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THE SITUATION ROOM

Interview with Sen. Rand Paul; Kabul Hotel Bombing; Unrest, Economic Crisis in Greece

Aired June 29, 2011 - 17:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR, THE SITUATION ROOM: Thanks very much, Fred.

Happening now, President Obama warns Congress it faces a very hard deadline to raise the debt limit and make sure America's bills get paid.

This hour, his wide-ranging news conference and calls for both parties to stop fighting and in his words, "Just do it."

Who was really behind that fiery suicide attack in a luxury hotel in Afghanistan? New details on a deadly and brazen bombings and doubts about the Taliban's initial claims of responsibility.

And Iran's military takes its nuclear defiance to dangerous new levels. A key U.S. ally says Teheran is secretly testing missiles that could carry nuclear weapons.

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

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm the president of the United States and I want to make sure that I am not engaging in scare tactics.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: President Obama warning today that the risk to the United States economy is very real, if Congress doesn't meet a deadline to raise the legal limit on the federal debt. One month and three days before that deadline, he held a rare White House news conference today, his first since March. There's a lot for us to dissect today about the economy, the wars that are ongoing, the politics, the tone of the president's remarks.

Let's go straight to our White House correspondent, Brianna Keilar. She's standing by with more -- Brianna.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Hi there, Wolf. If you were listening to this press conference, I know certainly I was struck by one moment. And I know a lot of other people were as well. Perhaps the most colorful part of this press conference, an analogy the president made talking about his daughters, Malia and Sasha. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KEILAR (voice over): A press conference? More like a shove. President Obama schooled Congress on how to get their work done on time.

OBAMA: Malia and Sasha generally finish their homework a day ahead of time. Malia is 13, Sasha is 10. They don't wait until the night before. They're not pulling all-nighters.

(LAUGHTER)

You know, Congress can do the same thing.

KEILAR: Debt talks between Congress and the White House are hung up on what the president, and most Democrats, describe as closing tax loopholes, or as Republicans call them, tax hikes that will hurt the economy. President Obama framed the tax increases his party is demanding as only affecting mammoth corporations and the super rich.

OBAMA: Before we ask our seniors to pay for more health care, before we cut our children's education, before we sacrifice our commitment to the research and innovation that will help create more jobs in the economy, I think it's only fair to ask an oil company or corporate jet owner, that has done so well, to give up that tax break that no other business enjoys.

KEILAR: Six days after House Republicans walked away from negotiations saying tax increases are a no go, the president openly challenged that position.

OBAMA: A lot of people say a lot of things to satisfy their base or to get on cable news.

KEILAR: He insisted both Democrats and Republicans must sacrifice some demands. While issuing an understated by clear warning should Congress fail to increase the debt ceiling.

OBAMA: This is not an abstraction. If the United States government, for the first time, cannot pay its bills, if it defaults, then the consequences for the U.S. economy will be significant-and unpredictable.

KEILAR: But as the president pushed Congress he also tried to assure the American public, and no doubt reactive markets, that a deal is within reach.

OBAMA: I think there's a conceptual framework that would allow us to make huge progress on our debt and deficit and do so in a way that does not hurt our economy right here and right now. And it's not often that Washington sees both parties agree on the scale and urgency of the challenge at hand.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KEILAR: So the president there, sounding a positive note, saying that he doesn't want to seem alarmist. But, Wolf, there is real concern here at the White House. Press Secretary Jay Carney, when describing the ramifications of the U.S. defaulting on its loan obligations, he has used the word "calamitous". Right now, while both leaders on both sides of the aisle agree the debt ceiling does need to be raised, right now, and this has been the case for days, neither side is blinking, on this issue of tax increases.

BLITZER: As far as the tax increases or the removal of some of these loopholes or subsidies, as the White House would prefer calling it, how much money would all of that actually bring in?

KEILAR: Our estimation is that it would be-or this is what experts are telling CNN-between $100 and $150 billion. That seems like a lot of money, but when you're talking about deficit reduction, it's actually kind of like chump change. And there is another provision that certainly Democrats would like to see. And that is limiting the deductions that wealthy American s receive on their taxes. That is something the president did not outline today, but Democrats would like to see. That would certainly bring in much bigger money. Perhaps, hundreds of billions, Wolf, but there has been opposition on both sides of the aisle to that.

BLITZER: There certainly has been. All right. Thanks very much, Brianna.

