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Justices Extend Birth Control Injunction; Will Obama Confront Congress?; "Planet Hillary" in 2016?; Explosions Shake Egypt's Capital

Aired January 24, 2014 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: Jake, thanks very much.

Happening now, will there be much talk of unity in the president's State of the Union Address?

Why President Obama may go confrontational when he goes before Congress.

Also, a political gamble by Republicans -- they're moving up the date of their national convention.

Will they now decide to hold it in Las Vegas?

And "Planet Hillary" -- as a provocative magazine cover story goes viral, I'll talk about the Clinton universe with the author.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.


But we begin with breaking news. A U.S. Supreme Court legal victory for religious groups, at least -- at least for now. The Justices have extended an injunction that lets some non-profits remain temporarily exempt from ObamaCare rules requiring coverage of birth control.

Let's go straight to our senior legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin.

Explain today's Supreme Court decision.

Is it a clear win for these religious groups?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, let me -- let me put try to put it in a little perspective here. The law says employers have to cover birth control. But there's a provision of the law that says religious organizations that have a moral objection to birth control don't have to do it.

However, there is a form that these religious organizations have to fill out. This Catholic religious order objected to the form.

And what the Supreme Court said today was, at least temporarily, is that you don't have to file that exact form saying you're a religious organization, but you have to file some sort of written document saying that.

So it struck me as a pretty clear compromise between the both positions. And the case will continue in the lower courts while this compromise is in effect.

BLITZER: But this Catholic religious group, the Little Sisters of the Poor, at least for now, they do not have to do what the Obama administration told them to do.

TOOBIN: Correct. And we should be clear, the Obama administration has never said to this religious order of nuns, you have to pay for birth control. That's not part of the law.

What they said is you have to fill out this form. And the reason the nuns won the case, at least temporarily, is that they have to file that exact form. They have to file some sort of piece of paper that says more or less the same thing as what the form asks for.

BLITZER: How do you expect this will play out?

Because as you point out, this is just a temporary decision.

TOOBIN: You know, it's -- it's very -- it's very hard to know. You know, the ObamaCare law, as we all know, is very complicated. There are lots of legal challenges to various parts of it. The law as a whole, the individual mandate, that's been upheld. But there are going to be lots of cases like this, where bits and pieces are being challenged. And we've only heard the beginning of these. It will go on for years in the courts.

BLITZER: Jeffrey Toobin, thanks very much.

This news comes out of the Supreme Court on the same day the federal government announced approximately three million people are now enrolled in private insurance plans through ObamaCare, indicating a jump in enrollment ahead of the March 31st deadline to purchase health insurance or pay a fine. Additional information about the enrollees was not released.

For the system to function properly, the government estimates 40 percent of those enrolled must be young and healthy.

We're getting new signals from the White House that President Obama may attempt to turn around his stalled second term agenda by turning up the heat on Congress, under the Capitol Dome, before a national TV audience, as the president fine tunes his State of the Union Address.

Let's go to our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta -- Jim, you're learning about the president's strategy Tuesday night in his State of the Union Address?

JIM ACOSTA, HOST: Well, Wolf, there could be some tension in the air on Tuesday night. No surprise the White House is being very tight- lipped about what the president will lay out in his speech on Tuesday night. But over the last week, the White House -- take a look at this, Wolf -- has been Instagraming pictures of the president working on his address with his speechwriter, Cody Keenan. The president is expected to return to that goal he's been talking about a lot lately, and that is combating income inequality.

But administration officials aren't getting any policy specifics out there just yet. Still, White House officials do point out he's held weeks of drafting sessions with top officials, met with a variety of groups, from mayors to university presidents, even read through some letters he's received from constituents, for ideas to work into this speech.

But the president may be inviting a bit of confrontation with Congress with another theme White House officials say will be in the speech. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said the president will likely return to his one-liner, "I've got a pen and a phone," reiterating his pledge to use more executive actions in the coming year to his -- advance his agenda when he feels blocked by Congress.

Here's what Jay Carney had to say.


JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president will absolutely talk about what we can do together, the administration and Congress, to move that agenda forward. But as he's been making clear, he's not going to limit himself to that. That would be like for a president -- any president of any party, to tie his or her hand, you know, one hand behind his back and not use all the powers available to him, the unique powers of the presidency, to move the country forward.


ACOSTA: Now, as for a response to that, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner said the president, quote, "also has a Constitution which says Congress writes the wall -- laws."

And, Wolf, Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, has already put out an op-ed late this afternoon questioning whether or not the president's speech on Tuesday night will be another campaign-style event -- Wolf.

BLITZER: He still needs Congress, though. He can do certain things through executive orders, executive action, if you will. But he needs Congress.

If you read the last year's State of the Union and you take a look at what has happened over the past year, a lot of what he wanted to accomplish was not accomplished.

ACOSTA: That's right. Just look at the list of things that did not get passed. Gun control. Remember when the president was saying over and over again that gun control victims, quote, "deserve a vote?"

