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The Situation Room

Democrats Draw New Line on Iraq; U.S. Opens Door to Direct Talks with Iran and Syria; Interview with John Bolton

Aired March 08, 2007 - 16:00   ET


SUZANNE MALVEAUX, HOST: Happening now, Democrats draw a new line in the sand on Iraq. House leaders unveil the first bill that would set a specific date for bringing home U.S. troops.
But can it pass muster with the left-wing of the Democratic Party, let alone the rest of Congress?

Also this hour, the U.S. opens a new door to direct talks with Iran and Syria.

Could a conference in Baghdad this weekend lead a diplomatic breakthrough or a debacle?

I'll ask the former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton.

And Senator Chuck Hagel's presidential hopes -- the anti-Iraq War Republican may jump into the race next week.

Could he sink or swim?

Wolf Blitzer is off today.

I'm Suzanne Malveaux and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

First this hour, Democrats in the House and Senate throw down the gauntlet on Iraq. They're directly challenging the president by proposing new deadlines to withdraw U.S. troops. A short while ago, Senate Democratic leaders unveiled a resolution to begin a phased redeployment from Iraq no later than 120 days after the measure is enacted. We'll have a live report on the dramatic new turns in the Senate in just a moment.

House Democrats set a more defiant tone on Iraq earlier in the day. Speaker Nancy Pelosi unveiled a bill that would require a pullout of all combat troops by the fall of 2008. But the deadline would be moved up if the Iraqi government does not meet goals for improving security.


REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: By July of 2007, if progress is not demonstrated, if the president cannot certify that progress is made, we begin the redeployment of our troops out of a combat role in Iraq.


REP. JOHN MURTHA (D), PENNSYLVANIA: This is a bill that protects the troops. This is a bill that helps with readiness.


MALVEAUX: House Democratic leaders plan to attach their deadline plan to the president's emergency request for $100 billion in war funding. But some liberal House Democrats aren't satisfied with the leadership's approach.

The so-called Out of Iraq Caucus offered its own legislation today. That plan would require Congress to fund the withdraw of U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of this year.


REP. JANICE SCHAKOWSKY (D), ILLINOIS: No more chances. No more waivers. No phony certifications. No more spending billions of dollars to send our children into the meat grinder that is Iraq. It is time to spend the money to keep them safe and bring them home.


MALVEAUX: Now, to the Senate's new moves on Iraq and a vow to no longer rubber stamp the president's policy.

For that, we turn to our Congressional correspondent, Andrea Koppel -- Andrea, tell us.

There's a lot going on.

What is happening there?

ANDREA KOPPEL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, what's happening, Suzanne, is within the last couple of hours, Senate Democratic leaders have announced plans to allow as many as five new resolutions on Iraq. Two would be offered by Democrats, three by Republicans.

One of those would be offered by the Democratic leader, Harry Reid, and would set a hard deadline for all U.S. troops to be out of Iraq by March 31, 2008.


SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MAJORITY LEADER: I'm indicating a joint resolution calling for the president to change course and bring stability to Iraq by beginning a phased redeployment of U.S. forces from Iraq no later than 120 days from enactment of the resolution, with the goal of redeploying combat forces from Iraq by the end of March of next year.


KOPPEL: Now, it's unclear what the level of support would be on the side of Republicans. In fact, Suzanne, they're supposed to be holding a press conference this hour, Senate resolutions as well as House Republicans, to express their strong opposition to anything that leaves the impression of tying the hands of commanders on the ground -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Well, in light of that fact, Andrea, do they think that this is going to pass? Are they confident about that?

KOPPEL: Well, if you're talking about the resolution that Harry Reid just laid out there, they are not confident necess -- that this would necessarily pass. I mean, you consider that it would have to meet the threshold of 67 votes in favor in order to overruled a presidential veto, which we would likely expect from President Bush.

I think the likelihood of it passing is not very high.

MALVEAUX: Andrea Koppel, thanks so much.

Keeping us up to date on all those details.


And top Republicans are accusing Democrats of slowly choking off resources for the troops and tying their hands.


REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), MINORITY LEADER: Unfortunately, the Democrats' latest plan is -- is a twist on an old adage -- failure at any cost. Democrats are using the critical troop funding bill to micromanage the war on terror.


MALVEAUX: This hour, President Bush is threatening to veto any deadline for withdrawal.

Mr. Bush is on his way to Brazil, the first top on his week-long tour of Latin America.

Of course, our White House correspondent, Ed Henry, in Sao Paolo, Brazil -- Ed, this is really incredible developments that have happened here.

And you've been talking to a lot of officials about this. Clearly, it's upset the White House.


In fact, the White House was so eager to jump on this story, they didn't even wait until the president landed here in Brazil to issue this very rare veto threat. It was issued by White House Counselor Dan Bartlett. He did it aboard Air Force One, telling reporters: "Obviously, the administration would vehemently oppose and ultimately veto any legislation that looked like what was described today by House Democrats."

