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THE SITUATION ROOM

Speaker Hastert Raising Concerns About Michael Hayden; Bush Emphasizes Diplomacy With Iran; Monday Deadline For Medicare Drug Plan Enrollment; GOP Gearing Up For Another Fight Over Judges

Aired May 9, 2006 - 16:00   ET

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


JOHN ROBERTS, CNN SR. NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: And to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM, where new pictures and information are arriving all the time. Standing by, CNN reporters across the United States and around the world bring you today's top stories.
Happening now -- the president's choice for CIA chief campaigns for confirmation. It's 4:00 p.m. here in Washington where General Michael Hayden has been making the rounds on Capitol Hill. Is he shooting down criticism of his Pentagon connection?

Also this hour, the Iran nuclear standoff by the letter. We have new details of the message that Iran's leader sent to President Bush. And we'll tell you what Mr. Bush is saying today about U.S. relations with Tehran.

And in the Senate right now, a new showdown over judges. A long- stalled nominee gets another hearing. His credentials are at issue and the battle for control of Congress is at stake. Wolf Blitzer is off today. I'm John Roberts, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Right now, General Michael Hayden is wrapping up his courtesy calls on Capitol Hill. The president's nominee to be CIA director has his work cut out for him today. Red flags are being raised by some top Democrats and Republicans, including the speaker of the house. General Hayden wore the controversy on his sleeve literally today by showing up in his military uniform. First up this hour, our congressional correspondent Andrea Koppel, who is with us from Capitol Hill. Good afternoon to you, Andrea.

ANDREA KOPPEL, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hi there, John. That's exactly right. Dennis Hastert, the speaker of the house has come out forcefully against General Hayden's nomination, calling it a power grab by John Negroponte, the director of national intelligence.

Now while significant, General Hayden's fate isn't over in the House. It's in the hands of the Senate right here. And in fact today the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee announced that he'll probably be holding hearings on the nomination next week.

So you can bet between now and then the general will be spending a lot of time up here on the Hill doing exactly what he did today, making the rounds.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) KOPPEL (voice-over): It's all part of the Capitol Hill ritual for nominees. Questions, waiting to speak with the senator, and then more questions.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sir what do you think of Republican criticism of your nomination?

GEN. MICHAEL HAYDEN, CIA DIRECTOR NOMINEE: No -- thank you.

KOPPEL: General Hayden's mission, to win over senators, Democrats and Republicans alike, concerned his ties to the military might be a drawback at the CIA. But when reporters tried to ask Hayden about it...

SEN. BILL FRIST (R), TENNESSEE: Until we sort of sit down and talk -- go ahead and ask me the questions, but don't be throwing them to the general.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Senator Frist, do you think General Hayden should resign his position?

KOPPEL: The unmistakable message, Republican leaders aren't eager to air their internal disagreements.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You met with the chairman of the Senate Intelligence...

FRIST: OK, thank you all.

KOPPEL: Democrat Dianne Feinstein, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and a fan of Hayden's said she thinks the four-star general should retire before taking on his new post.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D), CALIFORNIA: I did make that as a recommendation, just as a recommendation.

KOPPEL: Still for Republicans like Saxby Chambliss it's more about Hayden's independence than the stars on his shoulder.

SEN. SAXBY CHAMBLISS (R), GEORGIA: So whether he's got an Air Force blue uniform on or a navy blue suit on with a tie, does not make any difference. It's how he adapts to the civilian side of the intelligence community that's important.

KOPPEL: As for the man considered one of the best intelligence briefers in town, saying little comes easy.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are you prepared to resign as general in order to take this position, sir?

HAYDEN: I am up here talking to folks. Like I said, I need to understand their concerns and I've not made any decisions.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KOPPEL: Now another big criticism surrounds General Hayden's role in both developing and then defending that very controversial NSA warrantless wiretap program that General Hayden was involved in.

The chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Arlen Specter, has kind of signaled that he might put up roadblocks if questions aren't answered by the administration and, John, Specter is scheduled to meet with Hayden tomorrow on the Hill.

ROBERTS: Yes, there's a chance that this whole confirmation hearing is going to become about the NSA spying scandal. Let me ask you about this idea of Hayden being a military leader at the CIA. He's obviously thinking about retiring. But senior administration officials told me today they believe the whole controversy is beginning to quiet down a little bit on Capitol Hill, though they haven't closed the door to it. Is that an accurate read?

KOPPEL: That may be some wishful thinking. I think it also depends upon what General Hayden may be saying behind closed doors. We heard Dianne Feinstein say that she put that question to him and actually laid it out for him on the table during their meeting that she thought that would be a good move. And you heard in General Hayden's remarks to our producer Ted Barrett that he clearly is leaving the door open to such a possibility that he might step down, John.

ROBERTS: All right, Andrea Koppel on Capitol Hill, thanks. We'll check back with you as the day progresses.

