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THE SITUATION ROOM

Some Good News For Democrats and Republicans Who Are Concerned About Senator Johnson's Health; Henry Kissinger Interview; Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman Falls Ill Raising Concerns About Terror Attacks; Controversy Over Use Of Koran In Congressional Swearing-In

Aired December 14, 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: 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 to bring you today's top stories.
Happening now, an ailing senator and questions about control of Congress. South Dakota Democrat Tim Johnson in critical condition amid growing concern about what happens if he can't return to work.

Could it cost Democrats the Senate?

In Iraq, violence surges even as senior U.S. lawmakers visit and get a firsthand look, some of them calling for more U.S. troops.

Is that, though, the answer?

I'll ask former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

And in our Security Watch, warnings of possible attacks on America as a convicted terrorist falls ill in a U.S. prison.

Will his followers heed his call for revenge?

I'm Wolf Blitzer.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

A veteran lawmaker in critical condition in a Washington hospital after emergency surgery. South Dakota Democrat Tim Johnson suffering a brain hemorrhage, with doctors saying it's too soon to gauge his long-term prognosis, although we've just learned in the last few minutes he will not, repeat, not require any more immediate surgery. That word coming from the Capitol doctor.

And along with concern for his health, there are growing questions about Democrats possibly -- possibly losing their newly won control of the U.S. Senate.

We're covering all the angles this hour.

Our chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, is standing by.

But let's begin with our Congressional correspondent, Dana Bash -- Dana.

DANA BASH, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, let's start with the information we just received, new information, within the past several minutes, from Senator Tim Johnson's office. It's a statement that should have some -- show some good news for Democrats and Republicans who have been saying all day how concerned they are about Senator Johnson and his health.

I'll just read the statement. It's very brief. It says -- from the Capitol physician, John Eisold. It says: "Senator Tim Johnson has continued to have an uncomplicated post-operative course. Specifically, he has been appropriately responsive to both word and touch. No further surgical intervention has been required."

So, since his operation late last night into this morning, this statement is saying that he has not needed any other surgery and, as it says, he has been responsive in the initial hours, at least.

Now, as I said, this is a very small community here, Wolf, the Senate and Capitol community. And there has been a lot of concern and worry over the senator's health and well being and of that of his family.

But the political reality is that because Senator Johnson is a Democrat and Democrats have just been elected the majority for the next Congress by just one vote, there has been concern that perhaps that majority does hang in the balance.

Now, CNN got late word, as well, this afternoon from the senator's former colleague, the former majority leader, Tom Daschle. He was at the hospital this afternoon, pretty much all morning. And he talked to CNN about the senator's condition.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED CNN CORRESPONDENT: Any word yet, Senator?

TOM DASCHLE (D), FORMER U.S. SENATOR: No, nothing new.

UNIDENTIFIED CNN CORRESPONDENT: Did you get a chance to see him?

DASCHLE: It looks encouraging, yes.

UNIDENTIFIED CNN CORRESPONDENT: There's no way he's going to give up his seat, I guess.

DASCHLE: No need to.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BASH: Now, you heard Senator Daschle saying that he does not think there's any need for Senator Johnson to give up his seat. That is part of the unavoidable that's going on here in Washington, especially here on Capitol Hill, asking the what ifs, what if the senator's seat would become vacant? That -- the answer to that is that the governor of South Dakota would have to replace him with another senator. He is a Republican and so it would be most likely a Republican who would fill that. That would mean that the Senate -- that the Democrats' 51-49 majority would evaporate and Republicans would, in essence, take control of the Senate.

Now, the Democratic leader, Harry Reid, also spent all night with Senator Johnson at the hospital.

This morning, he came and talked to reporters and dismissed any talk of Democrats losing control of the Senate.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MAJORITY-LEADER DESIGNATE: There isn't a thing that's changed. The Republicans selected their committees yesterday. We have completed ours. The -- I have a very busy succeed today, going ahead and getting ready for the next year.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BASH: Now, as I mentioned, there are a lot of what ifs floating around here. But one thing that we can tell you, based on talking to historians and other experts, Wolf, is that pretty much the only way to replace a sitting United States senator is if they resign or if they die in office. That's the only way for a governor to replace a senator.

And there is a lot of historical precedence of senators spending a lot of time, because of illness or other reasons, away from the Senate, not working and not voting, and still keeping their seat -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Dana, thank you.

Dana Bash on the Hill for us.

She's watching the story very closely.

Let's get some more on this developing story.

For that, we'll bring in our chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta -- and you're a neurosurgeon, Sanjay, so you know a lot about what's going on in the senator's brain right now.