That did not happen. Immigration reform, a hike to the minimum wage, universal preschool. None of those things happened and nearly all of those things will require some help from Congress to make it a reality -- Wolf.

BLITZER: They certainly will.

One thing we did notice, Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, a little different appearance, right?

ACOSTA: That's right, Wolf.

Take a look at this. It raised some eyebrows, you might say, in the White House Briefing Room. Jay Carney, for the last several weeks, has been sporting a beard that emerged after the president's vacation to Hawaii. Well, he walked into the Briefing Room today without the beard. The beard was gone. And so, Wolf, we were just left to speculate that perhaps there's only enough room in this town for one high profile beard from a former White House correspondent that -- whose name escapes me at the moment.


ACOSTA: That's right Wolf Blitzer. But...

BLITZER: I think it's too late for me to lose my beard.

ACOSTA: Right.

BLITZER: But he only had it for a few weeks.

ACOSTA: That's right.

BLITZER: And I'm glad he lost his.

All right, thanks very much for that, Jim Acosta.

We'll all be busy Tuesday night with the president's State of the Union Address.

Now, let's bring in our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger, and our CNN political commentator, Ryan Lizza, the Washington correspondent of the "New Yorker" magazine.

What do you think about this new, perhaps, get tougher strategy we'll hear Tuesday night?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: It -- look, the president can't go before the Congress and say, by the way, I'm putting everything on cruise control here, right. I'm a lame duck. I'm going to go to cruise control. I'm not going to get anything done, so -- no. He's got to say, these are the challenges. Of course, he's going to talk about raising the minimum wage, extending unemployment insurance.

But, actually -- and I don't want to be a Pollyanna here, but I do think that there are some things that they could actually do which would be in everyone's self-interest, which is why they might do them, which would be some form of immigration reform, some form of corporate tax reform, fix the infrastructure in the country.

If they did a little bit of these things, they might actually help all of themselves.

BLITZER: A lot of those things...


BLITZER: -- that were supposed to be part of a grand bargain, you will. And...

BORGER: Well...

BLITZER: -- and by the end of February, early March...

BORGER: Raise the debt ceiling.

BLITZER: -- they've got to raise the debt ceiling.


BLITZER: That's going to be a problem right there.

BORGER: Right.

LIZZA: I mean it seems crazy for the president of the United States to go before Congress and basically say -- and talk a little bit to them...

BORGER: Good-bye.

LIZZA: -- and say, I'm not going to reach out to you. That would be...

BORGER: Right.

LIZZA: -- that would be an early birthday present to the leadership there.

On the other hand, there are a few big things you can do -- the White House can do, right. Most -- as McConnell -- McDonnell -- McConnell and Boehner are pointing out, you know, he still needs Congress to pass legislation on his big ticket agenda.

But one thing on climate change, that's one of the things he's talked about since his 2008 campaign, that is totally in the realm of executive action.

BORGER: Right.

LIZZA: And he can tell his EPA to do some pretty serious regulations there. He has another big decision to make on this Keystone XL Pipeline. So I know the liberals and environmentalists are pushing him to use the office of the president to do -- to bypass Congress and take care of that. So that is one big one he can do. BORGER: Right. And don't forget, they're heading into a midterm election. History tells us that presidents, in the sixth year of a presidency, their party does not do well in the midterm election.


BORGER: So he does have to play some base politics here.


BORGER: If he lets the pipeline go through, he doesn't keep the base happy. But trying to raise the minimum wage, extending unemployment insurance, climate change, keeps the base happy.

LIZZA: But I think you were -- you were optimistic to see that Zen diagram of things where Republicans and Democrats agree on right now with that -- with -- I don't see any...

BORGER: I said self-interest. I said self-interest on immigration, for example. Small steps, not big steps.


BORGER: They might be able to...

LIZZA: And that's one -- on the immigration, if he does not get through the...

BORGER: John Boehner has indicated he's interested in doing a little something.

LIZZA: And I think that's an interesting question, does -- can he use executive orders to push some of the immigration reforms through...


LIZZA: -- if the House of Representatives...


LIZZA: -- doesn't pass it?


BLITZER: Those who favor immigration reform always wanted to link it to a pathway to citizenship; amnesty, as a lot of critics call it. And that's a sensitive issue. And maybe they can do something on the margin, but get through that.

LIZZA: I think...


BLITZER: That's not going to be easy.

LIZZA: I agree with you, because that was the deal in the Senate, right?


LIZZA: And some Republicans stepped forward, like Marco Rubio last year, and said, all right, I'll take that deal. I'll give what conservatives call amnesty if you increase security on the border.

And he got savaged once he had passed that...

BORGER: Right. But it -- this allows...

LIZZA: -- and it just died in the House.

BORGER: -- this allows the president to stir the presidential pot in the Republican field in 2016.

LIZZA: Yes. Yes.

BLITZER: Here's a quote in the -- this long interview the president gave David Remnick, your editor...


