Return to Transcripts main page

CNN NEWSROOM

Parties Bicker Over Late Justice's Replacement; Anger, Name- Calling at Fiery Republican Debate; Debate on the Thurmond Rule; Justice Scalia's Death Shifts Balance of Court; Pope Francis Tackles Tough Topics in Mexico; On the Front Lines with Syrian Government Forces. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired February 14, 2016 - 18:00   ET

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


JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back. You are watching live pictures of the U.S. Supreme Court, where the sudden passing of Associate Justice Antonin Scalia has pushed the issue of judicial nominations to the forefront of this year's presidential race.

[18:00:03] Thank you for joining us. I'm Jim Sciutto, in today for Poppy Harlow.

And in the hours since the nation learned that the Supreme Court legend died, a Supreme Court really, the conversation inside the beltway quickly changed from shock and condolences to cold, hard politics.

On one side, the Republicans, they do not want President Obama to nominate a replacement for the justice they believe a new justice hand picked by the president will swing the court and future opinions to the left. That scenario would be fine with Democrats, fully aware Scalia's absence leaves four justices appointed by Republican presidents and four appointed by Democrats.

The new addition to the court will tip that balance. Republicans believe if they win the presidency this year, they will name a Supreme Court justice next year. President Obama is in no hurry according to the White House. A spokesman saying don't expect any decision this week. He'll consider when his options -- when the Senate comes -- what his options are when the Senate comes back from recess.

Our senior political reporter Manu Raju is with me now. Also, David Gergen, who has watched the process from the inside in his former role as adviser to four different American presidents.

Manu, if I could begin with you, you know, the word today from the White House saying the president will not rush, to nominate someone, but the recess is really just a little more than a week away. The president has said that he will nominate someone this year. I just wonder, looking at this politics from where you sit, president nominating someone, is there any chance that he could get that nominee past the Senate, say, picking someone fairly middle of the road, or someone like Sri Srinivasan, a candidate who's been mentioned, who got unanimous approval, not unanimous, but he got bipartisan approval in the House? Is there an option for the president that could allow him to fill this vacancy? MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: There is always a chance, Jim. I'm just not sure how much of a chance at this point. I mean, when you look at the Senate Republican conference, it's really divided into several camps. You have folks who are absolutely dead set against any nominee whatsoever. Those folks will not support anyone. But then you have some moderates who are uncertain whether or not they will get behind anyone.

Then you have real spate of endangered blue state Republicans in tough races. And those folks, if they put -- they feel a lot of heat back home, and they put pressure on Senator McConnell to have a vote, and a nominee -- particularly a nominee who is considered within the mainstream, a consensus nominee, perhaps that could change the calculus.

But, Jim, even if the handful of Republicans clamor for a vote, Democrats will need at least 14 Republican senators to break ranks and overcome a filibuster in order to move forward on a final up or down vote. That's only if Senator McConnell agrees to have a vote on the Senate floor and Judiciary Committee agrees to confirmation hearings and a vote. And that's no sure bet.

A lot of hoops to jump through and you add to the presidential campaign season. It will be very difficult for the president to get anyone through.

SCIUTTO: Yes, that's a high bar. Fourteen votes, Mitch McConnell's approval in effect. Senate Judiciary Committee, that will be the key panel deciding the new high court justice. Describe how their lives change this weekend in the wake of the death. How much of the center of this political divide will they be at?

RAJU: Absolutely. Right in the heart of it. It was going to be a sleepy year, but now they're at the heart of this fight. Now, this committee, of course, is broken down between 11 Republicans and nine Democrats. I mean, if they were, this committee were actually to vote on a nominee, they would -- the Democrats would need to get at least two Republicans to break ranks in order to get the nominee advanced to the Senate floor.

Now, two -- if they do move forward, two Republicans to look at on the committee, Jeff Flake, he's an Arizona Republican. He is someone who has broken ranks with a number of issues. Lindsey Graham, too, someone who has backed Sonia Sotomayor, someone who has been opened to the idea of advise and consent, and saying that the president should get his choice on nominees, he is not so far been forward -- going forward with a nominee to replace Scalia, but he's someone to watch going forward.

Clearly, this is the key committee people to watch there, but again, Jim, that's if Chuck Grassley, the chairman of the committee decides that it's OK to move forward with confirmation hearings and a vote in his panel.

