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Top U.S. intelligence officials say al Qaeda is likely behind some of those recent bombings in Syria; Governor Chris Christie was Criticized for Half-mass Flag for Whitney Houston; Ambassador Nicholas Burns' take on Arab Countries holding a Conference for Syria; Stars To Sing At Houston's Funeral; Pot Bust On Plane Near Marine One; Drunk Pilot Kept Off Flight; Report: Oil Spilled On Mississippi River After Collision; Jacobs Defends Using 14-Year-Old Models; Birth Control Battle; U.N. Passes Resolution Condemning Assad for Human Rights Violations; Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney in Statistical Dead Heat in Michigan

Aired February 17, 2012 - 06:59   ET


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN HOST: STARTING POINT this morning is looking at Whitney Houston's funeral which will be held tomorrow. We'll have live coverage starting at 11 o'clock in the morning.

stars will be singing at that funeral. Three generations of legendary voices. We'll have all details ahead on that ahead this morning.

Up on Capitol Hill, a walkout. Two female lawmakers leave a hearing. Was it a hearing about birth control or was it a hearing about religious freedom? They said the women were missing. Listen.


REP. CAROLYN B. MALONEY, (D) NEW YORK: What I want to know is, where are the women?


O'BRIEN: We're going to talk to one lawmaker who stayed and was part of that.

Also this morning, secretary of the treasury, Tim Geithner, is pointing fingers at Republicans. The GOP says laying (ph) the president Capitol Hill fight over taxes. That and much more as "Starting Point" gets under way right now.



O'BRIEN: Let's start with a little Stevie Wonder. I think that song is a very good beginning -

(CROSSTALK) Also this morning, secretary of the treasury Tim Geithner is pointing finger at Republicans, laying the president Capitol Hill fight over taxes. That and much more as "STARTING POINT" gets under way right now.

Let's start with a little Stevie Wonder. I think that is always a very good beginning and --


O'BRIEN: Me, me. Anything really good is mine. I'm kidding.


O'BRIEN: I should do all of my classic disaster songs. My husband would say I have many.

I want to introduce everybody to our panel this morning. Tom Davis is back with us. He came back for more (inaudible) wait, the former Virginia congressman. Martin Frost is a former Texas congressman, nice to have you.


O'BRIEN: And Connie Rice is a civil rights attorney. It's nice to have you joining us this morning. We appreciate it.

Lots to get to including conversations about Whitney Houston and I really want to talk about whether it is liberty, religious liberty or are we really talking about contraception because that's the battle that is been going on Capitol Hill.

First, though, we got to get the headlines. Christine Romans has that for us.

Hi, Christine. Good morning.


A workplace dispute between two immigration custom reinforcement agents erupted into a shootout that left one of them dead and the other wounded. It happened last night at the federal building in Long Beach, California. Authorities say one agent opened fire on the other. Then a third agent then intervened and killed the shooter. Investigators aren't saying what led to that confrontation. They call it an isolated incident.

Top U.S. intelligence officials say al Qaeda is likely behind some of those recent bombings in Syria. Syrian Security Forces bombarding the city of Homs now for a 14th straight day. Activists say at least nine people have been killed in the latest assault. It comes after a non-binding United Nations resolution called for President Bashar Al Assad to step down condemning the region's human rights violations of the regimes, rather, anti-government's demonstrations taking place right now. House hearing on contraception is getting a bit heated. Two female Democrats, Carolyn Maloney and Eleanor Holmes Norton, they walked out of the hearing in protest. They accused the Republican chairman Darrell Issa of manipulating committee rules to block female witness from testifying.


REP. CAROLYN MALONEY (D), NEW YORK: Don't we owe it to the tens of millions of American women whose lives will be affected to let just one, just one woman speak on their behalf today on this panel?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The gentle lady will stay in parliamentary.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We just made an interpretation of the rules. And I stress the word interpretation because it is precisely that.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The gentle lady will state her inquiry.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I ask the staff to get me the rules. One thing, Mr. Chairman, we've been denied the right to have a witness. I want to have the right to make a parliamentary inquiry.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And state your parliamentary inquiry.


ROMANS: Later this hour, Soledad talks with democrat who stayed, Virginia congressman Gerry Connolly.

Great news for you, the Nasdaq hit a decade high, highest since December 2000. Stocks at more than one percent overall looking at today's futures, gains expected in the Dow and the S&P, Nasdaq though futures are a little bit lower here.

The popular comedy's central show "the Colbert Report" mysteriously stops production. The show did not came in this Wednesday and Thursday. Comedy central only saying it was for undisclosed reasons. Though "Wall Street Journal" reported Thursday it was due to a Colbert family emergency.

The baseball world mourning for the loss of hall of fame catcher, Gary Carter. He died after a battle with brain canner. Carter started with the Montreal expos before helping the New York Mets win the 1986 World Series. Gary Carter was only 57 years old, Soledad.

Yes. That such a sad story.

ROMANS: I know.

O'BRIEN: Accomplished so much. That's so sad. All right, Christine, thank you.

ROMANS: You're welcome.

O'BRIEN: Some fireworks on Capitol Hill. How often do we start our intros like that? Always the treasury secretary Tim Geithner was testifying at a house budget hearing and he was pressed by Republicans on the need for tax reform and the lack of any proposal from the president. Here's what he said.


