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Supreme Court Justice Retiring; Gearing Up for Confirmation Battle; "Committed" to Keeping Seat Democratic; Rescue Teams Searching for Miners

Aired April 9, 2010 - 17:00   ET


SUZANNE MALVEAUX, GUEST HOST: Happening now, two retirements with far-reaching implications. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens announced he is stepping down, giving President Obama another chance to put his imprint on the highest court of the land.

Also, Democratic Michigan Congressman Bart Stupak -- he's a favorite target of the Tea Party movement over support for health care reform.

But what role did that play in deciding not to run again?

Our CNN Congressional correspondent, Dana Bash, broke that story and she talks one-on-one with Stupak this hour.

And Sarah Palin -- well, she is among the speakers today at a high profile gathering of Republicans seen as a preview of the 2012 race for the White House. Details of her speech and, not surprisingly, swipes at President Obama.

Wolf Blitzer is off today.

I'm Suzanne Malveaux.


So this is the second time in less than a year that President Obama is facing a decision which likely is going to shape the United States for years, if not decades, after he leaves the White House.

Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens is retiring after 35 years, as he approaches his 90th birthday in just a couple of weeks.

Well, the president paid tribute to Stevens in the White House Rose Garden this afternoon and detailed some of the qualities that he's going to be looking for in a new justice.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: While we cannot replace Justice Stevens' experience or wisdom, I will seek someone in the next couple of weeks with similar -- similar qualities -- an independent mind, a record of excellence and integrity, a fierce dedication to the rule of law and a keen understanding of how the law affects the daily lives of the American people.


MALVEAUX: Let's bring in our senior legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin, to talk a little bit about what this all means -- Jeff, you know, he is such an interesting person to -- to look at. You have interviewed him numerous times, very recently, as a matter of fact. He's almost turning, what, 90 in a couple of weeks. He loves to play bridge and tennis. He's a very active man. He's got a beach house. I understand that he said some of his best writings he did -- his first drafts were right there on the beach, writing those briefs.

What kind of absence -- what kind of hole is there going to be in the Supreme Court now that he is walking away?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: It's a big one, because he is, by far, by 11 years, the longest tenured justice on the Supreme Court.

He joined the court in 1975, appointed by President Ford. The next most senior justice is Antonin Scalia, who joined in 1986. So his range of experience is so different than the other justices.

Also, as the senior associate justice, he had the opportunity to make assignments when the chief justice wasn't in the majority. So he controlled the majority in such important cases as "Lawrence v. Texas," which was the big gay rights case. In all of the Guantanamo Bay cases, which -- where he ruled against the Bush administration and -- and wrote several of those opinions himself.

He supported affirmative action later in his career, in the University of Michigan Law School case and he wrote the most famous dissenting opinion in "Bush v. Gore" in 2000, which is probably the case he'd like to have back the most.

MALVEAUX: Now, one of the things that he was able to do that perhaps another justice is not going to be able to bring to the table, is he was able to go to those swing votes, to go to Sandra Day O'Connor -- she's now since retired -- but to go to her, to go to Kennedy and say, we want you to swing on this side, the liberal side, because he had seniority, because he knew how the Supreme Court works.

How does President Obama replace someone like that?

Can they -- can he appoint a justice who has those kind of qualities?

TOOBIN: Well, he can try, but the Supreme Court is such an unusual institution. It's so small and it so depends on the chemistry of just a handful of people. It's very hard to predict how they will interact among them. And one thing that President Obama has said is that he doesn't necessarily want to appoint only federal appeals court judges.

You know, this is the first time in history that all nine justices are former federal appeals court judges. He -- Obama has said that he want to broaden his sights a little bit, look for politicians, look for professors, look for people who have had the experience of persuading others of their point of view, maybe in hopes of getting someone who could become a power broker on the Court. MALVEAUX: All right, Jeffrey, we're going to get back to you.

More -- more details, more information, your insights on this.

But I first want to go to our senior political analyst, Gloria Borger. She is in New York. And David Gergen, who is in Boston.

Obviously, this is a very big development. Not surprising. We knew this was coming -- Gloria, I do want to start with you, however, because we just saw it -- this -- this health occasion debate erupt in Washington. We heard the heated rhetoric, all kinds of different tactics that were used to get this to push through. The Republicans are just furious and -- and look like they could use delaying tactics, the filibuster, in this confirmation process the next go around.

How does this play out in Congress?

What are we looking at over the summer?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, there -- there are a couple of things that are really interesting.

