Return to Transcripts main page

THE SITUATION ROOM

Where GOP Would Cut the Budget; On the Brink of War?; New Break In Travel Gridlock; Terror Suspects In Court

Aired December 27, 2010 - 17:00   ET

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


SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN ANCHOR: Hey Don, happening now, we're waiting for the next big break in the holiday travel grid lock of 2010. This hour, there are some airports, they're preparing to re-open in the snow bound northeast.

Plus, while the Obamas vacation in Hawaii, the state new governor is diving into the controversy over where the president was born. Can he prove the doubters wrong.

And the number one threat to American troops in Afghanistan right now is not coming for the Taliban or al Qaeda, the new network of insurgent fighters could complicate the U.S. miltiary's exit strategy.

Wolf Blitzer is off today. I'm Suzanne Malveaux. And you're in the SITUATION ROOM.

Well, the Northeastern United States and beyond, there are a lot of stranded people that can't help but wonder if they're even going to make it home before the New Year. Blizzard conditions are in the region that they have eased, but the fallout for holiday travelers is still being felt at airports, train stations, on the roads, you name it. Now, I want you to check out the planes in the sky within the last few minutes.

More than 3,600 flights have been cancelled today alone. Two big hubs, New York's JFK Airport and airport at Newark, New Jersey are due to re-open in about an hour. We are hopeful that that will happen. Our CNN senior correspondent, Allan Chernoff, is at the third major airport in the Newark area. That is LaGuardia. That reopened just about an hour ago.

Allan, give us a sense of whether or not there are flights that are going in, going out, or if it's just the airport itself that is trying to take care of people during this time?

ALLAN CHERNOFF, CNN SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: Suzanne, reopened in theory. Yes, there is one runway that is open right now, but the plows are very, very busy, as we speak, trying to clear out the taxiways and trying to keep the two runways here cleared out as well. It's lots of work. The general manager here says they'll be at work all night long, which means the majority of the people here in the terminal will not be getting out tonight, very few flights departing, and few flights arriving.

That means some people will be spending the night here, some folks for the second night in a row. For example, the woman we met today from China, trying to get home, but preparing for her second night sleeping in the food court.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SARAH SUN, STRANDED PASSENGER: I spent the whole night here last night. And I'm going to still stay here.

HENRY: Tonight?

SUN: Yes, tonight.

HENRY: Before your flight tomorrow morning?

SUN: Yes. Yes. I've no place to go.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HENRY: Other folks will be going upstairs where they'll be setting up cots yet again for the second night in a row. Now, the airlines had hoped to be back for the regular schedule by tomorrow morning. Well, we'll have to see. Let's not count on it. And it will certainly be days and days before all of the travelers who had hoped to fly yesterday and today will actually arrive at their destination -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Allan, that is pretty rough when you have to spend the night in the food court, but let me ask you this. We're hearing that potentially, some travelers may not make it out before New Year's Eve. I mean, will it going to be that long that people could be there for another couple of days, even up until Friday?

HENRY: Suzanne, we have heard absolute nightmare stories. One gentleman who was stuck in Britain at Heathrow Airport for two nights made it to JFK airport also here in Queens. He had to sleep there last night. He was told that JFK that he would not get a flight down to Florida until the end of the week. So, he came here to LaGuardia hoping to get out. He's going to spend the night here. That will be four nights within one week, sleeping at an airport. He's heading down to Florida, then to St. Kitts for a family wedding. We're hoping he makes it.

MALVEAUX: Oh, God. We hope so. All the best to him. Thanks a lot, Allan. We appreciate that from the stuff rough going there.

Well, officials in Britain now say that Americans were among the targets of an alleged pre-Christmas terror plots. There are nine suspects who appeared in a London court today. Our CNN's Dan Rivers, he was at the hearing -- Dan?

DAN RIVERS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The nine men all appeared here at Westminster Magistrate Court here. Charges against them, all of them charged with conspiracy to cause an explosion between the sixth of November and the 21st of December. And the prosecutors told the court that the list of targets included the U.S. Embassy in London and the London Stock Exchange. All of them also charged for preparing for an act of terrorism in the same date and (inaudible) that involve downloading, researching, obtaining, and discussing materials and methods, researching, discussing, and carrying out reconnaissance on agreeing on potential targets, traveling to, and attending meetings and interestingly, igniting and testing insengery (ph) material.

