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Fiscal Cliff Looms; Panetta: Al Qaeda Remains Biggest Threat; Interview with Tony Perkins; A Beautiful Music Legacy

Aired December 14, 2012 - 06:30   ET



JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: And White House 101 as the fiscal cliff looms. President Obama and Speaker Boehner meet with just 18 days to go.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Show of force amid Syria's civil war. The U.S. now says it will send missiles and troops, but not to the rebels.

BERMAN: Tough call for Susan Rice. President Obama's U.N. ambassador said she took herself out of running to be the next Secretary of State.

Welcome back to EARLY START, everyone. A lot going on this morning. I'm John Berman.

ROMANS: And I'm Christine Romans, in for Zoraida Sambolin this morning. It's 30 minutes past the hour.

We learned this morning that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta signed an order sending two Patriot missile batteries to Turkey to assist that nation in protecting itself from military action by Syria. This move was expected as the civil war in Syria destabilizes the Assad regime. In addition, 400 U.S. troops will be deployed to operate the missile batteries.

Turkey borders Syria. And thousands of rebels and refugees from Syria have fled to Turkey for safety. According to Leon Panetta, al Qaeda remains the most significant threat facing America today.

CNN's Erin Burnett sat down with the Defense Secretary in Kandahar, Afghanistan, yesterday and asked him if the terror organization can ever be eliminated.


LEON PANETTA, DEFENSE SECRETARY: You can reach a point where you so significantly weaken al Qaeda that, you know, although there may still be a few people around, they won't be able to conduct the operations that they have conducted in the past and they certainly won't be able to plan the kind of attacks that America had happen to it on 9/11. And that's our goal, is to make sure that it doesn't happen again.

ERIN BURNETT, CNN ANCHOR, "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT": And you talk about al Qaeda and where it is --


ROMANS: Panetta went on to tell Erin if we want to keep al Qaeda neutralized, the U.S. has to go after the terror group in places like Yemen, Somalia and Mali.

President Obama, House Speaker John Boehner facing off behind closed doors the White House again last night. It's their second meeting this week. But with 18 days remaining before America goes over the cliff, and with the House set to skip down for the holidays today, no sign of a deal.

Here's what both sides are saying, they're calling yesterday's talks frank and they're insisting the lines of communication remain open -- John.

BERMAN: So despite Speaker Boehner and other Republican leaders taking a hard line on whether to raise taxes, others within the party seemed more willing to compromise. This signals that the latest bout of infighting within the GOP is going strong since the election last month, there are many pundits saying the party has a branding problem.

So we want to bring in Tony Perkins. He's the president of the Family Research Council, to talk really about the future of the Republican Party.

So we have no deal. We have a stalemate right now. It seems like the speaker is taking a hard line on taxes. You've been up on Capitol Hill this week, I think, as recently as yesterday. What are you hearing from people inside the party?

TONY PERKINS, PRESIDENT, FAMILY RESEARCH COUNCIL: I'm hearing that unless there is spending cuts -- are spending cuts, there won't be revenue increasing, measures taken by -- or supported by Republicans.

BERMAN: So you don't think there's a deal any time soon?

PERKINS: I mean, it just -- the American people. I mean, a Wall Street Journal poll shows 2/3 of the people say, yes, we could use more taxes, but they need to be coupled with spending cuts. I think people realize that we've come to a point if we continue to kick the can of fiscal responsibility down the road, we're going to end up kicking the can as a country.

BERMAN: Can I ask you, would you be willing to deal with new revenue, tax increases?

PERKINS: Yes, I think most Americans would. I don't think they are totally opposed to, you know, closing loopholes, if you will. I mean, bottom line is, it's a tax increase.

BERMAN: What about the top two -- two tax rates?

PERKINS: I think when you look at that, you have to realize that includes a lot of small businesses, in fact, the bulk of small businesses which are -- small business is the biggest employer in this country. So I think that's problematic for the economy. It's selling well for the president to go around, let's get the top wage earners. Those are small businesses that employ people.

BERMAN: Let's talk about the Republican Party in general right now. Senator Jim DeMint for South Carolina leaving the Senate to go become head of the Heritage Foundation. A lot of Republicans didn't shed many tears when he left. DeMint, of course, a Tea Party favorite. You know, some people say a hard lifeline conservative.

Is there a division in the Republican Party now between the Tea Party and other Republicans?

PERKINS: I think without question. I think there was cheering on both sides. Conservatives were cheering because they see him as being more effective at the Heritage Foundation and the establishment cheering, at least for the short term, that he's out of their hair, because he did challenge the establishment, which is -- look, you look at the last two presidential elections, Republicans put forth moderate candidates, and they lost.

