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THE SITUATION ROOM
Thousands Retrieving Abandoned Cars; Interview with Nathan Deal; GOP Meets On Immigration; Boston Marathon Bombing Suspect to Face Death Penalty
Aired January 30, 2014 - 17:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GOV. NATHAN DEAL (R), GEORGIA: I'm the governor. The buck stops with me.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WOLF BLITZER, HOST: With thousands of cars still abandoned on Atlanta highways in the area, one official finally takes responsibility for the management mess that threw a major city into icy gridlock. I'll speak with the Georgia governor, Nathan Deal, his first interview with CNN.
Stand by for this.
And heading into football's biggest weekend, we have the extraordinary story of a high school football star who's accomplished amazing things despite being born without half his limbs. And wait until you hear the political twist to the story.
I'm Wolf Blitzer.
You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
We begin, though, with the breaking news. The Southeast under siege for a third day. And the city of Atlanta, at least chunks of it, still in some chaos. With bitter temperatures just starting to climb, the thousands who endured near day long trips home are now trying to retrieve their cars, their trucks, the cars and trucks they abandoned in snow and ice. Some 2,000 vehicles across metro Atlanta, hundreds of others in nearby states.
The National Guard in Georgia is assisting Atlanta commuters with that task. But just hours from now, towing will begin.
Meantime, an apology from Georgia's governor, Nathan Deal. He's taking full responsibility for the mess, vowing to do more to prevent it from happening again.
The governor is here.
He'll be joining us in THE SITUATION ROOM within -- just in a few minutes, his first interview with CNN since all of this began. Stand by. We'll talk to the governor.
But first, we want to get some background on what's going on.
Our Alina Machado is standing by in downtown Atlanta.
What's the latest -- Alina?
ALINA MACHADO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, most of the ice and the snow on the roads has melted and warmer weather is on the way. So that's some good news.
But questions about what happened and how this crisis was handled remain.
MACHADO (voice-over): Hundreds of cars are still stranded on highways and roads around Metro Atlanta, more than 48 hours after a winter storm dumped more than two inches of snow, crippling the area.
DEAL: I'm not going to look for a scapegoat. I'm the governor. The buck stops with me.
MACHADO: Georgia Governor Nathan Deal accepted responsibility Thursday, a day after he defended the state's initial response.
DEAL: Well, obviously, there were errors. But if you -- I think the mayor used a very descriptive term, it's like somebody blowed a whistle and everybody decided to leave at the same time. And that's exactly what happened. Whether or not, if we had blown the whistle a little earlier, could we have avoided that?
I don't know the answer to that.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Did you make the right call?
DEAL: Well, I think we did under the circumstances of what we knew at the time.
MACHADO: Some students, unable to get home, spent the night at area schools Tuesday. Highways became impassable, leaving thousands stranded. Governor Deal is now calling the state's response ahead of the storm inadequate. He says he'll work to make sure this never happens again.
DEAL: We will be more aggressive. We will take those weather warnings more seriously. And there will be, as a consequence of that, probably more occasions in which we will declare emergencies where the emergency will not manifest itself.
(END VIDEO TAPE)
MACHADO: The governor says they're working on an action plan for the next time a winter storm threatens the area.
Meanwhile, people will have until 9:00 Eastern to pick up their cars from where they ditched them on Tuesday -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Otherwise, they'll be towed and they'll have to worry about that.
All right, Alina, thanks very much.
Let's bring in Brian Todd now.
He's been digging deeper on how something like this could happen in a major American city, I think the ninth largest city in the United States.
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Right.
BLITZER: What are you learning?
TODD: Wolf, we've gotten this from top officials in Georgia, the statements that they're making, and from emergency management experts that we're speaking to.
Much of this disaster boiled down to timing -- timing of the misdeployment of salt trucks and other resources, and even before that, the timing of just when to shut things down.
TODD (voice-over): Abandoned cars are finally beginning to be cleared from roadways and Georgia's governor finally gives a clear answer on what went wrong.
DEAL: We did not make preparation early enough to avoid these consequences.
TODD: Experts say that's one critical thing the governor, the Atlanta mayor and others did not do. They didn't make the tough calls early enough.
DAVID PAULSON, FORMER FEMA DIRECTOR: To not have called to shut the schools down, to close the local government, to have businesses shut down obviously, in retrospect, was not a good decision. They should have done that early.
TODD: Former FEMA David Paulson replaced Michael Brown after the calamitous handling of the federal government's Hurricane Katrina response.
Why is it so tough to make those calls well ahead of a storm?
Experts say one reason, money.
DAVID MCINTYRE: Many school districts receive federal or state aid for every day the student is in a class. So cancel a day of school, you may cost a school district millions of dollars. That's not a decision to be taken lightly.
