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The Situation Room

News Conference on Florida Slayings; Sotomayor Confirmation Hearing; President Obama Defiant in Vow to Reform Health Care

Aired July 13, 2009 - 16:00   ET



Happening now, a Supreme Court nominee poised to make history faces praise, skepticism and protests. This hour, the start of Sonia Sotomayor's confirmation hearing and her response to questions about empathy and her "wise Latina" remarks.

Plus, President Obama shows new grit and defiance in his fight for health care reform. With his new choice for surgeon general at his side, he's warning opponents: Don't bet against us.

And La Toya Jackson's shocking claim that her brother Michael was murdered. We're digging into new remarks by Jackson family members and their possible motives for speaking out.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in CNN's command center for breaking news, politics, and extraordinary reports from around the world.


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: We'll get to all of that. But first, to a horrifying murder mystery.

Right now authorities in Florida are speaking out on an investigation into the killing of a couple known for adopting several special-needs kids. Two suspects have been charged in the murder of Byrd and Melanie Billings. A third suspect is charged with evidence tampering, and more arrests are expected. Nine of the Billings children were home when the couple was shot and killed Thursday night.

There's a news conference under way right now. Let's listen in to the sheriff.

SHERIFF DAVID MORGAN, ESCAMBIA COUNTY, FLORIDA: On this particular tape -- if I step away from the microphones, you can't hear me. Is that correct?

All right. I'll speak from here.

Is it playing?

All right. That is the east -- or excuse me -- the north side of the Billings' home.

Is it playing?

We apologize for that.

Are any of you live?


MORGAN: All right. What you are going to see on this video is a metallic vehicle pull up at the end of the driveway which has been identified as an Expedition. Two individuals exit this vehicle, again, dressed in ninja garb, black garb, come through the wooded area, and enter the Billings' home from the north side. We have found through several interviews that this door is a utility door which had been left open and unlocked.


MORGAN: On the north side of the home.

OK. This tape will not play?

QUESTION: So, at this point, there was a total of four people gaining entry into the home simultaneously?

MORGAN: Again, we will -- I apologize. We'll show you this DVD when it gets ready.

The total number of people that we are looking for that are involved in the deaths of the Billings family is six to eight. Six to eight people.

Today we are interviewing individuals, again, persons of interest, in Okaloosa County. Three black males have been identified as being associated with this case. We still have one white individual that is yet to be identified. We believe that it is a male.

QUESTION: The slide of Okaloosa County, can you comment on why?

MORGAN: The individuals are from Okaloosa County.

QUESTION: Do you have a motive yet?

MORGAN: We have a motive, a motive of robbery.


MORGAN: We do not. We do not.

Oh, I'm sorry. Accidentally or by someone who lives in someone in the home? No, not intentionally.

I think it was just a matter of course because of this neighborhood and because of our community, that they felt comfortable enough to leave a door unlocked. It's not uncommon in the county.

QUESTION: Did they have an alarm system?


QUESTION: Sheriff, do we know if there was a lot of money kept at the Billings' home?

MORGAN: That has not been verified, Mr. Altson (ph). It has not been verified.


QUESTION: Can you tell us what was taken?

QUESTION: So the motive -- the robbery was the only motive or...

MORGAN: That is a motive. A motive. We believe that there are other motives that we have yet to confirm. We are working on numerous motives, as I stated previously.

QUESTION: Can you tell us what was taken?

MORGAN: We cannot, sir. At this time, we cannot release that information.

QUESTION: Sheriff, of the eight people that you believe are involved, do you know the mastermind? You said, you know, last night that you might have thought that there was...

MORGAN: We do. I will not identify that individual specifically, but he is currently in custody.

QUESTION: Sheriff, you mentioned that you were interviewing some of these individuals. Are all of the total eight people in custody at this time, or can you give us any sort of information, tips for Floridians or people in the surrounding area, things to look out for?

MORGAN: They are not, and we cannot give that sort of warning because, again, we have not identified them by name. We are trying to go through some different surveillance videos of local merchants in Escambia County.

Again, during this investigation, we have identified the mastermind of this operation, the individuals that are associated with him during the days leading up to the crime. And so in canvassing our community and the surrounding communities, the other counties next to us -- because we knew that they had purchased some of the clothing used in the commission of this crime, and our investigators began canvassing the area -- Wal-Mart, Kmart, Target, those sorts of stores. And we're now asking for and going through their security videotapes.

So, information has been developed that we have identified the three black males having association with some individuals that we have -- we have specifically tied to this crime.

QUESTION: What about the vehicle? BLITZER: All right. So, that's Sheriff David Morgan telling us what's going on right now in this horrible, horrible crime that has occurred in Pensacola, Florida. Two individuals have already been charged with murdering this Gulf Coast couple, an amazing couple.

