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STARTING POINT WITH SOLEDAD O'BRIEN

Clashes in Egypt; 33 Days Until the Fiscal Cliff; Interview with Congressman Tom Cole of Oklahoma; "But Now I See": Olympic Bobsledder Going Blind

Aired November 29, 2012 - 08:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. I'm Brooke Baldwin.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm John Berman. Soledad is off today. Our STARTING POINT, the negotiator. The President is sending his chief negotiator, Timothy Geithner, to Capitol Hill today in hopes of getting a fiscal cliff deal done before the holidays. We're talking to the Republican who may hold the key to a deal.

BALDWIN: And how about this today, not a debate, a lunch date, Mitt Romney on his way to the White House to talk with the President. What it could mean for his future, for your future and maybe a compromise in Washington.

BERMAN: And just two tickets splitting half a billion dollars, Powerball winners in Missouri and Arizona. Are you holding the lucky numbers?

BALDWIN: We're not. We're here this morning. Maybe you are.

Also here, can't wait for this guest. America's top bobsledder keeping a huge secret. Steven Holcomb, at the height of his career going blind. Watch him driving the sled. The incredible story of how he continued to race and win gold.

BERMAN: I've got to tell you, that's an amazing story.

It is Thursday, November 29th, and STARTING POINT begins right now.

(MUSIC)

BERMAN: We have a great team of dashing young men here with us today.

Ryan Lizza, Washington correspondent for "The New Yorker." Richard Socarides, writer for NewYorker.com. And Will Cain, columnist for "The Blaze".

BALDWIN: Are you including yourself in that dashing young men?

BERMAN: Absolutely not. All the dashing is on the other side of the table.

BALDWIN: I wanted to make sure.

BERMAN: I prefer alluring and mysterious, but go ahead.

BALDWIN: OK. STARTING POINT here this hour -- sorry. Sorry, Berman.

STARTING POINT here, actually, this is quite serious. This is Cairo. U.S. embassy there, it is closed right now. No one being allowed in or allowed out right now.

BERMAN: Embassy officials say protesters are blocking the entrance and clashes are happening very close by.

Reza Sayah joins us now from Cairo with the latest. And, Reza, what's the situation there?

REZA SAYAH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, there are still clashes taking place in the arteries and streets leading to Tahrir Square. And a couple of these streets are very close to the U.S. embassy. So, as a precaution earlier today, the U.S. embassy announced that it's shutting its doors until further notice.

We should tell you that these clashes are usually triggered by teenagers, trouble making elements that continue to throw rocks and debris at police. Police responding with tear gas, sometimes police officers throwing rocks themselves.

So the violence a little too close for comfort apparently for the U.S. embassy. They say the embassy is not a target. But, again, just as a precaution, they've shut their doors today.

BERMAN: All right. Reza Sayah in Cairo today.

I should ask you before I let you go, a lot of talk right now about Mohamed Morsy pushing toward a constitution. What's the latest there?

SAYAH: Yes. So important developments today. As we speak, Egypt's constitutional assembly voting on the all-important draft of the new constitution. Again, this is going to be the cornerstone of Egypt's democratic transition.

It's been one of the reasons why President Morsy of the Muslim Brotherhood have been locking horns with opposition factions. This panel is dominated by Islamists, the opposition factions say they're trying to squeeze them out.

If this vote takes place, in about 15 days, there's going to be a nationwide referendum. People will be voting for this constitution. And if they approve it, all those controversial decrees that gave President Morsy those sweeping powers will be immediately annulled, President Morsy and the Muslim Brotherhood hoping that will calm down the factions. We're going to see if it indeed that happens in the coming days.

BERMAN: A lot going on there.

All right. Reza Sayah in Cairo this morning -- thanks very much.

In Washington, the White House is trying to kick start the fiscal cliff talks. The calendar says 33 days remain before massive tax hikes and spending cuts are triggered. Remember this, though, Congress takes a break for the holidays in just 15 days.

BALDWIN: Here's what we know, though, that's happening today -- in fact, this morning. Tim Geithner joins the battle. The Treasury Secretary is the president's top fiscal cliff negotiator. He will be going to the Hill, meeting with top congressional leaders today.

And our White House correspondent Dan Lothian is live this morning in Washington to bring us up to speed so far. Dan, good morning.

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Good morning. And, of course, everyone is hoping for some kind of breakthrough. There was a sense of optimism. But now, some lawmakers are sounding a little pessimistic.

The president is still insisting that upper income Americans need to pay more. Republicans are resisting that. They want to see entitlements on the table.

