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V.P. Holds Meetings On Gun Violence; Gun Rights Advocates Push Back; Obama Taps Jack Lew For Treasury; At Least 57 Hurt In NYC Ferry Crash; Ben Stein on Money, Gridlock & More

Aired January 9, 2013 - 13:00   ET


CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: -- two big stories this hour. At least 57 people injured in a ferry crash in lower Manhattan, and we'll get you the latest on that. Plus, President Obama is filling up his cabinet. He will nominate White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew to replace Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. More on that in just a few minutes.

Another story we're following, Wal-Mart does an about face on meeting with Vice President Biden's gun violence task force this week. At first, the nation's largest retailer said it was too busy to attend the meetings held in Washington this week. The company said executives were taking part in monthly sales meetings in Bentonville, Arkansas. But today, Wal-Mart announced it will participate after all. The spokesman telling me, quote, "We underestimated the expectation to attend the meeting on Thursday in person, so we're sending an appropriate representative to participate.

One reason why so many people wanted Wal-Mart to be at the table, literally, physically at the table and not just via telephone or via a conference call, is because Wal-Mart is the world's largest retailer. It also sells AR-15 style weapons like the one used in Newtown, Connecticut. And Wal-Mart, by the way, does not release how many guns it sells or how much ammunition it sells, but because it is the world's largest retailer, many analysts say it is likely the world -- likely the world's largest gun seller. Vice president Biden says he wants to hear from all sides on the gun policy debate.

Today, he is meeting with victim's advocacy groups and gun safety organizations at the White House. Biden leads a panel working on recommendations to reduce gun violence and he promises their work will lead to action this time. He says -- the shooting that killed 20 first graders and six educators in Newtown, Connecticut, he says, that was a turning point.


JOE BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I have been doing this a long time. I can't think with of all the tragic events we've endured, I don't think anything has touched the heart of the American people so profoundly as seeing and learning of those young children not only being shot but riddled with bullets. It's -- every once in a while, there's something that awakens the conscience of the country and that tragic event did it in a way like nothing I have seen in my career. (END VIDEO CLIP)

ROMANS: Every once in a while, he said, although it is an event that happened just weeks and months on the heels of other similar tragic events. White House Correspondent Brianna Keilar joins us live. Brianna, we know the vice president meeting with different groups throughout the week. How important is it for the White House to be inclusive in these meetings to hear from all sides?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It's very important, Christine, and that's because, politically, this is such a tricky issue. And in the past, there has been no appetite, for instance, for Congress to really take up this issue that they really do need to get some buy in because if they are going to be successful in doing some sort of wide ranging approach to deal with gun violence, it's going to take threading a needle between gun rights and gun control. Right now, you heard Vice President Biden, today, the news that he made was that the administration will pursue some sort of executive action, that they will go with their own. He also said legislative action is needed but also saying that there will be an area for the White House to do something on its own. That could be having to do with the buying and the selling of weapons.

Following the Arizona shooting, that was something, actually, that the administration did that they actually, in the back -- the FBI background check process, they tried to tighten that up. We heard from Mayor Michael Bloomberg, obviously a big advocate for gun control, who said, with the stroke of a pen, President Obama would be able to make sure that that's improved even further, that more agencies are sharing information, for instance, about who is mentally ill. But there are still others, Christine, who say there's privacy issues. There will be lawsuits that will get in the way of this.

So, at this point, the administration is really looking at what -- as well at involving Congress. And the biggest thing that they think they'll be able to achieve with the least resistance is closing that gun show loop hole where so many people can purchase weapons, and they do without a background check, because they're purchasing directly from the owner of a weapon who is selling it. Of course, the White House also wants, Christine, for Congress to pursue the assault weapons ban to ban high count magazines or clips as you may know them. So, definitely the perspective of the White House is that legislative action is needed but they may also have room to go their own way on some things.

ROMANS: Clearly, an emotional Joe Biden at the White House that says, this time it will be different. We'll see what they come up with. Brianna Keilar. Thank you so much for that, Brianna.

