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THE SITUATION ROOM

Obama Face-To-Face With Putin; Interview with Rep. Michael Grimm; UK: Sarin Traces Found In Syria Samples; Sarin Traces Found in Syria Samples; Syria a Tough Sell with Obama Base; Who's Your Panda Daddy?

Aired September 5, 2013 - 17:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


JESSICA YELLIN, CNN GUEST HOST: Happening now, a SITUATION ROOM special report -- Crisis in Syria.

President Obama comes face-to-face with history strongest adversary in the push for military action in Syria, shaking hands with Russian president, Vladimir Putin, even as the defiant leader hurls more insults directly at the United States.

Plus, a stunning reversal from a key Republican Congressman who defended the president's case right here in THE SITUATION ROOM just 72 hours ago.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. MICHAEL GRIMM (R), NEW YORK: We cannot allow a precedent of this regime -- a regime anything like the Assad regime -- to use chemical weapons.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

YELLIN: Now, he's changed his mind. I'll ask him why.

And until just months ago, Hillary Clinton was making the administration's case in just about every international crisis. Now on Syria, she's keeping her distance.

Could 2016 be on her mind?

Our "CROSSFIRE" cohosts are here to debate.

Wolf Blitzer is off today.

I'm Jessica Yellin.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words.

Well, one of those words could be awkward. President Obama arrived in Russia today for the G-20 Summit, shaking hands with a thorn in his side in the Syria crisis, Russian President Vladimir Putin, despite the growing tensions between the two and the not so subtle digs Russia is taking at the United States. All this as the president continues his uphill battle to drum up more support for military action on the world stage and here at home.

CNN's senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, is traveling with the president and joins us now from St. Petersburg -- hey, Jim.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Jessica.

That's right, President Obama once said that Vladimir Putin looked like "the bored kid in the back of the classroom." Well, the Russian president doesn't look like that anymore, as the president is trying to make his case on Syria.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA (voice-over): It looked like a lonely walk, as President Obama made his way into dinner behind closed doors at the G-20 Summit. The president was asked whether he'd made any progress in his case for military action against Syria.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We were talking about the economy this afternoon.

ACOSTA: But that's not quite the case. As he is chatting up people like British Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, aides to the president say Mr. Obama is out to convince skeptical foreign leaders that Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad is responsible for the chemical weapons attack on August 21st.

OBAMA: I think our joint recommendation that the use of chemical weapons in Syria is not only a tragedy, but also a violation of international law that must be addressed.

ACOSTA: But that pitch is getting a chilly reception from summit host and Russian president, Vladimir Putin, who was all smiles when he greeted Mr. Obama, even as he appears to be giving diplomacy the cold shoulder.

The day before the G-20 began, Putin accused secretary of State John Kerry of lying about al Qaeda's role in the Syrian opposition.

PRES. VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIA (through translator): He knew that he was lying and he went on lying about it. It is sad.

ACOSTA: That drew a brutal response from the State Department.

JEN PSAKI, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESWOMAN: So he's not losing sleep after such a preposterous comment that was based on an inaccurate quote and was completely mischaracterized.

ACOSTA: At a G-20 news conference, Putin's press secretary took a shot at the evidence offered up by U.S. officials that points to Syrian government forces in the poison gas attack.

DMITRY PESKOV, RUSSIAN PRESS SECRETARY (through translator): We are all well aware that no weapons of mass destruction were discovered in Iraq. So not every proof can be proof in itself.

ACOSTA: Do you believe that the United States is fabricating the evidence or lying about the evidence?

PESKOV: I did not say that. I said that we all need a convincing and legitimate evidence or proof.

ACOSTA: As for the fiscal issues that are supposed to be at the forefront of the G-20 Summit, Putin did work in a dig at the recovering U.S. economy, chalking it up to policies at the Federal Reserve.

PUTIN: This policy of giving away free money cannot last forever and you understand that all perfectly well.

ACOSTA: The reactions from President Obama and other leaders were plain to see.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

ACOSTA: Even though President Obama is here in St. Petersburg, he is working both sides of the Atlantic, calling members of Congress about his case on Syria and canceling a trip to California that he planned for next week, early next week, Jessica, when Congress gets back to business -- Jessica.

YELLIN: Thanks, Jim.

Nice job in that Q&A with the Russians. Impressive.

And now we turn to discuss the stakes overseas and at home with "Time" Washington bureau chief, Michael Sherer. And I should point out that "Time" is a cousin property of CNN. And in this issue, Syria is one of the many topics that you guys cover.

We're also here with Julia Ioffe.

