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American Morning

Medicare Prescription Drug Plan; Exit Exams in California High Schools; Federal Court Could Soon Decide to Ban Ephedra

Aired May 10, 2006 - 06:31   ET


MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Checking our top stories.
Deadly weather in Texas overnight. Three killed, six more injured when at least one tornado swept through an area north of Dallas. At least six homes destroyed this morning.

More than a hundred wildfires still burning across Florida. About 30 homes evacuated in Sun City. That's near Tampa. Over on the east coast, sections of Interstate 95 will be shut down again this morning because of the thick smoke.

Let's get a check of the forecast. Chad Myers at the weather center for us.

Good morning, Chad.



SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Being stuck in the 80s not so bad, Chad.

MYERS: No. Hey, better than 52 in Boston.

S. O'BRIEN: We wouldn't mind being stuck -- absolutely.

Chad, thanks.

MYERS: You're welcome.

Senior citizens face an important deadline on Monday. They have to sign up for Medicare's prescription drug program or pay a penalty later on. Critics of the controversial program want the deadline extended. The president saying, nope, not going to happen.

CNN's Sumi Das live for us this morning in Washington, D.C.

Hey, Sumi. Good morning.

SUMI DAS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi there, Soledad. Good morning to you.

Well, in this election year, the Bush administration is looking to point to Medicare as one of its successes. So it comes as no surprise that President Bush is making one last pitch for the program before wrapping up a three-day trip to Florida.


DAS (voice over): As the push to get seniors to sign up for the new Medicare prescription program by May 15th continues, a new poll shows that close to half of seniors surveyed aren't convinced the plan is a good one. When asked, "Is the Medicare prescription program working, 49 percent responded no, 30 percent said yes.

In Florida Tuesday, President Bush made 11th hour appeals, urging seniors to join the 31 million people he says have already subscribed to the plan.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm here doing my duty as educator in chief. This is a good deal for the American seniors. And it's the right thing to do for the government. If the government makes a promise, we want to make sure that promise lives up to what we've told you.

DAS: The president will promote the dug benefit again Wednesday morning at a Puerto Rican social club in Orlando. Democrats say the many prescription plan options are confusing for seniors and ar pushing for the government to give them more time beyond May 15th without facing penalties.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're going to fight for a real Medicare program that is based upon a Medicare system that makes sure that our seniors are going to get the prescription drugs. And we are going to fight to make those prescription drugs more affordable.


DAS: President Bush says he expects one million more people to sign up for Medicare between now and Monday. After that, seniors can still sign up but they'll have to pay more -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: Sumi Das for us in Washington, D.C.

Sumi, thanks -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: If you want a sheepskin at a California high school, you need to take a test first. They call it an exit exam. But now there's a fight in court to try to end those exams. Six students at one high school challenging the exams.

David Bienick of our CNN affiliate KCRA has details for us.


DAVID BIENICK, REPORTER, KCRA (voice over): Outside the courthouse in Oakland, some students briefly hung banners saying things like, "Stop the exit exam" and "Testing is not teaching."

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: So we want to be here to show our support and to show the judge that we will not stand in silence and allow our students to be failed and denied the opportunities to equal education. BIENICK: Inside, lawyers for these six students from Richmond High School argued the state can still give the test but that the results should not determine whether a student receives a diploma. Not until the state can prove it's doing a better job of teaching the two subjects on the test, English and math.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's not fair to say it's the kids' fault. Wait a minute. Give them quality teaches and then maybe they'll pass. Teach them the material on the test, maybe they'll pass.

BIENICK: On the other hand, lawyers for the state education department say students have been given a half-dozen chances to pass the test, and special catch-up courses each time they feel. They say if the exit exam no longer counts for receiving a diploma, many students simply won't bother to study.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have evidence that shows the exit exam has, in fact, increased student participation and has increasing learning in schools by these students. We know the exam is causing more learning to go on in schools.

BIENICK: The state's latest numbers show that about 47,000 high school seniors, or about 10.7 percent of this year's graduating class, have yet to pass the exit exam. Judge Robert Breedman (ph) said he wants to hear arguments about whether to make this case a class action lawsuit before he decides whether to yank the exit exam requirement, at least for this year.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm cautiously optimistic that by the end of the week we will have a preliminary injunction that will allow every student who passed his or her classes to get their diploma, to walk the stage with their classmates. That's what this judge ought to do.