SCIUTTO: Another key member of that committee, certainly, presidential candidate, Ted Cruz. Does this play to his strengths in the primaries that are coming up to his base?

RAJU: Absolutely.

SCIUTTO: Strong stand on this.

RAJU: Absolutely. That's why he was the first out of the box really to say that there should not be a confirmation vote on the Senate floor. You heard him talk about it in last night's debate. He said earlier today, he said that, look, if there is a vote on the floor, I will filibuster the nominee and that essentially means that there needs to be 60 votes even if this were -- if McConnell decided to schedule a vote on the floor.

[18:05:07] But I would also note it was interesting last night's debate, Ted Cruz tried to turn the tables on -- sorry, Donald Trump tried to turn the tables on Ted Cruz and saying that, look, if it weren't for you and your desire to push John Roberts, then John Roberts would not be on the court. A little overstatement by Donald Trump, but clearly, John Roberts holding the individual mandate in Obamacare, something that Donald Trump sees as a vulnerability for Ted Cruz. So, certainly, this is playing out pretty intensely in the Republican debate, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Well, it's going to be great political story to cover as well. You're going to be on it. Manu Raju, thanks very much for joining us.

The vacancy now in the Supreme Court loomed large in the Republican presidential debate Saturday, as soon as it happened, really. Among all the discord, there was one point of accord among the candidates. Their opposition to President Obama who they don't want nominating the next high court justice.

Listen to the front-runner, Donald Trump.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, I can say this: if the president, if I were president now, I would certainly want to try and nominate a justice, and I'm sure that frankly -- I'm absolutely sure that President Obama will try and do it. I hope that our Senate is going to be able, Mitch and the entire group, is going to be able to do something about it in times of delay. We could have a Diane Sykes or you could have a Bill Pryor, we have some fantastic people, but this is a tremendous blow to conservatism. It's a tremendous blow frankly to our country.

DEBATE MODERATOR: So, just to be clear on this, Mr. Trump, you are OK with the president nominating somebody.

TRUMP: I think he is going to whether I'm OK or not. I think it's up to Mitch McConnell and everybody else to stop it. It's called delay, delay, delay.

(APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCIUTTO: Delay, delay, delay. That's clearly the Republican strategy there.

Senior political analyst David Gergen joining me now.

So, David Gergen, you advised just a handful of presidents. Say you're in the Obama White House right now, you just heard Manu Raju talking about the various hurdles this president will have to get over, particularly getting 14 votes just to get this past the filibuster. What is the president's strategy now? What can he do to possibly get through a nominee through all those hurdles?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, he has to set up a process of deliberation first to consider the alternatives, and there's a growing list of people who can look very, very attractive. I think he has to give this the weight it deserves and that is to spend time. It may take a month or two for the White House and for him personally to sort out which one would be the best nominee and then put that in motion.

The whole thing will take, you no know, between now and the time he actually puts forward a nomination. It's probably going to take two or three months.

But I think the objective here is to build up a case on the president's part of why the court shouldn't have a vacancy for that long a time. The president does not support it. There has been a couple of exceptions for that. For the most part, when Supreme Court vacancies occur in the last year for presidency, the president goes ahead and nominates and the Senate acts. There have been, you know, rare exceptions to that.

So, the critical thing, though, Jim, is for him, for the president to find someone who will appeal to the country. Not going to win over the Republican base at this point. But if he can come up with a candidate that 60 or 70 percent of the country says that's a good and fair choice, I'm attracted to that person, that would really help and trying to turn public opinion against the Republicans. His strategy has got to be if I can't get my nominee, can I get the issue for the campaign, put the pressure on, maybe I'll break away some of those 14, maybe I won't. But --

(CROSSTALK)

GERGEN: We've got a better chance to win. What's that?

SCIUTTO: You're saying the strategy can be -- you're saying that the strategy can be, listen, I know I'm not going to get it through this Senate, but let me put someone up here if the Republicans say no, it will be a voting issue in the general for Democrats in the fall? I mean, are you saying the president would almost have to grant that he's not going to get this nominee through?

GERGEN: No, I'm sorry if I conveyed that. No, he ought to take the view that it's the responsibility of both branches of government to move quickly to fill a vacancy in the Supreme Court. That's what has been done in the past. It should be done again.

There is no reason for delay. He's going to find the best qualified person to do it. And he's going to put it up there and fight for that person. And he's going to try to win. And he ought to go for the victory.

