WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama is kicking off budget dealings with congressional leaders with new leverage from last week's big win, but he confronts a decidedly tricky path to avoiding a market-rattling "fiscal cliff" that could imperil a still-fragile economy.
Obama's GOP rivals promise greater flexibility on new tax revenues, but Democrats face pressure from liberal interest groups urging the president to take a hard line and avoid cutting big benefit programs like Medicare and food stamps. It's up to Obama to navigate the course toward an agreement.
At issue is a one-two punch of expiring Bush-era tax reductions and across-the-board spending cuts set to hit in January as punishment for the failure of a gridlocked Congress to reach a deficit-cutting deal last year. Economists and business leaders warn the combination could send the economy back into recession, and all sides in Washington say they want to avoid going over the cliff.
Attending the meeting with Obama are the top four leaders of Congress: House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
The White House says Obama's starting point for negotiations is his February budget plan, which combined $1.6 trillion in new revenues over the coming decade — chiefly from upper-income earners — with modest cuts to benefits programs. Obama's plan promises $4.4 trillion in deficit cuts over 10 years, but more than half of that comes by banking already accomplished cuts and questionable savings from winding down military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Israel: Will hold fire during Egyptian premier's Gaza visit, but militants unleash new salvo
JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel offered to suspend its offensive in the Gaza Strip on Friday during a brief visit by Egypt's premier there if militants refrain from firing rockets at Israel, an official said, but the Palestinians unleashed a fresh salvo.
An official in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said the Israeli leader was responding to an Egyptian request.
Gaza militants stepped up their barrages of rocket fire into Israel as Hesham Kandil crossed into Gaza before midday through the only border post with Egypt, heavily guarded by Egyptian security personnel wearing flak jackets and carrying assault rifles.
He was greeted by Gaza's Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, who ventured out in public for the first time since Israel launched the offensive Wednesday by assassinating the militant group's military commander.
Israel told the Egyptians the military "would hold its fire on the condition that during that period, there won't be hostile fire from Gaza into Israel," the Israeli official said. "Prime Minister Netanyahu is committed to the peace treaty with Egypt, which is in the strategic interest of both countries," he added, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the diplomatic exchange.
Answers sought after train hits veterans parade float in West Texas, killing 4 and injuring 17
MIDLAND, Texas (AP) — Federal officials are heading to West Texas to join investigators looking into why a freight train slammed into a parade float carrying wounded veterans, killing four people and injuring 17 others.
Witnesses described a harrowing scene Thursday afternoon as the Union Pacific locomotive bore down on the decorated flatbed truck as it tried to clear the rail crossing on its way to an honorary banquet.
The train was sounding its horn and people on the flatbed truck — mostly wounded veterans and their spouses — were scrambling to jump off before the collision around 4:40 p.m. in Midland, according to witnesses and Union Pacific spokesman Tom Lange.
A preliminary investigation indicates the crossing gate and lights were working, Lange said, though he didn't know if the train crew saw the float approaching.
Two people died at the scene, while two others died at Midland Memorial Hospital, City of Midland spokesman Ryan Stout said. Six people remained hospitalized Thursday night, including at least one in critical condition; the other 11 people injured have been treated and released, hospital officials said.
Time without electricity difficult and frustrating, but similar to outages of other big storms
NEW YORK (AP) — As the number of nights without power stretched on for thousands left in the dark after Superstorm Sandy, patience understandably turned to anger and outrage.
But an Associated Press analysis of outage times from other big hurricanes and tropical storms suggests that, on the whole, the response to Sandy by utility companies, especially in hardest-hit New York and New Jersey, was typical — or even a little faster than elsewhere after other huge storms.
The AP, with the assistance of Ventyx, a software company that helps utilities manage their grids, used U.S. Energy Department data to determine how many days it took to restore 95 percent of the peak number of customers left without power after major hurricanes since 2004, including Ivan, Katrina, Rita, Wilma, Ike and Irene.
After Sandy, New York utilities restored power to at least 95 percent of customers 13 days after the peak number of outages was reported. New Jersey reached that same level in 11 days and West Virginia in 10 days.
Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma in 2005 and Ike in 2008 all resulted in longer outages for customers in Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi and Florida.
Japan's PM Noda dissolves parliament, paving way for election his party is likely to lose
TOKYO (AP) — Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda dissolved the lower house of parliament Friday, paving the way for elections in which his ruling party will likely give way to a weak coalition government divided over how to solve Japan's myriad problems.
Noda followed through on a pledge to call elections after the opposition Liberal Democratic Party agreed to back several key pieces of legislation, including a deficit financing bill and electoral reforms. The Cabinet was expected to quickly announce elections for Dec. 16.
Noda's Democratic Party of Japan has grown unpopular thanks to its handling of the Fukushima nuclear crisis and especially its recent doubling of the sales tax. The elections will probably end its three-year hold on power.
The LDP, which led Japan for most of the post-World War II era, may win the most seats in the 480-seat lower house, though polls indicate it will fall far short of a majority. That could force it to cobble together a coalition of parties with differing policies and priorities.