At times, President Obama sounded downright impatient today with members of Congress and their long drawn-out over the debt limit. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: They're in one week, they are out one week. And then they're saying Obama has got to step in it. You need to be here. I've been here. I've been doing Afghanistan and bin Laden and the Greek crisis. You stay here. Let's get it done.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Let's bring in our Congressional Correspondent Kate Bolduan, she is up on Capital Hill.

Kate, the president says he is ready to work. Are Republicans ready to cancel their July 4 vacations in the coming days?

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I'll tell you, that's been a topic up here this afternoon, Wolf. Reaction to that press conference from Republicans up here, we can easily say was sharp and was swift.

One Republican aid calling the president's criticism of their schedule after PR stunt an quickly pointing they do have access to e- mail and phones when they are away. And in addition, a spokesman for the House Republican Leader Eric Cantor said that if Republicans need to be in town to get a deal done, they will, he assured me.

Now, bottom line, when you're talking about this criticism coming from the president, the criticism was intended essentially for House Republicans, Wolf, who are out this week, but back much of next. But the most immediate consequence of this criticism, perhaps may have to do with the Senate. Senate Democrats, right now, are meeting to discuss whether they should cancel their planned July 4 break, next week. We're waiting to hear back kind of what we hear from that meeting.

But the reality is people at the negotiating table here, Wolf, is the president and the leaders in both the House and the Senate, in both parties. They don't really need the full House and the full Senate here, in session, to get a deal done, Wolf.

BLITZER: That's absolutely true. They need the leadership to cancel their vacations. The president, if he is planning on going away, he has got to stay in town, too, to try to get this done. I guess the bigger perspective, Kate Are they going to get the deal done? What do they need to do to get the deal done?

BOLDUAN: That's a very good question. We do know the meetings are happening on the staff level. And we also know that the president was meeting with some Senate Democrats this afternoon. In terms of the big people at the negotiating table, on both sides, in both parties, they have not met yet. That's kind of just where we stand at this point as both sides seem to be dug in. Democrats insisting that any package that is going to happen has to include revenue that come doing away with certain tax breaks. On the flip side, Republicans are insisting that anything that amounts to a tax increase is a no-go. And the top Republican in the Senate, Mitch McConnell made that point very clear, even before the president's press conference today. Listen here to Mitch McConnell.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, (R) MINORITY LEADER: The Democrats spending spree has brought us to the brink of an economic calamity. Now they're telling taxpayers they won't do anything to prevent it unless taxpayers hand over more money in the form of tax hikes. And they have the nerve to call their critics immoral.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BOLDUAN: And then this, Wolf, from the House Speaker John Boehner, in a statement after the president's press conference. I'll read it to you, in part, he said, very clearly, "The president is sorely mistaken if he believes a bill to raise the debt ceiling and raise taxes would pass the House." Speaker Boehner goes on to say, "The longer the president denies these realities, the more difficult he makes this process."

The takeaway from all of this, the bottom line, Wolf, we're not getting any indication that either side is budging from their position yet, Wolf?

BLITZER: Not yet. All right, thanks very much, Kate Bolduan, up on the Hill. By the way, Senator Rand Paul will be joining me live this hour. We'll press him on what's going on. Get his reaction from what we heard from the president.

Meanwhile, a new legal show of support today for the health care reform law that was signed by President Obama last year. A federal appeals court in Cincinnati ruling that a key provision in the law is, in fact, constitutional. That would be the so-called individual mandate requiring most Americans to buy health insurance by 2014 or face penalties.

This is just, by the way, one of several rulings expected in the coming weeks and months in a series of legal challenges to the law. It's all likely to wind up at some point before the United States Supreme Court.

The Afghan situation, in the capital, still reeling right now from a terror attack at a very popular hotel. We'll go to Kabul live for an update on the suicide bombing and new claims about who was behind it.

Stand by to hear who's making an urgent appeal to protect-to protect-Osama bin Laden's children. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We just heard President Obama gripe that Congress is working one week, taking off the next week. He's certainly not the only one suggesting that lawmakers need to stay in session and confront America's debt crisis. Republican Senator Rand Paul, of Kentucky, is urging the Democratic leadership to cancel lawmakers' vacations.

Senator Paul is joining us from Capitol Hill.

