Friday, December 28, 2012

Published:

White House, Senate leaders in last ditch effort to avoid tax increases, spending cuts

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The end game at hand, the White House and Senate leaders made a final stab at compromise Friday night to prevent middle-class tax increases from taking effect at the turn of the new year and possibly block sweeping spending cuts as well.

"I'm optimistic we may still be able to reach an agreement that can pass both houses in time," President Barack Obama said at the White House after meeting for more than an hour with top lawmakers from both houses.

Surprisingly, after weeks of postelection gridlock, Senate leaders sounded even more bullish.

The Republican leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said he was "hopeful and optimistic" of a deal that could be presented to rank-and-file lawmakers as early as Sunday, a little more than 24 hours before the year-end deadline.

Said Majority Leader Harry Reid: "I'm going to do everything I can" to prevent the tax increases and spending cuts that threaten to send the economy into recession. He cautioned, "Whatever we come up with is going to be imperfect."

___

Indian woman who was gang-raped and severely beaten on a bus dies in Singapore hospital

SINGAPORE (AP) -- An Indian woman who was gang-raped and beaten on a bus in New Delhi died Saturday at a Singapore hospital, after her ordeal galvanized Indians to demand greater protection for women from sexual violence that impacts thousands of them every day.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said he was aware of the emotions the attack has stirred and that it was up to all Indians to ensure that the young woman's death will not have been in vain.

The victim "passed away peacefully" with her family and officials of the Indian Embassy by her side, Dr. Kevin Loh, the chief executive of Mount Elizabeth hospital, said in a statement.

After 10 days at a hospital in New Delhi, the Indian capital, the woman was brought Thursday to Mount Elizabeth hospital, which specializes in multi-organ transplants. Loh said the woman had been in extremely critical condition since Thursday, and by late Friday her condition had taken a turn for the worse, with her vital signs deteriorating.

"Despite all efforts by a team of eight specialists in Mount Elizabeth Hospital to keep her stable, her condition continued to deteriorate over these two days," Loh said. "She had suffered from severe organ failure following serious injuries to her body and brain. She was courageous in fighting for her life for so long against the odds but the trauma to her body was too severe for her to overcome."

___

Contract extension averts dockworkers strike -- for now -- at East and Gulf coast ports

NEW YORK (AP) -- Dockworkers along the East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico agreed Friday to extend their contract for more than a month, averting a weekend strike that could have crippled major ports from Boston to Houston and bottled up billions of dollars' worth of cargo.

Talks aimed at reaching a new contract covering the 14,500 longshoremen will continue during the extension, which runs through Feb. 6.

The dockworkers' union and an alliance of port operators and shipping lines agreed to the extension after resolving one of the stickier points in their negotiations, involving royalty payments to longshoremen for each container they unload. Details were not disclosed.

Federal mediator George Cohen said the agreement on royalties was "a major positive step forward."

"While some significant issues remain in contention, I am cautiously optimistic that they can be resolved," he said.

___

US banks closing year with strong profits and fewest failures since 2008 financial crisis

WASHINGTON (AP) -- U.S. banks are ending the year with their best profits since 2006 and fewer failures than at any time since the financial crisis struck in 2008. They're helping support an economy slowed by high unemployment, flat pay, sluggish manufacturing and anxious consumers.

As the economy heals from the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, more people and businesses are taking out -- and repaying -- loans.

And for the first time since 2009, banks' earnings growth is being driven by higher revenue -- a healthy trend. Banks had previously managed to boost earnings by putting aside less money for possible losses.

Signs of the industry's gains:

-- Banks are earning more. In the July-September quarter, the industry's earnings reached $37.6 billion, up from $35.3 billion a year earlier. It was the best showing since the July-September quarter of 2006, long before the financial meltdown. By contrast, at the depth of the Great Recession in the last quarter of 2008, the industry lost $32 billion.

___

NRA envisions armed volunteers, but experts say trained police are needed for school security

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The student's attack began with a shotgun blast through the windows of a California high school. Rich Agundez, the El Cajon policeman assigned to the school, felt his mind shift into overdrive.

People yelled at him amid the chaos but he didn't hear. He experienced "a tunnel vision of concentration."

While two teachers and three students were injured when the glass shattered in the 2001 attack on Granite Hills High School, Agundez confronted the assailant and wounded him before he could get inside the school and use his second weapon, a handgun.

The National Rifle Association's response to a Connecticut school massacre envisions, in part, having trained, armed volunteers in every school in America. But Agundez, school safety experts and school board members say there's a huge difference between a trained law enforcement officer who becomes part of the school family -- and a guard with a gun.

The NRA's proposal has sparked a debate across the country as gun control rises once again as a national issue. President Barack Obama promised to present a plan in January to confront gun violence in the aftermath of the killing of 20 Sandy Hook Elementary School students and six teachers in Newtown, Conn.

___

With Chavez out of sight, confused Venezuelans don't know what to believe about his health

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- He's getting better. He's getting worse. He's already dead. The whole thing is a conspiracy and he was never sick in the first place.

