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Unconstitutional Mandate?; Amb. Richard Holbrooke Dies at 69

Aired December 13, 2010 - 19:00   ET


JOHN KING, HOST: Thanks, Wolf, and good evening everyone. Tonight President Obama's tax cut deal clears a key hurdle in the Senate and while liberals are still angry the White House is increasingly confident the package is gaining momentum in the House, too. Remember last week when the president labeled critics of the deal sanctimonious, well today with victory in sight consider this conciliatory language in an effort to broker a Democratic family detente.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I recognize that folks on both sides of the political spectrum are unhappy with certain parts of the package. And I understand those concerns. I share some of them, but that's the nature of compromise.


KING: Also, can a group that calls itself "No Labels" make a mark at time politics is dominated by left versus right sparring? We'll explore the mission and the key players of a new effort to pull the debate on taxes, spending, schools and more with the center.

But we begin with a major setback for the president's signature domestic policy initiative, health care reform. A federal district judge in Virginia today ruled the centerpiece of the new law a requirement that most Americans get health insurance is unconstitutional. Judge Henry Hudson came to the bench by President George W. Bush, wrote a congressional mandate for individuals to get health insurance is quote, "neither within the letter nor the spirit of the Constitution."

The case was brought by Virginia's conservative attorney general, Kenneth Cuccinelli, a Tea Party favorite who cast a ruling as a strong message to the Obama White House and to all of Washington.


KENNETH CUCCINELLI, VIRGINIA ATTORNEY GENERAL: This case is not about health insurance, it is not about health care. It's about liberty.


KING: Cuccinelli is with us tonight. We'll explore the ruling in just a minute. But first, our White House correspondent Dan Lothian has the administration's battle plan now -- Dan.

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well John, as you pointed out, a lot of people believing that this is a blow for this White House, but officials here, top aides downplaying any major setback saying that there was no surprise here, that this is all part of the legal process and that in the end, they believe that they will prevail because the merits to this case are strong.

They point out there have been two other similar cases in federal courts. One in Michigan, the other also in Virginia where the courts ruled that the law is constitutional. The big question, though, being asked now is if this ruling will give any ammunition whatsoever to critics out there who believe that this law should be repealed. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs saying that he doesn't believe that it will have any impact whatsoever. But already incoming House Speaker John Boehner was reiterating that Republicans had planned and pledged to repeal the health care law and he says that's exactly what they'll do -- John.

KING: Dan Lothian at the White House -- Dan pointing out a legal ruling that reignites the political debate. Now let's get the perspective of the man who challenged the law and won, at least this first round. Republican Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli of Virginia joins us from Richmond tonight. Sir, I'm holding the decision here from Judge Hudson. You win the case on this round. You just heard Dan Lothian note there are two other cases upholding the law. One of them in Virginia --


KING: What do you think makes this decision better than the other two?

CUCCINELLI: Well, whenever you have a state as a party with the federal government, you're in sort of a different category. And the next one of these is coming up Thursday in Florida when they have their merits hearing down in Florida. Probably get a ruling in January or February time frame in that case. There are 25 total cases running across the country.

Certainly you're going to see a series of rulings, but even in the two we've seen so far that went the federal government's way on the individual mandate; the federal government was ruled against in both cases on their tax argument. And there are two arguments in this case. The individual mandate, whether or not it's constitutional, and whether or not the penalty, if you disobey the government instruction that you must buy their government-approved insurance is a tax.

And the federal government lost again on the tax argument in addition to the individual mandate today. This is obviously a very important ruling. But as you've pointed out here on this show, this one is probably going to the Supreme Court. We hope it gets there soon because it certainly introduces an amazing amount of uncertainty for our whole economy.

KING: Let's get to that point because I know your position. Your position is this law is unconstitutional. The administration clearly disagrees.


KING: If you're an American citizen watching, whether you live in Virginia or elsewhere of you're an American employer watching, you're in a bit of a limbo. The law is still in place obviously, but you're thinking, should I change my conduct? Should I affect my hiring? What I get a new health care policy for my employees or what should I do if I'm an individual and I don't buy insurance? So do you believe there's the political will to at least ask the Supreme Court for an expedited review of this case or will this goes on in the courts for another two or three years before it gets all the way to the top?

CUCCINELLI: I actually think it's harder not to make the request than to make the request because there's so much uncertainly out there. And we all know there's a lot of business money parked on the sidelines, waiting to see what the rules of the road are going to be, not just in health care, but you introduces the tax compromise that's being discussed in Washington.

All these things have an impact on whether or not businesses are willing to start investing that cash that they're holding and to help start creating jobs. And I think that this administration could benefit by moving this case faster and reducing the uncertainty in the economy more quickly. And whatever the outcome, whether Virginia wins or whether the federal government wins, knowing the outcome is a benefit by itself to all Americans. Obviously I hope that we protect the Constitution and Virginia prevails, but I don't get to decide that. The Supreme Court is ultimately going to have to do that.

KING: Mr. Attorney general, I know your position, the conservative, the federal government has no right to do this. That's your position. Answer, though, if you go on Twitter, on Facebook, e- mails to us today, answer the critic of your position who says well then what happens? If you don't have this mandate in play, what happens if some 30, 35-year-old person decides you know what, I'm young.

