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"They Are A Great Civilization"; Stunning Apology Between Key U.S. Allies; Senate Reportedly Close to Immigration Deal; Showdown Over Same-Sex Marriage

Aired March 22, 2013 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Jake, thanks very much.

Happening now, President Obama calls Iran a great civilization.

So what's behind this renewed outreach even in the face of a potential nuclear threat?

Vice President Joe Biden spends one night in Paris. The hotel bill comes to more than half a million dollars for him and his entire delegation. We're getting an extremely rare glimpse of how much it costs when a vice president of the United States travels.

And a newborn baby found in a New York City subway adopted by the man who found him -- you're going to find out how extraordinary this story really is and how it's playing out.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.


President Obama is kicking off the next leg of his trip to the Middle East with what might seem to be a change, at least in tune a little bit, as far as Iran is concerned. At a news conference in Amman, Jordan, the president made a staunch plea for a peaceful solution in the face of growing nuclear concerns.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If, in fact, what the Supreme Leader has said is the case, which is that developing a nuclear weapon would be un-Islamic, and that Iran has no interest in developing nuclear weapons, then there should be a practical, verifiable way to assure the international community that it's not doing so. And this problem will be solved.

They are a great civilization. They have an extraordinary history. They have unbelievable talent. Part of the frustration that I think we all feel sometimes is that it seems as if people spend all their time organizing around how they can gain advantage over other people or inflict violence on other people or isolate other people instead of trying to figure out how do we solve problems?

This is a solvable problem.


BLITZER: Our chief national correspondent, John King, is traveling with the president in Amman right now.

He's joining us now with the latest.

It sounds like the president is still a little bit hopeful, at least, that this can be resolved, Iran's nuclear ambitions, peacefully through diplomacy and negotiation. That's the impression I'm getting, although he's obviously not ruling out the military option, either.

JOHN KING, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And that's the delicate challenge, Wolf, for the president. If you just listen to one event like that event today, you might think, oh, there he's playing good cop. Then you listen to some of his statements during this trip, including in Israel, where he promised the Israeli government, if necessary, if diplomacy fails, look me in the eye, I mean it. I will use military force to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.

But he also said he would not stand in the way if Israel wanted to defend itself and act even earlier than if the United -- than the United States is ready.

So at some points he's muscular. At other points, he seems to be more gentle and reaching out. It is the big national holiday, the biggest holiday of the year in Iran right now.

And so when he talks about the great civilization, Wolf, he's trying to reach out to the Iranian people, essentially saying if we can have a diplomatic solution here, you and your isolation in the world community, you become a bigger part of the international community.

But then he -- even today, even as he did that today, he did say all options are on the table. Twice, he said, as president of the United States, he can't take that away.

The president is hoping and he believes there are several months more to continue the diplomacy. He's hoping that works. But again, he said at every stop on this trip, if it doesn't, he reserves the right to use a military strike.

BLITZER: Yes. He seemed to be reaching out beyond the ayatollah, beyond Ahmadinejad, speaking directly to the Iranian people from Amman, Jordan.

On another sensitive issue, in response to a question, John, the president was -- seemed a little defensive about why the United States, during his administration, has not authorized military force to stop the slaughter in Syria.

Listen to this.


OBAMA: I think that what your question may be suggesting is why haven't we simply gone in militarily? And, you know, I think it's fair to say that the United States often finds itself in a situation where if it goes in militarily, then it's criticized for going in militarily. And if it doesn't go in militarily, then people say, why aren't you doing something militarily?

And, you know, my response at this stage is to make sure that what we do contributes to bringing an end to the bloodshed as quickly as possible.


BLITZER: Did you get the sense, John, that the president is on the same page, as far as Syria is concerned, with Jordan, King Abdullah?

Nearly half a million Syrian refugees have poured into Jordan over these past two years.

KING: Dealing with the refugee crisis, yes. So the president says we'll send more money, we'll try to get more humanitarian aid, I'll try to pick up the phone and get you more help from the international community. On the same page there, yes.

But, Wolf, nobody knows what page they're on when it comes to the debate about what you do with the opposition.

Should the United States join the effort of others to arm the opposition?

What other intelligence control?

How long will Assad stay in power?

That changes almost on a day to day basis, because the situation is so uncertain now, as it enters the third year. And the president is a bit defensive about this. He's -- when he gets asked about it, because people ask what -- where was the world's biggest superpower?