The president's embattled Pentagon chief is coming to General Hayden's defense today. Donald Rumsfeld denies the CIA shake-up is in any way an attempt by the military to get more control over intelligence gathering.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD RUMSFELD, DEFENSE SECRETARY: And if you look at the debate and the articles in the newspaper and the comments that are being made, they are about theoretical conspiracies, they are about theoretical bureaucratic turf fights. They are all off the mark.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTS: Rumsfeld calls General Hayden, a quote, "true professional" and says he'll do an excellent job as CIA director.

Well now on to the nuclear standoff with Iran. President Bush today is emphasizing the importance of diplomacy even as his administration dismisses a new and rare overture from Iran's hard-line president. Our White House correspondent Suzanne Malveaux is covering the new developments in this story. She joins us now from the White House. Good afternoon, Suzanne.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, hi John. It really is creating quite a stir here. The Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sending an 18-page letter to President Bush.

Many Bush administration officials do not see this as an opening with the Iranian government but rather a publicity stunt. White House officials today saying do not expect a reply from the president or this administration.

John, it really is an extraordinary letter. It really kind of starts off accusing President Bush of being a hypocrite, not true to his Christian beliefs. He goes on, Ahmadinejad attacking Bush over Iraq, saying that many lies were told.

He expresses sympathy and compassion for the victims of 9/11 but then suggests the United States government was possibly complicit. He accused the media of creating a culture of fear. He challenges the status quo and then kind of in a broad way, he asserts his right to development nuclear technology.

All of this, however, the president as well as others dismissing this letter. They believe that direct talks with Iran would undermine the international effort that they've got going on in New York with members of the U.N. Security Council to try to get a tough resolution, even perhaps punish Iran if it does not comply and abandon its nuclear ambitions.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Obviously part of making the diplomacy work is what will be the consequences if the Iranians decide maybe not to listen to the rational demands of the world. And you mention some -- you mentioned one, economic sanctions. But we're -- and I'm not going to comment on that because I think it's very important for good negotiators to keep their cards close to the vest and at the appropriate time, make it clear what our intentions are.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MALVEAUX: And, John, of course that was the president in a Florida trip talking about Medicare but also he was asked about the Iranian issue not specifically about that letter, but many U.S. officials dismissing that letter. There are some Middle Eastern experts however who say they believe that the United States refusal's to directly engage in Iran will ultimately backfire.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRITA PARSI, MIDDLE EAST SPECIALIST: The most important audience perhaps may be the international community because the more the Iranians are showing themselves willing to talk, the more difficult it's going to be for the United States to convince its allies to commit to punitive and very costly sanctions. Because they're going to go back to the United States and say, "Hold on, if we're going to agree to sanctions, you have to agree to try diplomacy first."

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MALVEAUX: And John, of course that is what Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said earlier today, that they are pushing for the diplomatic -- on the diplomatic front, not on the military front, but the diplomatic one. And it's going to be a big important question here, whether or not the allies of the United States see the U.S. making enough of an effort in that way. John?

ROBERTS: Many people believe that dialogue is the better part of diplomacy. But the White House is just absolutely ruling out any response to this letter, even if its not an official response?

MALVEAUX: Well that's absolutely right. And the reason why is they don't want to leave the pack. I mean essentially this is an international effort. They do not want to put themselves out there and essentially frame this as the United States versus Iran. They feel that they are much, much stronger if they stand by with the U.N. Security Council, perhaps with the European Union as well or try to get other leaders of countries to impose economic or diplomatic sanctions.

ROBERTS: Good information and analysis, Suzanne Malveaux at the White House, thanks very much.

As Suzanne just mentioned, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is at the United Nations and she is holding a tough line against Iran today. United Nations Security Council members are trying to force a resolution. They're trying to agree on a resolution on the nuclear standoff with Tehran. Rice spoke to reporters about it just a short while ago.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: We have considerable agreement on -- I would say total agreement on the view that Iran cannot be allowed to have a nuclear weapon, that Iran must accede to the requirements put forward in the IAEA board of government resolution and memorialized in a presidential statement, and that Iran needs now to suspend its programs and go back to the negotiating table.

ROBERTS: Rice says that officials will meet again next week to discuss ways to move forward on the Iranian problem.

On Capitol Hill right now senators are revisiting a source of friction that once took them to the brink of a meltdown. That's the issue of judges. The Judiciary Committee is holding a hearing on a particularly controversial nominee, White House aide Brett Kavanaugh. It's no coincidence that this is happening six months before congressional elections. Our congressional correspondent, Dana Bash, has more on the hearing and the politics at play in it. Dana, good afternoon.

DANA BASH, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Good afternoon, John. Brett Kavanaugh's nomination has been stalled for three years. So this, a hearing that was going on as we speak is happening in part because the Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist says he wants to have a vote finally in the next three weeks, by Memorial Day. That is all about November.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER (R), PENNSYLVANIA: Nothing but the truth so help you God.