I'm fine. I'm safe. They don't buy insurance. They don't get it from their employer and then they have a horrific accident, say a car accident. And they end up in the emergency room. Who pays then?

CUCCINELLI: Yes, John, that's a great question. And of course I'm an attorney general and my obligation first is to defend the Constitution. But the reality is, as you said, there are plenty of people who see benefits in this bill and in a 2,700 page bill surely there's something in it for everybody. I hope, "A" that we win the case and "B" that the parties can get back to the table and start to work on the things that there's broad agreement on.

There wasn't broad agreement. There were enough votes to get this through, but I wouldn't call it broad agreement here. We need to start getting consumers in control of health care to drive costs down. More government hasn't worked for 45 years. So we need to go in a different direction so we can offer people other alternatives. I did that as a state senator to increase the availability of health insurance, put in bills to help myself do that before I was an attorney general. There are ways we can do this to help take care of the folks who need greater access to health insurance, but violating the Constitution and eliminating some people's freedom is not the way to do that.

KING: This is a legal fight, but as you know, it's also a high stakes political battle. And within minutes of winning this decision, you could go on the Internet and see an ad that's congratulating you, celebrating your victory in this case in Virginia and saying donate money. Donate (ph) -- make political contributions to Ken Cuccinelli, the attorney general of Virginia. Is that appropriate, sir, for you to raise money off of this especially within hours of the ruling?

CUCCINELLI: Yes, there's no question that the debate and the contest over this occurs not just in the media. It occurs in the political environment, by which I mean on Capitol Hill here in Richmond, but also in the political environment like campaigns. And the fact is I need to survive politically. I'm an elected official in Virginia.

The people of Virginia, 58 percent of them voted for me in the last election. And an awful lot of very upset folks, a lot of them very powerful with plenty of money here are going to be coming after me. They've already said as much, in the next election. And we have to prepare for that as well while we continue to defend the Constitution regardless of what the consequences are.

KING: Mr. Cuccinelli, appreciate your time tonight. We'll keep in touch as the case makes it way through the court --

CUCCINELLI: Thanks for having me.

KING: Thank you very much for coming in. And this much appears certain, sooner or later, as we just discussed, the Supreme Court will get the final say. Our senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin is here with us.

Jeff, you know it's not sports, but we have a couple of decisions saying the law is constitutional. Now this decision saying it's not. Where are we going?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: We're going to the Supreme Court, and I think anyone who predicts with absolute confidence how the Supreme Court will address this is blowing smoke because this is a perfect illustration, this case, this issue, of how much more the courts have gotten -- how much more conservative the courts have gotten over the years.

This argument would have been borderline frivolous 20 years ago. But the courts are now taking a much closer look at whether Congress has the power to act, whether it's in the First Amendment and the Citizens United case about corporate advertising or in a case like this about whether the government can require health insurance. KING: And in this decision by Judge Hudson, he -- the way he says the mandate is unconstitutional, as he says it, Congress went way beyond its power in stretching the commerce clause. In layman's English, explain that to somebody watching who says what's the commerce clause?

TOOBIN: Article One of the Constitution says that Congress has the right to regulate commerce among the several states. And it is through that brief passage in the Constitution that most of the modern federal government was invented -- Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid -- because basically the courts have said look, even if individual decisions have nothing to do with interstate commerce, just a small transaction, if you add up all those small transactions together, they do have an affect in their state commerce, and that's enough to let Congress regulate.


TOOBIN: What this decision says is -- pulls back from that. It basically says no, this goes beyond Congress' power on interstate commerce.

KING: You track the high court, as well as anyone, Jeff. The lower court decision so far, judges appointed by Democrats have said this law is OK. Judges appointed by Republicans have said this law is not OK. When we look to the Supreme Court, is this a where does Anthony Kennedy go or is it more complicated than that?

TOOBIN: I don't think it's a bit more complicated than that. I think there are four Democratic appointees on the court now -- Kagan, Sotomayor, Ginsburg and Breyer. There are four Republican appointees -- Thomas, Scalia, Roberts, and Alito and Justice Kennedy appointed by Ronald Reagan, right in the middle. That's where this case is going to be decided. And it's a very good time to be Anthony Kennedy right now.

KING: Very stressful time perhaps as well -- Jeff Toobin, appreciate your insights tonight.

When we come back, another huge political story playing out today -- the president's plan, the tax cut compromise he struck with Republicans. Remember all the tough rhetoric from Democrats last week? Well, it cleared a key Senate hurdle Senate today by a lopsided vote -- more on the other side.


KING: So far anyway it's easy going for the tax cut deal President Obama negotiated with congressional Republicans. The Senate voted overwhelmingly tonight to begin debate on the nearly $900 billion measure and we're hearing the White House is making progress with some of its liberal critics on the House side, too. Get the latest from senior congressional correspondent Dana Bash -- Dana, a huge vote in the Senate. I don't remember the last one like that on a big policy question, momentum? DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's certainly what the White House is hoping. I'm actually hearing that that might be the case. We'll see what happens and what the House decides, but the fact that 83 -- 83 United States senators voted for, as you say, a pretty big piece of tax legislation. Republicans and Democrats kind of evenly split.

