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American Morning

Tax Cut Deal For Christmas; Suicide Car Bombers Strike Syria; U.S. Offers $10 Million For Al Qaeda Capture; Pakistan Disputes Airstrike Report; Quakes Rattle New Zealand; Snow, Rain And Wind Complicate Holiday Travel; Powerful Storm Slams Georgia; Romney Rich Off Layoffs?; Interview with Representative Tim Huelskamp; U.S. Offers $10 Million For Al Qaeda Capture; Suicide Bombers Strike Syria; Edwards Seeks Trial Delay

Aired December 23, 2011 - 06:00   ET



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Doing the right thing for the right reasons is always the right thing to do.


ALINA CHO, CNN ANCHOR: A tax deal to stop the tax hike. Your paycheck not shrinking, at least not yet. The House blinks and Congress strike as deal on extending the payroll tax, but the Tea Party may be planning a last stand.

DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN ANCHOR: And he says he's the turnaround expert, but did Mitt Romney actually cash in on slashing jobs during his time in the business world?

CHO: An earthquake shakes the same New Zealand city that was devastated less than one year ago on this AMERICAN MORNING.

FEYERICK: Good morning. It's Friday, December 23rd. I'm Deb Feyerick along with Alina Cho on this AMERICAN MORNING. Good morning to all of you out there.

CHO: So glad you're with us.

Up first this morning, an early Christmas present for 160 million working Americans. The House is expected to vote today on extending the payroll tax cut that divided Washington for weeks.

House Republicans caved yesterday after a lot of arm-twisting by President Obama who said it was the disgust of the American people that broke the log jam.

Speaker John Boehner saying his side still wanted a one-year extension, but in the end, saw the political reality.


REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R), HOUSE SPEAKER: We have fought the good fight. But, you know, I talked to a number of members over the last 24 hours who believe that, listen, we don't like this two-month extension.

We don't like this reporting problem in the Senate bill, and if you can get this fixed, why not -- why not do the right thing for the American people even though it's not exactly what we want.


CHO: President Obama immediately congratulated congressional leaders on the deal. A White House statement saying, quote, "This is the right thing to do to strengthen our families, grow our economy and create new jobs. This is real money that will make a real difference in people's lives."

So how much real money? Well, it comes out to about $83 per month for the average family. That's about $1,000 over the course of a year, but, remember, this is only a two-month extension.

And there are still some things standing in the way, some big things. This is Congress, of course. Kate Bolduan live in Washington for us.

Here we go again. Kate, good morning. So now the Tea Party could still put a stop to the deal?

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Let's put it this way, the deal does need to be approved both by the House and Senate still and leaders are planning to bring this extension up for a vote using a procedural maneuver that allows them to pass the bill without having to call all of the members back to town.

And here's the catch. This is what we're getting to. It does require unanimous agreement around this -- around the measure in order to push it through, which also means that one person could honestly show up on the House floor, say they object and stall the whole thing.

But it would seem, though, that would only delay the inevitable, because Speaker Boehner said last night that if someone would object today if they're expected to bring it up for a vote, he would absolutely in his word call the House back next week to hold a full House vote.

And the deal would certainly see big support from Democrats this time around and very likely pass, but to use an overused phrase, I guess, what a difference a day make, Alina? Just yesterday, we talking about both sides digging in and now basically it's a done deal.

CHO: You know, about an hour before a key conference call, Speaker Boehner was still calling for a one-year extension. What changed yesterday, Kate?

BOLDUAN: To sum it up in a word, the pressure, really. I mean, you had President Obama very effectively using his bully pulpit and you had you reliable conservative voices like the "Wall Street Journal" editorial page calling on the House speaker to cut his losses and agree to a two-month deal.

And probably the last straw yesterday was Senator Mitch McConnell, has really been silent until yesterday throughout the standoff and he broke with Speaker Boehner and called on the House to give in.

And then there's the fact that members say they were hearing it from their constituents when they went home for only just a few days, since there was a vote early this week, really frustration that Congress is so dysfunctional.

So it seems that the pressure really mounted, and Speaker Boehner kind of alluded to that in a press conference last night, Alina. I think he said something to the effect of, you know, maybe it wasn't -- their opposition maybe wasn't the most politically smart thing to do in this situation.

CHO: All right. So the deal is a two-month extension. Kate Bolduan, as always, watching it all for us. Thanks so much.

BOLDUAN: Thanks, Alina.

CHO: So could the Tea Party derail this deal? Well, freshman Congressman Tim Huelskamp called it Washington's gift of uncertainty to America, is it? He will join us at 6:30 Eastern Time to talk about it.

