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World briefly for Dec. 21

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POSTED: December 21, 2012 9:10 a.m.

WASHINGTON (AP) — When it comes to resolving their "fiscal cliff" impasse, the dollar gap between President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner is tiny in federal terms. That masks a monumental political ravine the two men must try to bridge, with most of the burden on the now beleaguered Boehner.

Short of support from his own Republican Party, a chagrined speaker abruptly canceled a House vote Thursday night on his so-called Plan B. The measure would have prevented looming tax increases on everyone but people earning over $1 million annually, but was opposed by rank-and-file Republican lawmakers unwilling to vote for any tax increases at all.

Now Boehner, R-Ohio, and Obama seem likely to bargain anew over a broad package of tax increases and spending cuts, with Thursday night's GOP retreat weakening Boehner's leverage. Ticking ever louder is the start of the new year, which by law will usher in hundreds of billions in tax increases and spending cuts — the "fiscal cliff" — unless the two men avert it by crafting a compromise deficit-cutting package that can get through the GOP-run House and Democratic-led Senate.

Despite the impassioned political clash that the "cliff" has prompted, weeks of intermittent bargaining between Obama and Boehner have left them facing relatively miniscule dollar differences by Washington standards.

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.

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Obama vows to press ahead on fiscal cliff solution after House GOP leaders scrap vote

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama says he'll press ahead with Congress to prevent across-the-board tax increases set to strike taxpayers Jan. 1 after House GOP leaders unexpectedly put off a vote on legislation calling for higher rates on million-dollar earners was abruptly scrapped Thursday evening.

The measure "did not have sufficient support from our members to pass," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, conceded in a brief statement.

At the White House, Press Secretary Jay Carney said that Obama's "main priority is to ensure that taxes don't go up on 98 percent of Americans and 97 percent of small businesses," citing statistics associated with Obama's campaign promise to increase top tax rates on household earning more than $250,000 a year.

"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," Carney said. Pointedly, the statement didn't say whether Obama would work with Boehner to revive stalled talks with Boehner or turn to the Democratic-controlled Senate to try to salvage the situation.

Boehner's attempt to tactically retreat from a longstanding promise to maintain Bush-era tax rates for all was designed to gain at least some leverage against Obama and Senate Democrats in the fiscal cliff endgame. Thursday's drama was a major personal defeat for the Speaker, who retains the respect and affection of his tea party-infused conference, but sometimes has great difficulty in getting them to follow his leadership.

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AP IMPACT: Federal crackdown on foreign HGH has led to record sales of the drug by Big Pharma

A federal crackdown on illicit foreign supplies of human growth hormone has failed to stop rampant misuse, and instead has driven record sales of the drug by some of the world's biggest pharmaceutical companies, an Associated Press investigation shows.

The crackdown, which began in 2006, reduced the illegal flow of unregulated supplies from China, India and Mexico.

But since then, Big Pharma has been satisfying the steady desires of U.S. users and abusers, including many who take the drug in the false hope of delaying the effects of aging.

From 2005 to 2011, inflation-adjusted sales of HGH were up 69 percent, according to an AP analysis of pharmaceutical company data collected by the research firm IMS Health. Sales of the average prescription drug rose just 12 percent in that same period.

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Gunman's mother is a reluctantly recognized victim of shooting that killed 26 at school

NEWTOWN, Conn. (AP) — When people here speak of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, they use the number 26: the ones killed after Adam Lanza blasted his way into the school.

When the bells of Newtown toll mournfully Friday morning to honor the victims of last week's shooting rampage, they'll do so 26 times, for each child and staff member killed.

Rarely do residents mention the first person police said Lanza killed that morning: his mother, Nancy, who was shot in the head four times while she lay in bed.

That makes 27.

A private funeral was held Thursday in New Hampshire for Nancy Lanza, according to Donald Briggs, the police chief in Kinston, N.H., where her funeral was held. About 25 family members attended the ceremony.

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Holiday travelers awaiting flights, safe roads hope to be on their way as snowstorm moves on

CHICAGO (AP) — Travelers facing canceled flights and closed roads were hoping to finally head to their holiday destinations as a widespread snowstorm that dumped more than a foot of snow in parts of the Midwest moved across the Great Lakes toward Canada.

The storm, part of a system that began in the Rockies earlier in the week, led airlines to cancel more than 1,000 flights and caused whiteout conditions that left roads dangerous to drive on. It was blamed for deaths in at least five states, with parts of Iowa and Wisconsin hit with more than a foot of snow.

While some people went to work on digging themselves out even as the storm continued Thursday, others had less control: They were stuck waiting for word of new flight times.

Most of the canceled flights were in Chicago, where aviation officials said more than 350 flights were called off at O'Hare International Airport and more than 150 at Midway International Airport.

Southwest Airlines, which canceled all of its flights out of its Midway hub after 4:30 p.m. Thursday, was anticipating normal operations Friday morning in Chicago. United Airlines also planned to operate a full schedule, though spokeswomen for both airlines cautioned travelers to check their flight status before heading to the airport.

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NKorea says it has detained a US citizen for unspecified 'crimes'

PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — North Korea said Friday that it has detained an American citizen who has confessed to unspecified crimes.

State media said in a short dispatch that someone named Pae Jun Ho entered North Korea on Nov. 3 as a tourist but was detained because of crimes.

The North said the crimes were "proven through evidence" but didn't elaborate.

