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THE SITUATION ROOM

War Funding Meeting. Pelosi Interview.

Aired May 18, 2007 - 16:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: Happening now, new offers rejected -- Democrats say they are giving some ground in the battle over Iraq war funding, but the White House says it's not enough. This hour, we're getting a brand new interview the with House speaker, Nancy Pelosi.
Plus, a deal under fire -- a new Senate agreement on immigration reform is being attacked from both sides of the aisle. We're going to examine the bill and the backlash.

And a powerful Democrat accused -- did Congressman John Murtha threaten a colleague and violate House rules in the process?

I'm Wolf Blitzer.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

This hour, it's back to the drawing board once again in the search for an Iraq war funding compromise. A high level bargaining session between the White House and Congressional power players ended ugly and without any agreement.

Democrats say administration officials said no to everything they offered.

But the White House contends the dug in Democrats didn't really offer much.

Let's begin our coverage this hour with our Congressional correspondent, Dana Bash -- Dana, are the two sides as far apart as their public rhetoric would seem to suggest?

DANA BASH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You know, it's a really hard question to answer, Wolf, because, in reality, their positions could be much closer than we see them in public, because right now, what we saw, especially today, is public posturing.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

BASH (voice-over): It was all smiles at the start of this high stakes meeting. The president's men and Congressional leaders trying to hammer out an agreement on how to fund the war.

At the end, the only thing they agreed on was this.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: The meeting was disappointing.

REP. STENY HOYER (D), MARYLAND: Our meeting earlier this morning was a great disappointment.

BASH: What happened behind closed doors?

Democrats put on the table a war spending bill with a time line for troop withdrawal, which the president already vetoed. They tried to sweeten the offer by saying he could waive those deadlines.

The White House said no.

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MAJORITY LEADER: The answer we got time after time in the meeting that we had this morning is the president would take no responsibility. That's too bad.

JOSH BOLTEN, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: The Democratic leaders did talk about having time lines for withdrawal

We -- we consider that to be not a -- not a significant distinction. It -- whether waivable or not, time lines send exactly the wrong signal to our adversaries, to our allies and, most importantly, to the troops in the field.

BASH: Democrats say they also offered to drop billions of dollars in domestic spending the president opposes if he would accept the Iraq withdrawal time line.

The answer again?

REID: No. Everything was no.

BASH: On its face, a surprising breakdown.

All sides share the urgent goal of agreeing on a war spending measure by Memorial Day -- only a week away. And Democrats have privately admitted for weeks they know Mr. Bush won't sign anything with deadlines attached.

(VIDEO OF ANTI-WAR PROTEST)

BASH: But the new majority remains under intense pressure from anti-war voters not to give in and sources familiar with the strategy say Democrats are trying to show they're standing their ground until the eleventh hour.

PELOSI: The difference between the Democrats and the president was the issue of accountability.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

BASH: So the question that no one can really answer is now what?

Democratic leaders said they'll talk over the weekend to each other about coming up with some kind of bill that they could perhaps present as soon as Monday. But this is really a high wire act, Wolf, because all of these players, both sides are bumping up against a self-imposed deadline.

BLITZER: Dana Bash reporting for us from Capitol Hill.

Thanks, Dana.

The House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, obviously wields considerable clout in the battle over Iraq war funding.

Our own John Roberts of CNN's "AMERICAN MORNING" has just returned from a one-on-one interview with the Speaker.

How did it go?

JOHN ROBERTS, HOST, "AMERICAN MORNING": I sat down with her for about 20 minutes and talked about a lot of things -- the immigration bill. Of course, the war spending bill was right at the top of the agenda.

Going into that meeting this morning with the White House and Republican officials, she said that she was absolutely certain that she would have what the troops needed by the Memorial Day weekend.

then, of course, everybody came out and said I'm disappointed at this, I'm disappointed at that. They want timetables. They're not taking responsibility. They don't want to be held accountable.

And I asked her, well, are you still optimistic you can get it done?

And she was.

Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

PELOSI: We'll be able to pass something that will support our troops and we will do it before we leave for the Memorial weekend.

ROBERTS: But you know what the president is saying -- no time lines. He's also saying no hard and fast benchmarks.

Are you going to have to capitulate?

PELOSI: Well, I know what the president is saying. What the president is saying is I don't want any accountability -- just give me a blank check for a war without end. Don't have the Iraqi government held accountable for not having political solutions while our young people die.

That's what the president is saying. I hear it very clearly. We'll have a proposal that supports our troops and we'll have it in a timely fashion.

But we will also have it in a way that holds the president much more accountable than he wants to be.

(END VIDEO TAPE) ROBERTS: I also asked her, Wolf, I said well, all of this talk about re-proposing timetables, even though they -- they could have waivers to them. And Josh Bolten standing up saying they're giving us timetables again, is that all just to tell your base we've done as much as we possibly could before you have to give in to the president?

She insisted it wasn't, but, I mean, there's certainly a lot of political theater with what's going on.

BLITZER: There's a lot of posturing...

ROBERTS: Yes.

BLITZER: ... posturing going on.

Did you have a chance also to discuss the new immigration reform package that came out of the Senate yesterday?