TODD: And then there's the cost of overreacting to a storm. MCINTYRE: You know, if you shut down a city like Atlanta or Houston or Mobile, Alabama and then the temperature stays a the 34 degrees, then you've spent a lot of money and everybody thinks you're an idiot.
TODD: But the political cost of not taking enough preemptive action is worse. Georgia's emergency management director got this backhanded endorsement of his performance.
DEAL: He has given 16 years of adequate and above adequate public service to our state.
(END VIDEO TAPE)
TODD: That came after the emergency management director's admission that he made a, quote, "terrible mistake" in not opening the emergency operations center early enough. Experts say these are especially tough calls to make in cities like Atlanta, that only get severe winter weather events once every few years -- Wolf.
BLITZER: And the timing involving the deployment of those salt trucks...
TODD: That's right.
BLITZER: -- to break up the ice, that was another major issue.
TODD: That's right. The governor says because they thought that the storm would hit much further south, they deployed many of the salt trucks further south. When they realized that they needed them in the greater Atlanta area, they turned them north, but those trucks did not arrive until the snowfall was well underway and the traffic had already started to get choked.
BLITZER: Brian Todd reporting for us.
Thanks very much.
A lot of important lessons to be learned from all of this, where we go from here.
Joining us now is the governor of Georgia, Nathan Deal.
Governor, thanks very much for coming in.
GOV. NATHAN DEAL (R), GEORGIA: Nice to be with you.
BLITZER: So let's look ahead and -- and try to understand some of the major problems that occurred, because, you know, when I heard there were two, two and a half inches of snow and ice in Atlanta, I couldn't believe the pictures we were seeing. And I'm sure you couldn't either.
So what -- what are some of the major lessons you've learned from this experience looking forward? DEAL: I think the major lesson is that we have to be more proactive at an earlier stage. Even though we had been led to believe that the majority of the storm would have been south of Atlanta, that prediction changed early in the morning of Tuesday morning. And it was important, I think, that we took it more seriously and made even more preemptive actions in terms of spreader trucks on the roadways and the de-icing.
Some of that did occur, but certainly not to the extent that later in the day became necessary.
BLITZER: Because that National Weather Service change in their forecast, going back, I think it occurred at around 3:38 a.m. So there presumably would have still been time to go ahead and cancel school that day, right?
DEAL: Well, the decision to cancel schools is not something that the governor has the authority to do.
DEAL: That is local...
BLITZER: Hold on a second...
DEAL: -- local school systems.
BLITZER: -- hold on, Governor. Hold on a second. I want you to get a little glass of water and swallow it and then your voice will be strong and we'll move on.
You have some water over there?
DEAL: I'm good.
BLITZER: OK, go ahead. So, you know, the decision -- you were saying the decision to close the schools, even though the National Weather Service changed their forecast at 3:38 a.m. You say what?
DEAL: Well, the decision to close schools is a decision by local school superintendents. Some of the school superintendents made the decision to do so. Most of those in the greater metropolitan area of Atlanta decided to go to school that day.
That obviously turned out to be a bad decision, but they were making the same decision that we had made at the state government level, the same decision that most businesspeople had made to allow their people to come to work.
So we all made errors of judgment.
I think the lesson to be learned is that we need to take action earlier and even if we are wrong in taking earlier action, it's probably better than not doing anything early enough.
BLITZER: Because you have to balance, as Brian Todd said, you have to balance the potential losses for those school districts if you close a day of school. And beyond that, if you close school for a lot of poorer kids who get their meals at school, if they're not going to have school that day, a lot of those kids are going to have trouble finding food to eat, isn't that right?
DEAL: That's true. And there are a lot of other consequences, as well. Of course, the consequences to businesses that depend on having access to their places of business and to have access for their employees to come to work, those have huge economic effects on the private community, as well.
BLITZER: Is Atlanta, the greater metropolitan area of Atlanta, ready for two and a half inches of snow and ice, in terms of plows and salting equipment, stuff like that?
DEAL: I think we have come a long way. As you may know, the last time we had a storm of this magnitude was in 2011. Actually, the storm on that occasion started on the Sunday night before I was inaugurated as governor on Monday morning.
So my first official act in office was to declare a state of emergency.
But having that one come on a weekend and at the evening hours, we were able to predict and tell school systems, obviously, not to open. But we didn't have that happen this year. It happened just shortly after noon on Tuesday. So the timing of it made it even more difficult.
And everybody started trying to leave town at the same time. And we have a lot of traffic on the interstates and the connectors to the interstate all around the greater Atlanta area. We have a lot of tractor-trailer traffic coming down our interstates and up our interstates and circling our city on...
