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Gingrich and Romney Dead Even; Kim Jong-il Dead, Nuclear Threat Lives; Wolf's Inside Video of North Korea; Interview With Bill Richardson; Interview With Eric Cantor; Newt Gingrich Fights for Iowa Mojo

Aired December 19, 2011 - 17:00   ET



Happening now, Mitt Romney's gains against Newt Gingrich in our new poll. The Republican presidential race is as uncertain as ever, just two weeks before the first votes.

The U.S., meanwhile, is keeping close watch on North Korea's military after Kim Jong-il's death. This hour, the risk of nuclear confrontation, as Kim's youngest son supposedly getting ready to take power. I'll talk about that and more with the former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Bill Richardson.

And the House and Senate dig themselves deeper into a bitter standoff over extending the payroll tax cut. As we wait for a new vote, I'll ask House Majority Leader Eric Cantor if there's any hope for a breakthrough.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. Breaking news, political headlines and Jeanne Moos all straight ahead.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.


In a race that's seen one frontrunner after another the rise and fall, the Republican contest is apparently tightening once again in this, the final run-up to the Iowa caucuses. Our new poll -- it's a national poll -- it shows Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney are dead even.

CNN's Jim Acosta is following the ever-changing field for us -- all right, Jim, what's the very latest?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It's hard to anybody a frontrunner, Wolf. Like all of the other un-Romneys before him, Newt Gingrich is seeing his once sky high poll numbers floating back to Earth, where Mitt Romney and Ron Paul are waiting for him.


ACOSTA (voice-over): The political season's greetings for Newt Gingrich are anything but merry. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM YOUTUBE.COM)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Reckless spending and high taxes are destroying our economy.


ACOSTA: On TVs across early voting states...


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: -- Newt Gingrich supported freezing the federal debt ceiling. (END VIDEO CLIP)

ACOSTA: Anti-Gingrich attack ads appear to be damaging his candidacy, according to the latest CNN/ORC Poll. Among Republicans across the country, Gingrich and Mitt Romney are tied up at 28 percent, a steep drop for the former speaker compared to national polls earlier this month.

Our poll finds Romney is far more likeable, with Gingrich tied with Michelle Bachmann. But the former speaker is seen as the strongest leader. That may explain why Gingrich is sticking to his pledge to stay positive. And that extends to this ad from a pro- Gingrich PAC.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Newt stood with Ronald Reagan. Newt stood up to Bill Clinton.


ACOSTA: It's a risky bet. When Romney was hitting Gingrich on his ties to mortgage giant Freddie Mac...

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think as Tea Partiers concentrate on that, for instance, they'll say, wow, this really isn't the guy that -- that would represent our -- our -- our views.



ACOSTA: Gingrich was signing books in Virginia. He did defend his record, but on a conference call with supporters.

GINGRICH: That's an area where people have just said things that are wildly inaccurate.

ACOSTA: The other candidate grating on Gingrich?

Ron Paul -- those solid poll numbers and a fundraising machine that raked in $4 million over the weekend. His liberation views may be controversial, but listen to the reaction Paul gets bashing, of all things, pasteurized milk. REP. RON PAUL (R), TEXAS: I would like to restore your right to drink raw milk any time you wanted to.

ACOSTA: The crowd laps it up. For Rick Perry, that's a tough anti-government act to follow.

RICK PERRY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: This -- this Wall Street bailout is the single biggest act of theft in American history. And, you know, and Newt and -- and, Mitt, they both were for it.

ACOSTA: But better than the reception Bachmann is getting from gay rights groups hounding her events. She and her husband were caught on camera questioning the work of sexuality researcher, Alfred Kinsey, an off message moment.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I wonder, also, if you're aware that 10 percent of the population is gay. And if you have 28 children, 2.8 of those kids are...


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: -- very likely gay.





UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: She's not listening to me.

BACHMAN: Hello, John.

Well, that's according to "The Kinsey Report"...


Nice to meet you.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: So that's not valid?



MARCUS BACHMANN: That's been a myth for many years.


ACOSTA: With two weeks to go to the Iowa caucuses, it could all change again. In our latest CNN/ORC Poll, 56 percent said they might change their mind. That's a lot of conflicted voters with not much time left on the clock -- Wolf. BLITZER: Not much time at all. Tomorrow is two weeks to Iowa.

Thanks very much, Jim Acosta.

Some of the Republican candidates are weighing in on the death of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, and they're turning up the heat on President Obama. Mitt Romney issuing a statement saying Kim's death "represents an opportunity for America to work with our friends to turn North Korea off the treacherous course it is on and ensure security in the region. America must show leadership at this time."

