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Senate Approves $100 Billion Emergency Funding Bill Despite Veto Threat By President Bush; Donald Rumsfeld Faces Serious Protests, Tough Questions From Audience; Bill Frist Manages Possible White House Run With Day Job In Senate; House Passes Scaled-Back Lobbying Reform Bill; Representative Patrick Kennedy In Car Accident

Aired May 04, 2006 - 16:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: To our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM, where new pictures and information are arriving all the time. Standing by, CNN reporters across the United States and around the world to bring you today's top stories.
Happening now, a showdown over spending. The Senate ignores a presidential veto threat and passes emergency funding for war and hurricane relief. It's 4:00 p.m. here in Washington, where Republicans are taking hard lines and fighting over the bottom line.

Also this hour, President Bush celebrates Latino heritage in the midst of a star spangled debate over Spanish and the national anthem. We're keeping you up-to-the-minute on the immigration wars.

And Donald Rumsfeld under fire again. The Pentagon chief faces serious protests and some tough questions from angry audience members. Did the confrontation help or hurt his standing with the American public and with the president?

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

Right now, Donald Rumsfeld watchers are buzzing about a dramatic show of public anger at the defense secretary. Just a short while ago, the Pentagon chief was speaking in Atlanta when he was heckled, interrupted by protesters and grilled by an audience member about Iraq.

Listen to this.


DONALD RUMSFELD, DEFENSE SECRETARY: It appears that there were not weapons of mass destruction there.

RAY MCGOVERN, CIA VETERAN: You said you knew where they were.

RUMSFELD: I did not. I said I knew where suspect sites were, and we were just...

MCGOVERN: You said you knew where they were, "near Tikrit, near Baghdad, and northeast, south and west of there." Those are your words.


BLITZER: We'll assess the political fall-out in our "Strategy Session.

Also, a reality check. What exactly did Donald Rumsfeld say before the war about weapons of mass destruction? We're going back, reviewing all of his words. All that coming up here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

But first, a big fight over big bucks. It pits the White House against the Senate, and Republicans against Republicans. Also emergency funding for the Iraq war and hurricane relief now are hanging in the balance. Just hours ago, the Senate approved the $100 billion spending bill despite a strong veto threat by President Bush. He's demanding the bill be stripped of extra spending piled on by senators. And now the House Majority leader is making a threat of his own.

Our White House correspondent Ed Henry is standing by. Let's go to our congressional correspondent Andrea Koppel first, with the latest developments.


ANDREA KOPPEL, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, almost two months after the House of Representatives passed that emergency supplemental, and actually came in slightly under what President Bush had requested, senators finally cast their votes today, and seem to be setting up what is shaping up to be a head-on collision between the Senate, President Bush and the House.


KOPPEL (voice-over): President Bush repeated his ultimatum yesterday.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The Congress needs to hear me loud and clear. If they spend more than 92.2 plus pandemic flu emergency funds, I will veto the bill.

KOPPEL: But by a vote of 78-20, the Republican-dominated Senate defied the president and voted to spend almost $109 billion, or over $14 billion more than what President Bush said he'd allow. Included in the Senate bill, much of what Mr. Bush wanted, almost $71 billion in emergency funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as close to $30 billion for hurricane relief in the Gulf Coast and 11 billion for homeland security and border protection. But that's not what has critics up in arms.

SEN. JIM BUNNING (R), KENTUCKY: It has everything but the kitchen sink. And as I read through the programs that will provide $20 million for oyster fishermen in New England, and $4 million for erosion control projects in California and Michigan, I'm starting to believe the kitchen sink must be in there, too, somewhere.

KOPPEL: Critics say the bill is packed with expensive pet projects places like Hawaii, where $6 million is earmarked to help the islands' struggling sugar industry.

SEN. TOM COBURN (R), OKLAHOMA: Emergencies are supposed to be reserved for true emergencies. Unexpected costs facing the federal government. This bill is loaded with things that aren't unexpected.

KOPPEL: But Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran. who successfully pushed for $700 million to relocate his state's railroad line, said an emergency is in the eye of the beholder.

SEN. THAD COCHRAN (R), MISSISSIPPI: An emergency is, you know, whatever a majority of the Congress agrees is an emergency.


KOPPEL: The next stop for a senators and Congressman to try to smooth over their differences, but today the House Majority Leader John Boehner signaled that's not going to be easy, telling reporters, "The House won't spend a dollar more than what the president has asked for, period."


BLITZER: Andrea, thanks. Let's bring in Ed Henry. He's at the White House watching all of this. What are they saying there about these latest developments on Capitol Hill, Ed?

ED HENRY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the point here is it's not really just about this bill, it's about the White House trying to get President Bush back on the offensive. And what better way to do it for him to veto out of control spending on Capitol Hill? That would fire up his conservative base that has gone a little wobbly on this president on various issues, and it would really fire them up.

