Nation briefs 2/8/06

Wednesday, February 8, 2006

Bush plan would trim Social Security survivor benefits

WASHINGTON -- President Bush's budget calls for elimination of a $255 lump-sum death payment that has been part of Social Security for more than 50 years and urges Congress to cut off monthly survivor benefits to 16- and 17-year-old high school dropouts. If approved, the two proposals would save a combined $3.4 billion over the next decade, according to administration estimates. Any attempt to reduce Social Security benefits -- no matter how small -- could face intense opposition in Congress in an election year. "There they go again," Sen. Chuck Schumer, the New York Democrat who chairs his party's campaign committee, said Tuesday of the administration. "They can't resist trying to cut Social Security and to cut a survivor's, a widow or widower's benefits; it just shows how warped the priorities are in this budget." House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi agreed. "The president's budget continues to reflect the Republican agenda of cutting guaranteed Social Security benefits that workers have earned," she said. Aides to Rep. Bill Thomas of California and Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the Republican chairmen with jurisdiction over Social Security, did not immediately return calls for comment. Mark Lassiter, a spokesman at the Social Security Administration, said the one-time $255 benefit is paid in the deaths of some Social Security recipients but not all, making it an administrative burden for the agency.

Horse slaughter to continue despite congressional attempt to halt it

WASHINGTON -- Horse slaughter for meat will continue in the United States, despite votes in Congress to halt the practice, the Agriculture Department announced Tuesday. American horse meat is sold mostly for human consumption in Europe and Asia, although some goes to U.S. zoos. Congress didn't ban horse slaughter outright. Instead, lawmakers last year used a tactic that is common in spending legislation. Horses must pass inspection by department veterinarians before they are slaughtered, so lawmakers voted to yank the salaries and expenses of those inspectors. Department officials maintain the law requires inspections regardless. They announced Tuesday they will pay for live horse inspections by charging the slaughter plants for inspections. Rep. John Sweeney, R-N.Y., denounced the decision, saying, "Commerce and greed have ruled the day."

Suspicions confirmed: It was America's warmest January on record

WASHINGTON (AP) -- January was a fair-weather friend.

Recording the warmest January on record allowed Americans to save on their heating bills. But like all good things, last month's mildness seems to have been too good to last.

The country's average temperature for the month was 39.5 degrees Fahrenheit, 8.5 degrees above average for January, the National Climatic Data Center said Tuesday. The old record for January warmth was 37.3 degrees set in 1953.

On the other hand, while much of the United States was basking in warm weather, parts of Europe and Asia were being battered by bitter cold. Climate details for the rest of the world for January are expected to be available next week.

Investigator: Suspect in gay bar attack shot himself

BOSTON -- The teenager accused of going on a rampage at a gay bar and later killing two people fatally shot himself in the head in a gunfight with Arkansas police, authorities said Tuesday.

Jacob Robida, 18, of New Bedford, turned the gun on himself Saturday after he fatally shot a West Virginia woman who was in his car, said Bristol District Attorney Paul Walsh Jr. Police originally said that they shot Robida Saturday after he fired at them at the end of a high-speed chase in rural Arkansas. Robida killed Gassville, Ark., police officer Jim Sell and led police on a 20-mile chase before being stopped in nearby Norfork. Police had searched for Robida since early Thursday, when they say he used a hatchet and handgun to wound three men at Puzzles Lounge, a gay bar in New Bedford.

Four more Alabama churches are burned

BOLIGEE, Ala. -- Fires damaged or destroyed four more Baptist churches across the Alabama countryside Tuesday, less than a week after a string of five blazes that were ruled arson. Church member Johnny Archibald said smoke was pouring from Morning Star Baptist in Boligee when he arrived around daybreak. "They had kicked the door in," he said. "Evidently they had set the pulpit on fire and went out the front door." Tuesday's fires took place at churches off rural roads, about 10 to 20 miles apart. They were in a cluster of three counties, about 60 miles from the Bibb County area where the five other churches were burned early Friday. FBI acting assistant director Chip Burrus said investigators were working on the assumption that the nine fires are linked. Authorities have no suspects or motive.

Retail group files challenge to Maryland Wal-Mart law

ANNAPOLIS, Md. -- A national retail industry trade association filed suit Tuesday challenging a Maryland law designed to pressure Wal-Mart Stores Inc. to spend more money on health care for its employees.

The group said it hopes the move will discourage politicians in at least 30 other states that are considering similar spending mandates for health care.

The Maryland law, the first of its kind in the nation, was enacted Jan. 12 when the Democratic-controlled legislature overrode Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich's veto. It requires companies with more than 10,000 employees in Maryland to spend at least 8 percent of their payroll on health care or contribute the difference to the state's Medicaid fund.

Wal-Mart, based in Bentonville, Ark., is the only company in Maryland of that size that doesn't meet the 8 percent threshold.

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