Now, the president's main beef is the idea of setting this, what the White House calls, an arbitrary timetable for withdrawal of U.S. troops. The House Democrats saying they want to do that by August of 2008 or sooner, if the Iraqi government does not meet certain benchmarks.

Now, the back story here, quite interesting. It seems odd that the White House would be stepping on their message. They want to talk about Latin America. The president eager to come here amid a lot of criticism and insist to people in Latin America that the U.S. wants to help with economic development. That -- it's -- this whole Iraq story seems to be stepping on that message.

But the bottom line is the White House saw a political opportunity here. The Democrats have been divided, as you know, in recent weeks, or come up with some sort of a plan here. The White House thinks they're vulnerable on this, so they jumped all over it -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: And, Ed, certainly it could be an embarrassment for the White House, as well, having their message overshadowed like that when they want to talk about trade and economic issues.

HENRY: Absolutely.

And I'm sure that's why they want to try to carefully calibrate this message. But they certainly couldn't ignore it.

The fact of the matter is the Democrats, usually this kind of criticism of a president doesn't happen when he's overseas. So the fact that that Democrats came up with this plan and did it as the president was heading to Brazil, the White House felt that they had to push back on it from a substantive standpoint.

But make no mistake about it, there is also political ramifications here.

But you're right, it's a very careful balancing act for the White House, because if they go too far out on a rock, where the president is very unpopular right now, they will step on that economic message they want to deliver during this seven day trip -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Thanks, much, Ed.

And we'll see you at the top of the next hour.

And on Capitol Hill today, Democrats are trying to present a defiant and united front against President Bush on Iraq.

But are they succeeding?

Here's our senior political analyst, Bill Schneider -- Bill.

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Suzanne, are Congressional Democrats united or divided over Iraq? The answer is yes.


SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Democrats in Congress are virtually united in opposition to President Bush's Iraq policy.

REP. STEVE KAGEN (D), WISCONSIN: What we do agree about is that this is President Bush's war and there's been a failure of leadership, not just at home with Katrina or at Walter Reed, but overseas in Iraq. That's why we got elected.

SCHNEIDER: But they're having trouble coming together on what they should do about it.

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN (I), CONNECTICUT: I see that Democrats are having trouble, those who oppose the war, in agreeing on some tactic to try to stop it.

SCHNEIDER: Democrats are trying to walk a fine line.

KAGEN: We have to support our troops, but not this policy.

SCHNEIDER: Democratic leaders have come up with their answer -- a time line.

PELOSI: If all the benchmarks are met, our troops are out no later than August of 2008.

SCHNEIDER: Can the plan unite Democrats around the country?

Thirty percent of the Democrats want to withdraw all U.S. troops immediately. Twenty-three percent want the U.S. to stay as many years as needed or send more troops. In the middle, 46 percent, who favor withdrawing U.S. troops within a year, more or less what the Democratic leaders are proposing.

To build a majority, the leaders have to find support from Democrats on either side. That's what freshman Democrat Patrick Murphy, the only Iraq War veteran in Congress, is doing.

REP. PATRICK MURPHY (D), PENNSYLVANIA: Every single day, I'm talking to my colleagues and having this kind of conversation, both saying listen, I know before you may have been nervous about a time line, but let me tell you what a time line will do. Let me tell you how timelines operate in the military and why it's important for us.


SCHNEIDER: President Bush says he will veto any plan that calls for an early withdrawal of forces. Democrats don't have enough votes to overruled a veto. A Democratic plan will, however, define the battle lines for next year's election -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: And, Bill, it seems those Democrats are finding it's pretty tough to be part of the majority now. SCHNEIDER: Well, yes, it's always tough. But on this issue, in principle, Democrats are pretty united. They just have to agree on the specific tactic they're going to call for.


Thank you very much, Bill.

Appreciate it.

And time now for The Cafferty File.

Jack Cafferty joins us from New York.

It's our first time together -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Are you being punished for something you did wrong, Suzanne?

MALVEAUX: Who did I anger?

I don't know.

CAFFERTY: I don't know. You're in trouble, though.

Nice to have you with us.


CAFFERTY: Some pregnant girls younger than 16 years old could be considered crime victims according to a proposal that's in front of the Florida legislature. The goal of this bill is to crack down on underage sexual abuse.

Doctors who perform abortions on such girls would have to collect a DNA sample from the fetus and send it to law enforcement officials. And doctors and nurses would have to report such pregnancies to the police within 24 hours or risk losing their license.

Their reports would lead to a criminal investigation to find out if the girl was the victim of a crime, like statutory rape.

But where exactly does it leave the teenaged girl, who may need medical care but would be afraid to get it for fear that her boyfriend could wind up in jail?

Critics say that pregnant teens will be less likely to go for medical care or counseling. Some call this proposal dangerous for the health and safety of young women.

So here's the question -- should pregnant girls younger than 16 be considered crime victims?

E-mail your thoughts on that to or go to -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: That wasn't so bad, Jack, huh?

