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THE SITUATION ROOM
Interview With President Obama; Interview With U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius; Hillary Clinton Visits Afghanistan
Aired November 18, 2009 - 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: Happening now: the Obama administration distancing itself from controversial new guidelines on when to get mammograms. I'll be speaking this hour with the health and human services secretary, Kathleen Sebelius, and I will ask her why she's diving into this debate right now and whether she's adding to the confusion.
Plus: Hillary Clinton in Afghanistan at a critical moment -- this hour her show of support for President Hamid Karzai, while her boss answers some tough questions about whether he trusts the Afghan leader.
And President Obama wrapping up his China trip by confronting what he calls a sad part of his family's history. We have separate interviews with the president and his estranged half-brother. They are talking about their intense reunion in China.
I'm Wolf Blitzer in CNN's command center for breaking news, politics, and extraordinary reports from around the world. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Officials at the highest level of the Obama administration are trying to make it very clear that new guidelines about when to get mammograms were not their idea. There's been a lot of confusion and a lot of fear this week after a federal advisory board said women in their 40s should avoid routine breast cancer screenings.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, she weighed in on all of this earlier today with a statement that said in part this. Let me read it to you: "The U.S. Preventive Task Force is an outside, independent panel of doctors and scientists who make recommendations. They do not set federal policy, and they don't determine what services are covered by the federal government."
We will be speaking with Kathleen Sebelius later this hour.
But, right now, let's bring in our senior political analyst, Gloria Borger. She's been doing some reporting on what's going on.
Gloria, the White House is getting involved in all of this, isn't it?
GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, in -- in a big way. I mean, when you think about it, this panel's recommendations could not have come at a worse time, Wolf. And the White House, quite frankly, some people I spoke with there, are not very happy about it. As we all know, the White House is right now trying to pass health care reforms. And then this panel steps into the middle of their fight by announcing that women in their 40s don't need to have mammograms.
The problem for the White House is that lots of its opponents are saying that its health care reform plan is going to end up with some kind of rationing on medical tests. So, they really have to distance themselves from this.
And let me tell you something. I spoke with one senior adviser at the White House today who told me this: We need more evidence. We need more research. And get this. We are not taking away anyone's mammograms, period.
They clearly understand they give -- this gives the Republicans a huge political opening to use against them.
BLITZER: Yes. And listen to this huge political opening, because Republican Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn and some other Republican women went to the House floor. Listen to the Congresswoman Blackburn.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REP. MARSHA BLACKBURN (R), TENNESSEE: This is how rationing begins. This is the little toe in the edge of the water. And this is where you start getting a bureaucrat between you and your physician.
And, as we have gone through this health care debate over the past several months, this is what we have warned about, is once you get on that slippery slope.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Wow, that's a strong...
BORGER: They knew.
BLITZER: ... a strong statement.
So, the political fallout from this could be rather significant, coming, as you point out, right in the midst of this health care debate.
BORGER: So, in the short term, what they do is -- is what the secretary did today, is distance themselves, say, this is not our policy.
But, in the long term, I'm told that, as we speak, Wolf, they are working on making sure that, in the final health care bill, particularly in the bill that we see right now coming out of the Senate, that they actually spell out a recommendation that says that these kinds of panels will have no impact on coverage decisions in your health care, period.
So, they are going to try and make that crystal-clear to end this debate, which is not good for them.
BLITZER: Why have these panels, if they are going to have no impact?
BLITZER: That -- that's a question we can ask the secretary...
BORGER: Exactly. Exactly.
BLITZER: ... of health and human services. She is going to be joining us shortly.
But let's bring in our senior medical correspondent, Elizabeth Cohen, right now.
Elizabeth, first of all, any reaction from this federal advisory board that came up with these controversial recommendations?
ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: You know, I would have to say, right now, they are, to some extent, laying low. They haven't publicly come out and given any response to what Kathleen Sebelius had to say today.
But, yesterday, I spoke to a member of the task force, and they are still adamant. They firmly believe that women in their 40s should not receive routine annual mammograms. They really believe that that's what the data says is the best thing to do.
BLITZER: So, they're -- so, basically, what you're -- what I'm hearing is, after Kathleen Sebelius issued this statement today, we still don't have any formal or even informal reaction from members of this task force. They're -- they're -- as you point out, they laying low.