Do I pronounce that right?

JULIA IOFFE, "THE NEW REPUBLIC": Right.

YELLIN: An expert on Russia "The new Republic."

Thanks to both of you for being here.

Julia, I want to start with you, because you know Russia so well. And there has been an enormous amount of international criticism of President Obama for, frankly, not doing enough to reach out to the Russians, to try to cobble together some kind of deal to avoid war in Syria or any kind of strike in Syria.

Is there something more the president could do to get Putin's agreement to find some peace in Syria?

IOFFE: I personally highly doubt it. I'm sure they're working the back channels, knowing the U.S. ambassador in Moscow. I'm sure they're working it as much as they can.

But given that Putin has already called Secretary Kerry a liar, given that he said that the evidence is "other worldly nonsense," given that they've put out their own competing set of evidence that shows -- they went to Aleppo, of all places, even though the attack was in Damascus. They went to Aleppo, found some shells, said they were homemade shells, i.e. Made by the rebels. And that the sarin gas they traced to the U.S. and the West from World War II. So...

YELLIN: He's done what he can.

IOFFE: But -- but that...

YELLIN: He's done what he can.

IOFFE: So he -- you know, right.

YELLIN: They don't really want to deal.

IOFFE: Right. He's -- and he's already publicly kind of foreclosed that option.

YELLIN: Right.

Michael, the president is over at the G-20 right now and we know that there is this major debate that's going to take place next week in Congress.

How important is it that the president have some achievement, accomplishment, at the G-20, in order to get momentum for a "yes" vote next week here at home?

MICHAEL SCHERER, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, "TIME": The problem is that he has no momentum domestically. I'm sure even an achievement at this point internationally would change much domestically.

I mean his real problem is that every day now, we get more and more "no" votes on the record in the House.

He's making a very complicated case internationally to a group of countries who have basically already made up their mind. I don't think there's much expectation that China, Russia, any other country, even our allies like England, can really move from their current positions.

And think one of the problems that -- as you watch the president make the case that he has is, on the international stage and domestically, he makes a humanitarian case. He says, you know, does the world want to stand by and watch something like this happen, when if you actually talk to the White House and aides -- and the president's aides have admitted this -- the case in Syria is far more nuanced than just a humanitarian case. A hundred thousand people have already died there. The U.S. says we're not going to be in the business of preventing Syrians from dying. More people will die there. We'll allow them to die. You know, there is no military solution, it's just this issue of how they die, the issue of chemical weapons. And that's where we're drawing the line...

YELLIN: Which feels like a false distinction to many people at this point.

SHERER: No, and it's a much more nuanced, more difficult argument than the clear-cut, let's save lives, we can do this and get it done.

YELLIN: Is the cold war more present for the Russians than it is for the U.S.?

Is it more present for Putin in particular?

IOFFE: I think for Putin, it's hard to overstate how present that mentality still is in the security agencies, of which he is an alum, and in the foreign ministry, which is...

YELLIN: Meaning what?

IOFFE: Meaning, they still see themselves as a counterweight to the US. They're -- for the last 15 years, you've heard out of Russia this obsession with not having a unipolar world, that you can't have America dominating the world stage. They need a counterweight. And Russia is supposed to be that counterweight.

So when they go after Assad, we protect Assad. When -- meaning the Americans and the Russians. And you see that all over the world, in Venezuela and other places.

YELLIN: This week, Michael, Speaker Boehner turned down an offer to meet with the Russians.

I wonder, how meaningful do you think that is in terms of domestic politics?

Do you think it even matters?

If he could have made some sort of progress, would that have mattered for him?

SHERER: No, I don't think it matters. I don't think that was a real reach -- an outreach from Putin.

I think what's interesting, though, is the degree to which the Russians have gotten into this international propaganda game. And they're playing this game very -- in a much more sophisticated way than we've seen in recent decades. You know, just turn on Russian television, one of your competing networks, maybe. The degree to which the news has been slanted on those stations where, you know, they are really sending over their message internationally and really pushing the case, the sophistication that the Russians have shown in these press conferences in sort of pushing this counter-narrative is pretty (INAUDIBLE).

IOFFE: I want to add that sending that delegation is not -- it's done with aim of moving the diplomatic dialogue forward. And it's not...

YELLIN: Is it for a domestic audience in Russia?

IOFFE: It's for domestic consumption. So when they have the disputed parliamentary and presidential elections, the head of the election committee -- and they were -- there was widespread fraud. And they said, you know what, actually, we have the best elections ever.

We're going to send election monitors to the U.S. to monitor it fairly.

