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STARTING POINT WITH SOLEDAD O'BRIEN

Pope Says Farewell to Flock; Countdown to Forced Spending Cuts; Interview With Rep. Aaron Schock

Aired February 27, 2013 - 08:00   ET

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


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: -- thanks Catholics worldwide.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

POPE BENEDICT XVI, CATHOLIC CHURCH: I will continue to accompany the church with my prayers, and I ask each of you to pray for me and for the new pope.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: And when Pope Benedict XVI steps down tomorrow, what does the church do next? We'll take you live to Rome for the latest.

Then, just two days until $82 billion in spending cuts take effect and Washington gets past the blame game, will lawmakers really let those drastic measures take place?

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: The Midwest and New England now in the path of the winter storm that's already dumped record snow across the heartland. Millions are bracing for snow and ice. We're tracking this system.

And a student plays detective when her classmates notice money keeps disappearing from their locker room. You will not believe who she caught on camera rifling through their bags.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: And new this morning, "Consumer Reports" top car picks for 2013 are out. We'll look at who did and didn't make this important cut.

O'BRIEN: It is Wednesday, February 27th and STARTING POINT begins right now.

(MUSIC)

O'BRIEN: Welcome, everybody.

Our team this morning: Monsignor Rick Hilgartner is with us. He's the executive director and secretariat of Divine Worship of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Good morning. Nice to have with us.

Chris Frates is back. He's reporter at "National Journal".

Former California Congresswoman Mary Bono Mack is with us.

Nice to have you back with us as well.

MARY BONO MACK (R), FORMER CALIFORNIA CONGRESSWOMAN: Thanks, Soledad.

O'BRIEN: All right. Right to our STARTING POINT: Pope Benedict XVI addressing his followers this morning as he prepares for retirement after his eight years as pontiff. The leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics make his last public appearance earlier this morning at the Vatican, kissing babies, waving to the masses telling the faithful and the church that they need prayers for the challenges that lie ahead.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

POPE BENEDICT XVI: The decision I have made, after much prayers, is a fruit of a serene trust in God's will and a deep love of Christ's Church.

I will continue to accompany the church with my prayers, and I ask each of you to pray for me and for the new pope.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: Our chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour is live in Rome this morning for us.

Hey, Christiane. Good morning.

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Soledad.

And with every step the pope takes towards his exit, the church -- actually the world enters new uncharted waters, because this is unprecedented, at least for the last six centuries. Nobody knows what it will be like having two living popes once the next one is elected. Obviously, Benedict will be pope emeritus but they're bound to be some sort of crossover.

Now, he did have his final audience, his final general audience as pope, he made a tour around St. Peter's Square in the pope mobile and received the welcome and cheers of what the Vatican tell us is at least 50,000 people, who were requesting tickets for the general audience in the open sunny air today.

He talked about the novelty of what he had done. He talked about the gravity of what he had done in resigning. And he also spoke about his weakening physical and mental health.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

POPE BENEDICT XVI (through translator): In the last month, I have felt that my strength has diminished and I have requested God with insistence in my prayer to illuminate me with his light to make me come to the right decision, not for my own good but for the good of the church. (END VIDEO CLIP)

AMANPOUR: And, of course, this is the faith leader who has the biggest flock in the world. No other faith has such a massive congregation, 1.2 billion Catholics around the world who have one leader that is the pope.

He also talked about obviously so much of what has been concerning and challenging to the church not just natural events and natural disasters around the world, war and peace, that the pope is always pronouncing on and concerned about, but also some of the scandals that have been buffeting the church for the last 14 years or so.

He spoke about what had been difficult times, he talks about at times the waters have been agitated, sometimes we were flying against the wind, but he said that he believed that God would never allow the church to sink. Those were his words.

And, of course, this puts a great challenge forth for the next pope because many are saying that as they look for future direction to lead this Catholic Church into the next decades or so, they also want, quote, "to clean house" and make sure there's a final accountability and transparency for all the scandals and other challenges that have rocked it -- Soledad.

O'BRIEN: Christiane Amanpour in Rome this morning for us -- thank you, Christiane.

Let's get right to John Allen. He's CNN senior Vatican analyst, senior Vatican correspondent for "The National Catholic Reporter". He is in Rome as well.

