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The March Against Health Insurers; Biden Condemns Israeli Decision; New Allegations Against Massa; Catholic Opposition to Health Care Reform

Aired March 9, 2010 - 17:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: Rick, thank you.

Happening now, hundreds of liberal activists protest against insurance executives, rolling out police tape to accuse them of corporate crimes. They're fired up about the final push for health care reform. It's getting intense right now.

Also, Rush Limbaugh and other conservatives have a new and unlikely hero -- a liberal Democrat who just quit Congress under an ethics cloud.

Will Eric Massa help or will he come back to haunt them?

We're getting new information about the allegations against Massa.

And in this era of red hot partisanship, can Democrats and Republicans find common ground for the sake of America's children?

This hour, Obama Education secretary, Arne Duncan, and former Reagan Education secretary, Bill Bennett, they team up for a rare and provocative discussion.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Liberal activists are calling this Washington hotel a corporate crime scene. That's because insurance industry executives have been meeting inside. Hundreds of demonstrators camped out there to vent their anger about rate hikes after marching in support of health care reform. The insurance industry is getting a lot of new heat just weeks before Democrats try to finally pass a reform bill.

CNN's Jim Acosta has been covering the protest for us -- all right, Jim, tell our viewers what happened.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the reason why those protesters were gathered outside of the Ritz Carlton in Washington, just outside of Georgetown, is because that is where the insurance industry was holding a conference this week on policy issues directly related to health care reform. And so hundreds, if not thousands, of protesters were taking to the streets in that area. And then they ended their march right in front of the doors to the Ritz Carlton.

And at that point, the protesters were actually deputized, you could say -- informally deputized by the organizers to make what they called a citizen's arrest of the CEOs of several big insurance companies; also, the president of America's Health Insurance Plans. That's the industry trade group here in Washington led by Karen Ignani.

And -- and these protesters tried to get inside. They tried to move past a police barricade. They were unsuccessful. There were several arrests.

But as you mentioned Wolf, this demonstration comes at a critical time in the fight over health care reform, with the White House setting a deadline for later this month for passage of health care reform. There were big advocates of reform out there at this protest, including Howard Dean, who was firing up the crowd, saying votes will be watched by pro-reform advocates.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HOWARD DEAN (D), FORMER VERMONT GOVERNOR: There are going to be 535 people that vote on this bill and we're going to check every single one of them and in November, we're going to hold them accountable. I don't care if they're Republicans or Democrats, I want to know, did you stand with the insurance companies or did you stand with the American people?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ACOSTA: And, Wolf, this was getting very personal. Many of those protesters out there were holding Wild West style wanted posters showing the faces of CEOs of several insurance companies. Those protesters never made it inside the hotel. That barricade was able to hold. There were some brief, what I would call ceremonial arrests, where some of the protesters were led away in handcuffs by police officers and then released almost immediately -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Clearly, it's getting intense out there, as I said.

Thanks very much, Jim Acosta.

If the message from the protests against the insurance executives sounded a little bit familiar, there's probably some good reason for that.

Let's listen to some of President Obama's verbal assault on the industry only yesterday.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The insurance companies continue to ration health care based on who's sick and who's healthy, on who can pay and who can't pay. That's the status quo in America. And it is a status quo that is unsustainable for this country. We can't have a system that works better for the insurance companies than it does for the American people.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Let's bring in our senior political analyst, Gloria Borger.

This attack on the insurance -- insurance companies is -- is deliberate.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, it certainly is, Wolf. You know, you remember that the insurance companies were at the table when -- when this whole reform movement started. They were there back three years ago.

But starting around July, the White House began to notice a change in its polling data. And it showed that the one way they could break through with the American public is to show the American public's anxiety over -- over their health insurance rates. And so, suddenly, the insurance companies became the boogiemen.

They are talking, through the president, not only to the public out there, but also to the Democrats who are kind of on the ledge right now and saying, look, there could be a price for you to pay if you don't vote with us, because the people out there don't like insurance companies.

Now, I spoke with somebody at this trade association that they're picketing today who said, look, we think they're just trying to make us into a villain and we think that, in the end, the public is going to be cynical about the Obama administration's politics more than they dislike us. So we'll have to see how that works.

