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LOU DOBBS TONIGHT

Escalating Political Battle Over Conduct Of War In Iraq; Concerns China Could Spark Dangerous Arms Race In Space; New Developments In Case Of Two Imprisoned Former U.S. Border Patrol Agents; New Indications That Border Fence Project Is Losing Support; House of Representatives Votes To Cut $14 Billion In Subsidies For Nation's Richest Oil Companies

Aired January 19, 2007 - 18:00   ET

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


LOU DOBBS, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight, communism spreading throughout Latin America. Has 40 years of U.S. foreign policy in the region failed?
We'll have a special report here tonight.

Also, as U.S. reinforcements begin arriving in Baghdad, a top general says those extra troops could begin withdrawal from Iraq within six to eight months.

We'll have a live report from the Pentagon.

Ad will President Bush pardon two U.S. Border Patrol agents sent to prison for simply doing their duty?

We'll have that special report, a great deal more, all of the day's news, straight ahead here tonight.

ANNOUNCER: This is a special edition of LOU DOBBS TONIGHT, news, debate and opinion for Friday, January 19th.

Live from Miami, Lou Dobbs.

DOBBS: Good evening, everybody.

The U.S. military commander in Iraq, General George Casey, today said some of our troops could be withdrawn from Iraq by late summer. General Casey said the additional troops being sent to Baghdad now may be required in Iraq for only a few months. General Casey's remarks came as more U.S. reinforcements arrived in Baghdad.

Jamie McIntyre reports from the Pentagon tonight on the military leaderships' plan to secure Baghdad.

Dana Bash reports from Capitol Hill on the escalating political battle over the conduct of the war in Iraq.

And Brian Todd tonight reports from Washington on concerns that communist China could spark a dangerous arms race in space.

We turn first to Jamie McIntyre at the Pentagon -- Jamie. JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN SR. PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Lou, that prediction that U.S. troops could begin to withdraw from Iraq as soon as late this summer comes from a top general whose past predictions have been less than clairvoyant.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MCINTYRE (voice-over): Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he made his second trip to Iraq in a month seeking ground truth. What he heard from outgoing commander General George Casey was an optimistic prediction: U.S. reinforcements could leave Baghdad in six to eight months.

GEN. GEORGE CASEY, U.S. COMMANDER IN IRAQ: I think it's probably going to be the summer, late summer, before we get to the point where the people in Baghdad feel safe in their neighborhoods.

MCINTYRE: Casey's made rosy predictions before. Last year he predicted violence in Iraq would abate, and the year before that he forecast a significant U.S. troop. Neither happened. But Casey points to the arrest of a prominent spokesman for Muqtada al-Sadr, a political ally of Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki, as evidence of Maliki's fresh resolve not to allow political interference in military operations.

Still, one chairman of the Iraq Study Group whose recommendations have been largely ignored is warning Congress against betting too heavily on Maliki.

LEE HAMILTON, IRAQ STUDY GROUP CO-CHAIRMAN: The prime minister's rhetoric is good. His performance so far has been disappointing. He has not been effective. He has not proved reliable. Nor have many of Iraq's other leaders.

MCINTYRE: But a British commander in Baghdad, briefing reporters at the Pentagon, had a more upbeat assessment of Maliki.

LT. GEN. GRAEME LAMB, DEPUTY COMMANDER, MULTINATIONAL FORCE: I've seen him be decisive, make sound judgments, and carry his cabinet with him. I think that he's got what it takes. I -- I said the other day, you know, I like the cut of his jacket. In short, he gets my vote.

MCINTYRE: For Gates, just one month into the job, it's been a baptism by fire.

ROBERT GATES, DEFENSE SECRETARY: To the extent this is a fact- finding trip, I've found at least one fact. I'm too old to do seven countries in five and a half days.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MCINTYRE: Gates left Iraq just as those extra U.S. troops arriving in Baghdad are preparing to execute the new Baghdad strategy, and before it's clear whether the Iraqi troops are holding up their end of bargain. General Casey's assessment on that, Lou, is, so far, so good, but there's a long way to go.

DOBBS: Indeed. Thank you very much.

Jamie McIntyre reporting from the Pentagon.

Insurgents in Iraq have killed another of our troops. The soldier was killed by a roadside bomb in Baghdad.

Twenty-four of our troops have been killed so far in Iraq this month. 3,028 of our troops have been killed since the beginning of this war, 22,951 wounded, 10,218 of them so seriously that they could not return to duty within three days.

U.S. and Iraqi troops in Baghdad have arrested a top aide to the anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Al-Sadr leads a powerful Shia militia that is believed to be responsible for many of the sectarian killings in Baghdad. Al-Sadr's aide was captured during a raid on a mosque. The Iraqi government insists it had no prior warning about that raid.

Democrats today stepped up their criticism of the president and his conduct of this war just days before President Bush delivers his State of the Union speech. House Speaker Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi said the president "has to answer for his war." Democrats also challenged President Bush's policy toward Iran.

