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Tax Plan Approved, But Shutdown Looms; U.N. Showdown Over Jerusalem; Virginia House Balance of Power in Limbo. Aired 4-4:30a ET

Aired December 21, 2017 - 04:00   ET


[04:00:18] CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: This is what victory looks like. Republicans celebrate passage of an historic tax overhaul. The celebration may be cut short if the GOP can't approve a spending plan to keep the government open by tomorrow night.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, we're watching those votes. Let them vote against us. We'll save a lot. We don't care.


DAVE BRIGGS, CNN ANCHOR: President Trump with a veiled threat to world leaders as the U.N. prepares for a showdown vote over Jerusalem.

ROMANS: And how do you pick a winner in a tight election? Wait until you hear how Virginia will determine balance of power in that bellwether state.

Good morning, and welcome to EARLY START. I'm Christine Romans.

BRIGGS: I'm Dave Briggs.

This just in, Joe Biden has finally stopped praising the president. I think he had to sleep at some point, so it's just now came to a close.

Thursday, December 21st, 4:00 a.m. in the East, 6:00 p.m. in Seoul, it's 11:00 a.m. in Jerusalem. We'll check in there shortly.

We start, though, the Republicans taking a victory lap for passing their tax reform, tax cut bill, which now just awaits the president's signature, but in touting the bill as a huge tax cut, the president himself made what could be a serious tactical error, admitting the measure was just as much about gutting Obamacare.


TRUMP: The individual mandate is being repealed. So in this bill, not only do we have massive tax cuts and tax reform, we have essentially repealed Obamacare.

We didn't want to bring it up. I told people specifically, be quiet with the fake news media because I don't want them talking too much about it, because I didn't know how people would -- but now that it's approved, I can say, the individual mandate has been repealed.


ROMANS: It is important to note, Obamacare has not been repealed. Those GOP efforts failed this year. It is the individual mandate that has been repealed, stuck in this tax bill, and it may destabilize Obamacare by reducing the incentive for young, healthy people to buy insurance.

The Congressional Budget Office has said repealing just the individual mandate will likely raise premiums to help cover older, sicker people, but it will also save the government money as people drop out of the subsidized Obamacare marketplaces.

BRIGGS: By admitting the tax bill was a vehicle for hurting Obamacare, the president also handed Democrats potentially a powerful talking point for 2018. None of that got in the way of the Republicans' lovefest yesterday, one which I misquoted, saying Joe Biden was praising the president. That, of course, was the man you see there, Mike Pence.

Even with funding for the government set to run out tomorrow, for the latest, let's bring in CNN's Abby Philip from the White House.


ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Christine and Dave, the president and Republicans were jubilant at the White House with the passage of the first major legislative victory of his administration. The president talked a lot about the corporate tax rate going down and the money that will be coming back home from overseas.

But Republicans had nothing but praise for him and his leadership, getting them over the finish line on this bill.

Take a listen.

REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: Something this profound could not have been done without exquisite presidential leadership.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MAJORITY LEADER: This has been a year of extraordinary accomplishment for the Trump administration.

SEN. ORRIN HATCH (R), UTAH: And we're going to make this the greatest presidency that we've seen not only in generation generations, but maybe ever.

MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: President Donald Trump delivered a great victory for the American people.

TRUMP: All friends, I mean, I look at these people, it's like we're warriors together.

PHILLIP: But the battle for Republicans may still be ahead with just a third of Americans supporting the tax bill that they just passed, and about 66 percent of Americans say that the middle class will not benefit as much as the wealthy.

The White House is fully aware that they have a little bit more work to do to sell this bill, Christine and Dave. That's going to be next on the agenda for President Trump.


ROMANS: All right. Abby, thank you.

The president has yet to sign that tax bill, but companies wasted no time announcing plans to pass some of their big tax savings to their employees. Supporting the claim that corporate tax cuts will help workers. The bill cuts the corporate rate to 21 percent from 35 percent. Two banks, Wells Fargo and Fifth Third, say they will hike their minimum wages to $15 an hour. Comcast and AT&T promised $1,000 bonuses to more than 300,000 employees.

Banks and telecoms will be two of the biggest winners of a lower tax rate. Both industries pay high effective tax rates. Banks alone could see their profits jump maybe 25 percent.

While AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson praised the bill in a statement, congratulating both Congress and the president, AT&T is currently being sued by the government to block its takeover of Time Warner, the parent company of CNN.

[04:05:04] Corporate America will benefit from tax cuts along with other policies of the pro-business Trump administration, like cutting regulations. When announcing its bonus, Comcast mentioned both the tax cut and the FCC's repeal of "net neutrality" and boosting military spending. Boeing plans to invest $300 million on worker training and updating facilities.

BRIGGS: You mentioned a lot of companies there. Are you surprised by that?

ROMANS: I was surprised by how quickly and I'll tell you something --

BRIGGS: Not a lot of CEOs raised their hands a few weeks ago.

ROMANS: No, and they said they would -- the assumption would be that much of the savings would go to shareholders and investors. To see those companies so quickly come out and say they would be giving $1,000 bonuses to their workers I think was really interesting.

