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Tsunami Warning in Japan Lifted; Obama and Boehner Work One-on- One Towards Deal; NFL Might Re-Vamp Kick Off; November Jobs Report Out Today; Growing Signs of Chemical Warfare in Syria; Florida's Python- Killing Contest

Aired December 7, 2012 - 07:00   ET


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. Welcome, everybody. Our "Starting Point" this morning, a developing story. A powerful 7.3 earthquake strikes off the coast of Japan near the same area that was destroyed by the tsunami last year. I'll take you there live in just a few moments.

Plus, mano-a-mano. President Obama and House Speaker Boehner shutting out the other lawmakers because they're trying to reach a deal on the fiscal cliff by clearing the room. Can these two leaders finally reach an agreement?

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: The November jobs report comes out in less than two hours. It's going to gives us a look at the economic recovery, but how accurate will the numbers be in the wake of Superstorm Sandy?

ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN, CNN ANCHOR, "EARLY START": Plus, the NFL commissioner is considering eliminating the kick off in football games. Would it make the game safer?

O'BRIEN: Talk about over the next two hours, Coy Wire, he's a former NFL player and sports analyst, will join us. Chad Sweet is a former CIA director of operations and former DHF chief of staff. Kenneth Baer is a former senior White House advisor. Todd Carmichael is the host of "Dangerous Grounds"

Michigan Congressman Justin Amash is with us as well. And Howard Kurtz, he's the host of CNN's "RELIABLE SOURCES" and Lauren Ashburn with "The Daily Beast" will join us, too. Economist Diane Swonk rounds things out for us today.

It's Friday, December 7th, and STARTING POINT begins right now.

Good morning. Welcome, everybody. Let's begin with some developing news this morning. A tsunami threat to tell you about was just lifted in Japan. The country was rocked by a powerful 7.3 magnitude earthquake. The tremor hit off the coast, about 300 miles northeast of Tokyo. The buildings there shaking. You could see some of the video showing the degree to which they were shaking.

Let's get right to Alex Zolbert. He's live in Tokyo for us this morning. Hey Alex, what's the latest? ALEX ZOLBERT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi there, Soledad. Well, it has been a very, very tense few hours here in Japan after you mentioned a 7.3 magnitude earthquake striking late here in the day on Friday. But just in the past 90 minutes or so, the all clear has been given. The tsunami warning has been lifted. That's great news for the people here. There's no signs of any significant damage. No reports of any deaths. Just a few injuries at this point. We also have to keep in mind the nuclear power plants. We have heard from the operator of those. They say everything is fine. But as you mentioned, Soledad, this brings back very painful memories up for the people in the Tohoku region up in northern Japan. We were on the phone with one person who said when this earthquake hit, their first reaction was "oh no, not again." But by all reports at this hour, it's late here on Friday in Tokyo where we are. Everything appears to be fine. Just one wave came ashore. Just three feet in height, Soledad.

O'BRIEN: Alex Zolbert, and as you point out that's the area, I spent a lot of time there covering the tsunami last year. That's a terrifying thing for those folks. Thanks, Alex. Appreciate it.

Now it's up to two men to try to keep America from going over the fiscal cliff. Twenty-five days and counting from the massive tax hikes and spending cuts. Congress breaking for the holidays in a week. So the House Speaker John Boehner trying to simplify things. According to "The New York Times," he's asking top Democrats in the House and the Senate to step aside so he can negotiate with the president one-on-one, and it seems to be a request that everyone was able to live with, at least at this point. Brianna Keilar is live for us at the White House this morning. If in fact this is the case that everybody has been cleared out of the room so that they can negotiate one-on-one, does that surprise you? It seems to make sense to me.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It's not surprising at all. In fact, Soledad, this is what observers of this process thought would happen all along. Ultimately this was a process that would come down to President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner brokering a deal. Very much the way you saw they attempted to do during the debt ceiling debacle last year. Obviously you look at this, you realize it simplifies the process. There's less cooks in the kitchen. It's the two people who really have to agree. Of course, then they will have to sell it. President Obama would have to bring in Democrats. House Speaker John Boehner would have to bring in his Republicans Congress and make sure that Senate Republicans are on board.