BASH (voice-over): The immediate question is whether 41-year-old Brett Kavanaugh, a top Bush aide, deserves a prestigious seat on the U.S. court of appeals.

BRETT KAVANAUGH, U.S. APPEALS COURT NOMINEE: I will at all times maintain the absolute independence of the judiciary.

BASH: Democrats say Kavanaugh has two little experience in the courtroom and too much experience in GOP politics.

SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER (D), NEW YORK: There's been a partisan political fight that needed a very bright, legal foot soldier in the last decade, Brett Kavanaugh was probably there.

BASH: Republicans call him more than qualified and actually welcome Democratic complaints because this is about more than Kavanaugh. It's an attempt to pick a broader election year fight over judicial nominees as a way to reenergize disillusioned Republican voters.

SCOTT REED, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: The social conservatives that make up a majority of the Republican base get very excited about judges. It energizes the Republican base. That's something we need to do before we get into this election cycle.

BASH: Only 33 percent of Republicans in a poll last month said they were enthusiastic about voting this year. A 14 point drop in just four months. GOP strategist blamed Republican anger over record deficits, concern about Iraq and doubts about the direction of a Republican controlled Congress.

G. BUSH: We stand for judges who strictly and faithfully interpret the law instead of legislating from the bench.

BASH: That signature Bush stump line in 2004 got the heartland's blood pumping. So the Republican National Committee, in this strategy memo, urges state parties to use Kavanaugh's nomination to motivate GOP voters. Disseminate information to grass root supporters via e- mail asking them to call local talk radio stations, it says. Submit op-eds to your local newspaper highlighting Kavanaugh's credentials. Democrats are well aware of the GOP strategy and looking for ways to blunt it.

SEN. BEN NELSON (D), NEBRASKA: Something doesn't have to be partisan. Then make it nonpartisan. Take the partisan nature of it away.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BASH: The 14 senator whose brokered a compromise on judges last year will meet formally tomorrow to decide whether or not to let this nominee go through. Democrats are giving the sense they are probably not going to block Brent Kavanaugh. They know the White House plans to send about 20 other nominations to the Senate in the next few weeks. They say they may have no choice but to engage in the fight the Republicans are itching for on this.

ROBERTS: No question that the Republicans have got to find some new plays if they hope to turn the game around. Dana Bash, Suzanne Malveaux and Andrea Koppel, part of the best political team on television. CNN, America's campaign headquarters.

Time now for "The Cafferty File" and our Jack Cafferty joins us now from New York. Good afternoon for the first time to you, Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, John. Good to be with you. There is one area where President Bush is still very much in demand, despite the lowest approval numbers of his presidency which are in the low 30s, Republican candidates are flooding the White House with requests for Mr. Bush to fund raise for them. The Washington Times reports the president has gone to 15 of the events so far, raised about $12.5 million for House, Senate and gubernatorial candidates.

The key, if you're a Republican running for office, I suppose, is to get the president to raise money for you but then ask him not to tell anybody because he's not very popular with the voters these days. In fact a lot of Republicans make seek to distance themselves from Mr. Bush as the election gets closer. There are political analysts suggesting that Republicans could easily lose 25 seats in the House and perhaps as many as 45. The Democrats only need 15 seats to gain control of the House of Representatives.

So here's the question, should Republican candidates up for reelection call on President Bush for fund raising and photo ops? E- mail your thoughts to caffertyfile@CNN.com or go to CNN.com/caffertyfile.

ROBERTS: Going to be interesting to see the way that turns out.

If you want a sneak preview of Jack's questions, plus an early read on the day's political news, and what's ahead on THE SITUATION ROOM sign up for our daily e-mail alert. Just go to CNN.com/situation room.

Coming up, presidential pitch-man. Mr. Bush sells his Medicare prescription drug plan to seniors. Are they buying the pitch? Our new poll has got the answer.

She had a crucial role in helping President Bush in his first White House win. Why is the president's brother speaking out against Katherine Harris? We've got our eyes on a messy intra-party fight.

Talking about intra-party fights, this one turned pretty violent. It is Palestinian versus Palestinian in Gaza. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROBERTS: President Bush is in Florida right now. He's got a sales job to do and not much time left to do it. His goal, get more senior citizens to sign up for the Medicare prescription drug program before Monday' deadline. Our new poll suggests that's not going to be easy. Here is our senior political analyst, Bill Schneider. What is the president doing, Bill?

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Today President Bush was pitching seniors to sign up for the Medicare prescription drug plan. He was also pitching to save the domestic legacy.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

(voice-over): Ever see one of those late night TV pitchmen?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Atomic explosion.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We don't go here at all. Just release it --

SCHNEIDER: Now here is President Bush today in Florida.

