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THE SITUATION ROOM

Senator Hillary Clinton Stakes Out New Ground On Iraq; Growing Republican Rift Over Iraq; Senator Chuck Hagel Interview; William Cohen Interview

Aired January 17, 2007 - 16:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM, where new pictures and information are arriving all the time. Standing by, CNN reporters across the United States and around the world to bring you today's top stories.
Happening now, Senator Hillary Clinton takes a stand against a troop build-up in Iraq.

Why is the likely presidential contender speaking out right now? And will she bring divided Democrats together on Iraq or make the split even wider?

Also this hour, some rebel Republicans go to new lengths to buck the president's Iraq strategy. I'll ask Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska why he's teaming up with Democrats against Mr. Bush.

Plus, a new embarrassment for the Bush White House. An about face on the controversial warrantless surveillance program.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

First up this hour, Senator Hillary Clinton breaks her recent silence and stakes out some new ground on Iraq.

Just a short while ago, the presumed Democratic presidential front runner announced her plans to introduce a bill to cap the troop levels in Iraq. The measure would also require President Bush to get Congressional approval before sending in more troops.

This comes on a day when numerous Democrats and Republicans are drawing lines in the sand over Iraq and blurring the usual partisan battle lines along the way.

The political wrangling is playing out against the backdrop of more bloodshed in Iraq. More than 30 people were killed in several attacks today in Baghdad and Kirkuk.

Our chief national correspondent, John King, and our White House correspondent, Ed Henry, are standing by.

But let's begin our coverage this hour with our Congressional correspondent, Dana Bash -- Dana. DANA BASH, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, what we saw today was quite extraordinary. It just ended, this press conference with Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and Senator Evan Bayh and also Republican Congressman John McHugh.

And why it was so interesting is because it was a sign of the times, both the times when it comes to the Iraq debate here on Capitol Hill and when it comes to the 2008 presidential race. And the pressure, especially on potential Democratic candidates to come out and come out strong on specific positions.

And that's exactly what we heard from Senator Clinton in a way that we haven't heard before. She just returned from Iraq and she introduced legislation saying that she wants to cap the number of troops in Iraq going back to the date that was set there on January 1st.

She also said that she opposes the idea of blocking funding for troops, but she supports the idea of at least having conditions on Iraqis and benchmarks for Iraqis and their success. So she went through some specific conditions that she wants to impose on the Iraqis and on the Bush administration.

And she said that if those conditions are not met, her legislation would require Congressional approval.

Let's listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D), NEW YORK: From what I've heard out of the administration thus far, I think we will eventually have to move to tougher requirements on the administration, to get their attention. This is a grave matter. America's vital national security interests are involved and certainly the lives and the health of our young men and women in uniform is at stake. And the Iraqi people's future is, as well.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BASH: Now, Senator Clinton said that she was going to introduce this legislation but almost in the next breath she admitted that she could "count," meaning that she understands that this kind of legislation won't really have a prayer of passing in the Senate. And she said that she -- what she's trying to do here is lay down a marker about what we, the Democrats, what she expects from the Bush administration, specifically from the Iraqi government.

So she even admitted that what she is proposing won't go very far. It is more of a political statement that she is issuing today.

Meanwhile, the Democratic leadership in the Senate, along with Republican Chuck Hagel, introduced something they will bring for a vote and they hope to get bipartisan support on. Is in a non-binding symbolic resolution saying this: "This resolution will give -- ." Excuse me. Saying: "It is not in the national security interests of the United States to deepen its military involvement in Iraq, particularly by escalating the United States' military force presence there."

So essentially what the Democratic leadership, along with Senator Chuck Hagel, a Republican, want to do in the next couple of weeks is put this non-binding resolution on the floor, saying that they oppose what the president is doing.

The idea there according to Chairman -- Foreign Relations Chairman Joe Biden and Chuck Hagel and also the Armed Services Chairman, Carl Levin, is to send a message very clearly to the president that there is not support for his -- for his idea here in Congress.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL (R), NEBRASKA: There is no moral high ground that one group of senators has over the other. If there is a disagreement on policy, that's what a democracy is about. It is not in the interests of our country and our future and the consequences of our country for us to be mute.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BASH: Today you heard Senator Hagel defending the fact that he, as a Republican, as he put it "brought on the Democrats" to this idea. It's important to note, also, that we have heard over the past week or so, Wolf, several Republican senators come out and unequivocally say they oppose the president's idea.

But we talked to a couple of them in the hallways here today, Senator Susan Collins, even Senator Gordon Smith, and they said that right now they're not going to support this legislation or this bill -- excuse me, this measure, I should say -- on the floor, because they simply aren't signed onto the language, specifically the idea that it says that Iraq War is being escalated.

Many view that as a partisan term brought on by Democrats. The Democrats say that they're willing to work with Republicans on changing the language to get as many Republican votes as possible -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And I suspect that will happen, Dana.

