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Report Lists Congress Members Who May Have Benefited Personally from Earmarks; Violence Continues in Syria; Contraception Controversy; No-Zero Grading Policy; Russia's Prime Minister Meeting With Syrian President; Obama Changes Tune On Superpacs; Gingrich, Santorum Won't Leave Race; Unemployment Drops to 79 Weeks; Stunt Driver Vows To Return After Fall; Stock Act To Stop Insider Trading; GOP Votes In Three States; Elementary School Kids Can Still Buy Unhealthy Snacks at School; L.A. School Closed After Teachers Arrested for Sexual Abuse

Aired February 7, 2012 - 06:59   ET



And our STARTING POINT this morning is talking about millions of dollars in earmarks from lawmakers and how they may have personally benefitted from those earmarks. One of the lawmakers on the list will respond to those accusations this morning.

Plus, three states, 70 delegates on the line. GOP caucuses in Colorado and Minnesota, a primary in Missouri. Mitt Romney is looking to solidify his front-runner position. Rick Santorum, though, really could be the dark horse in this race.

And there is no let-up on the Syrian regime's deadly assault on it's own people. Violence escalated overnight. The U.S. embassy is now closed. Russia's foreign minister is now in Damascus, and he is meeting with President Assad.

Also, Catholic leaders are in a battle with the White House over birth control. Health care law mandates employers provide it, but Catholics, some of them say it's against their fundamental beliefs. We'll talk to both sides this morning.

All that and much more ahead as STARTING POINT gets underway right now.


O'BRIEN: Can you come in and fix Russell's audio? Welcome, everybody. "Unbelievable," that's Kathy's play list. She's a contributing editor for "The Washington Post" and also the founding publisher for "Capalano" (ph) magazine which I have been in a time or two. It's nice to have you.

Riehan Salam is the co-author of "Grand New Party."

And Russell Simmons, mogul, founder of Def Jam and CEO of Rush Communications is with us. Good morning. Welcome.

Let's get underway. This morning we're talking about this new investigation coming to us from "The Washington Post." Nearly 50 lawmakers who helped direct earmarks to projects that potentially helped their own property or immediate family members, they say it benefits the public, not private interests.

One of those who is on that list is the Republican Congressman Joe Barton. He is a Republican from the great state of Texas. He joins us now. It's nice to -- I think he is standing by. Can you hear me, sir? OK. It looks like they're getting him ready. So we'll stand by for Congressman Barton in just a moment.

The other thing Congressman Barton is going to discuss with us, he is a Newt Gingrich surrogate. And as you know, as we head into the various contests, which no delegates will be awarded today, he is saying that his candidate is still in the race. Russell joked this morning that none of the Gingrich surrogates would talk to him, which is not the case. We'll be chatting with him. It's interesting to see the big question there is, does he have the money to stay in the race, of course.


O'BRIEN: Of course you can. Jump on?

SIMMONS: All American politics is adding up to be. Does he have the money? I spent a lot of time on this for years. More recently Occupy Wall Street has brought this to America's attention. And then the greatest example of it is this Republican primary. It's all money. Our democracy is for sale. I've been work for a very long time, and now we have a constitutional amendment that's being discussed. A lot of religious leaders, African-American religious leaders have joined forces with some unions and some of the Occupy Wall Street guys and create something called Occupy the Dream.

O'BRIEN: There's a Catch-22. You're not in the game you get outspent and then you lose.

SIMMONS: It's 96 percent of the money have the money. So instead of working for the people who elect you, you end up working for the special interests that paid you. And so the question is does Gingrich have the money and does he have the relationships and does he owe the favors. Therefore, if he does, maybe he could win. You notice what just happened, Romney spent five times what he spent in Florida, and he won.

O'BRIEN: You have president Obama said -- President Obama criticized the super PAC money and now he has his own super PAC.

REIHAN SALAM, CO-AUTHOR, "GRAND NEW PARTY": There's a wonderful new book called "Rule and Ruin," which is the history of the Republican Party pretty since the 1950s through the 2000s. A big part of the story is moderate Republicans tended to be supported by wealthy backers. And then as you regulated the campaign finance system, as parties depended more on small dollar donations, you actually saw an increase in ideological polarization and decrease in them working together to solve various problems. So the story here is not so much that money is good or money is bad. It's that money flows in the system in different ways and a lot of the regulations meant to put the little guy in the driver's seat actually backfired, because back then you had a lot of backers who was like, we want to kind of have a broad-minded, big tent party, and so we're going to support people. And then candidates instead spend all their time chasing after donations. That dynamic has dramatically changed.

Similarly on the Democratic side you see that labor organizations after restricting soft money donations to the parties, they have much less influence, whereas now upper middle class, social liberals who make small dollar donations have much more influence. I wouldn't say that money is good or bad. I would say are the regulations actually serving their initial purpose or have they proved counterproductive?

