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Budget Deal; Interview With Maryland Congressman Elijah Cummings; Cell Phones on Planes

Aired December 12, 2013 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: A new budget deal, a deal that would prevent another government shutdown before the 2014 congressional midterm elections. Will we see a rare break in partisanship and gridlock?

We're watching the vote as it happens right now. We will bring you the results as soon as we get them. Stand by, important voting going on in Washington.

But, first, we're also learning that two federal agencies now are at odds over whether to allow passengers to talk on their cell phones in flight. It's a controversial idea that would affect millions of flyers all around the country.

Our aviation and regulation correspondent Rene Marsh is following all these developments for us.

And they're going back and forth. What's the latest?

RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: Well, I will tell you, you have on the FCC, which just voted to consider ending the ban. On the other hand, you have the Department of Transportation considering blocking in-flight calls.

So, what does it mean for you, the passenger? Well, don't start dialing just yet.


MARSH (voice-over): Talking on your cell phone in flight could be grounded before you start dialing. The FCC vote 3-2 to consider lifting its ban on in-flight cell use such as voice calls and texting. The commission says new technology eliminates interference with cell towers on the ground, the reason for the decades-old ban.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't want somebody sitting next to me saying, hi, I'm on the plane.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It adds to more noise, more stress to the flight.

MARSH: One commissioner bombarded with letters from opponents.

AJIT PAI, FCC COMMISSIONER: A third wrote simply, "No!"

The FCC chairman says it's their job to worry about the technology, not what passengers want.

TOM WHEELER, Chairman, Federal Communications Commission: I'm the last person in the world who wants to listen to somebody talking to me while I fly across the country, but we are the technical agency, and we will make the technical rules that reflect the way the new technology works.

MARSH: Thursday, the Department of Transportation said it would consider possibly banning the in-flight calls. "The U.S. DOT's role is to determine if allowing these calls is fair to consumers," Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement.

In Congress, a new Senate bill also aims to ban the calls. It joins Republican Bill Shuster's House proposal.

REP. BILL SHUSTER (R), PENNSYLVANIA: These airplanes are confined, they're noisy already. To have dozens of phone calls going on while in flight I think is annoying to the traveling public and I just think it's unnecessary.

MARSH: But OnAir, which provides cell service on planes around the world, says passengers haven't complained. Most users text, and the $3- to $4-a-minute cost keeps calls short.


MARSH: All right. Well, either way this is a long process. It will be months before the FCC could actually lift its ban, and it would be months before the FAA to vote to impose a ban.

Of course, Wolf, we should mention that carriers in other countries, they do already have the equipment on board that do allow in-flight calls.

BLITZER: We will see what the final verdict is probably fairly soon. Thanks very much, Rene, for that.

Now a new account of Nelson Mandela's final moments from his ex- wife, Winnie. She was with him the day he walked out of prison and she says she was with him on the day he died.


WINNIE MANDELA, EX-WIFE OF NELSON MANDELA: I watched those figures going down and down so slowly. And then he drew his last breath and just rested.


BLITZER: Just days before Nelson Mandela's burial, there's no letup in the controversy surrounding his memorial service on the man who was hired to be an interpreter for the deaf. He's speaking out to CNN and denying allegations he's a fake.

Brian Todd has got more details.

Some pretty stunning allegations that he's a fake, and some stunning revelations today as well.


In CNN's interview and others, the translator, Thamsanqa Jantjie, said he's had mental illness and he made other stunning claims about himself. None of it has stemmed the widespread condemnation of this man and his actions at the ceremony.


TODD (voice-over): He's accused of being a fake interpreter, and is the subject of worldwide ridicule on venues like "The Tonight Show."

JAY LENO, HOST, "THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO": You know, I knew he was fake. Did you notice later in the speech? Watch what he did here. It's so obvious.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Madiba would emerge as the last great...


TODD: But Thamsanqa Jantjie is not laughing. He stands by his work, says he's a fully qualified sign language interpreter, that he's been trusted with other big events, but Jantjie also said if he interpreted anything wrong at Nelson Mandela's memorial, then he asks for forgiveness. And in an interview with CNN, he dropped a bombshell.