And this from Gingrich just a little while ago.


GINGRICH: And I take very seriously the kind of dictatorship we're seeing in North Korea. But the truth is, we have no idea what this successor will be like, whether the regime will become more open or become even more dangerous.


BLITZER: The Obama White House says it doesn't have any additional concerns about instability in North Korea right now because of Kim Jong-il's death. But the communist regime remains a very dangerous nuclear power with a million man army. U.S. officials are looking for any hint that those weapons might be used by Kim's apparent successor, his youngest son, Kim Jong-un.

Our Pentagon correspondent, Chris Lawrence, is joining us now.

He's been taking a closer look at North Korea's nuclear arsenal.

And what are you finding out -- Chris?

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, right now, the U.S. military is trying to position some of its intelligence assets to keep a very close watch on what's going on in North Korea. They haven't seen any movements that would cause alarm at this point. But, again, nuclear capability is the watchword here.


LAWRENCE (voice-over): Nuclear watchdogs believe North Korea's arsenal includes six to 12 nuclear weapons and 600 to 800 short to medium range ballistic missiles.

ROBERT GALLUCI, PRESIDENT, MACARTHUR FOUNDATION: But they probably would have some difficulty meeting that with a nuclear warhead at this point.

LAWRENCE: In other words, without a reliable delivery system, like a missile, the North Korean nuclear weapons are like a bomb in the basement. North Korea has twice tested a long-range missile capable of flying more than 4,000 miles. Although it showed progress from 2006 to 2009, it has not flown successfully. The more immediate danger is the regime's willingness to sell nuclear technology to U.S. adversaries.

DAVID ALBRIGHT, INSTITUTE FOR SCIENCE AND INTERNATIONAL SECURITY: We don't want Iran's centrifuge program to be saved by North Korean technology.

LAWRENCE: David Albright was the first non-governmental inspector of Iraq's nuclear program. He says a number of countries have invested a lot of time and effort to slow down Iran's development.

ALBRIGHT: And I think North Korea has heard a message from governments, that don't mess with that, that that is -- is a red line and if you're caught helping Iran's nuclear program in a significant way, it could really spell a much worse situation for North Korea.

LAWRENCE: CNN also spoke with an analyst who negotiated with North Korea during the Clinton administration. He says the idea of the regime sharing nuclear material is not far-fetched.

GALLUCI: Remember, the North Koreans actually were in the process building a plutonium production reactor in Syria secretly, which the Israelis destroyed. But that is not a good indicator of how the North Koreans understand the consequences of such activity.


LAWRENCE: In fact, just six weeks ago, some senior U.S. military officials in the region said that the North Koreans had told them that they believe Moammar Gadhafi's regime was able to be ousted in Libya precisely because it had abandoned its WMD program. The military official said if that's the North Koreans' thinking, it makes trusting in negotiations to curtail their nuclear program very problematic -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Chris Lawrence, one quick question before I let you go.

Is the U.S. military very worried about the sudden transition in North Korea, how it eventually will play out?

LAWRENCE: Well, the man who runs U.S. forces Korea warned the United States Senate back over the summer, saying Kim Jong-il's death could cause North Korea to become more dangerous. He said that because he felt that this son had to sort of prove his credibility with the military hard-liners in North Korea. He said that, combined with the son's youth and inexperience, could lead to possible miscalculations. So he said in the short-term, the son taking power does raise some -- some possible questions.

BLITZER: Yes. There are a lot of nervousness right now.

Chris, thanks very much.

I had a rare opportunity to experience firsthand what life is like in North Korea and what it was like, certainly, under Kim Jong- il's rule. You may remember I went there exactly a year ago with the former New Mexico governor, Bill Richardson.

He was on a mission to try to calm nuclear tensions, which were pretty serious at the time, on the Korean Peninsula. It was a tinderbox.

But in addition to meetings with high level officials, we were able to get in some sightseeing.

Take a look at this.


BLITZER (voice-over): It takes forever to get to the underground station. I never saw such long escalators -- even longer than the one at Washington, DC Metro -- so deep that it could and does double as an underground bunker.

(on camera): We're here at the Prosperity subway station. It's deep underground. You saw how long it takes to get through that. Those escalators were really, really deep underground. And patriotic pictures all over the place.

Do people pay for these -- these...


BLITZER: Well, how do they -- because I didn't see...

NAMKUN: Five one...


BLITZER: How much is that like in U.S.?

NAMKUN: Oh, it's very little.

BLITZER: Like a few pennies?

NAMKUN: It's about 101 to a dollar now so...

BLITZER: So it's like five cents?

NAMKUN: (INAUDIBLE) five cents.

