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Fiscal Cliff Deal May Be Near; Interview with Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas; Sandy Hook Criminal Investigation

Aired December 18, 2012 - 06:30   ET



ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN, CNN ANCHOR: The tide could be turning on the gun control debate, a major corporation and even some Republicans showing signs of change.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: An anxious morning here in Newtown, Connecticut. Many students and parents here, kind of put their fear aside as they head back to school.

SAMBOLIN: Two-week warning until the fiscal cliff. One-on-one meeting at the White House results in major movement toward a deal.

Welcome back to EARLY START. We're glad you're with us this morning. I'm Zoraida Sambolin.

O'BRIEN: And I'm Soledad O'Brien. Nice to you have you with us this morning.

We begin taking a look at the latest in what is happening here in Newtown, Connecticut, with developments really in the nation's gun control debate first and foremost.

Four days after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, President Obama is taking action. "The Washington Post" reported that he has ordered his Cabinet to put together some proposals that could include reinstating a ban on assault rifles. Vice President Joe Biden has been asked to lead the charge on this.

Also, Dick's Sporting Goods announcing it has removed all guns from its store closest to Newtown. It's suspending sales of modern sporting rifles chainwide. They said they were doing that out of respect for the victims of the school shooting.

SAMBOLIN: Meanwhile, grief counselors and police will be on hand this morning when children all over Newtown head back to school. And this is, of course, the first time since Friday. The Sandy Hook Elementary School remains closed.

Jessica Rekos, of the 20 children killed Friday, will be laid to rest today. The 6-year-old adored horses. She couldn't wait until her 10th birthday when her parents had promised to buy her a horse. She is the oldest child in her family. She leaves behind two younger brothers, and, of course, her mom and dad. And I have to tell you that they called her the CEO of the family, because she was in charge of everything. She's the one always making plans.

O'BRIEN: She ran the whole thing.

SAMBOLIN: And she always left little notes around the house and her mother actually discovered one once she had been killed and she said it brought her comfort. It said, "I love you, mommy."

O'BRIEN: I bit it did.

SAMBOLIN: Remember, Jessica Rekos this morning. Just 6 years old. is calling for a show of support for the victims of the Newtown, Connecticut, massacre. It is asking all gamers and online shooters to join in what it calls a day of cease-fire. That is Friday, December 21st.

O'BRIEN: And Titans star running back Chris Johnson paying tribute to all 26 victims of the Newtown's tragedy on his cleats during Monday night football. He broke off a 94-yard touchdown run in those cleats, 14-10 win over the Jets.

SAMBOLIN: Propelled by those names.

And another big story today. New developments in the fiscal cliff. We're going to send it back to John Berman. He is in New York.

Good morning to you, John.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, Zoraida. That's right. There may be a ray of hope in the fiscal cliff discussions. Overnight, we learned that President Obama gave some pretty serious ground in his proposal to his House Speaker John Boehner. Under his revised pitch, the president is suggesting that tax rates would rise on incomes over $400,000.

Now, previously, he wanted higher taxes on households starting at $250,000. He's also offering some new spending cuts worth about $200 billion. The speaker has given some ground himself, too. He is going from a no new taxes position to now proposing tax hikes on those making $1 million.

Today, Speaker Boehner will meet with his House Republican colleagues to update them on negotiations. And that could be a pretty difficult meeting for him depending on how they respond to what he's been willing to compromise on.

CNN's Dan Lothian is in Washington this morning. And, Dan, it does appear that within the last 24 hours, there's been some real, concrete movement.

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right. And the big question really is, can Speaker Boehner sell this proposal to House Republicans? It was a big breakthrough yesterday when Speaker Boehner met with President Obama at the White House for 45 minutes.

And this is dramatic because the president had held now for so long that taxes had to go up on households making more than $250,000. And now, the president raising that ceiling to $400,000. In addition, the president looking for $1.2 trillion in new revenue, that's down from $1.4 trillion and also $1.2 trillion in spending cuts.

This meets the demand that Speaker Boehner had for equal spending cuts to new revenue. But House aides say the math doesn't add up. While they do see this as a move in the right direction, they say that it's not balanced. Speaker Boehner, spokesman Brendan Buck saying, quote, "A proposal that includes $1.3 trillion in revenue for $930 billion in spending cuts cannot be considered balanced."

So, still some differences remain. But many view this as a step in the right direction, John.