YELLIN: Right. They played political games, too.

IOFFE: That's right.

YELLIN: Can I ask you both to give me a quick answer.

Do you think that if the president makes a prime time address next week -- we don't know that he will, but if he were to decide to do that before a vote, could that make the difference and get him the "yes" votes he needs?

SHERER: It depends when he makes it and how quickly the House is solidifying. I think this trip overseas is really hurting his ability to make his case domestically. And there's widespread concern in districts. A lot of members are in their districts. The polls are still really bad. Less than a third of Americans supporting this. And so he's -- he may do a prime time address, but it may be too late by the time he gets to do it.

IOFFE: He's also made the situation more complicated by adding -- putting his domestic credibility on the line after his international credibility was put on the line. So now he's between a rock and a hard place.

You know, if he loses this vote in Congress, is he still going to act to maintain his international credibility, given that his domestic credibility is shattered?

YELLIN: So it sounds like you're both saying he puts himself even further out on a limb and who knows what happens?

SHERER: Well, he already has. I think he probably will. I mean he definitely has to make the case.

IOFFE: Yes.

SHERER: I spoke with -- for the magazine article, I spoke with Minority Leader Pelosi. And she made very clear, the president has to go out and sell this. It's not all going to be just an inside whip game. You've got to get the American people to (INAUDIBLE)...

YELLIN: I like the new glasses. Well done.

SHERER: Thank you very much, Jessica.

YELLIN: OK, thanks to both of you for being with us.

Appreciate it.

And coming up in our special report, Britain reveals detailed new intelligence about Syria's alleged chemical weapons attack.

And then a stunning reversal from a key Republican lawmaker who defended President Obama right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GRIMM: It's our credibility, but it's also our future for decades, of how we will be perceived through -- by the rest of the world, not only from our enemies, but also from our allies.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

YELLIN: Now he's changed his mind. I'll ask him why in an exclusive interview.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

YELLIN: President Obama may have cleared one hurdle in the Senate, but he still has a very long way to go before he gets the green light from Congress for military strikes in Syria.

One of those lawmakers who was firmly in his corner when he appeared here in THE SITUATION ROOM just 72 hours ago has since changed his mind.

The Republican Congressman from New York, Michael Grimm, joins me now to explain why.

Congressman Grimm, hi.

Thanks for being with us.

GRIMM: Good to be with you.

YELLIN: When you were first on THE SITUATION ROOM with Wolf -- hi -- on Monday, he asked where you would stand, if you would vote to authorize the use of force in Syria.

I want to play for you what you said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GRIMM: I would want the president's strike to be a very meaningful strike. The president of the United States committed us when he drew the red line. So, the idea that we should or shouldn't strike, I think that ship sailed a long time ago. It's extremely important to the Syrian people, but it also matters what Iran thinks, what North Korea thinks, what our enemies and allies think alike.

The credibility of the entire United States is on the line because we cannot allow a precedent of this regime, a regime anything like the Assad regime to use chemical weapons. It's our credibility, but it's also our future for decades of how we will be perceived by the rest of the world, not only from our enemies but also from our allies.

Once you've committed your nation, it's hard to backtrack from that without losing complete -- credibility in all parts of the world from our allies to our enemies.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

YELLIN: Congressman, you head that. After all that, we were shocked to hear you've changed your mind. So, you're now withdrawing your support. What happened?

GRIMM: Well, because I think that a strike is no longer going to give us the credibility that we should have been able to get back. If you look at the whole quote, I was very clear that I thought it had to be extremely meaningful strike and I also said that the president shouldn't wait, that we should have been called to an immediate session and this should have been done even before the secretary came out.

I think at this point the world is looking at the indecisiveness, they're looking at how the president has bungled this, and now, we can no longer get our credibility back. So, when I weigh everything, the cost of war, the extreme cost of war and the extreme cost of human life that could be the reality if we strike, we can no longer get our credibility back.

I'm not sure what the end game is. The other thing is that president and administration has failed to really explain exactly what the plan, is what the goal is, and that's a big problem for me. We have to know exactly what we're doing, what -- you know, how we're striking and to what end and we have failed to do that.

YELLIN: OK. Congressman, and all of this was true 72 hours ago when you said that Congress was, quote, "obligated to support our president." None of that has changed in the last three days.

GRIMM: Actually, I disagree. I don't think all that is true. I think, first of all, time is of the essence with issues like this. I completely disagree with the president and I said that on air --

(CROSSTALK)

YELLIN: Can you specify what has changed?

