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New Audio From Events of 9/11 Released; Mall of America Security Prepares for 10th Anniversary of 9/11; House Republicans Comment on President's Upcoming Jobs Speech; President Obama's Jobs Plan; Dangerous Flood Zone in Central Pennsylvania; Countdown to President Obama's Jobs Speech; interview with Gene Sperling

Aired September 8, 2011 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks very much, Brooke.

Happening now, President Obama's best chance to deliver new jobs to desperate Americans before the 2012 election. He's returning to the Capitol to address a joint session of Congress just two hours from now. This hour, I'll press one of his top economic advisers, Gene Sperling, about the size the substance and a little bit about the politics of the plan, as well.

Also, Republican Rick Perry's comparison of Social Security to a Ponzi scheme.

Will his performance in his first presidential debate come back to haunt him?

The chilling words of the lead hijacker of 9/11 while the attacks were in progress. Stand by for unforgettable audio, some of it never heard before.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.


President Obama certainly knows full well what he and the American people have at stake this evening. There will be an urgency in his voice when the president goes before a joint session of Congress less than two hours from now. We're getting late word that the jobs package he'll unveil is bigger than many of the initial reports suggested.

Let's get some of the details from our chief White House correspondent, Jessica Yellin -- Jessica, what are you learning?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, a Democrat familiar with the president's plan tells me that this package is now worth more than $400 billion. I'm told that this package targets a number of different groups.

First, let's take a look at it.

For all working Americans, the president's plan, I'm told, will not only extend the current payroll tax cut for all working Americans, but a Democrat familiar with the plan tells me that it's even likely to increase that payroll tax cut that working Americans now get.

For small businesses, I'm told that the tax credit -- there will be a tax credit given to new hires and a tax credit for small businesses that hire the long-term unemployed.

For people who are themselves the long-term unemployed, not only is he looking to get an extension of unemployment benefits, but something that you can describe as maybe an unpaid internship program, allowing the unemployed to embed themselves in businesses and get the job training on the job.

And then for state and local governments, more funds for road construction, funds on the ground for school renovation, improving schools. And then monies to hire and keep on the job both teachers and first responders -- Wolf, just some of the elements in tonight's package, I'm told.

BLITZER: And a lot at stake, obviously, for the unemployed and underemployed, those who have already given up any hope of getting a job. Politically, there's a lot at stake for the president himself, right, Jessica?

YELLIN: That's right. This you could think of as the start of a new three month period, in a sense, perhaps more, for the president to redefine himself to the American people as the president who is putting Congress on the defensive. He wants to be the president with a plan to jump-start job growth and pit himself against a Congress who has to either accept his plan or openly reject it and then, in some ways, take the blame, if you will, for not doing enough on unemployment. I mean that would be the White House's positioning.

Now, no doubt there will be Democrats -- we know Republicans will object to many aspects of this plan. But there will also be Democrats who are critical of it because it will contain so much in the way of tax cuts and tax credits. And many Democrats would rather see the money go to local governments and to other programs that they think has a more direct impact on hiring.

But the White House wants to do what they think can pass more quickly and be more palatable to broader numbers -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jessica is going to be with us throughout the evening for all of our coverage.

Jessica, thanks very much.

Let's get some more specifics right now about the president's jobs plan and his upcoming speech with one of his key advisers.

We're joined by the director of the National Economic Council, Gene Sperling.

Gene, thanks very much for coming in.


BLITZER: Is it fair to call tonight's proposals that the president will unveil an economic stimulus package?

SPERLING: I think it's fair to say, as you said, that there will be a sense of urgency. That urgency comes from the American public itself. We've got 9 percent -- 9.1 percent unemployment. We've got an economy that is projected to not grow anywhere near as strong as it needs to, to get the number of Americans back to work, to get customers in to small businesses so that they can expand and hire.

And the president is going to make very clear inaction is not an option. No is not an option. We, as a country, can take bold action to arrest this situation, to jump-start job growth, to jump-start growth, to give more momentum to this economy. And we can do this in a context where we also make clear that over the long-term, we're going to get our deficit and debt down.

And those two things together are exactly what our economy needs to get growth and momentum in the short-term and the type of confidence and long-term fiscal discipline that will help encourage people to still think of America as the place to invest, to grow your companies. There is no reason for this not to happen. This will be a smart, comprehensive plan. And it will be the type that is deserving of bipartisan support and the specific elements will be many, almost all, that have been supported by Republicans and Democrats in the past.

