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THE SITUATION ROOM

President Bush Prepares to Deliver State of the Union Address; Interview With Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell

Aired January 23, 2007 - 20:00   ET

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


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: To our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM, where new pictures and information are arriving all the time.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And, standing by, we have CNN reporters across the United States and around the world to bring you tonight's top stories.

ZAHN: Happening right now: a tough assignment -- President Bush about to deliver his State of the Union address to a Congress run by Democrats and a public which has told him it has run out of patience with the war. Will Iraq overshadow new initiatives on energy and health care?

BLITZER: And Democrats, Paula, are certainly ready to respond with an instant rebuttal by an ex-Marine who is the father of a current Marine. But are Democrats ready to work with the president?

ZAHN: Well, the president's choice for commander in Iraq offers a dire assessment of the war, as the killing continuing in Baghdad. We are going to hear what the troops and their families have to say.

I'm Paula Zahn.

BLITZER: And I'm Wolf Blitzer.

And we want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

When President Bush walks into the House chamber tonight, he will also be walking a political tightrope.

ZAHN: In the balance, U.S. policy in Iraq, on immigration, on health insurance, the environment, and more -- will his words unite or further divide the new Congress and a skeptical country?

BLITZER: Let's go live to our White House correspondent, Ed Henry. He's watching all of this unfold.

Ed, I take it you have got some excerpts -- some more excerpts -- of what the president plans on saying?

ED HENRY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.

And CNN has just learned another piece of information. We're always wondering who the missing Cabinet secretary will be. They leave one Cabinet secretary away from the House chamber. In the event, God forbid, of a terrorist attack, they don't want everyone there. They want someone out there who could continue the government after the fact.

Tonight, CNN has learned it will be the attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, part of the yearly -- the annual ritual, if you will.

But, back on the substance, as you noted, we do have more excerpts. What a difference a year makes. At this time last year, the president stood before the Congress, stood before the nation, and was talking and touting progress in Iraq, holding out the possibility of troops coming home in short order, if that progress continued -- now this president talking about mistakes made, opportunities lost.

So, he's now dealing with a war that has sapped his popularity. He wants to shift the focus a bit tonight to some domestic issues. But he realizes Iraq is the elephant in the room. Aides say it will be at least about half the speech, the broader war on terror, including Iraq, say he will take a second crack tonight at selling this policy of increasing the number of U.S. troops in Iraq.

One thing, from these excerpts, the president will say is -- quote -- "Many in this chamber understand that America must not fail in Iraq, because you understand that the consequences of failure would be grievous and far-reaching."

Now, that's an argument the president has made already. It has not quite worked. A more worrisome problem for the president is the fact, though, that it is not just Democrats, like Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, opposing this plan of increasing U.S. troops in Iraq. It is now very senior Republicans, like John Warner of Virginia, who are saying they're not on board -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Ed, thank you.

Ed is going to be standing by, because we are going to get back to him.

Paula, it's very interesting. The last time an attorney general was left behind, didn't go to the State of the Union address, was back in 2003, when the then-attorney general, John Ashcroft, was the so- called designated hitter. God forbid something should happen inside. For the continuity of government, they want to make sure that someone is not inside that chamber.

So, it is always fascinating to see how they divvy this up.

ZAHN: Right. The whole evening to me, historically, is fascinating to watch.

BLITZER: Well, let's -- let -- I want to go to our senior national correspondent, John Roberts.

He's inside -- you're still inside Statuary Hall, John, right? You're getting a little flavor of the tensions, the excitement? It's building up in there?

JOHN ROBERTS, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, we're inside Statuary Hall, which, traditionally, is the place where the members of -- of Congress and the guests, dignitaries, will come through on their way to the House chamber, which is where the State of the Union is held, beginning to fill up now, as a lot of Democratic members of Congress are coming in to be interviewed.

And I will tell you, Wolf, compared to last year, the -- the tone is utterly different. You know, it's the Democrats who are out there saying what they're expecting from the president, talking about their legislative agenda. Last year, you know, they just sort of walked in through the room with their tail between their legs. And it was Republicans who were doing all of the interviews. So, it shows you what a difference one election can make.

But, according to some -- some people, some Republican faithful who I talked to, the bar is pretty high for President Bush tonight, because he really has to prove that he's not a lame duck, that he still is an effective and a relevant president.

And they say, to be able to do that, he's got to be able to throw out there some ideas that he can parlay into legislative victories by working with the Democrats.

They say, if he doesn't get anything done by the end of this year, if he continues to sort of, you know, go against the wishes of -- of -- of Congress -- and -- and, believe me, I heard from a lot of Republicans in Congress last year that the -- the White House was really kind of going it alone, wasn't really communicating with them -- if the president continues to try to go it alone, there's a chance he doesn't get anything done this year, and he probably won't get anything done, according to these Republican sources, in the year 2008, and he will, in fact, be a lame duck -- so, very important for him to get some legislative victories on the scoreboard -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, John, thanks. We are going to get back to you.

John's going to be going inside the actual House of Representatives chambers. This is a new -- first time that we were going to be allowed to do this, have a reporter actually monitor what's going on from inside.

I also want to point out, Paula, that, during the course of the next hour, we are going to see motorcades start leaving the White House, taking the president, the vice president, and their respective delegations up to Capitol Hill. We're going to be following those motorcades as they make their way up for these important events.

ZAHN: We just got a nine-second glimpse of part of that motorcade...

BLITZER: Yes, we did.

ZAHN: ... during John Roberts' report. One thing that makes this State of the Union address different from all the others President Bush has given, of course, is the audience. For the first time, as we mentioned at the top of the hour, he will be speaking to a Democratically-controlled Congress. How tough of an audience is that?

Let's go to congressional correspondent Dana Bash.

You have been talking to Democratic leaders all day long, as have I. What it is they expect?

DANA BASH, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, what they expect is, first of all, for the American people to get a glimpse, a real glimpse, a vivid look, at the changes that they put in place in November.

Remember, we're going to see for the very first time the new House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, sitting next to Vice President Cheney, behind President Bush, as he gives his address. And it also going to be the first time we are going to see some of the new faces of the new Democratic majority.

For example, they're going to have, as we have been discussing, a brand new Senator Jim Webb from Virginia, a former Republican, Vietnam veteran, who has a personal stake in Iraq, because his son is there -- he's going to be giving the formal rebuttal to the president.