SIMMONS: It's bad. I mean, Ben is a person, Jerry is a person, but Ben and Jerry is not a person. Corporations are not people. It's ridiculous, the discussion. We should have public funding. We should have a democracy where each person has a vote and a vote matters.

O'BRIEN: What do we do now?

SIMMONS: Each person's vote matters.

O'BRIEN: I love how the panel takes off without me. Hi, I'm here. The question is, what do we do about it now, right? We followed Newt Gingrich as he was campaigning through Iowa and then into New Hampshire and so forth, one of his issues was, I would like to not have to run ads. I would like to be positive but I'm being hammered on the other side. Ergo that's going to determine what my reaction is.

SIMMONS: The same amount of money should be public funding.

SALAM: Eugene McCarthy ran for president against LBJ. Nobody thought he had a hope. He ran an antiwar campaign fueled by a small handful of wealth guys that said LBJ is dragging us into the Vietnam War and we don't like it. But when you have a public financing system the incumbents, the people all right in office, the parties that already exist are able to game the system to work to their advantage because they set the laws. They set the regulations.

SIMMONS: Except they're already in office and made the deals, and except they already have money flowing. They have 94 percent of the time they win and they have the money, and that's what incumbents do. The idea that there is some kind of fair election now when it's all up to money is unrealistic.

O'BRIEN: Let me turn to our --


O'BRIEN: Kathy and I are just going to start -- I can see how this morning is going to go. Wow. No coffee for you, sir. All right, let's get to congressman Joe Barton of Texas. Good morning, sir. Thanks for being so patient. We were all audiological difficulties. Thank you.

I want to talk to you about "The Washington Post" investigation. It's all into earmarks. They identified 50 members of Congress who directed money to projects that were either very close to properties that they owned or connected to their families. And you were on that list of 50 lawmakers talking about $3 million deal to widen a part of U.S. 287, I believe. It's near where you own a couple of homes. Was there a correlation between the fact that your home was there and the fact that this deal was done?


REP. JOE BARTON, (R) TEXAS: Well, I've been in Congress since 1985 and I have been working on U.S. 287 from course can that Texas up to Ft. Worth, Texas that entire time. I live in a small town in Dallas called Ennis which is a community of approximately 15,000 people. Every home in Ennis, Texas, is within two or three miles from 287 or the bypass that goes around it.

And I have been successful over time in making 287 a four-lane highway from Corsicana up until Ft. Worth. That's totally on the up and up process. I would invite you and any of your CNN viewers that want to come down to Texas and look at the U.S. 287 in my congressional district. I think you will see that it's a straight-up project.

And my homes that you referred to are in residential parts of Ennis, Texas. I own no commercial property nor do I have options on any commercial property anywhere, not just in Ennis, Texas, but anywhere along the length of that highway.

O'BRIEN: One of the complaints about the earmarks is they're not transparent. Do you push for them to be more transparent?

BARTON: Of course, we're not doing earmarks in the House of Representatives right now. But when we did do them, we had to sign a sheet, and I posted it on my website, and we also sent copies down to the local press. So we've been transparent for, I think, for almost the entire time that I've been in Congress when we were doing them.

O'BRIEN: Let's turn around talk about politics in terms of the caucuses that are today. Newt Gingrich surrogate is what your role is on that front. How do you think it's going to go? You know, some people are backing away from predicting that Mitt Romney is going to have a clean sweep of the contest today. Do you agree with that?

BARTON: I think Governor Romney with his cash advantage, which you all were talking about in the earlier segment, is going to do well. I think former Speaker Gingrich is going to be competitive. I think he's really gearing towards Super Tuesday, which is the first Tuesday in March.

Newt is the clear conservative change agent. His entire career has been about changing America in a conservative way. I think ultimately the Republican primary and caucus voters are going to pick him over Governor Romney because Newt is more conservative and he's been dedicated to doing that for a longer period of time.

O'BRIEN: Congressman Joe Barton of Texas, thanks for talking with us. Again, my apologies for the audio problems earlier this morning. We appreciate your time.

BARTON: No problem.

O'BRIEN: Turning now to Syria. Slaughter in Syria -- nearly 100 more killed in Homs. The Russian foreign minister arrives in Damascus, and he'll be meeting with Bashar al-Assad trying to end the violence. Anti-government activists are growing more desperate though. Here's what they're saying.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The entire world should be ashamed of what's happening here. Everybody is just silent and looking at us being slaughtered every moment for no reason, just for wanting our freedom. This is too much, for god's sake.


O'BRIEN: That is a terrible clip to listen to. Jill Dougherty is live at the State Department. Jill, first of all, talking about that clip, there are many people suggest that Syria is spiraling into civil war. Is that the expectation at this point?

JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: I think you would have to say that, Soledad, because you look at the situation right now, both sides are arming. And that is one of the problems. Diplomacy hasn't been able to stop that. So you have to look at the options.