BLITZER: It's interesting, really, the White House going after the health insurance industry, but not the pharmaceutical industry...

BORGER: No.

BLITZER: -- because they reached a deal with the pharmaceutical lobbyists -- the pharmaceutical industry...

BORGER: Exactly.

BLITZER: -- but not the health insurance industry.

BORGER: Exactly. And, you know, in California, Anthem and Blue Cross, those rates went up 30 percent and more. And so that kind of played into the White House political strategy here.

BLITZER: Are they any closer to the votes they need?

BORGER: Well, I was told today by a source at the White House that they're still seven or eight votes shy in the House. And that is really where the -- where fight is on right now. It's -- it's conservatives on the cultural issues, the question of abortion. It's liberals who really wanted a public option in this plan and who don't have it. And right now, they're trying to convince those Democrats, look, the president will be with you, the Democratic National Committee will be with you, we'll all be supporting you when you go and run for reelection. And, by the way, it's better to be with us than it will be to be against us.

BLITZER: Gloria Borger, thanks very much.

BORGER: Sure.

BLITZER: All right, we've got some breaking news coming in from the Middle East now -- the Middle East peace process, indeed.

The vice president, Joe Biden, today formally publicly condemned Israel's decision to build some new housing units in a disputed part of Jerusalem -- in East Jerusalem specifically. And he did it just hours after meeting with the top Israeli leadership.

Our White House correspondent, Dan Lothian, is joining us -- Dan, it's a pretty significant development when the president of the United States is in Israel and publicly condemns a decision that was just announced by the Israeli government of Prime Minister Netanyahu.

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. And, you know, talk about bad timing here. You know, the vice president is the highest level member of the Obama administration to be on the ground there to visit Israel. And this was really seen -- his trip was seen as -- as a chance to kick start the peace talks there and then, of course, this announcement is made.

The vice president, as you pointed out, making the statement -- very strong language in the statement, saying, in part, quote, "I condemn the decision by the government of Israel to advance planning for new housing units in East Jerusalem. The substance and timing of the announcement, particularly with the launching of proximity (ph) talks is precisely the kind of step that undermines the trust we need right now."

The vice president going on to say that what's needed right now is language -- rhetoric that supports negotiations, not complicates it. And he also said that this points to the fact that there's still a lot of matters that need to be resolved and sitting down and negotiating is the way to get it done -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, I'm sure the timing was really irritating to the vice president. Here he is, the highest ranking U.S. official to visit Israel since the Obama administration took office. He's there. He's meeting with the prime minister and the president of Israel, Shimon Peres and others. And then the Israeli government announces they're building 1,600 new units in East Jerusalem, a day after George Mitchell, the special U.S. envoy, says there's going to be new peace talks, I'm sure they feel -- the Obama administration -- very, very angry at the Israelis right now.

LOTHIAN: That's right. And, you know, it had been earlier in the day, during those talks with Israeli officials. They were described as very good talks. The vice president pointing out that the U.S. is still committed to being -- standing behind Israel in negotiations with security regards, even pointing out that the U.S. really wants to see Iran, which is a big concern for Israel, get rid of all of their nuclear aspirations.

And, so, yes, very friendly, talking about U.S. commitment to Israel. But then again, this big disappointment with this announcement -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. We're going to have much more on this coming up here in THE SITUATION ROOM in our next hour.

Thanks very much, Dan Lothian.

And he's gone after House leaders and the White House chief of staff. And that's earned former congressman, Eric Massa, a place in the hearts of some top conservatives.

But guess what?

They may be less likely to embrace him as new ethics allegations surface. We're following this swirling controversy.

And the crusade to finally pass health care reform is dividing Catholics at a time when every vote counts.

Stay with us.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Jack Cafferty is back with The Cafferty File -- Jack, welcome back.

We missed you.

CAFFERTY: Thank you, Wolf.

If you think health care reform is ugly -- and it is -- just wait until Congress tackles immigration reform again. The Senate has begun work on an immigration bill and at the center of this new plan is a controversial requirement for all American workers to get I.D. cards. It's meant to prevent employers from hiring illegal immigrants.

Right.

If you think corporations that make huge profits on the backs of an illegal alien workforce are ever going to let something like that get through Congress, well you've another think coming.

