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Pope Benedict XVI Leads Thousands in Prayer; Danica Patrick First Woman to Win Pole Position for Daytona 500; Man Assaults Child on Delta Flight; Guide Dogs of the Desert; Mixed Martial Arts on the Scene; Obama Wants Minimum Wage Hike

Aired February 17, 2013 - 17:00   ET


DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN ANCHOR: Hey there everyone it is 5:00 p.m. on the East Coast, 2:00 p.m. out West. If you are just tuning in, we thank you for joining us spending part of your day here. I'm Deborah Feyerick in for Fredricka Whitfield. And here are the top stories that we are following for you right now in the CNN NEWSROOM.

Danica Patrick, all smiles today clocking in at 196 miles an hour. She makes history as the first woman to win the pole for the Daytona 500. That puts her in the best starting position for the race next Sunday. She spoke a short time ago, giving thanks to those who helped make this moment possible.


DANICA PATRICK, NASCAR DRIVER: I'm grateful for all those things. I feel like, first and foremost, I feel like I grew up with good values and good goals and I was brought up be the fastest driver, not the fastest girl. And so, I feel like that was instilled in me from very young and -- well, from the beginning. And then I feel like, you know, thriving in those moments where the pressure's on is also going to help for me and I feel like I've also been very lucky in my career to be with good teams and have good people around me and I -- and I don't think that any of it would have been possible without that.


FEYERICK: A team effort. Well, Danica will join our Don Lemon live at 6:15 tonight to talk about her big win.

Some days, being president has to be the best job in the world, especially if you're a president who loves golf. Today, President Obama played a round of golf with Tiger Woods. The president is enjoying a golfing weekend with friends in Palm City, Florida. He is also playing with his buddy Jim Crane, a Democratic supporter and owner of the Posh Resort where the men are staying and playing. To top it off, the president got a golf lesson from Tiger's former coach.

Agent for South Africa's Olympic hero, Oscar Pistorius canceled all of his sprinter's future races. He issued statement, that's short time ago saying quote I decided that following these tragic events that we have no option but to cancel all future races that Oscar Pistorius had been contracted to complete it. The story has remains in a South African jail. He is accused of killing his girlfriend on Valentine's Day. Fellow Olympic sprinter Usain bolt says he is shocked to hear of the allegations against Pistorius and he spoke to Rachel Nichols of Turner Sports.


USAIN BOLT, OLYMPIC GOLD MEDALIST: When I heard, I was like, what? Who? As in the amputee, the guy who run the 400 meter? I was asking all kinds of questions because this can't be the same guy that I have seen that I know. And I still can't process it really. I'm trying to process what really happened, what is going. So, as far as I am concerned, I'm just listening out, listening to the news what's up, follow twitter and see what is going on. Because for me, I'm still in slightly shock for what happened.


FEYERICK: A bond hearing for Pistorius will be happening on Tuesday.

And right now, when Washington and a historic rally coming to a close. But this is what it sounded like just a little bit earlier.

Thousands of people marching all afternoon on the National Mall and they want more action on climate change. Among their demands is for death of the big Keystone Excel pipeline and we got a reporter who brave in the calls to stand in the crowd. We are going to take you there in just a moment.

Well, Pope Benedict XVI led tens of thousands in a prayer for strength. This morning, he gave his second-to-last angelus prayer as pontiff and thanked his followers for their support. Last week, the 85-year-old Pope announced he was stepping down resigning because of his old age.

And in Los Angeles, dozens of protesters gather outside the LAPD headquarters. They carried signs supporting renegade ex-cop, Christopher Dorner. They don't support Dorner's deadly rampage, but say the accusations of corruption, racism, even brutality that Dorner alleged in his manifesto need to be addressed so this kind of thing doesn't happen again.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think there are a lot of honest policemen out there trying to help the people. But it just is atrocious what Mr. Dorner did and we don't want it to happen again.


FEYERICK: And, our Nick Valencia is here with me today.

And Nick, you know, it is interesting to listen to this woman which she said that we don't want this to happen again. But there was something very, very wrong with Christopher Dorner. Let's use that as our starting point. NICK VALENCIA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And he targeted cops, not only cops, Deb, but also the family member of police officers. If you go back and read his manifesto, he challenged the authority of the LAPD said that they were full of corrupt cops an abusive cops.