The president strongly supports it.

ROBERTS: I did. And she said that as proposed, it's not -- it's a bill that she's got concerns with. The particular part that she's got concerns with -- because this is coming from the liberal wing of the party -- is this idea of families being able to bring family members across the border.

Of course, the bill as proposed by the Senate right now would end what's called that chain immigration. And that's of real concern.

But I think when it comes to the immigration bill in the House, you know, Nancy Pelosi, Rahm Emanuel today, as well, saying the president has got to bring 60 or 70 votes to the table, otherwise it's not going to pass...

BLITZER: Republican votes.

ROBERTS: Republican votes.

I think that they've got more problems with the Democrats than they do with the Republicans on this particular issue. There are more Democrats who are saying they don't like the bill than Republicans.

BLITZER: Well, first it's got to get through the Senate and then the House can take it up.

ROBERTS: Yes.

BLITZER: John, thanks very much.

And we're going to have more of the interview with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

That's coming up in our next hour here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

And you can catch John Roberts' interview with the Speaker. That will air Monday morning, beginning at 6:00 a.m. Eastern on "AMERICAN MORNING" right here on CNN.

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill and beyond, critics are picking apart that new immigration reform deal. As expected, a proposed path to citizenship in the Senate plan is generating most of the backlash. It would give 12 million illegal immigrants who arrived in this country before January 1st immediate work authorization. To get on track toward permanent residency, applicants must pay back taxes and a $5,000 penalty. They must not have a criminal record. And heads of households must return to their home country within eight years. They'd be guaranteed the right to return.

Even with strings attached, many conservatives say that amounts to amnesty.

Let's bring in our White House correspondent, Ed Henry.

What are the biggest hurdles to this bill that you're seeing right now -- Ed.

ED HENRY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, clearly, the White House can't pop the champagne corks yet. This could be a big legislative victory. But as you know, there's at least three big hurdles.

If you look on the video wall, the first one, of course, come Monday, when the Senate debate begins -- the Senate's known as an amendment body. That means that basically the base bill that it starts with has to survive a flurry of amendments. This could change dramatically.

And does this compromise fall under its own weight, because it just changes so much?

We've got to watch that.

The second hurdle, it comes in the House, as John Roberts was talking about. Speaker Pelosi planning to bring this up in July. She says she wants at least 60 to 70 House Republicans on board. That's, in part, because she wants political cover for centrist Democrats who are worried that they might look a little soft, the bill might be too liberal. She wants to make sure the president brings along significant Republican support and there's compromise and consensus.

And the third hurdle, of course, time line trouble -- not the time lines in Iraq, but when does this get done? When does it get to a conference report?

It's got to get done by the end of summer and in the fall get to the president's desk then. Otherwise, it collides with the 2008 campaign schedule, those early presidential primaries and caucuses. Everyone on all sides agrees if this collides with presidential politics, it's done. It's not going to make it -- Wolf.

BLITZER: What kind of opposition, Ed, is the president getting from the right? HENRY: Well, you're already seeing -- if you take a look at what Rush Limbaugh was saying on his radio program today -- normally the people like the vice president himself will go on that show to promote the president's policies -- something like 20 million listeners.

Today, though, Limbaugh was ripping this deal. He said: "It's the comprehensive destroy the Republican Party act and Republicans are too idiotic to figure out that that's what this is."

He compared it at one point to the Dubai ports deal that also split the party.

It's clear the president has to be concerned from the right. There's concern about that word amnesty. The president is going to have to meet it head on with his sales pitch -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I was listening to him earlier today and he was saying just as the critics in the Republican Party, the conservatives, managed to turn that Dubai ports deal around, they're going to try to do the same with this comprehensive immigration reform.

We'll see if that holds up.

Ed, thanks very much.

Ed Henry, John Roberts, Dana Bash -- they are all part of the best political team on television.

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

Jack Cafferty is off today. He'll be back with The Cafferty File next week.

Coming up, he was in the room for those Iraq funding negotiations that apparently went nowhere today. I'll ask the White House budget director, Rob Portman, why the administration just said no. He's standing by live.

Plus, an immigration war of words between Republican presidential candidates John McCain and Mitt Romney. The growing testiness between the two has been hard to miss.

And presidential campaign help mates -- spouses are stepping up their roles on the campaign trail, for better and for worse.

Stay with us.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

COMMERCIAL

BLITZER: Democratic Congressional leaders are portraying White House officials as a bunch of Dr. Nos after unsuccessful talks on an Iraq War funding compromise.

Administration officials, however, insist it's the Democrats who aren't really budging.

Joining us now from the White House, one of the negotiators today, the White House budget director, Rob Portman.

Director, thanks very much for joining us.

You were there with Josh Bolten, the White House, chief of staff; Steve Hadley; representing the president.

The Democrats say they were willing to meet you halfway but you just kept saying no, no, no.

The clock is ticking, Rob Portman.

What's going to happen if you don't get the funding within the next week or so?

ROB PORTMAN, WHITE HOUSE BUDGET DIRECTOR: The clock is ticking and it's a major problem for our military and for our troops, Wolf.

