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THE SITUATION ROOM

Going Inside North Korea; Senate Approves Tax Deal; Senators Spar Over START Vote and Christmas; Afghanistan Review Out Tomorrow

Aired December 15, 2010 - 17:00   ET

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


SUZANNE MALVEAUX, GUEST HOST: Thanks, Brooke.

Happening now, it is one of the greatest adversaries of the United States and there are growing concerns about its nuclear capabilities. Well, now, in a CNN television exclusive, Wolf Blitzer prepares to take us inside North Korea. We'll speak to him live.

Also, a major victory for President Obama. The Senate passes the controversial tax deal he negotiated with Republican leaders.

But will it face new hurdles now in the House?

And Florida school board members come face-to-face with death. Ahead, their desperate attempts to stop a gunman pointing a pistol at directly their way.

Wolf Blitzer is in Beijing. I'm Suzanne Malveaux, and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

It is an extraordinary journey few journalists get the opportunity to make this.

I want to get straight to CNN's SITUATION ROOM anchor Wolf Blitzer, who is now in Beijing, China, with a television exclusive.

He's getting ready to go inside North Korea.

Hey -- Wolf.

WOLF BLITZER, HOST: Suzanne, thanks very much.

It's a chilly morning here in Beijing. In the next few hours, we're going to be going over to the North Korean embassy to pick up the visas that have already been approved.

I'm here with Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, the (AUDIO GAP) to North Korea several times. We're going to talk about his mission there. He's been invited by the North Koreans to go. There's a lot to discuss.

This could be the most serious crisis on the Korean Peninsula since the end of the war back in 1953, the armistice, as a result of the shelling that the North Koreans engaged in a small island that South Korea has, killing four people, two South Korean Marines, two South Korean civilians.

It's a tense, tense situation right now. A lot of people would like to see the situation calm down.

What's making it more intense right now is that there's been a -- a U.S. scientist -- a top U.S. scientist from Stanford University, Los Alamos, who's just back from North Korea. He says there are some dramatic new developments on the North Korean nuclear front. That scientist is going to join us live this hour, as well. We've got experts covering this story.

We're going to be back in a few moments, Suzanne, with Governor Bill Richardson and his mission.

All that coming up.

We're getting ready to head to North Korea -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Wolf, thank you so much.

We look forward to all of those developments throughout the next couple of hours.

Now to dramatic developments that are actually happening on Capitol Hill. That is where the Senate has just voted overwhelmingly to approve President Obama's $858 billion tax cut package. But that's only one of several political issues that are now in play.

Our CNN senior Congressional correspondent, Dana Bash, she's on the Hill with more -- Dana, what do we know about where we are with the latest piece of legislation?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, as you said, the Senate did pass overwhelmingly this tax cut package -- 81-19 -- really, a big bipartisan vote. We expect the House to take this up tomorrow. They may have some attempts to change, as we've been talking about for days, the estate tax provision and make it less generous to wealthy Americans.

But I've got to tell you, if that big bipartisan vote makes you think that suddenly they're singing "Kumbaya" across party lines, you've got another think coming, because it's just the opposite.

Tensions are really frayed here between Democrats and Republicans. Democrats are trying to push through some of their top priorities -- ratification of the START Treaty and now a big spending bill. And they're just 10 days until Christmas.

Republicans are saying, hold on, you're pushing way too fast.

Listen to some of the cross party exchanges, particularly between John Kyl, the number two Republican in the Senate, and the top Democrat in the Senate.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) SEN. JON KYL (R-AZ), MINORITY WHIP: It is impossible to do all of the things that the majority leader laid out without doing -- frankly, without disrespecting the institution and without disrespecting one of the two holiest of holidays for Christians and the families of all of the Senate, not just the senators themselves, but all of the staff.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MAJORITY LEADER: I don't think any of us -- I don't need to hear the sanctimonious lectures from Senator Jon Kyl and DeMint to remind me of what Christmas means. My question, Madam President, is where were their concerns about Christmas as we've had filibuster after filibuster on major pieces of legislation during this entire Congress, not once, but 87 times; taking days and days of the people's time here in the Senate on wasteful delay?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MALVEAUX: And, Dana, Republicans were going to force the clerk, I understand, to read the START Treaty. And they -- they relented on that.

Are they going to force a reading of this big spending bill?

Tell us about some of the tactics that they're using.

BASH: We understand that they are going to try to force a reading and that is going to delay things and bring things to a grinding halt. And it's going to happen all weekend.

I want you to look at this, just to illustrate what we're talking about.