And there are a lot of conservatives, though, wondering will this president actually go through with it? They're skeptical. He has never vetoed a bill over the last five years, not vetoed one single bill. But White House spokesman Scott McClellan insisted again today they mean business this time.


SCOTT MCCLELLAN, WHITE HOUSE SPOKESMAN: The president's made it very clear he would veto legislation that goes above and beyond what he called for. And also members of both the Senate and House have expressed that they will sustain that veto, and that they have enough votes to sustain such a veto.


HENRY: But one potential complication. This would put the commander-in-chief in the awkward position of vetoing a bill that includes some $72 billion for troops in the field, as well as, as Andrea noted, emergency money for Katrina.

What White House aides are hoping is that Congress will go back to the table, cut out some of this fat. But they insist if Congress does not do that, they're comfortable with the veto because they think they can go to the American people, win this argument and then pass a scaled back bill without the fat, just with the money for the emergency stuff -- Wolf.

BLITZER: The president had a Cinco de Mayo event today here in Washington. This comes in the midst of all the immigration battles that are underway. Was there a headline out of this event?

HENRY: Absolutely. The president celebrated Cinco de Mayo early, obviously, because of scheduling reasons. He welcomed various Hispanic leaders here to the White House. He immediately used it as an occasion to once again try to jumpstart his immigration reform bill. He wants it to be comprehensive, which means that basically he wants border security that will get tough on illegal immigrants. But he also wants to be compassionate towards the nearly 12 million immigrants already here. Here's his pitch.


BUSH: In this country, we're now having an important debate about immigration, and it is really important that we discuss this issue in a way that is worthy of this country's best traditions. Our nation does not have to choose between being a compassionate society and a lawful society.


HENRY: An argument that was widely popular before that audience, but it's an argument that is still splitting the Republican party right down the middle. No compromise in sight for now -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Ed, thanks for that. The immigration wars heated up again this week. Coast to coast boycotts, dubbed "A Day Without Immigrants," earlier in the week. Now, three days later, are we seeing any new political impact from all of these protests?

Let's bring in our senior political correspondent Candy Crowley. Candy, what are we seeing?

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SR. POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, you know, in any year, much less a political year, hundreds of thousands of people on the streets of America is a clear sign, at least, of the potential of political clout. But what's the signal coming out of Tuesday's election in the small town of Herndon, Virginia? It's all part of the mix as Congress struggles with this issue of immigration.


CROWLEY (voice-over): This is where day laborers, mostly immigrants, legal and not, hang out looking for work in Herndon, Virginia. It may not look like an election issue, but last night voters threw out their mayor and two city council members who pushed for the day labor center. This is the new mayor.

STEVE DEBENEDITTIS, HERNDON, VIRGINIA, MAYOR-ELECT: We welcome immigrants. But they have concerns, valid concerns, about illegal immigration.

CROWLEY: Fewer than 3,000 people voted in Herndon, just about 24 hours after the nation watched hundreds of thousands immigrants, legal and not, demonstrate across the country.

FRANK SHARRY, NATIONAL IMMIGRATION FORUM: I've never known a politician who wasn't attracted to a large crowd, and these have been some pretty large crowds.

CROWLEY: True enough, it was evidence that the immigrant community can galvanize itself. The question is, to what end? Congress is reading the tea leaves.

SEN. HARRY REID (D), MINORITY LEADER: I personally believe very, very fervently that they have helped -- helped picture this issue in the minds of the American people in a positive fashion.

CROWLEY: Tea leaf reading is not an exact science, particularly in an election year, where, frankly, Democrats would be better off if the Republican-led Congress did nothing.

SHARRY: I think Congress is going to have a lot of explaining to do if they don't end this session with a good comprehensive bill.

CROWLEY: Republicans -- desperate for something to tout as accomplishment, anxious not to alienate core conservative voters -- are afraid the demonstrations harden conservative opposition to anything that smacks of a break for illegals.

SEN. MEL MARTINEZ (R), FLORIDA: I believe at the end of the day, we'll see that it really had a negative effect and it backfired on those of us who are trying to move forward something that is comprehensive, but yet a middle course.

CROWLEY: Senator Mel Martinez of Florida says since Monday's demonstrations, calls to his office have run 10 to one against his bill providing tougher border security and a pathway to citizenship after hurdles are jumped.

JOHN FUND, "WALL STREET JOURNAL": The boycott has so heated up the measure that we're not going to have any bill this year. It's simply poisoned the well.

CROWLEY: As Washington lawmakers struggle with the political weight of all those demonstrations ...

SEN. JOHN CORNYN (R), TEXAS: It wasn't clear exactly what the message was, and I think in some ways it tended to polarize people.

CROWLEY: Herndon, Virginia is already discussing changes to ensure the day labor center cannot be used by illegals.


CROWLEY: And that's the problem with tea leaves, Wolf, is you're never quite sure which ones to read. BLITZER: So are they really close to getting immigration reform legislation passed through the House and Senate? A compromise? Or is this going to go away this year?