So you agree, Senator, with the president that right now, given the crisis that's unfolding, involving the national debt, there's no time for members of Congress to be leaving Washington, going on break, going on vacation?

SEN. RAND PAUL, (R-KY): Absolutely. We finally find common ground with the president. Bipartisan support for actually doing some work up here. You know, I've been disappointed. I've been here six months. Not one minute has been spent on the floor, or in committee, discussing the debt ceiling. We haven't passed a budget. We haven't passed any appropriations bills. I really think the American people deserve better.

BLITZER: I know you've agreed with many of your Republican colleagues in the Senate to challenge the Democratic leadership, Harry Reid. What response are you getting from them right now?

PAUL: Well, Senator Ron Johnson, from Wisconsin, went to the floor yesterday. And he said he had had enough. You know, he is a successful businessman, who says I want to see results. I want to at least see you working on the problem. He, and I, and several of the other freshmen, were just disappointed that we don't appear to be addressing the problems. And so we said, look, you know, we don't think we should be taking a week off in that we have not yet even started discussing the debt ceiling. The American public elected us because they were concerned and worried about the future of the country and worried about this looming debt crisis. Yet the discussions are in secret, between a few people. We want them in the open, before committees, before the world. How will we fix this problem?

BLITZER: I know you don't support any increase in the tax rates, but what about when the president says eliminate some of the loopholes, some of the subsidies for billionaires out there, for huge oil companies who make billions in profits, pay relatively modest amounts of tax. Are you at least open to reviewing, to having some tax reform that would eliminate some of those loopholes, some of those tax break subsidies?

PAUL: Well, I voted to get rid of the ethanol credit. My preference, though, is to get rid of special tax breaks as part of tax reform where we lower overall rates, simplify the tax code, and then get rid of some of these special bonuses they give to people.

But just doing it on its own or saying we're going to take away depreciation from one industry, like oil industry, would be a big mistake. We need more oil production in this country, not less. So, we need to be careful about how we go about it.

Do I think the rich can absorb more of the punishment of what -- or the austerity that will need to come about? Yes, but let's do it by reducing their government benefits, not by taxing the economy. Almost all economists will tell you that if we raise taxes in a recession, it's not good for the economy.

BLITZER: But if reduce some of those overall rates in order to get that kind of tax reform, to eliminate, let's say, some of the subsidies, the tax loopholes, for corporate jet owners, or whatever, doesn't that become revenue neutral as they say? You're not going to get the kind of savings that you really need to deal with the nation's enormous debt?

PAUL: Right. But I don't you're going to -- the revenue that you would get is you would unleash economic growth. During Reagan's term, when they lowered overall rates, they had a couple of years where they had over 6 percent growth. You know, that does enormous things for the economy.

Right now, we're looking at an anemic 2 percent and it could well get worse because of all these new regulations they're heaping on the economy.

So, if you want growth, you have to have less regulation, lower rates and you can close some loopholes, but you can't isolate and close loopholes without raising rates. If it's not revenue neutral, you won't get any Republican votes for it.

But if you lower rates, you will unleash economic growth and you will end up getting more revenue.

BLITZER: As you know, Senator, a lot of Americans, when they hear that a huge company like General Electric makes $14 billion in profit worldwide in 2010, $5 billion of which profit in the United States, and they wind up paying zero in federal tax, federal income tax, that causes a lot of outrage out there. Is that fair?

PAUL: I think Americans are rightly annoyed. I'm annoyed by it. The thing is, what we need is lower rates and less deductions and less tax credits. But you can't just isolate and take away the credit. G.E. is probably an exception.

But what I don't want is to take away, like, an oil depreciation allowance, and, all of a sudden, the oil companies are paying higher taxes and drilling for less oil, and then gasoline goes up. Gasoline has already doubled in price under this president. So, I don't think we want to raise the gas price higher than it is now. That would be devastating to the middle class.

But there are ways of doing it. We could means test benefits that we send out. The wealthy would absorb more of the austerity there. We can cut spending, we need to. Spending has gone up dramatically the last two years.

So, there are ways to do it. There are ways we could come across the aisle and do it. We will come forward. If we're here next week, which we're going to try to force, we will have a plan by the end of the week that will raise the debt ceiling, contingent upon a balanced budget amendment, contingent upon cuts and contingent upon statutory caps, like pay-as-you-go.

We're going to produce a proposal because the other side won't. We need something on the table to be debated in public, in full view.

