Friday, December 7, 2012

Published:

Supreme Court decides to hear same-sex marriage cases, including Calif. constitutional ban

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Supreme Court plunged into the contentious issue of gay marriage Friday when it agreed to take up California's ban on same-sex unions and a separate dispute about federal benefits for legally married gay couples.

The court's action gives the justices the chance to say by late June whether gay Americans have the same constitutional right to marry as heterosexuals. Several narrower paths also are open to the justices as they consider both California's voter-approved Proposition 8 and the provision of the federal Defense of Marriage Act that denies to legally married gay Americans the favorable federal tax treatment and a range of federal health and pension benefits given to heterosexual couples.

The court is embarked on what could be its most significant term involving civil rights in decades. In the area of racial discrimination, the justices already have agreed to decide cases on affirmative action in admission to college and a key part of the Voting Rights Act. The gay marriage cases probably will be argued in March and decisions in all the court's cases are likely by the end of June.

The order from the court extends a dizzying pace of change regarding gay marriage that includes rapid shifts in public opinion, President Barack Obama's endorsement in May and votes in Maine, Maryland and Washington in November to allow gay couples to marry. Same-sex couples in Washington began picking up marriage licenses on Thursday.

Yet even as gay marriage is legal, or soon will be, in nine states -- Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and Vermont are the others -- and the District of Columbia, it is banned by the state constitutions of 30 others. In Hawaii, a constitutional amendment gives the legislature the power to define marriage as between a man and a woman, and it has done so. Federal courts in California have struck down the state's constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, but that ruling and thus gay unions remain on hold while the issue is being appealed.

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Obama asks Congress for $60.4 billion in federal aid for states hit by Superstorm Sandy

WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Barack Obama asked Congress Friday for $60.4 billion in federal aid for New York, New Jersey and other states hit by Superstorm Sandy in late October. It's a disaster whose cost is rivaled only by the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the 2005 Hurricane that devastated New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.

Obama's request adds a huge new to-do item to a congressional agenda already packed with controversy on how to resolve the nation's budget woes and avoid the so-called fiscal cliff.

"Our nation has an obligation to assist those who suffered losses and who lack adequate resources to rebuild their lives," Jeffrey D. Zients, deputy director of Obama's budget office, wrote to congressional leaders. "At the same time, we are committed to ensuring federal resources are used responsibly and that the recovery effort is a shared undertaking."

The measure blends aid for homeowners, businesses, and state and local government walloped by Sandy and comes with just a few weeks to go before Congress adjourns. Whether it passes this month or gets delayed in whole or part until next year is unclear. Most of the money -- $47.4 billion -- is for immediate help for victims and other recovery and rebuilding efforts. There's another $13 billion for mitigation efforts to protect against future storms.

The massive request comes after protracted discussions into late Friday afternoon with lawmakers and officials from impacted areas. Officials from the affected states had requested significantly more money, but they generally praised the request and urged Congress to enact it as quickly as possible.

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Egypt delays early voting on draft constitution in sign of president yielding to pressure

CAIRO (AP) -- Egypt postponed early voting on a contentious draft constitution, and aides to President Mohammed Morsi floated the possibility of canceling the whole referendum in the first signs Friday that the Islamic leader is finally yielding to days of protests and deadly street clashes.

Tens of thousands marched on the presidential palace after pushing past barbed wire fences installed by the army and calling for Morsi to step down. Thousands also camped out in Tahrir Square, birthplace of the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

A spokesman for Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood urged the group's supporters to practice "self-restraint" after hundreds gathered in front of a mosque near the presidential palace. He appealed for them not to march to the palace and to avoid confrontation.

The announcement by the election committee head Ismail Hamdi to delay early voting on the charter came as a surprise, and it was difficult to predict whether it will lead to a breakthrough in the political crisis.

The president's aides said the move would ease some pressure and would provide room for negotiations with the opposition.

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Marijuana legalization in Colo., Wash. complicates drug-free work policies

DENVER (AP) -- Pot may be legal, but workers may want to check with their boss first before they grab the pipe or joint during off hours.

Businesses in Washington state, where the drug is legal, and Colorado, where it will be by January, are trying to figure out how to deal with employees who use it on their own time and then fail a drug test.

It is another uncertainty that has come with pot legalization as many ask how the laws will affect them.

"There's just an incredible amount of gray right now" about how marijuana legalization affects employers, said Sandra Hagen Solin of the Northern Colorado Legislative Alliance, a coalition of chambers of commerce.

Police departments are especially worried. Officers take oaths to protect all laws, state and federal. In this case, pot is still prohibited under federal law.

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Unleashing chemical weapons: Syrian risks include deliberate attack, loss of control to rebels

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Growing fear that civil war in Syria could unleash the world's first use of chemical weapons in nearly three decades is based on two grim scenarios -- neither considered likely but both carrying risks of civilian massacre and a major escalation of violence.