You're supposed to be the voice of humanitarian needs around the world and how could you let this go on so long?

Why haven't you done more?

The president said today at that news conference the United States, from the start, was calling on Assad to step down. And we know, if you look at the calendar, that's simply not true. Many other countries were out ahead of the United States in calling for Assad to step down.

But it's a tough one for the president. He's right in the sense that if the United States had used military force in this region from the beginning, there's still a big hangover from the Iraq War in this part of the world. It would have been controversial. And all the choices are difficult.

But he does get a bit defensive when that question is posed -- Wolf. BLITZER: Yes. He certainly does. At least that's the impression you get from his comments.

John is traveling with the president in Amman, Jordan.

The president also scored a huge diplomatic victory on this trip today. He personally helped orchestrate a major step in healing the rift between two critical U.S. allies.

The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, issuing a stunning apology to the Turkish prime minister, Erdogan, for this -- an Israeli commando attack that killed nine people on a Gaza bound flotilla nearly three years ago.

Our senior international correspondent, Ivan Watson, is now joining us from Amman, Jordan -- Ivan, you're bared in Turkey right now. I've got to tell you, for all -- for all the things the president may have done over the past 48, 72 hours on this trip to the Middle East, clearly, the most productive is healing this, at least getting the start of a healing process between these two U.S. allies, Turkey and Israel.

IVAN WATSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Certainly, President Obama putting a diplomatic feather in his cap by basically getting these two very important Middle Eastern allies of the U.S., Turkey and Israel, to talk to each other. The two prime ministers, in a phone call, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel calling his Turkish counterpart from the tarmac, basically, of the airport with the U.S. president alongside him and basically bringing an end to nearly three years of ruptured relations between these two very important Middle Eastern powers.

The Israeli prime minister essentially apologizing to the Turkish prime minister for the killing of these eight Turks, as well as one American citizen, aboard that flotilla, under the cover of darkness. And the two prime ministers discussing the possibility of Israel paying compensation to the families of the victims.

Here in Jordan, the American president spoke about this tarmac diplomacy.


OBAMA: During my visit, it appeared that the timing was good for that conversation to take place. I discussed it with Prime Minister Netanyahu and both of us agreed that the moment was right. And fortunately, they were able to begin the process of rebuilding normal relations between two very important countries in the region.


WATSON: So the Turks have welcomed an -- welcomed the apology. And this has begun a process of removing, basically, a headache that the U.S. didn't really need in a very turbulent part of the world -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Turkey a major NATO ally; Israel a major ally of the United States, as well. And they've also agreed to resume full ambassadorial diplomatic relations, a significant achievement for President Obama in bridging this gap and a major concession by the Israeli prime minister to apologize and offer compensation for the deaths of those people on that flotilla to Gaza.

Ivan, thanks very, very much.

Back here in Washington, what could be a major development in the push for immigration reform. A source now telling CNN a group of bipartisan senators could -- could be on the brink of a solution.

Our chief Congressional correspondent, Dana Bash, is here.

She's got details, learning of some significant developments.

If this happens, this would be a huge breakthrough.

DANA BASH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Oh, absolutely. And what I'm told is that this so-called gang of eight, group of eight senators, four Democrats, four Republicans, had a meeting this morning and then right about now, likely, they're going to have their last meeting before going home for -- for spring break. And they believe that when they get back from those two weeks off, Wolf, that they are going to be ready to unveil their proposal that they will have agreed on. And that is, you know, we're talking about April 8th, at least the beginning of that week.

BLITZER: That would be huge.

What have they agreed on, apparently, so far?

BASH: Well, let's start with the most divisive issue, and that is, of course, a path to citizenship for illegal workers. I'm told that they have settled on the 13 year path -- 10 years to get a green card and then three years to get citizenship, which could only occur after they pay fines, back taxes and prove that they haven't been involved in criminal activity.

But no one would be eligible for citizenship without border security. That is something that is critical, especially for Republicans.

One of the things that these senators have been wrestling with is how to quantify and insure that the border is secure. I'm told what they have agreed to is a form of a border commission that will determine the criteria for border security -- or met in this commission, Wolf, would be appointed by state and federal officials. And, you know, they would decide who exactly it will be.

BLITZER: There seems to be, though, one key sticking point that has not yet been resolved.

BASH: There is. And that is on the whole issue of what you do about people in the future, guest workers, when they come here to the United States, to make sure that the illegal problem doesn't continue.

