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The Situation Room

Delay Criminal Case Closed; Food Stamp Funding at Risk; President Enters Islamic Center Debate

Aired August 16, 2010 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: Thanks very much, Rick.

Happening now. It's not just Republicans who are pouncing on the president's comments about an Islamic center near Ground Zero. Now the Senate majority leader is suggesting Mr. Obama got it wrong.

Are Democrats handing their opponents a campaign issue?

Also, a plane splits in half when it crashes in bad weather.

Was lightning to blame?

And could it strike with terrifying results the next time you fly?

And a desperate new cry for help from flood-ravaged Pakistan. A fifth of the country is now underwater, including many children fighting to stay alive. We'll experience the crisis firsthand.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.


As President Obama hits the campaign trail to try to help Democrats, his top ally in the U.S. Senate is contradicting him. The majority leader, Harry Reid, now jumping into the flap over an Islamic center planned near Ground Zero in New York City. The president's remarks on this red hot issue over the weekend have given Republicans ammunition. GOP candidates are being encouraged right now to talk about it as much as possible.

Our senior White House correspondent, Ed Henry, is joining us now.

He's traveling with the president today.

The president wants to talk about jobs and the economy, but this issue is chasing him wherever he's going -- Ed.

ED HENRY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. A major split right now in the Democratic Party over this. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who has supported this president on virtually every other major issue over the last 19 months, breaking with the president today on this mosque issue. His spokesman, Jim Manley, telling CNN, quote, "The First Amendment protects freedom of religion. Senator Reid respects that, but thinks that the mosque should be built someplace else." Now the context here, of course, is the fact that Harry Reid is fighting for his political life in Nevada right now. His Republican opponent, Sharron Angle, has been pushing and prodding, trying to get him to comment on this controversy. He finally did today. And her staff jumped on it, her deputy campaign manager is saying, quote, "We are surprised he chose one single solitary issue to break from the president -- shocked, actually. He must be really scared to be reelected if he broke from the president after being his water boy on a number of issues."

Now, we need to point out there are other top Democratic leaders, like Jim Clyburn, the House Democratic whip from South Carolina, he came out today and backed up the president's call for supporting freedom of religion, tolerance, etc. But he also said that this is a local issue -- something we heard from a lot of other Democrats on some of the Sunday shows, like "STATE OF THE UNION WITH CANDY CROWLEY" yesterday.

The problem, though, is the president has turned this into no longer being a local issue. His staff had said for a couple of weeks, it's a local issue, we're not going to comment on it. And once the president jumped into the fray this weekend, it's really not a local issue anymore. It's something that is putting some Democrats, really, on the hot seat right now -- Wolf.

BLITZER: So why did the president decide all of a sudden to step into this -- step into this issue?

HENRY: Well, you know, when you talk to senior officials, they say, at the end of the day, this was the president's call. It was a big enough issue that it came down to him and he felt like it was too big of a Constitutional issue to duck this, especially Friday night, when he was hosting a celebration of Ramadan at the White House Friday evening.

But, you know, the problem is that when I caught up with the president in Florida on Saturday, he seemed to be backpedaling ever so slightly by stressing that he had not commented Friday night on the wisdom of this particular project, even though, in fact, when he was talking about freedom of religion Friday night, he said this extends to a specific project near Ground Zero that's on private property. That certainly sounded to some like an endorsement of the project. So once it started looking like he was shifting ever so slightly, his critics certainly pounced.

I think the bottom line is this White House doesn't really want to talk about this subject much anymore. Today, a reporter shouted a question to the president about whether he regretted jumping in here. Unlike Saturday, the president just kept walking and waved. He didn't want to talk about it -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, OK, I'm -- I suspect it's not going to go away, at least not yet.

Thanks very much, Ed, for that. Just ahead, our Mary Snow will take us on a tour of the area around the Ground Zero site where the proposed Islamic center and mosque would be built.

One of the most important members of the president's national security team now floating a new timetable for his exit from the Obama administration. We're talking about the Defense secretary, Robert Gates.

Let's bring in our Pentagon correspondent, Chris Lawrence -- Chris, all of a sudden, the Defense secretary is suggesting next year he'll be leaving the administration.

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: He'd like to leave sometime next year, Wolf. And -- and it's for this reason. He feels like if he were to leave in 2012, well, there's an election that November. He feels that if there was some sort of contentious confirmation hearing, that wouldn't be good for the process. And, also, he feels that if there's a possibility that President Obama is not reelected at the end of 2012, you know, it's going to be hard to find a credible successor if there's a chance that that person may only serve nine or 10 months on the job.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) LAWRENCE (voice-over): For years, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has been channeling the Godfather's Michael Corleone.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.


