Return to Transcripts main page

The Situation Room

NTSB Briefing; President Obama Heads West to Sign Stimulus Bill; Bill Clinton on Wife's Role

Aired February 16, 2009 - 16:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, President Obama charting a new course in his plan to try to fix the economy. He's set to head out west to offer help to homeowners and to take a victory lap of sorts on the stimulus package.

Also this hour, the president's helicopter dilemma. Should he be spending billions to upgrade the fleet of Marine One choppers during these tough economic times?

And Bill Clinton says he's no househusband. The former president talks to CNN about his wife, her first overseas trip as secretary of state, and whether she might be elbowed out of some big foreign policy decisions.

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

But let's go right now to that news conference. The NTSB briefing us on what happened in that plane crash in Buffalo.


STEVE CHEALANDER, NTSB: ... gratitude to all the agencies who have worked so hard, and in such a professional way during our time of grief. The respect you have given to us, our families, and especially the respect and dignity you are giving to our loved ones who were aboard Continental Flight 3407 is valued and appreciated by all of us.

I would like to go through some final notes. And I say final notes. This will be my final press briefing with you. My stay here will end tonight -- actually tomorrow. I'm flying out -- back to Washington, and so I'll give you my final notes.

We will then go over the process from here as far as press contact and so forth. Keith Holloway, public affairs from the National Transportation Safety Board, will come up following me and give you an idea of phone numbers and so forth, and how we get the information to you as quickly as we can.

We had a progress meeting last night at 6:30. It was about a two-hour meeting, and all the group chairmen came in and briefed their different areas of expertise. And that's a lot of these notes that I'm going to read. And there's a lot of bullets and new information, but not a lot of new, earth-shaking information, but it's all factual, objective information gained from the scene.

We've received the flight release, which is the flight plan that the flight crew had before they departed. It's a 30-page document that the flight crew had which had notes and weather information and all that for their flight. So we have that in, and that's being analyzed as we speak.

Several people have asked me about ice on the tail and tail issues. And one of the investigators told me today -- I was talking to him about it to try to get an idea of that, and they said if there's ice on the wings, there's ice on the tail.

Now, the significance of that is still to be determined, but I wanted to answer that because somebody asked me, did we know if there was ice on the tail? And so my statement is, if there's ice on the wing, there's ice on the tail. And that comes from one of the investigators at the NTSB.

The Dash 8 is -- this Dash 8 Q400 is not susceptible to tail stall, to kind of answer a question that came from last night. That's a generalized statement, but that comes from Bombardier and a lot of engineering data, that it's not susceptible to tail stall.

A little more on the information on the captain and the first officer.

The captain was from Tampa, Florida, and had commuted in to Newark, which was their crew base. And the first officer was from Seattle, Washington, and had commuted in and was flying out of Newark her crew base.

At the scene, the aircraft itself has been about 50 percent evacuated from the crash site. We're putting it in bins and on trailers and getting it prepared to move to other locations.

The orientation of the main wreckage, I've been saying northeast. The FBI has given us some documentation on that -- 070 degrees magnetic is the heading that the airplane lay.

The goal is to have everything off the site by Wednesday afternoon. I had mentioned the snowstorm that's coming into the Buffalo area, so it is our goal to have the accident site cleaned up, and then in the progress of moving it to the location still yet to be determined.

The report of icing by the flight crew that they got as they checked in, you know, on ATC frequencies was that icing existed between 4,000 feet and 2,500 feet MSL, and that kind of goes along with what we've heard on cockpit voice recordings. We found five out of the six deicing valves, and I say that because there's been discussion before in here about how did we know whether the icing system worked. We knew it was activated, and I've got a little bit information on that because we have recovered five of six deicing valves.

We have good boots on the tail, both vertical and horizontal. We'll be able to examine those boots in the future to determine whether or not they were working.

We found, you know, the control columns and the yokes that steer the airplane. We've got all of that. It's been evacuated.

Somebody asked me the gross weight of the airplane at the time of the accident, and we've done calculations on how much fuel burn and so forth from takeoff. And the gross weight of the airplane prior to the upset was 55,000 pounds.

Oh, and before I go any further, I've got another page over here, and I'm going to cover it up if I don't cover it now.

There were questions on whether subsequent flights to 3407 came into Buffalo that night, and 27 minutes after the departure of the accident flight, another Continental Express -- or Continental connection -- Colgan Airline flight from Newark to Buffalo departed. It was 27 minutes after, and it came in, experienced the same icing conditions, 4,000 feet to 2,500 feet, moderate icing, and it made it to the destination in Buffalo.

The engines, number one and two engines, I had reported to you before that we had found four blades on one engine and six on the other. We have now found all six blades. They're all present and accounted for at the site, so they made it to the ground with the airplane.