Thanks very much.

And just ahead, I'll be speaking live with Senator Chuck Hagel about his opposition to a troop build-up in Iraq and how is partnership with Democrats might affect the president's policy.

That's an interview coming up.

And we are getting still more evidence today of the growing Republican rift over Iraq. Likely presidential contender Sam Brownback of Kansas went to the Senate floor to press his opposition to the troop build-up. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. SAM BROWNBACK (R), KANSAS: The United States seems to care more about the peaceful Iraq than the Iraqis do. If that is the case, it is difficult to understand why more U.S. troops would make a difference.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Senator John Sununu of New Hampshire now says he's firmly opposed to sending more troops to Iraq. He tells our Dana Bash he can't support additional U.S. forces until Iraqis step up to the plate.

Eight Senate Republicans right now are breaking ranks with the president on a troop build-up. They include Sam Brownback, Norm Coleman, Susan Collins, Chuck Hagel, Gordon Smith, Olympia Snow, John Sununu and George Voinovich.

But the top Republican in the House of Representatives is trying to rally support for the president's plan. The minority leader, John Boehner, says House Republicans are introducing a bill today to bar Congress from cutting off funding for U.S. troops in Iraq.

Let's bring in our chief national correspondent, John King.

He's with us.

This division among Republicans, given the six year track record of this president, it's a pretty stark development.

JOHN KING, CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It's quite extraordinary, Wolf, and it's hard to keep track of it, which essentially makes the point. For six years, this president has been able to count on almost unanimous Republican support on the big questions on Capitol Hill.

Remember, he wanted a contested election. Everyone said peel back, don't go for that big tax cut. He got it.

Why?

All the Republicans stuck together. And it's not just the votes here in Washington. It's the echo back home. When they go back home to their districts, they were giving the president's message for most of the first six years of this administration.

He's going up to Capitol Hill next week. His first speech about the Iraq plan fell flat, according to public opinion polls and according to the defections in his own party. He has to give the State of the Union address at the biggest moment of Republican disaffection, if you will, and defections from this president.

So what you're seeing, how will it play out in votes down the road about funding or on that resolution Dana was just talking about? We'll see that in the next few weeks. But what you're seeing right now is a president who has the wind in his face, a very stiff headwind. And he's not getting help from some key members of his party.

BLITZER: He is getting help from John McCain. And, as a result, John McCain is now getting slammed by MoveOn.org.

KING: It's quite interesting. MoveOn.org, which we have heard from in the past couple of campaigns. It is a label group, a lot of money there, a very anti-war group, running an ad now criticizing John McCain.

You see it here. And most Democrats are calling this the Bush escalation, sending more troops into Iraq, this ad. And you're going to see picture after picture after picture of John McCain with George W. Bush.

This MoveOn.org on ad calls it McCain's escalation. It's on the air in Iowa. It's on the air in other early presidential campaign states.

You would think maybe the McCain people would think why are they coming after us?

Instead what they're saying is this is a badge of honor, we are a conservative Republican, the McCain camp would say. You have this liberal group after us. That's fine. They will take the criticism.

BLITZER: Let's talk about the Democrats for a second.

Yesterday, I interviewed John Edwards. I asked him if he thought Barack Obama, who announced an exploratory committee yesterday, was qualified to be president. He didn't say yes, he didn't say no.

Hillary Clinton was asked that same question this morning on the "Today" show. She didn't say yes. She didn't say no.

Why can't they say one way or another yes, indeed, he's qualified, or no, he's not qualified?

KING: Be patient, my friend. You will moderate a debate in New Hampshire a few months down the road. Look for it to happen about that. It's very early on. No Democrat wants to criticize another Democrat right now. They're a group that wants to say we're all good candidates, we all have good ideas, we welcome this debate, we welcome the discussion.

You do -- you will hear them over time say I think the American people are looking for someone with these qualifications. So it will be implied more than explicit right now.

But if Barack Obama stays where he is in the polls and he is a threat to Hillary Clinton and he is a threat to John Edwards down the road, you can be sure the experience question will come up again and again and again. BLITZER: No doubt about that.

All right, John, thanks very much for that.

Let's go over to the White House right now and the president's efforts to try to convince his own party that more troops in Iraq is the way to go.

Let's bring in our White House correspondent, Ed Henry -- how are they dealing with this sort of rebellion today over at the White House?

ED HENRY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, they're trying to meet with as many Republicans as soon as possible. This hour, the president right now is behind closed doors with a group of Republican lawmakers, including Minnesota Senator Norm Coleman. He's one of those lawmakers who has come out against an increase of troops in Iraq.

The bottom line, the White House very nervous, as you noted a moment ago and John King was reporting tonight about. You've got eight Republican senators now even leaning toward or actually opposing this increase in U.S. troops and supporting, basically, this resolution coming out against the president's policy.

It's a non-binding resolution, so why is the White House nervous?