If he doesn't get the victory, though, he wants the issue in the campaign. In other words, you either get the victory or you get the issue, one or the other. That's got to be the president's strategy so he can use it to add -- to -- let's say Hillary Clinton has got an enthusiasm gap and she's the nominee of the Democratic Party.

What the president wants is something that's going to draw out a lot of voters to the polls because they think it's important to vote for the Democrats in order to make sure the Supreme Court doesn't remain and become more heavily conservative.

[18:10:04] That could be an issue that brings out voters, especially when you're trying to close the enthusiasm gap. So, go for the victory, but if you can't get it, get the issue.

SCIUTTO: To your point, David Gergen, Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren, she posted this on Facebook today, have a listen, I'm quoting here, "Senate Republicans took an oath just like Senate Democrats did. Abandoning the duties they swore to uphold would threaten both the Constitution and our democracy itself. It would also prove that all the Republican talk about loving the Constitution is just that, empty talk."

As you have that, do you think that -- it sounds like it's to your point. It sets up a campaign issue here, if the president puts fort a reasonable, relatively middle of the road nominee and can't get it through, that's ammunition, you're saying, for the Democrats.

GERGEN: Well, I'm not sure the Constitution speaks to the question of something like this. I think the Constitution is rather silent on it, although I understand people are going to try to use some of the conservative arguments, Scalia argument what's called originalism, and that is go back to the intention of the Founders to figure out what the law ought to be today.

But what I do think is the Republicans are going to come up with the alternative argument, and you heard it in the debate last night. And that is, wait a minute, this is a pivotal moment in American history. This election is going to be the most important one in years in which the presidency, the Senate of the United States, and the Supreme Court are all in play. All three branches are going to be deeply affected by this. Isn't it right for the people to make this decision about what direction the court should take?

We can wait a few more months, cohort is not going to get -- you know, we're not going to lose anything by having a few more delays. After all, the legal system moves slowly anyway. So, let the people decide. That's going to be the Republican argument.

What you and I don't know tonight, Jim, right here tonight, because we can't tell, is which way this is going to break with the public. You know, which side is the public going to come on these arguments. I'm not sure we know. It's -- you know, if the past is any guide, the country will be very polarized on this.

But it's going to -- it could well-energized both Democrats and Republicans looking toward November, and have, if this could be a really epic battle over the course of the year over the nomination and then leading into November.

SCIUTTO: Listen, you make a point. Three branches of government, the Supreme Court, the Senate --

GERGEN: Three branches of government are in play.

SCIUTTO: -- and the White House. Remarkable year.

GERGEN: I can't remember, I don't know, you may be remember, I don't, an election which all three seemed so directly in play.

SCIUTTO: You know, it's a good challenge, David. We're going look into it.

As always, great to have you, and your wisdom.

GERGEN: OK. Thanks, Jim. Good to see you.

SCIUTTO: Happy Valentine's Day.

Coming up this hour, the day after, the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has a Supreme Court showdown brewing. So, what about the cases that are currently on the docket? We're going to break that down.

And later on the trail, the Republicans clashed in South Carolina last night. But what do their performances mean for key races in the weeks to come?

Plus, the Catholics and the cartel. Pope Francis is on the road in Mexico with a message of tough love. How the Holy Father plans to push his message of nonviolence.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:16:27] SCIUTTO: The sudden vacancy on the Supreme Court is now shaping up to be a major election issue. It loomed large certainly at last night's Republican presidential debate.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JEB BUSH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The next president needs to appoint someone with a proven conservative record, similar to Justice Scalia.

SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX), PRESIDENTAIL CANDIDATE: We are one justice away from a Supreme Court that will strike down every restriction on abortion adopted by the states.

GOV. JOHN KASICH (R-OH), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It's not even two minutes after the death of Justice Scalia. Nine children here today, their father didn't wake up. His wife, you know, sad, but, you know, I just wish we hadn't run so fast into politics.

TRUMP: Well, I can say this. If the president, and if I were president now, I would certainly want to try and nominate a justice.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R-FL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I do not believe the president should appoint someone. It's not unprecedented. In fact, it's been over 80 years since a lame duck president has appointed a Supreme Court justice. And it reminds us of this, how important this election is.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCIUTTO: Let's discuss this and other moments of the debate with our next two guests. CNN political commentator Buck Sexton here with me in New York, and Republican strategist Kevin Paul Scott.