And everything that's found thus far in the engine examination is consistent with a high-powered flight. And they look at a lot of things to how it entered the ground, how much it dug itself in, the angles of the blades. There's a lot of things that they look at. And this is all from the inspection still while on site.

I just found out not more than 10 minutes ago that they've now got the engines up and on the road, and they're doing further inspection on that. And they'll have them on the truck and ready to go out of here tomorrow.

We've talked a lot about weather and I've told you what we know so far. One of the things that we're doing, the weather investigators are preparing questionnaires and sending them to every pilot that had flown in this vicinity that night.

We want to ask them what icing they experienced, what flight conditions they experienced, and so forth. So we're putting out these questionnaires, we're putting them out to dispatchers. We're going to go out and start doing interviews of the accident dispatcher and other folks involved with this. And this is, again, a process that's going to take place over the next several weeks.

The report on weather, while we're talking about that, we have 80 percent. It was a probability of 80 percent of icing from the surface to 8,000 feet that night. And they were talking light to moderate icing in that probability.

There was one PIREP well south of here. PIREP, again, is a pilot report another airplane and what they experienced, and they relay that to air traffic control. Air traffic control then documents it and relays it back to other pilots that are going to use the airspace. And that one PIREP was located near Dunkirk, which is well south of Buffalo, and it was for severe ice. That's the only severe ice indication that we had from a PIREP.

We talked about a SIGMET and an AIRMET. What those are, a SIGMET is a significant, severe meteorological event. There was a SIGMET in effect that night, but it was for turbulence, it was not for icing.

There was an AIRMET that was -- an AIRMET is an airmen meteorological report which is a notice to airmen that tells them about moderate icing or less, and that was out. And the flight crew on 3407 did not have that information, the current information on that. They had -- I'm sorry, on the SIGMET, the turbulent SIGMET, they had Victor 6. The current one was Victor 7.

Now I say they didn't have it. What we know so far, they didn't have it. So it was not in their flight release and flight plan that I told you that they had before they left. But we still do not know what type of in-flight information they got.

There's a system on these airplanes called ACARs (ph). And what it is is data linked with the ground. And information is sent up and comes over a printer on the airplane, and you get all these types of information come up in the ACAR (ph) system.

We have not downloaded the ACAR (ph) system yet, so we don't know what information, SIGMETs, AIRMETs, all those kinds of things, that they received in the accident flight. That's still an ongoing process.

BLITZER: All right. So lots of technical information being released right now by the NTSB, the National Transportation Safety Board, at this briefing in Buffalo, but a lot of the focus of attention clearly right now on icing. Icing not only on the wings, but also on the tail.

And Zain Verjee has been looking into this part of the story for us.

Zain, it's a significant development, obviously. This plane is coming into Buffalo, and there's ice on the wings and potentially on the tail. That could be a recipe for disaster.

ZAIN VERJEE, CNN ANCHOR: Exactly, Wolf. And they're really trying to figure out what exactly the cause was.

We're trying to establish that, as we heard, but I want to show you some new pictures that are coming in now to CNN. We have not seen this video before.

This is ground video of the crash site. You can see many people are there on the scene, trying to do their jobs and gather as much information as they can. FBI workers are on the site. State troopers are there as well.

At some point, Wolf, there were pictures of roses that you can see having been left at this crash site. As you know, the plane crashed last week just outside of Buffalo, New York. Fifty people were killed. We heard in the press conference a moment ago that they're really trying to get this accident site cleaned up as soon as possible before another storm moves in.

You know, Wolf, it's really not just the wings that can be covered with ice and endanger a plane. As you pointed out, in winter weather, too, the tail is also at risk.


VERJEE (voice-over): In this test by NASA several years ago, scientists put foam on a small plane's tail shaped like ice buildup to simulate the condition.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Very, very hard to control speed and even altitude in the airplane.

VERJEE: The pilot has the flaps down like he's on approach. He's increasing power, but still can't compensate for the ice on the tail. The plane stalls.


VERJEE: Tail ice is yet one more possibility in a long list of possible causes for the Buffalo crash. The NTSB has not said that could be a cause, but reports that the plane's nose pitched up, then down. A failure in the tail, which keeps the nose pointed up, would have the opposite effect unless autopilot was already compensating.

JOHN LUCICH, COMMERCIAL PILOT: If that tail had stalled and it was on autopilot, the autopilot was correcting for that nose down. And then all of a sudden, when the wings stalled, if that autopilot kicked off like it was designed to do, then that nose would have been caused to pitch up. And according to the NTSB, it pitched up 31 degrees.

