The CNN Washington Bureau’s morning speed read of the top stories making news from around the country and the world. Click on the headlines for more.
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CNN: Obama talks Libya with leaders of France, Italy, UK
President Barack Obama spoke Thursday with the leaders of France, Italy and the United Kingdom on coordinating an international response to the crisis in Libya, the White House said. In separate phone conversations with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and British Prime Minister David Cameron, Obama "expressed his deep concern with the Libyan government's use of violence which violates international norms and every standard of human decency, and discussed appropriate and effective ways for the international community to immediately respond," the White House statement said.
CNN: Senate Democrats readying new offer on budget stalemate
The high-stakes political maneuvering over government spending cuts continued Thursday as Senate Democrats for the first time said they are readying specific budget cuts they hope will satisfy House Republicans. Unless the two sides reach an agreement, the government will run out of money and shut down at the end of next week. However, an aide for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, quickly indicated the proposed cuts don’t go deep enough to end the stalemate. Democrats say they would save billions by speeding up proposed cuts in President Obama’s budget for 2012 and by getting rid of money for earmarks in the spending bill currently funding the government, according to a Senate Democratic aide who would not speak on the record about the negotiations. That current bill, which expires March 4, funds the government at a level $41 billion below what President Obama proposed for this year, a cost savings both Democrats and Republicans are claiming as they debate deeper cuts.
Bloomberg: Obama Aides Say Social Security No Threat to Nation’s Finances
Obama administration officials are rejecting the idea of making major changes to Social Security as part of a debate over reining in the national debt, a stance that’s drawing protests from deficit-cutting advocates. White House Budget Director Jack Lew and Jason Furman, deputy director of President Barack Obama’s National Economic Council, both stressed this week that Social Security isn’t facing an immediate funding crisis and should be viewed separately from moves to reduce the federal budget deficit.
CNN: Budget bill passes Wisconsin Assembly; moves to Senate
The Wisconsin state Assembly passed a Republican bill Friday that strips most public workers of their collective bargaining rights. But the fight over the bill seems far from over. It still has to pass Wisconsin's Senate which could prove to be a more contentious battle. Fourteen Democratic Senators have fled to neighboring Illinois to prevent a quorum from voting on the issue and they remained absent early Friday. "The vote we took wasn't the easy thing to do, but it was the right thing to do," said Assembly Majority Leader Scott Suder said early Friday. "I continue to urge my Democrat colleagues in the Senate to come back to Madison so that they can debate this bill and do their job for the taxpayers of Wisconsin."
CNN: Congressman apologizes for 'get bloody' comment
Democratic Massachusetts Rep. Michael Capuano, who came under fire for heated comments he made at a union rally earlier this week, apologized for his remarks Thursday. "I strongly believe in standing up for worker rights and my passion for preserving those rights may have gotten the best of me yesterday in an unscripted speech," he said in a statement. "I wish I had used different language to express my passion and I regret my choice of words." Capuano spoke at a rally outside the statehouse in Boston Tuesday in support of Wisconsin state workers. He encouraged union members to challenge a proposal that would limit collective bargaining rights stating, "Every once in a while you've got to get out in the streets and get a little bloody when necessary. This fight is worth it."
CNN: Providence, Rhode Island, teachers receive pink slips, yet remain on job
Termination notices have been sent to every teacher in the Providence public school system, setting off a wave of anxiety and anger in the Rhode Island city and prompting a union leader to accuse the mayor of anti-union maneuvering. The teachers will remain at work as the school year continues, though the notices sent out this week mean any of them now could lose their jobs at the municipal officials' discretion. During a packed and at-times spirited meeting Thursday night, the city school committee voted 4-3 to back Mayor Angel Tavares' move to send out the notices. The mayor said in an online message Wednesday that he authorized the previous day's decision to dismiss almost 2,000 teachers and staff to allow for greater flexibility as the budget process unfolds.
CNN: Army to probe psy-ops allegations in Rolling Stone
A military officer trained in using psychological tactics to influence the emotions and actions of enemy troops told CNN Thursday her unit was ordered to used those skills to manipulate visiting lawmakers into securing more troops and funding for the war in Afghanistan. After a fellow officer questioned the legality of using "psychological operations" on elected U.S. officers, both received reprimands that could threaten their military careers, she said. "We're not allowed to do that against any U.S. citizen, whether it is a congressman or my neighbor three doors down," said Texas National Guard Maj. Laural Levine. "That is the first thing you are taught - never target Americans, ever."