COHEN: Right. I haven't heard a reaction from them.
I have got to tell you, having dealt with this task force over the years in other ways, I don't think they anticipated the volume of response. I mean, to have people on the floor of Congress, to have the secretary of HHS, I don't think they expected this.
BLITZER: What -- so what's the bottom line, because a lot of women out there no doubt are very confused? If you hit 40 years old, should you routinely get a mammogram every year, which had been the recommendation, at least until now?
COHEN: OK. As a woman in her 40s, Wolf, I'm going to tell you what I'm going to do. I'm going to look at what the task force has to say on the one hand. On the other hand, I'm going to notice that the American Cancer Society, the -- a group that represents America's gynecologists, a group that represents America's cancer researchers all disagree with this task force. All of these doctors, all of these oncologists and gynecologists say, no way. Start at age 40.
I'm sure that's what my doctor will tell me. I will weigh the evidence. I -- I won't say how it will come out, but I think you can probably tell.
BLITZER: Well, it's shocking to me to hear that you are a woman in your 40s, Elizabeth, because you look so much younger than that.
BLITZER: I'm -- I'm shocked by that.
COHEN: You are very kind, Wolf. You're very kind.
BLITZER: Elizabeth Cohen, in her 40s, but, as they say, 40 -- 40 is now the new 30.
So, let's move on.
COHEN: Thank you, Wolf.
BLITZER: Jack Cafferty, he is joining us right now with "The Cafferty File."
JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: You are -- you are just shameless.
BLITZER: You think Elizabeth Cohen looks 40 years old? I...
CAFFERTY: She looks terrific.
BLITZER: Yes, she looks maybe 28 or 29 years old.
CAFFERTY: I'm going to -- just before I do this, I'm going to do some more on this mammogram story later in one of the other hours of the show.
This outside panel that made these recommendations, you know how many oncologists out of 16 so-called experts are on the panel?
BLITZER: I do know the answer to that.
BLITZER: Yes, I know.
CAFFERTY: Not a single cancer expert on the panel that came out and said, well, women in their 40s don't need mammograms.
I wonder -- well, we will talk more about it later.
One year after President Obama rode into office on the mantra of hope and change, a lot of people are wondering, where's the beef? There's no question that changes take time. There's been a lack, though, of meaningful progress on so many of the big issues that faced him when he first walked into the Oval Office: unemployment now at 10.5 percent. A lot of people think it will go higher before things start to level off.
We were told the stimulus package would keep unemployment from going above 8 percent. Health care reform, probably the president's biggest domestic priority, still nowhere in sight, long way to go before it becomes reality, if it ever does. Deficits are soaring. The national debt is now an astounding $12 trillion plus.
And this comes less than eight months after the debt was $11 trillion. The president has committed to withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq. But, with renewed violence there, it's an open question how soon they will all come out of that country.
Afghanistan is now clearly Obama's war. And he still wrestles with the question of whether or not to add more troops. The president's self-imposed deadline of January for closing Guantanamo Bay ain't going to happen. As for other issues, like immigration reform, legislation on climate change, or regulating Wall Street, nothing yet.
The interesting thing is, despite a lack of progress on a lot of these issues, the American people still very much like their new president. A new CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll shows 55 percent approve of how the president is handling his job. And, furthermore, apart from his job approval, a whopping 76 percent have a favorable view of Mr. Obama as a person. He's a good guy.
Here's the question. Would you vote to reelect President Obama one year later? Go to CNN.com/caffertyfile. Post a comment on my blog.
Not a single oncologist on the panel that recommends women over 40 not have mammograms.
BLITZER: I think I know where you stand on this panel's recommendations, Jack.
BLITZER: I have a feeling. I think I know.
BLITZER: So, we're going to hear more, you say. I don't want to give it away. We will give it away over the course of this show today.
CAFFERTY: Do I look like I'm in my 40s?
BLITZER: You -- you don't look like you're in your 40s either.
CAFFERTY: No. That's right. Perfect.
BLITZER: Thank you, Jack.
BLITZER: Jack Cafferty will be back.
When President Obama leaves office, will the mission be accomplished in Afghanistan? He answers some tough questions from our Ed Henry in a one-on-one interview. Stand by for that.
Plus, he isn't the first president to be up against the wall -- the monumental finale of Mr. Obama's trip to China.