First of all, I talked to a senator Republican leadership aide today who says, look, unless this person is at the far end of the left spectrum, it doesn't seem likely that a filibuster could occur because even if Republicans were united, they could lose a couple of the moderates and then have to get Democrats to join them and that probably wouldn't happen.

But you raise health care and you raise the Tea Party issue and the interesting thing to me, as a political journalist, watching this is, we haven't seen the impact of the Tea Party movement on a Supreme Court nominee.

Will the issues that people in the Senate feel very pressured to look at be the issues of, for example, the Constitutionality of health care reform, the issues of eminent domain -- can the government take your land away from you, any issues at all that are related to the size and the scope of government?

And will Republicans in the Senate feel very pressured to raise those issues and take a stand and take a stand and mount a very vigorous campaign against this candidate, no matter who it is, even if they know that they're going to lose?

MALVEAUX: And, David, what do you think we're seeing?

I mean is -- is that going to develop into some sort of cultural war over the summer, when we actually see some of those issues that Gloria brought up out in the open and a fiercely, fiercely divided Congress?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL ADVISER: I think we are likely to see those issues. The Tea Party folks have made it clear that one of the three big issues in their minds is Constitutionally limited government. And by that, they -- they do mean, as Gloria suggested, that Washington has -- has centralized too much power, overcoming the influence of the Tenth Amendment, leaving, you know, un -- undelegated powers in the hands of the states.

But I don't think it's likely to be a fierce fight, unless they do go and -- and -- and find someone who's very compatible to the left.

And the three candidates who are now on the -- we know are on a short list, I don't think you could say any one of those three is going to set off those kind of explosions. I think there are going to be some fights. There will be controversy. But I think President Obama's in the unusual position where he may get two nominees onto the court in his first two years. And that will be remarkable for a president to do that. And I think he's likely to win on both.

MALVEAUX: Jeff, real quick, if I can ask you, what kind of legacy does this allow President Obama, when he is able to pick a second person?

Obviously, Stevens likes President Obama. He said in his letter, "Dear -- my dear Mr. President," when he addressed him.

What kind of gift is he giving President Obama?

TOOBIN: Well, they are both from Chicago and proud of it. He's giving him the chance to shape the court for decades. You know, President Obama will serve for four years or eight years. John Paul Stevens will -- had served for 35 years. Elena Kagan, the solicitor general, is one of the obvious shortlisters.


TOOBIN: She's only 49 years old. She could serve for 35 years.

That opportunity is just a treasure for any president.

MALVEAUX: All right. And we're going to bring more about the details of some of those possible candidates next up.

But I want to thank all three of you for joining us.

We'll be back with you in a little bit.

And a surprise announcement that caught almost everyone off guard. Now, this is Democratic Congressman Bart Stupak, revealing that he is not going to seek re-election. And he explains why to CNN's Congressional correspondent, Dana Bash.

Now, she broke the story and she's going to have more on that in just a bit.

Also, Sarah Palin is letting loose on President Obama, accusing him of coddling enemies and alienating allies. Details of her high profile speech, a possible preview of the 2012 presidential race. We'll have to see.

And new trouble for a Mideast diplomat who caused an airline bomb scare. Now he's having trouble getting home.


MALVEAUX: One more Democrat is joining the ranks of those who are leaving Congress. He said he accomplished what he set out to do. That's Representative Bart Stupak of Michigan, announcing today that he is not going to seek another term.


REP. BART STUPAK (D), MICHIGAN: I wanted to leave a couple of times, but I always thought there was one more job to be done. Health care was always a major issue. In fact, some of my friends over here will remember this little pamphlet. It was one of my first election things -- "health care reform right now."


MALVEAUX: We want to bring in now our CNN Congressional correspondent, Dana Bash, who joins us.

And she broke the news about the congressman's plans. And she also went one-on-one with him after the announcement -- and so, Dana, congratulations, first of all.

But what makes Stupak's departure significant at this time, specifically?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Right. Well, Suzanne -- Suzanne, look, he is a national figure. And he became a national figure because of what happened at the very end of the health care debate last month. And that, of course, is that Stupak, who is an anti-abortion Democrat, cut a deal with the White House that allowed him to vote for the health care bill. And he brought over enough other Democrats to give the president enough votes to make his top priority -- health care reform -- the law of the land.

And so that notoriety came with some -- some pretty vicious attacks on Bart Stupak, specifically opponents saying that, you know, they thought he was Exhibit A of what they needed to try to get rid of in Washington.

In fact, the reason why we are here in this rural area of Michigan in his district is because the Tea Party Express was here and has been here since yesterday. We were at a rally yesterday. And they came to say, look, we want to try to defeat him.

