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Can Obama Reset Agenda in 2014?; Interview with Charlie Dent; Supreme Court Blocks Utah Gay Marriage; Pope's Popularity On Capitol Hill; Obama, Catholic Groups In Court Over Contraceptive Mandate; Nightmare Travel during Snowstorm; On the Hunt for Elephant Poachers; Sports Not Diplomacy

Aired January 6, 2014 - 17:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, 2014 -- a reset back from vacation. President Obama attempts to jump-start his second term. And his first showdown with Congress could be less than an hour -- one hour away.

The pope and politics -- when Pope Francis speaks, Washington certainly listens. The president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is here. I'll speak with him live.

And basketball party -- Dennis Rodman heads back to North Korea to help Kim Jong Un celebrate his birthday.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

President Obama now back here in Washington determined to hit the reset button and make 2014 the political success 2013 was not.

But are Republicans in Congress on board?

The first test possibly only minutes away -- a key Senate vote on extending long-term unemployment benefits. And the outcome could be razor close.

Let's bring in our senior White House correspondent, Brianna Keilar.

She's over at the White House with all the latest information -- Brianna, what's going on?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Democrats need five Republicans to join them for this to pass. And they seem unsure if they have that, though Republicans seem to be indicating to CNN that they will be able to provide those votes.

Either way, it's going to be very close in what is a key test vote to begin debate on extending these long-term unemployment benefits. And it's also, for President Obama, the opening salvo in his sixth year in the White House.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) KEILAR (voice-over): It's back from vacation and on to the next battle for President Obama -- getting benefit checks to the long-term unemployed after Congress failed to pass an extension before the holidays.

GENE SPERLING, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL ECONOMIC COUNCIL: Let's get them done right now, in a bipartisan way, and everybody can share credit in doing something that's the right thing for the American people.

KEILAR: House Republicans want the $6.5 billion cost offset with cuts to other government programs. It's a concession Democrats see little reason to accept, convinced Republicans come off as insensitive to struggling Americans. And so the Senate is considering a bill co- sponsored by Nevada Republican Dean Heller that does not cover that price tag, extending benefits for the long-term unemployed for three months.

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MAJORITY LEADER: They're trying to make ends meet from month to month. Today, there's only one job opening for every three people searching. We have never had so many unemployed for such a long period of time.

KEILAR: The push is part of President Obama and Congressional Democrats' new populist agenda, that also includes a plan to increase the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It would have a tremendous boost in a lot of the cities where there are a lot of service workers who get up and, you know, do some of the critical work for all of us every single day but oftentimes still find themselves just barely above poverty, or, in some cases, below poverty.

KEILAR: It's seen as an attempt to rally the Democratic base ahead of a mid-term election in which many moderate Democrats are vulnerable -- in Alaska, North Carolina, Louisiana and Arkansas.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

KEILAR: And Democrats there, whether they win or lose, will determine whether President Obama is able to fulfill his agenda or if he's going to be stymied in his final two years by Republicans controlling both the Senate and the House -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Brianna.

Brianna Keilar over at the White House.

Thanks.

Let's dig a little bit deeper now and talk about all of this with Republican Congressman Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania.

Congressman, thanks very much for joining us.

REP. CHARLIE DENT (R), PENNSYLVANIA: Thank you for having me, Wolf.

Great to be with you again.

BLITZER: Well, let's assume the Senate passes an extension of these emergency unemployment benefits for three months.

Will it pass the House of Representatives?

DENT: I don't know and I don't know what the Senate is going to do tonight, to be quite honest. What I have recommended all along is that if we are going to extend emergency unemployment benefits, we ought to tie those benefits to job creation policies.

For example, let's pass -- let's approve it along with the Keystone Pipeline, repeal of the medical device tax and redefine what it means to be a full-time worker in this country under the health care law. It's 30 hours. Let's take it out closer to 40 hours a week.

I think we should tie that -- those types of programs, unemployment benefits, with job creating policies.

BLITZER: But in the meantime, over the next three months -- and this would be a three month emergency extension, 1.3 million Americans who lost their jobs, haven't been able to find another job, they're going to go without this -- there seems to be, at least for these folks out there, and their families, a crisis.

You want to bring in all sorts of other issues that could complicate any such deal.

DENT: Well, the issues that I've just raised are ones that I believe enjoy broad bipartisan support. I am certainly very open to extending emergency unemployment benefits.

But I also believe we have to make sure we begin to phase them down. Remember, emergency unemployment benefits did go out as far as 99 weeks. Now, today, the maximum is 73 weeks. In Pennsylvania, it's 63 weeks.