CNN: GOP-led states skipping payments to governors association
A handful of Republican governors are declining to pay their annual dues to the National Governors Association as they seek ways to trim state government costs in a down economy. The NGA, a bipartisan organization of the nation's governors that meets twice a year to discuss issues of public policy and governance, is holding its annual winter meeting in Washington this weekend. Most of the country's governors are expected to travel to the nation's capital for that conference and other partisan gatherings sponsored by the Democratic and Republican Governors Associations.
Politico: Mitt Romney: Proud of Massachusetts health care law
Mitt Romney rejected Mike Huckabee's call for him to admit that the "RomneyCare" health care program failed, instead saying he's "proud" of "getting everyone covered" when he was governor of Massachusetts. "Mitt Romney is proud of what he accomplished for Massachusetts in getting everyone covered,” Romney’s spokesman, Eric Fehrnstrom, told the Boston Globe, in the first direct response Team Mitt made to Huckabee's criticism of the health plan in his new book. Fehrnstrom also put daylight between the Romney health care bill and President Obama's reform package, which is unpopular among voters and is the subject of several lawsuits by different states. “What's important now is to return to the states the power to determine their own healthcare solutions by repealing Obamacare," Fehrnstrom added. "A one-size-fits-all plan for the entire nation just doesn't work.”
CNN: Prez preparations for 2012
President Barack Obama will file the official paperwork within weeks to begin collecting money for his re-election campaign in 2012, which will cost more than his successful 2008 run, top aide David Axelrod told CNN this week. In an exclusive interview with CNN Chief National Correspondent John King, Axelrod said field organizers would begin fanning out in targeted states by early spring to kick off the campaign effort.
Roll Call: Tea Party Fracturing Over New York Special Election
Once again, the tea party movement is poised to play a critical role in deciding a New York special election. But major questions remain in New York’s 26th district over whether grass-roots conservatives will support the establishment favorite, state Assemblywoman Jane Corwin (R), or the tea party’s sentimental favorite, Iraq War veteran David Bellavia (R). Their decision could help deliver the traditionally Republican seat to Democrats, although Bellavia appears to be running as a third-party candidate regardless.
Newark Star-Ledger: Security lapses at Newark airport prompt U.S. Sen Lautenberg to call for investigation
A wave of security lapses at Newark Liberty International Airport over the past seven weeks has prompted U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg to call for an investigation. The request followed stories by The Star-Ledger detailing at least a half-dozen security breaches at the airport between Jan. 4 and Monday — including a dead dog being loaded onto a jet despite not being screened for a bomb or disease by Continental Airlines, and a knife in a carry-on bag getting past Transportation Security Administration agents.
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CNNMoney: Air Force awards Boeing $35 billion contract
The Air Force announced Thursday it awarded a $3.5 billion initial contract to Boeing for the production of 18 next-generation aerial refueling tankers. That is a down payment on a contract worth about $35 billion for 179 planes. Aerial refueling tankers allow the military to refuel aircraft in mid flight, greatly extending the range of operation for smaller aircraft, while also providing the capability to carry cargo and airlift personnel. Both Boeing (BA, Fortune 500) and the North American unit of EADS - which owns Airbus –submitted bids for the blockbuster contract and planned to base their planes on popular civilian aircraft, specifically the Boeing 767 and Airbus A330.
CNN: Deaths of baby dolphins worry scientists
Baby bottlenose dolphins are washing up dead in record numbers on the shores of Alabama and Mississippi, alarming scientists and a federal agency charged with monitoring the health of the Gulf of Mexico. Moby Solangi, the executive director of the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies (IMMS) in Gulfport, Mississippi, said Thursday he's never seen such high death numbers. "I've worked with marine mammals for 30 years, and this is the first time we've seen such a high number of calves," he said. "It's alarming." At least 24 baby dolphins have washed up on the shores of the two states since the beginning of the year - more than ten times the normal rate. Also, six older dolphins died.
USA Today: Reported air-traffic errors rise 81% over 2007
More than 1,800 errors by air-traffic controllers — including 43 most likely to cause a midair collision between planes — were reported to the Federal Aviation Administration last year. The agency says that points up the need for greater safety steps. Air-traffic errors that allowed planes to get too close together jumped 81% from 2007 to 2010, according to newly released data by the FAA, rising from 1,040 to 1,887. Those most likely to cause a collision or an accident were also up from 34 in 2007 to 43 last year, a 26% increase. The higher number of reported errors involving airliners, private planes and military aircraft don't pose a sudden increase in the risk to fliers, the FAA says. Instead, the agency insists the numbers are the result of several years of effort to improve reporting.
