Amid acrimony, jobless benefit plan stalls in Senate

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Legislation to resurrect long-term jobless legislation stalled in the Senate on Thursday, triggering angry recriminations from both sides of the political aisle despite earlier expressions of optimism that benefits might soon be restored for more than 1 million victims of the recession.

Gridlock asserted itself after majority Democrats offered to pay for a 10-month extension of a scaled-back program of benefits -- then refused to permit Republicans even to seek any changes.

Instead, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., accused Republicans of "continually denigrating our economy, our president and frankly, I believe, our country."

Sen. Dan Coats of Indiana, one of a half-dozen Republicans who helped advance the bill over an initial hurdle earlier in the week, said he hadn’t been consulted. Echoing complaints by other members of his party, he said that under Reid’s leadership he has been relegated to the sidelines. He added that Indiana voters "didn’t send me here to be told just to sit down and forget it."

At issue was a struggle over the possible resurrection of a program that expired on Dec. 28, immediately cutting off benefits of roughly $256 weekly for more than 1.3 million hurt by the recession.

As consumers try to use new medical policies,
many find their insurers have no record of them

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -- Record-keeping snags could complicate the start of insurance coverage this month as people begin using policies they purchased under President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul.

Insurance companies are still trying to sort out cases of so-called health insurance orphans, customers for whom the government has a record that they enrolled, but the insurer does not.

Government officials say the problem is real but under control, with orphan records being among the roughly 13,000 problem cases they are trying to resolve with insurers. But insurance companies are worried the process will grow more cumbersome as they deal with the flood of new customers who signed up in December as enrollment deadlines neared.

More than 1 million people have signed up through the federal insurance market that serves 36 states. Officials contend the error rate for new signups is close to zero.

Insurers, however, are less enthusiastic about the pace of the fixes. The companies also are seeing cases in which the government has assigned the same identification number to more than one person, as well as so-called "ghost" files in which the insurer has an enrollment record but the government does not.

Lawmakers say Obama still weighing NSA phone collection policy, makeup of intelligence court

WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Barack Obama is still grappling with key decisions on the future of the National Security Agency’s phone collection program and the makeup of the secret court that approved the surveillance, congressional lawmakers said Thursday following a 90-minute meeting at the White House.

Obama is expected to back tighter restrictions on foreign leader spying and also is considering a presidential commission’s recommendation to strip the NSA of its ability to store telephone records from millions of Americans. The president could announce his final decisions as early as next week.

"The president and his administration are wrestling with the issues," Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat and privacy advocate, said after the meeting. "It’s fair to say that the next few weeks are going to be crunch time in terms of judgments being made in both the administration and the Congress."

Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said the meeting focused in particular on the telephone data program and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. He said that while Obama didn’t appear to have made a decision on either issue yet, he expects him to do so soon.

The president met this week with his top intelligence advisers, many of whom oppose changes to the NSA programs, and a review group appointed by Congress that is working on a report focused on the surveillance systems. Privacy advocates were meeting with senior White House staff Thursday afternoon, and technology companies have been invited to a meeting on Friday.

Iraqi government holding off on waging an offensive against al-Qaida in Anbar

BAGHDAD (AP) -- Iraq’s government is holding off on waging an all-out offensive to retake two key cities from al-Qaida because of fears that civilian casualties could incite Sunni anger and push moderate tribal leaders to side with the extremists, analysts and military officials said Thursday.

More violence flared in Baghdad, where a suicide bomber killed 21 people at an army recruiting center in a clear effort to demoralize the military.

Al-Qaida-linked fighters overran parts of the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi in Sunni-dominated Anbar province last week, seizing control of police stations and military posts, freeing prisoners and setting up their own checkpoints.

The United States, whose troops fought bloody battles in the cities, has ruled out sending its troops back in, but has been delivering missiles to bolster Iraqi forces. It is expediting shipments of more American-made missiles and 10 surveillance drones, but those may not arrive for weeks.

The U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003 and withdrew in 2011. Both countries tried but failed to negotiate plans to keep at least several thousand U.S. forces in Iraq beyond the deadline to maintain security.

Bad timing: Drug probe
of nuclear officers
tempers Hagel’s effort
to boost morale at base

F.E. WARREN AIR FORCE BASE, Wyo. (AP) -- Hoping to boost sagging morale, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel made a rare visit Thursday to an Air Force nuclear missile base and the men and women who operate and safeguard the nation’s Minuteman 3 missiles. But his attempt to cheer the troops was tempered by news that launch officers at another base had been implicated in an illegal-narcotics investigation.