I think we're going to have to further ratchet that down as the economy slowly improves, maybe closer to -- to 38 to 40 weeks. I think we have to talk about phasing this program out and phasing it down, not eliminating it abruptly.

BLITZER: If it comes to the House of Representatives and comes up for a vote, just a clean three month extension without any attachments, without any payoff or whatever, reducing spending elsewhere or any of these other issues, would you vote for that?

DENT: Well, it depends. I prefer that the bill be paid for. And, again, I think it's -- it's completely fair and reasonable to try to attach this to a job creating policy, one that enjoys bipartisan support, like the ones I've mentioned -- Keystone Pipeline. I think that Democrats in the House as well as the Senate would be very amenable to extending unemployment benefits, along with approval of the Keystone Pipeline and repeal of the device tax or any one of those policies or -- or a, for example, redefining what it means to be a full-time worker, because our workers in this country are having their hours reduced as a result of this health care law, reduced or eliminated in too many cases.

I don't think it's too much to ask. We often have done these types of things, tied job creating policies along with unemployment benefits.

BLITZER: Here's a quote from you in today's "New York Times." And I wanted you to explain what you -- what you're talking about. You're talking about your fellow Republicans here. You said, "What happened in the fall with the shutdown, that was an act of political malpractice. We will be very careful not to make those kinds of unforced errors again."

All right, explain what you meant.

DENT: Well, I felt all along, as you know -- we had spoken about this before, Wolf -- I felt that the government shutdown was completely unnecessary, that -- that all along, I knew that we were going to have a clean CR passed at some point before or after the shutdown. And it happened after. It was unnecessary. And I think many of our members have learned a lesson, that we ought not be dealing with issues that would -- could lead to some type of instability or lack of predictability or greater uncertainty.

And that's certainly what happened with the government shutdown. And, you know, we're going to have to deal with issues like the debt ceiling and I think all of our members understand that, you know, defaulting on the full faith and credit of the United States is not acceptable, that we should not make ourselves the issues, we, the Republicans, shouldn't make ourselves the issue.

When issues like ObamaCare are -- are unfolding so disastrously, why make ourselves the issue politically?

And that's what happened with the shutdown that, you know, I think a number of our members felt it was -- they thought -- I didn't agree with them, but they felt it was smart to make ourselves the issue rather than let the -- the -- the implementation of the health care law be the center of attention.

BLITZER: Because, as you know, referring to the debt ceiling, it's got to be raised next month, maybe a little bit later. But it's coming up within the next few weeks. The president says he's not negotiating on that. He wants a clean bill that raises the nation's debt ceiling without any concessions, without any change of policy.

Is this a similar kind of fight that you say was political malpractice as far as the shutdown of the U.S. Government was concerned, back in October?

DENT: Wolf, I -- I just lost your volume there. But I just wanted to say this. Look, every member of the House Republican Conference, I think, understands that defaulting on this country's obligations is unacceptable. It would lead to some kind of a disastrous or catastrophic outcome. That is unacceptable. We know that. We cannot allow that to happen. Now, again, Presidents Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, they've always had some kind of negotiation along the debt limit that could deal with some other policies. At the end of the day, though, we're not going to allow for this country to default. It would be -- it would be reckless.

BLITZER: Charlie Dent, the Republican Congressman from Pennsylvania.

Thanks very much for joining us.

I don't know if he can hear me, but I thanked him.

Thank you very much, Congressman.

Meanwhile, a major setback for supporters of gay marriage today. The Supreme Court ruling marriage licenses for same sex couples in Utah can no longer be issued. The move temporarily blocks a recent ruling clearing the way for the marriages and could have sweeping national implications for the issue.

Joining us now to talk a little bit more about this, our senior legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin.

So what do you make of this decision to temporarily prevent same-sex marriage in Utah?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, you're right, there's no question this was a real setback for the same-sex marriage movement. Last week, gay people could get married in Utah. Today, they can't. And it's as simple as that.

Plus, the way the order is phrased, it will probably be at least months before same-sex marriages can resume, because the Supreme Court's order said the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, which now has the case, has to completely resolve it before same-sex marriages can resume. Given the way the courts of appeals work, it's likely to be many months before that case is resolved. And certainly, whichever side loses in the Tenth Circuit will very likely appeal to the Supreme Court. And that, of course, could be a very big test, indeed.

BLITZER: What happens to all those couples, those same-sex couples who did get married over the past few weeks in Utah?

Will the State of Utah recognize those marriages?