CNN: TSA officer pleads guilty to stealing from passengers
A New Jersey Transportation Security Administration officer on Thursday pleaded guilty to federal charges that he and his supervisor regularly stole from passengers during screenings at Newark Liberty International Airport, according to federal prosecutors. Officer Al Raimi, 29, pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Newark. He admitted that for nearly a year, he stole between $10,000 and $30,000 in cash from travelers as they passed through a security checkpoint at the airport. Raimi admitted that he would "kick up" some of that money to a supervisor, who in turn allowed him to keep stealing. The supervisor, Michael Arato, pleaded guilty earlier this month to accepting kickbacks and bribes.
CNN: Alleged New England mob boss snared in massive sting pleads not guilty
A reputed former New England mob boss pleaded not guilty Thursday in federal court, just over a month after he was among 127 people nabbed in a massive sting targeting organized crime. Luigi "Baby Shacks" Manocchio pleaded not guilty in the U.S. District Court of Rhode Island in Providence, according to court documents. He remains behind bars until a March 1 bond hearing. Manocchio's attorney, Mary J. Ciresi, told CNN affiliate WPRI that she was optimistic that Manocchio could make bond next week. All pretrial motions must be filed by May 16, and his trial will start no earlier than June 1, an arraignment and pretrial discovery order from U.S. Magistrate Judge David Martin indicated.
CNN: Shuttle Discovery takes off on its final flight
The Space Shuttle Discovery launched late Thursday afternoon from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, marking the start of its 39th and final flight. "This was a pretty successful day," said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for space operations. "It was just an amazing event." The six-member crew will deliver a storage module, a science rig and spare parts to the international space station during its 11-day mission.
CNN: Billboard focused on African-American abortions was taken down
A New York billboard that focused exclusively on African-American abortion rates was taken down because of concerns for public safety, said Hal Kilshaw, spokesperson for Louisiana-based Lamar Advertising, on Thursday. The billboard was erected by group opposed to abortions. The billboard was attached to a building that houses the restaurant Lupe's Kitchen. Some of the wait staff, Kilshaw said, were being harassed by patrons who objected to the billboard. In addition, a scheduled protest Friday by people opposed to the billboard prompted public safety concerns, which led to the company's decision.
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CNN: Libyan chaos raises worries over chemical weapons stockpile
The chaos in Libya has raised fears about the security of deadly mustard gas stockpiled in the country and whether Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi might use it on his own people. A U.S. official said that in a "chaotic situation" there is concern about Libya possessing mustard gas and other chemical agents. Although there has been no signs that the Libyan leader has ordered their use, Gadhafi is often described by officials as an unpredictable, mercurial individual.
CNN: Libya: An opportunity for al Qaeda?
Libya's beleaguered leader Moammar Gadhafi Thursday blamed the uprising sweeping Libya on Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, accusing the terrorist group of supplying Libyans with pills inducing them to revolt. "Our children have been manipulated by al Qaeda," he told Libyan state television by telephone. Some may view this as Gadhafi's greatest delusion yet. Militant Islamists have played almost no role in the uprisings in Libya or anywhere else in the Arab world, and for most Arabs, energized by a powerful democracy movement, al Qaeda now appears more irrelevant that ever. But there is nevertheless a danger that spiraling violence in Libya may provide militant Islamist groups future opportunities in the country.
CNN: Analysts: More Libyan bloodshed could prompt U.S., NATO intervention
If the U.S. military were to intervene in an increasingly chaotic Libya, it would most likely be part of a NATO action in which Libyan bloodshed has reached a humanitarian crisis, analysts said Thursday. As reports emerged Thursday about deadly clashes between leader Moammar Gadhafi's forces and anti-government protesters in the town of Zawiya near Tunisia, analysts highlighted how Gadhafi has already pledged to fight a rebellion to martyrdom. Military intervention "is something which I hope doesn't happen, but it looks as though at some point that it should happen," said Simon Henderson, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
CNN: Death toll rises from New Zealand quake as searches continue
The death toll from the 6.3-magnitude earthquake that struck Christchurch this week has risen to 113, police said Friday morning. More people are feared dead, and more than 200 are still missing, police said. Police Superintendent Dave Cliff told reporters that he had "grave fears" for the missing and authorities were having difficulty identifying victims because of the condition of the bodies found. The somber announcement came as authorities carried out more house-to-house searches in a desperate hunt for survivors.
