Whats In the News

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Week in Review

 International

Workers in a typhoon-shattered city in the Philippines buried 100 of its thousands of dead in a mass burial as aid began to reach some of the half-million people displaced by the disaster.

Six days after Typhoon Haiyan struck many of the dead were still lying along roads as survivors searched for bodies buried under the rubble. Philippine soldiers on trucks distributed rice and water as chainsaw teams cut debris from blocked roads.

The USS George Washington aircraft carrier and its strike group brought 21 helicopters to the area, which can help reach the most inaccessible areas. Authorities say 2,357 people have been confirmed dead in the disaster but that figure is expected to rise when information is collected from other areas.

Officials said efforts had been made to identify the bodies so families have a chance of finding out what happened to their loved ones in the days and weeks to come.

In addition to the USS George Washington, about a half dozen other U.S. ships,  including a destroyer and two huge supply vessels, along with two P-3 aircraft that are being used to survey the damage from the sky so that planners can assess where aid is most needed.

“We are operating 24-7,” said Capt. Cassandra Gesecki, a spokeswoman for the Marines, who have set up an operations hub near Manila's international airport. "We are inundated with flights."

Valerie Amos, the U.N. humanitarian chief who toured Tacloban said some 11.5 million people have been affected by the typhoon, which includes people who lost their loved ones, were injured, and suffered damage to their homes, business or livelihoods.

“The situation is dismal ... tens of thousands of people are living in the open ... exposed to rain and wind,” she told reporters in Manila. Aid has been slow to reach the 545,000 people displaced by the storm that tore through eastern Philippines.

Most of the casualties occurred in Leyte province, its capital Tacloban, and Samar Island. She said the immediate priority for humanitarian agencies over the next few days is to transport and distribute high energy biscuits and other food, tarpaulins, tents, clean drinking water and basic sanitation services.

Egypt’s foreign minister responded to speculation of a major foreign policy shift, saying during a top-level Russian visit that Cairo wants to boost ties with Moscow and not replace the United States as its key ally.

The remarks by Nabil Fahmy came after talks with Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, who led the Russian delegation to Cairo. It's Moscow's highest-level visit to Egypt in years and includes Russia's defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, whose presence has set off rumors of an arms deal.

Fahmy said he, Lavrov, Shigu and Egyptian Defense Minister Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who led the coup in July that ousted Egypt's Islamist President Mohammed Morsi would jointly meet. Fahmy said Egypt hopes for cooperation “in multiple fields” because of “Russia's significance in the international arena.”

“We seek to energize a relation that is already in existence,” Fahmy told reporters. When asked whether Russia would replace the U.S. as his country's chief ally, Fahmy said Egypt was not looking for a “substitute for anyone” and that Russia was too significant for such a role.

Egypt’s first freely elected president. Lavrov also said Russia's supports a return of stability to Egypt. "Russia would like to see a stable Egypt with a prosperous economy and an efficient political system," he said, offering support for a transition-to-democracy plan by Egypt's military-backed rulers, including an upcoming referendum on new constitutional amendments. The vote is first step in the interim government's fast track plan is aimed at returning to democratic rule by next year.

National

A federal probe of a Transportation Security Administration program to screen suspicious behavior of passengers at airports suggests the effort, which has cost almost $1 billion since 2007, has not been proven effective, according to a report.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) said its investigation found that the results of the TSA program were “no better than chance.” Under the program, agents identify suspicious looking people and talk to them to determine whether they pose a threat.

“TSA has yet to empirically demonstrate the effectiveness of the program despite spending about $900 million on it since 2007,” said Steve Lord, who directed the investigation for the GAO.

He said the GAO, which is the research and investigative arm of Congress, “conducts active oversight of the TSA for the Congress given their multibillion-dollar budget.” He said, “the behavior detection program is viewed as a key layer of aviation security.”

The investigation found that behavior detection officers at the four airports said some behavioral indicators they used were "subjective." The report said the TSA is still collecting evidence on the screening program but has indicated it needs more time to determine the program's effectiveness.

Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers on the House Homeland Security Committee said the report raises serious questions about the screening program. “While I believe there is value in utilizing behavior detection and analysis in the aviation environment, especially since it is used successfully by law enforcement, we can only support programs that are proven effective,” said Rep. Mike McCaul, R-Texas, the committee's chairman.

Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said the GAO report found that the "program is fundamentally flawed, cannot be proven effective and should no longer be funded with taxpayer dollars."

Michelle Obama is joining President Barack Obama's efforts to get the United States on track to have the highest percentage of college graduates by 2020.

Mrs. Obama spoke to students at Bell Multicultural High School just a few miles from the White House. Officials say the event is part of what will be a broader focus for the first lady on getting students, especially those in underserved communities, on track to attend college.

Mrs. Obama told students that meeting the 2020 goal is important, but their personal success is just as significant. "No matter what the president does, no matter what your teachers and principals do, or whatever is going on in your home or neighborhood, the person with the biggest impact on your education is you,” the First Lady said. “It’s going to take young people like all of you across the country stepping up and taking control of your education.”

Mrs. Obama also drew from her own experience as she encouraged students at the high school with a large immigrant population to attend college. She said neither of her parents went to college, but they had an “unwavering belief in the power of education.”

The First Lady said she attended one of the best high schools in Chicago across town that required her to wake up at 6 a.m. and travel at least an hour on the bus. Mrs. Obama, who grew up in a working class family, went on to Princeton University and Harvard Law School.

“Some of my teachers straight up told me that I was setting my sights too high. They told me I was never going to get into a school like Princeton,” Mrs. Obama said to a crowd of 10th graders. "It was clear to me that nobody was going to take my hand and lead me to where I needed to go; instead it was going to be up to me to reach my goals."

Officials said Mrs. Obama is coordinating with Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who has been overseeing the president's efforts to boost the nation's college graduation rate. The president has cited statistics showing that the U.S. ranks 12th globally in the proportion of people who hold college degrees.

Political

About 106,000 people signed up for insurance coverage nationally under President Barack Obama's health care law during October, a fraction of the millions of people that had been expected to enroll for next year. The Obama administration had signaled enrollment would be very low in October because of technical failures with its HealthCare.gov website used for signing people up in 36 states.

But the reported figures show how far the White House has to go to build a new individual market of millions of consumers in 2014 to keep the health care program financially viable.

The enrollment in private plans amounts to 1.5 percent of a forecast 7 million people who were expected to sign up by the time enrollment wraps up in the end of March. Nearly 1 million people have successfully checked whether they are eligible for government subsidies toward the new insurance, but have not selected a plan, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives are demanding that the White House swiftly help people whose existing insurance policies are being canceled and to fix the broken website by the end of the month.

The sign-up figures reflect people who have picked a new insurance plan but may not have paid their premiums yet. Some 26,794 people signed up for private health insurance plans through the federal marketplace and 79,391 signed up through state-based exchanges.

The projection figures showed 396,261 people were deemed eligible for the government's Medicaid program or the Children's Health Insurance Program for the poor.

House Democrats met with administration officials for more than an hour, angry that the botched rollout could become a major political liability for the party during the 2014 mid-term elections. A senior House Democratic aide said lawmakers called for Obama to announce a remedy to the canceled policies before a vote on a Republican bill allowing people to keep their current health insurance plans if they like them. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told reporters he had a long conversation with Obama and said he feels “very comfortable” that the website will be fixed.

Obama had repeatedly promised that Americans who liked their health insurance could keep it when the law took effect on Oct. 1, but several million people have received cancellation notices because their plans do not comply with new requirements, such as coverage for mental health treatment.

Business

Janet L. Yellen, President Obama’s choice to lead the Federal Reserve over the next four years, has championed the idea that the Fed can stimulate the economy simply by speaking clearly.

Her confirmation by the Senate is regarded by most Democrats and Republicans as all but inevitable. The questions she will begin to confront immediately, as she appears before the Senate Banking Committee, are whether the Fed under her leadership can communicate more clearly than it has managed to do in recent months – and whether that is the best the Fed can do to lift the economy from its enduring malaise.

Ms. Yellen, the Fed’s vice chairwoman since 2010, has been a key architect of the push to more fully explain to the public the Fed’s actions, its reasoning and its plans.

The theory is that the Fed can exert greater influence over investors, by enlisting them to hold down longer-term interest rates at a time when the Fed has cut short-term rates practically as low as they can go, by detailing an itinerary rather than sending occasional postcards.

The Fed has said that it will begin to taper its asset purchases in the coming months. To counter any negative effects from that move, the central bank is likely at the same time to reinforce its commitment to hold down interest rates until unemployment gets closer to normal levels.

Mr. Bernanke and Ms. Yellen, along with other Fed officials, have argued that the Fed can limit the increase in borrowing costs for businesses and consumers by persuading investors that short-term rates will remain near zero well into the future, because interest rates on longer-term loans are determined in large part by the expected level of short-term rates over the duration of the loan.

Long-term rates rose in part because investors saw the arrival of tapering as indicating that short-term rates also might start to rise sooner than they had expected. Ms. Yellen faces the challenge of convincing investors that is not the case.

Health

Some 21 nations in the Middle East and nearby regions have jointly made the eradication of polio an emergency priority and recognized that Pakistan is a key part of the problem, the World Health Organization said.

The joint resolution by nations who are part of the U.N. health agency's Eastern Mediterranean region have called on Pakistan to urgently vaccinate all of its children to prevent the virus from spreading internationally.

Pakistan also approved the resolution, which the Geneva-based agency says includes Afghanistan, Bahrain, Djibouti, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.

The problem is particularly challenging in Pakistan, where a U.N.-backed eradication campaign has suffered from violence and mistrust directed against polio workers and people who want their children vaccinated. Earlier this week, WHO officials said the polio virus has now been confirmed in 13 of 22 children who became paralyzed in a northern Syrian province.

The health agency said the Syria outbreak comes from a strain that originated in Pakistan, where, along with Afghanistan and Nigeria, it is endemic – and has been spreading across the Middle East.

 

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International

The international chemical weapons watchdog said that Syria had met an important deadline for “the functional destruction” of all the chemical weapons production and mixing facilities declared to inspectors, “rendering them inoperable” under a deal brokered by Russia and the United States.

“The Joint O.P.C.W.-U.N. mission has inspected 21 of the 23 sites declared by Syria, and 39 of the 41 facilities located at those sites,'’ the statement said.

“The two remaining sites were not visited due to safety and security concerns. But Syria declared those sites as abandoned and that the chemical weapons program items they contained were moved to other declared sites, which were inspected.”