TIMOTHY GEITHNER, TREASURY SECRETARY: That you would be coming to us not today but prior to this with a simpler tax system today and not waiting until the end of your term.

Even in tax reform that raises the revenues for example Simpson Bowles suggests we need. In that context, the effect of tax rate on somebody is going to go up. That's why we spent so much time with your leadership discussing in the summer.


GEITHNER: So in other words --, -- go ahead. I yield.


O'BRIEN: Was it really always like that, I yield, you yield. Hey, listen, today is my day to really dig into the Congress people.

FROST: The congressman is pretty tame.

O'BRIEN: It was pretty tame. But you can tell he's basically said, listen. The effective tax rate is going to go up on somebody. Let's not play.

FROST: That we're all really saying is, come back next year, is that we're not really going to do this year. Nobody expects tax reform to be done right before an election.

O'BRIEN: Both sides of the aisle.

TOM DAVIS, PRESIDENT, CEO, REPUBLICAN MAIN STREET PARTNERSHIP: They have been saying that for years. We've been talking about tax reform for years and it keeps getting kicked down the road. But they're going to have to come up with revenues somewhere. Just might be before the election.

FROST: They are not going to go tax reform this year.

DAVIS: Neither is the democratic administration.

FROST: I understand. They decided they're not going to do this in an election year. Let's agree to that and move on.

O'BRIEN: And in fact, a lot is not going to get done because it's an election year. What has been very interesting is this conversation over religious liberty or, wait a minute, are we really talking about contraception? Are we talking about contraception a little just?

CONNIE RICE, CIVIL RIGHT ATTORNEY: Yes, we are talking about contraception. Look. Religious liberty was never in this picture. Churches never have to pay for anything that goes against their basic values or tenets.

O'BRIEN: But if their employers, like if they run a hospital they do.

RICE: So, if it is religious affiliated is what we're talking about here. And the president's compromise says, look, the insurance company is going to have to do it. But look at this debate. We are saying that employers are going to tell women that whether contraception is covered or not so you're your employer now gets to determine whether you get your contraception paid for. This is ridiculous.

O'BRIEN: Has this debate become a big problem for Republicans?

FROST: This is nuts from the Republican standpoint. They want lack --

O'BRIEN: So the Democrat.

FROST: No, no, it's true. They won last week. They got the president to change his position. They were able to make the point that the Catholic Church was being abused a little bit by the administration. They should have stopped right there. When you're ahead, you stop, except they wanted to keep going. Now, they've made this into an issue of contraception and they look like they're crazy. They look like they're back in the dark ages.

O'BRIEN: Why would the GOP bring the conversation of contraception kind of decided in 1965 which was how many decades ago?

DAVIS: Because it is not contraceptive. The narrative here is can government get into religious institutions and starts making them do things that against principles. Even the president backed down on that. He was warned by Joe Biden and Bill Daley and others not to go there.

The problem with their compromise is there is still a lot of gray area out there because a lot of these programs are self insured.

O'BRIEN: But, you know what. The conversation though has really turned to contraception. I mean, you're on that slippery --


FROST: It's Santorum and Romney.

RICE: I was going to say --

DAVIS: You are losing the argument on religious liberty.

O'BRIEN: You had your leading Republican candidates quoted about a decision that was decided in 1965. Griswold, when you are talking about which is about a married couple's right to have access to contraception. It's really a conversation about privacy. This is the New Yorker, 2-17-2012. Both of them are quoted about their feelings about Griswold. I think that -- doesn't that have a slippery slope? Is that a conversation that the GOP wants to have?

DAVIS: I wouldn't have it. I wouldn't have it there and people are pushing it in that direction. But I don't think ultimately that's what the decision was about. The decision was about making religious institutions do things --

O'BRIEN: From last week.

DAVIS: That's right.

FROST: The point is --

DAVIS: And it's still -- it's still unresolved. And the hearing yesterday, by the way, there's only one catholic on the first panel. There were two women on the second panel.

O'BRIEN: Right, but overwhelmingly men.

DAVIS: There was a rabbi on there who said, look, I happen to agree with contraception but we look at that as an assault on religious liberty. So, I don't think that conversation is over yet.

O'BRIEN: But you can't really take the conversation about religious liberty and remove from it the conversation of contraception. Aren't they intertwines?

RICE: You can't when the leading or at least for now leading presidential nominee, when Mr. Santorum says that contraception is bad for women, I think we've got a problem here. That's why it's front page and it's turned to contraception.

You also can't have a situation where - look, churches have never had to do this. Hospitals that are self insured they've had to do this under state law forever. And a number of states, they have. But the real thing is. How come vasectomies are covered but women's contraception is not? We've got real problems here.

FROST: Let me -- let me join in here for just a moment. I headed the democratic congressional campaign committee for four years. Tom headed the Republican congressional campaign.

O'BRIEN: Maybe we should have separated you.

FROST: We didn't do it at the same time. But look, I want to go back to the point, the Republicans won last week. They were successful last week. They ought to move on to other issues now.

Now, they're giving the Democrats a chance to get back in the game to be on the side of women, on the side of basic principles about women's health. They have changed the subject. They have kept this thing going. This is a loser for them that the point. I don't know why someone in the Republican Party didn't put up a stop sign, we won. We won.

