'This will be difficult' — Obama unveils sweeping gun violence proposals, sees tough fight
WASHINGTON (AP) — Conceding "this will be difficult," President Barack Obama urged a reluctant Congress on Wednesday to require background checks for all gun sales and ban both military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines in an emotion-laden plea to curb gun violence in America.
The president's sweeping, $500 million plan, coming one month after the school massacre in Connecticut, marks the most comprehensive effort to tighten gun laws in nearly two decades. But his proposals, most of which are opposed by the National Rifle Association, face a doubtful future in a divided Congress where Republicans control the House.
Seeking to circumvent at least some opposition, Obama signed 23 executive actions on Wednesday, including orders to make more federal data available for background checks and end a freeze on government research on gun violence. But he acknowledged that the steps he took on his own would have less impact than the broad measures requiring approval from Capitol Hill.
"To make a real and lasting difference, Congress, too, must act," Obama said, speaking at a White House ceremony with school children and their parents. "And Congress must act soon."
The president's announcements capped a swift and wide-ranging effort, led by Vice President Joe Biden, to respond to the deaths of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. But Obama's gun control proposals set him up for a tough political fight with Congress as he starts his second term, when he'll need Republican support to meet three looming fiscal deadlines and pass comprehensive immigration reform.
Desert drama: Al-Qaida-linked militants seize foreign hostages in Algeria in revenge for Mali
ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) — In a desert standoff deep in the Sahara, the Algerian army ringed a natural gas complex where Islamist militants hunkered down with dozens of hostages Wednesday night after a rare attack that appeared to be the first violent shock wave from the French intervention in Mali.
A militant group that claimed responsibility said 41 foreigners, including seven Americans, were being held after the assault on one of oil-rich Algeria's energy facilities, 800 miles from the capital of Algiers and 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) from the coast. Two foreigners were killed.
The group claiming responsibility said the attack was in revenge for Algeria's support of France's military operation against al-Qaida-linked rebels in neighboring Mali. The U.S. defense secretary called it a "terrorist act."
The militants appeared to have no escape, with troops surrounding the complex and army helicopters clattering overhead.
The group — called Katibat Moulathamine or the Masked Brigade — phoned a Mauritanian news outlet to say one of its affiliates had carried out the operation at the Ain Amenas gas field, and that France should end its intervention in Mali to ensure the safety of the hostages.
French troops begin land assault in Mali, moving north to jihadist-held Diabaly
BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — French soldiers pressed north in Mali territory occupied by radical Islamists on Wednesday, launching a land assault that was to put them in direct combat with al-Qaida-linked fighters "in one to 72 hours," military officials said.
Their presumed destination was the town of Diabaly, where fleeing residents said Islamist extremists had taken over their homes and were preventing other people from leaving. They said the militants were melting into the population and moving only in small groups on streets in the mud-walled neighborhoods to avoid being targeted by the French.
"They have beards. And they wear boubous (a flowing robe). No one approaches them. Everyone is afraid," said Ibrahim Komnotogo, who was out of town when the militants seized Diabaly over the weekend but kept in contact by telephone with other residents.
In apparent retaliation for the French offensive, the same group controlling northern Mali occupied a natural gas complex in neighboring Algeria, taking dozens of people hostage, including Americans. Two foreigners were killed.
French ground operations in Mali began overnight, France's military chief of staff, Adm. Edouard Guillaud, said on Europe 1 television Wednesday. He stressed that French infantry units "will be fighting directly in the coming hours."
AP-GfK poll: Rage over Conn. tragedy surpasses 9/11 levels; majority favors tighter gun laws
WASHINGTON (AP) — Americans were angrier about last month's horrific school shooting in Connecticut than they were about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, according to a new Associated Press-GfK poll.
And more favor stricter gun laws now than did shortly after the shooting deaths of 32 people on the campus of Virginia Tech in April 2007.
Three-quarters of Americans said they reacted to the Connecticut massacre of with deep anger, higher than the 65 percent who said they felt that way in a poll from NORC at the University of Chicago after the 9/11 attacks. A majority, 54 percent, said they felt deeply ashamed that an event like Newtown could happen in the United States, well above the 40 percent who said they felt that way in the wake of the disaster that followed Hurricane Katrina and 35 percent who felt that way after the shootings at Virginia Tech.
The massacre prompted 3 in 10 to give serious thought to whether they could really be safe anywhere these days and 4 in 10 felt strongly that the deaths could have been prevented. Both figures are higher now than after the Virginia Tech shooting deaths.
About a third said that after Newtown, they felt there may be too many guns in this country. A similar share said they worried how the shooting would impact U.S. gun laws.
Influential group of CEOs calls for raising retirement age to 70 for Social Security, Medicare
WASHINGTON (AP) — An influential group of business CEOs is pushing a plan to gradually increase the full retirement age to 70 for both Social Security and Medicare and to partially privatize the health insurance program for older Americans.
The Business Roundtable's plan would protect those 55 and older from cuts but younger workers would face significant changes. The plan unveiled Wednesday would result in smaller annual benefit increases for all Social Security recipients. Initial benefits for wealthy retirees would also be smaller.
Medicare recipients would be able to enroll in the traditional program or in private plans that could adjust premiums based on age and health status.
"America can preserve the health and retirement safety net and rein in long-term spending growth by modernizing Medicare and Social Security in a way that addresses America's new fiscal and demographic realities," said Gary Loveman, chairman, president and chief executive of casino giant Caesars Entertainment Corp.