It's pretty remarkable and the White House is where the president came out today making clear that he wants the House to go forward as is. That's the open question is whether or not they're going to do that.

KING: And the open question is whether they're also secretly negotiating, the White House and the Democrats in the House or whether the House just plans without the president's help to try to change this bill. What is it?

BASH: Well, the White House, the president himself said he was making calls today to try to persuade House Democrats. What I'm told that the most likely scenario at this point -- it could change -- but at this point is that House Democrats will take up what the Senate is working towards passing, but with an amendment, an amendment on an issue that makes Democrats most angry in the House.

That is the estate tax provision. Specifically the fact that they believe that it just is too generous to wealthy Americans. So what they would do is try to put up a measure that would make it less generous so to speak. The question is whether or not they could actually pass it. If it does, I'm told tonight by senior House Democrats, even those who may oppose this that it would probably just quickly go back to the Senate.

They most likely would reject it and then it would go back to the House. So what does this mean big picture? People on both sides of the Capitol, Democrats who have been very angry seem to be a lot more resigned to the fact that especially with this big overwhelming Senate vote that the tax cut package is likely to go through before the end of the year, before everybody's taxes are slated to go up.

KING: All right Dana Bash for us on Capitol Hill tonight. Let's move on. No Bill Clinton a side kick this time, but a little more than an hour ago the president came into the White House briefing room solo. His statement was very brief and very telling. The president angered liberals last week by labeling their criticism of the tax deal sanctimonious. Well tonight he was conciliatory and then some.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: So you did compromise?



KING: All right, that was the wrong piece of sound there. We were supposed to have the president in the briefing room earlier today saying that he understands both sides in this debate. That's what he says. Let's move on to the conversation.

With me here in Atlanta is Erick Erickson, and in New York John Avlon, who is a founding member of the new group "No Labels" and in Washington, D.C., the Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher. Sorry we couldn't get the sound right there, gentlemen. But Cornell, let me go to you first.

The president went out of his way today, oh, I understand people on both sides don't like this. I actually share some of your concerns. What happens to you sanctimonious people need to support me.

CORNELL BELCHER, DEMOCRATIC POLLSTER: Politics. The truth of the matter is look, the president is bringing both sides along on this. And again he's looking like the adult in the room. And you do see Democrats moving over. I mean today one of the most liberal members of Congress (INAUDIBLE) Congressional Black Caucus (INAUDIBLE) said he's going to come out and he's going to support this. So you do see Democrats coming over and what you're going to see -- you're seeing in the Senate I think you're going to see in the House too, you're going to see for the first time a bill passed with truly bipartisan support here.

KING: Well John Avon, you're at the founding meeting today of this group called "No Labels". You think that the strength of American politics is in the middle. Is this proof of a middle or is this proof of everybody just finally giving up, it's the end of the year, let's vote for what the president wants.

JOHN AVLON, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I don't. I mean look at the margin in the Senate, just in this initial vote, 83 votes in favor. When was the last time we saw an 83-vote margin on any major piece of legislation in the Senate? It's been a long time. And I think it does reflect the fact that this bipartisan package has 66 percent approval rating across the nation, even though the far left opposes it and some folks increasingly on the far right. So I think the president is being rewarded in effect for his leadership at trying to forge a compromise bill even though, as he said, it's not perfect, but perfect ain't on the menu, folks. This is a democracy (INAUDIBLE) to move forward.

KING: Perfect ain't on the menu, I like that. That's a good bumper sticker too, just like "No Label". So my friend, Mr. Erickson here, you wanted -- you were hoping that the right could stop this.


KING: You don't like this deal. By that Senate vote, you assume this goose is cooked.

ERICKSON: Very much so and as I've said this isn't a hill (ph) to die on for conservatives. There has been a growing sense since last Thursday when the Senate -- when the House Democrats kind of exploded on the issue that maybe we could kill it and get a better deal in January, but there are a lot of guys in the Senate who don't like the deal who are saying privately we're pretty sure we can't get a better deal, particularly on the state taxes so they're going to go for it.

KING: All right, now if you were wondering coming into this segment why were we playing that Leslie Stahl sound with John Boehner. Let me try to see if we can get it cued back up at the control room here and I'll tell you why.

The president of the United States came into the briefing room today. He called this a compromise. The Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell was on the floor of the House of Representatives saying this is a compromise. But listen to this.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: So you did compromise?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Why won't you say -- you're afraid of the word.

BOEHNER: I reject the word.


KING: What is wrong with the word compromise? If you have people with different views and they get together on a deal, isn't that a compromise?


ERICKSON: Well yes, you know there are compromises, but John Boehner right now has some tenuous ground to track with these Tea Party guys and for all the people in Washington who love compromise, not all compromises are good and Boehner knows that and wants to set the tone headed into January. He's not the speaker yet.


BELCHER: You know John --


BELCHER: John --

KING: Go ahead -- go ahead, Cornell.

