Investors face another Washington deadline

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Investors face another Washington-imposed deadline on government spending cuts next week, but it's not generating the same level of fear as two months ago when the "fiscal cliff" loomed large.

Investors in sectors most likely to be affected by the cuts, like defense, seem untroubled that the budget talks could send stocks tumbling.

Talks on the U.S. budget crisis began again this week leading up to the March 1 deadline for the so-called sequestration when $85 billion in automatic federal spending cuts are scheduled to take effect.

"It's at this point a political hot button in Washington but a very low level investor concern," said Fred Dickson, chief market strategist at D.A. Davidson & Co. in Lake Oswego, Oregon. The fight pits President Barack Obama and fellow Democrats against congressional Republicans.

Stocks rallied in early January after a compromise temporarily avoided the fiscal cliff, and the Standard & Poor's 500 index <.spx> has risen 6.3 percent since the start of the year.

But the benchmark index lost steam this week, posting its first week of losses since the start of the year. Minutes on Wednesday from the last Federal Reserve meeting, which suggested the central bank may slow or stop its stimulus policy sooner than expected, provided the catalyst.

National elections in Italy on Sunday and Monday could also add to investor concern. Most investors expect a government headed by Pier Luigi Bersani to win and continue with reforms to tackle Italy's debt problems. However, a resurgence by former leader Silvio Berlusconi has raised doubts.

"Europe has been in the last six months less of a topic for the stock market, but the problems haven't gone away. This may bring back investor attention to that," said Kim Forrest, senior equity research analyst at Fort Pitt Capital Group in Pittsburgh.


The spending cuts, if they go ahead, could hit the defense industry particularly hard.

Yet in the options market, bulls were targeting gains in Lockheed Martin Corp , the Pentagon's biggest supplier.

Calls on the stock far outpaced puts, suggesting that many investors anticipate the stock to move higher. Overall options volume on the stock was 2.8 times the daily average with 17,000 calls and 3,360 puts traded, according to options analytics firm Trade Alert.

"The upside call buying in Lockheed solidifies the idea that option investors are not pricing in a lot of downside risk in most defense stocks from the likely impact of sequestration," said Jared Woodard, a founder of research and advisory firm in Forest, Virginia.

The stock ended up 0.6 percent at $88.12 on Friday.

If lawmakers fail to reach an agreement on reducing the U.S. budget deficit in the next few days, a sequester would include significant cuts in defense spending. Companies such as General Dynamics Corp and Smith & Wesson Holding Corp could be affected.

General Dynamics Corp shares rose 1.2 percent to $67.32 and Smith & Wesson added 4.6 percent to $9.18 on Friday.


The latest data on fourth-quarter U.S. gross domestic product is expected on Thursday, and some analysts predict an upward revision following trade data that showed America's deficit shrank in December to its narrowest in nearly three years.

U.S. GDP unexpectedly contracted in the fourth quarter, according to an earlier government estimate, but analysts said there was no reason for panic, given that consumer spending and business investment picked up.

Investors will be looking for any hints of changes in the Fed's policy of monetary easing when Fed Chairman Ben Bernake speaks before congressional committees on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Shares of Apple will be watched closely next week when the company's annual stockholders' meeting is held.

On Friday, a U.S. judge handed outspoken hedge fund manager David Einhorn a victory in his battle with the iPhone maker, blocking the company from moving forward with a shareholder vote on a controversial proposal to limit the company's ability to issue preferred stock.

(Additional reporting by Doris Frankel; Editing by Kenneth Barry)

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Grief besets family of Pistorius' slain girlfriend

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Far from the courtroom drama that has gripped South Africa, the family of Oscar Pistorius' slain girlfriend has struggled with its own private deluge of grief, frustration and bewilderment.

The victim's relatives also harbor misgivings about efforts by the Olympian's family to reach out to them with condolences.

Pistorius, meanwhile, spent Saturday at his uncle's home in an affluent suburb of Pretoria, the South African capital, after a judge released him on bail following days of testimony that transfixed South Africa and much of the world. He was charged with premeditated murder in the shooting death of girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp in the early hours of Valentine's Day, but the athlete says he killed her accidentally, opening fire after mistaking her for an intruder in his home.

"We are extremely thankful that Oscar is now home," his uncle, Arnold Pistorius, said in a statement that also acknowledged the law must run its course. "What happened has changed our lives irrevocably."

Mike Steenkamp, Reeva's uncle, told The Associated Press that the family of the double-amputee athlete initially did not send condolences or try to contact the bereaved parents, but had since sought to reach out in what he described as a poorly timed way. After Pistorius was released on bail in what amounted to a victory for the defense, Arnold Pistorius said the athlete's family was relieved but also in mourning "with the family" of Reeva Steenkamp.

"Everybody wants to jump up with joy," Mike Steenkamp said, speculating on the mood of Pistorius' family after the judge's decision. "I think it was just done in the wrong context, completely."

