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Most Diverse Congress Ever; Interview with Congressman Ron DeSantis of Florida; Dangerous World Record Swim; Wintry Weather in Texas

Aired January 4, 2013 - 06:30   ET



CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Decision day. The old Congress didn't do it. So the new Congress will. The vote set today for a $9 billion Hurricane Sandy relief package.

ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN, CNN ANCHOR: Talk about a new year's resolution. Meet the woman who says she's ready to become the first person ever to swim cageless from Cuba to Florida. You know there are sharks in the water and jellyfish.

ROMANS: And it's cold.

And a discovery from out of this world, literally. Why scientists believe this black beauty is one of a kind.

SAMBOLIN: Welcome back to EARLY START. We're so happy that you're with us this morning. I'm Zoraida Sambolin.

ROMANS: It's Friday! I'm Christine Romans. It's 29 minutes past the hour.

SAMBOLIN: All right. It was all smiles on Capitol Hill, as members old and new were sworn in. Now comes the hard part for the 113th Congress -- not picking up where the 112th left off. There are big battles ahead over the debt limit and spending, to name two.

First things first, Speaker John Boehner narrowly kept his leadership role. It's an emotional speech. Boehner offered advice to those who like himself returned for another political go round.


REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: For those of you returning, who have walked these aisles before, maybe it's time we get a little awe struck again. Put simply, we're sent here not to be something, but to do something.



SAMBOLIN: So, today, the House votes on the first part of a $60 billion relief package for all the Sandy victims. Boehner promised the vote after getting blasted for canceling one earlier this week.

CNN's Athena Jones is live in Washington.

Good morning to you.

And as I said, officials from Sandy-affected areas were critical of Boehner. How are they reacting to this upcoming vote today?


Well, you know, they were as you said very critical. We heard from New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, really -- being very angry at Speaker Boehner. Mayor Mike Bloomberg of New York spoke about this last night. Let's listen to that.


MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG (I), NEW YORK: We will get the relief. I'm convinced. Boehner has promised to do it. I can't tell him how to run the House, and he's not trying to tell us how to run the city.

He's got to decided when it makes some sense to bring it up. He is committed to get it done. We will get the money and we will use it intelligently and recover.


JONES: And so, Mayor Bloomberg is confident that this is going to be passed and most people are expecting it to be passed later on this morning. What happened, the Senate voted for this relief, and then Boehner put it off.

Now, the House is going to vote it in two parts, the first part is for the national flood insurance program. It's $9.7 billion in new borrowing authority because FEMA says that program was going to run out of money sometime next week, which is, of course, right around the corner. The House is gong to vote on that day, later on this morning.

SAMBOLIN: A lot of work to do.

And I want to talk about something else, it's big news. It's on the front page of "The Washington Post" today. Folks can see it -- 113th Congress displays its diversity. So, of course, we have Nancy Pelosi right here, and an Iraq war vet, Tammy Duckworth from Illinois.

So, more women, people of color, gays and lesbians in this new Congress. These groups now make up a majority of the Democratic Congress.

Is there a sense that the new demographics will influence what happens with legislative issues like violence against women, that act, and LGBT rights?

JONES: Well, there certainly is a sense that this diversity is going to be good for the Congress. You heard people saying that it's good Congress will be more reflective of America. Most women in this new Congress, more Latinos than ever, as well as all of the firsts you mentioned among others.

Let's listen to what Nancy Pelosi, the minority leader, had to say about all of the diversity yesterday.


REP. NANCY PELOSI (D), CALIFORNIA: It's very exciting, because the American people say have you a seat at the table. And the fact that not only is our caucus a majority of women and minorities and LGBT community folks, it is also that our chairmen are over 50 percent women and minorities. So, it's not only that people have a seat at the table. They have a seat at the head of the table.


JONES: Well, there you heard her. You heard her put it, a seat at the head of the table. And Nancy Pelosi also said that she believes that women are more likely to be consensus builders.

Now, she's not exactly -- she's clearly a little biased here as a woman herself. But there is thinking that there is going to be a change. And certainly the high number of Latinos means that there could be more emphasis on things like immigration reform among other issues of importance to that community.

