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JOHN KING, USA

Rescuers Drilling to Reach Miners; New Strategy for U.S. Nukes; Karzai Still Coming?

Aired April 6, 2010 - 19:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Thank you, Wolf.

And we begin with breaking news.

A tsunami watch in effect for Indonesia after a magnitude 7.8 earthquake offshore. The quake hit at about 5:15 Wednesday morning local time. That's about 45 minutes ago. It was centered about 145 miles off the coast of northern Sumatra, at a depth of about almost 29 miles.

Officials at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center tells CNN, a destructive widespread tsunami is not expected. Emphasis on "not expected." But, of course, everyone is keeping watch. We'll have updates throughout this hour as developments warrant.

Mining coal is a dirty, dangerous job. And whatever your views on energy and environmental policy, we owe the brave men and women who do it for a living. Tonight, we owe some more than others.

Raleigh County, West Virginia, is mourning 25 members of its family and still praying tonight probably against the odds that four more miners still somehow unaccounted for escaped a horrific explosion, found shelter, and can hold on until it is safe for rescue teams to go back in.

More on the timeline for that search in a moment and we'll also try to give you a sense tonight of what it's like to work deep inside a mountain.

We also want you to know more about where this happened. Twenty percent of Raleigh County lives in poverty. That's well above the national average. Only 13 percent of county residents have finished four years or more of college. That's well below the national average.

The average annual pay in Raleigh County is just over $35,000 a year. Working in the coal mine -- and this is important -- can pay twice that. So, while it is a hard life, mining is a proud way of life in Raleigh County and other coal communities. These places are defined by their rolling hills, their winding roads, by the railways carved out of the rocks, and by tiny churches that often have words of wisdom for those passing by.

Those churches are filled with prayers tonight. Those of us who benefit from that way of life, every time we toggle a light switch or turn on the TV, should find a minute to offer one of our own.

The urgent effort to get rescue teams back into the Massey Energy Company mine tops our effort to keep you ahead of the breaking and developing stories. President Obama says the federal government stands ready to help the rescue effort if needed, and he let a moment of reflection at a White House prayer breakfast this morning.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: To pray for the safe return of the missing, the men and women who have put their lives on the line to save them and the souls of those who have been lost in this tragic accident. May they rest in peace and may their families find comfort in the hard days ahead.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: At this hour, the first challenge is to drill a 1,200-foot hole into the mine, to let dangerous methane and other dangerous gases escape. Only then will it be safe for rescue teams to head back in.

CNN's Ed Lavandera tonight is in West Virginia covering the tragedy and brings us the latest -- Ed.

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good evening, John.

And that process to start drilling those holes into this mountain and recover the bodies that are still inside has begun. There will be four holes drilled 1,200 feet. And that is a process that will take quite some time -- at least 48 hours, we're told at this point. And over the next couple of days, crews will be working up on that mountain to drill those holes.

Part of the process includes releasing the dangerous gases and everything that is trapped inside so that workers can get inside and do their work. They will also drop listening devices through those holes to get a sense and perhaps tap into that small shred of hope that perhaps someone inside still might have figured out a way to survive this terrible explosion -- which by all accounts has been described as a very intense explosion.

And there's not a lot of belief here that everybody was able to survive that blast. But as officials here throughout the day have been pointing out, they are holding on to that shred of hope that perhaps some of the people inside might have survived.

In all, 25 people were killed. There are still 14 people that are confirmed dead. But those bodies are still inside the mine, and there are four people still unaccounted for in all. So, the search continues for those 18 people -- John.

KING: Ed, thanks for that. If anything warrants, come back to see us later in the area. Ed Lavandera on the scene for us.

The Obama White House today announced a major shift away from nuclear policies that have been in place since the Cold War. Under the new approach, the United States will swear off the development of new nuclear weapons. And for the first time, the United States would promise not to use nuclear weapons in response to nonnuclear attacks.

Some conservatives accuse the administration of surrendering leverage it needs in its dealing with countries like Iran and North Korea. But Defense Secretary Roberts Gates, a holdover from the Bush administration, says the new policy allows more than enough flexibility.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERT GATES, DEFENSE SECRETARY: If there is a message for Iran and North Korea here, it is that, if you're going to play by the rules, if you're going to join the international community, then we will undertake certain obligations to you. And then that's covered in the NPR. But if you're not going to play by the rules, if you're going to be a proliferator, then all options are on the table in terms of how we deal with you.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr has more on the sensitive and controversial policy shift -- Barbara.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, this is perhaps the most dramatic change in U.S. nuclear policy in more than half a century. But the president has carefully left himself a back door out on all of this. For example, nuclear weapons are still on the table in the event al Qaeda, Iran or North Korea was to launch some kind of attack -- John.