FEYERICK: And suicide bombers strike two government buildings in Syria. This morning car bombs exploded outside of security offices in Damascus.

The Syrian TV is reporting a number of military and civilian casualties. Reports say the attacks bear the hallmark of al Qaeda. CNN international correspondent Mohammed Jamjoom is following developments.

He is live on the phone in Cairo, and Mohammed, what do we know? Who do you think is responsible for this?

MOHAMMED JAMJOOM, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (via telephone): Well, Deb, details still emerging, but the scenes that are being broadcast on Syrian state television show utter devastation.

According to Syrian state-run media, two suicide car bombs that bear the hallmark of an al Qaeda-style attack exploded earlier today outside two security branches in Damascus.

This attack actually followed the arrival of an Arab League Committee. This is an advanced team that came into the country to discuss the parameters of this ending mission.

They're going to send observers to monitor violence that has brought Syria in this uprising against Bashar Al-Assad and the ensuing crackdown.

What we know from Syrian state media is that the bombers targeted the state security directorate and another security branch and even though a number of military and civilian casualties were reported according to state media, they have not announced how many are wounded and how many have died at this stage.

FEYERICK: All right, Mohammed Jamjoom for us there in Syria. Thanks so much. We'll check in with you a little later on as you monitor the situation.

Well, the U.S. is offering $10 million for the capture of an alleged al Qaeda operative. Yasin Al-Suri is accused of running money and new recruits from Iran to Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Officials say Al-Suri is a chief fundraiser for the terror groom and a danger to the United States. His capture could shut down a big financial resource for al Qaeda.

CHO: Pakistan is disputing the results of the Pentagon's investigation into last month's air strike that killed 24 of their soldiers.

The Defense Department's report found that U.S. forces acted in self-defense after being fired upon. Pakistani intelligence officials tell CNN the U.S. fired first and it was Pakistani's returning fire that prompted the air strike.

FEYERICK: And a string of strong earthquakes strikes New Zealand. You see the building shaking there. It happened near Christchurch, the country's second largest city.

Two 5.8 quakes hit the area today followed by several aftershocks. Rock falls caused problems for drivers. The city's airport was evacuated after the first quake and all city malls shut down as a precaution.

At least two people were hurt. This town is still on edge after a devastating earthquake rattled the area back in February.

CHO: Well, it's the last full weekday before Christmas and a lot of people are traveling. So countless holiday travel plans, we should tell you, are in jeopardy this morning after heavy snowfall in the Rockies, soaking rains and powerful winds in the south.

First to Colorado where overnight, a system dumped more than a foot of snow in and around Denver. To the south of New Mexico now where a family of three is safe this morning after spending nearly two days trapped in their SUV.

They were buried in a snow drift. Rescuers had to dig through four feet of ice and snow to get to them. And in Georgia, at least seven people were injured, thousands without power, after a strong line of storms moved through overnight.

There was also a ground stop at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. That's where Holly Firfer is standing by live. We also have Reynolds Wolf in the weather center for us.

First to Reynolds. Reynolds, good morning. So what's the forecast?

REYNOLDS WOLF, AMS METEOROLOGIST: A lot better today for parts of the nation, but you're right about what you mentioned moments ago. Parts the southeast (inaudible) you see yesterday, especially here in Atlanta. That system is driven off.

Now we've got behind it, a little bit of drier, a little bit more calm air. But still rough conditions and delays in terms of the northeast, New York, all your metros. Morning clouds, rain, wind giving delays up to an hour.

Boston, Philadelphia, D.C. metro basically the same. Get back to parts of the Midwest, the western Great Lakes, some snow delays just under an hour or so in the twin cities.

Meanwhile, the forecast will look for the rest of the nation, still look good. Snow sticking around in parts of the northeast and scattered showers into Florida and South Texas. The snow shifting farther south away from Denver into places like New Mexico.

And again the snow showers we have in upstate New York and back into Vermont and in New Hampshire we're going to be seeing those in the mid-day hours into the afternoon.

Some of the heavy snowfall, seen in the highest elevations, perhaps in the green mountains. We could see anywhere from say four to six inches of snowfall. Great for the ski resorts.

Also great news for ski resorts in parts of New Mexico, one to three inches of snowfall for Albuquerque, but your highest peak, check it out. Getting close to a foot of snow for about 7,500 feet and higher.

The winds however could be a big factor. Anyone making their way through parts of I-40 and those high mountain passes, you may have whiteout conditions to deal with. So just be careful today.