VERJEE: Investigators say it's too early to know if tail ice was an issue and the plane had on its de-icers (ph) -- rubber boots on the wings and tail that pop the ice off by inflating. But the pilot's report of some icing and the NTSB's report that the autopilot was on when the trouble broke out has also sparked a debate on whether to use autopilot in icy weather.

CHEALANDER: In icing conditions, it might be best to disengage the autopilot and fly the airplane manually so that you have the manual feel for what might be changing in your flight regime because of the ice.


VERJEE: So far, the FAA has not made that NTSB idea mandatory, and the plane's maker, Bombardier, only instruct pilots to stop using autopilot if the icing becomes severe, which at this point, Wolf, hasn't been reported in this case. And the manufacturer says that they believe that this model plane is not susceptible to tail stall at all.

And of course, Wolf, it could well be that the cause of the crash could be something else entirely. But as you know, investigators are really focusing in on icing and on the autopilot issue.

This is a new picture coming in to us right now, Wolf. This is one of the wheels of the plane that we're seeing on the ground. This is a ground video of the crash site. We saw a lot of workers here on the scene investigating. The FBI investigators are there, state troopers are there, but this is a dramatic scene, a tragic one, the wheel of that plane -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Very sad story, indeed. And this investigation is only just beginning. It's going to take months and months to determined the cause of this crash.

Zain, stand by.

Coming up, we're going to go to the White House live. That's coming up. President Obama is just back. He's about to hit the road though once again on a sales mission.

And President Obama has been criticized for some -- he's criticized high-flying executives for their corporate jets. So should the commander in chief be spending billions of dollars to upgrade his helicopter fleet? Big money, tough choices.

And the future of train transportation may lie in the stimulus package the president is about to sign tomorrow. But one project has Republicans saying you've got to be kidding.

And Bill Clinton talks to CNN about life as the secretary of state's spouse.


JOHN ROBERTS, CNN ANCHOR: Would you ever be comfortable being a househusband?

WILLIAM JEFFERSON CLINTON, FMR. PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: No, I have to go to work. I'm too much of a Calvinist. If I don't work every day, I get nervous.



BLITZER: It's not much more than a layover for President Obama at the White House right now. He has miles to go to get the economy moving again, and that means a lot more traveling and likely more criticism along the way from Republicans.

Let's go to our White House Correspondent Dan Lothian. He's got the latest for us -- Dan.

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. The president will be hitting the road again signing that stimulus bill in Colorado. Now, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office confirmed that they did send that stimulus bill over here to the White House about 12:46 p.m. this afternoon. And the White House is confirming that they have received it. So the president has said all along that he wanted to have this stimulus bill in his hand by Presidents Day, and he got it.


LOTHIAN (voice-over): This is the $787 billion stimulus plan on paper, hammered out in a contentious fight on Capitol Hill. But the president isn't planning to sign it in town. He's going to Denver on Tuesday.

ROBERT GIBBS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Denver would be as good a place as any to highlight some of the investments, to put people back to work, particularly in clean energy jobs, and to focus people on those long-term investments that will help our long-term economic growth.

LOTHIAN: A senior administration official says it's not about snubbing Washington, but about going to where families are facing hardships. At the same time, key Republicans like Senator John McCain are criticizing the administration for what they say was a lack of bipartisanship as the bill was being crafted.

Political observers say it's a wake-up call for the White House.

EMILY HEIL, ROLL CALL: I think that President Obama has realized that the really lofty goal of bipartisanship isn't necessarily achievable in the way that he thought.

LOTHIAN: A bump in the road for a president who keeps driving his economic agenda forward, announcing a task force instead of a car czar to help the struggling auto industry recover.

Aboard Air Force One, spokesman Robert Gibbs said the president thought a team approach would be more effective.

GIBBS: A vast amount of expertise that crosses a number of governmental agencies and departments and brings in a vast amount of experience that the administration has to deal with the auto restructuring.

LOTHIAN: This new team will be led by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Larry Summers, Mr. Obama's top economic adviser, and will include nationally recognized restructuring expert Ron Bloom.

LAUREN FIX, AUTO INDUSTRY ANALYST: I think it's a pretty big mountain that they're going to have to climb. And what I think is going to have to happen is we have to cut down on some of the products.


LOTHIAN: Now, tomorrow is the deadline for auto giants GM and Chrysler to present a plan to the White House on how they plan to turn things around, how they will repay all the billions in dollars that they've gotten in federal funds. The White House officials here saying that they're anxious to see those plans -- Wolf. BLITZER: Dan Lothian over at the White House.

Meanwhile, the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, is in Asia to begin her first official diplomatic mission overseas. It's a weeklong tour. Secretary Clinton is expected to tackle a range of issues, including the U.S. economic stimulus package, climate change and human rights.

