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Fiscal Cliff: Deal or No Deal; George H.W. Bush Health Improves; Rape Victim in India Dies in Hospital; Two Boys Missing

Aired December 29, 2012 - 17:00   ET

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


(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: Top of the hour, everyone. I'm Don Lemon. Thanks for joining us. The northeast bracing for another round of severe winter weather. Snow stretch from Ohio to Maine today with some areas of eastern Massachusetts getting blasted with more than eight inches. D.C. is also seeing some of that action today with snow accumulations of three to five inches.

Lots of celebrating early this morning in Portland, Maine. The first same-sex couple said "I do" under a new state law which took effect at midnight. Steven Bridges and Michael Snell said it's still very surreal to them. Voters in Maine, Maryland and Washington State all approved same-sex marriage last month. Gay marriage is already legal in D.C. and six other states.

It is a dream come true for a Nigerian immigrant. In a rare move, President Obama signed into law a private bill granting Victor Chuckwiki (ph) permanent residency. It's the only such bill to be approved in the last two years. The recent college grad came to the U.S. 11 years ago to undergo treatment for rare life threatening facial tumors. He had been living in Michigan on an expired visa and will now head to medical school.

A Russian airliner slid off a runway and smashed into a highway outside Moscow today. Four of the eight crew members on board were killed as the plane splintered into three pieces. No passengers on board were -- no passengers were on board, and no one on the highway was injured. The jet is about as big as a 757. It was run by the Russian airline red wings. The plane was arriving from the Czech Republic when it overshot the runway.

We knew it would end like this, didn't we? The fiscal cliff, still looming. Spending cuts and tax hikes that could shove our economy into recession. And a deadline lawmakers ignored until the very last possible minute. Live pictures now of the capitol. Looks beautiful. Man, but there's a lot of wrangling going right there. Lawmakers are back up -- had their backs up against the wall right now. And as they try to find a plan that can pass Congress. Let's hope they do.

CNN's Chief White House correspondent is Jessica Yellin. She is following the negotiations, she's working very hard on this Saturday. So Jess, Democrats and Republicans are supposedly working on a plan, even as we speak. What do we know about it? JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, we know, Don, that it's the Senate leaders that are hashing this out. And what they're looking to negotiate is a deal that would extend current low tax rates for middle income Americans. We don't know the exact threshold levels. So would it be people who make $400,000 and less, would it be $250,000 and less? But something that would extend low rates and then increases them above. Extend probably unemployment benefits and some kind of patch for the alternative minimum tax, probably. Probably a fix for the doctor to receive Medicare payments. And then some other components.

This is just based on prior discussions and what we know each side wanted going in. We don't know about the estate tax and some other elements. And we also don't know if this will all really come together in time. But our people up on Capitol Hill, Ted Barrett, Lisa de Jordan said they did see some revenue estimates. Just how much all this would cost going into Senator Reid's office and then that paper heading over to the republican side. Manila envelopes changing hands. So all that is a good sign that there are discussions and progress being made, at least they are talking, Don. Things could be worse.

LEMON: OK. So this may be a little bit redone it but I want you to go in specifically for me. President Obama says, he wants another plan put to a vote if the Senate fails to come up with a plan. So what is the President's plan, and will republican leaders let that happen?

YELLIN: Well, OK. So, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a democrat, has crafted an alternative proposal that he has -- saying he will put -- if the negotiations I just described fail and if the senators cannot come to a bipartisan agreement, then the democratic leader is going to put on the floor a democratic proposal that would extend tax rates for households that make $250,000 and less. Hatch the alternative minimum tax and extend unemployment insurance. So that's a democratic proposal.

The problem with that is, you can expect a republican is likely to filibuster it or block it in some way and so it's not likely to go anywhere. And it's not likely to be put on the House floor for a vote by Republicans in the house or Democrats in the house. So you can assume it's a nonstarter. It's more of the political proposal than a real proposal. Bottom line.

LEMON: There's one good thing in Washington. Or two. You're there. And if we can get a shot of the capitol back, at least there's a nice dusk happening, it's beautiful. Let's hope that helps the mood there. And they get something done. Jess, thank you.

YELLIN: Thanks.

LEMON: OK. Despite all the hand-wringing over the fiscal cliff, investors haven't felt much pain. That doesn't mean if won't get ugly on Wall Street if we don't have a deal soon. CNN's Alison Kosik looks at the consequences. ALISON KOSIK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Don, with Wall Street focused squarely on what's happening on the fiscal cliff, there is really little incentive at the moment for investors to move stocks higher so stocks ended lower for the fifth session in a row on Friday with the Dow tumbling 158 points. Now, the slide actually began last week when Speaker Boehner was unable to bring his plan B to a vote. That would have avoided the fiscal cliff. But he wasn't able to bring that to a vote. That made investors lose confidence, and since then, nothing really concrete has happened with the fiscal cliff to convince investors that a deal can get done.