This is the spending bill. It is about 2,000 pages. We are told by the Democratic leader's office that if the clerk is forced to read this, Suzanne, it will take about 50 hours.

So if they start tomorrow, which is what is expected, it will take 50 hours. So that's two full days -- they're going to probably do it around the clock -- and two hours. So we're talking about not even finishing the reading of this spending bill until midday Saturday. So that gives you a sense of how hard Republicans are trying to delay things, particularly this spending bill, which they say is just unnecessary, it is way too much spending and has a lot -- a lot of earmarks in it, as you and I talked about yesterday.

But those earmarks are coming from Republicans, too.

MALVEAUX: It's un -- unbelievable to imagine just how much time it would take to actually read something like that. But obviously, that's one of the tactics they're using.

Now, I understand that the House just started -- it's a new vote on "don't ask/don't tell."

Can you explain that?

BASH: That's right. And this is sort of all wrapped up together. As you said, the House is -- is voting, as we speak, on a standalone bill to repeal the "don't ask/don't tell" measure. They're -- right now, it looks like they're -- they're getting close to finalizing it.

This is not sort of suspenseful in terms of the outcome. We expect this to actually pass. The question is whether or not the Senate is going to take it up, Suzanne.

Senate Democratic leader, Harry Reid, has said this is one of the many things that Harry Reid wants to do at the end of the session, before they go home for Christmas.

And I've got to tell you, Democrats are saying that they believe one of the reasons why Republicans are holding up the START Treaty and making it very hard for them to pass the spending bill and other things is to run the clock out so that they don't have time in the Senate to do this "don't ask/don't tell" repeal because they do believe -- supporters of a repeal believe that they do now have 60 senators who are in favor of voting for a repeal of the military's policy.

MALVEAUX: All right, Dana.

Well, thank you for keeping in touch with all of the latest developments there, obviously changing minute by minute.

Well, as for the tax deal, President Obama is urging all lawmakers to get quickly behind this. And he's warning that there is no time to waste.

Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I know there are different aspects of this plan to which member of Congress on both sides of the aisle, object. That's the nature of compromise. But we worked hard to negotiate an agreement that's a win for middle class families and a win for our economy. And we can't afford to let it fall victim to either delay or defeat.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MALVEAUX: We're going to stay on top of all of the developments around all the different pieces of legislation.

We want to go to Jack Cafferty, who is already looking ahead to the new year. He's here with "The Cafferty File."

Hey, Jack, lots going on in Congress, but you're looking to January, huh? JACK CAFFERTY, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, maybe not as much as you think.

As --

MALVEAUX: OK.

CAFFERTY: -- as the country continues to suffer from the troubled economy, there are signs -- few and far between, but signs, nevertheless -- that things may be looking up a little. It's slow going, but there are some glimmers of hope out there.

For millions of Americans, it remains all about a job and unemployment remains stubbornly high -- 9.8 percent.

Economists, though, have a more optimistic outlook for next year. They're predicting 3 percent GDP growth. That's not a runaway train, but not terrible, either, compared to where we've been. The experts have also reduced the odds of a double dip recession now to only about 15 percent.

However, the Federal Reserve struck a cautious note on the economic recovery yesterday when they said it's, quote, "continuing, though at a rate that has been insufficient to bring down unemployment," unquote.

The extension of the Bush tax cuts, which passed the Senate a few hours ago, will likely become law soon, as will the extension of unemployment benefits. And those two measures ought to bring some added relief to almost everybody.

As for government spending, there's a new sheriff in charge of the Congress come January. Republicans are vowing to tackle spending next year, after the tax cut extension goes through -- that $900 billion deal they're going to shove through before this year is out. It remains to be seen how serious they or anyone is in Washington about spending cuts or if they, too, will continue to add to our $13 trillion plus national debt.

For investors, the stock market is behaving OK. Businesses these days have a lot of cash on hand. They are nervous and have been reluctant to part with it. But if they become convinced that things are finally on the mend, they're likely to start hiring and investing. And that will move things forward.

So how do all these ripples in the economy affect you and your family?

That's the question -- do you expect to be better or worse off one year from now?

Go to CNN.com/CaffertyFile -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: All right.

Thank you, Jack. Well, Wolf is back with more on his impending journey to North Korea. Ahead, a look at the country's missile supply and what the North Koreans are capable of.

Plus, the man who chose Wolf as the television journalist accompanying him to the region -- an interview with New Mexico governor, Bill Richardson.

And former President Bill Clinton touches down in Haiti in the midst of two major crises.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: I'm Wolf Blitzer in Beijing this morning, early morning Thursday already here.

