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Texas Battles Worst Fire Season on Record; Security Raised at U.S. Military Bases; Congress Returns From Vacation; Heartbreak for Fire Victims; Saving the Postal Service

Aired September 07, 2011 - 11:00   ET


FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: All right. From Studio 7, I'm Fredricka Whitfield, in for Suzanne Malveaux. Let's get you up to speed for this Wednesday, September 7th.

In Texas, more wildfires break out as the state battles its worst fire season on record. At last count, 22 new fires are burning. Those and dozens more have scorched 120,000 acres in the last week. And across the state, four people have died and more than 700 homes have burned.

For many people who have evacuated, there is heartbreak when allowed to go back home.


NICHELLE BIELINSKI, FIRE VICTIM: My heart is pounding. It's pounding so hard right now because I don't know how I'm going to react when I actually see it and stand in front of it.

Katie and Brian's house. And that's my house. That's my house.



SPELLMAN: Oh, I'm sorry.

BIELINSKI: Well, here, the oak trees are still there.

SPELLMAN: Are you all right? You're shaking.

BIELINSKI: I'm OK. I am the luckiest person in the world. My family is safe. Now I need to check on my neighbors.


WHITFIELD: And the death toll from a shooting at an IHOP in Carson City, Nevada, has risen to four. Three of the dead were members of the Nevada National Guard. The other was a civilian.

Seven other people were wounded. And authorities don't know if the gunman was targeting members of the military. He took his own life after the shooting. A terrorist attack outside India's High Court in New Delhi. A bomb exploded, killing at least 11 people and injuring dozens more. Police say the bomb was hidden in a briefcase near an entrance to the complex. There has been no claim of responsibility.

And Egypt's ousted president was wheeled back into court on a gurney today in what's becoming a familiar seen. Hosni Mubarak's trial resumed two days after clashes erupted outside the courtroom between security forces and families of those killed in the uprisings that ended his presidency. He faces a possible death penalty, if convicted, of ordering the killings.

And protests today outside Mubarak's trial were against police. The crowds were angry about clashes that followed a soccer game last night. Media reports say police providing security at the stadium attacked fans for chanting slogans against them and Egypt's former interior minister. At least 130 people were injured in the clashes.

And as the search for Moammar Gadhafi intensifies, some home video of the deposed Libyan leader has been uncovered. The video obtained by Reuters shows Gadhafi playing with a granddaughter at a compound where one of his famous tents was erected. There is also video of other family members. It is believed to have been shot back in 2005.

The U.S. is considering keeping about 3,000 troops in Iraq next year. That's according to a senior Pentagon official, but he stresses no final decisions have been made. The current agreement calls for all U.S. forces to leave by the end of this year, but Iraq is expected to ask for some troops to stay on.

A man who played a major role in sending U.S. troops to Iraq defends the decision. Former vice president Dick Cheney talked with Wolf Blitzer in "THE SITUATION ROOM."


RICHARD CHENEY, FMR. VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I don't think you can make a case that the world would be better off today if Saddam Hussein were still in power.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: So no regrets about Iraq?

CHENEY: I think we made exactly the right decisions.


WHITFIELD: Republican presidential candidates square off tonight in California. It's the first of three debates over the next two weeks.

Several of the GOP contenders took part in the forum in South Carolina on Monday, and three others join them at tonight's debate, including Texas Governor Rick Perry. Perry skipped the forum to return to Texas to deal with the wildfires. This will be his first time going up against the other Republican candidates. All right. More now on the wildfires in Texas.

The numbers are staggering. The fires have been burning across the state for almost 300 days now. And in just the last week, the flames have scorched 120,000 acres. More than 700 homes have burned to the ground.

CNN's Jim Spellman is in Bastrop, Texas, near Austin. That's where the biggest fire is burning.

So, Jim, I understand that you talked with a woman who lost everything in that fire.

SPELLMAN: Yes, Fredricka. Firefighters here are starting to make some progress. They've got the fire about 30 percent contained.

Too late, though, for over 500 homes here that were destroyed. And the families that live there are just starting to come to terms with it.

We met a woman, Linda Arebalos, a little while ago. She showed us her iPhone, some photographs on it.

She was out running errands when the fire came. She never even had a chance to go back home and grab anything. Somebody, a friend of hers, got into the fire, snapped a couple of pictures and sent her these. That's how she learned the fate of her home.

She's hoping to get in, at least lay eyes on it. Right now she's sort of trying to contemplate the future and come to grips with it.

Take a listen.