A couple nuggets coming out of the statement from the attending physician of the U.S. Capitol. "He continues to have an uncomplicated post-operative course and no further surgical intervention has been required."

I assume, Sanjay, that's very good news.

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN SR. MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: That is very good news. Obviously, an uncomplicated post-operative course means that things are progressing along well. And they did say the operation was successful, meaning they probably were able to take the pressure from the blood that was on the brain, take that blood away, and, also, take away any further sources of bleeding, which is all very important.

There was another thing in that statement that I also thought was very important and very telling, and that is that the senator appears to be responding to words and to touch. That's critically important, Wolf, and I'll tell you why.

This area of the brain where this bleed that happened to have occurred is an area of the brain that is responsible for speech. And now when you talk about speech, you talk about the ability to express yourself, either through the spoken or the written word, but also to receive speech, to be able to understand what somebody is saying.

And the fact that they're saying, at least at this point, that he is responding appropriately to words, that means volumes here in terms of how he might recover from this -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And so walk through the process right now, the next few days, weeks, months, presumably, the recovery.

GUPTA: Yes. So what happened here, Wolf -- and these details sort of trickled out over the last several hours -- is that he had a condition known as an arteriovenous malformation. That's a pretty big word, but what it basically means is that some of the arteries and the veins grew together and that sets up a potential situation where it could bleed.

Take a look at the image there in the upper right corner and you may get a sense of this. There's sort of that collection of black blood vessels together. That's what it looks like. And that can bleed sometimes.

I want to give you a better sense, actually, looking at an animation of what exactly happens there. You have these blood vessels, arteries, which carry the fast moving blood. And they cluster like that. It's almost a tangle, Wolf. You can get a sense of that. And then the blue is the veins that are actually taking the blood away.

Sometimes -- and we're not exactly sure why -- perhaps because of high blood pressure or some other reason -- this can bleed and this can cause the problems that he had.

Now, the blood was taken out. That cluster of blood vessels was taken out. Now it's just a question of seeing, over the next few days and weeks, how he starts to recover.

Can he speak? Can he move his right side? He's probably still on a breathing tube and may need to be on a breathing tube for another day or longer, depending on how he's doing. But that's all pretty standard course after this sort of operation -- Wolf.

BLITZER: So, I just -- bottom line right now, based on your personal experience -- obviously, you've not been involved in Senator Johnson's procedure or his surgery, but you've done similar kind of surgery at Emory University Hospital, where you do this kind of work.

What is his prognosis given the history of this kind of problem?

GUPTA: It is -- it is a little bit early to tell. And I'm not trying to dodge the question. But usually over the first few days, you'll get a better sense of how he's doing. It's going to be slow going, I think. It's going to be measured in weeks and months, as opposed to hours and days, in terms of his overall recovery.

The fact that he is responding to words is very encouraging. I'd say by mid next week, we'll have a better sense of how much he is going to recover and how quickly he is going to recover, at least -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Sanjay, thanks very much.

GUPTA: Thank you.

BLITZER: Dr. Sanjay Gupta, himself a neurosurgeon. He knows a great deal about this subject.

We're going to have a lot more coming up on this story, including our senior national correspondent, John Roberts, on the implications of Johnson's illness, at the Capitol, and Carol Costello, looking at some surprising precedents. That's coming up.

But let's move on to Iraq.

Thousands more U.S. troops -- not less -- may be needed to calm the sectarian violence gripping that country. That's what several top U.S. senators are now saying after meeting with U.S. and Iraqi officials in Baghdad today. The delegation includes Senators Joe Lieberman and John McCain.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I'd like to say that I believe conditions has improved. Certainly in Baghdad, they have not. I believe that there's still a compelling reason to have an increase in troops here in Baghdad and in

Anbar Province in order to bring the sectarian violence under control.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: There are about 135,000 U.S. troops in Iraq right now. McCain says deploying an additional 15,000 to 30,000 troops is being discussed.

Not everyone in that Congressional delegation is convinced more U.S. troops are the solution. And some Iraqi leaders are openly calling on the Bush administration to set a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces.

And joining us now, our correspondent in Baghdad, Nic Robertson -- Nic, would it really make a difference, based on everything you're hearing from Iraqis, from U.S. military forces, if, in fact, this recommendation from Lieberman and McCain, if it went forward and there were this temporary surge in U.S. military forces in the Baghdad area?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, definitely from a military standpoint, if you want to control the insurgency and the militias in Baghdad, you need more security forces to do it. You need to control the streets better. You need to limit the way insurgents and militias can move around the city and begin to disarm them and take back control of neighborhoods. That's what's been successful here before.