So, Buck, if I could start with you. If we were talking 24 hours ago and say, well, what could really make this debate even more divided, I mean it, would be replacing Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court. So, starting on the Republican side, how does this change things? Because you saw all the candidates yesterday basically falling over each other to say, either delay, or I'll point somebody conservative. How does it play on that side?

BUCK SEXTON, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think it highlights the issue of conservatism and who is the real conservative in the race, as well as just generally raising the stakes all around. Right now, it's not just the White House, but also raises in people's minds the idea that we have yet another, I mean, there will probably be a couple of Supreme Court vacancies in the next term any way.

SCIUTTO: And to this point, it was about Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who might replace here.

SEXTON: So, now, you know there's one in play, and there could be others as well. So, the entire balance of the court could rest on the next presidential election. So, I think it gives that added sense of urgency, the election.

But also, when you have, for example, Donald Trump as a front-runner, somebody who has conservatism -- conservatism, it's not a first language for him to be putting it mildly, and somebody whose record on the issues is dubious at best, and then someone like Ted Cruz, who not only is very conservative in his record but also has an understanding of the judiciary and how the process would work, I think it was an opportunity for Ted Cruz, I think he did well with it, and some of the other candidates also.

I think Donald Trump on this is not particularly strong. And so, for that, it changes the dynamic in that you do want somebody who is not just going to be a big slap in the face to the establishment, but somebody who understands what needs to happen within the system for example, the system of the Supreme Court so we have a conservative on the court.

SCIUTTO: So, Kevin, let me ask you -- to this point, Republican voters have forgiven in effect Donald Trump's past positions, which were outside of the conservative mainstream and some even, some his opponents have called liberal. Now that you have supreme vacancy in the Supreme Court, does that potentially weaken Donald Trump on the Republican side given to an opportunity to a Ted Cruz or others to take away some of that conservative support for him?

KEVIN SCOTT, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Well, I think Buck is right. It certainly is going to be interesting, because up to you this point, what has been important is being an outsider. It's not having experience. In fact, in this race so far, experience is frowned upon.

Now, when people look at the Supreme Court, they could really be saying, how important is it? Maybe we want somebody who has been there, who has a greater grasp of this, who understands it.

So, this does have the potential to shift the dynamics and it does create an opportunity for the other candidates to make some noise and maybe make a dent on Donald Trump, so what seems like impenetrable poll numbers right now.

[18:20:04] SCIUTTO: So, Buck, looking at this debate, of course, the other thing beyond the talk about the Supreme Court vacancy was this was a fiery debate, not the first one, but particularly last night. And you saw Jeb Bush in particular coming out swinging. He has to strike some blows. Do you think his performance last night helped him resurrect his campaign?

SEXTON: I don't think Jeb had much of a choice last night. I think what you saw is that Jeb realizes by hitting out against Trump, he perhaps establishes himself as more of the sort of alpha dog, vis-a- vis Rubio. I don't think it's -- I think it's sort of a pivot. Not a low energy candidate, but also, it shows him as the guy, if the establishment is going to coalesce, which is the hope of Jeb, that he would be the one.

Whereas you when you saw Cruz and Trump going after each other I think very strongly, that's really who's going to win South Carolina and who's going to go on to win some states after that.

So, for Jeb, it's trying to get into the third place spot. Going after Trump, will it help him? I think the answer is probably no, I think the campaign is not long for the cycle, but they certainly have the money, the donors and the backing. The audience last night was suspiciously and strangely pro-Jeb it seemed at various points.

SCIUTTO: Based on the boos and cheers.

SEXTON: Based on the boos and cheers, yes.

SCIUTTO: Kevin, let me ask you -- winners, or losers, or winner or loser in last night's debate in your view? SCOTT: Well, there's no question that Rubio had an incredible night. Cruz didn't have a bad night, but he just didn't really help himself. Trump came out the loser. But whether or not that affects his pole numbers, that has yet to be seen. He has seem to stumble in some other ways, and it hasn't really hurt him.

Jeb had a good night, but Buck is right, I'm not sure it really helps Jeb get into the top tier. Jeb at this point is taking votes away from Rubio. He's taking away votes away from Kasich. So, you know, right now, you've got to have the field narrow if somebody is going to really seriously take on Donald Trump and Ted Cruz at the top.

