Monday January 14, 2013

After extraordinary steps
to avoid debt limit, U.S. would face uncharted territory to pay bills

WASHINGTON (AP) -- In the summer of 2011, when a debt crisis like the current one loomed, President Barack Obama warned Republicans that older Americans might not get their Social Security checks unless there was a deal to raise the nation’s borrowing limit.

After weeks of brinkmanship, Republicans consented and Obama agreed to a deficit-reduction plan the GOP wanted. Crisis averted, for a time.

Now that there’s a fresh showdown, the possibility of Social Security cuts --and more -- is back on the table.

The government could run out of cash to pay all its bills in full as early as Feb. 15, according to one authoritative estimate, and congressional Republicans want significant spending cuts in exchange for raising the borrowing limit. Obama, forced to negotiate an increase in 2011, has pledged not to negotiate again.

Without an agreement, every option facing his administration would be unprecedented.

Television execs see little connection between violence and their entertainment

PASADENA, Calif. (AP) -- If there’s any soul-searching among top television executives about onscreen violence contributing to real-life tragedies like the Connecticut school shooting, it isn’t readily apparent.

All say the horrors of Newtown and Aurora, Colo., rocked them.


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But during a series of meetings with reporters here over the last 10 days, none offered concrete examples of how it is changing what they put on the air, or if that is necessary.

"I’m not a psychologist, so I’m not sure you can make the leap (that) a show about serial killers has caused the sort of problems with violence in our country," said Robert Greenblatt, who put "Dexter" on the air when he ran Showtime and is now overseeing development of a series on the notorious creep Hannibal Lecter for NBC. "There are many, many other factors, from mental illness to guns."

All of those points are being considered by Vice President Joe Biden as he prepares to make recommendations Tuesday to President Obama on ways to curb violence. When entertainment executives met with Biden in Washington on Friday, makers of blood-spurting video games like "Call of Duty" and "Mortal Kombat" dominated attention. In theaters, "Texas Chainsaw 3-D" dominated box office receipts during its first week.

Television’s biggest influence is its omnipresence; the average American watches more than four hours of TV a day.

Egyptian appeals court overturns Hosni Mubarak’s life sentence, orders retrial

CAIRO (AP) -- A Cairo appeals court on Sunday overturned Hosni Mubarak’s life sentence and ordered a retrial of the former Egyptian president for failing to prevent the killing of hundreds of protesters during the 2011 uprising that toppled his regime.

The ruling put the spotlight back on the highly divisive issue of justice for the former leader -- and his top security officers -- in a country has been more focused on the political and economic turmoil that has engulfed the country for the past two years.

Mubarak, who is currently being held in a military hospital, will not walk free with Sunday’s court decision-- he will remain in custody while under investigation in an unrelated case. The 84-year-old ex-president was reported last year to have been close to death, but his current state of health is unknown.

A small crowd of Mubarak loyalists in the courtroom erupted with applause and cheers after the ruling was read out. Holding portraits of the former president aloft, they broke into chants of "Long live justice." Another jubilant crowd later gathered outside the Nile-side hospital where Mubarak is being held in the Cairo district of Maadi, where they passed out candies to pedestrians and motorists.

The relatively small crowds paled in comparison to the immediate reaction to his conviction and sentencing in June, when thousands took to the streets, some in celebration and others in anger that he escaped the death penalty. Sunday’s muted reaction could indicate that the fate of Egypt’s ruler of nearly three decades may have in some ways been reduced to a political footnote in a country sagging under the weight of a crippling economic crisis and anxious over its future direction.

Thousands converge on Eiffel Tower in mass protest against gay marriage

PARIS (AP) -- Holding aloft ancient flags and young children, hundreds of thousands of people converged Sunday on the Eiffel Tower to protest the French president’s plan to legalize gay marriage and thus allow same-sex couples to adopt and conceive children.

The opposition to President Francois Hollande’s plan has underscored divisions among the secular-but-Catholic French, especially more traditional rural areas versus urban enclaves. But while polls show the majority of French still support legalizing gay marriage, that backing gets more lukewarm when children come into play.

The protest march started at three points across Paris, filling boulevards throughout the city as demonstrators walked six kilometers (3 miles) to the grounds of France’s most recognizable monument. Paris police estimated the crowd at 340,000, making it one of the largest demonstrations in Paris since an education protest in 1984.

"This law is going to lead to a change of civilization that we don’t want," said Philippe Javaloyes, a literature teacher who bused in with 300 people from Franche Comte in the far east. "We have nothing against different ways of living, but we think that a child must grow up with a mother and a father."

Public opposition spearheaded by religious leaders has chipped away at the popularity of Hollande’s plan in recent months. About 52 percent of French favor legalizing gay marriage, according to a survey released Sunday, down from as high as 65 percent in August.

March to protest Russia’s adoption ban draws 20,000, energizing anti-Putin opposition

MOSCOW (AP) -- Thousands of people marched through Moscow on Sunday to protest Russia’s new law banning Americans from adopting Russian children, a far bigger number than expected in a sign that outrage over the ban has breathed some life into the dispirited anti-Kremlin opposition movement.

Shouting "shame on the scum," protesters carried posters of President Vladimir Putin and members of Russia’s parliament who overwhelmingly voted for the law last month. Up to 20,000 took part in the demonstration on a frigid, gray afternoon.

The adoption ban has stoked the anger of the same middle-class, urban professionals who swelled the protest ranks last winter, when more than 100,000 people turned out for rallies to demand free elections and an end to Putin’s 12 years in power. Since Putin began a third presidential term in May, the protests have flagged as the opposition leaders have struggled to provide direction and capitalize on the broad discontent.

Opponents of the adoption ban argue it victimizes children to make a political point. Eager to take advantage of this anger, the anti-Kremlin opposition has played the ban as further evidence that Putin and his parliament have lost the moral right to rule Russia.

The Kremlin, however, has used the adoption controversy to further its efforts to discredit the opposition as unpatriotic and in the pay of the Americans.

French planes bomb
north Mali city of Gao as more countries join battle against Islamists

BAMAKO, Mali (AP) -- French fighter jets bombed rebel targets in a major city in Mali’s north Sunday, pounding the airport as well as training camps, warehouses and buildings used by the al-Qaida-linked Islamists controlling the area, officials and residents said.

Now in its third-day, the French-led effort to take back Mali’s north from the extremists began with airstrikes by combat helicopters in the small town of Konna. It has grown to a coordinated attack by state-of-the-art fighter jets which have bombarded at least five towns, of which Gao, which was attacked Sunday afternoon, is the largest.

More than 400 French troops have been deployed to the country in the all-out effort to win back the territory from the well-armed rebels, who seized control of an area larger than France nine months ago. What began as a French offensive has now grown to include seven other countries, including logistical support from the U.S. and Europe. The United States is providing communications and transport help, while Britain is sending C17 aircrafts to help Mali’s allies transport troops to the frontlines.

French President Francois Hollande authorized the intervention after it became clear the swiftly advancing rebels could break Mali’s military defenses in Mopti, the first town on the government-controlled side, located in the center of this African country. The move catapulted the world into a fight that diplomats had earlier said would not take place until at least September.

"French fighter jets have identified and destroyed this Sunday, Jan. 13, numerous targets in northern Mali near Gao, in particular training camps, infrastructure and logistical depots which served as bases for terrorist groups," the French defense ministry said in a statement.

Iranian leaders’ early message to election critics: Don’t raise your voices

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) -- Elections to pick Iran’s next president are still five months away, but that’s not too early for some warning shots by the country’s leadership.

The message to anyone questioning the openness of the June vote: Keep quiet.

A high-level campaign -- including blunt remarks by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei -- seeks to muzzle any open dissent over the process to select the successor for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and likely usher in a new president with a far tamer political persona.

Public denunciations are nothing new against anyone straying from Iran’s official script. But the unusually early pre-emptive salvos appears to reflect worries that the election campaign could offer room for rising criticism and complaints over Iran’s myriad challenges, including an economy sputtering under Western-led sanctions, double-digit inflation and a national currency whose value has nosedived.

"Elections, by their nature, are an opportunity to make your voice heard," said Mustafa Alani, an analyst at the Gulf Research Center based in Geneva. "Iran’s leaders understand this very well and are not likely to take any chances."

Survivors, relatives of 32 dead mark anniversary of Concordia shipwreck with memorials, Mass

GIGLIO, Italy (AP) -- Survivors of the Costa Concordia shipwreck and relatives of the 32 people who died marked the first anniversary of the grounding Sunday with the unveiling of memorials to the victims, a tearful Mass in their honor and a minute of silence to recall the exact moment that the cruise ship rammed into a reef off Tuscany.

One of the most moving tributes came first, with the daybreak return to the sea of part of the massive rock that tore a 70-meter (230-foot) gash into the hull of the ocean liner on Jan. 13, 2012, when the captain took it off course in a stunt. The boulder remained embedded in the mangled steel as the 112,000-ton vessel capsized off Giglio island along with its 4,200 passengers and crew.

As fog horns and sirens wailed, a crane on a tug lowered the boulder back onto the reef off Giglio where it belonged, returning it to the seabed affixed with a memorial plaque. Relatives of the dead threw flowers into the sea and embraced as they watched the ceremony from a special ferry that bobbed in the waves under a gray sky.

They wept during the Mass and ran their fingers over the names of the 32 dead that were engraved on a bronze plaque unveiled at the end of Giglio’s jetty, near where the Concordia still lays on its side. And later, under a cold rain, they gathered on the jetty holding candles to observe a moment of silence at 9:45 p.m., the exact moment when the Concordia slammed into the reef after Capt. Francesco Schettino took it off its pre-programmed course and brought it closer to Giglio as a favor to friends from the island.

While many tears were shed Sunday, relatives also seemed to have found some comfort in coming to the tiny fishing island of Giglio, where residents opened their homes and hearts to the survivors that frigid night.