Terms of temperatures, fairly mild day for you in parts of Texas into Florida. Still have to worry about rains in the sunshine state along I-40, 81 degrees in Tampa, 82 in Miami and to wrap things up, Kansas City with 38, 37 in Denver, 61 in San Francisco, 44 in Seattle and New York with 48 degrees for your high. Let's send it back to you.

CHO: All right, Reynolds, thanks so much. I'll see you in Atlanta later today or maybe tomorrow.

Want to go live now to our Holly Firfer, she's in Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson Airport where service was disrupted for three hours last night because of the weather there. Holly, what's it looking like this morning?

HOLLY FIRFER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Alina. It's looking a lot better, but I should say it's not a very good morning for the hundreds of passengers who got stuck here last night.

They woke up at the airport this morning not in the greatest of moods. That nearly three-hour ground stop affected 5,200 planes. A lot of planes couldn't land. A lot of planes couldn't take off.

And a lot of people missed their connections. We spoke to a guy early this morning who flew in late last night from Ervine, California.


FIRFER: Did you have to spend the night here? What happened?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, we -- actually my wife is driving over from Tulsa to pick me up because the first two flights out this morning are both full. So --

FIRFER: Wow. She's doing a ten-hour round trip to come here?



FIRFER: And he said both flights he was trying to get on this morning were booked, and he wasn't going to take the chance of spending any more time at the airport here this morning.

And I can tell you as we walk through the airport, the lines for coffee were longer than the lines at security for all of those waking up and needing to get a start on the day.

But it is supposed to be a nice day. It's supposed to be mild and sunny here. So airport officials say they're hoping everything can get back on track and they can get all of these passengers out and Alina, get them to their destination in time for the holidays.

CHO: It's 5,200 planes. Holly, boy, what a mess. All right, thank you so much for that update.

FEYERICK: Well, in the lines do get a little better there at the coffee, the people going through TSA will maybe have some good news. TSA launching a toll-free hotline for travelers with special medical needs, it's called "TSA Cares."

And it's supposed to help fliers before they get to the airport. Any questions about screening procedures will be answered, and the TSA can coordinate or attempt to coordinate checkpoint support.

The agency suggests calling 72 hours in advance. That number is 855-787-2227. It's open from 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. Eastern Monday through Friday.

CHO: Mitt Romney says he has a record of creating jobs, but records from his own firm suggests he made millions from cutting them and may still be making money from those cuts. We'll have details just ahead.

FEYERICK: Plus a new poll out this morning reveal what Americans say are the most important issues facing this country right now.

CHO: And if anything is going to get this woman a job, this is. Take a look. A woman in Georgia is hoping her Christmas display will help land her a job. Her resume's up in lights, is it working? We'll tell you. It's 13 minutes after the hour.


FEYERICK: And welcome back. It is 16 minutes past the hour. And here's what's new this morning.

Army officials fearing problems with thousands of graves at Arlington National Cemetery. For a year now, officials have been working to account for every grave at the more than 150-year-old cemetery. That may be impossible, because nearly 65,000 of those graves could have errors. Congress ordered a report last year after the discovery of misidentified remain.

CHO: The Federal Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control now investigating the death of a Missouri baby that could be linked to Enfamil, a powdered formula for newborns. The 10 day old died from a rare bacterial infection. And the agencies are also looking at a case of another Missouri baby who survived the same infection. The formula's maker says that batch tested negative before it was shipped. Walmart as a precaution pulled the formula off its shelves. FEYERICK: And, of course, a nuclear plant to be built in the United States in three decades is one step closer to breaking ground. Federal regulators have approved the design for the new reactor, that design will now also used for plants in Georgia and South Carolina.

CHO: It's the number one issue in the race for the White House. We're talking, of course, about the economy, and according to a new CNN/ORC Poll just out this morning, 57 percent of Americans say the economy is the most important issue facing this country. And when asked, what's the most important economic problem facing the country, 51 percent say unemployment, 27 percent say it's the deficit.

FEYERICK: And Mitt Romney is breaking a long-held tradition among presidential candidates in both parties. The former Massachusetts governor says he's not going to release his tax returns.

CHO: That's right. Romney made millions running private equity firm Bain Capital. He says he helped create jobs there, but records actually show that he presided over massive layoffs and is still making money from those deals.

CNN's Brian Todd has the story.


BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It's one of his strongest campaign talking points - he'll get the jobs back. And as someone who once led a successful investment firm, he says he's got the experience to do it.

MITT ROMNEY, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: And every investment we made was designed to try and grow that investment, grow that enterprise, ultimately to add jobs and success. That's been my - my hope and my record.