Her husband is talking about the tough work his wife now faces. Former President Bill Clinton was in Austin, Texas, this weekend hosting the Clinton Global Initiative University, as it's called. It encourages college students and higher institutions to come up with projects and ideas to address global issues.

The former president spoke with CNN's John Roberts.


ROBERTS: Your wife is on a big trip over to the Far East. She's talking with the leaders of China, she's going to be taking on the North Korea issue. There's been some talk in the last week that with the appointment of all these high-profile envoys like Richard Holbrooke to South Asia, George Mitchell to the Middle East, Dennis Ross in the same area, Vice President Joe Biden out there talking about foreign policy, that maybe she might get a little bit elbowed out here when it comes to the big projects.

Are you concerned about that? Do you talk to her about that?

CLINTON: No. I'm not concerned about it, and these envoys are her idea. Both the idea of the envoys and the people who were selected. And she thinks that Joe Biden has got one of the best foreign policy minds and certainly some of the some of the most important foreign policy experience we've had.

Let me remind you, when I was president, Al Gore had special relationships with both Russia and South Africa. And it didn't undermine the authority of either Warren Christopher, Madeleine Albright as secretary of state.

The reason they're doing this and the reason the president agreed to support it and came to the State Department to support the announcements of Holbrooke and Mitchell is that they all want to get off to a fair start. And you've got to do a lot of things at once. And it's inconceivable that she could devote the time and detailed attention right now to having a diplomatic strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan that exactly parallels the military strategy that General Petraeus is doing, or figures out how to start the Middle East peace negotiations again and what the timetable is, and do all this other stuff.

So, as long as they're working on a team and nobody is playing sharp elbows -- and this is a team -- these guys have got a team concept. The president's made it clear he wants everybody to be on the team. They all report into her, as well as to him. They're all working together. And I'm very impressed by that. I think that she made a judgment that we needed in the country's interests to do everything at once, and I think she's right.

ROBERTS: Of course, bilateral relations between the United States and China, a big focus of your administration. Did you talk to her at all about this trip before she embarked?

CLINTON: Sure I did. We -- she consulted with a lot of people, we talked about it. I told her what my take on the Chinese is, especially in light of the fact that I worked there now in AIDS. I have a big AIDS project there, and I know how they think economically.

And I think she'll do quite well there. And I think she made a really good decision. Obviously she had to go to Japan and South Korea, but going to Indonesia, the world's biggest Muslim country, sends a loud signal, because Indonesia has, a part of it, Bali, which is predominantly Hindu, which has been the subject of terrorist attacks.

So it's a good deal. I mean, the whole thing, it's the right place to start.

ROBERTS: A couple of real quick questions if I could.

What president do you think you're most like?

CLINTON: Well, personally, I'm not sure. One guy wrote a book saying that I was most like Thomas Jefferson, but the times in which I governed were most like Theodore Roosevelt, and the we had -- and the results I received were similar.

He had enormous success. The country was better off when he quit than when he started, but several of the things he recommended were not actually done until his cousin, Franklin Roosevelt, became president, you know, more than 20 years later.

I think that a lot of the things that I recommended in terms of the health care reform will come to fruition now that we have a more modern Democratic Congress and a new Democratic Congress, and the Obama administration there. I'll be surprised if they don't get health care reform and some of the other things I recommended. And I'm excited about it.

ROBERTS: One other quick question. "U.S. News & World Report" this week commissioned a poll, surveyed a bunch of women in America, asking what role you should take on with your wife as secretary of state. Thirty-seven percent, the greatest number of women, said househusband.

I'm wondering what you think about that.

CLINTON: Well, you know, it's funny. I told her when she left that I wished now that I was an ordinary citizen, because I wish I could go with her and be there when she comes home at night and do for her what she did for me when I was president. But it's not in the cards. We're doing the best we can to work through this and do the right thing.

ROBERTS: Would you ever be comfortable being a househusband?

CLINTON: No. I have to go to work. I'm too much of a Calvinist. If I don't work every day, I get nervous.


BLITZER: More of the interview with the former president coming up in the next hour.

It's the most expensive helicopter in the world, and the price tag is going up. Way, way up. Should President Obama upgrade the Marine One fleet? And would he be saving money but would he be skimping on safety?

And more evidence that Mr. Obama can still draw crowds like a rock star.

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


BLITZER: To our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now, fire in the sky. Experts on the ground say they know what it's not. Now they're trying to figure out what a mystery fireball over Texas is.

Quiet running. Maybe too quiet. Two submarines loaded with nuclear warheads collide in the open Atlantic.

And Pakistan cuts a troubling new deal, giving the Taliban the upper hand in some disputed territories. CNN's Barbara Starr examines how the Obama administration is responding.

