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Washington Battles Over Fiscal Cliff; Israel on Brink of War?; House Holds Hearing about Benghazi Attack; Fiscal Cliff Looms for U.S. Economy; Interview with Senator Jeff Sessions; Jada Pinkett Smith's New Role; "Flight" Drama of Salvation

Aired November 16, 2012 - 08:00   ET


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome, everybody. Our STARTING POINT this morning, Middle East erupting, bombs over Gaza, rockets crashing in Tel Aviv, more troops on the move this morning. We're live in the Middle East on the -- the possible full scale eruption there of war.

Plus, General Petraeus on Capitol Hill right now. It's the first time that we've seen him since he resigned over an affair. Will he put those questions to rest about Benghazi?

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: And stirring clear of the fiscal cliff. President Obama welcomes congressional leaders to the White House this morning. Same people, same ideas on the table. Is there a new willingness, though, to compromise?

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: A tragedy in Texas. A freight train crashes into a parade float carrying veterans. And now, the question is: what went wrong?

O'BRIEN: Packed show for you this morning.

The former Director of the Budget Office, Peter Orszag, is going to join us. Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions is with us. The actress Jada Pinkett Smith will join us and actress Kelly Reilly from the movie "Flight."

It's Friday, November 16th, and STARTING POINT begins right now.


O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody.

Our team this morning: Richard Socarides is with us. He's a writer for He's a former senior advisor to the president, President Clinton. Zanny Minton-Beddoes is with us. She's an economics editor at "The Economist". Will Cain is a columnist at

"EARLY START" co-anchor John Berman is with us, helping us out with news. Christine Romans is sticking around, helping us out with business. Packed table, packed show.

STARTING POINT, of course, is the fiscal cliff -- 46 days and counting, we'll fall of the fiscal cliff. Although some people have talked about it now being a gentle slope.

ROMANS: Don't believe that. There's nothing gentle about it. If it's a slope, it's like a black diamond slalom course.

O'BRIEN: So, a gentle slalom black diamond slope.


O'BRIEN: A blue.


O'BRIEN: Nanny says maybe blue. But we're still talking kind of steep slope here.

This morning, in their first post-election face to face, President Obama is going to host Capitol Hill top Republicans and Democrats and look for any room for compromise in the fiscal abyss, slope, stairwell, cliff.

CNN's Jill Dougherty is at the White House for us with more.

Good morning, Jill.


Well, one thing is that sure, that if they don't do something, everybody is going to end up paying a lot more taxes. So, that's a good spur. But right now, everyone is looking for the tone of this, what the President will do, how both sides come into it.

And at first glance, it looks as if they're sticking to their positions but there are some cracks. You can so some hints of things that maybe they could compromise on.

So let's start with the person who seems to be taking the strongest view from the Republican side and that is Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.


SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, (R-KY) SENATE MINORITY LEADER: We don't happen to think the government needs more revenue. Government spends too much as it is. But if Democrats are willing to reduce spending, strengthen entitlement programs which we all know are on an unsustainable path that threatens our own long term viability and the economic well-being of our children and grandchildren, then we'll be there. What we won't do is raise tax rates.


DOUGHERTY: OK. So raise tax rates -- that's a very specific phrase. They don't want to raise the rates. They are, the Republicans, talking about things like cutting loopholes, cutting deductions, things like that. The Democrats, on the other hand, say if you do the math, that doesn't add up to what is needed.

And then from the Democratic side, you have that quandary of wanting to defend the entitlements that a lot of Americans depend upon. That's where you get people like Nancy Pelosi saying you can't simply do that on the backs of middle class taxpayer.

So, that's essentially a lot of the debate right now.

O'BRIEN: Jill Dougherty for us this morning -- thank you, Jill.

Let's get right to Peter Orszag. He is the former director of the Office of Management and Budget for the Obama White House. Today, he's going to appearing at a forum at the museum in Washington with other economic gurus, like Alan Greenspan and Paul Volcker and Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson.

It's nice to have you with us. So back in September --


O'BRIEN: Thank you. I appreciate that.

Back in September, you said, you're talking on CNBC, you said it's most likely that we're going to go over the fiscal cliff. And it seriously raised -- if that -- unless there is -- then there's that deal cut in January or mid-January, something like that. So you said first the cliff, then there will be some deal.

Do you still think that's how it's going to happen?

ORSZAG: I hope not. But I think there's still a significant risk. I mean, you just heard Mr. McConnell say that he would not support raising tax rates at all. Mr. Boehner has said similar things.

The administration seems to be open to perhaps tax rates not going up quite as much as they initially proposed but they're still absolutely insistent on those tax rate increases of at least some size.

So, you know, there's a lot that has to come together in a short period of time in order to get a deal. It's not impossible. But I think the risk of at least temporarily going over this cliff is significant.