As you know, the military is having to disrupt other funding sources in order to fund our operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. We want the funding and we want it now.

The meeting today actually was cordial. It was candid. We had a good exchange. Both sides showed movement. We particularly showed movement in saying that we would be willing to live with benchmarks which we, as you know, had not previously had in our request; but, also, accountability with those benchmarks.

On the other side...

BLITZER: Well, let me interrupt you for a moment on the benchmarks issue.

Would the benchmarks have a price to pay for Iraqis if, for example, they fail to live up to those commitments, like dividing up the oil revenues, for example?

Would there be a penalty -- a cutback in U.S. aid to them, for example, if they failed to deliver?

PORTMAN: There would be 16 benchmarks that would focus mostly on the Iraqi government and on responsibilities that they would have. And the way that legislation was worded that Senator John Warner proposed this week, which was adopted, you know, on a bipartisan basis by 52 votes -- and, actually, there were some Republicans absent. We think it could have been higher.

That did provide for a cut off of what's called economic support fund or economic fund for the Iraqis, over $2 billion worth.

BLITZER: Would that be mandatory or could the president waive that?

PORTMAN: There would be a national security waiver that the president could use if he believed it was a national security waiver to go ahead and spend parts of that funding. But it would relate to all 16 of these benchmarks, benchmarks which have now been in legislation proposed by the Democrats and now by Senator Warner...

BLITZER: The...

PORTMAN: ... in this bipartisan bill.

BLITZER: The Democrats said that...

PORTMAN: So it is -- it is a movement for us.

BLITZER: The Democrats basically said you could do exactly the same thing with a withdrawal deadline, that there would be some dates in there for getting combat forces out, but if the president decided to issue a national security waiver, he could explain to the Congress that there was a need to keep the troops there and he would have the authority to do so.

Why not accept that proposal, which is one of the Democrats' bottom line demands?

At least that's what they are saying.

PORTMAN: That is what they said in the meeting, too, Wolf.

There are two problems with it. One is it can't pass the Congress, in my view. You saw the vote in the Senate this week -- again, a majority of the Senate, a bipartisan basis, rejected withdrawal deadlines and said that we ought to have benchmarks and some accountability that's related to the economic support, as you said earlier, but that the president ought, in the end, to have the ability to waive that on a national security basis if necessary.

There's also a number of reports that are required, including one on July 15th and September 15th.

The Democrats, on the other hand, came back again today with this notion of withdrawal deadlines which the president just vetoed and Congress just sustained.

The problem with withdrawal deadlines, in addition to I don't think it would be able to be passed through the United States Senate, is that it would be bad policy in the sense that it would send the wrong signal to our troops, to the Iraqis and to the terrorists. This would be something that the president has objected to very clearly and would continue to object to.

BLITZER: Who is going to be blamed if the troops don't get the funds they need?

Will the White House be blamed for standing firm and rejecting what the Democrats are insisting you need to do or will the Democrats be blamed?

PORTMAN: Well, I hope it doesn't become a blame game and instead we can get this funding to the troops. But I will tell you that the president's request has now been up there for over 100 days. We provided, at that time, all of the detailed specifications and justifications for it earlier than usual. We had hoped that we could work this through on a relatively rapid basis, given the need for the money now, so we're not having to borrow money from other accounts, including reducing training.

We have trouble now with equipment at depots. We have trouble here on some of our bases at home in terms of quality of life for our troops and their families.

So we're eager to get that funding to the troops. The president has shown flexibility. We showed it again today.

I'm actually still optimistic Wolf, because I see a way forward, and that is to adopt something, again, that has passed on a bipartisan basis in the Senate. It seems to be kind of the consensus proposal, which is to establish these benchmarks, to establish accountability, that the president has indicated he's willing to live with, and to be able, then, to provide the funding to the troops they need.

BLITZER: All right, we'll see if that happens.

Let me pick your brain on an unrelated subject while I have you.

The Senate -- at least a lot of Senators yesterday, together with the president, came up with comprehensive immigration reform proposals.

I wonder if you've had a chance yet, Director, to look at how much this is going to cost the American taxpayers to build that additional fence along the border, to hire 18,000 additional border guard agents to go ahead and monitor 12 million illegal immigrants right now who are going to apply for this new Z Visa, as it's called, for permanent -- that will allow them to remain in the United States.

Do you have a ballpark figure yet how much this comprehensive immigration reform is going to wind up costing?

PORTMAN: We do not have a figure that is comprehensive that relates to all of that.

But a couple of thoughts.

One, we do have a Congressional Budget Office report on this. We have some other independent private sector analyses that have been done. And, frankly, some of them differ.

There will, as you know, be fees and penalties as part of this legislation, which were meant to pay for the additional costs that are related to, as you say, registering individuals and some of the administrative costs.

In terms of the border fence, a second thought is that that's already in law. There's already an authorization bill. And, as you know, the president has provided in his budget the funding to be able to provide those additional Border Patrol along the border and, also, the additional fencing and other means for us to be able to have a secure and more enforceable border.

So a lot of that funding is already in the pipeline. The additional funding is -- is meant to be supplied through the fees and penalties that would be part of this program.