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

In this time of economic misery, should the government cut corners in the president's security?

Right now, it's safety vs. economic sacrifice regarding one critical form of transportation for the president.

Our Pentagon correspondent, Chris Lawrence, is joining us.

What's going on, Chris?

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, even some Democrats in Congress are howling about the price of this current project.

And, in one way, if you look at it, President Obama is going to have to put a price tag on his own safety.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) LAWRENCE (voice-over): Marine One is one of the most expensive aircraft in the world. The price tag to replace the current fleet? More than $11 billion, nearly double the original estimate.

And President Obama has to decide whether to order more of them.

RICHARD ABOULAFIA, VICE PRESIDENT OF ANALYSIS, TEAL GROUP: Justifying that in a time of financial austerity, a time when executives are being criticized for high-priced business jets, that is going to be a tough one.

LAWRENCE: Defense analyst Richard Aboulafia says, the current helicopters are old. These would be safer, fly faster, and farther.

But the original contract signed during the Bush administration has ballooned. Now these helicopters would cost $400 million each.

ABOULAFIA: This helicopter assumes that money is no object in ensuring the safety of the president.

LAWRENCE: Last year, during the campaign, candidate Obama said -- quote -- "We should be spending a lot more money trying to figure out how to get our energy policy right than we should on helicopters for the president."

Well, now they're his helicopters, and they don't just land on the White House lawn. They're often sent overseas. Each one has to jam seeking devices and deflect missiles. It's got to have phones, faxes, video screens, Internet. And they all have to hold up after the electromagnetic pulse from a nuclear blast.


LAWRENCE: Now, the Pentagon gave this contract to Lockheed Martin a few years ago. The company had never built helicopters.

And, as they added capability after capability, the price just skyrocketed. Now some members of Congress are calling for this entire project to be rebid. But, again, if they do that, that means they will be flying those older helicopters for a lot longer -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Chris Lawrence, thanks for doing that story.

They are huddled masses braving cold temperatures and long lines, but they didn't camp out for some sort of rock concert. They're waiting to see the president of the United States -- President Obama heading out to Arizona, near Phoenix, on Wednesday.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We really need to see the president and talk to him, let him know what's going on our mind and what's going in the valley.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's going to be amazing. I mean, it's history, and it's just so cool that I'm going to be here. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What's it like to hold that in your hand?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's so worth it.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It means a lot, yes. This is totally worth it, totally worth not sleeping at all.


BLITZER: Meanwhile, we're hearing what President Obama is expected to talk about.

Mary Snow is joining us now to explain.

What is going on, Mary?

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, you know, as we saw last week with the Treasury plan, we will have to wait until we hear the formal announcement to get all the details.

But with billions pumped into the banking system already, President Obama is now going to turn hi efforts on Wednesday to helping homeowners.


SNOW (voice-over): President Obama will detail his plan to help troubled homeowners in Arizona, where one in 182 homes faced foreclosure last month. Administration officials are keeping tight- lipped about specifics.

JARED BERNSTEIN, CHIEF ECONOMIST TO VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: You are going to learn, as that rollout continues, a very aggressive plan to help responsible homeowners stay in their home.

SNOW: The president is expected to commit between $50 billion and $100 billion to helping homeowners.

One idea gaining press attention is a plan to reduce monthly mortgage payments. It's similar to an idea advocated by FDIC Chairman Sheila Bair that calls to cut those payments to between 31 percent and 38 percent of a family's gross income.

ANTHONY SANDERS, PROFESSOR OF FINANCE AND REAL ESTATE, ARIZONA STATE UNIVERSITY: So, you cut down the ratio to make it affordable. OK, that's good for households that are kind of on the edge.

SNOW: But the help comes as the problem deepens. One group tracking the real estate market says the number of foreclosures could hit three million this year, as unemployment rises and adjustable-rate loans reset.

RICK SHARGA, VICE PRESIDENT OF MARKETING, REALTYTRAC: It's a really toxic mix of higher-than-anticipated prices on monthly payments, combined with house values that have dropped that makes it impossible for people to refinance or sell their homes.

SNOW: In Phoenix, for example, the median price in Phoenix is $150,000. At its peak, it was roughly $262,000.

And with more homeowners drowning in debt, their mortgages worth more than their homes, this economist says the president's plan will just make a dent.

SANDERS: Fifty billion dollars is a good place to start. I'm just saying right here and now it's not enough. It will be enough to save Kansas, where they don't really have big negative equity problems.


SNOW: Now, professor Anthony Sanders says a lot of questions remain about just how to handle those homes that have dropped far below their mortgage price. And that's a problem that's especially being felt, Wolf, in Arizona, California, Nevada, and Florida.

BLITZER: It explains -- helps explain why he's heading out to Arizona this week.