Loveman, who chairs the Business Roundtable's health and retirement committee, said the business leaders will be meeting with members of Congress and the administration to press them to enact their plan.
Hang on, Snooki: Jersey Shore town awards contract to rebuild boardwalk destroyed by Sandy
SEASIDE HEIGHTS, N.J. (AP) — The boardwalk where generations of families and teens got their first taste of the Jersey Shore and where the MTV reality show of the same name was filmed is about to be rebuilt following its destruction in Superstorm Sandy.
Seaside Heights on Wednesday night awarded a $3.6 million contract to have the boardwalk rebuilt in time for Memorial Day weekend.
The walkway, one of the most popular and heavily used at the Jersey Shore, was destroyed in the late October storm, the state's worst natural disaster. Officials say it is the centerpiece of the borough's tourism industry, which funds 75 percent of its budget.
"A lot of people love Seaside and want to see what's happening this year," Mayor William Akers said. "If they don't come back, we don't eat."
Florence Birban, a 47-year resident, said the boardwalk means a lot to homeowners.
Large Norwegian study strengthens call for flu vaccinations of pregnant women
NEW YORK (AP) — A large study offers reassuring news for pregnant women: It's safe to get a flu shot.
The research found no evidence that the vaccine increases the risk of losing a fetus, and may prevent some deaths. Getting the flu while pregnant makes fetal death more likely, the Norwegian research showed.
The flu vaccine has long been considered safe for pregnant women and their fetus. U.S. health officials began recommending flu shots for them more than five decades ago, following a higher death rate in pregnant women during a flu pandemic in the late 1950s.
But the study is perhaps the largest look at the safety and value of flu vaccination during pregnancy, experts say.
"This is the kind of information we need to provide our patients when discussing that flu vaccine is important for everyone, particularly for pregnant women," said Dr. Geeta Swamy, a researcher who studies vaccines and pregnant women at Duke University Medical Center.
After another emergency, more trouble for Boeing's 787; almost half the jets are grounded
The federal government grounded Boeing's newest and most technologically advanced jetliner Wednesday, declaring that the 787 cannot fly again until the risk of battery fires is addressed.
The Federal Aviation Administration said it would work with Boeing and U.S. airlines to develop a plan to allow the Dreamliner to "resume operations as quickly and safely as possible." United Airlines is the only U.S. carrier with 787s. It has six.
The FAA decision was the latest setback for a plane that was supposed to set a new standard for jet travel but has been beset by one mishap after another.
For the second time in two weeks, a smoking or burning battery has been tied to an emergency aboard a 787. Almost half of the 787s that have been delivered have now been grounded for safety checks. And the latest incident raises the risk that the jet's electrical problems are more dangerous than previously thought.
So far, no one has suggested that the plane's fundamental design can't be fixed. But it's unclear how much will need to be changed.
Commercial space company building $18 million inflatable room for international space station
LAS VEGAS (AP) — NASA is partnering with a commercial space company in a bid to swap out the cumbersome "metal cans" that now serve as astronauts' homes in space for inflatable bounce-house-like habitats that can be deployed on the cheap.
A $17.8 million test project will send an inflatable room that can be compressed for delivery into a 7-foot tube to the International Space Station, officials said Wednesday during a news conference at North Las Vegas-based Bigelow Aerospace.
If the module proves durable during two years at the space station, it could open the door to habitats on the moon and missions to Mars, NASA engineer Glen Miller said.
The agency chose Bigelow for the contract because it was the only company working on the inflatable technology, said NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver.
Founder and president Robert Bigelow, who made his fortune in the hotel industry before getting into the space business in 1999, framed the gambit as an out-of-this-world real estate venture. He hopes to sell his spare tire habitats to scientific companies and wealthy adventurers looking for space hotels.
Armstrong tells AP: viewers of his interview with Oprah Winfrey should judge his candor
Lance Armstrong said viewers can judge for themselves how candid he was in his interview with Oprah Winfrey.
"I left it all on the table with her and when it airs the people can decide," he said in a text message to The Associated Press.
Armstrong responded to a report in the New York Daily News, citing an unidentified source, that he was not contrite when he acknowledged during Monday's taping with Winfrey that he used performance-enhancing drugs. Although the first installment of a two-part interview doesn't air until Thursday night, there has been no shortage of opinions or advice on what Armstrong should say.
Livestrong, the cancer charity Armstrong founded in 1997 and was forced to walk away from last year, said in a statement Wednesday it expected him to be "completely truthful and forthcoming." A day earlier, World Anti-Doping Agency general director David Howman said nothing short of a confession under oath — "not talking to a talk-show host" — could prompt a reconsideration of Armstrong's lifetime ban from sanctioned events. And Frankie Andreu, a former teammate that Armstrong turned on, said the disgraced cyclist had an obligation to tell all he knew and help clean up the sport.
Armstrong has held conversations with officials from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, including a reportedly contentious face-to-face meeting with USADA chief executive Travis Tygart near the Denver airport. It was USADA's 1,000-page report last year, including testimony from nearly a dozen former teammates, that portrayed Armstrong as the leader of a sophisticated doping ring that enveloped the U.S. Postal Service team on the way to title after title at the Tour de France. In addition to the lifetime ban, Armstrong was stripped of all seven wins, lost nearly all of his endorsements and was forced to cut ties with Livestrong.