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President Returning Early To Washington; Severe Winter Storms; Matt Damon's Mission; Syria's Civil War Intensifies

Aired December 26, 2012 - 14:00   ET



I'm Victor Blackwell, in for Brooke Baldwin. Thank you for being with us today.

The president is pulling the plug on his trip to Hawaii to tend to urgent matters in Washington. With tax hikes looming in less than a week, he's scheduled to return to the White House tomorrow, just as a deadlocked Congress reconvenes days ahead of this so-called fiscal cliff.

You're just six days from feeling this. Now, the first hit is coming on January 1st when your take home pay will drop by 2 percent because of a scheduled hike in the Social Security payroll tax.

That's just the start. Income taxes are set to climb too. And you'll notice that when your employer gets around to the adjusted withholding. Now, pile on the blunt force government spending cuts. Those are also scheduled for January 1st and they're bound to slow the economy and some argue they'll weaken the military.

Now, Congress has seen this coming, but an effort to limit the damage failed last week. Republican House Speaker John Boehner could not persuade enough members of his party to let tax rates rise on incomes over a million dollars while sparing everyone else.

Dana Bash is our senior congressional correspondent.

Dana, this time tomorrow, the president is supposed to be back, having cut his trip to Hawaii short. The first lady, the girls are staying in Hawaii. The Senate's supposed to convene, but not necessarily the House. What's going to happen?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, we're not really sure. In fact, House Republican leaders are having a conference call, I'm told, as we speak, to figure out that very question. They told their members that they would have 48 hours notice before they reconvene the House. And so at the earliest that would be on Friday.

But, you know, the action really is now going to begin in the Senate. So there isn't that much of a rush for the House to come back. And when I say action, even that is a question mark, whether there will be action.

I was talking to a Democratic source who said that right now what they have to figure out, Victor, is whether or not the Senate Democratic leader, Harry Reid, working with the White House on this, can get enough votes from Republicans to cross party lines for even a scaled back measure, which the president laid out in general on Friday, would just be to keep Americans' taxes where they are for those making $250,000 or less and to do a couple of other things, unemployment benefits, maybe, maybe extend the estate tax cut, which is -- which is also going to run out.

But, again, they're not even -- Senator Reid won't even consider doing this, I'm told, unless he's sure it will get through the Senate and the House because politically they don't think there's any reason for Congress to take votes that are just going to fail. Also, they think it will be really bad for the markets, even worse for the markets, to have failed votes and then to go off the fiscal cliff.

BLACKWELL: OK, Dana, so the idea that John Boehner is even having this conference call, discussing the possibility of bringing the House back into order, is that an indication that he's optimistic that there will be something that he could get a few, a minority even, of his party to support?

BASH: I -- you know, I like the idea of being optimistic, especially in this holiday season, but I think that probably not. I think this is really more of a housekeeping question because they have to tell their members something and the question is, when are they going to do it.

It's hard to imagine the House not coming back before the end of the year, even just for the show of it. Even if they have nothing to vote on. But, you know, stranger things have happened.

The other thing I'm told, though, when you're talking about timing here, is that the Senate Democrats really -- the people who run it, that they've seen this movie before, so to speak, and they know that the pressure really is only on at the 11th hour. I know we're only six days away, but we really do have until December 30th or 31st. so the thinking inside the Senate, at least among Democrats, is that they won't be able to pressure enough Republicans to cross party lines for anything until probably the very last minute, until the last day or two. So that really would mean that the House probably wouldn't have to come back until December 30th or 31st.

BLACKWELL: But is there enough time? I mean if we start counting back from midnight going into January 1st and you think that the bill has to be written and printed and members have to read it and there has to be discussion and negotiations, and the president isn't even back in D.C. yet, is there time if they were to start now to get all this done in time?

BASH: There is. There is. You know, there are rules, for example, that the House Republicans put in place when they came into power in 2010, that members have three days to read the bill. They have broken those rules more than once on big issues. But -- so there is time to do it.

