Obama’s health care
sign-up campaign goes all out on deadline day despite website problems

WASHINGTON (AP) -- In a flood of last-minute sign-ups, hundreds of thousands of Americans rushed to apply for health insurance Monday, as deadline day for President Barack Obama’s overhaul brought long waits and a new spate of website ills.

"This is like trying to find a parking spot at Wal-Mart on Dec. 23," said Jason Stevenson, working with a Utah nonprofit group helping people enroll.

Supporters of the health care law fanned out across the country in a final dash to sign up uninsured Americans. The HealthCare.gov website, which was receiving 1.5 million visitors a day last week, had recorded about 1.2 million through noon Monday.

At times, more than 125,000 people were simultaneously using the system, straining it beyond its previously estimated capacity. People not signed up for health insurance by the deadline, either through their jobs or on their own, were subject to being fined by the IRS, and that threat was helping drive the final dash.

The administration announced last week that people still in line by midnight would get extra time to enroll.

U.S. talking with Israel on possible release of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard

JERUSALEM (AP) -- The United States is talking with Israel about releasing convicted spy Jonathan Pollard early from his life sentence as an incentive to the Israelis in the troubled Mideast peace negotiations, people familiar with the talks said Monday. Releasing Pollard, a thorn in U.S.-Israeli relations for three decades, would be an extraordinary step underscoring the urgency of U.S. peace efforts.

Two people describing the talks cautioned that such a release -- which would be a dramatic turnaround from previous refusals -- was far from certain and that discussions with Israel on the matter were continuing. Both spoke only on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the talks on the record.

In return for the release, the people close to the talks said, Israel would have to undertake significant concessions to the Palestinians in Middle East negotiations. Such concessions could include some kind of freeze on Israeli settlements in disputed territory, the release of Palestinian prisoners beyond those Israel has already agreed to free and a guarantee that Israel would stay at the negotiating table beyond an end-of-April deadline.

Secretary of State John Kerry was meeting with chief Palestinian negotiator Saab Erekat and another Palestinian official late Monday, then planned an early Tuesday meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

U.S. defense and intelligence officials have consistently argued against releasing Pollard.

Australian prime minister pledges to continue Malaysian Flight 370 search ‘for quite some time’

PERTH, Australia (AP) -- Although it has been slow, difficult and frustrating so far, the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines jet is nowhere near the point of being scaled back, Australia’s prime minister pledged Monday.

The three-week hunt for Flight 370 has turned up no sign of the Boeing 777, which vanished March 8 with 239 people bound for Beijing from Kuala Lumpur. Ten planes and 11 ships found no sign of the missing plane in the search zone in the southern Indian Ocean, about 1,850 kilometers (1,150 miles) west of Australia, officials said.

The search area has evolved as experts analyzed Flight 370’s limited radar and satellite data, moving from the seas off Vietnam, to the waters west of Malaysia and Indonesia, and then to several areas west of Australia. The search zone is now 254,000 square kilometers (98,000 square miles), about a 2 1/2-hour flight from Perth.

Items recovered so far were discovered to be flotsam unrelated to the Malaysian plane. Several orange-colored objects spotted by plane Sunday turned out to be fishing equipment.

Those leading the effort remain undaunted, with Prime Minister Tony Abbott saying officials are "well, well short" of any point where they would scale back the hunt. In fact, he said the intensity and magnitude of operations "is increasing, not decreasing."

Sea garbage frustrates search for Flight 370 and points to wider problems
in world’s oceans

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) -- Sometimes the object spotted in the water is a snarled fishing line. Or a buoy. Or something that might once have been the lid to an ice box. Not once -- not yet at least -- has it been a clue.

Anticipation has repeatedly turned into frustration in the search for signs of Flight 370 as objects spotted from planes in a new search area west of Australia have turned out to be garbage. It’s a time-wasting distraction for air and sea crews searching for debris from the Malaysia Airlines flight that vanished March 8.

It also points to wider problems in the world’s oceans.

"The ocean is like a plastic soup, bulked up with the croutons of these larger items," said Los Angeles captain Charles Moore, an environmental advocate credited with bringing attention to an ocean gyre between Hawaii and California known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which by some accounts is about the size of Texas.

The world’s oceans have four more of these flotsam-collecting vortexes, Moore said, and the searchers, in an area about 1,850 kilometers (1,150 miles) west of Perth, have stumbled onto the eastern edge of a gyre in the Indian Ocean.