O'BRIEN: We're going to continue this conversation because obviously, this is the big talker of the day. I find it fascinating, I really do in terms of the political implications as they try to figure who the candidate is going to be, interesting.

I also want to talk this morning though, about Iran and just hours ago the president's -- did you see this picture with -- there you go. That was it. The presidents of Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. They were holding a joint press conference in Islamabad. And it was part of a summit that focusing on stability in the region. The meeting comes after CNN obtained a letter from president Ahmadinejad to the European Union.

And in that letter, he is saying that Iran is now ready to resume talks about its nuclear program. Former U.S. ambassador to NATO is Nicholas Burns. And he's in Boston this morning.

It's nice to see you, sir. Thanks very much. We appreciate talking to us.


O'BRIEN: So, is this a legitimate offer, do you think? It's a very conciliatory letter.

BURNS: Well, you know, the Iranians have been resisting negotiations for a very long time. And it is in the interest of the U.S. and the Europeans to talk with them. We haven't talked to the Iranians in 32 years on a stained basis. And so, if they want to talk, certainly if that's one way to resolve this problem, it's farfetched. I think it's worth accepting this offer to negotiate.

O'BRIEN: Well, you just said it's both farfetched but also we should sit down and talk which sounds contradictory to me.

BURNS: Not contradictory at all. Because, you know, we're trying to do is we are trying to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear weapons power. There are lots of ways to do that. Use of military force is highly problematic. Sanctions, there are sanctions being introduced, central bank sanctions, oil sanctions by the EU that are going to pressure the Iranians.

But at some point, before we consider the use of military force down the line if that's going to happen, you do want to get a sense of what this government believes in Iran, whether there's a way to resolve this problem shorter for and we haven't had that opportunity since the Jimmy Carter administration. So diplomacy actually makes a lot of sense right here as part of a larger effort.

O'BRIEN: Ahmadinejad has claimed earlier in the week that Iran has produced fuel that could power a nuclear reactor. Do you think that's legitimate or not legitimate?

BURNS: You know it's hard to know about the credibility of Ahmadinejad's statements. But I will say this. The Iranians are making progress in enriching uranium. The IAEA, international atomic energy agency has said that. That's a cause for concern but there is some time available to the U.S. before Iran has nuclear weapons capacity.

And so, here's a space for President Obama to work in, maybe over the next year or so. What's the combination of threatening force, of sanctions, but also looking for an opportunity to negotiate. The Iranians are sending lots of conflicting signals, Soledad this week.

O'BRIEN: Right.

BURNS: And there is a lot of saber rattling. But the president stayed pretty cool and we do have a lot of the world with us so we're not without assets here.

O'BRIEN: So then, when you listen to all these sort of various statements and sometimes threats and sometimes conciliatory letters, how do you assess that? Is that sort of overall a move to buy time? Is that, no, actually it is a response to sanctions and the sanctions are working? What do you think the take-away is?

BURNS: There are a lot of indications, Soledad that sanctions are beginning to work. The Iranians are feeling the pressure. They are being crowded out of some of the oil markets if Chinese are reducing their purchases.

But you know, this government in Tehran is not monolithic. It sends out lots of different signals. You can't respond to every threat from Iran because they come every day. You have to stay steady and focus on what we think is right to pressure them and hopefully maneuver them into a state of isolation from the rest of the world. And I think that both President Bush and President Obama have tried to do that.

O'BRIEN: Let me ask you about Syria for a moment. The resolution that was passed by the U.N.'s general assembly calls for Al-Assad to step down, you know. But has absolutely no power of enforcement at all. So, what is the point of a resolution like that?

BURNS: The point is that a couple weeks ago, Russia and China vetoed a resolution that might have made a difference in the Security Council because that could have been enforced and that was a cynical move by the Russians and Chinese.

So, this really reflects the will of most countries. Like the Syrian government has been shelling its own citizens, using brutal indiscriminate force. It's the worst human rights violation we have seen since the Arab uprisings began a year ago. I think most countries are outraged and they want to see the Syrian government pay a price and isolate it. So, it may not have enforcement but I think symbolically, it was an important resolution.

O'BRIEN: The director of national intelligence James Clapper told Congress he believes al Qaeda is behind the most recent attacks tons Al-Assad regime. So, play that out for me a little bit. If that's the case, then if Assad eventually is forced out of power, some people predict will happen, what does that mean for Al Qaeda in the region?

BURNS: You know, there's no easy answer here. And you're right. It's very complicated because lots of Syrians are against - the Sunni Syrians, especially, the Assad regime. Some of the violence appears to have come from al Qaeda affiliated organizations including a bomb attack in Aleppo last weekend.

And so, one of the proposals that people have been talking about is whether we should arm the Syrian rebels, that would be very risky considering the fact we don't know them very well. There's no coherent rebel army. And some of this violence may be al Qaeda perpetrated.

So, the better solution for us maybe to do essentially what our government is doing and that is to trying to sanction and isolate the Syrian regime. There's a proposal to create safe havens where inside Syria, where innocent civilians can go to take cover from this bombardment but arming the rebels is probably a bridge too far right now.

O'BRIEN: Ambassador Nicholas Burns, joining us this morning. Thank you, sir. Appreciate your insight.

BURNS: Thank you, Soledad.