TODD: But there's fresh scrutiny of Mitt Romney, criticism that at that investment firm he was involved in large-scale layoffs and may still be profiting from that firm's deals which result in layoffs.

According to his financial disclosure form for this year, Romney negotiated a retirement deal from that firm, Bain Capital, when he left the company in 1999.

(on camera): As part of that deal, Romney received an undisclosed share of the firm's profits. Since then he hasn't had any say in what the firm does, but Romney does still have holdings in Bain Capital that generate income for him.

(voice-over): The disclosure forms says Romney made over $3 million in income from transactions made by Bain or its affiliated companies this year. What does Bain do?

DAN PRIMACK, SENIOR EDITOR, FORTUNE MAGAZINE: Bain's primary business is acquiring companies, trying to improve those companies and then sell that company or take that company public hopefully for a higher value than originally paid. That's the essence of its business. Sometimes that means that they shrink the company before they're going to grow it, which is when we've heard of layoffs or streamlining. Sometimes they truly do buy a company and start adding employees in various divisions.

TODD: Contacted by CNN, Romney's campaign said Bain Capital had a good track record, creating jobs with companies like Staples and Domino's Pizza.

"Fortune" editor Dan Primack says Bain also drove some companies like medical equipment maker Dade Industries out of business and people out of work when it first made those companies slightly profitable but then took dividends from them while adding to their debt. In a new interview with "Time" Magazine posted online, Romney responded to that.

ROMNEY: In any case where - where I was involved in an investment in a company that was not successful, one would have to feel terrible about someone losing their job.

TODD: It's a record that analysts say Romney will have to defend at every step during the campaign.

(on camera): Does it hurt him politically to talk about the economy and building jobs when his work for the company actually resulted in a lot of layoffs even with some successful ventures?

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Nothing would be more important to Mitt Romney is if he is the Republican nominee than being able to defend his record at Bain.

TODD (voice-over): Ron Brownstein says Romney's dealt with this before in 1994 when he ran for Senate against Ted Kennedy. Brownstein says Kennedy attacked Romney with ad slamming Romney's record at Bain Capital, the job losses, bankruptcies. He says Romney didn't handle that well and it cost him that election.

Brian Todd, CNN, Washington.


FEYERICK: And, you know, when it comes to jobs you've got get a gimmick. Well, an unemployed woman in Georgia, she's using her Christmas display to find a job. Her lights say, take a look, "My wish, HR job. Liz Hickok - LinkedIn." Hickok was laid off from a Human Resources job back in September and it looks like her vested plea might actually be working.


LIZ HICKOK, JOB SEEKER/HOMEOWNER: I've had people stop when I'm out and telling me about positions that they know of their company or some other company. I've had a lot of LinkedIn messages and a lot of LinkedIn views.


FEYERICK: And Hickok says she's getting e-mails from as far away as Italy, so she may just get that job.

CHO: I'm betting she's going to get a job. Good for her. She wins points for creativity.

Coming up next, former Senator John Edwards wants to delay his conspiracy trial again. He says he's dealing with a mystery illness. We'll explain just ahead.


CHO: Welcome back. "Minding Your Business" this morning.

U.S. stock futures are trading higher right now after the Dow's third straight day of gains. The markets were lifted by a better than expected reading on the labor market.

Italy has approved a $40 billion plan to eliminate its budget deficit by 2013. The package which has grown increasingly unpopular, will increase taxes, reinstate a property tax on homes and raise the retirement age. The Italian government hopes the plan will stimulate the economy and stabilize the euro. Italy has the third largest economy in Europe.

Back here in the U.S., mortgage rates hitting new record lows again. According to Freddie Mac, the average interest rate on a 30- year fixed rate loan, the most popular choice for homebuyers, is down to 3.91 percent. That's the lowest in a survey's 40-year history. The Justice Department is green lighting the proposed merger between the New York Stock Exchange and the operator of Germany's Frankfurt Stock Exchange. Under the deal, the German conglomerate would be required to sell its stake in a third smaller U.S. stock exchange.

Yahoo! reportedly weighing a deal to unload most of its Asian assets. A deal that's according to the "New York Times" is worth $17 billion. But here's the catch. Yahoo!'s entire value, $18 billion, which would mean if Yahoo! sells its stake in China's e-commerce giant, the company itself would be worth around $1 billion, putting it in the same league as struggling AOL.

And Steve Jobs will be awarded a special Grammy for his contributions to the music industry. Jobs, who died on October 5th to pancreatic cancer, revolutionized the music business after Apple released its first iPod. There have been 300 million iPods sold to date.