Moderates don't liberals and I think there's a realization that settling back on the Republican Party, at least the grassroots and the base of the party, that if they're going to be successful, they have to return to the founding principles, not retreat from it.

BERMAN: You know, conservatives lose, too. You had Todd Akin lose. You had Mourdock lose in Indiana. Conservatives lose also.

PERKINS: Oh, yes, there's no question about it. It was a bad cycle for Republicans and you mentioned Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, we're prepared for some of the tough issues and how to talk about the issues successfully, which other candidates have successfully talked about them.

BERMAN: Let's talk about the evolution of certain issues in this country right now. Let's talk about gay marriage, as the poll just out from ABC News, saying that 51 percent of Americans support gay marriage, 6 of 10 young people are in favor of gay marriage. At the ballot box in November, you know, three states approved gay marriage, other states allow it.

You know, is there an evolution in this country right now?

PERKINS: Well, you got over 40 states that have marriage defined in their state laws as a union between a man and a woman, 30 have gone to an effort of placing it into their constitution. You have four states that did vote on it this time in which traditional marriage did not prevail.

I hardly think that what we saw in this election is a -- is a consensus, as some have described on same-sex marriage. Look, 40 years ago, and we're coming up next month, will be 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the generation in which that occurred, you would say those under 29 supported and hailed that as a great decision by the court. Today, that same age category, 18 to 29 tonight, are more pro- life than their parents.

BERMAN: Can I ask you one question, because the Family Research Council has been in the news lately, dealing with UPS, United Parcels Service --


BERMAN: -- because of the Boy Scouts. UPS are pulling their funding for the Boy Scouts because the Boy Scouts will not allow gay members to help run the Boy Scouts or inside the Boy Scouts. Why did the Family Research Council do this?

PERKINS: Well, the Boy Scouts for over 100 years, as part of their moral code, has challenged boys to be straight and to be upstanding citizens.

BERMAN: Straight? What do you mean by straight?

PERKINS: Well, that's their -- that's their code, morally straight, that they not engage in sexual behavior, that they keep themselves morally conditioned and mentally sharp, and that's been their code. They have had this policy long running for good reason. And to have an organization say, look, we're not going to give you money unless you change your longstanding policy to come in line with our values.

And I had a conversation, we had a private conversation with UPS and say, wait a minute, why are you doing this? This is a long-term policy that the Boy Scouts have had. Why are you taking your money away? They said, well, we have a right to you give money to those who reflect our values.

BERMAN: Can I ask you -- one part of the statement, which I'm not sure we have a project for it. I'll read to you. You said, "Apparently, the company isn't interested in true diversity but in strong arming anyone who disagrees with their extreme agenda, including a century old youth development program, whose only crime is instilling character into millions of American boys."

Some people could suggest that not allowing gay members, how does not allowing gay members instill character into boys?

PERKINS: Look, when you look at who charters boy scout troops, over 2/3 are chartered by churches, that's where they host their meetings, the values that run parallel to the Boy Scouts. What have you is you have a few corporations, major corporations, who are saying, look, unless you abandon a century old value set, we're not going to give you money.

And the -- some things don't change with time. The Boy Scouts are one that have laid down a marker and said we will continue with what's worked for our boys. We're going to continue to produce young men who make good citizens.

BERMAN: All right. Tony Perkins, thanks for coming in to be with us this morning. Appreciate it.

PERKINS: All right, John.

BERMAN: Christine?

ROMANS: All right. Thanks, John.

Police in Malaysia have made a dent in the illegal trade of elephant tusks. They seized a shipment of 1,500 pieces said to be worth $20 million. It's believed the shipment was headed to China, where elephant tusks are in high demand. Poachers slaughter thousands of elephants in order to get those tusks.

Salvation Army workers in Oklahoma found a wedding ring in one of their red kettles, but they don't know if the ring is really a generous donation or if it slipped off someone's finger, someone who could be really upset right now that they don't know where the ring is. They are giving the owner 90 days to come forward. After that, it's considered a donation.

Suffering through a losing season in the NFL is bad enough, but blocking your own punter's kick? More on last night's bizarre play, coming up.

BERMAN: You're not supposed to do that.


ROMANS: Friday morning. Soledad is here with a look what's happening on "STARTING POINT."

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR, "EARLY START": Lots to talk about, especially as the House is scheduled to end its session today. There's still no deal on the fiscal cliff, even if the president and Speaker Boehner reach a deal, will there be time to approve it before the end of year?