BLITZER: -- over at "The New Yorker." Among other things, he said this. "The issue has been the inability of my message to penetrate the Republican base, so that they feel persuaded that I am not the caricature that you see on Fox News or Rush Limbaugh, but I'm somebody who is interested in solving problems and is pretty practical."

What did that tell you, that -- those comments from the president?

LIZZA: I mean it tells me that he's accepted reality. I do think -- one of my big criticisms of Obama is that his analysis of American politics back from 2004 to 2008 was flawed. He really believed that polarization in this country was something that any president could come.

And look -- look at how Bill Clinton was treated by the conservatives. Look at how George Bush was treated by liberals. They were savaged by the bases of the opposite party. And there was no intention of trying to overcome that. It was never -- he's never -- he was never going to win the most conservatives in this country...

BORGER: But he thought he could.

LIZZA: It's funny that he thought he could.

BORGER: But it's (INAUDIBLE) because I think this is something that happens a lot to presidents, which is that they over interpret their mandates.

LIZZA: That's true. Yes.

BORGER: And, of course, when President Obama was elected, the hope was great in this country.


BORGER: And I think the president himself has told people that he was surprised at the extent of the opposition that he faced. He shouldn't have believed that Republicans were going to roll over, which is why, I would argue, that, perhaps, he should have gone about dealing with Republicans, you know, in a different way.

I'm not saying...


BORGER: -- that if he had played golf with John Boehner every weekend, it would have made life easier. But I do think the outreach was lacking early on.

LIZZA: I think there's this frustration in the White House and maybe among the public that, you know, elections don't have the same kind of consequence that people hope they have...


LIZZA: -- because we have a divided system, where Congress is equal to the presidency.

Obama thought when he won election in 2008, it would change more than it changed. And I think he thought when he won reelection in 2012, it would, as he used to say, broke the fever.

Well, in 2013, he realized the fever was not...

BORGER: It broke it right away.

LIZZA: -- was not going to break.

BORGER: He got the deal he wanted, remember, on taxes...

LIZZA: During the lame duck.

BORGER: -- during a lame duck session...


BORGER: And then the rest was downhill.

BLITZER: Gloria, Ryan, guys, thanks very much.

By the way, CNN will have live coverage, of course, of the president's State of the Union Address, the Republican response. Our special coverage will begin right here in THE SITUATION ROOM on Tuesday, 5:00 p.m.. And then our State of the Union coverage begins at 7:00 p.m.

Up next, with bombs going off in Egypt and Syrian peace talks off to a very rocky start, is the U.S. losing its influence in the Middle East?

CNN goes inside Iran. People in Tehran say they want better relations with the United States. Our own Jim Sciutto is there. You see him right there at that mosque.

So why do the crowds still chant, "Death To America!!?"

And everybody is buzzing about the bizarre "Planet Hillary" magazine cover in "The New York Times." We're going to speak to the reporter who wrote all about what she calls the Clinton universe.


BLITZER: It's Hillary Clinton as you've never seen her before, Planet Hillary, this time. The controversial "New York Time" Sunday magazine cover was fueling a lot of political buzz, even before its release. Let's talk about it with a reporter who wrote the article for the "New York Times," "The Times National" political correspondent, Amy Chozick.

Also our CNN commentator, the Democratic strategist, Paul Begala, close friend and advisor to all of the Clintons over the years. He's also a senior adviser to Priorities USA Action, that's a Super PAC that supported President Obama's re-election is now backing a potential Hillary Clinton presidential bid in 2016.

Amy, let me start with you. I read your excellent article and I'm sure a lot of people will read it online or in Sunday's action newspaper. What was fascinating to me was some of the lingo you came up with, some of the supporters of the Clintons over the years. You put them in categories. For example, Hotel California, that group. Space Cowboys, Royal Council, Nickilippe, The White Boys, The Child, The Sanitation Department.

Give us a little sense of what you were trying to drive because all of these groups were, what, encircling Hillary in that orbit.

AMY CHOZICK, NEW YORK TIMES NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, absolutely. One of the interesting things about reporting this is people had an endless list of metaphors to describe Clinton world. You mentioned Hotel California as in you can check out, but you can never really leave. Some people said it's like prison, not everyone can adjust to life on the outside. It can be difficult once you leave the bubble.

And yes, I made up some of my own, heard two press secretaries are Nick Merrill and Philippe Reines and I combine them to Nickilippe, but there are an endless number of nicknames, categories, ways to describe this world which everyone describes as somewhat chaotic and also very devoted and a lot of loyalty there.

BLITZER: That certainly is. Paul, where do you fit in? Which group -- which category?



BEGALA: Amy probably knows best.


BLITZER: I think you're the White boys.

BEGALA: I'm certainly a White boy. I don't know --

CHOZICK: Paul, you checked out but hasn't really left.


CHOZICK: Yes. Paul sort of checked out but hasn't really left.

BEGALA: No, I don't want to. That's the thing. I love -- the Clintons, obviously, have been very good to me. The president pretty much created my career. I don't know if Amy knows this because she probably wasn't born, it was Hillary Clinton that came up with the idea for the war room which is what coordinated --

BLITZER: In 1992.

BEGALA: 1992 -- coordinated to (INAUDIBLE) the same problem, Amy, in 1982. Bill Clinton and his vast far flung empire friends (ph) and advisers. And Hillary pulled it all together with this idea of having a war room where everybody comes together in one place and I think actually she's going to face a similar challenge, should she run, but I know she's got the organizational chops to fix it this time.

BLITZER: She got a lot of supporters out there. And Amy, one of the most fascinating parts of the article was the person you call -- some of her supporters called the child namely Chelsea Clinton. She's no longer a child. She's 33 year old, almost 34 years old, but she is playing a very, very significant role. Talk about that.

CHOZICK: Exactly. Chelsea has taken on a very prominent role most notably in her parents' philanthropy. You know, it's been rebranded, The Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea Clinton Family Foudation, and she's essentially running the place. She's hired a CEO who she worked with at McKenzie and who's a friend of hers and everyone says that she is a dominant presence there. And I think, you know, you mentioned The Child.

I think that speaks to some people who still see her as a teenager running around the White House, and now, she has her own team, her own press secretary, her own chief of staff. She's very much wants to be seen as a grownup.

BLITZER: A lot of us remember here -- who was the deputy chief of staff, very close to the Clintons in the first term, the second term, you called him in the article or at least somebody in the article calls him the director of sanitation, the sanitation department. Explain.

CHOZICK: Yes. That's a name he picked up as a deputy chief of staff in the White House because he was said to have cleaned up so many messes for the president. He has a disputed that characterization.

BLITZER: Yes. Well, he's a tough guy. You know quite well. He played a very significant role.

BEGALA: Terrific guy. Terrific public servant. I do, though, -- I know Amy doesn't create the cover art, but this is where I do -- I'm sure (INAUDIBLE) with Amy. It's insulting. It's frankly it's insulting. The woman was a United States senator, first lady, and secretary of state, 17 in the last 20 years, the most admired woman in the world in the Gallup poll, and she's betrayed as a disembodied hairless orb.

And Media Matters for America, liberal group, looked at other similar politician's profiled in that magazine, and the men particularly are always photographed in a very solitary portrait and here's Hillary. By the way, Sarah Palin, I think, was depicted pretty unflatteringly as well on the cover of that magazine. It's just insulting. It's not like a huge deal, but I actually think it doesn't speak well for the magazine.

BLITZER: But I just want to point, Amy, and I'm going to come to your defense, you had nothing to do with the creation of that cover. There are artists and others at "The New York Times" Sunday magazine who come up with the cover. A lot of reporters and writers for the "New Yorker" magazine, they don't always love the covers either. But you know what, Amy, you want to say something about that cover? You want to defend your colleagues over there? What do you want to say?

CHOZICK: Well, I certainly respect Paul's criticism. You know, Media Matters, of course, is funded and founded by a prominent Clinton supporter, so they're going to have their position and that's completely valid. I think that there are a few icons who could carry, you know, the weight of being portrayed as a planet. I certainly don't think it was disrespectful, but I completely understand how it's drawing some polarizing reactions.

I mean, when I saw that it was running with my piece, I thought, oh, that's going to get some reaction. So, you know, we sort of anticipated that and that's completely valid.

BLITZER: It's been generating a lot of reaction and the piece was -- look, I've read the whole piece and I thought it was pretty favorable towards the prospects of Hillary running for president. Although, Amy, one thing I notice, you didn't include maybe on this that her health. A year or so ago, she did have a blood clot in her brain, in her head.

She looks great right now, and she sounds pretty good. Are folks worried though, about her health, because if she does -- you know, hopefully, she won't have some problem with her health then she won't run.

CHOZICK: That's a really good question. And you know, I've been following her around. She looks like she's running around, plenty of energy and looks fine. But again, people say that, you know, maybe the only way she wouldn't run is if there was some kind of health problem that would come up or that we don't know about. So, that's a good question. BLITZER: She seems fine right now. Let's hope she is fine. Priorities USA, the Super PAC that you're involved with, they seem to already be endorsing Hillary Clinton. That's the pro-Obama Super PAC. What about Joe Biden? What about some of these others?

BEGALA: These are impressive people, and you know this, but our viewers should know. I advise that Super PAC. And so --

BLITZER: I pointed it out --

BEGALA: Right. That's important for people to know, that I'm not an unbiased analyst, especially with Priorities USA Action's concern. You know, Hillary is the strongest candidate that the Democrats have. If she runs, we'll support her. To me, that's very simple -- by data not by my personal -- we have former Obama people, former Clinton people, former all kinds of people in our organization, but that's where the data goes.

BLITZER: Does it mean that Obama now supports Hillary --

BEGALA: Believe me, I don't speak for the president of the United States. Believe me, we didn't (ph) run any of this by him. This is not his deal. This is our deal. But we have to wait and see how the field develops. You know --

BLITZER: His campaign manager the last time he ran (ph) is part of this group?

