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Source: Houston Drank "Large Quantities" of Alcohol; Payroll Tax Cut Deal in Place; Deadly Crackdown in Syria; Jewish Groups Being Targeted?; Seventeen TCU Students Busted For Selling Drugs; Chinese Envoy To Visit Syria

Aired February 16, 2012 - 05:00   ET


ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning to you. And welcome to EARLY START. I'm Ashleigh Banfield.

ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Zoraida Sambolin. We are bringing you the news from A to Z. It is 5:00 in the East.

So, let's get started here.

Whitney Houston on a dangerous path just days before her death. And new this morning, we're hearing that Whitney Houston drank heavily in the days right before her death. There were a lot of witnesses saying that she was arguing with a bartender. She didn't want her drinks watered down.

BANFIELD: And inside Syria, CNN breaches the borders and witnesses firsthand some of the slaughter -- people grabbing children off the streets to protect them from snipers, wholesale violence and assaults in neighborhoods. We will get you inside and show you what's happening.

SAMBOLIN: So, we finally have a deal here. Late last night, word that a payroll tax cut is now in place and lawmakers are using a word that you haven't heard for a while. It is called compromise.

BANFIELD: But what was that --

SAMBOLIN: Compromise.

BANFIELD: No, I'm sorry. I'm not feeling it.

Also, you've heard all about the Lintastic stories of Jeremy Lin and the magic he's been performing on the court. He does it again. I'm not sure this is going to keep going, though.

SAMBOLIN: What? What?

BANFIELD: This repetitive this story, this win, win, win.

SAMBOLIN: Of course it is.

BANFIELD: Do you think so?

What happens if it doesn't? We're going to have all the highlights, the puns and story, what could be, as we move ahead in this guy's fantastic career.

SAMBOLIN: Yes, kind of good.

BANFIELD: So far, though, at one minute past 5:00, our top story this morning, a new source revealing to CNN that singer Whitney Houston drank a lot of alcohol in just the days before she tragically died. The claim is that she ordered drinks by her hotel pool, spent much of the day there. You can see this photograph courtesy of TMZ.

Reports that she wasn't acting out much on the day before her -- the day of her death while at the pool. But that she was acting in strange ways and drinking copious amounts of alcohol in the days leading up to this in the hotel bar and in the lobby.

SAMBOLIN: Yes. And her friends have admitted that Houston drank champagne at a pre-Grammy party on Thursday.

Dr. Drew was on "A.C. 360" and he said that given her dependency, she should not have been drinking any alcohol at all.


DR. DREW PINSKY, HLN HOST: The fact that she could go to those treatments as recently as last May and come out and she and the people around her think that partying with alcohol is somehow OK because her problem is other drugs, is -- it shows that the treatments were abject failures -- abject failures. And that she needed a lot more treatments.

She didn't need to be out in public. She didn't need to be paraded around at parties. She didn't need to be working on a movie. Her life was in danger, as we now know, but should have known that four months ago.


SAMBOLIN: So we still do not know how Whitney Houston died. The death certificate lists the cause as deferred. The coroner has issued subpoenas for prescriptions, medical records. They are questioning doctors as well.

The coroner says he's trying to expedite the results, but that it could take six to eight weeks. Remember with Michael Jackson, the results, the toxicology reports, took actually three months.

So, Susan Candiotti is live in Newark.

Susan, what else do we know about her behavior the night before her death?


There's just no other way to describe it. These are certainly disturbing and sad details about the final hours and days of her life, before she was found dead in that Beverly Hilton Hotel bathtub on Saturday.

What we are hearing from a source briefed on her behavior is that she was drinking and drinking a lot, as early as 10:00 in the morning on Wednesday and Thursday. Seen in the pool and the lobby area of the hotel ordering these drinks, jumping in and out of the pool, even doing somersaults, that's what people are saying. And also, as you indicated, complaining that her drinks had been watered down, that there was too much ice in them.

Now, she was described as being alone at some times, other times with members of her entourage and still others, with a male companion. And then there's the additional information about her drinking again on Saturday morning, again in that pool area. So, all of this in combination with what coroners are looking at in terms of the toxicology report as that comes in, to see whether that alcohol might have played a role in whatever medication she might have been on at the time.

Remember, Zoraida, that authorities have told us that she was taking Xanax which is an anti-stress, anti-anxiety drug, and that in combination with alcohol, obviously could be problematic according to experts -- Zoraida.

SAMBOLIN: So, let's talk about that. What's the latest on the investigation?

CANDIOTTI: Well, in terms of what the coroners are doing, as you indicated, they, of course, have issued subpoenas. We'll be getting additional information about the prescription drugs that she was taking, looking into her medical history, piecing all of that together.

However, coroners continue to stress, at this time, they see nothing criminal in the kind of drugs that she had with her, that there's no evidence at this time, none at all, that she was doing any doctor shopping. But this is part of a very thorough investigation that authorities must go through as they put all these pieces together before determining her cause of death.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Susan Candiotti, live in Newark, New Jersey -- thank you.