KING: Barbara Starr -- Barbara, thanks.

At the moment, the president's schedule on May 12th includes a White House session with the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai. But the White House is increasingly frustrated with President Karzai, most recently for complicating a planned U.S. military assault against the Taliban in Kandahar, and cancelling the meeting is under consideration.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERT GIBBS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: We certainly would evaluate whatever continued or further remarks President Karzai makes as to whether that's constructive to have such a meeting, sure.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: CNN White House correspondent Dan Lothian is tracking the administration's debate about how best to deal with its difficult Afghan partner -- Dan. DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right.

He is a very difficult partner. And as you just heard there, the big news today was that the administration does -- is not ruling out the possibility of having to cancel that meeting. A top aide is telling me it all depends whether or not Hamid Karzai continues to make critical comments of the U.S. -- what they call to be troubling comments as well.

What's also troubling is the fact that the administration is refusing at this point to refer to Mr. Karzai in Afghanistan as an ally. The bottom line, I think, here is, what -- everyone is asking this question of what's behind all of this erratic behavior, and no one really knows. The White House is saying that it's simply very confusing.

Is he trying to show some sort of domestic political strength at home that he's independent from the United States, even as the U.S. is building up military forces there on the ground? Ultimately, though, White House officials say that they have to work with him because he's the leader that they have -- John.

LOTHIAN: Dan Lothian at the White House -- thanks, Dan.

KING: The recession may have bottomed out, but there are mixed signals about what's ahead. Minute of a recent Fed meeting shows policymakers pointing out that economic recovery can't be sustained without a substantial pickup in job creation. While still anticipated, it's not showing up yet in the data. Officials at the Fed are also worried about weakness in the commercial and industrial real estate, as well as home sales.

In our daily look behind the numbers tonight, the Dow, NASDAQ and S&P 500 are still at or close to 18-month highs. The Dow Industrials closed slightly lower. Oil closed slightly higher. It's up 70 percent in the last year. I'll bet you've noticed that while filling up your car.

More ahead tonight. Let's take a peek over here at the magic wall to tell you what's still to come in the program.

When we come back, I'll go one-on-one with the governor of Mississippi, Haley Barbour. He was once the Republican National Committee chairman. We'll ask him about the current chairman's troubles and whether he thinks 2010 equals the big Republican year of 1994.

In our "Pulse," we'll take you to coal country. And in West Virginia tonight, there's a lot of hope and heartbreak as people pray perhaps for a miracle.

In "Wall to Wall," we'll try to show you what it's like to work in a mine. Rescue and recovery efforts to come once they drill a big hole into the countryside.

And in our "Clash" tonight, as Barbara Starr just noted, no nukes is the administration's new goal, a major strategy shift from the administration. It's a big policy decision and a major political fight.

All of that ahead -- still to come.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ANNOUNCER: It's time to go one-on-one.

KING: A lot of political pros compare the Republican Party's prospects for the 2010 midterms with the Republican revolution of 1994. Back then, Haley Barbour was the chairman of the Republican National Committee and he got a lot of credit for engineering the Republican takeover of Congress.

This year, however, at times the wheels seem to be coming off the RNC Chairman Michael Steele's operation. Barbour is watching all this from a distance as governor of Mississippi. He joins us now to go one-on-one.

Governor, simple question that's being asked a lot in Washington, some people are saying Michael Steele should step aside. His chief of staff resigned last night. Some of his consultants have said, we're not staying anymore. Amid all this turmoil, does the party need a fresh start?

GOV. HALEY BARBOUR (R), MISSISSIPPI: No. I mean, whether the chairman ought to stay or not is the chairman's decision. But, does the party need a fresh start? No.

KING: Well, let me put it this way to you then. With your experience then and now, if the RNC operation under Haley Barbour -- let's make that a 10 since you had such a great year for Republicans that year. If that was a 10 on a scale of one-to-10, how would you rate Michael Steele right now?

BARBOUR: Well, I've got sense enough that I don't try to rate people. I work with them, try to help them be successful, try to get them help us be successful. You know, John, I was born at night, but it wasn't last night.

KING: My job to ask, Governor.

Do you have any concerns at all when you hear big fundraisers saying, I'm not going to give them any more money -- when you hear people like Tony Perkins from the Family Research Council, other social conservatives, because of money spent at a risque nightclub, saying, don't send them money? That in the end, come November, when you need the "get out the vote" effort, that would have an impact, would it not?

