Whats In the News

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Week in Review

International

President Barack Obama pointedly warned the Ukrainian military to stay out of the political crisis that has already ravaged Kiev and said the United States would hold the government responsible for further violence.

“We have been watching very carefully, and we expect the Ukrainian government to show restraint, to not resort to violence in dealing with peaceful protesters,” President Obama said.

“There will be consequences if people step over the line,” he added. “And that includes making sure that the Ukrainian military does not step into what should be a set of issues that can be resolved by civilians.”

The President’s decision to address the Ukrainian situation reflects the growing concern by the White House that the standoff between the government of President Viktor F. Yanukovych and demonstrators is increasingly spiraling out of control.

Until now, President Obama has largely left it to Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Secretary of State John Kerry to be the Administration’s public spokesmen on the crisis.    He said protesters should refrain from violence.

“But we hold the Ukrainian government primarily responsible for making sure that it is dealing with peaceful protesters in an appropriate way,” he added.

“We have made it clear we would consider taking action against individuals who are responsible for acts of violence within Ukraine,” Benjamin Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser to the president, told reporters on Air Force One.

“We have a tool kit for doing that that includes sanctions. Events like what we saw yesterday are clearly going to impact our decision making,” Mr. Rhodes said. He added, if the government pulls back its forces, releases imprisoned protesters and pursues dialogue with the opposition, “that would obviously factor into our calculus as well.”

Expressing alarm at the lethal escalation of political violence in Ukraine, the European Union and the United States responded with threatening punitive sanctions against senior figures in the Ukrainian government. The Obama administration said it had placed 20 top Ukrainian officials on a visa blacklist.

National

President Barack Obama vowed to press ahead with stalled efforts to expand trade agreements for the Americas into Asia and overhaul fractured U.S. immigration laws. But Obama made no promises to Canadian leaders about his decision on the Keystone XL pipeline.

With the leaders of Mexico and Canada, Obama said the North American partners must maintain their "competitive advantage" on trade, in part by expanding into the fast-growing Asia-Pacific region. While Obama acknowledged that "elements in my party" oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal, he disputed the notion that Democratic concerns would derail the agreement.

“We’ll get this passed if it's a good agreement,” Obama declared during a joint news conference with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The North America Leaders' Summit coincided with the 20th year of the North American Free Trade Agreement among the three countries, a deal that has vastly expanded cross-border commerce in the region but which remains a contentious issue in the United States over its impact on jobs and on environmental protections.

Trade experts say the agreement is due for an upgrade to take into account the current globalized environment and to address issues not touched in the original pact. But rather than reopen NAFTA, the three countries are instead relying on negotiations underway to complete the TPP, which is a trade bloc of 12 countries in the Americas, Asia and the Pacific.

Pena Nieto heralded the "innovative spirit" that spurred NAFTA and said new trade agreements "are bound to go beyond and enhance all together the progress that each one of our countries has made." And Harper made clear that he was "focused on bringing those negotiations to a successful conclusion.

"The prospects for sweeping immigration legislation this year has dimmed because many House Republicans are unwilling to tackle the issue in a midterm election year. Obama declared: "Immigration reform remains one of my highest priorities."

For Canada, a source of frustration with the U.S. has been the Obama administration's long and drawn out review of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry oil from tar sands in western Canada 1,179 miles to Nebraska, where existing pipelines would then carry the crude to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast.

Canada has been pushing the U.S. for years to approve the pipeline, but environmental groups oppose it, and Obama has said he won't approve it if it increases greenhouse gas emissions. A Nebraska judge struck down a law that allowed the pipeline to proceed through the state, a victory for opponents who have tried to block the project.

While Obama acknowledged that the U.S. review has been “extensive,” he defended the process, saying “These are how we make these decisions about something that could potentially have significant impact on America’s national economy and our national interests.” A final decision on Keystone isn't expected until this summer.

Vice President Biden, in Minneapolis, made a brief unannounced stop at a coffee shop and visited with women who have signed up for health care coverage. Open enrollment under the federal law ends on March 31, after which people without insurance are subject to federal tax penalties.

Biden acknowledged the rocky rollout of the administration's Affordable Care Act website and the difficulty people have had in signing up. “We didn’t want this to start off as shaky as it did,” he said. “But its’ complicated.” The Obama administration projected monthly enrollment targets based on a congressional estimate that 7 million would sign up during the six-month open enrollment period. Signing up enough individuals, especially younger - healthier people, is critical for the insurance pool at the heart of the law to function properly, keeping premiums low for everyone.cann

Although the pace of sign-ups has picked up substantially, there’s still a lot of catching up to do. About 1 million enrolled in January; the first time the administration met its monthly target.

Biden said, "We may not get to 7 million, but if we get to 5 or 6 million, that's a hell of a start.” In total, nearly 3.3 million had enrolled through the end of January. That's about 75 percent of what the administration had hoped to achieve by that point in the open enrollment period.

 Politics

A popular Democratic proposal to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, championed by President Obama, could reduce total employment by 500,000 workers by the second half of 2016. But it would also lift 900,000 families out of poverty and increase the incomes of 16.5 million low-wage workers in an average week.

That is the mixed conclusion of an assessment on how raising the minimum wage would affect incomes, employment and the federal budget. The report was released by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, whose views often have a powerful influence on the fate of legislation.

The analysis provided instant fuel for both supporters and critics of raising the federal minimum wage, a policy heavily favored by Democrats but viewed skeptically by Republicans in Congress. Republicans contended the policy would be a job-killer, while Democrats asserted it would help alleviate poverty. Economists said both might be right.

“Raising the minimum wage could destroy as many as one million jobs, a devastating blow to the very people that need help most in this economy,” said Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader. “If and when Democrats try to push this irresponsible proposal, they should be prepared to explain why up to a million Americans should be kept from having a job.”

Democratic lawmakers and liberal groups joined the White House in challenging that view. “I haven’t seen Republicans this excited about something that bucked the trend in their favor since the last poll showing Mitt Romney was about to be elected president,” said Brad Woodhouse, the president of Americans United for Change, a liberal advocacy group. But sorry to rain on their parade –  one report does not a trend make.”

The budget office found that lifting the federal minimum wage, currently $7.25 an hour, would have a complicated effect on the labor market, acting as a boon and a burden for businesses and workers.

Over all, the budget office estimated that lifting the minimum wage to $10.10 and indexing it to inflation would reduce total employment by about 0.3 percent, or 500,000 workers. But it cautioned that the estimate was imprecise, with the job losses likely to fall in a range from practically nothing to one million.

The proposal would result in winners and losers among the low-wage workers it would target, the report found. Some businesses would hire fewer low-wage workers because of a higher minimum wage, the report said.

But increasing the minimum wage would bolster the earnings of about 16.5 million workers: providing $5 billion a year more for families living in poverty, $12 billion a year more for families earning from one to three times the poverty threshold. More conservative economists said that the profession had long viewed raising the minimum wage, like any increase in price, as having an effect on the demand for jobs.

“The Congressional Budget Office (C.B.O) confirms the president proposes an unprecedented increase in the minimum wage that will cost hundreds of thousands of jobs,” said James Sherk, who analyzes the labor markets for the Heritage Foundation, a right-of-center research group. Liberal economists said that quibbling over the jobs numbers neglected a central finding in the report: that many workers would benefit from an increase in income.

“The C.B.O. chose a higher number than I think reflects the best work, but they’re not way off the reservation,” said Jared Bernstein, a former Obama administration economist now at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “Even if they’re right, the beneficiaries far, far outweigh the people who are hurt by this.”

The budget office analyzed two proposals in its report. The first would increase the minimum wage to $10.10 by mid-2016 and would tie it to the Consumer Price Index, so that it would increase with inflation over time. It would also increase the minimum wage for workers who receive tips for services.

The second proposal would increase the minimum wage to $9, without any indexing for inflation. That would have much smaller effects, the budget office found. It would reduce employment by 100,000 workers by the second half of 2016, and push about 300,000 people above the poverty line.

The higher minimum wage would reduce employment in two main ways, the budget office report said. Businesses facing higher labor costs would raise prices, passing those higher costs on to their customers. That would lead their customers to cut back on their purchases, meaning that businesses would need fewer workers. Raising the minimum wage would also make hiring low-wage workers more expensive relative to other investments, like new machinery.

Businesses might then reduce their use of low-wage workers and shift their spending toward other things, like automated systems. But a higher minimum wage would offset at least part, if not all, of that effect by helping increase spending by lower income workers throughout the economy.

Several Democratic lawmakers said that the budget office’s findings only underscored the need for the $10.10 minimum wage to pass. “The C.B.O. made it absolutely clear: raising the minimum wage would lift almost one million Americans out of poverty, increase the pay of low-income workers by $31 billion and help build an economy that works for everyone,” said Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the minority leader.

Business

President Barack Obama signed an executive order that will attempt to speedup how quickly small businesses gain U.S. government approval for exports or imports. The order is the latest example of Obama using executive authority to act on his own where he can without needing congressional approval. Obama's move has the aim of cutting the time needed for processing and approving for small businesses that export American-made goods.

His order is tantamount to a pledge to complete by December 2016, near the end of his presidency, the International Trade Data System, which aims to be a centralized online access point to connect U.S. Customs, the trade community and 47 government agencies.

The White House said businesses today must submit information to dozens of government agencies, often on paper forms, making businesses wait days for approval before moving goods across the border. The new electronic system should reduce wait times to minutes and "will speed up the shipment of American-made goods overseas, eliminate often duplicative and burdensome paperwork, and make our government more efficient," a White House statement said.

 Health

Too much sitting has been linked to increased risk for health problems such as heart failure and earlier death. Now, a new study finds older adults who sit too much are more likely to be disabled  - regardless of their exercise habits.

“Sedentary behavior is its own separate risk factor [for disability],” said study researcher Dorothy Dunlop, a professor of medicine at the Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine. She evaluated the exercise habits of more than 2,000 men and women, aged 60 and above, and their ability to perform normal everyday activities.

"Regardless of how much time they spent in moderate physical activity, the more time they spent being sedentary, the more likely they were to be disabled," Dunlop said. For each additional daily hour of being sedentary, the odds of disability rose about 50 percent, Dunlop said. For instance, a woman aged 65 who was sedentary for 13 hours a day was 50 percent more likely to be disabled than a woman who was sedentary for 12 hours, she explained.

What is it about sitting? Dunlop can't say for sure, but said experts think that sitting for an extended period causes muscles to burn less fat and blood to flow more sluggishly. Idle muscles and sluggish blood flow can contribute to high blood pressure, heart disease, swollen ankles and diabetes. Dunlop's study found a link, not a cause-and-effect relationship.

However, another expert wonders if the relationship may occur in the opposite way -- that the more disabled people are, the more sedentary they are due to inability to exercise. On average, the men and women spent nine hours a day being sedentary during waking hours.

About 4 percent reported being disabled. Disability was defined as having much difficulty (or inability) in performing activities of daily living, such as getting out of bed, dressing and walking. The study was supported in part by the U.S. National Institute for Arthritis and Musculoskeletal Diseases.

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International

The Syrian opposition coalition presented its vision of a political transition to end Syria’s conflict, in a 24-point plan that made no mention of President Bashar al-Assad’s ouster, while outlining strong requirements for human rights and justice in a future Syria.

The proposal marked a shift in tone for the opposition group, which has long insisted on Mr. Assad’s departure as the starting point for a political resolution to the conflict.

The shift came as the opposition delegation managed for the first time to persuade several representatives of armed rebel groups to attend the Geneva talks. It carried the risk that the fighters would feel betrayed by the omission of a demand for Mr. Assad’s ouster.

Yet the opposition delegates displayed little ambivalence about the move, sharing the document widely with journalists and Syrian organizations. The proposal calls for strong human rights guarantees and a transitional justice process to “hold accountable” those who have harmed Syrians, while explicitly rejecting wide purges of government employees and calling for the preservation of state institutions, including the army and security services.

Opposition members said they hoped the proposal would help ease the fears of Syrian fence-sitters – by signaling that Mr. Assad’s opponents want to avoid a state collapse and warm relations with Russia, the Assad government’s strongest backer.

Russia has long said it is not committed to Mr. Assad personally but rejects making his ouster a precondition for political transition.

“We would really like to open new channels with the Russians, and it is very important for us to meet with them,” said Abdulahad Astepho, a member of the opposition delegation, adding that the group hoped to meet with the Russian deputy foreign minister, Gennady Gatilov, after talks with the American undersecretary of state for political affairs, Wendy Sherman.

Syrian government and opposition delegations continued to talk past one another, raising the stakes of meetings that the two sides are scheduled to hold with senior Russian and American officials, in the hope that pressure from their sponsors can break the deadlock.

