Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Published:

The big chill spreads to the East and the Deep south; 'I didn't think the South got this cold'

ATLANTA (AP) -- Fountains froze over, a 200-foot Ferris wheel in Atlanta shut down, and Southerners had to dig out winter coats, hats and gloves they almost never have to use.

The brutal polar air that has made the Midwest shiver over the past few days spread to the East and the Deep South on Tuesday, shattering records that in some cases had stood for more than a century.

The mercury plunged into the single digits and teens from Boston and New York to Atlanta, Birmingham, Nashville and Little Rock -- places where many people don't know the first thing about extreme cold.

"I didn't think the South got this cold," said Marty Williams, a homeless man, originally from Chicago, who took shelter at a church in Atlanta, where it hit a record low of 6 degrees. "That was the main reason for me to come down from up North, from the cold, to get away from all that stuff."

The morning weather map for the eastern half of the U.S. looked like an algebra worksheet: lots of small, negative numbers. In fact, the Midwest and the East were colder than much of Antarctica.

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In coldest weather, recipe for safer roads goes beyond the usual sprinkling of salt

BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) -- A splash of beet juice, a dollop of molasses, a squeeze of cheese brine. In the coldest weather, the recipe for safer roads often goes beyond the usual sprinkling of salt.

Across the nation's snow belt, transportation officials are in the market for cheap and environmentally friendly ways to make rock salt work better by keeping it on the roads longer and melting ice at lower temperatures.

Plain salt is largely ineffective below 16 degrees. Additives can keep it working in temperatures as low as minus 25.

"This winter, it's been a godsend to be able to do that," said Leland Smithson, the ice and snow expert at the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. "It's been so cold."

In Milwaukee, road crews are experimenting with plentiful cheese brine, a leftover from cheesemaking. New York and Pennsylvania are among states trying sugar beet juice, while molasses and potato juice are flavoring roads elsewhere.

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A hint of congressional compromise: Senate sends unemployment benefits bill past first hurdle

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Election-year legislation to revive expired federal jobless benefits unexpectedly cleared an early hurdle on Tuesday, offering a hint of bipartisan compromise in Congress and a glimmer of hope to the long-term jobless and their families.

"Let's get this done," implored President Barack Obama at the White House, shortly after six Republicans sided with Democrats on a 60-37 Senate vote to keep the measure alive.

Even so, the fate of the three-month reinstatement remained uncertain in an atmosphere of intense partisanship at the dawn of an election year.

The two parties have made it clear they intend to battle for the support of millions of voters who have suffered economically through the worst recession in decades and the slow, plodding recovery that has followed.

The often-cited phrase is "income disparity" -- the gap between the rich and the economically squeezed. Democrats are expected to follow the effort on jobless benefits with another pocketbook measure, a proposal to increase the federal minimum wage.

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Supreme Court justices wary of bold action by judges weighing new technology, privacy issues

WASHINGTON (AP) -- At the Supreme Court, technology can be regarded as a necessary evil, and sometimes not even necessary.

When the justices have something to say to each other in writing, they never do it by email. Their courthouse didn't even have a photocopying machine until 1969, a few years after "Xerox" had become a verb.

So as the legal fight over the NSA's high-tech collection of telephone records moves through the court system, possibly en route to the Supreme Court, some justices already are on record as saying they should be wary about taking on major questions of technology and privacy.

As Justice Elena Kagan understated last summer, "The justices are not necessarily the most technologically sophisticated people."

The wariness shows up in rulings, too. When the court in 2010 upheld a police department's warrantless search of an officer's personal, sometimes sexually explicit messages on a government-owned pager, Justice Anthony Kennedy suggested caution. He wrote, "The judiciary risks error by elaborating too fully on the Fourth Amendment implications of emerging technology before its role in society has become clear."

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Scores of ex-NY police officers, firefighters, correction officers charged in disability scam

NEW YORK (AP) -- One retired police officer who told the government he was too psychologically damaged to work ran a martial arts studio, prosecutors said. Another claimed his depression was so crippling it kept him house-bound, but he was photographed aboard a watercraft, they said. A third man who said he was incapable of social interactions manned a cannoli stand at a street festival.

All were wrongly receiving thousands of dollars in federal disability benefits, prosecutors said Tuesday in announcing a sweeping fraud case involving scores of retired officers, firefighters and jail guards. The retirees faked psychiatric problems, authorities said, and many falsely claimed their conditions arose after the Sept. 11 attacks.

"The brazenness is shocking," Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. said.

More than 100 people were arrested, including 72 city police officers, eight firefighters, five correction officers and one Nassau County Police Department officer.

Four ringleaders coached the former workers on how to feign depression and other mental health problems that allowed them to get payouts as high as $500,000 over decades, Vance said. The ringleaders made tens of thousands of dollars in secret kickbacks, he said.

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Divergent views on Mideast, Afghanistan test Obama's war policies

WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Barack Obama is confronted with a recent burst of strength by al-Qaida that is chipping away at the remains of Mideast stability, testing his hands-off approach to conflicts in Iraq and Syria at the same time he pushes to keep thousands of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Al-Qaida-backed fighters have fought hard against other rebel groups in Syria, in a sideshow to the battle to unseat President Bashar Assad. Across the border in Iraq, they led a surprisingly strong campaign to take two of the cities that U.S. forces suffered heavy losses to protect.

