AP News in Brief at 7:58 p.m. EST

3/2/2013 6:15 PM
By Associated Press

Automatic spending cuts: Unwanted consequence of a trigger nobody liked or thought would pass

WASHINGTON (AP) — It's not the first time that government economic engineering has produced a time bomb with a short fuse.

Back in 2011, few lawmakers, if any, thought deep and indiscriminate spending cuts, totaling about $85 billion and now starting to kick in, were a smart idea.

The across-the-board cuts, set up as a last-resort trigger and based on a mechanism used in the 1980s, are a reality largely because President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, failed to find a way to stop them.

Republicans, influenced by tea party and other conservative factions, insisted on just spending cuts to narrow the deficit. Tax increases were out.

Obama and the Democratic-run Senate didn't budge from a mix of cuts and increased tax revenues.

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Rescuers end effort to find body of man swallowed by Fla. sinkhole; home to be demolished

SEFFNER, Fla. (AP) — The effort to find the body of a Florida man who was swallowed by a sinkhole under his Florida home was called off Saturday and crews planned to begin demolishing the four-bedroom house.

The 20-foot-wide opening of the sinkhole is almost completely covered by the house and rescuers feared it would collapse on them if they tried to search for Jeff Bush, 37. Crews were testing the unstable ground surrounding the home and evacuated two neighboring homes as a precaution.

Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill said heavy equipment would be brought in to begin the demolition Sunday morning.

"At this point it's really not possible to recover the body," Merrill said, later adding "we're dealing with a very unusual sinkhole."

Jessica Damico, spokeswoman for Hillsborough County Fire Rescue, said the demolition equipment would be placed on what they believe is solid ground and reach onto the property to pull apart the house. The crew will try pulling part of the house away from the sinkhole intact so some heirlooms and mementoes can be retrieved.

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Benedict's resignation: the hints were there all along, in retrospect

VATICAN CITY (AP) — Benedict XVI stunned the world when he announced Feb. 11 he would resign as pope. But in retrospect, all the signs were there, and they even accelerated in recent months. Here's a look at the hints Benedict dropped starting in 2005, his first year as pope, indicating that unlike his predecessors over 600 years, his papacy would end in retirement, not death.

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—In his first encyclical "God is Love" — published eight months after he was elected — Benedict wrote about service. "It is God who governs the world, not we. We offer him our service only to the extent that we can, and for as long as he grants us the strength."

—Five years later, in the 2010 book "Light of the World," Benedict made it more explicit, and personal. "If a pope clearly realizes that he is no longer physically, psychologically and spiritually capable of handling the duties of his office, then he has a right, and under some circumstances, also an obligation to resign."

—In March, according to the Vatican newspaper, he decided to resign after an exhausting trip to Mexico and Cuba. He told only a handful of people and the only visible sign for those in the know would come seven months later when renovations began on the monastery in the Vatican gardens where he will live.

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Chadian army chief claims troops killed al-Qaida terrorist behind Algeria plant attack

N'DJAMENA, Chad (AP) — Chad's military chief announced late Saturday that his troops deployed in northern Mali had killed Moktar Belmoktar, the terrorist who orchestrated the attack on a natural gas plant in Algeria that left 36 foreigners dead.

The French military, which is leading the offensive against al-Qaida-linked rebels in Mali, said they could not immediately confirm the information.

Local officials in Kidal, the northern town that is being used as the base for the military operation, cast doubt on the assertion, saying Chadian officials are attempting to score a PR victory to make up for the significant losses they have suffered in recent days.

Known as the "one-eyed," Belmoktar's profile soared after the mid-January attack and mass hostage-taking on a huge Algerian gas plant. His purported death comes a day after Chad's president said his troops had killed Abou Zeid, the other main al-Qaida commander operating in northern Mali.

If both deaths are confirmed, it would mean that the international intervention in Mali had succeeded in decapitating two of the pillars of al-Qaida in the Sahara.

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Karl Rove: Calif. GOP activists need to broaden outreach to voters, recruit diverse candidates

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — GOP strategist Karl Rove said Saturday that rebuilding the Republican brand in California will be a tough task that will require them to diversify and create a strategy to spread their message to a wider audience.

Referring to the state party's deep losses in recent years, Rove said it needs to focus on larger themes of restoring jobs and reducing government spending.

He also said the party must recruit candidates who reflect the diversity of the country, and in particular, California. By next year, Hispanics will overtake whites as the state's largest demographic group.

"We need to be asking for votes in the most powerful way possible, which is to have people asking for the vote who are comfortable and look like and sound like the people that we're asking for the vote from," Rove said.

His message to delegates, activists and local party officials throughout California was in line with the philosophy behind his new political action committee, the Conservative Victory Project. The committee was established to support Republican candidates it deems electable, offsetting GOP candidates who might offend key parts of the electorate.