CAFFERTY: It was great. It was as much fun as doing that Broken Government special with you back two or three months ago.

MALVEAUX: That was fun.

CAFFERTY: It was fun.

MALVEAUX: Thanks, Jack Cafferty.

And, of course, coming up, another day and another story spotlighting Barack Obama.

Why the sudden increase in scrutiny? Is the honeymoon over for this presidential hopeful?

Plus, new numbers along the road to 2008. We'll break down two new polls to find out who's up and who's down.

And he broke with the president over North Korea.

But does John Bolton see eye to eye with the White House over Iran and Syria?

The former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. joins me live here in THE SITUATION ROOM.


MALVEAUX: Anticipation is building for Senator Chuck Hagel's big announcement next week. There are now signs that the Nebraska Republican will run for the White House.

Senator Joe Lieberman calls the prospect of a Hagel campaign fascinating.

Well, how might Hagel and the anti-Iraq War stance change the race?

Well, here's our Congressional correspondent, Dana Bash -- a lot going on that you've been following today, amazing developments.

DANA BASH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Amazing developments, indeed. And with -- like anything here in Congress, there's always an eye on 2008. And with respect to Chuck Hagel, we've talked to people who know him very well, from Washington to his home state of Nebraska. Almost nobody knows whether he's going to run. In fact, I'/m told that the people who actually do know you can count on one hand.

Is it really, no doubt, a strategy designed to build suspense, to create some buzz. And no doubt also to get people


BASH (voice-over): In the crowded 2008 Republican field, what would Senator Chuck Hagel's chances be? One recent poll suggests not so good.

An "L.A. Times" survey last month of Republican National Committee members, state GOP activists, showed him tied for last place with only 1 percent support. And there was another warning sign. RNC members had, by far, the most unfavorable view of Chuck Hagel than anyone GOP presidential candidate -- 47 percent unfavorable.

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL (R), NEBRASKA: After almost four years of a rather significant presence in Iraq and many, many American casualties and hundreds of billions of dollars spent, things are getting worse, not better.

BASH: It may be Hagel's unrelenting opposition to the president's war plan that turns some loyal Republicans off. But a GOP strategist who twice helped elect George W. Bush president says 2008 is different. Opposition to Iraq is growing even among Republicans.

MATTHEW DOWD, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: About a third or more of people that are going to veto in the Republican primary who disapprove of the president on the war and are against the war. And so there is definitely a place, from a political perspective, for a candidate like Chuck Hagel to run from. Everybody else in the main camps that have run have been supportive of the president on the war.

BASH: And if nothing else, the decorated Vietnam War veteran could shake up the race by putting other Republican candidates on the spot about Iraq, like he does in the Senate.

HAGEL: And I want every one of you, every one of us, 100 percent of us, to look in that camera and you tell your people back home what you think.

Why are you elected?

If you wanted a safe job, go sell shoes.


BASH: And Chuck Hagel has no organization in the early contest states, where several -- many of the others running for president are already building vast support. It is very unclear whether or not he can raise the money -- tens of millions -- needed in order to mount a credible campaign. Those are both negatives.

But in an environment that is so sour politically, this might -- might be the kind of year where Chuck Hagel could mount the kind of campaign that could make a difference. And that's if -- if he runs -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: And how is Chuck Hagel perceived back home in his home state of Nebraska?

BASH: You know, that's been an interesting thing that it's sort of uncovered in talking to people over the past 24 hours back home. And it is kind of a micro -- because Nebraska is so Republican, it is kind of a microcosm of what the Republican primaries and early contests could be.

It certainly is -- is mixed. There are, apparently -- and it's anecdotal -- a lot of Republicans who are not happy with what they hear from him in terms of his vehement and out, you know, vocal opposition to the war and to the president's plan there.

But at the same time, some people say, you know what?

He's somebody we -- there's a reason why we sent him to Washington, because he's refreshing, because he speaks his mind.

MALVEAUX: Well, Dana, you were the first to bring us news about the announcement. I'm sure you'll be the first to tell us what he decides. So thank you very much.

BASH: No pressure.

MALVEAUX: No pressure.

BASH: Thank you.

MALVEAUX: Dana Bash.

And, as you saw minutes ago, Bill Schneider, Andrea Koppel, Ed Henry -- part of the best political team on television.

And remember, for the latest political news at any time, check out the Political Ticker at

And next, an evolving U.S. response to Iran's defiance.

Is the Bush administration ready to talk directly with the leaders in Tehran?

We'll tell you about the new developments at the State Department.

And her cover as a CIA agent was blown in a leak scandal that rocked Washington.

Is Valerie Plame Wilson ready to go public with her story?



MALVEAUX: And our Carol Costello is monitoring the wires and keeping an eye on the video feeds from around the world.

She joins us now from New York with a closer look at other stories that are making news.

What is the latest -- Carol.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I've got it right here, Suzanne. A week from tomorrow, outed CIA operative Valeria Plame is -- Valerie Plame Wilson, I should say -- is expected to testify before the House Oversight Committee. The committee will examine whether or not White House officials followed proper procedures to safeguard her identity. The committee has also invited Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald to testify.