Talk to me a little bit about the pope's final public appearance. What was the tone like? Were people joyous or was it a somber tone since it really is the last public appearance?

JOHN ALLEN, CNN SENIOR VATICAN ANALYST: Well, Soledad, I would say it was a mix of the two. I mean, on the one hand, obviously, the people who were here today somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 wanted to express affection, support, and love for Benedict XVI. On the other hand, you know, it wasn't the kind of high school pep rally feel you used to get with John Paul II. Benedict typically sets a restrained and calm tone and that was reflected in the crowd as well.

O'BRIEN: Before the mass, he spoke about how he's going to support the church once he retires but are they still figuring out the details what have his role is going to be? So unusual to have a pope who is still emeritus, who is still alive, and a new pope will be elected.

ALLEN: Yes, that's right. I mean, this really is an utterly new situation. What Benedict has said publicly in a meeting with the clergy of Rome last week is that he intends to be hidden from the world. So, you know, you're not going to see him giving TV interviews or hitting the lecture circuit or anything like that.

For the most part, I doubt he will be heard or seen from again. Now, however, inevitably, Soledad, the question presents itself even if it is not his desire to exercise influence on the next pope, there are still going to be people who are going to read everything the new pope does in light of what the old pope might have done, presented with a similar situation.

You know, the Vatican may try to discourage that but that won't necessarily stop people from doing it in various quarters.

O'BRIEN: Yes.

ALLEN: So I think we're just going to have to see how this plays out.

O'BRIEN: So walk me through then the next steps because the conclave now we know can come together earlier than we planned because they made changes to the rules. So, when could it start, when could we have a new pope by? Do they have to make the deadline of Easter Sunday?

How does it all work?

ALLEN: Well, Soledad, what's going to happen now is that, of course, Benedict's papacy formally ends tomorrow at 8:00 Rome time. The next day, the dean of the College of Cardinals will formally notify the cardinals of the world that the throne of Peter is vacant. Now, this is some ways a mere formality because the vast majority of those cardinals are already here to say good-bye to the pope.

We expect that on Monday, the 4th of March, the cardinals will begin meeting in sessions that are known as general congregations where their first order of business will be to set the date for the conclave. You're quite right, but Benedict has given them the opportunity to move that up a little bit. So, we're thinking, maybe somewhere around the 8th or 9th of March, the conclave might begin.

How long it takes is impossible to say, because they have to keep going until the candidate gets two-thirds of the vote. That can vary widely. The shortest conclave in history took about two hours, the longest one almost three years.

O'BRIEN: Oh!

ALLEN: But I think in this case, they are --

O'BRIEN: Wow.

ALLEN: -- trying to get this done by Palm Sunday, so a new pope can lead Holy Week and, of course, Easter Sunday.

O'BRIEN: Wow, three years. Huh, all right.

Thanks, John Allen. Always nice to see you. Appreciate it.

We got John Berman with a look at some of the other stories making news this morning -- John.

BERMAN: Thanks, Soledad. An update on the deadly shooting at a wood products factory in Switzerland. Police say three people were killed including the shooter. Rescuers say four critically wounded people had to be airlifted to the hospital. Local media reports that the factory employees some 410 people and the factory had to cut production recently due to a reduction in the wood harvest.

So, the clock is ticking in Washington. There are now only two days to go until billions of dollars in forced spending cuts kick in. It's hard to believe there will be any 11th hour compromise given the testy exchanges between the Obama administration and congressional Republicans.

So, let's check in with Brianna Keilar at the White House.

I fear I know the answer to this question, Brianna. But any movement at all?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: As of now, John, I will tell you the differences between the two sides here with the White House and Senate Democrats on one side and House Republicans on the other appear to be insurmountable.

The divide remaining at this point on how to avert these $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts. House Republicans would like to see some less arbitrary spending cuts only and Democrats and the White House want to see a combination of tax increases and some less arbitrary spending cuts.

It's this debate we've gotten so used to and that means that these spending cuts that were put in place in 2011 with the idea they'd never go into effect are expected to go into effect as of Friday night.

The blame game in full effect in Washington and it's getting a little crass. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: We have moved a bill in the House twice. We should not have to move a third bill before the Senate gets off their (EXPLETIVE DELETED) and begins to do something.

