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STARTING POINT WITH SOLEDAD O'BRIEN

Pope Prepares to Resign Papacy; Sequester Deadline Looms for Congress; Sequester Imminent; Interview with Rep. Buck McKeon

Aired February 28, 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, the pope's final day as head of the Catholic Church. In just about seven hours, the office of the pope will be empty when Benedict XVI is officially in retirement. This morning, he blessed the cardinals who will pick his successor.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

POPE BENEDICT XVI, CATHOLIC CHURCH: May he bless all of you in the name of the Father and the Son and the holy spirit.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: We're live in Rome this morning with the historic moment and what it means for the church. We'll be talking with Monsignor Rick Hilgartner of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Sister Simone Campbell (ph) is going to join us. She's the executive director of Network. And Father Edward Beck is our guest.

And then, time is running out. Two proposals today meant to avoid drastic spending cuts, but they're both expected to fail. So, can we avoid tomorrow's deadline or is it a lost cause?

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: And did the White House threatened journalist, Bob Woodward, over his reporting on those spending cuts?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BOB WOODWARD, JOURNALIST: It said very clearly you will regret doing this.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: The growing controversy on how the Obama administration is responding this morning.

O'BRIEN: It's Thursday, February 28th, and "STARTING POINT" begins right now.

Welcome, everybody. Our starting point this morning, the final hours of the sitting Pope. The leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics will officially retire in seven hours. Right now we're awaiting a news conference from the Vatican. The spokesman will hold that news conference and we'll bring that to you when it happens. Earlier this morning Pope Benedict XVI met with more than 100 cardinals. They'll be the ones who will be choosing his replacement. He had a message for them. We'll share that in just a moment.

Here's how Pope Benedict XVI plans to spend the final hours of his papacy. At 10:45 a.m. eastern time he'll leave the Vatican resident by helicopter and land a half an hour later at Castle Gandolfo, the papal summer residence. At 11:30 a.m., the Pope is expected to appear at his balcony to say a final farewell to his followers. At 2:00 p.m. this afternoon, Pope Benedict XVI will no longer be Pope and St. Peter's throne will be officially vacated. Let's get right to CNN's chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour who is live for us in Rome this morning. We've given a rundown how the day will go. What can you add to that?

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, today was the day that the cardinals got to say goodbye to the Pope and thank you. Yesterday it was the Pope in St. Peter's square who was saying thank you and farewell. And Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Dean of the College of Cardinals, started out by making a speech. This is what he said and what the Pope replied.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CARDINAL ANGELO SODANO, DEAN OF COLLEGE OF CARDINALS: Today you addressed the people in St. Peter's square. Today we should thank you for the example which you have given us during the last eight years of your pontificate. I will continue to serve you in prayer, in particular in the coming days, so that you may be touched by the Holy Spirit in the election of a new Pope and hope that the lord will show you the right way.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

AMANPOUR: And, of course, what he also said was that "Amongst you, as he was talking to the cardinals, amongst you will be the next Pope. And to him I will offer my continued devotion and obedience." It is, as we've been saying, such an unprecedented situation, literally centuries. None of us remember nor do our ancestors remember the last time a Pope stepped down so we are headed into uncharted waters.

And particularly this is what's going to be the focus of everybody's attention when we hear hopefully next week the date of the conclave for the election of the new Pope. In the meantime, the Pope, as you said, will leave here this afternoon, go to Castel Gandolfo. It will be his temporary retirement home. And also at 8:00 p.m. Rome time his papacy ends, and then sede vacante, the empty seat, until we know who the next pope will be. Soledad?

O'BRIEN: Christiane Amanpour for us this morning in Rome, thanks, Christiane.

We're learning more about Pope Benedict XVI as he continued receiving resignations and nominating bishops even on his last day in office. He accepted the resignation of a Monsignor Jose Angel-Roba as bishop in Argentina. Today he nominated Samuel Jeffre to replace him. He also nominated an auxiliary bishop in Vietnam. Apparently it was his final official act as Pope.

