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THE SITUATION ROOM

Alberto Gonzales Appears Before Senate Judiciary Committee; Serious Tensions Pitting Prime Minister Of Iraq Against President Bush; Many Republicans Still Skeptical Of President's Plan To Send More Troops To Iraq; Joseph Biden Interview; Some Anti-War Groups Unhappy With Senator Hillary Clinton's Stand On Iraq Accuse Her Of Sparking Bidding War For Support

Aired January 18, 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, tensions between Democrats and the Bush administration boiling over. One leading senator gets downright outraged and the attorney general feels the heat. We'll tell you which hot buttons were pressed when Alberto Gonzales appeared on Capitol Hill today.

Also this hour, is there a rift between President Bush and the Iraqi prime minister?

The White House responding to some very sharp words from Nouri al-Maliki, the man Mr. Bush is depending on to carry out his new war strategy.

I'll talk about Iraq and the backlash against a troop build-up with Senator Joe Biden of Delaware.

Plus, House Democratic leaders beat their own clock and toot their own horn. They're about to cross off the last item on their early to-do list.

But what did they really accomplish?

We'll see if there's substance behind the self-congratulations.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

First this hour, a vivid reminder that the new Democratic leaders in the Congress have plenty of bones to pick with the Bush administration.

It happened on Capitol Hill today, just a few hours ago, when the attorney general of the United States, Alberto Gonzales, appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee. That's when the questions and the fir started flying.

Let's turn to our justice correspondent, Kelli Arena -- Kelli.

KELLI ARENA, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this was the first time that the attorney general appeared before the Judiciary Committee since the Democrats took over control of Congress. And I can tell you, it was hardly a friendly reception.

Democrats pounced on several of the administration's anti-terror policies, including domestic wiretaps and the detention of terror suspects in Guantanamo Bay.

But the most heated exchange came when Judiciary Chairman Senator Patrick Leahy brought up a man named Maher Arar. Now, he's a dual Canadian and Syrian citizen and he was deported from the U.S. to Syria, where he says he was tortured. Arar was allegedly on a watch list for suspected terrorist ties. He's since been cleared by the Canadian government.

Listen to this, Wolf.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D), VERMONT: We knew damn well if he went to Canada he wouldn't be tortured. He'd be held and he'd be investigated. We also knew damn well if he went to Syria, he would be tortured. And it's beneath the dignity of this country, a country that has always been a beacon of human rights, to send somebody to another country to be tortured.

ALBERTO GONZALES, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: Before you get more upset, perhaps you should wait to receive the briefing be...

LEAHY: How long?

GONZALES: I'm hoping that we can get -- we can get you the information next week.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ARENA: Now Gonzales and other U.S. officials have said that they got assurances from Syria that Arar would not be tortured. Leahy promised Gonzales that if he didn't get the information that he wanted within the week that he promised that he would hold a hearing on the issue -- Wolf.

BLITZER: He's been cleared by the Canadian government.

But is there still suspicion in the Justice Department in the U.S. government that this individual may have had some links to terrorism?

ARENA: Yes. Actually, Senator Leahy today said that he is still on a U.S. watch list and he wanted to know why from the attorney general. But the attorney general refused to give any details about that case, at least in a public forum -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, maybe that's what he's talking about next week, they'll have a private briefing.

All right, thanks very much.

ARENA: You're welcome.

BLITZER: An extraordinary moment on Capitol Hill today.

Now there are some serious tensions developing over Iraq -- get this -- pitting the prime minister in Baghdad against the president of the United States, two supposed allies. Today, the Bush White House is on the defensive over comments, harsh comments, by Nouri al-Maliki. Al-Maliki told international journalists the situation in Iraq would not be as bad if the U.S. had done a better job of getting Iraqi security forces more and better weapons.

Let's go to our White House correspondent, Ed Henry, for more -- Ed.

ED HENRY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, one of those surreal days at the White House. You have the White House spokesman, Tony Snow, insisting it's still all sweetness and light between President Bush and Prime Minister Maliki, even though the facts on the ground, in this case, the prime minister's own words in black and white, suggest otherwise.

As you noted, Maliki telling international journalists that if only the U.S. had done a better job of getting more weapons as well as equipment to the Iraqis, there would have been less deaths of U.S. soldiers, as well as Iraqi civilians.

Maliki also expressing real frustration with comments that U.S. officials have made in recent days blasting the Iraqi government's handling of the hanging of Saddam Hussein, including Mr. Bush himself, who had said the mishandling showed that the Iraqi government needs more maturation.

Maliki said: "I understand and realize that inside the American administration, there is some kind of a crisis situation, especially after the results of the last election."

Maliki then really seemed to go off the talking points by declaring that some of these comments from U.S. officials have played into the hands of insurgents, saying: "I believe such statements give a morale boost to the terrorists and push them toward making an extra effort, making them believe they have defeated the American administration. But I can tell you, they haven't defeated the Iraqi government."