BLITZER: So it's a nickel?

NAMKUN: But most people use six month passes, which they buy for about 100 (INAUDIBLE).

BLITZER: So that's a dollar?

NAMKUN: It's just a dollar.


NAMKUN: It's very cheap. BLITZER: Yes. For a dollar, they can basically ride for six months.

NAMKUN: That's right. (INAUDIBLE).

BLITZER: That's a pretty good deal. All right. We're moving now. It's pretty smooth.


BLITZER: Just ahead, I'm going to be speaking with Bill Richardson about his experiences. He's traveled to North Korea on several occasions. We'll also talk about the diplomatic challenges for the United States after Kim Jong-il's death. Stand by for this interview.

In a world where news travels in an instant, it took more than 48 hours to learn of Kim Jong-il's death. That's because North Korea is shrouded in secrecy, virtually cut off from other nations. This nighttime satellite image from NASA shows North Korea effectively blacked out, while surrounding countries are lit up with electricity. North Korea has only four state-run television stations for 25 million people or so, no independent media at all. And they say only about 2 percent of North Koreans, mostly in the military, the communist leadership, they have cell phone service. The nation has no Internet access, except for some government agencies and a few hotels -- and certainly not unrestricted Internet access.

Newt Gingrich is in Iowa right now. He's trying to get some of his lost momentum back. We'll have the latest on his strategy in the leadoff caucus state.

Plus, I'll speak with the House majority leader, Eric Cantor. We'll talk about the standoff right now over extending the payroll tax cut. Even some Senate Republicans now say--


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

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: While voting in the 2012 elections, Wolf, hasn't even begun yet, most Americans wish the whole thing were already over.

A new USA Gallup Poll shows 70 percent of those surveyed say they cannot wait for the campaign to be over. That compares to just 26 percent who say they can't wait for it to start.

That would be Wolf and his -- his guys.

People living in 12 of the key swing states -- Colorado, Florida, Pennsylvania and places like that -- are dreading the election even more. Three quarters of them say they can't wait for it to be over.

Probably because they'll be the target of even more TV ads, mailers, robo-calls, etc. Than the rest of us will. This negative attitude crosses party lines. Sixty-seven percent of Democrats, 66 percent of Republicans say they can't wait for the campaign to be over.

When it comes to age, senior citizens are the least likely to look forward to the upcoming campaign.

Probably because they've seen enough of these rodeos to last a lifetime.

Gallup pollsters suggest there are several reasons why Americans are already so negative about this presidential election. For one, the campaigns last too long. Republicans have been at this already for most of this year and the general election is still 11 months away. And politics and politicians in general are just not very popular, to put it mildly. A recent poll found that less than half of Americans say they trust the people that either hold or are running for political office.

And finally, with the campaign come all those negative ads, even though they work, a lot of people just don't like them. And it's not just the ads. For the next 11 months, get ready, we're all going to eat, breathe, and sleep this campaign from the debates, to the polls, to the interviews, to commercials, to pundits, you name it.

So, here's the question, do you wish the election were already over? Go to and post a comment on my blog or go to our post on SITUATION ROOM's Facebook page. Big number of people say they want no part of this thing, Wolf.

BLITZER: They're wrong. It's great. I love this kind of stuff.


BLITZER: We live for this kinds of -- this is democracy in action, Jack.


CAFFERTY: I know, but it is long.

BLITZER: You're a political news junky. It doesn't get any better.

CAFFERTY: No, I understand. You like this stuff probably more than most.



BLITZER: All right, Jack. Thanks very much.

Let's get back to the tremendous uncertainly right now consuming North Korea following the death of the elusive leader, Kim Jong-il. Joining us now is the former New Mexico governor and the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Bill Richardson. He's travelled to North Korea a number of times.

One of them -- the last time he was there exactly one year ago. I covered his trip there. We spent six days in Pyongyang. Governor, thanks very much for coming in. A quick question, how dangerous do you believe the situation on the Korean Peninsula with this transition is right now?

BILL RICHARDSON, FORMER NEW MEXICO GOVERNOR: Well, it's always dangerous on the Korean Peninsula. It's a tinder box. It's dangerous now because of the uncertainty. If you recall, Wolf, when we were there, the North Koreans started to move in the right direction.

They didn't go after the South Koreans. Lately, there've been some initiatives where the United States and North Koreans have met to talk about food aid, to talk about the remains of our servicemen from the Korean War. There's been talks between the North and the South Koreans. A little bit of a thawing. So, if you look at it that way, that doesn't mean that they're moving totally in the right direction.