BLITZER: But in terms of net expenditures, are we talking billions of dollars? Hundreds of millions of dollars? What's -- what's a -- what's a good estimate?

PORTMAN: Well, you know, again, it depends on which analysis you use. If you strictly keep it to the costs of the program itself, it should net out and be no cost. On the other hand, if you take into account the taxes paid and some of the other social costs related, which are more subjective, you get costs that are in the billions on both sides, honestly.

So, at this point, we are going to be able to start looking at it now that we have an agreement with more detail from the Office of Management & Budget and the administration and those numbers will be provided.

BLITZER: Rob Portman is the budget director over at the White House.

You've got a tough job ahead of you.

Good luck.

PORTMAN: Thanks, Wolf.

Good to talk to you.

BLITZER: Hope you guys work out a compromise agreement with Congress. The troops need the funding, obviously, to go forward.

PORTMAN: I think we can.

BLITZER: Thank you.

Still ahead, a colleague is trying to call Congressman John Murtha to the mat.

Did Murtha make improper threats or just conduct House business as usual?

Plus, is Senator Barrack Obama taking the gloves off against Senator Hillary Clinton?

The senators and their presidential showdown in our Strategy Session.

We'll be right back.

COMMERCIAL BLITZER: Our Mary Snow is keeping an eye on the wires.

She's watching all the video feeds coming into THE SITUATION ROOM from around the world.

She's in for Carol Costello today.

What's making news -- Mary?

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, gas prices have hit a record high. This is for a sixth straight day. AAA says the average price of a gallon of self-serve unleaded is now almost $3.13 a gallon.

A new survey by the National Retail Federation finds rising gas prices are a growing worry for consumers and retailers. The group says because of that concern, 40 percent of consumers are taking fewer shopping trips. Twenty-four percent are spending less on clothing.

Now, the European Commission is urging the World Bank to name a successor to outgoing president, Paul Wolfowitz, as soon as possible. Wolfowitz announced yesterday he'll resign at the end of June. He's been under fire because of a compensation package he arranged for his girlfriend, a bank employee. The White House says it will move quickly to name a replacement.

And the Bush administration is hoping for results from next week's trade talks with China. A high level delegation will visit Washington for a second round of talks. President Bush's special envoy for China says the administration hopes to strike deals increasing the number of commercial airline flights between the two nations and it hopes to improve energy efficiency in China, with the U.S. of U.S. pollution control technology -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Mary, thanks.

We'll get back to you shortly.

More Americans than ever before are going online for politics. According to a new report, tens of millions of people are watching Web videos, reading blogs, fact checking political candidates all online.

Let's go to our Jacki Schechner -- what do these numbers say, Jacki, about the way people are getting their information nowadays when it comes to politics?

JACKI SCHECHNER, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: I think this Internet thing is catching on, Wolf.

Twenty-one million American adults have watched political videos online as of February 2007, videos like this one of Mitt Romney in 1994 stating that he believed abortion should be legal. This is according to a new presentation by the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

Video sharing sites like YouTube are not only making it easy to post up "got you" moments, but they're making it easy for candidates to potentially reach millions of voters.

This week, Hillary Clinton is using YouTube to ask people to help her pick her campaign song.

Blogs are still very much relevant. Fourteen million people are reading America -- excuse me -- political and media blogs. And this is why the '08 candidates are reaching out, doing conference calls with bloggers like Rudy Giuliani did or blogging about themselves. These are possible candidates like former Senator Fred Thompson.

Other interesting news and notes about where people get their news on campaigns, in the mid-term, 60 percent got news and information from TV network Web sites. Twenty percent turned to blogs and almost 20 percent turned to news satire Web sites like The Daily Show, which could account for all the humor, Wolf, because Pew also says that 32 million have e-mailed jokes about candidates.

BLITZER: A lot of jokes.

A lot of good material out there for comedians.

Thanks very much.

And, of course, you can always go to cnn.com/ticker for the latest political news right here.

Up next, it may be a last chance for President Bush to do something big before his presidency ends.

But can he pull it off?

And a study in contrast and conflict between John McCain and Mitt Romney. Republican presidential candidates and the immigration wars.

All that coming up.

Stay with us.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

COMMERCIAL

BLITZER: Happening now, the search for three missing American soldiers in Iraq is now in its seventh day. We're going to tell you what U.S. military commanders are learning today.

Gaza is descending deeper into chaos. Israeli war planes are pummeling the region, as Hamas and Fatah gunmen shoot at each other with automatic weapons.

Prince Harry is facing another restriction. First he's told he can't go to Iraq. Now there's something else he's told he's not allowed to do. We'll tell you what that is.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

President Bush calls the Senate's new immigration deal a first step toward comprehensive reform. But others think it could be his last hoorah.

Let's go to our senior political analyst Bill Schneider.

The political significance of this immigration reform debate -- it's significant, very significant for the president -- Bill.

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: That's right, Wolf.

It may be the last chance for this president to get a major piece of legislation passed.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I really am anxious to sign a comprehensive immigration bill as soon as I possibly can.

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Immigration reform looks like this president's last hurrah, what with the 2008 presidential campaign already under way.

