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Obama in Copenhagen; Liberals Push Back on Health Reform

Aired December 18, 2009 - 17:00   ET


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To our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now, sharp new tensions in a dangerous hot spot -- Iraq says Iranian forces have seized an oil well inside its territory. We have the very latest coming in from Baghdad.

Breaking news, as President Obama manages to salvage something from the climate change summit. He has just announced a meaningful -- that's his word -- global warming deal with China and other nations.

Is that good enough?

We're standing by for the president's news conference.

And he once guarded terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Now, a former U.S. military policeman worries about moving some of those detainees to his backyard in rural Illinois.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.


President Obama is announcing what he calls "a meaningful climate change deal" at the summit in Copenhagen. We're waiting for the video from his remarks. He's been speaking with reporters. Momentarily, we will get the president's statement, his Q&A with reporters. You'll see it here in THE SITUATION ROOM. That is coming up. Stand by momentarily.

But let's begin with a potentially dangerous flare-up on the Iraq/Iran border, as the Baghdad government charges that an Iranian force has seized an oil well inside Iraqi territory. The area was a flashpoint in a disastrous eight year war between the two rivals and tensions are already high in the region.

CNN's Diana Magnay has the latest from Baghdad. DIANA MAGNAY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Wolf.

Well, what the Iraqi government has said is that an Iranian armed group has seized control of an oil well -- Oil Well Number Four in the Fukka oil fields down in the Maysan Province of Southern Iraq.

They've seized this oil well, apparently, on Thursday night and the Iraqi government has issued a strongly worded statement demanding that they retreat from the Iraqi well, that they take down their flag from the tower on top of that well and that this incursion represents not just a violation of the border, but also a violation of Iraqi sovereignty.

Now, the Iraqis have also instructed their ambassador in Iran to go and talk to the foreign ministry there about the concerns. They've informed the Iranian ambassador here.

And this, of course, come at an extremely sensitive time for Iraq. Iraq has just gone through a second round of auctioning for its extremely valuable and what it hopes are lucrative oil fields. And this incursion across that border down in the south is of great concern to the Iraqis because it suggests that the security of its oil is not quite what it might be -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Diana Magnay in Baghdad for us.

We're working this story.

Don't forget, there's a long history of tensions between Iraq and Iran, especially during the time of Saddam Hussein, back in the '80s. These two countries fought a brutal and bloody war with hundreds of thousands of casualties.

We'll stay on top of this story and assess what's going on.

Meanwhile, in that region, a suicide bomber set off a powerful explosion outside a mosque in Northwestern Pakistan today, just after police officers had finished their Friday prayers. Ten people were killed, more than two dozen wounded. There was no claim of responsibility, but Taliban militants have carried out similar attacks inside Pakistan. This was the second attack against a mosque used by security forces in the past two weeks.

As American troops battle the Taliban in Afghanistan, the U.S. military is trying to prepare Afghan forces to stand on their own.

CNN's Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, filed this report from Kabul.


BARBARA STARR, PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: (voice-over): Afghan Army commandos training to fight Al Qaeda and the Taliban. The Obama administration is placing its bets on troops like these. If they can take over the country's security, U.S. troops can someday go home. Lieutenant General William Caldwell heads the $10 billion a year U.S. and NATO effort to train the Afghan Army and police. The U.S. just raised their pay, to at least $165 a month, in hopes the recruits won't be forced to turn to higher paying criminal or insurgent activity.

LT. GEN. WILLIAM CALDWELL, INTERNATIONAL SECURITY ASSISTANCE FORCE: That leads to, perhaps, them taking graft. That leads to them, perhaps, working for other subversive elements. They can work -- you know, be hired on as a day laborer for the Taliban or somebody like that.

STARR: The new higher pay is part of an effort to recruit more than 30,000 additional Afghan soldiers within a year. But the problem -- developing a corps of sergeants and junior officers that can motivate the men to fight.

A rarely seen U.S. Special Forces sniper team is in the background, helping train the Afghan soldiers. This Afghan officer says his men need the U.S. help.

LT. COL. ASADULLAH KOSHSTANI, AFGHAN NATIONAL ARMY: We need the new tactics, new weapons. Besides the new weapons, we -- we -- we need the training to -- to get expert, how -- how we use our -- our -- our weapons.

CALDWELL: We've also got to do a little more work in the basic training element. The soldiers coming through right now have been moved through very rapidly. We -- we need to be a little more rigid in our standards for what we're going to graduate and send out to units.


STARR: Caldwell's other major worry -- the Afghan police force, which is plagued with corruption and poor training.

CALDWELL: What they have done in the past, is they've recruited and then employed them with no training. And then -- then -- then now we are going back and starting to train the police force.

STARR: Caldwell makes clear he believes there's a long road ahead and one more bump -- watching to make sure the Taliban and other insurgents don't infiltrate the Afghan security forces.

CALDWELL: They're going to make every effort to do that and there's probably some that have infiltrated. I don't think anybody is going to be naive enough to think that that has not occurred.

STARR: (on camera): But Afghan forces have paid an enormous price for their country. General Caldwell says four times as many Afghan troops have been killed as coalition forces.

Barbara Starr, CNN, Kabul.