The Russians and Americans are set to hold trilateral talks with the United Nations mediator, Lakhdar Brahimi, who has said he wants “lots of outside help” to inject momentum into the talks.

Members of the opposition delegation said that the omission of Mr. Assad’s name was deliberate. That document does not call for Mr. Assad to step down, but requires the establishment of a transitional governing body “by mutual consent.”

The government delegation did not respond to the opposition proposal, which also called for an end to all violence, the eviction of foreign fighters from Syria regardless of which side they support, and the dismantling of fighting groups and the integration of members into civilian life or the security services. It also proposed the election of a constituent assembly through a United Nations-supervised ballot, the approval of a constitution via a referendum, and then presidential elections.

The Syrian deputy foreign minister, Faisal Mekdad, said that the opposition had “misused” the meeting by diverting attention from the need to combat terrorism, which the government insists should be addressed first.

The opposition has said it was willing to discuss ending violence and terrorism alongside the topic of forming a transitional governing body. But Mr. Mekdad said parallel-track talks were “a delusional proposal” and “a recipe to kill the Geneva talks.”

President Barack Obama said that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had already delivered “a very strong message” to Russia to drop its opposition to a draft United Nations Security Council resolution that calls for more so-called humanitarian pauses and an end to sieges and that threatens nonmilitary sanctions against any party obstructing aid deliveries. 

That resolution criticized by the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, as one-sided and “detached from reality.” Security Council diplomats said Russia suggested that it could consider a differently worded resolution on humanitarian aid.

National

More than 1.1 million people signed up for health insurance through federal and state marketplaces in January, according to the government, and the number of young people enrolling increased faster than that of any other group.

The Obama Administration officials expressed increased optimism that they had overcome their initial stumbles and erased many doubts about the viability of the health care law. Most promising, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, is that 25 percent of those signing up for insurance from October through January were ages 18 to 34, the young and presumably healthy people whom insurance companies need as customers in order to keep premiums reasonable for everyone.

“These encouraging trends show that more Americans are enrolling every day, and finding quality, affordable coverage in the marketplace,” said Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services.

The steady march of sign-ups for insurance coverage is doing little to eliminate a political fight over the Affordable Care Act that is expected to come to a head as lawmakers in the House and Senate seek re-election.

Republican critics of the law said the overall numbers; 3.3 million people who have signed up since the “HealthCare.gov” website went live on Oct. 1, is below the administration’s goal of having 4.4 million people enrolled by now is evidence of the law’s certain failure.

Industry experts and insurance officials say that the reality is murkier than either party wants to admit, and that the numbers at the heart of the national political debate are largely meaningless outside Washington.

The determination about whether the law works from an economic standpoint will not be clear for years, when individual insurance companies are finally able to tell whether their expectations about the health of their customers; and the premiums they set for coverage, were accurate.

Provisions in the health care law are designed to buffer any economic shocks for insurance companies until 2016 and beyond. And the economic fate of the biggest health care overhaul in decades will be decided state by state, in hundreds of individual markets across the country, not in a theoretical national insurance marketplace that does not really exist.

“There’s going to be tremendous variation in the country,” said Drew Altman, the president and chief executive of the Kaiser Family Foundation. He said the focus on national numbers, like reaching the target of enrolling seven million people in the first year, “never had anything to do with the real success or failure of the law.”

Brian Lobley, an executive with Independence Blue Cross, a Philadelphia insurance company, said it would take time to see how the market evolved. “From our standpoint, we have always looked at this as a multiyear journey,” he said. Officials said that the fastest growth in enrollment during January occurred among young adults. And they said that most young people were choosing “silver,” “gold” or “platinum” coverage plans, not the low-cost, bare-bones “bronze” options that are also available.

“The covered population is getting younger,” Ms. Sebelius said. In January, 318,000 people ages 18 to 34 selected health plans, bringing the total in this age group to 807,500, officials said.

Politics

C. Ray Nagin, a former corporate executive who became mayor in 2002 pledging to modernize city government and instead became an emblem of government dysfunction in the months and years after Hurricane Katrina, was found guilty in federal court on 20 counts of bribery and fraud.

The verdict marks a dubious milestone in a city long associated with an ethically loose style of politics: It makes Mr. Nagin the first New Orleans mayor to be charged, tried and convicted of corruption. He was found guilty of all but one of 21 counts, including bribery; wire fraud and filing false tax returns.

Sentencing has been set for June 11, Mr. Nagin’s 58th birthday. Mr. Nagin could face 20 years in prison by federal sentencing guidelines, said Tania Tetlow, a Tulane University law professor and a former federal prosecutor. Mr. Nagin, who will be confined to his home near Dallas for now, told reporters he maintained his innocence, and his lawyer, Robert Jenkins, said Mr. Nagin intended to appeal.

Federal prosecutors and more than two dozen government witnesses had described Mr. Nagin’s involvement in a series of similar schemes: city projects would be awarded to; or municipal problems fixed for, businessmen who in turn would give Mr. Nagin large payments, private trips to Jamaica and New York, free cellphone service, lawn care, do-nothing consulting jobs or free shipments of granite for the countertop company he ran with his two sons.

Mr. Nagin, who testified over two days, had claimed that he had little control over the contracting process, and described some of the payoffs as legitimate investments in his sons’ business. In one case involving a contractor’s $10,000 payment to Mr. Nagin’s sons, the jury agreed with Mr. Nagin.

But they sided with the government on the rest; a total of illicit proceeds that the government put at half a million dollars. “Our public servants pledge to provide honest services to the people of Southeast Louisiana,” said Kenneth Allen Polite Jr., the United States attorney for Louisiana’s Eastern District, in a statement after the verdict. “We are committed to bringing any politician who violates that obligation to justice.”

Mr. Nagin was elected in 2002 as an outsider dismissive of the old political machines. A cable TV executive with no prior governing experience, Mr. Nagin, a Democrat, was impatient with the stubborn rhythm of the city’s bureaucracy, a quality that endeared him to the media, reform advocates and upscale voters.

He was more adept at proposing big ideas than following through with them which he acknowledged, and it became one of the qualities that most infuriated New Orleanians in the years following Katrina.

During his time on the witness stand, Mr. Nagin brought up Katrina several times, talking about how much work there was to be done in the recovery, how demanding his job was and how much pressure was put on the daily business of the city. But prosecutors asked Mr. Nagin how he could eat expensive meals on the city credit card, or help a businessman get rid of steep tax bills in return for a trip on a private jet, when residents were hurting so badly. They also pointed out that some of the schemes predated the storm and continued after he left office in 2010.

Business

Comcast has agreed to acquire Time Warner Cable in all-stock transaction worth roughly $159 a share. The new company created by the approximately $45 billion purchase would be by far the largest cable provider in the nation with over 33 million subscribers.

The deal is likely to face a tough antitrust review from regulators. It would need to be approved by the Federal Communications Commission and by the Justice Department.

Comcast Chairman and CEO Brian Roberts told CNBC he’s confident the deal would be approved, adding the companies wouldn't have agreed to the deal otherwise. Roberts called the deal “pro-competitive” and “pro-consumer.”

“We’re going to be able to bring better products, faster internet, more channels, on demand, TV everywhere, and a national local platform that’s really special,” Roberts said. Roberts said the deal will give the cable and media company a wider distribution of its products, adding that all of Comcast's competitors are national players and this deal puts it on a level playing field.

Comcast, already the Nation’s largest cable operator, wants to get even larger. It is the second transformative deal for Comcast in recent years, coming just months after it completed an acquisition of NBC Universal, the TV and movie studio.

And the deal, if completed, could have impacts on consumers across the country, though it is unlikely to reduce competition in many markets. Describing the deal as “a friendly, stock-for-stock transaction,” Comcast will acquire 100 percent of Time Warner Cable’s 284.9 million shares outstanding.

The deal will leave Time Warner Cable shareholders owning approximately 23 percent of Comcast’s common stock. “The financial benefits of this are attractive and will create sustainable benefits for years to come,” Comcast’s chief executive, Brian Roberts, said.

Although the deal will be scrutinized by regulators, the executives said that they expected it would get clearance. Comcast and Time Warner Cable do not compete directly in any markets. “We believe this transaction is approvable,” Mr. Roberts said. “It is pro-consumer, pro-competitive, and strongly in the public interest.”

To address any antitrust issues, Comcast said it would divest about three million subscribers. After that move, Comcast will acquire a net of about eight million subscribers, bringing its total customer base to about 30 million. Comcast noted in its news release that it would have less than 30 percent of the market share for pay television subscribers in the United States after the deal. Time Warner Cable executives also said the move would benefit its customers.

Health

Parents should use a tiny smear of fluoride toothpaste to brush baby teeth twice daily as soon as they erupt, instead of waiting until children are older, according to new guidelines by the American Dental Association. That advice overturns the A.D.A.’s decades-old recommendation to start using a pea-size amount at 24 months.

Once children are 3 to 6 years old, the amount should be increased to a pea-size dollop, the updated guidelines say.

To fight the rising number of cavities in the very young, the dental group now advises getting a jump-start on prevention. However, they emphasize only the tiniest amount of fluoride toothpaste should be used to minimize the risk of mild discoloration, white spots or streaking of the teeth, a condition called fluorosis that is caused by ingesting fluoride toothpaste at a young age.

“We want to minimize the amount of fluoride consumption to reduce the risk of fluorosis while simultaneously adding a preventive tool for kids 2 and under that we haven’t recommended previously,” said Dr. Jonathan Shenkin, a spokesman for the A.D.A. and a pediatric dentist in Augusta, Me. Only a tiny amount of toothpaste should be smeared on the brush since some youngsters are likely to ingest some of the fluoride, he said.

The change comes after a systematic review of 17 studies published in The Journal of the American Dental Association this month. It concluded that scientific evidence, though limited in children under age 6 and more robust in older children, demonstrated that fluoride toothpaste is effective in controlling tooth decay, and that “the appropriate amount” should be used “by all children regardless of age.”

 

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Week in Review

National

The Justice Department is accusing the private contractor of robbing U.S. taxpayers out of tens of millions of dollars by conducting phony background checks.
USIS, the private contractor that conducted the background checks of both Edward Snowden and Washington Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis, is accused in a Justice Department lawsuit filed of conducting 665,000 fake background checks between 2008 and 2012.
“USIS management devised and executed a scheme to circumvent contractually required quality reviews of completed background investigations in order to increase the company’s revenues and profits,” according to the Justice Department complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Alabama.
The DOJ lawsuit cites internal emails to back up charges that USIS senior officials devised a wide-ranging “scheme” to defraud the federal government on background checks through a practice known as “dumping” or “flushing” in order to boost the firm’s profits.
“Shelves are as clean as they could get,” reads one April 2010 email from a “workload leader” to USIS director of National Quality Assurance.  “Flushed everything like a dead goldfish.”  Another email reads: “Scalping tickets for ‘Dick Clark’s Dumpin’ New Year’s Eve!' ... Who needs 2?”
The practice of “dumpin” or “flushing” involved certifying to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management that full “quality review” background checks had been  performed when in fact those reviews had not been completed. Aided by a software program known as “Blue Zone,” USIS identified large volumes of cases at the end of day as “Review Complete” – and then fraudulently certified them to OPM, according to the complaint.
Between March 2008 and September 2012, “USIS released at least 665,000 background investigations” to OPM, certifying them as completed when they actually hadn’t been, the complaint charges. This amounted to 40 percent of all the background checks performed by USIS done during this period, according to the complaint.
The allegedly fraudulent background checks included employees seeking security clearances at the Department of Defense, Homeland Security, Justice Department and other federal agencies.
The suit charges that USIS senior management “was fully aware of, and in fact, directed the dumping practices.” It acknowledges that the firm was paid $11.7 million in bonuses under its contract between 2008 and 2010.

USIS, which on its website calls itself “the leader in federal background investigations,” said in a statement provided to NBC News that “a small group of individuals” was responsible for the bogus checks and that their conduct was “contrary to our values and commitment to exceptional service.”

“Since first learning of these allegations nearly two years ago, we have acted decisively to reinforce our processes and management to ensure the quality of our work and adherence to OPM requirements,” USIS said.

“We appointed a new leadership team, enhanced oversight procedures, and improved control protocols.  From the outset, we have fully cooperated with the government’s investigation and remain focused on delivering the highest quality service under our OPM contracts.”

A company source, who spoke to NBC News on condition of anonymity, said that some employees involved in the fraud “were terminated” and also stressed that neither the Snowden nor the Alexis background checks were among those cited as fraudulent in the complaint. (The complaint does not identify any of the allegedly improper checks.)
The civil lawsuit was filed by the Justice Department under the False Claims Act. The suit accuses the company of filing false claims, making false statements and breach of contract.