So at this point, the market doesn't really want a band-aid or so- called framework deal. In fact, one trader told me that it would almost be better if we went over the cliff, because that would give the markets some certainty. They would at least know what to expect. That is, of course, instead of a band-aid measure, because the worry there is that it would just kick the can down the road. Now, this is usually the time of year when we see what's known as a Santa Claus rally, when investors push up stocks an average of 1.5 percent in the last few days of the year.

And that kind of rally has come to Wall Street over the past four years. The Santa Claus rally still has some time to make it, though, with the market wrapping up 2012 on Monday with a full day of trading. Now, the major averages are, though, on track to make some solid gains for the year. You look at 2012 heading into Monday for the Dow industrials, they're up six percent. The NASDAQ is up more than 13 percent. And the S&P 500, that's up 11 percent for the year -- Don.

LEMON: Alison, thank you very much.

A lot of us would like to tell lawmakers what we think of them. Here's our chance, your chance. Go to ireport.com and send us a 15- second video that starts "My New Year's Message to Washington." Then tell us what you want to tell them. And we'll play your messages to Congress on-air.

You know, he was hoping to be home by Christmas. But former President George H.W. Bush still in a Texas hospital. He has been in intensive care since Sunday but we're hearing now his condition is improving. Paul Vercammen joins us now from Houston. So, Paul, what can you tell us about the former president's condition?

PAUL VERCAMMEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I can tell you this, Don. He is now out of intensive care and a Bush spokesman is telling me that this is just wonderful, great news for the family that he has finally been taken out of intensive care. And for some reason, it seems like singing is a theme here among H.W. Bush. The oak ridge boys apparently serenaded him yesterday after Barbara Bush had made a call to them and said, we need for you to lift his spirits, and indeed they did, from what we understand in talking to a Bush spokesman and in talking too or getting a statement.

From the Oak Ridge boys, they sang Elvira to him and they're singing a version of Amazing Grace. Also, I said singing the theme here, President Bush also reportedly singing yesterday and Bush spokesman said that this shows he still has his positive attitude and he's kept his sense of humor and has a lot of clarity here. He says President Bush absolutely loves his doctors and his nurses here. But again, the headline, he is now out of intensive care -- Don.

LEMON: All right. Paul, thank you very much. We appreciate it.

Other news now. Police in New York have a woman in custody, wanted for shoving a man to his death on the subway tracks. A police spokesman says, the woman was implicated -- has implicated herself during interviews with detectives but has not yet been formally charged. This is a sketch that went out yesterday. Police only had this grainy video and some eyewitness statements to go on. The victim was pushed on the subway platform under the train as it entered the station on Thursday. He was a 46-year-old graphic designer from Queens.

Also in New York, upstate in Rochester, this woman under arrest. Police say, Dawn Wen (ph) is charged with providing weapons to a man who ambushed and kill two firefighters. The gunman was not legally allowed to buy a gun. Firefighter Mike Chiapperini and Tomasz Kaczowka died when the gunman shot them from a distance as they responded to a fire on Christmas Eve. The shooter then committed suicide.

Overseas today, a group of men accused of a brutal gang rape in India now have murdered charges at it. The rape victim tied today in the hospital. The woman's tragic story has people all over the country demanding action. And justice, as well. CNN's Malika Kapur is in New Delhi for us.

MALIKA KAPUR, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Her identity is a secret but Indian public has been given her a name, "Brave Heart." And thousands of people across the country are taking to the streets to mark this courageous young girl's death.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: We are really speechless about what happened with the girl.

KAPUR: A brutal gang rape in New Delhi on December 15th has shaken India and triggered an unprecedented outpouring of grief and anger. Anger at if there's some protests (INAUDIBLE). They say New Delhi just isn't a safe place for women.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Common people like us have come out, people who don't normally go to protest, because we feel strongly about this. We feel we are not safe. You know, our relatives. Nobody is safe in the city anymore. And we don't really see the government picking up that as an issue. I mean, safety is the first thing that you would assure to a citizen rape.

KAPUR: This isn't the first time a rape case has been reported. Many more never are. But this case has become a lightning rod in India. People are disgusted with the brutality of the rape. Protesters say, enough is enough. UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The brutality of this crime and the way it has been handled, the kind of insensitive treatment that some of the -- statements that some of the politicians and some of the people have made ensure that not only me, I mean, everybody has come out to say that this is not done. And we are not Ok with this.

