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Violence In Mexico Overboils; Too Many Cooks In The Kitchen?; Collecting On The Losses of Loved Ones

Aired March 5, 2009 - 17:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: To our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now, a fight to the death as outgunned army troops battle drug gangs, worried that Mexico's violence could reach this country, the pentagon is now offering some serious help.

Could too many cooks stir up a policy mess over at the White House? Critics take aim at the president's new policy czars.

And if you die without paying your bills, someone may still come calling, trying to collect from your loved ones. We have some unprecedented access to a company that does exactly that. I'm Wolf Blitzer, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

All out war is raging in Mexico where heavily armed drug cartels are battling one another, slaughtering public officials and every day citizens and clashing with that country's armed forces. The pentagon is now taking some steps to try to prevent a spillover across the U.S. border. Let's go to our pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr. She's working this developing story for us. Wow Barbara, what's the latest?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well Wolf., at this hour, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Admiral Michael Mullen is about to land in Mexico on a visit to talk to top officials there. Topping the list of concerns this out of control drug cartel violence.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

STARR (voice-over): Across Mexico, federal army troops outmanned and outgunned by violent drug cartels are in a fight to the death. The mayhem, now a security concern for the U.S. The pentagon stepping in, offering a new round of military aide. Defense secretary Robert Gates on NBC.

ROBERT GATES, U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Providing them training with resources with recognizance and surveillance kinds of capabilities, but just cooperation including intelligence.

STARR: Late last year, elite U.S. military teams went to Mexico to train their forces in counter narcotics and counter terrorism. The U.S. has given Mexican forces helmets, vests, radios and night vision equipment. There are plans to send five bell surveillance helicopters like these and maritime patrol aircraft. How bad is the violence? Last year alone, there were more than 6,000 drug related homicides. JANET NAPOLITANO, U.S HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: They've been targeting in some of those homicides public officials, law enforcement officers as a process of intimidation.

STARR: Napolitano says her department is working with local U.S. law enforcement all across the border region to be ready if this war comes north. A recent U.S. military report underscored the concerns, stating that quote, "Any descent by Mexico into chaos would demand an American response based on the serious implications for homeland security alone."

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STARR: And the nightmare concern, international terrorist groups joining forces with the Mexican drug cartels. A U.S. counterterrorism official tells us there have been reports about groups like Hezbollah operating in Latin America and concerns that they could next turn their attention to Mexico -- Wolf?

BLITZER: We're going to stay all over this story, very worrisome. Thanks very much Barbara for that.

President Obama today warned that skyrocketing medical costs threatened America's families and America's economy. He called for an urgent and massive overhaul of the U.S. health care system.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: In this effort, every voice has to be heard. Every idea must be considered. Every option must be on the table, there should be no sacred cast. Each of us must accept that none of us will get everything we want and that no proposal for reform will be perfect. If that's the measure we will never get anything done.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: The president spoke at a White House summit, bringing together lawmakers, doctors, hospital officials and other experts who broke up into working groups before plotting their strategy. You just saw live the concluding session about an hour for what was going on. I want to go right to CNN's Brian Todd. He's taking a look at this story and the related developments that's going on over at the White House, the decision to bring in a whole bunch of czars, if you will, to coordinate strategy and policy for the entire administration.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Maybe more czars than we've ever seen Wolf. The new health care policy czar Nancy-Ann DeParle was helping to lead that White House summit, just three days after getting the job. But not everyone is a fan of these White House czar positions.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): A flurry of appointments as the new president tries to attack several problems at once. New White House policy coordinators for the economy, health care reform, urban affairs and the environment. But his approach has at least one critic in congress. Robert Byrd is concerned that President Obama may rely too much on White House policy czars instead of cabinet secretaries.

In a letter to the president last week, the democratic senator wrote, "These White House staffers are not accountable for their actions to the Congress, to cabinet officials, and to virtually anyone but the president." Contacted by CNN, an administration official did not respond to Byrd's concerns directly, but said the purpose of the White House positions is to help coordinate input from multiple agencies on complicated issues. Asa Hutchinson, former republican congressman and homeland security undersecretary says such appointments can result in less transparency.

ASA HUTCHINSON, FORMER DEA DIRECTOR: You're less accountable and so any time you're less accountable, you get much more done more quickly, more efficiently but the question is whether it's done better or not.