New York Times: U.S. Pulling Back in Afghan Valley It Called Vital to War
After years of fighting for control of a prominent valley in the rugged mountains of eastern Afghanistan, the United States military has begun to pull back most of its forces from ground it once insisted was central to the campaign against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The withdrawal from the Pech Valley, a remote region in Kunar Province, formally began on Feb. 15. The military projects that it will last about two months, part of a shift of Western forces to the province’s more populated areas. Afghan units will remain in the valley, a test of their military readiness. While American officials say the withdrawal matches the latest counterinsurgency doctrine’s emphasis on protecting Afghan civilians, Afghan officials worry that the shift of troops amounts to an abandonment of territory where multiple insurgent groups are well established, an area that Afghans fear they may not be ready to defend on their own.
CNN: India offers 'hands of our friendship' to Pakistan
Full growth of the Asian subcontinent hinges on normalization of ties between New Delhi and Islamabad, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said Thursday as the two arch-foes prepared to resume their dialogue frozen by the 2008 terror attacks on Mumbai. In his address to parliament, Singh extended what he called his country's hand of friendship to its western neighbor. "I sincerely hope and believe that the new ruling classes of Pakistan would grasp the hands of our friendship and recognize that, whatever are our differences, terror, as an instrument of state policy, is something that no civilized society ought to use," he said.
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CNNMoney: Oil prices spike to $103, then drop back
Oil prices took a slight step back Thursday, but crude has seen a large runup this week as the political upheaval in Libya curtails production from the North African country. The U.S. benchmark oil contract, West Texas Intermediate, for April delivery fell 82 cents, or 0.8%, to settle at $97.28 a barrel. Prices hit a high of $103 a barrel earlier in the session. Just last week, crude prices were trading below $90 a barrel. Brent crude, the European standard, fell 44 cents, or 0.5%, to $110.76 a barrel in electronic trading.
CNNMoney: Oil shock threatens airline recovery
U.S. airlines had their best year in a decade in 2010, but with a mere 2% profit margin. Now that razor-thin cushion is threatened by rising fuel prices - and with it so is the industry's nascent recovery. "While labor costs have been going down, fuel prices have been going up," said Frank Werner, a finance professor at Fordham University and a licensed pilot. "Fuel prices are now the highest cost for the airlines." In recent days, travelers have started witnessing the industry's response. Carriers have successfully increased airfares four times so far this year, exceeding the total number of airfare hikes for all of last year, according to Rick Seaney, chief executive of Farecompare.com. As a result, consumers are paying, on average, $40 more than they were at the end of 2010.
Wall Street Journal: Pressures Mount to Resume Drilling
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar plans to meet with oil industry executives in Houston Friday to assess the industry's readiness to handle a major offshore oil spill, amid growing pressure from congressional Republicans and a federal judge to resume deep-water drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. Mr. Salazar is expected to meet with representatives of an industry-led consortium, Marine Well Containment Co., and Helix Energy Solutions Group Inc., a company that aided BP PLC with BP's response to last year's Gulf of Mexico oil spill. The Obama administration has said the oil industry must demonstrate it can quickly contain a large offshore spill before it will allow companies to resume drilling in waters deeper than 500 feet. The recent jump in world oil prices and U.S. gasoline prices following unrest in Libya has spurred renewed calls from many Republicans and Gulf Coast Democrats in Congress to allow more domestic production. One House committee is scheduled to hold hearings on drilling policy next month.
Financial Times: US warns extreme food prices will stay
The world faces a protracted bout of extremely high food prices, the US government has warned, overwhelming farmers’ ability to cool commodity markets by planting millions of additional hectares with crops. The US Department of Agriculture on Thursday forecast nominal record farm-gate prices for corn, wheat and soyabeans in the crop year that begins with the 2011 harvests. It added that food inflation would surge in the second half of this year as wholesale prices filtered through the supply chain, affecting consumers. The warning at the USDA Outlook Forum in Washington, the biggest annual gathering of the agribusiness sector, is likely to fuel global concerns about rising inflation and the potential for destabilising food riots in developing countries.
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