A president with approval ratings in the 30s has lost the confidence of the country. Ironically, this week, President Bush met with another leader who has lost the confidence of his country, and for the same reason: Iraq.

A British reporter asked President Bush whether Tony Blair was the right man to be talking to.

BUSH: You know, it's interesting -- like trying to do a tap dance on this political grave, aren't you?

SCHNEIDER: British leaders who lose the confidence of their country can be replaced. Blair's Labor Party just voted to replace him with Gordon Brown and move on.

GORDON BROWN, BRITISH FINANCE MINISTER: The scale of the nomination shows to the country a party wholly united in its determination not to retreat into the past.

SCHNEIDER: The United States has midterm elections. President Bush now has to share power with Democrats, just as President Clinton had to share power with Republicans after the 1994 midterms, and fight to regain his influence.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BILL CLINTON, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The president is relevant here.

(END VIDEO CLIP) SCHNEIDER: Is Bush still relevant? Immigration reform will be the test, a tough test.

REP. BRIAN BILBRAY (R), CALIFORNIA: You are going to see a lot of people, Democrats and Republicans, be very upset at every one of the senators who think they put together a great compromise, when, basically, it's going to be seen as a sellout.

SCHNEIDER: Democratic leaders don't sound terribly eager to hand this president a victory.

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MAJORITY LEADER: I think that there's a 50/50 chance that the negotiators can come up with something that will be the beginning point for negotiations.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER: Tony Blair is going out with a big win, peace in Northern Ireland, a very tough test, indeed -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks, Bill, for that.

The immigration war is at the center of an escalating war of words between Republican presidential candidates John McCain and Mitt Romney. McCain is a key backer, negotiator of the new Senate deal on immigration reform.

Romney, however, issued this statement yesterday about the bill. Let me read you a line from it: "I strongly oppose today's bill going through the Senate. It is the wrong approach. Any legislation that allows illegal immigrants to stay in the country indefinitely, as the new Z visa does, is a form of amnesty. That is unfair to the millions of people who have applied to legally immigrate to the United States" -- that statement from Mitt Romney.

Let's bring in our senior political correspondent, Candy Crowley.

Candy, it looks like the feud between Romney and McCain on this issue, but on other issues as well, has been intensifying.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, they say, look, some of it is circumstance. There was the debate. The McCain people say he did not go into the debate looking for a fight with Mitt Romney.

But, when Mitt Romney brought up the immigration bill and other things, campaign finance reform, McCain felt he had to fire back and say, look, I have held my position.

So -- but, when you have a bill that's as high-profile as this, involving a presidential candidate, you are necessarily going to get some back-and-forth. Part of the -- part of what's going on right now is that there is this battle between McCain and Romney for conservative voters.

Now, Rudy Giuliani consistently number one in the polls -- so, why aren't they going after Giuliani? The -- the two camps deny this, but there is a some sense that they feel that perhaps Giuliani is going to fall of his own weight, that his social conservative -- his socially liberal views will not sit well, eventually, with Republicans. So, they are going after each other for what they will believe will be an opening.

BLITZER: You know, and -- and a lot of those conservatives who don't like John McCain for various other reasons are pointing to that picture we saw yesterday of Senator Ted Kennedy speaking, explaining why this new immigration reform legislation is good, and -- and McCain standing literally right behind him.

CROWLEY: Well, look, the McCain people say they expected that there would be this criticism -- criticism. They knew that it was coming.

What they say is, look, the timing at least is OK here, because there are still 18 months to go before the election. We have eight months to go before the January caucuses. So, they feel, let's do it now. If we're going to do it, this is a good time.

BLITZER: How is McCain responding to all of this?

CROWLEY: Well, I mean, his -- he has always said, look, I'm consistent.

You heard that in the debate, and, you know, contrasting himself tacitly with Mitt Romney, saying, I have been the consistent one. I have always been for campaign finance reform. This is how I feel about immigration -- unlike what he sees as the flip-flopping of Mitt Romney on a number of issues, and, by the way, on immigration as well, because they point out that, when the McCain-Kennedy bill came up last year, Romney said he thought it was an acceptable bill.

BLITZER: Candy, thanks.

CROWLEY: Sure.

BLITZER: Candy Crowley and Bill Schneider, as you know, are part of the best political team on television.

Remember, for the latest political news at any time, you can always check out the Political Ticker at CNN.com/ticker.

Don't forget, we're gearing up for our own big debates in New Hampshire. CNN, WMUR and "The New Hampshire Union Leader" are sponsoring back-to-back debates early next month. The Democratic candidates square off on Sunday night, June 3. The Republicans go head to head on Tuesday night, June 5. You're going to want to see it.

Coming up: new pushback against the leading Democrat for using his new power. Did Congressman John Murtha make threats and break House rules? That's the accusation. There is anger. We're going to give you the full story. Also, what do you think would happen if Rush Limbaugh and Bill Clinton ran into one another? The answer may not be what you think. We're going to tell you what happened.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: As a Vietnam War veteran and an Iraq war critic, Congressman John Murtha is used to dodging fire. But now a House Republican is accusing the powerful Democrat of a threat-laden tirade that crossed the line.