O'BRIEN: So, Zanny Minton-Beddoes is with us this morning. She says it's not a cliff. It's like a blue slope on a ski slope. Christine says it's a cliff like a black diamond.

ROMANS: Big black diamond.

O'BRIEN: Other people have said it's a gentle slope like a sunny day slope down the hill. What is it, do you think?

ORSZAG: Well, I guess the problem is we're going to start going downhill and not know exactly whether it's a blue slope or a double diamond. You don't know exactly what's ahead of you, because we don't know how quickly a deal will come together. And I think that's the problem.

If, you know, on January 2nd, the leadership of the Congress and the President say, don't worry. We've got a deal coming together, then that's kind of like the gentle slope, no big deal. If they're yelling at each other and throwing grenades at each other, anxiety and lack of confidence that will create makes it a much more challenging downhill adventure at that point.

ROMANS: And we don't want it to snowball. We can really go crazy to explain it in ways that people can understand. All these things are bad.

And, you know, remember Congress designed it to be bad so that we wouldn't be sitting here, talking about it. I mean, that's what I try reminding people.


ROMANS: Can you tell me a little bit from the perspective of the White House and the administration? Tim Geithner, the Treasury Secretary, he does have some leeway of telling companies they can keep their tables the same at the beginning of the year. You could -- you could try to defer at least what workers would feel in the fiscal cliff for a few days or weeks if they wanted to.

What leeway does the White House have to try to blunt this if there's no deal?

ORSZAG: Sure. That's not actually -- I don't think the withholding tables for the 2013 taxes are the problem in early to mid-January.

There are two other problems, though. One is that we don't have a fix for the alternative minimum tax for 2012, which is this alternative tax system that rests aside the regular income tax and without a fix, you've got tens of millions of people that will be thrown on to that alternative minimum tax. The IRS can't even tax refunds for the 2012 calendar year in early 2013 without knowing what those parameters are.

So, one of the big problems here is, you know, people go Christmas shopping often in anticipation that they're going to get their refund in January or February. And IRS won't really be able to do that without knowing what the AMT was for 2012. That's just one example. There are many others. But I don't think the withholding tables are at the top of the list.

O'BRIEN: Zanny?

MINTON-BEDDOES: Yes. The one other -- Peter, the one other problem that people talk about after the fiscal cliff is the debt ceiling. You know, there is this other unknown out there, which is the some point we will reach the debt ceiling and Congress will have to agree on raising the debt ceiling. Do you think that's going to come into these negotiations and are we going to have to mix our metaphors and talk about cliffs and ceilings?

ROMANS: Oh, no. ORSZAG: Look, I think the administration would be making a huge mistake to reach an agreement over the fiscal cliff without also wrapping in the debt limit into that agreement. It makes no sense to have all of this drama play out in December and then have new drama in, say, February. What we should do is whether it's in one stage or two stages, we should have a comprehensive deal here that addresses both the fiscal cliff or slope or whatever you want to call it, and the debt ceiling at the same time.

O'BRIEN: So what's the deal? I mean, this is the $64,000 --


O'BRIEN: Everybody sounds nice and conciliatory. I think it's because the election has just ended. So, they're not screaming at each other.

ORSZAG: Right.

O'BRIEN: But when you listen to l the actual words, they're very inflexible. I mean, you heard McConnell.

ORSZAG: Right.

O'BRIEN: What we won't do is to raise taxes. You heard the President say, I have -- you know, I campaigned on this so we're going to make sure we do that. What's --

MINTON-BEDDOES: There seems to be a bit of leeway in the sense that -- can you raise tax revenue without raising rates? There's a lot of talk about limiting deductions. I'd love to hear what you think about how much scope is there to raise money about limiting deductions. What kind of deductions will go?

O'BRIEN: The President didn't run on that, right? The President ran on making people who are wealthy pay more. So, I feel like we have a nice tone but actually the positions seem pretty intractable to me.

ORSZAG: Look, a deal here has to involve two components.

One is on revenue and there is revenue that you can get from cutting back on deductions and exclusions. But I think, to my mind, the deal here is that marginal tax rates go up a little, maybe a percentage point or two. And maybe you raise the $250,000 threshold up a bit.

So, will the House Republicans really blow up a deal if the threshold is $1 million to make it up in the marginal tax rate increases one or two percentage points? You couple that by broadening the tax base by cutting back on exclusions which -- and deductions, which is admittedly a lot easier to say than it is to do. But it is possible to do.

And then the second component is there is going to have to be some kind of entitlement reform in order to get that debt limit increased. And to my mind, the most promising avenue for action is Social Security. Not because that's the biggest part of our fiscal gap. It's not. But because the parties are so far apart on Medicare and Medicaid, everyone -- you want to talk about happy talk, people say we have to address health care costs and their ideas for how to do so are so diametrically opposed --

O'BRIEN: Right.