BLITZER: All right.

PAUL: And that debate needs to happen soon.

BLITZER: And we're out of time. But very quickly, if you get those three conditions, you, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, will, in fact, vote to raise the debt ceiling, is that what I'm hearing?

PAUL: Yes. Ironic as it sounds, I will be proposing with other senators, hopefully next week, a raise in the debt ceiling contingent upon a balanced budget amendment passing, significant cuts passing and statutory caps. I understand we may have to borrow some money, but we can't just borrow more money without reforming what's going on up here.

They're acting irresponsibly and the people who elected me will say, gosh, you can't vote to raise the debt ceiling unless you fix the process. So, we want to fix the process, allow it to go up some and then start going towards a balanced budget.

BLITZER: OK, Senator Paul, thanks very much for joining us. Good luck.

PAUL: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: The son of Osama bin Laden is now speaking out in a brand-new interview. Just ahead, why he says he's not convinced his father is really dead.

Plus, a stunning new development in the story of that mysterious debris that forced astronauts on the space station to duck for cover. You might not believe just how close it came.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The son of Osama bin Laden is now pleading with Pakistan for the release of his family following his father's death.

Let's go to Lisa Sylvester. She's monitoring that and some of the other top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

Lisa, what's going on?

LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi there, Wolf.

Well, Omar bin Laden tells "Reuters" the leaders of Pakistan should protect Osama bin Laden's innocent children and let them go. He also says he doubts his father is actually dead since President Obama isn't releasing pictures of the body. Some of bin Laden's children and wives were among those detained after that May raid on his compound. Omar bin Laden broke with his father back in 2001.

And a major settlement for Bank of America in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. The corporation announcing today it will pay $8.5 billion to investors burned by fraudulent mortgage securities during the housing collapse. The settlement will go to 22 investors, including major financial firms. Bank of America's mortgage practices are currently being investigated in all 50 states.

And NASA now says the mysterious space debris that sent crew members aboard the International Space Station ducking for cover yesterday is the closest anything has ever come to the spacecraft, passing it by just a little more than 1,000 feet. The agency doesn't expect any further encounters with the matter, but it still hasn't identified what it was, so quite the mystery there.

But imagine that, Wolf, about 1,000 feet.

BLITZER: That's not that far away, obviously. All right. Scary stuff. Thanks very much, Lisa.

Stand by for a CNN exclusive. We're there for an attack by Taliban militants on a U.S. outpost in Afghanistan. We have the detail.

We also have the latest on the fire threat to toxic materials, stored at the Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: I'm Wolf Blitzer in Chicago. We have more important stories coming up just ahead here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Is Iran on the verge of developing a nuclear weapon? What's Britain's foreign secretary know about that? What he's saying about it? There are apparently secret missile tests underway right now.

Plus, President Obama joking that while Congress is in one week, out the next, he's, quote, "doing Afghanistan and bin Laden." You're going to hear what our new chief White House correspondent Jessica Yellin asked that got him all fired up.

And the former White House chief of staff turned mayor of Chicago. He's opening up about the president, gay marriage, issue number one: the economy and jobs. My interview with Mayor Rahm Emanuel. That's coming up.

Stay with us here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(MUSIC)

BLITZER: President Obama says the deadly suicide attack on a luxury hotel in Kabul Afghanistan shows the country is still a very dangerous place and that the Taliban still are active.

But today, the Afghan government is blaming the bombing on an al Qaeda-linked militant group so-called Haqqani Network, not necessarily the Taliban, which publicly claimed responsibility for it. The attack and the firefight at the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul left 21 people dead, including all nine attackers.

"London Times" reporter, Jerome Starkey, is joining us now live from Kabul. Jerome, what are you hearing about Afghanistan's investigation into this attack?

JEROME STARKEY, LONDON TIMES: Well, moments ago, when I spoke to the Afghan interior ministry, who are leading the investigation, they confess that they still haven't made any arrests, but they insisted that investigation was very much underway. Clearly, in the aftermath of an attack like this, there are huge amounts of forensic information which they can gather from the scene. Of course, they'll be sifting through mobile phone records -- anything recovered from the scene, to try and work out who these nine people were, who they were talking to immediately before the attack.