In the meantime, what you see from the president is this P.R. campaign, if you will, bringing small business owners here to the White House, top CEOs. In addition to that, the president brought Americans -- middle class Americans here to the White House yesterday, people who said that they would be impacted, having to pay $2,200 more in taxes if these Bush era tax cuts are not extended.

The president will hit the road tomorrow, going to Pennsylvania, to a plant there, a manufacturing plant, continuing to push that message of tax cut extensions for middle class Americans but some pushback from Republicans, top Republicans, up on the Hill who are saying the president needs to show more leadership, that the president needs to spend more time here negotiating, not out on the road, campaigning -- Brooke.

BALDWIN: Speaking of negotiating -- Dan Lothian, thank you.

I want to continue the conversation on fiscal cliff. And this one Republican really has been making news with this -- we'll call it an outside-the-box idea to avoid at least part of this fiscal cliff. He is suggesting to extend the Bush cuts for the 98 percent of Americans right now, since at least both sides agree that has to happen and then haggle over the top 2 percent later.

BERMAN: The Republican in the middle of this all is Congressman Tom Cole from Oklahoma.

Congressman Cole, already Speaker Boehner and others have thrown cold water on this idea. But let's clear this up right now. You still stand by this notion -- pass the tax cuts for the 98 percent right now, deal with the 2 percent after the New Year, but essentially let those tax breaks for the top 2 percent expire. Are you still in favor of that?

REP. TOM COLE, (R) OKLAHOMA: Oh, look, I don't want tax rates going up for anybody. I've never been in favor of that. And I don't think we should, quote, "let them expire" and negotiate later. I do think where we agree on 98 percent, we should take that off the table so Americans don't have to worry about that. I think that actually strengthens our position.

Look, at the end of the day, this is a discussion amongst Republicans over tactic. It is not a division or a debate.

And the president would be well-advised if he's serious to actually bring spending cuts and entitlement reform to the table. We haven't heard much of that.

So, I think that's really what's sparking Republican resistance.

BERMAN: But it is a difference in tactics in some of your colleagues. Including Speaker Boehner has disagreed to your proposal. Let's listen to what they've said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. JOHN BOEHNER, (R-OH) SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: I told Tom earlier in our conference meeting that I disagreed with him. He's a wonderful friend of mine and a great supporter of mine. But raising taxes on the so-called top 2 percent, half of those taxpayers are small business owners that pay their taxes through their personal income. That's why this is not the right approach. We're willing to put revenue on the table as long as we're not raising rates.

REP. RAUL LABRADOR, (R) IDAHO: I think he's wrong. And I think most of the Congress thinks that he's wrong. I think he's -- you know, he is a good man who has served here a long time but he is also a man who has voted for a lot of the increased spending in Washington, D.C.

And that's the problem: we have a lot of Republicans who are, you know, catching their hair on fire right now. But they are the ones here for 10, 20 years, causing all the problems that we're now facing.

(END VIDEO CLIPS)

BERMAN: That's kind of stinging criticism there from Representative Labrador. Does it make you regret getting in the middle of this?

COLE: Look, I love Raul. He is a great guy. But in this case, honestly, he is new here and he doesn't know what he's talking about in terms of my record on spending and taxes. So, we can have that discussion later. But, look, he is a terrific member.

BERMAN: He doesn't know what he's talking about?

COLE: Yes, he doesn't on this case.

Look, I never would say anything disparaging about him or about the Speaker who, by the way, I agree with. I think the Speaker is doing a great job. I think at the end of the day, he'll negotiate a tough deal. Every time he's done that, I've been there and voted for that and tried to persuade others. You know, I haven't seen the deal yet, but I suspect I'll be there again. BALDWIN: Well, Congressman, we're hearing what your friends, but those who maybe disagree with you this in your own party are saying what about the Democrats? Because they are certainly seizing on your comment. Senator Patty Murray gave you a little shout-out yesterday morning. Here she was.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. PATTY MURRAY, (D) WASHINGTON: I applaud Representative Cole for that common sense and brave position. I'm hopeful that he can persuade other Republicans to do the right thing.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BALDWIN: So being a hero among Democrats?

COLE: I've never had so many nice things said about me by people that I don't agree with on anything.

Look, I respect Senator Murray, but she's one out there arguing to go over the fiscal cliff. She thinks that would be a good idea. That's a crazy idea. And with all due respect, you know, I'm not sure she really wants my idea accepted because she's argued for the opposite position.

At the end of the day, we need to sit down. The president needs to put real spending cuts, real entitlement reforms on the table. The Speaker has said, look, revenue is on the table. I just personally think we ought to take Americans, most of them, out of this so they don't have to worry about it. I think over the course of the argument, they'll be on our side of the debate.