We're getting ready to head off to North Korea in the next fewer hours.

I'm here with Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico, the former US

ambassador to the United Nations, the former Energy secretary.

He's already -- he's been invited by the North Koreans to go there.

I'm going along to cover this trip. We'll speak with him in just a moment.

But Tom Foreman is standing by -- Tom, this is an incredibly tense moment right now in the Korean Peninsula. The tensions between North and South Korea may be the most serious since the armistice of 1953.

Set the scene for us.

What's going on with North Korea's missile capabilities?

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, Wolf, that's really one of the reasons it's so tense, because this is a relatively small area, but it's an area that has been building up power over time.

Let's zoom in here and look at what we do know, which is somewhat limited, because, of course, this is a very insular society.

They have three main types of big missiles that we pay attention to. The SCUD missile -- you've heard a lot about this. This is sort of a limited range. If I show you how far it will go, it's about 200 miles. So it's not a huge range. Here, it hits South Korea, of course, about half of that country -- if you're firing from the middle here. If you move it down, you get more.

It gets into China a little bit. That's about it.

If you look at the second type of missile that we're talking about here, this is called the Taepodong-1. This is an important one to consider because it's a much more robust missile. The range of this one is more of about 1,200 miles. So you get deep into China, up into Russia, over to Japan, an important ally.

And then we come to the third type, which is actually the much more intriguing type here, because we don't really know that much about it, other than this one. The Taepodong-2 -- we don't actually know how many of these they have or if they have any working ones. We know that it is a three stage rocket that's capable, maybe, if they have it and if they can make it work, of going possibly very far -- the utmost range, we believe, would be as much as 9,000 miles. You can see what that would do. That would put it in easy striking range of Africa, Europe, all the way up in here to a corner of the Continental United States. That seems like it's really stretching it -- but, Wolf, it's this combination of missiles and their growing willingness to develop these, along with possible nuclear warheads and their relationship with Iran that has people watching so closely and wondering what they really do have -- Wolf.

BLITZER: A lot of questions out there and a lot of mystery surrounding what's going on.

Tom, stand by for a moment.

Governor Bill Richardson is here with me.

We're getting ready to -- in the next few hours, we're to go to the embassy -- the North Korean embassy. You've worked it out.

You've been invited by them before. You've been invited this time. You're going for four days, what do you hope to accomplish?

GOV. BILL RICHARDSON (D), NEW MEXICO: My main objective is to try to calm down the North Koreans, to get them to stop some of these aggressive actions, the -- the artillery shootings, the sinking of the ship, the uranium enrichment efforts.

I've been there several times. I've negotiated with them successfully on behalf of American prisoners, American servicemen. We've pushed them toward negotiations. We got some remains out -- American remains of our soldiers some four years ago.

And, as you said, they've invited me. But I'm there on a private mission. I'm not representing the administration. I am there to see if there's anything that I can do to -- to -- to cool things down and see where we go from here.

BLITZER: But you would -- but you wouldn't go if they said to you, Governor Richardson, don't go, this is a bad time for you to go? Nobody in the Obama administration said don't go?

RICHARDSON: That's correct. Six months ago, they invited me, the North Koreans did. And I asked the Obama administration if they felt it was OK for me to go. I'm a private citizen, I don't have to get their approval, but I want them to sign off. And I didn't go for six months.

Recently, I told them I got this significant invitation from Kim Kye-Gwan, who is their chief nuclear negotiator, to go. And they signed off, but as long as I said it was a private mission.

And -- and that's what we're going to do. We're going to try to persuade them to -- to cool down what they're doing, to see if there's a way that we can move forward on -- on negotiations.

BLITZER: Let -- let's bring in Dr. Siegfried Hecker from Stanford University.

He's the go -- co-director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford, the director emeritus of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, as well.

Professor, you were just there in react weeks in North Korea. And you had an eye-opening demonstration of their new technology, their new equipment in enriching uranium and information that not known to any of us, to -- to the U.S. officials or others, presumably.

Tell our viewers what shocked you.

SIEGFRIED HECKER, EMERITUS DIRECTOR, LOS ALAMOS NATIONAL LABORATORY: Well, indeed, I was there on November 12th. It was my fourth visit to Yongbyon. And as you indicate, the -- at least the size and the sophistication of the uranium enrichment program was, quite frankly, stunning. I certainly expected them to have uranium enrichment in spite of their repeated denial of having done so. But I did not expect them to have advanced this far.

They have previously shown me, in quite some detail, their plutonium program. I was very much aware of that. But the uranium enrichment, sort of another capability, was quite a surprise.