NATO sources here in the Afghan capital, they also believe that these nine men carried out an attack which had the hallmarks of the Haqqani group. This complex, audacious attack, including a combination of suicide bombs and gunmen storming buildings, deliberately going to the roof of the building. At least five of the gunmen immediately made their way to the roof of the Inter-Continental Hotel so that they could shoot from the roof to try and stop Afghan security forces from making their way into the building to eventually try and flush them out. This attack was particularly audacious, particularly complicated. And it's partly because of its nature that security officials here leading the investigation believe, as you say, that it was carried out by men loyal to Jalaluddin Haqqani, this extremist leader thought to be living in exile in Pakistan.

BLITZER: Jerome, you were near the hotel shortly after the attack. Describe the scene for us.

STARKEY: Well, I was watching the battle unfold from a nearby hilltop about a few hundred meters away from the Inter-Continental Hotel. And as I crested the hill -- it was around 24 hours ago now -- I thought that there were helicopters in the sky. But as I came over, I realized that that sound was not, in fact, helicopters. It wasn't engines. It was just the sheer weight of gunfire coming from the Inter-Continental Hotel, machine gun fire.

What appeared to be anti-aircraft tracer fire was arcing into the night sky, lighting up the skies over Kabul. It was punctuated by the sound of explosions, very large explosions, possibly, we believe, the suicide bombers detonating their vests. Of the nine attackers, just three were shot dead by security forces. Six of them managed to detonate their suicide vests.

The other sound, of course, coming from the hotel, smaller, thud- like explosions. We believe that was probably the rocket-propelled grenades which the insurgents were carrying when they stormed the building, which they used as they ran through the corridors, ran through the floor by floor, terrifying the guests staying in the hotel, many of whom were trapped in their rooms, cowering, not knowing what was going to happen, not knowing whether this was going to turn into a Mumbai-style siege.

Those explosions, eventually brought to an end when a NATO helicopter arrived on the scene and snipers shot from the helicopter, killing three gunmen on the roof of the hotel.

BLITZER: Jerome Starkey, of "The Times of London," helping us better appreciate what's going on.

Jerome, thanks very much.

And as he just reported, guests inside the Inter-Continental Hotel were simply terrified, terrified when those suicide attackers struck. An American graduate student shares his firsthand account of the blasts and his fears that he would die.

Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I never experienced explosions that near. The ground shook. The ones that were further, like I was saying, it seemed like from where I was at, thankfully, they started a little bit further, so I just heard loud explosions. Over the next three or four hours, it seemed like -- these are going off every 45 minutes, not all the time. So they might have been people blowing themselves up, because the total I heard, maybe six or seven or something.

When they got closer, my room started to shake, and I was on the floor in the corner of the room. That was the safest place I could think of. And one of them went off below me, because I felt -- I kind of popped up a little bit. I didn't go flying into the air, but I felt the ground move up, and then I was just praying that the next one wouldn't be right under me or above me or anywhere elsewhere there are people.

I'm sure none of us thought we were going to make it. Actually, I wrote my little will, according to Islamic law, from the little that I know. I put it in my pocket just in case.

And I just wrote -- I said, "If anything happens, I want all my property to be donated according to Islamic law, and to any charity listed." So this is the extent to what I'm sure everybody was thinking, especially when the last explosion went off on my floor, right under me.

People were praying. As soon as we were able to get to the basement, people started praying, thanking God, especially after we were told it was safe.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Saiz Ahmed (ph), by the way, is in Kabul studying Afghan legal history. We want to thank him for those comments.

Let's get to the unrest and economic crisis that's still unfolding right now in Greece.

Riot police and protesters clashed for a second day as Greek lawmakers approved some tough new tax increases and budget cuts. The vote paves the way for an emergency loan to Greece designed to prevent a financial meltdown that could have rippled across the globe. But that's apparently not easing the anger of so many of the demonstrators who are on the street.

CNN's Richard Quest is joining us now live from Athens.

Richard, we've seen these protests all day, before, during, after the vote in parliament. At one point, by the way, it was so bad, you need to wear goggles to protect yourself from the tear gas.

What's the situation like right now?

RICHARD QUEST, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The situation now is quite calm, Wolf. Excuse me. The square protesters have now mostly disappeared. There's a hard core that seem to still be looking for trouble, but, by and large, the traffic started to move again.

One particular point in the hour or so before the vote, I would say that was when it was at its worst. You had running battles across the whole square, you had a huge amount of tear gas..

