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New Congress Convenes; Biden Swears In Senate Members; House Votes On Boehner Speakership; Sandy Hook Massacre News Conference Soon; House To Vote On Sandy Aid Friday; Sandy Aid Likely To Flow Slowly; Sandy Hook Students Back In Class; Senator Walks Capitol Steps After Stroke

Aired January 3, 2013 - 13:00   ET



SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Suzanne Malveaux. We've got new faces, new perspectives on Capitol Hill today. Right now, the 113th Congress is convening for the first time. Let's listen in.

MALVEAUX: All re-elected, newly elected lawmakers taking the oath of office and are sworn in, many of them for the first time in the Senate. And vice president Joe Biden issued the oath of office just an hour ago. The senator signed the oath book there, and new members, there are 13 of them, got an official Senate pin.

I want to take a look here. Members of the House, they have not yet been sworn in. And we're going to take a look at live pictures. Before it happens, votes have to be held on the House speaker as well as the minority leader positions. Now, House speaker John Boehner and minority leader Nancy Pelosi both hope to hold onto their leadership positions. The vote, as you can see, is happening now. It is a voice vote. We expect the results very soon.

Now, I want to bring in our team here. Wolf Blitzer is in Washington, Dana Bash on Capitol Hill to walk us through some of this. Wolf, if you will, let's talk about some of the names that have come up. House speaker John Boehner had kind of a rough week here. He infuriated a lot in his own party regarding the Sandy aid -- the hurricane aid that never actually was voted on, and also even the fiscal cliff. Some of the Tea Party folks not happy with the deal that he struck with Democrats. We have now heard a couple -- other names that have been mentioned for speaker position. What kind of challenges does he face?

WOLF BLITZER, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: I think he's going to be re-elected the speaker of the House. So, there will be some Republicans who will come up with some other names, already some have, you know, said Colin Powell, you know, just sort of symbolic protest votes. But John Boehner I'm almost sure will be re-elected the speaker of the House. He'll serve in the new Congress, the 113th Congress. He's not going to be a powerful speaker. Look, he was with the minority on the fiscal cliff vote, the Senate bill that came to the House. There was a minority of Republicans who voted in favor of it. He voted in favorite of it, and made a point of voting in favorite of it, even though it's traditionally the speaker tries to avoid a lot of these votes. But in this particular case, the speaker wanted to specifically point out he was in favor of this fiscal cliff vote, avoiding what's called the fiscal cliff, even though the number two Republican, Eric Cantor, the majority leader, he voted against it. The number three Republican, Kevin McCarthy, the majority whip, he voted against it. So, John Boehner made a point of doing what he thought was right to prevent middle class families from seeing a tax increase as he explained it, if you will. So -- but I suspect that even though he's got some problems within his own coalition, the Republican coalition, he's going to get himself re-elected speaker, in part, because I don't see a whole lot of others jumping up to challenge him.

MALVEAUX: And Wolf, we know that there are going to be a lot of big issues that are coming up. And the president, in his second term, he really wants to see this sense of bipartisanship. But you've got the federal deficit, you got spending cuts, the debt ceiling, all these things that'll be coming up in the weeks ahead. Do we sense that this 113th Congress is going to be any more productive, any more willing to work with this president and his agenda?

BLITZER: I think on the economic issues, on the tax-related issues, the spending cuts issues, they're going to go from crisis to crisis to crisis, and maybe in the 11th hour, each time they'll avert the really serious crisis once the markets start potentially reacting, once the American public really gets nervous, they'll come up with band-aid. I suspect that big picture deal, the grand bargain, as they like to call it, I suspect that proving to be elusive. I do see some other opportunities for bipartisanship, especially on a sensitive issue like immigration reform -- comprehensive immigration reform.

I could see that moving ahead some were -- between some Republicans, including in the Senate. Marco Rubio, the Republican senator from Florida, for example, working with the president and Democrats on comprehensive immigration reform. Lindsey Graham, for example, the conservative Republican senator from South Carolina. So, on that area, I suspect there will be some cooperation. I'm less convinced that there will be a deal when it comes to new restrictions on guns in the United States. That's a much more controversial issue, so I suspect there probably won't be a big deal, new initiatives on that, even though the president will try.

