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Speaker of the House vs. FBI; Senate Butts Heads with House Over Immigration Reform; Court Documents Suggest Cheney May Be Called As Witness Against Scooter Libby; Lay and Skilling Found Guilty; Bill Frist Trying to Push Gay Marriage Issue Higher in Senate

Aired May 25, 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, the speaker of the House versus the FBI. Dennis Hastert accuses the Feds of trying to intimidate him. It's 4:00 p.m. here in Washington, where the reaction to a raid on a Congressman's office is boiling over, and now President Bush is getting directly involved.

Also this hour, the Senate votes on immigration reform and sets the stage for a smackdown with the House of Representatives. What does today's vote tell us about the fight ahead and about the Republican divide?

And will Vice President Dick Cheney take the stand against his former chief of staff? CIA leak prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald offers some new clues about his case.

I'm Wolf Blitzer and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

BLITZER: Just a short while ago, President Bush stepped directly into the escalating battle between the executive branch and Congress. He ordered all materials seized in a raid on a Congressman's office, sealed for 45 days. The Justice Department and the Congress are at deep odds over the raid. It stems from the bribery investigation of Louisiana Democratic Congressman William Jefferson. Congressional leaders say the raid violates the constitutional separation of powers.

The House speaker Dennis Hastert already was fighting mad about that raid, and now a disputed report linking him to a federal corruption probe has him downright livid. ABC News quoted unnamed law enforcement sources as saying Hastert is in the mix of a Justice Department investigation into influence peddling by the convicted Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff. The Justice Department quickly denied the story, not once but twice.

ABC News says it has double-checked its sources and is standing by its story. Hastert has demanded a full retraction, and now he's threatening to sue the network, ABC News executives and reporters, for libel and defamation.

Our congressional correspondent Dana Bash is standing by. Let's go to the White House first. Lots of drama unfolding here in the nation's capital, Suzanne Malveaux.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, Wolf. And this really was not an easy move for this president to make. He often errs on the side of expanding executive powers. But clearly, President Bush right in the middle of this constitutional confrontation between members of Congress and the Justice Department.

It was just moments ago, of course, that the president released a statement essentially ordering that those documents that were taken from Congressman Jefferson's office be sealed on a temporary basis. That statement saying, "I am directing the Department of Justice to seal all the materials recovered from Congressman Jefferson's office for the next 45 days, and not to allow access to anyone involved in the investigation."

He goes on to say that "this period will provide both parties more time to resolve the issues in a way that ensures that materials relevant to the ongoing criminal investigation are made available to prosecutors in a manner that respects the interests of a co-equal branch of government." And, of course, Wolf, he also makes the point as well that he believes that if anybody violated the law, they should be held to account as simply saying that this investigation will go forward, justice will be served.

And, Wolf, of course all of this coming as members of Congress have complained over the last couple of days and specifically hearing it directly from Speaker Hastert -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Suzanne, stand by. We're going to be bringing you back shortly. The prime minister of Britain expected momentarily to be arriving over at the White House. We'll come back to you for that.

Let's go up to the Hill, though. Dana Bash has been watching all of this drama unfold. What's the latest, as far as the reaction to the president's decision to go ahead and have the Justice Department seal or freeze all those documents collected from Congressman Jefferson's office?

DANA BASH, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, despite the fact that over at the Justice Department, they have been vigorously defending this raid over the last several days. We know and we have reported that Speaker Hastert went directly to President Bush with his concerns about this. And we, Wolf, just got in videotape of the speaker of the House reacting to this. Let's listen.


REP. DENNIS HASTERT (R), HOUSE SPEAKER: I got the notice that the president has done that. That gives us some time to step back and try to negotiate with the Department of Justice to number one, make sure that you know, if a member does something wrong, that the criminal part of that can be pursued.

Yet there's -- you know, in an office, there's members, letters and stuff to constituents. There might be income taxes. There might be veterans issues. Those are private things and they're confidential and you need to protect those. So to have a protocol that you can go into an office and make sure that you get what you want and not get into other issues that are protected, you know, by the Constitution. So I think we can do that, and hopefully that we can negotiate a protocol that we can move forward.


BASH: So clearly not even close to the end of the story, as far as the speaker is concerned, as far as other lawmakers who are very upset about the constitutional breach that they saw with this read in Congressman Jefferson's office. But a time-out, clearly, that Speaker Hastert is welcoming. We know from a senior administration official that, as you can imagine, they did consult with members of Congress before the president made this move.

One other interesting note. We do have reaction that our producer, Ted Barrett (ph), got from the person at the heart of all this, Wolf, and that is, of course, Congressman Jefferson. He said that it's a step in the right direction, but, truly, he said, the way to correct this is that the documents should be totally returned to his office -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And Dana, the speaker is also involved in a nasty dispute right now with the ABC News and, in effect, the Justice Department itself and the FBI over this leaked report, this report that ABC News aired last night, suggesting that he was at the heart of another investigation involving the indicted and convicted Jack Abramoff, the lobbyist. What's the latest on that front from the speaker? Because he's fighting mad.

