Danica brings new eyes to NASCAR and Daytona 500

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — The big boys brought their little girls to see NASCAR's shining star.

Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson all took their daughters to meet Danica Patrick this week at Daytona International Speedway.

It was the ultimate backstage pass.

Patrick dropped to one knee, wrapped her right arm around Ella Gordon's waist and posed for pictures as the 5-year-old flashed an endless smile in Victory Lane last week. Every day since, Patrick's crew has handed out dozens and dozens of lugnuts to little girls clamoring for souvenirs. Annie Edwards wore GoDaddy green shoes for the special occasion. Evie Johnson recognizes only two cars, her Dad said — his and the green one.

"Carl was saying it's good that she sees me in real life and in person because 'To her, you are like some mythical creature that doesn't exist,' " Patrick said. "Then after qualifying, Jimmie Johnson brought his little girl over. That's three pretty big drivers who have little girls that wanted to meet me."

Danicamania is in full bloom at Daytona — and with a brand new audience.

The first woman in history to earn the top starting spot in a race at NASCAR's elite Sprint Cup Series, Patrick will bring new eyeballs to Sunday's season-opening Daytona 500. She'll lure in casual sports fans, women who don't know a muffler from a manifold, and little girls in awe of the glamorous driver and her fast green car.

It's an ambassador role Patrick has played since her 2005 debut at the Indianapolis 500, where she became the first woman to lead laps in the biggest race in the world. But it's so much more now.

"You can only lead by example and I don't necessarily want my example to step outside the box and be a girl in a guy's world. That's not what I am trying to say," Patrick said. "But if you have a talent for something, do not be afraid to follow through with it and not feel different. Do not feel like you are less qualified or less competent to be able to do the job because you are different. Ignore that and let it be about what your potential is."

And right now, she believes her potential is to win "The Great American Race."

Patrick starts first on Sunday, next to four-time champion Gordon, and after running 32 laps in Friday's practice and mixing it up with NASCAR's biggest stars, she was more convinced than ever that she can be a player in the race.

"Can I win? Yeah. Absolutely," Patrick said. "I feel comfortable in this kind of race situation. I feel comfortable in the draft. I feel comfortable that the speeds are not a problem. I know I am inexperienced. I know I am rookie out there. I will do the best job I can to win. I do believe I have a chance to win. I do believe experience would help, but that doesn't mean I don't have a chance to win."

Crew chief Tony Gibson was even more convinced he's got a winner for Sunday. He was part of Derrike Cope's improbable 1990 victory, when Cope inherited the win when the late Dale Earnhardt blew a tire on the final lap.

" She has got the talent," Gibson said. "She's already proven in the Nationwide Series, from what I've seen on the speedway stuff, she definitely gets the respect. People know she's fast. She can draft. She knows how the air works. She gets a lot of that from IndyCar. So I have 100 percent confidence she can win the Daytona 500.

"I remember Derrike Cope, nobody gave him a chance, either, but I saw him in Victory Lane. I know it can be done."

But the Daytona 500 is a pressure-packed race unlike anything except the Indy 500. Some of the best drivers never win it — it took seven-time champion Earnhardt 20 tries to finally get his lone win — and Tony Stewart, Patrick's teammate and car owner, goes into Sunday's race seeking his first victory in 15 tries.

He's been quiet all week, except, of course, for the nine-car accident he started in an exhibition race last weekend. He lamented afterward, "That is why I haven't won a Daytona 500 yet. I'm not quite sure exactly which move to make."

Don't be fooled, though, by the three-time NASCAR champion. Stewart might just like being out of the spotlight as he heads into one of the few races missing from his resume, and being the favorite for the 500 has never worked out for him before.

He wrapped up his practice with one final run Friday to test his race engine and wound up on top of the speed chart. It was Stewart's intention to sit out Saturday's final day of practice.

"I'm excited we've made it through the whole week without a scratch on the car," he said. "We are as ready as you can get for the 500. I feel like we've got a car capable of winning the race. It's just a matter of whether the driver does a good job with the steering wheel."

The title of favorite this year goes to Kevin Harvick, who has two wins in two races so far at Speedweeks. The driver has dominated in his Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet, led 63 of a possible 135 laps and didn't even bother to take the cover off his car in Friday's two practice sessions.

Harvick, the 2007 race winner, has come into the year with both focus and some inner peace after a pair of life-changing moments. His first child, son Keelan, was born after last July's race at Daytona. Then, in November, Harvick made the difficult decision to leave RCR after his 13th season with the organization that brought him into NASCAR and gave him his Cup ride the week after Earnhardt was killed in the 2001 Daytona 500.

He'll drive for Stewart next season at Stewart-Haas Racing, but is determined to make this last year with RCR count.

"Everybody is just working toward the same goal, that's winning the races," Harvick said. "We have to be professional anyway, whether it's lame duck or not. You can call it whatever you want. We're going to have a helluva lot of fun racing, having a good time, doing our jobs."

The 500 will be the first with a full 43-car field racing NASCAR's new Gen-6 car, which was designed all last season with input from teams, drivers and the manufacturers.

Part of the intent was to design a car that more closely resembled what the automakers sell in the showrooms, and NASCAR succeeded in that area. But NASCAR also needed a car that produced better on-track racing, and the verdict is not in yet.

There are a lot of unknowns with the Gen-6 heading into Sunday, partly because drivers spent Speedweeks learning as much as they can about how it handles on the track. All three races so far have been largely uneventful, resembling something closer to a long parade rather than a high-speed spectacle.

If not for Kyle Busch's win in a Toyota in the second of Thursday's twin qualifying races, it would so far be a Chevrolet rout with Harvick taking the new SS to Victory Lane twice and Patrick winning the pole in her Chevy.

All bets could be off on Sunday, Busch warned.

"It might be we all ran single file because we were scared to run side-by-side," Busch said after Thursday's win. "I don't know. I was ready to put on a show, but I didn't have enough people around me to make one happen."

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Charges filed in slaying of Clemente High School student

Authorities filed charges against a 34-year-old man in connection with the shooting death of an 18-year-old Clemente High School student killed on the West Side last week.

Larry Luellen Jr., 34, was charged with first degree murder in the death of Frances Colon. Luellen is due in court today.

Luellen lives in the 3900 block of West Division Street in West Humboldt Park, around the corner from where Colon was shot. Police don't believe she was the target.

Colon is the third student at Roberto Clemente to be killed this school year, according to the school's principal Marcey Sorensen.

Rey Dorantes, 14, of the 2400 block of West Augusta Boulevard, was shot and killed on Jan. 11. His death came about a month after another Clemente student, 16-year-old Jeffrey Stewart, of the 5200 block of West Race Avenue, was shot and killed on Dec. 9.

Colon was a senior who was preparing to attend college. Hours before the shooting, she had watched President Barack Obama speak at Hyde Park Academy on the South Side about gun violence, according to her father.

Check back for more information.

Twitter: @peternickeas

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UK downgrade pressures reluctant Osborne to change course

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain's finance minister insisted on Saturday he would not change course after the loss of the country's 'AAA' credit rating but George Osborne is facing pressure to do just that as his bet on austerity falters ahead of the 2015 election.

Moody's dealt Britain its first sovereign rating downgrade on Friday, saying the $2.5 trillion economy faced years more sluggish growth and debt would continue to rise until 2016.

Economically the one-notch cut will have limited importance -- most of Europe, Japan and the United States have already suffered the same fate and Britain continues to borrow at historically low rates.

But politically it is toxic for Osborne who has repeatedly vowed to protect the top credit rating since the 2010 election campaign. The downgrade exposes him to opponents who say his failure to deliver economic growth is driving Prime Minister David Cameron towards electoral defeat.

Osborne said on Saturday the move by Moody's showed he was right to focus on restoring Britain to fiscal health, arguing that only by doing that will the conditions for growth be restored.

"I am absolutely determined to make sure we deal with our problems, to make sure that Britain stays the course, to make sure that it doesn't take from this credit rating the wrong message which is we should go and borrow a lot more," the 41-year-old Chancellor of the Exchequer said.

"I'm absolutely clear we're not going to do that."

For investors, the downgrade underscores Britain's predicament: a debt-ridden, stagnating economy which has kept bond yields low in large part thanks to the Bank of England becoming the world's biggest investor in UK government debt by buying it with newly printed money.

