Friday, February 17, 2012

Published:

Acting swiftly, Congress sends Obama legislation renewing payroll tax cut, jobless benefits

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Americans are getting an election-year tax present. Congress voted with rare speed and cooperation Friday to extend a Social Security payroll tax cut for 160 million workers and to renew unemployment benefits for millions more who haven't seen a paycheck in six months.

With lawmakers' ratings in the gutter, the legislation sped through both the House and Senate and was on its way to President Barack Obama, who saluted the quick passage.

Taxpayers have grown accustomed to the 2 percentage point cut in the payroll tax over the past year -- around $80 a month for someone earning $50,000 a year -- and the reduction now will be continued. So will jobless benefits averaging about $300 a week for the long-term unemployed, though the aid will be cut off sooner than before for many recipients.

Both provisions, which were to expire in less than two weeks, had been extended only two months during a December congressional fight that seared Republicans. They were determined to avoid a repeat in campaign season.

The hard-fought -- but ultimately bipartisan -- measure contains the core of Obama's jobs agenda and promises to pump more than $100 billion into the economy before Election Day. It hands the president a political victory as well, as Republicans called a tactical retreat in hopes of minimizing the gains for Obama and his Democratic allies on Capitol Hill.

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Syrian refugees describe dramatic escalation, catastrophic wounds

RAMTHA, Jordan (AP) -- Syrian refugees fleeing to Jordan for their lives described a dramatic escalation in violence and a mounting toll of dead and wounded in the southern city of Daraa and the country's battered central region.

Medical workers in neighboring Jordan prepared blood donations to send to Daraa, the city where the uprising against President Bashar Assad erupted nearly a year ago, as the regime struggled to extinguish major pockets of dissent with intensive shelling.

Activists said at least 26 civilians were killed Friday, many of them in the rebellious central city of Homs, where shells slammed into rebel-held residential areas.

The fighting in Homs, coupled with fresh violence in Daraa, has triggered a new wave of wounded refugees crossing the border into Jordan.

"Government troops are shelling everything, whether it's buildings, people, houses. They consider us nothing. They want to eliminate us totally," said Seif, a 22-year-old who was receiving medical treatment in a Jordanian hospital along with other Syrian refugees.

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Rick Santorum is surging but faces intensifying scrutiny over contraception position

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- Rick Santorum stole a key endorsement from chief rival Mitt Romney on Friday as polls in Ohio and elsewhere suggest the former Pennsylvania senator has seized the momentum in the rollercoaster Republican presidential contest.

Amid the shift, however, are signs of stress within a disorganized Santorum campaign and intensifying questions about whether he can sustain a rise that has come and gone once before already. Romney's mammoth political machine -- coupled with new scrutiny -- will give Santorum little margin for error.

He was all smiles at the Ohio State House on Friday afternoon as state Attorney General Mike DeWine formally shifted his allegiance from Romney to Santorum, a decision that comes just 18 days before Ohio and nine other states host critical Super Tuesday contests.

"I just am very, very grateful that he would step forward in his fashion and lead a spark here in the state of Ohio that I think is going to deliver us a great victory on Super Tuesday," Santorum said.

But on what should have been an overwhelmingly positive day, Santorum could not escape a campaign misstep from the day before.

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Terror suspect accused of planning to detonate explosives arrested near Capitol in FBI sting

WASHINGTON (AP) -- A 29-year-old Moroccan man who believed he was working with al-Qaida was arrested Friday near the U.S. Capitol as he was planning to detonate what he thought was a suicide vest that undercover operatives gave him, officials said.

Amine El Khalifi of Alexandria, Va., was taken into custody with a gun that didn't work and inert explosives, according to a counterterrorism official. He arrived near the Capitol in a van with the two undercover operatives, and walked toward the building, according to court papers. He was arrested before he left the parking garage.

El Khalifi made a brief appearance on Friday afternoon in federal court in Alexandria, where a judge set a bail hearing for Wednesday. After his arrest, FBI agents raided a red brick rambler home in Arlington, Va. A police car blocked the entrance.

A criminal complaint charges him with knowingly and unlawfully attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction against property that is owned and used by the United States. The charge carries a maximum penalty of life in prison.

El Khalifi, who was under constant surveillance, expressed interest in killing at least 30 people and considered targeting a building in Alexandria and a restaurant, synagogue and a place where military personnel gather in Washington before he settled on the Capitol after canvassing that area a couple of times, the counterterrorism official said. During the investigation, El Khalifi went with undercover operatives in January to a quarry in West Virginia to practice detonating explosives, according to court documents.

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Josh Powell had some 400 images depicting sex of cartoon characters and graphic incest

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) -- Josh Powell had hundreds of images of disturbing cartoon sex and graphic depictions of incest on his home computer, something Utah authorities investigating his wife's disappearance kept private for about two years, according to files released Friday.

A Washington state psychologist who had previously said Powell's strong parenting skills should allow him to continue supervised visits altered his assessment after reviewing the images, calling them a "great concern" and suggesting a more intense evaluation of the father. That conclusion came just six days before he killed himself and two sons in an explosive house fire two weeks ago.

