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WHITE HOUSE MEETING YIELDS NO PROGRESS ON SHUTDOWN

Thursday, 03 October 2013 06:32 Published in National News
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama brought congressional leaders to the White House on Wednesday for the first time since a partial government shutdown began, but there was no sign of progress toward ending an impasse that has idled 800,000 federal workers and curbed services around the country.

The standoff continued after a White House summit with chief executives as financial leaders and Wall street urged a resolution before serious damage is done to the U.S. and world economy.

Obama "refuses to negotiate," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio., told reporters after private talks that lasted more than an hour. "All we're asking for here is a discussion and fairness for the American people under Obamacare."

But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said moments later, "We're locked in tight on Obamacare" and neither the president nor Democrats will accept changes in the nation's 3-year-old health care law as the price for spending legislation needed to end the two-day partial shutdown.

With the nation's ability to borrow money soon to lapse, Republicans and Democrats alike said the shutdown could last for two weeks or more, and soon oblige a divided government to grapple with both economy-threatening issues at the same time.

The White House said in a statement after the meeting that Obama had made it clear "he is not going to negotiate over the need for Congress to act to reopen the government or to raise the debt limit to pay the bills Congress has already incurred."

It added, "The president remains hopeful that common sense will prevail."

The high-level bickering at microphones set up outside the White House reflected the day's proceedings in the Capitol.

The Republican-controlled House approved legislation to reopen the nation's parks and the National Institutes of Health, even though many Democrats criticized them as part of a piecemeal approach that fell far short of what was needed. The bills face dim prospects in the Senate, and the White House threatened to veto both in the unlikely event they make it to Obama's desk.

"What we're trying to do is to get the government open as quickly as possible," said the House majority leader, Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia. "And all that it would take is us realizing we have a lot in agreement."

Earlier, an attempt by Democrats to force shutdown-ending legislation to the House floor failed on a 227-197 vote, with all Republicans in opposition. That left intact the tea party-driven strategy of demanding changes to the nation's health care overhaul as the price for essential federal financing, despite grumbling from Republican moderates.

The stock market ended lower as Wall Street CEOs, Europe's central banker and traders pressed for a solution. Chief executives from the nation's biggest financial firms met Obama for more than an hour Wednesday, some of them plainly frustrated with the tactics at play in Congress and with the potential showdown coming over the debt limit.

"You can re-litigate these policy issues in a political forum, but we shouldn't use threats of causing the U.S. to fail on its obligations to repay its debt as a cudgel," Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs, said after the meeting.

Democrats were scathing in their criticism.

"The American people would get better government out of Monkey Island at the local zoo than we're giving them today," said Rep. John Dingell of Michigan.

The Republican National Committee announced it would pay for personnel needed to reopen the World War II Memorial, a draw for aging veterans from around the country that is among the sites shuttered. In a statement, party chairman Reince Priebus challenged Democrats "to join with us in keeping this memorial open."

Democrats labeled that a stunt. "We've already been working on a plan to open the Memorial — and the entire government — after the GOP caused them to close," said party spokesman Mo Elleithee. "It's called a clean" spending bill.

As it turned out, more than 125 World War II veterans from Mississippi and Iowa who were initially kept out of the memorial Tuesday were escorted to the site with the help of members of Congress. Officials made further arrangements to allow veterans groups into the memorial during the shutdown.

A sampling of federal agencies showed how unevenly the shutdown was felt across the government.

The Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Housing and Urban Development listed only six percent of their employees as essential, and therefore permitted to work during the impasse. James R. Clapper, director of national intelligence, said about 70 percent of civilian employees in agencies under his control had been sent home.

By contrast, about 86 percent of employees of the Department of Homeland Security remained on the job, and 95 percent at the Veterans Affairs Department.

One furloughed employee, meteorologist Amy Fritz, said, "I want to get back to work." At a news conference arranged by congressional Democrats, the 38-year-old National Weather Service employee said she has more than $100,000 in student loan debt and is looking at ways to cut her budget.