Yes, the goggles had to come out because, frankly, without them, we wouldn't have got on air. It would simply have been to painful on the eyes.

Tonight, though, I think that the honorable protesters, those who have spent days in the square protesting on a matter of philosophy and policy against these austerity cuts, are feeling very bruised. They're feeling their government is letting them down, and they are seriously worried about what this means for the Greek economy and for their way of life in the future -- Wolf.

BLITZER: So now that the vote is over, the measures have been approved, very painful measures, what happens next? What's going to happen?

QUEST: The first thing that has to happen is a series of more votes to enact the various legislation. We've got the roadmap, we've got the plan, now we need the details, bits of legislation. That will be bitter in the parliament behind me.

But also expect implementation difficulties. The world is going to -- or Europe, particularly, the eurozone -- is going to watch to make sure that Greece keeps to its word, that it does increase taxes, it does cut spending, it does make structural reforms to the economy.

Finally, Wolf, what will happen is the eurozone, the ministers of the eurozone, will take a deep breath. They know it's no exaggeration. They came closer than they would have wished to watching a default of a Western country, the first in many decades, and the near collapse of their beloved, precious euro.

BLITZER: This crisis is by no means over yet.

Richard, we'll stay in touch with you.

Richard Quest, reporting for us from Greece.

Meanwhile, natural disaster and the threat of a toxic catastrophe. We're going to have an update on the wildfires near the Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico.

And CNN is embedded with U.S. troops in Afghanistan, embedded when the Taliban attack took place.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: A major nuclear facility in New Mexico now being threatened by a waging wildfire. Thousands of people living nearby have already been forced to evacuate.

CNN's Reynolds Wolf has the very latest -- Reynolds.

REYNOLDS WOLF, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Well, Wolf, across this ravine is the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and the big concern that we have are the 20,000 to 30,000 barrels of radioactive material. Again, the threat of that mixing up with the fire, certainly some grave concern to all of us. However, officials say that it is safe from the flames and not a major concern.

That being said, though, this 40-square-mile facility has been threatened by fire. In fact, the southern fringe of it has been singed quite a bit. Now to the west, western perimeter, fire has been approaching that area also.

Now, the fire began on a Sunday, and it is believed it is due to a power line that fell on private property which started the blaze which, to this point, has burned over 60,000 acres. That's roughly 20,000 acres up in smoke per day, and that has left Los Alamos basically a ghost town.

Save for a few rescue vehicles, a few command vehicles also, this place is absolutely empty. The evacuation took place on Monday. When it did, we're told it was a very orderly procession, no accidents, no major problems. But obviously, the residents left with very, very heavy hearts, very worried about what they'll find when they return.

And speaking of concerns, Wolf, you can see a couple of issues the firefighters have right behind me. For one, the vegetation. The fires that raged this region just a decade ago left these areas untouched, so there's plenty of fuel for the fires.

Another problem, the topography. Imagine trying to battle a tremendous blaze in a landscape like this. Almost impossible.

Another tremendous issue, the lack of cooperation from Mother Nature. Dry conditions, very low humidity expected through the end of next week.

Wolf, back to you.

BLITZER: Reynolds, thanks very much.

We'll stay on top of that story in Los Alamos.

Meanwhile, President Obama is making it no secret that he's frustrated, deeply frustrated with Congress right now. Just ahead, what our brand new chief White House correspondent Jessica Yellin asked him that got him sort of fired up.

And what GOP presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann is now saying about a potential, in her words, "mud fight" with Sarah Palin on the campaign trail.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: President Obama not budging in today's news conference over at the White House despite pressure to clarify his stance on gay marriage.

Listen to a little bit of what happened at the news conference. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: What I've seen happen over the last several years, and what happened in New York last week, I think was a good thing.

QUESTION: You said that it's a positive step that so many states including New York are moving towards that. Does that mean that you personally now do support same-sex marriage, putting aside what individual states decide? Is that your personal view?

OBAMA: I'm not going to make news on that today. Good try, though.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) but what you said before really led me to believe that that's what's in your personal mind. I'm wondering what the distinction you're drawing.

OBAMA: Laura, I think this has been asked and answered. I'll keep on giving you the same answer until I give you a different one. All right? And that won't be today.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right. Let's discuss this and more in our "Strategy Session."