BANFIELD: And also "Forbes" magazine is reporting this morning that Whitney Houston did, in fact, leave a will and contrary to some other reports, she was not broke, she was not bankrupt. Apparently, having made millions from album sales and touring, just recently $35 million alone from a 2010 tour, where she was going through Europe and Asia touting an album.

She also owned property, $1.7 million estate in New Jersey that's been on the market for some time. Her daughter Bobbi Kristina is likely the main heir to her fortune. This will apparently was drafted after she was divorced from her ex-husband, Bobby Brown.

And CNN will be airing special coverage of Houston's funeral. It will be hosted by Soledad O'Brien, Piers Morgan and Don Lemon. It starts Saturday at 11:00 Eastern -- 11:00 a.m. Eastern. So, tune in for that.

SAMBOLIN: It is six minutes past the hour. It's the do something Congress this morning.


SAMBOLIN: Democrats and Republicans have come together on a deal to extend the payroll tax cut for millions of working families and there's also lot more help for the unemployed.

I'm looking to my left because Christine Romans is here with all of the good news.

And all of the word came from the congressional aides last night, the House vote could come later his week. But this is really just an extension for a year, right?

BANFIELD: I'm going to invoke the whole Obama thing that we were talking about yesterday. I'll believe it when we see it. We're not at the vote, right?

SAMBOLIN: Well, but we're close, we're very close here.

BANFIELD: And if they actually go ahead, it's going to keep your paycheck from shrinking. Don't forget, you've been on this payroll tax holiday. You might not know it, but you had this holiday for quite some time.

And so, if that continues to extend -- if you're one of the average Americans out there, average American families, you'll get another $1,000 per year. And that works out to about 40 bucks per paycheck that you'll continue to keep in that paycheck.

And the lawmakers are using a word they haven't been using in a long time or at least the critics of the lawmakers haven't been using -- compromise. Have a listen.


REP. DAVE CAMP (R), CALIFORNIA: This is a compromise. So, there are technical issues. But we're going to let council finish those and those are going to continue to be worked on. And so, we'll be able it to move forward later.


SAMBOLIN: All right. Christine Romans is here.

We're going to talk about a poll in a minute, but you famously said that Congress was fundamentally broken.


SAMBOLIN: Are they healing?

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: I think in an election year, when 160 million Americans are going, hey, wait a minute, are my taxes going to rise, it's not really brain surgery to figure out that if you want to get elected for something, and you want your party to be elected for something, you want to make sure you don't have 160 million people mad at you.

And this poll that we are referencing shows that more Americans want a payroll tax cut to increase, 54 percent say they want it to continue, 42 percent are oppose it. And many people who oppose it oppose it because they don't want to add to our deficits, which is something that the Republicans were concerned about all along, of this payroll tax increase will not be paid for.

They didn't -- they could never agree on how to pay for it, right? So, they're going to go ahead and finish this without finding a way to pay for it. But other measures, they're going to have to pay for it.

BANFIELD: And I would guess that of those numbers, the heavier voters would be the Democrats and independents, who say, keep that tax cut coming.

ROMANS: Well, it's interesting because there are some Democrats and independents who are very concerned about using a Social Security tax to give people a tax cut, because they're like, we don't want to be messing around with how we fund Social Security. A tax cut is fine, but don't be messing around --

BANFIELD: On the backs of the elders.

ROMANS: Right. So, there is that controversy among Republicans, Democrats and independents frankly who are saying, this was supposed to be a temporary thing, don't mess around with how much we're paying for Social Security.

BANFIELD: Yesterday, you said something about the unemployment issue was at 9 weeks, where they were arguing whether it would be 99 weeks or not. Did they come to an argument in that?

ROMANS: Yes, they did. And it looks like it's going to be more like 73 weeks. So, those days of getting 99 weeks of unemployment benefits are likely over. You can only do that in not even half of the states now. It depends on what the jobless rate is of the state. So, this very, very super long period of 99 weeks of unemployment benefits is not going to happen anymore.

There's also something else in here as well. If you've lost your job because you failed a drug test or you refused to take a drug test or other drug-related issue, you're going to have to have a drug test to get jobless benefits.

BANFIELD: The Democrats agreed to that?

ROMANS: They agreed to this.


ROMANS: And you will have to take a -- if you're applying for jobs, if you're on unemployment benefits and if you're applying for jobs, it require drug testing. You could have to have a drug test for unemployment benefits.

A lot of people who study kind of employment law don't like this. They don't like to tie benefits to certain things.

There's also another thing in here that's pretty interesting. This is -- the government agreed to extend the main welfare program. It's called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and there's a debit card the families get. But they got in there you can't use that electronic benefit card at liquor stores, casinos or strip clubs.

So, you can see that within this, you can imagine the negotiators overnight going, you know, these are the things that conservatives want.


