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The Situation Room

President Bush and British Prime Minister Blair Hold News Conference; Interview With Pennsylvania Congressman John Murtha

Aired May 25, 2006 - 19:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: To our viewers in the United States and around the world, 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 tonight's stories.
Happening now, it's 7:00 p.m. here in Washington. They have stood shoulder to shoulder on Iraq and plunged together in the polls, almost hand in hand. President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair are meeting right now at the White House. And, very shortly, they will be holding a joint news conference. We will bring it to you live.

It's 1:00 a.m. in Baghdad. Are U.S. and other coalition troops coming any closer to a homecoming? We will go live to Iraq, and I will speak with a key critic of the president's Iraq policy, Democratic Congressman John Murtha.

And the president will certainly be asked about the shockwaves rocking Capitol Hill right now, as showdowns build over immigration and a corruption probe.

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

United, they stand; united, they fall. They have been close allies on Iraq. And they have paid a heavy price with their respective publics. The declines in their approval ratings are dramatic. Look at how far President Bush and Prime Minister Blair have fallen in the past five years. Could a strong public appearance this evening help stem their slides? Tonight, at the White House, the two leaders have been discussing their next steps in Iraq and will shortly meet with the news media.

Let's turn to our chief national correspondent, John King. He's standing by with a preview -- John.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, what a remarkable political moment for both of these leaders.

And in President Bush's mind has to be the thought, will Tony Blair ever be back in Washington as the British prime minister? He's under fire back home. And, in the parliamentary system they have in Great Britain, there are some who think Prime Minister Blair will not survive the year, and, if he does, perhaps just a month or three into next year. So, as the two leaders swap strategy notes tonight on Iraq, obviously, they want to talk about their confidence level in the new government. They want to talk about whether they believe it will be possible to start bringing troops home by some time later this year, that, of course, critical to Mr. Bush in this domestic election year here in the United States.

They, of course, will talk about Iran's nuclear program. But because of those poll numbers you just showed, both of these leaders in trouble at home domestically, many are calling this the summit of the feeble, the summit of the lame ducks. Because of those polls, there not only are questions about whether Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair can convince their people back home about their policies, say, a confrontation with Iran, but also whether they would have the standing on the world stage, because of the controversies about Iraq, what many believe to be the failures of Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair in Iraq.

Could they make a case to the Security Council that there should be tough sanctions and the threat of military confrontation when it comes to Iran? So, a difficult moment for both of these leaders. As you noted, about 25 minutes from now, they will meet with reporters. This tends to help Mr. Bush, most analysts think, more at home, because Mr. Blair is popular in the United States.

The president can say: I'm standing side by side with a key ally.

For Mr. Blair, though, Mr. Bush is so unpopular back home, for him, that this is a risk for him, but a risk, Wolf, he has proven time and time again he will take -- this his eighth visit to Washington since the September 11 attacks.

BLITZER: John, stand by. We're going to have you back shortly -- John King reporting.

We're going to speak to Congressman John Murtha, a severe critic of the president's, in just a moment.

First, though, CNN's Ryan Chilcote is in Baghdad. He's on the scene for us.

What's the sense, Ryan, on the ground, where you are right now, as far as Iraqi troops eventually, hopefully sooner rather than later, being able to take charge?

RYAN CHILCOTE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, just as recently as yesterday, Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, said that he thought that Iraqi troops could take over security throughout the country within the next 18 months.

A lot of people here will tell you they think that is an ambitious timetable. It is certainly the most ambitious timetable we have heard yet. Of course, two real important things that need to happen in order to accomplish that goal, Iraqi security forces need to grow, not just in -- in terms of their numbers, which we hear a lot about, but particularly in terms of their ability to support themselves.

Remember that Iraqi security forces right now in Iraq really cannot operate anywhere in the country without the support of the multinational forces, without the support of U.S. forces. They don't have the helicopters. They don't have the fire support. They don't have the medics. They don't really have the infrastructure -- infrastructure -- to support their own military.

That's going to have to change, of course, over the next 18 months, if the prime minister's goal is to be realized.

The other thing, of course, is that Iraq is going to have to make significant progress on the political front. You are probably going to hear this from the president, President Bush today, really, in order to create the conditions where U.S. troops could begin to go home.

Most importantly, this government that was established over the weekend is going to have to show that it is a government of national unity, one that can unite Iraqis across the various religious and ethnic divides.

So, that's going to be really key. The prime minister is going to have to show his ability in this country to unite Iraqis and try, in so doing, quell a little bit of the sectarian violence we are seeing here -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Ryan Chilcote, we will speak to you after the president and the prime minister's news conference as well.

