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Facing The Fiscal Cliff; Ambassador Susan Rice Heads To Capitol Hill; President Obama Meeting Mexico's President Elect; Yasser Arafat's Body Exhumed; Protest Against Morsi And Muslim Brotherhood; Fearlessness In The Face Of Danger; Outrage Over Sandy Power Bills

Aired November 27, 2012 - 06:00   ET



DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Will they break the pledge? Some Republicans now seem open to the idea of raising taxes in the face of the fiscal cliff.

ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Mystery in a west bank mausoleum. Scientists taking a new look at Yasser Arafat's remains to see if he was poisoned.

FEYERICK: And mightier than the sword, indeed. A poison pen found on a failed North Korean assassin. CNN with an exclusive look.


FEYERICK (on-camera): Good morning and welcome to EARLY START. I'm Deborah Feyerick in for John Berman.

SAMBOLIN (on-camera): And I'm Zoraida Sambolin. It's 6:00 a.m. in the East here. So, up first, Congress back in session and already bickering. America heads down the fiscal cliff in exactly five weeks. Take a look at the timeline there, triggering painful spending cuts and tax hikes.

Several leading Republicans signaling that they are willing to break their no tax hike pledge to get a spending deal passed in time, but when the lame duck Senate returned yesterday, it sure sounded like politics as usual.


SEN. HARRY REID (D), SENATE MAJORITY LEADER: The Senate has spoken. President Obama has spoken. He's promised he will not sign any bill that mortgages our future to pay for handouts to the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans. I only hope House Republicans have been listening.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R), SENATE MINORITY LEADER: We've been responsible, even as we've remained firm on this point. No tax increases now for promised spending cuts that won't materialize later.

(END VIDEO CLIP) SAMBOLIN: CNN's political director, Mark Preston, is live from Washington this morning. Good morning to you, Mark. So the House gets back in session today and so far there are no talks scheduled between top Republicans and the president.

MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: No, that's true, Zoraida. You know, we haven't seen the president and congressional leaders actually meet since November 16th when they all went down to the White House and there was a bit of a kumbayah moment where they thought they could reach agreement.

Since then staff members from the White House and Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill have been talking all through the Thanksgiving weekend. They haven't reached any sort of deal at this point. In fact, they haven't been as productive in talks as some would have hoped.

I have to tell you, though, we do know that President Obama did reach out to John Boehner, the Republican House Speaker, on Saturday, as well as reaching out to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on Saturday, perhaps to help jump-start the talks.

But in addition to that, Zoraida, we do know this now that President Obama is going to start meeting with folks who are going to be affected by the fiscal cliff. He'll be meeting with small business owners today at the White House.

Tomorrow he'll be meeting with middle-class Americans who will be affected by the tax cut. On Friday, he'll be going to Pennsylvania to visit a small company. So, as well we talked about the goodwill that might exist between Democrats and Republicans to try to get something done. We're also now seeing a pressure campaign put on by the White House.

SAMBOLIN: All right, and we've seen some major Republicans come out and say they don't feel bound by the "Americans for Tax Reform" pledge. Most recently we have House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. Do you believe that any more Republicans will stick with this jump on board?

PRESTON: Well, Zoraida, you know, Republicans are certainly being put into a box at this point. In order to try to solve the fiscal cliff, a lot of people are saying we're going to have to see tax cuts get raised.

President Obama and Democrats would like to see that just on Democrats alone. Republicans, as you said, are starting to peel away from that pledge. However, Grover Norquist is threatening those who do so. Let's hear what he had to say.


GROVER NORQUIST, PRESIDENT, AMERICANS FOR TAX REFORM: No pledge taker has voted for a tax increase. You've had some people discussing impure thoughts on national television. The pledge is not for life but everybody who signed the pledge, including peter king who tried to weasel out of it, shame on him as the "New York Sun" said today, I hope his wife understands that commitments last a little longer than -- than two years or something.


PRESTON: There you had Grover Norquist from the "Americans for Tax Reform" who has spearheaded this no tax pledge. The fact of the matter is, Zoraida, to reach an agreement there's going to have to be compromise, whether that means increasing taxes on some, whether that means changing entitlement reform, both sides are going to have to come to the table to try to reach an agreement.

SAMBOLIN: Mark, can you remind folks how long ago that pledge was signed?

PRESTON: You know, for some people -- this goes back years and years and years for many of these lawmakers in Congress. They tend to be conservatives. It's a very simple pledge. It says that you agree not to raise any taxes when you are in office. And Grover Norquist, who is a conservative activist here in town, has been very successful in getting Republicans to sign onto this agreement.

SAMBOLIN: Yes, but it's interesting, the public shaming that he's doing now, very interesting. Mark Preston live for us in Washington, thank you.