"Osborne no longer has any place to hide or anyone to blame," said David Blanchflower, who served on the Bank of England's interest rate setting committee from 2006 to 2009.

He said the minister should "stand up, be a man and accept responsibility for the worst recovery in 100 years" and, in a message on Twitter, suggested a swift cut to value-added tax, a labor tax holiday for workers under 25 and incentives for investment and hiring to kick start growth.

Osborne can take comfort from Moody's confidence that his austerity plan would eventually "reverse the UK's debt trajectory".

A Treasury official noted Moody's had given the UK's credit rating a stable outlook, meaning little chance of a further downgrade in the next 12-18 months. When the United States and France were downgraded, their outlooks remained negative.

But whether growth will return forcefully long enough before the 2015 election to allow voters to appreciate it is now highly uncertain.

Sterling fell by almost a cent to around $1.5160 after the downgrade, just off Thursday's fresh 2-1/2-year low. Analysts said they expected it to fall further on Monday.

Some of the Conservatives' Liberal Democrat coalition partners questioned the political judgment of attaching so much importance to Britain's AAA rating.

"This is a self-inflicted injury for George Osborne," said Matthew Oakeshott, a former Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman. "To be fair, he was very green in 2009 ... He foolishly erected triple-A status as a virility symbol."


Cameron, who led his Conservative Party back to office as part of a coalition government after 13 years out of power, risks another year of stagnation and giving his opponents and open goal to aim at.

The Labor Party - which left the biggest peacetime deficit when it lost the 2010 election - called for Osborne's head.

"The medicine is not working so the Chancellor says increase the dose - that's crazy economics. It is like an 18th-century doctor bleeding a patient as they get sicker and sicker," said Ed Balls, the party's main spokesman on finance issues.

But people close to Britain's most powerful two politicians say they are completely aligned. Osborne led Cameron's bid for leadership of the Conservatives and ran the 2010 election campaign. There is little or no chance of him being sacrificed or being forced into a humiliating policy U-turn which would wreck his career.

"Osborne has lots of critics, both inside and outside the party, who are now going to be emboldened by this, but there is no coherent alternative," said Tim Montgomerie, editor of the influential ConservativeHome website.

Though Labor is about 10 percentage points ahead of Conservative Party in polls, surveys show voters trust Cameron and Osborne more than Labor's leader Ed Miliband.


Osborne originally gambled that by slashing spending, growth rates of between 2 and 3 percent would kick in from 2013.

But with Britain's banks still recovering from the financial crisis and many of its main trading partners in Europe stuck in recession, his debt targets will be missed. His room for more spending is limited as he tries to avoid pushing up yields on Britain's 1.29 trillion pounds ($1.97 trillion) of debt.

With government spending so restricted, many investors' hopes lie with the Bank of England. Its governor, Mervyn King, this month voted to restart government-bond buying. Although in the minority, his change of heart suggested the bank may be closer than expected to pursuing more stimulus.

If Osborne slows his debt reduction plans, he could upset bond investors and throw his deficit targets further off course.

"We should stick to the plan," said Kwasi Kwarteng, a Conservative lawmaker. "The prime minister would not want to be seen to be panicking, and he's committed to keeping George Osborne where he is."

"But we do also need to look at growth," said Kwarteng, who suggested cutting corporation tax and red tape.

Business lobby the Confederation of British Industry has called for more investment on infrastructure and housing to be funded by more cuts in day-to-day spending. It also expects the government to guarantee more private-sector projects.

Osborne has a chance in his annual budget next month to deliver such tweaks to policy. ($1 = 0.6551 British pounds)

(Additional reporting by Mohammed Abbas and William Schomberg. Editing by Mike Peacock)

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HP lifts Wall Street, S&P on pace for first weekly loss of year

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Stocks rose on Friday, rebounding off two days of losses as Dow component Hewlett-Packard surged on strong results, but the S&P 500 was on track to end a seven-week-long streak of gains.

The S&P shed 1.9 percent over the previous two sessions, its worst two-day drop since early November, putting the index on pace for its first weekly decline of the year. The retreat was triggered when the Federal Reserve's meeting minutes for January suggested stimulus measures may be halted sooner than thought.

Still, the index is up nearly 6 percent for the year and held the 1,500 support level despite the recent declines, a sign of a positive bias in the market.

"The market is addicted to Fed stimulus and gets withdrawal shakes every time that's threatened, but now we're resuming our course and remain much more attractively valued than other asset classes," said Rex Macey, chief investment officer at Wilmington Trust in Atlanta, Georgia.

Hewlett-Packard Co jumped 9.6 percent to $18.74 as the top boost on both the Dow and S&P 500 after the PC maker's quarterly revenue and forecasts beat expectations. The company cut costs under Chief Executive Meg Whitman's turnaround plan. The S&P technology sector <.splrct> was up 0.8 percent.

The Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> was up 69.41 points, or 0.50 percent, at 13,950.03. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.spx> was up 7.74 points, or 0.52 percent, at 1,510.16. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.ixic> was up 18.26 points, or 0.58 percent, at 3,149.75.

For the week, the Dow is off 0.2 percent in its third straight week of slight losses, the S&P is off 0.6 percent and the Nasdaq is off 1.3 percent.

Also buoying tech stocks were gains in semiconductor companies after Marvell Technology Group Ltd forecast results this quarter that were largely above analysts' expectations. Marvell gained market share in the hard-disk drive and flash-storage businesses. The stock rose 2.5 percent to $9.71.

In addition, Texas Instruments Inc raised its dividend by a third and boosted its stock buyback program, lifting shares 5.1 percent to $34.16 while the PHLX semiconductor index <.sox> gained 1.8 percent.

"Dividends growing are another way the market's level is justified, if not especially attractive at these levels," said Macey, who manages about $20 billion in assets.

On the downside, Abercrombie & Fitch dropped 7.6 percent to $45.34 after the clothing retailer reported a drop in fourth-quarter comparable sales, even as its latest quarterly earnings topped estimates.

Insurer American International Group Inc posted fourth-quarter results that beat analysts' expectations. Shares advanced 3 percent to $38.43.

According to Thomson Reuters data through Friday morning, of 439 companies in the S&P 500 that have reported results, 70 percent have exceeded analysts' expectations, compared with a 62 percent average since 1994 and 65 percent over the past four quarters.

Fourth-quarter earnings for S&P 500 companies are estimated to have risen 6 percent, according to the data, above a 1.9 percent forecast at the start of the earnings season.

(Editing by Kenneth Barry)

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Armstrong lawyers: Justice Dept joining fraud suit

WASHINGTON (AP) — Lawyers for Lance Armstrong say the Justice Department has joined a lawsuit against the cyclist. The lawsuit alleges the former Tour de France champion concealed his use of performance-enhancing drugs for over a decade and defrauded his long-time sponsor, the U.S. Postal Service.

The suit the Justice Department is joining was filed in 2010 by former teammate Floyd Landis, who was stripped of his 2006 Tour de France title for doping.

An Armstrong lawyer, Robert Luskin, said Friday that negotiations with the government failed because "we disagree about whether the postal service was damaged."

Said Luskin: "The postal service's own studies show that the service benefited tremendously from its sponsorship — benefits totaling more than $100 million."

The Landis lawsuit was filed under seal, but it will be unsealed now.

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Nigerian offshore attacks surge as pirates advance

ABUJA/LONDON (Reuters) – A spike in piracy off Nigeria‘s oil-rich coast has shown gangs are willing to venture further afield and use more violent tactics, increasing the risk of doing business in Africa’s largest energy producer.

Pirates demanded a 200 million naira ransom for the release of six foreigners kidnapped on Sunday, the latest in at least five attacks in Nigerian waters this month.

Exxon Mobil and Shell officials said this week that security was a major factor in Nigeria, and it was one of the most expensive oil-producing countries to operate in.

“The recent upsurge in maritime kidnaps off the Niger Delta … has not been witnessed since 2010,” said Tom Patterson, maritime risk analyst at Control Risks.

“It is easy to underestimate the debilitating effect such a situation can have, even on larger corporations,” Patterson added.

Oil and shipping companies have to hire crisis management teams, pay huge insurance premiums and face the prospect of ransom payments, as well as brace themselves for damage to their reputations.

At the same time, pirates are becoming more ambitious.

