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John Boehner Under Fire; Sandy Hook Students Returning to School

Aired January 2, 2013 - 22:00   ET


ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: It's 10:00 p.m. here on the East Coast.

And we begin the way Anderson always does, "Keeping Them Honest," holding people accountable for breaking their promises to you.

Tonight, lawmakers who told tens of millions of people facing tens of billions in damage from superstorm Sandy we stand with you and we got your back. Well, two months later, with massive bills coming due, Congress failed to act.

And though some big-name legislators are now scrambling to make up for it, a lot of badly hurting people are just furious with what happened today in Washington.

People who live or once lived in places like this, Seaside Heights, New Jersey, where entire beachfront community were simply washed away or people who had to bike or walk to work or were stranded at home after the nation's biggest subway system flooded, and parts of it just fell right into the bay, people out on Long Island, where whole chunks of the power grid were blown away, a lot of homes there by the way as well blown away.

Hospital patients who were stranded at three major New York City hospitals when they were shut down. One of those hospitals is still almost completely out of commission. A lot of people hurting and a very big, big price tag making things worse. Storm damage could hit $80 billion nationwide and parts of the bill are coming due any day now.

FEMA's flood insurance program, it's almost out of money. And faced with that reality, the people on one side of this building took action last week, working across party lines, Republicans and Democrats approving a $60 billion relief and recovery package.

That was the Senate. So all the House had to do was go ahead and vote, just go ahead. Hold the vote and go home. They did not. They just went home. The Republican-controlled House just went home. And people, even big-name Republicans, went ballistic.


GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), NEW JERSEY: There's only one group to blame for the continued suffering of these innocent victims, the House majority and their speaker, John Boehner. New York deserves better than the selfishness we saw on display last night. New Jersey deserves better than the duplicity we saw on display last night. America deserves better than just another example of a government that has forgotten who they are there to serve and why.


BANFIELD: New York's Governor Andrew Cuomo and members of New York's largely Democratic delegation also slammed the House's failure to act and so did one of New York's leading Republican House members.


REP. PETER KING (R), NEW YORK: He kept telling me wait until the vote is over, wait until the fiscal cliff vote is over, everything will be taken care of, and then he was gone. He refused to meet with us. He actually yelled at Congressman Lobiondo, said, I'm not meeting with you people. He wouldn't tell us why. He just decided to sneak off in the dark of night.


BANFIELD: Well, by day's end, Pete King was singing a different tune, because the House speaker, John Boehner, was promising a Friday vote on part of the relief package and speedy action on all the rest as well.

Dana Bash will talk to us about this in just a moment, actually, but, you know, a lot of people are still pretty darn disgusted about how we got here in the first place.

Like I said, our congressional correspondent, Dana Bash, has been up early and to bed very late, if to bed at all.

So, Dana, point A. to point B., it seemed this was warp speed from no action to some action to hopefully a lot more action. Can you sort of walk me through the machinations?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: You played some of the comments from members of Congress who were absolutely furious. The key here it was the speaker's fellow Republicans. They went -- ballistic is the perfect word.

You can almost still feel the walls here shaking, Ashleigh, from how angry they were on the House floor the minute they realized last night the speaker was not going to allow this to come up for a vote in this lame-duck Congress. What happened was it just became -- it took on a life of its own and by this afternoon the House speaker and the majority leader had a meeting right down here behind me in his office with members of the New Jersey and New York delegations, the Republicans and in about 20 minutes it was done.

He had it all laid out. He promised them that he would have a vote this Friday on a small portion of it, $9 billion and then by the first legislative day of the new Congress, January 15, they will vote on the rest and the same members just like Peter King is a perfect example who were really angry, surprisingly personal, came right out and said, you know what? That was a lifetime ago. We will forgive and forget. We're fine with this. Not thrilled that it didn't happen now, but fine with waiting two weeks.

BANFIELD: I don't know if I just got wound up in the fiscal cliff conversation that I forgot about the timing of this particular bill, but I was really surprised all of a sudden after the vote was over on the fiscal cliff to see that this was a problem and it made me think why has it taken this long to get that to a vote? That's months.

BASH: I think that you just nailed it. I think the big issue has been that the focus has been on the fiscal cliff. Another issue is that the House and Senate members who were putting this together wanted to put it together in an appropriate way, make sure they had everything that they needed, they checked all the boxes with the governors of the states and the representatives here.

But you may want to know why did they actually -- why did the speaker decide to do what he did when his number two, Eric Cantor, had promised -- had been shepherding this -- had promised that there would be a vote. And the reason had to do with the fiscal cliff, Ashleigh. All day long yesterday, the speaker was getting an earful from his members that there weren't spending cuts in this fiscal cliff deal.