G. BUSH: I would suggest if you haven't signed up, living in Florida and watching this TV program, or anywhere in the country watching the TV program, I'd call 1-800-MEDICARE, there's somebody there who will help you.

SCHNEIDER: Operators are standing by. The senior senator from Florida, a Democrat, says it may not be so simple.

NELSON: There are 18 companies that are offering 43 standalone prescription drug plans. Each of these different options differs in terms of premiums, cost sharing requirements, drugs covered, and the pharmacy access.

SCHNEIDER: The Medicare Prescription Plan went into effect in January. What does the public think of it? Not much. Only 26 percent of Americans think the program is working. Forty-five percent say it's not. The deadline for seniors to sign up without penalty is Monday. After that, the premiums go up.

G. BUSH: This is a good deal for America's seniors. I'm proud to have signed the law to modernize Medicare.

SCHNEIDER: What do they think? Not much. Thirty percent of seniors think the program is working. Forty-eight percent say it's not. Democrats see an opportunity. They say that changing the prescription drug plan will be one of their top priorities if they win control of Congress this year.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER: But wait, there's more. According to the president, if you're a low income senior who qualifies for extra help, next Monday's deadline does not apply to you -- John.

ROBERTS: And they're also extending the deadline for people in the Hurricane Katrina zone as well.

SCHNEIDER: Yes, they are.

ROBERTS: Bill Schneider. Thanks very much, Bill. Our Zain Verjee joins us now from the CNN Global Headquarters in Atlanta with a closer look at other stories that are making news this afternoon -- Zain.

ZAIN VERJEE, CNN ANCHOR: Hi, John. Good to see you. In Iraq, at least 17 people are dead and 35 hurt after a suicide car bomber unleashes a fresh episode of terror. It happened in a crowded public market in the northern city of Tal Afar. Officials say the unexpected attack happened as people were shopping, and that women and children are among the dead. President Bush recently pointed to Tal Afar as an anti-insurgency success story.

In Gaza City, another day of clashes between members of the Hamas and Fatah militant groups. Sources say the violence started after Hamas abducted a member of Fatah. Fatah is then said to have kidnapped five members of Hamas. Officials say 10 people, including five children, have been hurt. Both groups have been fighting since Hamas won Parliamentary elections in January.

An intense fight in a burning situation. It's man versus fire here as crews battle nagging wildfires scorching parts of central Florida. Thick plumes of smoke are choking highways, and have partly caused car accidents that have killed four people. About 9,000 acres have been burned, so have three homes.

President Bush made a surprise visit to the region today. The cause of the blazes, though, are still unknown. But Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who declared a state of emergency, is cautioning against one activity.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. JEB BUSH (R), FLORIDA: If someone throws a cigarette out on the interstate, it could create, first of all, loss of life and property and it puts a lot of people at risk so -- and it's a felony in our state. So we want to make sure that no fires are started because of human error or negotiation or malfeasance.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VERJEE: Those are just some of the headlines, John, though back to you in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ROBERTS: All right. Thanks, Zain. We'll see you in a few minutes.

And coming up, the political fight over General Hayden's nomination to head the CIA. Did the White House do enough to get top Republicans on board? I'll ask James Carville and J.C. Watts in today's "Strategy Session."

Plus, a new fight over the president's judicial nominees, but is this really a bigger battle over energizing conservative voters? Our Jeff Greenfield takes a closer look.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) ROBERTS: Now back to one of our top stories is hour. Is top Bush aide Brett Kavanaugh a conservative ideologue or a fair minded advocate? Well, that depends on who you ask.

Our Internet reporter Abbi Tatton has more details on the latest of President Bush's controversial judicial nominees -- Abbi.

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: John, at the Web site of the conservative Committee for Justice, they are counting the days since the initial nomination of Brett Kavanaugh. Over a thousand there. They also have talking points at their Web site detailing his resume, interestingly, part of that pro bono work he once did for Elian Gonzalez.

It's his experience -- Kavanaugh's experience -- that is in question today and in focus as he faces his second judiciary hearing -- Judiciary Committee hearing. The first -- that was back in 2004 -- the liberal People for the American Way called him a "partisan ideologue" and also a "star protegee."

That's a reference to Cavanaugh's work that he did the in the 90s for independent counsel Ken Starr, working on the report and writing part of the Starr report that came out in 1998 that lay grounds for impeachment.

Today the latest -- yesterday, the American Bar Association review that was done, where a majority -- a minority found him well- qualified. That was a change from the review before. The White House at their Web site is responding to that saying that no one that did any of these reviews at any point found Kavanaugh not qualified for the bench -- John.

ROBERTS: Abbi, thanks very much.

You've heard some of the arguments for and against Brett Kavanaugh's nomination. Now let's take a closer look at the politics behind the fight. Here is our senior analyst Jeff Greenfield -- Jeff.