CROWLEY: Well, you know, I mean, you have to bet against it at this point simply because of this. It's not just can the Senate get a bill together. It's can they reconcile it with the House. I mean, the House bill is a very tough border security bill. The Senate bill, Mel Martinez and others -- John Cornyn -- are trying to put together this kind of compromise bill.

They really do feel that these demonstrations have backfired, that people looked up and saw Mexican flags or they saw kids leaving school or whatever it happened to be, it offended them.

Now, a lot of people say, look, this was a Rorschach test. You just looked at that crowd and you saw what you believed to begin with. Nonetheless, it seems to have hardened positions, and you know when positions harden, it makes it very difficult to do anything on the Hill.

BLITZER: Candy, thanks very much.

And thanks to Candy and Ed and Andrea, part of the best political team on television. CNN, America's campaign headquarters.

Zain Verjee is off this week. Fredricka Whitfield is joining us now from the CNN Global Headquarters with a closer look at some other stories making news -- Fred.


Well he's al Qaeda's point man in Iraq, but Abu Musab al-Zarqawi may not be so handy with a gun. The U.S. military today showed portions of a video depicting the insurgent leader fumbling with a machine gun. A U.S. military official called al-Zarqawi a warrior leader who wears American tennis shoes and doesn't understand how to operate weapons. Much more on this story in our 7:00 p.m. Eastern hour right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

At least nine people were killed when a bomb exploded outside a courthouse in Baghdad today. A witness says a woman hid a vest packed with explosives outside the building.

Two more U.S. soldiers have been killed in Iraq. The U.S. military say as bomb blew up their vehicle in Baghdad today. Two thousand four hundred and eight U.S. troops have died in Iraq since 2003.

Zacarias Moussaoui will spend the rest of his life behind bars in a maximum security prison. A judge today formally sentenced the convicted al Qaeda conspirator to six life terms for his role in the September 11, 2001 attacks. The judge told Moussaoui that he would, quote, "die with a whimper." We'll have much more on this story next hour right here in THE SITUATION ROOM. And stinging criticism today from Vice President Dick Cheney about Russia. Meeting with Eastern European leaders in Lithuania, Cheney accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of backsliding on democracy and using his nation's energy resources to blackmail neighboring countries. The Kremlin calls Cheney's comments, quote, "completely incomprehensible." We'll have much more on this story straight ahead in THE SITUATION ROOM -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We're watching lots of news. Thanks for that, Fred. We'll check back with you shortly.

Let's check in with Jack Cafferty now in New York with "The Cafferty File." Hi, Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: That makes a lot of sense, doesn't it? They have Cheney over there taking the Russians to task at a time when we might need their vote in the U.N. Security Council along with China's if we're going to put sanctions on Iran to try and keep them from getting nuclear weapons. Who figure this is stuff out? Do you know, wolf?

BLITZER: They come up with these decisions. It's a collegial kind of meeting, a strategy meet they have and they make these decisions.

CAFFERTY: That's great. You know, we should -- let's raise our taxes because I want to send more money down there because they are doing such a great job.

According to a new book -- this is pretty good stuff -- when Hurricane Katrina struck, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin went to the bathroom and stayed there twice. Historian Douglas Brinkley paints a harsh portrait of Nagin in his new book. He says Nagin spent most of the week after the storm holed up in a high-rise hotel overlooking the Superdome.

One of the bathroom scenes came after Nagin made an emotional call to a radio station. Sources say that he broke down crying and spent 20 minutes locked in the bathroom rearranging knick-knacks and toiletries.

Then there's the incident on Air Force One, which is my favorite. Nagin was offered a shower while he was waiting for President Bush. Brinkley writes in his book that Nagin wouldn't come out of the bathroom because he wanted to shave his head for a photo op. The Secret Service finally threw him out.

Nagin told the "Times-Picayune" newspaper Brinkley wasn't there, doesn't know what he's talking about. He also says that no "credible" historian would publish such a political hit just days before the May 20th runoff election.

So here's the question, should New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin be reelected? E-mail us at or go to Would not come of the bathroom on Air Force One because he wanted to shave his head for a photo op. I mean, you can just picture that in your mind's eye and get a little chuckle, Wolf.

BLITZER: Doug Brinkley, we know he's a very reputable historian.

CAFFERTY: One of the best.

BLITZER: And he's a resident of New Orleans himself. So we'll see what the fallout is of May 20 on the election. We'll see what our viewers think later this hour. Jack, thanks.

CAFFERTY: All right.

BLITZER: And if you want to get a sneak preview of Jack's questions plus an early read on the day's political news, what's ahead in THE SITUATION ROOM, you can sign up for our daily e-mail alert. A simple way to do it, just go to

Up next, the defense secretary under fire. Donald Rumsfeld meets protesters over his Iraq strategy. During a speech today, he was heckled and interrupted and he was pumped with some serious questions.

Paul Begala and J.C. Watts hash it out in today's "Strategy Session." That's coming up.