O'BRIEN: Still ahead this morning on "STARTING POINT," the stars will be singing at Whitney Houston's funeral tomorrow. Three generations of legendary voices. And there are some new details about the investigations this morning. We are going to share with you straight ahead.

Chris Christie, under fire. This is so insane. For flying the flags at half -- is it half mass or half staff in half mass at Whitney Houston's funeral. There are some people who are actually giving him flack about that. But he -- this is no surprise. He's not backing down. I'm not shocked about that. He is taking to twitter to fight back. We'll tell you what he's saying.

Plus, our get real this morning. A mother makes her 10-year-old son walk almost five miles to school, and gets arrested. And now the kid is defending his mom. We'll explain that story on "STARTING POINT" straight ahead. Stay there.


O'BRIEN: CNN's going to be covering Whitney Houston's funeral, which is set for tomorrow in Newark, New Jersey. Our coverage will begin at 11:00 a.m. the funeral itself starts at noon. And there are dozens of stars who are expected to turn out to pay tribute as celebration of the hometown hero, New Jersey governor, Chris Christie, will be flying flags at half-mast. But he's getting flack for it.

There are some people on twitter are slamming him. One tweet said," she's not a fallen hero. I am not alone in taking offense to this. She's no role model. She's a dead junkie."

OK. That's totally inappropriate.

The other one, another one said this. "Shame on you, Mr. Christie for ordering our flag to be flown at half-mass - but tell you so much about that tweeter, for a singer who od'd. What about our soldiers and real heroes?"

So, Governor Christi fired back. First on twitter, he said this. "Every New Jersey soldier who has been killed in action during my administration had their flags lowered in their memory. Learn your fags before accusing." And then he said this.


GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), NEW JERSEY: I understand that some will disagree. But you know what. Every decision I make, someone disagrees with. I believe that drug addiction is a disease. And I think that she struggled mightily with that disease. And I don't believe that that diminishes the cultural contributions she made to this state.


O'BRIEN: I thought you could not put it better than that.

RICE: Yes.

O'BRIEN: I heard him say that. I was like, go, Governor Christ Christie. That was well put.

DAVIS: He got the upper ground.

FROST: He should be so lucky to be attacked by people on the far right. This is good for his politics. This is good for him personally. And I want to make one point. You know --

DAVIS: I'm not so sure they're on the far right.

O'BRIEN: It's unclear. We know they're on twitter and that's it.

DAVIS: Talking point, exactly.

O'BRIEN: They're on twitter.

FROST: Let's put this in context. I'm from Texas. And I don't wish him any well, but whenever -- whenever Willie Nelson passes on, whenever that is around I hope it's a long time from now, you can be assured that whoever is governor of Texas will do the same type thing for him me has had substance abuse problems, problems with the IRS, but he's a state figure just like Whitney Houston is someone for people of New Jersey to be proud of.

O'BRIEN: She is a local girl. RICE: Yes. And I like Christie's tone here talking about addiction and so forth. You know what, when Elvis Presley died he had serious problems as well with drugs. And the flags were lowered a half-mast. They should have been. I mean, you've got stars that change the game. I mean, they change the country. And there aren't many of them, but, you know, there are few.

O'BRIEN: Chris Christie had the right tone and he elevated the conversation by even talking about addiction, you know, as a huge problem.

RICE: Maybe he should run for president.


O'BRIEN: He might be thinking now he should have.


O'BRIEN: All right. We've got to take a short break. Still ahead this morning on "STARTING POINT," an allegedly drunk pilot stopped just minutes before he was about to take off. Passengers have a bus driver to thank for that. We are going to tell you that story.

And then in our "get real" this morning, a mother makes her son walk almost five miles to school. The police say that's gone a little bit too far. But the little boy said, no. My mom was right, I was wrong. We will tell you what happened. "STARTING POINT" continues right after this.


O'BRIEN: I think we played that in band when I was in high school. "chariots of fire."

FROST: I asked for that because I was at Ann Richards's victory party the night she was elected for governor and that's what they played when she walked in the room.

O'BRIEN: It's a good song. It's a good song. I like it. There a lot of time and thought go into that? Like what the song is going to be played --

FROST: Sure, of course. Absolutely.

O'BRIEN: I didn't know.


O'BRIEN: I figured elected officials would have many more important things to do than work on the play list.

DAVIS: On the Republicans, I have already getting shot down from playing somebody's song and don't like us.

O'BRIEN: That's my feeling, so don't play my song. DAVIS: We got to do country music.

FROST: We do country music in Texas.

O'BRIEN: All right. Our "get real" this morning is a pretty good story, I think. You hear stories from old people, I walked to school five miles each way up hill. That's not going to fly anymore.

This is one mother though from Arkansas is learning the hard way. She has been charged with misdemeanor count of engendering the welfare of a minor after she made her son walked 4.6 miles to school. Her name is Valerie Boarders (ph). And she told police her 10-year-old son had been suspended from the bus for the fifth time, kicked off the bus. She's like, listen, I'm going to teach him a lesson. He has got to walk.

So, the boy understands the value of getting a bus ride five miles. A bank security guard spots the little boy walking alone in 30 degree weather on Monday and called the police. And now, the mother faces up to a year in jail, $1,000 fine. And they interviewed the little boy. And here's what he says about his mom.


UNIDENTIFIED BOY: She did the right thing. She knew that I've been suspended off the bus for five days so she didn't do no wrong. She made me walk. I just had to walk. They should never pick me up. I could have walked by myself.


