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Fierce Clashes Near Syria Airport; Outlawing Gay Conversion Therapy; "CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute"; Homeowner Tax Break May Change; Fiscal Cliff Could Wallop Schools; Heavy Rain, Winds Hit North California

Aired November 29, 2012 - 14:30   ET


DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. It is bottom of the hour. I'm Don Lemon live in New York today, but in Syria fierce clashes going on right now near the Damascus International Airport. The airport itself is shut down. A main road in to the airport closed off. Flights in and out canceled.

This fighting going on as the country's internet goes dark. In the past, Syrian government has cut off access during major operations, but a nationwide blackout is unprecedented.

All this as Syrian military jet and two helicopters were not down by rebels. Opposition fighters claiming the attack as a major victory. CNN's Arwa Damon is in Northern Syria. She joins us now by phone.

Arwa, what is the very latest on this fighting near the Damascus airport? Are the rebels making any progress?

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (via telephone): Well, on the airport road it's difficult to tell from the vantage point that we have right now because like much of the country we were, I am, have no power. No cell phone connection. I'm talking to you on a satellite phone.

The land lines are all out and there is no internet, but what we have been able to learn is that at least according to the government is it has the airport under control. That the very fact that there was fighting along that vital artery leading from the capital to the international airport.

Just one of many indications of the amount of territory that the rebels have been able to gain and we have been seeing advantage of -- we have been seeing evidence of that throughout Northern Syria where we have been traveling, mainly in the province of Aleppo and you're talking about the rebels downing a fighter jet.

We were on the scene of that yesterday. Seeing civilians, young and old, going through the wreckage. Claiming this to be a major victory as the rebel fighters themselves were. The reason why they were able to bring down that fighter jet and two helicopters before that is because they managed to overrun a massive military base.

Where they were able to get their hands on surface to air missiles and driving throughout Aleppo province, what we are seeing is vast swaths of territory and towns where two months ago you could not drive through fully under the control of government.

And then the scenes of fierce clashes between government and rebel forces and now we're beginning to see civilians return to them because they're that confident of the foothold that the opposition forces have in them right now -- Don.

LEMON: Arwa, can I talk to you about this unprecedented internet blackout across Syria? Any idea who's behind it and why?

DAMON: Well, the opposition activists that we've been traveling with and talking to are blaming the government for this. They are saying that this is one of the tactics that they have employed regularly throughout the uprising.

Although one this massive is unprecedented if it's as big as it is being reported to be. They say that that is government's way of trying to prevent activists of communicating, prevent them from uploading the YouTube videos and of course, preventing the rebel fighting units from communicating and especially over long great distances.

The government for its part, though, is as it always has been blaming terrorists for the blackout and saying that it is working on the problem -- Don.

LEMON: All right, Arwa Damon, thank you very much. We appreciate it.

Back here at home, they're known as conversion therapies. Practices aimed to turn gay kids straight. Well, one congresswoman calls it quackery and says she is trying to ban the therapy nationwide. We're going to speak with her live, that's next.


LEMON: Can you be, quote, "healed from homosexuality?" According to some patients of what's called conversion or reparative therapy, the answer is, yes. Here's one testimonial from a web site called voices of


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Before the week, I was 100 percent homosexual. No attraction to women at all and the homosexuality was controlling my life, every aspect of my life. Now it's just like a random thought every other week or so and not necessarily an attraction for another person but a memory of the past most of the time.


LEMON: California's governor called it quackery because it is and he helped ban it in the state for people under 18, which it should be. Now the crackdown may go nationwide.

At a news conference yesterday, California Congresswoman Jackie Speier announced she was introducing a nonbinding resolution to encourage each state to make the same move that California did. It's called the shock revolution. Shock is for stop harming our kids. Some kids explain what the therapy did to them.


JERRY SPENCER, GAY TEEN AND EX-PATIENT OF CONVERSION THERAPY: I am telling my story now in hopes that others will speak out to put an end to this sham. The ex-gay industry did nothing but provide me and my family with false promises. It's all a big lie masquerading it as science.


LEMON: Representative Jackie Speier joins me now live from Capitol Hill. Congresswoman, thank you so much for joining us. My first question to you is, why not just introduce legislation to ban gay conversion therapy? Why the nonbinding resolution here?

REPRESENTATIVE JACKIE SPEIER (D), CALIFORNIA: Because it's really a state function to regulate professions, so it is incumbent on the states to look at the scope of practice within professions and determine whether certain practices are appropriate or not.

The American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association has said for more than 40 years that this is junk science, that there is no science that supports this conversion therapy or reparative therapy.

So, this is an effort to put a spotlight on the issue and then from a federal point of view, I want to make sure that the taxpayer dollars aren't being spent on providing the services when they are not held to be scientifically effectively.

LEMON: OK, OK, we have got that. I want to hear more now from young people at the news conference who went through conversion therapy.