Well, if you think back to November of 19 -- of 2005, the Senate also approved a non-binding resolution, saying that 2006 had to be a year of transition in Iraq. You had 79 votes in a Republican-led Senate that supported that non-binding resolution. Even though it didn't have the force of law, it sent a very powerful signal to this White House that they no longer could count on and expect Republican blind support for the war.

This is another signal to this White House, very clear, coming out of the last election, they cannot count on that Republican support -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And there seems to be a major change as far as the Bush administration is concerned on the warrantless wiretapping program. As you know, for a long time, they resisted letting the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court be involved in overseeing these warrantless wiretaps. But today there's been a major reversal.

HENRY: That's right. It's an about face no matter how you look at it, in the president's policy.

White House Spokesman Tony Snow tried to say look, the Justice Department is fine with this, that appropriate tweaks have been made so that now they're fine with this independent body, that Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, to look at this and approve these individual warrants. But it's clearly a far cry from what the president was saying over and over just last year on the campaign trail about how FISA was outdated, how he needed special powers. Democrats now running Congress are saying -- we have been saying that this is either illegal, maybe even unconstitutional, or saying it's long overdue.

And, in fact, tomorrow, the Democratic -- the new Senate Judiciary chairman, Patrick Leahy, was planning to grill Attorney General Alberto Gonzales on this.

But White House Spokesman Tony Snow insists the administration was not trying to preempt that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TONY SNOW, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: It's the FISA court, which is the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which has done this. What you're doing is you're accusing that court of engaging in political activity to, what, bail out the Bush administration?

I don't think so.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D-VT), JUDICIARY CHAIRMAN: They don't have to follow the law. They just step outside the law. They don't have to follow the checks and balances.

But I'd say all Americans, no matter what your political leanings might be, all Americans ought to ask why are they doing this? Why are they doing this?

Because it doesn't -- in the long run, it does not protect us, not if we take away our liberties.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HENRY: Wolf, the bottom line is this points out that on both issues, Iraq and the warrantless wiretapping, the president, who for six years, as you were noting, basically had a free hand to conduct the war on terror, no longer has that, especially with Democrats running the Hill -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, thanks very much.

Ed Henry at the White House.

And Ed Henry, John King, Dana Bash, as you already know, they are part of the best political team on television. And remember, for the latest political news at any time, check out our Political Ticker at CNN.com/ticker.

Republican Senator Chuck Hagel is proving once again today that he's one of the Bush administration's toughest critics when it comes to the war in Iraq. The Nebraskan's decision to team up with Democrats on the resolution opposing a troop build-up is a new slap at the president.

The Vietnam War veteran hasn't ruled out a run for the White House in 2008, a race that's already being defined by the war in Iraq. Joining us now, Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.

He's a key member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Senator, thanks very much for joining us.

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL (R), NEBRASKA: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: You've said that this is the worst foreign policy disaster for the United States, the war in Iraq, since the Vietnam War.

Who do you blame?

HAGEL: Well, I think we could assign blame all around, Wolf. But the real issue is how do we move forward? How do we get out of this? We don't walk away and leave a mess, which we already have. We've got to think it through. That's going to require the American people being behind the president with a policy that can be sustained.

That means a bipartisan consensus in the Congress. That's what Senators Biden and Levin and I introduced today. I think you're seeing a number of senators and congressmen over the last few days start to express themselves rather directly about what the president proposed Wednesday night.

I don't believe that the best interests of our country, for the long-term and short-term, is served by escalating our military involvement in Iraq.

Wolf, we've been there almost four years, thousands of American casualties, tens of thousands wounded, almost a half a trillion dollars spent.

This is a tribal, sectarian civil war that has now embroiled Iraq. Yes, the territorial integrity of Iraq is critical for the Iraqis to have any opportunity to sort this out themselves, and we can help preserve that.

We can't just pull out, nor should we, nor will we.

But we've got to be wiser in how we use our people. To feed more young men and women into a civil war that we cannot stop or change is wrong. And it is devastating our military. It's devastating our standing in the Middle East. It's hurting our budget. It's destroying our military.

So we need a new course of action. And only a sustained, bipartisan position that the American people will support will -- will be required to finish this over the next few years. And that's what we were talking about today.

BLITZER: A few years, Senator?

You think this is going to go on a few more years? HAGEL: Oh, of course it's going to go on a few more years. And the real question that we have to ask ourselves, Wolf, is what America's role is going to be in that -- that next step that the Iraqis are going to have to take. They are going to be the ones that will determine the fate of their country. We can't do that. We can help them.

A number of the Baker-Hamilton Commission recommendations put forward, I thought, was representative of a good, new bipartisan foundation the president could have seized upon, using diplomacy, using our military force, using our influence to bring together a new framework, a new frame of reference for the future.