Sixteen 16 kids, 12 of them adopted kids, many of them with special needs, they were at the home when these two individuals, the mother and the father, were murdered.

Those two charged so far and arrested, Wayne Coldiron and Leonard Patrick Gonzalez, Jr. They've been charged and arrested over the weekend. They're both being held on $1 million bond. A third suspect, Gonzalez's father, has been arrested in the probe, charged with evidence tampering for allegedly trying to disguise a vehicle at the scene of the crime.

But you just heard the sheriff, David Morgan, say they are looking for another six to eight people. They say the motive they have right now is robbery, but last night he said there potentially were other motives as well.

We're going to continue to monitor this story. Our David Mattingly is on the scene. We'll get some more later, but this is a story that has literally shocked the nation right now.

Let's move on to what's happening here in Washington.

From the moment Sonia Sotomayor entered the hearing room, you could tell it wasn't your typical Supreme Court confirmation showdown. Sure, there was the usual ideological food fight between the Republicans and Democrats, but no one seemed to forget that Sotomayor is on the brink of becoming the first Hispanic on the high court, and many of the most intense exchanges focused in on race and gender.

Let's begin our coverage with our national political correspondent, Jessica Yellin.

An historic day today and more to come tomorrow, Jessica.

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. And today's hearing was a careful dance for Sotomayor's critics.

A number of Republican senators said, look, they'd have no problem voting to put a Hispanic woman on the Supreme Court. They just have concerns about this nominee.


YELLIN (voice-over): To anyone who worries she'll make law from the bench, Judge Sonia Sotomayor says think again.

SONIA SOTOMAYOR, SUPREME COURT NOMINEE: Many senators have asked me about my judicial philosophy. It's simple: fidelity to the law. The task of a judge is not to make law. It is to apply the law.

YELLIN: And for all the talk of empathy, the judge had a one- line reply.

SOTOMAYOR: My personal and professional experiences help me to listen and understand with the law always commanding the result in every case.

YELLIN: But before senators heard from the judge, they first heard from one another with about three hours of statements.

There was praise from the Democrats...

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D-VT), JUDICIARY CHAIRMAN: She was a judge in which all Americans can have confidence.

YELLIN: ... concern from the Republicans.

SEN. JON KYL (R), ARIZONA: Judge Sotomayor clearly rejected the notion that judges should strive for an impartial brand of justice.

YELLIN: Key to the Republican opposition are comments Sotomayor made off the bench that a judge's empathy and that race, class, and gender play a role in deciding cases.

The committee's lead Republican openly worried that Judge Sotomayor would be the kind of justice...

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS (R), ALABAMA: ... who believe it is acceptable for a judge to allow their personal background, gender, prejudices or sympathies to sway their decision in favor of or against parties before the court.

YELLIN: But Democrats defended her, saying she'd bring a breadth of experience to the court.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D), CALIFORNIA: If confirmed, you will join the Supreme Court with more federal judicial experience than any justice in the past 100 years.

YELLIN: The lightest moment of the day came from a Republican who offered this prediction...

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Unless you have a complete meltdown, you're going to get confirmed.


YELLIN: Now, Wolf, that does seem to be the conventional wisdom, that the Senate tends to lean towards supporting her at this point. But, of course, a meltdown or something else could still happen in the coming days. The real fireworks begin tomorrow when the questioning begins -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We'll have live coverage of the questions and answers starting at 9:30 a.m. Eastern tomorrow morning.

Jessica, thanks very much. President Obama is taking the role of health care reform drill sergeant today, vowing to whip the forces of change into shape right here in Washington. He used the announcement of his new surgeon general nominee to put the nation on notice that inaction is not an option.

Let's go to our White House correspondent, Dan lothian.

Dan, the president, he came out swinging today, saying those who suggest this health care reform legislation is dead are dead wrong.

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right. You know, we really heard strong language from the president, but what the White House is saying is that they're simply trying to fulfill that campaign promise of providing affordable health care for all Americans. And the president himself today acknowledging that it will not be easy to do that.


LOTHIAN (voice-over): Tough talk from President Obama on the state of health care reform.

First, a guarantee.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I just want to put everybody on notice, because there was a lot of chatter during the week that I was gone. We are going to get this done.

LOTHIAN: Then came a stern rebuke.

OBAMA: For those naysayers and cynics who think that this is not going to happen, don't bet against us.

LOTHIAN: President Obama used the announcement of his surgeon general nominee, Dr. Regina Benjamin, to push what is now his top domestic priority, but there is heated debate even among Democrats over what health care reform will look like. The White House wants a public health insurance option, but another idea is a nonprofit co-op with less government involvement.

The president has stated he wants to see a bill before the August recess, but reality may be setting in. When asked if that deadline was in jeopardy, this is how spokesman Robert Gibbs responded...


