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Sandy Hook Kids Head Back To School; 113thd Congress Sworn In Today; Boehner Promises Action on Sandy Aid; Fiscal Cliff Bill Now Law; Secretary Of State Clinton Discharged; U.N.: Syria Death Toll Surpasses 60,000; Interview with Congressman Frank Pallone of New Jersey

Aired January 3, 2013 - 06:00   ET



LT. KEITH WHITE, MONROE POLICE DEPT.: I think right now it has to be the safest school in America.


ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN, CNN ANCHOR: Back to class, the students of Sandy Hook Elementary return to school this morning, but it will not be the one they remember.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Fresh faces, members of the new Congress take their oath of office just hours from now and Speaker Boehner finds out if he keeps his leadership job.


GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), NEW JERSEY: Sixty-six days and counting. Shame on you. Shame on Congress.


SAMBOLIN: Political war. New Jersey's tough-talking governor explodes at the leaders of his own party.

Good morning. Welcome to EARLY START. Thanks for being with us this morning. I'm Zoraida Sambolin.

ROMANS: And I'm Christine Romans. John Berman, he's going to be here a little later for STARTING POINT. Right now, it is 6:00 a.m. on the nose in the East.

SAMBOLIN: So, let's get started here, in Newton, Connecticut, this morning, school bus engines are revving up and the children of Sandy Hook Elementary School are getting ready to return to class for the first time since the gunman shot up their school, slaughtered their friends, and forever stole their innocence as well.

Deb Feyerick is joining us this morning with the very latest.

DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: So you were in the gym and you were in the art room.

(voice-over): Ben and Ethan Paley heard the gunshots and screams that horrible morning at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Three weeks isn't nearly enough time to understand all the feelings they experienced since then, fear, worry, anger. Still, the 9-year-old twins are trying every way they can.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: It's a healing shawl, so it's supposed to heal us.

FEYERICK: Going back to school this week is a big part of that healing.

(on camera): Are you guys looking forward to kind of going back to school?

BEN PALEY, SANDY HOOK 4TH GRADE STUDENT: Well, we just went there to visit it and look at everything and it's very -- it's a very interesting school.

FEYERICK (voice-over): Originally for teenagers, the school in Monroe has been transformed for K through fourth grade. Toys, cubbies, carpets and familiar things brought other from Sandy Hook Elementary.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: All of our desks are there, but my desk, I noticed that someone was in there and cleaned it and made it -- well, not cleaned it, made it neater because my desk is usually very messy.

ANDREW PALEY, FATHER OF SANDY HOOK STUDENTS: I think them getting on the bus is -- for us it's a movement forward, so I think a lot of us are looking at that as this is the next step. Now it's getting back to a routine and it's getting them to school so they get back to that normalcy and start learning again and be who they are.

FEYERICK: Ben and Ethan want the school turtle to be Sandy Hook's new mascot.

ETHAN PALEY, SANDY HOOK 4TH GRADE STUDENT: Our motto is actually one step at a time.

FEYERICK: It's also one step at a time for moms and good friends, Denise Correia, Sarah Swansiger and their daughters.

DENISE CORREIA, MOTHER OF SANDY HOOK STUDENT: There's 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.

FEYERICK: Counselors will be on hand for the children, and parents can spend the day at the school, just in case.

SARAH SWANSIGER, MOTHER OF SANDY HOOK STUDENTS: I joked with one of the other moms, I'll see you in the morning. I'll bring coffee. 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. (END VIDEOTAPE)

FEYERICK: You know, a lot of the parents, they are going to have a hard time putting their kids on the school bus today. Yes, they're very excited, but everything is different, everything has changed. They're not going to be able to just sort of wave goodbye and casually get back to their day as normal.

A number of the parents said they're going to be driving right to the school as soon as the bus leaves because they want to be there. They want to be close to their children and just in case any of those children do need them during the course of the day.