LAWRENCE: He was ready to retire two years ago, but stayed on to serve a second president. Now he hopes to leave next year. Quote: "I think it would be a mistake to wait until January 2012. This is not the kind of job you want to fill in the spring of an election year."


LAWRENCE: Retired General Jim Dubik served under Gates during the height of the Iraq surge. He wonders if the next secretary will keep Gates' respect for military leaders in uniform.

DUBIK: He's genuinely respectful of the military profession and what we bring to the table. He's also a very good listener and a very good question asker.

LAWRENCE: Gates has aggressively cut the defense budget. He stopped the Air Force from spending $65 billion on F22 planes and just announced a plan to cut 30,000 contractors and close an entire military command. ROBERT Gates, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: The culture of endless money that has taken hold must be replaced by a culture of savings and restraint.

LAWRENCE: Some military officials don't like these cuts.

Might they consider Gates a lame duck and try to wait him out?

Pentagon Spokesman Jeff Morrell told me there's always that danger but, quote, "I don't think anyone would dare try to play with fire and drag their feet. They do so at their own peril. The secretary is not afraid to fire people who are not on board."

But if Gates leaves, it raises the question, what will the president do without him?

DANA MILBANK, "WASHINGTON POST" COLUMNIST: President Obama came in, particularly after Bush, with -- with sort of an impression that he would be softer on defense and unable to stand up to the Pentagon.

LAWRENCE: "The Washington Post" columnist Dana Milbank says whether it was Gates backing the Afghanistan policy or cutting weapons systems, having a hawkish holdover from the Republican administration helped Obama.

MILBANK: He's not just given the president some political cover, he's been an extensive down duvet cover for President Obama's administration.


LAWRENCE: Yes, so that blanket is gone. And it raises, you know, a lot of issues. And there are a lot of milestones coming up, potentially, next year, including the president's deadline to with -- to start to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and the issue of don't ask/don't tell -- gays in the military. Secretary Gates has been a big proponent, speaking out in favor of repealing that. You know, if he's not there, you have to wonder like where some of these issues may fall -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Well, he's not leaving yet. He'll be around for a while.

LAWRENCE: Exactly, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Chris, thank...

LAWRENCE: We're talking a ways away.

BLITZER: Yes, that's right.

Thanks very much.

Chris Lawrence at the Pentagon.

The ousted commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan has a new job. General Stanley McChrystal will be teaching at Yale University this fall. He'll hold a graduate level seminar on international relations. McChrystal retired from the U.S. military last month after unflattering comments in a "Rolling Stone" magazine article about the president and the vice president. Those comments by him and his staff cost him his command.

A surprising announcement coming out of Afghanistan is raising new questions about the future of the security in the entire region.

Our foreign affairs correspondent, Jill Dougherty, is in Kabul.

JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the announcement came from the spokesman for President Karzai. He said that the president intends to issue an order -- and we expect that that order will be coming out Tuesday morning -- saying that all private security companies operating in Afghanistan must shut down within four months. He did not give a lot of details, but he did say that these private security companies are becoming an alternative force in and of themselves.

We did speak with the U.S. Embassy and they said that until they actually see the order, they cannot comment specifically. But they did say that they support President Karzai's intent. And that intent is to shift responsibility to the central government for security. That, at least, is the aim.

But there was one official who told CNN on a background -- because this is, after all, a sensitive subject -- that there are questions.

In other words, who does this apply to?

Is it only Afghan companies?

Is it international companies?

Is it both?

And what about that deadline?

Does it have to be completed within four months or does the process simply have to begin within four months?

Also, ISAF, the International Assistance Force, say that there have been problems. They've been tracking them, actually, for about a year -- and that what is needed is binding control and oversight by the government. Finally, the reality here in Afghanistan -- and certainly in Kabul, among the international community -- seems to be that the Afghan forces are not, realistically, ready, within four months, to take over control. The object and the aim is to get them to that standard that they will be able to do it. But they are not there yet. At least that seems to be the consensus -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jill Dougherty in Kabul for us.

Thank you. New evidence that China may be poised to push the U.S. aside and become the most powerful economy in the world.

Should Americans feel threatened by this?