TODD: But while a czar may have the president's ear --

JAMES PFIFFNER, GEORGE MASON UNIVERSITY: They don't have personnel power. That means that they can't hire and fire people or tell cabinet secretaries to hire and fire people and they usually don't have any budget power either.

TODD: Another challenge, keeping czars and cabinet secretaries from stepping on each other's turf.

PFIFFNER: The more you multiply the czars the more complicated that management problem becomes for the White House.

(END OF VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: So far, Senator Byrd's office reports no response from the White House to his concerns -- Wolf?

BLITZER: The number of czars, how many will there be when all is said and done? What are you hearing, Brian?

TODD: The four that we just mentioned in the piece they're all new positions. Today, President Obama named a technology czar. We're expecting the usual czars like a drug czar, that's happened in previous administrations. But while there was once talk of a so- called car czar, the president has decided to appoint a panel in the end actually to deal with the auto industry. So there's one czar that we're going to avoid I guess.

BLITZER: I guess. Maybe they can come up with a new word other than czar. All right Brian, thanks very much.

Let's go back to Jack Cafferty. He has "The Cafferty File" -- Jack?

CAFFERTY: Didn't President Bush try and get some kind of a war czar into the White House at some point? BLITZER: Yes, I remember that, he did. You're right. You've got a good memory.

CAFFERTY: Yes, for a guy my age, it ain't bad.

BLITZER: That's good.

CAFFERTY: There's a 20 percent chance the U.S. will sink into a full blown depression, according to a professor of economics at Harvard University who has studied global economic cycles for the last 139 years. Robert Barrow writes in the "Wall Street Journal" today, the most serious concern these days is that our economic downturn will become something worse than the largest rescission since World War II. And he comes to the conclusion that there is a one in five chance that America's GDP, gross domestic product and consumption, will fall by 10 percent or more. Something we have not seen since the 1930's.

Barrow found in his research that knowing a stock market crash has occurred sharply raises the odds of a depression happening. That's not good news for us considering the stock market has fallen rather precipitously since the fall of 2007 when the Dow Jones Industrial Average was above 14,000.

However, Barrow writes that on the bright side of all of this, there's an 80 percent chance we won't have a depression. Pointing out how the U.S. had stock market crashes in 2000, in 1973 and both times only experienced mild recessions. Nevertheless, in the 59 non-war depressions Barrow studied across various countries around the world, he found an average length of almost four years, which could potentially push back recovery in this country until 2012.

Here's the question: How concerned are you that the U.S. will experience a full blown depression?

Go to cnn.com/caffertyfile and post a comment on my blog. A lot of people are pretty worried about this thing getting worse than it is and the jobs report tomorrow is going to give us some more insight into how badly things are deteriorating on that front.

BLITZER: Can't wait to hear those numbers right Jack?

CAFFERTY: It's going to be ugly, 700,000 jobs lost maybe last month. It's going to be a big number.

BLITZER: And each one of those jobs is a family and a life.

CAFFERTY: Oh yes, absolutely.

BLITZER: All right Jack, thank you.

A warning to republicans from one of their own.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think we make the mistake as republicans as we try to demonize the president. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: New York Congressman Peter King seeking some common ground with the White House and in serious disagreement with the man he backed for the White House, John McCain, on a very important issue.

And Brad Pitt making the rounds here in Washington, meeting with the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. We have details of what he's seeking. Plus, the first lady Michelle Obama she's been dropping in at various government agencies since her husband took office. But today, she took a very different kind of visit. We'll explain right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We can now confirm here at CNN that our chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta has now decided to withdraw his name for consideration as the next surgeon general of the United States. We're told that Sanjay has decided that he does want to continue to pursue his medical career, he is a practicing neurosurgeon. He also wants to spend more time with his family. His wife is expecting another child right now and of course he wants to continue to be our chief medical correspondent at CNN.

So we are able to report that to you right now. Sanjay Gupta will be staying here at CNN as our chief medical correspondent, will not be the nation's surgeon general. He is going to be a guest tonight on "LARRY KING LIVE" at 9:00 p.m. eastern. I suspect he's going to have a lot more to say about this, also talking about the president's health care reform summit that you saw live unfold here during THE SITUATION ROOM. A lot more coming up. Sanjay Gupta stays as our chief medical correspondent, will not be the surgeon general of the United States.

