Monday January 7, 2013

Source: Obama to nominate ex-Sen. Chuck Hagel as defense secretary; bumpy path in Senate?

WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Barack Obama will nominate Chuck Hagel as his next defense secretary, a senior administration official said Sunday, choosing a former Senate colleague and a decorated Vietnam veteran and signaling he’s ready for a contentious confirmation fight likely dominated by questions about Hagel’s stands on Israel and Iran.

Obama, who avoided a Capitol Hill battle by deciding not to nominate U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice as his first choice for secretary of state, went ahead with Hagel, 66, even as leading Republicans announced their opposition -- though they stopped short of saying they might try to block Hagel.

Seeking to soften the ground, the White House was alerting Senate Democrats that Hagel’s selection as the successor to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in Obama’s second-term Cabinet was imminent, according to a congressional official.

Obama, who returned to Washington on Sunday from his Hawaiian vacation, was expected to nominate Hagel on Monday. Congress is on break this coming week.

The officials requested anonymity in order to discuss Hagel’s nomination ahead of Obama.

Hagel is a contrarian Republican moderate who is likely to support a more rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

As President Barack Obama’s likely nominee for defense secretary, Hagel has another credential important to the president: a personal relationship with Obama, forged when they were in the Senate and strengthened during overseas trips they took together.

Hagel, 66, has for weeks been the front-runner for the Pentagon’s top job, four years after leaving behind a Senate career in which he carved out a reputation as an independent thinker and blunt speaker.

"I do think Obama’s done a good job overall. There are a lot of things I don’t agree with him on; he knows it," Hagel told the foreign policy website Al-Monitor last March.

Wounded during the Vietnam War, Hagel backed the Iraq war, but later became a fierce and credible critic of the Bush administration’s war policies, making routine trips to Iraq and Afghanistan. He opposed President George W. Bush’s plan to send an additional 30,000 troops into Iraq -- a move that has been credited with stabilizing the chaotic country -- as "the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam, if it’s carried out."

Second swearing-in for Obama seems to be shaping up as not as thrilling as his historic first

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Four years and one re-election after Barack Obama became America’s first black president, some of the thrill is gone.

Yes, the inauguration of a U.S. president is still a big deal. But the ceremony that Washington will stage in a few weeks won’t be the heady, historic affair it was in 2009, when nearly 2 million people flocked to the National Mall to see Obama take the oath of office. This time, District of Columbia officials expect between 600,000 and 800,000 people for Obama’s public swearing-in on the steps of the Capitol on Monday, Jan. 21.

"There certainly will not be the sort of exultation you saw four years ago," said Mike Cornfield, a George Washington University political science professor. One reason why, Cornfield said, is it simply lacks the dramatic transfer of power from one president to the next.

"This is not a change that commands people’s interest automatically," Cornfield said. "It’s a confirmation of power."

Even Obama acknowledges he’s already, shall we say, a little washed-up the second time around.

Lawmakers dig in heels on debt crisis, McConnell suggests crippling U.S. default possible

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Congressional leaders on Sunday showed no signs of emerging from their corners to resolve the next step in the financial crisis, with Democrats still talking about higher taxes on the wealthy and the Senate’s top Republican suggesting that a crippling default on U.S. loans was possible unless there were significant cuts in government spending.

"It’s a shame we have to use whatever leverage we have in Congress to get the president to deal with the biggest problem confronting our future, and that’s our excessive spending," said Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

Last week’s deal to avert the combination of end-of-year tax increases and spending cuts known as the "fiscal cliff" held income tax rates steady for 99 percent of Americans but left some other major pieces of business unresolved.

By late February or early March, the Treasury Department will run out of options to cover the nation’s debts and could begin defaulting on government loans unless Congress raises the legal borrowing limit, or debt ceiling. Economists warn that a default could trigger a global recession.

Also looming are deep automatic spending cuts expected to take effect at the beginning of March that could further erase fragile gains in the U.S. economy. Then on March 27, the temporary measure that funds government activities expires, and congressional approval will be needed to keep the government running. It’s one more chance to fight over spending

Syrian president pledges to continue fighting, proposes peace plan that keeps him in power

BEIRUT (AP) -- A defiant Syrian President Bashar Assad rallied a chanting and cheering crowd Sunday to fight the uprising against his authoritarian rule, dismissing any chance of dialogue with "murderous criminals" that he blames for nearly two years of violence that has left 60,000 dead.

In his first public speech in six months, Assad laid out terms for a peace plan that keeps himself in power, ignoring international demands to step down and pledging to continue the battle "as long as there is one terrorist left" in Syria.

"What we started will not stop," he said, standing at a lectern on stage at the regal Opera House in central Damascus -- a sign by the besieged leader that he sees no need to hide or compromise even with the violent civil war closing in on his seat of power in the capital.

The theater was packed with his supporters who interrupted the speech with applause, cheers and occasional fist-waving chants, including "God, Bashar and Syria!"

The overtures that Assad offered -- a national reconciliation conference, elections and a new constitution -- were reminiscent of symbolic changes and concessions offered previously in the uprising that began in March 2011. Those were rejected at the time as too little, too late.

Poll: Few people know obesity can cause more harm to health than just heart disease, diabetes

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Heart disease and diabetes get all the attention, but what about the many other ways obesity can damage your health?

Carrying too many pounds may lead to or worsen some types of cancer, arthritis, sleep apnea, even infertility. But a new poll suggests few Americans realize the links.

Only about one-quarter of people think it’s possible for someone to be very overweight and still healthy, according to the poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

Ask about the most serious consequences, and more than 7 in 10 Americans can correctly tick off heart disease and diabetes. Heart disease is the nation’s leading killer, and diabetes and obesity are twin epidemics, as rates of both have climbed in recent years.

The other consequences aren’t so well known.

Hearing may be ‘mini-trial’ for suspect in Colorado movie theater shootings

CENTENNIAL, Colo. (AP) -- The suspect in the Colorado movie theater killings returns to court this week for a hearing that might be the closest thing to a trial the victims and their families will get to see.

James Holmes, a former neuroscience graduate student, is charged with killing 12 people and injuring 70 by opening fire in a darkened theater in the Denver suburb of Aurora last July.

At a weeklong preliminary hearing starting Monday, prosecutors will outline their case against Holmes, the first official public disclosure of their evidence. The judge will then determine whether to send the case to trial.

Legal analysts say that evidence appears to be so strong that Holmes may well accept a plea agreement before trial. In such cases, the preliminary hearing can set the stage for a deal by letting each side assess the other’s strengths and weaknesses, said Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor and now a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.

Preliminary hearings "are often the first step to resolving the case, a mini-trial so both sides can see the writing on the wall," Levenson said.

Palestinian PM says his government in ‘extreme jeopardy’ due to cash crisis

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) -- The Palestinian self-rule government is in "extreme jeopardy" because of an unprecedented financial crisis, largely because Arab countries have failed to send hundreds of millions of dollars in promised aid, the Palestinian prime minister said Sunday.

The cash crunch has gradually worsened in recent years, and the Palestinian Authority now has reached the point of not being able to pay the salaries of about 150,000 government employees, Salam Fayyad told The Associated Press. The number of Palestinian poor is bound to quickly double to 50 percent of the population of roughly 4 million if the crisis continues, he said.

"The status quo is not sustainable," Fayyad said in an interview at his West Bank office.

The Palestinian Authority, set up two decades ago as part of interim peace deals with Israel, is on the "verge of being completely incapacitated," Fayyad warned. Only a year ago, he said he expected to make great strides in weaning his people off foreign aid.

The self-rule government was meant to be temporary and replaced by a state of Palestine, which was to be established through negotiations with Israel. However, those talks repeatedly broke down, and for the past four years the two sides have been unable to agree on the terms of renewing the negotiations.