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Interview with Congressman Michael Burgess of Texas; Fiscal Cliff Defense Cuts; Deadly Dose: Danger of Prescription Drugs; Russian Law Bans U.S. Adoptions

Aired December 31, 2012 - 06:30   ET



ALI VELSHI, CNN ANCHOR: All right. We're down to the wire. There's still no deal on the fiscal cliff.

Are the Democrats and Republicans too far apart at this point to reach a deal before midnight? I hope not.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Is the cliff Armageddon for the Defense Department? What these defense cuts would mean for national security.

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: And a health scare for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. What doctors say happened, also an update on her condition. We'll them just moments.

VELSHI: Welcome back to EARLY START. I'm Ali Velshi.

ROMANS: I'm Christine Romans. It's Monday morning.

GUPTA: I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. John and Zoraida are both off. It's 31 minutes past the hour.

ROMANS: All right. Instead of coming down to the New Year, millions of Americans are going to be counting down tonight to a freefall off the fiscal cliff. In less than 18 hours, the U.S. goes over the edge, a development that could send the nation back into recession.

Yesterday, the two parties turned to their respective closers, Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, to get a back door deal done. So far, no word of a breakthrough, although the Kentucky Republican is not giving up.


SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MINORITY LEADER: I'm interested in getting a result here. Willing to work with whoever, whoever can help. There's no single issue that remains an impossible sticking point.


ROMANS: All right. According to the president, there has always been and still is one big sticking point: raising taxes on the middle class. And he is already planning his next move if these two sides can't carve out a compromise.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The pressure is on Congress to produce. If they don't, what I've said is that in the Senate, we should go ahead and introduce legislation that make would sure middle class taxes stay where they are and there should be an up or down vote. Everybody should have the right to vote on that. You know, if Republicans don't like it, they can vote no.


VELSHI: And everybody is on the record as to what they have to do. But the Senate won't come into session until 11:00 today, 11:00 Eastern. We don't want to wake them up too early on New Year's Eve. It's going to be a late night.

Let's talk more about this with someone who is on Capitol Hill, Congressman Michael Burgess. He's a Republican from Texas. He's a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee.

Congressman, good to see you. Thank you very much and thank for being up today.

Because most of American thinks that all 535 of you elected legislators in Washington should be awake, probably shouldn't have had too much sleep last night. They're pretty generally disgusted about what's been going on.

Give us some hope, give us some reason not to be entirely, entirely disgusted that in 517 days of knowing this day was coming, we are down to the wire.

REP. MICHAEL BURGESS (R), TEXAS: You know, if I sound optimistic, I guess the markets respond. So that's a lot of power that you have given me here this morning in this secure location in Washington, D.C.

Well, good morning to you, all.

VELSHI: Good morning.

BURGESS: And I hope you have a good New Year.

This is -- this deadline that we're up upon is a little different from some other deadlines. It's not quite the hard break.

Now, look, you've got a lot of difficulties ahead, we've got the fiscal cliff in January, the debt limit in February, the appropriations laps or the continuing resolution in March. So, I know people are tired of this story, but it's not really going away any time soon. There will be other reiterations that will play out literally through the first half of this year.

Remember, too, that all of the pieces that make up the so-called fiscal cliff are pieces of legislation that were signed into law by President Obama two years ago for the tax policy, 18 months ago for the sequester. So, yes, it's well and good to say that Congress has been aware, but the president has been aware, really, up until just the last 24 hours, really hasn't gotten engaged.

And to tell you the truth, you don't feel his engagement here on Capitol Hill, not like you do in some other areas where the president has gotten engaged and certainly I served with President George Bush, and when he got engaged, you knew there was presidential engagement occurring.

ROMANS: Let me ask you, Congressman, because I know -- I mean, look, the criticism of your party is well documented. Let's talk about what's happening right now. What would you support? Because you still got this fight over raising taxes on the riches Americans, letting the Bush era tax cuts expire for the richest Americans.

Would you support, as some are talking on the Hill, the higher taxes for people who make $450,000 a year or more? The very richest earners in America and letting the middle class keep their tax cuts? Would you support -- if that came out of Senate, would you support it in the House?

BURGESS: If that was all involved, no, the answer is, no, I probably wouldn't. But look the simple --

ROMANS: That looks like the House wanting to protect the very richest Americans and raise revenue for everyone else.

BURGESS: Look, the simplest solution has been available and has available since August. The House passed a one-year extension of current tax policy. The actual cost of that is not that much greater than some of the other things that has been proposed in the past couple of days. Do that, let's take the time and get that fundamental tax reform that everyone knows we need.

Look, we're just tinkering around the edges right now, and it does become -- why do we want to punish success for crying out loud? I mean, you guys in New York are successful, much more successful than a lot of us are in Texas. But we don't want to punish you for your success, we'd like to reward you for your success.