This comes on the heels of what has really been radio silence between the White House and House Republicans. We found out yesterday, we were told by both sides that the lines of communication are back open on the staff level. I will tell you that's kind of funny to anyone here covering all this because normally the lines of communication are always open on the staff level, but that was news yesterday.

O'BRIEN: Sad, sad thing, isn't it? It's all relative. Let me ask you about what seemed to be a crazy thing that Senator Mitch McConnell was trying to do that ended up backfiring on him pretty badly. What exactly happened? KEILAR: That's right, some theatrics yesterday on the Senate floor in the afternoon. The debt ceiling, oh we are loath to talk about it, but it's set to be hit in January or February. That's complicating the fiscal cliff discussions. Mitch McConnell, the Senate Minority Leader, yesterday proposed a vote on a measure that would give the president the authority to increase the debt ceiling without congressional input. This is something that the White House has proposed as part of its fiscal cliff proposal. It's a nonstarter for Republicans, but he wanted to put it on the floor to show that even some Democrats don't support giving the president that kind of authority. He did that and the Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid turned around and said, let's see if we can do it with a simple majority for 51 votes and Democrats it appeared had made sure they had that and so then Mitch McConnell in return ended up objecting to the very thing he proposed. Take a listen.


SEN. HARRY REID, SENATE MAJORITY LEADER: Now the Republican leader objects his own idea. I guess we have a filibuster of his own bill.


KEILAR: So this was some maneuvering that went on, on Wednesday Soledad. I will tell you, Mitch McConnell sort of won the day when he proposed a vote overall on the President's entire fiscal cliff proposal and Senator Reid objected to it. It's a little bit of a back and forth going on in the midst of these talks that are now reopened.

O'BRIEN: You can't filibuster your own bill. That makes no sense.

KEILAR: Apparently you can.

O'BRIEN: Oh, Brianna, Brianna, Brianna. Thank God it's Friday is all I'm going to sat. Thanks Brianna. We appreciate the update.

Other stories making news that are not all entirely crazy. Zoraida's got that for us.

SAMBOLIN: Well, I have some craziness. We're watching the situation in Egypt right now where opponents of President Mohamed Morsi are gathering at this hour in Tahrir Square in central Cairo, and at other locations after Friday prayers. The crowds are set to be calm. Activists are determined to keep up the pressure on Morsi, who went on TV last night and refused to rescind the decree he issued granting himself sweeping powers. He's calling for dialogue, but opponents are calling on Morsi to resign, saying that his government has lost legitimacy.

Union supporters in Michigan protesting right to work measures that Republican law-makers rammed through the legislature, and are now headed to the governor's desk for his signature. Final approval could come next week. It would make union-strong Michigan the 24th right to work state in the nation.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie explains his change of heart of President Obama in the days after superstorm Sandy, and before the presidential election. Check out what he told Jon Stewart on the "Daily Show."


GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE, ( R) NEW JERSEY: People have different skill sets at different times.

JON STEWART, COMMEDIAN: I see. So he wasn't a leader until you needed leadership?

CHRISTIE: Maybe until he was presented with a stark opportunity.


SAMBOLIN: That'll make you laugh. Thursday night football, Payton Manning the Denver Broncos beat their AFC West rivals, the Oakland Raiders 26-13. That's eight straight wins for the Broncos, who have already clinched their dividsion. One sad note. A fan fell from the top deck of the Oakland coliseum during that game. He is hospitalized and he is in serious condition. It's a dreadful thing. Right onto concrete.

O'BRIEN: Certainly hope he can recover. That's terrible.

Let's turn and talk about a story we chatted about yesterday. The cover story for "Time" magazine. We were talking about it and that was the picture. That's the commissioner, Roger Goodell, talking about some of the ways he was hoping to reform the sport of football so it has less of a toll on the athletes. Among the ideas on the table were doing away with kickoffs altogether, which are seen to be one of the most dangerous elements of the game. Now, at this point, it's only a suggestion at this point, but people immediately upon reading that started debating the issue. Want to get to Coy Wire, he's a sports analyst and former NFL linebacker and safety and he's in Atlanta this morning. It's nice to have you with us. We appreciate it

COY WIRE, FORMER NFL LINEBACKER: Thanks for having me, it's a pleasure.

O'BRIEN: So, do you think if in fact, and I get this is very preliminary, but if this is something they wanted to do, was seriously on the table, would you support that, getting rid of the kickoff?

WIRE: I would. I think it's necessary with as the game evolves, the players are getting bigger, faster stronger, the sheer physics of the game are changing, and all we're learning with the long-term health risks of the game, it's necessary to change. When change is necessary, not to change is destructive. The thing that people must realize is that the game from its beginnings has always been in a state of evolution to make it better.

O'BRIEN: In fact, they moved kickoffs from the 30 yard line to 35. They discovered a correlation, pretty strong correlation with fewer concussions. That's what has led to this being on the table now. WIRE: You're good. You know your stuff. That's right. They moved it to the 35 yard line. And the percentage of touchbacks, a kick that can't be returned went from 16 percent up to 43 percent. But also the number of concussions on that kickoff play went down 40 percent. That's huge. We need that right now with all we're finding with concussions. It's all about the evolution of the game. You look at where the game is now, when it came out in 1823 in England, it was just a form of rugby. Then in the early 1900s, President Theodore Roosevelt said we need to make changes to the game to make it safer. Too many players are getting injured. And so if you look -


O'BRIEN: They did. They made changes because they had to. There are commentators who say change is bad. For example, Dean Simon, he's an "L.A. Times" correspondent, said I'm a favor of adjusting the game for safety, but don't remove one of the most exciting parts of the football game. Fans love to see the big touchdown runs, the amazing catches, the kick off and punt return always gets people excited. He goes on and on. It's not just a change, it's change in his position.

WIRE: Well, it'll be a change, but there will still be a kick off, there will still be a commencement to the game, and punt returns are exciting too. I mean that's just as exciting, if not more than a kick off. Especially now with the touchback percentage. The un-returnable kicks have gone up to 43 percent. So, maybe we should find a way to make it safer, but still be able to have a kicking phase of the game. So it's not about eliminating injuries, it's just about making smart changes that will eliminate the catastrophic injuries.

O'BRIEN: Yeah, they got to do that otherwise I would never let my kids play, honestly. If it doesn't get safer, it scares me. Coy Wire is a sports analyst and a nine-year NFL veteran. Nice to have you with us this morning. We appreciate it.

WIRE: Thanks for having me.

O'BRIEN: You bet. Still ahead on STARTING POINT, reports that Syria is loading chemical weapon consignments into missiles has the whole world on edge, so what does it mean for U.S. action if, in fact, it's true. We're going to talk to Chad Sweet. He's the former directorate of operations with the CIA to update us. And President Clinton and the First Lady, Michelle Obama, competing for votes, but it's not for an election. It's for an award. And business news, big day.

ROMANS: Jobs report. We're waiting for that big monthly jobs report in a couple hours. In a little, about an hour and 15 minutes, we're going to find out what it means for the health of our economy later this morning. You're watching STARTING POINT.


ROMANS: Welcome back to STARTING POINT. I'm Christine Romans, minding your business. The November jobs report comes out next hour. A CNN Money survey of economists forecasts eight percent unemployment and only 77,000 jobs added. That's slower growth than we've seen in recent months. 171,00 jobs were added in October. It's likely that superstorm Sandy dampened these numbers. Big weather events make it difficult for the labor department to collect the data. So, it's likely November's jobs numbers will see the effects of superstorm Sandy. It could be revised later.

Quick market check. U.S. stock futures are down this morning after closing higher yesterday. Clearly the jobs report will probably drive the action on Wall Street today.

O'BRIEN: Yeah, that'll be interesting to see what happens. Obviously we'll be talking a lot about that a little bit later this morning. Also this morning, Russia saying that they will join the United States for a brainstorming meeting to try to end the bloodshed in Syria. NATO is now going forward with a plan to move missiles and troops to the Syrian border, but the Syrian President Bashar Al Assad continues to defy the pressure from the United States and its allies.