Under this plan, nevertheless, all legal workers, including citizens and immigrants, would have to get an I.D. card that would include biometric information such as fingerprints. "The Wall Street Journal" reports the card would be phased in for all workers, including teens, and among all employers, beginning with industries that rely on an illegal immigrant workforce.

Now there's an idea.

Supporters say that such a worker I.D. card would be a way to guarantee illegal immigrants don't come here for jobs, because they wouldn't be able to get them.

Just like they're not able to get them now. Wrong.

But critics worry about violating people's privacy. They say such worker I.D. cards could wind up being a type of national identification card that would allow the government track everything people do, from working to voting to traveling, etc. -- just like European countries, where a lot of them already require everybody to carry I.D. cards.

This immigration bill would also offer a pathway to citizenship for the estimated illegal -- 11 million illegal immigrants who already live here. But they would have to register, pay taxes, pay a fine and wait in line -- in other words, amnesty with some inconvenience attached.

And for many Americans, that's a nonstarter. Anything reassembling amnesty won't cut it.

Here's the question then -- when it comes to immigration reform, are worker I.D. cards a good idea?

Go to CNN.com/caffertyfile and post a comment on my blog -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jack Cafferty, good to have you back.

Thank you.

A day after he quit Congress, more allegations are surfacing about New York Democrat, Eric Massa. There are now new reports that Massa has been under investigation for allegations he groped male staffers working in his office. "The Washington Post," which first reported the allegations, say they go back at least a year. Massa has acknowledged he was being investigated by the House Ethics Committee for possible harassment, but he had contended the claims were limited to his use of so-called salty language.

Clearly, there's still plenty of controversy surrounding Massa and his reasons for resigning.

Let's bring in our Congressional correspondent, Brianna Keilar, who's working this story for us.

He's getting some push back from the White House today, as well, Brianna, for stuff he said about what he claims was their intention to get him kicked out of Congress.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: A lot of push back from the White House, Wolf. But first, I want to let you know something that former Congressman Massa has said on Glenn Beck's show. He's actually said that he takes responsibility and that he was not forced out, presumably by Democratic leaders, from Congress.

Now, this is a little different from what we heard over the weekend from him, Wolf, when he said on a local radio station in the 29th District of New York, where he was Congressman, that basically leaders wanted him out because he, even though he's a Democrat, planned to vote no on that health care reform bill.

Well, today, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs of the White House very vocal in pushing back on any idea that -- that Massa was forced out because of his opposition.

Listen to what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERT GIBBS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: On Wednesday, he announced he would not seek reelection because of a health problem that he said was a recurrence of cancer. On Thursday, he said he wasn't running because -- not because of cancer, but because of his use of salty language. On Friday, he seemed to take some responsibility for his -- his actions at a different event and we learned that the Ethics Committee was looking into his actions relating to sexual harassment.

So I don't -- I don't know why I would give any weight to what he said on the fourth day any more than I would on the previous three days. The notion that somehow we were involved in that, I think, is, as I said this morning, is silly and ridiculous.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Brianna, what -- what are some of the conservative commentators saying?

This is a liberal Democrat who opposed health care reform because he didn't think it went far enough. He wanted a universal, single payer kind of program -- a public option, if you will. And now all of these other allegations.

What are you hearing?

KEILAR: What they're really zeroing in on and they seem to be very intrigued by -- and we're talking about Glenn Beck and, to some degree, Rush Limbaugh -- they had -- they really zeroed in on what he said over the weekend about really moving along with this health care reform package will -- will tear the country apart. So that's what they seem to be very intrigued by, although we did hear from Rush Limbaugh today and he was saying that some of his comments from yesterday, that this was going to be a national story and, as well, he said that there's going to be a lot of support for people for Massa.

He seems to be pushing back on that, saying that he's not really -- there shouldn't be a link drawn between him and supporting Massa.

You know, what's interesting, though, Wolf, is I've spoken to a lot of Republican sources and -- here on the Hill and off the Hill, and they say these conservative pundits need to be very careful. And they said this even before "The Washington Post" broke these latest details about Massa's alleged misconduct. They say because while some of these conservative pundits may want to zero in on that vocal Democratic opposition to a Democratic package, they have to consider the source and this is someone facing some very serious allegations.