I had a chance to talk to him over the past couple of days, and he said that he simply thinks that the president does not have a strategy in Iraq. And, certainly, that includes increasing the troops there.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JAMES WEBB (D), VIRGINIA: This isn't a new strategy, if we're really looking at what strategy means. It is simply a proposed adjustment. It has a political strategy behind it.

But what we have to do is to -- I think we can -- I think we can all agree on this. We have to reach the point where American combat troops are no longer on the streets of Iraq.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BASH: Now, you just heard from the Democrat you will hear more from later.

But, in many ways, the story here tonight and over the past couple of weeks is not so much the Democrats are now in control; it's the Republicans, who are increasingly and more openly frustrated, and really opposing the president, especially on this new plan in Iraq.

Get this. I spoke with one of the president's most loyal supporters here in Congress, the senator from his home state, John Cornyn. I bumped into him in the hallway. And he said that he has told the White House that they have is a big problem, in that the president simply is not a good messenger for them on the -- on the war anymore, and they have to look for another messenger.

He said that the bottom -line reality is that, when Mr. Bush addresses the Congress and the nation tonight, he said, that he is not going to be persuading a lot of people; I think that people are very much going to come in with preconceived notions -- Paula.

ZAHN: Well, I wonder who his alternative messenger would be. He didn't -- he didn't give any names on that one, did he?

BASH: He did. Very quickly, he said it's the person we also saw here on Capitol Hill today. And that is General David Petraeus. He is somebody who many Republicans, even at the White House, are hoping is going to certainly be confirmed quickly, and is going to be their main and most effective messenger when it comes to Iraq war strategy.

ZAHN: Dana, thanks so much.

Now, even those in the line of fire have very mixed reaction to President Bush's plans to send 21,000 more troops into Iraq. Many are being sent back into the line of fire. And, after four years of war, the strain is starting to show.

Let's check in with chief national correspondent John King. He's standing by in New Bern, North Carolina. That's right outside Camp Lejeune.

John, you have had the opportunity to talk with a bunch of military families. What are they telling you about the president's latest plan?

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Paula, as we continue the moment for the president, let's consider the moment for the thousands, the tens of thousands, of American troops overseas in Iraq, and their families back here in the United States.

Last year, in the State of the Union, they heard the president say he was confident that, by the end of last year, he would be bringing the troops home. Tonight, they will hear the president describe his plan, and try to sell his plan to send tens of thousands of more troops into Iraq -- Iraq, of course, the defining political debate in Washington. But, in a place like this, it is much more personal.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KING (voice-over): Their faces are young...

UNIDENTIFIED MALES: Yes, Sergeant!

KING: ... and anxious.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All right. (INAUDIBLE) to the ready. There you go.

KING: This urban counterinsurgency training at Camp Lejeune a reminder time in Iraq looms ahead. PASTOR DAVID SHIRK, U.S. NAVY: We can sit there and go: You know what? I don't deserve this. This is unfair. I hate it here.

Take care. Have a good...

KING: At Sunday services, Pastor David Shirk faces families often separated by repeat deployments.

SHIRK: There is a fatigue there. When you come back for that -- for that year, and then you get back ready to -- to go out again, I mean, there is a fatigue. And the abnormal becomes normal.

KING: Frank Hurley's daughter, Elizabeth (ph), left the Army with an honorable discharge, but then was called back to active duty and sent on a second Iraq deployment he blames on the president.

FRANK HURLEY, FATHER OF CAPTAIN HURLEY: I think he's perhaps shown that he's not the sharpest knife in the drawer when it comes to formulating methods and managing the war.

KING: North Carolina National Guard Sergeant Dan Galindo spent a year in Anbar Province, and expects he, too, will get sent to Iraq a second time.

SERGEANT DAN GALINDO, NORTH CAROLINA NATIONAL GUARD: Well, you don't want to go. I mean, I don't like being separated from my family.

KING: But Galindo, an engineer, leaves the politics of war to others.

GALINDO: I'm more familiar with how many people it takes to fix a generator than how many people it takes to fix a country.

KING: Retired Marine Colonel Jim Van Riper is more optimistic, now that the Pentagon is under new leadership, but says strategic blunders by the president and his team have left the military near the breaking point.

COLONEL JIM VAN RIPER (RET.), U.S. MARINE CORPS: It's a horrendous operational tempo. And, along with that, you have got equipment problems. These men and women now are operating at a much faster pace than we did, particularly in Vietnam or Desert Shield, Desert Storm.

KING: A pace and a test these young Marines will soon experience firsthand.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KING: And, so, it is striking, in a state like this, a place with a deep military tradition, respect for the commander in chief, a state President Bush carried in two presidential elections, to hear such open skepticism, in some cases, open criticism and opposition to the president's war plan. What do they want most, Wolf and Paula? They want to hear from the president that, finally, he has a plan that he thinks will achieve success, that will make the Iraqis come to the table and do their part, and that will finally -- finally -- allow him to say confidently that, at some point in the near future, the men and women will begin -- begin -- to come home -- Wolf and Paula.

BLITZER: You told me something fascinating earlier, John, that there's anger there among these military families at the former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Explain to our viewers what's going on.

KING: Especially among retired military officers, you pick that up, but also among people in the active-duty military.

Wolf, they are very proud. They are -- they joined the military voluntarily. Remember that. They love what they do. They view it as their job. Some of them view it as a career. They are proud of their mission. And they feel that they have not been deployed properly, if you will.

Now they speak openly. I was -- I have been here three times since the Iraq war began. People now speak much more openly about: Why didn't we have more troops on the ground at the beginning? That should have been obvious to everybody. Why have there not been more urgent, candid concessions of the mistakes and a more urgent plan to fix the mistakes?

It's much more open now, more so among the retired military community, which is very big here, than the active-duty. The active- duty people, of course, are much more careful. They like to stay out of the politics.

But, more and more, it is so open. And that is what's so striking. But it is a reflection of what we are seeing. Two-thirds of the American people think this president is off on the wrong course in Iraq. And you hear it here quite openly now.

BLITZER: John King reporting for us.

Paula, it's a pretty -- if you're a military family right now, you're worried about what's going on.

ZAHN: Yes, you could certainly hear that in that one voice of one of those fathers we heard from in John's piece.

