Obama eases demands on Israeli settlements, insists to all sides, Mideast 'peace is possible'
JERUSALEM (AP) — Insisting "peace is possible," President Barack Obama on Thursday prodded both Israelis and Palestinians to return to long-stalled negotiations with few, if any, pre-conditions, softening his earlier demands that Israel stop building settlements in disputed territory.
The president made his appeal just hours after rockets fired from Hamas-controlled Gaza landed in a southern Israeli border town, a fresh reminder of the severe security risks and tensions that have stymied peace efforts for decades.
Obama, on his second day in the Middle East, shuttled between Jerusalem and Ramallah, reaching out to the public as well as political leaders. He offered no new policies or plans for reopening peace talks but urged both sides to "think anew" about the intractable conflict and break out of the "formulas and habits that have blocked progress for so long."
"Peace is possible," Obama declared during an impassioned speech to young people in Jerusalem. "I'm not saying it's guaranteed. I can't even say that it is more likely than not. But it is possible."
The deep disputes dividing the Israelis and Palestinians have remained much the same over the years, and include deciding the status of Jerusalem, defining borders and resolving refugee issues. Palestinians have been particularly incensed over Israeli settlements in disputed territories, and the Israelis' continued construction has also drawn the condemnation of the United States and other nations.
Syrian suicide bombing in mosque kills top pro-Assad Sunni preacher and 41 other people
BEIRUT (AP) — A suicide bombing tore through a mosque in the Syrian capital Thursday, killing a top Sunni Muslim preacher and longtime supporter of President Bashar Assad along with at least 41 other people.
The assassination of Sheikh Mohammad Said Ramadan al-Buti removes one of the few remaining pillars of support for the Alawite leader among the majority sect that has risen up against him.
The powerful explosion struck as al-Buti, an 84-year-old cleric and religious scholar who appeared often on TV, was giving a religious lesson in the Eman Mosque in the central Mazraa district of Damascus, according to state TV.
Suicide bombings blamed on Islamic extremists fighting with the rebels have become common in Syria's 2-year-old civil war. But Thursday's explosion marked the first time a suicide bomber detonated his explosives inside a mosque.
Syrian TV said 84 people were wounded in the explosion and showed footage of wounded people and bodies with severed limbs on the blood-stained floor and later, bodies covered in white body bags lined up in rows. Sirens wailed through the capital as ambulances rushed to the scene of the explosion, which was sealed off by the military.
Gun control advocates press Dems on expanding background checks as best response to Newtown
WASHINGTON (AP) — Gun control advocates are pressing Democrats to make expanded federal background checks for firearms buyers a cornerstone of the gun control legislation the Senate plans to debate next month, calling it the best way for lawmakers to salvage a meaningful response to December's elementary school massacre in Newtown, Conn.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is widely expected to include a broadening of the background system in the overall gun legislation, say Senate aides and lobbyists who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe internal Democratic deliberations.
They caution he has yet to make a final decision as he waits to see if senators can strike a bipartisan deal on the proposal. If they don't, he will have to calculate whether to introduce a more modest overall gun bill without background checks or dare Republicans to scuttle a bolder one that includes the expanded system.
Background checks are designed to keep guns from criminals, people with serious mental problems and others. The checks are currently required only for sales involving federally licensed gun dealers, not for private transactions at gun shows or online.
President Barack Obama and other supporters say the system helps keep dangerous people from getting guns and should be expanded to virtually all firearms transactions. The National Rifle Association and other opponents say the checks are easily avoided by criminals who get their weapons illegally, and say expanding them would be a step toward a government registry of firearms owners — which is forbidden by federal law.
GOP-dominated House passes budget plan promising slashing cuts, balance in 10 years
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Republican-controlled House passed a tea party-flavored budget plan Thursday that promises sharp cuts in safety-net programs for the poor and a clampdown on domestic agencies, in sharp contrast to less austere plans favored by President Barack Obama and his Democratic allies.
The measure, similar to previous plans offered by Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., demonstrates that it's possible, at least mathematically, to balance the budget within a decade without raising taxes.
But its deep cuts to programs for the poor like Medicaid and food stamps and its promise to abolish so-called "Obamacare" are nonstarters with the president, who won re-election while campaigning against Ryan's prior budgets. It passed on a mostly party-line 221-207 vote.
The House measure advanced as the Democratic Senate debated its first budget since the 2009 plan that helped Obama pass his health care law.
The dueling House and Senate budget plans are anchored on opposite ends of the ideological spectrum in Washington, appealing to core partisans in the warring parties that are gridlocked over persistent budget deficits. Obama is exploring the chances of forging a middle path that blends new taxes and modest curbs to government benefit programs.
Half the states work intensely on health care rollout; other half try to ignore "Obamacare"
WASHINGTON (AP) — Three years, two elections, and one Supreme Court decision after President Barack Obama signed the Affordable Care Act, its promise of health care for the uninsured may be delayed or undercut in much of the country because of entrenched opposition from many Republican state leaders.
In half the states, mainly led by Democrats, officials are racing deadlines to connect uninsured residents to coverage now only months away. In others it's as if "Obamacare" — signed Mar. 23, 2010 — had never passed.
Make no mistake, the federal government will step in and create new insurance markets in the 26 mostly red states declining to run their own. Just like the state-run markets in mostly Democratic-led states, the feds will start signing up customers Oct. 1 for coverage effective Jan. 1. But they need a broad cross-section of people, or else the pool will be stuck with what the government calls the "sick and worried" — the costliest patients.
