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American Morning

Intense Fighting Continues in Gaza; Obama Considers Tax-Cut Stimulus; Palin Mother-in-Law Faces Drug Charges; Republicans Pledge to Block Al Franken from the Senate

Aired January 05, 2009 - 08:00   ET


KIRAN CHETRY, CNN ANCHOR: All right, well, it is coming up on 8 o'clock here in New York. A look at the top stories this morning. Israeli forces pounding Hamas militants in Gaza by land, sea and air. Israeli troops are now dug in on the edge of Gaza City. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak says that the offensive will continue until Israel achieves its objectives of, quote, "peace and tranquility for residents of southern Israel."
And President-elect Barack Obama considering a $300 billion tax cut this morning as part of his economic recovery plan. He meets with congressional leaders later today to hammer out the details. And while Obama has not publicly put a price tag on the entire stimulus package, aids expected to cost somewhere around $700 billion in total. We'll have more on what the tax cut portion could mean for you.

And it's also the first day in a new school and a new town for the soon-to-be first daughters Malia and Sasha Obama. Just a short while ago, a motorcade left the Hay-Adams Hotel in Washington taking the Obama girls to the Sidwell Friends School. CNN has learned that Michelle Obama was in the car with the girls. The Obamas moved to Washington over the weekend.

Back to our breaking news. Israel pounding Hamas militants in Gaza. The ground combat intensifying as Israeli forces push deeper into Gaza. Official say more than 500 Palestinians have been killed and 2,000 wounded since the fighting started ten days ago. Gaza city residents are living right in the line of fire.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We see the tanks coming closer and closer into Gaza. The (INAUDIBLE) is just by the shore. We're not being far from the shore, but we can hear the bombs in the back every other minute. (INAUDIBLE). We haven't had power for the last few days.


CHETRY: Well, despite Israel's offensive, Hamas continues to launch dozens of rockets into southern Israeli. At a news conference a short time ago, Israeli's foreign minister says they will no longer use restraint when dealing with Hamas aggression.


TZIPI LIVNI, ISRAELI FOREIGN MINISTER: This is the same Hamas which controls Gaza strip, a place that Israel left in order to give hope of peace. And now we need to act against terror, against Hamas because this is part of our responsibility as a government to give peaceful life to our citizens.


CHETRY: CNN chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour, as well as Anderson cooper are on the border of Israel and Gaza. And we'll start with Christiane.

You know, it's interesting to hear from Tzipi Livni. She said this is the area that we left. I mean, they pulled out of this area in 2005, and some say it's actually just helped embolden Hamas and make their weaponry more effective.

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, yes. And this is the big long background to this incursion that's been going on now for about ten days. I mean, as you know, Hamas won elections. They were encouraged by the United States about three years ago. They won the elections and then the world, including Israel and the United States. And the international community blockaded Gaza. And this is the result of what's going on now with some of these rockets coming out.

Israel is continuing to keep up its ground offensive. We know that they've split the Gaza strip in two. We've heard from a Gaza resident that tanks, dozens, they say, are very close to the coast, just about on to the beach. They've encircled Gaza City. They are not being drawn out into Gaza City yet, although they say they are pounding Hamas infrastructures such as workshops, such as tunnels and bunkers and those kinds of things.

But at the same time, there are a huge number of casualties. And Tzipi Livni herself told me yesterday that she knows that those images and the reality of the civilian casualties will be putting pressure on Israel in the next coming days.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST, "ANDERSON COOPER 360": Israeli defense forces say that they hit 30 targets overnight. One mosque was hit, which according to Israeli authorities was used to store weapons. But those tunnels, especially those tunnels coming from Egypt are a prime source of targets. They are really trying to stop and they kind of re-supply that Hamas might be able to get. And as Christiane said, they really divide the country.

I think the last death toll in terms of Palestinians that we heard was some 530 Palestinians, more than a hundred of them women and children. More than 2,600 people right now are known to be injured. A Norwegian doctor working in a hospital in Gaza said that the hospital has essentially been overwhelmed particularly on Sunday.

He said that they saw about three times as many patients as they have seen over the last several days. So the situation on the ground very grim for civilians in the Gaza strip. This conflict, though -- Israel has learned a lot of lessons from 2006 when they went against Hezbollah. AMANPOUR: That's right. Back then, if you remember, they implied that it was going to be a swift, quick defying of Hezbollah across the Lebanese border and to stop them from firing the rockets into northern Israel. Well, it didn't go as quickly as they thought. But they are now saying that they feel they've learned lessons from that experience. They point out the differences.

The Gaza strip is a small strip just behind us, about double the size of Washington, D.C. It, unlike the Hezbollah, it's not got a border that can reinforce it with weapons right now. There's no Syria. There's no active way it can bring weapons in here. But the fact of the matter is it is still urban territory there.

COOPER: Very densely populated.

AMANPOUR: Yes. And it's very difficult to see how, in fact, this is going to be fully over. And Israel has been very careful not to say that they want to, you know, eliminate all the Hamas rockets, because they know they won't be able to militarily. They are talking specifically about destroying, weakening the capability and, more important, the motivation, the will of Hamas to send missiles and rockets into Israel.

