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THE SITUATION ROOM

No Info from Iran on U.S. Detainees; Iran Standoff: From Bad to Worse; Refueling Cash for Clunkers; Interview with Ray LaHood; No Break from Health Care Battle

Aired August 3, 2009 - 17:00   ET

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


SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN ANCHOR: You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now, Iran is stonewalling about the fate of three American hikers apparently seized when they strayed across the border -- how a tough diplomatic standoff may go from bad to worse.

Suddenly car sales are up, but the Cash for Clunkers program is running out of cash.

Should Congress keep the money flowing?

We'll hear from dealers, car buyers and the Transportation secretary.

Plus, giant snakes weighing up to 200 pounds strangling and eating whatever they catch -- tens of thousands on the loose in Florida. We'll take you into the Everglades with a python hunter.

Wolf Blitzer is off today.

I'm Suzanne Malveaux.

And you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

The U.S. is urging Iran to tell what it knows about three American hikers apparently detained after wandering over the Iranian border from Iraq. But so far, Iran seems to be stonewalling. We'll get the very latest from CNN's Arwa Damon in Baghdad.

ARWA DAMON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Suzanne, State Department officials are saying that Swiss diplomats were unable to obtain any information after meeting with Iranian officials about the status and whereabouts of three Americans who have gone missing. They strayed into Iran, according to Kurdish officials, from Iraq's Kurdish north and are believed to be held by Iranian security guards.

The three Americans were tourist -- backpackers, the type of people that like to wander off of the beaten path. And they were visiting Northern Iraq, with a fourth friend of theirs who stayed behind in Sulaimaniya. The last that this fourth friend heard from them came in the form of a phone call at 1:30 on Friday where they said that they were surrounded by Iranian security guards.

The information coming out of Tehran -- or lack thereof it -- is rather disconcerting given that it is Iranian television that was also reporting that these three had been detained by Iranian security guards. Everybody is scrambling at this point to figure out exactly what happened to these Americans and how to make sure they get back home safely, before this becomes an international incident -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Thank you, Arwa.

Protesters back in the streets of Tehran today. Iran's government may have all it can handle right now, facing growing opposition at home and growing pressure from abroad.

Let's turn to CNN foreign affairs correspondent, Jill Dougherty -- Jill, taking on three American detainees obviously can only complicate this really bad situation.

JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, Suzanne. You know, things already were delicate enough between the United States and Iran. And now, add to the mix that unpredictable element of those tourists who may have strayed over the border into Iran. It couldn't happen at a worse time.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DOUGHERTY (voice-over): Iran's supreme leader officially endorses Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for a new term as president. But the post-election turmoil is complicating U.S. efforts to free three American tourists hiking near the Iranian border, now believed to be detained in that country.

HILLARY CLINTON, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: We want this matter brought to a resolution as soon as possible and we call on the Iranian government to help us determine the whereabouts of the three missing Americans and return them as quickly as possible.

DOUGHERTY: With no diplomatic relations between Tehran and Washington, the U.S. has to rely on the Swiss ambassador as the go- between.

While dealing with the fate of those Americans, the Obama administration is on a diplomatic high wire, balancing efforts to engage Iran and working with its allies to pressure Iran to give up its nuclear program.

The State Department says Iran's political distraction makes that even harder.

P.J. CROWLEY, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN: Iran has its hand full right now. Even today, you know, two days before the inauguration of the president, it still has not yet convinced its people that this is a legitimate government.

DOUGHERTY: But U.S. officials say patience is running out and they're considering pushing for even tougher U.N. sanctions, including possibly banning gasoline imports to Iran, which, despite being oil- rich, can't make enough gas for its own people.

CLINTON: In the absence of some positive response from the Iranian government, the international community will consult about next steps. And certainly next steps can include certain sanctions.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

DOUGHERTY: And there's an apparent deadline looming. Unless Iran indicates that it is willing to talk by time President Obama addresses the U.N. General Assembly in this -- this September, officials say that the U.S. could begin to talk with its allies about those sanctions -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Jill, we heard the secretary talk about possible next steps.

Do we have any clear sense what the administration plans to do?

DOUGHERTY: You know, it's remarkably unclear, because of the lack of clarity of what's going on in Tehran, Suzanne. And even pushing for these sanctions, nobody knows, you know, would the Russians go along, would the Chinese go along, how, at that point, in another month from now, would the Iranians react. There are a lot of really unclear elements to all of this at a very bad time.

MALVEAUX: OK. Thank you.

Jill Dougherty at the State Department.

Jack Cafferty is in New York with "The Cafferty File" -- Jack, what are you watching this hour?

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Well, I've got two questions. The first one is who goes hiking along the border between Iran and Iraq?

MALVEAUX: A very good question.

CAFFERTY: Morons.

The Obama administration -- now we'll get to the second one. The Obama administration is not ruling out tax increases on the middle class and this could be a huge deal.