Of course, the president's audience tonight isn't just on Capitol Hill.

BLITZER: Voters all across the nation we will be watching. And they have some very strong opinions about what the president is doing right and what he's doing wrong. We have some eye-opening poll numbers. That's coming up.

ZAHN: But next: the new leader of the Senate's new minority. We are going to hear from Senator Mitch McConnell. He will join us live from Statuary Hall.

We will also introduce you to another man who, ever so briefly, will also be in the spotlight tonight.

Lots more still ahead, as our special coverage continues -- please stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: We join you on a crisp winter night here in the nation's capital -- President Bush about to appear before a Congress controlled by Democrats. But many Republicans are now rebelling against his policies.

BLITZER: Joining us now from Capitol Hill is the -- the Senate minority leader, the Republican leader of the U.S. Senate, Mitch McConnell.

Senator, thanks very much for coming -- for coming in. I know you're getting ready for the speech, the Democratic response, like all of us.

It was interesting. You heard Dana Bash speak earlier with John Cornyn, your colleague from Texas. He's not convinced the president is doing a good job making his case on Iraq right now.

How worried are you that so many of your Republican colleagues are at least skeptical, if downright -- if down -- downright opposed, to what he's saying?

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MINORITY LEADER: Well, Wolf, let me tell you one thing that everybody seems to agree on, both Republicans and Democrats, that General Petraeus is a superb choice to lead this -- this new initiative in Baghdad.

He's very likely to be confirmed unanimously here in the Senate this week. So, everybody agrees that Petraeus is the right guy. There seems to be some difference of opinion as to whether we want to let this go forward. I think the vast majority of Republicans would like to see this be given a chance to succeed.

I think we do agree this is the last chance for the Iraqis to get it right. But we ought to give one of our finest, if not our very finest, general a chance to see if he can succeed in the next few months.

BLITZER: General Petraeus, David Petraeus, who testified today before the Senate Armed Services Committee, he's about to be confirmed, as you point out.

It's interesting. Senator Cornyn also said, he's emerging as a really effective spokesman, in effect, for the president's case. It's interesting that you point that out as well.

How much time do you think the president realistically has to see this -- this new strategy work? MCCONNELL: Well, look, it needs to work in the very near future.

We have tried other things. The American public is tired of the exercise not working out well. What they would mostly like to see is a success. The president has made a very, I think, inspired selection here in General Petraeus, one of our finest generals, if not our finest, and also an expert on counterinsurgency. And that's exactly what this situation in Baghdad calls for.

ZAHN: But it's still not clear to me how long you think it will take until the Iraqi troops can stand on their own.

MCCONNELL: Well, it's hard to put a precise time limit on it.

But let me tell you this. My view on is, this is the last chance for the Iraqis to step up, and to do it right, and to -- to carry out the lion's share of this mission.

We don't expect American troops to be on the point in all aspects of Baghdad. So, this is a time for the Iraqis to demonstrate to us that they can get it right, because I think the American people and the Congress, on a bipartisan basis, are running out of patience with the lack of commitment that we have seen by the Maliki government in Iraq.

ZAHN: So, what happens if the Iraqis don't get it right?

MCCONNELL: Well, we don't have to go there yet. We have got a chance here, with one of our great generals, to get the job done.

And I think what the American people would like to do, more than anything else, is to see the -- the effort succeed. And the definition of success is the government relatively stable and an ally in the war on terror.

We think that's achievable, under General Petraeus' leadership.

BLITZER: Let's talk about some domestic issues, Senator, that the president will raise on health insurance. In effect, what his proposal is recommending is, in order to make health insurance available to a greater number of Americans, there, in effect, will be a tax increase on several million Americans. How do you feel about that?

MCCONNELL: Well, look, high-income Americans pay more taxes than others anyway.

BLITZER: But they're not all high -- they're not all high- income. There are a lot of workers out there who happen to have excellent health insurance plans. And they -- they -- they, in effect, are going to be stuck with higher taxes as well.

MCCONNELL: Well, we will see about that.

I think the president ought to be given an opportunity to explain how he would address the problem of reducing the number of uninsured in America. I think it's an interesting proposal. He is going to lay it out tonight -- not only that. He's going to talk about finally getting an immigration bill, which really should have been done in the last Congress, and I think will be done in this Congress, and doing something significant about moving toward energy independence.

All of these are things that could and should be done on a bipartisan basis. It is important to remember that, frequently, divided government has done great things, divided government meaning the Democrats control the Congress, the Republicans control the White House, or vice versa.

Many times, in recent years, divided government has done very important things on things -- things like Social Security, welfare reform. There's no reason why this Congress can't be successful. And I think the president's going to raise the bar, challenge the Democrats to join him and do important things for our country.

ZAHN: But, with the Democrats so adamantly opposed to adding these troops in Iraq, does that eclipse -- how does that eclipse his ability to reach any consensus on some of these thorny domestic issues?

MCCONNELL: Look, the -- the Democrats said, in running for office -- and they now have the majority -- that they could accomplish things for the American people.

The only way to do that is to work with the president. So, there's a heavy burden on the Democrats to demonstrate to the American people that they can produce. The good for news for them is that the president would like to work with them to make them productive.

So, both sides here have a big stake in -- in accomplishing important things for the American people in the next two years.

BLITZER: And he's going to reach out, we're told, right at the beginning of his speech, to Nancy Pelosi, the speaker, the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid. He is going to make it clear that's going to be his goal, Senator, to try to work with the Democratic majority.

The Republican leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, Mr. Leader, thanks for coming in.

MCCONNELL: Thank you.

ZAHN: Appreciate your time.

BLITZER: And still to come tonight, we're watching all of the developments unfold. We will have first word tonight on what the president is going to be saying. Even before he enters the room, we're going to tell you about the man who is going to introduce the president of the United States.

ZAHN: And, in the audience tonight, it is all about location, location, location. We're going to follow the lines of power by checking out the almighty seating chart. It says it all, doesn't it, Wolf?

BLITZER: Where you sit says a lot about where you stand.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: And we want to welcome you back to this special edition of THE SITUATION ROOM tonight. We're looking ahead to President Bush's State of the Union address and the Democratic response.

BLITZER: The president, Paula, facing a very tough crowd tonight, a new political reality here in Washington, Democrats in control of both houses of Congress. But that won't necessarily stop him from setting out some ambitious plans.