ORSZAG: -- that there's little room for a deal there.

On Social Security, on the other hand, at least the sort of span of options is not quite as wide and I can imagine, hypothetically, at least, imagine a deal coming together on that.

O'BRIEN: We'll see. Well, Peter Orszag, nice to talk to you about it. We appreciate your time this morning. Thank you.

ORSZAG: Good to be with you.

O'BRIEN: Thanks.

The stories making news. John has got that.

BERMAN: Thanks, Soledad.

Israel may be on the brink of war this morning. The violence in Gaza intensifying overnight, Palestinian militants launching hundreds of rockets into Israel territory, targeting Tel Aviv now. The Israelis countering with air and artillery strikes in more than 300 terror targets in Gaza, while calling up thousands of reservists for a possible ground war with Hamas.

Ben Wedeman joins us live right now from Jerusalem.

What's the latest, Ben?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: John, within the last hour and a half, air raid sirens did go off in Tel Aviv. According to one police spokesman, there was an explosion, but it probably was out at sea, not actually hitting the town itself.

Now, there was a relative respite in the bombardment going both ways in Gaza while the Egyptian prime minister, Hesham Kandil, was in the strip for a brief visit. However, as soon as he left, it appears that the amount of rockets being fired out of Gaza, the Israeli air strikes into it, ratcheted up.

And, of course, Israel does seem to be preparing for some sort of ground invasion into Gaza. They called up 16,000 reservists for that. We know there are a lot of tanks being stationed on the outside of Gaza.

What we see is similar to what we saw in 2008-2009, several days of intense air strikes followed by a ground incursion -- John.

BERMAN: All right. Ben Wedeman, things showing no signs of letting up right now in the region -- Ben Wedeman in Jerusalem. A parade honoring veterans ends in tragedy in Midland, Texas. At least four people were killed when a train slammed into a float packed with veterans and their spouses yesterday. More than dozens of other people were taken to the hospital yesterday.

We don't know what caused this crash. Union Pacific says the track's lights and crossing gates were working and the train sounded its horn before the crash.

President Obama touring Hurricane Sandy devastation in New York, flying over ravaged neighborhoods in Queens and comforting devastated homeowners in tents and in the street of Staten Island yesterday. The President also assigned a new point person for the Sandy recovery effort, New Yorker Shaun Donovan, who is the Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Another prominent Republican is ripping Mitt Romney. New Mexico governor Susana Martinez says his claims that President Obama won the election by giving gifts to young and minority voters sets back the Republican Party.

The GOP's most prominent Latina member went on saying her party has "to start electing people who look like their communities. We have to make them part of the solution, and the way you do that is by listening to them."

Now, "The Daily Show" was also getting a piece of this action over the whole gifts comment. Take a look.


JON STEWART, HOST, "THE DAILY SHOW WITH JON STEWART": How on earth did Mitt Romney find out about the extraordinary bag of gifts that we got -- show them to everybody in this? What did Obama give us? Oh, bag of weed. That was nice. Oh, food stamp cozy. Contraception variety pack!


O'BRIEN: Very funny.

BERMAN: There you go.

O'BRIEN: Still ahead this morning on STARTING POINT, has the coverage of the David Petraeus scandal gone to far? We'll debate that with Howard Kurtz and Lauren Ashburn. That's coming up next.

And new information out moments ago about Hostess. We're about to lose those Twinkies and those Snowballs. Is it forever? We'll talk about that.


O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody.

Since the news broke that the former CIA chief, David Petraeus, had an affair, the stories burned up the airwaves with the media reporting every single twist and turn and there have been so many and they've been so interesting. Has it gone too far?

Howard Kurtz writes this, "The mighty media machine turned David Petraeus into a household name and now his image is crumbling beneath the weight of that machine. The fame he sought is being used against him. If the Secretary of Commerce gets caught carrying on with a smitten young woman, it's a two-day story."

Howard Kurtz is the host of CNN's "Reliable Sources" and Washington bureau chief for "Newsweek" and the" Daily Beast." Lauren Ashburn is contributor to the "Daily Beast" and editor-in-chief of the "Daily Download". It's nice to have both of you back.


O'BRIEN: So, you think we're overdoing it?

KURTZ: You know, for a few days, I felt like I enjoy a good scandalous wallow as much as anyone, but it has gotten so over the top at this point where we're getting into all the minor characters, Jill Kelley's twin sister. And also, Soledad, the reporting, I mean, it's so murky. 30,000 e-mails from General Allen to Jill Kelley.

They were flirtatious. No, they weren't. They called her sweetheart. It meant something. It didn't mean anything.


