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Panetta: Assad "Got The Message"; "We Still Have Faith She Will Be OK"; McCain-Rice Showdown Looming; Monkey In A Coat At Ikea; Hushed Talks Over Fiscal Cliff; Record Number On Food Stamps; Mandela Health Watch; DSK And Hotel Maid Settle Lawsuit; What If "Seinfeld" Was Still On?; "The Fitzgerald Family Christmas"

Aired December 11, 2012 - 07:30   ET



SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. Welcome back, everybody. You're watching STARTING POINT. We begin with John Berman with an update on the day's top stories. Good morning.

JOHN BERMAN, ANCHOR, CNN'S "EARLY START": Thanks, Soledad. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta believes Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad got the message about using chemical weapons against his own people. The defense secretary is in Kuwait this morning. He's been warning the Syrians for days about the use of those weapons.


LEON PANETTA, DEFENSE SECRETARY: Well, I'd like to believe he's gotten the message. We've made it pretty clear and others have as well, but you know, it's also clear that the opposition continues to make gains in Syria. Our concern is that if they feel like the regime is threatened with collapse, that they might resort to these kinds of weapons.


BERMAN: U.S. officials say the Syrians have been loading rockets with deadly sarin gas components for possible us against the rebels.

The brother of Mexican-American singing sensation and reality TV star, Jenni Rivera, is not giving up hope that she is still alive.


JUAN RIVERA, JENNI RIVERA'S BROTHER: In our eyes, we still have faith that my sister will be OK. We have no confirmation of her body being recovered dead or alive.


BERMAN: Rivera's private jet went down in the mountains outside Monterrey, Mexico on Sunday. She and six other people on board are believed to be dead. Her mangled driver's license and clothing were found at the crash site, but no bodies have been recovered. Senator John McCain wants a seat on the Foreign Relations Committee after the New Year, setting up a possible showdown with Ambassador Susan Rice. The Foreign Relations Committee oversees the State Department.

So that means if Susan Rice is nominated to be secretary of state, McCain would be in a position to question her during nomination hearings. McCain has been a big critic of Rice, suggesting she misled the country about the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi.

Check this out, a monkey in a coat. That's right, a monkey in a coat spotted roaming around an Ikea in Toronto, of course, right? A bunch of tweets went out asking does anyone lost their monkey? The answer was yes.

The owner was apparently shopping and the monkey managed to get out of the crate and the car. Animal Control captured the 7-month-old, Darwin, and monkeys as pets are banned in Canada, this monkey in a coat and apparently some kind of a diaper is now in a sanctuary.

O'BRIEN: That's so sad. I mean, it looks kind of whacky and weirdly cute, but so sad. Terrible.

Let's talk a little bit about the fiscal cliff. We know they are talking, but we don't really know what the president and House Speaker John Boehner are actually saying because they have been keeping those fiscal cliff negotiations very quiet.

The president doesn't have any public appearances scheduled for today and that could be read or at least people are reading the tea leaves, saying it's even more serious than before.

Let's get to Republican Senator Jeff Sessions from the state of Alabama. He is the ranking member on the Senate Budget Committee. It's nice to have you with us, Sir. Thank you for being with us.

SENATOR JEFF SESSIONS (R), ALABAMA: Soledad, nice to be with you.

O'BRIEN: Appreciate that. Do you think that that is a fair read, the quieter it gets means the more is getting done. When they are saying nothing and have no events at all, it means that we're close to a deal?

SESSIONS: You know, when we are reading tea leaves and that's all we have, you know how bad it is. It looks like the president and the speaker of the House will decide this on Christmas or New Year's Eve and plopped down in Congress and we'll be told to vote for it or have a national crisis.

This should have been done in public. We should have been talking about this for months. It should have been openly done and members of Congress all voting on it, the American people observing what's going on. I really think honestly that this is not a good way to handle important American business.