And, later, Arnold Schwarzenegger answers the question, is there another campaign in his future?
BLITZER: Today, the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, surprised a lot of us, making an unannounced trip to Afghanistan. It's her first time there as America's top diplomat. Tomorrow, she will see the inauguration of the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, to a second term, after an election rife with fraud.
Secretary Clinton says the United States will press Afghan leaders to crack down on government corruption. Easier said than done.
Our Pentagon correspondent Chris Lawrence is in Afghanistan -- Chris.
CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, less than 12 hours now until Hamid Karzai is sworn into a second term in office, and, already, the high-level meetings have started.
Karzai looked confident as he met with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the presidential palace, and, from what we could tell, the relationship seemed cordial. Now, Karzai asked Secretary Clinton about her very intense travel schedule. And she said -- quote -- "It's the life we have chosen."
Ironically, that's a line spoken by the old gangster Hyman Roth in the film "Godfather II," which may be appropriate in that many people have labeled the Karzai government corrupt, incompetent and even illegitimate. Secretary Clinton was flanked by U.S. Special Representative Richard Holbrooke, Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, and Generally Stanley McChrystal.
Now, Secretary Clinton's plane was one of the last to arrive here in Kabul. The airport will be shut down tomorrow for security reasons. And, in fact, the entire city is on virtual lockdown. Afghan police all over the city are setting up checkpoints, turning away cars, even blocking off major roads.
We have even heard that some foreign workers have been told to stay inside during the day tomorrow. Now, Secretary Clinton has come to Afghanistan just as President Obama is finalizing his decision whether to send more troops here. Secretary Clinton is expected to deliver a message to Karzai that the U.S. wants him to pass clear benchmarks in fighting corruption. And that includes making sure that the people he appoints to head certain departments are both fair and honest.
Secretary Clinton did congratulate Karzai on his reelection, and said this is an important moment in the history of Afghanistan. Back in 2004, then Vice President Dick Cheney said that Karzai's election was an historic moment, similar words, but, five years later, it's a very different mood -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Chris Lawrence watching all of this in Kabul for us -- thank you, Chris.
So, what does President Obama think about the man who will be leading Afghanistan once again? Listen to what he told our senior White House correspondent, Ed Henry.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ED HENRY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Do you trust President Karzai?
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think that President Karzai has served his country in important ways. If you think of when he first came in, there may not have been another figure who could have held that country together. He has some strengths, but he's got some weaknesses.
And I'm less concerned about any individual than I am with a government as a whole that is having difficulty providing basic services to its people in a way that confers legitimacy on them.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Ed is traveling with the president. They are now in Seoul, South Korea, the last stop on this trip.
Ed is joining us now live. Ed, he sort of tried to dodge your sensitive question, a flat question, a relatively easy question: Do you trust Hamid Karzai? Sort of walked around it, didn't he?
HENRY: He did. He tried to throw him a bone and say, well, after 9/11, I'm not sure anyone else could have done the job, so at least he did that.
But that's hardly a ringing endorsement. And he never directly answered the question of whether he trusts President Karzai, because the answer is clear. This White House does not trust Karzai, in terms of corruption, as you heard from Chris Lawrence, and also just the way forward in Afghanistan in general.
And that's why the president, in his comments to me, also made clear that when he announces his troop decision to the American people, it's going to be all about the endgame strategy, in terms of explaining, how is this going to be turned over to an Afghan government that, right now, does not appear able to -- to handle, you know, its own people, run its own government services.
It's -- it's a very tricky balancing act. But, for the first time in this interview, the president hinted at some sort of a timetable for troops, that, even if he sends more, in the days ahead, he wants them out, he told me, before he leaves office. He does not want to hand this mission in Afghanistan over to his successor, like it was handed over to him.
So, essentially, that timetable is either three years or seven years, depending on whether he serves one or two terms...
BLITZER: And we're going to play that excerpt from the interview. That is going to be coming up in a few moments, Ed, when he says he wants an exit strategy before he leaves office.
I assume he meant by the end of a second term, meaning another seven years, so there could be another seven-year engagement in Afghanistan, which a lot of folks obviously are not looking forward to.
But let's move on to Korea right now. There's a lot of tension with North Korea and its nuclear program. What's the president hoping to achieve on this final stop?