Let's go back to our White House correspondent, Ed Henry. He's got more on what the president is planning on saying -- Ed.

HENRY: That's right, Wolf.

The motorcade is just behind me, outside the front door to the White House, the president expected to leave for Capitol Hill within about 10 minutes. You're right that, with that new political reality, the president's goal tonight is to have a thematic approach, not do a laundry list of dozens and dozens of policy initiatives, really try to zero in on a few issues on the domestic front he thinks he can pick off, work across the aisle with the Democrats, who are now in charge.

Chief among them is this new energy plan. It's known as 20-10. The president wants to cut gasoline consumption in this country by a dramatic 20 percent over the next 10 years.

In the speech tonight, according to this excerpt we have, the president will say: "For too long, our nation has been dependent on foreign oil. It is in our vital interests to diversify America's energy supply, and the way forward is through technology."

You see that phrase "way forward," the same one he has used on Iraq. He's now trying to use it on the domestic front.

But Democrats are already saying, they're not sure this really is big and bold. And, also, with a Democratic Congress, it is going to be very hard to get it through -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We're looking at one of the exits from the White House -- the president's staff beginning to get into that motorcade.

We are going to be following it, Ed, together with you -- Ed Henry reporting.

This note to our viewers: Tomorrow, right here in THE SITUATION ROOM, we are going to have an exclusive interview with the vice president of the United States, Dick Cheney -- the State of the Union one of the key times that -- the State of the Union will be one of the key subjects we will be discussing with the vice president, following up, Paula, tomorrow on the president's address tonight and the Democratic response. One of the few people, by the way, who is going to be getting a spotlight tonight will be the House sergeant at arms. He's clearly in the spotlight tonight. He's one of the -- he's the man who announces the president's arrival in the Congress.

ZAHN: He's that guy with that booming voice. You just can't get that voice out of your head.

And congressional correspondent Andrea Koppel introduces us to the man carrying on that tradition -- Andrea.

ANDREA KOPPEL, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf and Paula, one night a year, all eyes are on Bill Livingood. His role is well- scripted, and he's part of the pomp and circumstance of this evening. He's definitely one of the people you should know.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KOPPEL (voice-over): They are just eight words.

BILL LIVINGOOD, HOUSE SERGEANT AT ARMS: Mr. Speaker, the president of the United States.

KOPPEL: And at every State of the Union since 1995...

LIVINGOOD: Mr. Speaker...

KOPPEL: ... it's been Bill Livingood's job, as the House sergeant at arms, to announce the president's arrival.

LIVINGOOD: I'm in the very -- right here.

KOPPEL (on camera): I see you.

LIVINGOOD: It was the president. I -- I assume -- obviously, it was inauguration.

KOPPEL (voice-over): But Livingood spent most of his career, 33 years of it, protecting presidents as a special agent with the Secret Service. When he retired in 1995, then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich recruited him. Livingood made clear he was not political and wanted to stay out of politics.

LIVINGOOD: I like to say I'm a little mouse in the corner, observing everything going on.

KOPPEL: As sergeant at arms, Livingood spends most of his time on security, well away from public view, and won't say if he packs a weapon.

LIVINGOOD: I may at times.

KOPPEL: But, for one night a year, Livingood is front and center, and last night, when we spoke with him, was looking forward to making history when he announces to the nation:

LIVINGOOD: Madam Speaker, the president of the United States.

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KOPPEL: But, then, earlier today, the speaker decided she wanted the manager of the House Democratic cloakroom to say "Madam Speaker," but that Livingood would still introduce the president -- Bill Livingood, Paula and Wolf, one of the people you should know.

BLITZER: All right, very interesting. We're going to be watching that. It's first time we are going to have a little split read, as we say, between the -- these two individuals, who will be making history tonight.

ZAHN: Marble ceilings being pierced, traditions changing...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Something like that.

Nancy Pelosi, as speaker, she can do what she wants.

Once the president, by the way, is introduced, he'll be speaking to a very skeptical audience. And we're not only talking about the one on Capitol Hill.

ZAHN: We are talking about the voters.

Coming up, what they're telling our pollsters about Iraq, the president and the country's problems.

BLITZER: And also ahead, who's sitting where tonight? And who gets the best seats in the house?

Guess what?

We're going to show you.

Stay with us.

Our special coverage continues.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

ZAHN: Happening now, what's in and what's not in the president's speech. President Bush just moments away from his sixth State of the Union Address.

Our White House correspondent, Ed Henry, is standing by to give us all some early details.

BLITZER: Also, the missing member of the president's cabinet. In case a disaster should strike tonight, we'll take a closer look tonight at who would be running the nation.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.

ZAHN: And I'm Paula Zahn.

And you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

The last few minutes ticking away toward the president's State of the Union Address. A who's who of Washington's elite starting to gather in the House of Representatives. It, of course, is history in the making, with a Republican president facing a Democratic Congress for the first time in his administration.

So, what is he going to tell them?

Let's turn to White House correspondent Ed Henry, who has seen more of the speech -- right now you've seen, what, one tenth of it?

ED HENRY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right, Paula.

You know, it's probably going to be around 45, 50 minutes long. We're seeing chunks of it. And health care is a big one. You remember, we're hearing a lot from White House aides that they want this to be big and bold on a handful of issues.

Bill Clinton tried big and bold on health care about a decade ago, as you'll recall, when there were about 26 million people uninsured in the United States. That's almost doubled now, to 46 million. Former President Clinton's plan failed, of course, and now it's up to 46 million people uninsured. (UNINTELLIGIBLE) President Bush...

BLITZER: Wait a second.

Hold on, Ed.

We see the president and Laura Bush walking out right now. The president and the first lady will be getting in that presidential limo. They'll be making the short drive down Pennsylvania Avenue, Paula, from the White House up to Capitol Hill.

He's been rehearsing, he's been practicing. He's been going through the speech for days now, and clearly he seems ready. We interrupted Ed with -- we wanted to show our viewers the president and the first lady leaving the White House, Ed, right behind you.

HENRY: That's right, he's heading over. You know, it's probably going to take less than 10 minutes. A short drive, of course.

As I was noting, health care one of the big focuses of this speech. What the president wants that to do is to cut into the 46 million people who do not have health insurance is to make health benefits a standard tax deduction. He thinks that will encourage more people actually buy into the system, get their own health insurance. And what he's going to say tonight, in part is: "In all we do, we must remember that the best health care decisions are made not by government and insurance companies, but by patients and their doctors."