KURTZ: Shirtless.

ASHBURN: Right. That's right. Naked -- topless, that would be a story.



O'BRIEN: I don't think it's too much. I think we have a responsibility, one to tell important stories not that this one is necessary, though, it could have been. But the other part of the responsibility -- no, I don't think. It could have been with national security. I don't think it's gone that direction.

ASHBURN: We don't know that it's important yet.

O'BRIEN: Right. Agreed. Agreed.

ASHBURN: If there are classified documents involved, if there's a national security breach, yes. But there isn't. We just have a lot of e-mails.

O'BRIEN: Right. So, you have important stories and you also have things that people are talking about and interested in. I would put this in the latter category.


MINTON-BEDDOES: So many twists and turns and it's "Real Housewives" mixed with, you know, every soap opera you've ever thought of.


WILL CAIN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: You're asking the media too much to ignore this story. I mean, as you said, you got --

KURTZ: Who said ignore?

CAIN: -- shirtless FBI, the twins, sexy -- two four-star generals and 20,000 e-mails. Too much. Can't ignore this.



RICHARD SOCARIDES, WRITER, NEWYORKER.COM: -- cost him his job, it was an important story. But the question is, I think the bigger question is, do people in the military have a right to privacy? I mean, do these people have -- if your head of the CIA, do you still have a right to privacy?


SOCARIDES: No. You might not.

ASHBURN: You do not have a right to privacy if you are the head of the CIA and can't conduct a clandestine affair.


CAIN: Well, I have to say is this is where Richard and I come together. I don't expect more from the media. I wonder about the FBI. Why is this a matter for public discourse when, apparently, so far, there's no real national security breach. Now, this has been placed into our -- into the media's hands.

KURTZ: All of these serious issues like privacy online and national security documents, it's all a fig leaf because we're all enjoying the story so much. And I'm not against enjoying the story. I just think compared to what's happening today on the Hill where Petraeus is going to testify --

ASHBURN: Which we're also covering.

KURTZ: -- Benghazi.

ASHBURN: OK. Go ahead.

KURTZ: OK. Hasn't the ratio been 100-1?


MINTON-BEDDOES: -- investigation into, you know, whether General Petraeus used -- what resources he used. I mean, presumably, he has to use some kind of resources.

ASHBURN: But there's also this whole cottage industry that has come up in mainstream publications like slate and the "Washington Post". Seven tips for a top secret affair. Eight ways that you can have a clandestine relationship.

O'BRIEN: Don't use Gmail --


KURTZ: -- news genre. How do they get away with it?

O'BRIEN: I just think that we have an obligation to talk about stories that people are talking about. I have a number of --


O'BRIEN: I think it's cyclical. I think that you could argue both sides of that. I really do. I mean, I have a number of friends who every single day will just all they wonder like, let's talk about Jill Kelley. She's an interesting character. And these are women who are interesting and thoughtful and interested in politics, but this is something that is like media and interesting. And by the way, Jill Kelley, interesting character.

KURTZ: And don't you wrestle with that every morning on this program because you could do a lot of celebrities and titillating tabloid stories versus the news.

O'BRIEN: -- the percentages for sure. But I think I never would argue for like let's not cover it. Everyone is talking about it. Let's not cover it.


KURTZ: This is really as good as reality TV.


KURTZ: That tape of -- that tape where she claims to have diplomatic immunity, you could not make that up.


O'BRIEN: I believe that was our lead yesterday. No, I'm kidding.


O'BRIEN: I'm joking. I'm joking. Nice to have you guys with us this morning. We appreciate it. We got to take a break.

Still ahead this morning, Twinkies. It was supposed to last forever. The company that makes some dough says maybe not. We got a decision on the future of Hostess, straight ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) ROMANS: Good morning. Welcome back to STARTING POINT. I'm Christine Romans, "Minding Your Business."

Stocks and Wall Street set to fall again today. Sentiment (ph) has been pretty weak, because investors waiting on a deal on the fiscal cliff. Until that happens, analysts say expect more settling, also concerns about Europe and so in growth around the world.

Apple shares closed down two percent yesterday. That pushed the company's market cap below the $500 billion mark. Earlier this year, Apple's value hit a higher member of nearly $660 billion, making it the most valuable company in the world.

And we have just learned that Hostess brand is liquidating. The Twinkie-maker has asked a court for permission to close its business and sell off its iconic brands. Bakery operations are suspended, although the company's retail stores will remain open for a few days to sell the products that are currently on its shelves.

Hostess says it's going to move immediately to lay-off most of its 18,000-person workforce. This comes after a week-long strike by the bakers' union which was protesting pay and pension cuts. And of course, this is a company that's been bankruptcy. The union says they've already taken deep cuts to their retirements and their pensions and the like and they didn't want to take more pay cuts.

