Return to Transcripts main page

The Situation Room

Suspicious Substance at IRS; Thousands Hurt by One Senator; Chile Claws Out of Quake Disaster; Climax Looms in Texas Showdown; Way Forward on Health Care Reform; President's Creeping Cholesterol; Thousands Hurt by One Senator

Aired March 01, 2010 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: Rick, thanks.

Also, happening now, scrounging for food, digging for survivors and counting the dead -- the people of Chile try to claw their way out of a new earthquake catastrophe.

Plus, 2,000 federal workers forced to walk away from their jobs without pay. Unemployment for hundreds of thousands more on the line right now. And it's all because of a single U.S. senator. We're following the fallout from a political smackdown over federal spending.

And the health advocate-in-chief says it's time to walk the walk -- how did one of our fittest, trimmest presidents wind up with a cholesterol problem?

I'm Wolf Blitzer.


But up first, some breaking news we're following -- a suspicious substance found at an IRS building in Utah. Hazardous materials crews have been called in.

Let's go right to our homeland security correspondent, Jeanne Meserve, who's working the story for us -- Jeanne, what do we know?

JEANNE MESERVE, HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, no definitive word yet on what authorities are dealing with out there in Ogden, Utah. But we do know that this morning, Mountain Time, late this morning, an unknown substance was found at the IRS offices in Ogden on Rulon White Boulevard. HAZMAT teams responded.

We did see -- on footage brought into us from our affiliate, KSL, a couple of people being brought out on stretchers. But the FBI, which, as a matter, of course, is called in on these HAZMAT investigations, has instead a statement. And it says: "Some individuals did suffer medical emergencies which, at this time, do not appear to be related to this incident."

The FBI also says that the area around where the threat was received has been isolated and employees have been removed from that area. But once again, they're still investigating nervousness here, Wolf, because of that attack on the IRS a week or so ago when someone flew an airplane into IRS offices in Austin.

But HAZMAT teams across the nation respond to these sorts of events on a daily basis. This may well turn out to be nothing, but we don't know yet. It's still under investigation -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And so let me just be precise, Jeanne. There was some sort of threat that was called in, but the people brought out on these stretchers, that's totally coincidental?

It had nothing to do with that?

MESERVE: We don't know if this threat was called in, if this -- they found something in a letter or a communication that was received. We haven't got that specific. We don't know what it was exactly that triggered this situation.

But, yes, the FBI, in the statement, says at this time, those people who we saw on stretchers, that does not appear to be related to this incident -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Coincidental.

All right. We'll stay on top of it. Lots of confusion as this breaking story unfolds.

Jeanne, stay on top of it for us.

It's the last thing hundreds of thousands of jobless Americans need right now -- even more stress. Their desperately needed unemployment checks are in jeopardy because federal funding for their benefits now has run out.

They're not the only ones feeling the pinch right now in a dramatic example of government gridlock. And one U.S. senator -- one senator alone is to blame.

Let's go to our senior Congressional correspondent, Dana Bash.

She's had a chance to check in with that United States senator.

What's going on here -- Dana?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jim Bunning didn't really answer our questions. In fact, he's somebody, Wolf, who has been known to have a short fuse. And, again, not only did he not answer our questions, which you'll see in a few minutes, he actually waved an obscene finger gesture at a producer for ABC News.

It just shows you how tempers are flaring here on what has become political brinksmanship with a real world effect.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) BASH (voice-over): Construction workers started the morning on the job -- rebuilding a bridge outside Washington. But as the clock ticked toward noon, workers on this $36 million project were told to stop and leave -- the site locked up.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The senator told everybody to go home at 12:00. He told everybody to go home.

BASH: The Department of Transportation says it furloughed 2,000 workers here and around the country because Congress failed to pass legislation to extend funding for the projects -- part of a $10 billion package being blocked by one senator, Kentucky's Jim Bunning, who angrily refused to answer questions about why.


QUESTION: (INAUDIBLE) about these people who are unemployed?

BUNNING: I've got to go to the floor.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Senator, can you just explain to us why you're holding this up?

I'm sure you have an explanation (INAUDIBLE)...

BUNNING: Excuse me.

QUESTION: OK, are -- are you concerned about those that -- that are going to lose their benefits?