HENRY: Well, he's going to be having a working lunch, as well as a news conference, With President Lee here in South Korea. Obviously, the goal really is to get those six-party talks restarted that have been stagnant for some time, to try to push back on -- on North Korea's nuclear program.
You know, I asked the president, you know, at the end of this -- this stop, he will have visited 20 nations in his first year in office, the most of any American president for the first year in office. I said, what do you feel like you have accomplished. And he said: Basically, I feel like we have changed America's image around the world for the better.
But acknowledged that a lot of his initiatives, whether it's diplomacy with Iran, or in many other areas, Middle East peace, it hasn't -- he says it has not borne fruit yet. But he said, look, this is not going to happen overnight. And he said he's confident that, over time, he's going to start bringing some accomplishments home to the American people, and they will see that all this hard work is worth it.
But he was candid about acknowledge it has not borne fruit yet. He's hoping that at least getting the six-party talks restarted in the days ahead will be an accomplishment -- Wolf.
BLITZER: We are going to have Ed's entire interview with the president of the United States over the course of the next three hours here in THE SITUATION ROOM. Our viewers will hear it, some good stuff on national security, domestic economic policy, also health care. He also speaks about some personal issues, whether he's seeking to run for reelection, and also about his estranged brother who lives in China. He met with him -- all this coming up.
We have an interview with the brother, the half-brother, as well.
Iran says the answer is no. Tehran is rejecting something designed to push it away from the brink of a standoff over its nuclear program.
And how old is too old to be accused of bank robbery? Take a look at this picture. People want your help in finding a man being called -- and I'm quoting now -- the "Geezer Bandit."
BLITZER: Fredricka Whitfield is monitoring some other important stories incoming into THE SITUATION ROOM right now.
Fred, what's going on?
FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hello to you, Wolf.
Well, Iran's foreign minister is rejecting a key part of what was hailed as a breakthrough in the confrontation over Iran's nuclear program. The agreement would have had Iran send much of its partially enriched uranium to Russia and France, which would complete the process, but return it in a form difficult to turn into a weapon. Well, the U.N. nuclear agency says it's waiting for a written statement now from Iran.
The suburban Philadelphia swim club accused of discriminating against minority children last summer is filing for bankruptcy. The Valley Swim Club made headlines after revoking permission for mostly black and Hispanic children from a day camp to swim at that pool. The club had said the number of children exceeded the number of its lifeguards. The Chapter 7 filing lists the clubs debts as being between $100,000 and $500,000.
And FBI officials say they think they know the man responsible for a string of recent bank robberies in San Diego. He is being nicknamed the "Geezer Bandit." And, perhaps, from the video, you can see why. These pictures were taken during his most recent heist on Monday. Authorities say he has pulled off five robberies in all, and are offering $16,000 in rewards for information leading to his arrest.
And, finally, it looks like Americans are going to get back on the road Thanksgiving weekend. After a 25 percent plunge in travel last year, AAA estimates that more than 38 million Americans will leave home, and most of those are heading for grandma's, or wherever. And they will be driving. And that's with gas prices up 25 percent over this time last year.
BLITZER: I hope everyone...
WHITFIELD: Wolf, you staying put or hitting the road?
BLITZER: I hope they hit the road and drive very safely, because I'm always worried about traffic accidents.
WHITFIELD: Yes. I know. We always hope for that.
BLITZER: We always do, indeed. Thanks, Fred. Stand by.
The health and human services secretary says she's confronting confusion over mammograms head on. Stand by for my interview with Kathleen Sebelius. She's standing by live. I will ask her if the White House is flat-out rejecting these new controversial guidelines for women in their 40s.
And more of ed Henry's one-on-one interview with the president of the United States. Did he sign off on a plan to try 9/11 suspects in New York City? And will he take responsibility if something goes horribly wrong?
BLITZER: To our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Happening now: In China, President Obama didn't just see the sights and talk trade policy. He also caught up with his half- brother. John Vause has the story of a reunion in China that began with a big hug. We have the interview.
On Capitol Hill, the attorney general gets grilled over his decision to try five of the alleged planners of 9/11 only blocks away from ground zero.
And a U.S.-flagged ship is attacked by Somali pirates -- get this -- for the second time, but, this time, they were driven off. CNN's Brian Todd reports on new ways to solve a problem that's been around since boats first sailed the high seas. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
President Obama is doing something he's never done, visit South Korea. He's there right now. As we have reported, the president is there to discuss key issues, especially North Korea's nuclear ambitions.