Also, the U.S. military is pushing North Korea's buttons right now and the communist regime is angry.

And the former House Republican leader, Tom DeLay says, this is a great day. I'll ask him about the end of the criminal investigation that's been dogging him for years.


BLITZER: Jack Cafferty is here with The Cafferty File -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: Wolf, President Obama stepped into a real firestorm in defending a planned mosque near Ground Zero here in New York City. He's also managed to turn what was a highly emotional debate here in New York into a national conversation. Friday, the president called Ground Zero "hallowed ground." He said Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else. And he said that includes the right to build a mosque and community center on private property in Lower Manhattan.

The next day, the president seemed to backtrack by saying that he wasn't, quote, "commenting on the wisdom of the project," unquote, but, rather, the idea that the government should treat everyone equally, regardless of what their religion is.

Republicans are pouncing on the president's comments, calling him insensitive to the families of 9/11 victims. Some point out that even though the president may be right intellectually, this is an emotional issue.

Families of 9/11 victims are divided over the proposed mosque and Islamic community center. But a recent CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll shows almost 70 percent of Americans are opposed to the idea.

The New York Landmarks Preservation Commission has said that the project can go forward. The Islamic center is set to include a mosque, a performing arts center, a lecture hall, a swimming pool, a gym, a restaurant and a mosque.

New York Governor David Paterson has offered to relocate the mosque to a less controversial location on state-owned land, but the project's developers have said no.

So here's the question -- are Muslims buying themselves unnecessary problems by insisting on building a mosque near Ground Zero in New York City?

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

BLITZER: The debate is heating up, Jack. Thank you.

Let's get to a develop now -- a development now that could threaten this country's status as the world's preeminent economic superpower. According to new figures released today, China is now poised to overtake Japan as the world's second largest economy, behind the United States. Analysts say eventually, it could push the U.S. out of the number one spot. But that will still take many years.

Let's talk about the implications with our senior political analyst, David Gergen.

What does it immediately mean to you, David, if China now is about to pass Japan as the number two economic superpower?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL ADVISER: Wolf, I think many historians may look back upon the rise of China and the shift of influence to Asia from the West as the most important development of our era. And I think we're all still trying to come to grips with it. It means, on one hand, good things. The -- the expansion of a Chinese economy means there is a much bigger market. There are many more people there who can buy American goods. All of us can -- can grow and prosper if it goes well.

But it's a two-edged sword, isn't it?

The threat -- there are two threats to the United States. One is economic, that as China grows, it will also suck jobs out of the United States. And we're seeing a lot of that right now.

And the second is the military threat. China's economy is likely to pass the United States, according to the lead economist at Goldman Sachs, in 17 years. That's not far away.

And what we know from history is that when a nation becomes number one economically, it often becomes number one militarily, too.

BLITZER: And the military ramifications could be significant. I'll get to that in a moment.

I was just in South Africa. Throughout the entire continent of Africa, everyone is saying, you know, the Chinese are here, they're doing this, they're doing that, they're buying up all sorts of stuff. The United States is trying to get involved right now, but it might be late, they say, because the Chinese investors are all over the place.

Is the U.S. entering this global market a little bit too late right now?

GERGEN: I think the U.S. is entering the global market too slowly. And, you know, we're -- we -- Andy Grove, the co-founder of Intel, recently pointed out that we -- we're doing very well with -- we creating start-ups in this country. But once we do the start-ups, increasingly, when they scale up, the jobs go overseas to Asia, especially to China and India. And that we're losing jobs as a result. We're losing our manufacturing core, as a result. And we really have to -- and it's one of the reasons so many people are hurting in this company -- country today.

So we -- you know, it's a long time ago, Wolf, but it was a famous saying by Napoleon, "Let China sleep.

When she awakes, the world will be sorry."

BLITZER: Yes. So we...

GERGEN: I hope not, but it...


GERGEN: -- but we have to -- it's sobering.

BLITZER: So -- so the military ramifications for the U.S. are what?

GERGEN: The military ramifications are that -- that if China becomes a rival to the United States militarily, right now it wants to protect the world order. And, in fact, it appreciates the fact that America is trying to help keep order. But the day may come when it has enough military power that it will become an expansive power. It's already, you know, there are already disputes about islands out in the Pacific. There are going to be increasing disputes over Taiwan, if we're not careful. And they could begin to, you know, throw their weight around and really begin to assert themselves. And -- and already we're seeing country after country is increasingly looking to China as the future and America as the past.