Meanwhile, the $410 billion spending bill passed by congress includes some 8,000 pet projects added by lawmakers to benefit their districts or their states, and that's drawing a ton of criticism. But one lawmaker definitely is not backing down.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Joining us now from Capitol Hill, Republican Congressman Peter King. Congressman, you disagree totally with your friend, John McCain, over these earmarks. You support the earmarks, he opposes them. He says that these earmarks are an outrageous insult to the American people. You and some colleagues from New York, you support about $218 million in this current spending bill. Why is he wrong and you are right?

REP. PETER KING, (R) NEW YORK: This is a very honest disagreement between me and John McCain. I believe that responsible earmarks are an absolutely essential part of my job as a member of congress. Because if I don't earmark for my district, some faceless bureaucrat in the administration, and a democratic administration, is going to be deciding how money is spent in the third congressional district. I believe as the elected representative I have a much better feel and knowledge as to what's needed. I will defend every earmark that I've gotten from my district for the state and for the region. Now, there's no doubt there are earmarks that are wrong that are bloated and they should be exposed. There are abuses every. We have abuses in the defense department. We won't stop all defense spending. I will stand by my earmarks, I think they're essential. They're in transportation, they're in health care and they're really vital.

BLITZER: Do you agree with him or disagree with Senator McCain? He teamed up this week with Democratic Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin to come up with a new line item veto that would allow President Obama to go through these spending bills and veto line by line some of these earmarks. And they think they have a new way to do it that would past muster with the U.S. Supreme Court. Should the president have this line item veto?

KING: I have very serious doubts about that. I believe that we are giving the president too much power over the legislative body. If you have a president who was doing his job, yes, he may be able to spot areas of abuse. On the other hand, it gives the president extraordinary power to intimidate and in fact shake down a member of congress, saying if you don't support me on this bill, I'm going to knock out the hospital for your district or knock out the health care facility or knock out the school aid for your district. So I'm very concerned about giving the executive that much power of the legislature. And to me it really does violate the separation of power. So I have real concerns about it.

BLITZER: All right, so in other words you disagree with Senator McCain on -- even though you supported him for president, all of us remember.

KING: Absolutely.

BLITZER: Let's talk about health care for a moment. You oppose the president on his economic stimulus package. Are you ready to work with him to reform the nation's health care system?

KING: First of all I believe we have to work with the president. We have to find a way to work with him. I have great regard for the integrity of President Obama. I probably have serious differences about where he wants to go. Having said that, I believe on issues like health care and others, we have to sit down at the table and try to work with him. I believe the president might be more agreeable to that than the democratic leaders who certainly with the stimulus bill tried to ram it through just by having it done themselves. But no, in the end it may be hard for me to agree with President Obama, but let's give it a try, let's sit down and try to find some common areas, especially in New York, where we have real Medicaid issues, we do have serious health care issues. Again, I want to find a way to work with him, maybe improve his bill, find some way to find common ground. I think we make the mistake as republicans, if we try to demonize the president.

BLITZER: Do you hope he succeeds or fails? KING: I hope he succeeds in bringing the country forward, I don't want him to set up what I consider a European social democracy. But having said that, I want the economy to come back. I want us to win in Iraq, I want us to win in Afghanistan. And unlike democrats who opposed President Bush and Iraq or republicans who opposed President Clinton in Bosnia, I think as Americans, we have to make sure, do all we can to make sure that the president succeeds. Because if he succeeds, the country succeeds and that's where I have a disagreement with Rush Limbaugh and the terminology he uses.

BLITZER: What about this commission of inquiry that Senator Leahy, Senator Feingold, some other democrats in the senate, some in the house want to review some of the more controversial decisions of the Bush administration, especially interrogation techniques at Guantanamo Bay. Do you think it's important to go back and review all that right now to learn from the mistakes?

KING: Well I'm actually opposed to it. In fact if anything I think we can learn from the successes. Let's face it, I've been to Guantanamo. I think the president's making a mistake in shutting it down. The reality is, we have not been attacked in seven and a half years because of the measures that President Bush enacted. Listen, if we want to have some differences and change policies, I think we can do that behind closed doors.

