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THE SITUATION ROOM
Bush Offers to Meet With Congressional Leaders to Discuss Iraq Spending Bill; House Judiciary Subpoenas Justice Department's Records
Aired April 10, 2007 - 16:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, HOST: Happening right now, President Bush reaching out to Democrats with one hand and jabbing them with another.
Is there any new room for compromise in the fight over Iraq War funding?
Also this hour, the Justice Department slapped with a subpoena. We're going to tell you what House Democrats hope to get from the attorney general as he fights to keep his job.
And the women insulted by suspended radio host Don Imus fire back. They're calling his remarks deplorable and racist.
What will they say to him face-to-face?
I'm Wolf Blitzer.
You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
President Bush is playing both good cop and bad cop today in his face-off with Democrats over Iraq war funding. He's now offering to meet with Congressional leaders from both parties next week. But he also got in a dig at the Democrats' push for a troop withdrawal deadline.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: In both the House and the Senate, majorities have passed bills that substitute the judgment of politicians in Washington for the judgment of our commanders on the ground.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MAJORITY LEADER: The president has put our troops in the middle of a civil war. This was never supposed to be the mission, the mission of Iraq. We must fight a more effective war on terror -- that's what Congress is demanding and the president should be leading us in that direction, not threatening vetoes.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Let's bring in our White House correspondent, Ed Henry -- Ed, is there any room for a compromise here between these two positions?
ED HENRY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, both sides digging in. Neither side budging a single inch.
(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)
HENRY (voice-over): Even as the president suggested he was offering Democrats an olive branch, he blasted away.
BUSH: We are at war. It is irresponsible for the Democratic leadership in the Congress to delay for months on end while our troops in combat are waiting for the funds they need to succeed.
HENRY: Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid took the unusual step of quoting Pope Benedict XVI to fire back.
REID: Things are not OK in Iraq. As the pope said on Easter Sunday, a slaughter is taking place in Iraq. The pope further said nothing good is coming from Iraq. The president must realize that. He has to deal with Congress. We are an independent branch of this government and by our constitution, we have equal say that he has.
HENRY: Despite the escalation in the war of words, Mr. Bush suggested to the American Legion he's still hopeful of finding common ground by inviting leaders of both parties over to the White House next week.
BUSH: We can discuss the way forward on a bill that is a clean bill, a bill that funds our troops without artificial timetables for withdrawal and without handcuffing our generals on the ground.
HENRY: Senator Reid quickly dismissed that as disingenuous.
REID: The president is inviting us down to the White House with preconditions. That's not the way things should operate.
HENRY: Indeed, White House Spokeswoman Dana Perino suggested the president has no plans to give in at all.
DANA PERINO, DEPUTY WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: This is not a meeting in order to compromise. This is a meeting to discuss the way forward, because the Democrats have to admit that they don't have the votes to override the president's veto.
(END VIDEO TAPE)
HENRY: In fact, Dana Perino repeatedly said she would not negotiate from that podium, so they're not really laying out anywhere where the White House would give in -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Democrats insist they have no preconditions.
Is that the case, Ed?
HENRY: Well, not exactly, because you're absolutely right. They keep saying publicly they have no preconditions, while the president does. But I just pressed a senior Democratic aide on that point. I said but don't you want to keep that legislation in there to pull out U.S. troops?
This aide finally said, well, look, at the end of all of this there needs to be something in there to change the course in Iraq.
Well, what's changing the course?
To Democrats, that's pulling out troops.
So they say they don't have a proceeded, but the fact is they do. They want to withdraw U.S. troops -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Ed Henry at the White House.
President Bush is warning that the clock is ticking in the standoff over Iraq War dollars. It was back on February 5th of this year that the president first submitted his request for additional funding. Over a month later, on March 23rd, the House narrowly approved its version of the war spending bill. And six days later, on March 29th, the Senate version passed in a squeaker vote.
The president is vowing to veto both bills because they include troop withdrawal deadlines. Mr. Bush is warning if funding isn't finalized by April 15th -- April 15th -- U.S. forces will start to feel the pinch. But a non-partisan Congressional study found the Pentagon could make due with current funding through July without any significant -- significant disruptions.
In Iraq today, more than 30 people were killed in bombings, mortar fire and raids across the country. A female suicide bomber targeted police recruits in the Diyala Province, killing 13 people. Four Iraqi troops were killed in a raging daylong battle in central Baghdad. And the U.S. military reports another four troop deaths yesterday -- 3,291 U.S. servicemen and women have died in Iraq since the war began.
Other news we're following, over at the Justice Department right now, there's even more heat on the attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, in the form of a subpoena. It was issued today by the House Judiciary Committee in its investigation of the firing of those eight federal prosecutors.