All right, Mary, thanks very much.

And, as Mary just mentioned, many people in Arizona are being -- are being or fear being forced out of their homes. Last month alone, Arizona had the third highest foreclosure rate in the nation. Nearly 14,700 people received foreclosure filings.

Last year, Arizona saw a 203 percent increase in foreclosure filings. And, in Phoenix alone -- get this -- one in every 17 homes got notice of foreclosure.

A high-speed rail project now on the fast track in the stimulus bill, some see it as a jobs-maker. Others are calling it a joke.

Plus, President Obama's early appeal for bipartisanship becomes fuel for partisan fighting.

And, later, a mystery fireball over Texas -- one possible cause has now been ruled out.

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


BLITZER: When President Obama signs the economic stimulus bill into law tomorrow, it will inject new money into the future of train transportation. Some critics, though, say they are not impressed.

Let's go to CNN's Elaine Quijano. She's working the story for us.

What's going on, Elaine? ELAINE QUIJANO, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, high- speed rail is an idea that has been around for a long time, but it's now getting some renewed attention.


QUIJANO (voice-over): High-speed rail has long been the butt of jokes, mocked on "The Simpsons," for instance, as futuristic and unwieldy.


JULIE KAVNER, ACTRESS: How fast are they going?


QUIJANO: But, in reality, high-speed rail is getting some high- profile attention these days.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You go to Shanghai, China, right now, and they have got high-speed rail that puts our railroads to shame.

QUIJANO: President Obama sang its praises as part of his vision for the future of transportation.

OBAMA: I would like to see high-speed rail where it can be constructed.

QUIJANO: The new stimulus plans sets aside $8 billion for unspecified high-speed and inter-city passenger rail projects.

But Republicans are crying foul over one proposal, a high-speed magnetic levitation train similar to this one in China to be built in Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's home state of Nevada connecting Las Vegas and Anaheim, California.

REP. CANDICE MILLER (R), MICHIGAN: Apparently, the Senate majority leader has earmarked $8 billion for a rail system from Las Vegas to Los Angeles? You have got to be kidding. You have to be kidding.

QUIJANO: A spokesman for Senator Reid insists the money would be for competitive grants nationwide, not just the Vegas-to-L.A. rail project.

Still, Representative Candice Miller of Michigan believes that money could be better spent helping U.S. automakers.

MILLER: They might be riding a high rail out in Las Vegas, but, Michigan, we are getting railroaded. And that's why I voted no.

QUIJANO: Yet, supporters of the high-speed train argue, it would not only generate jobs; it would also create badly need infrastructure.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We really need to provide the American public another way of getting around from city to city.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The best part about this project is, we pay all the money back we get from Congress. We aren't looking out for a free handout here.


QUIJANO: Now, a spokesman for Senator Reid also notes that the final decisions on which projects actually gets that stimulus money rests with the secretary of transportation -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you, Elaine.

Let's check in with Zain Verjee. She's monitoring some other important stories incoming to THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

Zain, what do you have?

ZAIN VERJEE, CNN STATE DEPARTMENT CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, peanuts are now on Northwest Airlines' snack menu, and travelers with allergies are flooding the carrier with complaints about the change.

Northwest began serving peanuts -- peanuts this month, as its merger partner, Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines, has done for years. Georgia is the top peanut -- peanut-producing state in the country. Delta says that it will make seating and service accommodations for peanut-allergic passengers.

Olympic champion Michael Phelps says that he's glad the matter of his marijuana use has been put to rest. And he says that he's learned important lessons. Phelps' statement came after learning that Richland County, South Carolina, Sheriff Leon Lott would not be pursuing a drug case against him.

Lott says there's not enough evidence to prosecute him. The case came to light after a photo of Phelps, a 14-time Olympic gold medalist, circulated showing him smoking from a bong. Phelps was suspended from swimming for three months and lost at least one endorsement deal -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you, Zain, for that. Stand by.

It could have caused a nuclear disaster. A British nuclear submarine collides with a French nuclear submarine. You're about to find out what happened and how this could have happened.

And she's the grandmother of those octuplets at first outraged her daughter was pregnant again. But wait until you hear what she's saying about her daughter and grandchildren now.

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


BLITZER: Let's get to our "Strategy Session" right now. Joining us, Democratic strategist and CNN political contributor Hilary Rosen, and Republican strategist Ron Christie. He's a former special assistant to former President George W. Bush.

Ron, listen to former President Clinton in the interview with John Roberts that aired earlier speaking about bipartisanship right now and how it could play out. Listen to this.


BILL CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think that, as we go along, if the American people stick with him, and if he begins to have good results, then I think more and more Republicans will cooperate with him, because they will see that he's right, or because he carried their states, or for any number of reasons.