The new chief of coalition forces in Iraq is thinking ahead about troop numbers and civilian safety. General David Petraeus says he's contemplating how long operations in Iraq can go after the troop surge is complete. At a briefing today, Petraeus said protecting Iraqis is the top priority of the security crackdown in that volatile country. All additional U.S. and Iraqi troops are expected to be in place by early June.

Nine people, eight of them children, are dead. Eight more people, including five children, fighting for their lives. All are victims of a fast moving fire that erupted in a house in the Bronx early this morning. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg says investigators believe the fire was triggered by a space heater or an overloaded power strip. He says the fire was New York's worst, excluding 9/11, in 17 years.

A warning today from a former CIA chief about oil. James Woolsey told a conference in lasv that U.S. dependence on fossil fuel contributes to global warming and helps to fund global terrorism. Woolsey says millions of dollars funneled to the oil rich Middle East finds its way to terrorist organizations in the region. He's calling for greater reliance on renewable energy sources. Woolsey led the CIA during the Clinton administration.

That's a look at the headlines right now -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Always keeping us posted.

Thanks, Carol Costello.

And up next, Senator Barack Obama pays his dues, so to speak, two -- nearly two decades late, actually. The story and a presidential candidate under red hot scrutiny ahead.

And the former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton -- he's shown a willingness to criticize the president's policy.

What does he think about the prospect of direct talks with Iran?

I'll ask him next here in THE SITUATION ROOM.


MALVEAUX: Happening now, Senate Democrats unveil a resolution for a phased redeployment from Iraq no more than 120 days after it's passed.

Meanwhile, House Democrats announce two plans -- one, pushed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, would bring combat troops back by late 2008; even sooner if the Iraqi government does not meet goals for improving security.

Also, could Israel eventually wind up attacking Iran over its nuclear program?

I'll speak with former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

And now that his former chief of staff has been convicted and his close ally, Donald Rumsfeld, has been ousted, might Vice President Cheney's influence in the White House be waning?

Wolf Blitzer is off today.

I'm Suzanne Malveaux and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Little by little, the Bush administration has been backing off from its refusal to hold direct talks with Iran. Just days before a regional conference in Iraq, the U.S. State Department appears to be opening the door to talks even a bit wider.

Here's our State Department correspondent, Zain Verjee -- Zain.

ZAIN VERJEE, CNN STATE DEPARTMENT CORRESPONDENT: Suzanne, after months of playing hard to get, the U.S. is showing it's in the mood.


VERJEE (voice-over): It may be coy, just a wink. But the U.S. is flirting with Iran and Syria.

The idea -- talk one-on-one, but only about Iraq.

Special adviser to Iraq, David Satterfield, heads to a conference this weekend on how to fix Iraq. Iraq's neighbors, including Iran and Syria, will be there. Satterfield says: "If we are approached over orange juice by the Syrians or the Iranians to discuss an Iraqi related issue, we are not going to walk away."

U.S. officials tell CNN the offer to talk is on the table and so far Iran isn't showing interest.

The U.S. accuses Iran of arming the Iraqi militias and insurgents with deadly explosives which kill U.S. forces. And the American military has detained Iranian operatives in Iraq.

U.S. officials say a regional conference will put Iran's activities in the spotlight.

SEAN MCCORMACK, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN: And that certainly is positive. It certainly has a different -- I would argue -- a different dynamic than the Iranians being able to operate in the shadows.

VERJEE: Iranian officials say they helped the U.S. in Afghanistan in 2001, but later got burned when President Bush stuck them in the axis of evil. AFSHIN MOLAVI, NEW AMERICA FOUNDATION: They're going to come into these talks with heavy doses of caution. But I think there is a certain amount of hope that these talks will expand beyond the limited issue of Iraq.


VERJEE: There's a higher level meeting planned for next month. It's unclear exactly where it will be held, Suzanne.

But the State Department spokesman, Sean McCormack said if Secretary Rice herself had a chance to talk directly to Iran or Syria, even she wouldn't walk away -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Well, thanks, Zain.

Of course, things moving slowly but changing.

And should the U.S. finally agree to talk with Iran?

Well, we are joined now by the former U.S. ambassador to the United States -- John Bolton.

Thank you so much for joining us here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

You look at Zain's piece. You see what'/s happening here. This really must pain you, I mean to hear about the axis of evil -- Iran, Iraq, North Korea -- already the U.S. is National Guard with North Korea and now, potentially, talking to Iran.

You said it would weaken our country if we talked to North Korea.

What does this do?

JOHN BOLTON, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO U.N. AMERICAN ENTERPRISE INSTITUTE: Well, I think there's a little bit of overblowing what's happening with respect to this conference on Iraq.

I think it was intended as the analog to the Bonn conferences on Afghanistan, to help promote economic stability and growth in Iraq. Obviously, to do that, you have to have all the regional players present.