The problem is, is that once you remove that presence, the insurgents come back, because they tend to just leave Baghdad. But to control Baghdad, absolutely you have to do that.

But there's clearly now a real divergence of views happening. It seems that the Iraqi leadership, in particular the prime minister, is sort of trying to move away from the U.S. either for domestic political reasons or internal political reasons, that he is -- that he says they're now ready to take control of Baghdad, really trying to oust the U.S. involvement.

So it is the military solution. There is economic and political parts of it. But at a time when Iraq's prime minister is talking about going in a completely different direction, diverging from the United States on this, it's troubling, I would say, for military planners, at the very least, knowing how the prime minister here has undermined the U.S. military in Sadr City, telling them to pull down checkpoints in the not too distant past -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And if, in fact, the U.S. were to change the mission from combat to more training and support and let the Iraqis get the job done, a lot of the Sunnis, as you well know, in Iraq, deeply fear that they would be endangered because the major government forces are largely controlled by Shiites.

ROBERTSON: They would be incredibly skeptical about it. There are areas of this city where Iraqi troop presence and the lead of the Iraqi troop presence, without U.S. military being there, actually is working. But that's not the way the majority of this city functions at the moment.

The Iraqi military that are on the ground here need a lot of backup from the U.S. military. They need helicopters, medical support and many other things -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Nic Robertson on the scene for us in Baghdad.

Nic, thanks very much.

Jack Cafferty has the day off.

Still to come here in THE SITUATION ROOM, a new defense secretary about to take charge at the Pentagon.

Will he start with a shake up of top advisers and commanders?

Also, my interview with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. We'll get his take on the search for a new Iraq strategy and whether more troops would actually help.

Plus, more on Democratic Senator Tim Johnson, incapacitated, for now, at least, by a brain hemorrhage.

What happens when a lawmaker falls ill?

There are lessons in recent history. We'll share them with you.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The clock is ticking on Donald Rumsfeld's tenure as the defense secretary. His successor, Robert Gates, will be sworn in Monday.

So with all the turmoil in Iraq, will the Pentagon be in for a shake up under the new defense secretary?

Let's turn to our senior Pentagon correspondent, Jamie McIntyre -- Jamie.

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN SENIOR PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Bob Gates was brought in to be a fresh set of eyes on Iraq.

The question is does he need a fresh set of eyes advising him?

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

GEN. PETER PACE, JOINT CHIEFS CHAIRMAN: This man's work ethic is incredible.

Is he demanding?

You bet.

DONALD RUMSFELD, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: No!

MCINTYRE (voice-over): Joint Chiefs Chairman General Peter Pace is one Donald Rumsfeld's biggest fans and often showers him with public praise, as he did last week at Rumsfeld's farewell Pentagon town hall meeting.

PACE: This is a man of very strong loyalty.

MCINTYRE: But as principal military adviser, Pace is also supposed to be a critic, capable of providing harsh truth to the defense secretary and the president.

As Robert Gates takes over, he needs to decide if Rumsfeld's handpicked chairman is really who he wants to get his advice from or whether, when Pace's first two-year term expires next summer, he should be replaced.

One possibility would be Marine General Jim Jones, who Rumsfeld also interviewed for the chairman's job. Jones warned his close friend Pace, who got the position, that Iraq could be a debacle and not to be a parrot on the shoulder of the secretary.

In fact, some critics argue Gates should ease out all the generals in charge of a Iraq War, starting with top commander, John Abizaid.

COL. DOUG MACGREGOR, U.S. ARMY (RET.): General John Abizaid has always known what was right, but he simply has been unable to act on it. He's a product of this system that rewards officers for being charming and compliant, but presenting no resistance to their bosses.

MCINTYRE: Gates will have to decide if Generals Pace, Abizaid and George Casey have been too cowed by Rumsfeld to say what they really think. But some argue firing commanders for saluting smartly and doing their best would be a mistake.

MAJ. GEN. DON SHEPPERD, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: If you fire General Abizaid and General Casey, you're firing two of the most competent Army officers that we've ever produced in this country, because there is no solution. They're working hard to solve a problem, a big problem that they've been handed and walked into the middle of and you can't simply hold them responsible.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

MCINTYRE: General Pace is in a different position than Abizaid and Casey. He is the chief adviser to both the president and the defense secretary. It would be understandable, Wolf, if Secretary Gates wanted to have his own man in that position -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Most certainly understandable.

Thanks very much, Jamie, for that.

