Thursday, February 16, 2012

Published:

Top congressional bargainers announce deal to renew payroll tax cut, jobless benefits

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Relieved congressional bargainers say they've reached agreement on compromise legislation extending payroll tax cuts and benefits for the long-term unemployed through 2012, edging a white-hot political battle a major step closer to finally being resolved.

Rep. David Camp, R-Mich., and Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., the two top negotiators, strode from a conference room minutes after midnight Thursday to say that only technical issues and the drafting of legislative language remained. The bill would assure a continued tax cut for 160 million workers and jobless benefits for several million others, delivering top election-year priorities for President Barack Obama.

"It's a very good deal for the country," said Baucus, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee.

There were disconcerting hints that last-minute problems might still crop up. Neither Baucus nor Camp would predict whether Congress would approve the legislation by Friday, the original goal. And aides did not distribute summaries of the bill to reporters, which is usually routine when major accords are reached.

Even so, Baucus and Camp -- and a handful of other lawmakers who helped craft the package -- expressed confidence that their work on the roughly $150 billion measure was virtually complete.

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AP EXCLUSIVE: Honduras gov't report says most inmates in deadly prison fire were not convicted

COMAYAGUA, Honduras (AP) -- The prisoners whose scorched bodies were carried out piece by piece Thursday morning from a charred Honduran prison had been locked inside an overcrowded penitentiary where most inmates had never been charged, let alone convicted, according to an internal Honduran government report obtained by The Associated Press.

More than half of the 856 inmates of the Comayagua farm prison north of the Central American country's capital were either awaiting trial or being held as suspected gang members, according to a report sent by the Honduran government this month to the United Nations.

A fire started by an inmate tore through the prison Tuesday night, burning and suffocating screaming men in their locked cells as rescuers desperately searched for keys. Officials confirmed 358 dead, making it the world's deadliest prison fire in a century.

Survivors told horrific tales of climbing walls to break the sheet metal roofing and escape, only to see prisoners in other cell blocks being burned alive. Inmates were found stuck to the roofing, their bodies fused to the metal.

From the time firefighters received a call at 10:59 p.m. local time, the rescue was marred by human error and conditions that made the prison ripe for catastrophe.

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White working class a weak spot for Romney, even as rising challenger Santorum targets them

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Republican Mitt Romney is faltering with white working-class voters crucial to his party's drive to capture the White House, even as he tries to fend off a rising GOP challenger, Rick Santorum, who wields strong blue-collar appeal.

The wealthy former Bain Capital chief has led his rivals by comfortable margins among white college graduates, according to combined polls of voters in the first five states that held presidential nominating contests. But the exit and entry surveys showed only a modest Romney advantage among whites who lack college degrees, the yardstick analysts typically use to define the working class.

The imbalance was most pronounced among less-educated white men, with whom his lead disappeared.

More recent polling bears out the same problem for Romney. According to a national poll of Republicans released this week by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, the former Massachusetts governor has a slender lead over Santorum among whites with degrees but trails him among working-class whites, 36 percent to 23 percent.

Romney's lukewarm performance with less-educated whites could haunt him in the Feb. 28 Michigan primary. Though it's Romney's native state, Santorum is using his upbringing in the western Pennsylvania manufacturing town of Butler, his rougher-edged style and his "Made in America" proposals for boosting U.S. manufacturing to woo Michigan's many blue-collar voters.

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Chinese vice president shows personal side during Iowa leg of US trip, described as 'genuine'

MUSCATINE, Iowa (AP) -- China's vice president remembered the popcorn he'd received as a parting gift -- and the strong Chinese liquor he left behind. He recalled one young girl asking whether he'd seen American movies, and being shocked when he told her he'd watched "The Godfather." And he often flashed that warm smile.

Twenty-seven years after Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping met a group of Iowa farmers and business leaders during a diplomatic exchange to this Mississippi River town, the likely future leader of the world's most populous country returned Wednesday for a brief reunion to reminisce with the first Americans he ever met.