BERMAN: What you are seeing right there is some Republican criticism to the president's proposal. But he's going to take some heat from the left here on what he's now willing to compromise on because he has given ground on a key indexing, a measurement of inflation, which is tantamount to sort of cutting growth in some of these entitlements.

LOTHIAN: That's right. And you can expect a very strong pushback from those in his party, the left in his party, union members as well.

Also when you look at what the president is proposing for Social Security, where he is talking about lowering the cost of -- lowering the cost of living increases for Social Security beneficiaries, this is something that no doubt a senior advocates will push back on. So, while we do see quite a bit of progress happened here over the last few hours, there is still a little bit more work to do before an agreement can be reached.

BERMAN: And that big meeting between Speaker Boehner and House Republicans, that 10:00 a.m., could be hugely interesting.

LOTHIAN: That's correct.

BERMAN: Dan Lothian in Washington, thanks very much.


BERMAN: Meanwhile, hundreds of holiday gifts might not get there on time. Coming up, wait until you hear about what one delivery driver did with a whole lot of packages.


SAMBOLIN: -- way to fast.

O'BRIEN: And as we just mentioned, the president has asked Vice President Biden to take the lead in examining the country's gun laws.

Outspoken gun control advocate, New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg had this to say yesterday.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG (I), NEW YORK CITY: Gun violence is a national epidemic, and a national tragedy that demands more than words. We are the only industrialized country that has this problem -- in the whole world, the only one. And that's why we need immediate national action from the president and from Congress. It should be at the top of their agenda.


O'BRIEN: Our next guest says she's taking immediate action. Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee is a Democrat from the state of Texas. She's currently working on a bill, new bill, that she says could prevent more horrific mass murders.

It's nice to have you with us, Congresswoman. Appreciate your time.


O'BRIEN: The president, as I mentioned when we started this segment, has asked the vice president to sort of show (ph) what his Cabinet will be coming up with, some ideas in order to really hopefully come up with some good proposals about how to end the violence. You have said there should be an immediate ban on all assault weapons.

Give me -- what would be covered under what you have in mind?

JACKSON LEE: Well, first of all, let me, again, offer my deepest sympathy to the families of those beautiful children and the families of those wonderful teachers.

Soledad, the whole nation mourns and I think this is a significant moment in history, bar none, that surpasses any of the horrific tragedies that we face, and the call is to action.

I hope to collaborate with members of Congress, certainly Senator Feinstein, who's been very thoughtful in legislation dealing with anti-assault weapons ban or a ban against assault weapons, and I think there should also be this national discussion that talks about a number of other items as well. Closing the gun show loophole is really closing the general loophole, 60 percent of America's guns are bought without a background check. And so, there are instances where we might have protected innocent victims had we just known what the condition of the purchaser was.

Then, we need this national dialogue. And I'm delighted that the president has tasked Vice President Biden with this effort. Certainly, he is one who can bring members of Congress from both sides of the aisle, but more importantly, both houses together.

We've got to stop this divide between you want to take my guns, or you're in an urban area and I'm in a rural area, I'm familiar with guns, we've grown up with guns. This is a national dialogue, not about the Second Amendment. We respect the Second Amendment. The Second Amendment is in the Bill of Rights.

But it is a dialogue about saving lives and that's what this gun regulation legislation would be, not gun control.

O'BRIEN: Let's run through some of the other things that you are calling for in what you are proposing.

A more -- in addition to closing the gun show loophole that you are just discussing, you are calling for a more structured mental health support system for families that would allow them to actually get immediate assistance in regard to mental health issues.

Look at the design of primary and secondary schools in which these schools might need to have reinforced bullet proof windows and more secure entrances.

Expanding late laws that would hold adults responsible for securing their weapons.

You know, you have been introducing a bill, the Child's Gun Safety and Gun Access Prevention Act every year for the past 10 years.

What makes you think that there's going to be a groundswell of support for what you are proposing now that goes far -- much farther than the proposal you've had every year for 10 years?

JACKSON LEE: You know, I think that the common sense discussion and need to act in a common sense manner has now risen to the highest level of the consciousness of Americans. And for those of us who had a passion to protect our children, but to protect others, now see a way forward.

If we just looked at the numbers and saw the percentages of incidences of homicide and suicide, they are higher where guns are available. We've all heard the story of the Chinese individual who stabbed 22 children. But they all lived. We wish that hadn't happened.

I truly believe if adults are responsible about securing their guns, about putting a safety -- having safety locks, protecting our children, we'd be better off.