BANFIELD: Did they debate over that? Did they debate that?

ROMANS: Well, apparently they did. Well, I was surprised actually you could use this card at a strip club frankly.


ROMANS: But, you know -- so you can see where conservatives did have some wins.

SAMBOLIN: And the Medicare, right? What happened with the Medicare payments to doctors?

ROMANS: They get that, that doc fix, that has been fixed again for the year. But again, all of these are going to be paid for. So, they're going to be paid for if you're a new federal worker, guys, a new federal worker, more into your pension. So, they found ways to pay for some of the other measures.

BANFIELD: Well, that's a good thing.

SAMBOLIN: Some good news. Thank you.

BANFIELD: Christine Romans, you are busy.

ROMANS: I know.

BANFIELD: Girl doesn't sleep.

SAMBOLIN: It's 10 minutes past the hour.

GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum releasing his tax returns for the past four years. That's the most of any 2012 presidential candidates so far. What do they show? They show he earned $3.6 million in those four years. His highest tax rate was 28.3 percent.

Santorum had promised to release them for about a month, but said it took this long because he does his own taxes and had to get back to his computer. He was busy campaigning.

BANFIELD: The high tax rate, yes. Compared to, obviously, what Mitt Romney was paying.


BANFIELD: Closer to 15 percent to 20 percent. Probably a feather in his cap as he continues to campaign.

Let's take you overseas now because there is still this incredible story that keeps coming in to our network, and that's the deadly crackdown, the deadly crisis in Syria. The government now offering political reforms, but hold on. Offering political reforms at a time when another military crackdown just keeps coming.

Look at the pictures. They don't lie. The opposition, of course, the source of these pictures but dozens more killed in the latest violence in that country.

CNN's Arwa Damon has a great risk to herself -- and it cannot be understated, at great risk to herself and crew -- has been able to sneak into this country to offer firsthand accounts of what's happening in the city of Homs.


ARWA DAMON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The bombardment at some points was so intense that buildings were shaking, glass was shattering. A 9-year-old girl that was caught in the house we were in, burst into tears and there was absolutely no way to comfort her. We also spent a couple of hours at the medical clinic inside Baba Amr, which is the neighborhood that has been the hardest hit in this most recent government onslaught, nonstop shelling residents are telling us, that has been going on for 11, 12 days now. And the doctors there are beside themselves.


BANFIELD: Again, that's CNN's Arwa Damon reporting from a secure location undisclosed inside the city of Homs where she was able to breach recently.

Some people in the U.S. Congress are saying this country should consider arming the Syrian opposition.

On CNN's "OUTFRONT WITH ERIN BURNETT," Senator Lindsey Graham was asked exactly that question and what the United States needs to do to help these people.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Arming people is something to consider, but right now, I'd like to know more. But, surely, we can help them economically. We can help them with doctor care and we can really push the world community, Russia and China particularly, to get behind getting Assad out. And he's really very close to falling. We just need to push.


BANFIELD: Aha, more about Russia and China in a moment. The U.N. General Assembly is set to take up a symbolic -- we repeat -- symbolic resolution condemning Syria to happen today. And about China, well, they sent an envoy to Damascus to try to help end the violence.

And if you remember last week's reporting, Russia did the same thing, although it is unclear what, if any, help that actually offered to this crisis.

SAMBOLIN: Thirteen minutes past the hour. Every morning, we give you an EARLY START to your day by alerting you to what will be the big stories tonight.

Sentencing day in Detroit for the so-called "Underwear Bomber," Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. He is facing a mandatory life sentence. Abdulmutallab pleaded guilty to trying to blow up a Detroit-bound plane on Christmas Day 2009 with a bomb hidden in his underwear.

BANFIELD: President Obama is raising a lot of money in California, campaign cash. He's going to attend four fundraising events today in Los Angeles and San Francisco and wrap up a three-day Western swing tomorrow with two more fundraisers in Seattle.

SAMBOLIN: And Robert Kennedy's grandson Joseph Kennedy III will formally declare his candidacy for Congress today. The 31-year-old Kennedy is seeking Barney Franks' Massachusetts House seat. Frank decided not to run for re-election.

BANFIELD: And, you know, Massachusetts is not always a sure thing for a Kennedy these days. So, this will be a great race to watch. It will be interesting.

SAMBOLIN: He looks awfully young, doesn't he? Like a lot younger than his 31 years.

BANFIELD: All Kennedys look young to me.

SAMBOLIN: As Rob Marciano does in Atlanta -- way younger than your age.

ROB MARCIANO, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Yes. I'm no Kennedy, I can tell you that. But thank you, ladies. Good morning, guys.

But we are looking at rainfall, much needed rainfall, actually, heading across parts of the south not only for the drought situation but knocking down some of the pollen that really shouldn't be in the air yet, but has been so mild this winter, we've got trees blooming just about everywhere.

