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Fiscal Cliff 35 Days Away; Interview with Sen. Mike Lee; "Two and a Half Men" Star Begs Viewers Not to Watch; Amb. Susan Rice Heads To Capitol Hill

Aired November 27, 2012 - 08:00   ET


CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: It is Tuesday, November 27th. STARTING POINT begins right now.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. We have an all-star team here with us this morning. Ron Brownstein, CNN senior political analyst and editorial director of the "National Journal." Will Cain is here. Will Cain is here. He's a CNN contributor and a columnist for And in the middle of them, Roland Martin, CNN political analyst and host of "Washington Watch" starring Roland Martin.


ROMANS: All dressed up in these suits.

ROLAND MARTIN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Will, dressed up? Seriously.

ROMANS: No tie. No tie.



ROMANS: All right. Our STARTING POINT this morning, it's something that affects every man, woman and child in the country, the fiscal cliff, just about 35 days away. We found out this morning that the president will be hitting the road in an attempt to avoid driving off that cliff.

BERMAN: And take a look at this -- a new CNN/ORC poll. Most people, 67 percent, think that any budget deal must have both spending cuts and tax increases. Of course, most Republicans are strongly opposed to any tax rate increases.

So, we want to bring in Utah Senator Mike Lee. He is a Tea Party Republican.

ROMANS: And welcome to the program. You know, you wrote an op-ed for "The Washington Times", and I want to read it. It begins like this, "While Washington is preoccupied with the so-called fiscal cliff, little attention has been given to the fiscal avalanche that will occur if we continue down an unsustainable, long-term path, causing markets to turn sour on U.S. debt and leading to a spike in interest rates." You're looking at the very long-term picture. They're just trying to get a little budget deal done here. But you're real worried about -- if they don't do this right now what it means for the longer term. Tell us about that avalanche.

SEN. MIKE LEE, (R) UTAH: Well, you know, the thing about the cliff is we know exactly when it's coming. You can see a cliff. You can see when you're going to hit it.

An avalanche is a little bit different. You know when the conditions are there, when it might happen. But you have no timing as to the exact moment that it's going to occur.

And so that's what we need to be worried about. There will come a moment at some point in the next few years, when people will no longer buy U.S. treasury instruments. At least not at these unbelievably low rates we have today.


LEE: And once that trend starts to reverse itself, we're going to be in a world of hurt.

ROMANS: I've been calling it the curse of the bond market, because the bond market -- because interest rates are so low, because this government can borrow money so cheaply and so easily, it gives some political cover to Washington, to policymakers. They've been able to let this go on for a year, longer than it should have, simply because interest rates are so low. And rates are so low because we are still the -- we're still the best game in town. Other countries have bigger problems than we do in terms of their financial -- their financial problems.

But, you know, these rates are still -- we're worried about this last year, two years ago. These rates are so low. There's no sign they're going to turn around any time soon.

LEE: Well, it's a little bit like, you know, saying I didn't look both ways when I crossed the street yesterday and I didn't get hit. And I did it the day before and I didn't get hit.

Sooner or later, the piper has to be paid. Sooner or later, these things are going to have consequences and they won't be pleasant.

BERMAN: Senator, I want to turn to the budget negotiations going on on Capitol Hill. There's this issue of that famous tax pledge sponsored by Grover Norquist.

Today, "The Wall Street Journal" editorial board, conservative to say the least, seemed to throw in the towel, providing maybe some cover for some Republicans here. Let me read to you what they said.

They said, "If taxes are going up anyway because the Bush tax rates expire and Republicans can stop them from going up as much as they otherwise would, then pledge-takers deserve some credit for that. Mr. Norquist says it violates his pledge to eliminate deductions without lowering rates, but at the current economic and political moment, it is also a service if Republicans prevent tax rates from going up."

So, in other words, providing some cover from there. Is this debate over now? Have Republicans effectively caved on the idea of raising revenue?