SAMBOLIN: Yes, we are hoping Violence Against Women Act in particular.

Athena Jones live for us, thank you very much. Appreciate it.

ROMANS: It was like the first day of school on Capitol Hill yesterday as the new members of the 113th Congress were sworn in.


BOEHNER: That you will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which you are about to enter, so help you God.


BOEHNER: Congratulations. You're now a member of the 113th Congress.



ROMANS: Among them, Republican Representative Ron DeSantis of Florida's sixth Congressional district. DeSantis is one of less than a dozen of newly elected members of the House who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan. He was also a JAG officer in the U.S. Navy.

So, hopefully, he'll be ready for battle in the House. He certainly comes with a stellar resume.

Congressman DeSantis joins us on his first day of the job. What he plans to work on. Congratulations and welcome.

REP. RON DESANTIS (R), FLORIDA: Thank you. Good morning.

ROMANS: Now, this is what you've said about the fiscal cliff deal that just passed, which is really, that deal foreshadowing for a whole bunch of stuff that's coming up that you're going to be dealing with.

You say, "Any agreement that raises taxes and allows federal spending to continue ballooning out of control is a bad deal. It's bad deal for families. It's bad for business."

You wouldn't have voted for that fiscal cliff deal I assume?

DESANTIS: No, I wouldn't have. And it's interesting, a lot of people aren't talking about a couple of things. One, there's a big payroll tax increase that's going to hit tens of millions of Americans. And I think that neither --

ROMANS: Would you have extended the payroll tax holiday?

DESANTIS: Yes. I would have been interested --


ROMANS: Go ahead.

DESANTIS: This is kind of one of the principles I want to bring to bear. Having temporary tax relief is a mistake. Tax relief should be permanent.

I would want to revisit how we even do the payroll tax, because I think it hits people who are working class. I want to promote upward mobility in the country and I think we can raise revenue in a way that's more economically beneficial. And I think that's part of the silver lining for me, even though I didn't like the deal going forward, is that we do have permanent tax rates so we can at least look forward to doing some pro-growth tax reform.

But I'm not going to be somebody who is really going to want to entertain a temporary tax holiday or tax cut, because I think it ends up creating these manufactured crises. It hurts the certainty that I think individuals and businesses need to get our economy going.

ROMANS: Well, it's gone. You know, the payroll tax holiday is gone. It was always meant to be temporary. And it's gone.

And you're right, it's very hard to do temporary things in tax codes, because it becomes baseline assumptions for people like the Bush tax cuts which were meant to have a certain life span and they became the baseline assumption for people.

I know that you have criticized -- and we -- and, by the way, we have talked a lot about the payroll tax holiday. I talked about it all day for three days in a row. So, a lot of people I think are aware that paychecks are going to get a little bit smaller. You say there should be more focus on spending cuts. And clearly, with the tax part of the equation out of the way now, spending cuts is where it's going to be.

So, let's talk about what you would cut? What kind of spending would you cut specifically? Would you cut, for example, unemployment benefits for your constituents? Is that something you think is runaway federal spending?

DESANTIS: Well, I think the problem with unemployment benefits, that they have been going on so long. So, to me, when I look at it, one of two things are true. Either Obama's policies have not been successful, because if they were, you wouldn't need this many people to be on unemployment insurance for this period of time. Or the other thing that could be true, is that because we've extended it for so long, that we've actually provided an incentive for people to remain on that, rather than take a job which may not be ideal for them, but would be something where they can earn a paycheck.

And so, I think we need to, of course, look at unemployment insurance and try to figure out why it's been that we had to extend it for so long.

ROMANS: So, you think it's time to end the unemployment extension after extension after extension. We should just end -- you would end that -- you would end unemployment checks, the extended checks for your constituents?

DESANTIS: Well, I don't -- I think 99 weeks is certainly a limit. I mean, I wouldn't want to go past that.

But I want to look at and ask ourselves why we're in a situation where we continue to need more and more unemployment. What is the economy not generating or is the program structured in a way that is leading people to stay on it? So, I would want to look at that and try to figure out where we go from there.