The 20th century was the American century. If the 21st century becomes the Chinese century, it's going to threaten us.

There's a -- I'll just say one final thing. There is a new book by Michael Mandelbaum. He's a professor at John Hopkins -- called "A Frugal Superpower." And it's about America with -- with all the debts we have and the entitlement programs expanding rapidly, that he believes that we're inevitably going to have to pull back as a superpower, our military operations overseas -- our willingness to do things overseas, that's going to leave a vacuum. And -- and China could easily fulfill that vacuum. And it could threaten us. It's extremely important, I think, in coming years, the United States stay competitive and that we try to work with China to make sure it's a cooperative relationship.

BLITZER: We still have a much bigger economy than they have, but they're narrowing the gap dramatically. I think our economy is about $50 trillion. Theirs is $5 trillion. But they're working up quickly.

GERGEN: That's right.

BLITZER: All right, thanks very much.

GERGEN: You know, Wolf, only -- the only...

BLITZER: Go ahead.

GERGEN: Thank you.

BLITZER: What -- make your final point.

GERGEN: No, I was going to say, only a decade ago -- only a decade ago, they were the sixth largest in the world. Now they're second.


GERGEN: And they're moving up fast. And they're growing 10 percent a year. And here we're just sort of, you know, going sideways.


GERGEN: And it's really important that we get our economy moving again.

BLITZER: David, thank you.

The former president, Bill Clinton, hits the campaign trail in Florida.

Can he be more effective than the president of the United States right now?

And a problem on the International Space Station prompts this spacewalk. We're going to tell you what has just happened.



Mary Snow is monitoring some other important stories in THE SITUATION ROOM right now -- Mary, what else is going on?

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, a new show of strength -- of U.S. military strength -- and a promise of retaliation by North Korea. American and South Korean forces launching their annual training exercise today. Tension is high in the region right now, after South Korea blamed the Communist North for sinking its warship. North Korea says it will respond to the military drill by dealing a, quote, "merciless counterblow to the U.S."

We're awaiting word from federal officials and BP officials on whether they'll move ahead with a plan to plug the ruptured oil well in the Gulf permanently. Incident commander Thad Allen says the so- called "bottom kill" won't start until there's a recommendation on how to proceed. Experts are assessing the risks and benefits of pumping cement into the area near the top of the well that was capped a month ago.

Former President Bill Clinton is hitting the campaign trail today at three rallies for Florida Senate candidate, Kendrick Meek. Congressman Meek is in a tight battle with billionaire Jeff Greene in next week's Democratic primary. The winner will face likely GOP nominee, Marco Rubio, and Governor Charlie Crist, who's running as an independent. President Clinton has been enlisted to stump for Democrats in places where President Obama isn't particularly popular.

And new evidence that Americans will vote with their pocketbooks on November -- in November, that is. Our new CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll asked, "What issue is extremely important to your vote for Congress?"

Fifty-six percent said the economy, the only issue that's very important to a majority of people polled. Two related problems, unemployment and the deficit, were tied for second, with 48 percent. Terrorism also ranked that high -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Mary, thanks very much.

We'll have more on these numbers and Bill Clinton, what he's doing in Florida, coming up later.

We last saw him dancing with the stars. Now the former House majority leader, Tom DeLay, is walking away from a criminal investigation. He's free and clear. I'll talk to him about the case and his reputation.

And did lightning tear an airplane in two?

We'll look at the danger and how well planes can survive a lightning storm.



Happening now, a shocking scene in Colombia -- this plane literally split in two and lightning could be to blame. Our Brian Todd investigates just how common these strikes are and how well planes can withstand them.

Plus, it's at the center of an explosive political debate, but a developer's proposed Islamic center isn't the only controversial building in the neighborhood around Ground Zero. Our Mary Snow gets a firsthand look.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.


A relic of the Palestinian uprising a decade ago is now coming down.

Israeli troops dismantling a concrete barrier that was used to protect a disputed Jewish neighborhood from sniper fire.

CNN's Paula Hancocks is in the West Bank.

PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: This 600 meter wall has been here for the past eight years. And today, it is being dismantled. Now, the original reason for this wall being built was because they wanted to stop sniper fire from the Palestinian town of Beit Jala in the West Bank during the second intifada or Palestinian uprising. Now, the fire was heading in the direction of the Jewish neighborhood of Gilo, a neighborhood that Israel considers part of the State of Israel, but the United Nations terms as an Israeli settlement built on land captured in 1967.