LINDA AREBALOS, FIRE VICTIM: And our house can be replaced, but I think all of the memories is what really hurts. It hits the heart when I start thinking about my babies' pictures and the things they made in elementary, and the things I put up to save to give to their kids. And it's gone. Yes, it hurts.


SPELLMAN: Linda is like just the hundreds of people that we've met here that are milling around, waiting for the opportunity to go in and try to see what happened to their homes. And if they know their homes were destroyed, try to figure out what's next for them.

Are they going to stay here in this town? Are they going to move somewhere else? How are they going to put their lives together? It's going to be a really long road for them, even long after the firefighters are gone and the fire's out -- Fredricka.

WHITFIELD: So, Jim, what about evacuations? Are there any new evacuations today since these fires continue to rage? SPELLMAN: Well, there's still about 2,500 or so people evacuated from here. Right here, there are no more expanded evacuations here, but with these intense drought conditions, almost every day we've seen new fires pop up, often destroying homes. So they know that at any minute, these kind of situations can change.

Authorities here and all across the state are really on high alert to be able to deal with that. And they are telling everybody, people, to go back into areas especially that were burned. You have to be ready to get back out again, because with these conditions, one spark, you could have a whole new fire.

WHITFIELD: All right. Jim Spellman, thanks so much, from Bastrop, Texas.

All right. So a look at what's ahead "On the Rundown" now.

First, remember the super committee created during last month's debt ceiling talks? Well, it's about to meet for the first time.

And a new study suggests if you grew up middle class, you may not stay that way as an adult. There are several reasons why.

Then, a woman sees what's left of her home in Texas after wildfires sweep through her neighborhood. Bottom line, not a whole lot left there.

Also, while the Obama administration tries to stabilize an ailing U.S. Postal Service, some are asking if it's even needed anymore.

And finally, a private university is offering a big Groupon discount to get students interested in a class about teaching.


WHITFIELD: All right. Some new on American military bases around the world.

Let's check in with our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr.

Barbara, what's going on?


News just breaking now from the Pentagon, where they have announced that force protection levels, essentially security levels at U.S. military bases, are being raised in the days now in advance of the decade anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Pentagon officials say it is mainly bases in the United States where they are now raising the so-called force protection levels, the security levels, the security measures around U.S. military bases, U.S. military installations in the United States.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta approved the measure, we're told, in recent days. This comes at the request of top commanders. What they are saying, Fred is they do not have specific intelligence about any attack against a U.S. military installation or U.S. military personnel, but the documents they got from Osama bin Laden's compound in Pakistan talked about attacks, talked about the 9/11 anniversary, and they say it is just a prudent measure now to raise the security levels. And in these coming days, counting down to the decade anniversary, we're seeing this type of growing awareness around the country -- Fred.

WHITFIELD: All right. Barbara Starr, thanks so much for that update.

All right. Summer vacation is over for members of Congress. They are returning to work today, and you can expect more battles over the budget and the country's debt.

Lawmakers are facing record-low approval ratings. In an NBC News/"Wall Street Journal" poll, only 13 percent of Americans say they approve of the job Congress is doing. Eighty-two percent disapprove.

Congressional Correspondent Kate Bolduan joins us now from Capitol Hill.

So, Kate, what are the top things on the agenda for Congress besides digesting those latest poll numbers first?

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, and trying to forget that those poll numbers exist. Those are some bad numbers, I'll tell you, Fredricka.

There is a jam-packed agenda for this fall session for members of Congress. But the question is always, how much will they actually get to? How much will they accomplish? Which probably is attributing to that very high disapproval rating.

Let me tick through some of the top priorities. This is in no way an exhaustive list.

But number one, probably not surprisingly, is the issue of jobs. Democrats and Republicans, they seem to agree on the goal, creating jobs, but have very differing views on just how to do that.

Democrats, among other things, are pushing for more infrastructure spending. Republicans are talking about rolling back federal regulation they say is hindering job growth.

Also keep an eye on the super committee. This committee created by the debt ceiling agreement begins its work this week. They are tasked with finding $1.5 trillion in additional deficit savings they have to report by Thanksgiving. They have a jam-packed agenda also.

And also, there's a laundry list of funding battles that we're talking about here. A couple that we should highlight is funding the Federal Aviation Administration. That was a big battle right before the August recess. Also looking for funding for FEMA, especially in light of the disasters and all the destruction we've seen from some tornadoes, as well as Hurricane Irene, in the past just months and weeks. There will be quite a battle over that.