O'BRIEN: He's so sweet. That is a long way to walk. That will take you like two miles almost.

DAVIS: This is the worst about in any state. I think the mother -- I think, defend the mother's decision, make him understand getting kicked off the bus. What was entailed, what was at stake.

O'BRIEN: Yes. But you know, the only problem is the reality of I have personally covered five stories where little kids that age have been snatched because they walked with no one watching them. It is. You know why love the most --

DAVIS: It's not a crime. I just don't think it's a crime.

O'BRIEN: Do you think she's going to get any time?

RICE: No. It's not a crime. She shouldn't be charged criminally, misdemeanor or anything higher. And that's not a response. Now, if she's endangered the child she should be counseled but the kid has learned the lesson.

O'BRIEN: I was going to say it. The biggest upside is look how that little boy is like, I got it. I was badly behaved. I got kicked off the bus. My mother made me walk.

RICE: My mother would have done the exact same thing.

O'BRIEN: My mother would have hit us with a belt and then made us walk.

DAVIS: Exactly.

O'BRIEN: Yes. If you're watching, mom, we learned that lesson, too.

OK. Still ahead this morning, on the runway, 14-year-old girls, you know, the fashion runways. Designer ignoring some age guidelines that have been suggested for his models. What 14-year-old girls can afford that stuff?

Plus, we talked a bit about this at the top of the hour. Two female lawmakers fed up during a congressional hearing about religious liberty, or maybe it was about birth control. So they walked out. We're going to talk to the lawmaker who did stay and witness what happened. And we will talk to (inaudible). They were saying it was a sham.

You're watching "STARTING POINT." We got to have a short break. We are back in a moment.


O'BRIEN: Tom Davis, I like this song. A little pep by. It sounds old. Where is that from? What year is that?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's '60s. Liverpooling it.

O'BRIEN: I like it. I like it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We remember the '60s.

O'BRIEN: I remember the '60s. Let's get right to some of the headlines this morning. Christine got that forr us. Good morning.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Good morning to you, Soledad. Sources telling CNN this hour investigators have put a rush on the toxicology testing for Whitney Houston.

Investigators are also requesting surveillance video from the Beverly Hilton. They're hoping to learn what Whitney Houston did before she died. Funeral plans for Whitney Houston include an A list of stars.

Bodyguard co-star Kevin Costner is expected to speak at the service, Alicia Keys and Stevie Wonder and her godmother, Aretha Franklin, are all expected to perform tomorrow.

CNN also confirmed Bobby Brown, her ex-husband, did get a last- minute invite. Of course, Soledad, Piers Morgan kick off that coverage here on CNN at 11:00 a.m. Eastern tomorrow.

A plane filled with pot flying in President Obama's airspace. Air force fighter jet stopped this private plane filled with 40 pounds of marijuana as it veered toward the Marine One helicopter. Authorities say the president was never in any danger.

A bus driver making a sober decision to keep a drunk pilot from flying. This airline pilot had hopped on a shuttle bus and was supposed to fly a plane to Omaha. But the bus driver suspected the pilot was drunk immediately tipped off airport police. After failing blood alcohol tests this pilot was replaced.

The so-called underwear bomber gets a life sentence. Omar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to argue life in prison was cruel and unusual punishment. Abdulmutallab is convicted of smuggling a bomb aboard a plane on Christmas Day back in 2009.

Following a developing story out of Louisiana, a barge colliding with a boat on the Mississippi River. The coast guard said it received reports that oil has spilled from this collision.

Our affiliate WWL reporting the waterway is still open. No one was injured. Environmental safety and health officials are on the scene.

And fashion designer Marc Jacobs is responding to critics who are blasting him, blasting him for using child models. Jacobs sent two 14-year-old girls down the runway on his show on Monday. Industry group suggested that runway models should be 16 or older.

But Jacobs says he will do his show the way he wants. He compared young models to child actors and say if the parents let the girls walk down, then he won't stop them. But are child actors, Soledad, playing like grownups or --

O'BRIEN: Put the picture back up. Is this what they're selling? He doesn't have to worry about it at all. There is no one in their right mind that who would buy that giant hat. It doesn't matter if it's a 78-year-old woman selling that?

What is that? What is that? Christine, the news is getting crazier. Thank God it's Friday. We've got to turn now and talk about the House Oversight Committee hearing on President Obama's controversial contraception plan, almost as controversial as the plan itself.

The hearing has been called bias and a sham. It was asked by Republican Chairman Darrell Issa and here's what Carol Maloney of New York had to say before she walked out of the hearing along with Eleanor Holmes Norton of Washington, D.C. Listen.


REP. CAROLYN MALONEY (D), NEW YORK: What I want to know is, where are the women? When I look at this panel I don't see one single woman representing the tens of millions of women across the country who want and need insurance coverage for basic preventive health care services, including family planning. Where are the women?


O'BRIEN: An excellent rhetorical question. I've got Tom Davis over here, let me hop in, there were women. There were women.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Tom chaired the committee before Issa did. He actually could have been in that seat.

O'BRIEN: OK, good to know that. I didn't know that. So there were women.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The first panel had women on it.

O'BRIEN: The first panel had five men. The second panel had three men and two women. So there were women in the afternoon panel, but in a conversation that's really talking a lot --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: None of the women went to the second panel.

