Thursday, March 29, 2012

Published:

High court arguments suggest justices could produce partisan split familiar in health debate

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The survival of President Barack Obama's health care overhaul rests with a Supreme Court seemingly split over ideology and, more particularly, in the hands of two Republican-appointed justices.

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Anthony Kennedy put tough questions to administration lawyers defending the health care law during three days of arguments that suggested they have strong reservations about the individual insurance requirement at the heart of the overhaul and, indeed, whether the rest of the massive law can survive if that linchpin fails.

But Roberts and Kennedy also asked enough pointed questions of the law's challengers to give the overhaul's supporters some hope. In any event, justices' questions at arguments do not always foretell their positions.

The court's decision, due in June, will affect the way virtually every American receives and pays for health care and surely will reverberate in this year's campaigns for president and Congress. The political effects could be even larger if the court votes 5-4 with all its Republican-appointed justices prevailing over all the Democratic appointees to strike down the entire law, or several important parts of it.

Not since 2000, when the court resolved the Bush v. Gore dispute over Florida election returns that sealed George W. Bush's election as president, has a Supreme Court case drawn so much attention.

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GOP set to muscle election-year budget through House, rejects rival Obama, bipartisan plans

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Republicans are ready to ram through the House an election-year, $3.5 trillion budget that showcases their deficit-cutting plan for revamping Medicare and slicing everything from food stamps to transportation while rejecting President Barack Obama's call to raise taxes on the rich.

The blueprint by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., was headed for all but certain House passage Thursday, mostly along party lines. It faces a demise that is just as sure in the Democratic-run Senate, which plans to ignore it, but the battle remains significant because of the clarity with which it contrasts the two parties' budgetary visions for voters.

Republicans were focused on sharper deficit reduction and starkly less government than Democrats wanted and were proposing to lower income tax rates while erasing many unspecified tax breaks. Obama and Democrats were ready to boost taxes on families making above $250,000 and on oil and gas companies, add spending for roads and schools and cull more modest savings from domestic programs.

"They're choosing the next election over the next generation," Ryan said, deriding Democrats' plans as far too timid. He added, "If we don't tackle these fiscal problems soon, they're going to tackle us as a country."

Democrats said they, too, were eager to stanch deficits that now exceed $1 trillion annually. But they said it needed to be done in a more balanced way, with rich and poor alike sharing the load.

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'Things just don't matter': Friends, fellow pilots baffled by JetBlue captain's unraveling

RICHMOND HILL, Ga. (AP) -- No one recalls JetBlue Airways captain Clayton Osbon coming unhinged before. Not the airline that let him fly for 12 years, the neighbors in his secluded waterfront community or the friends he tried selling weight-loss shakes to on the side.

Now federal prosecutors have charged Osbon following his bizarre unraveling aboard Flight 191 to Las Vegas, describing in court records a midair breakdown they say began with cockpit ramblings about religion and ended with passengers wrestling him to the cabin floor.

Witness accounts of Osbon telling his co-pilot "things just don't matter" and sprinting down the center aisle -- yelling jumbled remarks about Sept. 11 and Iran -- baffled longtime friends and fellow pilots who said they couldn't remember previous health or mental problems.

Osbon, 49, was instead described as an affable aviator who took his private plane for joyrides in his spare time, shied from talking politics and hosted Super Bowl parties. His father was also a pilot who died in a 1995 plane crash while on a sunken treasure hunt, according to a Wisconsin newspaper in the town where his family lived.

"I can't say whether it's shock or disbelief," said Justin Ates, a corporate jet pilot and friend who also lives in Richmond Hill. "It's hard to describe what you feel when you see something that's completely 100 percent out of character."

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Race is complicated for neighborhood watch shooter, described as 'Spanish speaking minority'

WASHINGTON (AP) -- At first, the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager at the hands of a white neighborhood watch volunteer was playing out like many previous tragedies that cut short the lives of young black men.