BLITZER: What do you think? Are Republicans potentially going to change their mind, because they didn't support him, by and large, as you well know, on this stimulus package?

RON CHRISTIE, FORMER SPECIAL ASSISTANT TO PRESIDENT BUSH: Oh, Wolf, I do think the Republicans want to work with -- with the current President Obama.

I think we're looking for areas in energy. We're looking at ways to reduce the deficits, looking at entitlement reform. There are areas that we all need to work together, regardless of party affiliation, but to try to pull together.

And I think that former President Clinton is right. If you look back, in 1977, we had a balanced-budget deal. You had Republicans and Democrats coming together. And, even in this decade, in 2001, with President Bush's tax cuts, you had Republicans and Democrats working together.

So, I think, at the end of the day, Wolf, you will find Republicans looking to reach out to the president, find ways, in a bipartisan way, to move forward, and do the best bidding for the country.

BLITZER: All right, so, Hilary, this might be a one-time exception; is that what -- what I'm hearing?

HILARY ROSEN, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: You know, I find it hard to believe that this is -- the Republicans are going to change their tune much.

I -- I -- I hear nothing but Republicans sort of whining about the process over the last several days. And -- and -- but, when you look at the legislation, actually, of the stimulus bill, President Obama took several of their ideas and put it into that bill.

So, I think that, going forward, the Republicans have to understand, if they are not part of the solution, they are part of the problem, and the problem that they kind of created for the last eight years.

BLITZER: He's going to Denver tomorrow to -- to sign this stimulus package into law, Ron. Then he heads out to Phoenix to unveil his plan to deal with foreclosures and the housing crisis, heads off to Canada on Thursday, his first trip outside of the United States, Canada the major trading partner of the United States, huge number of jobs, obviously, involved in the trading alliance between the U.S. and Canada.

How important is it for this president to get outside the beltway and make his case directly to the American people?

CHRISTIE: Well, I think it's very important.

Obviously, the president campaigned for a different change and a different tone in Washington. And I think he's doing what he does best. He enjoys going out and pressing the flesh, meeting with people one on one, and selling his message.

My thing with this, Wolf, and my problem with this is that the president told us it was catastrophic, if we didn't pass the stimulus bill immediately, then the world would fall to an end.

Well, why is he waiting for a couple days to sign it? The -- the Congress sent it up to the president, to the White House earlier today. If it's so important, and the president campaigned and said it was so important, why haven't we seen that bill signed into law today?

BLITZER: What do you think, Hilary?


ROSEN: Well, I think the answer is, he's doing it tomorrow. And I -- I'm not sure there's a big difference between today and tomorrow.

The urgency was met by Congress. I applaud the Democratic leadership. I think they got it moving. And I think you are going to see this president with a very big agenda over the next several months. And he has learned, over the course of the last few weeks, getting out to the country, getting the people to remember why they elected him and why they strongly elected a Democratic Congress, they wanted change.

We have got an energy policy to do. We have got health care reform to do. We have got an auto industry to evaluate. So, there's a lot of big issues. And I think he's going to continue to take the case directly to the American people.

BLITZER: When he takes his case to -- on the road like this, Ron, it's very hard for the Republicans to compete, given his enormous popularity.

CHRISTIE: There's no question about that, Wolf.

I mean, obviously, the power of the bully pulpit that the president wields is a very, very powerful instrument. And President Obama knows how to wield that ability better than anybody.

At the same time, Republicans are going to remain the loyal opposition. As we started off at the top of the set, we're going to find ways to work with this president, but, where Republicans don't agree, they're going to try to find a way to break through and to say to the American people, we can do better.

BLITZER: Ron Christie and Hilary Rosen, guys, thanks very much.

Middle East tensions are playing out in some stunning ways right now in the sports world -- a tennis player at the center of an international incident. We will tell you what's going on, why she was barred from playing tennis in Dubai.

And how Pakistan may be dooming U.S. strategy, as the Obama administration makes plans for a troop buildup in Afghanistan.

And a fireball streaking through the sky -- what's behind the mysterious flames?

All of that and a lot more coming up -- right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Here's a look at some "Hot Shots" coming in from our friends over at the Associated Press, pictures likely to be in your newspapers tomorrow.

In Romania, a Chinese construction worker take shelter, as the economic crisis hinders construction efforts.

In California, a fan walks away after rain cancels the last round of a golf tournament.

In Austria, the Dutch princess and her daughter take to the slopes.

And, in Germany, a red lemur stays warm in front of the space heater over at the zoo -- some of this hour's "Hot Shots," pictures worth 1,000 words.