Dana Bash reports from Capitol Hill.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DANA BASH, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The president's new Iraq strategy promises more robust steps to stop what Bush officials call Iranian meddling in Iraq. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid accused the president of saber-rattling and warned...

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MAJORITY LEADER: The president does not have the authority to launch military action in Iran without first seeking congressional authorization.

BASH: The White House insists there are no plans to invade Iran, but Democrats talked tough, reminding the president that he'll be giving his State of the Union speech next week to a very different Congress than in the past. Especially when it comes to the Iraq debate.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), HOUSE SPEAKER: It is not in our national interests to increase or deepen our involvement in Iraq, including the escalation of our -- of our -- of involvement there.

BASH: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi threw an even stronger jab at the president earlier in the day, telling ABC, "He has to answer for his war. He has dug a hole so deep, he can't even see the light on this. It's a tragedy. It's a historic blunder."

The White House was quick with the counter-punch. DANA PERINO, DEPUTY WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: For Pelosi to say, and I quote, "The president knows that because the troops are in harm's way that we won't cut off the resources, that's why he's moving so quickly to put them in harm's way," is poisonous.

BASH: Publicly, Democrats insist symbolic congressional votes plan to register opposition to the president's Iraq policy will force him to change course. Privately, they admit that's unlikely.

But there have been some stunning White House reversals, like retreating from the claim the government has the authority for warrantless wiretapping. And Democrats are gloating.

REID: Well, we found the president in the first six years to be pretty stubborn. And we found the last few weeks, as much change as has been in the first six years.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BASH: Meanwhile, the Republican revolt against the president is far from over. GOP senators who oppose the president's plan to send more troops to Iraq will unveil new -- a new resolution next week, and it will be significant, because one of the Republicans writing that resolution is the senior senator from Virginia, John Warner. And Lou, as you know he's one of Congress' most influential voices on the war, he had support of the president. Now he says that he's very reluctant to send more U.S. troops into what he calls an increasingly sectarian war -- Lou.

DOBBS: Thank you very much.

And, of course, Senator Warner, while chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, served notice on the president that he had some three to four months last fall in which to demonstrate success.

BASH: That's right.

DOBBS: Thank you very much.

Dana Bash from Capitol Hill.

As Iran challenges U.S. policy around the world, the country's leader, President Ahmadinejad, is facing rising criticism from his own people. The Iranian president has just concluded a five-day, three- nation tour of Latin America. More than 150 members of the Iranian parliament today blasted Ahmadinejad's foreign policy.

Ahmadinejad is also facing strong criticism from some quarters for his handling of his nation's nuclear program. The United States and Europe say, of course, that Iran is trying to build nuclear weapons and Iran faces limited sanctions as of now.

Communist China, a close ally and supporter of Iran, today insists that its first anti-satellite missile test is not a threat to other nations. China successfully tested for the first time a system to destroy satellites. There is little doubt that that test is a grave threat to the United States and its allies.

Brian Todd has our report from Washington -- Brian.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Lou, the fallout is considerable tonight. We already know the United States, Canada and Australia have filed formal diplomatic protests. Japan also voiced concern. But today U.S. officials gave us more detail.

They say within about 24 to 36 hours after last week's test, China's ambassador to the U.S. was called to the State Department, the U.S. ambassador to China went to the Foreign Ministry in Beijing, not only to register America's dismay, but to find out what China's intentions were. The essential response from Beijing so far, yeah, we'll get back to you on that.

Now, experts say by destroying that satellite with a ballistic missile, China exposed American vulnerability in space. Our military, they say, is hugely dependant on reconnaissance satellites, and many of them are sitting ducks up there at low altitude, with no defense of their own.

The State Department spokesman talked about another danger created at the moment of impact.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TOM CASEY, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN: There's always concern whenever there is debris -- debris in space, regardless -- regardless of the cause for the potential impact it might have on commercial satellites, on manmade -- on manmade -- or, sorry -- manned space missions, like the space shuttle on the International Space Station. You know, on anything that's potentially up there.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TODD: Now, how much debris are we talking about? Scientists say that satellite could have broken into about 40,000 pieces likely to travel at high speed through orbit, some for as long as a decade. A lot of other satellites could be damaged, Lou, but America is not blameless in this equation. The U.S. conducted a nearly identical test about 22 years ago.

DOBBS: The response of the United States government, Brian, to this point has been at best weak and tepid. Is there anything you're picking up there in Washington that suggests that while the official remarks are rather constrained that there is mounting concern?

TODD: Oh, there is definitely mounting concern, and there's all sorts of plans on the drawing board that you don't hear much about, about any potential response and how U.S. officials could react militarily or otherwise. They really want to hear back from China officially and get an explanation of what the intentions were, but most people believe, most experts, military and otherwise, believe, this was really a shot across the bow.

China saying to the U.S., this is what we can do. We're a player in this now. Your satellites are vulnerable.

And ironically, China doesn't have many satellites up there themselves, at least not military satellites, that the U.S. could or would want to hit.