The other thing to keep in mind is that the markets are closed on January 1st. So there isn't going to be a big real world reaction until maybe January 2nd if we do go over the cliff. So they have a little bit of time. Not much. But, you know, I've learned in my many years of covering Congress that, to answer your question, that they can take up the time that they need to get things done, but then once they see the real deadline, if there is a desire, they can get things done pretty fast.

BLACKWELL: All right, six days. Dana Bash from Washington. Thank you.

BASH: Thank you.

BLACKWELL: All right, now to this wild weather causing a headache for holiday travelers. Snow and sleet are disrupting things for drivers in Indiana right now. The day after Christmas usually means a trip to the mall for a lot of people. Checking for a sale or exchanges, you know the deal. But for people like the ones you're seeing now, and others in the Midwest and south, this is cleanup time. They've got the shovels out. They've got the snow blowers. They've got to clear that ice after tornadoes also, like this one, touched down last night. Look.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's right there. Keep recording. We've got to hurry up and get past this.


BLACKWELL: Yes, this is one of 30 tornadoes that spun out of a storm system that damaged at least 125 homes and businesses. It happened across Alabama, other parts of the south overnight. And we have learned now that more than 25 people were injured in Mississippi. Three people died in Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas. Officials are working to restore power to about 21,000 customers in Alabama. A total of 200,000 are without power across several states. This historic high school in Mobile was devastated by a tornado. Look at this. Murphy High was built in 1920. The portable classrooms were tossed the length of a football field. It's a shock to one staff member who toured the damage.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's a wonderful school. I just don't know what we're going to do with the kids when it's time to come back. This is a dangerous situation with all the roofs off and the windows blown out. This is just devastating.


BLACKWELL: Alexandra Steele is here now to tell us where this storm is headed.

Alexandra, the past week or so, more than a week, has been really a rough time for -- as it relates to the weather story.

ALEXANDRA STEELE, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Oh, Mobile getting hit twice. Two tornados on the 20th and then on the 25th. And you said 30 tornados. Thirty reported tornadoes. Some of those may be duplicates. We may be in the teens or 20s. But regardless, yesterday will go down in the history books as the most -- the greatest number of tornadoes on Christmas Day since records have been kept.

So the severe threat, though, not out of the woods yet. It is improving, but you can see this is a look at the Carolina coast, North Carolina and South Carolina. And this red box shows you where the tornado watch is posted. And that is until 5:00 tonight. And what a watch means is atmospherically conditions are ripe for tornados to spin up.

And just before I went on the air, we did have a tornado warning posted for Wayne County, North Carolina. But that has since been lifted. But, still, we are under the threat until 5:00. You certainly see where all the lightning is. So that's a (INAUDIBLE) to the east and coming to an end. But the snow side, not so much. Certainly not done by 5:00 tonight. Again, there's where we're seeing that heavy rain and those thunderstorms, but tornado warning lifted, tornado watch not yet.

Here's the snow. Kind of the snow sweet spot, so to speak, is right along this I-70. Really from Indianapolis to Cleveland to Buffalo. That's where we have, A, the blizzard warnings and blizzard warnings mean we're going to see between about six and 12 plus inches of snow. But it's this. It's the winds. The winds have been so dynamic with this storm, that's what's making travel so perilous. Whether it's the winds at Newark or LaGuardia right now or it will just be rain slowing things down, or these winds gusting to 30 in Chicago, 23 in Nashville, gusting to 45 earlier in Indianapolis. So it's the winds that are making travel so perilous and really so dangerous and impacting the roads and the airports.

So, blizzard warnings here from central Indiana to Ohio. Again, that means the snow coupled with the winds. But look at this, 12 inches. A foot plus of snow possible in western New York. Really the worst of it tonight until tomorrow in New York state. And then we will begin to see this move out. But certainly a hefty total of snow.