Aiding terrorists, of course, that's a charge the White House has previously hurled at Democrats. Now, they're getting hit with it from the man who's supposed to be their man in Baghdad. White House Spokesman Tony Snow brushed it all off, pointing, instead, to upbeat comments that Maliki also said he -- the prime minister vowed to find a political solution in Iraq and also touted the fact that he's started cracking down on militias, that he's got 400 militiamen in detention right now. Take a listen to Snow.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TONY SNOW, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The facts on the ground really are going to be the key determinants and what's happening here is that you're trying to create a war of words that we're just -- I'm afraid...

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: We're not creating a war of words.

SNOW: I understand that.

(CROSSTALK)

SNOW: But I also -- what I'm telling you is that you have comments from reporters and you also have actions on the ground and those are actions that we support and those -- that demonstrate real seriousness on the part of the Maliki government.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

HENRY: So what's really going on here?

What senior people say off camera is that, in large part, this is Maliki venting for a domestic political audience back in Iraq, showing that he's not the president's boy, trying to show he's his own man, just as President Bush, because of internal political pressure here in the United States from the Congress and others, has been pointing the finger at Maliki, saying he needs to step up.

That's the same thing that Maliki is trying to do.

But there's no denying the fact that as the president tries to implement this new strategy, he's putting a lot of faith in Maliki, a man who top White House officials still admit privately is an enigma at this point -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And Maliki himself saying to the "Wall Street Journal" only a few weeks ago, this is a job he never wanted, doesn't want and apparently can't wait to give up. But he's the guy who's responsible right now.

Thanks very much, Ed Henry, at the White House.

Let's get some reaction now from Baghdad to al-Maliki's latest jabs at the Bush administration.

CNN's Arwa Damon is in the Iraqi capital -- Arwa.

ARWA DAMON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we've heard this tough talk from Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in the past, in fact, as recently as the end of October, where he made a very similar statement to another news agency, again, there saying that Iraqi security forces could take control in six months if they have the training and the weapons to do so.

But there is a certain reality that exists on the ground that makes some U.S. commanders here that have worked alongside those forces very skeptical about that fact.

The Iraqis still remain very reliant on their American counterparts, not just for the American military firepower, but also for command and control; at times, even when it comes down to the most basic of operations.

In fact, a large number of Iraqi soldiers that we spoke to said that they prefer to have the Americans by their side, saying that even though a large number of them did have prior military experience, the type of battle that exists in Iraq, especially in the capital, is very different than any sort of war Iraq has fought in the past.

So for a lot of Iraqis, this tough talk from the prime minister is ringing very hollow. And they say that until that tough talk turns into action, nothing will change -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Arwa, thank you.

Arwa is in Baghdad.

Let's go to New York right now.

Jack Cafferty has The Cafferty File -- hi, Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: More good news, Wolf.

The United States could soon be sending more troops to Afghanistan. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who's in the region, says conditions on the ground are recommending a troop increase there and he's inclined to urge President Bush to go ahead with it.

He didn't talk about how many troops. One official says it wouldn't be anything close to the additional 21,500 soldiers that are being sent into Iraq.

Gates says: "There's no reason to sit back and let the Taliban regroup."

Of course, if the United States has kept its focus on toppling the Taliban and going after Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda in Afghanistan instead of invading Iraq, there probably wouldn't be any need for any more soldiers there now.

But instead, both those groups, al Qaeda and the Taliban, making a serious come back. Attacks and bombings up sharply in Afghanistan last year, not to mention the record opium crop that is helping to finance the Taliban.

Meanwhile, an editorial in "USA Today" suggests that Afghanistan, like Iraq, cannot be won through the use of military force alone. Ask the Russians. They spent seven years fighting a war there before they packed up their toys and went home. The editorial says that a solution will require skillful diplomacy and the winning of hearts and minds.

So here's the question -- should the United States send more troops to Afghanistan?

E-mail us at CaffertyFile@CNN.com or go to CNN.com/CaffertyFile -- Wolf.

BLITZER: That's what Hillary Clinton recommended yesterday upon her return from Iraq and Afghanistan. We're going to have more on that, Jack, coming up.

Thank you.

And coming up, also, fighting the president over Iraq. Top Republicans in Congress, at least several of them, are now going to new lengths to show they're against a troop build-up. We're going to tell you what CNN has learned.

And Senator Joe Biden is a leading and vocal critic of a troop increase in Iraq. I'll ask the likely presidential contender if Democrats can ever agree on how hard to push back against the president.

White House hopefuls are stepping up their battles over the build-up and is that forcing Senator Hillary Clinton to protect her left flank?

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back.

On Capitol Hill right now, there are new developments in the GOP revolt against the president's plan for a troop build-up in Iraq.

Let's turn to our Congressional correspondent, Dana Bash.

She's working her sources -- Dana, what are you picking up?