M. O'BRIEN: That report from David Bienick of our affiliate KCRA.

The judge has indicated he will rule in favor of the students probably. But the question now is, will that ruling apply to just them, the half-dozen who brought the suit, or all seniors statewide in California -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: Happening "In America" this morning, four supervisors at a Kentucky construction company charged with employing undocumented immigrant workers. Federal investigators say they found 76 undocumented workers at Fisher Homes (ph) construction sites in three Kentucky cities.

The Pentagon's plans for an explosives test in the Nevada desert on hold. The federal court says it's going to review the plans for the test. The test was scheduled to take place next month. Supposedly going to help the military learn how to target underground facilities. But critics say they fear it's part of an effort to develop nuclear weapons. An unusual discovery at a border checkpoint in Las Cruces in New Mexico. Two U.S. citizens found smuggling more than 400 pounds of marijuana in jalapeno pepper cans. Marijuana has got a street value, we're told, of nearly $400,000.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Let me see your hands! Hands up! Hands up! Hands up! Hands up!

Get them up. Come on.


S. O'BRIEN: Now take a look at this videotape from a dashboard cam. Two armed robbery suspects found by police. They were hiding in the trunk of that car.

Police in Warren, Michigan, say the driver was really, really nervous. That led them to ask him to open the trunk. That's where they found two other guys. All three 17 years old. They're being held on $1 million bond in connection with a string of gas station robberies.

And Barry Bonds missed homerun history by, oh, about a foot. It would have been his 714th homer. Instead, it was caught by Chicago Cubs outfielder Juan Pierre.

Bonds is still one homerun behind Babe Ruth for second on the career list. He's going to get another chance to catch up to the Babe tonight.

M. O'BRIEN: Nice catch on Juan Pierre's part. He's like, not on my watch. Not happening on my watch.

S. O'BRIEN: I know. It won't be me, thanks.

M. O'BRIEN: Not going to be me, thank you very much.

Dieters beware. A federal court could soon decide to ban the well-known diet supplement Ephedra. The Food and Drug Administration is asking for the ban. This is for the second time. But just what is Ephedra, and why does the FDA want it banned? ` CNN Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen with that.


ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Ephedra, also called Ma huang, comes from a plant. It contains ephedrine, an amphetamine- like compound that can affect the nervous system and heart.

Now, although Ephedra can help people lose weight and enhance their athletic performance, physicians have been concerned about it for quite some time. That's because Ephedra has been linked to heart attacks, strokes, seizures and even death. The Food and Drug Administration first tried regulating Ephedra products back in 1997. Those efforts failed because the laws regulating supplements make it very difficult to prove they're unsafe. But then, over the next seven years, the agency reviewed more than 16,000 complaints to the agency about products containing Ephedra.

And in 2003, Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler died. It was found he had been taking a supplement containing ephedrine. The next year, the FDA concluded that dietary supplements containing Ephedra did present an unreasonable risk and banned the sale of dietary supplements containing Ephedra.

The supplement industry has fought the ban, saying there's no proven links between its products and illnesses or death.

Elizabeth Cohen, CNN.


M. O'BRIEN: The ban was lifted last year on products with low doses of Ephedra, but the FDA -- pay attention now -- but the FDA...

S. O'BRIEN: Sorry. Reading through.

M. O'BRIEN: I know. The FDA contends the judge who overturned that ban didn't understand the law.

S. O'BRIEN: Right. Right. It's an interesting debate. I mean, it seems pretty well document, in fact, that Ephedra...

M. O'BRIEN: Yes.

S. O'BRIEN: ... has been linked to death and serious injury.

M. O'BRIEN: I actually didn't know it was.

S. O'BRIEN: So, the overturn was -- the overturning of the ban was a surprise in the first place.

M. O'BRIEN: Right. Exactly.

S. O'BRIEN: Still to come this morning, a string of storms covering a big path of destruction through parts of Texas. We've got more on what happened there. And also, we'll show you some of the dramatic pictures from there as well.

M. O'BRIEN: Cutting-edge video games coming to a store near you. I know a 13-year-old boy who wants to watch this piece right now. We'll show you what's expected to be some of the hot gets this year for gamers.

