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THE SITUATION ROOM

Freed U.S. Hiker Meets Iranian President; "Hateful" 9/11 Rant by Iran; Colbert's Comic Testimony; President Obama Sinks to a New Low; The Battle for Congress; NYC is Watching You; Hostage Standoff Ends at Florida Bank; Michelle Obama Works to Get Veterans Hired; Lehman Brothers' Art for Auction

Aired September 24, 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, breaking news -- the American hiker recently released by Iran meets with President Ahmadinejad. We have details.

And 9/11 blame and anger -- President Obama has choice words for Iran over allegations that the terror attacks were America's fault.

Right now, Mr. Obama's approval rating has sunk to a new low. The best political team on television talks about where the president has gone wrong and how he may pay for it on election day.

And the mood inside the hearing room during Stephen Colbert's mocking testimony. The TV comic put the spotlight, though, on a serious issue.

Were the lawmakers, though, in on the joke?

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

But we begin with the breaking news -- a remarkable face-to-face meeting today between the president of Iran and the American hiker who was jailed in his country for over a year.

Mary Snow has got the details for us.

She's joining us from New York.

What the happened -- Mary?

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, that meeting took place today here in New York. We're told that Sarah Shourd and her mother, Nora, met with Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. That is according to Samantha Topping, a spokeswoman representing the families of the hikers who had been jailed in Iran since July of 2009.

At this point, we don't have details of that meeting. Sarah Shourd was released on September 14 and has been speaking out since then in an effort to gain the release of her fiance, Shane Bauer, and friend, Josh Fattal.

Now, earlier today, I spoke with Sarah Shourd.

I asked her if she could make a direct appeal to Iran's president, what would she say?

Here's what she told me.

SARAH SHOURD, U.S. HIKER FREED BY IRAN: And I want to beseech him and beg him to extend the same generosity and compassion and understanding and give the same humanitarian gesture to my fiance and my friend.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SNOW: Now, Ahmadinejad has been in New York for the United Nations General Assembly. On Wednesday, Wolf, he spoke with CNN's Larry King. And Larry King asked him if he would consider meeting with the families while they were in New York. At that point, he said he would consider it.

Now, we hope to have more details soon about this meeting. We will also have more of my interview with Sarah Shourd in the next hour -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. We'll stand by for that.

Mary Snow, thank you.

An angry reaction from President Obama today to what he calls "hateful allegations" leveled at the United States by Ahmadinejad. It was a direct response to the Iranian president, who went before the United Nations General Assembly yesterday and poured more fuel on conspiracy theories about the 9/11 attacks.

Let's bring in our White House correspondent, Dan Lothian.

He's in New York -- Dan?

DAN SIMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, you know, one expert on Iran says that when Ahmadinejad comes to the United States, New York and the UN, he comes to put on a show -- to confront his Western critics face to face-to-face.

Well, if that, indeed, is the case, he did not disappoint.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LOTHIAN (voice-over): Iran's president, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, once again opened his mouth and inserted not only his foot, but some might say his entire leg -- blaming the U.S. for the 9/11 attacks.

MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD, PRESIDENT OF IRAN (through translator): Some segments within the U.S. government orchestrated the attack to reverse the declining American economy and its grips on the Middle East in order to save the Zionist regime.

LOTHIAN: The White House called his comments "outrageous" and President Obama fired back personally in an interview with BBC Persia.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, COURTESY BBC PERSIAN)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It was offensive. It was hateful. And particularly for him to make the statement here, in Manhattan, was inexcusable.

LOTHIAN: So much for only using the interview as a way to extend a warm embrace to the people of Iran, to show that sanctions were not a personal attack on them, but a way to rein in their country's nuclear ambitions.

But Ahmadinejad has a habit of making outrageous claims, like this about gays.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM 2007)

AHMADINEJAD: In Iran, we don't have homosexuals like in your country.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LOTHIAN: And this about Jews.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM SEPTEMBER 2009)

AHMADINEJAD: It is unacceptable that a small minority should dominate the politics, economy and culture of vast parts of the world, through a complicated network, and establish a new form, in fact, of slavery.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LOTHIAN: But one expert on Iran says Ahmadinejad's rhetoric, as frustrating as it may be, should not stand in the way of pursuing meaningful dialogue.

SHARON SQUASSONI, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC AND INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: I don't know how you convince him that that's the case, but, you know, so far, the problem is we don't have any better interlocutors. We haven't identified others in the Iranian government that might be more reasonable.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

LOTHIAN: Ahmadinejad suggested that threats and sanctions are not the right strategies, that this kind of pressure will only hurt the diplomatic effort.