BLITZER: I want to go through some of those. But as far as an economic stimulus package, we remember the first one. It was about $800 billion. The Republicans, a lot of them at least, hated that one. They don't like this notion of an economic stimulus package.

Is it fair to call this $450 billion plan that the president will unveil tonight an economic stimulus package?

SPERLING: That seems to be your favorite word, Wolf. But, first of all, I'm not going to comment on the numbers. The president, you can tune in to hear the -- the exact size and the specific elements of the plan.

But I will say the following. This is different from The Recovery Act and it's different from other acts that have been put forward by Republican presidents, as well, when times -- when we've needed an extra boost. This will be paid for, each and every penny. This will not raise our deficit over the long-term. It will be part of a long- term fiscal plan that will bring the debt down. So that is a very important point.

But I'll also be clear. If we don't get momentum in this economy, if we don't get jobs growing, if we don't make sure this recovery takes stronger hold, we're not going to meet our fiscal targets anyways.

So we've got to do both. We've got to do them together. And as you've said, this will have a smart, comprehensive strategy for those who have been unemployed for the long-term. It will have an ambitious vision for putting Americans back to work, rebuilding America. It will have significant tax relief for every single worker. And it will be particularly targeted to the small business and entrepreneurs who, by no fault of their own, were hurt by this recession and are the backbone and engine of job creation in this country.

BLITZER: When you say, Gene, it will be paid for, will it be paid for by spending cuts, tax increases or a combination of both?

SPERLING: Well, the plan that the president will put forward will obviously be a combination. It will have, you know, he will be putting out the details of this deficit reduction plan later this month. It will be detailed. It will make sure that every single penny of the American Jobs Act he proposes tonight is paid for and that there is significant additional deficit reduction to bring our debt down as a percentage of our economy. You know that the president, in the past, has put forward, and we've now passed, significant spending cuts in discretionary, as well as in defense spending. This will include entitlement savings, unquestionably. But it will, of course, ask those who are most well off, the most fortunate, high income Americans, to help shoulder the burden and will reduce the inexcusable tax expenditures and loopholes that we should not be spending money on at a time when we have 9.1 percent unemployment and we need to take efforts to get tax relief and investments to get America back to work.

BLITZER: But, you know, so many Republicans say they're never going to vote for tax increases.

What do you do if you can't get that passed, let's say, in the House of Representatives?

SPERLING: Well, I think the larger message the president will have tonight is no is not an option. Doing nothing is not an option. The president is going to put forward a plan that I think is deserving, historically, of bipartisan support. I mean it's not so long ago that Democrats and Republicans worked together for infrastructure investments. Not so long ago that Republicans championed payroll tax cuts. They shouldn't be against it just because the president is now for it. This is something we can do together, tax relief for small businesses. These are bipartisan proposals, ones that have historically been supported.

Of course, it's a democracy. We have divided government. People will bring other ideas. But the real test tonight people should be looking for is when the president puts forth his plan and says pass this plan, they should hear either that people are going to say yes or they're going to constructively work with us to put something together that will have an equal impact on creating jobs and creating growth.

BLITZER: Very quickly, how worried are you about a double dip recession?

SPERLING: Well, I think that most people feel that this economy is still in a state of recovery. But, Wolf, it's not nearly strong enough. And there's no reason for we, us, as a country, to just stand by and watch. We can take action that ensures this recovery takes hold. We can take action that ensures we get job growth going, that we grow enough that the private sector feels comfortable expanding.

And we know, Wolf, that while many of the problems this economy and the global economy has suffered were beyond our control -- the Japanese earthquake, higher oil prices, problems in Europe. But we also had self-inflicted wounds by looking like we were a dysfunctional government on the debt relief.

And if we can come together on both a strong jobs plan and doing so in a way that's paid for in the long-term and brings down our deficit, that kind of confidence will have an immediate impact, together with the extra demand that this plan will put into the economy.

BLITZER: Gene Sperling has been working nonstop now for weeks and weeks, getting this plan ready for tonight. I know how hard you've worked on it, Gene.

Thanks very much.

Good luck.

Thanks for having us, Wolf.

BLITZER: Gene Sperling is director of the National Economic Council at the White House.

Of course, when the president lays out his new jobs plan before a joint session of Congress in less than two hours, CNN will have live coverage.

Stay with us.

Our special coverage, by the way, leading up to the speech will begin at 6:00 p.m., less than an hour from now, here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Republicans don't plan a formal response to the president this evening, but there's a lot of informal criticism even before he gives his speech. We'll get a read on the level of resistance in Congress coming in right now.