Before the president left China, he discussed other key issues with our senior White House correspondent, Ed Henry, in particular, how he thinks he's doing so far as president.
HENRY: Well, since the last time we have interviewed you, you have won the Nobel Peace Prize. And, by the end of this week, you will have visited 20 countries as president...
HENRY: ... the most of any U.S. president in his first year what. Have you accomplished?
OBAMA: Well, a couple of key things.
Number one, I think that we have restored America's standing in the world. And that's confirmed by polls. I think a recent one indicated that, around the world, before my election, less than half of the people, maybe less than 40 percent of the people, thought that you could count on America to do the right thing. Now it's up to 75 percent.
That builds goodwill among publics that makes it easier for leaders to cooperate with us. We then have seen very specific areas of cooperation around the nuclear issue. If you just take the example of Iran, you know, we started off saying that, right at -- at the time of my inauguration, the -- the world community was still divided on what Iran's intentions were.
And we mobilized the international community to present a credible, legitimate offer to the Iranians that would show their intentions to pursue peaceful nuclear energy, as opposed to weapons. Iran, so far, has not been able to say yes to that offer, and as a consequence, you now have validators like the International Atomic Energy Agency, you've got the P-5 plus one, which includes Russia and China, all saying to Iran, you're on the wrong side of history here. And that means if Iran continues to rebuff the international community, us setting up sanctions or other measures that put pressure on them becomes much easier.
HENRY: But the Chinese president is not endorsing sanctions yet. And when people look at other issues like Mideast peace, you could argue that the peace process is worse off now than it was a year ago. You promised transformational change. I know it's not going to happen overnight, but on the other hand, do you feel some pressure to get some of these things done? OBAMA: Well, I think that there is no doubt that in the same way on domestic policy our first job was to stabilize the situation and prevent disaster, on the international stage our first job was to stabilize the situation to allow us to move forward. A lot of our initiatives have not yet borne fruit, but we knew that something like Iran's nuclear program wasn't going to be solved in a year.
The question is, are we moving in the right direction? And I think there's no doubt that we are.
HENRY: While we have been in Asia, your attorney general decided that there were going to be civil prosecutions of the 9/11 mastermind, other terror suspects.
Did you sign off on that?
OBAMA: You know, I said to the attorney general, "Make a decision based on the law." We have set up now a military commission system that is greatly reformed, and so we can try terrorists in that forum.
But I also have great confidence in our Article 3 courts, the courts that have tried hundreds of terrorists suspects who are imprisoned right now in the United States. And, you know, I think this notion that somehow we have to be fearful that these terrorists possess some special powers that prevent us from presenting evidence against them, locking them up and, you know, exacting swift justice, I think that has been a fundamental mistake.
HENRY: So, that was his decision, but you'll take responsibility if it goes wrong?
OBAMA: I always have to take responsibility. That's my job.
HENRY: Now, on Afghanistan, have you made a decision on troop levels in your own mind? And when we hear that you don't want the U.S. to be an Afghanistan forever, obviously, do you think you'll be able to get most U.S. troops home by the end of your presidency, or will this be something you hand off to the next president just as you were handed off Iraq and Afghanistan?
OBAMA: My preference would be not to hand off anything to the next president. One of the things I would like is the next president to be able to come in and say, I've got a clean slate and I can put my vision forward that I presented to the American people.
We are very close to a decision. I will announce that decision, certainly in the next several weeks. The pieces involved, number one, making sure that the American people understand we do have a vital interest in making sure that al Qaeda cannot attack us and that they can't use Afghanistan as a safe haven.
We have a vital interest in making sure that Afghanistan is sufficiently stable, that it can't infect the entire region with violent extremism. We also have to make sure that we've got an effective partner in Afghanistan, and that's something that we are examining very closely and presenting some very clear benchmarks for the Afghan government. We have to make sure that we are training sufficient Afghan troops so that they can ultimately secure their own countries.
HENRY: Do you trust President Karzai?
OBAMA: You know, I think that President Karzai has served his country in important ways. If you think about when he first came in, there may not have been another figure who could have held that country together. He has some strengths, but he's got some weaknesses. And I'm less concerned about any individual than I am with a government as a whole that is having difficulty providing basic services to its people in a way that confers legitimacy on them.
