Wednesday December 12, 2012

Fiscal cliff: Private bargaining, public wrangling

WASHINGTON (AP) -- In a test of divided government, the White House and congressional Republicans bargained in secret and sparred in public Tuesday over a deal to prevent year-end tax increases for middle class millions and spending cuts across much of the nation.

Officials disclosed that President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner had exchanged at least partial proposals in the past two days, although details were sparse and evidence of significant progress scarcer still.

"The longer the White House slow-walks this process the closer our economy gets to the fiscal cliff," said Boehner, declaring that the president had yet to identify specific cuts to government benefit programs that he would support as part of an agreement that also would raise tax revenue.

In rebuttal, the White House swiftly detailed numerous proposals Obama has made to cut spending. And the House Democratic leader, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, challenged Boehner to allow a vote on the president’s proposal to extend most expiring tax cuts while letting them lapse at higher incomes.

Officials who disclosed the exchange between the president and Boehner did so only on condition of anonymity, saying they were not authorized to publicly talk about details.

GOP says Obama’s old deficit remarks haunt him, but Dems say it’s a new, ghost-free world

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Some of the best Republican arguments against President Barack Obama’s proposals to avoid a "fiscal cliff" come from the president himself, in comments he made months or years before his re-election.


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Stung by the GOP’s midterm election gains in 2010, Obama took stands that differ from his current positions on raising tax rates, adjusting Social Security and other topics now dominating Washington as a Dec. 31 deadline nears.

Sometimes gleefully, Republicans throw Obama’s old words back at him. They portray him as inconsistent at best, insincere at worst.

The strategy has limits, however. Elections make a difference.

Obama signaled last year he would give ground on income tax rates and entitlement programs, after his fellow Democrats suffered what he called a "shellacking" in November 2010. Republicans took over the House, and the GOP saw Obama as vulnerable in 2012.

Testimony on bedsheet noose and underwear dominates hearing for WikiLeaks GI

FORT MEADE, Md. (AP) -- In a military hearing for Pfc. Bradley Manning that has unfolded over the past two weeks, the reams of classified documents he is accused of leaking have barely come up. Instead, the proceedings have focused on a bedsheet noose, confiscated clothes and whether Manning seriously contemplated killing himself with flip-flops or the elastic waistband of his underwear.

The 24-year-old former Army intelligence analyst is trying to get the charges against him thrown out, arguing that the military held him in unduly harsh conditions for nine months to punish him after his 2010 arrest on suspicion of turning over military and diplomatic secrets to the website WikiLeaks.

The Pentagon has said that Manning was a suicide risk and that it was only trying to keep him from hurting himself and others when it confined him to a windowless, 6-by-8-foot cell in the Marine Corps brig at Quantico, Va., for 23 hours a day.

Legal experts say the chances of the case being thrown out are slim, but Manning could win extra credit for the time he has served if he is ultimately convicted at a court-martial and sentenced to prison. He faces 22 charges, including aiding the enemy, which carries a maximum of life behind bars.

The pretrial hearing drew to a close Tuesday. The military judge gave no indication of when she might rule.

Extremists among Syrian rebel forces who captured army base, kill 35 soldiers

BEIRUT (AP) -- Syrian rebels including Islamic extremists took full control of a sprawling military base Tuesday after a bloody two-day battle that killed 35 soldiers, activists said. It was the latest gain by opposition forces bolstered by an al-Qaida-linked group that has provided skilled fighters but raised concerns in the West.

The Sheik Suleiman military base was the second major base captured in the north by the rebels, who also are making inroads farther south toward the capital, Damascus.

In other violence, dozens of people were reported injured or killed in Aqrab, a village in central Hama province, in a series of explosions. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported the bloodshed, citing activists in the area, but had no immediate death toll or details on who was to blame.

Fighters from jihadi groups, including Jabhat al-Nusra, were among those doing battle in the rebel ranks as they took control of Sheik Suleiman base, near the northern city of Aleppo, according to the Observatory and other activists.

The presence of the jihadi groups has raised concerns in the U.S. and other nations that are supporting the opposition in Syria but do not want to see extremists gain power in the region. The U.S. this week blacklisted al-Nusra as a foreign terrorist organization and said the group was part of al-Qaida in Iraq.

Citing $1.9B penalty, U.S. defends deal sparing ex-executives from arrest

NEW YORK (AP) -- American authorities on Tuesday cited "astonishing" dysfunction at the British bank HSBC and said that it had helped Mexican drug traffickers, Iran, Libya and others under U.S. suspicion or sanction to move money around the world.

HSBC agreed to pay $1.9 billion, the largest penalty ever imposed on a bank.

The U.S. stopped short of charging executives, citing the bank’s immediate, full cooperation and the damage that an assault on the company might cause on economies and people, including thousands who would lose jobs if the bank collapsed.

Outside experts said it was evidence that a doctrine of "too big to fail," or at least "too big to prosecute," was alive and well four years after the financial crisis.

The settlement avoided a legal battle that could have further savaged the bank’s reputation and undermined confidence in the banking system. HSBC does business in almost 80 countries, so many that it calls itself "the world’s local bank."

NTSB: Every state should require ignition interlocks for convicted drunken drivers

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Every state should require convicted drunken drivers, including first-time offenders, to use devices that prevent them from starting a car’s engine if their breath tests positive for alcohol, the National Transportation Safety Board said Tuesday.

The ignition interlock devices -- already required for all convicted drunken drivers in 17 states -- are currently the best available solution to reducing drunken driving deaths, which account for about a third of the nation’s more than 32,000 traffic deaths a year, the board said.

Drivers breathe into breathalyzers mounted on the vehicle’s dashboard. If their breath-alcohol concentration is greater than the device’s programmed limit -- usually a blood alcohol concentration of .02 percent or .04 percent -- then the engine won’t start.

The board also urged the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to speed up its research effort with automakers to develop systems that can determine a driver’s blood alcohol concentration using infrared light when the driver presses an ignition button. The vehicle won’t start if the alcohol concentration is too high.

If the technology were incorporated into all new vehicles, eventually all drivers would be alcohol-tested before driving. That could potentially prevent an estimated 7,000 drunken-driving deaths a year, the board said.

Egypt’s judges say most of them will not oversee vote on disputed constitution

CAIRO (AP) -- Egypt’s judges Tuesday said that most of them would not oversee a nationwide referendum on a contentious draft constitution, as tens of thousands of opponents and supporters of the country’s Islamist president staged rival rallies in Cairo, four days ahead of the vote.

The demonstrations and judges’ boycott came hours after masked assailants set upon opposition protesters staging a sit-in at Tahrir Square, firing birdshot and swinging knives and sticks, according to security officials. They later said that five "hardened criminals" were arrested in connection with the attack.

Eleven protesters were wounded, the MENA state news agency said, citing a Health Ministry spokesman.

The violence served as a stark reminder of the stakes in Egypt’s political battle over the disputed draft constitution, which goes to a nationwide referendum on Saturday.

On one side of the divide, there is President Mohammed Morsi, his Muslim Brotherhood and ultraorthodox Salafis, while on the other side there is a collection of liberals, leftists and Christians who claim the draft charter restricts freedoms and gives Islamists vast influence over the running of the country.