Well, it looks like Stupak did that for hi -- for them. He retired before they could.

So that's one of the things that I asked the congressman about when I sat down with him right after his announcement here. I asked about the curious timing of his announcement and their presence here.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) BASH: Now you were announcing, as you know, as the Tea Party Express is here in your district. They came initially to try to send you into early retirement. You made that decision for them. But you're somebody who prides yourself -- I've watched you -- as a fighter.

And is there any risk in looking like you're actually...


BASH: -- a coward...


BASH: -- not a fighter here...


BASH: -- in saying this...


BASH: -- as they're here trying to get you out of office?

STUPAK: No. No. The Tea Party is not even from my district. You know, I'm -- I'm glad -- I hope they're spending...

BASH: I was here yesterday. There were a number of people from your district at that first rally.

STUPAK: OK. Well, they've been my -- they were in my district in -- in the summer.

I mean, look, the ads you see on TV, where are they from?

San -- Sacramento, California. All but -- most of the calls come from our office, Texas. I mean, that's what the Tea Party is.

This district is Independents -- one third Independents, one third Democrats, one third Republicans. You have groups come and go. When I ran, it was the Perot people -- the Ross Perot people. I mean I get I along with these folks.

And even if they weren't from my district, they're my friends. And there's no doubt in my mind, I'd win reelection if I chose to run again. I've chose not to.


MALVEAUX: So, Dana, let's talk a little bit about that district that he is referring to. It's a very unique place, as you know. It is rural. It is fiscally liberal, but socially conservative -- very much anti-abortion; predominantly white, with some Native Americans.

How -- how difficult -- how concerned are Democrats about potentially losing his seat to Republicans now? BASH: They are concerned. That's why the president himself and other Democratic leaders called Stupak and urged him to please stay in office, because they are worried that -- look, he did fit this very -- as you said, very unique district. It is socially conservative, not just that, it is huge. It is sprawling. It takes about eight hours to drive from one side to the other and there's no media market to communicate with voters.

He knew the voters already. And that is something that people who are running, especially Democrats, will have a hard time overcoming, especially given the fact that this seems to be a more Republican- leaning or conservative district. It will be hard for -- for Democrats to win.

And I'll just tell you, it's the fact that it's so sprawling, that is the reason why Stupak insisted he was leaving. It was just a lot of wear and tear on him. He insisted it's not because of the health care vote.

MALVEAUX: All right, Dana, thanks very much.

I know you've been traveling throughout that sprawling district throughout the day today.

BASH: Yes.

MALVEAUX: So thank you very much, Dana.

The Tea Party movement had already targeted Stupak and declared victory after he announced his retirement.

Well, I want to bring back our CNN senior political analysts, Gloria Borger and David Gergen and ask, more broadly, what kind of influence does the Tea Party have now?

We saw what happened with Stupak.

Could it happen to many other vulnerable candidates?

Either one, jump in.

BORGER: Well, I...

GERGEN: Gloria, go ahead.

BORGER: I think it -- you know, I -- I think it could. I mean you heard what Dana was saying, that Stupak said it's not the Tea Party movement. But clearly, I think, what we're seeing is Republican candidates pay a lot of attention to the Tea Party movement. And that may be where we see the most deal of impact, because in the Republican Party, they're -- they're raising candidates who can challenge Republicans in primaries and split the Republican Party.

And as we were talking about before, in this next Supreme Court fight, we'll see the influence of the Tea Party and how Republican senators behave toward the nominee. So I do think you see a real influence there.

GERGEN: And let me just say, Suzanne, that we should be clear about one thing. Even though he was being hit both from the left and from the right, Bart Stupak, had he remained in the election, very likely would have won.

BORGER: Right.

GERGEN: He's been winning in there -- in that district -- since 1992 by around 57 percent on a regular basis. He would have been a solid candidate, a solid favorite to win.

This con -- this confluence of the Tea Party coming in one night and him announcing it the next day does give the Tea Party something to seize on. It's a -- it's a symbolic kind of victory for them. And I do think this -- it comes at a moment when the Tea Party influence is growing.

They've just formed this federation, you know, some 21 groups have come together. They're trying to coordinate their message better than they have. This gives them a great day for messaging.

And I do think. You're going to see their influence grow. But I don't think yet that they're at a place where they can a national election. But they may be able to draw Republicans to the right at the Congressional and presidential level and they may exercise vetoes and -- in a fair number of places in the country over who Republicans nominate.

MALVEAUX: All right, we'll see.