I guess we have our answer.

BASH: The $10 billion measure Bunning is blocking also includes unemployment benefits for some 400,000 people, COBRA health subsidies for laid off workers and small business loans. Bunning did go to the Senate floor and did explain. He is for extending benefits, but he wants to pay for them -- not add to the deficit.

BUNNING: If we can't find $10 billion to pay for something that we all support, we will never pay for anything on the floor of this U.S. Senate.

BASH: Bunning even formally offered a measure to pay for the benefits. Democrats objected.

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MAJORITY LEADER: But where was my friend from Kentucky when we had two wars unpaid for during the Bush administration, tax cuts that cost more than a trillion dollars -- unpaid for?

Where was my friend and the Republicans objecting to that?

BASH: Democrats immediately saw the political benefit in playing up a GOP senator blocking legislation helping hard-hit Americans. The Department of Transportation's press release carefully detailed for reporters examples of popular projects halted because of Bunning. And the vice president jumped in, too.

JOSEPH BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It will mean that state and local governments won't get paid for projects they've already done. It means furloughing 2,000 people this week alone.


BASH: Now, Democrats in the Senate do have some legislative tools to work around Senator Bunning. It could take a couple of days, but they have those tools. But Democratic sources say they have no plans to use them right now -- at least not yet -- Wolf.

A spokesman for Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, told me point blank this is emergency spending that, from their perspective, does not need to be paid for and -- and get this, Jim Manley also said, what do these guys -- Republicans -- have against the poor in this country?

They go for tax -- tax cuts for the wealthy and now they want to stick it to the poor.

And you see tempers are flaring, as I said at the beginning.

BLITZER: And do they think -- let's just recap.

Do they think they can get this resolved in the coming days?

BASH: Well, right now, there's a standoff. I mean there really is. What Democrats are saying is it's up to Senator Bunning to back down. So that's probably going to be what we're seeing, unless there's some change in dynamics, for the next couple of days.

At the end of the week, there already was in the works a larger bill to deal with the jobs issue that would have included most of these benefits. That probably will, you know, getting moving at the end of the week. But by the time it passes the Senate -- and then, of course, it's got to go to the House -- if that's the path they take, that could take a couple of weeks.

BLITZER: All right, Dana.

You'll stay on top of this story for us.

Thank you.

Right now, about 11.5 million people depend on jobless benefits in this country. Almost half of them -- a record 41.2 percent -- have been laid out -- laid off of work for at least six months. Most states fund 26 weeks of jobless benefits and in this economic turndown, Congress has dramatically extended federal funding. But -- so in some states, you could get up to 99 weeks of unemployment benefits -- in some states.

Let's get to the devastating earthquake in Chile right now. Rescuers are honing in on tapping noises that they hear in the rubble -- hopeful signs there could be more survivors. The official death toll as of now has climbed to 723, two days after the powerful 8.8 magnitude earthquake hit. Chile's president is ordering more troops to the hardest hit areas to combat looting.

Take a look at some of dramatic images come out of Chile.


BLITZER: A sad scene recreated all throughout the -- most of Chile right now.

Let's bring in CNN's Karl Penhaul.

He's on the ground for us -- Karl, where exactly are you?

KARL PENHAUL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We are on Main Street in a fishing town called Talcahuano in South-Central Chile. And -- and as I say, we're on the main street in the town. And look what's here. Now, that's a 70 ton sardine fishing vessel and it was washed ashore -- about 600 yards, in fact -- by a tsunami wave that followed about an hour after that earthquake.

And the inhabitants say that as soon as they heard that earthquake, they ran out of their homes and headed for higher ground. That was, they say, against advice of members of the navy and from firefighters, who told them go back to their homes, there was no danger of a tsunami wave.

They say they're glad they trusted their instincts and, also, the experience from their parents and grandparents from an earthquake back in 1960. They said they just knew a tsunami wave would come. And when it did, the fishermen and the inhabitants here say it was a very frightening experience, indeed.

It was the depths of night still, but they said they heard the wave coming because it just rattled. It made a sound. It was the rattle and the crashing of ships being bashed against their homes and their houses. It was the rattle and crash of shipping containers being dragged to shore and in some cases, ripping the fronts of buildings off.