BLITZER: Why is this such a -- a significant development?

For our viewers in the United States and around the world, why should this be alarming?

HECKER: Well, in fact, the North Koreans have actually declared already last year, when they left the six party talks, they said we're now left with the only option of nuclear energy is to build a light water reactor ourselves. For that kind of reactor, one actually has to enrich the fuel.

They announced that. And I must say, I also did not believe that they would actually go through with that.

They did. So that, by itself, would actually not be such a shocking development. They said they're going to do it. They did it. What the concern around the world is, is that once you develop those capabilities for a light water reactor, in other words, making the reactor fuel, you, at the same time, can use that facility or another one just like it that may be at an undisclosed location to make the second route to the bomb, and that is to make highly enriched bomb fuel instead of the plutonium. The plutonium bomb fuel program they have frozen. And this opened up the possibility of a second route.

Let me just say add that that, by itself, doesn't increase the danger --

BLITZER: It could also --

HECKER: -- enormously at this --

it doesn't increase the danger enormously at this moment. It would only increase the danger if, indeed, they make much more.

BLITZER: It also suggests, Governor Richardson -- and you've been there. You've been to Yongbyon, their nuclear facility. It also suggests perhaps there's a lot of other stuff going on in North Korea that no one knows about on the outside.

RICHARDSON: That's right. And that's a concern. Exports of nuclear materials to other countries.

But I'd like to ask Dr. Hecker something, because I went to that facility five years ago, Yongbyon. It did not look like a very modern facility. So what Dr. Hecker says is taking place is a dramatic modernization.

But I wondered if Dr. Hecker saw any of the centrifuges.

Were they running?

Have they moved beyond what you saw?

And do you think that some of those centrifuges at Yongbyon are -- are running?

HECKER: So, the -- the way that the facility was presented to us, is we looked at it from a second floor observation window from the control room. And you look down at this huge hall with approximately 2,000 centrifuges. And all you see is the outside of the centrifuge casing. And you see the plumbing that feeds the gas in and out.

You can't actually tell that it's running or not. So let me say very specifically, I could not Los Alamos Lab that that centrifuge facility was operating.

However, thing -- however, everything that I saw, the facility itself, the control room, what they call the recovery room, was consistent with the fact that that facility could be running. So my own impression is it was.

BLITZER: All right. Dr. Hecker, thank you so much.

We're going to continue this conversation in the next hour.

We have more information coming in, including what's going on in China right now.

Are the Chinese helping or undermining the latest efforts to deal with this crisis involving North and South Korea?

Governor Richardson is going to be with us.

Much more of our coverage coming up -- Suzanne, in the meantime, back to you.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, GUEST HOST: Thanks, Wolf. We look forward to it.

The U.S. government is seeking legal retribution for BP's massive oil spill in the Gulf. We'll tell you what action it is taking. That coming up.

Also, outrage spilling out today on to the streets of Athens. Find out how a peaceful protest turned ugly fast.

And Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is accusing two Republican senators of delivering sanctimonious lectures about Christmas and he wants them to stop.

More ahead in today's "Strategy Session."

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: Kate Bolduan is monitoring some of the other top stories that are coming in to THE SITUATION ROOM right now including new legal action facing BP.

Kate, what are we talking about?

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The oil spill, Suzanne. Probably no surprise to anyone. You think BP, you think oil spill these days, right?

Well, the federal government is coming after BP and several other companies for the huge oil spill in the Gulf. Today the Justice Department announced its joining the dozens of lawsuits filed against the companies for failing to take, quote, "necessary precautions to prevent or stop the oil well blowout."

The suit seeks unlimited civil damages for most of the defendants.

And a violent scene today on the streets of Athens, Greece. Listen to this. A huge group of protesters angry over economic reforms clash with police outside parliament, some through Molotov cocktails. You probably saw some of it right there. Police responded by firing stun grenades and tear gas. Today's demonstration follows a week of strikes by unions protesting wage cuts and changes in labor laws. Those changes are mandated by the European Union for the country's financial bailout.

And former President Bill Clinton is in Haiti today focusing on two major crises there. A cholera outbreak that's killed more than 2,000 people at this point and the recovery efforts from January's devastating earthquake.

Clinton is also weighing in on Haiti's political crisis. Disputed presidential elections have set off days of bribing there. Clinton says if there is a vote recount, it needs to be done by objective observers.

It's just one thing after another, Suzanne, for that poor country.

MALVEAUX: And Clinton. He can't sit still. To the briefing room --

(LAUGHTER)

MALVEAUX: On Friday talking about the tax --

BOLDUAN: I know. White House podium -- I know.