The statement added, “The joint mission is now satisfied that it has verified – and seen destroyed – all of Syria’s declared critical production and mixing/filling equipment. Given the progress made, no further inspection activities are currently planned.”

The group said Syria had “met the deadline” set by the O.P.C.W. Executive Council, which had urged the destruction “as soon as possible and in any case not later than 1 November 2013” of production and mixing and filling equipment.

Syria agreed to the destruction of its chemical arsenal to avert threatened American and French military strikes after a poison gas attack in a suburb of Damascus on Aug. 21 that killed hundreds of people.

The next phase of the timetable set down by the United Nations foresees Syria destroying its stockpiles of chemical weapons by mid-2014. Syria has submitted proposals to completely destroy the arsenal to the O.P.C.W., which has yet to approve them.

“The next milestone for the mission will be November 15, by which time the Executive Council must approve a detailed plan of destruction submitted by Syria to eliminate its chemical weapons stockpile,” the group’s statement said.

National

 

No matter what investors thought about Obamacare politically – the law is going to make some people very rich.

The Affordable Care Act will enable savvy investors to underwrite innovative companies specifically designed to profit from the law. Billions could flow from Washington to Wall Street. It is going to be great for investors.

Before the technological setbacks, the Congressional Budget Office expected up to 16 million people, including Medicaid subscribers, to sign up for insurance by the end of 2014. In many ways, however, Obamacare is less about health care than it is about economics.

Medical costs have outpaced inflation for decades, and they are expected to continue to grow significantly over the coming years.

The C.B.O. has indicated that those costs are by far the largest contributor to the country’s long-term deficit. “Health reform was not just about covering the uninsured,” Elizabeth Fowler, a former staff member for Senator Max Baucus of Montana and a chief architect of the Affordable Care Act, said according reports.

It was “about this twin goal of access and finding ways to reduce the rate of growth in health spending. Everybody is focused on the coverage angle, but the changes in the law designed to address cost could be a bigger and longer-lasting change.”

The economic assumption inherent in the law is that the government can cut costs by shifting the incentives of health care providers. The existing system is built around a so-called fee-for-service model, in which doctors, hospitals and other practitioners are paid procedure by procedure.

The Affordable Care Act seeks to pivot toward what’s called a value-based model, one in which plans and providers compete on price and quality rather than volume.

“Before the Affordable Care Act, hospitals and other providers were paid almost solely based on how much work they did, not on how well they did,” Jonathan Blum, the principal deputy administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, told me.

Obamacare emphasizes these new incentives by leveraging the extraordinary buying power of Medicare and Medicaid, which together foot the bill for nearly $1 trillion a year in health care costs, to encourage providers and entrepreneurs to come up with new ways to provide better care at lower cost in return for their business.

This isn’t an entirely market-based solution but it’s certainly more market-based than what it is replacing.

Politics

 

After focusing for weeks on the technical failures of President Obama’s health insurance website, Republicans broadened their criticism of the health care law, pointing to Americans whose health plans have been terminated because they do not meet the law’s new coverage requirements.

The rising concern about canceled health coverage has provided Republicans a more tangible line of attack on the law and its most appealing promise for the vast majority of Americans who have insurance: that it would lower their costs, or at least hold them harmless.

Baffled consumers are producing real letters from insurance companies that directly contradict Mr. Obama’s oft-repeated reassurances that if people like the insurance they have, they will be able to keep it.

“My constituents are frightened,” Representative Kevin Brady, Republican of Texas, told Marilyn Tavenner, the official whose department oversaw the creation of Mr. Obama’s health insurance marketplace, at a House Ways and Means Committee hearing.

“They are being forced out of health care plans they like. The clock is ticking. The federal website is broken. Their health care isn’t a glitch.”

In the weeks since the health marketplaces opened, insurance companies have begun sending notices to hundreds of thousands of Americans in the individual insurance market informing them that their existing plans will soon be canceled.

In many of those cases, the insured have been offered new plans, often with better coverage but also at higher prices.

The cancellation notices are proving to be a political gift to Republicans, who were increasingly concerned that their narrowly focused criticism of the problem-plaguedHealthCare.gov could lead to a dead end, once the website’s issues are addressed.

“There’s a little bit of a danger that if we’re just focused on the obvious ineptitude of the web designers and of the system breakdown – I wouldn’t call it a glitch, I’d call it a breakdown – we’re forgetting the bigger picture here,” said Senator Rob Portman, Republican of Ohio.

“Once people do get on they’ll find out they’ll be paying more, not less, and won’t be able to keep what they have.”

Democrats pushed back on the Republican attacks, pointing to problems in the early days of the prescription drug plan Republicans passed in 2003, known as Medicare Part D. Most Democrats opposed that law strenuously, but, they said, once it went into effect, they helped constituents enroll and worked for its success.

Business

 

The Federal Reserve is still waiting for clear evidence that the economy can grow decently without its help.

The Fed’s widely expected announcement that it would press ahead with its stimulus campaign of asset purchases and low interest rates reflected the reality that the Nation’s central bankers gained little clarity in the six weeks since their last meeting, in part because the government shutdown delayed and distorted key economic indicators.

The statement, issued after a scheduled two-day meeting of its policy-making committee, amounted to a declaration that the Fed is not yet ready to decide, and it shed little light on how soon changes may come.

The Fed maintained its optimistic assessment of “growing underlying strength in the broader economy,” contrasting the recovery of the private sector with the continued drag of federal spending cuts. It said that the availability of jobs was improving and that it expected inflation to rebound from its sluggish pace. Notably, it made no direct mention of the shutdown.

But despite the relatively sunny forecast the central bank will continue to add $85 billion a month to its portfolio of Treasury securities and mortgage-backed securities. And the Fed, if anything, has reinforced its commitment to hold short-term interest rates near zero through next year and well into 2015.

“Taking into account the extent of federal fiscal retrenchment over the past year, the committee sees the improvement in economic activity and labor market conditions since it began its asset purchase program as consistent with growing underlying strength in the broader economy,” the Federal Open Market Committee said.

“However, the committee decided to await more evidence that progress will be sustained before adjusting the pace of its purchases.”

Analysts and investors reacted to the statement as moderately increasing the chances that the Fed would begin to retreat, or taper back on its purchases, in December, when the committee holds its final scheduled meeting of the year. Stocks fell slightly. Yet most analysts said they continued to regard the Fed as more likely to wait until the spring.

“This is a somewhat hawkish statement, but we don’t think it’s so hawkish as to change our expectations for a first tapering in April,” Michael Feroli, chief United States economist at JPMorgan Chase, wrote to clients.

Fed officials spent much of the summer preparing investors for a retreat from its stimulus campaign before the end of the year. But there is still little sign that the Fed has succeeded in increasing job growth. The share of adults with jobs remains at roughly its post-recession nadir.

The unemployment rate has fallen largely because fewer people are looking for jobs. Some analysts saw the Fed’s upbeat description of the job market as evidence of its desire to retreat, even if it is not prepared to set that in motion yet.

The statement said persistently low inflation “could pose risks to economic performance,” but reiterated the Fed’s expectation that inflation will rebound to a healthier level.

The combination of persistently high unemployment and low inflation has prompted some Fed officials, and outside critics, to question whether the asset purchases are worthwhile.

Health

The finding released by the Food and Drug Administration is part of a comprehensive look at the safety of spice imports that has been years in the making.

The federal authorities also found that nearly 7 percent of spice imports examined by federal inspectors were contaminated with salmonella, a toxic bacteria that can cause severe illness in humans.

The shares of imported spices contaminated with insect parts and salmonella were twice those found in other types of imported food, federal food officials said.

The agency’s findings “are a wake-up call” to spice producers, said Jane M. Van Doren, a food and spice official at the F.D.A. “It means: ‘Hey, you haven’t solved the problems.’”

The agency called spice contamination “a systemic challenge” and said most of the insects found in spices were the kinds that thrive in warehouses and other storage facilities, suggesting that the industry’s problems result not from poor harvesting practices but poor storage and processing.

What share of the nearly 1.2 million annual salmonella illnesses in the United States result from contaminated spices is unclear, officials said.

Fewer than 2,000 people had their illnesses definitively tied to contaminated spices from 1973 to 2010, and most people eat spices in small quantities. But people often fail to remember eating spices when asked what foods might have sickened them, so problems related to spices could be seriously underreported, officials said.

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International

Germany has become the latest government to demand answers from the United States about NSA spying after reports the U.S. may have monitored the cell phone of Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Merkel placed a call to President Barack Obama to request “immediate clarification” on U.S. surveillance, according to her spokesman. According to White House spokesman Jay Carney, Obama assured Merkel that the United States “is not monitoring and will not monitor her communications,” although he fell short of disclosing any past practices.

“The United States greatly values our close cooperation with Germany on a broad range of shared security challenges,” a White House statement said.

“As the President has said, the United States is reviewing the way that we gather intelligence to ensure that we properly balance the security concerns of our citizens and allies with the privacy concerns that all people share.”

The United States has been forced to respond to a series of revelations about alleged U.S. spying around the world, attributed to documents leaked by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, who fled prosecution in the U.S. this summer and was granted asylum in Russia.

French President Francois Hollande is pressing the U.S. spying issue to be put on the menu of a summit of European leaders.  Addressing the Le Monde report, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the U.S. is having “detailed discussions” with countries that raise the NSA surveillance issue and is providing a “consistent message.”

“There are specific, limited reasons we conduct intelligence activities of the kind that many if not all countries around the world conduct,” Harf said. “They are for limited aims; they're to protect American national security, to thwart terrorist plots.” She said intelligence is shared with allies and friends.

The stereotype of the “child-snatching Gypsy” -- a term for Roma people that is now considered derogatory -- has resurfaced with the case of Maria, the mystery blonde, blue-eyed girl found living in Greece with a couple who were not her biological parents.

“My mother told me I should never go with the Gypsies in the wood," said Gary Craig, professor of social justice at Britain’s Durham University, echoing the lines of a common U.K. nursery rhyme. "That’s a song you will still hear sung. What sort of image does it portray? They are dangerous.”

More than 10 million Roma live in Europe, many of them in impoverished conditions on the outskirts of large cities. They have been labeled as kidnappers, thieves, swindlers and beggars for centuries. In 2010, police busted a Romanian gang that had kidnapped 181 children from poor families and brought them to Britain to commit petty thefts or beg for money – with some deliberately mutilated to appear disabled so that they would earn more money.

