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THE SITUATION ROOM
Wolf Blitzer Debriefs on North Korea Visit; Senator Arlen Specter Criticizes Supreme Court For Judicial Activism
Aired December 21, 2010 - 17:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: Sonny Hostin, thank you.
And now to Wolf Blitzer.
He is back in Washington hosting THE SITUATION ROOM -- Wolf.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Brooke, thanks very much.
Happening now, President Obama is closer to sealing a high priority arms deal with Russia. This hour, the Republicans who are giving him what he wants.
Also, America's new head count -- what it means for the 2012 election. Stand by for the winners and the losers of the Census results.
And I'll take you behind the scenes of my extraordinary trip to North Korea -- my firsthand account of a very dangerous global hot spot and a mission to prevent it from exploding into all-out war.
I'm Wolf Blitzer.
You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
I started today in Pyongyang, North Korea; flew to Beijing, China; now I'm back here in the United States, landed about two-and-a- half hours ago.
I can't tell you enough about this remarkable trip to North Korea. Stand by. We're going to take you inside.
But first, it now looks as though President Obama will pull off another hard-fought win in the closing days of Congress. Just a little while ago, the Senate voted to end debate on the START nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia. That clears the way for a final vote tomorrow.
Let's bring in our senior Congressional correspondent, Dana Bash -- and, Dana, this agreement certainly would not have gotten this far without some last minute critical support from Republicans.
DANA BASH, CNN SR. CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That is so true, Wolf. And it really has been remarkable how Republicans have come together, at least the number that the White House needs, to get that super majority -- the two thirds majority in the Senate for the final vote, expected tomorrow.
If you take a look at the pictures that the Senate Republicans were talking about, some had already publicly stated that they were yeses. Others told us so in the hallway today. But it certainly meant good news for the White House.
Listen to -- I want you to listen to a couple of Republicans; one, Lamar Alexander -- a member of the membership who actually is one of those saying that he is for it and then Lindsey Graham, who is not so happy about that.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. LAMAR ALEXANDER (R), TENNESSEE: I will vote to ratify the new START treaty between the United States and Russia because it leaves our country with enough nuclear warheads to blow any attacker to kingdom come and because the president has committed to an $85 billion, 10 year plan to make sure that those weapons work. In short, I'm convinced that Americans are safer and more secure with the new START treaty than without it.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: I am not proud of this process. I am not proud of this lame duck. I am not proud of what we've been in -- we've been doing as a party, quite frankly, because we've jeopardized the minority standing in future Congresses. But we're setting precedent in a lame duck that I think is unhealthy for the future of this country.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BASH: There you heard, Wolf, a not so subtle dig by Lindsey Graham at his fellow Republicans, saying that Republicans, on this issue and others, compromising with Democrats, have hurt Republicans in general.
His issue is that in process, but also on substance, as is the issue of many of other Senate Republicans who we expect to vote no tomorrow -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Lindsey Graham is a good friend of Senator John McCain. As you know, Dana, he's been outspoken against the START treaty. But some Democrats think they may have a shot at getting him into the yea column.
What are you hearing?
BASH: I am hearing that they do have a shot. This is fascinating, Wolf. You're right, he has been a skeptic of the treaty, a real opponent of this process. But I saw him in a -- in a frenzy of discussions with Jon Kyl and other Republicans standing outside of Vice President Biden's office here in the Senate. The vice president was in there. And it turns out that he is working on an amendment, which there could be a vote on as early as tonight, which may assuage his concerns.
Essentially what it says is that the missile defense system that is already being developed in the U.S. and Europe, that this treaty would have no bearing on that and -- and the Russians need to know that.
Now, it wouldn't change the terms of the treaty, but it would make U.S. policy clearer. And that is one of the main concerns of John McCain.
I'm told by sources involved in this process on both the Democrat and Republican side that they wouldn't be surprised that, at the end of the day, if they get that amendment, they get John McCain, which would be pretty remarkable.
BLITZER: Yes. It would be significant, indeed.
Diana, thanks very much.
We'll stand by for the final vote tomorrow.
The new START Treaty would reduce the nuclear arsenals of both of the United States and Russia, cutting the maximum number of strategic warheads by about a third. The 10 year pact includes a process for each nation to check up on the other, including on site nuclear inspections. It needs 67 votes to be ratified by the United States Senate.
Now, the United States by the numbers. There are over 308 million people in the country right now, according to a 2010 Census report released today. The population grew in Western and Southern states -- Republican leaning areas that will gain seats in Congress. These eight states will get additional members in the U.S. House -- Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Nevada, South Carolina, Texas, Utah and Washington. Ten states will lose House members -- Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania. President Obama won all but two of those states back in 2008.