(CROSSTALK)

BOLDUAN: Frequent flyer miles.

MALVEAUX: So good work for him.

BOLDUAN: Yes, exactly.

MALVEAUX: Thanks.

Would American voters ever elect a gay president? Well, former President Jimmy Carter says yes. We'll tell you why in today's "Strategy Session."

And a report card on the war on Afghanistan is due out tomorrow. Is the surge there working? We'll take an in-depth look at where things stand on the frontlines.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: The U.S. passed -- the U.S. House, rather, just passed the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" bill again. That is overturning the ban on openly gay and lesbian soldiers serving in the United States.

Now that vote was 250 to 175. House Democrats introduced the bill as a standalone measure. In an effort to get it passed, now the bill goes to Senate.

Well, the true meaning of Christmas is now being debated on Capitol Hill. Republican Senators Jon Kyl and Jim DeMint are using the holiday to try to delay the vote on the new START treaty with Russia.

DeMint told Politico, "You can't jam a major arms control treaty right before Christmas. What's going on here is just wrong. This is the most sacred holiday for Christians. They did the same thing last year. They kept everybody here until Christmas Eve to force something down everybody's throat."

Well, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid fired back this afternoon. Here's what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MAJORITY LEADER: I don't think any of us -- I don't need to hear the sanctimonious lectures of Senator Kyl and DeMint to remind me of what Christmas means. Perhaps Senators Kyl and DeMint have been in Washington too long, because in my state, Nevadans employed in casinos and hotels and throughout the state of Nevada, and on ranches, they're basically every place. They have to work hard on holidays, including Christmas, to support their families.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MALVEAUX: Joining us today, Democratic strategist and CNN political contributor James Carville; CNN contributor and senior political columnist for DailyBeast.com, John Avlon, who is a political independent; and Republican strategist and publisher of Mullings.com, Rich Galen.

Thanks so much for joining us here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

James, I'll start with you. What do you make of this debate over Christmas? Does it sound ridiculous or are they trying to make a point?

JAMES CARVILLE, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: My biggest -- yes. It's utterly silly. Plus, Senator DeMint, I don't know what religion he is, but he's ignorant of Christianity. If he thinks that Christmas is the most sacred holiday in Christianity, he's profoundly wrong. It's Easter.

But at any rate -- and Senator Reid is right -- most people have to work on Christmas Eve. I don't know if it dawns on them, but people out there -- and a lot of people -- most people have to work the day after Christmas. Not everybody in the country takes a three- week Christmas break.

I mean, gee whiz. Would it be asking too much for these guys to -- you know, all the health insurance and everything else and salary and staff to work a little bit. I don't know.

MALVEAUX: Rich, it was interesting. There was a group of religious leaders. They were liberal groups, but, nevertheless, they said they thought that the Republicans were not playing this well, that they didn't have a case. So what do you make of this being used as a strategy, a tactic before the new Congress comes in?

RICH GALEN, PUBLISHER, MULLINGS.COM: Yes, I think it's an unnecessary tactic. A major arms control treaty deserves a careful look and a close look. And I think that, in and of itself, is enough. The notion that for some reason there is this artificial deadline of having to get done in 111th Congress is just silly.

So I don't think they needed it. I also don't think that we need Harry Reid to tell us what is and what is not sanctimonious. I mean, Harry Reid and sanctimonious are together in the dictionary.

MALVEAUX: John, does it surprise you that Rich and James agree here?

JOHN AVLON, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: I mean, what is absurd to me and sad is that the whole phony, manufactured outrage on the war on Christmas has jumped from talk radio to the U.S. Senate. And an arms control treaty actually seems like a pretty appropriate thing to be debating right around the Christmas if the subject of Christmas is the birth of the prince of peace.

But this is just such a manufactured outrage. And the fact that DeMint's first gambit was to promote reading the entire START treaty, which would have almost certainly moved the whole debate through Christmas again shows it's just a phony political gamesmanship.

MALVEAUX: Well, I think probably voters and most Americans are seeing this for what it is, because they are quite sick and tired of some of the games that they are seeing, that are happening on the Hill.

The latest poll here -- this is a Gallup poll I want you to see. It was released today, and it talks about Americans' approval of Congress is at an all-time low. It should not be surprising.

It indicates that only 13 percent of the public approves the way Congress is doing its job, 83 percent disapprove. And if you take a look at the Democrats and what they believe, how their only Democratically-elected Congress is doing, it's not that much better. Only 16 percent of Democrats believe that the Democrats are doing a good job in Congress.