None of the men were granted by all three of them Cardiff, four from Stoke-on-Trent and two from London. They've all been remanded in custody. So, they'll now appear at the Central Criminal Court, the Old Bailey, on the 14th of January. This, of course, all relates to dawn raids across the country in three different locations on the 20th of December, just five days before Christmas carried out by three different police forces.

Twelve men were arrested in those raids, initially. Three were released without charge. And now, to say those nine men have made their first appearance in court here at Westminster Magistrate Court.

Dan Rivers, CNN, London.

MALVEAUX: Thank you, Dan. We're also learning some surprising new information about a suicide bomber in Pakistan. Now, officials say the attacker who killed almost 50 people on Saturday wounded more than 100 was a teenage girl. Our CNN's Chris Lawrence is in Islamabad, Pakistan. And, Chris, tell us about this. It is very rare to have a female suicide bomber. What do we know about this young woman?

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Exactly, Suzanne. This is extremely rare in Pakistan, maybe only one other known instance of a female suicide bomber taking action like this. But Pakistani government officials are now confirming to us they do believe it was a young girl. They're saying that because of one -- because of eyewitness accounts. People who were there at this food distribution point, and, two, because of some of the body parts and other evidence that they have found there at the scene.

Just to give you some context of exactly how this happened. This was an area (INAUDIBLE) district, the tribal areas of Pakistan, on the border with Afghanistan, this is an area where the Pakistani military had engaged in some really intense fighting with the Taliban militants in that area. It displaced thousands of families. Well, the families were starting to come back to the area. And that's why the World Food Program had set up this food distribution center. They were giving away about a month's worth of food and supplies to some of these families to help them get them back on their feet.

The young lady was apparently in the line going to the security check point with about 300 other people waiting to get food. She was dress in a burqa, the full length cloth, and that's when she exploded her explosives, killing about 46 people and wounding more than 100. Again, extremely, extremely rare for a woman to be involved in this in Pakistan. Some of the officials we spoke with were caught by surprise -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Chris, also you say (ph) is surprise and maybe a little too early to answer these questions from investigators, but what do they know about this teenage girl? Do they believe that she was involved in any kind of radical groups? Do they think that she was, perhaps, brainwashed by her parents or people around her? Do they have any sense of what motivated her?

LAWRENCE: We're still trying to find that out. There've been some reports that she was not from that area. That she was actually may have been from Swat Valley and just come to the area within the last day or two before she -- she blew herself up at this food distribution site. But this area, Suzanne, is an area where senior Pakistani military official told me they've seen some reverses.

And by that, he means, you know, we left too soon. They got in there and they cleared out a lot of the militants, but he admits they did not have the ma manpower and the time to really make sure that clearing stuck. And so, a lot of militants were able to flow back in after the fact.

MALVEAUX: OK, Chris, thank you so much for that report.

A major effort now that's under way to end the so-called birther controversy surrounding President Obama. Ahead, we'll tell you how Hawaii's new governor plans to prove that the president was born in his state.

Plus, an explosive discovered in an embassy in Rome just days after dual bombings at other embassies in the city. We'll have the latest on the investigation.

And South Korea's strong new message as threats of all-out war with the north intensify. You're in the SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: Right now, we want to show you our new poll and an issue that will be back on the front burner in the new Congress. That is health care reform. The CNN Opinion Research Corporation Survey asked about the provision in the new law that requires all Americans to get medical insurance. 38 percent support it, but most Americans, 60 percent oppose it. Now, that is the ammunition for Republicans who are vowing to try to repeal the health reform law or take away its funding.

I want to bring in our senior political analyst, David Gergen. David, thank you so much for joining us during this holiday week. Clearly, this is going to be something that Republicans are going to take on fairly quickly in the new 112 Congress. This latest poll here showing from CNN Opinion Research Corporation says that the requirement for all Americans to get health insurance, there are 38 percent who favor this, but there's 60 percent now who oppose it.

The provision is also facing uncertainty when it comes to the courts. We have one federal judge who struck it down, two who approved it. What do we make of health care reform in the next Congress? Is it going to be chipped away piece-by-piece? Is it going to survive?

DAVID GERGEN, SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, Suzanne, there's going to be an awful lot of uncertainty about health care reform now for months to come because this poll is simply going to reinforce the Republican opposition, too. It was one of the two major issues on which Republicans ran in the November election. The other was on deficit spending and general government spending. And on both issues, the Republicans feel very, very -- strengthened by the way the public are responding.