GRIMM: Well, sure. I think the president has started backtracked on his own word. Remember, he now just came out and said it was not his red line, that it was the international red line. So, when I see the president backtracking on what he said, and what I was relying on to back him, then obviously it's a big concern for me.

The other thing is in the last 72 hours, none of our allies have stepped up. I was expecting the president to be able to build a coalition around this, because quite frankly, Secretary Kerry gave an outstanding speech. Really, I think, captured the heart of America, realizing what we needed to do. And now all of that seems to be -- YELLIN: Sir, all of that was before you made your comments to Wolf. When you made your comments to Wolf, you said that the president has drawn a red line, and now the Congress is almost obligated to back him. Kerry made his comments --

GRIMM: Exactly. Did you hear what I just said? Did you hear what I just said?

YELLIN: I did --

GRIMM: The president now -- the president has backed off his own words of a red line. The president has backed off that. That is a very difficult thing for me to accept, that the president when this first happened and then he sent out the secretary in such a bold fashion, is now backtracking on that. And on top of that, has failed to bring allies to the table and has failed to really give as a good plan.

On top of all of that, which was a real deal breaker for me, the first resolution that came over to the Senate had a window open for boots on the ground. It's saying even if --

YELLIN: Which has changed.

GRIMM: They won't be used for combat, but there was a window open for boots on the ground, which I think is absolutely untenable for the United States. And I said that from the beginning. I did not want boots on the ground. But when the resolution came over from the Senate, there was a small window, a loophole, if you will, to put boots on the ground up.

YELLIN: And that's changed. May I ask, you also said it matters what Iran and North Korea think.

GRIMM: GRIMM: Absolutely.

YELLIN: Has that changed for you now?

GRIMM: No. What I do think has changed, I think that the world is looking at us, including Iran, including North Korea, all of our allies as well as our foes, are looking at us and saying the president of the United States has lost his resolve. He's indecisive. And I don't think that we can get that back.

You know, once you lose your credibility, after a certain point, you can't get it back. And at -- at the juncture we're at now, by the time that Congress actually votes on this, I don't think we can get our credibility back even if we strike. That's the problem.

YELLIN: Are you at all concerned that the president at least still wants to strike, and sir, you might look indecisive?

GRIMM: No, I'm not -- not at all. I think that the president has handled this incorrectly from the very beginning. Number one, the president of the United States reduced his options. He limited his options when he drew a red line. That's first and foremost over a year ago.

YELLIN: Then when we first heard of the possible use of chemical weapons in Syria, he backed off his red line. Then we confirmed use of chemical weapons, and he came out very boldly, very strongly and said we must strike, we must get involved, this is untenable, and I supported that. Then he backed off and said we're going to wait for the Congress, didn't call us to a special session, wants to wait over a week, and has failed in getting allies and everything else that I've already said to the table.

So again, at the end of the day, my job is to represent the people of the United States and to weigh the pros and cons. I no longer have confidence that this administration can actually do what they needed to do. That, one, the window is closed, and I no longer have confidence that this administration can actually do what they needed to do, that, one, the window is closed and I don't think that they -- I don't have the confidence that they'll be able to do it in a way that is not going to hurt the United States more than help us. In the end, it is about the United States of America and what's in our best interest.

I no longer have confidence that this administration can actually do what they needed to do, that, one, the window is closed and I don't think that they -- I don't have the confidence that they'll be able to do it in a way that is not going to hurt the United States more than help us. In the end, it is about the United States of America and what's in our best interest.

YELLIN: And yet, he's consistently calling for a strike and you have waivered in your support of that in 72 hours. So, I'm curious, you did in your state on earlier today mention that constituents may have been part of the reason you changed your mind. What specifically have constituents told you that may have influenced your decision?

GRIMM: The most -- i would say the most important impact for me personally was last night I went to a vigil for a staff sergeant whose body was just returned from Afghanistan, standing there with his mother and father, his father, former Vietnam veteran, not a former but a Vietnam veteran, reminded me as a combat veteran the cost of war. So, when I go to sleep at night and I'm really weighing the issues -- believe me, these are not easy.

I take this very, very serious. This is a profound responsibility, the idea of going to war. And when I look at the cost and then I say can we be successful, what is the ultimate end game here and I don't have an answer for that from the administration and my own confidence, my own confidence in the administration has been dwindling down over the last 72 hours, I just no longer believe that they can do this in a way that the cost will not grotesquely outweigh the benefits.

And I can't take a vote in good conscience if those benefits are not going to outweigh the costs. Right now, they don't and I have lost, seriously lost, confidence in the administration to be able to do this in a meaningful way that would benefit the United States.