At one time, there was more than 50 families receiving security detail 24/7. So, it wasn't just police officers that he is going after. I spoke in to some of these so-called Dorner supporters and they say, we don't necessarily support Dorner's actions. But we do support is that he was trying to call out corruption in the Los Angeles police department and they are using this as an opportunity to leverage those claims.

Last week, when I was in Los Angeles, I spoke to Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and asked him if Dorner should hub given any credence or legitimacy. Take a listen.


ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA (D), MAYOR, LOS ANGELES: There is nothing, absolutely nothing that was done to this individual that would rationalize in any way the murder of three innocent people. The notion that somehow this deranged individual should be given any credence boggles my mind.


VALENCIA: But people somehow are rationalizing Dorner's action. If you remember, Deb, back in the '90s, that infamous decade in Los Angeles police department, the Rodney King riots, ram parts scandal, it was a tough time for the LAPD and they are still trying to rebound and recover that image.

FEYERICK: Yes. You know, it is interesting because that is 20 years later and I did speak to some officers from the LAPD who basically say, look, is there no sort of institutional racism and they doubt sort of Dorner's experience within it. Clearly, he felt that.

Do you think by reopening the investigation, it may at least quell the doubts that people who are protesting or even supporting Dorner on facebook are having?

VALENCIA: Think that's really good point, Deb. People saying that the LAPD is trying, at the very least, to be more transparent and they are doing this to sort of appease the public and say, listen, Dorner may have made these claims, but this isn't a systemic problem. This isn't something that's throughout our ranks. This is something that's very specific to his allegation which is perhaps might be unfounded - Deb.

FEYERICK: Yes. It will be interesting to see what they do find when they reopen that investigation. And clearly, that firing was his trigger point that set him off on this crazy rampage.

All right, Nick Valencia, thanks so much. We appreciate it. Well, let's get took this hour's big story, the historic rally in Washington. Thousands are marching for more action to protest against climate change. Organizers claim it is the biggest rally of its kind ever in the U.S. And our Chris Lawrence spent day among the marchers.

Chris, things are quiet there now behind you. But you know, you look at the passion that these people brought. What were their major complaints? What message did they want to give the president?


Yes, the rally is over but the message -- two messages have been clearly delivered. From what we heard as the crowd marched through the streets of Washington, they want two things, they want the environmental protection agency to establish tighter standards on current power plant. In other words, they don't want these current power plants to produce as much greenhouse gases. Not just future power plants that are going to be built, but the ones already built right now.

And they want President Obama to kill the deal of extending that Keystone pipeline. That's the oil pipeline from Canada that would bring oil through the U.S. all the way to the Gulf Coast. We spoke with a lot of folks here today who say there was a reason why they marched by the White House. Even though President Obama was away in Florida they said their message to him and to the White House is you can't go back to the status quo.


LISSA SPITZ, CLIMATE CHANGE PROTESTER: They put a minuscule amount of money into research and development for renewable energy that they spend on fossil fuels, we'd be there now, you know? It's not because it can't be done, it's because of political and financial powers to be that have a vested interest in keeping the system that we have now and it's not working.

DON PRATT, CLIMATE CHANGE PROTESTER: We are facing world disasters and we will see more and more in this. And it may be an immediate necessity to change all of this as soon as we possibly can.


LAWRENCE: On the other hand, folks who oppose these stricter regulations say look, there was a lot of glory about the big pipeline of Canada that turn out to be unfounded. They say new technology will keep this pipeline safe, that it will be great jobs to states like Nebraska. They also say will help the U.S. establish better energy independence not be so dependent on foreign nations for oil. We would be working with an al ally like Canada.

They also say these stricter emissions standards have been felt in place like West Virginia and it cost jobs in some of the coal plants. They worry that further tightening some of those emissions standards will basically put a lot of coal plants out of business - Deb.

FEYERICK: Saving the environment and trying to re-jolt the economy.

All right. Chris Lawrence, thanks for us there in Washington, D.C. Appreciate it.

A mother flying to Atlanta tries to soothe her crying child. That's when police say a fellow passenger actually slapped the boy and yelled out a racial slur. Parents describe the traumatic incident just ahead.

And mixed martial arts, a sport that's exploding in popularity in the U.S., I'm going to tell you why.

Also, remarkable guide dogs, trained by a woman who is Hollywood Pedigree is very well known. We will talk live to entertainer Laura Luft, daughter of Judy Garland.