SEXTON: It's personal, too, Jim. It's personal between Trump and Jeb I think in particular at this point.

SCIUTTO: It's also personal between Trump and Rubio.

SEXTON: Exactly. The politics and the personal intersecting here, but there's also just, I think some of these candidates have started to not like each other.

SCIUTTO: Yes, I think we saw some of that yesterday.

So, CNN hosting, Buck, two back-to-back town halls in South Carolina before the voters go to the polls. What are voters going to be looking for in the town halls after last night's debate?

SEXTON: You would think, the conventional wisdom which unfortunately in the cycle has been wrong over and over again about the entirety of the GOP race, because of how durable and how well Donald Trump is doing, you would think evangelicals and you would think that conservatives are going to play a larger role in South Carolina, would be asking questions that would be sort of core to the base, right? The sorts of things you would expect.

I think that's what the discussions will be around. The question is, will it be enough to overcome the Trump lead. Essentially, is it be like Iowa, where the polls for Trumps were wrong, or is it going to be like New Hampshire, where the polls were actually more or less correct? I think a lot of people that aren't pro-Trump or hoping that South Carolina is going to be a case where the polls fall flat on their face. But we'll see what happens at these town halls. It's certainly an opportunity to make the case.

SCIUTTO: Right. And polls have been wrong. Buck Sexton, Kevin Scott, thanks for breaking it down with us.

As I mentioned later this week, CNN will host two Republican presidential town hall events in South Carolina, all six Republican candidates will be participating. Both events will hosted by CNN's Anderson Cooper. They will take place live at 8:00 p.m. Eastern, right here on CNN. Republican presidential town halls, Wednesday and Thursday, at 8:00 p.m. Eastern.

And then on February 25th at 8:30 p.m. Eastern, it's the last debate before Super Tuesday. Join Wolf Blitzer live from Texas with the CNN Republican presidential debate, only here on CNN.

The so-called "Thurmond Rule" is not really a rule, but it could play a huge role in the upcoming battle to name a replacement for the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. My next guest will explain the Thurmond Rule, why it matters so much in this Supreme Court showdown.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:27:40] SCIUTTO: The political battle to name a new Supreme Court justice could come down to the so-called "Thurmond Rule". It's not even a real rule, but we're going to get wonky here and dig in to what the Thurmond Rule means politically and why it could matter this year.

Democrats and Republicans are already bickering over the timing of nominating a Supreme Court justice. Many Republicans say that since it is an election year, it's the next president who should get to nominate the next Supreme Court justice. Democrats say that President Obama will be in office for almost another year, and it's his constitutional right to nominate someone to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court and also the constitutional responsibility of the Senate to consider that nomination.

Joining me now on the phone is U.S. court expert Russell Wheeler. He's with the Brookings Institution.

So, Russell, help us understand what the "Thurmond Rule" is, and how it originated, of course, named after the late Senator Strom Thurmond.

RUSSELL WHEELER, VISITING FELLOW, THE BROOKINGS INSTITUTION (via telephone): That's right. And you're also right, it's hardly a rule. Senate Rule 22 or something like that. I think it's best described as a recognition that not confirmations, judicial confirmations are going to slow down, not necessarily stopped during a presidential election year, and they have, probably because the Senate just isn't in session as much. But more than that the party in the White House they think their person may be in the White House, you know, eight months and doing the nominating. So, it slows down.

It's hard to say, though, it has much application to the Supreme Court, because there is no precedent for it for two reasons. One is, Justice Scalia's death is quite a rarity. I think from the 1950s, he's the fourth justice to die in office, and the only one to die during a presidential election year, the way I count it. And even judges, most judges leave on their own volition. But I can't find any who left during a presidential election year.

So, as far as looking for guidance or in a role or in precedent for the current situation it's hard to find it.

SCIUTTO: Let's see, obviously it's beauty is in the eye of beholder on this because it would sought Republican interest, not Democrat interest. But the Thurmond Rule to be clear was the summer before the election, here we are in February, so there's nine months until. So, even by the letter of this, quote-unquote, "law", it doesn't really apply, does it? [18:30:00] WHEELER: Well, it doesn't apply right now. But people

who have looked at the Thurmond Rule, scholars at the Congressional Research Service and others, have not been able to pin down a precise date in which it kicks in. Reagan got two Circuit judges confirmed in October of 1988. District judges for Clinton and for Bush were confirmed on October and September. Circuit judges, that stopped a little earlier for those two presidents. So it's not as if there is a date certain in which it kicks in. It -- you know, when confirmations stop I think defend on a Friday, factors other than some rule somewhere called the Thurmond Rule.