And. You can see some of the damage that those tsunami waves did -- two waves, in fact, more than two meters high, according to fishermen and local inhabitants. And you can now see hundreds of yards of fishing nets in the streets. You can see buildings destroyed, possessions scattered all over the place and inches of thick sludge.

And this really has been the scene for much of the day. Inhabitants now meekly, slowly going back to their homes and trying to salvage what few possessions they might have left -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I -- I had been -- I had heard earlier, Karl -- and tell me if this is true -- that of the 700 or so of those confirmed deaths, most -- maybe as many as 600 -- died in the tsunami that hit the Chilean coast, as opposed to directly from the earthquake itself, that there were no sirens, no warnings to move away.

Is that right?

PENHAUL: Exactly. That's what we're hearing, Wolf, as well from official sources. In fact, there's a bit of a spat between the government itself because the defense minister came out and accused the navy of not using its own systems to warn inhabitants.

Now that's one thing, that they didn't alert the inhabits through a system of sirens. I don't know how sophisticated that system is.

But another thing entirely, the inhabitants here have been telling us is that members of the navy told them to go back into their houses, that there wouldn't be a tsunami wave.

Here, luckily, inhabitants say they didn't lose a single member of the community because they trusted their instincts. They headed to higher ground and that, because they know the sea, because they live from the sea and, also, because they have that experience of the earthquake back in the 1960s. But they say had they listened to authorities, the death toll here in this small fishing town could have been well into the hundreds -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Karl Penhaul on the scene for us.

Karl, thanks very much.

We'll check back with you.

The Chilean earthquake released at least 500 times more energy than the quake that devastated Haiti back in January. But the death toll was dramatically smaller. Over 700 people died in Chile so far. Over 200,000 people were killed in Haiti. One reason -- experts say the Haiti quake did more damage because it was much closer to the Earth's surface than the Chilean quake. Chile also has better building codes and construction.

It won't be high noon, but it will be a showdown. In Texas, a boots wearing governor is pitted against a horse riding senator and a gun toting activist who's also a nurse.

Who will within the Texas-style Republican primary that's taking place tomorrow?

Stay with us.



BLITZER: Jack Cafferty is joining us with The Cafferty File -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says that Congressman Charlie Rangel's actions don't pass the smell test, but she refuses to force him out as chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee.

However, the pressure is mounting. Some Democrats are now joining with Republicans, calling for the New York Congressman to be removed. "The New York Times" says the arrogance Rangel showed after the Ethics Committee ruling gives one more reason for Pelosi to stop protecting him.

Pelosi acknowledges that what Mr. Rangel has been admonished for is not good, but that, "he didn't jeopardize our country in any way." Pelosi says she's waiting for the Ethics Committee to finish its investigation before she makes any decisions.

This is the same Nancy Pelosi who vowed to drain the swamp in Washington when she became speaker and the same Nancy Pelosi who called on Republicans to remove the ethically unfit Tom DeLay as their majority leader.

The Ethics Committee admonished Rangel for taking two corporate- sponsored trips to the Caribbean. And there's a laundry list of other stuff they're looking at that involves Rangel's personal finances, like not reporting hundreds of thousands of dollars in income and assets. They're also looking into Rangel's fundraising efforts, his use of several rent stabilized Harlem apartments and his failure to pay taxes on a vacation home in the Dominican Republic.

So here's the question -- why does House Speaker Nancy Pelosi continue to defend Congressman Charlie Rangel?

Go to and post a comment on my blog -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jack Cafferty with The Cafferty File.

Thank you.

Lisa Sylvester is monitoring some of the other top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

What's going on -- Lisa?

SYLVESTER: Hi there, Wolf.

Well, the man charged in the Fort Hood massacre will be moved to a county jail near the base. His lawyer says Major Nidal Hasan could be transferred this week from a San Antonio military hospital where he has spent the past four months. Hasan was shot by police officers during the attack, leaving him paralyzed. He faces a military trial in the killing of 13 people -- the worst mass shooting ever on a U.S. military installation.