But speaking to reporters today, he did suggest that he was open to talks as early as next month in order to resolve the nuclear issue -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Dan.

Thank you. A day after President Obama urged the United Nations to embrace Middle East peace, his administration may -- repeat -- may be very close to breaking a stalemate in the peace process. Diplomor -- diplomatic sources telling CNN right now that a compromise may be in the works on new construction of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. We're told the secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, is due to meet in the next hour with top Palestinian officials. Palestinians have threatened to leave peace talks if Israel doesn't extend a freeze on settlement construction that ends this weekend. We're told one possible compromise would let Israel keep the freeze in place, to a large degree, but still allow some limited construction.

Jill Dougherty is working the story.

We'll let check in with her later.

Now to Capitol Hill. At a time when so many Americans are not happy with elected officials and some even think politics is a joke, we got this -- a mock newsman delivering a sarcastic statement about a very, very real problem. The comedian, Stephen Colbert, apparently is serious about the debate over migrant farm workers and whether they take jobs away from Americans. He even accepted a labor group's challenge to experience life in the fields firsthand. And that led to an invitation to appear before Congress today.

But did he help the cause or hurt it?

Let's bring in our senior Congressional correspondent, Dana Bash.

She was there in the hearing room.

A lot of media attention that normally wouldn't have been much media attention.

But it certainly seemed a little bit surreal, didn't it -- Dana?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It was definitely surreal to be in the room of those of us waiting for him -- and not just reporters, but also, frankly, members of Congress wanted to know which Stephen Colbert would show up?

Would we see the faux conservative talk show host that we see every night on "The Colbert Report" or would it be a serious straight man talking about the issue in this hearing, which is farm wages and workers' rights.

And it turned out, Wolf, we got a mix of both.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BASH (voice-over): Sure, celebrities testify before Congress all the time, but not like this.

STEPHEN COLBERT, HOST, "THE COLBERT REPORT": When you're picking beans, you have to spend all day bending over. It turns out -- and I did not know this -- most soil is at ground level. If we can put a man on the moon, why can't we make the Earth waist high? Come on, where is the funding?

This is America. I don't want a tomato picked by a Mexican. I want it picked by an American, then sliced by a Guatemalan and served by a Venezuelan in a spa where a Chilean gives me a Brazilian.

BASH: Congressmen in both parties were visibly surprised. Some tried not to giggle. Colbert's comedic in character opener was far different from the straightforward statement he told the committee he would deliver. It was a risk Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren knowingly took, inviting the comedian to testify about the plight of migrant workers.

COLBERT: You know, when I pick these beans, you're on my turf here.

BASH: And talk about his day working on a New York farm this summer to see what it's like.

COLBERT: We have to do something, because I am not going back out there. At this point, I break into a cold sweat at the sight of a salad bar.

BASH: At times, the satirist was serious about the cause.

COLBERT: And it seems like one of the least powerful people in the United States are -- are migrant workers who come and do our work but don't have any rights as a result. And yet we still invite them to come here and, at the same time, ask them to leave.

BASH: There was lots of Colbert's trademark truthiness.

COLBERT: Maybe this AG jobs bill would help. I don't know. Like most members of Congress, I haven't read it.

BASH: The top Republican openly questioned why Colbert was qualified to talk about farm workers and whether migrants are doing the jobs Americans won't.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Does one day working in the field make you an expert witness?

COLBERT: Well, I believe one day of me studying anything makes me an expert.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How many of those individuals were illegal and how many were legal?

COLBERT: I didn't ask them for their papers, though I -- I -- I had a strong urge to.

BASH: But Republicans weren't the only skeptics. In an awkward moment, the Democratic chairman of the full committee was so worried about the event becoming a circus, he tried to kick Colbert out -- even before he spoke. REP. JOHN CONYERS (D-MI), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: I'm asking you to leave the committee room completely and submit your statement instead.

REP. ZOE LOFGREN (D), CALIFORNIA: And I think many are eager to hear his comments.

COLBERT: I'm only here at her invitation.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

BASH: Obviously, Stephen Colbert stayed. And Conyers told me afterwards that, at the end, he actually thought it went well. He said Colbert was funny and even, quote, "profound."

And as for the chairwoman who invited him, she said afterwards -- at least according to somebody who I spoke to close her -- she has no regrets and that she got what she wanted, and that is attention to a cause -- an issue that she says she has hearings on and no cameras show up at all. And, in fact, the hallways were absolutely filled with reporters. The hearing room was packed. In fact, that congresswoman, the chairwoman, Zoe Lofgren, she even joked during the hearing, Wolf, that she hasn't seen that many people -- that many press -- reporters in the Judiciary Committee since Bill Clinton's impeachment.