TOOBIN: Wolf, that's a good question and I don't think there is a clear answer. The attorney general of Utah said he was studying that issue at the moment. Certainly, those people, those 900 couples that got marriage licenses, they're not suddenly divorced. They are still married.

But whether the State of Utah will grant them the same kind of benefits -- can they file joint tax returns?, can they visit each other in the hospital, like spouses? -- all of those questions, I think, frankly, are up in the air in this point. And I don't think it's out of the question that there might be a subsidiary litigation about their status happening sooner rather than later.

BLITZER: Will the federal government recognize those marriages?

TOOBIN: I think it's pretty clear that the federal government will. Ever since the Defense of Marriage Act was struck down, President Obama has said to his administration, we want to recognize same-sex marriages as equal to any other kind of marriages. And, certainly, the federal government will go out of their way to try to recognize these marriages.

But marriage is usually a state issue. And the State of Utah, I think, is on the fence about the status of these marriages. And I don't know what the status is, frankly.

BLITZER: I want you to stick around, Jeffrey, because there's another subject I want to discuss with you; also, with the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who is joining us, as well. The archbishop, Joseph Kurtz, is standing by.

We have much to discuss on some legal issues here in the United States, also on what the pope is saying and his influence on the American political system right now. Democrats and Republicans are using his message here in Washington.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Since his election last March, Pope Francis has garnered fans around the world, but there's a new report that his influence is stretching to a rather unlikely place. Chris Lawrence is joining us with his part of the story. What's going on here, Chris?

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf. Since when did the pope's words become so politicized, especially when he's not talking about communism, but helping poor people? A lot of folks feel it was when the pope's words started showing up on the front pages of newspapers across the country, then his popularity started soaring.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

(SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE)

LAWRENCE (voice-over): Whenever this pope speaks, the ears of Washington politicians perk up.

REP. NANCY PELOSI, (D-CA) MINORITY LEADER: We're talking about Pope Francis and what he said was a responsibility of elected officials.

LAWRENCE: And it gets something to agree on, quoting the pope, left and right.

NEWT GINGRICH, CNN HOST, CROSSFIRE: I think every Republican should be concerned about inequality. I think when you have places where there are billionaires living in a city with 22,000 homeless children, anybody who has a sense of decency has to be concerned.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The pope himself spoke about this at eloquent length.

LAWRENCE: In President Obama's case, using his words to make a case for income inequality.

OBAMA: How can it be, he wrote, that it's not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?

REV. TOM REESE, SENIOR ANALYST, NATIONAL CATHOLIC REPORTER: My (INAUDIBLE) view is that he's so popular they want to piggy back on him for their own political purposes.

LAWRENCE: According to a recent CNN/ORC poll, very few Catholics think Pope Francis is too conservative or too liberal. At 87 percent, the overwhelmingly support his positions on current issues and approve of him as a leader.

REESE: I mean, people in Washington would kill for those numbers.

LAWRENCE: Some say the pope's popularity and willingness to speak out are pushing politicians to face issues they've avoided up till now.

REESE: Even President Obama very rarely talks about the poor. He talks about the middle class. Well, Pope Francis is putting the poor back on the agenda.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

LAWRENCE (on-camera): Yes. And Father Reese says basically back when a lot of U.S. bishops were talking about abortion as a major issue, it made it seem as if the church was very aligned with the Republicans, but he says that wasn't the case. It's never been a part of either party.

And he said a lot of Democrats who want to tie themselves so closely to exactly what the Pope Francis is preaching, then they're going to be in sort of a bind because this pope is not changing church doctrine and he's certainly not going to come out in support of gay marriage, for example.

BLITZER: Chris Lawrence, good report, thank you.

Certainly, Obamacare is on the U.S. Supreme Court's docket once again. We're awaiting an emergency ruling, perhaps, today from the Supreme Court justice, Sonia Sotomayor, and the possibly the whole court at issue whether religious groups. They are not houses of worship, have to provide birth control coverage to employees even through a third party insurer.

The Little Sisters of the Poor are suing the Obama administration, arguing that by signing their extension, they could have to provide coverage in the future through a third party who would, and I'm quoting now, "sin on their behalf." Joining us now is the Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville. He's president of the U.S. Conference of Bishops. Archbishop, thanks very much for coming in.

ARCHBISHOP JOSEPH KURTZ, PRESIDENT, U.S. CONFERENCE OF BISHOPS: Great to be with you. Thank you.