The uncertainty with a death of Kim Jong-il, that's the danger. What happens next? My view is that, there's a succession that's going on, and the issue is going to be, how will the succession be viewed by the key players there, and you know who they are. It's the North Korean military.

BLITZER: Well, the Kim Jong-un, he's the son. He's in his late 20s. We don't know a whole lot about him. You didn't meet with him the last time you were there. I assume you've never met with him, but he doesn't have a whole lot of experience. He never served a day in the military, but they named him a four-star general. Does this guy, this young man, have any credibility?

RICHARDSON: Well, that's the issue. Will the North Koreans accept him, the military? I think the population will because they are schooled in the cult of personality. They did it with the father, Kim Jong-il, the succession with Kim Jong-il 17 years in power. The difference though is that right now, this young man is, he isn't even 30. He's never met foreign officials.

He didn't serve in the military. We know very little about him. We do know that he went to a western school in Switzerland, that he may speak some languages. That's good. But the issue is going to be, he won't have the same power as his father, Kim Jong-il.

I think you're going to see some of the military, the military commanders, some of the senior civilian leadership, not just help him out with leadership, but you will see them playing a stronger role, certainly, with a son so untested right now.

BLITZER: John McCain, the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, the former Republican presidential nominee, issued a statement today and among other things, he said this, "I can only express satisfaction that the dear leader," that's Kim Jong-il, "is joining the likes of Gadhafi, Bin Laden, Hitler and Stalin, in a warm corner of hell." What do you think of that reaction? RICHARDSON: Well, you know, I like Senator McCain, but I think what we need to do and the Obama administration is doing the right thing. They're cool. We don't want to provoke the North Koreans right now. I think what we want is, for instance, the North Koreans in the next ten days have pretty much decided not to let foreigners in, covering the funeral period, which I think is going to be December 28th.

I think we need to let them handle their succession, not provoke them. Talk about engaging them. I've always felt, as you know, that it's better to bring them in to talk to them, dialogue, engagement, rather than isolate them. When you isolate them, they even become more unpredictable, more irrational. I think talking to them, continuing the six party talks objective, which we don't have yet, giving them food aid.

I mean, people are starving there. You were there. You saw all those poor people that are in very, very bad shape on a humanitarian basis. I think the international community can be helpful and moderate them. Move them in the right direction. Move them towards engagement. The Chinese can do this. But I think the international community, the United Nations, the world food program, United States, that food aid is good.

And for the hundreds and thousands of veterans that are out there, families that want to recover the remains of American soldiers in Korea, let's engage them on that. The North Koreans, as you recall, when we were there, they were ready to turn over some remains. I think that's a good way to bring us closer together but with skepticism.

You can never approach these guys with the view that they're going to do good, you know? They're very unpredictable. You don't know what they're going to do next.

BLITZER: You heard -- we were showing our viewers of pictures of when we were there last year, exactly a year ago in North Korea, when you were meeting with their chief nuclear negotiator among others, but you heard John McCain's reaction.

If you were advising President Obama right now, would you advise him to issue a formal statement of condolences to the North Korean people? Maybe even try to send someone to the funeral?

RICHARDSON: Well, I don't think anyone will be allowed to go, Wolf. I think it'll just be a North Korean funeral --

BLITZER: You don't think anyone from China will go?

RICHARDSON: What I would advise -- I don't think so, but I know some friend that were going. Their visit was suddenly stopped. In fact, Tony Namkung (ph) who was with us, who has been advising me for years, was going to go in, but because of the period of mourning, is not going to go. I would advise the president and he hasn't asked for my advice, but I would say he's doing the right thing right now. Calm. Statements that basically call for stability in the peninsula, Japanese engagement. I think Secretary Clinton meeting with Asian allies in Washington, sending statements of moderation, of concern. I think that's the right way to go.

BLITZER: So, should he issue a statement? Should the United States issue a statement expressing its condolences to the people of North Korea? Remember how the U.S. reacted in 1994. when Kim Il Sung died and Kim Jong-il took over President Clinton at the time was in office.

RICHARDSON: Well, because for humanitarian reasons, I think at the appropriate time, a positive statement, condolence statement is appropriate. I don't know how the White House is going to handle that. But, again, I think what's more important than that, is basically to continue a dialogue. Now, you got to wait and see what they're going to do.

You want to just kind of read the tea leaves a little bit more. I think a key is going to be those officials that you and I met that were in my delegation, engaging on nuclear issues, on military issues. Whether those moderates that we perceived as more moderates, whether they will stay on in a new regime.

My hope is (inaudible) who, I believe, genuinely is somebody that has experience in dealing with the United States and six-party talks will stay, but a lot of that is uncertain, and this is where the danger is.