LEE: I don't think Republicans have caved on anything related to taxes. But we do have to remember well that it is possible to bring in more revenue without raising taxes. Any time you stimulate economic growth, that's going to bring in more revenue. I want more revenue because I want more economic growth. That's the best way to bring in more revenue, to fund government programs.

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I guess -- Senator, Ron Brownstein from "National Journal". I guess the critical question here is what is your leverage? If there is a stalemate, all of the Bush tax cuts expire and rates go up for everyone. What is your leverage to prevent an increase in rates at least for those at the very top as president and all Democrats are demanding?

LEE: Well, that's one of the problems that we have. One of the reasons why we're calling this the fiscal cliff is because if we do nothing, then we go off that cliff. If we do nothing, then current law requires all those rates to go up. So, that may be what "The Wall Street Journal" is referring to, is the simple fact that a default -- a default operation with no intervention by Congress will result in a rate increase.

BROWNSTEIN: They're also -- they are also clearly saying that if Republicans can negotiate a deal in which rates went up somewhat but not all the way back to the 39.6 top rate under President Clinton, that they would deserve credit for doing that. They seem to be suggesting you would be increasing rates somewhat and getting the rest by limiting deductions.

Do you think that's an idea that's going to take root among Senate Republicans?

LEE: Perhaps so. You know, I haven't seen the editorial. I don't know specifically beyond what you've described what they're saying. But it's worth taking a look at.

BERMAN: But there is room there, you think, for raising rates? Not as much as letting the Bush tax rates expire completely, and also closing loopholes and reducing deductions -- you think that might be fertile ground. Is that what you're saying?

LEE: I don't think that's a good idea. It's a horrible idea to raise taxes on anyone. Look, for rates to go up in this economy is going to be a bad thing. It's going to kill jobs. Even if we just allow the top two rates to go up, as planned by current law. We're going to lose 700,000 jobs.

Now, we have to remember, these are not CEO jobs. These are not top 1 percent jobs. These are people who are living paycheck to paycheck, hard-working Americans who are going to lose their jobs. We don't worry about raising taxes on the rich because we're worried about the rich. We worry about that because of what that's going to do to the poor.

WILL CAIN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Hey, Senator, this is Will Cain.

So, listen, before I got into this game of telling people my wonderful opinion on various topics, I was in the business world. I bought and sold businesses. Every time I did that, there were two parties to the interaction. There was a party and counterparty.

I didn't just get to go dictate my terms. Now, I hear you saying, in order to make a deal to avoid, as you said, this potential fiscal avalanche, you'll give a little ground on taxes. Are you getting a sense from your counterparty, the Democrats, that they are going to give ground on spending, specifically on the main drivers of our debt and deficit -- entitlements? Are you feeling that give?

LEE: I'm not feeling that give so far. I do want to point out that so far, the only proposal on the table, the only idea that anyone has thrown out from the Democratic side is to allow the top two marginal income tax rates, the top two income tax rates to go up. And that's what we know will kill 700,000 jobs.

Now, that proposal, to my knowledge, is not accompanied by any long- term structural spending reform. That's one thing that's so troubling about this, because at the end of the day, we have to remember it's not really a revenue problem we have so much as it is a spending problem.

MARTIN: Congressman, we heard so much about sequestration in terms of defense cuts. So, what about that being on the table as well? Because I get entitlements, I get the issue when it comes to taxes. You look at the amount of money this country spends on defense. So, is it also an area where Republicans say, look, we can make cuts there as well if you want cuts on entitlements?

LEE: Absolutely. Look, we need to make cuts anywhere we can. There are efficiencies we can find in military spending. That doesn't mean that the kind of sequestration called for by the Budget Control Act of 2011 is the way to do it. Those cuts fall disproportionately on the Department of Defense and I think that's a problem.

So, I've got a bill in the form of my Cut, Cap and Balance Act of 2012 that deals with that, that makes sequestration unnecessary because it makes more cuts, some of which are in defense, others in other areas. I've also got another piece of legislation that I haven't yet introduced but that I'm working on. It's contained, targeted cuts so that we don't have to carry out all of the cutting in the area of defense or disproportionately in the area of defense.