According to a State Department report on human trafficking, 2012 saw an increase in the number of Roma children from Bulgaria being brought to Greece with promises of employment – only to be subjected to forced petty crimes and begging. Since their arrival from India into Eastern Europe in the 16th century, Roma have suffered from discrimination, according to Craig.

In the same century, Queen Elizabeth I expelled Roma from Britain, blaming them for the country’s faltering economy. Tens of thousands of Roma were killed in Nazi Germany.

“Romanis have always been regarded with suspicion," Craig added. "Because they’re not settled, they've tended to be regarded as foreigners and others. Because they’re from a minority culture they get treated in the way that many minorities have been for hundreds of years.”

Roma communities tend to live under the radar across Europe, in a climate of mistrust between them and their host country’s majority population. Their camps have been shut down in Italy and the U.K. In France, Interior Minister Manual Valls has said the ethnic group should be expelled from the country because “only a minority” of them can be integrated into French society.

“This is stigmatizing the whole Roma community in Europe,” said Ivan Ivanov, executive director of the Brussels-based non-profit advocacy group European Roma Information Office. Thunde Buzetzki, a facilitator at Decade of Roma Inclusion said that negative stereotypes remained ingrained.

“No one sees the Roma families who are struggling to survive, discriminated against in the labor market, in health, but this is a large population trying to survive by migrating to other countries," she said.

 

Buzetski said that while “a certain percentage ... may be petty criminals,” the Roma have been "scapegoated." Figures from the European Union’s executive body, the European Commission, show one in three Roma is unemployed and as many as 90 percent live below the poverty line. Only 15 percent of Roma children obtain minimum schooling requirements.

While not denying that kidnappings and selling children do occur in some Roma communities, Ivanov said kidnappings and selling children is usually a last resort and a means for survival.

“There is no evidence that this child [Maria] was kidnapped," he added. DNA tests show Maria was not born to the couple she was found with.  They told a court that the girl’s biological mother gave her to them willingly as a baby because she could not take care of her. Police have launched an international appeal to find Maria's biological parents. The Smile of the Child charity is currently caring for her in Athens.

 

National

Critics are calling for the ouster of Kathleen Sebelius after Obamacare’s online rollout. If she were sacked, Republicans could use a confirmation fight to re-argue the merits of Obamacare. 

Many GOP leaders are already calling for her resignation after technical glitches made initial online registration nearly impossible for millions of Americans.

Losing the Health and Human Services secretary would leave the agency without a leader when it is under intense pressure to fix flaws in the Healthcare.gov website before Dec. 15 – the last day for Americans to enroll for coverage that begins on the first of the year.

“The idea of her resigning is silly,” says Jay Angoff, the former head of implementation for Obamacare insurance reforms at HHS and now an attorney at Mehri and Skalet. “If she did, it would just make a bad situation worse. She has a wealth of institutional knowledge that no one else can match, and it wouldn’t make any sense.”

“From the standpoint of fixing these problems in the short term, it’s not clear that Secretary Sebelius resigning would make any difference, and right now the administration does need a visible point person to help explain what’s going on with the website, how it’s being addressed, and what people should be looking for to see progress that’s being made,” said Mark McClellan.

McClellan served as the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services during the rocky launch of the now-popular Medicare Part D. “Those are all things that she can still do.”

“The White House is smart enough to know that if she steps aside or they ask her to resign, they will never get anybody else confirmed,” Sebelius’s sister Ellen told The New York Times.

“It’s not clear that somebody shouldn’t lose their job,” said Dr. Gail Wilensky, a health-care and welfare-reform adviser to President George H.W. Bush and former head of the Health Care Financing Administration. “But at this point I don’t think we know enough to say it should be Sebelius.”

 

Business

The consensus of many corporate executives and economists seem to agree on one point: the biggest risk to the world's largest economy may be its own elected representatives.

Down-to-the-wire budget and debt crises, indiscriminate spending cuts and a 16-day government shutdown may not be enough to push the U.S. economy back into recession. However, Washington's policy blunders in recent years have slowed economic growth and kept 2 million people out of work, according to recent estimates.

Steep spending cuts are a big reason. But the governance-by-crisis also may be prompting businesses to sit on their cash rather than building new factories, buying more equipment and hiring more workers, some economists say.

“Increasingly, I’m of the view that the reason why our economy can’t kick into a higher gear is because of the uncertainty created by Washington,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody’s Analytics.        

The city of Detroit will present a "mountain of evidence" to show that its finances qualify for a turnaround in bankruptcy court, an attorney said.

A judge opened a trial to determine if the largest public filing in U.S. history will go forward. Detroit, with $18 billion in debt, filed for Chapter 9 protection in July, but it’s not automatic.

Judge Steven Rhodes has set aside several days to hear evidence and decide whether the city met many key steps, including good-faith negotiations with creditors, before taking drastic action three months ago.          

“There's nothing left to do here. There is no revenue solution. ... Chapter 9 is more needed here than another other possible scenario you could think of,” attorney Bruce Bennett said in his opening remarks. He said no one can credibly argue that Detroit is solvent.

Witnesses … “will present a mountain of evidence showing the insolvency of the city,” Bennett said. “This is one of those cases where the data speaks very clearly and persuasively on its own. It needs no gloss.”        

The trial poses a critical decision for Judge Steven Rhodes: If Detroit clears the eligibility hurdle; the case then would quickly turn to how to solve the debt and get city government off the ropes. In her opening statement, Jennifer Green, an attorney for Detroit's pension funds, highlighted months of emails and memos from state and city officials preparing for a bankruptcy, not fruitful talks with creditors.

“It really was a forgone conclusion,” she said. Chuck Tatelbaum, a bankruptcy expert in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., not involved in the case, said the trial represents a crucial stage. “There will be others, but this is the go or no-go. ... If there was ever a poster child for what Congress decided when they enacted Chapter 9, it’s for a city like this,” he said.

Jim Spiotto, a bankruptcy expert in Chicago, said it's “virtually impossible” to argue that Detroit is solvent. “They’re not paying their debts,” he said. “Look at their blighted areas. Look at their services.”

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has cited two marketing companies with making millions of illegal robocalls – for both Democratic and Republican campaigns – to wireless phone numbers in 2011 and 2012.

Both firms have been ordered to stop making prohibited robocalls to cellphones. Political robocalls – prerecorded messages and autodialed calls – are allowed to most landline telephone numbers if certain rules are followed. Robocalls are prohibited to wireless phones and other mobile devices, unless it’s for emergency purposes or the person receiving the call has given prior permission.

“Consumers have increasingly been sounding the alarm on robocalls, rightly complaining about unwanted, intrusive cell phone calls and text messages from strangers, or worse yet computers,” Michele Ellison, chief of the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau said in a statement.

The maximum penalty for making illegal robocalls to wireless phones is $16,000 per call. That means each of these companies face billions of dollars in fines based on the commission’s estimate of the number of calls made in a three-month sample period: 4.7 million from Dialing Services and 1.1 million by Democratic Dialing.

 

Health

Doctors now have convincing evidence that they put HIV into remission, hopefully for good, in a Mississippi baby born with the AIDS virus a medical first that is prompting a new look at how hard and fast such cases should be treated.

Some doctors were skeptical that the baby was really infected rather than testing positive because of exposure to virus in the mom's blood. The new report, published by the New England Journal of Medicine, makes clear that the girl, now 3, was infected in the womb.

She was treated unusually aggressively and shows no active infection despite stopping AIDS medicines 18 months ago. Doctors won't call it a cure because they don't know what proof or how much time is needed to declare someone free of HIV infection, long feared to be permanent.

We want to be very cautious here. We’re calling it remission because we’d like to observe the child for a longer time and be absolutely sure there's no rebound,” said Dr. Katherine Luzuriaga, a University of Massachusetts AIDS expert involved in the baby's care.

The government’s top AIDS scientist, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, agreed. “At minimum, the baby is in a clear remission. It is possible that the baby has actually been cured. We don’t have a definition for cure as we do for certain cancers, where after five years or so you can be relatively certain the person is not going to go and relapse,” he said.

A scientist at his institute did sophisticated tests that showed no active virus in the child.

 

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 International

Hundreds of thousands of Muslim pilgrims performed the ritual stoning of the Devil as the annual Hajj ended with no significant tragedies reported by Saudi authorities. The Hajj culminated in the Muslim festival of Eidul Adha.

In June, Saudi religious authorities approved a request by the government to cut the number of pilgrims from abroad this year by a fifth and to halve the number of pilgrims from inside Saudi Arabia due to expansion work on the Grand Mosque in Mecca. As a result, 1.98 million pilgrims performed Hajj this year compared to 3.2 million last year. The numbers are expected to increase next year.

“This Hajj was very easy as you can see its empty, so there’s no pushing or people throwing stones at your head,” said Hassan Saleh, an Egyptian pilgrim from Cairo. “Last time I was here, you couldn’t even walk in the street because of the crowds.”

The pilgrimage, one of the largest religious gatherings in the world, has been prone to disasters in the past, mainly from stampedes as pilgrims rushed to complete rituals and return home. Hundreds of pilgrims died in a stampede in 2006. Saudi authorities have provided vast sums to expand the main Hajj sites and improve Mecca’s transportation system.

Of the total number of pilgrims this year, 1.38 million came from 188 countries, a 21 percent drop, and the remaining were domestic pilgrims, with their numbers dropping by around 57 percent.

“Many Saudis and other people who live in Saudi Arabia didn’t come to the Hajj this year because they were scared of the coronavirus spreading,” said Hassan Al Fares, a pilgrim from Saudi Arabia’s Eastern province.

The Saudi Ministry of Health confirmed several times that no cases of the deadly MERS virus were reported among pilgrims.

Hajj security authorities also confirmed that no major incidents, such as stampedes or political protests, occurred this year. Some 95,000 members of the security forces were deployed to maintain order.

Aware of the potential for incidents to flare into political violence at a time of upheaval across the Middle East, including the war raging in Syria, Saudi Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef asked pilgrims to leave disputes at home.

“We come here in peace and we will leave in peace; there’s no need to hold a protest in the Holy Land. But prayers said here are like rockets; they go straight to G-d Who will free us from Bashar,” said pilgrim Khalid al-Semari, a Syrian health worker.

National

Racing to meet a deadline, the U.S. Senate passed and sent to the House legislation to avoid a threatened national default and end the 16-day partial government shutdown along the strict terms set by President Barack Obama.

The vote was a bipartisan 81-18. The House approved it later in the evening, thus, clearing the way for Obama’s signature – the final act in an epic political drama that put the economy’s health at risk.