And the lead 9/11 hijacker actually promised passengers they'd be OK. You're going to hear his chilling words in rarely heard cockpit audiotapes.

Stay with us.



BLITZER: Jack Cafferty is here with the Cafferty File -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, as the country gets ready to mark the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks, there is no doubt that we were forever changed on that sunny Tuesday morning in September of 2001.

One of Osama bin Laden's biggest victories was to make millions of Americans afraid -- so afraid that most of us stopped questioning our government, whether it meant launching unnecessary wars, removing some of our civil liberties, eroding constitutional rights, ignoring international treaties like the Geneva Conventions, or torturing detainees. So afraid that intrusive government security, especially invasive pat-downs and x-rays at airports, became the norm. So afraid that we let politicians manipulate our fears to win elections and to use Americans' deaths to advance their own agendas. So afraid that in the name of national security, we have allowed the ill-defined wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to drag on. Thousands of lives, trillions of dollars gone, along with our once dominant position at the world's biggest superpower.

Bin Laden is fortunately dead and gone, too, but not before accomplishing much of what he set out to do on 9/11. Today "USA Today" Gallup poll shows almost one in five Americans say terrorists have won. Have they? Or have we defeated ourselves? How much of the way our life has changed in the last 10 years is a result of that single act of terrorism on 9/11? How much of it is because we allowed ourselves to succumb to our fears and in the process surrender much of what we have always been most proud of?

Here is the question -- 10 years after 9/11. Did the terrorists win? Go to and post a comment on my blog or go to THE SITUATION ROOM Facebook page. Wolf?

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST, "THE SITUATION ROOM": Jack, thank you. A lot of people are talking about the 9/11 anniversary, including people on jihadi websites. The Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano says intelligence officials are picking up, in her words, "lots of clatter about it." So far, though, she says nothing that warrants a threat advisory. Meanwhile, for the first time we're hearing new audio recordings from that day, from 9/11. CNN's Brian Todd is joining us with the details. Brian?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, some of these audio tapes became declassified just last year. Combined with what was previously released, these tapes offer perhaps the most dramatic timeline of the moments the hijackings were taking place. We hear voices of people on the front lines, including a flight attendant onboard a hijacked plane. We're going to start with her.

Betty Ong, she was on board American Airline flight 11 at 8:19 eastern time, just 27 minutes before that flight hit the north tower of the World Trade Center. She called her colleagues on the ground. This is the first time anyone outside those planes finds out what's going on. Listen to Betty Ong.


BETTY ONG, FLIGHT ATTENDANT: The cockpit is not answering. Somebody is stabbed in business class. We can't breathe. I don't know. I think we're getting hijacked.


TODD: Just five minutes later, 8:24 a.m., 22 minutes before impact on the north tower, the haunting voice of lead hijacker Mohamed Atta. Boston air traffic control picks him up talking to the passengers. Listen to Mohamed Atta.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is that American 11 trying to call?

MOHAMED ATTA, HIJACKER: We have some planes. Just stay quiet and we'll be OK. We are returning to the airport.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Who is trying to call me here? American 11, are you trying to call?

ATTA: Nobody move. Everything will be OK. If you try to make any move, you endanger yourself and the airplane. Just stay quiet.


TODD: Again, that's just 22 minutes before that plane hits the north tower of the world trade center. Take you forward more than a half hour later, 9:02 a.m. That is 16 minutes after the plane hits the World Trade Center. Controllers are trying to figure out what's going on, they notice United Airlines flight 175, following the purple track here, it has looped south and curved north heading toward the south tower of the world trade center. Two air traffic controllers practically narrating the impact.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hey, can you look out your window right now? Can you see about 4,000 feet, looks like he's --


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is he descending through the building also?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's descending really quick, too, 800 feet in one sweep.


TODD: They narrate that as the plane hits the south tower of the world trade center. One of them says "Holy Smokes!" at the end of it. Very, very compelling audio.

Less than a half hour later, 9:28 a.m., Cleveland air traffic control is trying to find United Airlines flight 93. It can't find that plane. It enlists the helping of another flight nearby to try to help eyeball that plane. The audio of the Cleveland air traffic control picks up flight 93 and passengers yelling inside. You can actually hear one of them saying "We're all going to die here!" You have to listen carefully. But listen to this.



(SHOUTING) UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're all going to die here!