Three crew members were kidnapped on February 7 from the British-flagged cargo ship, Esther C, around 80 miles offshore, the furthest pirates have reached in the Gulf of Guinea.

Gunmen killed a Filipino crew member when they attacked a chemical tanker three days earlier, in the first confirmed case in Nigerian waters of crew being killed on a vessel that deployed a private armed team, maritime risk experts AKE said.


The prime suspects for most attacks are Nigerian oil gangs, who already carry out industrial scale crude theft, called ‘bunkering’ in the restive onshore Niger Delta swamplands.

Nigeria’s oil minister said this week that oil theft, which can amount to 150,000 barrels per day (bpd), was the work of an international criminal syndicate. President Goodluck Jonathan has reached out to Britain for help.

Security experts also believe Nigerian security officials and politicians are complicit in oil theft and piracy.

“There are many top people in Nigeria involved in commissioning these attacks and sharing the profits,” said Michael Frodl, head of U.S. consultancy C-Level Maritime Risks.

“It’s obvious to us that they’ve been bringing in people in other nations into the game, and sharing a cut in exchange for tips for tankers and cargoes.”

Compounding the problem, there is less fuel available in Nigeria since Jonathan reduced subsidies last year, which has forced prices to rise. This has provided an added incentive for gangs to locally refine stolen oil or siphon fuel off ships they attack, experts say.

The rise in pirate attacks comes as Nigerian forces have been more stretched in the last two years due to an Islamist insurgency in the Muslim north.

“There is a sense that security resources are being focused to combat the terrorist threat in the north of the country,” said Rory Lamrock, analyst with security firm AKE.

“We’re likely to see further attacks over the coming months as local authorities are unable to effectively police the waters, especially up to 50 or 60 nautical miles off the coast.”

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Can Bersani-Monti work for Italy?

Austerity-hit Italy chooses new leader

Austerity-hit Italy chooses new leader

Austerity-hit Italy chooses new leader

Austerity-hit Italy chooses new leader


  • Bersani wins he may be forced to form a coalition with incumbent PM Mario Monti

  • Center-left leader Bersani says he plans to make the property tax "more progressive"

  • Berlusconi is using his showman charm to mount a comeback for his PDL party

London (CNN) -- Italy's electoral run-off between an ex-communist and a former cruise ship singer threatens to throw the country back into the spotlight of the European debt crisis.

The enigmatic leader of the center-left Democratic Party, Pier Luigi Bersani, goes head-to-head with scandal-laden former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi -- back from the political grave following his resignation in November 2011.

Incumbent technocrat premier and eurozone darling Mario Monti, meanwhile, is lagging behind in the polls.

The cigar-chomping Bersani is favorite for Italy's top job and proposes to steer the country's battered economy through a debt crisis that is still plaguing the eurozone three years on.

Following six consecutive quarters of recession and with unemployment at 11.2%, Bersani is pursuing the euro area's latest fad to revive Italy's ailing economy; a pro-growth agenda.

Read more: Can the anti-Berlusconi pull Italy out of the mire?

Such policies are a stark contrast to Monti's cocktail of cuts and taxes served up to woo policymakers in Brussels and Frankfurt.

Read more: Berlusconi renaissance would be 'disaster' for Italian economy

Growth will be the "golden rule" to attract foreign investment, according to Democratic Party number two Enrico Letta. A similar sentiment was key in sweeping socialist French President Francois Hollande into the Elysee Palace in 2012.

But Letta stresses that Bersani will not follow Hollande's lead by proposing a 75% income tax for the country's wealthiest residents.

Read more: Beppe Grillo: Clown prince of Italian politics

Speaking to CNN, Letta said: "It will be different, we already have a very high level of taxation...the main point is not to increase taxes."

Bersani -- who promises to stick to the outgoing government's plans for pension and labor market reform -- will also keep Monti's reviled property tax, known as IMU. It's a policy that Berlusconi pledges to scrap if elected.

In an interview with CNN, Bersani says he plans to make the tax "more progressive" and focus on the owners of large properties if his party wins.

But for all Bersani's talk of change, bond strategist Nicholas Spiro dismisses the 71-year-old as no reformer and says he is "not up to the task" of hauling the Italian economy out of a "knee deep" recession.

Spiro, managing director of Spiro Sovereign Strategy, says "Bersani could very well go for taxes on the rich, but Italy has a massive tax evasion and compliance problem, that could be difficult."

Can a political marriage survive?

Politics in Italy is complicated and outright victory for any party is unlikely. If Bersani wins he may be forced to form a coalition.

An alliance with the flamboyant center-right leader Silvio Berlusconi is unthinkable -- which leaves Monti the most likely candidate to support a Bersani-lead government.

But Monti is viewed with suspicion Bersani's far-left partners, Left Ecology Freedom, who believe the technocrat would pull a left government too far to the economic right.

If the parties can strike a deal Monti would be offered "an important role" to be discussed "Monday afternoon," Letta told CNN. He refused to say if the technocrat would be appointed finance minister.

Monti, a former European Commissioner in financial services, wields the power to reassure European leaders that Italy is on the right track and can act as a counterbalance to a leftist government.

Bersani, by contrast, is a mystery on the international stage, according to Paola Subacchi, an economist at London-based think tank Chatham House.

"He is not known abroad and he doesn't speak English... But his whole agenda is pro-Europe and pro-euro."

A Bersani-Monti marriage is unlikely to be smooth. The two could clash over unpopular austerity measures implemented by Monti as part of a European agreement.

Filippo Cavazzuti, former Italian senator and economist at the University of Bologna, believes Bersani will be forced to maintain Monti's policies under the European fiscal compact.

He said: "Otherwise Monti leaves [the coalition], the spread [on bond yields] rises and the credibility with the eurozone will immediately disappear."

A coalition agreement is crucial to stifling a power-grab by Italy's political bad boy, Berlusconi, is gaining on Bersani's seemingly unassailable lead in the polls.

Berlusconi is using his showman charm to mount a comeback for his People of Freedom party and holds key regions in Veneto and Lombardy that could prove crucial, particularly in the battle for the Senate.

The election will hand down a "damning verdict" to the policymakers of northern Europe that Italians are fed up with austerity, according to Spiro.

The electoral campaign, Spiro added, has been: "Very ugly, devoid of substance and purely based on personalities."

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Court to Madigan: No rehearing on concealed-carry guns ruling

SPRINGFIELD — A divided federal appeals court today rejected Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s request for a rehearing on the case where the state has been ordered to allow citizens to carry guns in public.

Madigan made the request following the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals decision in December that gave Illinois 180 days to put together a law that would allow concealed weapons in Illinois.

There has been no word yet from Madigan’s office on her next move. She could choose to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court or decide to let the ruling stand.

The appeals court action officially rejected Madigan’s request for a rehearing by the full court, but the denial came with a stinging dissent from four of the nine members of the appeals court who reviewed the matter. The original order came down from a three-member panel that also had a split vote.

The arguments made in the dissent, written by Judge David Hamilton, could bolster Madigan’s cause if she appeals to the nation’s high court.

“The Supreme Court has not yet decided whether .. the individual right to keep and bear arms at home under the Second Amendment extends beyond the home,” Hamilton wrote.

Illinois is the only state in the nation that does not allow citizens to carry weapons in public in some form.

Hamilton’s dissent also noted the ruling that called for Illinois to allow concealed carry is the “first decision by a federal court of appeals striking down legislation restricting the carrying of arms in public.”

He wrote that three major points are worthy of consideration by the full appellate court rather than simply the three-member panel:

*Whether to extend the right to bear arms outside the home and into the public sphere, a matter that “presents issues very different from those involved in the home itself, which is all the Supreme Court decided” in a case currently viewed as the law of the land.

*How to handle what the panel did not decide. The three-member panel left Illinois a “good deal of constitutional room for reasonable public safety measures concerning public carrying of firearms.”

*How to proceed in future decisions about laws that are more narrowly tailored and any state interests that justify some restrictions on rights.

“Where the law is genuinely in doubt, as it is likely to remain for some time under the Second Amendment, a trial court can do a great service by ensuring the development of a thorough and complete record that provides a reliable, accurate factual foundation for constitutional adjudication,” Hamilton wrote. “The federal courts are likely to do a better job of constitutional adjudication if our considerations are based on reliable facts rather than hypothesized and assumed facts.”

You can read the opinion HERE.