And as the president searches for a new Iraq strategy, the central question is increasingly becoming more U.S. troops or less.

There's little consensus among lawmakers, military commanders and elder statesmen.

And joining us now, the former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

Dr. Kissinger, thanks for coming in into THE SITUATION ROOM.

HENRY KISSINGER, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: Always glad to be here.

BLITZER: Would it really make a difference if the president listened to Senator McCain, Senator Lieberman, who are now in Iraq, and decided to deploy, for a short-term, let's say six months, an additional 30,000 or 50,000 troops, U.S. troops, to the Baghdad area, assuming the United States Army and Marine Corps has enough troops?

KISSINGER: If the military commanders were to say that it could make a difference and if they would adopt a strategy that is focused on some political objective, I think it might be an important thing to do.

BLITZER: But?

KISSINGER: But, I mean, there's no sense adding more troops to the existing strategy. So it would have to be linked to the -- whatever new the president presents. But I think it is a mistake to tie, in our thinking, the outcome in Iraq to the troop levels. The outcome in Iraq will have to depend on the degree to which we can create incentives for a political negotiation between the parties and political incentives to the outside countries to let the country develop with responsible stability.

BLITZER: Because a lot of people have come to the conclusion that the notion of democracy and a full-fledged democratic society in Iraq -- Shia, Sunni, Kurd all living happily -- that's a -- that's a very, very remote and distant goal. The more -- much more realistic goal, even if that is possible, is at least some stability.

KISSINGER: That's been essentially my view all along. I don't think we will be able to achieve in the time that is left in this administration...

BLITZER: Two years.

KISSINGER: ... two years -- the -- a fully democratic outcome. I think the president was right to pose it as an objective, but not in a brief period of time. And I think the objective of stability, of permitting a civilian life to develop, creating incentives for a political accommodation inside and in relation to the outside world, that, I think, is achievable.

BLITZER: Is...

KISSINGER: And for that, I think, a surge capability would play a role, if only because it would show that the United States is not just running out.

BLITZER: So you think -- bottom line is you think the U.S. can still achieve some significant goals? It's not all lost?

KISSINGER: No. I think it has to because this conflict will not end in Iraq. We are dealing with a huge movement that is going through the Islamic world. So whatever happens in Iraq itself will be perceived by many actors which can affect international stability.

BLITZER: You know the Saudis, for example, are very nervous right now, the Jordanians, that a Shiite-led regime will emerge in Iraq, aligned with Iran and this arc, this Shia arc could continue through Syria into Lebanon and the Sunni Arabs...

KISSINGER: The majority. BLITZER: ... the majority in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf, in Jordan and Egypt, and most of the Arab world, they don't like that.

KISSINGER: It's already in Lebanon, to a certain degree. And so why -- whatever we do in Iraq -- and I have indicated the direction of my thinking -- we simultaneously have to create some structures around which the moderate countries can rally and at the same time also offer the prospect of coexistence to an Iran that gives up crusading and is ready to be a national state.

BLITZER: Does it help the president or hurt the president when U.S. senators like Bill Nelson, Democrat of Florida, show up in Damascus?

KISSINGER: By now, I think the leaders of various countries have to understand that at the end of the day, the president is the one that makes foreign policy, that there is no way around the president to negotiate a meaningful agreement. And the idea that somebody could show up in Damascus and come out with an agreement that the executive branch couldn't get, based on my experience with the Syrians, in 35 consecutive days of negotiations, I think that's impossible.

You were on that trip.

BLITZER: I remember covering your shuttle diplomacy...

KISSINGER: Yes.

BLITZER: ... between Damascus and Jerusalem. And you did result in an Israeli-Syrian disengagement agreement on the...

KISSINGER: Which lasts to this day.

BLITZER: ... the Golan Heights, which still exists to this very day.

Which raises this question -- should the U.S. accept, the Bush administration accept the recommendations of Baker and Hamilton to enter into a direct dialogue at the highest levels with Syria and Iran in order to try to ease -- to get their help in easing the crisis in Iraq?

KISSINGER: I'm in favor -- first of all, the problem of Syria and Iran are two separate problems. Syria is primarily concerned with Lebanon and Palestine. The Syrian contribution in Iraq, one way or the other, is essentially marginal.

Iran represents a sort of an ideological religious wave that has a major role in Iraq.

I have favored negotiations with Iran. But I do not think focusing it on Iraq is the happiest way to do it, because that's the region where they may think -- and I actually think exaggeratedly -- that they hold all the cards and that they're doing us a favor.