In the next half hour, we'll get an update on the chances of a fiscal cliff deal when we are joined by California's Democratic Congresswoman Maxine Waters.

FEYERICK: Ambassador Susan Rice heads to Capitol Hill this morning to mend fences with three Republican senators. She angered John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte with her initial comments made on several TV networks that appeared to play down the role of al Qaeda terrorists in the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

That attack killed four Americans including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens. Rice maintains that she made it very clear, the intelligence information she had at the time was preliminary. Senators are threatening to block her nomination if President Obama chooses her to be his next Secretary of State.

SAMBOLIN: President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden will meet with Mexico's president-elect Enrique Pena Nieto today. Pena Nieto who will be sworn in, in four days, has a new message.

In an editorial in "The Washington Post," he said the U.S./Mexico relations need to go beyond drugs and security concerns, topping his list, deepening economic ties with the United States.

FEYERICK: The remains of former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat were exhumed this morning from a mausoleum in the West Bank. Many Palestinians believe that Arafat was poisoned by Israel when he died in 2004. Now, an international team of scientists will analyze tissue samples to see if they contain any traces of a radioactive substance. The actual cause of Arafat's death was never determined.

SAMBOLIN: The Egyptian people taking to the streets to mourn the death of a 16-year-old activist and to voice their opposition to President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. This iReport is showing protesters as they carried the teenager's casket through Tahrir Square to a cemetery.

Morsi's edict declaring Egypt's court cannot overturn decisions that he has made since coming into office in June or over the next six months is meeting a lot of resistance.

One opponent saying it can only lead to a dictatorship. Morsi insists, however, that he is trying to protect Egypt's fragile Arab spring revolution, not accumulate unchecked power, and that it is just temporary.

FEYERICK: Well, if you're traveling through the northeast today, you might be dealing with some snow. Meteorologist, Alexandra Steele, is in for Rob Marciano today. A little bit chillier now, right?

ALEXANDRA STEELE, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Yes, well, we've got the cold air in place. We got the moisture that's a recipe for some rain and snow, but it's a quick hitter. A one-day affair, you can see this right now and you could see it just all pushing eastward.

The white delineating the snow, of course, the pink showing you where it's a mix of rain and snow, and then there's the rain, really Washington points south. We're going to see it, kind of a stripe of about 1 to 3 inches of snow, and it is west of the big city.

So Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, we'll see some rain/snow mix, but no real accumulations although could see about an inch potentially in New York City but that's it. Harrisburg to Scranton, Allentown, and right here to Morristown, New Jersey, that's kind of the stripe where we could see about 1 to 3 inches.

There are the winter weather advisories and even toward Garrett County, Maryland, west of Washington and the higher elevations, 2 to 4 inches of snow potentially for you. Also on the south side of this snowmaker, it's a rainmaker.

Look at Birmingham, waking up to a loud noise. You've got lightning coming through, and it's all coming toward Atlanta so Birmingham, Montgomery, Atlanta, kind of a slow go. This morning in Birmingham, and later this morning into the early afternoon in Washington and Atlanta, Georgia, will be quite slow.

And New Orleans, look at what's heading towards you so the gulf coast, but, again, all the way from Boston to New Orleans, and in Florida today will be the wet day. Big picture, there's the snow, going to watch it here in the southeast.

But other than that, pretty quiet across the balance of the country, guys. But in the Pacific Northwest, you've got one, two, three storms so just a major kind of train of storms moving in for the next six, seven days.

SAMBOLIN: My kids saw some flurries the other day and they were like, snow!

FEYERICK: That's right. It was on Thanksgiving.

SAMBOLIN: We don't like it. They love it. Thank you, Alexandra. Appreciate it.

It's 8 minutes after the hour. She was a courageous woman who cheated death before. Coming up the brave former mayor of Mexico who famously stood up to drug cartels, she was found dead. We will have her story.


SAMBOLIN: It's 11 minutes past the hour. Welcome back to EARLY START. We are learning more today about a fearless Mexican woman, the former mayor of a small town. She stood up to violent drug traffickers in her country, even though her body was riddled with bullet wounds from two assassination attempts.

Sadly 36-year-old Maria Santos Gorrostieta was driving two weeks ago with her young daughter when she was ambushed and abducted. The "Daily Mail" reports that even as she was being dragged away that she begged her assailants to spare her child. Days later her battered body was found.

We are joined by Rafael Romo, CNN's senior Latin American affairs editor. Rafael, good morning to you. What else can you tell us about this tragic story?

RAFAEL ROMO, CNN SENIOR LATIN AMERICAN AFFAIRS EDITOR: Good morning, Zoraida. Well, she was kidnapped on a busy street during the morning rush hour as terrified onlookers watched the scene unfold.