You know, he's -- I want to talk about CNN's Piers Morgan for a second. He is in the middle of the fierce gun violence debate. He's been talking about it almost every night since the shootings. In his explosive interview with gun advocate and radio host, Alex Jones, has blown up the Twitter verse. And we spoke to him last hour about what he hopes will come out of the vice president's meetings on gun violence. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (INAUDIBLE.) And we've got hoards of people burning down --



PIERS MORGAN, CNN HOST, "PIERS MORGAN TONIGHT": In America, 11,000 people are murdered with guns a year. 18,000 take their own life with guns a year, 100,000 Americans are hit by gun fire a year, and every time one of these massacres happens, all I hear is the gun lobby saying, don't touch our guns. Well, sorry, we're going to touch some of your guns, because that's what a humane society does. It says these assault rifles are killing Americans. There is no reason for them. We're going to take them off the street.

And I applaud Michael Bloomberg, and Governor Cuomo, and President Obama, and Joe Biden and the others for finally, I think, getting what most, I think, decent civilized Americans want. It's not about taking away people's hand guns at home to defend families. I get that. That is what, I think, the founding fathers intended on the second amendment. This is about removing machine guns from the streets of America and from --


ROMANS: Later this hour, we'll play more of that interview with Piers. And tonight, it's fire arms lobbyist Larry Pratt's turn to go one on one with Piers Morgan over guns in America. That's CNN tonight live at 9:00 Eastern.

Some gun rights advocates are worried about the rush to pass tighter gun control measures. At this point, they are only talking about what measures to do. But they immediately go to this worry about taking guns away. Republican Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin says that's not the only answer to mass shootings and he says it's important to protect Americans' rights.


SEN. RON JOHNSON (R), WISCONSIN: We actually have a constitution and we do need to, you know, guard our freedoms. And whether you're talking about, you know, gun rights, your smacking right up against the second amendment. If you're talking about video games, mental health issues, you're definitely talking about the first amendment in terms of freedom of speech. So, these are -- these are difficult issues to grapple with. And, you know, I am a little concerned they're going to try and rush this thing through and pass some piece of legislation out of Washington, D.C. within a month. And I just don't think Washington, D.C. is capable of solving this problem.


ROMANS: All right. Coming up 30 minutes from now, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo holds his state of the state address. He's expected to talk about ways to address gun violence, laying out a plan that could include new restrictions on assault weapons and these high-capacity gun magazines. He's also expected to explain New York's recovery effort after Superstorm Sandy. I'm going to bring you that live at 1:30 Eastern.

President Obama makes another cabinet pick. The president will nominate Jack Lew to be his next treasury secretary replacing Timothy Geithner. Lew is the president's chief of staff right now and former director of the Office of Management and Budget. He has an undergraduate degree from Harvard and a law degree from Georgetown University and he's an orthodox Jew. Of course, his first big hurdle, if he is confirmed, will be to tackle the nation's $16.4 trillion debt ceiling and spending limits that are coming up. Dan Lothian looks at some of the scrutiny Lou will likely face in the confirmation process.


DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Jack Lew is a key Washington insider but to people outside the beltway, he's somewhat of an unknown. The White House chief of staff poised to run the treasury department whose track record has garnered, in the president's own words, complete trust.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: He has helped strengthen our economy and streamline the government at a time when we need to do everything we can to keep our recovery going.


LOTHIAN: But Lew's past now under an intense microscope is being scrutinized from Wall Street to main street.

CHRIS KRUEGER, GUGGENHEIM SECURITIES: I think, more than anything, Wall Street will likely view this as a doubling down of the current economic and fiscal policies from the -- from the Obama administration.

LOTHIAN: An extension of the administration's get tough on Wall Street approach that's left the president trying to mend relationships with CEOs. That criticism is seemingly at odds with this entry in Lew's resume, 2006 to 2009 chief operating officer at Citi Group where bets were made against the housing market.

BARTLETT NAYLOR, PUBLIC CITIZEN CONGRESS WATCH: We're concerned that Jack Lew's connection to Wall Street has harmed his vision for what makes America strong, and that is a strong main street. And while his record is thin, his public record about what's necessary is not -- is not exhaustive.