I think that's very different from a broader decision to talk to Iran before Iran gives up its support for terrorism and stops its pursuit of nuclear weapons. I don't think that's where the administration is yet. If it gets there, I'll be critical of it. But I don't think it's fair to say that's where they are.

MALVEAUX: What needs to happen in order to get to that place?

I mean, obviously, it's a dangerous situation, but there's a lot of debate over whether or not they -- just how far along they've gotten in their weapons program.

BOLTON: Well, I think it's clear Iran made a strategic decision some time ago to acquire nuclear-weapons capability. How close they are is a matter of some debate.

But I don't take any comfort from that lack of knowledge, because intelligence can be wrong in two directions, too optimistic or too pessimistic. So, I think the focus ought to be not on talking to Iran, but on stopping them from getting nuclear weapons, because they are not going to give up that pursuit voluntarily.

MALVEAUX: But, in a way, isn't this rewarding bad behavior? I mean, obviously, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been very defiant. He has not offered, in any way, to let go of that program.

And he has been really saying: Look, you know, I -- we're going to move forward and do what -- what we need to do in this region.

And he's gained, quite frankly, quite a bit of influence as well.

BOLTON: Well, that's one reason I think that the three-plus years we have spent allowing the Europeans to try to negotiate the Iranians out of their nuclear weapons program has been a mistake, because the Iranians have boasted about the fact they have used these three years of negotiations to perfect many of the technical aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle that they need to accomplish.

So, time is not on our side. And the delay caused by these negotiations has put the Iranians in a much stronger position.

MALVEAUX: Now, let's say just kind of a hypothetical here. If you were going to Baghdad for this conference as our -- as our U.S. envoy, as you have many times before, and the Iranian representative came up to you, would you -- would you talk with him? Would you sit down, and if he -- if he made that kind of offer?


I -- I think there's no difficulty with that sort of thing. The -- the issue is -- for the United States, is always whether, on a cost-benefit basis, it makes more sense to talk than not to.

To talk to the Iranians about their nuclear weapons program legitimizes what they are up to. If there's a model to follow here, it's the Libyan model, where he talked to Gadhafi in private, and where they opened up to the CIA before there was any agreement about what they were going to do with their nuclear program.

Iran and North Korea both have shown no sign, none, of having made a strategic decision to give up the pursuit of nuclear weapons. And, on that basis, I don't see any reason to talk to them.

MALVEAUX: The folks that I talk to at the White House, though, they -- they don't look at the Libya model. They look at North Korean model and say, look, if we squeeze them economically, freeze their assets -- obviously, North Korea has come to the negotiating table -- that that, in some way, will be effective with Iran as well, because what they are seeing is the Iranian elite and some of the students who are turning against Ahmadinejad, saying, look, this isn't worth it. BOLTON: Well, first, in the case of North Korea, it is true that our pressure brought North Korea to the table, which shows why it's a mistake to give that pressure up. We had them where we have wanted them. We have let them out of the corner.

In Iran, there may well be a power struggle going on among the various competing factions of the current ruling clique. But there's zero evidence that I'm aware of that there's any disagreement within that ruling clique about the pursuit of nuclear weapons. They can disagree about Sharia law all they want, but, in the question of nuclear weapons, I haven't seen any disagreement.

MALVEAUX: Let's talk about South America. The president is there visiting several countries. And, while he talks about its trade and economics, clearly, it looks like, from the countries he's visiting, he's trying to counter the influence of Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan leader, who has gained a lot of influence there.

Is it too little -- too little too late at this point?

BOLTON: No, I don't think so.

But I think every American president in recent memory has come into office saying, we need to pay more attention to Latin America. And because of the press of business elsewhere in the world, they have all been frustrated.

That doesn't mean, however, that it's important that this trip succeed. I don't think it has to be overtly about Chavez. But he has oil revenues. He has the potential to cause a lot more trouble even than Fidel Castro did during his heyday.

MALVEAUX: So, what can the president do?


BOLTON: Well, I think we lost an opportunity in the 1990s, when Latin America was open to greater economic integration with the United States, greater openness than in the century before that.

I think we can get that back, even given the nature of many of the governments in Latin America. I think we have a lot in common. Free trade would benefit everybody in this hemisphere. I think that's an objective worth pursuing.

MALVEAUX: Want to talk about Cheney a little bit. Of course, the vice president, he's been in the news quite a bit -- and "TIME" magazine, on their cover, talking about -- questioning whether or not his influence is waning inside of the White House.

I have talked to people who seem to agree with that assessment. Do you -- do you think, in some ways, it's a repudiation of your own policy, the fact that the two of you were really very, very close and share the same ideology?

BOLTON: Can I make a general point about the media? I think, too often, you seize on small upticks or downticks in a particular situation, and try and draw broad conclusions from it. I think there's a lot of that going on with respect to the vice president.

He has always kept his conversations with the private entirely to himself. And he's participated in interagency debates. And the nature of things in Washington is, you win some and you lose some. And I don't think you can draw a -- I don't think you can project a line out for the rest of the administration based on a few decisions here or there. That's my personal opinion.