But times have changed, according to the Israeli military. The security situation is better, so this wall is not needed.

But just a couple of kilometers down the road, toward the Palestinian town Beit Jala, Israel says that its security needs are such that it does need this wall. Now, this is what Israel calls its security barrier. And it says that it started building it to stop suicide bombers.

This is what the Palestinians call the apartheid separation wall. And they say that it is simply a land grab and choking the economies of many of the towns it surrounds.

So as one wall is dismantled, another, larger wall, is still being built.

Paula Hancocks, CNN, Beit Jala, in the West Bank.


BLITZER: Here in the United States, the former House majority leader, Tom DeLay, has had a federal criminal investigation hanging over his head now for six years. But now, he says he's been told the case is closed. No charges have been filed or will be filed.

The Texas Republican was under investigation for ties to the lobbyist, Jack Abramoff, who pleaded guilty to fraud and other charges back in 2006. Abramoff admitted defrauding tribal clients of millions of dollars for helping getting casino licenses.

Let's talk to Tom DeLay.

He's joining us now from Houston.

Congressman, thanks very much for coming in.


BLITZER: On a scale of one...

DELAY: It's a great day.

BLITZER: ... On a scale of one to 10, 10 being thrilled beyond control, how thrilled are you right now?

DELAY: Well, I'm pretty thrilled. I'm very happy for my family. They don't have to go through this anymore, at least this phase of it. We've still got to try, starting next week, on indictments of laws that didn't exist in Texas. But it makes you feel good, number one, that you've been found innocent and it, my family is relieved. You know, my wife gets up every day and thinks I'm going to prison or going to have our house raided and it's had a huge impact on her health. So hopefully this will help.

BLITZER: When I heard about the decision over six years you've been investigated by two administrations, the Bush administration justice department, the Obama administration justice department, four attorneys general, and now all of a sudden they're saying to you, never mind. No crimes were committed. No charges will be filed. I was reminded of that quote that Ray Donovan the labor secretary during the Reagan administration gave after he was exonerated for charges, which office do I go to get my reputation back? Is that how you feel right now as far as the federal charges are concerned?

DELAY: Well, Wolf, as you know, politics has changed greatly over the last ten or 15 years. I've been under these kinds of attacks actually for 15 years. And it's not good enough for your political enemies to ruin your reputation. They now want to bury you, vilify you, bankrupt you, put you in prison and then dance on your grave. I'm hoping that people will see what's happened to me and stop this criminalization of politics for the politics of personal destruction. It's not healthy for the country and it is certainly not healthy for the institution of the House of Representatives.

BLITZER: Do you see what's happening for example to Charlie Rangel or Maxine Waters right now? Is that similar to what was happening to you or do you see a difference?

DELAY: I see a big difference. Charlie Rangel's already admitted his guilt on the floor of the house in a speech last week. I don't know about Maxine Waters. The only similarity is the ethics committee has been politicized and it's taken over two years to do anything with Charlie Rangel and for that I regret that but he's admitted guilt. I was never guilty. Back in 1996, Patrick Kennedy, chairman of d triple c announced to the world that they were going to get Tom Delay and it took them about 11 years to do it with a lot of frivolous ethics charges. I even had Kennedy file a racketeering suit against me and they finished it with the conclusion of indicting me, knowing that under the Republican rules the Democrats don't have such a rule that I had to step aside as leader if I was indicted. That's all they wanted. So I think what's happening to Charlie and to me is completely different because this investigation was criminal not ethics.

BLITZER: And with Charlie Rangel he says yeah he may have made some mistakes in filing taxes late and stuff like that but doesn't believe any criminal charges should certainly be filed against him. We're not going to get into the whole Charlie Rangel/Maxine Waters issue right now. What is the major lesson you learned from this whole six-year investigation and this experience?

DELAY: Well, I don't know what lesson I learned, Wolf. I gave over a thousand documents, all the documents that I had to the justice department. I even gave them all my computers in my office as well as personal computers. They looked at all of that. I instructed my aides to cooperate fully. And so the justice department had everything and you would think in a year they'd be able to look at everything that I had. I wasn't hiding under the speech and debate clause. They had everything. You would think in a year they'd understand that there is nothing there. And I think that the thing I learned the most, Wolf, is, you know, I just, I'm not mad because they thought I was corrupt. I'm mad because they thought I was stupid. I knew they were after me and I had lawyers all the day long telling me what I could and could not do to make sure that none of this could happen or that I was living within and working within the rules of the house and within the law and I've been proven right.

BLITZER: How much did this cost you in legal fees, this federal investigation?

DELAY: Well, I don't know. The federal investigation alone cost me over $500,000. The racketeering suit cost over $5,000. The several ethics charges all dismissed by the way. So a total we added up over an 11-year period was $8 million in legal fees.

BLITZER: Out of your pocket you had to spend $8 million to defend yourself?

DELAY: No. I don't have that kind of money. It did empty my bank account but luckily I have supporters all over the country who appreciate me standing up and fighting hard for conservative values and I was able to raise most of that money.

BLITZER: So the $8 million figure is what, what the federal government spent or what your legal fees were?

DELAY: My legal fees over an 11-year period of several ethics charges of racketeering suit, this federal investigation, the indictment that I'm under right now all total up to over $8 million. Can you imagine over a six-year period what the federal government has spent in lawyers and FBI agents investigating me to no avail?

BLITZER: And you still have these state charges that are pending in Texas. That's going to be coming up for adjudication within a few weeks. Is that right?

DELAY: Actually I go to trial next Tuesday. And I'm looking forward to it. I've been waiting five years to go to trial. I could not get to trial. That's a long story. But we're finally going to start to trial with a pretrial hearing on Tuesday. Hopefully I can get before a jury very quickly because I was indicted by a run away rogue district attorney and indicted on laws that didn't even exist in Texas at the time.

BLITZER: After six years, Tom Delay will not face any federal charges. That investigation is over with. I know you're thrilled about that, Tom Delay. Thanks very much.


BLITZER: For sharing some thoughts with us. We spent a lot of time covering all the accusations I thought it was the right thing to do to make sure we reported accurately what the justice department has now determined.

DELAY: Thank you, Wolf. I appreciate you so much.

BLITZER: Thank you, Tom Delay.

A giant step forward for the embattled shrimping industry along the gulf coast. And find out what space station astronauts got out of their seven hour and 20-minute spacewalk.


BLITZER: Mary Snow is monitoring some of the other top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM right now. What else is going on, Mary?

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, new repairs performed on the International Space Station's cooling system appear to be working. Astronauts conducted the spacewalk today to replace the broken unit they removed last week. The part they installed was delivered aboard a 2006 space shuttle discovery mission.

The late Alaska Senator Ted Stevens is being remembered today at a mass in Anchorage. The longest serving Republican in Senate history was killed with four others in a plane crash last week. Another four people survived the accident. The official funeral for Stevens will be held on Wednesday.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair says he'll donate all the proceeds from his new memoir to wounded veterans. The royal British legion says the donation will help fund the building of a rehabilitation center expected to open in the U.K. next summer. Blair will discuss his new book here in THE SITUATION ROOM next month. Wolf?

BLITZER: I think September 14th he is coming in. All right. Good luck to him and that new book. Thank you, Mary.

Funding for food stamp benefits used by more than 40 million Americans could be in jeopardy right now. The first lady Michelle Obama is involved at least indirectly. Our Congressional correspondent Brianna Keilar is here to sort this out for us. What's going on with this bill before Congress right now and the controversy that has surrounded it?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Congress right now, Wolf, is considering a child nutrition bill. This is a bill first lady Michelle Obama cares a whole lot about because it includes money for her main initiative which is called Let's Move. It's trying to get kids exercising and eating healthy so this is why we see her in the white house garden. This is why we see her here out at the farmer's market. This bill also includes money to expand free school lunches and make them healthier. So it sounds like something that the Democrats would be in favor of. Right? Yes. But 106 liberal Democrats have sent a letter, this is part of it, to Speaker Pelosi, saying they have concerns that this bill is robbing Peter to pay Paul. And here is why they say that. Because one proposal to pay for this child nutrition bill, which has already cleared the Senate, would pull money out of food stamps, actually cutting back on the increase in food stamps that low income Americans got in the stimulus bill, Wolf.

BLITZER: They've already done this to pay for a jobs, for a teacher jobs bill. They used some money from the food stamps to pay for that already. Democrats were onboard for that.

KEILAR: Yeah, they were. The difference here is that liberal Democrats say that was really a bitter pill for them to swallow. They said they kind of held their nose and went along with it because saving jobs was an immediate issue they needed to deal with. They don't want to do it again so house Democratic leaders are realizing they need to find a different way to pay for it that maybe cutting from food stamps isn't going to be something that these liberal Democrats will go along with this time.