BEGALA: He's the co-chair -- Jim Messina, the co-chair of -- he's joined us now --


BEGALA: -- of our organization, huge scoop (ph) for us. The guy run, I think, a brilliant campaign for the president and hugely talented guy. We're thrilled to have him. Whoever the Democrats nominate, of course, we will almost certainly support. But it's obvious that Hillary is the strongest candidate, not to ignore anybody else.

BLITZER: Amy, button up this conversation for us. Do you have any doubt that she's going to run?

CHOZICK: To me, right now, I'm looking at her as she's running. She's talking about issues that are important, income inequality, things on people's minds. You know, I'm following her and she's mingling with Obama donors. But of course, you know, she hasn't made up her mind and she could always -- if she is in her mind running right now, she could change her mind. And as along as the apparatus like Priorities and ready for Hillary and the Super PACs are forming, she's sort of has the luxury of time.

BLITZER: Yes. I've always believed, assuming she's healthy, she would like to be the first women president of the United States and we'll see if that happens. Amy, thanks for your reporting. Paul Begala, thanks for everything you do as well. Good to have you part of our CNN team. Coming up, CNN goes inside Iran. People in Tehran say they want better relations with the United States. So, why do the crowds still chant "death to America"? There he is, Jim Sciutto. He's standing by live. We'll discuss. He's in Tehran.

And are Mike Huckabee's controversial comments about a woman's libido forcing Republicans to do some damage control just as they're trying to rebrand their message? That and a lot more coming up right here in the SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Series of deadly explosions shook areas in and around Egypt's capital today, the biggest blast in Cairo's police headquarters, a symbol of authority in a country shaken by political turmoil. Is the United States losing ground in a region where it's invested so much effort, so much capital, so many lives.

Our foreign affairs reporter, Elise Labott, is in Switzerland, scene of both the Syria peace talks, the meeting of work economic leaders. What are you seeing, Elise, there? What's going on?

ELISE LABOTT, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS REPORTER: Well, Wolf, the message for the United States from this economic elite is please step up in the Middle East, because all these crises are bad for business.


LABOTT (voice-over): With four bombings in one day in Egypt and a civil war raging in Syria, secretary of state, John Kerry, tried to counter the perception that the U.S. is retreating.

JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: In fact, I want to make it clear today that nothing could be further from the truth. This misperception, and in some case, driven narrative appears to be based on the simplistic assumption that our only tool of influence is our military.

LABOTT: But a key theme here, Washington's failure to show leadership in the region has allowed crisis upon crisis to rack up. Syrian peace talks proposed by Kerry are extremely fragile with the opposition struggling to unite and the regime refusing to even consider President Assad's ouster.

MCCAIN: Remember, this is what the president of the United States said over a year ago. It's not a matter of whether Bashar al-Assad leaves, it's when. Does anybody believe that? It's a shameful chapter in American history that we've let this happen.

LABOTT: A top Saudi official called for military intervention if the talks collapse.

PRINCE TURKI AL FAISAL, KING FAISAL CENTER FOR RESEARCH AND ISLAMIC STUDIES: But I think it's a matter of not so much of trust as that this is the last testimony for the will of the world community to come to the help of the Syrian people. LABOTT: On Iran, U.S. allies in Israel and the Gulf worry their friends in Washington are being too soft.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER: People understand our concern, which is by the way the concern of all the countries in the Middle East, including the Arab countries. We cannot afford to have a nuclear armed Iran.

Reporter: And an interim nuclear agreement now in force, but a permanent deal far from certain, with Iran's president telling CNN he won't accept limits on Iran's pursuit of nuclear technology.

PRES. HASSAN ROUHANI, IRAN: Failing to follow on this path.

FAREED ZAKARIA, HOST, FAREED ZAKARIA GPS: So there would be no destruction of centrifuges -- of existing centrifuges?

ROUHANI (Through Translator): No. No. Not at all.


LABOTT: And Wolf, a lot of Mideast watchers think that Kerry is focusing too much on his main priority, trying to get a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians. His message for this crowd is a peace deal could transform the economies of the region versus the alternative, which is yet another conflict -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Elise, with that report from Switzerland, thank you.

With tough talk from Iran's leaders already raising doubts about the new nuclear agreement, our chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto is in Tehran. He's taking the pulse of the Iranian public -- Jim.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, in 10 years of coming to Iran, this has really been a trip unlike any other. You sense real excitement here, real openness among average Iranians to better relations with the West, better relations with the U.S.

One thing you won't hear, though, either from reformers or hardliners is Iranians who were willing to give up their nuclear program. They consider it their country's right and that's what we heard this morning when we went to visit Friday prayers in Tehran.


SCIUTTO (voice-over): At Friday prayers in Tehran, we received a warm welcome.

(On camera): I'm Jim. Very nice to meet you.

(Voice-over): And heard strong support for warmer relations with the U.S.