Two officers at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana are being investigated for allegations of drug possession, said a service spokesman in Washington, Lt. Col. Brett Ashworth. Both of those being investigated are ICBM launch officers with responsibility for operating intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The launch officers’ access to classified information has been suspended, and they have been prohibited from serving on missile launch control duty while the Air Force is investigating, another defense official said. That official provided no further details and spoke only on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the matter publicly by name.

At the Wyoming nuclear missile base, meanwhile, Hagel addressed officers and airmen after a series of security lapses and discipline problems that were revealed in Associated Press news stories in 2013. Officials have said the service members are increasingly tired of working in what can seem like oblivion. They win no battles, earn no combat pay and only rarely are given public credit of any kind.

"You are doing something of great importance to the world," Hagel told the group. Lest they sometimes doubt that importance, he said, "You have chosen a profession where there is no room for error -- none."

Christie’s straight-talking image could be undermined by bridge scandal

WASHINGTON (AP) -- New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has become a Republican star by casting himself as a brash, straight-talking politician who transcends partisan politics to work for regular people. But the escalating traffic jam controversy that has ensnared his administration could damage the governor’s national reputation and allow opponents to portray him as a ruthless bully.

"I am who I am. I am not a bully," Christie declared during a lengthy news conference Thursday in which he apologized for the closing of highway lanes leading up to the George Washington Bridge last fall, a move apparently orchestrated by his underlings as political retribution.

The governor fired a top aide, jettisoned his chief political adviser and took responsibility for his administration’s connections to the traffic tie-ups in September.

Christie adamantly denied any personal "knowledge or involvement" in the lane closures, a passionate pronouncement that satisfied some critics in the short term but creates political risk amid an ongoing investigation. Democrats and Republicans said the governor’s 2016 presidential prospects could be severely undermined, if not crippled, should new evidence emerge that contradicts Thursday’s denials.

"Unless something new develops, I think he’ll survive," said former New Jersey Gov. Tom Keane, a Republican whom Christie has described as a mentor. "But if there’s a pattern of these things, if other incidents emerge with similar characteristics, that’s going to be a real problem."

Decision on attending peace talks brings main Syrian opposition group to brink of collapse

BEIRUT (AP) -- Two weeks ahead of an international peace conference on Syria, the country’s main Western-backed opposition group stands on the brink of collapse, dragged down by outside pressures, infighting and deep disagreements over the basic question of whether to talk to President Bashar Assad.

The crisis in the Syrian National Coalition raises further doubts about the so-called Geneva conference, which is set to open Jan. 22 in Montreux, Switzerland. The prospects for a successful outcome at the talks appear bleak at best: Assad has said he will not hand over power, and the opposition -- if it decides to attend -- is in no position to force concessions from him.

The U.S. and Russia, which support opposing sides in the conflict that has killed more than 120,000 people, have been trying for months to bring the Syrian government and its opponents to the table for negotiations aimed at ending the war. But with the fighting deadlocked, neither the government nor the rebels showed any interest in compromise, forcing the meeting to be repeatedly postponed.

Now that a date has been set and invitations sent, the decision on whether to attend is placing immense strain on the Coalition.

"Geneva is proving to be a road to ruin for the so-called moderate opposition, both the political and military aspects," said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center.

Activist poet-playwright Amiri Baraka dies at 79

NEW YORK (AP) -- Amiri Baraka, the militant man of letters and tireless agitator whose blues-based, fist-shaking poems, plays and criticism made him a provocative and groundbreaking force in American culture, has died. He was 79.

His booking agent, Celeste Bateman, told The Associated Press that Baraka, who had been hospitalized since last month, died Thursday at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center.

Perhaps no writer of the 1960s and ‘70s was more radical or polarizing than the former LeRoi Jones, and no one did more to extend the political debates of the civil rights era to the world of the arts. He inspired at least one generation of poets, playwrights and musicians, and his immersion in spoken word traditions and raw street language anticipated rap, hip-hop and slam poetry. The FBI feared him to the point of flattery, identifying Baraka as "the person who will probably emerge as the leader of the Pan-African movement in the United States."

Baraka transformed from the rare black to join the Beat caravan of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac to leader of the Black Arts Movement, an ally of the Black Power movement that rejected the liberal optimism of the early ‘60s and intensified a divide over how and whether the black artist should take on social issues. Scorning art for art’s sake and the pursuit of black-white unity, Baraka was part of a philosophy that called for the teaching of black art and history and producing works that bluntly called for revolution.

"We want ‘poems that kill,"’ Baraka wrote in his landmark "Black Art," a manifesto published in 1965, the year he helped found the Black Arts Movement. "Assassin poems. Poems that shoot guns/Poems that wrestle cops into alleys/and take their weapons leaving them dead/with tongues pulled out and sent to Ireland."