Rather than letting our enemy know what our tactics and procedures were, I think Senator Leahy was wrong. Even using a term like Truth Commission, that sort of compares us to South Africa where 20,000 people were killed. The fact is, as far as I know, you have three people water boarded and that saved the lives of thousands of thousands of Americans. I think we did the right thing in doing it.

BLITZER: Are you going to run for that senate seat in New York state in 2010 against the democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand who took over for Hillary Clinton?

KING: I definitely would have run against Caroline Kennedy. I will very likely run against Kirsten Gillibrand. It's a question I will decide by the summer whether or not I believe I can raise the money, it will be about 35 to $40 million. I think she's very vulnerable and I would love to make that run, yes.

BLITZER: Congressman thanks for coming in.

KING: Thank you Wolf.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Disturbing new details about the attack on singer Rihanna by her boyfriend Chris Brown, including what sparked the fight between the two celebrities.

Plus, their loved ones died with debts and now families are paying them off. Even though they don't have to. Who's getting them to do it and how? Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Zain Verjee's monitoring some other important stories incoming to THE SITUATION ROOM right now. Zain, what's going on?

ZAIN VERJEE, CNN STATE DEPARTMENT CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, take a look at this. A construction vehicle turned into a weapon. This was the scene on a Jerusalem highway today as a Palestinian man as you see there rams a tractor into a police car that smashes it against that bus. Israeli police say the tractor driver, a young father from East Jerusalem was shot and killed. The two Israeli police officers in the car survived with minor injuries. It was the third such incident in Jerusalem in the past year.

The chairman of an Indian company bought Mahatma Gandhi's round glasses, leather sandals and other items for $1.8 million. The auction went ahead despite the owner's last minute call for it to be canceled and after India tried to stop the sell. The auction house itself didn't comment, but it did declare a two week delay in delivering the goods to the winner. Many of them Wolf report that the winning bidder plans to return the items back to India.

And surviving Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr are performing together next month. The two are pairing up for a benefit concert at New York's Radio City Music Hall. They're hoping to raise money for a foundation which teaches meditation in schools. Starr and McCartney last performed together in 2002 at a tribute concert for the late George Harrison. Think you'll go, Wolf?

BLITZER: If you can get me some tickets Zain I will be -- get me a couple of tickets.

VERJEE: You have way more sway than I do Wolf. I'm a little person.

BLITZER: I'm going to work on that. All right Zain, thanks very much.

Here's a notion. Throw a tantrum at an airport and get an upgrade. A woman caught on camera after missing her flight in a Hong Kong airport received global attention. We showed it here in THE SITUATION ROOM and now she's getting an apology from the airline. Let's bring in our internet reporter Abbi Tatton. Abbi, why the apology?

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, you've seen the video. In fact, 5 million people have clicked on this video on YouTube of a passenger at a Hong Kong airport in full meltdown after missing her flight. If you look at it you'll see that this seems to have been taped from behind the airline's own counter. The airline Cafe Pacific, says today that it was in fact one of its own employees that taped that video, it later ended up on the web, and now, they're apologizing for the inconvenience and embarrassment the woman may have suffered.

The worker who taped it is being disciplined. The woman that's in the video, well this is what she's getting. She's going to -- this is a woman, if you watch it, she throws herself on the floor, she bangs on the table, she tries to charge the jet way. She will be getting an upgrade and she will be getting more frequent flyer miles as a gesture of good will from the airline. It's about 18,000 comments on this video and some of the most recent ones, are incredulous that she's being rewarded for that tantrum.

BLITZER: That's what happens.

TATTON: Five million people saw the video.

BLITZER: Thank you, she's famous. Thanks very much Abbi.

Candidate Obama was a big hit in Europe. How will he fare in his next trip there as president of the United States? We're going to tell you where he's going. Paul Begala and Kevin Madden they're standing by live.

Plus, the fate of gay marriage in California, it's now in the hands of the state's high court.

And with food donated by White House staffers, the first lady serves lunch in a homeless center kitchen and serves up a message for all Americans. We're share it with you right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: To our viewers you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now, another dismal day on Wall Street. The Dow Jones Industrials falling almost 300 points, more than 4 percent, to a new 12-year low. The NASDAQ and S&P also down more than 4 percent. Investor anxiety is riding high on grim economic news.

Supertankers parked offshore loaded with millions of barrels of oil, but just sitting there. It's part of a plan by oil companies we've discovered what they are up to right now.

