Lew warns Congress
of debt deadline

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew is telling Congress that by late February he will run out of steps he can take to avoid a first-ever default on U.S. debt.

Lew says he now thinks he will exhaust the bookkeeping maneuvers he can make to avoid breaching the federal borrowing limit sooner than previously thought. He had estimated in December that he could avoid a default until late February or early March.

Under an agreement that ended the partial government shutdown in October, Congress suspended the debt limit until Feb. 7. After then, Lew would start using the bookkeeping maneuvers.

He urged Congress to raise the limit before Feb. 7.

Some Republicans hope to use the debt limit as leverage to force the Obama administration to agree to more government spending cuts.

Space telescope spies water plumes on dwarf planet Ceres, target of Dawn spacecraft

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- The largest object in the asteroid belt just got more attractive: Scientists have confirmed signs of water on the dwarf planet Ceres, one of the few bodies in the solar system to hold that distinction.

Peering through the Herschel Space Observatory, a team led by the European Space Agency detected water plumes spewing from two regions on Ceres.

The observations, published in Thursday’s issue of Nature, come as NASA’s Dawn spacecraft is set to arrive at the Texas-sized dwarf planet next year.

It’s long been suspected that Ceres is water-rich, but previous detections have been inconclusive. This is the first definitive evidence of water on Ceres and confirms that it has an icy surface, said lead author Michael Kuppers of the European Space Agency.

"It makes Ceres a more exciting target" for exploration, he said.

Israeli security says
it foiled al-Qaida plot to hit U.S. Embassy, other targets

JERUSALEM (AP) -- Israel on Wednesday said it had foiled an "advanced" al-Qaida plan to carry out a suicide bombing on the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv and bomb other targets, in what analysts said was the first time the global terror network’s leadership has been directly involved in plotting an attack inside Israel.

The Shin Bet intelligence agency said it had arrested three Palestinians who allegedly plotted bombings, shootings, kidnappings and other attacks. It said the Palestinian men, two from Jerusalem and one from the West Bank, were recruited by an operative based in the Gaza Strip who worked for al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri.

The State Department said the U.S. was not yet able to corroborate the Israeli claims.

While a number of groups inspired by al-Qaida have carried out attacks against Israel before, this appeared to mark the first time an attack was directly planned by al-Qaida leaders.

The Shin Bet said the Palestinians planned on attacking a Jerusalem conference center with firearms and then kill rescue workers with a truck bomb. Al-Qaida also planned to send foreign militants to attack the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv on the same day using explosives supplied by the Palestinians, it said.

Future of Assad is focus of Syria peace talks, which turn into bitter test of wills

MONTREUX, Switzerland (AP) -- Furiously divided from the start, representatives of Syrian President Bashar Assad and the rebellion against him threatened Wednesday to collapse a peace conference intended to lead them out of civil war.

Assad’s future in the country devastated by three years of bloodshed was at the heart of the sparring, which took place against a pristine Alpine backdrop as Syrian forces and rebel fighters clashed across a wide area from Aleppo and Idlib in the north to Daraa in the south.

U.S. and U.N. officials said merely getting the two sides in the same room was something of a victory, but U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon’s claim that the discussions were "harmonious and constructive" was at odds with the testy exchange when he tried to get the podium from Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem.

"You live in New York. I live in Syria," Moallem angrily told Ban. "I have the right to give the Syrian version here in this forum. After three years of suffering, this is my right."

With little common ground, the two sides were to meet separately Thursday with a U.N. negotiator, Lakhdar Brahimi, who said he still did not know if they were ready to sit at the same table when talks begin in earnest Friday. But, Brahimi said, both sides had shown some willingness to bend on local cease-fires and delivery of humanitarian aid.

Appeals court won’t halt execution of Mexican man in Texas; lawyers to ask Supreme Court

HUNTSVILLE, Texas (AP) -- A Mexican national moved a step closer to lethal injection Wednesday when a federal appeals court rejected a claim that he was mentally impaired and ineligible to be put to death for the fatal shooting of a Houston police officer 20 years ago.

Texas officials opposed appeals to stop the scheduled lethal injection of Edgar Tamayo, 46, for killing Officer Guy Gaddis, 24, despite pleas and diplomatic pressure from the Mexican government and the U.S. State Department.

Tamayo’s lawyers went to the U.S. Supreme Court after the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said an appeal this week renewing an earlier contention that Tamayo was mentally impaired and ineligible for execution was filed too late.

Tamayo’s attorneys argued the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an arm of the Organization of American States, had determined only last week that Tamayo was mentally impaired. Lawyers contended Tamayo should be granted an exception to court rules barring such new last-minute appeals.

His attorneys also appealed a federal judge’s refusal to stop the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles from a clemency recommendation in Tamayo’s case because of what they argued were unfair procedures by the panel. The board, appointed by Gov. Rick Perry, can recommend he grant clemency. As it has in nearly all previous death penalty cases, the panel rejected Tamayo’s request for clemency.

Facing complaints about snow response, NYC mayor says ‘more could have been done’

NEW YORK (AP) -- New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (dih BLAH’-zee-oh) is acknowledging flaws in clearing snow from Manhattan’s posh Upper East Side after a storm dumped nearly a foot of it.

He faced complaints Wednesday that plowing lagged in the neighborhood while other areas were cleared more quickly after Tuesday’s storm.

De Blasio initially said the citywide effort was robust and equitable. But he says in a statement Wednesday evening that he now feels "more could have been done to serve the Upper East Side."

De Blasio says 30 more vehicles and nearly 40 more sanitation workers have been sent to the area to finish the cleanup.

He says "the overall storm response across the city was well-executed."

Bill Cosby developing a script for a possible new NBC comedy to star the sitcom veteran

NEW YORK (AP) -- NBC is confirming that Bill Cosby is developing a possible new sitcom he would star in.

The deal brings the 76-year-old entertainer together with a writing staff to create a script for a comedy that casts Cosby as the patriarch of a multigenerational family.

An NBC spokesman said Wednesday that, as yet, there is no series order, nor even a deal to produce a pilot episode.

Cosby’s greatest TV triumph began at NBC three decades ago, when "The Cosby Show" launched in September 1984. It ran for eight seasons.

Ukrainian opposition calls for 24-hour pause in clashes, gives president ultimatum

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) -- Ukrainian opposition leaders issued a stark ultimatum to President Viktor Yanukovych on Wednesday to call early elections within 24 hours or face more popular rage, after at least two protesters were killed in confrontations with police in a grim escalation of a two-monthlong political crisis.

The protesters’ deaths, the first since the largely peaceful protests started in November, fueled fears that the daily demonstrations aimed at bringing down the government over its decision to shun the European Union for closer ties to Moscow and over human rights violations could turn more violent.

With a central Kiev street ablaze and covered with thick black smoke from burning tires and several thousand protesters continuing to clash with riot police, opposition leaders urged tens of thousands of demonstrators in a nearby square to refrain from violence and remain in the main protest camp for the next 24 hours.

They demanded that Yanukovych dismiss the government, call early elections and scrap harsh anti-protest legislation. It was last week’s passage of the laws cracking down on protests that set off the violent clashes.

"You, Mr. President, have the opportunity to resolve this issue. Early elections will change the situation without bloodshed and we will do everything to achieve that," opposition leader Vitali Klitschko told some 40,000 people on Kiev’s Independence Square late Wednesday.