Meantime with retirement comes a new title, Pope emeritus, a new home as well. He will be staying at the picturesque Castel Gandolfo, a hilltop town 15 miles southeast of Rome. The small fortress castle has been a retreat for Popes for centuries. Becky Anderson is there for us this morning. Good morning, Becky.

BECKY ANDERSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Good morning. Picturesque is an understatement. This is one of the most beautiful settings I've ever been in. Castel Gandolfo is behind me. That used to be a fortress back in the 16th century but the papacy wrestled it out of the hands of the family and it's now been for 400 years the summer residence for Popes getting out of the heat of the roman summer.

It sits over a lake, which is quite the most picturesque, beautiful, quiet environment and perfect for Benedict XVI, who will be called his holiness going forward, the pope will start his new life of contemplation and reflection.

Let me just walk you through what will happen, Soledad, in the hours to come. It's just after 1:00 here, so in about four and a quarter hours, the Pope will arrive here in his helicopter. At 5:30 the window just up there over my shoulder, he'll appear there. You say he's conducted his last sort of official business. His last business effectively will be to -- it's unofficial, I guess, is to address the 7,000 people who will be gathered here. Most of them will have worked at the Gandolfo castle at one stage or another. Many of the people who live in this diocese work for the papacy. He'll address them, a brief salute, and then he'll disappear again.

But the door behind me, that's going to be the moment of drama at the end of what is this historic day. That will bang shut, and the Swiss guard, who are the pal bodyguards and have been for centuries will abandon the Pope to his new life, Soledad.

O'BRIEN: Becky Anderson for us. It sounds very exciting. We're expecting it all to unfold over the next several hours today. Thanks, Becky, appreciate the update.

Let's get right to Monsignor Rick Hilgartner. He's the executive director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, secretary of divine worship. It's nice to have you back. I'm very antsy about how I say monsignor now since you made fun of me yesterday.

(LAUGHTER)

MONSIGNOR RICK HILGARTNER, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, U.S. CONFERENCE OF CATHOLIC BISHOPS: I thought it sounded elegant.

O'BRIEN: Then I'll keep doing it. Let's talk a little bit about the conclave process. We know what's going to happen as Becky pointed out as his papacy comes to an end. But the what's-next is what I want to focus on. We know it's done in great secrecy. All of the cardinals will come in. Most of them will take part in the voting of it. Walk me through exactly the process. HILGARTNER: Well, beginning tonight at 8:00 p.m. central European time or 2:00 p.m. eastern, the leadership of the church is turned over to the College of Cardinals as a group. And so the current secretary of state of the church will be the day-to-day person to operate the immediate kinds of things. There are no big policy decisions that get made, but there is the day-to-day operation, including planning for the Conclave that will begin. It will be up to the Dean of the College of Cardinals, at this point Cardinal Sodano, who will convoke the convening of the cardinals.

O'BRIEN: He'll pick the date?

HILGARTNER: He'll summon them all and that's a symbolic gesture at this point because most of them are already there and they have had several weeks notice to prepare to come to Rome. It's possible they'll gather tomorrow. There's been nothing said yet about whether all the cardinals will gather.

O'BRIEN: And the gathering would be the Conclave?

HILGARTNER: What's called the general congregations will begin the in next few days. So tomorrow there is likely an announcement about when the general congregations will begin. And then there are some procedural things that will happen. They will choose three cardinals from among the whole body who will work with the dean to oversee the day-to-day operations.

O'BRIEN: That's logistical, how the office will be run. When do they go into the Conclave?

HILGARTNER: The general congregations will begin in a few days. During those days they'll talk about the state of the church in the various parts of the world and each of the cardinals will have the opportunity to input into that. That will include the cardinals not eligible to vote because they're past the age. Even the over 80 cardinals can participate. The first thing they'll do is set the date for the conclave to begin. It hasn't been determined how many days they'll meet.

Eventually when they set the date for the conclave, they will begin that day with a mass and then the solemn procession into the Sistine Chapel when literally the Conclave with keys means they will lock the doors and the master of ceremonies will announce that all the outsiders get out, and all those who are not eligible to be in the conclave will leave the room. The doors will literally be closed and locked.