LOTHIAN: Sharp questions being raised once again over testimony Lew delivered in his 2010 Senate confirmation hearing for White House budget chief where he appeared to down play the impact of deregulation on the financial crisis. JACK LEW, WHITE HOUSE BUDGET DIRECTOR: But I don't believe that deregulation was the -- and, you know, the proximate cause.

LOTHIAN: And he carefully framed his knowledge of the issue raising eyebrows once again.

LEW: Senator, I -- as -- when we discussed, I mentioned to you, I don't consider myself an expert in some of these aspects of the financial industry. My experience in the financial industry has been as a manager not as a -- an investment advisor.

NAYLOR: This disavowal of deregulation is what causes us very serious concerns for the possibility that he will be the chief financial architect and steward of America.

LOTHIAN: But Lew supporters point to his extensive experience working in two administrations helping to cut the 1997 balance budget deal and social security legislation in 1983. He is described as a tough negotiator capable of tackling the so-called mini cliffs ahead and winning praise from one of the administration's biggest critics.

NEWT GINGRICH (R), FORMER HOUSE SPEAKER: Jack Lew is very smart and I think that he understands a very great deal about government and about the financial market. So, I think it's a sound nomination.

LOTHIAN: A nomination he says that's is likely to get through the Senate. Dan Lothian, CNN Washington.


ROMANS: And he will have no time to get used to his new office if he is confirmed because certainly there is an awful lot to do. Washington just keeps putting band aids on the fiscal problems. Economist and comedian Ben Stein joins us with how he thinks Washington needs to break up the grid lock.

Plus, America's toughest sheriff has a plan to protect kids against gun violence. He's got a volunteer patrol posse to stand guard.

And at 57 people injured in a ferry crash in lower Manhattan. You'll get the latest.


ROMANS: Now, to a story developing here in New York. At least 57 people were hurt this morning when a ferry crashed into a dock in lower Manhattan. You can see it there. Two people are in critical condition right now. Alison Kosik is live at Pier 11 near Wall Street. Certainly a very scary moment for these commuters coming into the financial district.

ALISON KOSIK, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Oh, you can only imagine. I mean, what a scary ending to a ride that started in New Jersey. This was a ferry that started at 8:00 a.m. out of the northern tip of New Jersey and coming in here to lower Manhattan where the financial district is. It was supposed to come in about 8:45. You can see how that ending happened, over my shoulder, that huge gash in the hull. It's just amazing. By the way, right now, investigators are on the boat taking a look around, including crime scene investigators.

Now, when that boat came, this is what the New York City transportation commission happen -- commissioner says happened, that it appears that the boat tried to dock at a first dock, a Dock D, and then missed it -- and then hit it, rather, and then it hit a second dock, a Dock B and made what the commissioner calls a hard landing. But if you talk to passengers, they'll call it a crash landing. Fifty-seven people were injured, two critical.

You know, some of the passengers that we spoke with said that they were flying through the air. In fact, one woman I talked with said she remembers only flying through the air and then waking up on the ground, a woman shaking her, trying to figure out if she's OK. This is a lot of what other passengers said. We talked to some of them. Listen to this.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was a sudden crash. Everybody who was standing fell forward. And people who were in their seats got thrown forward.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Basically it was, you know, 60 to zero. So I don't know how fast we were going, but, you know, the -- (INAUDIBLE) what happens when people come into the dock is that the boat, you know, usually slows down a little bit, people get up to get off the boat, and that was what the problem was. Just when we hit the dock, everybody went flying. So that's why we had so many injuries. You know people got thrown down stairs and that was -- that's where most people got hurt.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, I was actually sleeping. I -- all of a sudden we just hit, boom, and people were catapulting forward.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I was standing up and I went backwards and hit chairs and then people landed on top of me. It was normal approach.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But then what happened?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Just a sudden crash.


KOSIK: And such a scary way to end a commute. You know, one passenger I talked with said the biggest problem here that caused the biggest injuries in this incident was that a lot of people, as the boat was getting closer to the dock, a lot of people were standing up. They were eager to get on with their day, to get off the boat. So they stand up as the boat is coming in. The problem is, this is a two tier, a two floor ferry, where there's an upstairs and a downstairs. And on that staircase, people were lining up, getting ready to leave the boat. And that is when that crash happened. And a lot of the people came tumbling down the stairs.