JEFF GREENFIELD, CNN SENIOR ANALYST: John, Brett Kavanaugh's nomination to the federal bench will be fought out on familiar lines. Is he qualified, or well-qualified or not all that qualified? Is he a mainstream conservative or an ideologue?

But for Republican strategists, the fight might have a lot less to do with one nomination this spring and a lot more to do with the fall.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GREENFIELD (voice-over): It's not just that President Bush's approval numbers are down to near 30 percent. It's that he's lost ground among Republicans and conservatives. What's more, Republicans now say they are much less enthusiastic about voting in November than are Democrats who smell the sweet aroma of retaking the Congress. How then do Republicans turn out their core voters?

G. BUSH: Let's get out there and get the vote out.

GREENFIELD: A late lack of enthusiasm in 2000 may have cost Bush the popular vote. A massive get out the vote operation in 2004, propelled in part by gay marriage issues on state ballots, helped get Bush a majority.

And this fall? Well, there's the specter of liberal Democrats taking power, Nancy Pelosi as speaker, John Conyers who suggested impeachment against President Bush, as chair of the House Judiciary Committee. Pelosi says impeachment is not going to happen.

There's a bill outlawing flag burning, but when was the last time anyone burned an American flag in America? And anyway, even Senator Clinton backs that bill.

But then there's the issue of federal judges. Among conservatives the naming of John Roberts and Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court counts as a political 10-strike, a clear move of the court to the right, a promise kept.

Unlike discontent with Bush over spending, Katrina and even Iraq, conservatives are just about unanimous on these choices, as well as the nominations of ardent conservatives like Janice Rogers Brown and Priscilla Owen to the federal bench.

Moreover, the nomination of conservatives as judges inevitably arouses the opposition of liberal Democrats, like Chuck Schumer and, of course, Ted Kennedy, adversaries who get the blood boiling on the right.

And, finally, such nominations remind conservatives of how key the courts are in deciding hot-button issues like abortion, prayer in public, and government's power over private property.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

GREENFIELD: Yes, these Kavanaugh hearings are taking place in the warmth of the spring, but the key to the fight over judges is what will happen when the leaves are falling and the ballots are being counted -- John.

ROBERTS: Our Jeff Greenfield.

More on the controversy over judges in a minute, but first up in our "Strategy Session" today, President Bush's nominee for CIA director is taking heat from some top Republicans. Did the White House misjudge the reaction to their pick?

Will Michael Hayden be able to convince lawmakers that he is the best man for the job?

Joining us are CNN political analysts Democratic strategist James Carville and former Republican Congressman J.C. Watts.

Now, gentlemen, first question, I will throw it out there to whoever wants to field it. Is there any question that Hayden is qualified for this job?

J.C. WATTS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: John, I have looked at his resume, and I don't know how anyone could draw the conclusion that he's not qualified.

I think, in this -- what I heard from -- from Republicans who are opposing Mr. Hayden, i.e. Pete Hoekstra, who is the change of International Relations Committee -- Speaker Hastert, I think, even came out and said that he might have some concerns with this nominee -- you know, they would like to see a balance.

I mean, you know, they don't say he's not qualified. But they want another opinion outside of the Department of Defense. And I think that's an argument that Congressman Hoekstra made. I also think the speaker is maybe a little disappointed that his guy -- something that's been overlooked in this, Porter Goss was Speaker Hastert's friend, Intelligence Committee chairman when he was speaker, and did a great job. And the speaker had great confidence in him.

ROBERTS: I want to talk about little -- want to explore that just a little bit more, but any questions, James Carville, as to...

JAMES CARVILLE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I...

(CROSSTALK)

ROBERTS: ... Hayden's qualifications?

CARVILLE: Look, he's the perfect Bush appointee. He's a loyalist. He's a great briefer, which means he really knows how to suck up and please power.

(LAUGHTER)

CARVILLE: And that's a kind of code. Oh, he's a great briefer.

And will he go over there and be a team Bush player? Yes. And if you think that is what -- that agency is being run fine, and it just needs somebody to be a Bush loyalist in there, fine. Some people say that the whole agency is completely demoralized that it missed the 9/11, it missed weapons of mass destruction, that Porter Goss had completely decimated the -- what I call a FEMA-nization of the CIA.

And, yes, they will put this guy over there. And he will do everything that Bush and Rumsfeld and -- and Negroponte and the whole team tells him to do. And he's qualified, yes.

(CROSSTALK)

ROBERTS: Is it -- is it fair to say, J.C. Watts, this the whole shake-up at the CIA indicates that the system there is still broken, despite all of the hand-wringing since 9/11 to try to fix it?

WATTS: Well, but, John, we have to take into consideration, the CIA is broke -- been broken for a long time. You know, it was broken under President Clinton. It was -- probably had some, you know, flaws in Bush 41.

