Silent Skype calls can hide secret messages









































Got a secret message to send? Say it with silence. A new technique can embed secret data during a phone call on Skype. "There are concerns that Skype calls can be intercepted and analysed," says Wojciech Mazurczyk at the Institute of Telecommunications in Warsaw, Poland. So his team's SkypeHide system lets users hide extra, non-chat messages during a call.












Mazurczyk and his colleagues Maciej Karaƛ and Krysztof Szczypiorski analysed Skype data traffic during calls and discovered an opportunity in the way Skype "transmits" silence. Rather than send no data between spoken words, Skype sends 70-bit-long data packets instead of the 130-bit ones that carry speech.












The team hijacks these silence packets, injecting encrypted message data into some of them. The Skype receiver simply ignores the secret-message data, but it can nevertheless be decoded at the other end, the team has found. "The secret data is indistinguishable from silence-period traffic, so detection of SkypeHide is very difficult," says Mazurczyk. They found they could transmit secret text, audio or video during Skype calls at a rate of almost 1 kilobit per second alongside phone calls.












The team aims to present SkypeHide at a steganography conference in Montpellier, France, in June.


















































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Football: Transfer talks stall for AC Milan's Robinho






MILAN: AC Milan's bid to sell Robinho to Brazilian top flight side Santos floundered early on Saturday after the clubs failed to agree on a transfer fee, it was reported.

Milan have slapped a 10m-euro price tag on the talented Brazilian while Santos offered only seven million, according to ANSA news agency.

ANSA also reported that another Brazilian side that had shown an interest in purchasing Robinho, Atletico Mineiro, had now called off talks.

Citing Brazilian newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo, it said Atletico could not meet Milan's 10m euro asking price nor Robinho's wage demands.

Milan's former Brazilian striker Alexandre Pato on Thursday joined Brazilian side Corinthians in a four-year deal thought to be worth 15 million euros.

The Serie A giants sit seventh in Serie A, 17 points adrift of leaders Juventus, ahead of the visit of Siena on Sunday.

- AFP/xq



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Man shot by police on South Side













Police-involved shooting


Police and paramedics at the scene of a police-involved shooting at the intersection of Harbor and S. South Chicago avenues.
(Peter Nickeas / Chicago Tribune / January 5, 2013)



























































A man was shot by Chicago police in the South Chicago neighborhood early Saturday morning after taking off from a traffic stop with three kids in the car, according to authorities.


Police pulled the car over on South South Chicago Avenue near Harbor Avenue and had the man and a passenger outside the car when the driver fought with police and made it back into the car, authorities said.


The man had a gun in his waistband, police said, and kept reaching for it while trying to speed away from police. The kids were in the backseat of the car the entire time, police said. 





An officer jumped in the car, on the passenger side, while it was moving and shot the man in his abdomen, Fraternal Order of Police Spokesman Patrick Camden said. The car, a maroon-colored Jaguar, came to rest on the curb at the corner of South South Chicago and Harbor, near a viaduct. 


The man was taken to Advocate Christ Medical Center but his condition wasn't available. 


The officers were "a little banged up," police said, and also taken to Advocate Christ Medical Center. Police didn't consider the wounds serious.


A squad car heading to the scene was involved in a car accident at 95th Street and Ewing Avenue after officers called "10-1" over their radio, which is an alert used when an officer is in distress.


The extent of their injuries wasn't immediately known and they too were checked out at Advocate Christ Medical Center. Check back for more information.


pnickeas@tribune.com
Twitter: @peternickeas 







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Best Pictures: 2012 Nat Geo Photo Contest Winners









































































































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Debt Limit Negotiating Tactic? No Negotiating


ap obama ac 130102 wblog In Fiscal Wars No Negotiation Is a Negotiating Tactic

President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden walk away from the podium after Obama made a statement regarding the passage of the fiscal cliff bill in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)


Analysis


New for 2013: In the Washington, D.C. fiscal wars we’ve gone from everything must be on the table to politicians declaring they won’t debate.


The fiscal cliff deal either averted disaster or compounded the problem, depending on who you ask. It certainly created new mini-cliffs in a few months as Congress and the president square off on the debt ceiling, spending cuts and government funding. But it also made sure the vast majority of Americans won’t see as big a tax hike as they might have.


President Obama was pretty clear late on New Year’s night as he reacted to Congress’s passage of a bill to take a turn away from the fiscal cliff. He won’t negotiate with Republicans about the debt ceiling.


“Now, one last point I want to make,” said the president, before wrapping up and hopping on Air Force One for a redeye to Hawaii. “While I will negotiate over many things, I will not have another debate with this Congress over whether or not they should pay the bills that they’ve already racked up through the laws that they passed.”


(Read more here about the Fiscal Cliff)


That’s pretty clear. No debt ceiling negotiation. Then he added for emphasis: ”Let me repeat: We can’t not pay bills that we’ve already incurred. If Congress refuses to give the United States government the ability to pay these bills on time, the consequences for the entire global economy would be catastrophic — far worse than the impact of a fiscal cliff.”


But in Washington, saying you won’t do something these days has almost become like an opening bid. At least, that’s how Republicans are treating the president’s line in the sand.


“The president may not want to have a fight about government spending over the next few months, but it’s the fight he is going to have because it’s a debate the country needs,” wrote Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican, in an op-Ed on Yahoo! News about 36 hours later. “For the sake of our future, the president must show up to this debate early and convince his party to do something that neither he nor they have been willing to do until now.”


“We simply cannot increase the nation’s borrowing limit without committing to long overdue reforms to spending programs that are the very cause of our debt,” McConnell said.


The national debt is soon set to reach $16.4 trillion. That’s not a problem that can be solved with one bill or budget. And the two sides will have to figure out some sort of way to talk about entitlement/social safety net reform – meaning things like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security – in addition to cutting spending and, most importantly, hope for an improving economy, to deal with those deficits.


House Speaker John Boehner, who has several times now failed to reach a big, broad fiscal deal with President Obama, told colleagues, according to The Hill newspaper, that he’s done with secret White House negotiations. He wants to stick with the constitutional way of doing things, with hearings and bills that are debated on Capitol Hill rather than hatched by the vice president and Senate Republicans.


Okay. Obama won’t negotiate on the debt ceiling. McConnell won’t not negotiate on the debt ceiling. Boehner doesn’t to do things by the book.


But McConnell won’t negotiate on taxes any more.


“Predictably,” McConnell had written earlier in his post, “the president is already claiming that his tax hike on the ‘rich’ isn’t enough. I have news for him: the moment that he and virtually every elected Democrat in Washington signed off on the terms of the current arrangement, it was the last word on taxes. That debate is over.”