A South African newspaper, the Afrikaans-language Beeld, quoted the mother of Reeva Steenkamp, a 29-year-old model, law school graduate and participant in a television reality show, as saying the family had received a bouquet of flowers and a card from the Pistorius family.

"Yes, but what does it mean? Nothing," June Steenkamp said, according to the Saturday edition of Beeld. She also said Pistorius' family, including sister Aimee, a somber presence on the bench behind the Olympian during his court hearings in the past week, must be "devastated" and had done nothing wrong.

"They are not to blame," June Steenkamp said. According to Beeld, she said she had hoped to plan a wedding for her daughter one day.

In an affidavit, 26-year-old Oscar Pistorius said he was "absolutely mortified" by the death of "my beloved Reeva," and he frequently sobbed in court during the several days during which his bail application was considered. However, prosecutor Gerrie Nel, suggested in a scathing criticism that Pistorius was actually distraught because his vaunted career was now in peril and he was in grave trouble with the law.

"It doesn't matter how much money he has and how good his legal team is, he will have to live with his conscience if he allows his legal team to lie for him," Barry Steenkamp, Reeva's father, told Beeld .

"But if he is telling the truth, then perhaps I can forgive him one day," the father said. "If it didn't happen the way he said it did, he must suffer, and he will suffer ... only he knows."

Barry Steenkamp suffered "heavy trauma" at the loss of his daughter and his remarks to the newspaper partly reflect how he is working through it, said his brother, Mike Steenkamp.

Steenkamp was cremated in a funeral ceremony on Feb. 19 in her family's hometown of Port Elizabeth on South Africa's southern coast. Mike Steenkamp delivered a statement about the family's grief to television cameras, at one point breaking down in tears.

The three-story house where Pistorius is staying with his aunt and uncle lies on a hill with a view of Pretoria. It has a large swimming pool and an immaculate garden.

Pistorius was born without fibula bones due to a congenital defect and had his legs amputated at 11 months. He has run on carbon-fiber blades and was originally banned from competing against able-bodied peers because many argued that his blades gave him an unfair advantage. He was later cleared to compete. He is multiple Paralympic medalist, but he failed to win a medal at the London Olympics, where he ran in the 400 meters and on South Africa's 4x400 relay team.

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New Privately Built Rocket Passes Key Engine Test

A new commercial rocket designed to launch unmanned cargo missions to the International Space Station passed a key engine test Friday night (Feb. 22), setting the stage for the booster’s debut flight in the months ahead, NASA officials say.

The Virginia-based company Orbital Sciences Corp. test-fired the first stage engines of its new Antares rocket at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island, Va. — the home of NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility. The so-called “hot fire” test ignited the Antares rocket‘s engines for 29 seconds without ever leaving the launch pad.

Friday’s engine test was aimed at verifying the fueling systems at the spaceport’s launch Pad-0A and Antares rocket first stage would perform as expected during an actual mission, Orbital officials said.

“Initial review of the test data indicate the primary objectives of the test were accomplished,” Orbital officials wrote in a status update. “The pad and fueling systems will undergo post-test inspections and any necessary reconditioning work will be performed.”

Orbital Sciences is one of two private spaceflight companies with billion-dollar NASA contracts to provide unmanned cargo delivery missions to the International Space Station. Under its $ 1.9 billion Commercial Resupply Services contract, Orbital will make at least eight delivery flights to the space station using its Antares rocket and robotic Cygnus spacecraft. The first Antares rocket test flight is expected later this year. [Antares Rocket and Cygnus Explained (Infographic)]

The Hawthorne, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) is the other company with a NASA contract for unmanned space station deliveries. SpaceX has a $ 1.6 billion contract to fly at least 12 missions to the space station using its Dragon space capsules and Falcon 9 rocket. The company launched both a test flight and a bona fide delivery mission to the space station in 2012. The second delivery flight under the contract is slated to launch on March 1.

“This pad test is an important reminder of how strong and diverse the commercial space industry is in our nation,” Phil McAlister, director of Commercial Spaceflight Development at NASA Headquarters in Washington, said in a statement. “A little more than one year after the retirement of the space shuttle, we had a U.S company resupplying the International Space Station. Now, another is taking the next critical steps to launch from America’s newest gateway to low-Earth orbit.”

With the retirement of NASA’s space shuttle fleet in 2011, the space agency is relying on new private rockets and spacecraft to ferry cargo — and eventually astronauts — to and from low-Earth orbit. NASA is currently dependent on Russia, Europe and Japan for cargo deliveries to the space station. Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft are the only vehicles currently available to ferry astronauts to and from the station.  

Orbital’s engine Friday test marked the company’s second attempt to check the Antares rocket’s dual AJ26 rocket engines, which are designed to provide 680,000 pounds of thrust. A first attempt on Feb. 13 was aborted before engine ignition due to a “low pressurization” detection during a nitrogen purge in the rocket’s aft engine compartment, Orbital officials said in an update.

