Monday, February 25, 2013

Published:

Jobless, local governments could be among the first to feel the pain of federal budget cuts

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Who'll be the first to feel the sting?

Jobless Americans who have been out of work for a long time and local governments that are paying off loans to fix roads and schools are in tough spots when it comes to the automatic federal budget cuts that are scheduled to kick in Friday.

About 2 million long-term unemployed people could see checks now averaging $300 a week reduced by about $30. There could also be reductions in federal payments that subsidize clean energy, school construction and state and local public works projects. Low-income Americans seeking heating assistance or housing or other aid might encounter longer waits.

Government employees could get furlough notices as early as next week, though cuts in their work hours won't occur until April.

The timing of the "sequester" spending cuts has real consequences for Americans, but it also has a political ramifications. How quickly and fiercely the public feels the cuts could determine whether President Barack Obama and lawmakers seek to replace them with a different deficit reduction plan.

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In shift, Syria says it is ready to talk to armed opposition fighting to oust Assad regime

BEIRUT (AP) -- Syria said Monday it is prepared to hold talks with armed rebels bent on overthrowing President Bashar Assad, the clearest signal yet that the regime is growing increasingly nervous about its long-term prospects to hold onto power as opposition fighters make slow but persistent headway in the civil war.

Meanwhile, the umbrella group for Syrian opposition parties said it had reversed a decision to boycott a conference in Rome being held to help drum up financial and political support for the opposition. Walid al-Bunni, a spokesman for the Syrian National Coalition, said the move came after a phone call between the group's leader, Mouaz al-Khatib, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

Al-Bunni told pan-Arab broadcaster Al-Arabiya the decision was made based on guarantees al-Khatib heard from western diplomats that the conference would be different this time. He did not elaborate. The boycott had put the group at odds with its Western backers.

The Syrian talks offer, made by Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem during a visit to Moscow, came hours before residents of Damascus and state-run TV reported a huge explosion and a series of smaller blasts in the capital, followed by heavy gunfire.

State-run news agency SANA said there were multiple casualties from the explosion, which it said was a suicide car bombing. Britain-based activist group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the explosions targeted a checkpoint, adding there were initial reports of at least five regime forces killed and several wounded.

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10 Things to Know for Tuesday

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

1. WHO WILL FEEL THE AUTOMATIC BUDGET CUTS FIRST

The long-term jobless will see their unemployment checks shrink by about 10 percent.

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Billions of dollars at stake for BP, other companies as trial opens for Gulf oil spill

NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- BP put profits ahead of safety and bears most of the blame for the disastrous 2010 spill in the Gulf of Mexico, a U.S. Justice Department attorney charged Monday at the opening of a trial that could result in the oil company and its partners being forced to pay tens of billions of dollars more in damages.

The London-based oil giant acknowledged it made "errors in judgment" before the deadly blowout, but it also cast blame on the owner of the drilling rig and the contractor involved in cementing the well. It denied it was grossly negligent, as the government contended.

The high-stakes civil case went to trial after attempts to reach an 11th-hour settlement failed.

Eleven workers were killed when the Deepwater Horizon rig leased by the BP exploded on April 20, 2010. An estimated 172 millions of gallons of crude gushed into the Gulf over the three months that followed in the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.

Justice Department attorney Mike Underhill said the catastrophe resulted from BP's "culture of corporate recklessness."

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C. Everett Koop, anti-smoking surgeon general who spoke frankly on AIDS, dies in NH at 96

With his striking beard and starched uniform, former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop became one of the most recognizable figures of the Reagan era -- and one of the most unexpectedly enduring.

His nomination in 1981 met a wall of opposition from women's groups and liberal politicians, who complained President Ronald Reagan selected Koop, a pediatric surgeon and evangelical Christian from Philadelphia, only because of his conservative views, especially his staunch opposition to abortion.

Soon, though, he was a hero to AIDS activists, who chanted "Koop, Koop" at his appearances but booed other officials. And when he left his post in 1989, he left behind a landscape where AIDS was a top research and educational priority, smoking was considered a public health hazard, and access to abortion remained largely intact.

Koop, who turned his once-obscure post into a bully pulpit for seven years during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations and who surprised both ends of the political spectrum by setting aside his conservative personal views on issues such as homosexuality and abortion to keep his focus sharply medical, died Monday at his home in Hanover, N.H. He was 96.

An assistant at Koop's Dartmouth College institute, Susan Wills, confirmed his death but didn't disclose its cause.

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Latest Plains blizzard slows travel, knocks out power to thousands in Okla., Texas; 2 dead

LUBBOCK, Texas (AP) -- The nation's midsection again dealt with blizzard conditions Monday, closing highways, knocking out power to thousands in Texas and Oklahoma and even bringing hurricane-force winds to the Texas Panhandle. Two people have died.