We need to talk to them about the nuclear problem. We need to talk to them about their role in the region and about the need to avoid what would head into a confrontation if present trends continue.

That would be an important subject for a conversation with Iran. But not when they -- when they feel so arrogant and self-confident. Then to focus it on Iraq is not the happiest subject.

BLITZER: Are you heading over to meet the president or the vice president while you're here in Washington?

KISSINGER: I'm here to deliver two separate awards, one at lunch and one at dinner, and I won't talk about whom else I will see.

BLITZER: Dr. Kissinger, welcome to Washington.

Thanks for coming in.

KISSINGER: Good to be here.

BLITZER: And coming up, they haven't even taken control yet, but now there's a possibility Democrats could -- could lose the Senate when it convenes in January. All of it, of course, riding on the ailing Senator Tim Johnson.

And it's happened before -- incapacitated lawmakers taking an extended leave of absence, in some cases for years. We're going to show you the precedents.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: To our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM, where new pictures and information are arriving all the time. Happening now, a new development in the case of ailing Senator Tim Johnson. Doctors now say he will not require more surgery in the wake of his emergency operation after suffering a brain hemorrhage.

The question now, will his illness cost Democrats control of the Senate?

In Oregon, new hope three missing climbers on Mount Hood are still alive. There are new indications the cell phone of one of the climbers may have been turned back on. The men have been missing since last weekend, but a severe storm is keeping rescuers at bay.

And just into CNN, word that polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs has been ordered by a Las Vegas court to stand trial. He is accused of rape by accomplice for allegedly ordering an underage girl in his group to marry an older cousin.

I'm Wolf Blitzer and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

More now on our top story. South Dakota Senator Tim Johnson in critical condition after undergoing surgery for a brain hemorrhage. Amid concern for his health, there's also serious questions about how his condition could impact Democratic control of the next Congress.

Let's turn once again to our senior national correspondent, John Roberts.

The political -- the political ramifications are obviously very significant.

JOHN ROBERTS, CNN SR. NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: They are. It looks like immediately nothing is going to happen. He's responsive, according to his office. He's responding to words. He's responding to touch.

So he's conscious, it would seem. So the outcome, this early on in the progress, looks like it's much better than many people had thought it might be.

BLITZER: So at least at this stage, Harry Reid and the Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate, they can go ahead with their business as planned?

ROBERTS: Yes, they can breathe a little bit easier. And there was nothing to suggest that they wouldn't be breathing easy anyway, other than the fact that they may have lost one vote in the Senate because of his incapacitation, because there is nothing in either federal precedent or state statutes in South Dakota that he could be taken out and replaced by the Republican governor in South Dakota.

There's no state statute that allows you to replace a senator when they are merely incapacitated. Don't forget Karl Mundt back in 1969 was incapacitated by a massive stroke, literally couldn't speak, couldn't travel to Washington.

BLITZER: We're going to have some more on that -- on that coming up.

ROBERTS: So I won't go too much into detail on that the.

BLITZER: But for the Republicans right now, this is a sensitive moment. This is a colleague. They have to be very careful on how they deal with this crisis as well.

ROBERTS: Yes, absolutely. And I think as James Carville was saying earlier and J.C. Watts was saying earlier in your last hour, that probably right now the media is the only organization that's really speaking about this in public.

There's probably not a lot of public discussion by Republicans or Democrats in this. I think that they're sort of keeping their powder dry for the moment, thinking about -- obviously, thinking about it privately. But not publicly talking about it at this point.

BLITZER: Which would be wise, politically, I think, for all concerned.

ROBERTS: Yes, when it comes to, you know, somebody's health, you have to -- particularly at this time. The holidays coming up. His 60th birthday is coming up on December the 28th.

You know, you can't go too far out there. You've got to be reserved about the way that you talk about things. And it looks like early indications are that things may be OK.

BLITZER: We certainly hope so. We wish him a speedy recovery.

ROBERTS: Keep your fingers crossed.

BLITZER: John, thank you very much for that.

While South Dakota law doesn't address an incapacitated senator, there are precedents on Capitol Hill.

Let's turn to CNN's Carol Costello. She picks up this part of the story -- Carol.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: There are a lot of precedence. You know, it's a little macabre to talk about it, but it sure is fascinating.

The Senate itself cannot expel any member because of illness, even if that ill senator can't do his job. The only way a senator can be expelled is if he commits a crime.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COSTELLO (voice-over): Tim Johnson wouldn't be the first lawmaker forced to take time off. In 1969, Senator Karl Mundt suffered a stroke. So terribly ill, he finished his term in 1973 without casting another vote. And like Tim Johnson, Mundt was from South Dakota.

