U.K. to Allow Church Civil Ceremonies for Gays

Gay couples are to be allowed civil partnership ceremonies in churches, Britain’s government said Thursday — erasing some of the last remaining distinctions between gay partnerships and traditional marriages. Although marriage and civil partnership are already similar under British law, civil partnership ceremonies are currently not allowed to have religious references, are banned from churches, and must take place in a public building overseen by a government registrar. The change, being introduced under equality laws, will give same-sex couples the chance to tie the knot in religious buildings — although the government stressed that churches can opt out if they wish to.

Hawaii Eyes Gay Ceremonies after Civil Unions Pass

Hawaii lawmakers gave final approval to civil unions Wednesday and sent the legislation to Democratic Gov. Neil Abercrombie, who plans to sign it into law within 10 business days. Civil unions would begin Jan. 1, 2012, making the state the seventh in the nation to grant virtually the same rights of marriage to same-sex couples without authorizing marriage itself. The culturally diverse islands are already a welcoming place for gay tourists, including some who seek informal partnership ceremonies. With civil unions, those ceremonies would come with a certificate that’s valid in other states with civil unions or same-sex marriage, depending on their local laws. Five states and the District of Columbia permit same-sex marriage.

Planned Parenthood Financing Caught in Budget Feud

Almost unnoticed in the wars over the federal budget has been a pitched battle over money for Planned Parenthood, which provides contraception, medical services and abortions at 800 clinics around the country. For the last several weeks, those on opposite sides of a sharp cultural divide have engaged in dueling rallies, virtual conferences, online petitions and phone banks as crucial Congressional votes drew near. At stake is more than $75 million that Planned Parenthood receives to provide family planning assistance to low-income women, money that its opponents say only frees up funds for abortions. The newly conservative House of Representatives has proposed cutting the entire $317 million program of aid for family planning, known as Title X, in a 2011 spending bill that is expected to pass by the weekend. A proposed amendment to the bill would also bar Planned Parenthood from receiving any federal funds for any purpose. The fight will shift to the Senate, where the Democrats retain a small majority. It is unlikely they will agree to cut all financing for Planned Parenthood.

Budget Showdown Moves to Senate Amid Shutdown Threat

Washington’s game of budget brinksmanship heads to the Senate, as the House of Representatives worked late Thursday making more cuts to an austere spending plan that neither the Senate nor the White House is ready to adopt. The government’s current spending authority expires March 4, and each side accused the other of bringing the federal government closer to a shutdown. The last time a federal shutdown occurred was during the Clinton administration. A final vote on the bill is possible today. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Thursday he won’t extend that deadline by passing a short-term, status-quo spending bill. He said Democrats were “threatening to shut down the government rather than to cut spending and to follow the will of the American people.”

111 Charged in Medicare Scams Worth $225M

Federal prosecutors Thursday charged 111 people, including doctors, nurses and health care company officials, with bilking the Medicare system out of $225 million in the largest one-day health care fraud sweep in U.S. history. Attorney General Eric Holder said the charges filed in nine cities are part of an ongoing national crackdown related to a range of false billing schemes by health providers from New York to Los Angeles. Holder alleged the suspects submitted claims to Medicare for treatments or services, including home health care, medical equipment, physical therapy and prescription drugs, that were “medically unnecessary and often never provided.”

Arizona Slashes Business Taxes to Lure Jobs

In Arizona, lawmakers plan to balance future state budgets by spending less while also reducing income – by cutting taxes. They believe the move will bring more business activity and more money down the road. Gov. Jan Brewer on Thursday signed into law a tax-cut package that legislative budget analysts estimate at $538 million, revamping the state’s business-recruitment arm in the process. The unanswered question is whether Arizona can erase continuing budget shortfalls while also reducing business taxes. The tax cuts will come at a challenging time, phasing in just months after a temporary 1-cent-per-dollar sales tax expires. Lawmakers have used that extra revenue to help reduce budget shortfalls so far. Others worry the tax cuts will further deplete state coffers, leading to deep cuts in education and other social services.

Economic News

A big jump in food and gas costs pushed the consumer price index up in January, but outside those volatile categories inflation was up just 0.2%, still the largest increase in more than a year. The consumer price index rose 0.4% last month, matching December’s increase, the Labor Department said Thursday. In the past year, the index has risen 1.6%. Core prices, which exclude food and energy, increased 1% over the past 12 months. Food prices increased 0.5% in January, the most in more than two years. Energy costs jumped 2.1%. Clothing prices rose 1% in January, as apparel companies offset the rising cost of cotton.

Gasoline pump prices reached a 28-month high Wednesday even though oil and gas supplies in the U.S. continue to grow and demand for gas is weak. The national average for regular gasoline rose to $3.156 a gallon Friday morning. That’s about $1.23 more than the price at the pump two years ago. The rising prices were in part a result of the turmoil in the Middle East which poses a risk to supplies

More people applied for unemployment benefits last week, one week after claims had fallen to the lowest level in nearly three years. The Labor Department said that 410,000 people filed new claims for unemployment assistance last week, a jump of 25,000 from the previous week. Applications are still well below their peak of 651,000, reached in March 2009, when the economy was in the depths of the recession, but they would need to dip consistently to 375,000 or below to indicate a significant and steady decline in the unemployment rate.

Interest payments on the national debt will quadruple in the next decade and every man, woman and child in the United States will be paying more than $2,500 a year to cover for the nation’s past profligacy, according to figures in President Obama’s recent budget proposal.