And what we've heard from Republican lawmakers, Wolf, they have not been getting up there and saying, listen, this is a guy -- a Democrat himself, who's against this plan. They're sort of not touching this with a 10 foot pole.

BLITZER: Yes, he's got a lot of baggage, clearly.

Thanks very much, Brianna, for that. President Obama's full court press for health care reform is in full swing. Opponents are pushing back with equal vigor. A surprising divide can be found in the Catholic Church.

CNN's Lisa Sylvester is joining us here with more.

What is the striking point within the church?

What's going on?

LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You know, this is a fascinating story, Wolf, because for decades, the U.S. Catholic Church has fought for health care for the poor. But now that Congress is close to approving universal health care, some Catholics, including U.S. bishops, are vehemently opposed to the current legislation.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SYLVESTER (voice-over): At St. Elizabeth's Catholic Church in Rockville, Maryland, they are united in prayer. But on the health care debate, they are deeply divided, some arguing that language in the Senate bill would allow for federal funding of abortions.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We're totally against it. You know, being Catholics, abortion actually is out of the question. And then to have our taxpayer dollars going toward paying for abortion is unacceptable.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think it should be thrown out and start all over.

SYLVESTER: Others saying the need for health care reform overrides any concerns.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The real sin is that we have as much money as we have in this country and we spend a lot of money internationally, but yet, at the same time, we have people in this country with no health insurance.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We are this close. We need to get it done.

SYLVESTER: The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops says the Senate bill that is being used as a blueprint for reform on Capitol Hill violates the longstanding federal policy against the use of federal funds for elective abortions and health plans that include such abortions.

Congressman Bart Stupak is a devout Catholic. Stupak says he has 11 other Democrats -- enough to scuttle the health care bill if the language is not changed.

REP. BART STUPAK (D), MICHIGAN: We're not restricting their rights. We're not expanding their rights. All we're saying is it's a benefit the federal government has chosen not to fund. Just keep that policy.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM YOUTUBE.COM)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No government funded abortions, period.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SYLVESTER: Anti-abortion groups are turning up the pressure on the 12 Democrats, running radio ads targeting them and launching a grassroots campaign.

SUSAN MUSKETT, NATIONAL RIGHT TO LIFE: What we know right now is that Speaker Pelosi doesn't have the votes for the bill. And so what will determine the outcome will be that in the next two weeks, whether members really hear from their constituents in opposition to the bill.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

SYLVESTER: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, herself a Catholic, disagrees with Representative Stupak and the anti-abortion groups, saying that the Senate bill would not provide federal funding for abortions. But it's complicated, because while it's true the legislation would provide subsidies for some plans that offer an abortion option, those abortions would have to be paid for separately by the insured.

The House leadership is planning on sitting down with Stupak and the other Democrats this week to try to come up with some kind of a compromise because, at the end of the day, Wolf, Pelosi needs those votes to get the bill passed.

BLITZER: Yes. Well, it's him and 11 others. That's critical as far as getting it passed in the House.

Thanks very much, Lisa, for that.

In today's CNN polling center, how important is the abortion issue to those Catholics who oppose health care reform?

A Pew Poll found that abortion came in fourth, at 11 percent, behind concerns of too much government involvement, costs and fears their own health care might suffer.

And in our CNN/Opinion Research Corporation Poll, when Catholics were asked, what should Congress do with health care reform overall, look at this, 28 percent said pass the current bill, 45 percent said work on a new bill.

By the way, that's a similar response to a poll of Americans in general when asked the same question.

A controversial change takes effect here in Washington, D.C. -- the seat of the nation's government is now one of only a half a dozen places in the United States to sanction gay marriage.

And a new addition to the collection over at the Smithsonian Institution, but it means that the first lady, Michelle Obama, had to give up a party dress she got to wear only once.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

What else is going on -- Lisa?

SYLVESTER: Hi there, Wolf.

Well, during talks with the Haitian president today, secretary of State Hillary Clinton emphasized the importance of upcoming voting. Parliamentary elections were postponed in February. And it's unclear whether the presidential election set for this fall will go on. Clinton says the U.S. will work with international partners to aid with Haiti's elections. Haiti's leader says he welcomes that assistance.