(END VIDEO TAPE) BLITZER: All right. We're standing by. The president of the United States has just announced what he calls "a dramatic breakthrough" in Copenhagen.

Our senior White House correspondent, Ed Henry, is joining us right now -- Ed, tell us what -- give us a little preview of what the president is about to say.

ED HENRY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the president just wrapped up that news conference that I was in. He is now headed back to Washington to try to beat the snowstorm that's coming there. That's why he's leaving so abruptly.

Now, he believes he has an agreement in hand. He said it came in a key meeting with China, India, Brazil and South Africa that basically will limit the warming of the planet to no more than two degrees Celsius over the next decade. But the president immediate -- acknowledged immediately that while he says we've come a long way, he said: "We have much further to go."

And what he's referring and what you'll here in just a moment is that there is nothing legally binding to make sure that all the nations that are going to sign on will actually meet these targets...

BLITZER: All right.

HENRY: There's no specific emission targets. The president said...

BLITZER: Ed, hold on...


BLITZER: Hold on, Ed.

That -- we're getting that tape. That's just coming in to us. And I want to make sure that our viewers here in the United States and around the world get this.

Here is the president speaking to reporters in Copenhagen, announcing the agreement.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Let me start with a statement and then I'll take a couple of questions.

Now, today, we've made meaningful and unprecedented -- made a -- a meaningful and unprecedented breakthrough here in Copenhagen. For the first time in history, all major economies have come together to accept their responsibility to take action to confront the threat of climate change.

Now, let me first recount what our approach was throughout the year and coming into this conference.

To begin with, we've reaffirmed America's commitment to transform our energy economy at home. We've made historic investments in renewable energy that have already put people back to work. We've raised our fuel-efficiency standards. And we have renewed leadership in international climate negotiations.

Most importantly, we remain committed to comprehensive legislation that will create millions of new American jobs, power new industry and enhance our national security by reducing our dependence on foreign oil.

That effort at home serves as a foundation for our leadership around the world. Because of the actions we're taking, we came here to Copenhagen with an ambitious target to reduce our emissions. We agreed to join an international effort to provide financing to help developing countries, particularly the poorest and most vulnerable, adapt to climate change and we affirmed -- reaffirmed the necessity of listing our national actions and commitments in a transparent way.

These three components -- transparency, mitigation and finance -- form the base of the common approach that the United States and our partners embraced here in Copenhagen. And throughout the day, we worked with many countries to establish a new consensus around these three points, a consensus that will serve as a foundation for global action to confront the threat of climate change for years to come.

Now, this success would have not been possible without the hard work of many countries and many leaders. And I have to add that because of weather constraints in Washington, I am leaving before the final vote. But we feel confident that we are moving in the direction of a significant accord.

In addition to our close allies, who did so much to advance this effort, I worked throughout the day with Prime Minister Meles of Ethiopia, who was representing Africa, as well as Premier Wen of China, Prime Minister Singh of India, President Lula of Brazil and President Zuma of South Africa to achieve what I believe will be an important milestone.

Earlier this evening, I had a meeting with the last four leaders I mentioned, from China, India, Brazil and South Africa. And that's where we agreed to list our national actions and commitments, to provide information on the implementation of these actions through national communications, with international consultations and analysis under clearly defined guidelines. We agreed to set a mitigation target to limit warming to no more than two degrees Celsius and, importantly, to take action to meet this objective consistent with science.

Taken together, these actions will help us begin to meet our responsibilities to leave our children and our grandchildren a cleaner and safer planet.

Now, this progress did not come easily and we know that this progress alone is not enough. Going forward, we're going to have to build on the momentum that we've established in Copenhagen to ensure that international action to significantly reduce emissions is sustained and sufficient over time. We've come a long way, but we have much further to go. To continue moving forward, we must draw on the effort that allowed us to succeed here today -- engagement among nations that represent a baseline of mutual interest and mutual respect. Climate change threatens us all. Therefore, we must bridge all divides and build new partnerships to meet this great challenge of our time. That's what we've begun to do today, for energy holds out not just the perils of a warming climate, but also the promise of a more peaceful and prosperous tomorrow.

If America leads in developing clean energy, we will lead in growing our economy, in putting our people back to work and in leaving a stronger and more security country to our children. And around the world, energy is an issue that demands our leadership. The time has come for us to get off the sidelines and to shape the future that we seek.

That's why I came to Copenhagen today and that's why I am committed to working in common effort with countries from around the globe. That's also why I believe what we have achieved in Copenhagen will not be the end, but rather the beginning -- the beginning of a new era of international action.

So with that, let me just take a couple questions.

And I'm going to start with Jeff Mason.

OK, Jeff, go ahead.

JEFF MASON: Thank you, Mr. President.

Can you give a little bit more detail about how the transparency issue will work, how -- how countries will show or prove that they're doing what they say they'll do on emission curbs?

And can you speak, also, more specifically about cutting emissions?

There's no mention of that in -- in your statement or in what we've heard so far specifically about the agreement.

OBAMA: Well, on the second question first, the way this agreement is structured, each nation will be putting concrete commitments into an appendix to the document. And so we'll lay out very specifically what each country's intentions are.