BELCHER: John, you know the problem is you've got pollsters involved here. You know I've got a feeling that somewhere --


BELCHER: -- focus groups -- because I've seen happen -- somewhere there are focus groups with his base that say you know what, we don't like the word compromise. So now you're trying to work around the word compromise because compromise to them means weaknesses. Somewhere there's a political consultant behind this.


AVLON: You know and Cornell --

KING: I'm shocked you would say that.

AVLON: Yes, I wasn't -- I wasn't even going to throw Cornell's you know profession under the bus with that criticism, but clearly, you know, John Boehner feels that that word connotes weakness. And he's more comfortable with common ground. I really don't care what you call it, but it is interesting that he feels that that is -- that that is a sign of weakness and he wants to avoid the word. But as long as we can define the common ground and build on it, that's a good day in Washington.

ERICKSON: Basically people need to be buying stocking companies that publish the sources.

KING: I see. The sources are big. Let's look at this one -- since we have the pollster front and center right here, Mr. Belcher, this one to you first. The McClatchy/Marist poll out today, the president's approval rating.

His approval rating is at 42 percent; disapprove at 50 percent. That is not a good number for the president of the United States. And here's what is interesting. Let's look at his approval rating among Democrats. In this latest poll 74 percent of Democrats approve; 21 percent disapprove. If you go back just a few weeks mid-November 83 percent of Democrats approve; 11 percent disapprove. So a 10-percent jump in disapproval among Democrats, Cornell, is that this tax cut deal, what is it?

BELCHER: Didn't you just ask me earlier why the president was coming out saying you know -- both sides have a point? Well, part of it is, you know, you can't let your base get too -- get too far out there. And by the way I mean the president's job approval rating chooses from poll to poll, public poll, but truth of the matter is you do have to go into an election year, you do have to bring -- bring back your base.

And clearly there's a lot of people, voters on the left that are ticked off about this. I think the president is right going to the middle of this. He's going to bring home Independents who say I just want both sides to stop fighting and I just want them to sort of sit down in a bipartisan manner and move the country forward. But clearly at the same time he can't leave his base behind politically. And that's why I think you see the action that you saw today.

KING: John, you had a number of prominent Democrats at your event today, Evan Bayh of Indiana among them. The guys who are in the middle of the road maybe slightly conservative Democrats, do they see the president making a clear post election pivot?

AVLON: I think there was some discussion and gratitude for the president for acknowledging the election and deciding to try to reach out and forge a compromise, a constructive compromise that moved the ball forward. That wasn't the topic of the meeting today, but -- but you know I think you do see, look at the polls of this, 71 percent of Independents support this bipartisan compromise.

Both -- both the -- keeping the taxes low and extending the unemployment benefits, so that's the kind of balanced approach that does seem to resonate, that does resonate with the center of the electorate that wants us to figure out how to find common ground on the issues we face. And so I think, you know, in some ways this has been a very good week or 10 days for the president, even though it's been a rough -- rough week for him for liberal Democrats.

BELCHER: And John, may I jump in real quickly?

KING: Sure.

BELCHER: Timing also is a new triangulation. I mean the truth of the matter I think we're seeing the new triangulation right in front of us. Some would argue that it is very helpful for the president to distance himself from House -- from House Democrats. So I think you do see a new triangulation going on here.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I thought that was a --


KING: -- define new triangulation?

ERICKSON: You know I think they'll define it as same old-same old by the time we get to 2012. I very much doubt much is going to change by the time we get to 2012. You're going to have the Democratic -- you're not going to see Democrats bolt from the president regardless of what he does, although it may very well be like a situation with George H.W. Bush in '92 where a lot of them sit out.

KING: A lot of them may sit our -- all right Cornell, John, Erick thanks. I'm going to get up and walk over here. We'll show you some of the president in the briefing room maybe earlier today, there you see him. You heard Dana Bash earlier in the block say the one thing that Democrats liked the least about this tax cut deal is the estate tax provision.

Every night this week we're going to break down a provision of the deal for you so that you can see what it costs and how it affects you. So let's come over here to the wall and take a peek. What are we talking about? This is the entire deal right here. It's all -- this is all $900 billion, $860 billion. So if it's yellow that means it has bipartisan support.

If it's blue that's the part Democrats really like and the red parts are the parts favored by Republicans. Let's focus tonight right here -- the estate tax -- $68 billion of this package is because of the estate tax. Let's close this down and take a look at what the president wanted was right here.

The president wanted essentially to set the level at $3.5 million and a 45 percent maximum rate above that. Under current law the exemption is only $1 million with a 55 percent max rate. This is the much more favorable deal if you have a big estate that the president agreed to. Five million dollars is where the line is and only a 35 percent max rate.

That's why it adds up to $68 billion. Let's take one more quick look here. See the line come down over here? This -- that's the two years of this deal. This is a two-year deal and that's -- that is right there -- $68 billion added to the federal deficit. Then the government assumes the rate will go back up.

They will have to fight that one out in Congress. But that's the price tax Democrats don't like. They think that's a big giveaway to wealthy estate holders. That will be the source of controversy over on the House side.

A quick break for us -- when we come back, Sarah Palin makes a weekend trip to Haiti. Why was she there? What did she say? Our Gary Tuchman is still on the ground. He joins us in a moment.