During the campaign, you recall, candidate Obama repeatedly promised the middle class would not see their taxes increase, "one single dime." In fact, he said he would cut taxes for 95 percent of all working families because "In an economy like this, the last thing we should do is raise taxes on the middle class."

Fast forward one year. After bank bailouts, auto bailouts, the economic stimulus package and yada, yada, yada, the president is trying to figure out a way to pay for all of this and health care reform, while reducing the ever-growing national debt and deficits. There aren't a lot of choices here -- you either raise taxes or you cut spending.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs today insisted the president will not break his campaign promise. But Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and National Economic Council Director Larry Summers both sidestepped questions over this past weekend about raising taxes on the middle class. And you can just bet their answers weren't accidental.

Geithner said they're not ready to rule out a tax increase to lower the deficit and Summers said that health care overhaul needs money from somewhere: "It's never a good idea to absolutely rule things out no matter what."

The problem with all this is it's the president who ruled it out, remember?

We all remember how former President George Herbert Walker Bush famously promised: "Read my lips, no new taxes".

A couple of years later, he raised taxes. That was the end of his presidency. He lost his bid for re-election to Bill Clinton after one term.

So that's our question: Would breaking his word on tax hikes for the middle class make Barack Obama a one-term president?

Here's a hint -- probably.

Go to CNN.com/caffertyfile and you can post a comment on my blog.

You wouldn't go hiking along the border between Iran and Iraq, would you?

MALVEAUX: I'd probably find a different place. The Appalachian Trail, I hear, is nice this time of year.

CAFFERTY: Yes. Ask the guy in South Carolina.

MALVEAUX: Exactly.

Thanks. Thanks, Jack.

CAFFERTY: All right.

MALVEAUX: Michael Jackson's mom gets custody of his kids -- will she also get at least partial control over the pop star's estate?

Plus, the Cash for Clunkers program is running on empty just as car sales are starting to pick up.

Should Congress refuel the program with another $2 billion?

And at least two dozen people are hurt when an airline hits severe turbulence. You'll hear from passengers and see pictures from inside the plane.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: Well, suddenly car sales are up. And the Cash for Clunkers program is getting a lot of the credit from dealers and buyers alike. But the program is running on empty.

Should Congress refuel it with another couple billion dollars? Our Congressional correspondent, Brianna Keilar, is looking into that -- and, Brianna, what are you learning today?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Suzanne, a pretty significant development. Two key senators who opposed passing more money for Cash for Clunkers because they didn't think the fuel economy standards were strict enough have changed their minds.

Democrat Dianne Feinstein and Republican Susan Collins are announcing as we speak that they will support this extension after an initial analysis by the Obama administration showed consumers are trending toward higher fuel economy vehicles than the law requires.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KEILAR: (voice-over): Christopher Cheris and Mary LaFleur (ph) were going to wait until next year to get rid of their 1998 Nissan Pathfinder, which gets 15 miles per gallon.

CHRISTOPHER CHERIS, CUSTOMER: We qualify (INAUDIBLE).

KEILAR: Then they qualified for a $3,500 rebate toward a new car under the government's Cash for Clunkers program.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We just don't want to miss that -- to miss this program.

KEILAR: That sentiment is fuelling a boom at Neal Cooperman's (ph) Toyota dealership outside New York City.

NEAL COOPERMAN: The sales have picked up at least 50 to 75 percent.

KEILAR: But the buying frenzy could be short-lived.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The bill is passed without objection. The motion to reconsider is laid on the table.

KEILAR: The House of Representatives passed a $2 billion expansion of the program before adjourning for August recess last Friday. But it's uncertain if the Senate can do the same before it leaves at the end of this week.

Many Republicans oppose Cash for Clunkers.

SEN. JIM DEMINT (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: The government should not be in the used car business. And this is just a great example of how badly the government manages things.

KEILAR: Some Democrats have major reservations about extending the current program as is. Senator Claire McCaskill said on Twitter: "The idea was to prime the pump, not subsidize auto purchases forever."

For now, prospective buyers like Cheris and LaFleur continue to be enticed by hefty rebates. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You know, I believe -- I (INAUDIBLE) the car today.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KEILAR: Now it's still unclear if other potential buyers will get the same opportunity because the clock is ticking in the Senate. It leaves for recess at the end of the week and it's still unclear if Democratic leaders will be able to get the 60 votes they need to pass an extension of Cash for Clunkers.

And what's more, Suzanne, the Senate has a very busy week before leaving for recess. They're also scheduled to debate and vote on Sonia Sotomayor's appointment to the Supreme Court.

MALVEAUX: OK, Brianna.

Thank you so much.

With business picking up, is it a time for the car industry to stand on its own four wheels, essentially?

Joining me now, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

Thank you for joining us here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Obviously, there is some good news to this picture. You've got Ford, GM, Chrysler and Honda all saying they're reporting dramatic increases in sales thanks to the Cash for Clunkers program. It seems to me as if you have done what you set out to do, this legislation, the program. You put a billion dollars into the program. These car companies are doing well.