Those commitments will then be subject to a international consultation and analysis, similar to, for example, what takes place when the WTO is examining progress or lack of progress that countries are making on various commitments. It will not be legally binding, but what it will do is allow for each country to show to the world what they're doing. And there will be a sense on the part of each country that we're in this together and we'll know who is meeting and who's not meeting the mutual obligations that have been set forth.

With respect to, you know, the emissions targets that are going to be set, we know that they will not be, by themselves, sufficient to get to where we need to get by 2050. So that's why I say that this is going to be a first step. And there are going to be those who are going to -- who are going to look at the national commitments, tally them up and say, you know, the science dictates that even more needs to be done.

And the challenge here was that, for a lot of countries, particularly those emerging countries that are still in different stages of development, this is going to be the first time in which even, voluntarily, they offered up mitigation targets.

And I think that it was important to essentially get that shift in orientation moving. That's what I think will end up being most significant about this accord.

From the perspective of the United States, I've set forth goals that are reflected in the legislation that came out of the House that are being discussed on a bipartisan basis in the Senate. And although we will not be legally bound by anything that took place here today, we will, I think, have reaffirmed our commitment to meet those targets.

And we're going to meet those targets, as I said before, not simply because the science demands it, but also because I think it offers us enormous economic opportunity down the road.


QUESTION: (INAUDIBLE) questions about the transparency issues (INAUDIBLE)?

OBAMA: Well, as I said, there is -- there is a specific -- there -- exactly. There -- there's the annexing combined with a process where, essentially, they are presenting to the world, subject to international consultation and then analysis, exactly what are these steps. So if I make a claim that I'm reducing greenhouse gases because I've changed the mileage standards on cars, there will be a process whereby people will be able to take a look and say, is that, in fact, in effect?


Jennifer Levin.

JENNIFER LEVIN: Thank you, sir.

You've talked to, in your remarks earlier today, about other nations needing to accept, you know, less than -- less than perfect, in their view.

Can you talk about what you gave up and where you might have shifted the U.S. position to get to this point?

And also, if -- if this was so hard to get to, just what you have today, how do you feel confident about getting to a legally binding agreement in a year? OBAMA: I think it is going to be very hard and it's going to take some -- some time.

Let me sort of provide the context for what I saw when I arrived.

And I think it's important to be able to stand in the shoes of all the different parties involved here.

In some ways, the United States was coming with a somewhat clean slate, because we had been on the sidelines in many of these negotiations over several years.

Essentially, you have a situation where the Kyoto Protocol and some of the subsequent accords called on the developed countries who were signatories to engage in some significant mitigation actions and also to help developing countries. And there were very few, if any, obligations on the part of the developing countries. In some cases, for countries that are extremely poor, still agrarian and so forth, they're just not significant contributors to greenhouse gases.

But what's happened, obviously, since 1992, is that you've got emerging countries like China and India and Brazil that have seen enormous economic growth and industrialization. So we know that, moving forward, it's going to be necessary, if we're going to meet those targets, for some changes to take place among those countries. It's not enough just for the developed countries to make changes, those countries are going to have to make some changes, as well -- not at the same pace, not in the same way, but they're going to have to do something to ensure that whatever carbon we're taking out of the environment is not just simply dumped in by other parties.

On the other hand, from the perspective of the developing countries, like China and India, they're saying to themselves, per capita, our carbon footprint remains very small and we have hundreds of millions who don't even have electricity yet. So for us to get bound by a set of legal obligations could potentially curtail our ability to develop and that's not fair.

So I think that you have a fundamental deadlock in perspectives that were brought to the discussions during the course of this week. And both sides have legitimate points.

My view was that if we could begin to acknowledge that the emerging countries are going to have some responsibilities, but that those responsibilities are not exactly the same as the developed countries, and if we could set up a financing mechanism to help those countries that are most vulnerable, like Bangladesh, then we would at be least starting to reorient ourselves in a way that allows us to be effective in the future.

But it is still going to require more work and more confidence building and greater trust between emerging countries -- the least developed countries and the developed countries -- before I think you are going to see another legally binding treaty signed.

I actually think that it's necessary for us, ultimately, to get to such a treaty and I am supportive of such efforts. But this is a classic example of a situation where, if we just waited for that, then we would not make any progress. And, in fact, I think, there might be such frustration and cynicism that rather than taking one step forward, we ended up taking two steps back.

But I -- I want to be very clear that, ultimately, this issue is going to be dictated by the science. And the science indicates that we're going to have to take more aggressive steps in the future.

Our hope is that by investing in clean energy, in research, in development and innovation, that, in the same way that the Clean Air Act ended up spurring all kinds of innovations that solved the acid rain problem at a much cheaper and much more rapid pace than we expected, that by beginning to make progress and getting the wheels of innovation moving, that we are, in fact, going to be in a position to solve this problem.

But we're going to need technological breakthroughs to get to the goals that we're looking for. In the meantime, we've got to be able to take the steps that are in our grasp right now, like, for example, energy efficiency, something I emphasized last week.

All right?

Helene Cooper?

I'm sorry.

QUESTION: What about the compromise shift question?

OBAMA: You know, I have to say that quietly So I think that you pretty good groundwork during the course of this year so that our position was relatively clear. You know, I think, that, you know, the -- the one principle I brought to this is that whatever commitments we make, I want to be able to sure -- be sure that they're actually commitments that we can keep.