In an interview with CNBC before meeting with lawmakers, Obama said he would not negotiate with Republicans until the government is reopened and Congress votes to raise the debt limit.

"If we get in the habit where a few folks, an extremist wing of one party, whether it's Democrat or Republican, are allowed to extort concessions based on a threat (to) undermine the full faith and credit of the United States, then any president who comes after me, not just me, will find themselves unable to govern effectively," he said.

"The White House said Obama would have to truncate a long-planned trip to Asia, calling off the final two stops in Malaysia and the Philippines.

The shutdown also intruded into the race for governor of Virginia.

Terry McAuliffe, the Democrat, said he supported legislation to guarantee retroactive pay for furloughed federal employees. The Republican contender, Ken Cuccinelli, called on members of Congress to decline their pay as long as the shutdown lasts.

The House sidetracked legislation Tuesday night to reopen some veterans programs, the national parks and a portion of the Washington, D.C., municipal government. All three bills fell short of the two-thirds majority needed when Democrats voted overwhelmingly against this.

Republicans tried again, this time under rules requiring only a simple majority. The parks measure was approved on a vote of 252-173, with 23 Democrats breaking ranks and voting in favor. The vote to reopen NIH was 254-171. The House also voted to allow the Washington, D.C., government to use the taxes it collects to operate programs.

Votes were deferred on more bills, one to assure pay for members of the National Guard and Reserves and another to allow some veterans programs to resume.

The NIH bill was added to the day's agenda after Democrats had said seriously ill patients would be turned away from the facility's hospital of last resort, and no new enrollment permitted in experimental treatments.

Democratic Rep. Louise Slaughter of New York said the Republican response was a ploy. "Every time they see a bad headline they're going to bring a bill to the floor and make it go away," she said.

Some Republicans took obvious pleasure in the rough rollout Tuesday of new health insurance markets created under Obama's health care law. Widespread online glitches prevented many people from signing up for coverage that begins in January.

Rep. Trey Radel of Florida said a 14-year-old could build a better website "in an afternoon in his basement."

At issue is the need to pass a temporary funding bill to keep the government open since the start of the new budget year on Tuesday.

Congress has passed more than 100 temporary funding bills since the last shutdown in 1996, almost all of them without controversy. The streak was broken because conservative Republicans have held up the current measure in the longshot hope of derailing or delaying Obamacare, just as the health insurance markets at the heart of the law opened on Tuesday.

___ Associated Press writers Andrew Taylor, Donna Cassata, Henry Jackson, Julie Pace, Jessica Gresko, Darlene Superville and Seth Borenstein contributed to this story

NSA CHIEF ADMITS TESTING US CELLPHONE TRACKING

Thursday, 03 October 2013 06:30 Published in National News
WASHINGTON (AP) — National Security Agency chief Gen. Keith Alexander revealed Wednesday that his spy agency once tested whether it could track Americans' cellphone locations, in addition to its practice of sweeping broad information about calls made.

Alexander and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on proposed reforms to the NSA's surveillance of phone and internet usage around the world, exposed in June by former NSA analyst Edward Snowden. But neither spy chief spent much time discussing proposed reforms; instead they were questioned about new potential abuses that have come to light since then.

Alexander denied a New York Times report published Saturday that said NSA searched social networks of Americans searching for foreign terror connections, and detailed 12 previously revealed cases of abuse by NSA employees who used the network for unsanctioned missions like spying on a spouse. He said all employees were caught and most were disciplined.

Alexander and Clapper also told lawmakers that the government shutdown that began Tuesday over a budget impasse is seriously damaging the intelligence community's ability to guard against threats. They said they're keeping counterterrorism staff at work as well as those providing intelligence to troops in Afghanistan, but that some 70 percent of the civilian workforce has been furloughed. Any details on the jobs held by the furloughed employees is classified.

