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Countdown to State of the Union; Interview With Rep. Michael McCaul; Interview With Sen. John McCain; Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers To Deliver GOP Response To State Of The Union Address; Afghan War Reality Check; Pizza, Wings and the President; State of the Union Reality Checks

Aired January 28, 2014 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Jake, thanks very much.

Happening now, we're only a few hours away from President Obama's State of the Union Address. It could be a make or break chance to sell his second term agenda and what could be a warning to Congress that he's ready to go it alone.

Athlete jitters -- some U.S. athletes and their families wonder if they should travel to the Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia. They're worried about the terror threats surrounding the Games. I'll speak live this hour with the House Homeland Security chairman, Michael McCaul, who's just back from Russia. And he shares their concerns.

And Senator John McCain will join us, as well. We'll talk about the State of the Union, the state of the war in Afghanistan and much more.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.


But just a few hours from now, President Obama will step into the spotlight before Congress and the nation, indeed, the world, to make his case for a second term agenda. He'll let Congress know he's prepared to act alone and he's actually already acted today, ordering a minimum wage hike for federal contract workers.

But the House speaker, John Boehner, is already warning that the president will, quote, "run into a brick wall if he bypasses Congress."

We have full coverage, beginning with our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta -- Jim.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, as of about 30 minutes ago, a senior White House official said they are still working on the speech, but that, of course, it will be ready by 9:00 tonight. But another White House official that I've spoken with in the last 24 hours, Wolf, says that you should expect a few surprises in this speech and the president, as you just mentioned a few moments ago, will use executive authorities and use his executive authority powers more than he ever has before and talk about that capacity in this speech tonight. One of those things we've already heard about today. He's going to talk about how he's going to urge the federal government to have a new minimum wage of $10.10 for federally contracted workers. That will be a part of his overall push for that minimum wage to go up to $10.10 for the rest of the country.

That has prompted some cries from Republicans in Congress that the president has overstepped his authority.

But I had a chance earlier today, Wolf, to talk to the domestic policy adviser to this president, Celia Munoz. She had a hand in drafting the domestic policy portions of this speech.

She says the president does have the authority.

Here's what she had to say.


CECILIA MUNOZ, OBAMA ADMINISTRATION DOMESTIC POLICY ADVISER: We know that the American people on both sides of the aisle, strongly support increasing the minimum wage. This is about making sure that people who work hard and play by the rules can make enough to support their families. That's why the president is calling on Congress to raise the minimum wage for the whole workforce. It's why he's taking action today with respect to federal contractors, where he clearly the ability, where it's clearly good value for the taxpayers' dollar.

ACOSTA: You feel you have the authority?



ACOSTA: And it's important to point out that that does not apply to current federal workers.

Meanwhile, a White House official tells me that tonight's speech will be heavily tilted toward domestic policy agendas. And one of the things that you should hear obviously tonight, Wolf, is a big push on immigration.

But just listening to White House officials over the last several weeks, of course, I think we can expect to hear the president make another push for an extension of those long-term unemployment benefits.

On the foreign policy side, I think it would be a big surprise if this president does not say to Congress, do not pass new sanctions on Iran. That has been a big priority for this White House over the last couple of weeks -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, he certainly has made that a priority and he's often suggested if they were to pass such legislation, he would veto it.

Let's talk a little bit about his signature legislative achievement, the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare.

We expect he will say something about that tonight, right?

ACOSTA: That's right. And I think it's probably a sure bet at this point, Wolf, that the president will acknowledge that there has been a problem or two with the rollout of Obamacare. We saw that in the last few months of last year. It was a big fiasco for this White House.

But one thing that we're going to see in the first lady's box later on this evening, Wolf, Kentucky Democratic governor, Steve Beshear. He has been sort of out on the forefront in terms of the Democratic gubernatorial push for Obamacare. He's expanded Medicaid as part of Obamacare. And the president is going to point to Governor Beshear as an example of that. And I think at the same time, you can expect, Wolf, for the president to say to those Republican governors around the country, why haven't you done the same?

Why haven't you expanded Medicaid as a part of Obamacare?

I think that's something else we'll see that tonight -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We certainly will.

All right, thanks very much.

Jim Acosta at the White House.

The president's personal approval rating for him may be at a personal all the time low, or at least close to an all-time low. But the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, is calling on Democrats to rally around the president.

He spoke exclusively with our chief Congressional correspondent, Dana Bash, who's joining us now from Capitol Hill.

