Yes, GOP, Democrats can compromise on huge $1.1 trillion spending bill -- with election looming

WASHINGTON (AP) -- A chastened Congress is putting aside the crisis-driven budget battles of the past three years, embracing a $1.1 trillion spending bill that restores or smooths the sharpest edges of the automatic cuts imposed as a result of its own dysfunction.

The huge election-year legislation preserves the downward trajectory on government spending demanded by Republicans. Yet the bipartisan measure steaming through Congress also preserves President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul and stricter regulation of financial markets -- and deflects the most significant attempts by Republicans to rewrite environmental rules and force other changes.

Lawmakers hope the compromise will show disgruntled voters before next fall’s midterm election that Washington -- especially its unpopular Congress -- can perform its most basic function of responsibly funding the government. The bravado that prompted tea party Republicans to force a government shutdown in hopes of derailing "Obamacare" is long gone, replaced by an election-year desire to focus attention on the administration’s troubled rollout of the health care law instead of lurching from crisis to crisis.

"The average American looking at this, it looks pretty dysfunctional for the last couple of years," said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla. "We need to rack up some achievements here -- not just for Republicans but for incumbents in general and for the institution."

There could still be bumps in the road. Congress needs to raise the government’s borrowing cap by the end of February or early March, and it’s unclear how big of a battle that will be.

Clashes kill 11 people
on first day of Egypt’s constitutional vote

CAIRO (AP) -- A referendum on a new constitution laid bare the sharp divisions in Egypt six months after the military removed the elected Islamist president. Pro-army voters lined up Tuesday outside polling stations, singing patriotic songs, kissing images of Egypt’s top officer and sharing their upbeat hopes for their troubled nation.

Despite heavy security, 11 people were killed in sporadic violence, with protesters burning tires and pelting police with rocks and firebombs to create just enough danger to keep many voters at home.

The two-day balloting will likely pave the way for a possible presidential run by the nation’s top general after he ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi last July, setting off a fierce crackdown on Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood.

It’s also a key milestone in a military-backed political roadmap toward new elections for a president and a parliament after the coup, which has left Egypt sharply divided between Brotherhood supporters in one camp, and the military, security forces in the other, as well as a large segment of a population exacerbated by three years of turmoil.

Amid a climate of fear and paranoia, authorities, the mostly pro-military media and a significant segment of the population are showing little or no tolerance for dissent. Campaigning for a "no" vote risked arrest by the police and Egyptians who have publicized their opposition to the charter, even just parts of it, are quickly labeled as traitors.

N.J.governor apologizes again for political
payback plot, saying
’we let down the people’

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) -- Faced with a widening political scandal that threatens to undermine his second term and a possible 2016 presidential run, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie apologized again Tuesday, saying his administration "let down the people we are entrusted to serve" but that the issue doesn’t define his team or the state.

On the eve of his second term, the governor opened his annual State of the State address by touching only briefly on the apparent political payback plot.

"The last week has certainly tested this administration," he said. "Mistakes were clearly made. And as a result, we let down the people we are entrusted to serve. I know our citizens deserve better."

He received tempered applause after he went on, saying, "This administration and this Legislature will not allow the work that needs to be done to improve the people’s lives in Jersey to be delayed."

The issue broke wide open last week with the release of documents showing Christie aides and appointees orchestrated lane closings that caused massive gridlock on local roads, delayed emergency vehicles and school buses for hours and infuriated commuters. Democrats believe the scheme was retaliation against a Democratic mayor who did not endorse Christie.

12-year-old boy opens fire at southeastern New Mexico school, wounds 2 classmates

ROSWELL, N.M. (AP) -- A 12-year-old New Mexico boy drew a shotgun from a band-instrument case and shot and wounded two classmates at his middle school Tuesday morning before a teacher talked him into dropping the weapon and he was taken into custody, officials and witnesses said.

Gov. Susana Martinez says a boy was critically injured and a girl was in serious condition following the shooting at Berrendo Middle School in Roswell.

The students were in the gym, where she said they typically hang out before classes start during cold and inclement weather. The 12-year-old pulled a shotgun and opened fire there at about 8 a.m.

But he was "quickly stopped by one staff member who walked right up to him and asked him to set down the firearm, which he did," Martinez said.