Here's the movement as we head toward early tomorrow. You can see New York, New York state still ensconced in snow. Western Pennsylvania as well. And then by Thursday morning, it's still there and into Maine. And then finally pushes all out.

So, Victor, we're not done with this yet. We've got another two days. Good news, though, the severe threat coming to an end by tonight and then the snow still the factor with the winds.

BLACKWELL: Rough weather on the start of the Christmas travel season.

STEELE: Right.

BLACKWELL: Rough weather on the back end of it.

STEELE: That's right.

BLACKWELL: Hopefully people make it through. Alexandra Steele, thank you for that. STEELE: You're welcome.

BLACKWELL: I know a lot of people had the families in Newtown in their hearts and on their minds over the Christmas holiday. There's now a plan to save the thousands of the items honoring the Sandy Hook school shooting victims. The flowers, the signs, the teddy bears and all the tributes will become part of a sacred memorial. We'll tell you about that.

Also, I'll talk with a congressman who wants to use the National Rifle Association against itself on gun reform. Is there a disconnect between NRA members and the NRA leadership?


BLACKWELL: Throughout Newtown, Connecticut, teddy bears, the candles, pictures, those Christmas trees, they were displayed everywhere in remembrance of the victims who lost their lives in the shooting massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary. The community united during the holiday to support the families of the victims who are grieving. Twenty children, seven adults were killed on December 14th. The memorials remembering them are here to stay, we've learned. An official announced a special plan by the city to convert the memorials. Here's part of what this city official told residents. "The thousands of flowers, letters and prayers, the signs and photos, teddy bears and more will be gathered and processed into soil that will serve in the foundation of a future permanent memorial to honor the slain children and adults." The official says it will be a sacred memorial. The items will be collected and converted starting this week.

Well, now, new information on that tragic shooting in upstate New York on Christmas Eve. Did you hear about this one. Two firefighters were shot and killed, two others were wounded, after responding to a call that a house was on fire. Today we're learning more about the shooter, William Spengler. Police say the 62-year-old set fire to his sister's house, and then shot the firemen. Police think he also killed his sister. Her body was found in the burnt home. Now, Spengler left a suicide note. And here's part of it. "I still have to get ready to see how much of the neighborhood I can burn down and do what I like doing best, killing people." But why he did it, police say they may never know.


CHIEF GERALD PICKERING, WEBSTER, NEW YORK, POLICE: Well, actually, just to clarify, there was no motive in the note. It did not speak to motive. There was some ramblings in there. There was intelligence information that we obtained that our investigators need to follow up on. It spoke mainly to intent, that he intended to burn his neighborhood down and kill as many people as possible before stopping. And, again, I can't emphasize to you had not -- had that police officer not responded with that fire truck, as standard operating procedure with our agency and many police agencies as we respond with all first responders, police, EMS, had that police officer not been there, more people would have been killed because he immediately engaged the shooter. He immediately engaged the shooter with a rifle. But as far as motive, all kinds of speculation, and truthfully we do not know. They're trying to draw a nexus, I know, between the donations of the mother to the fire department. There could be a nexus to 30 years -- 33 years ago when Webster Police arrested him for murdering his grandmother.


BLACKWELL: And Spengler had been released on supervised parole in the killing of his grandmother. Funerals are being held today for the firefighters killed in the attack. Tomasz Kaczowka and Michael Chiapperini. Now, two others firefighters, Joseph Hofsetter and Theodore Scardino are hospitalized after surgery. Their condition is expected to be upgraded to satisfactory later today. CNN's Poppy Harlow will have an update for us next hour.

NBC's "Meet the Press" moderator David Gregory is being investigated by Washington, D.C., police. Cops want to know if he violated D.C. gun laws. Now the reason is this exchange Sunday between Gregory and the executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, Wayne LaPierre. Watch.


DAVID GREGORY, NBC'S "MEET THE PRESS" MODERATOR: Here is a magazine for ammunition that carries 30 bullets. Now, isn't it possible that if we got rid of these, if we replaced them and said, well, you could only have a magazine that carries five bullets or 10 bullets, isn't it just possible that we could reduce the carnage in a situation like Newtown?