My next guest will be watching President Bush and Prime Minister Blair very closely for any word on when American troops might be able to come home. Democratic Congressman John Murtha wants immediate withdrawal, virtually, of U.S. troops. He wants a redeployment of troops away from Iraq. He recently said of the president's Iraq plan -- and I'm quoting now -- "When you open up the strategy for victory, there's nothing inside."

Congressman Murtha is joining us now live from Capitol Hill.

Congressman, I want you to listen to what the defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, told our Larry King earlier today.

Listen to this.


DONALD RUMSFELD, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Once you start doing that, you -- you -- then, you are -- you're stuck with a number, a date. And it just doesn't do any good. It's based on conditions on the ground.

There's no question that it's our desire to reduce the forces. And we intend to. And the Iraqis intend for us to. And the question is, what -- at what pace can we continue to go up towards the 325,000 Iraqi security force target goal, and what's the intensity of the insurgency?


BLITZER: What do you think? Do you -- does that make sense, to see what happens on the ground first, before unilaterally simply pulling out the troops?

REP. JOHN MURTHA (D), PENNSYLVANIA: Wolf, their -- their spokesperson said the other day, we serve at the pleasure of the Iraqis.

Let me tell you something. We don't serve at the pleasure of the Iraqis. I was at the hospital the other day, and a woman said to me: My husband joined to fight for America, not -- he was wounded in the hospital -- not -- not to fight for the Iraqis.

When they say serve at the pleasure, this is -- and -- and when they say it's up to the Iraqis and what happens on the ground, it's gotten no better in the last six months. And then I read report after report that said there's garbage all over the place, that they got sewage spilling out on the street, electricity, and all the things I have talked about how I judge progress.

There is no progress. If they got -- if they are looking at 350,000 troops, Wolf, they didn't send that many of our troops in there. You know, they sent inadequate force in to get it under control. It's gotten no better. Incidents have increased substantially.

The explosive devices have increased from 3,000 two years ago to 11,000, went from 500 six months ago, when I made my initial statement, up to 1,000 now. So, everything is indicating the opposite.

They need a timetable, where they -- they give incentives to the Iraqis, and let the Iraqis do that.


MURTHA: They are caught in a -- a sectarian civil war right now, and we're caught in between.

BLITZER: So, under the best of circumstances, Congressman, what would you want to hear from President Bush and Prime Minister Blair when they meet with -- with reporters in about 23 minutes?

MURTHA: I -- I would like to hear a timetable for the redeployment of our troops, and a realistic timetable, because, the slower it is, the more we put our troops in danger.

Things aren't getting better on the ground. The -- the situation, the economic situation, is deplorable. Infrastructure is -- is completely out of control.

And -- and look at the money. We're spending $9 billion a month. We will have spent $350 billion by the end of this year. And -- and we have all kinds of problems in Katrina.

They give these big contractors in Iraq, and they haven't been able to produce. They do the same thing in Katrina. And we don't have the money to do the things at home.

So, the American public, which is way ahead of us, Wolf, wants our troops redeployed. And I agree with that. And I would like to see a timetable, that this president says: OK, this is what we're going to do. Let the Iraqis ask us to get out, like they say, that they're going to let us get out sooner. If they have got 250,000 troops, there's only 1,000 al Qaeda in Iraq. So, it's time to bring our troops home.

BLITZER: It sounds like you don't have a lot of confidence in this new Iraqi government that was just formed the other day, under the leadership of a Shiite leader, the prime minister, Nouri al- Maliki.

Is that a fair assessment?

MURTHA: Well, it's not a matter whether I have confidence or don't have confidence. They are the only ones who can solve it.

Until we say to them, you're the ones that have to solve this problem; this is an Iraqi problem; this is -- this is something you folks and your government has to sign.

Eighty percent of those people want us out. Forty-seven percent say it's OK to kill Americans. And the pressure on our troops, Wolf, is tremendous. I mean, these folks go out every day. An explosive device goes off. An explosive device goes off the next day. Somebody's not hurt. Then, all at once, somebody blown up, and -- and these troops, the pressure gets to them after a while, and then rotated three or four times.

I had a letter from a young girl, 10 years old, that said: Thanks for supporting my -- my father, who is going to be redeployed for the fifth -- fourth time. Bring -- bring our troops home.

That's what I'm getting all over the country. We cannot sustain this kind of a deployment, when the American public has turned against it.

BLITZER: Congressman John Murtha of Pennsylvania -- Congressman, thanks very much. We will be anxious to get your reaction after the news conference as well.

