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Lou Dobbs Tonight

Desperate Search for Miners in West Virginia; Violent Weather in California; Scorched in the Southwest

Aired January 02, 2006 - 18:00   ET


CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening, everybody.
Tonight, disaster in West Virginia. Thirteen miners are trapped nearly 6,000 feet from the mine entrance. We'll have complete coverage of this developing story.

Torrential rain sweeps across California as Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declares a state of emergency. Live coverage from the worst-affected areas.

President Bush prepares a bold agenda for his sixth year in office. We'll tell you why the president may struggle to revive his political fortunes. It's something called the six-year itch.

Plus, tough decisions ahead for Congress this year. I'll talk to two leading members of Congress from both sides of the aisle.

And Americans are facing mounting debt like never before. Middle class families now using credit to pay for their basic living expense. We'll have a special report.

But we begin tonight with the desperate search for 13 miners trapped one mile from the surface in West Virginia. A developing story we've been following all morning.

The miners were trapped after a coal mine explosion about 10 hours ago. And within the last 30 minutes, a rescue attempt is under way to reach those miners before their air runs out.

A lot is not known. There has been no contact with these miners, these 13 miners all day. And a rescue team has just begun to descend to try to figure out what is happening here. Thirteen coal miners trapped after that early-morning blast in the mine in Upshur County, West Virginia.

We've got Brian Todd with the latest report there -- Brian.


ROMANS: Hi, Brian. Are you there?

TODD: Yes, hi.

ROMANS: What's the latest?

TODD: Well, we know that there are 13 miners trapped in this mine. We are just actually driving past one of the main drilling areas of the mine it appears right now.

There's been no contact with the miners at this point. The rescue team, the first one to go in, has been there for at least three hours now. And they've made no contact with the -- with the trapped miners.

We know that it took several hours for the rescue team to get in there because of the presence of methane gas in the mine. And there still may be some issues regarding some gas that's being emitted from the mine that may be hampering the rescue efforts.

ROMANS: Brian, we don't know anything about the cause of this disaster as of yet, do we?

TODD: We do know that it was an explosion. As far -- as for the -- as far as what triggered the explosion, that's unclear right now.

It's the presence of methane gas in the mine, we're told. It's the most likely cause of that. But they're still trying to find some answers here.

There is apparently another type of gas being emitted from this mine, and we don't know what it is. It could be -- well, we're told it's not natural gas. We're told it's some kind of other gas.

So that could have been a cause of it. I think we're going to know more in a short time. But right now, we're just getting -- getting the most basic information.

ROMANS: All right. Brian Todd. A painstaking and still developing story there in West Virginia.

Joining me now, the deputy director of emergency management for Upshur County, Steve Milligan.

Steve, what can you tell us about the progress of that rescue operation now for these trapped miners?

STEVE MILLIGAN, OFFICE OF EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT, UPSHUR COUNTY: Yes, I just talked to the site by radio. The team is still in there. We've had no other new reports. We expect to get some updates soon.

We were told we'd get updated every 30 minutes, but there's no updates from the mine staff. It's my understanding that the governor of West Virginia, Joe Manchin, is on his way right now to the Upshur County airport, and he'll be traveling to the site soon.

ROMANS: I have to assume that a recovery effort, a rescue effort here is going to be painstaking and slow. These -- these rescuers have to be very careful as they -- as they move into this mine, don't they?

MILLIGAN: Yes, because of the presence of gases and lack of oxygen, they may need to use breathing apparatus depending on the air level. They do have monitoring equipment to monitor the air as they go in, but it will really depend on what the air quality is like in there and how much work they can do.

ROMANS: What is standard operating procedure for rescuers and for emergency response teams in the event of an emergency like this in your county?

MILLIGAN: The local fire, police, EMS always respond to those, but we're limited. Unless you've been trained to go into a mine or a part of a mine rescue team, the local first responders really can just sit outside and wait until the patients are brought out. But there are a lot of mine rescue teams in the area. They train on a regular basis and actually have competitions on a regular basis. So miners and rescuers from various other mines are responding already and are on scene, and more are coming.

ROMANS: For the workers in that mine, do we know anything about what they are trained to do in the event of an emergency like this? I mean, are these rescuers going in with a kind of assumption of what -- what these workers are doing, where they would have tried to disperse to, assuming they haven't been injured in that explosion?

MILLIGAN: Well, there is a period of training to -- before you can go into the mine. They call it a red head (ph) class. And it lasts a week or two. And then they have to be one on one with a mine for some period of time before they're actually allowed to be sort of by themselves off in the mine. And -- but as far as the exact training they're given, as far as surviving in there, I'm not familiar with that.

ROMANS: Well, we hope whatever training they have they're certainly able to use it, and we hope the story turns out with a good result.

Upshur County deputy director of emergency management, Steve Milligan. Thank you for keeping us up to date. Of course we'll continue to follow this story throughout the evening.