SCIUTTO: Well, presumably if you had a Republican president now, you wouldn't have Republican lawmakers who were reminding folks of this rule. But let's look at precedent here because --

WHEELER: That's true. It gets invoked when it's convenient to invoke it.

SCIUTTO: Of course. And both parties are guilty of this because we saw that Senator Chuck Schumer --

WHEELER: Absolutely.

SCIUTTO: Under President Bush in 2007 argued that he shouldn't get his nominees in the final year before an election. But let's look at precedent because we went through some of the history here. Ronald Reagan, he nominated Justice Kennedy November 30, 1987, confirmed February 3rd, 1988.

WHEELER: Right.

SCIUTTO: So confirmed within a year of the next election. Ford nominated Stevens in November '75, confirmed December of '75, you know, even after the election in that lame duck --

WHEELER: Yes.

SCIUTTO: Actually not, but still within a year of the election, 11 months. Nixon-Rehnquist, Nixon-Powell, so you do have previous and look at that, Reagan, Ford, Nixon, Nixon, Republican presidents who nominated within the year of an election.

WHEELER: No, no, that's exactly right. I think the most recent example, the Kennedy example, though, is a bit unusual, you know. Justice Powell retired in June of 1987, and they had the failed attempt to put Bork in his place and then Judge Ginsburg and I think when Kennedy it was nominated, it was seen as much more moderate. Well, a lot of factors that led the Senate to say let's just go ahead and confirm him and get the seat filled.

SCIUTTO: There you go. I suppose you're the expert here, but I suppose the idea is there is no hard and fast rule. This is about politics playing out.

WHEELER: That's right. Yes -- no, you're exactly right. It's accurate to say that confirmation slowed down in election year. It's not accurate to say there's a precise time they've always slowed down, or to say we can predict based on when they'll slow down, when they'll slow down in the current year.

Whether or not President Obama sees any more Circuit confirmations this year I think is up in the air. You're not going to see many, that's for sure. Even district nominations, confirmations, I think they're going to be relatively rare.

SCIUTTO: And this is a big one because it swings the court. Could do.

Russell Wheeler, thanks for having on. We appreciate it.

President Obama says that he will nominate a new Supreme Court justice to replace Antonin Scalia regardless of what either party says. Senate Republicans, though, as we were just saying, are pushing back.

Would an extended vacancy cause problems for the court? We're going to talk about that prospect right after this break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:36:22] SCIUTTO: And this just in to CNN. We are learning that former New York governor, Eliot Spitzer, is being investigated by a New York police in connection with a woman's claim that Spitzer assaulted her at a New York hotel. Two law enforcement sources telling CNN that a 25-year-old woman claims she and Spitzer were at the hotel bar, then went up to his room where he choked her, she alleges. The woman says she has known Spitzer for some time.

We are told that the New York Police Department is investigating the case as a possible assault. CNN has reached out to Spitzer for comment. When we have that, if we have it, we will share that with you.

President Obama says that he will nominate a new Supreme Court justice to replace Antonin Scalia. But Senate Republican leaders are indicating that person will not get their vote this year. The White House responding today by saying, quote, "Given that the Senate is currently in recess, we do not expect the president to rush this through this week, but instead, will do so in due time once the Senate returns from recess. At that point we expect the Senate to consider that nominee consistent with their responsibilities laid out in the United States Constitution."

CNN's Supreme Court reporter Ariane de Vogue joins me.

So, Ariane, you have both sides staking their claim at this point. Republicans saying they don't want to vote, the president is saying he's going to nominate. And the Republicans should vote. Are there any names swirling of potential replacements, particularly ones that would be presumably centrist enough to gain some Republican votes?

ARIANE DE VOGUE, CNN SUPREME COURT REPORTER: Well, the rest of the country was stunned by the death of Justice Scalia and so was the White House. But it's ready. It's been ready for months. It has files of all sorts of nominees that they've been watching and they've been keeping track of. And so it's really just depends upon how big a fight they want. Like you said, one of the nominees who would be maybe easier to get through is Sri Srinivasan. He was unanimously affirmed by the Senate. He is an Indian American and he's been praised by Ted Cruz.