(On camera): Do you believe that the U.S. and Iran can truly make peace together? (Voice-over): "We are very optimistic about the nuclear agreement," he told me. "But our words are the words of the supreme leader."

Iranians support a nuclear deal but on Iran's terms. Like their leaders, Iranians from all ends of the political spectrum view their country's nuclear program as peaceful and Iran's right.

"America is a country talking by force," this man said. "As our officials say, we look for mutual respect, respect for each other's rights."

Old anti-American emotions are never too far below the surface. When the imam reminding worshippers of Iran's disinvitation from the Syria peace talks this week, the crowd broke out in the familiar chant of death to America.

(On camera): This is the Mosallah mosque and it's been under construction for more than 20 years. Still not finished. The problem? A lack of funding. Many Iranians we talked to here blame the economic sanctions and for those they hold the U.S. responsible.

(Voice-over): So we sensed a new openness to the U.S. and a new hope, even among the very youngest Iranians.

(On camera): If you met my son, what would you like to say to him?

(Voice-over): "We would be friends," he said.


BLITZER: Unfortunately, we have -- not unusual, a problem, a technical problem hearing Jim Sciutto wrap up that piece. But we get the gist. He's been going there for many years. He sees a little positive opening right now. We'll see what happens -- we'll see what happens in the days, weeks, and months ahead.

Then we're going to stay in constant touch with Jim. He's going to be reporting from Iran for us over the next several days.

Jim has also been sharing on the ground images of his reporting, what he's seeing in Tehran, at Instagram. You can follow him on Instagram. You can follow him on Twitter, @Jimsciutto.

When we come back, is the GOP changing the game for 2016 and will Democrats follow their lead? We have details.

And Mike Huckabee's controversial comments about a woman's libido. Is he forcing Republicans to do damage control just as they are trying to rebrand their message to America's women? That and more coming up.


BLITZER: Republicans have been working hard at staying on message and improving their image among women and minorities. But Mike Huckabee managed to do neither when he said this yesterday.


MIKE HUCKABEE (R), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: If the Democrats want to insult the women of America by making them believe that they are helpless without Uncle Sugar coming in and providing for them a prescription each month for birth control because they cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of the government, then so be it.


BLITZER: The Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus said this today.


REINCE PRIEBUS, REPUBLICANS NATIONAL COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: As we look to grow the ranks of our party, we must all be very conscious of tone and choice of words when we communicate those policies effectively. We should set the standard.


BLITZER: Let's discuss with two of our CNN "CROSSFIRE" hosts, S.E. Cupp, Stephanie Cutter.

S.E., what do you think? A big problem for the Republicans right now? Mike Huckabee's comments? Because, as you know, Republicans did not do well with women in the 2012 elections.

S.E. CUPP, CNN HOST, CROSSFIRE: Yes, well, this lack of discipline is a real problem for Republicans and no one on my side of the aisle has been more willing to admonish Republicans for failing to talk productively about women.

On this particular incident, though, I got to say, I feel like I'm in the "Twilight Zone." It is so 100 percent clear to me that Mike Huckabee was talking about the Democratic treatment toward women, and not his own feeling or the Republican Party's feeling about women.

I have never seen lazier, more intellectually dishonest analysis of this moment than I have today. I mean, it's shocking to me. It is clear what Mike Huckabee's intention was here.

STEPHANIE CUTTER, CNN HOST, CROSSFIRE: Well, he's -- I mean, the way that I interpreted and -- maybe I'm not being honest about this, but they way I interpreted that is he's saying that the contraception policy, which allows women to get contraception with no out-of-pocket costs makes them dependent upon Uncle Sugar because they can't control their libido or their productive --

BLITZER: Uncle Sugar is supposed to be Uncle Sam.

CUTTER: Right.

CUPP: "If the Democrats want to insult the women of America by making them believe that they are helpless without Uncle Sugar." CUTTER: Well, I think he's the only one --

CUPP: I don't understand where Republicans fit into this.

CUTTER: -- who is saying that about Democrats, so that's must what he believes. But regardless the facts of the policy are that 98 percent of women have used contraception. A majority of women actually use it for non-contraceptive purposes like preventing cancer and metriosis or basic health care needs. And Republicans are against the conception benefit in the Affordable Care Act.

CUPP: Yes.

CUTTER: Many of them are suing on it.

CUPP: Yes.

CUTTER: So that's --


CUPP: Unsuccessfully in many cases.

CUTTER: And unsuccessfully in many cases which is why it's going to the Supreme Court.

CUPP: Right.

CUTTER: But, you know, it's overwhelmingly supported by women across the country and men. So the bottom line is, Republicans are on the wrong side of the issue, Huckabee did not help them out yesterday. We've been talking about this now for two days.


CUPP: Well, Huckabee did not help them out --

CUTTER: And this is not an isolated incident.

CUPP: Because Republicans are --

CUTTER: There's a long history of these comments.

CUPP: Going along with this made-up media narrative. I mean, I cannot believe even Republicans are allowing and accepting this narrative to go on. He is clearly implicating Democrats and I agree with Stephanie that we should be having this conversation about the policy but Mike Huckabee was talking about policies.