But, yes, that's a tactical difference. Republicans are very united with the Speaker at the end of the day.

BALDWIN: Go ahead, Will.

WILL CAIN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Congressman, this is Will Cain. Let me just ask you quickly. From what I could read hearing you right now and hearing those clips of the other Republicans, as you said, there's no difference in the end goal. You want low taxes, you want spending reform, you want entitlement reform. It's a question over tactics.

But I really think your idea is curious because it seems to me -- let's give the Democrats everything they want and then hope they come back in good faith later to negotiate on the things we want. Doesn't that seem what you're asking for?

COLE: I would disagree with you 100 percent on that. First of all, we have lots of leverage in this negotiation. Nobody wants spending cuts, particularly Democrats on the domestic side, to go place (ph), this doesn't deal with that. We still have plenty of leverage in the negotiation.

I actually think the American people, number one, should never be used as leverage in a negotiation. But number two, if they are leverage, it's Democratic leverage in this case, not Republicans. You know, it's the president. It's the Democrats that are making the point your taxes are all going to rise in 30 days.

So, I don't see this as, quote, "our leverage" in this discussion.

And why not just do the right thing? We know at the end of the day neither side wants to raise taxes on the average American. Let's just do that now and continue our discussion and debate. But there's plenty of leverage on our side in terms of spending.

RYAN LIZZA, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Congressman, it's Ryan Lizza. One question about this: how many of your colleagues do you think actually agree with you on this, but just aren't coming forward and saying it publicly?

COLE: You know, I have no -- some agree. Some don't. That's fine.

LIZZA: Put a number on it. Are we talking dozens?

COLE: No, I'm not going to put a number on it. I don't know. I don't --

LIZZA: All right. Then name some of them.

COLE: Why would I dime out my friends?

(LAUGHTER)

RICHARD SOCARIDES, WRITER, NEWYORKER.COM: Such a great point. This is a very serious proposal, which I think deserves a lot of attention, Congressman.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Another Democratic friend you have made here.

SOCARIDES: No, but here is -- here, Congressman, I applaud you for trying to do something serious here. And I think -- you know, this is -- we're beginning to see that people are going to take a different approach to this and it may be a new day and I applaud you for trying to do something serious.

CAIN: Stop applauding. He wants people like me to start applauding.

SOCARIDES: Why don't you join him?

(CROSSTALK)

SOCARIDES: A moment where you can join me.

(CROSSTALK)

BERMAN: Guys, let's let the congressman quit while he's ahead with that phrase from Richard Socarides.

Congressman Tom Cole, great to see you this morning. Thanks for being with us.

COLE: Good to see you.

BALDWIN: Just quickly, Lizza, it's a great point. You know, it's one thing what all these women and men are saying in front of the camera and quite another behind those closed doors.

LIZZA: I think he's basically just pointing where these negotiations going. But as Will points out, maybe he is -- you know, from a negotiating standpoint, you don't want to come out and say it publicly. But everyone knows the president isn't bending on the upper tax rates.

BALDWIN: All right. OK. We'll continue in a moment.

First, other top stories here this morning:

U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, she is struggling to find even a sliver of support among her Republican critics. She met with more of them on Capitol Hill yesterday, including Maine's moderate Republican, Senator Susan Collins. Collins says she's still struggling with Rice's remarks in the aftermath of the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, but President Obama stands by Rice.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Susan Rice is extraordinary. I couldn't be prouder of the job that she's done as U.N. ambassador.

(APPLAUSE)

BALDWIN: This is cabinet meeting just yesterday afternoon. Rice is considered a front-runner to replace Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State.

BERMAN: Palestinians are anticipating an important vote this afternoon at the United Nations. They're asking the General Assembly to upgrade their status from permanent observer to what's called nonmember state. The resolution is expected to pass. If it does, it becomes an implicit U.N. recognition of Palestinian statehood. That's what some people say.

The United States and Israel oppose this resolution and insist Palestinian statehood could only be achieved by direct negotiation with Israel.

BALDWIN: Do you think they're at work this morning?

BERMAN: No.

BALDWIN: No. There are two very lucky winners of the Powerball jackpot. We're told one ticket sold in Missouri, the other in Arizona.

So, whoever you are, the two of you will be splitting the record $588 million jackpot.

CAIN: Some of these have been split four, five ways. Two is a nice split.

BALDWIN: It could be two large families. We don't know. But in case you're wondering this morning: 5, 16, 22, 23, 29 and a Powerball of 6.

(CROSSTALK)

BERMAN: All my friends are talking about.

Let the debate begin. We're talking baseball guys. We have important stuff to talk about. Give me a second here.

Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa have been added to the Hall of Fame ballot for 2013. The voter results will be announced in six months. Bonds, of course, the all-time home run king. Clemens, the best righty ever, at least since World War II. Sammy Sosa, the only man that hit 60 home runs three times -- all under suspicion of taking performance-enhancing drugs. So, gentlemen, here --

LIZZA: Wow.

BALDWIN: How do you feel about this?

BERMAN: Should they get in or not?

CAIN: No.

LIZZA: I'd say no.

SOCARIDES: Don't know.

(LAUGHTER)

BALDWIN: I love the honesty.

SOCARIDES: Should they get in or not?

LIZZA: Of course they shouldn't.

SOCARIDES: Of course they shouldn't, Ryan Lizza said that.

LIZZA: I don't know the evidence on each one of them. Is it -- do we know for a fact that they have -- suspicion.

BERMAN: Well, it's suspicion. Look, Clemens was cleared in court of steroid charges. Barry Bonds convicted of only one charge. Others were thrown out in court. Sammy Sosa never charged or convicted, but he was suspended for other things while he was playing.

(CROSSTALK)

BERMAN: Well, my opinion is this -- the character is listed as a requirement or as a -- something you can be judged on by the baseball writers and if character --

LIZZA: I was going to say, Pete Rose can get in. BERMAN: Pete Rose is different. It's explicit. He is banned from baseball. There was actually action taken, he was banned from baseball. He is not eligible.

These three men are still eligible. It's a different thing.

CAIN: They just cheated.

BERMAN: I happen to agree with the gentlemen, that I don think I would be yes right now. That doesn't mean not ever.

SOCARIDES: OK. So, the answer is no?

BERMAN: And just ahead on STARTING POINT --

LIZZA: Never to debate Berman in anything baseball --

BALDWIN: No.

BERMAN: There's a big meeting today between President Obama and Mitt Romney. They'll be talking about the baseball hall of fame no doubt.

Also, does Romney have a future in the Obama administration?

SOCARIDES: The answer is yes.

LIZZA: Oh, please.

BALDWIN: Hang on there.

And the incredible story of an Olympic gold bobsledder of an incredible secret. He was going blind. Hear the story firsthand when Steven Holcomb joins us this morning here.

STARTING POINT back in a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BERMAN: All right. Welcome back, everyone. As the driver for the U.S. Olympic bobsled teams, Steven Holcomb raises downhill at speeds of up to 100 miles per hour, navigating hairpin turns where one wrong move could lead to just huge disaster, but get this, in the prime of his career, Steven was going blind.

BALDWIN: So, he initially kept this degenerative eye disease a secret. When he finally told his coach, a revolutionary procedure restored his vision, allowed him to race again. Holcomb went on to become the first American bobsledder since 1948 to win the gold medal in 2010. He has a new memoir. It's called "But Now I See."

Steven, good morning. you came to us with your gold medal in hand, which we've all held during the commercial break. Nice to meet you.

STEVEN HOLCOMB, U.S. OLYMPIC GOLD MEDALIST/FOUR-TIME WORLD CHAMPION: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

BALDWIN: How in the world did you keep this a secret?

HOLCOMB: It wasn't easy. Definitely, for many years, I kind of -- it wasn't something that came on overnight. It slowly gets worse and worse. The disease is called keratoconus. It slowly comes on over time. And having that kind of slowly go away, you find ways to kind of get away with things.

Like, I wouldn't go out to -- the team would go out to, like, the sports bar to watch the next game on TV, but I couldn't see the TV. So, I'd just like, ah --

(CROSSTALK)

HOLCOMB: So, I found a way to just pull away and people just kind of left me --

BERMAN: You won't go to sports car, but you'd race down this mountain at 100 miles per hour. How did you navigate that with your eyes --

(CROSSTALK)

HOLCOMB: I mean, it was a little -- I mean, looking back now, it's a little risky, but --

(LAUGHTER)

BERMAN: What couldn't you see? I mean --

HOLCOMB: Well, imagine, it's like opening your eyes under water. I mean, you can tell where people are, but you can't really see who they are. You just know that there's a person there. And you learn how to pick things up with their voices. You know, OK, I know who that is by them speaking.

SOCARIDES: Could you drive a car? Did you have a driver's license?

HOLCOMB: I did, actually --

(CROSSTALK)

HOLCOMB: I mean, realistically, it's not hard to get a driver's license.

SOCARIDES: But when you're racing, it's amazing what you can determine with your other senses, right? I mean --

HOLCOMB: Everything else is amplified. I learned to drive by feel as opposed to by visual cues, which is kind of what, you know, they say that's the way to -- the best way to drive.

