Wednesday, April 10, 2013

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News,Science and Technology

Senators announce deal on background checks for gun sales; Dems likely to thwart GOP delays

WASHINGTON (AP) — Two pivotal senators announced a bipartisan deal Wednesday on expanding background checks to more gun buyers, an agreement that could build support for President Barack Obama's drive to curb firearms violence.

Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Patrick Toomey, R-Pa., said their accord would help keep firearms from criminals and the mentally ill. Subjecting more firearms purchases to federal background checks has been the chief goal of Obama and gun control supporters, who promote the system as a way to prevent criminals and other potentially dangerous people from getting the weapons.

The agreement between two of the most conservative members of each party was expected to make it even likelier that the Senate's initial vote Thursday to begin debating gun legislation will succeed, despite an effort by conservatives to block consideration of the measure.

Even so, the ultimate fate of gun legislation remains unclear, clouded by opposition from the National Rifle Association and many Republicans and moderate Democrats in the Democratic-led Senate and the Republican-run House. Many critics say the effort would violate the Second Amendment right to bear arms and burden law-abiding gun owners.

"Truly the events at Newtown changed us all," said Manchin, referring to the Connecticut town where 20 first-graders and six educators were shot down in December, launching the country into renewed debate over gun violence. "Americans on both sides of the debate can and must find common ground."

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Obama's budget: Trim Social Security benefits, raise smokers' taxes to trim federal deficits

WASHINGTON (AP) — Mixing modest curbs on spending with tax increases reviled by Republicans, President Barack Obama proposed a $3.8 trillion budget on Wednesday that would raise taxes on smokers and wealthy Americans and trim Social Security benefits for millions.

Obama's 2014 blueprint combines a $242 billion infusion of new spending for road and rail projects, early education and jobs initiatives — all favored by Democrats — with longer-term savings from programs including Medicare and the military. It promises at least a start in cutting huge annual federal deficits.

The president pitched his plan as a good-faith offer to his GOP rivals since it incorporates a proposal he made to Republicans in December that wasn't radically different from a GOP plan drafted by House Speaker John Boehner. But it follows January's bitterly fought 10-year, $600 billion-plus tax increase that has stiffened GOP resolve against further tax hikes.

"I have already met Republicans more than halfway, so in the coming days and weeks I hope that Republicans will come forward and demonstrate that they're really as serious about the deficit and debt as they claim to be," Obama said.

After four years of trillion-dollar-plus deficits in his first term, Obama's plan projects a $973 billion deficit for the current budget year and red ink of $744 billion for the 2014 fiscal year starting in October. By 2016, the deficit is seen as dropping below 3 percent of the size of the economy, a level that many economists say is manageable.

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As world awaits North Korea missile test, calm Pyongyang residents say 'We will win war'

PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — As the world braced for a provocative missile launch by North Korea, with newscasts worldwide playing up tensions on the Korean Peninsula, the center of the storm was strangely calm.

The focus in Pyongyang on Wednesday was less on preparing for war and more on beautifying the capital ahead of the nation's biggest holiday: the April 15 birthday of the nation's founder, Kim Il Sung. Soldiers put down their rifles to blanket the barren ground with sod and students picked up shovels to help plant trees.

But the impoverished, tightly controlled nation that has historically used major holidays to draw the world's attention by showing off its military power could well mark the occasion by testing a missile designed to strike U.S. military installations in Japan and Guam.

South Korea's foreign minister said the prospect of a medium-range missile launch is "considerably high."

North Korean officials have not announced plans to launch a missile in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions barring Pyongyang from nuclear and missile activity.

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Postal Service backs down on ending Saturday mail delivery, saying Congress gave it no choice

WASHINGTON (AP) — The financially beleaguered Postal Service backpedaled on its plan to end Saturday mail delivery, conceding Wednesday that its gamble to compel congressional approval had failed.

With limited options for saving money, the governing board said the agency should reopen negotiations with unions to lower labor costs and consider raising mail prices.

Yet the board also said it's not possible for the Postal Service to meet its goals for reduced spending without altering the delivery schedule. Delaying "responsible changes," the board said, only makes it more likely that the Postal Service "may become a burden" to taxpayers.

Congressional reaction was mixed, mirroring differences that have stalled a needed postal overhaul for some time. Some lawmakers had urged the agency to forge ahead with its plan, while others had said it lacked the legal authority to do so.

The Postal Service said in February that it planned to switch to five-day-a-week deliveries beginning in August for everything except packages as a way to hold down losses.

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Ex-Rep. Weiner says he may run for New York mayor; will voters forgive sexting scandal?

NEW YORK (AP) — A bold comeback attempt or the height of chutzpah?

In what could be the start of one of the most intriguing second acts in American politics, Anthony Weiner, the congressman who tweeted himself out of a job two years ago with a photo of his bulging underpants, is considering jumping into the New York City mayor's race.

The Brooklyn Democrat said in a New York Times Magazine story posted online Wednesday that he realizes he would be an underdog, but he wants to "ask people to give me a second chance."

"I do recognize, to some degree, it's now or maybe never for me," Weiner, 48, said in a long and highly personal profile that he clearly hoped would be the start of his rehabilitation.

But are voters ready to forgive? Will they at least stop giggling long enough to hear what he has to say?

