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  |   Jan. 4, 2013 at 5:01 PM
Congress approves $9.7B Sandy relief bill

WASHINGTON, Jan. 4 (UPI) -- The U.S. Congress approved $9.7 billion in new aid for victims of Superstorm Sandy Friday, sending it to President Obama.

The Senate quickly adopted the measure on a unanimous voice vote after the House approved the bill on a 354-67 vote.

The House action came after Speaker John Boehner was raked for not holding a vote on a $60 billion relief package earlier this week.

The bill approved Friday allows the Federal Emergency Management Agency to pay out claims to those who have federal flood insurance, The Washington Post reported.

FEMA had said the National Flood Insurance Program likely would run out of money next week. Nearly 140,000 Sandy-related flood insurance claims have been filed, FEMA said, with most still not paid or not paid in full.

Boehner did not bring a Senate-approved $60 billion relief measure to the floor Tuesday, drawing sharp criticism from New Jersey and New York leaders from both parties. Among other things, the House leadership cited discontent in its caucus related to the "fiscal cliff" deal that, among other things, raised tax rates for the wealthiest Americans.

All the votes against the $9.7 billion bill Friday were Republican, the Post said.


It's official: Obama defeated Romney

WASHINGTON, Jan. 4 (UPI) -- It's official: Barack Obama won a second term as president of the United States.

With Vice President Joe Biden presiding, the House of Representatives and Senate convened Friday in an hourlong joint session to count the electoral votes and declare the winners of the presidency and vice presidency, Roll Call reported.

The states' certified vote certificates were delivered in mahogany boxes and read alphabetically by state in a process that took about 30 minutes, Roll Call said.

Obama and Biden collected 332 electoral votes -- well more than the 270 votes necessary to win -- to the 206 electoral votes delivered to the Republican ticket of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.

Roll Call said the final popular vote tally indicated Obama collected 51.1 percent of the vote and Romney got 47.2 percent.


Explosion at Damascus gas station kills 10

DAMASCUS, Syria, Jan. 4 (UPI) -- At least 10 people were killed Friday in an explosion at a gas station in Damascus, Syria, in the second recent attack on people seeking fuel, witnesses said.

In Turkey, U.S. troops arrived to man Patriot missile batteries deployed to protect Turkey from spillover fighting from the Syrian conflict.

The Syrian government news agency blamed terrorists for the bomb struck the station in a northeastern Damascus neighborhood while anti-government activists said a car bomb caused the explosion, The New York Times reported.

One activist in Damascus said he thought the government was behind the bombing in Barzeh as well as an explosion in which at least 30 people were killed Wednesday at a gas station in an eastern suburb. Rebels fighting President Bashar Assad's government been had contested both areas.

"The people are being punished and disciplined because the regime wants them to say again that [Assad] is their master," the activist told the Times.

People are going to gas stations not only to fill up their vehicles but to get containers of fuel for generators and heaters.


NECC blames cleaners for meningitis

FRAMINGHAM, Mass., Jan. 4 (UPI) -- The New England Compounding Center blamed its cleaning service for the meningitis outbreak that killed 37 and sickened hundreds more, a filing showed Friday.

A Securities and Exchange Commission quarterly filing by UniFirst Corp., which cleaned the Framingham, Mass., lab once a month, indicated UniFirst had received a letter from the pharmaceutical compounding firm demanding UniFirst indemnify NECC for the outbreak, ABC reported.

"Based on its preliminary review of this matter, the company believes that NECC's claims are without merit," UniFirst said in its filing.

The fungus Exserohilum rostratum was detected in unopened vials of the preservative-free steroid produced at NECC, which produced about 17,000 doses of the injectable steroid that was shipped to 23 states and an estimated 14,000 doses were used to treat back and joint pain.

By mid-December, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported nearly 600 sickened from the steroid, with 37 deaths. Greenish-black foreign matter was found in a bin containing some of the injections, the Food and Drug Administration said.


Grounded Alaska oil-rig removal uncertain

ANCHORAGE, Alaska, Jan. 4 (UPI) -- A Shell Oil Co. official said he could offer no timeline for removal of a drilling rig grounded near an island in Alaska since a New Year's Eve storm.

Speaking at a teleconferenced news briefing Thursday in Anchorage, Shell Alaska operations manager Dean Crutchfield outlined problems inspectors discovered in a 3-hour inspection of the rig Wednesday.

The rig's emergency and service generators were damaged and watertight doors were breached, Crutchfield said.

It is too early to ascertain if the rig is seaworthy and can be be moved, he said.

U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Paul Mehler said he ordered a "marine casualty investigation" of the grounding

The rig ran ashore near Sitkalidak Island, about 10 miles south of Kodiak Island, the Anchorage Daily News reported.

There was no sign of a fuel leak, the report said.

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