This invigorated front highlights the tension between two of Obama's top foreign policy tenets: to end American involvement in Mideast wars and to eradicate insurgent extremists -- specifically al-Qaida. It also raises questions about the future U.S. role in the region if militants overtake American gains made during more than a decade of war.

In Afghanistan, Obama already has decided to continue the fight against extremists, as long as Afghan President Hamid Karzai signs off on a joint security agreement. Obama seeks to leave as many as 10,000 troops there beyond December, extending what already has become the longest U.S. war. But officials say he would be willing to withdraw completely at the end of this year if the security agreement cannot be finalized.

That would mirror the U.S. exit from Iraq, the other unpopular war Obama inherited. A spike in sectarian violence followed the U.S. withdrawal at the end of 2011, and now followed by the recent, alarming takeover of Ramadi and Fallujah by an al-Qaida affiliate known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

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US Air Force helicopter crashes in England, killing 4 crew members

LONDON (AP) -- A U.S. Air Force Pave Hawk helicopter crashed in the coastal marshes of eastern England during a training mission on Tuesday night, killing all four crew members aboard, officials said.

The helicopter crashed at about 6 p.m. local time near Salthouse on the Norfolk coast, a statement from the U.S. Air Force said. The aircraft was based at the nearby Royal Air Force station in Lakenheath, Suffolk County, which hosts USAF units and personnel.

The helicopter, assigned to the 48th Fighter Wing, was flying low at the time of the crash, the statement added.

In Washington, a U.S. defense official said the accident killed the four U.S. Air Force crew members aboard. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the crash publicly.

Local police in Norfolk County also said they believed all four crew had died. It said family members will be notified before details of the victims can be released.

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Lawmakers put finishing touches on $1.1 trillion spending bill

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Funding for implementing the new health care law and other sticking points remain, but negotiators reported significant progress Tuesday on a $1.1 trillion spending bill to fund the government through September.

"We are looking at narrowing the differences, looking at ... how we can compromise without capitulation on both sides," said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, D-Md. After a meeting of the four principal negotiators -- the top Democrats and Republicans on the House and Senate Appropriations committees -- Mikulski was cautiously optimistic of reaching agreement on the massive bill later this week in hopes of a vote next week.

"Our subcommittee chairmen have really done 90 percent of the work. We are now at 10 percent, but this last 10 percent, like in any negotiation, is the toughest," Mikulski said. A top aide accompanying Mikulski back to her office told reporters that the budgets for the Pentagon and the Commerce, Justice, Agriculture, Housing and Urban Development, Veterans Affairs and Transportation departments are "virtually wrapped up."

But the two sides remain at odds over funding to implement so-called Obamacare and a 2010 overhaul of financial regulations, and they're still sorting through more than 130 policy items known as "riders" in Washington-speak, many of which are backed by conservatives seeking to derail Obama administration environmental and labor regulations.

Among the differences is giving the administration flexibility to certify that Egypt qualifies for U.S. military aid despite a law that bans such assistance after coups, said Sen. Lindsey Graham, the top Republican on the foreign aid panel.

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Controlling tobacco has saved millions but it's 'in a league of its own' as killer: Reports

CHICAGO (AP) -- Anti-smoking measures have saved roughly 8 million U.S. lives since a landmark 1964 report linking smoking and disease, a study estimates, yet the nation's top disease detective says dozens of other countries do a better job on several efforts to cut tobacco use.

The study and comments were published online Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association. This week's issue commemorates the 50th anniversary of the surgeon general report credited with raising alarms about the dangers of smoking.

In one study, researchers used national health surveys and death rates to calculate how many deaths might have occurred since 1964 if Americans' smoking habits and related deaths had continued at a pace in place before the report.

More than 42 percent of U.S. adults smoked in years preceding the report; that rate has dropped to about 18 percent.

The researchers say their calculation -- 8 million deaths -- equals lives saved thanks to anti-smoking efforts.

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'Devastated': Ski star Lindsey Vonn, 1st US woman to win Olympic downhill gold, out of Sochi

Less than two weeks after reconstructive right knee surgery in February 2013, Lindsey Vonn already was sounding a positive note, saying she was "really looking forward to Sochi" and defending her Olympic downhill gold medal.

Along the way to the next Winter Games, though, Vonn began facing more setbacks. As she'd move past one, another would surface. In the end, it was too much, even for Vonn, the most accomplished U.S. ski racer in history. Expected to be one of the biggest stars at the upcoming Games, Vonn announced Tuesday -- exactly one month before the opening ceremony -- she won't be able to race in Russia.

In a Facebook posting, Vonn said she is "devastated" to miss the Olympics, "but the reality has sunk in that my knee is just too unstable to compete at this level."

Her personal publicist, Lewis Kay, said in a statement the 29-year-old from Vail, Colo., will have knee surgery again "shortly."

Like many in her risk-filled sport, Vonn has dealt with injuries often, particularly at major events. She withdrew midway through the 2011 world championships because of a concussion. She raced with a severely bruised shin at the last Olympics. She skipped a race at the 2009 worlds after slicing her thumb open on a champagne bottle. She hurt her knee in training and missed a pair of races at the 2007 worlds. She took a scary fall during training at the 2006 Olympics, then left the hospital to compete.