So what was his main point -- Dana?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, Wolf, Harry Reid is probably going to be the one Democrat here tonight who has as much, maybe even more, at stake than the president himself, and that is the entire control of the United States Senate. He is, of course, the Senate majority leader. And the big push this year by Republicans, the big prize is to take control of the Senate.

And the audience tonight will be more than a handful of endangered Senate Democrats. Many of them believe that President Obama is a liability in their home state.

So you might think that Reid will encourage them to distance themselves from the president. But he's doing just the opposite.


SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MAJORITY LEADER: Any time the president of the United States appears supporting a candidate, it helps. We -- you know, Ronald Reagan hurt me by coming to the state all the time. Barack Obama is personally a very popular guy. And people love this man. They love his family. Of course, with what the Republicans have been doing, trying to denigrate him what's happening with the rollout of Obamacare, but things -- even this week, his numbers are going up again.

BASH: So you would encourage some of your most vulnerable Senate Democratic candidates to invite President Obama to appear with them?

REID: Yes, and they will.

BASH: So Mark Pryor and Mark Ensat (ph), Kay Hagen from (INAUDIBLE) --

REID: It's interesting, one of the first people that Pryor had come to Arkansas for him was Bill Clinton.

BASH: But Bill Clinton is from Arkansas. That's a little different. President Obama, you know, lost these states by huge margins, even in the last election, when he won the presidency.

REID: Well, Barack Obama is a good person to campaign for anybody.


BASH: Now, in addition to that, of course, the big news that you talked about with Jim Acosta, so far that we know, out of the president's speech tonight, will be that he is going to be more aggressive on using his executive power.

Reid told me that that is something that he and his fellow Democrats encouraged the president to do in a private meeting a couple of weeks ago at the White House, said that that is absolutely necessary to overcome what he has said over and over again is Republican obstructionism in the Senate -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Dana, we'll be checking back with you. Thank you.

The president may set a collision course, in fact, with Republicans tonight,

But he kept -- can he count on fellow Democrats?

Let's discuss with our CNN political commentator, Ryan Lizza. He's the Washington correspondent for the "New Yorker" magazine.

Also, the "CROSSFIRE" co-host, S.E. Cupp, along with former Obama speechwriter, Jon Lovett.

Guys, thanks very much for coming in.

It was interesting, Ryan, today, Mary Burke, she's the Democratic candidate for governor in Wisconsin --

RYAN LIZZA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes. BLITZER: -- running against the incumbent Republican, Scott Walker. The president is going on a road trip later this week to sell what he's going to say tonight. He's going to Wisconsin.

She announced today she's got -- she's busy. She doesn't want -- she's not going to be with the president this week.

LIZZA: You know --

BLITZER: What does that say to you?

LIZZA: Well, it's, I mean, look, Wisconsin is not North Carolina or some of these other states that Dana was just talking about with Harry Reid. This is not some of those states. It's a Midwestern state where Obama won by 50 -- excuse me -- yes, 52 percent. He -- there are polls out this week. He's not that unpopular there. And she's in a little bit of a tough race against the incumbent governor.

So it's a little -- actually a little puzzling why she's avoiding President Obama and this issue he's going to campaign on, the minimum wage, is actually -- or increasing the minimum wage, is --

BLITZER: She's not the first Democrat. Kay Hagen in North Carolina --

LIZZA: But he's popular in Wisconsin.

BLITZER: -- the president went to North Carolina, Kay Hagen was busy. He went to Louisiana and Mary Landrieu was busy. There seems to be a little trend.


BLITZER: But let me move on and I know where you stand on this, S.E. Cupp. But I want to read to you --

LIZZA: You would campaign with the president.

S.E. CUPP, CO-HOST, "CROSSFIRE": Of course I would.

BLITZER: -- read to you what John Boehner said in the face of these threats coming from the president that he -- he'll take unilateral executive action if the Congress won't act. He said this. "The idea that he's just going to go it alone, I have to remind him, we do have a constitution and the Congress writes the laws and the president's job is to execute the laws faithfully. And if he tries to ignore this, he's going to run into a brick wall."

But every president goes ahead and signs executive orders.

CUPP: Sure.

BLITZER: It wouldn't be the first president to do so.

CUPP: You're right. Nor is this the first time we've heard a defiant President Obama. We all remember, "I will not negotiate." I mean this isn't new.