So I'm told by reliable Republican sources he simply felt the last thing he could do politically for internal politics was to put a vote on the floor right afterwards with $60 billion in new spending that's not paid for. That's the reason why you heard Chris Christie in New Jersey really getting personal and really talking about palace intrigue in here and intraparty politics because that's really what went on.

It was just the feeling that it was just too much, too much tumult in an already toxic environment when it comes to spending.

BANFIELD: But I'm not sure if I understand whether it was just sort of displeasing tumult or whether it was tumult that actually would jeopardize getting an actual bill, because I didn't see that point being maid. If that's what the speaker meant, if that was the merit of his argument for not holding that vote, why didn't he say that?

BASH: His aides have been saying that or have said it this morning. But it certainly wasn't telegraphed in a big way. You're exactly right, I think probably because the truth is, if they would have put it up for a vote it probably would have passed. It likely would have passed. I think that's fair to say, maybe along the same party lines or bipartisan vote that we saw with the fiscal cliff.

Most Democrats would and will vote for this. Yes, there would have been some Republican defections, but it very likely would have passed. But the question is whether the speaker could have had another vote where there were that many Republican defections. It just would not have been politically good for him to do that. BANFIELD: Dana Bash putting in a 100-hour workweek and it's only Wednesday. Thank you, my friend. Nice to see you.

BASH: You, too.

BANFIELD: You look great, by the way. I don't know how you do it.

This is a really turbulent day nonetheless. People were really struggling through this. A lot of lawmakers in Washington though patting themselves on the back tonight. Pretty happy with the resolution so to speak, but not everybody feels the same way. That satisfaction is not unanimous. A lot of people think things have gone wrong.

In fact, they think the federal response since the storm has hit has been nothing short of -- and here it goes -- a disgrace. In a moment , you will hear from a hard-hit resident of Staten Island, the guy who needs the money, the guy who is waiting for the money and has to see this all breaking on the news.

But, first, I want to bring in Senator James Sanders Jr. By the way, day one, right, on the job. Congratulations.


BANFIELD: It was nice of you to come in.

You have seen how things played out. This is your area that was hit the hardest. Are you satisfied with this speedy resolution today and what we will see this week and then in a couple of weeks?

SANDERS: Satisfied? I'm charging them with being AWOL, absent without leadership in this case.

There's a compact that the American people make and that's if you do right, play by the rules, pay your taxes, defend the nation, Uncle Sam will be there when you're in need. They won't leave you out there in the cold. That's not true; 3,000 of my residents are out there without cold. They haven't had power or light since.

BANFIELD: You still have 3,000 people who don't have electricity?

SANDERS: Three thousand people who do not have light or power in my district.

And the people in Washington just don't get it. We don't have that time. These residents did not have a merry Christmas. They are not having a happy new year. They are not doing eggnog and things of that nature. They are trying to stay warm. It's 20 degrees out there. We need to put some heat on D.C.

BANFIELD: So with the resolution that was sort of achieved today, they said they are going to have a vote by Friday and then in a couple more weeks they will vote on the rest of the $60 billion package, and many lawmakers say it will work, that ultimately this will get passed essentially intact. Does that buoy you at all?

SANDERS: Ultimately, those things are good.

But right now we're dealing with a life-and-death situation on the ground. The situation is not resolved. And whatever politics that the majority leader needs to do, let him do it. These are Americans. When the Northeast can help out every other part of the nation, we should be helped out also.

BANFIELD: I mean, that is something Chris Christie said today. I don't know if you heard him, but he said, my goodness, New York and New Jersey give more and take less from the federal government when it comes to emergencies and this is the government turning its back on us in a time of need.

Do you read into this at all Washington looking at the Northeast, New York/New Jersey as a snub or is that going too far?

SANDERS: I read it that way.

I see when it comes to us, there's always a problem. Let the record show that New York state and New York City give more to the federal government than we get back, not simply in emergencies, in everything. Now, with that being said, our moment is now; $60 billion is not enough. However, $60 billion, we will take it, let's go help people become whole, and every day that we don't have these funds puts my residents in a life-and-death situation.

BANFIELD: At the beginning of this disaster, there were all sorts of adjustments to insurance claims. We're going to waive certain policies that won't allow to you get your money in a quick fashion. But you have been on record saying that the insurance companies have -- are as complicit in this as lawmakers have been.

SANDERS: They should be investigated.

What is happening on the ground out here is nothing less than a disgrace. We're finding out every loophole that the insurance companies can use, they are using it against these people. Then FEMA is hitting everyone and finding ways out also.

They are claiming that they are not going to deal with any basement issues or any of these other things. Everyone is passing the buck. My residents, my bosses are being hurt, and we're just not being made whole.

BANFIELD: I know you have been critical about some politicians who have swooped in for photo-ops. And for any viewers who may be watching you thinking that you may be one of them, you're a victim as well.