FEYERICK: An Idaho man is charged with assaulting a minor, a child on a Delta flight. He allegedly uttered a racial slur and slapped a 2- year-old boy because the boy was crying.

Dave Berggren from our affiliate KARE has the details.


JESSICA BENNETT, MOTHER: Sing twinkle, twinkle?

DAVE BERGGREN, REPORTER, KARE (voice-over): Jonah Bennett is a smart and smiley 19-month-old.

BENNETT: Big kiss.

BERGGREN: But it's what happened on a Delta flight that has Jonah's parents doing anything but smile.

BENNETT: He hit a child. And that he said what he said and it's disgusting.

BERGGREN: Jessica Bennett and her son were flying to Atlanta and sat next to this man, 60-year-old Joe Huntley from Idaho.

BENNETT: He was being rude and belligerent and I spoke very uncomfortable.

BERGGREN: She said Huntley reeked of alcohol and continue to drink on board. But, as the plane began to descent, Jonah got fussy and the already uncomfortable flight got even worse.

BENNETT: I was having trouble comforting him and that's when the guy had made his comment to me.

BERGGREN: As court documents say, this is when Huntley allegedly told Jessica to quote "shut that n-word baby up," but it didn't add there. Huntley used the racial slur a second time and then allegedly slapped Jonah, hitting him in the eye. BENNETT: I could I not believe that he would say something like that. And to a baby or about a baby and then to hit him was just -- I -- I felt like I was in another world, I was shaking.

BERGGREN: Jessica says other passengers eventually came to her aid and the two were given a new seat, while Jonah is back to being a curious toddler, his parents call Huntley's actions heinous and hateful and want something to be done.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All the evidence is sufficient enough to support what we're saying and, you know, I think that we hope he is punished as much as he possibly can be.

BERGGREN: It's an experience the Bennetts never want to go through again but one this family will think about the next time they fly.

BENNETT: I think I'll just be replaying it the whole time, very dramatic.


FEYERICK: Well, Delta airlines apologized for any inconvenience passengers may have experienced. They are cooperating with the investigation. But Joe Ricky, Huntley's lawyer, man charged with slapping the child tells CNN, quote, "let's let the case develop and not rush to judgment. We can't make comments on the case at this time," end quote.

An Oscar-winning actor got frisked at a New York City Deli when a worker accused him of shoplifting. A worker at the Milano market on Manhattan's upper west side patted down Forest Whitaker (ph) in front of others. Whitaker finally left angry according to witnesses. His publicist issues statement saying this was an upsetting incident given the fact that Forest did nothing more than walking into a Deli, frisking individuals without proof, evidence is a violence of rights. The publicist says Whitaker didn't file a complaint because the worker asked him not to because he feared losing his job.

Congress has less than two weeks to read the debt-deal or major across the board spending cuts stay kick in. How will that impact you? We are going to tell you next.

And, a classic Bourbon changes its recipe angering its loyal customers who demand the old Maker's Mark. Find out how the distiller responded.


FEYERICK: Thirsty? Well, a Coca-Cola company learned its lesson when they tried to market new coke. Now the Kentucky distillery that produces Maker's Mark bourbon realizes, it is a mistake too. That's because they got a ton of e-mails and letters, the company said, it won't change the formula for Maker's Mark. A shortage prompt it had to reduce the amount of alcohol in Maker's Mark. Customers objected and the company will remain at 45 percent alcohol by volume Maker's Mark, 90 proof and will apparently a very winning powerful formula. The countdown is ought to huge government spending cuts if there is now deal between the Obama administration and Congress. More than a trillion dollars in spending cuts and tax increases start rolling March 1st and go on for the next ten years. What is that do to an economy still struggling to get on its feet? Hal Sirkin is senior partner, managing director at the Boston consulting group.

Thanks for being here with us. First of all, do we need to worry that this is going to hurt our 401(k)s, among other things?

HAL SIRKIN, SENIOR PARTNER, BOSTON CONSULTING GROUP: Yes, Deb. We actually have to worry. Our 401(k)s which have been rising over the last few months pretty dramatically may be hurt by this.

You got to remember that the federal government spend one quarter of all the money that spend in the U.S., 25 percent of it, that is a very important amount of money. So, then they start talking about cutting defense spending by nine percent and cutting discretionary spending by eight percent, that's big cut to the economy.