Let's bring in our Congressional correspondent, Andrea Koppel.
She's joining us now from the Hill -- so what are they looking for, these members of the House Judiciary Committee -- Andrea.
ANDREA KOPPEL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: They're looking for a couple of things, Wolf.
They're looking for all the unredacted sections from about 3,000 pages of documents that have already been delivered to Congress, as well as about 1,000 pages of new documents that they have as yet to receive, or at least have an opportunity to review.
Now, according to a letter written by the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, John Conyers, who issued that subpoena today, he wrote this letter to Attorney General Gonzales, saying: "Unfortunately, the Department has not indicated any meaningful willingness to find a way to meet our legitimate needs. And at this point, further delay in receiving these materials will not serve any constructive purpose."
Now, among the documents that are being subpoenaed by the House Judiciary Committee, they would include all those relating to the termination of those eight U.S. attorneys, an unredacted list relating to the ranking of the performance of all of the 93 U.S. attorneys, as well as all communications between anyone at the Department of Justice and here on Capitol Hill, any members of Congress, relating to the performance and the -- the performance of those U.S. attorneys. That would be in advance of their termination. And, finally, all communications between DOJ and any of the terminated U.S. attorneys regarding any failure in their performance.
Now, according to Congressman Conyers, Wolf, he wants all of these documents here on Capitol Hill by next Monday at 2:00 p.m.
BLITZER: What's behind the timing of this subpoena right now, Andrea?
KOPPEL: Well, the following day, next Tuesday, the 17th, Attorney General Gonzales is supposed to be testifying before the U.S. Senate -- the Senate Judiciary Committee. So it's fair to presume that they want all of those documents so that they have an opportunity to review them before the attorney general gets grilled by -- by senators.
Nevertheless, we also heard from Senator Chuck Schumer today, saying if they don't get those documents before Gonzales comes to the Hill, they may have to call him back for a second time to testify.
BLITZER: Andrea, thanks for that.
We'll watch this story and, of course, we'll stay on top of it all of next week.
Moving on now to another firestorm we're watching, the women basketball players who were insulted by the radio host Don Imus are now offering some tough words of their own.
They're speaking out today about the racially and sexually charged slurs that Imus aimed directly at them. And they're now planning to meet with the suspended media personality face-to-face.
Mary Snow is covering this controversy for us -- Mary, what were the latest -- the latest developments that we learned today?
MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the team members say they plan to meet with Don Imus. They said this will be a private meeting. There is something that Don Imus had requested. And the women on the team say that the public apology he made they did not accept, but they do feel that they need to hear it from him and he needs to meet them face-to-face.
And as one team member pointed out -- her name is Kia Vaughn -- she says she wants Don Imus to see the people behind this team.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
KIA VAUGHN, RUTGERS BASKETBALL PLAYER: It hurts a lot. It does hurt. And there's a lot that should be said. There's a lot that I want to say, but, you know, you can't say it. And I would like to speak to him personally, you know, and express how I feel face-to-face and ask him, after you've met me as a person, do you feel in this category that I'm still a 'ho as a woman, and as a black African- American woman at that?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SNOW: And now whether the team will accept his apology, they say that's something that they will have to decide on. But right now, they're looking toward meeting him privately.
BLITZER: We also heard, Mary, some powerful words from the coach of this Rutgers women's basketball team.
Give our viewers a sense of what she had to say.
SNOW: Very protective, saying that she would protect them with every fiber, really, in her being, and saying that you cannot stand by and let the team be attacked unfairly.
She also said the team has been spent emotionally and physically and that the real story should have been their comeback and the fact that they made it to the national championship, but said instead it was marred by this controversy.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
VIVIAN STRINGER, RUTGERS COACH: And while they've worked hard in the classroom and have accomplished so much, and used their gifts and talents, you know, to bring the smiles and the pride within the state in so many people, we had to experience racist and sexist remarks that are deplorable, despicable and abominable and unconscionable. And it hurts me.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SNOW: And Coach Stringer said that this question and this debate and the controversy surrounding it really expands far beyond this one incident, and that many adults have to take a look at it.
BLITZER: Mary Snow will be back with us with more on this story.
Mary, thanks very much.
And coming up here in THE SITUATION ROOM, my interview with the coach of this Rutgers women's basketball team, Vivian Stringer. She's an amazing, amazing woman, a great basketball coach. She has some very strong words about Don Imus, what happens. That interview coming up.
Mary Snow, Andrea Koppel, Ed Henry -- they are all, by the way, 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.
Let's go to Jack Cafferty.
He's in New York with The Cafferty File -- hi, Jack.
JACK CAFFERTY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Congress' approval rating is up. The public's opinion of our lawmakers at its highest level in a year, as Democrats mark 100 days in control of the House and Senate, and continue to push back against the president on the war in Iraq.