THAMSANQA JANTJIE, SIGN LANGUAGE INTERPRETER AT MEMORIAL: I am suffering from schizophrenia, which is controllable. I'm under a treatment positively in Sterkfontein Hospital in Krugersdorp in South Africa.

TODD: He told "The Johannesburg Star" newspaper that during the ceremony he was hallucinating, hearing voices in his head. He told the Associated Press he saw angels coming into the stadium, that he had violence in his past and he had once been hospitalized in a mental health facility for more than a year.

Did the South African government, which staged the event, catch any of that beforehand?

HENDRIETTA BOGOPANE-ZULU, SOUTH AFRICAN DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: I don't think any of the people that provided the services on that day, the health profiles were discussed. So, I mean, if that was the case, then I might have missed something.

TODD: That officials says Jantjie is not a fake, but if he had those mental health conditions, and given that he was standing just inches away from President Obama and other leaders, even if he wasn't armed...

(on camera): Could he have been a threat to the president? JOHN TOMLINSON, FORMER SECRET SERVICE DEPUTY ASSISTANCE DIRECTOR: Clearly, he was in close enough proximity that he could have reached out and touched the president.

TODD (voice-over): The Secret Service relied on the host country to vet everyone on the podium before the event.

Former Secret Service official Larry Tomlinson says if this had been in the U.S., the Secret Service would have likely have prevented Jantjie from getting close to the president. But another big concern, that this interpreter grew irritated when asked to show off his sign language skills to CNN's David McKenzie.

JANTJIE: You want me to what? You want me to -- they -- the media calls me a security threat. You want me to call me what?

DAVID MCKENZIE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: No, I'm just asking you if you can show me some of the signs.

JANTJIE: No, no, let's be realistic.


TODD: Jantjie said he had been originally been hired by a company called SA Interpreters. We tried to contact the company. We couldn't reach anyone. And a South African official says the owners seem to have vanished -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Despite his claims, there have been complaints about him in the past, right?

TODD: That's right. He had claimed before all this -- quote -- "No one at all said I interpreted wrong."

But an African National Congress official said that last year after Jantjie interpreted an event staged by that group, the ANC, that there were complaints about him after that. So this has been going on probably for at least several months, but, of course, you know, none of that came to light before this event.

BLITZER: Weird story this is. All right, thanks, Brian, for that.

Still ahead, a critical vote on the budget under way right now on the floor of the House of Representatives. We're watching. We will have the latest breaking news. That's coming up.

Plus, is there any doubt that Republican Senator Ted Cruz plans to run for president? Congressman Elijah Cummings is joining us. He will tell us what he learned about Cruz's plans during that very long trip to South Africa and back.


BLITZER: You're looking at live pictures of the House of Representatives. They're voting right now on a bipartisan deal to continue funding the government for the next two years, right now, 171 in favor, what, 38 opposed.

Dana Bash is up on Capitol Hill, our chief congressional correspondent.

It looks like it's going to pass, Dana, right?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It does look like it's going to pass. The idea is going to be, by how much? We still have a lot of members who still haven't voted yet.

And in fact that's part of a strategy, we're told, at least on the Democratic side that they were going to maybe hang back and see how the Republican votes are going, again not necessarily because this will be a decision whether this measure is going to win or lose, but how many Democrats can maybe vote their conscience and oppose what they don't think is a good deal.

Many of them don't think it's good because it doesn't include an extension of unemployment benefits, or whether they do what they think is right, which is to make sure this gets passed, but it's certainly moving toward passage. And we will watch on the Democratic side, but maybe more importantly, the Republican side and how much of a split there is. So far, 32 Republicans have voted no, and 93 have not yet voted, so we will see what kind of real split there is among the Republicans in the House, particularly after John Boehner made such a show over the past 24 hours of pushing back against conservative groups who are trying to encourage Republicans to vote against this.

BLITZER: Yes, the magic number 435 members of the House of Representatives who can vote. You need 218 in order to get a majority.

Gloria Borger watching these numbers at well.

They're already at, what, 196, Gloria, so it looks like they will get that number relatively quickly. But, as Dana points out, it will be interesting how many Republicans vote again what the speaker of the House and Paul Ryan are advocating, how many Democrats go against Nancy Pelosi, if you will.