And we're awaiting tonight's joint news conference by President Bush and Prime Minister Blair.

As we are, we're also tracking several major stories.

Coming up: a constitutional showdown, a dilemma President Bush says this country hasn't seen in two centuries -- now a move to try to cool off a congressional fight and its speaker of -- of -- and it's a fight including with the speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert. Also, a key vote on immigration, what will it mean for our borders, for immigrants who broke the law to get here, that as well?

And the vice president, Dick Cheney, he is apparently going to be asked to testify against his close confidant, his former chief of staff. We will have some specific details.

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


BLITZER: Welcome back to a special edition of THE SITUATION ROOM.

We're awaiting President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain. They will be holding a live joint news conference over at the White House. It's scheduled to begin at the bottom of the hour, in about 15, 16, 17 minutes or so from now.

This has been a very busy day here in Washington. Some major political stories are unfolding on our "Political Radar."

A little more than an hour ago, the U.S. Senate approved a controversial immigration reform bill. The vote was 62-36. The bill includes tougher border security and a path for many illegal immigrants to earn citizenship. Now lawmakers face a major challenge to reconcile the Senate bill with a strict security-only measure that passed in the House of Representatives.

The CIA leak prosecutor says Vice President Dick Cheney could be called to testify against his former chief of staff, Lewis Scooter Libby. In court documents, Patrick Fitzgerald says Cheney's state of mind is relevant to whether Libby committed perjury. Libby is accused of lying about he learned of the identity of a CIA operative, Valerie Plame.

President Bush is stepping directly into a constitutional showdown between the executive branch and Congress. Today, he ordered all materials seized in a FBI raid of a congressman's office sealed for 45 days. The House speaker, Dennis Hastert, is accusing the Justice Department of trying to pay him back for criticizing that raid.

He's pointing to a disputed ABC News report that he's in the mix of a federal corruption probe.

Our congressional correspondent Dana Bash is joining us from Capitol Hill now with more -- Dana.

DANA BASH, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, you're right, Wolf. This news conference tonight certainly does cap what has been a day of remarkable drama.

And, the lawmakers up here, I can tell you, will certainly be listening and watching to see if the president is asked about his decision today that you just mentioned, his decision to at least now stop the confrontation that has been escalating over this whole week between the Republicans here on the Hill and the Justice Department over the weekend raid of a congressman's office here on Capitol Hill.

Earlier today, the -- the -- the -- essentially, the tension here had been actually palpable, especially from Republicans. Mr. Bush tried to diffuse that. It will be very interesting to watch to see if Mr. Bush actually is asked about that, especially the whole issue of Speaker Hastert, because it did get very personal here today, Wolf, Speaker Hastert essentially saying that the Justice Department was retaliating against him, and suggesting some at least that he is under investigation as part of the Jack Abramoff scandal.

If Mr. Bush talks about that, certainly, all eyes will be on that.

BLITZER: I suspect that subject will come up, Dana. Thanks very much.

Joining us now is James Carville, our political analyst, a Democratic strategist.

As you look forward to this news conference -- it supposed to begin in about 14, 15 minutes or so from now -- you have President Bush, Prime Minister Blair. They're both trying to strengthen their respective political bases, not an easy challenge for either.


And I -- I think they are pretty realistic about what they are going to get out tonight. And, I mean, remember, the prime minister is like, I don't know, 29 approval rating in -- in Britain. In Britain, the president is lower than the prime minister. So, it's not like he's going to appear with President Bush and help his numbers in Britain.

I suspect that, in the United States, Blair is more popular than President Bush is, but, also, it's not going to help him. I mean, the country's at war. And they're two leaders of it. And they have to do something. And I guess they will come out and report on this.

Maybe there's a chance they will actually make some news tonight. I don't know. But it seems like a pretty hurried thing. Maybe they will get up there and make news.

BLITZER: You know, Becky Anderson is reporting for us from London tonight.

Stand by for a moment, James.

I want to bring her in.

Becky, as you take a look at this news conference between the prime minister and the president, I noticed the clock. It's 7:00 p.m., or 7:15 or so, here on the East Coast. It's approaching midnight in London. That's not necessarily a great time to be on television for the prime minister, if, in fact, he wants to be on television standing next to the president of the United States.


BECKY ANDERSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, that is the point, I think.

And many commentators here are suggesting exactly that. Why be on with the president after midnight here? It will be midnight 30 by the time we start.

Look, Wolf, this is the deal. It's a rare day that Blair is willing to talk about his legacy. Commentators here, though say that is effectively what is at stake. And his legacy, of course, is intrinsically tied up with Iraq.