Already under a deep snowpack from last week's storm, Kansas was preparing for another round of heavy snow Monday evening and overnight, prompting some to wonder what it could do for the drought.

"Is it a drought-buster? Absolutely not," National Weather Service meteorologist Victor Murphy said. "Will it bring short-term improvement? Yes."

The storm is being blamed for two deaths on Monday. In northwest Kansas, a 21-year-old man's SUV hit an icy patch on Interstate 70 and overturned. And in the northwest town of Woodward, Okla., heavy snow caused a roof to collapse, killing one inside the home.

Earlier on Monday, blizzard warnings extended from the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles into south-central Kansas. The blizzard warnings were dropped Monday evening for the far western portion of the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles.

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Skeptical Syrian opposition leaders to attend Rome talks that are centerpiece of Kerry trip

BERLIN (AP) -- Skeptical Syrian opposition leaders agreed Monday to attend an international conference in Rome after first threatening to boycott the session that was to be the centerpiece of Secretary of State John Kerry's first overseas mission in his new job.

Opposition leaders had protested what they see as inaction by other nations in the face of violence from Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime.

Kerry not only made a public plea at a joint news conference Monday with British Foreign Secretary William Hague, he also called Moaz Khatib, leader of the Syrian Opposition Council, "to encourage him to come to Rome," a senior U.S. official said. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly on the matter, described the conversation as "good" but declined to offer more detail.

Spokesman Walid al-Bunni said the council had decided to send a delegation to Rome after all.

Al-Bunni told Al-Arabiya TV the decision was made based on guarantees al-Khatib heard from western diplomats that the conference would be different and that the opposition would receive real commitments this time. "We will go and we will see if the promises are different this time," he said.

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SAfrica authorities: Pistorius must provide training schedule if he returns to track on bail

JOHANNESBURG (AP) -- Oscar Pistorius on Monday informed South African authorities that he wants to resume athletic training while on bail for the murder case against him, a government official said.

A spokeswoman for the Olympic runner, however, denied that he was making immediate plans to return to the track while awaiting trial for the Feb. 14 shooting death of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp.

"Absolutely not," said spokeswoman Janine Hills. "He is currently in mourning and his focus is not on his sports."

The double-amputee Paralympian discussed bail terms with his probation officer and a correctional official at the Pretoria Magistrate's Court in the capital, according to correctional officials. The guidelines will determine his daily routine until his next court appearance on June 4.

"It's his wish to continue to practice," James Smalberger, chief deputy commissioner of the department of correctional services, said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.

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Italy faces political gridlock after crucial elections watched closely by markets

ROME (AP) -- Italy faced political paralysis Monday as near-complete results in crucial national elections showed no clear winner and raised the possibility of a hung parliament. The uncertainty bodes ill for the nation's efforts to pass the tough reforms it needs to snuff out its economic crisis and prevent a new round of global financial turmoil.

The chaotic election scenes in the eurozone's third-biggest economy quickly snaked around globe -- sending the Dow Jones index plunging more than 200 points in its sharpest drop since November and causing Tokyo's red-hot benchmark index to sink nearly 2 percent at open.

A major factor in the murky result was the astonishing vote haul of comic-turned-political leader Beppe Grillo, whose 5 Star Movement has capitalized on a wave of voter disgust with the ruling political class.

That has coupled with the surprise return as a political force of billionaire media mogul Silvio Berlusconi, who was driven from the premiership at the end of 2011, to roil the Italian ballot. Berlusconi's alliance was neck-and-neck with center-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani's coalition for both Parliament's lower house and the Senate.

The ballot was so close that final official results were not expected until daytime Tuesday, at earliest.

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Warrant issued for suspect in shooting, crash on Vegas Strip; search widens to southeastern US

LAS VEGAS (AP) -- Police said Monday they have a warrant for a 26-year-old ex-convict identified as the prime suspect in a shooting and fiery crash that killed three people last week on the Las Vegas Strip.

"We can say with certainty that Ammar Harris is the suspect who fired the fatal shots," Las Vegas police Capt. Chris Jones told reporters at an afternoon update about a manhunt that he said would be advertised on southern Nevada billboards.

Police previously released a photo of Harris taken after his arrest last year in Las Vegas in a 2010 prostitution case. It showed Harris with tattoos on his right cheek and words on his neck above an image that appeared to depict an owl with blackened eyes. Jones said Harris should be considered armed and dangerous.

Jones said investigators were looking everywhere Harris had lived in the past. He wasn't specific.

Public records show that Harris previously lived in South Carolina and Georgia, and told a police officer when he was arrested in Miami Beach last December that he had lived in Florida for about a year.