ROMANS: Let's talk about defense spending. That's another place as many say is ripe for cutting. Others say, no, no, no, no. They've already been doing efficiencies there. It would be disastrous to go too deep to the defense budget.

Are you going to be -- are you going to be willing to make some cuts in defense if you are talking about runaway federal spending?

DESANTIS: I don't think the choices are no defense at all or you do drastic defense cuts. I think there are things in the Pentagon that you probably could deal with. You know, I'm somebody who is a Reaganite, I believe peace through strength. I believe that defense spending equates to capability.

So, I would not want to shirk on our weapon's capability or shirk on compensation for people putting their lives on the line.

But I have embraced things such as what Senator Coburn wants to do, audit the Pentagon. So, we know it's a very big bureaucracy. You can ask people who've actually served on active duty in Iraq, Afghanistan, or even on the home front. It is a big bureaucracy and a lot of times our military is successful in spite of the bureaucracy, but not because of it.

So, I wouldn't say you can't look at defense, but if you think we're going to balance the budget just by cutting defense -- one, I don't think you can get there, but, two, we will be inviting dangers from abroad, rather than protecting the people if we do that.

ROMANS: You think we'll have a big fight over entitlements, over Social Security, over Medicare? You think that's going to be coming up with the debt ceiling? You think that would be part of the debt ceiling negotiations?

DESANTIS: Well, I think we need to restructure some of these entitlements, get in the way that they are sustainable over the long term. So, I hope we can do that. Whether that's going to be something that's viable, I'm not sure. I don't sense a lot of desire amongst my friends on the other side of the aisle to really deal with that. I mean, that's just my sense. Maybe I'm wrong.

But I think we should try to look at entitlements, look at restructuring Medicare so it's delivering services at a lower cost to the taxpayer. I think that makes sense.

ROMANS: I think we're looking at everything and we're going to be fighting about everything. And you, sir, are about a real first-hand look at, you know, at how the sausage is made. So, come back and tell us what you think about it after you've been in there a bit.

Congressman Ron DeSantis, freshman member of the 113th Congress -- best of luck to you, sir.

DESANTIS: Thank you.

SAMBOLIS: It is 40 minutes past the hour.

Others have tried it and they failed. But my next guest says she is ready to make history by swimming 100 miles in shark-infested waters. She's cageless. So, what's her strategy? We're going to ask her, coming up next.


ROMANS: French movie star Gerard Depardieu is now a Russian citizen. Today, he announced he accepted Russian citizenship after Russian President Vladimir Putin personally granted it to him by decree. He recently fled his native France in protest over government plans for a tax hike on the very richest.

He's probably best known in the U.S. for starring in the 1990 film "Green Card," where his character marries an American woman in order to get permanent residence in the United States. The irony is just rich, isn't it?

SAMBOLIN: Yes. That's kind of how you remember him. All right. So, it's something that's only been done once before. An epic journey, battling minds, Mother Nature, and some killer sharks along. We're talking about an open swim from Havana to Cuba, to Key West, Florida, through 100 miles of shark-invested waters, teeming with jellyfish as well and done with not much more than a bathing suit and a little protective gear.

And it was done that one time, it was done inside a cage shark that is. If you watched CNN, you've seen us document the attempts by Diana Nyad, who tried four times but she never made it.

Well, meet the next young woman to give it a go. This is Chloe McCardel. She's a 27-year-old marathon swimmer from Australia. She is in Melbourne this morning, evening your time, right?

CHLOE MCCARDEL, MARATHON SWIMMER: Yes. Good morning your time, Zoraida. Thanks for having me on.

SAMBOLIN: We're very excited to have you. So, why are you doing this? That has to be our first question here.

MCCARDEL: That is such a good question. Well, this swim is the most epic marathon swim in the whole entire world right now. It is undoubtedly the hottest swim that I could imagine for myself, that Diana could have used as a challenge for herself to inspire the people.