ROMANS: I want to quickly bring -- bring in Susan Rice, the U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice. She has a meeting on the Hill today in the next hour to meet with Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte to answer questions about the Benghazi attack. Word is that the president could pick -- his pick for Secretary of State as early as this week.

Would you oppose rice if she were nominated?

LEE: I'm sorry, I've lost the feed. I can't hear --

ROMANS: Can you hear me, sir? You're still there? I'm afraid he has lost our audio.

BERMAN: Our thanks to Senator Mike Lee of Utah, talking about the fiscal cliff this morning. Not talking about Benghazi because the audio feed went down.

But we're to move on now. Other top stories this morning, winter storm headed for the Northeast. Let's get a quick check on the weather with Alexandra Steele.

ALEXANDRA STEELE, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Hi. Good morning to you guys.

Well, we've got a quick storm, rain and snow moving in. You can see it there. But it's finite. It will move in today and move out today as well. So, you can see the white here delineated predominantly in Pennsylvania, where the snow is. That pink, a mix of rain and snow and, of course, the rest is rain.

But we are going to see that rain change over to snow as the moisture kind of moistens up the atmosphere and temperatures begin to drop. This is kind of where we're going to see the axis of the heaviest snow, maybe about one to three inches from Harrisburg, to Allentown and here in northwest New Jersey around Morristown, New Jersey. You could see a few inches of snow.

And you can see that bright banding. That's where the heaviest snow is coming down. So, that's where we'll see it, one to three. West of Washington, around Garret County, Maryland, highest elevations there, they're used to the snow, but maybe two to four inches for you.

But it's not just the snow affair. We've got rain on the south side of this thing. Look at Birmingham getting pounded by heavy rain and lightning this morning. It's all heading toward Atlanta. So, we've got flights in and out of Atlanta next couple of hours, maybe hop on line and see what you can do, because we're going to really get into some delays here in the Southeast.

Big picture, farther south, there's New Orleans, storms heading toward you. But it is all moving east and will all be a fait accompli by tonight as it all moves out.

Big picture, there's the country. Pretty quiet, although guys in the Northwest, we've seen a barrage of storms, definitely the most active storm track. And we're going to watch storm after storm come in through the weekend. So, the whole week until then.

BERMAN: All right. Alexandra Steele, thank you so much.


ROMANS: All right. In the Mideast, new clashes happening in Cairo.

Tear gas canisters lobbed as -- in the air as siren sirens blare. Egyptians are voicing opposition to President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. Morsi declared Egypt's courts cannot overturn his decisions, decisions he's made since coming into office since June or over the next six months.

One opponent says that can only lead to a dictatorship. Morsi insists he's trying to protect Egypt's fragile Arab spring revolution, not accumulate unchecked power.

BERMAN: 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 called polonium. In fact, the actual cause of Arafat's death was never determined.

BERMAN: Power customers on Long Island are being charged for an entire month of electricity even though many were without power, some for up to weeks. The Long Island Power Authority says those figures were only estimates based on last year's usage and totals will eventually be adjusted. This as two more LIPA leaders are on the way out, the vice president of customer service is leaving at the end of the year and a member of the board of trustees has resigned weeks after the COO has stepped down.

BERMAN: And if you're one of those airline passengers who never pays attention to the in-flight instructions by flight attendants, middle earth may be able to help.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Welcome aboard middle earth flight. Before we set out on our journey, I would like to impart the joy of safety.

Even if you fly with us often --


BERMAN: (INAUDIBLE) safety demonstration video. It felt more like an elf to me, frankly. It's a fun play in the upcoming movie, "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," and it's close to 10 million hits on YouTube and I would say is awesome.


ROMANS: That's cool.

All right. Ahead on STARTING POINT, he stars on a show but he thinks it's filth and he doesn't want you to watch it. A "Two and a Half Men" controversy that doesn't involve Charlie Sheen.

MARTIN: Shocker!


ROMANS: Welcome back to STARTING POINT. You might expect a TV critic to say, hey, please stop watching "Two and a Half Men," but you don't expect it from the half man, not one of the show's stars.