On our "Political Ticker" right now: the newest former president getting some low marks from historians. A new survey conducted by C- SPAN shows President W. Bush ranking 36 out of the 42 men who have been commander in chief. Checking our recent president, Bill Clinton is ranked 15th. George Herbert Walker Bush ranks 18th. Ronald Reagan is number 10.

Historians' President Obama say the best president of all-time was Barack Obama role model Abraham Lincoln.

Remember, for the latest political news any time, check out

One hundred and eighty-nine people were killed by wildfires that scorched Southeastern Australia earlier this month. Now Facebook users want retribution and naming an accused arsonist online.

Let's go to our Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton. She has more on this story.

Abbi, what is going on?

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, there had been a court order in Australia suppressing the release of this arson suspect's name. But that didn't stop dozens of people in Australia finding out the name and posting it on Facebook, and groups like this naming and shaming Brendan Sokaluk.

Some of these groups now have thousands of members. And they want retribution, posting angry messages about this person from them, like this one: "If he is allowed to cause this much damage to so many people, why don't we get to cause damage to him?"

The reason for this anger, scenes like this that we saw all over YouTube last week, fires that killed almost 200 people in the state of Victoria. Sokaluk is charged with arson causing death. The specific fire that he is accused of starting, this one that was -- killed at least 21. A court ruled today that his name can be published, but not his photo, not his address, out of fears for his safety -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Abbi, thank you.

Let's get to the world of tennis right now, this coming in from the World Tennis Association, a direct warning to Dubai that it could lose its place on the women's tennis tour calendar. It comes after the United Arab Emirates refused a seeded Israeli tennis player entry into the country.

CNN's Pedro Pinto has details.


PEDRO PINTO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, controversy has been brewing here over the last couple of days, ever since we found out that Shahar Peer had been denied a visa to travel to the United Arab Emirates to play in the professional women's tournament.

It really has been a development that took not only the tennis community, but also the international community, by surprise.

(voice-over): She should be here. Israel's Shahar Peer, ranked 45 in the world, earned the right to play at the Dubai Tennis Championships, but the government of the United Arab Emirates denied the 21-year-old an entry visa, a decision which disappointed her and the professional tour.

SHAHAR PEER, PROFESSIONAL TENNIS PLAYER: Yes, I mean, I was very, very disappointed, because, you know, it's a few things are involved. It, first of all, is my career. And it's a big tournament. It's a $2 million, tournament. And all the good players are playing there. And, you know, I have been playing very good, Fed Cup, and now in (INAUDIBLE) semifinal. And I'm in a good roll, and I'm in a good momentum, and they really stopped my momentum, because now I'm not going to play for two weeks.

And because they wait for me for the last minute, I couldn't go to another tournament either. So, this is very disappointing, and I think it's not fair.

LARRY SCOTT, CHAIRMAN, WOMEN'S TENNIS ASSOCIATION TOUR: We haven't been given an exact reason why a visa was denied, but I do know that Israel doesn't have diplomatic relations with the UAE. Having said that, we were assured, when the tournament was sanctioned for Dubai, that if an Israel wanted to play, they would be given permission to play. So, this runs counter to everything that we were promised. And I think it's a real setback, not just for the world of tennis, but the whole international sporting community.

PINTO (on camera): It has been challenging getting a local perspective on the story. There's no comment from the government. The tournament director canceled as previously-arranged interview with CNN, and even the sponsors are refusing to go on the record.

I did have a chance to speak with a couple of the players. And they had different takes on the issue at hand.

ELENA DEMENTIEVA, PROFESSIONAL TENNIS PLAYER: I really feel sorry for her. And, I mean, I wish she can play here. I think she's a very sensitive girl. And she really cares about the situation, like we all do. But there is nothing to do with the sport, and I think, as a sport person, she needs to have a right to play here.

VERA ZVONAREVA, PROFESSIONAL TENNIS PLAYER: I'm not sure. You know, we're tennis players, and we compete against each other every week everywhere in any part of the world. So, I don't think we're really thinking about it. We're just here to try to play our best, to enjoy ourselves on the court.

PINTO (voice-over): Tennis fans here didn't hold back when asked to give their views.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think it's appalling. Irrespective of what's happening in the world, this girl has earned a place in the tournament, and she's not allowed to play. So...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's a tournament. She should have -- any player should be able to come and play.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Should have all the rights to come and play. Everyone should have.

PINTO: For now, the show goes on. But there could be serious repercussions for the future of tennis in the UAE. WTA tour officials will review the situation and could strip the Emirates of the right to hold professional events in the future. (on camera): And, if the tour did decide to revoke the membership of the United Arab Emirates to host future tournaments here, it would be a big blow for the economy of the region and also for the image it has overseas -- Wolf.


BLITZER: All right, Pedro, we will stay on top of this story for our viewers. Thank you.