Insurance markets, or exchanges, are one prong of Obama's law, providing subsidized private coverage for middle-class households who currently can't get their own. The other major piece is a Medicaid expansion to serve more low-income people. And at least 13 states have already indicated they will not agree to that.
"It could look like two or three different countries," said Robert Blendon, a Harvard School of Public Health professor who studies public opinion on health care. "The political culture of a state is going to play an important role in getting millions of people to voluntarily sign up."
Facing four-day ultimatum, Cyprus scrambles to come up with a new plan to avoid bankruptcy
NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — Cypriot politicians moved Thursday to restructure the country's most troubled bank as part of a broader bailout plan that must be in place by Monday to avoid financial ruin. Concerned customers rushed to get cash from ATMs as bank employees protested.
Cyprus has been told it must raise 5.8 billion euros ($7.5 billion) if it is to receive 10 billion euros ($12.9 billion) from its fellow eurozone countries and the International Monetary Fund. If it does not find a way by Monday, the European Central Bank said it will cut off emergency support to the banks, letting them collapse.
That would throw the country into financial chaos and, ultimately, cause it to leave the eurozone, with unpredictable consequences for the region.
Party leaders and the government were hashing out three new laws on Thursday night, ranging from restricting bank transactions to restructuring the most troubled bank, Cyprus Popular Bank, or Laiki.
The pressure has increased since lawmakers on Tuesday rejected an earlier proposal to seize up to 10 percent of people's bank accounts. Banks have been shut since last weekend to avoid a run and will not open until Tuesday at the earliest.
Maine man gets 20 days in jail for promoting prostitution operation out of Zumba studio
PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — An insurance agent who helped run a prostitution operation out of his mistress's Zumba studio and watched sex videos made with a hidden camera will serve 20 days in jail for a scandal that rocked a seaside community better known for its beaches and sea captains' homes than for crime.
Mark Strong Sr. told the judge Thursday that he was sorry for the pain he caused his family, and his wife broke down in sobs during a plea for leniency.
"I do apologize for each of my selfish actions and the harm that I have caused many. Most importantly I want to apologize to my wife, my two sons and my entire family because I've caused so much hurt in so many ways, emotionally, physically and financially," Strong said, his voice choking.
Prosecutors say Strong controlled every facet of the Kennebunk operation, monitoring fitness instructor Alexis Wright's calendar, reviewing her ledgers, collecting dossiers on clients and watching the sexual encounters streamed live to the computer in his office 100 miles up the coast in Thomaston.
Strong also suggested boosting profits by marketing to higher-paying fetish clients and engaging in paid sex acts with multiple men simultaneously, prosecutors said.
Old shivs, jailhouse crafts, more are freed from archives in display at historic Philly prison
PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A mounted wooden fish. Dog figurines. Colorful soap carvings of clowns and Santa. A wallet made of interwoven cigarette packs. It sounds like a bad garage sale — until you get to the shivs. And the century-old mug shot book. And the inmate death ledger.
Those items are among dozens of prison artifacts set for display at the historic Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. The brief exhibit opens Saturday and runs for 10 days.
The defunct and decayed prison, which once housed gangster Al Capone, was abandoned in 1971 but has since been preserved in a state of semi-ruin, becoming one of the city's eeriest and quirkiest tourist attractions.
The objects have never before been exhibited because the dank, decrepit facility didn't have any climate-controlled rooms. But recent renovations will allow the prison to temporarily convert its staff conference room into a "pop-up museum."
Chronicling the inmates' arc of arrival, hard time and departure, artifacts range from mug shots and the prison's original front-gate key to handicrafts, shanks and a death ledger. Many died of tuberculosis; some were executed elsewhere; others served their sentences and went home.
Before the Big Bang Theory, there was Pangu, Brahma and Ahura Mazda
The Big Bang Theory may be the last word on the origins of the universe, but it's far from the first.
Through the millennia, humans have asked: How did everything come into existence? Modern science's answer is the Big Bang Theory, which posits that the universe sprang in an instant from a sub-atomic fragment. On Thursday, European scientists said observations by their Planck space probe support the theory.
The ancients, however, did not have $900 million machines to plumb the secrets of the universe. By revelation or by imagination, they came up with assorted explanations:
ARISTOTLE: The world always existed, at the center of the universe.
CHINA'S PANGU LEGEND: In darkness and chaos, a cosmic egg is formed. Two forces — yin and yang — act on the egg, which cracks and gives birth to Pangu, a being who over thousands of years separates the sky and the Earth, and eventually becomes one with the universe (his head is the mountains, his breath the wind, his sweat the rain).
No Powerball winner? Lottery officials say that means $320 million jackpot could swell
DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Viola Mourton buys a Powerball ticket every day. But with a $320 million jackpot that could grow in the next few days, she's upping her chances Thursday and buying several at her local convenience store.
"It's just a chance to win big money," said the 51-year-old secretary from Ottumwa, Iowa. "I'll probably buy a couple today because it's so high. But it only takes one to win."
That could be the game plan for others around the country. No Powerball winner yet? No problem. That just means a bigger jackpot for the rest of us.
Lottery officials said no ticket matched all the numbers in Wednesday night's Powerball drawing. Three tickets won the $1 Million Match 5 prize. But it means the current $320 million jackpot could swell before the next drawing on Saturday.
The jackpot is the sixth highest in history, but it could grow depending on sales at the end of each day, said Mary Neubauer, spokeswoman for the Iowa Lottery, one of the founding Powerball states.