BASH: He is fighting mad, and, you know, when the president essentially talks about the need to cool things down, probably a big part of that is because things got very not only heated, but personal, today, with exactly what you were talking about.

The speaker of the House essentially looking at that ABC report and saying earlier today that he thinks that perhaps it was because of the fact that somebody at the Justice Department was reacting to the fact that he was -- had a confrontation with them over the Jefferson raid. Essentially saying perhaps they're trying to intimidate him.

Let's listen.


HASTERT: That's not true. You know the Justice Department said there is no investigation. And, you know, this is one of the leaks that come out to try to, you know, intimidate people. And we're just not going to be intimidated on it.


BASH: Now that after not one, but two, flat-out denials from the Justice Department that they are actually investigating Speaker Hastert for anything that has to do with the Jack Abramoff scandal. But over at the White House, there was another denial. And that is exactly what you just heard from the speaker, a denial about the fact that anybody was trying to intimidate him.


TONY SNOW, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Any official in a position of responsibility of the Department of Justice is just not true. And that they're not leaking -- that they're not leaking information to try to undermine the House speaker. Just false, false, false. I mean, I got pretty categorical denials.


BASH: And again, the speaker's problem is not just with whomever may have leaked, in his words, this story to ABC. It is with itself. He is still demanding a retraction from that network, which has so far -- has definitely stood by its story. And today there was a letter that went from the speaker's lawyer to ABC, saying, once again, that it should be retracted and saying that they -- accusing them of libel and defamation. Strongly suggesting, Wolf, that if they don't retract this, he will file suit.

BLITZER: Dana Bash. What a day here in Washington. Thank you. We'll be getting back with Dana shortly.

New fall-out today in connection with the National Security Agency's domestic surveillance program, on top of everything else. CNN now confirms the FBI wants to interview top members of the House and Senate about the disclosure of the program to "The New York Times."

Two sources with knowledge of the leak investigation say they don't know if any lawmakers have been questioned yet. Only a few House and Senate members were briefed on the NSA program before it became public. Watch this story to explode, as well.

One of the other hot-button issues of this Congressional election year is coming to a head right now in the United States Senate. Members are voting on an immigration reform bill.

Our national correspondent Bob Franken is following the vote for us, and he's got the latest. What is the latest, Bob?

BOB FRANKEN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, the latest is in the Senate there's still -- in the preliminaries, they're voting on amendments before they finally get to a vote that was scheduled a couple of hours ago. Of course, we're talking Senate time, voting on a changed immigration piece of legislation that is a much milder version than the one that the House of Representatives passed.

It's interesting to look at them side by side. They both call for increased border security. However, the Senate version calls for a guest worker program, the House version does not have one. The Senate version -- and this is the most controversial part -- offers a path to citizenship, a three-level path to citizenship. In the House, the only thing that is a counterpart to that would make illegal immigration a felony. Talk about a hot-button issue. Now, the House of Representatives, Republicans, much more conservative than the Senate, much less conciliatory by nature, are digging in their heels. There should be a very, very, very tough conference committee action to try and reconcile the two versions. Many people are predicting that it won't happen. Not only that, but many in the Senate, particularly those who are facing tough reelection fights, are also against it, like Republican Rick Santorum.


SEN. RICK SANTORUM (R), PENNSYLVANIA: This legislation I think is well outside of what I would consider responsible reform. It's misfocused. It puts the cart before the horse. The horse here that I've been hearing from, from my constituents, is we need a border security bill first, we need a program that makes sure that our country's borders are secure.


FRANKEN: Wolf, you talked a moment ago about this being one of the hottest issues in Washington. Well, it's about to get even hotter.

BLITZER: Well, let's talk about that, Bob. What are the prospects? Some say, this bill, if it passes the Senate as we fully expect in the coming moments, once it goes to the House of Representatives and these conferees meet, it's going to be dead on arrival in the House as far as a majority of the House Republicans are concerned.

And, as you know, the speaker says unless the majority of the majority is on board, he's not going to even let it come up for a vote. What are you hearing about the confrontation that is brewing between the Senate and the House?

FRANKEN: Well, of course, right now it looks impossible. But one of the reasons that there is legislative discussion is to try and make the impossible possible. And that is going to mean that Republican leaders in particular are going to have to be dancing a very, very careful dance.


SEN. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), MAJORITY LEADER: While we have differences of opinion, we have got to find a way to resolve them. And I believe that it is resolvable, and I'm hopeful that we'll be successful in putting an immigration bill -- illegal immigration bill on the president's desk.


FRANKEN: Now, add to all this the fact that there's an off year election this year and there's a widespread belief that this could be a significant issue when the voters come out in November -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Bob, thank you very much. Bob Franken reporting.

