Obama to fly to home early as 'fiscal cliff' looms
HONOLULU (AP) — President Barack Obama is cutting short his traditional Christmas holiday in Hawaii, planning to leave for Washington on Wednesday evening as lawmakers consider how to prevent the economy from going over the so-called fiscal cliff.
The White House said Tuesday that first lady Michelle Obama and their two daughters will remain in Hawaii. Obama is expected to arrive in Washington early Thursday.
The first family left Washington last Friday night. In the past, the president's end-of-the-year holiday in his native state has stretched into the new year.
Congress is expected to return to Washington on Thursday.
Automatic budget cuts and tax increases are set to begin in January. So far, the president and congressional Republicans have been unable to reach agreement on any alternatives.
UPDATE: US holiday retail sales growth weakest since 2008
WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. holiday retail sales this year are the weakest since 2008 when the nation was in a deep recession In 2012, the shopping season was disrupted by bad weather and consumers' rising uncertainty about the economy.
A report out Tuesday that tracks spending, called MasterCard Advisors SpendingPulse, says holiday sales increased 0.7 percent. Analysts had expected sales to grow 3 to 4 percent.
Much of the shortfall comes from Superstorm Sandy, which caused sales declines after striking the East Coast in late October.
And consumers grew increasingly nervous as lawmakers failed to reach a deal to head off tax increases and government spending cuts set to take effect in early 2013.
The SpendingPulse number tracks sales of popular holiday goods, including electronics, jewelry and clothing, in the two months before Christmas. That's a crucial period for retailers.
UPDATE: Christmas storms blamed for 3 deaths
MOBILE, Ala. (AP) — Twisters have been hopscotching across the Deep South, and, along with brutal, straight-line winds, knocking down countless trees, blowing the roofs off homes and leaving many Christmas celebrations in the dark. Holiday travelers in the nation's much colder midsection are battling treacherous driving conditions from freezing rain and blizzard conditions from the same fast-moving storms.
Conditions remain volatile with tornado warnings still out for some parts of Alabama, Florida and Georgia. The storms are blamed for three deaths, several injuries, and have left homes from Louisiana to Alabama damaged.
In Mobile, Ala., a tornado or high winds damaged homes, a high school and church, and knocked down power lines and large tree limbs in an area just west of downtown around nightfall.
Earlier in the day, winds toppled a tree onto a pickup truck in the Houston area, killing the driver, and a 53-year-old north Louisiana man was killed when a tree fell on his house. Icy roads are blamed for a 21-vehicle pileup in Oklahoma, and the Highway Patrol there says a 28-year-old woman was killed in a crash on a snowy highway.
The snowstorm that caused numerous accidents has moved out of Oklahoma, carrying with it blizzard warnings for parts of northeast Arkansas.
Blizzard conditions are also possible for parts of Illinois, Indiana and western Kentucky.
Sierra Nevada ski resort avalanche victim dies
TRUCKEE, Calif. (AP) — A member of a Sierra Nevada ski resort's patrol team who was injured after being caught in an avalanche has died.
Alpine Meadows said in a statement on Tuesday that 53-year-old Bill Foster died at Renown Regional Medical Center in Reno, Nev., where he was taken after the avalanche a day earlier on the resort near Lake Tahoe.
Foster was buried in a slide that had been intentionally set with an explosive device by a senior member of the ski patrol team. The team was doing avalanche control in an area on the back side of resort. The area was closed to the public.
Resort officials say the avalanche broke much higher and wider on the slope than in past snow safety missions.
Foster was uncovered within eight minutes.
Firemen's killer left chilling note, deaths at 3
WEBSTER, N.Y. (AP) — Police say an ex-con who killed two firefighters in upstate New York had the same caliber and make military-style rifle used in the Connecticut school massacre.
Webster police also say 62-year-old William Spengler typed a note pledging to burn down his neighborhood and do what he liked doing best, "killing people."