It’s a new chapter in the ongoing fiscal saga in Washington. Back when the two sides were talking about a grand bargain or a big deal – some sort of all-inclusive reform that would right the listing deficit with one flip of the rudder – the popular trope was that “everything must be on the table.” That’s basically how Obama put it back in the summer of 2011 when he and Boehner failed to reach a grand bargain. He wanted higher taxes – they were calling them revenues back then. More recently, after Obama won the election and when he and Boehner were trying to hammer out another grand bargain to avert the fiscal cliff, Boehner wanted entitlements on the table. That means he wanted to find ways to curb future spending.


Both sides are declaring they won’t debate certain points, but this far – a full two months – before the mini-cliffs start, those are easier declarations to make than they will be when the government is in danger of defaulting or shutting down.


Even though they’re trying to take elements off the table, both men hope that coming negotiations can be a little more cordial and a little less down-to-the wire.


“Over the next two months they need to deliver the same kind of bipartisan resolution to the spending problem we have now achieved on revenue — before the 11th hour,” wrote McConnell.


“The one thing that I think, hopefully, in the New Year we’ll focus on is seeing if we can put a package like this together with a little bit less drama, a little less brinksmanship, not scare the heck out of folks quite as much,” said Obama.


That’ll be tough if neither side will talk about what the other side wants to talk about.


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King speaks to sceptical Spaniards






MADRID: After a year blighted by embarrassing scandals, Spain's King Juan Carlos moves to repair his damaged reputation Friday with the broadcast of a rare televised interview to mark his 75th birthday.

No details of the pre-recorded interview had leaked from the royal palace ahead of its airing on Friday evening, but Spanish media trailed it by scrutinising the recent tribulations of the king, a key player in Spain's modern history.

Juan Carlos has recently appeared hobbling around on crutches after having both hips replaced, but any sympathy for his health has been overshadowed by scandals over elephant-hunting in Africa and a corruption probe implicating his family.

In a poll published Thursday by El Mundo newspaper, only half of people expressed a positive judgement of his reign, compared with three-quarters a year ago.

Juan Carlos, who turns 75 on Saturday, won respect in Spain for helping guide it to democracy after the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975.

But the king's image suffered last year from two scandals.

The first was a corruption case against his son-in-law Inaki Urdangarin, the duke of Palma, who went before a judge in February.

The other was an expensive game-hunting trip the king himself made to Botswana, seen as an unacceptable extravagance while Spain suffered in a recession.

Thursday's poll showed general support for having a monarchy in Spain has fallen to 54 percent, six points down from a year ago and "a historic low", according to the newspaper.

For days ahead of the interview broadcast, national television has aired old footage including Juan Carlos's solemn address, dressed in his officer's uniform, condemning an attempted coup on February 23, 1981.

A generation after those historic events, the poll found that nearly 58 percent of people aged between 18 and 29 said they thought a monarchy was not the best form of governance for Spain.

El Mundo suggested people of this generation do not share their parents' reverence for the king since they "did not live through the transition and are not very interested in it".

In his annual Christmas speech to the nation, Juan Carlos called on Spaniards to unite against the current economic crisis that has thrown millions out of work.

"We cannot ignore that there is pessimism, and that its effects are felt in the social climate we are living in," the king said, after a year of mass street demonstrations and two general strikes.

Of all the measures to combat the crisis, "the main stimulus that will get us out of this crisis is called confidence," he said in the speech, in which he made a point of appearing without crutches, standing beside his desk.

Observers saw this as one in a series of efforts to strengthen the monarchy's standing.

"The royal palace has launched in recent months a studious marketing operation to improve the image of the king," El Mundo wrote in an editorial.

In this week's poll nearly 45 percent of people questioned said Juan Carlos should abdicate to make way for his son, Felipe, 44.

-AFP/fl



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Firm bringing HQ to Chicago









St. Louis-based construction firm Clayco Inc. is moving its headquarters to Chicago, attracted by ease of air travel, proximity to clients, access to young professionals and the potential to land city business as Mayor Rahm Emanuel pushes ahead with public-private partnerships for infrastructure improvements, its top executive said Thursday.

Clayco Chairman and CEO Robert Clark and Emanuel are expected to formally announce the move Friday.

Two-hundred and eighty of the company's 1,000 employees already work in the Chicago area, including 88 who work full time at the Jewelers Building, 35 E. Wacker Drive, which becomes company headquarters.

The company expects to double its Chicago workforce during the next couple of years, in part by increasing its architectural business and expanding its infrastructure business.

Clark said the company is seeking to acquire a municipal engineering company as part of an effort to develop its infrastructure business during the next few years. Now focused on industrial, office and institutional projects, the company would like to add a fourth specialty area that would go after water, sewer, road, bridge and airport work, Clark said.

"In the long run, public-private partnerships are something I'm very intrigued about and interested in pursuing," he said. "I don't think we'll do it overnight. … It may be three years from now, until we have significant traction in the (infrastructure) market."

"We're interested in national projects, not just local," he said. "But hopefully we'll have work in our own backyard."

Clayco donated $50,000 to Emanuel's mayoral campaign in late 2010, and Clark donated an additional $10,000 in September to The Chicago Committee, the mayor's campaign fund, according to the Illinois State Board of Elections. Clark said his contributions to a variety of politicians stem from personal convictions and have no relation to his business endeavors.

Tom Alexander, a spokesman for Emanuel, said: "Clayco is choosing Chicago because Chicago offers them unique access to world-class talent and a location from which they can easily and effectively do business around the world, period. Any type of private-public building project would undergo the city's very strict, competitive procurement process."

Last spring, Emanuel won City Council approval for the formation of the Chicago Infrastructure Trust, which will endeavor to secure private financing for public infrastructure projects.

Clayco's shift into downtown Chicago began in October 2010, when it opened offices in the Jewelers Building. Employees who had been based in Oakbrook Terrace have moved there, as have a handful of executives from St. Louis. Clark relocated to Chicago in September 2010.

The company did not seek or receive any financial incentives for its move, the city said. Clayco will keep its St. Louis office intact, and no layoffs are planned as part of the relocation.

Clark and Emanuel first met when Emanuel worked in the Clinton White House. Clark, who was active with the Young Presidents' Organization, worked with Emanuel on some events at the White House. Their paths have crossed a number of times since then, including during President Barack Obama's campaign in 2008.

A meeting with Emanuel played a role in the decision to relocate company headquarters, Clark said. It occupies the 13th and 27th floors of the Jewelers Building, or 30,000 square feet.

"He asked me to target our national clients and bring them here," Clark recalls. "Quite frankly, I was blown away by that. Most mayors are not that aggressive; they leave that up to their economic development folks."