MALVEAUX: Final -- final question of your personal opinion, of course.

The president, the White House, has been very loyal to you. He -- you didn't -- you weren't able to get a confirmation through the Senate process. It was a recess appointment. Cheney, the president were willing to go even further.

Why now? Why speak so publicly in criticizing the administration?

BOLTON: Well, the president has been very loyal to me. And I don't -- I don't criticize the change in policy lightly. I -- I criticize it precisely because I do think it's a deviation from the very successful principles that the president used in his first term, and that he campaigned on.

That's why I'm hoping that, in the case of North Korea, they will come through, as they always do, and violate this agreement. I have faith in the North Koreans. And that will give the president a chance to repudiate the agreement.

MALVEAUX: Mr. Ambassador, I'm sorry. We have run out of time. But thank you so much for joining us here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

And, of course, coming up: He's becoming the darling of the Democrats' dance to the White House. But a few weeks into his run, Senator Barack Obama has become -- has come under the microscope. Is he ready for the spotlight's heat? A live report with Mary Snow is coming up.

And Senator John McCain has come up with a novel approach to raise money online. Our Jacki Schechner has an I-Team report.

That's next, here in THE SITUATION ROOM.


MALVEAUX: New numbers out today in the race for the White House -- Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are virtually tied in a new poll by American Research Group. Clinton is up by 3 percentage points, but that's within the margin of error. Former Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards is in third place, at 15 percent. Clinton has a larger lead in a new NBC/"Wall Street Journal" poll. She leads Obama by 12 points, with Edwards in third place. It's a similar story on the Republican side. Former New -- New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani tops Senator John McCain by just four points in that same ARG poll, which is within the margin of error. Giuliani has a larger lead in the NBC/"Wall Street Journal" poll, 14 points over McCain. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney round out the top four in both polls.

Senator John McCain -- Senator John McCain heads to Rudy Giuliani's home turf of New York City tonight for a sold-out $2,100-a- plate event with supporters. The presidential candidate will also take questions from the audience.

But for McCain supporters who can't make it to New York, they can buy an e-ticket to participate online.

Our Internet reporter, Jacki Schechner, has that story -- Jacki.


We have already seen '08 presidential hopefuls use the Internet and Web chats, like Hillary Clinton, to reach out to voters. But, tonight, Senator John McCain is using this online Web cast to actually raise money. He's calling it, on his Web site, a cyber-exchange of ideas. It's an actual fund-raiser in person, obviously. And, for $100, you get an e-ticket. You can participate online. You can participate in the live coverage and ask questions.

Now, the campaign said they don't know how many questions they are going to be able to take from online. It's going to depend on how many questions come the people who are actually in the room and how many questions come via the Web.

Now, Senator John McCain has actually done something like this before. More than seven years ago, in February of 2000, he did an online Webcast. And it was $100 to participate. He raised $50,000 in that. And it's important to note that, if you are going to donate money online, that e-ticket for $100 is still subject to FEC regulation.

Now, the McCain campaign says they are going to do these free online town hall events in the future, but this one tonight is particularly billed as a fund-raiser -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Thanks very much, Jacki.

And, of course, there is new evidence of the fish bowl that Senator Barack Obama is living in, now that he's a top-tier presidential candidate. A new report reveals, the Illinois Democrat finally settled up on unpaid parking tickets from his college days shortly before launching his White House campaign.

Our Mary Snow has more on Obama under the microscope -- Mary.

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Suzanne, those parking tickets are just a sign that not many stones will be left unturned in the presidential race, as Senator Barack Obama gets put to the test.


SNOW (voice-over): Is the honeymoon over between Democratic presidential hopeful Senator Barack Obama and members of the press, you remember, those that kept referring to him as a political rock star?

ANITA DUNN, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: I would say, honeymoon ending, campaign beginning.

SNOW: Case in point, you probably didn't know that, while he was a student at Harvard Law School, Obama had some unpaid parking tickets, dating back to 1998. A couple of weeks before announcing his run for president, he paid off the $375 he owed.

It's not something that's going to bring down his campaign, but it points to the intense level of scrutiny Obama now faces.

HOWARD KURTZ, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Barack Obama had been getting the most glorious press coverage perhaps in the history of the republic. I mean, the press just acted like this guy walked on water. And it was inevitable that, once the investigative reporters started digging around, that he would get a little bit wet.

SNOW: On Wednesday, Obama came to face questions about two stock investments he made in 2005.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: At no point did I know what stocks were held.

SNOW: Earlier in the week, his campaign found itself explaining why Obama disinvited his pastor to his official presidential announcement in February.

Still, headlines like "Obama Mania" show the Illinois senator is far from being an embattled candidate. But the level of scrutiny is expected to only increase. Some political strategists say Obama could use it to his advantage.

DUNN: You get put up high on a pedestal, people are going to want to take you down. How he responds to that is going to be very telling, in terms of how successful he is as a candidate.