The strange thing is, today, on the very day that new progress was announced on immigration reform, we may have an agreement on the farm bill, and just a month-and-a-half after Paul Ryan and Patty Murray reached an agreement on the budget, the president isn't taking tonight as an opportunity to say, congrats, Congress. I mean finally getting the progress I asked for.

Instead, he's taking this opportunity to scold them and say, I don't need you, I'm working around you.

It strikes, I think, a terrible tone. And I think it's off the mark and a missed opportunity.

BLITZER: Jon, you worked for this president in the White House.


BLITZER: You helped him write these kinds of speeches.

Is he going to reach out, do you suspect, to the Republicans, or just threaten them with these executive orders?

LOVETT: Look, I think he's going to do -- he's going to talk about two things. He's talking about the bills that it's possible to pass under this Congress. He's going to talk about the things he can do on his own. I mean, you know, the minimum wage and contractors is one example of the things he's going to do by executive order. But he's also going to talk about immigration reform, tax reform and a bunch of other issues that he thinks it's possible to get some movement with Congress on.

So the idea that this is some kind of a scold, it's -- the president is going to use the power that Congress has given him over the past century. If they have a problem with the fact that the president is using broad executive authority, you can't take it up with the State of the Union. You have to take it up with the power that Congress has vested in this president to do his job.

BLITZER: And he's going to -- he's getting closer and closer to a potential deal on immigration reform.


BLITZER: It won't have everything that the Democrats want --


BLITZER: -- but John Boehner, the speaker, is making clear they want something for their own partisan reasons, because that's probably good for them.

LIZZA: S.E. made, actually, an excellent point about there are all these glimmers of progress between the White House and Congress. We shouldn't overstate it. And, at the same time, the conversation -- and, frankly, coming from the White House in the pre-State of the Union leaks, is all about executive authority, playing down expectations about what you can get out of Congress.

I will make a prediction. I do not think that this speech tonight is going to be Barack Obama coming before Congress and saying, I'm giving up on you, I'm just going to use my pen and write executive orders.


LIZZA: I think a lot of the conversation over the last week is what the White House wanted, frankly, us to be talking about.

CUPP: Yes.

LIZZA: And they're seeing some surprises in the speech. And tomorrow, we'll be talking about his legislative agenda.

BLITZER: Jon, just take a -- give us a flavor, Jon, behind-the- scenes, of the hours before a speech like this.

What does the president do?

LOVETT: You -- if there aren't any more last minute edits that the chief speechwriter --

BLITZER: No, I don't think there were.

LOVETT: -- there's always a few things that tend to pop up in the last day --

BLITZER: Really?

LOVETT: There are -- there are cabinet -- there are agencies that seem to exist solely to have thoughts at the last moment.

But for the most part, this is the final moments. The president might be doing some speech prep himself, running through it with the chief speechwriter.

BLITZER: Because every department wants a nice little plug or whatever --


BLITZER: -- something important, whether the Department of Housing and Urban Development or health or whatever.

LOVETT: Right.

BLITZER: They want something.

LOVETT: Right. This is the moment -- this is their chance to shine.

BLITZER: So the pressure is on guys like you to include


BLITZER: -- a paragraph or a sentence about them -- LOVETT: Right. This is the --

LIZZA: Who used that process the most when you were there?

LOVETT: Oh, there's -- it's hard to pick a winner. You know, when I was there as chief speechwriter, Jon Favreau, would deal with most of the incoming, but we all would help and pitch in in the revising of this thing. But it is, inevitably, a speech that gets longer and longer and longer as basic entropy takes hole and more and more parts of the government get to weigh in.

BLITZER: Yes. They always say it's going to be more concise. It never is.

LOVETT: And it's always a laundry list.


LOVETT: The laundry list bothers the pundits and the political press, because they know this stuff. But they all tend to be pretty popular policies with the people at home.

BLITZER: Right. But we pay attention to everything he says.

LOVETT: Right.

BLITZER: But millions and millions who are out there, some of it may actually sound new.

All right --

LIZZA: And a piece of great rhetoric. The laundry list kind of ruins it, doesn't it, as a speechwriter?

LOVETT: Well, I think, fortunately, the speech is not directed at you and the various reporters who are looking for -- who are looking to be inspired. It's a rare moment where this panel doesn't really get much of a say, because 50 million people are going to be watching this.

CUPP: That doesn't mean that we'll be there all night, though, right?

BLITZER: Yes, we'll be here late, though.

CUPP: But we'll be here late.

