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THE SITUATION ROOM

Push Underway for Constitutional Amendment Banning Flag Desecration; President Bush's Line-Item Veto Makes Lawmakers Uneasy; Carlos Gutierrez Interview

Aired June 27, 2006 - 16:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: 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 to bring you today's top stories.
Happening now, it's midnight in Baghdad. Iraq's new leader trying to build harmony with a prisoner release and insurgents trying to blow up the reconciliation effort as the war of words rages on right at home.

It's 4:00 p.m. here in Washington, where the president wants to add power of the purse to his power of the pen. Should he be free to veto spending items he doesn't like or interpret the bills he signs into law? Why some in Congress are very worried right now.

And the storms that have flooded homes, freeways and federal agencies aren't finished as the Carolina coast braces for a sudden new threat.

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

We'll turn to the war in Iraq shortly, in just a moment, but first we want to something that's developing right now on Capitol Hill. There's a push underway for a constitutional amendment to ban desecration of the American flag. The Senate due to vote in the next hour.

Let's go straight to our congressional correspondent Dana Bash. A lot of people have been waiting a long time for this vote. It's about to happen, Dana.

DANA BASH, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hi there, Wolf.

And yes, this is a new development. Earlier in the day yesterday, we thought that perhaps this vote wouldn't take place until later in the week, but it does appear, according to Democratic and Republican sources, that this vote will take place at some point later this evening, perhaps even earlier than that, perhaps later this afternoon.

Now Democrats and Republicans had told us this was very, very close, that perhaps it was just one vote away from getting the two- thirds majority actually needed to amend the Constitution with this flag desecration amendment. But at this point, both Democrats and Republicans do not think that the votes are there. So they have decided to simply go ahead and take the vote. Now, there has been certainly a lot of discussion and debate on the Senate floor today about the substance of this, but off the floor, another big question has been whether or not this is the right thing for the U.S. Senate to be doing right now.

Harry Reid, the Democratic leader, he is somebody actually, one of about a dozen Democrats, who will vote yes on this constitutional amendment. Nevertheless, he has been making the point he does not think this is the right thing for the Congress to be doing, that it is another example, he says, of Republicans having misplaced priorities, being out of touch what Americans really want Congress to be doing.

On the other hand, the Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who brought this measure before the Senate again this year, he defends himself, saying that this is an important symbol for America and something that a majority of Americans, polls show, actually want to be dealt with in terms of a constitutional amendment. So that has been the rhetorical and political battle going on off the floor.

But I can tell you that, Wolf, some Republicans are a little bit worried that that Democratic argument might stick, that they are concerned that they do look out of touch with what rank and file -- or what Americans really want them to dealing with. That's why, perhaps, this vote did get moved up so that they couldn't be accused of spending an entire week on this issue.

I can tell you also that Democrats, it's in their interest to have this vote tonight because, as I said, that -- this vote is going to be very, very close. And there is Democratic senator, we're not sure who it is, who will actually not be in town tomorrow. And that's why Democrats perhaps want this vote to take place tonight because they don't want this to win.

BLITZER: So, Dana, going into the roll call, do they think they have the two-thirds majority? They need 67 votes to pass this constitutional amendment?

BASH: No, they don't. Both Republicans, and Democrats, as I said, tell us at this point that they do think it's going to fall short. The interesting thing to watch for when this vote takes place, Wolf, is just how far short if that, in case -- if that actually happens -- how far short it comes. Because as I said, everybody has said that they believe it's 66, yes, that's what the head count is now.

Democrats know that Republicans -- and Republicans have been telling us -- that they are, you know, have been sort of preparing their political message that they don't -- they wouldn't want to be the Democrat, to be that one voted against it, the one to keep this constitutional amendment from going to the states. So it will be interesting to see whether or not it loses by one vote, if it does lose, or perhaps if a Democrat will switch their vote to make that margin a little bigger, to make the political fallout less bad for Democrats. BLITZER: All right, we'll watch it very closely in here in THE SITUATION ROOM. Dana, thanks very much. Stay with us for that vote. It should be coming up, as we're told, perhaps in the next hour. We'll bring it to you as it happens.

So what happens if both houses of Congress were to pass, and the president signs, the amendment to ban flag burning. The process of amending the Constitution then goes to the states. Thirty-eight of the 50 states would have to approve the amendment. Is that likely? Well, all 50 states have passed non-binding resolutions supporting such a constitutional amendment, but what about the timetable? How long would this process take? That depends.