National

The Federal Reserve trimmed its unprecedented, massive stimulus program again amid signs that economic growth has picked up. The move, announced after Ben Bernanke’s last meeting at the helm of the Fed, came despite concerns about turmoil in emerging market economies recently.
The Fed said it would reduce the bond buying program, and in its December meeting decided to decrease the bond buying program from $75 billion to $65 billion. The program helped stabilized the economy through the Great Recession.
“Taking into account the extent of federal fiscal retrenchment since the inception of its current asset purchase program, the Committee continues to see the improvement in economic activity and labor market conditions over that period as consistent with growing underlying strength in the broader economy,” the Fed said, after a meeting of its policy-setting Federal Open Market Committee.
The decision lends credence to a widely held market belief that the Fed will wrap up QE by the end of 2014. The new balance will see purchases of $30 billion a month in mortgage-backed securities and $35 billion in Treasuries. “It’s been obvious for a few months that the Fed wants out,” Bill Gross, co-chief investment officer at bond giant Pimco, said.
“What we’re seeing is an end of QE in October, early November of this year, and then importantly a focus on the policy going forward.”
The meeting was Bernanke’s last before handing over the reins at the Fed to Vice-chairman Janet Yellen. Bernanke took the Fed far into uncharted territory during his eight years on the job, building a $4 trillion balance sheet and keeping interest rates near zero for more than five years to pull the economy from its worst downturn in decades.
Policymakers stuck to their promise to keep rates near zero until well after the U.S. unemployment rate, now at 6.7 percent, falls below 6.5 percent, especially if inflation remains below a 2-percent target.
With concerns growing over possible harm from so much money printing, the Fed decided last month to make its first cut to the bond buying. Data in recent weeks, from consumer spending and industrial production, was largely upbeat and has bolstered the view of an improving economy.
Forecasters estimate U.S. GDP grew at an above-trend annual rate of 3.2 percent in the fourth quarter after a 4.1 percent advance in the prior three months.

Politics

President Barack Obama vowed, during his State of the Union address, to use executive powers to sidestep Republican roadblocks on Capitol Hill. The President says he will not wait for Congress to move forward on important issues and is prepared to take executive action in 2014.
“America does not stand still – and neither will I,” Obama said. “So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I'm going to do.”
Obama declared, “I believe this can be a breakthrough year for America. … What I offer tonight is a set of concrete, practical proposals to speed up growth, strengthen the middle class, and build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class. Some require congressional action, and I’m eager to work with all of you.”
He added, “In the coming months, let’s see where else we can make progress together. Let’s make this a year of action.  That’s what most Americans want.”
Obama outlined a litany of executive actions he intends to take in the coming months to advance the themes he focused on in his speech. Among them:

Raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour for workers on federal contracts;
Establishing a government-backed “myRA” retirement savings program for working Americans;
Setting higher fuel-efficiency standards for heavy-duty trucks.
The President encouraged lawmakers to extend unemployment insurance, raise the overall minimum wage, pass immigration reform, expand Pre-K education, cut tax breaks for wealthy retirees, expand the Earned Income Tax Credit, give him Trade Promotion Authority and pass patent legislation – among other priorities Obama mentioned, and which Congress would have to approve.

Republicans sought to soften their response to Obama with a speech from Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers. “Too many people are falling further and further behind because, right now, the president’s policies are making people’s lives harder,” she said in the official GOP response.
“Republicans have plans to close the gap – plans that focus on jobs first without more spending, government bailouts, and red tape.”
Obama leaned heavy on foreign policy. “Even as we aggressively pursue terrorist networks – through more targeted efforts and by building the capacity of our foreign partners – America must move off a permanent war footing,” Obama said in claiming the fruits of diplomatic efforts in Iran, Syria and the Middle East.
He also threatened to veto legislation under consideration by Congress to increase sanctions on Iran, a proposal which could derail diplomatic talks with the Iranian regime.
At times, Obama seemed to scold the House GOP, particularly for its repeated votes to undo health care reform, his signature domestic achievement. “Let’s not have another 40-something votes to repeal a law that’s already helping millions of Americans like Amanda,” he said. “The first 40 were plenty.  We got it.”
Obama also acknowledged some of the initial struggles encountered by the Affordable Care Act, namely lackluster enrollment numbers depressed in part by the botched launch of the online portal to sign up for health care plans. “That’s why, tonight, I ask every American who knows someone without health insurance to help them get covered by March 31,” he said.
But Obama closed his speech with upbeat examples of Americans who had benefited from programs to improve mobility and expand opportunity. And he ended his remarks with a plea for cooperation.
“The America we want for our kids, a rising America where honest work is plentiful and communities are strong; where prosperity is widely shared and opportunity for all lets us go as far as our dreams and toil will take us – none of it is easy,” he said.
“But if we work together; if we summon what is best in us, with our feet planted firmly in today but our eyes cast towards tomorrow – I know it’s within our reach.”

Business

More than 80,000 football fans are expected to brave near-freezing temperatures to attend the New York region’s first Super Bowl on Sunday, and more than 3,000 security guards, 700 cops and hundreds of high-tech gadgets will be on hand to greet them.
Similar armies of human and technological watchdogs will keep eyes and lenses trained on the tens of thousands of other people who will descend on the city to enjoy other festivities associated with America's top sports event – making it the biggest and most-expensive security net in the 48-year history of the game.
The $1.6 billion Met Life Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., where the game will be played, will be the most tightly guarded venue – with a 2.5 mile chain-link perimeter fence and cameras trained on every section and corridor inside. But multiple game-related events planned for New York and New Jersey add several degrees of difficulty to the job of keeping fans and participants safe, security experts say.
This Super Bowl says Ed Hartnett, former head of the New York Police Department’s Intelligence Unit, “truly defines the word ‘challenge’ when it comes to security.”
There is no intelligence indicating that terrorists have targeted the game or related events, but Hartnett says that doesn’t mean that threats don’t exist: “I would list them in priority order being a suicide bomber, a vehicle laden with explosives and a mass shooter or mass shooters similar to the Kenyan mall, or the Mumbai incidents,” he said. His concerns are echoed by law enforcement officials overseeing the game.
Extensive mass transit, bridge and tunnel networks in the vicinity are a particular area of concern, according to a review of sensitive law enforcement documents detailing the Super Bowl security plan and intelligence by NBC News.
The game is being billed as the “Mass Transit Super Bowl” by the New Jersey Transit system, and rail officials say the security experience for fans taking the train on game day will rival that of an airport, with bag-screening, K-9 teams and random searches for trains to and from the game.

Health

A Dateline analysis of a 2011 U.S. Census Bureau report found that public housing apartments had almost four times as many roach infestations and three times as many leaks as private rental apartments. Leaks can create mold, another allergen that can spark and exacerbate asthma.

Though mold covers the ceiling and walls of the bathroom, and most likely has exacerbated Melissa’s (a child living in the apartment) asthma – the landlord, the New York City Housing Authority, has been slow to make the necessary repairs that would get rid of it, according to Dateline investigators.

In the space of just a few blocks in New York there’s an enormous income gap – and a corresponding three-fold jump in the asthma rates.

In the affluent Upper East Side, the rate among 4-to-5 year-old children is 7 percent. By contrast, in impoverished east Harlem, the neighborhood right next to it, the rate is 19 percent.

The asthma-poverty connection isn’t limited to New York, though. In Philadelphia, researchers have found asthma to be stunningly common in some of the poorer neighborhoods. In door-to-door surveys that included 5,563 children, researchers found that 21.7 percent of kids had been diagnosed with asthma.

The two communities with the highest numbers of children living below the poverty line had asthma rates of 40 percent and 47 percent, according to a 2012 study by researchers led by Dr. Tyra Byrant- Stephens, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and director and founder of the community asthma prevention program at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

In St. Louis, the poorer neighborhoods have upwards of 30 percent to 40 percent asthma rates, said Dr. William Kincaid, chair of the St. Louis Regional Asthma Consortium and an assistant professor of health management and policy at the St. Louis University College for Public Health and Social Justice.

In East Baltimore, one of the poorest areas of the city, at least 95 percent of homes are infected with mouse allergen, said Dr. Elizabeth Matsui, an associate professor of pediatrics and epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions. Matsui and others have found that exposure to mouse dander is even worse than exposure to cockroaches when it comes to asthma.

In Baltimore, just as in New York and St. Louis, “many homes have mold because they are not kept up well,” Matsui said. “Leaky roofs and bathroom plumbing produce water damage. Even if the leak is fixed, if the dry wall or plaster isn’t taken out, mold can grow.”

Poor neighborhoods are often the ones chosen for highways and other projects that more affluent communities manage to fend off. In New York, poor neighborhoods tend to be crisscrossed by major roads clogged with diesel-powered vehicles that spew particles into the air that can trigger or exacerbate asthma, said Matt Perzanowski, an associate professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.

Legislation to provide health insurance for poor kids has helped those with asthma, but it has not been a panacea. Many low-income neighborhoods don’t have enough physicians, Bryant-Stephens said. Making matters worse, poor parents often can’t get time off from their jobs to take children to the doctor.

Transportation also is an issue, Bryant-Stephens said. “Parents are making hard choices. If they have to pay the light bill, they may not have enough money to pay for tokens to get to the doctor’s office.” That’s something 33-year-old Tiana Gaines-Turner, a working mom from Philadelphia, understands all too well. Because she and her husband both have low-paying jobs, they are often strapped for cash. That means they sometimes have to borrow money to take their kids to the doctor.

Studies have shown that poor children are up to 15 times more likely to be hospitalized for asthma than their wealthier counterparts. While the visits may fix the acute problem, they’re not providing a long-term solution. “In the ER, parents don’t hear 90 percent of what we say,” Bryant-Stephens said.

“They’re very focused on the fact that their child can’t breathe. It doesn’t matter that we give them all this education.” But even when the medical care is optimal, there’s still the home environment to worry about.

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International

            The Obama Administration wants to keep the International Space Station, a $100 billion orbital research outpost that is a project of 15 nations, flying until at least 2024, according to NASA.

            The extension will give the U.S. space agency more time to develop the technologies needed for eventual human missions to Mars, the long-term goal of NASA's. Keeping the station in orbit beyond 2020 also opens a window for commercial companies and researchers to benefit from U.S. investment in the Space Station.

NASA’s cost for operating the station, which flies about 250 miles above Earth, is about $3 billion a year. About half that cost is spent on transporting crew and cargo.

“Ten years from today is a pretty far-reaching, pretty strategic-looking vision,” NASA Associate Administrator Bill Gerstenmaier told reporters. “This extension … opens up a large avenue of research onboard station. It also changes the perspective for the commercial (transportation) providers. Now they can see a market that extends to at least 2024,” he said.

In addition to commercial U.S. cargo ships and planned passenger space taxis, companies and research organizations are beginning to make use of the station's unique microgravity environment to develop a range of new products and technologies, including medications and off-the-shelf, shoebox-sized satellites.

The prime partners in the venture, with the United States, include Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada. It has been permanently staffed by rotating crews of astronauts and cosmonauts since 2000.

Extending the station “is not a U.S.-only decision,” Gerstenmaier said. “We talk to our partners about this. They want to go forward with this. It’s just working through the government approval,” he said. “We’re prepared to do what we have to do if the partners choose to take a different path,” Gerstenmaier added.

A technical review by prime station contractor Boeing shows the station’s laboratories, structural frame and other hardware are safe to fly until 2028, program manager John Shannon said.

“If the physical hardware continues to operate the way we believe it does ... that leaves the door open in the future to extend,” Gerstenmaier said. At the end of its life, the station will be steered down into the atmosphere, where it will incinerate. Re-entry will take place over an ocean so any debris will not threaten populated areas.

            Retired U.S. basketball star Dennis Rodman, visiting North Korea with fellow U.S. basketball players, said in a published statement that he had been drinking when he suggested that an American jailed by North Korea was himself to blame for landing in prison.

Rodman, who calls himself a friend of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, caused quick responses to his comments on an American missionary imprisoned by Pyongyang.

In a statement issued by his public relations firm in the United States, Rodman said: “I want to apologize. I take full responsibility for my actions. It had been a very stressful day. Some of my teammates were leaving because of pressure from their families and business associates. My dreams of basketball diplomacy were quickly falling apart. I had been drinking. It’s not an excuse but by time the interview happened I was upset. I was overwhelmed.”

He added: “I embarrassed a lot of people. I'm very sorry. At this point, I should know better than to make political statements. I’m truly sorry.” Rodman’s current visit to North Korea has drawn criticism from human rights activists and the family of imprisoned U.S. missionary Kenneth Bae after Rodman appeared to suggest in an interview peppered with obscenities that Bae, rather than the North Korean authorities, was responsible for his incarceration.

