Obama delays seeking debt-ceiling increase

WASHINGTON, Dec. 30 (UPI) — The Obama administration delayed asking Congress to raise the U.S. debt ceiling by $1.2 trillion after congressional leaders objected to the time frame.

The White House said the delay won’t affect the nation’s creditworthiness, The Washington Post reported.

Under the request the administration originally planned to submit Friday, Congress would have had 15 days to disapprove the request or else the debt ceiling automatically would have been raised from $15.2 trillion to $16.4 trillion.

Congressional leaders, however, objected to the timeline, saying it would have been difficult for lawmakers to vote on the measure. The House doesn’t return until Jan. 17 and the Senate is gone until Jan. 23.

White House deputy press secretary Josh Earnest said Obama will delay his request by a few days.

The Treasury Department said Friday it expects the United States to come within $100 billion of its debt limit; however, an administration official said accounting measures would keep the nation solvent until the debt limit is increased.

Companies Turn To Quirky Perks For Workers

WASHINGTON, Dec. 30 (UPI) — Some U.S. employers are turning to quirky perks to appease workers frustrated by pay cuts, heavy workloads and high health insurance costs, company heads say.

“Companies are trying to have it feel like it’s not one big take-away,” says John Bremen, a managing director at employer consultancy Towers Watson. “They are trying to find ways to appeal to the workforce.”

New perks for employees are coming in the form of pet insurance, at-your-desk meditation services, jewelry discounts and funeral planning, USA Today reported Thursday.

Many voluntary benefits, such as pet insurance and reduced-price computers, won’t burden a corporate budget.

“On the employer side, there’s a recognition that they can’t always add to the benefits program in a way they have in the past,” says Ronald Leopold, national medical director at MetLife. “But they want to offer employees different things and a broader set of [choices].”

S.C. Johnson, TD Bank and Travelocity all provide health coverage for their employees’ pets through Petplan Pet Insurance, said USA Today.

Petplan “has seen tremendous growth in this area of voluntary benefits,” said co-CEO Chris Ashton. “In this struggling economy, employers are increasingly looking for low-cost options to keep their employees happy.”

GE: U.S. Labor Market Is Competitive

LOUISVILLE, Ky., Dec. 30 (UPI) — A high-ranking executive at General Electric said the U.S. labor market is now priced right for U.S. manufacturers to consider expansion without outsourcing.

“We have gotten to a point where making things in America is as viable as making things any place in the world,” said James  Campbell, president and chief executive of GE’s appliances and lighting division, The New York Times reported Friday.

Campbell highlighted lower wages as the principal reason the U.S. economy is fertile ground for corporations.

Hurdles, he said, “are significantly less with the competitive wage and that is a big help.”

In what would have provoked protests or perhaps strikes not many years ago, unions are now accepting split wages among their workers with new hires being paid up to $15 per hour less than established workers.

Unions have accepted what could be termed the inevitable. A job at a lower-than-optimal wage is better than no job at all, many say.

“You don’t want to rock the boat. You take a chance on losing everything you have if you do,” said Linda Thomas, 37, who works alongside co-workers doing similar work for about twice her hourly wage at GE’s Appliance Park in Louisville, Ky.

For many, the gains unions have made pushing the manufacturing sector into the middle class look to be eroding.

“My hope is that we will rebuild wages to their old levels over time as the economy strengthens and the demand for workers rises,” said Thomas Kochan, a management expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“But that is by no means a certainty,” he said.

Calif. firm pleads guilty to bid rigging

WASHINGTON, Dec. 30 (UPI) — A California firm and its owner pleaded guilty Friday in New York to bid rigging and fraud related to municipal bond investments, the Justice Department said.

David Rubin, founder and owner of Rubin/Chambers, Dunhill Insurance Services, a company also known as CDR Financial Products, and the company pleaded guilty for their participation in bid-rigging and fraud conspiracies related to contracts for investing bond proceeds and other municipal finance contracts, the department said in a release.

Rubin and CDR pleaded guilty to participating in separate bid-rigging and fraud conspiracies with several financial institutions and insurance companies that provided an investment agreement to state, county and local governments and agencies across the United States.

The public entities wanted to invest money from the proceeds of municipal bonds issued to raise fund for public projects, among other things.