And it will be six months behind bars for the CBS News producer who tried to blackmail comedian David Letterman. Robert Joe Halderman admitted to trying to extort $2 million in exchange for secrecy over Letterman's extra-marital love life. The incident led to the comic's public admission he has had affairs with female staffers.

First Lady Michelle Obama has presented her inaugural gown to the Smithsonian's Museum of American History -- that beautiful gown. And the public will get to see it once again when it goes on display tomorrow. The ivory silk one shoulder dress that made the rounds to 10 official balls is now part of the museum's collection of first ladies' dresses.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MICHELLE OBAMA, FIRST LADY OF THE UNITED STATES: The detail of each gown -- the fabric, the cut, the color -- tells us something much more about each single first lady. It's a visual reminder that we each come from such different backgrounds, from different generations and from different walks of life. Each gown places us right in the moment and makes us wonder about the intimate details of that evening, like how does she feel in the dress? Did her feet hurt in those shoes?

How many times did her husband step on that train?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SYLVESTER: Yes, I want to know the answer to some of those questions.

Did her feet hurt in those shoes?

And how many times did he step on that train?

I'll bet a bunch of times. But hopefully, we'll get those answers -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Inquiring minds want to know. But she did look lovely, as we all know.

SYLVESTER: Yes.

BLITZER: Thanks very much for that.

Everyone agrees that American kids deserve to get an excellent education, but figuring out how to make that happen is very complicated and often politically charged. We're going to try to find out areas of agreement and disagreement between the Obama Education secretary, Arne Duncan -- he's here -- and the Reagan Education secretary, Bill Bennett -- he's here. An important discussion on Education, coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: There's nothing more important than educating our kids.

Let's talk about it in our Strategy Session.

Joining us, two special guests, the Education secretary, Arne Duncan, and CNN political contributor, the national radio talk show host, Bill Bennett. He served as Education secretary under President Reagan. He also has a brand new book that's just out entitled, "A Century Turns". Thanks very much for coming in.

Secretary Duncan, what is the single most important initiative, just one initiative that the federal government can do to improve the education of our kids.

ARNE DUNCAN, EDUCATION SECRETARY: I think we can reward excellence. What you have seen with race to the top and many other similar opportunities, is the best ideas in education will always come at the local level, never from us here in Washington. The more we can build upon success at the local level --

BLITZER: Race to the top is your version of no child left behind. DUNCAN: It's a piece of it, but yes, rewarding excellence, having a high bar for everybody and making sure we're measuring growth.

BLITZER: Is that your most important priority?

BILL BENNETT, FORMER REAGAN EDUCATION SECRETARY: I think so. Standards, excellence. It's time to close in on this one. We're getting beat up in international competitions. There may be a new sputnik, which is our kids, our college graduates, are not getting jobs, losing jobs to kids from other countries, young people from other countries. We are not competitive in the later grades. We have our differences, but his recognition of better and higher standards, no matter who that ticks off, I think is very important.

BLITZER: Because if you look at the math and science test results, we did some research. In 2006, 15-year-old students here in the United States were 23 of 29 among various participating countries, outperformed, they outperformed the United States. In science 2006 tests, 15-year-old students were 16 out of 29 other participating countries. Why are American students doing so poorly right now when compared to students in all sorts of other countries?

DUNCAN: It's very simple. Our students, our children are as smart, as competitive, as committed as children anywhere in the country. We have dummied down standards. It's our fault as adults. We have lowered the bar, had low expectations, not because it's the right thing educationally, not because it's right thing for our economy due to political pressure, and we're trying to say let's remove that. We need a high bar, a common definition of success, college ready standards for everybody and let's level the playing field. If we level the playing field, our students can compete with anybody in the world.

BLITZER: What does that mean, "political pressure"? Be specific.

DUNCAN: What we have seen under the no child left behind, we saw many states reducing standards to respond to that political pressure, that's bad for children, bad for education. We've been lying to children in our country when we've told them they're meeting a state standard, that bar has dumb yesterday down so much, they're barely able to graduate from high school and totally inadequately prepared for college.

BLITZER: Who do you blame for this failure?