Let's hope they don't break their arms patting themselves on the back. There is a lot of room to improve.
A new A.P./Ipsos poll shows 40 percent of those surveyed approve of how the Democratic-controlled Congress is handling its job. That's up from 26 percent the Republican Congress got last November, right before the mid-term elections.
The bad news is you can do the math. More than half the public still disapproves of what they're doing down there in Washington. And the poll suggests Democrats haven't succeeded in getting significant support from Independents. Maybe that's because despite the Democrats' election pledges to deal with a whole host of domestic issues, things like the minimum wage bill have gotten nowhere. And some people feel the Democrats could face a backlash, with members calling for cutting off funding for the war in Iraq and for adding more than $20 billion in pork to the war spending bill.
So here's the question -- does Congress deserve to have its highest approval rating in a year?
E-mail email@example.com or go to cnn.com/caffertyfile -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Jack, thank you for that.
And coming up, we're going to update you on that developing story out of the Bahamas. Just a short while ago, there was a ruling on the paternity of Anna Nicole Smith's baby. We're going to have details and fresh reaction. That's coming up.
Also, they've been on the rise, but will you now see an easing of the gas prices at the pump?
New government projections just ahead.
And later, much more on the Don Imus controversy. Among other things, once again, we'll be speaking with the coach of the Rutgers University basketball team.
All that coming up right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: Carol Costello is monitoring the wires. She's keeping an eye on all of the video feeds coming into THE SITUATION ROOM from around the world.
She's joining us from New York with a closer look at some of the other stories making news -- hi, Carol.
CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Wolf.
You know, many have been asking who's the daddy?
Well, now, we finally have the answer.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
LARRY BIRKHEAD: I hate to be the one that told you this, but "I told you so."
You know, there's certain things that I can't talk about, but this is one that I'm happy to talk about. And my baby is going to be coming home pretty soon.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COSTELLO: Oh, yes, Larry Birkhead, once a boyfriend to the late Anna Nicole Smith, is the father of her 7-month-old daughter. That's what a judge in the Bahamas has ruled after DNA test results. Smith's live-in companion, Attorney Howard K. Stern, had also claimed to be the father, and he's not going to fight this.
Also, that spike you've been seeing at your local gas station, well, the government expects that to ease up over the next few weeks. It projects a nationwide average of $2.87 a gallon in May and a price of $2.81 a gallon through the summertime. That would be $0.03 lower than last year.
And first the real life incident and then the tell-all book. Iran says it will put out a book and a CD about the arrest and detention of those 15 British sailors and marines it first seized and then released. The man in charge of cultural affairs for Iran's military says the book and CD are being prepared and will be released soon.
Back to you -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Probably best-sellers in Iran. I don't know if anybody is going to be interested outside of Iran... COSTELLO: I was going to say.
BLITZER: But in Iran, they'll probably do very, very well.
Thanks, Carol, for that.
BLITZER: The British prime minister, Tony Blair's Labor Party is hoping to boost its popularity in the U.K. by taking a turn on YouTube. Yes, YouTube.
But as our Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton, is pointing out, Blair videos are already a hot commodity on the Web site -- Abbi, tell us what we're looking at.
ABBI TATTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, right now this is Blair's first official foray into YouTube. He's looking a little bit uncomfortable with the medium.
This video launched last week. It's been viewed about 13,000 times already. But as politicians this side of the pond know all too well, it's frequently the unofficial videos that generate the most buzz on YouTube and videos featuring Blair, well, it's no exception.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TONY BLAIR, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER (SINGING): Darling you've got to let me know, should I stay or should I go?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
TATTON: That's one YouTube video using The Clash tune speculate about Blair's political future.
Another perennial favorite on YouTube is this one, President Bush and Tony Blair singing a duet to the tune of "Endless Love."
Now, Blair's Labor Party hoping to tap into these YouTube viewers to get them to watch their own official channel -- Wolf.
BLITZER: The Tony Blair video on YouTube, this is not necessarily the first major British politician to be using this video service.
TATTON: It's not. In terms of online video, David Cameron, who is the leader of the opposition Conservative Party, he launched his own site, webcameron, last year, complete with a video blog.
So Tony Blair coming to online video a little bit later in the game -- Wolf.
BLITZER: All right.
They'll catch up eventually, all of them.
Thanks very much for that, Abbi.
Coming up, is the race for the presidency -- is it time to scrap the current system in that race?
One state says yes.
Another -- will any others follow suit?
Bill Schneider is investigating this intriguing story.
Plus, Nancy Pelosi's controversial meeting with Syria's president. I'll speak with Democratic Congressman Keith Ellison. He's the only Muslim member of Congress. He joined the House speaker on the trip.
Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: One state is taking a huge step today toward possibly shaking up the entire presidential election process.
Our senior political analyst, Bill Schneider, is here.
What's happening in the state of Maryland -- Bill?
WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, Wolf, today, The Free State becomes the College Dropout State, but it has nothing to do with education.
(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)
SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Today, Maryland becomes the first state in the union to drop out of college -- the electoral college, that is. Maryland's new law will go into effect only if enough states pass similar laws, to total 270 electoral votes, the number needed to elect a president. Those states would agree to appoint presidential electors who would vote for the winner of the national popular vote.
That would prevent what happened in 2000 -- George W. Bush got elected by winning the electoral college even though Al Gore got more votes.
Right now, candidates spent most of their time campaigning in battleground states, often in tiny places like Elyria, Ohio and St. Charles, Missouri.
If the new system were adopted, constitutional scholar Tom Mann says...
THOMAS MANN, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: You would see a much greater emphasis by the candidates campaigning in large, uncompetitive states, those states like California and Texas and New York.
SCHNEIDER: But the new rules would also disconnect a state's voters from its electors. Maryland voters could vote 100 percent Democratic, but if the Republican won the national vote, Maryland's electoral vote would go to the Republican.
MANN: It's based on the proposition that, say, those of us who live in Maryland care more about the national outcome, the popular vote for the president across the country, than -- than we do for our own particular state.
SCHNEIDER: What will it mean for third party candidates like Ralph Nader, who created so much mischief in 2000?
MANN: So I think Ralph Nader is probably more influential under the current rules, although I think under the proposed rules, you'd get a lot more players in the game, and, therefore, a lot more uncertainty.
(END VIDEO TAPE)
SCHNEIDER: More uncertainty -- well, is that what we need -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Well, what's the chances -- what's the likelihood, Bill, that this is actually going to go into effect?
SCHNEIDER: Well, it's a long way from happening, Wolf.
The law awaits the governor's signature in one other state. That's Hawaii. The California legislature approved the idea last year, but Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed it. You need 270 electoral votes to make this thing work.
How many electoral votes does Maryland have?
Ten -- Wolf.
BLITZER: It's a long way off.
That's basically the bottom line.
Thanks very much, Bill Schneider, reporting.
Up next, a showdown over global warming -- a former presidential candidate and possible future White House hopeful debate an issue that's growing in importance.
Plus, are Democrats still divided over Iraq?
That's what the political left wants to know, and they may find out tonight.
Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: Happening now, she says Don Imus' words were "deplorable, despicable and unconscionable." The coach of the Rutgers women's basketball team, Vivian Stringer, wants you to know her players for who they really are. The coach will be here in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Also, it's Vice President Cheney's former company.
But just what was Halliburton doing, doing business in Iran?
And who will prevail in the battle over the branches?
I'll speak with the House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer about war funding bills, a presidential veto vow and his trip to Darfur, whose events he's calling genocide.
I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
It was a very big debate today here in Washington. Newt Gingrich debated the issue of global warming with Democratic Senator John Kerry. During their exchange, the former Republican House speaker talked about what's at stake.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
NEWT GINGRICH (R), FORMER HOUSE SPEAKER: It is a challenge to us to lead the world. And I agree entirely with whatever criticism the senator wants to make in general about the absence of American leadership. I'm not going to stand up here and defend our failure to lead. I am going to say that our leadership should start with science, technology, entrepreneurship and that we should focus on developing new approaches.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Here to talk more a little bit about this, as well as some other moves involving one political group, our CNN senior political correspondent, Candy Crowley, and our chief international -- chief national correspondent, John King.
Guys, thanks very much for coming in.
Candy, Newt Gingrich, John Kerry getting together at this debate -- John Kerry has announced he's not running for the White House. Newt Gingrich is leaving that door open. What does this kind of debate today up on Capitol Hill suggest about his intentions?
CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: It suggests to me he wants to keep his name in the news and he wants to keep his options open.
He has said he's not going to say anything until the end of September, but this sort of thing keeps the chatter going, maybe keeps some donors on the sidelines until he makes up his mind. And I think that's what this is intended to do.
BLITZER: And this whole issue of global warming, it's, if you will forgive the pun, heating -- heating up politically, obviously.
How big of an issue do you expect this to be in this campaign? JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I think it will be an issue, definitely, and it is proof that it has arrived as a major political issue.
How big of an issue? I think that depends on where the Iraq war goes. You cannot deal, as we learned in 2006, with issues like Social Security, issues like Medicare, and issues like global warming, which will require fundamental shifts and huge compromises in the political system between very opposed ideological positions, you cannot deal with them when the political world is so partisanly divided over the Iraq war.