Bae’s sister, Terri Chung, has said her family was outraged by Rodman's comments and that he should use his access to the North Korean leader to advocate on Bae’s behalf, rather than “hurl outrageous accusations”: “It is clear to me, however, that there is nothing diplomatic about his trip,” Chung said in a statement. “He is playing games with my brother’s life.”

Bae, 45, was sentenced to 15 years hard labor for state subversion in North Korea, where he was detained in 2012 while leading a tour group. The Supreme Court said he used his tourism business to form groups aimed at overthrowing the government.

The fading basketball star’s trips had been financed by Irish bookmaker Paddy Power, although it has now withdrawn its funding.

National

            Texas’ view of future of their public library looks a lot like an Apple Store: Rows of glossy iMacs. iPads mounted on a tangerine-colored bar invite readers.

And hundreds of other tablets stand ready for checkout to anyone with a borrowing card. Even the librarians imitate Apple’s dress code, wearing matching shirts and that standard-bearer “hoodie.” This $2.3 million library does not have – you guessed it – any actual books.

            That makes Bexar County's BibiloTech the Nation’s only bookless public library, a distinction that has attracted scores of digital bookworms, plus emissaries from as far away as Hong Kong, who wants to learn about the idea.

“I told our people that you need to take a look at this. This is the future,” said Mary Graham, vice president of South Carolina’s Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce. “If you’re going to be building new library facilities, this is what you need to be doing.”

All-digital libraries have been on college campuses for years. However, the county made history when it decided to open BiblioTech. It is the first bookless public library system in the country, according to information gathered by the American Library Association.

Residents are taking advantage now. The library is on pace to surpass 100,000 visitors in its first year. Finding an open iMac among the four dozen at BiblioTech is often difficult after the nearby high school lets out.

About half of the facility’s e-readers are checked out at any given time, each loaded with up to five books. One of BiblioTech’s regulars is a man teaching himself Mandarin.

In California, the city of Newport Beach floated the concept of a bookless branch in 2011 until a backlash put stacks back in the plan. Nearly a decade earlier in Arizona, the Tucson-Pima library system opened an all-digital branch, but residents who said they wanted books ultimately got their way.

Graham toured BiblioTech in the fall and is pushing Charleston leaders for a bond measure in 2014 to fund a similar concept, right down to the same hip aesthetic reminiscent of Apple.

Political

            New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie apologized for highway lane closures over one of the busiest bridges in the country, ordered by his aides as political retribution, saying he had “no knowledge or involvement” in what happened.

He sought to assure New Jerseyans the actions are not typical of the way his administration does business. “This is the exception, not the rule,” he told a news conference.

Christie, who had previously assured the public his staff had no involvement in the road closings, said he fired Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly, saying, “… because she lied to me.”

Kelly was the latest casualty in a scandal that threatens Christie’s second term and possible run for president in 2016. Documents show she arranged traffic jams to punish the mayor, in a local town, who didn’t endorse Christie for re-election.

A regional transportation issue is now thrust into a national conversation raising new questions about the governor’s ability to lead the country. The U.S. attorney in New Jersey, Paul Fishman, said he was “reviewing the matter to determine whether a federal law was implicated.” The legislature is also investigating.

Christie focused repeatedly on how upset he was that his staff didn’t tell him the truth when asked about the closures. “What did I do wrong to have these folks think it was OK to lie to me?” he asked rhetorically. Email and text messages obtained by news organizations indicated that the lane closings were retribution against the mayor of Fort Lee for not endorsing Christie for re-election.

“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Kelly wrote in August in a message to David Wildstein, a top Christie appointee on the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. A few weeks later, Wildstein closed two of three lanes connecting Fort Lee to the heavily-traveled George Washington Bridge, which runs between New Jersey and New York City.

CHristie also told Wildstein he didn’t want him working any longer as a consultant to the Republican Governors Association, which Christie heads this year.

The messages do not directly implicate Christie, but they contradicted his assertions that the closings were not punitive and that his staff was not involved. Christie acknowledged that was a lie, because his staff didn'’ tell him what they had done.

He also said he had “no knowledge or involvement in this issue, in its planning or execution” and was stunned by the “abject stupidity that was shown.” He said he was “embarrassed and humiliated” by his staff. At the same time, he said he accepted responsibility.

“I am responsible for what happened. I am sad to report to the people of New Jersey that we fell short,” he said. Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich called it “appalling” that the traffic jams appear to have been deliberately created.

Health

            An Israeli firm has developed 3-D holographic imaging technology that allows doctors to see a patient’s anatomy “floating” in mid-air during real-time medical procedures. The company says successful trials of its system demonstrate that science fiction has become science fact.

 

            A new study suggests patients’ expectations can make a big difference in how they feel after treatment for a migraine. Boston researchers recruited 66 migraine patients in an attempt to quantify how much of their pain relief came from a medication and how much was due to what's called the placebo effect, the healing power of positive belief.

More than 450 headaches later, they reported that it's important for doctors to carefully choose what they tell patients about a powerful medicine – because the message could help enhance its benefits,or blunt them.

“Every word you say counts, not only every gram of the medication,” said Harvard professor Ted Kaptchuk, who led the new study with a team at Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital.

First, the patients who suffer regular migraines agreed to forgo pain relievers for several hours during one attack, recording their symptoms for comparison with later headaches. Then for each of their next six migraines, the patients were given a different pill inside an envelope with a different message.

Sometimes they were told it was an effective migraine drug named rizatriptan, a positive message. Other times they were told it was a placebo, a dummy pill, suggesting no benefit. Still other times they were told the pill could be either one, a neutral message.

Sometimes the doctor’s message was true – they were told they got rizatriptan and they really did. Sometimes it was false because researchers had secretly switched the pills. Mixing up the possibilities allowed researchers to tease out how the same person's pain relief differed from migraine to migraine as his or her expectations changed.

The real migraine drug worked better than the dummy pill. People who knew they were taking a placebo still reported less pain than when they’d left their migraine untreated, the researchers found.

Patients’ reports of pain relief more than doubled when they were told the migraine drug was real than when they were told, falsely, that it was a fake, the team reported in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

People reported nearly as much pain relief when they took a placebo that they thought was the real drug as they did when they took the migraine drug while believing it was a fake. “The more we gave a positive message to the patient, the bigger the placebo effect was,” Kaptchuk said.

Scientists have long known that some people report noticeable improvements in pain and certain other symptoms when they're given a placebo, which can be a sugar pill or sham surgery or some other benign intervention. Some studies even have documented that a placebo actually can spark a biological effect.

Dr. Mark Stacy, vice dean for clinical research at Duke University Medical Center, who wasn’t involved with the work, said it shows “the power of positive thinking may be helpful in taking care of your migraine.”

 

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Week in Review

International

            The Middle East Peace talks appear to be headed for a standoff because Israel has demanded that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahuhas made the recognition the pillar of his public statements, calling it “the real key to peace,” “the minimal requirement” and “an essential condition.”

Israeli, American and Palestinian officials all say it has become a core issue in the negotiations. Mr. Netanyahu’s statements insist that this single issue underpins all others. However, it is exactly what makes it unacceptable to Palestinians. It is a dispute over a historical narrative that each side sees as fundamental to its existence.

Critics skeptical of Mr. Netanyahu’s commitment to a two-state solution to the conflict say that recognition of a Jewish state is a poison pill that he is raising to derail the talks. The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, has repeatedly said that the Palestinians will never agree to it.

The Palestinians cite both pragmatic and philosophical reasons: They contend that recognizing Israel as a Jewish state would disenfranchise its 1.6 million Arab citizens, undercut the right of return for millions of Palestinian refugees and, most important, require a psychological rewriting of the story they hold dear about their longtime presence in the land.

“The core of this conflict has never been borders and settlements – it’s about one thing: The persistent refusal to accept the Jewish state in any border,” Mr. Netanyahu said in a video statement to the Saban Forum in Washington.

He added: “We recognize that in peace there will be a nation-state for the Palestinian people. Surely, we’re entitled to expect them to do the same.”

The gulf between the two sides on the issue highlights a broader question critical to the outcome of the talks: Whether a peace deal must reconcile conflicting versions of the past, or whether it can allow each version some legitimacy and focus on paving a path forward.

            By emphasizing recognition, Mr. Netanyahu has also exposed several profound, unresolved questions: Can Israel preserve its identity as a Jewish democratic state while also providing equal rights and opportunities to citizens of other faiths and backgrounds?

            With a largely secular population, who interprets Jewish law and custom for public institutions and public spaces, is Judaism a religion, an ethnicity or both?

“The founders of the state of Israel and the founders of Zionism felt that once we have a state, the puzzle of Jewish identity will be solved,” said Yedidia Z. Stern, a vice president of the Israel Democracy Institute.

“They were totally wrong.” “We don’t know what it means to be a Jewish state,” he said. “But does that mean we have to give it up? No way. I would leave. The reason I’m here is because this state is a Jewish state and not a neutral one.”

Many European countries, as well as Israel, grant a fast track for citizenship or otherwise give privileged status to people born elsewhere with shared roots.

Israel’s 1948 Declaration of Independence asserted the “establishment of a Jewish state,” and Resolution 181 of the United Nations General Assembly, which in 1947 recommended the partition of Palestine, uses the term “Jewish state” 30 times. Mr. Obama and some of his predecessors have endorsed this definition.

Israel’s  Supreme Court rejected a request by 21 citizens to be listed as “Israeli” in the national population registry, saying that to do so would belie Israel’s founding principle as a Jewish state for the Jewish people.

Last year, an Arab justice on the court highlighted the dilemma when he declined to sing Israel’s national anthem, which speaks of the “yearning of the Jewish soul” to be “a free nation in our land.”

Palestinian leaders say that they have long recognized Israel’s right to exist, and that defining its character is not their responsibility, noting that Israel did not make similar requests of Egypt and Jordan when signing peace treaties with them.

            On the eve of negotiations to end the conflict in South Sudan, rebel forces seized major sections of the city of Bor, giving them a strategic foothold for a possible march toward the capital and transforming the banks of the White Nile into an impromptu camp for the tens of thousands of people who have fled the fighting.

In cities and towns across South Sudan, fighting between government troops loyal to President Salva Kiir and rebels aligned with the former vice president, Riek Machar, has driven an estimated 180,000 people from their homes, forcing them to seek shelter behind the walls and fences of more than a dozen United Nations compounds across the country.

 

Other civilians have fled into the bush or onto riverbanks in the hope of escaping the military offensives and counterassaults that have gripped this nation. With estimates of as many as 70,000 people seeking refuge, the area outside Bor have become a focal point of the humanitarian crisis enveloping the country.

Peter Ayuen, 25, a teacher, said “We left two old women in the house,” adding that he was hoping for news or to see them on another barge across the river from Bor. “I’m worried about their lives.” He said many people had died in the fighting over Bor, soldiers and civilians.

 

Miyong G. Kuon, news media coordinator for Mr. Machar, said that forces loyal to Mr. Machar were “fully in control of Bor.” There was no sign of a cease-fire, he said. The fighting over Bor has been particularly fierce. A spokesman for the military confirmed that government forces had withdrawn from parts of the city.

“Our forces did a partial withdrawal from the town, but they are still fighting in the suburbs of Bor,” Col. Philip Aguer, a South Sudanese military spokesman, said.

 

David Nash, head of mission for Doctors Without Borders in South Sudan, said it was hard to know how many people had gathered on the riverbank for safety, estimating a total of about 70,000.

“As far as we know it’s the biggest displaced-person population in South Sudan,” Mr. Nash said. “So far a big proportion is women and young children, so they’re the most vulnerable.”

National

                         Millions of Americans will begin receiving health insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act after years of contention and a rollout crippled delays and technical problems.

The decisively new moment in the effort to overhaul the country’s health care system will test the law’s central premise: that extending coverage to far more Americans will improve the nation’s health and help many avoid crippling medical bills.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor temporarily blocked the Obama Administration from forcing some religious-affiliated groups to provide coverage of birth control or face penalties. Doctors, hospitals and pharmacists say consumers could initially experience some delays and difficulties as they try to use their new insurance.

Health insurance companies can no longer deny coverage to people with pre-existing conditions and cannot charge higher premiums to women than to men for the same coverage. In most cases, insurers must provide a standard set of benefits prescribed by federal law and regulations. And they cannot set dollar limits on what they spend on “essential health benefits” for a policyholder.

A series of last-minute changes in rules and deadlines for people to sign up and pay premiums have left less time for insurers to activate coverage and issue identification cards, adding to the uncertainty caused by the troubled rollout of the health exchange.

“There will be a lot of confusion,” said Brian D. Caswell, a former president of the Kansas Pharmacists Association, who owns a drugstore in rural Baxter Springs. “Many people will get insurance cards, but will not have a clue what’s covered, what’s not covered and what they are supposed to pay.”