BENNETT: I agree with the secretary there have been a number of states that lowered, something like 15 to 18 states have lowered standards, but there are other political pressures. The pressures of the groups, whenever you introduce a reform, the labor unions get into it, and obvious they react negative. Let me put this in the form of the compliment, Secretary Duncan has said if you're going to evaluate teachers, and you should, because we have to reward excellence, then you've got to make student evaluations, student success, student learning part of that. This has been mightily resisted a "New York Times" story last Sunday showed some of the resistance. You can't do this job unless --

BLITZER: Sometimes you have crummy teachers, but they can't be fired because of the unions.

DUNCAN: You see the unions stepping up and doing interesting things. The idea of higher standards, both national unions are behind that. Randy Weingarten has said publicly they don't want to protect teachers who aren't making it. The vast majority of our teachers are working hard and we have to support them. We need to reward great teachers, help those in the middle improve and those at the bottom need to remove them. Right now we're doing none of those things.

BENNETT: Did you see Randy said about you Sunday? I mean she was very critical of your position. I think you were right. I can't give the exact quote, but they were furious, because the secretary supported, and the president too as I understand it, supported what was going on in providence. 7% of the kids were performing at grade level. The secretary said that was the right thing and I think it is the right thing. You have different unions and locals operating in different ways. We know the cost that the bottom rung of our teachers costs us in terms of student performance. Replace those teachers. The union should be leading the way here. If they're a professional organization, they should honor excellence and reward it.

BLITZER: Gentlemen stand by because I want to continue this conversation. Much more coming up, including school systems scrambling to find some ways to cut costs, and to keep education going. Some states are considering some very drastic measures. Should kids only go to school four days a week? It's cutting the school week to four days.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're back with the education secretary Arne Duncan and former Reagan education secretary Bill Bennett. I heard the other day some school districts are in such trouble they're thinking about cutting the school day to four days. You know about this.

DUNCAN: Yes. This is a huge worry. We understand the tremendous pressure the districts and states are under. You have places like Hawaii eliminated Fridays for the rest of the school year. How is that good for children?

BLITZER: In a lot of countries, in Asia, even in Europe, they go to school six days a week.

DUNCAN: We have to level the playing field. If we level the playing field our students would go great. When they're going to school 220, 230, 240 days of school each year, our students are going 180, and now being reduced to 170, 165, what chance do our students have?

BLITZER: But if there's no money, what do you do?

BENNETT: Well there are other things you can do. Time doesn't matter as much as what you do with the time but I think cutting the time is almost always a bad idea. One thing you can do goes against what people what to do but you can do it, you can increase class size, as they do in the Asian countries. Class size has no appreciable effect on learning unless you get down to small numbers. When you lower class size, as in California, they had to drop down into the teaching pool and that hurts performance.

BLITZER: Some places go school year-round.

DUNCAN: They should be open 12, 13 hours a day as community centers, six days a week, 11 12 months out of the year. We don't need any more studies about summer reading loss. We have children who get to a certain point in June, they come back to school in September further behind than when they left. That has to change.

BLITZER: Is that realistic?

BENNETT: If they're teaching the right thing. Back to your first point, when Arne Duncan said it's not our kids in the problem. Our kids in the third and fourth grade do competitive well. They lose ground the longer they stay in school in American. It's a systemic problem. High expectations, time on task, but it has to be on the right tasks, if you increase learning like, but not the right content, you won't get there.

BLITZER: Some say charter schools have done well but they're limited in most urban areas.

DUNCAN: I'm not a fan of charter schools, but a fan of good charter schools. The best charter schools in the country are doing a phenomenal job. There are charters in the middle. There are charter schools that need to be closed, but the best charter schools are doing a great job, particularly in historically underserved countries. Our country needs more great schools. No first or second grader knows when I go to a charter school or a gifted school, does my teacher care about, am I safe in school, does the principle know who I am? We need more great schools, great traditional schools need to replicate, great charters need to replicate. Bad schools aren't working. We need to come back.

BLITZER: We don't hear a lot of talk about vouchers to send some of these kids to good catholic schools, for example. That's something you would support?

BENNETT: Yes, it is, and it's been very agreeable, so one note of discord, I think eliminating the scholarship program, the D.C. opportunity scholarship program in Washington was a really bad thing to do. These kids had opportunity and were learning a lot, but charters are a very good thing, and again I recognize the secretary whose urban prep you started Chicago, 100% of those kids going to college. I think school choice does make a difference, content, but we have to get the pressure up on the standards.