O'BRIEN: There are people who have say, but you can't really do a sensitive negotiation, right, when everybody has an opportunity to run to the TV cameras and have their own teams put out press releases, because the conversation gets derailed by the PR agenda, if you will, in that. And that's why you have to have behind closed door meetings, because at least everybody shuts up with the noise around it.

SESSIONS: Well, I don't agree with that. That's why we have Congress for. That's what the whole process is designed to do. Get out of these secret meetings and into the public venues so American people and Congress themselves. We're responsible for making intelligent decisions, those -- that should be done publicly.

But at some point after public debate and so forth, yes, private negotiations can help bridge the gap, bring us to successful conclusion. We've gone three years with a real serious problem. No budget. No appropriations bill this year. Not a good way to do the people's business. I don't think anybody can dispute this is not good.

O'BRIEN: "The Washington Post" is also trying to read the tea leaves talking a little bit about what potentially as vague as it is, could be on the table in terms of cuts.

Back in I think it was July, you were debating Senator Gillibrand. You talked about food stamps. She wanted to reinstate money into food stamps and you wanted it cut. Do you think that food stamps and that program should be on the table in terms of where you could try to save money?

SESSIONS: Absolutely. Every part of the government needs to be available for improvement. What we found was in the Budget Control Act and the sequester, there was no cuts, not a dime reduced in the food stamp spending, which has gone up four times.

One in six Americans are now receiving food stamps. It's going up this month was a record increase in food stamp participation, at a time when unemployment is declining.

So what we want to do is look at this program, identify how we can move people from dependency to independence to help them achieve the kind of income level that can sustain their family and their independence.

O'BRIEN: But people who are saying if you're doing cuts, you invariably hurt people who need food and who are on food stamps so that they can buy supplemental food. I mean, it's 61 percent of households in your state have children who are recipients of the food program they are on.

SESSIONS: Soledad, this program has been growing out of control at an incredible rate and a lot of people receiving benefits that do not qualify and should not receive them. But the focus of our government program should be as always in America to help people in need.

No child, no person, who needs food, should be denied that food. Nobody proposes that. But we're talking about an amendment that would reduce and close a loophole of $8 billion, when we would spend $800 billion, was opposed by saying it would help -- leave people hungry in America, but it only eliminated abuses in the program. We surely have to have some change.

O'BRIEN: On the two fronts, let me stop you there. It's growing out of control. You voted in 2002 and 2008 to grow the program yourself, first under President Bush in 2002.

And when it comes to fraud, this center on Budget and Policy Priorities says snap has one of the most rigorous quality control systems of any public benefit program in recent years has received its lowest error rates on record. I mean, people highlight the program. It doesn't have a lot of fraud. That most people on it are not working the system, they are just hungry people.

SESSIONS: That's not accurate. What they are doing is they are counting the computer system fraud error rate, but they are not out counting the real people who are filing false incomes or haven't reported changes in their income.

But again, we want to make sure that people who in need get that need. Americans always believe in that. We are not trying to deny people in need. But surely one would not contend that a program that has gone up four fold in ten years and had the biggest increase ever this month, at a time when unemployment dropped, doesn't need some review and to be made better.

O'BRIEN: The people in your state, something like 67 percent of the people in your state, in the nation, it's one in six people on food stamps. In your state, it's one in five, so 20 percent of your constituents are on food stamps.

And they look at the people who are actually eligible. It's something like under 70 percent who are eligible who sign up, so I think the problem could be in the reverse that, not as many people who could get food stamps are on it.

SESSION: Well, you would like to have -- well, the Department of Agriculture said if you give more food stamps out, it helps the economy when we borrow the money to send it out. Obviously cannot be so. Look, we want to be sure that people who need it get that aid.

O'BRIEN: I get your point --

SESSIONS: You think there is no problem with the program?

O'BRIEN: I'm not an elected official. I have no idea. I guess my question would be, when are you thinking of things to cut, right. People are saying why are you trying to balance the budget on people making under $23,000 a year?