Could you do military action? Well, President Obama already said at least at this point that that is not an option. And many people who look at the situation say, look, this is a very different deal from Libya where they did have military action. It's much more complicated.

So what's the U.S. going to do? They're going for, of course, more sanctions, talking with the international community outside of the United Nations to put on the pressure. They're also going to put pressure on Russia by calling them out on the fact that they are providing their weapons and other countries providing their funds. Soledad?

O'BRIEN: And yet the foreign minister has arrived now in Damascus which means, what exactly? Russia obviously scuttled the Security Council's efforts to support the opposition.


O'BRIEN: What's that meeting about? DOUGHERTY: Well, the meeting, you know, is essentially to do something, to try to get resolution of this. But one of the problems is, I was just reading a comment by the Turkish prime minister, who said if you look at what happened at the U.N. and the action there where Russia and China blocked things, he calls it a fiasco. And what he is saying is it's being interpreted in Syria as a green light to do essentially what Assad wants. So the prospects of something coming out of that are not very great.

O'BRIEN: Jill Dougherty for us this morning. Thank you, Jill, for the update.

Look at the headlines. Christine Romans has those for us. Hey, Christine, good morning.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, Soledad. Dozens of mourners, many of them strangers, gathered in last night in Washington state for a candlelight vigil honoring the memory of Charlie and Braden Powell. And disturbing new details from police this morning. They say their father, Josh Powell, hacked his two young sons with a hatchet before using 10 gallons of gasoline to blow up their home Sunday, killing both boys and himself.

More than 40 states have now signed on to a settlement plan that would help millions of homeowners whose mortgages underwater. Under the plan America's top banks would pay up to $25 billion to settle all the government lawsuits. That money would then be used to bring relief to struggling homeowners by lowering the principle they owe on the mortgage.

But several states, including New York, Florida, and California, still not on board. They're worried about their own investigations into the banks and giving immunity to bad actors. That's all holding things up right now.

Greece teetering on the edge of default this morning. Leaders of Greek's political parties met through the night trying to reach agreement on austerity measures in order to get a $170 billion bailout from the EU. Three hours ago a nationwide, 24-hour strike began with demonstrators vowing to close Greece's ports, close its tourist sites, and disrupt transportation.

"Minding your Business" this morning, U.S. stock futures are trading slightly lower ahead of the opening bell. Growing concerns about Greece fixing its debt problems and avoiding default, those concerns and a deadline for qualified for bailout weighing on markets so far this week.

And a source close to M.I.A. tells CNN the entertainer messed up. She feels awful about flashing the finger during her Super Bowl appearance, halftime appearance with Madonna. The source, who is not authorized to speak to the media, says M.I.A. was simply amped up, adrenaline rush. She was not trying to send a message. She was just in the zone, I guess, Soledad. O'BRIEN: That makes no sense. Russell, you know her. You're our music mogul. She gave the finger during the half time performance and now the source was saying she was amped up?

SIMMONS: Maybe it's her normal performance.

O'BRIEN: She gives the finger to her fans?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Imagine how exhilarating it is to do something a little transgressive in that setting.

SIMMONS: The idea, just the idea of the whole system, to say, you know, young people, that's what they live for. So maybe it's something she's done in other performances and it just was natural.

AREU: Natural?

SIMMONS: It's natural to put their finger into the audience.

O'BRIEN: But it just - all of that just worries me. It worries me.

All right. Still to come this morning on STARTING POINT, outrage over Obama Health Care Reform. Religious hospitals now required to cover birth control. This is going to start on August 1st. They say though it's against their beliefs. We're going to have a conversation with both sides coming up next.

But President Obama originally said we should not fund Super PACs, the groups that can spend endless money to (INAUDIBLE) elections, but now, though, changing his tunes.

Plus, a school district with no zeros. Fail the test, just take it again. But we say "Get Real" this morning.

You're watching STARTING POINT.


O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody.

There's controversy over a portion of President Obama's Health Care Law. It requires some religious affiliated organizations, universities, hospitals to cover birth control services under their insurance programs. This is going to happen on August 1st.

Religious organizations are outraged over the mandate. They say it goes against their fundamental beliefs and the issue has spilled into the campaign trail as well. Listen to Mitt Romney from last night.


MITT ROMNEY, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: This is a violation of conscience. We must have a president who is willing to protect America's first right, a right to worship God, according to the dictates of our own conscience.


O'BRIEN: To have a conversation about both sides of this argument, Republican Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn joins us. She's from Tennessee; and Louise Melling, is the Deputy Legal Director for the ACLU. Nice to see you both.

Congresswoman, let's begin with you. When you hear from Mitt Romney saying this is about the right to worship God, this is about religious freedom, how - how is this about religious freedom and a right to worship?