BORGER: You know, I think...

MALVEAUX: All right, Gloria, you're going to have to make it real quick here.

BORGER: I was just going to say I think David's point is really good, which is that the next step for the Tea Party is a message and a clear message. And that's something we don't see at this point.

MALVEAUX: All right. Thanks so much, Gloria and David.

We'll get back to you in a bit.

Another story we are following -- the wait that has been agonizing for families of four missing West Virginia miners.

Our CNN's Brian Todd takes us through a drill to get an idea of the latest obstacle that rescuers are up against.

And also, political unrest escalates in Thailand. Anti-government protesters storm a television station and clash with soldiers and police.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) MALVEAUX: Lisa Sylvester is monitoring some of the top stories that are coming into THE SITUATION ROOM right now -- hi, Lisa.

Good to see you.

What are you working on?

SYLVESTER: Hi there, Suzanne.

Well, North Korea calls President Obama's new nuclear policy "hostile" and says it will go forward with plans to expand its own nuclear arsenal. The communist country accused the administration of being "hell bent on posing a nuclear threat to North Korea." President Obama pledged Tuesday to refrain from using nuclear weapons against countries complying with non-proliferation standards. Its policy, though, leaves North Korea and Iran at risk.

Thailand's prime minister calls today's storming of a key TV compound by red-shirted protesters in Bangkok "arrogant." The actions sent soldiers and police in retreat, despite tear gas canisters and water cannons. It also forced the government to restore the TV channel, which had been shut down. Protesters, as you can see, they've been demonstrating for a new government for the past month.

And Qatar says its diplomat -- you know, the one who stirred up a bomb scare on a United Airlines flight to Denver this week -- will be sent home, but he won't be flying United.

When Mohammed Al-Madadi tried to board a United flight to return to Washington yesterday, the airline turned him away. It says he violated federal law on Wednesday's Denver bound plane when he was caught smoking in the bathroom. His joke about setting his shoes on fire prompted the scare. So he is on his way back home.

And, apparently, Suzanne, not -- United is not taking him there.

MALVEAUX: Not United.



Thank you.

SYLVESTER: He's not welcome there.

MALVEAUX: Thank you, Lisa.

Well, in West Virginia, mine rescuers -- they're facing a string of obstacles that are stalling their efforts. We're going take a look at training technology to learn how some teams cope with one dangerous obstacle in particular.

And the speaker -- she wore red and she got a room of Republicans all fired up. Sarah Palin takes the podium at the GOP Leadership Conference in New Orleans. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)


Happening now, Congress is now in the crosshairs -- threats against lawmakers are surging. And we're going to look at what law enforcement officials are doing about it.

And Virginians are speaking out on the controversy over Confederate History Month. We're going to show you what they're saying on the streets of Richmond and at a Civil War reenactment.

Wolf Blitzer is off today.

I'm Suzanne Malveaux.


Well, rescue teams are now back in that mine in West Virginia. They are searching for the four miners missing since that huge explosion that happened earlier in the week.

Our CNN's Brian Todd, he is on the scene -- Brian, we know that search and rescue operations, they've run into an obstacle earlier in the day.

Tell us just how difficult this has been.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Suzanne, two major problems led to rescuers being evacuated earlier today. Levels of toxic gas were high enough that they could have conceivably led to another explosion. And a second significant hazard cropped up, that the rescuers could see firsthand.


TODD: (voice-over): Another gut-wrenching setback forces rescuers to evacuate these tunnels before being sent back in again.

KEVIN STRICKLIN, U.S. MINE SAFETY & HEALTH ADMINISTRATION: We have smoke in all four of those entries. And the smoke is traveling from this side toward the lone wolf face, indicating that we have a fire somewhere.

TODD: Officials later said they managed to clear much of the smoke by injecting nitrogen. But the procedure caused a critical delay and raised the possibility that rescuers could encounter fire deeper in the mine.

To get a read on what that could put them up against, we went through a fire simulator with Jerry Bailey, an expert at the National Mine Health & Safety Academy.

(on camera): How much of a setback is a fire for a standard rescue operation? JERRY BAILEY, NATIONAL MINE HEALTH & SAFETY ACADEMY: The teams could possibly attack it, if it were small enough, they had equipment. With the methane gas, they have to ever be aware that you could have another ignition.

TODD: (voice-over): Bailey says in some cases, one team of rescuers could fight a fire inside a mine, while another team searches for miners.

BAILEY: There would have to be an alternate route. You cannot go through the fire.