TODD: Of course, just minutes later that plane hits the ground in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The Rutgers University Law Review has released some of this material. To hear some of these haunting audio tapes and other unforgettable moments including stories you have not heard before, tune into CNN's documentary "Footnotes of 9/11." That's with Drew Griffin this Sunday, 9:00 p.m. eastern time on CNN, Wolf.

BLITZER: Chilling, haunting. I don't know what else to say, but amazing. Thanks, Brian. Thanks very much.

With tightened security at airports, government facilities, and critical infrastructure all across the country, dare I say all across the world, experts say terrorists may be targeting so-called soft targets such as shopping malls. CNN homeland security correspondent Jeanne Meserve reports.


JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Truck and bus drivers get I.D. checks. There are swab tests for explosives, pop-up barricades, bike patrols, undercover behavior detention officers, hundreds of surveillance cameras and bomb sniffing jobs. Security for the capitol, the Pentagon, the White House -- no. This is security at Minnesota's Mall of America, one of the largest enclosed shopping centers in the country, visited by 42 million people each year.

MAJOR DOUG REYNOLDS, MALL OF AMERICA SECURITY DEPARTMENT: I think if you're looking for 100 percent safety, wrap yourself in bubble wrap and never leave home. When you look at the size of this place and what goes on here, yes, I think it's a very safe place to be. I do.

MESERVE: The mall even has something many government facilities do not.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This is a drill. Mall of America is now going into lockdown.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Seek shelter in the nearest store and follow the instructions. This is a drill.

MESERVE: Twice a month the mall, its tenants and customers participate in a lockdown drill, practicing how to shelter in backrooms of stores to try to minimize casualties in an attack.

REYNOLDS: If something bad should happen here, we don't want our response to start with, "and law enforcement will be here and they will protect you." We want to know what can be done until law enforcement gets here.

MESERVE: The FBI has reportedly warned that soft targets like crowded malls could be a tempting terrorist target. There have been several active shooter episodes. In 2007, for instance, eight died and four were wounded when a gunman opened fire in an Omaha, Nebraska, shopping center. But it was school shootings in Russia and Columbine, Colorado that motivated a Bloomington, Minnesota police officer to preach practices proactively for an emergency. He says lockdown drills cost next to nothing.

DAN MURPHY, POLICE OFFICER: It is the life we live right now. And we can prepare. And if you can do it at the Mall of America, it can be done anywhere.

MESERVE: Jeanne Meserve, CNN, Washington.


BLITZER: It's been eight months since she was shot in head. Now Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords is ready to share her story.

Plus, large parts of the northeast under water. Thousands forced to evacuate. We'll go there life. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Some Republicans have been calling him "President Zero" since that grim August unemployment report, zero jobs created in August. But many of them already have made up their minds about the president's new jobs plan even before they know all the details. We're only now a little more than 90 minutes away from this make or break potentially at least speech that the president will deliver.

Let's go to Capitol Hill. Our Congressional correspondent Kate Bolduan is standing by. Speaker Boehner is already talking about what he expects to hear. He's getting ready and will be there for the president's speech tonight. What are you hearing on the Hill?

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: We're in statuary hall. This is where many lawmakers will be walking by in order to head into the House chamber to hear this address from President Obama. But as we've been talking about, Republicans in both the House and Senate really aren't waiting to hear from the president to react. We've been hearing now for a couple days Republicans in the House and Senate criticizing what they expect to hear from the president this evening, saying that his proposals that he's likely to push aren't anything new. That he's either tried them before or pushed for them before and thus in their minds they think it will not work.

But still House Republican leaders do say they are very much looking forward to hearing from the president, Speaker Boehner being one of them, and also saying they are looking forward to trying to find common ground to come around some jobs proposal they can agree to.

But I will tell you both sides still have very different views of just how to reach that goal of boosting job creation, boosting the economy. And still today, we're hearing House Speaker John Boehner kind of brushing off some of the criticism he's been getting and Republicans have been getting, especially from Democrats like the Democratic Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who says Republicans are degree disrespectful to the president by not offering an official response to his remarks this evening. Speaker Boehner brushed off those comments and really, as you'll hear in the sound bite, is down playing the significance of the address entirely. Listen here.


REP. JOHN BOEHNER, (R) HOUSE MAJORITY LEADER: This is not state of the union address. The American people shouldn't be forced to watch some politician they don't want to listen to. Frankly, most of them would rather watch a football game. We have opened up Statuary Hall so all of our members can respond individually. And I think it's a more appropriate and respectful way to go forward.