BLITZER: OK, Jon Lovett, S.E. Cupp, Ryan Lizza, guys, thanks very, very much.

And stay with CNN for the most complete coverage and analysis of the president's State of the Union Address. We're going to have much more here in THE SITUATION ROOM. And our special coverage begins 7:00 p.m. Eastern tonight.

Up next, anxious athletes -- some Olympians and their families worried about the terror threat in Sochi. I'll speak about that and more with the House Homeland Security Committee chairman, Michael McCaul. After visiting Russia, he shares their concerns.


BLITZER: With Russia already facing an upsurge of terrorism and Islamic militants warning of more attacks to come, many athletes and their families are increasingly worried about attending the Sochi winter Olympic Games despite a so-called ring of steel around the games. Our Brian Todd has been looking into all of this.


BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): To go or not to go? Each athlete, each family faces a tough question. The National Hockey League says it's still committed to sending its players to Sochi. But a top NHL official told the "Associated Press," if something happens between now and February 9th, quote, "we will re-evaluate."

LIZ CLARKE, WASHINGTON POST: For a high-ranking official of the NHL to acknowledge publicly that they've had the thought process of pulling their athletes back if something calamitous happens, I am kind of surprised that that rhetoric is out there.

TODD (on-camera): Hockey officials are certainly not alone among participants in discussing the security concerns. In recent days, we've heard growing anxiety among athletes and their families over the prospect of traveling to Sochi.

(voice-over) The family of cross-country skier, Roberto Carcelen, is staying home.

ROBERTO CARCELEN, OLYMPIC SSKIER: It was a really hard decision for us as a family just not to come.

KATE CARCELEN, WIFE OF OLYMPIC SKIER: I finally just asked him, look, is it going to stress you out for us being there and he just immediately said yes.

TODD: But the mother of speed-skater, Kyle Carr, tells us the threats won't stop her.

LISA CERVANTES, MOTHER OF OLYMPIC SPEED-SKATER: I do not, absolutely do not have second thoughts of outgoing. To share that joy with my son, not going to let terrorists steal it.

TODD: Congressman Peter King says if he were given free tickets tomorrow, he still wouldn't go.

REP. PETER KING, (R) HOMELAND SECURITY COMMITTEE: Odds are there will not be an attack, but the odds are high -- for any other Olympics that there will be.

TODD: Militant groups have posted videos threatening to target the games. The attack during the Munich Olympics in 1972 when 11 Israeli athletes were killed is a specter that haunts Sochi games even before the torch arrives. President Vladimir Putin assures the world every precaution is being taken. Still, American athletes have been advised not to wear their team USA gear outside the Olympic venue.

Brian Todd, CNN, Washington.


BLITZER: Let's dig a little bit deeper right now with Republican congressman, Michael McCaul, of Texas. He's the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. Congressman, thanks very much for coming in. You just come back from Russia. You say these are the most serious threats to an Olympic game you've ever seen. What's your deepest concern?

REP. MICHAEL MCCAUL, (R) HOMELAND SECURITY CHAIRMAN: A suicide bomber. I think the proximity to where the terrorists are in the northern caucuses and threats that we've seen come out of there already and most recently Zawahiri, the top al Qaeda leader basically joining these efforts, calling for attacks. And so, this thing is ratcheting up, not ratcheting down.

The perimeter of my judgment is very secure from a military standpoint. What I think is vulnerable are the soft targets outside the Olympic village which if they can hit those, it's still a victory for the terrorists.

BLITZER: Would you let your loved ones go to Sochi?

MCCAUL: Listen, I think there's a real security concern, but if we don't send our athletes and don't attend and support them, then we let the terrorists win. And I think that's the worst thing that could happen.

BLITZER: You think the Russians are up to the job of making sure that everyone is safe?

MCCAUL: I'd like to see better cooperation. I know that the diplomatic security services working with the FBI, Homeland Security, but quite honestly, intelligent sharing is not what it should be. Our military has lot of jamming (ph) devices for IEDs, weapons of choice for these terrorists. And I'd like to see better cooperation between us and the Russians, but I can tell you this. I know that President Putin is throwing every resource he has because there's so much at stake.

You know, the eyes of the world are going to be on these games. And these Chechen rebels know that and they want to make a political statement to the world against the Russians and that's what it at stake here.

BLITZER: And the fact that the athletes and their family members, other spectators, fans who are going are being told, you know what, maybe you shouldn't wear any American flags, anything suggesting you're an American. That's so sad to hear that, but that's a fundamental fact if you want to be safe, don't advertise you're an American citizen.