WAYNE LAPIERRE, EXEC. VICE PRESIDENT, NATIONAL RIFLE ASSOCIATION: I don't believe that's going to make one difference.


BLACKWELL: OK. Police want to know whether the 30-round magazine Gregory displayed was real or fake because possessing a large capacity ammunition device is illegal in the District of Columbia, where NBC studios are located, even if it's not attached to the weapon. Now, a police department spokesperson said NBC asked if it could use the high capacity magazine on air, and it was told "no." The network has not responded to CNN's request for comment.

Next, celebrities who are putting the spotlight on giving. See how actor Matt Damon is working to bring clean water to millions of people.


BLACKWELL: Clean water is not hard to get for most people in America. But around the world, nearly 1 billion people struggle to find it. It's an issue that actor Matt Damon works to change when he's not busy shooting movies, of course. He started his quest to provide clean water to the less fortunate six years ago after he met a 14-year-old girl on a trip to Zambia. CNN's Alina Cho spoke with him about getting more people in the western world to help out and are big stars begiving (ph)?


MATT DAMON, ACTOR: It's very hard for us to understand. You wake up in the morning. If you're thirsty, there's a faucet right there. There's one in the bathroom. There's one in the kitchen. And clean water comes out of all of them.

ALINA CHO, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): But for nearly a billion people around the world, a billion, there is no affordable access to clean water. More than double that number lack proper sanitation.

DAMON: Every 20 seconds, a kid under the age of five is dying, losing their life because they do not have access to clean water. And it just doesn't have to be that way.

CHO: So in 2009, Damon and world renowned water expert Gary White founded

DAMON: We're approaching it differently than many other organizations.

CHO: Their mantra, wells are great, but charity can't help everyone. So White pioneered a concept called Water Credit.

GARY WHITE, CO-FOUNDER, WATER.ORG: So we knew that women in India, for instance, were going and paying 125 percent interest on loans to loan sharks so they could build a toilet. So we said, let's take microfinance and layer it in here and give people access to affordable loans so they can buy that toilet, so they can get that water connection.

CHO: Depending on where you are, that could mean a faucet in your own home, or a toilet with clean running water. Water Credit is working. White says loans are being repaid at a rate of 98 percent in places like Haiti.

DAMON: And that was my first gas runway.

CHO: What Damon and White are trying to eliminate is the need to walk for water, taking time away from work or school. The water's there.

DAMON: Yes. All that time that you're wasting going and standing in the line, you now have to go to your job. It's the difference between hope and looking forward to a better day, and an existence that just basically is about, you know, scavenging for water.

CHO: But how do you get people in the western world, where water is plentiful, to care?

DAMON: You know, we've talked about different ways to do that. Maybe involving humor.

CHO: Take Ben Stiller. He gets attention for his foundation Stiller Strong by producing hilarious videos.

BEN STILLER, ACTOR: Look, Matt Damon, he claimed water. How do you claim water?




UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, no, no, no, no.

CHO: Consider this, Damon talks about water on YouTube, 4,000 hits. This video with Sarah Silverman (ph) -- viral. Damon says his strong suit is getting people to care.

DAMON: Because there's a lot of kind of low hanging fruit, so to speak. There are so many people that we can help.

CHO (on camera): Do you see a solution in your lifetime?

DAMON: Yes, we do. In fact, that's why we're here.


BLACKWELL: Alina Cho, thank you for that.

If you want to help or get more information about, go to

Former President George H.W. Bush seems to be getting a little better after spending Christmas in a Houston hospital. Doctors thought the 88-year-old would be able to go home, but he developed a fever. A spokesman tells CNN the former president has slightly improved. He was hospitalized in late November for bronchitis. Doctors say they are cautiously optimistic the former president will be released soon.