MALVEAUX: All right. Wolf, thanks. We're going to get back to you very shortly. I want to bring in Dana to talk a little bit about the diversity that we're seeing in the Congress. And really, it is a group that we have not seen the likes before. I'm talking about a record number of women the in the Senate. You've got a record number of Latinos in the House, openly gay senator as well. Does this give the president a chance of getting his agenda done? Is this a friendlier group of people in terms of moving forward on some of the things that he wants to do?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I'm not so sure if it's friendlier. I think just the fact that there are more Democrats here in the House and in the Senate will help the president, even though there has -- there hasn't been a change in the balance of power. But definitely with regard to the kind of priorities that people will have that they might push. That, of course, is going to change because your priorities are dependent on where you come from and who you are. Tammy Duckworth is now going to be a new member of Congress from the president's home state of Illinois. She ran a few years ago, she lost. This time she won. And she talked about the idea of more diversity with our own Dan Merica a short while ago. Listen to what she said.


TAMMY DUCKWORTH (D), ILLINOIS CONGRESS ELECT: It mean that we reflect America more. You know, the district where I come from is a very diverse district, and it's good to see Congress starting to look more like the rest of America. And you see the demographics shifts that are happening across the country. That certainly happens in the 8th district of Illinois where we're not 22 percent Latino and 13 percent Asian American. So, to see Congress shifting in that direction I think is good for the nation.


BASH: So, that is definitely an interesting perspective. And we heard from the Democratic leader, who, of course, is a woman, Nancy Pelosi. She made the point that she believes there should be more women, because women, by nature, are more consensus builders which we also heard from some of the -- of the new 20 women who are in the -- in the Senate which, of course, is also a historic high. And I would just say one thing that I'm sure you will appreciate, Suzanne. There's probably only positives with more women here, but for those of us females in the press corps here that have an annual softball game against the female members of Congress, having more might not be the greatest for us competitively because a lot of them look like they're pretty athletic which is kind of scary. We're going to have to recruit you,, Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: OK, I'll get on that team. We're -- it's funny, we were seeing those pictures there of all of the women there together. Lots of different colors. There's going to be a lot of different outfits, of course, but also a different perspective as well. And that's a -- that's always a good thing, more representative of what this country really looks like. Dana, you've been there all day and you've been covering this hour by hour and minute by minute. Give us a sense of the flavor, if you will.

BASH: You know, it is always a -- it sounds corny, but an inspiring day to have the new Congress sworn in. I've seen many of them over the years, and you have members of Congress here with their children on one hand, and you have their parents beaming, you know, looking over them on the other. So, there's no question that that is -- even though there is a lot of anger, there's a lot of toxicity here, this is a breath of newness that is definitely need here.

One thing that our Ted Barrett, who you know well who has also been covering Congress for a long time, he said, which is -- I think really nails the atmospherics today. You almost have the feeling of the last day of school and first day of school at the same time, because, usually, they get to go home and get a little bit of a break. And everybody remembers the feeling of the last day of school. You just want to get out. Everybody is exhausted, on edge, done. And the new day -- and the first day of school, you feel refreshed. And it's sort of a weird combination because you have the same thing on the same day.

MALVEAUX: That's a great way to describe it, Dana. Well, we certainly hope they get a lot done in this -- the new session as well. Dana, thank you very much. Good to see you as always. Wolf, good to see you as well. We'll bring you back as the news warrants, but we'll continue to follow this throughout the hour.

We've got some other news as well. We are also watching for two news conferences happening regarding the Sandy Hook Elementary school massacre. Connecticut governor Dannel Malloy, he's going to announce the first step in the state's response to that tragedy, the tragedy, as you may recall, when that gunman killed 20 children and seven adults in Newtown, Connecticut. The students now, from Sandy Hook Elementary school, they actually returned to class today. They are in the neighboring town of Monroe, and we expect to hear from some local officials, those from Monroe as well as Newtown, on how that is going today.