The legislation would permit the Treasury to borrow normally through February 7 or perhaps a month longer and fund the government through January 15. More than 2 million federal workers would be paid – those who had remained on the job and those who had been furloughed.

At the White House, President Obama hailed the Senate’s vote. Once the measure reached his desk, he signed it immediately. The President said, “We’ll begin reopening our government immediately and we can begin to lift this cloud of uncertainty from our businesses and the American people.”

The White House embraced the bill, worked out by the Senate’s two party leaders, saying in a statement it would “protect the full faith and credit of the United States and end the government shutdown.”

Republicans had other concerns. “We fought the good fight. We just didn’t win,” conceded House Speaker John Boehner, as lawmakers lined up to vote on a bill that includes nothing for Republicans demanding to eradicate or scale back Obama’s signature health care overhaul.

“The compromise we reached will provide our economy with the stability it desperately needs,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, declaring that the Nation “came to the brink of disaster” before sealing an agreement.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, who negotiated the deal with Reid, emphasized that it preserved a round of spending cuts negotiated two years ago with Obama and Democrats. As a result, he said, “government spending has declined for two years in a row” for the first time since the Korean War. “And we’re not going back on this agreement,” he added.

Up against a deadline, Congress passed and sent a waiting President Barack Obama legislation late Wednesday night, October 16, 2013 to avoid a threatened national default and end the 16-day partial government shutdown, the culmination of an epic political drama that placed the U.S. economy at risk.

“We'll begin reopening our government immediately, and we can begin to lift this cloud of uncertainty from our businesses and the American people," the president said.

 

Political          

Rising Democratic star Cory Booker, the high-profile mayor of New Jersey’s biggest city, will become just the second African American in the Senate after winning a special election. Booker said he was able to help turn around the long-struggling city of Newark and could help channel Americans’ frustration with Washington into something positive after a long, bitter fiscal feud.

“I think everybody feels there’s fatigue and frustration with how things are, which creates a great climate for change,” Booker said. “Often before you have great victory, you have to have great frustration.”

The 44-year-old Booker has long been touted as a member of a new generation of black politicians like Barack Obama and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick who can win statewide elections. Booker was a prominent supporter of Obama during the president's 2012 re-election campaign.

Booker was elected to complete the 15 months remaining on the term of Frank Lautenberg, whose death in June at age 89 gave rise to an unusual and abbreviated campaign. If Booker wants to keep the seat for a full six-year term – and all indications are that he does – he will be on the ballot again in November 2014.

Booker was raised in the suburbs as the son of two of the first black IBM executives, and graduated from Stanford and law school at Yale with a stint in between as a Rhodes Scholar before moving to one of Newark’s toughest neighborhoods.

Booker will join Republican Tim Scott of South Carolina as the only Black members of the 100-seat U.S. Senate. Scott was appointed by the state’s governor to fill a vacancy, meaning Booker is the first Africa American to win a Senate seat since Obama did in 2004.

 

Business

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Xerox Corp blamed each other after Louisiana food stamp recipients stripped bare the shelves of some Wal-Mart stores when a computer glitch left their debit cards with no limits.

Managers of Wal-Mart stores in the small, north Louisiana towns of Springhill and Mansfield, alerted police that throngs of shoppers had flooded into the stores and were buying groceries using electronic benefit cards that contained no credit limits.

EBT cards are debit-type cards issued under the state’s food stamp program and coded to show the amount of money available for individuals to spend. Food stamps are a federal government subsidy program for low-income people that are administered by the states.

When word got out that the EBT cards were showing no limits, card holders rushed to area Wal-Marts to take advantage. “Some people had eight or 10 shopping carts full of groceries,” Springhill Police Chief Will Lynd.

Louisiana officials said they had no intention of being left holding the bag. “The outage was the result of failures by our contractor, Xerox,” said Trey Williams, a spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services.

 

 

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Week in Review

International

Hundreds of thousands of Muslim pilgrims performed the ritual stoning of the Devil as the annual Hajj ended with no significant tragedies reported by Saudi authorities. The Hajj culminated in the Muslim festival of Eidul Adha.

In June, Saudi religious authorities approved a request by the government to cut the number of pilgrims from abroad this year by a fifth and to halve the number of pilgrims from inside Saudi Arabia due to expansion work on the Grand Mosque in Mecca. As a result, 1.98 million pilgrims performed Hajj this year compared to 3.2 million last year. The numbers are expected to increase next year.

“This Hajj was very easy as you can see its empty, so there’s no pushing or people throwing stones at your head,” said Hassan Saleh, an Egyptian pilgrim from Cairo. “Last time I was here, you couldn’t even walk in the street because of the crowds.”

The pilgrimage, one of the largest religious gatherings in the world, has been prone to disasters in the past, mainly from stampedes as pilgrims rushed to complete rituals and return home. Hundreds of pilgrims died in a stampede in 2006. Saudi authorities have provided vast sums to expand the main Hajj sites and improve Mecca’s transportation system.

Of the total number of pilgrims this year, 1.38 million came from 188 countries, a 21 percent drop, and the remaining were domestic pilgrims, with their numbers dropping by around 57 percent.

“Many Saudis and other people who live in Saudi Arabia didn’t come to the Hajj this year because they were scared of the coronavirus spreading,” said Hassan Al Fares, a pilgrim from Saudi Arabia’s Eastern province.

The Saudi Ministry of Health confirmed several times that no cases of the deadly MERS virus were reported among pilgrims.

Hajj security authorities also confirmed that no major incidents, such as stampedes or political protests, occurred this year. Some 95,000 members of the security forces were deployed to maintain order.

Aware of the potential for incidents to flare into political violence at a time of upheaval across the Middle East, including the war raging in Syria, Saudi Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef asked pilgrims to leave disputes at home.

“We come here in peace and we will leave in peace; there’s no need to hold a protest in the Holy Land. But prayers said here are like rockets; they go straight to G-d Who will free us from Bashar,” said pilgrim Khalid al-Semari, a Syrian health worker.

National

Racing to meet a deadline, the U.S. Senate passed and sent to the House legislation to avoid a threatened national default and end the 16-day partial government shutdown along the strict terms set by President Barack Obama.

The vote was a bipartisan 81-18. The House approved it later in the evening, thus, clearing the way for Obama’s signature – the final act in an epic political drama that put the economy’s health at risk.

The legislation would permit the Treasury to borrow normally through February 7 or perhaps a month longer and fund the government through January 15. More than 2 million federal workers would be paid – those who had remained on the job and those who had been furloughed.

At the White House, President Obama hailed the Senate’s vote. Once the measure reached his desk, he signed it immediately. The President said, “We’ll begin reopening our government immediately and we can begin to lift this cloud of uncertainty from our businesses and the American people.”

The White House embraced the bill, worked out by the Senate’s two party leaders, saying in a statement it would “protect the full faith and credit of the United States and end the government shutdown.”

Republicans had other concerns. “We fought the good fight. We just didn’t win,” conceded House Speaker John Boehner, as lawmakers lined up to vote on a bill that includes nothing for Republicans demanding to eradicate or scale back Obama’s signature health care overhaul.

“The compromise we reached will provide our economy with the stability it desperately needs,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, declaring that the Nation “came to the brink of disaster” before sealing an agreement.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, who negotiated the deal with Reid, emphasized that it preserved a round of spending cuts negotiated two years ago with Obama and Democrats. As a result, he said, “government spending has declined for two years in a row” for the first time since the Korean War. “And we’re not going back on this agreement,” he added.

Up against a deadline, Congress passed and sent a waiting President Barack Obama legislation late Wednesday night, October 16, 2013 to avoid a threatened national default and end the 16-day partial government shutdown, the culmination of an epic political drama that placed the U.S. economy at risk.

“We'll begin reopening our government immediately, and we can begin to lift this cloud of uncertainty from our businesses and the American people," the president said.

 

Political          

Rising Democratic star Cory Booker, the high-profile mayor of New Jersey’s biggest city, will become just the second African American in the Senate after winning a special election. Booker said he was able to help turn around the long-struggling city of Newark and could help channel Americans’ frustration with Washington into something positive after a long, bitter fiscal feud.

“I think everybody feels there’s fatigue and frustration with how things are, which creates a great climate for change,” Booker said. “Often before you have great victory, you have to have great frustration.”

The 44-year-old Booker has long been touted as a member of a new generation of black politicians like Barack Obama and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick who can win statewide elections. Booker was a prominent supporter of Obama during the president's 2012 re-election campaign.

Booker was elected to complete the 15 months remaining on the term of Frank Lautenberg, whose death in June at age 89 gave rise to an unusual and abbreviated campaign. If Booker wants to keep the seat for a full six-year term – and all indications are that he does – he will be on the ballot again in November 2014.

Booker was raised in the suburbs as the son of two of the first black IBM executives, and graduated from Stanford and law school at Yale with a stint in between as a Rhodes Scholar before moving to one of Newark’s toughest neighborhoods.

Booker will join Republican Tim Scott of South Carolina as the only Black members of the 100-seat U.S. Senate. Scott was appointed by the state’s governor to fill a vacancy, meaning Booker is the first Africa American to win a Senate seat since Obama did in 2004.

 

Business

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Xerox Corp blamed each other after Louisiana food stamp recipients stripped bare the shelves of some Wal-Mart stores when a computer glitch left their debit cards with no limits.

Managers of Wal-Mart stores in the small, north Louisiana towns of Springhill and Mansfield, alerted police that throngs of shoppers had flooded into the stores and were buying groceries using electronic benefit cards that contained no credit limits.

EBT cards are debit-type cards issued under the state’s food stamp program and coded to show the amount of money available for individuals to spend. Food stamps are a federal government subsidy program for low-income people that are administered by the states.

When word got out that the EBT cards were showing no limits, card holders rushed to area Wal-Marts to take advantage. “Some people had eight or 10 shopping carts full of groceries,” Springhill Police Chief Will Lynd.

Louisiana officials said they had no intention of being left holding the bag. “The outage was the result of failures by our contractor, Xerox,” said Trey Williams, a spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services.

 

 

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Week in Review

 International

An advance team of international weapons inspectors are taking the first steps toward dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal. There is no outward indication that the Syrian government intends to disrupt the process.

Syrian officials are portraying the deal as a victory that will cement their hold on power. The logistics of dismantling the weapons is complicated by shifting battle lines and the fact that a third of the weapons sites are in areas outside the government’s control.

The advance team gave few new details about its plans and expectations as they work quietly behind the scenes to arrange its first steps.