BLITZER: I want to get to this legal issue that's going to be before the Supreme Court, in fact, is right now. But, what about the politics of Pope Francis? He's now saying he doesn't believe in trickledown economics, which was a major pillar of the Republicans, for example. He wants to help the poor and not necessarily by the trickle down formula. Where do you see this playing out?

KURTZ: Well, first of all, Pope Francis has captured the imagination of everyone, as Chris just reported. And I would begin by saying our holy father is saying focus on the person. And any time you reduce an economy or a person to a consumer or a producer, you've left out the full person. And so, our holy father is basically saying, listen, economists, remember the effect that the economy has on the person. And that was that quote where he said stock market goes up or down two points and everybody looks, but a poor person on the street who dies, people barely notice.

BLITZER: What did the pope mean when he suggested also that children of same-sex couples should, perhaps, be treated differently by the Catholic Church? He was opening up a new door and it raised a lot of questions. Explain.

KURTZ: Well, first of all, I think his representative, Father Lombardi, he did clarify as our holy father has said that there's not a change in our church doctrine. What our holy father is saying is, again, see the person first. A child needs to be treated with great care. Are we to endorse and continue the time honored teachings of our church on the sanctity of marriage? Of course, we are.

But are we also to first see that person, and that's where I think our Holy Father is saying before we see a rule, let's first see that person and let's walk with that person. It's quite engaging. I told you I met with our holy father, and my gosh, he is very engaging and also is very serious about challenging all of us to that level of conversion.

BLITZER: Well, could you see the day of this pope who's obviously saying some controversial things and some opening up some new doors where catholic doctrine might change as far as same-sex marriage? Because there has been public opinion attitude change over these many years.

KURTZ: Well, let me say, Wolf, first of all, I can take our holy father at his word. Any time he's been asked to clarify the sanctity of marriage and the remarks he made, he said, listen, I'm the son of church. I'm simply saying what the catechism of the Catholic Church is. And by the way, he says it in such an engaging and beautiful way. It may be the first time many people are hearing the richness of our church teaching instead of what I might call a caricature of that teaching.

BLITZER: You wrote a letter to President Obama the other day on this whole issue of the contraception. Did you get a response from the White House? KURTZ: Not yet. However, let me say this. I was so glad that -- I'm glad obviously you're covering this. I've been a -- before I became a bishop, I was a social worker for 24 years and working with catholic charities. And so, I can identify very clearly with people like the Little Sisters of the Poor. Their acts of service and nobody questions, I think, the goodness of their service are so intimately linked to their faith.

They should not have to face crippling fines in order to do their work. And, what I said in the letter to President Obama was basically, listen, with the rolling out of the Affordable Care Act, there have been many delays and exceptions being made. Why would people like the Little Sisters of the Poor be left out in the cold?

BLITZER: That's a fair question. Let's bring in Jeffrey Toobin, our senior legal analyst. Jeffrey, explain the law here. What is the issue that's going on?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, as I understand the issue, Archbishop, and I'd love to have you clarify this, is that the Little Sisters of the Poor do not have to pay for contraception or insurance at all. All they have to do is file a form. A one-page form that says we are a religious order, we object to contraception. What's wrong with that? Why shouldn't they have to just file a form and be done with it?

KURTZ: Fair question, thanks so much. Let me try to address it in this way. Let me not be the one who speaks for myself. I'll just quote a number of the courts have actually said in some of the lawsuits that went forward. They said that that signing of the form is actually an endorsement of the very things that the Little Sisters of the Poor and others are seeing as morally objectionable and forbidden by their faith and are actually protesting.

So, I guess, we have to take at their word the courts who are making that serious question of putting a stay until the courts can decide it. And I believe it's been about a two-thirds majority of the court decisions on these cases that have been in favor of a stay so that these can be decided. All we're asking is reasonably give a delay so that the courts can do their work.

This balance that's being talked about in many courts decisions is at the effect and at the expense of religious freedom.

BLITZER: Because as you know, Jeffrey, and I want you to weigh in, the justice department immediately filed a motion before the courts arguing against this whole point that the archbishop is making.

TOOBIN: Right. I mean, that's the issue is whether this form is simply an exemption from the requirements, or as the Archbishop suggests, it's somehow an endorsement of it. I wonder if I can ask another question that's related but from a different direction about the Hobby Lobby case. I'm sure you're familiar with that. That's a big chain of craft stores, 584 stores.

And the owners, it's a privately-held company, they want to be excluded from providing some forms of contraception to their employees. Why should clerks or janitors at Hobby Lobby not get the same rights to health care that clerks and janitors at Macy's or Safeway get?

