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Menendez Backs Syria Plan; Teen's Cause of Death in Doubt; Obama Gambles on Syria Strike Delay; Obama Gaining Republican Support on Syria.

Aired September 3, 2013 - 13:30   ET


SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ, (D), NEW JERSEY: He said this is a momentous occasion and I trust both of you working together in a bipartisan fashion and help the country achieve its goal.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Now you are working with the Senate majority leader and others to change the language of this authorization in order to make it more palatable so people can actually -- so you can get the votes for it. Many of your colleagues thought it was too broad. Can you give insight as to how you're changing that?

MENENDEZ: It's a work in progress, Dana. Here's our goal. We want to great a balance between giving the president the power to have the decisive action he needs to take in Syria to punish the Assad regime, to deter and degrade it, and at the same time not make this an open ended commitment.

BASH: There will be a time frame, an expiration date?

MENENDEZ: There certainly will be clauses with reference to no boots on the ground and in some respect there will be somewhat of a frame work of time. Obviously, we have to have preparations for if there's any response by the Assad regime, giving the president the flexibility there. I would say that if there is a future use of chemical weapons, creating the opportunity for that to be responded to. But I think we will strike the balance in which members on both sides, those who want to be more aggressive or more robust and those who are concerned will find common cause.

BASH: I want to give our viewers a little sense. This is your chair. It says it right there.


BASH: This is where you'll be sitting. But the man who will be sitting in the middle here in the witness table, John Kerry, just nine months ago was sitting over there in that chair.


BASH: How much does that play into the dynamic here? You have a very heavy lift because you'll be leading these Senators in questioning these very important witnesses. But John Kerry knows what it's like to be in your chair. How much will that help? What is that going to do to the dynamic of this hearing?

MENENDEZ: I think Secretary Kerry, having the experience of being a Senator for a long time and being the chair of the committee, understands the dynamics of the committee, understands the thinking of members, and understands what case he has to make in order to persuade a cross section of members on both sides of the aisle. I think that's a big plus for us. He's a tremendous advocate and he knows the Senate and he knows Senators. And that's going to be very helpful.

BASH: Chuck Hagel also was a Senator when he had his return here for his confirmation hearing, didn't go so well, because it's almost like he forgot what it was like to be a Senator. How much is his influence going to really matter here? My guess is just in talking to your colleagues a lot of questions will be for him and General Dempsey because there's a lot of concern about the military operation.

MENENDEZ: I think both of them will be incredibly important because I think there's a growing consensus over the intelligence and the fact that Assad committed these crimes. The question members have is, what does this military action look like. How long will it take? At the end of the action, what can we expect? I think those questions will go to both Secretary Hagel and General Dempsey.

BASH: Well, look for you to be chairing this hearing. We'll be watching it on our network as well.

Thank you very much.

Jake, we'll toss it back to you.

Thanks again for having us here.


Coming up, he was found in a Georgia school gym, dead. It was ruled an accident. But his family didn't buy it and maybe they have been right. The investigation is ahead.


TAPPER: Let's get to some other stories making news today with Brooke Baldwin in Atlanta.

Hey, Brooke.

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey, Jake. Thank you very much.

One question we've been asking at CNN is, was Kendrick Johnson murdered. He was the 17-year-old found dead in a rolled wrestling match in high school gym in Valdosta, Georgia. This happened this past January. His death was ruled accidental, but his family was granted permission to exhume the body in May.

And our correspondent, Victor Blackwell, has obtained this independent report that says the Georgia high school teenager died from, and I'm quoting this report, "an unexplained apparent non-accidental blunt force trauma."

Victor joins me in studio.

We've talked. You've been all over this. The family all along, when they got that initial autopsy, had a lot of questions.

VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: They always questioned it and so did hundreds of supporters who rallied in this small town. They never believed the story that Kendrick dove into the mat where his shoe got stuck and died because of the positional asphyxia, which investigators said was an accident. So they had his body exhumed. There's a second autopsy and that pathologist determined it was blunt-force trauma to the right neck consistent with injuries. Now you have two feuding reports. One says accidental. The other one said consistent with injuries.

BALDWIN: Given this new independent autopsy report what happens next?

BLACKWELL: They've been asking all this time for the U.S. attorney to open an investigation. The U.S. attorney in Georgia, Michael Moore, says he's reviewing the case. He wants to speak with the family's attorney. He wants to be very methodical and very careful about this search for answers. Now he wants to talk to this independent pathologist. He said it's not rushed. He wants to do it right to make sure the people in this community, in Valdosta, Georgia, have confidence in what the final outcome is.

BALDWIN: We want to hear from the family. I know you're working on it. We'll stay on the story with you.

Victor Blackwell, thank you very much.

BLACKWELL: Sure. Thank you, Brooke.

BALDWIN: Coming up next, as we continue our special coverage of the crisis in Syria, delaying a possible strike isn't time sensitive. This is the opinion of the chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, but not all military men agree. Our Chris Lawrence will have that report straight from the Pentagon, next.