And, you know, there are about 60 members of what I call the hell-no caucus who were for the government shutdown, defunding Obamacare. So far you have about 30 presumably of those members voting against this, Wolf. What was fascinating to me was Paul Ryan's speech on the floor of the House.

He said, look, we have to show -- we have been at each other's throats for a while, but we're going to have to win some elections. I think this is really a test about whether the Republican Party in the House is going to get serious about governing. I think that's what John Boehner was saying. He said, you guys had your chance, we need to get serious.

BLITZER: All right, 219, Dana, so it looks like it's passed unless somebody changes their mind. It looks like Paul Ryan and the speaker, they will get their way in the House of Representatives. So let's walk a little bit forward now, Dana. Where does it go from here? It goes to the Senate next week for a vote, right?

BASH: That's right. It goes to the Senate next week, and is expected to pass there as well.

And just to sort of take a step back and remind our viewers what we're talking about, we're talking averting a government shutdown, and that is no small thing, considering where we have been lurching from crisis to crisis. As Gloria was just alluding to, that's precisely why Paul Ryan, the Republican chair of the House Budget Committee, and Patty Murray, the Democratic Senate chair of the Senate Budget Committee, said they made this agreement in order to stop that, and to get everybody back to normalcy, as normal as Congress can be.

And that really is such a large part, Wolf of why you had members of both parties voting for this, not necessarily because they like the level of spending that is in this budget. Everybody has something that they can dislike, but just about the process, that this gives everybody an ability to breathe and not worry about the next crisis that is going to come, and allows them to perhaps -- let's just be optimists here -- perhaps work towards those very big-ticket items that are contributing to the deficit, like Medicare and Medicaid, which are not involved in this particular...


BLITZER: Good to see a little bipartisanship, Gloria, in Washington. Compromise used to be a bad word for some. Now it's a good word.

BORGER: Well, for some. I still think there are a lot...

BLITZER: For the majority of the House of Representatives.

BORGER: But I still think there are lots of Republicans, conservative Republicans who are unhappy about this, Wolf, and liberal Democrats as well, who don't like the fact that those automatic spending cuts, some of them remain in this budget proposal.

But I think they all understand that the country doesn't have any appetite to go over any kind of cliff again or shut down the government.


BLITZER: They're still voting; 46 Republicans have voted nay -- 16 -- excuse me -- 47 Republicans, 15 Democrats, but it has passed, and it will go to the Senate.

Just ahead: There was no escape for Republican firebrand Ted Cruz when a large group of African-American Democrats cornered him. Congressman Elijah Cummings is standing by to tell us the behind-the- scenes story of that long and vocal encounter on the flight to and from South Africa. Later tonight, 9:00 p.m. Eastern, the CNN film "Unreal Dreams," the incredible story of an innocent man sent to prison for killing his wife and his fight to clear his name.


BLITZER: Senator Ted Cruz may have had some uncomfortable moments on the long flights to and from South Africa for Nelson Mandela's memorial.

The conservative Republican was on the plane with Democratic members of the Congressional Black Caucus. And we're told Senator Cruz got an earful.

And joining us now from Capitol Hill, Congressman Elijah Cummings, Democrat of Maryland, just back from the memorial service for Nelson Mandela.

Congressman, thanks very much for coming in.

REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGS (D), MARYLAND: It's good to be with you.

BLITZER: Let's talk a little bit about the trip, the flights there and back. It was an interesting delegation, congressional delegation, including Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas.

I take it there was some lively conversations with him. First of all, did he make it clear -- do you believe, did you emerge from all those discussions convinced, as you apparently said, that he's going to run for president?

CUMMINGS: I asked him directly. He tried to skirt the issue, but basically said that he would be traveling throughout the country and that he would -- I asked him, was he going to New Hampshire, was he going to South Carolina, Iowa?

And he said he would probably be going to all of those places and he would doing the things that a presidential candidate would be normally doing, but he wouldn't say yes or no. But it was quite clear to me, Wolf.

BLITZER: It was quite clear to you that he definitely wanted to run for the Republican presidential nomination?