BARBOUR: Well, of course, it's concerning. And one of the things it means, particularly for governors races, is that governors' races have to be a little bit more self-sustaining. We have 28 Senate races in states for the same day there's a governors' race. Normally the governors' race has a major responsibility and absentee ballots, get out the vote, that sort of thing. It's very, very critical.

The party has usually played a major role in helping those governors' races do that. We will be prepared, if the fundraisers for the RNC doesn't go as well as hoped -- and I've raised a lot of money. Now, do not -- let's don't deny that. But if it doesn't go as well, we're going to have to be prepared to do more. We will be prepared to do more.

KING: I want to you listen to something Chairman Steele said yesterday in an interview with ABC. He was asked if he thought perhaps he had a slimmer margin to make mistakes because he was an African-American.

Listen to his answer.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MICHAEL STEELE, RNC CHAIRMAN: Barack Obama has a slimmer margin. We all -- a lot of folks do. It means a different role for, you know, for me to play and others to play. And that's just the reality of it. I mean, that -- but you take that as part of -- part of the nature of it. It's not -- it's more because you're not someone that they know.

I'm not a Washington insider, even though I grew up here in D.C. My view on politics is much more grassroots-oriented. It's not old boy network-oriented.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Is that right? Do you think Michael Steele is held to a different standard, or has less margin for error because of the color of his skin, Governor?

BARBOUR: Look, you know, when you're a fat redneck like me and got an accent like mine, you could say, well, they're going to hold me to a higher standard. In fact, I don't think anybody ever held me to a higher standard than I held myself. That's the way I was raised.

KING: Do you view Michael --

(CROSSTALK)

BARBOUR: That's what I was brought up to do and that's the way it ought to be.

KING: -- because he's the party's first black chairman and because he's a black man, do you view him any differently?

BARBOUR: No. I didn't when he was running for -- when he was lieutenant governor of Maryland, when he was senator from Maryland. Feel the same way now. I just don't see that. I -- like I say, I don't think that way.

KING: Let me ask you a question, as someone who has worked for the party going back now more than 25 years. If you were Chairman Steele at this moment, with all the people saying the things they are saying, with your chief of staff having to leave, with your top consultants saying they can't work with the committee anymore -- would you stay in the job?

BARBOUR: Look, every chairman of the party has his ups and downs. I was criticized when I was chairman for different things. I don't think it's useful for me to critique any chairman now or any chairman since I was chairman. And I've not done that. I'm not going to start now. It's not useful.

KING: Help me understand -- give me your assessment of the political climate this year. You have the tea party out there. Some have said it's a lot like 1994. Others have said the tea party is this anti-establishment, anti-politician streak going on out in the country is more like a Perot movement in 1992. How do you see it?

BARBOUR: Well, I think it is a little bit like the Perot movement, but it's certainly not identical, but it has in common with the Perot movement that most of these people are small government conservatives.

And when I was chairman of the party in '93 and '94 and Perot got 19 percent of the vote in '92, we worked very hard to get to know the Perot people, to make them welcome, to let them have a seat at the table in our party. And about 80 percent of people who voted for Ross Perot in 1992 voted Republican for Congress in 1994.

Now, the tea party people are also small government conservatives, and I think they recognize that we're the Republicans of the conservative party of the United States. The Democrats are the liberals. And the worst thing that could happen is to split the conservative vote.

I've told people, you know, I am sure that the Democrats and the White House have worn out three sets of knee pads down on their knees praying for the third party -- for the tea party to actually become a third party, because if you can have a third party that's a conservative party, that's the Democrats' dream, to split the conservative vote.

I don't see that happening. And I doubt that it will happen.

One last point, you asked about '94 versus 2010. I will tell you -- in the first week of April, the political environment in America is better for Republicans in 2010 than it was in 1994.

Now, it's seven months to the election. But as somebody who is at both places at those different times, I can tell you, the political environment is better for the Republicans today. We could have never had a Scott Brown victory in Massachusetts in January of 1994.

KING: And one last question for you. As you know, the economy will decide a lot about how people vote come November. The administration thinks it's starting to come back. I don't want to get into the fight about whether they deserve the credit or not. But as somebody who has to administer a state, you've had to make some tough decisions on your budget because the national economy and Mississippi economy have taken a hit the last couple of years.

Do you see evidence that the economy is starting to come back in a way that voters come the first week in November might feel a little better about things?

BARBOUR: Well, I think, in our part of the country, we found bottom. I don't think we're going down anymore. I don't see anything that I would consider a real recovery or strong recovery in the real economy or on Main Street.

I do think that -- somebody coined the phrase "green sprouts" or "green shoots." I see a little bit here and there. But, at the same time, I realize we're at such a low, low bottom that we've got much, much recovering to do to even get back to a normal place, much less back to where we were in -- at the end of 2007.