Atlanta, south down to southeast parts of Alabama, luckily last night, this wasn't much in the way of severe weather. No reports of tornadoes as a strong line of storms moved across east Texas and south Louisiana.

But the rain is also moving across the New York City area later on today. So, Philadelphia, you'll se some delays as well, and D.C. and Charlotte also.

Here's how the storm is going to move as we go through the next 24 to 36 hours. Throughout the day today, it rides up the spine of the Appalachians. Note that the snow, the white on this map isn't very prevalent, so pretty mild in places, mostly rain for most folks but eventually head out to sea on Friday.

But -- and another storm in the wake of this thing coming into town on Sunday. We'll have to watch this one, pretty strong one. Winter storm and high wind warnings out for So Cal, but this will tap Gulf moisture and maybe ride up the East Coast. We'll have to watch it carefully on Sunday and Monday for potential impacts for you.

Back up to you.

BANFIELD: All right. Well, thanks for that, Rob. Check in with you a little bit later.

And for the sports -- and even not sports fans among us.

SAMBOLIN: It's a great story.

BANFIELD: The update to Jeremy Lin. The scoring spree may have abated somewhat, but hold on, because the Linsanity just keeps coming. The Knicks' Jeremy Lin scoring just 10 points in a game last night, but had a career high with 13 assists.

SAMBOLIN: And the Knicks won their seventh straight game, blowing out the Sacramento Kings. It's a first time in the seven games Lin was held under 20 points.

BANFIELD: It might be because they were resting him, though, what do you think? I mean, he did sort of sit on the bench in the back half of the game. But Madison Square Garden was packed.

Legend of Lin living on. And we're going to talk about that with Mark Spears. He's an NBA writer for Yahoo! Sports. That's coming a little bit later on.

As we see the cheering and team surrounding him.

SAMBOLIN: I certainly wouldn't mind having him in our news every day. Great role model.

BANFIELD: Nice to have good news especially in the morning.


Seventeen minutes past the hour.

Still ahead, Jewish groups in the United States are being warned to watch out as the tensions with Iran escalate.

So, remember Josh Powell? He blew up a home in a murder/suicide, killing his two young sons. Now, there is a fight brewing to keep him from spending eternity next to the boys that he killed.

You're watching EARLY START.


BANFIELD: Good morning, Atlanta. As we pan along your beautiful skyline, it is 52 degrees right now. A little bit of rain today expected and 65 degrees as a high. So, not terrible. It is winter.

SAMBOLIN: A nice fast pan.

BANFIELD: Yes. Whoever is on that tower cam has got it going on this morning. Like the caffeine in your Starbucks.

SAMBOLIN: It is 20 minutes past the hour here.

Time to check stories that are making news this morning.

A source claims Whitney Houston ordered large quantities of alcohol at her hotel just days before her death. Meantime, her death certificate lists her cause of death as deferred.

And a payroll tax cut deal is in place this morning, not final yet, but congressional negotiators sealed the deal late last night on legislation to renew the tax cut for 160 million workers and those jobless benefits for millions more as well.

And a U.N. General Assembly is expected to vote today on a symbolic resolution condemning President Bashar al Assad's violent crackdown on the opposition in Syria. China and Russia blocked the Security Council from taking action against the Assad regime.

BANFIELD: For the first time in more than eight months, President Obama's approval rating is at 50 percent. There's the leader board.

Brand new CNN/ORC poll shows that if he were matched up with everyone else in the GOP field head to head, he would beat them and rather handily.

Also, the U.S. Postal Service is making a plea to Congress after posting fourth quarter net losses of $3.3 billion. Agency wants permission to change funding requirements for its retiree health benefits program in order to be more profitable.

General Motors also with financial issues, saying it's ending pensions for 19,000 of its salaried workers. The automaker is moving the traditional pension plans to 401(k)s, saying that's in hopes of lowering financial risks to investors.

SAMBOLIN: Twenty-two minutes past the hour. And we're getting an early read on your local news that's making national headlines.

And this morning, we have papers from Salt Lake City and from Nashville.

We're going to start with the "Deseret News." It is reporting that the non-profit Crime Stoppers in Washington has purchased cemetery plots to block Josh Powell from being buried next to his two sons.

Powell, as you're looking at him there, is accused of murder/suicide. He intentionally set his home on fire, killing himself and his two young sons. Crime Stoppers bought those plots on both sides of the graves where the boys will be buried together this week.

The Pierce County sheriff in that area says, quote, "It's disgusting a murder suspect would be buried next to his victims." So, the attorney for the grandparents is weighing in on this and actually filing some legal action here. They're trying to get a restraining order, a temporary restraining order, and they plan to file it in court if necessary.

She said she has been informed the city isn't sure it has the power to refuse some request to buy a burial plot unless there's a court order because he does -- or his family wants you him buried next to the children.

Listen to what she found. This is interesting. She argues that the idea of putting a murder near the victims is both emotionally damaging to the Cox family, as well as being outrageous. And while doing her research, she learned about a case where a killer wanted to be buried next to his victim. The victim's family, however, exhumed the body, moved it elsewhere.