Others may find their insurance companies have no record of their enrollment because the information was not sent by the online marketplaces where they signed up for coverage.

Some of the newly insured may have trouble finding doctors who accept their health plans, many of which are restricting the number of providers in their networks to hold down premium costs.

            Newly insured consumers must study through details of their coverage, others will find that they are no longer insured by their old plans, which were canceled or discontinued because they did not comply with coverage requirements of the law.

            Of several million who received cancellation notices, most should be able to obtain other coverage, the Obama administration says.

 Political

            Bill de Blasio rose from an obscure neighborhood official to the 109th mayor of New York, pledging that his ambition for a more humane and equal metropolis would remain undimmed.

            In his inaugural address, Mayor de Blasio described social inequality as a “quiet crisis” on a par with the other urban cataclysms of the city’s last half-century, from fiscal collapse to crime waves to terrorist attacks, and said income disparity was a struggle no less urgent to confront.

“We are called to put an end to economic and social inequalities that threaten to unravel the city we love,” he said to about 5,000 people at the ceremony.

Mr. de Blasio, 52, the first liberal to lead City Hall in two decades, delivered his critiques as his predecessor, Michael R. Bloomberg, sat unsmiling a few feet away. It was only one of many potent symbols of change that dominated a ceremony unlike many before it.

The inaugurations past were replaced by the booming strains of disco, soul,and dance music by the Commodores, Marvin Gaye and Daft Punk, spun by a local D.J. stationed high above the audience.

The Mayor’s transition team held a ticket lottery so that ordinary New Yorkers could attend the inaugural ceremony, and the City Hall plaza was quickly filled with a diverse crowd that punctuated speeches with impromptu cheers to an event typically more formal than festive.

Several of the nation’s pre-eminent Democrats – including Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, Hillary Clinton and former President Bill Clinton, who administered the oath of office over a Bible once owned by Franklin D. Roosevelt – appeared with Mr. de Blasio on the dais, celebrating the elevation of a party stalwart with whom they had close ties.

The ceremony was filled with an open airing of the city’s racial and class tensions, including a poem with frustration about “brownstones and brown skin playing tug-of-war,” a pastor’s words about “the plantation called New York,” and fierce denunciations of luxury condominiums and trickle-down economics.

Mr. de Blasio, choreographed the appearance of a newly approachable and inclusive City Hall, arriving with his family on the subway and walking onstage to doo-wop tunes. Even the placement of cameras seemed to ensure that only the dignitaries on stage and ordinary New Yorkers arrayed behind them would be shown – and not the many lobbyists and political operatives in the crowd.

He warned that his administration’s work “won’t be easy,” Mr. de Blasio made passing reference to the fiscal, political and structural challenges that he will face. Several of his proposals, including his signature plan to pay for prekindergarten classes by raising taxes on the wealthy, are at the mercy of the governor and state legislators in Albany. Other elements of his platform are expected to be opposed by powerful interests in the city’s corporate classes.

Business

            Phil Robertson, the patriarch of the family at the center of the A&E Network’s huge ratings hit “Duck Dynasty,” will not be suspended after all. The bottom line: Phil Robertson will resume work on the show when it begins taping new episodes in the spring.

            The network moved to suspend Mr. Robertson on Dec. 18 after comments he made about gay people in a magazine interview.

At the time A&E described the comments, which described homosexual acts in crude terms and labeled them a sin, as extremely disappointing and not reflective of the network, which considered itself “champions of the L.G.B.T. community.”

More than 250,000 signed a petition demanding Phil Robertson’s reinstatement. Cries of anti-Christian bias from famous Republicans like Sarah Palin and Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana also followed. More ominously, the family issued a statement saying in effect there would be no show without their patriarch.

A&E bowed to the pressure and released a new statement, accompanying the news that Mr. Robertson would miss no episodes. The statement cited Mr. Robertson’s later comments that his views were in no way intended to “incite or encourage hate,” as well as the way the Robertson family’s interaction in the show demonstrated values like “unity, tolerance and forgiveness.”

“Duck Dynasty” is by far the highest-rated show on A&E. It has also become a marketing powerhouse. Merchandise based on the show is sold in six departments in Walmart stores, and the “Duck Dynasty” Christmas album, “Duck the Halls,” which features Mr. Robertson, has sold more than 700,000 copies since it was released. Industry insiders predicted that the controversy would increase sales.

Health

            Many health experts hoped that the medication, Truvada, a combination of two antiviral drugs that has been used to treat H.I.V. since 2004 would be embraced by H.I.V.-negative gay men. Instead, Truvada has been slow to catch on as an H.I.V. preventive in the 18 months since the strategy’s approval by the Food and Drug Administration.

In some quarters, the idea that healthy gay men should take a medication to prevent infection – an approach called pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP – has met with hostility or indifference.

“It’s gotten tons of attention at H.I.V. meetings as a new tool for prevention, and I consider it an important option for the right person,” said Dr. Lisa Capaldini, a primary care doctor here who treats many gay men. “And yet there’s been very little interest among my patients. There’s a fascinating disconnect.”

For 30 years, public health officials have aggressively promoted condom use during every sexual encounter as the only effective method, apart from abstinence, for preventing H.I.V. transmission. Still, 50,000 new infections are occurring annually in the United States; sexual transmission between men accounts for more than half of them, and a disproportionate number among African-Americans and other minorities.

Many experts hailed Truvada as an opportunity to reduce new infections among high-risk groups like young gay men, people in relationships with H.I.V.-positive partners, and prostitutes. The F.D.A. called for prescriptions to be accompanied by counseling, frequent H.I.V. testing, and continued promotion of safer sex, although research suggests that daily use of the pill alone confers close to full protection.

“We’ve had several decades of the recommendation to use condoms,” said Dr. Kenneth H. Mayer, a professor of medicine at Harvard University and the medical research director at Fenway Health, a community center in Boston with many lesbian and gay patients.

“Now we’re saying, ‘Here’s a pill that might protect you if you don’t use condoms.’ So it’s flying in the face of community norms.” Certainly, fewer people have tried PrEP than many experts had anticipated.

Almost half of the prescriptions were for women, a surprise to those who expected gay men to be the early adopters. Dr. Deborah Cohan, an obstetrician and gynecologist at the University of California, San Francisco, has prescribed it to several women with H.I.V.-positive partners, including one seeking to get pregnant. “It’s beautiful that we have this intervention that works for women who need it,” Dr. Cohan said. So why haven’t more gay men signed up?

Gilead has not launched a public campaign to market Truvada for prevention, but has instead sponsored activities by other organizations. Truvada is expensive: more than $1,000 a month. So far, private and public insurers, including state Medicaid programs, have generally covered the drug for prevention. (Gilead also provides it to some patients who cannot afford it.)

 

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Week in Review

International

A Russian news agency reported that former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat died of natural causes, not radiation poisoning. But the Palestinian ambassador to Moscow said an investigation would continue.

Samples were taken from Arafat’s body last year by Swiss, French and Russian forensics experts, after an al Jazeera documentary said his clothes showed high amounts of deadly polonium 210.

The Swiss said last month that their tests were consistent with polonium poisoning, while not absolute proof of the cause of death. But the Russian finding was in line with that of French scientists, who said that Arafat had not been killed with polonium.

“Yasser Arafat died not from the effects of radiation but of natural causes,” Vladimir Uiba, head of Russia's state forensics body, the Federal Medico-Biological Agency, was quoted as saying.

Arafat, who signed the 1993 Oslo interim peace accords with Israel but then led an uprising in 2000, died at 75 in a French hospital in 2004, four weeks after falling ill following a meal in his Ramallah compound surrounded by Israeli tanks.

The official cause of death was a massive stroke, but French doctors said at the time they were unable to determine the origin of his illness. No autopsy was carried out. Arafat’s widow, Suha Arafat, has argued the death was a political assassination by someone close to her husband. Many Palestinians believe Israel killed him a charge Israel denies.

The state-run Russian news agency RIA reported that the Palestinian ambassador to Moscow, Faed Mustafa, said the Russian findings would not halt efforts to investigate the cause of death. “I can only say that there is already a decision to continue (investigating),” RIA quoted him as saying. “We respect their position and we highly value their work, but there is a decision to continue work.”

Egypt’s security authorities launched massive arrests of Muslim Brotherhood members and warned that holding a leadership post in the group could now be grounds for the death penalty after it was officially declared a terrorist organization.

The announcement came as a bomb exploded in a busy intersection in Cairo, hitting a bus and wounding five people. The blast raised fears that a campaign of violence by Islamic militants that for months has targeted police and the military could turn to civilians in retaliation for the stepped up arrests.

The terrorist labeling of the Brotherhood takes the government’s moves to crush the group to a new level. The Brotherhood rode on elections to dominate Egypt’s politics the past three years until the military removed Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in July after massive protests against him.

The Brotherhood vowed to “qualitatively” escalate its protests against the new military-backed interim government, whose authority it rejects. The group has struggled to bring numbers into the streets in past months under a crackdown that has already killed hundreds of its members and put thousands more in prison, including Morsi and other top leaders.

The moves raise the potential for greater turmoil, as the country nears a key Jan. 14 –15, 2014, referendum on a revised constitution. The government is pushing for overwhelming passage of the new document, while the Brotherhood vows to stop it with protests.

Ahmed Imam, spokesman for the Strong Egypt Party founded by ex-Brotherhood member Abdel-Moneim Abolfotoh, warned that the terrorism label “leaves the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters only one choice, which is violence.”

Both sides are showing “a great deal of stupidity,” he said, blaming the Brotherhood for failing to firmly distance itself from militant violence and the government for closing doors to reconciliation.

National

A month after President Barack Obama announced people could keep insurance policies slated for cancellation under the federal health overhaul; the reversal has gotten a mixed response from insurers, state regulators and consumers.

Many consumers complained in October and November after insurers notified them that their plans were being canceled because they didn't cover pre-existing conditions, hospitalization, prescription drugs or seven other basic benefits required under the law.

Obama announced Nov. 14 that companies could continue existing policies that don't meet the minimum requirements if state regulators approved. Officials in 27 states responded by allowing insurance companies to extend the non-compliant policies for another year. Insurers in those states were given a choice of whether to continue the policies, and some have declined.

In Kentucky, insurers Humana, United Healthcare and Assurant chose to extend old policies while Anthem and Bluegrass Family Health opted against it. Seven companies in South Carolina are extending individual plans the federal law considers substandard, while six companies are extending plans in the small group market. Twenty are not participating.

In North Carolina, only Blue Cross and Blue Shield, which controls about 80 percent of the state's market for individual and small-business policies, offered to renew plans covering 474,000 people that had been slated for cancellation. North Carolina's insurance commissioner allowed the company to raise premiums by between 16 percent and 24 percent.

Anthem Blue Cross in Maine plans to raise premiums by an average of 12 percent on its no-longer-cancelled policies. The Blue Cross provider in neighboring New Hampshire expects an average 7 percent increase. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois said it would seek undefined price changes.

Raleigh attorney Jeff Poley, 42, says he's fine with paying more for his current policy, considering what it would have cost him to switch to a new one. He's covered himself with a high-deductible health policy from Blue Cross for the past two years, which currently costs $137 a month.

The plan doesn’t cover maternity and some other benefits required under the Affordable Care Act. But after Obama's announcement, Blue Cross offered to extend Poley’s old plan for another year at $170 a month.

About 15 million Americans buy policies as individuals, according to Families USA, a nonprofit organization that backs health reform. At least 4.2 million people received notices from their insurers that their policies would be cancelled, according to the Associated Press.

The number is estimated to be higher because officials in 20 states said they were unable to provide information on cancellation notices.

Sabrina Corlette, project director at the Health Policy Institute at Georgetown University, warns that Obama's decision last month could allow younger people with relatively few health problems to stay on bare-bones policies. That could lead to higher premiums in 2015 to offset the cost of covering people with more health problems, she said.

About four out of five states allowed insurers to offer early renewals to non-conforming policies that would have expired sometime next year, according to America's Health Insurance Plans, the industry trade association. Virginia, Maryland, Arizona and Nebraska regulators said they won't allow companies to resurrect cancelled plans as Obama suggested because the same could be accomplished if policy holders took advantage of early renewals before the end of this year.

Consumers Union health care reform analyst Lynn Quincy said staying with an existing policy is a natural starting point. But renewing an existing policy with a high deductible or excluding types of coverage needed later may not turn out to be the best deal, she said. "If your old coverage continued, that's fine. But look at your other options before enrolling, because you can't be turned down now" for pre-existing health conditions, Quincy said.

McDonald’s Corp. has shut down a website intended to provide employees with work and life guidance after it generated negative publicity for the fast-food company. The McResource program has been criticized for creating unrealistic budgets and offering advice that was out of touch with its workers' pay. The website, which was run by an outside company, also reportedly discouraged workers from eating fast food.