And not to forget that Congress actually needs to work to avert another government shutdown just by the end of this month. So those funding battles are ahead, as well as trade deals. There are three outstanding trade deals with South Korea, Panama and Colombia. This may be one area of possible agreement, I'll tell you, Fredricka, because both sides have said reducing trade barriers with these countries will boost the economy.

A lot to get to, but again, how much will they accomplish is yet to be seen -- Fredricka.

WHITFIELD: OK. So back to that super committee. They will be meeting tomorrow. What are they hoping to accomplish?

BOLDUAN: So, tomorrow is the first meeting of the full committee, Democrats and Republicans on this committee, coming together. Democrats and Republicans, separately, are meeting today to kind of touch base ahead of tomorrow's meeting.

They will be talking about this 12-member committee. I'm told it's more of an organizational meeting, if you will. They'll have opening statements, where members will be able to talk about kind of their thoughts on the committee, goals, responsibilities, and they'll be kind of going over the rules of the committee, how they're going to come up with reports and how they are going to -- the process of kind of voting on that.

Probably a lot more in the weeds than any of us need to know. But the first public hearing which everyone will be interested in, that's next week.

And they'll be looking at the history and drivers of our nation's debt. They have a huge, huge job ahead of them, and not a lot of time to get it all done. They need to report their findings and come to some agreement, if they are going to, by Thanksgiving -- Fredricka.

WHITFIELD: All right. Kate Bolduan, thanks so much, on Capitol Hill.

All right. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney says his jobs plan will undo what he calls the failed economic policies of the Obama administration. In a speech at an international truck company in Las Vegas, Romney said his 59-point plan will get America working again.


MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: America should be a job machine, jobs being created all the time; people looking for employees to join their enterprises; young people coming out of college, able to get jobs right away; people coming out of vocational schools, able to get jobs right away; even those coming out of high school, knowing their opportunities for them. We should have a job creating machine in America.


WHITFIELD: Romney's plan includes cutting the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 25 percent. It calls for cutting government spending by five percent, except for military and entitlement programs. He says he would halt any regulations by the Obama administration that stalled job growth and he would consolidate job retraining programs.

A spokesman for President Obama's re-election campaign says Romney's plan would "tip the scales against hard-working Americans." He called it a repackaging of the policies that helped create this financial crisis.

President Obama will be revealing his jobs plan tomorrow night. CNN's live coverage of the president's address begins with a special preview on "THE SITUATION ROOM" at 6:00 Eastern Time, followed by the speech, scheduled for 7:00 p.m., and the insight and analysis on "AC 360" to follow.

All right. A lot of people who grew up middle class are slipping down that ladder. Find out who is most at risk of downward mobility when we come back.


WHITFIELD: We're giving you a chance to "Choose the News." Text "22360" for the story that you want to see.

Option number 1: "Shark Fin Ban." It's a delicacy in the Chinese-American community, but harvesting the fins of sharks for soup is threatening the species, and some California voters want to do something about that.

Number 2: a "Parking Lot Hero." In the middle of a brutal attack on a Mexican casino, this parking lot attendant saved dozens of lives.

Or number 3: "Flowers for Madonna" -- not. The pop superstar gets caught dissing a gift from an adoring fan, and the incident is now going viral fast.

You can vote by texting "22360." Text "1" for "Shark Fin Ban"; "2" for "Parking Lot Hero"; or "3" for "Flowers for Madonna."

The winning story airs next hour.

All right. New concerns about weapons being looted in Libya. We're just getting word of Russian-made surface-to-air missiles missing from a weapons depot in Tripoli.

Our senior international correspondent Ben Wedeman joins us live now from the Libyan capital with more details on this.

So, Ben, approximately how many missiles are we talking about here?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SR. INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, precisely, we don't know. And that's really part of the problem.

This is at a warehouse just outside of Tripoli, where there are many boxes of -- that should have these surface-to-air missiles, the SA-24, which is the most advanced surface-to-air missile made in Russia with a range of 11,000 feet. Now, in fact, I have -- this is the packing list for that consignment.

It includes 241 boxes with two missiles per box, and the boxes are all empty. This, in addition to this warehouse, was full of other less developed surface-to-air missiles, as well as still-intact artillery shells.

Now, of course, the concern is, and it's been a concern for quite some time, that these missiles could wind up in the wrong hands. And given the lawless situation in Libya at the moment, that's a definite possibility.

Now, we've been in touch with members of the NTC, the National Transitional Council, here in Tripoli, to ask them why this site has not been secured. And it seems they've been taken totally by surprise.