The obsessive, circular conversations about President Hugo Chavez's health dominate family dinners, plaza chit-chats and social media sites in this country on edge since its larger-than-life leader went to Cuba for emergency cancer surgery more than two weeks ago. The man whose booming voice once dominated the airwaves for hours at a time has not been seen or heard from since.

His lieutenants have consistently assured Venezuelans over the last week that Chavez is slowly on the mend and will be back at the helm of the country he has dominated for 14 years. But when will he be back? Will he be well enough to govern? What type of cancer does he have? Is it terminal? If so, how long does he have to live?

Government officials have not answered any of those questions, leaving Venezuelans to their own speculations. The wildest conspiracy theories run the gamut from those who say there is no proof Chavez is even still alive to those who believe his illness is a made-up play for sympathy.

"Everything has been a mystery. Everyone believes what they want about the status of his health," said Ismael Garcia, a leftist lawmaker who belonged to the Chavez movement until a falling-out a few years ago.

___

Venezuela's vice president, others heading to Havana to visit Chavez after cancer surgery

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro announced Friday night that he was traveling to Cuba to visit President Hugo Chavez, who is recovering from cancer surgery in Havana.

Maduro said during the inauguration of a state governor that he and other government officials would fly to Cuba late Friday. He did not specify how long he would be away but said Energy Minister Hector Navarro would be in charge of government affairs in the meantime.

Maduro's trip comes amid growing uncertainty about Chavez's health.

The Venezuelan leader has not been seen or heard from since undergoing his fourth cancer-related surgery Dec. 11, and government officials have said he might not return in time for his scheduled Jan. 10 inauguration for a new six-year term. There have been no updates on Chavez's condition since Maduro announced Monday night that he had received a phone call from the president who was up and walking.

Maduro is the highest ranking Venezuelan official to visit Chavez since the surgery. Bolivian President Evo Morales traveled to Cuba last weekend in a quick trip that only added to the uncertainty surrounding Chavez's condition. Morales has not commented publicly on his visit or even confirmed that he saw Chavez while he was there.

___

NY mayor urges residents to keep 2nd fatal subway push this month in perspective; woman sought

NEW YORK (AP) -- For New York City, it wasn't an unusual sight: a possibly mentally ill woman pacing and mumbling to herself on an elevated subway station platform.

The woman eventually took a seat on a bench Thursday night, witnesses later said. Then, without any warning or provocation, she sprang up and used both hands to shove a man into the path of an oncoming train.

As police sought on Friday to locate the unidentified woman, Mayor Michael Bloomberg urged residents to keep the second fatal subway shove in the city this month in perspective. The news of the horrific death of 46-year-old Sunando Sen, who was from India and lived in Queens, came as the mayor touted drops in the city's annual homicide and shooting totals.

"It's a very tragic case, but what we want to focus on today is the overall safety in New York," Bloomberg told reporters following a police academy graduation.

The New York Police Department released a sketch of the woman and surveillance video of her fleeing the area and interviewed witnesses, including some who described her as acting agitated before the attack.

___

Central African Republic's neighbors agree to send military contingent to troubled country

BANGUI, Central African Republic (AP) -- Central African Republic's neighbors agreed on Friday to dispatch a contingent of soldiers to intervene in the troubled country, where a coalition of rebel groups is seeking to overthrow the president of nearly a decade.

Representatives from the 10-nation Economic Community of Central African States meeting in Gabon, though, did not specify how many troops they could contribute nor did they outline how quickly the military assistance would arrive.

President Francois Bozize had pleaded for international help Thursday as fears grew that the rebels would attack the capital of 600,000 next. Former colonial power France already has said that its forces in the country are there to protect French interests and not Bozize's government.

"We are now thinking about the arrangements to make so that this mission can be deployed as quickly as possible, said Gabon's Foreign Affairs Minister Emmanuel Issoze-Ngondet.

The announcement came as military officials in Central African Republic reported renewed fighting in the third largest city of Bambari, which fell under rebel control five days ago.

___

Jean Harris, convicted of killing her lover, 'Scarsdale Diet' doctor, dies at age 89

NEW HAVEN, Conn. (AP) -- Jean Harris, the patrician girls' school headmistress who spent 12 years in prison for the 1980 killing of her longtime lover, "Scarsdale Diet" doctor Herman Tarnower, in a case that rallied feminists and inspired television movies, has died. She was 89.

Harris died Sunday at an assisted-living facility in New Haven, her son, James Harris, said Friday.

She had claimed the shooting of Tarnower, 69, was an accident. Convicted of murder in 1981, Harris suffered two heart attacks while serving her sentence in the Bedford Hills women's prison north of New York City. She was granted clemency by then-Gov. Mario Cuomo when she underwent heart bypass surgery in December 1992 and was released on parole three weeks later.

She later founded Children of Bedford Inc., a nonprofit organization to provide scholarships and tutoring for children of female prison inmates.

Her trial for shooting Tarnower, the millionaire cardiologist famous for devising the Scarsdale Diet -- a weight-loss book and sensation of the 1970s named for the New York suburb where he practiced -- brought feminists rallying to her defense.