BALDWIN: So, you can smile about it now, but you actually tried to take your own life, it was getting so difficult. Let me just read quickly. "Only one path remained open. In one quick motion, I threw the pills in my mouth. By now, with the ice a faint memory on my numbing lips, the glass seemed superfluous as well. I grabbed the bottle of Jack Daniels, tip it back, pulling a long swig to wash the helpers down." Seventy-three sleeping pills and you survived.

HOLCOMB: Yes. I mean, looking back its borderline, it's amazing. It's a miracle. I think I go on to say I was -- I literally woke up the next day and I (INAUDIBLE) wasn't hung over, I was just kind of -- I didn't really know where I was and even was going on. You know, I expected to not -- never to wake up again. But --

BALDWIN: How did that change you?

HOLCOMB: I figured it was a second opportunity, a second chance.

BERMAN: The surgery was, what, 2008?

HOLCOMB: 2008. Yes.

BERMAN: And since then, you've had some good things happen like a gold medal --

(CROSSTALK)

BALDWIN: Hold that up.

HOLCOMB: It's hard to really get over that. I mean, that's --

BALDWIN: That's awesome.

HOLCOMB: Looking back. But, like, yes, I mean, it was a second chance, and I knew I had to optimize that chance. I didn't want to leave anything behind.

BERMAN: Steven Holcomb, are you still out there racing? What's next?

HOLCOMB: I am. I am. 2014 is our next -- the next Olympics. We just have won three of our first races in a row. So, we're still on tract to do well, and I'm looking to defend this gold medal and get another one, and hopefully, a second one.

BALDWIN: We knew him. We talked to him.

BERMAN: Steven Holcomb, congratulations. We're glad you're here. Glad you're with us. Glad for all your success.

BALDWIN: From battles on the campaign trail to a lunch date. President Obama and Mitt Romney, they will be meeting today, but what do the two have to talk about?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BERMAN: All right. Welcome back, everyone. A really interesting lunch date happening at the White House today. Mitt Romney coming over for lunch with President Obama. And, of course, obviously, a lot of rumors about a possible position for Romney maybe in the Obama administration.

You remember Barack Obama promised in his victory speech to reach out to Mitt Romney. So, guys, what's going to go on at this lunch? Job offers?

SOCARIDES: I do think that President Obama would be smart to find something for Governor Romney to do, because I think he has a lot to offer the country. He had some good ideas. And I think as part of this, you know, country coming together after the election, if he could find something for Governor Romney to do, it would be good for the country and smart politics.

LIZZA: Like what?

SOCARIDES: Well, I mean, if you can get him --

(CROSSTALK)

SOCARIDES: I think he could be Commerce Secretary. I think that's something he is very well suited to do. But I think anything that Governor Romney would be interested in doing, President Obama should let him do it so long as it's not in charge of reducing taxes on the wealthy.

BALDWIN: Why would Romney want to take --

BERMAN: Chance to serve the -- I mean, you know, he doesn't need to work. He's got a lot of money. I think as long as he gets to spend time with his grandkids whom he adores, then he needs something to do and I think he would like to serve.

LIZZA: -- Mitt Romney want to serve in Obama administration, the whole point of the Romney campaign was that everything that Obama had done needed to be overturned, whether it was on taxes --

(CROSSTALK)

LIZZA: -- on stimulus, on health care, on Dodd-Frank.

CAIN: I'm with you, Ryan.

LIZZA: What role could Mitt Romney possibly have to --

CAIN: I'm with you 100 percent.

LIZZA: It feels good to see the two sides come together and have a lunch, but frankly, the ideology dividing these two guys --

(CROSSTALK)

CAIN: We can't laugh at it, because honestly, I do think there's useful role in showing some coming together. It's not having to go far as Richard Has gone, but to show that this was an election, this was politics. But now, look, we can sit down together.

LIZZA: After this lunch, these two guys are not going to talk or meet, unless, it's by accident. I guarantee it. And look how long it took Obama to patch things up with Bill Clinton.

(CROSSTALK) BERMAN: -- and Bill Clinton. Look at Bill Clinton and W.

SOCARIDES: Bill Clinton is very different.

(CROSSTALK)

BALDWIN: All right. Gentlemen, thank you.

Ahead this morning here on STARTING POINT, they both lost their bid for re-election, but Connie Mack and Mary Bono-Mack have lot of plans here on their docket. We're going to talk to the husband and wife team next.

BERMAN: And who doesn't want to hang out with this golden oldie. How you can win a date with Betty White.

BALDWIN: Isn't that your best friend?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)