Clayco has done work for a number of large institutions and corporations, including Dow Chemical, Amazon.com, Caterpillar, and locally, Kraft Foods, Anixter, the University of Illinois, the University of Chicago and Blue Cross Blue Shield.

Started 28 years ago by Clark, the privately held company has annual revenue of $820 million. Subsidiaries include architecture and design firm Forum Studios and Concrete Strategies Inc.

kbergen@tribune.com

Twitter @kathy_bergen



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Pictures We Love: Best of 2012

Photograph by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/AP

Powder-splattered, and powder-splattering, runners cross the finish line of The Color Run 5K in Irvine, California, on April 22. Each kilometer (0.6 mile) of the event features a color-pelting station dedicated to a single hue, culminating in the Pollock-esque riot at kilometer 5.

The "magical color dust" is completely safe, organizers say, though they admit it's "surprisingly high in calories and leaves a chalky aftertaste."

See more from April 2012 >>

Why We Love It

"Vibrant color floating through the air automatically brings to mind festive Holi celebrations in India. We expect to see revelers in Mumbai but instead find a surprise in the lower third of the frame—runners in California!"—Sarah Polger, senior photo editor

"There are a lot of eye-catching photographs of the festival of Holi in India that show colored powder in midair, but this particular situation has the people all lined up in a row—making it easy to see each of their very cinematic facial expressions."—Chris Combs, news photo editor

Published January 3, 2013

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Chelsea Clinton Raises Profile During Mom's Illness













While Hillary Clinton was in the hospital it was daughter Chelsea -- not the secretary of state or the former president Bill Clinton -- who spoke for the family.


She, along with the State Department, doled out what little information the family wanted to share in a series of tweets and when her mother was released from the hospital, it was Chelsea who delivered the thanks on behalf of her parents, tweeting her gratitude to the doctors as well as those who kept her mother in their thoughts while she recovered from a blood clot.


When Hillary Clinton leaves office, possibly at the end of this month, it will be the first time since 1982 that a Clinton will not be holding a public office.


The watch will be on whether Hillary Clinton makes another run for the White House in 2016, but almost inevitably people will also be watching to see if Chelsea Clinton decides to run for office, too.


"Americans always look for dynasties: Bush, Kennedy, Cuomo, Clinton … it's some kind of continuity. There will always be pressure on her to run for public office," said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic political strategist in New York.


"She's learning from the two best politicians in recent American history and she understands when to hold them and when to fold them," Sheinkopf said.


That sense of dynasty could also present a significant hurdle.






James Devaney/Getty Images











Secretary of State Clinton: Mystery Health Issues Watch Video









Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Undergoing Blood-Thinning Therapy Watch Video





"She's got to A, demonstrate that she has the charisma of her father, or B, demonstrate that she has the policy chops of her mother. And I think like most people she is somewhere in between," a former Hillary Clinton aide from her 2008 campaign said. "People are judging her through each of her parents and it's an impossible standard."


Chelsea Clinton, 32, has inched towards a possible political career in recent statements and has become more politically active.


In an interview with Vogue published in August she was more open to it than she has been in the past, telling the magazine, "Before my mom's (presidential) campaign I would have said no," but "now I don't know."


"I believe that engaging in the political process is part of being a good person. And I certainly believe that part of helping to build a better world is ensuring that we have political leaders who are committed to that premise. So if there were to be a point where it was something I felt called to do and I didn't think there was someone who was sufficiently committed to building a healthier, more just, more equitable, more productive world? Then that would be a question I'd have to ask and answer."


Clinton also spoke of a change in her private to public life:


"Historically I deliberately tried to lead a private life in the public eye," she told the magazine. "And now I am trying to lead a purposefully public life."


Besides her work as a special correspondent with NBC, Chelsea Clinton has taken on high profile roles with her father's Clinton Global Initiative. She sits on several corporate boards and has both moderated and sat on panels discussing both women in politics and childhood obesity, among other issues.


She has also worked toward making same-sex marriage legal in New York last year, as well as gay marriage referendums in Maine, Maryland, Wisconsin and Washington state, all of which were successful in November. She has also been active in superstorm Sandy recovery, most notably delivering aid to the devastated Rockaways with her father.






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Cannibal insect sex caught on video



Joanna Carver, reporter






It may be considered poor form in the human dating game, but cannibalistic sex is common practice among hump-winged grigs. This video shows a female insect feasting on her partner's hind wings then drinking the blood from his wound, apparently with little interest in procreation. The male isn't completely passive though: he uses a hook on his abdomen to catch the female, linking their genitals together.






The wing material doesn't grow back, so each time a male mates, his hind wings get shorter. Females prefer males with undamaged wings, which makes wingless male grigs less desirable. But according to Kevin Judge, an insect expert from George MacEwan University in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, females will sometimes move onto other body parts when there isn't much wing to tuck into. "I've seen males with missing hind legs that have apparently been chewed off by females," says Judge.


When hungry, however, female grigs are less picky about their choice of mate. In a recent study, Judge and his colleagues found that when starved, they would breed with males of other grig species. This behaviour is more likely to occur at the end of the breeding season. "All their own males are tapped out and they just go with what's available," says Judge.


Interspecies romance isn't unique to grigs: many animals also branch out from their own type. To find out more about these risky sexual practices, check out our feature, "Dangerous liaisons: Fatal animal attractions".


If you enjoyed this post, watch a video reveal details of nematode mating or see how water striders pin down females for sex.




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Delhi gang-rape suspects formally charged






NEW DELHI: Indian police on Thursday formally charged five men with murder, kidnapping and rape following the fatal gang-rape of a young woman that appalled the nation.

"We have filed the charge sheet against the five accused," an investigating police officer told a magistrate hearing the case in the Saket court complex in New Delhi.

The five men, who could face the death penalty if convicted, were not present when the media were allowed into the courtroom. Journalists were initially prevented from listening to proceedings, sparking chaotic scenes outside.

The men face at least seven charges, including murder, kidnapping, rape, robbery and attempting to destroy evidence. The next hearing in the case was set for January 5.

A police charge sheet under Indian law lays out the charges against the accused and details the key evidence against them.

The 23-year-old victim in the gang-rape case, who died at the weekend from her horrific injuries, gave a statement to police immediately after the attack.

Her boyfriend, who was with her at the time and was also attacked, has also given an account.

- AFP/xq



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Sandy Hook kids return to class in neighboring town









MONROE, Conn. — The Newtown schools superintendent says preparations have been made for a "normal" day, yet it will likely be anything but that when classes resume for Sandy Hook Elementary School students for the first time since a gunman killed 20 of their classmates.


With their original school still being treated as a crime scene, the students will begin attending classes at a refurbished school in the neighboring town of Monroe on Thursday. Law enforcement officers have been guarding the new school, and by the reckoning of police, it is "the safest school in America."


