Sunday, December 30, 2012

Published:

Senate leaders offer pessimistic take on 'fiscal cliff' talks

WASHINGTON (AP) -- A Capitol Hill deal to avert the "fiscal cliff" was proving elusive Sunday as a deadline to avert tax hikes on virtually every American worker and block sweeping spending cuts set to strike the Pentagon and other federal agencies grew perilously near.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell remained at odds on such key issues as the income threshold for higher tax rates and how to deal with inheritance taxes, among other issues. McConnell complained that Reid had yet to respond to a GOP offer made Saturday evening and reached out to Vice President Joe Biden, a longtime friend, in hopes of breaking the impasse.

One sign of progress came as Republicans withdrew a long-discussed proposal to slow future cost-of-living increases for Social Security recipients as part of a compromise to avoid the cliff. Democrats said earlier Sunday that proposal had put a damper on the talks, and Republican senators emerging from a closed-door GOP meeting said it is no longer part of the equation.

"I was really gratified to hear that Republicans have taken their demand for Social Security benefit cuts off the table. The truth is they should never have been on the table to begin with," Reid said late Sunday afternoon. "There is still significant distance between the two sides, but negotiations continue."

At stake are sweeping tax hikes and across-the-board spending cuts set to take effect at the turn of the year. Taken together, they've been dubbed the fiscal cliff, and economists warn the one-two punch -- which leaders in both parties have said they want to avoid -- could send the still-fragile economy back into recession. Tax cuts enacted in 2001 and 2003 expire at midnight Monday, and $109 billion in across-the-board cuts in federal spending this year would also begin this week.

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Obama wants gun violence measures passed next year, voices doubts about armed school guards

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Recalling the shooting rampage that killed 20 first graders as the worst day of his presidency, President Barack Obama pledged to put his "full weight" behind legislation aimed at preventing gun violence.

Obama voiced skepticism about the National Rifle Association's proposal to put armed guards in schools following the Dec. 14 tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. The president made his comments Saturday in an interview that aired Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press."

Instead, the president vowed to rally the American people around an agenda to limit gun violence, adding that he still supports increased background checks and bans on assault weapons and high-capacity bullet magazines. He left no doubt it will be one of his top priorities next year.

"It is not enough for us to say, 'This is too hard so we're not going to try,'" Obama said.

"I think there are a vast majority of responsible gun owners out there who recognize that we can't have a situation in which somebody with severe psychological problems is able to get the kind of high capacity weapons that this individual in Newtown obtained and gun down our kids," he added. "And, yes, it's going to be hard."

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Family pleas for pregnant, ailing American woman missing in Afghanistan with Canadian husband

KABUL (AP) -- The family of an ailing, pregnant American woman missing in Afghanistan with her Canadian husband has broken months of silence over the mysterious case, making public appeals for the couple's safe return.

James Coleman, the father of 27-year-old Caitlan Coleman, told The Associated Press over the weekend that she was due to deliver in January and needed urgent medical attention for a liver ailment that required regular checkups. He said he and his wife, Lyn, last heard from their son-in-law Josh on Oct. 8 from an Internet cafe in what Josh described as an "unsafe" part of Afghanistan. The Colemans asked that Josh be identified by his first name only to protect his privacy.

The couple had embarked on a journey last July that took them to Russia, the central Asian countries of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and then finally to Afghanistan.

Neither the Taliban nor any other militant group has claimed it is holding the couple, leading some to believe they were kidnapped. But no ransom demand has been made.

An Afghan official said their trail has gone dead.

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Violence in Afghanistan falls in 2012, but more Afghan troops dying and insider attacks rise

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- Violence in Afghanistan fell in 2012, but more Afghan troops and police who now shoulder most of the combat were killed, according to statistics compiled by The Associated Press.

At the same time, insider killings by uniformed Afghans against their foreign allies rose dramatically, eroding confidence between the two sides at a crucial turning point in the war and when NATO troops and Afghan counterparts are in more intimate contact.

"The overall situation is improving," said a NATO spokesman, U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Lester T. Carroll. He singled out Afghan special forces as "surgically removing insurgent leaders from the battle space."

Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi, spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Defense, said Afghan forces were now charged with 80 percent of security missions and were less equipped to face the most lethal weapon of the militants -- roadside bombs.

"Our forces are out there in the battlefields and combat areas more than at any other time in the past," he said, citing reasons for the spike in casualties.

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Police say 9 people killed in bus crash along icy Oregon interstate

PENDLETON, Ore. (AP) -- A tour bus careened through a guardrail along an icy Oregon highway and several hundred feet down a steep embankment Sunday, killing nine people and injuring about 20 others, authorities said.

The charter bus carrying about 40 people lost control around 10:30 a.m. on the snow- and ice-covered lanes of Interstate 84, according to the Oregon State Police.

The bus came to rest at the bottom of a snowy slope. More than a dozen rescue workers descended the hill and used ropes to help retrieve people from the wreckage in freezing weather. The bus driver was among the survivors, but had not yet spoken to police because of the severity of the injuries the driver had suffered.

Lt. Greg Hastings said the accident happened west end of the Blue Mountains, and west of an area called "Deadman Pass." Stretches of highway in the rural and agricultural area of east Oregon tend to be icy in winter months.

I-84 is a major east-west highway through Oregon that follows the Columbia River Gorge.

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Republican governors face unpredictable politics as they deal with Obama's health care law

ATLANTA (AP) -- Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who made a fortune as a health care executive, long opposed President Barack Obama's remake of the health insurance market. After the Democratic president won re-election, the Republican governor softened his tone. He said he wanted to "have a conversation" with the administration about implementing the 2010 law. With a federal deadline approaching, he also said while Florida won't set up the exchange for individuals to buy private insurance policies, the feds can do it.