DOBBS: All right. Brian, thank you very much.

Brian Todd from Washington.

For its part, Russia today declared that reports of that Chinese anti-satellite missile test were simply rumors, as they put it. The Russian defense minister said the reports are "abstract and greatly exaggerated." The minister said Moscow would continue to oppose the militarization of outer space, however. Russia has already, of course, its own anti-satellite weapons systems.

Still ahead here tonight, new developments in the case of two former Border Patrol agents sent to prison for doing their duty with the help of an illegal alien drug smuggler given immunity to testify against those agents. What will the president do?

We'll have a special report.

Also tonight, the illegal alien open borders lobby and its supporters in the Congress stepping up their campaign to stop a new fence from being constructed along our southern border.

We'll have that report.

And Hugo Chavez is a dangerous and rising threat to the U.S. interests in the Western Hemisphere. Has nearly half a century of U.S. foreign policy in this hemisphere failed to contain communism?

We'll have a special report.

Stay with us as we continue from here in Miami.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

DOBBS: New developments tonight in the case of the two imprisoned former U.S. Border Patrol agents, Jose Compean and Ignacio Ramos. And new indications that the border fence project is losing support both in Washington and in some towns near the border with Mexico.

Casey Wian tonight reports that President Bush says he'll take a hard look at the Ramos and Compean case -- a major development.

Bill Tucker reports on new concerns tonight being voiced about the building of that border fence.

But first, let's turn to Casey Wian in Los Angeles -- Casey.

CASEY WIAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Lou, family members of imprisoned former Border Patrol agent Ignacio Ramos say they've been in telephone contact with the White House, pleading for a presidential pardon. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

WIAN (voice-over): For the first time since former Texas Border Patrol agents Ignacio Ramos and Jose Compean were convicted of shooting and wounding an illegal alien Mexican drug smuggler, their supporters are hopeful President Bush will intervene in a case many lawmakers of the president's own party say is an outrageous miscarriage of justice.

MARY STILLINGER, IGNACIO RAMOS' ATTORNEY: We were very excited to hear that the president will be looking into this case. I know he probably doesn't know the facts of the case right now. In our opinion, there's been a lot of misinformation issued by the U.S. Attorney's Office about this case, and we're looking forward to correcting it.

WIAN: The president spoke about the case for the first time this week with CNN El Paso affiliate KFOX. While federal prosecutors have sought to portray the agents as rogue law enforcement officers, the president engaged in no such rhetoric.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The Border Patrol or law enforcement have no stronger supporter than me. There are standards that need to be met in law enforcement, and according to a jury of their peers, these officers violated some standards.

I -- on this case, people need to take a hard look at the facts, at the evidence that the jury looked at, as well as a judge. And I'll -- that's -- I will do the same thing.

WIAN: While he refused to rule out a pardon, the president did attempt to deflect the issue.

BUSH: Now, there's a process for pardons. I mean, it's -- and it's got to work its way through a system here in government. But I just want people to take a sober look at the reality.

WIAN: The reality is there's no requirement a pardon must go through that lengthy process.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SR. LEGAL ANALYST: President Bush is well within his rights if he wanted to pardon them tomorrow.

WIAN: Meanwhile, Ramos and Compean remain in protective custody. The U.S. Marshal Service says that's because they are former law enforcement officers.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WIAN: Family members, however, say they have already received death threats, and they are very worried about the former agents' safety. Federal prisons, of course, are loaded with drug traffickers and human smugglers, the very same people Ramos and Compean dedicated their career to stopping -- Lou.

DOBBS: Casey, as you talked with the family, are they more hopeful that this president actually meant what he said when he said he would take a hard look at it, along with the rest of us, as we examine it very carefully, and as -- and have examined it carefully over these many months?

WIAN: Absolutely. They are very encouraged that White House officials who they are talking to are taking their calls. They say they are going to be relaying the messages to the president.

At one point today, Agent Ramos' family thought they were even going to get a call from the president. That didn't happen, unfortunately. But they are a lot more optimistic than they were just two or three days ago -- Lou.

DOBBS: And have we received any indication that the White House has now responded to those 55 U.S. congressmen who have sent their entreaties to the White House requesting that this White House examine this case very carefully, as they have?

WIAN: No indication that the White House has responded to those congressmen at all, and that's one of the reasons why Congressman Duncan Hunter and others are introducing legislation that Congress -- historic legislation, that Congress wants to pardon these agents -- Lou.

DOBBS: And we should -- we should point out to -- to the audience of this broadcast, Duncan Hunter's introduction of this legislation, seeking a congressional pardon, is all but without precedent, but appears to have absolute constitutional authority.

WIAN: And with the growing support that we've seen from members of Congress, I wouldn't bet against it happening.

DOBBS: All right.

Casey, thank you very much.

Casey Wian reporting.