I think that range roughly is the national average for what a family of four would get on food stamps. Why not cut something else. There are other things that could be on the table before you pick a program that is feeding the nation's poor children?

SESSIONS: I'm not picking a program. I say all programs need to be examined in this government. This government wasting is money every day. There is no doubt about that. We have got to do better. Food stamp is a program that was totally exempt from any oversight and change when it has gone up four times in the last 10 years and the amount we spend --

O'BRIEN: Two of those times you voted for it, 2002 and 2008 you voted for it, right. So you voted for it and some people would say it's growing --

SESSIONS: I voted for the AG bill that had that in it, probably so.

O'BRIEN: Jeff Sessions is a senator from the state of Alabama. It's nice to have you with us, sir. We appreciate your time.

SESSIONS: Thank you, Soledad.

O'BRIEN: Still ahead this morning on STARTING POINT, spending time with the family could be a little bit tense. You know what they say? Who put the fun in dysfunctional?

Actor and Director Ed Burns has a new movie that captured that crazy chaotic dynamic in his new movie, which is called "The Fitzgerald Family Christmas." He's going to talk with us about that, straight ahead.


BERMAN: Welcome back, everyone. We now know what has sent Nelson Mandela to the hospital. The former president of South Africa is being treated for a lung infection. Mandela is 94 years old. He checked into a hospital in Pretoria over the weekend. We're told that he is responding to treatment.

Former IMF Chief Dominique Strauss-Khan has settled a civil lawsuit filed by a New York City hotel maid who accused him of sexual assault. The terms of the agreement were not disclosed. Not disclosed but Diallo was seeking unspecified damages for physical, emotional, and psychological harm.

How about this? The show about nothing getting a new life on Twitter, someone has launched a parody account called "Modern Seinfeld" that imagines a show in the age of Twitter and yoga and hipster. It's pretty funny.

In one tweet, Elaine has a bad waiter at a nice restaurant. Her negative Yelp review goes viral she gets banned. Cramer accidentally joins the Tea Party.

Another one, Jerry trips when walking out to perform on "The Tonight Show" the gif goes viral on Tumblr. Elaine dates a "freegan," which is that's sort of like the hip term for dumpster diving. It's pretty good web site.

O'BRIEN: I wonder though in terms of like intellectual property. Let's say you decided to revive the show and use some of those ideas, what happens then? UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Can you copyright a tweet?

O'BRIEN: I don't know. We should try that. Are you an attorney?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I am a non-practicing attorney. I went to law school, never practiced a day in my life.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: In this era, such widespread and instantaneous dissemination of information, the whole issue of intellectual property and how you hold onto that intellectual product is significant.

O'BRIEN: And as journalists we're well aware of that.

BERMAN: And I think the guy who's did Humble Brag, pretty famous Twitter handle, got signed up for some kind of TV pilot.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It goes in reverse actually, which is Seinfeld would object to anything being done with this.

O'BRIEN: Of course not, right. It keeps it going on forever.

Still ahead this morning on STARTING POINT, a new movie that looks at a big, complicated family at Christmas time. Ed Burns is going to talk about his new film. It's called "The Fitzgerald Family Christmas," and that's coming up next.


O'BRIEN: It's two weeks until Christmas. My God, it's two weeks until Christmas, that time of year puts the fun in dysfunctional as families deal with the chaos.

And that's kind of the plot of actor and director, Ed Burns' new movie, "The Fitzgerald Family Christmas." Take a look as the family prepares for their estranged father to return home since he walked out on the family.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Wants to spend Christmas with us here.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All I want to be is with my family at Christmas.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: That's really not happening.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It sounds awesome.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Does it sound awesome?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You think you're ready to see the old man?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Think we should ask mom to let him come.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There was a time for some forgiveness. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: OK, I've thought about it and the answer is still no.


O'BRIEN: Ed Burns joins us to talk more about the movie. This reminds me a lot of the first movie that you did, the first movie that I saw that you've done on the "Brothers McMullen."

ED BURNS, DIRECTOR, "THE FITZGERALD FAMILY CHRISTMAS": Yes, it was a conscious decision on my part, you know, 17 years later, which is scary to go back to that milieu, that world and literally a homecoming. We shot the film, the Fitzgeralds live about six doors down from where the McMullens lived, which is my neighborhood.

O'BRIEN: So it was a homecoming for you, too, in a way.

BURNS: It was. You know, when I was writing this script, it's not autobiographical, but the Fitzgeralds definitely come from the same world that I came from, grew up in the same neighborhood, shared the same experiences, went to the same schools. So it was one of the screenplays that really poured out of me and I think it's why it's, people seem to think it feels honest and authentic.

O'BRIEN: Do you worry going back? I mean, this is your 13th film about the big family dynamic. I'm one of six so Cuban and Australian and black people in my family, but it's kind of the same story at the same time. Do you worry about going back and having someone say you're repeating?

BURNS: No, really, because you know, those first two films I made, "McMullen" and "She's The One" dealt with that Irish-American working class experience. Since then I purposely have not gone back I think for the simple reason, fear of repeating.

But also my life changed so dramatically after those first two films. I thought can I write about that experience with the same kind of authenticity, but now I figured it was time to go back and I'm very glad I did.

O'BRIEN: You're marketing it very differently. The movie just opened.

BURNS: Just opened in New York, also available on iTunes and On Demand, which is what independent films do a lot of the times. So about three weeks ago we were available in everyone's living room and this Friday, we go out theatrically to the rest of the country.

O'BRIEN: That's interesting. You know, because there was a theory, right, that if you made it available, you wouldn't drive people to the theaters.

BURNS: What they've discovered is the audiences don't cannibalize one another. There are two separate audiences, the audiences that go to the theater still and the audiences that prefer to stay home. A guy like me with a couple young kids very rarely do we get to the theater. BERMAN: What is a movie theater?

BURNS: Exactly, what is a movie theater?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So you get to the movie set but not to the movies.

BERMAN: The father figures in some of your films are often complicated and not always in a good way. During the break here, you were talking about your father who seems like such a nice guy.

BURNS: My dad was the best and gave me great advice every step of the way, always encouraged me to pursue my dreams. His father, however, was a miserable human being and I grew up in a house always hearing my father talk about how much he hated his own father.

So a lot of times that shaped -- I knew him, he died when I was 6. So it was those types of hearing those conversations that sort of informed how some of these children feel about their dad in this film.

O'BRIEN: You're married to a supermodel. Why is she not in all of your films?

BURNS: On our very first date, she said, look, I've gotten offers to act and I have no interest so if you ever want a second date, don't ask.

O'BRIEN: She runs an organization for women who are pregnant, does her own great thing. It's nice to have you with us, Ed Burns. We're looking forward to seeing the film, looking forward to downloading and watching the film, I don't go out of the kids.

Still ahead on STARTING POINT, freedom, the silence kind of deafening on Capitol Hill, former White House chief of staff, Rahm Emmanuel is going to join us to talk about the prospects of a fiscal cliff deal straight ahead.

And then he was in great health when suddenly he had a mini stroke, at just 27, Frankie Muniz joins us to talk about exactly what happened to him. We're back in just a moment.


O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody. Our STARTING POINT this morning, sound of silence in Washington, D.C. President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner were quiet on negotiations to avoid those massive tax hikes and spending cuts that we know as the fiscal cliff. Will hopes of a deal become a reality? We'll take a look at that this morning.

He didn't smoke. He doesn't drink. He doesn't do drugs. So why did Frankie Muniz have a ministroke at just age 27. A former "Malcolm in the Middle" star will joins us to talk about that health scare.