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South Africa's Pistorius goes free on $113,000 bail

PRETORIA (Reuters) - A South African court granted bail on Friday to Oscar Pistorius, charged with the murder of his girlfriend on Valentine's Day, after his lawyers successfully argued the "Blade Runner" was too famous to flee justice.

The decision by Magistrate Desmond Nair drew cheers from the Paralympics star's family and supporters. Pistorius himself was unmoved, in marked contrast to the week-long hearing, when he repeatedly broke down in tears.

Nair set bail at 1 million rand ($113,000) and postponed the case until June 4. Pistorius would be released only when the court received 100,000 rand in cash, he added.

Less than an hour later, a silver Land Rover left the court compound, Pistorius visible through the tinted windows sitting in the back seat in the dark suit and tie he wore in court.

The car then sped off through the streets of the capital, pursued by members of the media on motorcycles, before it entered his uncle Arnold's home in the plush Pretoria suburb of Waterkloof.

At least five private security guards stood outside the concrete walls, keeping reporters at bay.

Under the terms of his bail, Pistorius, 26, was also ordered to hand over firearms and his two South African passports, avoid his home and all witnesses, report to a police station twice a week and abstain from drinking alcohol.

The decision followed a week of dramatic testimony about how the athlete shot dead model and law graduate Reeva Steenkamp at his luxury home near Pretoria in the early hours of February 14.

Prosecutors said Pistorius committed premeditated murder when he fired four shots into a locked toilet door, hitting his girlfriend cowering on the other side. Steenkamp, 29, suffered gunshot wounds to her head, hip and arm.

Pistorius said the killing was a tragic mistake, saying he had mistaken Steenkamp for an intruder - a possibility in crime-ridden South Africa - and opened fire in a blind panic.

However, in delivering his nearly two-hour bail ruling, Nair said there were a number of "improbabilities" in Pistorius's version of events, read out to the court in an affidavit by his lawyer, Barry Roux.

"I have difficulty in appreciating why the accused would not seek to ascertain who exactly was in the toilet," Nair said. "I also have difficulty in appreciating why the deceased would not have screamed back from the toilet."

By local standards, the bail conditions are onerous but it remains to be seen if they appease opposition to the decision from groups campaigning against the violence against women that is endemic in South Africa.

"We are saddened because women are being killed in this country," said Jacqui Mofokeng, a spokeswoman for the ruling African National Congress' Women's League, whose members stood outside the court this week with banners saying "Rot in jail".


However, Nair said he made his decision in the "interests of justice" and argued that the prosecution, who suffered a setback when the lead investigator withered under cross-examination by Roux, failed to show Pistorius was either a flight risk or a threat to the public.

Roux stressed the Olympic and Paralympics runner's global fame made it impossible for him to evade justice by skipping bail and leaving the country.

"He can never go anywhere unnoticed," Roux told the court.

Pistorius, whose lower legs were amputated in infancy forcing him to race on carbon fiber "blades", faces life in prison if convicted of premeditated murder.

Prosecutors had portrayed him as a cold-blooded killer and said they were confident that their case, which will have to rely heavily on forensics and witnesses who said they heard shouting before the shots, would stand up to scrutiny at trial.

"We are going to make sure that we get enough evidence to get through this case during trial time," a spokesman for the National Prosecuting Authority told reporters.

In court, lead prosecutor Gerrie Nel was scornful of Pistorius's inability to contain his emotions. "I shoot and I think my career is over and I cry. I come to court and I cry because I feel sorry for myself," Nel said.


In his affidavit, Pistorius said he was "deeply in love" with Steenkamp, leading Roux to stress his client had no motive for the killing.

Pistorius contends he reached for a 9-mm pistol under his bed because he felt particularly vulnerable without his prosthetic limbs.

According to police, witnesses heard shouting, gunshots and screams from the athlete's home, which sits in the heart of a gated community surrounded by 3-m- (yard-) high stone walls topped with an electric fence.

In a magazine interview a week before her death, published on Friday, Steenkamp spoke about her three-month relationship with the runner, who won global fame last year when he reached the semi-final of the 400 meters in the London Olympics despite having no lower legs.

"I absolutely adore Oscar. I respect and admire him so much," she told celebrity gossip magazine Heat. "I don't want anything to come in the way of his career."

Police pulled their lead detective off the case on Thursday after it was revealed he himself faces attempted murder charges for shooting at a minibus. He has been replaced by South Africa's top detective.

Pistorius's arrest stunned the millions around the world who saw him as an inspiring example of triumph over adversity.

But the impact was greatest in South Africa, where he was seen as a rare hero for both blacks and whites, transcending the racial divides that persist 19 years after the end of apartheid.

(Writing by Ed Cropley; Editing by Michael Roddy)

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Wall Street extends losses, Nasdaq down 1 percent

DEAR ABBY: My boyfriend, "Doug" (24), and I (22) have been in a long-distance relationship for a year, but we were friends for a couple of years before that. I had never had a serious relationship before and lacked experience. Doug has not only been in two other long-term relationships, but has had sex with more than 15 women. One of them is an amateur porn actress.I knew about this, but it didn't bother me until recently. Doug had a party, and while he was drunk he told one of his buddies -- in front of me -- that he should watch a certain porn film starring his ex-girlfriend. ...
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Top detective appointed new Pistorius investigator

PRETORIA, South Africa (AP) — South Africa's top detective was appointed lead investigator in the Oscar Pistorius case Thursday, replacing a veteran policeman who was charged with attempted murder in the latest shock development to hit a case being watched closely by the nation.

National Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega promised that a team of "highly skilled and experienced" officers would investigate the killing of Pistorius' 29-year-old girlfriend. Pistorius, 26, has been charged with premeditated murder in the case.

The decision to put police Lt. Gen. Vinesh Moonoo in charge came soon after word emerged that the initial chief investigator, Hilton Botha, is facing attempted murder charges, and a day after he offered testimony damaging to the prosecution in Pistorius' bail hearing.

Pistorius, an Olympic runner whose lower legs were amputated when he was less than a year old, killed his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp in the predawn hours of Valentine's Day. He claims he mistook her for an intruder when he shot her through a locked door in a bathroom in his home. Prosecutors say the shooting happened after the couple got into an argument and allege the killing was deliberate, carried out with no mercy.

Botha acknowledged Wednesday in court that nothing in Pistorius' version of the fatal shooting of Steenkamp contradicted what police had discovered, even though there have been some discrepancies. Botha also said that police had left a 9 mm slug in the toilet and had lost track of allegedly illegal ammunition found in Pistorius' home.

"This matter shall receive attention at the national level," Phiyega told reporters soon after the end of proceedings in the third day of Pistorius' bail hearing. The case has riveted South Africa and much of the world and has placed the country's judicial system under close scrutiny.

Bulewa Makeke, spokeswoman for South Africa's National Prosecuting Authority, said the attempted murder charges had been reinstated against Botha on Feb. 4. Police say they found out about it after Botha testified in Pistorius' bail hearing Wednesday.

Botha and two other police officers had seven counts of attempted murder reinstated against them in relation to a 2011 shooting incident. Botha and his two colleagues allegedly fired shots at a minibus they were trying to stop.

Asked about Botha's court performance and handling of the investigation, Phiyega said South Africa's police force "can stand on its own" compared to others around the world.

Makeke, the spokeswoman for the national prosecution office, had said before Botha was dismissed from the Pistorius case that he should be taken off, but added that it was up to the police force to make that decision.

Makeke indicated the charges were reinstated against Botha because more evidence had been gathered. She said the charge against Botha was initially dropped "because there was not enough evidence at the time."

Pistorius' main sponsor Nike, meanwhile, suspended its contract with the multiple Paralympic champion, following eyewear manufacturer Oakley's decision to suspend its sponsorship. Nike said in a brief statement on its website: "We believe Oscar Pistorius should be afforded due process and we will continue to monitor the situation closely."

The judge is still trying to decide whether to grant Pistorius bail, and under what conditions.

During Thursday's bail hearing, Chief Magistrate Desmond Nair asked the defense of Pistorius' bail application: "Do you think there will be some level of shock if the accused is released?"

Defense lawyer Barry Roux responded: "I think there will be a level of shock in this country if he is not released."

Opposing bail, prosecutor Gerrie Nel painted a picture of a man "willing and ready to fire and kill," and said signs of remorse from Pistorius do not mean that the athlete didn't intend to kill his girlfriend.