Now, the Republicans are going at it in three different ways. They're going to health care repeal in three ways. One is, as you mentioned, they're suing in the federal courts. And they hope to get this case to the Supreme Court and have that individual mandate declared unconstitutional. And there's a possibility they could win there. The second way they're going at it is to go to the governor. They've got a lot of new Republican governors, and they're asking them in effect not to put the health care reform in to place in your state, and their support in some states for doing that.

And, the third, of course, approach for the Republicans, the third part of this picture is to do it through the Congress. They can't repeal it through the Congress because President Obama has a veto, but they can as they've already shown in the spending fight over the last couple of weeks. They can deny funds to the Obama administration for putting the health care reform into place. The various bureaucracies need money.

MALVEAUX: So, David, how does the administration fight back? What does the president need to do to keep this intact, or as much as he can, keep it intact?

GERGEN: Well, that's an interesting question. Clearly, he's going have to win the fight at the Supreme Court level. And there could be one -- you know, this could come down to Justice Kennedy as a swing vote. We'll have to wait and see. But I think he's going to have to make a case to the public.

You know, the (INAUDIBLE) his good friend and one of his top aides have said yesterday on television that he wanted to go out to the public more, not be so much in Washington. This is one of the issues he's going have to take to the public. He's going to have to make the faith (ph). And they're going to have to take HHS, Katherine Sebelius, and put the notes forefront.

MALVEAUX: Well, David, one thing I don't understand here is obviously the president got a shellacking, he said, in the midterm elections. He had all of this angst about people who say government is playing too much of an intrusive role in people's lives. We take the latest Gallup Poll, and President Obama comes out on top as the most admired here.

We are talking about Obama getting 22 percent of the vote. He beats out George W. Bush who've got 5 percent, Bill Clinton 4 percent, Nelson Mandela 2 percent. Down the list, you've got Bill Gates, the pope, the Dalai Lama. I mean, does this surprise you that you've had a president who's been under such pressure and such criticism that he still comes out as the most admired guy in the country?

GERGEN: Well, he got half -- the Democrats put him right at the top of the list in this poll. A lot of Republicans put him down much lower than that, as you can imagine. But presidents often come out on top. In fact, if you look at the last 64 Gallup Polls of most admired, presidents have been number one 52 times. So, that's a pretty good record. One that I found most interesting about this is -- two things. One was Billy Graham. He made it to the top ten list for the 52nd time. Think about that.

For over 50 years of being on the top ten list. Hillary Clinton -- she got the most admired number one spot this year. Since 1992, when she and her husband were catapulted in to the White House, she's been the number one most admired woman since 1992 15 times. 15 times.

MALVEAUX: Very powerful figure, very powerful woman, obviously. David Gergen, we'll have to leave it at that. And we'll get back to you with much more. Appreciate it.

GERGEN: Thank you.

MALVEAUX: Well, potential policy from Israel and the assassination of the top Hamas leader. Our Samantha Hayes, she's monitoring that and some of the other top stories that are coming in to the SITUATION ROOM right now. Sam, what are we watching?

SAMANTHA HAYES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Suzanne. The new chief of the Israel Secret Intelligence Service, Mossad, is reportedly planning to apologize to UK officials for the agency's alleged use of Forbes British passports (ph) in the operation leading to the killing. That's according to the British newspaper, "The Telegraph." The founding member of Hamas' military tear wing was found dead in his hotel room last January. Police suspect (INAUDIBLE) was responsible.

Police say that the alarm system worked after an explosive device was located at the Greek Embassy in Rome before it was too late. The police are also investigating reports of suspicious packages at the Venezuelan and Danish embassies. Dual bombings occurred Thursday at the Swiss and Chilean embassies injuring two people. And anarchist group claimed responsibility for those attacks.

And the legendary R&B singer/song writer, Teena Marie, has died. The four-time Grammy nominee was known for a number of hits. No cause of death has been released yet, but the singer's publicist said that she suffered a seizure last month. Teena Marie was 54 years old. Suzanne, I understand she was a favorite of yours.

MALVEAUX: She was. I loved Teena Marie. I'm so sad when I've heard about that, but swear (ph) this was one of my favorites. I don't know if you ever danced to that group, but that was a good one. So, she's going to be well missed, totally missed. Thank you, Samantha.

Whether or not President Obama wants it, he has a new ally who is trying to prove out once and for all that he was born in Hawaii. Also ahead.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Among other things, she hasn't gotten the rule change about --

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MALVEAUX: An exclusive interview with the woman who spent more time in the Senate than any other and who has seen a lot of changes along the way.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: The number of women in the U.S. Senate will remain at an all-time high of 17 in the next Congress. And one female member was defeated in November. That was Democrat Blanch Lincoln of Arkansas, but another was elected. Republican, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire. Well, our senior congressional correspondent, Dana Bash, spoke exclusively with the women who's more experience in the ways of the Senate than any other.

