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White House Shake-Up; Kerry: More Sanctions Not the Answer; Remarkable Gathering For Mandela; Obama-Castro Handshake: Much Ado About Nothing?; Minimum Wage Crippling For Some Wage-Earners; Girl's Fight With Cancer Inspires Congress

Aired December 10, 2013 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: All right, Jake, thank you. Happening now, White House shakeup, President Obama turns to a former top Clinton aide for some help. Can he put the second term agenda back on track?

Handshake uproar, an impromptu greeting with Cuba's Raul Castro sparking controversy and speculation, is it an omen for U.S. relations with Cuba?

And dying wish -- a young cancer victim inspires a bipartisan bill to increase funding for research. Why do some Democrats say it's a fraud?

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

A troubled second term and now a shakeup in the White House. President Obama is turning to a man who has been through it before, John Podesta, who was chief of staff to Bill Clinton during his impeachment crisis. Can he help steer another Democratic president down a very bumpy road?

Let's begin our coverage with our senior White House correspondent, Brianna Keilar -- Brianna, tell us what Podesta's role will be.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: His title, Wolf, will be counselor to the president. It's a key advisory role and Podesta is expected to be very influential. And the deal that he struck with White House chief of staff, Dennis McDonough, is to be at the White House for just one year, a sign of just how important President Obama thinks 2014 will be to his legacy as he tries to tackle immigration reform and tries to get ObamaCare back on track.


KEILAR (voice-over): Failed gun legislation, stalled immigration reform, the government shutdown and one very, very bad health care reform rollout. His approval rating is at record lows. It's been a rough year for President Obama and he needs to turn his presidency around.


KEILAR: Obama is bringing in John Podesta and Phil Schiliro, both with extensive ties to Congress, as he loses one of his closest Capitol Hill savvy advisers, Pete Rouse, by his side since his days in the Senate.

Schiliro was the president's top liaison to Congress during the passage of health care reform and is returning to steer the troubled program to success and assuage the concerns of Democrats. Podesta shepherded President-Elect Obama's transition team in 2008 and will serve as counselor to the president, traditionally a very influential role. He has advised, even pushed, the president over the years, as he did on CNN after the president's re-election.


JOHN PODESTA, FORMER CLINTON CHIEF OF STAFF: You really have to focus on what you want to accomplish, particularly in the first year. I think that first year after re-election is the time to get a lot done.


KEILAR: Obama was unable to. And with the window closing on his chance for second term achievements, Democratic sources tell CNN Podesta's expertise is much needed.

As President Clinton's disciplined chief of staff, Podesta guided that White House through a sex scandal, impeachment and a war in Kosovo. He was known for cracking the whip, one former Clinton colleague telling CNN his co-workers made him a name plate. On one side, "John D. Podesta."

When he would lay into other aides, he or they would often turn the name plate around to reveal "Skippy," the nickname for Podesta's hard as nails alter ego.


KEILAR: And it's openly known, Wolf, even Democratic sources will tell you that President Obama's relations with Capitol Hill are not very good, be it with Democrats whose support he needs on health care reform or Republicans, whose help he will need if he is to tackle immigration reform. And to that end, Podesta will be key. He knows the Senate very well, Wolf. He was the chief of staff to Patrick Leahy, who is the longest serving not only Democrat, but senator, period.

BLITZER: He's got a lot of experience, John Podesta. I'm sure he will help the president.

All right, stand by.

Brianna Keilar, at the White House.

Let's dig a little bit deeper with our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger; our senior political analyst, David Gergen; and Andy Card. He was the chief of staff for President George W. Bush. He's now at the Bush School of Government at Texas A&M University -- David, let me start with you, because it was, what, only a little bit more than 20 years ago, I remember -- I was the senior White House correspondent -- breaking the news that then president Bill Clinton was calling you in -- you had served three Republican presidents -- as a counselor. He needed some help desperately at the time, this in the first year of his administration, the first term of his administration.

And we spoke at the time.

Listen to this.


BLITZER: What is going to be your number one priority?

What were his marching orders to you when he asked you to become his counselor?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: I think two things. This president had the best-run Democratic campaign we've seen in years. Now, a lot of those same fine talented people here at the White House, how can we work together to turn this into the best White House -- the best White House operation? And then, how do you develop and communicate a vision of where this president wants to go?