United Nations officials said in a statement that the team, 19 inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and 14 United Nations staff members, traveled over land from Beirut, Lebanon, facilitated by the Syrian government, “without any incidents.”

The group aims to complete verification of information provided by the Syrian authorities and the initial planning phase of helping the country destroy its chemical weapons production facilities by Nov. 1.

Hopes had been high that a United Nations convoy would reach the embattled rebel-held suburb of Moadhamiya for the first time in months, after an initial green light from some government agencies. But the trip did not materialize, United Nations officials said, after the government said military operations were continuing in the area.

The United Nations also has struggled to reach government-held parts of Aleppo, because the route from Damascus passes through areas controlled by myriad rebel groups. Many times, officials say, the convoys have been allowed through by a series of rebel factions, only to be stopped or looted by one farther along the road.

A pro-government Syrian journalist said he was shocked to learn that a number of chemical weapons facilities were in rebel-held areas. That, he said, may well mean that the dismantling process could easily take well over the yearlong timetable that has been proposed and could require international forces to guard the inspectors and any weapons or materials that have to be moved.

That could draw international forces into direct conflict with rebel groups, something the journalist said could achieve a government goal: convincing the world that extremist groups among the rebels were the common enemy.

Illicit ivory, kidnappings, piracy ransoms, smuggled charcoal, extorted payments from aid organizations and even fake charity drives pretending to collect money for the poor – the Shabab militant group has shifted from one illegal business to another, drawing money from East Africa’s underworld to finance attacks like the recent deadly siege at a Nairobi shopping mall.

Now officials are redoubling efforts to defeat or at least contain the group with a watchful eye on its hydra-headed sources of money before its fighters can strike again in Kenya or even the United States.

For years, American officials have been deeply worried about the Somali militant Islamist group, which claimed responsibility for killing more than 60 men, women and children in the mall in the Sept. 21 attack.

But despite comprehensive multiagency efforts to shut down its sources of money, the group still controls lucrative smuggling routes in southern Somalia, extracts protection money from Somali businesses and has raised hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars abroad, part of it from the United States.

Somali elders say the Shabab employ a team of accountants, essentially white-collar militants, who have devised elaborate taxation schemes in Somalia, for instance $500 per farm per year or $2 for every sack of rice that passes through their checkpoints.

“They calculate your income, they do the math,” said Mohamed Aden, a former president of Himan and Heeb, a partially autonomous region of central Somalia near Shabab territory. “And then you have to obey. Otherwise, they kill you. That’s just how it is.” In addition to its illicit financing activities, the group steals from Islamic charities, like mosque-building projects and schools, according to several Somali elders.

“They have a diversified income stream,” said Jonathan Schanzer, the vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former counterterrorism official at the United States Treasury.

Shabab militants are able to extract extortion fees, kidnap Western aid workers along the Kenyan border, collude with Indian Ocean pirates and then retreat to their strongholds with no worries about being arrested or prosecuted because law enforcement is virtually nonexistent in Somalia.

While the Shabab control far less territory than they did a few years ago, many people in the region remain terrified of their network of assassins and their continued ability to stage large-scale attacks on civilians, like the massacre in the Kenyan mall or a suicide bombing in Uganda in 2010 that killed scores of people.

Mr. Schanzer said the attack on the Nairobi mall probably cost the group “close to $100,000,” calculating the price of the automatic rifles, bullets and grenades that were used, along with training costs and possibly rent for a store in the mall that investigators suspect may have been used as a weapon depot before the attack.

National

In their first meeting since a budget impasse shuttered many federal operations, President Barack Obama told Republican leaders that he would negotiate with them only after they agreed to the financing needed to reopen the government and also to an essential increase in the Nation’s debt limit, without add-ons.

The President’s position reflected the White House view that the Republicans’ strategy is failing. The meeting at the White House, just over an hour long, ended without any resolution. As they left, Republican and Democratic leaders separately reiterated their positions.

The House speaker, John A. Boehner, Republican of Ohio, said that Mr. Obama “will not negotiate,” while Senator Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada and the Senate’s majority leader, said that Democrats would agree to spending at levels already passed by the House. “My friend John Boehner cannot take ‘yes’ for an answer.” he said.

The meeting was the first time that the president linked the two actions that he and a divided Congress are fighting over this month: a budget for the fiscal year, and an increase in the debt ceiling by Oct. 17, when the Treasury Department will otherwise breach its authority to borrow the money necessary to cover the nation’s existing obligations to citizens, contractors and creditors.

Only when those actions are taken, Mr. Obama said, would he agree to revive bipartisan talks toward a long-term budget deal addressing the growing costs of Medicare and Medicaid and the inadequacy of federal tax revenues.

While the lack of a budget forced the government shutdown, failure to raise the debt limit would have worse repercussions, threatening America’s credit rating with a globe-shaking default and risking an economic relapse at home.

Yet the refusal of the Republican-led House earlier this week to approve government funding until Mr. Obama agrees to delay his signature health-care law – a non-negotiable demand, he has said – raised fears from Washington to Wall Street that Republicans likewise would carry out their threat to withhold approval for an increase in the debt ceiling.

Political          

          President Obama summoned congressional leaders to the White House on the second day of a partial government shutdown that has furloughed hundreds of thousands of workers and closed military cemeteries as far away as France.

The President said engaging in deal-making now would leave him and other presidents vulnerable to what he calls extortion by opposition parties. He blamed the current impasse on, quote, “one faction of one party in one chamber.”

He said he would be willing to negotiate long-term budget issues, including savings in big spending programs like Medicare and Social Security, but said he would also want to eliminate tax loopholes to generate revenue to pay for some of his education and infrastructure priorities.

Some in both parties have ominously suggested the impasse might last for weeks, with tea party-backed conservatives especially committed to the fight, while a few Republicans seemed ready to blink.

House Speaker John Boehner's office cast the White House invitation as a sign the President might be backing down. “We’re pleased the President finally recognizes that his refusal to negotiate is indefensible,” Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck said.

“It’s unclear why we’d be having this meeting if it’s not meant to be a start to serious talks between the two parties.” But an Obama adviser said the President would urge House Republicans to pass a spending bill free of the health care dispute or other demands.

Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said, “Frankly, we’re a little confused as to the purpose of this meeting.” Nevertheless, McConnell, R-Ky., and Boehner, R-Ohio, agreed to sit down with President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a tea party favorite, said there would be no solution until President Barack Obama and Democrats who control the Senate agree to discuss problems with the Nation's unfolding health care overhaul.

The White House also mounted a full-court press to enlist the Nation’s business leaders to pressure Congressional Republicans to agree to finance the government and increase the Nation’s borrowing limit without demanding other measures in exchange.

Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew; Gene B. Sperling, the chief White House economic adviser; and Valerie Jarrett, President Obama’s liaison to business groups, held a conference call with leaders of the Business Roundtable, which includes executives from some of the country’s biggest corporations. W. James McNerney Jr., the chief of Boeing, helped organize the call.

The call came just before President Obama and Vice President Biden were to meet at the White House with members of the Financial Services Forum, whose members include the heads of Wall Street firms.

That meeting, which typically occurs when forum members hold an annual meeting in Washington, took on some urgency as the Oct. 17 deadline loomed for increasing the debt limit so the government can maintain payments to creditors and others for current liabilities.

The fears of the financial industry and corporate America more broadly, have intensified this week, after the White House and Congress failed to finance the government for the fiscal year. “I haven’t seen this sense of urgency among business leaders,” said an administration official who listened in on the call. “They’re asking, ‘What can we do?’ ”

One of the top executives who met with Mr. Obama, Lloyd C. Blankfein, the chairman of the Goldman Sachs bank and investment house, left the meeting with a message that echoed the president’s own warnings. “There’s precedent for a government shutdown,” Mr. Blankfein told reporters on the driveway outside the White House.

“There’s no precedent for a default. We’re the most important economy in the world. We’re the reserve currency of the world. Payments have to go out to people. If money doesn’t flow in, then money doesn’t flow out. So we really haven’t seen this before and I’m not anxious to be part of the process that witnesses it.” He said that he and his fellow executives agreed that the consequences would be “extremely adverse.”

Business

A California jury decided that Michael Jackson’s final concert promoter, A.E.G. Live, was not responsible for the pop star’s death, ending a five-month trial.

After deliberating for about 13 hours over four days, the jury of six men and six women agreed with lawyers for Jackson’s 83-year-old mother, Katherine, that A.E.G. Live had hired Dr. Conrad Murray, the doctor who had given the entertainer a fatal dose of the anesthetic propofol. But the jurors rejected arguments that Dr. Murray had been unfit to perform his job of caring for Jackson as he prepared for an ambitious series of comeback concerts four years ago, relieving A.E.G. Live of liability.

The jury’s verdict saves A.E.G. Live, the world’s second-largest concert company, from paying what could have been huge damages. Lawyers for Mrs. Jackson, who filed the wrongful death lawsuit along with the star’s three young children, had asked for up to $1.5 billion, most of that based on estimates of what Jackson could have earned if he had lived and continued his career.

Two contrasting portraits of Jackson competed for acceptance in the courtroom. In one, the singer was the victim of a compromised doctor and a callous concert promoter whose greed pushed Jackson to his death. The other version of Jackson was one of a drug abuser in an inevitable tailspin that shopped for compliant doctors and deceived nearly everyone around him.

Health

Federal and state officials moved to strengthen the computer underpinnings of the new online health exchanges, which proved inadequate to handle a flood of consumer inquiries that began as soon as the system opened and continued into the next day.

On the second day of the exchanges’ operation, users were still encountering long waits, malfunctioning Web pages and messages telling them to try again later, particularly in the 34 states where the marketplaces are being managed by the federal government. Most system managers around the country reported that traffic on continued to exceed their expectations, though in some places it declined from the peaks.

The federal exchange Web site, healthcare.gov, opened to the public at 8 a.m. Tuesday, and by Wednesday afternoon, it had had 6.1 million unique visitors, the Department of Health and Human Services said — a pace many times as great as the Medicare site had ever seen. “While this overwhelming interest is continuing to cause wait times, there will be continuing improvements in the coming hours and days,” said Joanne Peters, a department spokeswoman.

The rollout exposed the complexity of the endeavor, which requires state and federal systems, and the work of myriad private contractors, to communicate as a seamless whole. In some cases, officials conceded that they could not be sure which problems were caused by simply not having the computer capacity to handle the initial demand – a shortfall that should correct itself in time – and which might be signs of design flaws or software bugs.

A Health and Human Services official said that the government would be adding computer servers to the system to make it more robust.