The House also set to vote on $9 billion in federal aid. That is for Superstorm Sandy victims. That is happening tomorrow. But even if this bill passes, it doesn't mean that the money is immediately going to begin flowing there. We're going to talk to the mayor of New Orleans who is trying to get all of the FEMA money that was promised after Hurricane Katrina which hit back in 2005.


MALVEAUX: We're looking at live pictures here, and this is the House. What is taking place is a voice vote essentially for who will be the House speaker. John Boehner's name on the Republican side has come up and is widely expected to maintain that position. Nancy Pelosi, of course, would be in the minority position being one of the Democrats and leader of the Democratic party for the House there. But, again, you see the count is taking place. We expect to actually have those results in about 30 minutes or is so we are told, and we're going to bring that to you live. Also, we saw the 113th Congress on the Senate side, new members being sworn in. There are 13 new senators today that are sworn in, and 84 new representatives in the House. The 113th Congress starting their first official day today.

And House speaker John Boehner, he has scheduled two votes, actually, in the next couple of weeks on $60 billion in aid for victims of Superstorm Sandy. That is after his fellow Republicans, including New Jersey governor Chris Christie and New York representative Peter King. They slammed him for canceling a vote on the money earlier this week. Well, tomorrow the House is set to vote on $9 billion for federally backed national flood insurance program.

On January 15th, members are going to decide on another $51 billion, most of that to help the homeowners and the local governments rebuild the damaged property. But if you think yes votes mean an immediate influx of cash to that area, think again. It has been more than seven years since Hurricane Katrina. And in New Orleans, officials are still fighting every day for federal money to repair the city's play grounds, the water pipes, the sidewalks, even the muni (ph) downtown auditorium.

I want to bring in New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu. It's always good to see you. There is outrage from folks over whether or not they're going to get this money from this aid bill. But we know that, with Katrina, it took less than two weeks to authorize the first of several federal recovery packages, and you were lieutenant-governor at the time. But money is slow going. It trickles in, and there's a lot of frustration in New Jersey and New York. Explain what that process is like.

MITCH LANDRIEU (D), MAYOR, NEW ORLEANS: Well, first of all, it's perfectly understandable that our fellow Americans in Connecticut, New York and New Jersey are frustrated. When you get hit by a major catastrophe like this and many American citizens lose everything that they have and you're cold and you're without electricity, you know, the first and most immediate thing that all Americans lead to is the rescue. But shortly after that, there's this lull. And that's where they are right now where Congress, you know, starts to think about what the aid package looks like.

Our encouragement from the beginning is to get aid there as quickly as you possibly can so that the governors and the mayors and the county executives can start to plan how to get that money to the ground and how to rebuild the communities, either back like they were and better than they were before. And it's been an incredibly frustrating process for them. For those of us that are in the city of New Orleans and Louisiana, we've been trying to help work through that process with them and we completely support getting aid there much more quickly than Congress has been able to do. I mean this storm happened actually before Halloween. So we can understand their frustration. It seems like they've gotten back on track now, and the speaker is committed to a vote tomorrow and then again on the 15th. And I think that's a very encouraging sign.

MALVEAUX: Even though President Bush and Congress approved the money relatively soon after Katrina, your administration still, seven years later, is trying to get your hands on some of those federal recovery dollars. Why is that?

LANDRIEU: Right. Well, I'll tell you this. First of all, the catastrophic event and the damage that is attendant to that is just huge. I mean for people who have forgotten, we had 500,000 homes that were damaged, over 250,000 destroyed. The city was under water for three weeks, for over 18 days.

Now, the event that occurred in Sandy actually covered more land and more space and more time. And it takes a huge amount of time and effort to make sure that the right amount of money is there and that it gets to the ground quickly. In this particular bill that was shelved the other day that's going to get back on track, we helped craft some authorizing language that helps FEMA break through the bureaucracy and get money to the ground faster. And I'm very hopeful for the northeast that that language stays in the bill because it's not as though they write you a check for $61 billion and $9 billion. You have to, ever day, prove that you need it. Then you have to show them where you spent it. Then you have to make sure that they see what you spent it on. And it's a very cumbersome, bureaucratic process that those of us that have been on the ground hopes gets streamlined over time.