What happened to your home?

SANDERS: I had five feet of water in my house. I lost approximately $30,000. My insurance said they are not covering it because it was a flood. FEMA said they are not covering it because it was in the basement.

BANFIELD: And flood insurers are also suggesting that that's just a structural thing.


SANDERS: Flood insurance doesn't help you because they only cover the structure, not your content. So we're becoming experts at the runaround, the bureaucratic runaround, only made worse by what's going on in D.C.

BANFIELD: Well, look, congratulations on your first day. I'm sorry it had to come to this. It's quite an active first day for you, but I certainly hope that you and your constituents get some resolution to this and some aid very quickly.

SANDERS: Thank you.

BANFIELD: Thank you very much, Senator Sanders.

SANDERS: Keep them honest.

SANDERS: And we will keep them honest. And we will keep you in mind as well.

A short time ago, I had a chance to speak with a Staten Island resident named Frank Gissi. He was one of those people who decided to ride out the storm and he nearly paid for that decision with his life. That storm destroyed both of his cars. It left his house almost completely uninhabitable. He's trying his best however just to live and to live there. To him, all of this business in Washington is just nothing short of unbelievable, just another example of government playing politics with people's lives.


BANFIELD: So, Mr. Gissi, it's been a tough day and a lot happened on Capitol Hill today. The day started off rough, but in the end a decision has been made for a vote on Friday and another vote in a couple of weeks. Is that satisfying to you?

FRANK GISSI, STATEN ISLAND RESIDENT: No, it's really not. It's a disgrace what they did. It should have never gone two months.

BANFIELD: How is it where you are? Tell me a little bit about your home and getting back into your home.

GISSI: Yes, I was two months living down in the basement. I paid rent, it cost me a few thousand dollars. I had to get an apartment for my daughter because she's petrified to come back to this area. And I'm almost back to house to. It cost me a lot of money out of my pocket.

BANFIELD: What about your neighbors. Are they back?

(CROSSTALK) GISSI: Very few people on the block. Maybe one or two. I'm probably the first one back out of 80 houses.


GISSI: Because the people didn't get paid. They didn't get their flood insurance money yet. And they don't have their own money to fix the house like I fixed my house.

BANFIELD: Do you think that when Congress is able to get some kind of relief measures your way, do you think your neighborhood can return to the way it used to be?

GISSI: I only can say I hope so. This happened in 1992. And the government and the city never put in sewers here. And, you know, the storm things for the water not to come in, they let it pass. They let 10, 11 years pass again and it happened worse this time. And, you know, I feel that they are not going to do nothing.


BANFIELD: If you had a message that you could deliver personally to lawmakers and then also to people across the country about you and your neighbors and what you have been through and what you're looking forward to, what would that be?

GISSI: For crying out loud, please help us. You helped Katrina in 10 days. It should be all even all over the country.

BANFIELD: Let me ask you this. What do you think the future holds for you and the rest of your Staten Island neighbors?

GISSI: I'm very -- I don't know. I don't know the word to tell you, but I don't know what's going to happen. I think they are going to just pacify us again or give us a few more dollars. But they're never going to fix the waterway here.

Last Saturday night, we had some kind of a little storm with rain. Where I live on the corner, the water was about two, three feet high. We couldn't go in and out with the cars until it receded. So they have been promising to put sewers here and fix this area up for years, and they don't do nothing.

BANFIELD: Our thoughts are with you and with your neighbors. Thanks so much for being with us.


BANFIELD: So up next, about last night, that fiscal cliff bill that Congress finally passed? There is something about it that you might not know, billions of dollars in giveaways, giveaways. Money going to big businesses and questionable causes that have nothing to do with solving the fiscal cliff. So how did it get in there? We're "Keeping Them Honest."

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BANFIELD: So late last night Congress took the tough step, that's tough for Congress, that is, of voting on a tax bill that hauls the country back up the fiscal cliff.

And as I'm sure that you have heard by now, they waited literally until the 11th hour of the last day before the 112th Congress adjourns for good. They labored and they talked and then they balked and then they talked and then they labored some more on a bill that makes permanent the Bush tax cuts for about 98 percent of all Americans and then raises tax rates on the rest.

That gavel dropped again and everyone from the president on down scrambled for about a nanosecond to make nice.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I want to thank all the leaders of the House and Senate. In particular, I want to thank the work that was done by my extraordinary vice president, Joe Biden, as well as Leader Harry Reid, Speaker Boehner, Nancy Pelosi, and Mitch McConnell.


BANFIELD: So what would emerge later were some of the backroom details about what happened in the tense days leading up to the vote. There were ultimatums and poison pills and reports of House Speaker John Boehner F-bombing the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, no joke.