And the first lady Michelle Obama serving up lunch at a Washington homeless center. You're going to hear her message. I'm Wolf Blitzer, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

President Obama convening a bipartisan White House summit on health care reform. He urged lawmakers, doctors, insurance company executives and everyone else to keep an open mind and said he's open to compromise.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: If there is a way of getting this done where we're driving down costs and people are getting health insurance at an affordable rate and have choice of doctors, have flexibility in terms of their plans and we could do that entirely through the market, I'd be happy to do it that way. If there was a way of doing it that involved more government regulation and involvement, I'm happy to do it that way as well. I just want to figure out what works. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: He says he just wants to figure out what works. The democratic strategist and CNN political contributor Paul Begala is here, as is the republican strategist Kevin Madden. He's managing director for the Global Park Group, a communications consulting firm that also does legislative strategy. Guys, thanks very much to both of you for coming in. You were there many years ago when Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton for that matter, tried to get health care reform. Didn't exactly work out the way they wanted. Do you think it will work out this time?

PAUL BEGALA, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Yes, you were just a cub reporter. I was struck. I watched some of it on our air today. It was a remarkable session. A couple of huge differences. First off, all the stakeholders were there, right, the industry was there. The pharmaceutical companies, the health insurance, the kind of people who were implacably opposed to the Clinton plan. The president said everything is on the table except the status quo. He said this directly to them. He said and if your goal is to block any reform, that's not acceptable.

I'm hugely optimistic. I think the way this new president is going at it is just right. Congressional leaders were there. One of the mistakes we made was we hatched our plan in private and then brought it to congress. Big mistake. Senator Kennedy, the hero of health care, my hero in life, was there, got off his sick bed and went there. Also Senator McConnell the Republican leader of that senate. So I was very pleased with how this has convened all sides of this.

BLITZER: Very different strategy this time as opposed to '93, '94.

KEVIN MADDEN REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Very different and I think one of the other things is the timing. I think what happened in '94 was that the Clinton administration waited. This has been something the Obama administration wants to do right now. They put it all on the table. They're gambling. They're putting it up front. They're also saying how they're going to pay for it. That was very different than in 1994. We're talking about 600 plus billion dollars in his budget blueprint, so the debate about where the money's coming from is not going to be had as much as the cost being too high.

BLITZER: I don't if you saw the story "The New York Times" today about Hillary care versus what's going on but Sheryl Gay Stolberg of the "New York Times" wrote this. "Mr. Obama is at once trying to distance himself from the baggage Mrs. Clinton carries as the architect of that plan, while demonstrating that he has learned from it. He is drawing on the experience of a host of aides who are Clinton veterans. But he is not relying on Mrs. Clinton herself." She's off busy in Brussels today working on foreign policy.

BEGALA: The foreign ministers are meeting in Brussels.

BLITZER: The point that "The New York Times" was trying to make that in the past several weeks and months, he really hasn't consulted with Secretary Clinton.

BEGALA: Because she has another job to do. I can tell you, having talked to her at the time, why she was hesitant at first to become secretary of state. She has another job now. I think she's doing a terrific job. I think all of us, if we are wise, and this president is very wise, try to learn from successes and mistakes of others. The biggest thing that is different, the money. Special interests, health care lobby industries have spent over $100 million beating Clinton care. This president has the capacity to raise even more than the industry does and in an ethical way.

BLITZER: And campaign --

MADDEN: Everybody. I think all the stakeholders involved, they're going to try to shape this bill. I think that it's going to be, the battle lines are going to be drawn much differently. There seems to be a growing consensus quite frankly among the American electorate that health care has to get done. I think the big challenge for President Obama right now is using the leverage of his popularity versus the popularity of some of the policies. That is where the opportunity is for those who are opponents of the president's plan.

BLITZER: It was compelling at the very end when he said you know what? They're always an excuse not to do it. Times are good, times are bad, war, peace. He said there's no more excuse. He's doing it now and he's going forward because there's no alternative. Thanks very much. Important day here in Washington.

Meanwhile, high emotions in California on this day as a state supreme court revisits same-sex marriage. It's a case drawing huge crowds, but will the justices over turn proposition-8?

Plus, even jets can't keep this collection agency at bay. We have some unprecedented access to see how it's collecting money from survivors who aren't even require to pay.