On the West Coast today, the Mexican President Vicente Fox is touting many of the measures included in the Senate immigration bill, including a path for illegal immigrants to earn U.S. citizenship. Fox is wrapping up a visit to Washington state.

His next stop with be California. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger says he will tell Fox that the Mexican government needs to do more to secure its border with the United States. Schwarzenegger now says he's prepared to commit National Guard troops to California's southern border.

At first he was hesitant to accept President Bush's troop deployment plan. We're going to have a full report from Sacramento. That's coming up in the next hour. Our Chris Lawrence is on the scene.

Here in Washington, the prosecutor in the CIA leak case is dropping a very, very big name. That would be the name of Vice President Dick Cheney. In court documents, Patrick Fitzgerald suggests it would be logical for him to call Cheney as a witness against the vice president's former chief of staff, Lewis "Scooter" Libby.

Our Brian Todd is in the news room. He's watching all of these dramatic developments unfold -- Brian.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Patrick Fitzgerald says Cheney's state of mind during a very crucial period is relevant to the perjury case against Scooter Libby.


TODD (voice-over): They were close confidants. Now prosecutors in the CIA leak case may ask Vice President Cheney to testify against his former chief of staff Scooter Libby.

SCOTT FREDERICKSEN, FORMER SPECIAL PROSECUTOR: He's what you would call a hostile witness. Given that, the government understand if they put him on the stand, he's not there to help the government. If he can, in all likelihood, he will do his best to help his former chief of staff.

TODD: What would Cheney talk about? Prosecutors point to this newspaper clipping containing Cheney's own handwriting over an op-ed written by a former ambassador Joe Wilson, husband of outed CIA operative Valerie Plame.

Cheney took issue with the article in which Wilson contradicted the Bush administration's assertion that Saddam Hussein tried to buy uranium in Africa. You can see Cheney's reaction in ink at the top. Referring to Wilson, Cheney writes, quote, "did his wife send him on a junket"?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN. SR. LEGAL ANALYST: Cheney's note showed that he was deeply concerned about what Wilson was saying in this op- ed piece.

TODD: Concerned that Libby acknowledges in just released testimony. Question: "During that time, did the vice president indicate that he was upset that this article was out there which falsely, in his view, attacked his own credibility"? Libby's answer, "Yes, sir."

Libby admitted the column was discussed several times a day, and said Cheney was anxious to get the facts out to refute Wilson. Libby has said he didn't see Cheney's notes above the op-ed immediately. Contacted by CNN, the vice president's office wouldn't comment on the possibility that he might be called to testify.


TODD: So how did Scooter Libby learn about Valerie Plame's role at the CIA? He has given conflicting accounts to the grand jury. At first he said Cheney had told Wilson's wife worked for the CIA before Wilson's article came out. But minutes later, he testified that when he was told by a reporter about Plame a few days after the Wilson op- ed, quote, "it seemed to me as if I was learning it for the first time" -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian, thank you very much. Brian Todd reporting. And thanks to Brian and Bob Franken, Suzanne Malveaux, Dana Bash, all part of the best political team on television. CNN, America's campaign headquarters.

What Scooter Libby knew and when he knew it will be crucial to the prosecution's case. Let's bring in our Internet reporter Jacki Schechner. She has a closer look now at Scooter Libby in his own words -- Jacki.

JACKI SCHECHNER, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Well, Wolf, this is a filing that includes Scooter Libby's grand jury testimony, and it's really interesting reading. This is the part where he talks about he and the vice president having talked about Wilson's wife and her employment at the CIA in June. But by the time he heard it from reporters in July, he had just "forgotten it."

Again, in this grand jury testimony he talks about how the vice president was keen to refute Wilson's op-ed saying "let's get everything out."

Now the defense is arguing just because Dick Cheney wrote notes on the top of this op-ed doesn't mean he showed it to Scooter Libby. And Libby says they did talk a lot about those issues on the top of the op-ed. They talked about everything except the part about the wife. Fitzgerald is arguing that they talked about everything including Mr. Wilson's wife's employment at the CIA.

Now, these filings will be online by the end of the day. We talked to the office of the special counsel and they say this is where you can find them at their Web site -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you, Jacki, for that. And another developing story we're following, once high-flying executives, now convicted felons. Today another slide in the fall from grace of the former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling and Enron founder Ken Lay. Both men were found guilty of conspiracy and fraud in what was once the largest bankruptcy in United States history.

Our own Ali Velshi is joining us. He's on the scene in Houston. Ali, what a day of a drama in Houston, not only here in Washington.

ALI VELSHI, CNN ANCHOR: We were quite sure -- I've got to tell you, when the verdict came out, Wolf, we were thinking about when we're getting our flights back, because we know that the jury is not deliberating tomorrow -- or wasn't going to deliberate tomorrow or Monday and all of a sudden this verdict came out. It was the sixth day of deliberations, really about four full days of deliberation.