KAPUR: They want to see the government take concrete steps to address their concerns.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Surely, definitely. Then, you know, just faster justice. You need to have special courts where it's not open to the public. I think that's still a provision. But we need to have more courts and better hearing and stronger assistance.

KAPUR: It's no longer about one girl or one particular rape case. It's about India's attitude towards its women and about making sure that Brave Heart did not die in vain. Malika Kapur, CNN, New Delhi.

Coming up, more than 2,000 weapons were turned in during a gun buyback. A program including two grenade launchers. Two grenade launchers. And just ahead, a Georgia mom hasn't heard from her two little boys in a week and she is pleading with their father to return them. She'll join us live later this hour.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

LEMON: Well, gun buybacks have been taking place around the country in the wake of the Newtown massacre. More than 2,000 weapons were turned in Los Angeles this week. But look at this. Not just one, but two, two rocket launchers ended up in the pile. Los Angeles County sheriffs says, it's incredible to know such fire power was even out on the streets.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SHERIFF LEE BACCA, LOS ANGELES COUNTY: It looked like we were in a third world nation when you seize all these weapons from individuals. And the question you have to ask is why.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LEMON: New Albany, Kentucky held its first gun buyback this weekend. Police say it was a success with 250 guns turned in. Hundreds of people stood in line to get some cash. The goal was to collect handguns and assault rifles. And in Bridgeport, Connecticut, a ground swell of gun owners supported the buyback.

CNN's David Ariosto looks at how the shooting rampage in nearby Newtown is prompting people to say goodbye to their weapons.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAVID ARIOSTO, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): William Porter says, he is done with guns. The elementary school shooting in nearby Newtown, Connecticut struck a nerve. WILLIAM PORTER, BRIDGEPORT RESIDENT: My wife cried. We were out shopping. And we heard it while we were in the store. And she cried. You know? It's wrong.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: OK. How are you doing?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I'm good.

ARIOSTO: Porter is turning over his handgun to police in Connecticut's most popular city. Part of Bridgeport's largest gun buyback ever. And with well over $100,000 in private donations, police are taking the weapons, no questions asked.

JOSEPH GAUDETT JR., BRIDGEPORT, CONNECTICUT POLICE CHIEF: I know that every gun we take in is one less gun that has a potential to kill our children.

ARIOSTO: More than 100 guns have been collected in each of the first two days, and are expected to be melted down. But with millions more scattered across the U.S., can buybacks like this one make a dent?

MAYOR BILL FITCH, BRIDGEPORT, CONNECTICUT: These guns could have created victims. And we know that if we can reduce the number of weapons that are available through breaking into people's houses and grabbing guns, we are a safer society.

ARIOSTO: Bridgeport's police chief says an attempt to organize a similar gun buyback failed last year due to a lack of funding. But not this time.

JOSEPH GAUDETT, JR., BRIDGEPORT, CONNECTICUT POLICE CHIEF: We've seen an outpouring from the community since Sandy Hook. In all manners. From, you know, from teddy bears to cash. And I think this is part of it. I think people want to feel safe.

ARIOSTO: For Porter, a gun locked safely in his home ended up in the hands of his foster child, who he says then handed it over to a gang member.

PORTER: If that person would have done something to somebody else with that gun, it would have been fall back on me. And I'm 52 years old. I haven't had a criminal record all my life.

ARIOSTO: Police say that's how even legal guns can pose a danger.

GAUDETT: I don't know that we're ever going to be able to disarm every bad guy here. But what we're doing is we're taking away the possibility. We're taking away the chance for a bad guy to get another gun.

ARIOSTO: Porter says, he got lucky.

PORTER: It did go into the wrong hands but I got it back, and it's getting destroyed now.

ARIOSTO: And now he has a little more cash in his pocket. UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Seventy five.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: All right, thank you.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

LEMON: All right. David Ariosto is there in New York. So David, the real question is, will these have any impact?

ARIOSTO: Well, Don, we're talking about tens of millions of guns that are spread across the United States. We're talking about hundreds that are being taken back. So you talk to different types of people. But you know, formally they say this makes an impact, but the real relative impact about how many guns are actually on the streets could be actually minimal. Talk about the gun swell in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting, from gun enthusiasts concerned about whether new legislation from pushes on Capitol Hill will actually change the public dialogue and start to restrict gun rights, perhaps the way they were in the 1990s and Clinton administration.

You start to see more and more gun shops selling some of these weapons out of fear for that new regulation. So while many people say that the heart is in the right place and perhaps with shrinking municipal budgets, it will take some private donors to put these programs forward, it really seems to be a drop in the bucket.

LEMON: David, I want to talk to you about a completely different story, but one that you have been covering. The man who was pushed in front of the subway and died, the 46-year-old graphic designer from Queens.