So we tried to be modest in what we thought we could accomplish. I think there was -- there was interest on the part of some to, for example, increase our mitigation targets, although when you look out in -- in the years 2025 or 2030, our goals are actually entirely comparable with Europe's. On the front end, they appear to be less, because, frankly, they've had a head start over the last several years in -- in doing things like energy efficiency that we care about.

What I've said to the other people in the room is, is that I want to make sure that whatever it is that we promise, we can actually deliver on and that it would be unrealistic for us to think that we can turn on a dime and that suddenly a clean energy economy is going to emerge overnight, given the fact that it's going to require significant effort and, you know, companies and industries are going to be wanting to make changes. We're already seeing those changes, but they haven't all borne fruit yet. And we want to make sure that we're not getting too far ahead of ourselves in terms of targets, even as I understand that the science compels us to move as rapidly as we can. All right?

Helene Cooper?

HELENE COOPER: Thank you. I wanted to ask you about this listing of the appendix -- in the appendix.

OBAMA: Right.

QUESTION: Going forward, do you think that that will continue to be sufficient or do you think verification is going to remain a source of friction between the U.S. and China?

And, also, on Cap-and-Trade, are you able to -- were you able to assure the leaders here that you will make this -- that a legislative priority next year?

OBAMA: With respect to the appendix, these countries have set forth, for the first time, some very significant mitigation efforts. And I want to give them credit for that.

I mean if you look at a country like India, as I said, they've got hundreds of millions who don't have electricity, hundreds of millions of people who, by any standard, are still living in -- in dire poverty.

For them, even voluntary, to say we are going to reduction carbon emissions relative to our current ways of doing business by X percent is an important step. And we -- we applaud them for that.

The problem actually is not going to be verification, in the sense that this international consultation and analysis mechanism will actually tell us a lot of what we need to know. And the truth is that we can actual monitor a lot of what takes place through satellite imagery and so forth. So I think we're going to have a pretty good sense of what countries are doing.

You know, what -- what I think that some people are going to legitimately ask is, well, if it's not legally binding, what prevents us from, 10 years from now, looking and saying, you know, everybody fell short of these goals and there's no consequences to them?

My response is that, A, that's why I think we should still drive toward something that is more binding than it is. But that was not achievable at this conference.

The point -- and the second point that I'd make is that Kyoto was legally binding and everybody still fell short anyway.

And so I think that it's important for us, instead of setting up a bunch of goals that end up being words on a page and are not met, that we get moving, everybody is taking as aggressive a set of actions as they can, that there is a sense of mutual obligation and information sharing so that people can see who is serious and who's not, that we strive for more binding agreements over time and that we just keep moving forward. That's been the main goal that -- that I tried to pursue today. And, you know, I think that, as -- as people step back, I guarantee you there are going to be a lot of people who immediately say, the science says you've got to do X, Y and Z. In the absence of some sort of legal enforcement, it's not going to happen.

Well, we don't have international government and even treaties, as we saw in Kyoto, are only as strong as the countries' commitments to participate.

Because of the differing views between developing countries and developed countries in terms of future obligations, the most important thing I think we can do at this point and that we began to accomplish but are not finished with, is to build some trust between the developing and developed countries, to break down some of the logjams that have to do with people looking backwards and saying, well, Kyoto said this or Bali said that or you guys need to do something, but we don't need to do something or -- getting out of that mindset and moving toward a position where everybody recognizes we all have to move together.

If we -- if we start from that position, then I think we're going to be able to make progress in the future.

But this is going to be hard. Now, this is hard within countries. It's going to be even harder between countries. And, you know, one of the things that I've felt very strongly about during the course of this year is that hard stuff requires not paralysis, but it requires going ahead and making the best of the situation that you're in at this point and then continually trying to improve and make progress from there.


Thank you very much, everybody.

QUESTION: Mr. President...

OBAMA: We'll see some of you on the plane.


QUESTION: Can I just ask you, who will sign the agreement since you're leaving?

Who here has the power to sign it?

OBAMA: Well, the -- we've got our negotiators who are here. I'm not going to be the only leader who I think leaves before it's finally presented. But they are empowered to sign off with -- given, at this point, that most of the text has been completely worked out.


OBAMA: You know, the -- it raises an interesting question as to whether technically there's actually a signature, since, as I said, it's not a legally binding agreement. You know, I don't know what the -- what the protocols are. But I do think that this is a commitment that we, as the United States, are making and that we think is very important.

All right. Thanks, guys. Don't miss the motorcade.

BLITZER: All right. You heard the president tell the reporters, "Don't miss the motorcade." They're getting ready to get out of Copenhagen as quickly as possible, to fly back here to Washington before all the snow starts arriving. We'll see how quickly they get back.

Let's assess what we just heard in the breaking news. Our senior political correspondent Candy Crowley is here.

They always have an incentive, these world leaders, to emerge from a summit like this and announce some sort of breakthrough. But the expectations were for something a little more robust.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: They were, except in the last 48 hours, as you know, the expectations were they'd get nothing.