Normal, that's the key word. That's what all the school officials are saying and that's one of the reasons that the media is about two miles away from there. They just want to make sure when the kids arrive the only thing they see are their teachers, their classmates, maybe their parents, but certainly nobody else who shouldn't be there.

SAMBOLIN: Deb, it's really unimaginable for us, right, because we just cannot comprehend what these parents and students must be going through there. So for the parents that mentioned that they are going to be there, is that something that the school is allowing all parents to kind of decide how they feel about it? We're very focused on the children, but as a parent you know that you've got to be really nervous about this.

FEYERICK: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely, you know, that's one of the things. They're making it very welcoming for the parents as well because they do know that the parents have to stay strong for the children.

And the parents are grappling with what happened there, the vulnerability of it, the vulnerability of life, of their children, of themselves. And so they do want it to be a place that the parents can simply hang out, connect.

And then as the day begins and gets rolling, as people begin to feel more comfortable, maybe the parents will leave. But this is really about, as Denise said, there's not a playbook for this.

So they're really taking their cues from everybody that's around. They're going to heal together but it's going to be a very fine and intricate dance as they do that.

SAMBOLIN: Is it a regular school day for the kids? Are they there for six, eight hours?

FEYERICK: Yes, pretty much. It's going to be normal. The kids will be getting used to the environment, learning where the art room is and the gym is. The gym floor has been redone. People really worked tirelessly over the holidays to get this building, which hadn't been used in two years, into shape.

That meant repainting areas, putting guardrails on the stairs. Remember, this is a building for older kids. Now you have 5 and 6- year-olds and they need a little help going up and down the steps. It's a new place and they're going to play it by ear.

Hopefully at the end of the day the kids will feel at least for a little while that they were able to forget what happened over the course of the last couple of weeks.

SAMBOLIN: I'm sure they're going to feel welcome. It was quite an effort on behalf of everyone in that community. Deb Feyerick, thank you. Appreciate it.

ROMANS: Out with the old, in with the new in Washington. The 113th Congress gets sworn in today on Capitol Hill, 13 freshmen senators, 81 freshmen representatives. Those are among those taking the oath for the 113th.

In this new Congress, Democrats will still control the Senate. Republicans the House and one of the first pieces of business will be to decide whether House Speaker John Boehner gets to keep his gavel.

Meantime a big about-face from Speaker Boehner who has come under heavy criticism inside his own party for pulling a Superstorm Sandy relief bill from consideration. He's now scheduled the first of two votes on Sandy aid tomorrow.

New York Congressman Peter King said Boehner's actions was like a knife in the back. He now says he is satisfied.


REP. PETER KING (R), NEW YORK: The bottom line is that we now are receiving what we asked for. As far as I'm concerned, what's done is done. I've always considered John Boehner a friend and I said that on the House floor today, which made it all the more painful for me to say what I felt I had to say. I owed it to my constituents and I did feel that New York in a number of cases was being taken advantage of.


ROMANS: He was just outraged that there was no sandy relief passed in that fiscal cliff issue. The House will vote tomorrow on $9 billion in Sandy aid. That's for flood insurance. It will consider another $51 billion in aid later this month.

SAMBOLIN: And to hear New Jersey Governor Chris Christie tell it, Boehner still has some explaining to do. Christie had some choice words over his party's leadership over the delay in Sandy funding.


CHRISTIE: There's only one group to blame for the continued suffering of these innocent victims, the House majority and their speaker, John Boehner. New York deserves better than the selfishness we saw displayed last night. New Jersey deserves better than the duplicity we saw displayed last night. America deserves better than just another example of a government that has forgotten who they are there to serve and why.


SAMBOLIN: Christie also says he was given no credible reason for the holdup.

ROMANS: After all the fiscal fireworks, the bill that kept us from going off the cliff is now law. The president signed it overnight. Get this, with the first family on vacation in Hawaii, the president couldn't be in Washington so he used the auto pen to put his John Hancock on the fiscal cliff bill.