This morning, we're going to talk to the former governor Tennessee, Phil Bredesen. And Dan Glickman, he's a former Democratic congressman who says the president should schedule a joint session of Congress and get this done.

Then, the score was 107-2. That was a high school basketball game this weekend -- beginning of the weekend actually, bring a national discussion now about sportsmanship, fair play, the mercy rule. At what point, is it just too many points on the board there? Should the coaches have called the game or just let the score get that uneven?

We're going to talk to members of the losing team and their coach about their philosophy about what happens next. And I actually visited that school in Indianapolis. We've had a lot of changes.

BERMAN: Did you play basketball with them?

O'BRIEN: I did not play basketball with them.

And we're also going to talk about a new movie. It's called "Allegiance", about National Guardsmen who only expected part-time duty and they were thrown into year-long combat in Iraq. We'll talk with actor Aidan Quinn about that.

That and much more ahead this morning, right at the top of the hour.

BERMAN: And it's Friday.

O'BRIEN: And it's Friday. Yes, I'm struggling with a head cold. I'm really ready for a weekend.

BERMAN: Fantastic.

All right. We're going to look at the top CNN trend on the web this morning, beginning with the fallout from Benghazi, of course.

Ambassador Susan Rice taking herself out of the running to be the next Secretary of State. She's going to meet with President Obama at the White House today. Key Republicans criticized Rice over statements over statements she made after the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi. The attack now known to be terror killed four Americans, including U.S. ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens.

ROMANS: Celebrations breaking out in Pyongyang -- breaking out or staged, it's unclear. North Koreans toasting with beer mugs and dancing on sidewalks following the country's first successful satellite launch into space -- even though the U.S. government has indicated the North Koreans might not have control of that satellite at the moment. Even supreme leader Kim Jong-un got into the act.

The North Korean government releasing this photo of the launch, as leaders in Washington, Tokyo, Seoul, all call for punishment, insisting the North Koreans have moved a step closer to be able to launch nuclear weapons across the Pacific.

BERMAN: Want to see a team completely unravel? The hapless Philadelphia Eagles. They fumbled the ball four times through one interception, and I think, the worst part of all, this. They had a punt blocked by their own player. All this in a 34-13 loss at home to the Bengals on Thursday night.

The Eagles dropped to 4 and 10, while Cincinnati gets its playoffs hope alive improving to 8-6. I know you're not a big football fan, but I can tell you this, you're not supposed to block your own punts.

ROMANS: I didn't know that. I just feel bad for that guy, you know? I bet they really razzed him or they didn't even talk to him in the locker room after.

A stormy weather right now in the southwest. Rob Marciano, I mean, don't you kind of feel bad for him, Rob?

ROB MARCIANO, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Of course, you do. I mean, it's just like a soccer player or a hockey player, you know, hitting a goal into its own net, but, that's slightly more forgivable than what just happened there. I don't think I've ever seen it. But hey, it's the Eagles. better luck next year, guys. We'll be rooting for you, or most of us well. Hey, look at this, guys. The San Diego where the Chargers, they can use some help as well. They got heavy rain yesterday that we showed you last hour. And I think I'm going to show it to you this hour, anyway, it's wet. Here you go. And we got rainfall up to the wheel wells of cars there, only an inch or so, but in San Diego, that's like more than a month's worth of rain. So, sweep where the rest in (ph) cruiser out and obviously slowed down this car along with several others across parts of Southern California.

San Diego record, 1.5 inches. Yuma not a record, but still a half an inch. That's a lot. Vegas, a quarter of an inch of rain just over that. That is a record, and they saw -- yesterday was their 25th day reporting thunderstorms around Las Vegas area. The record is 26. So, it's been a rather stormy year for the folks along the strip there.

Rainfall across parts of Southern California still again today. Raining in phoenix. It is snowing heavily in flagstaff. It is snowing at the Grand Canyon, and it will be snowing in places like the Four Corners and the San Juans of Southwest Colorado. Tell you (INAUDIBLE) probably get a good dumping out of there. So, a foot of snow expected there in the mountains of New Mexico.

Also, we'll see several inches if not a foot of snow, and winds will be gusty on the southern side of this system. It's pretty potent one. It's going to come out to the plains, and it will pump up the heat across the southern plains. Temperatures well above normal there again today. East of the Mississippi.

Temps around where they should be, comfortably chilly this morning like it should be in December, but sunshine coming up and should warm things up. Pretty clear night last night if you got out to see the Geminid meteor shower. They were pretty active. Fifty degrees for high in Chicago, 49. Not too bad to do your mid-December Christmas shopping in the Big Apple.