BOLDUAN: I will tell you on the question, and they've been getting this question quite a bit, where is the common ground where Republicans can come together with Democrats, with our White House to reach some agreement to try to move jobs forward, to boost job creation in the country?

Republicans really aren't answering that question quite yet, saying they still want to hear from the president and they're still pushing their jobs plan, especially in the House of Representatives. You know the focus of that is focusing very much on rolling back federal regulations in the areas of labor and environmental standards they say are hindering job growth throughout the country.

The speaker's box, the guests in House Speaker John Boehner's box are evidence of that, almost laser focus on that issue. Speaker John Boehner is welcoming some 12 guests in his box, all of them, he says, are employers that are suffering from the overburdened, overbearing federal regulation holding them back from growing on their employee base and growing their businesses.

BLITZER: Kate Bolduan, our Congressional correspondent in Statuary Hall. That's where the members have to walk through in order to go to the house floor. If you grab a few of them and talk to them, let us know what they have to say. We'll check back with you obviously throughout the night, Kate. Thank you.

On Capitol Hill right now our chief national correspondent John King is standing by live. He's been doing some excellent reporting on the president's speech tonight. Some are already suggesting, the pessimists out there, that the president's plan, whether it's $400 billion or $450 billion, John, might be dead on arrival. The Republicans are never going to vote for more tax increases to pay for any of this. What are you hearing?

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Dead on arrival as the president proposes it, yes, Wolf. Dead on arrival, meaning there will be no jobs package, don't go that far.

Remember, Republicans don't like a lot of the specific proposals from the president. They will not, they say, raise taxes, even on wealthy Americans. They do not like the aid to state governments, saying the states need to figure out how to get through this recession on their own. They view that as stimulus deja vu.

They do like and have supported in the past many of the tax cut proposals the president will propose today. Here is what you get from a sense up here.

Some Democrats say this isn't bold enough. Most Republicans say not right now, Mr. President. Remember, we have this super committee.

This super committee is charged with coming up with more deficit reduction, at least $1.5 trillion. The posture of Republicans will be they will not take the president's bill separately, Wolf, but they will take some of those proposals and maybe include them in that product of the super committee. That's what I would look for as you head closer to Thanksgiving. Don't look for Congress to act immediately.

But when the super committee comes up with its work, some of these job-creating proposals, tax-cutting proposals, call it aid to the states, can that debate be folded into the bigger package? The Republicans say they're open to that, but they also note that every time you need a new proposal to pay for it, you're adding to the task, the challenge that committee faces in finding cuts, Wolf.

Cuts where? Cuts in defense? Most Republicans say no. Cuts in discretionary programs? Most Democrats say no.

Cuts in Medicare and Social Security? Democrats get really mad there.

So we are going to get back into the deja vu debate over what to cut. But don't look for the president to get a separate jobs bill. Do look for this to become part of that bigger debate in that super committee.

BLITZER: Because I was intrigued when we had Gene Sperling on at the top of the hour. He said, look, we're going to submit formal legislation, and the Congressional Budget Office will be able to review it or score it to see how much it will cost in all of that, but it's going to be our proposal.

He also said look, if the Republicans want to come up with something maybe better, he seemed to be open to negotiating perhaps even a better deal. So I don't think it's from the White House perspective, John, a take it or leave it right now. They're willing to talk to Republicans, assuming there's some common ground.

KING: They have no choice to talk to Republicans, because Speaker Boehner and the Republicans control the House. And so Mr. Sperling there essentially saying, we understand we can't get our way entirely. And it's a challenge. It's a challenge.

The president is willing to do business. Remember, Wolf, the approval of the president is way down on the economy, but the approval of the Congress is almost subterranean. And the Republicans know that.

They're on the ballot next year, too. They're trying to defend that Republican majority in the House. So, to be fully obstructionist is to run the risk of heading into the campaign year afoul of the will of the American people. So there is an opportunity to do some business down the road. This is a fascinating political moment.

The Republicans will say no to the president's specific proposals, especially the ones they can call stimulus, but look for potential compromise down the road. Leader Cantor today saying we're not flatly opposed to infrastructure spending, we just want to see, how do you pay for it?

And you just heard Kate talking about Speaker Boehner there, saying no one Republican response. Part of that is a slight to the president, but part of it is almost smart politics.

All of these members in the House are up for re-election next year. Some of them need to say, I'm open to some of the president's proposals, because their district might not be as conservative as one of their Republican colleagues.