BLITZER: A surreal moment for a very, very serious issue, as you say.

Dana, thanks very much.

We have new evidence coming into THE SITUATION ROOM that voters' great expectations for the Obama presidency are being dashed. Stand by. We have some striking new poll numbers just weeks before critical midterm elections.

And should Evangelicals be allowed to sing the praises of Christianity at a U.S. Army base?

Just ahead, the complaints about a concert set for tomorrow. We'll update you on what's going on?

And Big Brother is watching New Yorkers even more now than ever before. We're going to bring you an update on the controversy over cameras placed around the city.

Stay with us.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: It's an iconic image -- Barack Obama celebrating his historic presidential victory sura -- surrounded by joyous crowds in Chicago. Almost two years later, we have some startling new evidence of the slide in the president's support. His approval rating has now sunk to an all-time low in his presidency in our brand new CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll. It's now at only 42 percent. That's down from 50 percent early this month.

Let's bring in our senior political analysts, Gloria Borger and David Gergen -- Gloria, right now, 42 percent approve of the way the president's handling his job, 54 disapprove. On September 1st and 2nd, 50 percent approved, 49 percent disapproved.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Right.

BLITZER: This is going in the wrong direction for the president.

BORGER: It is going in the wrong direction. And if you go back in history a little bit, Wolf, we were looking at the figures for Bill Clinton right around the turn -- the time of his midterm election -- his disastrous midterm election in 1994, when he lost control of the Congress. And his approval rating was exactly the same. It was 42 percent.

If this midterm election is a referendum on Barack Obama, it's going to be a lot of trouble for the Democrats.

BLITZER: You worked for Bill Clinton at the time -- David.

Do you see a similar disaster on November 2nd for Barack Obama that -- that happened to Bill Clinton and the Democrats back in '94?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL ADVISER: Wolf, this poll certainly suggests that that may be shaping up. It's almost unrelieved bad news for the president and his team.

What I find most surprising about the poll is 37 percent of people in the CNN poll say they would support a candidate approved of and backed by President Obama.

BLITZER: You worked for Bill Clinton at the time, David. Do you see a similar disaster on November second for Barack Obama that happened to Bill Clinton and the Democrats back in '94?

GERGEN: Wolf, this poll, it certainly suggests that may be shaping up. It's almost a relief -- bad news for the president and his team.

What I find most surprising about the poll is 37 percent of people in the CNN poll say they would support a candidate approved of and backed by President Obama, but half the people in the poll say they would support a candidate that's backed by the Tea Party.

In other words, the Tea Party is much more influential than the president himself with voters. That is -- I don't think that we've seen that that I can remember.

BORGER: Right, and heading in to this election, Wolf, this poll also shows that 75 percent of the voters say they've already made up their minds. And usually when that happens, it's a bunch of voters who feel very strongly about something, very motivated about something. These are likely voters and that's probably going to head in the Republican direction. BLITZER: And 20 percent say they're open to changing their minds. They haven't made their minds up.

Look at the numbers here as far as the opinion of President Obama. Has he met your expectations? Thirty-two percent say, yes.

Has he exceeded your expectations? Only nine percent say he's exceeded you expectations, 56 percent, though, say he's fallen short of meeting your particular expectations.

Those are seriously bad numbers for the president, aren't they, David?

GERGEN: They are. That reflects the fact that his base has not found as much here as they hoped. When you get up to 56 percent, you're no longer talking about just Republicans or just Independents at this point, you really are talking about your base. And so, that's -- I think that's putting additional pressure.

There's no good news in this poll and it really does suggest, Wolf, that with all of the departures now in the White House, they have to think post-election that they really need to hit the reset button and see if they can revive his presidency.

BLITZER: Look at the numbers, Gloria, cause I want to put them up on the screen.

Is the country better off if Congress is controlled by the Republicans? Thirty-eight percent say Republicans, 27 percent say Democrats, 34 percent say no difference, they don't think either one of these parties makes a real difference.

But the gap, 11 points there between Republicans and Democrats could be significant for a lot of these very close districts for the house of reps.

BORGER: Yes, it's very significant, obviously, when that number -- when there's that large a difference.