LOTHIAN: Despite the president's challenge to his critics and a private White House meeting with key congressional Democrats, including Pelosi, Reid, Baucus and Rangel, to discuss, among other things, paying for the health care overhaul, the White House says don't take any of that as a sign of desperation.

GIBBS: I think there's always the tendency for the focus on the negative, not on the positive.


LOTHIAN: Now, Gibbs says that progress is being made up on Capitol Hill, but as August approaches quickly, he did leave the door open to the possibility that the president would lean on Congress to stay in session in order to "do what needs to be done."


BLITZER: And as you say, he's brought in these key Democrats to sort of whip them into shape and get them on the same page, because there are significant differences between what Democrats think should be included in this legislation in the House, as opposed to those in the Senate.

LOTHIAN: That's right. And, Wolf, you know, a lot of times when we look at these debates happening up on Capitol Hill, we think of it as Democrats versus Republicans. Certainly, a lot of differences between Republicans and Democrats here. But even within the Democratic Party, there's some resistance here to the public's plan and how to pay for it all. So the president really wants to sit down with these leading Democrats to try to hash it out.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Dan Lothian, for that.

And we'll stay on top of this story for our viewers and also have more on the new surgeon general nominee. Who is she? Where is she from? That's all coming up.

Also, we'll go to David Mattingly -- he's in South Carolina right now -- for more on this horrible murder that occurred over the past few days. A couple with 16 kids murdered in their home. We're getting some new information from the sheriff there. You see him right now.

We'll have an update from David Mattingly. That's coming up.

Also, one of the most talked-about people of the day in the Supreme Court confirmation hearing, it wasn't even in the Senate chamber. Why "Senator Obama's" name, when he was a Senator, came up over and over again.

And strong allegations by the Jackson family -- Michael's final moments and claims of murder.

And a new chapter in a family feud. The father of Sarah Palin's grandchild, Levi Johnston, says he knows the real reason why the Alaska governor is stepping down.

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


BLITZER: Something unexpected today at Sonia Sotomayor's confirmation hearings, quite a few Republican senators had to mention President Obama when he was a United States senator. Listen to this.


SEN. TOM COBURN (R), OKLAHOMA: Senator Obama referred (ph) his empathy standard when he voted against Chief Justice Roberts.

GRAHAM: I can assure you that if I applied Senator Obama's standard to your nomination, I wouldn't vote for you.

SEN. ORRIN HATCH (R), UTAH: Senator Obama never voted to confirm a Supreme Court justice. He even voted against a man who administered the oath of presidential office.


BLITZER: Let's bring in our senior political analyst, Gloria Borger, and our senior legal analyst, Jeff Toobin.

Gloria, it was as if they were referring to then-Senator Obama's opposition to these Republican nominees as sort of a basis why they might want to vote against Sonia Sotomayor now.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, they were saying, look, advise and consent is the Senate's role. But if you listen to what then-Senator Obama said when he was talking about Justice Alito, for example -- and I have it right here -- he said that he believes that it calls for meaningful advice and consent, and that includes an examination of a judge's philosophy, ideology and record.

So, it's an ideological standard, not just a standard of qualification.


BLITZER: And I heard Senator Hatch make that point, although I also heard him say, you know what? I'm not very comfortable with the position that then-Senator Obama took vis-a-vis the Republican nominees.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SR. LEGAL ANALYST: You know, this is a traditional fight at these confirmation hearings, is do you vote on the basis simply of qualification and acknowledge that elections have consequences, the president getes to make his choice? Or do you say if this nominee differs from me ideologically so much you simply don't vote for him?

That was the standard that then-Senator Obama seemed to articulate. And frankly, I think it's a fair standard, and I think it's fair to vote against Sonia Sotomayor if you don't agree with her.

BLITZER: Even though she may be qualified, the American Bar Association says she's highly qualified, even though she has all this experience and she's apparently very qualified, if you disagree with her philosophy, that's reason enough to vote against her?

TOOBIN: And the way she's trying to get around that is say, well, my philosophy is apply the law. Well, you know what? These judges operate in good faith, and they divide 5-4 on a lot of different cases. Applying the law is not a judicial philosophy.

BORGER: But the Republicans who oppose her are also saying they do not believe that she will be an impartial judge. And this again goes back to President Obama, who talked about something called empathy. And today we heard everybody trying to define what empathy is, and they're saying that she has so much empathy, that she would not be able to be impartial, which, by the way, is not what the Democrats say her record shows.

BLITZER: You know, Senator Jeff Sessions, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, the Republican from Alabama, he delivered a one-two punch against Judge Sotomayor's decision in a discrimination case recently overruled by the U.S. Supreme Court. He also threw in a shot at the notion of judicial empathy along the way.


SESSIONS: In Ricci, Judge Sotomayor's empathy for one group of firefighters turned out to be prejudice against another. That is, of course, the logical flaw in the empathy standard. Empathy for one party is always prejudice against another.