ARIOSTO: Right.

LEMON: I understand there has been an arrest made and there is some new information about the woman accused of doing this.

ARIOSTO: We just got off the phone with the Queens district attorney and found out that the woman has been identified as Erika Menendez. She is a 31-year-old New York resident. And this woman has been charged with second degree murder. She has also been charged with a hate crime. If I can actually read from the statement here, it's -- the Queen district attorney's statement says that "I pushed a Muslim off the tracks because I hate Hindus and Muslims, ever since 2001 when they put down the Twin Towers, I've been beating them up."

So, she could be facing some serious jail time, if convicted. This, of course, happened on Thursday, being the second time within the month of December that we've seen a fatality of someone being pushed off a subway tracks. And as you know, New York has eight million people, many of them take the subway. It's sort of the lifeblood of the city here. And so, you know, it has certainly rocked New Yorkers and particularly those in Queens where this has happened -- Don.

LEMON: Unbelievable. And this whole hate crime thing takes the story to an entirely different level now. We're going to be covering this for the time being. Thank you very much, David Ariosto for covering both those stories for us.

The family of the 6-year-old girl who survived the Sandy Hook Elementary attack is reportedly filing suit. The Hartford Courant reports, the family is asking the state for $100 million. The little girl known only as Jane Doe was sitting in her classroom during the attack. Her attorney says she is traumatized after hearing the attack unfold over the school's loud speaker system. It's the first legal action after the massacre.

New research points to a strong link between environmental changes, millions of years ago in the evolution of the human mind. Can big, traumatic events still change how we think? That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

LEMON: Our environment fundamentally changes how our brain works. That's according to new research. Scientists say key mental developments are linked to events from millions of years ago. And they argue, even today our minds are shaped by things like pop culture and world events. Just like how changes in food supply and weather patterns impacted the brains of early man. Our 21st century brains are impacted by the powerful events happening in the world around us. OK? So, let's talk about it.

Wendy Walsh, human behavior specialist. So, Wendy, can we predict how tragedy or trauma will make us evolve mentally?

WENDY WALSH, HUMAN BEHAVIOR EXPERT: No. What we can do is we can predict -- we can infer that the big, sweeping changes that happen in our culture will force change in individuals or groups. We don't know if that change is going to be -- or what direction the change is going to be, good, bad or neutral. So, for instance, a giant hurricane like Hurricane Sandy, is this going to make people take a harder look at climate change? Or is it just going to make them buy more house insurance, homeowner's insurance? Or a tragedy like Sandy Hook.

Is it going to make people take up more arms or fewer? We don't know which direction things will change. But we can say that there are some big things that happened in the last year that I think have the potential to cause a lot of change in people.

LEMON: OK. So then let's talk about that. One of the big stories this past year, which do you think had the greatest potential to cause a major change? In our thinking? Would Newtown be one of them?

WALSH: Newtown would certainly be one of them. I think we're going to now -- many people are calling this rock bottom. It's making us really take a look at if our laws really are preserving our freedoms or taking away our freedoms to be safe on the streets. And so that's the way people are starting to, you know, challenge the ideology. But look at Penn State and the tragedy and the conviction of Jerry Sandusky. I think already people are understanding how sexual abuse in children can be very, very damaging. And they're taking greater lengths to protect children. I think that's another one.

Also, all the various uprisings in the Middle East from Egypt to the tragedy still going on in Syria. I think we're at a new place in the Middle East where we have a younger generation that's using a new tool in the environment, technology. During Egypt's uprising, for instance, I was getting tweets and twitters and Facebook post from various people trying to even get to me. So, I can imagine you down being an actual CNN employee getting all these, trying to get to the American media to spread the word. So, I think that the path we're on now while it's still bloody and tragic might be a path towards eventual peace in the Middle East.

So, I mean, I'm not predicting it here for 2013. But I think that's the big story. And the last one I think is the gay marriage story. I think you finally understand. You can't legislate love, but you can support love when it's there. And I think people are growing and progressing and I think ultimately that's a big story for this year, as far as evolution is concerned.

LEMON: You know, it's interesting. As you were reeling off those stories and those are just a few of them, you know, sitting here on CNN and having to cover all these stories, you wonder like, why we aren't -- the news people aren't the most depressed people in the world. But then the viewer is also taking it in at home, and it has to be affecting them as well.

WALSH: Of course. It absolutely does. I mean, I know that you just got back from Connecticut and you and I had an e-mail exchange earlier that, you know, you're the one who is bearing witness to our tragedies up front and personal, right there. We have the luxury of being able to turn off the television, Don. And that's fortunate. Because we can deal with our grief in chunks of time. But, yes, news reporters can have PTSD.