So, I hope that some of these pieces of good news will turn out to be the dominant news rather than the clearly negative stuff that we still see in the real economy and on Main Street. I'm hopeful. But we're not seeing any kind of strength in the economy today that would result in a recovery that it would be recognized as such.

KING: Governor Barbour, thanks for your time.

BARBOUR: John, thank you.

KING: As you know, one of our goals here is to get your perspective on the big issue. So, every week, we're asking you to make your case. This week's question -- as you know, more than 212,000 Americans lost their unemployment benefits this week because Congress failed to find the money to extend them before they went home on a two-week recess. That brings us to one question at the heart of this debate: Should your tax money be used to keep paying for jobless benefits or is there a point where the government should stop extending benefits?

Record your answer and then post it at CNN.com/JohnKingUSA. Make your case and we'll play the best commentary Friday night.

We also try to take the pulse of America every day. Today, a painful visit to what people are saying in coal country.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Every day at this time, we try to take the pulse of America. We venture outside of Washington to talk about a big issue or big political story. Today, though, we want to talk about a heartbreaking story.

All eyes are on Raleigh County, West Virginia. There's hope there tonight for a miracle, but also, a great deal of heartbreak.

Joining us from Sundial, West Virginia, is reporter Kevin Landers of our CNN affiliate WBNS.

Kevin, simply tell me first about your day there. This is one of the hardest things a reporter can do when you visit a community that's been hurt so badly.

KEVIN LANDERS, WBNS REPORTER: Hundreds of families of coal miners sit and wait between hope and despair at this hour, wondering to see if their family and loved ones have survived or perished in a result of this worst mining accident in U.S. history.

Here's what we know at this hour. There is a drill that they are using right now that is about 160 feet. They need to drill about 1,100 feet to find the four unaccounted for miners. There are still 25 dead, and they have all not been named at this hour.

These families here are extremely terrified because, in this part of the country, everyone here knows someone who has dug coal for a living. We talked to family members. We talked to friends. They've all come here to this part of the country to try to find news about their loved ones. At this point, there is very little information that Massey Energy is able to tell them.

We did speak to the CEO and chairman of Massey Energy, Don Blankenship. He says at this point the company does not know what caused this explosion. We asked him 500 violations in one year at this mine seems to be a lot. He said, yes, it is a lot for this mine but they've worked diligently, he said, to try to make it safe. He says, obviously, what happened today clearly was not safe enough.

We did ask him whether or not he believes the four unaccounted for miners would survive. He told us, quote, "It is very doubtful, very slim that they are alive. It does not look promising."

There is a lot of heartache here in this part of West Virginia. Many people here are wondering if their family and friends have survived. But at this point, it doesn't look good -- John.

KING: Kevin Landers of our affiliate WBNS -- Kevin, we appreciate your time here on the program. We also appreciate the effort you're making all day there. We'll check back in with you. Thank you.

If you're like most Americans, you have no idea of the hard work and ever present danger of working inside a coal mine. That's our next stop when we go "Wall to Wall."

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: I want to take you now to Dr. Sanjay Gupta. He's our chief medical correspondent. He's outside the Charleston Medical Center in Charleston, West Virginia.

Sanjay, tell us what you've learned today.

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, there were two patients brought here, John. That's part of the reason we are here. Some of the most critically injured. We know now one of those patients did not survive. So, there's one remaining patient in here. John, this is the largest hospital in the area. It's a trauma center. It's about a 15-minute helicopter ride from the mine to here. It's an important facility, an important resource, obviously, for the mining communities.

A couple of things that it doesn't have and this is important as well. It does not have a burn center and it does not have a bariatric oxygen center which -- if you remember after Sago -- was such a critical element of the care of Randy McCloy.

That's important, John, because a few details are emerging about the patient that's in this hospital right now. But the fact that they've kept him here suggests that it's probably not as much due to inhalation exposures or due to burns. And obviously, doctors continue to treat him now.

But, this is where a lot of attention has been focused over the last couple of days in terms of medical care, John.

KING: And, Sanjay, these miners know the dangers. They know the risks. But it's the best-paying job in their community. You've had a chance to talk to some miners today.

What's the mood there?

GUPTA: You know, John, I know you've been to this part of the country as well. And it's one of those startling things that maybe you remember but then you forget after you leave here. It's a mono- economy was how it was described to me. It's the only game in town. And it pays pretty well, all things considered, about $70,000 a year.

The mood is interesting because I was talking to lots of miners who are still grieving, who are still concerned, who still hadn't received information about their family members or their friends in terms of whether they were even alive or dead.