I've done English channel six times. I've done two double crossings. I'm going to move away from cardboard (ph), and I'm going to take on this huge challenge. So -- and what I have got (ph) is amazing challenge, because it would be a world record in and of itself, but I also want to take on this amazing challenge because it's going to be opportunity to raise awareness and funds for cancer research which is really close to my heart.

SAMBOLIN: Why is it so close to your heart?

MCCARDEL: My mom fought breast cancer when I was a teenager. So, having live through that experience with my family, my mom, I know how much support that people fighting cancer need. So, that support for their families and themselves when they're going through that, but also, in research in general so that we can hopefully prevent this from happening, all different sorts of cancers all around the world.

SAMBOLIN: That's fantastic that you're doing that, because a lot of eyes are going to be watching you. First of all, there is no cage here. You are in shark-infested waters. There are jellyfish. There are just so many challenges that you face. In your opinion, what's the greatest challenge?

MCCARDEL: As you said, there are so many challenges. The shark fish, the jellyfish, in the Gulf Stream, which is really strong and often quite unpredictable.

Well, I think -- and the long distance of swim over a hundred miles continuously non-stop, but I think the really hardest thing for me is probably going to be the jelly fish, because Diana Nyad in his very valiant attempts has really come up against some really serious jellyfish. So, we're looking, my team and I, in researching some new ways to combat these little guys.

SAMBOLIN: OK. Well, you know what, you mentioned Diana Nyad. So, I want to play something that she said about what her greatest challenge was.


DIANE NYAD, ATTEMPTED TO SWIM FROM CUBA TO U.S. IN 2012: None of all that stuff matters but, Soledad, the damn jellyfish are frightening. I got the world's expert in box jellyfish, Dr. Angel Yanagihara from Hawaii. I created with the company called (INAUDIBLE) a suit that they cannot sting through, but I can swim in. I made a panty hose hood, swam a little booties. I mean, it's not easy to swim with all these stuff. But at night, just the lips were exposed, because, my God, I have to breathe.

You can't cover the mouth, too. A tiny -- I'm telling you, no thinner than the strand of this hair, one hair, that jellyfish came whisking across my lips, took me into searing pain, started to take my heartbeat down, and I couldn't breathe.


SAMBOLIN: None of that sounds good. And you see that she had all of those experts on board. She prepared a lot. So, how are you going to combat that because that's also your greatest concern?

MCCARDEL: Yes, definitely. And look, she spent a lot of time and energy researching and working with the best people in the field. And my husband and I, we spearhead this logistical attempt, and the crew, we've got around us. We do have some university researches as well, and there are one or two of new sorts of techniques which we're learning about as we speak.

And we're going to be implement them during the swim. So, not quite ready to go into details yet, but I can assure you we'll have some interesting facts to share within the next month or two.

SAMBOLIN: I can assure you that we are going to be watching and we are going to be rooting for you. The last thing I want to say, because we've run out of time is on the Web site that you're actually asking for volunteers to help you out to join your crew. Is that -- is that accurate?

MCCARDEL: Well, yes, because they're from Australia, it'd be really hard to bring everyone over from us. So, we're putting the call out to those experienced paddlers and kayakers living in the Key West region who might want to come and join us. We still have a few best spots available and we'd love to hear from you via our website.

SAMBOLIN: I got to tell you, I am not experienced at any of those things, but I would love to volunteer. What an experience. Lots of luck to you. Thank you so much for joining us this morning. Christine, back to you.

ROMANS: Oh, wow! She is brave and excited. Best of luck to her.

All right. Everything is bigger in Texas and that goes for the snowstorms, too. Parts of El Paso shut down this morning. We'll show you that next.


SAMBOLIN: It was all in the family as Senators took the oath of office for the 113th Congress. Come take a look at this. Some Senators such as Kristen Gillibrand of New York held their children as they raise their hand in front of Vice President Joe Biden.

ROMANS: That's a working mommy.


SAMBOLIN: Isn't that sweet? I love that she took him along. At one point, Biden picked up the young daughter of Ted Cruz. He's the new Senator from Texas. She was a bit overwhelmed by all of the pomp and circumstance that was going on around here.

ROMANS: She kind of cried for a second, and --

SAMBOLIN: She is a joy (ph).