I mean, this is a process that's been in the making and should have been undertaken a long time ago. So, I think to put it all on this president, I think, is a little unfair. And I think it's a little unfair to characterize General Hayden as a briefer.

I think he's a little deeper than that. I think he knows what he's doing. But, again, if you looking for an objective view outside of the military, do you get that here?

ROBERTS: Right.

WATTS: I think he you can do that. But the questions that have been raised, I think that's the concern that they have.

CARVILLE: I have got to take minor issue here.

He's been in office for five-and-a-half years. The CIA is dysfunctional, and we shouldn't blame him. Well, if we can't blame him for the CIA being dysfunctional after five-and-a-half years, you well not blame him for nothing.

(CROSSTALK)

WATTS: But let's say -- but, John, consider this. You could say that about HHS. You could say that about every other federal agency.

(CROSSTALK)

CARVILLE: FEMA.

(CROSSTALK)

WATTS: You could -- yes, you could say it about FEMA.

CARVILLE: Yes, I could say it. I could.

WATTS: But I -- but, James, the point...

(CROSSTALK)

CARVILLE: I would. You're right.

WATTS: But, James, the point that I make is this. We could have said it under President Clinton.

CARVILLE: No, you couldn't.

WATTS: And that's not a partisan shot.

CARVILLE: You couldn't.

WATTS: That's just a fact.

ROBERTS: All right.

(CROSSTALK)

ROBERTS: Let me move on -- let me move on...

(CROSSTALK)

ROBERTS: Let me move on by going backwards here.

You mentioned Dennis Hastert, speaker of the House. Here's what he said about the nomination: "I don't think they ought to have a military person in the CIA. And it looks to me like this guy is going to be subordinate to Negroponte. It looks like a power grab at the top by Negroponte. And I think that's the wrong thing to have happen."

J.C. Watts, did the White House make a mistake by not consulting more broadly with Congress? I mean, I thought Josh Bolten, the whole thing about Josh Bolten being so great as -- as the White House chief of staff was he was going to keep Congress in the loop. And it looks like that didn't happen.

WATTS: Well, and, again, John I talked to some people on the Hill this morning that said that, you know, we continue to believe -- and they were Republicans -- that we continue to believe that the administration has a tin ear, that we told them our thoughts on this, and they were ignored.

So -- but, again, I don't think we should belittle the fact that General Hayden is qualified to do this. But those who are raising concerns say that we would have liked to have seen someone that would have had a little more separation from Secretary Rumsfeld and DOD.

ROBERTS: OK, the confirmation hearings are expected to be a whole debate over the NSA spying scandal.

And here is what Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, said about that. He said, "We welcome that debate. If the president's opponents hope to argue that we are doing too much to doing terrorism, that the intelligence agencies are fighting too hard against terrorists around the world, then we look forward to taking that debate to the American people."

Is there a chance, James Carville, that, if this is all about the NSA spying scandal and not about Hayden's qualifications, that it could blow up in Democrats' face?

CARVILLE: Yes. But I don't think the Democrats are going to make it all about the NSA spying scandal.

I think they will ask him about that. I think it's really about the fact that the -- that made the -- that FEMA-nized the CIA. We have a dysfunctional intelligence agency, where we have got people under investigation. We got the number three-person, Dusty Foggo, that there's all kinds of things out there. Prosecutors are looking at it.

The I.G. in the CIA is looking at this as a major scandal. I'm sure that they are going to want to know that. And, also, you -- we got a man, I guess he's qualified. Like I say, his shoes are going to be shined. He's not going to cause trouble. He's going to be a real team player.

And that's what they -- mediocrity is what this administration is pushing at every juncture. They got it now. It's -- again, it's five-and-a-half years. They can't get their business straight with their own party in the Congress, which is...

ROBERTS: We just have a minute left. And there's one more issue I want to get to, this idea of firing up the conservative base and using the fight over judges as a pivot point in that.

Senator John Thune, Republican of South Dakota, says: "A good fight on judges does nothing but energize our base. Right now, our folks are feeling a little flat. They need a reason to get engaged. And fights over judges will do just that."

J.C. Watts, is that the thing to try to kick-start the Republican conservative base, which, according to the latest polls, is pretty lackadaisical right now?

WATTS: Well, John, this eavesdropping issue, that is, I think, an issue that the American people -- they don't like eavesdropping, but do they like eavesdropping on the opposition, the terrorists? Yes. That's a win. He won't have any problems on that, General Hayden.

(CROSSTALK)

WATTS: Now, the judges, you know, I believe these depressed numbers that the president is experiencing, they are driven by Republicans, not by Democrats.

Republicans are saying, we're disappointed in judges and, you know, in what is going on with our judicial nominations, with -- with spending, with the UAE issue, the ports...