Fears are growing after new reports that Assad's forces are preparing chemical weapons components that might be used against rebel forces inside Syria. Chad Sweet is with me now from Washington, D.C. He's the former directorate of operations with the CIA, the former chief of staff with the Department of Homeland Security. It's nice to have you with us. We appreciate it. I should mention that you're also co- founder and CEO of the Chertoff Group.

So the signs that I've just mentioned and kind of listed there are very ominous, not just for folks here in the United States who worry about the role of the United States, but also for people in the region and outside the region too. Does this mean that we have operatives who are filling us in on what's happening with the chemical weapons components and the degree to which they are being combined and put together and put on to these war heads?

CHAD SWEET, FORMER CIA DIRECTORATE OF OPERATIONS: Soledad, it's highly likely that the combination of sources have provided this intelligence. Some of it's coming from human intelligence, spies on the ground, from both our spies as well as our allies of the Saudi's Mabahith or the Israeli Mossad and the Turkish intelligence. But the bottom line is it's coming also from a variety of technical means: signals intelligence, satellite imagery. And the signs are pointing towards some type of mobilization where these chemicals are being locked and loaded on bombs that at a minimum shows potential intent to use them.

O'BRIEN: How reliable is this information? I mean, we're talking about the most critical thing, right? The approach to the red line. So how certain are we of what we're seeing and the information we're getting?

SWEET: I think it's always difficult to know the intent of your adversary. That is part of the function of the intelligence. However, it is unlikely the President of the United States, the Secretary of Defense and Secretary of State would be making such very forceful statements unless there was a high degree of confidence in the United States intelligence community that the potential for the use of these weapons is quite high. O'BRIEN: In Egypt, it's pretty remarkable how the Arab spring is still springing, I guess. You know, I thought it was interesting to hear what Morsi was saying. He had this televised speech and he almost went from the same script talking, I mean, talking about how these are infiltrators and the protesters are paid and they're thugs. This is terrorism. It seemed like the same thing that maybe Mubarak would have said in a similar situation. How does this end for him? Where does this go from here? He's got high level defections left and right.

SWEET: Well, Morsi is trying to hold together what is obviously a fraying coalition and, as you noted, any time there's pressure on a regime, the attempt to portray opponents as outside forces or somehow unpatriotic is a common technique. But that's also, by the way, the exact reason why Assad in Libya -- I'm sorry, in Syria, may in fact use the chemical weapons against his opponents, right? Which is you portray your opposition as someone as an outside or at a minimum unpatriotic. And that's exactly why, if it comes down to it, Assad could in fact use chemical weapons against them. He does not see them as part of the actual Syrian people.

Morsi is in the same situation in that he will have to potentially take measures on the security side to hold this together. This could be a sign that he's beginning to lay the groundwork for more aggressive security measures.

O'BRIEN: Chad Sweet joining is a co-founder and CEO of the Chertoff Group joining us this morning, also the former CIA directorate of operations. Nice to have you with us. We appreciate it.

SWEET: Thank you.

O'BRIEN: Still ahead on STARTING POINT this morning, so how much -- what would it take, maybe that's better -- how much money, what would it take for you to go hunting for pythons in Florida?

ROMANS: No amount of money.

O'BRIEN: $15,000? $2000? $5000? Florida's got a new contest and it's kind of gross. Our STARTING POINT team is walking in to talk about that and much more.

Hello, boys. Come on. You're watching STARTING POINT. We're back in just a moment.


SAMBOLIN: It is 22 minutes past the hour. Welcome back to STARTING POINT. Quick check of your top stories. There's a Grammy battle brewing: Obama versus Clinton. The First Lady and former president are both up for a Grammy in the Best Spoken Word Album. Michelle Obama was nominated for "American Grown"; Bill Clinton for his book, "Back to Work".