I mean, I was at that site this morning. This was in a compound where the gate has been blown off. It's got a guard house. There are no guards inside. Anybody can drive in, take whatever they want, and drive out, and that appears to be what's been done.

Now, nobody seems to know who took those weapons. There are some people in the area who say they were rebels who took the weapons. But at this point, it's something of a mystery, and it's a disturbing mystery, at that, with these missiles that can take down an aircraft, a civilian aircraft, as well as a military one.

WHITFIELD: So, Ben, the NTC, are they aware of other military weapons depots? And if so, are they taking measures to try and secure those weapons depots?

WEDEMAN: Well, what I've seen is they tend to secure those depots after the fact, after, in a sense, the horse has escaped the barn. And certainly in the days of chaos following the departure of Moammar Gadhafi, it was a free-for-all, a lot like what I saw in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

There's no central authority. There's no police. Lots of people simply just went and treated themselves to whatever weapons took their fancy.

And, of course, these surface-to-air missiles are similar to the Stingers that the United States supplied to the Afghan Mujahideen during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. When that war was over, the Americans were desperate to get these weapons back. In fact, paid more than $100,000 for every single Stinger, because they were very worried that these rockets would fall into the wrong hands.

And, of course, now we have a situation here. There are 20,000 -- according to estimates, 20,000 surface-to-air missiles in Libya, and a lot of them, at this point, are simply not accounted for.

WHITFIELD: Oh, boy. All right. Thanks so much, Ben Wedeman, for that update out of Tripoli.

All right. Back in this country now, the arrows are pointing up on Wall Street today. Stocks are on the rebound after a three-day sell-off.

Alison Kosik is at the New York Stock Exchange.

So, Alison, how much is the Dow up right now, and why?

ALISON KOSIK, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: The bulls are definitely back at work today, Fredricka. The Dow, up 190 points right now. The Nasdaq, the S&P 500, they're both up about two percent.

What you see, at least for the Dow, is the market is actually gaining back what it lost yesterday. Lots of bargain hunters are out after we saw the Dow lose for three straight sessions, losing in the triple digits. And what they're seeing is investors and traders, they're much more optimistic about President Obama's big speech that's happening tomorrow at 7:00. A lot of people are going to be watching that, expecting for him to come up with some concrete plans as to what to do to create jobs in this country -- Fredricka.

WHITFIELD: All right. Meantime, also news today about the shrinking middle class in America. How bad is this problem?

KOSIK: This is really bad. This is a survey that went out and asked the middle class, you know, what is it that you think is the American dream? And many people said, you know what it is? It's where we work hard and where we want our kids to be better financially than where we are.

But what this survey found out is, actually, that many times, the kids are not better off. Look at these numbers.

This Pew study shows that 28 percent of middle class adults actually dropped out of the middle class, falling into the lower class. Another 28 percent saw their ranking fall significantly compared to their parents. And another 19 percent had their income at least 20 percent less than their parents.

It really shows that, you know, it's really, really tough out there to kind of keep that middle class income going -- Fredricka.

WHITFIELD: All right. Does the study explain why people are falling out of the middle class?

KOSIK: It does. It gives three main factors.

First of all, your marital status. Divorced people, single people, widowed people, they are more likely to fall financially than, let's say, if you're married. Also, the education level. If you've got a college degree instead of just a high school degree, that helps you stay in the middle class.

And then it looked at drug use, that people who use hard drugs were also more likely to slip financially.

It shows you, Fredricka, that the American dream really isn't just a given anymore -- Fredricka.

WHITFIELD: All right.

Alison Kosik, at the New York Stock Exchange.

Thanks so much.

It's something they had hoped they wouldn't find. Fire evacuees in Texas returning to their homes to find nothing but ashes.


BIELINSKI: That's my house.

SPELLMAN: Right here?


SPELLMAN: Oh, I'm sorry.



WHITFIELD: Here's a rundown of some of the stories we're working on.

Next, everything they own has gone up in flames. Texas wildfire victims return home to ashes.

Then, these are dire times for the U.S. Postal Service. It could go bankrupt.

Then, how about 60 percent off a college course? A Chicago university is offering just that through Groupon.

Across Texas, a battle that has gone on for almost 300 days now. Hundreds of firefighters are back on the front lines today as wildfires spread.

In the last week, dozens of fires have burned 120,000 acres, 700 homes have burned to the ground, and four people have been killed. The biggest fire is in Bastrop, near Austin. Five thousand people there have been evacuated.

