Friday March 8, 2013

Senate committee OKs bill against illegal gun purchases, but partisan disputes lay ahead

WASHINGTON (AP) -- In Congress’ first gun votes since the Newtown, Conn., nightmare, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted Thursday to toughen federal penalties against illegal firearms purchases, even as senators signaled that a deep partisan divide remained over gun curbs.

The Democratic-led panel voted 11-7 to impose penalties of up to 25 years for people who legally buy firearms but give them to someone else for use in a crime or to people legally barred from acquiring weapons. The panel’s top Republican, Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, cast the only GOP vote for the measure.

The parties’ differences were underscored when senators debated a proposal by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., to ban assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines. Democrats have noted that such firearms have been used in many recent mass shootings.

"The time has come, America, to step up and ban these weapons," said Feinstein, a lead sponsor of a 1994 assault weapons ban that expired a decade later. She added, "How could I stand by and see this carnage go on?"

The response from Republicans was that banning such weapons was unconstitutional, would take firearms from law-abiding citizens, and would have little impact because only a small percentage of crimes involve assault weapons or magazines carrying many rounds of ammunition.


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Senate confirms Brennan as CIA director after White House statement on drones

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Senate confirmed John Brennan to be CIA director Thursday after the Obama administration bowed to demands from Republicans blocking the nomination and stated explicitly there are limits on the president’s power to use drones against U.S. terror suspects on American soil.

The vote was 63-34 and came just hours after Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a possible 2016 presidential candidate, held the floor past midnight in an old-style filibuster of the nomination to extract an answer from the administration.

Still, Brennan won some GOP support. Thirteen Republicans voted with 49 Democrats and one independent to give Brennan, who has been President Barack Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, the top job at the nation’s spy agency. He will replace Michael Morell, the CIA’s deputy director who has been acting director since David Petraeus resigned in November after acknowledging an affair with his biographer.

The confirmation vote came moments after Democrats prevailed in a vote ending the filibuster, 81-16.

In a series of fast-moving events, by Senate standards, Attorney General Eric Holder sent a one-paragraph letter to Paul, who had commanded the floor for nearly 13 hours on Wednesday and into Thursday.

Chavez’s body to be permanently displayed so his people ‘will always have him.’

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- Venezuela’s acting president says Hugo Chavez’s embalmed body will be permanently displayed in a glass casket so that "his people will always have him."

Vice President Nicolas Maduro says the remains will be put on permanent display at the Museum of the Revolution, close to the presidential palace where Chavez ruled for 14 years. Maduro says the president will lie in state first for at least another seven days.

A state funeral for Chavez attended by some 33 heads of government is scheduled to begin Friday morning. Tens of thousands have already filed past his glass-topped casket at a military academy following a seven-hour procession on Tuesday which took his body from the hospital where he died.

U.S. federal court to charge al-Qaida propagandist, bin Laden son-in-law

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Osama bin Laden’s spokesman and son-in-law has been captured by the United States, officials said Thursday, in what a senior congressman called a "very significant victory" in the fight against al-Qaida.

Sulaiman Abu Ghaith is expected to be in U.S. federal court in New York on Friday in an initial hearing to face terror charges, according to a law enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information. The case marks a legal victory for the Obama administration, which has long sought to charge senior al-Qaida suspects in American federal courts instead of military tribunals at the detention center at Guantanamo Bay.

Rep. Peter King, the former chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, credited the CIA and FBI with catching al-Qaida propagandist Abu Ghaith in Jordan within the last week. He said the capture was confirmed to him by U.S. law enforcement officials.

A Jordanian security official confirmed that Abu Ghaith was handed over last week to U.S. law enforcement officials under both nations’ extradition treaty. He declined to disclose other details and spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

"Definitely, one by one, we are getting the top echelons of al-Qaida," said King, R-N.Y. "I give the (Obama) administration credit for this: it’s steady and it’s unrelenting and it’s very successful."

Final cardinal -- from Vietnam -- arrives in Rome, meaning conclave date can be set

VATICAN CITY (AP) -- The last cardinal who will participate in the conclave to elect the next pope arrived in Rome on Thursday, meaning a date can now be set for the election. One U.S. cardinal said a decision on the start date is expected soon.