BLITZER: He really did come out swinging today, Jeff Sessions, in laying out the case against her.

TOOBIN: Well, he's referring to a debate that is very hot among the justices today, which is may racial preferences be used anymore? May a university give preference to African-Americans in admission?

BLITZER: What's called affirmative action.

TOOBIN: Affirmative action. Is that constitutional?

Now, historically, in the past 20, 30 years, the Supreme Court has said yes, previously discriminated against groups may get those sorts of benefits. But John Roberts, the chief justice, clearly thinks that shouldn't be the rule anymore. That debate is something that Sonia Sotomayor, if confirmed, is going to step right into.

BORGER: And she's saying what empathy is, is that she understands the consequences of what her legal rulings are on the human side, but that doesn't mean that she's going to rule one way or the other. She just understands what it's going to do to people...


BLITZER: But listen to Senator Lindsey graham, Republican of South Carolina.


GRAHAM: I don't think anybody here worked harder for Senator McCain than I did, but we lost and President Obama won, and that ought to matter. It does to me. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Elections have consequences.

TOOBIN: I remember covering the Roberts confirmation hearings and seeing John McCain in the Senate -- in the hallways of the Senate, and the first thing he said was, "Elections have consequences." Bush won the election. He gets to choose.

Now, we'll see. I think John McCain may actually wind up voting for Sonia Sotomayor for just that reason.

BORGER: And I think President Obama might change his point of view a little bit now and he may be saying, look, elections have consequences, she's my appointee. And that's exactly why they're throwing his statement about Judge Alito back at him.

BLITZER: He's only been a senator for five days, Al Franken, the junior senator from Minnesota, but he's a member of the Judiciary Committee, and listen to this little clip.


SEN. AL FRANKEN (D), MINNESOTA: I am the senator who most recently took the oath of office. Last Tuesday, I swore to support and defend the Constitution of the United States and to bear true faith and allegiance to it. I take this oath very seriously.


BLITZER: He was very serious throughout his opening statement. There were no jokes from Al Franken.

BORGER: You know, there's a little history here, because correct me if I'm wrong, he may be the only senator in history to have played a senator on the Judiciary Committee and then become a senator on the Judiciary Committee.

TOOBIN: He did on "Saturday Night Live" during the Clarence Thomas hearings.

BORGER: On "Saturday Night Live."

BLITZER: He played then-Senator Paul Simon.

BORGER: Then-Senator Paul Simon. Right.

TOOBIN: We're going to have to have a Franken joke clock, because he's clearly restraining himself. He doesn't want to tell a joke, he doesn't want to be funny. And it's going to be interesting to see how long he can restrain himself.

BLITZER: I suspect it won't be very long before we get some one- liners.

All right, guys. Don't go away. We're going to have more to talk about.

What happened in the final hours? Michael Jackson's family is now speaking out and suggesting murder. Is it possible? We're talking to the last journalist to interview the "King of Pop" before his death.



Happening now one-on-one with the first African-American president on his first trip to sub-Saharan Africa. President Obama explains to CNN's Anderson Cooper the most profound decision he's made as president.

Wrangling after a potential bombshell. There's news that the CIA director told lawmakers that former vice president Dick Cheney ordered -- ordered the CIA not to tell them about a secret counterterror program. There's a full-scale investigation now coming.

And South Korea. A report in South Korea says North Carolina's Kim Jong-il is very sick and may not live more than five years. Wait until you hear what the United States is saying about that.

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

As we await official word on how Michael Jackson died, some members of the Jackson family are making some shocking claims. And what one Jackson sister is saying could potentially -- potentially -- be a bombshell.

Let's bring in our Brian Todd. He's taking a closer look.

Lots of charges, accusations hurling around.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. And not just from the one sister.

Some prominent members of the Jackson family are going very public about their belief that foul play was involved in Michael Jackson's death. And they're going into some very controversial detail.


TODD (voice-over): From a grieving family, more detailed concerns about the private physician of Michael Jackson who was with him at the time of his death. In an interview with ABC News, excerpted on "Good Morning America," family patriarch Joe Jackson said he'd heard that his son was given something to help him rest, that the doctor, Conrad Murray, had himself gone to sleep at some point, and...

JOE JACKSON, MICHAEL JACKSON'S FATHER: Michael probably had been dead a long time before they started taking him to the hospital. And you don't revive a person that's dead. You know? (INAUDIBLE) couldn't find him three days or something? That's what made be believe something's wrong here.

TODD: Contacted by CNN, representatives for Dr. Murray's attorneys wouldn't comment on Joe Jackson's remarks but referred to a statement issued Saturday by attorney Edward Chernoff that said in part, "Dr. Conrad Murray continues to be fully cooperative with the Los Angeles Police Department and the Medical Examiner's Office."