But the last two amendments to the Constitution show quite a contrast. Check this out. The 27th amendment to the Constitution, which regulates congressional salaries, was first proposed way back in 1789, but it wasn't ratified and didn't become part of the Constitution until 1992. Quite a little span there. But the 26th amendment, which gives 18-year-olds the right to vote, was passed by Congress in March of 1971. It took only 100 days for the amendment to be ratified.

Iraq's new government took another step towards reconciliation today as insurgents tried once again to drag the country back into chaos. Some 450 Iraqi prisoners were released from the notorious Abu Ghraib prison, and the government announced a new benefits package to help detained workers and students returned to jobs and schools.

But the bombers struck once again today, killing two, wounding two dozen more, at a gas station in the northern city of Kirkuk. The U.S. military announced today that a marine and three soldiers have died in the latest violence in Iraq, and that brings the death toll for U.S. forces since the start of the war 2,527.

Iraq's high tribunal announced today that Saddam Hussein will face another trial in August for the Anfal campaign, which took the lives of tens of thousands of Iraqi Kurds way in the late-1980s. Saddam Hussein and his six co-defendants, including the former general, known as Chemical Ali, will face genocide charges in that trial, as well.

Much more coming up on that, including my interview with Ramsey Clark, one of Saddam Hussein's attorneys, right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

While the cost in lives is all too clear to many Americans, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are taking a huge toll on the military's equipment. The top military officers and the army and marine corps were up on Capitol Hill today with the repair bill. We're going to have more on this story in the 7:00 p.m. hour right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Polls, meanwhile, are giving Republicans a slight boost when it comes to Iraq and the war on terror. Democrats slipping a bit, scrambling to figure out why.

Let's turn to our senior political correspondent, Candy Crowley -- Candy.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SR. POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, even before the floor debate over withdrawal from Iraq ended on Capitol Hill, Democrats sensed that the politics, at least, of this of this were getting away from them. And new polling suggests they were right.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SEN. BILL FIRST (R), MAJORITY LEADER: Cutting and running before Iraq can really defend itself, I believe, threatens the American people.

SEN. JACK REED (D), RHODE ISLAND: This is not cut and run, or cut and jog, or cut and anything else.

CROWLEY (voice-over): New polling suggests congressional debate on a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq did not change minds, but it did push the politics. A "Washington Post"/ABC poll finds Republicans with a seven-point edge on the question of which party would best handle terrorism. Forty-six percent of Americans said Republicans, 39 percent said Democrats. That's a seven point drop for Democrats in a month.

In between the May and June polls, U.S. troops killed al Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Iraqi government completed its cabinet, President Bush flew to Baghdad. And in House Senate debates, Republicans poked at the Democratic fissure over whether and when to set a timetable for withdrawal.

SEN. JOHN CORNYN (R), TEXAS: It appears that they have no unifying position and they have no plan to lead to victory in Iraq.

CROWLEY: The same poll shows Democrats losing ground on Iraq. They still hold a six-point edge as the party that would do a better job, but that is down from the 14-point advantage they had in May. Wrong way for a group that hopes to win big at polls in just about four months.

Looking to reverse the trajectory, Democrats are embracing, as exactly what they proposed, the words of the top commander in Iraq -- that some troops will probably be coming home by the end of the year.

SEN. CARL LEVIN (D), MICHIGAN: We put it beyond the Republicans to call General Casey old "Cut and Run" General Casey. Totally inappropriate, but that won't stop them.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

CROWLEY: While the House Senate debates may have moved the politics of Iraq a bit, they did little to change the minds on the issue at hand. The "Post" poll, and another by Gallup, show Americans remain pretty much evenly divided over whether to set a timetable for withdrawal -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Candy, thank you for that. Let's take a little closer look right now at the president's poll numbers, which appear to be somewhat on the rise. Our poll of poll, as we like to call it -- poll of polls, that is. Our average of the five most recent polls shows Mr. Bush's approval rating now at 38 percent. That's up four percentage points from a similar average last month.

President Bush today urged the Senate to pass a bill giving him a line-item veto. And that would give him the power to reject items he considers wasteful in spending bills without vetoing the entire bill. In a speech in New York, Mr. Bush calls the measure a vital tool to enforce fiscal discipline.

