Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Published:

US, Europe consider crippling worldwide bank penalty against Iran, though costs could be high

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The United States and Europe are considering unprecedented punishment against Iran that could immediately cripple the country's financial lifeline. But it's an extreme option in the banking world that would come with its own costs.

The Obama administration wants Iran evicted from SWIFT, an independent financial clearinghouse that is crucial to the country's overseas oil sales. That would leapfrog the current slow-pressure campaign of sanctions aimed at persuading Iran to drop what the U.S. and its allies contend is a drive toward developing and building nuclear weapons. It also perhaps would buy time for the U.S. to persuade Israel not to launch a pre-emptive military strike on Iran this spring.

The last-resort financial effort suggests the U.S. and Europe are grasping for ways to show immediate results because economic sanctions have so far failed to force Iran back to nuclear talks

But such a penalty could send oil prices soaring when many of the world's economies are still frail. It also could hurt ordinary Iranians and undercut the reputation of SWIFT, a banking hub used by virtually every nation and corporation around the world. The organization's full name is the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications.

Meanwhile, violence is increasing. Explosions in Bangkok on Tuesday -- Israel's defense minister labeled them an "attempted terrorist attack" -- came the day after Israel accused Iran of trying to kill its diplomats in India and Georgia. Those attacks followed the recent killings of Iranian scientists.

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Bangkok blasts wound Iranian, 4 others; Israel blames Tehran for 'attempted terrorist attack'

BANGKOK (AP) -- Israel accused Iran of waging a covert campaign of state terror that stretched this week from the Middle East to the heart of Asia after a bungled series of explosions led to the capture of two Iranians in Bangkok.

Authorities in Israel ratcheted up security at home and abroad following Tuesday's explosions in the Thai capital, escalating a confrontation over Iran's suspect nuclear program and raising fears of war.

On Monday, an Israeli diplomat's wife and driver were wounded in New Delhi when a bomb stuck to their minivan exploded, and another device was defused on an Israeli Embassy car in Tbilisi, Georgia. Israel blamed Iran for those attacks as well.

Israel has threatened military strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities, and Iran has blamed the Jewish state for the recent killings of Iranian atomic scientists.

Iran denied responsibility for the attacks in India and Georgia, which appeared to mirror the killings of the Iranian scientists that used "sticky bombs."

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House-Senate talks said to yield progress on renewing payroll tax cut, jobless benefits

WASHINGTON (AP) -- House-Senate talks on renewing President Barack Obama's signature payroll tax cut made significant progress Tuesday, and aides said an agreement could be announced later in the day.

"Barring a blowup, a deal will probably be acknowledged tonight," a Democratic aide said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to assess the private negotiations.

Under the emerging pact, a 2 percentage-point cut in the Social Security payroll tax would be extended through the end of the year, with the nearly $100 billion cost added to the deficit. Jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed would be renewed as well, with the $30 billion or so cost paid for in part through auctioning broadcast spectrum to wireless companies and requiring federal workers to contribute more toward their pensions.

The payroll tax cut and renewing jobless benefits were key planks in Obama's jobs program, which was announced in September. The payroll tax cut benefits 160 million Americans and delivers a tax cut totaling $2,000 this year for someone making a $100,000 salary and a cut of $20 a week for a typical worker making $50,000.

It's not only a win for Obama but takes the payroll tax fight -- which had Republicans on the defensive -- off the table for the fall elections campaign.

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Obama's $3.8 trillion budget attacked by GOP for higher taxes, failure to cut spending more

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner told Congress Tuesday that the president's new $3.8 trillion spending plan would impose new taxes on only 2 percent of the nation's wealthiest families and the alternative would be to seek more painful cuts in other government programs such as defense, Social Security and Medicare.

Geithner defended the new budget plan in the face of intense attacks from GOP members of the Senate Finance Committee. Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah told Geithner that the administration's spending plan would give the country a "permanently larger, European-inspired government."

But Geithner said deeper spending cuts now would damage economic growth and push more Americans into poverty at a time when the economy is still struggling to recover from a deep recession.

Geithner told the committee that the administration hopes to send Congress next week a framework for making changes in the country's corporate tax structure.

He said the administration would not offer detailed legislative language but rather broad principles for corporate tax reform. He said the administration would propose eliminating a number of current business tax breaks in an effort to lower the corporate tax rate.

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Santorum revels in sudden rise in GOP race, but he's still lacking big money and organization

BOISE, Idaho. (AP) -- The latest Republican to surge in polls, Rick Santorum is trying to turn his newfound strength into something lasting.

Curious Republicans now pack his rallies. Supporters have funneled nearly $4 million to his formerly empty campaign account over the past seven days. And his staff is plotting an aggressive strategy to challenge Mitt Romney in Romney's native Michigan and beyond.

But things don't look so strong just beneath the surface.

Santorum is underfunded and outmanned. He's still lacking in organization, a month and a half into the primary season. And, after he won three contests in a single day last week, his opponents -- on the right and the left -- have begun their own efforts to tear him down.