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MAJORITY LEADER: I think he should understand who is sitting on their posterior. We are doing our best here to pass something.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: President Obama has taken his message on the road, trying to warn of the consequences of these spending cuts kicking in. Yesterday, he was in eastern Virginia talking about how 90,000 Virginians who work for the Department of Defense could be on unpaid leave. He was talking about how college students would see their aid dry up, how there would be delays at airports. But, John, Republicans are accusing the president of running around essentially saying that the sky is falling, the sky is falling, because they're banking on the fact these cuts, you know, they're not going to kick in for about a month, so they're banking on the fact that they won't take this political hit over this immediately. But certainly the White House is trying to ensure they do, John.

BERMAN: All right. Our thanks to you, Brianna.

And in just a few minutes, we're going to have Congressman Aaron Schock, a Republican from Illinois, in. We will get his side in this debate in the blame game that does continue in Washington.

Meanwhile, a huge storm causing huge travel delays across the country this morning. Chicago saw the biggest snow of the season Tuesday, causing the cancellation of more than 1,000 flights at O'Hare. This storm brought up to a foot of snow to parts of eastern Kansas, Missouri and Illinois, just a day after plastering southern Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.

It is not finished yet, it's headed to the Northeast. So, sorry about that New England.

Meanwhile, Chuck Hagel right now -- you are looking at live pictures from the Pentagon -- no, that was not live pictures of Pentagon. Chuck Hagel very elusive but now he is finally arriving at the Pentagon for his first day of work as defense secretary. He will be sworn in later today, this following the bruising Senate confirmation.

He finally did win confirmation last night. The final 58-41, four Republicans did vote in favor of him. He obviously faces some immediate challenges. He's going to have to deal with the devastating cuts to the military spending that take effect on Friday as part of the forced spending cuts.

Other news now -- the police chief in Santa Cruz, California, called it the darkest day in the department's history. Two officers were killed in the line of duty while responding to a report of domestic violence. Santa Cruz has never lost an officer on patrol until now. The gunman was killed a short time later in a shoot-out with police.

A California high school student allegedly catches a teacher red handed stealing from her students. This started with kids at Linden High School missing money and other items from their backpacks. So, one student decided to set up some kind of sting. She hid in a gym locker and caught the alleged thief on a cell phone camera.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JUSTINE BETTI, STUDENT: I didn't want to believe that she would do something like that because she was so nice but then she did it. We feel like we did the right thing but it's still like, you know, kind of hard.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: The teacher has been placed on administrative leave while the school district and the police investigate.

O'BRIEN: Wow.

BERMAN: Wow, exactly.

O'BRIEN: All right. Well, as we were talking about yesterday, it's been a year since Trayvon Martin was killed by George Zimmerman. Zimmerman said it was self-defense. So, where does the case stand now?

We heard from Trayvon's mom and dad yesterday. Later this hour, we're going to talk with Zimmerman's defense attorney, Mark O'Mara, about his strategy in the case.

STARTING POINT is back right after this short break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody. Two days until massive forced spending cuts take effect. Right now, there's still a lot of finger pointing happening in Washington, D.C. Yesterday, Republican and Democratic leaders at the highest levels were talking about how the cuts were really going to be ruinous for some, and then, of course, blaming the other side.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN BARRASSO, (R) WYOMING: It seems to me the president is running around the country, you know, crying wolf saying that the sky is falling.

REP. NANCY PELOSI, (D) MINORITY LEADER: The Republicans say they're kicking the can down the road. It's not -- I don't think they're kicking the can down the road. I think they're nudging the potato across the table with their nose.

SEN. ROY BLUNT, (R) MISSOURI: It's almost like the administration was given a homework assignment 18 months ago and they showed up last week saying, gee, we're not ready for this.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There are too many Republicans in Congress right now who refuse to compromise even an inch when it comes to closing tax loopholes and special interest tax breaks.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: Congressman Aaron Schock is a Republican from Illinois. He's the member of the Ways and Means Committee. Nice to have you with us. Appreciate your time this morning.

REP. AARON SCHOCK, (R) ILLINOIS: Good morning, Soledad.