But also, the no difference number, the 34 percent is really a warning to all politicians here because it means that whoever wins control, whoever gets elected, this is not any kind of a great mandate because people believe in the policies you're talking about and they want you to get this particular thing done or that particular thing done. This is just kind of a yes or no vote. Yes, we like the guys who are in office; no, we don't like the guys who are in office.

And so, the folks who win are going to have to prove they can do something to change that number.

BLITZER: David, you want to make a point -- yes.

GERGEN: Let me echo what Gloria --- yes, I wanted to echo what Gloria just said, because it's important and I think this is a cautionary note for Republicans. Half the people in this CNN poll say that the reason they're going to vote for Republicans is not because they approve of Republicans but because they disapprove of the president and his party. That goes to the mandate question. It's a negative vote. Half of the vote is negative.

So, they're essentially saying we'll give the Republicans another chance, but we haven't rushed to embrace everything they stand for yet.

BLITZER: David, I know you've been thinking about this. There's going to be a big turnover after the election in the White House staff -- Rahm Emmanuel, chief of staff leaves, the national security advisor, Jim Jones, if he leaves, there's some of the top economic advisors have already left.

What does the president need right now to turn things around the next two years going into the presidential election?

GERGEN: Well, Wolf, I -- I just spent, as you did, some time in New York talking to the policy community, financial community and others, and if there's one thing people agree on, the president has a choice. And that is, does he have continuity in his appointments or does he signal change?

I think people are looking for change. You know, it's -- it's understandable he would want some people in order to carry out what he's done. It's understandable he would want to keep a lot of his inner circle. But I do think people now are looking to bring in heavyweights from the outside to help him hit that reset button and revive his presidency.

BORGER: And, David, you know this. When you're two years into an administration, sometimes you just need a fresh set of eyes to come in and say --

GERGEN: Yes, you absolutely do.

BORGER: -- you've been doing this the right way, maybe you need to do this a different way. Somebody who's been on the outside rather than been living in the bubble of the White House for the last two years.

GERGEN: Right, right.

I think so. I think there's a sense, Gloria and Wolf, that -- that the president for all of his great strengths and he continues to have great strengths, does have people around him that see a world in a similar way and some alternative perspectives at the table around with him when he's making the decisions would be very helpful.

BLITZER: Maybe bring in a CEO or someone of the business community, a leader.

GERGEN: Absolutely.

BORGER: He should do that.

BLITZER: All right, guys. We'll see what he does, we'll see what happens on November second. We're counting down to the midterm elections with "The Best Political Team on Television", and Gloria and David are members of that team.

Guys, thanks very much.

BORGER: Thanks.

GERGEN: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: A major concert planned at a U.S. military post now the center of a major firestorm. Why some are saying it violates the separation of church and state.

Plus, a Nicaraguan diplomat found dead in his New York City apartment, his throat slashed. We're getting new information on the case that's coming in to THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

Hi, Fred.

FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hello to you, Wolf. Hello, everyone.

Well authorities say the four victims in a Kentucky charcoal plant explosion have been badly burned. A spokesman for the plant calls the incident a freak accident, he believes high winds kicked up some debris sparking a flash fire. He says all employees are accounted for. The victims are being treated in area hospitals.

And investigators are not ruling out suicide in the death of a Nicaraguan diplomat with a found in his New York apartment with a slashed throat. Police say the console of Nicaragua suffered a hesitation wound to the neck, which could have been self-inflicted. He also had 12 stab wounds to the stomach. Police found no evidence of forced entry or robbery. Family and friends are being interviewed.

And the president of the Vatican's bank says he is humiliated of a rare money laundering probe of the institution. Italian authorities seized about $30 million in questionable transfers from the bank this week. The president calls it a misunderstanding and says that he realizes the need to be sure the bank is complying with internationally agreed standards.

And Eddie Fisher, the 1950s pop star also known for the women in his life has died. Fisher was at the center of Hollywood's of one of most notorious love triangles. He left his wife, the popular actress Debbie Reynolds, to marry the screen siren, Elizabeth Taylor. Fisher is also the father of Princess Leila, "Star Wars" star Carrie Fisher. Eddie Fisher died of complications of hip surgery. He was 82 years old -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, thanks, Fred. Thanks very much.

Democrats may be missing a political opportunity when it comes to tax cuts. Donna Brazile and Ed Rollins, they're both standing by live to hash over some new numbers in our brand new polls. Stay with us for that.

And the first lady, Michelle Obama, tries to drum up work for military veterans.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now, a political brawl erupts in Las Vegas between supporters of the Republican-Tea Party favorite Sharron Angle and backers of the Senate majority leader, the democrat Harry Reid. Why are some voters in such a fighting mood? Brian Todd is investigating.