But some lawmakers in both parties are weary of shifting too much power to the president. The House passed the line-item veto bill last week, but its fate in the Senate right now remains uncertain. A decade ago the Supreme Court struck down the line-item bill as unconstitutional.

Is President Bush exceeding his authority when he put his own twist on bills he signs into law? He's making a statement with his signing statements, and that's making some lawmakers uneasy. Let's turn to our senior analyst Jeff Greenfield. Jeff?

JEFF GREENFIELD, CNN SENIOR ANALYST: Wolf, Senator Arlen Specter, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, held hearings today on the presidential signing statements. Tear out the front page, right? Well actually this is a very big deal because it goes to the heart of how power should be shared between presidents and Congresses. And in fact, it's always been a pretty big deal.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This government does not torture.

GREENFIELD (voice-over): Here's the question -- can a president say when he signs a bill that Congress passed, I'll interpret the law as I see it. That's more or less what President Bush did when he signed John McCain's anti-torture legislation back in December, promising to quote, "construe the law in a manner consistent with the constitutional authority of the president as commander in chief," unquote.

Senator Specter has a very different view on the matter.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER (R-PA), JUDICIARY CHAIRMAN: It's a matter of separation of power and it's a matter of important congressional oversight and so far we are not getting there.

GREENFIELD: Historically, Congress has always pushed back when it thinks the president is challenging its turf. When Franklin Roosevelt tried to pack the Supreme Court in 1937, the heavily Democratic Senate said, no and FDR lost a lot of political clout.

In the 1950s, a GOP Congress rallied behind a constitutional amendment that would limit the president's treaty-making power. It feared he might use that power to enact new laws binding on American citizens by putting them in treaties. During Vietnam, Lyndon Johnson used the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, permitting him to answer an alleged attack on U.S. naval forces to escalate the war.

Senator Gene McCarthy actually ran for president in 1968 in part to challenge this claim of executive power. And President Nixon's refusal to spend funds appropriated by Congress, impouding it was called, was one of the potential grounds for impeachment. In the case of President Bush, the Republican Congress has been relatively mild in challenging their own president's tendency to interpret laws by his standards.

The "Boston Globe" counts more than 750 instances where the president has reserved the right to ignore any statute that conflicts with his interpretation of the Constitution. Critics, including the libertarian Cato Institute, accused the president of a, quote, "push for power unchecked by either the courts or Congress."

(END VIDEOTAPE)

GREENFIELD: Now, I talked with several Republican senators today who were concerned to a greater or lesser degrees by this executive power. But in a post 9/11 world and with the midterm elections on the horizon, there doesn't seem that much appetite for any kind of head-on clash between the two political branches of government, especially when the same party controls both. Wolf?

BLITZER: Let's switch gears back to this developing story on the Hill right now, the amendment to the Constitution that would ban flag burning. Dana Bash says that vote could come as early as the next hour here. It's going to be very, very close, whether they have the two-thirds majority in the Senate, Jeff. What do you make of this move right now? Give us a little perspective.

GREENFIELD: Two things, Wolf. The Supreme Court over the years has had many interpretations of the First Amendment that have angered even a majority of Americans. Bible reading and prayer in public schools, expanding freedom for obscenity and libel.

The country has never amended the First Amendment. In this case, it would be specifically an amendment to change the Supreme Court's interpretation of the First Amendment, saying flag burning is political speech. Never happened before.

The second thing is I have these press clips here, going back 16 years when the Congress passed a law that the Supreme Court struck down. And back then, 16 years ago, Republicans were saying we hope the court strikes it down so that a constitutional amendment to protect the flags can be an issue. This was the midterm elections of 1990. So this has a pretty venerable history of having some political impact, Wolf.

BLITZER: Jeff, thanks very much. And we're going to continue to cover this story and see where this vote unfolds perhaps in the next hour. Jeff Greenfield, Candy Crowley, Dana Bash, they are part of the best political team on television, CNN, America's campaign headquarters. Jack Cafferty of course is part of that same political team. He's joining us from New York. Jack?

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Hurricane Katrina cost U.S. taxpayers $2 billion in waste and fraud. "The New York Times" calls it one of the most extraordinary displays of scams, schemes and stupefying bureaucratic bungles in modern history. That's a quote.

Here are a few examples: 1,100 prison inmates along the Gulf Coast collected $10 million in rental and disaster relief assistance, prison inmates. $860 million worth of mobile homes sit to this day unused at an Arkansas airfield. And FEMA to this day is paying $250,000 a month to store them there.