How this all plays out in Iraq, I don't know. But I think what some of us are saying here, we're no longer going to just quietly stand by, as we have done, literally, for four years, and let more of our young Americans be thrown into this battle when they cannot change the outcome.

This is an internal issue and the Iraqis themselves are going to have to sort this out. They must want their own freedom, their own future, more than we want it for them.

BLITZER: All right, senator, the White House has already said today that the resolution that you and Senator Levin and Senator Biden want to put forward is not going to affect the president's policies. They're going to go forward with their surge, as they call it, the increase of the U.S. troops.

What else should be done if they ignore this symbolic, non- binding resolution?

HAGEL: Well, let's start with the fact that we have a form of government, Wolf, that represents co-equal branches of government. Article 1 of the constitution is not the presidency, it's the Congress. We have separation of powers, as it should be. But we have a co-equal branch of government.

We need to be part of any resolution in foreign policy or any policy for our country. We have essentially walked away from that the last four years.

So when the president talks about or his administration spokesmen say that regardless of what the Senate does or the Congress does in any resolution, we're not going to pay heed to that, I think they'll want to review that, because here is the way a democracy works, if people have forgotten.

November 7th, the people of this country changed the management in Congress. It was over one issue more than any other, and it was Iraq. Seventy-three percent that I've seen in the last poll, and I believe it was your poll, last week, 73 percent of the people of America said that they disapproved of this administration's handling of Iraq.

That should tell everyone something. There's accountability in leadership. There should be. There is accountability in politics.

BLITZER: Right.

HAGEL: Now, this is just the beginning, Wolf. This thing is going to play out over the next few months, with appropriations, more resolutions. You saw Senator Clinton's introduction of a bill today. This is just the beginning.

BLITZER: Well, she says there should be a cap, a ceiling, how many U.S. troops should be allowed to serve in Iraq.

Do you support that?

HAGEL: Well, I haven't looked at it yet. But my point is this. There is going to be more than one resolution introduced. There's going to be more than one bill introduced. This is the biggest issue facing our country since Vietnam. It is dividing our nation, Wolf. It is dangerous for our country. It's dangerous for the world.

The Congress needs to be part of this. The American people must come to some consensus, with some confidence, that somebody is mature up here, somebody is looking out for the interests of this country in the longer-term and the Congress needs to be part of that.

There must be a national debate on this issue, Wolf, and we haven't had one. There now will be and if the administration thinks that they can disregard whatever actions the Congress may take -- I can't predict what will happen -- I think they'll want to reevaluate this. This is not a monarchy, Wolf. We tried that once. It didn't work.

BLITZER: We're out of time, senator.

A very quick question.

Are you getting closer to a final decision whether or not to run for president?

HAGEL: I'll let you know, Wolf. I've got to make a decision soon and I will make that decision.

BLITZER: All right, we'll stand by for that, senator.

Thanks very much.

HAGEL: Thank you.

BLITZER: Chuck Hagel of Nebraska joining us.

And let's check in with Jack Cafferty.

He's got The Cafferty File in New York -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: How tough is that?

You've got a Republican senator standing there saying this is not a monarchy?

I mean that's pretty heavy artillery...

BLITZER: And he's a very...

CAFFERTY: ... coming from a member...

BLITZER: He's a very blunt guy. He's very outspoken, very smart.

CAFFERTY: Yes, he is.

Despite all the campaign rhetoric to the contrary leading up to the mid-term elections, here's another sign that ethics reform on Capitol Hill under the Democrats isn't going to amount to much of anything. At least a half a dozen Congressional spouses are registered lobbyists and several others are connected with lobbying firms. But the ethics package that passed the House and the one that's proposed in the Senate don't touch this issue.

The "Washington Post" reports today that Republican Senator David Vitter of Louisiana proposed banning spouses of senators from lobbying any part of the chamber.

That makes sense.

But guess what?

When Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told Vitter he would support the proposal, he added that it should not apply to spouses who are already lobbyists.

Say what?

That's kind of like the thing they did a week or so ago. They voted to take away the pensions of convicted lawmakers, but they failed to make it retroactive, so Duke Cunningham and all the boys in the joint are still getting their checks.

Who do these people think they're fooling?

Here's the question -- why should lawmakers' spouses be able to lobby the Congress at all?

E-mail your thoughts to CaffertyFile@CNN.com or go to CNN.com/CaffertyFile.

Yesterday, Wolf, we talked about the fact that there's no appetite among the Democrats for independent ethics oversight. Now, they don't want to make any of these changes retroactive to kick anybody off the gravy train that's already riding it.

The same old song and dance. Just a different party in charge down there, I guess.

BLITZER: Jack, thank you for that. Jack will be back shortly with your e-mail.

Coming up, Hillary Clinton takes a strong stand on Iraq.

Paul Begala and Bill Bennett, they'll rate her strategy. That's coming up in our Strategy Session.

And later, if the bottom falls out in Iraq, will Saudi Arabia and other neighbors actually jump into the fray?

