Monday December 10, 2012

Obama, Boehner meet at White House to discuss ‘fiscal cliff’

WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner met Sunday at the White House to discuss the ongoing negotiations over the impending "fiscal cliff," the first meeting between just the two leaders since Election Day.

Spokesmen for both Obama and Boehner said they agreed to not release details of the conversation, but emphasized that the lines of communication remain open.

The meeting comes as the White House and Congress try to break an impasse over finding a way to stop a combination of automatic tax increases and spending cuts scheduled to kick in at the beginning of next year.

Obama met in November with Boehner, as well as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. The president spoke separately by telephone with Reid and Pelosi on Friday.

Obama has been pushing higher tax rates on the wealthiest Americans as one way to reduce the deficit -- a position Boehner and other House Republicans have been steadfastly against. Republicans are demanding steeper cuts in costly government entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security.

Syria’s civil war spills into Lebanon again, 4 killed in gun battles

BEIRUT (AP) -- Syria’s civil war spilled over into neighboring Lebanon once again on Sunday, with gun battles in the northern city of Tripoli between supporters and opponents of President Bashar Assad’s regime that left four dead.

Nine Syrian judges and prosecutors also defected to the opposition. It was the latest setback for the regime, which appears increasingly embattled with rebels making gains in northern Syria and near Damascus, the capital.

The defecting judges posted a joint statement online urging others to join them and break ranks with Assad’s regime. There have been several high-level defections over the past year, including Assad’s former prime minister.

In Geneva, the United Nation’s Special Representative for Syria and the Arab League, Lakdhar Brahimi, met with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns to discuss the crisis in Syria. They said in a joint statement that the situation in Syria was "bad and getting worse," adding that a political process to end the conflict was "still necessary and still possible."

Russia and the United States have argued bitterly over how to address the conflict, which began with peaceful protests against Assad in March 2011 and escalated into a civil war that has killed an estimated 40,000 people. Activists said another 45 were killed on Sunday.

As Nelson Mandela is hospitalized, his South Africa finds itself at political crossroads

JOHANNESBURG (AP) -- Inside a Catholic church that once served as a major rallying point for anti-apartheid activists, the image of a gray-suited Nelson Mandela appears in stained-glass window that also features angels and the cross.

Worshippers here prayed Sunday for the hospitalized 94-year-old former president, who remains almost a secular saint and a father figure to many in South Africa, a nation of 50 million people that has Africa’s top economy.

Mandela’s admission to the hospital this weekend for unspecified medical tests sparked screaming newspapers headlines and ripples of fear in the public that the frail leader is fading further away.

And as his African National Congress political party stands ready to pick its leader who likely will be the nation’s next president, some believe governing party politicians have abandoned Mandela’s integrity and magnanimity in a seemingly unending string of corruption scandals. That leaves many wondering who can lead the country the way the ailing Mandela once did.

"When you have someone that’s willing to lead by example like he did, it makes things easier for people to follow," said Thabile Manana, who worshipped Sunday at Soweto’s Regina Mundi Catholic church. "Lately, the examples are not so nice. It’s hard. I’m scared for the country."

Egypt’s constitution is going to a referendum, but it’s not unifying the country

CAIRO (AP) -- President Mohammed Morsi is unlikely to worry if Egypt’s Islamist-leaning draft constitution passes by only a small margin in a Dec. 15 referendum, since he and his backers tout his 51 percent election victory in June as a "popular mandate" that is beyond any challenge.

Still, an idea taking root among many secular Egyptians is that a constitution requires a reasonable degree of consensus to qualify as a charter for all -- and that it is fundamentally illegitimate to ram one through by a simple majority despite opposition from key sectors of society that oppose giving religion such a major role in the affairs of state.

"It is irrational to have a constitution that does not genuinely represent everyone," said Kahlil al-Anani, a British-based expert on Egypt. "It is important that a constitution is passed with a comfortable majority, but it does not make the document less credible if it is a modest majority."

The proposed constitution is at the heart of the nation’s worst political crisis since the overthrow nearly two years ago of authoritarian President Hosni Mubarak. The charter has divided Egypt, with Morsi and his Islamist backers, including ultraconservative Salafis, in one camp, and secularists and leftists, including minority Christians and women, in the other.

At least six civilians have been killed in street clashes and several offices of the president’s Muslim Brotherhood torched in the unrest.

Chavez to undergo cancer surgery again, wants VP to succeed him if illness worsens

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was heading back to Cuba on Sunday for a third cancer surgery after naming his vice president as his choice to lead the country if the illness cuts short his presidency.

Chavez’s Saturday night announcement cast a shadow of uncertainty over the country, and his supporters poured into city plazas across the nation to pray for his recovery from what appears to be an aggressive type of cancer.

Some wiped tears, while others held photos of him and chanted in unison: "Ooh-Ah! Chavez isn’t going away!"

Chavez acknowledged the seriousness of his health situation in a televised address, saying for the first time that if he suffers complications Vice President Nicolas Maduro should be elected as Venezuela’s leader to continue his socialist movement.

Several outside medical experts said that based on Chavez’s account of his condition and his treatment so far, they doubt the cancer can be cured.

Georgia investigations detail stream of radioactive materials on black market

BATUMI, Georgia (AP) -- On the gritty side of this casino resort town near the Turkish border, three men in a hotel suite gathered in secret to talk about a deal for radioactive material.

The Georgian seller offered cesium, a byproduct of nuclear reactors that terrorists can use to arm a dirty bomb with the power to kill. But one of the Turkish men, wearing a suit and casually smoking a cigarette, made clear he was after something even more dangerous: uranium, the material for a nuclear bomb.

The would-be buyers agreed to take a photo of the four cylinders and see if their boss in Turkey was interested. They did not know police were watching through a hidden camera. As they got up to leave, the police rushed in and arrested the men, according to Georgian officials, who were present.

The encounter, which took place in April, reflected a fear shared by U.S. and Georgian officials: Despite years of effort and hundreds of millions of dollars spent in the fight against the illicit sale of nuclear contraband, the black market remains active in the countries around the former Soviet Union. The radioactive materials, mostly left over from the Cold War, include nuclear bomb-grade uranium and plutonium, and dirty-bomb isotopes like cesium and iridium.

The extent of the black market is unknown, but a steady stream of attempted sales of radioactive materials in recent years suggests smugglers have sometimes crossed borders undetected. Since the formation of a special nuclear police unit in 2005 with U.S. help and funding, 15 investigations have been launched in Georgia and dozens of people arrested.

Plane carrying Mexican-American singer Jenni Rivera missing in Mexico

MEXICO (AP) -- A small plane carrying Mexican-American singer Jenni Rivera went missing early Sunday after taking off from the city of Monterrey, authorities in northern Mexico confirmed Sunday.

Jorge Domene, spokesman for the Nuevo Leon state government, told Milenio television on Sunday that the plane left Monterrey about 3:30 a.m local time after a concert there and aviation authorities lost contact with the craft about 10 minutes later. It had been scheduled to arrive in Toluca, which is located outside Mexico City, about an hour later.

Domene said a search for the plane was launched early Sunday, with helicopters from the local civilian protection agency flying over the state. He said seven people including the crew were believed to be aboard the U.S.-registered Learjet 25.

The 43-year-old who was born and raised in Long Beach, California, is known for her interpretations of Mexican regional music known as nortena and banda.