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In Ohio Amish community, baseball and singing before several members head to prison

BERGHOLZ, Ohio (AP) — Bare feet and work boots shuffle on the wooden floor of the Amish schoolhouse as the children settle into tight rows of scuffed metal desks across the room from their parents — the men on one set of benches, women on another, some cradling younger children.

They've gathered to celebrate the end of school, but no one claps or cheers. The only voices raised are those of the students as they begin singing, the melodies rising and dipping like the surrounding hills. A warm breeze carries the religious lyrics, mostly in German, through the open windows and over the fields where families will mingle afterward.

The ceremony is typically in late April, but this school year was cut short to allow some youngsters a few more days of family time before their parents leave for federal prison.

Come Friday, four women and one man from this tight-knit group in rural eastern Ohio will enter the prison system in various states, joining nine already behind bars on hate crimes convictions for hair- and beard-cutting attacks against fellow Amish.

That timing made Tuesday's event the last big gathering before the five depart, and the participants gave The Associated Press a rare glimpse into their largely insular community. Men played baseball in buttoned shirts, work boots and blue pants with suspenders. Their wives, some barefoot, sat outdoors on benches from the schoolhouse, chatting as their long-sleeved, blue and green dresses and white head scarves fluttered in the wind. Their children snacked and relaxed nearby, dressed like smaller versions of their parents.

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Research firm IDC: PC sales plunge in 1st quarter as Win 8 flops, tablets and phones beckon

NEW YORK (AP) — Global shipments of PCs fell 14 percent in the first three months this year, the sharpest plunge since research firm IDC started tracking the industry in 1994.

The firm said Wednesday that the appeal of tablets and smartphones is pulling money away from PCs, but it also blames Microsoft's latest version of Windows, which has a new look and forces users to learn new ways to control their machines.

Microsoft launched Windows 8 on Oct. 26, hoping to revitalize the PC industry and borrow some of the excitement that surrounds tablets. PC shipments were already falling, but the latest report suggests the decline is speeding up.

"Unfortunately, it seems clear that the Windows 8 launch not only didn't provide a positive boost to the PC market, but appears to have slowed the market," IDC Vice President Bob O'Donnell said.

Windows 8 is designed to work well with touch-sensitive screens, but the displays add to the cost of a PC. Together, the changes and higher prices "have made PCs a less attractive alternative to dedicated tablets and other competitive devices," O'Donnell said.

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US couple accused of kidnapping their 2 children brought back from Cuba, jailed in Fla.

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Joshua and Sharyn Hakken seemed to have a charmed life, doting on their two young boys, buying a comfortable home and building successful careers as engineers. It all derailed last year when police in Louisiana found the family inside a hotel room with drugs, weapons and promises from the parents to take "a journey to the Armageddon."

The couple is now jailed on charges they kidnapped the boys from their grandparents in Florida and sailed to Cuba on a boat called "Salty" to elude U.S. authorities. The family arrived in Florida early Wednesday morning, accompanied by federal, state and local authorities after being handed over by Cuban officials. Four-year-old Cole and 2-year-old Chase are now with their grandparents, and their parents are in jail, closing a bizarre ordeal that began with an Amber Alert and ended with diplomatic intervention.

Friends of the couple said the family seemed happy and had no marital problems.

"This is a train that went completely off the tracks, and I don't have any explanation for how it can go off the track that badly basically in a year and a half. It's very bizarre," said Darrell Hanecki, who employed Sharyn Hakken for nearly a decade at Hanecki Consulting Engineers.

Hanecki said she was an easygoing and relaxed employee who worked from the home they owned in sunny Tampa so she could spend more time with the kids. She brought the boys into the office a few times to show them off to her colleagues.

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AP PHOTOS: Stark streetscapes of Baltimore are backdrop for poverty in the US

BALTIMORE (AP) — The number of Americans living in poverty today has not been seen since Lyndon Johnson occupied the White House, and nowhere is it more visible than in urban environments like Baltimore.

Here a group of boys plays basketball, with a milk crate fashioned into a hoop and attached to a long-abandoned house. Others make their way through a neighborhood that looks more like a ghost town than an urban center.

Here's a collection of photos from the streets of Baltimore:

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Frog species across Caribbean teeter on edge of extinction in a sign of ecological peril

PATILLAS, Puerto Rico (AP) — A curtain of sound envelops the two researchers as they make their way along the side of a mountain in darkness, occasionally hacking their way with a machete to reach the mouth of a small cave.

Peeps, tweets and staccato whistles fill the air, a pulsing undercurrent in the tropical night. To the untrained ear, it's just a mishmash of noise. To experts tracking a decline in amphibians with growing alarm, it's like a symphony in which some of the players haven't been showing up.

In parts of Puerto Rico, for example, there are places where researchers used to hear four species at once and they are now hearing one or two, a subtle but important change.

"You are not hearing what you were before," said Alberto Lopez, part of a husband-and-wife team of biologists trying to gauge the health of frogs on the island.

Scientists report that many types of amphibians, especially frogs, are in a steep global decline likely caused by a mix of habitat loss, climate change, pollution and a virulent fungus. The downward spiral is striking particularly hard in the Caribbean, where a majority of species are now losing a fragile hold in the ecosystem.

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