And the investors who own this company in bankruptcy said we're not making any money. We're going to sell all the brands. We're liquidating. So, this is different in bankruptcy. There's bankruptcy where you're trying to fix things, and then there's liquidating where you say it can't be fixed.

O'BRIEN: What a terrible lose-lose for everybody. I mean, who wins in that? Nobody.

ROMANS: Some of those factories when you think about -- especially the dynamics around those factories, you just hope those communities can absorb those workers with new jobs.

O'BRIEN: Right. Right, because often they can't.

ROMANS: Because often they can't.

CAIN: -- for American icon?

ROMANS: That's some kind of a loaded question.


ROMANS: You're not going to lose these brands. I mean, you would think that another company is going to, you know, (INAUDIBLE) take these brands. These brands are iconic, but they're not making money making those both brands right now.

O'BRIEN: Thanks, Christine. Still ahead, we're going to talk to Alabama senator, Jeff Sessions, talk more about the critical talks in Washington, D.C. about the fiscal cliff. Those talks start in about 90 minutes.

And "People" magazine was all wrong. Not Channing Tatum is the sexiest man in town. It's somebody new.

CAIN: Oh, they got me.



O'BRIEN: That's ahead.


O'BRIEN: Good morning. Welcome back, everybody. Let's start with a look at today's top stories, and John has that for us.

BERMAN: Thanks, Soledad. A planned ceasefire fails. Now America's closest ally in the Middle East may be on the brink of war. Violence between the Israel's and Palestinian militants intensifying in Gaza overnight, Hamas militants firing hundreds of rockets into Israeli territory, setting off air raid sirens in Tel Aviv for the first time since the Gulf War back in 1991. Earlier with talked to Danny Ayalon, Israel's deputy foreign minister, who had this to say about a trigger timeline.


DANNY AYALON, ISRAELI DEPUTY FOREIGN MINISTER: I would say if we will see in the next 24, 36 hours more rockets launched at us, I think that would be the trigger.

O'BRIEN: So it's just more rockets?

BERMAN: That's not a very long timeframe, you're giving them another day and a half, two days.

AYALON: Again, it's a touch and go. God forbid, if they hit a kindergarten or a school and many casualties in Israel, of course, we will have to do everything to defend ourselves. And we will achieve it. The question is, how much blood has to be spilled on both sides.


BERMAN: The Israelis pounding Gaza with artillery fire while calling up 16,000 reservists for the possibility of a ground assault.

BP has agreed to pay $4.5 billion and plead guilty to criminal misconduct in the 2010 Deep Water Horizon disaster, the worst ever offshore oil spill. The settlement includes a criminal fine of more than $1.25 billion, which is the largest in U.S. history. The company faces the possibility of more fines in the civil trial which is set to begin in February. Some of the Obama administration's sharpest critics on Benghazi actually missed a classified briefing about the incident, including most Republican members of the Senate committee investigating the attack, among them Senator John McCain. When one of our producers questioned him about it yesterday, he got pretty testy.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, (R) ARIZONA: I'm not going to comment on how I spend my time.


MCCAIN: I will have no further comment. I have no further comment. I have no further comment. How many times do I have to tell you?

BARRETT: Why can't you comment?

MCCAIN: Why can't I? Because I have the right as a senator to have no comment. Who the hell are you to tell me whether I can or not?


BERMAN: Later a more cheerful Senator McCain talked to Piers Morgan.


MCCAIN: It was a scheduling error. I can assure you that I got all the information and will be at future hearings, including the one tomorrow morning with General Petraeus.


BERMAN: Moving on now, who is the sexiest man alive? It's not Channing Tatum. According to "The Onion," it's not Will Cain either. It's Kim Jong-Un. There he is, alongside Channing Tatum. "The Onion" says the 29-year-old North Korean supreme leader gets the nod with his devastatingly handsome looks, his boyish charm, round cheeks, plus, "The Onion" says, they have a cuddly side.

O'BRIEN: Now we're quoting "The Onion."


O'BRIEN: Let's get right to the former CIA director David Petraeus. He is testifying right now behind closed doors. The House committee wants to know everything he knows about the deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. At the same time he is investigating, the CIA is launching an investigation into the conduct that forced him to step down from his job last week. Senior Congressional correspondent Dana Bash is live for us in Washington D.C. this morning. Good morning.

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Soledad. David Petraeus has been behind closed doors for about an hour now, or so we're told. We never actually saw him go in. I just want to give you a sense of the geography down here. You look at this staircase here. This is the staircase that the then CIA director David Petraeus came down in the open when he was here in September to brief the members of the House Intelligence Committee after the attack, but today he went behind those doors, which is where he is right now, if you can see back there, without anybody seeing him. In fact, the committee for some reason decided to protect him and they really had to go to great lengths to sneak him in so the media wouldn't get any shots.