And he says he's no barbarian, he was simply protecting ethnic Serbs from threats and physical attacks from Muslim Bosnians. Prosecutors, however, say he is responsible for torture, murder and massacre. Wartime Bosnian leader Radovan Karadzic gave his opening defense today at the Hague against the worse genocide charges since the Holocaust. Charges include counts of genocide against Muslim Bosnians and charges of murder, extermination, persecution, forced deportation and the seizing of U.N. hostages. Karadzic told the tribunal today that his cause is just and holy and that he has a good case. And a whirlwind of diplomacy for the nation's top diplomat -- Secretary of State Hilary Clinton is on a six nation tour of Latin America. First stop -- Uruguay. Clinton saw at inauguration of that country's new president, formerly a member of a radical guerilla group, who spent 14 years in prison before being released and entering politics. Tomorrow, Mrs. Clinton will visit earthquake-damaged Chile. She'll also stop in Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica and Guatemala. She's got a lot of work ahead of her.

BLITZER: We wish her a safe journey, indeed.

All right, thanks, Lisa.

Don't go away.

President Obama looks healthy, he looks lean, but the results of his medical exam are raising some eyebrows today. You're going to find out what's in it that has everyone talking.


BLITZER: It's one race you might say symbolizes the Wild West. The boot wearing governor of Texas is under political assault right now from a horse riding senator and a wildcard -- an activist riding high with many Tea Party activists. They're all Republicans and a climax in this political drama happens tomorrow.

Our senior political correspondent, Candy Crowley, is joining us now from Austin, the state tax -- the state capital in Texas.


What's the latest, as we set the stage for tomorrow's election -- Candy?

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, you know, what's interesting about this race is we've talked an awful lot about how U.S. congressmen and senators running for reelection face a headwind of an anti-incumbent mood in the country. Just how stiff that wind is really can be seen in this race and in Kay Bailey Hutchison who is, of course, the U.S. senator from Texas. She's not running for reelection, she's running for governor.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is she in a car?


CROWLEY (voice-over): This weekend, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison was out flaunting her roots.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The lady is from Texas and she's riding a horse, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison.

CROWLEY: Why does the great, great granddaughter of a man who signed the Texas Declaration of Independence in 1836 have to remind Texans that she's one of them?

GOV. RICK PERRY (R), TEXAS: When you've spent the last 17 years of your life as a United States senator in Washington, DC; when you voted for the bailout, that, in hindsight, was an absolute atrocity; then you must go to the people of the State of Texas and explain to them why you're not a creature of the Washington culture.

CROWLEY: The race to be the Republican nominee for Texas governor is all about Washington.

SEN. KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON (R), TEXAS: There is an anger all over America -- certainly all over Texas -- about what's happening in government, the overreach in Washington. People think, what on Earth are those people thinking up there?

And I don't disagree with them. I agree with them.

DICK CHENEY, FORMER VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: When it comes to being conservative, Kay Bailey Hutchison is the real deal.

CROWLEY: A year ago, Hutchison was the fave -- a popular Republican seen as the establishment candidate who would broaden GOP appeal.

PERRY: How is everybody?

CROWLEY: But that's so 2009, before incumbent Governor Rick Perry's year long full embrace of anti-Washington, anti-tax, socially conservative rhetoric, that includes a declaration at a Tea Party event that Texas should consider seceding from the Union.

WAYNE SLATER, "DALLAS MORNING NEWS": That got enormous response, not because Texans want to secede, but because they hear the word "secession" as code for, we don't like Washington. Unbelievably successful.

CROWLEY: Perry now leads Hutchison by double digits. Not that it's that simple.

DEBRA MEDINA (R), TEXAS GUBERNATORIAL CANDIDATE: I'm here to tell you today, we're going to win.

CROWLEY: Debra Medina has promised to abolish property taxes and ignore federal laws she thinks are unconstitutional. A gun owning nurse who home schools her children, Medina is a Tea Party activist, campaigning as the real anti-spending, anti-Washington conservative.

MEDINA: Boy, they sing the song well during campaign season, but they don't legislate that way.

CROWLEY: Medina's presence in the race could force a runoff if no one gets to the 50 percent threshold. But she took a hit recently and her numbers began to fall when she did not immediately repudiate the notion that the U.S. government was involved in 9/11.

(END VIDEO TAPE) CROWLEY: Nearly every poll here shows that Governor Perry will win this race. But we all know surprising things can happen when voters show up.