So by letting them all respond individually, they can respond in a way that suits maybe not exactly what Speaker Boehner wants, but what suits them back home in their districts. We're getting a policy speech tonight from the president, Wolf, but this is in many ways about 2012 and politics.

BLITZER: John will be with us throughout the night as well.

And you make a good point, John. As bad as the president's job approval number right now might be, let's say 44 percent, congressional job approval is down around 14 percent or 15 percent, record lows. So you make a good point there -- Republicans who lead the House, they're under enormous political pressure as well.

All right, John. Thank you.

Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords is about to tell her story. We have the details. Where? Stand by. That's coming up.

Also, why would Republican Rick Perry go after two powerhouses of the Bush era? We're talking about Dick Cheney and Karl Rove. Stand by for that as well.


BLITZER: Lisa Sylvester is monitoring some of the other top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

Lisa, a big legal win for the Obama administration today.

SYLVESTER: Yes. That's right, Wolf.

A federal appeals court today dismissed a lawsuit by the state of Virginia over the constitutionality of the Obama administration's health care reform law. The Richmond-based court is now the second federal appeals court to uphold the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The bill requires most Americans to buy health insurance by the year 2014.

The newly-formed super committee met for the first time today on Capitol Hill, but opening remarks were cut short by demonstrators chanting, "Jobs! Jobs! Jobs!"

The panel of six Democrats and six Republicans has until Thanksgiving to reach its goal of $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction. If they can't do it, mandatory spending cuts will kick in.

And Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords is ready to share her story. A book from Giffords and her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, is set to hit shelves November 15th. The memoir, titled, "Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hope," will chronicle the couple's relationship and their lives since January's shooting. Giffords remains at rehab in a hospital in Houston.

Of course, we did see her in Washington. She did return for that debt ceiling vote.

BLITZER: I wonder if she'll be there tonight for the president's address before a joint session of Congress.

SYLVESTER: That's a very good question. We'll see.

BLITZER: I don't know. We saw her the last time over there as well for that vote.

Thank you. I'm looking forward to the book as well.

Anticipation clearly building for the president's big speech tonight. We're just more than an hour away from the speech. We're getting new details on what the president will say. Stand by.

And flooding danger on the rise in Pennsylvania right now. We're taking you there live when we come back.


BLITZER: Raging wildfires and historic flooding. Tens of thousands of people are dealing with extreme conditions right now.

Let's go to Texas first. A huge wildfire near Austin keeps spreading. At least two people have died in that fire. Almost 1,400 homes are destroyed. This fire is just one of almost 200 burning across Texas.

The problem here in the D.C. area, too much water. Blame the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee. High water has blocked dozens of roads in Maryland. Flash flood warnings are in place from D.C. to western New England.

The flooding is especially bad in central Pennsylvania. At least three people are dead and tens of thousands are being told to evacuate their homes.

Authorities in Luzerne County, in Pennsylvania, they're telling people in the flood zone they have to get out. The Susquehanna River is on the rise, and it's expected to crest tonight.

CNN's Mary Snow is in nearby Plymouth Township with more.

It looks pretty awful behind you, Mary. What's going on?

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it does look awful. And the worst has yet to come.

At last count, we were told the Susquehanna River is 16 feet above flood stage. And this is an area where we are in Plymouth Township that is not protected by a levee.

And take a close look at one of the homes that is here. The residents here were told to evacuate last night. The owner of this home, Francis Federici, said he's been through floods before, he decided to stick it out. And this morning, he said a neighbor came by and told him he had to go.

He said he grabbed a few things, and just took what he could, and doesn't know what will happen now.

Take a listen.


FRANCIS FEDERICI, FLOODING EVACUEE: We just had minutes to get what we needed to get out and get out. Within a half hour, 45 minutes, it was already going through the yard. It came up quick.


SNOW: Now, county officials expect the Susquehanna to crest. The latest forecast is that it will crest between midnight and 2:00 a.m.

And nearby, in Wilkes-Barre, there is a levee there that can handle about 41 feet. And that is what the forecast is right now, is far that river will rise.

And, Wolf, that levee was built after a devastating hurricane back in 1972, Hurricane Agnes. This is the first big test for that levee again in several hours. Right now the forecast is that the cresting will be between midnight and 2:00 a.m.

BLITZER: Let's hope it holds. Thanks very much, Mary. We'll stay in close touch with you.