COOPER: There have been some in Israel who have said that they felt this was important to show that -- to kind of regain the deterrent value that Israel has held on to for many years. That after the 2006 incursion. Both the battle against Hezbollah. There's a -- there was a large sense, especially in the Muslim world that Hezbollah won that conflict.

AMANPOUR: Certainly, politically, it came out stronger. Israel points out that actually, you know, since that war, they haven't had missiles coming in from Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. But, yes, the deterrent is always a big deal for Israel. But, look, the real question is how does this end? Even if they manage to tamp down Hamas' willingness to use those rockets, how does it end? Because Hamas is there. It was elected. Nobody is talking to Hamas, nobody is engaging Hamas. It is the huge elephant in the room that is a reality, but it is not being dealt within any of these peace processes.

Of course, Israel believes that its action is going to so weaken Hamas that it will empower the moderate Palestinian authority. But again -- and what does that mean? Can they go back into Gaza on the back of Israeli tanks? There's a huge big question out there on how to fully end and resolve this politically.

COOPER: And diplomatic efforts are under way, Kiran. As you know, Nicolas Sarkozy is expected in the region today. There's also delegation from the European Union that's going to be meeting with Israeli authorities, with Mahmoud Abbas, with Palestinian authority people, as well as Egyptian authorities. So we'll see how the diplomatic efforts go over the next 24 hours or so -- Kiran.

CHETRY: And Anderson, you brought up the humanitarian crisis. The situation there. I mean, the descriptions in these hospitals of patients literally lining the hallways and the floors, not being able to get enough supplies to them. If not for any type of long-term cease-fire, what about a temporary halt to try to get some supplies and some desperately needed resources into the injured and wounded?

COOPER: The Israelis have said that they are allowing 80 trucks in today across two border checkpoints with medical supplies. Some fuel and also some food supplies, but the needs are clearly great.

AMANPOUR: They're huge. And they've told us many times when we've asked there will be no cessation for humanitarian corridors. It's either going to stop or it's not. And we do hear some activity in the background. I must say it's less than it has been over the last ten days of this air and ground incursion. There have been some rockets that came out this morning.

But in terms of humanitarian, Gaza already is a place where 80 percent of the people rely on international handouts, and they simply haven't had what they need. Not just over the last two days, but over the last several months. There's been a blockade for the last three years.

COOPER: And here on the Israeli side, we've seen more than 16 rockets coming over today. I'm not sure the actual total number was 16 as of a few hours ago. No death toll -- no deaths, though, reported thus far here on the Israeli side -- Kiran.

CHETRY: All right. We have Christiane Amanpour and Anderson Cooper for us on the border of Israel and Gaza. Thank you.

ROB MARCIANO, CNN ANCHOR: Topping our "Political Ticker" this Monday morning: President-elect Barack Obama now searching for a new commerce secretary nominee. New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson withdrew his name from consideration because of a federal investigation into a state contract awarded to a campaign contributor. Richardson says he and his administration acted properly, but that ongoing investigation could delay his confirmation. Obama says he accepted Richardson's decision with deep regret.

And the president-elect has tapped Virginia Governor Tim Kaine to head the Democratic National Committee. Kaine will replace Howard Dean. He'll serve on a part-time basis until his gubernatorial term ends next year. Dean plans to step down as the DNC chairman January 21st, the day after Barack Obama's inauguration.

And a political showdown looms in the Senate when Roland Burris, the controversial appointee to fill Barack Obama's Senate seat, tried to take his place in the chamber tomorrow. The Senate's top Democrat and Republican will meet today to try to find a bipartisan solution. Majority Leader Harry Reid says they have the legal authority to block Burris's appointment, but has left open the possibility he could be seated.

Burris was picked by embattled Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, who is accused of trying to sell Obama's vacant seat to the highest bidder. Burris telling CNN Sunday he is not concerned about the political cloud hanging over his selection. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

VOICE OF ROLAND BURRIS (D), ILLINOIS SENATE APPOINTEE: I am the duly appointed -- legally appointed United States senator from the state of Illinois. And I certainly expect that the senators will recognize that and do not deny Illinois its equal representation as we get under way in this 111th Congress. It is my hope and prayer that they will certainly have gotten the message that what the governor has done regardless of his problems, they're not my problems, there's no taint on me.


MARCIANO: And two months after Minnesota voters went to the polls, there may finally be a winner in the Senate race. State election officials today are expected to announce Democrat Al Franken to be the winner over incumbent Republican Senator Norm Coleman. After a final recount, Franken was ahead by 225 votes. Coleman's campaign has indicated it will challenge the results in court. That could prevent Franken from being seated when the new Congress convenes tomorrow.

CHETRY: Well, a little more than a week after Sarah Palin's daughter gave birth, there are new questions surrounding Bristol Palin's future mother-in-law. Did politics play a role in her alleged drug arrest?

Also, breaking political news this morning. President-elect Obama planning to include $300 billion in tax cuts as part of a massive economic recovery plan. So what does that mean to you? Ali Velshi joins us to break it down. It's 11 minutes after the hour.


CHETRY: 13 minutes after the hour. Ali Velshi is back. He's "Minding Your Business." We're talking about this $300 billion tax cut proposal...