AMERICAN MORNING will be back after a break.


FEYERICK (voice-over): Well, we got a deal. Congress on its way to extending the payroll tax cut for millions of working Americans. But could angry Tea Party members derail everything? We'll speak to one of them on this AMERICAN MORNING.


FEYERICK: Well, we're so glad you're with us this morning. It is 6:30, and time for the morning's top stories.

Congress now on track to keep the payroll tax cut in place. The House expected to vote today after House Speaker John Boehner announced the GOP is now on board. It's the two-month deal, at least, for the time being. The typical worker gets to hold on to about $40 per paycheck.

CHO: The U.S. is offering a $10 million reward for the capture of an alleged al Qaeda operative. His name, Yasin al-Suri. He's accused of running money and new recruits from Iran to Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Officials say he's the chief fundraiser for the terror group and a danger to the U.S. His capture could shut down a big financial resource for al Qaeda.

FEYERICK: And New Zealand rocked by a series of earthquakes today. A 5.8 magnitude quake struck Christchurch, which is the second largest city there. Less than 90 minutes later, another 5.8 magnitude quake. Several aftershocks followed.

Falling rocks made driving difficult. At least two people were hurt.

CHO: Back to our top story now. House Speaker John Boehner says he expects the House to pass a two-month extension of the payroll tax holiday today. The announcement of the extension was dramatic turn from just two days ago when the speaker called the short term extension nonsense.


REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: I've been around here for a while. I've seen Congress kick the can down the road, kick the can down the road. It's time to stop the nonsense.


CHO: Not so fast. Last night, Boehner admitted that he might have made a mistake, politically speaking.


BOEHNER: It may not have been politically the smartest thing in the world, but let me tell you what? I think our members waged a good fight. We were able to come to an agreement. We were able to fix what came out of the Senate.


CHO: The deal will keep 168 million families from a tax hike on New Year's Day. But many Republicans aren't happy with the deal, including freshman Congressman Tim Huelskamp. He joins us now by phone.

Representative Huelskamp, good morning. Thank you for join us.

You are obviously not happy with the deal. You call it Washington's gift of uncertainty to America. Tell us what you thought about it when you heard that the deal has been struck?

REP. TIM HUELSKAMP (R), KANSAS (via telephone): We're certainly very disappointed. This is supposedly going to be a one-year extension. But that's what the House passed. The Senate said we're going to have this for 60 more days.

And the idea that you can set up your pay roll for 60 days at a time is very uncertain. And the House passed an extension for the entire year. And let's fall back and giving in to the Senate is very disappointing.

CHO: What would you -- I mean, in your best case scenario, what's the best deal in your eyes?

HUELSKAMP: Well, the failure to consider anything more than two months. They had weeks and weeks and weeks to figure out and then to pass something. And we passed a one-year extension, and to fall back and say, well, we'll pass it just for 60 days and come back -- this is typical Washington gimmicks.

That's $40 a month. But we can't do it for two months -- beyond two months, which was exactly what folks thought of Washington, what are they thinking out there?

And as a member of freshman class, we went up there to change the way Washington operates rather than do a 60-day extension to a one-year program. That's just silly.

CHO: Devil's advocate here. I mean, you know, isn't a two- month extension that better than nothing at all?

HUELSKAMP: That's exactly what Harry Reid said when the Senate went home on vacation. And most Americans are working through this time of year, so should the Senate. The idea they couldn't come back and go for a year-long extension is silly.

The normal process in Washington, if you had differences between the House and the Senate, you talk about it. You just don't go home. And that's what Harry Reid did. And again, that's the gamesmanship going on in Washington for the entire year.

CHO: I think a lot of people are always curious to know what goes on behind the scenes in congress. You were on that conference call when Speaker Boehner announced he agreed to the two-month extension just an hour before he had been fighting for the one-year extension.

Tell us what that call was like.

HUELSKAMP: Well, we were quite surprised that we heard the rumors that perhaps we would cave, and that is the other problem that I think until the freshman class and most Americans when they elect a new freshman class of about 87 new Republican. They expected new Republicans go in and fight to break up a system that's not working. And whether it's the deficit deal that raised the bar of $2 trillion or the failure to implement many of the facets of the Pledge to America, this is not what the freshmen went to Washington for. It was to do things that make sense.

It makes no sense to continue a temporary tax holiday only for two months when everybody's promising to do it for a year. There's plenty of time to get it done and letting the Senate to stay on vacation was disappointing I felt for certain they'd require them to come band and get the job done.