Orbital officials are now working toward test flights of the Antares rocket and its Cygnus spacecraft. The first demonstration flight falls under a separate contract for NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, and is expected to launch later this year.

This story was updated Saturday at 6 a.m. ET to include information on the success of Friday’s Antares rocket engine test and comments from NASA and Orbital Sciences.

You can follow Managing Editor Tariq Malik on Twitter @tariqjmalik. Follow on Twitter @Spacedotcom. We’re also on Facebook & Google+

Copyright 2013, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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Analysis: Italian election explained

Austerity-hit Italy chooses new leader

Austerity-hit Italy chooses new leader

Austerity-hit Italy chooses new leader

Austerity-hit Italy chooses new leader


  • Silvio Berlusconi is campaigning to win his old job back for the fourth time

  • The eurozone's third largest economy is hurting, with unemployment surpassing 11%

  • Pier Luigi Bersani of the center-left Democratic Party is expected to narrowly win

  • Italy's political system encourages the forming of alliances

(CNN) -- Little more than a year after he resigned in disgrace as prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi is campaigning to win his old job back -- for the fourth time.

Berlusconi, the septuagenarian playboy billionaire nicknamed "Il Cavaliere," has been trailing in polls behind his center-left rival, Per Luigi Bersani.

But the controversial media tycoon's rise in the polls in recent weeks, combined with widespread public disillusionment and the quirks of Italy's complex electoral system, means that nothing about the race is a foregone conclusion.

Why have the elections been called now?

Italian parliamentarians are elected for five-year terms, with the current one due to end in April. However in December, Berlusconi's People of Freedom Party (PdL) withdrew its support from the reformist government led by Mario Monti, saying it was pursuing policies that "were too German-centric." Monti subsequently resigned and the parliament was dissolved.

Berlusconi -- the country's longest serving post-war leader -- had resigned the prime ministerial office himself amidst a parliamentary revolt in November 2011. He left at a time of personal and national crisis, as Italy grappled with sovereign debt problems and Berlusconi faced criminal charges of tax fraud, for which he was subsequently convicted. He remains free pending an appeal. He was also embroiled in a scandal involving a young nightclub dancer - which led him to be charged with paying for sex with an underage prostitute.

MORE: From Venice to bunga bunga: Italy in coma

He was replaced by Monti, a respected economist and former European Commissioner, who was invited by Italy's President Giorgio Napolitano to lead a cabinet of unelected technocrats. Monti's government implemented a program of tax rises and austerity measures in an attempt to resolve Italy's economic crisis.

Who are the candidates?

The election is a four-horse race between political coalitions led by Bersani, Berlusconi, Monti, and the anti-establishment movement led by ex-comedian Beppe Grillo. Polls are banned within two weeks of election day, but the most recent ones had Bersani holding onto a slender lead over Berlusconi, followed by Grillo in distant third.

READ MORE: Will Monte Paschi banking scandal throw open Italy's election race?

The center-left alliance is dominated by the Democratic Party, led by Bersani. He is a former Minister of Economic Development in Romano Prodi's government from 2006-8 -- and has held a comfortable lead in polls, but that appears to be gradually being eroded by Berlusconi.

Italy's political system encourages the forming of alliances, and the Democratic Party has teamed with the more left-wing Left Ecology Freedom party.

The 61-year-old Bersani comes across as "bluff and homespun, and that's part of his appeal -- or not, depending on your point of view," said political analyst James Walston, department chair of international relations at the American University of Rome.

He described Bersani, a former communist, as a "revised apparatchik," saying the reform-minded socialist was paradoxically "far more of a free marketeer than even people on the right."

Bersani has vowed to continue with Monti's austerity measures and reforms, albeit with some adjustments, if he wins.

At second place in the polls is the center-right alliance led by Berlusconi's PdL, in coalition with the right-wing, anti-immigration Northern League.

Berlusconi has given conflicting signals as to whether he is running for the premiership, indicating that he would seek the job if his coalition won, but contradicting that on other occasions.

In a recent speech, he proposed himself as Economy and Industry Minister, and the PdL Secretary Angelino Alfano as prime minister.

Roberto Maroni, leader of the Northern League, has said the possibility of Berlusconi becoming prime minister is explicitly ruled out by the electoral pact between the parties, but the former premier has repeatedly said he plays to win, and observers believe he is unlikely to pass up the chance to lead the country again if the opportunity presents itself.

Berlusconi has been campaigning as a Milan court weighs his appeal against a tax fraud conviction, for which he was sentenced to four years in jail last year. The verdict will be delivered after the elections; however, under the Italian legal system, he is entitled to a further appeal in a higher court. Because the case dates to July 2006, the statute of limitations will expire this year, meaning there is a good chance none of the defendants will serve any prison time.