Trapped miners can survive underground for several days in the right circumstances. Back in 2002, nine miners were pulled to safety after spending three days in a flooded mine in Somerset, Pennsylvania. The miners were trapped in a mineshaft 240 feet below ground. But the West Virginia miners are much further from the entrance of the mine, about 5,800 feet, in fact.

We're going to bring you continuous coverage of this mine rescue operation throughout the broadcast.

But we turn now to the severe weather in California. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger today declared a state of emergency after days of torrential rain and severe flooding. The rains are being blamed for the deaths of at last two people in northern California. The storms moved south today to central and southern California.

We have two reports tonight. Katharine Barrett reports from San Anselmo, in northern California, and Chris Lawrence reports from Venice Beach, in southern California.

We begin tonight with Katharine Barrett.

Hi, Katharine.


Well, in the town of San Anselmo, this street behind me was, Saturday morning, a river, four feet deep that flowed right down the main street, washing away plantings here and washing right into as many as 50 shops all along this thoroughfare. Only one restaurant in town opened for business today. The rest of the town's businesses spent the day rinsing, scraping, mopping a mess of sludge, mud and waterlogged merchandise.

Floodwaters here rose and fell quickly; people described it as a flashflood. The last massive flood like that was in 1982. They say while this one rose just a bit less, they think the damage here could have been worse.

All day, bulldozers, backhoes and loaders have been working to remove heaps of debris from the streets, and just as fast as they take it away, merchants are dumping more of it out into the road here. Some 50 small shops and restaurants suffered flood damage. Most of them are small businesses, independently owned, stocked up, full of holiday merchandise. The ripple effect of that affects not just owners but their employees.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They said that the store has just been devastated and that I wouldn't be working for a while being obviously.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You can throw your hands up and walk away. But I don't know, I'm not that kind of person, you know? So it's just clean up the mess, you have to kind of have a good attitude, clean up the mess, and get it cleaned out and go on, you know? I mean, that's all -- you can cry later.


BARRETT: The town estimates losses to the businesses could run as much as $30 million to $40 million. But for now, residents have dried their tears and buckled down to dry out their town -- Christine.

ROMANS: All right. Katharine Barrett. Thank you, Katharine.

Meanwhile, in central and southern California, that heavy rain is threatening to cause mudslides on hills that were scorched by last summer's wildfires.

Chris Lawrence reports from Venice Beach, California -- Chris.

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Christine, perspective is everything. We definitely got the good edge of this storm compared to our neighbors up at the northern part of the state.

If you take a look right now, we're still getting a little bit of a wind gust here, and that is kicking up the surf here on Venice. Some pretty good waves coming in. That's why the trucks have been out here for the past hour or so really trying to build up this sand berm to protect damage to the beach in this area.

They've been going up and down. This berm runs pretty much the entire length of the beach down here.

Take you back just a few hours to earlier this morning and early in the afternoon, show you some of the -- some of what happened when those rains really came in pretty hard there for a few hours. Definitely a lot of flooding in certain areas.

The L.A. River, which normally is, you know, dry as a bone, was running pretty well there for a while. We did get a pretty heavy pounding here.

Thousands of people were without power for a short amount time. What we're hearing now is that most of those folks are getting their power turned back on right now. The flashflood warnings have all expired.

So for the most part, we dodged the worst of this storm, but again, the Rose Bowl Parade was this morning. The first time in 50 years they actually got some rainy weather on it. And it wasn't just a little bit of rain. Those folks out there got soaked.

Umbrellas, hats, anything they could do to try to keep the rain off. But it was a wet and soggy morning out here.

And again, just trying to shore up the beach line here. But for the most part, that wind is coming in so quickly, it is really just pushing that storm out of our area. And we think for right now we haven't seen any rain for the past few hours. It looks like the worst of it is over.

ROMANS: All right. Chris Lawrence, in Venice Beach, California.

Thank you, Chris.

In the Southwest, fire crews tonight are struggling to contain huge grass fires. Many houses have been burned in Texas and Oklahoma, and hundreds of people have been forced to leave their homes.


ROMANS (voice over): Dozens of wildfires swept across more than 70,000 acres of Oklahoma since Tuesday, propelled by 50-mile-an-hour wind gusts. The governor today toured some of the destruction.

GOV. BRAD HENRY (D), OKLAHOMA: I want to stress, we're not out of the danger yet. We can't let our guard down and we want all Oklahomans to remain extremely cautious.

ROMANS: In Oklahoma, the last significant rain fell on Halloween. Despite the containment of many of the blazes, officials still concerned the wildfires will reignite. MAYOR MICK CORNETT, OKLAHOMA CITY: It's extremely dry, and about every other day it's extremely windy. You put those two in a combination and it's a dangerous situation. I'm concerned it may get worse before it gets better.

ROMANS: Hundreds have been forced from their homes.