Let's bring in our White House correspondent, Dan Lothian.
He's getting reaction from the Obama administration -- Dan, what are they saying?
DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, White House spokesman, Robert Gibbs, saying today that he doesn't think that this will have a huge practical impact. Yes, under these new Census numbers, the president would get fewer electoral votes in 2012. But if you look at the wide margin of victory that the president had in 2008, this would not have been a factor at all. What this would have come into play would have been in like in 2000, when the race was much tighter. The bottom line, though, is what we're talking about here, is the 2012 campaign, which the president has not formally said that he is running, although all signs are there that he will. And most experts believe that it won't be the Census that will be driving the voters at that time, that it really will be the economy, the economic recovery -- how far that has come along, how people are feeling about their economic situations. That will be the driver when they head to the polls, not the Census numbers -- Wolf.
BLITZER: All right. Let's talk about the president a little bit, Dan.
What's left on his plate this week, before Christmas?
LOTHIAN: Well, you know, as Dana was just talking about there, he wants to tie the bow on the -- the ratification of that START Treaty. Also, tomorrow morning, the president will be signing a "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" repeal. And then we expect a press conference from the president before he heads out to Hawaii. But one of the things that he's also laying the groundwork for and will be focused on in the next session is, of course, immigration issues. Today, he was meeting with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, discussing various issues, including the failure of the DREAM Act, which, of course, would have provided a pathway for citizenship for those younger, illegal immigrants if they were to join the military or went to college.
It was a big disappointment for this White House, the president talking with those members about the way forward in the next session. But, of course, some challenges there because Republicans will have the -- the leadership in the House. And this is something the Republicans have been fighting against in this session -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Still, you know, I don't think he can complain, with the -- the tax cut deal, the START Treaty about to be ratified, the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" repeal approved by Congress. He got some stuff that he wanted accomplished in these final days before the recess.
LOTHIAN: He really did, Wolf. And you look just a few weeks ago, when he was laying out this ambitious agenda, there were a lot of critics out there who said can the president really get all of this done during this truncated period of time?
The president, of course, has been very busy working the phones, leaning on not only Republicans, but also Democrats. And that is what the White House believes has -- has led to some of these victories.
BLITZER: Dan Lothian is over at the White House.
All right, stand by for the inside story on my trip to North Korea. I saw things very few journalists get a chance to see in a secretive and dangerous country. And I was surprised by the reaction I got from the country's top nuclear negotiator. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
KIM KYE GWAN, NORTH KOREA CHIEF NUCLEAR NEGOTIATOR (through translator): I think you are the only one who has THE SITUATION ROOM except President Obama.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: We had a good laugh.
The -- the men and women, also, who rescued people on 9/11 -- they got sick because of it. They are pleading with Congress to help them out. Stand by for that.
And Al Qaeda terrorists may be considering a new tactic -- targeting salad bars and buffets.
BLITZER: The New Mexico governor, Bill Richardson, is calling his trip to North Korea a success. He's on his way back to New Mexico right now.
As you may know, I was the only TV journalist to travel with a former U.N. ambassador on what was described as a private diplomatic mission to the communist nation. I landed here in New York just within the past few hours after an extraordinary journey.
The State Department and the White House, I have no doubt, they are eager to debrief Governor Richardson, but I understand our senior political analyst, Gloria Borger, is eager to debrief me as well.
Go ahead, Gloria. Ask whatever you want, I'll tell you the truth, the whole truth, nothing but the truth.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I get the first crack at asking you the questions we've all here in THE SITUATION ROOM have been wanting to ask you while you were gone.
And, Wolf, we know what a tense situation this has been on the Korean peninsula. Do you think that the North and the South Koreans, from what you were observing, were really on the brink of war?
BLITZER: Yes, I was convinced that it was the worst crisis since 1953 in the Armistice.
Once the South Koreans said they were going to go with the live fire exercise and the North Korean military issued a statement saying if they did that, there would be a military response from North Korea with catastrophic consequents, I got very, very nervous.
I had a tough time, after all these years as a journalist, getting a visa to get into North Korea.
BORGER: Right. BLITZER: But immediately, I was afraid I wasn't going to get out because I immediately assumed they would shutdown the airport and I would be stuck in North Korea if there were all out hostilities.
For the North Korean military to back down later and say, you know, these exercises weren't worth a military response, that's significant. We'll talk a little bit about that in the next hour.