TODD: He says fires can burn even deep inside coal walls, can spread very quick if they catch on conveyor belts and often destabilize mine roofs, causing them to collapse. The rescue teams' weapons are critical. I put on one of their suits -- roughly 70 pounds of protective gear.

(on camera): One extraordinary piece of equipment that rescue teams and fire brigades have is something called the BG-4. It's a self- contained breathing apparatus that essentially lets you recycle the air that you breathe.

We're going to show you how this works. One of the officials here is going to prop this open. And these chambers in the back essentially remove the carbon dioxide that you breathe out and replace it with medical grade oxygen. That means that this tank you're breathing from is good for four hours of oxygen inside a mine, as opposed to 30 minutes with a standard oxygen tank.

(voice-over): A thermal imaging camera can pick up a stranded miner not seen by the naked eye. But high methane gas levels in the Upper Big Branch Mine could make this tool inoperable.

Those toxic gases in this mine, Bailey says, could force rescue teams to fight fires indirectly.

BAILEY: Maybe flooding in a certain area or -- or actually trying to keep the oxygen from a particular area where the fire is.


TODD: Bailey says sometimes fire brigades can flood or cut off oxygen to huge areas of these mine shafts. But he says in this situation, they can only do that in very small sections because of the possibility that someone could still be alive down there -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: All right.

Brian, thank you so much.

We have got more news.

We'll get right back to you.

Thanks again, Brian. Some high profile speakers, they are taking center stage today at a gathering of Republican Party insiders in New Orleans. Our CNN chief political correspondent, Candy Crowley, she is there covering this for us. And, Candy, one of the main speakers here, obviously, was Sarah Palin, and I saw from some of the videos, she got just amazing applause erupting from this audience. What was her message?

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: It's interesting. You know how we've talked a lot about how people said, particularly, after the Palin book came out, she needs to talk substance, if he's going to run in 2012, she's going to have to talk policy, and today, she talked policy, but it was President Obama's policy.


SARAH PALIN: Now we've got the makings of the Obama doctrine, which is coddling enemies and alienating allies. Now, the president, with all the vast nuclear experience that he acquired as a community organizer and as a part-time senator, and as a full-time candidate, all that experience, still no accomplishment to date with North Korea and Iran.


CROWLEY: Now obviously Suzanne, that last part, a response to President Obama who in an interview right after he had signed that knew S.T.A.R.T. treaty was he was asked about Sarah Palin's criticism of that, and he said, you know, it's not like she has any foreign policy experience, words to that effect. So that, of course, was a reply to the president. And what's also interesting here is this was supposed to be sort of a table setter for 2010.

How are the Republicans going to go into it? There's a real sense they could make great head way here, but honestly, the vibe here is far 2012 and the presidential election than it is 2010. Although, they do, Suzanne, talk about we need to get out there and we need to fight and we need to stand up for our principles. But a lot of things you could read through the prism of 2012.

MALVEAUX: Candy I'm curious about how she was received with this group, the Southern Republican Leadership Conference, in the past, there've been Grass Roots Republicans Organizations, young people that she's rallied, this is more establishment GOP. How did they respond to her?

CROWLEY: Yes, very much. She got what is sort of the Palin welcome, what we have seen everywhere when you're talking about conservatives. I mean, these are as you say long-time activists in the Republican Party who come here. She got many standing ovations. Lots of posters, you know, Palin 2012, her name being yelled when it was over, they rushed the stage, asked her for autograph, that kind of thing. So, she definitely like she is most places is the electricity in this room. Others were well received, said very much some of the same things, hers had a lot of sharp elbows to it, but she was very well received.

MALVEAUX: All right. Candy great to see you. We'll see you on "State of the Union" 9:00 eastern on Sunday. Thanks, Candy Crowley.

John Paul Stevens announces that he's stepping down from the Supreme Court. We're going to look back of remarkable career that touched many of those important and controversial issues of our time.

And political turmoil in a key central Asian ally. We're going to get the latest.


MALVEAUX: More now on the retirement of Supreme Court Juice John Paul Stevens. His tenure has been marked by hard work, considerable influence, and more than a few surprises. Our CNN's Lisa Sylvester shows more.


LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): With his trademark bowtie, Justice John Paul Stevens is known for being unassuming, nice, even a humble man who happens to have one of the sharpest legal minds you'll ever encounter. Born and raised in Chicago, he joined the navy as an intelligence officer after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Following the war, he went to law school, telling CNN that at the time it seemed like a sensible move.