Turning to our poll question tonight, the question is: Do you believe that Congress should launch an investigation of the prosecution of the two U.S. Border Patrol agents and the Justice Department's decision to give immunity to an illegal alien drug smuggler as a basis for that prosecution? Yes or no?

Cast your vote at LouDobbs.com. We'll have the results upcoming.

More opposition to the building of that fence authorized by the president and Congress last year. House Majority leader Steny Hoyer said this week that the fence will be revisited, as he put it. And officials from some Texas border towns met with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to express their concerns about that fence.

They made their views very clear. They want border security, but they don't want that fence.

Bill Tucker has the story. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BILL TUCKER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The Texas Border Coalition came to Washington. The group of mayors and county judges in town at the invitation of Texas senators Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn. The coalition concerned about the border fence as authorized by the president last fall. They shared those concerns with the senators and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who attended the meeting.

MAYOR JOHN COOK, EL PASO, TEXAS: It's a big waste of resources, and there may be some isolated areas where you do have to build some walls or fences, but I it shouldn't be Congress dictating where those walls and fences should be built. It should be the Department of Homeland Security, and that's not what you see right now.

TUCKER: The mayors, from towns like Eagle Pass, Del Rio, El Paso, Laredo, San Antonio, and Houston, point out that the border between the United States and Mexico is plainly defined by the Rio Grande, unlike stretches in the desert of New Mexico and Arizona. They agree that fences can work, and there is evidence of that outside of El Paso, where an existing fence has resulted in the increased arrest of people illegally crossing the border.

But...

MAYOR RICHARD CORTEZ, MCALLEN, TEXAS: The wall in itself, without other resources added to it, is not going to keep illegal immigration from coming.

TUCKER: The mayors told their senators and Secretary Chertoff that what is needed in Texas is more Border Patrol agents, combined with increased use of technology to monitor the border, along with immigration reform.

SEN. JOHN CORNYN (R), TEXAS: Now, this is a federal responsibility ultimately, but it obviously has local impact. And I think it's only right that we have citizens who are affected by the decision to come to Washington and petition their government, make sure their voices are heard.

TUCKER: There was unanimous agreement that the border must be secured.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TUCKER: But, Lou, in what is becoming an increasingly familiar theme, the mayors did say that the secure border must be balanced with the process that expedites the flow of trade, underscoring just how dependent those towns and our country has become on the flow of manufactured products from Mexico -- Lou.

DOBBS: Yes, and that really is a subtext here. It should be the headline, because in every instance those mayors are expressing commercial interest, which has been the backbone of this administration's policies when they should have been looking at, in my opinion, the geopolitical interests of the United States and the national interests.

It's remarkable. Senator Cornyn, along with Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona, both put forward strong immigration reform legislation. It appears he's changed position here.

TUCKER: No, he says he definitely backs the fence. Where they are coming down is in favor of their constituents in terms of saying, Lou, let the local guys decide where the fence goes.

DOBBS: Yes. I'm not sure I'm comfortable with that either, because there are 300 million Americans at risk here, and this should be decided in the larger interests of the nation, rather than the specific and, forgive me, perhaps commercial interests of some of those mayors expressing their views.

I thank you very much, sir.

Bill Tucker.

Coming up next, former congressman Bob Ney is sentenced to more than two years in prison for his part in a congressional corruption scandal, but Congress may help him pay his way.

We'll have that story for you. Hang on.

And Venezuela's congress grants President Hugo Chavez approval to enact laws of his own. Such a -- such a problem when a man has to function as a democratic president.

We'll have that report and how this will affect U.S. policy, if at all, in Latin America. How it will affect likely prospects of policy emanating from Venezuela.

And the House voting to cut billions of dollars in federal subsidies to big oil. But will that measure survive in the Senate? Will the Senate support big oil, or working Americans?

We'll have the report.

Stay with us as we continue tonight from Miami.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

DOBBS: Nearly half a century of U.S. foreign policy to stop the spread of communism in this hemisphere appears to have failed. The leftist threat is greater than ever, even as Fidel Castro's health is in decline. One reason is the rising power of Venezuela's anti- American president, Hugo Chavez, and Venezuela's rising oil wealth.

Christine Romans reports.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez touting his 21st century socialism at a meeting with Latin American leaders in Rio. At home, his grip on power tightens, manipulating democratic institutions to do so. His congress moving to grant him 18 months of unlimited power. His opponents in politics and the media sidelined.

MOISES NAIM, EDITOR, "FOREIGN POLICY": He has been an innovator, nonetheless, in using the tools of democracy to grab power, and creating a hegemony of his party and his person.

ROMANS: University of Miami professor Jaime Suchlicki said Chavez and his socialist ideology will be a challenge for American foreign policy in the region for decades to come.

JAIME SUCHLICKI, PROFESSOR, UNIVERSITY OF MIAMI: We don't have a sustained foreign policy in Latin America, which we should have. It is important that we have a long-term, sustained policy to Latin America, not one that flares up every time there is a crisis and then dies after.