And with our economic is already in the weaken position, economic growth isn't that strong, so we could be looking at a stock market decline if this isn't handled properly. We could be looking at layoffs, not just government workers but from private sector workers and we can be looking at, you know, a potential to go back into a recession. And that's something no one wants.

FEYERICK: When you look at what's going on here, obviously, you know in terms of the kind of cuts that we need, look, we have got Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security and all these programs that Americans want, but that need to be paid for, shouldn't -- with all this budget negotiates that we are dealing with, why not just say, look, agency a, tough cut this much. Agency b, tough cut this much. Isn't it about belt-tightening and looking forward to future growth?

SIRKIN: Well, I think you hit it on the head right there which is future growth. And what we need to make sure we don't stymie future growth by cutting too much now. Clearly, we need to make cuts. And of course, cutting the deficit will help. But the other aspect of it is actually making sure the economy grows are. And what we need to do is have a sustained growth period. We are not three percent growth at this point in time. That sort of a magic number for the economy at a minimum level and that would allow us to not have to take austerity measures.

Now, they tried exactly what the sequestration is, this budget cutting. In England, and that's put them in to actually triple dipper session. So, we really do need to be careful. We are playing with the world's largest economy and Congress needs to take very good care of it.

FEYERICK: You know, it is so interesting that you say that. I mean, obviously, as the world's biggest economy, clearly, Washington has to be looking at the austerity measures going over in Europe and seeing how those are being played out. Let turn tables a little bit. We got news of the big airline merger between American and U.S. air. Do these kinds of mergers does usually work out or passengers simply going to have to cough up more money now that there are fewer choices?

SIRKIN: Well, the mergers have often worked out for the air lines, if you look at the latest few mergers. It was about three, four five years ago, Dealt merged with Northwest. That worked quite well and took out a lot of costs, which is helpful in sort of keeping fares down. Obviously, oil prices, whenever they go up, will make things worse. And we have also seen the united/continental merger with the similar kind of story.

When airlines go through mergers though, there is often some bumpy roads as the two organizations come together and that means there can be service problems. And each of the airlines that have gone through these major merge are doing that. And if seeing those bumpy problems and pretty much come out.

But, what will happen over time is the airline costs will go down but they will get a little bit more pricing power. So, the reality is for a lot of people, you know, if you buy your tickets now, you're probably going to be in a better position than if you wait nine months to buy them.

FEYERICK: Until you wait until you really have to travel.

SIRKIN: Well, that is a good idea.

FEYERICK: Yes, exactly. Just buy random tickets just protectively.

SIRKIN: When you have to, you can plan your vacations.

FEYERICK: Well, then I'm out.

But let's talk about the housing market just very quickly, yes, no, time to buy or time to just still hold on and rent?

SIRKIN: Well, we are going to get a lot of data in the next week that will give us information including housing starts and new -- also other things around house. So, there will be three data pieces that will come out.

You know, the reality is, you know, I'm pretty bullish on house market overall. There will be some, of course, dips and benefits throughout the whole thing. But I'm pretty bullish for a number of reasons, one which is, you know, we haven't been building a lot of houses yet. You know, there are still more demand for houses. And secondly, we are starting to see, you know, with mortgage rates low and people feeling a little bit more secure about their jobs, being willing to get mortgages.


SIRKIN: So, you know, I think there's an upswing in housing and we will find out a little bit more by the end of next week. FEYERICK: All right. Hal Sirkin, thank you so much. We appreciate your insights, your guidance on that. But, I still not going to buy my tickets in advance, but anyway. The tax I have to pay for being me.

Anyway, we have heard of the nicotine patch, but now, researchers have developed a pot patch and a major university is supplying the marijuana. We are going to have the details.

Also, she is a singer, actress and the daughter of Judy Garland. Famous Lorna Luft joins us live to talk about a major passion in her life, training dogs to help change the lives of the blind.


FEYERICK: Hi, everyone. Thanks so much for being here with us in the newsroom. I'm Deborah Feyerick and we have the top stories we are following for you right now.

History is being made just ahead of the Daytona 500. Danica Patrick is the first woman to win the pole for the big race next Sunday. That's put her in the best starting position.


PATRICK: It's nice all that hard work can pay off and that we can give ourselves that opportunity to lead the pack down into the trial before the green flag of the Daytona 500.