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Suzanne, when the new Congress has sworn in, Maryland Democrat, Barbara Mikulski, will become the longest serving female senator in history, surpassing Republican, Margaret Chase Smith, who served in the 1950s and 1960s. Mikulski invited me to her office for an exclusive interview to talk about her milestone and how different things were for women in Congress not that long ago.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BASH (on-camera): Barbara Mikulski remembers what a man's world the Senate was when she came 24 years ago.

SEN. BARBARA MIKULSKI, (D) MARYLAND: There's place called the Senate gym, the locker room, but it just couldn't accommodate me, and I'm not much of a jock, anyway.

BASH: And a lot of business was done there, right?

MIKULSKI: That's where they networked and that's where they bonded.

BASH: The first female Democratic senator elected in her own right, Mikulski was only one of two Senate women in 1986.

MIKULSKI: What you wore became a very big deal.

BASH: In what way?

MIKULSKI: I'm most comfortable wearing slacks. Well, for a woman to come on the Floor in trousers was viewed as a seismographic event. I had to alert Senator Byrd that I was going to do it. The Senate parliamentarian looked at the rules to make sure it was OK. And I kind of walked on that day, and you would have thought I was walking on the moon. It caused a big stir.

BASH: The girl who dreamed of being a scientist, not a senator, became the first woman on key Senate committees and in leadership by showing she is as smart and tough as the men.

MIKULSKI: That's the question you needed to know from day one, Ms. Jackson.

When I came, it was very clear that I was going to work twice as hard. Do my homework.

BASH: Mikulski is about to become the longest serving female senator ever. She has already known as the dean of Senate women.

MIKULSKI: I take it very seriously. I see that it's my job to be able to organize the women in a way where their talents are served.

BASH: When four more Senate women were elected in 1992, Mikulski took it upon herself to show them the ropes, something she still does for new female senators in both parties.

MIKULSKI: There is no training program when you arrive here. Usually, it's been every man for himself, but I'm going to be every woman each one teach one. So, I organized the power workshop. The media said, are you having a tea? I said, no, it's about power.

BASH: She is quite proud of this pen.

MIKULSKI: It was the first bill that President Obama signed.

BASH: A bill she pushed through the Senate, giving women equal pay for equal work.

MIKULSKI: He said this pen is yours. So, I have the very first pen of the very first piece of legislation signed by the very first African American president of the United States. It is, indeed, a national treasure.

BASH: She shows that other prized possessions, pictures with fellow female senators, now 17 in all, who still meet monthly for off of the record dinners.

MIKULSKI: And there are more women sitting in this chair than it served in all of American history when I arrived.

BASH: She calls that a stunning accomplishment in contrast to a stunning statistic. There have only been 38 female senators in history. Mikulski now becomes the woman to stay the longest.

Dana Bash, CNN, Capitol Hill.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MALVEAUX: Well, the next House speaker has his work cut out for him trying to find places to cut the budget that lawmakers can agree on.

And we are following a real life crime drama. A model found dead at the home of an heir to the Busch beer fortune. Stand by for the 911 tape.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: Here in the SITUATION ROOM happening now is potentially the greatest insurgent threat facing U.S. troops in Afghanistan right now. And we're not talking about al Qaeda or the Taliban. Ahead, why this lesser known terror network could see (ph) victory in the region.

Plus, new details in the mysterious death of a model at the home of a former Busch beer CEO. You'll hear the dramatic 911 call just released from the incident.

Wolf Blitzer is off today. I'm Suzanne Malveaux. And you're in the SITUATION ROOM.

When republicans take control of the House of Representatives next month, this is the one of the things that they'd like to take a whack at. That is the soaring federal deficit. Our new poll suggests that most Americans share the goal of reducing America's debt, but deciding where to cut spending is easier said than done. I want to bring in back Samantha Hayes, the incoming House speaker has his work cut out for him. What is he planning on doing?

HAYES: Very challenging goal for themselves in 2011. Cut the federal budget by 100 million without touching the programs that cost the most money.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

HAYES (on-camera): It's a promise that's probably been broken more times than a New Year's resolution to lose weight, but incoming House Speaker John Boehner said he will slim down the federal budget by $100 billion

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: On January 5, the American people are going to watch their Congress do something differently, at least, in one House.