CHARLENE HAROLDSON, HOMEOWNER, OKLAHOMA CITY: I went in the House, and I heard the fire trucks, so I came back out and a lady had pulled in my driveway. And I looked to the north of me and there was flames going everywhere.

ROMANS: There are harrowing tales of escape.

HOWARD LUSK, LOST HOME TO FIRE: There was a berm that started a fire around the house. So we actually jumped in the truck and we took off. You know, we drove through the fire.

ROMANS: In Texas, grass fires raged across bone-dry land. More than 80,000 acres of grassland have burned since December 26. While firefighters seem to have the upper hand now, Governor Rick Perry says the danger is far from over.

GOV. RICK PERRY (R), TEXAS: Relatively contained at this particular point in time, but as the conditions deteriorate and we get low humidity and the winds coming back again tomorrow, then obviously we're going to have to be watching it and watching it close.

ROMANS: The wildfires have already taken a heavy toll. The town of Ringgold, population 100, reduced to ashes. Nearby, all 3,200 residents of Nickona (ph) were evacuated to shelters.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It was scary. It's still scary. You know, I've never been in nothing like this.

ROMANS: The biggest fire stretched over 30 miles and blackened 15,000 acres in Eastland County, about 125 miles west of Dallas. Constantly shifting winds, making the fight all the more difficult.

TRACI WEAVER, TEXAS FOREST SERVICE: It's going to push the fire in different directions, so we're concerned about the southern flank of the fire.


ROMANS: And the weather is not going to help the situation anytime soon. Forecasters aren't predicting any rainfall in the region for the foreseeable future.

Still to come, new developments in the controversy over the Bush administration's secret spying program. We'll go live to the White House.

Plus, why middle class Americans are using credit cards to pay for basic everyday living expenses. Our special report coming up.

And how Russian President Vladimir Putin is looking more like an old style Soviet leader every day.

And we're following that still-developing story out of West Virginia: 13 miners trapped nearly 6,000 feet from the mine's entrance after an explosion earlier today.

Make sure you stay with the program. We're going to bring you updates throughout the hour.


ROMANS: Americans woke up Sunday to a brand-new year with the same old debt problems. American consumers are on a spending spree many believe is unsustainable. The hangover from this growing debt crisis could hit middle class Americans especially hard.

Casey Wian reports.


CASEY WIAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Elizabeth DaCosta owes $30,000 on five credit cards.

ELIZABETH DACOSTA, DEBTOR: You name it, and I just put it on the credit card.

WIAN: The research business she owned with her husband failed. So did her marriage.

DACOSTA: Once we separated, you know, I didn't have a job, I moved cities, you know, looking for a new life and all that good stuff. And so I had to use them to, again, buy groceries or survive until I had a decent job. And then at that point they were so high already, it's almost like even you're paying the minimum it's really not doing anything, you're just paying interest at that point.

WIAN: And late fees and over the limit fees. Now the single mother is fighting to stay out of bankruptcy.

It's a familiar story. American credit card debt has nearly tripled to almost $800 billion since 1989. The average household owes more than $8,600. It's compounding the income pressure facing many middle class Americans from job losses, outsourcing, rising healthcare costs and benefit reductions.

JARED BERNSTEIN, ECONOMIC POLICY INSTITUTE: If you look at middle and lower income families, about 70 percent of their credit card debt is on household necessities it. It might be on fixing a car, repairing a house, it could even be on healthcare. So folks have been using their credit cards as somewhat of a safety net in a period where household incomes for many families have barely been keeping pace with inflation.

WIAN: Debt levels are going up while interest rates are rising. So it's becoming even tougher to pay those bills.

DAVID JOHNSON, BY DESIGN FINANCIAL SOLUTIONS: You've got increasing interest rates on -- mortgage interest rates and interest rates overall. You've got creditors that are now required to increase the minimum payment on accounts. So there's a high likelihood that more consumers are going to default both because their credit card interest rates are going up and minimum their payments are going up substantially.

WIAN: So far, rising home equity has helped many Americans stay solvent. But as the real estate market cools and interest rates rise, refinancing will become a less viable option.


WIAN: And interest rates are expected to keep rising, especially since the U.S. government is now $8 trillion in debt. That's more than $27,000 for every American. It's likely to put even more pressure on the middle class through higher taxes, cuts in federal programs, or both -- Christine.

ROMANS: All right. Casey Wian. Thank you so much, Casey.

WIAN: Yes.

ROMANS: And you know that brings us to the topic of our poll tonight. Which do you believe should be the first priority for the president and Congress in 2006, the war in Iraq, border security, the economy, or the war on terror? Cast your vote at We'll bring you the results later in the broadcast.

Still to come, 2005 was a rough one for President Bush. Why the president could face an even tougher political struggle in 2006. Our special report ahead.

Plus, what voters are telling members of Congress during their recess. I'll be talking with two leading members of Congress.

And how Russian President Vladimir Putin has his country looking more and more like the old USSR every day.