SNOW: And it's not that the Obama camp wasn't expecting the scrutiny. A spokesman told me today, when you are running for president, it's only fair to raise questions.

And he added that, so far, Senator Obama has taken every question head on -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Those parking tickets get you every time, huh, Mary Snow?


SNOW: Always have to watch out for those.

MALVEAUX: I know. I know.

Thank you very much.

And up next in the "Strategy Session": Do Democrats finally have their act together on their plan to rein in the president's Iraq war strategy?

And Senator Chuck Hagel, he is flirting with a White House run. Or is he? But will the anti-war Republican find any support within his party?

Paul Begala and J.C. Watts are next here in THE SITUATION ROOM.


SNOW: Capitol Hill Democrats are lining up their Iraq withdrawal plans, of course. But can they pull off a pullout, of course? A longtime Republican opponent of the war in Iraq is poised to throw his hat into the presidential ring. How does Senator Chuck Hagel stack up against the competition?

Joining me for today's "Strategy Session," our Democratic strategist Paul Begala and Republican strategist J.C. Watts.

Nice to have you both.

I first want to talk about what's happening on the Hill. Absolutely amazing. The president overseas, but here you have got this legislation that's on the table -- the Republicans already blasting it.

Let's take a listen.


REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: By July of 2007, if progress is not demonstrated, if the president cannot certify that progress is made, we begin the redeployment of our troops out of a combat role in Iraq.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), HOUSE MINORITY LEADER: General Petraeus should be making the military decisions on the ground in Iraq, not Nancy Pelosi or John Murtha.


MALVEAUX: So, Paul, I have to start off with you, because this seems to me like an academic exercise. If the -- the president has already threatened to veto this. We don't know if they have the votes to override a veto. So, why bother? Why go through this?

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Because it matters. Because lives are at stake.

I think you are probably right. It's unlikely the Democrats will be able to martial enough Republicans to override a Bush veto on this. And, yet, it still matters. The -- the country...


BEGALA: Because the country believes our president is off on the wrong course, and he needs an intervention, you know, like someone you love who is doing something that this is self-destructive.

Well, this is destructive to our whole country. So, the Democrats are trying, in a responsible way. They are not cutting off the funding, which is a blunt instrument that -- that Democrats are -- are opposed to. But they are trying to show him that there's a better course.

And I think it's a smart thing. I think it's the right policy. And, therefore, it's good politics.

MALVEAUX: J.C., is this any more than symbolism?

J.C. WATTS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, Suzanne, I -- I wish that it wasn't.

But it's this plan. It was -- it was this tactic by the Democrats. It was another tactic. It was another tactic. Since the election, they have been trying to find their groove, and trying to come up with something that would -- that would, you know, get in the way of the president trying to win this war in Iraq.

And I don't -- I don't think they will get the votes. I think anything short of saying, we want victory because we understand there's terrible consequences if we don't win in Iraq, and I never -- I have yet to see anything that details them having that position.

MALVEAUX: But, J.C., obviously, a lot of Americans are getting pretty -- pretty fed up, impatient, with all this. At least she put a deadline. She said, July, let's try to get some of these troops out of here.

At what point do the Republicans also get frustrated and say, look, you know, mass exodus here; we're going to sign on with the Democrats, because we're tired of this, and we need a timetable; we need a benchmark here?

WATTS: Well, I -- I do think you need benchmarks. And I think it's important that we have benchmarks. And I think the president's last strategy, to say, let's surge the troops, which John McCain and -- and, you know, General Powell, others said at the outset, that we needed more troops. General Shinseki, secretary of the Army -- I mean, chief of staff of the Army -- said it three years ago: We need more troops.

I think that is the strategy, trying to make it work, to say, let's go in. Let's put more troops on the border, Iran, Syria. Keep the terrorists out. Circle Baghdad. Keep the terrorists out of Baghdad, have the Iraqi troops go in and knock on the doors. And then nobody is off-limits. We go after the bad guys.


WATTS: That is a new strategy. Let that strategy work.

MALVEAUX: I don't know. It sounds like a dodge to me, Paul, because we're talking about a date, a deadline here.

BEGALA: Right.

MALVEAUX: I mean, you know, at what point can the two sides come together and say, this is a reasonable timetable?

WATTS: If it's -- if it's a deadline, why wouldn't the terrorists just say, OK, Watts, if you are going to pull out on January 19, we will just wait until January 20, and we will do our thing?

I think there will be troops coming out of Iraq, if we can get it stabilized, which is what General Petraeus and the troop surge, that new strategy is what it's all about.


WATTS: So, I think we will see troops come out.

MALVEAUX: You know, Paul, at least J.C. seems to have a plan and a party that's behind one plan. We see the Democrats all over the place.

Let's take a listen to Maxine Waters, Congresswoman Waters.


REP. MAXINE WATERS (D), CALIFORNIA: We are not simply saying to our leadership: We want to get out. We want to withdraw now, tomorrow, in the next week or so.

