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Hillary Clinton Exits Hospital; Obama's Next Battles; Boehner vs. Reid; Interview With Rep. Michael Grimm

Aired January 2, 2013 - 17:00   ET



Happening now, dramatic images as Hillary Clinton walks out of the hospital, where she's been treated for a blood clot.

But is there more to this story?

We have the latest details.

Also, after the fiscal cliff vote, outrage over something Congress didn't do. The House speaker, John Boehner, takes a lot of heat from fellow Republicans for failing to pass a super storm Sandy aid package. Now he's hustling to try to make amends.

And a shocking new attack in Syria -- as the United Nations says the death toll has now passed 60,000 -- yes, 60,000.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.


But first, the -- we're following the latest developments in Hillary Clinton's medical condition. Just a little while ago, we saw the secretary of State walk out of the hospital in New York City where she's been treated for a blood clot in her head. She entered a van accompanied by her husband and daughter.

Let's go straight to CNN's foreign affairs correspondent, Jill Dougherty.

She's got the latest.

What is the latest -- Jill?

JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, in a way, I wish I could tell you, because it's been a very confusing afternoon. But Secretary Clinton, we know because we have video, did walk out of the hospital. She was looking, actually, pretty good, got into the van with her family. But where she went, we're not quite sure.

Now officials that we're speaking with are indicating that -- that, you know, she has not been released. They insist she has not been released.

So if you put two and two together, that could mean that she is being taken to another location, perhaps for more testing, or there may be some other reason for moving her.

But we do believe, at least at this point, that she has not been released.

But, interestingly, as you noted, Wolf, if you look at that video, there is a -- somebody -- a doctor, perhaps, medical personnel, in a white coat with her, which would also indicate that something, you know, perhaps a test.

But we've been trying to get clarification. We're not getting clarification. And I guess we will get back to you when we know exactly what happened.

BLITZER: Yes, because it is intriguing. You know, we actually see them all getting into that van. We see Huma Abedin, her aide, getting in behind the doctor. I assume that's a doctor wearing the white jacket over there.

But, obviously, we don't know where they headed, if they're going to a different hospital, if they're going to a different location in New York. It doesn't appear to be the case that she is actually heading to their home in Westchester, outside of New York City. But we're getting more information. We'll follow that.

Earlier in the day, we did hear from the State Department spokeswoman, saying she's, what, actually been on the phone with members of her staff?

DOUGHERTY: Yes, she's been on the phone with her staff. She's been talking with her staff. Saturday, actually before this blood clot was announced, she was on the phone internationally to two leaders, one, you know, on Syria -- actually both on Syria. So she's been very active.

And if you look at that video, she looks pretty good. She is walking. She appears to be, you know, functioning normally.

So I think the question is, Wolf, what have they been doing, what kind of testing, you know, what -- actually the testing, at this point, is connected to how well those blood thinners are working. And that was the key. They did say it would take a while to figure out exactly the right dose. And, perhaps, you know, it might be connected to another MRI, see how things are going. After all, the whole idea is to shrink that blood clot that is in the vein between the brain and the skull.

So the whole idea, you know, if they get the right dose, then, we were told by her doctors in a statement on Monday, that she could be released at that point.

So we'll just have to see what type of confirmation we have. But I think the good news is the secretary, in this video, is looking pretty good.

BLITZER: Yes. Well, at least she walked out. She was wearing the sunglasses. She held onto the railing as she was walking down those -- those stairs. There you see her right there.

Let's hope for the best. We wish her only the best, of course.

As soon as we get more information, Jill, you'll let us know, right?

DOUGHERTY: Absolutely.

BLITZER: All right. We'll move on to some other important news we're following.

The smoke still clearing from the fiscal cliff fight here in Washington. The House speaker, John Boehner, is busy handling the fallout from some angry Republicans over the failure to vote on a super storm Sandy relief package at the same time.

President Obama has returned to Hawaii to resume -- resume his vacation with his family. He may need to rest up for a bigger battle that could be happening over spending and that so-called debt ceiling -- raising the debt ceiling.

Our White House correspondent, Dan Lothian, is joining us now from Honolulu with more on what's going on -- are you getting some new information, Dan, about the president's strategy, because this was a huge fight that was averted last night, but there are big battles in the coming weeks?

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right. And the strategy that the president has here is well in advance of another deadline. He's making it clear that he does not want to negotiate on this debt ceiling, he doesn't want a repeat of what we saw in the summer of 2011, where the president says that drawn out process had a negative impact on the economic recovery.

But Republicans now, for weeks, have been promising a fight. They want to see spending cuts in exchange for raising the debt ceiling. Senator Mitch McConnell today saying that this is an opportunity to curb out of control spending.

But the president delivered a stern warning.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: While I will negotiate over many things, I will not have another debate with this Congress over whether or not they should pay the bills that they've already wracked up through the laws that they passed.