 

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Week in Review

 

International

Syrian President Bashar Assad said in an interview that he does not discount the possibility of a U.S. military attack. Assad also said in an interview broadcast by Venezuela’s state-run Telesur network that his government has confessions from rebels that they brought chemical weapons into the civil war-wracked nation.

He said that Syrian authorities had uncovered chemical arms caches and labs and that the evidence had been turned over to Russia, which brokered the deal that helped persuade U.S. President Barack Obama to pull back from threatened military action.

In a speech at the U.N. Obama said he would not use military force to depose Assad. But Washington and Moscow remain at odds on how to hold Syria accountable if it does not live up to its pledge to dismantle its chemical weapons stockpile. Assad predicted that “terrorists” would try to block access of U.N. inspectors who enter Syria to secure the government’s chemical arsenal.

While Assad said he had evidence that countries including Saudi Arabia were arming Syrian rebels, he said he had no proof that any particular country had supplied them with chemical weapons. Assad also accused the Obama administration of lying to U.S. citizens by claiming it has proof that Assad’s government was responsible for the Aug. 21 gas attack.

U.S., British and Israeli agencies are helping Kenya investigate an attack claimed by Somali Islamist militants on a Nairobi shopping mall that killed at least 72 people and destroyed part of the complex. President Uhuru Kenyatta said that troops had defeated the al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab group after a four-day siege at the shopping center popular with prosperous Kenyans and foreigners. He declared three days of mourning.

U.S. authorities are urgently looking into information given by the Kenyan government that residents of Western countries, including the U.S., may have been among armed militants who attacked a Nairobi shopping mall over the weekend U.S. security sources said.

Julius Karangi, Kenya’s chief of general staff, said that the attackers included gunmen from several countries. “We have an idea who they are, their nationality and even the number,” Karangi said. He added, “We also have an idea this is not a local event. We are fighting global terrorism here, and we have sufficient intel to suggest that.”

Karangi said the attackers were “clearly a multinational collection from all over the world.” U.S. officials had been looking for evidence that U.S. citizens or residents were involved in the attack.

U.S. authorities acknowledged that over the past several years, as many as several dozen Americans have traveled to Somalia to train or fight with al-Shabab, many of them from Somali exile communities in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn.

The South African president says former leader Nelson Mandela is responding to treatment at his home, where a team of doctors is caring for him. The 95-year-old former president and leader of the anti-apartheid movement was discharged from a hospital on Sept. 1, nearly three months after he was admitted for a recurring lung infection.

Mandela spent 27 years in prison during white minority rule. He led South Africa through a delicate transition to all-race elections that propelled him to the presidency in 1994.

Iranian President Hasan Rouhani called the Holocaust a “reprehensible” crime committed by the Nazis against the Jewish people but said it was up to historians to determine the scale of what happened. “I am not a historian and when it comes to speaking of the dimensions of the Holocaust it is the historians that should reflect,” Rouhani said.

“But in general, I can tell you that any crime that happens in history against humanity, including the crime the Nazis created towards the Jews, is reprehensible and condemnable,” he said, according to CNN’s translation of his comments, during a visit to New York to address the United Nations General Assembly.

Israeli officials had sharply criticized Rouhani for failing to renounce Ahmadinejad’s denial of the Holocaust, which killed 6 million Jews. “Whatever criminality they committed against the Jews we condemn,” Rouhani told CNN. “The taking of human life is contemptible. It makes no difference if that life is Jewish life, Christian or Muslim. For us, it is the same.”

“This does not mean that, on the other hand, you can say ‘Nazis committed crimes against a group, now therefore they must usurp the land of another group and occupy it,’” he said. “This too is an act that should be condemned. There should be an evenhanded discussion.” Israel was founded after WWII as a Jewish state in part of what had been British-mandate Palestine.

National

Pressure is building on Republicans in Congress over legislation to prevent a partial U.S. government shutdown, as the Democratic-led Senate is expected to strip a tea party-backed plan to defund President Barack Obama’s health care reforms from the bill.

As the Senate telegraphed its moves, House Republicans deliberated an array of imperfect options on both a temporary spending bill required to avert a shutdown and a separate measure to permit the government to borrow almost $1 trillion to keep paying its bills.

Lawmakers face a midnight Monday deadline to complete a stopgap spending bill to avoid a partial government shutdown that would keep hundreds of thousands of federal workers off the job, and close national parks.

Republican leaders in the House of Representatives appear all but certain to reject the Senate’s attempt at a simple, straightforward stopgap spending bill like those routinely passed since the 1995-96 government shutdowns that bruised Republicans and strengthened President Bill Clinton.

Democratic and Republican senators introduced legislation to end the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of Americans’ communication records and set other new controls on the government’s electronic eavesdropping programs.

The measure introduced by Democrats Ron Wyden, Mark Udall and Richard Blumenthal and Republican Rand Paul is one of several efforts making their way through Congress to rein in sweeping surveillance programs.

The Senate Intelligence Committee is holding a public hearing where the panel’s leaders are expected to discuss their surveillance reforms.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is addressing the issue, and several members of the House of Representatives have also introduced legislation. “The disclosures over the last 100 days have caused a sea change in the way the public views the surveillance system,” said Wyden, a leading congressional advocate for tighter privacy controls.

The surveillance programs have come under intense scrutiny since disclosures this spring by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden that the government collects far more Internet and telephone data than previously known. Besides banning the bulk collection of Americans’ records, it would create the position of “constitutional advocate” to represent the public in the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that oversees the eavesdropping programs.

And it would let Americans affected by the eavesdropping sue for damages in U.S. courts and allow companies to disclose more information about cooperation with government surveillance. “These reforms are the right thing to do, but they are also essential to the public believing that the system is complying with the law,” Blumenthal said.

 

Political

Hillary Rodham Clinton says she plans to lead an effort to evaluate the progress women have made around the globe in becoming full and equal participants in society. The former secretary of state says the work will be done by 2015, which is the 20th anniversary of her famous remarks at a United Nations women’s conference in Beijing.

As First Lady, Clinton declared in the 1995 speech that “women’s rights are human rights.” She said that despite progress, women are a “long way from the goal of full and equal participation.”

Clinton is a potential Democratic presidential candidate in 2016. She says the evaluation through the Clinton Foundation will assess progress by women and chart a path forward for full participation in society.

 

Business

The financially strapped United States Postal Service is paying a futurist more than half a million dollars to assess the future of stamps as the agency struggles to raise revenues.

The Postal Service will pay Faith Popcorn’s BrainReserve, which describes itself as a futurist marketing consultancy, $565,769 to provide “analysis and recommendation on the future of stamps,” according to documents acquired by Federal Times, which provides news for federal managers.

The New York-based company is expected to make recommendations in October on ways to slow the decline in stamp usage.

Stamped mail accounts for 43 percent of the postal service revenues. But stamp sales have continued to decline as more Americans communicate electronically and pay bills online. The Postal Service expects a 40.5 percent drop in first-class mail from 84 billion pieces in 2009 to 50 billion pieces in 2020. The agency announced it is seeking an emergency rate increase on stamps beyond the annual rate of inflation.

“As part of its ongoing innovation efforts, the Postal Service regularly seeks advice and counsel from mailing industry, marketing and innovation experts,” said USPS spokeswoman Toni DeLancey.

“This is an important activity that helps the organization anticipate changing mailing and shipping behaviors, as well as long-term changes to the evolving communication marketplace it serves,” she said.

The Postal Service is struggling financially under the pressure of massive payments into a mandatory fund for its future retirees’ health care and as mail volumes tumble. The $500,000 is a tiny fraction of the agency’s finances; however the expenditure comes at a time when the agency says it is losing $25 million daily.

Republican U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold of Texas, chairman of the subcommittee that oversees the Postal Service, said “While small in terms of the overall crisis USPS faces, this certainly seems like a poor use of its limited funds.”

The Postal Service, which does not receive taxpayer funds, is under pressure to raise revenues or risk requiring a taxpayer bailout of nearly $50 billion by 2017. It lost $740 million in its third quarter that ended June 30, and $16 billion last year.

It soon could cost 49 cents to mail a letter. The postal Board of Governors said it wants to raise the price of a first-class stamp by 3 cents, citing the agency’s “precarious financial condition” and the uncertain prospects for postal overhaul legislation in Congress. If the commission accepts it, the increase would become effective Jan. 26.

Health

           

The global rate of HIV infection and the number of AIDS-related deaths have been dramatically reduced, thanks to expanding access to treatment, the United Nations said in a report.

In its annual update on HIV, which it said now infects around 35.3 million people worldwide. UNAIDS said deaths from AIDS and HIV infection rates were falling, while the number of people getting treatment is going up.

AIDS-related deaths in 2012 fell to 1.6 million, down from 1.7 million in 2011 and a peak of 2.3 million in 2005. And the number of people newly infected with the disease dropped to 2.3 million in 2012 down from 2.5 million in 2011.

The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS can be transmitted via blood, breast milk and by semen during sex, but can be kept in check with cocktails of drugs known as antiretroviral treatment or therapy.

By the end of 2012, some 9.7 million people in poorer and middle-income countries had access to such AIDS drugs, an increase of nearly 20 percent in a year.

Since 2001, the U.N. report said, there has been a 52 percent drop in annual new HIV infections among children and a 33 percent reduction in newly infected adults and children combined. In 2011, UN member states agreed to a target of getting HIV treatment to 15 million people by 2015.

As countries scaled up treatment coverage and as evidence showed how treating HIV early also reduces its spread, the World Health Organization set new guidelines this year, expanding the number of people needing treatment by more than 10 million.

Michel Sidibé, UNAIDS’ executive director, said “Not only can we meet the 2015 target of 15 million people on HIV treatment, we must also go beyond and have the vision and commitment to ensure no one is left behind,” he said in a statement with the report.

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Week in Review

International

     “We’ve kind of hit a wall,” President Barack Obama commented on his way to Russia. He meant his relationship with Moscow but came to apply as well to other leaders abroad, lawmakers at home and Americans at large, all standing in the way of his desire to attack Syria.

Currently, military action is on hold, and a diplomatic effort to have Syria turn over its chemical weapons has some steam. The potential way out grew from Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin pulling up chairs in a corner of a stately room at the summer home of Peter the Great in St. Petersburg.

Obama pressed his case with world leaders at the Group of 20 Summit. The burden of a looming military strike in retaliation for Syrian chemical weapons use and the lack of explicit support from summit partners weighed visibly on the president when he addressed the traveling press corps.