And some of the people who actually had to leave their homes in Texas can now return, but it's a heartbreaking scene for a lot of them. They are finding nothing but ashes.

CNN's David Mattingly went along as one woman got to go back to her Austin area home.


DAVID MATTINGLY, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Nichelle Bielinski hasn't seen her neighborhood since she left it behind in a cloud of smoke.

(on camera): You know what's waiting for you there?

NICHELLE BIELINSKI, FIRE VICTIM: Absolutely. There's nothing. I live on this street.

MATTINGLY (voice-over): I'm going with her to see if there's anything left. She's already confirmed the worst. Hers is one of 24 houses destroyed by fires in a neighborhood outside Austin, Texas. The only question is: will there be anything to salvage?

BIELINSKI: My heart is pounding. It's pounding so hard right now because I don't know how I'm going to react when I actually see it and stand in front of it.

MATTINGLY: A short walk down the street reveals friends and neighbors burned out as well.

BIELINSKI: Katie and Brian's house.

MATTINGLY: Then the moment Nichelle Bielinski had been dreading.

BIELINSKI: And that's my house. That's my house.

MATTINGLY (on camera): Right there?


MATTINGLY: I'm sorry.

BIELINSKI: The oak trees are still there.

MATTINGLY (voice-over): Trees were left standing, but the two- story house, gone. Brick walls fallen away. Even stonework around the backyard pool cracked and buckled under the heat.

BIELINSKI: Oh, my gosh. The numbers are standing.

MATTINGLY: The only piece still standing, a section of brick where her front door used to be. Only the house numbers are left behind.

(on camera): It's not like Bielinskis didn't see the fire coming. They did. In fact, they were standing on this very spot watching the fire cross the highway and come over that ridge. But then when it got down in the canyon, the wind caught it and the fire was moving so fast they barely had time to get out. They had 15 minutes to grab what they could and run for their lives. And it's a good thing they did because when they came back, that's all that was left of their house.

Are you all right? You're shaking.

BIELINSKI: I'm OK. I am the luckiest person in the world. My family is safe. Now, I need to check on my neighbors.

MATTINGLY (voice-over): Face to face with all her possessions in a smoldering pile of ash, Nichelle finds time to count her blessings and her losses.

BIELINSKI: We got ourselves out. Our passports are gone. Everything is gone. We have no pictures. Everything is gone.

We got out with actually what we were wearing and our cars, and our family.

MATTINGLY: And for now, that will have to be enough as the worst fire season in Texas history continues to rage on.

David Mattingly, CNN, Austin, Texas.


WHITFIELD: Extraordinary. And that's being played out many times over.

Rob Marciano is with us now.

The latest on these fire conditions is still raging. It doesn't help it's so dry and windy.

ROB MARCIANO, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Yes. We have the drought and we really don't have any rainfall in the forecast. A lot of this was exacerbated by Lee. The back side of which gave them some dry, gusty winds. That has moved out.

Now, we're looking at just dry conditions. The good news is we're seeing some cool-down at least at night. But look at the smoke and the ash. This is Austin. We're looking south and east. It's about 20, 30 miles to the south and east of Austin.

But look at all the smoke and ash, so low in the atmosphere, high pressure, not only not bringing rain, but keeping all of that debris down at the lower levels of the atmosphere. So, we have a lot of bad air quality as well.

Here's the forecast for the next five days. Temperatures will be in the 90s. But it will cool off some at night. So that's good. Temps in some spots will actually get down into the 50s. As far as what we have right now for winds, we've got winds that are not too bad, right? One, two-mile-an-hour -- we'll take that for sure. But, nonetheless, we're looking at a decent amount of smoke that's heading down to the South and the East.

All right. Will we get any rainfall from tropical system that's down here in the Gulf of Mexico which may very well develop in the next day or two? They are probably going to fly an aircraft into that thing and check it out today. But, nonetheless, our models have no idea what to do with this thing. None of them at this point bring it toward Texas.

As far as what's going on elsewhere, we now have a new tropical storm. Fredricka, its name is Maria. It's a good 1,000 or so miles out there east of the Caribbean. But, nonetheless, heading that way and may be a threat to the U.S. come this time or the end of next week.

WHITFIELD: Well, we're moving right along on that alphabet.

MARCIANO: Yes, it's been a very, very busy season.

WHITFIELD: All right. Thanks so much, Rob.

MARCIANO: You bet.

WHITFIELD: All right. Don't forget, you can vote for today's "Choose the News." Text 22360 for the story that you want to see.

