Thursday, March 8, 2012

Published:

Senate rejects GOP proposals that would overturn Obama environment, energy policies

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Senate killed Republican-backed attempts to overturn several of President Barack Obama's environmental and energy policies Thursday as lawmakers worked against a March 31 deadline to keep aid flowing to more than 100,000 transportation construction projects around the country.

The two-year, $109 billion transportation bill before the Senate has wide, bipartisan support, but has become a magnet for lawmakers' favorite causes and partisan gamesmanship. Among the amendments batted aside were GOP proposals to bypass Obama's concerns about the Keystone XL oil pipeline, to delay tougher air pollution standards for industrial boilers and to expand offshore oil drilling.

Action on those and other amendments came under an agreement between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., aimed at clearing the way for passage of the transportation bill next week.

Obama lobbied some Senate Democrats by telephone ahead of the Keystone vote, urging them to oppose an amendment by Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., that would have prevented the president from intervening in decisions related to construction of the pipeline and would have speeded its approval. Pointing to the administration's environmental concerns about the project, which would carry tar sands oil from Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast, Republicans accused Obama of standing in the way greater oil supplies at a time when Americans are coping with rising gasoline prices.

But some Democrats, especially those from oil producing states, were torn between support for the pipeline and their support for the president. The amendment was defeated 56-42, even though 11 Democrats broke ranks to support it. Sixty votes were needed for passage.

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Some Deep South voters skeptical about Romney but say they'll back him if he's the GOP nominee

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) -- Mitt Romney faces a tough sell in the Deep South. With Mississippi and Alabama primaries coming up next Tuesday, there's concern that he's too slick, not really a conservative. In a region where the evangelical vote is important, some are skeptical about his Mormon faith.

But if Romney wins the Republican nomination and it's a November choice between him and Democratic President Barack Obama, the former Massachusetts governor may be just good enough for some Southerners.

"If push comes to shove and he gets the nomination, I'll go in the voting booth like this and vote for him," says Mississippi retiree David Wilke, holding his nose.

Romney acknowledges that he faces an uphill battle in Tuesday's Southern primaries. In an interview Thursday with Birmingham, Ala., radio station WAPI, he said the Deep South contests would be "a bit of an away game" for him.

Campaigning in Pascagoula, Miss., Romney said he is turning into an "unofficial Southerner."

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Syrian deputy oil minister defects, calls Bashar Assad's regime a 'sinking ship'

BEIRUT (AP) -- Syria's deputy oil minister appeared tense as he looked at the camera and announced in a video that he has defected from President Bashar Assad's regime, acknowledging he expects government forces to "burn my home" and "persecute my family."

Abdo Husameddine, a 58-year-old father of four, on Thursday became the highest-ranking civilian official to join the opposition, and he urged his countrymen to "abandon this sinking ship" as the nation spirals toward civil war.

In the YouTube video, Husameddine seemed to address Assad directly, accusing him of vast crimes in the past year as government forces pummel the opposition with tanks and snipers. The U.N. estimates 7,500 people have been killed since the uprising began.

"You have inflicted on those you claim are your people a full year of sorrow and sadness, denied them their basic rights to life and humanity and pushed the country to the edge of the abyss," said Husameddine, wearing a dark suit and tie. He appeared to be reading from a script, casting his eyes down to find the words.

"I do not want to end my life servicing the crimes of this regime," he said. "I declare that I am joining the revolution of the dignified people."

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Gunman opens fire at Pitt psychiatric clinic; 2, including gunman, are killed, 7 injured

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- A man armed with two semiautomatic handguns entered the lobby of a psychiatric clinic at the University of Pittsburgh on Thursday and opened fire, killing one person and wounding several others before he was shot dead, apparently by campus police, the mayor said.

Six people were wounded by the man's gunfire, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl said. A seventh suffered unspecified injuries but wasn't shot, officials said.

The mayor stopped short of confirming the gunman was fatally shot by at least one University of Pittsburgh police officer who responded. But he confirmed "police acted admirably and did engage in gunfire."

"There's no doubt that their swift response saved lives today," Ravenstahl said.

Shooting witness Gregory Brant said he was in a waiting room on the first floor of the clinic building when pandemonium broke out Thursday afternoon.

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With campaign on line in South, Gingrich "tired" but loose in Mississippi

TUPELO, Miss. (AP) -- It was an ominous introduction for Republican Newt Gingrich, whose future as a presidential candidate rests in Mississippi and Alabama.

"I can tell you right now, he's tired. He needs your prayers," former state Sen. Lee Yancey told a half-full Jackson hotel ballroom before the former House speaker took the stage.

