AP News in Brief at 10:58 p.m. EST

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Associated Press

Posted on December 27, 2012 at 12:02 AM

Storm that struck nation's midsection, killing 6, knocking out power, begins lashing Northeast

A powerful winter storm system that pounded the nation's midsection, wrecking holiday travel plans and dumping a record snowfall in Arkansas, began lashing the Northeast on Wednesday with high winds, snow and sleet.

The storm, which knocked out power to thousands of homes, mainly in Arkansas, was blamed in at least six deaths.

Hundreds of flights were canceled or delayed, scores of motorists got stuck on icy roads or slid into drifts and blizzard warnings were issued amid snowy gusts of 30 mph that blanketed roads and windshields, at times causing whiteout conditions.

"The way I've been describing it is as a low-end blizzard, but that's sort of like saying a small Tyrannosaurus rex," said John Kwiatkowski, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Indianapolis.

The system, which spawned Gulf Coast region tornadoes on Christmas Day, pushed through the Upper Ohio Valley and headed into the Northeast Wednesday night. High winds, snow and sleet slickened roads in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut. Forecasts called for 12 to 18 inches of snow inland from western New York to Maine into Thursday.

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Fiscal Cliff deadline looms: Kicking the Can, Washington-style

WASHINGTON (AP) — When it comes to the nation's budget challenges, congressional leaders are fond of saying dismissively they don't want to kick the can down the road.

But now, a deadline hard ahead, even derided half-measures are uncertain as President Barack Obama and lawmakers struggle to avert across-the-board tax increases and spending cuts that comprise an economy-threatening fiscal cliff.

Congressional officials said Wednesday they knew of no significant strides toward a compromise over a long Christmas weekend, and no negotiations have been set.

After conferring on a conference call, House Republican leaders said they remain ready for talks, urged the Senate to consider a House-passed bill that extends all existing tax cuts, but gave no hint they intend to call lawmakers back into session unless the Senate first passes legislation.

"The lines of communication remain open, and we will continue to work with our colleagues to avert the largest tax hike in American history, and to address the underlying problem, which is spending," the leadership said in a statement.

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10 Things to Know for Thursday

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

1. A FORMER PRESIDENT IS AILING

George H.W. Bush is in intensive care at a Houston hospital, where his fever has worsened and doctors have put him on a liquid diet.

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Settlement worth more than $1 billion reached in case involving Toyotas' sudden acceleration

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Toyota Motor Corp. said Wednesday it has reached a settlement worth more than $1 billion in a case involving unintended acceleration problems in its vehicles.

The company said the deal will resolve hundreds of lawsuits from Toyota owners who said the value of their cars and trucks plummeted after a series of recalls stemming from claims that Toyota vehicles accelerated unintentionally.

Steve Berman, a lawyer representing Toyota owners, said the settlement is the largest in U.S. history involving automobile defects.

"We kept fighting and fighting and we secured what we think was a good settlement given the risks of this litigation," Berman told The Associated Press.

The proposed deal was filed Wednesday and must receive the approval of U.S. District Judge James Selna, who was expected to review the settlement Friday.

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2 NY firefighters who survived Christmas Eve gun ambush recovering, thankful; weapons traced

Two firefighters wounded by a gunman who set his upstate New York house ablaze and killed two of their colleagues in an ambush with weapons he wasn't allowed to own were on the mend Wednesday and said they were thankful for the support they've received.

Investigators, meanwhile, traced the gunman's weapons and tried to confirm a body found in his destroyed house was his sister's.

West Webster volunteer firefighters Joseph Hofstetter and Theodore Scardino, who had been in guarded condition, were being upgraded to satisfactory condition on Wednesday at Rochester's Strong Memorial Hospital, which released a statement from them saying they were "humbled and a bit overwhelmed by the outpouring of well wishes for us and our families."

The firefighters said their "thoughts and prayers" were with the families of colleagues Michael Chiapperini and Tomasz Kaczowka, killed by William Spengler Jr., a convicted felon barred from having guns. Funerals are set for the next few days for Chiapperini and Kaczowka.

Authorities said Spengler set a car on fire and touched off an "inferno" in his Webster home on a strip of land along the Lake Ontario shore, took up a sniper's position and opened fire on the first firefighters to arrive at about 5:30 a.m. on Christmas Eve.

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Spokesman: Ex-President George H.W. Bush in intensive care unit at Houston hospital

HOUSTON (AP) — Former President George H.W. Bush has been admitted to the intensive care unit at a Houston hospital "following a series of setbacks including a persistent fever," but he is alert and talking to medical staff, his spokesman said Wednesday.