KURTZ: Well, it's a fair question. Let me say that what we're talking about here is not access to procedures that I might find objectionable. We're talking about whether the employer is required or I would say forced to include these in health policies. I think the Supreme Court has already said they're going to weigh in on this and we could probably wait until, I guess, late June in order to find out exactly what's going to be said.

We're confident that the Supreme Court will hear the objections. We're not talking here about access to procedures. We're talking about an employer being required to provide procedures that are objectionable.

BLITZER: What if they didn't have to sign anything? It just happened, that that was part of the law?

KURTZ: Well, that's not what we're talking about here, right? We're talking here --

BLITZER: But what if the administration came up with a formula, you know what, you don't have to sign anything, but it's just going to be your insurance company will just do it.

KURTZ: Wolf, we would have to study that, as you well know. Just as we had to study this. When I think it was announced that there would be an accommodation a number of months ago, we did study and we will take any approach that's being said and examine it. But remember that a knee jerk reaction of saying, well, this is going to be morally acceptable, it should be the person of religious conviction who has an opportunity to weigh in on whether it's morally objectionable.

And that's what we're saying the Little Sisters of the Poor are the ones who are being forced right now to do something that will likely involve crippling fines.

BLITZER: Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, thanks so much for joining us.

KURTZ: Great to be with you, Wolf.

BLITZER: And Jeffrey, as usual, thanks to you as well.

Coming up, serious health issues forcing Liz Cheney to bow out of her Senate race. We have details. That's coming up.

And an all-important vote in the United States Senate could affect a lot of Americans livelihoods. 1.3 million Americans who get unemployment benefits right now on the line. Stay with us. You're in the SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: All right. We're just getting some information about an emergency landing of a plane with a powerful U.S. senator on board. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina just tweeted - and I'm quoting now - "Interesting day. Just made a return flight emergency landing at GSP." That would be the airport at Greenville, South Carolina. Minutes later, he tweeted this. "About five minutes into today's flight from Greenville to Washington, I and my other passengers noticed the engine making strange sound." An FAA spokeswoman confirms that an express jet flight reported a cockpit indication of a possible issue with the right engine. It returned to the airport, landing safely at 3:00 p.m. Eastern. Good news on that.

We're awaiting what could be a history-making moment here in Washington. The Senate has just begun to vote to confirm the first woman chair of the Federal Reserve in its 100-year history. If Janet Yellen is confirmed, she faces a major challenge, weaning the U.S. economy off so much economic stimulus.

Let's talk about this and more with our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger, our chief national correspondent John King and our CNN digital correspondent Kelly Wallace.

Gloria, as we await the Senate confirmation of Janet Yellen -- I think she will be confirmed, she just needs just a majority 51 vote confirmation. That would make her one of the most powerful women not only in the United States, but around the world.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: I know. Right. Powerful woman. And I think that's very important not because she's going to be a different kind of a chairman of the Fed, but because she's going to be an important role model for women. Economics is a field in which there aren't as many women as some would like. Only a third of new economic Ph.Ds are women.

So when you see more women in this kind of a role in central banking, and she'll be very visible and she'll be speaking a lot publicly, it will be a good thing.

BLITZER: She may not be that tall, but John, she's going to be a powerful force, if you take a look at the impact that a Federal Reserve chair could have.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: And consider the moment. Number one, the outgoing chairman Ben Bernanke thinks the economy is about to shift into third and maybe have the potential to kick into a fourth gear. So, how does Janet Yellen manage this that? The key decisions about economic stimulus, the monetary decisions she will make about economic growth.

And Wolf, when our politics are going to turn 2014 into a debate about income inequality. The stock markets did great last year. If you have a 401(k), you did great last year. But if you're at the lower end, maybe working at minimum wage or just above the minimum wage, maybe not so good. Maybe you still feel the economy hasn't turned around for you. So she's going to take this powerful position at a time the economy is front and center, both from a policy and a political standpoint.

BLITZER: Let me bring Kelly into this conversation about another woman, Hillary Clinton. She's obviously one of the most powerful women in the world as well. Let's talk a little bit about this Politico story today, this long report that she's already had at least one meeting with political strategists out there weighing the pros and cons of running for the Democratic presidential nomination.

From everything you're hearing, Kelly, is she anxious to break that ultimate glass ceiling, become president of the United States to try once again?