Text 1 for shark fin ban. It's the key ingredient for a Chinese delicacy. But some California voters want to see shark fin stripped from restaurant menus.

Text 2 for parking lot hero. A valet leaps into action in the middle of a deadly attack on a Mexico casino. And then saves lives of dozens of people.

Text 3 for flowers for Madonna. If you have got a gift for the Material Girl, here's a tip, she hates hydrangeas. One fan just found that out the hard way.

The winning story airs next hour.

And we're also learning more details of President Obama's jobs plan. We'll talk about how -- what we know and the challenge of actually selling it to Congress in our political update next.


WHITFIELD: All right. The White House may be able to deliver the Postal Service some welcome news. The Obama administration is working on plans to save the cash-strapped agency from defaulting on a $5.5 billion benefits payment by giving it an extra three months to pay up.

Earlier today on CNN's "AMERICAN MORNING," the postmaster general stressed that's not the only help needed.


PATRICK DONAHOE, POSTMASTER GENERAL: We need radical change in the way that our business model is constructed. Too many constraints.

I mean, as you -- as I mentioned to you, I have got to ask for permission to go from six days to five days from Congress. No other business would do that. We also have to have the ability to choose our own health care process so that we can get away from a $5.5 billion payment every year.

Those are the kind of things we needy to freedom to act on right now.


WHITFIELD: The U.S. Postal Service is on target to lose $9 billion next year.

And while the U.S. population is rising, mail volume is falling for a fifth year in a row. Historically speaking, it's hard to imagine this could ever happen.

And Carl Azuz is here to explain why.

You know, how -- wow, what is the explanation as to why the Postal Service is in this predicament? We know why people are not mailing because they are doing everything electronically.

CARL AZUZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It's true. And it's technology. And you mentioned irony a second ago. And it's ironic that the Postal Service that's always been at the forefront of new technologies in America is now struggling because of a new technology we know as e- mail.

Take a look at this. We said historically speaking Ben Franklin was the first postmaster general in 1775. Since then, the stagecoach was utilized by the postal service, steamboat, railways -- all these new modes of transportation to get the mail where it was needed through rain, hail, sleet and snow.

Then, the pony express, 1860, fabled and short lived, but still something iconic.

1918, there were planes. So, the Postal Service utilized them to deliver air mail which was really forward thinking at that time.

The highway postal service began in '41 when railway travel started to decline in the United States.

And then, 1963, you see the advent of zip codes. That helped them process mail more efficiently. It helped them deliver more mail faster.

And so, these were all examples of new technologies and the irony, of course, is that it is this electronic everything today that is threatening to really take the post office down.

WHITFIELD: So, now, a lot of people are questioning, does the Postal Service -- you know, is it really needed?

AZUZ: And there are a few main schools of thought, Fredricka. One of them, there are some business leaders who talked to CNN and a couple of them said, no. We have electronic everything. We have e- mail. People can do banking online, business online.

There's not a need for a Postal Service. If packages are needed to be delivered -- well, other companies can do that.

Then there's a second school of thought that says, now, hold on a second. There is something about holding a document in your hand, hard copies are still need. That's more personal. You still need to send things reliably. The Postal Service does that.

And consider that for less than 50 cents you can stick a letter in your mailbox and have that delivered anywhere in the United States. That's pretty cool.

And then, of course, the less tangible but third school of thought that's kind of romantic when you think about it. We might have some old black and white pictures to show you about this. The Post Office and Americana.

Think about the first time you got that college acceptance letter. You wanted to call your friends. You are holding your phone in one hand, the letter in the other. The calligraphy we see on wedding invitations. The love letter that you got in the mail that many people held on to. These are sort of romantic aspects of the Postal Service, of delivery of America's history that many people don't want to let go of.

And think about that love letter, Fredricka. I mean, are you going to save a love text? No?

WHITFIELD: It's not the same, no. Not even e-mail. No, it's not.

All right. Thanks so much, Carl.

AZUZ: Thank you, Fredricka.

WHITFIELD: Hopefully, there are some resolutions soon.

All right. So, remember, we're also letting you "Choose the News." Text 22360 for the story you want to see.

Text 1 for shark fin ban. It's a battle between culture and environmentalism. Shark fin is a key ingredient in a Chinese delicacy and that's threatening an entire species.

Text 2 for parking lot hero. A valet saves the lives of dozens of people in a deadly attack on a Mexico casino.

And then next 3 for flowers for Madonna. The superstar gets caught with an open mike and breaks a fan's heart.