"Even if you plan a murder, you plan a murder and shoot. If you fire the shot, you have remorse. Remorse might kick in immediately," Nel said.

As Nel summed up the prosecution's case opposing bail, Pistorius began to weep in the crowded courtroom, leading his brother, Carl Pistorius, to reach out and touch his back.

"He (Pistorius) wants to continue with his life like this never happened," Nel went on, prompting Pistorius, who was crying softly, to shake his head. "The reason you fire four shots is to kill," Nel persisted.

Earlier Thursday, Nair questioned Botha over delays in processing records from phones found in Pistorius' house following the killing of Steenkamp, a 29-year-old model and budding reality TV contestant.

"It seems to me like there was a lack of urgency," Nair said as the efficiency of the police investigation was questioned.

Botha is himself to appear in court in May to face seven counts of attempted murder. Botha was dropped from the case but not suspended from the police force, Phiyega said, and could still be called by defense lawyers at trial.

Pisatorius' behavior Thursday reflected the change of mood in the courtroom as his defense lawyers attacked police procedures and maintained his innocence.

Pistorius, in the same gray suit, blue shirt and gray tie combination he has worn throughout the bail hearing, stood ramrod straight in the dock, then sat calmly looking at his hands. On Tuesday and Wednesday, the athlete had been slumped over and sobbing uncontrollably at times as detail was read out of how Steenkamp died in his house.

"The poor quality of the evidence offered by investigative officer Botha exposed the disastrous shortcomings of the state's case," Roux said Thursday. "We cannot sit back and take comfort that he is telling the truth."

Roux also raised issue of intent, saying the killing was not "pre-planned" and referred to a "loving relationship" between the two.

He said an autopsy showed that Steenkamp's bladder was empty, suggesting she had gone to use the toilet as Pistorius had claimed. Prosecutors claim Steenkamp had fled to the toilet to avoid an enraged Pistorius.

"The known forensics is consistent" with Pistorius' statement, Roux said, asking that bail restrictions be eased for Pistorius.

But the prosecutor said Pistorius hadn't given guarantees to the court that he wouldn't leave the country if he was facing a life sentence. Nel also stressed that Pistorius shouldn't be given special treatment.

"I am Oscar Pistorius. I am a world-renowned athlete. Is that a special circumstance? No." Nel said. "His version (of the killing) is improbable."

Nel said the court should focus on the "murder of the defenseless woman."

Botha testified Thursday that he had investigated a 2009 complaint against Pistorius by a woman who claimed the athlete had assaulted her. He said that Pistorius had not hurt her and that the woman had actually injured herself when she kicked a door at Pistorius' home.

The hearing is to continue Friday morning.


AP Sports Writer Gerald Imray contributed to this report from Johannesburg.

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Major snowstorm bearing down on Chicago region

A winter storm that is walloping the Great Plains will hit the Chicago area tonight and linger through the morning commute on Friday, possibly dumping up to half a foot of snow here.

A winter weather advisory has been issued for the Chicago area from 9 p.m. Thursday until 6 p.m. Friday,  with snow falling at a rate of an inch per hour overnight in some places and winds blowing at 25 to 30 miles per hour, according to the National Weather Service.

The snow will change over to freezing drizzle Friday morning, the weather service said.

Anywhere from 3 to 7 inches could fall here, but up to 16 inches are expected in Kansas and Nebraska, states expected to bear the brunt of the storm that has already closed schools, scuttled air travel and cut off power to some communities.

The storm could be the worst to hit the Midwest since a storm dumped 1 to 2 feet of snow from central Oklahoma to the lower Great Lakes and central New England between Jan. 31 to Feb. 2, 2011. The storm spawned the infamous Groundhog Day Blizzard that buried Chicago in 20.2 inches of snow.

Winter storm warnings and advisories are in place for much of the central and southern Plains and into the upper Midwest and Mississippi River Valley as the storm moves east, packing snow, sleet and freezing rain, the National Weather Service said.

Ice storm warnings were in effect for parts of northern Arkansas. The massive storm was expected to unleash thunderstorms and rain on its southern edge from eastern Texas to Georgia, the forecaster said.

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency because of hazardous travel and possible power outages. Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback ordered state offices closed because of the storm.

Kansas City encountered an unusual mixture of snow, thunder and lightning, with 2 to 3 inches of snow falling per hour.

"When there is thunder and lightning, it's a pretty screaming clue that you are going to have massive snowfall," said Andy Bailey, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Pleasant Hill, Mo. A foot of snow is likely there by Thursday afternoon, he said.

In Nebraska, a woman was killed in a two-car Interstate 80 accident Wednesday afternoon near Giltner. The victim was identified as Kristina Leigh Allen, 19, of Calloway, Neb. The Nebraska State Patrol said weather was a factor.

More than 90 percent of flights out of Kansas City International Airport were canceled Thursday morning, according the airport website.

Some 55 commuter flights were canceled out of Denver International Airport overnight, mostly due to adverse conditions in Midwestern destinations in Kansas and Nebraska, said spokeswoman Laura Coale.

About 30 flights in and out of Omaha's Eppley Airfield were canceled by mid-morning Thursday.

The brunt of the snowstorm churned through Kansas, causing scores of accidents and vehicles sliding off roads, but no fatalities, according to the state highway patrol. Two semi-trucks got stuck on Interstate 35 near Emporia, Kansas, closing the southbound lane Thursday morning, according to transportation officials.

"Most of the issues we are dealing with are people getting stuck in the snow on ramps when they go to exit," said Gary Warner of the Kansas Highway Patrol office in Wichita. Snow on Wednesday resulted in about 50 crashes with no injuries and 11 with injuries on Wichita area highways, he said.

Some parts of southeast Kansas reported power outages because warmer temperatures created sleet and ice on power lines, said Sharon Watson, spokesperson for Kansas emergency management services.

The snowstorm had been predicted well in advance, prompting schools and offices to close and keeping a lot of people off the roads, said Watson.

In Oklahoma, up to 12.5 inches of snow fell in northern parts of the state while schools were closed throughout the Oklahoma City area because of treacherous driving conditions.

Areas of southwest and central Nebraska received 8 inches of snow overnight, according to the National Weather Service. Snowfall of 3 to 4 inches was widespread in central Nebraska.

Omaha and Lincoln in eastern Nebraska were bracing for about 8 or more inches of snow.

Even as students were making their way to school this morning in Iowa, administrators in dozens of districts announced early dismissals.

Few of the 150 members of the Iowa General Assembly were in the state capitol in Des Moines this morning, deciding not to brave the weather.

Snow from the powerful storm fell as far south as Tucson, Ariz. on Wednesday. The rare snowfall halted play at the World Golf Championships-Accenture Match Play tournament near Tucson.

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Nigerian troops surround French family's kidnappers: source

YAOUNDE/MAIDUGURI, Nigeria (Reuters) - Nigerian security forces surrounded the kidnappers of a French family in northeast Borno state on Thursday in an operation to rescue the hostages, a Nigerian military source said.

French, Nigerian and Cameroonian officials earlier denied French media reports that the family, who were seized in Cameroon and taken over the border, had been freed.

The Nigerian military located the hostages and kidnappers between Dikwa and Ngala in the far northeast, the military source in Borno said, asking not to be identified.

Dikwa is less than 80 km (50 miles) from the border with Cameroon where the three adults and four children were taken hostage on Tuesday.

A senior Cameroonian military official declined to comment saying the matter was too sensitive.

Citing a Cameroon army officer, French media reported earlier on Thursday that the hostages had been found alive in a house in northern Nigeria.

"This is a crazy rumor that we cannot confirm. We do not know where is it coming from," Cameroon Communications Minister Issa Tchiroma Bakary told Reuters by telephone from the capital Yaounde.

"What is certain is that the French tourists who were abducted are no longer on our territory. However, we are in touch with the Government of Nigeria to intensify measures to continue the search for them along our common border," he said.

French gendarmes backed by special forces arrived in northern Cameroon on Wednesday to help locate the family, a local governor and French defense ministry official said.

Nigerian military spokesman Sagir Musa earlier also said the report on France's BFM television of the hostages being released was "not true," while Didier Le Bret, the head of the French foreign ministry's crisis center, said the information was "baseless."