McDonald's, based in Oak Brook, Ill., said Thursday that it is having its vendor take down the website. "Between links to irrelevant or outdated information, along with outside groups taking elements out of context, this created unwarranted scrutiny and inappropriate commentary," the company said in a statement.

Earlier this year, media and labor groups criticized the website for content including sample budgets for employees that were based on holding two jobs and included no costs for heating, as well as suggestions on what to tip a personal fitness trainer.

One critic, the "Low Pay is Not Okay" campaign, was one of the groups behind strikes and rallies by fast-food workers and labor organizers earlier this month that demanded better pay. While efforts vary by state, organizers are hoping to build public support to raise the federal minimum wage of $7.25, or about $15,000 a year for full-time work.

Political

President Barack Obama has signed a bipartisan budget bill easing automatic spending cuts over two years. Obama signed the bill while vacationing in Hawaii. The deal reduces across-the-board cuts already scheduled to take effect, restoring about $63 billion over two years. It includes a projected $85 billion in other savings.

It’s not the grand bargain that Obama and congressional Republicans once had wanted, but it ends the cycle of fiscal brinkmanship for now, by preventing another government shutdown for nearly two years.

Business

A growing number of websites are reining in the inappropriate online commentaries that regularly occur.

Companies, including Google and the Huffington Post, are trying everything from deploying moderators to forcing people to use their real names in order to restore civil discourse. Some sites, such as Popular Science, are banning comments altogether.

The efforts put sites in a delicate position. The longer visitors stay to read the posts, and the more they come back, the more a site can charge for advertising. What websites don’t want is the kind of nastiness that spewed forth under a recent CNN.com article about the Affordable Care Act.

“If it were up to me, you progressive libs destroying this country would be hanging from the gallows for treason. People are awakening though. If I were you, I'd be very afraid,” wrote someone using the name “JBlaze.”

YouTube, which is owned by Google, caused a stir last month when it began requiring people to log into Google Plus to write a comment. Besides herding users to Google’s unified network, the company says the move is designed to raise the level of discourse in the conversations that play out under YouTube videos.

A Cheerios commercial featuring an interracial family, met with such a barrage of racist responses on YouTube in May that General Mills shut down comments on it altogether.

“Starting this week, when you're watching a video on YouTube, you'll see comments sorted by people you care about first,” wrote YouTube product manager Nundu Janakiram and principal engineer Yonatan Zunger in a blog post announcing the changes.

“If you post videos on your channel, you also have more tools to moderate welcome and unwelcome conversations. This way, YouTube comments will become conversations that matter to you.”

Anonymity has always been a major appeal of online life. At its best, anonymity allows people to speak freely without repercussions. It allows whistle blowers and protesters to espouse unpopular opinions. At its worst, it allows people to spout off without repercussions. It gives trolls and bullies license to pick arguments, threaten and abuse.

“It’s not so much that our offline lives are going online, it's that our offline and online lives are more integrated,” says Mark Lashley, a professor of communications at La Salle University in Philadelphia. Facebook, which requires people to use their real names, played a big part in the seismic shift.

“The way the Web was developed, it was unique in that the avatar and the handle were always these things people used to go by. It did develop into a Wild West situation,” he says, adding that it's no surprise that Google and other companies are going this route.

“As more people go online and we put more of our lives online, we should be held accountable for things we say.”

Nearly three-quarters of teens and young adults think people are more likely to use discriminatory language online or in text messages than in face to face conversations, according to a recent poll from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and MTV.

The poll didn’t distinguish between anonymous comments and those with real identities attached.

Huffington Post is also clamping down on vicious comments. In addition to employing 40 human moderators who sift through readers' posts for racism, homophobia, hate speech and the like, the AOL-owned news site is also chipping away at anonymous commenting.

Previously, anyone could respond to an article posted on the site by creating an account, without tying it to an email address. This fall, HuffPo began requiring people to verify their identity by connecting their accounts to an email address.

“We are reaching a place where the Internet is growing up,” says Jimmy Soni, managing editor of HuffPo. “These changes represent a maturing (online) environment.”

Soni says the changes have already made a difference in the quality of the comments. The lack of total anonymity, while not a failsafe method, offers people a “gut check moment,” he says. There have been “significantly fewer things that we would not be able to share with our mothers” in the HuffPo comments section since the change, Soni says.

Health

Most people support liver or kidney donations to save someone's life. But would you donate your hands, or your face?

The government is preparing to regulate the new field of hand and face transplants like it does standard organ transplants, giving more Americans who are disabled or disfigured by injury, illness or combat a chance at this radical kind of reconstruction.

Among the first challenges is deciding how people should consent to donate these very visible body parts that could improve someone's quality of life – without deterring them from traditional donation of hearts, lungs and other internal organs needed to save lives.

“Joe Blow is not going to know that now an organ is defined as also including a hand or a face,” said Dr. Suzanne McDiarmid, who chairs the committee of the United Network for Organ Sharing, or UNOS, that will develop the new policies over the next few months.

Making that clear to potential donors and their families is critical – “otherwise we could undermine public trust,” said McDiarmid, a transplant specialist at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“The consent process for the life-saving organs should not, must not, be derailed by a consent process for a different kind of organ that the public might think of as being very different from donating a kidney or a heart or a liver,” she added.

These so-called “reconstructive transplants” are experimental and rare. The best estimates are that 27 hand transplants have been performed in the U.S. since 1999, and about seven partial or full face transplants since 2008, said Dr. Vijay Gorantla, medical director of the University of Pittsburgh reconstructive transplant program.

But they’re gradually increasing as more U.S. hospitals offer the complex surgeries, the Defense Department funds research into the approach for wounded veterans – and as transplant recipients go public to say how the surgeries have improved their lives.

In July, government regulations go into effect making hand and face transplants subject to the same strict oversight by UNOS, which manages the U.S. transplant program, as heart or kidney transplants.

The rules mean potential recipients will be added to the UNOS network, for matching of donated hands and face tissue that are the right tissue type and compatible for skin color, size, gender and age. Transplants and their outcomes will be tracked.

 

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Week in Review

 International

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations arrived in Central African Republic in the highest profile American effort to date. Samantha Powers said on the eve of her visit she and President Barack Obama were “deeply disturbed” by the killings by rival militias since the government was overthrown in March.

“The violence has been vicious and primarily directed toward civilians and is increasingly sectarian,” Powers told reporters in a conference call. “Obviously, urgent action is required to save lives.”

Powers landed near a refugee camp of 40,000 people and will meet with religious and community leaders as well as with President Michel Djotodia, whose forces are accused of taking part in the atrocities.

While Powers, who has been a vocal proponent of U.S. intervention to stop mass atrocities, cautioned against comparing Central African Republic to other African tragedies, she didn’t hesitate to draw parallels.

Before joining government service, Powers wrote a Pulitzer-prize winning book in 2002 about how various U.S. administrations over the years have been reluctant to confront mass atrocities and genocide around the world.

“Somalia showed us what can happen in a failed state and Rwanda showed us what can occur in a deeply divided nation,” she said. “The population of the Central Africa Republic is in danger.”

Muslim rebels overthrew the government of Central African Republic and a cycle of atrocities and revenge attacks followed, peaking over the most recent few days with hundreds killed around the country. Human Rights Watch said in a report that Christian militias, including soldiers of the deposed regime, responding to “rampant abuses”

by Muslim armed groups have killed hundreds around the country, sparking further retaliatory attacks. According to Powers, some 400,000 people, almost 10 percent of the population had been displaced from their homes in what was already one of Africa’s poorest countries.

A French military force of 1,600 backed by 3,500 troops from African countries have intervened in the country with U.S. logistical support in efforts to stop the killings that had left bodies rotting in the streets of the capital Bangui.

Human Rights Watch’s U.N. director Phillipe Bolopion said Powers’ early work on genocide makes her a significant choice for the first high-level U.S. mission.

“She used to be an observer on the sidelines and now she is at the very center of it so she’s fully aware of what is at stake there and with her background I think she is doing everything in her power to push the U.S. government to react the way it should,” he said.

Bolopion called for a U.N. peacekeeping mission of at least 9,000 soldiers. A senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said part of Powers’ mission would be to assess the necessity of such a mission.

National

Congress sent President Barack Obama legislation scaling back across-the-board cuts on programs ranging from the Pentagon to the national park system.

President Obama’s signature was assured on the measure, which lawmakers in both parties and at opposite ends of the Capitol said they hoped would curb budget brinkmanship and prevent more shutdowns in the near future.

The legislation passed the Democratic-controlled Senate on a vote of 64-36, six days after clearing the Republican-run House by a similarly bipartisan margin of 332-94.

The product of intensive year-end talks, the measure met the short-term political needs of Republicans, Democrats and the White House. As a result, there was no suspense about the outcome of the vote in the Senate – only about fallout in the 2014 elections and, more immediately, its impact on future congressional disputes over spending and the nation's debt limit.

“I’m tired of the gridlock and the American people I talk to, especially from Arkansas, are tired of it as well,” said Sen. Mark Pryor, a Democrat who supported the bill yet will have to defend his vote in next year's campaign for a new term.

His likely Republican rival, Rep. Tom Cotton, voted against the measure in mid December, when it cleared the House. The measure, negotiated by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., averts $63 billion in across-the-board spending cuts that were themselves the result of an earlier inability of lawmakers and the White House to agree on a sweeping deficit reduction plan.

That represents about one-third of the cuts originally ticketed for the 2014 and 2015 budget years and known in Washington as sequestration.

Democrats expressed satisfaction that money would be restored for programs like Head Start and education, and lawmakers in both parties and the White House cheered the cancellation of future cuts at the Pentagon. To offset the added spending, the legislation provides about $85 billion in savings from elsewhere in the budget.

Included are increases in the airline ticket tax that helps pay for security at airports and a fee corporations pay to have pensions guaranteed by the government. Most controversial by far was a provision to curtail annual cost of living increases in benefits that go to military retirees under age 62, a savings of $6.3 billion over a decade for the government.

Political

 Retired U.S. basketball star Dennis Rodman said he was not going to North Korea to talk about politics or human rights, despite political tension surrounding the execution of leader Kim Jong Un’s uncle.

Rodman has visited Pyongyang twice before, spending time dining as a guest of Kim, with whom he says he has a genuine friendship. His latest visit follows the rare public purge of Kim’s powerful uncle Jang Song Thaek, who was executed earlier.

South Korean President Park Geun-hye has described recent events as a “reign of terror.” The purging of Jang, considered the second most powerful man in the North, indicated factionalism within the secretive Pyongyang government.

“It has nothing to do with me. I mean, whatever his uncle has done, and whoever's done anything in North Korea, I have no control over that. I mean, these things have been going on for years and years and years," Rodman said. “I'm just going over there to do a basketball game and have some fun,” he said.

Prior to the trip, Seoul-based North Korean human rights activist Shin Dong-hyuk said in an open letter in the Washington Post that Rodman should talk to Kim about human rights abuses in North Korea. Rodman said it was not his place to talk about such issues.

“People have been saying these things here and there. It doesn't really matter to me. I’m not a politician. I'm not an ambassador,” he said. “I’m just going over there to try and do something really cool for a lot of people, play some games and try to get the Korean kids to play,” he said.

“Everything else I have nothing to do with. If it happens that he wants to talk about it then great. If it doesn’t happen I just can’t bring it up, because I don’t (want) him to think that I’m over here trying to be an ambassador and trying to use him as being his friend and all of a sudden I'm talking about politics. That’s not going to be that way,” Rodman said.

Rodman is expected to provide North Korea’s national basketball team with four days of training during the trip. He also intends to return to Pyongyang in January with a team of fellow former National Basketball Association stars to hold basketball games on Kim's birthday.

Rodman’s trip was arranged by Irish bookmakers Paddy Power.

Business

Sparse crowds at malls and “50 percent off” signs at The Gap, AnnTaylor and other stores give a clue as to how the holiday season is going. Sales are up 2 percent to $176.7 billion from the start of the season on Nov. 1 through Sunday, according to data obtained by The Associated Press from store data tracker ShopperTrak.

That's a slower pace than expected given that there are just days left in the season: ShopperTrak is forecasting that sales will rise 2.4 percent to $265 billion for the two-month stretch that's typically the busiest shopping period of the year.

The modest growth comes as the amount of discounts that stores are offering this season is up 13 percent from last year – the highest level since 2008 when the country was in a recession, according to financial services firm BMO Capital Markets, which tracks 20 clothing stores.

“The holiday season has been marginal to just OK,” said Joel Bines, managing director and co-head of the retail practice at AlixPartners. “Retailers are doing anything they can to get rid of merchandise.”

The data underscores how aggressive discounting has been both a blessing and a curse for retailers. Since the recession, the only way to get Americans into stores has been to flash huge discount signs in front of their faces.