So, these are all factors that have gone into the decision- making. I am very confident that when I announce the decision, the American people will have a lot of clarity about what we're doing, how we're going to succeed, how much this thing is going to cost. You know, what kind of burden does this place on our young men and women in uniform? And most importantly, what's the end game on this thing? Which I think is something that unless you impose that kind of discipline, could end up leading to a multiyear occupation that won't serve the interests of the United States.
BLITZER: Part two of the interview coming up in the next hour, including his thoughts on health care reform and bailouts.
Stand by for that, the president's interview with our own Ed Henry.
Before leaving for South Korea, Mr. Obama did what other recent presidents have always done, visit the Great Wall of China. President Obama called the manmade wonder -- and I'm quoting now -- "Magical."
Indeed, the earliest sections were built more than 2,000 years ago. In more modern times, President and Mrs. Nixon visited back in 1972. President Reagan and the first lady, Nancy Reagan, walked on the wall back in 1984, as did President and first lady Hillary Clinton in 1998.
I was on that trip as well. I remember the occasion.
Back in 2002, President Bush and Mrs. Bush visited the Great Wall in China.
The medical community has certainly been up in arms over new guidelines on mammograms. Now the politicians are weighing in. Just ahead, the Health and Human Services secretary, Kathleen Sebelius. I'll ask her why the White House seems so intent on distancing itself from these recommendations.
Also ahead, he calls him his big brother. The president's half- sibling, Mark, tells us about his intense reunion with the president in China. Our interview with the president's half-brother, that's coming up.
And an original letter from Abraham Lincoln is on sale. The story behind it involving a schoolboy and bullies, all of which is very fascinating.
BLITZER: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid meeting with fellow Democrats behind closed doors today, only hours before he's likely to release his long-awaited health care reform bill.
Let's bring in our senior congressional correspondent, Dana Bash. She's watching what's going on.
Dana, we're waiting for a critical number to be released by Congress.
DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. And we have some breaking news.
I literally just hung up with the phone with a senior Democratic source who says that the Senate majority leader does have preliminary estimates from the Congressional Budget Office, and here's -- you heard it here first. Here's what it is -- $849 billion.
That is what we are hearing, according to the Democratic leadership, $849 billion for the cost of what we expect to see later today. And that is the Senate health care bill.
What this source said is that the Congressional Budget Office says that this bill would reduce the deficit by $127 billion. So, again, this is preliminary, but this actually just is coming to us in the last few seconds. So that's what we know about that.
But we do have -- again, it's important to note that this bill has been worked on in private and secret for a very long time. We do have some tidbits of what's going to be in it based on sources, and let me show you a couple of bits of information here.
And this is -- we know a little bit -- a public option which would allow states to opt out. It would have a mandate on individuals. They would have to get coverage or pay a fine.
In terms of how this $849 billion bill would be paid for, in part it would have a tax on high-cost insurance plans, and then also a new idea that is coming from Senator Reid, a tax on income over $250,000 a year for the Medicare payroll tax. That Medicare payroll tax that everybody sees, if you make over $250,000 a year, at least a family does, that will be increased just a bit to pay for this health care bill.
So, this is the information we're getting. The Democrats will meet formally at 5:00 in the Capitol so they can all get briefed on this. And then the Democratic leadership will come and have a press conference later on this evening -- Wolf.
BLITZER: So, just to give this number some context -- and you reported it first here on CNN in THE SITUATION ROOM -- $849 billion. Correct me if I'm wrong, it's roughly the same as the Senate Finance Committee's number, and that was a critical number because it brought Olympia Snowe on board, and that was very important.
BASH: A critical number for that reason, a critical number because the president has made clear he wants the bill to be below $900 billion, primarily because you have a lot of conservative Democrats very worried about the cost. And also, by way of comparison, the House bill that passed a couple of weeks ago, that is over $1 trillion.
So that is what we're hearing now. I think it's also important to point out that it's going to be interesting to actually see the report from the Congressional Budget Office when the final numbers come out. Sometimes they tend to be a little bit different in the final analysis, but at least at this point, $849 billion is what we're told from a senior Democratic source about what the cost of this Senate health care bill, the Democrats' bill, is going to be.
BLITZER: And Dana, you were very precise. You said preliminary number, right?
BLITZER: So it may change by the time it's formally released, right?