SAMBOLIN: And the First Lady joined her husband last night to light the 28-foot blue spruce Christmas tree at the White House. That tree was transplanted days before Hurricane Sandy but made it through the storm. It was planted just days before. And in case you're wondering, this year's White House holiday card is all about Bo, the Obamas' Portuguese water dog. The card was designed by Iowa artist and dog lover, Larassa Kabel. That is just too cute.

O'BRIEN: You know, you can't go wrong if you put your pet or your kids in a card.

WILL CAIN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Do you put yourself? That's the debate everyone has.

O'BRIEN: Never.

CAIN: We go just kids. Did you go just kids or did you put yourself in there?

SAMBOLIN: Just kids.

RICHARD SOCARIDES, WRITER, NEWYORKER.COM: You know, the White House Christmas card is a big deal. And the staff get, when you're on the White House staff, you get a special version of it and people frame it. This is a beautiful card. I love this card this year.

O'BRIEN: Our team this morning weigh in on the important topic of the annual Christmas card for the White House. Will Cain, the columnist for, CNN contributor as well. Ryan Lizza is with us; he's the Washington correspondent for "The New Yorker" and a CNN contributor. Richard Socarides is a former senior adviser and Christmas card-getter from Bill Clinton, and a writer for

So this is kind of a disgusting story that I'm going to share with you this morning about snake hunts. No joke. Not snakes on a plane exactly, but more like this.


SAMUEL L. JACKSON, ACTOR: Enough is enough. I have had it with these (EXPLETIVIE DELETED) snakes on this (EXPLETIVE DELETD) plane.


O'BRIEN: Because he's mad. And they're mad too in Florida, even though they are not on a plane. It's snakes in the everglades. Florida wildlife officials want to hunt them down, get rid of them, because they're absolutely killing the ecosystem. They have this plan where they will award $1,500 to the hunter who kills the most pythons. $1000 bonus goes to whoever gets the biggest python. So of course the question is what could go wrong?


O'BRIEN: Have you never seen this movie? Oh my god, this is the best movie ever, "Anaconda". Bad acting, I'll give you that. But awesome movie. Hang on, hang on. And - and - oh, it's a movie. And not even a good one.

CAIN: It sounds like you have seen it a couple times.

O'BRIEN: I've seen it a couple of times.

SAMBOLIN: That's classic for her. That's a classic.

SOCARIDES: There's a python. That was a python.

CAIN: You know why he's making that obvious statement? Hey, that's a python. Because in the green room, Richard Socarides' question was what?

SOCARIDES: I said what's a python?


O'BRIEN: You really had no idea what a python was?

SOCARIDES: I thought they were talking about Monty Python or something.



O'BRIEN: And you had your fingers on the hands of power in the White House and you didn't know what a python is?

RYAN LIZZA, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: CNN should send you down to the Florida python challenge and you should kill a python.

O'BRIEN: In all seriousness, they are these big, giant, yucky snakes. One of them, I guess in Key Largo, ate a 76-pound deer. Think about that. That's massive.

SAMBOLIN: Ate it whole, entirely whole in the belly of the python.

CAIN: I'm genuinely curious -- how are they going to kill these pythons? They encourage them to shoot them in the head or use a machete, which just doesn't sound --

O'BRIEN: Can you imagine all these people converging with guns and machetes?

LIZZA: Only in Florida. Very lax gun control laws in Florida, so this is the perfect combination. An out of control python population and lax gun control laws.

O'BRIEN: And cameras rolling, of course.

LIZZA: Hopefully cameras rolling. Hopefully there will be a reality show based on this.

SAMBOLIN: I actually thought it was a good idea. You know, we're always talking about the gun stories out of Florida and this is a really good way to use your gun. Go and control the population and make some money on the side.

O'BRIEN: All right, well ahead on STARTING POINT, the President and Speaker Boehner are working out a deal on the fiscal cliff or at least trying to. But there's one man who says, listen, it's all about the baby boomers. Ken Bayer is a former senior White House adviser and he says without calculating that impact, you're never going to get anywhere.

Plus Senator Colbert. A new push to get the TV host into Washington politics. How do we feel about that? We'll talk about that ahead.