KELLY WALLACE, CNN DIGITAL CORRESPONDENT: I know, Wolf. How ironic that back in November when she launched this program, No Ceilings, right -- to get women more opportunities and to break the glass ceilings, calling the glass ceilings the last piece of unfinished business in this century. How ironic that if she ran and won, she would crack that ultimate glass ceiling. But as you mentioned, that report in Politico where she had this meeting with aides and talking about how difficult a campaign could be and how some advisers close to Hillary Clinton are concerned about the impact on her legacy if she were to run and lose.

So it seems, obviously, that Hillary Clinton is weighing a number of things not just that impact on that proverbial glass ceiling.

BLITZER: When you read that story, Gloria, you heard that she actually met with some major strategists to discuss this, what did you think?

BORGER: I thought she was doing what any smart, potential presidential candidate ought to do, which is meet with people, get a realistic assessment, look at the --

BLITZER: Even this early?

BORGER: Even this early. Especially this early. Every presidential candidate now has to have a super PAC. Those things don't just happen overnight. They have to figure out how they are going to raise money in large contributions and in small contributions. They have to figure out the calendar. They have to know when they have to start. So she was just behaving like a presidential candidate actually.

KING: This organization is up and running. Her decision is to tell them to stop, not to start a campaign. It's to tell them to stop. But if she tells them to stop, Wolf, there's a lot of pressure on her to do that as early as possible. Most people believe she will run. But if she makes the decision not to run, remember, the other Democrats aren't as well known. They don't have this infrastructure. Even a Joe Biden is not a Hillary Clinton when it comes to national politics. And history says after a two-term president, the other party wins. So if you're going to have a relatively unknown Democrat, they need to signal from Hillary Clinton early.

BLITZER: I was going to say, John, you broke the story of Liz Cheney deciding not to run for the Republican senatorial position in Wyoming. She issued a statement later saying, 'Serious health issues have recently arisen in our family, and under the circumstances, I decided to discontinue my campaign." What's going on here?

KING: I want to respect the privacy of the Cheney family, especially now that she's not seeking public office. There are a lot of people who say this was because she was behind or because she had issues in the campaign. I know from several close friends and family associates that she does have some very serious family issues with two of her daughters, and that that's the biggest part of this. It's the first time she's run for public office. She had a public spat with her own sister, her gay sister who's married, about gay rights. It was unseemly, it seemed, around the holidays.

But her two daughters both have separate and unrelated health issues and she finally decided you know what? I just can't do this right now.

BLITZER: Kelly, what did you make of this?

WALLACE: Well, you know, it's interesting, Wolf. We just don't know, obviously. Again, John talking about respecting the privacy of the family - again, we don't know what those health issues are. And we also don't know if a male candidate faced with these same health issues would do the same thing. Probably he would.

We often talk about this issue of balancing family concerns with the position when it comes to a woman, but men face these very same issues. That said, when you talk to experts about how can we get more women into public office, one of the top things they mention is the difficulty of a campaign. Many women are not excited about the challenges of the campaign when it comes to balancing the family. Also they feel sometimes they are under more scrutiny than male candidates and might have more difficulties raising money. So there's a lot in that mix in terms of campaigning when it comes to getting more women in.

BORGER: I think with Hillary Clinton, the scrutiny issue is clearly an issue because she understands that the kind of scrutiny she gets is even more than most women would get because she's been in public life for so long. Her husband has been in public life.

And so she's the presumptive frontrunner. She's been there before. And she's lost, and it wasn't a lot of fun. And she understands the scrutiny. And maybe Liz Cheney, you can speak to this better than I, I'm not so sure Liz Cheney, even though her father was vice president, really understood what it was like.

KING: It's a combination of all those things. Hillary Clinton herself would tell her she's around her husband's campaign as governor. The first time you run, it's a little different.

I just want to change the subject for one second, if we can. Today at the White House, where I worked a long time ago with some guy named Wolf Blitzer, a guy named Jay Carney came out to the podium - I think we can show people what Jay Carney looked like. Look at that. It's brown. It's a little scruffy. Let's pop up something side by side with this. That would be Wolf Blitzer.

BLITZER: That was many, many years ago. . KING: When I came to the White House, Wolf, that's what you looked like. And I had brown hair too -

BORGER: Where's your beard.

KING: This should be a message to Jay Carney. Stay too long, this is what happens.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: I got a nice e-mail from Claire Shipman, his wife, Jay Carney's wife, who used to work with us at White House. She was one of our White House correspondents.

BORGER: Did she say he was Blitzer-izing himself?

BLITZER: She always liked my beard, too, you know. Maybe she likes - maybe encouraged Jay to grow his.