Renovations for a shelter of an Alabama army base that cost $416,000 per evacuee, well FEMA shut the shelter down within one month of its reopening. And the Sugarland, Texas hotel where the owner has been charged with submitting $230,000 in bills for phantom victims. FEMA's new director says not to worry, it won't happen again. But don't hold your breath, not everybody believes that's the case.

Here's the question. As the Congress debates flag burning, how can the government avoid spending $2 billion in fraud and waste the next time there's a disaster. E-mail your thoughts at CaffertyFile@CNN.com or go to CNN.com/CaffertyFile.

BLITZER: $2 billion, you can imagine what it could be used for if it were properly used, Jack, pretty outrageous.

CAFFERTY: Yes, it is.

BLITZER: Thanks Jack, for that. Coming up here in THE SITUATION ROOM, high water in the Mid-Atlantic, flooding hits much of the region. With a new tropical storm brewing, could it get worse? The forecast, that's coming up.

And the political war over immigration, it's pitting Republican against Republican. Right here in THE SITUATION ROOM, coming up, I'll go one-on-one with the commerce secretary, Carlos Gutierrez, to get his special perspective.

And later, another bitter political fight. This one over Iraq and when the U.S. ought to get out. That's in our "Strategy Session" with Donna Brazile and the former House majority leader Dick Armey. All that, coming up. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back. Rain, rain, go away, come again another day? That's the song many across the Northeast are singing right now, but Mother Nature is singing her own tune. Here in Washington, there are more drizzles and downpours than dry spells. It's been raining off and on here in the nation's capital for days. It's expected to continue.

Meanwhile, parts of Maryland are submerged. Dozens of residents have been evacuated and firefighters are using boats to rescue some people trapped in their flooded homes.

And in North Carolina, water appears to be is everywhere. Flood watches are in effect for most of the counties in the state. Forecasters fear a storm off Cape Fear, North Carolina, could become a tropical depression any time today.

Let's go to our meteorologist Bonnie Schneider. She's joining us from the CNN Weather Center with the latest. How bad is it, Bonnie?

(WEATHER REPORT)

BLITZER: All right, Bonnie, thanks. We will stay close and get back to you as these weather developments unfold.

Zain Verjee is off today, but she joins us back here in THE SITUATION ROOM tomorrow. Let's go to Sophia Choi. She's joining us from the CNN Center with a closer look at some other stories making news.

Hi, Sophia.

SOPHIA CHOI, CNN ANCHOR: Hi again, Wolf.

At this hour, a gathering storm at Israel's border with Gaza. Israeli forces, personnel, artillery and tanks are amassed there, poised to attack at a moment's notice. Today Palestinian militants released the first information about the Kidnapped Israel Corporal Gilad Shalit. A militant leader says he's being held at a secure place the Zionists cannot reach, and he also claims to have seized a Jewish settler in the West Bank.

Meantime, Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, says that she is holding Pakistan's military leader to his promise to hold Democratic elections next year. Rice's comments came today during a visit with President General Pervez Musharraf in Islamabad. Rice praised Musharraf and neighboring Afghanistan's leader Hamid Karzai as "two leaders the world is lucky to have." She plans to visit President Karzai tomorrow.

Wolf, back to you.

BLITZER: Thanks, Sophia, we will get back to you shortly.

Still ahead here in THE SITUATION ROOM, the border battle within. Is the immigration debate dividing the Republican Party? The Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, he's standing by to join us live right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Plus, the Senate is moving forward on a constitutional amendment banning flag burning. A vote could come in the next hour. But is it a burning issue or is it simply political posturing? We will talk about it in our "Strategy Session" with Dick Armey and Donna Brazile. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to THE SITUATION ROOM. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.

With the border battle raging in Congress and the House and Senate unable to agree on a bill, the Bush administration is continuing to promote its plan which includes a guest worker program and a path towards citizenship for some illegal immigrants.

The Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez is just back from a trip to Texas and New Mexico promoting the president's reform plan. He's joining us here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Mr. Secretary, welcome.

CARLOS GUTIERREZ, COMMERCE SECRETARY: Thank you, Wolf. Good to be here.

BLITZER: I know you had an eyewitness sense of what's going on. The charge right now is that a lot of House Republicans -- Republicans -- who are opposed to the president's proposals, his reform proposals, they've decided to effectively kill any legislation this year by suggesting there be hearings, instead of going to a conference committee report with the Senate to work out a compromise. Is immigration reform dead for this year?