Why extend it now?

Why more taxpayer dollars into this program?

RAY LAHOOD, TRANSPORTATION SECRETARY: Because this is what the American people want. And for the first time in two years, Ford has an increase in their sales. And this will continue for G.M. It will continue for Chrysler. It will continue for other car manufacturers if the program continues. And it will be a lifeline to the automobile industry, to American workers who manufacture cars and to our economy.

If something is working, we should continue it. And that's the purpose of us asking the Senate to put forth $2 billion, the way the House did last week.

MALVEAUX: A lifeline for the industry, but when does it become life support?

When do you have to basically say you're on your own now, enough is enough of taxpayer dollars, now it's time for you to go ahead and make it on your own?

LAHOOD: This is part of the cure for the industry. And it's for automobile workers, also. And also, salesmen who sell cars. And also, for automobile dealers, who haven't seen people in their showrooms for months.

And so as we continue this program, we will know pretty quickly that this will be the lifeline that will save this industry for America and for the workers and for the car salesmen and for the automobile dealers.

MALVEAUX: How will you know when the appropriate time is to cut off the funds?

LAHOOD: Well, as we ramped up, we had no I -- I mean we were shocked at the number of people who came into the showrooms. And as people begin to buy automobiles and continue to do that, we will know pretty quickly when the program has sort of run its course. I think we'll know that by the number of people who are in showrooms and the number of automobiles that are sold.

MALVEAUX: How do you respond to some of those senators -- obviously, Claire McCaskill -- who says we simply can't afford anymore taxpayer dollars to extend Cash for Clunkers, the idea was to prime the pump, but not subsidize auto purchases forever?

LAHOOD: Well, we can't afford not to, because the automobile industry is hurting, American workers are hurting. Dealers are hurting. We know this has been a very strong lifeline. We want to continue that. We want to continue it through the month of August.

We believe that $2 billion will continue to be helpful. And then, you know, Congress can decide when they come back after Labor Day. And we'll also have much better figures then, too, as to how much longer we should proceed.

MALVEAUX: Do you have any idea how long you think the $2 billion will -- will keep this program going?

LAHOOD: We believe it will take us through the -- through the month of August until after Congress comes back after Labor Day.

MALVEAUX: Obviously, one of the goals -- the main goal of this program, too, is the environment -- protecting the environment, less carbon footprint, better gas mileage. You have these cars, we've seen them at many dealers we've been to. You bring them in there. They put some sort of mixture into the engine, destroy it. You've got the scrap metal.

What happens to all those heaps of -- of metal and what these cars once were?

Where do they go?

How does that impact the environment?

LAHOOD: Yes. The engine is killed. So you actually kill the engine that's producing a lot of the pollution and the gas guzzler engine is killed. But the water pump, the brakes, you know, will be -- will go to a scrap yard. And you'll have automobile dealers who are trying to find parts for different automobiles using the brake parts or the water pump or the fuel pump.

And so the scrap dealer will make some money off of this, too. And, again, it helps the economy because the scrap dealer can actually then sell these off to dealers or car maker -- car people that want to use them.

MALVEAUX: And real quick, Mr. Secretary, the last go round, the -- some of the -- the Web site -- and the White House Web site, it crashed there were so many people who were interested. There was six hours of paperwork per vehicle for some of these dealers to -- to actually process.

What do you do the second go round to make this better?

What are you going to do differently?

LAHOOD: Our people were in Delaware yesterday. We've hired Citigroup to help us and Oracle to help us, as contractors to help us. They've hired additional people. We will have many more people processing these deals as they come through. And we believe there will be enough people -- and enough trained people -- to make sure we don't have the same kind of dilemma that we faced the first four days of the program.

MALVEAUX: All right. Secretary LaHood, thanks for joining us here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

LAHOOD: Thank you.

Thank you.

MALVEAUX: The mother of the man accused of carrying a fake bomb into LaGuardia Airport defends her son. Scott McGann's mother says there is a reason behind his behavior.

Also, severe turbulence would be a nightmare even if it didn't happen in the middle of the night, like it did on a Continental flight from Brazil to Texas.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All the lighting and all where the masks come down and everything, people that weren't seat belted in flew up and hit the ceiling. So their faces -- their heads hit the plastics and broke all the plastics up at the top.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MALVEAUX: We'll take you inside the plane and show you photos taken by a passenger.

Stay with us.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: Brianna Keilar is monitoring the stories incoming into THE SITUATION ROOM right now -- and, Brianna, what are you watching?

KEILAR: Well, Suzanne, severe turbulence slammed a red eye flight from Brazil to Texas, injuring at least two dozen people. The plane made an emergency landing in Miami.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And all of a sudden, the plane just kind of like takes a dip and rises up. And you see people going off their seats, people screaming, little kids crying, people screaming: "Please, ow, please, I can't take it."