HAYES: Americans will be watching. Sixty-eight percent say reducing the deficit is a top priority according to a new CNN Opinion Research Poll. But according to CNN polling in November, a majority don't want to see cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security, the heavyweights of the federal budget. GOP leaders add another exemption to that list, defense spending.

So, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a leading Republican economist said it won't be easy to stop the spending binge.

DOUGLAS HOLTZ-EAKIN, PRESIDENT, AMERICAN ACTION FORUM: If you look at the end of the last Congress, we extended the tax cuts, we extended the alternative minimum tax, we extended unemployment insurance. That was all extensions of current policy, but what went along with that was an extension of the current policy of enormous deficits. So we haven't turned the corner yet.

HAYES: Only three GOP senators voted in favor of spending cuts recommended by the president's debt panel. One of them, Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn, who told "Fox News Sunday," "If we don't take some pain now, we're going to experience apocalyptic pain, and it's going to be out of control."

So far, Republicans have been vague about what they plan to cut. Reid Wilson, editor in chief of the political publication "The Hotline," says the GOP will show its hands soon as debate begins again on funding the federal government through 2010.

REID WILSON, EDITOR IN CHIEF, "THE HOTLINE": Details should be forthcoming relatively soon because of this impending march deadline that's really going to put the onus on Republicans to sort of flesh out a lot of the campaign rhetoric about cutting spending.

HAYES: President Barack Obama and the Democratic-controlled Senate are not likely to go along with cuts to their priorities and are anxious to see if Republicans can come together to deliver on their campaign promise.

ROBERT GIBBS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: They're definitely going to have on January 5th responsibility for running half of Congress. They can't afford any longer to just simply sit and say no. They have to be part of a constructive conversation.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

HAYES: And it's no secret that Republicans are looking at Democratic victories like health care and financial reform. Those measures passed last year, but they have yet to be funded -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: All right. Thanks, Samantha.

I want to talk more about this, Republicans' hopes for cutting the budget and whether they're actually going to be able to do that. We're joined by CNN Republican contributor Bill Bennett, and national talk radio host and former Reagan education secretary.

Bill, thanks so much for joining us.

I want to start off here --

BILL BENNETT, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: So I'm wearing a red tie and a blue shirt.

MALVEAUX: Red and blue.

BENNETT: I'm going to be fair, right down the middle.

MALVEAUX: You're going to be fair? OK. We'll see if you can do this.

BENNETT: You don't think I can do this?

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

MALVEAUX: All right.

Let's start with the CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll.

You've got two-thirds of folks who say, look, we're very concerned about the federal deficit, cutting this, and we've got eight out of 10 who say we don't approve of earmarks. But put it up against some of the tough choices that Americans are willing to make here and it doesn't look like they're willing to make those tough choices.

Up against Social Security. When it comes to which is more important, reducing the deficit or preventing cuts in Social Security, 19 percent to 78 percent. Medicare, the same kind of numbers, reducing deficit, 19 percent. Preventing cuts in Medicare, 79 percent. And then taxes, when you take a look at the taxes, increase the federal deficit to pay for tax changes and unemployment benefits, 41 percent favor, 57 percent opposed.

So what do Republicans do? Ho do you square this when Americans themselves are not willing to make those tough choices to reduce the deficit.

BENNETT: A couple of points, Suzanne.

I think this is pretty typical. You ask people, do you want to cut the deficit? Yes. Is the deficit problem serious? Yes.

Well, how about cutting this program? No, don't want to cut that one. Well, how about cutting this program? Don't want to cut that one. So that's been the case historically in most surveys.

The second point, the argument hasn't really been made yet, I don't think. Look, Barack Obama has spent a lot of money. Whether you agree with that spending or not, this has been a big spending administration.

George Bush spent a lot of money too. So we haven't had a president come forward with a Congress and say, look, these deficits get further out of control, we're going to go bankrupt as a country. I don't think the argument has been made yet, so I think it's premature.

Third, most of the plans I've seen, like Paul Ryan's roadmap and some of the other plans, the deficit commission, the bipartisan deficit commission plan, talks about cuts in the future. You announce the Social Security people, for example, they're not going to be cut now, but if you're below 50 or 55, we are going to raise the age and cut benefits based on means testing.

MALVEAUX: And you would support that?

BENNETT: I would, but I would also support other reforms as well. It depends -- a lot depends on next spring, how the arguments are made, whether Democrats and Republicans can make them together. I think they can. I hope they do.