(CROSSTALK)

ROBERTS: So, Democrats threatening to filibuster Kavanaugh, is that going to energize the base?

WATTS: Oh, let me tell you, as the president would say, bring it on.

(LAUGHTER)

WATTS: You know, we will -- they will be high-fiving out in the trenches, if they start filibustering judges.

CARVILLE: I think this is the silliest thing I have ever seen. The idea that Brett Kavanaugh of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in May is going to rally the Republican base in November...

(LAUGHTER) CARVILLE: ... is about the height of stupidity, if I have ever heard it.

I mean, yes, if you have a Supreme Court guy...

WATTS: You take one judge at a time.

CARVILLE: You have a Supreme Court guy, then you got a fight.

The idea of that a Court of Appeal confirmation hearing in May, I mean, if that's what they are saying, or that's what we are reporting, that's silly beyond belief.

(CROSSTALK)

ROBERTS: Gentlemen, we...

(CROSSTALK)

WATTS: You can appoint one judge at a time. You take them one at a time. So, in May, it will have an impact on November, in spite of how stupid...

(CROSSTALK)

ROBERTS: Lots of time left to fight this.

(CROSSTALK)

ROBERTS: We got to go.

James Carville and J.C. Watts, part of the best political team on television -- CNN, America's campaign headquarters.

Coming up next, President Bush goes to Florida to talk about Medicare, but he finds himself in the middle of a political fight. We're going to explain that one for you.

Plus, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley on the crisis with Iran and the controversy over CIA nominee Michael Hayden. Hadley will be my guest coming up in our 7:00 p.m. hour.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROBERTS: President Bush is in Florida, promoting his Medicare prescription drug plan. But there's an intriguing subplot to this story. It involves Mr. Bush's brother and Congresswoman Katherine Harris. She is running for the Senate and served as Florida's secretary of state during the disputed 2000 presidential election.

Our White House correspondent, Ed Henry, is with the president in Florida -- Ed.

ED HENRY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: John, the president came here to Sun City Center, near Tampa, home to so many senior citizens, to promote his controversial Medicare prescription drug plan.

Democrats charge, the program is too confusing and are demanding that the May 15 deadline be extended, so seniors have more time to sign up. The president today again rejected those calls. He insisted the plan saves money. He's hoping it will help Republicans in the midterm elections. But, during his stop here, the president got caught up in another messy midterm election issue, the floundering Senate campaign of Republican Congresswoman Katherine Harris.

The president was greeted here on the tarmac by Harris, as well as his brother, Florida Governor Jeb Bush, one day after the governor declared Harris can't win the Senate race. Harris seemed to be chewing the president's ear off for quite some time, as the governor looked on a few feet away.

After that, Harris did not attend the Medicare event here with seniors. Top Republicans have urged Harris to get out of the Senate race, charging it could imperil Republican chances of keeping control of the U.S. Senate. But Harris insists, she is sticking around -- John.

HENRY: Ed Henry for us from Florida with the president -- Ed, thanks very much.

Mary Cheney by the book -- the vice president's daughter is writing about and talking about her family, her openly gay lifestyle, and about politics.

Also, the president's new spokesman -- can Tony Snow fix the problems at the White House? We have new poll numbers on that. Stay tuned. We will tell you all about it.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROBERTS: Our "Political Radar" today: Mary Cheney's new book hits the store shelves. And some gay Republicans are applauding it. The vice president's daughter doesn't hide the fact that she is a lesbian, but she has been quiet about it through much of the Bush presidency.

In her book, "Now It's My Turn," she gives a behind-the-scenes account of her work for the Bush-Cheney ticket and how it clashed with her support of gay marriage. We will have a full report on that in our 7:00 p.m. Eastern hour of THE SITUATION ROOM.

Tony Snow is making the transition to White House press secretary, part of the recent shake-up at the White House. Insiders are hoping that he can put a new and improved face on the administration. But the public apparently is skeptical.

Our new polls show that just 15 percent of Americans say that Snow is going to give the White House a new look. Seventy-eight percent predict there will be no change.

And new fuel today for the political fight over rising gas prices -- Senate Democrats, plus one key Republican, are calling for an increase in SUV fuel economy. And they are accusing the Bush administration of falling far behind the marketplace by opposing significant increases. The White House says it won't back tougher mileage requirements until the rules can be made more flexible for the auto industry.

The Democratic National Committee says Jack Abramoff's connections to the Bush White House run very deep. Now they are suing to prove it. Will the White House comply?

Our Internet reporter, Jacki Schechner, has the details on that -- Jacki.

JACKI SCHECHNER, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: John, the Democratic National Committee filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act back in January, saying it wanted all of Jack Abramoff's comings and goings from the White House and that of some of his associates.