It's called the Stafford Act, for people that don't know. It's a very cumbersome process. And we've got to find a way in America to repair things much more quickly than we have in the event of Katrina. And I hope they learned the lessons with Sandy and use this as an opportunity to re-craft the Stafford Act to give FEMA and the federal government more tools so that the governors and the county executives can get the money to the ground and to the people much more quickly than we've been able to do here.

MALVEAUX: Yes, mayor, I -- why hasn't that happened already? I just don't understand that. Seven years later, why hasn't it gotten better?

LANDRIEU: Well, listen, first of all, the recovery process here is now blown and gone. We're getting ready, as you know, to host a Super Bowl. We hosted the Sugar Bowl here last night. We're rebuilding police stations, fire stations. We're really kind of now hit our stride. But the bureaucratic process is really cumbersome. FEMA was never organized to be a recovery agency. It was there to kind of rescue and to respond. And we really, in this country, have never gotten response to major catastrophic issues, in my opinion, in place.

And, of course, the rest of the country is going to suffer these things, too, because you're either going to have an earthquake, there's going to be a terrorist attack, there's going to be a hurricane, there's going to be a tornado. We have a lot of them. And they seem to be coming with more frequency. So we've got to get better at this.

The thing that Congress can do really quickly here is kind of get to the business of getting to New York and New Jersey and Connecticut the funds that the governors and the county executives need to rebuild the lives of these American citizens. It's always been our practice. We don't leave American citizens behind in time of emergency.


LANDRIEU: And getting money there quickly and having a streamlined process so we can restore Americans to normalcy, which is what they really need --


LANDRIEU: Is something that's important. So I can understand the frustration of Governor Christie and Peter King and Governor Cuomo and Mayor Bloomberg and the entire team and hopefully Congress is now going to react very quickly. We need to all stand up and help them, much like the rest of the country helped Katrina. MALVEAUX: Well, mayor, we certainly hope that members of Congress are listening to that message today. We appreciate your time. We know that you know about this firsthand. So, thanks again. Appreciate it.

LANDRIEU: Thank you so much.

MALVEAUX: They witnessed one of the deadliest school shootings in our history. Well, now, Sandy Hook Elementary students, they are returning to class. What are the parents thinking, what are they feeling as they now wait for the kids to return home?


MALVEAUX: For the first time since the December massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, classes are now back in session for those students. They're not in the same building in Newtown, Connecticut. The Sandy Hook Elementary, it has been moved to a school that is in the neighboring town of Monroe. Now, local officials from both Monroe and Newtown, they are holding news conferences this hour to talk about how it's going. Plus, Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy, he has announced, just announced, the first step in the state's response to that killing. I want to go live now to our Deb Feyerick. She is in Monroe, Connecticut.

And, you know, a lot of people, this is a really tough day for a lot of folks here, but they've been trying to make it as normal as possible. You're talking to folks. How is this going?

DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, it's so interesting. There was a lot of concern, a lot of worry going into today. School officials did everything they could to try to make the kids as comfortable as possible, even having orientation and open houses so the kids could come and look the at their desks. And we are joined by a very special family, Sarah Swansiger and her daughter Abby, who's in kindergarten, right?

Abby, how was your day today?


FEYERICK: Yes? What was it like, your new classroom?


FEYERICK: Fun? And what did it look like? Was your -- was your -- were your toys there and your cubby and things?


FEYERICK: Yes. And what about all your friends?


FEYERICK: Yes? Was it really busy in the school today?

A. SWANSIGER: Yes. FEYERICK: Yes? But you had a good day?


FEYERICK: Were you worried at all?

A. SWANSIGER: A little.

FEYERICK: Yes? How did it -- how did -- what did you do to make yourself feel better? Did you see the dogs by any chance?




S. SWANSIGER: I got to come to class.

FEYERICK: You did come to class?

S. SWANSIGER: Right? I did go to class for a little bit. Yes.

FEYERICK: Well, talk to me about that. What was it like inside the school today when you got there and throughout the morning?

S. SWANSIGER: Honestly, it was like the first day of school. Everybody -- there were counselors, there were therapy dogs, all the parents. There was a little bit of anxiety, but everybody was, I think, happy to get back in the swing of things. And the teachers who were amazing. Just were carrying on as if they were back on track and hadn't skipped a beat and were hugging every child they saw and escorting everybody. So it was a wonderful, wonderful experience for the first day.