Escalating violence in Syria as rebels capture a key military base. Now, more signs that the regime of Bashar al Assad is crumbling. A live report from the region after this.


BLACKWELL: We have this just in from our Johannesburg bureau in South Africa. We're learning that former South African President Nelson Mandela has been released from the hospital and he will be going home to continue any further treatment to his home in Johannesburg. The 94- year-old has been in the hospital for some time back on the 8th of December. He had surgery for an abdominal hernia. Then on the 15th, gall stones removed, and has been in the hospital since. But, again, from our bureau in Johannesburg, Nelson Mandela is headed home and he will continue treatment at his home in Johannesburg. We'll get a live report from Johannesburg at the top of the hour.

And now to Syria. In a city just south of Aleppo, months of intense fighting has now come to a head. The rebels are using homemade rockets in their latest push to capture a key military base. It's near the Aleppo/Damascus highway. And we're seeing now more signs Syrian President Bashar al Assad's regime is crumbling. In one of the highest level defections yet, the country's military police chief has abandoned his post to join the rebel army. This recording posted online.


MAJ. GEN. ABDUL AZIZ JASSIM AL-SHALLAL, HEAD OF SYRIAN MILITARY POLICE (through translator): I announce my defection from the regime and I'm joining the people's revolution because the Syrian military has strayed from its core mission in protecting the homeland to become nothing but an armed gang that kill and destroy the cities and the villages, carrying out massacres against our innocent civilian population that came out demanding freedom and dignity.


BLACKWELL: Yes, a high level defection there. Mohammed Jamjoom joins me now from Beirut.

Mohammed, we are hearing reports of how the rebels helped him make his escape to Turkey.

MOHAMMED JAMJOOM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Victor. The rebel Free Syrian Army spokesperson we spoke with earlier in the day told us that it was an arduous journey and that it took a lot longer than they had anticipated. That at one point they were actually transporting the major general, whose name is Abdul Aziz Jassim al-Shallal, by scooter and that it took hours longer than they thought it would. That he finally got across the border into Turkey.

We've been trying to reach the major general. We've not been able to yet. But the rebel Free Syrian Army says this is very significant. That this is a morale boost for the rebels there. Now, even though this isn't making any difference on the ground in Syria right now, and it's a horribly violent day across Syria today. At least 160 killed so far. That's according to the opposition activist we've been speaking with. The fact of the matter is, if this man is who he says he is, and if he's as high ranking as he says he is, he could provide key intelligence on the inner workings of the al Assad regime and the military apparatus to the rebels and to the international community as well.


BLACKWELL: And soon, Mohammed, we'll hit the two-year mark for what's been happening in Syria. And over the past several months, city after city, rebels are making huge gains, more high level defections, the latest now from this police chief. At what point is this civil war won?

JAMJOOM: It's a good question. You know, this has been a war of attrition. You said, yes, that's right, it's been nearly two years. Over 40,000 people killed. It seems to get worse day after day. And all this happening at a time when, in Syria right now, you have the joint U.N. Arab League envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, there trying to negotiate some sort of peaceful settlement to the crisis there. It just hasn't happened. It just seems to get worse. You have the rebels saying that they're taking one of the key bases in the north of the country on a highway that connects Aleppo to Damascus, and yet still they cannot claim that they've won. It seems that the rebels are gaining momentum. We hear this more from the opposition activists, from the rebel Free Syrian Army, but the government maintains that they are ridding the territories across Syria of the rebels, of the terrorists, as they call them, and it just seems to be spiraling more and more out of control, at a time when there's so much concern about what's going on in Syria and there's so much pressure on the opposition and the Syrian government to come to some sort of settlement of their dispute so the people of Syria can live in peace once again. Victor.

BLACKWELL: All right, we'll see if that happens soon.

Mohammed Jamjoom, thank you for that.

Fears of the fiscal cliff are taking some of the holiday cheer out of Wall Street. CNN's Alison Kosik is watching the post-Christmas trading. She joins us next.