MALVEAUX: How severe would you say those cuts should be in, say, Social Security?

BENNETT: Let's just think of this -- supposing you took the Barack Obama budget which proposes $3.8 trillion -- that's the 201 budget -- George Bush's budget in 2008 was -- or, yes, the 2008 budget was $2.9 trillion. That's -- if you froze it, if you froze the 2011 budget, 2008 levels, you would save almost $1 trillion.

And I don't think anybody would say -- could fairly say 2008 was a hardship time. But if you just went back that far -- and this, again, is the most bipartisan of all approaches, which his you freeze everything. So everybody's dog gets less of a bone. That, I think, would save a lot of money and is doable.

MALVEAUX: You've got a couple of folks, obviously the incoming House Speaker, Boehner, who's talking about he sees about $100 billion that perhaps could be saved. You've got Senator Coburn, who is saying perhaps $200 billion.

A lot of Republicans are saying, you know what? You've got to make cuts in education.

You were a former education secretary. Do you think that's the right approach? Do you think there are areas that this country can cut in education. And now's the time?

BENNETT: Well, I certainly think you could absorb some in the Education Department. I like Arne Duncan, by the way, and think he's doing some very good things.

But they had a part of the stimulus package that was $100 billion. My entire budget when I was education secretary -- I know it's ancient history, but it was $14 billion. I mean, it's way, way up.

So, yes, I think you could cut education by a substantial amount. But forget singling out education. Do the freeze of 2008 levels. You save almost $1 trillion. But here's the point -- in the spring, we make this argument together, as Democrats or Republicans, or the argument could be made that we will all be undone and the country will be undone. We cannot sustain what we're doing.

MALVEAUX: Let's talk about the lame-duck session of Congress really quickly here.

BENNETT: Sure.

MALVEAUX: Obviously, the president, on his wish list for Christmas, he got tax cuts for the middle class; a repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"; also the New START treaty; health benefits for 911 responders. On the Republican side, they got the tax cuts for all, including the wealthiest Americans, and also didn't have to swallow that huge budget omnibus bill, the whole enchilada.

A poll shows here that the approval ratings for the lame-duck session, Obama comes out on top, 56 percent; Democrats, 44 percent; Republicans 42.

Who do you think won in December?

BENNETT: Close. We -- partisan hat on. We clearly won in November. I think everyone will say that with those elections.

MALVEAUX: Right, the shellacking. BENNETT: But I think -- and he admitted it -- but I think December, he had a pretty good December. I think that's right.

Surprisingly, they didn't get the big one, the big enchilada, as you called it, the omnibus. But he did get "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," he did get the START treaty. Now, not that everybody's all focused on that, but he did get that and that mattered. "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" really did matter to him.

I still think that budget deal is more a win for Republicans than Democrats. But there are obviously things in there the Democrats wanted. The big question before us now is who wins in January and February and March? As one of my callers said, "I hope it's the country and I hope folks can work together."

MALVEAUX: All right, Bill. You were true to your word. You did the red, the blue. You were pretty fair, I think. I think you did both sides.

BENNETT: Yes. I don't know if I liked it, but OK.

MALVEAUX: All right. Thank you, Bill.

BENNETT: Thank you.

MALVEAUX: We're standing by for more major airport reopenings in the New York area. Stranded passengers and travelers are hoping it's going to ease the backlog of flights in the snowbound region.

Plus, another possible glaring hole in homeland security when it comes to screening air cargo.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: A new warning that we could be paying $5 for a gallon of gas one day. Our Samantha Hayes is monitoring that and some of the other top stories that are coming in THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

Sam, that's going to be tough. I think you and I are going to be riding our bikes or something. Five bucks?

HAYES: Who wants to hear that? Yes.

In a TV interview, the former president of Shell Oil makes that prediction. He argues that prices will spike as the global demand for oil increases. Gasoline prices are already on the rise, though. Last week they topped $3 for the first time since October of 2008.

Richard M. Daley has now surpassed his father, Richard J. Daley, as Chicago's longest-serving mayor. The powerful Democrat has logged 7,918 days in office. That's just two days beyond his father's tenure from 1955 to 1976.

New signs that there could be a link between your brain and the number of people you socialize with. A study in the journal "Nature" finds that a part of the brain dealing with social interaction appears to be larger in people with larger and more complex social networks. But the study wasn't able to determine any final conclusions about the connection.

Plus, people with thousands of Facebook friends think they're smarter.

MALVEAUX: I don't know about all that. We'll see. Thanks, Sam.