BLITZER: Bill Richardson, let us know if you're finding and heading (ph) back to North Korea any time soon. I know in April is the 100th anniversary, the birth of Kim Il Sung, and they were getting ready for huge celebrations there. If you head over there, let us know about it.

RICHARDSON: All right. Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Bill Richardson, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, former governor of New Mexico.

Newt Gingrich ignites a fierce new controversy suggesting certain judges should be arrested, even impeached. Is this a winning political strategy?

Plus, Gingrich is now locked in a dead heat with Mitt Romney in our latest CNN/ORC poll. We're tracking the ups and downs of the presidential contenders and what it could mean for the critical Iowa caucuses just two weeks, two weeks, from tomorrow.


BLITZER: Just the other day, Mitt Romney was acknowledging Newt Gingrich as the frontrunner, but now, the two Republicans are dead even in our brand new poll of voters, Republicans voters nationwide. Our Brian Todd has been taking a closer look at the wild ups and downs in the Republican race for the White House even before the voting begins -- Brian.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, some genuine excitement reflected in our CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll as we head into Iowa. It's not just a dead heat in terms of margin for error. It is a true dead heat. Twenty-eight percent even Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich tied according to CNN and Opinion Research Corporation Poll held over the weekend.

Ron Paul coming in third at 14 percent, still hanging around this race, and he may surge going in to Iowa because he has such a strong ground game there. Look at Michele Bachmann's numbers, still kind of maintaining at about eight percent. Rick Perry, a pretty severe drop since the summer and fall, and Rick Santorum and Jon Huntsman kind of rounding at the field, but you really got to measure it as far as the way it tracks, and we're going to do that right now.

Newt Gingrich, look at just how far he's come since May. We're going to do all these candidates since May. He starts out low at a little over 10 percent, but then, look at surge for Newt Gingrich, starting in the fall and heading into now.

Mitt Romney, he starts fairly high in May and June, but then dips, then maintains, and now, partly, maybe as a result of his attacks on Newt Gingrich and the attacks of other candidates on Newt Gingrich, he has pulled even heading into the Iowa caucuses just two weeks away. Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, very exciting race between the two of them.

We're going to look at the other candidates very quickly here. Since the month of May, Ron Paul, again, starting out not too high in the polls about 15 percent, but he doesn't lose much either, then surges again starting in about mid November to now. And again with the strong ground game, he is certainly someone to watch there.

Look at Michele Bachmann, again, maintains a fairly even keel, sore just a little bit in June, but then, doesn't really head up enough in the polls, does go up a little bit in November, but now, seems to be tracking downward as she is a little less than 10 percent in the polls as we go into Iowa. And we're going to take a look at Rick Perry. That may be the biggest story as far as just, you know, the rise and fall of a candidate populate.

Look at the way he surged when he got into race late July, early August, really up there, but because of his debate performances and other gaffs on the campaign trail, a real downward spiral. Since about September to now, Rick Perry not in very good shape as we head into Iowa. And again, Rick Perry losing ground just since the last CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll that we did a little while ago.

Last month, he has dropped, I think, four percentage points as what it is to his place now at seven percent, Wolf. So, Gingrich, Romney, dead heat as we go into Iowa. Very exciting days in the next couple of weeks going into the caucuses.

BLITZER: Brian, thanks very much. Brian Todd reporting for us.

Those are national polls.Much more important what is going on in the states right now, especially in Iowa.

Gingrich is honing his message, working on his ground game. Only 15 days until the caucuses take place.

Our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger, is joining us now from Davenport, Iowa. Newt Gingrich just held an event there.

What's his message, Gloria? Because some polls show that at least some of that air may be beginning to come out of that Gingrich balloon.


I just asked Newt Gingrich about that a few minutes ago here in Davenport, Iowa. It was interesting, because he didn't deny that his numbers are heading in the wrong direction, but he had a very clear explanation about why.

Take a listen.


BORGER: Mr. Speaker, your numbers have been heading in the wrong direction here in the state of Iowa. Can you tell us why?

NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Watch TV here for two days. You have had all sorts of people and all sorts of these super PACs who have consistently been running negative ads. Well, you get enough negative ads before you start answering them, your numbers go down for a while.


BORGER: So, the Speaker is saying, look, I don't have the money, I'm going to go positive. He actually has no choice, Wolf, but to go positive.

He's raised about $500,000 over this weekend. And he told us today that he is going to start something called "Ask Newt," which will essentially be town halls that people can call in, talk to Newt Gingrich, he will answer all the negative ads, he says. So it's kind of campaigning in a cheaper way, but it allows him to answer his critics.

