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Smoking ban in cars advances in Illinois Legislature

Wednesday, 05 March 2014 11:24 Published in Local News
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) - A proposal that would make it illegal for motorists to smoke in cars with children is advancing in the Illinois legislature
The Springfield bureau of Lee Enterprises newspapers reports the measure was approved by a Senate panel on Tuesday.
The Senate Public Health Committee approved the bill by a 5-2 vote. It now heads to the full Senate.
The legislation was drafted by state Sen. Ira Silverstein, a Chicago Democrat who says secondhand smoke in confined areas is dangerous for children.
Motorcycles and convertibles would be exempt. And police wouldn't be able to pull over drivers solely for committing the offense.

GOP, DEFICIT HAWKS PAN OBAMA'S $3.9T BUDGET

Wednesday, 05 March 2014 06:24 Published in National News

WASHINGTON (AP) — Republicans are dismissing President Barack Obama's new $3.9 trillion budget as nothing more than a Democratic manifesto for this fall's congressional campaigns, but the fiscal plan is taking hits from another quarter too — anti-deficit groups.

Obama on Tuesday sent lawmakers a 2015 budget top-heavy with provisions that have little chance of becoming law. They included $1 trillion in tax increases — mostly on the rich and corporations — and a collection of populist but mostly modest spending boosts for consumer protection, climate change research and improved technology in schools.

It even trumpeted $2.2 trillion in 10-year deficit reduction, though most of the proposed savings, including fresh tax boosts plus cuts in government payments to Medicare providers, seemed long shots to make it through Congress. Almost one-third came from claiming savings from the end of U.S. fighting in Iraq and troop withdrawals from Afghanistan.

That meant the budget's clearest impact was political: feeding Democrats' election-year narrative that they are trying to help narrow the income gap between rich and poor while creating jobs. Republicans, who see tax cuts as the surest way to help the economy, pounced.

"The president has once again opted for the political stunt for a budget that's more about firing up the president's base in an election year than about solving the nation's biggest and most persistent long-term challenges," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

"This budget isn't a serious document, it's a campaign brochure," said House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis.

Obama and his Democratic allies saw things differently.

"It's a road map for creating jobs with good wages and expanding opportunity for all Americans," the president said while visiting an elementary school in the nation's capital. He added that his plan would help curb budget deficits with higher taxes on the wealthy and other savings, "not by putting the burden on folks who can least afford it."

Despite those words, pressure for lawmakers to take serious swipes at budget shortfalls has faded.

After four years of record-setting annual deficits that each exceeded $1 trillion, the budget gap dropped to $680 billion in 2013 and could continue downward. Obama's budget projects shortfalls of $649 billion this year and $564 billion in 2015.

A bipartisan compromise curbing agency spending for the next two years, combined with the usual election-year pressures to avoid politically risky steps, has further diluted lawmakers' desires to tackle the problem.

But Washington groups that press to control budget shortfalls argue that the government's long-term fiscal problem remains.

They argue that retiring baby boomers and ever-rising health costs threaten to swamp revenues in the long run, running federal debt to levels that are hard to sustain without risking economic problems. Even with Obama's proposed savings, the government would still run up $4.9 trillion more in debt over the coming decade, on top of more than $14 trillion it already owes.

"The longer we wait, the more painful the changes will be," said Maya MacGuineas, a leader of the bipartisan Fix the Debt Campaign. "We can't let election-year malaise be an excuse for inaction on such an important issue."

"Stabilizing the debt over the long term is a key part of any sound fiscal policy and viable economic strategy for America," said Michael A. Peterson, president of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation.

In a nod to controlling the budget, Obama's fiscal plan proposes to live within a compromise spending limit for agencies reached in December between Ryan and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray, D-Wis.

But on top of that, Obama proposed $55 billion in additional spending priorities, divided evenly between defense and domestic programs. These include repairs for bases and more weapons purchases for the military, plus domestic programs like upgrading national parks and increasing grants to schools that train students for jobs.

Obama would pay for the entire add-on by limiting tax breaks for retirement benefits of the wealthy, cutting some farm subsidies and boosting airline passenger fees — none of which have realistic chances of enactment this year.