Soon however, it became obvious that sorting out racial dynamics in the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin would not be simple. Police described the shooter, George Zimmerman, as white. His father called him a "Spanish speaking minority" with many black relatives and friends.

While public outrage simmered over perceptions that local police didn't do enough to investigate Martin's death, possible racial motives on Zimmerman's part became tough to pin down. His background and associations cut across racial lines, and his racial identity didn't fit neatly into a box.

"It's easy to label this as an act of white racism, but it's really an act of stereotyping, which many groups are capable of and it is occurring in the context of extraordinarily permissive laws," said Manuel Pastor, a professor of American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California.

On Twitter, there was genuine confusion about Zimmerman's race. Is he Latino or white? Is Hispanic a race, or not? Shouldn't he, a Latino, have known better than to engage in racial profiling? Might he be Jewish, based on his last name? Many said his Hispanic lineage had nothing to do with the fact that the justice system had failed Martin, while some said Zimmerman's identity was very important.

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Analysis: Pope diplomatic and blunt in calling for change, but were the Castros listening?

HAVANA (AP) -- The spiritual leader of the world's Roman Catholics and the brothers who have carried Cuba along an increasingly solitary Communist path mixed warm smiles with the hard language of their respective camps during Pope Benedict XVI's three-day tour of Cuba.

Often, the polite octogenarians at the heart of this religio-political drama appeared to be talking past each other, the pontiff using biblical parables about cruel, long-dead kings, the Castros their customary language of revolution and defiance to American dominance.

In his respectful send-off, President Raul Castro acknowledged in the visit's greatest understatement: "We do not think alike on all matters."

The first indication of whether the sides heard each other could come as early as next week, when Castro must decide whether to grant the pope's unusual request to declare Good Friday a holiday, despite the fact it does not have that status in the United States or much of Europe or even Mexico, the most Catholic of the world's Spanish-speaking countries.

Progress on larger issues, such as the church's desire for greater access to state-run airwaves, permission to run schools and hospitals, and license to build new churches, will take longer to assess. Certainly, no concessions were announced. And privately, insiders here doubt the government will ever yield ground on education and health care, which it considers the pillars of the revolution and core responsibilities of the government.

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2 Syrian colonels gunned down in attack on government stronghold as Arab leaders mull crisis

BEIRUT (AP) -- Gunmen struck Thursday in the heart of Syria's largest city and a stronghold of support for President Bashar Assad, killing two army colonels at a downtown roundabout in an attack that state media blamed on terrorists.

Separately, in the central province of Hama, rebels attacked an army truck and killed two soldiers, activists said. Fresh clashes also broke out between government troops and army defectors in the country's north and south, they said.

The violence came as Arab leaders meeting at a Baghdad summit struggled with deep divisions about how to address Syria's crisis. The leaders are expected to pass a resolution calling for a cease-fire and an immediate, daily two-hour stop to fighting across Syria to permit aid to suffering civilians.

Such a resolution would fall short of previous calls by the body that Assad give up power, but would back efforts by U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan to broker a political solution.

Syria's state news agency said four gunmen belonging to an "armed terrorist group" opened fire on the two colonels in the Bab al-Hadid roundabout in the center of Aleppo, the country's largest city. The high-ranking officers, identified as Abdel-Karim al-Rai and Fuad Shaban, were on their way to work.

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Not facing costly primaries, Obama uses savings to outspend GOP campaigns by millions

CHICAGO (AP) -- With Republicans locked in a contentious and expensive primary, President Barack Obama has spent a small fortune in recent months to build and maintain a campaign operation that is larger, more diverse and more focused on November's general election than any of his opponents' organizations.

Republican contenders like Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum have surely been watching their expenses during their primary elections: millions here for ad spending, millions there for travel, rallies and consulting fees. What's left keeps the lights on, the phones ringing and the staff paid.