ROMANS: Russia tonight is being accused of blackmailing Ukraine, a key U.S. ally in Eastern Europe. Moscow is blocking Russian natural gas supplies to Ukraine. Moscow says it's simply a dispute over prices. But Ukraine says Russia is using its natural gas supplies to undermine its economy.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is refusing to back down. He's demanding a fourfold increase in the price that Ukraine pays for Russian natural gas.

Critics of President Putin say he's using Soviet-style tactics to bully Russia's neighbors. President Putin is also clamping down on freedom in Russia and consolidating power at an alarming speed.

Kitty Pilgrim reports.


KITTY PILGRIM, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Russia is employing political strong-arming against the liberal regime in Ukraine.

ADRIAN KARATNYCKY, THE ORANGE CIRCLE: It is suggesting that it will use energy not purely on a market basis, but it is prepared to use energy to achieve its political alliance. Energy supplies should not be linked to political considerations like political pressure against a country that you want to bring back into your fold.

PILGRIM: A lot has happened in the four years since President Bush first met the Russian president and said he was able to get a sense of his soul, a man committed to democratic reforms.

Freedom House, a U.S.-based organization that tracks the progress of political rights and civil liberties has downgraded Russia to not free. Last year, the Russian government imprisoned Mikhail Khodorkovsky on tax charges. Khodorkovsky is Russia's richest man and one of the most powerful economic figures.

Last week, one of Putin's economic advisers, Andrey Illariyonov, quit over the curtailing of economic freedoms.

Putin has systematically been consolidating state power in a variety of key industries, including media and energy. Putin enjoys high approval ratings from the Russian public, who value stability. But experts say they are in the dark. The media camp criticized Putin, and legislative and judicial branches of government are powerless.

CHRISTOPHER WALKER, FREEDOM HOUSE: The Russian authorities have their eyes on the elections in 2007 and 2008. And it may well be that they're looking to extinguish the last vestiges of independent life in the country in advance of these elections. So there really will be very, very little competition, if at all, on the political scene in Russia two years from now.


PILGRIM: Now, a new law in Russia will restrict the access of Western organizations that monitor freedom. President Putin is about to sign that law. And up until now, these Western watchdog organizations have been serving as a window into what's really happening in the country -- Christine.

ROMANS: A window that looks like it's closing.

Kitty Pilgrim.

Thanks, Kitty.

Russia not the only country restricting the freedom of expression. Iran is also cracking down on the media.

Iran's new hard-line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has ordered a newspaper to close down and ban a new publication for women. Iranian journalists say the bans could be the start of a new wave of government sanctions against news organizations.

Coming up, President Bush facing tough new questions in the growing wiretap scandal. The latest in a live report from Washington.

Plus, border security, the Patriot Act and the war in Iraq. Two leading members of Congress on the outlook for issues of key national importance in 2006.

Then, what happened to CAFTA? This so-called free trade agreement that many say will destroy American jobs, it's missed a key deadline. I'll talk to one congressman who wants CAFTA killed.

And now you're looking at some live pictures, Upshur County, West Virginia, where 13 coal miners remain trapped at this hour more than a mile underground. There has been no contact to the trapped miners. Their condition is not known.

A rescue operation is under way. The latest on this story ahead.

And please stay tuned for a special edition of "LARRY KING LIVE" for the very latest on the mine rescue operation. That's beginning at 9:00 p.m. tonight.


ROMANS: Still ahead, two leading congressmen on the outlook for a border security bill in 2006. But first, a look at this hour's top stories.

In Upshur County, West Virginia, tonight, a tense waiting game continues over the fate of 13 trapped coal miners. A rescue team is now trying to reach miners trapped more than a mile under ground after an early morning explosion.

In the drought-stricken Southwest tonight, firefighters are battling new grass fires in Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico. These new fires have destroyed dozens of homes. In Texas, several small towns have burned to the ground. Forecasters say there's virtually no rain in the forecast for this region anytime soon.

In rain-drenched southern California today, police rescued a woman whose sports utility vehicle skidded off the road and plunged into a flood control channel. Her condition not known tonight.

At least two people have died in California this weekend after Pacific storms battered the state. Governor Schwarzenegger declared seven counties in his state disaster areas today.

Atlanta doctors tonight are evaluating Baby Noor, the Iraqi infant with severe birth defects brought to the U.S. for treatment. Doctors say she's alert and doing well, but they say she might have to spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair after surgery. Baby Noor, who is three months old, suffers from Spina Bifida. A date for surgery has not been set. In Washington, the White House is vowing to aggressively defend its program to secretly wiretap Americans in the days and weeks ahead. But this upcoming offensive comes amid new reports of serious internal debate in the Bush administration over the legality of this program.

Elaine Quijano reports.


ELAINE QUIJANO, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice over): He was the number two at the Justice Department from late 2003 until last fall. Government officials say during at least part of James Comey's tenure as deputy attorney general, he vigorously opposed parts of the National Security Agency's secret domestic surveillance program and refused to sign off on its renewal.