The closure of Egypt’s banks for two of the past three weeks has added strain on an economy already reeling from the evaporation of tourism and a prolonged stock market closure caused by the political upheaval that ousted longtime leader Hosni Mubarak. The closures were ordered after protests and strikes by poorly paid bank workers, some of them demanding a purge of executives they accused of corruption. The bank shutdown and the draining of ATM machines have paralyzed businesses and left ordinary people scrambling for cash.

Afghanistan

The military has reduced the number of troops wounded or killed by homemade bombs in Afghanistan by 37% since August by improving its ability to find the explosives before they blow up. About one-sixth of the bombs used by insurgents in January ended up wounding or killing troops compared with the one-quarter of such bombs that caused casualties last year. In 2010, IEDs wounded or killed 7,800 troops in the U.S.-led coalition, according to data released to USA TODAY. That accounts for nearly half of all casualties.

Iraq

The Iraqi defector who helped convince the American intelligence community and press that Iraq was making weapons of mass destruction has admitted that his testimony was false. Rafid Ahmed Alwan al-Janabi, also known ever-more-appropriately as Curveball by German and American intelligence, fabricated evidence that was famously used as justification for the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. In an interview with The Guardian in London, he claimed he used the misinformation in order to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime. The admission came as a no surprise to some who have long believed that the evidence, presented to the U.N. by then Secretary of State Colin Powell in the run-up to the invasion, was false.

Egypt

Rivaling the biggest crowds since their pro-democracy revolt began, flag-waving Egyptians packed into Tahrir Square for a day of prayer and celebration Friday to mark the fall of longtime leader Hosni Mubarak a week ago and to push their new military rulers to steer the country toward reform. The groups that sparked the 18-day uprising leading to Mubarak’s downfall called the massive gathering the “Friday of Victory and Continuation,” a name reflecting both their pride in forcing a national leadership change and their worries about the future. The ability of organizers to mobilize hundreds of thousands of people to rally in Cairo— and for a similar celebration in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria — was meant to send a message to the ruling generals that they should honor their pledge to install a freely elected government within six months.

The vast majority of Islamic terrorists who were being held inside Egypt’s prisons have escaped in recent weeks, WorldNetDaily reports. Out of hundreds of jailed terrorists, only nine Islamic terrorists currently remain in any Egyptian prison. The information raises the prospect of further instability in Egypt, in particular in the region of the Suez Canal, which carries about 8 percent of global seaborne trade.

Yemen

Anti-government demonstrators clashed with supporters of Yemen’s longtime ruler and riot police, who fired tear gas and shots in the air to disperse the crowd on what organizers called a “Friday of Rage” across the country. In the city of Taiz, what appeared to be a hand grenade was thrown at a group of protesters, seriously wounding at least eight people in the blast and stampede that followed. Riots also flared overnight in the southern port of Aden with police shooting to death one demonstrator after cars and a local government building were set ablaze. It was the eighth straight day of protests in Yemen inspired by uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia. Demonstrators in the Arab world’s poorest country are calling for the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh— a key U.S. ally in fighting al-Qaeda terrorists — who has ruled the country for 32 years.

Libya

Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi drove through his nation’s capital in a motorcade, drawing a cheering crowd as the long-time ruler tried to rally support amid reports of widening anti-government protests. Protests have erupted in several cities in Libya this week, especially in the east, and the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said Friday that 24 people were killed in unrest on Wednesday and Thursday. Libyan protesters seeking to oust longtime leader Moammar Gadhafi defied a crackdown and took to the streets in four cities Thursday on what activists have dubbed a “day of rage,” Hundreds of pro-government demonstrators also rallied in the capital, Tripoli, blocking traffic in some areas, witnesses said.

Bahrain

Thousands of mourners called for the downfall of Bahrain’s ruling monarchy and worshippers at Friday prayers, chanting against the king as anger shifted toward the nation’s highest authorities after a deadly assault on pro-reform protesters that has brought army tanks into the streets of one of the most strategic Western allies in the Gulf. The crackdown left at least five dead and more than 230 injured and put the nation under emergency-style footing with military forces in key areas and checkpoints on main roads. Armed patrols prowled neighborhoods and tanks appeared in the streets for the first time Thursday after riot police with tear gas and clubs drove protesters from a main square where they had demanded sweeping political change in this tiny kingdom. Medical officials said four people were killed. Police cars with flashing blue lights encircled Pearl Square, the site of anti-government rallies since Monday. Barbed wire was set up on streets leading to the square, where police cleaned up flattened protest tents and trampled banners. The Interior Ministry declared the protest camp “illegal” and warned Bahrainis to stay off the streets. The island nation was effectively shut down since workers in the capital could not pass checkpoints or were too scared to venture out. Banks and other key institutions did not open.

Tanzania

A military ammunition depot in Zanzibar, Tanzania’s largest city, blew up overnight in a series of explosions that leveled homes, killed at least 25 people and wounded about 145 others. Several houses and a school were leveled during Wednesday night’s explosions, which sent huge orange bursts into the night sky. Thousands ran for their lives, and 200 children have been unable to find their parents. The blasts closed the city’s international airport, near the Gongola Mboto military base. Some 4,000 residents were evacuated to the national stadium in Dar es Salaam, which lies along the Indian Ocean in East Africa.

Mexico

At least 13 people were fatally shot in less than 24 hours in the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez on Thursday, authorities said. “They were killed in separate shootings throughout the city. We had 13 killed by 10 p.m.,” said Adrian Sanchez, a municipal police spokesman.

Weather

Millions of people in the Midwest are at risk from major flooding this spring, according to a forecast being released Friday by the National Weather Service. “Excessive precipitation, mainly in the form of snow, coupled with continuously frigid temperatures, has yielded a thick snowpack in much of the upper Midwest. We expect significant flooding when this snow begins to melt,” the service said.

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