With rare bipartisanship, Congress, president keep government running until October
WASHINGTON (AP) -- After last fall’s tumultuous, bitterly partisan debt ceiling and government shutdown fights, a sense of fiscal fatigue seems to be setting in among many Washington policymakers as President Barack Obama prepares for his fifth State of the Union address later this month.
A declining U.S. budget deficit, still-accommodative Federal Reserve and a small-bore budget deal negotiated last month -- given final approval Thursday in Congress and signed by Obama on Friday -- are helping to temper partisan rhetoric in the short term as attention in Washington shifts to the approaching midterm elections.
The recovery from the deep recession of 2007-2009 has been one of the slowest in history and still has a ways to go, especially in terms of regaining lost jobs. That was driven home by a Labor Department report last Friday that U.S. employers added just 74,000 jobs last month, far fewer than had been forecast and the smallest monthly gain in three years.
The overall jobless rate dropped to 6.7 percent from 7 percent in November, the lowest level since October 2008. Much of the decline came from Americans who stopped looking for jobs and are no longer being counted by the government as unemployed. Meanwhile, a growing number of baby boomers are retiring.
Still, economists are generally predicting a pickup in economic growth in 2014 amid a continued favorable climate of low inflation, falling oil prices, a housing recovery and the Fed sticking to its plan to only slowly pare back the hundreds of billions of dollars in financial stimulus it has pumped into the economy over the past four years.
Taliban attack against Afghan restaurant kills 16 people, including foreigners
KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- A suicide bomber blew himself up outside a Kabul restaurant filled with foreigners and affluent Afghans, while two gunmen snuck in through the back door and opened fire Friday in a brazen dinnertime attack that killed 16 people, officials said.
The Taliban claimed responsibility within an hour of the attack against La Taverna du Liban, part of a stepped-up campaign of violence against foreign and government interests to send a message that the militants are not going anywhere as the U.S.-led coalition winds down its combat mission at the end of the year. The bombing served as a reminder that although militant violence in the capital has dropped off in recent months, insurgents remain capable of carrying out attacks inside the most heavily guarded areas.
Security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information, said the assault began with the suicide bomber detonating his explosives at the front door of the restaurant, located in an area housing several embassies, non-governmental organizations and the homes and offices of Afghan officials. As chaos ensued, the two other attackers entered through the kitchen and began shooting. They were later killed by security guards, said Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqi.
Kabul police chief Gen. Mohammad Zahir Zahir said the 16 people killed were all inside the restaurant. He said foreigners and Afghans were among the dead, but he did not provide a breakdown. Officials said at least four other people were wounded.
Four U.N. employees who "reportedly could have been present in close proximity to the scene of the attack" remained "unaccounted for," said Ari Gaitanis, a spokesman for the U.N. mission in Afghanistan. The mission said in a statement that some of its staff "may be among the dead" and was verifying the status of personnel in Kabul.
Pope defrocked 400 priests in 2 years, per Vatican document obtained by AP
VATICAN CITY (AP) -- A document obtained by The Associated Press on Friday shows Pope Benedict XVI defrocked nearly 400 priests over just two years for sexually molesting children.
The statistics for 2011 and 2012 show a dramatic increase over the 171 priests removed in 2008 and 2009, when the Vatican first provided details on the number of priests who have been defrocked. Prior to that, it had only publicly revealed the number of alleged cases of sexual abuse it had received and the number of trials it had authorized.
While it’s not clear why the numbers spiked in 2011, it could be because 2010 saw a new explosion in the number of cases reported in the media in Europe and beyond.
The document was prepared from data the Vatican had been collecting and was compiled to help the Holy See defend itself before a U.N.committee this week in Geneva.
Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Vatican’s U.N. ambassador in Geneva, referred to just one of the statistics in the course of eight hours of oftentimes pointed criticism and questioning from the U.N. human rights committee.
Longest execution places future of states’ efforts to obtain lethal drugs in doubt
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- The long and restless execution of an Ohio inmate with an untested combination of chemicals brought cries of cruel and unusual punishment Friday and could further narrow the options for other states that are casting about for new lethal injection drugs.
A gasping, snorting Dennis McGuire took 26 minutes to die after the chemicals began flowing Thursday -- the longest execution of the 53 carried out in Ohio since capital punishment resumed 15 years ago, according to an Associated Press analysis.
McGuire’s adult children complained it amounted to torture, with the convicted killer’s son, also named Dennis, saying: "Nobody deserves to go through that."