A possible problem for Republican presidential front-runner Rick Perry, the phrase he keeps using that could get him into deep trouble with a lot of voters out there. We're going to discuss what's going on in our "Strategy Session." That's next.


BLITZER: Rick Perry's first Republican presidential debate may have given him his biggest national audience yet, but the Texas governor certainly didn't shy away from repeating his explosive criticism of the Social Security system.

Listen to Governor Perry and then Governor Mitt Romney's response.


GOV. RICK PERRY (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It is a monstrous lie. It is a Ponzi scheme.

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Our nominee has to be someone who isn't committed to abolishing Social Security, but is committed to saving Social Security.


BLITZER: All right. Let's bring in our CNN contributors, the Democratic strategist, Paul Begala. He's a senior strategist for the Democratic fund-raising groups Priorities USA and Priorities USA Action. And Republican strategist Alex Castellanos.

Guys, thanks very much for coming in.

Alex, what is Governor Perry thinking calling Social Security a Ponzi scheme? You know that in Iowa, a lot of older voters, in Florida, a lot of older voters, they hear him talking about Social Security, which they love in this kind of way. It's got to get a lot of Republicans nervous if he's the front-runner.

ALEX CASTELLANOS, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: A little bit of trouble for Governor Perry. You usually don't start presidential campaigns by setting grandma's hair on fire, and that's kind of what Rick Perry did.

He's made a good point. And that is, really, Social Security is a Ponzi scheme in the sense that there's no fund for the Social Security trust fund. There's no money. It's broke. It's taking money from the next generation and spending it today.

But he went farther than that. He implied that if he could go back 70 years and undue Social Security, he actually would. In his book he calls it a failure.

If Rick Perry becomes a candidate who is scary to seniors and soccer moms, and impetuous and rash, if he begins to lose against Barack Obama in a general election match-up, Republicans are going to go, wait a minute, we can't nominate this guy because it's a vote for Obama, and that's a danger to the country.

BLITZER: I know a lot of Democrats are salivating at the thought that President Obama would face Rick Perry and they could have a fight over Social Security, the president defending Social Security, and obviously Rick Perry saying what he's saying.

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: I think the president would certainly get the better of that argument. But I approach these Republican primaries with a high degree of humility -- not my default position, I might add -- because there is this great legend -- I don't even know if it's true, but it's a legend and I learned from it -- that the Jimmy Carter White House sat around saying, we want Reagan, we want Reagan. Well, by golly, they got Reagan.

BLITZER: I believe that is true.

BEGALA: Is that true? You weren't around. You were a junior in high school.

BLITZER: I was around when Jimmy Carter was president of the United States and Ronald Reagan got the Republican nomination. And Carter officials in the White House were high-fiving themselves. They were celebrating, oh, an actor. We can obviously beat this guy.

BEGALA: Perry has an enormous amount of talent, and I do as you say, I advise a pro-Democratic progressive PAC. And my view is that he just might win.

We ought to take this real seriously. In other words, he wants to abolish Social Security that my mother and millions of other seniors are living on. He wants to abolish it. He thinks it's unconstitutional. He think it's a criminal enterprise.

I think we should take that very, very seriously, and not like it's just some sort of political game.

CASTELLANOS: Paul is about to reregister as a Republican and vote for Rick Perry.

But to Perry's credit, he demonstrated strength. He came across as a man who knows what he is and knows what he believes. That contrasts pretty well with President Barack Obama, who right now Americans think is a very weak president.

BEGALA: He's strong enough to beat up your grandma. That's going to be his slogan. OK?


BLITZER: How important are seniors in Florida, for example? They vote in a lot bigger numbers percentage-wise than younger people do, as you well know.

CASTELLANOS: Republicans just took over Congress last time because, in large part, President Obama's takeover of the health care system scared them. It threatened their Medicare. He cut half a trillion from that. And that's why Republicans really took over Congress. We don't want to give those voters back. Rick Perry just may.

BLITZER: And I want to you listen to your fellow Texan, Rick Perry, because I know you're from Texas. Amazingly, or maybe not so amazingly, if you understand the internal politics, he went after Karl Rove and Dick Cheney last night in that debate as well.


(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) PERRY: Karl has been over the top for a long time in some of his remarks. So I'm not responsible for Karl anymore.

JOHN HARRIS, MODERATOR: Vice President Cheney said it's not a Ponzi scheme and you say it is.

PERRY: Absolutely. If Vice President Cheney or anyone else says that the program that we have in place today, and young people who are paying into that expect that program to be sound and for them to receive benefits when they reach retirement age, that is just a lie. And I don't care what anyone says.