Threats of all-out war intensify on the Korean Peninsula. Ahead, the strong new message the South is using to prepare.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: South Korea is ratcheting up national calls for solidarity amid threats of a war with the North.

Our CNN's Kyung Lah is in Seoul.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KYUNG LAH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: This is a message from South Korea's government to its public through pictures. This is a picture of the Cheonan warship that was sunk earlier this year, last March, by the North Koreans. And this is a photo gallery showing what 2010 was to South Korea, a year where this country saw a number of attacks from the North that, if you look here, caused lives lost from the South Korean military, and also civilians.

These highly emotional photos being put out by the Ministry of Defense is designed to garner public opinion behind the government's mission to try to solidify that public opinion. It's also matching some tougher words from the South Korean president.

In his radio address, he did say that war can only be prevented when provocations are met with a strong response. The president adding that, "Fear of war will not prevent war," and that the biggest danger that the Republican of Korea faces is a divided public opinion.

PRES. LEE MYUNG BAK, SOUTH KOREA (through translator): We must protect our country with our own hands to. This end, we need to stand together, united as one. There can be no difference between you and me when it comes to national security because our lives and the survival of the nation depend on it.

"A unified nation," says this ministry of defense spokesman, speaking specifically about public opinion, "is the strongest national defense."

So a stronger image, a stronger message to the people of South Korea, but it's also being met with stronger rhetoric from the North.

Kyung Lah, CNN, Seoul.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MALVEAUX: Well, last week Wolf Blitzer was in North Korea on an exclusive assignment. He had the rare opportunity to see what life is like outside of the capital of a very isolated, secretive country.

Take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

WOLF BLITZER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): We had North Korean officials with us all the time. And I mean all the time.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER (on camera): Thanks.

(voice-over): They spoke English well, and were very intelligent, polite and even nice. I never felt threatened.

Let's not forget, this is a communist, totalitarian regime. We were restricted where we could go.

They want to showcase the best and keep us away from the worst. We constantly pressed for more access, and they sometimes relented.

We saw a lot of the North Korean capital, but we did manage to get into the countryside to see a huge apple and fruit tree orchard where thousands of farmers work what the orchard director said were some 2.2 million trees. That number seemed exaggerated, but whatever it was, it was impressive.

(on camera): We left Pyongyang probably about half an hour ago. We drove out to the countryside, and we're here overlooking all of these fruit trees. It's like row after row after row after row.

Obviously, it's snowy out there, and you can't see any fruit. But eventually, I guess once the time is right, you'll see a lot of apples and other fruit growing right behind me.

We're overlooking this ridge looking over all of this area. There's literally acre after acre after acre.

(voice-over): Once you get outside Pyongyang, you see very few cars on the roads. There were no lights in the tunnels on the roads outside the North Korean capital. People are walking along the sides of the roads, some are riding bikes.

It's eerie being in the only car on the road. This is a very poor country.

Even as we feared there could be a war, we were taken to a silk thread factory where 2,000 women worked diligently. They also took us sightseeing. We saw their Arc de Triomphe, supposedly bigger than the one in Paris.

We also went to another source of North Korean pride.

(on camera): We're on top of the world's tallest stone tower here overlooking Pyongyang, and it really is majestic, to see what's going on. You see the river. You see the bitter cold freezing snow, but the buildings are really impressive to see what's going on here in the North Korean capital.

And they built this tower to really highlight what they've -- what they've accomplished over the years. It's very impressive, I must say, to be on top, and someone who lives in Washington, D.C., they make the point of pointing out, this is taller than the Washington Monument. And they constantly point out, it's the tallest in the world.

(voice-over): Huge pictures of the late, Great Leader Kim Il-sung, and his son, the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il, were all over the place. I didn't see pictures of the next generation's expected leader, Kim Jong-un.

At stores, I saw lots of books slamming the United States, including "The U.S. Imperialists Started the Korean War."

Later, when it looked like North Koreans would retaliate for South Korea's live-fire military exercise, I thought of all the young people I had seen in North Korea. They seemed so vulnerable, and I worried about their fate if there were a war. I'm not embarrassed to say I got sentimental and emotional worrying about them and their counterparts in South Korea

(on camera): It's a serene, quiet morning here along the banks here of the Botong River, right at the heart of Pyongyang. Some kids are playing. Some couples are walking by. Families are having a good time. But it's sort of misleading, because it's anything but quiet on the Korean Peninsula right now. It's a very tense moment.