BLITZER: All right...
DEAL: -- I-285.
BLITZER: All right, so let's go through some of the -- some of the problems that did develop, looking ahead, trying to make sure that we learn from these lessons.
The National Guard -- at what point did you, as the governor, decide that you wanted to activate the National Guard to help all these stranded folks out there?
DEAL: Well, our first decision was relating to the thing we thought was the most important, and that was the safety of schoolchildren. We activated the National -- National Guard. We activated the ad -- the services of our Georgia State Patrol. Schoolchildren were being taken off of school buses or buses were being escorted so that they could get either back to the school or complete the delivery of those children on their routes.
Our public safety concerns at that point were the safety of the children. And even though some children had to stay in their schools overnight, we had law enforcement personnel there and we have had no reports of any inappropriate activities...
BLITZER: Because, as you know...
DEAL: -- that occurred.
BLITZER: -- as you know, Governor, the National Guard, I don't think they really got involved until around midnight that night. The pictures that were coming in in the mid-afternoon, they were pretty horrendous, right?
DEAL: They were. It started, as I said, it started shortly after noon on Tuesday and got progressively worse during the afternoon. But the gridlock started fairly quickly. We did ask the National Guard to continue their efforts in trying to assist motorists. But the reality was that the interstates were simply at a standstill.
Now, since that time, what we have asked them to do is not only did they help escort school buses to get them out of the traffic, but today, and -- and yesterday, they have been assisted in trying to get people who abandoned their vehicles back to those vehicles.
Most of the interstates, in fact, I guess, all of the interstates are now fairly clear and many people's cars can be moved if we can get them back to their vehicles. So that's been a major focus today.
It is our intention that by tomorrow morning, there will not be any vehicles on our interstates or any way associated with blocking access to our interstates. We think that is an achievable goal.
BLITZER: I've got to tell you, Governor, when we heard stories -- you know, and we have a lot of colleagues at CNN, at CNN Center, where you are right now, and some of my producers were telling me it took them eight, 10, 12 hours to get -- to get home. And it would normally take a half an hour, maybe an hour, if that. And they were stranded and stranded.
You must have seen those pictures, heard all about that going on on Tuesday, as well.
DEAL: I did. And we recognized that at some point, we could not get all of them free to be able to drive clear. So we asked the National Guard to use their reserve supplies and to contact every vehicle that was stranded to see if they wanted to leave their vehicle, if they needed water or food or blankets. We tried to do everything under those circumstances that we could.
Many people did decide to leave their vehicles. Others decided to stay with their vehicles.
But under any circumstances, that long delay and a stalling of traffic was hard on everybody. And it is for that that I am most apologizing, because I don't want that to happen to any of our citizens. BLITZER: And there were a couple of technical problems, as well, that exacerbated the situation. Folks were reporting they were calling 911. They couldn't get through.
You've heard of those complaints, right?
DEAL: I have heard of some of those complaints. Most of those, of course, were going to local emergency management areas by people who were calling. They were calling the governor's mansion. And we were trying to do everything possible.
We actually sent one of the troopers who was in the vicinity of the governor's mansion to take a mother with a young four month old child and get them out of the traffic and get them to safety.
So it -- people did the kinds of things that you would expect good Georgians to do, and that is look after their neighbors and look after their fellow drivers.
BLITZER: You apologized today forthrightly at your news conference earlier today. Some people are criticizing you, though, saying what took so long?
DEAL: For the apology?
DEAL: I actually apologized the -- the first day. And, you know, apologies are something that don't change the circumstances. What we intend to do is to change the circumstances, so in the event such as a similar event occurs in the future, that we will react earlier and that we will have the resources to be able to make an effective dent in that problem.
BLITZER: Are you going to fire anyone?
DEAL: I think it's way too early to be talking about firing anybody. I don't look for scapegoats. As I said earlier today, I think it's important that we identify what the problems are. We've already had a meeting with our major agency heads and we've asked the question of them, what would you do differently?
What do we need to do better?
And how do we go about making sure that we fill all of the holes for future endeavors?
BLITZER: Your Georgia emergency management director, he was very, very blunt. He admitted he made some major blunders. Later, you said he was adequate. His, over the years, his repu -- his history as the director was adequate and above adequate, which some are suggesting was less than an endorsement of his work.
DEAL: Well, he acknowledged, and I concur in his acknowledgement, that the information and the advice that we received from our Georgia emergency management agency was not appropriate. It was not timed early enough. We were asking questions from the governor's office starting that morning and we were wanting to take further action.
We were being told that further action was not necessary at that time, although about 10:00, I did issue the order as it relates to state employees, to say that they were on liberal leave policy and if it appeared to them that they needed to leave at that time, they should do so.