An upbeat Santorum declared "We're building" in a brief interview in Tacoma, Wash., on Tuesday before heading to Idaho for campaign events. "We've got a great volunteer base. In some states we're going to have staff. Other states we aren't. We're going to use volunteers."

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Funeral for singer Whitney Houston to be held Saturday at NJ church where she sang as a child

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) -- Whitney Houston's funeral will be held Saturday in the church where she first showcased her singing talents as a child, her family choosing to remember her in a private service rather than in a large event at an arena.

The owner of the Whigham Funeral Home said Tuesday that the funeral will be held at noon at Newark's New Hope Baptist Church, which seats up to 1,500.

The family said no public memorial service is planned at this time. Officials had discussed the possibility of holding a memorial at the Prudential Center, a major sports and entertainment venue that can seat about 18,000 people, but the funeral home said it had been ruled out.

Funeral home owner Carolyn Whigham said the church service will be by invitation only, reflecting the family's decision to keep the memorial more personal.

"They have shared her for 30-some years with the city, with the state, with the world. This is their time now for their farewell," she said.

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Republican groups trying to use bankrupt solar energy manufacturer Solyndra against Obama

WASHINGTON (AP) -- If you want a window into how outside Republican groups are likely to assail President Barack Obama's record this year, look no further than how the GOP is lambasting the administration's handling of solar company Solyndra.

Republicans have used Obama's ties to the bankrupt California manufacturer to argue that he plays the same political games that have consumed Washington for generations -- and has failed to live up to promises to change the nation's capital. It's the message GOP-leaning outside groups are promoting in advertising campaigns in states critical to the Democrat's re-election race.

"Tell President Obama American workers aren't pawns in your political games," says one ad run by Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group linked to billionaire oil industry executives Charles and David Koch.

Such ads were among the warning signs the Obama campaign saw before it decided to encourage its donors to financially support a Democratic-leaning super PAC, Priorities USA. The announcement came as outside groups supporting Republican Mitt Romney heaped criticism on rival Newt Gingrich before the Iowa caucuses and in early primary states, a preview of what could confront Obama once the GOP primaries are settled.

For Republicans hoping to unseat Obama, Solyndra has become a code word for his handling of the economy.

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Mormons apologize for posthumous baptism of parents of Jewish rights advocate Wiesenthal

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Mormon church leaders apologized to the family of Holocaust survivor and Jewish rights advocate Simon Wiesenthal after his parents were posthumously baptized, a controversial ritual that Mormons believe allows deceased people a way to the afterlife but offends members of many other religions.

Wiesenthal died in 2005 after surviving the Nazi death camps and spending his life documenting Holocaust crimes and hunting down perpetrators who remained at large. Jews are particularly offended by an attempt to alter the religion of Holocaust victims, who were murdered because of their religion, and the baptism of Holocaust survivors was supposed to have been barred by a 1995 agreement.

Yet records indicate Wiesenthal's parents, Asher and Rosa Rapp Wiesenthal, were baptized in proxy ceremonies performed by Mormon church members at temples in Arizona and Utah in late January.

In a statement, the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center denounced the baptismal rites.

"We are outraged that such insensitive actions continue in the Mormon temples," said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean at the center.

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Ill. doc who dispensed more oxycodone from 2003-05 than any other physician gets 4 life terms

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- A Chicago doctor who prosecutors say dispensed more of the powerful painkiller oxycodone from 2003 to 2005 than any other physician in the country was sentenced Tuesday to four life terms in the overdose deaths of four patients.

Dr. Paul Volkman made weekly trips from Chicago to three locations in Portsmouth in southern Ohio and one in Chillicothe in central Ohio before federal investigators shut down the operations in 2006, prosecutors said. He was sentenced in federal court in Cincinnati.

"This criminal conduct had devastating consequences to the community Volkman was supposed to serve," Assistant U.S. Attorneys Adam Wright and Tim Oakley said in a court filing ahead of Tuesday's hearing.

"Volkman's actions created and prolonged debilitating addictions; distributed countless drugs to be sold on the street; and took the lives of numerous individuals who died just days after visiting him," they said.

The 64-year-old Volkman fired his attorneys earlier this month and said he acted at all times as a doctor, not a drug dealer.

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Underdogs rule: Top black cocker spaniel, wire fox terrier lose early at Westminster dog show

NEW YORK (AP) -- No matter how many blue ribbons or silver bowls or shiny trophies any dog brings to the Westminster Kennel Club show, there's a saying that ultimately decides who wins the top prize.

"Dog on the day," fanciers say.

A black cocker spaniel called Beckham who was the nation's No. 1 show dog and a wire fox terrier named Eira who was favored by many to walk away with the title Tuesday night proved once again it takes more than a great reputation to own the green carpet.

Underdogs ruled Madison Square Garden in early judging on Day 2 of America's biggest pooch parade. The sporting, working and terrier winners were to be chosen later, and judge Cindy Vogels was to pick the best in show shortly before 11 p.m.

They will be joined by a Pekingese, German shepherd, Dalmatian and wire-haired dachshund in the best-of-seven final ring after their wins Monday night.