Is either side looking competent here, James? What do they need to do to change this?

CARVILLE: Well, I have no idea what -- in this instance, what Senator Reid or the Democrats went wrong. They're scheduling a vote, and they come with this phony baloney thing that, you know, everybody agrees that is just ridiculous. If they wanted to make the argument that it needed more time -- Senator DeMint's on the Foreign Relations Committee, I think they had 20 hearings on this -- if they wanted to make that argument, fine, make that argument.

MALVEAUX: But, James, to the larger point here -- CARVILLE: Well, throw yourself --

MALVEAUX: -- the larger point here is obviously people don't approve of how Congress is doing its job.

CARVILLE: I agree, but you can't -- and that may be it. The question was asked to me about are Democrats complicit in this particular thing? And they are not. There are things that you can criticize the Democrats for. However, this is not one of them.

GALEN: But this is the kind of thing, Suzanne and James -- this is the kind of thing that washes over voters. And they go, when are these guys going to grow up and just do their jobs?

I mean, whether it's this or whatever the game of the week that they happen to be playing, this is symptomatic of why the American people are losing -- not losing, but have lost their confidence in some of America's really great institutions, the U.S. Congress being one of them.

MALVEAUX: And John, you're the No Labels guy. I mean, obviously, what do they need to do, the new Congress here, to change things around so the perception is that they're not wasting our time?

AVLON: Well, I think showing an ability to work constructively together, and I think some of these tax bill compromise votes show the first time overwhelming support for an administration bill because it's a compromise bill. I think if they start dealing with spending, the deficit, and the debt, and stop demonizing each other and playing games, and games of chicken in public with the U.S. Treasury, I think it would all go a long way.

You know, Independents have, I think, a 13 percent for Congress right now. And President Obama's approval looks like a giant public popularity in comparison to Congress. That's something to keep in mind as well.

MALVEAUX: I want to go really quickly here, another subject, very interesting. People are talking about his. Former President Jimmy Carter, he sat down for an interview with bigthink.com. He was asked if he thought that America was ready for a gay president.

Here's how he responded.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JAMES CARTER, FMR. PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The answer is yes. I don't know about the next election, but I think in the near future, because step by step, we have realized that this issue of homosexuality has the same adverse and progressive elements as when we dealt with the race issue 50 years ago or 40 years ago. So I would say that the country is getting acclimated to a president who might be female, who might obviously now be black, and who might be is as well a gay person, yes.

I would say the answer is yes. (END VIDEO CLIP)

MALVEAUX: Rich, do you believe, do you agree with President Carter? Do you think the country's ready?

GALEN: I have spent almost my entire adult life not paying any attention to any theory that Jimmy Carter has, and I think I'll just keep on doing that.

MALVEAUX: All right. Well, I guess you're just not going to weigh in on this.

I mean, aside from Jimmy Carter, what do you think?

GALEN: Who, me?

MALVEAUX: Yes.

GALEN: Oh, I'm sorry. Oh, I think at some point that it's nothing unlikely, sure. I mean, I think that could happen. But a lot of things could happen. I wouldn't have bet heavy money that we would elect a black president in 2008, and lo and behold, we seem to have done it and he seems to be there.

MALVEAUX: John, you're looking puzzled.

AVLON: Yes. I mean, the story of America is evolving towards a more perfect union. Right now we have three openly gay members of Congress, we have openly gay mayors of major American cities. Soon we'll have openly gay senators and governors, and eventually, of course, at one point in history we will have a gay president, and it will be because they run as a president who -- an American who happens to be gay rather than a gay American president.

You know, that's the story of America, is that evolution.

MALVEAUX: James?

CARVILLE: Well, I'm pretty sure we haven't had a female president yet. I'm less sure we haven't had a gay president. How do we know we haven't had one?

(LAUGHTER)

MALVEAUX: That's a very good point.

All right. Thank you very much, James Carville, John Avlon, Rich Galen. Appreciate it.

CARVILLE: OK.

GALEN: Good to see you, Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: A critical review of President Obama's strategy in Afghanistan is expected tomorrow. Ahead, a closer look at how well U.S. strategy is working and the new concerns being raised. Plus, at least 27 people dead after their boat was torn to pieces by rocks. We'll have the details on who was aboard.

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MALVEAUX: A critical review of President Obama's strategy in Afghanistan is due out tomorrow, and the report will look at whether or not the surge which brought 30,000 more troops to the war zone actually worked.

I want to bring in our CNN Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, to give us a heads up on what we expect.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Suzanne, we now know that this report is going to say there is progress in Afghanistan, especially since those extra troops arrived. But here's the question: Is the progress real? Is it permanent?