The former defense secretary, William Cohen, is in the Middle East. He's just been in Saudi Arabia. He's going to join us live from Cairo.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's check in with Carol Costello from New York for a closer look at some other important stories making news -- hi, Carol.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: Hi, Wolf.

Hello to all of you.

We know that President Bush is ordering thousands more U.S. troops into Iraq.

But what about sending in more troops into Afghanistan?

Well, today the secretary of defense suggested he may urge the president to send more American troops there. The Taliban is making a fierce and worrisome come back in Afghanistan after being largely routed out. And today Robert Gates says: "There's no reason to sit back and the let the Taliban regroup." Currently, there are about 24,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

In California, it may look just like a snowy mountain but this is actually a highway, a highway running through it. Forty miles of Interstate 5 north of Los Angeles paralyzed amidst California's icy blast. Mother Nature having her way with some drivers, stranding them in snow that hides a blanket of ice. Crews are trying to clear the road, but the closure is expected to last most of the day.

And cancer continues to claim the lives of far too many people in the United States, but it's killed fewer people for the second straight year. Just over 3,000 fewer people died of cancer in the United States from 2003 to 2004. That's according to the American Cancer Society. Cancer deaths also dropped the previous year. Experts suggest it's partly due to fewer people smoking and an increased level of detection and treatment of tumors.

That's a look at the headlines right now -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Let's hope those numbers continue to drop, Carol.

Thank you for that.

Coming up, are conservatives actually shopping for another true believer to run for the White House?

I'll ask Bill Bennett. He'll join Paul Begala in our Strategy Session. That's coming up.

Plus, Hillary Clinton just back from Iraq, spelling out some new ideas on he wants to try to end the conflict. Paul and Bill will rate her new plan. That's coming up, as well, in our Strategy Session.

We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: To our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM, where new pictures and information are arriving all the time.

Happening now, a bipartisan group of senators has introduced a non-binding resolution opposing a U.S. troop increase. Democratic Senator Joe Biden says it will give every senator a chance to show just where they stand on the issue.

Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton is making clear where she stands. Today she's introducing a bill to put a cap on troop levels in Iraq.

How might what happens in Iraq actually affect what happens elsewhere in the Middle East?

I'll ask our world affairs analyst and former Defense Secretary William Cohen.

And it's meant to symbolize the end of the world as we know it. Today, the so-called doomsday clock was moved to five minutes before midnight. Midnight on the clock symbolizes when the world ends. Scientists who control the clock cite nuclear standoffs with Iran and North Korea and global warming as major threats.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

In today's "Strategy Session": a fight pitting the legislative branch against the executive branch of the U.S. government. Some Democrats and Republicans are standing firmly against the president's new plan for Iraq.

Here to talk about Iraq, Iraq politics, a lot more, our CNN political analyst and Democratic strategist Paul Begala, and our contributor Bill Bennett. He's also a fellow at the Claremont Institute.

Guys, thanks very much for coming in.

Let's talk about Hillary Rodham Clinton's new plan today. She wants to put a cap on how many troops can be in Iraq, basically, as of January 1, about 130,000, 135,000.

What do you make of this strategy that she's come back from Iraq with?

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I think it's a smart strategy, substantively and politically -- substantively, because a whole lot of our generals have been saying to the president that this is a bad idea, to escalate the war.

Politically -- and she's on the Armed Services Committee. She has been now to Iraq just this week. And I think she knows what she's talking about. Politically, also, this is where the country is. And it's not the blunt instrument of cutting off funds, which some Democrats want, but it's also not simply symbolic, the way the sense of the Senate resolution might be.

So, once again, I think she's found probably the sensible center, where most Americans can gather.

BLITZER: What do you think?

BILL BENNETT, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I would concede, politically, it's probably right, because that is where a lot of the country is. And she needs to show that she's on this side of the issue for the Democrats, some of whom have been doubting her bona fides on this issue of the war.

Strategically, I don't believe -- I agree. I don't think so. This is for the president, the commander in chief, to do. It was interesting, when you interviewed Senator Hagel a few minutes ago, and you called him on it, he said: I think we will be there a few more years. I don't think we're withdrawing.

So, what is the argument, that the troop level is just right, and we can't increase it any more? Supposing we have a new plan? And there is a new plan. This is General Keane's plan and other's. The commander in chief, I think, has that responsibility.

Democrats are opposed. We know that. But I think there is some risk. Obviously, we have a lot of trouble on our side, but there's some risk for the Democrats that they fracture by taking too many positions.

BLITZER: You know, it's interesting that Senator Clinton, this morning, comes out for a cap, a ceiling on how many U.S. troops should be allowed to remain in Iraq.

And now we have just got a statement from Senator Barack Obama, who might be a potential rival of hers for the Democratic presidential nomination. He says: I not only favor capping the number of U.S. troops in Iraq, but believe it's imperative that we begin the phased redeployment I called for two months ago, and intend to introduce legislation that does just that.