CHETRY: team Obama. And, you know, we talked about the bailout. We talked about how much we're in the hole.


CHETRY: How does an additional $300 billion leaving the federal government right now make sense?

VELSHI: It doesn't. And Jeff Sachs was in here a little while ago explaining that this is a very dangerous thing to continue to go deeper into the hole in order to get Republican support, which is largely what seems to be behind this. The idea that the Republicans have been so against necessarily digging a deeper hole so they wanted tax cuts, but it doesn't make sense.

You really -- there are only two ways you can deal with a budget deficit, and this is in your house or in the government. You either make more money or you spend less money. You can't do both at the same time.

So, in other words, we're spending more money because of a proposed stimulus bill in order to help this economy going and we are taking in less money because we're giving tax cuts. The overall thinking on this, and if you believe in trickle-down economics, you think that if businesses particularly get a tax cut or even wealthy individuals get a tax cut, they are more likely to use the money that they didn't pay for taxes and invest it somehow in the economy -- hiring new people or buying -- you know, buying things.

The problem we've got right now is that that may work in the long run, but we have a problem in the short run right now. So, the plan, as we're understanding it to be right now -- at least as some people are reporting it, is a tax cut that would give individuals somewhere between $500 if you're an individual, $1,000 if you're a family. And it would really be a credit off of the Social Security and Medicare payments that you pay at work.

And then there would be a business side of this whole thing, which would allow businesses to write off some of the losses that they've taken in 2008 and 2009, to reduce some of their tax bills and maybe even give them a credit for new hiring and to reverse some layoffs.

But the math is very difficult on this to understand. How it is you can justify some $300 billion in tax cuts, particularly since it's something Barack Obama said very clearly wasn't likely to happen in the way that it's happening now.

MARCIANO: Well, tax cuts have worked in the past but we're in a pretty big hole here.

CHETRY: Right.

MARCIANO: And these tax cuts are even greater than the one that George Bush presented a year ago.

VELSHI: Absolutely. If they work, they work well. If you really stimulate people to spend money and hire people, that's what we want. Ultimately, this recession started in the housing sector, but ultimately, it's about stopping the bleeding in the jobs front. And if you can convince companies that I'm not going to make you pay as much tax if you take that tax money and you create jobs or factories or products or hire people, it could work. A lot of if's in there.

MARCIANO: Are you back again or you just do blogging?

VELSHI: I think I'm done. I'm blogging.

MARCIANO: OK. Well, if you have questions for Ali, e-mail him.

VELSHI: Send them over. Yes.

CHETRY: All right. Thanks, Ali. Well, by the way, he is blogging as he said. Go to and ask your question. Ali, post your comment. He's been reading some of them. He's been answering others. So, he will talk to you this morning. Thanks, Ali.


MARCIANO: Bristol Palin's future mother-in-law and grandmother of her newborn busted on drug charges, but did the November election pay play a role in the investigation? Hear what they're saying about that -- coming up.


MARCIANO: Allegations this morning of political meddling in the arrest of Sherry Johnston. She's the grandmother of Bristol Palin's newborn son. Alina Cho is following the story for us and joins us now with details of this.

Now, this seems almost like a movie.

ALINA CHO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it does and it's similar to a case that we saw a couple of months back, Rob. Good morning everybody. You know, this latest report is coming out of the "Anchorage Daily News." An explosive charge, really. The allegation? Political influence and favoritism in the drug case involving Sherry Johnston.

Now, the report says there was a delay in the search warrant involving Johnston because of the November election. Now, Johnston, you'll recall, is the mother of Levi Johnston. Levi is the father of Sarah Palin's daughter Bristol's new baby Tripp. Now, Sherry Johnston was arrested back on November -- or December, rather, 18th on charges that she sold the prescription painkiller OxyContin, which in some circles is known as "hillbilly heroin."

She was taken into custody on the very same day the search warrant was issued. Now, the paper is quoting a drug investigator who reportedly wrote in an e-mail, quote, "This case became anything but normal. It was not allowed to progress in a normal fashion. The search warrant was delayed because of the pending election, and the Drug Unit and the case officer were not the ones calling the shots."

Now the Alaska Public Safety Commissioner admittedly told the paper there was nothing irregular on how the case was handled, and that no one in the governor's office knew of the investigation or the search warrant until it was served.

Now, tension between Governor Palin and state troopers is not new. You'll recall that during the election, Palin was accused of trying to fire a trooper who happened to be her ex-brother-in-law. She was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing by the state personnel board, but, Rob, this seems to be another case of he said/she said or, in this case, really he said/he said. We'll have to see how it plays out.

MARCIANO: Huge allegation, you know.

CHO: It is.

MARCIANO: Unless you have some sort of proof that, you know --

CHO: And we should mention that CNN has reached out to the governor's office and to all parties, and we've not yet heard back. So we are waiting on that.

MARCIANO: All right. Well, we'll wait some more and hopefully we'll have some answers soon. Alina Cho, thanks.

CHO: You bet.

CHETRY: State officials have finally confirmed that Al Franken is the winner of Minnesota's long drawn-out Senate race, but see who's saying not so fast, and how far some may be prepared to go to block him from being seated.