BLITZER: 40 million, I think 41 million Americans every day rely on these food stamps just to eat. It as huge number.

KEILAR: The other thing is when you think of how many kids rely on these free lunches as well. So you kind of have them in opposition which is a tough spot for Democrats to be in.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Brianna Keilar.

Roughly 1 of 8 Americans are enrolled in the food stamps program right now. On average a single person gets about $133 a month and the average household gets just more than $288.

President Obama wades into the emotional debate over a proposed mosque and Islamic center near ground zero in New York. Was it a smart move?

It's charged with deciding it would have the most contentious cases in the country right now. Dan Simon is getting ready to take a closer look at the controversial 9th district court of appeals.


BLITZER: Right to our strategy session joining us our CNN political contributors Bill Bennett, the national radio talk show host, and Democratic strategist James Carville. Guys, thanks very much for coming in. Was it a big blunder you think, James, or was it the right thing to do for the president to weigh in on the mosque location the other night?

JAMES CARVILLE, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: To give you an honest answer it was both. It was a blunder and the right thing to do.

BLITZER: So tell us why it was the right thing to do and why it was a blunder.

CARVILLE: Well, first of all because for any number of reasons, we're not at war with Islam but with al Qaeda and the mayor and the people -- you know, public opinion has been lost on this. Public opinion is against it. The president stepped into it and, you know, so it certainly didn't -- I think it didn't help him politically at all. Probably hurt him a little bit.

BLITZER: I want to get to the issue of whether it hurt other Democrats as well. Let me read to you, Bill, a speechwriter who used to work for President Bush wrote about this. "Obama had no choice but the general path he took. No president of any party or ideology could tell millions of Americans that their sacred building desecrates American holy ground. This would understandably be taken as a presidential assault on the deepest beliefs of his fellow citizens." Are you with Michael Gerson on this, Bill?

BILL BENNETT, TALK SHOW HOST: What is he saying, that the president was right to do this?

BLITZER: The president was right. He had no choice and he had to talk about this and say what he said.

BENNETT: That's ridiculous. He didn't have to say what he said. By the way, the annunciation of the first amendment principle is superfluous. We all believe in the first amendment. It was never an issue of freedom of religion. This was about the appropriateness of putting a mosque on this site. He certainly didn't have to say as every newspaper reported it that he was in favor of the mosque being built on that site. That's how it was reported in the "New York Times", "The New York Daily News" AP and then the next day they said that's not what they meant. This was a blunder pure and simple. He is on the wrong side of this politically and also has it wrong in terms of a principle. It's grossly insensitive of these people.

BLITZER: I think the distinction the president is trying to make, James, let me bring you into this, is that the Muslims certainly have the right to build this Islamic center and mosque where they want to build it.


BLITZER: But the next day he was saying he didn't want to necessarily weigh in on the wisdom of the location of that decision. The difference being the right versus the wisdom.

CARVILLE: Right. Having the right to do something doesn't necessarily make it the right thing to do. I think, my own view, is that, you know, first of all it's not on the site. At any rate, people have been itching. Donald Rumsfeld famously said we're going to change the way they live. They're going to change the way we live. You try to change the way 1.2 billion live I don't think it's a nifty idea. Don't count me onboard on that idea. This whole thing was built up by a blogger who says she doesn't want the Islamization of America as if that's a threat and, you know, you're for religious tolerance or you're against it. I think this is something that we're not looking very good at. But the political fight is lost. The opposition to this thing has won the political fight.

BLITZER: So, Bill, is this going to be a huge political issue between now and November 2nd? BENNETT: I think it will be big but it looks like Democrats are lining up against the president. 54 percent of Democrats the most recent poll don't agree with the president. I understand Harry Reid issued a statement he issued a statement saying he doesn't agree with the president. I don't know where his support is. Schumer and Gilibrand so far have been silent. This is a losing issue. He shouldn't have gotten into it. Gibbs said, the white house spokesman said for two weeks, this is a local issue. We're not going to get involve the in it, but they stepped in and now they're going to have to live in it. They're wrong on all counts and it will be an issue because you can not talk about 9/11 in this way as if you're instructing the American people as if they have it wrong. They don't have it wrong.

CARVILLE: Well, you know, I think that it's not a good idea. I didn't think it was a good idea, these wars. I don't think it's a good idea to try to change the way $1.2 billion people live.