MCCAUL: Well, I do think that their beef is more with the Russians than the Americans, but -- you know, I would not, if I was over there and my loved ones, I would not go outside the ring of steel, if you will that Putin calls it, the ring of steel around the perimeter of the Olympics. I would stay within the Olympic village and not go outside.

BLITZER: And as far as precautionary measures, erring on the side of precaution, has the U.S. -- do you believe the U.S., the military, the security services, the intelligence community within limits of what Russia allows the U.S. to do, have they done everything to worry about that so-called worst case scenario?

MCCAUL: Yes. We have contingency plans. I went to the operation center in Sochi. That's manned by our officials. We do have carriers in the Black Sea that could respond in the event of attack, you know, an emergency response-like situation. But remember, this is Russia. It's a sovereign nation. They have a lot of nationalistic pride, and so the cooperation is probably not as good as it should be because the Russians feel that they have it under control and they don't need our help.

BLITZER: Congressman Michael McCaul, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. Let's hope none of this happens and it's smooth sailing all the way through. Thanks very much for joining us.

MCCAUL: Thanks for having me. And I hope it's safe and successful.

BLITZER: Yes, we certainly do.

Coming up here in the SITUATION ROOM, in last year's state of the union address, the president vowed that this year, 2014, would see the end of the U.S. war in Afghanistan. We're going to get a reality check what's going on. And I'll talk about the state of the union and more with Senator John McCain. Stay with us. You're in the SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: The president got big applause at last year's state of the union address when he announced that about half of U.S. troops in Afghanistan would return home in 2013, and this year, would see the end of the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Tonight, I can announce that over the next year, another 34,000 American troops will come home from Afghanistan. This drawdown will continue, and by the end of the next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over.



BLITZER: So, where does the U.S. stand right now? Let's check in with our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr. Barbara, so what are you hearing over there about the war being over in Afghanistan for the United States at the end of this year?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, technically, combat may be over for U.S. troops, Wolf, but the whole idea has been to leave several thousand U.S. troops behind to help train Afghan forces. But now, the alliance is dealing with pressure reports out of Afghanistan that Hamid Karzai, the president, is blaming the United States for several insurgent attacks. Insurgent attacks.

This has annoyed the top commander general, Joseph Dunford, so much he has issued an extraordinary statement. I want to read it to you.

He says, quote, "Any suggestion that the U.S. has been involved in any way in suicide attacks or deliberate attacks on Afghanistan civilians is ludicrous. The U.S. and coalition forces never target civilians and go to extraordinary lengths to avoid civilian casualties. We have spent 12 years trying to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan to suggest otherwise does a grave disservice to those who have sacrificed."

General Dunford is in Washington and expected to talk about the war with administration officials -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. Comments from Hamid Karzai, pretty shocking, I must say. What are the various options about keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan starting in 2015?

STARR: Right. So, there are several options on the table, we are told. The top one that the Pentagon is supporting is to keep 10,000 troops there at least until the Obama administration is over. Early 2017. Of course, it would be up to a new president to decide what to do next. Another option, less than 3,000 troops.

The military is opposed to that saying that doesn't give them enough to conduct missions, the kind of training they want to do and still have enough security to protect themselves. So, of course, the other option on the table, all troops withdrawn, all troops out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

BLITZER: All right. Barbara Starr, with those three options, thanks very much.

Let's bring in Republican senator John McCain of Arizona. He's a key member of both the Armed Services, Foreign Relations committees. He's recently returned from a visit to Afghanistan. Which of those options, Senator, do you like?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: First of all, I like it, and the Afghan people would like it if the president ever talked about success, if the president ever talked about the requirements for withdraw. As far as facts on the ground are concerned. And all the Afghan people have heard is, we are leaving, we're leaving. And we're seeing the Iraq movie again, where we refuse to say how many troops we want to leave behind. They are still refusing to say publicly how many troops they want to leave behind.

So therefore -- and by the way, I make no apology for Karzai and his paranoia. It's outrageous what he's said, but even more outrageous that he's about to release some prisoners that are being held that are directly responsible for the deaths of Americans, and that is outrageous. But there's reasons for his paranoia because he saw the Iraq movie where we went down and down and down and never gave a number nor a commitment to Iraq. Just as with the president, all he ever talks about is leaving. I think most any strategist will tell you is you don't talk about dates. You talk about degrees of success and parameters for leaving.