BLITZER: All right, so, David, you're -- you've been in Podesta's shoes.

What does he need to know?

GERGEN: Well, in the first place, Wolf, this is a first class appointment. He's a first class human being. I think many regard him as one of the best chiefs of staff in modern times. He did a very good job for President Clinton. I think it's a wise move.

But much now depends, Wolf, upon what the dynamics are going to be within the White House.

John Podesta, as chief of staff, ran things. He is not going to be running things as counselor. Denis McDonough, as chief of staff, is going to be running them.

And that means does -- is his relationship with Dennis, who recruited him, or is he really going to have the president's ear and have a chance to really influence the way direction -- the directions of the White House?

I'm not sure how that's going to work out. We don't know enough yet.

But does he have the president's ear?

Does he have the president's trust?

This president is famous for relying on people he knows really well. He does not know John Podesta near as well as he knows Denis McDonough and some of the other people around him. BLITZER: Andy, David may have worked for four presidents, but you've worked for three presidents.

What do you think he needs to know coming into this job, because in this first year of the second term, the president's approval numbers at record lows?

He's got a lot of work ahead of him.

ANDY CARD, TEXAS A&M UNIVERSITY: Well, John Podesta is very able. He understands the groundwork that has to be done to restore confidence on Capitol Hill, where the president really has lost the confidence of the Democratic majority. So there's a lot of work to be done.

John Podesta is very able and I think he'll help to restore that confidence.

But John Podesta also does have to pay attention to the internal workings of the White House. If John is not part of the solution at the White House, and he's pushed aside a little bit, then he becomes a liability, because the White House will be dysfunctional. I think you have to look to see what kind of relationship John Podesta will have with the president and then with the chief of staff. And it's really important that the president give John Podesta kind of the running room to do what has to be done to make a difference.

I think he's pretty able. President Obama really needs his help. And quite frankly, Congress is looking for the president to have some mature leadership at the White House. And I think John Podesta may provide it.

BLITZER: Gloria, you know John Podesta. I know John Podesta.


BLITZER: He's obviously a talented political guy. He knows a lot of the policy stuff.

What does he bring that the president needs?

BORGER: Well, first of all, when you look at John Podesta, you think of somebody who has actually been the brain trust for the Democratic Party for many decades. He runs a Democratic think tank which has provided the Democratic Party with the bulk of its ideas over the last couple of decades.

So I think he can go toe to toe with the president on policy. But he can also go and advise him politically, because he's been there with a president in a time of crisis.

I also think that he can help Denis McDonough kind of figure out the flow of information and what should get to the president and what shouldn't get to the president.

One of the questions we've been asking over these last months is why didn't the president know on a variety of issues, right? And so the question, why didn't he know about the Web site?

Why didn't he know about the IRS scandal?

I think that John Podesta is a hand who can say, look, this needs to get to the president and we need to let him in on some of the secrets we've been keeping from him.

BLITZER: Is this, David Gergen, a vote of no confidence in the current staff by the president?

He doesn't like to fire people.

But is it sort of an indirect statement, I need help, and the guys who are there now -- and the gals, for that matter -- are not necessarily doing the perfect job I need?

GERGEN: Well, it's certainly an admission that he needs help. I don't think it's a lack of trust in the people around him. He's not -- he's not firing anybody. I think it's a net addition to the White House, which is what I've -- all along, it's been apparent he needed to do.

But again, John Podesta is going to -- it's going to be an interesting challenge for him. He is not -- he will not be the chief of staff. Denis McDonough is still the chief of staff. So he can't decide, we're going to do this or do that. That's going to be between Dennis and the president.

But what he can be there is for in -- you know, in tough situations to provide -- he can provide a lot of political savvy. He's much more politically experienced than Denis McDonough, the current chief of staff, is. He's much more politically experienced, frankly, than most of the people.

And go to Gloria's point, he also does bring a set of ideas that he can refresh the intellectual side of the White House, especially on questions of income inequality, where he and the president both have a very strong intense interest. And I think he's also going to bring -- you know, frankly, he'll bring more of a liberal agenda with a lot more emphasis on climate change, as well. It's an issue that matters a lot to John.