He is also facing charges in the prostitution case (and that he tried to pull strings to get her out of jail when she was accused of theft) -- and in a third case stands accused of revealing confidential court information relating to an investigation into a bank scandal in 2005.

Despite all this, he retains strong political support from his base.

"Italy is a very forgiving society, it's partly to do with Roman Catholicism," said Walston. "There's sort of a 'live and let live' idea."

Monti, the country's 69-year-old technocrat prime minister, who had never been a politician before he was appointed to lead the government, has entered the fray to lead a centrist coalition committed to continuing his reforms. The alliance includes Monti's Civic Choice for Monti, the Christian Democrats and a smaller centre-right party, Future and Freedom for Italy.

As a "senator for life," Monti is guaranteed a seat in the senate and does not need to run for election himself, but he is hitting the hustings on behalf of his party.

In a climate of widespread public disillusionment with politics, comedian and blogger Beppe Grillo is also making gains by capturing the protest vote with his Five Star Movement. Grillo has railed against big business and the corruption of Italy's political establishment, and holds broadly euro-skeptical and pro-environmental positions.

How will the election be conducted?

Italy has a bicameral legislature and a voting system which even many Italians say they find confusing.

Voters will be electing 315 members of the Senate, and 630 members of the Chamber of Deputies. Both houses hold the same powers, although the Senate is referred to as the upper house.

Under the country's closed-list proportional representation system, each party submits ranked lists of its candidates, and is awarded seats according to the proportion of votes won -- provided it passes a minimum threshold of support.

Seats in the Chamber of Deputies are on a national basis, while seats in the senate are allocated on a regional one.

The party with the most votes are awarded a premium of bonus seats to give them a working majority.

The prime minister needs the support of both houses to govern.

Who is likely to be the next prime minister?

On current polling, Bersani's bloc looks the likely victor in the Chamber of Deputies. But even if he maintains his lead in polls, he could fall short of winning the Senate, because of the rules distributing seats in that house on a regional basis.

Crucial to victory in the Senate is winning the region of Lombardy, the industrial powerhouse of the north of Italy which generates a fifth of the country's wealth and is a traditional support base for Berlusconi. Often compared to the U.S. state of Ohio for the "kingmaker" role it plays in elections, Lombardy has more Senate seats than any other region.

If no bloc succeeds in controlling both houses, the horse-trading begins in search of a broader coalition.

Walston said that a coalition government between the blocs led by Bersani and Monti seemed "almost inevitable," barring something "peculiar" happening in the final stages of the election campaign.

Berlusconi, he predicted, would "get enough votes to cause trouble."

What are the main issues?

There's only really one issue on the agenda at this election.

The eurozone's third largest economy is hurting, with unemployment surpassing 11% -- and hitting 37% for young people.

Voters are weighing the question of whether to continue taking Monti's bitter medicine of higher taxation and austerity measures, while a contentious property tax is also proving a subject of vexed debate.

Walston said the dilemma facing Italians was deciding between "who's going to look after the country better, or who's going to look after my pocket better."

He said it appeared voters held far greater confidence in the ability of Monti and Bersani to fix the economy, while those swayed by appeals to their own finances may be more likely to support Berlusconi.

But he said it appeared that few undecided voters had any faith in Berlusconi's ability to follow through on his pledges, including a recent promise to reverse the property tax.

What are the ramifications of the election for Europe and the wider world?

Improving the fortunes of the world's eighth largest economy is in the interests of Europe, and in turn the global economy.

Italy's woes have alarmed foreign investors. However, financial commentator Nicholas Spiro, managing director of consultancy Spiro Sovereign Strategy, says the European Central Bank's bond-buying program has gone a long way to mitigating investors' concerns about the instability of Italian politics.

Why is political instability so endemic to Italy?

Italy has had more than 60 governments since World War II -- in large part as a by-product of a system designed to prevent the rise of another dictator.

Parties can be formed and make their way on to the political main stage with relative ease -- as witnessed by the rise of Grillo's Five Star Movement, the protest party which was formed in 2009 but in local and regional elections has even outshone Berlusoni's party at times.

Others point to enduringly strong regional identities as part of the recipe for the country's political fluidity.

READ MORE: Italian Elections 2013: Fame di sapere (hunger for knowledge)

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Charges filed in slaying of Clemente High School student

Authorities filed charges against a 34-year-old man in connection with the shooting death of an 18-year-old Clemente High School student killed on the West Side last week.

Larry Luellen Jr., 34, was charged with first degree murder in the death of Frances Colon. Luellen is due in court today.

Luellen lives in the 3900 block of West Division Street in West Humboldt Park, around the corner from where Colon was shot. Police don't believe she was the target.

Colon is the third student at Roberto Clemente to be killed this school year, according to the school's principal Marcey Sorensen.

Rey Dorantes, 14, of the 2400 block of West Augusta Boulevard, was shot and killed on Jan. 11. His death came about a month after another Clemente student, 16-year-old Jeffrey Stewart, of the 5200 block of West Race Avenue, was shot and killed on Dec. 9.