Retailers have learned that shoppers become immune to the deals, so they have to continue to offer bigger discounts to get them to come into stores. That erodes retailers' sales since shoppers are spending less. It also eats away at retailers' profit margins.

Still, analysts say retailers have created a cycle of constant discounting that they'll have to continue in order to attract U.S. shoppers, many of who are still dealing with stagnant wages and rising costs for things like health care.

Target says that about 40 million credit and debit card accounts may have been affected by a data breach that occurred just as the holiday shopping season increased.

The chain said that accounts of customers who made purchases using their cards at its U.S. stores between Nov. 27 and Dec. 15 may have been exposed. The stolen data includes customer names, credit and debit card numbers, card expiration dates and the three-digit security codes located on the backs of cards.

The Minneapolis company said it immediately told authorities and financial institutions once it became aware of the breach and that it is teaming with a third-party forensics firm to investigate the matter. It said it is putting all “appropriate resources” toward the issue.

Target Corp. advised customers to check their statements carefully. Those who suspect there has been unauthorized activity on their cards should report it to their credit card companies and call Target at 866-852-8680. Cases of identity theft can also be reported to law enforcement or the Federal Trade Commission.

Target didn’t say exactly how the data breach occurred but said it had since fixed the problem and that credit card holders can continue shopping at its stores.

Health

The Obama Administration sounded the alarm over rising marijuana use among the nation’s youth, saying that softening attitudes about the perceived risk of the drug are responsible for the increase. Sixty percent of 12th graders do not view regular marijuana use as harmful, and more than 12 percent of eighth-graders said they had used the drug in the past year, according to a survey released by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

“Making matters worse, more teens are now smoking marijuana than smoke cigarettes,” said Gil Kerlikowske, President Barack Obama’s drug czar. “Well, this isn’t a recipe for raising a healthy generation of young people who are prepared to meet America’s challenges.”

He criticized the legalization of marijuana in Washington state and Colorado, calling the plans “a very large social experiment.”

And he delivered a clear shot aimed at pro-legalization advocates who argue that marijuana is safer than alcohol, saying: “For some to say that it is less dangerous than other substances is a ridiculous statement.” The survey found that 23 percent of high school seniors used marijuana in the past month, compared with 16 percent who smoked cigarettes.

Among 12th graders, 6.5 percent said they smoked pot every day, and more than 36 percent said they had smoked it in the past year. Among 10th graders, 4 percent said they used marijuana daily, with 18 percent reporting past month use, and 29.8 percent said they had used it in the previous year.

“These are very high numbers, considering that these are kids at school,” said Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which conducts the yearly study as part of a project with the University of Michigan.

Volkow, who joined Kerlikowske in a conference call said this year’s survey carried some bright spots: Alcohol and tobacco use declined, and fewer students said they were using synthetic marijuana. But the survey cited the misuse of prescription stimulants as another “cause for concern.”

The percentage of 12th graders who said they used amphetamines for non-medical reasons in the past year rose from 6.8 percent in 2008 to 8.7 percent in 2013, and officials said that many of them said they were using them not for fun but before exams hoping to boost their performance.

 

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Nelson Mandela

International

Mandela was eulogized by President Barack Obama, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and some of his grandkids before a crowd of 95,000.

“His struggle was your struggle. His triumph was your triumph. Your dignity and hope found expression in his life, and your freedom, your democracy is his cherished legacy,” Obama told the crowd. “The world thanks you for sharing Nelson Mandela with us.”

Mandela's death at the age of 95 did not come as a surprise, and the atmosphere at the memorial was celebratory. World leaders and South Africans alike bowed before Nelson Mandela's flag-draped coffin in the same amphitheater where he was sworn in as the country's first black president 19 years ago.

Thousands of people lined up at Pretoria's Union Buildings for a last chance to see the anti-apartheid icon memorialized as a “giant of history."

Among those paying their respects were singer Bono, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and model Naomi Campbell.

F.W. de Klerk, South Africa's last white president and Mandela's fellow Nobel laureate. As a week of public grieving continues, the government is trying to make sure as many people as possible have a chance to say farewell to the man who led his nation to democracy after decades of white minority-rule. Mandela is so revered around the world that more than 70 heads of state and government traveled to South Africa for his memorial service.

Mandela won the hearts of many Afrikaners -- white descendants of Dutch and French Hugenot settlers -- after he was released from prison in 1990. While at Robben Island he learned Afrikaans, their language, and made friends with his white prison guards. As president he hired Afrikaner staff, embraced rugby and even invited one of the prosecutors who had him imprisoned, Percy Yutar, to lunch.

The vetting of a sign language interpreter who got within three feet of world leaders including President Barack Obama during Nelson Mandela's memorial was being investigated after organizers admitted they were unaware of his violent history of schizophrenic episodes.

Thamsanqa Jantjie, 34, was accused of gesticulating gibberish during Mandela's funeral service. Members of the deaf community said his movements did not resemble any recognized form of sign language and some groups accused him of being a "fake."

Jantjie, a South African sign language interpreter accused of gesticulating gibberish during a memorial to Nelson Mandela defended his "champion" performance but said he may have suffered a schizophrenic episode while on stage. The South African government admitted that "a mistake was made." "There was nothing I could do," he said. "I was alone in a very dangerous situation. I tried to control myself and not show the world what was going on. I am very sorry. It's the situation I found myself in."

Jantjie later told The Associated Press that during the memorial he saw "angels" and had been violent in the past. He said he tried not to panic during the memorial because there were "armed policemen around me." Asked how often he had become violent, he said "a lot,” but he declined to provide details.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said, "It's a shame that a service that was dedicated to honoring the life and celebrating the legacy of one of the great leaders of the 20th century has gotten distracted by this and a couple of other issues that are far less important than the legacy of Nelson Mandela.”

Russia is not trying to be a superpower or to "teach anyone how to live," President Vladimir Putin said, in a veiled criticism, of the United States. "We do not aspire to be called some kind of superpower, understanding that as a claim to world or regional hegemony," Putin said in an annual address to parliamentarians and senior national officials.

"We do not infringe on anyone's interests, we do not force our patronage on anyone, or try to teach anyone how to live," he said. Russia, he said, would strive to be a leader which defended international law and respected national sovereignty and the independence of nations.

"This is absolutely understandable for a state like Russia, with its great history and culture," he said.

 

Russia had a big role in a deal under which Damascus is to scrap its chemical weapons and possible U.S. military strikes were averted. He said Russia had helped "international law, common sense and the logic of peace" prevail. Putin warned that the development of anti-missile shields and powerful long-range non-nuclear weapons could "reduce to nothing" existing nuclear arms control pacts and upset the post-Cold War strategic balance.

"Nobody should have any illusion about the possibility of gaining military superiority over Russia," he added. "We will never allow this to happen. Russia will respond to all these challenges, political and military."

Russia is developing its own effective non-nuclear weapons, he said, adding that in efforts to upgrade its nuclear arsenal "we are reaching new milestones successfully and on schedule. Some of our partners will have to catch up." Putin also said that he was counting on a political solution to the ongoing crisis in neighboring Ukraine, where pro-European protesters are facing off against a government seeking closer ties with Moscow.

"I hope that all political powers in the country manage to reach an agreement that is in the interests of the Ukrainian people and find a solution to all the problems that have piled up," he said, referring to the ongoing protests.

 

National

From the White House to the halls of Congress, U.S. government officials have responded to the death of Nelson Mandela with a hail of testimonials to the late South African president’s leadership in the struggle for freedom and human rights.

Until five years ago, however, the U.S. officially considered Mandela a terrorist. During the Cold War, both the State and Defense departments dubbed Mandela’s political party, the African National Congress, a terrorist group, and Mandela’s name remained on the U.S. terrorism watch list till 2008.

Presidents Carter and Reagan and Congress had all instituted sanctions against the white minority South African government because of its policy of racial apartheid. But in 1986, Reagan condemned Mandela’s group, the ANC, which was leading the black struggle against the apartheid regime, saying it engaged in "calculated terror ... the mining of roads, the bombings of public places, designed to bring about further repression."

After the apartheid regime in South Africa declared the ANC a terrorist group, the Reagan administration followed suit. In August of 1988, the State Department listed the ANC among "organizations that engage in terrorism.” It said the group ''disavows a strategy that deliberately targets civilians,” but noted that civilians had “been victims of incidents claimed by or attributed to the ANC.”

Five months later, in January 1989, the Defense Department included the ANC in an official publication, "Terrorist Group Profiles," with a foreword by President-elect George H.W. Bush. The ANC was listed among 52 of the "world's more notorious terrorist groups."

Mandela and other ANC officials remained on the terror watch list even as President Bush welcomed Mandela, newly released from prison, to the White House in 1990. Because of what was described as a "bureaucratic snafu," their names were kept on the list until 2008; 14 years after Mandela had been elected president and nine years after he had left power. He was 90 at the time.

In April 2008, during the last year of the George W. Bush administration, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told a Senate committee that her department had to issue waivers for ANC members to travel to the United States. "This is a country with which we now have excellent relations, South Africa, but it's frankly a rather embarrassing matter that I still have to waive in my own counterpart, the foreign minister of South Africa, not to mention the great leader Nelson Mandela," Rice said.

Later that year, the terrorist designation was dropped after a bill, proposed by then Senator now secretary of State John Kerry, passed both houses of Congress and was signed by President Bush.

Mandela was imprisoned in 1964 after being arrested and charged with sabotage, specifically a campaign against the country's power grid, and plotting to overthrow the government. No one was injured in the sabotage campaign. He was released in 1990, at age 71. He was elected president of South Africa in 1994, in the country’s first full and free elections, and served until 1999.

 

Political

Political compromise is taking a turn in Congress in the form of a budget deal that is modest in size yet marks a major step away from brinkmanship. It's nothing like the version pressed by the Tea Party adherents who stormed to power in the House three years ago. They have maneuvered their own Republican Party from showdown to self-defeating shutdown, with dismal approval ratings to show for it

"We understand in this divided government we're not going to get everything we want," Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin said. He was referring to himself and Republican lawmakers after pitching the plan to them the day after he'd announced it alongside Democratic Sen. Patty Murray. "By having a budget agreement that does not raise taxes, that does reduce the deficit and produces some certainty and prevents government shutdowns we think is a good agreement."

The mood inside the closed-door meeting was said to be positive. There wasn’t a comment about defunding Obamacare. "Not even mentioned," said Rep. Howard 'Buck" McKeon of California. Both Democrats and Republicans in the negotiations shared a goal of easing the across-the-board spending cuts known in “Washington-speak” as a sequester, and of returning Congress to a state in which the Appropriations Committees would be able to write and pass routine bills covering each agency, rather than lumping them all into one sure-to-be-disputed bill.

"The Constitution says that the legislative branch should exercise the power of the purse," Ryan said, standing next to Murray, the Democratic negotiator from Washington state. "We want to reclaim that from the administration, instead of having all of these" stopgap bills.

In a forceful tone, House Speaker John A. Boehner spoke out against the conservative advocacy groups that helped bring his party to power, saying their opposition to a bipartisan budget proposal amounted to an effort to manipulate Republicans and the American people “for their own goals.”

Business

More of the world's millionaires and billionaires are seeking at-home teachers to give their children a leg up in the competitive and important education race. And, as the number of rich people grows around the world they are creating their own mobile, ultra-private schools in their homes. Tutors International, a London-based tutor agency that hires and places many tutors in the U.S., said its business this year will nearly double over last year.

The typical salary for a full-time tutor today has jumped to between $70,000 and $120,000 depending on the requirements. But Tutors International has placed one tutor who is making $400,000 a year and another who was paid $80,000 for just 16 weeks of work. Along with their pay, most tutors also usually get free housing, cars or drivers, paid travel and meals, and occasionally even a private chef and personal assistant.

"For these families, they look at the costs of just fueling their jet or buying a new sports car, and spending $100,000 or more for a tutor is not a great expense," said Adam Caller, the founder of Tutors International and a former tutor and teacher himself. "They know education is important."

Caller said his clients fall into three basic categories. First, there are rich families who want to supplement their children's schooling with added subjects and help them with homework. Second, there are families who have children with special needs, where home schooling is more effective.

Many of his clients fall into the third category: rich families that travel between multiple homes around the world and don't want to be tied to one location because of their children's school. Some of these families are also so rich and famous that their children would be mobbed at a regular school.

"They may be based in New York, have a boat in France and a house in Mexico and in South Africa, and they want to use them all," Caller said. "With home schooling and a tutor, they can travel wherever they want and still get to be with their children."

Caller said the tutor he placed for $400,000 a year was for a rich family on the West Coast. The student was having trouble with school and with substance abuse, so the tutors had to home-school the student and coach the student and his family through rehab. Caller said the job was "quite challenging," but the tutor also received an apartment, a car, dinner every night and first-class travel.