DANA BASH, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, many Republicans here are, of course, still highly skeptical of the president's plan to send more troops to Iraq. By CNN's count, eight outright oppose the president and CNN has learned some of those Republicans are now actively looking for ways to show him.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BASH (voice-over): A group of senators in the president's own party are so opposed to his strategy in Iraq, they're trying to come up with their own resolution, making that clear with a Senate vote.

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS, (R), MAINE: I think it's important that our constituents know where we stand on the president's plan. BASH: Republican Susan Collins and several other GOP senators who disagree with the president say a resolution offered Wednesday by Republican Chuck Hagel and Democratic leaders is too broad and terms like "escalate" make it too controversial.

SEN. NORMAN COLEMAN (R), MINNESOTA: The bottom line is I'm not signing onto the Hagel piece. We're looking at some other alternatives.

BASH: The fact that Minnesota's Norm Coleman and other Republicans who had supported the president on the war are searching for ways to show they now disagree with him, is the latest sign of Mr. Bush's increasing isolation, especially since the White House has been meeting with GOP lawmakers, trying to stop a revolt.

COLLINS: I think the president is hearing our concerns, but unfortunately he's not heeding our concerns.

BASH: With prodding by Bush officials, GOP leaders who still back the president may propose resolutions of support. They're hoping to get help from Democrat turned Independent, Joe Lieberman.

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN (I), CONNECTICUT: As you know, I support the president's proposals because I believe we have so much on the line in Iraq, I think those who oppose the president's ideas have an obligation, a responsibility to propose an alternative course that offers the hope of success.

BASH: Meanwhile, Democrats eyeing the White House continue to appeal to the powerful anti-war left-wing of the party, saying symbolic non-binding resolutions are not enough.

Joining Hillary Clinton and Chris Dodd, Barack Obama now wants Congress to stop the president by capping troop levels in Iraq.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), ILLINOIS: The strategy, the tactics and the mission itself have been flawed, and that's why Congress now has the duty to prevent even more mistakes and bring this war to a responsible end.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BASH: And the first forum for the Iraq debate will play out next Wednesday, the day after the State of the Union in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. There, opponents of the president's plan are going to try to pass a bipartisan, non-binding symbolic resolution that they hope to take to the Senate floor within the next couple of weeks -- Wolf.

BLITZER: The same week as the president's State of the Union Address. Probably not a coincidence.

Thanks very much, Dana, for that.

Another new poll shows most Americans oppose the idea of sending more troops to Iraq. A new Bloomberg/"Los Angeles Times" survey shows 60 percent of Americans are against a troop build-up, 36 percent support it.

Our CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll, taken last week, showed 66 percent of the public opposing the build-up.

Up next, the final tick tock of the first 100 hours.

Are the new Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives making good on their promises? And will it matter much?

And President Bush under fire from many sides, including his supposed allies. J.C. Watts and Paul Begala, they're standing by to consider the president's vulnerable position in our Strategy Session.

We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back.

This hour, the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, is hoping to portray the House under her leadership as a do something Congress. Right now, House members are moving toward a vote on an earning bill that would slap the oil industry with more fees and taxes. It's the last agenda item in the Democrats' first big push for their legislative priorities in the House.

Was the first 100 hours, as the Democrats are calling it, a success or was it merely a stunt?

Let's check in with our Congressional correspondent, Andrea Koppel -- Andrea.

ANDREA KOPPEL, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it was definitely a success, although it certainly wasn't a surprise. Speaker Pelosi carefully selected the top seven legislative issues that she put on the fast track. She blocked Republicans from offering amendments, refused to allow them to discuss these issues in committee.

But just because these bills sailed through the House doesn't mean it'll be smooth sailing through the Senate.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: The bill is passed.

KOPPEL (voice-over): Day after day, issue after issue...

PELOSI: The yeas are 253.

KOPPEL: House Democrats made good on core campaign promises, in some cases with dozens of Republicans on board.

But over in the Senate, it's a different story. SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER (D), NEW YORK: The good ethics train was moving swiftly right down the tracks until the Republicans stopped it, putting the line item veto log in its path.

KOPPEL: Senate Democrats accuse Republicans of trying to derail the Senate's first piece of legislation, a bill to tighten Congressional ethics rules and reduce the influence of lobbyists. That's because Republicans refused to support it unless it includes a vote on an unrelated issue -- giving President Bush the equivalent of a line item veto.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MINORITY LEADER: We're not here to -- to thwart a good piece of legislation like the lobby bill, but we will insist on having our votes.

KOPPEL: That doesn't bode well for other legislation, which the House has already overwhelming approved during the last two weeks, like a bill to require the federal government to negotiate lower prices for prescription drugs for seniors.

Iowa Republican Charles Grassley has threatened a filibuster.

SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY (R), INDIANA: Having the government negotiate drug prices for Medicare might be a good sound bite, but it's not sound policy.