Joining us, our CNN political contributor, Roland Martin. Also joining us, Republican strategist, former Gingrich press secretary, Tony Blankley. He's now an executive vice president of global public affairs at Edelman public relations.

Guys, thanks very much for joining us.

Roland, if the president said today that it's a good thing, in his words, what New York State did the other day in legalizing same- sex marriage, why won't he go that extra step and simply say that gay marriage -- he supports gay marriage?

ROLAND MARTIN, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Because, actually, if you heard what he said, he repeatedly said it should be left up to the states to decide how they want to move forward. He also said at that LGBT fundraiser last week, when he stated that it's a question of how our democracies work. That is, we have these debates, it goes back and forth, and the states decide.

And so I think when he said it was a good thing, that follows along the lines of what he has said that states should decide. But look, I don't think for a second he is going to publicly say that he is in favor of gay marriage because it is still a political hot potato.

Even today, he did not even assert or even repeat that he believes marriage is between a man or a woman. He frankly danced around it by saying, you know, you could keep asking the question and I'll give you the same response until I give you a different response. BLITZER: He did say, though, Tony, that the Defense of Marriage Act which defines marriage between a man and a woman, which President Clinton then signed into law back in the '90s, was unconstitutional, in his opinion. He does say that. He says that what New York State did last week is good.

He's clearly evolving his position. He's moving eventually, I assume, towards supporting gay marriage.

Politically speaking, how will that impact him?

TONY BLANKLEY, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Well, he's not prepared to make that move yet, obviously. But look, he said two things during the 2008 campaign.

One, that his Christian faith told him that marriage was between a man and a woman. And that he thought it was up to the states.

Now he still believes it's up to the states, which is consistent to finding the marriage act to be unconstitutional, in his judgment. But as Jay Carney, his spokesman, said, he says he's evolving. So what he must be evolving on is his personal view, but he hasn't yet evolved to the point of mutation yet.

So we're watching him evolve, but not change yet.

MARTIN: Hey, Wolf, I find one thing interesting. The president stated that he found DOMA to be unconstitutional. But earlier in the news conference, when Chuck Todd asked the question regarding the War Powers Act, the president said that, I don't want to act like a Supreme Court justice and determine what is constitutional.

So, he would not give an answer on the constitutionality of the War Powers Act, but he then came back and declared that DOMA is unconstitutional even though the Supreme Court has not acted on that law. That made no sense to me.

BLANKLEY: Part of his political problem --

BLITZER: Hold on. DOMA, being the Defense of Marriage Act.

Let me change the subject, Tony, and talk about what's happening in presidential politics.

Michelle Bachmann, she is off to a terrific start in Iowa. Her poll numbers are good. And now this new poll that just came out, the Suffolk University Poll in New Hampshire, shows she has jumped considerably since the last time.

Mitt Romney, who lives in New Hampshire, for all practical purposes, he is up at 36 percent. But Michelle Bachmann is now number two, with 11 percent. She was at 3 percent not that long ago.

She is really doing well not just in Iowa, but she's moving up a little bit, impressively, in New Hampshire. She is second there right now. Explain what's going on.

BLANKLEY: Well, I think she benefits from the fact that she has been incorrectly characterized, shall I say politely, by the media and political opponents. And now that the public is actually seeing her, they're saying, well, she seems fine to them.

So, her numbers are going -- it's the same thing that happened to Reagan. Not that she is the equivalent of Reagan, but there's a tendency for the media to disparage and make fun of the intelligence of conservative candidates, then the public sees them and judges them to be as intelligent as the next candidate. And she is benefiting from that right now.

Now, the question is going to be whether once they've taken a positive judgment of her, whether she can move up to the next higher level and really be competitive. And that's what the next couple of months for her is going to be about.

BLITZER: And Roland, she also had an interesting comment, Michele Bachmann, when she was asked about her emerging relationship now with Sarah Palin, who may or may not at some point decide to run for president. I'm going to play the clip and then we'll discuss.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. MICHELE BACHMANN (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: They want to see two girls come to and have a mud wrestling fight. And I'm not going to give it to them.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right. You heard what she said. "They want to see two girls come together and have a mud wrestling fight. And I'm not going to give that to them."

What do you think about that, Roland?

MARTIN: Well, I think that the behavior of many folks in the media has been an abomination by trying to pit two women against one another. I haven't heard anybody suggest that all of these white guys running against each other are fighting for the white male vote. And so, all of a sudden, it's a question of, well, Palin and Bachmann are fighting for the same voters. No.

