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Dec. 31, 2012 at 5:00 PM
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Obama: Congress nearing fiscal cliff deal

WASHINGTON, Dec. 31 (UPI) -- Democratic and Republican congressional leaders were near a deal to avert the "fiscal cliff," but not there yet, President Obama said Monday.

"Today, it appears an agreement to prevent a New Year's tax hike is within sight, but but it's not done," Obama said during a televised statement. "There are issues left to be resolved, but I am hopeful Congress can get it done."

The potential agreement includes not allowing tax rates affecting middle-class families to expire, would extend unemployment insurance, and would extend tax credits for families with children, college/university tuition and clean-energy companies creating jobs. The deal also would reinstate tax rates in effect during President Bill Clinton's administration for families earning $450,000, an increase from Obama's campaign stump ceiling of $250,000.

Obama told the audience it was his preference to solve all the issues as part of a "bigger deal" in a responsible and balanced way.

With this Congress, he said, it was "too much to hope for at this time. Maybe we can do this in stages."

He stressed that the threat of tax increases was only one part of the budget package Congress passed last year that became known as the "fiscal cliff," and that automatic, across-the-board spending cuts also must be dealt with in a "balanced" manner "as part of the equation."

He said he would be willing to reduce the government's Medicare bills but that kind of reform "has to go hand in hand" with tax-code reform that closes loopholes for the wealthy and corporations.

"If the Republicans think I will finish the job of deficit reduction through spending cuts alone," Obama said, "they've got another think coming."

There will be "shared sacrifice" from all taxpayers "as long as I'm going to be president," Obama said.

Report faults State, Pentagon, White House

WASHINGTON, Dec. 31 (UPI) -- A U.S. Senate report says the State Department and the Pentagon did not adequately protect the Americans killed in the U.S. Consulate attack in Benghazi, Libya.

The Senate Homeland Security Committee report, "Flashing Red: A Special Report on the Terrorist Attack at Benghazi," was released Monday following a critical independent State Department-ordered review and expanded the blame for the attack -- in which Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other diplomatic employees died -- to the Pentagon and White House, The Hill reported.

The bipartisan report has several findings and recommendations in it "that we really believe can help save lives in the future," committee Chairman Sen, Joe Lieberman, Ind- Conn.,, said during a news conference.

He said in the months leading up to the Sept. 11 attack, "there was a rising crescendo of evidence from the U.S. intelligence community and open sources to our government that Benghazi had become dangerous and unstable, and that a significant attack against American personnel there was becoming more and more likely."

The report said there were "dozens of intelligence reports and acts of violence" in Benghazi indicating that the danger was growing but there also was a "woefully inadequate response by our government officials," he said.

Envoy: OK possible for Syrian peace plan

MOSCOW, Dec. 31 (UPI) -- An international envoy struggling to find an end to the conflict in Syria says he hopes world leaders can accept a proposal put forth by Russia.

Lakhdar Brahimi said Sunday he had discussed the plan with Russia and Syria, RIA Novosti reported.

"I think this proposal could be adopted by the international community," he said, without providing details.

A previous United Nations peace plan collapsed in April.

Brahimi could meet with Russia and the United States in January, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said Sunday.

Brahimi said the situation in Syria was "getting worse by the day."

Some 36 people died in fighting Monday around Syria, the Syrian Network for Human Rights reported. Half of the casualties were in and around Damascus.

On Monday, Turkey dismissed as "disinformation" a report from Iranian Press TV that Syrian forces had captured four Turkish fight pilots, Today's Zaman reported.

Turkey is a former ally of Syria, but asked NATO to deploy anti-missile batteries along its border with its southern neighbors in early December in protest of Syrian President's Bashar Assad's violent attacks against civilians.

Judge: Texas can cut Planned Parenthood

AUSTIN, Texas, Dec. 31 (UPI) -- Planned Parenthood can be excluded from Texas' Women's Health Program when it launches Tuesday, a judge ruled Monday.

State Judge Gary Harger denied Planned Parenthood's request for a temporary restraining order that would have kept the organization in the program, which provides contraceptive and preventive healthcare to low-income women, the Austin (Texas) American-Statesman reported.

"We are pleased the court rejected Planned Parenthood's latest attempt to skirt state law," said Lauren Bean, a spokeswoman for Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott. "The Texas Attorney General's office will continue to defend the Texas Legislature's decision to prohibit abortion providers and their affiliates from receiving taxpayer dollars through the Women's Health Program."

Ken Lambrecht, president and chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas, said the decision was disappointing.

"It is shocking that once again Texas officials are letting politics jeopardize healthcare access for women," Lambrecht said. "This case isn't about Planned Parenthood; it's about women ... who rely on us for basic, preventive healthcare."

Planned Parenthood argued state laws regulating Women's Health Program don't give Texas officials the authority to exclude the organization, among other things. Texas Gov. Rick Perry and other Republican leaders countered that Texas can determine which agencies qualify for inclusion in the program.

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