We had many of our state employees who did so.
BLITZER: Do you think he'll keep his job?
DEAL: You know, it's not appropriate for me to talk about that at this point in time. I am more concerned about asking him to come up with an action plan in the future that would avoid a repeat of these circumstances.
BLITZER: One of the problems that I discern -- I'm not an expert on Atlanta, by any means -- there are so many different constituencies, jurisdictions, if you will, the mayor of Atlanta, Kasim Reed, what do you think?
How did he do?
DEAL: Oh, I think he did as well as he could under the circumstances. He was faced with the same situation that I was faced with. I thank him and I thank his people for working cooperatively with their counterparts at the state level. We were all doing everything possible to alleviate the problems that existed.
And those problems have, for most purposes, been completely removed, although there are still stalled vehicles and abandoned vehicles on some of the arteries leading to our interstates. That will be the next outreach beyond just simply clearing the roads and the side of an interstate. These arterial roads are the focus, as well, now.
And that's what both the city of Atlanta, as well as the state of Georgia, will be concentrating on.
BLITZER: A lot of other governors, a lot of other mayors are going to be studying what happened over the past few days in Atlanta, in the greater metropolitan area, because they want to learn lessons. They want to make sure this never ever happens again.
If -- and we're all smarter, obviously, with hindsight.
If you had a do-over, what would you have done differently?
DEAL: I think what we would have done differently is that we would have declared a state of emergency earlier in the morning.
BLITZER: That Tuesday morning, you mean?
DEAL: That Tuesday morning I'm speaking of, that's correct.
BLITZER: Like shortly after the weather forecast changed at 3:38 a.m.?
DEAL: Yes, but even after that point in time, we were still receiving messages that maybe all it was going to be was just a simple dusting and maybe up to an inch of accumulation in metro Atlanta.
Obviously, it was not a dusting, it was more than an inch, about a two inches to two and a half inches, and came within a very short window, which also made it more difficult to deal with.
BLITZER: How much of a wakeup call has this been for your state?
DEAL: I think it's been a big wakeup call. I think it is going to cause all of us to be more aggressive in terms of declaring states of emergency, in terms of deploying our emergency personnel, especially with our department of transportation. They had done some preliminary treating of the bridges and the overpasses that morning, but even that did not prove to be totally effective, because the temperatures were so low that when the melting occurred, refreezing followed it very quickly.
So it would have had to have been an ongoing treatment of the roads. And once the roads became clogged, we could not even get our D.O.T. trucks to be able to move through the traffic in order to give further salt and sand and other solutions to be applied to the roads. It was just totally at a standstill.
BLITZER: You're up for re-election this year. Are you going to run?
DEAL: Yes, I am.
BLITZER: And the major message you're going to tell voters out there as far as this incident is concerned is?
DEAL: That we had learned a lesson from this. We will be better prepared. And I think that we have responded appropriately. We got every child home as of yesterday. They did have some of the children that spent the night, on Tuesday night in their schools.
We had enough law enforcement present that there were no adverse reports of any problems from their staying there, but a lot of apprehension, as you can imagine, from parents and other family members about the safety of their children. We tried to make sure that they could be assured that their children were safe and they were.
We also, I think, have done a good job now of reuniting people who left their cars back to their vehicles so that they can, on their own, be able to get them and return them back home. That's an ongoing effort as well.
BLITZER: You're reopening schools tomorrow and you're hoping business is back to usual. Is that right? DEAL: Well, I don't think that we're going to see all of the schools reopening. No. In fact, the announcements that I have seen just recently indicate that most of them will remain closed tomorrow because there are still side streets where buses have to run that are difficult to navigate. So, I would anticipate that we will see most of the schools probably close again tomorrow.
BLITZER: And when do you think there would be -- all the schools will reopen?
DEAL: Well, I think they will be able to be reopened on Monday. The weather forecast is that tomorrow is going to be sunshiny and that the weekend will be much warmer and that will help us more than anything else in order to be able to clear the ice and remaining snow that's on the roadways.
BLITZER: Governor Deal, I know you've had your hands full. You've come out and you've taken responsibility. You've apologized to the people of Georgia. We thank you very much for joining us here on CNN.
DEAL: Thank you. Nice to be with you.
BLITZER: And good luck to all the folks in Georgia. This has been an awful, awful ordeal for so many folks. But, it's important that we all learn lessons from this. Other communities are certainly going to want to hear some of those lessons to make sure they don't repeat some of these mistakes. Governor Nathan Deal of Georgia, thank you.
DEAL: Yes, sir. Thank you.
BLITZER: Coming up, Republicans huddle at a winter retreat not to keep warm but to come up with a strategy on immigration reform. We have new details.