Gingrich's aides have said the candidate needs to win Alabama and Mississippi Tuesday to justify staying in the race. He scrapped weekend plans to campaign in Kansas ahead of the Saturday caucuses to stay in the South, his adopted home and the only place he's won in the 2012 campaign.

"I want your help next Tuesday so we can win the Republican nomination," Gingrich flatly told the group, his voice a little rough.

What few in the crowd of about 100 knew is that the night before, Gingrich took some time to enjoy himself. He shed his jacket and tie, sipped some wine and danced with his wife, Callista, in the bar, a carefree respite with staff that ran into the early hours of Thursday.

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Postal worker makes worrisome discovery near Houston: 2 children living in old school bus

SPLENDORA, Texas (AP) -- The abandoned school bus had no engine and no front wheels. But there were crude curtains in the windows, an air conditioner and even bunk beds inside.

So when a postal worker repeatedly ran across two unkempt children at the scene, she grew concerned and this week contacted authorities to report that the pair had apparently been living there for months.

Now child welfare agents are trying to unravel the story of the siblings, a 5-year-old boy and an 11-year-old girl, whose parents are in prison and whose home was a dilapidated vehicle at the end of a muddy, one-lane road.

The postal carrier saw the kids Wednesday near Houston, and the two were swiftly placed in foster care while authorities investigate.

"The little girl's hair was just matted, like a stray dog's," Vanessa Picazo said.

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Dad-son talk, celebrity tweets and teens key to viral video denouncing Africa atrocities

KAMPALA, Uganda (AP) -- The young American boy sums up what his father does for a living: "You stop the bad guys from being mean."

Yes, the father says, but who are the bad guys? The child thinks, then offers a guess: "Star Wars people?"

Though half a world away from this preschooler's American upbringing, the truth is far more sinister.

The bad guys are Joseph Kony and his Lord's Resistance Army, a brutal Central Africa militia that has kidnapped thousands of children and forced them to become sex slaves, fight as child soldiers and kill family members during a 26-year campaign of terror.

The father-son conversation is part of a 30-minute video that has rocketed through cyberspace since its release Monday on YouTube. It had been viewed more than 40 million times by late Thursday, propelled by celebrity tweets and fans on Facebook and Twitter, especially teens and young adults.

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Mormon church responds to criticism of proxy baptisms, restricts access to Holocaust victims

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Mormon leaders have put up a virtual firewall in their massive genealogical database to block out anyone who attempts to access the names of hundreds of thousands of Holocaust victims the church has agreed not to posthumously baptize.

The move comes amid criticism that the Salt Lake City-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints hasn't done enough to live up to commitments to stop its members worldwide from performing the baptism ritual on Holocaust victims and other notable Jews.

The new system will immediately block church members' access should they try to seek out names of Holocaust victims or other notable figures that have been flagged as not suitable for proxy baptisms. The church said the move is aimed at ending the practice.

But critics say it merely serves to block anyone from monitoring whether the posthumous baptisms continue.

"By not allowing public access to the records, it creates the illusion they have something to hide," said Jewish genealogist Gary Mokotoff, who was involved in negotiations with the church over ending the practice for the past two decades.

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Handwriting was 'on the wall' for Whitney Houston's death, relative tells Oprah Winfrey

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Whitney Houston's sister-in-law said she feared that drugs would end the singer's life.

In a partial transcript of an interview with Oprah Winfrey scheduled to air Sunday, Patricia Houston said she would be "kidding herself" to say otherwise.

Patricia Houston, who was her sister-in-law's manager, was asked if she thought drugs would end up "taking" Whitney Houston. The "handwriting was kind of on the wall," she replied.

The pop star was changing how she lived, Patricia Houston said, and "it wasn't about substance abuse or anything like that relative to the ... latter days or anything like that."

"It was just more of a lifestyle. I was afraid for other things," Patricia Houston said. "I saw her chasing a dream, you know, looking for love in all the wrong places."

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Howard gets 29 points, 18 rebounds and Magic end Bulls' 8-game win streak with 99-94 victory

CHICAGO (AP) -- Dwight Howard had 29 points and 18 rebounds to lead the Orlando Magic to a 99-94 win over the Bulls on Thursday, snapping Chicago's eight-game winning streak.

Chicago twice overcame double-digit deficits and led 91-89 with 2:56 to play after Derrick Rose passed to Carlos Boozer for a jumper.

Orlando responded with an 8-1 run started by Jameer Nelson's lob to Howard for a dunk. Ryan Anderson hit a 3 and a pair of free throws in the game-deciding rally.

The Magic bounced back from a 100-84 loss at Charlotte, beating the league-best Bulls two nights after losing to the last-place Bobcats.

Boozer led the Bulls with 26 points. Rose added 17 points and nine assists, but shot just 6 for 22 from the field.