GUTIERREZ: You know what I found? I just spent time in Texas and Albuquerque. I visited six cities in Texas, and the more you get into the subject and explain it to people, the more they comprehend that the only real solution is comprehensive reform.

We all agree that we need to make border security job number one, but in order to secure our borders, we need a temporary worker's permit so that we can hold employers accountable and know who is in the country ...

BLITZER: But, you know, you have a tough job convincing some of your fellow Republicans, especially in the House, of the wisdom of this strategy that would enable some of these illegal immigrants to work toward citizenship.

GUTIERREZ: Well, unless you do that, unless you recognize that we have jobs in this country that Americans don't want to do or they are not available to do, and that we need those jobs to keep our economy growing, if you recognize that fundamental reality, that leads you toward comprehensive reform.

BLITZER: So is this an economic issue for the economic health of the country?

GUTIERREZ: Well, it's an economic issue, and also if you recognize that there are 12 million people in the country who are here illegally, who don't have the documents to work, and you recognize a fundamental reality that we are not going to have a mass deportation -- it's not wise, it's not practical, it's not humane -- and that we need these folks to keep our economy growing, then you add those two up and your realize the right thing to do, the only thing to do, over time, is comprehensive reform. We can throw everything we want but the kitchen sink at the border, and that will not give us national security, nor will it get control of immigration.

BLITZER: Here's what Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader in the House, says.

She said: "I said all along it wouldn't happen unless the president used his leadership and intervened into this discussion to reject the Sensenbrenner Republican House bill. That didn't happen. Now Republicans have to kick this issue down the road."

She wanted more involvement by the president. And she said, the president didn't deliver.

GUTIERREZ: I think the president has shown great leadership by taking on a very difficult and complex issue.

Because everyone agrees that the border is important and that border is job number one, it would have been very easy for him to stick to border security. He took a very strong leadership position by saying, we need comprehensive reform; we need it now; it wouldn't be fair to pass it on, to delay it, to procrastinate. We need to do it now. And...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: And the interesting thing, he has got the Democrats pretty much aligned with him. It's Republicans who are really fighting him on this.

And I am going to give you an example. Brian Bilbray was elected in that district in California, a Republican.

Listen to what he said in explaining why he believes he won that contest against a Democrat. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BRIAN BILBRAY (R), CALIFORNIA CONGRESSMAN-ELECT: The president proposing amnesty was absolutely a big problem. And, in fact, it wasn't until I was able to highlight the fact that I did not agree with my friends in the Senate or my friend in the White House on amnesty that they -- you really saw the polls start supporting me strongly.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: And, you know, a lot of other Republicans are saying the same thing: If they want to win, they are going to have to run against the president's reform package in order to convince their voters they're tough on illegal immigration.

GUTIERREZ: The president's comprehensive reform is realistic. It's practical. It is not amnesty. And that's the problem with this discussion, is that you can very easily go into a one-liner and shut off the discussion and call it amnesty. It is not amnesty. It makes people earn their legalization or their citizenship.

But there are two extremes here, Wolf. One extreme is mass deportation. We are not going to do that. The other extreme is amnesty. What the president said is, let's find something in the middle that we can do that will get a grip on national security and immigration. That's comprehensive reform.

We will all see the wisdom of comprehensive reform. And the more we think about it, the more we talk about it, it is the only way to go. And the sooner we get on with it, the better off we will be as a nation.

BLITZER: You are a Latino. And, you know, the Republican Party, under Ken Mehlman, has made a major effort to reach out to the Hispanic vote. How worried are you, if you are worried, that this debate, the Republican opposition to the president's reform package, which is supported by most of the Democrats, including Senator Kennedy, how worried are you that this will undermine, weaken the political outreach to the Hispanic community?

GUTIERREZ: I find, first and foremost, that the Hispanic- American community, Latino community have a great deal of respect for the president.

And the president truly is the image of the party, and the image of leadership that they like to see. I also find that Republican values are very consistent with the Hispanic community. It's accountability. It's love of family. It's faith. They come to this country not for -- not in search for paternalism, but in search of opportunity.

And I believe that has been the Republican message and very much the message of President Bush.

BLITZER: We will leave it right there.

Carlos Gutierrez, the commerce secretary...

GUTIERREZ: Thank you.

BLITZER: ... thanks for coming in.