VELSHI: Congressman, a week ago, there was a somewhat cynical plan put forward by John Boehner, the Plan B. The plan that said, I don't know if this whole negotiation with the president will work out, 50 Republicans couldn't get on side with that. Republicans couldn't get side with the idea that that people who earn more than $1 million a year will see their tax on the amount that they earn above $1 million a year, go up by 4.6 percentage points.

Who are the people in this country who will go to the wall and make taxes go up for everybody to protect the people who earn more than one million a year seeing their tax increases above a million a year by 4.6 percent?

I don't think you can put this on Democrats, sir. These are hard lifeline conservatives --

BURGESS: You're missing the major point here.

VELSHI: -- who didn't even let your leader take that to the floor for a vote.

BURGESS: Well, he was the one that withdrew it from the floor. VELSHI: They wouldn't vote for it.

BURGESS: The problem is not the tax policy. The problem is spending activity.

VELSHI: Is spending. How did I know you were going to say that? The problem is revenue.

BURGESS: No, because it's obvious that if we don't fix the spending problem, we are in deep trouble.

VELSHI: It's a $1 trillion, it's $1 trillion of a $4 trillion problem we're trying to solve, $1 trillion.

BURGESS: The tax on the top 2 percent is $80 billion for the first year. We spent that in the first 10 days of October.

VELSHI: You can't start that, sir. Sir, you can't start the -- that's for this year. Everything we're talking about is over 10 years. That's how the conversation goes. So, $80 billion for this year, $85 billion, it's basically almost $1 trillion over 10 years.

You were trying to deal with $4 trillion over 10 years. So, we can't change the math to make it convenient and sound like you don't get money from raising taxes on the rich. You absolutely do.

Can you at least concede that point?

BURGESS: No. The problem is spending --

VELSHI: You aren't going to concede that point?

BURGESS: Look, we can fiddle with the tax code all we want. We haven't solved the problem. We were sent here to solve the problem.

VELSHI: Right.

BURGESS: The president maintains he won an election on his -- on his grounds, and I maintain I won an election on mine. I was not sent here to raise taxes on anyone. Top 2 percent, bottom 2 percent, any 2 percent.

The fact of the matter is that the federal government spends too much. You can't tell me that the every dime out of -- we can't save a dime on every dollar that is spent --

VELSHI: No, I'm not telling you that, you're right. I'm not telling you that.

Would you agree to a deal that at some point does involve the raising of taxes on somebody? BURGESS: I'm not going to foreclose any possibility.

VELSHI: Got it.

BURGESS: But the fact of the matter remains that we've got a lot of things that should be included in that.


BURGESS: Because to this point, I haven't seen evidence of that.


BURGESS: And hearing the president talk on another network yesterday, you know, it didn't sound as if he had that fundamental understanding. Look, all tax bills have to originate in the House. The president can't propose legislation about taxes. He knows that. He's a constitutional scholar. I'm just a simple country doctor and I get that point.

VELSHI: You're not a simple country doctor, but thank you for being with us, sir.

BURGESS: Thank you.

VELSHI: You are an important man today. You were somebody who could help us avoid the fiscal. We appreciate your time this morning. Good luck today.

BURGESS: Thank you.

VELSHI: Less than 18 hours now from a deadline that absolutely never needed to be here.

Here are a few of the things that will happen if the United States does not meet that deadline.

Without a deal, the Bush tax cuts go away, rates return to pre-2001 levels, similarly, the payroll tax holiday we've all enjoyed since 2011 goes away, the withholding rate returns to 6.2 percent for all wages, all wage earners up to 113,700 a year.

A long-term unemployed in for an unhappy New Year. More than 2 million Americans who lost their job since July have been on unemployment. Those benefits, the federal benefits run out when the clock strikes 12:00, and there has been the spending cuts that we've just been talking about. They'll start taking effect tomorrow.

In all, $110 billion in automatic cuts to domestic and military spending start to kick in. The Congressional Budget Office says that will cause the economy to shrink in the first quarter of the year, the economy grew at a rate of 3.1 percent in the third quarter of 2012, probably less than that during this current quarter, because nobody knows exactly what is coming next and that's affecting businesses and consumers in how they spend. ROMANS: Sure is. And, you know, half a trillion in budget cuts over the next 10 years, that's what the Defense Department is facing -- a gloom and doom scenario says the Pentagon. But is it?

Pentagon correspondent Chris Lawrence has a closer look.


CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): To hear the Pentagon tell it --

ASHTON CARTER, DEPUTY SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Sequestration, therefore, if it were allowed to happen, would introduce senseless chaos.

LAWRENCE: -- the fiscal cliff --

GEN. JOSEPH F. DUNFORD, USMC: Sequestration will have a chaotic effect on the force.

LAWRENCE: -- is akin to Armageddon.