REP. MARSHA BLACKBURN, (R) TENNESSEE: Well, it is about religious freedom because what has happened with the Obamacare Bill, Soledad, is specifically this. That bill is about government force. Government forcing their way into what you believe, what you're going to - what you're going to be able to provide. And that is not what the American people want.

What happened to the president saying, if you like what you have, you can keep it. Well, we know that that didn't happen.

O'BRIEN: Right. But let me stop you there. Let me stop you there.

BLACKBURN: That didn't happen.

O'BRIEN: So let me stop you there for a second -


O'BRIEN: -- because, again, I want to bring you back to the original - original question which, is how is that about the right to worship God and how is that about religious freedom, because what - what it's saying, right, is that these churches have a very narrow - narrowly - only narrowly can get out of this requirement.

So if it comes to Catholic universities, et cetera, they have to pay for contraception for their employees. They have to offer it, so the employees want to take them up on that, right? So how is that about religious freedom?

BLACKBURN: It is about forcing employers to provide things that go against their religious beliefs. And when you have individuals that go to church on Sunday and put money in the offering plate, they need to be assured that that money is not going to go and pay for contraceptive item, for abortion pills.

And this mandate covers all FDA-approved medications. So what it does is go against what those religious beliefs are. And I think that this is clearly an example where the federal government does not know best. And the federal government and the Obamacare Bill should not be forcing these employers to go against their religious beliefs. What's it going to do?

O'BRIEN: So let's bring Louise in - let's bring Louise in for that. So what she's saying is that - and they are requiring an employee to offer the choice of contraception for the employees. Why shouldn't someone like a church who is against contraception say, why can't we opt out of that?

LOUISE MELLING, DEPUTY LEGAL DIRECTOR, ACLU: This will respect religious liberty. Churches for example aren't, in fact, churches don't have to provide contraceptive coverage as part of their package.

What this rule says, however, is that institutions like hospitals and charities and schools that open their door to the public, serve primarily the public, don't have a primary purpose of inculcating religion, have to offer the same insurance everybody else does.

Ninety-eight percent of American women use contraception at some point in their lives. That includes Catholics. This says if you play in the public sphere, you serve the public, you play by public rules.

O'BRIEN: So let's bring it back to the Congresswoman. That 98 percent number and I've seen ranges between high 80s and up to, you know, 99 percent of women are using contraception. And if you look specifically at Catholics, they're actually somewhere in the high 80s that are using contraception.

So ultimately isn't that giving an option to people who have decided not to follow the church's teaching on this?

BLACKBURN: Well, what it is doing is forcing the issue of religious freedom, Soledad. And as you said in your first question, what this is, is government coming in and saying to institutions that are founded on these religious beliefs that you are going to have to comply with this federal government mandate and -

O'BRIEN: But a lot of their employees - a lot of their employees aren't Catholic, right? So, I mean, what you're saying, those are for people who - employees who may not be Catholic, who may actually be using contraception if they are Catholic.

BLACKBURN: It is a Catholic employer. You've got 70 million Catholics. You've got institutions. You've got colleges.

There are already lawsuits filed. The Beckett Fund has a couple of lawsuits that are filed fighting this on behalf of Catholic institutions. And I hope that they continue to fight it every step of the way.

This is a religious liberty issue. These religious organizations are now being forced by the federal government to come in and they're going to be pushed out of the health care arena. Then who is going to step in and fill that void?

O'BRIEN: So let me - let me run -

BLACKBURN: It will be the federal government. O'BRIEN: Let me play a little bit - or it's a letter, actually from Cardinal O'Malley and he wrote this. "Unless the rule is overturned, we Catholics will be compelled and must be prepared to either violate our consciences or drop health coverage for our employees, and suffer the penalties of doing so."

Louise, let me give you the final word on this this morning. How do you think this ends?

MELLING: Well, first of all, I just want to emphasize again the church has not interfered where people can hold to their beliefs and what we're doing here is nothing exceptional, asking employers to provide contraception for their employees. Twenty-eight states already do it. New York, California have the same exemption.

This is about saying if you're an institution you serve the public, you open your doors to the public, then you have to play by public rules. We all respect religious freedom, but you don't have the right to impose your religion on other people. And the fact that you're people of good faith it doesn't mean that you're exempt from rules like anti-discrimination rules and rules governing our health.

Once you operate in the public sphere. We'll see. The public wants it. American women want coverage for what is an essential piece of their health care.

O'BRIEN: Louise Melling and Congresswoman -

BLACKBURN: They want religious freedom.

MELLING: Thank you so much.

O'BRIEN: I appreciate you both joining us this morning. We appreciate it.

Still ahead this morning on STARTING POINT, Georgia's school district adopts a no-zero grading policy. Students will not get zero, no matter what. A student cannot get a zero. It is our "Get Real" this morning. We'll talk about that.