And then some -- even some of the flight attendants got hit. They have scratches on their faces. And luckily we had a doctor there, so he could walk around and see how people were. And one lady, she just came out of her seat and flew over the middle row, hit her head on the wall and landed on her back like this. She -- and not to mention the elderly people. There were like two seniors that were hospitalized.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KEILAR: And really scary stuff. And later, CNN's Brian Todd will join us with advice on what you should do if you ever find yourself in that situation.

The mother of the man who prompted a shut down of LaGuardia Airport on Saturday reportedly says her son suffers from schizophrenia. Thirty-two-year-old Scott McGann is accused of carrying a fake bomb into the airport. He is scheduled to undergo a psychiatric analysis before he goes to court on Thursday. And McGann is charged with making terrorist threats and placing a false bomb in a transportation hub.

They have her biography for sale in the gift shop and now First Lady Michelle Obama is an honorary chairwoman of the National First Ladies Library in Canton, Ohio. Mrs. Obama joins other first ladies on the board of the educational site. And library officials tell us, Suzanne, that they will post a Michelle Obama curriculum plan on their Web site for the fall semester.

Interesting.

MALVEAUX: Well, we'll see what they're going to learn there from Michelle Obama.

KEILAR: Exactly.

MALVEAUX: OK.

Thanks, Brianna.

Well, custody of Michael Jackson's children goes to his 79-year- old mother.

Will she also gain control over at least part of the pop star's estate?

Plus, Uncle Sam wants you -- if you're good enough and smart enough -- a first ever ad campaign to recruit Army officers.

And giant pythons -- tens of thousands of them on the loose in Florida.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's a large predator. And they're eating basically everything in sight. That's the problem.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now, an 18-year-old mystery is solved. The Pentagon says remains have been found of the first American officer killed in Desert Storm in 1991. Michael Scott Speicher was flying an F-18 Hornet when he was shot down.

And teenagers kidnapped and brainwashed -- an amazing claim from some young boys who say the Taliban was training them to be killers.

I'm Suzanne Malveaux.

And you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

As Congress begins its August break, there is no break from the health care battle. Lawmakers will be hearing it from both sides in the weeks ahead.

Our senior political correspondent, Candy Crowley, joining us now -- it doesn't really sound, Candy, like very much of a vacation.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Certainly not a fun one, I can tell you that. You know, the House has already left for August recess. The Senate leaves at the end of the week. A month at home all brings to mind that old saying, be careful what you wish for.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CROWLEY: (voice-over): Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter took along HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to Philadelphia to talk health care reform.

Here's a little bit from YouTube.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM YOUTUBE.COM)

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER (D), PENNSYLVANIA: (INAUDIBLE) it's very fast (INAUDIBLE).

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CROWLEY: Suddenly, the August recess seems pretty long. It was more sedate, but doing rounds at a Denver hospital, Senator Michael Bennett did not sound like a man in a huge hurry to pass health care reform.

SEN. MICHAEL BENNETT (D), COLORADO: The more one gets into this, the more you see how complex a system it is. It's very important that we don't create a bunch of unintended consequences that compound problems and struggles that people already have.

CROWLEY: August recess has begun for most Capitol Hill lawmakers, who are headed home with one thing on their mind -- health care. Actually, two things.

AMY WALTER, HOTLINE: Members are always thinking about running again so 2010 top of their mind.

CROWLEY: Even those not up for re-election next year feel the heat of an August recess when a hot topic like health care is in limbo on Capitol Hill. Senator Kent Conrad will do listening sessions across North Dakota.

QUESTION: What impact will that have on you?

SEN. KENT CONRAD (D), NORTH DAKOTA: Well, it would have a great impact. You know, I -- I represent the people of North Dakota. They're the ones that elected me.

CROWLEY: But bet your last dollar that August recess this time will have a lot more to do with talking than listening.

CONRAD: I think it's also very important that people across the country hear that the course we're on is not sustainable.

CROWLEY: On the House side, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Republican leader John Boehner sent talking points to their members, basically boiling down to two broad themes.

WALTER: Big evil insurance companies versus socialized medicine.

CROWLEY: Time is not on the side of Democrats, many of whom wanted health care done before recess. The longer the issue hangs out there, the more it becomes a pinata. Advantage -- the critics.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

CROWLEY: And those critics of Obama-style reform say the more people learn about it, the less they like it; while supporters argue it's not that Americans are learning more about reform, it's that they're learning erroneous things about reform. And with no single plan that has jelled on Capitol Hill, Suzanne, it really allows both sides to battle this out in the abstract, making it easier for both to insist that they're right -- Suzanne. MALVEAUX: They always insist they're right.

CROWLEY: Yes.

MALVEAUX: Well, we'll see how it goes the next four weeks or so.

Thank you, Candy.