Stick around. This is information you need to know.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Huge crowds today outside of California's Supreme Court as a hearing goes forward with an effort to try to overturn the ban on gay marriage in California. Let's go to California. CNN's Dan Simon is watching the story for us. What's the latest Dan?

DAN SIMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well hi Wolf. The ban on same sex marriage here in California was a result of proposition-8, narrowly approved by voters in November. The question for the California Supreme Court is whether or not to uphold that ban.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SIMON (voice-over): Starting off were those against prop 8 or for same sex marriage was attorney Shannon Mintier who lived his first 35 years as a female. SHANNON MINTIER, ATTORNEY ARGUING AGAINST PROP. 8: Our government is based on the principle of not just majority rule, but equally so on the limit that majorities must always respect minority rights.

SIMON: Mintier told justices that prop 8 delegates gays and lesbians to second class citizens and it is the courts job to fix an injustice.

MINTIER: To have an official recognition of one's family relationship that is of equal stature and dignity to the recognition given to other couples.

MICHAEL MAROKO, ATTORNEY ARGUING AGAINST PROP. 8: If you're in the marriage business, do it equally. If the state stuck its finger in the marriage business, they should stick it equally, if not, get out of it.

SIMON: Later, for the prop 8 side a figure for the pro prop 8, Kenneth Star. He's now the dean of Pepperdine University's law school and an advocate for many conservative causes.

KENNETH STAR, ATTORNEY ARGUING FOR PROP. 8: We want to restore the traditional definition that has been in place since this state was founded and almost every other court has agreed with the rationality of that. You may think it's bad policy. You may think it's unenlightened.

SIMON: Star argued that rightly or wrongly rights in this country and in California are ultimately defined by the people, which prompted this hypothetical question by the chief justice.

CHIEF JUSTICE RONALD GEORGE, CALIFORNIA SUPREME COURT: Right to free speech, whatever, that can be removed by the simple amendment process.

STAR: We may govern unwisely, but there are failed safe mechanisms under the federal constitution.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SIMON: So Wolf, the question for the California Supreme Court is can the will of the majority trump the rights of the minority. A ruling is expected in about 90 days.

BLITZER: All right. We'll stay on top of the story. Thank you for that.

A collection agency targeting the dead and getting their loved ones to pay debts they may not even be required to honor. What's going on here? Let's go to our national Susan Candiotti. She's received some unprecedented access to one of these agencies. What happened Susan?

SUSAN CANDIOTTI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, you know, it is a touchy subject, trying to collect money from those who died, leaving unpaid bills. There are about a half dozen companies in this country that specialize in that area. Today we did receive unusual access to one located right here in Wilmington, Delaware.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CANDIOTTI: When loved ones are gone, they're likely to leave bills. How do you collect money from the dead? From tiny cubicles in soft earth tones, employees of Phillips and Cohen make a living at it. The company takes great pains to say they bend over backwards to do it with heart.

ADAM COHEN, PHILLIPS AND COHEN: We have to do it morally and we're proud of how we strike that balance between those two.

CANDIOTTI: Here's how they say they do it. Before debt collectors pick up a phone, they spend at least three weeks learning how to deal with grief-stricken families. Employees are told to leave their own troubles at home.

COHEN: From the moment they pick up the phone no matter who they're talking to that person has more reason to be upset about what's going on in their life, so we have to check our personal situations at the door.

CANDIOTTI: The company says in most states, survivors are not legally obligated to pay, if there's no money in the estate, but surprisingly many relatives offer to pay.

COHEN: There are quite a bit more than most people realize of people saying we'd like to offer something because we know that our spouse or our father or mother would have wanted it paid.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes, I was trying to reach the family of the late --

CANDIOTTI: Tonja says she draws on her personal experience.

TONJA JENNINGS, PHILLIPS AND COHEN: I lost both my parents. I keep that in mind.

CANDIOTTI: The company would not let us listen to live calls because of privacy concerns, but provided us with what they said a recorded client call. And by taking its time, its 500 employees worldwide are bringing in big business for an otherwise bleak economy.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

CANDIOTTI: Now how much business, the company won't say, calling it proprietary information and they also will not identify who their clients are other than to say they're collecting on credit card debt, car loans and utility bills. Wolf?

BLITZER: Thanks for bringing that to our viewers Susan Candiotti in Delaware.

