Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Published:

Senate votes to confirm President Barack Obama's pick of Chuck Hagel for defense secretary

WASHINGTON (AP) -- A deeply divided Senate voted on Tuesday to confirm Republican Chuck Hagel to be the nation's next defense secretary, handing President Barack Obama's pick the top Pentagon job just days before billions of dollars in automatic, across-the-board budget cuts hit the military.

The vote was 58-41, with four Republicans joining the Democrats in backing the contentious choice. Hagel's only GOP support came from former colleagues Thad Cochran of Mississippi, Dick Shelby of Alabama and Mike Johanns of Nebraska -- all three had announced their support earlier -- and Rand Paul of Kentucky.

The vote came just hours after Republicans dropped their unprecedented delay of a Pentagon choice and allowed the nomination to move forward on a 71-27 vote.

Hagel, 66, a former two-term Nebraska senator and twice-wounded Vietnam combat veteran, succeeds Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Hagel, who is expected to be sworn in at the Pentagon on Wednesday, said in a statement that he was honored that the president and the Senate "have entrusted me to serve our nation once again."

Obama welcomed the bipartisan Senate vote, although 41 Republicans opposed his nominee, and said in a statement that "we will have the defense secretary our nation needs and the leader our troops deserve."

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AP sources: US considers direct aid to Syrian rebel fighters to ratchet up pressure on Assad

PARIS (AP) -- The Obama administration, in coordination with some European allies, is for the first time considering supplying direct assistance to elements of the Free Syrian Army as they seek to ramp up pressure on Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down and end nearly two years of brutal and increasingly deadly violence.

Officials in the United States and Europe said Tuesday the administration is nearing a decision on whether to provide non-lethal assistance to carefully vetted fighters opposed to the Assad regime in addition to what it is already supplying to the political opposition. A decision is expected by Thursday when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will attend an international conference on Syria in Rome that leaders of the opposition Syrian National Coalition have been persuaded to attend, the officials said.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the shift in strategy has not yet been finalized and still needs to be coordinated with European nations, notably Britain. They are eager to vastly increase the size and scope of assistance for Assad's foes.

Kerry, who was a cautious proponent of supplying arms to the rebels while he was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has been consulting with European leaders on how to step up pressure on Assad to leave power. The effort has been as a major focus of his first official trip abroad as America's top diplomat. On the first two stops on his hectic nine-nation tour of Europe and the Middle East, in London and Berlin, he has sought to assure the Syrian opposition that more help is on the way.

In London on Monday, he made a public appeal to opposition coalition leader Mouaz al-Khatib not to boycott the Rome meeting as had been threatened and to attend the conference despite concerns among Assad foes that international community is not doing enough. Kerry and Vice President Joe Biden made private telephone calls to al-Khatib to make the same case.

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10 Things to Know for Wednesday

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

1. HAGEL CONFIRMED AFTER BITTER SENATE FIGHT

Among his daunting challenges as defense secretary: dealing with $46 billion in budget cuts set to kick in on Friday.

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Hot air balloon catches fire and falls, killing 19 tourists in Egypt's Nile Valley

LUXOR, Egypt (AP) -- The terror lasted less than two minutes: Smoke poured from a hot air balloon carrying sightseers on a sunrise flight over the ancient city of Luxor, it burst in a flash of flame and then plummeted about 1,000 feet to earth. A farmer watched helplessly as tourists trying to escape the blazing gondola leaped to their deaths.

Nineteen people were killed Tuesday in what appeared to be the deadliest hot air ballooning accident on record. A British tourist and the Egyptian pilot, who was badly burned, were the sole survivors.

The tragedy raised worries of another blow to the nation's vital tourism industry, decimated by two years of unrest since the 2011 revolution that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak. The southern city of Luxor has been hit hard, with vacant hotel rooms and empty cruise ships.

It also prompted accusations that authorities have let safety standards decline amid the political turmoil and infighting, although civil aviation officials said the balloon had been inspected recently and that the pilot may have been to blame, jumping out rather than stopping the fire.

Authorities suspended hot air balloon flights, a popular tourist attraction here, while investigators determined the cause.

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This time may be for real: Will Americans notice if US skids into a fiscal pileup Friday?

WASHINGTON (AP) -- America's leaders have threatened to shut the government down, drive it over a cliff and bounce it off the ceiling. Now they're ready to smack it with a "sequester." And it sounds like they mean it this time.

If no one backs down, big cuts in federal spending begin Friday. Should Americans be worried?

A primer on the nation's latest fiscal standoff -- how we got here, who could get hurt and possible ways to end this thing:

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What, again?