O'BRIEN: So, what do you think? Two days to go, are you going to get this resolved, 48 hours? SCHOCK: Well, I sure hope so. I agree with the president that we do not want to see a sequestration take effect. I would just respectfully submit that the House has tried to be responsible. I think what's really been lost on my constituents back home is that the House of Representatives acted last summer with an alternative to the sequestration.

You know, it's great to talk about how we don't want this to happen. It's another thing to put forward a specific plan that would prevent it from happening. And Soledad, you know that that vote last summer was a bipartisan vote. It voted with Republicans and Democrats out of the House of Representatives, went over to the Senate, and unfortunately, Harry Reid not only didn't vote on the House version, but the Senate hasn't put forward its own proposal.

So, I would just encourage the president to work with Harry Reid and the Senate Democrats to put forward their own alternative so that we can hopefully then go to conference and negotiate something between the House and the Senate because both sides agree that it's better to use a scalpel than a hatchet.

O'BRIEN: You're describing something that there's just no way is going to be done in 48 hours so as much as you're optimistic --

SCHOCK: I'm an optimist.

(LAUGHTER)

O'BRIEN: Well, that's charming, but I don't know that that's actually going to happen in the next 48 hours. You wanted to ask a question.

CHRIS FRATES, REPORTER, NATIONAL JOURNAL: Congressman, Chris Frates with "National Journal" here. I have a story this morning that Republican House leadership are taking a wait-and-see approach to the sequester. They want to see if the sky really does fall. They think they lose some leverage. They're going to need to negotiate on sequester.

And if the cuts are not to be that bad, they think they get some leverage and can roll this debate on the across-the-board spending cuts into a larger one about the debt ceiling this summer. Is that a prudent way for House Republicans to go forward on this, taking a wait-and-see? Shouldn't your leaders be showing more leadership here?

SCHOCK: Well, I'm not sure that wait-and-see is the appropriate terminology. I would just simply say that we've done all we can in the House of Representatives. We can't negotiate with ourselves and so short of passing an alternative to the sequestration, which we've done. We can't force the Senate to act.

And so, for us to then begin negotiating with the president which you know we've done in the past with Boehner and Obama going behind closed doors and trying to negotiate a deal, that doesn't seem to work. And so, what's important is regular order --

(CROSSTALK) SCHOCK: Because I think both Republicans and Democrats in the House, particularly, are frustrated that we haven't been doing more regular order. We haven't been passing budgets that required by law. We haven't been moving bills from committee to floor, allowing for amendments, allowing for input from both sides.

Nobody wants this kind of one and two-man negotiated deals, and then, we're all told to just kind of swallow hard and vote for the bill. We expect to be a part of the legislative making process which we were.

O'BRIEN: OK. So, then, explain to me something. Forgive me for interrupting you, but at the same time, it's your colleagues who have said, listen, we're going to put fort legislation that would put this entirely into the lap of the president. The White House whether they want to make the cuts. There are going to be cuts made instead of having them across the board. Now, he can pick.

That seems to completely contradict what you've just said about being part of a process and actually being part of a negotiation of cuts. So, do you support that? What's being proposed out of the House or would you not support it?

SCHOCK: Well, the bill that we passed six months ago was specific in what cuts we would have made, and as I said, that bill did not go anywhere in the Senate. And so, the latest proposal, you're correct, is to say OK, if you don't like the cuts we specified six months ago, then we will give you, Mr. President, the scalpel so that we don't have to disproportionately make cuts, for example, in TSA within the Department of Transportation on TSA workers.

O'BRIEN: But isn't the scalpel thing your job, right? I mean, like to some degree, when you say, OK Mr. President, here's the scalpel, your job along with your colleagues is the scalpeling, right? The whole point is that all of you are supposed to come together and figure out how you come to some agreement.

SCHOCK: Sure.

O'BRIEN: So, it sounds to me like, in fact, you're then giving it up and saying OK, let the White House do it, which would be constitutionally, I believe, against what your actual job is.

SCHOCK: Well, actually two things. Number one, I agree with you, we're trying to do our job as best we can, but as i mentioned earlier, we can't negotiate with ourselves. We can't force the Senate to do its job. And the House has put forward in earnest its own proposal with specific cuts this last summer. We have now said, OK, Mr. President, look, we're trying -- Soledad, we're trying to do everything we can to prevent the sequester short of just not making cuts.