Without that extra money, Pentagon spending would be $496 billion in 2015, the same as this year. The Pentagon plans to shrink the Army from 490,000 active-duty soldiers to as few as 440,000 over the coming five years, the smallest since just before World War II, reduce ship purchases and take other steps that defense hawks in Congress are unhappy with — especially since Russia's takeover of Ukraine's Crimea region.

Obama's budget also calls for $302 billion for roads, mass transit and railroads over the next four years; doubles to $1,000 the maximum earned income tax credit for childless low-income workers; and spends $66 billion over the next decade for preschool programs for all 4-year-olds.

Tobacco taxes would rise an additional 94 cents per pack, up from their current $1.01. A corporate tax overhaul would quickly yield $150 billion as loopholes were tightened on U.S. companies doing business abroad, and other companies and financial institutions would face $56 billion over 10 years from a new fee.

None of those proposals are going anywhere quickly on Capitol Hill.

___

Associated Press writer Andrew Taylor contributed to this report.

PUTIN TALKS TOUGH BUT COOLS TENSIONS OVER UKRAINE

Wednesday, 05 March 2014 06:22 Published in National News

MOSCOW (AP) — Stepping back from the brink of war, Vladimir Putin talked tough but cooled tensions in the Ukraine crisis Tuesday, saying Russia has no intention "to fight the Ukrainian people" but reserves the right to use force.

As the Russian president held court in his personal residence, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Kiev's fledgling government and urged Putin to stand down.

"It is not appropriate to invade a country, and at the end of a barrel of a gun dictate what you are trying to achieve," Kerry said. "That is not 21st-century, G-8, major nation behavior."

Although nerves remained on edge in the Crimean Peninsula, with Russian troops firing warning shots to ward off Ukrainian soldiers, global markets jumped higher on tentative signals that the Kremlin was not seeking to escalate the conflict. Kerry brought moral support and a $1 billion aid package to a Ukraine fighting to fend off bankruptcy.

Lounging in an arm-chair before Russian tricolor flags, Putin made his first public comments since the Ukrainian president fled a week and a half ago. It was a signature Putin performance, filled with earthy language, macho swagger and sarcastic jibes, accusing the West of promoting an "unconstitutional coup" in Ukraine. At one point he compared the U.S. role to an experiment with "lab rats."

But the overall message appeared to be one of de-escalation. "It seems to me (Ukraine) is gradually stabilizing," Putin said. "We have no enemies in Ukraine. Ukraine is a friendly state."

Still, he tempered those comments by warning that Russia was willing to use "all means at our disposal" to protect ethnic Russians in the country.

Significantly, Russia agreed to a NATO request to hold a special meeting to discuss Ukraine on Wednesday in Brussels, opening up a possible diplomatic channel in a conflict that still holds monumental hazards and uncertainties. At the same time, the U.S. and 14 other nations formed a military observer mission to monitor the tense Crimea region, and the team was headed there in 24 hours.

While the threat of military confrontation retreated somewhat, both sides ramped up economic feuding. Russia hit its nearly broke neighbor with a termination of discounts on natural gas, while the U.S. announced a $1 billion aid package in energy subsidies to Ukraine.

"We are going to do our best. We are going to try very hard," Kerry said upon arriving in Kiev. "We hope Russia will respect the election that you are going to have."

Kerry also made a pointed distinction between the Ukrainian government and Putin's.

"The contrast really could not be clearer: determined Ukrainians demonstrating strength through unity, and the Russian government out of excuses, hiding its hand behind falsehoods, intimidation and provocations. In the hearts of Ukrainians and the eyes of the world, there is nothing strong about what Russia is doing."

The penalties proposed against Russia, he added, are "not something we are seeking to do. It is something Russia is pushing us to do."

World markets, which slumped the previous day, clawed back a large chunk of their losses on signs that Russia was backpedaling. Gold, the Japanese yen and U.S. treasuries — all seen as safe havens — returned some of their gains. Russia's RTS index, which fell 12 percent on Monday, rose 6.2 percent Tuesday. In the U.S., the Dow Jones industrial average closed up 1.4 percent.

"Confidence in equity markets has been restored as the standoff between Ukraine and Russia is no longer on red alert," said David Madden, market analyst at IG.