LOTHIAN: The president says another debt ceiling debate would be worse than the fiscal cliff. Now, the president, as you pointed out, here in Hawaii on the first day back, part two of his vacation. The president went to the gym, went out on the golf course, but also released a YouTube video essentially defending the fiscal cliff deal.

Take a listen.


OBAMA: Now, ever since I took office, my preference has always been to reach a bigger agreement that solves our whole deficit problem in a balanced and responsible way. I'll admit that hasn't always been easy, as I had hoped it would be.

So, instead, we're solving this problem in several steps.


LOTHIAN: What's still unclear is how or when the president will sign that fiscal cliff deal. It could be auto penned or it could be flown out here.

What is clear, though, is the president has said he will sign it -- Wolf.

BLITZER: The president also got involved today on that funding, the bill for the victims of super storm Sandy. Tell us what he did.

LOTHIAN: That's right. Well, you know, the president was quite critical of House Republicans for, in his words, refusing to act. In a statement, the president saying, quote, "When tragedy strikes, Americans come together to support those in need. I urge Republicans in the House of Representatives to do the same. Bring this important request to a vote today and pass it without delay for our fellow Americans."

And the president also reaching out by phone to the governors of the two states impacted, Governor Cuomo of New York, Governor Christie of New Jersey -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Dan Lothian in Honolulu with the president.

The president got there earlier in the day, flying all night from Washington to resume his little vacation with his family there.

Dan, thanks very much.

While Republicans have been fighting among themselves over the fiscal cliff deal and the disaster relief, we're learning of an angry and foul-mouthed exchange between the House speaker, John Boehner, and the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, in the days before the deal. It was touched off by this comment from Harry Reid.


SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MAJORITY LEADER: The American people, I don't think, understand the House of Representatives is operating without the House of Representatives. It's being operated with a dictatorship of the speaker not allowing the vast majority of the House of Representatives to get what they want. John Boehner seems to care more about keeping his speakership than about keeping the nation on firm financial footing.


BLITZER: Our senior Congressional correspondent, Dana Bash, is joining us now with more on this story -- Dana, pick it up for our viewers, because some ugly words were exchanged.

DANA BASH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right. This incident happened last Friday in the lobby of the White House when they were waiting to go in to -- to meet with the president on the fiscal cliff. And we're told by sources in both parties that the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, was sitting on the couch next to the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell. And the House speaker walked in and he said in a pretty angry way, he said to Reid, "Go blank yourself." And I'll just tell you that the blank starts with an F, Wolf.

And the Democrat -- a Democrat who was there insists to me that Reid just laughed it off and he, you know, sort of didn't take it seriously.

A Republican that was there tells me that that's not what happened and that, in his words, the exchange continued and it didn't get better for Reid.

Now, what's interesting is that not only did this happen, both men appeared to be sort of eager to share the story with their colleagues. I'm told that Reid shared it with members of his Democratic Caucus in a meeting. And the same goes for the House speaker. He told some of his colleagues, as well.

In fact, I just bumped into a Republican lawmaker in the halls this afternoon who said that -- that the speaker was joking about it, almost relaying the incident, acted it out as it happened.

It's certainly not the first time that that blank word has been used in the halls of the White House, in the halls of Congress. But it does speak to the tension that really has mounted with all of this fiscal cliff back and forth and the fact that we are at January 2nd and Congress really has not gone home.

BLITZER: What kind of relationship, Dana, have these two men had, the speaker of the House and the Senate majority leader, over the years?

BASH: You know, at times, it's actually been pretty productive. Remember, I think it was maybe about a -- a year-and-a-half ago, the first real showdown that we saw when Boehner became speaker was about keeping the Congress open, the government open, rather. And he and the Senate Republican -- the Senate Democratic leader, rather, Harry Reid, and their staffs, they were the ones who negotiated a deal to come out of that.

There certainly has been tension, as well. So it's gone back and forth. But I think for us who observe and cover these two every day, what is most striking about this exchange that we know about, which I should say was first reported by Politico, is that you have John Boehner, who grew up in his father's bar, worked at his father's bar and tends to have some salty language and doesn't -- and he's not afraid to admit that, and you have the Senate Democratic leader, Harry Reid, who is a Mormon. And I know from talking to his staff, they try very hard not to curse around him.

So that is sort of the -- those are the conflicting personalities that you have between the two of them. And that, again, is why this was sort of interesting, that the two of them had this confrontation and that Harry Reid heard that language from the speaker.

BLITZER: Yes, a little salty language, shall we say, Dana?

All right, thanks very much.

Dana has been working very hard for all of our viewers.

We appreciate it.

New fallout over the fiscal cliff deal, as it becomes clear how special interests benefited from the bitter negotiations.

Also, fellow Republican slamming the House speaker, John Boehner, for failing to hold a vote on super storm Sandy disaster relief.

Has he now managed, though, to reassure them?