The abduction was the first case of foreigners being seized in the mostly Muslim north of Cameroon, a former French colony.

But the region - like others in West and North Africa with porous borders - is considered within the operational sphere of Boko Haram and fellow Nigerian Islamist militants Ansaru.

On Sunday, seven foreigners were snatched from the compound of Lebanese construction company Setraco in northern Nigeria's Bauchi state, and Ansaru took responsibility.

Northern Nigeria is increasingly afflicted by attacks and kidnappings by Islamist militants. Ansaru, which rose to prominence only in recent months, has claimed the abduction in December of a French national who is still missing.

Three foreigners were killed in two failed rescue attempts last year after being kidnapped in northern Nigeria and Ansaru, blamed for those kidnaps, warned this could happen again.

The threat to French nationals in the region has grown since France deployed thousands of troops to Mali to oust al Qaeda-linked Islamists who controlled the country's north.

The kidnapping in Cameroon brought to 15 the number of French citizens being held in West Africa.

(Reporting By Emile Picy and Nicholas Vinocur in Paris; Additional reporting by Joe Brock in Abuja and Bate Felix and John Irish in Dakar; Writing by Bate Felix and John Irish; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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Wall Street dips after rally, energy shares weaker

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Stocks dipped on Wednesday, with energy shares falling as investors found few reasons to buy following a rally that has held major indexes near five-year highs for three weeks.

In addition, investors waited for the minutes from the Federal Open Market Committee's January meeting due at 2 p.m. (1900 GMT) for clues to the interest rate outlook.

Traders said there were unconfirmed rumors in the market that a troubled hedge fund was selling assets.

"I heard the chatter about a hedge fund liquidating things today but how big, I don't know. Certainly it sparks concern," said Michael James, senior trader at Wedbush Morgan in Los Angeles.

A jump in January of permits for future home building offered hope the housing market's recovery remains on track. A separate report showed wholesale prices rose last month for the first time in four months.

The S&P 500 has jumped about 7 percent so far this year, and is on track for its eighth straight week of gains. However, many of those weekly gains have been slight, with equities trading within a narrow range for the past few weeks, suggesting valuations may be stretched at current levels.

"The market seems very tired and listless, and investors are prone to take profits now as they wait for the music to stop," said Matt McCormick, money manager at Bahl & Gaynor in Cincinnati.

Energy companies were among the weakest, hurt by disappointing corporate results and a 2.4 percent drop in crude oil prices.

Newfield Exploration fell 5.8 percent to $25.73 while Devon Energy Corp fell 1.6 percent to $59.60. Both companies posted fourth-quarter losses, with Devon hurt as it wrote down the value of its assets by $896 million due to weak natural gas prices.

Groundbreaking to build new U.S. homes fell 8.5 percent in January but new permits for construction rose to a 4 1/2-year high while producer prices rose in January for the first time in four months.

Investors will look to the minutes from the Fed's January meeting for any indication as to how long the Fed will keep buying $85 billion in bonds each month to bolster U.S. employment. Economic data should enable the Fed to maintain its easy monetary policy.

The Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> dropped 16.03 points, or 0.11 percent, to 14,019.64. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.spx> dropped 5.81 points, or 0.38 percent, to 1,525.13. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.ixic> dropped 13.82 points, or 0.43 percent, to 3,199.77.

Shares of OfficeMax Inc fell 3.8 percent to $12.51 while Office Depot slumped 13 percent to $4.37 as the companies announced a $1.2 billion merger agreement. The shares had risen sharply earlier this week after a source said a deal would be announced. Rival Staples Inc fell 3.5 percent.

Toll Brothers Inc lost 4 percent to $35.43 after the largest luxury homebuilder in the United States, reported first-quarter results well below analysts' estimates.

The stock is up 9 percent so far this year, building on jump of nearly 60 percent in 2012.

"Valuations appear a bit high at these levels, and if I was in a name that had seen a huge run, I'd want to take some chips off the table," said McCormick, who helps oversee about $8.2 billion in assets.

SodaStream dropped 6.5 percent to $49.04 after the seller of home carbonated drink maker machines posted fourth-quarter earnings and provided a 2013 outlook.

According to Thomson Reuters data through Tuesday morning, of the 405 companies in the S&P 500 that have reported results, 71 percent have exceeded analysts' expectations, compared with a 62 percent average since 1994 and 65 percent over the past four quarters.

Fourth-quarter earnings for S&P 500 companies are estimated to have risen 5.7 percent, according to the data, above a 1.9 percent forecast at the start of the earnings season.

(Editing by Kenneth Barry)

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Armstrong facing Wednesday deadline with USADA

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Lance Armstrong is facing a Wednesday deadline to decide whether he will meet with U.S. Anti-Doping Agency officials and talk with them under oath about what he knows about performance-enhancing drug use in cycling.

The agency has said Armstrong's cooperation in its cleanup effort is the only path open to Armstrong if his lifetime ban from sports is to be reduced.

Armstrong has given mixed signals about whether he plans to talk with USADA officials. Armstrong attorney Tim Herman previously suggested Armstrong would not meet with USADA before the agency's original Feb. 6 deadline. The two sides then agreed to give Armstrong another two weeks to work out an interview with investigators.

Armstrong previously denied using performance-enhancing drugs, but in January admitted doping to win seven Tour de France titles.

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Whale Watchers Have a Close Encounter With Gray Whales

Boaters aboard a whale watching safari off the coast of California got their money’s worth when a gray whale got up close and personal.

The whale allowed the delighted adults and children on the boat to pet its skin and inside its mouth, something that could make whales just like their human admirers.

“According to the naturalists who see them every day, these gray whale calves enjoy having people touch them, even in their mouth and on their baleen,” reads the description with the video of the encounter posted on YouTube this week. “Even though these whales don’t have teeth, perhaps it is like a teething child who enjoys having his gums rubbed.”

The close encounter with the wild mammal occurred during a whale watching safari off the coast of upper Magdalena Bay piloted by Capt. Dave’s Dolphin and Whale Watching Safari, a Dana, Calif.-based whale watching company.

The company says the whales, which can grow to as long as 50 feet and weigh as much as 40 tons, approach their boats on their own seeking human contact.

“No one feeds them or does anything to entice them,” the company stated on YouTube.

Capt. Dave’s even keeps a count on its website of gray whale sightings on its daily boat trips, totaling as many as eight in one day.

The gray whale, which was removed from the endangered species list in 1994, is known as “one of the animal kingdom’s great migrators” and travels in groups called pods, according to National Geographic.

The whales have to surface to breathe, making them easy to spot as they migrate along the West Coast from their summer home in Alaskan waters to their cold season refuge in the warmer waters off the coast of Mexico.

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Obama can't kick his legacy down road

By Gloria Borger, CNN Chief Political Analyst

February 20, 2013 -- Updated 1530 GMT (2330 HKT)

President Obama has a small window of opportunity to get Congress to act on his priorities, Gloria Borger says.


  • Gloria Borger: Prospect of deep budget cuts was designed to compel compromise

  • She says the "unthinkable" cuts now have many supporters

  • The likelihood that cuts may happen shows new level of D.C. dysfunction, she says

  • Borger: President may want a 2014 House victory, but action needed now

(CNN) -- So let's try to recount why we are where we are. In August 2011, Washington was trying to figure out how to raise the debt ceiling -- so the US might continue to pay its bills -- when a stunt was hatched: Kick the can down the road.

And not only kick it down the road, but do it in a way that would eventually force Washington to do its job: Invent a punishment.

Gloria Borger

Gloria Borger

If the politicians failed to come up with some kind of budget deal, the blunt instrument of across-the-board cuts in every area would await.

Unthinkable! Untenable!

Until now.

In fact, something designed to be worse than any conceivable agreement is now completely acceptable to many.

And not only are these forced budget cuts considered acceptable, they're even applauded. Some Republicans figure they'll never find a way to get 5% across-the-board domestic spending cuts like this again, so go for it. And some liberal Democrats likewise say 8% cuts in military spending are better than anything we might get on our own, so go for it.

Opinion: Forced budget cuts a disaster for military

The result: A draconian plan designed to force the two sides to get together has now turned out to be too weak to do that.

And what does that tell us? More about the collapse of the political process than it does about the merits of any budget cuts. Official Washington has completely abdicated responsibility, taking its dysfunction to a new level -- which is really saying something.