So, if Iraq dials back as an issue, global warming, I think, would come up.
BLITZER: Our national correspondent, Bob Franken, he covered that debate up on Capitol Hill earlier today. In the next hour, he is going to be here with a full report on how it went. Were there a lot of fireworks, not too many fireworks? We will have to wait and get that from Bob.
Let's talk about what is going happen later tonight. MoveOn.org is going to have this, I guess they are calling it a town hall meeting, or whatever. But all of the Democratic presidential candidates will show up and talk about what's going on right now. And the key issue hovering over this is the war in Iraq and the splits, presumably, among some of those Democratic candidates.
CROWLEY: Well, they're going to -- this is a virtual town hall meeting. They are also not going to be together. They have all pre- taped this.
It's for MoveOn.org, which has become a large organization since its initial mission was to get the country to move on past impeachment. Now it's become this giant political organization. This is really the beginning of a battle for the netroots. So, what they are doing here is they are coming and talking about a single issue, Iraq. There will be a vote afterwards of MoveOn.org members.
So, this is -- look at this as the opening volley in the battle for the netroots.
BLITZER: And this is a key base, a key constituency in the Democratic Party, the whole MoveOn.org network, if you will.
KING: It's the left of the party, which says, get out of Iraq yesterday, if not last month, cut off the funding for the war, bring the troops home. That is the base of MoveOn.org. And it puts a lot of pressure on people like Hillary Rodham Clinton, who voted for the war, and is now trying to put pressure on the president, but still saying she stands by that vote. She wouldn't cast it today, knowing what she knows.
But it puts pressure on the candidates who are trying to be in the middle, if you will, of the Iraq debate, trying to satisfy the Democratic base, without alienating a potential general election constituency, where you need more conservative voters.
And look at what we have, Wolf, going on. Again, we're back in this debate, where you have the president today saying you can't cut off the funding, daring the Democrats to walk down that road. And you have got the left, MoveOn.org and others, saying, cut off the funding. End the war now. And you have these Democratic candidates in the middle. It's a tough challenge.
BLITZER: All right. We will have the results of that vote tomorrow here in THE SITUATION ROOM as well.
Candy Crowley, John King, both part of the best political team on television.
And, remember, for all the latest political news at any time, check out our Political Ticker at CNN.com/ticker.
Up next: Paul Begala and Amy Holmes in our "Strategy Session." The Rutgers women's basketball coach is speaking out.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
C. VIVIAN STRINGER, RUTGERS UNIVERSITY WOMEN'S BASKETBALL COACH: We have all been physically, mentally and emotionally spent, so hurt by the remarks that were uttered by Mr. Imus. But, you see, we also understood a long time ago that, you know what? No one can make you feel inferior, unless you allow them.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: What, if anything, can Don Imus do to try to refurbish his reputation? And is Obama/Clinton the Democrats' dream ticket for 2008, or is it Clinton/Obama? Obama gave a glimpse into what he is thinking about it. He spoke on "Letterman" last night -- all that coming up in the "Strategy Session."
We will be right back.
BLITZER: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi preparing to speak out in the next hour about her recent and controversial visit to Syria.
The Democratic Congressman Keith Ellison of Minnesota went along on that trip. He's the first and only Muslim member of the U.S. Congress. He's joining us in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Congressman, welcome back.
REP. KEITH ELLISON (D), MINNESOTA: Welcome to be -- thank you for inviting me, Wolf.
BLITZER: All right. I want to get that in a moment, but I want your quick reaction, not only as a politician, but as an African- American, to the whole Don Imus uproar. Should he be fired or should he be allowed to keep his job? ELLISON: Well, you know, I am going to demur on that one, but I will say that Don Imus needs to make a heartfelt, sincere demonstration of apology. He needs to communicate to his listeners that he does not hold bigoted views and does not hold African-American women in low esteem.
He has to be clear. He has to be -- he has to repeat it. And he has to make it very clear that, hey, you know, he is not going to belittle or berate people based on who they are.
Now, after he does that, I think that, you know, we need to assess whether his statement is sincere, whether it's heartfelt, and whether we're going to expect to see him make those kind of comments in the future. And, if we don't -- and, if we can be confident that we're not going to see that out of him, then, you know, I think maybe we should look in terms of redemption, look in terms of racial reconciliation.
But, if it looks like he's not quite contrite, I think maybe Mr. Imus needs to go other places.
BLITZER: All right, Congressman, let's talk about the Pelosi visit to the Middle East. You were a member of her delegation. You went to Damascus.