Recalled GM cars attracted young, inexperienced drivers unaccustomed to handling a crisis

DETROIT (AP) -- As the deaths are tallied from General Motors’ delayed recall of compact cars, one thing is becoming clear: Of those killed, the majority were young.

In a way, this isn’t surprising. Low-priced cars like the Chevrolet Cobalt and Saturn Ion were marketed to young, first-time buyers and parents shopping for their kids.

But price may not be the only reason for the disproportionate number of youthful deaths.

The faulty ignition switches behind the recall can shut off the engine while the car is in motion. When that happens, power-assisted steering and power brakes are lost, and the air bags won’t inflate in a crash.

In such a situation, inexperienced drivers are more likely to panic and be overwhelmed by the extra effort needed to control the car, safety experts say.

Number of people confirmed dead from Washington state mudslide rises from 21 to 24

DARRINGTON, Wash. (AP) -- Authorities say the official death toll from the deadly Washington state mudslide has increased to 24.

The Snohomish County medical examiner’s office said Monday that it has received a total of 24 victims, and 17 of them have been positively identified.

Previously, the official death toll was 21, with 15 victims identified.

The slide struck a rural area northeast of Seattle on March 22. Authorities have said more than two dozen people are still missing.

Russia pulls back battalion from Ukraine border; PM Medvedev promises plenty of aid for Crimea

SIMFEROPOL, Crimea (AP) -- Russia said Monday it was pulling a battalion of several hundred troops away from the Ukrainian border but kept tens of thousands in place, prompting a worried response from the Kiev government about what the U.S. warned was still a "tremendous buildup."

Russia moved quickly to strengthen its economic hold on Crimea, with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev arriving in the newly annexed peninsula with promises of funds for improved power supplies, water lines, education and pensions for the elderly.

Russia’s takeover of the strategic Black Sea region, its troop buildup near Ukraine’s border and its attempts to compel constitutional changes in Ukraine have markedly raised tensions with the West and prompted fears that Moscow intends to invade other areas of its neighbor.

However, Russian President Vladimir Putin told German Chancellor Angela Merkel in a phone call Monday that some troops were being withdrawn from the Ukraine border, Merkel’s office said. The withdrawal involved a battalion of about 500 troops, Russian news reports said.

The U.S. reacted cautiously to the Russian troop movement, with Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel saying that "tens of thousands" of Russian forces still remained along the Ukrainian border, a situation he called "a tremendous buildup."

North and South Korea
fire hundreds of artillery shells into sea; island residents in shelters

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) -- North and South Korea fired hundreds of artillery shells into each other’s waters Monday in a flare-up of animosity that forced residents of five front-line South Korean islands to evacuate to shelters for several hours, South Korean officials said.

The exchange of fire into the Yellow Sea followed Pyongyang’s sudden announcement that it would conduct live-fire drills in seven areas north of the Koreas’ disputed maritime boundary. North Korea routinely test-fires artillery and missiles into the ocean but rarely discloses those plans in advance. The announcement was seen as an expression of Pyongyang’s frustration at making little progress in its recent push to win outside aid.

North Korea fired 500 rounds of artillery shells over more than three hours, about 100 of which fell south of the sea boundary, South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok said. South Korea responded by firing 300 shells into North Korean waters, he said.

No shells from either side were fired at any land or military installations, but Kim called the North’s artillery firing a provocation aimed at testing Seoul’s security posture. There was no immediate comment from North Korea.

In Washington, White House spokesman Jonathan Lalley called North Korea’s actions "dangerous and provocative" and said they would further aggravate tensions in the region.

Gerrymandering, geography give Republicans built-in advantage in this year’s House elections

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Even if Democrats recruit great candidates, raise gobs of money and run smart campaigns, they face an uphill fight to retake control of the House in this year’s congressional elections, regardless of the political climate in November.

The reason? Republican strategists spent years developing a plan to take advantage of the 2010 census, first by winning state legislatures and then redrawing House districts to tilt the playing field in their favor. Their success was unprecedented.

In states like Ohio, Michigan and North Carolina, Republicans were able to shape congressional maps to pack as many Democratic voters as possible into the fewest House districts. The practice is called gerrymandering, and it left fertile ground elsewhere in each state to spread Republican voters among more districts, increasing the GOP’s chances of winning more seats.

Geography helped in some states. Democratic voters are more likely to live in densely populated urban areas, making it easier to pack them into fewer districts.

The first payoff came in 2012, when Republicans kept control of the House despite a Democratic wave that swept President Barack Obama to a second term. The next payoff is likely to come this fall when candidates once again compete in House districts drawn by Republican legislators in key states.