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STARTING POINT WITH SOLEDAD O'BRIEN

Winter Storms hit Midwest; Pope Prepares for Resignation in Rome; CDC Charged with Lax Security over Bio-Weapons; Sequestration Looms, No Deal in Sight; Interview with Rep. Tom Price; Severe Winter Storms in Midwest

Aired February 26, 2013 - 07:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome, everybody. Our "Starting Point" this morning, a developing story. Bitter winter storm is wreaking havoc across much of the country this morning. Roofs collapsing, drivers trapped, and airports a mess. At least, two people are dead as record snow falls on the plains and flood warnings threaten the southeast. The storm is turning out to be much worse than was expected. We've got live team coverage ahead this morning.

And this morning, a new shocking investigation. "USA Today" says there's a growing bio-terror threat from within our own country. We're talking about diseases like anthrax and the plague. We'll have details in a live report.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: And new overnight, a hot air balloon carrying more than a dozen tourists explodes and crashes to the ground in Egypt.

Also happening, one of Britain's top catholic leaders speaking out this morning about the latest scandal rocking the church. Our Christiane Amanpour joins us with that and claims by a former friar that homosexuality is, quote, "a ticking time bomb" for the church.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: And a horrible day in stocks. The worst day for the Dow and the S&P all year. This morning, we're all looking at Italy and why what's happening in politics there may be important for what's happening or not happening in Washington.

O'BRIEN: A packed show for you this morning. Georgia congressman, Tom Price, is going to join us. The secretary of the navy, Ray Mabus, is with us. Trayvon Martin's parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin join us, and their attorney, too, Benjamin Crump. Celebrity chef Richard Blais, and Nelson Mandela's daughter and granddaughter will just us as well. It's Tuesday, February 26, and STARTING POINT begins right now.

We begin this morning talking about the devastating winter storm in parts of Texas and Oklahoma that are already buried under more than a foot of snow. One local mayor says we have roofs collapsing all over town. We'll speak to him in just a few moments. Highways and airports shut down. Take a look at this photo taken by iReporter Philip Prince, an instructor too, spent eight hours stuck in his rig on interstate 40 east of Amarillo, Texas. Storms have killed two people have been killed, one on an ice-slicked road and another after a roof collapsed from the weight of the snow.

Severe weather is expected as far as Florida, the massive system now tracking to the north and east to Kansas, Missouri, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, all in its path. Jennifer Delgado is tracking the storm at the CNN Weather Center. Erin McPike is live in Kansas City. Erin, good morning. Let's start with you.

ERIC MCPIKE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning. Well, we're seeing snowfall at about two inches an hour here. It's very windy. They're looking at winds up to 30 miles per hour later today. And also, Soledad, because of the snow last week, there is still a lot of heavy snow on branches and power lines, snapping power lines, and lots of power outages throughout Kansas City. We just got off the phone with Kansas City power and light. The power outages have doubled from 10,000 to 20,000. They say those numbers will go down, it's just right now they can't get out on the road to get to sites to repair the power lines. We're also looking at power outages in Texas, another 10,000 no Oklahoma. The storm looking to be worse than last week, Soledad.

O'BRIEN: A little bit of a mess. Thank you very much, Erin, appreciate that. Let's get to Jennifer Delgado who is standing by for us as this morning with a look at where this is all going.

JENNIFER DELGADO, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Hi there, Soledad. Right now, it's actually right on top of the Midwest. You saw the live shot where Erin is out of Kansas. Kansas City is taking a beating right now, coming down very good along interstate 70 toward the east in St. Louis, a break from the heavy rain, of course, that will be wrapping around. Snow working in as we go later into the afternoon. I would say about noon time, seeing snow working into the region.

And we talk about the totals Erin mentions worse than last time. We'll see 10 to 12 inches of snowfall, and seeing winds in excess of 35 to 40 miles per hour, but then the storm moves up toward the northeast, and it will bring snow to Chicago. Right around 3:00, same for Detroit. These areas need the precipitation. On the radar, a line of storms, a tornado watch issued, in place until 3:00 local time for parts of Florida and into Georgia. Severe weather threat and, Soledad, this means a big travel mess.

O'BRIEN: Absolutely. Jennifer, thank you. Appreciate that.

For folks in Kansas City, Missouri, it's a mess yet again. Let's get to the mayor there, Sly James of Kansas City, Missouri. He's joining us by phone. So it was kind of a mess from last week. The last time we spoke, how bad is it now, considering that snow is piling up on top of the old snow?