O'BRIEN: Right, exactly.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is all politics.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If you were chair -- if you had still been chairing that committee you would not have made that mistake.

O'BRIEN: It wasn't really a conversation about the issue. I mean, it was a very one-sided conversation. Virginia Democrat Gerry Connolly is a member of the House Oversight Committee. He joins us now from Washington, D.C. It's nice to have you, sir.

REP. GERRY CONNOLLY (D), VIRGINIA: Good to be with you.

O'BRIEN: Before we open up to our panelists who have already jumped in and you know all these guys, I know. You called this a sham. Why did you think this whole hearing was a sham anyway?

CONNOLLY: Well, because unlike Tom Davis who would not have done this, the chairman of our committee, Darrell Issa, handpicked every one of these witnesses, made sure they were all of the most conservative bent in their respective denominations.

Absolutely precluded the Democrats from having a single witness, and picked two at the last minute to add to the panel in a flagrant violation of the rules.

Then he created signs and have staff members holding them up as if these historic figures supported his narrow point of view on the subject.

They did everything possible to try to change the subject from women's reproductive health and right to contraception to something else. It blew up in their faces.

O'BRIEN: But the panel was originally called this. You should talk to your folks back on the Hill about this. Lines crossed, separation of church and state, has the Obama administration trampled on freedom of religion?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You continue even Twitter that.

O'BRIEN: You're already off the Twitter on that.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Connolly has Davis' old seat.

O'BRIEN: I know. I know. He says you wouldn't have done that, Congressman Davis?

TOM DAVIS, FORMER VIRGINIA CONGRESSMAN: But, Gerry, I understand they did ask the Democrats for a witness and the Democrats sent them two. And they invited Barry Lynn who then declined at the last minute and I think that was part of the mix-up. They were late getting back.

CONNOLLY: Tom, I don't think there was any mix-up. Darrell Issa clearly wanted to censor any dissenting views on this topic and that's why it blew up in his face.

DAVIS: There are things united for separation of church and state was invited and I guess backed out at the last minute.

O'BRIEN: But when you look at the title of this. Hang on, let me stop this conversation because I want to go back to the title. Has the Obama administration trampled on freedom of religion.

You're also really -- it's framed around a conversation about contraception. That really is what everybody has been talking about so two things. One, why no women? If you're talking about contraception, to have --

DAVIS: Because the conversation wasn't -- you had a Jewish rabbi who was pro-contraception who's on the first panel and they looked at this as an infringement on religious practice.

They felt threatened. I think that was the purpose of the panel as Gerry said, contraception was the underlying issue of this. This has become a political food fight.

MARTIN FROST, FORMER TEXAS CONGRESSMAN: Let's be realistic here, too. The TV cameras were there in the morning for the first panel. That was the all-male panel. In the afternoon not as much attention was paid to the hearing. So if you want to be fair, you make sure there's a woman on the first panel when there's --

O'BRIEN: What do you mean you want to be fair? If this -- am I crazy or is this really a contraception that is being framed as a conversation about religious freedom?

DAVIS: Religious freedom being framed as contraception. It depends on the narrative.

O'BRIEN: Go ahead. Give Gerry a shot here.

DAVIS: He's like, let me in. He got up early to be here. CONNOLY: Thank you. I want to agree with you. I mean, think about the title, trampled? Why not have it neutrally worded. Have they crossed the line? That would have been a fair title. But when you say trampled you've given away the game. You clearly have already in advance decided the answer.

O'BRIEN: It's a little bit like, Senator, when did you stop beating your wife panel.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The whole frame of this is silly. This is about access to health care and women need access to contraception. It was always about contraception.

O'BRIEN: If, in fact, about religious liberty, but if it is, let's say that Congressman Davis is right. It's religious liberty. Still having no women, religious freedom and religious liberty, still at framed around a conversation of contraception, having no women on that panel --

CONNOLLY: Soledad.

DAVIS: Go ahead.

CONNOLLY: I just want to point out about religious freedom. Mike Huckabee when he was governor of Arkansas signed into law exactly the compromise President Obama approved.

Mitt Romney, Republican governor of Massachusetts, in trying this in his Romneycare exactly the same policy. It is nonsense to claim this is suddenly a religious freedom issue.

This is a policy that's been embraced by Republicans all over the country until now. And you have to say what's changed? What's changed is we're in an election year and they want to try desperately to find something they can hang around the president's neck.

DAVIS: What changed though is the Catholic bishops and the church, from every pulpit across the country, Readen Edict opposing what the administration did on that. That wasn't --

CONNOLLY: On the original policy and the president fixed it.

DAVIS: But the problem -- it's not fixed yet, Gerry, because some of the plans are self insured, but it's something they can get to. But it is still a work in progress.

CONNIE RICE, CIVIL RIGHTS ATTORNEY: Here's the deeper thing here. This is -- and Senator Santorum said it himself. Contraception is bad for women. That's the underlying fault line here --

FROST: That's a Democratic narrative.

RICE: No, he said it.

O'BRIEN: That is a quote. We have to go to commercial break. I love when we keep talking because we can continue on the other side. Still ahead this morning on STARTING POINT, we're going to -- Congressman Connolly, thanks for being with us. I almost forgot to thank him. We appreciate you being with us, sir.