BLITZER: Well, Mitt Romney says it won't be a lie. He says it can be reformed and that Social Security will work for a long, long time.

BEGALA: Well, Social Security will work. It is a monstrous lie to try to tell seniors or young people Social Security will not be there for them. It will, unless we do what Mitt Romney wants to do, which is invest it in the stock market, or what Rick Perry wants to do, which is to abolish it.

But think about that statement. Governor Perry says that Karl Rove is too over the top?

BLITZER: And Dick Cheney.

BEGALA: And Dick Cheney. I mean, that's like saying Dennis Rodman is too weird for me. Rick Perry himself is so over the top, I'm not quite sure whether we're now in the Himalayas or something, how over the top these guys are?

BLITZER: Does that help him, to slam Karl Rove and Dick Cheney?

CASTELLANOS: It really, I think, makes him seem rash and political. He ought to be talking about the things that are important to voters. But here's why Monday night's CNN debate is must-watch, Wolf, because Rick Perry has to get out there and explain, no, he would fix Social Security, not end it. But he's even got a bigger problem.

In that debate the other night, the issue of mandates came up. Republicans don't like mandates. Mitt Romney mandated health care in Massachusetts. That's his problem, Romneycare.

Well, in the debate last night, we learned about Perrycare. Rick Perry, in Texas, mandated a vaccine to 12-year-old girls --

BLITZER: We didn't learn about that. We knew about that before.


BLITZER: But he spoke about that.

CASTELLANOS: Well, America did. He spoke about it. America learned about that. So now there's Perrycare, Rick Perry's health care mandate in Texas, which he did with an executive order. Who would have thought months ago that this would be a battle for the Republican nomination, Perrycare versus Romneycare?

BLITZER: Very quickly.

BEGALA: It's interesting. When Republicans talk about fixing Social Security, I think about my dog Major. We fixed him, and that which used to work real well don't work no more. Major wasn't very happy with procedure either. So I don't trust Republicans to be fixing Social Security.

CASTELLANOS: Let's see how President Obama fixes the economy tonight.

BLITZER: Paul and Alex, thanks very, very much.

And don't forget, next Monday, the Republican presidential candidates will debate in Tampa, Florida. I will be the moderator when CNN hosts the debate, along with the Tea Party Express and several Tea Party groups in Tampa, Monday night, 8:00 p.m. Eastern.

The eight Republican presidential candidates will be up on the stage, only here on CNN.

As we get more details on the president's jobs plan, business leaders are already giving their two cents to CNN's new anchor, Erin Burnett. She's standing by to join us live right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.


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

CAFFERTY: The question this hour is: Ten years after 9/11, did the terrorists win?

Richard in Kansas, "Let's see. We've spent billions of borrowed dollars on security, invaded two countries at a cost of thousands of American lives, trillions of borrowed dollars with nothing to show for it. Squandered any sympathy or good will the world felt for us at the time, gone for being admired around the world to being loathed for our heavy-handed tactics, and we've seen the rise of right-wing extremism here at home. Yes, I'd say that's a good day's work for any 19 men."

Bob in Orlando, "The terrorists did win, and here's why. We still have our democracy. Throughout our nation's history, our blood has been shed for the sake of freedom, whether it be the Revolutionary War or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan."

"Our country is somewhat safer now, and the one thing that has stood the test of time is our resolve. Our democracy gets stronger when confronted by any foe. The fact is we have these cowards on the run now. We took the blow on 9/11, but we continue to move forward."

Yuri (ph) in Florida, writes, "I get patted down every time I fly. Having a repaired knee filled with screws and metal plates doesn't help. A few months ago as I was patted down, I was looking around me and I saw a team of TSA agents pat down a crippled woman in a wheelchair, and right across, a breast-feeding mother was getting a pat-down, too, and so was the baby."

Stephen on Facebook, "We lost. We're still afraid. We're broke. Our status in the world is slipping quickly, as is every metric of health and happiness."

Jeffrey in California writes, "Yes, Bin Laden won the war. He put the leaders of this country in a fear frenzy and they panicked and overreacted. Trillions of dollars, thousands of lives have been wasted, with no guarantee that some group of terrorists can't attack us at any time. The war on terror, just like the war on drugs, is really a war on the fabric of America."

If you want to read more about this, go to the blog, file, or through our post on THE SITUATION ROOM'S Facebook page -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Jack. Thank you.