O'BRIEN: And they will then make a decision. We're going to keep you around as we did yesterday all morning. But there's so much -- you describe a process but there's also a political process, the jockeying for the position that I really want to get into as we continue through our morning. We'll get back to that in a little bit.

Cardinal Roger Mahoney, retired archbishop of Los Angeles, this just comes into CNN, he tweeted, of course he tweeted, about the final event with the Pope. Christiane was just discussing that a moment ago. He tweeted "When I greeted the Pope, I asked for his prayers for all the people in the greater Los Angeles area. He grasped my hand and said "Yes." Cardinal Mahoney getting something for his people at the last moment.

At the bottom of the hour this morning, I'm going to be talking to Sister Simone Campbell, the executive director of Network, a member of the Sisters of Social Service. We'll talk about the future of the Catholic Church with her. She's been a guest on this show a couple of times. Also at 10:00 eastern there's a CNN special this morning, the Pope's last day anchored by Erin Burnett and Chris Cuomo. Christiane Amanpour joins them from Rome. Also an interview with Cardinal Timothy Dolan also from Rome.

First, though, before we get to any of that, let's right get to John Berman who has a look at some of the other stores making.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: This just in to CNN. New details this morning about the $60 million in additional aid the United States is giving the Syrian opposition. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Syrian opposition leaders today and announced this in Rome. The U.S. will seek the additional money during the coming months. The funds will enable the opposition group to help local councils in communities in providing food, shelter, and sanitation. The Obama administration is considering providing more nonlethal military equipment as well.

Automatic spending cuts kick in tomorrow. Senate Democrats and Republicans will vote on separate proposals today to head off those cuts but there is really no indication at all that anything will be done in time to beat tomorrow's deadline. President Obama says the cuts will damage the economy, but the alarm really from him toned down a bit. He told business leaders it's not a fiscal cliff, just a tumble downward.

Meantime "Washington Post" reporter Bob Woodward claims he was threatened by the White House over an op-ed he wrote on the origin of the forced cuts. Here's what he told CNN's Wolf Blitzer.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WOODWARD: It said very clearly you will regret doing this.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST, "THE SITUATION ROOM": Who sent that e-mail to you?

WOODWARD: Well, I'm not going to say.

BLITZER: Was it a senior person at the White House?

WOODWARD: A very senior person. And just as a -- I mean it makes me very uncomfortable to have the White House telling reporters you're going to regret doing something that you believe in.

(END VIDEO CLIP) O'BRIEN: After what he went through in Watergate, no surprise that Bob Woodward is sensitive towards the White House. The White House did respond to that. They said there was no threat intended.

Just ahead we're going to talk about the forced spending cuts with Congressman Buck McKeon, a Republican from California.

Other news, the Supreme Court hearing oral argument in a challenge to the voting rights act of 1965 and a key provision of the measure does seem to be in jeopardy. If it is overturned, nine states, mostly in the south, would become free to change their voting procedures without permission from the federal government. Civil rights activists fear that would mean tighter identification standards and more flexibility to move polling places and redraw legislative districts, a move they say would hurt minority voting.

There was some heartbreaking testimony from a very emotional father whose son was one of the 20 first graders gunned down in the Sandy Hook Elementary School. Neil Heslin brought his plea to a Washington hearing held by Senator Dianne Feinstein Wednesday. He said he was there to speak for his son.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NEIL HESLIN, FATHER OF NEWTOWN VICTIM JESS HESLIN: He was the love of my life. He was the only family I have left. It's hard for me to be here today to talk about my deceased son. I have to. I'm his voice.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: Heslin told our Anderson cooper why it was so important for him to speak out in favor of an assault weapons ban.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HESLIN: I feel I have to do it for Jesse. If I didn't speak up and try to make a change, I would feel that I was letting my son down.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: Despite Wednesday's emotional hearing, a new assault weapons ban really has little chance of passing. There is fierce opposition from the NRA as well as Republicans and some Democrats as well.

A powerful week-long storm that cancelled flights, stranded motorists, and left at least seven dead, six of them in Kansas, now has its sights set on New England. There are 10 inches of snow predicted for parts of Maine today. A winter advisory is in effect for parts of that state and portions of New Hampshire as well. New England just keeps getting hit. Good news for ski areas, bad news for human who say don't ski.