Also, Republicans from the White House to Congress apparently handing out red meat for conservative voters, but will their moves fire up the Republican base?

And code blue for Dr. Bill Frist. The Senate majority leader has had a disheartening week. Will hot button issues help him breathe some new life into his presidential prospects. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Welcome back. Today in our "Strategy Session," the Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld comes under fire for the war in Iraq. Has he become the lightning rod of this administration? Will this be the issue that defines the November elections?

Joining us now are CNN political analysts Democratic strategist Paul Begala, and former Republican Congressman J.C. Watts.

It was a lively exchange that the defense secretary had in Atlanta with one questioner. Listen to this.


RUMSFELD: It appears that there were not weapons of mass destruction.

QUESTION: You said you knew where they were.

RUMSFELD: I did not. I said I knew where suspect sites were and we were...

QUESTION: ... you said you knew where they were near Tikrit, near Baghdad and northeast, south and west of there. Those are your words.

RUMSFELD: My words were that -- no, no, wait a minute. Let him stay one second. Just a second.

QUESTION: This is America, huh?

RUMSFELD: You're getting plenty of play sir.


BLITZER: All right, here's what the defense secretary said on March 30, 2003 in an interview on ABC's "This Week." He said, quote, "we know where (the weapons of mass destruction) are. They are in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad and east, west, south, and north somewhat."

And at another point, the questioner said "You said that you had bulletproof knowledge where they were." We checked to see if Rumsfeld ever did say that and Rumsfeld did say on September 26, 2002 that the CIA provided, quote, "bulletproof evidence demonstrating that there are in fact al Qaeda in Iraq."

That's what the specific reference was. Has he become a lightning rod for this administration? And in effect, counter productive to the president's effort to regroup?

J.C. WATTS (R), FORMER CONGRESSMAN: Well Secretary Rumsfeld, Wolf, Paul, has those conversations -- the kind of conversations with members of Congress here in the Beltway, outside the Beltway.

Don Rumsfeld, he is who he is. And I don't think that you know the president again, we've had this conversation in the last two weeks. I don't think that the president thinks that he is a lead balloon around his neck.

I think he's going to stick with him. I think it's good and again I've said this before, I think it's good that they are out in the trenches having these conversations with people. Answer those questions. Don't stay here in the Beltway and isolate yourself. Get out there in the trenches and answer the questions.

BLITZER: Here's the latest poll, the CBS poll. Rumsfeld as defense secretary, 33 percent of the American public approve, 49 percent disapprove.

But on the bigger issue of the Bush administration's handling of Iraq, Paul, 30 percent approve of the way the president is handling Iraq, 64 percent disapprove. Is it fair to focus in on Rumsfeld per se? Isn't it the president of the United States where the buck stops?

PAUL BEGALA, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: That's a good point. I always used to like to say that I focus on the organ grinder, not the monkey. The president is the organ grinder. But we can't fire him. There's a few on the left who want to impeach him. I think that's unwise. He has a four-year no cut contract from the American people. And unlike in 2000, in '04, even in my eyes, he earned it fair and square. So you have to go then to the person who is expendable and who should be held accountable in addition to the president and that's Mr. Rumsfeld.

I was struck by the exchange. I'm glad you shared with our readers -- with our viewers that that citizen was exactly right and Rumsfeld was wrong. He was either unable to remember his words or misleading us. And this goes to Rumsfeld's problem and Mr. Bush's on Iraq. They're twofold: credibility and competence.

The American people no longer believe Donald Rumsfeld or George W. Bush and they fear that they are not competent to execute a policy. Even if they were to support the war, they don't want these folks running it. These are two twin deficits that the president has of credibility and competence.

BLITZER: Is it wise to put Rumsfeld out there at these public events? You think it is, despite the fact he's become such a lightning rod. From the administration's perspective?

WATTS: Wolf, if he's going to be the secretary of defense, I think the president has made a decision that he's not going anywhere. If he's going to be the secretary of defense, I think that more than the president should be out there talking about these issues.

People who are in the trenches every day that understand what is going on in Iraq, they should be talking about it. I think one of the problems, Wolf, is the fact they hadn't been doing that. That's the argument that I've been making all along.

When you allow other people to define and frame the issues, then you have got to go out and defend the story that your opposition is telling. That's the wrong way to handle this.

BLITZER: And Paul, to Rumsfeld's credit, he is going out and speaking at events where he can face kind of hostile questions. He went up before the Council on Foreign Relations, went to my alma mater, the school of advanced international studies at Johns Hopkins University. Now in Atlanta. He's not just going to a military base to Fort Benning or Fort Stewart and speaking to the troops. He's going out there and exposing himself and allowing himself to be grilled.

BEGALA: He is, and that is good for him. And it's good for our democracy. And keep in mind, as you said, that exchange was in Georgia, a very red state and yet the secretary was from that film clip we saw, treated with real respect by a citizen who knew the facts better than the secretary of defense did.