And the political blogs are all over this. But, "Keeping Them Honest" there's another backroom angle that does not seem to be getting quite as much coverage. This bill that most people think is all about the fiscal cliff is also about calling a shopping cart full of pork not that. It's like a kennel full of pet projects and special interest spending, pork, pork, pork.

Lawmakers who barely had the time to pass the bill and who didn't have the time to pass a storm relief bill somehow found the time to extend a series of tax breaks. And now bear in mind that the tax incentives are how government shapes policy. There's tax breaks for homeowners, parents with children, charity donors, small businesses, you name it.

But according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, some of the items in this bill don't really make much common sense. Are you ready? -- $46 million in 2013 for motor speedways, clearly a benefit for NASCAR, $199 million in tax breaks for rum making, that largely benefiting a big liquor conglomerate -- $38 million in tax incentives benefiting StarKist and other companies doing business in American Samoa.

They are all in this bill and they have got nothing to do with the fiscal cliff, so to speak.

Joining us now is Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. Steve, the fact that these lawmakers hemmed and hawed about tax cuts for the rich and nearly drove this nation into another recession, but didn't even seem to raise an eyebrow about the billions of dollars of tax pork in this bill would seem to the layperson as outrageous. Are we sure there's nothing meritorious in some of what appears to be pork?

STEVE ELLIS, VICE PRESIDENT OF PROGRAMS, TAXPAYERS FOR COMMON SENSE: Certainly, somebody will argue they like this or whatever, but, to me, you know, this is what feeds voters cynicism about the process.

All this talk has been about fiscal cliff, and about tax rates and about the across-the-board cuts of sequestration. And then stuffed in there are dozens of these little tax provisions, some of which that expired a year ago and that they retroactively reinstated. We're looking at $70 billion or more of these expenditures in 2013.

BANFIELD: You know, sometimes something that would seem frivolous or like people call it pork or earmarks actually does benefit and stimulate the economy. Isn't there something in at least that short list that I gave you that you can see as a benefit?

ELLIS: Well, certainly, it is benefiting somebody, but the question really is, is this the best use of the taxpayers' money? These haven't really been thoroughly vetted. Once they get into this system, they just remain there.

I would argue that, yes, having the U.S. Virgin Islands bankroll a distillery for Diageo, the world's largest liquor conglomerate, so they can move their Captain Morgan operations from Puerto Rico, another U.S. territory, to the Virgin Islands, well, yes, there's some economic benefit there, but it's clearly not something the federal taxpayers should be bankrolling.

BANFIELD: When it is pork and when is it something that can actually get votes? Because clearly especially in the paralysis that we see on Capitol Hill, you got to do something to get the votes.

ELLIS: Well, there's certainly always been this talk about log rolling.


BANFIELD: Is that what it's called, log rolling?

ELLIS: Log rolling is often -- yes, you add something in and you just kind of keep adding it so everybody goes along. But the thing is that this got 89 votes in the Senate. I mean, how many votes? Maybe it picked up a handful by putting this in here.

But in reality, is that what we want to do? We want to have legislators vote that will against their interests or what they would otherwise do on the fiscal cliff, the big part of this package, just because some tax break got in there for -- you know, for motor scooters? BANFIELD: But what about those larger industries that say they have to have incentives like this in order to stay competitive with companies in China?

ELLIS: Well, there's a lot of reasons why things are competitive here in the United States. It's not just about the tax breaks or -- it's about an educated work force. It's about consistent laws and regulations that's predictable. It's about not having the fear of industrial espionage and theft of -- intellectual property thefts. There's a lot of reasons to be here.

But even beyond that, you look at this and you have to question is this the best use of the taxpayers' money? And what everybody has been arguing about this year has been we need to have fundamental tax reform, eliminate the loopholes, eliminate the breaks, lower the rates, expand the base. This goes exactly the opposite direction from what everybody has been talking about.

BANFIELD: But you got to admit that sometimes it's a great sport to attack what seems like silly spending. I remember the big argument over fruit flies and that drew a lot of ire. But in the end, fruit flies ended up being something that saved researchers money, because a fruit fly dies much quicker and the life cycle is faster. Therefore, you can study their patterns much quicker and save researchers money.

So can't you see in the end some of the things that don't appear maybe to be meritorious actually are?

ELLIS: Ashleigh, at Taxpayers for Common Sense, we look very hard at this. We try not to just sort of make a joke out of these things because this are serious issues and there is somebody behind this.

But in reality a lot of this is simply corporate welfare. And, yes, there's issues of research into fruit flies as you're saying or there was one olive fruit fly research that we spent money on in France, but in reality...

BANFIELD: That was decades ago, almost a half century ago, for heaven's sakes.


ELLIS: No, no, no. That was about six years ago.

BANFIELD: Not the Paris one. The Paris one was back in the '30s, I believe.


