Senate puts members on record for or against Obama law requiring free birth control
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Senate is considering GOP legislation aimed at rolling back President Barack Obama's policy on birth control coverage.
At issue is a measure sponsored by Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri that would allow employers and insurers to opt out of provisions in Obama's health care law to which they object on religious or moral grounds. That includes the recently rewritten requirement that insurers cover the cost of birth control, even for religiously affiliated employers whose faith forbids contraception.
"The word 'contraception' is not in (the legislation) because it's not about a specific procedure," Blunt said. "It's about a faith principle that the First Amendment guarantees."
But Democrats, trying this election year to hold onto support from female and independent voters, said the measure was really an effort to erode women's rights generally and access to contraception in particular.
"When the other side tries so hard to claim this debate isn't contraception, that's how you know this debate is precisely about contraception," Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said.
Passengers disembark disabled cruise ship in Seychelles; ship was 3 days at sea without power
VICTORIA, Seychelles (AP) -- Hot and tired passengers disembarking from a disabled cruise ship Thursday in the Seychelles said they had prepared to abandon ship when fire broke out in the engine room three days ago, leaving the vessel adrift in waters prowled by pirates.
Life boats were even lowered, passengers said. Austrian Thomas Foaller said some passengers began to panic. Couples that were separated were calling out to each other, he said.
Among them were American couple Gordon and Eleanor Bradwell of Athens, Georgia. They were separated when Eleanor went to the couple's room to get a life vest. A crew member had handed the 72-year-old Gordon his own.
But the fire that broke out Monday was brought under control and the more than 1,000 people wound up staying aboard the Costa Allegra, which suddenly had no engine power, no air conditioning and no running water for showers or toilets.
Eleanor Bradwell said that the initial response to the alarm seemed to be disorganized but overall she and her husband felt the shipping line had handled the emergency well.
APNewsBreak: Senior NKorean nuclear envoy heading to New York on heels of breakthrough deal
SEOUL, South Korea (AP) -- A senior North Korean nuclear negotiator is heading to New York next week on the heels of a breakthrough nuclear agreement with the United States, a person with knowledge of the negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang told The Associated Press on Thursday.
Word of Ri Yong Ho's visit follows announcements in both capitals Wednesday of an agreement calling for the U.S. to provide food aid in exchange for a suspension of uranium enrichment and a moratorium on nuclear and long-range-missile tests by North Korea.
The agreement, announced two months after the death of longtime leader Kim Jong Il, raises hopes of a major easing in nuclear tensions under his son and successor, Kim Jong Un. It's seen as a preliminary but necessary step to restarting broader six-nation disarmament negotiations that North Korea abandoned in 2009.
The deal also serves as the strongest sign yet that the foreign policy laid out in the final years of Kim Jong Il's rule -- with improved relations with the U.S. as a key goal -- will be carried out by his young son. Shortly before Kim Jong Il's death was announced, the AP reported that a deal similar to the one announced this week was imminent.
A return to negotiations before the end of the semiofficial 100-day mourning period suggests stability and continuity during the closely watched transition of leadership in North Korea.
Tales of prayer, panic and perseverance emerge in wake of deadly pre-dawn tornado strikes
HARRISBURG, Ill. (AP) -- Jeff Rann had ample warning that terrible weather was approaching before dawn. A frantic call to his wife from his mother-in-law alerted them to reports that a tornado was barreling down, and Rann heard the deafening wail of storm sirens.
Rann was among those who survived the weather's passing assault Wednesday, his home untouched. Yet just two blocks away in the southern Illinois town of Harrisburg, population 9,000, Rann's parents were not as fortunate.
Rann raced through the darkness in his pickup truck to his parents' duplex but saw instantly there was nothing left, natural gas whistling eerily as it spewed from the property's severed meter. In the mud of a debris-strewn field, Rann found the body of his dad, 65-year-old Randy Rann, and his mother, 62-year-old Donna Rann.
"She just said, 'It hurts. It hurts,'" Rann said of his mother, who had been looking forward to early retirement next month but who died a short time later at a hospital.
Caught in the relatively uncommon night-time twister, the Ranns were among six people killed when blocks of homes in Harrisburg were flattened by overnight storms that raked the nation's midsection, killing at least 12 people in three states.
Davy Jones, who rose to fame as lead singer of The Monkees, dies in Fla.
LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Before there was MTV, before "American Idol" made overnight stars of people you never heard of, there was "The Monkees," a band fronted by a diminutive singer named Davy Jones who was so boyishly good looking that teenage girls swooned the first time they ever saw him.
That was at the end of the summer of 1966, when Jones and his three Monkee cohorts, Michael Nesmith, Peter Tork and Micky Dolenz, arrived on weekly television, portraying a carbon copy of another band called the Beatles.
Each Monday night for the next two years, people would tune into NBC to see the comical trials and tribulations of four young musicians who tooled around in a tricked-out car called the Monkeemobile. When they weren't introducing two or three new songs per show, they would be busy rescuing damsels in distress or being chased by bumbling outlaws in a comical display of slapstick that has sometimes been compared to the work of the Marx Brothers.
Although all four members handled the lead vocals during their music videos, it was Jones, the onetime child star of the British musical stage, who quickly became the group's heartthrob. With his boyish good looks and endearing British accent augmented by a strong, Broadway-trained singing voice, it was a role he would play for the rest of his life.
Jones died Wednesday of a heart attack near his home in Indiantown, Fla., just months after he, Tork and Dolenz had completed a tour marking The Monkees' 45th anniversary. He was 66.