Some American and other cardinals had said they wanted to continue the pre-conclave meetings that have been going on all week for as long as it takes so they can discern who among them has the stuff to be pope and discuss the problems of the church.

Some Vatican-based cardinals, defensive about criticisms of the Vatican’s internal governance that have been aired recently, seemed to want to get on with the vote arguing there’s no reason to delay.

"Hopefully it will be a short conclave and start very soon," Vatican-based German Cardinal Paul Josef Cordes was quoted Wednesday as telling the German daily Bild. "I would compare it with a visit to the dentist -- you want to get everything over with quickly."

Thursday afternoon, U.S. Cardinal Roger Mahony tweeted that the discussions were "reaching a conclusion."

Oil industry, environmental groups to draft regulations for fracking in Illinois

CHICAGO (AP) -- After years of clashing over the drilling method known as hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," the oil industry and environmentalists have achieved something extraordinary in Illinois: They sat down together to draft regulations both sides could live with.

If approved by lawmakers, participants say, the rules would be the nation’s strictest. The Illinois model might also offer a template to other states seeking to carve out a middle ground between energy companies that would like free rein and environmental groups that want to ban the practice entirely.

"The fact that Illinois got there," was significant, said Brian Petty, executive vice president of governmental and regulatory affairs at the International Association of Drilling Contractors. "Anytime you can bring the lion and lamb to the table, it’s a good thing. But it’s so highly politicized in lot of places" that compromise could be difficult.

Fracking uses a high-pressure mixture of water, sand and chemicals to crack and hold open thick rock formations, releasing trapped oil and gas. Combined with horizontal drilling, it allows access to formerly out-of-reach deposits and has allowed drillers to move closer to populated areas.

The industry insists the method is safe and would create thousands of jobs -- possibly 40,000 in the poorest area of Illinois, according to one study. Opponents say it causes water and air pollution and permanently depletes freshwater resources.

USDA, Cal-OSHA join investigation into lion’s fatal attack on intern at Calif. animal park

DUNLAP, Calif. (AP) -- The US Department of Agriculture and Cal-OSHA on Thursday joined other state and federal agencies investigating the fatal mauling of a volunteer intern at an exotic animal park in California.

State investigators who protect workplace safety said they are trying to determine whether Cat Haven near Fresno has the required written procedures that employees follow to stay safe.

The USDA enforces the federal Animal Welfare Act and hopes to learn whether the 4-year-old lion that killed 24-year-old Dianna Hanson showed any behavior prior to the attack that might have indicated potential danger.

Fresno County sheriff’s investigators and the state Department of Fish and Wildlife want to know why Hanson was in the enclosure with the animal.

The Seattle-area intern had loved lions and tigers since childhood, "was absolutely fearless" around them and hoped to work at a zoo after her six-month internship, her father said.

Facebook tries to bring the fun back to social network with overhaul of News Feed

MENLO PARK, Calif. (AP) -- Facebook has redesigned its social network to address complaints that the News Feed on its website has turned into a jumble of monotonous musings and random photos.

In an attempt to breathe new life into Facebook’s News Feed, the company will introduce controls that allow people to sort streams of photos and other material into organized sections.

With the makeover unveiled Thursday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg hopes to turn the News Feed into something more like a newspaper tailored to the particular interests of each of the social network’s more than 1 billion worldwide users.

Previous tweaks to the News Feed have triggered howls of protest among Facebook’s users. Hoping to minimize the grousing this time around, Facebook intends to roll out the changes in phases. It will probably be six months to a year before everyone who accesses Facebook on a personal computer sees the revamped News Feed, the company said. The facelift is likely to be more jarring for those who only visit Facebook on a PC because it incorporates some features already deployed in the social network’s mobile applications for smartphones and tablet computers.

The new features will enable users to choose streams of content that may feature nothing but photos or posts from their closest friends, family members or favorite businesses. Or they will be able to peruse content about music, or sports, as if they were grabbing a section of a newspaper. Other newspaper-like changes will include lists of events that users’ social circles have flagged for the upcoming weekend and other summaries meant to resemble a table of contents.