What I'm told is that the rub is that labor unions are worried that if they -- there are too many guest workers, if their pay is too low, it will hurt American workers. And the Chamber of Commerce is pushing senators in the other direction. And they say that they're worried that there won't be enough workers and that their pay will be too high, so it will hurt businesses. They won't be able to get the workers that they need.

But, you know, I think all of this, even if -- we assume that that's going to get worked out in the next two weeks. And all of this, we should remember, is only happening because Republicans did so poorly in November with Latino voters. They knew that they had to at least get immigration reform done before they could begin to lure those Latino voters back to their hold (ph).

BLITZER: If they work this out, this would be huge, in the Senate. Then it's got to go to the House. Then the president has got to sign it. There's still a long way to go, but it looks like a significant piece of movement right now...

BASH: It is. Right.

BLITZER: Dana, thanks very much.

All right, this is just coming into THE SITUATION ROOM right now from New York, where we're getting word of three people shot on Coney Island in Brooklyn. Officials say one person was pronounced dead on arrival. Another is in critical condition. The third is in serious, but stable condition. It's unclear if the shooter is still at large or among the dead or injured. More information coming in from our affiliates in New York. We'll share more information with you as soon as we get it.

But a significant development now on Coney Island in New York.

When we come back, a newborn baby found in a New York City subway, adopted by the man who found him. That's an extraordinary story in and of itself. But wait until you hear what happens next.


BLITZER: We're now an amazing story to share with you. A story about a newborn baby boy. He was found in the New York City subway system and later adopted by the couple that includes the man who found him.

CNN's crime and justice correspondent, Joe Johns, is walking into the SITUATION ROOM right now to share this story with us. And it's a significant story. Tell our viewers what happened.

JOE JOHNS, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, a main argument in the gay marriage debate is whether marriage should be between a man and a woman for procreation, having and caring for children. But at a very human level, that doesn't take into account all the children that are abandoned, neglected, put up for adoption. This is a story about a child who was discarded on the street but raised by a same-sex couple, and it changed all their lives.


JOHNS (voice-over): A rite of spring in a New York City park.


JOHNS: A 12-year-old kid tossing a baseball around with one of his two dads.

How did you get into baseball?

VOICE OF KEVIN, FOUND IN SUBWAY WHEN HE WAS A NEWBORN: I was playing catch with my father.

JOHNS: We're not showing his face to protect his privacy. Talking to him, you'd never know his personal story has been a sensation here since the day he was born. An abandoned baby in the subway a few hours old with the umbilical cord still attached.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It is a baby boy and police say he is no more than a day old.

JOHNS: At first New York authorities named him Daniel Ace Doe, Ace after the subway, the AC & E trains. Daniel for the man who found him. Social worker Daniel Stewart, who spotted the baby wrapped in an old sweatshirt. At first, he thought it was a doll.

DANIEL STEWART, KEVIN'S PARENT: All that I saw was two little legs sticking out, but I still thought oh, it's one of those new, realistic dolls. I started to go up the stairs. I was going up the stairs and then I looked back one last time and that's when he started to move. And I knew he was alive and I ran back, made sure he was OK.

JOHNS: He made two calls, first to 911, second to Peter Mercurio. They had planned to meet for a dinner date that night.

Picked up the phone and called, and what did you say?

STEWART: I said I found a baby.

JOHNS: And what did you say?

PETER MERCURIO, KEVIN'S PARENT: I didn't believe him at first. Why would he even say something like that?

JOHNS: Months later, a family court judge asked if the couple wanted to adopt the child. Daniel jumped at the chance. At first, Peter wasn't so sure.

MERCURIO: I had to examine how having a child in our -- my life and our life was going to affect every second of every minute of every day.

JOHNS: He eventually came around. They moved in together and renamed their son Kevin. Years later, when Daniel and Pete got married, Kevin suggested the judge who recommended the adoption do the honors. MERCURIO: And he said, don't, you know, judges perform ceremonies? Why don't you try to contact the judge who finalized my adoption?

JOHNS: His parents made sure Kevin knew the whole story by putting together a child story book titled "The Boy from New York City." featuring as characters the baby, the subway, the judge, and the parents.

MERCURIO: He looks at us and he says, is this about me? And we were like, yes.

STEWART: This is your story.

MERCURIO: And he grinned from ear to ear.