We're hoping if we don't hear from him -- you see this microphone setup here -- we will hear from members of the House Intelligence Committee to give us a sense of what general David Petraeus was able to tell them about Benghazi and what really happened. There's a lot of frustration in that first and only briefing that he gave when he was CIA director that he didn't give enough information and it turned out to be not entirely accurate. There will be a lot of discussion about that. We were told before this that that was what this briefing is limited to, about Benghazi, his trip to Libya after that and not about what happened with Paula Broadwell that led to his resignation.

O'BRIEN: Dana Bash for us this morning. Thank you, Dana, appreciate it.

The other big story in Washington, D.C. is that major meeting that will happen in less than two hours at the White House. President Obama opening talks with the top four congressional leaders on how to avoid the looming fiscal cliff. House Speaker Boehner, Minority Leader Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Reid and Minority Leader McConnell will be there together to work on a plan that they need to have in place by the end of the year or else. The "or else" is we'll see some rising tax rates and sweeping cuts. Joining us to talk about that is Alabama Republican Senator Jeff Sessions, a ranking member on the Budget Committee. Nice to have you with us, sir.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS, (R) ALABAMA: Thank you, Soledad.

O'BRIEN: You have said, I believe, you're not all this happy with this meeting that is happening. Why would that be?

SESSIONS: Well, I guess they'll have a good get-acquainted meeting at the White House today. We've gone two-and-a-half weeks since the election. No plans have been laid out. Nothing has been done. The fiscal cliff is looming. We recessed last night for another 10, 11 days in the Congress. So nothing is being done. And you would think that the President would have a firm plan through his Treasury and Commerce Departments about how to handle the problem and we would be further along than we are today. That's for sure.

O'BRIEN: I think it's just about ten days since the election. But I think for voters, there's a sense that nobody is acting --

SESSIONS: This is a looming crisis, Soledad.

O'BRIEN: Clearly.

SESSIONS: It's been there for a year. All of us deserve some criticism. I do believe the President should have been leading more, too.

O'BRIEN: What's the fix?

SESSIONS: He's not engaged, we're not going to get very far.

O'BRIEN: What's the fix, do you think? Watching it from the outside since I'm not in Washington, D.C., you get this sense that nobody is moving. The Senate has to move in some way, Congress has had to move in some way, the President has to move in some way. Where do you see this conciliatory tone, which is nice and hopeful, actually come into some kind of resolution?

SESSIONS: There's some differences, but the problem is we're going to end up just like we have the last three or four of these crises. We're going to end up with a group of people meeting in secret. Probably on Christmas Eve or December 30th, we'll end up with some sort of bill dropped in the Congress that the American people will have no real input in, won't be able to understand the details. We'll be told it has to pass before the deadline or we'll have a crisis. And it will somehow be shoved through the Congress.

This is not the way the Senate ought to be operating, or the House for that matter. We should to be talking about these issues for weeks, for months. The challenges we face, the challenge of our time is unsustainable debt and lack of economic growth. The economy is declining and not growing.

So we've got some real challenges. And I just think that Congress has not met its responsibility. Senator Reid, our leader, should have allowed this debate to occur and let us all have to stand up and be accounted. How much taxes do you want to increase? How much spending do you want to cut? Defend it publicly. Not these secret meetings.

O'BRIEN: Some folks would say, to talk about the past is like closing the barn door after your horse has run out. So let's put that off the table and talk about moving forward. There are weeks, right? We have 46 days before the fiscal cliff hits us. You could be having those exact conversations. We talked to Peter Orszag.

SESSIONS: We could have been in session today.


SESSIONS: We should have done something all this week instead of a very small sportsman's deal. We could have been talking about the challenge of our time. It's time for somebody to say that the leadership in this Senate is not performing its duty. This country is in danger, and all they want to talk about is small bills and secret meetings.

O'BRIEN: Let me play a little bit of what Peter Orszag told us this morning. He was talking about where he sees potentially a deal could happen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) ORSZAG: A deal here has to involve two components. One is on revenue. And there is revenue that you can get from cutting back on deductions and exclusions. But I think, to my mind, the deal here is that marginal tax rates go up a little, maybe a percentage point or two, and maybe you raise the $250,000 threshold up a bit. So will the House Republicans really blow up a deal if the threshold is $1 million just to make it up in the marginal tax rate increases one or two percentage points?


CAIN: Senator Sessions, I would love to ask you -- that we should be having this debate in public. We should start today. Let me ask you coming out of, listening to Peter Orszag, does that sound like something that hits within the bull's-eye or target that you could accept, come today or the end of the year, some kind of deal that sounds like what Peter Orszag just presented?

