Thursday December 13, 2012

No apparent budging: Fiscal cliff talks appear stalled less than three weeks before deadline

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Republicans aren’t budging on tax rates, and Democrats are resisting steps like raising the eligibility age for Medicare. Negotiations on averting a year-end fiscal train wreck combining big automatic tax hikes and sweeping spending cuts again appear stalled.

There are less than three weeks before the government could careen off this "fiscal cliff," but the chief GOP negotiator, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Wednesday that "serious differences" remain between him and President Barack Obama after an exchange of offers and a pair of conversations this week.

Boehner spoke after a closed-door meeting with fellow GOP lawmakers in which he advised them not to make plans for the week after Christmas.

Neither side has given much ground, and his exchange of proposals with Obama seemed to generate hard feelings more than progress. The White House has slightly reduced its demands on taxes -- from $1.6 trillion over a decade to $1.4 trillion -- but isn’t yielding on demands that rates rise for wealthier earners.

Boehner responded with an offer very much like one he gave the White House more than a week ago that offered $800 billion in new revenue, half of Obama’s demand. Boehner is also pressing for an increase in the Medicare eligibility age and a stingier cost-of-living adjustment for Social Security recipients.

NKoreans dance in the streets to celebrate 1st satellite; U.S. demands consequences for launch

PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) -- In Pyongyang, North Koreans clinked beer mugs and danced in the streets to celebrate the country’s first satellite in space. In Washington, Seoul and Tokyo, leaders pushed for consequences for Wednesday’s successful rocket launch, widely seen as a test that takes the country one step closer to being capable of lobbing nuclear bombs over the Pacific.

The surprising, successful launch of a three-stage rocket -- similar in design to a model capable of carrying a nuclear-tipped warhead as far as California -- raises the stakes in the international standoff over North Korea’s expanding atomic arsenal. As Pyongyang refines its technology, its next step may be conducting its third nuclear test, experts warn.

The U.N. Security Council, which has punished North Korea repeatedly for developing its nuclear program, condemned the launch after a closed-door meeting Wednesday and said it will urgently consider "an appropriate response." The White House called the launch a "highly provocative act that threatens regional security," and even the North’s most important ally, China, expressed regret.

In Pyongyang, however, pride over the scientific advancement outweighed the fear of greater international isolation and punishment. North Korea, though struggling to feed its people, is now one of the few countries to have successfully launched a working satellite into space from its own soil; bitter rival South Korea is not on the list, though it has tried.

"It’s really good news," North Korean citizen Jon Il Gwang told The Associated Press as he and scores of other Pyongyang residents poured into the streets after a noon announcement to celebrate the launch by dancing in the snow. "It clearly testifies that our country has the capability to enter into space."

Police: Ore. mall shooter ID’d as 22-year-old male, used stolen rifle from someone he knew.

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) -- The gunman who killed two people and himself in a shooting rampage at an Oregon mall was 22 years old and used a stolen rifle from someone he knew, authorities said Wednesday.

Jacob Tyler Roberts had armed himself with an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle and had several fully loaded magazines when he arrived at a Portland mall on Tuesday, said Clackamas County Sheriff Craig Roberts.

The sheriff said the rifle jammed during the 22-year-old’s attack, but he managed to get it working again. He later shot himself. Authorities don’t yet have a motive but don’t believe he was targeting specific people.

Two people -- a 54-year-old woman and a 45-year-old man -- were killed, and another, Kristina Shevchenko, 15, was wounded and in serious condition on Wednesday.

Roberts, wearing a hockey-style face mask, parked his 1996 green Volkswagen Jetta in front of the second-floor entrance to Macy’s and walked briskly through the store, into the mall and began firing randomly, police said.

Egypt opposition alliance urges ‘No’ vote in constitutional referendum instead of boycott

CAIRO (AP) -- Egypt’s main opposition alliance called for a "No" vote in the referendum on a disputed constitution rather than a boycott, hours after Islamist President Mohammed Morsi’s government forged ahead by starting overseas voting in diplomatic missions for expatriates.

The opposition’s decision did not dispel the atmosphere of a nation in crisis, deeply polarized over the referendum that has stoked three weeks of turmoil on the streets. The opposition still plans more protests and the country’s judges are still on strike over a decree by Morsi, since rescinded, that placed him above judicial oversight. The military is inching back into politics. And if the referendum passes, there is potential for even greater upheaval.

There are also growing concerns about the already flailing economy Egypt on Tuesday requested a postponement of a $4.8 billion IMF loan after Morsi, fearing a popular backlash at a time of already heightened tensions, suspended a package of tax hikes that had been part of a program to reduce the huge budget deficit.

The opposition said it still may boycott the vote starting in Egypt on Saturday if its conditions are not met.

Hamdeen Sabahi, one of the leaders of the opposition National Salvation Front, said at a news conference the alliance would urge its supporters to boycott if judges do not oversee the vote and the state does not provide security at the polls. The country’s major judges’ union said Tuesday it would boycott the referendum, abstaining from their traditional role of oversight at the polls.

Vital loan to rescue Egyptian economy hangs
in the balance as political impasse drags on

CAIRO (AP) -- Egypt’s political crisis is threatening to plunge its ailing economy even deeper into distress after the government delayed a request for a $4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund that would have eased a ballooning budget deficit and reassured foreign investors.