MAYOR SYLVESTER "SLY" JAMES, KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI (via telephone): It certainly doesn't help very much. The good news, we managed to get most of all of our main arteries clear, most of our side streets or residential streets are cleared. So we weren't in horrible shape. But this snow is coming down hard, the wind is blowing hard and we expect another three, four, five inches between now and 9:00. O'BRIEN: I've heard totals of six to 10 inches, which would make it a big mess for you. What's the situation like? I will assume the schools are closed. Has everybody cleaned out the grocery stores because they will be holed up in their homes for a little bit?

JAMES: Schools are closed, and I don't think there is a snow shovel anyplace in the area to be found. Grocery stores I think have restocked as a result of this. The thing that's important is we need to make sure people are safe. We are experiencing an increase in some first responder medical runs, at least earlier in the evening. We have a lot of power lines and we need to make sure people are safe with an alternate power source.

O'BRIEN: Eventually it will melt, will be moved and they can get back to work. Sly James is the mayor of Kansas City, thank you for your time. He is joining us by phone this morning.

Let's take you down to Woodward, Oklahoma. The mayor there told Reuter's that roofs are collapsing all over the place due to the heavy snow. Mayor Roscoe Hill joins us by phone. Mr. Mayor, nice to talk to you, how are things where you are?

MAYOR ROSCOE HILL, WOODWARD, OKLAHOMA (via telephone): Well, we're in such a mess, we've got about 20 degrees right now, and we're frozen up pretty hard. And our emergency vehicles are having a hard time getting around, and we just have -- just had a pretty good sized mess on our hands.

O'BRIEN: My goodness. Considering the reports in nearby Oklahoma City that the snow is collapsing roofs, are you seeing the same thing? That must be devastating if you can't get emergency vehicles to rescue anyone who might be trapped.

HILL: We have had one roof collapse and one fatality. We've -- we discover snow plows are getting stuck and the traffic today is still probably not very good.

O'BRIEN: All right, Mayor Rosco Hill of Woodward, Oklahoma, joining business phone, talking about one roof that collapsed and a real dearth of emergency vehicles to get to people.

Other stories making news, and John has that for us.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks, Soledad.

We have a story developing right now out of Middle East, 14 tourists trying to get a bird's eye view of Egyptian sites were killed when their hot air balloon exploded and plummeted 1,000 feet to the ground. State run Nile TV reports the crash happened in Luxor in southern Egypt. A total of 20 people on board, 19 visitors from Hong Kohn, Japan, Belgium, the U.K., and France, and two Egyptians, one of whom was the pilot.

Also new this morning, a rocket attack on Israel testing a shaky truce. The rocket fired from Gaza struck a town in southern Israel overnight. This is the first such attack since the ceasefire ended a week of fighting back in November. The attack follows days of clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israel security forces over the death of a Palestinian man inside an Israeli prison. The rocket caused some damage, but so far no casualties have been reported. A militant group in Gaza has claimed responsibility for the attack.

New this morning, "USA Today" saying our country faces a bioterror threat from our own labs. Government watchdog reports saying agents like anthrax and the plague are being routinely mishandled. Shannon Travis is following the story from Washington. Shannon, what's in these reports?

SHANNON TRAVIS, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it's pretty disturbing. As you mentioned, we're talking about anthrax, plague, and other potential bioterror agents, John, obviously among the world's most dangerous pathogens. We're learning that the federal agency that helps secure them has been cited for security lapses. As you mentioned, "USA Today" reports that private government audits have repeatedly cited labs at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The paper based its reporting on restricted government watchdog reports it obtained, noting one specifically from 2008, 2009, and 2010. The two main issues, failing to entirely secure bioterror agents and failing to completely restrict access to approved employees, and failing to entirely train employees who handle them.

BERMAN: Pretty alarming report. How is the CDC responding?

TRAVIS: We just got a statement from them. And I'll read a quote here. According to the CDC spokesman, quote, "CDC acknowledged and accepted responsibility for the infractions raised by the inspector general. The agency moved swiftly to take corrective action and do redundancies in procedures and systems. Nothing was released from our labs and worker and the public safety were not jeopardized." That's according to the CDC responding to the story, John.

BERMAN: Shannon Travis, our thanks to you. Soledad?

O'BRIEN: Thank you.

New information on scandals looming over the final days of Pope Benedict's eight-year long reign. One of Britain's top Roman Catholics says the highest ranking catholic in the United Kingdom, Cardinal Keith O'Brien, voluntarily stepped down as Archbishop of Scotland after he was accused of "inappropriate acts" by fellow priests. He was not forced out. We're also learning Pope Benedict will keep the title "his holiness" once he retired and he also will be called pontiff emeritus.

Christiane Amanpour is CNN's chief international correspondent and she joins us from Vatican City. Christiane, good morning. That has to be historic. Pontiff emeritus, I imagine nobody has ever really needed that title before.