KOPPEL: While another bill to boost the minimum wage for the first time in a decade, will likely include a tax cut for small businesses, something House Democrats had strongly opposed. But because Democrats hold a slim, one seat majority in the Senate, a senior Democrat there says the cuts are needed to secure Republican support.

SEN. MAX BAUCUS (D), MONTANA: First of all, it helps small business. But under the Senate rules, it's almost necessary in order to get the minimum wage passed, because we need 60 votes in the Senate to get minimum wage and I don't think there's 60 senators who will vote for minimum wage only.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KOPPEL: Now, Wolf, CNN has just learned, according to one of our colleagues, Congressional producer Ted Barrett, that leadership aides in both parties in the Senate are telling us they are now close to a deal on the ethics bill. What they would do is take off that so- called line item veto amendment, allow the ethics bill to go to an up or down vote and then attach it to the minimum wage bill, which is supposed to come to the Senate next week -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Well, we also know that all of these six legislative priorities from the Democrats on the House side, they may have sailed through the House, but they still have major hurdles, as we heard in your report, in the Senate.

And then the president has to sign it into law. He could veto some of this if he doesn't like it. So there's still a long way to go.

KOPPEL: There is, Wolf. And certainly on the one that we just saw on the screen there about expanding federal funding for stem cell research, that is one we know that President Bush, if it goes through the Senate, is sure to veto. Remember, that was the one veto that he exercised last year, the only one of his presidency.

BLITZER: Andrea Koppel keeping them honest up on the Hill up there.

Thanks very much for that, Andrea.

And as you saw earlier, not only Andrea, but Dana Bash, 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.

Up next, Democrats against the troop build-up and sparring with one another over what to do specifically about it. I'll ask senator and likely presidential candidate Joe Biden about the divisions, the build-up and the race to 2008.

That's coming up.

And you saw it in THE SITUATION ROOM a short while ago -- fireworks between the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman and the attorney general of the United States.

What do Paul Begala and J.C. Watts make of this extraordinary exchange?

You'll find out 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, are two allies at odds?

There are words and responses between Iraq's prime minister and the Bush administration. This after Nouri al-Maliki suggests things the U.S. could do to make Iraq better off. I'll talk about Iraq with Democratic Senator and likely presidential candidate Joe Biden.

Also, neither is officially a presidential candidate, but is one Democratic presidential prospect feeling the heat for her Iraq War stance from others in her own party who might also be running for president?

Our Mary Snow standing by with a report.

And nightmarish thoughts that are among a parent's worst fears -- the parents of the 15-year-old Missouri kidnapping victim, who was held captive over four years, speaking out. We're going to tell you their chilling thoughts regarding what they think happened to their son.

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

We want to talk a little bit more now about one of our top stories.

Would Iraqi troops be better off by now if they were better armed and better equipped by the United States?

That's precisely what the prime minister of Iraq, Nouri al- Maliki, is suggesting.

So that certainly has the White House on the defensive right now, just as President Bush is sending more American troops to Iraq, a plan that my next guest opposes.

Joe Biden is the Democratic senator and a likely presidential candidate.

He's also the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Mr. Chairman, thanks very much for coming in.

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN (D-DE), SENATE FOREIGN RELATIONS COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: Happy to be with you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Let's talk about this Nouri al-Maliki statement -- very harsh, blaming, in effect, the United States for the lack of progress in dealing with the security situation in his own country -- this after almost four years of U.S. involvement in blood and treasure.

What do you make of this?

BIDEN: What I make of it is, he strongly opposes the president's plan to escalate the war in his own country in Baghdad.

Yet, we were told by the secretary of state, coming up, testifying before us in my committee, just last week, which you covered, Wolf, saying that, no, no, the Maliki government is there, and the Iraqi forces are going to be there to help us do this, when, in fact, it's clear -- it's clear -- that there is overwhelming opposition to the president's plan by the very people we're going to rely on, as we send our soldiers door to door in a city of six million people -- more than six million people -- in the midst a civil war.

BLITZER: I think what it shows is, he wants a free hand to do what he wants to do...

BIDEN: Exactly right.

BLITZER: ... and doesn't want the burden of having to deal nicely, if you will, with a lot of Sunnis in Iraq.

BIDEN: That's exactly right.

BLITZER: He's a Shiite leader. He wants equipment. He wants money from the United States, but he doesn't want to be dictated by the United States.

BIDEN: Exactly right.

But think what that says, Wolf. It reinforces the point that this is a sectarian war, and it reinforces the point that it is folly for the president to send 17,500 Americans into a country -- into city of over six million people, on the promise that he's going to get support from Iraqi forces.

Our military guys and the secretary acknowledges that, if the Iraqis do not help in this mission, and -- quote -- as she said, "lead" the mission, then there's no possibility of succeeding. So, what are we going to do? Send these young men and women into a meat grinder here?