I'll ask Congressman Michael Grimm of New York.

He's coming into THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

Congressman, welcome.


Thank you, Wolf.

Nice to be here.


BLITZER: Victims of super storm Sandy are stunned and furious over the failure of this Congress to authorize a $60 billion aid package. And officials from the affected states have now joined in the outrage. That includes Republicans like the New Jersey governor, Chris Christie, who slammed the House speaker, John Boehner, earlier in the day.

But Boehner has now hustled to try to make amends. Congressman Michael Grimm is joining us now. His district includes the hard-hit areas of Staten Island and Brooklyn. Congressman, thanks very much for coming in.

REP. MICHAEL GRIMM, (R) NEW YORK: Pleasure to be here.

BLITZER: You were furious like so many others, Peter King, Chris Christie, earlier in the day, but then you went to a meeting with the speaker, with the majority leader, and they reassured you that the money is on the way. Is that what they told you?

GRIMM: Well, not only that. I stayed, actually, after the meeting broke up when everyone went to the press conference because I wanted to shake hands with the speaker and the leader to get a personal -- it's one thing as a conference, as the official speaker and leader, but personally, I wanted their word that the people of Staten Island and everyone --

BLITZER: All right. So, you looked them in the eye, you went up to the speaker, John Boehner, and what did you say?

GRIMM: I said, sir, I need to have your word that we have a vote coming on the 15th for the full $60 billion, even though it may be broken up into pieces before that, but the full 60 billion that we're going to get that vote and he gave me his word. We will get --

BLITZER: What did he say exactly?

GRIMM: He said you have my commitment. On the 15th, we'll the vote.

BLITZER: The vote, but that doesn't mean the Republicans are going to vote in favor of it?

GRIMM: Well, that's our job, though. And when I say our job, I mean, that's myself, Peter King, and the entire delegation of New York and New Jersey to get the vote. That's not on the speaker. It never was. The votes are on us. We have to work. I was in the office until 9:45 on New Year's Eve making sure we had the votes in anticipation of it coming to the floor.

It didn't come to the floor, as you know, which caused us a lot of angst and some people well maybe never forgive that, but now, I have to work with what I have and move forward and get those votes again.

BLITZER: He supported the fiscal cliff Senate legislation last night. Did you get the impression he will support the $60 billion to help the victims of superstorm Sandy?

GRIMM: Yes, I did get the impression that he would support it again. I don't think it comes down to his vote as the speaker --

BLITZER: But his vote is important.

GRIMM: Every single vote is important on this, but my job now is to work with my delegation to make sure that we can pass this legislation on the 15th come hell or high water.

BLITZER: What did Eric Cantor say to you? Did you look him in the eye as well?

GRIMM: Absolutely. And you know, in Eric's defense, I got to tell you, Eric was standing literally shoulder to shoulder with me last night at 11 something p.m., working to get that vote to the floor.

BLITZER: You thought the vote was about to happen?


BLITZER: And then all of a sudden, the speaker said no vote.

GRIMM: That's exactly right.

BLITZER: Why did he say no vote?

GRIMM: You know, I think it came down to what was a horrific day for many Republicans. I think the conference overall was not happy that there was no spending cuts in this final deal for a fiscal cliff. Because of that, just because I think the week that we've had and the battles that we've had over this last two years on spending, it is very hard.

It is a big lift for the speaker to then come to that same conference after voting on a bill they weren't happy with and say, by the way, now at the midnight hour which we already said we don't want to do these midnight votes, we're going to vote on $60 billion of un- offset spending.

BLITZER: -- there would be no spending cuts elsewhere to pay for the --

GRIMM: That's absolutely right. And I'm going to be honest with you. I have been fighting hard to make sure that we don't have to go through an offset process, because that's just -- it's not feasible right now. We cannot wait any longer. That would be a long, cumbersome drawn out battle that I don't think we'd ultimately win, and it would leave the people and victims of Sandy left holding the bag once again.

BLITZER: There's a lot of your fellow Republicans, they say, you know what, give them the money but cut spending elsewhere in order to pay for it because of the budget deficit problems that we have?

GRIMM: But as you know, and it's been covered on this very show, finding offsets that everyone else is going to agree to is, sometime, close to impossible. When we -- the president hasn't been able to do it with the speaker and the leader in the Senate and so on, that's why I didn't want Sandy to be messed up in that, because it is a different thing. This is emergency relief.

People are hurting. Businesses are going out. This is not normal business. This is not a continued spending. This is a one- time tragic event that we historically have always been there for and that's why it's important that we're there now.

BLITZER: I'm going to play a little clip. This is how angry you were earlier in the day and I'll play you the clip.


GRIMM: There was a betrayal. And there was an error in judgment that is going to cost, I think, the trust of the American people.


BLITZER: It was a betrayal. Those are strong words. And then, you came out and said you couldn't necessarily vote to re-elect John Boehner as the speaker of the House and you thought that maybe you would abstain in that vote, but you've come around since then?