And this jury had not asked for a single piece of evidence from the trial to be read back, no clarifications. They asked for a couple of speakers to listen to some audio. And they came back with a conviction on all six counts for Ken Lay and 19 out of 28 counts for Jeff Skilling. One of those counts was insider trading.

Now Ken Lay just spoke a few minutes ago on his way out. He's been released. Both gentlemen are released. They have to give up their passports and they will be sentenced on September 11, pending an appeal.

But Ken Lay does say he's surprised and shocked, and he firmly believes that he is innocent. Jeff Skilling said the same thing. They maintain the innocence. But the charges that they have been convicted on, Wolf, together carry decades worth of jail time. And if an appeal doesn't work, that's exactly what is going to happen -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We're going to have a lot more on this story in the next hour here in THE SITUATION ROOM. Ali, thanks very much. Ali is on the scene in Houston for us.

Jack Cafferty is on the scene for us in New York with "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: It's too bad they don't allow cameras in the federal courtrooms. The ratings for Dick Cheney on the witness stand at Scooter Libby's trial would make "American Idol" look like reruns of "The View." You could call it "The Shooter and the Scooter" and it might happen. As much as Cheney enjoys answering questions in public, remember when he shot the guy in the face? Well, it could just be great.

Here's the question for this hour. What kind of witness would vice president Cheney make in the trial of Scooter Libby? You can e- mail us at, Wolf.

BLITZER: Who came up with that line, "The Shooter and the Scooter"?


BLITZER: Very good.

CAFFERTY: Thank you.

BLITZER: Jack will be back later.

Up next, expect the war in Iraq and the Iranian nuclear crisis to top the agenda tonight when the British Prime Minister Tony Blair and the president of the United States, George W. Bush team up. We'll go live to the White House for a preview of this important meeting.

Also, the Senate is voting on immigration reform right now. Some Republicans may be itching for a fight, though, over gay marriage. We'll explain in today's culture wars.

Plus, much more on that immigration vote and the battle ahead between the House and the Senate over the controversial issues. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Right now President Bush is preparing to team up once again with his most important ally in the war in Iraq. That would be the British prime minister Tony Blair. They'll hold talks and then they'll face reporters this evening. You are going to see it live right here in THE SITUATION ROOM. In the meantime, let's bring back our White House correspondent Suzanne Malveaux. What do we expect is happening tonight, Suzanne?

MALVEAUX: Well Wolf, we just got a quick update from a senior administration official on the schedule of both the leaders meeting between 6:00 and 7:30 here at the White House for initially briefing. Then of course that press conference that is going to happen from 7:30. About an hour or so, 8:30 in the East Room.

Then we're told the two are going to actually sit down for a working dinner in the residence to kind of get a debrief over what has taken place. Tomorrow morning of course Prime Minister Blair will be speaking at Georgetown around 11:00 and then the leaders will get back together again with senior staff again to go over some of the talking points and what comes out of this evening.

We have to say that first do not expect any kind of commitment from either one of these leaders when it comes to specifics about troop withdrawal. We've been waved off of that. But what they do hope to accomplish is to essentially say that we have a committed and effective partner when it comes to the new Iraqi prime minister moving forward.

They also want to convey that now is the time that the United States and Great Britain have to do everything in their power to help this new Iraqi government move forward. So those are going to be the highlights. But of course, Wolf, as you know, an hour full of questions will be a lot more. Wolf? BLITZER: We'll be having it. Suzanne, thanks very much. To our viewers, please be sure to stay with CNN to see the entire Bush-Blair news conference. That will be live tonight. Our special coverage begins right here in THE SITUATION ROOM 7:00 p.m. Eastern.

Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson took considerable heat today from Congress over the theft of the personal information of some 26 million military veterans. During hearings in the Senate and the House, at least one lawmaker urged Nicholson to resign.

But Nicholson says he too is outraged about the burglary and the fact that he wasn't told about it until nearly three weeks later. Nicholson says the federal government now is offering a $50,000 reward for information leading to the recovery of the computer and the hard drive that contained the stolen data.

Follow-up now on a story we first told you about yesterday. The president's nominee to be the new FEMA director acknowledged today errors in his recent state and federal tax filings. The acting FEMA chief David Paulison is blaming the mistakes on advice he got from a long-time accountant and Paulison is promising to pay any appropriate back taxes, penalties or interest. The tax trouble surfaced as Paulison was facing senators on his confirmation hearing yesterday.

Still ahead, is it part of his playbook to keep control of the Senate? Today Republican majority leader Senator Bill Frist met with members of his conservative base and he's promising them action on an issue that routinely gets them very fired up.

And the Senate is set to pass an immigration reform bill. They are voting on it right now. It appears, though, that that will put the Senate on a direct collision course with the House. Stay with us.