Still, Newtown Superintendent Janet Robinson said officials will do their best to make the students feel at ease.











"We will go to our regular schedule," she said. "We will be doing a normal day."


On Wednesday, the students and their families were welcomed at an open house at their new school, which was formerly the Chalk Hill Middle School in Monroe but renamed as the Sandy Hook Elementary School. Students received gift boxes with toys inside and shared joyful reunions with teachers.


One father, Vinny Alvarez, took a moment to thank his third-grade daughter's teacher, Courtney Martin, who protected the class from a rampaging gunman by locking her classroom door and keeping the children in a corner.


"Everybody there thanked her in their own way," he said.


Parents wishing to remain with their kids, ages 5 to 10 in kindergarten through grade 4, will be allowed to accompany them to their classrooms and afterwards may stay in the school's "lecture room" for as long as they like, according to a memo to parents on the school's website. Counseling will be available for students and parents at the new school, about 7 miles south of the scene of the shooting.


The gunman, Adam Lanza, also killed his mother at the home they shared in Newtown before driving to the school, where he slaughtered 20 children and six educators, including the school's principal. Lanza fatally shot himself as police arrived. Police haven't released any details about a motive.


Numerous police officers on Wednesday guarded the outside of the Monroe school, which is about 7 miles from the old school, and told reporters to stay away.


"I think right now it has to be the safest school in America," Monroe police Lt. Keith White said.


Teachers attended staff meetings at the new school on Wednesday morning and were visited by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy before the open house, White said.


Robinson said Chalk Hill School has been transformed into a "cheerful" place for the surviving students to resume normal school routines. She said mental health counselors continue to be available for anyone who needs them.


During the open house, Alvarez said his 8-year-old daughter also got to pick out a stuffed animal to take home from the school library.


"I'm not worried about her going back," he said of his daughter Cynthia. "The fear kind of kicks back in a little bit, but we're very excited for her and we got to see many, many kids today. The atmosphere was very cheerful."


Several signs welcoming the Sandy Hook students to their new school were posted along the road leading to the school in a rural, mostly residential neighborhood. One said "Welcome Sandy Hook Elementary Kids," while a similar sign added "You are in our prayers."


Teams of workers, many of them volunteers, prepared the Chalk Hill school with fresh paint and new furniture and even raised bathroom floors so the smaller elementary school students can reach the toilets. The students' desks, backpacks and other belongings that were left behind following the shooting were taken to the new school to make them feel at home.


No new details released


In the meantime, no new details have emerged to explain why the 20-year-old Lanza, armed with a semi-automatic assault rifle, two other firearms and hundreds of rounds of ammunition, targeted the school.


Described by family friends as having Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism, Lanza shot and killed his mother, Nancy Lanza, at their home about 5 miles from the school before driving to Sandy Hook and embarking on the massacre, police said. He then took his own life as police were arriving at the school, which had an enrollment of 456.

Police have offered no firm motive for the attack, and state police investigators have said it could be months before they finish their report.

The massacre in Newtown, a rural New England town of 27,000 residents about 70 miles northeast of New York City, stunned the nation, prompting President Barack Obama to call it the worst day of his presidency and reigniting an extensive debate on gun control. Obama has tasked Vice President Joe Biden with assembling a package of gun-control proposals to submit to Congress in the next several weeks.

The National Rifle Association, the most powerful gun-rights lobby in the United States, has rebuffed calls for more stringent firearms restrictions and instead called for armed guards to patrol every public school in the country.


Associated Press and Reuters contributed





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Pictures: Errant Shell Oil Rig Runs Aground Off Alaska, Prompts Massive Response

Photograph courtesy Jonathan Klingenberg, U.S. Coast Guard

Waves lash at the sides of the Shell* drilling rig Kulluk, which ran aground off the rocky southern coast of Alaska on New Year's Eve in a violent storm.

The rig, seen above Tuesday afternoon, was "stable," with no signs of spilled oil products, authorities said. But continued high winds and savage seas hampered efforts to secure the vessel and the 150,000 gallons (568,000 liters) of diesel fuel and lubricants on board. The Kulluk came to rest just east of Sitkalidak Island (map), an uninhabited but ecologically and culturally rich site north of Ocean Bay, after a four-day odyssey, during which it broke free of its tow ships and its 18-member crew had to be rescued by helicopter.

The U.S. Coast Guard, state, local, and industry officials have joined in an effort involving nearly 600 people to gain control of the rig, one of two that Shell used for its landmark Arctic oil-drilling effort last summer. "This must be considered once of the largest marine-response efforts conducted in Alaska in many years," said Steve Russell, of Alaska's Department of Environmental Conservation.

The 266-foot (81-meter) rig now is beached off one of the larger islands in the Kodiak archipelago, a land of forest, glaciers, and streams about 300 miles (482 kilometers) south of Anchorage. The American Land Conservancy says that Sitkalidak Island's highly irregular coastline traps abundant food sources upwelling from the central Gulf of Alaska, attracting large numbers of seabirds and marine mammals. The largest flock of common murres ever recorded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was in Sitkalidak Strait, which separates the island from Kodiak. Sitkalidak also has 16 wild salmon rivers and archaeological sites tied to the Alutiiq native peoples dating back more than 7,000 years.

Shell incident commander Susan Childs said Monday night that the company's wildlife management team had started to assess the potential impact of a spill, and would be dispatched to the site when the weather permitted. She said the Kulluk's fuel tanks were in the center of the vessel, encased in heavy steel. "The Kulluk is a pretty sturdy vessel," she said. " It just remains to be seen how long it's on the shoreline and how long the weather is severe."

Marianne Lavelle

*Shell is sponsor of National Geographic's Great Energy Challenge initiative. National Geographic maintains editorial autonomy.

Published January 2, 2013

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Senate Swears in a Historic 20 Female Senators












Today the Senate will make history, swearing in a record-breaking 20 female senators – 4 Republicans and 16 Democrats – in office.


As the 113th Congress is sworn in today on Capitol Hill, ABC "World News" anchor Diane Sawyer has an exclusive joint interview with the historic class of female Senators.


Diane Sawyer's complete interview will air on World News this evening.


"I can't tell you the joy that I feel in my heart to look at these 20 gifted and talented women from two different parties, different zip codes to fill this room," Sen. Barbara Mikulksi, D-Md., said while surrounded by the group of women senators. "In all of American history only 16 women had served. Now there are 20 of us."


Senator-elect Deb Fischer, R-Neb., becomes today the first women to be elected as a senator in Nebraska.


"It was an historic election," Fischer said, "But what was really fun about it were the number of mothers and fathers who brought their daughters up to me during the campaign and said, "Can we get a picture? Can we get a picture?' Because people realize it and -- things do change, things do change."