BANFIELD: Let's move on to "The Tennessean." This has been a real battle. The "Don't Say Gay" bill -- very controversial, protesters in the streets. We can say that the bill has passed the Tennessee House of Representatives. The legislation -- if you haven't heard of this story -- would ban any kind of discussion in school about, quote, "natural -- anything but natural, human reproduction science," end quote, before the ninth grade.

And people have looked at that as saying that's just saying you're restricting anyone talking about homosexuality in schools. The critics say that really stigmatizes being gay for any kids who actually might be gay and it opens the door to bullying. The supporters though say, look, it's up to the parents to educate their kids about homosexuality if they so choose.

So, it's a pitched battle but at least it's one step closer at this point in this political process to being something they can actually get their teeth on.

SAMBOLIN: You know, this was introduced by that Republican Senator Stacey Campfield, and he's the one that went on Sirius television, or on radio, and said that it was -- that HIV and gays -- he talked about how they were connected. Very offensive remarks made there.

But he also said, that bullying is a lark. This is a guy who is behind that legislation.

All right. Twenty-five minutes past the hour.

Still ahead: for first time in six years -- for the first time in six years, there will be no more FEMA trailers in New Orleans. We're going to find out what's going on there.

You're watching EARLY START.


SAMBOLIN: Twenty-eight minutes past the hour. Welcome back to EARLY START.

I'm Zoraida Sambolin.

BANFIELD: Hi, everybody. I'm Ashleigh Banfield. Nice to have you here with us.

It's a good time to get you caught up on top stories if you're just heading out the door or even if you're not.

Here's what we're finding out about Whitney Houston. Apparently, she was drinking large quantities of alcohol in the days just before her death -- this according to a source who has been reporting to CNN, that apparently she was complaining in the bar and in the lobby that the drinks she was ordering at the hotel were not strong enough and were, quote, "watered down".

Also making news, China sending a diplomatic envoy to Syria for talks on Friday. This as the government continues this brutal and bloody crackdown on the opposition and civilians in a number of cities and neighborhoods. Earlier this month, you remember that China and Russia were the two nations who blocked the United Nations Security Council from passing a resolution calling on the Syrian President Bashar al Assad to step down.

And also, in something that could be considered a bit tense -- Pakistani intelligence officials say that a U.S. drone strike killed five suspected militants in the tribal region along the Afghan border. The drone fired at suspected -- a suspected militant compound there

SAMBOLIN: There is no specific threat that Homeland Security officials are concerned about Jewish groups being targeted inside the United States because of the tensions with Iran. Law enforcement is telling those groups to be very vigilant.

And four players on the Texas Christian University football team are among 17 TCU students charged with selling prescription and illegal drugs to undercover police officers. Those arrests were the result of a six-month investigation.

And more than six years after Hurricane Katrina, the last of the FEMA trailers is now out of New Orleans. At one point, more than 23,000 FEMA issued trailers and mobile homes were being used.


BANFIELD (on-camera): It's 30 minutes now past 5:00 on the east coast and then, our top stories, a source have told CNN that Whitney Houston had been drinking quite heavily in the days leading up to her death in California. And we have a photo to show you of Whitney Houston at the hotel pool where a source claims that she had ordered several drinks.

You can see that there's a drink beside her on that sun chair, but we don't know what is inside that glass. We do want to stress. We do know this as well, the source claims that guests had heard Whitney Houston complaining to the bartenders at ten o'clock in the morning that her drinks had been, quote, "watered down."

Our Susan Candiotti is standing by live now in Newark where the funeral plans are set to get under way on Saturday. You know, Susan, it's hard to sort of understand exactly what was going on in these days because so many sources report that she'd been drinking heavily and friends and family members and even other sources have suggested that she was rather normal on that morning, particularly, poolside of her death. So, it's hard to sort of reconcile exactly what was happening.

SUSAN CANDIOTTI, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Reconcile it, sort it out and that's right. And that's why, Ashleigh, we have to keep in mind to put all of this into perspective. What's happening now in this investigation is that they're getting the same information that we are hearing about. Remember, investigators have been talking to her bodyguards. Everyone who was in and out of the hotel room that night.

All the employees around the hotel who had contact with Whitney Houston, all of her friends and relatives, to trace every bit of her behavior and actions leading up to when her body was found in that bathtub on Saturday in the Beverly Hilton Hotel. The same kind of thing that they did following the death of Michael Jackson, following the death of Anna Nicole Smith, stories that we have covered.

And so, in this case, we're hearing about these disturbing types of behavior, drinking as early as 10 o'clock:00 in the morning, in the hotel lobby, in the hotel bar, seen jumping in and out of the swimming pool, doing somersaults in that pool area, and this happening on Wednesday and Thursday. Remember, her body was found on Saturday. And then, as you point out, according to a source and other people that we have spoken with, at that party, she was seen to be drinking champagne that night, but yet, described by her friends as not acting erratically. So, this is all part of the big picture as coroners try to put together ultimately a cause of death.