Jim McGrath, Bush's spokesman in Houston, said in a brief email that Bush was admitted to the ICU at Methodist Hospital on Sunday. He said doctors are cautiously optimistic about his treatment and that the former president "remains in guarded condition."

No other details were released about his medical condition, but McGrath said Bush is surrounded by family.

The 88-year-old has been hospitalized since Nov. 23, when he was admitted for a lingering cough related to bronchitis after having been in and out of the hospital for complications related to the illness.

Earlier Wednesday, McGrath said a fever that kept Bush in the hospital over Christmas had gotten worse and that doctors had put him on a liquids-only diet.

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South Africa: Nelson Mandela released from the hospital, will get more care at home

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Former South African President Nelson Mandela was released Wednesday from the hospital after being treated for a lung infection and having gallstones removed, a government spokesman said.

The 94-year-old anti-apartheid icon will continue to receive medical care at home.

Mandela had been in the hospital since Dec. 8. In recent days, officials have said he was improving and in good spirits, but doctors have taken extraordinary care with his health because of his age.

Mandela was released Wednesday evening and will receive "home-based high care" at his residence in the Johannesburg neighborhood of Houghton until he fully recovers, said presidential spokesman Mac Maharaj.

"We thank the public and the media for the good wishes and for according Madiba and the family the necessary privacy," said Maharaj in a statement, using Mandela's clan name, a term of affection. The statement requested that Mandela's privacy continue to be respected "in order to allow for the best possible conditions for full recovery."

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Hawaii governor names Democrat, Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz, to succeed Inouye in US Senate

HONOLULU (AP) — Hawaii Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz on Wednesday was appointed the state's next U.S. senator, bucking the dying wishes of U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye to win the support of Gov. Neil Abercrombie.

Schatz, a 40-year-old former nonprofit CEO who ran with Abercrombie for the state's top two offices in 2010, beat out U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa and Esther Kiaaina, a deputy director in the state Department of Land and Natural Resources. The three candidates were selected by state Democrats earlier in the day.

The White House said Schatz would fly to Washington on Wednesday night aboard Air Force One, which was bringing President Barack Obama home early from his Christmas vacation as Congress considers what to do about the so-called fiscal cliff.

Four days after eulogizing Inouye in the courtyard of the Hawaii Capitol, Abercrombie said he had to consider more than just Inouye's wishes in filling his seat.

"Of course Sen. Inouye's views and his wishes were taken into account fully, but the charge of the central committee, and by extension then myself as governor, was to act in the best interests of the party ... the state and the nation," Abercrombie said.

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As Newtown officers struggle with effects of shooting, police union seeks expanded benefits

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Some of the police officers who responded to the school shooting in Newtown are so traumatized they haven't been working, but they have to use sick time and could soon be at risk of going without a paycheck, a union official said Wednesday.

The union, Council 15 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, is seeking more generous assistance in talks with the town's insurer. It is also reaching out to lawmakers and the governor's office with proposals to modify state law and expand workers' compensation benefits for officers who witness horrific crime scenes.

"The insurer for the town has taken a position that these officers are entitled to only what the statute allows. Unfortunately for these officers, the statute doesn't allow any benefits," said Eric Brown, an attorney for the union, which represents nearly 4,000 officers around Connecticut.

A gunman shot his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14 and slaughtered 20 first-graders and six educators. The gunman, who had also killed his mother that morning, committed suicide as police arrived.

Brown said that the number of officers "critically affected" by the tragedy is below 15 and that a small number of them are not currently working.

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Russian parliament approves bill banning US adoptions of Russian children

MOSCOW (AP) — Defying a storm of domestic and international criticism, Russia moved toward finalizing a ban on Americans adopting Russian children, as Parliament's upper house voted unanimously Wednesday in favor of a measure that President Vladimir Putin has indicated he will sign into law.

The bill is widely seen as the Kremlin's retaliation against an American law that calls for sanctions against Russians deemed to be human rights violators. It comes as Putin takes an increasingly confrontational attitude toward the West, brushing aside concerns about a crackdown on dissent and democratic freedoms.

Dozens of Russian children close to being adopted by American families now will almost certainly be blocked from leaving the country. The law also cuts off the main international adoption route for Russian children stuck in often dismal orphanages: Tens of thousands of Russian youngsters have been adopted in the U.S. in the past 20 years. There are about 740,000 children without parental care in Russia, according to UNICEF.

All 143 members of the Federation Council present voted to support the bill, which has sparked criticism from both the U.S. and Russian officials, activists and artists, who say it victimizes children by depriving them of the chance to escape the squalor of orphanage life. The vote comes days after Parliament's lower house overwhelmingly approved the ban.

The U.S. State Department said Wednesday it regretted the Russian parliament's decision.

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