SESSIONS: The American people should not be asked to send another dime to this dysfunctional government until we show and the President shows a commitment to reforming the abuses and waste that's going on. We haven't had any real reform of government programs in decades, really, to my knowledge. It's time to redo that and we can make a difference. So those kinds of commitments all have to be part of this package.

I'm not going to dismiss what Mr. Orszag says. We've got leaders that will be meeting to lay out outlines. I'm not going to enter into negotiations today. I know what I believe. I believe we don't have to have more tax revenue. I believe we can control our debt and get us on a sound path through fiscal responsibility. Others will see it differently, and we'll just have to debate that out.

O'BRIEN: Senator Jeff Sessions is a Republican from Alabama. Thank you for talking with us this morning. We certainly appreciate your time.

SESSIONS: Thank you, Soledad.

O'BRIEN: We've got to take a short break. Still ahead, the fight against human trafficking. Jada Pinkett-Smith will join us to talk about what she's doing about that problem. We're back in just a moment.


O'BRIEN: It is estimated as many as 27 million people around the world are victims of modern slavery, human trafficking and other forms of servitude. On Wednesday, a human trafficking Senate caucus was formed to bring attention to the issue.

Actress Jada Pinkett Smith first learned about the problem of modern slavery in the world from her daughter, whose name is Willow. Willow is as young as some of the victims, in fact.

She was moved to act, has been a strong advocate ever since for eliminating modern slavery in the world. Jada joins us this morning along with Minh Dang, she's a human trafficking survivor who's put a lot of support into this caucus as well. It's nice to have you both with us.

Jada, let's start with you.


O'BRIEN: What do you expect the Senate caucus to specifically do?

SMITH: Well, I'm hoping that we will attack the TVPA and figure out how to give the TVPA passed. And I have Minh here who is a wonderful advocate, of course, and survivor for human trafficking. And I'm hoping also that we can create an advisory board, and advisory council of survivors that will assist our government in understanding the nuances of human trafficking.

O'BRIEN: Can you explain to folks who don't know what the TVPA is exactly what that is?

SMITH: You want to do that?

MINH DANG, HUMAN TRAFFICKING SURVIVOR: Sure. The TVPA is the Trafficking Victims Protection Act and it was put into law in 2000, it made trafficking illegal in the United States. However it has not been reauthorized. It was up for reauthorization in 2011. And we're really urging Congress to pass this so that necessary services can be delivered to victims and survivors.

O'BRIEN: I think Minh that people would look at you think you are a young college student. But your story of how you were trafficked as a little girl is horrible. And I want you to repeat parts of it. Because I think it's very important for our audience to understand how this happens. Can you walk us through a little bit of what happened to you?

DANG: Sure. It started with child abuse from my parents, physical abuse, neglect from a really early age. And then my father started incesting (sic) me and raping me when I was three. So that was really the foundation of this. And then my -- both my mother and my father sold me from the age of 10 to 20. So for a decade, on the streets, through brothels, through newspapers, that's where they were selling me.

And like you said I did go to college and my parents also wanted me to be an upstanding student in order to hide their crimes.

O'BRIEN: Wow, so then, Jada, when you look at a young person like Minh -- and I know this is a lot of the work that you do -- how do you take her successful story of getting out and try to save all these other -- use the number 27 million? How do you take what she has been able to do and help all these others who clearly are still stuck in this terrible trap?

SMITH: You know what? What I've been trying to do most, Soledad, is to give -- create a platform for survivors like Minh because in order to really understand human trafficking, we have to give a voice to the victims and survivors. And so that's really what I'm trying to do. Minh is going to be more helpful in this game than I ever could be.

And so I'm here to assist her and to assist the NGOs, to assist our government and other survivors and victims, as far as human trafficking is concerned.

O'BRIEN: Oh congratulations to both of you on the amazing work that you are doing and congratulations on Prop 35, which is passed.

SMITH: Thank you.

O'BRIEN: The last time you were on, we talked about that. You're a big proponent of that.


O'BRIEN: So from your big smiles I know you're really happy about that as well.

SMITH: Absolutely.

O'BRIEN: Thanks for talking with us.

As you know this is a story we care a lot about. So we're going to keep talking about it and hopefully give a little bit of a platform as well. I appreciate your time.

SMITH: Thank you, Soledad.

O'BRIEN: You bet.

DANG: Thank you.

O'BRIEN: Coming up next Denzel Washington plays a pilot accused of flying drunk in the new airline thriller "Flight". Kelly Reilly is a co-star and she's going to joins us. That's straight ahead.

STARTING POINT is back in a moment.


DENZEL WASHINGTON, ACTOR: Well, what are you going to do?




WASHINGTON: We are in a dive.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I have no control on my side.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Are we going down?