BANFIELD: And that cause of death just listed as deferred on her death certificate. Susan Candiotti, thank you for that. Appreciate it.

Also want to let you know that CNN is going to air some special coverage of Whitney Houston's funeral. It will be hosted by Soledad O'Brien, Piers Morgan, and Don Lemon, and it gets under way Saturday at 11 o'clock in the morning. That is Eastern Time.

SAMBOLIN: Thirty-three minutes past the hour. Still ahead, brand new poll numbers that aren't good for any of the GOP contenders.

And the president's approval rating, hitting a milestone. It's not seen in quite some time.

BANFIELD: Also, I won't say it, but you can insert your Lin pun here. Jeremy Lin, the sensation that just keeps on giving and giving, and you know what, last night no exception. The winning in lining ways and David Letterman has a few ideas for the media on how to characterize this little sensation, coming up.


BANFIELD: Hi, good morning, everyone. It's 37 minutes past the hour. I'm Ashleigh Banfield.

SAMBOLIN: And I'm Zoraida Sambolin. As the GOP candidates continue to tear each other apart, there's bad news for all of them. A new CNN/ORC poll shows that President Obama's approval rating is at 50 percent, 50 percent. That's for the first time. He beat all the GOP candidates and hypothetical matchups as well.

So, joining us now to talk about this, Shira Toeplitz, political reporter for "Roll Call," Republican strategist, Matt Keelen, and Dean Obeidallah, a frequent contributor to His latest piece up right now, I understand, on

So, Matt, I am going to begin with you. Le's look at the possible matchups and what it means. Obama would defeat any Republican candidate, not by a giant margin, but still, out of the margin of error. Should Republicans be concerned?

MATT KEELEN, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: I think, right now, he has the benefit of being a spectator and watching Republicans just tear each other apart, particularly, in Florida. You know, it got really nasty down there. But in that poll, it's registered voters, and typically, that gives the Democrat a little bit of a bump. But if you get out into the states, places like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, the president still has really tough poll numbers to deal with. And I think he's going to find that the focus is going to shift back to him pretty soon as soon as the Republicans have an actual nominee.

SAMBOLIN: Yes, but combing that with that 50 percent approval rating, that's impressive.

KEELEN: He's had a good couple weeks, no question.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Shira, Romney has more immediate worries, right? He still needs to win Michigan. The governor of the state is expected to endorse Mitt Romney today, but the headline that is haunting him from 2008, let's look at that, "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt." That auto bailout saved approximately 1.5 million jobs in Michigan. Is it risky for Romney to stick with his position on the bailout?

SHIRA TOEPLITZ, POLITICAL REPORTER, ROLL CALL: You know, it's been interesting to watch Romney over the last couple days try and basically resolve this issue of that headline, "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt." What he's done is he's doubled down on it. He said, well, you know, this is basically I meant what I said and we should have done this.

You know, he's tried to handle it. I frankly give him about a C- plus for the way he's managed this situation. He's tried to emphasize his Michigan roots. He's up with a great ad that just driving through the streets. He calls himself a Detroiter, goes through his home of Bloomfield hills, Michigan.

I think he's done an all right job, but it is a problem, and the poll numbers show that for him. He's trailing Rick Santorum right now in Michigan. And for someone who considers Michigan his home state, that's not a very good thing at all.

SAMBOLIN: You gave him a c-plus. How would you get him to an A?

TOEPLITZ: I think he needed to either go hard or go home, in this case. I think he should have really gone for and defended his decision or really backed away from it and said, you know, maybe, I was wrong about this. When you go down the middle, it's kind of the squishy area, and it makes him look ambivalent, politically. And he has a problem with that, in general. I think people view him, sometimes, as little squishy and trying to play it both ways. I think that was what he tried to do here. It didn't work well for him.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Dean, let's switch gears. Last night, that deal was finally out to extend the payroll tax cut and also to continue the unemployment benefits without cutting the pay for Medicare doctors. So, listen to chief Republican negotiator, Representative Dave Camp, and then, we're going to chat.


REP. DAVE CAMP, (R) CALIFORNIA: This is a compromise. So, there are technical issues, but we're going to let council finish those, and those are going to continue to be worked on. And so, we'll be able to move forward later.


SAMBOLIN: Boy, you know, all we've been talking about for a long time is gridlock in Congress, and finally, there's a change here. But 51 percent of Americans say that it is more important to compromise than to stick to beliefs. Do you think Congress is getting the message or is it just election year politics?

DEAN OBEIDALLAH, FREQUENT CONTRIBUTOR TO CNN.COM: You know, all I can tell you, I think we should all circle our calendars as Congress actually did something that was good for the American people. I'm not kidding. This is a Congress with a 10 percent approval rating. Honestly, there are STDs more popular than our United States Congress.