In the '40s, Senator Styles Bridges was off for six months with a broken hip. And aging Carter Glass missed four years before dying in office.

Joe Biden was off for seven months back in '88, recovering from a brain aneurysm. And the Senate marched on without them.

DAVID PRYOR (D), FMR. U.S. SENATOR: It was frustrating.

COSTELLO: When Arkansas senator David Pryor had a heart attack in '91, he asked the Senate to pass a motion allowing him six months off. He got it.

PRYOR: I probably missed 150 votes. I was in contact with my office in Washington almost on a daily basis. But I spent this whole -- that whole time, about four months, trying to rebuild myself.

COSTELLO: He chose to recuperate back home in Arkansas, so he couldn't vote. Senators have to be physically present in the Senate chambers to cast a vote. But had Pryor needed to be there, he, like colleagues before him, could have gone to extreme measures.

PRYOR: I remember one night, late one night, there was a very, very tight vote in the Senate. And they brought one of our colleagues in on a stretcher. Literally on a stretcher.

And he came in the back door and stood long enough. They held him up. He voted, put him back on the stretcher.

COSTELLO: Pryor was referring to Senator Pete Wilson, who voted for President Reagan's 1986 budget only days after an emergency appendectomy.

Also, back in '65, Senator Claire Engle, suffering from brain cancer and unable to speak, was wheeled into the Senate chamber to cast a critical vote on the Civil Rights Act.

Historians say in most cases such leaves of absences are understood by voters and accepted graciously by fellow senators. Pryor hopes it's the same this time. Although the climate in Washington has a sliver of doubt.

PRYOR: There's great tolerance of constituents in the American people, but they would not tolerate a political party taking advantage of an individual's sickness. And I would only think and certainly hope and pray that the people of South Dakota, while Senator Johnson is recuperating, will understand that he might have a spell to go.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COSTELLO: That senator I mentioned who had brain cancer and was unable to speak was able to bring his hand to his "aye" vote to effectively end a filibuster for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, paving the way for it to be enacted.

BLITZER: What a story. What a story.

Thanks very much for that, Carol.

And coming up, we're just learning of a commercial jet at LAX, Los Angeles Airport, that landed while on fire. And a CNN correspondent was on board. We're going to get the latest from L.A.

The FBI warns of potential new terror attacks on the U.S. This comes after a jailed cleric was rushed to the hospital. We're going to tell you why the cleric's own words prompted this warning from the FBI.

Stay with us. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: There's a story we're watching out of Los Angeles, specifically at LAX, the airport out there.

I want to turn to our Chris Lawrence. He was on a flight coming into L.A.

Tell our viewers what happened, Chris.

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, it was actually a flight from L.A. to Portland, Oregon. It left about 1:30 local time, Pacific Time. We hadn't been in the air for more than maybe 15, 20 minutes when there was just a really loud boom. And for just a half second, the plane shook. And what I was told by one of the flight attendants was that there was a small fire that broke out on the other side of the plane, and that caused the wheels to deploy and to drop down.

They were concerned for a little while that they would not be able to use the landing gear when they were coming in. So the flight attendants walked up and down the aisles, explained to everyone what had happened to the plane. You know, that no one should -- should panic, that they had dealt with a lot worse than this.

They showed everyone how to get into the brace position in which you bend over and grab your ankles, and said if they felt that was necessary the pilot would instruct us to do that at some point right before we landed. Really just kind of -- you know, trying to make sure nobody really got too upset or too panicked, but letting people know that this might be a -- you know, somewhat of an uncomfortable landing.

And again, at some point, as we were coming in, the flight attendants said that they believed that the plane would -- let me back up. As we were coming in, the pilots actually flew over LAX, presumably so that people on the ground could eyeball the bottom of the plane and to see exactly what the situation was with that. And apparently, they may have got some kind of clearance on the ground, because he turned around and he brought us right in.

The landing was smooth. And we have now returned back to LAX.

BLITZER: And briefly, what was it like on the plane? Were people nervous? Were they worried? Or did everybody just sort of take it in stride?

LAWRENCE: Mixed. There were some people who got a little nervous. I mean, there were some children on board.

IT was a pretty full flight. Maybe five to 10 empty seats on the whole plane. And some of the kids started to get a little scared and nervous.

But the flight attendants were great. I mean, they really came around. They didn't try to hide anything. They explained the situation.

And they were confident that they had dealt with a lot worse than this. And like I said, a lot of credit goes to that pilot who brought us in very, very smoothly.

BLITZER: What was the airline? And could you actually see the flames from the fire?