CUMMINGS: Definitely. Yes, I have no doubt about it, no.

BLITZER: All right, good. And you spent a lot of -- in those close quarters, you have a lot of time to chat.


BLITZER: I know that some of the discussions dealt with substantive policy issues. We asked him today how those discussions went.

He said this: "We had terrific discussions among the delegation on a host of issues. The entire discussion was lively, spirited, and productive, friendly throughout."

Can you take us a little bit behind the scenes? Tell us about those lively, spirited discussions.

CUMMINGS: Well, first of all, Wolf, I was surprised to see him on the trip. I didn't know he was going.

And when I discovered him, I said, you know, this is an opportunity for members of the Congressional Black Caucus to really let him know how we feel about the issues that we are so concerned about. So he so happened to be sitting beside Gwen Moore, Congresswoman Moore, who is not shy.

So, he was sitting beside her for some 20 hours. But all throughout, we had plenty time on the plane to talk. We were moving up and down the aisles. We had several stops for refueling. And then, of course, at the -- in Johannesburg at the event, the memorial service, we again had a chance to talk.

And I spent a lot of time talking to him about the Affordable Care Act, because I realize that we were diametrically opposed, opposite ends of the spectrum, he being against it and I being very much for it. And I tried to explain to him in clear terms why it was so very important to me.

And I told him, I said, look, I'm concerned about the one out of every four members of your Texas population that does not have insurance and about the ones in my area. And so we had a dialogue, and we basically said -- he said, well, Obamacare is not the proper way to go about this.

And I said to him this simple thing. I said, well, Senator, tell me what you would do. We need to go about fixing it. The president said that he's willing to sit down with anybody who's willing to work on fixing it. And he basically did not come up with an answer to that.

But I wanted him, Wolf, to understand that there are people who get sick and die when they don't have health insurance.


BLITZER: You think, Congressman, you had any impact? Do you think he changed -- you changed his mind on anything?

CUMMINGS: It's hard to say.

I think the main thing is I wanted to make sure that he heard what I had to say. And I noticed that John Lewis spent a lot of time talking to him, Maxine Waters and others. And I think we never -- it wasn't a concerted effort. It was not orchestrated, but I think everybody had an opportunity to actually get their point of view over to him.

Now, whether it sinks in is a whole 'nother thing. But, Wolf, somebody who is running for president and someone who is doing the things that he's doing with regard to the national -- in the national arena, I think they need to hear from every element of the population.

And certainly the Congressional Black Caucus represents some very, very significant views.

BLITZER: And most of the congressional delegation to the Nelson Mandela memorial were members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Did he have any impact on you? Did he change your mind about anything?

CUMMINGS: Not really.

I found out that we were both preachers' kids. I also found out that he was tremendously influenced by his father. And I told him how influenced I was by my father. And I made him understand that my father was a former sharecropper and one who only had a second grade education, but one who believed in Matthew of the Bible, which talks about feeding the hungry, and taking care of those in prison, and lifting up those who are down and out.

And so we did some comparative notes. And at that point, I found myself doing the talking. He didn't tell me his interpretation of the Bible, but I'm sure it's hopefully quite similar.

BLITZER: I think you and I and all our viewers will agree it was a nice gesture on our part to make the journey to Nelson Mandela's memorial. It was very nice that he went, very nice that you and your colleagues went.

Congressman, thanks very much for joining us.

CUMMINGS: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Elijah Cummings joining us, the Democratic congressman from Maryland.

Please be sure to join us again tomorrow here in THE SITUATION ROOM for my special interview with the actor Will Ferrell, who plays the anchorman Ron Burgundy in the upcoming film "Anchorman 2." We're going to talk about a whole bunch of issues, including the new performance he has in "Anchorman 2" and maybe even some jokes about styling tips, facial hair, all sorts of other issues.

That interview will air tomorrow here in THE SITUATION ROOM tomorrow with Will Ferrell. I think you are going to want to see our conversation, hear it as well.

Remember, you can always follow what's going on in THE SITUATION ROOM on Twitter. Tweet me @WolfBlitzer. You can tweet the show @CNNSitRoom.