KEVIN: I thought it was the best thing in the world to know that that was me.


JOHNS (on-camera): Pete Mercurio is working on a play about this story. We may never know what caused that new mom to abandon her hours old baby one late summer evening in New York on the subway, but if that mother were listening today, we could report, thanks to a couple dads, it all turned out pretty well.

BLITZER: What a wonderful, wonderful story. I'm so glad you brought that story to our viewers. Hold on for a moment because it's part of a bigger story unfolding right now at the same time. Same-sex marriage will be part of two huge cases coming before the United States Supreme Court next week, cases likely to produce the court's most far reaching decisions on this sensitive issue.

Look at this. People already are camping out in line for Tuesday's oral arguments before the nine justices. Only 250 seats are available in the spectator's gallery. Let's bring in our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger. She's been part of this coverage and you got a major documentary coming up on this whole issue as well. But Joe, first to you. Give us a little sense of what's playing out before the Supreme Court next week.

JOHNS: Well, big picture. This is two of the most important cases the court has seen as relates to gay marriage. And in some ways, you can compare it almost back to the 1960s when the court first took up the issue of interracial marriage. You know, there are all these questions about whether it's constitutional to ban it, whether it's constitutional to disallow a federal benefits for individuals.

So, a whole cast of questions here that will not be answered until the court releases its decision in June.

BLITZER: It's clear, Gloria, that public opinion on the issue of same-sex marriage, marriage equality, is clearly changing.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Oh, hugely changing, Wolf. I mean, you can see over the last decade or so that now a majority of the American public believes that same-sex marriage should be allowed. We've seen the president, Obama change his mind. President Clinton changed his mind. Hillary Rodham Clinton came out and spoke about it.

Republican Rob Portman spoke about it. And I think, Wolf, there's a question here about whether this shift in public opinion is actually going to affect the Supreme Court, those justices sitting on the bench. And when you talk to both sides of the argument, one side says, the side that's for same-sex marriage, will say to you, you know, maybe it will help us because the court won't think it's such a heavy lift to rule in favor of same-sex marriage.

They won't be going against public opinion and in the way they were against interracial marriage, for example. Or, on the other side, they say the court will also say, look, it's proceeding in the states. You know, you now have eight or nine states who have approved same-sex marriage. Public opinion is shifting. Let it play out with the voters and the court's not the place to do it.

JOHNS: They're very conservative ideas at play here, too. Back in 1996 when the court passed the defense of Marriage Act, a lot of people said, the United States Congress was actually moving against states' rights, invading states' rights. And now, this is a chance for the court to come back around and right the ship, if you will. That's at least some of the arguments I've heard from conservatives.

BORGER: And you know, Wolf, the court can rule in a number of ways. It can rule broadly. I mean, those who are for same-sex marriage say that this is a constitutional right --

JOHNS: Right.

BORGER: -- of equal protection. Period. Now, people who argue against them say, you know what, it really isn't. It wasn't what the founding fathers had in mind. And the court can say, you know what? We will defend same-sex marriage narrowly or oppose it in the state of California or we will go along with what the court decided there.

BLITZER: The American Academy of Pediatricians just came out with a study with their position on same-sex adoption.


BLITZER: And it was fascinating.

JOHNS: Right. Just this week we heard about this. And basically, what they said is two parents is what you want. We don't care whether they're male or female or they're both male or they're both female. Sexual orientation doesn't matter that much if you have two parent that's good for the kids.

BORGER: You know, and the question is, is the court the place to decide this or is the court of public opinion and are the voters the ones who should decide it?

BLITZER: We'll see what the Supreme Court does. And I just want to point out to our viewers, please be sure to watch Gloria's special report "The Magic -- The Marriage Warriors," I should say, "The Marriage Warriors," a showdown at the Supreme Court. You can see it here on CNN march 30th.

That's a week from tomorrow, 7:30 p.m. eastern only on CNN. Excellent, excellent documentary. You're going to want to see it.

Up next, we're taking a closer look at a fight some Republicans just won't give up, repealing Obamacare.

Plus, President Obama trying to close it. Now, the U.S. military wants to fix up the terrorist detention center at Guantanamo in Cuba. Wait until you hear the price tag. Stand by.


BLITZER: Happening now, dozens of air traffic control towers are closing because of Washington budget cuts. During our next hour, we'll ask about the impact on your safety.