You know, the critics would say, oh, those are the PR departments trying to stay in the good graces of the Republican-led Congress and the president --

BRIGGS: Sure, but --

ROMANS: But for those workers, it's real money.

BRIGGS: That's a big deal, to quote Joe Biden. Accurately this time.

Less than 48 hours before funding runs dry and the federal government shuts down and no deal in sight, House Republicans frustrated after a closed-door meeting last night, members giving widely differing accounts of a proposal that's being cobbled together to keep the government running past midnight Friday. One of especially thorny issues, whether to add to a stop-gap bill a three-week extension of the mass surveillance program that collects intelligence on non U.S. citizens.

ROMANS: Looming on the Senate side, the GOP's failure to deliver for Susan Collins. The Maine Republican received assurances from majority leader Mitch McConnell that she would get a vote on two Obamacare stabilization bills in exchange for her yes vote on the tax bill, which repealed, of course, the individual mandate, but Congress will leave town for the holidays without voting on Obamacare funding.

BRIGGS: For the Republicans, the afterglow of the tax reform victory could wear off if they don't pass a spending plan. A new CNN poll shows voters prefer Democrats by an 18-point margin heading into the 2018 midterms.

ROMANS: All right, a blunt warning to President Trump from the top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee -- don't fire Robert Mueller. Mark Warner of Virginia launching a preemptive strike. He's calling on Congress to respond with significant consequences if the president does try to neutralize the special prosecutor.


SEN. MARK WARNER (D), VIRGINIA: Any attempt by this president to remove special counsel Mueller from his position or shut down the investigation would be a gross abuse of power and a flagrant violation of executive branch's responsibilities and authorities.


BRIGGS: White House counsel Ty Cobb responding to Warner's warning, telling CNN no consideration is being given to firing Mueller. He adds: If the media is going to continue to ask for responses to every absurd and baseless rumor, attention-seeking partisans will continue to spread them.

Mueller is facing a growing number of Republicans who claim there is an anti-Trump bias in his Russia investigation.

ROMANS: This morning, the U.N. General Assembly votes on a resolution rejecting President Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. And the administration says it will remember which countries oppose the U.S. position.

America's U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley writing her fellow ambassadors to say she and the president will be carefully monitoring their votes and taking them personally.

BRIGGS: That follows this tweet from Haley on Tuesday: when we make a decision at the will of the American people about where to locate our embassy, we don't expect those we've helped to target us. The U.S. will be taking names. President Trump pushing it one step further, warning financial assistance to nations could be cut off if they vote against the U.S. position.


TRUMP: Well, we're watching those votes. Let them vote against us. We'll save a lot. We don't care.

But this isn't like it used to be where they could vote against you and then you pay them hundreds of millions of dollars and nobody knows what they're doing, and we're not going to be taken advantage of any longer.


BRIGGS: Let's go live to Jerusalem and bring in CNN's Oren Liebermann.

Oren, good morning to you. What's next here?

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, President Donald Trump's threat there, whether he carries it through or not, isn't expected to change many votes. And if you want to get a sense of what this vote could end up being in the 183-member United Nations General Assembly, look at a vote a couple days ago on Palestinian self determination. That was 126 in favor, 7 against. Israel and the U.S. standing together in that voting against or abstention, but that's the kind of majority this could pass with, condemning or trying to nullify President Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

It is non binding, so even if it passes unanimously, it doesn't actually change or affect Trump's recognition in any way, but it is a stinging rebuke of U.S. foreign policy from the rest of the world. And because this is held under an emergency meeting or a special session of the United Nations general assembly, it's considered even more of a rebuke.

But President Trump and U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley have basically made it clear they don't care and they're going through with this anyway.

[04:10:03] Haley made it clear in the U.N. Security Council vote where she said she was happy to cast that veto, and it's the other nations that should be ashamed of what they did in voting for that resolution trying to nullify Trump's recognition of Jerusalem.

Dave and Christine, as whether Trump means it when he says he's threatening foreign aid, on any other president, you would say he doesn't mean it. This one is a little harder to predict. We'll see what happens after the vote.

BRIGGS: Yes, a little harder to predict.

Oren Liebermann live for us, thank you, sir. ROMANS: All right. Another twist in the Virginia House race, leaving

the balance of power in limbo. Now, it basically comes down to the luck of the draw. A recount had given Democrat Shelly Simonds the victory by one vote over Republican David Yancey, but a three-judge panel has now declared one more valid vote for Yancey, so now the final tally is a tie with 11,608 votes each.

BRIGGS: Unbelievable. Virginia law says in the event of a tie, the election board will determine the winner by lot. The board of elections process involves, get this, printing out both candidates' names, cutting them into equal-sized sheets of paper, putting them into a container. The first name drawn would be declared the winner. Loser could then petition for another recount.

A victory for the Democrat would split control of the House of Delegates, a win for the Republican would mean the GOP maintains the majority. Quite a process.

Breaking overnight, more than a dozen people hurt when a car plowed into pedestrians outside Melbourne's iconic flinders street railway station. Two adults and a young child with a head injury have been taken to the hospital in serious condition. Police have the driver and another person under arrest. They say the action was deliberate but aren't specifically calling it terrorism. We'll have more information as it becomes available.