YELLIN: I'd like to play for you again something that you said on Monday. You warned several times -- let me play this for you.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GRIMM: The credibility of the entire United States is on the line. It's our credibility, but it's also our future for decades of how we will be perceived by the rest of the world not only from our enemies, but also from our allies.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

YELLIN: So, I just want to clarify that you think because President Obama said it's not, quote, "my red line," his words, "it's the world's red line," that nullifies what you said 72 hours ago?

GRIMM: No, no, no, it's a combination of everything, a totality. Let me help you on this one because you seem to be struggling with this. It's a combination of everything. OK? I think there's a window to attack. I think there's a window to attack to get your credibility back.

YELLIN: Which was 72 hours ago?

GRIMM: I think that window has been closing. think that window is closing.

YELLIN: But sir, when you made that comment --

(CROSSTALK)

YELLIN: -- Congress wasn't going to be back into session until September 9th. You knew at that time.

GRIMM: And I said that was a mistake. And I also said prior to the part that you just played. Play the part prior to that where I said the part that I don't support the president is that we should be called back immediately. This is not something we can wait on. This is something that we have to do immediately. And again, in that time, now that I see that the president hasn't called back to a special session, number one, he hasn't garnered any allies to help us on this and I think the president is losing support --

YELLIN: He's overseas doing that right now as we speak. He's workings on getting a coalition -- he's trying to build a coalition as we speak overseas right now.

GRIMM: And he appears to be filling from the intelligence that I'm receiving. That's the point. And the way this was handled from the beginning, I really do believe that the president has not handled this in the best way and that has caused me to lose faith in the administration and their ability to do this in a manner that will benefit the United States.

We have to always look at how this will affect the United States of America. Now, am I still concerned that this will affect the way Iran looks at us, the way our enemies perceive us as weak, as indecisive? Absolutely. But I don't think we can get that back now because I think that has already been done by the president.

I think we look indecisive. i think it looks like we don't have the resolve to get into another war, which may actually be true.

YELLIN: It's just unclear why he's more indecisive today than he was 72 hours ago. May I ask you, sir, has anybody in leadership asked you to change your vote? Have you been whipped --

GRIMM: No. Absolutely not. Absolutely not. No one on either side of the aisle has asked me either way to support or not support. This is totally my decision. This is something that I've been thinking about, praying on, struggling with since we've heard about the use of chemical weapons.

Look, it's a heinous crime against humanity. There's no question about that. My natural instincts as a combat veteran, as a United States (INAUDIBLE) is to support my commander in chief. I want to support my commander in chief. Unfortunately, my commander in chief has let us down. He has not handled this the way that he should have handled it and we've lost credibility throughout the world.

The problem now is I don't believe a strike in Syria will give us back that credibility. That's the problem. And if it's not going to give back that credibility, if it's still going to embolden our enemies anyway, then why are we going to do this? That's the problem I have. I mean, that's ultimately what it comes down to is that I've lost confidence in the administration.

And I think the rest of the world has looked at this as we have, you know, lost our resolve and that the president of the United States is really looking for ways to get out of this. In his own words to backtrack, that's evidenced by the fact that he said, oh, that's not my red line, that's the world's red line, that's indicative that he is losing his resolve.

YELLIN: Oh, I guess everybody is allowed an opportunity to backtrack and then defend themselves. So, I appreciate your coming on and facing tough questions, and we always the right of everybody to change their minds and explain why. So, Congressman Grimm, thanks for being with us.

GRIMM: Thank you.

YELLIN: OK.

Coming up in our special report, Britain reveals details new intelligence about Syria's alleged chemical weapons attack. And, we will debate what the U.S. should do about it. Newt Gingrich and Stephanie Cutter, co-hosts of CNN's new "Crossfire" are here in the SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

YELLIN: A dramatic new revelation from the U.K. just days since parliament's surprise vote opposing military action against Syria. British scientists claim to have found a deadly chemical on a Syrian who's treated after last month's attack. CNN's Atika Shubert is live in London. Hi, Atika. What did they find?

ATIKA SHUBERT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, the prime minister's office has confirmed that they took clothing and soil samples from a victim of that August 21st attack in Damascus and those soil samples have now been tested and they tested positive for sarin gas. Take a listen to what Prime Minister David Cameron told the BBC just at the start of the G20 summit in Russia.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you now believe there is more evidence than you were able to bring before the country when parliament voted?