S. O'BRIEN: And the threat of a strike is costing Delta Airlines, even though that strike never happened. Andy Serwer is "Minding Your Business" just ahead.

First, though, a look at some of the other stories making news on this Wednesday morning.


S. O'BRIEN: A quick look at some of the stories our correspondents are following around the world today. We hopscotch from Russia to Lebanon and to Iraq this morning.


MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I'm Matthew Chance in Moscow. A state of the nation address by the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. "The country must fight corruption and take its rightful place in the global economy," he says.

But it is the population decline in Russia which the president says is the biggest problem facing the country. Not terrorism, not the strained relations with the West. And he suggested a number of ways that Russia can stop its people dying and encourage mothers to give birth to more children.



BRENT SADLER, CNN BEIRUT BUREAU CHIEF: I'm Brent Sadler in Beirut, capital of last year's historic U.S.-backed Cedar Revolution, when mass protests freed Lebanon from Syrian control. Downtown Beirut here, the target of a another big demo that's brewing today, an ugly attempt, say reformers, by Syria's allies here to topple the freely elected government. The downtown area now subject to heavy police and army presence in what's likely to be a tense day.



ARWA DAMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I'm Arwa Damon, embedded with the 101st Airborne in Kirkuk, Iraq. Now, this is one of the area stabilization plants where crude oil is separated from other gases before moved on to refineries. This area lies on 40 percent of Iraq's natural oil and gas reserves, but multiple insurgent attacks and a crumbling infrastructure have prevented production from coming anywhere near maximum capacity.


S. O'BRIEN: If you want more information on these or any of our top stories this morning, go right to our Web site,

M. O'BRIEN: It's game on in Los Angeles. Coming up, we're going to take you to the Electronic Entertainment Expo. I think you probably know that Daniel Sieberg has something to do with this story. We're going to give you a sneak peek at the coolest new video games about to hit the market, and we still pay him to do this. He would do it for free, but we actually do pay him to do this. Plus, Tom Cruise is out promoting "Mission Impossible III" movies. And, of course, fans who turned out to see him last night got a special bonus. We'll explain that coming up.


M. O'BRIEN: Top stories now.

Assessing the damage this morning in Collin County, Texas, north of Dallas. A series of tornadoes touched down overnight. At least three killed, several injuries. Some homes without power this morning.

More than a hundred fires burning across Florida as we speak. About 25,000 acres already destroyed. Once again today on the East Coast, Interstate 95 will be shut down in areas where the smoke is thickest.

And promoting that prescription drug plan. The president is set to address 300 people at a Puerto Rico center -- Puerto Rican center, I should say, in Orlando, Florida. He wants as many seniors as possible to sign up for that prescription drug plan before Monday's deadline -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: The future of video games on display in Los Angeles this week at the annual E3 Expo. A preview now from CNN Technology Correspondent Daniel Sieberg, who's in Los Angeles.


DANIEL SIEBERG, CNN TECHNOLOGY CORRESPONDENT: At this year's Electronic Entertainment Expo, Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony are trying to convince you why you should spend money on their next generation consoles.

(voice over): It was touchy-feely with Nintendo's Wii, a new name meant to symbolize togetherness, but mainly generating a lot of head scratching, like many of Nintendo's offbeat ideas, including the Wii's game controller, equipped with a wireless signal and motion sensors.

Microsoft used E3 to show off its Xbox 360 PC cell phone connection and promote its software lineup with plenty of buzz around a sneak peek of what's to come in its marquee Halo series.

Sony steered its announcement towards the graphics power of the PlayStation 3, showing how in-game characters like golfer Tiger Woods will have more detailed expressions.

TIGER WOODS, GOLFER: That's what I'm talking about.

SIEBERG: And basketball players will move in a more lifelike way.

(on camera): Who will come out ahead when all these consoles eventually hit store shelves? You, the consumer. Analysts say all the choice will help bring prices down as game play goes up.

Daniel Sieberg, CNN, Los Angeles.


S. O'BRIEN: Andy Serwer is minding our business just ahead this morning.

What are you looking at?

ANDY SERWER, EDITOR-AT-LARGE, "FORTUNE": Soledad, the city of San Antonio says online travel sites are ripping off that city.

And Delta, meanwhile, slams its pilots with a new charge.