The winning story airs next hour.


WHITFIELD: Details are trickling in about the president's plan for job growth. Democratic sources say it's a $300 billion plan that, among other things, will focus on new infrastructure spending, targeted tax cuts and direct aid to state and local governments.

Brianna Keilar, part of "The Best Political Team on Television," live from the White House right now.

So, Brianna, how are Republicans reacting to the details that have already leaked out so far?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Fredricka, they are slamming the details saying that a lot of these things are things the White House has tried to do before.

When it comes to some of those tax cuts that you are talking about, extending the payroll tax cuts employees already enjoy and giving that to employers as well -- you have some Republicans saying, what they'd like to se is comprehensive tax reform which, of course, would certainly be very difficult. There are some concerns about how this will be paid for. The White House says that it will be paid for, meaning it will be deficit neutral. It's not going to cut into -- that it won't be cutting into the debt.

But, of course, Republicans are concerned about how that would play out. And also, we just heard some senators on the floor who were really deriding some of the education measures that the White House has proposed. One of the things they've talked about is renovating schools as a shovel-ready project, an infrastructure project that they are interested in pursuing.

And we know that certainly Republicans have opposition to that as well, Fred.

WHITFIELD: OK. And then Mitt Romney, a Republican, you know, contender. He has released his own plan. A -- 59 points to recovery plan. How does it differ from what other Republican candidates might be proposing?

KEILAR: You know, probably one of the biggest things that makes his plan different from others has to do with how he would call out China, I guess, if you will, for bad behavior, unfair labor practices. One of the hallmarks of his plan is something called the Reagan Economic Zone, which would be a partnership among countries that are committed to free trade. That's how he puts it.

But when you look at the plans, a lot of them have many similarities. A lot of the Republican candidates are proposing regulatory reform as well as tax reform, Fred.

WHITFIELD: All right. Brianna Keilar, thanks so much in Washington. Appreciate that.

So, for the latest political news you know where to go,

Spend or save? It's the question many of you ask when trying to keep within your budget. And a lot of people are now opting to spend their money on paying down debt rather than racking up more of it.

Alison Kosik has today's top tips for tackling debt.

ALISON KOSIK, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Fredricka. Yes, a new study says almost 90 percent of Americans feel that if they pay down their debt, that that's more important to them than increasing their savings.

So, if money is tight and you are figuring out which bills to pay first, Gail Cunningham from the National Foundation for Credit Counseling says first you want to tackle those living expenses. And what I'm talking about are like your rent, your mortgage, your food, utilities, insurance, medicine, child care.

And after that, make sure you make your car payments. You know, most of us depend on that car to get back and forth to work.

But most important here is don't ignore your bills, because it's only going to make your debt load you are trying to pay off grow even more. And at the very least, make the minimum payments to avoid those costly late fees and a potential hit to your credit score -- Fredricka.

WHITFIELD: So credit card debt is one of the big ones to tackle for many people, especially if you got debt on a few cards. So, you know, where do you actually begin?

KOSIK: You know what? You have to prioritize your debt and you have to figure out what works best for you.

Carmen Wong Ulrich, she's the author of "The Real Cost of Living." She says, first, write down all of the various interest rates and fees and how much you owe on each card. And you can attack the debt in two different ways. You can pay down the card with the highest interest rate first and that will get you out of the debt cycle the quickest and save you from paying added interest.

And the other option there is to pay off the card with the lowest balance first while still keeping up on the payments from your other cards. And what that could do is actually give you a sense of accomplishment and motivation to continue paying down your debt. Ulrich recommends going to and use the free credit card debt calculators there to figure out your plan. But, above all, Fredricka, try to pay more than minimum on your credit cards -- Fredricka.

WHITFIELD: All right. Alison Kosik, thanks so much in New York.

All right. So, how do you stay on top of all those bills every month? Alison will be telling you how to actually stay organized, straight ahead.


WHITFIELD: All right. As promised, more advice on how to pay your bills. Alison Kosik is back.

All right. So, Alison, you got tips when it comes to paying your bills and using automatic bill pay. When to do that?

KOSIK: Yes, I love automatic bill pay, it's great. It's an easy way to pay your bills. And it's also pretty free and easy to enroll in the automatic bill program.

But John Ulzheimer of says when it comes to bills, like your credit cable, health club insurance, cell phone, utilities, review those bills each month before you let that bill go through that where you can make sure you have enough in there to pay your bills so you don't get hit with overdraft charges. And check that you don't have unauthorized charges as well.