Plus, big change in unemployment benefits. We'll tell you what you need to know.

That's all ahead. Stay with us.


O'BRIEN: Oh, I love this song. Jay-Z, "Hard Knock Life." Guess who on the panel picked this today? Ding, ding, ding, we have a winner. This is Russell's. We could just play Russell's iPod all for the whole two hours and be very happy.

It's nice to have you guys joining us this morning. Here is our "Get Real."

We're going to take you to Lowndes County School District, which is in Georgia and they're putting a new system in place that they think will keep students from failing. The system is literally do not allow them to fail.

Under new policy, kids in grades 3 through 8 cannot be given zeros. If they get a zero, they have to retake the test until they pass. Sixty will be the lowest grade that's allowed on report cards, and proponents say it helps keep students from becoming discouraged and dropping out.

As you can imagine, the zero grading policy is raising a little controversy. Some people argue it let's kids skip studying for teachers. It forces teachers to coach them through the material until they pass. It forces teachers to coach the students through the material so they pass. That's called teaching, I think.

AREU: Horrible.

O'BRIEN: Well. Yes, I don't know why people are up in arms about this. I say "Get Real." This is a really good idea for students third grade to eighth grade. I think it's mastery of material.

AREU: It's a great idea. I was a former teacher actually - public schoolteacher so I never actually liked to fail my students. I would make sure that they would get those Ds and do what it takes to move to the next step.

Because if you're getting zeroes and Fs that means you're holding them back. And study shows that when you hold back a student it does more damage in the long term than anything else you could do in a school. Move them on.

O'BRIEN: I - I thought it was a brilliant idea.

AREU: Yes.

O'BRIEN: I don't know why people are up in arms about it.

AREU: It's an excellent idea. I mean, every school should do this.

SALAM: Whenever people say studies show, I always want to say, well, which studies, are there other studies that contradict that. I mean -

AREU: Studies I've read.

SALAM: I'm - fair enough.


SALAM: I'd say that what I like is decentralization. I like different schools are trying different strategies and figure out what works best. So I think it's entirely possible that this will work, but I would also be perfectly happy to see another school take it to a totally different direction. O'BRIEN: Yes. But, you know, I think - well, you've got little kids, right?

SIMMONS: They already do take a different direction.

AREU: They're failing them. They're failing them.

SIMMONS: Yes, that's right. They're failing them. And we find it hurts so it's probably a good idea.

O'BRIEN: I have to say as parent of way too many small children --

SIMMONS: You're saying that you're all for one size fits all and that we should only have one strategy in every school.

O'BRIEN: That's exactly what I'm for. All five fits all. No, I'm for an education. I think we have to think carefully about the -- listen to this, they're going to force teachers to make sure the kids master the material. That's teaching.

SIMMONS: So that they move on.

O'BRIEN: That's teaching. Like that's actually a good idea, to have children master the material and not worry so much about the grade but worry about the mastery. Anyway, we can argue about this on the commercial break because we have one coming up.

Still ahead on STARTING POINT, pass the Senate, now the House is voting on a bill that would outlaw insider trading in Congress. We're going to talk life with the sponsors of the STOCK Act.

Plus a shocking circus accident has landed -- look at this. My goodness, a stunt man and a clown in the hospital. Take a look at what went wrong straight ahead.

Here's what went wrong, they have a motorcycle inside a building jumping something very large.


O'BRIEN: And welcome back to STARTING POINT, everybody. A look at the headlines first. Christine has those for us. Hi, good morning.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, again, Soledad. Russia's foreign minister is meeting with Syrian President Al-Assad today urging him to end the escalating violence there saying Moscow wants Arab people to live in peace. Twenty one civilians have been killed in Syria so far today.

President Obama's re-election campaign is changing its position and its opposition to those "Super PACs." Obama had been among the most vocal critics of these outside political spending groups.

But in an about face the campaign will begin using administration and campaign aides to fund raise for "Priorities USA Action," a "Super PAC" backing the president.

The GOP presidential race moves to Colorado and Minnesota today. No matter what happens in the caucuses there, both Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum insist they won't leave the race.

The two agreed neither would drop out to give the other a better chance against frontrunner Mitt Romney. Gingrich says we're both busy having a good time.

Maximum amount you could receive in unemployment insurance is about to drop to 79 weeks. The federal extended benefit is due to expire over the course of this year in the 32 states where it's now in effect.

And a circus stunt driver vows to return to the ring after a devastating fall this weekend. Josh Headford broke his femur, wrist, and elbow, fractured a shoulder blade when his motocross bike struck a cable and plunged 25 feet to the floor during a show in Saginaw, Michigan.

The 20-year-old daredevil is a bit groggy after the accident. He said that as soon as I can a pull a boot on my leg I'll be back on the bike.