But I will point out, Gloria, that at one point, it looked like we weren't going to get out, and I was thinking about other alternative routes. I know Governor Richardson was as well, maybe even finding a way to drive out of North Korea through China if, in fact, that was possible.
But we were pretty worried.
BORGER: You were worried that they were going to keep you there. I mean, was that a tense moment? What was the tensest moment for you, both as a journalist and somebody who was there accompanying Governor Richardson?
BLITZER: Well, I think the tensest moment for me, personally, was when I started watching North Korean television and listening to their radio. As someone who has covered the communist world back in the '70s and '80s during the height of the Cold War, and I began hearing some martial music on North Korean television. You know, very patriotic, very military. And I said to myself, are they preparing the North Korean people for some sort of war, once you hear that kind of music.
Normally, they have very patriotic music going on North Korean television, but it's lovely and they've got women dancing and stuff like that. But this suggested to me that maybe there was a change and at that point I said, well, maybe the North Koreans are serious and they're going to start something. Once I heard that music, I began to wonder, am I going to get out of North Korea?
On the other hand as a journalist, I said, well, it's probably a good location to be if there's going to be a war, at least I could cover it from one side.
BORGER: Well, as it turns out, obviously, as well all know, there wasn't.
And I guess we have to ask you, from what you were allowed to see, was the reality of life in North Korea, at least in the capital, what you expected? You know, we hear all of these stories about Pyongyang being so economically depressed and such a military case state.
BLITZER: You know, I had read about North Korea over so many years and spoken to people who had been there. I had the my little preconceived notions before I left, but I have to tell you, it was a lot different when I was actually in an eye-witness opportunity to see what was going on. I did not get the impression -- for 60 years or so, people had been predicting it's -- you know, eventual demise. At some point, this country was going to crumble, it was going to topple, the communist regime would go down. I saw no indications of that.
I saw a lot of poverty. I saw a poor country, harsh economic conditions, lack of electricity. You go into a huge building, there may be heat in one room where there's a meeting going on, but in the rest of the rooms, it's cold. You have to wear your coat.
You go into schools or the university. I went to the main university in Pyongyang, Kim Il-sung University, and the students, they're are all well dressed, but they're all wearing overcoats and they're all -- it's cold in there.
You have no electricity. You drive outside of Pyongyang, we went into the countryside. You go through a mountain, through a tunnel, it could be a half-a -mile tunnel and you're driving through there. There are no other cars there, you're the only other car there, very few cars outside of Pyongyang. But you go through the tunnel, it is dark. There is electricity in the tunnel, no lights in there. You've got the lights from your headlights from the car, but that is about it.
It underscores what's going on. They need power, they need electricity. They -- that's in part why they say they need these nuclear programs that they're engaged in. Although, the nuclear weapons program, obviously, is their number one priority right now.
But it's a lot different when you see it up close. The people are not robotic. They're real people, young kids, sweet kids. And they're human beings, and you get that sense seeing it up close.
BORGER: But you know, you're someone who's all about technology. I know you, you're tethered to your Blackberry, you work for television.
What is it like to be somewhere where the technology is just not as omnipresent as it is here in America?
BLITZER: They have the technology, but they don't let you have access. I didn't have access to the Internet, didn't have access to a cell phone. We could see CNN International in our hotel room, but that was about it.
I had a hard line phone in my hotel room, I could make calls to the United States at about $10 a minute; I could not receive calls from the United States.
And we always had North Korean officials who were with us watching all the time, and I stress, all of the time.
So it's a strange environment. But they treated me with respect. They were nice, they spoke English. I never felt intimidated or worried about my personal safety. I was worried about a war erupting, and as a result, I didn't know I was going to get out of there. But they know how to deal with it. They're pretty sophisticated, the North Korean elite, the leadership. I was impressed by that. And as I said, they dealt with me. And we had a reporter from "The New York Times" who was there, our photographer was there. So all of us, you know, we dealt with the situation as it is. It's not a very transparent society, as you know.
BORGER: Were the elite you were talking to asking you questions about President Obama, the politics in this country? Were they essentially using you as a source?
BLITZER: They wanted to know what I thought about all those kinds of things. But I think more importantly, they certainly wanted to convey a message through Governor Richardson.
He may have been there on a private visit, they -- he said he was a private citizen. They didn't think he was a private citizen, they thought he was a representative of the United States government. They certainly wanted to convey messages through him to the U.S., to the Obama administration.