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Soledad, you are absolutely right. Here I am near Vatican square where they are already handing out some 50,000 tickets, putting up the risers and loud speakers. They expect many Catholics are expected to come here tomorrow and the next day.

You are absolutely right. This is an unprecedented situation, never in recent memory a Pope emeritus. All of the details will need to be worked out right down to what this pope will actually wear. We're told a simple white cassock after he steps down Thursday, 8:00 p.m. Roman time.

In the meantime, the Vatican has been in damage control mode. It wants to get past these scandals which have colored the beginning of this week. We know also you mentioned Cardinal O'Brien, he will not be coming. It is unprecedented that a cardinal will not come here to take part in the Conclave to elect the next Pope. He will not be coming because of these scandals. He even referred to that fact when he himself resigned.

Yesterday, I spoke to a former Dominican friar, a practicing Roman Catholic and is also openly gay. He said it's well known there is a very large representation of gays in the catholic clergy. Here is what he told me.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MARK DOWD, FORMER DOMINICAN FRIAR: Having been a friar myself and having been openly gay Catholic for the last 25 years in my journalistic career, homosexuality is a ticking time bomb in the Catholic Church. On the one hand the church teaches the condition of same-sex attraction is intrinsically disordered. Those are Cardinal Ratzinger's own words from 1986. And yet we know actually half if not more of all the people attracted into seminaries and the priesthood are gay themselves.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

AMANPOUR: Now, the Vatican is absolutely denying that these allegations of the gay cabal in the Vatican are any reason for the Pope's resignation. And very plugged in journalists here, some of the best Italian journalists tell me that they also do not believe these blackmail stories going around in the press here.

O'BRIEN: Quick question for you. He said at the end of that interview there we know actually that about half if not more of all of the people attracted to seminaries and the priesthood are gay themselves. He thinks 50 percent of people in the seminaries are gay? Where is he getting these statistics from?

AMANPOUR: That's precisely what I asked him. He said as a friar himself and knowing so many of these different diocese, he has come up with that statistic. I don't believe that's a hard fact. How would anybody know?

I asked many very plugged-in journalists about that, and they said perhaps in some various different dioceses, but they say that it's actually quite a well-known fact that there is a large proportion. And this is something that, you know, the world's 1.2 billion Catholics look on for the future wonder how the church will be reformed, if at all. There is this split within the Catholic church amongst very traditional and conservatives on the one hand who want to continue the Ratzinger line, if you like, and among the more liberal who want the more modern church that takes into account issues of homosexuality and even issues like should priests be allowed to marry, as, ironically, Cardinal O'Brien suggested before he resigned.

O'BRIEN: Christiane, thanks. As always, appreciate it.

Another big story we're following for you on STARTING POINT, on Friday, $85 billion in forced budget cuts set to take effect. Hundreds of thousands of jobs hang in the balance based on that. Is there still a chance for a grand bargain? We'll talk to Georgia Congressman Tom Price, the vice chairman of the House Budget Committee. That's coming up next.

You're watching STARTING POINT. We're back right after this short break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody. We're three days away until massive forced budget cuts are set to hit. And there's still no sign of a deal this morning, or that any deal is even potentially in the works. The forced cuts, what the government calls the sequester, would slash $85 billion from the budget. Some say the cuts are unnecessary for a bloated budget that keeps increasing every year.

Congressman Tom Price, is the vice chairman of the House Budget Committee, he's a Republican from the state of Georgia. Nice to have you with us sir, we appreciate your time.

REP. TOM PRICE, (R ) GEORGIA: Thank you, Soledad. Good to be with you.

O'BRIEN: Thank you. I appreciate that. Three days until the forced spending cuts, a.k.a. the sequester, come into effect, and this is what the president has said about that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: These impacts will not all be felt on day one. But rest assured, the uncertainty is already having an effect. Companies are preparing layoff notices, families are preparing to cut back on expenses. And the longer these cuts are in place, the bigger the impact will become.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: Governor Jindal, Bobby Jindal seemed to suggest that the president was overstating, or maybe dramatizing it. Do you think he is?

PRICE: What I think, Soledad, is if you step back and look at the real problem, we have got to get the economy rolling again, and one of the ways is to decrease spending here out of Washington, so that individuals across this great land can create jobs and find new jobs and get the economy going.

The president has talked about all of these calamitous things that will happen, but what we're looking at is a 2.5 percent reduction. That's the level of spending that we had just two years ago. I don't remember all of these bad things happening two years ago.

Are there challenges to work to work through this? Absolutely. Are the House Republicans working positively to try to make certain we get through these challenges? You bet. We will provide, I believe, some flexibility to the administration so that they can make certain that the bad things that the president cites don't happen, and if they do, it's because he wants them to.

(CROSSTALK)

O'BRIEN: Walk me through -- forgive me, sir. I want you to just explain that to me, when you say you are coming up with a different plan, walk me through what that plan is.