He teamed up with Vice President Biden to get the fiscal cliff deal done. Now Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is gearing up for a showdown with the president over government spending and the debt.

In a Yahoo! News op-ed, McConnell says, quote, "Now the controversy turns to cutting spending on the government programs that are the real source of the nation's imbalance and the upcoming debate on the debt limit is the perfect time to have that discussion."

The president may not want to have a fight about government spending over the next few months, but it's a fight he's going to have pause it's a debate the country needs.

SAMBOLIN: Three days after being admitted to a New York hospital to treat a blood clot, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been discharged. She was spotted walking on the campus of New York Presbyterian Hospital yesterday. She was accompanied by her husband, former President Bill Clinton and their daughter, Chelsea.

In a statement the State Department said, quote, "Clinton's medical team advised her that she is making good progress on all fronts and they are confident she will make a full recovery." The secretary is being treated with blood thinners to dissolve that clot.

ROMANS: The U.N. estimates the death toll in Syria is now beyond 60,000 since that conflict began in March of 2011. It's 15,000 higher than estimates CNN was going with. That number will likely rise as attacks like these persist. An opposition group said 207 people were killed in war-related violence yesterday alone, most of them in Damascus and suburbs. CNN cannot independently verify these numbers.

SAMBOLIN: Families of victims of the movie theatre massacre in Aurora, Colorado, call this a disgusting offer. They're furious over Cinemark's invitation to a remembrance ceremony followed by a free movie at the very theatre where their loved ones were killed. One of the people killed died saving his girlfriend. His cousin says the theatre is thinking about ticket sales, not them.


JESSICA WATTS, COUSIN OF JONATHAN BLUNK: That is a blatant lack of respect for the families. They're looking to boost their own ticket sales for the grand reopening to the public.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: At the expense --

WATTS: At the expense of 12 families who are heartbroken at a loss.


SAMBOLIN: However, Blunk's girlfriend plans on going saying she's not going to let the bad guy win. Aurora's mayor says for some, reopening the theatre will be painful, but it might actually help others heal. Cinemark has been renovating the theatre and plans to reopen it two weeks from today.

ROMANS: All right, after facing outrage by members of his own party, Speaker John Boehner now says the Sandy relief bill is priority number one in the new Congress. Up next, I'll speak to a Democratic lawmaker from one of the areas hardest hit. This lawmaker calls Boehner's handling of the issue deplorable.


SAMBOLIN: It's 12 minutes past the hour. Let's get you up to date. The 113th Congress begins its two-year term today. Even with new faces in both the House and the Senate, the new Congress will need to pick up where the 112th left off. It must confront the federal debt ceiling and deal with the deep spending cuts called for in the fiscal cliff negotiations.

ROMANS: With a deep desire for normalcy students from Sandy Hook Elementary School are going back to class today, the first time since the December 14th massacre in Newtown. But they're going to gather in a middle school in nearby Monroe that's been outfitted to resemble Sandy Hook right down to the little desks, the bulletin boards, the cubbies, the sign above the front door and security is a top priority.


LT. KEITH WHITE, MONROE POLICE DEPT.: I think right now it has to be the safest school in America. We have many different options in place. Most of Monroe schools were already monitored at the police department with cameras. We've actually installed numerous different security devices at this school and we are going to remain our presence on location until further notice.


ROMANS: The mass shooting at Sandy Hook killed 20 children and six adults.

SAMBOLIN: The online publication of this map by a suburban New York City newspaper has led that paper to ironically hire armed guards now. After the Connecticut school massacre, the "Journal News" posted the locations of licensed gun owners in two nearby counties shown by all of the dots there. One gun-owning blogger was so offended that in response, he posted the home addresses of newspaper staffers.

ROMANS: The Arab news network Al Jazeera has bought Current TV, the Cable Channel that Al Gore co-founded. It will close current and launch a new channel in its place with the hope of reaching more American viewers. Al Jazeera plans to double its staff and open new bureaus. The network is based in Qatar. It's financed by that country's government.