BLITZER: He was also confronted, Gloria, with more questions about that Freddie Mac consulting business that he had. What, he made about $1.6 million? What did he say?

BORGER: Well, here is the interesting point. He was asked about this by one of the people at this event, and he made it very clear for the first time that he personally did not earn $1.6 million. He said, in fact, he probably only earned about $35,000 a year from Freddie Mac.

But then he went on to say, Wolf, that "That was less than I was making per speech." So I'm not -- at the time, I'm not sure how that went over with an Iowa audience, because they are kind of less listening and thinking, $35,000 is less than you make per speech? Remember he told us he was making about 60,000 a speech -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Did he say what happened to the -- if he only was making $30,000 or so from Freddie Mac, what about the $1.5 million that's still out there?

BORGER: Right. Well, it went to his office. It went for overhead. It went to other people. It went to the business, et cetera. But he said he, personally, $35,000.

BLITZER: Interesting.

He's also been extremely outspoken on judges right now, liberal judges, if you will, and activist judges, as he likes to call them. Does the campaign, his campaign, see this as a winning issue? Because he's being criticized, from some former Republican attorneys general.

BORGER: They do. Right, they do see it as a big issue here in Iowa. And he was asked about it today, and he was very, very eager to talk about the judge issue.

Listen to this.


GINGRICH: And here is the question. Are judges above the law? Are judges in a position where they dictate to the president and they dictate to the Congress? And the founding fathers answered it very clearly.

Alexander Hamilton writes in "The Federalist" papers, the judicial branch is the weakest of the three branches and would never pick a fight with the president and the Congress because it would inevitably lose it. You have since 1958, the court has said we are supreme, we are the last word. That's baloney.


BORGER: Wolf, I was speaking to a bunch of people out in the audience here today. They are with Newt Gingrich on this. This is a state where three state Supreme Court justices who were pro-gay marriage were voted out of office. They don't like judicial activists. This is a good issue for Newt Gingrich in this state.

BLITZER: All right.

Gloria, in Davenport, Iowa. She's going to be reporting this week from Iowa.

Gloria, thanks very much.

Please be sure to join all of us at the CNN Election Center for the first votes in the Republican presidential contest on January 3rd. Anything could happen in Iowa. Our coverage of the Iowa caucuses, by the way, on January 3rd will start 7:00 p.m. Eastern.

It's a crime police are calling as bad as it gets. Just ahead, a dramatic development in the case of an elderly woman burned to death in an elevator.

Plus, reports of a rising death toll in Egypt just months after the historic revolution.


BLITZER: A horrific story indeed. Dramatic new developments in the disturbing case of an elderly woman burned to death in an elevator.

Mary Snow has been monitoring this story, some of the other top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

What's going on here, Mary?

SNOW: So horrific, Wolf.

The suspect is charged with murder and arson and is being held without bail. The incident which took place over the weekend here in New York was caught on surveillance cameras. Authorities say he sprayed a 73- year-old woman with a flammable liquid, then lit a molotov cocktail. The suspect turned himself into police, claiming the woman owed him $2,000.

The death toll reportedly is rising and hundreds are believed to be injured in Egypt's Tahrir Square as vicious clashes between protesters and security forces enter a fourth day. A doctor says two people were killed today.

And the coffin of former Czech president Vaclav Havel is on display in Prague. The former dissident playwright who helped topple communism in Eastern Europe died at the age of 75. He spent more than four years in prison for opposing Czechoslovakia's communist government before emerging to end it in the 1989 revolution -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Mary, thanks very much.

Just when it looked like Congress might agree on extending the payroll tax, there is a new hang-up. I'll talk about that and more with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. He's standing by. What's going on?

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Let's go to Capitol Hill right now.

The House and the Senate apparently on a collision course over extending the payroll tax cut. The House is moving toward a vote on a Senate-approved plan that includes a two-month extension.

The Speaker, John Boehner, now though urging House Republicans to vote no, saying a one-year extension is better. This appears to be another step backward, at least for right now, in a long, rather ugly fight, with the tax cut due to expire in just 12 days.

Let's talk about this with the House majority leader, Eric Cantor. He's joining us from Capitol Hill.

Is there going to be a deal or no deal? Will 160 million Americans lose that payroll tax cut come January 1st, or are you ready to make a deal?

REP. ERIC CANTOR (R-VA), HOUSE MAJORITY LEADER: Well, Wolf, you know, I hope not. And the House is committed to continuing to work until Congress approves a year-long guarantee to the working people of this country that they are not going to have a tax increase.