But I think they also were also trying to me, "The New York Times" -- Sharon Lafraniere, who was the other reporter for "The New York Times" -- they obviously had their own agenda and they tried to convey that. But they were picking my brain.
You know, how strong is President Obama? What about Hillary Clinton? What's going on in Washington? Stuff like that, and so, they were curious. But I had a sense they had a pretty good sense of what was going on. They followed these things, the situation very closely.
They knew all about CNN and they certainly knew all about "THE SITUATION ROOM." We'll have a clip for you later about -- well, let me play that clip for you right now.
BLITZER: When I met with -- Richardson went to meet with the chief nuclear negotiator of North Korea, Kim Kye Gwan, and as he introduced me, this was the exchange that we had.
I'll play it for you.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GWAN (via translator): It's my first time to see you after (INAUDIBLE) CNN.
BLITZER: Thank you very much. Thank you for letting me come here with Governor Richardson to North Korea.
GWAN: I am personally very happy to be able to meet with you, Mr. Wolf, who I presume to have the same power as the American president.
BLITZER: Thank you very much for that compliment. I don't think it's true.
But it was very nice to hear from you. We hope that CNN will have an opportunity to come visit North Korea on many occasions.
GWAN: I think you're the only one who has THE SITUATION ROOM, except President Obama.
BLITZER: Thank you very much.
And thank you very much. In the hotel we're staying, we can watch CNN International, which is very nice to be able to see what's happening here in Pyongyang watching CNN.
GWAN: So, this time, you're here with Governor Bill Richardson, and next time I'm inviting you to come to Pyongyang again.
BLITZER: Thank you very much. And I hope either this time or the next time, you and I can sit down for a CNN interview. Our viewers in the United States and around the world would be grateful.
GWAN (speaking): Why not?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: As you hear, Gloria, he answered in English, "why not?" I took him up on his offer. So they invited me to come back, I'll go back at some point.
They're gearing up in 2012 for the 100th anniversary of the birth Kim Il-sung, the founder, the father of North Korea. They're going to have huge events going on. Maybe I'll go for then, maybe I'll go back earlier.
I just hope one thing, Gloria, I don't have to go back for a war.
BLITZER: We're going to talk about what's going on the ground right now, whether there's an opportunity to ease this crisis somewhat in the next hour.
But it's -- in short, it's a fascinating, fascinating country. I hope you and a lot of other folks have a chance to visit it at some point down the road.
BORGER: Somehow, Wolf, I think that was his first press availability. What do you think?
BLITZER: Yes. No, he was pretty sophisticated. All of these North Korean leaders that Richardson met with, they knew what was going on. I was sort of impressed with that.
But we'll continue the conversation --
BORGER: We will.
BLITZER: -- in next hour.
BLITZER: Thanks very much.
We're monitoring other important top stories, including a suspicious odor forcing evacuations at the United Nations. We're going to tell you whether anyone was at serious risk.
Also, a long-time senator slamming some Supreme Court justices, why he says -- and I'm quoting -- I'm quoting him now, "the court has been eating Congress' lunch."
And the government establishes controversial new rules that could impact your Internet access. We'll have the details coming up.
BLITZER: Kate Bolduan is monitoring some of the other top stories in "THE SITUATION ROOM" right now, including a sudden evacuation over at the United Nations.
Kate, what's going on?
KATE BOLDUAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey there, Wolf. Some interesting moments we want to tell you about. Let's get right to it.
A suspicious odor prompted the evacuation of the United Nations Security Council today. U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice says authorities were investigating the possibility it was some sort of sulfur and methane combination. The incident delayed meetings as diplomats were moved to a separate building inside the U.N. complex. U.N. officials later said the gases were not harmful.
And Iraqis have a new government. More than nine months after a highly contested national election, the country's parliament has officially voted in the partial cabinet of Prime Minister Nouri al- Maliki. President Obama is calling the vote a, quote, "significant moment in Iraq's history." The U.S. is set to withdrawal all of its troops from the country at the end of next year.
And outgoing Republican turned Democratic Senator Arlen Specter has some strong pretty parting words for the Supreme Court's conservative justices. The former Judiciary Committee chairman used his final speech on the Senate floor to attack a controversial court decision.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) SEN. ARLEN SPECTER (D), $PENNSYLVANIA: This Congress should try to stop the Supreme Court from further eroding the constitutional mandate of separation of powers. The Supreme Court has been eating Congress' lunch by invalidating legislation with judicial activism after nominees commit under oath in confirmations for saving some respect for congressional fact finding and precedents, that is star decisive. The recent decision in Citizens United is illustrative.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BOLDUAN: The Citizens United decision relaxed federally imposed campaign finance regulations for corporations and unions.