We are reasonable, intelligent legislators elected by the people to make good decisions. And those people who try to paint us as folks who simply want to get out and leave our troops exposed is incorrect.


MALVEAUX: So, how do you bring the sides together, Paul?

BEGALA: Actually, I think the Democrats are much more united than the Republicans.

You will find -- you watch -- more Democrats will support the consensus Democratic position in both the House and the Senate than Republicans will support the Bush position of stay the course in the House and the Senate. The Democrats are more united and more in the mainstream. It's not that Democrats -- I mean, I think J.C. sort of made a mistake here when he said Democrats don't want President Bush to win the war.

No, we don't want him to lose the war, which is what he's doing. And, so, they are projecting a different kind of power that pulls us out of daily combat operations and makes the Iraqis fight for Iraq.

MALVEAUX: Now, I want to talk, real quickly, here about the potential, the possibility of Senator Chuck Hagel jumping into the race.

Who is most vulnerable, the Republican, if he does that?

WATTS: Oh, good question, Suzanne.

I -- I -- I think, for the most part, that the race has probably been established. I think the front-runners have been established. I think John McCain, Mitt Romney...

MALVEAUX: You don't think he has a chance?

WATTS: Well, I -- you know -- you know, it's almost like saying, if -- if you are going to vote -- if Republicans are going to vote for a pro-choice, pro-same-sex-marriage, pro-gun -- I mean anti-gun Republican, why not vote for Hillary Clinton?

MALVEAUX: What do you think, Paul? We have got to wrap it up.

BEGALA: I think that Chuck Hagel could do quite well.

I heard Matthew Dowd, who was one of the most brilliant strategists President Bush had, say that a third of his party is anti- Bush now, and at least a quarter of his party is anti-war. So, if Chuck Hagel gets 25 percent in Iowa, which, check my geography, but Nebraska is right next door -- Hagel's home state, Nebraska, right next door to Iowa -- he could waltz in there and get 25 percent of the vote...


BEGALA: ... and -- and change the world. Have an anti-war Republican? It would be wonderful.


BEGALA: It would be great for America.

WATTS: But, Paul, an anti-war Republican, I think, fits in with the Democrats. I don't think that he necessarily takes from those three top Republicans by being anti-war.

MALVEAUX: I'm so sorry. We have run out of time.


MALVEAUX: I'm so sorry. Thank you.

WATTS: He's a good guy, but I -- I don't think he takes from those top three candidates.

MALVEAUX: Thank you so much, J.C. Watts and Paul Begala, part of the best political team on television.

And, remember, for the latest political news at any time, check out the Political Ticker at

Still to come: "The Cafferty File." Should pregnant girls younger than 16 be considered crime victims? Jack Cafferty has your e-mails coming up.

And bring back Benjamin Netanyahu? Some Israeli voters say the time has come for the tough-talking former prime minister to make a comeback. I will ask him if he's ready. He's coming up here in THE SITUATION ROOM.


MALVEAUX: And Jack is in New York with "The Cafferty File."

Jack, what do you have?

CAFFERTY: Time flies when you are having fun, doesn't it, Suzanne?


CAFFERTY: A whole hour gone by already.

MALVEAUX: Can you believe?


CAFFERTY: Yes, I can.

They question is: Should pregnant girls younger than 16 be considered crime victims? There's a proposal addressing that very issue that is being considered in the Florida legislature.

Keith writes: "No. The obvious result of this proposed law is that pregnant teenage girls will hesitate to seek abortions, for fear their boyfriends will be prosecuted. That's not just an unfortunate side effect. It's the intended result. The legislature isn't able to ban abortion, so they are doing what they can to make it as difficult as possible."

Rosemary in Connecticut: "Are 16-year-old girls able to give legal consent? No. Then they should be treated as victims. And the fathers of their babies should take the responsibility for their actions. I think this should include legal, as well as financial responsibility."

Thomas, Johnstown, PA: "Unless the teenager reports a pregnancy resulting from sexual intercourse as a crime, it's not a crime. This has the odor of the religious right."

Brian in Florida: "Having lived in Florida for some time now, I feel it's safe to say that what this law about pregnant teenage girls is intended to do is criminalize abortion, or at least to treat these girls as criminals. If they had gotten pregnant as a result of non- consensual sex, there are already plenty of mechanisms in place to -- to make a complaint to law enforcement. This proposed law is simply a way to frighten teenagers out of having abortions, thus forcing them to carry unwanted children to term."

Anonymous, Bradenton, Florida: "As a 45-year-old resident, I'm a victim of sexual abuse and incest, and I truly believe a law of this nature would drastically reduce the incidence of this horrific and devastating crime. This state seems to have a higher number of sexual crimes against minors. It's no joke. I know."

And Alex in Madison, Wisconsin: "No, they shouldn't be considered crime victims. They should be considered stupid. With all the birth- control information available on the Internet, TV, magazines, and pamphlets, there's no excuse for getting pregnant at that age" -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Jack, thanks so much.