The women senators all agree that women will be getting things done in this new Congress, a sign of optimism felt for the new Congress, after the bruising battles of the 112th Congress.




"We're in force and we're in leadership positions, but it's not just the position that we hold. I can tell you this is a can-do crowd," Mikulski said of both Democrats and Republican senators in the room. "We are today ready to be a force in American politics."


And while the number of women in the Senate today makes historic, many of the women agreed that they want to keep fighting to boost those numbers. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said that women are still "underrepresented" in the Senate.


"I think that until we get to 50, we still have to fight because it's still a problem," Boxer said. "I think this class as you look around, Republicans and Democrats... I think that because of this new class and the caliber of the people coming and the quality of the people coming, I think that hopefully in my lifetime -- and I really do hope and pray this is the case -- we will see 50 percent. "


No Sorority Here, Even With the Will to Work Together


The cooperation does not make them a "sorority," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., says. There are real differences in ideology and personality and they don't want their gender to define them as senators.


But the women also admit that they believe having more women in the room would help in fierce negotiations, compromise, and legislating on Capitol Hill, traits they say do not come as naturally to their male colleagues in the Senate. That sentiment enjoys bipartisan support among the women of the Senate.


"What I find is with all due deference to our male colleagues, that women's styles tend to be more collaborative," Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said.


Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said by nature women are "less confrontational." Sen-elect Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, says that women are "problem solvers."


Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., says that women have a camaraderie which helps in relationships that are key to negotiations on Capitol Hill, something she says comes natural to women more than men.


"I think there's just a lot of collaboration between the women senators and... advice and really standing up for each other that you don't always see with the men," she said.






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Stone-age cinema: Cave art conceals first animations



Sandrine Ceurstemont, editor, New Scientist TV






Think the first movies were screened in a cinema? According to an analysis of cave art, our prehistoric ancestors may have invented the concept while drawing on their walls.







In this video, researcher and film-maker Marc Azema from the University of Toulouse Le Mirail in France reveals how several frames of an animation are superimposed in many animal sketches. A horse painting from the Lascaux caves in France, for example, is made up of many versions of the animal representing different positions of movement. In this video, Azema extracts the individual images and displays them in succession, demonstrating how they play back like a cartoon.



In other examples, motion is represented by juxtaposing drawings of a body in motion. Azema creates another sequence by picking out motion frames to produce an animation of a running animal.



Apart from layered paintings, ancient humans may have used light tricks to evoke motion on cave walls. Engraved discs of bone have also been found which produce galloping animations when spun on a string, reminiscent of flipbooks. For more on prehistoric cinema, read our feature article, "Prehistoric cinema: A silver screen on the cave wall".



If you enjoyed this post, watch the first science films or the animal stars of the first colour movies.





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Tennis: Impressive Azarenka reaches Brisbane International quarter-finals






BRISBANE, Australia: World number one Victoria Azarenka moved into the quarter-finals of the Brisbane International with a hard-fought 6-3, 6-3 win over German Sabine Lisicki on Wednesday.

Azarenka was made to work hard for her win by the hard-hitting Lisicki, who traded punishing ground strokes with the top seed but was let down by a high error rate -- 36 unforced errors compared with only nine from her opponent.

In a match much closer than the score suggests, Lisicki had her chances but was unable to take them.

She had eight break points on Azarenka's serve but was only able to convert three, whereas Azarenka -- who won her maiden WTA title in Brisbane in 2009 -- broke Lisicki six times to seize the advantage.

The German also served poorly, landing only 52 per cent of her first serves and sending down five double faults. But she stayed in the match thanks to the quality of her hitting from the baseline.

"I knew what kind of player she is and I felt like she did improve from maybe the last time we played," Azarenka said.

"I just knew that there is something that I have to deal with. So I was prepared to take some bullets today.

"But I just tried to stay focused on executing my game. I knew she was going to make some, she was going to miss some, so I just had to stay with her and look for my chance."

Azarenka now plays Kazakhstan qualifier Ksenia Pervak in the quarter-finals.

Earlier, Germany's Angelique Kerber, the only player to defeat Serena Williams since the French Open in May, came from behind to beat unheralded Puerto Rican Monica Puig in three sets.

The 24-year-old fourth-seed looked in huge trouble as she trailed 1-4 in the third set but fought back to force a tiebreak.

Puig then led 4-0 in the tiebreak only for Kerber to fight back again and take the match 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 (9/7) in two and a half hours.

She will next take on Russia's Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the quarter-finals.

"I was just thinking point by point (when she was down in the third set)," Kerber said.

"I was not thinking 'What's happening?' I was just really on court and just trying to hit the ball, move very well, and just fight for every point.

"It was a surprise how she played. I didn't know her before, but I'm sure that she'll be in the top 50 soon."

Sloane Stephens set up a quarter-final against fellow American Serena Williams when she beat Sweden's Sofia Arvidsson 6-3, 6-4. Ukraine's Lesia Tsurenko, who only came into the tournament when Maria Sharapova pulled out, downed Australia's Jarmila Gajdosova 1-6, 6-1, 6-4.

- AFP/fa



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With final vote, Congress resolves 'fiscal cliff' drama

The House of Representatives approved a deal to avert the fiscal cliff on Tuesday night, by a final vote of 257 to 167. The bill, which already has Senate approval, now goes to President Obama for his signature.









The House gave final approval last night to a bill to rescind tax increases for the vast majority of Americans, but only after a day of closed-door debate among Republicans who were forced to allow a vote on a compromise many in their party disdained.


The final tally, 257-167, included most of the chamber’s Democrats and fewer than half of the Republican majority.


The agreement hands a clear victory to President Barack Obama, who won re-election on a promise to address budget woes in part by raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans. His Republican antagonists were forced to vote against a core tenet of their anti-tax conservative faith.








The deal also resolves, for now, the question of whether Washington can overcome deep ideological differences to avoid harming an economy that is only now beginning to pick up steam after the deepest recession in 80 years.


Consumers, businesses and financial markets have been rattled by the months of budget brinkmanship. The crisis ended when dozens of Republicans in the House of Representatives buckled and backed tax hikes approved by the Democratic-controlled Senate.


Asian stocks hit a five-month high and the dollar fell as markets welcomed the news. China's state news agency Xinhua took a more severe view, warning the United States must get to grips with a budget deficit that threatened not a "fiscal cliff" but a "fiscal abyss". Most of China's $3.3 trillion foreign exchange reserves are held in dollars.


The vote averted immediate pain like tax hikes for almost all U.S. households, but did nothing to resolve other political showdowns on the budget that loom in coming months. Spending cuts of $109 billion in military and domestic programs were only delayed for two months.