CNN's Brianna Keilar is following this story -- Brianna.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it's an escalating game of tit-for-tat that's about to boil over in the House.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KEILAR (voice-over): It started when Congressman John Murtha inserted $23 million into an intelligence bill to fund a drug intel center in his district in Pennsylvania.

Republicans, including Michigan Congressman Mike Rogers, objected to the earmark. Even so, it passed last week.

But now Rogers is accusing Murtha of trying to retaliate against him. He alleges that Murtha, the powerful chairman of the Defense Spending Committee, approached him on the House floor last night and threatened to kill Rogers' future earmarks.

REP. MIKE ROGERS (R-MI), HOUSE PERMANENT SELECT COMMITTEE ON INTELLIGENCE MEMBER: He came to this -- our side of the aisle, and basically said that, you know, you aren't going to participate in the defense appropriations bill in any way for now or forever.

And, when I asked him, gee, that -- to clarify, "That's just not the way we do it here; you aren't trying to make me afraid of you, are I?" he said, "That's the way I do it here."

KEILAR: Murtha's office had no comment, other than to say: "The committee and staff give every Democrat and Republican the same consideration. We have extensive hearings, and every request is given careful consideration. We will continue to do just that."

But now, with quite a bit of fanfare, Rogers is planning to call the confidant of Speaker Nancy Pelosi out on the mat, or at least the House floor. Monday, he will introduce a motion to reprimand Murtha for allegedly violating House rules.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KEILAR: But Rogers is not calling for an Ethics Committee investigation -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Brianna Keilar reporting for us.

Barack Obama's tops our look at the candidates out on the campaign trail. The senator from Illinois is up in New Hampshire at this hour. He's meeting with voters in the state that holds the nation's first primary. Tomorrow, he gives the commencement address at Southern New Hampshire University.

Hillary Clinton is in New Orleans today, touring the hurricane- devastated Ninth Ward. Tomorrow, she is the commencement speaker at Dillard University's graduation ceremony.

While the senator from New York is in Louisiana, her husband is in South Carolina, by the way, tonight. In a move that can only help his wife's campaign, former President Bill Clinton is the keynote speaker at an NAACP awards dinner.

On the Republican side, Mitt Romney is in Georgia today. He's speaking to the Georgia GOP state convention. Tomorrow, the former Massachusetts governor meets with South Carolina Republicans.

And Rudy Giuliani is in Florida today. Florida is becoming more of a player in primary politics, now that it's in the process of moving its contest up to January 29. That's very early.

Up next: immigration deal or no deal?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: One thing we would all agree on, no matter how we are on this issue, that the status quo is unacceptable.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Senate deal-makers may believe that, but many conservatives in the House see it differently. Paul Begala and John Feehery are handicapping the chances for real reform.

Also in our "Strategy Session": Barack Obama's weapon against Hillary Clinton and how well he's using it.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Senator Barack Obama is stepping up his attacks against his Democratic presidential rival Senator Hillary Clinton. And the new immigration overhaul plan is facing some major hurdles as well.

Joining us in today's "Strategy Session," Democratic strategist Paul Begala, Republican strategist John Feehery.

Guys, thanks very much for joining us.

John, let me start with you. Listen to what Rush Limbaugh said on his radio show today about this comprehensive immigration reform package that a lot of Republicans, a lot of Democrats and the president, they all support.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, "THE RUSH LIMBAUGH SHOW")

RUSH LIMBAUGH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: It's the comprehensive destroy the Republican Party act. And the Republicans are too idiotic to figure out that that's what this is.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

BLITZER: He -- he hates this, Rush Limbaugh. And Newt Gingrich said it's a sellout of every conservative principle.

The president has got a problem with his conservative base.

JOHN FEEHERY, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: He's had a problem for a little bit of a while. And this is going to be a tough one to sell to conservatives. And it's also going to be a hard one to sell in the House. I don't know how they pass it out of the House.

Mel Martinez, Jon Kyl did a great job of putting this thing together. The question is, how do you sell it to the rest of the caucus? How do you get it through the -- the Senate? How do you get it through the -- the House? I think it's going to be an uphill battle.

BLITZER: Because Nancy Pelosi says, in the House -- it will probably get through the Senate -- they have got enough votes there -- but, in the House, she says she's not even going to bring it up unless the president can bring 60 or 70 members of his own party to -- to the table and support it.

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Absolutely. And that's the way the game is played. She has that right.

BLITZER: Now, explain to our viewers why that's important.

BEGALA: Because it's got to be a bipartisan deal.

This is George W. Bush's immigration policy, above everything else. And I remember when John was working on the Hill. I was working for President Clinton. He wanted to pass NAFTA, a trade agreement.

Before Newt would even bring it up, or before any of the Republicans would allow it, we had to have like 100 Democrats in the House committed to it. And it was hell getting those guys to be for it. Most Democrats didn't like that trade deal.

Well, I bet most Republicans don't like this immigration deal. But I think Nancy is exactly right. Why make her party walk the plank? This is a test of the president's leadership.

BLITZER: Can the Republicans get 60 or 70 Republicans on board in -- in order to justify it coming up for a vote?