There was criticism, and some criticism from, obviously, the usual sources, but some criticism from some of the not-so-usual sources, including "The Washington Post" editorial page. Among other things, they wrote this: "We have found much to criticize in Mr. Bush's military strategy and region diplomacy. But Ms. Pelosi's attempt to establish a shadow presidency is not only counterproductive; it is foolish."
What was your thinking, as a member of that delegation, in going to -- going to Damascus?
ELLISON: Well, you know, I just disagree with "The Washington Post" on this one.
The fact is that it's very common, very normal for members of Congress to go engage in fact-finding, to go meet with other leaders of other countries to try to ascertain facts, to ask some tough questions, and to move on from there.
I mean, the fact is, there are numerous pieces of legislation, lots of different appropriation questions that require members of Congress to be well-informed on the issues. And, so, that's what we were doing. Three -- three Republican congressmen were in Syria before we ever got there. One was there afterwards. In total, I think about 14 members of Congress have been to Syria in the past few months.
And, so, I think that it's really just a political thing, and I think "The Washington Post" just got it wrong. I mean, they get it right sometimes, but they got it wrong that time. BLITZER: Congressman, I assume you were in all the meetings. Were you in the meeting, for example, with the president, Bashar al- Assad?
ELLISON: Yes, I was.
BLITZER: Did the speaker convey her anger? Because I know she disagrees with a lot of the Syrian policies in Lebanon towards Israel, the situation, obviously, the cross-border incursions into Iraq from the jihadists. Did she convey that anger directly to the Syrian president?
ELLISON: Well, let me tell you, she conveyed the concerns of our country in a professional manner.
Convey anger? I wouldn't say she was demonstrating anger. I would say that she was firm, she was clear, and she was unmistakable in her communication.
BLITZER: I guess the question is, did she leave any sense with the Syrian president that there was a divide over some of these issues between the Democratic majority in the House, as opposed to the White House?
ELLISON: No. As a matter of fact, she said quite clearly that, on the issues of American security and fighting against terrorism, that she -- that we were not divided. She made that statement very clearly.
And I think that any -- no foreign leader that we met was -- was -- walked away with the idea that there was a divided America.
BLITZER: You are the first, and so far only, Muslim elected to the U.S. Congress. What was it like, not only as a congressman, as an American, but as a Muslim, going to the Middle East, visiting these predominantly Muslim countries?
ELLISON: Well, you know, Wolf, you know, as I walked through the city of Old Jerusalem, and I passed the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, I thought about my mother, who is Catholic.
And we met a man who was the keeper of the door of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. And, by agreement, that person is a Muslim. So, it was amazing to meet him. He knew about my election. And we talked a little while.
Then I went to the Haram al-Sharif, went to Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. And that was a spiritual, even emotional, experience for me. And I just felt -- it felt incredible to be there.
And, then, of course, you know, just to be able to pray in the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam, was, for me, a moving, transformative, deeply spiritual experience.
BLITZER: Well, welcome back, Congressman. I'm glad you -- you made the trip and saw some of those religious, historic sites in the Middle East. I'm sure it was very moving for you, and very moving for the rest of the delegation.
ELLISON: Well, I'm sure that it was. You know, the trip was a success. And I just think that, you know, dialogue is a precursor to understanding, and our country needs to do much more of it.
BLITZER: Keith Ellison, Democrat of Minnesota, thanks for coming in to THE SITUATION ROOM.
ELLISON: Thank you Wolf.
BLITZER: Mitt Romney thinks size matters. And that tops our "Political Radar" today.
Romney is expected to announce he wants to add another 100,000 troops to the U.S. armed forces. And the Republican presidential candidate will also call for an increase in defense spending. The former Massachusetts governor will make his comments in a speech tonight at George Herbert Walker Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas.
Four former secretaries of state are coming to Senator John McCain's side. That would be former Secretaries Henry Kissinger, Al Haig, George Shultz, and Lawrence Eagleburger. They all endorsed McCain for president today. Today's support appears to be another move by the senator from Arizona to highlight his foreign policy experience. Tomorrow, McCain makes a major address on the war in Iraq.
Rudy Giuliani is in Alabama today. The former New York City mayor spoke before a joint session of the Alabama legislature. Giuliani also spoke out about the Don Imus controversy. The former New York City mayor says, Imus' comments were wrong, but Giuliani says he would -- yes, he would -- appear on Imus' program again.
Coming up in our "Strategy Session," we will much more on the Don Imus flap. Lots of people are getting in on the discussion, including the entire Rutgers University women's basketball team.
Plus: Is Obama and Clinton the Democrats' dream ticket? That's coming up in our "Strategy Session."
Stick around. We will be right back.
BLITZER: In today's "Strategy Session," two items dominating the news, one involving race, the other politics.
Many are debating if the punishment for Don Imus fits the verbal offense. And, after Barack Obama's late-night TV appearance last night, some are asking if he would ever pair up with Hillary Clinton for a presidential campaign.
Joining us now, our CNN political analyst, Democratic strategist Paul Begala, and Amy Holmes, a former speechwriter for the former Republican Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee. Guys, thanks very much for coming in.
I know, Paul, you have been a frequent guest on the Don Imus radio show. What -- what is your reaction to what has happened, and specifically whether you think he should be fired? Would you go back on that show if he gets to keep his job?
PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: You know, I think, first off, you have to say that what he said was wrong. It wasn't just wrong. It was racist. And it wasn't just racist. And it was sexist. In just three little words, he insulted half -- more than half of America. And it was completely wrong.
What do we do going forward, then? I was interested in hearing Congressman Ellison talk about the need for reconciliation. I think the impressive thing here is that these young women from Rutgers, the basketball team who were the victims of this assault, today said they would be willing to meet with Imus and to accept his apology in person.
And I think that's important, because now these women are empowered. Nothing gives you more power than the power to forgive. And they have a chance now to move from stars to victims to heroes. And, you know, my boys are going to be watching. They will be role models for my kids. I think it's a -- I think the punishment fits the crime. I do -- I would -- I don't think...
BLITZER: Two-week suspension?
BEGALA: Yes. That's a serious punishment, but I don't think you throw away a 40-year career based on that.
BLITZER: And you would go back on, assuming he gets to keep the job?
BEGALA: Absolutely, tomorrow morning. Tune in.
BLITZER: All right, let's talk -- let's get your reaction, Amy. You are an African-American woman. What do you think?
AMY HOLMES, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: I think a two-week suspension is not -- is not appreciate. And I think that being a radio broadcaster is a privilege, not a right. And I think Don Imus abused that privilege.
I would like to see his sponsors, the New York Stock Exchange, "Newsday," Random House, Simon & Schuster, withdraw their support of him. They are not obligated to financially support this type of language.
What he said was racist, misogynistic. And it's a part of our popular culture to have this ritualistic degradation of African- American women. And it needs to stop. It can start with Don Imus. I would like to see it go further.
BEGALA: I think the way it stops, though, Amy, is with healing and reconciliation and forgiveness.
I taught -- I was taught an important lesson. When Trent Lott made a racist joke, said America would have been better with a segregationist president than Harry Truman, I was one of the many people who jumped on him, said he was unfit to be the majority leader.
The first person to call him on it was John Lewis, congressman from Georgia, one of the heroes of the civil rights movement. But, when Lott apologized, Congressman Lewis was so moved by that apology that he publicly came out and forgave him, against what most of what the Democrats were saying. And that really taught me a lot. And he forgave Trent Lott.
And I think, now that Imus has apologized -- he's not George Allen, who said a racist thing, and then lied about it and pretended he didn't know what it meant. He is someone who said a racist thing in a totally different context, trying to make a joke, and now has apologized. And I think it becomes incumbent on us to offer forgiveness, reconciliation, and take move forward.
HOLMES: But, Paul, I think we know there's a difference between personal forgiveness -- these young ladies, I think, today could not have been a more devastating refutation of Don Imus and the ugly things that he had to say about them last week.
But there's a difference between them personally forgiving them -- and that's completely up to them -- and what we do as a culture and a society when it comes to his profession, which I think is a very different question. And we don't need...
BEGALA: So, Senator Lott shouldn't be in the Senate. He should lose his job as a United States senator.
HOLMES: Well, Senator Lott did -- did lose his leadership...
BEGALA: He's back in the leadership.
HOLMES: ... as Senator Frist became my boss.
BEGALA: But he got a suspension, basically. Your party put him back in charge in the Senate.
HOLMES: I think, as a culture, we can say that this is unacceptable, and respectable people would not go on the air with a man who says these types of things about African-American women. I mean, we don't have to go over those words again, but they don't fly out of a respectable person's mouth.
BEGALA: I think it's a double standard, then.
If you have a lower standard for a United States senator than you do for a radio host, I think you are playing politics here. BLITZER: All right. Let's move on.
Let's talk a little bit about Barack Obama. He was on the "Letterman" show last night, and he had this exchange with David Letterman. I want to play it for us.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "LARRY KING LIVE")
DAVID LETTERMAN, HOST, "THE LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN": But you know what I'm getting to.
SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I do.
LETTERMAN: People will say -- they're saying, oh, well, this is Barack Obama -- he's only been a senator for two years. So, maybe we're looking at some sort of compromise on the ticket. Maybe he will be the presidential candidate and Hillary might be the vice president. Maybe it will be the reverse of that.
Any of that occur at this point or not?
OBAMA: You don't run for second. I don't believe in that, yes.