In 1975, Stevens was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Jerald Ford and confirmed by a unanimous senate vote. He is to many somewhat of a paradox, a lifelong Republican who championed many liberal causes, oppose to the death penalty, supporting the right to abortion and the right of Guantanamo Bay detainees to challenge their detention.

CLIFFORD SLOAN, FORMER LAW CLERK: Justice Stevens is probably one of the least known justices publicly, and it's ironic, because he has had as big an impact on the Supreme Court and on American society as any justice.

SYLVESTER: During his three decades on the bench, he's written so many dissenting opinions that he's earned the nickname Maverick. Perhaps, most notably is his dissent to the Bush versus Gore case that determined the outcome of the 2000 presidential election. Stevens wrote quote, "although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year's presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear." It is the nation's confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the law.

And Stevens has not been a slouch, writing the first drafts of his opinions, something rare among justices. Despite stamped as a liberal judge, he sometimes win his own way. In 1989, he wrote another powerful dissent breaking with the majority that said flag burning was protected by the first amendment. Stevens, the navy veteran disagreed.

EDWARD LAZARUS, SUPREME COURT ANALYST: I don't think anybody who heard him read that dissent, the passion with which he looked to the flag and what it meant for him could really ever think about the American flag the same way when you look at it.

SYLVESTER: Law professor, Paul Rothstein says Stevens is exiting at a time when the court is trending to the right, but his legacy is in the voice that he's leaving behind.

PROF. PAUL ROTHSTEIN, GEORGETOWN UNIV. LAW SCHOOL: He was on a lot of majority opinions that upheld liberal things like affirmative action, expanded abortion rights and did carry the day on a lot of things he didn't carry the day, but he was a powerful voice in dissent and that will live on.


SYLVESTER (on-camera): Stevens was once thought to be an establishment Republic can who became the voice of the liberal wing of the court. But another justice, Harry Blackman once recounted the story. He was talking to Stevens about ideology, and both men said they had not changed their views, but it was the court that had changed under them, a remark that points the conservative leaning of the high court -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: All right. Thank you so much, Lisa. Very interesting.

We could see a nominee to replace Justice Stevens within days, that is if history has any guide. So, check this out, nine of the last 14 Supreme Court nominees were named within six days of the vacancy announcement. Now, the fastest in recent history was the nomination of William Rehnquist to replace Berger as chief justice. President Reagan announced it the same day that Berger announced his retirement. More recently, President George W. Bush nominated Samuel Alito four days after his initial pick, Harriet Myers withdrew her nomination and 120 days after Justice Sandra Day O'connor announced her retirement.

Now, President Obama took 25 days to nominate Sonia Sotomayor to replace Justice David Souter. Who will President Obama select to replace Supreme Court Justice Stevens. We're going to get advice from two former presidential advisers and the poppy harvest in Afghanistan is fast approaching. Why could it spell danger for U.S. troops on the ground?


MALVEAUX: It's an issue that is hammering the man at the helm of the Republican Party. Now, some members of the RNC are getting behind Michael Steele in a very public way, for that and more, I'm joined for a strategy session by two CNN political contributors, Democratic strategist Paul Begala and Republican strategist, Ed Rollins. Thank you joining us in the SITUATION ROOM.

I'm going to start off with what's happening with Michael Steele here. Obviously, this is a very important convention among Republican leaders going on in New Orleans. There is a letter that is being circulated among the membership of the RNC, and now so far, our last count, 58 members have signed on for this in support of the chairman, support of Michael Steele. This odyssey comes after two terrible weeks for chairman and two members of the RNC calling for his resignation. I want to start of with you Ed, is this enough to save Michael Steele? Is he turning a corner?

ED ROLLINS, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Michael Steele is not going to be voted out by the committee. It takes a 2/3 vote. There's 168 members of the committee, obviously, he's got a third of them right there. More important thing, if you're the chairman, you would expect to have 168 people signing a letter immediately. I think there's still a lot of opposition to Michael. I think there's a lot of people very disappointed in his tenure, but the only one that can make him go away is himself. If he does go away, then I think he basically has to put his nose to the grindstone, go raise money, and not make any mistakes.

MALVEAUX: And Paul, in this letter, they said a couple of things but key was that it pays job to raise money and to win races, and that's exactly what he's doing. More than 100 million and some very key races in places like Virginia, Massachusetts and New Jersey. So, according to them, he is doing his job, does this help or hurt the Democrats?