Now, Democrats, though, are jumping on this even before this speech is delivered, because they say that by making it a tax deduction, this also makes health benefits taxable income and it's going to wind up being a tax increase on many Americans -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, thanks, Ed.

Ed, stand by.

We're going to get back to you.

The president goes into tonight's speech facing some very daunting poll numbers.

ZAHN: Our CNN/"USA Today"/Gallup Poll and CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll -- that's a mouthful -- show the president with a 34 percent approval rating right now. And you can see the steady decline over the past six Januarys, from a high of 84 percent. That was back in 2002.

BLITZER: And it's gone down steadily ever since, as we can see.

Let's bring in our senior political analyst, Bill Schneider -- historically, Bill, as we take a look at these numbers, the president's got a major hurdle in front of him.

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: He certainly does. That 34 percent figure where he is right now, that is not only the lowest for President Bush, it's the lowest for any president in at least the last 50 years, going into the next to the last year of his presidency.

If a president's poll ratings go down like that, he -- it may not make much difference to him He doesn't have to face the voters again. He can't run again. But he needs allies. And he loses clout with ratings like that, because even the members of his own party start moving away from him, start abandoning his policies. He's seeing that happening right now with the Republicans on the Iraq War.

ZAHN: On to some more numbers now.

We're going to look at another CNN/Opinion Research Corporation showing -- poll showing 64 percent favor a resolution opposing a troop build-up in Iraq. The bill -- the president has also said he knows that adding troops won't be popular.

Do you think he can really ignore this level of public criticism?

SCHNEIDER: No, he really can't. Because, look, this is a populist country. The people rule here. And what that poll asked is would you like to see your member of Congress vote to oppose the president's troop build-up in Iraq?

And by two to one, they say yes.

And you know what?

Members of Congress are looking at those polls, they're listening to their constituents and they're responding to that kind of pressure and they're telling the president, you're all alone on this if they vote for any kind of resolution opposing his policy, in the end.

BLITZER: Bill, let's finally, let's take a closer look at who is winning the war on terrorism in our new CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll.

It shows that 28 percent -- 28 percent say the U.S. is winning, 54 percent say neither side is winning, 17 percent say the terrorists are actually winning.

Bill, a majority of Americans right now think the war on terror is effectively a stalemate.

Is that an inevitable battle in a stealth enemy, to a certain degree?

SCHNEIDER: Well, it may be, because it's like the cold war, it's a long protracted conflict against an elusive enemy with no discernable or decisive outcome in the foreseeable future. But, you know, the support will ebb and flow according to events.

The president said very clearly, Iraq is the central front in the war on terror.

Americans have concluded, in fact the president has said himself, he's acknowledged things in Iraq are not going so well.

So the result, obviously, is people say well, then things in the war on terror are not going so well.

That 28 percent who believe the U.S. an its allies are winning, that's the lowest figure we've seen since 9/11 for the belief that the United States is -- has the advantage in the war on terror, and it's because of Iraq.

BLITZER: Bill Schneider reporting for us.

Bill is watching all of these numbers and he always does an excellent job with that.

Paula, still ahead, who isn't in the Capitol tonight and why?

ZAHN: Ooh, this is where it gets interesting.

We have been showing you who's been tapped to fill a critical role. We are standing by for the State of the Union speech. You are going to see it live right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

You'll here more about who is missing, when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: And you're looking at these pictures right now, live pictures from Statuary Hall. You see all the members of the United States Senate. They're walking through Statuary Hall, traditionally from the Senate to the House of Representatives on the Capitol side, the House side of the Capitol.

That's Statuary Hall right now. Clearly, a lot of history, a lot of tradition. It's really a beautiful thing to watch on these occasions, Paula.

ZAHN: And in the middle of the pack, we saw some of the most outspoken voices on this war. You saw Senator Biden there, Senator Warner, for a brief moment, and...

BLITZER: They're walking in right now.

You see Senator Kennedy and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton walking in, as well. Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee, also walking in that first well. They're actually walking into the House of Representatives right now.

ZAHN: And for those...

BLITZER: Through the Statuary Hall.

ZAHN: For those of you who are following our countdown clock, we are a shade over 17 minutes away.

BLITZER: And the new speaker, Nancy Pelosi, is getting ready to receive all of these members, members of the House and members of the Senate.

We're going to continue to show you these pictures.

But, you know what?

You can't often tell the players without a score card, or, in this particular case, a seating chart.

There's a new balance of power on Capitol Hill and our Tom Foreman is here to help us sort through what is going on -- Tom.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: This is the exciting time, Wolf.

Just a moment ago, we saw the president leaving the White House over here. He's going up roughly this way to the Capitol, right over here, the Washington Monument down here, if you've been this way. This is the Mall if you've been to Washington. You have an idea of what we're talking about.

Let's move in a little bit closer and see the details here. Here's the Capitol. They're meeting down in this end of the Capitol. And let's look at this seating chart.

The president is going to be right up here in this area. When I talk about the president's -- the people who are surrounding him, here's what we're talking about.

This is the president right up here. The speaker is going to be up here with the vice president right behind him.

When the president looks to this side, he'll generally be looking toward his friends. Over here will be the leadership of the Republicans in the House and these will be all the House Republicans, all over in this area.

When he looks to the other side, he's going to be looking over here, at the leadership of the Democrats in the House. And these are all the House Democrats spread out in here.

If he wants to look at the Senate before the House, he's looking to this group right in here with their leadership right up front.

So this is all in this area. These are the Democrats in the House and Senate, the Senate up front, the House behind them.

Over here, the same thing. This is where he's going to have the members of the Senate who are the leading Democrats -- or the leading Republicans on the Senate side. Here, all the other Republicans on the Senate side for him.

If he looks over here, he'll also see support from his cabinet, seated right up front. We'll be talking more about that in a moment.

But there is the cabinet right up front, most of them. Over here, he's going to have some members of the Supreme Court right here. When he talks about Iraq, a very good chance he'll look right over in this area because these are the joint chiefs.

Generally, as a rule, if you see the president look to the left or to the right of your screen, if he's looking over here he's looking toward friends, or generally friends in Washington these days. If he looks over this way, he's looking toward the political opposition, which is to his right.