And so, this is better than nothing. And it would have been particularly hard on this president to leave there with absolutely nothing. But, you know, you sort of watch the words that come out: this is historic, this is meaningful, this is the foundation for the next step. But when you get right down to it, the really key words are "nonbinding."


CROWLEY: They do not have a deal that is any way enforceable. They do not have a target, minus two degrees Celsius, that even they say will not deal with long-term climate change problems. So, what do they got? They've got something where they all kind of generally say, "Yes, we'll all go home and we'll do something, and here are our goals and here are your goals, and we'll all watch." It is not, as you heard the president say, what they wanted and what he would like to see in the future.

BLITZER: Yes, sort of some ground rules, a little framework for what they would like to see -- certainly not a binding treaty, which would have to be ratified the by the United States Senate. He's got the House of Representatives right now supporting him by and large on the issue of global warming. But in the Senate, it's a different matter, especially when it comes to spending billions of dollars of U.S. taxpayer dollars to start giving that money to developing or poor nations to help them deal with the effects of climate change.

CROWLEY: It's true. There's that.

There's the fact the so-called cap-and-trade, which really is a carbon tax on companies and industries that put carbon in the air in the U.S., is a very unpopular. It's been on Capitol Hill, not just with Republicans but with Democrats as well. It's a very, very tough sell at home, probably as tough as it was with those 119 nations in Copenhagen.

BLITZER: Yes. All right. Well, he's on the way home. He'll be leaving Copenhagen very soon, heading back to a snowy Washington, D.C. Not snowy yet, but we expect maybe a foot, maybe two feet...

CROWLEY: Two feet.

BLITZER: ... of snow. So, get your shovel.

CROWLEY: But we know two inches will do it. So...

BLITZER: It's already done it in Washington, and it hasn't even started to snow yet.

Coming up: it was a housing boom that went bust. And now, there's a potential deadly legacy.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I can feel the heat and we're on the other side of, it's like, glass. Oh!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That was the television picture tube.


BLITZER: CNN's Gerri Willis shows us how lightweight construction materials maybe especially vulnerable to fire.

And a liberal pushback at health care reform. A top labor leader calls the Senate bill inadequate. I'll speak about that with the AFL- CIO President Richard Trumka. He's not very happy with the Senate deal.

We'll talk about that and more -- that's coming up.


BLITZER: Liberal push-back on health care reform, including from the AFL-CIO, who's president calls the bill being debated in the U.S. Senate right now "inadequate." He says it's tilted toward insurance companies.

That president of AFL-CIO, President Richard Trumka, is here in THE SITUATION ROOM to talk about it.

The way it is right now, if this were the final language signed by the president into law, you wouldn't be happy with it.

RICHARD TRUMKA, AFL-CIO PRESIDENT: Well, first of all, this bill would never get through the House. I don't think the House could pass this bill or would pass this bill.

BLITZER: You don't think Nancy Pelosi, if she puts her hand on and says, "You know what, we've got to get together, it's better than nothing, we got to do it," she couldn't do it? TRUMKA: I don't this bill passes the House.

BLITZER: What issue do you hate the most?

TRUMKA: Well, I think they tie together.

BLITZER: All right. So, tell me what you really dislike about the Senate language.

TRUMKA: OK. So, first of all, they haven't done a public option to break the stranglehold of the insurance companies. To do cost control, their cost control method is to put an excise tax on workers' benefits so that small business...

BLITZER: So, those are two separate issues.

TRUMKA: Yes, well, they tie together.

BLITZER: The fact there's no public option, a government-run insurance company to compete with the private companies, that -- the president and the others say, "You know what, there's not enough votes in the Senate," they need 60 votes and they can't get 60 votes for that.

TRUMKA: Well, we'll see. We're not going to quit working on any of these issues.

BLITZER: Joe Lieberman says he's not going to support that. That's...


BLITZER: If Joe Lieberman says no, that's 59.

TRUMKA: We think that this bill as currently constituted won't pass the House. So, the president won't get to sign it. I told you this, public option doesn't break -- is needed to break the stranglehold of the insurance companies. It's not there. So, as a result...

BLITZER: So, that's one issue that you don't like. The other is what they call these "Cadillac" plans. And I know you don't like that phrase, but that's what they call them. They -- in the Senate bill, they want to tax some of the premier health insurance...

TRUMKA: Well, it's not true.

BLITZER: Tell me.

TRUMKA: They're not necessary premier plans.

BLITZER: That's what they call the Cadillac plans.

TRUMKA: Well, they're for small...

BLITZER: A lot of your members have these plans. TRUMKA: A lot of them have them, a lot of small business has them, a lot of medium-size business has them. The cost goes up because you may have a small union and a catastrophe. If you have somebody who has cancer in a small business group, their premiums go up, and they're going to get taxed. So, this is their form of tax -- of cost control.

BLITZER: This new tax on these insurance policies, including for a lot of AFL-CIO members, that is something that you couldn't -- you couldn't live with, right?

TRUMKA: That's absolutely right. It's -- and neither can small business.

BLITZER: Have you told that to the Democrats in the Senate?

TRUMKA: And neither -- and neither can the rest of working America. Because, look, here's the fallacy of it, Wolf. First of all, they say this is only going to affect 3 percent of the people. But yet they say that 3 percent of the premiums is necessary to keep health care costs down.