Minding your business this morning, U.S. stock futures down this morning. European markets also down overnight. Greece is on the brink of meeting the terms of a new bail out agreement from the E.U..

But until that actually happens, markets will remain jittery. So it's all about Greece today. Last week, it was all about good jobs in the U.S. Now it's about Greece and Europe.

O'BRIEN: We're watching Greece this morning. All right, Christine, thank you very much.

This morning a bill that would make lawmakers obey the same rules that you and I have to when it comes to making money on inside information, in other words, you can't. It's gaining traction.

It had been going nowhere for years. But last week, the Senate passed the bill and this week, the House is expected to vote on the bill as well.

Republican Congressman Bill Johnson of Ohio is the co-sponsor of the STOCK Act and Democratic Congressman Tim Walz of Minnesota is a leading sponsor of the STOCK Act. And before we go to the STOCK Act, gentlemen, I want to first talk a little bit about these races that are happening this evening.

So let's tart start with you, Congressman Walz. Look for me at the race in Minnesota. What are your expectations for tonight?

REP. TIM WALZ (D), MINNESOTA: Well, I certainly wouldn't want to speak for Republican caucus goers, but what I can tell you in Minnesota, there's a pretty high premium put on conviction and authenticity.

And I think probably Governor Romney not even being in the state the last couple of days is pretty telling. And my guess is, probably the way this thing looks like it's going to shake out, 33 percent will win this thing. I would guess maybe Senator Santorum will probably win it there. Just pretty much in flux.

O'BRIEN: I love the way you start of saying I'm not going to talk about Republican caucus goers.

WALZ: With any conviction, I can only say I think that's what's happening here.

O'BRIEN: I hear you. Congressman Johnson, Santorum is predicted to potentially be surging. We know that Romney has been on the attack or Romney's folks have been on the attack. What do you think that means for the race?

REP. BILL JOHNSON (R), OHIO: Well, you know, I can't say what Mr. Santorum or the other candidates are doing tactically, but I know strategically they're all focused on the same thing, and that's to make this president, President Obama, a one-time -- one-term president.

You know, his policies have hurt America. We've had 36 straight months of unemployment in excess of 8 percent, most of the time it's been around 9 percent or higher. We've got 2 million more Americans out of work today than when he came in to office.

And we've got four million more Americans that are classified as either low income or at the poverty line. And every economic indicator we've got practically is heading in the wrong direction. So I'm sure that that's what Governor Romney and Mr. Santorum and Newt Gingrich are all focused on.

O'BRIEN: All that said, Ohio is a battleground state and it's a state that President Obama won by five points in 2008. If you look at this new poll that comes out of ABC, it shows a swing of independent voters. The number to look at is the first column.

You know, 48 percent independents supporting President Obama was 38 percent back in January. That's a ten-point leap if you look at Mitt Romney's numbers, was 50 percent. Now that's dropped a few points to 47 percent. Does a graph like that concern you, sir?

JOHNSON: Well, what I can tell you that along the eastern and south eastern Ohio border, along the Ohio River where unemployment is still unacceptably high, people there are concerned about jobs. They're concerned about unemployment.

CBO reports that unemployment will be back up around 9 percent by the end of this year. So we are far from out of the woods and we've got a long way to go between now and November.

And I can tell you that people in my district that are paying double for what they paid for a gallon of gasoline when President Obama came into office, they're concerned and I think that will be reflected in November.

O'BRIEN: Congressman Walz, let's talk about the STOCK Act. It basically says you can't insider trade and members of Congress would be subjected to the same rules that regular folks would be subjected to --

WALZ: Imagine that.

O'BRIEN: Shocking. I'm shocked as a voter. Why do you think this bill, in all seriousness, why do you think it's important?

WALZ: Well, I've been on this since I got here, Soledad. It's about restoring faith in government, in the democracy. Bill and I will disagree greatly. We can talk about the president and the different indicators and job growth and things like that.

But fundamentally, I know Bill is an honest guy doing the right thing. I think the American public once again need to see their government that same way and that proposition of playing by the rules is absolutely fundamental to the way we do things in America.

So I think you get something like this passed and then we can start dealing with the real issues about how we move and how we make sure this Congress passes some things to help that growth moving in the right direction. So it's really about restoring faith.

O'BRIEN: Congressman Johnson, how would this change how Congress does business on this front specifically, literally?

JOHNSON: Absolutely. You know, I want to echo what Tim said. You know, there's no doubt about it. Tim and I probably have differences where the presidential climate is concerned. There are some things that Tim and I agree strongly on.

This is one of those areas. And returning integrity and honesty and the faith of the American people to their elected representatives, this is extremely important.

And I'm very, very proud to be a co-sponsor of the STOCK Act and I plan to support it this week. It's only fair and only right that we expect our elected representatives and their staff in Washington to abide by the same rules that the American people have to.