GUTIERREZ: Thank you, sir.

BLITZER: Hope you come back.

GUTIERREZ: Thank you.

BLITZER: And up next: Withdrawing troops from Iraq, it's a debate tinged with emotion and politics. We will talk about it in our "Strategy Session" with Dick Armey and Donna Brazile. And coming up in our next hour: His first trial is plodding on. Now there's word of a second trial for Saddam Hussein this summer. We will talk about it with one of his attorneys, the former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back.

He lost both legs in a roadside bombing in Iraq last year. And his goal has been to resume his active and athletic lifestyle. In January, Army Staff Sergeant Christian Bagge met President Bush at an Army medical center in Texas, and asked if they could go for a job together.

Today, they met again and took that victory together on the White House track.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: I first met Christian when I went to Walter Reed.

STAFF SERGEANT CHRISTIAN BAGGE, U.S. ARMY: Brooke Army.

BUSH: Brooke Army, San Antonio, Texas.

And he said: I want to run with you.

He was in bed. He had lost both legs. I looked at him, like, you know, there's an optimistic person. And -- but I could tell in his eyes that he meant it.

And, after a lot of hard work and a lot of compassionate care, this fine man is here on the South Lawn running with the president. And he ran the president into the ground, I might add.

(LAUGHTER)

BUSH: But I'm proud of you. I'm proud of your strength. I'm proud of your character. Thank you for your service.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: And we're proud of him, too. Our best wishes to Sergeant Bagge. Good work. Thanks so much for all you have done for this country.

Here's another question, though. Is it time to get out of Iraq? Two new poll number -- polls say Americans are split over the right thing to do, stay the course or write a blueprint for withdrawal.

Joining us now to talk about Iraq in our "Strategy Session," CNN contributor and Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, and former House Majority Leader Dick Armey. It's an inspiration to see a young man like that. And we wish him -- of course, I speak for all of us -- only, only the best.

Let's talk about the Democratic strategy right now, in trying to get a timetable, some sort of timetable, to get out of Iraq, and then, referring to General Casey, the overall U.S. commander, who came up with a timetable of sorts in a secret briefing for -- at the Pentagon last week.

Here's what Carl Levin, senator from Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, said today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. CARL LEVIN (D), MICHIGAN: The Republicans tried to label us as cut and run. They may now have to try to figure out a nickname for General Casey. And I wouldn't be -- I wouldn't put it beyond the Republicans to call General Casey old cut-and-run General George Casey.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

PHILLIPS: Some say cut and jog.

What do you say about -- did what General Casey told the Pentagon confidentially last week sort of undermine this Republican strategy of making the Democrats look weak and simply wanting to abandon Iraq?

DICK ARMEY, FORMER U.S. CONGRESSMAN: Well, I think what undermines it is the fact that it's out now in the public discourse.

The public discourse today is really quite inane. It's political discourse. And the purpose is not a national purpose. It's a political or partisan purpose.

So, our best effort in Iraq would be to try to ignore that. Of course we should have a plan and a hope, an opportunity, preparation, things that we can accomplish and benchmarks that we can achieve, and a time at the end when we can bring our folks home.

But that would be better held closely. I think Congress has the appropriate venue to be appropriately briefed on such plans through their security committees in both the House and the Senate. But it seems to me that responsible people in both parties, in both bodies, and in the executive branch, ought to hold this discourse in what -- I should say, confidential, private and serious talk, and keep it out of politics.

BLITZER: I -- some have suggested, Donna, that there's a lot less difference between the mainstream of the Democratic Party and the Republican administration on this issue of some sort of informal timeline for Iraq than meets the eye.

DONNA BRAZILE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I think you are right.

And, look, what we know is that the prime minister wants to -- would like to see a different direction. The new national security adviser in Iraq has mentioned that he would like to see the troops reduced, and now General Casey.

So, it looks like the Democrats really took the lead and understood exactly what the American people want to hear right now, is that there's progress that is being made, and, as a result of the progress being made, our troops can begin to be redeployed and perhaps some can come home.

BLITZER: Here's some recent poll numbers. We will put them up on the screen.

Which party do you trust to do a better job handling Iraq? In May, 50 percent said Democrats. It's now gone down to 47 percent. Republicans were at 36 percent. It's gone up a little bit, to 41 percent. Which party do you trust to do a better job handling terrorism? Another slight improvement for the Republicans. Democrats went from 46 percent to 39. Republicans went from 41 to 46 percent.