Also coming up, going into Super Bowl weekend. The amazing story of a high school football star who's accomplishing extraordinary things despite being born without half his limbs and there's an amazing political twist to this story.
BLITZER: Happening now, a big huddle of House Republicans. New details on their struggle to come up with a strategy on immigration reform. Our chief Congressional correspondent, Dana Bash, is over at the winter meeting of Republican leadership in Maryland right now. Dana, what's going on?
DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: What's going on is that House Republican leaders are trying to convince their rank and file to be the party of alternative, no longer the party of opposition. And on immigration reform, many fear that their opposition to that has hurt the party in general.
(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) BASH (voice-over): A three-day GOP retreat along the icy waters of Maryland's Chesapeake Bay where House Republican leaders are pushing members to thread on slippery political terrain, immigration reform.
REP. JOHN BOEHNER, (R) HOUSE SPEAKER: It's been turned into a political football. I think it's unfair. So, I think it's time to deal with it.
BASH: House GOP leaders are proposing legal status for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants, not to oath citizenship the Senate approved last year. CNN is told it would not bar eventual citizenship for those who qualify under existing employment and family-based categories. None of that would be allowed until a slew of criteria are met, primarily, on boarder security.
REP. PAUL RYAN, (R) WISCONSIN: Get people right with the law without producing amnesty or some special pathway.
BASH: But GOP leaders are encountering significant resistance from within the ranks, first, what they expected, conservatives who disagree with the policy.
Do you believe that they should get legal status?
REP. STEVE SCALISE, (R) LOUISIANA: If you do say that somebody right now that's here illegally can jump ahead of somebody who's waiting in that line, I think that those create problems for the people who are playing by the rules to come here legally.
BASH: But Republican sources tell CNN there is broader reluctance to pushing immigration reform this election year than GOP leaders anticipated, concern that it divides Republicans when they want to stay united on their top issue, fighting Obamacare. Still, others tell us that's short-sided.
REP. AARON SCHOCK, (R) ILLINOIS: We shouldn't waste the next eight months and refuse to start tackling this issue.
BASH: whether Republicans can end this retreat with consensus on how to tackle that issue, Wolf, is an open question. If they do, then there's the question of timing. One thing they're discussing is waiting to do any of this until after this year's primary season to protect their conservatives from challenges from the right -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Dana is over in Cambridge, Maryland at this Republican retreat. Thanks very much, Dana, for that.
Coming up, federal prosecutors will seek the death penalty for the surviving suspect in the Boston marathon bombings. I'll speak with the mother of two of those bombing survivors. We'll get her reaction.
And we're also digging into the bill that's causing a huge controversy costing almost one trillion of your tax dollars over the next decade. How much of that may be wasted money?
BLITZER: The surviving Boston marathon bomb suspect could face the death penalty. The attorney general Eric Holder has clear the way saying Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's actions were quote "especially heinous, cruel and depraved." Three people were killed, more than 200 were injured including brothers JP and Paul Norden who each lost a leg in the attack. Their mother, Liz Norden is joining us on the phone right now.
When you heard the attorney general, Liz, say that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev could face the death penalty, what went through your mind?
LIZ NORDEN, MOTHER OF BOMBING VICTIMS (via phone): You know, we leave that it I is, you know, someone is forward in the right direction, one step forward in the recovery process. It's just -- the option is out there on the table for the jurors, that's the way it goes.
BLITZER: How are your boys doing?
NORDEN: You know, they are doing amazing. They are doing OK. They, you know, have accepted what has happened and they are strictly and only focused on their recovery and that's all they focus on. For me, you know, I'm sad by it all. I feel bad for them. Their lives have changed. Our family life has changed. And so, for me in the recovery process, I'm hoping that, you know, this step forward is, you know, going forward it will be -- I'm not even sure. It's kind of -- I don't know.
BLITZER: You would have been disappointed if they would have just sought life in prison, for example, instead of the death sentence? Is that what you're saying?
NORDEN: I'm just glad and I support the decision. And I'm glad it's there on the option. The option is there for the jurors to decide.
BLITZER: And you say you want to be in court every single day of that trial. Is that right?
BLITZER: Tell us why.
NORDEN: I just think it's important for me -- I'm trying to make sense of what happened that day. My boys went to watch a friend run the marathon. And one came home five to six days later and the other 32 days later. And their lives are forever changed. So, I want to try to find out somehow make sense of how somebody could do this to all of these people.
BLITZER: Are they going to come with you, your sons?
NORDEN: No. BLITZER: But you'll be there to watch every step of the way. It's an emotional story I'm sure, for everyone, even now, obviously. The pain really never goes away what happened that day. Is that right?