In this half hour, a rare look at what it costs to send the vice president of the United States overseas and questions about how the numbers went public.

Plus, a warning from the U.S. military. Wait until you hear how much they want to repair and remodel the detention center for the most dangerous suspected terrorists.

Believe it or not, we just hit the third anniversary of the passage of Obamacare despite all, all of this time a U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding it, a presidential election, and a whole lot more. Some Republicans out there, they still are trying to repeal it, some, in fact, more than others.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. We have a problem with Obamacare.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It should be repealed.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Repealing Obamacare.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Repeal, root, and branch.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Repeal funding for Obamacare.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Let's repeal this failure.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I would urge that Obamacare would be repealed and I yield the floor.


BLITZER: Our national political correspondent, Jim Acosta, has been looking into what for some Republicans has clearly become an obsession. JIM ACOSTA, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Republicans tried once again to repeal the president's health care law dubbed by supporters and detractors as Obamacare. The latest GOP senator to take a shot undoing the law says he's not giving up.


ACOSTA (voice-over): Three years after President Obama signed health care reform into law, Republican opponents are still treating it like a disease that needs to be cured.

SEN. TED CRUZ, (R) TEXAS: Obamacare is hurting young people. It's hurting seniors, it's hurting Hispanics, it's hurting African- Americans.

ACOSTA: Texas GOP senator, Ted Cruz, is the latest lawmaker to propose eliminating Obamacare. Like all of the other repeal attempts, it failed.

CRUZ: I intend to keep trying to repeal Obamacare and to fight for pro-growth policies every single day.

ACOSTA: Cruz tells CNN the law will put the economy in critical condition.

CRUZ: The economy is not growing, and implementing Obamacare now raises a very real possibility that we will push this nation into a recession. And so, I'm trying to make the case --

ACOSTA: You're saying the president's health care law will cause recession.

CRUZ: It could very well cause a recession.

SEN. TOM HARKIN, (D) IOWA: We've had more than 35 separate votes in the Congress about that, and we've always upheld the Affordable Care Act.

ACOSTA: Democrats argue Republicans should just stop, noting the law has not only survived a challenge to the Supreme Court but also former presidential candidate, Mitt Romney.

MITT ROMNEY (R), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I will repeal Obamacare. And I'll stop it in its tracks on day one.

ACOSTA: The GOP budget that passed the Republican controlled House also includes a repeal of Obamacare. Congresswoman Michele Bachmann warned the healthcare law is a killer.

REP. MICHELE BACHMANN (R), MINNESOTA: Let's repeal this failure before it literally kills women, kills children, kills senior citizens. Let's not do that.

ACOSTA: But it seems it's the law that can't be killed almost like the legislative equivalent of Kenny from South Park.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I've got to kill Kenny.

ACOSTA: But some Republicans outside of Washington have a different take. A slew of high profile GOP governors recently accepted the law's massive expansion of the Medicaid program for the poor into their states. The law's defenders say other popular provisions go into effect next year such as the ban on insurers discriminating against patients with pre-existing conditions. And new insurance exchange market places where people can shop for coverage.

The White House says the repealers ignore that.

JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: That seems at some point to be time not well spent. And the president believes it's important to expand health insurance coverage to the millions of Americans who will be covered because of the Affordable Care Act.


ACOSTA: But the law is not entirely popular with Democrats. Several senators from the president's own party joined Republicans to vote to repeal a tax on medical devices that was tucked into the law. But the vote was nonbinding and symbolic. Much like the rest of the attempts to repeal Obamacare -- Wolf?


With that let's dig a little bit deeper in our strategy session right now. Joining us two CNN contributors the former Obama special adviser Van Jones and the former Bush speechwriter David Frum.

Here is what it would take to repeal Obamacare. And you understand this completely. Maybe they could do it in the House where the Republicans have a majority but in the Senate you would need 60 votes. Even if they got 60 votes, the president would veto that legislation. You need two-thirds overrides in both Houses to override a presidential veto. You would need 67 votes in the Senate. And that's not happening.

DAVID FRUM: That's not happening. The Republicans are motivated I think by two concerns. The first is this is a very gnarled statute that is heading toward a lot of trouble that the financing mechanisms are inadequate. And what we're going to see is it's going to offer some very perverse incentives to people to game the system. It is -- the subsidies are not sufficient to cover the cost of a health insurance policy.

Meanwhile the penalties for not buying one are quite small so the incentive for people are locked out of the market is actually the wait until the last possible minute and then take advantage of the ability to buy in. And that's going to create all kinds of problems.

BLITZER: But there may be a lot of problems with it but repealing it is -- as long as the president of the United States, Barack Obama, is the president, that's -- he's not going to sign that as a law --

(CROSSTALK) FRUM: That is the second problem. Ted Cruz is putting down some markers. There is a struggle to define who is going to be the next leader of the Republican Party and a lot of people who have emerged early are people who have one strike or another against them. Rand Paul, they're too exotic, another case is they may not have the force of character but Ted Cruz has the toughness and brains and he represents an important fundraising state. He is putting down his marker to be at least a Senate leader, maybe more.

BLITZER: What's wrong with that? If you really believe it's a blunder, it's a horrible mistake, what's wrong with taking a position of principle like Ted Cruz and others and saying, we have to repeal this even though they know it's not happening?

VAN JONES, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, I mean, there is nothing wrong with it except that it's just theater, and part of the thing is if there -- if the things that Mr. Frum says are true there are ways to begin to fix it, to repair it, to improve it. There is nothing wrong with that.

This is pure theater. And part of the problem is that it overlooks the things that people actually like about Obamacare. We've already got about $6 billion of savings to seniors because we've knocked out a bunch of waste, fraud, and abuse. You've already got control -- the cost control mechanisms now are just coming into effect and all the cost control measures are cost control measures that Republicans and Democrats like.

So this bill is going to get more popular going forward --

BLITZER: Where did you get the $6 billion figure?

JONES: Well, they -- put that out there. Think Progress, I think, just put out a big report pointing out that there's $6 billion of savings --

BLITZER: Over how many years?

JONES: Over the next four to five years. But my point about it is this, that there are cost control mechanisms that come into effect. You keep hearing people saying, well, the cost of medicine keeps going up. That's been going on for decades. The cost is beginning to slow down.

We're now in a fact-free world. You have actual facts about this bill that are not being talked about and we're doing theater as people are not actually trying to help anybody's medical situation. They're trying to help their political situation.

BLITZER: All right. Hold on a minute. I want to get back to this. I've got some other subjects to discuss. Don't go away.

We're also going to talk about the United States military. It wants to spend millions, hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to upgrade the detention center for the world's worst terrorists at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. That's the same place the president of the United States wanted to close in his first year in office. That did not happen as you know. It's still open. But now the Pentagon wants to upgrade it.

Also ahead, amazing security camera video of a gunman. And the people he was shooting at.

Plus, two years ago a husband and wife decided they'd try to lose some weight together. Stay there and see what they look like now. You will be amazed.


BLITZER: A top U.S. general is now calling for hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade the U.S. detention facility better known as a prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

Let's get back to our strategy session. Once again Van Jones is joining us and David Frum is joining us as well.

Here's the general testifying before Congress saying they need more money. They got to fix it and improve it.


GEN. JOHN KELLY, COMMANDER, U.S. SOUTHERN COMMAND: That I'm concerned at this point in time that the facilities down there and the infrastructure down there built to last two or three or four years has now been in existence for 11 years. It's rapidly deteriorating and in large measure has deteriorated.


BLITZER: The president wanted to close it his first year, couldn't close it. Now in his fifth year still can't close it. Is there anything wrong with trying to improve it, fix it, spend a few hundred million dollars to get it ready for maybe a new generation of terrorists?

JONES: Well, I mean, I don't think that we understand what Guantanamo means to the world still. I mean, sort of, we tried to make it an issue. We tried to fix it, we said OK, we'll leave it there. It still stands as a symbol around the world of the U.S. not living up to our best standards.

If it then becomes a place where you have health conditions and human rights violations that are happening because of that, it's a negative. I think we should if we are going to play the role we're trying to play which is to keep our country and the world safe from terrorism there is a cost that is associated with that. And we've got to live up to our own best standards even as we prosecute this war.

BLITZER: Do you think it's a good idea to fix it, improve it, keep it going?

FRUM: I find it -- the request baffling. The footage we're showing right now is not very representative. I had a chance to visit Guantanamo back in 2007. It's actually a compound of five or six prisons. BLITZER: That's six years ago. In six years, in that kind of temperature, that kind of heat --

FRUM: But this thing they're showing of the chicken wire.