Here's a name. Another one. Merick Garland. He's about 63 or 64 years old. He's considered a moderate. He might be in play. As well as another judge. Jane Kelly. She's out of Iowa and that might have connections with Senator Grassley. But I preface all of this by saying, you know, it's way too early to know the names the White House are considering. And in the next few days, we're going to hear of a lot more names being floated and leaked.

SCIUTTO: No question. So let's imagine a situation where the vacancy is extended because right now you have 4 and 4, really a divide in effect between the conservative and the more liberal wing of the court. You have some big decisions coming up. What happens to those potential decisions, those cases?

DE VOGUE: Well, that's what's interesting because when you only have eight justices on the Supreme Court, there are going to be some cases where they're equally divided, 4-4. And what happens is that case is the Supreme Court really doesn't really rule. The lower court's opinion is upheld. So that's going to cause a lot of confusion for these cases, and keep in mind, this term, which is about halfway through, has blockbuster cases, affirmative action, abortion, immigration, that's what the justices are going to be hearing.

Now they could look at it one way and say OK, we're not going to deal with this now. We might push it off. But the problem with that is if this is going to take months and maybe even a year, when is there going to be a nine-member court? And that could cause them consternation.

[18:40:03] SCIUTTO: Incredible, incredible events.

Ariane de Vogue, thanks for breaking it down for us.

Pope Francis, he says that Mexico is the land of opportunity. You're going to hear about the Pope's wish for people who want to emigrate from Mexico. That is coming up and these are live pictures right now of Pope Francis beginning his trip there to Mexico, an historic one.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SCIUTTO: It is day two of the Pope's visit to Mexico. So far he has tackled the issues of corruption, violence and human trafficking. He reached out to clergy members, urging them to take a stand to combat the drug trade. Now he's visiting the cancer ward of a children's hospital. The Pope wraps up his trip with a cross-border mass on Wednesday where he will pray for the thousands of undocumented immigrants who have died trying to cross the border into the United States from Mexico.

Let's go to Mexico City, where CNN international correspondent Shasta Darlington is standing by.

Shasta, a big trip, a big welcome for the Pope. He's certainly staying busy. What can we expect for him in the next several days in Mexico?

SHASTA DARLINGTON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jim, you know, Pope Francis is doing exactly what he said he would do. And that's not -- he said he would not sweep Mexico's problems under the rug. He's going to shine a light on them. And that's everything from immigration, poverty, drug violence, and what we're going to see tomorrow is him heading to the state of Chiapas.

[18:45:02] It's the poorest state of Mexico. It's along the southern border. It's also the main entry point for the thousands of Central American immigrants trying to head to the United States.

He's also going to visit the state of Michoacan which was just ravaged by drug violence and many of the victims have been country priests. So he wants to give them faith, encourage them to keep fighting the drug war. And as you mentioned his trip will end right on the northern border across from El Paso, Texas. He'll be in Ciudad Juarez and we really do expect that to be one of the emotional high points -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: Ciudad Juarez, of course, central to the drug trade but as you say is also in effect getting into the American political debate, getting these immigration issues. What is the Pope saying about his hopes for the Mexican people?

DARLINGTON: Well, today we had a very good example of exactly what Pope Francis is doing. He visited one of the most dangerous places in Mexico, a sprawling suburb, just outside of Mexico City, notorious for its violence, notorious for its poverty. And he took a pretty hard line. You know, he was pretty -- he riled authorities when he decided to visit that location, and during his mass, he lashed out at what he called the temptations of wealth and fame and power, and he urged Mexicans to create a country of opportunity, instead of one that destroys its young people. Obviously referring to immigration and the drug trade. Take a listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

POPE FRANCIS, CATHOLIC CHURCH LEADER (Through Translator): I want to invite you today again to be on the frontline, to be the first in all the initiatives which help make this blessed land of Mexico a land of opportunities. Whether it will be no need to emigrate in order to dream, no need to be exploited in order to work.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

DARLINGTON: Those words, of course, played well to the crowds and hundreds of thousands turned out, lining the papal route, just hoping to get a glimpse of the Pope. They've never had a visit from a pope despite the fact that Mexico is one of the most visited countries. And of course right now he's wrapping up the day with a very tender and sweet visit to this children's hospital, mostly cancer patients. He gave a rosary to one boy, another boy he helped administer the medicine. We're just seeing so many of the facets of Pope Francis, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Covering his visit here and certainly such a reaction wherever he goes. Now this cross-border mass that he's going to hold on the U.S.-Mexico border, it's met some criticism here in the U.S. What type of reaction is he getting south of the border?

