Bundle up or hunker down: Dangerously cold polar air grips Midwest, makes way for East, South

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- The coldest, most dangerous blast of polar air in decades gripped the Midwest and pushed toward the East and South on Monday, closing schools and day care centers, grounding flights and forcing people to pull their hoods and scarves tight to protect exposed skin from nearly instant frostbite.

Many across the nation’s midsection went into virtual hibernation, while others dared to venture out in temperatures that plunged well below zero.

"I’m going to try to make it two blocks without turning into crying man," said Brooks Grace, who was bundling up to do some banking and shopping in downtown Minneapolis, where temperatures reached 20 below, with wind chills of minus 50. "It’s not cold -- it’s painful."

The mercury also dropped into negative territory in Milwaukee, St. Louis and Chicago, which set a record for the date at minus 16. Wind chills across the region were 40 below and colder. Records also fell in Oklahoma and Texas.

Forecasters said some 187 million people in all could feel the effects of the "polar vortex" by the time it spread across the country on Monday night and Tuesday.

Supreme Court halts
same-sex marriage in
Utah, putting hundreds
of couples in legal limbo

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Gay couples in Utah were thrust into legal limbo Monday as the U.S. Supreme Court put a halt to same-sex marriages in the state, turning jubilation to doubt just weeks after a judge’s ruling sent people rushing to get married.

The justices did not rule on the merits of the case or on same-sex marriage bans in general, leaving both sides confident they’ll ultimately win. The decision stays in effect while the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals considers the long-term question of whether gay couples have a right to wed in Utah.

For those couples who just got married -- or were planning their nuptials -- the latest twist in the legal battle clouds what was seen as a cause for celebration.

"It feels like we are second-class citizens during the stay," said Moudi Sbeity, who is waiting to get married until the legal process plays out. "There’s also the fear of the unknown of what might come next."

Sbeity and partner Derek Kitchen are among three couples who brought the Utah lawsuit that led to the surprise Dec. 20 ruling by U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby, who said the state’s ban on same-sex marriage violated gay and lesbian couples’ constitutional rights.

Congress faces unemployment bill. other leftovers in the new year

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Senate plunged into an election-year session Monday that promises to be long on political maneuvering and less so on accomplishment, beginning with a struggle over legislation to renew lapsed jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed.

"I’m optimistic, cautiously optimistic, that the new year will bring a renewed spirit of cooperation to this chamber," said Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., in the first remarks of the year on the Senate floor.

Within moments, he pivoted, accusing Republicans of "never ending obstruction" to President Barack Obama’s proposals over the past five years.

Democratic supporters of the three-month extension of jobless benefits said they were close to the 60 votes needed to advance the White House-backed bill. Their chances hinged on securing backing from at least four Republicans in addition to Sen. Dean Heller of high-unemployment Nevada, a co-sponsor.

The bill would restore between 14 weeks and 47 weeks of benefits to an estimated 1.3 million long-term jobless affected when the program expired on Dec. 28. Payments, which average about $256 weekly, will be cut off to thousands more in the coming weeks as their initial 28 weeks’ worth of unemployment benefits expire.

Workers trap 2 managers at French Goodyear
factory in resurrection of ‘boss-napping’ tactic

PARIS (AP) -- Monday’s meeting in northern French city of Amiens was not going well.

As farm tires were rolled in to block the doorway, two Goodyear managers were trapped in a conference room with angry French workers who were demanding more money in exchange for the inevitable loss of their jobs. The morning "meeting" dragged on into the night, and the union said it was settling in for the long haul -- with the two executives still captive inside.

Goodyear has tried to shutter the plant in Amiens for five years without success. Its latest attempt was met Monday with a "boss-napping" -- a French negotiating tactic that had largely faded away after the height of the economic crisis in 2009.

More theater than actual threat, it aims to grab management’s attention -- by grabbing management. Late Monday, one of the prisoners decried the tactic as degrading and humiliating.

The Amiens plant has an especially contentious past. Goodyear’s hopes to close it have been thwarted by violent protests with huge bonfires, government concerns and France’s prolonged layoff procedures. Now, the union is willing to accept the inevitable loss of jobs -- but at a cost.

From calls for more
babies to offering gold coins, Iran tries to fight falling birth rate

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) -- In Iran, free condoms and government-backed vasectomies are out, replaced by sermons praising larger families and discussions of even offering gold coins to the families of newborns.

Having successfully curbed birth rates for two decades, Iran now is promoting a baby boom to help make up for its graying population. But experts say it is difficult to encourage Iranians to have more children in a mismanaged economy hit by Western sanctions and 36 percent inflation.

"A gold coin won’t change couples’ calculations," said Mohammad Jalal Abbasi, head of Demographics Department at Tehran University. "Many young Iranians prefer to continue their studies, not marry. Lack of financial ability to buy a house and meet expenses are among other reasons why the youth postpone marriage or have no interest in raising many children."