LAWRENCE: I couldn't. As the flight attendant described it to me, she said it was underneath the plane, which is probably why they had to do the fly-over -- the initial fly-over back at LAX because, you know, you have to have someone on the ground looking up at the plane to actually see what the situation was down there.

BLITZER: Stand by for a moment, Chris.

Abbi Tatton, our Internet reporter, is checking this situation online.

Abbi, what are you picking up?

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, this is a site called Flight Aware, which actually allows you to track all these flights as they're traveling across the country. And we just pulled up the results from this 737 United flight -- a 737-300, supposed to be going to Portland from LAX, taking off at about 1:30 p.m.

But look. Look at the loop that it did heading up there, doubling back, and heading back to this airport here. This if from the site Flight Aware, that shows the path of this aircraft that our reporter Chris Lawrence was just on -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And that could be frightening to hear a loud noise like that. And I'm sure what went through your -- I suspect, when you heard it, you got a little nervous there, Chris.

LAWRENCE: Yes, I'll be honest, it woke me up. I had fallen asleep before we -- before we even took off. And like I said, 15, 20 minutes in, you jus t -- boom.

And, you know, the plane literally shook for about a second. I mean, within five minutes, the flight attendants were coming down the aisle and talking to people and telling them what had happened. So I think they had a pretty early read on exactly what happened when that fire broke out and then the wheels dropped down.

BLITZER: Chris Lawrence reporting for us.

Thank god everything worked out in the end.

Our man on the scene, Chris Lawrence.

Let's check in with Lou Dobbs. He's getting ready for his program that begins just at the top of the hour. He's joining us tonight from Tampa.

What are you working on?

LOU DOBBS, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, thank you.

We're coming to you live from Tampa, Florida, tonight, preparing for our special town hall meeting as we continue our series of special reports on "War on the Middle Class." That will be coming up at 7:00 p.m. Eastern tonight.

Up next, at the top of the hour here on CNN, we'll be reporting on calls tonight for the biggest overhaul of our public education system in a century. The president of the commission making those recommendations, Mark Tucker, joins us. And outrage after a Native-American community has stopped our National Guardsmen from patrolling one of the largest and busiest sections of our southern border with Mexico. It's now wide open to drug traffic and illegal aliens.

We'll have that story.

And communist China is breaking international trade rules, flooding this country with cheap imports, and driving American middle class working people out of jobs. So why in the world is our Treasury secretary, Henry Paulson, saying the United States is going to be somewhat impatient?

We'll have all of that, all of the very latest news at 6:00 p.m. Eastern right here on CNN. Please join us.

Wolf, back to you.

BLITZER: And tonight right after "LOU DOBBS TONIGHT" you've got a town hall meeting in Tampa. Give our viewers a little sense what you're working on, what you hope to achieve, Lou.

DOBBS: Well, one of the things that we're hoping to achieve with all of the town hall meetings that we're conducting across the country and will do so through next year, is to give the middle class voice in this country. To give the voice to the issues, the challenges and the many, many frustrations being shared by 250 million Americans as our Congress has been working with absolute indifference, at best, to their interests and their concerns.

The common good and the national interest. We're going has been hearing from the good people in Tampa, Florida, here tonight.

BLITZER: A lot good friends in Tampa.

Thanks very much, Lou, for that. We'll be watching.

Lou Dobbs coming up in a few minutes.

Coming up next in our "Security Watch," warnings of possible attacks on America as a convicted terrorist falls ill in a U.S. prison. Will his followers heed his call for revenge?

Stay with us. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: In our CNN "Security watch," a convicted terrorist falls ill, raising questions about possible revenge attacks should he die in U.S. custody.

Let's turn to our homeland security correspondent, Jeanne Meserve.

Jeanne, what do we know? JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, imprisoned for life for his part in a plot to blow up New York City landmarks in the 1990s, is in ill health. And that has prompted the warning.

The sheik, spiritual adviser to many Islamic extremists and with close ties to al Qaeda, has in the past instructed his followers to extract a violent revenge on U.S. interests when he dies. Now an FBI bulletin to law enforcement reveals the sheikh was hospitalized earlier this month because a tear in his esophagus was causing him to throw up blood.

While under examination, a tumor was discovered on his liver. A Bureau of Prisons spokesman says he was in the hospital for five days. "He was recently treated at an outside hospital. His condition improved, and he was returned to the institution, where his condition remains stable," says the spokesman.