And breaking news out of Gaza this morning. New airstrikes, massive ground battles, and CNN is on the frontline. CNN chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour and our own Anderson Cooper live along the Gaza border next. It's 21 minutes after the hour.


CHETRY: Minnesota state officials have confirmed to CNN that Al Franken is the winner of the long drawn-out Senate race against incumbent senator, the Republican Norm Coleman. But now GOP leaders are saying they will do everything they can to prevent the former comedian and "Saturday Night Live" cast member from being seated until all legal matters are settled even if that drags on for months.

Texas Senator John Cornyn is chairman of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, and joins me from Capitol Hill.

Senator Cornyn, thanks for joining us this morning.


CHETRY: So, it does look like, I mean, after a lot of back and forth and two months after the election that the State of Minnesota is going to be declaring Al Franken the winner of the race, of the recount today. You said that Republicans are going to block Democrats from seating him. What is your argument?

CORNYN: Well, there's the Senate rules which require an election certificate, which won't be issued for seven days after the canvassing board makes its announcement. Its work is concluded. And then, of course, there are the issues that have been raised in the Minnesota Supreme Court, in which will be raised in front of a three-judge panel about double counted ballots and other irregularities in the process which are important to make sure that every vote counts.

CHETRY: So you're saying that the legal avenues for Norm Coleman have not been exhausted. You don't want Al Franken to be seated or anyone to be seated until all the legal challenges in Minnesota are up?

CORNYN: That's correct. And the rules to the Senate -- rule two of the rules of the Senate requiring election certificate. In Minnesota, that has to be signed by both the secretary of state and the governor, and it can't be issued before seven days of expired after the canvassing board's decision. So we're getting closer to a resolution, but we're not there yet.

CHETRY: All right. So, I mean, how much of this is just stalling then, the inevitable? I mean, if they are claiming that this is done, they are claiming that they've decided that Franken is the winner after recounting some of these ballots, aren't you just delaying the inevitable?

CORNYN: No, not necessarily. There's a matter of the lack of a uniform standard by which to count the absentee ballots. The Coleman campaign still contends that there are about 700 absentee ballots that were not counted, and its pointed to the likelihood that about 133 ballots were double counted in Franken's favor. So these sorts of issues needed to be sorted out. The best place to do that is in court where the rules of evidence apply, so we know with confidence at the end of the day who got the most votes in Minnesota in the Senate race.

CHETRY: You know, a lot of people have watched this race for a number of reasons. One of them, though, is that, you know, some are asking how did the GOP get into this situation? You guys lost seven Senate seats. Norm Coleman was, at one point, a pretty popular incumbent, and he is doing everything he can now to hang on to a seat by a political newcomer. What happened in Minnesota with this Senate seat?

CORNYN: Well, I think it's what happened nationally. It was a tough year for Republicans. You correctly point out that Republicans have lost. If this seat goes down, we lost 13 -- if this seat goes down, 14 Senate seats in the last two years. We're in a pretty tough spot with 41 Republican senators, hopefully, 42 if Coleman prevails in the litigation.

But that's almost a filibuster-proof Senate, which means that the White House, controlled by President-elect Obama, the Democratic majorities in the House and the Senate can pretty much do what they want. But it's important, I think for the country, to have checks and balances on that power. That's at least part of the foundation of our country and our constitution, the notion of checks and balances on the power in the country's best interest.

CHETRY: Well, if Franken wins and Norm Coleman does lose this seat, you're basically going to have a former comedian, liberal air America radio host taking over this seat. Are you going to be able to work with Al Franken in some sort of consensus in the Senate?

CORNYN: I hope so. And just like we hope to be able to work with President-elect Obama. And I think there will be a broad middle ground where we can work together in the best interests of the country. It really depends a lot on the Democratic leadership in the Senate and the House and the White House. Whether they're going to try to press the liberal agenda of some of their supporters or whether they are going to try to rule from the center.

I would tell you that President-elect Obama's cabinet appointments have been very promising, very reassuring in that regard. So I'm hopeful and somewhat optimistic, we'll be able to get some good things done for the American people.

CHETRY: Now in addition to Norm Coleman, Al Franken situation, you have another unusual situation and that's the vacant Illinois Senate seat that Rod Blagojevich, who's under fire and possibly being investigated for some pay-to-play allegations in Illinois, appointing Roland Burris. And there's a little bit of a fight going on as to whether or not he's going to be seated. Where do you weigh in on that?

CORNYN: Well, you know, interestingly enough, it's the same Senate rule, Senate rule two that requires an election certificate. In this case a nomination certificate signed off by the secretary of state that Mr. Burris does not have, and that's the reason why Democrats are saying they won't seat him, in addition to concerns about tainting -- the tainted process of this governor who has been charged with some very serious crimes.

You know, I think you can really can't have it both ways. You can't say senator-nominee Burris can't be seated because we're concerned about the process and, yet, turn a blind eye to Minnesota law and the possible double counting of ballots in Franken's favor and the other irregularities. That's why I think we just need to take a deep breath and let this sort its way out in court.

CHETRY: Are you guys going to filibuster?