And, most importantly, don't forget this. This is the diplomatic corps all along here, all along here, world opinion matters.

The speaker's box over there, Nancy Pelosi's guest.

And over here, the friendliest faces in the House, the first lady's box.

ZAHN: So there is an incentive to spread the gaze.

FOREMAN: Oh, absolutely.

And a lot more reason to look over this way. But if he needs favors, look over that way.

BLITZER: All right, good work.

Thanks very much, Tom, for that. I want to show our viewers some live pictures. You see Senator Kerry there with Chuck Schumer right behind him. They're all walking in, Paula, into the chamber, the House chamber, right now. They're getting ready. Earlier, we already saw the vice president, Dick Cheney, and the speaker, Nancy Pelosi. They're already there. They're smiling broadly.

This is a very new development for this Congress, the first time that the Democrats are in charge.

ZAHN: We were asking Senate Majority Leader Reid earlier today what kind of instructions he has given to his fellow Democratic senators. And he told them that this is a night that everybody needs to respect the president, listen to the president very carefully.

Can I add a trivial female note here?

And that is only because the House speaker brought this up himself today.

BLITZER: You met with her earlier today?

ZAHN: We did meet with her today. And she said there has been a lot of attention paid to what the women would wear tonight. And she explained that when she got up this morning, the first time she didn't advise the Democratic Caucus to eat nails for breakfast, she said she actually ate chocolate ice cream, stained her suit, and that's why she's not in camel tonight, but in pale blue.

So she did make a wardrobe change because of a wardrobe malfunction.

BLITZER: All right, well, we're glad to get that update on that. And we'll talk about the vice president's outfit later, as well, because he's had to pay close attention to what color tie he should wear tonight. Normally he sits -- he would sit on this kind of an occasion -- or at least in years past -- next to Dennis Hastert, the former speaker.

Now it's Nancy Pelosi so he had a wardrobe change himself.

And when the president, by the way, stands before Congress, one member of his cabinet, Paula, will not be in attendance.

ZAHN: And he will be safely stashed away just in case disaster strikes.

With more on that, let's go to our senior national correspondent, John Roberts, who is stashed safely inside the House chamber at this moment with some interesting new technology we're using -- John.

JOHN ROBERTS, SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hey, good evening to you, Paula.

Good evening to you, Wolf. Yes, this is our first time inside the House chamber. And it really is a terrific vantage point. Good to see everybody milling around. Good to see who's talking to who.

By the way, Wolf, you know, on the, you know, the sartorial issue, a man could wear the same suit and the same shirt seven days a week as long as he changed his tie. That's all that anybody would ever notice.

But you talk about one of the cabinet members being away tonight. This happens every year during the State of the Union because of the preservation of the continuity of government. You know, of course, the line of succession begins with the vice president then goes to the speaker of the House, the -- the president pro-tem of the Senate and then starts to make its way through the cabinet, as well.

And please don't ask me about the order of that. But the secretary of state is somewhere near the top.

The person who will be out tonight is Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. He will not be attending, although the other members of the cabinet will be. That's so that in case something terrible were to happen here tonight, there would be one person in the line of succession who would be able to take over as president.

There's also a couple of members of Congress who are out. George Miller, Democrat of California; John Carter, Republican of Texas. They would be the legislators who would begin a new government if something terrible were to happen.

And here's a trivia quiz for you. Who is the member of the cabinet who could not sit out because they could not be president?

Paula?

Wolf?

BLITZER: The vice president.

ROBERTS: No.

Carlos Gutierrez, the secretary of commerce, born in Havana, not born in the United States, could not be president.

BLITZER: Well, maybe I missed the last part of your question.

ZAHN: Oh, he's trying to play stump the interviewer, John.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: We were clipped in that last little tidbit.

ZAHN: He would have gotten that right, John Roberts.

ROBERTS: I'm sure he would have. I'm sure he would have. BLITZER: John is inside and we're going to be going back to him. This is a whole new development right now for all of us, to actually have a reporter inside.

ZAHN: We know the president will be talking about Iraq a fair amount tonight, but now that our correspondents have gotten a look at the president's speech, we also know what he is leaving out.

BLITZER: And there could be some surprising issues that you won't be hearing the president refer to tonight. And as we await the president's arrival in the House, we'll go around the table for some free speech thoughts from the best political team in television. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: About eight minutes away from when the president will be introduced as he walks into the House of Representatives.

Welcome back to our coverage.

People in Iraq are going to be watching this. They're going to be anxious to hear what the president has to say. And, Paula, we're really fortunate to have one of our best correspondents, Michael Ware. Normally, he's in Baghdad. He's here in THE SITUATION ROOM with us tonight, watching all of this unfold.

Give us your sense, Michael -- this is probably the first time you've been in Washington for a State of the Union address, but for all of us who are interested in what's happening in Iraq, this is going to be potentially critical, this new phase in the war.

MICHAEL WARE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. And it will be interesting to see this evening how the president describes the State of the Union with regard to the war. I mean, what kind of a reference, a frame of reference is he going to give the American people for a strategy that essentially is ailing, if not failing as the poll figures show, that the people themselves are aware. America's enemies are becoming stronger, not weaker. How is the president going to address that this evening?

BLITZER: We see all these members already there. They're on the floor of the House of Representatives. This new strategy, so much of it depends on Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister of Iraq. Can he, will he deliver?

WARE: Well, what's certainly clear is that Nouri al-Maliki is perhaps the only ally the U.S. has in Iraq politically, along with his national security adviser. You know, at the end of the day, their interests, Nouri al-Maliki's interests and the security adviser's don't necessarily align with America's. Their backers are not necessarily America's. So no, you cannot count on Nouri al-Maliki. If that's the exit strategy, then America has a long, long way to go.

ZAHN: And when you hear a U.S. general say that the situation in Iraq is dire but not hopeless, do you buy that? WARE: Well, it's certainly dire. In terms of hopeless, right now I see little sign of improvement. The strategy that the president has recently unveiled and has been widely criticized is nothing more than a Band-Aid. And it fails to address the fundamental dynamics that are really driving the many wars of Iraq. It is really just window dressing. And if you want to increase troops, then really increase them. If you want to change strategy, then really change strategy. And the president is doing neither.

ZAHN: As we continue to watch senators mill around before the president's speech gets under way, let's bring Anderson Cooper into the conversation, who has spent a lot of time in the country of Afghanistan, a place where many members of our military think that the war is forgotten there. What do you think the president might say about Afghanistan tonight?

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Well, I think he's going to make passing reference to Afghanistan, referencing NATO troops and the Taliban, but he's not going to give it great amounts of attention in tonight's speech. I think that's probably going to disappoint a number of the soldiers who are currently serving there.

As you know, Paula, the attacks by Taliban forces have increased dramatically over the last several months, since Pakistan signed essentially a cease-fire deal with militants within their own territory. According to Lieutenant General Eikenberry, the top American commander in Afghanistan, attacks have tripled in the month of December alone by the Taliban.

In 2006, some 139 suicide attacks. The previous year, there had just been 27. So the situation in Afghanistan is certainly a situation. The story is still very much being written right there. And it will be interesting to see how much the president really devotes time to it tonight. I don't think from what I -- my early reading of the speech it is going to be very much.

BLITZER: We're told, Anderson, he will make references to several major foreign policy issues beyond Iraq. And there will be some reference to Afghanistan, but you're right, we'll see how much detail he goes into, this dispute between President Karzai and President Musharraf of neighboring Pakistan.

But there's another issue that is presumably going to be thunderously missing from this speech, Anderson, as we see Barack Obama on the floor.

COOPER: Yes, of course you're talking about Hurricane Katrina, you're talking about the Gulf Coast states, Mississippi and the rebuilding in New Orleans. No mention of that in this speech tonight. That is certainly going to upset a lot of people in the Gulf Coast region, who already feel that the country has moved on, that Washington has forgotten them. In the State of the Union, the president, as we've been told so far, will make no reference to New Orleans or to Mississippi, the rebuilding there. So much still needs to be done there, obviously. And we will not be hearing about that tonight from this president. BLITZER: We see the speaker and the president of the Senate announcing the escort, various escort committees that will be bringing in the various delegations. Pretty soon, we'll hear the introduction of the diplomatic corps, members of the Joint Chiefs, the Supreme Court, other distinguished guests who are being brought in.

Let's go back to Michael Ware for a moment. Michael, Iraq clearly hovering over this speech. I take it you're getting ready to head back?

WARE: Very much so. Back there on the weekend, Wolf. So, Iraq, I think, underwrites this State of the Union. No matter what's happening on the domestic political agenda, it is Iraq that dominates people's minds. Not just in the U.S. We see opinion polls, for example, in Australia, showing that Australians are going to be voting according to the war in Iraq.

So very much this hangs over everything at the moment.

And honestly, Iraq is not going well. And in fact, that's a reflection upon the entire global war on terror. President Bush has time and time again put Iraq at the centerpiece of the war on terror. Essentially, it's the gaping hole in the president's war.

ZAHN: It's a good time to bring Dana Bash back into our coverage here. She's had an opportunity to talk with not only Democratic critics of the president's policy, but an increasingly number of vocal Republican critics as well, Dana.

BASH: That's right. And it really -- it has been quite stunning to talk to Republicans in the hallways here, even to see what they're saying very publicly, in that they're really struggling, on the one hand at least the leadership, to stay loyal to this president, Paula. They understand the need to do that, because they will tell you they want to make it clear to the country that there is victory possible in Iraq.

But on the other hand, you are seeing very influential senior Republicans coming out one by one and saying that they not only oppose the president and his current -- his new plan to send more troops to Iraq, but they're going to be working starting tomorrow morning on a vote in a major committee to tell the president with a resolution that they outright oppose him. It's something that -- that we really couldn't even have imagined before the elections. But there is such fatigue, especially among the president's own party, own lawmakers here, that they really feel like they need -- their loyalties should be more to their constituents back home than even their own president.

BLITZER: Now, they're getting ready to receive some of the delegations, the diplomatic corps, among others, as they come in.

John King is watching all of this unfold.

We're also told, John, that in the half of the speech that deals with foreign policy, there will be several pointed references made to Iran and what the Bush administration sees as ominous developments coming from Iraq's neighbor.

Give us a little sense of what's happening on that front.

JOHN KING, CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, certainly, Wolf, you've heard Democrats, and even some Republicans in Congress say this past week that the president needs to know that if he thinks there needs to be a military confrontation with Iran, he'd better come back to Congress and ask for authorization.

The White House says that is not in the plans. But certainly the White House has been more and more alarmed and more and more open in saying it wants to do more to stop what it considers to be Iranian meddling inside Iraq.

But remember, it was the president in a State of the Union Address who used the term axis of evil. You will not hear that tonight from this president.

I think the biggest overriding theme tonight is that this is now a presidency of such dramatically diminished expectations. No talk of democracy spreading across the Middle East. Instead, a president trying to sell the American people on a very unpopular war in Iraq.

His major domestic initiatives, reforming Social Security and the like, now gone, Wolf. This is a president, even many Republicans are saying, is increasingly irrelevant.

BLITZER: The first lady there in the president's box with Lynne Cheney, the vice president's wife, and the respective guests that the first lady has invited to join her in watching this speech tonight.

ZAHN: One of them is a man considered a hero in New York. You can't see in this shot quite yet -- Wesley Autry, who went out on some train tracks to rescue a man who had suffered from a seizure. So he'll get a fair amount of attention tonight sitting close to the first lady.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Madam Speaker, the chief justice and associate justices of the Supreme Court.

(APPLAUSE)

BLITZER: I counted four justices of the Supreme Court, four out of nine. I don't know how many you counted, Paula. Not all of them obviously attending the president's State of the Union Address tonight.

Our White House correspondent, Ed Henry, is watching all of this unfold, as well -- Ed, the president has got a huge agenda in this speech tonight.

Let's listen as the next introduction happens right now.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Madam Speaker, the president's cabinet.

(APPLAUSE) BLITZER: As you pointed out earlier, one member of the cabinet, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, will not be here just in case something awful were to happen.

There's Condoleezza Rice, Paula, the secretary of state.

Ed Henry, come in and join this discussion.

Give us a little bit of a flavor of how the president is going to open up and reach out to Nancy Pelosi, to Harry Reid, the Democratic majority leader in the Senate, and seek to send an olive branch, hoping for some bipartisan cooperation.