And he was hammered. The problem is, you know, I was part of Rummy mania too. I thought he handled the press briefing so well. But the skills he brings to the press room are very different when you're dealing with a citizen. It's OK to be arrogant and pushy when you're dealing with journalists, quite frankly. I think it's fine. I like it. But when you're dealing with a citizen, and it sounded from that exchange they were actually throwing that citizen out of the room, who he was not profane. He was not dishonest, he was not disrespectful. I certainly hope they didn't throw the guy out.

So Rumsfeld now becomes -- when he moved into a different venue out of the briefing room and into dealing with real citizens as J.C. had to do as a real politician, he's failing miserably. And he's failing the president.

WATTS: Well I think now -- he did say -- I think they were trying to remove him.

BLITZER: Rumsfeld said let him stay, to his credit.

One footnote, we're going to take a break. I want to continue this conversation. I believe journalists are real citizens, U.S. citizens, too.

We'll continue this conversation lots more coming up in our "Strategy Session." Also, he runs the Senate, but is Bill Frist's day job a help or a hindrance if he make as run for the White House? We'll take a closer look at the doctor from Tennessee.

Plus, if Frist puts his hat into the ring, he may face off against this guy. We've got some brand new poll numbers that may make Senator John McCain a very happy man. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Welcome back to THE SITUATION ROOM. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. We're continuing our "Strategy Session" with our CNN analyst Paul Begala and J.C. Watts. There's an issue that's coming up now in the coming days, judicial nominations once again.

Democrats are threatening to try to block Brett Kavanaugh, for example, who was a White House counsel. Before that he was a prosecutor for Ken Starr -- something Paul you remember quite well.

And there is talk of filibusters. Republicans are saying bring it on, make my day, this is going to fire up the base if you get one of these judicial battles under way.

Here's what the "Wall Street Journal" editorial page wrote today, "Anything is possible, but it's hard to believe Democrats are nuts enough to launch a judicial filibuster in the middle of an election year with a GOP president so low in the polls. Talk about a get-out- the-vote gift for Republicans."

Are Democrats nuts enough to do that?

BEGALA: They'd be nuts to listen to the "Wall Street Journal" editorial page, OK? Here's what's interesting about this analytically, take off my partisan hat. The president's at 32 percent, as the "Journal" points out. That's very unpopular. His first step in recovery is to bring Republicans back, to fire up his base. What does his base care about? I think they care about abortion, gay rights, the things that judicial nominees tend to represent in our public discourse.

So, this is a smart move by Mr. Bush. He takes a guy straight out of Ken Starr's sex police. "The New York Times" editorial page, on the left, says he's completely unqualified, that he's just a political resume. And he comes, as I say, straight out of Ken Starr's shop. And they want to put him on one of the highest courts.

Why would the Democrats have a filibuster to fight that? Because they're smart. Because that will fire up the Democratic base. Nothing fires up the Democratic base more than picking a fight with George Bush or, frankly, resurrecting Ken Starr. God bless Ken Starr. He's the best enemy we ever had.

And, so, if we get a chance, in my party, to fire up our base by picking a fight with George W. Bush and picking a fight with a -- with a -- part of Ken Starr's sex police that went after Bill Clinton, who is beloved by Democrats, its actually good for both parties. It's a base strategy for both.

BLITZER: What do you think?

WATTS: Well, Wolf, I'm the kind of person that I believe that, you know, as Republicans we ought to reach out and bring those nontraditional constituencies into the fold and try to get them to vote Republican.

Some in my party don't believe that. They believe that, if Paul says we're going to get out our base, then we have to get out more of our base. So, Paul evidently thinks that, you know, filibustering a judicial nominee will help the Democrats.

Let me tell you, that will be a big plus for Republicans on Election Day. And I remind you, Paul, we had more folks vote Republican last election than we did Democrat.


WATTS: So, that's a pretty risky strategy.

BEGALA: We shall see.

I have talked to some of the people in the Democratic Senate leadership. And they say they want this fight. They are not afraid of George Bush anymore. And I think that's really telling. He's not at 92. He's not even at 52. He's at 32. I mean, there are social diseases more popular than our president. They want to fight him.


WATTS: They were fighting him when he was at 62, and they're fighting him at 32. BEGALA: That's how he got to 32.


WATTS: So, I mean, they are going to fight him regardless.

BEGALA: God bless Harry Reid and those Democrats in the Senate.

BEGALA: So, stick with your guns.

BLITZER: We will see how this fight winds up.

Thanks to Paul Begala and J.C. Watts, part of the best political team on television -- CNN, America's campaign headquarters.

A new attempt today by Democrats to put pressure on the Senate majority leader, a possible presidential contender, Senator Bill Frist -- top Senate Democrats are urging Frist to make good on a promise and bring a vote on stem cell research to the floor.

On that issue, Frist is at odds with the White House and with much of the GOP base he needs if he wants to be president. That's just one headache for the majority leader, as he tries to balance a potential White House run and his day job of running the Senate.