CORNYN: Well, filibuster course in the Senate means unless you can get 60 votes to proceed, then you don't. We continue debating it. And I think that that is the likelihood here if the Democrats try to ignore the Senate rule two in Minnesota Law, and try to short-circuit this process.

CHETRY: Texas Senator John Cornyn, thanks for talking to us today.

CORNYN: Thank you very much.

MARCIANO: Coming up on half past the hour, here are this morning's top stories. Israeli forces pounding Hamas militants as their military offensive in Gaza enters a tenth day. More than 500 Palestinians have been killed and 2,000 wounded since the fighting began. Israeli's foreign minister says the military incursion into Gaza shows that Israel will no longer use restraint when targeted by Hamas. They will retaliate.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, they're calling it a new era for Iraq and U.S.-Iraqi relations. The new U.S. embassy in Baghdad is officially open for business. Officials actually moved into the $700 million facility two weeks ago but celebrated its official opening today. And Barack Obama plans to hit the ground running in Washington this week. He is meeting with congressional leaders today and hopes to have a massive economic recovery bill on his desk ASAP. It includes a $300 billion tax cut for workers and businesses. Today is also a big day for the Obama girls. They are starting classes at their new school, Sidwell Friends.

CHETRY: Well, back to our breaking news. Israel attacking Hamas militants in Gaza from land, sea, and air. The combat intensifying as Israeli forces push deeper into Gaza. In a defiant televised message, the armed wing of Hamas says it has thousands of fighters ready to battle Israel in Gaza.

Despite Israeli's offensive Hamas launches dozens of rockets into southern Israel. CNN chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour and Anderson Cooper are on the border of Israel and Gaza. And Christiane, so we just heard from this Hamas spokesman, he came out on TV this morning and said that showing clear defiance, promising more bombs and even threatening to take more Israeli soldiers hostage. Again, we're talking about the armed wing of Hamas. Is this the party line as well for Hamas?

AMANPOUR: Well, look. There is obviously the armed wing which has been on the television and been making these defiant statements since the action by Israel began. The political wing has been quite quiet and mostly really are in hiding. But as the tempo of the battle rages so does the tempo of the claims and counter claims and the threats and counter threats.

Because as Hamas was saying that Israel dropped another load of leaflets on the center of Gaza and said that we have been engaging Hamas, they have been engaging us and we are going to do whatever it takes to silence them. And in these latest leaflets they have said to residents to leave residential areas and go into the center of the city. It's unclear quite what that means and what the implication of that is.

But Tzipi Livni herself today have said in a press conference that the equation, "has changed." Up until now, she has told a press conference Hamas' attacks with rockets and we've replied proportionately, no longer. And yesterday, they said to us it's not just the degradation of their capability and motivation they are seeking but also an end to the smuggling of weapons. Listen to what she said.


TZIPI LIVNI, FOREIGN MINISTER OF ISRAEL: Another important issue to address not only by Israel but by the international community is the issue of the smuggling of weapon. Because when we are targeting and effecting their ability, if the day after the operation, we see more float of weapon coming to Gaza strip from Egypt, the meaning is that we're going to face in the future the need to address another problem. So the idea is to stop future armament of Hamas and this need to be handled on the Egyptian-Gaza border.


AMANPOUR: So as they try, as they try to work out a strategy for the future, there are also international officials right from the president of France on down coming here to try to figure out a solution to this.

COOPER: But right now, the military action continues and it's very difficult for us to get an accurate sense on the ground exactly what the situation is. This is about as close as we're allowed to get right now to Gaza-Israeli authorities are not allowing international foreign journalists into Gaza to cover the situation on the ground. We have been told by Israeli defense forces spokespeople that they carried out 30 attacks overnight. Six Israeli soldiers were wounded in those attacks. They've essentially cut Gaza in two to try to stop any kind of resupply that may take place.

There's also some reports from the south of Israeli columns moving further south, perhaps trying to divide it even into smaller sections. There are a lot of Palestinians have been complaining, though, that if somebody is wounded further south, they can't get to one of the better hospitals further north because of the division. It's causing a lot of difficulties on the ground. Obviously, just beyond just military.

AMANPOUR: Yes, the truth of the matter is there's a great deal of fear in Gaza amongst the residents. Because not only are the Israelis going after the Hamas infrastructure in terms of its military capability but these are built-up area and so inevitably there have been a lot of casualties.

Israel itself is admitting, Tzipi Livni that there have been civilian casualties regretting those but they are being overwhelmed in Gaza City right now. and the people are questioning where are we to run to? What can we do? You know in many of these wars and assaults that we've witnessed there has always been a vow for people to run out, to get out. In this case all the borders are closed. Those who want to get out cannot get out and that is increasing the danger for them.

COOPER: It's obviously not just the border with Israel but it's also the border with Egypt. That also has been closed. Residents cannot go into Egypt; 530 Palestinians have been killed. A Norwegian doctor who is volunteering in a hospital in Gaza has said that as many as a hundred of those killed have been women and children. But at this point, the battle continues and really with no sight of letting up.