ROMANS: Just a few days before Christmas. You have to imagine around the world, high alert for those events.

All right. Shots fired at the DMZ. South Korea opens fire after soldiers from the north pursue a defector. We're live in Seoul.


[04:16:09] ROMANS: Gunfire along the DMZ. It started when a North Korean soldier fled across the demilitarized zone towards the South. Later, when North Korean soldiers appeared in the DMZ searching for the defector, the South Korean military says its troops opened fire as a warning to the North Koreans.

CNN international correspondent Paula Hancocks joins us live from Seoul with more.

And this is another case of a defector or a would-be defector causing some action there in the DMZ.

PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's right, Christine, and it's a real concern. You have firing at the DMZ. Even if the North Korean and South Korean soldiers aren't firing directly at each other, it is not what you want at this very tense border.

So, what happened, according to South Korean military, is that a North Korean soldier came across the border about 8:00 a.m. this morning, just after. An hour and a half later, the South Koreans saw North Korean soldiers coming towards the border, clearing trying to find this defector. They then fired 20 warning shots in that direction, and they say that about 40 minutes later, they heard shots from North Korea, but they didn't land in South Korea.

So, a very tense time. What we know about this defector, he's young, late teens, early 20s. He was a soldier. He was armed, but there was no trouble as he came across. He's now in custody, being investigated as to why exactly he defected.

But this happened last month. There was a very dramatic defection across the DMZ and a hail of bullets from the North Korean side as this defector was shot four times.

This used to be a very rare defection route because it was simply too dangerous, but we're seeing a lot more North Korean soldiers make that very dangerous route now -- Christine.

ROMANS: Maybe it's a sign of a desperation inside the country.

Paula Hancocks, thank you so much for that.

BRIGGS: The U.S. embassy says eight Americans were among the 12 people killed when that tour bus full of cruise ship passengers overturned on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. Three of the victims are from one family. Relatives say they are awaiting word on the return of the bodies so they can plan funeral arrangements. Officials say the crash likely caused by a negligent driver who was speeding on the narrow highway at the time. That driver is under arrest.

ROMANS: Shame.

All right. Opioids now kill more people in the U.S. than breast cancer. New numbers released overnight about the growing epidemic with no signs of slowing.


[04:22:57] BRIGGS: Still no answers a month after one border patrol agent was killed and another was injured in a nighttime incident in Texas. A Justice Department official telling CNN FBI investigators have been considering a few possibilities. They include an accident, an attack, or maybe even a fight between the two agents.

The Border Patrol Union says the surviving agent, Stephen Michael Garland, suffered head trauma, and cannot remember what happened that night.

ROMANS: But the fiancee of the man who died, Rogelio Martinez, believes Garland holds the answers.


ANGIE OCHOA, FIANCEE OF ROGELIO MARTINEZ: And I figured eventually he'll start remembering things and then they'll catch the ones that did it. But now it's just, it's become so hard to -- to believe that he can't remember anything.

(END VIDEO CLIP) ROMANS: Two weeks ago, a search warrant showed agents were chasing a tip that two undocumented smugglers attacked the agents, but sources familiar with the investigation say the FBI no longer believes the smugglers had anything to do with it.

BRIGGS: A grand jury is recommending criminal charges against the members of Pi Kappa Phi fraternity at Florida State University. They say members engaged in hazing and underage alcohol abuse, leading to the death of 20-year-old Andrew Coffey. Last month, Coffey died of acute alcohol poisoning.

ROMANS: Police say when a fellow FSU frat pledge found him unresponsive, he texted five other members first instead of calling for help. A grand jury document says the 11-minute delay did not cost Coffey his life but was broadly representative of the culture of the fraternity. FSU officials suspended all fraternity and sorority activity in the wake of Coffey's death.

We have seen this in other cases with these alcohol deaths in fraternities.

BRIGGS: Penn State in particular.

ROMANS: They're more concerned about getting in trouble than saving a brother's life.

BRIGGS: It's terrifying. I was in a fraternity more than 20 years ago, and I thought it had come to a close when they were cracking down on drinking, taking it off campus, and we are far from an answer there.

ROMANS: Meanwhile, a CDC study says America is losing the battle against opioid addiction to the point it is lowering U.S. life expectancy. New stats showing overdose deaths spiking to more than 42,000 in 2016. That's the most ever and more than the annual breast cancer deaths. West Virginia, Ohio, and New Hampshire have the most overdoses. The death rate in West Virginia is 2 1/2 times the national average.

President Trump declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency in October but allocated no money to combat it.

ROMANS: There's a lot of discussion among doctors who prescribe opioids, too. I mean, should a prescription ever be made without a plan and a strategy for that patient and their family to get off of that drug? It is so powerfully addictive. It used to be you locked up your liquor cabinets, now people are locking up their medicine cabinets at home for their kids, because I mean, what are we teaching our families?

Twenty-six minutes after the hour.

Republicans are celebrating passing their tax plan, but is it premature with government funding set to run out tomorrow?