GRIMM: Well, obviously, if the speaker's decision was ultimately that he could not support bringing this to the floor and that he could not support New York and New Jersey, then no, I couldn't support him as speaker. I mean, I think that speaks for itself. But that really wasn't the case. I just needed to hear that from the speaker of what exactly happened.

I think it was seriously not that his heart was not in the right place, not that he ever intended to abandon New York or New Jersey, he didn't. It was simply a delay based on his tough judge and call. And I'll give him that. It was being the speaker of House is one of the toughest jobs in the world by far. And he had to make a judgment call as the speaker.

It was not a call that I supported, and I think it was a mistake, but, we're going to move forward and I know we have his support now.

BLITZER: You'll vote for him?

GRIMM: Yes, I will.

BLITZER: Michael Grimm, good luck to you. Good luck to all the folks in your district and in New Jersey, Connecticut, and New York who desperately need some help right now.

GRIMM: Appreciate it. Thank you.

BLITZER: Thank you.

It's a happy start to the New Year out on Wall Street. We're going to have details of how investors are reacting to the fiscal cliff deal.


BLITZER: All right. Just want to update our viewers on what we know as far as the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is concerned. Earlier, we showed you this video. She was seen leaving the hospital. There she is right there, walking down the stairs in her sunglasses. Chelsea Clinton next to her and the former President Bill Clinton walking into a van.

We're not told -- her office has not issued a statement saying she has been released or discharged from the hospital and she has not been released or discharged from the hospital. She was in that van. I am hearing she was in that van to go to a different location on the campus of New York Presbyterian hospital to get some other tests.

She's back inside the hospital where she has been. She's going through those tests, and she has not been released. She's certainly not on her way home, but you saw her getting into that van with her family, her husband, and her daughter, going to a different location just for a brief test. I don't know what kind of test it was.

We're getting more information. Bottom line though is Hillary Clinton remains a patient at New York Presbyterian Hospital right now. We'll get more information and update you as it comes in.

There's other news we're following here in the SITUATION ROOM and including stocks. They're starting this New Year with a rally. is here. She's monitoring that and some of the other top stories in the SITUATION ROOM right now. Good to have you back on this New Year as well.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Happy New Year to you. Happy New Year to everyone. Very big day in terms of stocks. Analysts say the surge is all about lawmakers reaching a last minute deal to avert the fiscal cliff. The Dow gained more than 300 points. NASDAQ rose just over three percent, while the S&P 500 gained 2.5 percent.

The early morning deal had the same affect, it seems, on global markets with stock soaring in Europe, Australia, South Korea, and in Hong Kong.

Other news we're following, Pennsylvania's governor is suing the NCAA for its unprecedented sanctions against Penn State University. The penalties included a $60 million fine following the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse trial. Tom Corbett says the sanctions don't punish Sandusky, but instead, affect pass and current Penn State students who had no part in the scandal. Sandusky, you'll remember, is serving a 30 to 60-year prison sentence.

And finally, Avis is getting into the car-sharing business by buying zip car for some $500 million. Avis says it will use (INAUDIBLE) rental cars to bolster zip car for big weekend demand as a car sharing company. Zip car mainly rents by the hour in urban areas. The deal is subject to shareholder approval, but it is expected to be finalized in the spring. Zip car is really popular. Here in D.C., I see them all the time.

BLITZER: I'm surprised only $500 million. I thought, you know, big deal like that would go for a lot more than that.

BOLDUAN: Still, a lot of money, Wolf.

BLITZER: I heard a million, but it's not a billion.

BOLDUAN: It's not a billion. It's --

BLITZER: But I do agree, a lot of people love that -- (CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: -- in New York or Washington, but they use a zip car.

BOLDUAN: They zip around in zip car.

BLITZER: OK. Thank you.

The numbers are coming out of Syria right now, and they are staggering. As the death toll soars, the United Nations official has some very harsh words for the world's response or lack there of.


BLITZER: Shocking new casualty figures as brutal fighting rages in Syria.



BLITZER: Rebels are said to be assaulting a military air base in this video that you're seeing right now in Northern Syria. 150 more people are reported dead today and the United Nations now says, get this, 60,000 Syrians have died since the conflict began two years ago. The United Nations human rights commissioner is accusing the word of fiddling, quote, "while Syria burns."

Let's go live to CNNs Mohammed Jamjoom. He's joining us now from Beirut with the latest horrific air strikes on a gas station that's (ph) death toll 60,000 people dead, probably more than a million displaced internally or externally. The numbers are horrific, Mohammed.

MOHAMMED JAMJOOM, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. And horrific details have been emerging the last several hours from opposition activists about an air strike that they say targeted a gas station in a Damascus suburb. This amateur video that's posted online that purports to show the aftermath of this attack.