That's absolutely ludicrous. You can't have it both ways. You can't say, "I'm going to tax small business and workers as a way to have cost control." And what that means is workers and small business will get higher deductibles, higher co-pays and less coverage.

BLITZER: If this tax of the so-called Cadillac plan goes through, would that be...

TRUMKA: I reject the notion...

BLITZER: Of the Cadillac plan.

TRUMKA: ... all of these are Cadillac.

BLITZER: All right.

TRUMKA: I just reject that.

BLITZER: If this new tax in the Senate language were to go through, would that be a betrayal of the president's commitment as a candidate that, you know, he wasn't going to raise the taxes on anyone earning less than -- a family earning less than $250,000 a year?

TRUMKA: Look, I'm not ready to go there yet. Where I'm ready to go is say the AFL-CIO and America's working people aren't done fighting. We fought for over 100 years to get health care for America. We're going to continue to fight to get the best bill for the American public that we can. Hopefully, it will be an improvement, not it will be -- a step backwards.

BLITZER: So, even if the Senate passes, you'll find it in the conference committee between the House...

TRUMKA: Absolutely. BLITZER: ... and the Senate.

TRUMKA: Absolutely.

BLITZER: Listen to what David Axelrod, the president's senior adviser, told me here in THE SITUATION ROOM yesterday. Listen to this.



DAVID AXELROD, SENIOR WHITE HOUSE ADVISER: This reform holds them accountable in a way they've never been held accountable before with a set of consumer protections that would work for all Americans, not just those who don't have insurance.


BLITZER: He was responding to the criticism, including from the AFL- CIO. In your statement, you say it is too kind to the insurance industry, the Senate version. And he says it holds them accountable, the private insurance companies.

You disagree with Axelrod?

TRUMKA: No, there are some good things in the bill. I don't want to make it sound like there's nothing good in it. But it doesn't do, it looks at the wrong way to control costs. The right way to control cost would have been to have a public health insurance option and create competition for the insurance companies, not give them 31 million guaranteed new customers without having any cost control method.

The cross control method that the Senate advocates is taking health care away from workers in small business as a way to hold down costs. That's simply not acceptable. That's not reform. And that's being too kind to the insurance companies whose profits are going to increase.

BLITZER: I want you to react briefly to former President Bill Clinton, who issued a statement yesterday. "Take it from someone who knows: these chances don't come around every day. Allowing this effort to fall short now would be a colossal blunder, both politically for our party and, far more important, for the physical, fiscal, and economic health of our country."

Here's the question: is the country better off or worse off assuming the Senate version is the final version with that bill?

TRUMKA: Look, I'm not going to assume that, because I'm not ready to say that's the final product.

Everybody says you can't get 60 votes in the Senate. You have to remember, you're going to get votes in the House as well. And the Senate bill won't get those number of votes. We're ready to fight. We're going to continue fighting for the American people to improve this bill as best we can, and then we'll make a decision on it.

BLITZER: And then, in the end, you'll see what the actual language of the bill says.

TRUMKA: Absolutely.

BLITZER: So, you got a fight on your hands.

TRUMKA: We do, and we're up for it.

BLITZER: Mr. Trumka, thanks very much for coming in.

TRUMKA: You bet, Wolf. Thanks for having me.

BLITZER: Appreciate it.

The uproar over bringing terror detainees to a rural Illinois prison. What do local residents think about the jobs it will create versus potential security concerns? They're speaking out and we're listening.

Plus, blizzard conditions and up to two feet of snow -- a major storm closing in on the northeast, including right here in Washington, D.C. and New York. We're going to get the latest forecast from our severe weather expert, Chad Myers.


BLITZER: It only takes a couple inches of snow if that virtually shut down the nation's capital. But right now, there's a storm churning our way with the threat of up to two feet of snow, and blizzard conditions across parts of the northeast.

CNN's meteorologist Chad Myers is tracking the system in our CNN severe weather center.

Chad, give us the forecast. What can we expect?

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: You know, Wolf, I don't know whether it's going to be Montgomery County, P.G. County, or Fredericksburg or D.C. proper, but somebody is going to get two feet of snow and it's going to be that back-breaking heart attack snow as well.

It's already snowing now on Charlottesville, it's snowing in Richmond, Lynchburg. It's been snowing all day in Asheville, North Carolina, already eight inches of snow on the ground.

So, we're not making this stuff up. This snow was here, the warnings are posted. Blizzard warnings for Long Island, could see winds 40 to 50 miles per hour there with sideways snow.

We've seen severe weather across the Deep South, into Florida, even some areas with that have seen tornado warnings today and even a little bit of damage around Miami.

This is what it looks like in Charlottesville right now, WVIR, our affiliate there. You see snow on the rooftops. It's going to be snowing all night. Charlottesville could pick up the two feet.

Now, I don't know whether every one of these numbers will come true or not, but I would say D.C., you are 15 to 26 inches possible.

The farther you get to the south, the quicker it's going to change to nothing. There's going to be a line like that. If you are north of the line, you're going to get a foot. If you're south of that line, you're going to get nothing. So, depending on where you live on that line. And if that line changes just a little bit, your forecast is going to be significantly different.