LEON PANETTA, DEFENSE SECRETARY: What I worry about is being blind- sided by a huge cut because they don't have the strength or the courage or the guts to do what they have to do.

Happy holidays.

LAWRENCE: The cliff would cut $500 billion in defense spending, but spread out over the next 10 years.

(on camera): Would these cuts really be that bad?


LAWRENCE (voice-over): Analyst Ben Freeman argues the Pentagon can survive on a smaller budget.

FREEMAN: Sequestration happens it will drop a little bit, but it's certainly not catastrophic or doomsday, or any other sort of hyperbole they want to describe it as.

LAWRENCE: Perhaps the Navy would have to buy less expensive, less advanced fighter jets instead of the new F-35.

Or the Pentagon would have to cut the number of soldiers and Marines back to the levels before 9/11.

GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY, JOINT CHIEFS CHAIRMAN: Sequestration would risk hollowing out our force.

LAWRENCE: Pentagon officials say going over the cliff would actually leave them a trillion dollars in the hole, because it comes on top of cuts they've already budgeted for.

PANETTA: We've put in place $487 billion in savings over the next 10 years. LAWRENCE (on camera): Are these "cuts" the same sort of budget cuts that you and I think of when we think of cutting our budget?

FREEMAN: I call them phantom cuts because it's not a real savings.

LAWRENCE (voice-over): Freeman says the Pentagon is counting money it was projecting to spend as savings which he says isn't the same as simply spending less.

FREEMAN: But this is the way D.C. does math. It's unfortunate that you or I can't do our taxes like that, but it's the way they seem to do business here.

LAWRENCE (on camera): A senior defense official admits that everyone at the Pentagon, from the secretary on down, is on autopilot to defend their budget. Even though he feels that they need people to go in and challenge their costs, he argues that's better done over time, not forced on them by the fiscal cliff.

Chris Lawrence, CNN, the Pentagon.


VELSHI: It's a usual suspect for overdoses, the serious and growing danger of prescription painkiller abuse. We're going to talk about that next.

Stay with us.


GUPTA: Did you know that about every 19 minutes, someone dies of an accidental prescription drug overdose? Accidental. Did you know that prescription drugs that might be in your medicine cabinet right now kill more often than overdoses of heroin, crack and methamphetamines combined?

Now some calling this the worst man-made epidemic. What might surprise you is just how few people, including doctors, know about this. So I did this special report about accidental overdoses and saw that epidemic firsthand in Washington state.


GUPTA: To see the problem first hand, I rode along with Lieutenant Craig Aman. He's been on the job for 30 years. He will tell you, when he takes an overdose call, the usual suspect is a painkiller.

(on-camera): What sort of impact do you see here in Seattle?

LT. CRAIG AMAN (PH): Well, I think if you pull a group of people together from this community, someone in that group is going to have had a friend, loved one, that has had difficulty with a prescription drug or potentially died from that.

GUPTA (voice-over): Aman's unit responds to 45 calls a month about overdoses involving these types of medications. And this is important: It can be difficult to tell if it's painkiller or heroin, because they come from the same ingredient and do the same sort of thing to your body.

(on camera): Aside from needle tracks in the arms, someone who has had an overdose of pain medication like that, or heroin, they can look very much the same.

AMAN: Very much. They can be unconscious from medication that they think is relatively safe for them because of instead of getting on the street, they get it from a pharmacist.

All right, possible drug overdose. These people are suffering from chronic pain. They know that a little bit of pain medication helps, so maybe a lot would help a lot more.

GUPTA (voice-over): When we arrive, another medic is on the scene.

(on camera): Somewhere in that parking garage there is a call about someone having a drug overdose.

(voice-over): The overdose victim came to and walked away. But while we were there, another call. And it's been just a few minutes.

I decide to ride along with Lieutenant John Fisk, who's headed to the scene.

LT. JOHN FISK (PH): Yes, sounds like he has a decreased level of consciousness and some respiratory compromise. Sounds like a narcotic overdose.


VELSHI: Sanjay, are there solutions to this? Is there something you tell patients to deter them from being irresponsible with these medications? And how many people get hooked on them without doing anything irresponsible?

GUPTA: Well, I'll tell you, as a doctor, we need to be much more frank. We give the prescription out, and we say don't take this with alcohol, don't take it with other meds. The message needs to be you could die if you do this. Someone dies every 19 minutes. And these, again, are not people who are abusing illegal drugs. This are prescription drugs.

Also, this is a good time of year to remind people about their medicine cabinets. One of the most common things that happens -- people leave these drugs in their medicine cabinet, think they might take it for some sleep one night, somebody else may take it in the household. That is a huge problem. I mean, three people an hour die in this way. And it's remarkable who these people are.

ROMANS: You used to lock your liquor cabinet in the '60s and '70s. As a parent, you have to lock the medicine cabinet because there's some powerful things in there. You also don't want your kids getting a hold of it. GUPTA: That's right.