Specter, who left the GOP in 2009, you'll remember, lost Pennsylvania's Democratic primary earlier this year.
And finally, the man many of us know best as Detective Arthur Dietrich on the hit show Barry Miller -- "Barney Miller," rather, I'm sorry -- has died of cancer. Actor Steve Landesberg who starred in the sitcom during the late '70s and early '80s also made guest appearances on "Saturday Night Live," "The Golden Girls," and "Law & Order." He was 65 years old.
Wolf, a wonderful career.
BLITZER: Talented. So young, too. But you know what? He left a lot of us very, very happy.
Thanks very much, Kate, for that.
New backlash against the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Just hours before it becomes the law, there is a move to ban gays from one state's National Guard.
And 9/11 first responders pleading with Congress to stop making excuses and help them stay alive.
And after 25 years, a new move to free a famous spy. Why a U.S. ally is planning to make a public appeal.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right now we'll take a position, articulate and defend the position based --
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Some of the first rescuers on the scene on 9/11, they're fighting a new life-and-death battle right now, and they joined New York's senators today in pleading desperately with Congress to approve health benefits for colleagues who got sick at Ground Zero during those days, weeks and months. One advocate of the bill focused much of his anger on a single Republican senator, Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JOHN FEAL, 9/11 HEALTH BILL ADVOCATE: No sound bites, no crap today. I implore Senator Coburn -- and correct me if I'm wrong, the senator is a doctor, right? So, I'm not the smartest guy in this room, but a doctor who's against helping people that are sick, figure that out.
To Republican leadership, to the White House, you can't play games anymore. You didn't like the pay-for, they fixed the pay-for. You cannot hide behind anything anymore other than you do not want to help heroes. You have no more excuses with me.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: The 9/11 health bill has been in limbo since Thursday, when Senate Democrats couldn't muster enough Republican votes to open debate on the issue. Since then, they tweaked the bill, they trimmed its cost, hoping to get some Republican support they desperately need.
Let's bring in our senior political analyst, David Gergen.
David, are you surprised this bill is facing so much Republican opposition that it's actually in jeopardy?
DAVID GERGEN, CNN SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: Sure am, Wolf. Welcome back. And you're here for the final hours of what has been a tumultuous lame-duck session. Anything but lame.
And after START passes, as it will here in the next hours, it looks like the final fight. And I just don't think the Republicans can hold on this, Wolf.
It is expensive. It's about a $7.5 billion cost for a decade for health care costs, but these are first responders, people who went there during the emergencies, and then the people who came in for the cleanup who had gotten sick from toxic materials of one kind or another. And the Republicans, having fought and won to preserve tax breaks for affluent Americans, I just do not think that in good conscience, they can now oppose something to help the 9/11 victims.
BLITZER: David, if the bill doesn't pass, should Republicans be worried the Democrats will pound them for being unsympathetic to 9/11 first responders?
GERGEN: It's not only going to be the Democrats, Wolf. There are a lot of people -- a lot of commentators on the conservative side who believe, and there are others like Mayor Bloomberg, of course, who believe that this is the right thing to do.
It's hard to understand, frankly, how here we are, nine years later, why these folks aren't covered already. But to have people who got sick because they went in to help, and put their lives on the line, in many cases, it's just not going to stand. I think most Republicans know that. And my bet is that it will pass before Congress comes home.
BLITZER: It's a sensitive, sensitive issue, indeed. All right, David. Thanks -- thanks very, very much.
GERGEN: Thank you.
BLITZER: President Obama is set to sign the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" into law tomorrow. There's already some backlash. One state may even be considering its own ban on allowing gays to serve openly in uniform.
Our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, has been looking into that part of the story for us.
What's going on, Barbara?
BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, in the state of Virginia, the state delegate, Rob Marshall, a Republican, says he wants to introduce legislation in the next session that would indeed ban gays and lesbians from serving in the Virginia National Guard. Now, this all comes down to the question, does he have support for it? It's very questionable right now. The legal question is whether a state has the right to form its own militia even if it's in contrast with federal law.
