Monday, January 6, 2014

Published:

Senate confirms Janet Yellen, unemployment foe, as first woman to lead Federal Reserve

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Senate confirmed Janet Yellen on Monday as the first woman to lead the Federal Reserve, elevating an advocate of fighting unemployment and a backer of the central bank's efforts to spur the economy with low interest rates and massive bond purchases.

Yellen, 67, will replace Ben Bernanke, who is stepping down after serving as chairman for eight years dominated by the Great Recession and the Fed's efforts to combat it.

Senators confirmed her by 56-26, with numerous absences caused by airline flight delays forced by arctic temperatures around much of the country. All 45 voting Democrats were joined by 11 Republicans in supporting Yellen, while 26 Republicans voted "no."

Vice chair of the Fed since 2010, Yellen begins her four-year term as leader of the century-old bank on Feb. 1. With the economy rebounding from the depths of the recession but only modestly so far, many economists expect her to focus on how to nurture growth without putting it into overdrive, which could risk fueling inflation.

"The big debate will be when the Fed should tighten and how much, rather than when to step on the gas pedal and how hard," predicted Bill Cheney, chief economist for John Hancock Financial Services, who envisions a growing economy this year.

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Bundle up or hunker down: Dangerously cold polar air grips Midwest, makes way for East, South

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- The coldest, most dangerous blast of polar air in decades gripped the Midwest and pushed toward the East and South on Monday, closing schools and day care centers, grounding flights and forcing people to pull their hoods and scarves tight to protect exposed skin from nearly instant frostbite.

Many across the nation's midsection went into virtual hibernation, while others dared to venture out in temperatures that plunged well below zero.

"I'm going to try to make it two blocks without turning into crying man," said Brooks Grace, who was out to do some banking and shopping in downtown Minneapolis, where temperatures reached 23 below with wind chills of minus 48. "It's not cold -- it's painful."

The mercury also dropped into negative territory in Milwaukee, St. Louis and Chicago, which set a record for the date at minus 16. Wind chills across the region were 40 below and colder. Records also fell in Oklahoma, Texas and Indiana.

Forecasters said some 187 million people in all could feel the effects of the "polar vortex" by the time it spread across the country on Monday night and Tuesday.

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10 Things to Know for Tuesday

Your daily look at late-breaking news, upcoming events and the stories that will be talked about Tuesday:

1. JANET YELLEN CONFIRMED TO LEAD FED

Senators voted 56-26 in favor of Yellen, who will be the first woman to lead the 100-year-old bank.

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Congress faces unemployment bill and other leftovers in the new year

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Senate plunged into an election-year session Monday that promises to be long on political maneuvering and less so on accomplishment, beginning with a slow-motion struggle over legislation to renew lapsed jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed.

"I'm optimistic, cautiously optimistic, that the new year will bring a renewed spirit of cooperation to this chamber," said Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., in the first remarks of the year on the Senate floor.

Within moments, he pivoted, accusing Republicans of "never ending obstruction" to President Barack Obama's proposals over the past five years.

A test vote on the unemployment bill -- the year's first showdown -- was postponed at the last minute until Tuesday morning at the behest of Republicans, who noted that more than a dozen lawmakers had been unable to return to Washington because of bad weather.

Even then the rhetoric was heated. "It's transparent this is a political exercise," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, moments before Reid agreed to the delay.

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5 things to know about the deep freeze, which brought record low temps, travel disruptions

CHICAGO (AP) -- Much of the country grappled Monday with a historic freeze that shuttered schools and businesses at the start of the first full work week of 2014. Flights, trains and bus transportation were disrupted, thousands were left without power and even parts of the country used to fending off hypothermia and frostbite had to take extra precautions as temperatures and wind chills approached record levels.

Here are five things to know about the deep freeze. Also, take a look at a photo gallery highlighting how people in the Midwest and elsewhere were dealing with the polar vortex.

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1. COLD OUTSIDE? YOU'RE NOT ALONE

Nearly 187 million people, more than half of the nation's population, were under a wind chill warning or advisory Monday.

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In a first, cohabitation surpasses marriage among dating couples in US who become parents

WASHINGTON (AP) -- No longer taboo, living together has become a more common arrangement for America's couples who become pregnant while dating.

Soon-to-be-released government figures show a major cultural shift since the days of "shotgun weddings" aimed at avoiding family embarrassment. With marriage on the decline, the shift is helping redefine the traditional notion of family.

"The emergence of cohabitation as an acceptable context for childbearing has changed the family-formation landscape," said Christina Gibson-Davis, a sociology professor at Duke University. "Individuals still value the idea of a two-parent family but no longer consider it necessary for the parents to be married."

Still, she cautions that children in cohabiting households may face more difficulties growing up if their unmarried parents are at higher risk of breaking up.

In all, the share of unmarried couples who opted to have "shotgun cohabitations" -- moving in together after a pregnancy -- surpassed "shotgun marriages" for the first time over the last decade, according to a forthcoming paper from the National Center for Health Statistics, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The trend was affirmed by three demographers who conducted separate research on the topic.

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Gov't report: US economy outpaced rise in health care costs for 2012 as respite continued

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Even as his health care law divided the nation, President Barack Obama's first term saw historically low growth in health costs, government experts said in a new report Monday.