Our congressional correspondent, Dana Bash, has more on Frist's difficult juggling act.

Dana, I know you spent some time with him recently.


Well, you know, even Senator Frist's inner circle admits that he has had pretty much a tough year, trying to run the Senate and thinking about the future, or future plans. And he's had some misfires lately. Just for example, this past week, his office proposed a $100 rebate to address the gas price issue, and that fell very flat. They quickly had to withdraw it.

And, as you said, I have been talking to him recently and went just last week to the state of Iowa -- Iowa, which you know has the first presidential caucus, to try to talk to him and find out perhaps where he is in trying to straddle these two worlds, being a senator and majority leader, and thinking out -- thinking about wanting to be president.


BASH (voice-over): In Iowa, listen in, and he sounds like a simple down-home doctor.

SEN. BILL FRIST (R-TN), MAJORITY LEADER: One-forty over 80. What did you get?

BASH: He is a doctor, but he is also the Senate's top Republican, in Iowa to see if he could become president. FRIST: That's what I did before getting into this business of politics...


FRIST: ... and transplanting.

BASH: The senator wants to reintroduce himself as a pioneering heart transplant surge. He went to Washington 11 years ago as the ultimate outsider.


BASH: Now he's trying to shed what he's become, Mr. Inside.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Dr. Frist, will you support...

FRIST: "Dr. Frist." Thank you. Thank you. I like that, not this "Senator Frist," yes.

BASH: His hope, with these Iowa health care professionals, was to create a Frist buzz, excitement.

FRIST: I am as optimistic about the future of American medicine.

BASH: The reaction?

SCOTT REED, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Well, I didn't find him particularly charismatic this morning. I didn't find him polished.

BASH (on camera): So, is that something you think about and maybe you struggle with a little bit?

FRIST: No, I mean, struggle a lot. Are you kidding me? Of course you do, yes, because you want to get better in anything like that.

BASH (voice-over): He will leave the Senate this year, after two terms, as promised, not a career politician, a plus in Iowa.

Yet, in Washington, even allies concede, inexperience, combined with obvious presidential ambition, has resulted in stumbles as Senate leader. Immigration is a recent example, first a conservative position, stressing border security.

FRIST: We need to secure the borders.

BASH: Then, he backed a more liberal proposal, allowing millions of illegal immigrants to stay in the U.S.

FRIST: We have had a huge breakthrough.

BASH: Then another change.

FRIST: ... to my mind, goes too far, in terms of amnesty itself. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It seems that some of his instincts are more of a shoot-first, think about the political ramifications for my potential presidential campaign, and then have to correct. And that's not a -- a sign that people look to in leaders.

BASH: Frist calls his style bold, but admits he's constantly torn.

FRIST: And that's what makes it hard, when you're in a legislative position, to be out leading on your own issues all the time, when your job here is to make other people successful.

BASH: At the end of the year, he will leave his power perch. And the doctor knows the odds are against senators who want to be president.

FRIST: I think there are probably only three in the history. It's just a hard place to run from.


BASH: Now, Frist aides say it's unfair to look at everything that he does through the prism of 2008 and his own presidential aspirations. For example, he is going to bring the issue of gay marriage and flag burning before the United States Senate.

They say that is as much as 2006, even more than perhaps 2008.

And one quick interesting side note, Wolf. You notice, for a while, we didn't see interviews with Bill Frist. He really wasn't out there. But, lately, he has very much been out there, doing a lot more interviews. It's a tactical shift on the Frist camp's behalf. Basically, they understand that he is going to get talked about, perhaps get pummeled a little bit, and it's best for him to get himself out there and explain himself more -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Dana Bash on the Hill -- thank you, Dana.

In the race for 2008, we have some new polls, showing Senator John McCain ahead of other possible Republican candidates in 10 states, including some early and critical battlegrounds. Look at this. In the leadoff caucus state of Iowa, the American Research Group poll shows McCain leading his nearest rival, Bill Frist, by 16 percentage points.

And McCain is 41 percentage points ahead in the kickoff primary state of New Hampshire, where he beats George Bush back in 2000. McCain's nearest rivals, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, are in single digits. It's a similar situation in South Carolina, where McCain lost a birth battle in 2000 to George Bush. The ARG poll shows McCain leading his closest -- closest rivals in South Carolina by -- get this -- more than 30 points.

Up next, it's a reform bill, but where's the reform? Our Bill Schneider takes a closer look at how serious the effort is on Capitol Hill right now when it comes to ethics. It is just politics as usual? Plus, does Joe Biden think he would make a better presidential candidate than Hillary Clinton? That's just one of the questions I asked the senator from Delaware. My interview with Joe Biden, that is coming up in the next hour.


BLITZER: On Capitol Hill, House and Senator negotiators now face a tough challenge, trying to work out some very different lobbying reform bills.