ELLIS: No, this one was in Montpellier. Montpellier, France, is where it is. There is a USDA, Department of Agriculture research station there that had olive fruit fly research.

But nevertheless the whole -- the point here is, is that a lot of this ends up being seems like it makes sense or it could make sense, but in reality we have to step back. We're a nation that is $16 trillion in debt. We have a trillion-dollar deficit we're running each year. So we have to make sure we're not just doing the nice to haves, the OK to haves, the good to haves, but the actual essentials to have.


Steve Ellis, it's good to talk to you. Thanks so much for bringing the perspective.

ELLIS: Thank you, Ashleigh.

BANFIELD: Appreciate it.

We have a lot more happening tonight as well, a lot of it outside of the beltway. The students of Sandy Hook Elementary School are going to go back to school tomorrow. It's not the same school, though, that they're going to be going to. They have a new place to learn. We will tell you all about it.

And also you will hear from the daughter of the principal who was killed in last month's shooting at the school and what she has to say about the next step for the children of Sandy Hook. That's coming up next.


BANFIELD: The students of Sandy Hook Elementary School are going back to class tomorrow for the first time since a gunman changed everything in the town of Newtown, Connecticut, indeed across the country.

Heartbreakingly, 20 students will be missing when those kids head back to school tomorrow. Twenty 6- and 7-year-old children were killed in the massacre on December 14, along with six adults in the school. The Sandy Hook students will be going to school in a different building, in fact, in a different town. It's nearby Monroe, about a 15-minute drive away.

Our Gary Tuchman joins me live now from Monroe, Connecticut.

So, Gary, how are things going in the preparations for tomorrow?

GARY TUCHMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Ashleigh, today the children, the teachers, the administrators who survived the massacre had an orientation at the new school. Tomorrow they will be going to the new school, and it's very interesting.

It's a middle school that is called the Chalk Hill Middle School, but it was moth-balled a couple of years ago. So it's been empty. The sign that says Chalk Hill on the bottom left-hand corner of the sign right now, there's a sign that says "Sandy Hook Elementary."

The school has been changed. It's been retrofitted for the new students. For example, the bathrooms have been made smaller for the smaller children instead of the middle-school students. The desks from the old school have been brought to the new school. The same teachers will be there. So the idea is for the children to be as comfortable as possible.

But it will be a very emotional day.

You know, Dawn Hochsprung, she was the principal of the school who was killed; beloved by everybody. And just a short time ago I talked with her daughter, Erica, about the first day of school. And she certainly has mixed emotions about it. She's a very nice, kind woman, and she's the spitting image of her late mother.


ERICA HOCHSPRUNG, DAUGHTER OF SLAIN PRINCIPAL: She will be with her -- with them, you know.

TUCHMAN: That's a great point.

HOCHSPRUNG: Yes. I saw a couple of her staff members and, you know, just the little pieces they picked up of the doughnuts that she used to bring in and, you know, somebody saying, "We're going miss those," and I'm like "I'll bring them." You know, she'll -- she'll still be there.

TUCHMAN: You were telling me before you have this letter that your mom once wrote you. And the signature says, "Yours forever, Mommy," and there's a smiley face and a heart. What did you do because this meant so much to you?

HOCHSPRUNG: It's on my hand, so I can always have it with me.

TUCHMAN: A tattoo?


TUCHMAN: How are you doing? You look just like her.

HOCHSPRUNG: I know. Some days it's hard to look in the mirror. But I'm OK. I'm getting there.

TUCHMAN: The final thing I want to ask you about is the scholarship. Tell me about that.

HOCHSPRUNG: My sister and stepfather and I have set up a scholarship fund in her name through her credit union, the Waterbury Teacher's Federal Credit Union. It will be going to a Nanticoke (ph) high-school student pursuing a career in education, hopefully someone like her that has the capacity to fill half of one of her shoes; you know, somebody with a passion to want to teach; you know, somebody who wants to learn.

TUCHMAN: How could someone find out about the scholarship?

HOCHSPRUNG: We actually set up a memorial fund Web page for her. One of my friends, James, did that for us. It's the On there you, hopefully soon -- probably within the next day or so -- will be able to donate directly into the PayPal account that we have set up for her.

TUCHMAN: So that's a beautiful memorial to your mother.

HOCHSPRUNG: Yes. I'm going be proud of every single kid that walks in those doors, because it's a hard, hard thing for them to do.

TUCHMAN: Will there be some pain in your heart, Erica, when you see them going school?

HOCHSPRUNG: She should be there. Yes.


TUCHMAN: Erica is getting married this July. Her mother helped her pick out her wedding dress -- Ashleigh.

BANFIELD: Gary, it's so hard to watch that, but at the same time, she seems like she's just a strong -- a strong girl. I wanted to ask you something else.

