Tuesday November 13, 2012

Congress returns
to unfinished
business with
fiscal cliff looming

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Congress returns Tuesday to a crowded agenda of unfinished business overshadowed by the urgent need for President Barack Obama and lawmakers to avert the economic double hit of tax increases and automatic spending cuts.

One week after the elections -- and seven weeks after they last gathered in Washington, Republicans and Democrats face a daunting task in a lame-duck session that Capitol Hill fears could last until the final hours of Dec. 31. But even before serious budget negotiations can begin, lawmakers will tackle leftover legislation on trade with Russia, military budgets and aiding farmers still reeling from the summer’s drought.

The first days back will be a mix of old and new -- choosing down-ballot leaders in the Senate while the 12 new members, three Republicans, eight Democrats and one independent, are introduced to their colleagues. The House will welcome some 70 new members who will get a crash course on how Congress operates with a class on ethics Wednesday.

Two weeks after Sandy, nearly 60,000 Long Island customers still without power

HICKSVILLE, N.Y. (AP) -- Two weeks after Superstorm Sandy, while most utilities have restored electricity to nearly all their customers, there was one glaring exception Monday: a Long Island power company with more outages -- almost 60,000 Monday -- than all the others combined.

As people on Long Island fumed over the cold and the darkness and complained that they couldn’t get answers from the company, the Long Island Power Authority said in its defense that the storm was worse than anyone could have imagined, and that it didn’t just damage outdoor electrical lines; it caused flooding that touched home and business breaker boxes.

LIPA also acknowledged that an outdated computer system for keeping customers notified has added to people’s frustration.

But some say the government-run utility should have seen it coming. It was recently criticized in a withering state report for lax preparation ahead of last year’s Tropical Storm Irene and for the 25-year-old computer system used to pinpoint outages and update customers.

"It’s antiquated. I think they’re negligent," said Phil Glickman, a retired Wall Street executive from South Bellmore who waited 11 days to get electricity back.

Israeli military scores ‘direct hits’ on Syrian artillery launcher in first open clash

TEL HAZEKA, Golan Heights (AP) -- Israeli tanks struck a Syrian artillery launcher Monday after a stray mortar shell flew into Israel-held territory, the first direct clash between the neighbors since the Syrian uprising began nearly two years ago.

The confrontation fueled new fears that the Syrian civil war could drag Israel into the violence, a scenario with grave consequences for the region. The fighting has already spilled into Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.

"We are closely monitoring what is happening and will respond appropriately. We will not allow our borders to be violated or our citizens to be fired upon," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday in a speech to foreign ambassadors.

While officials believe President Bashar Assad has no interest in picking a fight with Israel, they fear the embattled Syrian leader may try to draw Israel into the fighting in a bout of desperation. Israeli officials believe it is only a matter of time before Syrian rebels topple the longtime leader.

The conflict has already spilled over into several of Syria’s other neighbors -- whether in direct violence or in the flood of refugees fleeing the bloodshed. More than 36,000 Syrians have been killed in the fighting, according to estimates by anti-Assad activists.

Belize police seek McAfee founder to question him in murder of U.S. citizen neighbor

MEXICO CITY (AP) -- Police in Belize are looking for the founder of the software company McAfee Inc. to question him about the death of another U.S. citizen, his neighbor in an island town on the Caribbean.

Spokesman Raphael Martinez says John McAfee was the neighbor of 52-year-old Gregory Viant Faull. Faull was found with a gunshot wound to his head inside his home north of San Pedro, a town on the island of Ambergris Caye.

Martinez says other neighbors have been questioned, but McAfee has not been home. McAffee could not be reached for comment by The Associated Press.

Martinez said Monday that Faull’s computer and phone were missing, but there were no signs of forced entry. The housekeeper discovered the body Sunday and called police.

Owner points to furnace as investigators seek answers in deadly Indianapolis blast

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -- The owner of one of the homes that exploded in Indianapolis said Monday that a problem furnace could be to blame for the blast that killed two people and damaged dozens of homes so severely officials say they must be demolished.

John Shirley, 50, of Noblesville, told The Associated Press that his daughter sent him a text message last week complaining that the furnace in the home where she lives with her mother and her mother’s boyfriend had gone out and required them to stay at hotel.

But Shirley also said when he asked if the furnace had been fixed, his daughter said yes, and he wasn’t aware of any additional problems until he heard from his daughter again Sunday morning.

"I get a text from my daughter saying ‘Dad, our home is gone. Then I called my ex-wife and she said what happened," he said.

His ex-wife, Monserrate Shirley, declined to comment Monday.

Elmo puppeteer Kevin Clash accused of underage relationship, taking leave from ‘Sesame Street’

NEW YORK (AP) -- The puppeteer who performs as Elmo on "Sesame Street" is taking a leave of absence from the iconic kids’ show in the wake of allegations that he had a relationship with a 16-year-old boy.

Puppeteer Kevin Clash has denied the charges, which, according to Sesame Workshop, were first made in June by the accuser, who by then was 23.

"We took the allegation very seriously and took immediate action," Sesame Workshop said in a statement issued Monday. "We met with the accuser twice and had repeated communications with him. We met with Kevin, who denied the accusation."

The organization described the relationship as "unrelated to the workplace." Its investigation found the allegation of underage conduct to be unsubstantiated. But it said Clash exercised "poor judgment" and was disciplined for violating company policy regarding Internet usage. It offered no details.

"I had a relationship with the accuser," Clash said in a statement of his own. "It was between two consenting adults and I am deeply saddened that he is trying to characterize it as something other than what it was."

EU, IMF propose giving Greece more time for reforms but question remains how to slash its debt

BRUSSELS (AP) -- Greece’s international creditors are proposing giving the country two more years to reform its economy, but European finance ministers were split Monday over how to put together a comprehensive deal to help Athens dig out of its mountain of debt.

A draft report on Greece’s progress from the so-called troika of creditors -- the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund --recommends giving Athens until 2016 to implement the reforms necessary to restart growth and bring its debts down to a sustainable level.

Ahead of Monday’s meeting of the 17 eurozone finance ministers in Brussels, Irish Finance Minister Michael Noonan said the extension would mean (euro) 31 billion to (euro) 32 billion ($39.48 billion-$40.75 billion) in extra financing.

The troika has pledged (euro) 240 billion ($305 billion) in bailout loans to keep Greece afloat while it implements economic reforms and austerity measures to get its finances in order. The country has received around (euro) 150 billion of those loans so far.

Greece is waiting for the next $40 billion installment of its bailout loan before it faces a bond repayment Friday that it may not be able to afford otherwise. It has passed a series of spending cuts and reforms in the past few days to meet the conditions of the loan. But in recent months, it has become clear that the country’s bailout program is way off track, and deep disagreements persist among its creditors on how to right it.