Congress is mulling changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that some believe allows the NSA too much freedom in gathering U.S. data as part of spying on targets overseas.

Alexander told the committee that his agency once tested, in 2010 and 2011, whether it could track Americans' cellphone locations, but he says the NSA does not use that capability, leaving that to the FBI to build a criminal or foreign intelligence case against a suspect and track him.

"This may be something that is a future requirement for the country but it is not right now because when we identify a number, we give it to the FBI," Alexander said. "When they get their probable cause, they can get the locational data."

He said if the NSA thought it needed to track someone that way, it would go back to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court — the secret court that authorizes its spying missions — for approval. He added that his agency reported the tests to both House and Senate intelligence committees, and that the data was never used for intelligence analysis.

Only last week, Alexander refused to answer questions from Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., about whether his agency had ever collected or planned to collect such "cell-site" data, as it is called, saying it was classified, but the general said the NSA released the information in letters to the House and Senate Intelligence Committees ahead of the Judiciary Committee meeting Wednesday.

Wyden was not satisfied with Alexander's answer.

"After years of stonewalling on whether the government has ever tracked or planned to track the location of law abiding Americans through their cellphones, once again, the intelligence leadership has decided to leave most of the real story secret — even when the truth would not compromise national security," he said.

Alexander acknowledged his agency collects data from social networks and other commercial databases to hunt foreign terror suspects but is not using the information to build private files on Americans. He said the operations are only used in pursuing foreign agents and sweeping up information on Americans if they are connected to those suspects by phone calls or other data.

Alexander said that not all social network searches are authorized by the secret FISA court, but he added the agency's searches are proper and audited internally. The authority flows from a presidential executive order on national security dating back to the Reagan administration in 1981, he said, adding: "It allows us to understand what the foreign nexus is."

Alexander called a recent New York Times report on the searches "inaccurate and wrong." The Times said the NSA was exploiting huge collections of personal data to create sophisticated graphs of some Americans' social connections. The Times said the private data included Facebook posts and banking, flight, GPS location and voting records.

Alexander denied the NSA was building "dossiers," or personal files on Americans, even though the Times story never specifically suggested that was being done.

He said collecting such private metadata is "the most important way" to track a potential terrorist once they have been identified. He also said Americans are only directly targeted by such searches when they are under investigation for possible terror ties or they are the targets of terror activities. He added that suspected terrorists operating inside the U.S. could also be targeted under those private data searches.

As for the incidents when NSA analysts did abuse their spying powers, Alexander told senators none of them involved the programs that collect American telephone records or email data.

"Nine of those were abroad," he said. "Three were (in the U.S.) but involved persons abroad on two of those. And one was on a spouse or girlfriend."

The NSA's inspector general detailed the violation in a letter to Congress that was released last week. Several cases clearly showed government officials using the surveillance system to probe for information about spouses or partners. In one case, an internal investigation found that the official had made internal surveillance queries on the phones of nine foreign women, including his girlfriend, without authorization and had at times listened in on some phone conversations. The same official also collected data on a U.S. person's phone.

Alexander said all had been disciplined, and had retired, resigned or been reprimanded, except for one where there wasn't enough evidence to prove wrongdoing.

Both Alexander and Clapper spoke of reduced capability of their workforce during the government shutdown. Clapper said he has tried to keep on enough employees to guard against "imminent threats to life or property," but may have to call more back to work if the shutdown continues.

"The danger here... will accumulate over time. The damage will be insidious," Clapper said. Clapper even raised the specter of treason, saying financial stress could make his intelligence officers vulnerable to being bought off by foreign spies.

The federal government effectively shut down as of midnight Tuesday because of a standoff over the federal budget.

___ Follow Kimberly Dozier on Twitter at http://twitter.com/kimberlydozier

ONLINE DELAYS SIGNAL STRONG DEMAND FOR HEALTH CARE

Thursday, 03 October 2013 06:27 Published in Health & Fitness
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Overloaded websites and jammed phone lines frustrated consumers for a second day as they tried to sign up for health insurance under the nation's historic health care overhaul.

That was putting pressure on the federal government and the states that are running their own insurance exchanges to fix the problems amid strong demand for the private insurance plans.

"I think I'm through with Hawaii Health Connector," said Richard Gamberg, 61, of Honolulu, after tweeting messages to officials and complaining to state lawmakers on Wednesday. "They've got ads in the newspaper, they've got ads on the TV — it just flabbergasts me."

He was among the would-be customers in Hawaii who were still unable to buy insurance policies online Wednesday, forcing them to turn directly to insurance companies to examine their options. In Oregon, officials said a faulty online calculator would not be fixed until late October.

The delays that continued Wednesday offered one good sign for President Barack Obama and supporters of his signature domestic policy achievement, demonstrating what appeared to be exceptionally high interest in the new system. But the problems also could dampen enthusiasm for the law as Republicans use it as a rallying cry to keep most of the federal government closed.

"It's day two of health care reform, and we have yet to have someone successfully register on the marketplace," said Matt Hadzick, manager of a Highmark retail insurance store in Allentown, Pa., where people could go to register for the online insurance marketplace. "The registration process is very slow, and at one point it just shuts down."

The sweeping changes under the Affordable Care Act include federal subsidies to make insurance more affordable for low-income consumers and preventing health insurance companies from denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions. That will open the door for coverage to many people who have been locked out of the insurance market.

In California, home to 15 percent of the nation's uninsured, officials took down the enrollment portion of the Covered California website for emergency upgrades. It was restored at mid-morning Wednesday, and 7,770 people had started applications by then, spokesman Roy Kennedy said.

California is one of a handful of mostly Democratic states that opted to set up their own exchanges rather than let the federal government do it for them. In the 36 states being operated by the federal Department of Health and Human Services, consumer patience was being tested.

Agency spokeswoman Joanne Peters said many Americans successfully enrolled on the first day, but she declined to put a number on it. She said the delays were due to "overwhelming interest" and high volume.

The delays come three months after the congressional Government Accountability Office said a smooth and timely rollout could not be guaranteed because the online system was not fully completed or tested.

The bumpy debut has the hallmarks of a technology project that may have rushed to meet the Oct. 1 deadline, said Bill Curtis, chief scientist at CAST, a software quality analysis firm, and director of the Consortium for IT Software Quality, which develops standards.

"It almost reminded me of going online and trying to buy Springsteen tickets," said Sharon Schorr of suburban Cleveland, a self-employed accountant who finally gave up after eight hours of trying to use the exchange's website.

With websites crashing, those who have been trained to explain the benefits under the federal law were trying to reach out to those who could be helped by the exchanges, handing out information at public transit hubs and holding town hall meetings in smaller communities.

Without online access, however, they could not actually guide people through the enrollment process.

"I've been unable to get in, and if I could have that would be great," said Donene Feist, an outreach worker who also is executive director of Family Voices of North Dakota, a nonprofit advocacy group. "For those who got in, they said it was easy to follow."

The Obama administration hopes to sign up 7 million people in the first year, and eventually cover at least half of the nearly 50 million uninsured Americans through government-subsidized plans and a Medicaid expansion.

Many states expect people to sign up closer to the Dec. 15 deadline to enroll for coverage starting Jan. 1. Customers have until the end of March to sign up to avoid tax penalties.

___ Alonso-Zaldivar reported from Washington, D.C.

___ Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Jeff Barnard in Grants Pass, Ore., Oskar Garcia in Honolulu; James MacPherson in Bismarck, N.D.; Laura Olson in Sacramento; Michael Rubinkam in Allentown, Pa.; and John Seewer in Toledo, Ohio.

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