Plus, they're the doctors that helped Bill Clinton lose 24 pounds for his daughter's wedding. You're going to meet them and you're going to find out how the diet plan works. That's coming up.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Nine years after witnessing firsthand the worst terror attack on U.S. soil, New York City is now expanding the use of surveillance cameras. So what if? What if technology could be used to prevent the next major assault on the country?

Let's go back to CNN's Mary Snow, she's working this story for us -- Mary.

SNOW: Well, Wolf, New York has been following London's lead with the never blinking eye fixed on the city and the underground trains. New York still has far fewer cameras but is wrapping up the efforts to counter terror on the largest subway system in the U.S.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SNOW (voice-over): Underground at New York's Times Square or Penn Station, two of the city's largest subway stations, cameras are now watching you and police may be as well.

RAY KELLY, COMMISSIONER, NYPD: This is a coordination of -- in lower Manhattan where we bring in thousands, literally, of video feeds.

SNOW: This hub is where we met up with New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. The goal here, prevent terror attacks and crime.

Police in private companies monitor the surveillance cameras 24/7. Five hundred new cameras have recently been added, watching subway stations in a system which has an estimated 5 million riders per day.

KELLY: Roughly 40 percent of terrorist attacks throughout the world are focused on transportation systems. So, it's given the size and the scope of the transit network that we have here, that we have to make a high priority.

SNOW: That priority has the NYPD learning lessons from cities like London, where Mayor Bloomberg inspected the thousands of cameras that make up its so-called ring of steel. Surveillance cameras there proved crucial in identifying bombers in the July 7, 2005 bombings. The NYPD had detected this London at the time and one result is this recreation of the bombers' homes.

MICHAEL RIGGIO, COUNTERTERRORISM DIVISION, NYPD: And the room adjoining here are the two rooms in their apartment that they used to make their explosives.

SNOW: Michael Riggio is with NYPD'S counterterrorism unit and explains officers are trained to look for ordinary items that can be used to make bombs.

RIGGIO: You may think this is a narcotics lab, but in fact, you're maybe right in the middle of an explosive lab.

SNOW: What officers look to pass to tact (ph) for clues, they hope technology will help prevent future attacks. One sergeant explained how analytical software is programmed to seek out specifics.

MICHAEL JOY, COUNTERTERRORISM DIVISION, NYPD: If this gentleman here will draw up his backpack and leave it against this pole, after a predetermined period of time, the system would automatically alert users, bring this camera up to them, and they will get a little box and say, hey this is new.

SNOW: But the City Civil Liberties Union is raising concerns about privacy. Police commissioner tells us all the tapes are purged after 30 days unless they're part of an investigation.

KELLY: We're not looking in any private spaces. We're looking in places where the public has no reasonable expectation of privacy.

SNOW: That doesn't satisfy Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

DONNA LIEBERMAN, NEW YORK CIVIL LIBERTIES UNION: You don't expect and you shouldn't have to expect that every move you make when you're in Times Square or Penn Station or Grand Central will be recorded perhaps forever by the government and distributed to who knows who.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SNOW: The surveillance is only expected to expand. The goal is to have roughly 3,000 closed circuit cameras streaming live pictures into the NYPD's Command Center -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Mary Snow, thanks very much for that.

A visit to the bank turns into a hostage standoff. We're going to tell you what's happening right now.

And the First Lady Michelle Obama steps on the global stage to help military veterans right here at home.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's check back with Fredricka Whitfield. She's monitoring some of the other top stories in the SITUATION ROOM right now.

What else is going on, Fred?

WHITFIELD: Hello again, Wolf.

A man with an explosive device is now in police custody after an apparent hostage situation at a South Florida bank. Authorities deactivated the device at the scene. Police say the hostages included bank employees and customers. No injuries were reported.

And First Lady Michelle Obama is urging American employers to hire U.S. troops returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Speaking at the annual meeting of former President Bill Clinton's Global Initiative, Mrs. Obama called them an untapped resource of skilled and experienced leaders. She added that more than 150,000 new veterans are now looking for work.

And investment power house, Lehman Brothers is expected to rake in millions of dollars during an auction featuring mementos from his London offices. On Wednesday, Christie's auction house put artwork, ceramics, antique maps, even company signs up for sale. A public viewing begins this weekend. Lehman filed for bankruptcy in the United States two years ago and went into liquidation in the UK.

