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Leader pessimistic on 'fiscal cliff' talks

Monday, December 31, 2012 - Updated: 6:09 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) -- A Capitol Hill deal to avert the "fiscal cliff" was proving elusive Sunday as a deadline to avert tax hikes on virtually every American worker and block sweeping spending cuts set to strike the Pentagon and other federal agencies grew perilously near.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell remained at odds on such key issues as the income threshold for higher tax rates and how to deal with inheritance taxes, among other issues. McConnell complained that Reid had yet to respond to a GOP offer made Saturday evening and reached out to Vice President Joe Biden, a longtime friend, in hopes of breaking the impasse.

One sign of progress came as Republicans withdrew a long-discussed proposal to slow future cost-of-living increases for Social Security recipients as part of a compromise to avoid the cliff. Democrats said earlier Sunday that proposal had put a damper on the talks, and Republican senators emerging from a closed-door GOP meeting said it is no longer part of the equation.

"I was really gratified to hear that Republicans have taken their demand for Social Security benefit cuts off the table. The truth is they should never have been on the table to begin with," Reid said late Sunday afternoon. "There is still significant distance between the two sides, but negotiations continue."

At stake are sweeping tax hikes and across-the-board spending cuts set to take effect at the turn of the year. Taken together, they've been dubbed the fiscal cliff, and economists warn the one-two punch -- which leaders in both parties have said they want to avoid -- could send the still-fragile economy back into recession. Tax cuts enacted in 2001 and 2003 expire at midnight Monday, and $109 billion in across-the-board cuts in federal spending this year would also begin this week.

Obama wants gun measures passed

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Recalling the shooting rampage that killed 20 first graders as the worst day of his presidency, President Barack Obama pledged to put his "full weight" behind legislation aimed at preventing gun violence.

Obama voiced skepticism about the National Rifle Association's proposal to put armed guards in schools following the Dec. 14 tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. The president made his comments Saturday in an interview that aired Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press."

Instead, the president vowed to rally the American people around an agenda to limit gun violence, adding that he still supports increased background checks and bans on assault weapons and high-capacity bullet magazines. He left no doubt it will be one of his top priorities next year.

"It is not enough for us to say, 'This is too hard so we're not going to try,"' Obama said.

"I think there are a vast majority of responsible gun owners out there who recognize that we can't have a situation in which somebody with severe psychological problems is able to get the kind of high capacity weapons that this individual in Newtown obtained and gun down our kids," he added. "And, yes, it's going to be hard."

Afghanistan violence level falls in 2012

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- Violence in Afghanistan fell in 2012, but more Afghan troops and police who now shoulder most of the combat were killed, according to statistics compiled by The Associated Press.

At the same time, insider killings by uniformed Afghans against their foreign allies rose dramatically, eroding confidence between the two sides at a crucial turning point in the war and when NATO troops and Afghan counterparts are in more intimate contact.

"The overall situation is improving," said a NATO spokesman, U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Lester T. Carroll. He singled out Afghan special forces as "surgically removing insurgent leaders from the battle space."

Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi, spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Defense, said Afghan forces were now charged with 80 percent of security missions and were less equipped to face the most lethal weapon of the militants -- roadside bombs.

"Our forces are out there in the battlefields and combat areas more than at any other time in the past," he said, citing reasons for the spike in casualties.

9 people killed in Oregon bus crash

PENDLETON, Ore. (AP) -- A tour bus careened through a guardrail along an icy Oregon highway and several hundred feet down a steep embankment Sunday, killing nine people and injuring about 20 others, authorities said.

The charter bus carrying about 40 people lost control around 10:30 a.m. on the snow- and ice-covered lanes of Interstate 84, according to the Oregon State Police.

The bus came to rest at the bottom of a snowy slope. More than a dozen rescue workers descended the hill and used ropes to help retrieve people from the wreckage in freezing weather. The bus driver was among the survivors, but had not yet spoken to police because of the severity of the injuries the driver had suffered.

Maine landlord, 74, charged with murder

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) -- A 74-year-old Maine man was charged in the shooting deaths of two tenants inside an apartment he rented out at his home, possibly over a dispute about where they parked their cars during a snowstorm, state police said Sunday.

James Pak was arrested at about 10 p.m. Saturday following a standoff at his suburban neighborhood home in Biddeford, about 15 miles south of Portland, police said. He is charged with two counts of murder in the deaths of Derrick Thompson, 19, and Thompson's girlfriend, 18-year-old Alivia Welch.

Thompson's mother, Susan Johnson, 44, called police to report the shootings at about 7 p.m. She and her 6-year-old son also live in the apartment, which is attached to the main house where Pak lived.

     

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