Obama urged "a little less drama" when the Congress and White House next address thorny fiscal issues like the government's rapidly mounting $16 trillion debt load.


There was plenty of drama on the first day of 2013 as lawmakers scrambled to avert the "fiscal cliff" of across-the-board tax hikes and spending cuts that would have punched a $600 billion hole in the economy this year.


As the rest of the country celebrated New Year's Day with parties and college football games, the Senate stayed up past 2 a.m. on Tuesday and passed the bill by an overwhelming margin of 89 to 8.


When they arrived at the Capitol at noon, House Republicans were forced to decide whether to accept a $620 billion tax hike over 10 years on the wealthiest or shoulder the blame for letting the country slip into budget chaos.


The Republicans mounted an effort to add hundreds of billions of dollars in spending cuts to the package and spark a confrontation with the Senate.


GOP reluctant


For a few hours, it looked like Washington would send the country over the fiscal cliff after all, until Republican leaders determined that they did not have the votes for spending cuts.


In the end, they reluctantly approved the Senate bill by a bipartisan vote of 257 to 167 and sent it on to Obama to sign into law.


"We are ensuring that taxes aren't increased on 99 percent of our fellow Americans," said Republican Representative David Dreier of California.


The vote underlined the precarious position of House Speaker John Boehner, who will ask his Republicans to re-elect him speaker on Thursday when a new Congress is sworn in. Boehner backed the bill but most House Republicans, including his top lieutenants, voted against it.


The speaker had sought to negotiate a "grand bargain" with Obama to overhaul the U.S. tax code and rein in health and retirement programs that are due to balloon in coming decades as the population ages. But Boehner could not unite his members behind an alternative to Obama's tax measures.


Income tax rates will now rise on families earning more than $450,000 per year and the amount of deductions they can take to lower their tax bill will be limited.


Low temporary rates that have been in place for the past decade will be made permanent for less-affluent taxpayers, along with a range of targeted tax breaks put in place to fight the 2009 economic downturn.


However, workers will see up to $2,000 more taken out of their paychecks annually with the expiration of a temporary payroll tax cut.


The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office said the bill will increase budget deficits by nearly $4 trillion over the coming 10 years, compared to the budget savings that would occur if the extreme measures of the cliff were to kick in.


But the measure will actually save $650 billion during that time period when measured against the tax and spending policies that were in effect on Monday, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, an independent group that has pushed for more aggressive deficit savings.


Reuters and the Tribune Washington bureau contributed





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Space Pictures This Week: Ice “Broccoli,” Solar Storm









































































































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Obama Hails 'Cliff' Deal, Warns of Next Fiscal Fight













Minutes after the House of Representatives approved a bipartisan Senate deal to avert the "fiscal cliff" and preserve Bush-era tax cuts for all Americans making less than $400,000 per year, President Obama praised party leaders and wasted little time turning to the next fiscal fight.


"This is one step in the broader effort to strengthen our economy for everybody," Obama said.


Obama lamented that earlier attempts at a much larger fiscal deal that would have cut spending and dealt with entitlement reforms failed. He said he hoped future debates would be done with "a little less drama, a little less brinksmanship, and not scare folks quite as much."


But Obama drew a line in the sand on the debt ceiling, which is set to be reached by March.


"While I will negotiate over many things, I will not have another debate with this Congress over whether they should pay the bills for what they've racked up," Obama said. "We can't not pay bills that we've already incurred."


An hour after his remarks, Obama boarded Air Force One to rejoin his family in Hawaii, where they have been since before Christmas.






AP Photo/Charles Dharapak















'Fiscal Cliff' Negotiations: Congress Reaches Agreement Watch Video





House Republicans agreed to the up-or-down vote Tuesday evening, despite earlier talk of trying to amend the Senate bill with more spending cuts before taking a vote. The bill delays for two months tough decisions about automatic spending cuts that were set to kick in Wednesday.


A majority of the Republicans in the GOP-majority House voted against the fiscal cliff deal. About twice as many Democrats voted in favor of the deal compared to Republicans. One hundred fifty-one Republicans joined 16 Democrats to vote against the deal, while 172 Democrats carried the vote along with 85 Republicans.


The Senate passed the same bill by an 89-8 vote in the wee hours of New Year's Day. If House Republicans had tweaked the legislation, there would have been no clear path for its return to the Senate before a new Congress is sworn in Thursday.


The vote split Republican leaders in the House. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, voted yes, and so did the GOP's 2012 vice presidential candidate, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis.


But House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., the No. 2 Republican in the House, voted no. It was his opposition that had made passage of the bill seem unlikely earlier in the day.


The deal does little to address the nation's long-term debt woes and does not entirely solve the problem of the "fiscal cliff."


Indeed, the last-minute compromise -- far short from a so-called grand bargain on deficit reduction -- sets up a new showdown on the same spending cuts in two months amplified by a brewing fight on how to raise the debt ceiling beyond $16.4 trillion. That new fiscal battle has the potential to eclipse the "fiscal cliff" in short order.


"Now the focus turns to spending," said Boehner in a statement after the vote. "The American people re-elected a Republican majority in the House, and we will use it in 2013 to hold the president accountable for the 'balanced' approach he promised, meaning significant spending cuts and reforms to the entitlement programs that are driving our country deeper and deeper into debt."


Republicans hope that allowing the fiscal cliff compromise, which raised taxes without an equal amount of spending cuts, will settle the issue of tax rates for the coming debates on spending.






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In-depth 2012: The best long reads of the year









































Read more: "2013 Smart Guide: 10 ideas that will shape the year"












Dig deeper, look closer and think harder – these are the goals of New Scientist's in-depth articles. Each one is perfect for saving in your favourite read-it-later app and curling up in front of a glowing tablet for a good long read.












These are our editors' picks of our best features of the year, and all are prime examples of the amazing breadth of big ideas that were ripe for the tackling in 2012. When you have finished digesting these readable meals, visit our in-depth articles archive if you're hungry for more.