What we should be doing is the opposite. We should be letting Maliki know that he's not going to get our help, if he doesn't straighten out and have a political solution here. And that is why the Iraqi Study Group, why Joe Biden, why Les Gelb, why everyone across the board, including the president's own generals, have said: Mr. President, we should be telling them we're going to be ramping down, not ramping up, because he cannot count on us to, in fact, be the fodder for his civil war. He has to make some political compromises.

BLITZER: The -- last week, you said something very direct.

You said that the only way the president is going to budge and change his position is if enough Republicans, members of his own party, stand up and express their strong opinion. Well, a lot of Republicans are doing exactly that. But he's not budging.

Did you miscalculate in that...

BIDEN: No.

BLITZER: ... in that thinking?

BIDEN: No. I think we just started. We just started.

I know that the Republican leadership is surprised that the Biden-Hagel resolution was able to get two leading Republicans to sign onto it, and with -- along with Senator Levin, who drafted it with us, number one.

Number two, I think they're going to be surprised when we vote it out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. And evidence of the fact that they are worried about it, the word right now is -- and I don't know this for a fact -- is, the Republican leadership is talking about filibustering the ability to vote on this.

BLITZER: That's what the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, told me on Sunday.

BIDEN: Right.

BLITZER: This is an important statement.

BIDEN: Right.

BLITZER: And you need 60 votes. Will you have 60 votes to break that filibuster?

BIDEN: I -- the answer is, I don't know whether we will have 60 votes to break it.

But think of what the statement says, Wolf -- a sitting president, with the opposition of every major political -- every major -- almost every major military leader, leaders in his own party, two former Republican secretaries of state, former secretaries of defense, all of them telling him: Mr. President, don't do what you're about to do.

And, then, on top of that, you come along, and you have a bipartisan resolution saying, don't do it, Mr. President, and there's -- they have got to filibuster it to stop it?

BLITZER: What is wrong with Russ Feingold's recommendation; you simply use the power of the purse, which the Constitution gives the legislative branch of the U.S. government...

BIDEN: Nothing.

BLITZER: ... to stop funding this war?

BIDEN: Nothing wrong with it.

The question is, can that be done quickly? And the answer is probably not. We have a constitutional right to do that. I have drafted a resolution, which I will be introducing later, a law that says: Look, you have no authority to go to war in Iran, Mr. President, like you seem to be intimating you do, nor into Syria.

In addition to that, we have the power to -- and I'm working on a resolution that will say, the authorization for use of force that we gave you three-and-a-half years ago is no longer valid. There's a new authorization to use, and here are the limitations on your use.

There are constitutional ways to do...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: What about Hillary Clinton, Chris Dodd, Barack Obama? They want a cap on how many troops could be serving in Iraq. Do you think that's a good idea?

BIDEN: In principle, it's a good idea, but, in practice, it may be difficult. Let me explain what I mean by that, Wolf.

If you talk to the Pentagon, you talk to people who know how the military works, we have thousands of troops outside of Iraq, over the horizon, in case our troops get in trouble. What happens if there is a real problem? Does that limit the president being able to surge troops in to rescue American troops, number one?

Number two, the way this works, Wolf, is that there is always a movement, in terms of when we ramped up troops. That is, you extend troops who are there, while new troops are coming in. There is almost always an overlap. Then, the number comes down. It gets pretty dicey figuring out how to micromanage that.

I think the easier way to do this -- will be politically harder -- is to reauthorize and, with significant limitation, on what authority the president has in Iraq, period, period -- in other words, a new authorization...

BLITZER: All right.

BIDEN: ... for the use of force.

BLITZER: I'm going to let you go.

BIDEN: But that's down the road.

BLITZER: I'm going to let you go -- one final political question.

Are you going to be at our presidential debate in New Hampshire in early April? CNN and WMUR TV, "The New Hampshire Union Leader," we're co-sponsoring a Democratic and a Republican debate among presidential prospects.

Do you plan on attending?

BIDEN: That's my intention. I don't know what's going to be going on in the Senate that day. And let me -- the only thing that would keep me away would be something like a debate on Iraq in the midst of a debate up there.

But it's my intention to participate in as many of these debates as I can, Wolf. And I think particularly one sponsored by, you know, two major institutions would be a very, very good thing to do.

BLITZER: Three -- actually, three, CNN, "The New Hampshire..."

BIDEN: Three. I'm sorry. I'm sorry.

BLITZER: ... "Union Leader," and WMUR TV in Manchester.

BIDEN: Yes. No...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: You're going to make the formal announcement when?

BIDEN: Well, I'm going to set up a committee, hopefully, by the end of this month. We're just doing the mechanics of it.

And -- but, in terms of the sort of fly-around, where you have large crowds, and announce, and all that, I probably won't do that until a little bit later. But I will be making it clear. I am running and setting up a Biden for president committee, not exploratory, flat Biden for president, and trying to raise the funds to be able to compete, which I think I can do.

BLITZER: Senator, thanks very much for coming into THE SITUATION ROOM.

BIDEN: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Joe Biden joining us.

And coming up: our "Strategy Session." House Democrats are on the cusp of wrapping up their 100-hour agenda, but their colleagues in the Senate are no rush to follow the House's lead. So, what, if anything, did they actually accomplish?

Plus: much more on the give-and-take between the Republicans and the president's plan to send more U.S. forces into Iraq. But will any of it have any bearing on the president's policy? Paul Begala and J.C. Watts standing by live in our "Strategy Session" -- right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back.

In today's "Strategy Session": The Bush administration reverses itself regarding the domestic surveillance program. And, today, a Democratic senator blasts the attorney general of the United States. Is the White House losing its focus?

Joining us now are two CNN political analysts. Paul Begala is a Democratic strategist. J.C. Watts is a former Republican congressman from Oklahoma.

Guys, thanks very much for coming in.

Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, minced no words in hammering the Alberto Gonzales, the attorney general, today.

Listen to this little clip.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D-VT), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: In the 32 years since I first came to the Senate -- and that was during the era of Watergate and Vietnam -- I have never seen a time when our Constitution and fundamental rights as Americans were more threatened, unfortunately, by our own government.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: J.C., this comes a day after the administration reversed itself, and said, after all, you know what? The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, FISA, should be in charge of these warrantless wiretaps. J.C. WATTS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, Wolf, there we go again.

I don't understand that. I mean, why do that if -- you know, you have spent all the political capital...

BLITZER: For two years.

(CROSSTALK)

WATTS: ... for two years, defending your principles, which I think they were right, by the way. And the reason I think they were right, if you have got chuck roast making calls to Osama bin Laden from the United States of America, why shouldn't we know about that?

I mean, I think that's a legitimate claim. And, so, now, we're saying, no, no, no. We don't believe that FISA will...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Well, they say they say they still want to know about those phone calls, but they have to go to this FISA court first to get permission to eavesdrop.

WATTS: Well, I think, even if that's the claim, why not do that at the outset?

BLITZER: That's what Democrats were arguing, a lot of them, at least, from day one.

(CROSSTALK)

WATTS: That's what the Democrats are arguing.

But, Wolf, I think they had that authority, minus, you know, this FISA court that was set up. I think they had that authority from the outset.

BLITZER: What do you think?

WATTS: The bad guy is the bad guy.

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, the bad guy used to be King George III. And the -- the guys who started this country decided that we weren't going to act like King George III, the tyrannical dictator of the British empire that we broke away from.

And, so, we set up a Constitution, we, the people. And it has a Fourth Amendment in it. And it protects American citizens from the government spying on us without a warrant. And the government has to wiretap every phone call of every known or suspected terrorist. They better do that. That's their job. That's what we're paying them to do.

But they have to go to a court. Now, this is a stunning reversal, and it's an important one. But it is only because the Democrats won the election. President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and the rest of that team understand one thing, and that is power. And they exercised unchecked power, and trampled the Constitution.

And thank God for Pat Leahy, who is a very mild-mannered guy. He's a real -- you know, he is a Grateful Dead fan. He is not a hot- tempered guy in the U.S. Senate. But he lost his temper today, because he loves the Constitution so much.

BLITZER: Well, Dick Cheney once lost his temper in an exchange with Patrick Leahy, too.

BEGALA: In fact, with Pat Leahy...

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: ... dropped that old F-bomb right on...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: ... as you might remember.

(LAUGHTER)

WATTS: It just means they bring out the worst in each other. That's...

BLITZER: Let's talk about the first 100 hours, legislative hours, of the Democratic agenda in the House. You used to serve in the House.

I think a lot of people are saying may not go anywhere in the Senate. The president might not sign it all into law, but it's pretty impressive, the way Nancy Pelosi got these six initiatives through, what, in 40 hours or so of official business.

WATTS: Well, and I don't know what was so impressive about that, Wolf.

I just -- I think it was smart. It was good politics on the part of the Democrats. I thought it was a good strategy. Again, as I have said on this show before, I thought they made a huge mistake by not allowing the Republicans to have a say, take these things to a committee, let them be fleshed out.

They didn't do that. I think they hurt themselves by not doing that and saying, we were going to be different. But I think it was good politics. You know, three weeks from now, nobody will remember how it was processed through the House. They will remember that those things were passed. Now they got to -- got to get it done in the Senate.

BLITZER: What do you think?

BEGALA: Well, I think Nancy Pelosi has done an astonishing thing. You know, when Newt Gingrich came in, the period between when he... BLITZER: In '94.

BEGALA: In 1994. And I was working for President Clinton.

WATTS: Contract With America.

BEGALA: He had the Contract With America.

But the period from the time he had won the election to the time they passed the contract, which had many very good things in it, a lot of important reforms, actually, he made himself a desperately unpopular figure in America.