Listen to why Rob Marshall says he has the right to have this legislation.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BOB MARSHALL (R), VIRGINIA STATE ASSEMBLY: There are dual sovereignties. And when the Constitution says the states pick the officers, it doesn't mean the Pentagon. It doesn't mean anybody else. It means the state legislatures pick the officers. It means the states have this inherent right of police power and self-defense to form the National Guard. We used to call it the militia.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
STARR: Well, now I have to tell you, Wolf, we've talked to a number of legal experts who say equal protection laws in the federal government would not allow this to stand, that it would not be legal. And even in the state of Virginia, the Republican governor, McDonnell, says even though he did not originally support the ban of -- the repeal of the federal ban on gays and lesbians in the U.S. military, now that it is being signed into law by President Obama tomorrow, he is saluting smartly and he supports having the same law for everyone -- the U.S. military, the National Guard, the Reserve, for everybody.
There may be a really good reason for this. In the state of Virginia, 90 percent of the National Guard is paid for by the federal government -- Wolf.
BLITZER: A good point, Barbara. Thanks very much. The president will have a major signing ceremony tomorrow, signing this law -- this bill into law. And just in time for Christmas, a move to keep God and religion off the bus.
And find out how the feds want to make sure you get your Facebook updates and your Google alerts without any interference.
BLITZER: A controversy over religious ads in Texas.
Kate Bolduan is monitoring that and some of the other top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM right now.
What do you have, Kate?
BOLDUAN: Hey there, Wolf. This is sure to get some people talking.
Fort Worth, Texas, we're talking about, is banning all ads about religion from its transit system prompted by an ad on some buses reading, "Millions of Americans are good without God." The city's transportation authority voted unanimously then to formally adopt the new policy.
A transit spokesperson says calls about the controversial ad took up just too many resources and that's why they did it. Critics say the move sets a dangerous precedent.
And federal government checks are about to go paperless. Starting on May 1st, the Treasury Department says those applying for Social Security and other benefits will get their checks electronically. Welcome to the 21st century. And in March of 2013, those already getting benefits will get their checks through direct deposit.
The Treasury says the move will save taxpayers a significant amount of money. And we all love that.
Now, Pakistan has conducted a test launch of a medium-range ballistic missile, according to its military. A military spokesman says the liquid fuel missiles can carry both conventional and nuclear warheads over a distance of about 800 miles. Pakistan says the test is a sign that its defense capability should "never be challenged."
And finally, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has agreed to formally request that the U.S. release convicted spy Jonathan Pollard. The prime minister's office says he will make the public appeal to President Obama in the coming days.
Yesterday, Netanyahu received a letter from Pollard pleading for help. The former U.S. Navy intelligence analyst was caught spying for Israel in 1985 and sentenced to life in prison.
And Wolf, do you remember who wrote the book on this fascinating case?
BLITZER: I do remember -- "Territorial Lies." It was me. I wrote that book.
He's been in prison for 25 years. I know other Israeli prime ministers, including Netanyahu, when he was the prime minister the first time, they appealed to all the American presidents to let him out, including President Clinton and President Bush. They've all refused so far. We'll see if President Obama, after 25 years in prison, has a different outcome.
BLITZER: This time we'll watch that story very, very closely.
All right. Thanks very much, Kate.
The 2010 Census numbers are out, and the results could spell trouble for President Obama in 2012. We'll break down the results in our "Strategy Session."
Plus, much more of my extraordinary journey into North Korea.
BLITZER: Let's get right to our "Strategy Session." Joining us are two CNN political contributors, the Democratic strategist, Paul Begala, the Republican strategist, Alex Castellanos.
Guys, thanks very much.
Paul, you're from Texas. The Hispanic population is growing, but the new Census numbers will suggest that maybe the additional seat or two for Texas is going to be good news for Republicans.
How do you feel about that?
PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Well, sure. Texas actually picks up four congressional seats. And the Texas legislature, the Texas governor, all the statewide offices, are held by Republicans. This is a huge pickup for Republicans.
The shellacking, as President Obama called it, of 2010 is going to hurt Democrats for 10 years. Of the eight states that gained congressional districts under the new Census map, seven have Republican governors. And the biggest, of course, is Texas, picking up four. Yes, the growth has been in the Hispanic population, but that doesn't mean at all necessarily that this is good for Democrats when you have the Republicans drawing the map.
BLITZER: I assume you agree with that, Alex.
ALEX CASTELLANOS, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Look, the math is the math. And I think that's the real question -- is re-electing Barack Obama going to be a lot harder than electing Barack Obama?
You could have -- he could be down 10 to 15 electoral votes to start with. States like North Carolina and Virginia, that he carried, are now turning Republican red again, as opposed to Obama blue. He's not running against George Bush, he's running against a fresh-faced Republicans in all probability. It could be a lot tougher.
