Obama guns and immigration agenda finds itself competing with economic contraction
WASHINGTON (AP) — Just as President Barack Obama is pushing new initiatives on gun control and immigration, the gloomy old problem of a sluggish economy is elbowing its way back into prominence. Consumer confidence is falling, the economy is contracting and large automatic spending cuts are threatening to hit the Pentagon and other programs, with uncertain consequences.
These troubles arise as Obama's public approval is improving and as he begins to use his sway to promote the key features of his second-term agenda. The White House, the Federal Reserve and independent economists attributed the shrinkage in gross domestic product and the drop in consumer confidence to one-time events and said underlying economic factors were still showing encouraging signs.
But in politics, power resides in the moment. Any immediate economic setback — or the perception of one — could weaken Obama's clout or at least distract him as he carefully tries to put his imprint on initiatives dealing with immigration and gun violence.
At the White House, there was no evidence of a course alteration. And White House officials expressed confidence in consumption and investment trends that showed evidence of strength.
But the Commerce Department announcement Wednesday that the economy shrank at an annual rate of 0.1 percent came a day after the Conference Board reported a sharp decline in consumer confidence in January. That drop, together with one in December, erased consumer confidence that had built up in 2012.
Republican Hagel, Obama's pick for Pentagon, faces GOP critics at confirmation hearing
WASHINGTON (AP) — Republican Chuck Hagel, President Barack Obama's nominee for defense secretary, is facing GOP critics who have challenged his past comments on Israel, Iran and nuclear weapons.
The former two-term senator from Nebraska is the lone witness at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Thursday that could be crucial in determining whether he will win Senate confirmation to succeed Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in Obama's second-term national security team. Two former committee chairmen — Democrat Sam Nunn and Republican John Warner — will introduce the nominee.
If confirmed, Hagel, a decorated Vietnam combat veteran, would be the first enlisted man and first Vietnam veteran to serve as defense secretary.
Hagel has the announced backing of about a dozen Democrats and the tacit support of dozens more who are unlikely to embarrass the president by defeating his Cabinet pick. One Republican — Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi — has said he will vote for his former colleague.
Six Republicans, including four members of the Armed Services panel, have said they will oppose Hagel's nomination. Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, the top GOP lawmaker on the committee, has said he and Hagel are "too philosophically opposed" on issues such as defense spending, nuclear weapons and the Middle East.
Senate to clear debt limit increase for Obama as Washington moves on to new fights
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate is poised to permit the government to borrow hundreds of billions of dollars more to meet its obligations, putting off one Washington showdown even as others loom in coming weeks.
The measure would suspend the $16.4 trillion limit on federal borrowing through May 18, allowing about $450 billion in new debt to be added to the federal ledger, according to an estimate by the Bipartisan Policy Center.
The Republican-controlled House passed the legislation last week. A successful Senate vote would send the measure to President Barack Obama, who is expected to sign it into law immediately.
Without the bill, the government would default on its obligations by as early as mid-February.
The short-term increase in the borrowing cap is the brainchild of House Republicans, who wanted to re-sequence a series of upcoming budget battles, taking the threat of a potentially devastating government default off the table and instead setting up a clash in March over automatic across-the-board spending cuts set to strike the Pentagon and many domestic programs.
Menendez says he reimbursed donor for 2 trips, denies having sex with Dominican prostitutes
WASHINGTON (AP) — Sen. Robert Menendez's office says he reimbursed a prominent Florida political donor $58,500 for the full cost of two of three trips Menendez took on the donor's plane to the Dominican Republic in 2010.
There was no public disclosure.
"The senator paid for the two trips out of his personal account and no reporting requirements apply," said Menendez spokeswoman Tricia Enright.
Details of Menendez's trips emerged as his office said unsubstantiated allegations that the senator engaged in sex with prostitutes in the Dominican Republic are false.
The FBI searched the West Palm Beach, Fla., office of the donor — eye doctor Salomon Melgen — on Tuesday night and early Wednesday, but it was unclear if the raid was related to Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat.
Neighbors of Ala. man suspected of holding child in standoff say he was threatening, violent
MIDLAND CITY, Ala. (AP) — Jimmy Lee Dykes moved to a rural Alabama neighborhood on a rutted red clay road more than a year ago. It didn't take long before he had developed a frightening reputation as a volatile man with anti-government views who threatened his neighbors at gunpoint and was viciously violent to wandering pets.
Multiple neighbors said Dykes, a 65-year-old retired truck driver, was the man suspected of boarding a school bus near his home, killing the driver and taking a 5-year-old boy hostage to begin a standoff that entered its second full day Thursday.
The neighborhood near Midland City, population 2,300, remained under siege after the Tuesday shooting, with the suspect and child holed up in a bunker-type shelter on the man's property that was equipped with electricity, food and TV. Early Thursday, dozens of police cars and rental cars that had brought FBI agents to the site were gathered on the state highway at the clay road's entrance. Some police officers milled about, guns holstered.
Homes on the road had been evacuated after authorities found what they believed to be a bomb on the property. SWAT teams earlier had taken up positions around the gunman's property and police negotiators tried to win the kindergartener's safe release.
The situation remained unchanged for hours as negotiators continued talking to the suspect, Alabama State Trooper Charles Dysart told a news conference late Wednesday. Earlier in the day, Sheriff Wally Olson said that authorities had "no reason to believe that the child has been harmed."
GOP dilemma: Lose support of immigrants or activists who rallied behind restrictive stance?
DENVER (AP) — Marty Lich is ready to bolt.