LETTERMAN: But that would be -- that would be a powerful ticket, undeniably. That would be a powerful ticket.
OBAMA: Which -- which order are we talking about?
LETTERMAN: Well, let's say...
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: All right.
Is that in the cards? You have been close to Hillary Clinton for a long time. And strange things happen in politics. Could there be a Clinton/Obama ticket or an Obama/Clinton ticket? Is either remote?
BEGALA: I think it's a possibility. Anything is.
And it is a Democrats' dream. Come on, you know? He has the sizzle. She has the steak.
BLITZER: Who is first on that?
BEGALA: You know, my -- my personal view is -- I don't know if I'm allowed to say it on air -- my personal view, since I have already donated money to Hillary, that's who I'm going to vote for. I mean, I don't -- you know, I don't work for her, don't advise her, don't have any role in her campaign.
BLITZER: But you are loyal to...
BEGALA: But I'm a citizen and a Democrat. And, so, I will be voting for her. But that would be just wonderful.
Now, the track record is not that good. John Kerry picked a primary rival, John Edwards. President Reagan picked a primary rival, George Bush Sr. But, mostly, folks don't do that, because, sometimes, these primary battles can be pretty personal and nasty. And my hope is, it won't be too personal and nasty this time. But it's -- it's -- that's why it's not very likely.
BLITZER: Is that a dream ticket for the Democrats? And you speak from a Republican perspective.
HOLMES: Certainly, so I don't necessarily want to be talking about the Democratic ticket.
But it would certainly be an historic ticket. But Barack Obama does not need to be talking about being second banana, with his blockbuster fund-raising, with having twice as many donors as Hillary Clinton. It could be a ticket that would actually heal the Democratic Party, which, right now, is very divided on the Hillary Clinton candidacy and their fear that she doesn't have broad appeal.
BLITZER: We will leave it on that note.
Guys, thanks very much, Paul and Amy, a good discussion, indeed.
BLITZER: Still to come: A new poll shows Congress getting unusually high -- or shall we say higher marks. Are members deserving? Jack Cafferty with your e-mail, that's coming up.
And the war over Iraq funding -- can the Democrats find any compromise with President Bush? I will ask the number-two House Democrat, Steny Hoyer, if a face-to-face meeting would help.
Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: The 2008 Democratic Convention is in Denver. And it's already ramping up online, getting some precious convention time. But there's a Web address that didn't come, though, without some significant problems.
Let's go to our Internet reporter, Jacki Schechner.
First of all, Jacki, what's the Web site?
JACKI SCHECHNER, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, it's an easy one: DemConvention.com. But the DNC says today that they bought up about two dozen other Web addresses just in case. That's because there is a protest coalition that bought some 15 Denver convention-related web addresses back in January, before the Democratic National Committee even announced that Denver was going to be their city.
The protesters told us that they had bought the addresses with the hopes that people would either stumble upon their Web site or the DNC would pay them for it to avoid that happening. Well, the DNC says they did buy Web addresses, but not those. They said that the ones that they bought were related to DemConvention.com.
The new official Web site for the convention is going to be the hub for all things convention, including a video that will go online tomorrow of Howard Dean's tour of the convention center.
The RNC, for their part, says that their convention site is going to up in a couple of months -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Thank you, Jacki, for that.
Jack Cafferty has got "The Cafferty File" in New York.
JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, the question this hour is: Does Congress deserve to have its highest approval rating in a year? The latest AP/Ipsos poll has a 40 percent approval rating for Congress, up from 26 percent a year ago.
Cathy in North Dakota writes: "No, they don't deserve the high marks. They have accomplished nothing. It has just been a lot of grandstanding, chest-puffing. If they don't get down to work soon, they will suffer the same fate the Republicans did at the next election."
Peter in Los Angeles: "After the Republican-led Congress lay down and played dead for the last six years, we should give credit to the Democrats for standing up to the White House and doing their constitutionally mandated job. Granted, they are little rusty and disorganized, but it's still better than the greasy axle of evil the Bush-Cheney-Rove machine passes off for government."
Gene in Houston: "No, they have done nothing. They stand for nothing. They made many promises, like the five-day workweek, none of which have been honored. They are too afraid to stop the war."
W. writes: "Congress should have the highest rating in years. It's the first time since this stupid war began that they aren't yes- men for Bush. They were put in to stop this war because it's a total disaster. The question is, can they live up to the job?"
Paul writes: "No, not until it starts impeachment hearings."
And Jonathan in Georgia: "They do, but this isn't much of an accomplishment, given how poor the previous Congress did. However, they seem to be headed in the right direction, albeit very slowly. I'm willing to give them a few more months to see if they're effective. Forty percent sounds about right for now" -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Jack, thank you.
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