Whether McGuire felt any pain was unclear. But Ohio’s experience could influence the decisions made in the 31 other lethal-injection states, many of which have been forced in the past few years to rethink the drugs they use.
States are in a bind for two main reasons: European companies have cut off supplies of certain execution drugs because of death-penalty opposition overseas. And states can’t simply switch to other chemicals without triggering legal challenges from defense attorneys.
California governor proclaims state is in a drought, paves way for federal assistance
LOS ANGELES (AP) -- California is nearly as dry as it’s ever been. High water marks rim half-full reservoirs. Cities are rationing water. Clerics are praying for rain. Ranchers are selling cattle, and farmers are fallowing fields.
Gov. Jerry Brown formally proclaimed a drought Friday, saying California is in the midst of perhaps its worst dry spell in a century. He made the announcement in San Francisco amid increasing pressure from lawmakers and as firefighters battled flare-ups in a Southern California wildfire that chased thousands of people from their homes.
Unless the state gets significant rainfall in the next two months, television sets glowing with wildfires could play like reruns throughout the year.
Reservoir levels in the north and central parts of the state were more depleted than in Southern California, but Brown still asked Los Angeles to do its part to conserve -- and gave a nod to the politics of water in the vast state.
"The drought accentuates and further displays the conflicts between north and south and between urban and rural parts of the state. So, as governor, I’ll be doing my part to bring people together and working through this."
Syria proposes cease-fire in divided Aleppo, prisoner exchange before peace talks
BEIRUT (AP) -- Syria’s government Friday proposed a cease-fire in the embattled city of Aleppo and a prisoner exchange with the opposition, a move that appeared aimed at presenting President Bashar Assad as a responsible partner less than a week before an international peace conference.
Assad’s opponents were skeptical about the offer, which was floated by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem during a visit to Moscow. A member of the main Western-backed opposition dismissed the government overture as "last-minute maneuvering" to please Damascus’ Russian allies, while a rebel commander in Aleppo described such a truce in the civil war as nearly impossible.
The opposition Syrian National Coalition has yet to decide whether it will attend the peace talks scheduled to open Wednesday in the Swiss city of Montreux. Members of the coalition gathered Friday in Istanbul to vote on the group’s participation, but the start of the meeting was delayed for at least 10 hours after dozens of representatives refused to show up.
The coalition is under immense pressure from its Western and Arab sponsors to go to Geneva. Many members, however, are hesitant to sign onto a conference that has little chance of success and will burn the last shred of credibility the group has with rebels on the ground, who reject the talks.
Haitham al-Maleh, a senior member of the coalition, said it was inclined to vote in favor of participating in the talks, but that the Assad regime "has to leave."
Silence may be golden, but just passed budget bill costs $3 million per word
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Talk about words more costly than gold.
The giant federal budget bill that Congress passed late Thursday will cost taxpayers nearly $3 million per word, or if you want to really think big, almost $700 million per page.
The bill authorizes $1.1 trillion in spending. It is 1,582 pages long. An Internet word counting program said it has 370,445 words, numbers and symbols. So simple math comes up with $2.9 million per word average and $695 million per page average, though different parts of the budget package spend more than others sections.
By comparison, there are only 4,543 words in the U.S. Constitution, before amendments, and 1,458 words in the Declaration of Independence.
Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington spending watchdog, figured that senators spent slightly more than 69 hours before passing the bill, giving them just under two minutes per page to read it.
At attempted murder trial, jurors hear how feds faked beat-down of mechanic owed $50K
NEW YORK (AP) -- Joseph Romano was once a wealthy swindler who had a taste for vintage cars -- a 1957 Chevy, a 1968 Camaro, a 1967 Impala -- and a hefty bill with a mechanic that he wasn’t paying.
A dispute over that bill has become a strange footnote to an ongoing trial where Romano is accused in a failed plot to mutilate and kill a prosecutor and a judge.
Federal prosecutors in New York City allege that Romano also sought to hire someone to assault the Long Island mechanic, Nicholas Pittas, as payback for having the Camaro seized from his home on a flatbed. Undercover investigators ended up staging a photo to make it look like Pittas had been knocked out in a beat-down.
"That’s a picture of me laying next to the trailer that’s on the side of our building," Pittas told jurors in testimony this week that provided a lesson in both the mechanics of cars and of an FBI sting.
Lawyers for Romano, who has pleaded not guilty to attempted murder charges, say he was entrapped and that no one was ever in real danger. His trial resumes Tuesday with closing arguments.