NORDEN: It doesn't for me. I mean, I watch my sons and it's sad. I mean, their lives have changed. You know, it's just -- and they are OK with it. They have learned to accept it but I can't. I can't. You know, those are my kids and they went to watch a marathon on the streets of Boston and it shouldn't have happened.
BLITZER: Do you have any understanding at all why this happened? Any motivation that these two brothers that they may have had, one is dead, the other one now facing the death sentence if convicted?
NORDEN: I don't, which is why I'm hoping that, you know, maybe in some form of, you know, I'm trying to make sense of it. I don't know if I'll ever understand. But maybe in some way of following the process through and seeing what kind of a person he was or I don't know. I mean, but for me I think it's important and I will be there every day.
BLITZER: Well, Miss Liz Norden, thanks so much for joining us. Give our love to your two sons, to everyone there in the Boston area. Our hearts go out to all of you. Appreciate you joining us for a few minutes.
NORDEN: Thank you so much. Thank you.
BLITZER: Thank you.
And coming up, your taxpayer dollars funding research on Christmas trees. It's just one controversial provision on the farm bill. And you won't believe the other things that the government is spending your money on.
Plus, a truly amazing story, it's one of the best high school kickers in the country right now and he has no arms. You're going to see why he doesn't let anyone call his disabled.
BLITZER: It's called the farm bill but it impacts every American. The 2014 bill is causing a huge controversy right now. It's costing almost one trillion of your tax dollars over the next decade.
Our senior Washington correspondent Joe Johns is working the story for us.
So Joe, why the uproar over the new farm bill?
JOE JOHNS, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well Wolf, first of all, it's a humungous bill, $100 million a year over ten years, it basically the bill that gives taxpayer dollars to the farm industry. Is you just look at the headline, you may think Congress is reforming the way it does business because the bill gets rid of direct payments to farmers which has been discredited for years. But if you look a little closer, what Congress is taking away with one hand, they are giving back in the form of crop insurance and a lot of it benefits the richest farming interest and not the little guys, according to the watchdog groups that follow this stuff, Wolf.
BLITZER: Isn't it easier to adjust crop insurance for farmers than just giving them direct payments? At least it looks better, right?
JOHNS: OK. That's the logic. But the devil is in the details. Here's some examples singled out by the nonpartisan watchdog group, Taxpayers for Common Sense.
Item one is sushi rice. Making the taxpayers prop up the sushi rice business. The bill guaranteed prices for growers of the rice. The government is guarantees 115 percent of the market price for the product. Cat fish farming, the government is ensuring that catfish farmers earn a profit every year in states like Mississippi and Arkansas. Pennycress, does anybody even know what pennycress is? It's a weed that depletes the soil, but in the bill it's now a crop to receive crop insurance subsidies because there is hope it could be the next big bio-fuel. And Christmas trees. A bill like this in Congress is often labeled a Christmas tree because there are so many unusual things attached to it. But in this bill there's an actual Christmas tree provision, an industry funded promotion research and information program for fresh cut Christmas trees --Wolf.
BLITZER: Who doesn't like Christmas trees? Everyone likes Christmas trees. The government now is still picking winners and losers in the farm business with this bill, a sort of like the old days?
JOHNS: In a way, yes. According to the environmental working group which tracks form and policies, the big losers in the bill are recipients of the food stamp program, which has trimmed only slightly and smaller time family farmers who can't compete with the big farming interest which, of course, make out big in the bill. "The Washington Post" editorial page called on the president to veto it today but the White House suggests he will sign it if it reaches his desk.
BLITZER: A little more legislative process to go through.
Joe, thanks for that background.
Let's get some more now with our CNN Capitol Hill reporter, Lisa Desjardin, Steve Ellis, the taxpayer of the group Taxpayers for Common Sense, and Chandler Goule of the National Farmers Union.
Lisa, how much this bill -- why is this so important? We just heard background, but you've been studying it.
LISA DESJARDIN, CNN CAPITOL HILL REPORTER: This bill affects what we eat, what the prices are for most things in the grocery store that are essential. Joe hit on it. It is not that it just it picks winners and losers, Wolf. But it picks winners and loser based on 1932 version of what was important. So, just a handful of crops are getting subsidies here I think like wheat. That's great. We all need bread. But let's think about corn. That's one of the few that are getting subsidies and that's is the reason that things like high- fructose corn syrup are so cheap so troubling our process food, most people say, it's not good for us.
On the other hand, one other thing, we need to know what is in our food. This bill takes a line on an important style for labeling says we need to know where our meat was born, where it was slaughtered, and where it was processed. That's an important step in this bill.