BERMAN: Listen to Angus T. Jones bashing the show while he's still working on it.


ANGUS T. JONES, ACTOR: Dude, if you watch "Two and a Half Men," please stop watching "Two and a Half Men." I'm on "Two and a Half Men." I don't want to be on it. Please stop watching it. Please stop filling your head with filth.


BERMAN: He's serious. And we're trying to figure out what the heck is going on here. So, Entertainment correspondent, Nischelle Turner, joins us this morning. So, whatever is happening?

NISCHELLE TURNER, HLN ENTERTAINMENT CORRESPONDENT: We're all trying to figure out what the heck is going on here. This one is a little bit of a head scratcher here.

Now, if we never said the name of the person involved, we would think they're talking about Charlie Sheen, right? Well, no. It is another controversy for "Two and a Half Men," although, in this case, the half of the show, Angus T. Jones, is doing sort of the opposite of Charlie Sheen.

He's getting attention for complaining about the kinds of behavior that Charlie Sheen actually got in trouble for. He plays Jake Harper on the show. And Angus T. Jones is one of the highest paid child actors on television. He makes about $300,000 an episode. But he is telling people not to watch "Two and a Half Men," because, you heard him, he said it's filth.

He appeared in the video to talk about his religious faith and he also denounced the show that made him rich and famous. Now, we also looked at this entire video. And he continues on and says that he doesn't want to contribute to, quote, "the enemy's plan" by being on this show and that he doesn't think he can be a Christian and be on a show like "Two and a Half Men."

Now, of course, we reached out to the people behind the show for a reaction and maybe to see if they could give us a hint as to what the show is going to do. Of course, they had no comment. But, his character -- and this could be a hint in its own -- his character on the show is in the army right now. So, if something happens, there's always an out there. Maybe Jake Harper could ship out.

BERMAN: Be like happy days. Remember Richie Cunningham (ph) was shipped to Greenland?


ROMANS: But he has a contract, right, Nischelle? He has a contract. So, I mean, is he saying he wants out of his contract? Is he saying he's so morally upset by the content of the show he's going to walk away for, you know -- take the moral high ground or is he contractually obligated to appear on this program?

TURNER: Well, that's a good question, Christine, because back in 2010, he signed a contract that guaranteed him $7.9 million for 26 episodes.


TURNER: That's two years. He also got a $500,000 signing bonus for that. So, I'm not sure. There has to be some sort of morality clause. I mean, you would think. But then again, Charlie Sheen was the star of the show for so long. So, yes, I'm not really sure if he's going to be able to get out of it or if he can walk away. Chuck Lorre is the creator of the show, and you know, he's known to be outspoken. And so, who knows what's going to happen.

ROLAND MARTIN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: First of all, this is not a shock when you have someone who is, in essence, new to their faith, all of a sudden, begins to study the bible, begin to take a different view.

ROMANS: Is he new to his faith, do you know?

MARTIN: Well, in terms of reference bible studies and in terms of what he's gone through, here's what I would say to him, as a Christian, the husband of a pastor, you have a platform that many other people don't have. So, the question is, how can you use a platform that God has positioned you for to use it to be able if you want to be able to spread the word?

You can do that. And so, to say, well, you know, don't watch it. Also, use to take the time to explain what do you mean by filth? When you say risky humor. There have many Christians here in Hollywood. And so, this is no surprise when you have somebody who, again, new to something who, all of a sudden, says oh my God, based on what I'm reading, I want to change my whole life. That's what happens when you have some folks who are babies in the faith.

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I'm guessing he's find a way off of the show.

WILL CAIN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: On that note, Nischelle, can I ask you real quickly, I'm sure this guy -- you talked about his contract. But he's got some nice syndication rights as well. He's pretty comfortable for life, making it pretty easy to criticize how he got comfortable. Am I wrong?

TURNER: Well, you know, you're right, because this show is in syndication. It is one of the most successful shows on television. And all of the principle players on this show make a lot of money. He is set for life pretty much in syndication. So, you're right about that. But, the point that Roland made as well, we've seen this in other areas, too.