Law enforcement and homeland officials stress that at this time there is no intelligence to suggest that any attacks are being planned in connection with the sheikh or anything else this holiday season.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MICHAEL CHERTOFF, HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: Other than the general threat environment which, of course, is very serious, still, we don't see anything in particular for the holidays at this point. Now, that could change, obviously, you know, tomorrow. But we live in a dangerous world, but there's nothing imminent that we have specific information about for this holiday season.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MESERVE: For now, aviation remains at threat level orange or high. Otherwise, the nation is at threat level yellow or elevated.

So, Wolf, status quo.

BLITZER: All right, Jeanne. Thank you very much for updating us on that.

And to our viewers, remember to stay tuned to CNN day and night for the most reliable news about your security.

Still to come, a controversy erupting around incoming Minnesota congressman Keith Ellison and a conservative radio talk show host. We're going to tell you why the bible and the Koran are at the center of this controversy.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: In the culture wars, a controversy over the use of the Koran and a congressional swearing-in. It's leading to a virtual holy war of sorts. It has two high-profile men, both Jewish, at very public odds with each other.

Let's turn to CNN's Mary Snow. She's watching the story for us -- Mary.

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, at the heart of the controversy is the book an elected official uses when taking the oath of office. And now there's a new chapter.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DENNIS PRAGER, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: Well, who's going to dialogue with a bigot?

SNOW (voice-over): Dennis Prager admits he's become a lightning rod in what is turning out to be a war of sorts over holy books. It started with the debate over the bible being used during swearing-in ceremonies and is growing wider.

Prager is the conservative radio talk show host who took aim at newly elected Minnesota congressman Keith Ellison, who is planning to use a Koran during a private swearing-in. Prager says America, not Ellison, should decide the book used.

PRAGER: I have no problem as such with his taking his oath on his holiest book. I have a problem with the bible not being present at all. That's what I wrote. That's what I keep saying.

SNOW: But Prager is now coming under fire himself from former New York City Mayer Ed Koch.

ED KOCH (D), FMR. NEW YORK MAYOR: This particular act, which was a stupid act, is certainly a bigoted act.

SNOW: Koch serves alongside Prager on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, which oversees the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. He wants Prager removed from the board.

KOCH: We will not tolerate never again animus and vitriol against a people on the basis of their religion.

SNOW: Prager insists he is not taking aim at Islam. He is Jewish and says while other Jewish lawmakers have taken the Hebrew bible with them to be sworn in, he says he would take both the old and new testaments.

PRAGER: As a Jew, I do not want this country to abandon its Judeo-Christian values. I will get hurt. That so many of my fellow Jews do not recognize this is a colossal tragedy.

SNOW: As for the Holocaust Memorial Museum's position, it released a statement saying, "Talk show host Dennis Prager speaks solely for himself. His statements do not reflect the position of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, whose board is not self-appointed."

(END VIDEOTAPE) SNOW: Members of the council are appointed by the White House. Now, the controversy is expected to come up at the council's next meeting on Monday -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Mary, thanks for that.

Mary Snow in New York.

We're just two days away, by the way, from finding out who will be this year's "TIME" "Person of the Year." A look at just who might be that winner. That's coming up straight ahead.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: There's no question, former vice president Al Gore is making a comeback. Could he cap it off by being named "TIME" magazine's "Person of the Year"?

CNN's Soledad O'Brien takes a look.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Al Gore goes global back in the public spotlight with his 2006 release of a documentary on global warming. It's a second act in American life making Al Gore a candidate for "TIME" magazine's "Person of the Year."

RAMESH RATNESAR, "TIME" WORLD EDITOR: I think Al Gore is becoming more popular now than he was when he ran for president in 2000. This year he came out with the documentary about global warming and really seemed to captivate and tap into an anxiety I think a lot of people have and awareness. Climate change is this kind of major issue that demands kind of national attention.

JOSH TYRANGIEL, "TIME" MANAGING EDITOR, TIME.COM: What Bono is to AIDS in African Al Gore now is to global warming in America. You're a politician and you are associated with an administration, you're associated with a particular year, the year you run. You're associated with an ideology, Democratic, Republican.

And what he did is strip all that context away and come off as a guy who cares very much about a particular issue. That's a magnificent transformation.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And remember to tune in to CNN to find out who will be named "TIME" magazine's "Person of the Year." We have a special coming up Saturday night, 8:00 p.m. Eastern, only here on CNN.

Remember, we're in THE SITUATION ROOM weekday afternoons, 4:00 p.m. Eastern, back at 7:00 p.m. Eastern. Not tonight thought.

Lou's got a town hall meeting. I'll see you tomorrow. Let's go to Lou in New York -- in Tampa -- Lou.

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