I don't think most people know this, Wolf, but if you go to Google Earth and you click on traffic, you can actually go to traffic and find that traffic for any city in the U.S.

Let me hit "play" for you. If you want to zoom right in to D.C., you want to zoom into Philadelphia, I-95 tomorrow, see what it's doing, you look for the red dots, don't go there, look for the yellow dots, it's slow but the green, you may want to travel on those roads. It will be a handy tool tomorrow when people are going to be traveling a lot.

Airports are doing OK right now, but I don't suspect they're going to do very well with two feet of snow on top of them.

BLITZER: We're going to stay in close touch with you, Chad, because this is a big storm. Can we call it a monster storm?

MYERS: Maybe for this time of year -- essentially how many people will be traveling -- if this was January 20th, and nobody was going anywhere -- well, yes. But you've got 30 million people on the roads trying to move around, I would say you could call it a monster, absolutely.

When you see numbers like 20-something, 30-something, the potentially for that, even in the mountains, what you have, Wolf, you've got -- you've got 81, you've got 95, you've got 64, you have all the main interstate, you have obviously the Beltway, all of these big interstates that are going through these areas where people are trying to move north and south, and it's going to be a standstill. Just don't even do it.

BLITZER: We're ready -- we're ready for it. I didn't like the phrase, you know, "heart attack" kind of snow, but I'm familiar with that snow, having grown up in Buffalo.


BLITZER: I know you live in Buffalo for a while.

MYERS: Absolutely.

BLITZER: So we know what we're talking about. All right, Chad, thank you.

MYERS: You're welcome.

BLITZER: Fredericka Whitfield is monitoring some of the other top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

Fred, you grew up in the Washington, D.C. area, you know what happens when there's even a little snow.

FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: I know, gridlock. And I'm glad I got a chance to visit my family for the holidays this past week before this snow moved in. But hopefully, they'll all stay inside. All right. Be safe as well, Wolf.

All right. Here's what our top stories right now.

Three attempts this year to save Swiss car brand Saab, General Motors says it's out of gas. G.M. will close operations after a failed deal with Dutch carmaker, Spyker Cars. Talks fell apart when the companies simply couldn't arrange quick financing. The Detroit automaker said it will continue to honor Saab customer warranties.

And, finally, an economic decline that's good news. The Labor Department released a report today that says more states reported drops in unemployment than increases in November. Nationwide unemployment rates improved slightly to 10 percent as joblessness fell in 36 states and the District of Columbia. Rates rose in eight states while six did not change. Michigan still has the highest unemployment rate at 14.7 percent.

And a sign stolen this morning from the entry of the former Auschwitz death camp, stunned Poland and outraged leaders. Police say the Nazi sign which in German reads "Work sets you free" was taken under the cover of darkness. Poland's president just calling on Polish to help find what he calls a world-known symbol of Nazi cynicism and cruelty -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks very much.

WHITFIELD: Stay warm this weekend.

BLITZER: Yes, thanks, Fred. We're going to get back to you shortly.

WHITFIELD: Stay out of the snow.

BLITZER: The Obama administration reveals a plan to take over a prison in rural Illinois as a new home for terror suspects now held at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Residents of the economically hard hit area have been supportive of the idea. But even as federal officials say the move could create thousands of jobs, new concerns are being raised.

CNN's Kara Finnstrom has the story.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) KARA FINNSTROM, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Jason Stahl just moved into a small horse farm in northwestern Illinois, and he's about to get new neighbors.


FINNSTROM: Ironic, because down road at the Thomson Prison, the federal government now hopes to hold terror suspects, the same suspects that Stall guarded as one of the first M.P.s at Guantanamo bay, Cuba, after 9/11.

STAHL: We traveled 3,000 miles to Cuba to care for them down there and now they are flying 3,000 miles to sit in my backyard up here.

This is the inside of where we lived.

FINNSTROM: Stahl, who is now an Army reservist, guarded the terror suspects in leg shackles, handcuffs and belly chains.

STAHL: Many times they would turn on you.

FINNSTROM: And Stahl says there was constant shouting and chanting.

STAHL: You had so much aggression, so much anger what had happened, after 9/11 and you didn't know how to act, you had to maintain your military bearing. There's rules and there's guidelines that we have to follow and to our job down there to keep them safe.

FINNSTROM: Stahl strongly opposes bringing the detainees here. He believes the prison can safely guard them but fears holding the prisoners here makes his community a more visible terrorism target.

STAHL: We've got Rock Island Arsenal. We've got the nuclear plant in Cordova. We've got the (INAUDIBLE) ammunition plant 100 miles south of us.

FINNSTROM: But Stahl knows his position isn't popular right now in the town surrounding the prison in Thomson.

(on camera): Just a half mile from the prison, here on Thomson's main street, many are hoping for an economic boost. This town of 550 has been struggling with the stagnant economy and an unemployment rate of 12 percent.

LUANNE BRUCKNER, RESIDENT FEMALE: Warm you up again? All righty.

It was a Norman Rockwell town type, you know. Everybody kind of cared for each other.

It's gotten to the point where we're just desperate. Depressed and desperate. We need -- we need the job.

FINNSTROM (voice-over): Luanne Bruckner's family helps found Thomson in the 1800s.

