Thursday January 24, 2013

Panetta removes military ban on women in combat

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Senior defense officials say Pentagon chief Leon Panetta is removing the military’s ban on women serving in combat, opening hundreds of thousands of front-line positions and potentially elite commando jobs after more than a decade at war.

The groundbreaking move recommended by the Joint Chiefs of Staff overturns a 1994 rule prohibiting women from being assigned to smaller ground combat units. Panetta’s decision gives the military services until January 2016 to seek special exceptions if they believe any positions must remain closed to women.

A senior military official says the services will develop plans for allowing women to seek the combat positions. Some jobs may open as soon as this year. Assessments for others, such as special operations forces, including Navy SEALS and the Army’s Delta Force, may take longer.

Panetta’s move expands the Pentagon’s action nearly a year ago to open about 14,500 combat positions to women, nearly all of them in the Army. This decision could open more than 230,000 jobs, many in Army and Marine infantry units, to women.

States that turn down Medicaid would leave citizens uninsured while immigrants get covered

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Governors who reject health insurance for the poor under the federal health care overhaul could wind up in a politically awkward position on immigration: A quirk in the law means some U.S. citizens would be forced to go without coverage, while legal immigrants residing in the same state could still get it.

It’s an unintended consequence of how last year’s Supreme Court decision changed the Medicaid provisions of President Barack Obama’s health care law. The overhaul expanded the federal-state program for low-income and disabled people. The Supreme Court made the Medicaid expansion optional for states, which complicated things.

Arizona officials called attention to the problem last week, when Republican Gov. Jan Brewer opted to accept the Medicaid expansion.

Brewer had been a leading opponent of the overhaul, and her decision got widespread attention. State budget documents cited the immigration glitch as one of her reasons.

Union membership falls,
led by decline among
public sector workers

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Union membership plummeted last year to the lowest level since the 1930s as cash-strapped state and local governments shed workers and unions had difficulty organizing new members in the private sector despite signs of an improving economy.

Government figures released Wednesday showed union membership declined from 11.8 percent to 11.3 percent of the workforce, another blow to a labor movement already stretched thin by battles in Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan and other states to curb bargaining rights and weaken union clout.

Overall membership fell by about 400,000 workers to 14.4 million, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. More than half the loss, about 234,000, came from government workers, including teachers, firefighters and public administrators.

But unions also saw losses in the private sector even as the economy created 1.8 million new jobs in 2012. That membership rate fell from 6.9 percent to 6.6 percent, a troubling sign for the future of organized labor, as job growth generally has taken place at nonunion companies.

"To employers, it’s going to look like the labor movement is ready for a knockout punch," said Gary Chaison, professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. "You can’t be a movement and get smaller."

After shootings, some
states rethink deep cuts
to mental health care

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) -- Dozens of states have slashed spending on mental health care over the last four years, driven by the recession’s toll on revenue and, in some cases, a new zeal to shrink government.

But that trend may be heading for a U-turn in 2013 after last year’s shooting rampages by two mentally disturbed gunmen.

The reversal is especially jarring in statehouses dominated by conservative Republicans, who aggressively cut welfare programs but now find themselves caught in a crosscurrent of pressures involving gun control, public safety and health care for millions of disadvantaged Americans.

In many states, lawmakers have begun to recognize that their cuts "may have gone too deep," said Shelley Chandler, executive director of the Iowa Alliance of Community Providers. "People start talking when there’s a crisis."

About 30 states have reduced mental health spending since 2008, when revenues were in steep decline, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. In a third of those states, the cuts surpassed 10 percent.

Fierce, emotional Clinton pushes back on criticism of security after Libya attack

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton delivered fiery rejoinders Wednesday to Republican critics of the Obama administration’s handling of the deadly attack on a U.S. mission in Benghazi, facing off with lawmakers who included potential 2016 presidential rivals.

