Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Published:

AP-GfK Poll: Support for boosting taxes on rich; fewer now back cutting government services

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Americans prefer letting tax cuts expire for the country's top earners, as President Barack Obama insists, while support has declined for cutting government services to curb budget deficits, an Associated Press-GfK poll shows. Fewer than half the Republicans polled favor continuing the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy.

There's also a reluctance to trim Social Security, Medicare or defense programs, three of the biggest drivers of federal spending, the survey released Wednesday found. The results could strengthen Obama's hand in his fiscal cliff duel with Republicans, in which he wants to raise taxes on the rich and cut spending by less than the GOP wants.

As Obama and Republicans joust over ways to avoid tumbling over the cliff when the new year begins, the poll offers scant evidence that the public is willing to sacrifice much when it comes to specific cuts in the name of budget austerity.

Social Security, Medicare and defense account for just over half the $3.8 trillion the government is projected to spend this year. Voters typically voice support for deficit reduction but shy away from painful, detailed cuts to achieve it.

In the poll, 48 percent said tax cuts should expire in January on earnings over $250,000 but continue for lower incomes. An additional 32 percent said the tax cuts should continue for everybody, which has been the view of Republican lawmakers who say raising taxes on the wealthy would squelch their ability to create jobs. Thirteen percent said the tax cuts dating back to 2001 and 2003 should end for all.

___

Israel's friendship with Europe frayed as Palestinian vote, settlement move stoke resentment

BERLIN (AP) -- It was supposed to be an amicable meeting between close friends. Instead, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's visit to Germany has been soured by Berlin's refusal to oppose a Palestinian U.N. statehood bid and anger throughout Europe over Israeli plans to expand settlements around Jerusalem.

The sensitivity of Netanyahu's trip to one of Israel's closest allies in Europe offers a taste of the increasing displeasure on the continent at his government's seeming intransigence, particularly over Jewish settlements on lands the Palestinians want for a future state.

Europeans, however, appear at a loss to develop an effective strategy of their own to pressure Israel to move forward on a moribund peace process with the deeply divided Palestinians. And it was unclear how hard Germany was prepared to push the Israelis.

The European Union came nowhere near a united front when the U.N. General Assembly voted last week to upgrade the Palestinians' diplomatic status -- effectively recognizing a Palestinian state in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip, territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war.

In a slap to Israel, its closest European allies -- Britain, Germany, Italy and France -- all abstained or voted with the Palestinians. The Czech Republic, where Netanyahu stopped on his way to Berlin, was the only EU country to join the U.S. and Israel in voting against the measure.

___

Islamists battle opponents with firebombs and rocks as Egypt descends into political turmoil

CAIRO (AP) -- Egypt descended into political turmoil on Wednesday over the constitution drafted by Islamist allies of President Mohammed Morsi, and at least 211 people were wounded as supporters and opponents battled each other with firebombs, rocks and sticks outside the presidential palace.

Four more presidential aides resigned in protest over Morsi's handling of the crisis, and a key opponent of the Islamist president likened Morsi's rule to that of ousted authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak.

Both sides were digging in for a long struggle, with the opposition vowing more protests and rejecting any dialogue unless the charter is rescinded, and Morsi pressing relentlessly forward with plans for a Dec. 15 constitutional referendum.

"The solution is to go to the ballot box," declared Mahmoud Ghozlan, a spokesman for Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood, asserting the charter was "the best constitution Egypt ever had."

The clashes outside the presidential palace in Cairo's Heliopolis district marked an escalation in the deepening crisis. It was the first time supporters of rival camps fought each other since last year's anti-Mubarak uprising, when the authoritarian leader's loyalists sent sword-wielding supporters on horses and camels into Cairo's Tahrir square in what became one of the uprising's bloodiest days.

___

Hit with a debilitating condition? Social Security expands program to fast-track some claims

WASHINGTON (AP) -- In an effort to ease the burden of being stricken with a debilitating condition, the Social Security Administration is expanding a program that fast-tracks disability claims by people who get serious illnesses such as cancer, early-onset Alzheimer's and Lou Gehrig's disease -- claims that could take months or years to approve in the past.

While providing faster benefits, the program also is designed to ease the workload of an agency that has been swamped by disability claims since the economic recession a few years ago.

Disability claims are up by more than 20 percent from 2008. The Compassionate Allowances program approves many claims for a select group of conditions within a few days, Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue said. The program is being expanded Thursday to include a total of 200 diseases and conditions.

Many of the conditions are rare; all of them are so serious that people who suffer from them easily meet the government's definition of being disabled, Astrue said. With proper documentation, these are relatively easy cases for the agency to decide, too easy to put through the usual time-consuming process that other applicants face, he said.

"Why for someone who is going to die within 15 months do we need 15 years of medical records?" Astrue said in an interview. "If somebody's got a confirmed diagnosis of ALS, you know that in essence, it's not only a disability, it's a death sentence, and there is no use in burdening them with paperwork."

___

Sheriff: Hunters find 2 bodies believed to be young Iowa cousins who disappeared in July

EVANSDALE, Iowa (AP) -- Hunters discovered two bodies Wednesday believed to be the young Iowa cousins who vanished five months ago while riding their bikes, authorities said.

The families of 9-year-old Elizabeth Collins and 11-year-old Lyric Cook have been notified of the discovery and are asking for privacy, Black Hawk County sheriff's Capt. Rick Abben said. He wouldn't say where the bodies were found or if there were suspects in the girls' disappearance.

The cousins were last seen July 13 near a popular recreational lake in Evansdale, a city about 110 miles northeast of Des Moines. Investigators found their bikes and a pink purse near the lake hours later, but no sign of the girls.