CUTTER: The reason the narrative --

CUPP: Policies that exploit women's reproductive rights.

CUTTER: -- talking hold is because people already believe it. That people already believe that Republicans are against these policies for women. If there's a long history of Republicans making comments like this so this is not out of the blue.

CUPP: You're absolutely right.

CUTTER: Remember Todd Akin?

CUPP: That doesn't excuse lazy journalism.

CUTTER: The governor of Pennsylvania. Look, I'm all for changing media narratives when I think they are wrong but I'm just explaining why this narrative is set in. Because it's believable.

CUPP: I acknowledge the narrative. I frequently point out that the narrative -- when the narrative is true. I have not been --

BLITZER: Is it --

CUPP: You know, unwilling to criticize the party. This is not an example of it.

BLITZER: Talking about women and Republicans and the Republicans did not do well with women's vote.

CUPP: Yes.

BLITZER: One of the reasons Barack Obama was re-elected is women, young people, minorities, African-Americans, Hispanics.

So Reince Priebus, to his credit, he's been trying to reach out. He's been trying to do a better job with these very influential groups. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, she is a Republican congresswoman. She's going to be delivering the official Republican response to the president's State of the Union address Tuesday night.

She tweeted this photo, "I've got my hash tag, GOP hash tag, SOTU remark in one hand 2-month-old baby Brynn in another. It really doesn't get much better than this."

Is it a coincidence that the Republican asked a woman with an impressive personal story to deliver the response to the president?

CUPP: It's an impressive political record. I have the great honor of knowing Representative McMorris Rodgers and the last time I saw her she was very much pregnant with Brynn at a dinner. And I don't think we could have picked a better person. Regardless of the timing. She's wonderful.

And Republicans are often damned if they do, damned if they don't. If we don't pick a woman Democrats will say where are your women? If we do it, well, look at this token woman they put out there. So I think Kathy McMorris Rodgers is a great pick regardless of her gender.

CUTTER: I don't think she's a token woman. I think she's a serious player in the Republican Party.

BLITZER: She's a leader in the Republican Caucus in the House of Representatives. CUTTER: Yes. Absolutely. And I love that picture. But I care more about what she says on Tuesday night than what picture she's putting out ahead of time. We need to see what the Republican agenda is. Part of that Republican agenda needs to address how we're going to elect women in this economy.

BLITZER: I'm just predicting she's not going to say in her response to the president anything about Uncle Sugar and women, birth control, they cannot control their libido, reproductives. I suspect we're not going to hear any of that from her.

CUPP: She probably won't.


CUPP: I think that's a good expectation.

BLITZER: We will hear more from you tonight on "CROSSFIRE," right?


CUPP: Yes.

BLITZER: Is that at 6:30 p.m. Eastern right after THE SITUATION ROOM?

CUTTER: It is.

CUPP: Absolutely.

BLITZER: How did I know that?

CUTTER: How did you know that?

BLITZER: All right, you guys are going to have a lot more. Good work. Thanks so much for joining us.

Just ahead, Republicans make a stunning move to prevent 2016 infighting and get a head start on 2016 spending? And will they up the ante by holding their convention in Las Vegas, baby?


BLITZER: Got some breaking news coming into THE SITUATION ROOM out of Texas where a judge has just ordered a Fort Worth hospital to take Marlise Munoz off of the ventilator, respirator and other machines.

Munoz is a pregnant woman whose family says she's brain dead but the hospital would not take her off the ventilator citing Texas law. The hospital argued the fetus she was carrying should be kept alive by keeping her on life support. But a judge says Munoz is clinically dead and the law that the hospital cited as a reason to keep the pregnant woman on a ventilator does not apply.

We'll see what happens next.

After watching their own candidates hammer one another for months the last time around Mitt Romney battered before he ever faced Barack Obama Republicans today made striking changes to the 2016 campaign schedule.

The RNC voted to shorten the primary season moving up the national convention to June. Listen to the RNC chairman, Reince Priebus.


PRIEBUS: We have been saying for months that we were no longer going to sit around and allow ourselves to slice and dice for six months, participate in a circus of debates.


BLITZER: It's a move that could have some serious impact.

Our national political reporter Peter Hamby is over at the RNC headquarters here in Washington.

So what happened today? What do you know about these changes the Republicans made? Because there are some strategic reasons for them.

PETER HAMBY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER: Yes, absolutely, Wolf. One of the big things that Republicans found when they start to search the wreckage of the 2012 campaign was this Republican primary process in 2012 went on way too long. Remember it started in January just after the new year and went all the way really through June, exacerbating tensions between the conservative grassroots of the party and the party establishment and the ultimate nominee Mitt Romney.

What they passed today will basically shorten the primary and caucus process to about 3 1/2 months. The Iowa caucuses will start in February and really the campaign will go through May, if it has to go on that long. And this sort of dovetails with the party's effort to move the national convention from late summer to June, which will be the earliest convention in either party going back to 1948.