LEMON: Yes.

WALSH: Trust me.

LEMON: Well, I think I do. But thank you for -- we just had an e- mail exchange. We've had phone calls lately. Wendy has been my therapist. You really have. And Wendy -- I had such a breakthrough last night, I had such a catharsis, it was the first time I think I really had a belly laugh since Newtown and thank you for helping me with that. It was really great. Thank you. Thank you.

WALSH: I love you, Don. Welcome back.

LEMON: I love you as well. Happy New Year. Happy New Year.

WALSH: You too.

LEMON: We were just three days away from the fiscal cliff as our lawmakers struggle to make a deal. It's worth asking, how did we get hear? We'll tell you, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

LEMON: Half past the hour now. We want to give you a look at the headlines. Officials in Pakistan say they found the bodies today of 21 policemen believed captured and killed by the Taliban. They were found not far from Pakistan's border with Afghanistan. The Taliban said yesterday that they had more than 20 police hostages. Pakistani officials says, they were all shot execution style.

This is Syria today where an alarming number of people died outside the city of Holmes. Opposition activists are saying more than 200 people were, quote, "executed" after Syrian forces won a battle for control there. In all, across the country, more than 380 people were reportedly killed in fighting, bombings and air strikes today.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LEMON: A 31-year-old woman has been charged with second degree murder as a hate crime in connection with a subway death in New York City. The Queens district attorney identified the woman as Erika Menendez of New York City.

This is an NYPD sketch of the suspect. She reportedly implicated herself in the death of Sunando Sen on Thursday night. The victim was a 46-year-old store owner and graphic designer. Witnesses said a woman was pacing the platform and talking to herself just before pushing Sen on to the tracks as a train entered the station. Surveillance video shows the woman running from the scene.

Former President George H.W. Bush out of intensive care and in a regular hospital room now. He has been in a Houston hospital for more than a month, fighting off a fever and bronchitis. His spokesman says the former president is in good spirits and even singing with doctors and nurses.

In Washington, Washington is usually pretty quiet this time of year. But not this weekend. Lawmakers are trying to find a plan to stop us from going over the so-called fiscal cliff.

Good luck with that.

Here's what we know so far. It's up to the Senate to pass a plan at this point. Aides for Democratic leader Harry Reid and Republican leader Mitch McConnell are trading proposals.

Even if they agree, they still need the support of the caucuses. That's no sure thing. Then the plan needs to pass the House, too. And Speaker John Boehner has shown he can't control how his caucus votes.

If the Senate fails to act, President Obama wants it to consider a much smaller plan, one that at least would stop middle class tax hikes, at least. But Republicans could block a vote on that.

Did you get all that?

By now, you're probably asking how did we get in this mess? CNN's Ali Velshi breaks it down for us.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And now we have passed a bold package of tax relief for America's families and businesses.

ALI VELSHI, CNN HOST (voice-over): It starts more than a decade ago when then President George W. Bush initiated a series of tax cuts for all Americans. But it's a deal with the devil.

VELSHI: The cuts, which are politically expedient, but costly to government, expire in 10 years' time.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Both houses of Congress have now passed a package of tax relief that will protect the middle class.

VELSHI (voice-over): When it came time for the cuts to expire, the U.S. is just emerging from the worst recession since the Great Depression. So President Obama agreed to extend the tax cuts for two more years in exchange for Congress extending federal emergency unemployment benefits.

Those cuts are expensive. If they're extended, by 2020 the Bush era tax cuts will be responsible for more than half the total national debt. Democrats insist that taxes go up for the wealthy, but stay in place permanently for those earning less than $250,000 a year.

JOHN BOEHNER, SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: We need to stop the job-killing tax hikes, and we need to start cutting spending now.

VELSHI (voice-over): Republicans refuse to play ball. They say no higher rates on the rich, no tax hikes on anyone, based on an ideology that calls for government to be as small as possible.

VELSHI: Now its roots are as old as American politics but today the philosophy's main spokesman is this man --

VELSHI (voice-over): -- Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform. Norquist's pledge, signed by almost all Republicans in Congress, forbids signatories from raising taxes ever, under any circumstances.

Things come to a head in the summer of 2011. Republicans demand the government reduce its deficit as a condition for raising the nation's debt ceiling. Without a deal, the U.S. would lose its ability to borrow money. Both Democrats and Republicans deploy scorched earth tactics that nearly shut down the government and ultimately cost America its AAA credit rating for the first time in history.

But in a last-minute compromise, both sides agree to $1 trillion in spending cuts up front and another $1.2 trillion in cuts to be decided by a special congressional super committee.

VELSHI: But a poison pill was attached. If the super committee can't reach a deal, automatic across-the-board cuts, known as the sequester, would go into effect, starting January 2013 at the exact moment when those Bush tax cuts, extended for two years, if you remember, would expire.

So the point is, we could have all seen this coming, and some of us did. We yelled at the top of our lungs about it, but we were drowned out by the election. It seems common sense and good governance often get drowned out by seemingly endless and continuous elections in America. This time, there may be a serious price to pay for it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LEMON: Ali Velshi, thank you.

Straight ahead, a college student wins a restraining order against her own parents. We'll tell you why.

But first, getting a college degree doesn't have to bankrupt you. Christine Romans has great advice in this week's "Smart Is the New Rich."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): At 24, Greta Russler has her bachelor's degree. Figuring out how to pay for it wasn't easy.

GRETA RUSSLER, CURBING COLLEGE COSTS: I only applied to two schools, both in state, because those were the only ones that were really going to be a reality.

ROMANS (voice-over): She chose Georgia State University, where a four-year degree costs just over $21,000. She earned a scholarship to cover tuition. Loans and a part-time job paid for living expenses and study abroad.

RUSSLER: I ate a lot more Ramen that I am proud to admit. I had a mattress on my bedroom floor. My clothes were kept in boxes on a bookshelf in my closet.

I was living the college life.

ROMANS (voice-over): Russler graduated last year with $7,000 in loans, well below the national average of nearly $24,000.

ROMANS: She did all the right things. You have to keep the debt down in the first place. Scour for grants and scholarships. Remember, it's cheaper to save for college than to borrow.

That $25,000 loan will likely set you back $35,000 with interest later. And get a head start earning college credit so you can graduate in three years. But make sure the school you want to attend will accept those credits.

MARK KANTROWITZ, PUBLISHER, FASTWEB.COM & FINAID.ORG: Your total education debt at graduation should be less than your annual starting salary.

ROMANS (voice-over): And now some colleges are trying to make education more accessible. Belmont Abbey in North Carolina lowered tuition by 33 percent.

And Florida's governor is pushing community colleges to offer a $10,000 bachelor's degree.

For "Smart is the New Rich", I'm Christine Romans.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

LEMON: OK. So we have all heard of helicopter parents. But this next case takes it to the extreme.

Aubrey Ireland is 21 years old, an honor student in college and a successful musical theater star. But now she is caught up in a messy family fight, one that has ended in a court battle. She is accusing her parents of stalking her.

A judge agreed and has granted her a restraining order against them.

That's -- let's talk law and justice; Holly Hughes is here. She's a criminal defense attorney, of course.

So, Holly, have you ever heard anything like this before, other than maybe a celebrity?

HOLLY HUGHES, ATTORNEY: Right. It's very unusual when you don't have a high-profile child.

We've seen this with Macaulay Culkin, having to tell his parents they needed to back off. It's unusual when you have somebody who's just going about their ordinary life. But here's what happens.

They have been going to her school, interfering with her classes, telling the dean of students she has mental problems, accusing her of things that have never entered this young woman's mind. They are making her life a living hell. And that's the definition of stalking, Don.

When you are contacting someone, whether it's via the Internet or on the phone or in person, for the purpose of harassing or intimidating them, that is stalking. And the judge heard all of the evidence. Do you know the university where this young lady attends had to put special security guards to stop her parents from showing up and accusing her of all these nefarious things?

LEMON: So here's the thing. She is an adult. So what is the law in this instance? And why can't they work it out within a family? It just seems (inaudible).

(CROSSTALK)

HUGHES: Well, they tried. The judge actually said that to them. You'll find in a lot of these situations where family members are involved, 99 percent the judge is going to say go to mediation, try to work this out. And the mediators, the interventionists if you will -- that's a big term in our society now -- people intervene, try to help out. The interventionists on both sides came back and said the parents are the problem, not this young lady. She hasn't done anything.

It doesn't matter what your age, OK? You're an adult, right? But they are still stalking her. So even though there is a familial relationship, they're violating her rights.

LEMON: What happens to the parents then if they --

HUGHES: If they violate the restraining order, they can be taken back in front of the judge. There will be a hearing, you know. Chances are they're not just going to snap them right up and arrest them on the spot.

But they're going to say, you violated the restraining order, let's go back in front of the judge, let's have another hearing. There will be more testimony. Ultimately, yes. They can be locked up if the judge finds them in contempt of a court order.

LEMON: It's so sad that people just can't work things out on their own.

HUGHES: It is terribly sad.

LEMON: All right. Let's talk about another sad story.