But, John, something that really struck me was that people were back to work literally this morning. I'm not talking about part of the rescue operation here, but people literally putting on their miner's jackets, going back to work. People who worked yesterday, people who watched the news all night long, and they're right back at it because that's just -- that's the culture here. That's the community.

And when I talk to them, I'd say, can you describe what that was like? They said, we'll tell you all about it, just not on camera. There are long arms at the Massey Corporation. We'd rather just not deal with that.

So, in some ways, it's just -- life goes on, but there's obviously still a lot of grief and a lot of concern.

KING: Sanjay, we thank you for your help and your great reporting. And As Sanjay noted, the miners talk about the risk of their jobs. We want to go over to the wall now so we can go wall-to- wall to show you a bit more about it. And if you look at the map here, you see West Virginia. You see the circle here where Raleigh County is. We want to take you closer now to this particular mine as we do so, we'll bring the map. You see the upper big branch south mine. You see us zooming in on the mine site. Now, we'll stretch it out a little bit. We'll come in a little bit closer and look at the location of the explosion. You see these strips here. These are previous areas of this mountain area that have been mined out.

I'm going to pull it over now and stretch it out. You see where the orange is. This is the long wall mining operation. This circle here is the scene of the explosion. The bodies that have been recovered were recovered to the right of this mark here. You see this trench, 725 feet wide, 2800 feet long this way. How do these men get into the mountain? They do that by using a cart system. You have to watch this closely as we play it out. It's very dark. Imagine working in this mine. You go in with very little light. You're going through a tunnel on a cart, and if you watch closely along the sideline, I'm going to pull my hand out so I don't obscure it. You will see some tunnels, some fortifications, and some debris along the path here. That is how they get into the mine.

Now, as I tap here, this tunnel takes them down to about here. It's about 1600 feet on foot. They have to go from here over to the current place where they are mining. The big challenge now, there are four miners unaccounted for. There are other bodies who are known to be -- miners who are known to have died in the explosion still in this mine. Search and rescue teams and recovery teams want desperately to get in, but they can't as yet. This operation has to unfold first. They will drill from the surface down some 1200 feet. Here's a simulation of what it will look like. You see this drill going down.

Often unfortunately, the bits break because of the hard stone, and this operation can take hours. The goal is once you get 1200 feet down into the shaft, that hole will release the dangerous methane and other gases down in there. It also could, if there is anyone alive down there, allow the authorities to listen to that. There's a lot of frustration with the families. They want to know if, perhaps, there's a miracle still sitting underground there. The governor of West Virginia says he knows people are waiting, but he has to put safety first.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. JOE MANCHIN, (D) WEST VIRGINIA: Nothing can be proceeding with the rescue operation until we know it's safe for miners to enter. And they're not going to recommend putting them in harm's way until we get the first hole to see what type of levels that we have of methane in that. So, that's the thing that's really kind of putting everything on hold right now.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: And as they wait for that hole to be drilled and for the search teams to go back in, a lot of questions are being raised about the Massey Company's safety record. Let's just look briefly at this particular mine. Massey owns many mines in the region. At this particular mine, not always under the ownership of Massey we should note. There have been three previous fatalities going back to 1998, one in 2001 and another one in 2003. Now, the job of making sure all the country's mines are safe belongs to today's most important person you don't know. Find out who that is. Next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: An update on this hour's breaking news. A tsunami watch is in effect for Indonesia after a magnitude 7.8 earthquake offshore. The quake hit at about 5:15 Wednesday morning local time. That would be 6:15 eastern time, about 1 hour and 20 minutes ago. It was centered about 125 miles off the coast of Northern Sumatra. Officials at the pacific tsunami warning center tell CNN that a destructive widespread tsunami is not expected. But a local tsunami has been generated and could affect coastal areas within 62 miles of the quake's epicenter. We will, of course, continue to follow this story throughout the evening here on CNN.

The mine disaster in West Virginia makes the government's top mine safety official today's most important person you don't know. Joe Main is the Labor Department Assistant Secretary for Mine Safety and Health. He's a mining man and a union man through and through. A native of Waynesburg, Pennsylvania. Main started working in the coal mines in 1967. He's also a graduate of the National Mine Health and Safety Academy, a permanent Federal institution just like the more famous military academies. Ironically, it's in Raleigh County, West Virginia, the same county as the upper big branch south mine.

Main worked his way up through local union posts, spent 22 years as administrator of the United Mine Workers Health and Safety Department, then became a safety consultant. He joined the Obama administration last year. As I bring our senior congressional correspondent, Dana Bash, into the conversation, this safety issue is already percolating even as we wait for the investigation, and we pray for the four miners unaccounted for. The head of the AFL/CIO who used to be head of the United Mineworkers Union issued a pretty scanning (ph) statement today.