Nonetheless, the key question here seems to be whether anyone will reach that magic 50 percent number. If not, Senator Bailey Hutchison has promised to start her campaign anew -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We'll stay on top of it with you, Candy.

Thanks very much.

Candy working the story in Austin.

It's the latest buzz word in Washington -- reconciliation.

But how does it really work and is it really good -- a good solution for the health care gridlock?

We're breaking it down for you, when we come back.


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

Happening now, dealing with death -- while desperate to save lives, we're following the aftermath of that devastating earthquake in Chile. We're also asking an expert, is the United States due for a major deadly earthquake soon?

Stand by.

Tomorrow, in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, one side will argue that people in Chicago should be able to buy and possess handguns to protect themselves. The other side will argue common sense gun laws help protect everyone.

What the high court decides regarding Chicago could affect you.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.


Two days from today, President Obama will likely walk the American public through a road map for passing health care reform. That's what the White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs, is telling CNN.

Might that roadblock include a political land mine over the process known as reconciliation?

It's a word being heard a lot. We've asked Lisa to come in and explain our viewers what this word in Washington-speak means.

LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: OK. So reconciliation, you may not have heard of it before, but it's actually been used 22 times sine 1974. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SYLVESTER: Democrats see reconciliation as one way to get health care reform through consequence without GOP support.

CHRIS FRATES, POLITICO HEALTH REPORTER: That would use the Senate bill as the primary vehicle and introduce a smaller reconciliation bill designed to change the provisions of the Senate bill that the house is not crazy about. That separate reconciliation bill would have to pass the house, it would then go to the Senate.

SYLVESTER: Confused? Okay. Here's what it all means. Reconciliation is a Congressional procedure that prevents a bill from being filibustered. One caveat -- it has to be a bill that would impact the nation's budget. In the Senate, reconciliation eliminates the need for a super-majority of 60 votes to bring a bill up for a final vote, therefore making it easier to get passed. But --

THOMAS MANN, BROOKINGS INSTITUTE: The party on the other side of the majority's use of reconciliation always cries foul. The Democrats did it when Republicans used it under Ronald Reagan, under George Bush; Republicans have opposed it when used oftentimes by Bill Clinton. This is a political battle, not a question of fairness of what's right or what's wrong.

SYLVESTER: So now on health care reform, Republicans are arguing it's not right to use reconciliation to bypass their party on such monumental legislation, but back in 2005, when the shoe was on the other foot, then the Republicans had the majority and Nancy Pelosi at the time the house minority leader ardently argued against using reconciliation, saying the Republican majority was trying to, quote, ram legislation through in such a secretive and unfair manner. Senator Judd Gregg, a Republican, defended using reconciliation then to pass the bill, allowing drilling in the arctic wild life refuge.

SEN. JUDD GREGG (R): All this rule of the Senate does is allow a majority of the Senate to take a position and pass a piece of legislation. Support that position. Now, is there something wrong with majority rules? I don't think so.


SYLVESTER: Of course, today on health care, both sides are arguing the exact opposite position. The Senate parliamentarian has a say on whether or not reconciliation can be used, and for what provisions. Another thing to keep in mind is that reconciliation is only supposed to apply to provisions that are germane to the budget. Now, both parties as we mentioned have used the procedure to pass nail-biters. Republicans have used it more frequently, by a 2 to 1 margin, Republicans use reconciliation to pass president bush's tax cuts in 2001 and 2003, as well as extend the cuts in 2005 and reduce Medicare and Medicaid spending in 2005. Democrats used the procedure in 1990 to pass pay as you go rules, and in 1993 to raise taxes on corporations and some social security benefits. And while reconciliation is generally considered to be a procedural tactic only used as a last option, actually some controversial and major legislation have passed used -- take a look at this. The 1996 overhaul of the welfare system, the children's health insurance program, Medicare advantage insurance policies, and the cobra insurance program. Wolf?

BLITZER: It's got a long history. Republicans, as you say, have used it more than Democrats.

SYLVESTER: It's amazing, when you take a look, you can go back in time and see the debate. These two sides are in the exact opposite position where you had Republicans actually being pushing for reconciliation.