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Kerry says Egypt's bickering sides need to create sense of 'political and economic viability'

CAIRO (AP) — Egypt's bickering government and opposition need to overcome their differences to create "a sense of political and economic viability" if the country is to thrive as a democracy, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Saturday.

He urged them to compromise for the good of the country.

In meetings with Egypt's foreign minister and opposition politicians, some of whom plan to boycott upcoming parliamentary elections, Kerry said an agreement on economic reforms to seal a $4.8 billion International Monetary Fund loan package was critical. Closing the IMF deal also will unlock significant U.S. assistance promised by President Barack Obama last year.

But Kerry's message to the liberal and secular opposition may have been blunted as only six of the 11 guests invited by the U.S. Embassy turned up to see the top American diplomat at a group meeting, and three of those six said they still intended to boycott the April polls, according to participants.

Undaunted, Kerry told reporters he had heard great passion from those who did attend and was convinced that they wanted to work in Egypt's best interests.

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Syria, Iran condemn US aid to rebels, say Assad to remain in power at least till 2014 vote

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Iran and Syria condemned a U.S. plan to assist rebels fighting to topple President Bashar Assad on Saturday and signaled the Syrian leader intends to stay in power at least until 2014 presidential elections.

The remarks came against the backdrop of a strategic victory for the regime as the military regained control over a string of villages along a key highway to open a potential supply route in Syria's heavily contested north.

The army command boasted of the achievement in a statement, saying it had eradicated the remnants of "terrorist agents and mercenaries" in the area that links the government-controlled central city of Hama with Aleppo's international airport.

The reversal of gains, confirmed by Syrian activists, has the potential to change the outcome of the battle in Aleppo, Syria's largest city where government troops and rebels have been locked in a stalemate for months.

Syrian rebels have long complained that they are hampered by the world's failure to provide heavier arms to help them battle Assad's better-equipped military. The international community is reluctant to send weapons partly because of fears they may fall into the hands of extremists who have been gaining influence among the rebels.

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Bacteria, drought, heavy crop load: It's been a disappointing year for the citrus crop in Fla.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — Florida's citrus crop has suffered huge losses this year, with fruit falling from trees and the overall forecast declining about 10 percent, but the problems shouldn't translate to a price increase at the breakfast table — yet.

Experts and growers say warm, dry weather; too much fruit on each tree; and citrus greening disease are the likely culprits.

Some say this is the year that greening — which is caused by a fast-spreading bacteria and is also known as HLB, or, in Chinese, Huanglongbing — finally translates into crop losses. Greening is spread by insects, and there is no cure. It leaves fruit sour and unusable, and eventually kills the infected tree.

"I don't think there's any doubt that we're beginning to see the effects of citrus greening on the industry," said Adam Putnam, Florida's agriculture commissioner. "This is a situation where the state's signature agricultural commodity faces an existential threat."

Most of Florida's biggest crop, Valencia oranges, is used for juice, and because of a surplus from last year, consumer prices are not expected to increase this year. But they could in the future.

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Cast comings and goings at 'Downton Abbey' announced for the British drama's 4th season

NEW YORK (AP) — Shirley MacLaine will be returning to "Downton Abbey" next season, and opera star Kiri Te Kanawa is joining the cast.

MacLaine will reprise her role as Martha Levinson, Lord Robert Crawley's freewheeling American mother-in-law, Carnival Films and "Masterpiece" on PBS said Saturday. MacLaine appeared in episodes early last season.

New Zealand-born soprano Te Kanawa will play a house guest. She will sing during her visit.

Other new cast members and characters include:

— Tom Cullen as Lord Gillingham, described as an old family friend of the Crawleys who visits the family as a guest for a house party (and who might be the one to mend Lady Mary Crawley's broken heart).

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41st Iditarod kicks off with festive ceremonial start in Anchorage

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Mushers and their dogs took a leisurely jaunt through Anchorage on Saturday in the ceremonial start of Alaska's Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

The 1,000-mile race kicked off in a festive mood as 66 teams posed with fans and sailed their sleds 11 miles on streets covered with trucked-in snow. Each sled carried an Iditarider, a fan who won the short ride at auction.

"Today is fun, with a capital F," said smiling veteran musher Aliy Zirkle, the runner-up in last year's race. "If you don't have a good time on Saturday with your dogs and all these fans, you're not in the right sport."

The event comes ahead of the real, competitive start of the race Sunday in Willow, 50 miles to the north. This is when teams leave the big crowds behind for remote terrain shared mostly with their dogs.

"Today we have fun. Tomorrow we're serious," defending champion Dallas Seavey, of Willow, said Saturday between chatting with spectators and signing autographs for fans, including Bunky Nistler of Beach, N.D.


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