BLITZER: Welcome back to THE SITUATION ROOM, I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. Gay marriage is front and center in the culture wars. And right now the Senate majority leader, Bill Frist, is trying to push the issue higher on the legislative agenda. Our senior political analyst Bill Schneider is joining us now for a closer look at Frist's political moves. Bill?

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: The new rallying cry of congressional Republicans, Wolf, cover your base.


SCHNEIDER (voice-over): What's the big crisis facing the country? Iraq? Gas prices? Ask the Senate majority leader.

SEN. BILL FRIST (R-TN), MAJORITY LEADER: Right now, marriage is under attack in this country.

SCHNEIDER: So what is next on the Senate agenda?

FRIST: We need an amendment to come to the floor of the United States Senate to define marriage as that union between one man and one woman.

SCHNEIDER: When you're in trouble, cover your base. In this case social conservatives who seem just as angry and disillusioned with the Republican majority as everyone else is.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The big Republican problem is that they have alienated both social conservatives and moderates and swing voters. They need to get both groups back and it's very difficult to do so at the same time.

SCHNEIDER: Senator Frist got a lot of criticism for championing the Terri Schiavo cause last year, especially when he diagnosed her condition by videotape.

FRIST: That footage to me depicts something very different than persistent, vegetative state.

SCHNEIDER: Now Frist has promised to put constitutional amendments to ban same sex marriage and flag burning on the Senate agenda. He's revived the fight for President Bush's judicial nominees. He's put off a vote on a measure to allow federal funding of stem cell research. The idea is to rally the conservative base, even if it splits Republicans and alienates swing voters.

STUART ROTHENBERG, ROTHENBERG POLITICAL REPORT: I think flag burning, abortion, same sex marriage could well energize some social conservatives in the Republican Party. But the election is going to be about a lot more than that.

SCHNEIDER: Like what? Iraq, gas prices, immigration, social issues are low on the list. Even to born-again Christians who care about exactly the same issues as everyone else.


SCHNEIDER: Senator Frist may run for the Republican nomination for president in 2008. And right now there's no conservative favorite in the race. And he's the one conservatives see fighting the good fight. Wolf?

BLITZER: Does he have a chance in the Senate to get this legislation banning same sex marriage through, to get it passed?

SCHNEIDER: Mostly observers say unlikely to get either that or the flag burning amendment. It takes a two-thirds vote to get those approved. So, the question is, will social conservatives be frustrated by that and get even angrier that a Republican Senate can't get these measures through, or will he -- they see him as their champion for bringing it up?

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

Also right now, the Senate is moving closer to passage of an immigration reform bill. And that sets the stage for the ultimate immigration showdown, pitting the Senate against the House. Let's bring in our senior analyst, Jeff Greenfield. He's looking ahead to this battle.

All of us are, Jeff.

JEFF GREENFIELD, CNN SENIOR ANALYST: Well, Wolf, it looks like we are headed for a huge political fight, not between Republicans and Democrats, but between the Senate, which is about to pass its immigration bill, and the House, which, months ago, passed an enforcement-only, no-guest-worker, no-path-to-citizenship bill. This is a new version of a very old fight, but with a fascinating new wrinkle thrown in.


GREENFIELD (voice-over): From the beginning, the founder fathers set up the House and Senate as very different bodies. The House was the people's chamber, popularly elected every two years. The Senate was the more magisterial branch. It took more than 125 years for the people to get the right to vote for them.

Senators have a fancier chamber. They have their own desks. More important, they get to confirm judges, Cabinet members, and approve treaties. So, the House guards its powers jealously. In the early 1960s, a war broke out when the House thought the Senate was usurping its power to originate so-called money bills.




GREENFIELD: In the early '90s, fights over Clinton's budget package exploded into acrimony. The House was especially angry with the power of individual senators to tie the Congress up in knots.

But the coming battle on immigration has a special twist, one that stems from the extraordinary ability of House GOP leaders to maintain party discipline, almost like a parliamentary party does in Europe.


GREENFIELD: House Speaker Dennis Hastert has proclaimed a majority-of-the-majority rule. In other words, he won't even bring up a bill unless most of the House Republicans back it. And, right now, there seems to be no way to get most House Republicans to back anything like the Senate bill.

So, why does this matter? Well, go back to 1993 and President Clinton's fight to get the North American Free Trade Agreement ratified. Most Democrats voted against the pact, including Democratic House Leader Richard Gephardt. But it was passed because three- fourths of House Republicans backed Clinton.


GREENFIELD: So, unless Speaker Hastert sets aside that rule, or unless the House or Senate all but concede its case, it's very hard to see how any immigration bill can pass.

It -- it brings to mind a lesson that an old Democratic House member once taught a new member. "In time," he said, "you will learn that Republicans are your adversary, but the Senate is your enemy" -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I remember that phrase.