Well, as the health care battle heats up, let's bring in Democratic strategist Karen Finney and former Republican Congressman Tom Davis.

Thanks for joining us here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Former President Bill Clinton, in an e-mail to fundraisers, is weighing in on this now. I want you to hear this. He says it seems like the 1993 health care debate all over again. Just as I did in 1993, President Obama has run into a buzz saw of special interest opposition to his domestic policy priority, health care reform. Simply put, they're at it again."

Is this helpful for President Clinton to weigh in on the health care reform debate?

KAREN FINNEY, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: I think it is actually because I think it reminds people what's at stake and that we've been this close once before or been close once before, only to see it attacked with misinformation.

And August is going to really to be a very critical moment in this campaign for health care reform. The grassroots on the progressive side and people who want real health care reform have really got to get out in August and make their voices heard.

So I think reminding people that we've been here before and we've let that moment slip away and we don't want to let that happen again is a good thing to do.

MALVEAUX: Congressman, it was a moment but it was a moment where they failed essentially. Is that a good idea for them to...

THOMAS DAVIS (R), FORMER U.S. REPRESENTATIVE: They failed -- and they lost Congress as a result of that. And at this point, you have strong sides for this and against it. It's really going to be decided among independent voters, many of whom have health insurance. So the talking points as we go into August are going to shape the opinion of congressmen when they come back and have to vote on this in the fall.

MALVEAUX: I want you to listen to this. This is a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. He says it's nice they'll finally hear Democrats admitting that they are re-running the failed Hillary-Care playbook from 1993.

Do you think that the president, President Obama -- should he seek support or should he seek advice from President Clinton or Hillary Clinton, who's sitting there right in his White House, when it comes to health care reform?

FINNEY: Look, I think they already did that in terms of looking at what went wrong and what went right in '93 and '94, and obviously Rahm was there then and he's there again now.

And again, I think it's not about to -- not surprised to hear that kind of a quote coming from -- on that side. What's interesting is actually the Republicans are the ones who seem to be running the same old playbook, we're hearing the very same attacks, the very same people kind of lining up against health care reform.

Going to take away your Medicare and it's going to government-run health insurance. You know we have three government-run health insurance programs in this country, one that members of Congress enjoy, one that our veterans have access to, and something called Medicare, and they actually work pretty well.

MALVEAUX: Congressman, running the same old playbook here?

DAVIS: No, not at all. I think the Democrats, to some extent, are because once again it's one party. There are no Republicans involved except in the Senate. The Senate offers some hope. Senator Baucus has sat down with some Republican leaders trying to craft a bipartisan plan. Ultimately, I think that's the only thing that's going to work with public opinion and political.

FINNEY: The problem there in part, because you know, you have some Republican senators making it clear that they want to use health care to take President Obama down rather than actually coming together with -- to the table with new ideas.

MALVEAUX: How would you grade -- go ahead.

DAVIS: Well, you also have Democrats jumping on Senator Baucus for working with the Republicans because they think they don't want to water down plan, they want to go all the way. So you have both these tensions.

MALVEAUX: How would you grade the Obama administration on health care if you were to give a grad today?

DAVIS: That's incomplete at this point. I think what's going to happen is at the end of the day can they pass it through both Houses and get it signed, and anything else is incomplete. It was -- it's gone further than it ever has before. Let's give him some credit.

MALVEAUX: Karen, what do you think? What's your grade?

FINNEY: I give it a b, but again I think that...

MALVEAUX: A b.

FINNEY: This next month is critical because I think we're going to win or lose frankly based on what happens in August.

MALVEAUX: I want to bring in our Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton, who also -- she's talking to viewers and she's giving a chance for them to actually weigh in on this and grade the president themselves.

Abbi, can you explain how this is working?

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Suzanne, this is CNN.com/reportcard where voting is now open on President Obama's second 100 days. The voting is going on. And on the issue of health care, it's not going too well for the president right now.

The average grade that we're getting so far across a lot of the country is a D. There's a couple of C-minuses in there elsewhere as well. But this voting is still on, though. The second 100 days is up Thursday night so vote here. Let me show you how it's done.

If you go here and say, these are 10 different questions, say you wanted to give the president a B on health care, you would submit it here. You're going to add your state so you can be added to that map here. It's not just health care. It's the economy. It's how Congress is doing.

The voting is still open now. The results, we're going to be bringing you Thursday night 8:00 p.m. Eastern.

MALVEAUX: All right. Fascinating, Abbi. We look forward to the viewers weighing in on all of that. Also of course, I want to bring up really quickly here the final -- perhaps the final point here on this whole Obama, Professor Gates, Sergeant Crowley, the controversy.

Professor Gates weighed in, used some humor to try to diffuse the situation when he talked about his own meeting at the White House, that beer summit last week. I want you to listen to what he said earlier.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR., PROFESSOR, HARVARD UNIVERSITY: You know what, I like Crowley. I thought that we would like each other, and, you know, I don't know what we'll talk about. But I asked him if he would have lunch with me one-on-one. You know, I offered to get his kids into Harvard.