The Republicans seem to be making some modest inroads on these sensitive issues.

BRAZILE: Well, they are not hemorrhaging. A couple months ago, they were hemorrhaging support, especially among Republican voters.

And, so, what you see now is that they have stabilized. Perhaps they have gotten a little political I.V. with all of the red meat that is being thrown at them. But the good news is that Democrats are still well-positioned.

That same poll showed that the president's handling of Iraq is still in -- in -- in, you know, the 60 percent range, so -- 60 percent disapproval. So, I think Democrats have some room to continue to build public confidence in their positions and also go out there and rally people.

BLITZER: If you were still in the Congress and running for reelection, and assuming you had a close race, which you rarely ever did have a close race.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: But, assuming you did, would the president's stance on Iraq be something you would be running away from or embracing in a close contest in November?

ARMEY: Well, I think it depends on district. In the district I represented, I would be embracing it.

But it seems to me, whether you are in a district like mine or perhaps a district some of the folks in New York, Republicans running, the responsible member of Congress is the person who rises above the politics, understands the gravity of this situation.

You know, every one of those young people out there is some mother's son or daughter. And their safety and security and their ability to carry out their mission and return home safely should take precedence. And every line of discourse we have, public or privately, that should be our principal consideration.

And I think the sad thing we see right now in a lot of the discourse you see from people who hold office and have responsibility, it's not about their safety, security and mission capability, but about our next political race.

And that, I think, is a sad testimony on both parties.

BLITZER: We are almost out of time, but, quickly, on flag burning, the Senate poised to vote, perhaps in the next hour, on a constitutional amendment that would ban flag burning. This is a tough vote for a lot of Democrats.

BRAZILE: It is.

But I agree with Dick Durbin, the -- second in command of the Democratic Party, who said that this is about the Republicans trying to keep their majority, not protect the flag. It's unfortunate that, you know, six years ago, we had this vote. It fell four votes short. I don't think the votes are there. But, clearly, the Republicans believe that this is another part of their election playbook.

BLITZER: Is this just political posturing on the Republican side, when there are so many other -- you should forgive the pun -- burning issues out there, to -- to raise this issue right now?

ARMEY: Absolutely.

Again, and I have talked rather openly about this -- the Senate should be used for more serious business. Again, it's being politicized. It's about the next election. I'm afraid -- and just -- you can't know how much it pains me to tell you this -- I think Dick Durbin...

BRAZILE: I'm going to quote you.

ARMEY: ... got it right in this case.

And I implore the Senate majority leader to turn the Senate to the attention of the important issues before the American people, as they are trying to do today in the House, for example.

BLITZER: Dick Armey, Donna Brazile, thanks very much.

BRAZILE: Thank you.

BLITZER: And, coming up: an effort to link pay for members of Congress to the minimum wage. We are going to show who is trying to do that and why.

Plus, we will have the latest on the search for survivors in that motel explosion.

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's check back with Sophia Choi. She's at the CNN Center for a closer look at some other important stories making news -- Sophia.

CHOI: Hi there, Wolf.

At least one person remains unaccounted for after an explosion at a west Georgia motel. One officials says they fear the worst. The explosion at the Great Western Inn in Bremen happened about eight hours ago. And it completely destroyed a utility building connected to the motel by breezeways.

The cause is still not known, but we can tell you, Wolf, heavy equipment has now been brought in to search the rubble.

And, as we speak, the painstaking work of dismantling a collapsed building in Clinton, Missouri, goes on. The accident happened last night in a building that housed the Elks Lodge. About 50 people survived, including nine people who were trapped for several hours.

Unfortunately, the group's 32-year-old leader died. Workers are still trying to find his body. The cause of this collapse has yet to be announced.

In northern Nevada, more than two dozen wildfires are still raging. Six of them are new, touched off early today by lightening around Reno and Carson City. The fires have charred more than 50,000 acres. Many still burn out of control. Hundreds of homes and businesses, including a brothel there, are now threatened.

And some more news coming your way in just a bit -- Wolf, though, right now, back to you.

BLITZER: Thanks, Sophia, very much.

Let's check some politics on today's "Political Radar."

Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid vowed today to block pay hikes for members of Congress until the minimum wage for all Americans is raised. Last week, the Senate voted down a minimum wage increase. The current minimum wage is $5.15 an hour. Democrats want to raise that wage to $7.25 an hour.