The Seastreak Wall Street (ph) is part of a private ferry system that provides high speed service for commuters that come into Manhattan. And this particular boat can go up to 44 miles per hour. We are not sure how fast the boat was coming when it did crash into the dock. What we have learned from the Coast Guard records, though, that the Seastreak has been involved in several other accidents in the past. The NTSB is on its way with an investigation team.


CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: All right, Alison Kosik at the South Street seaport (ph). Thank you so much, Alison.

The U.S. hit the debt ceiling and is only about two months now before it must raise its borrowing limit or risk a default on its bills. So, what should the country do? Economist and comedian Ben Stein joins us next with his answers for Washington, plus a weigh-in on President Obama's expected pick to replace Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.


ROMANS: The 112th Congress, the one we ended the year with, was the least productive Congress ever. They fought about everything -- the campaign, the fiscal cliff, you name it. And now the 113th Congress is already drawing battle lines over President Obama's cabinet picks. The gridlock seems endless.

No stranger to this, Ben Stein. He's worked as an economist at the Department of Commerce. He was a speech writer and lawyer for President Richard Nixon. He's a columnist for "The Wall Street Journal." A comedian. He even has his own game show, "Win Ben Stein's Money." The list goes on and on.

Ben, first of all, comedian is the most important hat you wear when we talk about the economic situation in Washington. This debt ceiling is so not funny, but why do I want to laugh and cry at the same time?

BEN STEIN, ECONOMIST: Because you have to laugh to avoid crying. I mean the situation is just hopeless. I mean poor Mr. Lew, who was just nominated to be secretary of the Treasury. It's a very prestigious post. I've been in that room in the Treasury Department many times. It's a magnificent office. It has its own fireplace. But he might as well burn himself up in it. I mean there's nothing to be done about this budgetary situation. The budgetary deficit is just going to grow and grow and grow until it eats us all alive. There's nothing to be done but accept things that are very, very uncomfortable. And as I say, you have to laugh to keep from crying.

ROMANS: But Congress won't do anything uncomfortable. This Congress for 20 years has only passed laws and made policies with an eye to getting re-elected again. You know, if you looked at Congress as a stock, an 18 percent approval rating. The least productive Congress in history last year. And they're just running up a bill for taxpayers. I mean it's ridiculous.

STEIN: Well, Thomas Jefferson predicted that the democracy would not last in this country because politicians would just endlessly vote to spend money on things that the country couldn't afford in order to get themselves re-elected. And that's exactly what has happened. But it's happening now at a geometrically higher rate than has happened in the past.


STEIN: As the population ages. It's just a hopeless situation. We're going to have to have -- we're going to finally have to have dramatically higher taxes on everyone, the middle class up to the rich, and there's going to have to be a dramatic cut in entitlements for the upper middle class and the upper classes. Just, it has to happen. That's arithmetic. It's arithmetic. That's it, it's arithmetic. We hate it arithmetic, but it's real.

ROMANS: I love arithmetic, actually, but there's not any honest arithmetic really in Washington. But let me -- I want to show you this arithmetic. A new public policy polling survey. Congress is now less popular than head lice, cockroaches and Donald Trump. That's funny.

STEIN: Well, I don't get why anyone would vote for head lice or why would anyone like head lice or cockroaches unless he's a bug scientist. I don't get that at all. And I like Donald Trump. But I -- I mean, I just don't get at all what anyone expects them to be able to do until they pull their heads out of the sand and say, look, we're going to have to do brave, kamikaze type action here --


STEIN: Where we risk very much not being re-elected in order to save this country. Are we brave enough to sacrifice our careers to save our country? We'll see. We'll separate who's brave and who's not.

ROMANS: You don't get re-elected by saying, you're going to have to lower your living standards to pay for your living standards up to this point. You don't get re-elected saying that when that might very well be the honest truth.

STEIN: Exactly. But you might get re-elected if you say, we're going to give you a chance to cast the vote which will preserve this country for your children and grandchildren. That's the chance Congress is going to have to take.