(LAUGHTER)

If he doesn't arrest me ever again.

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MALVEAUX: Hopeful or hurtful, his comments there, Karen?

FINNEY: Helpful. It's shows he's moving on and we can all move on and maybe have good, productive discussions in our own lives.

MALVEAUX: Congressman?

DAVIS: It's not helpful. It just tears off an ugly scab -- class, culture, race. It's divided the country for some time. The sooner we get this behind us, I think the better off with the administration.

MALVEAUX: All right. Thank you very much. We'll have to leave it there. Thank you once again.

A final ruling for the children of Michael Jackson. One mom gets the custody. The other, visitation.

And the Obama administration stakes its claim in the higher tax debate with the old refrain, no new taxes, but the addendum, unless you make a certain salary. The "Cafferty File" takes your pulse.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: Michael Jackson's 79-year-old mother was granted permanent custody of his three children today. And she's also battling for at least partial over his estate.

Let's go live to CNN's Randi Kaye. And Randi, what happened in court today?

RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: A lot happened, Suzanne. There was a little bit of drama, actually, before anything really got under way. Michael Jackson's longtime dermatologist, Dr. Arnold Klein, actually had a lawyer in court who told the judge that his client would like to have some influence on the lives of these children, have a say in their medical care and their education.

And this really came out of nowhere. As you probably know, there's been a lot of talk about whether or not Dr. Arnie Klein may actually be the biological father of these two children and regarding the custody of them this really did, like I said, it came out of nowhere.

He had said that to his knowledge he's not the father but he does admit that he did once donate sperm. He told that to CNN. So he's really unclear at this point. The judge told his lawyer that he could not have a say at the table here and moved on to the custody battle.

The judge did grant final approval on the deal that was reached on Friday between Katherine Jackson, Michael Jackson's mother, and Debbie Rowe, his ex-wife. The two agreed that Katherine Jackson would have custody of the children and that Debbie Rowe would have visitation. They're also going to consult a child psychologist.

So that seems to be done. We're also told that no money exchanged hands in that agreement.

Now, also, regarding the estate, that was taken up after about an hour and 40-minute discussion of both sides huddled, trying to work out some deals with the estate. But then they came before the judge and said, you know what? We haven't come to any agreement here. We need some help with these terms. The main thing that's happened so far at this hour is that the judge told the special administrators of the estate that they would need to give Katherine Jackson this document that she had been requesting. She said that they've kept her in the dark on a lot of these documents and she wanted the agreement, the contract between Michael Jackson and AEG, the promoter of his final tour.

She wanted to know what was in there. She really wants a seat at the table. Well, they did agree to that. She agreed to keep this document confidential and the special administrators will be handing that over to her.

Also, one last thing. Katherine Jackson's lawyer has demanded that the estate, special administrators be deposed. She wants to make sure there aren't any conflicts of interest in terms of other dealings that they had -- Suzanne?

MALVEAUX: And Randi, did we learn about how much the estate is worth?

KAYE: That's a question really, and you get a different answer depending on who you ask. If you talk to Lendell McMillan, who is Katherine Jackson's lawyer, he has put the value at about $2 billion, but those who I've spoken to who are very close to the dealings in the estate say it might be worth about $100 million with the potential, a lot of potential, given the record sales after his death and there's -- his book is being re-released, his memoir.

There's also some talks that the concert footage from his rehearsal videos with AEG will also be made into a movie and sold. So there is a lot of potential there. And speaking with someone who's an expert in this field and pays attention to this stuff, he says Michael Jackson may stand to be the biggest grossing performer of all time.

COLLINS: Wow. OK. Randi Kaye, thanks for the update.

Uncle Sam wants you. The Pentagon is adding more troops and will need more officers to command them.

Our CNN Pentagon correspondent Chris Lawrence is joining us. And Chris, how is the military reaching out?

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Suzanne, in all its history, the army has never specifically advertised for officers until right now.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: An army officer learns to reach new heights.

LAWRENCE (voice-over): The army needs officers. And it's launching its first-ever ad campaign to recruit them.

BRYAN SMART, STUDENT: Put a lot of thought into it you know. I'm not, you know, one to be a part of the army.

LAWRENCE: The goal -- change the minds of college students like these.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Then I heard the commercials, and then I thought about it more but it still wasn't enough.

GEORGE DEWEY, MCCANN ERICKSON, NT: When they thought they were seeing just another army ad, they would shut it off immediately.

LAWRENCE: So ad agency McCann Erickson designed a new campaign targeting ambitious students and creative thinkers.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They're mentors, managers and decisionmakers.

LAWRENCE: Some feature civilian corporate executives with experience as officers.

DEWEY: We want to let people know that you don't have to stay in for 30 years and become a four-star general to achieve great things.

LAWRENCE: The army has a goal of getting 90 percent of its enlisted soldiers with high school diplomas. It's missed that goal three years straight. And now the Pentagon is adding more than 20,000 soldiers next year, meaning more than ever the army needs highly qualified officers to lead them.

MAJ. GEN. ARTHUR BARTELL, U.S. ARMY CADET COMMAND: The environment is different today.

LAWRENCE: Major General Arthur Bartell says today's battlefield is so complex even junior officers are asked to make important decisions instantly.

BARTELL: We need leaders who have the ability to look at a problem, solve that problem in a time-constrained environment.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

LAWRENCE: Now the Army says it's not in crisis mode yet, but needs to do a better job of marketing its officer product the same way it learned to sell the benefits of being enlisted -- Suzanne?

MALVEAUX: OK. Chris Lawrence at the Pentagon. Thank you, Chris.

Well, he disappeared 18 years ago. A fighter pilot. The first officer casualty of Desert Storm. The Pentagon says they now know what happened.

And these big guys grow to 200 pounds. We will introduce you to the man who hunts them down and risks his life for free.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Wow. Look at this.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And this isn't a big one.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's -- this is a good 10 feet.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Na.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh yes. At least 12.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: Time now to check back in with Jack Cafferty -- Jack?

CAFFERTY: Suzanne, the question this hour is: Would breaking his word on tax hikes for the middle class make Barack Obama a one-term president?

B writes: "He didn't just say this way once the way George Bush Sr. said 'Read my lips, no new taxes.' Obama literally got elected by preaching this every single time he had a microphone in front of him for two years. This will be the unfortunate reward for all of those who voted for Obama believing the fairytale that the rich would be forced to pay for everything which the rest of America would then get for free."

Mike writes: "The White House has clarified today that it will not happen. Rightly so as it's political suicide, it's a non story. So stop wasting the public's time by hypothesizing about something that isn't going to happen just so you can join the media pile on that is happening to this administration in an attempt to carry favor with the average Joe."

David writes: "Read my lips, yes, everybody loves to get stuff for free, raising taxes is only popular when others are paying. People whose taxes will eventually go up will turn on Mr. Obama and will have to raise taxes on everybody."

Bill writes: "In my opinion the American people have seen just about enough of this radical sideshow to sink any possibility of a second term. Raising taxes will simply sink a ship that has already taken on too much water."

Mark writes: "Jack, the party of tax cuts got us into this mess. All of a sudden, they have discovered fiscal responsibility. Too late for many voters. The fiscal cost of preventing a depression is very high. When the recovery comes, it only makes sense that we all have to pay for it. Biologists have not yet perfected a tree that grows money. If the voters won't respect that, then they'll get back the dumb-down government that we recently kicked out."

And Dave writes: "Unless Obama moves very quickly to the middle, he'll be a lame duck. Obama has let the left-wing of Congress run wild. It's still likely that come 2013 we'll have a Democratic president. You may be able to guess what her name is."

If you didn't see your e-mail here -- I think he's talking about Hillary, just a guess.

(LAUGHTER)

If you didn't see your e-mail, go to my blog, CNN.com/caffertyfile, look for yours there among hundreds of others. MALVEAUX: I guess he's talking Hillary. OK, thank you, Jack.

CAFFERTY: OK.

MALVEAUX: We are counting down the second 100 days of the Obama administration and this Thursday night, we'll issue a new national report card on the president. What kind of grades is he earning? Well, you can cast your vote right now. Go to CNN.com/reportcard and then get the results Thursday night at 8:00 Eastern.

Well, our CNN photojournalists are crisscrossing the nation talking to real people about real stories regarding health care, and some are finding heroes along the way.

From Southern California, CNN's Gabe Ramirez shows us the story of a guardian angel sitting in a corporate office.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: My oldest son, Christopher, was in a car accident on September 6th, 2007. He was driving his car and lost control, and suffered a traumatic brain injury with several broken bones.

It was the scariest time of my life and to see him suffering like that was devastating. And then to also have to worry about his care and is he going to get what he needs, will they just send him home because we don't have the financial means?

Huge things to have to think about.

The insurance company sent me letters that Chris could have something called a case coordinator.

PAM HOYT, NURSE CARE MANAGER, HEALTHNET: My name is Pam Hoyt. I'm a nurse care manager at Healthnet. Debbie is a mom of five children. She was frightened. She didn't know if he was going to live or die. She didn't know what sort of aftermath they would be dealing with.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There was a sense of relief that this person was actually trying to help me. Was not trying to help her company find a way out of all these expenses.

HOYT: I would help her to be in control of his medical life and their family life.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: She seriously is a friend now. I would consider her one of my best friends. She really was genuinely concerned about my son's recovery.

