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STARTING POINT WITH SOLEDAD O'BRIEN

Pope Benedict's Last Day; Interview With Rep. Xavier Becerra

Aired February 28, 2013 - 08:00   ET

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


(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome, everybody.

Our STARTING POINT this morning, the pope's final moments as the head of the Catholic Church. In just about six hours, Benedict XVI will officially be in retirement. Earlier today, he blest his cardinals who will now pick his successor.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

POPE BENEDICT XVI, CATHOLIC CHURCH (through translator): It has been a joy to walk and work with you these years in the presence of God.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: We're live in Rome this morning looking at what this historic moment means for the Catholic Church.

Then, the Senate takes up two proposals today meant to avoid the drastic spending cuts. They're both, though, expected to fail. So, are we doomed to miss the deadline?

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

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BOB WOODWARD, THE WASHINGTON POST: It was said very clearly, you will regret doing this.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: The growing controversy and the White House response this morning.

Plus, she won America's hearts at the Olympics and she became an Internet sensation even though she was not impressed. Olympic gymnast McKayla Maroney, she is here live.

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

(MUSIC)

O'BRIEN: Welcome, everybody. Our STARTING POINT this morning is Pope Benedict XVI's final hours on the throne of St. Peter.

At 2:00 p.m. Eastern, this afternoon, the spiritual leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics will officially step down and begin his retirement.

Earlier this morning, the pope met with 144 cardinals who will choose his successor. And he left them with this parting message --

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

POPE BENEDICT XVI (through translator): Personally, I would like to say that 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)

O'BRIEN: In the last hour, we heard from Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, describing how the pope will be part of the selection process for his successor.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

FATHER FEDERICO LOMBARDI, VATICAN SPOKESMAN (through translator): So, he won't be present in the Sistine Chapel where the cardinals will pay tribute to the new pope for election. But as of now, he is participating in this act of homage and obedience. The new pontiff, it's very beautiful, very original.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: So, here's how Benedict XVI will spend the final hours of his papacy. At 10:45 Eastern, he'll leave the residence by helicopter and land roughly a half hour later at Castel Gandolfo, which is the papal residence.

At 11:30 Eastern, he's expected to appear to his balcony, to say a final farewell to his followers. And then at 2:00 p.m., this afternoon, Pope Benedict XVI will no longer be pope.

Let's get right to CNN's chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour. She's live in Rome. She's got senior Vatican analyst and correspondent for the "National Catholic Reporter", John Allen, with her.

Good morning to both of you.

JOHN ALLEN, CNN SENIOR VATICAN ANALYST: Good morning.

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

And just to be very clear, Pope Benedict XVI will have nothing to do with the selection and election of the next pope. He obviously will be closet away up in Castel Gandolfo. And also, just in terms of what happens logistically next, once the papacy ends at 8:00 p.m. local time, his papal apartments here at the Vatican will be sealed as they always are when one pope leaves and before the next is elected, not just his apartments will be sealed with the traditional yellow Vatican seal, which we'll talk about the sede vacante, the empty seat, but also the elevator going up to that apartment will be sealed.

Again, John and I were watching for over an hour as the pope met with the cardinals face to face, a little bit of face time for the cardinals to come and say thank you and farewell each and every one of them privately and personally to him.

Before that, the dean of the College of Cardinals, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, did make a statement and the pope also responded.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CARDINAL ANGELO SODANO, DEAN OF COLLEGE OF CARDINALS (through translator): You addressed the people in the 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.

POPE BENEDICT XVI (through translator): Personally, I would like to say that 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 so, after that, each and every one of those cardinals came up and kissed his ring, some of them knelt, some of them had words in his ears. There was a white tuxedoed gentleman there who was really moving the process along and when it looked like one cardinal was spending a little over the allotted time, he would get moved on.

John, of course, we were all looking at the cardinals, looking to see which one of those might be the front-runner. Everybody's waiting to see who will be the next pope? Is anybody, you know, really got any front-runner status?

But I must say also that everybody's waiting and watching to se whether the controversial Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles would be there and, of course, he was. He knelt in front of the pope. And then afterwards he tweeted.

ALLEN: Yes, that's exactly right. So, now, two tweets actually describing his encounter with Benedict XVI.