And a big day on Wall Street. Stocks soared out of the gate and managed to hold on to big gains in the wake of a slightly stronger import on durable goods. The Dow closed nearly 200 points higher, and all three major indexes finished with gains for the fourth straight week making it their longest winning streak since April. Need a little good news from Wall Street, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. Good way to end the week for all those Wall Street investors.

WHITFIELD: That's right.

BLITZER: See if it'll continue next week. Thank you very much.

WHITFIELD: Now, they'll really have a good weekend.

BLITZER: That's right. I will (ph) enjoy. Thank you.

Should President Obama extend those controversial Bush tax cuts? Voters are weighing in. We're getting brand new poll numbers here in the SITUATION ROOM. Stand by.

Some comedians are coming out of the gate swinging at conservatives. Are they doing the heavy lifting, though, for Democrats? We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: All right. Let's get right to our "Strategy Session." Joining us are two CNN political contributors, the democratic strategist, Donna Brazile and the Republican strategist, Ed Rollins. Guys, thanks very much. I want to talk about taxes, the Bush era tax cuts. They went into effect 2001-2003. They're going to lapse. They're going to end at the end of this year unless Congress takes action to continue those tax rates as they are.

Look at this. Our new CNN Opinion Research Corporation Poll, almost everyone says keep the tax rates relatively low, the Bush tax rates, for those families making under $250,000 a year. 79 percent favor keeping the tax rates at that level, 19 percent oppose that. When we asked, though, should everyone continue to keep relatively lower tax rates, including those making more than $250,000 a year, Ed, 44 percent say they favor that, 53 percent, though, say they oppose it.

In other words, they want tax cuts for the middle class, but not for those making more than $250,000 a year. How will this poll, based on these numbers, affect the voting in the Congress between now and the end of the year?

ED ROLLINS, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Well, I don't think they're going to do anything. The House may do something before they get out of here, but at the end of the day, the Democrats are pin themselves into a package as they always do of being the taxers. They want to raise taxes, and even though, the vast majority of Americans don't want to have their taxes raised, at the end of the day, when you talk about the upper groups, pretty soon, people in the lower groups understand, and it's going to come down to them.

I've never been able to understand why money I make or rich people make -- and I'm not rich -- we -- we -- we spend -- we spend it and that's not good for the economy. The president says rich people are only going to save it. Well, saving is good for the economy. If you tax it and give it to the government and they spend it on your behalf, why is that better? I've never been able to understand that. And I think at the end of the day here, the Democrats are getting themselves in a very precarious place right before the elections.

BLITZER: All right. Go ahead and explain it to him, Donna, because I know you disagree.

DONNA BRAZILE, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: First of all, Ed, it took me sometime to realize this, but, yes, we are wealthy. We are wealthy by -- if you look at the median income of Americans across this great land, we are indeed wealthy. We have more Americans living in poverty than ever. The last thing we need to do is to extend these tax cuts with borrowed money. We don't have the money to simply pay for these tax cuts.

In 2001, it was a different situation. Bill Clinton and Al Gore left a surplus as far as the eye could see. It would be a huge mistake for Congress to allow these tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans to be extended without figuring out a way to pay for it. Look, I also believe we have to deal on the spending side of the equation at some point as well, hopefully sooner rather than later. But to extend these tax cuts, it would be a huge drain on our pocketbook.

BLITZER: What she's talking about at $700 billion over the next ten years, if you keep the tax rates for those making more than $250,000 a year at the 35 percent maximum federal income tax rate as opposed to going up to 39.6 percent which is where it was during the Clinton administration, that $700 billion potentially could go to pay down the national debt.

ROLLINS: Except I come back to the point. Don't think just because you take it away from well-to-do people and put it in the federal trough to pay for whatever debts you already have, that's not going to have an impact on the economy. The producers in this country, the ones who hire, create jobs, and particularly small businesses which is a lot of the impact of this particular thing. It's not an either/or.

And at the end of the day, unless we control spending, unless we get into some of these big programs that are automatically going up every year, we're going to be down to that lower bracket because at the end of the day, you can take all of the money from all of the rich people in America, and you're still not going to basically --

BRAZILE: Wolf, once again, the Republicans are using a smoke screen. Only 2 percent to 3 percent of small businesses will fall into that category. Look, taxes are at the lowest in 60 years. 1/3 of the stimulus money that was spent to allocate it last year went to continue to keep taxes lower for the middle class. So, this is a question of whether or not we want to extend these tax cuts beyond the expiration date and how do we pay for it?

Do we pay with borrowed money? Or do we just go ahead, tighten our belts, and begin to bring down this deficit with the new revenues that might come in as a result of these taxes going back to normal?