The search continues for Benjamin and Henry Cleary, two young brothers who have been missing for six days from the greater Atlanta area. They were supposed to be returned to their mother December 26th after a trip to Tennessee with their father. Never returned. So what do you know?

HUGHES: What we know is these two young boys -- and actually, today is the younger brother's birthday. And so his mom, who I've met and I've talked to, and she'll be joining us soon, she went out, she went ahead and got him a birthday cake and his presents, because she is looking forward to celebrating as a family when those little boys come home.

This is a father who did have custody or -- visitation, excuse me. He was allowed to have that visitation. But what he did was he's overextended it, Don. And he has a lot of people worried, because, yes, he loves those boys. But he is keeping them over in violation of a court order.

So what he needs to do is bring them safely home so that the boys don't get worried. They're 7 and 9. At that age, they're old enough to know, hey, it's time for us to go home. We need to work this out in an amiable way. They have parents who love them. But you know, he's kind of pushing the envelope.

LEMON: Is there a way he doesn't know that they're look? Or he knows. HUGHES: He knows. He's aware that they're looking. We have seen them, and we know the boys were OK. They were on a Walmart surveillance video in Tennessee.

LEMON: OK.

HUGHES: So they are OK right now. But, you know, it's time for them to come home and we need to resolve this.

LEMON: You mentioned the mom.

HUGHES: Yes, yes, Theresa.

LEMON: (Inaudible) the plea to get her sons back.

HUGHES: Yes, absolutely.

LEMON: Ben and Henry's mother joins me in studio right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

LEMON: So I want you to sit down and listen and watch this story. It's the holidays. This mom without her sons now. Imagine sending your two boys, just 7 and 9 years old on vacation with their dad, and just days later having no idea where they are.

Nationwide search now under way for Benjamin and Henry Cleary. Their mother, Theresa Nash, last heard from them December 22nd. They were on a trip with their father in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and were supposed to return the next day. But they never came back.

And Theresa Nash is here, holding the teddy bears.

How are you doing?

THERESA NASH, MOTHER OF MISSING BOYS: I'm going to keep it together as long as it takes.

LEMON: Yes. Last time you saw your boys, December 22nd --

NASH: The 19th of December. Yes.

LEMON: Not a good Christmas for you.

NASH: No. But it will be soon.

LEMON: If your boys, their dad, are listening and watching, say it. What do you want them to hear?

NASH: Dan, I just got off the phone with your mother. Your family is in full support of this. I spoke with Erin. I spoke with Erin. I spoke with your mom for about 45 minutes, the whole drive down. She loves you and she misses you so, so much. She loves the boys and misses them.

You -- it is your hand that's taking care of them right now and you know how much they love them. And they're scared. I think they're scared. This vacation has been overdue. It's time to come home. And we welcome you home. We welcome you home safely. Your whole family is behind this, as is my whole family. We are working together. And I really want you to come home.

LEMON: And you just had a birthday today.

NASH: Today.

LEMON: And you bought the cake and presents.

NASH: We've got the cake. Henry doesn't like birthday cake. We've got a birthday cookie cake and we've got your presents. They're wrapped. And we're ready for you to come home and celebrate your birthday.

Dan, I'm sure you have birthday plans for Henry and we really need to go forward and start celebrating his birthday and bring them home to you and to me safely.

LEMON: As you're sitting here and you're clutching those bears, can you tell us about your boys and what these mean to them?

NASH: I can. Ben was wearing -- wore this (inaudible) T-shirt just after he was born. This is his teddy bear. He is the one that put the T-shirt on it. And he loves this teddy bear. And he may be 9, but he loves his teddy bear. And you see it's a little well-worn.

And yes. That's Benjamin. And this is Henry. It is his birthday today. Henry is turning 8 years old today and this is his hippo. And obviously, they're well-worn and they're very fond of their bears.

LEMON: Any idea why he would not return your boys?

NASH: No. But he loves the boys very, very much. And he's trying to take care of them. But I think it's a scary situation for everybody at this point.

If you can call your mother, your mother is waiting to hear from you. Like I said, I've spoken with her and Erin for 45 minutes.

And she is going to do a plea, as well.

And please call your mommy. She wants you home safely.

And children, please call Mommy. You know my phone number. I've taught you how to do it. If Daddy doesn't have a phone, you can ask anybody you see, everybody you see has a phone. You can ask anybody. Remember my number and call Mommy's number.

You can ask people at stores, you can ask people at the gas station. You can ask people anywhere you see, you need to call Mommy. And have a phone. They will help you. Anybody will help you. Call Mommy.

LEMON: I am big on social media, Facebook and Twitter. This story has been trending, I've been seeing it all over. Any leads there? NASH: Yes. We are working together with Dan's family. We're all working closely. This is a nationwide response. We're looking across the country for Dan and the kids, to bring them home safely.