KING: Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin is back from a weekend trip to Haiti, to visit a country first ravaged by an earthquake then a cholera epidemic. She says this trip was about pushing financial aid, not her political fortunes (ph). CNN national correspondent Gary Tuchman is in Port-au-Prince and was there during Governor Palin's visit -- Gary.

GARY TUCHMAN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well John, it was a most unique visit, mainly because this woman who might run for president of the United States, but either way is a very well known American, a VIP, a very important person, did not have most of her visit covered because -- by reporters that is -- because the decision was made by Sarah Palin and her people not to allow reporters to attend any of her stops.

So we, even though we were here to cover her visit, didn't see her with one single Haitian. There was one media group allowed to be with us and that's where she does some of her work, the FOX News people. So it was made for TV, made for FOX News. Now you might be saying hey, she has a choice, and she definitely has a choice whether she wants to invite reporters or not, but usually in these situations in disaster areas where it's life or death situation, we kind of all work together, the journalists, the VIPs, FOX News helps us, we help CBS, ABC helps the BBC, we all help each other with the VIPs to cover their visits to give attention to these tremendous problems to as many people as we can throughout the world.

So why didn't she want us to cover it? The idea we think is something we learned at a news conference that was held (INAUDIBLE) was called a news conference. Usually you have news conferences because you have a conference between the reporter and the person who's holding the news conference, but Sarah Palin said she would not take any questions because she didn't want to get into any political discussions, therefore we weren't able to ask why she didn't allow us to come with her.

We did find out from her that she feels there needs to be more job opportunities in Haiti and that American politicians have to pay more attention to what's going on here so they can get an idea of how bad the problem is. But it was a unique visit because we really didn't learn much from Sarah Palin being here for two days with her husband and daughter here in Haiti -- John.

KING: Gary, I love the very diplomatic way you put the FOX News gets access that the rest of us can't. We're going to have to deal with that with Sarah Palin and some others heading into the next cycle. But let's set her aside for just a minute. You're there on the ground, obviously a difficult weather environment for you right now. Just give us an update. You were there at the heartache just after the earthquake. Being back now they're still dealing with the cholera epidemic. How are things on the ground?

TUCHMAN: It's just miserable, John. I mean I have to be very blunt about it. We have monsoon-like rains right now. There are still hundreds of thousands of homeless people in this country. Thousands just across the street from me and many of them are just so used to being in these monsoon-like rains they don't have umbrellas or anything. They just walk around in the rain.

You have the cholera epidemic that's still raging and you have violence in the streets that's continuing after a contested presidential election two weeks ago. The runoff is on January 16th. But there are many angry people here. It's subsided a little bit over the weekend while Sarah Palin was here, but there are lots of rumors and that's how things start here, rumors on the radio.

There are lots of rumors that it's going to pick up again this week. Government has said there will be a recount, but many of the candidates who (INAUDIBLE) there were 18 candidates who ran. The top two made the runoff, the third place finisher and even the person in the first place say they're not going to participate in monitoring the recount, so it's anybody's guess what happens here (INAUDIBLE) Haiti this week.

KING: And Gary, your sense -- I know you've only been back a few days, but after a disaster there's an outpouring of aid. That tends to last maybe a period of weeks, sometimes months. She was there with Franklin Graham, Samaritan's Purse, is the help, the food, the medical supplies, the financial help still coming in? Or is that a problem on the ground, too?

TUCHMAN: Well, you bring up Franklin Graham and his group. He invited Sarah Palin to come. They built, for example, more than 10,000 shelters for the homeless people here. A lot of work has been done for these people. But the problem is there's so much to do. I mean, there's more than one million homeless people. There are only 10 million people in the entire country. That's one out of every 10 people are homeless. And this is the saddest thing. This is my sixth time here this year, John, since the earthquake. This park across the street has been totally full each time. It was a little less full this time. And I thought maybe people found shelter, found homes, better places to be.

Well, as it turned out, we found out from the people who operate the hotel where we were staying, two people were killed in violence the other day. Everyone else was so scared there would be more violence, they got out of here. They are just homeless in other places. But now they're starting to come back. That's the only reason this park across the street from us, that we've been monitoring closely for 11 months, have emptied out a little bit.

KING: Gary Tuchman on the ground for us in Port-au-Prince. Gary, thanks for the update. Stay safe. Your crew as well.

When we come back, since the midterm elections when we all know Republicans made big gains there's been a bit of a domino effect. Party switching including two African-American Democrats right here in the state of Georgia who say now, they feel more at home in the Republican Party.


KING: Let's continue our conversation about a big day in Washington. The big healthcare ruling. A federal judge in Virginia saying the Obama health care plan is unconstitutional and then a victory for the White House. A lopsided Senate vote to move forward with the tax cut deal the president brokered with the congressional Republican leadership.

Our senior political analyst Gloria Borger is joining us from Washington, D.C., and Gloria, in terms of the health care fight, the legal battle will continue, but politically, you get the sense that the advocates of repeal get a little bit re-energized after a break here.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Oh, yes. They got a lot of oxygen out of this ruling because it gives them a talking point, if you will. Republicans, as you know, better than I do, John, they came to Washington to repeal what they call Obama care. And now they've got a constitutional issue that they can really bring into the political debate.