AMANPOUR: Yes. It's going to be very difficult to see how they finally put an end to Hamas threat but of course, these casualties, the reality of them and the images that are going around the world are going to raise the pressure on Israel and the foreign minister knows it and has told us that herself.

COOPER: And Kiran, the rockets do continue to come into Israel. More than 16 rockets have fallen in Israel around this area Ashkalon and elsewhere today. But there are no reports of any fatalities in Israel today. Kiran.

CHETRY: Anderson and Christiane, quickly, you had mentioned once again the difficulty of, if indeed, there is progress, militarily by Israel in being able to stop Hamas, who fills that power vacuum and have we heard from Mahmoud Abbas or the Fatah movement about what their take is and what they plan to do what is going on there?

AMANPOUR: Well, we haven't actually heard much from President Abbas. We have heard from the chief Palestinian negotiator, Saab Erakat who has been on the airwaves and calling for an immediate cessation. Because they are saying that the most important thing is to stop the assault that is endangering the people admitting, of course, that the Hamas rockets must also stop coming into Israel but exactly that is the point.

What happens in the end? This is a piece of Palestinian territory. 1.5 million people in there. Hemmed in with nowhere to go and the leadership there that they elected is Hamas. The huge elephant in the room in any type of diplomatic solution to this, even as they try to resolve the peace process.

I mean, yesterday, incredibly, Tzipi Livni told me that she thought that this assault actually would help the peace process by strengthening the moderate Palestinian authority and weakening Hamas. We don't know whether that is going to be able to be played out like that.

CHETRY: All right. Anderson Cooper and Christiane Amanpour on the Gaza-Israeli border for us this morning, thank you.

MARCIANO: A little bit of an ice storm cranking up across parts of the country. Our Reynolds Wolf has been tracking it in the CNN severe weather center. Hi, Reynolds.

REYNOLDS WOLF, CNN METEOROLOGIST: How right you are, Rob. Certainly, tough times for people in Dallas and Little Rock and the western Carolinas. Not only that but we have another Pacific storm ramping up in the Pacific northwest. We'll give you the full story coming up right here on CNN. AMERICAN MORNING, your Most News in the Morning.


MARCIANO: Welcome back to the most news in the morning. Take a look at this. Gorgeous shot. If you've got HD in all it's glory, there it is, the Capital, the Mall there down to your right and the sun coming up. It's - actually you guys switched cameras on me. Anyway, we got two cool shots both in HD. So if you haven't made the switch, you may want to do that.

Reynolds Wolf down there in the CNN severe weather center, tracking the weather in D.C. and other places where it's a lot worse. Hi, Reynolds.

WOLF: That's right. You know, we got some rough weather in parts of the country. For people in Dallas who have been off for the holidays and heading back to work and this morning, they're going to be dealing with some icy conditions along parts of i-35, especially north of Dallas. I'm thinking of places like Denton, here at North Texas University is going to be kind of icy there.

For parts of Little Rock, Arkansas, same deal. And into the Carolinas not so much of an issue yet but later on that could be a big problem. You want to talk about a big problem, I mean an enormous problem, try the Pacific northwest. It's a combination of rain, sleet, snow and snow really heavy in the highest mountain passes but still with all the mudslides you've had especially in parts of Oregon, the additional rainfall not too much of a help.

In the middle of the country, no precipitation expected at all and still very dry conditions and plenty sunshine. You see the pockets of freezing rain that we anticipate through the mid morning hours and possibly into the afternoon. So there is a chance you may get a double whammy in Dallas. You might be heading home this afternoon on your way home from work and still be dealing with those icy conditions. So just take it easy out there.

Now in terms of your temperatures in Dallas, what's interesting, the high 34 degrees. We flash back to Saturday where the high was in the 80s. So what a strange turn of events and then certainly the turn of events in places like Minneapolis where you have 19 degrees and 32 Chicago, 49 in the nation's capital. Tomorrow in D.C. you may be dealing with some scattered sleet showers and then back to New York and Boston mid to some low 40s and not too bad in Tampa. Check out Tampa near Raymond James' Stadium with 81 degrees and 79 in Miami and Phoenix with 60.

San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle mainly into the 40s. OK. Mr. Marciano, you are caught up. Let's send it back to you in New York.

MARCIANO: Buddy, listen, stop - don't call me tough guy. You know I'm a big teddy bear. People up here are going to get the wrong impression of me.

WOLF: That's true. You're a karate man and you bruise on the inside.

MARCIANO: OK. Man, it's a deal. We'll talk to you later, slapstick. Over to you, Kiran.

CHETRY: All right. Well I love the two of you. This is what goes on the weather center. This is the type of stuff that we only are privy to every now and then.

Well, all right. We're going to take a quick break. When we come back, we're going to talk more about John Travolta's teenage son and his sudden death. And now the new questions about his seizure and fall. There's an autopsy scheduled for today. We'll have the latest. It's 42 and a half minutes after the hour.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) CHETRY: Today, we learn just what killed John Travolta's son. Pathologists in the Bahamas today will be assisting to try to figure out what happened as they conduct Jett Travolta's autopsy. Alina Cho is following this for us. It was just shocking news. I mean, we knew that John Travolta had two children, a son and a daughter and then to hear that his son died it was just shocking.

