Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Published:

FACT CHECK: Modest ideas from Obama, dressed up to sound grand

WASHINGTON (AP) -- It seems to be something of an occupational hazard for President Barack Obama: When he talks about his health care law, he's bound to hit a fact bump sooner or later.

So it went Tuesday night, when he declared Medicare premiums have stayed flat thanks to the law, when they've gone up. As for an even bigger theme of his State of the Union address, the president's assertion that "upward mobility has stalled" in America runs contrary to recent research, while other findings support him.

A look at some of the facts and political circumstances behind his claims, along with a glance at the Republican response to his speech:

OBAMA: "Because of this (health care) law, no American can ever again be dropped or denied coverage for a preexisting condition like asthma, back pain or cancer. No woman can ever be charged more just because she's a woman. And we did all this while adding years to Medicare's finances, keeping Medicare premiums flat, and lowering prescription costs for millions of seniors."

THE FACTS: He's right that insurers can no longer turn people down because of medical problems, and they can't charge higher premiums to women because of their sex. The law also lowered costs for seniors with high prescription drug bills. But Medicare's monthly premium for outpatient care has gone up in recent years.

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State of Union: Obama vows to flex powers, sidestep Congress if needed to narrow income gap

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Seeking to energize his sluggish second term, President Barack Obama vowed Tuesday night in his State of the Union address to sidestep Congress "whenever and wherever" necessary to narrow economic disparities between rich and poor. He unveiled an array of modest executive actions to increase the minimum wage for federal contract workers and make it easier for millions of low-income Americans to save for retirement.

"America does not stand still and neither do I," Obama declared in his prime-time address before a joint session of Congress and millions of Americans watching on television.

Draped in presidential grandeur, Obama's hour-long address served as the opening salvo in a midterm election fight for control of Congress that will quickly consume Washington's attention. Democrats, seeking to cast Republicans as uncaring about the middle class, have urged Obama to focus on economic mobility and the gap between the wealthy and poor. His emphasis on executive actions was greeted with shouts of "Do it!" from many members of his party.

Declaring 2104 a "year of action," Obama also sought to convince an increasingly skeptical public that he still wields power in Washington even if he can't crack through the divisions in Congress. Burned by a series of legislative failures in 2013, White House aides say they're now redefining success not by what Obama can jam through Congress but by what actions he can take on his own.

Indeed, Obama's proposals for action by lawmakers were slim and largely focused on old ideas that have gained little traction over the past year. He pressed Congress to revive a stalled immigration overhaul, pass an across-the-board increase in the federal minimum wage and expand access to early childhood education -- all ideas that gained little traction after he proposed them last year. The president's one new legislation proposal calls for expanding an income tax credit for workers without children.

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Republican McMorris Rodgers says Republicans looking to empower Americans, not government

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers on Tuesday offered a kinder, gentler vision of Republicans who are determined to empower Americans, not the government, and close the gap "between where you are and where you want to be."

Tapped to deliver the GOP response to President Barack Obama's State of the Union address, McMorris Rodgers touched on the daily routines of average Americans that overshadow Washington, from kissing children goodnight to preparing for a doctor's visit, and complained that Obama's policies are making life harder.

The highest-ranking Republican woman in Congress said the GOP believes "in a government that trusts people and doesn't limit where you finish because of where you started. That is what we stand for -- for an America that is every bit as compassionate as it is exceptional. Our plan is one that dreams big for everyone and turns its back on no one."

Noteworthy for a member of the Republican leadership, McMorris Rodgers expressed support for changing the nation's immigration system, though she made no mention of what to do about the estimated 11 million immigrants living in the United States illegally.

The chairwoman of the House Republican Conference focused on dealing with border security and expanding visas to attract high-tech workers.

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10 Things to Know for Wednesday

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

1. OBAMA'S CALL MAY GO UNHEEDED

There's little indication lawmakers are ready to tackle issues of economic fairness, particularly as the nation barrels toward the midterm elections.

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APNewsBreak: Number implicated in Air Force nuke missile cheating probe has doubled

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The cheating scandal inside the Air Force's nuclear missile corps is expanding, with the number of service members implicated by investigators now roughly double the 34 reported just a week ago, officials said Tuesday.

It wasn't immediately clear whether the additional 30-plus airmen suspected of being involved in cheating on proficiency tests are alleged to have participated in the cheating directly or were involved indirectly.

Regardless, a doubling of the number implicated means that approximately 14 percent of the entire Air Force cadre of nuclear missile launch control officers, which numbers about 500, has been removed at least temporarily from active missile duty. It was not clear Tuesday how that affects the mission, beyond requiring the remaining crew members to bear a bigger share of the work.

The officials who disclosed the higher number cheating suspects spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose the information by name while the investigation is ongoing.

The Air Force announced on Jan. 15 that while it was investigating possible criminal drug use by some airmen, it discovered that one missile officer at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont., had shared test questions with 16 other officers. It said another 17 admitted to knowing about this cheating but did not report it.