We're going to talk about Mitt Romney straight ahead. Is he in danger of losing the state of Michigan and then Super Tuesday is right around the corner? What are the chances of that.

We're going to bring in Rick Santorum's campaign representative to join us to talk about that.

Also, a wounded Syrian activist talking to CNN begging President Obama, begging Israel for help saying that Assad is going to kill millions. That's straight ahead. Back in a moment.


O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody. Nonstop shelling in Syria this morning. Government forces have besieged the city of Homs. So far nine people are dead today alone. The U.N. General Assembly has passed a nonbinding resolution that is condemning President Bashar al Assad for human rights violations.

An activist named Danny, who was shot in Homs, spoke exclusively to CNN. Listen.


NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: How do you think history will judge the diplomacy of the past few months?

DANNY: For the last few months, it's a crime against humanity. Russia and China will deal with that. They've got Syrian blood on their hands. This is all their fault. Last time the U.N. did nothing, they gave the green light and the OK to Assad to kill more. It was the first time that he used rocket launches after the U.N. He felt safe. They gave him the OK.


O'BRIEN: Nick Paton Walsh is live for news Beirut this morning.

What is the latest this morning?

WALSH: This morning, again, heavy shelling in Homs. We're hearing five dead from that shelling this morning. And actually as dawn broke, nine bodies found across cities. So the death toll there continuing.

Interestingly, though, a separate development. to the east of where I'm standing here in Beirut, a town called Zabadoni (ph), which had been held by the opposition for a period of time, and then some kind of pause in fighting with the army took place in which the army used to move into the town, take it over again. We're now understanding it's under a strong grip. But this morning clashes again apparently breaking out in that particular area. So yesterday's U.N. resolution having very little impact in terms of the pace of fighting. This onslaught continuing. And it now appears a renewed crack down in this town of Zabadoni (ph).

O'BRIEN: Talk to me about what potentially lies ahead. When you hear some of the opposition literally beg for help, it's very troubling. When we hear what's happening, certainly in the U.N., it doesn't look like anything is going to be forthcoming soon. What happens in between?

WALSH: Well, putting aside the U.N. vote yesterday -- that was nonbinding, that has no legal teeth, so to speak. It is basically a piece of paper in which many countries have already condemned this, condemn again together, after quite a lot of diplomatic wrangling.

The next step, which Danny asked potentially the West to do, was to own the Free Syrian Army, provide what he referred to as modern, proper weapons. Claiming they don't have bullets or rocket propelled grenades that actually work as they face this well-equipped Russian armed military, the Syrian army. That may potentially be difficult. You may argue we did hear yesterday U.S. intelligence officials making the case that they are concerned radical elements within the region are slipping into the movement. That's something Danny furiously denies. But that could potentially complicate any efforts by anyone in the West to provide more discourse (ph), support to the free Syrian Army on the ground.

But all these steps seem pretty far off. There's been an awful lot of talking. With just heard, in fact, David Cameron, of the U.K., and Nicolas Sarkozy, of France, stands together and frankly most we heard from that is, is their desire to cooperate more and Britain sending food rations. Very slow international response being felt by the people of Homs who are on the thick receiving end of this Syrian onslaught.

O'BRIEN: It's terrible to watch. It's terrible to watch from here.

Nick Paton Walsh for us. Thank you for the update.

Still ahead this morning on STARTING POINT, we're going to talk about Rick Santorum's surge in the state of Michigan. Home field advantage might mean absolutely nothing for Mitt Romney. We'll talk to the Santorum campaign up next.

You're watching STARTING POINT. A short break, we're back.


O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody. Less than two weeks to go before the Michigan primary. And the latest CNN poll shows that Santorum and Mitt Romney are in a statistical dead heat, with Santorum at 34 percent and Romney at 32 percent. A similar picture in the state of Michigan, which is Mitt Romney's hoe state. Technically, a statistical tie as well since Santorum's lead is within the margin of error.

This morning, we're joined by the Santorum campaign press secretary, Alice Stewart.

It's nice to see you. Thanks for talking with us. Certainly appreciate it.

What do you make of your candidate's recent surge in the polls?

ALICE STEWART, SANTORUM CAMPAIGN PRESS SECRETARY: Well, it just goes to show that voters are taking their time and really getting to know the candidates and beginning to recognize that Mitt Romney is the most liberal candidate we have in this race. And Rick Santorum is the true consistent conservative and that goes for social and fiscal issues. People this year are concerned more than ever about the economy, jobs, and they want to create an environment that will help create jobs. With the unemployment rate at 8.3 percent and a debt and deficit continuing to rise, they want someone in the White House -- not like President Obama -- who will create jobs and stimulate the economy and restore confidence in our government and economic system more than anything else.

O'BRIEN: Yesterday, we were talking about what I thought was a funny ad that was done by the Santorum campaign. We'll roll a little bit of it, which is a guy with sort of the paint gun full of mud. This character here is meant to look like Mitt Romney, aiming at Rick Santorum. People say that's an inoculation ad, meaning, he's talking about -- trying to plant in people's minds what might be ahead in the negative advertising that's coming. Mitt Romney fired back about that ad. Here's what he had to say.


MITT ROMNEY, (R), FORMER MASSACHUSETTS GOVERNOR & PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Look, it's not something I'm going to whine about. I know there's some candidates that want to whine about the fact that in campaigns you go back and forth and talk about the distinctions between one another, but let's talk about a process that gets us to a nominee.