Tit for tat.

BEGALA: Here we go: I will see your cap and raise you a phased deployment.

I mean, welcome to the 2008 presidential campaign.

But, actually, I think all of that is good for my party and for the country. I -- Democrats do have several different plans, but I think that's good. Don't forget, 45 senators in the Democratic Party gathered around last year's plan, the Levin-Reed plan, which is the phased deployment, essentially, that Barack Obama is talking about.

I don't know if we could get 45 Republicans to gather around President Bush's plan.

BLITZER: Yes, there's a -- and I want to play a sound bite from Senator Sam Brownback...

BENNETT: Sure.

BLITZER: ... who is not normally someone who is...

BENNETT: Sure.

BLITZER: ... very critical of this White House. He has been a very loyal Republican to this president over these past six years.

Listen to what he said on the Senate floor.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. SAM BROWNBACK (R), KANSAS: The United States seems to care more about a peaceful Iraq than the Iraqis do. If that is the case, it is difficult to understand why more U.S. troops would make a difference.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right. What do you say to a critic like Sam Brownback, who is, frankly, surprising a lot of people by becoming a vociferous critic of the president's new strategy?

BENNETT: There are a lot of critics on the Republican side. I have to tell you, I think that is probably his swan song. I think he's lost any chance for the nomination, for the '08 nomination.

And I think, by the way, playing with the '08 nomination at this point, a tit for tat -- I will see your escalation, and I will raise it -- is not a good thing to be doing in the midst of a war. There are a lot of voices in the Republican Party opposed, but many of them do not have a plan, any more than many of the Democrats have a plan.

Again, the president has this idea. It has from General Keane. It's come from Kagan. Give this thing a try, and let's see if it works. If you're not going to pull the troops out, you're just going to posture and say , you know, we're not in favor of the additions, what is wrong with trying this, to see if this works? If there's no full withdrawal, if you're not cutting off the funding...

BLITZER: All right.

BENNETT: ... which would show a real conviction on this, why not give this...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: You want to respond to that?

BENNETT: ... last chance?

BEGALA: Well, because most of the military experts, in and out of the military, have said it's not a good -- there are some very respected ones. You mentioned General Keane, who is with the American Enterprise Institute, who is one of the intellectual godfathers of this, somebody to be respected.

But there are a whole lot of other retired generals and even current generals who think it's a bad idea. And I will say, for Sam Brownback, he gives the impression -- and I think he is -- speaking really directly from the heart. He is -- he's not -- let's name names -- he is not Norm Coleman, who you mentioned earlier, who's, you know, I think, just kind of flip-flopping wherever the wind blows.

I mean, he's a man who was a liberal Democrat, Al Gore state chairman, flipped, and became Bush's. And he was never going to be a reliable ally of this president's. Sam Brownback is a conservative's conservative, and been very loyal to President Bush. And I think President Bush really needs to listen to that...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Is there a conservative out there who is not running for president right now that you like that you would like to see run?

BENNETT: Sure. Jon Kyl is one. We started a draft Kyl movement this morning on my radio show. The Kyl office called us and said they were getting a lot of telephone calls.

But people are looking for somebody who has the Reagan view, the Reagan vision, and isn't carrying the baggage...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: And you don't think that John McCain has that?

BENNETT: Oh, I think John McCain is a very serious candidate.

But a lot of the conservative base is very unhappy. Every time I mention John McCain, my conservatives call in and say, no.

I think he still is probably the leading contender for it.

You're right about Brownback. I think he was speaking from the heart, more from the heart than the head. But I -- at this point, even though I'm a conservative Republican, I will trade Sam Brownback for Joe Lieberman...

(LAUGHTER)

BENNETT: ... who speaks from the heart and from the head, and makes some pretty strong arguments.

BLITZER: Because he supports the president on this.

(CROSSTALK)

BENNETT: He supports the president.

(CROSSTALK)

BENNETT: In fact, I will give you -- fill three in.

(CROSSTALK)

BENNETT: I will fill three more in. I will give you the names.

BEGALA: ... player to be named later.

BLITZER: Why...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Let me ask you a question.

(CROSSTALK)

BENNETT: I will name them right now.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: Paul, why can't Hillary Rodham Clinton or John Edwards simply say yes or no when asked whether Barack Obama is qualified to be president of the United States?

BEGALA: You have got to ask them.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: I did ask John Edwards yesterday. And he refused to say. He said, it's up to the American people to make...

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: ... up to the voters.

BLITZER: Matt Lauer asked Hillary Clinton that question this morning. She refused to say.

Why can't they take a position on Barack Obama...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: ... whether or not he's qualified?

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: It's kind of unseemly. I mean, look, I knew Governor Bush a little bit in Texas. And I wrote a book attacking him, saying he wasn't qualified to be president. And guess what? Tens of millions of Americans disagreed with me. OK? It's the voters' place to decide.