Jeff, let's talk a little bit about the ability of the president and Karl Rove and others in the administration to twist the hands of those conservative Republicans who are opposed to anything close to the Senate compromise comprehensive legislation. His poll numbers may be low, but can he get the job done if he gets directly involved?

GREENFIELD: You have got two problems.

One is the one you mentioned. A president who is in the 30s in the polls just has less clout than a president in the 60s. But the other one is -- and I think it's easy to overlook this immigration issue is a very powerful matter of deeply held beliefs, whatever side you're on.

This isn't like compromising on how high a tax bill should be or how low a tax bill should be, or splitting the difference. On this issue, particularly in the House, a lot of the Republicans, whether it's their constituents pushing them or their own internal beliefs, are powerfully opposed to anything that looks like amnesty.

And I believe, on top of that, the frustration they felt about being pushed around by a White House, which all Congresses feel, is having them dig in their heels. So, I think the odds on this are very, very low, unless they decide deserting the president is more politically harmful than standing up to him on this issue -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jeff Greenfield, thank you very much.

And Jeff and Bill Schneider, as you know, are part of the best political team on television -- CNN, America's campaign headquarters.

Up next, our SITUATION ROOM "Strategy Session" -- in round one, the Iraq war, tonight's meeting between President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and whether the talks can help revive both leaders' sagging poll numbers.

And, in round two, how tense will things get between the Senate and the House, now that the Senate appears set to pass an immigration reform bill many in the House do not support? All that coming up -- the "Strategy Session" is next, right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Today, in our "Strategy Session": President Bush welcomes British Prime Minister Tony Blair to the White House. Will their evening news conference help either leader stop their falling poll numbers?

Joining us now, our CNN political analyst and Democratic strategist Paul Begala, and Terry Jeffrey, the editor of "Human Events."

I want to get to the Bush-Blair meeting shortly. But let me just your thoughts, first to you, Terry, on this whole confrontation that has erupted against the executive and the legislative branches. The raid on Congressman Jefferson's office Saturday night, it has brought Nancy Pelosi and Dennis Hastert close together on this issue, against the administration.

TERRY JEFFREY, EDITOR, "HUMAN EVENTS": Well, Wolf, as a conservative, I believe precedent and tradition deserve respect.

However, as a constitutional originalist, I think you have to look to the actual words of the Constitution. Article 1, Section 6 of the Constitution, which is the clause in question, says that they have immunity, except in cases of treason, felony and breach of peace.

The Justice Department is investigating a very serious felony here, an alleged bribery of a member of Congress, who did not cooperate with the investigation. Next year, Congress is probably going to be trying to investigate the administration, if the Democrats get in power. They are going to want to make sure the administration complies with their subpoenas. I believe Congress, in this case, needs to comply with the subpoena of a legitimate investigation.

BLITZER: What do you think?


I mean, we have finally found a domestic surveillance program that Dennis Hastert opposes. This is a valid search warrant, executed, by the way, against a Democratic congressman who is accused of very serious felonies.

And now the speaker says he has a problem with this. You're right. Nancy Pelosi, Democratic leader, joins him. They're wrong. This has been vetted by a judge. They had subpoenaed documents before.

BLITZER: Hold -- Jeff, hold on one second. We're going to fix your microphone. Unfortunately, they are not hearing you as clearly, as our viewers deserve...

BEGALA: They're not missing much.

BLITZER: ... to hear every word.

(CROSSTALK) JEFFREY: ... unclear thoughts. For once, they were clear thoughts, Paul.

BEGALA: For once, I'm agreeing with Jeffrey.

BLITZER: We are -- let me take a quick break. We are going to fix your microphone. We are going to come back -- much more of the "Strategy Session" right after this.


BLITZER: Welcome back to our "Strategy Session."

With us still is Paul Begala and Terry Jeffrey.

Let's talk about the Bush-Blair summit. The meeting is about to take place. They are going to have a joint news conference, 7:30 p.m. Eastern tonight.

Here is what "The Economist" magazine, the British publication, recently wrote in an editorial entitled "Axis of Feeble": "The partnership between Tony Blair and George Bush has shaped world events in the nearly five years since the attacks of September 11. Over the past year, however, the debacle in Iraq and problems at home have turned both leaders from soaring hawks into the lamest of ducks."

What do you think about those words? Because you know both of them. Tony Blair, you know well, too.

BEGALA: I -- in fact, in 1992, before Bill Clinton was even inaugurated, I went over to Britain to help some of the new Labor folks, like Tony Blair, who was then fairly obscure, and Gordon Brown try to organize new Labor, the way we organized a new Democratic Party.

So, I -- I say this with no glee. I have great affection and respect for Tony. But he's the lamest of ducks. In his last poll, he was at 26 percent. Our president is at maybe 36. So, together, they make a majority.

But it's a tragic situation. He was the most charismatic and compelling figure on the national, on the global scene in the post- Clinton era. He made one tragic mistake. He bet his premiership on George W. Bush being right about Iraq. And he was wrong. And he's disgraced for that.