In the news today, there's a school district in New Jersey. From K through 12, all of the kids who go to school in this district are going to be met by armed guards at their school. That is just a policy there now. And it made me wonder what they're going to do at this new Chalk Hill school that's now taking the students who are affected by the massacre. What kind of security are they going to face?

TUCHMAN: Well, we can tell you right now that, when you get within a mile of the school, there are police cars parked in the streets. There are also signs in the neighborhood that say, "Welcome back, students," but there are police cars parked all over the area.

Because of security reasons and sensitivity reasons, the news media has agreed not to be at the school tomorrow when the children get back there. But we are told there will be a lot of police, a lot of unspecified security. And what we're being guaranteed is there will be no safer school in the United States than this particular school.

BANFIELD: Gary, thank you for your reporting tonight. Gary Tuchman live for us outside of that Chalk Hill School.

I want to get the latest on some of our other stories that we're following tonight. Isha Sesay has a "360 Bulletin" -- Isha.

ISHA SESAY, HLN ANCHOR: Ashleigh, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was released from the New York hospital where she was treated for three days for a blood clot. The State Department says doctors are confident she will make a full recovery and that she's eager to get back to work.

More protests in India today where people are outraged over the death of a 23-year-old woman who was beaten and raped by six men on a bus. A group of lawyers in the district where the attack happened say they will not represent any of the accused men, and the bar association is asking other lawyers to do the same.

And look up into the sky in the early morning hours tomorrow for the Quadrantid meteor shower. NASA says sky watchers can expect to see 60 to 200 meteors an hour in the hours just before dawn.

BANFIELD: Isha Sesay.

For millions of people around the world, the seven-day celebration of Kwanzaa has just ended. And tonight a Wisconsin lawmaker, a state lawmaker who's launched an all-out attack on the holiday is getting some pretty strong blowback. Glenn Grothman's claims are pretty incendiary, but he is not backing down. He's going to join me next.


BANFIELD: Wisconsin State Senator Glenn Grothman is under fire tonight for his very blunt attack on Kwanzaa, a holiday that millions of people around the world hold dear.

In a press release titled "Why Must We Still Hear About Kwanzaa?" the Republican lawmaker slammed the holiday's creator, Maulana Karenge, saying, quote, "Karenge was a racist and didn't like the idea that Christ died for all of our sins, so he felt blacks should have their own holiday, hence, Kwanzaa," end quote.

But he went on to say this: quote, "Of course, almost no black people today care about Kwanzaa; just white left-wingers who try to shove this down black people's throats in an effort to divide Americans. Mainstream Americans must be more outspoken on this issue," he continued and said, "It is time it's slapped down once and for all."

The quote continues, "Be on the lookout if a K through 12 or college teacher tries to tell your children or grandchildren it's a real holiday," end quote.

Well, as you can imagine, Senator Grothman's message is pretty clear, and his remarks have offended a whole lot of people. And he's kind enough to join me now live.

Senator, that's some pretty tough language. Did you not expect to feel some heat on this one?

SEN. GLENN GROTHMAN, STATE SENATOR, WISCONSIN: No, because we sent out something like this about 12 years ago, and it was really no big deal.

I think the underlying problem here is not enough TV types, when they talk about Kwanzaa, talk about the horrible racist violent past of its founder. And if they knew the past, I think Kwanzaa would die a quick death.


GROTHMAN: You've got to remember, Ron Karenga... BANFIELD: Go ahead, go ahead.

GROTHMAN: Ron Karenga, the founder of Kwanzaa, who just founded it in 1966, was a black separatist who felt the Black Panthers didn't dislike white people enough.

The group that he founded wound up shooting a couple of Black Panthers. He himself, for committing physical violence against women, had to spend time in prison.

Now I think the idea that our country would celebrate a special holiday created by this guy before he committed these acts of violence, and now we're going to say, "Oh, we must talk about this to the kindergarten children and how wonderful this holiday is" is ridiculous.

BANFIELD: Well, you've got to admit, though, sir, that the holiday itself doesn't celebrate the founder. The holiday itself is actually kind of nice. I mean, if you look at its principals, and here they are: unity, self-determination, collective work, responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith. That sounds pretty nice.

Well, I'm sure if you go through the ramblings and some of the worst tyrants in history you can say that they are for peace or unity or hard work or that sort of thing.

But when you have such a horrible person who founded this new holiday solely to promote -- or in part to promote -- his goofy ideology, I think we'd all have to agree that most Americans wouldn't choose to celebrate this holiday.

BANFIELD: Well, what proof do you have, sir that this -- what truth do you have that he founded this holiday solely to promote his goofy ideas? I mean, these are ideas that I think most Americans hold very dear: family, unity, faith, goodwill.

GROTHMAN: Why don't you Google -- Google him You look at anything in the background, things he said at the time.