And so all I can say is that it's outrageous what Karzai is trying to do. And so what do we need to do? We need to just say, okay, we'll wait until after the elections when they have a new president, and we'll make the arrangements then. Which means an enduring presence and not a date for withdrawal because we've seen what happened in Iraq when --

BLITZER: How many troops do you think we need to keep in Afghanistan long term?

MCCAIN: Probably around 10,000 U.S. and 3,000 or 4,000 NATO allies. That's a bare minimum. I would frankly like to see a little more, but I would accept that. Previous -- General Allen had said that they needed 20,000.

But the fact is, it's not so much when you leave, it's how you leave. And haven't we learned from Iraq the disaster that's taking place? Wolf, there are 96 American soldiers and Marines were killed in the battle of Fallujah, 600 wounded, and now al Qaeda flags are flying over Fallujah. Isn't that a shameful commentary? And what do you tell the families of those young men and women -- the young men who were sacrificed in the battle of Fallujah? You're seeing that movie again in Afghanistan.

BLITZER: I want to move on to Iran because I suspect the president will say something about Iran tonight, this interim six-month deal and strongly urging Congress not to pass additional sanctions during the course of these next six months, warning he'll veto that legislation if it were to come to him. You support this legislation, right?

MCCAIN: Of course. Just as I supported the last set of economic sanctions, which everybody now acknowledges worked in harming the Iranian economy to the degree that they came to the table. That was objected to by the president and this administration, those sanctions. And none of us can quite understand why the threat of renewed sanctions if it fails after six months would in anyway be harmful unless the Iranians want to drag out and drag out and drag out these conversations until the point where they are ready.

And could I finally say that the Iranians have already announced that they should have the right to enrich. There is no reason to have the right to enrich unless they want to continue their path toward nuclear weapons.

BLITZER: The other day you were quoted as saying, and we're getting ready to hear the president's State of the Union address - you said, "I thought Jimmy Carter was bad, but he pales in comparison to this president in my view." I want you to elaborate and tell us why you said that.

MCCAIN: Look at the map of the Middle East in January of 2009 and look at the map today. I think you'll find that it's vastly different. Look at the speech that the president gave in Cairo in early 2009, beginning with the failure to even speak up for those who were protesting and being slaughtered in the streets of Tehran after a corrupt election -- to this zeal for withdrawal, a failure of leadership, a lack of leadership, a lack of commitment. And you look at virtually every country -- you could go from Libya all the way across and all the way around, and I think you will find that the situation has deteriorated very badly.

And despite what the president says about al Qaeda, al Qaeda is on the rise dramatically on the rise. Look at the number of terrorist attacks. Look at the entire situation and, of course, the slaughter that's going on in Syria today with the farce going on in Geneva where we have now had 130,000 people massacred while the United States has watched. I say that's worse than anything that Jimmy Carter did. BLITZER: Senator, thanks very much for joining us.

MCCAIN: Thank you.

BLITZER: When we come back, she's the highest-ranking Republican woman in the House of Representatives. She's the supermom, and tonight she's the GOP's first responder. Just ahead, we'll introduce you to Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers.

And sips of water. Some past State of the Union responses have had their pitfalls. We'll have the details when we come back.


BLITZER: Once President Obama finishes tonight's speech, it will be the Republican's turn to try to throw a little counterpunch. This year, that job is going to a woman who also happens to be a supermom. Let's bring in CNN's Athena Jones. She's got more on the GOP response. Athena?

ATHENA JONES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Wolf, with Democrats eager to portray Republicans as waging a war on women, perhaps it's no surprise that GOP leaders picked a woman who's raising a special needs child to delivers the party's response to the president tonight.



ATHENA JONES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Cathy McMorris Rodgers is the only member of Congress in history to give birth three times while in office.

RODGERS: Messaging things. Haven't changed.

JONES: This supermom from Washington States is also highest-ranking Republican woman in the House. I was first elected to Congress in 2004, and I was still single and really wondered maybe I was going to be single for the rest of my life kind of a thing. Anyway, met Brian a year later, we got married. And then soon after that I was pregnant. Cole was born in 2007.

JONES: Her eldest child, six-year-old Cole, has Down's Syndrome.

RODGERS: It's not what you dream, it's not what you expect.

JONES: McMorris Rodgers is part of the co-founder of the Congressional Down's Syndrome Republican caucus.

RODGERS: Most days start out with the kids waking me up. And they are the best alarm clock.