At times emotional and frequently combative, Clinton rejected GOP suggestions in two congressional hearings that the administration tried to mislead the country about the Sept. 11 attack that killed Chris Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, and three other Americans. She insisted the State Department is moving swiftly and aggressively to strengthen security at diplomatic posts worldwide.

In her last formal testimony before Congress as America’s top diplomat -- but perhaps not her last time on the political stage -- Clinton once again took responsibility for the department’s missteps and failures leading up to the assault. But she also said that requests for more security at the diplomatic mission in Benghazi didn’t reach her desk, and reminded lawmakers that they have a responsibility to fund security-related budget requests.

Clinton was at times defiant, complimentary and willing to chastise lawmakers. She tangled with some who could be rivals in 2016 if she decides to seek the presidency again.

Her voice cracking at one point, Clinton said the attack and the aftermath were highly personal tragedies for the families of the victims who died -- Stevens, Sean Smith, Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty -- as well as herself.

Rise of Israeli centrist raises hopes for peace
talks with the Palestinians

JERUSALEM (AP) -- The unexpectedly strong showing by a new centrist party in Israel’s parliamentary election has raised hopes of a revival of peace talks with Palestinians that have languished for four years under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Political newcomer Yair Lapid, the surprise kingmaker, is already being courted by a weakened Netanyahu, who needs his support to form a ruling coalition. Lapid has said he will not sit in the government unless the peace process is restarted.

But following a campaign in which the Palestinian issue was largely ignored, it remains unclear how hard Lapid will push the issue in what could be weeks of coalition talks with Netanyahu.

Tuesday’s election ended in a deadlock, with Netanyahu’s hard-line religious bloc of allies and the rival bloc of centrist, secular and Arab parties each with 60 seats, according to near-complete official results. Opinion polls had universally forecast a majority of seats going to the right-wing bloc.

While Netanyahu, as head of the largest single party in parliament, is poised to remain prime minister, it appears impossible for him to cobble together a majority coalition without reaching across the aisle.

Militant reports on Algerian hostage siege were more transparent, accurate than official news

RABAT, Morocco (AP) -- As wildly contradictory accounts trickled out about a terror attack at an Algerian gas plant, one source of information proved to be the most reliable: announcements by the al-Qaida-linked militants themselves.

The hostage-takers phoned in regularly with up-to-the-minute reports, offered eerily accurate numbers of hostages taken and killed, and clearly laid out their goals.

All this came via a Mauritanian news website that -- apart from receiving calls from radical Islamists and al-Qaida-linked militants -- is known for its reliability on more mundane local news.

Algeria’s official information, in contrast, was silent and murky. At one point the state news service even went dark online before returning with a home page scrubbed of all mention of the hostage crisis that had riveted the world.

When Algerian officials were willing to comment -- only anonymously -- their information drastically underplayed the scope of the hostage siege that left at least 37 captives and 29 militants dead and sent scores of foreign energy workers fleeing across the desert for their lives.

The first lady has bangs, and everyone’s got an opinion and a theory

NEW YORK (AP) -- Before we start rambling on obsessively about Michelle Obama’s bangs, let’s be clear: The president started it.

It was he, after all, who called the new hairdo, unveiled just a few days before the historic occasion of his second inauguration, "the most significant event of this weekend."

And he hasn’t stopped there. On Tuesday night, he introduced his wife at the White House staff ball: "And the First Lady of the United States -- bangs and all..."

So given the president’s evident interest in the subject, perhaps the rest of us shouldn’t feel so bad about analyzing ad nauseum the first lady’s new look, an activity that has certainly taken over social media for days (and, perhaps, ended discussion of an earlier obsession, Michelle Obama’s arms.) Heck, the bangs even have their own (unauthorized) Twitter account, FirstLady’sBangs, which has taken to issuing dispatches like: "Just got a text from Hillary Clinton’s side-part" or "BREAKING NEWS: Barack just named me director of Hairline Security."

And how about the headline in New York’s Daily News, the day after Obama’s private swearing-in? "In With A Bang."