HENRY: Well, Wolf, we're told that at the very top of the speech, the president will congratulate the new Democrats in office, but will also issue sort of a challenge and say look, there's been divided government before, but the nation has come together. Democrats and Republicans can do this, they've done it before.

But it is a heavy lift. As you noted, the White House has been saying in recent days, the president was hoping to keep this a little shorter and I'm told by a senior official that after the final rehearsal, the speech timed out to be about 45 minutes. That's without applause, of course.

So it's still going to creep up to right about where it was last year, at 51 minutes. That's because, as you noted a moment ago, a very heavy agenda. Iraq, of course, dominating the foreign policy. But a lot on the domestic front, as well.

But as he looks out on the crowd tonight, you can see the pictures of Obama, Clinton, a lot of presidential wannabes, a reminder for this president that his time in office -- the clock is ticking if you will, and the election season is already upon us -- Wolf.

ZAHN: And I guess -- I guess, John Roberts, that's a picture that was very clear to viewers watching, at least about four minutes ago, as the cameras were trained on the senators mingling, the run-up to the hotly contested 2008 race.

What have you seen at play on the floor tonight?

ROBERTS: Well, you know, everybody like to mingle and everybody likes to talk with everybody else. But you've got no fewer than 10 potential presidential candidates who are here tonight. And they're all going to be listening to President Bush, the way he says things, what he says.

You know, in the crowd tonight, you've got Senator Sam Brownback, Senator Chris Dodd, Representative Dennis Kucinich, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John McCain, Joe Biden, Duncan Hunter, Congressman Ron Paul, Congressman Tom Tancredo, all of whom would like to set their sights on the White House.

So, you know, while it may not be overtly played out on the floor here, with some of the glad handing and the grinning and all of that, you can bet that those people are going to be paying an awful lot of close attention to what the president says, the way he says it, because they all have to formulate their strategy for -- for the next couple of years here, or the next year and four months leading to November of 2008, to figure out how they are going to position themselves, first of all, to be the nominee, and then secondly, to win the general election.

So a lot of strategy. Everybody always thinking three steps ahead here, trying to figure out how they're going to get the edge on the other person.

BLITZER: You know, it looks a lot different inside there, John.

John Roberts is inside the House chamber tonight. This is a first for us. They're letting him report live from inside.

The president has often said that what amazes him when he starts speaking at these kinds of events is how small it is, how close in everybody is to -- to where he's speaking from, and he's not necessarily always used to that.

But give us a little flavor of what it feels like, what it's like inside as opposed to seeing it on television.

ROBERTS: Well, one of the reasons why it looks smaller, Wolf, is because it's absolutely jam-packed full of people. I came in this afternoon about 4:00 and there was but one member of Congress who was up giving a speech on the floor. And the room looked pretty vast.

I mean, don't forget, it can hold 435 members and they put in an extra 100 chairs for the senators and more chairs after that for the guests.

It would be like sort of a small intimate concert hall that's probably, oh, maybe 120 feet wide and about 60 or 70 feet deep. And there is a four row balcony on top, which is the gallery where visitors can come and watch.

You know, it's a substantial room. It's not a small place. But, then again, it's not a huge ballroom like you would see at a hotel, not a great theater. It's a theater that holds about 1,000 people. So still a fairly intimate atmosphere. And I would say, just from looking here, from the podium where the president will give his speech, it's probably a throw of about 10 or 11 feet to the front row, the first row of people there.

ZAHN: And, Dana Bash, one of the things we haven't had much time to talk about is the significance of the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, tonight, being able to announce the president. She, in remarks to reporters, including myself, who met with her earlier today, talked about how she wants to send a signal to all the young women out there in America that at last the marble ceiling is being pierced in some way.

Certainly that, I'm sure, is a sentiment you've heard from other female members of Congress. BASH: Absolutely. And, frankly, even male members of Congress. It was quite amazing when Nancy Pelosi actually took the gavel a couple of weeks ago, even pretty conservative Republicans saying how -- how remarkable it was, the kind of history she was making.

And, you know, I had a chance to talk to her today, as well. And one of the things that one of my colleagues was asking her is whether she was going to be thinking or concerned about her reaction to the president's speech because, you know, she is sort of used to -- she wasn't a member of the rank and file, but she is used to sitting among the masses that you see there, and used to standing up and cheering -- maybe not so much when the Republican president was speaking, but also maybe making it clear that she was unhappy with him...

BLITZER: Dana, hold on a second, because they're getting ready to introduce the president.

Let's listen in.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Madam Speaker, the president of the United States.

(APPLAUSE)

BLITZER: Paula, there he is, the president.

He's walking in. He's clearly smiling broadly. He's going to be reaching out to the Democrats. This is a whole new ball game as he starts his last two years in office tonight. He's got to reach out to the Democrats if he wants to accomplish anything these final two years on domestic issues, on foreign policy issues.

He knows this all too well. He also knows how politically charged the atmosphere is right now.

ZAHN: The expectation among the House leaders I spoke with today, the Democratic leaders, was that the president would attempt to reach out to them. They said, though, the true test will come down the road, when both parties are trying to cobble together any kind of consensus on the issue of health care, insurance, issues of how this country becomes less dependent on foreign oil, all of those very contentious issues that have been battled about for years.

BLITZER: And there is the president meeting some of the senators, some members of the House.

You see him walking toward the podium. He'll be introduced once again. And it's going to be also interesting this time, as opposed to years past, Nancy Pelosi will stand and applaud on certain occasions and you know what?

The vice president, Dick Cheney, might not necessarily be standing on other occasions. In the past, they've always been in tandem because the speaker was Dennis Hastert, a Republican, the president of the Senate, the vice president a Republican.

Right now we'll see what happens. It's going to be a whole new dynamic.

ZAHN: We were told as of the last revision of this speech, which I'm told came about an hour-and-a-half ago, the speech is expected to go anywhere from 45 to 50 minutes. That's without frequent interruptions of clapping that we often see during these speeches.

BLITZER: And as is the custom, he presents his speech to the speaker.

There she is, Nancy Pelosi.

Another copy to the vice president.

And the president getting ready.

Let's listen in as the applause dies down. He will be introduced and then shortly thereafter, the applause will start up once again. But let's -- let's let this moment breathe.

(APPLAUSE)

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: Members of Congress, I have the high privilege and the distinct honor of presenting to you the president of the United States.

(APPLAUSE)

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