It's been a couple of years since the self-described conservative considered herself a Republican, but she still often votes for GOP candidates. That's partly because of their tough stands against illegal immigration, which the retired teacher's aide blames for ruining her Southern California hometown and fears could threaten the Colorado mountain community where she now lives.
But Lich and voters like her are watching with despair as more and more Republican politicians edge toward a bipartisan plan that includes a pathway to citizenship for many of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. "If the GOP agrees on this amnesty, they're selling out their core values," Lich said. "They'd lose us. They'd lose the votes of people who support them, and they're not going to gain a lot of votes."
Demographics and election returns are pushing Republican leaders away from people like Lich. In 2007, a grass-roots rebellion led Republicans to reject then-President George W. Bush's immigration overhaul because it included a process in which otherwise law-abiding illegal immigrants could eventually become U.S. citizens. Activists derided the provision as an "amnesty." After tea party groups toppled various Republicans in primaries over their dovish immigration stands, the party's rhetoric and proposals became increasingly tough.
That's changed since the drubbing the GOP took last November. Mitt Romney received underwhelming support from voters in the two fastest-growing minority groups: 27 percent of Hispanic voters and an even smaller share from Asians, according to exit polls. In contrast, George W. Bush won an estimated 44 percent of the Hispanic vote in his 2004 re-election.
After massive storm system rakes Southeast, unleashing tornadoes, 2 dead, splintered debris
ADAIRSVILLE, Ga. (AP) — As rain pelted down, Kandi Cash trudged through the splintered debris of her grandparents' house, hoping to salvage photos and other prized family keepsakes after a day of violent storms raked the Southeast, leaving two people dead.
The demolished home was one of many in the Georgia city of Adairsville splintered by a massive storm front that tore across several states Wednesday, unleashing tornadoes and dangerous winds that easily flipped cars and trucks and smashed homes and businesses.
On the lot where Cash's grandparents had their house also was a mobile home where her aunt lived. The property also had another small house her cousin was fixing up to move into after a planned May wedding. All three homes were demolished: toys, Christmas ornaments, children's clothing, household items and just about everything else that makes up a home were strewn about.
"I'm just picking up pictures," the 28-year-old Cash said. "I've found the most important ones, like when my cousin was born and her late daddy, the ones that matter most."
Cash, who lives in nearby Cartersville, rode out the violent weather in a neighbor's basement. Once the worst had passed, she called her family in Adairsville and was relieved to hear they'd all made it to a cinderblock storm shelter under her grandparents' home.
Desperate Cypriots turn to traditional songbird trapping to make ends meet — defying law
NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — It's just before first light and the bird-catcher strings nets among the orange, pomegranate, fig and carob trees in his orchard. The sound of chirping emanates from inside a massive carob — a trick sent from speakers to attract tiny songbirds. By mid-morning, the man disentangles about a half-dozen blackcaps, snaps their necks with his teeth and drops them in a bucket.
For centuries, the migratory songbirds have been a prized delicacy among Cypriots. They are also an illegal one, as entry into the European Union forced Cyprus to ban the tradition of catching the creatures, some endangered, in nets or on sticks slathered with a glue-like substance.
Now economic crisis is luring many out-of-work Cypriots back into the centuries-old trade. They risk stiff fines and even jail time by supplying an underground market for the tiny songbirds illicitly served up in the country's tavernas — but they say it's their only way to make ends meet.
Served whole either boiled or pickled, the fatty birds are such an ugly sight on a plate that outsiders find it hard to fathom how there could be any profit to be made from them. For many Cypriots, however, the tangy-sweet taste of the birds is pure bliss.
Supporters of trapping 'ambelopoulia,' as the blackcaps, robins and other warblers are known locally, ruefully reminisce about how until recently the practice was widely considered an ingrained part of local culture, one so lucrative that it sustained entire livelihoods and put countless kids through college.
Porn star Ron Jeremy has surgery after heart aneurysm at Los Angeles hospital
LOS ANGELES (AP) — A spokesman says porn star Ron Jeremy is recovering from surgery at a Los Angeles hospital after an aneurysm near his heart sent him to intensive care.
Agent Mike Esterman says in an email to The Associated Press that he and others were waiting for Jeremy to awake Wednesday night after a smooth procedure at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.
Esterman says the 59-year-old Jeremy had a heavy feeling in his chest and drove himself to the hospital, where diagnosed the aneurysm and put him in the intensive care unit.
One of the best-known names in the porn industry, Jeremy has said he's appeared in more than 2,000 adult films.
While officially retired he still shows up in films and public events, and appeared in the reality TV series "The Surreal Life."
Super Bowl marks 2 complete seasons without HGH tests in NFL despite path paved by 2011 CBA
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Count Baltimore Ravens defensive end Arthur Jones among those NFL players who want the league and the union to finally agree on a way to do blood testing for human growth hormone.
"I hope guys wouldn't be cheating. That's why you do all this extra work and extra training. Unfortunately, there are probably a few guys, a handful maybe, that are on it. It's unfortunate. It takes away from the sport," Jones said.
"It would be fair to do blood testing," Jones added. "Hopefully they figure it out."
When Jones and the Ravens face the San Francisco 49ers in the Super Bowl on Sunday, two complete seasons will have come and gone without a single HGH test being administered, even though the league and the NFL Players Association paved the way for it in the 10-year collective bargaining agreement they signed in August 2011.
Since then, the sides have haggled over various elements, primarily the union's insistence that it needs more information about the validity of a test that is used by Olympic sports and Major League Baseball. HGH is a banned performance-enhancing drug that is hard to detect and has been linked to health problems such as diabetes, cardiac dysfunction and arthritis.