CHO: Before I let you go, I want you to listen to something, because some Republicans in the Senate have been critical of House Republicans. I want you to listen to what Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown told our Erin Burnett last night.


SEN. SCOTT BROWN (R), MASSACHUSETTS: I think there's been some lessons learned. We need to work in a bipartisan, bicameral manner right now to get something done. And I think what everybody fails to realize in D.C. is that we're Americans first, and we need to work together in this moment in time when we have an opportunity to do it better than the rest of the world.


CHO: All right. Senator John McCain said you were harming the Republican Party. The "Wall Street Journal" said with this move, you might have just handed President Obama the re-election.

Don't you worry about the political damage this has caused?

HUELSKAMP: I really do not. What I worry about is more of the same out of Washington, the standard quo. And the status quo (INAUDIBLE) freshmen -- the 87-member freshmen class, saying, you know what? We need to change the status quo.

And these are folks that have been there a while. Have been known for not standing for conservative principles. And we have a lot of work to do and we're willing -- most of us were willing to work through Christmas if necessary to do what makes sense.

I don't think any Senate Democrat actually, Senator Reid, President Obama, former Speaker Pelosi, they all said the same thing. They said, we need a 12-month extension and here we are coming back to fight about this for two more months when everybody supposedly agrees -- everybody agrees on a 12-month extension. American people are saying, why can't they get done?

I think it's the same old same old in Washington. They're more interested in politics than doing the right thing.

CHO: You definitely speak for a segment of the population. Representative Tim Huelskamp, Republican from Kansas, we thank you four joining us this morning.

And coming up at 7:30 Eastern Time, we will talk to Stephen Moore, "Wall Street Journal" editorial writer. He wrote that op-ed that said Republicans turned the payroll tax into a gift for President Obama.

FEYERICK: And disgraced politician John Edwards says he's too stick to stand trial next month, at least not saying what the illness is. The former presidential candidate faces conspiracy charges, accused of lying to cover up an affair and giving campaign money to his mistress. His trial was supposed to start January 30th after another delay back in September.

Now, Edwards is asking for 60 more days because of this unexpected medical issue.

CHO: North Korea apparently will admit South Korean delegations who wish to pay respects to its late leader Kim Jong Il. The North promises safe travel. Seoul already has sent a sympathy message but says it will only allow a limited number of private groups to send delegations to the North.

North Korea's dictator Kim Jong Il died on Saturday on a train, suffering a heart attack.

FEYERICK: Well, still ahead, a few weeks ago, he said he was the guy to beat. Now, Newt Gingrich a little more humble about his chances in Iowa.

CHO: And New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is in Mitt Romney's corner. How far is he willing to go to help him win all the way to Washington? The veep talk is heating up. We're going to show what you he said.

It's 38 minutes after the hour.


CHO: Welcome back. It's 41 minutes after the hour.

Just 10 shopping days left for voters in Iowa. Newt Gingrich keeping expectations low.

CNN deputy political director Paul Steinhauser joins us now.

Paul, good morning.

All right. So, we want to talk about Newt Gingrich. He's slipping in the polls. So, no surprise. He is trying to lower expectations a bit.

What is he doing?

PAUL STEINHAUSER, CNN DEPUTY POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Yes. Well, you know, in politics, sometimes, exceeding expectations is more important than actually winning a contest. As you mentioned, two weeks ago, his poll numbers were soaring. Now, they're coming back to earth, nationally, but also more importantly in Iowa. We're just 11 days away from those Iowa caucuses.

So, take a listen to what Newt Gingrich said on the campaign trail yesterday.


NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We're coming together very fast in Iowa and I suspect will be very, very competitive. My goal is to be in the top three or four. And you can't tell, this bunch (ph) right now and the sheer weight of money. To be in the top three or four, I'd love to win, but to be in top three or four, probably to be in the top two in New Hampshire, and then to win South Carolina and Florida. And from that point on, I think it becomes a pretty easy race.


STEINHAUSER: Yes, maybe more modest about Iowa, but this is Newt Gingrich we're talking about. The former House speaker, pretty confident about everything else, Alina.

CHO: Talk about an about-face. Oh, boy.

Gingrich is also issuing a challenge to Mitt Romney anytime, anywhere he says? What's that about?

STEINHAUSER: A little bad blood between these two guys, I guess, these two candidates for the GOP nomination. This started about a week ago when, you know, Romney has this independent super PAC that's been putting up a lot of ads that are pretty against Gingrich.