ROMANS: The State Department says under President Bush foreign aid to Latin America has more than doubled to $1.7 billion last year. Its policy is to look past Chavez's stage craft and focus on the rest of the region.

CASEY: Our focus is not worrying about him or his comments. Our focus is on working with our partners in the hemisphere to do the kinds of things that is generally agreed by all members of the OAS that we want to see happen.

ROMANS: But Chavez is spreading around more than just anti-U.S. rhetoric. Professor Suchlicki estimates Chavez spent $2.3 billion last year to support Castro alone, using his country's vast oil wealth to buy influence and spread anti-American sentiment.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ROMANS: For many her in Miami, Castro and communist Cuba are the top foreign policy priority, but the reality is Chavez, with his vast oil wealth, is the greatest threat right now in this hemisphere -- Lou.

DOBBS: And the State Department, as timid as it always is, and sometimes absolutely indecipherable, has no response to the fact that Venezuela now has a dictator?

ROMANS: Venezuela essentially has a dictator, and today Tom Casey at the State Department did say it was curious that he was using democratic institutions to consolidate his grip on power. "Curious" is the word they used.

DOBBS: Curious? Curious? Inspiring.

Thank you very much.

ROMANS: You're welcome.

DOBBS: Christine Romans.

Unbelievable.

Jaime Suchlicki, whom you just saw in Christine's report, will join us here later in the broadcast as we discuss the rising leftist and Communist threat in the Western hemisphere and the failure of U.S. policy response. Let's take a look at some of your thoughts now.

Jeffrey in Washington said, "Lou, it is really a travesty when the government rewards a government official with benefits while in prison after they've committed felonies and then turns around and ruins the lives of both these border patrol agents and their families for doing their jobs. This government should be ashamed of themselves."

Bill in Pennsylvania, "It's really not a question whether President Bush should feel ashamed of his actions. Clearly his arrogance does not allow him to have a conscience beyond his corporate self-interest. I know one thing though -- I am ashamed I voted for him.

And Don in Ohio, "How can anyone say that job growth under Bush has been lower than under Clinton and Reagan? The Republicans and Bush are responsible for more jobs than ever. Just ask the Chinese."

Send us your thoughts at LouDobbs.com. We'll have more of your thoughts here later in the broadcast. Each of you whose e-mail is read here receives a copy of my book "War on the Middle-Class."

Coming up here next, has the well run dry for big oil in Washington? Not likely, but House Democrats have cut billions of dollars in tax breaks for oil companies in a very important bill. Will the Senate hold it up?

Then former Republican Congressman Bob Ney is sentenced for his role in the Jack Abramoff bribery scandal. But is there any real reform about to happen in Washington? We'll find out.

And the Republican revolt against the president is widening. Three of the country's best political minds join us here with their thoughts and perhaps advice for this embattled president. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

DOBBS: The House of Representatives voted to cut $14 billion dollars in subsidies for the nation's richest oil companies. The corporate welfare package was pushed through by the last Congress and what made it most outrageous is the timing.

Lisa Sylvester reports now from Washington.

LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): 2005 was a great year for ExxonMobil. It reported the biggest corporate profit in U.S. history. $36 billion dollars. More than the GDPs of some small European countries.

But Democrats say this apparently was not enough. And Republicans last year showered the oil and gas industry with billions of dollars in tax breaks. Now, the new House leadership wants to roll those back.

REP. LLOYD DOGGETT (D), TEXAS: Under the former Republican leadership, big oil's best prospecting was not in Texas, not in the Gulf of Mexico, it was right here on the floor of the House.

REP. BILL PASCRELL (D), NEW JERSEY: This legislation, HR-6, begins the process of weaning off of corporate welfare. This is the beginning of it. So, you better get used to it.

SYLVESTER: Democrats also want to close a loophole that has excused the largest oil companies from making royalty payments to the taxpayers, for drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

The oil and gas industry, supported by Republicans, argues repealing the tax breaks is tantamount to a tax increase, that would be pushed off on consumers.

REP. MARSHA BLACKBURN (R), TENNESSEE: It's the classic bait-and- switch. It is an energy tax on hard-working Americans with no guarantees for alternative energy.

SYLVESTER: Democrats say that's nonsense. Pointing to the $14 billion dollars taxpayers would save by the legislation. That money would be used to develop alternative fuels, to reduce U.S. dependency on foreign oil.

REP. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (D), MARYLAND: If we continue to put our head in the sand, if we continue to be dependent and tie ourselves to a very volatile part of the world, then anytime anything happens in that part of the world, gases, prices go up, energy prices go up.

SYLVESTER: That includes plans to harness solar and wind power and step up ethanol productions.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SYLVESTER: 36 House Republicans joined 228 Democrats to pass that bill. Final vote tally, 264 in favor, 163 against. The bill now heads to the Senate, where its prospects are less certain. The majority of Republicans there have lined up against this bill. And Democrats have only a one-vote margin in the Senate -- Lou.