KING: I replaced Claire here at CNN, and some of the cameramen still yell at me about that.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: Kelly, thanks so much for joining us. Kelly Wallace, I remember you from those days as well. Gloria and John, as usual. Jay Carney, nice beard. Let's see how long it stays on your face. Mine has been on mine for a long, long time.

Up next, dangerously cold temperatures gripping the country. Wind chills, dozens of degrees below zero. What's causing this bitter, deep freeze?

Plus Dennis Rodman returning to North Korea. We'll show you what he's doing on his latest controversial visit.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: An Arctic blast is paralyzing half the country right now, plunging parts of the Midwest into scenes like this in Minnesota where temperatures are now in the negative 20s. It's wraeking havoc on travel across the country. Some members of Congress weren't even able to make it back for some critically important votes. CNN's Rene Marsh is here in THE SITUATION ROOM taking a closer look. It's pretty cold out there.

RENE MARSH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Cold, and it's a big headache if you're trying to travel by air. Latest numbers we have here, Wolf, delays roughly 6,000. And cancellations we're talking about 4,000. Just to give you a little perspective, on an average day you see 200 cancellations. So, there you have it for today. And that's according to aviation data tracker Mass Flight.

Now, this is all because of brutal weather. But one airline, they are not just blaming the weather, they are blaming the government and new rules on pilot work schedules. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MARSH (voice-over): Snow and ice have caused a nightmare for millions traveling today. In Boston, Mindy Goldberg and her family are still waiting to get home.

MINDY GOLDBERG, STRANDED PASSENGER: I just called my kids' school to tell them they wouldn't be there. She said everyone is stuck somewhere.

MARSH: Across the country, travelers grounded because of severe weather.

GOLDBERG: I have been in three different airports since yesterday at 10:00 a.m.

MARSH: From New York -

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There's no way to get home.

MARSH: -- to Miami. Even though it's hot and sunny, flights are cancelled because of the storm.

ELORA HERLICH, STRANDED PASSENGER: I have another flight to Newark, which is cancelled also.

MARSH: What's to blame? Besides the weather, one airline says new FAA rules requiring pilots to get time to rest. Today JetBlue halted operations at New York, New Jersey and Boston airports to reset from the storm. They partially blamed a mandatory 10-hour pilot rest period that went into effect Saturday. The pilots union says airlines had time to prepare.

CAPT. SEAN CASSIDY, AIRLINE PILOT ASSOCIATION: They had two years to anticipate this and to adjust accordingly. So I think it's overly simplistic to suggest that they could ascribe this disruption which happens to be associated with this major, major winter snowstorm and just hang it on that rule-making change.

MARSH: But for stranded passengers, no matter the reason, they just want to get home.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You just have to laugh at it. I mean, what else can you do? You have to have fun with it. There's nothing that we can do.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MARSH: That's a good attitude to have. And this morning American Airlines in Chicago, they got off to a rocky start when refueling pumps and equipment froze up. Negative temps clearly were too much for the equipment. There was a point that they could not refuel the planes, but that issue has since been resolved.

One thing we do want to point out, JetBlue says they will not totally stop all operations. Originally they said that they would, but they do say now they're scaling back significantly.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Well, hopefully this cold is not going to last that long. We can get back to business as usual.

Rene, thank you. Thanks very much.

Just ahead, we're awaiting a closely watched vote on Capitol Hill right now. Apparently too close to call still. Will lawmakers extend unemployment benefits for 1.3 million Americans?

Also dramatic efforts to stop poachers and curb the illegal ivory trade.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: There's mounting international pressure to save the planet's elephants. Our senior international correspondent Arwa Damon is on the ground in the Congo with an extraordinary look at the so-called Eco-guards hunting poachers.

This is a story you'll see only here on CNN.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It's been eight grueling, hot hours on this river chasing poachers in the Republic of Congo's largest national park. For these Eco-guards, disappointment follows disappointment.

(On camera): When you put your hand inside, it's actually still quite warm, which means that they probably left early in the morning.

(Voice-over): Finally, around a bend, signs of activity. Smoke rising along the bank. They rush ashore and fan out into the jungle. Within seconds, a gunshot. And the pursuit begins.

The terrain is dense and disorienting. The men force their way through the undergrowth and slosh through knee-deep water.

Our CNN team can barely keep up.

(On camera): They've all gone forward trying to chase down what seems to be a poacher who, at least most definitely, is armed. They appear to have caught him completely by surprise.

(Voice-over): Mathieu Eckel, head of the park's anti-poaching division, brandishes the weapon captured by one of his men.

MATHIEU ECKEL, ANTI-POACHING AGENT, NATIONAL PARK: The guy in front of him tried to shoot him.