Richard Webb: "You might not have heard of the algorithm that runs the world." I certainly hadn't, or that its mathematical foundations are starting to look a little wobbly. An eye-opening examination of how seemingly abstruse mathematics is in fact deeply embedded in modern life: "The algorithm that runs the world"












Sally Adee: Gastric bypass surgery is the best surgery you're not getting, said Dr Oz on his popular medical advice show in the US. Because of enthusiasm from people like him, this operation has become massively popular – but by whimsically hacking at our stomach, might we might be messing with a system far more complicated than anyone really understands? Samantha Murphy had the surgery and began to realise that losing 45 kilograms could come with some profound neurological trade-offs: "Change your stomach, change your brain"












Michael Le Page: Nowadays most people either haven't heard of the 1970 book The Limits to Growth, or believe – wrongly – that the research it was based on has been discredited. But the main message of Limits is perhaps more relevant than ever – that a delayed response to mounting environmental problems leads to catastrophe further down the line: "Boom and doom: Revisiting prophecies of collapse"












Richard Fisher: This is a simple story about a scientific mystery. Strange rumbles, whistles and blasts have been reported all over the world for centuries. In New York state, they are called "Seneca guns"; in the Italian Apennines they are described as brontidi, which means thunder-like; in Japan they are yan; and along the coast of Belgium they are called mistpouffers – or fog belches. Yet the cause is often unexplained – what on Earth could be behind them? "Mystery booms: The source of a worldwide sonic enigmaSpeaker"












Valerie Jamieson: It's been a sensational year for particle physics, but the Higgs boson isn't the only fascinating particle in town. Meet 11 more particles that change our understanding of the subatomic world: "11 particles for 11 physics puzzlesMovie Camera"












David Robson: What is the secret of the legendary "flow state" that seems to mark out genius in everyone from piano virtuosos to tennis champions? With the latest brain stimulation techniques, it may soon be within everyone's reach, and Sally Adee writes with panache as she describes her own use of the technology during a terrifying marksmanship training session. This has everything I want to read in a story – drama, a revolutionary idea and some practical advice for anyone to try at home: "Zap your brain into the zone: Fast track to pure focus"












Graham Lawton: The writer of this article, Christopher Kemp, is a self-confessed lover of marginalia – nooks and crannies of science that are often overlooked. But as this beautifully written story reveals, those nooks and crannies often contain rich and fascinating material. Material, in fact, like ambergris: "Heaven scent: The grey gold from a sperm whale's gut"












Ben Crystall: Many people may remember the wonder material Starlite from an episode of BBC TV's Tomorrow's World – it seemed to have a miraculous ability to withstand fire and heat. So what happened to it? In this feature Richard Fisher uncovers the strange tale of Starlite and its eccentric inventor Maurice Ward, and on the way reveals fascinating details about Ward and his creation. And though Ward is dead, the story may not be over – it now looks like Starlite could get a second chance… "The power of cool: Whatever became of Starlite?"












Clare Wilson: I enjoyed working on this feature the most this year because to me it truly represents the future of medicine. New Scientist often predicts that some new medicine or technology will be available in five years' time. When it comes to using gene therapies or stem cell therapies on babies in the womb – the subject of this feature – the timeline is probably more uncertain, yet I don't see how anyone can doubt that some day it will happen: "Fetal healing: Curing congenital diseases in the womb"



















































If you would like to reuse any content from New Scientist, either in print or online, please contact the syndication department first for permission. New Scientist does not own rights to photos, but there are a variety of licensing options available for use of articles and graphics we own the copyright to.




































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Surge in demand for pet hotel service during year-end holidays






SINGAPORE: Pet hotels are becoming a hit with owners who want to ensure that their furry friends are in good hands while they are away.

Some hotels said demand went up by about 30 per cent last year, compared with 2011 while occupancy rates are almost always full during the year-end holidays.

From massages to soothe aching joints to customised spa sessions that come with a clay pack wrap of nutrients and minerals, the pets are enjoying a break of their own at pet-wellness centres, such as pet hotel, Petopia, while their owners are away.

Petopia's marketing director Richard Wee said: "They find this place more like a playroom. We have one case of a customer's dog that after they left the hotel and came back for grooming one day, the dog ran all the way back to the playroom to just look for his friends to spend time with during the hotel stay."

Petopia can take in up to 50 animals and rooms are usually booked a few months in advance.

Pet owners fork out between S$75 and S$158 for a night's stay.

"We are looking at three different crowds. The year-end holiday goers, they clear their annual leave. We have families who bring the children overseas during school holidays and a large number of expatriates who return home for the year-end season," said Mr Wee.

Safety and security are the top concerns of owners, along with separation pangs.

Mr Wee said: "We have customers who choose not to go away for many years because they are afraid of not having someone to look after their pets well."

To allay such concerns, the hotel installed webcams in the building for owners to track their pets' movements.

Er Yanshan, a pet owner, said: "It's better than just leaving your pet at home with no one to look after it, so it's a good idea."

What's more alarming is when owners abandon their pets.

The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) said more than 100 animals were given up at the centre in December 2012 by owners who wanted to go away.

That is twice the number, compared with the other months of the same year.

Mr Lee Yao Huang, who is animal care officer at SPCA, said: "Some of them might decide to give it to SPCA, or they just abandoned it at their HDB area or grass patch near their place.

"We actually give them some help by advising them to put it on our re-homing notice on our SPCA website or they can put up brochures and notices on the vet's clinics or supermarkets on their notice boards."

And for those who don't want to fork out too much at the pet hotel, another way is to get friends or relatives to play pet-sitter.

- CNA/fa



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Senate passes 'fiscal cliff' deal; House to vote Tuesday









WASHINGTON — The Senate voted overwhelmingly early Tuesday to approve legislation to halt a tax increase for all but the wealthiest Americans while postponing for two months deep spending cuts. The vote came just hours after the accord was reached between the White House and congressional leaders.


After a rare holiday session that lasted through the New Year’s Eve celebration and two hours into New Year’s Day, senators voted 89-8 to approve the proposal. Three Democrats and five Republicans dissented, most prominently Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).


“It took an imperfect solution to prevent our constituents from very real financial pain,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky)  said before the vote. “This shouldn’t be the model for how to do things around here. But I think we can say we’ve done some good for the country.”





President Obama, in a statement released by the White House early Tuesday morning, said, “While neither Democrats nor Republicans got everything they wanted, this agreement is the right thing to do for our country and the House should pass it without delay.”


The lopsided vote puts pressure on the House to swiftly follow suit to ensure the nation avoids the so-called fiscal cliff. As long as Congress is seen to be working toward a solution, no dire economic fallout is expected from the delay. The House is expected to bring the bill up Tuesday afternoon.


The deal, if approved by Congress, would represent a milestone for Republicans, whose anti-tax stance has defined the party since former President George H.W. Bush broke his promise not to raise taxes in 1990. Republicans have not supported an effort to increase income taxes since then.


It also would be a concession for Democrats who backed away from President Obama’s popular campaign pledge that he would ask households earning more than $250,000 to pay more in taxes. Under the deal with Republicans, taxes will increase only on households earning more than $450,000.


Still, the deal spares the average middle class family a tax hike of about $2,200, a reality that drove the sense of urgency that motivated lawmakers in the frantic final hours of 2012.