DOBBS: Well, let's be certain that we on this broadcast make certain the audience of this broadcast, has full and clear understanding of who in that Senate votes against this legislation and that we all understand clearly why it is necessary to provide $14 billion dollars, as was the judgment of the previous Congress, to the most profitable businesses in the country.

Lisa, thank you for contributing to the body of public knowledge. Great story. Thank you.

Former Republican Congressman Bob Ney today, sentenced to more than 2 and half years in prison for his role in a political corruption scandal.

The former Congressman had pleaded guilty to accepting tens of thousands of dollars in gifts from lobbyist Jack Abramoff in return for protecting Abramoff's clients' interests in Congress. But the former Congressman will receive a tax-payer-funded break.

Andrea Koppel reports.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ANDREA KOPPEL, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Congressman Bob Ney wasn't talking as he left the courthouse this morning, but he could be laughing all the way to the bank.

That's because in three years the Congressman who pled guilty to getting illegal trips, meals, and campaign contributions, could receive a Federal pension of just over $20,000 a year.

PETE SEPP, NATIONAL TAXPAYERS UNION: The laws are very clear for the average citizen, but for Washington Wonderland here, anything goes.

KOPPEL: According to Pete Sepp with the National Taxpayers Union, at least two dozen convicted lawmakers are raking in tens of thousands of dollars a year in pensions.

Among them -- Congressman Randy Duke Cunningham who gets annual $64,000 a year. And James Traficant, whose pension is $40,000 a year, even though both men are in prison.

Kansas Democratic Nancy Boyda hopes to change that under a House bill to be voted on next week.

REP. NANCY BOYDA (D), KANSAS: Why is it that these guys have been involved in bribery and corruption and they are still getting pensions?

KOPPEL: Illinois Republican Mark Kirk agrees, but says while Boyda's bill is a good first step, it only singles out four crimes. Under a bill which he sponsored last year, but which didn't pass the House, lawmakers convicted of any of these 21 crimes would have lost their pension.

REP. MARK KIRK (R), ILLINOIS: Is this is to be a true reform Congress, then we should pass legislation which encompasses all of the crimes that we have seen before that members of Congress have committed.

KOPPEL: But even if the House bill passes, and becomes law, Speaker Nancy Pelosi says it won't apply retroactively.

NANCY PELOSI (D), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: We don't believe that stand up constitutionally.

(END VIDEOTAPE) KOPPEL: Now, a similar bill passed through the Senate last night, which also approved a sweeping ethics reform, which would, among other things, ban lawmakers and their staffs from accepting gifts, meals, and free travel, just the kind of free perks of the job that got Congressman Ney in trouble, that he abused, and eventually, Lou, landed him behind bars.

DOBBS: Andrea, thank you very much. Andrea Koppel. Hopefully Congress and Congresswoman Boyda will be successful in changing all of that. It certainly needs changing. Thank you.

Just ahead here, is Fidel Castro tonight near death? Is there about to be a shift of power in Cuba? One of the world's leading authorities on Cuba and Latin America join us here to discuss the future of Cuba and the spread of communism and U.S. policy in Latin America.

President Bush facing a Republican rebellion. Three of the country's best political analysts join us here later with their thoughts on that widening revolt and all of the issues of the day and week. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

DOBBS: Cuban President Fidel Castro has been ailing and out of sight, but his Communist regime is still very much intact and his leftist alliance with Latin American nations continues to flourish. Joining me now is one of the leading authorities on Cuba and Latin America, Professor Jaime Suchlicki. He is the author of "Cuba: From Columbus To Castro And Beyond."

Good to have you here, professor.

JAIME SUCHLICKI, UNIV. OF MIAMI: Thank you for having me.

DOBBS: Reports and the latest words from Hugo Chavez indicating that Fidel Castro may be very near death. What is your sense of the health, the state of his health, and where we stand?

SUCHLICKI: Well, the story in Miami is that he has been dead for several months, but everybody is afraid to tell him, so...

DOBBS: After 48 years, who could blame them for having that view?

SUCHLICKI: The reality is the that story in "El Pais," the Spanish newspaper is fairly accurate and describes his illness. He could die very quickly. He could linger for another couple of months.

DOBBS: And within Latin America, the United States seems to be paralyzed, for wont of a better expression, in its policy toward Latin America, discussions of trade deals, $1.7 billion in aid to the region.

While Hugo Chavez, Fidel Castro for many years has been driving their philosophies, their ideology and their world view throughout the region. First, what is your assessment of U.S. policy in the region ?

SUCHLICKI: Well, first of all, we have -- in all fairness, we have to say that Latin America, irrespective of the U.S. policy, has been moving to the left in the past few years, in part because of the failure of democratic governments there, in part because of corruption among political parties and leaders, in part because of the solution among the masses with neo-liberalism and capitalism.

So, it's part the fault of the United States, but it's part the attempts of Latin America to find a solution or a new answer. Now, the United States hasn't had a sustained policy toward Latin America. It's weak. During the Kennedy era, it was the Alliance For Progress. Then later on was the NAFTA, and we get involved in other parts of the world and we neglect Latin America.