BLITZER: It depends on who is the majority and who is the minority. I think the Republicans have use it 16 times, the Democrats have use it 6 times, and this could be the 7th time right now.

Let's assess what we've just heard. Let's bring in David Gergen, our senior political analyst. He is joining us from Cambridge, and Gloria Borger, our other senior political analyst. Before we get to some of the specifics David, do you have any doubt in your mind whether this process known as reconciliation will be used by the Democrats this time?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: None. I think it's the only course the Democrats now see to pass it. They make a strong art, just as you said, that the Republicans have used this frequently in the past, more frequently than the Democrats have. At the same time, Wolf, Republicans have a strong argument that reconciliation has never been used for anything this massive, covering reorganizing 17% of the American economy. The American people are going to have to judge whether this is appropriate or not.

BLITZER: Listen to Lamar Alexander, Gloria, on ABC yesterday. He makes that point.

LAMAR ALEXANDER: It would turn the Senate December it would really be the end of the United States Senate as a protector of minority rights, as a place where you have to get consensus than just a partisan majority. It would be a political kamikaze mission for the party if they jam this through.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: It could turn out to be a victory for the Democrats if the American public believe they are jamming it through. They've seen the debate, they don't like the health care bill particularly, so they may not like this process. I think the larger question, which David really alluded to, is, should you pass something that affects one sixth of the American economy with just a majority vote? You look back at social security, passed the Senate 77-6. Look back at Medicare, passed the Senate 70-24. Those were clearly different times, different sensibilities, but with this large a piece of legislation, it's good for both political parties to have a little skin in the game here, or else, guess what? If something goes wrong, the Democrats are going to be to blame.

BLITZER: David, at this point it's a little late in the game. The Democrats will argue that the Senate did pass this health care reform legislation with 60 votes in its initial passage. Now they're just going to tinker a bit and that's why 51 votes is enough.

GERGEN: We all know it's not just a little tinkering. It's a second bill. It's part of the legislative process, when you have to reconcile the two bills and use reconciliation in a different way. But I do want to point out one other thing, as we learn more about this process, it is a very messy process. The rules are extremely arcane. They do permit a lot of amendments that you can argue over endlessly. One parliamentarian pointed out that Bob Dole once introduced the entire code and the process bogged down. When reconciliation has been used in the past, on average it's taken about five months from the time that reconciliation is introduced until the final passage. That gets deeply into the season just before elections.

BORGER: And then Republicans have a decision to make, because they do have unlimited amendments on this, which you don't normally have on the Senate floor. They then have a decision to make about how far they want to go in opposing this, or is it their own political interest to let the Democrats --

BLITZER: And we're told that the president on Wednesday will announce the process he wants to use in going forward. So we'll all anticipate what he has to say. Gloria and David Gergen, thanks very much.

At least one of the runways at one of the busiest airports will be shut down for four months.

And President Obama sure looks thin, but could he really be close to being overweight? What's going on here? We're sorting out the results of his medical exam.


BLITZER: Lisa Sylvester is monitoring some of the other top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM right now. Lisa, what else is going on?

SYLVESTER: HI there Wolf. Well, in New York, delays at JFK International Airport are going from bad to worse. The busiest runway was closed today for a four-month renovation. The $376 million project is expected to ease congestion in the long term, but in the short term it's going to be slow going.

High winds today are making matters worse. Flight delays at JFK are averaging nearly two hours today. So get there early.

The SeaWorld trainer killed by a giant whale was remembered today as someone who loved animals and loved her job. A funeral service for Duan Brancheau was held in a packed church in Chicago. She died on Wednesday when a six-ton killer whale grabbed her ponytail and pulled her under water. The memorial service also will be held for the 40- year-old near SeaWorld in Orlando.

There's been a drop in the number of shark attacks in the United States for the third straight year. The University of Florida reports 28 shark attacks in 2009 compared to 41 the year before. Most involves surfers and were more on the scale of a dog bite that something, say, out of a "Jaws" movie. Worldwide 61 shark attacks were reported last year and that was about the same as the year before. So something to keep in mind before you go into the Florida waters, Wolf.

BLITZER: I know, Lisa, thank you.