Gingrich asked Romney, hey, knock it off. You know, just tell me to knock it off. Romney says, you can't take the heat, get out of the kitchen.

Gingrich -- well, take it from here.


GINGRICH: I'll tell you what, he wants to test the heat, I'll meet him anywhere in Iowa next week, one-on-one, 90 minutes. No moderator. Just a timekeeper.

He wants to try out the kitchen, I'll be glad to debate him anywhere. We'll bring his ads and he can defend them.

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'm going to respect the other candidates and the process by continuing debates and I'll debate all the candidates that are credible candidates. It will probably narrow down at some point to two, maybe three people, as it did last time. It may well be speaker Gingrich and myself, and we'll get that chance.


STEINHAUSER: There's going to be a lot of action next week in Iowa, Alina. But I don't think there's going to be a one-on-one, mano-a-mano debate between Gingrich and Romney.

CHO: Wow. Ouch!

Meanwhile, former President George H.W. Bush, not to be confused with his son, is coming in with his endorsement in the race?

STEINHAUSER: Kind of, kind of. Bush 41, not Bush 43. Absolutely right. He told the "Houston Chronicle" that he felt the former Massachusetts governor was the best choice for the GOP nomination. But the Texas newspaper noted this wasn't a formal endorsement.

You know, Romney himself said he was surprised. He said I had no idea it was coming.

Why does the elder Bush like Romney? He says, I just think he's more mature, not bomb thrower.

There you go, Alina.

CHO: Sound like an endorsement to me.

All right. Deputy political director Paul Steinhauser -- Paul, thank you.


CHO: And also in politics, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann not discouraged, far from it. She's running fourth or fifth in the poll, but tells CNN's John King people are going to be surprised what happens on January 3rd in Iowa.


REP. MICHELE BACHMANN (R-MN), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: This is phenomenal what we're seeing on the ground. Iowa is not just a media state where you buy time. It's real people. It's person to person, voter to voter, and that's what we're doing.

We're making a very real campaign, a positive campaign, and people are responding positively. People are going to be shocked what happens on January 3rd. We're thrilled with the response. There's polls up and down all the day. Who cares?

The main thing is what happens January 3rd. And real people are going to have their say. And they have something to say to CNN and its Michele Bachmann on January 3rd.


ALINA CHO, CNN ANCHOR: Well, he was begged by Republicans, begged, to run for president, but New Jersey governor, Chris Christie, slammed the door shut on rumors that he's running. But VP? Christie is leaving that door open. In an interview, he said he considers it and talk about it with his wife if Mitt Romney came knocking.

Christie endorsed Mitt Romney for president after he announced that he wouldn't enter the race. Christie does say he want Romney to be more aggressive and bold in his campaign.

Well, it is 6:45. Coming up, reuniting troops with their families this holiday. A lot of happiness there. The head of the Fisher House Foundation stops by to talk about the program to provide a home away from home for military families.

And coming up in the eight o'clock hour, something we're really looking forward to. We're going to be talking to documentary filmmaker, Morgan Spurlock, you know, of supersize me fame. The documentary star has a new contract that could inspire your New Year's resolution. Stay tuned for that. It's 46 minutes after the hour.


FEYERICK: And it's just about 10 minutes to the hour. Here's what you need to know to start your day.


FEYERICK (voice-over): Congress now on track to keep the payroll tax cut in place. The House expected to vote today after House Speaker John Boehner announced that the GOP is onboard. It's a two- month deal that keeps $40 in your paycheck, at least, for now. So, got to spend it or at least save it.

The U.S. is offering $10 billion for the capture of an alleged al Qaeda operative. Yasin al-Suri is accused of funneling money and Iranian recruits into Afghanistan to strengthen the terror group.

And suicide bombers strike two government buildings in Syria. This morning, car bombs exploded outside security offices in Damascus. Syrian TV is reporting a number of military and civilian casualties. Reports say the attacks bear the hallmark of al Qaeda.

Former senator, John Edwards, hoping to delay his conspiracy trial because of what he calls an unexpected medical issue. The trial is supposed to begin next month, but Edwards is asking for an additional 60 days. Edwards is accused of using campaign money to hide his affair.

And a series of earthquakes strikes Christchurch, New Zealand today. Two 5.8 magnitudes quakes were each followed by aftershocks. At least two people were hurt and roads hampered by falling rocks.

It's called TSA cares, a toll-free hotline to help travelers who have special medical needs. Agents are going to answer questions about screening procedures and their going to attempt to coordinate checkpoint to support. You can reach the hotline Monday through Friday, 9:00 to 9:00 eastern. The number, 855-787-2227.