Fear of stoking the street unrest over a disputed Islamist-oriented constitution led President Mohammed Morsi to suspend a package of tax hikes that were key to reducing that deficit -- and his government may now have to renegotiate the loan deal that took more than a year to hammer out.

While the government said it wants to delay the request for only a month, the IMF the mentioned no timeframe in its statement on Tuesday, saying only that it stands ready to "consult with the authorities on the resumption of discussions."

That raises the possibility that the loan may be put off until the political situation stabilizes, and so far protests have shown no signs of abating. Tensions have risen ahead of Saturday’s constitutional referendum, with Morsi’s opponents calling for Egyptians to reject the charter.

"It’s a serious blow to hopes that the economy will get back on track -- the country really needs a financial backstop to convince investors to bring back much-needed capital," said Neil Shearing from research consultancy Capital Economics in London.

Explosion targets Syrian Interior Ministry building, kills 5, ministry says

BEIRUT (AP) -- Three bombs collapsed walls in the Syrian Interior Ministry building Wednesday in Damascus, killing at least five people, as rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar Assad edged closer to the capital, the symbol of his power.

The blast came as more than 100 countries recognized the opposition umbrella group as the legitimate representative of Syria, a diplomatic blow to Assad.

Five people were killed in the Wednesday’s attacks and 23 others were injured in the attacks, according to a statement by the Interior Ministry.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least eight people were killed, most of them soldiers, and more than 40 wounded.

Such bombings have been a trademark of Islamic radicals fighting alongside the rebels, raising concerns about the extremists’ role in the civil war.

Now a majority among babies, racial and ethnic minorities in U.S. to outnumber whites by 2043

WASHINGTON (AP) -- White people will no longer make up a majority of Americans by 2043, according to new census projections. That’s part of a historic shift that already is reshaping the nation’s schools, workforce and electorate, and is redefining long-held notions of race.

The official projection, released Wednesday by the Census Bureau, now places the tipping point for the white majority a year later than previous estimates, which were made before the impact of the recent economic downturn was fully known.

America continues to grow and become more diverse due to higher birth rates among minorities, particularly for Hispanics who entered the U.S. at the height of the immigration boom in the 1990s and early 2000s. Since the mid-2000 housing bust, however, the arrival of millions of new immigrants from Mexico and other nations has slowed from its once-torrid pace.

The country’s changing demographic mosaic has stark political implications, shown clearly in last month’s election that gave President Barack Obama a second term -- in no small part due to his support from 78 percent of non-white voters.

There are social and economic ramifications, as well. Longstanding fights over civil rights and racial equality are going in new directions, promising to reshape race relations and common notions of being a "minority." White plaintiffs now before the Supreme Court argue that special protections for racial and ethnic minorities dating back to the 1960s may no longer be needed, from affirmative action in college admissions to the Voting Rights Act, designed for states with a history of disenfranchising blacks.

Government arrests
illegal immigrant, registered sex offender working for U.S. senator

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Sen. Robert Menendez employed as an unpaid intern in his Senate office an illegal immigrant who was a registered sex offender, now under arrest by immigration authorities, The Associated Press has learned. The Homeland Security Department instructed federal agents not to arrest him until after Election Day, a U.S. official involved in the case told the AP.

A Homeland Security spokesman, Peter Boogaard, said Wednesday that it was "categorically false" that the department delayed the arrest of Luis Abrahan Sanchez Zavaleta, 18, until after the election.

Sanchez, an immigrant from Peru, was arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in front of his home in New Jersey on Dec. 6, two federal officials said. Sanchez, who entered the country on a now-expired visitor visa from Peru, is facing deportation and remains in custody. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss details of Sanchez’s immigration case.

Boogaard said in a statement that ICE followed standard procedures working with local prosecutors before taking what he described as appropriate enforcement action.

Menendez, D-N.J., who advocates aggressively for pro-immigration policies, was re-elected in November with 58 percent of the vote. He said his staff was notified about the case Monday, he personally learned about the case from AP’s reporting and knew nothing about whether DHS delayed the arrest. The senator said his staff asks interns whether they are in the country legally but cannot check to be sure.

Former Tulsa megachurch janitor gets 55-year prison term for sex crimes against 3 girls

TULSA, Okla. (AP) -- A former janitor at a Tulsa megachurch was sentenced Wednesday to 55 years in prison for sex crimes against three girls in a scandal that has ensnared five other church employees accused of waiting to report a rape.

Tulsa County District Judge Bill Musseman also sentenced former Victory Christian Center employee Chris Denman to five years of probation and $12,000 in fines. Denman, 20, pleaded guilty in October to raping a 13-year-old girl in the church’s stairwell, molesting a 15-year-old girl and propositioning a 12-year-old.

Musseman told Denman and the family and friends of the victims that the punishment "must be severe" because of the nature of the crimes against the girls, who were in the courtroom Wednesday.

Denman pleaded guilty to first-degree rape, forcible oral sodomy of a child, lewd molestation, making a lewd proposal to a child and two counts of using a computer to facilitate a sex crime. He did not have a plea agreement with prosecutors and had faced up to life in prison.

Before the sentencing, prosecutors read statements from two of the girls’ mothers. The mother of the 13-year-old said in her statement that her daughter had lost her childhood and that her girl’s sense of safety had been shattered as a result of the sexual assault.