OBEIDALLAH: They have to get their act together. This is a no- brainer. Let's be honest. The majority of the Democrats and Republicans, in fact, more Republicans supported the payroll tax cut. So, this is an easy thing. Giving $1,000 to the American working person, working family, during election year is a no-brainer.

It's something that had to be done. And I'm glad we didn't have to go through the Groundhog Day scenario, which over and over, they fight to the last minute. Get something done for us. So, this was a good move for them.

SAMBOLIN: Interesting comparison there. OK. I have one last question for you. You have to stick to my rules here. It's a one word answer. I'm going to give you your option in a couple seconds here. President Obama, we know, has been talking about the economy, right? He was in Milwaukee yesterday doing that, but he's also been talking about another really big deal, Jeremy Lin, right?

And of course, we saw that Jeremy Lin again helped the New York Knicks last night defeat the Sacramento Kings, seven in a row now. There are a lot of puns surrounding his name. nd a, this morning, I found another one, Commander Lin Chief. That is actually in the "daily news" This morning.

So, which of the following is the best pun on his name? Lin- sanity, Lin-vincible or for the Lin, you know, like for the win, for the Lin. I'm going to give you one more option this morning, because I'm feeling really generous, a special exception here, you can come up with your own. So your three options, Lin-sanity, Lin-vincible, or for the Lin, or your own. So, we're going to start with Matt.

KEELEN: Lin-vincible, without question.


TOEPLITZ: Lin-sanity.

SAMBOLIN: And dean?

OBEIDALLAH: Lin-tastic.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Thanks for playing this morning.

KEELEN: Thanks, Zoraida.

BANFIELD: It's 42 minutes past five now, and still ahead on EARLY START, what a story out of the Honduras, locked behind bars, fire raging through a prison, 300 people dead, and families of inmates now demanding answers. We'll find out, at least, we'll try to find out what caused that inferno.

And also, in our American politics, the man at the center of the picture releasing his tax returns. He does them himself. Are you curious about how much money he made and how much money he paid? You'll find out. You're watching EARLY START.


BANFIELD: And, good morning to you. Forty-six minutes past 5:00 on the east coast. Time to get you caught up on top stories this morning.


BANFIELD (voice-over): A source telling CNN that Whitney Houston was drinking a lot of alcohol in the days before her death. All of this as investigators are questioning her doctors and pharmacies about her prescriptions.

Also in the news, as the crisis in Syria worsens, China is now sending one of its top diplomats to Damascus tomorrow, all of this in an effort to try to bring an end to the violence between President Bashar al-Assad's regime and his people, including the opposition.

BANFIELD: And forensic teams are still removing bodies, hundreds of bodies, from a prison in Honduras where more than 300 people locked in cells, lock in a prison were killed as the fire raged through it. Investigators believe a short circuit or mattress fire may have actually sparked that blaze.

SAMBOLIN (voice-over): The house is expected to vote in the next couple of days on a deal to extend the payroll tax cut. A deal that is now in place according to several aides in Congress.

GOP presidential candidate, Rick Santorum, is releasing his tax returns for the first -- for the past four years. That's since he's been out of the Senate and -- that since he has been out of the Senate and in the private sector. He said he had to do his own tax returns so it took him a little longer. They show he earned $3.6 million in those four years. His highest tax rate was 28.3 percent.

BANFIELD: Forty-seven minutes past the hour now. Big story has been all about Jeremy Lin. Yes, it's a team, yes, they play as a team, but this guy, look at this. Yet again, shows what he's made of, passes, assists, making records. But you know what? He's still so incredibly humble. Find out what he says about his phenomenon.


BANFIELD: Always good to wake up to good music. That's Cypress Hill getting you out of bed at 5:50 in the morning. "Insane in the Membrane."

SAMBOLIN: Yes, you know, like the Lin-sane. The New York Knicks with their seventh straight victory thanks in no, small part, to rising star, Jeremy Lin.

BANFIELD: I am not going to use a pun here, I promise you, but he did have another really big night.


BANFIELD (voice-over): Take a look. Yes. Finds the climb (ph). Career high with 13 assists. Knicks blew up the Sacramento Kings 100- 85. Here's a question for you, the cheers keep coming but just how long can Lin and the Knicks keep this up?


BANFIELD (on-camera): Joining us now to talk more about the sensation is Marc Spears. He's an NBA writer for Yahoo! Sports. Hey, Mark, good to see you this morning.


BANFIELD: Oh, how are you doing is more the question, because I tell you what, if you're in New York, people are so excited about Jeremy Lin and what's going on with the Knicks, but I got to say, I think a lot of people are nervous it might not last. Is that off the mark?

SPEARS: Well, the excitement is not just in New York, it's worldwide. And, you know, living in the bay area, this kid is a sensation here. That's all everybody is talking about. They're not even talking about the Warriors, the local team anymore, they're talking about Jeremy Lin. But can this last? That scoring level? No.