Brad Pitt makes a special trip right here to Washington, D.C. He's speaking with the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi. He's lobbying for a project very close to his heart. We'll tell you.

And the singer Chris Brown now facing felony charges for allegedly assaulting his girlfriend, the singer Rihanna. We have new information about what went on that night.

And Michelle Obama dishes out lunch at a homeless center here in Washington and offers a special message to go with the meal. Stick around. We'll share that message with you right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Singer Chris Brown is now facing felony charges on the alleged assault of his girlfriend, Rihanna. And some new disturbing details are emerging about what happened that night. Brooke Anderson has the latest -- Brooke?

BROOKE ANDERSON, CNN ENTERTAINMENT CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, R&B singer Chris Brown is facing serious felony charges of assault and making criminal threats in connection in an incident involving his girlfriend identified in court papers are Robin F. We have obtained the LAPD search warrant affidavit which outlines the allegations these charges were based on. The affidavit says that police were told that early February 8th, Chris Brown and his girlfriend got into a heated argument while in a vehicle. Brown was driving. The woman, Robin F., was in the front passenger seat. Sources close to the couple tell CNN Brown's girlfriend is popular singer Rihanna whose full name is Robin Rihanna Fenty.

OK, according to these documents, as the couple argued, Brown pulled the car over, tried to force her out, but couldn't because she was wearing a seat belt. He then, the warrant alleges, shoved her head into the window, causing a contusion. Police say the woman told them Brown punched her in the eye, restarted the car, then continued punching her with one arm while driving with the other. It says Robin F. told he threatened to beat the blank out of her and threatened to kill her. The documents indicate Brown threw the woman's cell phone out the window after she faked a phone call to one person. When she tried to send a text message to another, she then picked up his cell phone. He allegedly put her in a head lock, bit her on the left ear. The car swerved. He pulls over in the Hancock park area of L.A. More punches, more pummeling, another head lock. Brown allegedly began choking her and she almost lost consciousness. Eventually he exited the car. A resident in the nearby area heard Rihanna's screams for help, dialed 911. Police responded and confirmed the woman on the scene had visible injuries. Now Brown had taken off by the time police arrived.

Brown has publicly said he's sorry for what transpired and is getting counseling from his pastor and loved ones. Rihanna has said that she remains strong and is doing well and appreciated the support she has received. Wolf, Brown is scheduled to appear for arraignment today. Back to you.

BLITZER: Pretty shocking stuff. Brooke, thanks for bringing that story to us. Let's turn to something a little bit more productive here in Washington, D.C. Brad Pitt making the rounds up on Capitol Hill, seeking help for New Orleans charity groups. Let's go to CNN's Zain Verjee. She's got more on this story. What's Brad up to?

VERJEE: It was really star power and starry eyes here in Washington as Brad Pitt came to town.

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VERJEE: And the nominee for movie star lobbyist of the week, Brad Pitt.

BRAD PITT, ACTOR: Thank you, Mrs. Speaker, for opening up the doors for us to come in and discuss the rebuilding effort, the current rebuilding effort going on in New Orleans and how we can expand this idea of affordability and sustainability. As we think we have a model that works.

VERJEE: He met with house speaker, Nancy Pelosi, about efforts to create affordable housing for people who lost homes during Hurricane Katrina. Speaker Pelosi complimented his work and gushed.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), HOUSE SPEAKER: It is really an honor to have him here. And I know for some of my staff and bragging rights to my children and grandchildren, a real treat for me as well.

VERJEE: He also made a guest star appearance at the White House. For a long time, actors and politics have gone hand in hand, Bono and debt relief in Africa, George Clooney at the White House urging action on Sudan. Angelina Jolie testified on the hill on the Darfur crisis. She's shooting a movie in Washington, D.C. right now. And leaving the rounds to Brad.

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VERJEE: So the cameras flashed, star exit stage right. And the Hollywood/Washington connection looks stronger than ever.

BLITZER: I read in the "Washington Post" this morning, Zain, she was shooting some scenes at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Washington. And I know you were out there trying to find her and get an autograph, is that right?

VERJEE: No, that's not right.

BLITZER: It didn't happen?

VERJEE: But you know, Jack Cafferty should make the rounds on the hill every now and then. That's some star power.

BLITZER: A new book coming out in a couple of weeks, soon to be a major motion picture I suspect as well. Jack Cafferty, where are you?