FEYERICK: Talk about an incredible driver. She clocked a qualifying speed of 196 miles an hour a short time ago. Danica will join our Don Lemon live at 6:15 p.m. to talk about her big win.

Pope Benedict XVI led tens of thousands in a prayer for strength. This morning, the ailing Pope gave his second-to-last angelus prayer. He thanked his followers for their support. Last week, the 85-year- old Pope announced that he is retiring resigning because of advanced age.

Now, to Florida where the great python challenge has ended, that was the state-sponsored hunt for Burmese pythons, an invasive snake species that lives in the state and kind of turns in the unexpected. The search yielded 68 pythons out of the 100,000 estimated to live in the everglades. The longest of the giant snakes, get this, 14 feet three inches. It netted the hunter a prize of $1,000.

These stories are trending right now on the web. Ole Miss University is growing marijuana, legally. The school of pharmacy is using the crop to test new ways of administering marijuana to medical patients. One promising that is a patch, placed just above the gum line. Marijuana can help people with glaucoma and also relieves the nausea caused by chemotherapy.

(VIDEO CLIP PLAYING) FEYERICK: Well, you knew this would happen. "Saturday Night Live" poked fun at Carnival cruise lines. In the skit, two cruise directors valiantly tried to perk up the spirits of those unlucky people on board the "triumphs."


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And one of the helicopters flying above has dropped down a couple of paper. So, we taught we would catch up on what you missed this week, all right?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hey, hey there is a God. There is a God. He has not abandoned us, OK? All right, let's see what is in the news. The Pope resigned. Oh, Lord.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Oh, wait. Hey, here is something fun. North Korea successfully launched a nuclear --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Here we go. Here we go. I got one. Hey, you guys remember Oscar Pistorius. Remember that? The Olympic sprinter who ran on blades?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Amazing story, so uplifting you.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's incredible. Absolutely. Well, it says here that -- nope. No. No no, no.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: OK. Hey, this is interesting. OK. You guys think you might have it bad? But do you have it worse than 4,000 stranded on nightmare cruise? That is about us.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's us. Yes. That's enough. Enough of the headlines.


FEYERICK: All right, so maybe it's not all happy every day. Both three cheers for persistence. This little dog wouldn't be denied after its owner left him outside a Miami court house. The pooch paced, scratched and finally managed to sneak into the building only to be rounded up and sent back outside. Keep trying to. The owner finally came out. A man and his best friend were united.

Well, America fell in love with Banana Joe this week. The affenpinscher who won Best in Show at this year's Westminster Kennel Club show. Look at that face. And gosh, and so well behaved.

But when you walk down the street and you see a guide dog for the visually impaired, have you ever just marveled at how incredibly well trained these dogs are? Well, it takes a lot of work and people to transform puppies into companions that can create life-changing independence for the vision impaired.

Not to mention having a constant best friend around. Guide Dog of the Deserts is a non-profit group whose volunteers raise and trains puppies and then match them with blind clients. Well, one of those trainers comes with her very own high pedigree.

Lorna Luft, the daughter of Hollywood legend, Judy Garland, is among those lovingly lending a hand and training Guide Dogs of the Deserts. She joins me now.

Such a pleasure to have you with us. First of all, how did you get involved in such a great organization?

LORNA LUFT, "GUIDE DOGS OF THE DESERT": Well, thank you. Thank you, Deb, so much. Thank you so much. I got involved with Guide Dogs of the Desert, I went to a luncheon. And I saw this incredible organization and what it does for the seeing impaired. And I thought I have to do this. I have to pay it forward. And it's the most emotionally rewarding thing I've ever done in my life, outside of raising my own children.

And it is just extraordinary to not only have a puppy in your home. And just teach it the basics of sitting and staying and -- down, and all of the basics and then being able to take take this puppy with you everywhere, because they have a jacket and you are socializing this puppy. And then at 18 months, we turn this puppy back over to Guide Dogs of the Desert. And we wait and we hope they graduate and they are the eyes for someone who is seeing impaired.

And it is -- it's the most amazing and wonderful experience to see your dog graduate and to know that you have done something not only for another human being, but that you have given a dog the reward of being a hero.

FEYERICK: No question.

LUFT: And --

FEYERICK: And your first was Gene. Your next was Harlan. But isn't it a little bit hard to let these dogs go? Because they've become part of your life, too?