Police Chief Gerald Pickering says Spengler, who served 17 years in prison for manslaughter in the 1980 hammer slaying of his grandmother, set his house afire before dawn Christmas Eve before taking a revolver, a shotgun and a 223-caliber semiautomatic Bushmaster rifle to a sniper position outside. The chief say "He was equipped to go to war, kill innocent people."
Authorities say Spengler sprayed bullets at the first responders, killing two firefighters and injuring two others who remain hospitalized in stable condition. He then killed himself as seven houses burned on a sliver of land along Lake Ontario.
Today, the death toll rose to three as police revealed that a charred body believed to be the killer's 67-year-old sister, Cheryl Spengler, was found in his fire-ravaged home.
CONNECTICUT SCHOOL SHOOTING
UPDATE: Newtown celebrates Christmas and remembers victims
NEWTOWN, Conn. (AP) — Well-wishers from around the country are still coming to pay their respects in the Connecticut town where a gunman killed 20 school children and six adults.
Volunteers have been keeping watch over a Christmas candlelight vigil since midnight.
Twenty-six candles, one for each victim, were lit at midnight Monday near a huge sidewalk memorial filled with teddy bears, flowers, candles, posters and other tributes to the dead.
And police officers from other communities have been filling in for Newtown police so they can spend time with their families.
At Christmas morning services, congregants were told that good always overcomes evil.
NEW: Afghan bomber attacks NATO convoy; no casualties
KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghan police say a suicide bomber attacked a NATO convoy in eastern Afghanistan but report no casualties in the strike.
Police Gen. Abdul Qayum Baqizai says the assailant struck Wednesday as the convoy was traveling to the airport near the capital of Khost province, which borders Pakistan. NATO command could not confirm the attack and Afghan authorities had no further details.
NATO operates with more than 100,000 troops in the country, including some 66,000 American forces. It is handing most combat operations over to the Afghans in preparation for a pullout from Afghanistan in 2014. Militant groups, including the Taliban, rarely face NATO troops head-on and rely mainly on roadside bombs and suicide attacks.
HEALTH CARE TAXES
New year brings taxes on wealthy, health care industry
WASHINGTON (AP) — No matter what happens with the "fiscal cliff," new taxes are coming on the first of January to help finance President Barack Obama's health care overhaul. They will affect people who make a lot of money, and the health care industry.
But there will be a much bigger impact if Congress decides to start taxing employer-sponsored health insurance. And that is one option that is in play if lawmakers can agree on a deal to reduce future deficits.
CHINA-HIGH SPEED TRAIN
NEW: World's longest fast train line opens in China
BEIJING (AP) — China has opened the world's longest high-speed rail line, which runs 2,298 kilometers (1,428 miles) from the country's capital in the north to Guangzhou, an economic hub in the Pearl River delta in southern China.
The line officially opened Wednesday when a train departed from Beijing at 9 a.m. for Guangzhou. Another train left Guangzhou for Beijing an hour later.
Trains on this high-speed line will initially run at 300 kph (186 mph) with a total travel time of about eight hours. Before, the fastest time between the two cities by train was more than 20 hours.
Railway is an essential part in China's transportation system, and its government plans to build a grid of high-speed railways with four east-west lines and four north-south lines by 2020.
Ben Affleck won't run for US Senate in Mass.
BOSTON (AP) — Ben Affleck is taking his name off the list of possible candidates for U.S. Sen. John Kerry's seat, which would be open if the Democratic senator from Massachusetts is confirmed as secretary of state.
Affleck says in a Monday posting on his Facebook page that while he loves the political process, he will not be running for public office.
Speculation about the Cambridge, Mass., native rose slightly when he did not completely rule out a Senate bid during an appearance on CBS' Face The Nation on Sunday.
In his Facebook posting, Affleck says he would continue working with the Eastern Congo Initiative, a nonprofit organization that helps direct humanitarian aid to the war-torn region, and for other causes.
Affleck says Kerry would make a great secretary of state.Tags: