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Feb. 27, 2013 at 12:00 PM
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Obama, top lawmakers to meet on sequester

WASHINGTON, Feb. 27 (UPI) -- President Obama and congressional leaders meet Friday to discuss avoiding the consequences of deep spending cuts, White House and congressional aides said.

The discussions are scheduled for the day the $85 billion in across-the-board cuts in domestic and defense spending are to take effect.

It will be the first meeting between the president and congressional leaders on the cuts -- known as sequester -- after weeks of finger-pointing from both camps created a scenario in which an agreement on how to avert the sequester might not be reached, The Washington Post reported Wednesday.

Last week, Obama called congressional leaders.

Expected to attend Friday's meeting are House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio; House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.; Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.; and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

While both sides agree that agree that an alternative to the sequester is necessary because it would devastate the still-recovering and fragile economy, they have conflicted over whether new tax revenue should be part of the equation, which Obama and Democrats want but Republicans don't.

Both sides also have accused the other of employing scare tactics to frighten the public. While Republicans say Obama came up with the idea of the sequester, Democrats note that it passed Congress with bipartisan support.

Senate Democrats and Republicans were expected to submit opposing proposals to resolve the sequester Thursday, but neither was expected to get the votes needed to pass, the Post said.

While the sequester begins Friday, its effects won't be felt for several weeks as the cuts are implemented.

Storm system loses some of its punch

CHICAGO, Feb. 27 (UPI) -- A deadly storm that dumped snow measuring in double digits in parts of the U.S. midsection was expected to ease as it moved east Wednesday, forecasters said.

Snow is forecast Wednesday from the Midwest to the Northeast from the subdued but still powerful storm that officials blame for three deaths, CNN reported.

The system brought up to foot of snow to parts of eastern Kansas, Missouri and Illinois Tuesday after blanketing southern Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, with some accumulations of at least 18 inches.

"This storm is still a very active and dangerous storm, from Michigan into western New York and the mountains in New England are getting hit with very heavy snows, National Weather Service Director Louis Uccellini said.

In Shawnee, Kan., the roof of a horse arena collapsed under the weight of snow Tuesday, KSHB-TV, Kansas City, reported. No injuries were reported in the arena roof collapse, one of several caused by the wet heavy snow.

A person died Monday in a roof collapse in Woodward, Okla., Mayor Roscoe Hill said. In Kansas, two people died in separate weather-related accidents Monday.

DTE Energy says the storm that crossed southeast Michigan left 30,000 of its customers without power, WDIV-TV, Detroit, reported.

More than 56,000 customers in Kansas and Missouri were without power into Tuesday evening, the Kansas National Guard said.

Benedict XVI holds last general audience

VATICAN CITY, Feb. 27 (UPI) -- A crowd of 150,000 people gathered in St. Peter's Square Wednesday for Pope Benedict XVI's final general audience, the Vatican said.

It was one of the 85-year-old pontiff's last appearances before withdrawing to assume what Vatican officials described as a cloistered life of prayer and meditation, the Italian news agency ANSA reported.

The pope urged the crowd "to renew firm trust in the Lord" and thanked all the people who "have helped me and been close to me."

"I wish my greetings and my thanks to reach everyone: the heart of a Pope expands to (embrace) the whole world," he said.

The Pope also thanked the crowd for understanding and accepting his decision to resign and allow the selection of a new pope.

"I ask you to remember me before God, and above all to pray for the cardinals, who are called to so important a task," he said.

Benedict's looming departure has triggered a surge of maneuvering among the 117 cardinals who will elect his successor in a conclave beginning next month, The New York Times reported.

Absent from the conclave will be Britain's most senior Roman Catholic cardinal.

On Monday, the Vatican confirmed the resignation of Cardinal Keith O'Brien, the archbishop of Scotland, who was accused of making unwanted sexual advances toward priests years ago.

GOP stresses U.S. be No. 1 militarily

PRINCETON, N.J., Feb. 27 (UPI) -- Republicans put more emphasis on the United States being No. 1 in the world militarily than Democrats or independents, a new Gallup poll indicated.

Eighty percent of Republicans said it was important that America be the No. 1 military force in the world, while 62 percent of independents and 48 percent Democrats said the same, results of Gallup's World Affairs survey released Wednesday indicated.

The results were released as the country faces automatic cuts of $85 billion in domestic and defense spending -- known as sequester -- that are to go into effect Friday.

Independents' views reflect respondents' views overall, Gallup said.

Results indicate Americans are more likely to say they believe it is important that the country be militarily at the top than to say the United States is the No. 1 military power in the world, the Princeton, N.J., polling agency said.

Half of Americans said they believe the U.S. is No. 1 militarily, dipping below the 51 percent low point in 1999, Gallup said.

Results are based on nationwide phone interviews with 1,015 adults conducted Feb. 7-10. The margin of error is 4 percentage points.

Mexico: unionist charged with embezzlement

MEXICO CITY, Feb. 27 (UPI) -- The leader of Mexico's powerful teachers union has been arrested for embezzling millions of dollars in union funds, the country's attorney general says.

Prosecutor Jesus Murillo Karam said Elba Esther Gordillo's arrest involved the suspicious transfer of $200 million from the accounts of the 1.5-million member National Union of Education Workers into the personal accounts of three individuals, The New York Times reported Tuesday.

Gordillo is alleged to have used the money to pay for personal expenses, including credit cards, two houses in California, art and plastic surgery.

Karam said the offenses occurred between 2008 and 2012 and that as many as 80 union accounts were being investigated for irregularities.

Gordillo's arrest came a day after President Enrique Pena Nieto signed a law that makes major reforms in education law that are designed to disrupt the union's control of hiring and school administration.

Saudi Arabian prisons have 47,000 inmates

MANAMA, Bahrain, Feb. 27 (UPI) -- Saudi nationals make up slightly less than half of the 47,000 prisoners held in Saudi jails, the kingdom's head of prisons said.

Dr. Ali Bin Hussain al Harithi denied reports that more than 70 percent of the inmates are incarcerated on drug-related charges, Gulf News reported Wednesday.

The correct figure, al Harithi said, is around 47 percent.

He acknowledged that the number is still very high and illustrates the fact that Saudi youth are being targeted.

Al Harithi did not say how many inmates are female, but indicated most were foreigners.

"The number of Saudi women in jails is around 6 or 7 percent of the total number of women inmates and most of them are held for simple offenses," he said.

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