The day my son Christopher came home from the hospital, he was totally different than he is now. I mean he just couldn't do anything for himself at all. It was like having a big, heavy 19-year-old infant, you know, who was combative.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So how are you feeling these days?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Fine.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Feeling good?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What point did you start, you know, remembering things again?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yesterday. I remember yesterday.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: If you ask him straight on Chris, do you remember this? He'll say no. But then if you're just talking about something that happened, he'll start talking about it with you, because the memory is there.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's come a long way in a year.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: A whole long way, yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I may be a vegetable sitting here.

HOYT: Chris? Oh, god. You're making me cry.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Don't cry. Please don't cry.

HOYT: You are not. Are you...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There were days where I just needed a shoulder, you know, and I knew I could call her. She's seen me through some of my darkest days, that's for sure, and on to some much better ones.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MALVEAUX: That story was done by photojournalist Gabe Ramirez. Gabe says that Chris is continuing speech therapy and may face more surgery, but he is doing well and hopes to attend community college.

Well, only on CNN, teenagers trained to kill, telling how they were stolen from their families and brainwashed by the Taliban.

Plus, pythons, tens of thousands of the giant snakes, on the loose in Florida and eating everything in sight. We'll take you to the everglades.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: Giant snakes weighing up to 200 pounds strangling and eating whatever they catch. Tens of thousands of them may be on the loose in Florida.

CNN's John Zarrella spent an evening with a python hunter in the everglades.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Joe Wasilewski drives along a narrow stretch of road that bisects the Florida's everglades. Night is coming on quickly. He's looking for snakes. One in particular.

JOE WASILEWSKI, PYTHON HUNTER: The next 10 miles seem to be the hot spot for Burmese pythons.

ZARRELLA: Wasilewski, a reptile expert, is one of a handful of men sanctioned by the state to hunt down and rid the glades of pythons. An extraordinary move in response to what scientists believe is a rapidly growing threat to the delicate ecosystem.

WASILEWSKI: It's a large predator and they're eating basically everything in sight. That's the problem.

ZARRELLA: Twenty years ago, there were none here. Today, perhaps 100,000. No one is quite sure. Night is the best time to catch these non-venomous snakes. That's when they're on the move. Wasilewski spots something. He jumps from the truck, runs to it.

WASILEWSKI: This is not a python. It's a banded water snake.

ZARRELLA (on camera): Banded water snake.

WASILEWSKI: Yes. You want to pick him up?

ZARRELLA: Do I?

WASILEWSKI: He'll bite you.

ZARRELLA (voice-over): An hour driving back and forth across the road, still no pythons. At least not alive. There's a dead one and several more small snakes. A baby alligator, too.

WASILEWSKI: Oh, man. He got hit by a car.

ZARRELLA: Two hours into our hunt, suddenly, Wasilewski is on it. He sees one.

WASILEWSKI: Yes, baby! Hey! Look at the size of this one.

ZARRELLA: Skillfully, he grabs it behind the head. It instantly coils around his arm. Wasilewski will lock the snake in a crate and take it to the national park biologists to be studied and destroyed.

But first we've got to untangle it from his arm.

(On camera): Wow, look at this.

WASILEWSKI: And this isn't a big one.

ZARRELLA: That's -- this is a good 10 feet. WASILEWSKI: Na.

ZARRELLA: Oh yes.

WASILEWSKI: Yes, at least 12.

ZARRELLA (voice-over): Wasilewski doesn't get paid volunteering. While he knows they've for to be eliminated, he's got a soft spot for the reptiles.

WASILEWSKI: And guess what? It's not the snake's fault. He didn't mean to be here.

ZARRELLA: Some are believed to have gotten here when reptile breeding facilities near the everglades were destroyed during Hurricane Andrew.

WASILEWSKI: Well, why don't you take this side?

ZARRELLA (on camera): No, no, you take this side. You take the head end. I got the back end.

WASILEWSKI: OK.

ZARRELLA (voice-over): Others from pet owners who disposed of them when they got too big. They can grow up to 200 pounds. But this one is no longer a problem.

WASILEWSKI: One down.

ZARRELLA (on camera): Yes, hey.

WASILEWSKI: 100,000 more to go.

ZARRELLA: 100,00 to go.

(Voice-over): John Zarrella, CNN, the Florida everglades.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MALVEAUX: Happening now, President Obama's intentions for your taxes. He says no hike for the middle class. But two economic deputies say anything's possible. What should you believe?

Teenaged boys trained to kill, only on CNN. You'll hear disturbing tales of boys snatched from their families and brainwashed by the Taliban. One expert fears many are masking their violence behind a veil of teenaged innocence.

And this is the aftermath of a gut-wrenching flight. We'll take you inside a plane that suffered turbulence so bad, some passengers feared the worst. What did it look and feel like?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There were people cut, bleeding. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I have never seen a turbulence like that. I really thought we wouldn't make it.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It was so bad. So scary. All of the people so scared. All of the people.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MALVEAUX: Wolf Blitzer is off today.