Colon was a senior who was preparing to attend college. Hours before the shooting, she had watched President Barack Obama speak at Hyde Park Academy on the South Side about gun violence, according to her father.

Check back for more information.
Twitter: @peternickeas

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Wall Street opens higher on data, HP earnings

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Stocks opened higher Friday after two days of losses, lifted by better-than-expected earnings from Hewlett-Packard Co and positive economic data from Europe.

HP, a Dow component, jumped 7.4 percent to $18.34 in early trading.

The Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> was up 45.85 points, or 0.33 percent, at 13,926.47. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.spx> was up 6.06 points, or 0.40 percent, at 1,508.48. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.ixic> was up 18.48 points, or 0.59 percent, at 3,149.98.

(Reporting by Ryan Vlastelica; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

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NFL exec: HGH testing resolution needed

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — NFL senior vice president Adolpho Birch says the league and players association need to reach agreement soon on HGH testing.

The NFL and the union agreed in principle to HGH testing when a new 10-year labor agreement was reached in August 2011. But protocols must be approved by both sides and the players have questioned the science in the testing procedures, stalling implementation.

Speaking at the scouting combine Thursday, Birch says the NFL has full confidence in the test and "should have been a year into this by now." He calls the delays "a disservice to all of us."

On Tuesday, the union said in a conference call it favors HGH testing, but only with a strong appeal process. Otherwise, NFLPA spokesman George Atallah said, "it's just a nonstarter."

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How troubled Italy fell into a coma

Austerity-hit Italy chooses new leader

Austerity-hit Italy chooses new leader

Austerity-hit Italy chooses new leader

Austerity-hit Italy chooses new leader


  • Bill Emmott: "Good Italy and Bad Italy" represent spit personalities of troubled country

  • In 1950s, Italy was Europe's "emerging economy" and a pioneering center for design

  • Old demons, including corruption and bloated public pensions, nearly bankrupted Italy

  • Today Italy's biggest problem is the country's refusal to take responsibility and change

Editor's note: Bill Emmott is a British journalist and was the editor of The Economist from 1993 to 2006. His book "Good Italy, Bad Italy" was published in English in 2012, and he is the narrator of "Girlfriend in a Coma," a documentary about Italy's current crisis.

(CNN) -- On my first visit to Italy, at the age of 18, I fell in love with the country and its amazing history almost at first sight, as I and my friends sailed across the lagoon on the ferry to Venice. When we returned and found our camper van had been emptied out by thieves, I felt a little less enamored, to say the least.

This was my first glimpse of the split personality of a country that is expressed nearly 40 years later in the title of my 2012 book, "Good Italy, Bad Italy," and is the theme of the new film I have just narrated for the Italian director Annalisa Piras, "Girlfriend in a Coma".

Yet what I didn't realize then, as a (fairly) innocent teenager, was quite how significant Italy's history is for the whole of the West.

Bill Emmott

Bill Emmott

The greatest case study, or cautionary tale, comes from Venice itself. In medieval times La Serenissima, as Venice is known, became the richest and most powerful city-state in the Mediterranean. It was run by a quasi-democratic "grand council", made up of the merchants who were making the city rich, an elite that was open to newcomers if they had new ideas and new energies.

But in the 14th century the elite decided to close its doors to newcomers, allowing in only those related by family to the old guard, and nationalizing trading rights. The decline of Venice began with that decision.

Italy today is like a huge re-run of that sad Venetian story. During the 1950s and 1960s, the country was Europe's own "emerging economy" of the period, enjoying the third fastest average annual GDP growth rate in the world during those decades, beaten only by Japan and South Korea. It was helped by the global move towards freer trade and by the early European Union, but also by its own then very dynamic society and economy.

New, entrepreneurial companies were formed, new ideas blossomed; Italy became a pioneering center for design, for cinema, and for fashion, and the migration of millions of workers from the poor south to the industrializing north provided the factories with labor at a competitive price.

But then old demons came back to haunt Italy. The sharp polarization, combined with fear, between left and right that was a legacy of the fascist period of Mussolini from 1917 to 1943, returned first in the form of a huge wave of strikes in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and then in a deadly form of political violence. Nearly 500 people died in shootings, bombings and other tragedies during the decade and a half from 1970 as extremists on both left and right fought a running battle.

As well, sadly, as taking part in the violence, governments responded by trying to buy social peace -- first by implementing a very restrictive labor law which had the effect of making the law courts the principal arbitrator in industrial disputes; and second by an explosion of public spending (and thus borrowing) chiefly on pensions and a national health system.

Public pensions became the main form of unemployment insurance, as unwanted workers were permitted to retire early and draw pensions. But public debt became the main albatross around Italy's neck as governments ran budget deficits that in 1975-95 averaged (yes, averaged) almost 10% of GDP each and every year. The result: a pioneering crisis of sovereign debt and a foretaste of the crises now roiling the eurozone, as Italy's debt load reached 120% of GDP in the early 1990s and sent the country into near bankruptcy.