"It's definitely not the outcome that we wanted, obviously," Abben said, appearing to fight back tears during a news conference in Evansdale. "This is a difficult thing for us to go through. It's a difficult thing for the community."

He said the bodies were being sent to the state medical examiner's office to confirm their identities.

___

Senate Democrat says she will consider higher food stamp program cuts to get farm bill passed

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Democratic chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee says she is willing to consider higher cuts to the food stamp program in an effort to include a massive five-year farm bill in negotiations on the so-called fiscal cliff.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said that cuts to the food stamp program beyond the $4 billion over 10 years included in a Senate-passed farm bill "are something I am willing to talk about." A farm bill passed by the House Agriculture Committee would include $16 billion in cuts over the same amount of time.

Both amounts are relatively small in relation to the program's total estimated cost -- almost $800 billion over the next decade -- but Stabenow's willingness to move on an issue long sacred to Democrats shows progress in negotiations as farm-state leaders scramble to get the bill done before the end of the year. Stabenow and House Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., met this week in hopes of reconciling their two versions of the bill.

The farm bill could be part of a deal to avert the combination of tax increases and automatic spending cuts due in January -- dubbed the fiscal cliff because the combination could plunge the economy into another recession -- because it saves money. A farm bill passed by the Senate in June would save a total of $23 billion over 10 years, while a version approved by the House Agriculture Committee in July would save $35 billion over the same period. Those total savings include the cuts to food stamps and also from farm subsidies.

Stabenow said in an interview with The Associated Press Wednesday that she is also open to increasing the savings from $23 billion, saying it "depends on the policy."

___

Jazz legend Dave Brubeck, who helped define genre's rhythms in 1950s and '60s, dies at 91

You don't have to be a jazz aficionado to recognize "Take Five," the smoky instrumental by the Dave Brubeck Quartet that instantly evokes swinging bachelor pads, hi-fi systems and cool nightclubs of the 1950s and '60s.

"Take Five" was a musical milestone -- a deceptively complex jazz composition that managed to crack the Billboard singles chart and introduce a new, adventurous sound to millions of listeners.

In a career that spanned almost all of American jazz since World War II, Brubeck's celebrated quartet combined exotic, challenging tempos with classical influences to create lasting standards.

The pianist and composer behind the group, Brubeck died Wednesday of heart failure at a hospital in Norwalk, Conn. He was a day shy of his 92nd birthday.

Brubeck believed that jazz presented the best face of America to the world.

___

Starbucks top open more than 1,500 cafes in the US as part of growth plans

NEW YORK (AP) -- Another Starbucks may soon pop up around the corner, with the world's biggest coffee company planning to add at least 1,500 cafes in the U.S. over the next five years.

Starbucks said Wednesday that it plans to boost the number of locations in its biggest market by about 13 percent by 2017. In the broader Americas region, the company plans to add a total of 3,000 new cafes by that time.

Starbucks also is planning to expand overseas, particularly in China, which is expected to surpass Canada as Starbucks' second-biggest market in the next two years. By that time, Starbucks says it will have 20,000 stores globally, up from about 18,000.

The upbeat expansion plans mark a turnaround from Starbucks' struggles during the recession. After hitting a rough patch, the company brought back founder Howard Schultz as CEO in 2008 and embarked on a massive restructuring effort that included closing 10 percent of its U.S. stores.

Cliff Burrows, who heads Starbucks' domestic business, said the problem wasn't that Starbucks was oversaturated, but that the company hadn't been careful about its store openings. In the years leading up to the downturn, the company was opening well over 1,000 stores a year. That led to cafes in locations where signs or traffic might not be optimal, he said.

___

Lebanese killed in Syrian war show how easily conflict can spill over

TRIPOLI, Lebanon (AP) -- The families of Lebanese men killed in Syria last week say their relatives were more interested in nice clothes and vacations than fighting a civil war. Yet Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime branded them foreign jihadists -- and their deaths set off three days of new spillover violence.

Gunmen loyal to opposite sides in Syria's civil war battled Wednesday in the streets of the Lebanese city of Tripoli. The fighting has killed six people and wounded nearly 60 since Monday, security officials said.

The bloodshed is a sign of just how vulnerable Lebanon is to getting sucked into the Syrian crisis. The countries share a porous border and a complex web of political and sectarian ties that is easily enflamed.

Among the 17 Lebanese men who turned up dead in Syria last week were Bilal al-Ghoul and his childhood friend, Malek Haj Deeb, both 20. Malek's older brother, Jihad, said the two men sympathized with the rebellion, but they were not fighters.

"Malek used to see the videos of dead Syrians and cry," Jihad Haj Deeb told The Associated Press in Tripoli, as gunfire and explosions echoed near his home in the poor neighborhood of Mankoubeen. "He used to say, 'May Bashar fall soon, God willing.'"

___

US, Mexico complete two-month trial to fly deportees deep into Mexico; future efforts unclear

SAN DIEGO (AP) -- The U.S. and Mexican governments have completed a two-month program to fly deportees deep into Mexico, and the U.S. is looking to the new administration of Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto on whether to continue the effort aimed at relieving overwhelmed Mexican border cities.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said 2,364 Mexican nationals flew on 18 flights during the trial period, all but three of them men. Nearly 2,000 had criminal convictions in the U.S.

The flights from El, Paso, Texas, to Mexico City were not voluntary, unlike a previous program to deport Mexicans arrested by the Border Patrol during Arizona's deadly summer heat.

Two days before leaving office last week, then-Mexican Foreign Secretary Patricia Espinosa said Mexico's new administration would work with the U.S. government on whether to continue.