I also believe very, very, very sincerely that if we allow people to be un-stigmatized, if you will, with respect to mental health issues in their family, they would more eagerly or more aggressively seek help as I believe this perpetrator needed. He needed additional help, and he certainly didn't need to be tragically around guns.

And also, I know that our schools in America are aging. I understand that. But if those who are in leadership roles would look at reinforced glass and look at secure entry ways -- those are possibilities in a very difficult world and very difficult climate.

Parents are looking for answers, and we must commit to them when their children leave their precious homes, that their precious embrace, that they can go to a place of safety and security. I think we can look way common-sense approach, and what I've offered is a common-sense approach.

I look forward to working with Senator Feinstein and my other colleagues on moving forward. And I think we've raised America's conscience on how precious lives are and what we can do save some precious lives.

O'BRIEN: People are definitely looking for answers --


JACKSON LEE: Yes, we are.

O'BRIEN: Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, Democrat from Texas, thanks for your time this morning. We appreciate it. Thank you.

JACKSON LEE: Thank you for having me.

O'BRIEN: We're going to send it right back to John Berman -- you bet. John is in New York -- John.

BERMAN: Thanks so much, Soledad.

South Carolina Congressman Tim Scott has been tapped to succeed retiring Senator Jim DeMint. Governor Nikki Haley says she chose Scott -- you see him right there on the right of your screen -- for his background and vision in business, along with his commitment to what she calls "conservative principles".

When he'd sworn in, Scott will be the only African-American in the Senate. Jim DeMint, for his part, he's leaving to head up a conservative think tank.

Hundreds of FedEx packages absolutely, positively, didn't make it to their holiday destination. Why? Postal inspectors say a driver decided to dump more than 400 delivery items onto a street in Nebraska. Only about 30 survived intact and were finally delivered. The incident occurred last month, and, yes, the driver has been fired.

Traveling at a speed of almost 4,000 miles an hour, two NASA probes have crashed into the moon. The good news, this was planned and done on purpose at the end of their mission. NASA has named the spot where the two probes crashed in honor of the late astronaut, Sally Ride, America's first woman in space and a member of the Grail Mission team that originally put these probes into space.

Meanwhile, onto the tragedy in Newtown again as Newtown's parents get ready to send most of their kids back to school, detectives are focusing on what they found in the shooter's home. We're going to back live back to Newtown, coming up.


O'BRIEN: Welcome back. You're watching EARLY START. We're live in Newtown, Connecticut, this morning. People here are coming together, pressing on as they grieve the loss of those victims at the Sandy Hook Elementary School.

The former chairwoman of Newtown's Board of Education describing how she feels just hollow to our Wolf Blitzer. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LILLIAN BITTMAN, FORMER CHAIRWOMAN, NEWTOWN BOARD OF EDUCATION: It's been horrific. From the moment we all heard the news, it was devastating to know that someone had come into the school with a gun. That alone was horrible enough, because it's a place of peace and joy.

But now, as we go forward and we've learned the names and now we're going through the grueling process of the funerals, it's very, very, very hard. Everyone uses the word hollow. That's where we're at right now.


O'BRIEN: This morning, a big step in the recovery process for Newtown students and their families. It's going to be going back to school. Sandra Endo is following their returns to the classroom. What can you tell us about logistically how it's supposed to go today, Sandra?

SANDRA ENDO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Roughly 5,400 Newtown students will return to school today, Soledad. There will be a two-hour delay, and students, parents, teachers, may be a little anxious returning back to school. But, clearly, a lot of experts and officials say this is the first step towards normalcy, part of the healing process.

As you mentioned, Sandy Hook Elementary students will still remain out of school right now. They are trying to find more accommodations for them, but for the 5,400 students, there will be grief counselors and police back at school when classes resume as well as teachers talking about what happened in terms of the tragedy in an age-appropriate manner.

We know that principals have asked parents to talk to their kids before they return to school about the incident, because it's really an uncontrolled setting. You never know what other students in the classroom may say about the massacre and what may happen in terms of the classroom setting, but clearly, they're ready to take on a lot of these questions students may have and a lot of the feelings, the emotion, the pain that this community is feeling -- Soledad.

O'BRIEN: Sandra Endo for us this morning. Thank you, Sandra -- Zoraida.