DAVID CAMERON, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: I think the evidence is growing all the time and we have just been looking at some samples taken from Damascus in the Porton Down Laboratory of Britain which further shows the use of chemical weapons in that Damascus suburb.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUBERT: So clearly the timing of this is also important, and the fact that Prime Minister Cameron is saying this in Russia at the G-20 Summit seems to show that Britain is also trying to put pressure on Russia and show it's not a question of if there was a chemical weapons attack, it most certainly did happen, according to British evidence.

YELLIN: So any chance that this new development will prompt a new vote in parliament?

SHUBERT: Well, that's what a lot of people are asking here. That the door has been left open for another vote. Of course last week British lawmakers said absolutely no British involvement in any military strike in Syria, but if new evidence comes to light then that could trigger a new vote. This may not be quite enough yet, but if some more evidence comes to light, particularly from U.N. weapons inspectors, then yes, ultimately another vote could happen.

YELLIN: Well, that would certainly be good news for President Obama. But I'm sure he is not holding his breath.

Atika Shubert, thanks so much for that report.

And ahead in our special report, the Hillary Clinton factor. Why she may be keeping her distance from President Obama in the middle of this international crisis.

Our "CROSSFIRE" co-hosts are ready to debate it.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

YELLIN: Happening now, a SITUATION ROOM special report, "Crisis in Syria."

The Obama administration facing an uphill battle selling the U.S. on a strike against Syria. Two co-hosts of CNN's new "CROSSFIRE" are here to debate. Also, Hillary Clinton is backing the president but from a distance. How will her support factor in?

Plus John Kerry, center stage in the debate over a strike on Syria decades after he first argued against war.

Wolf Blitzer is off today. I'm Jessica Yellin. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

They're among President Obama's strongest supporters, except when it comes to a strike on Syria. The administration is facing a very tough sell with the left.

Here to debate it, two co-hosts of CNN's new "CROSSFIRE," which -- which debuts next week, and debates next week, former House speaker and presidential Newt Gingrich and former Obama senior advisor Stephanie Cutter.

Hi, guys. Good to be with you.

NEWT GINGRICH, CO-HOST, CNN'S "CROSSFIRE": And it's good to be with you.

YELLIN: Asked how I should refer to you as speaker or not, and you said Newt. This is the --

GINGRICH: Just call me Newt. It's easier.

YELLIN: I love it. OK. I'll get used to it. And I know I can refer to you as Stephanie, yes?

(LAUGHTER)

STEPHANIE CUTTER, CO-HOST, CNN'S "CROSSFIRE": For today, yes.

YELLIN: For today, OK. I'll go with that.

So today, guys, Secretary Kerry is meeting with liberal bloggers and with -- sitting down with left-leaning television host to try to sell them on going into Syria.

I think I have to put this one to you first, Stephanie. How bad is it for the president when he has to make his case, essentially, to the base?

CUTTER: Well, I think that whenever something big like this is happening, we're always meeting with progressive bloggers and left- leaning talk show hosts. That's just part of the deal. So, however, to get to I think what the point you're making, you know, the president's base is probably not very keen or going into Syria because remember where this base came from. They were against the Iraq war. That's what gave President Obama his start.

So he has to make the case to them. Just like the rest of the American people about why this is in our security interest. And I think that's part of the deal. GINGRICH: I think first of all any president making a big decision like this, making the decision to go to the Congress, which I think is right, is going to have to convince everybody. I mean, these are -- decisions of war on among the most important things members of Congress ever engage in.

And so I think you have to expect that all 535 expect to have answers and it doesn't automatically come down to you can take this group for granted. These are my loyalists, they'll vote yes to anything. They will until you get to something like this.

I think, second, the president is in a difficult position, a little bit like the position Reagan was in when he decided to raise taxes at one point and his entire base of which I was one, rebelled. Because that was the one we'd sign up for. That's what we didn't think -- we didn't take a break and there's a tax increase.

I think the left wing of the Obama base or the Obama coalition really got engaged because they were against Bush and the war, and now here they are, having to face a very tough decision and that's -- I think there's a natural --

CUTTER: They were against Libya, too. But over the last 24 hours, there have been reports of some pretty big progressives coming out for this. There's this report that Senator Franken will vote yes. You know, he's not told me that personally but there are reports of that. So I think this is going to go back and forth to the moment people have to cast their vote.

YELLIN: With his credibility at stake, shouldn't it be a situation where his own supporters are behind him? And does it worry you that they aren't -- they aren't lining up? And does it excite you that they might be --

CUTTER: You get excited about the United States losing credibility?

GINGRICH: No, look, I think an issue of national security that involves war ought to be beyond politics. I mean, I think it was perfectly appropriate that Senator Corker, a Republican leader on House Senate Foreign Relations Committee, voted yes and helped shape the resolution.