And, plus, if I were advising either Edwards or Hillary or any of these, you don't want to begin a campaign with personal attacks.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: You might want to end it with them. I kind of...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Or why can't they say -- why -- but they could -- they could also say he is qualified.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: "I'm more qualified, but he is qualified."

BENNETT: Great.

BEGALA: Well, because -- but then they cut that out and make it into an ad.

I mean, I just -- I do think that it's good for the party. It's good, frankly, for Hillary, who I support, for Barack to be running.

BLITZER: All right.

BEGALA: It's good for my party. And it will energize...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Very quickly.

BENNETT: Yes, one of these days where everything seems good for your party.

(LAUGHTER)

BENNETT: Maybe it isn't that kind of day for me.

BEGALA: Yes, I know.

BENNETT: Look, we did have a young man from Illinois with just a couple years legislative experience, did very well, did very well, was our greatest president.

And Obama looks better in a bathing suit...

(LAUGHTER)

BENNETT: ... better looking than Lincoln.

(LAUGHTER)

BENNETT: No, the guy...

BLITZER: All right.

BENNETT: ... is exciting, and he's making electricity. And that's important.

BEGALA: Yes.

BLITZER: All right, Bill Bennett, Paul Begala, thanks very much.

BENNETT: Thank you. Thank you.

BLITZER: They are part of the best political team on television. But you know that.

Up next: What happens if all falls apart in Iraq? Will Saudi Arabia and Iraq's other Sunni Arab neighbors actually move in? The former Defense Secretary William Cohen, he is standing by to join us live from the Middle East.

Plus: Are some Iraqis being forced into suicide bombing missions? Our Arwa Damon has an exclusive report on Baghdad, a powerful story. You don't want to miss it.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back.

As the Bush administration plans its way forward in Iraq, how might what happens there actually affect what happens elsewhere in the Middle East?

Joining us now from Cairo, Egypt, is our world affairs analyst, William Cohen. He's the chairman and CEO of The Cohen Group, former defense secretary of the United States.

Secretary Cohen, you have just been in -- not only in Egypt, but in Saudi Arabia. There's a lot of concern that the Saudis might actually intervene in the Anbar Province to help their fellow Sunni Arabs.

Is -- is there a real sense that you got that that is possible?

WILLIAM COHEN, CNN WORLD AFFAIRS ANALYST: I'm not sure that the Saudis would physically try to intervene by sending troops into Anbar Province. But, certainly, they could continue to send resources to those who are waging the effort, and encourage other Sunnis throughout the Gulf region to lend their assistance to the resistance of the insurgents under those circumstances.

I doubt very much whether we would see military action. They're more concerned, I think, at this point about protecting their own borders and finding a way to build a wall to prevent Iran and others, perhaps, from posing any threat to their security.

BLITZER: What's the general reaction that you found to the president's latest initiative, as far as Iraq is concerned? How are America's allies in the Arab world dealing with this?

COHEN: Well, they have expressed support for the president's initiative. But, frankly, many are skeptical that Prime Minister Maliki has the will or the ability to control the violence. And, therefore, they are very concerned about the situation spiraling out of control.

Secondly, they are unanimously in favor of moving forward on the Middle East peace plan, as Secretary Rice has indicated she intends to energize that as quickly as possible. That could serve to help change the dynamic somewhat, so that it's a positive force that's being executed by the -- by the United States and our allies, the so-called Quartet, rather than simply responding to the day-to-day violence, which has people very concerned.

So, I think, on two occasions, they want to see if Prime Minister Maliki can't gain control, with U.S. assistance, but they're very skeptical that he has the will or the ability to do so.

BLITZER: You say they -- you...

COHEN: But the Quartet and the Middle East peace plan becomes critical.

BLITZER: You say they don't have much confidence in Nouri al- Maliki. Do they seem to have confidence in President Bush?

COHEN: Well, there's doubt now, in terms of whether the president can gather the support, the political support, from the United States Congress and the American people.

It's one of the reasons I felt that the administration should have at least embraced some parts of the Baker report, and perhaps agreed to modify it somewhat, but to hold a bipartisan coalition together.

By rejecting the Baker report as it came out, everyone now is a free agent. And, so, the bidding is going up on the political side, to see who can offer the best-phrased resolution, about either putting caps on, or, in some way, altering the current strategy.

So, I think that was a failure to seize an opportunity with a bipartisan report that could have at least gained the president some time. Right now, I think everyone is a free agent, as I have indicated.

BLITZER: You mentioned the Israeli-Palestinian peace process -- Condoleezza Rice going through the motions, certainly, right now, trying to jump-start it.

But does anyone there really think that's doable?

COHEN: I think they all feel it's fundamental, that this process has to be reenergized.

As a matter of fact, I will be talking about the so-called CALME, the Campaign for American Leadership in the Middle East, the Internet petition that we have all been working on to get as many thousands of Americans who support this and to support President Bush's initiative to have a two-state solution.