Hannan, who is currently tutoring in Barcelona, Spain, said he's worked in nine countries over the last seven years and his travel is usually "to great places and great environments." But being a tutor to the rich has its downsides, Hannan said. "You have to be very flexible all the time, " he said. "Clients may need anything at a moment's notice and you have to get it right the first time. So there's not a whole lot of patience for error."

"Some of these families are used to paying for whatever they want," Knight said. "They don't understand that we can't guarantee a certain GPA or college." "We have to have to get results with these kids," Hannan said. "That's a great deal of pressure on us." Tutors International employs its tutors. The company monitors performance and receives constant feedback and performance reports from both the families and the tutors.

Health

A new study suggests that we are actually less likely to remember something once we’ve taken a photo of it. It’s because we are less likely to remember information if we think we can retrieve it later— like, you’re less likely to remember how to get to a friend’s house if you know you can always look it up on Google maps, for instance.

“We’re kind of counting on our technology to keep our memories,” says Linda Henkel, a psychologist at Fairfield University. “We collect photos almost as if they’re trophies, or evidence, but that’s not the same thing as trying to capture the experience.”

The study, which was published this week in the journal Psychological Science, was done at the Bellarmine Museum of Art, where people participating in the experiment were taken on a museum tour. They were told to photograph some of the objects, and to simply observe others.

The next day, their memories were tested — and they remembered more details about the objects they observed than the objects they photographed. (They were even shown photos of things they had taken photos of, and they could not remember having seen those things at all, let alone photographing them.)

But in a second experiment, volunteers were instructed to zoom in on certain parts of a work of art. When their memories were later tested, they not only remembered the details of the part they’d zoomed in on, but they also remembered details from the rest of the piece.

You can apply this idea to your own life, Henkel says, by sort of zooming in on the moments that matter. Photograph those moments, and just live the rest, she says. Also: Don’t do the thing where you use your smartphone to record your favorite band playing at a live show instead of actually listening to them play, she says. “Look at the stage, and be in the moment,” she says, “instead of the representation of the moment.”

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Week in Review

International

In the closing hours of marathon negotiations in Geneva on Iran’s nuclear program, it was President Barack Obama, back at the White House, who approved the final language on the U.S. side before the historic deal was clinched.

His push for a thaw with Tehran dates back to before his presidency. Behind the risky diplomatic opening is a desire for a big legacy-shaping achievement and a deep aversion to getting America entangled in another Middle East conflict – motives that override misgivings to the Iran deal expressed by close allies Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Obama left the troubleshooting to Secretary of State John Kerry and gave him much of the credit for securing the diplomatic coup, but has taken "ownership" of the Iran issue.

The stakes are enormous for Obama. If the talks break down and Iran dashes to build an atomic bomb before the West can stop it, he could go into the history books as the president whose naivete allowed the Islamic Republic to go nuclear.

Obama promised to seek direct engagement with Iran and other U.S. enemies during the 2008 presidential campaign, drawing accusations from Republicans that he was promoting appeasement. He then used his first inaugural address in 2009 to offer to extend a hand if the Iranian leadership would "unclench their fist." After being snubbed, he galvanized international support for crippling sanctions that ultimately forced Tehran into the latest negotiations.

Kerry spoke by phone to Obama from Geneva to discuss the outstanding issues in the final tense stages of negotiations, a senior State Department official said. "This went all the way up to (Obama) personally approving the final language," the official said.

National

Americans back a newly brokered nuclear deal with Iran by a 2-to-1 margin and are very wary of the United States resorting to military action against Tehran even if the historic diplomatic effort falls through, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll.

The findings were good news in the polls for President Barack Obama whose approval ratings have dropped in recent weeks because of the troubled rollout of his signature healthcare reform law.

According to the Reuters/Ipsos survey, 44 percent of Americans support the interim deal reached between Iran and six world powers in Geneva, and 22 percent oppose it.

While indicating little trust among Americans toward Iranian intentions, the survey also underscored a strong desire to avoid new U.S. military entanglements after long, costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Even if the Iran deal fails, 49 percent want the United States to then increase sanctions and 31 percent think it should launch further diplomacy. But only 20 percent want U.S. military force to be used against Iran.

“This absolutely speaks to war fatigue, where the American appetite for intervention - anywhere - is extremely low,” Ipsos pollster Julia Clark said. “It could provide some support with Congress for the arguments being made by the administration.”

Tehran accepted temporary restrictions on its nuclear program in exchange for limited relief from tough economic sanctions under the Geneva deal, which the White House sees as a “first step” toward ensuring that Iran cannot develop an atomic bomb.

Obama and his aides are casting the Iran deal as the best alternative to a new Middle East conflict as they push back against skeptical lawmakers and close U.S. ally Israel who accuse Washington of giving up too much for too little.

Reflecting deep suspicions over Iran’s sincerity after more than three decades of estrangement between the two countries, the poll shows that 63 percent of Americans believe Tehran’s nuclear program is intended to develop a bomb - although Iran says the project is only for civilian purposes.

Despite that, 65 percent of those polled agreed that the United States “should not become involved in any military action in the Middle East unless America is directly threatened.” Only 21 percent disagreed with the statement.

There was every indication, however, that American public support for Israel remained high despite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's denunciation of the Iran deal as a “historic mistake” and new strains in U.S.-Israeli relations.

Fifty percent supported the notion that the United States “should use its military power to defend Israel against threats to its security, no matter where they come from.” Thirty-one percent disagreed.

A judge in Las Vegas rejected O.J. Simpson’s bid for a new trial, dashing the former football star’s bid for freedom based on the claim that his original lawyer botched his armed robbery and kidnapping trial in Las Vegas.

“All grounds in the petition lack merit and, consequently, are denied,” Clark County District Judge Linda Marie Bell said.

The 101-page ruling came after a Clark County District Court jury found Simpson guilty in 2008 of kidnapping, armed robbery and other charges in what he maintained was an attempt to retrieve memorabilia and personal items from two sports collectibles dealers in a casino hotel room.

Simpson could appeal to the Nevada Supreme Court. If he loses at that level, the 66-year-old Simpson could go to federal courts to argue his constitutional right to effective counsel was violated.

Simpson’s legal defense in Las Vegas was headed at trial by the same Miami-based attorney, Yale Galanter, who represented him in the 2001 road rage case. Attorney Gabriel Grasso served with Galanter as co-counsel in Simpson’s Las Vegas case.

Bell’s ruling came on their claim that Simpson received inadequate legal representation during his trial and unsuccessful appeal to the Nevada Supreme Court. That appeal was handled by Galanter after Grasso withdrew.

Simpson’s new legal team later said they believed they presented overwhelming evidence that Galanter knew in advance of Simpson’s plan, had conflicted interests that shaped the way he handled Simpson’s case, and that as a result Simpson didn’t get a fair trial.

Simpson’s legal team said Galanter advised Simpson not to testify, failed to hire experts and investigators to help his case while pocketing much of the nearly $700,000 they say he was paid, and reached a pretrial agreement with prosecutors not to enter evidence into the trial record of phone calls that raised questions about whether he had knowledge of the heist.

Simpson’s legal team said that by remaining on the case through the appeal, Galanter nearly precluded Simpson from ever arguing he had ineffective counsel.

Political

            A Chicago woman who is dying of cancer can wed her lesbian partner after a federal judge ordered local officials to issue them a marriage license six months before an Illinois law recognizing gay unions takes effect.

The cancer patient, Vernita Gray, 64, and her partner, Patricia Ewert, 65, had argued in a lawsuit filed in federal court that a state law passed in late November allowing same-sex marriages discriminates against them because it would prevent them from getting married before Gray's death.

Gray suffers from breast cancer, which has spread to her bones and her brain. She may have only weeks to live, the couple said. U.S. District Judge Thomas Durkin ordered the Cook County clerk’s office to issue the couple a marriage license, which was delivered to their home, said Jim Scalzitti, a spokesman for County Clerk David Orr.

“I’m excited to be able to marry and take care of Pat, my partner and my family, should I pass,” said Gray in a statement. The couple has been together for five years.

Illinois became the 16th state to recognize same-sex marriages, starting on June 1, 2014. That was the latest in a series of gay rights victories, as Hawaii earlier in the month approved gay marriages and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in October dropped his appeal of a court ruling that legalized same-sex nuptials.

He said the judge’s decision applies only to this couple, though it is possible Lambda could hear from other couples in a similar situation. Ewert and Gray were among the first Illinois couples to be joined in a civil union, made legal in Illinois in June of 2011, the suit said. They also have exchanged vows in a religious ceremony.

Republican U.S. Congressman, Trey Rade, who recently pleaded guilty to cocaine possession, says he is focusing on rehab and will return to work as soon as possible, despite calls from party leaders in Florida for him to step down.

Cong. Radel’s “… top priority right now is to complete his rehabilitation and then return to work as soon as possible,” spokesman Dave Natonski wrote in an email to the Associated Press.

The chairman of the Republican Party of Florida suggested Radel should step down after his recent cocaine conviction in Washington, joining party leaders in Radel's own district calling for his resignation.

Gov. Rick Scott, meanwhile, joined the growing number of Republican leaders in Florida who have urged Radel to step down. “My thoughts and prayers are with Radel and his family,” said Scott.

The Naples Daily News reported that it spoke to Radel at a Naples rehabilitation facility. He said, “I’m here talking to my buddy,” he told the paper.

“I feel great. I am here focused on my family and my health. It really is upsetting. As I sit here and work on focusing on my family and health with people coming and harassing me.”

Michael D. Lyster, chairman of the Collier County Republicans, wrote, “These actions have violated the trust of those whom he was elected to represent and fall short of the standards for an elected official; especially a member of the United States Congress.”

Radel pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of cocaine possession. He admitted to purchasing 3.5 grams of cocaine from an undercover officer in Washington’s Dupont Circle neighborhood last month.

After the undercover officer gave Radel the drugs, federal agents confronted him, court documents show. Radel agreed to talk with the agents and invited them to his apartment, where he also retrieved a vial of cocaine he had in the home, the documents said.

Radel had been in office for 10 months when he was charged. His district includes the Gulf Coast communities of Fort Myers and Naples.

 Business

A voter initiative to enact a $15 minimum wage for thousands of workers in a Seattle suburb that houses the region's main international airport won a narrow victory that proponents hailed as a signal moment in the nationwide fight for livable wages.

The measure mandates that some 6,300 workers at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and nearby hotels, car rental agencies and parking lots receive a minimum hourly wage more than double the federal minimum wage of $7.25.

Washington’s hourly minimum wage is higher than any other U.S. state, and will rise by 13 cents to $9.32 an hour in January. The new wage in the city of SeaTac would be among the nation's highest, just below a $15.38 rate mandated for city workers and contractors in Sonoma, California.

“It shows that people are tired of waiting for corporate CEOs or Congress to deal with income inequality and that they can use democracy to make a change,” said Heather Weiner, spokeswoman for the union-backed Yes For SeaTac campaign.

The measure won by a margin of 77 votes with about 6,000 ballots cast, and King County election officials certified the outcome after weeks of uncertainty. Foes of the measure, among them Alaska Airlines, have already sued to block it from taking effect in January, arguing in part that the city lacks the authority to impose a minimum wage on the airport, which is owned by the Port of Seattle.

Health

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review provisions in the Affordable Care Act that require companies of a certain size to offer employees insurance coverage for birth control and other reproductive health services without a co-pay.

The court will examine whether non-profit organizations and private companies can snub the requirement by claiming it violates their religious beliefs.

Nearly 100 lawsuits have been filed in federal court challenging the contraception coverage provision. Three federal appeals courts have struck down the birth control rule, while two others have upheld it.

Baboons that were recently vaccinated against whooping cough don’t get sick but still carry the infection in their throats and can spread the disease to unvaccinated baboons, according to a new study.

Researchers say the finding may help explain the recent dramatic rise in cases of whooping cough across the United States, which reached a 50-year high in 2012.

The label on a “morning-after” emergency contraceptive sold in Europe will be changed to alert consumers that it is not effective in women who weigh more than 176 pounds.

The new warning on the label of Norlevo will also caution that the pill starts to lose its effectiveness in women heavier than 165 pounds, and is not recommended for anyone over this weight.

“When we became aware that there appeared to be an impact on efficacy (linked to weight), we felt it was our ethical duty as a drug manufacturer to report it and be transparent,” Erin Gainer, CEO of HRA Pharma, the French manufacturer of Norlevo, said.

Politics

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By Nusayba Hammad, Communications Director, US Campaign for Palestinian Rights (nusayba@uscpr.org) WASHINGTON, D.C. – In an act unprecedented in recent history, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand...
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