ALINA CHO, CNN, CORRESPONDENT: It was shocking and heartbreaking. So heartbreaking for the family and those around him. Good morning, Kiran. Good morning, everybody. You know that autopsy is expected to happen today and we could learn a cause of death as early as tonight. Now, John Travolta and Kelly Preston released these photos of their son Jett just yesterday. The 16-year-old's body was found Friday morning in a bath room at the family's home inside the Bahamas. The teen apparently had a seizure and hit his head on the bath tub.

Travolta and Preston have said that Jett got very sick at an early age, at age two and was diagnosed with something we're learning about now called Kawasaki syndrome. The family has blamed that illness on household cleaners and Travolta has admitted he was obsessed with keeping Jett's face clean. Last night on "Larry King Live," a reporter who covers the family says seizures were common.


LARRY KING, CNN HOST: Carlos Diaz, do we know how often Jett had seizures?

CARLOS DIAZ: It was. They were prevalent in his life. You know, they were common in his life. It was common. And the Travolta family took great lengths to make sure that he was well taken care of. You know, there was a baby monitor in his room at all times so they knew how he was sleeping. There was a chime in the bathroom so they knew if he got up in the middle of the night, he had two nannies.


CHO: We should point out that critics have charged that Kawasaki syndrome is rare in someone over the age of eight and that Jett was actually autistic. That's what the critic say. John Travolta many people know is one of the most famous advocates of the Church of Scientology which disapproves of drug and therapy treatment. Now the family says that Jett was spectacularly supervised and just this morning the "New York Post" is quoting an ambulance driver saying that Travolta held Jett's hand in the ambulance and begged for him to live. Once the autopsy is complete, Jett's body will be flown to Florida for burial. His family has a home there.

John Travolta and Kelly Preston also issued a statement last night saying "Jett was the most wonderful son that two parents could ever ask for and lit up the lives of everyone he encountered. We are heartbroken that our time with him was so brief."

And Kiran, as I pointed out earlier, John Travolta and Kelly Preston had invited 60 friends to come to the Bahamas for what was supposed to be a wonderful, happy celebration of New Year's and, of course, they are in seclusion right now, not surprisingly and surely they are leaning on these friends now.

CHETRY: Such beautiful child, the pictures that they showed really show how close they were as well. So it is a sad situation. And do they have any more details? I mean, they are saying seizure, possibility of a seizure and then hitting his head, about how long he was in the bathroom before he was discovered?

CHO: Well I believe that he was last seen entering the bathroom the night before. His body was discovered about 10:00 a.m. Friday morning. The big question really is when we get the autopsy is exactly what the cause of death was. The big question is did he hit the bath head-on in the bathtub first and then have the seizure or was it the other way around? And a lot of people are asking that question. And hopefully we'll find out something soon by the end of today.

CHETRY: The gap in time from when he was last seen to when he was discovered as well. So --

CHO: Right. Well, it's important to point out that was overnight. But, yes, last seen entering the bathroom in the evening hours of Thursday and the body was discovered on Friday morning.

CHETRY: All right. Alina, very sad story. Thank you.

CHO: You bet.

MARCIANO: "CNN NEWSROOM" just minutes away now. Heidi Collins at the CNN Center in Atlanta with a look of what's ahead. Hi, Heidi.

HEIDI COLLINS, CNN ANCHOR: Hi there, Rob. That's right. Here is a check of what we're working on in the NEWSROOM. Barack Obama goes to Washington and gets to work. New details this morning of what could be the first big move of his upcoming presidency.

And fighting rages in Gaza and Israel faces more rocket attacks. As the crisis deepens, diplomatic efforts to find a solution intensifies.

And the frustration boil over at the border. Truckloads of humanitarian aid languish at the border as the needs grow more desperate on the other side. We've got it all for you and we get started at the top of the hour right here on CNN. Rob.

MARCIANO: All right. Heidi, we'll see you in about 10 minutes.


MARCIANO: It is almost 50 minutes after the hour. We'll be back.


MARCIANO (voice-over): Pile on some pounds over the holidays? Join the chubby crowd.


MARCIANO: Sir Richard Simmons is here live. Can you believe this guy is 60?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: These are for you! Now lift and lift!

MARCIANO: For a smaller behind in 2009, you're watching the most news in the morning.




CHETRY: All right. Well, we've all heard just dance but it may be hard for some of us to believe that fitness and exercise guru Richard Simmons is still doing all that at 60. But he is here and this is his first DVD actually in 15 years. It's called "Party Off the Pounds." Sounds like the perfect plan for the new year. Richard Simmons joins me now.

You know, we need to do it at 6 a.m.

RICHARD SIMMONS, FITNESS GURU: Well I was here waiting at 6:00 banging on the doors! Help me! You know I decided that, you know, the adults, everyone in America are trying to lose weight. My motto is a smaller behind in 2009. And you've got to exercise and you have to exercise vigorous and you have to do it all the time if you want to see the weight come off. Party off the pounds.

CHETRY: How did you do that? What was your motto in 2008? Because that one rhymed.

SIMMONS: You'll feel great in 2008.

CHETRY: All right. I love it. You had to wait 15 years to put out another DVD?

