Friday, March 5, 2010

360 News Briefs

House Passes Tax Breaks For New Hires

Despite doubts among many lawmakers that it will create many jobs, the House on Thursday passed legislation giving companies that hire the jobless a temporary payroll tax break.

The measure passed 217-201 on a mostly party-line vote. The bill also extends federal highway programs through the end of the year.

Some Democrats feel the approximately $35 billion jobs bill is too puny, while others say the tax cut for new hires won't generate many new jobs. However, the pressure is on to address jobs and deliver a badly needed win for President Obama and a Democratic Party struggling in opinion polls and facing major losses in the upcoming midterm elections. Further jobs measures are promised.

The House had passed a much larger measure in December that contained almost $50 billion in infrastructure funding, $50 billion in help for cash-starved state governments, and a six-month extension of jobless aid. That bill conspicuously left out the proposals to award tax credits for hiring new workers. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was among those skeptical of that idea.

The Senate responded last week with the far smaller measure that the House is reluctantly accepting. The House amended the measure Thursday to conform with so-called pay-as-you-go budget rules that have become an article of faith among moderate Democrats. The rules require future spending increases or tax cuts to be paid for with either cuts to other programs or equivalent tax increases.

The minor tweak means that the notoriously balky Senate would have to act again before Obama could sign the bill into law.

The $35 billion bill - blending $15 billion in tax cuts and subsidies for infrastructure bonds issued by local governments with the $20 billion in transportation money - is far smaller than the massive economic stimulus bill enacted a year ago. The jobs bill has been a source of tension between House and Senate Democrats.

Across the Capitol, the Senate is debating a far more costly measure to clean up a lot of unfinished business from last year. The $100 billion-plus bill would extend unemployment assistance, revive a bevy of expired tax breaks, help states with soaring Medicaid costs and prevent doctors from having to absorb big cuts in Medicare payments. The popular initiatives are traditionally extended on a bipartisan basis for brief periods of time, which hides their long-term costs.

The Senate plans to act on the jobs bill after wrapping up the unfinished-business bill, which means it probably won't be sent to Obama until next week.

The jobs bill contains two major provisions. First, it would exempt businesses hiring the unemployed from the 6.2 percent Social Security payroll tax through December and give them an additional $1,000 credit if new workers stay on the job a full year. The Social Security trust fund would be reimbursed for the lost revenue.

Second, it would extend highway and mass transit programs through the end of the year and pump in $20 billion in time for the spring construction season. The money would make up for lower-than-expected gasoline tax revenues.

Small businesses would continue to be able to write off equipment purchases as a business expense. Much of the bill is financed by cracking down on offshore tax havens.

Several lawmakers in both parties criticized the payroll tax break, saying that it wouldn't do much to create jobs and that the bulk of it would go to employers for new hires that would be made anyway.

Economist Mark Zandi of Moody's said the new hiring tax credit could spur creation of about 250,000 new jobs. The economy has shed 8.4 million jobs since the recession began in December 2007.

House Panel OKs Armenian Genocide Resolution

A congressional panel approved a resolution Thursday declaring the Ottoman-era killing of Armenians genocide over protests by Turkey, a NATO ally that is crucial to U.S. interests in the Middle East and Afghanistan. Turkey has warned that the resolution's approval could jeopardize U.S-Turkish cooperation and set back negotiations aimed at opening the border between Turkey and Armenia.

Minutes after the vote, Turkey said it was recalling its ambassador from Washington.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee endorsed the resolution with a 23-22 vote Thursday, even though the Obama administration had urged Congress not to offend Turkey by approving it. The resolution now goes to the full House, where prospects for passage are uncertain.

Armenian American groups have for decades sought congressional affirmation of the killings as genocide. Historians estimate that up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed by Ottoman Turks around the time of World War I, an event widely viewed by scholars as the first genocide of the 20th century. Turkey denies that the deaths constituted genocide, saying the toll has been inflated and those killed were victims of civil war and unrest.

In April, Obama failed to brand the killings genocide in an annual White House statement on the day marking Armenian remembrance. Obama said that while he had not changed his personal views, he did not want to upset promising talks between Turkey and Armenia on improving relations and opening their border. Turkey sealed the border in 1993 to protest Armenia's war with neighboring Azerbaijan.

Chelsea King Suspect Questioned In Other Crimes

A convicted sex offender charged with murdering Chelsea King in Southern California is under investigation in last year's disappearance of a 14-year-old girl and the attempted kidnapping of another teenager, authorities said.

John Albert Gardner III remained jailed Thursday in San Diego County, a day after he pleaded not guilty to murdering the 17-year-old King. The sheriff believes a body found Tuesday in a shallow grave on the shore of Lake Hodges is that of King, but the medical examiner's office had not yet confirmed the identity.

Gardner, once described by a psychiatrist as a threat to underage girls, was under scrutiny in two other cases.