The last hike in the minimum wage was back nine years ago. Republicans argue that the hike for lower-income workers would hurt small businesses.

Here's something you don't see every day. A Democrat seeking reelection is touting his ties to President Bush. The Nebraska Democratic Party is using a video clip of Bush praising conservative Democratic Senator Ben Nelson for his willingness to work with the White House.

The TV ad is in response to suggestions that Nelson would align himself politically with prominent liberals, including Senator Ted Kennedy and Hillary Clinton, if Democrats take control of the Senate next year.

A new study finds that the three most common electronic voting machines in this country are all vulnerable to fraud. But the study also concludes that steps can be taken to reduce the chance that hackers can break into the system and undermine elections.

The study by a task force at New York University Law School said 80 percent of voters will use one of those systems in the upcoming midterm elections.

Up next, Jack Cafferty, he's back with his question for the hour. After Katrina how, can the government avoid spending $2 billion in fraud and waste the next time there's a disaster? Jack, with your answers, that's coming up.

And, later, the Senate takes up a constitutional amendment banning flag burning. We will follow the vote -- a roll call coming up, perhaps, in the next hour.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Jack Cafferty is back with "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: Thanks, Wolf.

Hurricane Katrina cost U.S. taxpayers $2 billion in waste and fraud. The "New York Times" has some examples of this kind of stuff: 1,100 prison inmates on the Gulf Coast who collected $10 million in rental and disaster relief assistance -- they're in prison -- $860 million worth of mobile homes that still sit unused in Arkansas. The government is paying a quarter-of-a-million-dollars-a-month rent on those.

The question is: How can the government avoid spending $2 billion in fraud and waste the next time there's a disaster?

T. in Salt Point, New York: "Slow the process of filing. Require in-person filings with at least two proofs of I.D. and proof of loss. It's unfortunate, but, in light of what has happened with the Katrina disaster, the process much be made slower to avoid fraud."

Vick in Orange Park, Florida: "Start by hiring the right people and make sure there are enough of them, ensure that they are compensated for what they do -- no more political hacks in key jobs."

Sandy writes: "The answer is too simple for anyone in Congress to get it. All that is needed is Social Security reform. Create tamper- proof Social Security cards with a photo for legal citizens. The system could also provide tracking and accountability for the government."

David in Portland, Oregon: "If the government wants to keep itself from spending billions of dollars in misappropriated aid to victims of hurricanes, we need to reform FEMA. Instead of taking the initiative to solve FEMA's problems and find out why all this money was handed out to the wrong people, Congress today has decided to argue about the American flag..

And, finally, we get this from John in Lockport, Illinois: "How do you think the Vegas oddsmakers would handicap the outcome of your question? I wouldn't risk a cup of coffee on this government. Right now, I'm checking to see if I can get a P.O. Box at Stateville Prison."

(LAUGHTER)

CAFFERTY: Wolf.

BLITZER: Jack, thank you for that.

Still to come: Can bloggers boost Hillary Clinton's chances for a possible presidential run? Why she's turning to the Internet for campaign consultants.

We will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: It's a growing trend among potential 2008 presidential candidates: hiring bloggers as campaign consultants. Now it's Hillary Clinton's turn. She's making a strong move to try to bolster her popularity online.

Let's bring in our Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton -- Abbi.

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, longtime political blogger Peter Daou is the new blog adviser for Hillary Clinton. He says in a post online about this new hiring, he looks forward to aiding her reelection efforts in November.

But what about beyond November? Senator Clinton is the latest in a list of potential Democratic presidential candidates to hire bloggers. Mark Warner, former Virginia governor, hired a prominent blogger, Jerome Armstrong, last year. At the Yearly Kos blogging convention of liberal bloggers and blog readers, that attracted potential '08 candidates as well.

Former General Wesley Clark threw a party, as did Mark Warner, complete with ice sculptures of computers.

Senator Clinton did not attend the Yearly Kos convention, citing obligations in New York. Her new hire, her new blog adviser, says he hopes to expand her relationship with the netroots. It's a relationship that could do with some help. Daily Kos, the popular liberal blog, where they do an unscientific straw poll, you frequently see Senator Clinton trailing behind, even coming behind "other" and "no clue."

A spokeswoman for Hillary Clinton said today that she is focused on her Senate campaign. And she says that the hiring is a demonstration that they take the netroots very seriously -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Abbi, thank you very much.

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