DARLINGTON: You know, Jim, that's probably in some ways one of the least controversial stops along the way because everyone will be pointing the finger at American authorities and Mexican authorities can sort of take a sigh of relief, they got through all of this talk of the drug violence here and the poverty and the inequality. So at that point they may be sighing a little bit -- a little sigh of relief there, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Well, Sasha Darlington, must be a pleasure to cover this one. Thanks for joining us from Mexico City.

Coming up here, bombs raining down and shells piercing the landscape. Our rare look inside a war torn city in Syria. CNN's Frederick Pleitgen is the only international journalist now in Aleppo and he takes us to the frontline.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:52:19] SCIUTTO: Today marks day three of the Munich security conference, where world leaders are meeting to discuss solutions to the war in Syria. President Obama also called Russian President Vladimir Putin, urging him to stop airstrikes against moderate Syrian opposition forces. Russia says they are only targeting extremist groups.

As the airstrikes continue, Syrian government forces are gaining ground in Aleppo. And CNN is the first international network taking you to the front lines of the fight for Aleppo.

Frederick Pleitgen brings us this exclusive report.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice- over): Years of urban combat have laid waste to Aleppo's old town. Syrian army snipers scan the terrain for possible movement on the other side.

(On camera): We're right on the front line in the Syrian government's offensive against the opposition and the soldiers here tell us they still frequently see rebels on the other side but they also say they often pick them off from the sniper's nest.

(Voice-over): This soldier tells me morale has never been higher.

"Thanks to God, everything here is under control," he says. "Our fingers are on the triggers ready to destroy the rebels." Bashar al-Assad's forces have made major gains in the Aleppo area in

recent weeks, while the opposition rebels say they're simply being slaughtered. But for years, this battlefield was in a stalemate, the front line right around Aleppo's ancient citadel. As Syrian and Russian warplanes hover overhead, the commander knows who to thank for the newfound momentum.

"It's only a matter of months now until we win," he says. "Thanks to the Russian support with their airstrikes flown from the Syrian airfield, we will defeat the rebels once and for all."

Aleppo was Syria's largest and one of its most historic towns. Tourists from all over the world used to flock to the old town before it was engulfed by Syria's brutal civil war.

(On camera): The old town of Aleppo is a UNESCO world heritage site. Some of these buildings are hundreds if not thousands of years old. And now, as you can see, most have been completely destroyed and burned out.

(Voice-over): But now Assad's troops believe they are on the verge of a decisive victory. The commander warns the U.S. not to interfere.

"We are steadfast," he says. "You cannot defeat the Syrian Army because we are determined to win and we're loyal to President Assad."

Amid this divided and destroyed city, Syrian government forces believe they're dealing a crushing blow to the opposition. One that could end this five-year civil war that's destroyed so much more than just the landscape.

Fred Pleitgen, CNN, Aleppo.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCIUTTO: Frederik Pleitgen with that exclusive report, thank you.

[18:55:01] Still ahead, he has been out of the public spotlight for seven years now, now number 43 is coming off the sidelines to make a big play in South Carolina. Details, right after the break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SCIUTTO: Checking now our top stories, President Obama promising to name a replacement for the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. But that he's in no hurry to put a name forward. That word from the White House today, just one day after Justice Scalia's death from natural causes in Texas. Republican Party leaders don't want the president to nominate anyone at all. Insisting there is no chance of a nominee getting through committee before the election in November.

George W. Bush will make his first campaign appearance with his brother, Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush, in South Carolina tomorrow. The 43rd president is popular among Republican voters in the state. Jeb Bush is trying to gain some momentum after finishing fourth in the New Hampshire primary, saying that his brother will help his campaign a lot.

One final note tonight, I get to do a lot of very special things in this job. This is one of the most special. We got to celebrate my father's 85th birthday earlier today. It was an honor and I just wanted to wish him happy birthday on the air.

Dad, we love you very much. There is no better father or grandfather we could ask for. Happy birthday, Dad.

Welcome, it is 7:00 p.m. Eastern. Thank you for --