Joe Jackson had voiced suspicion previously in the days just after Michael's death to CNN's Don Lemon.

JACKSON: Yes, I am. I have a lot of concerns.

DON LEMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: What are your concerns about that?

JACKSON: I can't get into that, but I don't like what happened.

TODD: Jackson's sister La Toya is going even further than her father, telling two British newspapers that she believes Michael Jackson was murdered. La Toya Jackson told "The Daily Mail" her brother was worth more than a billion dollars and said, "He was surrounded by people who didn't have his best interests at heart." And "He was worth more dead than alive."


TODD: La Toya Jackson never mentioned who she thought was behind Michael Jackson's death. She did imply to one other newspaper that the family knows the results of the second private autopsy that they ordered, and she's quoted as saying, "I think everyone will be surprised when the results come out."

CNN has learned that La Toya Jackson was paid for at least one of those interviews. The L.A. County Coroner's Office, meanwhile, tells us they expect their toxicology results possibly this Friday, but more likely by next week -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I understand, Brian, you've also spoken with the company that was going to sponsor this new Michael Jackson tour about some other accusations being hurled out there by some family members.

TODD: That's right. The father, Joe Jackson, told ABC that -- he claims Michael Jackson told him he was only contracted to do 10 shows, then that the sponsor, AEG, kept piling on the shows, and that he, Joe Jackson, was worried about Michael Jackson's health.

Now, an official from AEG told us their original agreement with Michael Jackson was for 31 shows, that they only announced the first 10 shows per that agreement, but, then, when those sold out -- those were very successful -- they went back to Michael Jackson's representatives. They said that they were told that Michael Jackson himself said that he was willing to do 50 shows, so that Joe Jackson's claims are inaccurate, according to AEG.

BLITZER: Wild charges out there. We will see what the authorities decide to do in the coming days.

Brian, thanks very much.

Let's assess what we just heard from Brian Todd.

Joining us now, our CNN contributor, Bryan Monroe. He's joining us from Chicago. He's the last journalist to have interviewed Michael Jackson.

How credible, Bryan, do you think, first of all, the father, Joe Jackson, is?

BRYAN MONROE, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, you know, he has had -- he -- he came out shortly after the death, and -- and, as you saw mentioned to CNN's Don Lemon, that he had concerns.

And, then, with LaToya -- LaToya coming out this weekend, you know, oddly enough, it would be hard not to at least give this some thought and some -- to see if there's evidence there. What I have heard through talking with those close to the family is that there indeed had been concern amongst several family members about the circumstances around Michael's death.

Some folks have hesitated to go as far as saying it was murder, but there -- there's going to be questions that are going to still be out there act what happened in the days and weeks leading up to his death, as well as the investigation afterwards.

I was told that, for instance, as you reported earlier, when Michael first found out that he had, indeed, been obligated for 50 shows, he -- quote -- "flipped out," as I was told, and that he did not realize, nor want to do 50 shows.

He thought he was going to do about a dozen or so initially, and that there was concern about that. But, over the -- the -- the days leading into the -- the concert series, there was a series of -- of concerns about his energy and also those he was surrounding himself with.

BLITZER: Because if you do some...


MONROE: More than that, we're going to have to...

BLITZER: I was going to say...


MONROE: I was going to say, more than that, I think the LAPD...



BLITZER: If you do some of the math, Bryan, just for 50 concerts, assuming they could have an intake of maybe $10 million per concert, which is not out of the question, by any means, you're talking half-a-billion dollars for 50 -- 50 shows.

That's obviously a lot of money.

LaToya Jackson, we know the father's relationship with Michael was strained. He himself had said publicly he was beaten by his father as a boy. But what about the relationship between Michael Jackson and LaToya Jackson? What kind of relationship did they have?

MONROE: Well, it was similar to the rest of the family, in that Michael was always close to all of his brothers and sisters, but that closeness would ebb and flow.

There would be days, weeks, and months where he would be in constant conversation, and then days, weeks and months would go by where he wouldn't have any conversation. It was sort of like that throughout much of his -- his later years in his life.

But I think all the brothers and sisters were -- were close to Michael, because it was the one part of his -- his circle that he knew he could count on when -- when the going got tough, in particularly his mother, Katherine.

BLITZER: Because I was -- I -- I -- it's been widely reported that she was paid for these interviews with the British tabloids in which she says she believes her brother was murdered.

Does she have a whole lot of credibility, because I -- some others who have studied the family over the years say -- say that, you know, her credibility is, shall we say, limited?

MONROE: Well, you know, she has had her own episodes in the media, of course, the -- where she posed nudes for the magazine -- nude for the magazine. And, you know, she's had some questions in some of the relationships she's -- she's been in.

But I think what's going to really bear out is what we see from the toxicology reports and the autopsy with the LAPD and -- and the second autopsy, as well as the investigation leading into and around the involvement of any of the doctors.