Officials confirm to CNN what "The New York Times" reported Sunday, that Comey's objections led to a hospital visit by top Bush aides to Comey's boss, John Ashcroft, who was then the attorney general.

In March of 2004, officials says, White House Chief of Staff Andy Card and Alberto Gonzales, who was then the White House counsel, visited Ashcroft who was in the hospital for gall bladder surgery. They wanted his approval, but officials say Ashcroft was initially reluctant to give it.

The program allows the government without a warrant to monitor some international communications of people in the United States. On Sunday, President Bush would not comment directly when asked whether he was aware of any high-level resistance to the NSA program. Instead, he again forcefully defended its use, calling it legal and necessary.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: They might say that if somebody from al Qaeda's calling you, we'd like to know why. In the meantime, this program is conscious of people's civil liberties, as am I. This is a limited program, designed to prevent attacks on the United States of America.


QUIJANO: And sources have told CNN that the surveillance program was stopped in 2004 for a short time because of legal questions. Some changes were then made to the program, but it's not clear what those changes were. Christine?

ROMANS: All right, Elaine Quijano at the White House. Thank you, Elaine.

If you thought President Bush had a rocky fifth year in office, fasten your seat belts for year six. President Bush hopes to turn around his faltering political fortunes this year with an ambitious political agenda. History, however, is not on his side. Bill Schneider explains.


WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST (voice-over): Ever hear of the six-year itch? It's a disease presidents often get after their party has held the White House for six years. The symptoms? Big setbacks for the president's party at the polls.

It happened to the Democrats in 1938 and 1966. And to the Republicans in 1958, 1974, and 1986. On the average, the president's party lost 44 House seats and seven Senate seats in those elections.

Democrats need to gain just 16 seats this year to win control of the House of Representatives, and seven to take over the Senate. Piece of cake? Not exactly. Very few seats change party these days. Most House seats are safe for one party, and only three Republican senators running for re-election are from blue states.

Like most models, the six-year itch works, except when it doesn't work. It didn't work in 1998, when Democrats picked up House seats. Voters wanted on to show their displeasure with the Republican Congress for threatening to impeach President Clinton. But the six- year itch was diagnosed in 1958 when there was a recession. In 1966, Vietnam, in 1974, Watergate.

In 2006, Republicans are worried about Iraq and indictments. President Bush wants to reverse the curse by scoring early victories this year, like getting Samuel Alito confirmed quickly to the Supreme Court, and getting the Patriot Act renewed quickly, and quickly suppressing the controversy over domestic wiretaps.

BUSH: I've got to use the resources at my disposal, within the law, to protect the American people.

SCHNEIDER: And to protect his party from the six-year itch.


SCHNEIDER: It would take a political earthquake for the Democrats to win control of Congress this year. But you know, earthquakes have been known to happen, Christine.

ROMANS: Bill, what about the six-year itch and how soon it will be felt? Well before the midterm elections?

SCHNEIDER: We could see the signs of it earlier because if Republicans feel the six-year itch coming on, they're going to want to keep their distance from President Bush, and put him in kind of a political quarantine.

ROMANS: All right, Bill Schneider in Washington. Thank you very much, Bill.


ROMANS: Well ahead of those congressional elections, lawmakers will have to weigh in a number of critical issue, including the Patriot Act and $40 billion in federal budget cuts. Members of Congress are in their home districts, likely getting an earful from their constituents on these and many other issues, including the war in Iraq and domestic spying.

Joining me now for more on what they're hearing back home. Congressman Dana Rohrabacher of California joins us from Irvine, California. And Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur of Ohio joins us from Toledo. Thank you both for being here. I want to start in California and ask you, Congressman, what are you hearing from your constituents about border security and about immigration? This will be a top item on the agenda for Congress when it gets back in the coming weeks.

REP. DANA ROHRABACHER (R), CALIFORNIA: Well, my constituents are happy that the Republican Party has finally gotten off its duff, seeing that we do control the House and the Senate and the presidency, and taken up the issue of illegal immigration.

We passed through the House, I would say, a very good first step in immigration reform. Most all of the Democrats, I'm not insure how Marcy voted on this, but almost all the Democrats opposed it. So this core issue I think is going to be a major factor in the upcoming election, and it's clear out here in California. But I think throughout the country, seniors don't want illegals getting Social Security. People understand illegal immigration is very bad for them.

ROMANS: What, Congressman, are your constituents saying about a guest worker program? It's not in the bill, but there's a lot of talk that this House bill could be what some are saying is a Trojan horse that can slide a guest worker program into later for the Senate version.

ROHRABACHER: Well I of course will not vote for any bill that includes a guest worker program because I happen to believe, No. 1, there are alternatives. We could use prisoners to pick the fruit, for example, and they should work, rather than sit in the jail or work out in the gym all day.