We've learned since the election that the second-term president is feeling chipper. With re-election came the power to force Republicans to raise taxes on the wealthy in the fiscal cliff negotiations, and good for him. Americans voted, and said that's what they wanted, and so it happened. Even the most sullen Republicans knew that tax fight had been lost.

Points on the board for the White House.

Now the evil "sequester" -- the forced budget cuts -- looms. And the president proposes what he calls a "balanced" approach: closing tax loopholes on the rich and budget cuts. It's something he knows Republicans will never go for. They raised taxes six weeks ago, and they're not going to do it again now. They already gave at the office. And Republicans also say, with some merit, that taxes were never meant to be a part of the discussion of across-the-board cuts. It's about spending.

Politics: Obama more emotional on spending cuts

Here's the problem: The election is over. Obama won, and he doesn't really have to keep telling us -- or showing us, via staged campaign-style events like the one Tuesday in which he used police officers as props while he opposed the forced spending cuts.

What we're waiting for is the plan to translate victory into effective governance.

Sure, there's no doubt the president has the upper hand. He's right to believe that GOP calls for austerity do not constitute a cohesive party platform. He knows that the GOP has no singular, effective leader, and that its message is unformed. And he's probably hoping that the next two years can be used effectively to further undermine the GOP and win back a Democratic majority in the House.

Slight problem: There's plenty of real work to be done, on the budget, on tax reform, on immigration, climate change and guns. A second-term president has a small window of opportunity. And a presidential legacy is not something that can be kicked down the road.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gloria Borger.

Part of complete coverage on

February 19, 2013 -- Updated 1419 GMT (2219 HKT)

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Ruben Navarrette believes that it's the guest workers program that will make or break the prospects for immigration reform.

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Howard Kurtz says lesser news stories eclipsed the follow up coverage that Obama's State of the Union deserved.

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President Obama may not have the votes to pass gun legislation, but David Frum says the government could do a lot to increase gun safety anyway.

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Since Canada will not tolerate an influx of zombies, we have to get ready and secure our borders, says Dean Obeidallah.

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Pablo Spiller says consumers will likely get more choices and improved quality of service.

February 18, 2013 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)

Convincing Congress to take on climate change will be an uphill battle, unless there's strong grass roots support, says Julian Zelizer.

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Bob Greene says the stories of former slaves, compiled in 1930s, tell of families torn apart, people deprived of basic freedoms

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Cameron Russell says her looks fit a narrow definition of beauty and her career as a model gives her views undeserved attention

February 19, 2013 -- Updated 0116 GMT (0916 HKT)

Meg Urry says the likelihood that a meteor hits and an asteroid passes close by Earth on the same day is quite improbable, yet the two events happened on Friday

February 19, 2013 -- Updated 1728 GMT (0128 HKT)

Frida Ghitis says the murder of Reeva Steenkamp allegedly by Oscar Pistorius is a reminder that we have to do more to protect women.

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Jackson Jr. in court: 'I am guilty, your honor'

Jesse Jr. and Sandi Jackson arriving in federal court in Washington today.

Former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.  pleaded guilty this morning to conspiring with his wife, former Ald. Sandi Jackson, to siphon about $750,000 in federal campaign funds for the couple’s personal use, and could face years in prison.

Sandi Jackson was scheduled to plead guilty this afternoon to a single charge of tax fraud tied to the same allegations that the couple repeatedly tapped the ex-congressman’s campaign fund, used the money for personal use and then made fraudulent campaign and tax disclosures to cover up the misconduct.

Documents filed with Jackson Jr.'s plea agreement state that in January 2006, Jackson Jr. personally opened a bank account under the name “Jesse Jackson Jr. for Congress," and the following year withdrew $43,350 he used to buy a gold Rolex watch.

Between 2007 and 2011, he withdrew more than $14,000 to pay down personal credit cards, prosecutors stated. Between 2005 and April 2012, he was using campaign funds to fund a life of luxury, according to the documents.

“These expenditures included high-end electronic items, collector’s items, clothing, food and supplies for daily consumption, movie tickets, health clud dues, personal travel, and personal dining expenses,” the court filing states.

Items paid with a campaign credit card included more than $4,000 on a cruise and $243 at a Build-a-Bear workshop.

“Records from Best Buy reveal that defendant purchased multiple flat-screen televisions, multiple Blu-Ray DVD players, numerous DVD’s for his Washington, D.C. home,” the records state.

As part of the plea deal with Jackson Jr., the parties have agreed that sentencing guidelines in the case call for a term of between 46 and 57 months in prison, but the sides reserved the right to argue for a sentence above or below that range for him when he is sentenced June 28.

After his release from an expected prison term, he might face three additional years of supervised release, or probation.

Also under the guideline range agreed to by Jackson Jr. and lawyers on both sides, what had been a maximum fine of $250,000 drops to one in the range of $10,000 to $100,000. In addition, he remains subject to a forfeiture of $750,000.

After entering the courtroom this morning, Jackson Jr. gave his wife Sandi a peck on the cheek and took his seat. He spoke softly during the hearing and sometimes dabbed his eyes with a tissue.

When asked by Wilkins how he would plead, Jackson answered: “I am guilty, your honor.”

Asked to sum up his conduct, Jackson acknowledged misusing campaign funds. “I used money I shouldn’t have. . .for personal purposes, and I acknowledge that,” he told the judge.

Pressed by the judge on whether he was freely entering the plea, the former congressman acknowledged he had been under psychiatric care but said he had not been treated for addiction to alcohol or narcotics.

Asked whether he understood what was happening, he answered, "Sir, I've never been more clear in my life."

The judge said Jackson could be released before sentencing and ordered him to be processed by the U.S. Marshal's Service, surrender his passport and undergo drug testing while awaiting sentencing.

His attorney asked if Jackson Jr. could be allowed to travel back and forth from Chicago, saying he essentially lived in both places, and the judge agreed.

Before the 55-minute hearing began, Jackson Jr. stepped from the defense table and shook hands with a lead FBI agent in the case, Tim Thibault, who was seated with government prosecutors.

Leaving the courtroom, Jackson Jr. told a reporter, "Tell everybody back home I'm sorry I let 'em down, OK?"

At a press conference following the hearing, Jackson Jr. attorney Reid Weingarten said Jackson's health problems contributed to his crimes.

"It turns out that Jesse has serious health issues," he said. "Those health issues are directly related to his present predicament. That's not an excuse, that's just a fact."

Jackson entered the anticipated plea in Act One of a two-part drama playing out in federal court not far from the House chamber where he served. Act Two is on tap this afternoon, when his wife, former Chicago Ald. Sandi Jackson, is expected to plead guilty to filing false tax returns.

Jackson Jr. entered a negotiated plea of guilty on one felony count of conspiracy to commit false statements, wire fraud and mail fraud. Prosecutors say he spent campaign contributions to buy luxury items, memorabilia and other goods.

As the Jacksons arrived at federal court in Washington, D.C. this morning, neither responded to questions from reporters. The two stepped out of a black SUV, and Sandi Jackson walked ahead of her husband, carrying a satchel. Jackson Jr. looked up when reporters shouted questions but said nothing and looked down as he went into the building.

Minutes later, his father, the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., and other family members walked through the front entrance of the courthouse, their arms linked together.

Jackson Jr., who resigned three months ago after 17 years in Congress, entered the plea before U.S. District Court Judge Robert Wilkins. Jackson Jr. was represented by three Washington lawyers: Brian Heberlig, Reid Weingarten and William Drake.

The U.S. attorney’s office in D.C., which handled the case, plans to hold a news conference this afternoon after both hearings are over.

Attorneys familiar with public corruption investigations said the amount of campaign cash that prosecutors said was converted to personal use in this case is the largest of any that they can remember.

Jackson Jr., 47, was in the House of Representatives for 17 years until he resigned last November. Sandi Jackson, 49, was a Chicago alderman from 2007 until she stepped down in January. Both are Democrats.

Jackson Jr. began a mysterious medical leave of absence last June for what was eventually described as bipolar disorder. Though he did not campaign for re-election, he won another term last Nov. 6 while being treated at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. He left office two weeks later, saying he was cooperating with federal investigators.

Married for more than 20 years, the Jacksons have a 12-year-old daughter and a 9-year-old son. The family has homes in Washington and on Chicago’s South Side.