I think that was a healthy thing for America. I don't happen to agree with him, I'm against doing this, but I think the right way is for the 535 elected officials to literally approach this as Americans and not worry about President Obama's prestige, what's the right thing for America in this situation?

CUTTER: And we saw the beginnings of that yesterday. How many times in this Congress have you seen a bipartisan vote? I mean, I can barely think of one. But we saw that yesterday when -- or the day before yesterday when the resolution got voted out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. So I do think that people are looking deep and voting their conscience here, not just putting their finger to the wind. YELLIN: One of the more interesting positions currently is Hillary Clinton. She had an aide put out a statement saying that former Secretary Clinton endorses the president's decision to have Congress weigh in on this behind his support for a forceful and aggressive action against Syria's use of horrible chemical weapons, which seems like a very parsed statement and a way to keep herself at a distance. Do you think this is a move to --

GINGRICH: Well, first of all, she in the end can't be at a distance. Sometime over the next week she's -- I predict --

(CROSSTALK)

GINGRICH: I predict she is going to come out and say she supports it. I mean, she was his secretary of state. She was actually a fairly hawkish a secretary of state. It's inconceivable but it must at some level for both she and Bill have a little bit of an odd feeling since President Obama beat her up so badly in the primaries over her vote in the Iraq war, especially a certain amount or kind of thinking OK, I'll get her on to this eventually but maybe not as quick as you might like.

CUTTER: I don't think that's part of this calculation. Look, isn't it next week that she's giving a speech in Philadelphia? I have a feeling that we're going to hear more of this there. And her position on Syria is pretty well known. I mean, she was the United States spokesperson pushing the Security Council to take action to topple Assad.

She -- behind the scenes -- was pushing for more aggressive action the president was willing to take many months, a year ago, in terms of supplying arms to the opposition. So that's all --

GINGRICH: But if --

CUTTER: -- part of --

GINGRICH: But if that's true, Stephanie --

CUTTER: -- the record.

GINGRICH: Why didn't she just come out and say, I'm totally for it, I hope the Congress votes yes?

CUTTER: I think -- well, I think that's what that says. That statement says.

YELLIN: No, here we can put it up.

CUTTER: She supports the president's decision.

GINGRICH: Here we go.

CUTTER: Congress supports it.

YELLIN: "Secretary Clinton supports the president's effort to enlist the Congress in pursuing a strong and targeted response to the Assad regime's horrific use of chemical weapons." Aide to former Secretary of State Clinton.

CUTTER: So what you're -- what -- falling short there is that she's not saying Congress should pass it. But we know where she stands on this. So, look, she'll speak for herself when she's ready. I just wouldn't read into that. Her position on Syria is pretty well known. She was the secretary of state. She was the person going to the Security Council to get them to take action and I can see by the look on your face that you're not buying it.

GINGRICH: No, no. This is where -- this is where people in the rest of the country find Washington sickening.

CUTTER: There's parsing.

GINGRICH: There is a certain insider game here to the deliciousness of not getting a hard, immediate enthusiastic yes by her. I mean, she didn't have to send an aide out to be slightly oblique. But, you know, look, the Clintons have been around a long time, they are very good at this.

And I agree with Stephanie, there will be a moment when Secretary Clinton says --

CUTTER: In due time.

GINGRICH: -- I sure hope the Congress passes this. And by the way, if she didn't say that, we'd be in a very different world the next morning.

(LAUGHTER)

YELLIN: Right. Do you think it will be a problem for her in 2016?

GINGRICH: Who knows?

(LAUGHTER)

CUTTER: I agree with that, who knows? I mean, there's an eternity between now and 2016 if she decides to run.

GINGRICH: Yes.

CUTTER: But I think coming down against military strike and some of those using chemical weapons that directly impact some of our greatest allies like Israel is a problem for a Democrat looking to run for president.

GINGRICH: And I have to confess --

CUTTER: And a Republican.

GINGRICH: By the way, I have to confess this. I just thought she would be nominee all the way through April in 2008. I mean, I just thought the weight of the machine, the weight of her experience and her husband's abilities, so I'm a terrible judge of what's going to happen next.

Plus I might be in '12. So --

(LAUGHTER)

You know I've got a pretty bad record of thinking through presidential campaigns.

YELLIN: Too much humility. I love the Newt. Thank you.

CUTTER: The new Newt.

YELLIN: Thank you so much for being with us. And I should say if she runs in 2016.

CUTTER: Thanks. Correct.