BLITZER: Based on this conference, Mr. Secretary, there's a lot of room for agreement, maybe not on health care, but on education you may be able to find agreement with conservatives and Republicans out there. DUNCAN: This is one issue that all of us regardless of politics or ideology, all of us feel a sense of urgency. We have to educate our way to a better economy. It's the only way to get there. We all have to put politics aside and do the right thing by our children. We have to do that for the sake of them and our country. This is the civil rights issue of our generation, and also an economic imperative.

BLITZER: Are conservatives and Republicans ready to work with this secretary of education?

BENNETT: Certainly on some things. Like I said, we have our disagreements but you know what? He's gotten into fights with the right people. As on old Irishman, I think that's a good sign.

BLITZER: Bill Bennett thanks for coming in. Arne Duncan, thanks to you as well. Good luck.

DUNCAN: Thanks for the opportunity.

BLITZER: Our families are all counting on you. Thank you.

Wedding bells have been ringing all day here in Washington, D.C. The District of Columbia becomes the latest haven for same-sex couples who want to be legally married.

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BLITZER: On our political ticker, America votes 2010, conservative Republican Doug Hoffman says he'll take another shot at running for Congress in upstate New York. His first run as a conservative in a three way special election last year helped spark a bitter divide within the Republican Party and it helped Democrat Bill Owens win the seat in the 23rd congressional district, a seat his party hadn't controlled for over a century. This time Hoffman says he'll work to unite Republicans and he predicts that will help him defeat Owens in November.

In Iowa, a preemptive strike against a possible GOP presidential contender. That would be former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum. Two Iowa state Republicans tell CNN some people in the state are getting anonymous recorded phone messages blasting Santorum as, quote, a pro life fraud. The message cites past support for high profile Republicans who support abortion rights. The call began yesterday, just hours before his scheduled appearance tonight before the influential Iowa Christian alliance.

Look who's ready to fill in for President Obama. Bill Clinton has some experience with the job after all. He'll be substituting for the president at the annual Gridiron Club Dinner here in Washington on March 20th. Mr. and Mrs. Obama will be on a trip to Indonesia, Guam and Australia, when Washington journalists hold their annual dinner, including skits lampooning the people they cover.

A new spoof that promote a very real cause, insurance reform. It features actress Heidi Montag poking fun at her new image as the tabloid poster girl for cosmetic surgery. If her performance doesn't surprise you, get this, it was directed by feature film director Ron Howard. Take a look.

HEIDI MONTAG, ACTRESS: If you're a reality TV star, chances are good that you'll one day have plastic surgery. It's also a for sure thing that you'll have to pay for that surgery with credit cards, because you've spent all of your I'm a celebrity, get me out of here money on expensive purses, tiny dogs and healing bracelets for your husband. With hidden fees and standard interest rate increases, that $11,000 jaw line can cost you upwards of $50,000.

BLITZER: Pretty funny stuff.

Let's go to Lisa Sylvester. She's monitoring other top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM right now. What else is going on?

LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi Wolf. The Greek prime minister is asking President Obama to consider cracking down on currency speculation, which he says is deepening Greece's economic crisis. In recent weeks, financial traders have been in a frenzy betting billions against the euro on chances Greece won't be able to repay massive debts. The Greek leader says the issue low pressure discussed at the next G-20 summit next June.

A rally at the world trade center today urged redevelopment authorities to speed up the progress. Work has stalled on some of the buildings, as the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey battles the developer. The port thought controls the site and want more private sector cash from the developer. An arbitration panel has given the two sides until Friday to figure out a new construction schedule.

SeaWorld and the family of slain killer whale trailer Dawn Brancheau are trying to keep video of the attack from becoming public. Tapes of Brancheau's death caught by cameras where given to law enforcement authority but Under Florida law, once the investigation concludes, those tapes could be made public. Her family is consulting the same lawyer who successfully represented late Nascar driver Dale Earnhardt's family in a similar battle.