Pyongyang has detained and eventually released several Americans in recent years. Some have been journalists and others Christians accused of religious proselytizing.

In 2009, two journalists were detained after crossing into the North from China while on a reporting trip. They were later released .

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AP PHOTOS: AP photographer provides window on NKorea: endlessly fascinating, visually surreal

PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — My window on North Korea is sometimes, quite literally, a window — of a hotel room, the backseat of a car, a train. Fleeting moments of daily life present themselves suddenly, and they are opportunities to show a side of the country that is entirely at odds with the official portrait of marching troops and tightly coordinated pomp that the Pyongyang leadership presents to the world. 

In April, I was part of a group of international journalists that traveled by train to the launch site for this year's first, failed rocket test. We traveled in a spotless train used by the Communist leadership, and I spent the five-hour journey inside my sleeper car looking out the large, clean window at a rural landscape seen by few foreign eyes. The tracks cut across fields where large groups of farmers were at work in clusters. Occasionally, there was a plow drawn by oxen or a brick-red tractor rolling along the gravel roads. On a rocky hilltop above the train tracks, a small boy sprinted and waved at the passing train. Every few hundred yards along the entire route, local officials in drab coats stood guard, their backs to the tracks, until its cargo of foreign reporters had safely passed. 

I have made 17 trips into North Korea since 2000, including six since The Associated Press bureau in Pyongyang opened in January 2012. It is an endlessly fascinating and visually surreal place, but it is also one of the hardest countries I have ever photographed. As one of the few international photographers with regular access to the country, I consider it a huge responsibility to show life there as accurately as I can.  

That can be a big challenge. Foreigners are almost always accompanied by a government guide — a "minder" in journalistic parlance — who helps facilitate our coverage requests but also monitors nearly everything we do. Despite the official oversight, we try to see and do as much as we can, push the limits, dig as deeply as possible, give an honest view of what we are able to see. Over time, there have been more and more opportunities to leave the showplace capital, Pyongyang, and mingle with the people. But they are usually wary of foreigners and aware that they too are being watched. 

This has been a historic year for North Korea, with large-scale dramatic displays to mark important milestones, struggles with food shortages, crippling floods, drought and typhoons, as well as growing evidence that people's lives are changing in small but significant ways. But in a country that carefully choreographs what it shows to the outside world, separating what is real from what is part of the show is often very difficult.

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FBI: 1 of 2 bank robbers who escaped federal Chicago jail arrested after dayslong manhunt

CHICAGO (AP) — One of the two bank robbers who made a daring escape from a high-rise federal jail in Chicago was arrested after a dayslong manhunt, an FBI spokeswoman said early Friday.

Special Agent Joan Hyde said Joseph "Jose" Banks was captured without incident in Chicago. Agents and officers from the Chicago FBI's Violent Crimes Task Force, along with officers from the Chicago Police Department, arrested Banks about 11:30 p.m. Thursday, Hyde told The Associated Press in an email.

The search continued for Kenneth Conley, who fled the jail with Banks early Tuesday.

Banks, 37, and Conley, 38, somehow broke a large hole into the bottom of a 6-inch wide window of the Metropolitan Correctional Center, dropped a makeshift rope made of bed sheets out and climbed down about 20 stories to the ground.

The escape went unnoticed for hours, with surveillance video from a nearby street showing the two hop into a cab shortly before 3 a.m. Tuesday. They had changed out of their orange jail-issued jumpsuits.

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Awaiting sunrise, most in Mexico's Maya heartland expect 'cosmic dawn,' not end of world

MERIDA, Mexico (AP) — In the darkness before dawn Friday, spiritualists prepared white clothes, drums, conch shells and incense ahead of the sunrise they believe will herald the birth of a new and better age as a vast, 5,125-year cycle in the Mayan calendar comes to an end.

No one was quite sure at what time the Mayas' 13th Baktun would officially end on this Dec. 21. Some think it already ended at midnight Thursday. Others looked to Friday's dawn here in the Maya heartland. Some had later times in mind.

"Wait until the dawn on the 22nd; that is when we Maya will speak," Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchu said earlier in Guatemala, another Maya area.

Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History even suggested that historical calculations to synchronize the Mayan and Western calendars might be off a few days. It said the Mayan Long Count calendar cycle might not really end until Sunday.

Whatever the details, the chance to welcome a new time seemed to be the main concern among celebrants drawn to the Yucatan peninsula.

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After report, Suzy Favor Hamilton tweets that she worked as an escort

Three-time Olympian Suzy Favor Hamilton says she coped with depression and a troubled marriage by turning to a life of prostitution.

In a series of posts to her Twitter account, Favor Hamilton acknowledged working as an escort following a report Thursday on The Smoking Gun website about her double life.

"I do not expect people to understand," Favor Hamilton tweeted. "But the reasons for doing this made sense to me at the time and were very much related to depression."

The Smoking Gun said the 44-year-old athlete has been working for the last year for a Las Vegas escort service that booked her for dates there, as well as in Los Angeles, Houston and Chicago. The website said she charged $600 an hour for her services.

One of the country's best-ever middle-distance runners, Favor Hamilton competed for the U.S. at the Olympics in 1992, 1996 and 2000 but did not win a medal. She won seven U.S. national titles. She lives in Madison, Wis., where, The Smoking Gun reported, she and her husband, Mark, live in a $600,000 home and appear to be in no financial distress based on the website's review of court and municipal records.

 

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