Rubin and CDR also pleaded guilty to wire fraud in with those schemes, the Justice Department said.

“Mr. Rubin and his company engaged in fraudulent and anti-competitive conduct that harmed municipalities and other public entities,” said Sharis A. Pozen, acting assistant attorney general in charge of the department’s Antitrust Division. “Today’s guilty pleas are an important development in our continued efforts to hold accountable those who violate the antitrust laws and subvert the competitive process in our financial markets.”

Rubin and CDR, along with Zevi Wolmark, CDR’s former chief financial officer and managing director; and Evan Andrew Zarefsky, a CDR vice president, were indicted in October 2009.

Wolmark and Zarefsky go to trial Tuesday in the Southern District of New York.

Rubin is to be sentenced April 27.

Russian patriarch: Listen to protesters

MOSCOW, Dec. 30 (UPI) — Patriarch Kirill I, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, has backed the right to protest and urged the government to listen to the protesters.

The patriarch’s statements in sermons earlier this month are surprising, given the close ties between the Russian state and the church, The New York Times reported.

At a diocesan assembly on Friday, Kirill also urged churches to take advantage of modern communications by having a presence on the Internet, the Times said. While he warned priests, monks and nuns to avoid “careless and sometimes intentionally provocative statements,” he did not criticize them for using the Internet and Facebook to discuss politics and call for reform.

Andrei Zubov, a historian, said the church is building itself as an authoritarian institution much like the government under former President Vladimir Putin, who is now prime minister. But he said the church is granted more legitimacy by Russian dissenters, which allows Kirill to attempt to bridge the gap between the opposition and the government.

“His declarations are taking on more and more the tonality of a high moderator, who can, he thinks, still calm down the situation, which is headed otherwise to a complete split of society from the regime, and, correspondingly, towards profound political crisis,” Zubov told the Times.

Firecracker injuries high in Philippines

MANILA, Philippines, Dec. 30 (UPI) — Almost 200 people have already been injured in the Philippines during holiday celebrations, most of them by firecrackers, health officials report.

Dr. Eric Tayag, a spokesman for the health department, said 187 people have been hurt by exploding firecrackers, two by eating firecrackers and eight from being hit by stray bullets, abs-cbnNews.com reported. That is a total of 197 injuries between Dec. 21 and Dec. 29, with New Year’s Eve celebrations still to come.

Tayag urged families with young children to stop using firecrackers. He said avoiding large firecrackers is not a solution since most injuries are caused by the small ones known as piccolos.

Israeli chaplain: Women in military equals

JERUSALEM, Dec. 30 (UPI) — Discrimination of women in the Israeli military by ultra-Orthodox religious groups must not be tolerated, the chief military chaplain said.

Brig. Gen. Rafi Peretz, the military’s highest ranking rabbi, said recent extremist religious assaults and verbal attacks against women in Beit Shemesh go against Jewish law, Army Radio reported

“The spirit of Jewish law does not allow discrimination or violation of women in any circumstance and on any grounds,” Peretz said in a letter to the military. “I cannot stand idly by in the face of such serious affronts.”

A member of the Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, Jewish community in Jerusalem was indicted Thursday for sexual harassment after allegedly shouting a sexual slur at a female soldier who refused to move to the back of a bus, the Jerusalem Post said.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, speaking Thursday at a graduation ceremony for the Israel Air Force pilot’s course, said, “in the State of Israel, in which women sit in the cockpit, women can sit in any place.”

Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who also addressed the graduates, made a point of mentioning that five of the new pilots are women, the newspaper said. “Women are part of our society, more than half of it, and all of us, religious and secular alike, must not only treat them with respect, but also must understand that equality is a natural-born right,” Barak said.

Crews try to stop spread of Pa. sinkhole

ALLENTOWN, Pa., Dec. 30 (UPI) — Construction workers in Allentown, Pa., Friday were trying to stop the spread of a huge sinkhole that led to evacuations of some 25 residents, officials said.

Some of those evacuated Thursday were allowed to return to their homes to retrieve belongings but city inspectors were still assessing whether other homes were structurally sound as the sinkhole stretched as wide as a road, leaving some sidewalks suspended in the air, The (Allentown) Morning Call reported.