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Judge hears testimony from high-ranking BP official at trial over Gulf oil spill

NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- A ranking BP executive testified Tuesday that the London-based oil giant and its contractors share the responsibility for preventing blowouts like the one that killed 11 workers and spawned the nation's worst offshore oil spill in 2010.

Lamar McKay, who was president of BP America at the time of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, became the first BP executive to testify at a federal trial intended to identify the causes of BP's Macondo well blowout and assign percentages of blame to the companies involved.

Rig owner Transocean and cement contractor Halliburton also are defendants at trial, which opened Monday.

A plaintiffs' attorney pressed McKay to agree with him that BP bore ultimate responsibility for the blowout, but McKay insisted that managing the hazards of deepwater drilling are a "team effort."

"I think that's a shared responsibility, to manage the safety and the risk," said McKay, now chief executive of BP's Upstream unit. "Sometimes contractors manage that risk. Sometimes we do. Most of the time it's a team effort."

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Utah liquor bill aims to take down 'Zion curtains' that block mixing, pouring of alcohol

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Wine spritzers are a favorite at Rovali's near Salt Lake City. Behind the bar, in full view of patrons, waiters siphon soda and syrup into glasses of ice -- then they duck behind a fake olive tree and a barricade to add the chardonnay.

Utah's famously strict liquor laws forbid the restaurant from pouring alcohol in front of customers. The ban is based on the idea that the state should shield the mixing of cocktails and pouring of drinks from children. "Zion curtains" went up around the state as part of a compromise after lawmakers lifted a mandate in 2010 requiring bars to operate as members-only social clubs.

But this year, the curtains may be coming down.

Utah lawmakers are considering whether to repeal the requirement, a move that would ease restrictions and encourage new business. Right now, the requirement applies to restaurants that are less than 3 years old.

Doing away with the curtain would mark yet another small step by the state to relax its liquor laws.

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False-labeling lawsuits claim more water, less buzz in Budweiser, Michelob brands

PHILADELPHIA (AP) -- Beer lovers across the U.S. have accused Anheuser-Busch of watering down its Budweiser, Michelob and other brands, in class-action suits seeking millions in damages.

The suits, filed in Pennsylvania, California and other states, claim consumers have been cheated out of the alcohol content stated on labels. Budweiser and Michelob each boast of being 5 percent alcohol, while some "light" versions are said to be just over 4 percent.

The lawsuits are based on information from former employees at the company's 13 U.S. breweries, some in high-level plant positions, according to lead lawyer Josh Boxer of San Rafael, Calif.

"Our information comes from former employees at Anheuser-Busch, who have informed us that as a matter of corporate practice, all of their products mentioned (in the lawsuit) are watered down," Boxer said. "It's a simple cost-saving measure, and it's very significant."

The excess water is added just before bottling and cuts the stated alcohol content by 3 percent to 8 percent, he said.

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Advanced breast cancer edges up in younger women; it's still uncommon & study raises questions

CHICAGO (AP) -- Advanced breast cancer has increased slightly among young women, a 34-year analysis suggests. The disease is still uncommon among women younger than 40, and the small change has experts scratching their heads about possible reasons.

The results are potentially worrisome because young women's tumors tend to be more aggressive than older women's, and they're much less likely to get routine screening for the disease.

Still, that doesn't explain why there'd be an increase in advanced cases and the researchers and other experts say more work is needed to find answers.

It's likely that the increase has more than one cause, said Dr. Rebecca Johnson, the study's lead author and medical director of a teen and young adult cancer program at Seattle Children's Hospital.

"The change might be due to some sort of modifiable risk factor, like a lifestyle change" or exposure to some sort of cancer-linked substance, she said.

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Mindy McCready's funeral being held in her hometown of Fort Myers in southwest Florida

FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) -- As her music played in the background, country music star Mindy McCready was remembered Tuesday by friends and family as a fun and talented singer who also "wanted to be healed" from her past.

About 200 friends and family gathered in the 37-year-old singer's Florida hometown of Fort Myers. A large screen behind the altar of Crossroads Baptist Church was filled with her images and her portrait stood nearby.

"Our Mindy was so tired. She felt helpless," said McCready's mother, Gayle Inge. "She was in her darkest moment and she was hurt by so many allegations. She was too emotional to understand."

McCready, whose real name was Malinda Gayle McCready, committed suicide Feb. 17 at her home in Arkansas, days after leaving a court-ordered substance abuse treatment program. The mother of two died from a single gunshot to the head about a month after her longtime boyfriend David Wilson's death, also thought to be suicide, in the same place.

Inge acknowledged that her daughter had faced many battles but now: "Her spirit found healing on the other side."