Many of the approximately 400 images described in the state social services included sexual depictions of popular cartoons, including child-focused characters such as Rugrats, Dennis the Menace and SpongeBob SquarePants. Another 15 images showed 3-D depictions of sex involving parents and their children.

Powell had initially told the psychologist that he visited only pornography sites featuring adults.

"Given the gaps of information about Mr. Powell there seems reason to conclude he may not presently be a stable and appropriate resource for his children," wrote Dr. James Manley in a follow-up report.

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Deadly Honduran fire could be repeated in prisons across Central America, experts warn

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) -- The world's worst prison fire in a century happened in a lockup like many in Honduras: a decrepit, suffocating place of overcrowded, dark cellblocks where many inmates were accused only of petty crimes.

Experts warn a similar disaster could happen again in Central America, where a decade of crackdowns on drug trafficking, gangs and out-of-control street crime has left the region dotted with fire-prone prisons often crammed with more than twice the number of inmates they can safely handle.

"You have this tremendous public security crisis and the quick answer that prevailed for all of these years is 'iron fist,'" said Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director for Human Rights Watch.

"By 'iron fist,' you mean increasing penalties, making it more difficult for prisoners to get out of prison," he said. Inmates languish for months, or even years, as their cases slowly move through backlogged judicial systems.

Honduras implemented laws in 2003 that doubled the maximum penalty for being a gang leader to 12 years incarceration. Officials also applied a loose definition of gang leadership, locking people up for having gang tattoos or other signs of apparent criminal affiliation.

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Investigators say federal agent opened fire on manager during discussion of job performance

LONG BEACH, Calif. (AP) -- It had all the ingredients of workplace violence: a manager, an angry employee, a discussion about job performance and at least one gun.

But in this case, both people were federal agents. And when gunfire erupted in a government office building, a third agent drew his handgun and took out the shooter, helping save the manager's life.

Investigators on Friday were still piecing together the details of Thursday's chaotic scene at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Long Beach.

The confrontation apparently began during a discussion involving Kevin Kozak, the agency's second-in-command for the Los Angeles area, and a lower-ranking supervisor agent named Ezequiel Garcia.

At some point, the discussion escalated, and Garcia pulled out his weapon and fired. Kozak was hit six times, in the upper torso, legs and hands. He was hospitalized in stable condition but was alert and talking.

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Shots heard round the parenting world: Dad guns down daughter's laptop after her Facebook rant

It's classic parent-teenager strife, revamped for the Internet age: A 15-year-old takes to Facebook to curse her parents and complain about chores and the pressures of youth. Her disgusted father videotapes and posts a lengthy rebuttal punctuated by nine gunshots as he empties his pistol into her laptop.

The bizarre tech-xecution has garnered more than 26 million views on YouTube and tens of thousands more on Facebook, touching a nerve with others tired of their kids' attitudes but also drawing backlash from parents who have kept such desires in check, people who believe the father is the one being childish.

"It represents a fantasy scenario for parents," said Anthony Rotolo, a Syracuse University professor who specializes in social media. "Most parents would not respond in this manner ... but many parents have certainly felt unappreciated and imagined taking similar action."

The furor began when Tommy Jordan of Albemarle, N.C., aired his feelings in the video he posted last week. Sitting in an Adirondack chair on an expansive stretch of grass, Jordan is wearing jeans, a plaid shirt and a wide-brimmed hat, a lit cigarette between his fingers.

Then he launches into his diatribe, quoting from his daughter's Facebook post, in which she told her parents "I'm not your damn slave," ''I'm tired of picking up after you," and "You know how hard it is to keep up with the chores and schoolwork? It's freaking crazy."

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'The Help' cleans up at 43rd NAACP Image Awards; Houston, Lucas, black stuntmen honored

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- "The Help" collected three prizes at the NAACP Image Awards, including top actress honors for Viola Davis, the supporting actress prize for Octavia Spencer and outstanding motion picture.

Davis and Spencer have collected armloads of accolades for their work in the film about black maids who speak out against their white employers during the civil rights movement. Both are up for Academy Awards next week.

Davis said the film has "just been the joy of my life."

"I found my voice," she said. "I just emerged through 'The Help.'"

The ceremony Friday at the Shrine Auditorium, which honored diversity in the arts, was punctuated by moving tributes to Whitney Houston, the Black Stuntmen's Association and George Lucas and the Tuskegee Airmen.

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Hornets put a halt to Linsanity, beat Knicks 89-85 as Lin commits 9 turnovers

NEW YORK (AP) -- The Lin-ning streak is over. And Jeremy Lin's sloppiness was one of the problems for the Knicks.

Lin committed nine turnovers, tied for the most in the NBA this season, and New York's seven-game winning streak was stopped 89-85 by the New Orleans Hornets on Friday night.

Lin scored 26 points, but his turnovers nearly doubled his five assists and the Knicks lost for the first time since Linsanity began, falling back below .500 at 15-16 heading into a matchup with the defending NBA champion Dallas Mavericks on Sunday.

Trevor Ariza scored 25 points for the Hornets, who have won three in a row after a 4-23 start. Marco Belinelli added 17.

Amare Stoudemire had 26 points and 12 rebounds for New York.