VELSHI: Do you get addicted just by taking it?

GUPTA: You don't just get addicted just by taking it. What happens is eventually the potency starts to wear down, and you get that sort of dependence in the brain as well. You need to take more of it to get the same sort of effect.

ROMANS: Someone told me that for things like oxycontin, you should not take it for more than five or six days.

GUPTA: I think that that's true.

ROMANS: For acute, acute like limb-cut-off pain, and that's it.

GUPTA: It doesn't work after a period of time. People doesn't realize it. It doesn't give you the pain relief anymore. You might get the euphoric high but eventually it can start to cut down on your ability to breathe on your own.

ROMANS: Thank you, Sanjay.

Another story we're following this morning: A bedroom sitting empty this morning after Russia bans American families from adopting Russian kids. We're going to talk to one couple who was on the verge of bringing this little girl home, their daughter home, and then this law was passed. Next.


ROMANS: Many American families are in a painful limbo this morning because of a new Russian law that goes into effect tomorrow, a Russian law banning U.S. adoptions.

For the past 13 months, Kendra and Jason Skaggs are in the process of adopting a 5-year-old girl with special needs named Paulina. A Russian judge granted the Skaggs' adoption petition on Christmas Eve and it requires a 30-day waiting period. And the Skaggs family already considers her part of the family. Now they aren't sure whether they're going to be allowed to bring their daughter to the United States, bring her home.

Kendra Scaggs joins us live from Los Angeles. And I want to welcome you this morning, the last day of the year.

You must tell me, first of all, when you heard that the Russian president had -- the country had banned adoptions by American families, what went through your mind?

KENDRA SKAGGS, IN PROCESS OF ADOPTING A RUSSIAN CHILD: A lot of fear. Very scary not knowing what's going to happen. We thought at first that all the children who had cleared the court system would be able to come home and then we found out that they were only speaking of the six whose 30 day waiting period was complete in December. And so it's very unclear that since our waiting period isn't over until the end of January if we will be able to bring her home or not.

ROMANS: What are you hearing from the adoption agency, from the State Department, from officials on this end about what you should do? I know that privately other families say that they are kind of crossing their fingers, trying to keep a low profile and they're hoping, hoping that something changes in the bureaucracy so they at least can get adoptions underway through the process. What are officials here telling you?

SKAGGS: Really, we haven't heard anything. Our adoption agency told us to register with the Department of State. We've done that through e-mail. We got a response through e-mail saying we're registered and they'll let us know anything they can. My understanding is that the six families whose waiting period ends have been notified that they will be able to bring their child home. I believe three of them already have, and three of them will go back after the Russian holiday to pick their children up.

As for the 46 of us, we're not being told anything at this time.

ROMANS: We know there are about 1,000 Russian children adopted to the United States last year. It's the third largest country for American adoptions. You have to go to the country once, if not twice I think in some cases, meet officials there, go to the orphanage -- you really have to prove that you are going to be -- you have to really prove this to the Russian authorities. You were just recently there. Did anyone there tell you that they thought there was going to be a problem?

SKAGGS: Yes. We actually have to go three times. We have to go the first time to receive our referral and spend some visits with the child. We visited with her five times in September, and then we signed official papers saying we want to go forward with this adoption and tell them what name we're going to give her. At that time, we come home and we wait for a court date.

We went back for our court date in December, had five more visits with her. According to Russian law, you have to have ten visits before court. We went to court on December 24th, and it was that day that we were told that even if we got approved, the law could keep us from coming back if it were passed.

ROMANS: You know, she especially, she has spina bifida. You and your family prepared a room for her, you're ready for the medical challenges. You're ready for all of the challenges. This is your little girl. Do you think that because she has special needs, you might have a better chance?

SCAGGS: I hope so. There's been a proposed amendment to the legislation that says that it would excluse the ban for disabled children, and so that's one of the hopes we have, that we'll be able to bring her home. That still has to go through three votes of the Dumo, which is their lower parliament, and then a vote of their upper parliament, and get signed by President Putin before that could go through. ROMANS: We certainly wish you the best of luck. You would not like to see something politically motivated because of anger at the United States and the people who are hurt are little children in an orphanage who want to be reunited with people like you, who want to help them and take care of them.

Kendra Skaggs, thank you so much. Best of luck to you.

SKAGGS: Thank you for having me.

ROMANS: All right. It's a story we've been following all morning. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the hospital right now after doctors found a blood clot. A live report at the top of the hour on the seriousness of her condition.

And when the clock strikes at midnight, it's not just new years. One ball drops in Times Square; another ball drops in Washington. We go over the fiscal cliff.

We'll be talking with Grover Norquist, president of the Americans for Tax Reform, about the likelihood of a deal in Washington.