In Britain, his relationship with the president has variously been referred to as a -- a coalition of the embattled, the axis of failure, the axis of feeble. Call it what you will, though. His authority has been on the wane since he said he would not seek a fourth term. And it's anger over the war in Iraq, as well as disillusionment over the last nine years in office, of course, has eroded his popularity.

Now, the latest polls here -- not sure if you have seen them -- show that his popularity is hovering around 26 percent. His party is scoring about 34 percent. And that's a good 4 percentage points behind the opposition Conservatives.

So, those poor opinion polls, more trouble in Parliament will raise the pressure on Mr. Blair to stand aside, with many now, of course, in the Labor Party expecting him to resign in the middle of next year. And that will make way for his heir apparent, Gordon Brown.

Now, you talk about Iraq being, you know, the most critical issue for Tony Blair. There has been a lot of talk here, Wolf, about why this meeting has been delayed, the summit is being delayed. And the received wisdom here certainly suggests that it was to give Tony Blair a chance to get to Baghdad at the beginning of the week. He wants to argue that there is now a proper elected government there, full Sunni participation.

And he will argue for a phased withdrawal of troops. We have heard it before, but we are hearing talk now that the U.K. is certainly looking for that by June. There's 8,000 troops there, of course, British troops. That's what he's looking for -- Wolf.

BLITZER: One hundred and thirty thousand U.S. troops.

Becky, we will check back with you later.

James Carville is still here.

You know Tony Blair.

CARVILLE: I do. BLITZER: You helped him at one of his early campaigns, to a certain...

CARVILLE: In a peripheral...


BLITZER: ... to a certain degree.


CARVILLE: ... minor degree.

BLITZER: Is he embarrassed to be seen back home with the president of the United States?

CARVILLE: Well, I -- you know, again, I -- certainly, the timing, as our correspondent so aptly put out, is, it's 12:30 in Britain.

But, you know, they have pretty good coverage there. It will be all over the morning news, and it will be in the newspapers. I think that the prime minister has done some remarkable things there. He's, I think, the longest serving prime minister they have.

But there's not much doubt, a year from now, he's not going to be prime minister anymore. And the way that their politics works is, is they have a parliamentary system, so Gordon Brown, who is the chancellor, the exchequer, will take over.

In terms of President Bush, he will be president next May, no matter what happens, because we have a contract with our presidents. He has a four-year term. The interesting thing is going to be to see, if he can't move his numbers, how long -- how is he going to be able to govern for that long of a time, at 30 percent or 35 percent, or wherever he is?

BLITZER: I noticed, earlier this week, the president's joint news conference with the visiting Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, 5:00 p.m. Eastern time here in the United States, midnight back in Israel as well, not a great time to be on television back in Israel either. I don't know what that significance is, if any.

James, thanks very much.

CARVILLE: We have both been there. We know they got a lot of coverage all day.

BLITZER: All right.

We're only minutes away from the president and the prime minister's joint news conference at the White House.

Our special coverage will continue right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: Welcome back to THE SITUATION ROOM. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.

We're awaiting the joint news conference, the president of the United States, the prime minister of Britain.

Paula Zahn is here in THE SITUATION ROOM with us.

Welcome, Paula.

You will be doing a special right after the news conference. We will get to all of that.

John Roberts is here, Candy Crowley, John King. And -- and James Carville is still here with us as well.

As you take a look, John, at this news conference tonight, this immigration battle certainly going to come up. I assume one American reporter is going to ask the president. And he has got a serious problem with his Republican base right now.

JOHN ROBERTS, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I would hope that somebody is going to mention this.

I don't think Iraq is going to get all that much time in this press conference. And it's going to go to the conference committee, now that it has passed the Senate. And look at where the battle lines have been drawn. You have got Arlen Specter today saying, if we don't pass this, this is a question of our leadership, and can we govern? Don't forget, we have got that election coming up in November.

Then, on the other side, you have got people like Tom DeLay, who are saying, if this is amnesty, it's an nonstarter; forget about it.

This is going to be a real tough fight.

PAULA ZAHN, HOST, "PAULA ZAHN NOW": Why don't we talk about what will likely come up when it comes to the issue of Iraq? You don't think those questions might dominate the discussion, but, clearly, there's a lot of skepticism about how credible this new government is, a lot of questions being raised about whether the security forces that are in place and the police in Iraq will ever be fully capable of controlling the country.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, you are talking about two people who have very low poll numbers, who are in need of some good news out of Iraq, and are going to be at least telegraphing what they found.

We know Tony Blair just went to Iraq, just visited with the new prime minister. He comes back, according to all the press reports out of Britain, encouraged. I think we're going to hear some of that.