O'BRIEN: Spring is around the corner.

BERMAN: So they say. O'BRIEN: Still ahead this morning on STARTING POINT, the DOW has its best day of the year, hits a five-year high. Will we see another surge today? Ali Velshi will join us to talk about that straight ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: Welcome back. The clock is winding down thismorning. Forced spending cuts will take effect tomorrow. Overnight a striking change of tone has left many people wondering what exactly has changed. The president spoke last night at a business council dinner. He said the forced cuts are serious but not that serious. Here's what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's not a cliff. But it is a tumble downward. A lot of people may not notice the full impact of the sequester. But this is going to be a big hit on the economy.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: Couldn't be more different from what his own attorney general was saying hours earlier.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ERIC HOLDER, ATTORNEY GENERAL: There are not going to be as many FBI agents, ETF agents, VEA agents, prosecutors who are able to do their jobs. They're going to be furloughed. This is something that is going to have an impact on the safety of this country. Anybody who says that that's not true is either lying or saying something that runs contrary to the facts.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: Congressman Buck McKeon is a Republican from California, he's also the chairman of the armed services committee. Nice to have you, sir. Thank you for talking with us.

REP. BUCK MCKEON, (R ) CALIFORNIA: Thank you for having me.

O'BRIEN: You can see that the tone has obviously changed. As everybody sits around to figure out why is the tone changing, some have posited that there's a back room deal happening and that's what's changed the tone from being doom and gloom and we're falling off a cliff to being more of it's a slow slide down a little path, I guess. What do you think is behind it?

MCKEON: You know, the president has taken so many positions on this issue from the fact that he originally proposed the idea to where if we tried to fix it he would veto it to now it became the biggest disaster to ever hit the world to now it's not such a big deal. Somewhere in between there is the truth. And the truth is that our defense has been cut greatly. Before we ever got to sequester, secretary gates cut $100 billion out of defense. And then the joint chiefs were assigned to find over $400 billion in cuts. That evolved to $487 billion in cuts that kicks in this year. That's $50 billion taken out of defense over the next ten years. And then the sequestration on top of that adds another $50 billion. So we're looking at cutting over a trillion dollars.

O'BRIEN: So that sounds very doom and gloomy. You've just laid out that that's bad. When I talked to Ray Mabus, secretary of the Navy, he said essentially the same thing to me. Here's what's going to happen and it's serious.

MCKEON: Those are the facts.

O'BRIEN: Let me play that first and we'll talk about it on the other side.

MCKEON: Sure.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RAY MABUS, SECRETARY OF THE NAVY: We're going to have to take down four of nine carrier air wings and it will take us a year to get them back and cost two or three times as much. If we lurch from this budget crisis to the next artificial budget crisis, that's the continuing resolution at the end of March, we'll start cutting some significant number of workers here.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: So he reflects what you say. And then when you talk to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the mayor here in the city of New York, he's sort of like, eh. Listen to that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MICHAEL BLOOMBERG, MAYOR, NEW YORK CITY: There's a lot of posturing, I'm going to lay off my employees today unless you do something. We're going to close the hospitals down. We're going to take all the prisoners from jail and put them on the streets. Spare me, I live in that world. Come on, let's get serious here.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: So which is it? Serious?

MCKEON: I'm focused on the defense side. We passed the budget control act, and that put into place cuts of about a trillion dollars, half of which came out of defense. And then it set in place the sequestration which set up a super committee that was supposed to go after the runaway spending that are mandatory that we have no control over, and they were supposed to find an additional trillion dollars of cuts that we could take out of that.

When that failed, then the automatic cuts put in place by sequestration were supposed to kick in January 1st and then that got moved back to March 1st. And what really has happened is when sequestration was passed and when the super committee failed, the military started to put into place things that held things in place. People are just kind of frozen in place. Jobs are not being created. People are not being hired. People were being let go. So that the fiscal cliff actually, as the president said, it's not a sharp dropoff because it's been happening now for several months in preparation for January 1st and now March 1st.

