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Feb. 5, 2013 at 5:21 PM
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Obama: 'Smaller package' acceptable

WASHINGTON, Feb. 5 (UPI) -- U.S. President Barack Obama says if Congress can't enact a large deal to avoid sequestration it should pass a smaller package to allow for more negotiations.

"If Congress can't act immediately on a bigger package," Obama said Tuesday, "if they can't get a bigger package done by the time the sequester is scheduled to go into effect, then I believe that they should at least pass a smaller package of spending cuts and tax reforms that would delay the economically damaging effects of the sequester for a few more months until Congress finds a way to replace these cuts with a smarter solution."

Following last month's agreement on a temporary extension of the federal debt limit, Congress is confronted with the prospect of $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts -- called sequestration -- scheduled to begin March 1.

The cuts would slice equally across defense and domestic spending and take substantial government funding out of the economy.

The president said the country is headed in the right direction economically, and said it will "stay that way as long as there are no more self-inflicted wounds coming out of Washington."

Obama said the government can achieve $4 trillion in deficit reduction economists say is needed but for that to happen, "modest reforms in our [social] insurance programs have to go hand in hand with" closing tax "loopholes and deductions."

He said the House and Senate "are working toward what I hope is a balanced approach" of cuts and revenue.

After Obama spoke, White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters if Congress "is not able to or willing to act immediately on this bigger deal -- which would eliminate the sequester entirely as well as achieve all those other important objectives like $4 trillion in deficit reduction, like continued investment in our economy to make sure it continues to create jobs and grow -- we need to not engage in a process where Washington is inflicting a wound on the economy unnecessarily"

"And that's what would happen if the so-called sequester were to be allowed to kick in on March 1," he said. "Because we have relatively little time between now and March 1, the president believes ... Congress ought to take action to buy down the sequester in a balanced way -- which we actually just did in December so we know what the model looks like to achieve it. ... We would work with Congress on the composition of that package."

White House: Obama to visit Israel

JERUSALEM, Feb. 5 (UPI) -- U.S. President Barack Obama plans to visit Israel next month for the first time since taking up the presidency, the White House said.

Israel's Channel 10 reported Tuesday the White House had confirmed the visit, which is to occur March 20 as part of a wider tour in the Middle East.

The report said Obama and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu discussed the visit in a Jan.28 phone call, recognizing the opportunity for diplomatic progress.

White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters Tuesday details of the trip will be released "at a later time."

"When the President spoke with Prime Minister Netanyahu on January 28th, they discussed a visit by the President to Israel in the spring," Carney said. "The start of the President's second term and the formation of a new Israeli government offer the opportunity to reaffirm the deep and enduring bonds between the United States and Israel, and to discuss the way forward on a broad range of issues of mutual concern, including of course Iran and Syria."

American security teams are already in Israel preparing for Obama's first visit.

The Israeli television report said it is possible U.S. and Israeli leaders have reached an agreement on key issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian peace tract, noting Obama has indicated in the past he would visit Jerusalem only when he believes a real breakthrough could be made in peace talks.

Netanyahu's office had no immediate official comment on the television report.

Gay military spouses to get more benefits

WASHINGTON, Feb. 5 (UPI) -- Same-sex spouses may soon get some of the U.S. military benefits now granted heterosexual wives and husbands, officials say.

The Defense Department is expected to make an official announcement this week, The Washington Post reported Tuesday. Officials who did not want their names used would not specify which benefits can be extended to gay and lesbian couples without violating the Defense of Marriage Act.

Homosexuals have been able to serve openly in the military since Congress repealed the "don't ask, don't tell" policy in 2011. With gay marriage now legal in nine states and the District of Columbia, the Pentagon has to reconcile DOMA, which denies federal recognition to gay couples, with service members legally married to same-sex spouses.

Allyson Robinson, executive director of OutServe-SLDN, an organization advocating for gays in the military, said the result is "a two-tiered system regarding how they treat the haves and have-not families."

"It's an untenable leadership situation," she said.

Advocates say gay spouses should be able to get some benefits, including military ID cards that would give them access to recreation facilities and other amenities on bases.

A decision to refuse membership in a spouses' organization to the wife of a female lieutenant colonel was recently reversed. The colonel's wife, Ashley Broadway, was also named Fort Bragg Spouse of the Year by Military Spouse magazine.

Cameron takes flak over gay marriage bill

LONDON, Feb. 5 (UPI) -- British Prime Minister David Cameron, his Conservative Party revolting over same-sex marriage legislation, was accused of "Orwellian" tactics by a party member.

The bill to legalize same-sex marriage is to come up for a vote this week in the House of Commons. It was expected to pass with support from the Labor Party and the Liberal Democrats. The newspaper The Daily Telegraph reported its sources said no pressure was being put on members of Cameron's Conservative Party to vote for the measure and many, possibly a majority, are expected to vote "no."

Traditionalist members of Cameron's ruling Conservative Party criticized the government for bringing legislation forward without a mandate, the newspaper The Guardian said, noting Cameron abandoned an 11th-hour appeal to Conservative Parliament members to back the bill.

Despite the appearance of a failure of unity within the Conservative Party on the bill, and the impression Cameron is withdrawing his support, a spokesman for Cameron said, "The prime minister could not have been clearer about his views."

The division within the party was highlighted by a comment from Tory MP Sir Roger Gale, calling the proposed redefinition of marriage "Orwellian" and saying, "If the government is serious about this, take it away, abolish the civil partnerships bill, abolish civil marriage and create a civil union bill that applies to all people, irrespective of their sexuality or their relationships. That means brothers and brothers, and sisters and sisters, and brothers and sisters as well."

Three top members of Cameron's Cabinet stated support for his bill to legalize same-sex marriage in a letter to The Daily Telegraph. Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, Home Secretary Theresa May and Foreign Secretary William Hague said civil unions were a step forward but no longer seem adequate.

"Marriage has evolved over time. We believe that opening it up to same-sex couples will strengthen, not weaken, the institution," they said. "Attitudes towards gay people have changed. A substantial majority of the public now favor allowing same-sex couples to marry, and support has increased rapidly. This is the right thing to do at the right time."

Some members of the Cabinet are expected to vote against the bill and others may abstain or stay away. Twenty Conservative constituency chairmen have written Cameron asking him to postpone the vote until after the 2015 election.

"Resignations from the party are beginning to multiply and we fear that, if enacted, this bill will lead to significant damage to the Conservative Party in the run up to the 2015 election," they said.

The bill would legalize same-sex marriage in England and Wales. Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond is pushing a similar proposal in the Scottish Parliament.

Both the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church have campaigned against the bill.

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