Now, I helped, people like me, who were attacking him. But he was a very polarizing figure. He was a very grandiose figure. He was a very -- seemed to be very sort of hostile and aggressive. Nancy Pelosi is passing her agenda. And she is showing America that she is somebody who is willing to shake up the establishment in Washington. She's very high in the polls, where Newt was already dropping.

And she's passing real things that affect people's lives. I mean, 5.6 million people are going to get a pay raise, if the Republicans in the Senate will -- and the president will sign a minimum-wage increase. You know, millions of seniors will pay less for their prescription drugs.

BLITZER: The president says he will sign it, but he wants other things added in the Senate, in the final version that comes to him, as you well know.

WATTS: That's right. Those 5.6 million people that would get a payroll, we have got senators saying, let's give those small businesses a way to pay for that.

Stem cell research, there's an argument there you can get just as much good out of adult stem cell as you can stem cell, you know, with...

BLITZER: Amniotic fluid.

BEGALA: That's a good point.

(CROSSTALK)

WATTS: Amniotic stem cells.

So...

BEGALA: The hard one for Mr. Bush, though, will be...

WATTS: ... I mean, those discussion -- that discussion will be had fully in the Senate.

BEGALA: The hard one will be the one the House passed today, the hard one for President Bush.

BLITZER: The energy.

BEGALA: He's -- it's a -- it takes corporations, like ExxonMobil and other oil companies, and it kicks them off the welfare rolls.

You know, 10 years ago -- and J.C. was an important part of this -- the Republican Congress passed welfare reform to kick human beings off of the dole who had been on there too long.

WATTS: But why cut...

BEGALA: Exxon and the other oil companies make -- have greater revenues than the whole kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and, yet, they get tax subsidies from the American people.

WATTS: Why...

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: It's unconscionable that Rex Tillerson, the CEO of Exxon...

BLITZER: Very quickly. We're out of time.

BEGALA: They're welfare queens.

WATTS: See, I think that's disingenuous.

BEGALA: They're welfare queens.

WATTS: Why target just the energy business?

BEGALA: Because they make billions.

(CROSSTALK)

WATTS: I can show you a whole -- I can show you a whole bunch of welfare queens...

BLITZER: All right. OK.

BEGALA: Good.

WATTS: ... welfare queens in the...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Next time...

BEGALA: Let's go, man.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: ... because we're out of time right now.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Guys, thanks very much.

BEGALA: They're a bunch of queens.

BLITZER: Paul Begala...

BEGALA: I like saying that.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: ... and J.C. Watts, they are part of the best political team on television.

Up next: Senator Clinton wants to cap the number of troops in Iraq. Has the potential 2008 presidential candidate gotten the message from the left on the war in Iraq? Mary Snow has a special report -- all that coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Carol Costello standing by in New York with a closer look at some other important stories making news.

Hi, Carol.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: Hi, Wolf.

Hello to all of you.

A new Pentagon manual details rules for handling the trials for terror detainees. The rules would allow convictions based on hearsay evidence, even coerced testimony. They would also allow the death penalty. But the soon-to-be-released manual would not allow statements -- statements -- obtained by torture.

Also, the price of oil has dropped below $50 a barrel for the first time since May of 2005 -- this after a large increase in crude oil inventories. In the meantime, Fed Chair Ben Bernanke is warning of economic damage from budgets strains. Today, Bernanke told a congressional committee that, if it doesn't act on Social Security and Medicare reform, the U.S. economy could be -- quote -- "seriously weakened."

And why would a water bottle be modified to contain a secret compartment? And why would it smell like marijuana? Well, today, that is what Miami police want to know. It's a situation involving Michael Vick of the Atlanta Falcons.

Yesterday, a police report says he reluctantly threw away a 20- ounce bottle at an airport checkpoint before boarding his plain. When suspicious officials examined the bottle, they say it had a secret compartment, and it smelled like marijuana. Police are now testing it. Vick has not publicly commented. And no charges have been filed.

So, the mystery continues -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Carol, thank you for that. And this sad note: a farewell today to Pulitzer Prize-winning humorist and columnist Art Buchwald, who prided himself on making fun of power players right here in the nation's capital. Art died last night at his home here in Washington, D.C.

He was expected to die of kidney failure many months ago. Instead, he cheated death and spent his final days trading quips and embraces with old friends and family. Art began poking fun at Washington back in 1962, after chronicling nightlife in post-war Paris.

Senator Ted Kennedy is remembering Art Buchwald as the -- quote -- "Mark Twain" of our time. Art Buchwald was 81 years old.

He was a good friend, a very, very good journalist, a decent guy. And our deepest condolences to his family.