In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie held his cards before saying he won't set up his own exchange, but he's avoided absolute language and says he could change his mind. He's also leaving his options open to accept federal money to expand Medicaid insurance for people who aren't covered. The caveat, Christie says, is whether Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius can "answer my questions" about its operations and expense.

Both Republican governors face re-election in states that Obama won twice, Christie in 2013 and Scott in 2014. And both will encounter well-financed Democrats.

Their apparent struggles on the issue, along with other postures by their GOP colleagues elsewhere, suggest political uncertainty for Republicans as the Affordable Care Act starts to go into effect two years after clearing Congress without a single Republican vote. The risks also are acute for governors in Democratic-leaning or swing-voting states or who know their records will be parsed should they seek the presidency in 2016 or beyond.

"It's a tough call for many Republican governors who want to do the best thing for their state but don't want to be seen as advancing an overhaul that many Republicans continue to detest," said Whit Ayers, a consultant in Virginia whose clients include Gov. Bill Haslam of Tennessee, a Republican who didn't announce his rejection of a state exchange until days before Sebelius's Dec. 14 deadline.

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In gun debate, vast communication gulf leaves two sides speaking starkly different languages

WEXFORD, Pa. (AP) -- Inside the Big Buck Sport Shop, where mounted moose and deer heads loom over rifles, handguns, targets and ammunition, the customers have no doubt: More gun laws will not save lives.

Fifteen miles south, in the city of Pittsburgh, many confronted by a steady stream of gun violence are just as certain: To reduce the carnage, stricter gun control is needed.

This divide has existed for decades, separating America into hostile camps of conservative vs. liberal, rural vs. urban. As the nation responds to the massacre of 20 children and six adults in Newtown, Conn., the gulf has rarely felt wider than now.

After the gunman invaded an elementary school with a Bushmaster AR-15 semiautomatic rifle and magazines of 30 bullets each, there was a brief moment of unity amid the nation's grief. Across partisan divides, politicians said something must be done about weapons based upon military designs. Many wondered if even the National Rifle Association would adjust its staunch opposition to gun control.

Then both sides regrouped. With President Barack Obama pushing for a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and memory lingering of Obama's divisive 2008 comment that some Americans "cling to guns and religion," positions hardened.

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74-year-old Maine landlord charged with murder in shooting deaths of teenage apartment tenants

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) -- A 74-year-old Maine man was charged in the shooting deaths of two tenants inside an apartment he rented out at his home, possibly over a dispute about where they parked their cars during a snowstorm, state police said Sunday.

James Pak was arrested at about 10 p.m. Saturday following a standoff at his suburban neighborhood home in Biddeford, about 15 miles south of Portland, police said. He is charged with two counts of murder in the deaths of Derrick Thompson, 19, and Thompson's girlfriend, 18-year-old Alivia Welch.

Thompson's mother, Susan Johnson, 44, called police to report the shootings at about 7 p.m. She and her 6-year-old son also live in the apartment, which is attached to the main house where Pak lived.

Before the shootings, Biddeford police were called to Pak's home regarding a dispute between Pak and his tenants over their cars being parked in his driveway during the snowstorm, said state police spokesman Steve McCausland. Biddeford banned street parking during the night so city crews could plow the streets.

Minutes after officers left the home, they received the call reporting the shootings. Upon their return, Biddeford police rescued Johnson and her young son, and Pak retreated to his part of the house, where he lived with his wife, McCausland said.

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As crack devastates Brazil's cities, debate surges over the forced commitment of users

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) -- Bobo has a method: Cocaine gets him through the day, when he cruises with a wheelbarrow around a slum on Rio's west side, sorting through trash for recyclables to sell. At night, he turns the day's profit into crack.

"Sometimes I don't sleep at all; I'm up 24 hours," says Bobo, a former soldier who doesn't use his given name for safety reasons. "I work to support my addiction, but I only use crack at night. That drug takes my mind away. I lose all notion of what I'm doing."

Bobo says balancing crack with cocaine keeps him working and sane. On the shantytown's streets, life can be hell: Addicts unable to strike Bobo's precarious balance use crack day and night, begging, stealing, prostituting themselves, and picking through trash to make enough for the next hit. For them, there's no going home, no job, nothing but the drug.

With a boom in crack use over the past decade, Brazilian authorities are struggling to stop the drug's spread, sparking a debate over the legality and efficiency of forcibly interning users. Brazil today is the world's largest consumer of both cocaine and its crack derivative, according to the Federal University of Sao Paolo. About 6 million adults, or 3 percent of Brazilians, have tried cocaine in some form.

Rio de Janeiro has taken the lead in trying to help the burgeoning number of users with an approach that city leaders call proactive, but critics pan as unnecessarily aggressive. As of May 2011, users living in the streets have been scooped up in pre-dawn raids by teams led by the city's welfare department in conjunction with police and health care workers. By Dec. 5, 582 people had been picked up, including 734 children.

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Indianapolis celebrates Pagano's emotional return with 28-16 victory over Texans

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -- Chuck Pagano put on his dancing shoes and savored every moment of Sunday's postgame celebration.

He took his customary linebacker stance on the sideline, hands on bended knees. He signaled touchdowns when the Colts scored, patted Deji Karim on the helmet after a 101-yard kickoff return for a game-changing touchdown, and gestured for penalty flags to be thrown.

And after Indianapolis beat AFC South champion Houston 28-16, Pagano even tossed aside the stodgy image of an NFL coach and began jumping around with players, assistant coaches and even team owner Jim Irsay like he was a kid again.

Why not?

"There was a lot of high-fiving, a lot of dancing, a lot of hugging going on and a lot of celebrating," an emotional Pagano said. "There's a lot to celebrate right now."