The first is that President Bashar Assad, in a last-ditch effort to save his regime, would order chemical attacks -- either as a limited demonstration to the rebels of his willingness to use the internationally banned weapons, or in a large-scale offensive designed to turn the tide of a conflict that already has killed an estimated 40,000.

The second is that some portion of Assad's arsenal could be moved to Iran or Lebanon or fall into the hands of foreign fighters with ties to terrorist groups who are helping Syrian rebels.

What kinds of chemicals are in question? What weapons?

News confirmed by The Associated Press this week that an unknown number of weapons in Syria were recently loaded with the nerve agent sarin brought the West's fears into sharp relief.

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Arizona lottery officials say fiscal cliff led to prompt claim from 2nd Powerball winner

PHOENIX (AP) -- Lottery officials announced Friday that a married man in his 30s from a wealthy Phoenix suburb has claimed his half of the $587.5 million Powerball jackpot, deciding to collect the winnings now and not next year because of the nation's looming fiscal cliff.

The man decided to remain anonymous after he bought $10 worth of tickets and kept the winning slip in the visor of his car overnight before realizing he was a multimillionaire.

He gave $20 to the cashier of a Fountain Hills convenience store, and the clerk nudged him to spend the entire amount on tickets. He declined the offer.

After the man and his wife learned of their good fortune, the husband pulled together a team of financial advisers and decided to take all of his share this month to avoid potentially higher taxes in 2013, said Karen Bach, a lottery official.

"He did have concern with the uncertainty with the fiscal cliff in 2013," Bach said, referring to the federal fiscal situation that could result in higher income tax rates.

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IBM move to annual lump-sum 401(k) matching contributions could be sign of things to come

IBM is making changes to its employee benefits that may cause other large corporations to follow suit. The technology company will begin making contributions to employees' 401(k) accounts in lump-sum annual payments, rather than at the time of each paycheck. It's a move that will help the company cut retirement plan expenses.

Employees were notified this week that matching contributions will be made just once annually, on Dec. 31, beginning next year. "This change reflects our continuing commitment to invest in our employee 401(k) plans while maintaining business competitiveness in a challenging economic environment," IBM spokesman Doug Shelton said.

The end-of-the-year 401(k) match won't be unique to IBM, but experts say the company's move could lead other major employers to consider making less frequent contributions.

"IBM is one of the world's most influential plan sponsors," said Mike Alfred, CEO of BrightScope Inc., which rates corporate 401(k) plans. It places IBM's among the top 30 plans at large employers. "Everyone in the benefits industry will pay close attention to whatever IBM does."

Across the country, some 60 million workers participate in 401(k)s, which have become a key source of retirement savings. Most companies match from 3 percent to 6 percent of the amount the employee contributes to the account. Contributions are exempt from income tax, and investment earnings grow tax-free until withdrawal.

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AP PHOTOS: A look back at the Pearl Harbor attack 71 years ago

The noise of the planes broke the early Sunday morning quiet over Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The surprise attack 71 years ago killed 2,390 service members and 49 civilians.

It also dragged the U.S. into World War II. The following day, President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war on Japan and labeled Dec. 7, 1941, "a date which will live in infamy."

Here are photos of the attack and the immediate aftermath:

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PSY apologizes for anti-US protests; says they were 'deeply emotional' reaction to Iraq war

South Korean rapper and Internet sensation PSY is apologizing to Americans for participating in anti-U.S. protests several years ago.

Park Jae-sang, who performs as PSY, issued a statement Friday after reports surfaced that he had participated in concerts protesting the U.S. military presence in South Korea during the early stages of the Iraq war.

At a 2004 concert, the "Gangnam Style" rapper performs a song with lyrics about killing "Yankees" who have been torturing Iraqi captives and their families "slowly and painfully." During a 2002 concert, he smashed a model of a U.S. tank on stage.

"While I'm grateful for the freedom to express one's self, I've learned there are limits to what language is appropriate and I'm deeply sorry for how these lyrics could be interpreted," he wrote in the statement. "I will forever be sorry for any pain I have caused by those words."

The 34-year-old rapper says the protests were part of a "deeply emotional" reaction to the war and the death of two Korean school girls, who were killed when a U.S. military vehicle hit them as they walked alongside the road. He noted anti-war sentiment was high around the world at the time.

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Manziel and Te'o hit Manhattan, a bit weary but hoping to become Heisman Trophy firsts

NEW YORK (AP) -- Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o was looking forward to a break after a five-city-in-five-days tour, during which he has become the most decorated player in college football.

"I'm just trying to get a workout in and get some sleep," he said Friday about his plans for the night.

Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel seemed to have more energy when he arrived at a midtown Manhattan hotel with his fellow Heisman Trophy finalist. In fairness, Johnny Football's week hasn't been nearly as hectic, though this trip to New York city is different from the first time he visited with his family when he was young.

"It's just taking it up a whole 'nother level, but happy to be here," he said.

Manziel and Te'o spent about 30 minutes getting grilled by dozens of reporters in a cramped conference room, posed for some pictures with the big bronze statue that they are hoping to win and were quickly whisked away for more interviews and photo opportunities.