I know there have been at least five that have been under investigation right now. So, this is going to still be a very open question that we're all going to have to wait and see what really pans out here.

BLITZER: Well, we're waiting for the coroner's final conclusion on the cause of death. One week from today is the custody hearing out in California for the three kids. So, there's a lot going on right now.

Bryan, thanks very much.

MONROE: Right. The story is not over.

BLITZER: By any means.

Going green, the easiest way to do it might mean embracing another color altogether. What's going on?

Plus, she's been called a pioneer. She could become the first Hispanic on the Supreme Court. But what kind of role will racial politics play, if any, in Judge Sonia Sotomayor's confirmation hearings?


GRAHAM: The Hispanic element of this hearing's important, but I don't want it to be lost that this is mostly about liberal and conservative politics, more than it is anything else.



BLITZER: There's a story just coming into THE SITUATION ROOM right now from out in California.

Let's check in with Betty Nguyen. She's monitoring this and other stories.

What's going on, Betty?


There is a wildfire burning right now northwest of Los Angeles. Take a look at these pictures. It is burning near Interstate 5. The good news is it's burning away from the freeway. So far, it hasn't affected any homes and there are no injuries.

But 200 acres have been charred. And, right now, we understand 100 county firefighters are on the scene. You see helicopters in the air trying to douse this fire. It might take a little while, but we are watching that very closely.

BLITZER: Also this -- Houston, we could have a problem.

NASA set to launch the space shuttle Endeavour into orbit about two-and-a-half hours from now. Well, NASA says all seven astronauts are on board right now and will soon close the hatch for launch. That's if the weather continues to cooperate. NASA is concerned about possible rain and showers, as well as thunders -- thunderstorms and lightning.

Two planned liftoffs over the weekend, well, they were called off because of bad weather. The shuttle Endeavour will deliver the final piece to Japan's $1 billion space station lab. That's once it gets off the ground, of course.

Well, former presidential rivals, they are some unlikely allies, John McCain and President Obama. Yes, both want to cut $1.7 billion added to the proposed 2010 defense budget that may soon go before the Senate. The money would pay for seven extra F-22 fighter jets. One hundred and eighty-seven of those Lockheed Martin aircraft are already requested. Now, McCain wants to end F-22 production. The Obama administration agrees. But supporters say more F-22s amid potential conflicts involving Iran or North Korea.

So, you really want to go green? Then you might want to consider going white. That idea is being floated by Energy Secretary Steven Chu. He recently said people the world over can attack global warming by painting rooftops and roadways white. That would keep buildings cooler, and then reflect the sun's rays back into space. Chu says it would be like taking all the world's cars off the road for 11 years.

Who knew just painting your roof white could do so much?

BLITZER: It's not green. It's white. All right.



BLITZER: Thanks very much for that, Betty. We will get back to you.

The teenager who almost became Sarah Palin's son-in-law is now elaborating on his claim that the Alaska governor is trying to take the money and run -- Levi Johnston speaking out about Palin's bombshell decision to resign and talk of a Palin reality show.

And a new study explains why the current swine flu outbreak is potentially even more dangerous than ordinary winter flu.

And Sonia Sotomayor in the hot seat -- her critics and her defense, that's coming up in our "Strategy Session."


SOTOMAYOR: The task of a judge is not to make law. It is to apply the law.



BLITZER: He used to be a family insider, and now he's offering his insight on why Sarah Palin is stepping down as the governor of Alaska.

Levi Johnston, the father of Palin's grandchild, says, money is a big, big motivator.

Let's go to CNN's Mary Snow. She is following these developments in New York -- Mary.

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, just to refresh people's memory, Levi Johnston is the former fiance of Bristol Palin. He fathered a child with her.

Now, he says, besides money, pressure played a big part in the governor's decision.


SNOW (voice-over): Nineteen-year-old Levi Johnston isn't holding back with his views on why Governor Sarah Palin, his son's grandmother, is resigning.

LEVI JOHNSTON, EX-FIANCE OF BRISTOL PALIN: I think it's because she -- she got a few offers, and she decided to take the money, and she was a little stressed out at the same time.

SNOW: Johnston had just emerged from an interview in New York in which he talked about the time he lived with the Palins before he and Bristol Palin broke off their engagement. He told NBC's "Today Show" that there were tons of offers coming in, after Palin lost her GOP vice presidential bid.


JOHNSTON: Well, there's been talk about it would be nice to just take the money and run or do...


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: That's what she said?



JOHNSTON: Yes. That's what -- and do -- make a reality show, maybe, or just something easier.


SNOW: Johnston claims the kids weren't interested in doing a show.

Palin has said one of the reasons she's stepping down is because of what she called frivolous ethics complaints by political operatives descending on Alaska.