Now, the White House will tell you that there are two judges who ruled for them so far. One who ruled against them. And they believe quite frankly that the motivation for all of these lawsuits is much more political than constitutional. But as Jeff Toobin was saying earlier, you know, this is a different world in which we live and one feeds the other. And so this is going to be really, really give them a lot of steam to go and talk about repealing health care reform.

KING: And in the tax cut debate, when you get more than 80 votes in the United States Senate, I can't remember the last time -

BORGER: When was that?

KING: - a big policy fight that has happened. I assume the message to the House liberals is, you know what, this train is leaving the station.

BORGER: Right. The train is leaving the station. The liberals clearly want to do something on the estate tax, but as you just said, I don't recall in the last couple of years when we've had 80 votes for anything. We couldn't get 80 senators to agree on what day of the week it is in the United States Senate. And now, they've passed this. This gives a lot of momentum to any measure in the House.

I spoke to a senior White House adviser today who said, you know, this really, really is looking good for us, and I think that in the end, the president is going to get what he wants. Now, of course, John, he's got to think about phase two. He's just spending almost $900 billion on a stimulus package, and he's got to start talking about the deficit and deficit reduction.

KING: Gloria is going to stay with us. We're going to work on a quick break. When we come back, more political news and the night's other big headlines.


KING: Sad breaking news to report tonight. A senior administration official tells CNN that Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, the president's point man in Afghanistan and Pakistan, has died just days after suffering pain while at the State Department for a meeting. Mr. Holbrooke, you see the pictures up in there, was rushed to a hospital in Washington for a puncture in his aorta. He had been hospitalized, but again, a senior administration official telling CNN tonight veteran diplomat Richard Holbrooke has died.

I want to get straight to our State Department correspondent, Jill Dougherty, for more on this tragic news.

I'm sorry. Jill is not technically ready for us. A man who knows Richard Holbrooke very well is our senior political analyst David Gergen. David, this is a loss for the diplomatic community and for government service across the board.

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: It is. It's very sad day and John, we walked in, we were going to talk about something else. I'm just very stressed. I must tell you, Dick Holbrooke, was - he was one of the best of his generation. There were just two or three people in his generation that were anywhere near as good.

And I was there in the Clinton administration when he came in, and he literally just sort of picked up aspects of foreign policy. Just huge blocks of foreign policy and moved them. I mean, he was a force of nature. And had Hillary Clinton been president, Dick Holbrooke would have been her Secretary of State. She had enormous faith in him as did her husband.

And Barack Obama had come to have enormous faith in him. I think President Obama, the other day, called him a towering figure. That's exactly what he was. He started out in foreign service way back in the Vietnam war. He's been in and out of government ever since. He's been a major, major figure in foreign policy. And of course, right in the cockpit for Afghanistan and AFPAK as he called it. It was - these were very hard years for him, very hard years, these last couple of years.

KING: And David, please stay with us. You see pictures there. Veteran diplomat Richard Holbrooke, again, as David just noted, the president's point person on Afghanistan and Pakistan, 69 years old and had been in the diplomatic corps, as David noted, going back to the Vietnam war. In the Clinton days he was a key architect of the president's Bosnia policy.

Our veteran State Department correspondent Jill Dougherty is joining us now. And Jill, this is a loss for the department of a man who was a giant in the business.

JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: It was, John. And certainly there's a very heavy heart here. Because, you know, just this afternoon, in fact, the family of Ambassador Holbrooke was here, they had a celebration. The president was here. It's a Christmas celebration, holiday celebration and the president making some very strong and warm comments about this man because certainly, he was one of the key architects of that policy, the AFPAK policy. And a person who made his mark, a very, very tough negotiator.

Everyone who knew him said they wouldn't want to be across the table with him if they were going through some negotiation. And that was his reputation. He was actually very polite in a sense almost courtly but when you got into negotiations, he was one of the best. And that's really what these diplomats here in this building do. Not just the pinstripe diplomacy.

And the senior administration official confirming to CNN now that he has, Ambassador Holbrooke has died. Remember, again, that he became very ill here at the State Department on Friday, just Friday of last week. It was a very serious thing. A problem with his aorta. The main artery in the body. He had undergone several hours, in fact, about 20 hours of operations at GW, George Washington University Hospital, not far from here. He put up a very hard fight we are told, but unfortunately, it ended with his death today.

KING: And Jill, I want to ask you to stand by. David Gergen is here with us and Gloria Borger as well . But first, as Jill has noted, over the long career of Richard Holbrooke, a diplomat probably better known around the world than he is here to viewers in the United States because of his broad depth of experience. Jill Dougherty right here takes a look back at the life and career of Richard Holbrooke.