BASH: You got it. It might change for sure in terms of -- in terms of the specifics. We have -- we've learned from experience that the information we sometimes get from Democratic sources might not be exactly what we see in black and white when we see what the Congressional Budget Office is putting out, but right now this is the case, $849 billion for the bill that we will see in just a short while.
And I've got to tell that you in terms of what this means in practical terms for getting votes to even start the bill, you have a lot of -- or at least three at this point, three conservative Democrats who are not sure whether or not they will give Harry Reid their votes to add to the 60 votes he needs even to start debate. I can tell you, Wolf, that three of these Democrats -- I think we have pictures of them -- Mary Landrieu, Ben Nelson and Blanche Lincoln -- they were all summoned to Harry Reid's office earlier this afternoon.
They were given a little bit of a head's up of what's in this bill. I'm sure they were given the cost, at least the preliminary cost estimate, and some of the information about what's going to be in this bill.
They sort of got a sneak peek, and they had some positive statements coming out. They told our own Ted Barrett -- at least Senator Landrieu did -- that she got some assurances that some of her concerns will be dealt with. That is a very important twist in this, whether or not the 60 votes are there for Senator Reid, for this vote which he thinks will happen on Saturday.
BLITZER: We'll watch together with you, Dana. Thanks very much.
CBO preliminary estimate, $849 billion, the cost of the Senate's version of health care reform.
Meanwhile, check out Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia as he's transformed from a young lawmaker to a powerful senator. The longest- serving member of the United States Congress in its entire history.
To mark the West Virginia's milestone, we thought we'd look back at life in the United States when he was first sworn in back in 1953 as a member of the House of Representatives.
Dwight Eisenhauer was a president, "I love Lucy" was a hit on TV. "Playboy" magazine published its very first issue with Marilyn Monroe on the cover. A gallon of gas cost about 20 cents. You could buy a new car for under $2,000 and a new house for under $10,000.
A few years back, our Dana Bash asked Senator Byrd about his place in America's history.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. ROBERT BYRD (D), WEST VIRGINIA: The chapter isn't written yet, the last chapter, and there may be several chapters ahead. So we'll wait and see.
I love the Senate. It was the premiere spark of genius I think that the framers had, a forum in which one could speak his or her wishes and feelings and opinions free of any king, any president. And only the people reign and it's the people's branch.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Across the country women are asking this question -- Should they heed or ignore new guidelines about mammograms? The Health and Human Services secretary, she's standing by to carefully explain the administration's position.
We'll speak with Kathleen Sebelius in a moment.
And amid word that a U.S. flagship previously attacked by pirates was attacked again, we're going to show you ways the ship can fight off pirates on the high seas.
BLITZER: Let's get back to our top story, the Obama administration now distancing itself from some controversial new recommendations about when women should get mammograms.
Joining us, the Health and Human Services secretary, Kathleen Sebelius.
Madam Secretary, thanks very much for coming in. KATHLEEN SEBELIUS, U.S. HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES SECRETARY: Sure. Nice to be with you.
BLITZER: Are you rejecting these recommendations?
SEBELIUS: Well, Wolf, I think what we've done is put out a statement that basically indicates that the most important conversation that a woman can have is with her health care provider. So take a look at the recommendations of the independent body of scientists and health care providers who put together evidence based on looking at tens of thousands of cases, but then take that information and have the conversation with your health care provider the way you always have.
Every individual case, every family history is different. It's important and it's probably the most critical piece of evidence moving forward.
BLITZER: Well, I guess -- this is what you said in your statement. I'll read it.
"The U.S. Preventive Task Force is an outside independent panel of doctors and scientists who make recommendations. They do not set federal policy and they don't determine what services are covered which the federal government."
At the same time, if you go to the HHS Web site, the Health and Human Services Web site, it describes the U.S. Preventive Services Task Forces as the "gold standard for clinic preventive services."
So, if this is the gold standard of recommendations, why not simply accept these recommendations?
SEBELIUS: Well, I think what the task force has been charged with doing for years -- and they are an independent body of health care providers and scientists who are charged with reviewing a whole host of services, preventive services, and then making recommendations. They do not make policy decisions. They don't make coverage decisions. And that's really the critical piece.