ROLLINS: I'm happy, obviously, to bring down the deficit. And I think your immediate past OMD director who also was the CBO director basically said this is bad economic policy. You know, whatever it may be -- and the other part of the poll we've not talked about is do you extend this for a couple of years and basically not in any way, shape, or form affect the economy when --

BRAZILE: And it's a question of how do we pay for it. Alan Greenspan had a wonderful analysis yesterday that also said it's time to end these tax cuts.

BLITZER: He wanted to go back for everyone, Greenspan. Bob Ruben said, don't -- don't allow these tax rates to continue even for the middle class because the country can't afford it. But on this one question, should you extend tax cuts for a few years for all families regardless of income, Donna. 52 percent say that's a good idea. 45 percent say they oppose it.

Peter Orszag, the president's former budget director, he says do it for a couple of years. Mark Zandi, the economist at Moody's said do it for a couple of years, because at a time of economic distress, you shouldn't raise taxes on anyone.

BRAZILE: Wolf, right now, tax rates are at the lowest in 60 years. We're out of jobs. So, whatever policy we enact, if it doesn't lead to job growth and keeping jobs here in America, I'm against it.

ROLLINS: But, Donna, you can't say about raising taxes on people who are the most productive, who make the most money, and employ the most people that you're going to create jobs. I mean, the government's spending money, why is that better than these people spending their money?

BRAZILE: Because, Ed, over the last 30 years, we've seen the income of middle class Americans go down, wages remain flat, and the income of high earners go up. So, if they have all of this cash, spend it. Let's spend it on America. That's the patriotic thing to do.

BLITZER: There's a question for you, Donna. Why are the Democrats apparently blinking right now in the Senate and maybe even in the House and not getting any vote on this between now and November 2?

BRAZILE: I don't know, Wolf. I put that same question to my friends on the Hill, and I said, you know what, it's time to button up and go ahead and let these tax cuts expire. Now, if they want to keep them for the middle class, if they think that's the strategy, then put that forward. I don't know why they haven't called for a vote.

BLITZER: Maybe because they don't think they have the votes.

BRAZILE: Well, you don't need a super duper majority in the Senate. You can't do it with 50 plus one, so you have to -- because it's taxes, you have to have a super majority, about (ph) super duper majority. But again, I believe that we should allow these tax cuts expire because our projected 2011 budget which is already in the red is dependent upon allowing these taxes to expire.

BLITZER: You don't mean for the middle class, though, Donna, do you?

BRAZILE: No, I mean for the top --

BLITZER: You're for the rich? OK.

BRAZILE: The top 2 percent to 3 percent, would you want to call them wealthy, rich, well off. God bless them. BLITZER: But those individuals making $200,000 a year and families making $250,000 a year. That's what we're talking about right now. And you know what, guys, we'll continue this conversation down the road, but we're out of time.

BRAZILE: Hey, Ed, I still love you.

ROLLINS: Thank you, sweetie.

BRAZILE: All right.

ROLLINS: And you're the one that's rich in this group. You're the one that should be the Republican. You make all the money.

(LAUGHTER)

BRAZILE: Another stereotype that a good-looking woman is rich.

ROLLINS: You got all these houses down in New Orleans.

BRAZILE: I'm rich because I'm healthy. My health is my wealth. Thank you, Ed.

ROLLINS: I agree with you. Thank you too. Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Guys, thanks very much. Have a great weekend.

ROLLINS: Thanks, Wolf. Thank you. Bye-bye.

BLITZER: A watchdog group is trying to get the Army to cancel a concert. It's a new and unusual twist on the church versus state debate. We have details.

And later, is Bill Clinton strict new diet as healthy as he seems to think. I'll ask the doctors behind his move to eat only what he caused a plant-based food diet.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: A concert is scheduled at Ft. Bragg in North Carolina tomorrow may sound like a good way for soldiers to kick back, but a watchdog group is objecting because to the message behind the music and attempt to recruit the troops to God's Army.

Let's go to our Pentagon correspondent, Chris Lawrence. He's working the story here. What is the controversy, Chris?

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, on one hand, you got thousands of soldiers and their families who want to praise God and to hear this Christian music at the concert tomorrow. On the other hand, you got people saying why is the U.S. Army helping an evangelical organization recruit new members?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LAWRENCE (voice-over): The Christian concert is called "Rock the Fort" and it's living up to its name. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association is bringing Christian rock bands to worship at Ft. Bragg and some say crossing a line.