Officials at University Medical Center in Lubbock, Texas, say an 11-year-old boy was flown there in critical condition and a 13-year-old girl was en route in serious condition. Information from nurses treating the boy indicates he was the shooter’s target, hospital spokesman Eric Finley said. There was some confusion about the boy’s age, but Finley said his parents told the hospital he is 11.

French president admits to problems in his private life, angry over tabloid report

PARIS (AP) -- French President Francois Hollande conceded Tuesday that he is going through "painful moments" with his companion, who was hospitalized after a magazine reported that he is secretly having an affair with a movie actress.

But the Socialist Hollande, who has some of the lowest approval ratings of a French leader, sidestepped specifics about his personal life and tried to devote his annual presidential news conference to his plan for reviving France’s struggling economy.

Hollande’s partner, journalist Valerie Trierweiler, has been hospitalized since Friday, when the tabloid-style magazine Closer published photos it said proved Hollande’s liaison with actress Julie Gayet around the corner from the presidential Elysee Palace.

Hollande said Trierweiler "is resting" but insisted at the packed news conference that it was not the place to discuss the issue.

He did not deny or confirm the Closer report, which has become a setback for Holland, whose announcement Tuesday of economic measures meant to encourage hiring was nearly overshadowed by the scandal.

Husband of pregnant, brain-dead Texas woman sues hospital that’s keeping her on life support

DALLAS (AP) -- The fate of a brain-dead, pregnant Texas woman and her fetus likely will be decided in a courtroom after the woman’s husband sued the hospital keeping her on life support against his wishes.

Erick Munoz filed a lawsuit in state district court in Fort Worth, where his wife, Marlise Munoz, has been on life support since he found her unconscious in their North Texas home on Nov. 26. She was 14 weeks pregnant at the time. Her family says the exact cause of her condition isn’t known, though a blood clot is a possibility.

Erick and Marlise Munoz, both paramedics, had seen life and death up close and he previously told The Associated Press that his wife was clear with him: If she fell into a condition like this, pull life support and let her die.

John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth, however, has refused to take Marlise Munoz off machines, citing a state law the hospital says requires it to continue treating a pregnant patient.

Munoz’s lawsuit says that law doesn’t apply because Marlise Munoz is legally and medically dead. The condition of her fetus is unclear.

Federal judge strikes Oklahoma same-sex marriage ban; ruling on hold pending appeal

TULSA, Okla. (AP) -- A federal judge on Tuesday struck down Oklahoma’s gay marriage ban, ruling that it violates the U.S. Constitution.

U.S. District Judge Terrence Kern handed down the ruling in a lawsuit filed by two same-sex couples. Kern immediately stayed his ruling pending appeals, meaning gay marriages won’t happen in Oklahoma right away.

The gay couples had sued for the right to marry and to have a marriage from another jurisdiction recognized in Oklahoma.

Kern ruled on a constitutional amendment approved by Oklahoma voters in 2004 that says marriage in the state shall consist only of the union of one man and one woman. He said the measure violates the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection clause by precluding same-sex couples from receiving an Oklahoma marriage license.

Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt’s office did not immediately have a comment on the ruling.

Detectives search Bieber’s home in egg-tossing that caused thousands of dollars in damage

CALABASAS, Calif. (AP) -- Detectives searched Justin Bieber’s home looking for surveillance footage that might serve as evidence the pop star was involved in an egg-tossing vandalism case that caused thousands of dollars in damage to a neighbor’s home, an official said Tuesday.

Roughly a dozen investigators searched Bieber’s home and arrested one member of the singer’s entourage on suspicion of cocaine possession, Lt. David Thompson said.

The man was later identified as Lil Za, a rapper whose real name is Xavier Smith. Jail records show Smith, 20, was being held in lieu of $20,000 bail. Thompson said the cocaine linked to Smith was in plain sight when detectives searched Bieber’s house.

Bieber, 19, was at the home and cooperated with authorities but was not interviewed by detectives. Thompson said he expected the singer to speak with detectives when his attorney could be present.

"He has not been arrested, nor has he been exonerated," Thompson said of Bieber.

Judge denies preliminary approval of NFL concussion settlement, fears $765M may not be enough

PHILADELPHIA (AP) -- A federal judge is slowing down the proposed $765 million settlement of NFL concussion claims, questioning if there’s enough money to cover 20,000 retired players.