FEEHERY: Wolf, it's possible. It's definitely possible.

The question I have, why would Nancy Pelosi want to even bail George Bush out? Why would Rahm Emanuel want this to pass in the Democratic House, and have the Republicans all run against them, even if 60 do vote? That's going to be a tough haul. I'm not sure if Nancy Pelosi is going to take it up.

BEGALA: Well, she won't unless Mr. Bush shows the leadership.

The reason there's a deal in the Senate is because of Ted Kennedy. This was legislative ledger domain. It was remarkable. I don't know if it's good or bad. I haven't studied it enough to have an opinion. I guess my opinion doesn't matter.

But I know, just as the art of the compromise, as the art of politics, Ted Kennedy is the best senator of the last 100 years, for him to take the most highly charged issue in America and bring the far right and the far left together in the Senate.

Now, George Bush has to do that in the House. That's a test of President Bush's leadership in the House, to deliver 70 or 80 or 90 or 100 Republicans for his policy.

BLITZER: Mitt Romney went after those Republicans who supported it, including John McCain.

Here's how he explained, in part, his support for this legislation.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN: The Fort Dix situation indicated, when you have people who have been here a long time, illegally, and try to kill Americans, indicates that we have got to account for these people who are in this country illegally. And that is -- that can only be accomplished through immigration reform.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right. Is that going to resonate with conservatives out there?

FEEHERY: It could.

And the -- the problem that Romney has is that it's not only him who is going to be saying that. Tom Tancredo and almost every other Republican, other than John McCain, is going to be saying, this is a bad bill.

BLITZER: What about Giuliani?

FEEHERY: Well, I think -- I think the mayor is going to say that this is -- he's going to be pretty quiet on it, because I think he wants to be supportive. But, at the same token, he can't be for it. BLITZER: Meanwhile, there's a little fight going on -- a little fight -- between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama over, I guess, statements she's been making that her position is not very different than Senator Barack Obama's position.

He said this. He said: "Well, I suppose that's true, if you leave out the fact that she authorized it and supported it, and I said it was a bad idea," going to war in Iraq. "You know, that's a fairly major difference."

That's what he says.

How serious of a fight is this between these two Democratic presidential front-runners?

BEGALA: Not very.

And and -- I may be alone in the punditry. I love negative campaigning. OK? I love -- if they -- I want attacks, and lots of them. This is sort of a halfhearted attack, but still not a very smart one, if you ask me.

BLITZER: But, with the -- with the -- the base of the party, the anti-war base, this is significant, that he -- he opposed going to war from the beginning...

BEGALA: Right.

BLITZER: ... and she didn't.

BEGALA: Right, but -- but particularly Iowans. The first people to vote is -- are Democrats and Republicans in the Iowa caucuses.

Well, I don't know Republicans in Iowa caucuses. But I know the Democrats. And they hate attacks. They aren't not like me. They're not -- they're -- they are good people. That's the difference. I'm not.

And the reason Howard Dean lost in Iowa, in part, was because he and Dick Gephardt started attacking each other. That allowed John Kerry and John Edwards to move up through the center. So, a frontal attack like that is -- is not, I think, very wise for Mr. Obama.

BLITZER: Is that the same in the Republican Party?

FEEHERY: I think it is somewhat the same, although you saw Jim Gilmore try to get into some attacks.

I would say, on -- on the Democratic primary, I think it was a big mistake by Senator Obama. I think he should have used surrogates to -- to get this out there. Doing it himself only reflects badly on him.

BEGALA: And did you note Hillary's campaign did not respond?

A few months ago, one of Barack's big supporters, David Geffen, attacked Hillary Clinton, in fact, attacked President Clinton. And the Clinton campaign smashed back.

And I stood here and said, I thought that was dumb, because it was.

FEEHERY: Right.

BEGALA: Because it elevated the whole thing.

FEEHERY: Right.

BEGALA: Now, today, very noteworthy, Clinton campaign refuses to comment. That's a rarity. Usually, they are raring for a fight. And it shows me maybe they have learned something from their early mistakes.

BLITZER: We did -- we did one of her surrogate supporters, her husband, tell our Anderson Cooper this the other night about Barack Obama.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "ANDERSON COOPER 360")

CLINTON: In the beginning, there was this impression that he was the only one that was really against the president's policy in Iraq, which I don't think is accurate. But it, nevertheless, had some legs out there.

The -- her -- his voting record and Hillary's are almost identical, I think, on all the relevant issues.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Do you think he's going to be a huge bonanza for his wife in...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: ... in the Democratic primaries, in the Democratic contests?

FEEHERY: Wolf, I really do. I think that, having him out there, laying these -- this predicate that Obama was with Hillary, and Hillary was with Obama, it's just devastating to the Obama campaign.

BLITZER: All right. What...

FEEHERY: I really think he's a big...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: And what about if she gets the nomination? What role does he play then?

BEGALA: Oh, enormous. I mean, he...

BLITZER: Still? He's very much out in front?

BEGALA: Oh, yes, absolutely.