SHELDON BRUCK, FORMER PATIENT OF REPARATIVE THERAPY: In conversion therapy, I was told that I was sick. I was told that I had to be fixed. I was told to snap myself with a rubber band every time I had a same-sex attraction, which they called SSA.

I was told that the reason for my problem was my close relationship with my mother who had been loving and supportive of me. I was diagnosed with clinical depression after I began my sessions with Jonah.


LEMON: OK, so outlawing for minors. That's what your legislation proposes, but why not outlawing for all people?

SPEIER: Well, I think as people mature, they have the opportunity to explore lots of different things. But it is the minors that are, you know, easily impacted in a way that can be very harmful to them. I mean, what we didn't hear in your clip is the young man actually stripped naked and was told to hold his genitalia and to be comfortable with it. I mean, there are some truly damaging and harmful activities that these so-called therapists engage in with these young people and there's so science to back it up.

LEMON: Yes. So I'm going to play devil's advocate here. This is devil's advocate everyone. You heard how some people believe it works for them. So what do you say to those people?

SPEIER: Well, I say to those people that they should look at the science first and foremost and, you know, being gay or a lesbian or a transgender is not a mental illness that can be treated or a disease that can be cured.

And I think that for those who suggest that they have a therapy to do that is just -- it's just wrong and it has such a harmful effect on these young people who then go in to depression and suffer serious complications.

LEMON: Yes. Congresswoman, again, we appreciate your time, Jackie Speier.

SPEIER: Thank you.

LEMON: This weekend is our annual tribute to "CNN Heroes." Every day folks who impacted thousands of lives, heroes like Susan Burton who helped women find their way after prison and drug addiction. You're going to meet her next.


LEMON: Every day people who are changing the world. They will be honored Sunday night at our "CNN Heroes All-Star Tribute." Our annual event saluting the top ten "CNN Heroes of The Year," people like former CNN Hero, Susan Burton who spent years addicted to drugs while in prison.

Now, she's helping hundreds of other women shake off a life of crime and reunite with their children. Kareen Wynter and Susan Burton join us now live from Los Angeles. Hello, ladies. Kareen, let's hear about Susan's amazing work.

KAREEN WYNTER, CNN ENTERTAINMENT CORRESPONDENT: Her amazing work, indeed. We are here with Susan Burton inside the historic Shrine Auditorium where the big show will take place Monday. So the countdown is definitely on. Thank you so much for joining us, one of our alums of 2010.

SUSAN BURTON, FORMER CNN HERO: Yes. Thank you. It's my pleasure to join you here. Being selected as a "Top Ten CNN Hero" was one of the most fantastic parts of my career and moments in my life.

Since becoming a hero, my organization and life has just been just taken off. I remember when we were in the top ten voting stage of being selected as a hero and I received e-mails from all over the -- WYNTER: International correspondence, Iraq.


WYNTER: Imagine that.

BURTON: Australia, London. People within the states, you know, wanting to create something similar to what I did with the new way of life.

WYNTER: You know, your life is definitely changed since being one of the top ten heroes. You attended last year and absolutely front and center again this year.

BURTON: Yes, I will.

WYNTER: Why the need to create this organization? Perhaps to give people a fresh start and --


WYNTER: -- who have been incarcerated.

BURTON: Yes. People need hope. And when they see that there's somewhere to go, someone who will help them make that transition back to the community, it gives hope and ability to actually come and stay in a home, stay in a place where you can be nurtured and supported to rebuild your lives.

WYNTER: Susan, you have been expanding on that mission since that exclusive club of CNN heroes being honored.


WYNTER: Looking forward to Sunday. The excitement's building behind us, the honorees that were looking forward to, they're going to be walking in your shoes. What advice do you have for them leading up to the big day?

BURTON: I want to tell them that their lives will be changed forever. Becoming a CNN hero, a world hero, is a life-changing adventure. And my life has become this wild adventure. I go everywhere and I'm so respected.


WYNTER: And you continue to inspire us and inspire the women you help every day, the women incarcerated, the children even so. These are the type of stories to hear on Sunday.

You won't want to miss a minute of "CNN Heroes," an All-Star Tribute hosted by Anderson Cooper. It will start at 9:00 p.m. Eastern on Sunday again, a remarkable, remarkable show ahead for everyone -- Don.

LEMON: Absolutely. And what incredible people and we look forward to hearing from them every single year. Thank you, Kareen. Thank you, Susan Burton. Make sure you tune in Sunday night 9:00 Eastern for "CNN Heroes, An All-Star Tribute" hosted, as Kareen said, by Anderson Cooper live from the legendary Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. It is an evening that's sure, sure to inspire.

A big money saver for millions of Americans could be on the chopping block. We are talking about the mortgage interest deduction. Up next, why lawmakers may trim this popular tax break?


LEMON: Millions of U.S. homeowners could get a financial hit if the fiscal cliff negotiations decides tweak a popular tax break. If the negotiators do that, the mortgage interest deduction could be on the table at those talks. Christine Romans has more now.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Don, the middle class's most cherished tax break could be in the cross hairs of the fiscal cliff negotiations. We are talking about the mortgage interest deduction. Government spending on this will reach $100 billion by 2014 making it the third largest tax break on the books. Who does it help?