That financial crisis, in the course of which the Italian lira was ejected from Europe's pre-euro exchange-rate system (along with Britain's pound sterling) coincided with a huge political crisis, as corruption investigations brought crashing down the parties that had dominated Italian politics for the past 40 years.

The crisis brought talk of a new start, a "second republic" (to succeed the first, formed with the postwar constitution in 1945-48) and even a renaissance. In the interim, governments led by so-called technocrats (a professor, a governor of the Bank of Italy, an ex-diplomat) were brought in to make reforms and give the country a much needed "reset" before normal politics would be resumed.

It didn't happen. Hence, 20 years later, Italy finds itself in yet another crisis, one that looks eerily similar. The country's sovereign debt is -- you guessed it -- 120% of GDP. A mix of financial crisis and scandals brought down the long-running government of the media billionaire Silvio Berlusconi, while also discrediting establishment politicians of all parties.

In November 2011 a technocrat, the economics professor and former European Commissioner Mario Monti, was brought in to stabilize the country's finances, make reforms and give the country a "reset" before normal politics commence again after the upcoming elections.

It is too soon to say that the "reset" -- or, to use a broader metaphor, the upgrading of Italy's cultural, political and economic software -- will fail again. But it can be said that progress has been slow and disappointing.

Prime Minister Monti succeeded in stabilizing the public finances, but at the cost of a deeper recession than in all other eurozone economies except Greece and Spain. Beyond that, however, no major reforms have been implemented -- so the justice system remains painfully slow, the labor laws still discourage hiring while leaving millions of young people on poorly paid temporary contracts, competition remains overly restricted, too many markets are over-regulated, meritocracy remains stunted, corruption remains rife, and the huge cost of politics and political privileges has been left unchanged.

These tasks all remain for whichever coalition succeeds in forming a government after the elections. They should, however, have been done during the previous 20 years. Some progress in liberalizing markets was made, but not enough to stop Italy's GDP growth rate during 2001-10 from being the 180th worst in the world, just ahead of Haiti's.

Why not? Resistance from entrenched interest groups has been strong. Berlusconi's entry into politics in 1994 was essentially designed to obstruct change, to preserve his quasi-monopolistic businesses, and to ensure the old political ways could continue. On the left, suspicion of capitalism has remained rife, trade union powers have been maintained more successfully than in Germany or even France, and the use of political patronage to build power networks and reward supporters has helped destroy meritocracy.

The big question, however, is why Italians have allowed this to happen. The answer in our film, "Girlfriend in a Coma", is taken from Italy's, and arguably Europe's, greatest ever poet: Dante Alighieri. In his "Divine Comedy" of the 14th century, the sin he condemned most vigorously was "ignavia," by which he meant sloth -- the failure to take responsibility, the failure to show moral courage and to change things.

That is the coma that filmmaker Annalisa Piras and I diagnose as the Italian condition: economic stagnation, yes, but also a failure of consciousness and responsibility, which is in effect a moral failure.

Umberto Eco, the philosopher and novelist, adds a further explanation in the film. Italians, he says, "do not have a sense of the state." They had and respected a very powerful state in Roman times but that collapsed. The only states that have successfully replaced it since then have been the city states of Venice, Florence and elsewhere, which produced great riches and even the Renaissance of art, science, humanism and culture of the 15th century, but never achieved a set of stable, respected, still-less national institutions.

To get Italy out of its coma, its second crisis of 20 years, new governments will have to work hard to fix that problem. To make sure they do so, Italians will need to shed their ignavia and to become more active and demanding -- not in their sectional or local interests, but in the national interest.

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Storm loses punch, but still socks morning commute

A winter storm that buried the Great Plains in more than a foot of snow lost some of its punch as it blew through Chicago overnight, but it still managed to slow the morning commute with slick roads and dozens of spinouts on expressways.

Snow began tapering off around 5:30 a.m., but the National Weather Service was warning of freezing drizzle through the morning and light snow in the afternoon. A winter weather advisory remains in effect until 6 p.m.

At 6 a.m., 2.7 inches had fallen at O'Hare International Airport, tying the highest total recorded there this winter, according to the National Weather Service. Accumulation ranged from 2 to 5 inches throughout the area, according to the Chicago Weather Center.

About 5 inches were reported in Woodstock, 4 inches in Crown Point, Ind., 3.8 inches in Huntley, 3.8 in Milwaukee, 3.5 inches in Lake Villa, 3.4 inches at Wrigley Field, 3.2 inches in Plainfield, 3.1 inches at Midway Airport, 3 inches in Oak Park, 2.7 inches in Mokena, 2.5 inches in Schaumburg, 2.4 inches in Orland Hills, 2.4 inches in Batavia, 2.4 inches in Joliet, and 2 inches in Chesterton, Ind.