Washington defense attorney Stan Brand, the former general counsel of the House of Representatives, said Tuesday that Jackson Jr.’s case involved the largest sum of money he’s seen in a case involving personal use of campaign money.

“Historically, there have been members of Congress who either inadvertently or maybe purposefully, but not to this magnitude, used campaign funds inappropriately,” he said.

Brand said that when the dollar figure involved is low, a lawmaker may be fined and ordered to reimburse the money. “This is so large, the Department of Justice decided to make his case criminal,” he said.

Earlier this morning, Judge Wilkins disclosed that he had a past link to Jackson Jr.’s father. But both prosecutors and the Jackson defense waived any attempt to transfer the case, the judge noted in a court memorandum.

Wilkins wrote that he has no interest or bias in the case, but disclosed the following:

“In 1988, while a law student, Judge Wilkins served as a co-chair of Harvard Law School students supporting the presidential campaign of Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr., and on October 24, 1988, Judge Wilkins introduced Rev. Jackson when he came to speak at a campus event supporting the presidential candidacy of Governor Michael Dukakis. On March 21, 1999, while an attorney, Judge Wilkins appeared as a guest on a show hosted by Rev. Jackson on the CNN network entitled ‘Both Sides with Jesse Jackson’ to discuss a civil rights lawsuit in which Judge Wilkins was a plaintiff. Judge Wilkins believes that he has spoken to Rev. Jackson only on these two occasions, and he does not believe that he has ever met or spoken to the two defendants in these cases.”


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Bulgarian government resigns amid growing protests

SOFIA (Reuters) - Bulgaria's government resigned on Wednesday after mass protests against high power prices and falling living standards, joining a long list of European administrations felled by austerity during four years of debt crisis.

Prime Minister Boiko Borisov, an ex-bodyguard who took power in 2009 on pledges to root out graft and raise incomes in the European Union's poorest member, faces a tough task of propping up eroding support ahead of an expected early election.

Wage and pension freezes and tax hikes have bitten deep in a country where earnings are less than half the EU average and tens of thousands of Bulgarians have rallied in protests that have turned violent, chanting "Mafia" and "Resign".

Moves by Borisov on Tuesday to blame foreign utility companies for the rise in the cost of heating homes was to no avail and an eleventh day of marches saw 15 people hospitalized and 25 arrested in clashes with police.

"My decision to resign will not be changed under any circumstances. I do not build roads so that blood is shed on them," said Borisov, who began his career guarding the Black Sea state's communist dictator Todor Zhivkov.

A karate black belt, Borisov has cultivated a Putin-like "can-do" image since he entered politics as Sofia mayor in 2005 and would connect with voters by showing up on the capital's rutted streets to oversee the repair of pot-holes.

But critics say he has often skirted due process, sometimes to the benefit of those close to him, and his swift policy U-turns have wounded the public's trust.

The spark for the protests was high electricity bills, after the government raised prices by 13 percent last July. But it quickly spilled over into wider frustration with Borisov and political elites with perceived links to shadowy businesses.

"He made my day," said student Borislav Hadzhiev in central Sofia, commenting on Borisov's resignation. "The truth is that we're living in an extremely poor country."


The prime minister's final desperate moves on Tuesday included cutting power prices and risking a diplomatic row with the Czech Republic by punishing companies including CEZ, moves which conflicted with EU norms on protection of investors and due process.

CEZ officials were hopeful on Wednesday that it would be able to avoid losing its distribution license after all and officials from the Bulgarian regulator said the company would not be punished if it dealt with breaches of procedure.

But shares in what is central Europe's largest publicly-listed company fell another 1 percent on Wednesday.

If pushed through, the fines for CEZ and two other foreign-owned firms will not encourage other investors in Bulgaria, who already have to navigate complicated bureaucracy and widespread corruption and organized crime to take advantage of Bulgaria's 10-percent flat tax rate.

Financial markets reacted negatively to the turbulence on Wednesday. The cost of insuring Bulgaria's debt rose to a three-month high and debt yields rose some 15 basis points, though the country's low deficit of 0.5 percent of gross domestic product means there is little risk to the lev currency's peg against the euro.

Borisov's interior minister indicated that elections originally planned for July would probably be pulled forward by saying that his rightist GERB party would not take part in talks to form a new government.


GERB's woes have echoes in another ex-communist EU member, Slovenia, where demonstrators have taken to the streets and added pressure to a crumbling conservative government.

A small crowd gathered in support of Borisov outside Sofia's parliament, which is expected to approve his resignation on Thursday, while bigger demonstrations against the premier were expected in the evening.

Unemployment in the country of 7.3 million is far from the highs hit in the decade after the end of communism but remains at 11.9 percent. Average salaries are stuck at around 800 levs ($550) a month and millions have emigrated, leaving swathes of the country depopulated and little hope for those who remain.

GERB's popularity has held up well and it still led in the latest polls before protests grew in size last weekend, but analysts say the opposition Socialists should draw strength from the demonstrations.

The leftists, successors to Bulgaria's communist party, have proposed tax cuts and wage hikes and are likely to raise questions about public finances if elected.

(Additional reporting by Angel Krasimirov; editing by Patrick Graham)

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M&A deals lift shares, suggest more value in market

NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. stocks rose on Tuesday as merger activity suggested the market could offer investors still more value even as the S&P 500 and Dow industrials hover near five-year highs.

Equities have resisted a pullback as investors use dips in stocks as buying opportunities. The S&P is up about 7 percent so far in 2013 and has climbed for the past seven weeks in its longest weekly winning streak since January 2011, though most of the weekly gains have been slim.

Office Depot Inc surged 9.4 percent to $5, pulling back from earlier highs after a person familiar with the matter said the No. 2 U.S. office supply retailer was in advanced talks to merge with smaller rival OfficeMax Inc . A deal could come as early as this week.

OfficeMax jumped 20 percent to $12.94 while larger rival Staples Inc shot up 9.4 percent to $14.17 as the best performer on the S&P 500.

More than $158 billion in deals has been announced thus far in 2013. Last week, agreements included the acquisition of H.J. Heinz Co by Berkshire Hathaway , and the sale by General Electric of its remaining stake in NBCUniversal to Comcast Corp .

"Equity investors have to be encouraged by M&A since, if the number crunchers are offering large premiums, that shows how much value is still in the market," said Mike Gibbs, co-head of the equity advisory group at Raymond James in Memphis, Tennessee.

The Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> was up 37.81 points, or 0.27 percent, at 14,019.57. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.spx> was up 6.84 points, or 0.45 percent, at 1,526.63. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.ixic> was up 9.39 points, or 0.29 percent, at 3,201.42.

U.S. markets were closed on Monday for the Presidents Day holiday.

Health insurance stocks tumbled, led by a 7 percent drop in Humana Inc to $72.50 after the company said the government's proposed 2014 payment rates for Medicare Advantage participants were lower than expected and would hurt its profit outlook.

UnitedHealth Group lost 1.7 percent to $56.37the biggest drag on the Dow. The Morgan Stanley healthcare payor index <.hmo> dropped 1.6 percent.

Express Scripts rose 2.4 percent to $56.87 after the pharmacy benefits manager posted fourth-quarter earnings.

Wall Street's strong start to the year for was fueled by stronger-than-expected corporate earnings, as well as a compromise by legislators in Washington that temporarily averted automatic spending cuts and tax hikes that are predicted to damage the economy.

The compromise on across-the-board spending cuts postponed the matter until March 1, at which point the cuts take effect. Ahead of the debate over the cuts, known as sequestration, further gains for stocks may be difficult to come by.

"If there's no major contention with sequestration, it looks like stocks are prepared to handle it, but until then we'll probably stay in a consolidation period marked by sideways trading with a slow rate of ascent," said Gibbs.

Economic data showed the NAHB/Wells Fargo Housing Market index unexpectedly edged down to 46 in February from 47 in the prior month as builders faced higher material costs.

According to the Thomson Reuters data through Monday morning, of the 391 companies in the S&P 500 that have reported results, 70.1 percent have exceeded analysts' expectations, compared with a 62 percent average since 1994 and 65 percent over the past four quarters.

Fourth-quarter earnings for S&P 500 companies have risen 5.6 percent, according to the data, above a 1.9 percent forecast at the start of the earnings season.

(Additional reporting by Chuck Mikolajczak; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Kenneth Barry and Nick Zieminski)

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