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CPL. GABRIEL MARTINEZ, U.S. MARINE CORPS.: As soon as I took my first step, that's when I saw the flash and heard the boom.

STARR (voice-over): Corporal Gabriel Martinez stepped on an IED in Marja, in southern Afghanistan, the day after Thanksgiving. That's a region commanders say is getting better.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The battle for Marja is essentially over.

STARR: Is there real progress? Retired Army Colonel Peter Mansoor just returned from Afghanistan, assessing the war for General David Petraeus.

PETER MANSOOR, OHIO STATE UNIVERSITY: We've made substantial progress in securing the people, and that was surprising to me.

STARR: But as the White House prepares to report Thursday on the state of the war, some of the president's own party are raising concerns.

SEN. TOM UDALL (D), NEW MEXICO: Mr. President, the American people deserve to know, is July, 2011, still a realistic time frame to begin our exit from Afghanistan?

STARR: U.S. air strikes are up sharply, more than 2,500 since the surge. A year ago, just over 1100. Attacks by insurgents almost doubled. From January through November this year, nearly 20,000 attacks. Last year, about 11,000 insurgent attacks.

Petraeus believes the Taliban have been dealt a significant blow.

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS, COMMANDER IN AFGHANISTAN: When they come back, that they will no longer have the safe havens that they had in the past.

STARR: But Mansoor says don't count them out. MANSOOR: Clearly, the Taliban is going to come back and come after the coalition in the spring. They are not going to concede defeat.

STARR: Gabriel Martinez, one of the more than 1,500 troops injured in the last four months, says there is progress where he fought. For him, defeat is not an option.

MARTINEZ: I had a one-on-one with God, and he said to me and he asked me -- he said, "Gabriel, do you want to live?"

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STARR: For the troops, there is just one major additional problem in the route home for them, and of course that is Pakistan. The U.S. intelligence committee has already concluded that unless something is done about the insurgent safe havens inside Pakistan, there will continue to be a major threat to Afghanistan security, and it will be very tough to conclude this war and for all of these troops fighting to be able to come home -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: And we know that President Obama will be out in the public tomorrow trying to sell this to the American people, that things are going better.

STARR: That's the message that we hear is coming.

MALVEAUX: All right. Thank you, Barbara.

McDonald's slapped with a lawsuit from a mother who's extremely unhappy about Happy Meals. That story is just ahead.

Plus, a Christmas tree worth millions of dollars? Well, it's true, and we'll tell you exactly what makes the fake evergreen so insanely expensive.

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MALVEAUX: Kate Bolduan is monitoring some of the other top stories that are coming into THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

Hey, Kate. What are you working on?

BOLDUAN: Someone is not so happy about the Happy Meals. I know, it's painful.

A California mother not happy with McDonald's Happy Meals. Why? Well, she's suing the fast-food giant, claiming the Happy Meals are a ploy to market toys directly to her children and other children.

Health, nutrition and food safety advocates are also suing McDonalds. They accuse it of using "sleazy marketing techniques," getting kids to pester their parents. McDonald's says it is proud of its Happy Meals and defends its brand's reputation and food.

There you have it. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange may find out tomorrow whether he can leave a London jail after more than a week behind bars. A hearing is scheduled on an appeal by Swedish prosecutors challenging the judge's ruling granting bail.

Assange is wanted for questioning in Sweden in a sex crime investigation. He and his lawyers deny the allegations and say that they will fight any attempt to extradite Assange.

And here's a look at the most expensive Christmas tree in the world. Just look at that.

It's worth, if you can even believe it, more than $11 million. Yes, a Christmas tree.

The decorations included 181 diamonds, pearls, emeralds, sapphires, and other precious stones. You can find it -- where else? At the Emirates Palace Hotel in Abu Dhabi.

I don't want those on a tree. I want those on my fingers, on my ears.

MALVEAUX: I can imagine you being invited and just, "Oh, can I have one of those ornaments? Thank you very much?

BOLDUAN: Yes. The Christmas tree would be a little lighter when I leave that hotel.

(LAUGHTER)

MALVEAUX: Be sure to let them know.

BOLDUAN: Exactly.

MALVEAUX: Thank you, Kate.

Florida school members confronted by an angry gunman. Find out what they did to get out of the situation alive in their own words.

And President Obama talks economy and jobs to top CEOs. Hear what he asks them to do just ahead.

And do you expect to be better or worse off one year from now? Jack Cafferty has your e-mail.