O'BRIEN: Might get those congressional approval numbers up from 11 percent, which are kind of bad. Gentlemen, I thank you for joining us this morning. We appreciate your time.

Still ahead this morning on STARTING POINT, school lunches are getting healthier, but not the school vending machines. We'll talk about that. Plus, that terrible story out of L.A. elementary school, those two teachers accused of committing lewd acts on children. Now that school has been shut down, the entire staff is gone. They will be bringing a new staff in. Lawyers for the alleged victims will join us live in just a minute.


O'BRIEN: I was going to say, what is this? "Still My Sunshine." Who sings it? Are you bringing the one-hit wonders? It's music you've never heard of, but I like it. It's definitely -- wakes you up in the morning.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: On the "Go" sound track.

O'BRIEN: It's an on the "Go" sound track.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: On the "Go" sound track from the movie "Go."

O'BRIEN: Oh. Wow. You're just a fountain of information.


Because the teleprompter said it was "Ice Ice Baby" by Vanilla Ice. I was kind of looking forward to that.



O'BRIEN: Apparently, not.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I did not pick that.

O'BRIEN: No, I know.


He's like, I want to be on the record in saying I did not pick that.

We're talking this morning about unhealthy snacks. One-third of kids in the United States are overweight or obese and, despite some efforts to change menus in vending machines, junk food still dominates. Nearly half of elementary school kids can still buy unhealthy snacks at school.

Senior medical correspondent, Elizabeth Cohen, in Atlanta this morning.

Good morning to you, Elizabeth.

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Good morning. You know, Soledad, it's so interesting because people we're hoping with this new study that came out that fewer schools would be putting these vending machines in where kids could buy junk food. But in fact, it's just as broad as it ever was so nearly half of kids can buy junk food in vending machines. And we're talking elementary schools here.

O'BRIEN: You know, I know that for many schools the vending machine income directly correlates to the band uniforms, the musical instruments, all of these other things. Is that really what's at the heart of it?

COHEN: Right. In many ways, it is. Those contracts can be lucrative. A single district can make hundreds of thousands of dollars from vending machines. They may not say it, but they know if you put apples in those vending machines, those sales might not be quite as high. So you know, the USDA has made this big push to reduce school lunches, which they announced earlier this year. And they are going to make new rules for vending machines. This one is tough because this really affects the school's bottom line.

O'BRIEN: I have to say, you would think that if they're making all of this effort on a school lunch and they put what is basically crap in a vending machine, doesn't it undo all the good or at least some of the progress they've made on the school lunch front?

COHEN: Absolutely. That's what advocates say is right, exactly. You can give them as healthy lunch as they want but if the kid can go down the hall and get a candy bar and a bag of chips, they might opt to do that instead. This is a harder thing in some ways to change because of those band uniforms that you mentioned. Schools might not be able to buy what they want to buy if they stop selling candy bars and chips in vending machines.

O'BRIEN: Elizabeth Cohen for us.

Thanks, Elizabeth. Appreciate it.

COHEN: Thanks.

O'BRIEN: When did you start eating vegan and healthfully?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I've been vegan for about --

O'BRIEN: Because I have a candy bar every morning before the show starts.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are you serious?


O'BRIEN: I do. Yes. I'm sorry. I have to wake up. I'm up at 2:30 in the morning.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think it's about creativity. I'm spending time developing a food line, (INAUDIBLE), to make them fun and creative and taste good. It's not impossible.

O'BRIEN: Are your daughters vegan? They're little. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My daughters eat very healthy. They're not totally vegan. They eat fish sometimes. I believe it's important that you feed a kid and you teach a kid to eat healthy. You know, it's critical. It's part of parenting. I think the school systems should be held accountable. And I think we are going to work on it. As we talk more about it, we're going to make more changes. Again, creative work can make those vending machines taste good and serve the public.

O'BRIEN: I love junk food. But I have eaten your food and --


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You have not eaten --


O'BRIEN: I have. At all your events you serve vegan food. And I've been to a zillion. It's really good. The cauliflower, thumbs up.



O'BRIEN: But in a vending machine, it's --


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In a vending machine, there are creative ways again. It's up to the food companies. But it comes from the schools. If the schools put some kind of restriction on them, then they'll come up with creative things. It's simple. You can make them do it.

O'BRIEN: All right.

Ahead this morning on STARTING POINT, President Obama's designer duds. Big money from re-election campaign, from tote bags, silk scarves, even a Russell Simmons' designed shirt.


You want to see it. He's like, all right. Here, that's what it looks like right there.

Republicans though are saying uh-huh. We're going to have details on that coming up in our next hour.

Plus, the L.A. school where the two teachers were accused of lewd acts on children, it's now closed. The entire staff will be replaced. Lawyers of the families of the children involved will join us next. Stay with us. We're back in a moment.