But, of course, so I think what we need to take stock of here is that in some ways, what you saw this morning was Benedict XVI potentially greeting a man who was going to take over the Catholic Church after he's gone. In fact, of course, as you know, at one point, the pope actually said perhaps in this room this morning is the next pope and I want to right now in advance pledge my unconditional obedience to that man.

So, obviously, you know we have one eye on Benedict the outgoing pope this morning and how this emotional farewell could play with him, but we, of course, had the other eye on the cast of characters and the field of candidates.

AMANPOUR: And before we go back to Soledad, just give us an idea of who might be a front-runner, if such a thing exists.

ALLEN: Well, I think the big difference between this conclave and the conclave of 2005 is there is no clear front-runner in the same way that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger now Pope Benedict was the last time around.

But there are perhaps two or three figures one could say are the next tier down. Cardinal Angelo Scola of Milan, for example, cut from the same intellectual cloth as Benedict, with the slightly stronger popular touch.

Cardinal Marc Quellet, the Canadian who runs the Vatican's powerful congregation for bishops, a very deeply spiritual figure.

And perhaps Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, Argentinean by birth, but a career Vatican official, a man who sort of brings the first world and the third world together.

We shall see if one of those guys breaks through.

AMANPOUR: Indeed and, of course, there may even be a cardinal from the third world, the developing world, who might be elevated.

We're going to interview the American Cardinal Timothy Dolan in a few hours from now. We'll have that live on CNN and he's used an awful lot of colorful language to insist he will not be the next pope. But his name is constantly cropping up as well -- Soledad.

O'BRIEN: The pope has not even official retired yet, and we're already taking bets on who the next successor is going to be. But I'm not surprised about that.

Thanks, guys. I appreciate it.

And for the next months, in fact, Pope Benedict XVI will be staying at the picturesque Castel Gandolfo. It's a hilltop town, about 15 minutes southeast of Rome. It's a small fortress castle that has been a retreat for popes for centuries.

And Becky Anderson is there for us this morning.

Good morning, Becky.

BECKY ANDERSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: A very good morning to you.

The final preparations now are now being put in place in this square in Castel Gandolfo for what will be the arrival of a very, very honored guest. The people here feel very fondly towards the pope.

As you say, for 400 years nearly, this has been the summer residence of the papacy as the popes over the years got out of the heat of that Roman summer. There is a glorious lake just to my left-hand side, and the sort of place where somebody who needed some time for peace and contemplation might come. And that is what we are looking at for Benedict XVI, who will be called "His Holiness" going forward looking for that for him in the future because, of course, when he arrives here at 5:15 local time by helicopter, he will be in retirement.

His last act, Soledad, will be to stand at the window above me over here at the castle and he will effectively address. They're calling it -- he will salute the crowd here. There will be about 7,000 people here. So he may or may not say anything at that stage,

But then you'll see the doors behind me in a couple hours bang shut. That will be the end of the Swiss Guard here, the papal bodyguards will abandon, as it's known, Benedict XVI, from then on in, it's the rest of his life, of course, which he says will be spent in isolation -- Soledad.

O'BRIEN: Becky Anderson for us -- thank you, Becky, for walking us through what will happen later this afternoon.

We've also learned that there will be no Internet access inside Santa Marta where the cardinals will be staying during the conclave. You figure out why, right?

The Vatican has declined to say whether BlackBerrys and iPhones and blacktops will be taken away from them. You shut off the Internet access, that's good enough.

Benedict XVI will not get advanced notice of who his successor will be if he apparently will find out when the rest of the world does.

I want to get to our team this morning; Monsignor Rick Hilgartner is with us. He's the executive director of the secretariat of Divine Worship, at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Matt Miller is with us. He's a "Washington Post" columnist, former senior adviser in the Clinton White House Budget Office.

Ryan Lizza is a CNN contributor, Washington correspondent for "The New Yorker".

And Father Edward Beck is with us to help us take a look at who would be next. As much as I was poking fun at Christiane and John Allen, we're going to do the same thing and talk about who really who potentially could be the next -- realistically be the next pope. We're going to talk about it straight ahead.

Special coverage of the pope's final day will start at 10:00 a.m. Eastern right here on CNN. Chris Cuomo and Erin Burnett and Christiane Amanpour will all be hosting that special report.