It’s conceivable that “if I don't persuade a majority of the American people that it's the right thing to do,” he said. “And then each member of Congress is going to have to decide.”

With plenty of U.S.-Russian tensions simmering – over Syria, Moscow’s sheltering of former NSA leaker Edward Snowden and more – Obama decided there would be no formal one-on-one with Putin.

But the Russian leader, the Syrian government’s leading patron on the world stage, approached him and they pulled chairs together off to the side.

With other leaders looking on, they engaged in a 20-minute discussion about Syria. There was no breakthrough on their disagreement over the future of Syrian President Bashar Assad. However, Putin broached an idea that the two leaders had first discussed a year ago at the G-20 Summit in Mexico – an international agreement to secure Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles.

Obama agreed that could be an area for cooperation and suggested Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov follow up.

Obama and Vice President Joe Biden pressed members of Congress at a dinner as well as in phone calls over days. Nothing seemed to be working. More and more lawmakers stepped forward to declare their opposition to military strikes. The dynamics – for and against military action – were strikingly bipartisan.

But those seeds from the palace were taking root. Kerry, in London, held a news conference with British Foreign Secretary William Hague, greeted outside by 50 protesters chanting, “Keep your hands off Syria.”

When Kerry was asked if Assad could do anything to avoid an attack, he uttered, “Sure. He can turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week…. Turn it over, all of it, without delay, and allow a full and total accounting for that. But he isn't about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously.”

Russia made a proposal to place Syrian chemical weapons out of Assad’s control, Syria welcomed the idea, other nations and the United Nations embraced it in principle, and some members of Congress were beginning to see a possible way out of the jam.

Obama declared the Russian pitch “potentially a significant breakthrough” that could head off U.S. air strikes.

 

National

The National Security Agency admitted in documents that it had wrongly put 16,000 phone numbers on an “alert list,” so their incoming calls could be monitored, a mistake that a judge on the secret surveillance court called a “flagrant violation” of the law.

The documents are the latest to show that not only did the secret spy agency collect more data than most Americans suspected, its agents sometimes went too far when tapping into the data.

In 2006, the NSA asked for and won approval from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to routinely collect the dialing records of domestic phone calls. The judges, to the surprise of some outside lawyers, agreed that all of these phone records could be “relevant” to an investigation, and therefore, could be collected.

The agency insisted, however, that it would hold these records and tap into them only when it had a “reasonable and articulable suspicion” that a phone number was linked to a suspected terrorist.

But in January 2009, top officials of the intelligence agency learned that about 18,000 phone numbers were on the “alert list” that could subject them to daily monitoring. Of these, about 16,000 had not been shown to be reasonably linked to a terrorist. The agency notified the judges of the mistake and said they were making needed changes in their software that tracked phone numbers.

Judge Reggie Walton, a member of the special court, said he was “very disturbed” about the incident and said the agency’s explanation “strains credulity.”

The Obama Administration quietly won permission from a surveillance court in 2011 for the National Security Agency to search deliberately for Americans' communications in its huge databases of intercepted phone calls and emails, according to a published report.

The court also extended the length of time the NSA is allowed to retain intercepted communications from five to six years. The permission to search and keep data longer expanded the NSA's authority in significant ways without public debate or any specific authority from Congress.

The court decision allowed the NSA "to query the vast majority" of its communications databases using the email addresses and phone numbers of Americans and legal residents without a warrant, according to Bates' opinion. The queries must be “reasonably likely to yield foreign intelligence information.”

And the results are subject to the NSA's privacy rules. The court in 2008 imposed a wholesale ban on such searches at the government's request, said Alex Joel, civil liberties protection officer at ODNI. Joel said the authority would be needed in certain situations, such as when the NSA learns of a rapidly developing terrorist plot and suspects that a U.S. person may be a conspirator.

Searching for communications to, from or about that person can help assess that person's involvement and whether he is in touch with terrorists who are surveillance targets, he said.

A pair of Democratic senators, Ron Wyden of Oregon and Mark Udall of Colorado, warned last year the administration had a “back-door search loophole” that enabled the NSA to scour intercepted communications of Americans.

They introduced legislation to require a warrant, but could not disclose the court's authorization or whether the NSA was already conducting such searches under classification rules.

 

Political

With the majority of Americans against the use of force in Syria, Obama asked them to have confidence in his judgment as commander in chief if he launches a strike despite their opposition.

And he asked them to have faith that a president elected to end wars was still trying to find another way out, perhaps a diplomatic deal at the United Nations to secure Syria's chemical weapons.

“I know that after the terrible toll of Iraq and Afghanistan, the idea of any military action, no matter how limited, is not going to be popular," Obama said in a prime-time address from the White House, adding that he has a "deeply held preference for peaceful solutions.”

With trust intact, Obama has space to maneuver on Syria and other issues. But should he lose the public's confidence, Obama would find it more difficult to wield influence on the world stage, much less persuade Congress to pass immigration overhaul, rally support for budget issues or build backing for critical elements of his signature health care law.

“I know Americans want all of us in Washington – especially me – to concentrate on the task of building our nation here at home, putting people back to work, educating our kids, growing our middle class,” he said. “It’s no wonder, then, that you’re asking hard questions.”

According to a Gallup/USA Today poll, 55 percent of Americans said they saw Obama as honest and trustworthy, down from a high of 63 percent in March 2008, when he was a candidate for the White House. The president and his advisers are mindful of the damage a further slip in those numbers could have on the remaining years of his presidency.

Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, never recovered in his second term from a rapid loss of trust as the death toll in Iraq mounted and much of the intelligence used to bolster the case for war was discredited. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., said Obama's efforts to distance the strike he is seeking from the Iraq war could carry weight with the president's skeptical supporters.

“The Democrats have a lot of appreciation for the fact that we have a president who's a war ender, not a war starter,” Welch said. “When he says it’s limited, personally, I think Democrats believe him, because of his history.”

 

Business

Apple's latest iPhones aims to be "the gold standard of smartphones" and reads your fingerprint. Apple unveiled the latest iPhone models during an event at its Cupertino, Calif., headquarters. The move comes as rival phones from Samsung and other manufacturers are challenging Apple's hold on the smartphone market.

CEO Tim Cook calls it “more fun and colorful” than any other iPhone. The 5C has a 4-inch Retina display and is powered by Apple's A6 chip. It also has an 8 megapixel camera, live photo filters and a rear cover that lights up. The phone is expected to help Apple boost sales in China and other areas where people don't have as much money to spend on new gadgets as they do in the U.S. and Europe.

The second phone, the 5S, is “the most forward-looking phone we have ever created.” said Phil Schiller, senior vice president of worldwide marketing at Apple. It will come in silver, gold and “space gray” and run a new chip, the A7 that is up to twice as fast as the A6.

Schiller said the new phone can run more health and fitness applications. These apps have become increasingly popular as more people use them to track exercise routines, calorie intake and even sleep patterns.

The camera in the 5S received some major upgrades, including several automatic features designed to produce better photos.

The phone also has a two-tone flash feature that is designed not to clash with the colors in the room or a person's skin color – something Schiller said has not been done on a phone before. The camera, called iSight, has “auto image stabilization,” which helps avoid blurry pictures, and a slow-motion camera for video.

The 5S also includes “Touch ID,” which reads fingerprints at a “detailed level,” Schiller said. He said it is “fun and easy” to teach the 5S about your fingerprint and once you do, you can just touch the home button to unlock the phone.

Tying the fingerprint scanner to payments could also open new revenue channels for Apple. Investors seemed unimpressed. Apple’s stock price fell $3.17 to $503.10 during the event.

Health

    

The rate of teenage pregnancy in the United States is at a historic low, and has dropped by more than half in the last two decades, declining across nearly all racial and ethnic groups, according to a government report.

The rate for girls ages 15-19 dropped to 29.4 births per 1,000 last year from 31.3 per 1,000 in 2011. This was less than half the 61.8 births per 1,000 teenage girls recorded in 1991. The numbers have steadily declined over the last two decades, except for a brief spike in 2006 and 2007, Hamilton said.

Last year, the rate of births for white, black, Hispanic and Asian or Pacific Islander teenagers declined from 5 to 7 percent compared to 2011. Among racial and ethnic groups, the largest decline since 2007 was reported for Hispanic teenagers, for whom the rate dropped 39 percent to 46.3 births per 1,000 to 2012 from 2007.

“That is an astonishing success in terms of this particular topic of debate,” said Brady Hamilton, a statistician with the National Center for Health Statistics who led the data collection. The Center is part of the U.S. government's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In 2010, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services gave $155 million in teenage pregnancy prevention grants to states, school districts and nonprofit organizations.

 

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Week in Review

International

U.S. President Barack Obama's effort to win legislative backing for military strikes against Syria passed its first hurdle when a Senate committee voted in favor of the request.

Washington and Syria's main backer, Russia, remained publicly at odds as Obama tried to build his case for military action over chemical weapons before flying to Russia for a G20 summit hosted by President Vladimir Putin.

President Obama said he would continue to try to persuade Putin of the need for punitive strikes on Assad for using chemical weapons when the two meet in St. Petersburg. Obama said the credibility of America and of the world was at stake.

“I did not set a red line. The world set a red line,” Obama said, referring to bans on chemical weapons use. Putin again questioned Western evidence. He accused Kerry of lying when, in urging Congress to approve strikes on Syria, Kerry played down the role of al Qaeda in the rebel forces.

“Al Qaeda units are the main military echelon, and they know this,” Putin said. “He is lying and knows he is lying. It’s sad.” Putin said Russia “doesn’t exclude” supporting a U.N. resolution on punitive military strikes if it is proved that Damascus used poison gas on its own people.

Putin said U.S. congressional approval without a U.N. Security Council resolution would be an act of aggression.

Obama focused on building international support while Administration officials kept up their campaign of persuasion in Congress, where deep U.S. skepticism about going to war was reflected in a House of Representatives hearing.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved a resolution authorizing the use of military force in Syria in a vote that avoided party lines, with Democrats and Republicans on both sides. The action cleared the way for a vote in the full Senate.

The committee voted 10-7 in favor of a compromise resolution that sets a 60-day limit on any engagement in Syria, with a possible 30-day extension, and bars the use of U.S. troops on the ground for combat operations.

The Administration is trying to balance the views of many in Congress who want a narrowly defined resolution against hawks such as Senator John McCain, who has pushed for a broader resolution that would allow direct U.S. support for rebels.

The Senate committee adopted amendments proposed by McCain with policy goals of degrading Assad's ability to use chemical weapons, increasing support for rebel forces and reversing battlefield momentum to create conditions for Assad’s removal.

