Thursday, December 20, 2012

Published:

House Republicans put off vote on 'Plan B' after failing to rally enough support

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Confronted with a revolt among the rank and file, House Republicans abruptly scrapped a vote Thursday night on legislation allowing tax rates to rise for households earning $1 million and up, complicating attempts to avoid a year-end "fiscal cliff" that threatens to send the economy into recession.

The legislation "did not have sufficient support from our members to pass," Speaker John Boehner conceded in a brief statement. At the same time he challenged President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to work on legislation to avoid across-the-board tax increases and deep spending cuts due to take effect in less than two weeks.

"The Senate must now act," said the Ohio Republican, who has noted recently that he has taken risks in supporting higher tax revenues during several weeks of fruitless negotiations on the fiscal cliff.

In a statement released a short while later, the White House said the president's "main priority is to ensure that taxes don't go up on 98 percent of Americans and 97 percent of small businesses in just a few short days. The president will work with Congress to get this done and we are hopeful that we will be able to find a bipartisan solution quickly that protects the middle class and our economy."

Reid's office sounded a more combative note. "The only way to avoid the cliff altogether is for Speaker Boehner to return to negotiations and work with President Obama and the Senate to forge a bipartisan deal," spokesman Adam Jentleson said.

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Despite hot political rhetoric, Obama and Boehner 'cliff' differences aren't really so great

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Despite all the hot fiscal cliff rhetoric, the differences between President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner seem relatively narrow. So why haven't they shaken hands already? One answer: Both sides need to keep -- or get -- their own troops behind them.

In their cliff standoff, Obama wants to raise taxes by about $20 billion a year more than Boehner. The two men differ over spending cuts by roughly the same amount.

That's real money by most measures. Yet such numbers are barely noticeable compared to the $2.6 trillion the government is projected to collect next year, and to the $3.6 trillion it's expected to spend.

As the "cliff" approaches -- economy-shaking tax increases and spending cuts that start hitting in early January unless lawmakers act first -- each side says the other isn't being serious enough about trimming federal deficits. But their inability so far to strike a compromise underscores that their problem is more than arithmetic -- it's also about the difficult politics that Democrat Obama and Republican Boehner face when it comes to lining up votes.

Chastened by Obama's re-election, Boehner has violated a quarter-century of Republican dogma by offering to raise taxes, including boosting income tax rates on earnings exceeding $1 million annually. Eager for a budget deal that would let him move on to other issues, Obama in turn would cut the growth of Social Security benefits, usually off-limits to Democrats. He also would impose tax increases on a broader swath of people than millionaires -- those with incomes over $400,000. But that figure, too, is a retreat from what he campaigned on: the $200,000 income ceiling on individuals and $250,000 on couples.

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10 Things to Know for Friday

Your daily look at late-breaking news, upcoming events and stories that will be talked about Friday:

1. WHEN IT'S TIME FOR 'PLAN C'

Facing a revolt by the rank and file, House Republicans scuttle plans to vote on the so-called Plan B, a proposal to avoid the "fiscal cliff."

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First responders at Conn. school massacre carry heavy burdens as town buries dead, moves on

NEWTOWN, Conn. (AP) -- While the people of Newtown do their best to cope with loss and preserve the memories of their loved ones, another class of residents is also finding it difficult to move on: the emergency responders who saw firsthand the terrible aftermath of last week's school shooting.

Firefighter Peter Barresi was driving through Newtown on Friday when police cars with lights flashing and sirens blaring raced toward his oldest son's elementary school. After he was sent to Sandy Hook school himself, he saw things that will stay with him forever.

With anguished parents searching for their children, he prepared to receive the wounded, but a paramedic came back empty-handed, underscoring the totality of the massacre. Barresi, whose own son escaped unharmed, later discovered that among the 26 dead were children who played baseball with his son and had come to his house for birthday parties.

"For some of us, it's fairly difficult," said Barresi, of the Sandy Hook Volunteer Fire and Rescue Co. "Fortunately most of us did not go in."

Newtown and environs weathered a fourth day of funerals Thursday, six days after a 20-year-old gunman killed his mother at home, 20 children and six adults at the school and himself for reasons still unknown. Mourners laid to rest Catherine Hubbard, Benjamin Wheeler, Jesse Lewis and Allison Wyatt, all 6 years old; and Grace McDonnell, 7.

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Teachers carry concealed weapons in tiny Texas town as national school safety debate heats up

HARROLD, Texas (AP) -- In this tiny Texas town, children and their parents don't give much thought to safety at the community's lone school -- mostly because some of the teachers are carrying concealed weapons.

In remote Harrold, the nearest sheriff's office is 30 minutes away, and people tend to know -- and trust -- one another. So the school board voted to let teachers bring guns to school.

"We don't have money for a security guard, but this is a better solution," Superintendent David Thweatt said. "A shooter could take out a guard or officer with a visible, holstered weapon, but our teachers have master's degrees, are older and have had extensive training. And their guns are hidden. We can protect our children."

In the awful aftermath of last week's Connecticut elementary school shooting, lawmakers in a growing number of states -- including Oklahoma, Missouri, Minnesota, South Dakota and Oregon -- have said they will consider laws allowing teachers and school administrators to carry firearms at school.

Texas law bans guns in schools unless the school has given written authorization. Arizona and six other states have similar laws with exceptions for people who have licenses to carry concealed weapons.

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In Mexico, New Agers say end of Mayan calendar will herald 'cosmic dawn,' not end of world

MERIDA, Mexico (AP) -- Doomsday hour is here, at least in much of the world, and so still are we.