FRUM: One of -- at least one of the buildings is a substantial medium security prison built out of concrete cinder blocks. There are now only 130 or so prisoners at Guantanamo. It is just strange to me for the military to say that they -- that that building which I saw which looked really robust and now with the prisoner population is about 1/6 of what it was at maximum that they don't have room, they don't have the facilities. I mean, that may be right.

BLITZER: Do you think General Kelly, whose the commander of the U.S. Southern Command, in charge of the region, he's making this up?

FRUM: Well, I just -- I just find it hard to process exactly what it is that they think they need that they haven't got with a relatively small population.


BLITZER: Do you think the president would still like to shut it down?

JONES: I think that he is a man of his word. I think really honestly there's really no reason that we couldn't bring a lot of these people here and try them here. I still believe that.

BLITZER: He wanted to do that.

JONES: He wanted to do that but actually even Democrats balked at it. I do think that we underestimate -- people still hold the United States in such great esteem because of the rule of law here and the further we get away from that and Guantanamo as symbol I think we weaken some of our soft power influence on the world.

FRUM: I just wish the military would give you better B-rolls.


People could actually see what it really --

BLITZER: How do you know that's the military B-roll? Might be our B- roll.

FRUM: OK. Wait, so people could see what it actually looks like. It actually looks like a medium security prison.

BLITZER: We'll send somebody down there and check it out. But you make a fair point.

David, thanks very much. Van, thanks to you as well.

We have pictures of something you almost never see on a Friday here in Washington. Lisa Sylvester is monitoring that and some of the other top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

Tell our viewers what is going on, Lisa.

LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Indeed, Wolf. This is a very rare sight. U.S. senators, how about this? Actually working on a Friday afternoon. They're debating and voting on about 400 amendments to a proposed U.S. budget. Senate Democrats, they haven't even put up a budget for debate in four years and this vote-a-rama should continue into the wee hours of Saturday morning.

The Republican controlled House passed a budget plan on Thursday.

And take a look at this man on the sidewalk. Philadelphia detectives don't know who he is but they want to find him because he fired a gun into a Chinese food store on Tuesday. Security cameras, take a look here, also showed the people inside desperately trying to keep the gunman from getting in. Three suffered nonlife threatening wounds. Police say all told 10 shots were fired and the man, he only stopped because he ran out of ammunition.

And this story takes togetherness to a whole new level. Over the past two years Angela and Willie Gillis, they have lost a combined total of 500 pounds. He dropped 300. She lost 200. And as you can see the contrast from the before and after pictures it's pretty dramatic. So what's their secret? You're probably wondering that. Well, it really isn't that much of a secret. The healthier food choices, counting calories, and hitting the gym six days a week.

What a difference. They look like two different people there.

And finally, boy oh, boy. Punxsutawney Phil. He -- that guy right there, he's in trouble. A prosecutor in Cincinnati has indicted the famous groundhog accusing him of messing up this year's forecast and causing people to believe we have an early spring.

Cincinnati, like Washington, we might add. Well, we haven't warmed up yet. Certainly didn't warm up early. A lot of people are really mad at that particular groundhog.

What was he thinking -- Wolf?

BLITZER: Well, he never made a mistake before?


Stuff happens. What can you do?

SYLVESTER: Even groundhogs make mistakes? Is that what you're saying?

BLITZER: Of course they do. Yes. Thanks, Lisa.


BLITZER: Just ahead, if you're planning on flying without any carry- on baggage, one airline is now testing out a special perk just for you. And the vice president of the United States he spends one night in Paris. The hotel bill comes to more than half a million dollars for him and his delegation. We're getting an extremely rare glimpse at how much it costs when a president or a vice president we should say travels.


BLITZER: Washington's forced budget cuts are about to take a toll on airline passengers. The FAA announcing it will close 149 regional airport control towers in a four-week phased closure beginning in April.

Meantime, in other news, American Airlines is reaching out to its passengers. They are testing out a new perk that may convince you to fly without any carry-on baggage.

CNN's Athena Jones is over at Washington's Dulles Airport. She's got the details of what's going on.

Athena, tell our viewers.

ATHENA JONES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Wolf. You know, airlines collected nearly a billion dollars in baggage fees in the third quarter of last year alone and now America is experimenting with this new policy that could encourage more folks to check their luggage.



A. JONES (voice-over): Will the boarding hassle ever change? On this American Airlines flight passengers without carry-on bags are getting on faster.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: If you've got a carry-on with no (INAUDIBLE) aboard, please move forward to the gate (INAUDIBLE) group number.