The House passed a scaled-back bill yesterday, in response to a series of recent corruption cases. Democrats say it doesn't do enough to limit the influence of lobbyists and their money here in Washington.

Let's get some more from our senior political analyst, Bill Schneider -- Bill.

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Wolf, the House has finally passed a lobbying reform bill, but funny how it looks like politics as usual.


SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Back in January, lobbying reform was all the rage. Jack Abramoff pleads guilty, Tom DeLay indicted, Duke Cunningham charged. This week, a lobbying reform bill passed the House, barely.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), HOUSE MAJORITY LEADER: Yesterday, we took a serious step in plugging those loopholes that, unfortunately, several members have exploited for their own personal gain.

SCHNEIDER: But how serious a step? The House bill requires more frequent public disclosure by lobbyists, but it doesn't ban gifts or meals. It requires more disclosure of earmarked spending for special interests, but only in some bills.

Oh, it does ban privately funded travel, but only until after the November election. How's that for cynicism?

REP. DAVID OBEY (D), WISCONSIN: This legislation before us, in my humble view, constitutes consumer fraud masquerading as lobby reform.

SCHNEIDER: Where were the Democrats?

THOMAS MANN, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: Democrats were happy to be in opposition, so, once again, we have not a constructive new law, but an issue for the campaign.

SCHNEIDER: And where is the American public? They have found many more things to get upset about than corruption, like gas prices, and Iraq, and health care, and jobs, and immigration, and terrorism, and Iran. And, oh, look, there's ethics, at the bottom of the list. Tom DeLay's decision to resign from Congress may have robbed the reform movement of its poster child. So, what if Congress fails to pass meaningful reform?

MANN: The public won't notice much of it, unless the issue resurfaces because of steps taken by the Justice Department.

SCHNEIDER: In other words, more indictments.


SCHNEIDER: Just this week, a businessman pleaded guilty to bribing a member of Congress, and, this time, a Democrat. Court documents appear to implicate representative William Jefferson of Louisiana, who is under investigation for corruption.

In a statement, Jefferson said he was -- quote -- "surprised and disappointed" to learn of the businessman's guilty plea and of his -- quote -- "characterization of our relationship" -- unquote.

The congressman, who denies any wrongdoing, has not been charged. An indictment of a Democrat could heighten the public's demand for reform and, at the same time, make it harder for Democrats to talk about what they call the Republicans' culture of corruption -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Bill Schneider reporting for us -- thank you, Bill, for that.

Coming up, the battle for the Senate -- do the Democrats have a chance to take it back come November? Our Jeff Greenfield checking the odds.

And what will Zacarias Moussaoui's life be like behind bars? He could be headed to the toughest prison in the United States, so tough it's known as the Alcatraz in the Rockies. We will show you what Moussaoui has to look forward to. That's coming up in the next hour right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: There's a story that's developing on Capitol Hill, just coming in to CNN, involving Democratic Congressman Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island.

Brian Todd is working the story. He's in the newsroom.

What are we picking up, Brian?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, congressional and law enforcement sources tell that, early Thursday morning, this morning, Capitol Hill police observed a car driven by Representative Patrick Kennedy crash into a barricade on Capitol Hill. Sources say Kennedy was the only person in the vehicle. One law enforcement source said Kennedy was not injured, but the car was badly damaged.

Contacted by CNN, Representative Kennedy's chief of staff, Sean Richardson, said there was an incident involving a vehicle overnight and said -- quote -- "No alcohol was involved."

CNN sources, a top law enforcement official in Washington and an official in Congress, say officers observed that the car was swerving before the crash. Sources say the officers made a decision to drive Kennedy home after this accident. There is no indication from sources that a sobriety test was given or that an arrest was made.

One source told CNN, Kennedy told an officer he was late for a vote. The versions that we're getting from all sources indicate the accident occurred at approximately 3:00 a.m. this morning. In fact -- and, in fact, the House of Representatives adjourned last night at about midnight.

CNN has made a formal request for incident report from the Capitol Hill Police, but has not received one right now. Capitol Hill Police also were checking on the sourced information that we gave them, but have not formally confirmed this with us -- Wolf.

BLITZER: There's one report, Brian, out there that says that the car was driving without the headlights almost 3:00 a.m. in the morning. Are we picking up that as well?

TODD: Not picking up that particular piece of information about the headlights. Our sources say the car was swerving and crashed into the barricade.

Kennedy was not injured. The officers on the scene made a decision to drive him home, which would, of course, be kind of a regular process, if something like that occurred. We're trying to get as much information as we can on this. One law enforcement source tells CNN that the chief of police is -- the Capitol Hill Police chief is looking into why no formal paperwork or arrest has come forth at this point.

BLITZER: We will continue to watch that. Let's see what the reaction is on Capitol Hill, Brian.

Dana Bash is checking with Congressman Kennedy's office, as well as Senator Kennedy's office.

What are you getting, Dana?

BASH: Hi, Wolf.