At the height of the storm shortly after midnight, state police described road conditions as "horrible." But conditions had improved by the time the morning rush hour began. Still, state police said they had responded to 22 accidents as of 7 a.m. but there were many other spinouts that didn't require their assistance.

The city of Chicago sent 284 plows to work clearing main thoroughfares, according to the Streets and Sanitation Department.

Dozens of schools closed because of the storm, or delayed start times.

The storm, which is moving toward the Northeast, has forced the cancellation of nearly 400 flights at O'Hare and delays for 80 more.

Flurries could linger into the weekend, with a chance for light snow on Saturday.  High temperatures both days should be around 30, with lows in the low 20s and high teens both mornings.

Kansas bore the brunt of the storm, with up to 15 inches of snow in some parts of the state, according to the National Weather Service. A 200-mile stretch of Interstate 70 in central Kansas was closed and strewn with cars stuck in snow.

National Guard troops riding in Humvees were dispatched to look for stranded motorists along the interstate and other highways, said Sharon Watson, a spokeswoman for Kansas emergency management services.

The fierce storm triggered severe thunderstorms from eastern Texas to Georgia. Thunder accompanied snow in Kansas City, hit by 2 to 3 inches of snow per hour on Thursday morning.

"When there is thunder and lightning, it's a pretty screaming clue that you are going to have massive snowfall," said Andy Bailey, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Pleasant Hill, Missouri.

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon and Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback declared states of emergency because of hazardous travel and possible power outages. Brownback ordered state offices closed because of the storm.

Kansas City International Airport was closed on Thursday while crews cleared runways. It was unclear when the airport would reopen, spokesman Joe McBride said.

At the Denver International Airport, some 55 commuter flights were canceled overnight, spokeswoman Laura Coale said. More than 320 flights in and out of Lambert-St. Louis International Airport were scrapped and nearly 50 flights in and out of Omaha's Eppley Airfield were listed as canceled by midday.

In Nebraska, a 19-year-old woman was killed in a two-car accident on Wednesday on Interstate 80 near Giltner. The Nebraska State Patrol said weather was a factor.

An 18-year-old man died in Oklahoma when his vehicle slid into a semi-truck on a slushy state highway, the state's highway patrol said.

The storm is expected to reach the East Coast this weekend, delivering heavy snow to parts of New England for a third straight weekend, from northern Connecticut to southern Maine.

Reuters contributed

Twitter: @ChicagoBreaking

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South Africa's Pistorius awarded bail in murder case

PRETORIA (Reuters) - Star South African athlete Oscar Pistorius was awarded bail on Friday after being accused of murdering his girlfriend.

The decision by Magistrate Desmond Nair drew cheers from Pistorius' family and supporters at the Pretoria magistrate's court, although the athlete appeared unmoved as the decision was read out.

The decision followed a week of dramatic testimony about how the athlete shot dead his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp at his luxury home near Pretoria in the early hours of February 14, Valentine's Day.

Prosecutors said Pistorius, 26, committed premeditated murder when he fired four shots into a locked bathroom door, hitting his girlfriend cowering on the other side. Steenkamp, 29, suffered gunshot wounds to her head, hip and arm.

Pistorius' defense team argued the killing was a tragic mistake, saying the athlete had mistaken Steenkamp for an intruder. They said he was too famous to pose a flight risk and deserved bail to prepare for a case that has drawn worldwide attention.

The full trial is unlikely to start for several months. Olympic and Paralympic star Pistorius, a double amputee who ran races on carbon fiber blades, faces life in prison if convicted of murder.

The shooting and allegations that have emerged at the bail hearing have stunned the millions around the world who saw his track glory as an inspiring tale of triumph over adversity.

(Reporting by Peroshni Govender; writing by David Dolan; Editing by Andrew Roche)

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Wall Street opens lower after jobless data

TORONTO, Feb 20 (Reuters) - Canada's Rebecca Marino, a rising star in women's tennis, stepped away from the sport in search of a normal life on Wednesday, weary of battling depression and cyber-bullies. Ranked number 38 in the world two years ago, the 22-year-old admitted she had long suffered from depression and was no longer willing to make the sacrifices necessary to reach the top. "After thinking long and hard, I do not have the passion or enjoyment to drive myself to the level I would like to be at in professional tennis," Marino explained in a conference call. ...
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Would the pope vote be hackable?

The Conclave of Cardinals that will elect a new pope will meet in the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City.


  • Bruce Schneier: Rules for picking a new pope are very detailed

  • He says elaborate precautions are taken to prevent election fraud

  • Every step of the election process is observed by people who know each other

  • Schneier: Vatican's procedures, centuries in the making, are very secure

Editor's note: Bruce Schneier is a security technologist and author of "Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust Society Needs to Survive." In 2005, before the conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI, Schneier wrote a piece on his blog about the process. This essay is an updated version, reflecting new information and analysis.