A divided government could hinder decision-making as Japan wrestles with a two-decade economic slump, cleanup from last year's nuclear disaster, growing national debt and a rapidly aging population — not to mention a festering territorial dispute with China that is hurting business ties with its biggest trading partner. Japan must also decide whether it will follow through with plans to phase out nuclear power by 2040 — a move that many in the LDP oppose.
BP agrees to plead guilty and pay a record $4.5 billion over Gulf spill; 3 employees charged
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A day of reckoning arrived for BP on Thursday as the oil giant agreed to plead guilty to a raft of charges in the deadly Gulf of Mexico spill and pay a record $4.5 billion, including the biggest criminal fine in U.S. history. Three BP employees were also charged, two of them with manslaughter.
The settlement with the federal government came 2½ years after the fiery drilling-rig explosion that killed 11 workers and set off the nation's largest offshore oil spill.
In announcing the deal, Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer said the tragedy "resulted from BP's culture of privileging profit over prudence."
BP will plead guilty to charges involving the 11 deaths and lying to Congress about how much oil was spewing from the blown-out well.
"We believe this resolution is in the best interest of BP and its shareholders," said Carl-Henric Svanberg, BP chairman. "It removes two significant legal risks and allows us to vigorously defend the company against the remaining civil claims."
A week after resigning over extramarital affair, Petraeus to testify about deadly Libya attack
WASHINGTON (AP) — Former CIA Director David Petraeus is preparing to field questions from lawmakers about the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya, his appearance on Capitol Hill coming one week after he resigned over an extramarital affair.
Petraeus is under investigation by the agency for possible wrongdoing, though that's not the subject of the closed-door hearings he is set to attend Friday. The September attack in Benghazi, which killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans, created a political firestorm, with Republicans claiming that the White House misled the public on what led to the violence.
Lawmakers spent hours Thursday interviewing top intelligence and national security officials in trying to determine what the intelligence community knew before, during and after the Benghazi attack. They viewed security video from the consulate and surveillance footage by an unarmed CIA Predator drone that showed events in real time.
Petraeus, who will appear first before the House Intelligence Committee and then its Senate counterpart, was expected to provide more details about the U.S. response to the attack.
"Director Petraeus went to Tripoli and interviewed many of the people involved," said Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
Sierra Leone election key to peace 10 years after end of brutal civil war
FREETOWN, Sierra Leone (AP) — It was 9 a.m. on May 25, 1998. Borboh Jeff Kamara, 14, was walking to school with classmates when rebels grabbed him, held him down and cut off his fingers, leaving only his thumbs.
Fourteen years later, he and other voters go to the polls Saturday to choose a leader they hope will assure continued peace and finally bring some measure of prosperity to this war-ravaged country that remains among the world's poorest.
"Life is very, very rough. Poverty is always at our door," Kamara says. "That's my prayer each day: God help me to survive and make a good future for my children."
After his horrible run-in with the rebels in the jungles of northern Sierra Leone in 1998, Kamara survived for days without medical attention. After years of rehabilitation, he learned to write again and became the most educated member of his family.
Now the married father of two young children works as a receptionist in the capital, but many of those wounded during Sierra Leone's 1991-2002 civil war have not been as successful.
States deciding if they'll help carry out a key component of Obama's health care overhaul
WASHINGTON (AP) — After two years of political battles and a Supreme Court case, many if not most states are expected to tell the federal government Friday if they're willing carry out a key part of President Barack Obama's health care overhaul.
At issue is the creation of new health insurance markets, where millions of middle-class households and small businesses will shop for private coverage. The so-called exchanges will open for business Jan. 1, 2014, and most of their customers will be eligible for government subsidies to help pay premiums. The exchanges will also steer low-income people into expanded Medicaid programs, if states choose to broaden their safety net coverage.
Thursday evening, the Obama administration responded to a request for more time from Republican governors by granting states a month's extension, until Dec. 14.
Ahead of the original deadline, a check by The Associated Press found that 21 states plus the District of Columbia, have already indicated they want to become involved, either by building and running their own exchanges or partnering with Washington. The 16 that want to build their own exchanges, plus the District of Columbia, face a Jan. 1 deadline for the federal government to approve their plans.
This group of 16 includes mainly Democratic-led states such as California and New York, but also some Republican-led ones such as Mississippi and New Mexico.
Wrong Abbey Road: Drab London railway station is unlikely magnet for befuddled Beatles fans
LONDON (AP) — It's a mystery tour, but it's hardly magical.
More than nine miles (14 kilometers) from the striped crosswalk made famous by the Beatles album "Abbey Road," this drab transit station in east London keeps drawing confused fans of the Fab Four into unwanted jaunts through a gritty, industrial area just south of London's Olympic Stadium.
Abbey Road Station has no relation to the Beatles' Abbey Road Studios, the birthplace of the eponymous album and a London tourist landmark. The glass-and-metal station is wedged among a train depot, warehouses, and gloomy public housing projects, a world away from the leafy, suburban street pictured on the album's cover.
It didn't take long for American visitor Christie Johnson, 22, to figure out she was in the wrong place.
"It didn't look right," the Denver resident said. She and her embarrassed host — English student Melody Vettraino — wanted to see the iconic crosswalk on a whim.