Latin America is important in terms of our trade. It's important as our investment -- significant investments in Latin America, and it's a major source for natural resources. So we need to develop a policy, long-term, for Latin America.

DOBBS: And within that context, the -- how strong do you believe Hugo Chavez is? Now, he's now been effectively given dictatorial powers by his legislature which he may or may not have possessed earlier -- in fact, before that? How strong is he? How should the United States respond?

SUCHLICKI: He's very strong. He's moving to consolidate an authoritarian system in Latin America. He will be trouble for the U.S. for the foreseeable future in Latin America. He's spending a lot of money, not only supporting Cuba, but supporting Ortega, other regimes in Latin America.

In 1990, they created a group called the Foro de Sao Paulo. It was a group of former guerrilla leaders, including Lula and Chavez and Ortega, and they began to work very diligently in Latin America to come to power with the support of Cuba. We neglected to look at that, and we neglected to do it.

DOBBS: The challenge is truly from Brazil to Nicaragua in very direct terms. And the U.S. policy, appropriate response should be?

SUCHLICKI: Well, it's a long-term policy. It's got to involve economic aid. It's got to involve standing up to Chavez. It involves cultural relations. It involves working with the unions in Latin America, with student groups in Latin America. So it's going to have to be a sustained effort...

DOBBS: Returning to the spirit of the Alliance For Progress.

SUCHLICKI: Yes, returning in part to that spirit, but it's going to be difficult and costly.

DOBBS: Professor, thanks for being here.

SUCHLICKI: Thank you for having me.

DOBBS: Jaime Suchlicki, we thank you.

Up next, President Bush appears to be under intensifying pressure on a number of political fronts. We'll hear from our distinguished panel of political analysts: "New York Daily News" columnist Errol Louis, syndicated columnist Miguel Perez, former White House political director and Republican strategist Ed Rollins. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

DOBBS: Coming up at the top of the hour, "THE SITUATION ROOM" with Wolf Blitzer -- Wolf.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks very much, Lou.

Some tough words for the current vice president from a former one. As part of my joint exclusive interview with former President Jimmy Carter and former Vice President Walter Mondale, we'll find out why Mondale says Vice President Cheney has now crossed the line.

Also, is the Middle East on the cusp of a nuclear arms race? There are new details emerging tonight about one of Israel's Arab neighbors that potentially wants to go nuclear.

And is Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, on thin ice right at home? Amidst growing economic unrest, he receives a very blunt and very public message from Iran's supreme leader.

And what's with all this weather out there from hurricanes in Germany to snowflakes in Malibu? Is the wacky weather a sign of things to come? All that, Lou, coming up, right here, in "THE SITUATION ROOM."

DOBBS: Thank you, Wolf.

Joining me now, our distinguished panel. Here in Miami with me, columnist for the "New York Daily News," editorial board member Errol Louis. Syndicated columnist Miguel Perez joining us here, as well, and from New York, former White House political director, Republican strategist, Ed Rollins. Gentlemen, good to have you with us.

Miguel, reports tonight that suggest that Fidel Castro could be near death. We just heard professor Suchlicki talking about what has been an abject failure of U.S. policy in Latin America. What are the implications, in your judgment, first, from the idea that Venezuela now has a dictator?

MIGUEL PEREZ, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: Absolutely has a dictator. The opposition made terrible mistakes in Venezuela. They decided not to run against him in 2005. So, the whole Congress over there, 167 members, are controlled by him. He controls the courts. He controls everything in Venezuela now. He is the dictator-elect in Venezuela.

DOBBS: And does he automatically become the single strongest influence should Fidel Castro die?

PEREZ: Absolutely. And that's what he's been saying all along. It's amazing that the Venezuelan people didn't see this coming, because he's been warning them that he wants to be the next Fidel. And they keep voting for him. That's what's amazing.

DOBBS: Let's turn, if we may, Errol, to the issue of those reinforcements, which -- the first of which have now arrived in Baghdad. There is a major confrontation, obviously, now that will be taking place next week, nonbinding resolutions to stop the president. What's your take?

ERROL LOUIS, NEW YORK DAILY NEWS: Well, the fighting is going to be happening in Washington, unfortunately, and not on the streets of Baghdad. I mean, you've got these ambushes going on. I mean, you mentioned a soldier killed today.

DOBBS: Yes.

LOUIS: Earlier this week, a really tragic death, a young lady from Ohio, Andrea Parhamovich, who was teaching democracy, sort of one of the civilian workers that had gone over there. She was killed along with three of their bodyguards. They were outgunned 10-1. And they are setting up these new brigades that are going in for a similar kind of a situation, where it's clearly not enough, even by the Pentagon's own standards, to put down a counterinsurgency.

DOBBS: Are you suggesting, then, that President Bush send even more?

LOUIS: Well, I'm suggesting that if they are going to accomplish the goals as stated, they need to do what they said that they need to do, which is 50-1, peacekeepers to population.