First, though, I want to get right to John Berman, who's got the look at the day's top stories.

Good morning, again.

BERMAN: Thanks, Soledad.

New this morning: $60 million, that's how much additional aid the United States will provide the Syrian opposition. Secretary of State John Kerry announced the details a short time ago in Rome when he met with opposition leaders. The funds will be used to help local communities in liberated parts of Syria by providing basic needs like food, shelter, sanitation. The goal of the aid is to help extend the rule of law and establish interim justice as need in these newly liberated Syrian territories.

Democrats and Republicans seem resigned to allowing those automatic spending cuts to kick in tomorrow. Senate lawmakers plan to vote on separate proposals today to head off the across-the-board cuts but, really, both appear dead-on-arrival.

Meantime, veteran journalist Bob Woodward claims he was threatened by a senior White House official after his reporting of the administration's handling of the forced federal cuts.

Here's what he told CNN's Wolf Blitzer --

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

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

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Who sent that e-mail?

WOODWARD: Well, I'm not going to say. I mean, it's somebody --

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)

BERMAN: The White House says no threat was intended.

Now just ahead, we're going to talk about the looming spending cuts with California Congressman Xavier Becerra. He is the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.

Some of the president's top donors are now his top choices for plum diplomatic posts. Democratic sources tell CNN that key campaign backers are leading candidates for ambassadorships in France, South Africa and England. And here's a name you will recognize, Caroline Kennedy. JFK's daughter might be up for diplomatic post in Canada or Japan. Her name has been linked to both. She was the national co- chair of the president's re-election campaign. Big anticipation for the opening bell less than hour and a half away. Stock futures pointing to a slightly higher opening after a big rally yesterday. The Dow is 89 points from its all-time record high hit back in October 2007. That was a long time ago.

Fueling this rally, a strong housing report and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said the Central Bank plans to keep propping up the economy with stimulus. Today, we're going to get reports on fourth quarter GDP and jobless claims that could influence trading -- Soledad.

O'BRIEN: All right. John, thanks.

Let's get back to the pope and who potentially could be the next pontiff and also the role of the pope emeritus.

We're going to get to Father Edward Beck, who is a CNN contributor. It's nice to have you with us.

FATHER EDWARD BECK, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Nice to be here.

O'BRIEN: So we heard earlier from the Vatican spokesperson that he won't be involved in a special way, that he won't get sort of hang out and listen to what's happening inside the Sistine Chapel, and he won't get a special heads up when they pick the pope, he'll have sort of an outside role.

But I'm curious to know who do you think could be on the short list of realistically who could be the next pope?

BECK: Well, Soledad, there's a lot of talk that the Catholic Church is in the developing world, in Africa and Asia. So I want to go out a limb and I want to throw someone out from the developing nation of the Philippines, Cardinal Tagle. Now, he's only 55 years old.

O'BRIEN: Which would be good because we had a lot of older folks.

BECK: Except he would be younger than John Paul II when he was elected to the long papacy. So, if you don't like him, you have him for a long time.

However, some of the cardinals may be heartened by the fact that now we have a pope who resigned. So perhaps if it's not working too well, a younger cardinal, a younger pope, could, in fact, resign.

O'BRIEN: What makes you pick him as your first? I know you got a couple on your top three, let's say.

BECK: He's only a cardinal for three months and working against him, per se --

O'BRIEN: In fact, it was Benedict XVI who just made him cardinal back in November, right?

BECK: That's right. And when John Paul II when he was introduced to him by Benedict, he said, I assure you, he's made his first communion, he looks so young. That's the comment that Benedict made to John Paul II.

Why I'm interested in talking a bit about him is because he's so humble. When he was bishop in Imus in the Philippines, he would ride his bicycle. He would encounter all the people on the streets. He would invite the poor into his residence to eat.

There's a story about a woman who was looking for her alcoholic out- of-work husband expecting to find him in the local bar, she found him in the residence with the bishop eating lunch.

He spoke very vociferously at the last meeting, the Synod of Bishops. He says we need a church that's humbler, simpler, and with the greater capacity for silence. So, he's speaking, really, very prophetically, simple man, and people are looking at him saying, wow, wouldn't this be something. He's studied in the U.S., by the way, Catholic University of America. Summa cum laude, so he's no slouch.

