Wednesday February 27, 2013

Obama says no smart way to let budget cuts kick in, singles out Republicans open to revenues

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (AP) -- No progress to report in efforts to stave off looming government-wide spending cuts, President Barack Obama on Tuesday singled out for praise the few Republicans who say they’re open to aspects of his approach, seeking to turn up the heat on GOP leaders ahead of Friday’s deadline.

Obama rejected a proposal floated by Senate Republicans to give the president more flexibility to pick and choose which programs should be cut to reach the $85 billion over seven months mandated by the so-called sequester. "There’s no smart way to do that," he said.

"These cuts are wrong. They’re not smart, they’re not fair. They’re a self-inflicted wound that doesn’t have to happen," Obama added at a shipbuilding site in Virginia.

The White House has warned the $85 billion in cuts could affect everything from commercial flights to classrooms to meat inspections. The cuts would slash domestic and defense spending, leading to forced unpaid days off for hundreds of thousands of workers.

The impact won’t be immediate. Federal workers would be notified next week that they will have to take up to a day every week off without pay, but the furloughs won’t start for a month due to notification requirements. That will give negotiators some breathing room to keep working on a deal.

Report of a drop in Taliban attacks wrong; figures show no decline in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The American-led military coalition in Afghanistan backed off Tuesday from its claim that Taliban attacks dropped off in 2012, tacitly acknowledging a hole in its widely repeated argument that violence is easing and that the insurgency is in steep decline.

In response to Associated Press inquiries about its latest series of statistics on security in Afghanistan, the coalition command in Kabul said it had erred in reporting a 7 percent decline in attacks. In fact there was no decline at all, officials said.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who is among the senior officials who had publicly repeated the assertion of an encouraging drop-off in Taliban attacks last year, was disturbed to learn of the error, said his spokesman, George Little.

"This particular set of metrics doesn’t tell the full story of progress against the Taliban, of course, but it’s unhelpful to have inaccurate information in our systems," Little said.

A coalition spokesman, Jamie Graybeal, attributed the miscounting to clerical errors and said the problem does not change officials’ basic assessment of the war, which they say is on a positive track as American and allied forces withdraw.

2nd major snowstorm in a week paralyzes parts of Midwest, knocks out power to more than 100,000

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) -- For the second time in a week, a major winter storm paralyzed parts of the nation’s midsection Tuesday, dumping a fresh layer of heavy, wet snow atop cities still choked with piles from the previous system and making travel perilous from the Oklahoma panhandle to the Great Lakes.

The weight of the snow strained power lines and cut electricity to more than 100,000 homes and businesses. At least three deaths were blamed on the blizzard.

The Missouri Department of Transportation issued a rare "no travel" advisory, urging people to stay off highways except in case of a dire emergency. Conditions were so bad that some snowplows slid into ditches, underlining the danger to even well-equipped travelers.

"It’s straight hell. It’s snowing, blowing, drifting, everything," said Robert Branscecum, a trucker from Campton, Ill., who was hauling Wal-Mart merchandise to Dallas. He had been stranded since Monday evening at Beto Junction, about 80 miles southwest of Kansas City.

"The cars are stuck in the parking lot. Some of the trucks that tried to leave got stuck," he said. "I’m not leaving anytime soon."

Hot air balloon catches fire and falls, killing 19 tourists in Egypt’s Nile Valley

LUXOR, Egypt (AP) -- The terror lasted less than two minutes: Smoke poured from a hot air balloon carrying sightseers on a sunrise flight over the ancient city of Luxor, it burst in a flash of flame and then plummeted about 1,000 feet to earth. A farmer watched helplessly as tourists trying to escape the blazing gondola leaped to their deaths.

Nineteen people were killed Tuesday in what appeared to be the deadliest hot air ballooning accident on record. A British tourist and the Egyptian pilot, who was badly burned, were the sole survivors.

The tragedy raised worries of another blow to the nation’s vital tourism industry, decimated by two years of unrest since the 2011 revolution that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak. The southern city of Luxor has been hit hard, with vacant hotel rooms and empty cruise ships.

It also prompted accusations that authorities have let safety standards decline amid the political turmoil and infighting, although civil aviation officials said the balloon had been inspected recently and that the pilot may have been to blame, jumping out rather than stopping the fire.

Authorities suspended hot air balloon flights, a popular tourist attraction here, while investigators determined the cause. 1st witness testifies in Gulf oil spill trial; billions at stake for BP, other companies

NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- BP failed to implement a new safety plan on the ill-fated Deepwater Horizon drilling rig even though the company realized a blowout in the Gulf of Mexico was its greatest danger, an expert witness for people and businesses suing the company testified Tuesday.

University of California-Berkeley engineering professor Robert Bea was the first witness at a civil trial to determine how much more BP and other companies should pay for the spill. Bea said BP PLC didn’t implement a two-year-old safety management program on the rig that exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

"It’s a classic failure of management and leadership in BP," said Bea, a former BP consultant who also investigated the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill and New Orleans levee breaches after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The London-based company has said its "Operating Management System" was designed to drive a rigorous and systematic approach to safety and risk management. Yet it was only implemented at one of the seven rigs the company owned or leased in the Gulf.

Bea said it was "tragic" and "egregious" that BP didn’t apply its own safety program to the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig before the Macondo well blowout triggered the explosion that killed 11 workers and spawned the massive spill. Transocean owned the rig; BP leased it.

Advanced breast cancer edges up in younger women; it’s still uncommon & study raises questions

CHICAGO (AP) -- Advanced breast cancer has increased slightly among young women, a 34-year analysis suggests. The disease is still uncommon among women younger than 40, and the small change has experts scratching their heads about possible reasons.

The results are potentially worrisome because young women’s tumors tend to be more aggressive than older women’s, and they’re much less likely to get routine screening for the disease.

Still, that doesn’t explain why there’d be an increase in advanced cases and the researchers and other experts say more work is needed to find answers.

It’s likely that the increase has more than one cause, said Dr. Rebecca Johnson, the study’s lead author and medical director of a teen and young adult cancer program at Seattle Children’s Hospital.

"The change might be due to some sort of modifiable risk factor, like a lifestyle change" or exposure to some sort of cancer-linked substance, she said.

$5M false-labeling lawsuits claim more water, less buzz in Budweiser, Michelob brands

PHILADELPHIA (AP) -- Beer lovers across the U.S. have filed $5 million class-action lawsuits accusing Anheuser-Busch of watering down its Budweiser, Michelob and other brands.

The suits, filed in Pennsylvania, California and other states, claim consumers have been cheated out of the alcohol content stated on labels. Budweiser and Michelob each boast of being 5 percent alcohol, while some "light" versions are said to be just over 4 percent.

The lawsuits are based on information from former employees at the company’s 13 U.S. breweries, some in high-level plant positions, according to lead lawyer Josh Boxer of San Rafael, Calif.

"Our information comes from former employees at Anheuser-Busch, who have informed us that as a matter of corporate practice, all of their products mentioned (in the lawsuit) are watered down," Boxer said. "It’s a simple cost-saving measure, and it’s very significant."

The excess water is added just before bottling and cuts the stated alcohol content by 3 percent to 8 percent, he said.

Retired Benedict XVI to
be called ‘emeritus pope,’ raising questions about potential conflicts

VATICAN CITY (AP) -- Two pontiffs, each wearing white and each called "pope" living a few yards (meters) apart, with the same archbishop serving both.

The Vatican’s announcement Tuesday that Pope Benedict XVI will be known as "emeritus pope" in his retirement, called "Your Holiness" as an honorific and continue to wear the white cassock associated with the papacy fueled renewed questions about potential conflicts arising from the peculiar reality soon to face the Catholic Church: having one reigning and one retired pope.

Benedict’s title and what he would wear have been a major source of speculation ever since the 85-year-old pontiff stunned the world by announcing he would resign, the first pope to do so in 600 years.

There has been good reason why popes haven’t stepped down over past centuries, given the possibility for divided allegiances and even schism. But the Vatican insists that while the situation created by Benedict’s retirement is certainly unique, no major conflicts should result.

"Knowing Benedict XVI, it won’t be a problem," Giovanni Maria Vian, the editor of the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano said in an interview. "According to the evolution of Catholic doctrine and mentality, there is only one pope. Clearly it’s a new situation, but I don’t think there will be problems."

Mindy McCready’s funeral being held in her hometown of Fort Myers in southwest Florida

FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) -- Family and friends have gathered for the funeral of country music star Mindy McCready in her Florida hometown.

About 200 were present Tuesday at the Crossroads Baptist Church. McCready’s music played in the background and her image was shown on a large screen behind the altar.

McCready committed suicide Feb. 17 at her home in Arkansas, days after leaving a court-ordered substance abuse treatment program. The 37-year-old mother of two died from a single gunshot to the head about a month after her longtime boyfriend David Wilson’s death, also thought to be suicide, in the same place.

McCready hit the top of the country charts before personal problems sidetracked her career.

In 1996, her "Guys Do It All the Time" hit No. 1. Her other hits included "Ten Thousand Angels."