LUFT: Yes, it is hard to let them go, but when you go to a graduation and you watch your dog graduate and you know what you've done for another person and you know what you've done for that dog, it's the most rewarding thing that you can do.

And plus, the fact that you really walk out with another puppy and the organization is so fantastic, because they say, I know that was really hard, here. Here's another one. Do it again. So it is -- you're always -- you're always -- you're always with a dog. You always have a puppy. And it's just an incredible, incredible experience to know that there are over 21 million seeing-impaired people in America.

We have 10,000 dogs. And it's just something that is so vital and that we are completely -- as you said at the beginning, we're non- profit. We don't get funding from the federal government or from the state government. All of our donations are from people who want to help this organization and help people be, you know -- FEYERICK: Well, give them a new chance -- there's no -- that's what's so amazing is that you're sharing a little bit of your heart and you're passing that on and you do it again and again.

LUFT: Yes.

FEYERICK: You know, I want to ask, you just received the 2013 Steve Chase Humanitarian Award for your community service, for your work with the Desert AIDS Project. Why is AIDS and LGBT rights a passion of yours?

LUFT: I think because I lost so many friends. I think when the AIDS epidemic hit and I was so personally -- as so many of us were, we were so -- it was like Niagara Falls. We were losing people at that rate. And I said to myself, I have to do something. And I didn't know what to do and I watched friends of mine die alone in hospitals and so I said I want to do something. I want to help. So when they asked me to sing, I sang. For free.

When they asked me to walk, I walked for free. And I will continue to do so until we don't have to sing and we don't have to walk and we don't have to have any more of these wonderful dinners. I would love to see the Desert AIDS Project be able to finally close its doors because there's a cure.


LUFT: And I think because the LGBT community has been so wonderful to me, that I will always stand for them.

FEYERICK: Yes, and what's so amazing, we do also want to say that talk about singing, you're currently on tour singing. The New York City Birdland, your sister, Liza Minnelli was there.

LUFT: Yes.

FEYERICK: Barry Manilow came to see you. But, you know, you are the daughter of the very famous Judy Garland and if she were here right now what is the one thing you would want to say to her? The one thing you'd want to convey to her at this moment in your life?

LUFT: I think I'd want to convey to her that I am proud to be her daughter and that I probably would ask her how I was doing in this dress rehearsal.


FEYERICK: Well, it is. Life is a dress rehearsal.

LUFT: Yes.

FEYERICK: And you are certainly very busy and very involved and making a difference. Well, all --

LUFT: Thank you. FEYERICK: Lorna Luft, thank you so much again. I just want to say that you are performing tomorrow night in New York City at the famed Birdland and for those who are in New York, able to come see you, it's certainly a treat and worthwhile, and we're so grateful that you came and stopped in to say hello to us and talk about all your great work. Thank you so much.

LUFT: Thank you. Thank you so much.

FEYERICK: And of course, for more information, you can head over to There will be a little bit more of this interview. Thanks.

Well, mixed martial arts, it's a sport that's exploding in popularity, even attracting die-hard boxing fans. Find out why, just ahead.


FEYERICK: World wrestling may need to move over, box stepping aside. Well, that's because mixed martial arts is on the rise.

CNN's Nick Valencia shows us why it's becoming so popular, especially among Latinos.


VALENCIA (voice-over): He can joke about it now, but being raised in a blue-collar household along the U.S./Mexico border, there was always a chance Cain Velasquez would end up spending his life on an assembly line.

CAIN VELASQUEZ, MIXED MARTIAL ARTS FIGHTER: Growing up, my parents didn't go through high school. They had to quit school start working at a young age.

VALENCIA: Instead, he is one of the most recognizable faces in mixed martial arts, a sport that has exploded in popularity in the United States. Now perhaps even more popular of a combat sport than boxing.

VELASQUEZ: It's grown way bigger than I ever thought. I think fans are really going to drawn to the UFC because of the excitement factor.

VALENCIA: At 6'1'', 250 pounds, Velasquez is the newly minted heavyweight champ of the UFC, the premier fighting company for mixed martial arts. The 30-year-old is the first Mexican-American to hold the title.

VELASQUEZ: I kind of feel that I am kind of a role model. And if kids can look up to me, and, you know, that's great, so I'm going to be -- try to be the best role model I can be out there for them.