Mayor Ed Pawlowski said it remained uncertain whether a water main break or a water leak caused the sinkhole.

“It could have been there for decades. How it happened, no one knows,” Pawlowski said.

The mayor said the sinkhole continued to threaten Union and West End Cemetery, but many of the markers in the threatened section had been moved from another cemetery and do not mark the actual grave sites.

City workers were to excavate the sinkhole and fill it with a wet mixture and soil, then repair the street with steel reinforcing rods, the Morning Call said.

Dwayne Glover, the first resident to alert emergency officials, said he had walked into his basement Thursday to try to figure out why his water pressure had dropped. When he walked through a puddle to turn off a water valve, he said, he stepped through the concrete floor.

“It just gave way,” Glover said. “We want to know why those pipes busted and how is it that nobody knew of a problem like this.”

Hamas denies plans to stop attacks

JERUSALEM, Dec. 30 (UPI) — Palestinian Hamas leaders denied a report that exiled leader Khaled Mashaal ordered the party’s armed wing to stop attacks against Israel.

Spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said the report published in Haaretz was “trivial” and undeserving of a response, the Jerusalem Post reported Friday.

The Haaretz report said Mashaal had issued the order based on an understanding reached with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas during talks in Cairo.

Barhoum said Palestinians will maintain their right to armed resistance against Israel, the Jerusalem Post said.

Interpol chief: EU must step up security

LYON, France, Dec. 30 (UPI) — The head of the international police agency Interpol urged European countries to check visitors’ passports against its database of stolen documents.

In an interview reported Friday in The Independent, Interpol Secretary-General Ronald Noble said only a few countries in the European Union take advantage of its database of 15 million suspicious passports.

Once travelers are admitted to an EU country, the Schengen Agreement allows them to travel freely through most of Europe.

“If we all say that we are going to trust one another to screen and control people coming through our borders then we should all have the same standard,” Noble said.

Noble pointed out one of the people involved in the 1993 bombing at the World Trade Center in New York had entered the United States using a stolen Iraqi passport.

“The lesson that should have been learnt … is that people carrying stolen travel documents, if they are not stopped, can enter your country and mastermind a horrible attack,” Noble said.

While a European Commission official said the Schengen Agreement provides for a database of dubious passports, Noble said Interpol’s is far more comprehensive because 131 countries contribute to it.

1 killed, 3 injured in Thailand attacks

RAMAN, Thailand, Dec. 30 (UPI) — Three separate attacks in southern Thailand Friday caused one death and three injuries, police say.

Defense volunteer Kasaman Sadeemae, 23, was shot in front of his home in the Raman district of Yala province early Friday as he waited for a colleague to pick him up for duty, the Bangkok Post reported.

The gunman, riding on a motorcycle, fled the scene.

Sadeemae was taken to a hospital where he was pronounced dead, police said.

Later, a remote-controlled bomb was triggered also in Raman, just before two motorcycles and a truck carrying eight soldiers passed over it, police said.

One of the soldiers was slightly injured by the blast.

In the Yarang district of Pattani province Friday morning, two soldiers providing security for teachers were injured in a roadside explosion in front of the Thai Rath Witthaya 52 school, said the Bangkok Post.

Police blame southern insurgents for all three attacks.

Swedish drivers hitting elk, reindeer

STOCKHOLM, Sweden, Dec. 30 (UPI) — A rash of accidents in northern Sweden saw motorists crashing into at least 20 elk, deer and reindeer in a three-day period, authorities said.

Police in Vasterbotton County said they received reports of at least eight collisions between cars and wild animals on Thursday, The Local reported.

Six of the crashes involved elk, one was with a roe deer and another reported accident was a collision with a reindeer, they said.

No motorists were injured in the incidents. There was no information on the conditions of the animals, authorities said.

“It’s mostly reindeer and elk that are being hit,” police spokeswoman Ebbe Nyberg said. “In all the accidents, the people involved have been lucky and escaped without injury.”

Nyberg attributed the rash of incidents to heavy snowfall in the region.

“They’re out on the roads. It’s hard, people need to drive very carefully in order to avoid them,” she said.