MIKEY WEINSTEIN, MILITARY RELIGIOUS FREEDOM FOUNDATION: The express purpose of this event is to evangelize and spread the gospel to all those who are lost. Soldiers are being given pieces of paper with seven blank names on it to bring seven more people so they will come to Christ.

LAWRENCE: Ft. Bragg advertised the concert on its website. And Mikey Weinstein says more than a hundred soldiers there have complained (ph) to his group, Military Religious Freedom, sending e- mails like, please help us, MRFF, this is wrong. Rock the Fort has been to several other bases including recruit training at Ft. Jackson.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We pray that not only they become soldiers here in boot camp, but we pray that they'll come into God's Army in the sense of giving their life over to Jesus Christ.

LAWRENCE: Critics say that's a dangerous message for the military to bring rate (ph) into basic training.

WEINSTEIN: We're not supposed to be using the U.S. Army to develop and engender, you know, new soldiers for Christ.

VOICE OF DAVID DREIER, CHAPLAIN (col.): Our goal is again not to proselytize anyone, you know, from either their particular faith that they're a part of, and our goal is not to coerce anyone.

LAWRENCE: Ft. Bragg's chaplain says the event on his base is open to the public. No one has to come, except the thousands of soldiers and their families who are excited to do so.

DREIER: It really is up to the individual. And people like any message or any faith can choose to accept or reject.

LAWRENCE: The chaplain wrote to North Carolina churches on Ft. Bragg letterhead promoting the event. In Billy Graham's website states right up front, the Rock the Fort outreaches design to channel new believers into your church. Americans United for Separation of Church and State wrote the secretary of the Army urging him to stop the military's endorsement of the event. They argue proselytizing is prohibited, and the Army is breaking the law by endorsing religion. The chaplain says the base is merely a host for anyone who wants to come.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

LAWRENCE: And a chaplain also told me that, you know, sharing the faith is part of a Christian tradition, and he's not only obligated but happy to support any other faith on base that would want to put on a similar event.

Now critics say when it comes to religion, all the Army is supposed to do is officiate religious services and give soldiers some place to worship, and these concerts go way beyond that -- Wolf. BLITZER: Chris Lawrence, thanks very much for that report.

A new twist that a political firestorm involving the Obama administration and voting rights. We have the latest information coming in right now into the SITUATION ROOM.

And why are some voters in such a fighting mood this campaign season? Brian Todd is investigating.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Today, a self-proclaimed whistle-blower is unloading on the Obama administration discussing sensitive questions of racial equality, politics, and the law.

Let's bring in our homeland security correspondent, Jeanne Meserve. She's working the story -- Jeanne.

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. It's another chapter and what has become a highly politicized argument over enforcement of civil rights law. A Department of Justice official testified today that the law is not being applied equally to all people.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MESERVE (voice-over): At issue, a video still on YouTube from election day 2008 which captured members of the new Black Panther Party outside of Philadelphia polling place.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think it might be a little bit intimidating that you have a stick in your hand, that's why.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Who are you to say that?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I mean, that's a weapon, so that's why I'm a little worried.

MESERVE: The bush justice department brought a voter intimidation lawsuit against the panthers, but the Obama administration dropped most of it. The man who once headed the voting rights division calls that outrageous, a travesty of justice.

CHRISTOPHER COATES, JUSTICE DEPARTMENT: White voters also have an interest in being able to go to the polls without having race haters such as Black Panther King Shamir Shabazz whose public rhetoric includes such statements as kill cracker babies, kill cracker babies. Standing at the entrance of a polling place with a Billy club in his hand hurling racial slurs.

MESERVE: Coates now an assistant U.S. attorney told the U.S. Civil Rights Commission the Obama administration enforces the voting rights act in a racially selective manner.

COATES: A large number of people working in the voting section believe incorrectly but vehemently that enforcement of the protections of the voting rights act should not be extended to the white voters, but should be extended only to protecting racial, ethnic and language minorities.

MESERVE: A justice department spokeswoman called the Civil Rights Commission probe a so-called investigation, thin on facts and evidence and thick on rhetoric adding that the department makes enforcement decisions based on the merits not the race, gender or ethnicity of any party involved. The department has provided the civil rights commission with thousands of pages of documents and testimony from the assistant attorney general for civil rights.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MESERVE: But DOJ told Coates not to testify despite a subpoena. Appearing today, Coates claimed whistle-blower protection saying he felt professionally, ethically, legally, and morally bound to tell a story, but some Democrats say it's more about politics. Wolf, back to you.

BLITZER: All right. Jeanne, thanks very much.