GOV. SARAH PALIN (R), ALASKA: Todd and I, we're looking at more than half-a-million dollars in legal bills just in order to set the record straight.

SNOW: Johnston told NBC's "Today Show' that he believes fame went to her head.


JOHNSTON: She speaks her mind. She's an incredible lady. And -- but there are times, you know, where she's -- she's not up front with everybody. But, for the most part, she is.


SNOW: Johnston, who was asked about cashing in on his own Palin connection, says he's been getting offers for movies and reality shows, and he even posed for "GQ" magazine.

A spokeswoman for Palin declined comment, but did say last week, "It is interesting to learn Levi is working on a piece of fiction while honing his acting skills."

As for what's next for Palin, in a "Washington Times" interview, she said she's not quitting politics. Instead, she plans to campaign for conservative issues, and would even campaign for conservative Democrats.


SNOW: And Palin's calendar is beginning to fill up. A women's Republican group in Simi Valley, California, says Governor Palin will appear at an event they are holding at the Reagan Presidential Library on August 8 -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And she seems to be pretty good at fund-raising. We're getting some information, Mary, her political action committee reports raising $730,000 in the first six months of this year, a majority of those contributions coming from people who donated less than $200, more than $450,000 in cash on hand, with apparently no debts for that political action committee.

So, that's pretty impressive.

SNOW: It is.

And when -- one thing that is noteworthy, too, is the fact that, as you just mentioned, a majority of those donations came from people who were just contributing -- contributing less than $200 each.

So, we will have to watch and see how she goes from here, but that's the first six months of this year.

BLITZER: Interesting stuff.

All right, we will stay on top of it, together with you, Mary. Thank you.

President Obama said he wanted someone who could be sensitive to the experiences and hardships of others.


SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY (R), IOWA: President Obama clearly believes that you measure up to his empathy standard. That worries me.

I have reviewed your record and have concerns about your judicial philosophy.


BLITZER: So, when does empathy become prejudice? Judging Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. And family members who say they can't take it anymore -- what they're taking -- why they're taking a genie -- a genie -- to court.


BLITZER: The Sonia Sotomayor confirmation hearings began today. All the senators, all 19 of them, had their say. And she had her say as well. The real fireworks will begin tomorrow, when the questions and answers begin.

Let's talk about what happened today in our "Strategy Session."

Joining us, Maria Echaveste, a Democratic consultant, senior fellow with the Center for American progress, and a former White House deputy chief of staff during the Bill Clinton administration, and our CNN contributor Alex Castellanos, a Republican consultant who served as a media consultant to seven U.S. presidential campaigns.

We're not going to ask you how many of them you won, but that's another matter. Several of them, you won, Alex, we know.



BLITZER: We know that.

All right, I'm going to play a little clip from Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. He's -- he's very often, you know, a -- a maverick, if you will, from Democratic and Republicans known positions.


GRAHAM: The Hispanic element of this hearing's important, but I don't want it to be lost that this is mostly about liberal and conservative politics more than it is anything else.

And, having said that, there are some of my colleagues on the other side that voted for Judge Roberts and Alito, knowing they would not have chosen either one of those, and I will remember that.


BLITZER: I listened to him very carefully. And, I mean, I honestly think he could go either way. He could vote to confirm her or vote to reject her.


And, indeed, I think he really made a very good point, which is, it's the president's prerogative to pick his nominee. And that's what elections are about. And what he most -- really stressed was, he may not agree -- and he's asking other senators to remember that, that they may not agree with that particular nominee's positions on -- or even the president's, but that is the president's prerogative.

BLITZER: If he votes to confirm, does he give cover to other Republicans, especially those from some states that may be up in the North or wherever? Does -- is he powerful enough, does he have enough respect to give them that kind of cover?

CASTELLANOS: Oh, I think he does, and I think because -- especially the tone with which he handled it.

I think he -- there was a time in the Senate where the Senate had statesmen who -- who could see the others' point of view. And I think he -- he also, though, made it possible, I think, with that tone, to oppose Sonia Sotomayor on her merits, and took, I think, just being -- this is not about you being a woman. This is not about you being Hispanic. This is about the merits. Can you judge impartially on the Supreme Court?

So, I think it helped both sides raise the debate. You know, interestingly enough, the president says he should be entitled to someone of his -- his beliefs there. But the man who said that those are not today's rules is Barack Obama, who said that, yes, you may be experienced, yes, you may be qualified, and, yes, a president may get to pick, but, no, I'm voting against you anyway with Roberts and Alito.

BLITZER: I want to play another -- another clip from Lindsey Graham -- he's a very thoughtful senator -- referring to her involvement on the board of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense Fund. Listen to this.


GRAHAM: Your organization argued for quotas when it came to hiring. I just want my colleagues to understand that there can be no more liberal group, in my opinion, than the Puerto Rican defense legal fund when it came to advocacy.