Imagine what it's like to have a terrific chef whipping up all sorts of fancy meals, snacks and desserts. It may be taking a small toll on President Obama's health. Just ahead, the concerns that were raised during his weekend medical checkup.


BLITZER: Check out President Obama, walking back to the white house from a nearby speaking engagement. Why he did it? What did he do for his health? The president may look like he's in good shape, but his doctor says he needs to bring down his cholesterol. Let's bring in our senior medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen.

You've taken a look at the results of that medical checkup he underwent over the weekend, and a couple numbers not necessarily all that good.

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Right, a couple numbers not so good, especially a man who is nearing 50. His doctors say he needs to pay attention. He exercises a lot, as you can see, but they're worried about his cholesterol. Let's look at his numbers. This is the big one. His bad cholesterol was 138 in this most recent test. Doctors wants to see it below 130. Here's something that I found. This is a bit scary here for the president. His bad cholesterol is up 42 points since 2007. That is a huge increase, and his doctors want him to get that down. Now, some doctors would put someone like Obama on a staten, on a blood pressure-lowering drug with these numbers and in his situation. His doctors have told him to start eating better and stop smoking. Here's what his press secretary Robert Gibbs had to say today about the smoking part.

ROBERT GIBBS, PRESS SECRETARY: While he's quit smoking, he is occasionally falls off the wagon when it comes to that, and like many who have struggled with kicking that habit.

COHEN: So, again, the president being told to modify his diet and stop smoking completely. Wolf?

BLITZER: What about the weight issue? That's a factor as well.

COHEN: Right, actually not for him, though. He's doing quite well. Let's look at this. The president is 6'1". They tell us he weighs 179 pounds. If you look at a body mass index scale, that's well within the normal range. Overweight would be considered 189 pounds. If he gains 11 more pounds he's in trouble, apparently.

BLITZER: Do we know if he has heart disease in his family? The cholesterol issue is something related to heart disease. As you get older, the cholesterol usually goes up unless you start taking a staten. Does he have a heart disease history in the family? I don't remember what his dad died of.

COHEN: That is around excellent question, because that's one of the things that doctors want to know especially as you're creeping towards 50, you're cholesterol is going up. His blood pressure, by the way, is quite low, but it's also on the rise, so a key question the doctor will ask is what's your family history? We looked back at it and had our librarians do research and it's not clear what his family history is of heart disease. We couldn't really find anything solid.

BLITZER: All right. We'll continue to check, Elizabeth. Thanks very much for that, Elizabeth Cohen looking at the numbers.

The death toll is mounting in Chile. The country's leaders are asking for help. CNN's Soledad O'Brien is on the scene, looters have set fire, making things even worse for rescuers. We're going live to Soledad, as CNN covers this story like no other news organization can.


BLITZER: Let's get to our strategy session. Joining us, our CNN political contributor, the Democratic strategist Paul Begala and the Republican strategist Alex Castellanos. Thanks for coming in.

Let's talk a little bit about Senator Bunning and his decision to hold back some of the funding for among other things federal unemployment benefits provided after regular benefits are exhausted, federal health insurance subsidies under cobra, federal highway mass transit road safety programs. He's getting a lot of grief and says, Paul, you know what, it costs $10 billion. Get me $10 billion elsewhere in the budget and I'll release the hold.

PAUL BEGALA, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: This is a man who's voted for trillions of dollars in tax cuts and spending with no way to pay for it. This is a man who sponsored, according to, which is a center for responsive politics, a watchdog, nonpartisan group, he sponsored 23 earmarks last year alone for a total of $45,968,175 including $5 million for something called the National Council on Economic Education for the Cooperative Educational Exchange Program, whatever that is. I'm not saying it's bad. I'm saying this guy is a porker himself. But now, when people -- when Congress, mostly Democrats, are trying to help people who lost their jobs in this Republican recession, now all of the sudden he's pretending to be fiscal conservative. It's reprehensible and his party is going along with it. The Republicans aren't standing up to take him on as he hurts all these middle class people.

BLITZER: Why aren't they?