On our "Political Radar" this Thursday: new snapshots of the titanic clashes that may be ahead in the race for the White House. A new poll for "The Hotline" shows both Senator John McCain and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani would beat the two likely Democratic presidential front-runners, namely Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

The survey actually shows Obama trailing McCain and Giuliani by a slightly smaller margin than Clinton. A bright spot for one Democrat in the survey, it shows former Senator John Edwards a point ahead of Giuliani in a hypothetical 2008 matchup. But Edwards trails McCain by 10 points in that poll.

An unlikely show of support for Barack Obama's presidential -- possible presidential bid -- a gun-rights advocate in Obama's home state of Illinois reportedly is talking about forming a group, Sportsmen For Obama. "The Chicago Tribune" quotes a former state representative who served with Obama as saying, the Democratic presidential prospect -- quote -- "would never do anything to hurt hunters."

And, remember, for the latest political news at any time, check out our Political Ticker at CNN.com/ticker.

In the early race for the White House, some anti-war groups who haven't been happy with Senator Hillary Clinton's stand on Iraq now are accusing her of sparking a bidding war for their support.

Let's turn to CNN's Mary Snow. She's in New York with the latest -- Mary.

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, anti-war activists are reading Senator Clinton's latest war stance as a response to political pressure from the left and Democrats unhappy with her support of the Iraq war. And they are welcoming more pressure from 2008 hopefuls.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SNOW (voice-over): One day after Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton called for a cap on U.S. troop numbers in Iraq, the man who may be her main rival for the Democrats' presidential nomination also spoke out against an escalation of troops.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), ILLINOIS: I want to emphasize that I'm not unique in taking this approach. I know that Senator Dodd has crafted similar legislation. Senator Clinton, I believe, yesterday, indicated she shared similar views.

SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D), NEW YORK: We should be beginning a phased redeployment of U.S. troops.

SNOW: Senator Clinton's comments also brought some support from an unlikely source.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... guest would suspend for the...

SNOW: Code Pink, the vocal anti-war group, is toning down some of its criticism of Senator Clinton, whom it has called a hawk on the war. But it's not giving her the credit.

MEDEA BENJAMIN, CO-FOUNDER, CODE PINK: The peace movement is delighted that Barack Obama got into the race, and that it is pushing Hillary Clinton. But I think John Edwards is doing that even more.

JOHN EDWARDS (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I voted for this war, and I was wrong.

SNOW: But, unlike former U.S. Senator John Edwards, Senator Clinton has not apologized for her vote.

And, as for Senator Obama, he was not even in the Senate at the time. Will the past matter much in 2008?

DOUG HATTAWAY, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: I don't think there are that many voters in the Democratic primary who are going to be wringing their hands over who said what, when, several years ago about Iraq, but who is going to move us forward on Iraq.

SNOW: Some anti-war groups say there will be payoff for the Democrat who stands up to President Bush's plan.

TOM MATZZIE, WASHINGTON DIRECTOR, MOVEON.ORG: I think the reward is the support of millions of Americans around the country. You know, this is the top issue for Democratic voters.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SNOW: Some Democratic strategists say, the debate over Iraq has shifted to tactics on how to get out of Iraq, rather than the fundamental principles of whether the U.S. should be there -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you very much, Mary Snow, reporting.

Up next: "The Cafferty File." Should the U.S. send more troops to Afghanistan? Jack with your e-mail -- when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Check back with Jack Cafferty for "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, the question this hour is: Should the U.S. send more troops to Afghanistan? The new secretary of defense, Gates, thinks that we need some more soldiers there.

Art in Fort Collins, Colorado, writes: "Absolutely. The U.S. needs to redeploy troops out of Iraq, and try to correct the mistake of removing them from Afghanistan in the first place. Doing so at this time is crucial, if the U.S. is to achieve any success in suppressing al Qaeda and the Taliban, who are making a remarkable resurgence in the region."

Jim in Cleveland: "I seem to remember President Bush vowing to hunt the terrorists down wherever they're hiding. So, shouldn't we be going cave to cave in Afghanistan and Pakistan right now, instead of riding around the streets of Baghdad, waiting to be blown up by sectarian insurgents?

Peter, Forked River, New Jersey: "Yes, the U.S. ought to send more troops to Afghanistan. They should send the 20,000 troops President Bush has committed to Iraq. Send them to Afghanistan. They should also redeploy most of the troops in Iraq. Send them to Afghanistan, where they should have been all along, so we can get bin Laden."

Steve writes: "Until the do-nothing politicians get out of the way and allow the military to actually prosecute a war, sending troops anywhere is a waste of time. Remember the famous Shock and Awe campaign? Turned out everyone is shocked at how much it cost and awed that we're still spending time and money there. We need a 'Give 'Em Hell' Harry Truman in the White House again, one who isn't afraid to take down entire cities to end the violence and bring the fanatics to their knees."

And D. writes from Columbia, Missouri: "Jack, if President Bush sends more troops to Afghanistan, where is he going to get the troops for the war he wants in Iran?"

It never ends -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jack, thank you.

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