FEYERICK (on-camera): That's the news you need to start your day. AMERICAN MORNING back right after this.


FEYERICK: And welcome back. The Fisher House Foundation giving an incredible gift to troops and their families, home away from home for the holidays.

CHO: It provides houses for families of soldiers receiving care at military medical centers like the Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

FEYERICK: And joining us now, chairman and CEO of the Fisher House Foundation, Kenneth Fisher. Mr. Fisher, thanks so much for being here with us today. You know, one thing that is so interesting is, I think, as all of these troops return home, a lot of people don't understand how many wounded are out there, how many people are going to be coming back, needing services.

And it's not just about treating them, but about making sure they've got their families nearby. And that's really what Fisher House does.

KENNETH FISHER, CHAIRMAN AND CEO, FISHER HOUSE FOUNDATION: That's right. You know, sometimes, medicine just isn't enough. And what Fisher House does is it promotes through our lodging and through our hero miles which we talked about the last time I was here. It provides this home away from home, so families can become part of the healing process. We forget how important it is to have family around.

CHO: You know, we -- this is the first modern war, with modern warfare, and so, we've reported many times over the years just how many more troops are surviving versus dying, and that creating another type of problem. You know, by some estimates, taking care of these veterans could cost $1 trillion. I mean, are we prepared for that?

FISHER: Well, you know, we -- I think, as a nation, I think we have learned some great lessons from the past. And we are -- I think in terms of military healthcare, the care that they're receiving is world class. I mean, as we all know, the survivor rate was up almost to 96 percent. What that does, though, is it does tax the system to a certain extent, especially as it relates to families because the V.A. is going to handle the rehabilitation on an ongoing basis.

And that's where Fisher House comes in. A lot of what we're doing is geared towards the V.A. in the future where the rehab is going to happen and so forth, and in some cases --

CHO: At Fisher House?

FISHER: Yes. Families have gone from Fisher House at the hospital to a Fisher House at the V.A. with the ongoing rehabilitation.

FEYERICK: Which is also really important, because not only does it keep families together, but I think it puts people who are in a similar situation in an environment where they can support one another, where they can talk about the pain, about the grief, about reconciling, how do you come back into your home, your city, your town, with these injuries that may preclude you from getting a job. It's going to be tough for these folks.

FISHER: It's going to be tough, but I think you touched on something very important. The by-product of the houses is the support system that forms. And families come from all over with basically two things in common. One, they need an affordable place to stay, and, two, they've got a loved one who's been wounded or become sick. So that factor, I think, and the houses are promoted to promote that -- that by-product.

FEYERICK: Camaraderie.

FISHER: Right. Camaraderie.

CHO: Last time we had you on the program, I was talking to you about the hero miles program, whereby regular Americans can donate their air miles to family members of wounded troops so that they can travel to see them. You had another component to that, which was hotel stays. How is that going?

FISHER: We're still working on it, but we're encouraged. It's going to happen sometime in 2012.

CHO: Great.

FISHER: But the hero miles which we announced the last time I was here, 25,000 tickets.

FEYERICK: Wow! That's amazing.

CHO: Just since October.


CHO: That's incredible.

FEYERICK: You see the people want to at least help. They want to participate. Are you looking to expand this? Because there's going to be a greater need. This is not something that's just going to last for a year or two years or three years. We're talking about a minimum of a dozen years if not even longer than that, really.

FISHER: Yes, that's true. When we say expanding it, we're going to keep going where we're need it, and we work very closely with the V.A. and the Department of Defense. They tell us where the needs are going to be the greatest on an ongoing basis, and so, we will supplement in some cases or we'll go where we haven't been before.

CHO: Just finally before we let you go, you know, of course, it's the holidays and we always like to think about what we're thankful for. Is there a particularly poignant story of a family or families who talk about what Fisher House means to them?

FISHER: You know, each story is compelling. And it would be difficult to isolate just one, because, you know, through the 21 years of the program, we have helped almost 160,000 families.

CHO: Wow. Amazing.

FISHER: And we've saved them almost $175 million in lodging expenses. So isolating one story when they're all so compelling --

CHO: Right.

FISHER: -- is difficult.

FEYERICK: It's incredible, especially because these families are so vulnerable and need so much, and even the smallest gift of generosity is huge. Ken Fisher, thank you so much for joining us. We really appreciate it.

FISHER: Thank you.

FEYERICK: Ahead next, the payroll tax truce. The House set to vote in a matter of hours. What it means for your money and what the two-month-long political battle means in 2012.