ALEX CASTELLANOS, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Well, Bunning is not necessarily the face of the Republican Party wants to see out there. He is a graduate of the Howard Dean charm school. He's a little bit erratic at times but the point he's trying to make here is a good one. That is Democrats spent $1 trillion on stimulus, $1 trillion to bail out Wall Street but they can't find $10 billion now for unemployment benefit. Well wait a minute. If we spent that much so there wouldn't be unemployed why are we spending more on unemployment benefits? He's trying to make a political point. Surely if you found the money for Wall Street you can find it for unemployment.

BEGALA: First off, let's be clear, it was George W. Bush, Republican president, who asked for the bailout of Wall Street, who fought for the bailout of Wall Street, who wrote the bailout of Wall Street in the sense of presenting it to Congress and who signed it.

CASTELLANOS: And got Senator Barack Obama to vote for it. He inherited it from himself. By the way, the president can't spend money. It's actually Congress.

BEGALA: Bush didn't bail out Wall Street? You're sticking to that story, Alex? They suck up to big business in Wall Street and now when poor people have -- working class people like I used to be before I hit the Jackpot with CNN, when they lose their jobs, Jim Bunning says "tough."

CASTELLANOS: Look, Bunning is not the face the Republican Party wants. You don't want to be seen as hurting the unemployed. That's not a plus for Republicans. But clearly, the deficit, every day we talk about, it hurts the Democrats.

BLITZER: There are a lot of people who are suffering this week if they don't get the checks and if the cobra benefits go away, the health insurance for the uninsured goes away that's going to hurt a lot of real folks out there. Very quickly, Blanche Lincoln the incumbent Democratic senator from Arkansas now facing a Democratic challenger for the nomination.

BEGALA: That's the lieutenant governor of Arkansas, Bill Halter. I worked with Bill in the Clinton white house. He was part of the Clinton team. He was in the budget office where we balanced the budget, but Halter is coming from the left at Senator Lincoln who is a moderate to conservative Democrat. Meantime she's got a long line of right winged Republicans. She's getting pinched from both sides. This is trouble for Lincoln.

CASTELLANOS: Big trouble. The bad news for her opponent Halter is that he's not loved by the Democratic establishment in Arkansas at all. He came and kind of swept into the lieutenant governor's office with his own money, kicked out the establishment. He does have a lot of union and liberal support. His job, he has to go left now to win. He'd have to go right to win in a general. Not good for Democrats in Arkansas.

BLITZER: Her problem, whatever money she has, I think she has about $5 million. A lot of it she'll have to spend to recapture the Democratic nomination and less money available if she wins for a general election. That's a problem for her. Thank you very much, guys.

In Chile, the damage is bad but for some the looting is now even worse. Soledad O'Brien sent us this picture of a fire set by rioters. She joins us live ahead.


BLITZER: Jack Cafferty joins us for the Cafferty file. Jack?

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The question this hour is why does house speaker Nancy Pelosi continue to defend Congressman Charlie Rangel who was admonished by the ethics committee last week?

Annie in Atlanta writes, "The ruling class doesn't have to abide by the same rules we do apparently. Just like the South Carolina Republicans with Sanford or the justice department with Bush and Cheney. They all make me sick."

Kellen in New Jersey writes, "I don't blame Nancy Pelosi. The last time she went after William Jefferson she got in trouble with the Congressional black caucus. They will circle the wagons against her if she acts too rashly. I don't blame her for waiting but I think she will eventually have to ask him to step down."

Donald in North Carolina writes, "Another prime example regardless of Democrat or Republican of protecting your own to maintain a majority. They are all crooked as hell and that's why they are in Congress -- not to serve the people, but for financial rewards they can accrue serving the vested interests."

Dave writes, "In polite terms, because they are all political animals. If Nancy doesn't support Rangel now and he manages to get through this, there will be payback and she knows it. That's not to say she's a person of conviction and won't change her mind later."

Ryan writes, "This is not a big deal, Jack. Even the ethics committee pointed out that he didn't know who was paying for the trip and that his staff who did know didn't tell him. He fired staff over this. Calm down, buddy."

Jack in Toledo, Ohio writes, "It's difficult to pull the plug and drain the swamp in which you slither."

And Doug in New York writes, "Politicians are like a bunch of bananas, they hang together, they're all yellow and there is not a straight one among them."

If you want to read more on the subject, you'll find it on my blog

BLITZER: Jack Cafferty with the Cafferty file. Thank you.

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