TAPPER: President Obama's surprising and, to some, stunning weekend announcement that he will first seek congressional approval for a Syria strike is drawing mixed reaction in Washington, especially since he says it doesn't have to happen right away. Not everyone sees it that way.

Pentagon correspondent, Chris Lawrence, tells us why the White House is a confident a delay will not hurt the chances of a successful mission.


CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Right now, U.S. military officials are refining their targets in Syria, looking at the latest intelligence to see what has been moved and where.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, (R), ARIZONA: It's much harder now than it would have if we'd acted initially.

LAWRENCE: Senator John McCain disagrees with some military officials who say U.S. intelligence and targeting technologies can overcome anything Syrian President Bashar Assad tries to hide.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The chairman has indicated to me that our capacity to execute this mission is not time sensitive.

LAWRENCE: Five Navy warships are positioned in the eastern bay, each armed with about 40 tomahawk missiles. And Monday, the air craft carrier "U.S. Nimitz" moved into the Red Sea along with its battle group.

President Obama says General Martin Dempsey assured him that strikes would be just as effective a month from now.

MCCAIN: I'm astounded when the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff says it doesn't matter.

LAWRENCE: Some former commanders say it most certainly does.

LT. GEN. MICHAEL SHORT, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: A scud battery that we could have found in the open on Saturday will not be next to a mosque 10 days from now.

LAWRENCE: Retired General Michael Short commanded the air mission over Kosovo. While some targets like Syria military and police headquarters are static, Short says there's now a greater risk you hit the defense ministry with no defense ministers inside.

SHORT: You'll have an incredible picture of the building coming down when it's struck by a couple of cruise missiles. But Assad's ability to command and control his military has been impacted not at all.

LAWRENCE (on camera): Pentagon officials are confident in their claims because, one, they believe that Assad cannot hide some very important targets. They say Syria does not have large, fortified underground bunkers that can protect big targets like airplanes and attack helicopters. And you can't park many of those next to an urban school or mosque. Runways are out in the open. And officials believe that after two years of intense conflict that Assad's forces are degraded to the point where even limited damage to his communications and assets will be felt by the regime.

Chris Lawrence, CNN, the Pentagon.


TAPPER: President Obama gets a big boost from his Syria plan for key Republicans. We'll look at who is backing the president's plan and why, coming up next.


TAPPER: President Obama is getting support for his Syria plan from some top house Republicans. Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor both say they support the president's call for military action.

Here is what Speaker Boehner said earlier today.


REP. JOHN BOEHNER, (R-OH), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: I'm going to support the president. I believe my colleagues should support this call for action. We have enemies around the world that need to understand that we're not going tolerate this type of behavior. We also have allies around the world and allies in the region who also need to know that America will be there and stand up when it's necessary.


TAPPER: The House majority leader says he'll vote to give President Obama quote, "the option to use military force in Syria," adding "America has a compelling national security interest to prevent and respond to the use of weapons of mass destruction."

I'm joined by our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger.

Gloria, how key, how important is it to have support from Boehner and Cantor?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: It's better to have them than not to have them. But this isn't like a budget vote. This is a vote that the leaders don't go around and, what they call, whip. They don't go around and say you have to be with us. This is a vote of conscious. I think the fact that Boehner is with the president isn't going to convince some House Republicans whose districts are adamantly against the use of force, nor would it help convince Democrats that Nancy Pelosi supports the president. I think in both parties you have a division. You have division in the Democratic Party. Those who want to give the president this and believe that it would be a catastrophe, to use John McCain's words, if Congress sent against the president. Some Democrats want to support him. But you've got the wing of the Democratic Party that's against the use of force, and same thing in the Republican Party.

By the way, it's the wing of the Democratic Party that the president really helped foster and create in his rise to prominence. So there's a little irony here for President Obama. Because he's on the other side now.

TAPPER: One of the criticisms I've heard from Republicans is even some house Republicans and Senate Republicans, who may be inclined to take military action, don't have a tremendous amount of confidence in President Obama's leadership. And you and I were talking during the break. His about-face on Saturday -- or I guess Friday night, announced Saturday -- about whether or not to seek Congressional authorization -- BORGER: Yeah.

TAPPER: -- That they can't be helping that.

BORGER: No, it doesn't help. I don't think it helps in either party. I talked to Democrats and Republicans who are all stunned. How did this occur? We were in a clear rollout to war. You know rollouts when you see them, right?

TAPPER: Secretary of State John Kerry gave a speech compared Assad to Hitler.

BORGER: Right. You have Secretary Kerry, you have the vice president of the United States, you have the president of the United States. This was a rollout to military strike. Then suddenly, on Saturday, we're sitting here waiting for the president to come out, and what he said was, wait a minute, I'm going to sort of stop it now. Because I think what he wanted was to get the country in line and get the Congress behind him. His critics say that's because he doesn't want the responsibility for this on his own. That might be the case, but he is also, don't forget, somebody on the record in the past for going to Congress for authorization before the use of -- before going to war.