DOUGHERTY (voice-over): In the button-down world of international diplomacy, Richard Holbrooke was the muscle behind the pinstripes. He sometimes spoke in a quiet tone, but there was nothing soft about his approach. Once described as the hydrogen bomb of diplomacy. He served administrations from Lyndon Johnson to Barack Obama. Brought back from private life to the world of Washington to tackle one of President Obama's thorniest problems, Afghanistan.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We must recognize the fundamental connection between the future of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Which is why I've appointed Ambassador Richard Holbrooke -

DOUGHERTY: Holbrooke went to Vietnam shortly after joining the foreign service in 1962. He worked on Vietnam issues for President Johnson, East Asia for President Carter, including China when relations with the U.S. were normalized. And for President Clinton, he took on the Bosnian war. His biggest diplomatic achievement may have been his most personal.

AMB. RICHARD HOLBROOKE, AFGHANISTAN: I don't think there's ever been a negotiation that was any more difficult for me than this one. 48 hours with almost no sleep, people dying, incredible pressure.

DOUGHERTY: Holbrooke, whose grandfather escaped Hitler in Nazi Germany said the conflict brought the world modern day scenes of ethnic cleansing. He reflected on that in a 2008 visit to Bosnia.

HOLBROOKE: I thought I'm seeing a color remake of the black and white scenes we've seen in World War II.

DOUGHERTY: He also served as U.S. ambassador to Germany and later the United Nations. Leaving the spotlight after the Clinton administration for a second career on Wall Street. But he returned to Washington in 2009 in perhaps his toughest role. President Obama's special enjoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

HOLBROOKE: We concluded quite simply that America's basic national security interests were at stake in these two countries.

DOUGHERTY: He was a regular voice in President Obama's situation room meetings on the new Afghanistan strategy. But Bob Woodward's book "Obama's Wars" said Holbrooke harbored doubts about the plans, saying it can't work. He described the unique diplomatic challenges.

HOLBROOKE: There there's no Ho Chi Minh, no Slobodan Milosevic, there's no Palestinian Authority. There's a widely dispersed group people that we roughly call the enemy.

DOUGHERTY: Woodward said Vice president Biden called Holbrooke, "the most egotistical bastard I ever met," but the right guy for the job. For Holbrooke who knew diplomacy didn't always mean being diplomatic, the end result is what mattered.

HOLBROOKE: A peace deal requires agreements and you don't make agreements with your friends, you make agreements with your enemies.

Richard Holbrooke who fell ill while working on yet another assignment was 69.

Jill Dougherty, CNN, Washington.


KING: Just a bit earlier today, as Richard Holbrooke was still fighting for his life, the president of the United States attended a holiday reception for the diplomatic corps and paid tribute to the man this evening America has lost.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I know THAT everyone here joins me when I say that America is more secure and the world is a safer place because of the work of Ambassador Richard Holbrooke. So Michelle and I, to the entire family, just know we are thinking and praying for you and for Richard every single day. And he is a tough son of a gun, so we are confident that, as hard as this is, that he is going to be putting up a tremendous fight.

KING: He was confident, many would say sometimes cocky, self- assured, never afraid of making his opinion known in a meeting. Tonight, America has lost a veteran diplomat, Richard Holbrooke at the age of 69. We're going to take a quick break.

When we come back, we'll reflect on his life and his career.


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.

KING: If you're just joining us, sad breaking news tonight. The man you see there on the left of your screen, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, 69 years old, a veteran U.S. diplomat, the architect of the deal that ended the war in Bosnia back in the Clinton administration, most recently President Obama's top representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, dying earlier this evening at the age of 69. He had a tear in his aorta. He was rushed from the State Department where he at meetings the other day, to a hospital in Washington, fought for days. Many hours in surgery. Richard Holbrooke, passing a bit earlier tonight at the age of 69.

Many of our correspondents and analysts knew Richard Holbrooke well. I want to start by going back to Jill Dougherty at the State Department. Jill, you mentioned in your piece there how he was sure of himself. Some thought him cocky, some thought him arrogant. But he was never shy which I assume is a gift any good diplomat needs.

DOUGHERTY: Yes, it's true. You know, we always had this impression of diplomats as people who go to receptions and things like that but actually for the past two years Richard Holbrooke put on his hiking boots and went off to Pakistan and went off to Afghanistan and went into some of the most remote areas assessing how the surge and how the U.S. policy was working.

In fact, he really was considered the architect of that AFPAK, as it's called, strategy combining those two countries in kind of one unit in the sense that it was very important he felt to attack both issues at the same time. That it was a regional approach that was necessary. And the timing of this, John, is significant. Because after all this week on Thursday we're going to get the roll out, the report on Afghanistan policy that's being headed by the NSC, the White House, and certainly Mr. Holbrooke we was very, very much a part of that.

In fact, at the briefing today we asked about that. I asked about that specifically and they said that people would very much miss his input. Obviously, a lot of that has already gone into the report. But just his presence and the ability for him to synthesize ideas and then to go to the region and talk to all of those people involved was very, very important. He knew people all over the world.

You know, as Secretary Clinton mentioned today, nearly 50 years in diplomacy, going back to Vietnam. And he used Vietnam in a sense as a template. So he had enormous experience, enormous self, let's say, belief in himself and his ability to put these things through. But you'd have to say, John, that two years of very, very intense work probably did take its toll.