Inside that building up there, Richardson is meeting with North Korean military officers. This may be the most important meeting he's had since arriving here in the North Korean capital. We're watching it every step of the way. The stakes clearly are enormous.

(voice-over): Outsiders have been predicting its demise for 60 years, but I didn't get the impression this country was on the verge of crumbling.

By the way, 2012 is going to be a huge year for North Korea. That's the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-sung. They're preparing major events.

Since they invited me back, I might go back then. Maybe even sooner, though I hope it won't be to cover a war.

Wolf Blitzer, CNN, Pyongyang, North Korea.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MALVEAUX: President Obama is in Hawaii now, and now there is a new effort under way to prove that's his actual birth place.

And a new danger for U.S. troops in Afghanistan said to be more threatening than al Qaeda or the Taliban.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) MALVEAUX: While the president vacations in Hawaii, the state's new governor is trying to clear up any lingering questions about Mr. Obama's birth records.

I spoke with Democrat Neil Abercrombie in 2008, when he was a congressman and I was working on a documentary about the future president. He told me about his close relationship with Mr. Obama's parents.

Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MALVEAUX (voice-over): Hawaii Congressman Neil Abercrombie was friends with Barack and Ann at the university.

REP. NEIL ABERCROMBIE (D), HAWAII: She was much more an observer and he was always the center of attention, because he had an opinion on everything and quite willing to state it. And it made people listen, among other reasons, because he thought in paragraphs. With this tremendous smile, a pipe in his mouth, dark-rimmed glasses with bright eyes, he was incandescent.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MALVEAUX: Clearly close to Barack Obama's parents.

I want to bring in our senior White House correspondent, Ed Henry, who is in Hawaii.

And Ed, now, you've spoken with now-Governor Abercrombie about Mr. Obama's birth records. What did he tell you about this, and why is he bringing this up now?

ED HENRY, CNN SR. WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It's a good question, Suzanne. And you're so right to highlight Neil Abercrombie's connection to the Obama family, because he told me in this exclusive interview that, basically, it's not just a about the president and protecting the office of the presidency, but bringing respect to the parents of Barack Obama since he knew them personally. He says it's basically staining their name, these birthers, alleging that Barack Obama was not born here and that, essentially, his parents lied about everything, maybe had him born in Kenya or somewhere else, and then brought him to Hawaii and covered it all up.

He said he wants to restore their name and bring some respect and dignity to them. And what he can do now, as you noted, a lot has changed since your interview in the last two years.

He's now the governor. He has the power to do all kinds of things. And Governor Abercrombie told me that he now has a couple of different cabinet officials here in Hawaii investigating what legally they can do, whether they can release the actual birth certificate, not just the certification of birth that's already been out there.

Take a listen to what he's mulling over right now. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ABERCROMBIE: It's not up to the president. It has nothing to do with the president.

This has to do with the people in Hawaii who love him, people who love his mom and dad. This has to do with the respect of the office that the president is entitled to, and it has to do with the respect that every single person's mother and father are entitled.

HENRY: So do you envision the possibility that you could release the birth certificate without his permission as governor?

ABERCROMBIE: Obviously, I'm going to do what is legally possible. I have the attorney general and the director of the Department of Health looking at what we can do to try and see what we can do in turn for an open process that will put those who want to disrespect the president and his parents in the proper light, which is to say they have a political agenda not worthy of any good American.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HENRY: And so what's interesting is that the governor told me it's a matter of principle for him. He doesn't care if the White House wants him to stop this.

And, in fact, White House officials won't comment on this interview I did with the governor. They don't want to bring more attention to the birthers, frankly.

And so you have to wonder if they're upset that Governor Abercrombie is bringing more attention to all of this. The governor says, "Look, I don't care. I want to settle this once and for all." So he's exploring every option at his disposal to just release more documents and try to finally close this chapter -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: OK, Ed. Thank you very much. Appreciate it.

HENRY: Thank you.

MALVEAUX: Well, we've been telling you about the most admired men and women of 2010. Well, what about first lady Michelle Obama? Find out whether she made the cut.

Plus, the mysterious death of a model at the mansion of a former Busch Beer CEO. You'll hear the 911 call.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: We told you a short while ago that President Obama ranks as the most admired man of 2010. And Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is the most admired woman for the ninth year, believe it or not, in a row. In the Gallup poll, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin comes in second, followed by media personality Oprah Winfrey. First lady Michelle Obama is fourth, and former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice rounds out the top five. You're in "THE SITUATION ROOM."