YELLIN: Thank you so much.

GINGRICH: Good to be with you.

CUTTER: Thank you for having us.

YELLIN: All right. And we are counting down to the debut of CNN's new "CROSSFIRE." As I think you probably know it starts next Monday at 6:30 Eastern right here on CNN. Be sure to tune in. I know I will be.

And just ahead another rebuff for a Russian delegation trying to lobby U.S. lawmakers against a Syria strike.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

YELLIN: Just into the SITUATION ROOM, from the office of Senator Harry Reid, word that the majority leader is declining to meet with Russian government's delegation to talk about Syria. House Speaker John Boehner also declined a meeting yesterday.

Moscow proposed sending the delegation to lobby American lawmakers against a U.S. strike on Syria.

Coming up in the next hour of our special report. Secretary of State John Kerry is back in the political spotlight. He may have lost the White House but will he win on the world stage?

Plus, a massive pileup that leaves dozens injured. We'll tell you how it all started.

And we now know what caused that devastating wildfire burning in and around Yosemite National Park. Details just ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

YELLIN: This news just coming into the SITUATION ROOM.

We've just learned the wife of George Zimmerman has filed for divorce. Her attorney says documents were filed this afternoon in the Seminole County, Florida, courthouse.

George Zimmerman was acquitted back in July in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African-American teenager.

President Obama's national security team is recommending the U.S. suspend most of the $1.5 billion in aid the U.S. gives to Egypt each year. Officials say national security adviser Susan Rice, Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel reached that conclusion last week at a meeting to discuss the ouster of Egypt's first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi.

That devastating wildfire burning in and around Yosemite National Park was caused by a hunter's illegal fire. That's according to the U.S. Forest Service, which did not identify that hunter.

The Rim Fire, as it's called, has burned more than 237,000 acres, making it the fifth largest fire in California history. It's now 80 percent contained.

Dozens of people are injured, eight of them seriously, in this 100-car pileup on a highway bridge in southeastern England. It happened in heavy fog. One person says the chain-reaction collision went on for 10 minutes. Thirty people were taken to hospitals. Many more were stranded when the bridge closed in both directions for hours.

Coming up in our special report, disturbing new video from inside Syria raises the question, are the rebels as bad as the regime?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

YELLIN: A panda paternity mystery solved.

Here is CNN's Jeanne Moos.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JEANNE MOOS, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Tongues were wagging, who's your panda daddy? That's mommy giving birth at the Smithsonian's National Zoo.

Panda cubs are born so undeveloped, you can't even tell what sex they are, but almost two weeks after the birth, genetic testing has revealed it's a girl.

BRANDIE SMITH, SMITHSONIAN'S NATIONAL ZOO: It's got a fat, little belly. It's very active. It's very vocal.

MOOS: Looking like a lizard with a twitch, but you'd be twitching, too, if everyone were asking, who's your daddy?

(On camera): How could the zoo not know who the father was? I mean, it wasn't as if a female panda was out whooping it up with every panda bear in town.

(Voice-over): Actually, the mama, Mei Xiang, is pretty much stuck with one suitor. But 16-year-old Tian-Tian was laying down on the job, and not with her. His big passion is bamboo. But when it comes to sex, well, "The New Yorker" did a deliciously detailed article called "Bears Do It," but pandas in captivity often won't.

The article quotes an expert calling Tian-Tian and Mei Xiang "reproductively incompetent," saying she gets into the pancake position, flat on her stomach, legs outstretched. And rather than doing what you'd think he'd do naturally, he steps on to her back and stands there like a man who has just opened a large box from Ikea and has no idea what to do next.

Eat the box is our guess.

(On camera): So what do you do when your panda bear barely performs? You artificially inseminate.

(Voice-over): But for good measure, two pandas contributed to Mei Xiang's insemination. Tian-Tian and Gow-Gow, a real Romeo who's never had his romantic technique questioned out at the San Diego Zoo.

So who came through? Well, they swabbed the cub's cheek to check the DNA, and then just like a paternity edition of "Maury Povich Show" --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You are not.

MOOS: Only with a little more dignity.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The sire is Tian-Tian.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Tian-Tian is the father.

MOOS: No relatives protested.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You're a lying (EXPLETIVE DELETED).

MOOS: Truth be told, when daddy finally gets a look at this little girl, he'll probably just scratch his head or some body part.

Jeanne Moos, CNN, New York.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

YELLIN: I'm sure he'll be a proud papa.

I'm Jessica Yellin. "THE SITUATION ROOM" continues right now with my colleague, Joe Johns.