BORGER: And don't forget, he's also bringing in Phil Schiliro, his former Congressional liaison...


BORGER: -- bringing him back. And Phil Schiliro is somebody who knows how to tie up all those loose ends, whether it's on the Hill or whether it's policy wise. And I think what the president has been missing here is a lot of loop closing, including about things that have to end up in the Oval Office.

BLITZER: And so let me wrap it up with Andy Card. If John Podesta said, Andy, give me one piece of advice going back into the White House now, after all these years, running the Center for American Progress, out of government, if you will, give me one piece of advice, what would you say to him?

CARD: Don't pretend to be the chief of staff, because you're not. But have the courage to speak candidly with the president and bring him that unvarnished counsel that is so important, that I think President Obama has not had.

BLITZER: And so bring him the bad news, not just the good news. And don't be reluctant to do so.

All right, Gloria, Andy, David, guys, thanks very much.

Up next, the historic nuclear agreement with Iran perhaps teetering on the brink of secretary of State John Kerry, as he tries to talk some skeptical lawmakers out of imposing new U.S. sanctions.

Plus, the handshake seen around the world -- is this impromptu greeting between President Obama and Cuba's Raul Castro an omen?


BLITZER: At least for now, diplomacy, not more sanctions, will prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons. That was the message that John Kerry had today for members of Congress, many of whom think the deal with Iran is a bad idea. So, are they buying what Kerry is selling?

Our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto, is here working the story. And I understand you just learned an important potential development.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: That's right. A win in effect for the Obama administration. That is that The senate Banking Committee chairman, Tim Johnson, has come out saying that he will not pursue sanctions, new sanctions, legislation for the time, releasing a statement to CNN saying "The president and Secretary Kerry have made a strong case for a pause in Congressional action on new Iran sanctions so I'm inclined to support the request and hold off on committee action for now."

"That does not kill sanctions entirely, because there are other members of the Senate who can pursue it. I reached out to the staff of Senator Robert Menendez, of course, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee. And I'm told that he will continue to pursue sanctions along with Senator Mark Kirk, Republican. I'm told that many, according to staff for Menendez, will come to support them, so you have that possibility."

But it is a victory and it likely means that the way the Senate works, that this will not come to be new legislation until January. The administration bought some time here at least at a minimum.

BLITZER: And the secretary of state was testifying before the house Foreign Affairs Committee today. How did that go? SCIUTTO: That's right. Not friendly territory from either party, and it shows how deep the rifts are between the administration and many on the hill. Kerry was making the case on the Hill as he has before that this is the best chance for the administration, for the U.S., to avoid -- to keep Iran from getting a bomb, not a perfect chance.

In fact, Secretary Kerry said today that, you know, he made clear he has his own serious concerns, serious questions, about Iran's commitment, but he says it is the best chance short of military action. Here's how he put it to the committee today.


JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: You want to take a nation to war, you better have exhausted all the possibilities of trying to get a peaceful resolution before you do it.


SCIUTTO: So, strong words there from Secretary Kerry, but that argument did not sway many House members. Eliot Engel, a Democrat, asked why the administration was opposed when sanctions would not take effect for six months. Democratic, Brad Sherman, even accused the administration of hampering previous efforts to sanction Iran.

This was not friendly territory on either side of the aisle. And listen to what Republican congresswoman, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said echoing the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.


REP. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN, (R) FLORIDA: This deal is a bad deal. I believe that the concessions offered to Iran will be the death knell on the sanctions program as we know it.

KERRY: We just have to respectfully disagree. And in six months, the world will know whether you're right or I'm right or whether you're wrong or I'm wrong. And we're going to know.


SCIUTTO: You hear Secretary Kerry there, in effect sticking his neck out, saying this is on me. We know it's a risk. We know that Iran has broken agreements like this before. We think that we have enough verification here, but we have to wait and see, at least give it a chance, and he was saying there you know, it may break, it may not come to be and if it doesn't, it's his fault.

But he thinks that the U.S. is covered and he also made the case today that American national security is safer with this agreement, Israeli national security is safer, our allies in the Persian Gulf.

BLITZER: How is Iran reacting to all of this?