PRICE: Well, there is an opportunity to do what's called reprogramming or greater flexibility on the part of the administration, so they would select to a greater degree where those $85 billion in spending reductions occur. Because the spending reductions, you remember, came out of the last debt ceiling deal in August of 2011. So, we've got to move forward at that level, because we've got to bring spending down here in Washington to get the economy rolling. The administration, appropriately, I believe needs more flexibility on that score, and the House Republicans will begin working on that, moving forward to give the administration that flexibility.

O'BRIEN: People who analyze all of that say there are huge political risks to the White House. Do you think they'll go for that deal being the ones who basically have the burden of making the cuts and spelling out what should be cut, having that laid on their plate?

PRICE: Well, I think what the American people know is they had to cut their budget 2.5 percent or more. 10, 15, 20 percent, over the past two to four years. They want to see the same activity in Washington. And it's not just to get a number on a page, it's so we can get this economy rolling again and creating jobs. So, regardless of where the decision is made, obviously the executive branch is the branch that carries out the laws of the land, and it's their responsibility to do so, but regardless of where decisions are made, it's important we understand it's the economy that we get need to get rolling, jobs and this is part of that puzzle.

O'BRIEN: Congressman Tom Price is a Republican from Georgia, nice to see you, sir. Thank you for talking with us. Appreciate it.

PRICE: Thanks, Soledad. Take care.

O'BRIEN: Coming up - thank you, you too.

Coming up in the next hour, Ray Mabus is the secretary of the Navy, he's going to talk to us about those forced cuts as well. And still ahead this morning on STARTING POINT, the Dow and S&P 500 had one of their worst days yesterday. What exactly was behind the drop? What can we expect today?

Also, growing outrage this morning over a music video, showing a 9- year-old rapping that coke isn't a bad word, smacking a woman on the rear end, and driving around in a flashy car. Did I say 9-yaer-old? What has the world come to? We'll talk about that when STARTING POINT is back in a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROMANS: Welcome back to STARTING POINT this morning. I'm Christine Romans, minding your business. Stock futures indicate a higher open for stocks. That's a relief, because it was a brutal day for stocks yesterday. The Dow and S&P 500 had the worst year. The major averaged dropped about 1.5 percent each. Dow now 380 points away from its record high. Fear is back. The Vix which measures fear, soared. Investors flocked to the safety of gold and bonds. It is a fear of forced spending cuts, a fear of a weakened consumer and now, again, fear in Europe. Because in Italy, elections there left no clear party in majority. So gridlock there at a time when Italy has a major debt and spending problem, 11 percent unemployment, a shrinking economy, and the second biggest debt load in Europe. It's political turmoil Italy, as it tightens its belt, austerity, at the very moment we're on the verge of austerity here in the U.S. Forced spending cuts are just days away, those cuts will likely slow our economy too. If those cuts stand, $85 billion taken out of the economy between now and the end of the fiscal year, will cost 750,000 jobs and growth will slow, Soledad. That is why there is fear all of a sudden in markets after we've been talking about trying to hit new records for weeks now.

O'BRIEN: We've been feeling that. All right, Christine, thank you.

Still ahead, this morning on STARTING POINT, it's been one year since 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was gunned down in Florida. And it sparked a nationwide furor over race and stand your ground laws, up next, his parents Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin will join me with their attorney Benjamin Crump.

Plus a new study says it could be one of the best ways to reduce your risk of heart attack or stroke. The diet that could save your life. We'll talk about that in a moment. You're watching STARTING POINT.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: Welcome, everybody. You're watching STARTING POINT, we continue to follow a developing story this morning. Millions of people waking up right now to the most snow they've seen in 40 years. The blizzard is already battering large parts of Texas and Oklahoma and leaving thousands of people buried under more than a foot of snow. Drivers stranded on snow-choked roads. Two people so far have been killed. At this hour, winter storm warnings stretch north to Illinois with severe weather in the forecast as far east as Florida. The epic (ph) winter storm is now heading straight toward Kansas, to Missouri, to Wisconsin to Illinois, and to Michigan.

Erin McPike is live for us in Kansas City this morning. They are suffering through really their second major snowstorm in a week. What a mess.

ERIN MCPIKE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Soledad. Yes, it is a mess. And this snowstorm is worse than the one we saw just last week. I will show you why. We've got really heavy, heavy thick wet snow right now as you can see, not like the fluffy snow, that we had last week. And because of that, it's snapping branches throughout the area and bringing down power lines. So we just got off the phone with Kansas City power and light and just an hour ago there were 10,000 power outages in Kansas City, we're up to 25,000 now, and they can't get repair crews out to repair those power lines until the roads are better.