"My impression of the country came from you. For me, you are America," Xi told a group of about 16 people he referred to as "old friends."

The relaxed gathering in front of a fireplace in Roger and Sarah Lande's living room in Muscatine was a stark contrast to the more subdued, party-line approach Xi had while meeting with U.S. leaders in Washington earlier this week. During talks with President Barack Obama, members of Congress and others, Xi, 58, said little new -- and did little to narrow the differences that exist between the U.S. and China on issues such as human rights.

But in Iowa, Xi had the opportunity to show a more personal side away from the tough questions on policy, trade and international relations. Those who attended the 45-minute reunion in the two-story Victorian home said Xi enthusiastically introduced Chinese government leaders traveling with him, shook everyone's hand and even made a couple light remarks. They were struck by his charm, described him as genuine and hoped his friendly approach to Midwesterners is a positive sign for the future of U.S.-China relations.

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Interracial marriages on the rise as US becomes more diverse, blurring nation's color lines

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Interracial marriages in the U.S. have climbed to 4.8 million -- a record 1 in 12 -- as a steady flow of new Asian and Hispanic immigrants expands the pool of prospective spouses. Blacks are now substantially more likely than before to marry whites.

A Pew Research Center study, released Thursday, details a diversifying America where interracial unions and the mixed-race children they produce are challenging typical notions of race.

"The rise in interracial marriage indicates that race relations have improved over the past quarter century," said Daniel Lichter, a sociology professor at Cornell University. "Mixed-race children have blurred America's color line. They often interact with others on either side of the racial divide and frequently serve as brokers between friends and family members of different racial backgrounds," he said. "But America still has a long way to go."

The figures come from previous censuses as well as the 2008-2010 American Community Survey, which surveys 3 million households annually. The figures for "white" refer to those whites who are not of Hispanic ethnicity. For purposes of defining interracial marriages, Hispanic is counted as a race by many in the demographic field.

The study finds that 8.4 percent of all current U.S. marriages are interracial, up from 3.2 percent in 1980. While Hispanics and Asians remained the most likely, as in previous decades, to marry someone of a different race, the biggest jump in share since 2008 occurred among blacks, who historically have been the most segregated.

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APNewsBreak: Obama's budget axes USDA program that tests for deadly bacteria in fresh produce

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- President Barack Obama's proposed budget would eliminate the nation's only program that regularly tests fruits and vegetables for deadly pathogens, leaving public health officials without a crucial tool used to investigate deadly foodborne illness outbreaks.

The budget plan the president sent to Congress Monday would ax the Agriculture Department's tiny Microbiological Data Program, which extensively screens high-risk fresh produce throughout the year for bacteria including salmonella, E. coli and listeria.

If samples are positive, they can trigger nationwide recalls, and keep tainted produce from reaching consumers or grocery store shelves.

Food safety advocates and a top-ranking U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention official said the information also can help pinpoint foods tied to illness outbreaks, and would not easily be replaced by companies' internal tests or more modest federal sampling programs.

"It's the radar gun that keeps the industry honest and if that's eliminated, we don't have a program that will keep the industry in check," said Mike Doyle, director of the University of Georgia's Center for Food Safety, which works with the produce industry to improve safety measures on farms and in packinghouses. "This is really important because you and I eat that food and we don't want to get sick."

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Thai police say Iranian bomb suspects in Bangkok planned to target Israeli diplomats

BANGKOK (AP) -- Three Iranians detained after accidentally setting off explosives in Bangkok were planning to attack Israeli diplomats, Thailand's top policemantype:bold,italic; said Thursday in the first confirmation by local officials that the group was plotting attacks in Thailand.

The allegation came after days of strong accusations by Israel that Iran was behind the botched plot as well as two others in India and the former Soviet republic of Georgia this week. Iran has denied the charges.

Citing the similarity of bombs used in New Delhi and Tbilisi, national police chief Gen. Prewpan Dhamapong said that Thai authorities now "know for certain that (the target) was Israeli diplomats."