O'BRIEN: The time is certainly running out for you, for all of our elected officials who are investing a lot of hope to meet this before we do go over that cliff or slide or however you want to characterize it. Congressman Buck McKeon, thank you for talking with us this morning, sir. We appreciate your time.

MCKEON: Thanks for having me.

O'BRIEN: Coming up this morning, the Dow opens at a new five-year high this morning. But is it too soon to celebrate? Ali Velshi will join us to talk about what those numbers really mean. And that's coming up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody. Joining us this morning, we already introduced Monsignor Rick Hilgartner on our team. Matt Miller is with us as well, he's a "Washington Post" columnist, former senior adviser in the Clinton White House budget office. Ryan Lizza is back, CNN contributor, Washington correspondent for the "New Yorker."

I accidentally thought someone was you yesterday in a restaurant and embarrassed myself.

RYAN LIZZA, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: What did you do?

O'BRIEN: I ran my fingers through his hair and said hey, Ryan, but it wasn't Ryan. But let's not talk about that. Let's talk about the Dow opening at a new five-year high after a really big rally late in the session yesterday. Closed at 14,075. It was up 170 points on Wednesday and that's just 89 points away from it's record-closing high which was reached in October of 2007. The NASDAQ and the S&P 500 also rallied.

Let's get right to Ali Velshi who's in Washington, D.C. This morning. Just a few days ago stocks sold off. We were talking about Sall Street's terrible day. Now we're back to talking about a record. Explicame por favor.

ALI VELSHI, CNN CHIEF BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Forget the record, it doesn't matter. Eighty-nine points, we'll probably even get it today, because it looks like stocks are going to start a little bit higher because Ben Bernanke says things are going to be okay. But the record doesn't matter. The only thing that needs to matter to anybody involved in the stock market whether it's a 401(k) or IRA or you're a trader is whether the stocks you're going to buy are going up from here or down from here. Some people say there's a bubble. Some say when we hit that record there will be automatic selling. That creates a great deal of volatility in the market. There are two things going on right now, Soledad. We have an ongoing generalized improvement in the market. More and more employment every month. We've got natural gas and oil sparking a bit of a boom. Low interest rates, people are buying houses. They're generally feeling good about things. On the other side you've got a government that is just so ready to trip this economy up every single chance it gets. And investors are confused, which means the index that most people should be concerned about, the volatility index, is all over the map. It's really high right now. So that's why you end up having days like you did the other day. Something goes wrong in Italy, our stocks tank. Something goes well today, it will be GDP at 8:30 this morning showing things are not as bad as we thought they were at the end of 2012. Stocks will go up. That's the kind of world we're in right now. If you're a trader, you've got to be really, really careful about this market. Don't worry about bubbles. I don't think whatever happens this weekend is going to change the stock market all that much, but watch out for the end of March. That's what we've got to worry about, when that budget debate comes up.

O'BRIEN: Oh my goodness. And the idea that our own government is tripping up our own economy is really concerning to me. All right, Ali Velshi, nice to have you.

VELSHI: My pleasure.

O'BRIEN: Ahead this morning, Pope Benedict XVI's reign as head of the Catholic Church has been marred with controversy. Will the next pope be able to bring change, make the church more modern? What about the question of women in the church? We'll examine that straight ahead.

Then remember the hockey coach - were you here, Ryan, for the story? A hockey coach that trips a 13-year-old player and they catch it on the video. Yes, well, a judge has finally weighed in, handed down the punishment and it is far worse than just throwing him into the penalty box. We'll explain what happens. See that? Nice. Nice.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody. It's the pope's final day as the leader of the Catholic Church. This morning he greeted more than 100 cardinals who are now tasked with choosing his replacement. Benedict XVI had one last message for those cardinals before he began his retirement.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

POPE BENEDICT XVI, CATHOLIC CHURCH (through translator): Personally, I would like to say that I will continue to serve you in prayer. In particular in coming days so that you may be touched by the holy spirit in the election of a new pope, and the hope that the Lord will show you the right way.

(END VIDEO CLIP)