PAUL BEGALA, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: First, I like him as a guy. He's a charming guy. He's got a good sense of humor. He's clearly bright. He is a difficult person to hate, I think; although many Republicans have found it in their hearts to hate him. As a Democrat, also I kind of like him because he is controversial. He sometimes says things that are politically incorrect, makes a good copy for us and it's kind of good for us, democrats. Every party needs to focus on poll workers, and of course, strippers work to polls in a different way though I think and he has apparently --.

MALVEAUX: I can't believe you said that, Paul.

BEGALA: I'm pro-stripper. I am pro-stripper. Those are working women who need to be -- that's their deal. And it does show, I think it's a little embarrassing because it's a little hypocritical. But any time a party has to circulate a letter defending it's own chairman, the party is not having a good day.

MALVEAUX: In all fairness, I mean, Steele did come out and try to explain and apologize for that incident you're talking about, the dancers and the strippers that he was not aware of that. But I do want to bring this to you, he is scheduled to go before this group and make a major speech on Saturday. What does he need to say to his fellow Republicans to get them on board here and to move past what some of the things that Paul is talking about here?

ROLLINS: First of all, he has to assure people that mistakes that have been made in the fundraising, this wasn't the first, this was one of several or going to be corrected (ph). Equally as important, he's going to cut out the debts and all the fancy travel that he's been doing and the committee has been doing, misspending donor money. He has to promise these people that the money you give us to this party is going to go to help defeat Democrats. If he does that, maybe he gets by.

End of the day, chairman sometimes gets too credit. Those three races we talk about, Michael Steele did not win the race in Massachusetts or the race in New Jersey or the race in Virginia. Did he help a little bit? Maybe, that's the job of the chairman. But those candidates won those races and I think to a certain extent, Chairman get too much credit, too much blame, but in this case, he needs to get focused.

MALVEAUX: We have some other Republican groups that have been very vocal lately. Tony Parkins of the Family research Council and you had prominent Republican Ed Gillespie, he has his own group. Both of them calling for Republicans to donate to their groups, donate directly to the candidates, not to the RNC, how important, how significant is this group, this Southern Republican Leadership Conference?

ROLLINS: If you're asking me, it's a very important group, the South is a very important part of our base, and this has always been a very strong conservative group. So I would expect after Sarah Palin getting this wonderful applause and response today that if Michael Steele doesn't do the same, and if it's a lukewarm applause audience, he knows he's in deeper trouble than he thinks he is.

MALVEAUX: Paul when we turn to you real quick here on supreme court nominees, what would you advise President Obama who now has another opportunity to nominate a Supreme Court Justice, what should he be looking for?

BEGALA: He certainly set the mark with Justice Sotomayor, superbly qualified individual. She was confirmed relatively easily. I'd also look at what Clinton, Reagan and Bush did, they all picked highly qualified people who ultimately were confirmed. However, I do hope with all respect to Justice Stevens who came from the appeal court and served with great distinction and dignity, I hope they reach beyond priesthood of a court justices. Every single one of those Supreme Court justices today was on the appellate courts. There's other places to find good lawyers, in America law schools, even say the United States senate. If you really want to think out of the box, the most popular person in America who happens to have a law degree, Michelle Obama. Put Michelle on the court. How about that?

MALVEAUX: There's a new one for us. That's the first time I've heard that recommendation.

BEGALA: I would put Biden on the court and solve two problems at the same time.

MALVEAUX: And I want to ask you because you've got direct experience, your judicial selection of panel before and advising some of the people who are now on the Supreme Court, including O'Connor, Scalia, Rehnquist, what would you advise someone --

BEGALA: Here's a very interesting story. We knew we were going to have three judges in the Reagan era and the chief justice. It was always going to be Bork and Scalia, the order got mixed up. It was always when it became the fifth judge that was the battle. Scalia was named a year earlier than Bork. They both came off the D.C. circuit court. He was unanimously voted approved by the Congress. A year later, a man with the same kind of voting records, same kind of capacity gets defeated on a partisan battle. So, I think the key thing here is to pick someone who is not going to have a war who basically will serve your cause, but at the end of the day, not create firestorm of Republicans before the fall election.

MALVEAUX: All right. Ed Rollins, Paul Begala, thank you so much.

The leader of the free world and his wife, they're a married couple too, and they have their special moments, and we managed to catch one of those moments on video. So, we're going to share that with you in just a little bit.

And Russia is threatening to halt adoptions of its orphans by Americans. What one woman did to stir Moscow's outrage?


MALVEAUX: It's a critical source of power for the Taliban in Afghanistan. That is opium. And with the poppy harvest fast approaching, insurgents could soon be raking in large amounts of cash. So, what if this creates a setback for U.S. troops that are fighting there? Our Pentagon correspondent, Chris Lawrence, just has the story.


CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Two months from now, Nato troops will launch a major offense into Kandahar, at the exact moment the Taliban will be flush with new cash.

CAPT. JEREMY WILKINSON, U.S. MARINE CORPS: What I can see is you may see a spike in violence, you know, June timeframe.

LAWRENCE: The poppy fields are like the Taliban bank. Right now, the plants are blooming and just before the big offensive, the harvest wraps up, and the poppy sold off to make heroin.

WILKINSON: And that poppy harvest does aid and support the moneys that they use for fighting.

LAWRENCE: And the money that they're going to make off that harvest come June, does that only stay with the insurgents or the Taliban? Right here in Helmand Province?

WILKINSON: It would impact insurgents across the spectrum of all -- everything, because the enemy is so fluid.

LAWRENCE: We traced the money trail back through Northern Helmand Province to Soufla with the U.S. marine corps is facing down the Taliban.

2ND LT. CODY HARDENBURGH, U.S. MARINE CORPS: From what I believe, this is the forward line of enemy troops. Every other day, we're taking indirect fire.

LAWRENCE: Second Lieutenant Cody Hardenburgh's marines can fire back at the Taliban but can't stop the farmers that are funding them.

HARDENBURGH: It is frustrating. LAWRENCE: The Taliban has its fingers really deep into the poppy crop up in this area. In fact, take a look, no more than 400 meters from the Marine Corps base you can see those farmers openly cultivating their poppy crop. We're told that every few days or so, the Taliban will come by, pick off some bulbs.

HARDENBURGH: What they'll do, and we've seen them do it during the night, they'll hack a few plants that are ready to go and put on it a donkey and just head north.

LAWRENCE: But the marines aren't here for counternarcotics. They're not allowed to slash and burn these fields, because it could turn the entire village against from them.

HARDENBURGH: This is the only thing they know to produce quick money for themselves and their families.

LAWRENCE: But the heroin money that blooms here in April could buy the weapons and bombs used in June.

WILKINSON: It's fair to say that the insurgents in Kandahar could be very well recipients of moneys of poppy that is harvested away from their zone.

LAWRENCE (on-camera): We saw enough poppy in Helmand alone to feed the world's heroin habit. Now, some of those farmers are being intimidated by the Taliban in to growing the crop. Others literally are so poor, they don't have another option. Now, we did see where the marines are starting to push the Taliban out of that area. They say the key is to get the civilian component in there, to give the farmers seeds and other viable crops so they can still make a living. Chris Lawrence, CNN, Kandahar.


MALVEAUX: Virginia is remembering the confederacy, and it's dredging up a lot of very raw and personal emotions. We're going to get two very different accounts of what it means from people who live there, "in their own words."

And I told you that Wolf Blitzer is off today. The question is, where did he go? We're actually going to show you. Up ahead.


MALVEAUX: Lisa Sylvester is monitoring all the other top stories that are coming into "THE SITUATION ROOM" right now. Hey, Lisa, what are you working on?

SYLVESTER: Hi, Suzanne.

The army psychiatrist charged in the deadly Ft. Hood shootings is now behind bars near the base. Major Nidal Hasan was transferred from a San Antonio Military Hospital to the Belle County Jail this morning. Hasan who was paralyzed in the November shootings will be isolated in the jail infirmary under a 24-hour watch. He is charged with 13 counts of premeditated murder and 32 counts of attempted premeditated murder.

First Lady Michelle Obama took a moment to salute U.S. troops today. Joined by Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, Mrs. Obama thanked military and civilian employees for their service. She also emphasized the importance of all Americans doing their part to serve the country.

And just in case you're wondering where Wolf Blitzer is today, you can see him right here. He says, he's having a great time at his old high school in Buffalo. Kenmore West Senior High, taking questions from students, and Wolf is back home to receive an alumni achievement award from his alma mater, the university at Buffalo. And I just checked his tweet, he said he is absolutely thrilled to be there.

We're, of course, glad to have you, Suzanne, but it's nice to see what Wolf's up to.

MALVEAUX: It's great to see you. I mean, you know, Wolf can never really get away without us getting a camera there and following him and making sure we know where he is. I wonder if he's changed very much, do you know what I mean?

SYLVESTER: Yes, it's hard to think of -- imagine a Wolf Blitzer, a 15-year-old or 16-year-old Wolf Blitzer.

MALVEAUX: Probably didn't have the gray hair.

SYLVESTER: Yeah, minus the beard, too.

MALVEAUX: All right, Lisa, thanks so much.