Snowe's retirement, Kerrey's entrance highlight new optimism in Democrats' bid to hold Senate
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Back-to-back surprises -- Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe is retiring and former Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey is running again -- have given Democrats a burst of optimism that they can hold on to control of the Senate, a goal that seemed to be slipping from reach just weeks ago.
The decisions this week by Snowe, a Republican, and Kerrey, a Democrat, put two seats Democrats were prepared to write off in 2012 back into play. Those developments, combined with positive indicators for Democrats like an improving economy and President Barack Obama's higher standing in polls, have some sensing a shift in the environment.
"Things have changed so much that Democrats' prospects of keeping the Senate are at least 50-50 now, if not better than that," said Geoff Garin, a Democratic strategist and pollster.
To be sure, Democrats must overcome challenges to compete aggressively in both Maine and Nebraska. Time is running short to recruit a strong Democratic candidate in Maine, and Kerrey will be forced to answer for his years away from Nebraska.
Despite those hurdles, Democrats now see three clear pickup opportunities in 2012, in Maine, Nevada and Massachusetts. Party officials also hope races in Indiana and North Dakota could become competitive. Kerrey, a former governor, two-term senator and presidential candidate, gives Democrats a prominent candidate to put up for a seat they were prepared to concede when Sen. Ben Nelson announced his retirement and Kerrey initially passed on the race.
Israel unveils sophisticated shelters in Tel Aviv, a likely Iran target
TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) -- Underneath the plaza outside Israel's Habima national theater, Israel has put the finishing touches on a new gathering place that it hopes will never host a crowd: the country's most advanced public underground bomb shelter.
The shelter, four stories underground and with space for 1,600 people, is usually a parking lot. It is also part of Tel Aviv's elaborate civil defense infrastructure. City officials have been beefing up shelters and emergency services in recent months at a time of rising tensions with Iran and militant groups in the Gaza Strip.
Recent talk of conflict with Iran has given the safety measures extra relevance.
Officials say the timing is coincidental. Israel is under constant threat from hostile groups on its northern and southern frontiers. Security forces run frequent safety drills, cities are equipped with public air-raid shelters, and new apartments must have bombproof rooms.
Israeli leaders have hinted they may mount a strike against Iran's nuclear facilities, even as American military leaders urge Israel to wait for tough economic sanctions to take effect.
Life under lockdown: China tightly patrols Tibetan town's roads, minds after self-immolations
ABA, China (AP) -- China's stifling lockdown of this Tibetan town has not only been about patrolling its sleepy streets, but also policing the minds of a community at the center of self-immolation protests against Chinese rule.
Soldiers with helmets, rifles, sticks and shields march in rows along this monastery town's main road against a backdrop of snow-speckled mountains, while police stare at passing cars, scanning license plates and faces of passengers for unwelcome visitors. In school dormitory rooms in the county, there are random checks for books that go against the ruling Communist Party establishment -- and the constant questions about political leanings.
"They'll ask you questions and if you answer with your true feelings, they will be very unhappy. If you keep quiet, they will also be unhappy," said a Tibetan who teaches at a school in Aba county and who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of government reprisals.
"They want you to say that the party is good and their policies are good," he added.
Teachers also are banned from making any mention -- positive or negative -- of the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, the teacher said during an interview in the neighboring county of Hongyuan.
Deadline looms for possible charges against teen suspect in Ohio school shooting that killed 3
CHARDON, Ohio (AP) -- The deadline to file charges in a fatal Ohio high school shooting loomed as students still reeling from the slaying of three teenagers planned a march to return to their school.
A judge said prosecutors had until Thursday to file charges against the suspect, T.J. Lane, a thin, quiet 17-year-old accused of opening fire on a group of students sitting at a cafeteria table at 1,100-student Chardon High School on Monday. Three students died, and two were seriously wounded.
A prosecutor has said Lane, who is in custody, will probably be charged with three counts of aggravated murder and other offenses. Prosecutors are expected to ask that he be tried as an adult.
Longtime neighbors and friends on Wednesday expressed disbelief at how Lane could be the suspect, describing a boy from a broken family who had struggled in school but appeared to improve once he began staying with his grandparents and attending an alternative school with several dozen students.
"He went from flunking out from what I understand to almost a straight A student with honors and he was going to graduate a year early," said Russ Miller, who has known Lane for more than a decade and lives near Jack Nolan, Lane's grandfather. Nolan has familial custody of the teenager.
Clint Dempsey scores as US beats Italy for first time in 78 years, 1-0
GENOA, Italy (AP) -- The United States and its latest coach have a signature victory. Against four-time world champion Italy, no less.
Gaining a rare win over a soccer power, the United States beat Italy 1-0 Wednesday night on Clint Dempsey's goal in the 55th minute for the Americans' first win over the Azzurri in 11 games spanning 78 years.
"It's just a confidence builder," Dempsey said. "We're just trying to move in the right direction and trying to get as sharp as we can for the summer and the World Cup qualifying games because the goal is to qualify for the World Cup. It's important to come to places like this and play big teams on their own soil and get results. At times it wasn't pretty, but we grounded out the result tonight."
American players applauded each other and their fans, who cheered loudly and proudly waved the red, white and blue after Jurgen Klinsmann's biggest win as U.S. coach.
Klinsmann, the former German national team star player and coach who has lived in California for more than a decade, replaced the fired Bob Bradley last summer. The Americans won their fourth straight match with their third consecutive shutout to improve to 5-4-1 under Klinsmann.