A. JONES: The company has been experimenting with a new policy that lets people without carryon luggage board before folks with bags.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think it's actually great because I quite often check my bags. I think it's a good benefit.

A. JONES: American isn't the first. Frontier and Alaska Airlines already give priority to passengers without carryon bags. American is testing this approach in Austin, Baltimore, Fort Lauderdale, and at Washington Dulles where some passengers we talked to liked the idea.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sounds great. Anything to get on the plane sooner. You don't need your bag on the plane.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Anything to improve the process and the flow is excellent.

A. JONES: Others weren't onboard. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't like it. This basically is saying that you have to pay the fee to get in.

A. JONES: Travel expert Charlie Leocha says airlines are constantly trying to find ways to speed up the boarding process. But that American's policy probably won't make much of a difference.

CHARLIE LEOCHA, CONSUMER TREND ALLIANCE: Those who really want to get space in the overhead, they'll be jostling just like they are today but they're going to be jostling after all the people with carry on bags that are going under the seat or in front of them get on first.


A. JONES: Now different airlines charge different fees to check your bags. Right now, buying the convenience to get on first on these particular American Airlines flights. And on Alaska and Frontier Airlines, will cost you between $20 and $25 -- Wolf.

BLITZER: To check the bags. All right. Athena, thank you.

Coming up, we have a rare look at the vice president's overseas travel bills. You probably won't believe how much it costs to spend just one night in Paris or London.

And coming up in our next hour, 6:00 p.m. Eastern, a close look at this weekend's dangerously cold and snowy forecast.


BLITZER: We're getting an extremely, extremely rare glimpse at how much it costs when the vice president of the United States, Joe Biden, goes traveling.

Our White House correspondent Brianna Keilar is here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Brianna, we've covered a lot of presidential and vice presidential trips, but this is pretty amazing.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Pretty amazing. And you know, when you go on these overseas official trips, Wolf, with the White House, they're really logistical feats. The number of people involved, the amount of security, it's expensive clearly. But now we have a sense of how expensive.

Descriptions of hotel and transportation bills for Vice President Biden's February trip to Europe were posted on a government Web site. And Biden and his staff -- well, Biden spent one night in each city, some of his staff obviously more, but $585,000 for the hotel bill in Paris, $321,000 to a limousine company in Paris as well. $459,000 for the hotel bill in London. Now that particular bill includes 136 rooms for multiple nights, according to these documents. That's an average of $568 per room per night. And that's by our math -- Wolf.

BLITZER: That's expensive, obviously, but it's the number of rooms that they need for a vice president to visit a city like London, or Paris for that matter, for one night, that really adds up.

KEILAR: That's right. $500 in Paris or London. You can kind of see that happening, especially at a nice hotel like this. We spoke with several people who've handled these kinds of trips for previous administrations. Some said, hey, this is just what it costs. But one person that I spoke with from the Bush 43 administration thought this price tag was high.

Also he conceded, though, there are a lot of factors that drive up the cost. Like empty rooms for security, and the hotel, of course, may require a compensation for displacing guests.

Now the vice president's office referred us to the State Department on this. The State Department is saying, "These costs are nothing out of the ordinary." They say, "The contract costs cover the entire range of support, including accommodations for military communications, Secret Service staff, and other support professionals. Security experts are also required to travel in advance of the president or vice president. Safety and security are not negotiable."

Wolf, I will tell you one government watchdog group who we spoke with said they had never seen documents detailing travel costs like these for a vice president or a president posted before. So it kind of makes you wonder if perhaps this information wasn't put out on this Web site accidentally.

BLITZER: Was it put out accidently? What do you think?

KEILAR: We don't know, but I did a search myself for the last 365 days where obviously the president and vice president have gone on other foreign trips, and I could find no contract information for any of those trips.

BLITZER: Yes. I covered the White House, the Clinton administration, for seven years, I don't ever remember seeing details of how much it costs to spend a night or two in Paris or London, or any place else for that matter.

KEILAR: It's very rare. Yes.

BLITZER: Not cheap.



BLITZER: Don't go too far away. In our next hour, a major development in the shooting death of a baby in a stroller. We're going to share with you the latest information.

And just in time for spring. Yes, spring. Parts of the United States, they are now bracing for another major snowstorm. You're going to find out where it's expected to hit the hardest.