Richard Trumka, the AFL/CIO president saying this incident isn't just a matter of happenstance, but rather the inevitable result of a profit driven system and reckless corporate conduct. Many mining companies have given too little attention to safety over the years and too much to the bottom line. Massey Mine and its CEO Don Blankenship have been cited for over 450 safety violations in this mine. Now, I want to make a footnote, this is a nonunion mine that has sparred with Mr. Trumka and the mineworkers union and AFL/CIO in the past, but it is a reminder of the safety questions that will be asked in West Virginia and here in Washington. What are you hearing from Capitol Hill?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. The Congress, just a few years ago, updated the safety issues and the safety laws for the first time in like 30 years, but already, we're hearing from lawmakers they probably didn't do enough with that law. This company, Massey Energy, appears to have found a loophole in that law. This is what it is. That if a company is found to have a violation that has imminent danger for the mine workers, it can be shut down. But if a company has a pattern of violations that don't reach that level, if that company like Massey, if they appeal these violations they can keep the mine open.

And that is according to Jay Rockefeller, the Democratic senator from the state who just on CNN last hour. He said that's apparently what happened here. He said that's a terrible part of this new law which, by the way, he helped write. And he said that he is going to be trying to really get back to Congress and try to help fix this particular issue which they say has caused big problems.

KING: And the tragedy also is exposing, I guess, what we would call a Democratic divide on the issue of energy and the environment.

BASH: Absolutely. Look, we have seen so many statements all day long from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, from Democrats especially talking about, of course, the human tragedy and safety issues. But there was one statement and happens to be from Jay Rockefeller that really struck me, because, it was a reminder that when it comes to environmental politics in the Democratic Party, the region completely trumps your party. In West Virginia, John, that of course is all about coal there.

Listen to what he said, Jay Rockefeller. He said, we sometimes feel coal mining is misunderstood or even disrespected by others across the country. I ask that Americans pause today to consider the enormous scope of our coal miners' contributions and tenacity. What their work means to the quality of life of every single one of us, and they try to understand how deeply personal this loss is to our stat, our people, and Appalachia. This reflects the feeling of Democrats in West Virginia and parts of Virginia and Kentucky that Democrats in other parts of the country that don't really understand particularly on the issue the environment that they see coal as a polluter and an evil when it comes to the environment.

But when it comes to their state, it is obviously a way of life for them. and I talked to a Democrat from West Virginia today who said, look, we just -- if there's anything that is a reminder out there that this tragedy brings to our party, it is that coal really powers like half the country and this particular source said that she wants Democrats in other parts of the country to make sure that they know that it is our people who make their lattes hot.

KING: That's one way to look at it. To keep their lattes hot. And I can tell you when you visit those communities, they do feel a way of life slipping away and they feel under attack by politicians. it's a legitimate and interesting policy debate, but that's how they feel when you go to those communities. Dana, thanks.

There's another huge story today that no one should miss. Next, the Obama administration's new strategy for nuclear weapons.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

UNKNOWN MALE: That's why these children are practicing to duck and cover just as you do in your school. KING: If you're of a certain age, you'll remember those public service announcements about what to do in case of a nuclear attack. Times have changed a lot. The Obama administration just announced a new U.S. nuclear strategy calling for the end of development of any new nuclear weapons and spelling out when it won't use existing nukes. Conversation just a minute, but first, let's look at the nuclear club. Back when those PSA's were cut about a potential nuclear attack, the nuclear club was the United States versus the Soviet Union. We'll bring them up around. It's now called Russia. But if you look at the magic wall, we flip the map of the world, the nuclear club is a lot more complicated these days.

The United Kingdom and France have nuclear weapons. Israel is never publicly confirmed, but it is believed got nuclear weapons. Iran on a suspected nuclear list. India and Pakistan have nuclear arsenals as does China. And you go around the world and you see North Korea in Asia as well. So, what happens now? Will the president's new policy affect the new nuclear nations? Here for our clash, our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, Republican consultant, Alex Castellanos, and Democratic strategist Cornell Belcher. I want to get to the politics in a moment, gentlemen, but first, the policy. This is a big deal especially if you grew up in a Pentagon Cold War mindset. This has to be a transformational moment even though it's controversial.

STARR: A sort of transformational moment because what President Obama has actually done is reach an accommodation with liberals, conservatives and the U.S. military. On all of the key points that they talked about today, there's an out. There's a military out for everything. I mean, for example, they talk about the fact if you're a nonnuclear state and you basically behave and follow the rules, you don't have to worry about being threatened anymore with nuclear weapons.