BLITZER: What do you think? You know, in England, they call him Bush's poodle.

JEFFREY: Well, Wolf, there's no doubt that Tony Blair and President Bush have seen their popularity go down because of the course of war in Iraq.

But there's two things they can point out tonight that I think are good news that people need to know about. One thing is the formation of this new government in Iraq, the first constitutionally elected government in that country. It does, in fact, bring together a coalition of Sunnis and Shias, which is something that I think the Sunni insurgency was aimed at stopping. That's the first good thing. People really need to know that has happened.

Secondly, the new prime minister, Maliki, is saying that he thinks that the Iraqis themselves can secure 16 of the 18 provinces in Iraq by the end of this year. By November of 2007, he believes they can secure the whole country. Maybe that's optimistic. But if he can actually do it -- and that's clearly his intent -- that means the United States and Britain can get out of that country and leave a Sunni-Shiite democratic government behind.

BLITZER: Those are big ifs, but we will see what happens.


BLITZER: Let's move on to immigration -- the Senate about to vote, final passage, the Senate comprehensive reform package. It's going to go to the House. They're going to have to try to reconcile huge differences.

Listen to what the House majority leader, Representative Boehner, said earlier today, because it signaled perhaps an opening.


REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), HOUSE MAJORITY LEADER: While we have differences of opinion, we have got to find a way to resolve them. And I believe that it is resolvable. And I'm hopeful that we will be successful in putting an immigration bill, illegal immigration bill, on the president's desk.


BLITZER: Terry, first to you. Can the Republicans -- because this is basically a fight within the Republican Party -- the Democrats pretty much on board, aligned with the president. But can the Republicans resolve this, work out a deal?

JEFFREY: No, I don't think so.

It's ironic. Boehner is actually sort of on the left wing of the Republican conference on this issue, Wolf. Speaker Hastert has said, or has indicated, if there's not a majority of the Republican conference behind it, they won't bring a vote to the floor of the House.

I don't believe there's a compromise that they can make with the bill coming out of the Senate, which is truly outrageous, doesn't secure the border, would allow for 66 million new immigrants over the next 20 years, more than half-a-billion dollars in new welfare payments, that that bill can form a compromise that can get the conservatives in the House to support it. No bill.

BLITZER: Here -- here is what the Congressman Chris Shays, who is a moderate Republican up for reelection, like all members of the House, this is what he says: "I don't want to see a bill come to the floor of the House that gives them a path to citizenship," referring to the illegal immigrants, that "there is not much tolerance for allowing people to become citizens who came here illegally."

And this is Chris Shays, one of the few Republicans who voted against impeaching the president, if you recall.


BEGALA: Yes, I know. But he's just posturing.

He's in a very difficult reelection race up there with this woman named Diane Farrell, who is the first selectwoman of Westport, who I think is going to beat him. And he is just posturing.

Terry's comments, though were music to my ears, as a Democrat, because the best thing that could happen to Republicans, like Chris Shays, who I think are going to lose, would be for the president to have a big signing ceremony with a bipartisan bill on some major issue.

That would be a big win for George W. Bush and, therefore, a big win for the Republican Party. And, so, the one thing that is stopping that is the right wing of the Republican Party. They are becoming the Democrats' best friends. The Democrats are going along with this bill, even though it is going to help Mr. Bush and help the Republicans.

JEFFREY: Well...

BEGALA: It's a bizarre political concoction.

JEFFREY: What Chris Shays' statement proves -- this is a guy, by the way, who had 18 town hall meetings in Connecticut in the last few weeks.

This shows that the anger over the lack of security at our border and the illegal immigration crisis in the country has reached into liberal communities in Connecticut and has reached a liberal Republican like Chris Shays. This country wants something done. It's secure the border. President Bush can do that unilaterally. He doesn't need Congress. That's what he needs to do before November, if he wants to help the Republicans in Congress.


BEGALA: But don't you think it helps the Republicans? If Mr. Bush is stuck at 35 or wherever he is, don't you think it helps the Republicans if he has a big signing ceremony in the Rose Garden?

JEFFREY: You would like it, Paul, because, if he does that...

BEGALA: No, no, I would not like it. It's bad politically.

JEFFREY: If he does that, there's a Democratic Congress.

BLITZER: We're done.


BLITZER: Terry Jeffrey, Paul Begala...


BEGALA: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: ... good discussion.

Coming up, a snapshot of where Arnold Schwarzenegger stands in his race to win a second term as California's governor.

And "Idol" politics -- we are going to tell you who is trying to bask in the new "American Idol's" spotlight.

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


BLITZER: Zain Verjee is off.

Fredricka Whitfield joining us now from the CNN Global Headquarters with a quick look at some other important stories making headlines.

Hi, Fred.