SCIUTTO: Well, the Iranian foreign minister said yesterday if there are new sanctions, this deal is done. It's finished. Now, I've spoken to people who said to me, listen, you know, let's take that with a grain of salt because if Iran walks away from this deal, say there is new sanctions legislation even next month, they lose that $7 billion in sanctions relief.

You know, their oil production is going to go down again. Inflation is going to jump, unemployment, et cetera. So, they have a price to pay as well if they walk away.

BLITZER: So, where do we go from here?

SCIUTTO: Well, I think it looks like the administration has bought time, at least until January, on the sanctions, but they're still going to have to make a case, in the meantime, because as we were saying earlier, you have others, Menendez, powerful Democrats and Republicans, who are not backing away from new sanctions.

BLITZER: I know. The secretary of state is heading back to Israel this week, right, for more talks with the Prime Minister Netanyahu.

SCIUTTO: For the mileage counter keeps ticking up. Yes.

BLITZER: He's doing a lot of traveling. All right. Jim Sciutto, thanks very much.

Let's take a quick look at some of the other stories we're monitoring in the SITUATION ROOM right now.


BLITZER (voice-over): Snow and ice are making travel extremely tough across much of the country right now, especially in the northeast. More than a thousand flights have been canceled for the second day in a row. And driving has been bad in many places as well and that's been the case for days.

We're getting some incredible video from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, showing car after car slamming into one another, causing a huge and dangerous pile-up. Drivers couldn't see the cars stopped in front of them since the visibility was so bad.

Florida Republican congressman, Ted Yoho, is hosting a gun safety event for kids on the first anniversary of the Newtown, Connecticut school shooting. Yoho is a staunch opponent of gun control but says the date was not intentionally chosen to coincide with the anniversary. The event will focus on safety and encourage responsible gun ownership.

And a major announcement from General Motors today. The company says it's chosen Mary Barra to be its new CEO. She will be the first female head of a major U.S. automaker. She currently is an executive vice president, has been with G.M. for 33 years. She'll take over in January, becoming G.M.'s fifth CEO in less than five years.

Coming up, President Obama opens up his tribute to Nelson Mandela. Why did it resonate so deeply with so many South Africans?

Plus, the uproar over this handshake. Critics blast the Obama/Castro greeting, but one former president says he hopes it's an omen.


BLITZER: Truly remarkable gathering including four American presidents and leaders and celebrities from around the world, all paying tribute to Nelson Mandela. The weather may have been gray with rain pouring throughout the service, but the mood was festive as thousands celebrated the life and the remarkable achievements of South Africa's first Black president.

CNN's David McKenzie is joining us from Johannesburg right now. He watched it all in person. What was it like, David?

DAVID MCKENZIE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it was an extraordinary scene here today, obviously, commemorating Nelson Mandela. The great statesman of South Africa who died late last week at the age of 95. Terrible weather here, still is in Johannesburg, but it didn't stop thousands of streaming into that stadium here in Johannesburg to witness history in the making.

More than 50 world leaders on the scene there to commemorate the loss. It has been a period of mourning but has been more like a period of celebration here in South Africa. Song and dance and all the struggle songs being sung yet again of Nelson Mandela, the man and the legend that has really brought South Africa out of a divided past and into a peaceful future.

President Obama made very personal statement. He was one of the most popular speakers on the day and connected his own story with that of Nelson Mandela.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We will never see the likes of Nelson Mandela again, but let me say to the young people of Africa and the young people around the world, you too can make his life's work your own. Over 30 years ago, while still a student, I learned of Nelson Mandela and the struggles taking place in this beautiful land, and it stirred something in me.

It woke me up to my responsibilities to others and to myself, and it set me on an improbable journey that finds me here today. And while I will always fall short of Madiba's example, he makes me want to be a better man. He speaks to what's best inside us.


MCKENZIE: Well, in Africa, the rain is good wishes for someone who's passed on, and certainly the weather has played a huge role today. It still does, Wolf, but today really about remembering this great man.