BENNETT: I don't know what that means.

CARVILLE: That's what Donald Rumsfeld says. We're going to change the way they live.

BENNETT: What does have that to do --

CARVILLE: You're telling people you can't build a mosque at the old Burlington Coat Factory. I think the whole world is watching us.

BENNETT: That's -- that's right. We are saying it is wrong to build a mosque there because this thing was done in the name of Islam. And even though you may not have approved it, this guy Ralph's credentials are questionable. You should have the sensitivity to realize this is going to go down the wrong way for very rational reasons.

CARVILLE: I'll make the distinction. Islam did not attack us. Al Qaeda did. And we ought to be at war with al Qaeda and not Islamists.

BENNETT: Islamists did.

CARVILLE: I see the distinction clearly. We ought to be at war with al Qaeda.

BENNETT: The federal republic of Germany did not build Trablica but the federal republic of Germany should have the decency not to have a federal republic of Germany monument at the site of Trablica or Auschwitz.

CARVILLE: Again, I have many many Muslim friends that I hold their friendship dearly. They did not attack us.


CARVILLE: And I see the distinction clearly. We ought to be at war with al Qaeda. BENNETT: Have they condemned the attack?

CARVILLE: Plenty of people have.

BENNETT: Your Muslim friends? Would they come on my radio show and tell --

CARVILLE: We're nine years into changing the way they live. I don't think it's going too nifty out there, but that's me. Maybe I'm missing something.

BENNETT: Oh, you mean Iraq? Well, that is going nifty, as a matter of fact. That is a blessing for the people of Iraq.

BLITZER: On that note, we're going to continue this discussion. I'm sure in the days to come. Because I think both of you are right politically this issue is not going to go away. It's going to dog a lot of the candidates between now and November 2, and maybe even longer than that. Thanks very much, James Carville and Bill Bennett.

Jack Cafferty has your e-mail on this topic. That's coming up.

Also, see the horror of the flooding in Pakistan. The endless water, the unrelented misery, we're going there.

And a serious new diagnosis for the actor Michael Douglas.


BLITZER: Jack's joining us again with the Cafferty file. Jack?

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The question this hour, are Muslims buying themselves unnecessary problems by insisting on building a mosque near ground zero here in New York City?

John writes, "Tolerance goes both ways. To show understanding for the pain 9/11 families are going through, the developers of the mosque ought to voluntarily move it. Just because you have the right to do something doesn't make it right."

Kendy writes from Delaware, Ohio, "Maybe they are. The real question should be why are so many people reluctant to afford them their constitutional right to practice their religion freely? Seems to me a lot of conservatives are participating in selective tolerance. They would holler just as loud if a gay marriage chapel wanted to open there."

Marja writes from Sweden, "No, and besides it's two blocks away from ground zero. Even though sorrow of the relatives of 9/11 is most understandable, it's regrettable if some of them take seriously the misinformation of certain tea party members who want to spread hate missing up Muslims with al Qaeda. I'm a Christian from Stockholm."

Jay writes, "You bet they're asking for trouble. I mean come on. Sure they have the right to build but what about respect? Why choose this spot to place their mosque? These people are crazy for considering building a Muslim mosque so close to a site that was attacked by Islamic suicide bombers. It's almost as if they are challenging us."

Pete writes from Georgia, "Does anyone believe that Muslims anywhere on this planet are sensitive to anyone or anything except their own hellish agendas?"

Amine writes, "I don't think we're buying unnecessary problems, we. It's a matter of principle and to honor everyone who died on 9/11. Not only Christians died in this tragedy, but Jews, Muslims and nonbelievers. Also, if two blocks from the World Trade Center is not good enough for you and your racist friends, is five blocks okay? Almost in every town in the U.S., people are against mosques being built because they're misguided by the media and the hatred they inject in everyone."

Elizabeth in Dallas says, "Settlers came here because of religious persecution. We're one of the very few countries in the world organized around values and ideals, not ethnicity and heredity. America's greatest strength is its diversity. We shouldn't ditch our values because devout people want to practice their faith."

If you want to read more on this, we got a lot of mail. Some pretty intelligent, pithy comments, if I do say so. Go to my blog, No shortage of opinions on this.

BLITZER: Our viewers are very smart, Jack. Thank you.


BLITZER: Desperate new pleas for international help as the flood disaster in Pakistan worsens by the day.

And lightning could be to blame for splitting this plane in two. Just how common are these strikes? Brian Todd is investigating.