That's a really big deal except if you launch a biological or chemical attack, then you might be threatened with nuclear weapons. You know, that there will be no more new nuclear warheads except if they decide they need them, then there might be. I think the real bottom line here today is very much behind the scenes. A message to al Qaeda, Iran, and North Korea. We're not taking anything off the table, really, just in case.

KING: Barbara says just in case, Alex. I was reading a joint statement issued by Arizona's two Republican senators Jon Kyl and John McCain, and they mostly said, wait and see. We want to see this explained. We want to talk to the policy people. This is very, very complicated but to the point where the administration sometimes says we will not use nuclear weapons. They believe that the ambiguity is best there and that somehow it undermines a deterrent policy. Is that where the criticism will be?

ALEX CASTELLANOS, REPUBLICAN CONSULTANT: I think the criticism will be right on that spot. This is the non-agreement agreement. Our new policy is that we won't use nuclear weapons against good nations, but we will against bad nations who don't play by the rules. Wait a minute. That's kind of the policy we've always had and it's -- we'll -- it's a strange policy that the president has come up with here. And he is an uncertain man here. He's put himself in place like saying, John, I'm here unless I'll be absent. That's our new nuclear deterrent. He's added a lot of uncertainty to the mix.

KING: I'm sure they don't view it that way at the White House. Cornell, interesting to me is how much of this is a generational issue. If you grew up seeing those PSAs thinking that the United States is going to explicitly -- Barbara left the caveat (ph) as been in many cases explicitly say when we will or won't use nuclear weapons, and we want to have fewer nuclear weapons and a goal of no nuclear weapons. For younger people, I'm sure they think what's the big deal.

CORNELL BELCHER, FORMER DNC POLLSTER: Right. I mean, this is a battle that was waged many years ago and had a lot more political implications many years ago. I mean, this new generation of voters right now, it seems kind of a foggy strange sort of conversation to even be having. But look, this is an awfully centrist sort of position and often middle of the road sort of thing that he's doing, I mean, to sort of pull back from nuclear proliferation and say we're not going to use -- you know, we're not going to pull back on nuclear weapons.

The president was trying since Truman. Reagan came very close very historic thing back in the 1980s around pulling back from nuclear proliferation. I don't see this as any sort of major new radical thing that the president is doing.

KING: Even if he's threading the needle perfectly and leave that for the policy debate in the months ahead, is it dangerous, politically, at this time if he's getting the policy right when the Republicans are since the Scott Brown election trying to say, this guy, he can't decide now. He promised to close Gitmo; now, he hasn't done it. He's promised to try Khalid Shaikh Mohammed in New York, and now, he's maybe waffling on that a little bit. Is it a little dangerous, politically, for this president at this moment when the Republicans are trying to start this narrative that he's of?

BELCHER: Absolutely not. I mean, it's a centrist sort of thing to do that, the president trying to do for awhile. Look, once upon a time, I would hope that foreign policy and national security is not a place for hard core partisan politics. I hope this is not a place where we're going to see this sort of Republican sort of strategy or fear mongering enter into it.

CASTELLANOS: Unlike the George Bush days when he was never criticized for foreign policy across the water's edge. But oh, my gosh where to start talking about here?

KING: We have weeks and weeks to talk about it. I want to stop the conversation at this point because I need to move on (INAUDIBLE), but Barbara, lastly on this point, is this defense secretary comfortable with this policy because he has been the president's buffer against political attacks saying this is a guy who served in Republican administrations including the Bush administration, I held him over. If he's OK with it, you should be OK with it? STARR: Bob Gates is the ultimate public loyalist. He says he's perfectly happy with it. The nightmare, the thing, no one has an answer to what if we wake up one morning and the satellites show Iran has a nuclear weapon on a launch pad somewhere.

CASTELLANOS: An ominous states, by the way, was initially against the strategy here of not having development of new nuclear weapons. So, the president went a different direction there. And, again, is centrism being all things to all people or is it uncertainty? What we're seeing here -- I think the two arguments you'll hear from Republicans is he's for it, he's against. He's against what he's for. He's going to use nuclear weapons unless he decides not to. But the other argument you're going to hear is that he's George McGovern without the experience, because at the end of the day --

KING: We will invite somebody from the White House to come on and rebut that argument. I'm going to call a time-out for now. Barbara is going to leave us. The two political guys are going to hang on. When we come back, a play-by-play, Harry Reid on Sarah Palin and President Obama discussing his faith. Stay right there.