CAFFERTY: Starring Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Both of them as me. The question this hour: How worried are you the U.S. will experience a full-blown depression?

Jim in North Carolina writes: "When you consider the manner in which the Bush administration spent our national treasure and Obama's even worse, I'm extremely worried about a depression. But what worries me even more if we get through this period without a depression is hyper inflation. I'm afraid it's going to be very troubling either way."

Vern in California: "This could turn into a depression if the government isn't careful. I wasn't born until the end of the great depression in the 1930s but my parents told me about the long lines of people seeking work and food. People did anything to survive. It was a terrible time. I hope we don't have to go through it again."

Mike writes: "Keep posting questions like this and we'll have one. A consumer economy is one based on consumer confidence. If consumers perceive and/or are worried about a depression, they will save rather than spend. If that's the case, we will inevitably have a depression. It's effectively a self-fulfilling prophecy."

Gretchen in Denver: "This country was so mismanaged for the past eight years, it's altogether possible we can't avoid a depression. The one thing we can be thankful for is now we have a president who has a brain, and we all need to support him. He's smarter than the entire congress put together. And they should all quit trying to be experts on anything."

Barbara writes: "Not worried. I think it will turn around after two years. I have full confidence in President Obama. But don't think it will happen immediately. As a small business owner, I look forward to health care reform, making it easier to cover my employees."

And Darren writes from Alaska, "It's downright depressing. And it's even worse when you can't afford your antidepressants."

If you didn't see your e-mails here, you can go to my blog at CNN.com/Caffertyfile. Look for yours there under hundreds of others. Would you like a part in my movie, Wolf?

BLITZER: I would a little bit role, you know a supporting role.

CAFFERTY: A little cameo role. We'll write something.

BLITZER: Thank you.

Millions of barrels of oil just sitting in super tankers parked offshore. It's part of an oil company's strategy. We're going to have details of what's going on.

Plus, the first lady, Michelle Obama, in a very different role. She's serving lunch and urging others to do the same. We're going to hear her message in her own words. That's coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: People showing up for a free meal at a homeless help center here in the nation's capitol. Got quite a surprise today. Some had their lunch served by the First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama. And she urged Americans everywhere to consider volunteering at soup kitchens in their communities. Here's the first lady in her own words.

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MICHELLE OBAMA, FIRST LADY: My purpose here is to listen, learn and to scoop some risotto. And hopefully everybody was satisfied with my scoops. Can I hear something for my scoops? I just want to --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you.

M. OBAMA: I just want to reiterate what Scott said. We are facing some tough times in this country. And there is a moment in time when each and every one of us needs a helping hand. Miriam's kitchen has become a place where so many people have been able to find that helping hand. And we have to -

I want to, on behalf of the White House, and the administration, thank the staff and the volunteers of the Miriam kitchen for their focused work over the past 26 years, providing a home for their guests, folks who represent all of the best that this country has to offer. Their work here has meant the world to so many. And it is an example of what we can do as a country and as a community to help folks when they're down.

That's why I want to urge people who are listening that if you have an opportunity to come by, not just this soup kitchen, but any soup kitchen in your community, and helping is an easy thing to do. Collect some fruits and vegetables. Bring by some good, healthy food. You know, we want to make sure that our guests here and across this country are eating nutritious items. Today we had fresh risotto with mushrooms. We had broccoli. We had fresh baked muffins with carrots in it. And my understanding is that this facility is able to provide that kind of meal for about $1.50. And that's an incredible thing to remember. That we can provide this kind of healthy food for communities across this country, and we can do it by each of us lending a hand.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: First lady speaking earlier at a homeless shelter earlier. White house staffers, by the way, donated eight crates of fresh fruit, some of which was served today. The first lady's visit to that Washington homeless center today comes at a time when the nation's capitol, Washington, D.C., is in need of some extra help. According to the census bureau, Washington ranks right now eighth in the nation with more than one in six people living below the poverty line. D.C.'s rate is higher than the national average at 16.4 percent. The government defines a person living in poverty is someone earning less than $10,600 a year.

And to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM. Happening now, President Obama suggests it's now or never for health care reform. Just wrapped up an emergency summit on this life- and-death issue and he said he's open to every idea on the table. He said he's flexible.

Plus, Senator Ted Kennedy at the summit and on a mission.