Forty one million people, the most recent IRS data show that 41 million people claimed this deduction on their 2010 tax returns. Now the Tax Policy Center says it tends to benefit upper middle class families the most.

These bar show income and the circles the average savings, for those with annual incomes of less than $40,000, their savings about $91, but look at those people who make $250,000 and more, their average savings is about $5,500.

Of course, this benefits people most on both coasts and cities like Chicago with higher property prices. We'll be watching these fiscal cliff negotiations very closely for what could happen next to this tax goody next year -- Don.

LEMON: All right, Christine, thank you very much.

OK, the fiscal cliff, you have heard vague warnings. Let's get very specific about it. Your child's school may have to fire teachers. Your kid's educational opportunities could diminish.

More than 200,000 children could be dropped from the head start program. CNN's Student News anchor, Carl Azuz is tracking the potential impact on education. It's not good, Carl, so what's on the line for schools nationwide?

CARL AZUZ, ANCHOR, CNN STUDENT NEWS: Don, you have to look at how schools have already felt the pain of the recession and not recovered from it. I mean, some of the things you have mentioned have already happened.

We have seen teachers downsized, laid off. In some cases they've been bought out. We have seen class sizes swell, extracurricular activities cut and now what schools are faced with is additional cuts on top of that. We're talking about an excess of $4 billion.

And the way that math works out is for every 300,000 -- excuse me, for every 5,000 students in a district, roughly $300,000 cut on average. That would put funding levels back to where they were before 2003. Some people may say, OK, 10 years ago, not really a big deal.

There are 5.4 million more students today than in 2003. Costs have gone up 25 percent according to the National Education Association. So they're going to feel it. When you mentioned more specifics, we are talking about some of the programs that teachers have in the summer.

They might be getting certified, up to date on the latest teaching methods. Those would be on the chopping block, sports, extracurricular activities for students. Those could be on the chopping block.

We're looking at teacher staffs and salaries even more so. And then textbook and technology programs, Don, when we were in school, Pluto was a planet. That's no longer the case.

And so in order for schools to stay updated, they have to have more updated textbooks, those could also be on the chopping block for schools nationwide -- Don.

LEMON: What are you talking about, Carl, I'm just 21 years old. So I have no idea what you're talking about.

AZUZ: When old timers like me were back in school that's how it was.

LEMON: So you gave us a lot to consider there, a lot of numbers. Can you clear this up for me though? Do schools feel the pain immediately? It's slashed in January without a deal?

AZUZ: Some of the programs you mentioned, the head start program, which aims for early childhood education assistance, getting parents up to speed on children's education, nutrition and all that, those would be cut immediately and some Title I schools, schools that have a greater proportion of poorer students, they would immediately lose their funding.

For most schools nationwide, they have done their budgets for the 2012-2013 school year. That's what they're in right now and so what they'd be looking at is budgets for 2013-2014 school year and not plan.

They don't know how much money they are going to have, how much deeper in the empty pockets they're going to have to reach and so those are the challenges and some of the tough decisions they are going to have to face. They can't even plan right now -- Don.

LEMON: Carl Azuz, thank you, sir. Appreciate it.

Up next, President Obama face-to-face with a guy that tried to take his job. We are learning more about the closed-door meeting between the president and Mitt Romney. Plus, we're following breaking news out of Syria right now where the internet is out and fighting over the airport in Damascus is escalating right now. Stay right there.


LEMON: Whoever said it never rains in California couldn't be more wrong. Check this out, this road sign sums it up. Slippery, wet, but there are other weather problems hitting California right now, wind, high winds, as a matter of fact.

Northern California bracing for floods. Let's bring in meteorologist Alexandra Steele. This is just the beginning, Alexandra, of what's expected to be a series of intense, powerful storms.

ALEXANDRA STEELE, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Absolutely. Take a look at this. This is the tip of the iceberg, 100-mile-per-hour wind gusts in Washington and Oregon and we've got a long way to go. This system is going to really ramp up and the peak of it will over the weekend.

Storm totals, again, only so far with the system. About a foot of rain in Oregon through California, 6 and 7 inches of rain and the problem with this system is that it's a warm system so we're not going to see snow even at the highest elevations above 8,000 feet snow.

But when you get rain that high in the mountain that's when the flooding occurs. So here's the look the current radar, yes, a lot of rain but seeing when's behind this, that's when the system really has energy and so much potential energy. Wave one moved through yesterday.

Wave two, today and tomorrow. The most potent of all of these three waves from the coast and on to the northwest will be wave three and that's through the weekend, Saturday and Sunday and again because it's so warm, at the highest elevations above 8,000 feet.

We will see a few inches and a few feet of rain, but what we're going to see is ten inches of rain potentially. So Don, flooding with this is really huge, especially through the weekend.

LEMON: Thank you, Alexandra Steele.