The Palestinian president tells his rivals, act now, or else. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is giving officials in the Hamas- led government just 10 days to accept a plan for a Palestinian state to exist alongside Israel. Abbas says, if his rivals do not, he will put that question to a national referendum to be held 40 days later.

Meanwhile, today, in Gaza, one person is dead and 15 hurt after clashes between rival Palestinian factions.

The current pope visits the birthplace of his predecessor. Pope Benedict XVI is in Poland. The pope is to honor his predecessor, John Paul II. He will also try to soothe lingering feelings over atrocities committed by the Nazi regime in World War II. Pope Benedict will visit Poland for four days.

And, today, Admiral Thad Allen was sworn in as the new commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard. Allen will replace Admiral Tom Collins, who is retiring after 38 years of service. At the swearing-in, President Bush praised the brave work of the U.S. Coast Guard during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

And back on track, Amtrak -- those trains are now said to be running again, after a power outage this morning stopped trains at the height of rush hour. It happened along side Amtrak's northeast corridor, stranding thousands of commuters. Amtrak says they are investigating exactly what caused that outage -- a real headache for folk this morning -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I remember watching it live on "AMERICAN MORNING" this morning. It was a nightmare for those commuters. But, fortunately, everything worked out well in the end.

Fred, thank you very much.

The ACLU wants states across the country to investigate whether -- whether three major phone companies shared millions of customer call records with the National Security Agency.

Our Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton, has more on how the civil liberties group is pressing the government right now for answers -- Abbi.

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, this is a campaign the ACLU is calling, "Don't Spy on Me."

What the organization has done, has filed complaint letters with attorneys general around the country in 20 different states, like this one to Eliot Spitzer in New York, asking them to investigate whether local phone companies have turned over records to the NSA.

The ACLU has also taken out ads in newspaper. They have also got an online form on their Web site where people can contact the FCC, asking them to investigate, something the ACLU also wants themselves.

Now, the FCC, earlier on this week, sent a letter to Congressman Ed Markey, saying that they will not be investigating, saying that the information is highly sensitive, classified, and, therefore, they can't.

Of the three major telecom companies mentioned in news reports, BellSouth has denied the reports, as has Verizon in a carefully worded statement. AT&T has reiterated its privacy policies, but not commented -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Abbi, thank you.

Still to come, what kind of witness would Vice President Dick Cheney be if he testifies against his former chief of staff? Jack Cafferty has your e-mail.

And, later, a leading critic of the president's Iraq policy, Democratic Senator Joe Biden, he will help us set the stage for the president's meeting with the British prime minister, Tony Blair, and their joint news conference, which you will see live here during our 7:00 p.m. Eastern hour.

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


BLITZER: On our "Political Radar" this Thursday, new evidence Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is facing a tough battle for a second term. A new poll shows the California Republican is tied with both of his leading Democratic challengers, State Treasurer Phil Angelides and State Comptroller Steve Westly.

And the Southern strategy is holding on the hit -- to the hit reality TV show "American Idol." The results were announced last night. Taylor Hicks of Alabama came out the winner. Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama couldn't pass up an opportunity to mention Hicks and the "American Idol" vote when went before reporters today.


SEN. JEFF SESSIONS (R), ALABAMA: I thought I came -- coming into a press conference to congratulate Taylor Hicks.


SESSIONS: He got more votes than any presidential candidate in history got last night. My wife cast three of those votes.


SESSIONS: I hope nobody is investigating.


BLITZER: Jack Cafferty is going to tell us who he voted for.

Taylor Hicks, Jack?

CAFFERTY: I'm not revealing that at this time.

Vice President Dick Cheney may be called as a witness in the trial of his former chief of staff, Scooter Libby. The special prosecutor in the CIA leak case says Cheney's state of mind is directly relevant to whether Libby lied and about when and how he learned of the CIA agent Valerie Plame's identity.

The question is: What kind of witness would Vice President Cheney make in the trial of Scooter Libby?

Alex in Madison, Wisconsin, writes: "I hope the court has patience. Judging by Mr. Cheney's swift reporting of his shooting a lawyer, I expect he will always be showing up late."

Fred in Seattle: "His testimony would be divided between taking the Fifth and citing that his answer would be classified as top secret."

Joe in Tennessee writes: "Perhaps the V.P. will take Scooter on a hunting trip to discuss it. I truly believe, if it comes to the vice president actually having to testify, there will be a medical emergency that will prevent it."

Patrick in California: "Cheney would likely answer all questions truthfully and in a mature and adult manner, as would be expected of a man of his character and honor. Your vile hatred of this man paints a picture much more reflective of your character than his."

David in Massachusetts: "You're talking about Vice President Cheney. My way or the highway, right? The money he can spend for private attorneys will far outweigh the intimidated government attorneys."

And Paul in Maryland writes: "That depends on whether or not he brings a shotgun" -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jack, thank you very much.