BLITZER: He certainly was a great man. David, as you point out, President Obama was very well received, but there were actually boos among the thousands there at that stadium when the president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, was speaking. What was that all about? MCKENZIE: Well, very controversial moment, in fact, those boos of Jacob Zuma, the president of South Africa. Also, people were making this sign and anyone who watches sports knows that's to make a substitute. There is a lot of anger here in South Africa with the current administration. You know, South Africa has moved on a long way since apartheid. Many of those racial divides have been closed, but there's also a big problem with poverty.

Less than one percent of White South Africans are in poverty, but that number for Black South Africans, nearly half of Black South Africans. So, that divide is still there. Many people I've spoken to through this week expressing disappointment that the current ANC government hasn't done more to bring those people up.

But certainly, the predominant feeling this week is one of mourning and of celebration of this great man, Nelson Mandela. And certainly, people will be looking forward to the next several days of commemoration in Pretoria and at his hometown in Qunu later this week.

BLITZER: I was expecting that stadium, David, to be packed, jam- packed. I know the weather was bad. It was raining, but there were a lot of empty seats there. Was it simply because of the weather?

MCKENZIE: I think it was because of the weather and maybe because people were worried about how difficult it would be to get to that stadium as well, mostly, a logistical issue. They also had other viewing places across the country, but also, it might be that this has been several days in the making. The true emotional moment would have been on Friday after the announcement came and also, we must remember that Nelson Mandela was sick for several months, in fact, bedridden.

So, South Africans, in some way, were expecting this. But there's also been a lot of quiet reflections. Many people I have spoken to on the street say they remember their personal connection to this man, not just the President Obama, just ordinary South Africans who remember the day he came out of prison, the day that they saw him take office as the president of a free South Africa, and I'm sure, Wolf, you remember those same moments.

BLITZER: Yes, all of us do. David McKenzie in Johannesburg, thank you for that report.

Let's dig a little deeper right now with our chief national correspondent, John King, also our CNN political commentators, the "New York" columnist, Charles Blow and Republican strategist, Ana Navarro. Charles, what did you think of the president's speech today? Clearly seemed to resonate with South Africans.

CHARLES BLOW, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think it was an amazing speech, and I think this is the kind of moment that where you see Obama kind of rise. He -- there's something happens between him and large crowds, stadium kind of crowds, where they feed off his energy, he feeds off that energy, and he kind of lifts himself above both rhetorically and also just kind of in his demeanor above the kind of smallness that is actual governing. And this is when you see him and I think it's kind of a non-political moment. This is a moment when you can be proud that we have a president who can do this sort of thing and represent the country well. Whether or not you agree with him on policy or not, this sort of thing is where he really does shine and he makes America look good in moments like this.

BLITZER: You know, Ana, there was some controversy as you well know -- you live in Florida, down in Miami, Cuban Americans -- many of them not very happy with that handshake between President Obama and Raul Castro in the box up there as the president walked in, shook hands with everyone. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Republican Congresswoman from Florida, she said this at a hearing when John Kerry, the secretary of state, was testifying.


REP. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN (R), FLORIDA: When the leader of the free world shakes the bloody hand of a ruthless dictator like Raul Castro, it becomes a propaganda coup for the tyrant. Raul Castro uses that hand to sign the orders to repress and jail democracy advocates.


BLITZER: What was your reaction, Ana? Because a lot of folks are hoping that maybe even a simple gesture like that handshake could result in Alan Gross, the American who has been held captive in Cuba for four years, maybe he will be released.

ANA NAVARRO, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I would say, Wolf, let's have a reality check here. I've seen a lot of people be very worked up about this handshake. To put it in context, as you said, Raul Castro was the first guy sitting there as Obama came up the stage to give his remarks. I don't think that this handshake is going to end up changing policy terribly.

Let's remember that the U.S. embargo is codified. In order to change it, you need an act from Congress. Guess who is in charge of the Foreign Relations committee in the Senate? Bob Menendez. It's going to take an act of God to get through Bob Menendez to change sanctions on Cuba without Cuba changing their repressive regime on the Cuban people.

And let's also remember that today is International Human Rights Day. There are people still getting repressed, harassed and jailed in Cuba for wanting to express their human rights and express freedom freely what they feel and be the centers of this government.