I remember Prince, when Prince found his faith, he said I can't be a part of singing these types of songs. I don't want to do this anymore. So, we do see that when people are new to their faith and trying to figure things out what they're going to do next. But, I'm not sure if going on YouTube and making this video is the best way to figure that out.

BERMAN: Don't watch my show now that I've become really, really rich by starring in it.

TURNER: Exactly.

BERMAN: Nischelle Turner, great to see you this morning. We'll probably be talking about this one again.

Ahead on STARTING POINT, five years after her death, Anna Nicole smith's six-year-old daughter now following in her mother's footsteps and has a lot of people wondering why.


BERMAN: Welcome back to STARTING POINT, everyone. Some of our top stories this morning.


BERMAN (voice-over): President Obama welcomes Mexico's president- elect, Enrique Pena Nieto, to the White House this afternoon. In a recent "Washington Post" editorial, Mexico's presidential-elect said the two countries need to focus on more than just drugs and security. His top priority is strengthening economic ties with the U.S.

ROMANS (voice-over): Cyber Monday sales rose 28 percent from last year according to the IBM Benchmark Survey. And Xpirion Marketing Services says the most search for items were Amazon's kindle and kindle fire, Uggs, iPads, the iPod touch, Legos and the Wii. ComScore estimates Cyber Monday sales reached $1.5 billion this year.

Quick check of the markets. U.S. stock futures are flat. (INAUDIBLE) reports today and durable goods is about six minutes out. Home prices, consumer confidence. European markets are higher after officials there agreed on bailout terms for Greece late last night.


BERMAN (on-camera): That's big news potentially.

ROMANS (on-camera): Yes. It is big news.

BERMAN: OK. So, like mother, like daughter. Anna Nicole Smith's six-year-old daughter is following in her mother's footsteps, modeling in a kid's ad campaign for Guess. That's the same fashion label that put her mother on the map. Guess says, quote, "Dannielynn has the same playful spirit as her mother had." ROMANS: All right. Ahead on STARTING POINT in about an hour, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice meets with three top senators to explain her mischaracterization of the Benghazi attack and the confusing messaging in the weeks after. Did she convince them, though, that she didn't mean to mislead the country?

BERMAN: Also, a dramatic near miss as a crane collapses in Australia. What went wrong and how it's tied to the New York City crane collapse just a few weeks ago?

ROMANS: And anybody out there playing the Powerball this week? Can I borrow two bucks, Berman?



ROMANS: What you need to know before entering a lottery pool.

BERMAN: Don't do it.

ROMANS: No, do it, but you have --


ROMANS: -- but you have to follow the right rules.


BERMAN: Welcome back to STARTING POINT, everyone. Big day on Capitol Hill. U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice heads to the Hill this morning to try to mend fences with three Republican senators who are upset over a comment she made in the immediate aftermath of the deadly attack in Benghazi.

ROMANS: In the past, Senators McCain and Graham has said they wouldn't support her if she's nominated for Secretary of State.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, (R) SOUTH CAROLINA: This is about the role she played around four dead Americans when it seems to be that the story coming out of the administration -- and she's the point person -- is so disconnected to reality, I don't trust her. And the reason I don't trust her is because I think she knew better.

And if she didn't know better, she shouldn't be the voice of America. Somebody has got to start paying a price around this place.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, (R) ARIZONA: Let's see what happens here, but we will do whatever is necessary to block the nomination within our power as far as Susan Rice is concerned.


ROMANS: Those are two angry senators. Senior congressional correspondent Dana Bash is with us right now. I mean, she's got a lot of persuading to do. And you hear even in Lindsey Graham's -- the words he uses. He's not talking about the confusing message surrounding the deaths of those Americans. He's talking about her role, which is pretty strong -- strong wording.

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Oh, absolutely. Look, this is going to be an early test of Susan Rice's diplomatic skills, this meeting today, because these three senators, you're right, have been very critical. And they're, specifically, threatening to block her nomination if President Obama does nominate her as Secretary of State.