BANFIELD: I don't get my proof from Google. I'm asking you for your proof. You're a state senator. You should be better than Google.

GROTHMAN: OK. OK. The proof is the things he said at the time. He did not like Christianity, because of course, he considered -- Christianity is a religion for all Americans and all people all around the world. He felt that blacks should not be part of Christianity, have a different holiday. He was a Marxist and he did beat up and physically abuse the women who were his followers. His own followers shot two Black Panthers.

Is this the type of guy we want to have as a founder of a holiday that we're promoting around America?

BANFIELD: You know... GROTHMAN: And quite frankly, I think that most news anchor types, before they did a nice feel-good story about Kwanzaa, presented what the founder was really about it wouldn't get off the ground in the first place.

BANFIELD: Well, I'm a news anchor type, and I'm going to put this to you right now. I wanted to get some straight answers out of you. And I wanted you to get a challenge.

And CNN approached you about this interview and asked you to appear with Roland Martin, who's a CNN commentator who's very, very passionate about this issue. He wanted to challenge you on this, and you refused. You said you didn't want to appear with someone who would defend Kwanzaa. Why on earth would you do that?

BANFIELD: Well, that's not true at all. I'd be happy to appear with someone who defends Kwanzaa.

But you're miss -- completely distorting the comments that we had earlier in the day. Earlier in the day I said if we were going to have a discussion as to how many black people care about Kwanzaa...

BANFIELD: OK, before you even go on, if we made a mistake, I've got Roland Martin ready to go. So if I've made a mistake, will you appear with Roland Martin right now? Because he is dying to get a question in. Is that OK, sir?

GROTHMAN: Well, I would be happy to take a question from...

BANFIELD: OK. Fire away Roland. You've got your time. Way to go.

ROLAND MARTIN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Sure. I would ask the senator you look at Easter. That was derived from a pagan holiday. And so do you defend that?

You talk about a made up holiday. Please tell me which of the holidays we celebrate in America that have descended from on high and were granted to us when we were born? Aren't all holidays created and made up by someone?

GROTHMAN: Well, the question, first of all, they are not created and made up by somebody, but even say a holiday like Thanksgiving, which is the holiday...

ROTHMAN: They aren't?

GROTHMAN: Which was created by the U.S. Congress. Thanksgiving is something that I think we all can appreciate. It was not created by somebody out of a desire to separate Americans, white and black. It was not created out of somebody who had, soon after he created the holiday, beaten up his own followers and he had to go to prison for it.

MARTIN: I asked you about Easter. Easter is a pagan holiday. It is derived from a pagan holiday in Europe. BANKS: If you feel Christianity is a pagan religion, then I suppose...

MARTIN: No, no, no. I'm sorry, senator. Senator, I'm a Christian. Senator -- Senator, I'm a Christian. I'm a Christian author. My wife is an ordained minister.

What I'm saying is, if you look at the origin of Easter, it actually was a combination of Christianity and also the pagan holiday where people walked around and painted themselves. Why do you think we get the painted eggs?

Banfield: (ON CAMERA): What I'm simply saying is you're denouncing the holiday because you don't like the individual. All I'm simply asking is, if you don't like it, fine, but there are people out there across America who celebrate unity, who celebrate purpose, who celebrate faith. What's the big deal? If your attack is on him, OK, knock yourself out.

But if there are people who appreciate the principles, what's the problem with that? Are you saying no unity in America? Is that wrong, is that bad?

GROTHMAN: No. Anybody can celebrate any holiday they want. The problem I have is when they talk about this holiday without getting its history. Or, given the limited amount of time we have in our public schools, when they decide to use that time to promote Kwanzaa and present it as a holiday that millions of people ought to be following, rather than...

MARTIN: So you don't want...

BANFIELD: Let me jump in here, gentlemen. You know, Senator, let me jump in. If you suggest that the history is at issue, some of the historical, you know, ancient roots of Kwanzaa have to do with a fruit festival. And it just so happens that the fruit festival is right at the end of the year, which is right around Christmas and New Year's.

So if there's any allegation that Kwanzaa was some attempt to divide white and black people in Christianity, it would seem that that time line would nullify that argument and in that same vein I want to ask you...

GROTHMAN: Do a little bit of research.

BANFIELD: I did. I just gave it to you. That's research.

GROTHMAN: It was designed specifically to be a holiday that was separate from Christmas because they -- because he wanted his own holiday.

BANFIELD: You know, he, the person you're referring to, said it has nothing to do with Christmas; it only has to do with culture.

Let me ask you this, this whole issue that you said almost no black people care about Kwanzaa...

GROTHMAN: ... at the time.

BANFIELD: One second, sir, please. You said almost no black people today care about Kwanzaa, just white left-wingers. I want to read for you this statement, and I'm going to quote it verbatim. "Kwanzaa strengthens the ties that bind communities across America and around the world and reflects the great promise and diversity of America." Do you remember who said that?