I mean, John is right. I don't think, you know, we will stay on the good news for too long. But I think there will be some tough questions, because both of them -- we're talking about two men whose entire legacy is attached to this war.

KING: There's a deja vu element to this.

Remember, there was the transitional government in Iraq. That was supposed to be the first step toward a stable democracy. Then there was the referendum. Then there was another Iraqi government. This is the third or the fourth attempt to start this. So, I think one of questions will be, why should we believe it this time?

On that domestic issue, Wolf, that John just talked about, the president's problem on immigration is this. He got a bill that he likes out of the Senate, but a majority of the Republicans in the Senate voted against it. And that is the cue that House conservatives have that they don't need to compromise.

BLITZER: That's a big problem, James, for the president, going ahead between now and November. A lot of Republicans, including some of his most ardent supporters, look at his poll numbers right now, and they are not necessarily willing to go out on the line for him.

CARVILLE: Well, I think you will see Senator Kennedy out, as I call it, the Kennedy-Bush immigration bill. And I think that you will see him out, taking great credit for this. And I think the Democrats will be jumping on this, which will probably enrage these House Republicans.

No, I mean, they have -- but, remember, a lot of House Democrats will be for this. So, they don't need to get all of the Republicans. If -- even if they split, get some kind of split in the Republican caucus, the bill will still pass. Now, they have traditionally liked to pass things in the House with just Republicans. I suspect that that -- that that is certainly not going to happen this time.

KING: They need a majority. They need a majority of the Republicans.



ZAHN: So, what is the best that either one of these leaders can hope to come out of this news conference tonight? We know that half of Britain will be asleep when this airs there. And I guess that Prime Minister Blair might be happy about that, since he's perceived as a poodle of the American government.

ROBERTS: I think this is all -- I think this is all about face time for President Bush.

Republicans very close to the White House told me a few weeks ago that they think the president needs to get out there more. And to have a prime-time press conference with Tony Blair, it's the first time that I can remember that that has happened, though they have had probably more than 10 of them together.

So, I think this is all about getting on television, getting out there with a message. Blair is very well-liked, still, in this country. He's trusted, to some degree, more than President Bush is. And to have Blair by his side, I think, probably sends the type of message that the president is looking for.

BLITZER: You know -- you know, Candy, I -- I think John makes a good point, that Blair may be more popular in the United States than he is back in Britain.

CROWLEY: Oh, he definitely is more popular. And -- and he's more popular among Americans than George Bush is. So, you know, advantage Blair on this.

But the -- the fact of the matter is that for George Bush to be seen standing next to a leader that many Americans truly respect, thinks is great leader, does not hurt George Bush.

What do they need to get out of this? What they both would like is to at least stop the hemorrhaging. You wonder how -- how much hemorrhaging there can be, but they would like to at least put an end to their tumble.

BLITZER: Hold on for a second, because we're about to start the news conference.

Suzanne Malveaux, our White House correspondent, is inside the White House, getting ready to, presumably, ask a question.

Suzanne, give us a little flavor. What's it like in there?


As you know, of course, the anticipation, just two minutes -- less than two minutes away from this very important press conference -- both of these leaders under tremendous amount of political pressure to show that there is progress in Iraq, that this new permanent leadership, Iraqi leadership, really is the last chance to turn things around in that country.

And both of these leaders staked their reputations, their legacy, their credibility on line when it comes to the Iraq mission.

We expect we will get a lot of different types of questions. Of course, they will be talking about the good news coming out of Iraq. We are told they are not going to be talking about specific numbers of U.S. troop withdrawal, or even British hopes of coalition forces being out within four years or so.

But what you will hear is that they believe in the new Iraqi leadership -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Suzanne, sit down. We're going to be going to the news conference in a few seconds.

I want to point out to our viewers something, Paula, that we are going to be doing differently at this news conference. I think it will be interesting to our viewers.

When the reporters ask their questions -- and there will be an American reporter followed by a British reporter, and they will be going back and forth between both sides -- we're going to put up on the screen what the question actually was, so that we can pay attention...


BLITZER: ... and see if either leader really answers the question that was asked, sort of a spur to make sure they don't try to dodge it. That's a pretty good idea.


ZAHN: As you know, since we have covered these for so many years, it's such an excellent opportunity to say whatever you want to say and get so far off message.


ROBERTS: Are you going to have a monitor in front of Bush and Blair, so...


BLITZER: They're not going to necessarily do that.


BLITZER: But you see the leaders walking in right now. And we assume they will open up with opening statements, the president first.