JONES: She and her party have been busy promoting tonight's event with this video.

RODGERS: It's the highlight of the day.

JONES: And on Twitter and Instagram, highlighting her dual roles as mom and congresswoman. She tweets, "I've got my GOP State of the Union remarks in one hand, and two-month old Baby Brynn in another. It doesn't get much better than this." She even posted this vine with a sneak peek of the room where she'll deliver her remarks.

It's a long way from her family's farm and fruit stand.

RODGERS: We raised cherries, peaches, apricots.

JONES: The first person in her family to earn a college degree now speaking for her party before a television audience of millions.


JONES: The congresswoman's office says she will be spending time with her husband and kids before the State of the Union tonight. They say she gets her energy from her family, Wolf.

BLITZER: Very impressive background there, I must say. Thanks very much, Athena, for that.

Not every State of the Union response has ended up coming across on television as it may have been intended. Our senior Washington correspondent, Joe Johns, is picking up that part of the story. Joe?

JOE JOHNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the response to the president's speech has turned into a thankless job in recent years. It may sound great, but a lot of scrutiny comes with all of that exposure, and it's always been true that the leader of the free world can be a tough act to follow.


JOHNS (voice-over): Delivering the response to the president's State of the Union address should be considered a cherished assignment, the opportunity to speak to a primetime national audience in contrast with the president's views. But in recent years, many of the GOP's rising stars have found their national debut has often been more damaging than helpful. And some may wonder is this really a role anyone would want?

In 2013, for Florida senator Marco Rubio it was as simple as reaching for a gulp of water that sent the Twitterverse on fire.

In 2011, the Republican budget whiz and boy wonder Congressman Paul Ryan gave the response.

REP. PAUL RYAN (R), WISCONSIN: Americans are spectacle of both political parties and that skepticism is justified.

JOHNS: But he was drowned out by the first-ever Tea Party State of the Union response delivered by Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, who seemed to be looking slightly off camera.

There were actually two cameras recording her speech, and she was looking at the one with the teleprompter. But the video used by most of the networks came from the other camera. She was skewered for it by late-night and cable comedians.


JON STEWART, HOST, THE DAILY SHOW: Who are you looking at, Congresswoman?


JOHNS: In 2010, one of the most successful Republican responses was delivered by then-Virginia governor Bob McDonnell, using this house of delegates as the setting before a cheering live audience. It made him look almost presidential.

But the bad luck of the delivering the State of the Union response still got McDonnell. Just last week, he and his wife were indicted on corruption charges.

Not to be forgotten is Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, who gave the response in 2009. But his down-home delivery and small-time approach did not go over well with the chattering class.

GOV. BOBBY JINDAL (R), LOUISIANA: Good evening. And happy Mardi Gras.

JOHNS: And may have hurt his chances as a potential presidential contender.

JINDAL: Like the president's father, my own parents came to this country from a distant land.

JOHNS: Republicans are not the only ones who have suffered from the State of the Union responder jinx.


JOHNS: Kathleen Sebelius, then Kansas governor, in 2008 delivered the Democratic response to President Bush. She's now the face of a troubled Obamacare rollout.


JOHNS: The main Republican response tonight is expected to be delivered by Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers. But others in the party have sort of expanded their choices. Three other members giving speeches on their own, including one in Spanish by Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida -- Wolf?

BLITZER: Fascinating stuff. Joe, thanks very much.

And here's a State of the Union response for the history books. This is then Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton delivering the Democratic response to President Ronald Reagan's State of the Union address back in 1985.


BILL CLINTON, FORMER ARKANSAS GOVERNOR: Our critics have said we are for too much government while they want the government off our backs. Well, we want the government off our backs, too. But we need it by our sides.


BLITZER: That didn't hurt Bill Clinton from eventually becoming president of the United States.

Coming up, the White House press secretary Jay Carney, he'll join us live here in THE SITUATION ROOM as we countdown to the president's State of the Union address.

And just ahead, pizza, wings, and three guys talking politics. is planning some alternative coverage of the president's speech. We're going to give you a preview.


BLITZER: Tonight on, you're going to find alternative coverage of tonight's State of the Union address by the president. Pizza, wings, and three guys talking politics during the president's speech.

Our national political reporter Peter Hamby is leading CNN's first "Hambycast" along with former Obama White House spokesman Tommy Vietor and Republican strategist, Tim Miller.

Peter, tell us what this is all about.