VALENCIA: It's a role being felt across the country. More than 2500 miles away. As a one-time boxer, 20-year-old Peruvian-born Oscar Augusto fell in love with MMA. He says the sport is more well-rounded than boxing, like a war with an ending nobody can predict. An attractive feature for Latino fighters like him.

OSCAR AGUSTO, MIXED MARTIAL ARTS FIGHTER (Through Translator): We love it because I think Latinos are warriors, we're all warriors.

VALENCIA: Augusto trains at Brian Stann's gym in Alpharetta, Georgia. Like Velasquez, Stann, a middle weight is, a top-ranked UFC fighter and also a TV boxing and MMA analyst.

BRIAN STANN, MIXED MARTIAL ARTS ANALYST: I think it's one of the most dynamic sports and one of the most exciting sports to watch and I also think that the athletes are fantastic. I think the athletes captivate and capture, you know, their fans and fans then want to follow those athletes.

VALENCIA: A passion stirred by Latino fighters like Velasquez, who are more accessible than star players in other sports. And giving their fans something different.

Nick Valencia, CNN, Atlanta.


FEYERICK: And in case you were wondering, that was Nick Valencia who was body slammed there.

But anyway, the White House and Congress are keeping a close eye on the calendar and March 1st is circled in red that is the deadline for a debt deal. We'll take a look at the massive cuts that will kick in if a deal is not reached.


FEYERICK: We're just 11 days from another potential fiscal cliff. If congressional Republicans and President Obama don't reach a new budget deal, automatic spending cuts will impact every American come March 1st.

Let's get right to it. Democratic strategist Julian Epstein is in Washington. Republican CNN contributor Reihan Salam is in New York.

So Reihan, the president has proposed raising the minimum wage from $7.25 to $9 an hour, something that would directly affect about four million workers. Those in favor say good economic stimulus. Those against say bad, bad, bad for business.

Reihan, what do you think?

REIHAN SALAM, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, I think the reason why we're setting a federal minimum wage is partly because Obama administration had pursued the making work pay tax credit and later the Social Security payroll tax as other measures to improve income for low- income households.

The problem with a minimum wage is that the minimum wage benefits a slew of households, if not very well targeted towards low-income households. The problem however is that Republican reasons tend to oppose the making work pay tax credit and also the Social Security payroll tax cut. So that's left him with this much less efficient, much less effective tool for actually raising incomes for low-income households.

FEYERICK: Well, Julian, let me ask you because one thing that Reihan just brought up, which is kind of interesting, and that is a -- you know, to be cynical, the president, there's no longer a payroll tax break. So if people are being paid more, technically, the government is going to get more in taxes, no?

JULIAN EPSTEIN, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Well, the payroll tax break was a temporary stimulus when the economy was down. I think that's separate from the minimum wage. If the minimum wage had been keeping up with the cost of inflation it'd be well over what the president is proposing. The president is proposing about a $9 minimum wage. We'd be closer to about $10 to $10.5 dollars if the minimum wage had kept up with increases in productivity, the minimum wage would be closer in $21.

And look, Republicans have historically agreed that the minimum wage should increase to reflect cost of living increases. President Bush signed an increase to the minimum wage and I think it's going to be a difficult argument for Congress to make when you consider that their paychecks have automatic COLA increases, so they think that their wages, which are in the top 1 percent of all earners, at almost $200,000 a year, should be able to get the cost of living increase, but yet those working poor should not be able to get a cost of living increase. And their actual wage now is considered about 20 percent lower than what it was about a decade ago because of inflation.

FEYERICK: And, gentlemen, I wanted to ask you both, first let's start with Julian, jobs. People just want jobs. How do you create jobs when all of these other things are being proposed, immigration, preschool for everyone? How do we create new jobs?

Julian, you first.

EPSTEIN: Well, that is the president's primary focus, his idea and his philosophy is to grow jobs from the middle class out. And he put forward what it seems to me to be a pretty aggressive agenda in terms of incentivising manufacturing to come home, reinvesting in infrastructure, reinvesting in education. Investing in the things that we know historically will make jobs grow, many of the things that we tried in the 1990s.