But Obama, who faces no serious challenger for the Democratic nomination, has sunk his cash into an expansive brick-and-mortar operation with offices in nearly every state. His campaign has spent more than $135 million on operations through February, according to an Associated Press analysis of Federal Election Commission records. That's about $3 million more than all his GOP challengers combined.

Republicans bristle over reports that Obama's paid staff exceeds 500, many of whom work in the campaign's Chicago headquarters.

"I think the campaign is single-handedly trying to lower the unemployment rate by hiring field staff," Romney political director Rich Beeson said. "When they point to the fact about how many people they've got hired and how many offices they've got, they're just trying to distract people from the reality of (how) they're going to have a heck of a time finding people to get out and vote for him."

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Arrests in teacher's death brings some relief, further shock to Vt. communities

St. JOHNSBURY, Vt. (AP) -- A snowplow driver and his wife went to great lengths to dispose of the body of a popular teacher they had just beaten and strangled, putting her nude body on a tarp, pouring bleach on it, weighing the corpse down with concrete blocks and tossing it into the Connecticut River, court documents allege.

Allen Prue, 30, and his wife, 33-year-old Patricia Prue, were riding around when he got the idea "to get a girl," a police affidavit said. They are accused of luring single mother Melissa Jenkins from her home by pretending their vehicle had broken down. Her vehicle was found idling Sunday with her unharmed 2-year-old son inside.

The couple pleaded not guilty Wednesday to second-degree murder in the death of Jenkins, a 33-year-old science teacher at the prestigious St. Johnsbury Academy, and unauthorized burial or removal of a dead body. More charges are possible, police said.

People in the close-knit communities of northeastern Vermont had been speculating about the crime and who was responsible.

"But they didn't expect the gruesome" details, said a tearful Marion Beattie Cairns, the owner of The Creamery Restaurant, where Jenkins had worked part-time as a waitress and people had gathered since her disappearance to console each other.

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Lindsay Lohan returns to court for what could be final act in 2007 drunken driving case

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Lindsay Lohan returns to court Thursday for a hearing that could give the actress back something she hasn't had for nearly two years: true freedom.

Lohan will give a judge her final update on strict probation requirements that have had her doing cleanup duty at the county morgue and attending regular psychotherapy sessions since late last year. Superior Court Judge Stephanie Sautner has said she will end Lohan's probation on a 2007 drunken driving case on Thursday if she completes the requirements, which the actress has apparently done.

The "Mean Girls" star will remain on informal probation for taking a necklace without permission, but she will no longer be supervised by a probation officer and judge and no longer be forced to live in Los Angeles, where the actress still faces civil lawsuits over accidents and her bad behavior.

The hearing comes as Lohan's career is showing hints of a comeback. She is due to guest star on an upcoming episode of "Glee," recently hosted a highly rated but criticized episode of "Saturday Night Live" and is set to star as Elizabeth Taylor in a television movie.

"Lindsay is ending one chapter and starting the next," her spokesman, Steve Honig said. "She is very eager to get back on set and dive into her next few projects."

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Short-handed Knicks move above .500 with 106-86 victory over Magic

NEW YORK (AP) -- Carmelo Anthony knocked down three long jumpers, finding a rhythm that's been missing most of the season.

Then the Knicks really got rolling -- on their biggest run in 8 1/2 years.

Anthony and the Knicks climbed above .500 for the first time since mid-January in overwhelming fashion, scoring 21 straight points in the third quarter and routing the Orlando Magic 108-86 on Wednesday night.

Anthony and Iman Shumpert each scored 25 points for the Knicks (26-25), who won for the eighth time in nine games despite playing without the injured Amare Stoudemire and Jeremy Lin. New York outscored Orlando 65-30 in the middle two quarters and has a winning record for the first time since it was 6-5 before a loss to Oklahoma City on Jan. 14.

"I said this at the top, as a coach I'm always interested in when you're short-handed who's going to step up and make plays? And we're getting it from everybody and that to me is a sign of a good, quality team that wants to win," interim coach Mike Woodson said.