If you look at his entire national security team, they've been in the same place. They're Senators. We know their views -- Kerry, Hagel, Biden, Obama.

TAPPER: But it's not the position itself. It's the idea that there was no conveying that that was on the table. There was no suggestion that they were going to go to Congress.

BORGER: Right. Then you take a walk in the Rose Garden with his chief of staff and it's clearly something he had been thinking about.

This also tells us, Jake, how this president makes decisions. If people on his national security team were surprised, then the public has a right to be surprised. He made this by himself.

TAPPER: Indeed.

Gloria Borger, thank you so much.

Our Christiane Amanpour has an exclusive interview in just a few minutes with Syria's ambassador to the united Basher Jaafari.

Join me tonight at 11:00 eastern for my special on Syria.

Wolf Blitzer is next with special coverage of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing.

That's it for me. Thank you for watching.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. This is CNN special live coverage of the crisis in Syria. We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world.

We're only a few minutes away from the hearing that the world has been waiting for. The decision to strike Syria now in the hands of the United States Congress. Today, you're going to get the best indication yet of where these U.S. lawmakers stand. As we watch this hearing live on Capitol Hill, several members of President Obama's inner circle will be testifying, including the secretary of state, John Kerry; the defense secretary, Chuck Hagel; and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey. The president today giving his calls for military action one more push.


OBAMA: The military plan that has been developed by the Joint Chiefs and that I believe is proportional, it is limited, and it does not involve boots on the ground. This is not Iraq. This is not Afghanistan.


BLITZER: So far, for the president, he's got a couple of major players on his side from both sides of the aisle, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and the House Speaker John Boehner.


REP. NANCY PELOSI, (D-CA), HOUSE MINORITY LEADER: Weapons of mass destruction, deterring their use is a pillar of our national security. Assad has done that. That is a differentiation from what he has done up until now. People say, well he killed 100,000 people, what's the difference with this 1400? With this 1400, he crossed a line with using a chemical weapon. President Obama did not draw the red line. Humanity drew it decades ago.

BOEHNER: I'm going to support the president's call for action. I believe my colleagues should support this call for action. We have enemies around the world that need to understand that we're not going to tolerate this type of behavior. We also have allies around the world and allies in the region who also need to know that America will be there and stand up when it's necessary.


BLITZER: But the president still has his work cut out for him to get Congress on board. In the Senate, he needs 51 votes, unless there's a filibuster. Then he would need 60 votes to break the filibuster. Our count so far shows he has only 20 votes seemingly guaranteed. There are 72 Senators who say they are undecided or their position is unknown. In the House, 218 votes are needed. Right now, only 16 members have come out in favor of a strike. 47 say they are totally against it. Almost 200 are undecided. As for the rest, we simply don't know where they stand on striking Syria but we're going to continue to monitor the head count on a day by day basis.

We have our own chief congressional correspondent, Dana Bash, standing by inside the capital, and Brianna Keilar, our senior White House correspondent, is outside the White House.

Dana, first to you.

One of the biggest policy decisions of his presidency, certainly his legacy on the line, a lot of national security interest in the Middle East on the line. He's gambling on a Congress as you well know that often struggles to agree on anything and is bitterly not only divided but so many members, especially Republicans, seem so totally opposed to almost anything the president comes up with.

BASH: That's right. That is why it is so significant that the House speaker, John Boehner, came out and said he supports the president's decision to use military action against Syria. Not just because it is something that would help him, you would think, with that fractured and really opposed Republican caucus, but also, because just the way John Boehner operates, he doesn't tend to come out he say where he stands, particularly on a controversial issue. The fact he did now is certainly not going to sway those Libertarians in the Republican conference but it could perhaps, bring on board some who are just not sure how to go. And that is why that is a really significant thing. Having said that, he has supported other things in the past like, remember, TARP and, still, at that point, failed in the House.

I want you to look over my shoulder at what's going to happen here. This public display of discussion that we're going to see is going to mirror what is going on really in a frenzied pace, almost more than I've ever seen on Capitol Hill, and I've covered this place for a long time. The discussions and briefings and classified and unclassified, as we speak. Next door, in the Intelligence Committee, inside another classified room with House and Senate members. It's happening today, it happened yesterday, it's happening all week long. They say they are going to flood the zone at the White House. They are flooding the zone. They are not there yet, even though that's what the Senate majority leader thinks, that' he's going to get there, but they are not taking anything for granted inside the White House. It's remarkable to watch.

BLITZER: They shouldn't take anything for granted. There's a lot of opposition not only among Republicans but plenty of Democrats at least indicating they're inclined to vote no right now.

Let's go the White House. Brianna Keilar is standing by.

How confident are officials over there that, in the end, they will get yea votes from the House and Senate.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, they are feeling better today than yesterday, and they were feeling better yesterday than they were the day before. The White House officials I've spoken with are optimistic, not that they have the votes at this point, but that momentum is on their side. They think it's so key that they got this full-throated response and support from Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner today, not just them, but as well the number-two Republican in the House, Eric Cantor. And when they add that up with the tentative support --