ROMANS: And he was like --


ROMANS: Joe Biden was like, I know, I'm a Democrat. I get it, don't cry.


All right. So, John Berman is joining us now with a look at what is ahead on "STARTING POINT."

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: I want my pictures taking with Joe Biden just because he says really crazy stuff when it happens --


BERMAN: It's worth trying out.

ROMANS: Let's look if she can tell you how --


BERMAN: It's a new day in Washington with a new Congress, and their first task today is going to be voting on that $9 billion Superstorm Sandy relief bill. So, we're going to talk to newly sworn in Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gubbard, just 31 years old. We're also going to talk to former Ohio Congressman Steve LaTourette, that guy has been saying a lot of things, not so happy with the old Congress. Then, we're just two hours away from the new big December jobs report. Where will the unemployment rate land? Christine Romans jumping out of her seat, and it's just a face she will be talking about that.

ROMANS: Five years' provisions, I can't wait.

BERMAN: Like she couldn't sleep last night, because she was so excited about this.

And then, they love their meat. We're talking to Steve Rinella and Tim Ferriss from the show "Meat Eater." They're here with their big game hunting adventures, and the early word is they're bringing squirrel, a squirrel snack for us this morning.

SAMBOLIN: Are you going to have it?

BERMAN: I will eat anything.



SAMBOLIN: -- my camera out.

ROMANS: Thanks, John.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Thank you.

Fifty-three minutes past the hour. Heavy snow blanketing west Texas. It looks so pretty, especially the region around El Paso. Conditions got so intense, though, that large portions of Interstate 10 between El Paso and Ft. Stockton to the east were closed overnight. So, let's check in with Alexandra Steele. She's in the weather center in Atlanta for us. Good morning to you.

ALEXANDRA STEELE, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Good morning, Zoraida. So, Christine has the jobs report and I have the El Paso snow.


STEELE: So, we're both happy women this morning. Hi, everyone. Waking up looking at the Franklin Mountains in El Paso. It's a beautiful site, isn't it? No school -- well, delayed for school today in El Paso. Record snow yesterday, 2.9, but you know, it's not as outlandish as you may think it is. On average, they see 6.6 inches a year. I think it's a little more of the novelty factor, because it was actually almost the year to the day.

It was last January 9th the El Paso had any snow at all, mainly at a tenth of an inch. So, it certainly is nice out there. But it's the spaghetti bowl and I-10 that really have had a lot of problems in West Texas and a lot of that are the bridges and overpasses that have created such a problem. So, there's a look, El Paso, fete de complis, a few flurries around this morning, cold as well.

All that wet weather pushing eastward and the advisories all end at about eight o'clock this morning. So, the storm is pretty much snow is down the area of low pressure as moved east and the story, guys, in the upper Midwest and the northeast will be the gusty wind today.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Alexandra, thank you.


ROMANS: OK. Take a look at this very important rock. It's a meteorite from Mars, and it's now being studied at the University of New Mexico. The scientist leading the study says a lot of information about the Red Planet is locked inside of that. At some point, it fell to earth, landing in the Sahara Desert in North Africa.

SAMBOLIN: "Best Advice" is coming up. Today, Danica Patrick gives us her advice.


SAMBOLIN: Fifty-eight minutes past the hour. We wrapped it up as always with "Best Advice" -- Christine.

ROMANS: And on a Friday, today's "Best Advice" comes from NASCAR star, Danica Patrick. Her big takeaway, race to save.


DANICA PATRICK, NASCAR STAR: The best advice I've ever received is to plan for the future and to save your money. And, especially in an athlete's career, that is not always as long as others maybe to plan for the future in a way that you can have the same lifestyle after you're done doing your job that you had while you were doing your job and that takes some planning and thinking and saving.



SAMBOLIN: Music to your ears, isn't it?

ROMANS: Personal finance doesn't just happen. You make it happen.

SAMBOLIN: That's it for EARLY START. I'm Zoraida Sambolin.

ROMANS: I'm Christine Romans. "STARTING POINT" with John Berman and Brooke Baldwin starts right now.