DAMON: Hooked on adrenaline, Brice Moupele describes what happened. "He tried to shoot me, like this," he says. Moupele then tackled the poacher, grabbing the gun, but the poacher got away.

(On camera): There's elephant meat in the boat. (Voice-over): The men find the poacher's canoe, weighed down with fresh elephant meat, still dripping blood. Even more hangs off the sides.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is to take off the tusk.

DAMON: It's a sickening image of a trade that has decimated the park's elephants. The nonprofit group African Parks, which runs Odzala estimates that Central Africa has lost 62 percent of its forced elephants in the last decade. In this park alone, thousands have been killed in the last five years. In the week we spent here, we only saw one alive.

The park, about the size of Connecticut, is patrolled by just 76 eco guards. Not nearly enough. But some 40 percent of them are former poachers themselves, which helps big time.

ECKEL: They know how poaching work. So it's easy for them to think like them.

DAMON: It's part of a program created by Eckel in the last year where poachers are given amnesty if they hand over their weapons and confess. Eckel says this raid is proof his program works.

But the unit's successes come at a price. This is a country where corruption is routine and where poaching with impunity has been a way of life. All these eco guards have been threatened.

Frank Bolangonga tells us three men attacked his wife. "They tried to rape her, but she was strong. She pulled back and her dress ripped off and she ran away," he says. The same men who Bolangonga says are part of his villages poaching ring tried to attack him. He stabbed one of them.

The unit doesn't find any elephant ivory, but does end up with four guns, ammunition and a cell phone, a potential lead to the poachers.

The eco guards torch the camp to send a message. These men often find themselves pursuing people they once worked with, friends, neighbors, and even family members. In the ever-evolving fight against the ivory trade, out here, it's now personal.

Arwa Damon, CNN, Odzala National Park, Republic of Congo.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Good story. Thank you, Arwa, very much for that report.

Coming up, Dennis Rodman is now back in North Korea. This time he's brought some friends.

And we're awaiting that very close Senate vote on unemployment benefits. Stand by.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: He's back and this time he's brought some friends. Dennis Rodman now back in North Korea to celebrate the leader Kim Jong-Un's birthday.

CNN's Karl Penhaul reports.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KARL PENHAUL, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Party time for North Korean strongman Kim Jong-Un. He turns 31 Wednesday and basketball bad boy Dennis Rodman and his team of NBA all-timers headed there to help him celebrate.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All good.

PENHAUL: Rodman is describing this trip as basketball diplomacy. But prior to takeoff he ruled out specifically pushing for the release of American missionary Kenneth Bae who's doing hard time in a North Korean labor camp.

DENNIS RODMAN, FORMER NBA PLAYER: I'm not trying to save the world. I'm not trying to save Kenneth Bae, all these people. That's not my job. Not my job. My job is what I want to do. Sports. I'm going there to try to interact with Un on that point of love for sports. He loves sports, I like the guy, the guy is awesome to me.

PENHAUL: Rodman and his NBA buddies are scheduled to shoot hoops with the North Korean National Squad. It's a birthday treat for Kim who's an avid basketball fan.

On his last trip in December, Rodman spent a few days coaching the North Koreans.

As they waited for their plane to Pyongyang, players insisted the focus was on the game, not politics. But shooting guard Doug Christie is hopeful they can build bridges.

DOUG CHRISTIE, BASKETBALL STAR: Sport is what we're going for. Sport is something that cancels and conquers all borders, all lines. And it's an exciting feeling.

PENHAUL: Power forward Charles D. Smith also seemed optimistic.

CHARLES D. SMITH, BASKETBALL STAR: The extreme views on North Korea come about because most people have not been there. And because people have a sense of fear of the unknown.

PENHAUL: Critics see the trip as a publicity stunt and highlight North Korea's record of human rights abuses, but the NBA all-stars just want to play ball.

VIN BAKER, BASKETBALL STAR: I'm looking forward to playing and putting on a show in North Korea.

ERIC FLOYD, BASKETBALL STAR: We don't really get into the political aspects of it, but we all enjoy the game, love the game, and just try to spread all the great qualities that the -- that the game brings.

PENHAUL: Only last month Kim Jong-Un sent his own uncle to the firing squad on charges of corruption and treason. That kind of controversy prompted Rodman's Irish sponsors to pull out. But he remains unfazed.

DENNIS RODMAN, FORMER PROFESSIONAL BASKETBALL PLAYER: It's about showing people that we can actually get along. Let's get along as human beings.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Karl Penhaul reporting from Beijing.