They now say that the Secret Service did not comply in time. And they're asking for the release of agency records in a newly released lawsuit. Here's what they say. According to the Democratic National Committee, they want the comings and goings of conservative leaders Grover Norquist and Ralph Reed, also of Assistant Labor Secretary Patrick Pizzella, who the DNC says it a former associate of Jack Abramoff, a former lobbying partner.

They're also looking for Michael Scanlon's comings and goings, the now indicted Tom DeLay aide, and David Safavian, the former General Services Administration official, also now indicted.

The DNC says that the connections also connect Abramoff back to the White House. And they are going to get part of what they are looking for tomorrow, because Judicial Watch, which is a conservative watchdog group, did get a FOIA request fulfilled by the Secret Service. That's going to be released tomorrow through the Department of Justice.

As for the Secret Service, they say they have not seen the DNC lawsuit yet, John, and they have no official comment yet.

ROBERTS: Jacki, thanks. We will see you again soon.

Coming up, team coverage of the Iran nuclear standoff -- new details on the letter from Iran's president and whether it is changing any minds at the United Nations or at the White House.

And a different kind of sticker shock at the gas pumps. It seemed too good to be true. And guess what? It was.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROBERTS: Our Zain Verjee joins us now from the CNN Global Headquarters in Atlanta. She has got a closer look at some of the stories making news this afternoon -- Zain.

VERJEE: John, tomorrow, he faces a sentence. Today, he faced statements of heart-wrenching grief. Daniel Biechele will be sentenced in Rhode Island tomorrow. He's the man responsible for the deadly fire at the Station nightclub three years ago. One hundred people died in that blaze. Ahead of Biechele's sentencing, families talked about the deaths of their loved ones.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CLAIRE BRUYERE, MOTHER OF STATION NIGHTCLUB FIRE VICTIM: They are God's angels now, but they were our angels first. Their lives were cut short before they had earned their wings. They can't fly free and experience life , as they should have.

But the short time we had with them will be forever in our hearts. Millions of lives were touched by a very special 100 people, 100 people who shouldn't have died.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VERJEE: To Kansas now -- what could toss heavy freight cars like toys? Well, official say it's strong winds. Sixteen freight cars are on their sides after strong gusts. Officials say the train derailed about 30 miles south of Wichita. There are no reports of injury. The National Weather Service says winds in the area had reached 60 miles per hour.

And, John, today, in Indiana, drivers who pulled up to these gas pumps just couldn't believe their eyes. Look at that, a gas price of mere fractions of a penny. The pumps were actually incorrectly programmed. One man say that he put a full tank of gas in his car for just seven cents.

Now, the...

(LAUGHTER)

VERJEE: The station's owner has corrected the mistake very quickly and says that he hopes to find and charge those people who took advantage of the mistake. I don't know how he's going to track them down, John.

(LAUGHTER)

VERJEE: But that's what he says.

ROBERTS: Good luck.

Hey, it's his mistake.

(LAUGHTER)

ROBERTS: They should be able to profit from it.

(LAUGHTER) ROBERTS: Zain, thanks very much.

VERJEE: Absolutely.

ROBERTS: We will talk to you soon.

(CROSSTALK)

ROBERTS: Still to come: Should Republican candidates be calling on President Bush to help them raise money? Jack Cafferty is going to be back in just a moment with your e-mails.

And the Pentagon chief is defending the president's choice for CIA director. What kind of relationship does Donald Rumsfeld have with General Michael Hayden? We will have a report from our senior Pentagon correspondent, Jamie McIntyre.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROBERTS: Our Jack Cafferty is back now with "The Cafferty File."

Hey, Jack.

CAFFERTY: How you doing, John?

I'm getting feedback in this thing.

President Bush's low approval numbers aside, Republican candidates are flooding the White House with requests for Mr. Bush to raise money for them. "The Washington Times" is reporting the president has gone to 15 fund-raising events so far and raised $12.5 million for various congressional and gubernatorial candidates around the country. The question is, should the Republican candidates up for reelection this fall be calling on President Bush for help?

Dave in Beaver Falls, New York, writes: "Yes, they should. They should buy into the president's policies and opinions and have as many photo-ops with the president as possible. that way, American citizens will know who won't be back in Washington after the election."

Kelly in Ithaca, New York, writes: "Only if the candidate wants to tap the resources of the 31 percent of Americans that still, inconceivably, align themselves with Bush. On the other hand, I suspect that, within that 31 percent lies 90 percent of all the wealth."

Joe in Santa Barbara, California: "You bet they should ask for President Bush's help. There are many of us out here who never get polled and are counting on President Bush."

Joseph: "The Republicans have no choice. Who else would they be able to find? Around here, to openly campaign for a Republican is like volunteering for a terminal illness."

And Mark in Acton, Massachusetts: "If there's a God in heaven, and if I'm very, very good, every last one of them will have their picture taken with President 31 percent" -- John.

ROBERTS: Jack, thanks.

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