DOBBS: Which is supportive of what...

LOUIS: 120,000 people.

DOBBS: Which is supportive of what Senator McCain has said.

Ed Rollins, this president does not have the ability to send the troop levels that either Errol Louis or Senator McCain are talking about, does he?

ED ROLLINS, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: No, he doesn't. You know, the bottom line is we -- for the next six months, he's going to get his way, and the 25,000 men, women who are going to go there are going to basically be put somewhat in more harm's way than they should be, because there's not sufficient troops.

But at the end of the day, you know, there's no guarantee that either the Iraqi army's going to cooperate, and certainly if they are going to have a leadership role in trying to command where the -- our troops go, then I think you have a potential disaster.

But needless to say, the Democrats are waving resolutions in the air, and I think to a certain extent they have got to understand the commander in chief has made this decision, and for the next six months we have to watch, hope, pray, that it comes out better than it has in the last four years.

DOBBS: And, Ed, let me ask you, quickly, this president appears to be becoming more isolated by the day. What is going on in this White House?

ROLLINS: Well, he's certainly -- he hasn't changed the thought process that he's now a president with a minority party in the Congress, which means he really has to go to a Ford or even a Reagan, where you start vetoing things, you start putting the threat of veto up there.

This whole idea that I'm going to have great cooperation with Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid is absolutely absurd, they are not going to cooperate with him one iota, and so he has got to get himself in a mind-set that for the next two years, to get anything done, I'm going to basically have to veto and push things back and force Congress to deal with me in that perspective.

DOBBS: Miguel?

PEREZ: And even when you hear the prime minister of Iraq, al Maliki, say -- criticizing Bush...

DOBBS: Right.

PEREZ: I mean, that is the ultimate now. What is...

DOBBS: He is, after all, reciprocating.

PEREZ: I mean, this guy should be expressing his gratitude for the sacrifice America has made for his country, instead of criticizing him. They say, no, no, this is for Iraqi consumption. What about U.S. consumption? Bush is up against the wall here. He should be trying to protect his protector.

DOBBS: I don't think that we have seen from the Iraqi government or certainly from many of the Iraqi people, in point of fact, certainly in Baghdad, a -- any sense of discrimination in either the subjects of their violence or the direction that they are taking this country.

Errol, the idea that this president is isolated, that he has -- and this is -- I will -- if Ed does not correct me, we're talking about a lame-duck president facing a very powerful new Congress. What are the prospects for President Bush?

LOUIS: Well, he's got to -- he's got to argue for his own relevance at this point, and, you know, we have a system where the head of government is also the head of state. A loss of prestige for this administration, inevitably, especially on foreign affairs, amounts to a loss of prestige in the world, and that's why you are seeing Iran getting bolder, China getting bolder, Venezuela, and so on.

DOBBS: So is the Democratic -- go ahead. ROLLINS: The critical point is that the world can now watch disarray in our own government, in which there's not a consistency, in which the bottom line is, we are at war.

DOBBS: Right.

ROLLINS: Whether it's going well or not, we're still at war. We now have countries around us basically looking at us as in disarray. And they -- and they see that the Democrats in Congress obviously are basically getting revved up to go fight the president. And so we're, once again, in a short battle plan, knowing full well that six or eight months from now, they'll force us to pull back, and what kind of strength does that project?

DOBBS: What kind of strength does it project on the part of the Democrats to get their -- their principal legislative priorities through in less than half their 100 hours?

PEREZ: I don't think that half of them will get through. I think maybe the minimum wage, certainly not the stem cell research, because they don't have the power to override the president's veto. I think it's all rhetoric on their part.

LOUIS: They brought forward their agenda, they got it moved in the time that they said they would. Now the hard part begins. The polls are saying that 61 percent of the public still thinks the country's on the wrong track. Increasingly, that is going to be the Democrats' fault.

DOBBS: OK. Thank you very much, gentlemen. Ed Rollins in New York, Errol Louis here in Miami, and Miguel Perez, thank you.

Still ahead, the results of our poll. We'll have some move of your thoughts. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

DOBBS: The results of our poll tonight: 97 percent of you say that Congress should launch an investigation of the prosecution of two U.S. Border Patrol agents, and the Justice Department's decision to give immunity to an illegal alien drug smuggler as a basis for that prosecution.

Time now for more of your thoughts. Ed in Maryland said -- "Lou, you mentioned President Bush is 'indifferent' to the plight of our two Border Patrol heroes. I disagree. The president is not indifferent. He's simply taking another calculated step to keep our borders open and promote his agenda of a North American union and the ultimate destruction of the middle class."

Alma in Missouri -- "Lou, am I the only American who thinks those 20,000 troops Bush wants to send to Iraq wouldn't serve the American people better by sending them to protect our own southern border?"

Thank you fro being with us here tonight. For all of us, thanks for watching. Have a great weekend. Good night from Miami. "THE SITUATION" with Wolf Blitzer begins now -- Wolf.

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