You can also check that rates have not changed; that fees haven't been added as well.

When it comes to your utility bill, you wan to look at that as well. Don't just send off the payment, because you really want to figure out where you are wracking up those energy cost to lower your next bill -- Fredricka.

WHITFIELD: All right. Alison Kosik, great adviser. Thanks so much.

All right. So, folks who use Groupon know they can get a pretty great deal on things like wine tastings and facials, a whole lot of other people, of course, sign up for the same discount. Well, could Groupon actually help cover some of your college tuition? A private school in Chicago thinks it might.


WHITFIELD: All right. Time to head cross-country for stories CNN affiliates are covering.

First stop, Long Island, New York. Fire investigators are trying to figure out what caused an explosion early Tuesday morning that destroyed a home in Elmont. There were no reports of a gas leak and no one was at home when it happened and no one was injured.

In Boone, North Carolina, the guy who was driving this car says he was trying to beat a red light, took the wrong short cut and then wound up stuck in rising flood waters. A lot of heavy rain caused several creeks in the area to rise Tuesday.

And when a 12-year-old Will Thomas of McLean, Virginia, heard about the 17 Navy SEALs who died last month in Afghanistan, he wanted to help their families. Donors will pledge money for every basket he makes. His goal: 17,000 baskets.


WILL THOMAS, SHOOTING BASKETS FOR SEALS: Shooting baskets for me is something that I love to do. And the fact that I could do it to help the families of the SEALs, I thought that was great.

A lot of people said that they were going to double what they were pledging if I made more.


WHITFIELD: All right. Well, good luck to him.

All right. Higher education just got a little cheaper, at least in Chicago. The National Louis University is knocking 60 percent off of the price of one of its classes through Groupon.

Nivine Megahed is the president of National Louis University, which is one of Chicago's oldest private universities. She joins me now from Chicago to tell us more on this.

So, Ms. Megahed, why a Groupon for this one class introduction to the profession and craft of teaching?

NIVINE MEGAHED, PRESIDENT, NATIONAL LOUIS UNIVERSITY: Well, at National Louis, we've always been looking for ways to be innovative and reach students in new ways. And we started to think about how students today consume social media, how they make decisions, how they use that digital world, and we had the opportunity to meet Andrew Mason, the CEO of Groupon. And this idea was born.

WHITFIELD: All right. So, how does it work? Apparently, you need a minimum of takers of this offer before anybody can get this great deal, right?

MEGAHED: Yes, absolutely. We need a minimum of 15 students. And we designed a course, we drafted this course in a way to provide an introduction to individuals who are looking to potentially change their profession to become teachers.

We are always looking for competent individuals who want to pursue the profession of teaching and this is a way to sort of wet their appetite and get their -- put their toe in the water and see if teaching is the profession they want to pursue without having to make a broader commitment to the entire program.

WHITFIELD: So, if you have at least 15 takers, what they would get is a course that's generally a little bit over $2,200 to take this course, and they'd get it for the discounted $950?

MEGAHED: Absolutely, yes.

WHITFIELD: So, what happens if you don't take the takers? Nobody gets the great deal? Do you feel like that --

MEGAHED: Yes, that's how the Groupon deal works. Yes, that's how the Groupon deal works. So, yes.

WHITFIELD: So, do you feel like -- it's fairly promising that you'll have 15 takers. Or is it just, you know, an avenue to get more attention for your university?

MEGAHED: No, we're very optimistic about it, and we really do want to raise awareness. Our other goal is to raise awareness about this opportunity. There are a lot of people out there today looking for a new direction of taking their life, there's a lot who've always said, you know, I've always wanted to be a teacher. And so, this is a way for them to explore that and it was really a way to raise awareness about the opportunity at National Louis University.

WHITFIELD: Are you able to reveal how many takers you have so far? If it's close to that minimum?

MEGAHED: On this morning -- yes, I think this morning, we're actually are at five.

WHITFIELD: Oh, OK. So, maybe now, you'll have a little bit more on that. OK. So, if this works out great, like you are hoping, 15 takers. Any chance there might be another curriculum or class that might be offered with the same kind of deal? Might this just be the beginning?

MEGAHED: If this is promising -- if this is promising, we will definitely do it, because it is, again, a way for people to explore, almost test-drive before they had to commit to a broader degree program.

WHITFIELD: All right.

Nivine Megahed, president of the National Louis University in Chicago.

Thanks so much for your time. All the best.

MEGAHED: Thank you so much.