"This issue was about individuals and the targets were specific," he said. "This was something personal."

Israel has accused Iran of waging a covert campaign of state terror and has threatened military strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities. Iran has blamed the Jewish state for the recent killings of Iranian atomic scientists and has denied responsibility for all three bomb plots, including an explosion Monday in New Delhi that tore through an Israeli diplomatic vehicle, wounding the driver and a diplomat's wife, and a foiled attempt the same day in Georgia.

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Microsoft's MSN hooking up with hipper sidekick to tune into the latest buzz on the Internet

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- Microsoft is hooking up MSN.com with a hipper sidekick to broaden its appeal and stay on top of the Internet's hottest topics.

The trend-tracking service, called "msnNOW," tunes into the buzz by sifting through millions of Internet searches and links circulating among the hordes on Facebook and Twitter. The chatter is then distilled into the equivalent of a digital water cooler -- a place where people can go to keep in touch without taking up a lot of their time.

After months of development, the new feature debuts Thursday at http://now.msn.com.

The service is primarily aimed at college-age teenagers and young adults who are increasingly relying on smartphones and other mobile devices to remain plugged into what everyone is talking about from one hour to the next. It's an "information-snacking" addiction that msnNOW is looking to feed with a smorgasbord of morsels served up a team of about 20 editors who will write 100-word summaries of the stories driving online conversations, said Bob Visse, MSN's general manager.

Although it's tailor made for people on the go, msnNOW isn't offering an app for smartphones or computer tablets. It can be reached on all mobile Web browsers. The service alsol includes tools to make it easy to share on Facebook, Twitter and email.

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Internet will allow Whitney Houston's fans to share her invitation-only funeral on Saturday

NEW YORK (AP) -- They won't be there in person, but singer Whitney Houston's millions of fans worldwide will be able to share in her homecoming service Saturday as they watch her private funeral on the Internet.

It will provide a much-needed connection for fans who have lacked a formal place to eulogize Houston, one of the world's best-selling artists who died in Beverly Hills, Calif., on Saturday at the age of 48.

Some have gathered and placed flowers outside the Newark, N.J., church where the funeral will be held by invitation-only at the request of Houston's family, who wish to maintain some privacy. Others have stopped by the funeral home. But many have longed to share more fully in commemorating the superstar's life, and have shown their grief in one of the few ways available to them -- by buying her music.

Houston's funeral will be at New Hope Baptist Church, where she sang as a child. Her eulogy will be given by gospel singer Marvin Winans, a Grammy Award winner and longtime family friend. Afterward, Houston will be buried in Fair View Cemetery in Westfield, N.J., according to her death certificate. Her father, John Russell Houston Jr., was buried there in 2003.

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, investigators for the coroner's office have subpoenaed records from the singer's doctors and pharmacies who dispensed medication found in the hotel room where she died.

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Bursting with pride, Taiwan claims Knicks' emerging star Jeremy Lin as its own

TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) -- With only a handful of foreign embassies, and a political leadership forced into international invisibility, it's not surprising that the 23 million people of Taiwan feel their island home doesn't always get the respect it deserves.

Perhaps that's why they're now embracing emerging New York Knicks star Jeremy Lin as one of their own, reveling in his basketball exploits with a passion rare for a place better known for its flat screen TVs and computer chips.

Lin was born and raised in the United States, and his maternal grandmother comes from China, but his parents spent their formative years in Taiwan, and that's enough for people here to see him as a true-blue son of the island.

The Harvard graduate's remarkably rapid rise from NBA obscurity to stardom appeals to the Taiwanese as embodying the virtues they say propelled their island from agricultural backwater to high-tech powerhouse: hard work, devotion to family and modesty.

"Jeremy Lin may not consider himself a Taiwanese, and his success has had nothing to do with Taiwan, but Taiwanese regard him as one of their own," said political scientist Liu Bi-rong of Taipei's Soochow University. "Now he has taken the world by storm, and they are proud and enthralled by what he has done."