BLITZER: I've been watching, Steve, long enough that any almost any big piece of legislation, you're always going to find some junk in there, shall we say, stuff that isn't worth taxpayer dollars. But let's talk about sushi rice, Christmas trees, some of the stuff that we just heard Joe report. How wasteful is this bill?
STEVE ELLIS, TAXPAYERS FOR COMMON SENSE: Well, you're talking about a nearly trillion dollar bill as you indicated and while people are talking about cutting these direct payments, you know, which is about basically $40 billion over the ten years, a little more than that, they are plowing a lot of that into crop insurance subsidies as Joe indicated. And some of it is not just the small board things. We're talking about provisions that are going to guarantee farmers up to 90 percent of their revenue from year-to-year.
Well, what American wouldn't have wanted a policy like that in the past few years with the way the economy has gone and there's provisions where they actually cut it in the bill, like the sheep improvement center and then it was voted on a house floor and eliminated million dollars of that and came back in the conference with $1.5 million.
BLITZER: Yes. That goes out of Washington all the time.
You represent the farmers, Chandler, a lot of folks look at this and say, you know what, at a time when we've got to cut back, isn't there a lot of waste in this bill?
CHANDLER GOULE, NATIONAL FARMERS UNION: You know, this is actually a very good bill, though. I think one of the key points that we've just left out is that it saves $23 billion in deficit reduction over the next ten years. And because of the program in this bill, it affords every American the ability to own seven percent of their disposable income on food purchases compared to other countries like France where it's 14 percent or even double that. And then as Lisa has just mentioned, it also maintains very important consumer rights to know the provisions country were generated (ph).
Lisa, a lot of people don't realize that almost 15 million Americans rely on food stamps. And the food stamp program is part of this farm bill. It's going to be trim somewhat. How serious is that problem? DESJARDIN: Right. There are people who once this bill is enacted and we expect it to put likely to be enacted, they will see $90 less in food stamps on their table every month. The thing about that though is the way they did is a little complicated jujitsu on Capitol Hill, that cut will only happen in 16 states in the District of Columbia as part of the compromise. But for those people who are affected, that is a very big deal.
BLITZER: How big a deal it is? Because I'm worried about the people who need this food to survive.
ELLIS: Well, I mean, it's kind of ironic that in the final score of the CBO, it is $16.6 billion saving, half of that being borne by the food stamp recipients. And not only that, two-thirds of the savings is in the second five years of the bill or after the bill is passed. And so we're looking at, you know, still a very costly program and --
BLITZER: Can't we find better ways to find money than food stamps?
GOULE: You know, when you look at the amount of the 79 percent of the bill is food stamps, the farmer union came out and supported the way of the senate did the bill with four billion in cuts, but eliminating the direct payments and by streamlining many of the programs, that's where we come up with the 23 billion in deficit reduction.
DESJARDIN: These guys actually were for lower cuts. These guys want as much cuts, I think, in some ways and cut the deficit as you want. But the truth is obviously, they've got to come from somewhere and to struck these bargain.
BLITZER: Presumably more will be joining those ranks.
All right, guys, thanks very much.
Coming up, a star player with no arms. His story is as inspiring it is amazing. You are going to meet him when we come back.
BLITZER: As we head into super bowl weekend, we have an amazing story where football and politics intersect. The extraordinary achievements of a high school football star who was born without half his limbs but isn't letting that limit him. The things he's accomplishing on and off the field give us all some new perspective. This being Washington, there's also a striking political twist to this tale.
CNN's Poppy Harlow is here in the SITUATION ROOM with this story.
Poppy, tell our viewers what you learned.
POPPY HARLOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, there is a twist. And you are going to have to wait till the end to see that, hint, think presidents. But you know, when it comes to Isaac Lufkin, he's a remarkable and frankly a fearless 14-year-old tackling huge challenges on and off the field with what I would call absolute grace.
HARLOW (voice-over): There's a lot more to this kick and a lot more to Isaac Lufkin than his winning field goals.
ISAAC LUFKIN, FOOTBALL PLAYER: I want to play in the NFL. The Ravens or --
HARLOW: You want to keep wearing purple?
LUFKIN: Yes, purple.
HARLOW: He's still riding high from an undefeated season and the freshman football state title. He led his division in on-side kick recoveries this year. Remarkable considering this is what Isaac goes through just to suit up.
You don't want anyone's pity.
LUFKIN: No, I don't like pity. Pity just makes me weaker.
HARLOW: He means it.
LUFKIN: It makes me feel like I can't do it. If I drop my bag pack and someone helps me and pick it up, I drop it again and I pick it back because if I can't do it, no one else can do it sooner or later.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: For me, I see him put on his football jersey and I'm just filled with pride because he's my little football star.