ROMANS: Let me ask you about a not so funny fight happening right now. A national debate over gun violence. You know, when you think about the things that -- you know, I like math. You know, I'm a business person, right? So I like to look at numbers. How many guns are sold. I like to look at it as a market. But, you know, in this country, we don't know how many guns are sold. We only know background checks. We know that background checks or a record number of background checks. You know, what do you think about this gun debate that we're having right now? Is it real and different this time?

STEIN: It's not going to be any different. The gun control -- the anti-gun control lobby is so powerful it cannot be beaten. And I don't really think, with all due respect, that guns are the problem. I am sure I'm going to get a lot of hate mail for saying this. But I live in north Idaho part of the time where every single person has a gun. People carry them around in their cars. There's almost no gun violence whatsoever. I live also part of the year in Los Angeles, California, where gun control laws are unbelievably strict. There's an incredible amount of gun violence. I live part of the year in Washington, D.C., gun control laws unbelievably strict. There's a lot of gun violence. It has to do, in my humble opinion, with how much people are brainwashed by Hollywood into thinking that the solution to all their problems is a gun. Go sit in a movie, watch the previews of coming attractions and see how many involve guns resolving problems.

ROMANS: So it's the glamorized kind of Hollywood treatment, you think, of, you know, picking up a gun and the --

STEIN: Yes, solving your problems.

ROMANS: We like violence. This country likes violence.

STEIN: Well -- well, people are trained to like violence. And also, the video game is an incredibly bad influence. I mean all these kids do all day long is sit at a computer and kill people -- imaginary people. And after a while, I think the distinction between imaginary and real is blurred. And they think, well, again, the solution to my problems, I feel like an insignificant nothing. The solution to my problems is to kill lots of people. It's a horrible --

ROMANS: But do you think that the --

STEIN: It's a horrible thing.

ROMANS: Do you think that the --

STEIN: It's not very funny, but it's horrible.

ROMANS: Do you think the founders meant for the Second Amendment to mean a real high capacity clip and the ability to kill 26 people in just a few minutes?

STEIN: I'm not sure what -- I'm not sure what they meant about that. But, again, I don't think that's the problem. I mean almost everyone I know in north Idaho has a weapon like that and it doesn't seem -- there doesn't seem to be any gun violence up there. So I'm not sure that that's the problem. The problem is, I think, immature people being brainwashed by Hollywood into thinking that their moment of glory will come and all their past failures will be forgotten if they can kill enough people.

ROMANS: Well, it just certainly is -- it certainly is easy in this country for a damaged individual to really wreak a lot of havoc.

STEIN: It is way too easy to get a gun. I agree with that. There's no doubt about that.

ROMANS: All right, Ben Stein, nice to talk to you.

STEIN: Nice to talk to you.

ROMANS: We turned serious at the end, but you're a funny guy and I can't wait to hear what you have to say about the debt ceiling follies to come for sure.

STEIN: Thank you. Thank you.

ROMANS: All right, in a few minutes we're going to hear from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. He's expected to lay out a plan for stricter gun laws in New York. Stricter gun laws that would make it the toughest state. We'll bring that to you live.


ROMANS: No flu shot yet? Listen up. At least 43 states are reporting widespread cases. And hospitals are feeling the strain. In Chicago, ambulances are being turned away at jam packed emergency rooms. Our affiliate there, WLS, reports that at least six hospitals were forced to divert arrivals because their ERs were simply overflowing with flu patients. The numbers suggest this could be the worst flu season in a decade. In Allentown, Pennsylvania, there's little doubt there. Lehigh Valley Hospital pitched a tent to treat all the milder cases of the flu. And if you think you're safe because you've had that flu shot, listen to this.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Came to work today. And as the day went on, I felt progressively worse. This is the worst. This is the worst, yes. And I did get the flu shot. And some of our other patients, too, that are testing positive did get the flu shot.


ROMANS: Boston Mayor Thomas Menino also declared a public health emergency there in response to a flu outbreak. There have been four flu related deaths since October 1st and 700 confirmed cases of the flu.