BLITZER: He's going to have a big signing ceremony, the president, tomorrow on the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," Paul. There were a lot of liberals, a lot of gay activists who were very, very disappointed in the president's behavior, at least the first two years. But now at the tail end of the first two years, he's managed to get this through Congress.
Is this going to turn things around at least a little bit for him with his base?
BEGALA: Well, it certainly helps, Wolf. Look, it's historic. And you're right, a lot of progressives, a lot of gay rights activists, have been on him, saying he should have moved faster, he should have done an executive order. I've been one of them, frankly, who's been saying that.
But I tell you what still stings. And I know you were reading this coming home from Pyongyang.
It's the tax cut. Today's "New York Times" has, I think, the definitive op-ed on this from, of all people -- from Larry David, saying, "Thanks for the Tax Cut!" And it's funny, it's smart, but it's also really a cry from a Democrat -- Larry David is a Democrat -- saying he wants his party and his president to stand up and fight more for the middle class than for rich people.
It concludes, I think, hilariously. "Thank you, Republicans. And a special thank you to President Obama and the Democrats. I didn't know you cared."
Everybody's talking about this Larry David piece today, Wolf. And so I think while the ""Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is helpful and liberals love it, they're still really angry about this tax compromise with the Republicans.
BLITZER: Yes. He says he's finally going to be able, Alex, to go out and replace his 20-inch Zenith with the rabbit ears for a new flat-screen TV. And he's thanking the president and the Democrats, and the Republicans, obviously, for giving him a little bit of extra cash.
CASTELLANOS: And in a fun way, but he is kind of making, I think, the president's point. And the Republicans' point is, OK, he's spending some money at Best Buy and buying some airplane tickets. That's good for airline workers and American workers.
Look, we know it's going to take some spending from poor workers, middle class workers, all kinds of Americans to stimulate the economy. Why does Paul and other Democrats -- why do you want to let rich people off of the hook? Why do you want to deprive them of their responsibility to contribute to the recovery?
CASTELLANOS: Now, look, it takes a lot of spending from people who don't have money to equal the spending from people who do. Everybody needs to pull together.
BEGALA: Nice try. But Mr. David's point he's trying to make -- I spoke to him not long ago, a few minutes ago -- is that for Democrats, this shouldn't have come down to this. He believes -- and I think he's right -- I think he would be a pretty good political strategist, as well as an entertainer -- that if the president had stood and fought, the Republicans would have caved in, the Democrats would have won.
"If you put it to the people," he told me, "then Obama would have won." And I think he is right. And I think the lack of fight, not only is it a bad deal, in the eyes of Democrats, but they felt like their president didn't fight hard enough for the values that they believe in. And that's never good.
CASTELLANOS: I think the president didn't fight hard enough. And the word he still doesn't say is "growth." He doesn't say "jobs." He doesn't have an agenda for that. Republicans do.
Now, whether -- this is not about what's good for Larry David. It's is Larry David's spending good for the economy?
We don't want to take your most productive economic hitters and sit them on the bench. That's why Republicans, I think, have the political advantage of this. Seventy-five percent of Americans supported this overall tax cut.
BLITZER: Paul, the next two years, is this what we're going to see more of form the president, compromise with Republicans on some of the key gut issues that the Democrats favor?
BEGALA: I don't know. I think that's what I'm worried about. I don't want to speak for Larry David, but a lot of people are talking about that article and what this compromise means moving forward into 2011.
Look, this president, you know, he's got a tough row to hoe with the Republican Congress. I did see President Clinton do it. He compromised on some things like welfare reform. But he stood firm and drew the line when Newt Gingrich wanted to shut down the government. This is what Democrats are asking -- where and when will this president draw the line?
Now, fear not. The Republicans will give him lots of opportunities to draw that line in 2011. But that's what I think the whole country is looking for.
We want principled compromise, of course, but we also want a president who will stand firm on conviction. And we're looking for when President Obama does that.
BLITZER: Paul and Alex, guys, thanks very much. The president will have some time to relax in Hawaii in the coming days, and he'll think about what he wants to do over the next two years. Appreciate it. There's a big controversy over new rules designed to make sure big Internet companies don't stop you from getting what you want on the Web. Stand by.
And will the show go on after a performer in the stage version of "Spider-Man" was seriously injured?
BLITZER: The federal government is going to new lengths to make sure big Web companies don't interfere with your Internet access. Controversial new rules were approved today.
CNN's Martin Savidge is here to explain the regulations and the huge uproar.
What's going on, Marty?
MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, hello, Wolf.
The Federal Communications Commission established what you could say are some basic rules of the road for that information superhighway otherwise known as the high-speed Internet. And a lot of people are not happy with them.