It's corroborated by what we've heard from activists, even though we can't independently verify this video, because we're not there. But we were told by opposition activists that the bodies in the wake of this attack of the killed there were so mangled and so burned that they, for many hours, couldn't actually come up with a count of the number of people dead from that attack.

As of now it stands at at least 74 people killed as a result of that attack and they expect that death toll will rise throughout the night. Now more fighting to tell you about in the northern part of the country, in Idlib Province, Taftanaz, where there is a strategic air base for the Syrian military. Opposition activist have said that rebel soldiers have been launching an attack and assault on that base all day.

We've seen video purporting to show the rebel fighters going after it, launching an attack against it, and we're told that this is a real strategic key place for the rebels to overtake, that there are still soldiers within that air base and we were told by the media arm of one opposition in Binnish which is very close to that air base that this is a base from which horrific attacks were launched against the population of towns in that area by the Syrian regime these last few months -- Wolf.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Mohammed Jamjoom with the latest horrific information coming out of Syria.

Mohammed, thank you.

Let's take a closer look at this very, very dangerous crisis in Syria and what it means. Joining us now is Aaron David Miller of the Woodrow Wilson Center here in Washington. He's a former U.S.-Middle East negotiator, his book is entitled "Can America Have Another Great President." That's a book that's going to be coming out soon, right?


BLITZER: Yes. There's another book that you wrote, "The Much Too Promised Land: America's Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace," that we're going to talk about in a second. One line in that book. But let's talk about the article you wrote in the "Washington Post" today because it offers a different perspective than what we've been hearing from Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Joe Lieberman. They wrote in the "Washington Post" the other day on Syria, "We have advocated providing weapons directly to vetted rebel groups and establishing a no fly zone over parts of Syria. Neither course would require putting U.S. troops on the ground or acting alone. Key allies have made clear again and again their hope of stronger American leadership and their frustration that the United States has been sitting on the sidelines."

The piece you wrote today takes a different perspective and I want you to briefly explain the U.S. role or a lack of U.S. role in dealing with this horrible situation in Syria.

MILLER: Well, I argue essentially that our options range from bad to worse.

BLITZER: U.S. options?

MILLER: Yes. And the reality is that the Arabs own their own politics not for the first time in their modern history, and the notion that somehow Syria's was America's to lose or to win, or that somehow we could fundamentally alter the trajectory there, and to create a foundation for a settlement, I think, frankly, is in -- is illusory.

And in the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan, and no one -- let's be clear, Wolf. No one is talking about the insertions of American forces on the ground. But there is real uncertainty over the question of the end stay. And before the United States begins to adopt actions, direct military pressure a sustained effort to arm a very inchoate and unidentified opposition, or to create a new fly zone, which would require the suppression of Syrian air defenses and a direct military confrontation with the Syrian regime, we need to think very carefully about how this is going to factor into the actual end state.

What ultimately is going to transpire? And I -- and I would argue the notion of those -- and this is not a Republican or a Democratic issue. I work for Democrats and Republicans, I voted for Democrats and Republicans, this is an issue of what makes sense for the United States, and what doesn't. In a set of military actions, along the lines that the senators identified, I think would not be effective, and they would open the door, it seems to me, to further calls for additional American military --

BLITZER: So the United States of American should just stay on the sidelines.


BLITZER: And let the slaughter continue?

MILLER: I know it's horrific and I know it's painful. No, we can't and we're not sitting on the sidelines. We're doing -- and I know it's not morally satisfying, very unsatisfying, we're trying to deal with the humanitarian issues of internally displaced Syrians and refugee flows. We're trying to organize it and have played somewhat of an effective role in organizing -- a coherent political opposition. But the notion somehow that we hold the key and that this is somehow Obama's Rwanda as it has been charged I think is way off the mark.

BLITZER: Let me make a turn to another subject. Related to a certain degree. A new secretary of defense, because you sort of have been thrust into this debate over Chuck Hagel. Should he succeed Leon Panetta as the United States secretary of defense, and you wrote a powerful piece saying that all these arguments against him basically are based on misinformation.

You admire Chuck Hagel?

MILLER: Well, I like Chuck Hagel. I've only met him once. He gave me an interview, which sadly has been hijacked --

BLITZER: Which is in this book.

MILLER: Right. Which has been hijacked in the service --

BLITZER: So tell our viewers why it's been hijacked. Because in the book that he's quoted as saying, "The Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here," and he, as a result of those words, has been severely criticized.

MILLER: Right. I mean, there are a lot of -- look, if you live in Washington, as you and I have done for many years now, you'd have to -- you'd have to be in a coma if you didn't accept the fact that pro-Israeli community in the United States has a powerful voice. It doesn't have a veto over American policy but it has -- it has a powerful voice. And Chuck Hagel, I think, acknowledges it. He's one of the few senators in this debate who has been willing and able, frankly, to adopt a somewhat independent view on these matters, but the notion that Chuck Hagel is an anti-Semite, the notion that his use of the term Jewish lobby suggest the fact that he's not qualified to be the secretary of defense, or that somehow he's fundamentally hostile to the -- so I think that's wrong.