BERMAN: I saw the meteors, and they were awesome. I saw them before I went to bed and when I woke up --

ROMANS: His kids went running into wake him up, dad, dad, you can't miss this.

BERMAN: That's very cool.

MARCIANO: Nice work. Yes a lot of reports of people getting to see it, so that's a good stuff if you could brave the chill.

BERMAN: All right. Thanks a lot, Rob. Appreciate it.

So, coming up, we're going to introduce to you a remarkable young man using talent to turn the heartache of cancer into an inspiring legacy.


ROMANS: Welcome back. Good morning. This morning, we have a story of a brave young man who lives in Minnesota. He's only 17 and he's not expected to see 18. BERMAN: He has terminal cancer. He's accepted his fate, but he's leaving for his family and friends a beautiful, musical legacy. Here is Ed Lavandera.


ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Zach Sobiech's soul is filled with lyrics racing against time to get out.


LAVANDERA: Three years ago, Zach was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a rare bone cancer that usually targets teenagers. Since then, he's had ten surgeries on his feet (ph) and lungs, endless chemo therapy, and mostly bad news. Zach's doctor has told him he has only months to live. His mom suggested that he start writing goodbye letters to family and friends.

ZACH SOBIECH, MUSICIAN: I am awful at writing. I can't sit down and write a letter. I've tried. I decided to pick up my guitar and started playing musical. This is fun.

LAVANDERA: That's how his song called "Clouds" was born. A goodbye to those he loves.

You want to leave a melody behind?


LAVANDERA: And you think that that will help them cope?

SOBIECH: It's kind of me always being there for them. Like if they keep saying that song throughout their whole life, I'll be right next to them the whole way.

LAVANDERA: Zach can't stop writing lyrics. There are so many songs he wants to leave behind.

SOBIECH: You've got to live life fast, you know? You can't really put on the brakes at all. I can't wait for anything. And so, that's kind of like one of the things when people say hold on, we have to wait for this. I say I can't. Let's go.

Tomorrow, what are we doing?

LAVANDERA: Zach is 17, a senior at Stillwater High school. He goes to class but told his teachers he wouldn't be doing homework this year, making to graduation would be a gift.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I haven't seen you stop smiling.

SOBIECH: It's -- why not? Why not. Might as well smile.

LAVANDERA: Zach wants his song "Clouds" to raise awareness about childhood cancer, but for his family, the lyrics are a constant reminder the end is near. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He makes you cry. And it's the lyrics and having him actually articulate it and say this is what it is and this is what I believe. It's a tough thing to hear from your kid.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He's leaving a legacy behind and inspiring so many people, and that is more than any of us will ever be able to do.

LAVANDERA: When you look at your friends and you look at your family and your sisters, what do you think?

SOBIECH: In all honesty, I'm sorry for them, because I get to leave, and I don't have to deal with any of this, but they have to keep up with it and they have to deal with it.

LAVANDERA: Turning the heartache of cancer into unforgettable melodies is Zach Sobiech's final wish on this long goodbye.


LAVANDERA: Ed Lavandera, CNN, Lakeland, Minnesota.


ROMANS: A young man who's definitely feeling life, living life intensely right now.

BERMAN: It's one brave, brave kid. And we should tell you that his videos on YouTube have received hundreds of thousands of hits. They are lovely and you can see them if you visit our website. We'll post them --

Up next, we have some "Best Advice" from Olympic gold medalist Gabby Douglas.

And ahead on "STARTING POINT," new developments in the war in Syria. The U.S. making a big, major new commitment to the region.


BERMAN: It's practically the weekend for morning TV. Fifty-eight minutes after the hour. As always, we wrap it up with "Best Advice."

ROMANS: And today's "Best Advice" is good stuff, from Olympic gold medalist Gabrielle Douglas.


GABRIELLE DOUGLAS, OLYMPIC GOLD MEDALIST: The best advice I've ever received was to always keep fighting and to push and strive for my dreams and don't ever quit.


BERMAN: So, she's one of the most fearless competitors in the world. When we asked her to film that -- ROMANS: Yes? She was a little nervous. She really thought about it. She really thought about it, about what she wanted to say, and she said never quit, but there's a girl who almost quit. Remember, she almost quit, and then she came back and won gold.

BERMAN: I cannot imagine her ever being nervous. All right. That is all for EARLY START. I'm John Berman.

ROMANS: I'm Christine Romans. "STARTING POINT" with Soledad O'Brien starts right now.