O'BRIEN: -- another name then. Many people have said this might be the opportunity to have an African as pope, and so, Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana. Many people have mentioned his name. How about him?

BECK: Very charismatic as well. A few strikes against him, one is that he's already spoken about it to the press who asked him --

O'BRIEN: Like the CIA, forget it.

BECK: Well, he didn't say like I want to be. He said basically, well, it would be a tough job, but he didn't totally dismiss it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's a no-no?

BECK: It's a no-no to talk about it or to pretend you even want it.

O'BRIEN: So, when they go into the Sistine Chapel. We were talking about this in the less hour, and you said they lock the door and all the people who are outsiders get kicked out. They jam the equipment, right? Like, if you did have your Blackberry you and were a cardinal, you couldn't send a tweet about how it's going if you want it to, could you?

MSGR. RICK HILGARTNER, US CONFERENCE OF CATHOLIC BISHOPS: They build a false floor, on the Sistine Chapel floor, and have all kinds of jamming equipment underneath it, both to keep the cardinals from communicating with the outside world and to prevent media from attempting to eavesdrop into what's going on.

O'BRIEN: But, we would never do that.

(LAUGHTER)

O'BRIEN: Monsignor I'm offended by the suggestion. So, we talked a little bit, too, about the politics around it. So,give me a sense of, like, if you are cardinal who say thinks you'd make a pretty good pope, who do you talk to, like, how do you sort of say, me for the third ballot? HILGARTNER: Well, there's the ancient axiom that says if you go into the conclave as pope, you come back out as cardinal. So, and I think --

O'BRIEN: People definitely are political about it.

HILGARTNER: There are some people and there are obvious front- runners. The cardinals read the papers and they watch the media. They know that they're being talked about. But at the same time, I think even Cardinal Turkson's comment about recognizing the gravity of the job is that it's not anything that anybody really would aspire to when they think about it in all seriousness --

MATT MILLER, WASHINGTON POST COLUMNIST: Two-thirds vote, right? When we were talking before, so it's a little bit like the U.S. Senate you got to get that supermajority and there's, you know, various machinations that can go on.

O'BRIEN: -- hearing our budget stories. Forget it if it's like the U.S. Senate.

BECK: Look, let's face it. The politicking does not happen in any kind of public way, but indeed, it happens. These cardinals eat together. They imbibe together at night. They have their conversations in their private coteries and so, of course, they're talking about it. However, we do believe that the Holy Spirit has some say in this.

O'BRIEN: We'll be watching the cardinals and the Holy Spirit, too, to all get a little insight.

Something surreal about papal punditry --

(CROSSTALK)

O'BRIEN: All right. Still ahead this morning, we're going to be talking to California congressman, Xavier Becerra, weighing in on those looming spending cuts. We'll go back to that comment about this is like the Congress. What's going on really behind closed doors? We'll take a look at that straight ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody. Could there be progress behind the scenes in Washington, D.C.? One day until those forced spending cuts kick in, and there has been a change in tone. The president, last night, saying the cuts are serious but not all that serious.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

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

(END VIDEO CLIP) O'BRIEN: California representative, Xavier Becerra, is the chairman of the Democratic caucus. Nice to have you with us, sir. Great to see you again. So, what do you think? I mean, that tone is markedly different than what we've heard over the last days and weeks, frankly? Does this mean there's something going on behind the scenes that has not yet been reported that is an indication of the beginning of this ending?

REP. XAVIER BECERRA, (D) CALIFORNIA: I wish i could tell you that that is what we're seeing, but I don't think so. Here in the House of Representatives, the Republican leadership has told us that we're going to finish voting by midafternoon and we're not going to even stick around to do any voting tomorrow which is the final day of the deadline. So, we're going to be leaving town before the deadline without ever having been given a chance to vote on a bill.

We have a bill to offset the sequester on the Democratic side that would be balanced and fair, but we've not been given the opportunity or the right to put that on the floor for a vote --

O'BRIEN: And nobody thinks it would pass anyway. Let me ask Ryan Lizza a question. There's been a lot of conversation around this whole conversation, right?

RYAN LIZZA, WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, THE NEW YORKER: Yes.