According to legend, the ancient Mayans' long-count calendar ends at midnight Thursday, ushering in the end of the world.

Didn't happen.

"This is not the end of the world. This is the beginning of the new world," Star Johnsen-Moser, an American seer, said at a gathering of hundreds of spiritualists at a convention center in the Yucatan city of Merida, an hour and a half from the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza.

"It is most important that we hold a positive, beautiful reality for ourselves and our planet. ... Fear is out of place."

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Storm dumps foot of snow in Midwest, leaves some travelers scrambling days before Christmas

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) -- The first widespread snowstorm of the season plodded across the Midwest on Thursday, as whiteout conditions sent drivers sliding over slick roads and some travelers were forced to scramble for alternate ways to get to their holiday destinations.

The storm, which dumped a foot of snow in parts of Iowa and more than 19 inches in Wisconsin state capital, was part of a system that began in the Rockies earlier in the week before trekking into the Midwest. It was expected to move across the Great Lakes overnight before moving into Canada.

The storm led airlines to cancel about 1,000 flights ahead of the Christmas holiday -- relatively few compared to past big storms, though the number was climbing.

Most of the canceled flights were at Chicago's O'Hare and Midway international airports. At O'Hare, many people were taking the cancellations in stride and the normally busy airport was much quieter than normal Thursday evening.

Aprielle Kugler said she was considering taking a bus to Des Moines on Friday morning to visit her boyfriend after she had two flights canceled out of O'Hare. Sitting on top of her luggage, the 18-year-old from Wisconsin said her mom shoveled more than a foot of snow out of the family's driveway that morning to drive her to Chicago for her flight.

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AP Exclusive: Palestinians brace for Netanyahu re-election, plot ways to isolate Israel

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) -- Weeks ahead of Israeli elections, Palestinian officials are already plotting a series of tough steps against Israel to be taken if, as polls predict, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is re-elected and peace efforts remain stalled.

Emboldened by their newly upgraded status at the United Nations, the Palestinians are talking of filing war crimes charges against Israel, staging mass demonstrations in the West Bank, encouraging the international community to impose sanctions, and ending the security cooperation that has helped preserve quiet in recent years.

These plans, combined with growing international impatience with Israeli settlement construction on occupied land, could spell trouble and international isolation for the Israeli leader.

In a series of interviews with The Associated Press, a number of Palestinian officials all voiced a similar theme: Following the U.N. General Assembly's recognition of "Palestine" as a nonmember observer state in November, the status quo cannot continue.

"2013 will see a new Palestinian political track. There will be new rules in our relationship with Israel and the world," said Hussam Zumlot, an official in President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah movement.

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Facebook tests charging $1 to route messages to inbox rather than oft-ignored 'other' folder

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- Facebook says it is testing a service that will charge users $1 to guarantee that messages they send to people they are not connected to arrive in users' inboxes, rather than in an often-ignored folder called "other."

Launched in 2011, the "other" folder is where Facebook routes messages it deems less relevant. Not quite spam, these include messages from people you most likely don't know, based on Facebook's reading of your social connections. Many users ignore this folder.

Now, users will be able to pay $1 to route their messages to non-friends. Facebook said Thursday that it is testing the service with a small percentage of individuals -- not businesses -- in the U.S.

"For example, if you want to send a message to someone you heard speak at an event but are not friends with, or if you want to message someone about a job opportunity, you can use this feature to reach their Inbox," Facebook said in an online post. "For the receiver, this test allows them to hear from people who have an important message to send them."

The company says charging for messages could help discourage spammers.

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Watchdog groups ask US prosecutors to investigate mysterious $12 million in campaign donations

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Two election watchdog organizations on Thursday urged the Justice Department and Federal Election Commission to investigate more than $12 million in campaign contributions that were mysteriously funneled through two little-known companies in Tennessee to a prominent tea party group. The origin of the money, the largest anonymous political donations in a campaign year filled with them, remains a secret.

The watchdog groups said routing the $12 million through the Tennessee companies appeared to violate a U.S. law prohibiting the practice of laundering campaign contributions in the name of another person. They also said the lawyer in Tennessee who registered the companies, William S. Rose Jr. of Knoxville, may have violated three other laws by failing to organize each company as a political committee, register them as political committees and file financial statements for them with the government.

Rose did not return a telephone message, text message and email from The Associated Press and could not otherwise be reached immediately for comment. He previously told AP that his business was a "family secret" and he was not obligated to disclose the origin of the $12 million routed through Specialty Investments Group Inc. and Kingston Pike Development Corp. Business records indicate that Rose registered Kingston Pike one day after he created Specialty Group, in the final weeks before Election Day. Rose previously complained that phone calls and emails from reporters were irritating.

The watchdog organizations, the Campaign Legal Center and Democracy 21, said a criminal investigation by the Justice Department was necessary "because the integrity of U.S. elections depends on the effective enforcement of the nation's campaign finance laws." They noted that, although the FEC traditionally enforces campaign finance laws and imposes civil fines for violations, the Justice Department can conduct criminal investigations of "knowing and willful" violations under the 1971 Federal Election Campaign Act. Violations could carry up to five years in prison. The groups separately urged the FEC to investigate.

The contributions "raise serious questions about whether this was an illegal scheme to launder money into the 2012 elections and hide from the public the true identity of the sources of the money," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21. He said no one should be permitted to "launder huge, secret contributions through corporate shells into federal elections."