FEYERICK: Did you see a lot of either the parents or the children going and talking to the counselors?

S. SWANSIGER: No, not really. They -- it was really the beginning part of the morning and the kids were just happy to be back and they were really enjoying themselves.

FEYERICK: And what about -- did Abby, at any point, ask to see you or did you go sit in the class with her in the beginning?

S. SWANSIGER: She asked the night before if I'd come with her. So I did. After going to see the parents in the auditorium, I did go to the classroom for a little bit and just help out with some of the activities that they were doing there.

FEYERICK: And were these just normal, everyday activities for the most part.

S. SWANSIGER: Absolutely. They were writing what they did over Christmas vacation, where they might have went, drawing their picture and going to circle time and sharing. FEYERICK: The parents, for the most part, because the parents obviously brought a lot more knowledge into this than the kids. How did they handle it?

S. SWANSIGER: There were some emotional moments in the beginning of the day. But I think once everybody got there and saw the community and the way the school was all set and ready and everybody that was there for support, I mean you couldn't walk around a corner without somebody asking, did you need something? Were you OK? There was coffee. Everything was set up for us. So I think that made everybody feel at ease.

FEYERICK: Did you, by any chance, see any of the siblings of the 20?

S. SWANSIGER: No, I did not see any of them.

FEYERICK: OK. And, so, Abby, do you -- when you go back to class, it's a new school, but you think that the school is going to be OK?


FEYERICK: Yes? Are you nervous anymore?


FEYERICK: Do you think you'll want your mom to come tomorrow, or you think you'll be OK?

A. SWANSIGER: I think I'll be OK.

FEYERICK: Awesome. Well, Abby Swansiger and Sarah Swansiger, thank you so much.

You know, and that's it, one day at a time, one small step at a time. You know, there's a little boy we spoke to earlier. He wants to take this -- he wants to make the school mascot, which is a turtle, he wants that to be the new school mascot with a slogan, "one step at a time." And I think that's really what we're seeing here, Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Yes, that's really nice. It's a relief, actually, to see that things went well that first day. And, obviously, every single day is going to count and it's going to matter and they're healing. Thank you so much, Deb. I really appreciate it.

The shooting at Sandy Hook stirred interest in self-defense and promoted some renewed talk about limiting firearms, which might have actually led to more gun sales. FBI data now showing that background checks required for Americans buying guns actually set a record number in December. The FBI says that it has recorded 2.78 million background checks in December alone. In November there were 2.1 million checks. There were 1.86 million checks in December of 2011. Figures do not represent the number of firearms sold. Someone who passes a background check is eligible, however, to buy multiple firearms.

Guns are the 33rd leading cause of death among kids between the ages of five and 14. Pediatricians, they are on the front line trying to educate parents about the dangers of the guns, but some might be silenced. Why doctors are being told to back off.

We are also waiting as well. There you see the pictures of the House floor. Who the next speaker is going to be of the House. Widely expected to be John Boehner. And they were taking a verbal vote there. We're getting close to the tally, the final tally. As you see, they are tallying that up. And as soon as we get that announcement, we'll bring it to you live.


MALVEAUX: Today's moment, a personal triumph for a 53-year-old Republican senator from Illinois. Senator Mark Kirk suffered a severe stroke a year ago. He had to relearn how to walk. Well, he returned for the first time today and walked up the Capitol steps. That's really a very touching moment. Elizabeth Cohen joins us to talk about his journey.

I mean, how did he do this?

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: It was a year-long journey. He had a stroke that, as you can see, made it extremely difficult to walk. He had to relearn all of that. And you know what part of the key was? He went through a rehab program that was very intensive. It wasn't just all the regular stuff that they do. It was a lot of walking. It was a lot of going up stairs. It was very intense. And it went on longer than many other rehab programs do. And we were talking to a prominent stroke doctor today, Suzanne, and he said he wishes that every stroke patient had this kind of rehab and that it didn't just end, that it went on for -- you know, that it should go on for years and years, even after someone appears to be getting better.