I commend President Obama, because in his speech, though he did give the handshake, I think what's also meaningful is what he said in his speech, where he said that there are rulers, there are leaders, who say they are in solidarity with what Mandela stood for in the latter part of his life and yet do not allow dissent for freedom in their own countries. I would say he was talking directly to Raul and Fidel Castro at that point. BLITZER: John, Marco Rubio, the senator from Florida, also Cuban- American like Bob Menendez, the Democratic senator from New Jersey. Rubio put out a statement, "If the president was going to shake his hand, he should have asked him about those basic freedoms Mandela was associated with that are denied in Cuba." They didn't get into any conversation at all. It was simply a handshake saying hello, basically.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The White House says it was a very brief, essentially a casual greeting. And look, it was good manners on the president's part. He was a guest of the Mandela family and the South African government, he's the first one on the stage, so the president if he walks past him, that's an international incident. The president shakes his hand, now it's an international conversation. The White House says it's not about policy, it's about respect for Nelson Mandela and the moment.

To Senator Rubio's point, though, and to the point Ana was making and that Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen look, this is crystal proof that all politics is local. However, and Ana knows this better than any of us in the conversation, even that conversation is changing. You go to Little Havana today and talk to younger Cuban-Americans, they disagree some with their parents and grandparents because look, this is the eleventh American president to have to figure out how to do the Castro dance. First Fidel, now Raul. This goes back to the Eisenhower administration. And there are some younger Cuban-Americans who say let's try easing sanctions, let's try sending Mr. Hilton and Mr. Hyatt and Mr. Marriott into Cuba because what we've done, what my parents wanted and my grandparents wanted hasn't worked. Maybe it was the right thing to do then, but it hasn't worked.

This is an interesting conversation. If the president were running for re-election, he might be a little bit more nervous about that handshake because of Florida. But look, to Ana's point, I think people are overblowing the moment. This was a memorial service for Nelson Mandela, and that was a man showing good manners.

BLITZER: So, the president made the gesture to Raul Castro. Is the ball now in Cuba's court to do something to try to improve relations with the United States?

BLOW: I mean, that gets to the point you made earlier, where you showed the clip of somebody saying it was a propaganda cue -- coup. But "The Christian Science Monitor" is reporting that Cuban state television didn't even show the handshake, and they didn't hypothesize about what it meant. We're doing that. I mean, am I the only person that sees something slightly askew here? We are so obsessed with this. In Cuba, it's not having the effect that people are saying that it is having. I think we've gotten ourselves kind of worked up past the moment.

And I agree with John and Ana that this is Mandela's day. It would have been really horrible for the president to try to make a political point on that podium today at Mandela's funeral. This is not the day for this conversation even. I think the president did what was proper protocol, shake the hand and keep moving. That does not signal in any way to me that any policies are changing, and the policy discussion we will be having for the next 50 years as we've had it for the last 50 years.

BLITZER: All right, we got to end it on that note. I do think the Cuban government did issue some sort of statement saying maybe this is the start that American so-called oppressors will stop doing bad things toward Cuba, something along those lines. But we will continue to watch the fallout. See what happens, if the Cubans in fact take this potential opportunity and do something positive as far as Alan Gross is concerned; let him come back to the United States.

Guys, thanks very much.

Up next, a flurry of protests across the country to raise the minimum wage. But for some, poverty is a vicious cycle that can't be broken.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Some things I don't want to try.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Tell me, what do you mean?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, I mean, I just feel like what's the point? What's the point of trying? I'm not going to make it anyway.



BLITZER: Congress is set to be close to a budget deal ahead of Friday's deadline, but one sticking point is whether or not to extend unemployment benefits as so many Democrats want. A minimum wage increase is not on the table despite growing protests by retail and fast food workers and support from President Obama. Meantime, many Americans are struggling to support families.

CNN's Poppy Harlow has some of their stories.


JOANNA CRUZ, MINIMUM WAGE WORKER: You have no money on your lunch account. Not a dollar.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: At 29 years old, Joanna Cruz is stuck, stuck in a job that pays $7.30 an hour. She works overnights at a deli 40 hours a week. Her weekly paycheck, $244.70.

What do you need to make to be able to get by on your own?

JOANNA CRUZ: I would have to make at least $14, $15 to be able to live comfortably.

HARLOW: You add it up as you go?