I mean, now that Amare is back. Carmelo Anthony will be back. Soon, it will drop. But if they keep winning, people are going to keep being excited about this phenomenon.

BANFIELD: Well, you know, I like that you brought that up, because that has been sort of lurking out there in the distance, the other big stars on that team. Do you have any sense of what's going to happen to the chemistry of the Knicks once Amare comes back, once the other big players who've been used to the spotlight are back on the court?

SPEARS: Well, Amare is back after the death of his brother recently, and he's played well with Lin. The big thing is Carmelo Anthony. Everybody is wondering, can Carmelo exist? Is Carmelo going to stop the ball? I actually covered Carmelo with the Denver Nuggets for several years, and he played with Allen Iverson.

So, I tell people, if he can play with Allen Iverson, he certainly can play with Jeremy Lin. We actually exchanged some text messages, and he's excited about showing everybody what he could do with Jeremy Lin. Jeremy is a phenomenal passer, who better than to find somebody that's offensively talented as Carmelo Anthony to score for you. So, I think they'll be just fine. It'll just make it easier for Lin probably.

BANFIELD: You know, here's something I don't often say when I'm reporting, and I do this very rarely, by the way, report on sports, but professional athletes, you rarely get the chance to say, this guy is the definition of humility. I want to play a quick piece of an interview that he gave last night talking about his rise to -- his sudden rise to stardom, and just sort of how he accommodates for it all. Have a listen.


JEREMY LIN, POINT GUARD, NEW YORK KNICKS: I want to be the same person before and after. And you know that's where I want to be. I don't want to let anything affect me or this team. And, I think, you know, playing in New York is a big stage and that's, obviously, a temptation and the danger.


BANFIELD: OK. So, that is just awesome. When you hear a player, a professional athlete, talk like that, it makes me wonder if back to our last question, he'll get on just fine with all the other big personalities out there, won't he?

SPEARS: Well, he'll get along fine. It's just how is everybody else going to be around him? When you become a big-time star like him, everybody else around you is going to change. Do you think he can buy a meal in New York City right now? No. But people are going to want this, that or other, figure out how can I make some money off of Jeremy Lin?

And then, there's others that think OK, when this star falls, at some point, it all falls, how is he going to handle it? How painful will it be? So yes, from that standpoint, I think there should be some concern about him, but right now, he's rolling with it, he's humble, and he's just come from such obscurity. I mean, even Cinderella is probably like, man, this is a pretty good story.


SPEARS: It's so shocking. And, you want to see -- I mean, you're glued to the TV, forget about the Heat, forget about the Lakers.


SPEARS: We want to see what Jeremy Lin is going to do next. BANFIELD: I know. Well, let's cross our fingers that it keeps on going, because I know you said he might be hurt if it ends. I have a feeling there's a lot of other people who might be more hurt. But Marc Spears, good to talk to you. Thanks for getting up early.

SPEARS: Pleasure.

BANFIELD: Thank you.

SPEARS: Thank you.

SAMBOLIN: You know, I love this guy. But I didn't know, you know, when he started that winning sensation, I had no idea who he was. I --

BANFIELD: I think you're not alone.

SAMBOLIN: No, no I'm not. But I texted my son and he was like, Jeremy Lin? He's a beast. He said a Harvard grad and a beast. And so, --

BANFIELD: Which is good, by the way.

SAMBOLIN: A great role model, just a great role model for kids. So, regardless, I think, we're all going to love him long term.

BANFIELD: And you know, actually, it's funny because Erin Burnett last night on her show was talking about her nephew who is Taiwanese-American. This kid, she interviewed her own nephew and you should have heard him going off about this player, about Jeremy Lin, and how he's such an inspiration for him, because they're both Taiwanese-American. And they're really sweet story.

SAMBOLIN: Oh, no. It's a fantastic story. So many levels of learning there with him and modeling behavior. Love it.


SAMBOLIN: Fifty-five minutes past the hour. David Letterman got in on the Jeremy Lin word game. Listen.


DAVID LETTERMAN, HOST, "THE LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN": We have now -- we've collected for you the worst possible Jeremy Lin puns. At number seven, Lin-ternational house of Lin cakes, number six, Newt Lin-grich, number four, does this look Lin-fected to you, number three, Jeremy sauce with Lin-Guine, number two, Kni-Xual Lin- tercourse. And the number one word to Jeremy Lin puns, You got to be Lin it to Lin it. There you go.


BANFIELD: Hey, that was mine. I said Lin it to win it a couple of days ago. I wonder if David Letterman gets up early and watches our show. SAMBOLIN: Oh. Lin, win, not a big stretch, right?


BANFIELD: Still ahead, coming up, we got some exclusive information coming in CNN on Whitney Houston's final days. The source is saying that she was complaining loud and often that her drinks were not strong enough, and this, at 10:00 in the morning. You're watching EARLY START.