As tax day approaches, the I.R.S. is offering more flexibility. With millions of people out of work or suffering income drops, the commissioner is loosening rules for negotiating tax settlements. Starting March 27, the agency will also open about 1,000 offices on Saturdays, so people can work on their tax debts with I.R.S. employees to try to resolve the tax debts. So who says the I.R.S. doesn't have heart?

BLITZER: Getting closer to April 15th, probably a lot of people.

"The Cafferty file" is up next. When it comes to immigration reform, are worker I.D. cards a cards a good idea? Jack will read your e-mail. That's next.

And Vice President Joe Biden meeting with Israeli leaders in Jerusalem, but it is what he said after the meeting that is getting the world's attention. Right now, stand by.

In California a runaway Toyota Prius takes the driver for a harrowing ride.

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BLITZER: Let's get right back to Jack with the Cafferty file. Jack?

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Question this hour, when it comes to immigration reform are worker I.D. cards a good idea?

Ed in California, "You can have all of the I.D.s you want, one for everyday of the week if need be, but the problem is the people who employ the undocumented worker, that's the problem. These employers who are saving a buck on labor need to be caught, prosecuted, fined and jailed and put permanently out of business, and their workers should be deported."

Battle writes, "This is a bad idea. We have immigration laws that are on the books, but not enforced. The ability of the government to track anything about me is unacceptable."

Dan in New York, "I don't have a problem. I was born here and I have no issues and if it stops the flood of illegal workers here and forces the companies to pay real wages, I'm for it."

Burt says, "Worker I.D. cards are not a good idea, but e-verify and employer prison time for those who hire illegals would be good."

And Jared says, "Big government, don't we have something like this, isn't it called the social security card?"

Mike from Dallas says, "When I was hired for my last job I had to bring my passport, driver's license and social security card and now we worry about one card."

Bob in Texas, "Once again, Jack, they want to attack the good guys to get to the bad guys. Those of us who work and don't want to carry big brother's tattoo whether find ourselves unemployed while the illegals and the employers will find their ways around the laws. It's a lot like the terrorist problem. The government can't handle it so we have to submit to full body searches before we get on airplanes."

And David says, "Let's cut to the chase and have our government tattoo numbers on our foreheads."

If you want to read more on this subject, you can go to my blog at CNN.com/Caffertyfile.

BLITZER: Thank you very much Jack Cafferty.

We're learning new information right now about a woman who calls herself and I'm quoting Jihad Jane. The just unsealed federal indictment describes her campaign to recruit men and from America for the holy war. She's not from the Middle East. She is right here in Pennsylvania.

And we'll meet some of the first same sex couples married right here in Washington, D.C. Stay with us.

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BLITZER: Gay couples have been saying I do all day here in Washington, D.C. the District of Columbia today joined five states where same-sex marriage is recognized as a legal union. CNN's Samantha Hayes was there when the first couple tied the knot.

SAMANTHA HAYES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The marriage ceremony for three same sex couples was performed inside of the head quarters of the human rights campaign. They were among hundreds who applied for D.C. marriage licenses last week.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: By the authority vested in me, I hereby pronounce that they are partners in life.

HAYES: They were the first same sex couple to be legally married in the District of Columbia, the nation's capital became the sixth jurisdiction in the nation to legalize gay marriage.

REV. ELDER DARLENE GARNER: Equality and justice for all now includes us.

HAYES: The D.C. council voted to legalize same-sex marriage last year joining Iowa, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Vermont. Voters in 30 other states have rejected same-sex marriage.

MAYOR ADRIAN FENTY (D), DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA: We were one of the frontier and first jurisdictions in the country to say we are where we put our money where our mouth is, and we are going to change this.

HAYES: This has been a controversial change in D.C. In connection with the new law the D.C. council insisted that as a state contractor, Catholic Charities had to offer the same benefits to same sex couples that it did to heterosexual ones. The debate here centers around religious freedom. The archbishop decided that starting March 2nd, they would no longer offer benefits to spouses of current employees not enrolled. Chris Hinkle is gay and a practicing catholic who lives in Virginia and worships in Washington.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It is a slap in the face. It is prejudice. I want people to treat others with justice.

HAYES: D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty signed the act last December, but it had to be approved and reviewed by Congress, which took place last week.

Samantha Hayes, CNN, Washington.

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