But also, the guest workers program, it's quite often misused, meaning people could come in as part of a guest workers program and after two weeks in the fields, they'd run off to do every other kind of job that isn't covered by a guest workers program. So I'm very skeptical of that and most people who are concerned about illegal immigration are skeptical of that alternative.

ROMANS: Congresswoman Kaptur, let me ask you how important illegal immigration and reform is of illegal immigration to your constituents. Are you hearing them talk about this as your home there?

REP. MARCY KAPTUR (D), OHIO: Well of course, much of the illegal immigration that America is experiencing now is a push back to NAFTA and its failures. And the fact that we do not have labor provisions that are enforceable within the NAFTA accord.

I'm one of those members of Congress that is pushing for a continental reform of NAFTA. And unfortunately, the crime associated with illegal immigration is not often talked about, but it is severe. It impacts a community like my own, where workers are literally trafficked, and they are brought up here. They don't like it.

The employers may get fined. The workers are needed, but we need to have provisions in NAFTA that treat workers with respect, whatever side of the border they are on. I don't think that is part of the Republican proposal. Congressman Rohrabacher and I both oppose NAFTA very strongly, and I hope -- I'm at Canadian border, he's near the Mexican border -- this is a ripe opportunity for us to embed labor provisions and get the crime.

They call them coyotes, people who get up to $5,000 a person to poach workers in Mexico and Guatemala and El Salvador and all these countries and bring them here. It is a terrible system. We have hundreds of people die in the fields in this country every year. It's a continental sacrilege. We need to go back and address the shortcomings of NAFTA.

ROHRABACHER: We do have a bill, the legislation that passed Congress, does for the very first time set down the requirement for employers to use a system that we have. That they now will have to verify that the people they're hiring are here legally or not.

And all people will be verified, there's nothing wrong with that, having an employer verify that a worker is a U.S. citizen or a legal resident. But that will go a long way, a long way towards deterring people from coming across the border, because we have a treasure house for them. We have jobs.

Now what I would like to see added to that is a verification for people's legal status before they can get any government benefits as well.

ROMANS: Congresswoman, let me ask you a little bit about the treasure trove of jobs. In your state, clearly the economy has got to be on the minds of your voting constituents. And the president expected to start talking on the economy in the coming days here. What are your constituents saying about the economy. What economy are they feeling as we're hearing from the White House and corporate America that the economy is doing quite well?

KAPTUR: Well, in the Midwest, incomes have actually been going down. And I would disagree with my dear colleague from California, Dana Rohrabacher, who's a very good friend of mine, and say that to put the burden on employers is unfair because we have a continental system of corruption related to the importation of labor.

The people in my area want good jobs with good wages with benefits that are dependable, and that will be there for them when they retire. The system that we are actually creating, with agreements like NAFTA, we're pitting first-world countries against third-world countries, where corruption is very high.

And some of the officials within the Mexican government and those in charge of enforcement are part of the problem. So you can't put all the burden on U.S. employers. We need a continental system that is transparent and fair to all concerned. And I can tell you that wages here in the Midwest have been going down. Middle class people just can't afford to buy what they did before. So the president needs to hear us. I think in some ways he's insulated from the street and what's really happening.

ROMANS: We'll have to leave it there. There's so many, so many different ways the president and both parties can set the agenda in 2006. We obviously can't get to it all, but Congressman Dana Rohrabacher from California, thank you so much for joining us. Also, Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur from Ohio. Thank you both of us and best of luck to you on what -- a lot of work to be done in the year ahead. Thank you.

KAPTUR: And a blessed New Year.

ROMANS: Thank you.

Still ahead, the CAFTA follies, central American nations who could see their trade spike after CAFTA just can't seem to get their act together. Is the so-called free trade agreement in trouble before it even begins? Congressman Charlie Rangel will be my guest.

And we'll have the very latest on the 13 miners who are trapped nearly 6,000 feet from the entrance of their mine. We'll talk live with a CNN correspondent traveling with the governor of West Virginia as he rushes back to his home state to deal with this ongoing emergency. That's an exclusive report, and it's coming up next.


ROMANS: We're following the very latest on 13 coal miners trapped in a West Virginia mine, thousands of feet underground, and more than a mile from the entrance of the mine. In a CNN exclusive, Randi Kaye is traveling with West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin tonight. They on the way to the scene of this explosion. Randi, what's the governor telling you about the rescue operation?

RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We just landed here in Bridgeport, West Virginia. We're about 45 minutes from the Sago mine. We were on board the governor's plane with him, the only crew with him.

He's telling us, now that we're on the ground, he just spoke to his people who are over at area of the mine, and he's telling us they have a nine-person crew inside the main shaft, and they're about two miles in.

What they're doing, Christine, is they're trying to work their way around the area of the mine and seal off, find some good air and seal it off as they go. You can probably hear the governor in the background here, we're in the car heading over to the mine. That is what we know right now, they've been testing the air quality.