SAMBOLIN: And this morning, the investigation is ongoing as to what could have caused the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School to occur. Authorities are digging deeper into the gun and the computer use of the 20-year-old man who ended the little children's lives and the six adults as well.

The gunman in the Newtown, Connecticut, shooting, killed himself before anyone could get the reasons that compelled him to kill more than two dozen people. David Owens has been a crime reporter for "The Hartford Courant" for the past 18 years. He helped cover this story from the very beginning. We are fortunate enough to have him joining us now. Thanks for being with us. We appreciate it. So, we know that they seized a smashed computer, the hard drive was smashed. "The New York Times" is reporting this morning that they have actually got nothing from it, but the state police keep saying that they are happy with the progress that they're making. Where do you think they stand?

DAVID OWENS, "HARTFORD COURANT" REPORTER: The state police have been gathering all kinds of information and evidence from the home, from the school. They don't comment directly on what they seize. But Lt. Vance at the state police has said that they have obtained helpful evidence, important evidence, that they believe will help lead them to an answer as to why this happened.

SAMBOLIN: Now, they're suggesting that it's going to be a while before we hear anything concrete. Do you have any idea of how long before, perhaps, we'll have some answers here?

OWENS: I think it could be months, certainly weeks. We had an awful shooting several years ago here in Connecticut and that investigation took a year. The state police are not in a rush to get this done. They'll take as long as it takes.

SAMBOLIN: You know this community well. You've been covering stories here for 18 years. What are your impressions of how this affected the immediate area?

OWENS: Everywhere in Connecticut, I've gone in the past few days, everyone is impacted by this. Everyone is talking about it. People are just horribly broken up, obviously, not to the degree that the families of the victims and the people close to those people in Newtown are, but the whole state is mourning.

And the more I talked to people about it, the more I find that people are linked somehow to this tragedy. They have a friend, a co-worker. When people return to work Monday, they learned that in many instances that friends had suffered a loss in this tragedy.

SAMBOLIN: And, David, tell us your personal story about what happened when you were going out to cover this story. What did another reporter ask you to do?

OWENS: One of my colleagues, Bill Leukhardt, who I've worked together with him here at the "Hartford Courant" for years, and he and I were in Newtown Friday morning, and we met near the firehouse at the foot of the driveway of the school and he told me that his step-daughter was substituting at Sandy Hook Elementary.

And he wrote her name down, Lauren Russeau, on a piece of paper from a notebook and handed it to me, and asked me to be on the lookout for her. And of course, we found out later that she was one of the teachers who died.

SAMBOLIN: Did you have to tell him that?

OWENS: No. The editors in Hartford had begun to have an idea that there was a problem. Bill learned quickly, too, because the state police had begun assigning troopers to the families of the victims to help them begin to have a liaison with state authorities, and Bill headed home to be with his family.

SAMBOLIN: Wow. David, I know this is personal for you. This is your family as well. We really appreciate your time, reporter for "The Hartford Courant." Thank you. Let's send it back to John Berman. He's in New York.

BERMAN: Thanks so much, Zoraida.

In sports news, the New York Mets exporting Cy Young Award winner, R.A. Dickey. Dickey has been traded to the Toronto Blue Jays in a seven-player deal that's going to send one of baseball's top catching prospects back to New York. Dickey, the 38-year-old knuckleballer, it's a great story. he went from baseball's scrap heap to really becoming the king of the hill last year, winning the Cy Young, going 20-6 for the New York Mets.

How about this as the subject of Martin Scorsese's next film? Bill Clinton. The Oscar-winning director will produce and direct a documentary on the former president for HBO. This will cover Clinton's two terms in office and beyond. Clinton is said to be cooperating fully with the Scorsese project.

Stormy weather in the west and Midwest could affect your travel plans today. I want to get right to Karen Maginnis who's in for Rob Marciano today. It was nasty weather up here, too.

KAREN MAGINNIS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Yes. There's -- both east and west, we've got some storm systems that will make for very difficult travel as we go towards the big holiday weekend travel time. Take a look at the video coming out of Des Moines, Washington. Now, this is just south of Seattle.

They saw crashing waves, high winds. The storm system is aimed at the west coast. We'll see those snow levels in Seattle down to around 400 feet, traveling to the Midwest, look out. You're expecting three to six inches of snowfall in the next several days -- John.

BERMAN: All right. Thanks so much Karen Maginnis in Atlanta with a quick look at the weather. That's all for EARLY START this morning. "STARTING POINT" begins in just a moment. We'll be right back.