guys, thanks very much.

What does it say that on the eve of the health care vote, President Obama's approval rating in one poll is the lowest ever for him and Congress' approval rating nearing an all-time low? That's Jack Cafferty's question of the hour. What do you think? Jack will read your e-mail when we come back.

And making good on a bet: President Obama pays up in beer to Canada's prime minister.


BLITZER: Get right back to Jack for the "Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN NEWS ANCHOR: Question this hour is: What does it say that on the eve of this health care vote, President Obama's approval rating in one major poll, Gallup, is the lowest of his presidency, and Congress's approval rating is nearing an all-time low, 16 percent think they're doing a good job.

Dave writes, "Simple, Jack, nobody likes how they're going about this business. It is the exact thing Obama said he was against and would not do if he were elected. They ought to listen to the people, stop thinking they know what's best for us and work on a true bipartisan bill for reform that isn't so one-sided. I am scared to death."

C. in Louisiana, "Polls, polls, polls. I haven't been polled. I haven't change my mind about this president or health care. I believe it's the right thing to do. We can't begin to address our deficit until we do something about ballooning health care costs. I also voted for Obama, and I am not sorry. I still support the platform he ran and was elected on." California, "Thirty million uninsured represents a tenth of the population. The bigger issue facing 90 percent of the population is the escalating cost of health care, which this bill does nothing to address."

David in Florida, "Health care reform is no longer about We the People. Democrats and Republicans are at war now with each other. The people have been locked out of this battle, but we will be required to clean up the mess."

Tim in Ohio, "I think the public is afraid of a bill that is so blatantly free of bipartisanship. The fact that the Democratic Party is going to force it through anyway screams of arrogance. It more or less sends the message that we are the message we are right regardless of what anything thinks. That type of attitude, generally, is not well received. When Obama was elected, I truly believed he'd be a two-term president. Now I'm certain that he'll be remove after four years."

And Duane in Florida writes, "We don't want this bill to become law, and no one is listening. Not Obama, and not the Congress. Hurry up, November."

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

BLITZER: Thanks, Jack. Standby, we're going get right back to you. This weekend's vote, by the way, in the House of Representatives isn't the end the line for health care reform. But if it eventually passes, the story still won't be over. Some states are already gearing for legal challenges to the bill. We're going to tell you where.

And a gentleman's wager fulfilled. A Canada's prime minister gets his Olympic winnings from President Obama.


BLITZER: Here is a look at some of the "Hotshots" coming in from our friends at the "Associated Press," pictures likely to be in your newspapers tomorrow.

In Colombia, Chile's men's cycling team pedals towards the finish line at the South American games. Chile ended up winning the silver medal.

In Taiwan, colorfully dressed dancers rehearsed for a performance celebrating the life of the Chinese philosopher, Confucius.

In Afghanistan, a boy carries two brightly colored kites to sell at a market.

And in Germany, look at this. A baby elephant and his mother share a bonding moment at a Berlin zoo. "Hotshots," pictures worth a thousand words.

On our political ticker, get ready for lawsuits if and when health care reform is passed. The Republican state attorneys general of South Carolina and Florida say they're ready to challenge the constitutionality of the legislation. They say they'll target a provision mandating all Americans buy health insurance as well as the so-called cornhusker kickback Medicare exemption for Nebraska if that remains in the bill, although it's supposedly out.

Advocates of immigration reform are planning another rally, but they may wish they had chosen a different day for their big march in Washington. Thousands of people are expected to take part in the rally on Sunday. The problem for them, though, the president and the Congress will be focused on health care reform. That vote expected in the House, Sunday afternoon.

This one is for the prime minister of Canada. Take a look at this. Stephen Harper got a special delivery of beer today courtesy of the president of the United States. Mr. Obama was paying off their bet on the men's gold medal hockey game in the Vancouver Olympics. As you probably remember, Canada won with a dramatic goal in overtime. To show there is no hard feelings, President Obama not only delivered the beer, he promised, but threw in some American beer as well.

Please be sure to join us for our Saturday edition of THE SITUATION ROOM at 6:00 p.m. Eastern. We'll talk about the pending health care reform vote with Republican Senator Scott Brown and filmmaker Michael Moore. And I'll be here Sunday afternoon for live coverage of that high-stakes vote. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. Up next, CAMPBELL BROWN.