Well, I spoke to Senator Kennedy himself. I caught him just coming off the Senate floor a short while ago, when we heard about this news. And he would not comment and still has not commented on it.

I asked him if he had any reaction to what happened with Patrick Kennedy, who, of course, is Senator Kennedy's son. And he simply would not go there at all, wouldn't comment. He did say that he, through his office, would likely have some kind of statement later today. We have not seen a statement at all yet from Senator Kennedy's office. They're, frankly, trying to get some details about exactly what happened, as you just heard from Brian's report. What we're being told from law enforcement and congressional sources seems to differ, at least initially, from what we're officially being told from the congressman's office about whether or not there was alcohol involved in this particular incident.

But Congressman Kennedy is somebody who really, up here, has -- had been seen and has been seen as a rising star in the Democratic Party. Remember, the last election cycle, he was the chairman of the DCCC, which means that he was in charge of working the campaign issue, but particularly working the fund-raising issue.

And he was really seen as somebody who was quite prolific in doing that and raising money for the Democrats in the House of Representatives for that election cycle.

BLITZER: The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. He went out there and tried to get Democrats elected. He was traveling all over the country, raising money, working for various Democratic candidates.

Dana, stand by for a moment. I want to bring back Brian Todd.

This is a sensitive issue, the issue of alcohol, intoxication. And I want you to -- based on all the reporting you and our other producers and reporters have done, what are you hearing specifically about the allegation or the suggestion that alcohol might have been involved?

TODD: According to our sources, Wolf -- and, again, to reiterate, this is one chief law enforcement source here in Washington, D.C. and a source high up in Congress -- according to those sources, officers at the scene observed that Kennedy was intoxicated, but important to reiterate, Kennedy's office, his chief of staff, Sean Richardson, says -- quote -- "No alcohol was involved."

And you're getting some conflicting information there, something that we're very much checking out at this point.

BLITZER: Have they explained, Congressman Kennedy's office, what he was doing out at 3:00 in the morning, or 2:45, close to 3:00 a.m.? What was he doing out and about near Capitol Hill at -- at that early- morning hour?

TODD: No immediate explanation given, Wolf. We are told that Representative Kennedy's office will be issuing a statement shortly. Hopefully, we will get a little more drilling down on that.

And, of course, we're going to be working the phones.

BLITZER: We will get more information as it comes in.

Brian Todd, Dana Bash, thanks for that good reporting.

And we're watching this story. We will have more on Congressman Patrick Kennedy. That's coming up.

Also, Donald Rumsfeld on the defense -- he's heckled at a speech in Atlanta today. We are taking a closer look at why he has become such a lightning rod for controversy.

And does Ray Nagin deserve to be reelected the mayor of New Orleans? What do you think? Jack Cafferty has your thoughts -- all that coming up here in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: We are getting more incident on information on that incident near 3:00 a.m. early this morning involving Democratic Congressman Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island, a crash. We're going to tell you what we know -- all that coming up.

Also still to come here in THE SITUATION ROOM: tough under pressure or not? Does Ray Nagin deserve to be reelected the mayor of New Orleans? Jack Cafferty standing by with your e-mail.

We will be right back.


BLITZER: There he is, Jack Cafferty in New York -- a tight shot of Jack.


BLITZER: Jack, go ahead.

CAFFERTY: To frighten the little children right out of the room.

Days before the mayoral runoff election in New Orleans, a tough new book out by historian Douglas Brinkley, painting a harsh portrait of the mayor in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. One of the reports was, the Secret Service had to throw him out of the bathroom aboard Air Force One, because he was in there, wanting to shave his head for a photo-op, and refused to come out.

So, we asked whether or not you think he ought to be reelected?

Brian in New Orleans writes: "No. Ray Nagin should not be reelected mayor of New Orleans. Being a 50-year-old white businessman, born and raised in New Orleans, I was offended by his racist 'chocolate city' remark. I felt unwelcome in my own town."

Joy in California: "It appears he has established a comfort level with the residents of New Orleans, so why not have him remain as mayor? The corruption in this state is well known by all and seems to be accepted. Nagin didn't fail any more than anyone else when Katrina hit."

Patrick in New Orleans: "Absolutely not. His leadership, or lack thereof, during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was deplorable. He had his shot at leading this city. He failed. Get him out." Omar in Richmond, Virginia: "Let the man shave his head. It would be a shame to decide whether a man is worthy of reelection based on whether he wants to shave his head for a photo-op. If I were appearing on camera, I would want to look my best, too."

And Toby in Philadelphia: "Whether or not New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin should be reelected is now a moot point. Thanks to your completely racist coverage of entirely unsubstantiated claims in a new book you so gleefully cite regarding Mayor Nagin's alleged post- Katrina reactions, there's little chance that Mayor Ray Nagin will be reelected. And not to do your job for you, but how exactly does the author of this new book know what Mayor Nagin was doing in the bathroom? Was he in there with the mayor?"

I don't know.



BLITZER: Jack, thanks for that.