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MALVEAUX: Jack joins us again with "The Cafferty File."

Hey, Jack?

CAFFERTY: Suzanne, the question this hour is: Do you expect to be better or worse off one year from now?

Dave in Vancouver writes, "We'll all be better off a year from now. One year is short in the economic scheme of things. It's two or three years down the road we have got to worry about, when all the global stimulus spending has worked its way through the system and the pump runs dry. All the houses of cards will come tumbling down. Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain, mere canaries in the coal mine."

Renee in Illinois, "I[m guardedly optimistic I'll be better off in a year's time. Unfortunately, I have little control over the matter. After all, the same people who caused the recession just retook control of Congress and I'm poor. The day the GOP bends over backwards to help the poor, I will know for certain the apocalypse is upon us."

Brian writes, "I honestly think I will be better off. The government needs to focus on job creation instead of the debt. For once in my life I have faith in the Republicans."

Amanda, in California, "I will be better off. My country, I'm not so sure. Maybe this is just the natural cycle of entropy that all empires must go through, or maybe we're just doomed by our own hubris. But I don't see any way out of this economic calamity for the United States."

"Some people will weather it. Some will be destroyed by it. I personally have already lost nearly everything, but things are starting to look up and I expect the trend to continue, at least personally."

Jeff in North Carolina writes, "Things were supposed to get better this year. Remember the summer of recovery? I don't have much hope for next year either."

Burt in Arizona says, "I'm on Social Security. With the deficit looming due to the extension of the Bush tax cuts, inflation will increase. With no cost of living increase for Social Security, I will be worse off."

And Jan writes, "To borrow a line from the Jim Morrison and the Doors song: 'I have been down so very damn long, that it looks like up to me.'"

If you want to read more on this subject, go to the blog, CNN.com/CaffertyFile -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: All right. I hope things get better for all of us next year.

CAFFERTY: Well, I do, too.

MALVEAUX: All right. Thanks, Jack.

Wolf Blitzer is standing by with more as he gets ready to go inside North Korea. A live report is just ahead.

Plus, he's "TIME" magazine's "Person of the Year." Ahead, a closer look at how Facebook's founder transformed the way we communicate.

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MALVEAUX: He's the man behind Facebook, the popular social networking Web site that has transformed the way many of us communicate. Now Mark Zuckerberg is "TIME" magazine's "Person of the Year," but the decision is drawing some mixed reviews.

I want to bring in our Mary Snow, who has more -- Mary.

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey there, Suzanne.

Well, not surprisingly, online there is no shortage of opinion about today's choice. There are critics who thought Julian Assange should have been chosen. While others say Mark Zuckerberg is a good choice, they say it's also a recognition of privacy concerns.

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SNOW (voice-over): At 26 years old, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is ending 2010 as "TIME" magazine's "Person of the Year." He's the second youngest recipient.

"TIME" cites the reach of Facebook with some 500 million users connecting around the world. It's become so influential, that a Stanford University psychology professor even teaches courses on it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's changing the way we perceive boundaries around the world. Those boundaries aren't such big deals anymore.

SNOW: But there are two sides of Facebook.

MARC ROTENBERG, PRESIDENT, ELECTRONIC PRIVACY INFORMATION CENTER: When people talk about Facebook in one breath, they talk about how cool it is. And in the next breath, they talk about how they're worried about their privacy.

SNOW: Marc Rotenberg is president of the public interest research group Electronic Privacy Information Center. He says, "The personal information you choose to post is not just shared with your friends." "For example," he says, "Facebook doesn't sell data to advertisers, but it is a connector to them.

ROTENBERG: Well, a lot of people like the Washington Redskins, our football team. If you put down Redskins as one of your like, an advertiser who's selling jackets to the Redskins will say to Facebook, display my ad on all of the people's pages in the Washington area who say they like the Redskins.

SNOW: While many people probably aren't aware of how exposed they are, some say there is a shifting landscape in regards to privacy.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: People are becoming more comfortable with disclosure. And the younger you are, the more comfortable you seem to be with it. And I think it's a shift in the culture.

SNOW: The expectation is that Facebook will continue growing. And like him or not, it's been hard to ignore founder Mark Zuckerberg. Featured in the recent film "Social Network," Zuckerberg was portrayed in a less-than-flattering light.

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UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Did I adequately answer your condescending question?

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SNOW: At the same time, he got a lot of publicity after donating $100 million to the Newark, New Jersey, school system.

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SNOW: And Facebook's revenue for the this year, according to "TIME" magazine, is estimated to be between $1 billion and $2 billion -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Thanks, Mary.