Israel has proposed leaving intact dozens of Jewish settlements and military bases in the West Bank as part of a package to establish a Palestinian state in provisional borders. A Palestinian official said the proposal is unacceptable to the Palestinians.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because Israel and the Palestinians have pledged to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry not to discuss the content of their talks with the media.

For their future state, the Palestinians seek the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip, territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war. With Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opposed to a return to the pre-1967 lines, the idea of a Palestinian state in temporary borders has gained appeal with the Israelis.

Such a deal could give the Palestinians independence, while leaving the fate of Jerusalem and the status of millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants, to later negotiations. The Palestinians reject any notion of a provisional agreement, fearing that a temporary arrangement that falls short will become permanent.

Yasser Abed Rabbo, a top aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said, “Until now, there are no signs of progress. The Israeli position has not changed. It's the one that we know on the ground, through daily settlement expansion.” He urged the U.S. to put pressure on Israel.

Otherwise, he said, “There will be no progress. Israel is using the issue of security to take land,” he said. “From the general discussions we had in the last couple of weeks, the Israelis have shown no intention to dismantle any settlement.”

He said the current proposals indicated that Israel would seek to retain control over about 40 percent of the West Bank. “They said, ‘Let’s discuss a state with provisional borders.’ We said, ‘Let’s agree on a state based on the 1967 borders first, and then we can agree on having this state in phases.”

National

The state of Massachusetts is still reeling a year after a scandal at a drug lab threw the legal system into turmoil: More than 330 prison inmates have been released from custody and at least 1,100 cases have been dismissed or not prosecuted because of tainted evidence and other fallout from the facility's closure.

Annie Dookhan stands accused of faking test results, tampering with evidence and routinely ignoring testing protocols. With thousands of challenges still making their way through the court system, many in the legal community believe it will be years before the cases handled by Dookhan are cleared.

A lawyer appointed by Gov. Deval Patrick to help create a database of Dookhan’s cases said more than 40,000 defendants may have been affected, about 6,000 more than officials first estimated.

“Forget having your day in court, forget having a lawyer – it’s taken us this long just to get a number on the number of cases that she tested,” said Matthew Segal, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. “It’s been very damaging to the integrity of the justice system,” he said.

Dookhan, 35, treasured her reputation as the most productive chemist in the lab and became the go-to person for prosecutors in drug cases. But now prosecutors believe Dookhan’s reputation was based on fraud.

She told state police that instead of testing all the substances turned over to the Department of Public Health lab, she sometimes would test only a fraction of them but certify them all as drugs, authorities said.

The scandal led to the resignation of the state’s public health commissioner, the resignation of a manager at the lab and the firing of another manager.

 

Political          

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, who recently married 46 same-sex couples after his state’s passage of a law legalizing gay weddings, will appear in a predominantly gay Chicago neighborhood to launch a campaign called “Marry Me in Minneapolis.”

He plans to follow with campaigns in Colorado and Wisconsin, two other states that haven’t approved same-sex marriage. Rybak is trying to convince Chicagoans that rather than take a long and expensive plane trip to one of the coasts, just drive to his city.

Recently, many gay couples in the Midwest have said their vows in Iowa the only state directly bordering Illinois that allows same-sex weddings. Rybak is trying to capitalize on disappointment among Illinois gay couples that the state, dominated by Democrats, still hasn’t approved a marriage law and probably won't any time soon with lawmakers on recess.

Rybak figures the campaign, if successful, could be extremely lucrative for Minneapolis, profiting on everything from hotel rooms to flowers to caterers. “Even 20 weddings would be tens of thousands of dollars, maybe hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Rybak said.

 

Business

Critics of a minimum wage hike cite a commonly held belief that forcing low-paying employers such as Wal-Mart  to boost compensation would lead to greater economic suffering.

Higher labor costs, they argue, would require higher prices, prompting layoffs and more pain. But research from the public policy firm Demos finds that raising the minimum wage could potentially strengthen the financial standing of Wal-Mart, McDonald’s  and other companies that attract low-income customers.

It’s a “misconception that raising the minimum wage will lead to another person’s loss,” Catherine Ruetschlin, a policy analyst at Demos, told MSN money NOW. Low-wage earners "are the people most likely to spend 100% of their paycheck. Raising the minimum wage, especially in periods of weak consumer demand like now, is actually a stimulus."

Right now, Wal-Mart's core customer doesn’t have a lot of extra spending money. With the baseline wage at $7.25, America's lowest-earning workers bring home just over $15,000 annually. That hasn’t changed since 2009, when the minimum wage was last boosted.

But the prices of oil, gas, milk and other basic goods have jumped since then, according to the National Employment Law Project.  One-quarter of Wal-Mart shoppers earn less than $25,000 per year, and 12 percent of them bring home less $15,000.

Wal-Mart hasn’t officially made a statement about President Barack Obama’s proposal to boost the baseline wage to $9 an hour, The Huffington Post notes. But the country’s largest private employer recently threatened to leave Washington, D.C., if city officials enacted a “living wage” mandate.

Given that many Wal-Mart customers are just barely getting by, it’s no surprise that the company in August cut its annual profit forecast. Analysts pointed to the struggling low-income consumer as the reason.

But wouldn’t a minimum-wage hike boost payroll costs, leading to higher prices at the checkout counter? Not so much. The actual impact on payroll would translate to only 1 percent of the $2.17 trillion in annual sales from large retailers, Demos found.

If the entire impact of a minimum wage hike were passed on to shoppers, they’d pay just 1 percent more for the same goods, according to the study. Wal-Mart and McDonald's low wages have attracted the attention of former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, who started a petition telling them to stop being cheap. But the bigger question facing Wal-Mart is whether it can afford a customer base with empty pockets.

 

Health

According to a new study, being broke and not being able to sleep can tax your brain. A person preoccupied with money problems can have a decrease in their mental abilities similar to a 13-point drop in IQ – or about the same as trying to function normally after losing an entire night’s sleep.

A team of international researchers says poverty and all its concerns use up so much mental energy that a poor person is more likely to make more mistakes and bad decisions, which in turn can deepen their financial woes.

 

The study, published in the journal Science, tested several hundred people at random in a New Jersey mall over the course of a year – having them perform common intelligence and cognition tests while asking them to solve scenarios involving sudden and costly financial problems.

The same test was also conducted with hundreds of sugarcane farmers in India. “These findings fit in with our story of how scarcity captures attention. It consumes your mental bandwidth,” Jiaying Zhao, one of the study’s co-authors, said in a press statement published by Princeton University.

“Just asking a poor person to think about hypothetical financial problems reduces mental bandwidth. This is an acute, immediate impact and has implications for scarcity of resources of any kind.”

 

            The researchers say the “mental tax” poverty and money concerns put on the brain is different from stress. The poor don't have leftover bandwidth to devote to other tasks, noted Eldar Shafir, a professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton and another of the study’s co-authors.

“The poor are often highly effective at focusing on and dealing with pressing problems. It’s the other tasks where they perform poorly.”

One of poverty’s vicious cycles, the study says, is how being poor dominates a person's time and therefore their thinking. “There’s very little you can do with time to get more money but a lot you can do with money to get more time,” Shafir said.

“The poor, who our research suggests are bound to make more mistakes and pay more dearly for errors, inhabit contexts often not designed to help.”

Zhao, meanwhile, says the study undermines claims that poverty can be blamed on a person’s personal failings or environment. “We’re arguing that the lack of financial resources itself can lead to impaired cognitive function,” she said. “The very condition of not having enough can actually be a cause of poverty.”

 

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Week in Review

 By Deidre Hazim

TOPEKA, Kansas – Several months ago, members of six United Methodist churches in central Kansas decided that it was time to become more educated about the Islamic faith.

The challenge, however, was just what route to take to make it happen.

There were books and films on Islam and many Internet sites geared to introducing people to Islam. However, the lack of personal connection didn’t allow the Methodists the chance to meet Muslims on an individual basis.

The Reverend Sandra Moore, pastor of Simpson United Methodist Church in Alta Vista and a leader in the group, continued her internet search seeking someone who would be willing to make a presentation about Islam for her group.

Rev. Moore soon came across the Islamic Center of Topeka and Imam Omar Hazim on the internet (topekamosque.org). She sent an email requesting the Imam to visit the United Methodist group at a central Kansas location.

Imam Hazim countered with an offer, “Why not bring the United Methodist group to Topeka and visit the Islamic Center where they would see a mosque, hear a presentation on the religion and have lunch with local Muslims.

Rev. Moore happily accepted the opportunity to visit a mosque along with the other eight clergy in her parish.  And on Sat., Aug. 17, 2013, about 21 United Methodists from six congregations made the trip to Topeka, where they visited the Islamic Center, at 1115 S.E. 27th St.

“We are extremely honored and happy that they’re here as our guests,” Imam Hazim said. “We just hope and pray we can be worthy of them coming.”

The Imam said the Islamic faith places a “high value on getting to know your neighbor,” and members of the Topeka Mosque wanted to make their guests feel welcomed.

In addition to allowing the United Methodist guests the opportunity to learn more about Islam, Imam Hazim said the event also allowed local Muslims to learn more about the Christian faith.

“When we get to know each other,” Imam Hazim said. “We have more sensitivity and tolerance for each other.”

Imam Hazim said the United Methodist would be treated to lunch, where they could sit across the table from Muslims and visit with them. Then they would get a tour of the mosque, hear a short presentation about Islam and take part in a question and answer session.

Imam Hazim and Muslims in the audience also would be able to ask question of Rev. Moore and other Christians in the room.

“We want them to share anything they want about their faith with us,” Imam Hazim said. “We want to learn about them.”

Rev. Moore said she “loved the opportunity to break bread” with Muslims at the Islamic Center and said the United Methodists were made to feel “very welcomed.”

When the decision was made to study Islam, Rev. Moore said she felt G-d called her and others in her group to go visit Muslims directly, because “they are our neighbors.”

She said she also appreciated Imam Hazim and the Islamic Center of Topeka being willing to share their faith with them. “The more we know,” the more we understand, and the more we’re good neighbors.”

During lunch, Rev. Moore learned about the history of the Islamic Center of Topeka being established in 1987 and moved into its present location in 1990.

She said the hospitality shown the United Methodist group by the Topeka Muslims wouldn’t stop with the visit over that Saturday.

“Because now, we’ll be representatives,” she said. “We’ll go back and tell how warm the welcome was and what a wonderful experience we had.”

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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