One of the reasons why I think Congresswoman Bachmann is rising in the polls is because no other candidate appeals to the Tea Party voters that propel so many other folks into office. Now, I will disagree with Tony.

First of all, Bachmann has made some comments that frankly have been nutty. And so, don't sit here and criticize the media for bringing these things out. She clearly is not a history major with some of her comments as of late. And so she has to own up to that.

I also find it offensive, Wolf, when people keep suggesting that any criticism of her is sexist. No. That demeans when you have true sexism. She wants to be in the race? Take the same criticism as Romney, Pawlenty, Gingrich and the other candidates.

BLANKLEY: Look, obviously there is sexism in reporting. Hillary Clinton experienced this. Nancy Pelosi said that. Geraldine Ferraro experienced it. Maggie Thatcher experienced it both in Britain and in American media.

So, there's a long history of that. But regarding the mistakes she's made, everybody makes mistakes. The president, at his press conference today, said he was the first president to do deregulation. Well, Clinton did it and Reagan did it before him, so he was wrong. No one is saying that he's not fit for office because he has a verbal mistake.

MARTIN: People make mistakes. It happens

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: All right, guys. We've got to leave it.

Hold it, Roland. We're out of time, Roland. We're out of time. Next time we'll have more time.

Roland, thanks very much.

Tony, thanks very much.

By the way, I earlier misspoke when I said "Michelle Obama." I meant to say Michelle Bachmann. I apologize for that misstatement.

Bill Clinton is returning to a familiar theme right now. Stand by. The former president of the United States committing global resources to tackling America's economic problems.

And the disturbing new charge that Iran is secretly testing missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're here in Chicago for the Clinton Global Initiative event that's unfolding right now.

CNN's Ted Rowlands has a preview.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TED ROWLANDS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Since its inception in 2005, the Clinton Global Initiative's goal has been to solve world problems by bringing together bright and powerful people from the public and private sector.

WILLIAM JEFFERSON CLINTON, FMR. PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We help match people with ideas with people with time and people with skills and people with money.

ROWLANDS: This week, all those people, unlike previous CGIs, will focus on the United States -- the economy and job creation.

BOB HARRISON, CEO, CLINTON GLOBAL INITIATIVE: We have three cabinet secretaries. We have 10 current and former governors. We have 13 current and former mayors, 350 business leaders, and 250 nonprofits

JAMES ROGERS, CEO, DUKE ENERGY: We will do it.

ROWLANDS: Among those business leaders is Duke Energy CEO James Rogers. He has been a CGI member since 20007 and says the initiative works because participants are forced to follow through with specific action plans

ROGERS: And at the end of the day, I like that, because it's not just about identifying and collaborating with others. It's about actually getting something done.

ROWLANDS: So far, the initiative has helped more than 300 million people in 180 countries. Examples include fighting malaria in Kenya, bringing solar power to Ethiopia, and helping empower millions of women and children around the world.

But here in the U.S., the goal is to get people back to work.

RICH BROOME, SR. VICE PRESIDENT, HERTZ: It's New York City, Washington, D.C.

ROWLANDS: Rich Broome is the senior vice president of marketing for Hertz. He is here working out a plan to get more electric vehicles on the road which he says could create thousands of jobs.

BROOME: We need the infrastructure supporting electric vehicles built out. By that, I mean electric vehicle charging stations. And building out maybe a million charging stations in this country over the next five years will mean American jobs.

HARRISON: We don't have the capability in this meeting with the 700 or so people to move the numbers dramatically. But what we can do is move the numbers to some degree in terms of job creation. And importantly, we can provide examples that others can follow.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And Ted Rowlands is joining us now live here in Chicago.

They've already made some announcements, haven't they, already?

ROWLANDS: Yes, a pretty big day. AFL-CIO investing $10 billion in capital infrastructure repairs as part of the negotiations here, or discussions. And Onshore Technology is committing 1,000 jobs in rural Missouri, in Joplin as well. Of course, they were hit so hard with the tornado.

The success of this is that Bill Clinton brings you in as you come up with great ideas, and then he holds people to it with these pledges. He follows up, and these people do feel compelled to come through, which they have been.

BLITZER: And I'll be speaking with him tomorrow here in Chicago.

Ted, thanks very much.