SAMBOLIN: Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois returns to Washington a year after a major stroke. So happy to see him back. The 53-year-old Republican has spent the past 12 months learning to walk again. So today he plans to climb the steps of the capitol building and to get back to work. He says one of his priorities is Medicaid funding for stroke victims who have no income.

ROMANS: Best of luck to him.

This morning, Republican leaders in the House promising to make good after a move that left lawmakers on both sides of the aisle enraged. Speaker Boehner pledging to make a sandy relief bill a priority in the new Congress after abruptly pulling a similar bill late Tuesday night.

That move had politicians in the Northeast venting their anger, including New Jersey's outspoken governor, Chris Christie, also a Republican.


CHRISTIE: National disasters happen in red states and blue states, in states with Democratic governors and Republican governors. We respond to innocent victims of natural disasters not as Republicans or Democrats but as Americans. Or at least we did until last night. Last night, politics was placed before our oaths to serve our citizens.

For me, it was disappointing and disgusting to watch.


ROMANS: And for many, a sign the Congress -- Congress just can't do its job. Boehner says lawmakers will vote tomorrow for a $9 billion measure with more money coming later.

Congressman Frank Pallone is a Democrat from New Jersey. His district includes Union Beach and Belmar, towns hit hard by Superstorm Sandy.

And, really, sir, I've got to tell you, you know, this sort of shows Congress can only do one thing at a time and that one thing now is just figuring out a budget and not disaster relief. I mean, watching from the outside, it looks like it's a Congress that is completely dysfunctional.

Boehner has assured your Republican colleagues that the flood insurance part will be brought up on Friday in the new Congress that gives $9 billion to FEMA's national flood insurance program. And the agency has said that's going to run out of money by next week.

Do you think this is all going to happen now?

REP. FRANK PALLONE (D), NEW JERSEY: Well, the problem is that it's not enough. In other words, it's been nine weeks since the storm and we want to rebuild the Jersey Shore. And the fact of the matter is, if all we do is pass a bill in the House that deals with the flood insurance aspect, that's not going to address most of the problems.

In other words, you know, we want funding for our Army Corps projects to rebuild our beaches and dunes to protect these areas. The towns need to be reimbursed for what they have spent. Many of them are small and they're going broke and would have to raise taxes. And, of course, there's funding for homeowners and for businesses so that they can rebuild that's not part of this package.

If the speaker had simply let the bill come up in the previous session of Congress yesterday or even this morning before the new Congress, then the whole $60 billion package would have been passed because it was already passed in the Senate and it would be signed by the president and we'd be rebuilding the shore.

So, this is a total dysfunctional act on the part of the speaker because we're starting all over again tomorrow in a piecemeal fashion and it hasn't passed the Senate.

ROMANS: Let's talk about the timing because you mentioned it's been nine weeks. I want to show you how quickly Congress has moved in response to oar natural disasters. I mean, Katrina took 10 days before Congress and the White House managed to get aid bills signed. Gustav 17 days. Hurricane Andrew in 1992, 31 days, devastated Florida and the Southeast.

Why do you think it is taking so long in this case?

PALLONE: Well, I really think that the speaker doesn't care about New York and New Jersey. In other words, we're blue states. The fact of the matter is that he was afraid to bring this up yesterday, in my opinion, because the Tea Party and the right wing did not want to vote for the spending bill for New York or primarily for New York and New Jersey. And it's simply not fair --

ROMANS: So you think the Tea Party thinks that a natural disaster in a blue state is not as important as a natural disaster in a red state?

PALLONE: I don't know how -- I have to come to that conclusion, because why else are we waiting nine weeks and it's going to be 12 or 15 by the time this passes the House in this piecemeal fashion and then passes the Senate. So, of course, it's clear to me that they didn't want -- they didn't want to vote, the conservatives, the right wing didn't want to vote on this spending bill. Why? Because it's New York and New Jersey. What other conclusion can I come to?