They're trying to find some clean air that isn't filled with carbon monoxide, which would have come as a result of that explosion that occurred in the mine. He got the call about 6:15 this morning, he was in Atlanta for the Sugar Bowl. He has turned around and wants to get back to the families of these miners. We're heading straight to the mine and the Sago Church, which is in that area as well, that's were the families of the trapped workers are all gathered.

The governor knows what the families are going through. He actually lost an uncle and several friends from his high school football team in '68. He was in college at the time and there was in an explosion in a mine in Farmington, West Virginia. He knows what this waiting feels like.

He says every hour feels like a million. He remembers the agony of the waiting, and the hope is that the miners survive the explosion, they're able to use their gear, they have an hour and a half of air, safe air to find a way, clean spot under ground, where they can seal off the bad air and wait for rescuers. Christine?

ROMANS: Randi, a reminder that mining is a way of life in West Virginia. We know that in Pennsylvania three years ago it took three days to rescue nine miners. It's painstaking, the recovery and the rescue effort, at the same time, it must be so difficult for all the folks who are waiting at church across the street from the compound as they're waiting minute-by-minute.

KAYE: They are waiting, and he knows what they're going through. He's been there. It was a long time ago, but he knows. What he's most concerned about is back in the case of Pennsylvania, it did take three days. The real concern there was water. The main concern here is bad air.

If these trapped workers can't find safe air, he won't even talk about that yet, but certainly that's his greatest concern. Because their time to find that air is limited here. They'd only have about a (inaudible).

ROMANS: Randi Kaye, traveling with the governor of West Virginia. We'll continue to cover this developing story throughout the evening. Please keep us posted, stay here for all the latest news on the mine disaster in West Virginia.

Meanwhile, the CAFTA trade agreement between the United States, The Dominican Republic and five central American nations was supposed to go into effect on the first of the year. But five months after President Bush signed the so-called free trade agreement, others member nations have completely dropped the ball.

Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala say they won't pass the necessary reforms to join CAFTA until February 1st. Nicaragua says it will be March before it can join. The Dominican Republic, July 1st at earliest. Costa Rica hasn't even approved the pact yet and says it may never join at all.

New York Congressman Charlie Rangel, a leading CAFTA opponent, joins me with his take on the delay of the divisive trade agreement. It seems in Washington there was a real push to get this thing through. A lot of debate, last minute changes of heart on Capitol Hill and then we find out the countries that are the -- you know, the end result here of CAFTA aren't anywhere near it being ready.

REP. CHARLIE RANGEL, (D-NY): They're just finding out what's in the agreement. You know, Democrats and Republicans can't pass a treaty just on a partisan basis. And that's exactly what the president and the Republicans did. There was not a larger debate on this bill.

They brought this bill to the floor and they didn't even have enough Republicans to pass it. What it was is a lot of arm twisting, a lot of promising, a lot of pork, and Condoleezza rice visited me and said the communists were coming, that if we didn't have this done for them to go into effect January One, that the Sandinistas were going to take over the area. Hugo Chavez, Castro.

It was a big panic job that they put. But clearly, the issues that we were raising, and that is, are there going to be any protection for the workers there, any minimum internationalist standards?

What about the pharmaceuticals, who now are asking that you legislate their protection.

Subsidized farmers are now saying that they want it in the law in these countries that they can have access to the market. Well, if you're not concerned about the presence of the farmers you're not expecting them to buy much of U.S. products and that's a problem.

ROMANS: Are we seeing these countries changing their domestic laws and coming in line with what the United States government wants so that this so-called free trade agreement can go through. Why are they dragging their feet?

RANGEL: You keep saying dragging their feet and dropping the ball. The fact is that we Democrats had a whole lot of Catholic priests from the area. We had farmers. We had labor leaders. We had doctors that were concerned that they would not be able to get the life-saving drugs. They were not listened to.

They said we had to pass this bill or they would walk away from the United States of America. They passed the bill and it looks like they're still walking away from the United States of America. If Democrats and Republicans were allowed to come together to listen to the peasants, the farmers, the doctors, the churches, we could have had a bill and they would have understood it.

What is happening now is that many of the legislators in these groups are finding out for the first time what's in the agreement. And they don't like it.

ROMANS: Charlie Rangel, we have to leave it there. Thank you very much.

RANGEL: Thank you, good to be back.

ROMANS: Nice to see you again. Coming up next -- one American starts a new political party to take on what he calls the republicrats and the demicans. He'll be our next guest.

And we continue to follow a developing story in West Virginia. At least 13 coal miners trapped nearly 6,000 feet from the entrance of the mine.

Make sure you stay with CNN for the very latest on this developing story.


ROMANS: My next guest says the two major political parties are incapable of solving the critical issues facing our nation, especially our border crisis. As a result, Dan Kairis has co-founded a new party in his home state. The Independence Party of Illinois has made one of its top platforms the fight against illegal immigration.