The two-month plan that was passed by the Senate has now been deemed unworkable by the National Payroll Reporting Consortium, who sent up to Capitol Hill this letter. And basically, it's saying that the Senate plan will provide more uncertainty, confusion, and will actually hurt workers.

And I don't think anybody really thinks that it is a good way to implement policy on a two-month basis. And again, that's what we are saying. It's time for the Senate to come back to town, to do what it is that the president said we should be doing, which is to provide that year-long guarantee that taxes are not going to go up for working people.

BLITZER: Here is what the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, said, and I'll put it up on the screen. He said, "When we met last week, Speaker Boehner requested that Senator McConnell" -- he's the Republican leader in the Senate -- "and I work out a compromise. Neither side got everything they wanted, but we forged a middle ground that passed the Senate by an overwhelming bipartisan majority."

Here is the question. Isn't two months better than nothing?

CANTOR: Well, we can do better than two months. I don't think there's anybody who said that a two-month tax policy or health care policy is the way we ought to go. And we can do this.

I mean, when negotiations broke off, Wolf, you know, we were close. And I think that we can do this.

And the working people of this country deserve more. And they deserve better. They deserve to be going into Christmas, in the new year, knowing full well that their taxes are not going to go up and them the entire year. That's what the president has asked for, and that's what we in the Congress and the House are committed to doing, is to working together to reach the compromise that will guarantee that people are not going to see their taxes go up for the full year.

BLITZER: But if you need some more time to finesse, to work out a deal, instead of letting it lapse on January 1st, continue the negotiations for another two months. It simply continues the tax cut which is already in place. It's been in place over this past year.

CANTOR: Right. We can do this, Wolf. We can do this. We've got two weeks to do it. And again, we don't need any more uncertainty.

And all sides I think agree that a year-long tax guarantee that taxes don't go up is much better. And again, you see the people who are in the business saying that this plan that's passed by the Senate, this 16-day plan, is just unworkable. It's not a tenable position to take.

And I think that Harry Reid is going to have to call the Senate back to get down to work with us so we can resolve this for the working families and taxpayers of the country. And I think we'll all be better off.

BLITZER: A lot of Senate Republicans, a whole bunch of them, are coming out strongly against you, the Republican leadership in the House. Scot Brown, the Republican senator from Massachusetts, said this: "The House Republicans' plan to scuttle the deal to help middle class families is irresponsible and wrong. I appreciate their effort to extend these measures for a full year, but a two-month extension is a good deal when it means we avoid jeopardizing the livelihoods of millions of American families."

That Republican Senator Scott Brown.

What do you want to say to Senator Brown?

CANTOR: I think you'll also see in Senator Brown's statements that he supports coming together in conference committee and working out the differences. Now, I think that's all we're asking.

No one is saying, "My way or the highway." We're saying, we can do this, we really can. We shouldn't be going on vacation, we shouldn't be taking holiday here until we get the work done for the people of this country.

And I think that there is pretty much agreement that one year can be done. We don't need to be governing in two-month increments. People can't live their lives like that. Small businesspeople can't, working people can't. Families have got to know what their tax liability is.

Let's go ahead and remove the uncertainty. Let's provide what it is the working people of this country need. Enough is enough, Wolf. And I think we can get this done.

BLITZER: I want to just put up on the screen what's at stake, because a lot of viewers may be confused right now. A hundred and sixty million people stand to lose if you guys don't get the job done by December 31st.

Right now, if you make $35,000 a year, you'd have to pay an additional $700; $50,000, an additional $1,000 to the government; $75,000, $1,500; $90,000, $1,800. If you make $106,800, you pay $2,100 extra. If you make more than $110,000, you pay $2,300. That's the maximum on the payroll tax.

That's a lot of money.

CANTOR: Wolf, nobody wants those taxes to go into effect. That's what we are here talking about right now. No one does.

And I'll tell you, if the Senate doesn't come back -- if the Senate doesn't come back into town, they're going to have a lot of answering to do to the taxpayers of this country, because I think what you will see tonight is a rejection of the Senate position because we know it's unworkable. And we've got a better way, and we are asking the Senate to come sit down, let's talk and get this straight so the American people and small businesses can know what their tax situation is next year and be guaranteed that taxes are not going to go up.

BLITZER: You know, in the CBS poll that came out, and now another Gallup poll that has just come out, they asked about the approval of Congress. "Do you think Congress is doing a good job or a bad job?"

Approval number for Congress right now is only 11 percent, Mr. Leader. Only 11 percent of the American public approve of the job that Congress is doing. What does that say to you?