Maria Santos Gorrostieta was driving her young daughter to school as they were stopped. The 36-year-old former mayor was taken away by force as her daughter cried hysterically. Mexican officials say when the mayor's body was found four days later, her hands were tied behind her back.

The body also showed signs of a severe blow to the back of her head. Maria Santos Gorrostieta was also a medical doctor, was the mayor of the small community of (inaudible) in the western Mexican state of (inaudible) from 2008 to 2011.

This was the third time she was the victim of an attack. During the first attack in 2009, her husband was shot and killed, but she survived serious gunshot wounds. After her second attack in January of 2010, she was defiant.

I will rise up again as many times as God allows me to so that I can keep on seeking, fighting for, and working out plans, projects and actions for the benefit of the people, especially those most in need. She said, then, she survived by her three children and her second husband -- Zoraida.

SAMBOLIN: Rafael, this is pretty brazen. You told us that she was kidnapped on a busy street during the morning rush hour, terrified onlookers. The BBC is reporting that two dozen mayors have been killed in Mexico since the recent drug war began six years ago. Is this getting worse?

ROMO: It's a mixed picture for Mexico, Zoraida. On the one hand, you have violence stabilizing in Northern Mexican states, including Chihuahua, where we see a spike of murders in the years 2007 to 2010.

But you have situations like the one we're witnessing here in the state of Michoacan. That's the scene of a turf war between two very powerful Mexican drug cartels and that probably has to do a little bit about what happened to this mayor.

SAMBOLIN: There's another tragic story. CNN is reporting that a beauty queen was killed in a shoot-out between Mexican military troops and suspected criminals. It happened in an area well known for drug violence. What can you tell us about that?

ROMO: That's right. You're talking about Maria Susanna Flores Gamez. She is Miss Sinaloa 2012. Some of our viewers may know that Sinaloa is also the home state of a very powerful Mexican drug cartel.

When she was found this week, she was dead after a shoot-out between the Mexican military and hit men who may or may not have been involved with the cartel. Authorities don't really know whether she was part of that criminal group or whether she was just caught in the cross fire -- Zoraida.

SAMBOLIN: Tragedy nonetheless. Rafael Romo live for us in Atlanta. Thank you for that. We appreciate it.

FEYERICK: Well, it's quarter past the hour. Time for your top stories.

Just under 35 days and counting until we go over the fiscal cliff. And the House returns from the holiday break to begin its lame duck session today. Several top Republicans say they're willing to break their no tax vows to get a spending plan passed in time. But, there's still no scheduled talks with the White House.

SAMBOLIN: And a warning, we have some graphic images to show you. An Alabama teenager is now facing charges, accused of brutally assaulting his sister's girlfriend at a Thanksgiving dinner. The victim's family is calling it a hate crime and they want prosecutors to add that to the assault charges that are already filed against 18-year-old Travis Hawkins, Jr.

Twenty-three-year-old Mallory Owens' injuries required facial reconstruction surgery. She's dating Hawkins' sister Ally.

Oh my goodness.

FEYERICK: Harsh. Saudi Arabia's electronic monitoring system for women who travel outside the country is attracting the attention of human rights activists. The system was introduced in 2010. Under Saudi law, all women, regardless of age, must have a male guardian. When Saudi women travel, text messages are sent to their guardians, even if those men have not requested the notifications.

SAMBOLIN: And just released 911 tapes revealing more about the chaos and the carnage during last week's Thanksgiving day pileup on I-10. This is in Texas, folks. Foggy conditions caused about 140 cars and trucks to collide. You're seeing that there.

Listen to two of the crash victims crying out for help.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE CALLER: They have a major accident over here. Cars, 18 wheelers and everything. I don't know where we are the fog is thick.


DISPATCHER: Ma'am, we've got them coming, OK?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE CALLER: Things are still hitting me.

DISPATCHER: We've got them coming.


DISPATCHER: Ma'am, they're en route, OK?


DISPATCHER: All right.


SAMBOLIN: Oh, my goodness. Two people were killed in that pileup. Ninety others had to be rushed to the area hospitals.

FEYERICK: A dangerous scene today in downtown Sydney, Australia. The cabin of a giant crane at a construction site burst into flames, and the top part of the crane collapsed on a nearby roof. Incredibly, there was no reports of injuries according to Australian news organizations.

SAMBOLIN: The Empire State Building is showing off its new look. New Yorkers are used to seeing the Empire State Building illuminated in various colors for special occasions. But now, the building has upgraded its lighting system.

Take a look at that. Gone are the old flood lights. They've been replaced by a state-of-the-art computerized system that can deliver all kinds of colors and effects. The new lights went on display for the first time last night. Folks here are upset. They like tradition. They want it to go back to the way it was. I like it.