SAVIDGE (voice-over): The so-called net neutrality rules have the first broad regulations of broadband and have received strong support from Democrats, online activists, and some large Internet companies. "We have an historic opportunity to make sure this dynamic Internet technology reaches its full potential to create opportunity for every citizen," said the chairman of the FCC, a Democrat.
The goal, say backers, is to make sure powerful Internet service providers don't give preferential treatment to their own content or that of wealthy partners, while denying or slowing access to competitors. Think how Comcast, which is buying NBC, might -- and I underline might -- want to slow down your access to Netflix while speeding up your ability to get NBC programming.
But Comcast doesn't do that, which is why many Republicans and free market advocates say regulation isn't needed.
SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MINORITY LEADER: Today, the Obama administration, which has already nationalized health care, the auto industry, insurance companies, banks, and student loans, will move forward with what could be the first step in controlling how Americans use the Internet.
SAVIDGE: Opponents like Republican FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell say the new rules won't protect, but instead hurt the Internet by, as he put it, "inhibiting capital investment, deterring innovation, raising operating costs, and ultimately increasing consumer prices."
CRAIG AARON, FREEPRESS.NET: I think today's vote is really a disappointment.
SAVIDGE: Craig Aaron of FreePress.net also doesn't like the new rules because they don't go far enough. Too many loopholes, he says, favoring the big guys over the little guy.
AARON: All we're looking to do is ensure that even playing field so that anybody, when they get online, or when they're developing a new product or service online, has the same fair chance as everybody else.
SAVIDGE: One thing certain, this is not the last word you're going to hear on these new rules from the FCC. No doubt, Congress will probably be talking about net neutrality next year, and almost certainly, those rules are going to end up in court -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Are there -- these new rules the same for hard-line Internet as they are for the wireless or mobile Internet users?
SAVIDGE: Yes, that's a very good point, because what we are talking about here is the hard line, and those rules do apply. But for the wireless Internet high-speed providers, the rules are much more lax. In fact, that is a whole new contentious can of worms headed for a courtroom probably sometime soon -- Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, Marty. Thanks very much.
Martin Savidge reporting.
Coming up, my extraordinary journey into North Korea. I'll have much more from my visit to a very dangerous global hotspot, arguably -- at least I believe -- the most dangerous spot on Earth right now.
Plus, massive floodings and dangerous mudslides, the latest on the violent weather battering the West Coast.
BLITZER: Violent weather, winter weather, is wreaking havoc on parts of California this hour in the form of heavy rain in the south, record-breaking snowfall up in the north. The massive storm originated near Hawaii, where President Obama plans to spend his Christmas vacation.
And as our White House correspondent, Ed Henry, reports, the weather there could dampen some of the fun.
ED HENRY, CNN SR. WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: President Obama's Hawaiian vacation has been delayed by all that action back there on Capitol Hill, but we expect later this week, he will join his wife and two daughters who are already there behind me in the vacation rental. And when the president gets here, he's going to find out this beach, which is normally pretty private and quiet, is going to be even more quiet, because it has been raining for days now, and forecasters say it's probably going to rain until Thursday or Friday. That's why you see there are just a couple of lone surfers out there braving the waters.
BLITZER: All right.
Let's go to CNN's Casey Wian in California right now. The storm is taking a dramatic toll -- Casey.
CASEY WIAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, I'm in Ventura County, California, just north of Malibu, and a 20-mile stretch of Pacific Coast Highway remains closed to through traffic this evening because of a mudslide that brought down boulders as big as an SUV.
Elsewhere in the state of California, flooding has been a major issue. In Hesperia (ph), one man was rescued from his pickup truck. Local swift water rescue crews have fanned out throughout southern California, pulling people out of water, on the street, riverbeds, and overflowing storm channels. In higher elevations, we have seen snow, and as much as 13.5 feet in Mammoth, California, and we have seen wind gusts at the highest elevations in excess of 150 miles an hour.
Elsewhere in this state, we have seen power outages, horrible traffic accidents, and heavy traffic. We're expecting the heaviest part of this storm to hit later tonight. Officials are very concerned about the stability of hillsides in areas that have been recently hit by brushfires -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Casey, thank you.
And you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Happening now, inside an extraordinary mission. We're going to go behind the scenes in North Korea to see how potentially a catastrophic war was averted, at least for now, and what happens next.
Also, details of a chilling tactic considered by Al-Qaeda supporters: targeting the food we eat.
And a horrifying onstage accident brings the most expensive show in Broadway