We talked about shared values. We talked about his support for the basic security needs of the Israelis, I think he gets it. And, look, whether or not he's confirmed, his positions on Iran, on sanctions, on Hamas as well, all will come out in the hearing. But this man should not be vilified, undermined and attacked certainly on the basis of the interview he gave to me or his record, frankly, as a sitting U.S. senator.

BLITZER: Yes -- no, I have known him for a long time and he is a highly intelligent, highly respected leader, if you will, I was sort of surprised when he left the Senate, but, you know, he's on the president's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board right now, he serves this president and he's worked with him very closely on many sensitive issues.

MILLER: Right. I think the Hagel -- the Hagel affair demonstrates another point. And Barack Obama is one of the 17 American presidents who now have the privilege of being elected to a second term, and yet you see it everywhere, gun control, the fiscal cliff, the Susan Rice nomination, the peril that apparently the informal vetting -- excuse me, informal mention of Chuck Hagel's name has -- the president can't even get his way when it comes to his national security appointment.

So it's a sad commentary, I think, on the waning power and influence of the second-term president and we haven't even started his second term yet.

BLITZER: Yes. Well, let's see what the president decides to do if he's going to go forward with this -- do you think he will?

MILLER: I do, actually, yes.

BLITZER: Yes, I suspect he will as well. And let's see how that confirmation process goes. Let's see what happens.

Aaron David Miller, thanks for coming on.

MILLER: Always a pleasure, Wolf.

BLITZER: And a heartbroken community prepares to send its children back to school weeks after the shooting that left our nation stunned. How the parents are now coping.


BLITZER: The students from the Sandy Hook Elementary School will return to class tomorrow for the first time since the devastating shooting last month. They'll go to a school in the neighboring town.

CNN national our correspondent Deborah Feyerick is in Newtown where she spoke with some of the children's parents.

DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, dozens of people over the holidays worked tirelessly, transforming a school meant for older students into one for children K-4. Now they've repainted walls. They moved furniture and cubbies, even desks, from the old Sandy Hook Elementary School into this new building, which will also be renamed Sandy Hook Elementary.

School officials are really stressing the world normal. They want things to be as normal as possible for all of these children. Now there will be counselors on hand, the parents have already -- had a chance to go to the new building, tour it, take a look, get their children comfortable. The children had met with their teachers, a couple, were told, at pizza parties, just so that they could connect with the children, to reassure them that in fact everything will be OK.

It doesn't mean the parents are not nervous about their children going back to school. As a matter of fact, we spoke to a couple who said that when those school buses pull away with their children they'll actually be following those buses to make sure they get to the school safely.


DENISE CORREIA, MOTHER OF 2ND GRADE STUDENT: There is no real playbook for this. I don't think any of us really have a playbook. So we're kind of just sensing our child and trying to meet the needs that we can, and just support them as best as we possibly can. Because you don't want to frighten them either.

SARAH SWANSIGER, MOTHER OF KINDERGARTEN, 3RD GRADE STUDENTS: For the kids, if they want me in the classroom I am more than happy to be there but I also think being in the auditorium with some of the parents, this will be some of the first times that we have had without media, without other people, without people who weren't necessarily involved, and I joked, as one of the other moms, I'll see you in the morning, I'll bring coffee.

One of those -- one of those, like, I think I need that adult time, too, because I'm not sure I'm ready yet to totally let them go in peace because I think my peace has been shattered and my security.


FEYERICK: Wolf, the signs of the tragedy are still really all over Newtown, but a lot of kids are very eager to be reunited with their friends. They want to go back to class, they want to be, you know, in the routine of learning. It doesn't mean they're not anxious, it doesn't mean they're not nervous, but, you know, as one parent said, look, these are kids who are 5 through 10 years old, and so to them to go to a new school, it's very much an adventure, but not only that they feel that their children will be able to heal more quickly with children who were there when the shooting occurred - Wolf.

BLITZER: Deborah Feyerick in Newton for us. Thank you.

In the aftermath of the shooting and the discussion over gun law reform, people are rushing to buy firearms in the United States. The FBI performed a record-number of background checks in December almost 2.8 million, as part of the record year of more than $19.5 million background checks in one year, 2012.

One note, this is just the number of checks performed. A lot of people go ahead and buy more than one gun.

Money for NASCAR race tracks and for studying algae, the tough fiscal cliff negotiations led to some tough-to-believe tax perks for special interests at the same time.


BLITZER: Despite the last-minute fiscal cliff deal, Americans will still see their paychecks shrink somewhat because of a temporary reduction in the payroll tax rate that was allowed to expire.

CNN's Tom Foreman is joining us now for a closer look at what happened.