London subway drivers call off strike

LONDON, Dec. 30 (UPI) — Drivers for the London Underground say they’ve called off plans for more strikes, citing progress in talks with management on Boxing Day pay.

Their strike on Boxing Day, the day after Christmas, caused disruption to the network on a day when traditional Boxing Day sales began and even forced the Arsenal football club to postpone a home match because of transport problems faced by fans, The Daily Telegraph reported Friday.

Tube — or subway — drivers had said they would walk out again on Jan. 16, Feb. 3 and Feb. 13 in a long-running contract dispute over bonus payments and whether the Boxing Day shift should be covered by volunteers.

The drivers, who earn $70,000 a year, were demanding triple pay and a day off for working on Boxing Day, a package worth $567.

The ASLEF union, which represents more than half the drivers on the network, said it had called off the scheduled strikes after “meaningful” talks with management.

Further negotiations are set for next week.

“I welcome the constructive approach taken by the leadership of ASLEF at our discussions,” Howard Collins, London Underground’s chief operating officer, said.

Vegas expects record New Year’s Eve crowd

LAS VEGAS, Dec. 30 (UPI) — Las Vegas is expecting a record 314,000 out-of-town guests for New Year’s Eve parties this year, officials said.

The night will bring the number of visitors to the city to 39 million in 2011, closely rivaling the 39.2 million during 2007, USA Today reported Thursday.

“While the recovery has been gradual and spending has taken longer to recover, visitor volume has been strong,” said Kevin Bagger, senior director of marketing for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

The city expects to fill 98 percent of its 150,189 hotel rooms on New Year’s Eve, which is a 0.4 percent increase from last year.

Bagger said average hotel rates have risen steadily over the past 20 months, despite a 1.2 percent boost in the number of rooms.

Rooms at the Bellagio that went for $659 to $799 on New Year’s Eve 2010 are going for $1,199 to $1,998 this year, said Yvette Monet, a spokeswoman for the Bellagio’s parent company, MGM Resorts International.

“Based on current booking trends, this New Year’s weekend is anticipated to be one of the best in quite some time on the Las Vegas Strip,” says Monet. “At some MGM Resorts properties [which include the ARIA Resort & Casino, Mandalay Bay, MGM Grand and The Mirage] it could be one of the best of all time, in terms of visitor volumes and room rates.”

“If any holiday is made for Las Vegas it’s New Year’s Eve, and it’s working in their favor that it falls on a Saturday night this year,” says San Francisco-based travel analyst Henry Harteveldt, co-founder of Atmosphere Research Group.

FEC debuts mobile device application

WASHINGTON, Dec. 30 (UPI) — The Federal Election Commission Friday released mobile Web applications it says will allow easier access to U.S. campaign finance data and FEC activities.

The beta release is meant to run on devices using iPhone platforms, the FEC said in a release, adding many of the features also will run on other platforms.

Full versions for other mobile devices will be released later.

“By optimizing our data for mobile devices, we are making it possible to access the wealth of information available through our Web site in a more convenient manner,” FEC Chairwoman Cynthia Bauerly said.

The series released Friday at www.fec.gov/mobile/ includes:

— Presidential candidate summary information that allows drilling down for details such as receipts, disbursements and cash on hand.

— A calendar of FEC meetings, reporting deadlines, conferences, advisory opinions and litigation.

— Links to audio files of recent hearings.

— The FEC channel on YouTube with instructional videos on campaign finance law and practices; and

— A Twitter feed with FEC updates.

Occupy promises orderly protest at Rose Parade

PASADENA, Calif., Dec. 30 (UPI) — Occupy activists promise an orderly protest during Monday’s Rose Parade in Pasadena, Calif.

Their plan is to follow the parade along the same route with their own floats, the Los Angeles Times reported. It will feature an octopus made of recycled plastic bags.

The 70-by-40-foot creature represents Wall Street’s tentacles “that reach into your pocket to get your money and a tentacle to get your house,” Mark Lipman said. The group is also preparing two copies of the Constitution, one headed “We the People” and the other “We the Corporations.”

“This is the real Rose Parade, and the other is the Rose Charade,” Pete Thottam told the Times.

The parade and the Rose Bowl football game are being held Jan. 2 this year because New Year’s Day is a Sunday.