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Mexican government takes risky gamble with plan to legalize anti-cartel vigilante movement

MEXICO CITY (AP) -- After months of tacit cooperation with rural vigilantes trying to drive out a cult-like drug cartel, the Mexican government is seeking to permanently solve one of its toughest security problems with a plan to legalize the growing movement and bring it under the army's control.

But the risks are high.

To succeed, the government must enforce military discipline and instill respect for human rights and due process among more than 20,000 heavily armed civilians, then eventually disband them and send them back home in the western state of Michoacan.

In other Latin American countries, similar experiments have created state-backed militias that carried out widespread human rights abuses as armed civilians turned to vengeance, or assisted in mass killings. The Mexican army itself has been accused of rights abuses during the more than seven-year war against organized crime that has seen it deployed as a police force in much of the country.

Vigilante leaders met Tuesday with government officials to hash out details of the agreement that would put avocado and lime pickers with AR-15 semi-automatic rifles under army command. The Mexican military has a century-old tradition of mobilizing "rural defense corps" manned by peasants to fight bandits and uprisings in the countryside.

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Winter storm socks the Deep South with snow, ice; students stranded in Ala. Schools

ATLANTA (AP) -- The mad rush began at the first sight of snow: Across the Atlanta area, schools let out early and commuters left for home after lunch, instantly creating gridlock so severe that security guards and doormen took to the streets to direct cars amid a cacophony of blaring horns.

Georgia State University student Alex Tracy looked on with amusement.

"My family is from up north and we're used to driving in the snow and stuff, and seeing everyone freak out, sliding and stuff, it's pretty funny," Tracy said.

Mary McEneaney was not as amused with her commute from a fundraising job at Georgia Tech in Midtown Atlanta to her home about five miles away -- normally a 20 to 40-minute drive, depending on traffic. On Tuesday, it took her 40 minutes to move just three blocks. She made it home three hours later.

"I had to stop and go to the bathroom at the hotel," she said. "At that rate I knew I wasn't going to make it until I got home."

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Ukraine PM resigns, parliament overturns harsh anti-protest laws in effort to defuse crisis

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) -- In back-to-back moves aimed at defusing Ukraine's political crisis, the prime minister resigned Tuesday and parliament repealed anti-protest laws that had set off violent clashes between protesters and police.

The two developments were significant concessions to the anti-government protesters who have fought sporadically with police for the last 10 days after two months of peaceful around-the-clock demonstrations.

The protests erupted after President Viktor Yanukovych turned toward Russia for a bailout loan instead of signing a deal with the European Union and have since morphed into a general plea for more human rights, less corruption and more democracy in this nation of 45 million.

The departure of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov removes one of the officials most disliked by the opposition forces whose protests have turned parts of Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, into a barricaded maze.

However, Azarov's spokesman told the Interfax news agency that another staunch Yanukovych ally, deputy Prime Minister Serhiy Arbuzov, will assume temporary leadership of the Cabinet, a move that is unlikely to please the opposition.

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Mexico's salamander-like axolotl, the 'water monster,' may have disappeared, experts worry

MEXICO CITY (AP) -- Mexico's salamander-like axolotl may have disappeared from its only known natural habitat in Mexico City's few remaining lakes.

It's disturbing news for an admittedly ugly creature, which has a slimy tail, plumage-like gills and mouth that curls into an odd smile.

The axolotl is known as the "water monster" and the "Mexican walking fish." Its only natural habitat is the Xochimilco network of lakes and canals -- the "floating gardens" of earth piled on reed mats that the Aztecs built to grow crops but are now suffering from pollution and urban sprawl.

Biologist Armando Tovar Garza of Mexico's National Autonomous University said Tuesday that the creature "is in serious risk of disappearing" from the wild.

Describing an effort last year by researchers in skiffs to try to net axolotls in the shallow, muddy waters of Xochimilco, Tovar Garza summed up the results as "four months of sampling -- zero axolotls."

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Super Bowl Media Day brings some zany characters to an unusual venue

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) -- Internet star Lil Terrio danced with cheerleaders, an Austrian man dressed as Mozart, another guy wore a Waldo costume and Nickelodeon's Pick Boy was in the house.

Welcome to Media Day, the annual Super Bowl circus.

It seems fitting this event was held at a hockey rink, of all places, because there's nothing ordinary about it. More than 6,000 journalists, pseudo-journalists and other credentialed "media" from all over the world gathered at the home of the NHL's New Jersey Devils on Tuesday to meet the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks.

Strange questions were the norm instead of football ones. A man asked Seahawks center Max Unger if he could touch his long, scruffy beard. He said yes. A woman asked Seahawks defensive lineman Brandon Mebane for a kiss. He said no.

Perhaps the only player who felt at home was Seattle tight end Luke Willson. He grew up in Canada, played hockey through his sophomore year of high school and was genuinely psyched to be in an NHL arena.