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Healthcare bill clears two Senate votes

WASHINGTON, Dec. 22 (UPI) -- Healthcare reform marched to a Christmas Eve vote in the U.S. Senate, as the bill cleared two procedural votes along party lines Tuesday.

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Senators voted to adopt the manager's amendment that included changes to the sweeping healthcare bill, then to limit debate on a substitute amendment, The Hill reported. Both motions were approved on 60-39 votes.

The next votes are Wednesday on adopting a substitute amendment that includes the Senate's healthcare language and on a motion to limit debate on the substitute amendment.

If all goes according to plan, the vote to pass the $871 billion package itself will be taken Thursday.

After voting Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada asked all members to be civilized as tension mounted during the marathon consideration to reform the U.S. healthcare system.

"Because of the long hours we've spent here, for weeks now there's a lot of tension in the Senate," Reid said, urging "let's just all try to get along."

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said he and Reid were working on an agreement that would "give certainty" about ending the Senate session.

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"Hopefully the two of us together can be recommending something that makes sense for both sides in the not too distant future," McConnell said.

GOP critics said support for healthcare reform could mean an all-out assault during the 2010 election season on vulnerable incumbents, such as Democratic Sens. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Christopher Dodd of Connecticut.

Republican Party Chairman Michael Steele Monday said Democrats were "thumbing their nose and flipping the bird to the American people," The Washington Post said.

"I intend to have my foot on the throats of the Democrats on this issue and hold them accountable," Steele said.


Health PAC funds flow to key senators

WASHINGTON, Dec. 22 (UPI) -- The five U.S. senators managing floor debate on the massive healthcare reform bill list health interests among their biggest contributors, records indicate.

Sens. Max Baucus, D-Mont.; Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa; Chris Dodd, D-Conn.; Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa; and Mike Enzo, R-Wyo., all received contributions form healthcare interests, USA Today reported Tuesday.

Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and one of three Democrats managing the bill's movement on the floor, received more than $2.5 million from health-related PACs since 2005, the Center for Responsive Politics said. Healthcare interests also contributed to Grassley, the top Republican on the Finance Committee, donating more than $1.3 million to him between 2005-2009.

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Jill Kozeny, Grassley's spokeswoman, said "no relationship" exists between contributions and legislation.

Baucus spokesman Tyler Matsdorf said the Montana Democrat has one goal when he works on legislation: "Do what's right for Montana and for the nation."

"Unless you're at the table, you're on the menu," said Michael Fleming, chairman of the American Academy of Family Physicians' PAC board. "We now have more visibility directly to members of Congress."

The other key players in the healthcare debate receiving health-related campaign contributions:

-- Dodd, who was temporary chair of the Senate health committee, received $210,050 this year from health-related political action committees.

-- Harkin, the new chairman of the Senate health panel, got $66,000 from healthcare PACs this year.

-- Enzo, the health committee's ranking Republican, received $27,000 from healthcare political action committees this year.


1970s Ulster waterboarding claims probed

BELFAST, Northern Ireland, Dec. 22 (UPI) -- Evidence has been uncovered that interrogators used "waterboarding" techniques on Irish Republican prisoners in the 1970s, investigators say.

Liam Holden was sentenced to death in 1973 for killing a British soldier but later had his sentence commuted and served 17 years in prison. An independent watchdog body has found that his claims of being waterboarded by British soldiers into a giving a false confession are similar to newly unearthed allegations from another case during the same era, The Guardian reported Monday.

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The Criminal Cases Review Commission, which investigates suspected miscarriages of criminal justice, found that another man gave a similar account of being waterboarding in 1978. He reportedly claimed the technique -- which many consider to be torture -- was used on him by Royal Ulster Constabulary detectives after he was arrested in connection with the slaying of a police constable.

The Guardian said the man told a doctor that officers put a towel over his face and poured water over his nose and mouth.

Holden, who is trying to have his conviction quashed, saw his case transferred to the court of appeal in Belfast after the CCRC uncovered the new waterboarding evidence, The Guardian reported.


Snow, ice create more Britain travel woes

LONDON, Dec. 22 (UPI) -- Britons struggled to cope with bad winter weather Tuesday as snow and ice produced gridlock on roads and shut down some hospitals, officials said.

Roads in the Home Counties around London were choked with traffic Monday night as thousands of vehicle spin-outs made for one of the busiest days ever for the British Automobile Association, which dealt with more than 20,000 breakdowns, The Times of London reported.

Thames Valley Police warned motorists to stay off the roads for all but essential travel.

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Eurostar high-speed trains between Britain and France resumed operations Tuesday morning after suspending service for three days following breakdowns caused by light snow and cold temperatures in northern France, the newspaper said.

Hospitals in Berkshire were closed for patient appointments as doctors and nurses tried to make their way through the snow and ice, The Daily Telegraph reported. Hundreds of drivers were forced to abandon their cars in southeastern England as civic groups and local politicians complained of tardy responses to the weather crisis by road maintenance authorities.

British air travelers also faced more holiday-season delays as 24 incoming and 27 outgoing flights were canceled at London's Heathrow Airport, the Telegraph said.


Queensland hit by rain, damaging winds

BRISBANE, Australia, Dec. 22 (UPI) -- Damaging winds, rain and hail pelted Australia's southern Queensland Tuesday, leaving at least 32,000 homes without power, meteorologists said.

The state's southeast was hardest hit by a line of severe thunderstorms that tore through Logan, Ipswich, the northern suburbs of Brisbane and rural areas of the Sunshine Coast, the Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported.

Power lines were downed, traffic lights disabled and train service disrupted by the severe weather, Queensland officials said.

"Some of the low-lying spots around Goodna have been subjected to flooding, quite unexpectedly," Ipswich city councillor Paul Tully told the ABC. "The rain, the intensity of it, the branches have been knocked off the trees. I've seen wheelie bins knocked out into the middle of the road. The winds were so strong and traffic on some of the roads around Goodna is at a complete standstill."

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Transit officials said train service was disrupted on Queensland's Caboolture, Shorncliffe, Airport and Doomben lines.


Philippines Mayon Volcano intensifying

MANILA, Philippines, Dec. 22 (UPI) -- Activity has intensified in the Mayon Volcano with stronger earthquakes and more intense lava spews being recorded, Philippine scientists said Tuesday.

"Earthquake signals are more intensive and bigger in size compared to Monday's record," Renato Solidum, of the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology, told Philippine broadcaster ANC.

Despite being hidden by thick clouds since Monday, Solidum said instruments picked up rumbling sounds and stronger earthquake signals, indicating continuous lava fountaining, and a forceful belch of lava from a crater, vent or fissure in the volcano.

In its Tuesday morning bulletin, the institute said the volcano "continued to show an intense level of activity during the past 24 hours," and that 1,266 volcanic earthquakes were detected during the 24-hour period.

The alert level for Mayon Volcano was raised from 3 to 4 Sunday, meaning "a hazardous explosive eruption is possible within days," ABS-CBN News said.

The higher alert level prompted authorities to step up evacuation efforts of about 47,285 residents from 45 villages located within the danger zones, officials said.

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