You know, I always thought that Governor Bush of Texas benefited from the fact that people realized -- they knew he wasn't the same guy as the father. A lot of people mistakenly said he got votes because they thought he was the old man. I don't think they did.

I think people said, well, he learned something from growing up in the White House, and living up with his father, and all that. And I suspect, you know, particularly among Democrats, but also independents in the center, Bill Clinton represents good times in America, successful policies. They like him. And he's the most popular -- he's the most popular person in the world, Wolf, I mean, second to you.

(LAUGHTER)

BEGALA: No, but he is. I mean...

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: ... with the passing of John Paul II.

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: No, it's objective. You can look at any polling data. Bill Clinton is the most popular person on Earth.

BLITZER: We will leave it there.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: Paul, John, thanks, guys, for coming in.

Still to come: Rudy Giuliani's wife raises some more questions about her role in the campaign, the influence of candidate spouses in general. Some are greater assets than others. We're taking a closer look.

And new encouragement for conspiracy theorists about the assassination of John F. Kennedy -- we are going to tell you about a brand-new high-tech study.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: A close race in Iowa appears to be getting even closer.

And that tops today's "Political Radar."

A new Research 2000 poll shows a virtual tie on the Republican side, with John McCain and Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney all within three points of each other. The rest of the Republican field is all in single digits. Hillary Clinton's got the lead among the Democrats, with 28 percent. But John Edwards is just two points behind, at 26 percent, Senator Barack Obama at 22 percent -- the rest of the Democrats all in single digits.

You have already seen him out on the campaign trail and debating his rivals in the race for the Democratic nomination. But, Monday, Bill Richardson will make it official. The New Mexico governor will be in Los Angeles to formally announce he's running for president of the United States.

And they have teamed up to help victims of the tsunami and victims of Hurricane Katrina. Tomorrow, former Presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush are joining forces once again. They are jointly giving the commencement address at the University of New Hampshire.

Remember, for all the latest political news at any time, you can always check out our Political Ticker. Simply go to CNN.com/ticker.

For presidential candidates who spend so many days and nights on the campaign trail, there's no place like home. The Associated Press asked the White House hopefuls to share their favorite reminders of where they came from. Take a look at this.

Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich says a compass, because he lived in 21 different places before he turned 18 years old.

Former Senator John Edwards, who famously called himself the son of a millworker, remembers the textile mills from South Carolina.

New Mexico's Bill Richardson has fond memories of green chili that spiced up his life in his native Southwest.

And Senator Hillary Clinton -- there she is -- Senator Hillary Clinton still craves the taste of Chicago and the olive burgers at the Pickwick Restaurant. It's been renamed the Hillary Burger.

Coming up, the Republican candidates on their home sweet homes -- that's coming up in our next hour.

Many of the presidential candidates' spouses are spending more time away from home and on the campaign trail. And that's often for the better, sometimes, though, for the worse.

Our Mary Snow is joining us once again.

This sort of audition, Mary, for being first spouse, it's a sort of an audition, isn't it?

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It is, Wolf, an audition with little room for error.

The spouses of the '08 candidates are a diverse group, with some firsts among them, and the potential to have a big impact on the race.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SNOW (voice-over): Of the front-runner spouses, a former-nurse- turned-speech-writer is now what the Giuliani camp calls a great asset.

RUDOLPH GIULIANI (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Judith and I are very, very pleased to be here.

SNOW: Judith Nathan, wife of Republican presidential hopeful Rudy Giuliani, was paid $125,000 by her husband, say aides, to help prepare his speeches and public events prior to announcing his candidacy. But he's no longer accepting those speaking fees, and she's no longer getting paid.

Of the front-runner spouse on the Democratic side, there's former President Bill Clinton taking a more visible role in helping his wife get elected.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CLINTON: I'm really proud of the way Hillary's campaign is going.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SNOW: Then there are the career spouses.

MICHELLE OBAMA, WIFE OF SENATOR BARACK OBAMA: My husband, the next president of the United States, Barack Obama.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

SNOW: Michelle Obama is scaling way back on her job at the University of Chicago to get out on the campaign trail. The couple has two small daughters.

CINDY MCCAIN, WIFE OF SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: Thank you very much.

SNOW: Cindy McCain, wife of Republican Senator John McCain, is splitting her time between her career as CEO of the beer distribution company her family owns and campaigning and fund-raising for her husband.

And then there are the spouses battling diseases, but not slowing down.

JOHN EDWARDS (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: And I'm very proud to have my wife, Elizabeth, here.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

SNOW: Elizabeth Edwards is being treated for stage four breast cancer. The Edwards camp says she is playing an active role on the trail and behind the scenes.

And so is Republican Ann Romney. ANN ROMNEY, WIFE OF MITT ROMNEY: And it's been -- it's been a great adventure, being with Mitt all these years. And now it's look like we're on another adventure, sweetheart.

SNOW: Ann Romney was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1998. The Romney camp says she is traveling with her husband three days a week, and often spends one to two days at campaign events on her own.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SNOW: And, given these spouses are so high-profile, some political observers say, one of their biggest balancing acts will be to make sure they keep their role as number two to their spouse, and not steal the spotlight -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Mary Snow reporting for us.

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