O'BRIEN: Some major developments to tell you about this morning in that disturbing sex abuse scandal that took place at an elementary school outside of Los Angeles. The school is closed today and tomorrow. And we learned late last night that all staff members at Miramonte Elementary School will be reassigned. All members of the staff and all the kids will be interviewed. Two teachers have been arrested and both are charged with abusing students.

A former teacher at the school, Mark Berndt, is accused of lewd acts on 23 children. It includes blindfolding the children and having them eat things we cannot talk about on television. They found nearly 400 photos taken by Berndt of his alleged victims. Martin Springer, a second-grade teacher, he is also being held for allegedly fondling two girls.

Brian Claypool and Raymond Boucher are attorneys and they're representing the families in this case.

Gentlemen, thanks for being with us.

Why don't you tell us how many families you are representing between you?

RAYMOND BOUCHER, ATTORNEY: We represent at least five families at this point in time.

O'BRIEN: And you expect that --


BRIAN CLAYPOOL, ATTORNEY: I'm currently representing five families as well.

O'BRIEN: So we have 10 families. When we look at the actual numbers of kids who were photographed, of kids who were allegedly involved, it seems like that number would be much bigger. Are you expecting that number to grow?

BOUCHER: There's no question. There's a significant number of additional kids over the last 30 years who were sexually abused or mistreated at the school. I think that number, 10, is going to be dwarfed by the actual number of ultimate cases.

O'BRIEN: I know you guys are filing civil suits. So, Brian, when you hear that the school district has closed the school, which is incredibly unusual, and gotten rid of all the teachers, are you happy with that decision or are you not?

CLAYPOOL: Well, I think it's just a Band-Aid on a deep wound. Just to clarify, they haven't fired all of these teachers or terminated. All the superintendent has done is just removed them. He's taken them to another site and he claims that he's just going to try to determine what they knew about this sex scandal. So it's not going to ameliorate the problem. They spent 20 years over there fostering an environment that allows pedophiles to prey upon children. You can't fix the problem overnight.

O'BRIEN: Raymond, explain that for me because as I said going in, there are things that we cannot describe that happened to these kids and then photographs taken of that. How did that happen in a school that has 1,500 elementary school-age kids who should all be watched by 150 staff members?

BOUCHER: Well, you know, the way it happens is that the administration sat on its hands while previous complaints took place at the school about this teacher, about Berndt himself, for at least the last 25 years that we know of so far. I think it goes deeper than that.

What happens is the school looks at it and ignores it and tells the kids repeatedly, over and over again, not just once, not just twice, several times over the last 30 years, you're just imagining it. Forget about it. It's all in your head. You shouldn't tell stories. Rather than listening, rather than documenting the file, rather than investigating, they put these kids at risk.

Unfortunately, we don't know how deep the damages go and how many people were destroyed by this. But this is something that is going to evolve for the next five, six, seven years before we truly understand the depth of it.

O'BRIEN: Brian, do you think the fact that these kids were mostly in poverty, mostly Latino, mostly a large percentage did not speak English as a first language, do you think that made them ripe for the picking in an environment like this?

CLAYPOOL: Absolutely. In fact, I think that Berndt, Springer, and there was another gentleman who was convicted in 2005 -- his name was Ricardo Guervez -- all three of those gentlemen I believe preyed on these kids because they were in a low-income Latino neighborhood. I think they knew that parents, on behalf of these kids, spoke English as a second language, and they might be a little bit fearful of coming forward, that these teachers selected this school many years ago to facilitate carrying out their pedophile acts on the kids, absolutely.

O'BRIEN: We should underscore in these two cases, they alleged at this point. I'm going to talk to the panel for a second, gentlemen.

Really disturbing trend. People have mentioned that about people that are pedophiles. You find the path of least resistance. In some cases, there could be a large number of people undocumented, people who don't speak English well enough to communicate their issues, and they're small children.

CATHY AREU, OWNER & PUBLISHER, CATALINA MAGAZINE: What's so alarming is to become a certified teacher in a public school, you have to go through several classes to be certified. Part of those classes are child psychology courses where you learn about early childhood development and abuse. We are taught to spot abuse. So they knew exactly what abuse was. They went beyond abuse.

O'BRIEN: You're talking about the teachers around the two that are now alleged to --


AREU: These two teachers knew what they were doing. They studied child psychology. To get to the point where they are, and then went through with those acts, it is alarming they got through the system. It's shocking.

O'BRIEN: We're going to keep watching.

Gentleman, Brian Claypool and Raymond Boucher, thanks for talking with us. We'll obviously continue to follow this case as it moves forward. We appreciate your time.

Ahead this morning, big day on the campaign trail for the GOP and for the Romney camp. Tim Pawlenty is playing the attack dog. The former Minnesota governor and presidential candidate is going to join us live at the top of the hour.

And then, first they banned Barbie, and now Iran is banning another American classic. We'll tell you what that is straight ahead.