Iran’s birthrate reached a peak of 3.6 children per couple after its 1979 Islamic Revolution, among the world’s highest at the time. By 1990, experts estimated Iran could be home to 140 million people if the rate was left unchecked. To combat the rise, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei endorsed birth control, while then-President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani made controlling the birth rate a part of his development plans.

Mass-produced condoms reached Iranians, as a month’s supply of birth control cost the equivalent of 10 cents in 1992. The birth rate dropped precipitously, now reportedly standing at 1.8 children per couple with a population of some 77 million people. Experts now say that drive might have been too successful, estimating that Iran’s population growth could reach zero in the next 20 years if the trend is not reversed.

Iraqi leader urges
residents to oust Qaida fighters to avoid battle
as Iran offers help

BAGHDAD (AP) -- Iraq’s prime minister urged Fallujah residents on Monday to expel al-Qaida militants to avoid an all-out battle in the besieged city, a sign that the government could be paving the way for an imminent military push in an attempt to rout hard-line Sunni insurgents challenging its territorial control over the western approaches to Baghdad.

The militants’ seizure of Fallujah and parts of nearby Ramadi, once bloody battlegrounds for U.S. troops, has marked the most direct challenge to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government since the departure of American forces two years ago. Both the U.S. and its longtime rival Iran view the escalating conflict with alarm, with neither wanting to see al-Qaida take firmer root inside Iraq. Washington has ruled out sending in American troops but recently delivered dozens of Hellfire missiles to help bolster Iraqi forces.

Tehran signaled Monday that it is willing to follow suit, saying it is ready to help Iraq battle al-Qaida "terrorists" by sending military equipment and advisers should Baghdad ask for it. It is unclear whether Baghdad would take up the Iranian offer, made by Gen. Mohammad Hejazi, the Iranian Army deputy chief-of-staff, in comments to Iranian state media. He ruled out the sending of ground troops across the border.

Any direct Iranian help would exacerbate sectarian tensions fueling Iraq’s conflict, as Iraqi Sunnis accuse Tehran of backing what they say are their Shiite-led government’s unfair policies against them. Iran has the power to sway al-Maliki’s political fortunes ahead of upcoming elections through its deep ties to Iraq’s major Shiite factions, which have dominated government offices and security forces since the U.S.-led invasion toppled Iran’s arch-foe Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Iraqi government troops have surrounded Fallujah, which was overrun by fighters from al-Qaida’s Iraq branch last week. The city is just 40 miles (65 kilometers) west of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad. It is located in the vast Sunni-dominated and largely desert province of Anbar, which borders Syria, where al-Qaida-linked groups are among the most formidable fighters among the rebels trying to topple President Bashar Assad.

Egypt’s Christians celebrate Christmas amid tight security, but in upbeat mood

CAIRO (AP) -- Millions of Egyptian Christians thronged churches across this mainly Muslim nation for Christmas Mass, held Monday amid unusually tight security but with congregations filled with hope ahead of a key vote on a new constitution that enshrines equality and criminalizes discrimination.

The stepped up security was in response to fears that Islamic militants loyal to ousted President Mohammed Morsi would target churches. Islamists claim that Egypt’s Christians played a disproportionately large role in the mass protests that preceded Morsi’s ouster in a July 3 coup.

Many churches, especially in southern Egyptian strongholds of radical Muslims, held Midnight Mass several hours early so that worshippers could avoid returning home after midnight when streets are empty, raising the possibility of attacks.

A wave of attacks blamed on Islamists in August left dozens of churches destroyed, burned or looted. Christian homes and businesses were also targeted.

"We will pray under the night sky," said Adel Shafiq, a Christian from the town of Dalga south of Cairo, who was attending Mass in a church looted and burned in August. "There is no roof and no windows. People are here wearing scarves and hats to fend off the night cold."

Liz Cheney quits uphill race to knock out 3-term GOP Sen. Enzi after high-profile campaign

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Liz Cheney’s sudden exit from her Wyoming Senate race brought a surprise end to a high-profile campaign that touched off a bitter fight within the Republican Party as well as a public spat with her lesbian sister over gay marriage.

The daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney cited unspecified "serious health issues" in her family rather than her uphill race to unseat three-term GOP Sen. Mike Enzi in her announcement on Monday.

"My children and their futures were the motivation for our campaign and they will always be my overriding priority," she said in a statement. One of Cheney’s daughters has Type 1 diabetes.

Cheney, who moved with her husband and five children from Virginia to Wyoming to run for the seat, offered voters a familiar name -- her father served as the state’s congressman for 10 years -- but faced solid opposition from mainstream Republicans who rallied around Enzi as he fought off her challenge from within the GOP.

The 47-year-old Cheney -- a former State Department official, founder of a Washington nonprofit organization and onetime Fox News contributor -- cast herself as an outsider and the 69-year-old Enzi as a lawmaker co-opted by his years in Washington.