Those recommendations are taken in. In this case, I think what we know is that mammograms definitely save lives. Mammograms have been a huge step forward for millions of American women, but we still, Wolf, have about 21 million women and girls in America who don't have a doctor, who don't receive any kind of mammogram screening on any kind of basis, regardless of their age.
BLITZER: Well, here's the problem.
SEBELIUS: So, health reform debate is about closing that gap, and we want women to have a doctor, take the information, but then have that conversation about your own health history, what the risks are of having a mammogram versus the benefits, and make a determination based on an informed decision.
BLITZER: Here's the problem. We spoke with a spokesperson for the chief health insurance lobby here in Washington, AHIP, as it's called, the American Health Insurance Plans, and they told us -- and I'll read what the spokesperson says. "Most of our member companies," meaning health insurance companies, private health insurance companies, "look at the task force guidelines as the standard."
And there are a lot of folks, especially a lot of Republicans in the House of Representatives today, who are worried that because these guidelines are now public, it's going to open the door for a reduction in benefits. If a woman routinely wants to get a mammogram, she hits 40, she's not going to get reimbursed for it.
SEBELIUS: Well, the health insurance plan statement also went on to say that if a doctor recommended that a woman in the 40s have a mammogram, that they felt it would be covered, so I think that's the important piece of the puzzle.
This data is based on hundreds of thousands of cases. This panel was appointed by the prior administration, by former President George Bush, and given the charge to routinely look at a whole host of services to make sure that new preventive services which had benefit were being looked at by health care providers and that things that they felt did not have as much benefit as we move forward were also looked at by health care providers. But that's really -- they're making recommendations, not coverage decisions, not payment decisions.
BLITZER: So what do you as the...
SEBELIUS: And the government payers have decided we will continue to cover both Medicare and Medicaid patients who have mammograms routinely. We will continue to recommend it, and the health plans have indicated that they will do the same. If the health care provider recommends a mammogram for a patient, they intend to cover that payment.
BLITZER: Do you recommend as the health secretary that women routinely get a mammogram every year once they turn 40?
SEBELIUS: Well, I think what I recommend is that women make a determination based on the best possible evidence and the best possible information from their own health care provider.
BLITZER: So that's what the task force says. That's what the task force basically is recommending.
SEBELIUS: So look at what the task force has recommended, what they see as potential risks and potential benefits, have that conversation with the health care provider, use the information to be a better informed consumer. But I'm also very eager to close that gap, to make sure that all women and girls in America have the opportunity to have a health home, get preventive services, have a conversation with a provider that we can detect breast cancer at an earlier time in all women and prevent it from continuing to be the number two cancer death for women in America.
BLITZER: So, basically -- I'm out of time, but you're saying that there is benefit from this task force recommendation, this task force study. It shouldn't just totally be dismissed?
SEBELIUS: Well, it shouldn't be dismissed. It's a piece of information. There are other groups who have disagreed with this information, but I think women need to be informed health consumers, take the information, take a look at their own situation, but then have that very important discussion with their own provider.
The provider is who should make the recommendation of how often to get tested, how often to get screened, what age to start. And we want to make sure that all women have that opportunity.
BLITZER: Kathleen Sebelius is the secretary of Health and Human Services.
Madam Secretary, thanks very much.
SEBELIUS: Good to visit with you.
BLITZER: The attorney general is called on the carpet for deciding to try 9/11 terror suspects in civilian court only blocks from Ground Zero. Eric Holder declaring failure is not an option. A Republican senator tells him that's ludicrous.
Also ahead, Mark Obama says he doesn't see his half-brother as president of the United States. He tells CNN about their emotional reunion in China.
BLITZER: Let's get right to Jack for "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.
CAFFERTY: The question this hour is: Would you vote to re-elect President Obama one year later?
John in Philadelphia, "In a heartbeat. Considering what he walked into, it's nothing short of a miracle the country's not in worse shape. Where would we be if McCain/Palin had been elected? Bush just plain ruined so many things about this country, that I believe Obama has been nothing short of fantastic."
Dan writes, "No I wouldn't. He still has some time to prove himself, but his inexperience and socialistic doctrine have made an impact on our economy and society, and neither are positive. Yes, he's inherited a great deal of this mess from Bush, and I gave him the benefit of the doubt in the beginning. Yes, he has also probably done some good in changing our image globally. If given the option though to vote to re-elect or keep him in office today, I would decline."