ROMANS: You know, I want to listen to what Governor Christie said about -- more about this. A lot of the blame he said is on the current political atmosphere in Congress, they just can't do their job.



CHRISTIE: Disaster relief was something that you didn't play games with. But now in this current atmosphere, everything is the subject of one-upmanship. Everything is a possibility, a potential piece of bait for the political game. And it's just -- it is why the American people hate Congress.


ROMANS: Can your body not walk and chew gum at the same time? The place where you work? I mean the people we elect, can we not do disaster relief and big budget deals and run the country at the same time?

PALLONE: I mean I think that's the problem.

If you look at this last Congress, it was what we call the do-nothing Congress. I mean, they passed very few bills. Everything became, you know, political. And I just hope that that doesn't continue into this new session.

But when you take a bill that you could have passed yesterday and you say we have to divide it up because it's too much money, I mean, the amount of time it takes to deal with the flood insurance tomorrow on the floor of the House is the same time that could be used to pass the entire bill.

Why are we dividing it up? Because there's a fear that we don't want to vote on so much spending at once so we'll divide it up and somehow obscure what we're really doing.

It's ridiculous. I mean, this is a natural disaster. This is when Congress should be coming together. This is when people are not partisan. This is a basic function of government, and yet we have to piecemeal it and spread it out over a longer period of time in order to get it done.

I mean that's -- that just makes no sense.

ROMANS: All right. Frank Pallone, best of luck, and your district, Union Beach and Belmar and all the work you have to do there. I promise you, sir, I will be down there in the summer spending my money. I guarantee it.

PALLONE: Thank you. Thanks so much.

ROMANS: Thanks. Good luck to you.

SAMBOLIN: Twenty-one minutes past the hour. Coming up next, a big rally on Wall Street following the fiscal cliff deal but will it last?

You're watching EARLY START.


SAMBOLIN: Twenty-four minutes past the hour.

The list of places around the world without a Starbucks continues to get shorter and shorter. The first Starbucks in Vietnam is set to open next month. It's part of their continuing expansion into the Asia-Pacific region, the company's biggest growth market. The new Starbucks will be located in Ho Chi Minh City.

Back in October, Starbucks opened its first store in India.

ROMANS: World domination, one cup of Joe at a time.

SAMBOLIN: No kidding.

Minding your business this morning, a very strong day for the markets yesterday. The Dow gained 308 points or about 2.4 percent on the news of the fiscal cliff deal. We want to know if it's going to last.

ROMANS: Well, as often happens when you have a big move like that, Zoraida, you can see a little pull-back the next day -- 308 points is a big rally.


ROMANS: So I think you're going to see and stock futures are suggesting that you're going to see a little bit of a pull-back today. Yesterday was a relief rally. Sometimes you get a little bit of a take-back the next day.

Dow futures down about 20 points right now. You know, investor enthusiasm over that cliff deal expected to be short-lived also because we've got these other cliff-like deadlines approaching, the debt ceiling and those deep spending cuts looming in coming months.

You know, Wall Street's biggest problem is Washington. That's what most of the 30 investment strategists and money managers surveyed by CNN Money told us. They said uncertainty out of Washington remains the market's biggest headwind. One of those money managers said, quote, "Democrats and Republicans did the least they could possibly do to avoid the fiscal cliff, the least they could do, and the question now is will they do the least again when it comes to raising the debt ceiling and how will that -- how will the rating agencies view that."

Now, Moody's did warn yesterday it could lower America's credit rating unless Washington reduces the deficit.

So, we still have a fight ahead of us about national priorities, how we're going to pay our builds, how we're going to get our debt and deficits in order, even though they did the very bare minimum to get the fiscal cliff out of the way.

SAMBOLIN: Nowhere near being over.


SAMBOLIN: Nowhere near.

Twenty-six minutes past the hour. Wisconsin state senator makes some pretty jaw-dropping claims about the holiday Kwanzaa. Up next, hear what he said and how he tried to defend his comments right here on CNN.