O'BRIEN: Which is sort of who caused the sequester to go into place, anyway. Some say it was the president. Some say, no, in fact, it was Eric -- I mean, who?

LIZZA: Well, look, there's some joint responsibility here. I think you got to back up a little bit from where the conversation has been. So much of the conversation is who actually suggested the sequester first which is important. That's what Woodward has been focused. Back up, though, in 2011 and what started that conversation.

It was the failure of the grand bargain. And, you know, I've been talking about it this week because I have a piece out about Eric Cantor, and he told me that he talked to John Boehner out of taking the grand bargain in 2011 because he wanted to have it out with the president in the election, and hopefully, they would get a better deal with a President Romney.

(CROSSTALK)

LIZZA: So, that grand bargain failed, and then, they had to come up with this whole convoluted process of the sequester. And that's where -- the sequester was born after the grand bargain failed after Republicans didn't take that deal that Obama gave them. So, I think that's an important fact you've got to add to the conversation.

O'BRIEN: So, then, let's go back to the conversation with Congressman Becerra. What is the hope that, in fact, we're going to resolve? I don't have any hopes at all that it will be resolved in the next 24 hours, but before sort of the doom and gloom that people have been talking about kicks in, the 750,000 job that will be lost in all of 2013, before that happens, is it likely we're going to resolve this, do you think?

BECERRA: Well, I hope so, because we're seeing some good news coming out about the economy. We know that the sequester, if it goes forward as it is, will cost us 750,000 jobs. By the way, that doesn't count all the furloughs that will have to take place at the federal level within the federal government. And so, the last thing we want to do is put the brakes on the economic recovery, so we should come up with something.

The president said he's willing to negotiate. He has put forward a balanced plan that includes cuts. It also includes taking care of cutting some of these tax loopholes which are out there that only a few people benefit from. We should be able to come up with something, but it appears that this is now the new normal for Republican leadership to allow us to run the government in fits and starts.

O'BRIEN: This is the new normal for Congressional leadership, sir, with all due respect is to run everything to the edge.

BECERRA: Well, Soledad, no, no, let me correct you. We have a proposal. Democrats have a proposal in the House and in the Senate, but we haven't been even given a right to put that on --

O'BRIEN: There are many people who believe that proposal would fail, and the bottom line is the proposal we're talking about with 24 hours before we hit this deadline. So --

BECERRA: Let it fail then but let us have at least a vote. Why can't we have at least a vote in a democracy when you can't even have a vote? Let a majority shoot it down.

O'BRIEN: You guys have been running --

LIZZA: With all due respect, congressman, I don't remember Nancy Pelosi letting Republican legislation come to the floor whenever Republicans wanted something when they were in the minority, right?

(CROSSTALK)

BECERRA: -- but we're about to see 750,000 Americans lose their job, and to not even be given a chance --

O'BRIEN: It's going to happen over the year, right? Go ahead.

MILLER: Congressman, it's Matt Miller, how are you? Do you think in retrospect that it was a mistake for the president and the Democrats to extend 82 percent of the Bush tax cuts back on January 1st because it's that fact that, you know, the Democrats had campaigned against those tax cuts as being only benefiting the rich because all of them were extended the president needs to come back for more revenue now.

If he'd actually done a different deal then, we might be talking about what tax cuts we're doing as part of repealing the sequester.

O'BRIEN: Final word from the congressman on that. BECERRA: Right. Well, I voted against that fiscal cliff deal because of that, Matt. I knew that we needed to avoid this fit-and-start type of budgeting where we would manufacture more crises, the Republicans would manufacture more crises to be able to try to do with their -- fulfill their agenda.

And so, I voted against that bill thinking that we had a chance for a really good, big deal that would be balanced. We lost that opportunity.

O'BRIEN: Xavier Becerra is a Democrat from the State of California. Nice to have you, sir. Thank you for your time. We appreciate it.

BECERRA: Thank you.

O'BRIEN: We've got to take a break. Still ahead on STARTING POINT, a lot of schools are trying to help kids healthy, but is sending letters home saying you're fat the way to do that? We'll tell you that story coming up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody. Some brand new information this hour from the Vatican on just who will be picking the next pope. We've learned that 115 cardinals are eligible to vote.