The White House called it vindication of the president's health care policies, but it's too early to say if the four-year trend that continued through 2012 is a lasting turnaround that Obama can claim as part of his legacy.

For the second year in a row, the U.S. economy grew faster in 2012 than did national health care spending, according to nonpartisan economic experts at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

That's an important statistic. In most years, health care spending grows more rapidly than the economy, like bills that rise faster than your paycheck. That cost pressure steadily undermines employer insurance as well as government programs like Medicare and Medicaid. But the pattern slowed starting in 2009, and then appears to have reversed ever so slightly and tenuously.

"Have we turned the corner in a sustainable way? That's still an open question," said economist Robert Reischauer, who serves as a public trustee overseeing Medicare and Social Security financing. "But I am more optimistic than I have ever been that fundamental changes are under way." For example, even though baby boomers are joining Medicare in record numbers, that program's costs are basically stable when measured on a per-patient basis, Reischauer noted.

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Supreme Court halts same-sex marriage in Utah, putting hundreds of couples in legal limbo

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Gay couples in Utah were thrown into legal limbo Monday as the U.S. Supreme Court put a halt to same-sex marriages in the state, turning jubilation to doubt just weeks after a judge's ruling sent more than a thousand couples rushing to get married.

The justices did not rule on the merits of the case or on same-sex marriage bans in general, leaving both sides confident they'll ultimately win. The decision stays in effect while the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals considers the long-term question of whether gay couples have a right to wed in Utah.

For those couples who just got married -- or were planning their nuptials -- the latest twist in the legal battle clouds what was seen as a cause for celebration.

"It feels like we are second-class citizens during the stay," said Moudi Sbeity, who is waiting to get married until the legal process plays out. "There's also the fear of the unknown of what might come next."

Sbeity and partner Derek Kitchen are among three couples who brought the Utah lawsuit that led to the surprise Dec. 20 ruling by U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby, who said the state's ban on same-sex marriage violated gay and lesbian couples' constitutional rights.

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Iraqi leader urges residents to oust Qaida fighters to avoid battle as Iran offers help

BAGHDAD (AP) -- Iraq's prime minister urged Fallujah residents on Monday to expel al-Qaida militants to avoid an all-out battle in the besieged city, a sign that the government could be paving the way for an imminent military push in an attempt to rout hard-line Sunni insurgents challenging its territorial control over the western approaches to Baghdad.

The militants' seizure of Fallujah and parts of nearby Ramadi, once bloody battlegrounds for U.S. troops, has marked the most direct challenge to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government since the departure of American forces two years ago. Both the U.S. and its longtime rival Iran view the escalating conflict with alarm, with neither wanting to see al-Qaida take firmer root inside Iraq. Washington has ruled out sending in American troops but recently delivered dozens of Hellfire missiles to help bolster Iraqi forces.

Tehran signaled Monday that it is willing to follow suit, saying it is ready to help Iraq battle al-Qaida "terrorists" by sending military equipment and advisers should Baghdad ask for it. It is unclear whether Baghdad would take up the Iranian offer, made by Gen. Mohammad Hejazi, the Iranian Army deputy chief-of-staff, in comments to Iranian state media. He ruled out the sending of ground troops across the border.

Any direct Iranian help would exacerbate sectarian tensions fueling Iraq's conflict, as Iraqi Sunnis accuse Tehran of backing what they say are their Shiite-led government's unfair policies against them. Iran has the power to sway al-Maliki's political fortunes ahead of upcoming elections through its deep ties to Iraq's major Shiite factions, which have dominated government offices and security forces since the U.S.-led invasion toppled Iran's arch-foe Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Iraqi government troops have surrounded Fallujah, which was overrun by fighters from al-Qaida's Iraq branch last week. The city is just 40 miles (65 kilometers) west of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad. It is located in the vast Sunni-dominated and largely desert province of Anbar, which borders Syria, where al-Qaida-linked groups are among the most formidable fighters among the rebels trying to topple President Bashar Assad.

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Auburn takes surprising 21-10 lead on top-ranked Florida State at halftime of BCS title game

PASADENA, Calif. (AP) -- Nick Marshall rushed for a touchdown and threw scoring passes to Tre Mason and Melvin Ray, leading No. 2 Auburn to a surprising 21-10 lead over No. 1 Florida State at halftime Monday night in the final BCS championship game.

Mason caught a 12-yard TD screen pass in the first quarter, and Ray ran alone down the middle with a 50-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter as the underdog Tigers jumped to a stunning 18-point lead on the unbeaten Seminoles and Jameis Winston, their Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback.

Devonta Freeman had a 3-yard scoring run with 1:28 left in the half for Florida State, which hadn't trailed in any game since Sept. 28.

Winston showed some serious big-game jitters on his 20th birthday, going 6 for 15 for 62 yards with a key fumble setting up Marshall's 4-yard TD run 5:01 before halftime. The Heisman winner got rolling moments later, leading a 66-yard scoring drive, but faced plenty of work in the second half.

Marshall, Winston's relatively unheralded counterpart, looked sharp in the Auburn backfield, and SEC rushing champion Mason ran for 96 yards. Auburn was the nation's top rushing team, but coach Gus Malzahn showed the SEC champions can fling it as well while racking up 232 yards of offense in the first half.