“I’m not happy the way it happened, but it is what it is,” Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said before the vote. “It was very important that we prevent an increase on middle income taxes. And I’ll be working next year to get a bigger agreement.”


The deep automatic spending cuts scheduled to begin Wednesday — the other part of the "fiscal cliff" — would be pushed back just long enough to ensure that the partisan budget battles marking Obama's first term will also punctuate the beginning of his second. Negotiations over the cuts were expected to be rolled into talks about extending the nation's debt ceiling, a prospect Democrats promised to resist.

The normally festive time of year turned serious Monday as details of the deal emerged. Vice President Joe Biden, who brokered the deal in marathon sessions with McConnell, was dispatched to the Capitol for an intense 90-minute session with Democrats.

In an afternoon speech with middle-class Americans arrayed on risers behind him, Obama had urged congressional negotiators to press on and resolve the remaining issues.

"It's not done," Obama said from the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next to the White House. He called on Americans to urge their lawmakers to "see if we can get this done."

The talks had largely settled the income tax provisions, which would stop the increase on most Americans and raise rates for households making more than $450,000 a year. But the two sides remained at odds over how to deal with the automatic spending cuts.

"We are very, very close," an upbeat McConnell said on the Senate floor. "We can do this."

Lawmakers were told to stay near the Capitol, and many hunkered down there for New Year's Eve.

Sen. Mary L. Landrieu (D-La.) hosted an evening gathering at her nearby home as lawmakers awaited word of final details. "We're serving beer, not champagne," she said.

Yet Democratic leaders remained largely silent on the proposal before Biden, a former senator who has cut deals with McConnell before, headed to Capitol Hill to brief his Democratic colleagues.

"Having been in the Senate as long as I have, there are two things you shouldn't do: You shouldn't predict how the Senate's going to vote before they vote," Biden said, emerging from the session, which lawmakers described as robust. "And number two, you surely shouldn't predict how the House is going to vote."

The office of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the Nevada deal-maker who stepped aside for Biden to negotiate with McConnell, offered visible evidence of the level of concern. Lawmakers came in and out of his door throughout the day.

"No deal is better than a bad deal," said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), an influential liberal. "And this looks like a very bad deal."

The powerful AFL-CIO president, Richard Trumka, tweeted his displeasure.

Conservatives similarly sounded off. "Republicans should kill the compromise, if there are no spending cuts," Erick Erickson, the conservative founder of the influential Red State blog, said in a tweet.

Putting the vote off until Tuesday would accomplish a political back flip that would be particularly advantageous for anti-tax Republicans, and it represented an option that has been discussed for months.

With the existing tax rates set to expire at midnight, Tuesday ushered in the new higher rates. By acting Tuesday rather than Monday, the congressional votes would technically be to lower tax rates on most Americans, rather than raise them.

Biden and McConnell were in close contact all day after working past midnight Sunday and resuming very early Monday morning to craft the deal.

The minority leader convened Republican senators behind closed doors at dinnertime, and many emerged optimistic that a deal was at hand.

"Hope springs eternal around here, even though it gets a little sticky at times," said Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.). House Speaker John A. Boehner convened his troops in a basement office beneath the Rotunda.

Optimism aside, one thing was increasingly clear: With some major issues still unresolved, Washington was poised to continue the partisan budget battles that have defined Obama's first term.

Under the proposed deal, more than $620 billion in revenue would be raised — far less than the $1.6 trillion Obama first sought in new revenue when he still hoped for a large deficit reduction package.

The agreement would set the top tax rates at 39.6% for income above $450,000 for households and $400,000 for individuals, according to a source who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the negotiations.

Tax rates on investment income would also rise for those higher-income households, from the historic low 15% rate on capital gains and dividends to 20%. Obama had wanted to tax dividends at the same rate as ordinary income.

The rate for the estate tax was a key sticking point throughout the weekend. The agreement would set a new rate at 40% on estates valued at more than $5 million. That is a compromise between the 35% rate in effect in 2012 and the 45% rate Democrats demanded on estates of $3.5 million or more.

About 2 million out-of-work Americans would benefit, if the deal is approved, from a one-year extension of long-term unemployment benefits. Those benefits expired over the weekend.

One area that hewed closer to Democratic priorities was Obama's proposal to reinstate limits on how much upper-income households could benefit from personal exemption tax credits and itemized deductions. Those limits, in place before the George W. Bush-era tax cuts began in 2001, were done away with over the past decade.

The agreement would reduce those deductions for households earning more than $250,000, leading to higher effective taxes on those households without an increase in tax rates, which the GOP had resisted.

Other tax credits established under Obama's economic recovery program would also be extended for five more years. That provision is a nod to Democratic calls for more stimulus spending to help the economy and for adjustments to the tax code to help those with more modest incomes.

Those credits include a $2,500 tax credit for college students and another that allows cash refunds even if no tax is owed for those with children and family incomes below $45,000.

The deal also includes a permanent fix for the alternative minimum tax, a part of the tax code that was established decades ago to ensure high-income earners paid at least a minimum amount of tax even if they were able to reduce their liability through extensive deductions. But it increasingly snares middle-class families because it was never indexed to inflation. Congress must fix it every year, a problem that would be finally resolved with Monday's deal.

The agreement also includes a nine-month extension of a stalled farm bill, ensuring that milk prices would not double, as some had predicted, without price supports. Doctors who serve Medicare patients would also be spared a pay cut, a usually routine adjustment that got caught up in the year-end fight.

Even with the thorny tax issues all but settled, the mandatory budget cuts that would start to reduce federal spending on Wednesday remained a sticking point until late Monday.

Those cuts, which would slice across defense and domestic programs, had been set as a last-ditch trigger designed to spur negotiations for a broader budget deal after an earlier deficit-reduction effort failed.

Talks focused on postponing the cuts for two months but offsetting the $24 billion that would not be saved. The White House and Republicans eventually settled on a mix of revenue increases and spending cuts.

Postponing the automatic cuts for two months, as the Republicans wanted, all but guarantees the budget battles will continue. Democrats had hoped to extend that reckoning for a year to keep Obama's second term from beginning with a repeat of past tumultuous budget battles.


In addition to Rubio, the dissenters to the deal in the Senate were Democrats Tom Harkin (Iowa), Thomas R. Carper (Del.) and Michael Bennet (Colo.), and Republicans Chuck Grassley (Iowa), Mike Lee (Utah), Rand Paul (Ky.) and Richard Shelby (Ala.).


Three senators did not vote: Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.), who is battling the flu; Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who announced his resignation earlier this month; and Mark Steven Kirk (R-Ill.), who is set to return to the Senate for the first time later this week after suffering a stroke.



lisa.mascaro@latimes.com

kathleen.hennessey@latimes.com

michael.memoli@latimes.com 





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