HARLOW: You do.

JOANNA CRUZ: I have to.

HARLOW: She's a single mom fighting to get by. Don't be mistaken, she blames herself for not finishing high school and not going to college. But she tells me there has to be more she can achieve.

JOANNA CRUZ: There is no moving up. I mean, I might get a raise if I'm there long enough, but that's about it.

HARLOW: Joanna's life mirrors her mother's. Augusta Cruz worked 30 years in a mattress factory and says she never made more than $9 an hour.

AUGUSTA CRUZ, MINIMUM WAGE WORKER: It's a vicious cycle for everybody.

HARLOW: Her mother provides the home Joanna can't afford.

If it weren't for you having them here under your roof, where would Joanna be?

AUGUSTA CRUZ: In a shelter. On the street.

HARLOW: Years of low wage work has left Joanna with little hope.

JOANNA CRUZ: I'm already 29. By the time I finish school, I would probably be like 40. Like -- and then who's going to hire a 40-year- old just starting off with no experience? Probably not going to happen. Some things I don't want to try.

HARLOW: Tell me what you mean.

JOANNA CRUZ: Well, I mean, I just feel like what's the point? What's the point of trying? I'm not going to make it anyway.

HARLOW: Do you think from the outside looking in, people have any idea what you go through?

CRUZ: No. None.

HARLOW: Americans have long believed in a fair day's pay for a fair day's work, but we can't agree on what that wage is today. President Obama supports raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to about $10 an hour, but critics argue that won't help. It will hurt, costing jobs and increasing prices.

DAVID NEUMARK, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA-IRVINE: In general, prices go up, people buy a little less, therefore firms use a little less labor. You are better off if you earn a higher wage, clearly. But weigh that against the likelihood that your employer will make do with somewhat fewer workers, and you might be one of those workers.

HARLOW: At the center of the debate, fast food chains and big-box retailers. In 2012, the average pay for a fast food worker was $9 an hour. For retail workers, it was $12.17, both higher than minimum wage. Still, Tiffany Baroid, a part-time Wal-Mart worker, is among those demanding higher pay. She's a member of Our Wal-Mart, a union- backed group that does not represent Wal-Mart workers but protests for higher wages.

TIFFANY BEROID, WAL-MART WORKER: It isn't enough money for me to get by. It's very hard. We're at a standstill right now with my family.

HARLOW: Wal-Mart's U.S. CEO says they pay a fair wage and are unfairly criticized.

BILL SIMON, PRESIDENT & CEO, WAL-MART U.S.: We pay above average wages for the retail industry, and we provide incredible opportunity. The discussion around the starting wage, minimum wage, is one that the country needs to have, the debate needs to be had. But that's not the issue. The issue isn't where you start, it's where you go to once you've started.

HARLOW: Tiffany wants more opportunity but at $10.70 an hour, she can't afford to work full-time given the child care costs she would need to cover. So why doesn't she look for another job?

BEROID: I'm actually not unhappy with my job. I really like my job. I like being with the customers. So it's not -- I mean, it's pointless for me to find a job. I would rather stay and fight.

HARLOW: As for Joanna, her pay will go up in January when minimum wage in New Jersey increases to $8.25 an hour. She will still struggle but hopes her children's lives will be better.

JOANNA CRUZ: It's not going to happen to my kids. It's not. I promise you that it's not going to happen to my kids. It's just not. I won't allow it to.

Reporter: Poppy Harlow, CNN, reporting.


BLITZER: A new Quinnipiac Poll shows strong support for increasing the minimum wage, 69 percent of those asked are in favor, 27 percent oppose.

And we're just learning that there will be an announcement in about 15 minutes or so at the top of the hour. It looks like they've got an agreement, a budget agreement. Patty Murray on the Democratic side from the Senate, Paul Ryan on the Republican side from the House, they've have been working for weeks on a new budget agreement. They are apparently getting ready to make an announcement. We'll have live coverage here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Just ahead, a young girl with terminal cancer takes her fight public.


GABRIELLA MILLER, CANCER RESEARCH ADVOCATE: One of my fears is that more, like, maybe young children are going to die. I don't want that.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: Now Congress is poised to act on her dying wish.