Russia took over the strategic Crimean Peninsula on Saturday, placing its troops around its ferry, military bases and border posts. Two Ukrainian warships remained anchored in the Crimean port of Sevastopol, blocked from leaving by Russian ships.

"Those unknown people without insignia who have seized administrative buildings and airports ... what we are seeing is a kind of velvet invasion," said Russian military analyst Alexander Golts.

The territory's enduring volatility was put in stark relief Tuesday morning: Russian troops, who had taken control of the Belbek air base, fired warning shots into the air as some 300 Ukrainian soldiers, who previously manned the airfield, demanded their jobs back.

As the Ukrainians marched unarmed toward the base, about a dozen Russian soldiers told them not to approach, then fired several shots into the air and said they would shoot the Ukrainians if they continued toward them.

The Ukrainian troops vowed to hold whatever ground they had left on the Belbek base.

"We are worried, but we will not give up our base," said Capt. Nikolai Syomko, an air force radio electrician holding an AK-47.

Amid the tensions, the Russian military test-fired a Topol intercontinental ballistic missile. Fired from a launch pad in southern Russia, it hit a designated target on a range leased by Russia from Kazakhstan.

The new Ukrainian leadership in Kiev, which Putin does not recognize, has accused Moscow of a military invasion in Crimea, which the Russian leader denied.

Ukraine's prime minister expressed hope that a negotiated solution could be found. Arseniy Yatsenyuk told a news conference that both governments were gradually beginning to talk again.

"We hope that Russia will understand its responsibility in destabilizing the security situation in Europe, that Russia will realize that Ukraine is an independent state and that Russian troops will leave the territory of Ukraine," he said.

In his hour-long meeting with reporters, Putin said Russia had no intention of annexing Crimea, while insisting its residents have the right to determine the region's status in a referendum later this month. Tensions "have been settled," he declared.

He said massive military maneuvers Russia has conducted involving 150,000 troops near Ukraine's border were previously planned and unrelated to the current situation in Ukraine. Russia announced that Putin had ordered the troops back to their bases.

Putin hammered away at his message that the West was to blame for Ukraine's turmoil, saying its actions were driving Ukraine into anarchy. He warned that any sanctions the United States and European Union place on Russia will backfire.

American threats of punitive measures are "failure to enforce its will and its vision of the right and wrong side of history," Russia's Foreign Ministry said — a swipe at President Barack Obama's statement a day earlier that Russia was "on the wrong side of history."

In Washington, Obama shot back. Moves to punish Putin put the U.S. on "the side of history that, I think, more and more people around the world deeply believe in, the principle that a sovereign people, an independent people, are able to make their own decisions about their own lives."

"And, you know, Mr. Putin can throw a lot of words out there, but the facts on the ground indicate that right now he is not abiding by that principle," Obama said.

The EU was to hold an emergency summit Thursday on whether to impose sanctions.

Moscow has insisted that the Russian military deployment in Crimea has remained within the limits set by a bilateral agreement concerning Russia's Black Sea Fleet military base there. At the United Nations, Russia's ambassador to the U.N., Vitaly Churkin, said Russia was entitled to deploy up to 25,000 troops in Crimea under that agreement.

Putin also asserted that Ukraine's 22,000-strong force in Crimea had dissolved and its arsenals had fallen under the control of the local government. He didn't explain if that meant the Ukrainian soldiers had just left their posts or if they had switched allegiance from Kiev to the local pro-Russian government.

Putin accused the West of using fugitive President Viktor Yanukovych's decision in November to ditch a pact with the EU in favor of closer ties with Russia to fan the protests that drove him from power and plunged Ukraine into turmoil.

"I have told them a thousand times 'Why are you splitting the country?'" he said.

While he said he still considers Yanukovych to be Ukraine's legitimate president, he acknowledged that the fallen leader has no political future — and said Russia gave him shelter only to save his life. Ukraine's new government wants to put Yanukovych on trial for the deaths of over 80 people during protests last month in Kiev.

Putin had withering words for Yanukovych, with whom he has never been close.

Asked if he harbors any sympathy for the fugitive president, Putin replied that he has "quite opposite feelings."

___

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