FEYERICK: Yes. You know, it's kind of like a new pair of shoes. I'm not quite sure they fit yet.

And Jill Kelley has been stripped of her title as honorary consul to South Korea. The Florida socialite in the middle of the David Petraeus sex scandal held the post for just three months. The South Korea's deputy foreign minister accusing Kelley of trying to use the position for personal gain.

SAMBOLIN: So, now a CNN exclusive. Weapons that James Bond would actually be proud of. South Korean officials unveiling the weapons they found on a North Korean assassin who was arrested on the streets of Seoul last year and it's something straight out of a James Bond movie.

Listen like this poison-filled needle disguised as a Parker ballpoint pen. A few twists, a simple click, can kill.

Take a look at the flashlight. It's really a handgun. Listen to a South Korean investigator telling our Paula Hancocks about them.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): These pen weapons are not new. North Korean spies have had this technology for about 10 years. But this flashlight is new, never seen this weapon before. If you look at the front, there are three holes. There was a bullet in each hole and here is the trigger. This is currently loaded and dangerous.


SAMBOLIN: All right. So, South Korea says the assassins' intended target was this man, North Korean defector and activist Park Sang-Hak. He's now under around the clock police protection.

FEYERICK: Well, you hear it all the time. Book your travel early to save. But that's not always the case. What happens if the price drops after you've booked? There are ways to make sure you get your money back if this happens and that brings us to today's "Road Warriors".

SAMBOLIN: So, you might want to consider booking your hotel room through Tingo. It monitors your room rate and if it drops, they will automatically rebook the lower rates and they're going to refund he difference. How often does that happen?

For flights, you might want to dry If the fare goes down they'll send you an e-mail and show you how to claim your refund.

FEYERICK: And if you book directly with the airline, you can also request a refund. And while airlines do have different refund policies, most will offer a refund in the form of a voucher for future travel. Just make sure that you read the fine print before you book.

SAMBOLIN: And lastly, travel sites like Orbitz or Expedia will give you a company credit if another traveler books the same flight or hotel at a lower rate. But there are limitations, though. Again, check that fine print.

It is 20 minutes past the hour. They didn't get power for weeks, but they did get a bill. A utility company doing some explaining -- coming up.


SAMBOLIN: Good morning to you. Welcome back. Twenty-three minutes past the hour.

Christine Romans is minding all of our business this morning.


We're minding stock market. And stocks are -- you know, they're looking pretty flat right now, stock futures.

We've got a lot of information today to work on. Key reports on durable goods, home prices, consumer confidence. I'm expecting the home price number to show another increase year over year in home prices, guys. So that's important for the U.S. economy.

But European markets, they're higher this morning after officials there agreed on bailout terms for Greece late last night. So, that's where we stand this morning.

Meantime, many people have been in the dark for days, some for weeks after superstorm Sandy. And some, some are now getting power bills that are showing normal usage. The Long Island Power Authority is assuring customers that the next actual meter reading will reflect how much power they've used. And, of course, then their bills will be adjusted.

But you know what? Some LIPA customers are outraged. Because, after all they've been through, now they're getting an electricity bill that shows usage that is phantom usage. There's no way some of those people -- and it's just kind of an insult.

Meantime, Cyber Monday sales up 28 percent from last year. That's according to the benchmark survey so the numbers are in here and Experian Marketing Services are saying the most searched for items, guys, were Amazon's Kindle and Kindle Fire, ugg shoes, iPads, the iPod touch, LEGOs, and the Wii.

SAMBOLIN: The Wii is still in there.

ROMANS: I know. Kind of a snapshot of what's important in America, I guess.

And the one thing you need to know about your money. Let me go back to the housing prices. The housing market is healing. We're going to get a batch of new data today. One of those reports expected to show home prices rose another 3 percent in September.

SAMBOLIN: And where? I always ask that question because I wonder if are we all recovering? Is it across the board? Or is it strategic?

ROMANS: As you know, all real estate is local. So it depends on where you live. That's 20-city gauge that we'll get. That will be able to break down for you. How about tomorrow? We break down exactly where in the country you're seeing the best gain.

SAMBOLIN: Thank you. Appreciate that.

FEYERICK: Are those gains just over what the fall was? Or is that gains to get up to where we were?

ROMANS: Oh, yes, we got a long way to go --


ROMASN: -- years to get back to the top. We're not falling anymore. That's good news.

FEYERICK: All right. Excellent. Christine Romans, thanks so much.

Well, more than five years after her death, Anna Nicole Smith's modeling legacy, it lives on. Coming up, see her young daughter in a starring role.

And if you're leaving the house right now, of course you can watch us any time on your desk top or your mobile phone. Just go to