BRUCKNER: It's been -- it's been horrible. It's been horrible to watch it go.

FINNSTROM: Six generations later, she says the town is dying, dragged down by the nearly vacant $145 million prison that was built in 2001, offering the prospect of new jobs badly needed even then.

Bruckner banked her retirement on it, opening a motel and restaurant. But amid a political fight over operational funding, the prison sat empty for five years and now houses just 144 prisoners.

BUCKNER: We were left with a kind of white elephant so-to-speak.

JOHN WHITNEY, NEWSPAPER PUBLISHER: I fully expected there to be a lot of anger and a lot of people against it. That has not happened.

FINNSTROM: John Whitney is publisher of the Thomson's town paper and head of its chamber of commerce.

WHITNEY: It would have been unhappy to think that the state's second largest capital expenditure in the state of Illinois ever made is sitting out here unused. It's not criminal, but it's tragic in a way.

STAHL: Can you take that over there and dump it out?

FINNSTROM: Jason Stahl says as a father now supporting a family, he, too, wants his hometown to get an economic boost, but as a reservist sworn to protect, he worries at what cost.

STAHL: Why bring the detainees from Cuba on to American soil, I don't agree with that.

FINNSTROM: Kara Finnstrom for CNN, Thomson, Illinois.


BLITZER: The potentially deadly consequence of the housing boom. Why some new homes are especially vulnerable to fire. We have a dramatic example of the danger.


BLITZER: It could be a deadly legacy of the U.S. housing boom and bust, lightweight construction that maybe especially vulnerable to fire.

CNN personal finance editor, Gerri Willis, is here with a dramatic example.


GERRIS WILLIS, CNN PERSONAL FINANCE EDITOR: Wolf, you know, those big homes that went up all over the place during the housing boom, well, some of them were built using materials that may have a downside you may not know about.

(voice-over): To stop a fire's fury, it's always a race against time.


WILLIS: Former Firefighter Jo Brinkley should wear a nose, three years ago, she and her partner Arne Wolf responded to a house fire in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

BRINKLEY: The whole house was full of smoke.

WILLIS: Crawling along the floor, Jill heard a cracking sound, and then suddenly, she fill into the basement.

BRINKLEY: The whole area I was in was orange. I mean, everything around me, underneath me, on top of me, everything was burning.

WILLIS: Jill fought her way to a window and escaped. But Arnie never made it out.

Was the home's construction in part to blame? The floors were made using engineered lumber support beams called I-joists. I-joist and other lightweight materials became popular during the housing boom, because they made it easier to build large homes with wide open floor plans. Today, they are used in 30 percent of new home construction.

JOHN DRENGENBERG, UNDERWRITERS LABORATORY: We test 19,000 types of products.

WILLIS: John Drengenberg is the consumer safety director at Underwriters Laboratory where they test products for safety.

(on camera): John, this looks like a bunch of wood pieces just glued together.

(voice-over): He showed us how the lightweight I-joist compared to traditional lumber.

DRENGENBERG: It's a lot thicker than what we have here, but believe it or not, this is stronger than this.

WILLIS: Safe for building, but what happens if the homes catch fire.

DRENGENBERG: In a fire situation, anecdotal evidence shows that this could collapse a lot quicker than standard lumber.

WILLIS: How quick? Underwriters Lab built this structure for us, with heavy appliances on top to demonstrate.

Like many home fires, it starts with a candle.

(on camera): We are getting smoke now.

(voice-over): As we count the minutes, the fire takes hold. At flashover, we retreat to the hallway.

(on camera): I can feel the heat and the glass and we're on the other side of, it's like glass -- ooh!

DRENGENBERG: That was the television picture tube. WILLIS (voice-over): Then 8 1/2 minutes after the fire starts...

(on camera): Oh, there it goes.

DRENGENBERG: There is the stove and the refrigerator.

WILLIS: Oh, my goodness. Look at that.

DRENGENBERG: You want to make sure you know...

WILLIS (voice-over): Underwriter's lab says that in a fire, this I- joist flooring will collapse three times faster than traditional construction. A group representing the lumber industry says it's working with the fire service to reduce risk. But point out that that the use of wood I-joist has increased without a corresponding increase in deaths of firefighters due to collapse.

But still, as this demonstration shows...

DRENGENBERG: If that room happened to have a firefighter up on the second floor, he would absolutely crash through the floor.

WILLIS: Just like Arnie Wolf.

ROB GOPLIN, GREEN BAY FRIE DEPT.: It's a devastating loss that will always be felt.

WILLIS: Rob Goplin says Arnie's death is a sobering lesson for firefighters to check a home's construction before rushing in, and it's a wake-up call for homeowners to potentially dire consequences.

GOPLIN: We're not going to be able to save as many buildings as we used to. We're potentially not going to be able to save as many occupants as we used to.

WILLIS (on camera): You may be wondering what you should do to protect yourself. Well, certainly, all homes should have smoke alarms in them. Fire prevention experts recommend that new homes should also have fire sprinkler systems. It really costs about the same as installing carpeting.

And if your home has those exposed I-joists in the basement, covering those beams with dry wall can give you an extra 20 minutes before collapsing, giving you more time to get out and the fire service additional time to make rescues and fight the fire -- Wolf?