Dan Kairis joins me now from Chicago. How nice to have you with us. Thank you.

DAN KAIRIS, CO-FOUNDER, INDEPENDENCE PARTY OF ILLINOIS: Hi, good evening, Christine. It's a pleasure to be here.

ROMANS: Give me a little sense why illegal immigration is on the top of your agenda -- at the top of your agenda here? Why not work through the traditional parties? Why form a third party and take it on this way?

KAIRIS: Well, we all know that the federal government certainly has dropped the ball when it comes to the illegal alien problem, and when you live in a state like Illinois -- and I've also been involved with the New Frontier Coalition -- and a number of states have the same difficulty. We have a number of illegal aliens taking benefits which should be going to the legal residents of our states.

ROMANS: Tell me what reverse amnesty is. It's something that you talk about, that your party is espousing. Reverse amnesty, tell us about that and how you think that could be viable even in a state like Illinois, which is already giving mortgages to illegal aliens, in-state tuition to illegal aliens, and health care?

KAIRIS: That's right. Those are the same Republicans and same Democrats you were talking about before. All of these benefits are being given to illegal aliens. Our idea, since the federal government will not address the problem, with this reverse amnesty, what we would do once we take office is pass legislation that would give them 120 days to leave the state. If after that time they didn't leave the state, we would use Title 8 of the federal code or we could use the drug enforcement laws and confiscate property so that we could then pay for their deportation.

ROMANS: I can tell you that I've been covering illegal immigration for a long time, and I think that the political will for something like that is very, very low. You have the open borders crowd on one end of the spectrum, who would like to see unfettered immigration completely. You've got the other side of the spectrum that, you know, says -- many people say you just -- you can't send people back home. How in the world would be that workable?

KAIRIS: Well, see, that's the problem. Everybody keeps thinking it's the system, and you're correct in one regard, that's why we formed the Independence Party of Illinois. We can't take -- we can't give credit to the Republicans or Democrats for doing anything, because they have obviously shown they don't have the will to do it. But when you've taken your polls, I've watched the show before, and 80 percent of the people are in favor of such measures.

Well, we need a third party to get those 80 percent of the people who have given up on the Republican and Democratic parties a chance to vote for somebody who will actually take a stand and do the job.

ROMANS: Third parties traditionally get headlines but don't get a lot of traction in some cases. How do you expect to do? How do you expect to try to gain some momentum here on this?

KAIRIS: Well, appearing on your show obviously is going to be a big boost. We have -- we have immediate recognition right now just by being on the show, so we've accomplished something a lot of other third parties haven't.

Our goal, however, in our state, unlike other third parties that have just run state officers, such as governor or lieutenant governor, we want to put together an entire slate not only of the state officers, but also for every legislative seat that's going to be available in 2006, so that we'll have a friendly legislature to work with our governor to get these things passed.

ROMANS: All right, Dan Kairis, thank you so much for joining us here tonight.

KAIRIS: Thank you very much for having me.

ROMANS: Still ahead tonight, the results of tonight's poll, and we'll read you some of our e-mails. That's coming up next.


ROMANS: Are you fed up with the phrases "person of interest," "up-or-down vote," "hunker down" and "community of learners?" If so, you're not alone. Michigan's Lake Superior State University has come up with a list of their top annoying phrases of 2005, the phrases they never, ever want to hear again in 2006.

Other phrases making the list -- "first-time caller," "talking points," and a phrase familiar to viewers of television journalism, none other than "breaking news."

Now, the results of tonight's poll. Forty-eight percent of you said border security should be the first priority for the president and Congress in 2006; 35 percent said the economy.

Taking a quick look at some of your thoughts. Kay Nichols in Sebring, Florida: "I'm confused. The ladies and gentlemen up there in those hallowed halls of Congress are supposed to be our best and brightest, right? Then how come they don't get it? No jobs for the middle class means less tax money going into their coffers, right? If this keeps up, they won't even be able to afford to give themselves a raise."

Mamie in Reno, Nevada: "The problem is, government is attached at the hip to business, the rich and corporations who dole out handfuls of money. Maybe we need to fire everyone at the top in government and start over, just like they did in 1776."

Lydia Howell in Minneapolis, Minnesota: "If competitive (that is low) wages are what companies want, they should outsource the executives."

Thomas in Hemet, California: "I have an idea. Have Congress live like those they represent. Live on Social Security, depend on and pay for their medical insurance. Let the illegals run for office (theirs). Then maybe things might change."

We love hearing from you. You can send us your thoughts at

Thanks for being with us tonight. Please join us tomorrow. Our guests will include best-selling author James Bamford and Emmy Award- winning journalist Peter Lance. Plus, war on the middle class. New information that a shocking number of baby boomers aren't prepared financially for retirement.

For all of us here, good night from New York. "THE SITUATION ROOM" starts right now with Wolf Blitzer -- Wolf.