U.S. District Judge Anita B. Brody denied preliminary approval of the plan Tuesday because she’s worried the money could run out sooner than expected. She also raised concerns that anyone who gets concussion damages from the NFL would be barred from suing the NCAA or other amateur football leagues.

"I am primarily concerned that not all retired NFL football players who ultimately receive a qualifying diagnosis or their (families) ... will be paid," Brody wrote in a 12-page opinion issued Tuesday.

The proposed settlement, negotiated over several months, is designed to last at least 65 years.

The awards would vary based on an ex-player’s age and diagnosis. A younger retiree with Lou Gehrig’s disease would get $5 million, those with serious dementia cases would get $3 million and an 80-year-old with early dementia would get $25,000. Retirees without symptoms would get baseline screening, and follow-up care if needed.

Agreement appears elusive on jobless benefits bill

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Compromise talks on a new program of long-term jobless benefits ran aground in the Senate on Tuesday, leaving the fate of the measure in extreme doubt while Republicans and Democrats vied for political advantage in the wreckage.

"This is a dispiriting moment for millions of Americans," said Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., whose state’s unemployment is measured at 9 percent.

At issue was a struggle over the possible resurrection of a program that expired on Dec. 28, immediately cutting off support for more than 1.3 million unemployed workers who have exhausted state-paid benefits that generally run for 26 weeks.

The legislation is the first of the year in the Senate, and an early preview of a competition between the two parties for support in this year’s election from economically squeezed voters.

After more than a week of negotiations, though, the Senate blocked a pair of Democratic-drafted proposals from advancing, after first denying Republicans a chance to change the legislation -- all on near party-line votes.

Clearly anticipating the outcome, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid accused Republicans in advance of resorting to obstruction to block help to families in need.

"We have a filibuster before us again. Another one," Reid said. Republicans want to "have their cake and eat it, too," he said, by having the Senate vote on their own proposed changes in the legislation without guaranteeing to then let the measure pass afterward.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell countered that Reid was trying to "fix the result" by requiring Republicans to amass 60 votes behind any of their proposed changes, an all-but-impossible threshold to meet given the circumstances. He said GOP efforts to improve the measure had been checked by Reid at every turn, even if one of the Republican proposals had cross-party appeal.

The day’s events are likely to be the Senate’s last word on the unemployment measure until late this month or next month at the earliest.

Reed and Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said separately they hoped compromise efforts wouldn’t end, but Reid made no immediate announcement about when the issue might return to the Senate floor.

For all the maneuvering over the last several days, the level of suspicion across party lines has been unusually evident -- with some Republicans saying the Democrats’ goal was to gain political advantage rather than pass legislation while some Democrats say the objective of most GOP lawmakers had been to torpedo the bill all along.

The developments capped a period that began last week when a half-dozen Republicans unexpectedly sided with Democrats to push an initial Democratic measure past a procedural hurdle. At the same time, they made clear they would seek changes, and also the right to have Republican amendments come to a vote.

The initial Democratic proposal would have renewed the expired benefits program for three months, but without offsetting budget cuts. That meant pushing deficits higher by about roughly $6.4 billion over a decade.

Under pressure, Democrats eventually rewrote their proposal to reduce the maximum number of weeks of benefits it would provide. They also proposed offsetting the cost with provisions set to begin more than a decade into the future. Instead of three months, the new program would have run until November.

On Monday, more than a half-dozen Republicans countered with a plan for a three-month renewal of jobless benefits, coupled with a repeal of recently voted curbs on cost of living increases that go to military retirees under the age of 62. The total cost was put at about $12 billion, and would have been offset over a decade.

Simultaneously, McConnell triggered a debate last week with an unusually long speech on the Senate floor in which he castigated Reid, accusing him of systematically trying to block GOP amendments from coming to a vote for months at a time. His remarks became a key point in comments by his GOP rank and file over the next day.

The day’s first vote was on McConnell’s attempt to clear the way for a vote on a GOP proposal to change the bill. It failed, 55-45, on a party-line vote.

Next came an attempt to advance the revised Democratic legislation. It failed 52-48, eight short of the 60 votes needed.

The final vote of the day was 55-45 on the Democrats’ original bill, five shy of the 60 needed.