It becomes more difficult at the moment, because U.S. credibility has been called into question. The Kadima Party, obviously, under Prime Minister Olmert now, is under attack. So, it's a very challenging thing. But I think that there's no doubt it has the support of all of the Gulf states, and it will have support, I believe, of the Quartet, the United Nations, Russia, Germany, and the United States.

And, so, I think it's very important that we move forward as quickly as we can, again, to -- to change the dynamic and give the perception and the reality that we want to see the -- the Palestinian- Israeli conflict resolved.

The second key point is, I believe, fundamentally, we have to go to the Chinese and the Russians to get their support to control Iran. That's also a major piece in this whole Middle East conflict. Most of the countries over here, all of them, are seriously worried that Iran is moving forward, going to spread its power as a hegemony in the region, building nuclear weapons.

They are now indicating, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and others, they may have to turn to nuclear weapons themselves. So, this is something -- it becomes important that we get control of the Iranian piece, as well as trying to bring the Iraq situation under control.

BLITZER: What a nightmare, all around.

Secretary Cohen, have a safe trip back here to Washington. We will see you back in the United States. Thanks for joining us from Cairo, Egypt.

And, coming up, we will have more on the -- and more on -- on what's going on. Political junkies are going online to get their fix. Our I-Team, including Abbi Tatton, is taking a closer look at a trend, and what it means for the race for the White House.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Politicians might want to pay more attention to the Web. A study from the Pew Research Center released only moments ago found, the number of Americans who used the Internet as their main source of news and information for the 2006 midterm elections more than doubled since 2002.

Let's turn to our Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton -- Abbi.

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, the study found that almost a third of all Americans were going online during the 2006 campaign.

And it broke down just where they were going for this information. Mainstream news sites did dominate, but, increasingly, people were looking elsewhere. Twenty percent of these campaign Internet users said they were going to blogs for information, particularly people with high levels of income or education.

The same amount cited candidate Web sites as places where they would go for their news. And 19 percent, mainly young people, said that news satire sites would they -- was where they would go for updates.

The study also looked at the relatively new phenomenon of online video and politics. Who could forget this one, Senator George Allen's macaca moment, shown here on YouTube? The study found that 25 million people watched videos like this one last cycle -- and candidates now, increasingly, paying attention to this growing audience -- 2008 presidential hopefuls now turning out increasingly sophisticated and video-heavy Web sites to try and attract this -- these people online -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Abbi, thanks for that.

We will take a quick break.

When we come back, we will tell you about a big name who is showing up in town next week for the president's State of the Union address.

We will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: A cameo appearance on Capitol Hill on our "Political Radar" today.

Look for the actor Michael J. Fox to be in the audience when President Bush gives his State of the Union address next week, in an effort to promote embryonic stem cell research. As you probably know, Michael J. Fox suffers from Parkinson's disease, and is a leading advocate of federal funding for stem cell research. He welcome be here in Washington next week.

Still to come: "The Cafferty File" -- Jack Cafferty with your e- mail. This is the question: Why should lawmakers' spouses be able to lobby Congress? Jack -- when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's check back with Jack Cafferty in New York -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: Wolf, the question is: Why should lawmakers' spouses be able to lobby Congress?

It's a concept that many of you don't seem to think makes a whole lot of sense.

Steve in Tennessee: "The only reason any congressional spouse ought to set foot on a congressional working space is to deliver a brown bag containing a sandwich or some tuna casserole, so the distinguished members have no reason to leave the chambers with work undone. Congressional spouses should be prevented from lobbying, as should former members of Congress."

T.K., Texas: "Until the American people put down their cheeseburgers, get off their fat butts, and pitch fits, like the hippies did in the '60s and '70s about the Vietnam War, then, you're going to have lawmakers that keep doing boneheaded things."

Declan, Purchase, New York: "I don't see any problem whatsoever with congressional spouses lobbying Congress. What kind of democratic country discriminates based on your family?"

Bruce in Ontario: "Forget about congressmen's wives. Why should anyone have lobbying rights? If ever there was a denial of what America is supposed to be about -- you know, democracy, one man, one vote, freedom, et cetera -- it is surely the corrupt, disgusting system of lobbying. Why not simply do away with all lobbying? Surely those guys in Congress are capable of creating laws on their own, without the cloying creeps that make up the Washington lobby. They're nothing but beggars with fat pockets, and they ought to be treated as such."

And my old buddy in Lawrence, Kansas, Al, writes this: "Give them a break, Jack. Those poor members of Congress only make $165,000 a year, with cost-of-living increases, health, retirement benefits, free travel, book deals, speaking fees, and other perks. And, on top of that, we have already made them clean out all their freezers. Surely we can't fault them for making their spouses hold an extra job in order to put food on the table" -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jack, thank you for that.

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