GROTHMAN: Absolutely. I remember.

BANFIELD: Who was it?

GROTHMAN: It was one of the reasons why George Bush was kind of an irritating president for some of us.

BANFIELD: But was he a left-winger? You know, this is getting -- this is borderline ridiculous. Was George W. Bush a white left- winger with a comment like that?

MARTIN: Actually, he -- actually, he was a born again Christian, Ashleigh.

GROTHMAN: I think there are some politicians who would -- who would try to ingratiate themselves to anybody. And that's the way some politicians are.

BANFIELD: OK, can I ask you what is the harm? Honestly, I have never seen anyone raise a pitch fork or a fist to celebrate Kwanzaa. What is the harm in allowing people to celebrate a cultural holiday?

GROTHMAN: Nobody is preventing anybody from celebrating it.

BANFIELD: You just asked for it to be wiped off.

MARTIN: Quit your whining about it.

GROTHMAN: Well, we obviously can't wipe it out of 300 million Americans. What we can do is we can say that, before it's presented as some special holiday, before the school children of America, we point out the background of the holiday and why it was created. And I think if we do that, it will quickly disappear.

MARTIN: You know what? You know what, Ashleigh? I heard people just like him who use similar critiques to say why we shouldn't have a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday because he was somehow a communist. And look even the senator, you know, he chooses to keep his office open on MLK day, if you do the research. And so I'm just curious to him is it OK that we celebrate MLK day? Is that OK? Can we get your permission?

GROTHMAN: Sure. There's a big difference.

MARTIN: OK. I'm just checking.

GROTHMAN: Martin Luther King -- Ron Karenga was a violent crook.

BANFIELD: What about Columbus Day, Senator? Did you keep your office open on Columbus Day?

GROTHMAN: Well, we all have our offices open on Columbus Day. Right.

BANFIELD: OK. Because some people claim that Columbus also and Columbus Day is something that we shouldn't observe, because a lot of people died.

GROTHMAN: Well, Columbus was the person who founded America kind of on behalf of the Eastern hemisphere and...

MARTIN: Oh, but you forgot his history.

GROTHMAN: And the vast majority of people benefitted...

BANFIELD: I think if you asked a lot of Native Americans they'd be pretty -- pretty upset about the idea that we celebrate how America ended up being.

MARTIN: Senator, come on, you can't pick and choose. You can't pick and choose. You can't pick and choose. Also, I'm just curious. Should we celebrate Valentine's Day. I mean, surely, that was created from on high. I mean, again, though, you're sitting here, you know, making your -- making your critique...

GROTHMAN: I don't think it was created -- I don't think it was created by someone only 40 years ago who was a violent person and a racist person.

MARTIN: Was Columbus violent? Was Columbus violent?

GROTHMAN: No Columbus was not a violent man.

BANFIELD: All right.

MARTIN: Columbus wasn't a violent man?

BANFIELD: I'm going to have to end it there.

MARTIN: OK. Got you. It's clear you don't study history, sir.

BANFIELD: Senator Grothman and Roland Martin, thank you both for your time. Thank you for this debate. And look out, Valentine's Day, because Cupid had an arrow. Thanks to both of you. Happy new year. Happy new year to all.

And we got some new numbers tonight on how many background checks the FBI did on gun buyers in December, the month of the Newtown, Connecticut shooting. We're going to have more on that in just a moment.


BANFIELD: Time now get the latest on some other stories we're following. Isha is back a 360 news bulletin. Hi, there.

SESAY: Hey, there.

The United Nations says the death toll in Syria has now passed 60,000, even higher than anyone had thought. At least 74 people were killed today in a government air strike on a fuel station outside Damascus. That's according to opposition activists. The United Nations says deaths have increased from 1,000 per month in the summer of 2011 to more than 5,000 per month since July.

The FBI performed 2.8 million background checks on people wanting to buy guns in December, a record month that capped a record year.

Avis Budget Group has agreed to buy the popular urban car-sharing service Zipcar for about $500 million. Avis said it plans to use its fleet of rental cars to beef up Zipcars on weekends when demand is high.

And welcoming back Hannah Storm, host of the Rose Parade in Southern California, her first public appearance since a propane gas grill exploded in her face. The sports broadcasting pioneer suffered first- and second-degree burns and lost her eyelashes, eyebrows and much of her hair. Ashleigh, it's good to see her back.

BANFIELD: She looks terrific. I'm really glad to see her. And she seems like she's in good spirits, too.

SESAY: Yes, she does.

BANFIELD: All right, Isha, thanks very much. We'll be back right after this.


BANFIELD: We ran out of time for "The RidicuList" tonight. I'm so sorry. But that does it for this edition of 360. Thanks so much for watching. "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts now.