And what I hope is, if we ever get a conservative president and they nominate someone who has an equal passion on the other side, that we will not forget this moment, that you could be the NRA general counsel and still be a good lawyer.


BLITZER: Is -- is that a fair point he makes?

ECHAVESTE: I think it's a very fair point.

I think the only thing I would quibble with is that PRLDEF is not an extreme group, and...

BLITZER: The Puerto Rican Legal Defense Fund.

ECHAVESTE: Legal Defense Fund is not an extreme group. And, in fact, she was a board member. And it advocates abolishment of death penalty. I think there are many, many Americans who don't believe in that as well.

But I think his point about advocacy does not make you a bad lawyer or a bad justice is a very good one.

BLITZER: Because we do know that, for example, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, she, at one point in her career, was active in the ACLU, and Republicans didn't necessarily hold that against her.

CASTELLANOS: But this -- this judge has said that her views and her empathy for people are something that may affect the facts she chooses to see in a case.

So, here, it's especially important to know what her views are. And she wasn't just on -- in this organization. She was the -- the -- the head of the litigation committee. "The New York Times" says she strongly supported the work of that committee.

So, I think it's going to be incumbent upon her to say, yes, these were my views. Of course, they were. But I understand that my view as a justice on the Supreme Court would be not to advance my views, but to obey the rule of the law.

BLITZER: Chuck Grassley, another Republican senator from Iowa, he made this point. And I want to play the clip.


GRASSLEY: President Obama clearly believes that you measure up to his empathy standard. That worries me.

I have reviewed your record and have concerns about your judicial philosophy.


BLITZER: All right, we heard from that from several of the Republican senators.

This whole empathy thing, she's burdened by that, not because of anything she said, but by -- by what the president of the United States has said.

ECHAVESTE: Right. It's an unfortunate use of words -- words.

And I think what's -- what's sad is that empathy is -- is fast becoming -- by the end of this week, it's going to be equivalent to president. And that's not...

BLITZER: It's sort of code for activist judge...



BLITZER: ... at least from the Republican perspective.


And that's not what President Obama was talking about. It's not what she was talking about when she said that her experience as a Latina woman is something that in -- will inform her decisions.

BLITZER: Don't go away, guys, because we're going to have more on this, including tomorrow morning. Our coverage of the hearings begins at 9:30 a.m. Eastern. Tomorrow morning, the questions of Sonia Sotomayor begin. We will have live coverage here on CNN.

The father was a heartbeat away from the presidency. Does the daughter crave political power? Dick Cheney's daughter, Liz, answers the question if she will run for political office.

A South Korean report says North Korea's Kim Jong Il is sick and may not live more than five years. Wait until you hear what U.S. officials think about that.

And we're following breaking news in that horrible double murder in Florida. Three people have been arrested. Police are now talking about possible multiple motives. Sixteen kids were in the house at the time.

We will have the latest.


BLITZER: On our "Political Ticker": a possible Cheney campaign on the horizon.

The former vice president's daughter Liz says she's considering running for political office at some point down the road. The former State Department official and mother of five tells "The Washington Times" she may very well run down the road. Liz Cheney has made headlines in recent months defending her dad and criticizing the Obama administration.

Former Senator, the Majority Leader Bob Dole is recovering from a skin graft on his left leg today. Dole has been hospitalized over at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center here in Washington, D.C., for a couple of weeks for a severe infection on his legs. Dole's spokesman says the 1996 Republican presidential nominee is recovering nicely from today's procedure.

We, of course, wish him a very speedy recovery.

Attention, sports fans. Look for President Obama in the baseball announcers' booth during tomorrow's All-Star Game, reporting the president will likely join sportscaster Joe Buck and Tim McCarver some time between the third and fifth inning.

The president is scheduled to throw out the first pitch at the game over at Busch Stadium -- B-U-S-C-H -- Busch Stadium in Saint Louis.

Remember, for the latest political news anytime, you can always check out CNN --

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

Happening now: an exclusive interview with President Obama. He goes one-on-one with CNN's Anderson Cooper in Africa. The world will take note of what he says about the war in Afghanistan, what's going on in Iran, and his plans for the ban on gays serving openly in the United States military. Stand by.

Also, startling new images of North Korea's Kim Jong Il looking gaunt and frail. Now there are reports of a life-threatening ill -- illness, and they're raising new questions about who will succeed him.

Plus, new insight into the potential custody battle over Michael Jackson's children and a timeline on the criminal investigation. "Inside Edition"'s chief correspondent, Jim Moret, he will be here talking to -- he's been talking to sources close to the family. He will be joining us live this hour.

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: All that coming up, but let's begin with some breaking news out of Florida.

There's some new information coming in about that horrible crime, a murder that's hard to comprehend, the -- the murder of a Florida couple