KING: And David Gergen, you knew Richard Holbrooke well. I remember my days covering the Clinton White House how controversial the Bosnia war was. And you had not only for the president to make the case but for his diplomatic team to politicians in the United States to the Congress but also around the world to key allies we needed there, more recently AFPAK, as he called it, as you called it, very controversial, not only here in the United States and the Congress but especially in the Democratic party but to many around the world who weren't sure the mission was worth it. Describe the sharp elbows if you will of Richard Holbrooke.

GERGEN: Well, he was -- I don't think I've ever met anybody on foreign policy who was quite as forceful and could be extremely aggressive. Very, very smart. But he just was - he could not abide procrastination and just talk, talk, talk that sometimes goes on in diplomacy. He wanted to get action. He was a strong patriot. He really believed in America.

It's unimaginable for me, John, to think about American foreign policy without Dick Holbrooke being part of it. My whole life he has been part of it. I just want to say one other personal thing. The one thing I was really pleased about in his life. He found enormous happiness in the last years in his marriage to Connie Martin.

You know, she was - it was a second marriage for both. She had at one time been married to Peter Jennings. That marriage was just a blessing for him. He told me on many occasions just how it really changed his life so there was a soft side to Dick Holbrooke, too.

KING: David Gergen, thanks for those reflections. Barbara Starr, join the conversation. As you listen, you have covered as well as anyone the disputes, the disagreements, the tug of war between the competing voices within the administration over the strategy in Afghanistan. Should we surge with the troops over whether the administration was doing enough on the other side of the border in Pakistan? Help us put Richard Holbrooke in context.

VOICE OF BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT (ON THE PHONE): Well, what comes to mind, John, is I recently saw him in Kabul at a press conference and he spoke about Iran. I saw him at the Pentagon give a briefing and he would talk about Pakistan, the Arab countries. This man had an enormous global vision. This was much more than just Afghanistan to him. People say Afghanistan, Pakistan.

Richard Holbrooke was focusing on regional stability. I believe he really genuinely thought, and I say quite accurately, that one had to have a regional outlook in that very troubled part of the world. You couldn't just think about Afghanistan. You couldn't think about Pakistan. You had to think about all of the countries and how they interplayed. And when Ambassador Holbrooke walked into a room in the Pentagon full of generals and admirals and lots of guys with that fruit cocktail of medals on their chest, let me tell you, he sucked the energy out of the room.

He was an enormous presence because he was very well respected and because of this energy he had to communicate ideas, this briefing that comes to mind that he gave, there were a number of reporters sitting in the back. He made sure he said hello to every reporter. He knew everyone's name, even those of us who covered the Pentagon more than the State Department, and as he would brief the room, he would turn around and look at reporters in the back. He knew how to communicate. He knew - he knew his audience.

So many Americans, I think, probably don't know Richard Holbrooke, don't know what he accomplished. Why we're talking about him tonight, because this is a man that high school students, college students, people will study decades from now, the range of his diplomacy, which as Jill and others have already pointed out spanned Vietnam, Bosnia, and the war on terror. This was a towering figure in American diplomacy and his work will be studied for decades to come.

KING: Barbara, thank you.

And Gloria Borger, one of the ways that you become a towering figure these days in American diplomacy is by having pretty good political instincts as well. I remember when I was at the Sunday show "State of the Union" Richard Holbrooke sometimes we would seek him out but every now and then he would seek us out when he had something he wanted to say. Describe Richard Holbrooke, the politician.

BORGER: There is really nobody else like him. I mean, the blunt diplomat, the towering figure as Barbara just spoke about, who else could brow beat Slobodan Milosevic other than Dick Holbrooke. Somebody who always had a point of view and shared it with you. So when he sought you out on "State of the Union," or when I would speak with him or other journalists would speak with him, he always had a well formulated reason for believing what he believed.

And he as also an accomplished author who wrote a book about the Dayton peace accords and I believe a true intellectual. And I also think that as David Gergen was speaking about, this will be a loss not only for American diplomacy but on a much more personal level, a loss for Bill and Hillary Clinton. I think they were both so close to him over so many years and she has depended on him in so many ways at the State Department on the Afghanistan-Pakistan policy and I think this is going to be a very, very big loss for the Clinton family personally.

KING: And let's go to the White House finally, to Dan Lothian on that point. Dan, he was a Clinton guy if you will and yet he was a key player in the Obama administration strategy. What was his relationship like with the president of the United States?

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Very close with the president, guiding him through the strategy as you pointed out. This comes on the very week later this week, Thursday, when that review will come out and then of course tomorrow also that routine meeting, the AFPAK meeting that the president holds with his national security team here at the White House deciding, going over the strategy in Afghanistan. He will certainly be missed.

The president expected to put out a statement later this evening but earlier this evening over at the State Department the president did talk about Mr. Holbrooke saying, "Richard is relentless. He never stops. He never quits because he's always believed that if we stay focused, if we act on our mutual interest, that progress is possible. Wars can end. Peace can be forged. John?

KING: Dan Lothian for us at the White House.

If you're just joining us again, the sad news, Richard Holbrooke, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke dying earlier this evening at the age of 69. Our coverage will continue on "Parker Spitzer" right now.