HARLOW: There's no question Isaac has overcome an unimaginable challenge, moving beyond the arms he was born without to the perseverance he was born within.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Isaac Lufkin pulling in kick off --.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: As soon as he walked in, I pointed at him and said, you're our players kicker.
HARLOW: His potential was immediately obvious to classical high school athletic director, Bob Palazzo.
BOB PALAZZO, HIGH SCHOOL ATHLETIC DIRECTOR: I would not be the guy who would want to tell him he couldn't do something, put it that way.
HARLOW: What does he do for his teammates?
PALAZZO: I think he gives them hope. I mean, you see a guy with no arms strap up and put a helmet on and launch himself into a violent pile, you know, and get up and smile. HARLOW: Palazzo calls Isaac's knack for accuracy a skill that's tough to teach.
You want to do more than kick.
LUFKIN: Yes, I want to be a defensive lineman.
HARLOW: Hit people.
LUFKIN: Yes, hit people. They can't grab my arms, they can't grab my jersey. The only thing they can do is actually block, but I can still crawl under them. And then it's not like they can sit on me. They just got to let me through.
HARLOW: His determination was clear from the beginning. This is Isaac learning how to dress himself.
LUFKIN: I give up.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, don't give up. There you go. Very good.
HARLOW: Here he is throwing a football as a toddler with his shoulder.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He never gave up. It wasn't easy for him. But he never gave up.
HARLOW: Is he disabled?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No, I don't find him disabled at all. And I never looked at him that way. I always knew the sky was the limit.
HARLOW: Today, Isaac can do nearly anything on his own. Eggs sunny side up, no problem. High five. That's awesome.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He's not always going to have somebody there to do everything for him, so that was my greatest gift to him, was to be independent.
HARLOW: He's learned how to do remarkable things with his feet -- eating ice cream, playing the keyboard, even video games. As a child, Isaac navigated the world with his toes. Now in high school, he has also learned to use his chin, shoulder and what he calls his stub. There have been bullies.
LUFKIN: This one kid, he just wouldn't stop. He's whack me in the back of the head with notebooks, shove me on to the ground, then he would laugh at me then take my sleeves and tie them around my throat.
HARLOW: But football and his killer on-side kick have brought a new sense of pride and acceptance.
Some say you're like a secret weapon on the team. Is that true?
LUFKIN: Yes, it's because at first I do my on-side kick, I'll run up to a guy and he'll have to block me and he'll fly backwards like I'm easy to block. And then the second time around, I'll just juke him and I will go hit a guy and he won't expect it so he won't block me, and then I get him at his weakest point.
HARLOW: What do you think you have you done for the football team this year?
LUFKIN: Now, they can't be lazy. Because now they have been no matter what, they have new excuse not to show up to practice, they have no excuse not to catch the ball or throw the ball or run the ball and block. Because if I can kick a ball and set it up and do my own thing, they can do their own thing.
HARLOW: In what maybe even more astonishing, Isaac is not the first armless kicker at classical. Exactly 50 years ago in 1963, Chris Shuman led the classical varsity football team to the state championship title prompting President Kennedy to send him this letter.
It's his example that has opened the door for Isaac to dream big.
LUFKIN: I want to see if we can go undefeated for four years straight.
HARLOW: Is he destined for greatness in one way or another?
PALAZZO: I think he's already achieved it. He's overcome things that I don't know if I could overcome. And he's managed to bring our whole program to another level.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I knew it before he was born, and he will be great. And he will be everything that everybody said he wasn't going to be.
HARLOW: And in so many ways, he already is.
HARLOW: He absolutely is. Hats off to you, Isaac.
And Wolf, you know, I was just so happy to see he could get beyond the bullies, through all of that. He's so well liked. He's so popular at his school. People love him. And he brings something that no one else can bring, to his team, to his classmates, to his family. He's a remarkable young man.
BLITZER: Amazing, 1963 President Kennedy sent a letter to another armless kid at that same --
HARLOW: At the same high school that also won the state championship that year.
BLITZER: I'm hoping our friends at the White House are watching right now because you know what president Obama needs to do.
HARLOW: Right, right. You know, I hope they're watching as well. And we really are going to make sure the two of them get to meet the two armless kickers because Chris Shuman, the kicker in 1963 said it was that letter from President Kennedy that made him moved here to D.C. joined the public sector. He's been working for the government for 41 years.
And he said to me today the story about Isaac brought back a flood of memories. So, we're going to make sure the two of them get to meet.
BLITZER: They should get together. And I suspect President Obama will follow in President Kennedy's footsteps.
HARLOW: We shall see. We will be watching.
BLITZER: Absolutely. Thanks so much.
HARLOW: Thanks, Wolf.