O'BRIEN: Do you think he has a point? Listen, let's move off the ads and talk about some substance here?

STEWART: I believe Rick Santorum was the very first person to say that in the debate not too long ago, quit the bickering. Let's talk about the issues and what people want to hear about. That ad, I might add, was in response to a negative ad that came out from a Romney super PAC. Rick Santorum is doing well because he's talking about what people want to hear about. He gave a great speech at the Detroit Economic Club yesterday that was very well received because he talked about creating opportunities, creating a ladder of success for people of all income levels across the country.

O'BRIEN: Why is he doing -- why is he doing not well among women though? Why do you think that is? Let's throw up a poll number here and you'll see that Mitt Romney leads Republican women by nine points. Santorum's behind on that. Why do you think that is? STEWART: Well, there's several different ways to break out the polls.

O'BRIEN: OK, give me the top two.

STEWART: And every poll shows something different. But an important factor to consider in a lot of these polls is what you see as you break out the numbers. Rick Santorum has the highest favorabilities among the candidates. He is someone that people like --

O'BRIEN: No, I get it.

STEWART: -- and can trust more than anything.

O'BRIEN: But you're going over ground you've covered so I'm going to stop you there. I want you to answer the question, which was, when we throw up that poll, he's nine points behind for women. Why? Give me just the top two reasons because you said there are many. What are the top two?

STEWART: He appeals to women on many levels, most particularly because he is very strong on family and life.

O'BRIEN: But why is he behind Mitt Romney, do you think? What are the two reasons he's behind in the polls by a decent number?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The gender gap. It's a huge gender gap.


I'm curious, what do you think that is due to?

STEWART: I can assure you he is reaching out to women across the country. He does very well as he speaks to women's groups and Republican women's groups across the country --


STEWART: -- because they see him as someone -- and we most recently saw with his daughter, Bella, who was sick. He left the campaign trail to go spend time with his daughter.


O'BRIEN: Every single parent who saw that --


STEWART: -- a very strong man of faith and family.

O'BRIEN: -- all hearts all broke for him on that, because any parent who's ever had to deal with any child's emergency, you know, it kills you if you're trying to do something else. I think you're right in connecting to parents. But I want to go back to the woman thing. How much do you think the fact that some of the things that Rick Santorum has said about contraception are working against him when it comes to women? Let's play a little bit of what he has said. Listen.


RICK SANTORUM, (R), FORMER PENNSYLVANIA SENATOR & PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: From a governmental point of view, I support, you know, Title X, I guess it is, and have voted for contraception, although I don't think it works. I think it's harmful to women and our society.


O'BRIEN: He just said, I don't think it works. I voted for contraception. I don't think it works. I think it's harmful to women. Is this to account for the gap, the gender gap in people who support him among Republican women?

STEWART: Well, I can assure you contraception -- the contraception issue is taking center stage this week. But it's one of the many issues that Rick Santorum stands firm on the issues.


O'BRIEN: Which is what? What is that firm stance? What is the stance on contraception?

STEWART: He is a Catholic. He believes that contraceptive -- he doesn't support contraception. But at the same time --


O'BRIEN: At all? Period? For anyone?

STEWART: If you look at his record --


O'BRIEN: For married couples? For anyone?

STEWART: But if you look at his record, Soledad -- this is the important point -- personally, his faith is opposed to it. Politically, he has not stood in the way of contraception. He has supported issues that allows people to receive contraception. That's the point. That's the difference between him and President Obama.


O'BRIEN: Do you think that that stance --


STEWART: He personally is opposed to it but he does not let government get in the way of women --

O'BRIEN: I hear what you're saying.

STEWART: -- having access to that.

O'BRIEN: I hear what you're saying. So my question for you is, do you think that stance is hurting him among Republican women, when we see in polls that he's nine points behind Mitt Romney, who is struggling himself in the polls?

STEWART: No. Because --


O'BRIEN: No, you don't think so?

STEWART: The point is that he has a personal faith view on contraception. He does not allow that to affect him politically. And I can assure you -- me, look at me. I'm his national press secretary. He has a lot of faith and confidence in women all up and down the campaign and as a member when he was in Congress. He is a strong supporter of women, working women, single mothers, and so any claim that he doesn't support women in the workplace are certainly unfounded.


O'BRIEN: You know I certainly did not say that. I was just asking you to explain to me the gender gap. I'm not really sure we got an answer on that.

But we're out of time. So I appreciate you joining us this morning.

Alice Stewart is the press secretary for Rick Santorum.

Got to take a short break. Ahead this morning on STARTING POINT, some new information in the Whitney Houston investigation. And now, of course, people are focusing on Bobbi Kristina and concerns about just how she's holding up.

This morning, I'm going to talk to Richard Prior's daughter. She had a parent who had a problem with addiction. She has got some advice for Bobbi Kristina. She also said people reached out to her when her dad died and how much that was helpful.

We'll talk about Adele, on the cover of "Vogue" magazine. Some people say, wow, she looks different than she did at the Grammys.


What do you think? Was she Photo-shopped, not Photo-shopped? I personally support Photo-shopping for everybody.


We're talking about that and much more straight ahead.

STARTING POINT continues after this.