SIMMONS: Well you know I have 54 videos. I have 15 videos and Time-Life DVDs now. Time-Life took them over. And I wanted to do something new. I built a shopping mall inside a Hollywood studio with great songs like "Like a Virgin." And you know all these wonderful songs. "Oh, Mickey, You're So Fine." "If I Could Turn Back Time."

CHETRY: A pull back to the ''80s.

SIMMONS: And so people need -- you know a lot of people can't afford to go to gyms now. They can afford to get a series of DVDs and do them at home.

CHETRY: That's right and also not to embarrass themselves right? They can do it in --

SIMMONS: -- in the privacy of their own home. You know --

CHETRY: They don't have to be intimidated by the gym.

SIMMONS: And I've been working very hard the last two years, not only traveling 200 days a year teaching classes to everyone, but I've been working on childhood obesity. You know, five years ago when President Bush put in the "No Child Left Behind," he put in more reading, math and science and took out P.E., physical education and recess.

More children are overweight with diabetes, high cholesterol, depression, not wanting to go to school, having low self-esteem. P.E. must be in the school system. Recess must be in the school system. Kids need to be active.

CHETRY: We just can't blame "No Child Left Behind." There is the video games. There's the cell phones and texting. People don't go out and play like we used to when we were young.

SIMMONS: Well they can't do it anymore because of this crazy world we live in. But it's up to the schools to get the P.E. in. So I'm working with -- you know, I'm going to work with the secretary of education, the new one, Arne Duncan, and I'm going to be working with Kennedy, Senator Kennedy and everybody in Washington to try to get President-elect Obama, I'm reaching my hand out to him.

I have a plan to put exercise back in the school system in a very big way. What I'm asking your viewers to do is to go to and right there, there is a button that says "P.E. in schools." Press that button for this letter-writing campaign.

Last year, I appeared in a Congressional hearing for childhood obesity, and I plan to go back next year but you must write letters to Duncan, to Barack Obama, to all of these people, to chairperson George Miller, Congressman Womp (ph) and, oh, God, I have so much to say.

CHETRY: When people go to your Web site, they can check it out. But this is what you're very passionate about because we have a problem here. We got nine million of America's children even between the ages of six and 19 who are considered overweight. We have 142 million Americans, age 20 or older that are considered obese. We're big and we're getting bigger. What is the first step if you know you're not doing the right thing right now?

SIMMONS: The first thing is you have to work with the PTA in your school and principals to get some kind of activity. Later on today I'm going to be teaching at a school here in the New York area. And every place I go I teach. I want to say a kind and Womp who have helped me so much with the Fit Kids kill. But the first step is to go to PTA. I will be going to PTAs and going to principals and talking about how we can get something in right now.

But the letter-writing campaign is so important because that is how I got my congressional hearing. Over 200,000 people e-mailed President Bush and all of these people in Washington and that's chairperson George Miller and that's how I got it. And the kids have to be vigorous. They have to work out every day because as Dr. Gutten and Kathy Davis who did research say, when you exercise, you grow better, you have self-esteem and academically you're better prepared to learn.

CHETRY: You're absolutely right. How come you never age? You're 60 now.

SIMMONS: I'm 60 and I never age because I love what I do and I travel and I get to meet so many wonderful people and you know someone asked me what do you want to be known for? And I said I want to be known to get the kids to work out.

Because I was 200 pounds in the eighth grade and it wasn't a lot of fun and when I see kids now who are overweight it's like my face is on their head, on their neck, and I just want people to know that you've got to take care of your children. They are our future and, right now, our kids are not in very good shape.

CHETRY: It is, it's important. You're getting tearing up over this!

SIMMONS: You know, every time I see a little overweight person, you know, 50 percent of them have an overweight parent and businesses are so terrible and people are working so hard and they don't have time for this. Without your help there is nothing more important than your health and that's why I'm begging your listeners to go to my Web site and help me get this letter writing campaign again.

CHETRY: You're very passionate about it and it's a good thing, by the way. Great to see you again. Richard, you look just the same as did you before.

SIMMONS: And don't forget, a smaller behind in 2009!

CHETRY: You hear that, Rob?

MARCIANO: Who doesn't want a smaller behind in 2009?

CHETRY: Just out of curiosity when you went to the hearing, did you I mean wear your glitter?

SIMMONS: I wore a suit. I was there with Chairperson George Miller and all these wonderful congressmen and I wore a really nice suit and I looked like I was going to a bar mitzvah but it was OK. I just wore it for a little while and then underneath was this. This is who I am.

CHETRY: This is what I love. I like to bedazzled peace sign and the short shorts.

SIMMONS: I ask all your viewers to exercise this year. Watch your portions but, most of all, know your self-worth. Because if you really love you, you won't hurt yourself with food and with inactivity.

CHETRY: I love Richard Simmons! Thank you. Let's take a break! Thank you , Richard.

SIMMONS: Cinderella, it fits.

Everyone, let's have a ball! Please, it fits! Oh, my god, I found her! I found her! I finally found her!

MARCIANO: My goodness. We'll be right back.


MARCIANO: CNN's coverage of breaking news continues. Thanks for joining us -