We'll tell you all about that coming up next on AMERICAN MORNING.


S. O'BRIEN: A look now at some of the stories we're working on this morning.

At least three people are dead following a series of tornadoes in Texas.

In about two hours, closing arguments are set to begin in the trial of a priest who's accused of killing a nun.

The White House a bit embarrassed after a detailed copy of the president's schedule ends up in the trash.

Congress votes today on an important tax cut bill.

And more than a hundred fires are burning in Florida. At least four people are dead. The smoke is making driving dangerous on some major roads.

A look at those stories is just ahead. First, though, we're going to talk about a couple of travel-related stories, business-wise.

Good morning, Andy Serwer.

SERWER: Good morning, Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: How are you?

SERWER: Good to see you.

First of all, let's start in San Antonio, Texas. That city is suing online travel services including Expedia, Travelocity and Orbitz, saying that these services are not paying the full amount of hotel taxes due to that city.

Here's what's going on. Ordinarily, say you're going to stay at a Marriott in San Antonio, they'll charge you $150 a night. And you pay 16.75 percent tax on top of that. When you go to on of these online sites and you get a room, they say the city says that the online sites are not reporting the full amount. They are simply telling the city what it's costing them for these hotel rooms. They're getting the hotel rooms from Marriott for, say, $100 a night, and saying that's what their cost is, not that they're actually renting them out to you for $175 a night.

So, they're not paying the full amount of taxes, so the city claims. And the city says it amounts to $10 million since 1999.

Other cities like San Diego, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Atlanta, are also suing these sites in similar lawsuits. So another little battle about taxes and online commerce.

S. O'BRIEN: How do you track that?

M. O'BRIEN: Well, online taxes is a real problem. You know, it comes up time and again. Sales tax issues come up.

SERWER: Right. If you're buying something from Amazon and you're not in that, you know, state, obviously, you wouldn't pay taxes, or would you pay taxes?

M. O'BRIEN: Right.

S. O'BRIEN: And how much would you pay?

SERWER: And it goes on and on. That's right. And it goes on and on.

M. O'BRIEN: I'm against taxes in general. How about you? Negative taxes.

S. O'BRIEN: Yes.

SERWER: Well, yes. Who is?

S. O'BRIEN: Well, when you're driving down a pot hole-ridden road -- riddled road...

SERWER: How are the public schools?

S. O'BRIEN: That's right. Yes, Miles. Yes, Miles.

SERWER: There's that.


SERWER: Let's talk about Delta, another travel story making headlines this morning. For the first time, Delta Airlines is acknowledging that even the threat of a strike by its pilots is costing that airline millions of dollars a week.

M. O'BRIEN: Still?

SERWER: Yes, still. M. O'BRIEN: Still.

S. O'BRIEN: And what, people not...

SERWER: Well, in other words, they're -- people...

M. O'BRIEN: People say that it's over.

SERWER: Yes, companies saying that they will not book with them because of the threat of a strike. In fact, I've heard people at various companies saying that their travel departments are steering executives and employees away.

S. O'BRIEN: Why, because they think...

SERWER: Well, say you're going to book -- right, you're going to book travel for a whole bunch of employees coming up in three weeks. Well, maybe we should do another airline because there might be a strike at Delta.

M. O'BRIEN: Oh, choose another bankrupt airline, in other words. Yes.

SERWER: Yes. I guess so.

S. O'BRIEN: But they don't know that the strike's been averted?

SERWER: That's right. No, they don't know that the strike's been averted.

S. O'BRIEN: Well, for god sakes, we told you, people. The strike's been averted.

M. O'BRIEN: You should be watching AMERICAN MORNING more, don't you think?


S. O'BRIEN: But come on. I mean...

SERWER: Well, the story's been averted for now, but, you know, there's still a possibility because they haven't settled completely.

S. O'BRIEN: Right. That's true.


M. O'BRIEN: All right. Thank you very much, Andy.

SERWER: Bottom line.

S. O'BRIEN: All right, Andy. Thank you.

M. O'BRIEN: There's the bottom line. All right. Thank you.

Let's get the bottom line on weather -- Chad. MYERS: Yes, I've only got 10 seconds left.


M. O'BRIEN: Oh, sorry.

S. O'BRIEN: Sorry, Chad.

MYERS: That's all right. I have plenty more hits.