WASHINGTON: Get everybody in brace position.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Your plan was nothing short of a miracle.

WASHINGTON: Evan, listen to me. Nose down.

30,000 feet.

We're going to roll it.


O'BRIEN: OK, that is so gripping. That is the new dramatic thriller. It's already getting Oscar buzz. It stars Denzel Washington as a commercial pilot and it's filled with twists and turns. Denzel's co- star in the movie "Flight" is the British actress, Kelly Reilly, and she's here for her first American TV interview. It's nice to have you with us.

KELLY REILLY, ACTRESS: Thanks for having me.

O'BRIEN: It's so terrifying but you said that the plane in a freefall that is scary is not -- is really just a small portion of the movie, it's not really what the movie is about. What's it about?

REILLY: Well, I mean, it is certainly a huge part of the movie. Denzel's character he's a captain and he lands a doomed plane. He inverts it, he lands the plane, and a few people perish, but he becomes a hero. And then you find out that actually he's an alcoholic. And it's -- the question is sort of looming whether or not he landed that plane in a miraculous way because he was slightly looser, shall I say, or whether or not he is responsible for the plane crash because he was drunk.

O'BRIEN: You play an addict -- an addict and then who is recovering who really reaches out and helps him. I want to play a little bit of that scene.


WASHINGTON: There's $400 cash. Now be a good boy. Grab that box, put it in her car.

REILLY: My car don't run. It didn't start this morning. I'm taking all this with me.

WASHINGTON: Your car doesn't run? Well, what were you going to do?

REILLY: Well, I -- I don't know what I was going to do.


O'BRIEN: Because she's kind of a lost soul. Tell me a little bit about playing an addict. You have someone who -- who was a recovering addict himself who sort of walked you through the role.

REILLY: Yes I mean, I didn't know anything about heroin other than the movies I've seen. And -- and then I started to sort of do a lot of research about it and I worked with somebody in Atlanta, who was a recovered heroin addict. And I just had a lot of questions. There's so much I didn't know and there was so many sort of stereotypes and I was so misinformed.

But it wasn't just about the heroin, the addiction. It was more about trying to find sort of who -- why can somebody, how can somebody get -- get so lost and go down that road and --

O'BRIEN: Psychology?

REILLY: Yes absolutely. And actually the addiction is a symptom, you know.

O'BRIEN: What's Denzel Washington like? I mean, I've interviewed him a couple of times and I love him. Love. What's he like to work with? Was he intense? And I could just see him --

REILLY: Yes, it's pretty intense. I mean, the movie is intense. So filming it was -- he is a powerful man. He is a powerful actor, he's incredibly charismatic. But he's -- he was very focused. I mean, there aren't too many laughs in this movie.

O'BRIEN: Plane going down, addicts.

SOCARIDES: Everybody I talked to who has seen the movie says it's fantastic. And I can't wait to see it myself. But I understand are there some lessons that emerge from the movie? I mean, is there a message from the movie?

REILLY: I suppose there are messages. But -- I actually listened to Bob Zemeckis, who directed the movie. He did "Castaway" and "Forrest Gump" and he -- that I think has a lot of message in his movies but he said that he doesn't like to kind of moralize or throw kind of lessons down the audience throat so to speak. Like he would actually rather just tell a story and let people just get what they -- what they get from it.

O'BRIEN: Richard should go see it and tell us the lesson that he came away with. We would like that.

SOCARIDES: Yes. And I'll be happy to.

O'BRIEN: Kelly Reilly, congratulations on the film. We're excited to have you and excited to see it. Thank you for being with us.

Our "End Point" is up next. We're back in a moment.


O'BRIEN: Time for "End Point". Richard, why don't you start for us?

SOCARIDES: Well, we were saying a little bit earlier Will and I that it's important that we're having this investigation of what happened at Benghazi right now. But I think that both the Democrats and the Republicans would do well to get a little bit more realistic and a little bit more forthcoming about this. The Republicans have to stop accusing the White House of lying and then the White House has to come forward and say, look, we lost one of our ambassadors here. There were serious mistakes were made.

O'BRIEN: And three others.

SOCARIDES: And three others and need to figure out what actually happened. And I think we can have a pretty good discussion of this now after the election.

CAIN: You and I were talking about this. There seems to be two concerned criticisms and one is that the administration didn't admit what happened in Benghazi, despite conflicting intel because they wanted it not to interrupt the election.

That one I have a hard time with. But the other one, that it might reveal your instincts on who's to blame, video versus terrorism, that one I'm interested in. Why did you choose the path you did?

O'BRIEN: I think people would like to know, what exactly happened and who was responsible at the end of the day?

Thanks guys. Appreciate it. Nice to have all of you with us.

"CNN NEWSROOM" with Carol Costello begins right now. Hi Carol.