I mean, my constituents back in Illinois have said, look, are you kidding me? You're borrowing 40 cents out of every dollar you spend in Washington and you can't cut three percent of the federal budget? I mean, who's to think we're actually going to solve our deficit problem in this country if we can't cut three percent? Nobody believes there's going to be this great calamity if the sequestration takes effect, unless, there's not allowed some discretion within the department -- within the administration. And Soledad, I would just say that I don't think it's us abdicating a responsibility to the president. I would simply say the president's job as a chief executive is to administer the budget, administer the revenue lines that the Congress gives it.

And so, what we're simply saying is, look, make the three percent cut. We're willing to give you some discretion as the chief executive to make those cuts as palatable as possible.

O'BRIEN: So, here's what I hear from both sides, blame, blame, blame, blame, blame, blah, blah from everybody, really, 48 hours to go. Aaron Schock, nice to see you, congressman. Thank you for talking with us. We certainly appreciate. You bet.

Coming up this morning, we'll take a look at this story, the world's most popular beers. Have they been watered down? There's a new lawsuit that focuses on Anheuser-Busch, the creator of Budweiser, that's ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Welcome back to STARTING POINT. I'm Christine Romans, "Minding Your Business."

Shaping up to be a slow start for Wall Street today. Stock futures pointing to a flat open, and the moves aren't huge at all. Wall Street nervous about the government's forced spending cuts just two days away now. Later today, the Federal Reserve chief, Ben Bernanke, will be back on Capitol Hill talking about the economy.

All right. The list is out. "Consumer Reports" top car picks for 2013, American automakers didn't make the cut. In the mid-sized sedan category, the Honda Accord won out. Best budget car is the Hyundai Elantra at $18,000 and the best luxury car, the Audi A6. "Consumer Reports" tested nearly 300 vehicles for things like reliability, fuel economy, and safety.

Instagram hits a milestone. The photo sharing site has hit 100 million active users, and it's only two years old. Facebook bought Instagram less than a year ago for about a billion dollars.

And trending this morning, drinkers in three states are now suing Anheuser-Busch for allegedly watering down its beer. The $5 million class action suit accuses the company of overstating the alcohol content to boost profits. Anheuser-Busch released a statement saying the lawsuits are groundless. Their beers are in fully compliance of alcohol labeling law (ph). Ten products named in the suit. Among them, Budweiser, Bud Ice, Michelob, and Bud Light Lime.

O'BRIEN: I've never tried.

(CROSSTALK)

ROMANS: It sounds weird.

(CROSSTALK)

O'BRIEN: Is the lime good?

MARY BONO MACK, FORMER CONGRESSWOMAN: Yes. Definitely tastes watered down, I don't know if it is or not, but definitely not Guinness (ph), what can you say?

(CROSSTALK)

O'BRIEN: That's right. I believe we should do some reporting on this. Bring that beer right here this morning.

Still ahead this morning on STARTING POINT, a year after he claimed self-defense in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman still out on bail and is awaiting trial. So, what happens next in this case? His defense attorney, Mark O'Mara, is going to join us up next.

Then, a bartender fired because she called 911 on a drunk customer. She says this is not fair. We'll talk about that straight ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody. You're watching STARTING POINT. Let's begin with John Berman and a look at the day's top stories.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Thanks so much, Soledad.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BERMAN (voice-over): Secretary of state, John Kerry, heading to Rome today. Earlier, he wrapped up a meeting with French president, Francois Hollande, and other members of the French leadership. He took up the issue of how best to help Syria. Sources say the U.S. might assist rebels with non-lethal equipment, not weapons but some, perhaps, strategic military assistance.

The U.S. coast guard is called off its search for four missing boaters off the coast of Northern California. They think this 911 call, they think it might have been a hoax.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Coast guard, coast guard, we are abandoning ship. This is the Charm Blow, we are abandoning ship.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: Coast Guard chief petty officer, Mike Lutz, said after searching for nearly 48 hours, cruise found no debris. No physical signs of any distress.

New court documents reveal the FBI is targeting an anarchist group in Portland, Oregon after a series of recent attacks.