So explain to our viewers what happened -- Tom.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, if you make less than $450,000 a year as a couple, you probably think of this deal, well, we dodged a bullet, we're not going to have to pay anymore taxes.

Not so fast. For the past two years everyone in this country has enjoyed a payroll tax reduction of 2 percent. The government did that because it wanted people to have more money in their pockets to spend and spur the economy, that has now expired and we're all going to pay more. These are your Social Security money.

So let's take a look at this. If you make $25,000 a year, how much more are you going to pay? Well, about $500 or so more per year. That's real money, particularly if you only make $25,000 a year.

Let's step up here to $50,000 a year. This is the median income for this country. This is what most people are making in terms of an average. Theirs is going to jump up to almost $1,000 for the year. So let's say $80 more per month, that's a couple of tanks of gas for many people out there. So that's something you have to budget for.

Move it up here to $75,000 a year. It jumps even higher to almost $1500 in additional taxes that you have just started paying and you're going to have to complete paying before the end of this year, and if we go to $100,000 down here, look at this, that moves up to about $2,000 for the course of the year.

I do want to add, though, Wolf, this doesn't go up and up and up. There is a maximum amount that people can pay on this so the very rich do not pay a whole lot more. They'll pay all of their Social Security taxes by June, July, August, whatever it may be, and they won't pay anymore but nonetheless, for all this talk about keeping taxes down on everyone, these are real taxes that we're all really paying right now -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Real money for -- obviously for a whole lot of people out there.

Tom, what about the folks in those higher tax brackets, in addition to the payroll tax going up for them like they're going up for everyone. They're also going to be hit with a higher income tax rate. Explain precisely what is about to happen.

FOREMAN: Yes. Yes. Let me get rid of all this, Wolf. Because you're absolutely right. The president says he's going to make the very wealthy pay a lot more and they really will until this deal, because it does make a difference going from about 35 percent tops, tax rates at 39.6.

So let's use a real world example. My favorite quarterback in the entire world, Drew Brees from the New Orleans Saints, just signed a deal for $100 million over five years, so if that were to break down, and we don't know that it does, to actually $20 million per year. And if he didn't have an accountant, and I'm sure he probably does, so he didn't have any way to count his charitable contributions or anything else, and he just flat-out had to pay the taxes on that, the taxes on about $20 million at 39.6 percent would come out to $7 million to $8 million in taxes. That's a good step up from what he's paying before at 35 percent. So this is real money out there that would have to be paid, and if you wanted to see it, Wolf, we -- we came up with a vision of it here.

If you did it in $20 bills and you bundled them all together, this is how much money you'd have to stack out in the garage to pay Drew Brees' tax bill for this coming year. So I'm pretty sure with that kind of money, neither he nor the government won't mind if I just take a little $20 out of it there to help me pay those payroll taxes -- Wolf.


BLITZER: Keep the $20, go ahead, and buy yourself a beer later or whatever.


FOREMAN: Maybe a burrito.

BLITZER: Thanks very much. Good work, Tom Foreman, for that.

I hope Drew Brees has some good accountants that defers some of that compensation. Gives a lot of charitable money away as well, so the tax burden will go down in the process.

Other related news, there's new fallout over that fiscal cliff deal, as it becomes clear how some special interests here in Washington and around the country benefited from all those very bitter behind-the-scenes secret negotiations.

Brian Todd is here with more on this part of the story. And it is sort of eye-popping, if you read the fine print.


BLITZER: In those 150 pages of the legislation that was passed overwhelmingly by the Senate, then passed overwhelmingly by the House, and now will be signed by the president into law.

TODD: That's right. Here's the outrage factor in this whole thing, Wolf. You know, most of us taxpayers are relieved today, knowing we do get some tax relief in the new fiscal cliff deal, at least as far as income tax. But there's part of this deal never talked about during all of the political wrangling that extends tax breaks in places where, well, maybe they should have put on the brakes.


TODD (voice-over): The tax perks for some industries that have been extended in this deal might just make you blow a gasket. Like gaskets found on NASCAR tracks, which because of this bill, will have plenty of money to clean those up. The cliff deal has a tax break worth about $70 million for the next two years.

(On camera): For motor sports entertainment complexes. What are we talking about here?

TOM SCHATZ, CITIZENS AGAINST GOVERNMENT WASTE: We're talking about places where car races occur.

TODD: The building of tracks.

SCHATZ: The building of tracks, perhaps the renovation of a track.

TODD: Do they need that kind of a break?

SCHATZ: Doesn't matter whether they need it or not. They've managed to get it.

TODD: What do you think of this? Extending the tax credit for another year at a cost of $59 million for algae growers and others who are trying to produce something called cellulosic biofuels. That's fuel made from the fibery parts of grasses, trees, and yes, algae.

Here's what Tom Schatz of the group Citizens against Government Waste says about that.