CANTOR: Well, do you blame them? I mean, here you've got the White House, you've got the Senate Democrats and Republicans, and you have us in the House saying that we all feel that a year's extension of the payroll tax holiday is where we should go, but yet you have got the Senate passing a 60-day version and leaving town. I mean, do you blame the people for sitting there scratching their heads, wondering what's going on in Washington?

That's what we've got to end, Wolf. We've got to start working together and really showing the people that we get it.

They're tired of hearing reasons why things can't be done in Washington. And we are saying that we are willing to work together to try and produce results. And that's exactly what the discussion and the vote tonight is about in the House.

BLITZER: Well, we hope that you guys, the House and the Senate Democrats and Republicans, Independents out there, can get the job done between now and December 31st, because a lot of folks are going to be hurting if you don't. So, good luck, Mr. Leader.

CANTOR: Thank you, Wolf.

Jack Cafferty is asking, do you wish the election were already over? Jack and your e-mail, that's coming up next.


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

CAFFERTY: The question this hour is: Do you wish the election were already over?

Ralph in Florida, "Given the uninspiring selection of candidates, including the incumbent, there is little reason to be enthusiastic about the 2012 election. At the same time, though, wishing it were already over would be wishing away 11 months of life in which any number of good things could happen, even if none of that involves politics. There is no guarantee regardless of who wins that the situation in Washington is going to be any better in January of 2013 than it is in December of 2011."

Kevin in California writes, "Nowadays the election is never over. Politics has degraded to a state of constant campaigning. This is one of the traits of an empire in decline, a state of constant political upheaval."

Tom writes, "Jack, spare a thought for Colbert, Stewart, Leno, and 'Saturday Night Live,' because without Bachmann, Santorum, Perry and Gingrich, those guys will have to start working for a living."

Jeff writes, "I'm looking forward to next December when we start with the 2016 campaign."

Dave in Florida says, "The answer to this is a perennial yes, a thousand times yes. I'll never understand the undying passion for politics. It's a pointless waste of time since the beginning of this century. It doesn't mat here gets in. They will screw the middle class regardless of any promises they made or what they claimed to stand for."

Randy writes, "No. I wish for my Powerball numbers to hit. Wasting a wish on a fixed wrestling type illusion like modern-day politics is a wasted wish."

And Shane writes, "No, it's the best sitcom on television. You never know who's going to play the buffoon next."

If you want to read more on this, you can find it on my blog,, or through our post on THE SITUATION ROOM'S Facebook page -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Jack. Thank you. Thanks very much.

The "Dear Leader" may be not so dearly mourned. Jeanne Moos is next.


BLITZER: Not everyone is mourning the death of North Korea's Kim Jong-il.

Here's CNN's Jeanne Moos.


JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): When the "Dear Leader" became the dearly departed, don't expect too much respect.

CAST OF "WIZARD OF OZ" (singing): Ding dong the witch is dead. Which old witch? The wicked witch.

MOOS: Contrast that with how the news was delivered by a North Korean anchor near tears, the same anchor who delivered the news when Kim Jong-il's father died 17 years earlier.

But in the West, Kim was seen as a ruthless cartoon character dictator with an ego as big as his glasses -- his many pairs of glasses. Kim was most famously portrayed by the creators of "South Park," feeding U.N. inspector hands Hans Blix to his pet fish in "Team America," and singing mournfully as he made plans to destroy the world.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (singing): I'm so lonely, so lonely, so lonely and sad, real alone

MOOS: Those who portrayed him as a rapper weren't alone.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (singing): The name's Kim Jong. I've got a license to il.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (singing): I'm only 5'3", but nobody gonna (EXPLETIVE DELETED) with me, cause bomb, bomb, bomb. Intercontinental ballistics, baby.

MOOS: A Kim Jong-il impersonator even delivered the weather on "30 Rock."

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: North Korea, everything is sunny all the time. Always a good time, a beach party.

MOOS (on camera): And while in the West he is mocked, North Korea is being rocked by grief if you can believe the video.

(voice-over): State TV showed North Koreans crying, slapping the ground. A skeptic posted, "I've seen better acting from Paris Hilton."

If it was acting, there was plenty of it inside homes, in front of murals, before statues. But the tears were more likely to be from laughter in the West over various lists circulating like "The Top 10 Strange Facts about Kim Jong-il," hard to confirm facts such as, "He once attempted to breed giant rabbits to alleviate famine," and "He claimed to have invented the hamburger."

People don't usually speak ill of the dead unless your name is "Kim Jong-il."

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (singing): It seems like no one takes me seriously

MOOS: Jeanne Moos, CNN --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (singing): I'm lonely.

MOOS: -- New York.


BLITZER: That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

The news continues next on CNN.