Occupy activists expect more than 1,000 people to participate in their events.

Tournament of Roses organizers anticipate an audience for their parade of about 700,000 people along the parade route and millions more watching on TV.

The Occupy group says it is working with local police and the Tournament of Roses to ensure all events go smoothly.

“Our goal is to put Occupy’s best foot forward,” Thottam said. “We recognize that this is a historic, iconic event geared toward middle America and the family.”

Demand for bison meat spurs ranchers

DENVER, Dec. 30 (UPI) — A growing consumer demand for bison meat has U.S. ranchers in the West scrambling to rebuild their thinned herds after years of decline.

Demand is outstripping supply, driving prices up and pushing the bison industry to catch up, The Denver Post reported Friday.

“Five years ago, I spent 90 percent of my time trying to get people to eat bison,” Dave Carter, executive director of the National Bison Association, said.

“Now, I spend 90 percent of my time getting people to raise bison.”

The industry surged in the 1990s when it appeared that meat from bison — also known as buffalo — would be a popular consumer choice. But interest was slow to develop, prices crashed, and many ranchers fled the industry.

But now bison meat finally has reached its anticipated popularity, Carter said.

“The message we’ve put out has really resonated,” he said. “It’s a lean and healthy food, and it tastes great. People have taken that first taste, and now they’re looking for more.”

Colorado ranks fourth in the nation in the number of bison behind South Dakota, Nebraska and North Dakota, the Post reported.

Cyclone Thane kills 33 in India

CHENNAI, India, Dec. 30 (UPI) — Cyclone Thane, packing wind gusts up to 87 mph and heavy rains, struck the southeastern coast of India Friday, killing at least 33 people, officials said.

The cyclone hit north coastal Tamil Nadu and the neighboring Union Territory of Puducherry between 6:30 a.m. and 7:30 a.m., the Hindustan Times reported.

Cuddalore, where 21 people were killed, was hardest hit, while seven others died in Puducherry. Two people also died in Villupuram, two in Tiruvallur and one in Chennai.

“There could be some more deaths,” said Marri Shashidhar Reddy, vice chairman of the National Disaster Management Authority.

The authority sent eight teams to affected areas.

Thane crossed the coast between Cuddalore and Puducherry, bringing torrential rains and gale winds that uprooted hundreds of trees and took down utility poles, disrupting power, The Times of India said.

The cyclone also disrupted air and rail service.

Venezuela tanker fire claims 13 lives

CARACAS, Venezuela, Dec. 30 (UPI) — Thirteen people are dead and 16 are injured after a tanker overturned on a Venezuelan highway, engulfing a bus and other vehicles in flames, officials said.

The flames spread for three-quarters of a mile down the stretch of Pan-American Highway linking Caracas with nearby Los Tegues. It took firefighters more than an hour to put out the fire, the BBC reported Friday.

Police said a river of fuel spilled from the gasoline tanker when it flipped over, apparently after the driver lost control of the vehicle.

President Hugo Chavez tweeted his condolences.

“I send my prayers to the victims of the accident on the Pan-American Highway. To their families my feelings of sadness and all necessary support,” he wrote on Twitter, the BBC said.

Wild wolf in Calif. is first in a century

SAN FRANCISCO, Dec. 30 (UPI) — Wildlife experts say a lone gray wolf that crossed the border into California from Oregon became the first known wild wolf in the state in almost a century.

The 2-1/2-year-old male wolf was tracked Thursday using a GPS collar as it crossed the Oregon border into California’s Siskiyou County, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

Environmentalists said they were pleased to see the endangered species back in California, a sentiment not shared by Northern California ranchers worried that recolonization could endanger their livestock.

“Whether one is for it or against it, the entry of this lone wolf into California is a historic event and the result of much work by the wildlife agencies in the West,” Charlton H. Bonham, director of the California Department of Fish and Game, said. “If the gray wolf does establish a population in California, there will be much more work to do here.”

There’s no guarantee the lone wolf will remain in California, experts said.

He’ll have to wait a long time before a female wolf also discovers the Golden State, they said.

“He’s looking for a pack or other mates,” Mike Fris with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Pacific Southwest region said. “If he stays in California, that most likely won’t be fruitful for him.”