And your mom and your uncles and your family out west are fully participating.

LEMON: This is a Facebook page. What is it?

NASH: This is a Facebook page we started yesterday.

LEMON: What is the address?

NASH: Help Find Ben and Henry Cleary. And there is over 6,000 hits today. This is where we're posting all the updates. We're on it 24 hours a day, posting updates, new pictures and clues about where they may be. And there is also a Twitter. And I believe -- is that up?

LEMON: Now you can -- do you know the address? And I'll make sure I put it out on Twitter as well.

NASH: OK. Very good.

LEMON: OK? And I'll put it on Facebook, as well, all right?

NASH: And I'll give the Twitter address, in just a second.

LEMON: So Dan, it is palpable, everyone here in the studio can feel it. This mother is in pain. Bring the kids home. Just do the right thing, man. Good luck.

NASH: Thank you very much.

LEMON: God bless you.

NASH: Thank you very much.

LEMON: And come back and we'll talk about the good days when it happens, all right.

NASH: Very good. Very good. Thank you.

LEMON: We'll be right back.

(MUSIC PLAYING)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

LEMON: Whether we go over the fiscal cliff or not, the debt is a huge problem. And it is not just lawmakers' crisis, it is ours, too. Some Americans aren't waiting for politicians to fix it. Kyung Lah met one who is doing his part.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KYUNG LAH, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In his unheated garage, 85-year-old Atanacio Garcia is working to fix the fiscal cliff, one can at a time.

LAH: How much money have you sent the government?

ATANACIO GARCIA, DEBT CRUSADER: A little bit over $3,000.

LAH (voice-over): Three thousand, one hundred ninety-seven dollars and 88 cents, to be exact, all tracked on a hand-written ledger. For the last three years, Garcia has been paying the government $50 a month of his postal service pension and money from cans he collects.

A. GARCIA: We are paying absolutely too much interest, too much interest.

LAH: It really bothers you?

A. GARCIA: It bothers me, because it makes no sense.

LAH (voice-over): Sense is something Garcia's wife of 59 years thinks her husband could use.

LAH: Do you think he's crazy?

A. GARCIA: (Speaking Spanish).

GLORIA GARCIA, WIFE: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

LAH (voice-over): Call him crazy, but there is an entire federal office, the Bureau of Public Debt, that collects money from hundreds of Mr. Garcias. This office in Parkersburg, West Virginia, was set up by President Kennedy, so citizens could pay down the national debt. This year alone, it's collected $7.7 million in gifts, about $90 million since it was established.

LAH: But $90 million isn't that much, especially when you consider the federal deficit is $16 trillion and climbing. To retire the debt, every single American would have to pay $50,000.

But Garcia says, you've got to start somewhere. Especially when Washington won't.

LAH (voice-over): The partisan bickering has bothered him since --

LAH: 1992?

LAH (voice-over): That's when Garcia first wrote his congressman, suggesting a formula to eliminate the debt. The Depression-era kid and Army veteran says he's giving back to a country that's given him so much, a sense of duty that's infectious.

His daughter is now collecting cans at work. His grandson drives Garcia to friends' houses, just to collect more cans.

Garcia knows that his monthly money orders won't avert the fiscal cliff, but his priest says that's not the message Garcia's sending to Congress.

REV. MARTIN ELSNER, CATHOLIC PRIEST: In order to really solve the $16 trillion national debt, you have to sacrifice.

LAH (voice-over): Politicians talk about kicking the can down the road. One American has decided that road has to end, and it might as well be here -- Kyung Lah, CNN, San Antonio, Texas.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LEMON: Back in a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

LEMON: More than 50 American families were in the final stages of adopting a child from a Russian orphanage. Now they don't know what the future holds after the Russian president signed a controversial law that bans adoptions by Americans. Tonight at 7:00 Eastern, I'm going to talk with an Atlanta family who are praying for a miracle right now.

And it started with a kiss between New York City Mayor Bloomberg and Lady Gaga, and it ended with binders full of women. We're talking about some of the memorable albeit unusual moments of 2012. Coming up tonight, 7:00 Eastern, comedian Ben Gleib will talk about some of those unusual moments, like the end of the world that was to happen last week.

Maybe we're not here anymore. I don't know, didn't happen. Won't want to miss our chat coming up next hour.

So -- it is the Twitter address that I wanted to share with you is @FindBenandHenry -- @-F-I-N-D Ben B-E-N-A-N-D Henry. Help that mom out.

I'm Don Lemon. Thanks for watching. See you back here in one hour from now.

In the meantime, "THE SITUATION ROOM" begins in just a couple of seconds.