PETER HAMBY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER: Yes, Wolf, look, I mean, tonight, as you know, there's plenty of options to just watch the State of the Union, you know, unfiltered. But tonight we're just going to be adding our color commentary, reading Twitter, taking texts from our friends who work in politics, as you mentioned, joined by Tommy and Tim, two of the sharpest guys I know in Washington who have a lot of experience in Twitter despite the fact that we all look 17 years old here.

But, yes, you know, if you want to tune in to, get kind of informed take on what's happening as it's unfolding, you should definitely tune in. You know, it's just another option that we are adding and experimenting with tonight -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And give us a thought, Tommy, what you hope to achieve by this.

TOMMY VIETOR, FORMER OBAMA WHITE HOUSE SPOKESMAN: You know, I think that these speeches are best remembered by sort of a moment so I think if the president can show that he cares about creating jobs in this country, if there can be a moment that's emotional that makes people remember this State of the Union and makes it stand out, that'll be a success. Generally they're a big laundry list of ideas --


BLITZER: What about you --

VIETOR: So it's hard enough to change.

BLITZER: What about you, Tim? What do you want to do?

TIM MILLER, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Well, every time the president knocks down a straw man we're going to make Tommy drink tonight. And, you know, I don't think anything is going to change for the president. His numbers are in the tank and he's never done anything in a State of the Union to improve them before. And I don't expect him to do anything tonight.

BLITZER: We'll find out. We're going to have an instant poll shortly after the president finishes that speech.

Guys, we'll be watching you and we'll be listening to you but we'll also be watching what's going on here on CNN as well. Thanks so much.

And CNN will of course have complete coverage and full analysis of the president's State of the Union address. There's much more coming up on that here in THE SITUATION ROOM and our special coverage later tonight begins 7:00 p.m. Eastern.

Coming up, President Obama is putting the finishing touches on tonight's big speech. His White House press secretary Jay Carney is here with me in THE SITUATION ROOM. We'll get a preview.

And the New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has some fun at his own expense threatening, quote, "ramifications" in a game of ping pong.


BLITZER: Some other stories developing right now including weather and much of the south is getting pummeled right pounded with a very, very rare dose of bitter cold. Snow and ice with 140 million people across 34 states under some sort of winter weather warning advisory. Parts of Louisiana, Georgia, Mississippi. They could get anywhere from two to four inches of snow which is enough to wreak havoc in a region mostly lacking in snow plows, salt trucks. There already is gridlock in the Atlanta metro area.

And look at this -- in this map, everything in red indicates roadways that are tied up in traffic. Some areas students are stuck in schools, their parents can't even reach. Officials are concerned that people will run out of gas while stuck in the traffic. More than 3,000 flights, by the way, have already been canceled. Many of them from the city's airport which happens to be the busiest in the world.

Getting ready for the president's State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress and national TV audience and people all over the world will be watching.

Let's get a little preview from our senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta. He's over at the White House.

So, Jim, this is a very important speech for the president beginning a sixth year in office.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. And we have a couple of new items to share with you. We've talked in the last several minutes with a source familiar with the writing of the speech, who says that the president later tonight in his State of the Union will unveil a new proposal for Americans to be able to save for retirement.

There's going to be new retirement savings accounts. This is something you'll hear in the president's speech tonight.

Also, from a Democratic source that I've spoken with in the last several minutes, we understand the president will make an impassioned plea for comprehensive immigration reform. But it will be interesting to hear how the president goes about in doing this, Wolf. According to those Democratic source I've been talking with the president will not go after Republicans and criticize Republicans over the failure to pass immigration reform in the past.

According to this Democratic source this will essentially be a way to explain it to the American people, why it makes good economic sense to them.

But as you know, Wolf, having covered a lot of these State of the Union speeches, not everything that goes into the speech becomes reality.


ACOSTA (voice-over): With Washington in a deep freeze, President Obama couldn't help but comment on the weather.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Good thing the speech is inside.


OBAMA: Cold.

ACOSTA: But the cold reality is State of the Union speeches are filled with calls for sweeping reforms that go unanswered. Consider last year's speech.

OBAMA: Now is our best chance for bipartisan, comprehensive tax reform. I propose a fix it first program, to put people to work as soon as possible on our most urgent repairs. And finally pass the Paycheck Fairness Act this year.

ACOSTA: Still, there were some successes.

OBAMA: So let's set party interests aside and work to pass a budget that replaces reckless cuts with smart savings.