So basically the endgame here is to -- like you mentioned, get rid of that bruising intraparty squabbling and to emerge from the primary process with a nominee who hasn't taken as many controversial positions and is ready to hit the ground running after the convention in June of 2016 -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And there's some financial benefits to the Republicans as well by having a formal nominee by the end of June as opposed to the end of August or early September.

HAMBY: Yes, that's absolutely right. That's a big deal that doesn't really get talked about a lot here. Look back at 2012. Over the course of the summer of 2012, President Obama spent tons and tons of money on television defining Mitt Romney throughout the summer. And the Romney campaign and their affiliated Republican committees didn't have the money to keep up. Because they were still technically in primary mode.

They couldn't access that general election pot of money until Mitt Romney became the Republican nominee on September 1st. So by moving the convention all the way back to June, they can access those funds and start spending competitively throughout those summer months, and then as they head into the fall stretch, you know, really hit the ground running for the final campaign -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Peter Hamby, thanks very much.

Democrats will be under pressure now to follow suit.

One of the cities bidding for the Republican National Convention is Las Vegas. It's scrubbing its image clean as it tries to attract the GOP.

Let's bring in Tom Foreman for this part of the story.

A political convention in Vegas?

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It's hard to understand when you think about it, though. But as they're trying to pick their candidate, this is like picking the frame for a new picture. So they're looking at a lot of places in this country including in Nevada.


FOREMAN (voice-over): What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. That's the saying in this promotional video from YouTube shows why. But watch the video bid for the GOP convention and you will see a whole different Sin City filled with hotels, golf courses and churches. It's out with the craps tables and in with the kids playing soccer. Roulette? Let's make that rock climbing or a trip to the Hoover dam or the Grand Canyon, a short helicopter ride away.

And through it all, not one mention of gambling. Why? Because when you're competing for a convention packed with conservatives, let's just say Lieutenant Governor Brian Krolicki knows how to play a card.

LT. GOV. BRIAN KROLICKI (R), NEVADA: Las Vegas is an extraordinary place. But if you just take out that one street called The Strip, it's a regular community.

FOREMAN: Or you could call it Phoenix, which is also stacking the deck to win.

GORDON JAMES, ARIZONA CONVENTION COMMITTEE: We are 45 percent Hispanic in Arizona. And that's extremely important.

FOREMAN: And there are so many others. Kansas City is pushing its barbecue, Columbus is touting the electoral weight of Ohio. And Denver, like they, is trying to avoid talking about certain things.

RYAN CALL, COLORADO REPUBLICAN PARTY: The honest truth is that by the time the 2016 convention comes around many other states will have probably gone down the road of legalization as well. So I don't think it's going to be an issue.

FOREMAN: So if Vegas is pushing itself with nary a word about what really made it famous --

KROLICKI: I think the story speaks for itself.

FOREMAN: So what? It's always been about a town all about beating the odds.


FOREMAN: So we're having a little fun with it. But nonetheless this is deadly serious, Wolf. As you know, the place that you unveil your candidate is a very big deal and Las Vegas has been very successful at hosting thousands of huge conventions. They're saying why not this time around? And of course, many other cities are saying let's not make that sure bet yet. They'd like a swing at it.

BLITZER: At this point, Nevada is an important state as well.

FOREMAN: Boy, huge. Huge.

BLITZER: Ohio is pretty important.



Both big players.

BLITZER: To be blunt about these states.


BLITZER: All right. Thanks very much.

Coming up at the top of the hour, a new information just out of the Pentagon about what the United States is planning to do in the event of a terror attack at the Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia. And is the Pope planning a trip right here to the United States? We have new information.


BLITZER: Look at some of the other top stories developing in THE SITUATION ROOM.

A very ugly day on Wall Street. The Dow plunging almost 320 points, rounding out its worse week since 2011. All three indices are now in negative territory for the year. And it all comes on the heels of concerns about an economic growth slowdown in China as well as mixed earnings news.

New indications Pope Francis could be visiting the United States next year. Our CNN Vatican analyst reports the Pope has expressed interest in attending a major meeting of the Roman Catholic Church planned for September 2015 in Philadelphia.

The Vatican isn't confirming any details of the trip. President Obama is scheduled to visit the Pope at the Vatican in March.

If you have letters or bills to mail, you might want to do so soon. Starting Sunday, stamps will cost you 49 cents each instead of 46. The three-cent hike is the largest in consumer posted prices for the financially strapped Postal Service in more than a decade. The agency says it lost $5 billion in the latest fiscal year and exhausted a $15 billion loan from taxpayers.

Happening now, a warning to U.S. athletes. The State Department sends a pointed and disturbing message to America's Winter Olympians. Why they're being told to watch what they wear.

Also, deadly blast. A series of explosions rocked the Egyptian capital plunging the country deeper into political crisis. What was the target of this suicide attack?

And arraignment. Virginia's former governor and his wife plead not guilty to 14 counts federal charges.