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KING: Back with is with the play-by-play. Democratic pollster, Cornell Belcher and CNN contributor and Republican consultant, Alex Castellanos. Gentlemen, thanks. Let me get first to Haley Barbour. Back in 1994, when the Republicans won just about everything, Haley was the Republican National Committee Chairman. He's now the Mississippi governor. I asked him earlier in the program, should Michael Steele go, the controversial current Republican chairman. He didn't want to say that. He also made clear that if big donors don't want to give money to the RNC, he thinks the other committees, including the governors committee will be there to help out. Listen to this.

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GOV. HALEY BARBOUR, (R) MISSISSIPPI: The party has usually played a major role in helping those governors races do that. We will be prepared if the fund-raiser for the RNC doesn't go as well as hoped. And they've raised a lot of money. Let's don't deny that. But if it doesn't go as well, we're going to have to be prepared to do more.

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KING: Let's stop that there. He says we'll be prepared to do more. Alex, you were a fan of Michael Steele at the beginning. You think now he needs to go?

CASTELLANOS: I'm still a fan of Michael Steele. However, he's lost his ability to gain support from major donors. Look, if you're a quarterback and you can't throw to a receiver, because you don't have confidence they're going to catch the ball, it doesn't matter how talented he is. And I think, unfortunately, that's the situation Michael Steele is in now. And I think a change of leadership might be a good thing at the Republican Party.

BELCHER: Major turmoil. They just let go the chief of staff. It's just like letting go of your campaign manager before they're going to a major battle this midterm. It's like letting go of your general before you go into war. This is major turmoil. I don't want to let him go, because he's the gift that keeps giving.

CASTELLANOS: When you tell your contributors that they're holding you to a higher standard because of your race and then you're going to go back to them for money, that makes it awfully tough.

BELCHER: And he doesn't get away with pulling the race card.

KING: Let's move on very quickly. This is Harry Reid, the senator majority leader. Sarah Palin came to his hometown for a tea party rally. This is Senator Reid.

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SEN. HARRY REID, (D) MAJORITY LEADER: I was going to give a few remarks on the people here a week ago Saturday, but I couldn't -- I couldn't write it all on my hand. So, I decided --

(LAUGHING)

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KING: Not normally a funny guy. There's Harry Reid there. And guess what? I'm not going to let you, guys, say a thing about that, because I do want you to talk about this. The president this morning had a prayer breakfast at the White House. And we got somewhat used to this story, President Bush talking) about his faith quite a bit. We haven't heard this president a lot. Watch and listen the president this morning talking about the role of Easter when it comes to his faith.

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OBAMA: All of the stories passed down through the gospels, this one in particular speaks to me during this season, and I think of hanging -- watching Chris hang from the cross and during the final seconds of his passion, he summoned what remained of his strength to utter a few last words before he breathed his last breath. Father, he says --

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KING: Let's just stop the tape there. A very solemn president talking about how this particular part of the scripture means so much to him. What is this -- how do we learn --

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CASTELLANOS: It helps this president a great deal when he's sincere and he speaks about what what's at his core and the importance of his faith to him. That came across as very genuine, because I think it was. He's uncertain on so many other things, politically, that when we get a glimpse, oh, that's who he really is and that's what he really believes, it helps him a great deal.

BELCHER: Look, I think you saw what his core values are. I don't think he's very shaky at all. He has a core set of beliefs and values. And he's a religious guy. He's very comfortable talking about his religion. And when the big things that came out of this having President Obama at the top of our ticket was Democrats shrank the gap on sharing values and dealing with religion in a way from a double digit Republican margin back to single digits.

KING: Gentlemen, thanks for coming in, We'll bring you back. We'll have more time another time. Alex and Cornell, thanks.

(CROSSTALK)

CASTELLANOS: You can go see Harry Reid at the lounge in Las Vegas.

KING: You can go see Harry Reid at the lounge in Las Vegas, be my guest. We're going to take a quick break. We'll be right back.

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KING: Quick update on the hour's breaking new story. A tsunami watch is in effect for Indonesia after a magnitude 7.7 earthquake offshore. The quake hit at about 5:15 Wednesday morning local time. That's about 06:15 eastern time here in the United State. It was centered about 125 miles off the coast of Northern Sumatra. Officials at the pacific tsunami warning center telling CNN that a destructive widespread tsunami is not -- not expected, but a local tsunami has been generated and could affect coastal areas within about 60 miles of the quake's epicenter.

We will continue to track this story throughout the evening. We're also, of course, continuing to follow the important developments in Raleigh County, West Virginia, at the site of that mine tragedy. That's all for us tonight, though. Thanks for spending some time with us. Campbell brown starts right now.