A 16-year-old girl reported that she ran away after a man asked her for directions then tried to force her into a car at gunpoint on Oct. 28 in Lake Elsinore, about 75 miles from the site where King disappeared, the Riverside County Sheriff's Department said.

The suspect was described as a man 30 to 35 years old with a squarish jaw, brown eyes and a blond crew cut. A sketch appears similar to Gardner, who is 30 and has a closely shaven scalp.

"There are similarities," Capt. Joseph Cleary told the Riverside Press-Enterprise. "If there is a connection, we will track it down."

Investigators in the case checked out local sex offenders but not Gardner because he was registered as living in San Diego County, Sgt. Patrick Chavez said.

"He had not come onto our radar until January" when he notified authorities that he was now living in unincorporated Lakeland Village near Lake Elsinore, Chavez said.

Gardner lived last year in the San Diego County town of Escondido, where 14-year-old Amber Dubois vanished while walking to Escondido High School on Feb. 13, 2009. Gardner lived about two miles from the school. Authorities said they are now investigating him in connection with the girl's disappearance.

Amber's father, Maurice Dubois, was one of thousands of volunteers who searched for King after the Poway girl failed to return from a run at a San Diego wilderness park on Thursday. Dubois also attended Gardner's court hearing.

Dubois said he feels there is a "huge possibility" that Gardner is linked to his daughter's disappearance.

"In our hearts we don't want to accept that," he said.

Dubois said it was difficult to see Gardner in court.

"My frustrations are immense," he said. "We've had a long, long year."

Gardner also pleaded not guilty to assault with intent to commit rape in connection with a Dec. 27 attack on a 22-year-old jogger at the same park.

Gardner pleaded guilty in 2000 to molesting a 13-year-old neighbor girl. He served five years of a six-year prison term. A court-appointed psychiatrist who interviewed Gardner had recommended he receive a stiffer sentence.

Airlines Tacking On Fees For Comfy Seats

Continental Airlines will begin charging coach customers extra if they want a seat with more legroom. Prices will vary depending on the length of a flight and popularity of the route. A spokeswoman said extra room on a Houston-New York flight might cost $59. International fliers would pay more than that.

Starting March 17, coach customers will be able to pay the charge at check-in to get an exit-row seat with at least 7 inches more legroom than the other rows, Continental said Wednesday.

Top-level members of Continental's frequent-flier program - those who rack up at least 25,000 miles a year - and their traveling companions will still be able to claim the exit row without extra charge. The number of seats with extra legroom will vary depending on the size of the plane. Continental, the nation's fourth-largest airline, doesn't plan to reconfigure its planes to add more such seats.

Officials with the Houston-based airline said the new fee is simply a matter of giving customers more if they're willing to pay for it.

Continental said passengers who can't sit in the exit row because of physical limitations will have their fee refunded.

Some other airlines already charge extra for exit-row seats. United, for example, sells "economy plus" seats in coach, with up to 5 extra inches of legroom. On its Web site, United says the upgrade costs $49 on Denver-to-Seattle flights and $109 going from Los Angeles to Tokyo.

JetBlue charges $10 to $40 each way for seats with more legroom. Some carriers charge extra for aisle or bulkhead seats. On US Airways, window or aisle seats can cost $5 to $30 extra.

Airlines have been steadily adding fees for services such as checking bags or buying tickets over the phone from a reservations agent. The fees began in earnest when fuel prices spiked in 2008, but airlines have kept the charges in place - and raised them - even when fuel prices fell because they were still losing money due to a drop in travel.

Garden Dedicated For Slain Athens Student

The University of North Carolina will mark the second anniversary of the shooting death of the school's former student body president by dedicating a garden in her memory.

The Eve Marie Carson Garden will be dedicated Thursday afternoon in Polk Place, a grassy area on the UNC campus. The 22-year-old student from Athens, Ga., was found shot death in the early morning of March 5, 2008, in a Chapel Hill neighborhood.

Two men have been charged in her death.

The school says the garden will honor all UNC-Chapel Hill students, past and future, who die before they graduate.

After speeches by officials including Chancellor Holden Thorp, a Carolina blue ribbon will be cut and students will plant ferns in the garden.

'ATL's Most Violent Gang Decimated' In Bust

Feds: MS-13 Gang Responsible For Atlanta Violence

Authorities have unsealed a federal indictment charging 26 alleged members of a violent transnational street gang with racketeering and other crimes in the metro Atlanta area.

Acting U.S. Attorney Sally Yates said at a news conference Thursday that the men were all associated with the Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, gang, which has about 10,000 members in North America. Law enforcement officials said that MS-13 was the most violent gang in Atlanta.

The indictment said the gang members participated in racketeering activity, including seven murders, 14 attempted murders, kidnapping and robbery in metro Atlanta.

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