One of the ways you don't do it is what Republicans are proposing right now, which is to let sequestration go through. Sequestration is a fancy way of saying deep, indiscriminate cuts of about $1.5 trillion on to top of the $2 trillion that the president has already signed into law. The problem with that is that it could cut GDP by 1 to 2 percent growth and it could lose about a million jobs.


FEYERICK: I want to give Reihan the last word on this.

EPSTEIN: Europe has experimented with this and it has worked.

FEYERICK: I want to give Reihan the last word. What do you think? How does it play out?

SALAM: Well, most of those cuts are actually focused on Defense and of course the president and his allied have tended to favor defense cuts. So I think that -- you know, that's something that -- there's a broad consensus, including among the American public.

With regards to the minimum wage, I think it's important to know that there are a composition effects, so when you're talking about average productivity, that doesn't necessarily apply to the productivity of, for example, teenagers, ex-offenders and other constituents who might get priced out of the labor market if you have a sharp increase in the minimum wage.

So I think that, again, it's important not just to look at the aggregate impact of a minimum wage increase, but also the compositional effects of an increase in the minimum wage. And that's one thing that might happen. That's why we use strategies since 1975 like the earned income tax credit backed by Democrats and Republicans as a more effective strategy for raising incomes in low-income households.

FEYERICK: All right. Gentlemen, so much to talk about, so little time. And unfortunately we're out of it but Julian Epstein and Reihan Salam, thank you so much, gentlemen, both for joining us today. Good insights.

EPSTEIN: Thank you, Deb.

SALAM: Thank you.

FEYERICK: Appreciate it.

Well, he's accused of murdering his girlfriend on Valentine's Day, but Olympian Oscar Pistorius says the police have got it all wrong. Find out what he and the rest of us are facing in the week ahead.


FEYERICK: Well, CNN NEWSROOM with Don Lemon coming up in just a few. And you have landed a very cool interview.

DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: We did. We did. I will say this, one small step for racing, one giant leap for womankind. One giant leap we can take for women racers.

Deb, you've been reporting on the big news about Danica Patrick winning for pole position today for next Sunday's Daytona 500. I'm going to one up you.


Because live at 6:15, I'm going to talk to her about that and her race car driving boyfriend, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., how he feels about her making history -- her history-making move and then later on in our 7:00 hour, you have seen him in so many commercials. "Saturday Night Live" made a skit out of them. Why does Hollywood keep hiring the same actor over and over and over? The same black actor? He says it's because he doesn't scare white people. Our panel says it goes way beyond that.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: White folks do not like to be confronted with the truth of our history and our ongoing reality. That's why we say we're post racial because we have a black president, because, you know, millions of white folks turned Barack Obama into their own personal Cliff Huxtable but that doesn't mean that we're past racism and that's what we have to deal with.


LEMON: It was a really lively panel. That's at 7:00. Danica Patrick is at 6:15, Deb.

FEYERICK: All right. We're totally looking forward to it. Thanks so much.

LEMON: All right. Thank you.

FEYERICK: All right. And what do Yoko Ono and former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin have in those massive spending cuts? Well, we're going to tell you. Trying to look at the right camera. Wherever that is.


Where are we? My god. We're in the NEWSROOM.

LEMON: It happens to me all the time. All the time.


FEYERICK: Well, we've got a big week ahead and here's what's happening. Tomorrow, members of Congress head back to work to try to hammer out a debt deal before massive across-the-board government spending cuts take effect March 1st. We're talking $85 billion in cuts this year split between Defense and domestic spending.

Also on Monday, Yoko Ono celebrates a milestone birthday. The wife of the late John Lennon will turn 80 years old.

On Tuesday, Olympian Oscar Pistorius will find out if he'll get out of jail. He'll have a bond hearing which was delayed last week to give his lawyers more time to prepare. Pistorius is accused of murdering his girlfriend on Valentine's Day.

On Wednesday, former New Orleans mayor, Ray Nagin, he's going to be arraigned, he's accused of accepting more than $200,000 in bribes. He's charged with tax fraud.

Thursday, a key economic report comes out. The Consumer Price Index measures the impact of inflation and on Friday, anniversary of an unforgettable Olympic victory, the United States hockey team pulled off what no one thought was possible, beating the Soviets in an upset nicknamed "the miracle on ice."

That will do it for me. I'm Deborah Feyerick. Thanks so much for spending your afternoon here with us. CNN NEWSROOM continues right now with Don Lemon. Have a great week. Don?