(On camera): It's pretty outrageous to you?

SCHATZ: Absolutely.

TODD: Why?

SCHATZ: This is a product that has not been used commercially yet in the United States.

TODD (voice-over): Professor Patrick Kangas of the University of Maryland says that's true, but as someone who's spent years researching how to turn algae into fuel, he says it's worth trying.

PROF. PATRICK KANGAS, UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND: Algae actually grows faster than any other kinds of plants. That's why it may well be the best source as a feed stock for biofuels.

TODD: But the cliff deal also gives tax breaks worth $4 million over two years to the makers of plug-in electric motorcycles and $430 million to movie and TV producers.

SCHATZ: They are profitable, large companies. This does not help small businesses. The limit is $15 million, as the amount of money that they can expense. So it's not a low-budget film, to say the least.

TODD (on camera): But if it encourages them to do their -- to produce their movies in United States, rather than taking it overseas, isn't that a good thing?

SCHATZ: Just because something is being subsidized elsewhere doesn't mean that the U.S. has to subsidize something,

TODD (voice-over): Why when all the arguments during the cliff crisis were over responsible budgeting was all this included?

RYAN LIZZA, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: They just didn't have enough time. These tax breaks, the easy thing to do on these was simply to extend them. These aren't new.


TODD: And the frustrating part is, again, we can't even point to one or two congressmen in particular and expose them for all this. Tom Schatz says that unlike with earmarks, where we could get a list of lawmakers who requested money for certain projects, there is no such requirement for these tax breaks. There's no specific state or location that can be identified with a given expenditure.

We cannot point to congressman X and say, look at that pork barrel, Wolf. They're just there and no one's accountable.

BLITZER: And I'm sure there's a lot of other stuff that's sort of buries in those 150 pages as well.

TODD: Yes.

BLITZER: I guess the argument is, you saved $4 trillion and increased taxes on middle class families 98 percent, 99 percent of people who pay federal income tax out there. So what's $400 million going to the movie industry? What's that -- what's the big deal?

TODD: Well, Tom Schatz says the big deal is because cumulatively these tax breaks add to the deficit. He says, you know, the motor sports industry, the film industry, they don't pay extra taxes to offset the tax breaks they're getting, and also, he says, when these added tax breaks keep piling up for these entities, it makes it hard to reform the tax code.

When the tax code can't be reform, tax rates for all of us stay higher. We pay more. So it hurts everybody.

BLITZER: Yes. All right, Brian. Good stuff. Thanks for sharing that with our viewers.

Here's a question. Can being overweight, yes, can being overweight ever be a good thing? A new study reaches a surprising conclusion.


BLITZER: So as many of us resolve to lose a little weight in the coming year, a new study says being moderately overweight, get this, could lead to a longer life.

Our senior medical correspondent, Elizabeth Cohen, is joining us with these surprising results.

Elizabeth, this is so counterintuitive. Help us understand what is going on here.

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Right, Wolf. I know, we're lose weight to be healthier, but what this study of more than three million people found was when they were overweight, they actually seemed to live a bit, not a lot, but seemed to live a bit longer. It may be because weight is not quite as important as we think.

There may be other things that are also important. So the lesson here may be, know your weight, but in addition, know what your blood pressure is. Know what your cholesterol level is. Know what your glucose is. And also, keep your weight, if you can, in the right places. Distribution matters. It's worse around the belly. So it may be that these overweight people, that many of them, all these numbers and all that distribution was just fine, they were just kind of overweight.

BLITZER: What is -- what do they consider being overweight?

COHEN: Right. Let's take a look at these numbers. And this comes from something called the body mass index chart. So let's say you're 5'4". You would be considered overweight if you weighed between 150 and 170 pounds, 5'10", between 180 and 210 pounds. And it doesn't matter if you are male or female.

BLITZER: If you're 5'10" and you weigh 180, that's considered overweight?

COHEN: One hundred and eighty to 210 is overweight. Anything over 210 is obese. And it's interesting, this study makes it clear that being obese, particularly very obese, is bad. That definitely gives you a higher risk of having a shorter life.

BLITZER: Because if you're really, really overweight that affects not just your blood pressure, but affects your heart, and it could really be, you know, a killer, if you will.

COHEN: Right. It affects everything. So experts really are in agreement that being severely obese is a big problem. It's sort of that grey overweight area that they haven't quite nailed down yet, exactly how dangerous it is or it isn't.

BLITZER: Elizabeth Cohen, thanks very much.

COHEN: Thanks.

BLITZER: And happening now, top Republicans blast the House Speaker John Boehner as fierce infighting breaks out over aid for victims of Hurricane Sandy.

Plus, the view of the next race for the White House from atop, the so-called fiscal cliff. Some votes may cast a long shadow.

And a look at a political conspiracy theory from the right. Sparked by Hillary Clinton's series of health crises.

I'm Wolf Blitzer, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.