BLITZER: A 10-year-old's dying wish is poised to come true. Gabriella Miller's long and public fight with brain cancer is influencing so many more people than she expected including in the halls of Capitol Hill.

Our chief congressional correspondent Dana Bash is here with more on this remarkable girl.

What a story, Dana.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. You know, her mother, Ellen Miller, said to me something that I will never forget as a parent. She said, how do you tell your 10-year-old daughter that she's going to die? Well, the way she told her was to encourage her to fight. And that's exactly what Gabriella Miller did.


BASH (voice-over): Everywhere 10-year-old Gabriella Miller went, she brought her frying pan to smash a walnut. Even at the Eifel Tower in Paris. It started when Gabriella's father broke the news to his young daughter that she had a brain tumor.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They told us it was, you know, about the size of a walnut. So we would take -- every night take a few walnuts outside and give them a good whack with the frying pan.

BASH: She became a warrior against cancer. Hers and others.

MILLER: It's not fair. Just because, you know, we don't know as much doesn't mean we're not important.

BASH: The Millers quickly learned how little was available for kids with cancer.

ELLYN MILLER, GABRIELLA MILLER'S MOTHER: Gabriella questioned all the time, why don't they have a real drug that will work for us kids?

BASH: Less than 4 percent of $5 billion in cancer research goes to childhood cancers.

MILLER: One of my fears is that, you know, more of like really young children are going to die.

BASH (on camera): She almost seems like an old soul.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We've heard that a lot. Yes, she -- she got it. She understood.

MILLER: Once you got cancer, you kind of got to be all grown up. And you don't really have a childhood.

BASH (voice-over): But Gabriella embraced activism in speeches and online videos with a simple message to politicians.

MILLER: Stop talking and start doing.

BASH: Six weeks ago, Gabriella lost her 11-month battle with cancer, but her message got through. Republican Greg Harper and Democrat Peter Welch want to take $126 million federal dollars over 10 years set aside for political conventions and direct it to pediatric research. After meeting her parents, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor named the bill after Gabriella Miller.

(On camera): It's pretty rare to name a piece of legislation after a person.

REP. ERIC CANTOR (R), MAJORITY LEADER: It could be a really inspiring story for so many people. Instead of spending money on political conventions for the political parties, shouldn't we have, as our priority, medical research for kids?

BASH (voice-over): Still it's not without controversy.

REP. NITA LOWEY (D), RANKING MEMBER, APPROPRIATIONS COMMITTEE: This bill of Leader Cantor is an absolute fraud.

BASH: Some senior Democrats oppose this as a publicity stunt to pay for over billions in cuts to cancer research.

(On camera): If there's some way you can do it, just a little bit, why not do it?

LOWEY: As a mother and a grandmother my heart goes out to Gabriella's mother. Bring back the $1.55 billion that they cut from the National Institutes of Health.

BASH (voice-over): Cantor vows to work on that. And the Democratic sponsor says he, too, wants billions reinvested, but you've got to start somewhere.

REP. PETER WELCH (D), VERMONT: Can we just put the battle axes down for a while and take a step forward? I think we can.

BASH: In the spirit of this from little Gabriella.

MILLER: If I lose my battle, then I want other people to carry on for more. We can win this war. I'll be in a good place then. It won't be all that bad.


BASH: Now the House is going to vote on this Gabriella Miller Kids Research First Bill tomorrow despite opposition on both sides. Cantor told me he is expecting it to pass. The fate of this is uncertain in the Senate. But just the fact that Gabriella Miller was able to stir this debate, her parents tell me that she is absolutely beaming from heaven.

BLITZER: They've got to find the money. I mean, if we can spend a billion dollars or $2 billion a week in Afghanistan, we can find some money for pediatric cancer research.

BASH: And to hear that from somebody like a 10-year-old girl with such eloquence is pretty remarkable.

BLITZER: It's an amazing story. Thank you very much for sharing.

Don't go away. We've got the breaking news we're following. Much more coming up. A deal has been reached between House and Senate members' conferees to keep -- the government. A budget deal. The first time since 2011, it looks like, they're going to have a deal.

We're going to have live coverage. We're standing by for Paul Ryan and Patty Murray. Stay with us.