(CNN) -- As the College of Cardinals prepares to elect a new pope, security people like me wonder about the process. How does it work, and just how hard would it be to hack the vote?

The rules for papal elections are steeped in tradition. John Paul II last codified them in 1996, and Benedict XVI left the rules largely untouched. The "Universi Dominici Gregis on the Vacancy of the Apostolic See and the Election of the Roman Pontiff" is surprisingly detailed.

Every cardinal younger than 80 is eligible to vote. We expect 117 to be voting. The election takes place in the Sistine Chapel, directed by the church chamberlain. The ballot is entirely paper-based, and all ballot counting is done by hand. Votes are secret, but everything else is open.

Bruce Schneier

Bruce Schneier

First, there's the "pre-scrutiny" phase.

"At least two or three" paper ballots are given to each cardinal, presumably so that a cardinal has extras in case he makes a mistake. Then nine election officials are randomly selected from the cardinals: three "scrutineers," who count the votes; three "revisers," who verify the results of the scrutineers; and three "infirmarii," who collect the votes from those too sick to be in the chapel. Different sets of officials are chosen randomly for each ballot.

Each cardinal, including the nine officials, writes his selection for pope on a rectangular ballot paper "as far as possible in handwriting that cannot be identified as his." He then folds the paper lengthwise and holds it aloft for everyone to see.

When everyone has written his vote, the "scrutiny" phase of the election begins. The cardinals proceed to the altar one by one. On the altar is a large chalice with a paten -- the shallow metal plate used to hold communion wafers during Mass -- resting on top of it. Each cardinal places his folded ballot on the paten. Then he picks up the paten and slides his ballot into the chalice.

Pope may change rules to allow earlier election

If a cardinal cannot walk to the altar, one of the scrutineers -- in full view of everyone -- does this for him.

If any cardinals are too sick to be in the chapel, the scrutineers give the infirmarii a locked empty box with a slot, and the three infirmarii together collect those votes. If a cardinal is too sick to write, he asks one of the infirmarii to do it for him. The box is opened, and the ballots are placed onto the paten and into the chalice, one at a time.

When all the ballots are in the chalice, the first scrutineer shakes it several times to mix them. Then the third scrutineer transfers the ballots, one by one, from one chalice to another, counting them in the process. If the total number of ballots is not correct, the ballots are burned and everyone votes again.

To count the votes, each ballot is opened, and the vote is read by each scrutineer in turn, the third one aloud. Each scrutineer writes the vote on a tally sheet. This is all done in full view of the cardinals.

The total number of votes cast for each person is written on a separate sheet of paper. Ballots with more than one name (overvotes) are void, and I assume the same is true for ballots with no name written on them (undervotes). Illegible or ambiguous ballots are much more likely, and I presume they are discarded as well.

Then there's the "post-scrutiny" phase. The scrutineers tally the votes and determine whether there's a winner. We're not done yet, though.

The revisers verify the entire process: ballots, tallies, everything. And then the ballots are burned. That's where the smoke comes from: white if a pope has been elected, black if not -- the black smoke is created by adding water or a special chemical to the ballots.

Being elected pope requires a two-thirds plus one vote majority. This is where Pope Benedict made a change. Traditionally a two-thirds majority had been required for election. Pope John Paul II changed the rules so that after roughly 12 days of fruitless votes, a simple majority was enough to elect a pope. Benedict reversed this rule.

How hard would this be to hack?

First, the system is entirely manual, making it immune to the sorts of technological attacks that make modern voting systems so risky.

Second, the small group of voters -- all of whom know each other -- makes it impossible for an outsider to affect the voting in any way. The chapel is cleared and locked before voting. No one is going to dress up as a cardinal and sneak into the Sistine Chapel. In short, the voter verification process is about as good as you're ever going to find.

A cardinal can't stuff ballots when he votes. The complicated paten-and-chalice ritual ensures that each cardinal votes once -- his ballot is visible -- and also keeps his hand out of the chalice holding the other votes. Not that they haven't thought about this: The cardinals are in "choir dress" during the voting, which has translucent lace sleeves under a short red cape, making sleight-of-hand tricks much harder. Additionally, the total would be wrong.

The rules anticipate this in another way: "If during the opening of the ballots the scrutineers should discover two ballots folded in such a way that they appear to have been completed by one elector, if these ballots bear the same name, they are counted as one vote; if however they bear two different names, neither vote will be valid; however, in neither of the two cases is the voting session annulled." This surprises me, as if it seems more likely to happen by accident and result in two cardinals' votes not being counted.

Ballots from previous votes are burned, which makes it harder to use one to stuff the ballot box. But there's one wrinkle: "If however a second vote is to take place immediately, the ballots from the first vote will be burned only at the end, together with those from the second vote." I assume that's done so there's only one plume of smoke for the two elections, but it would be more secure to burn each set of ballots before the next round of voting.

The scrutineers are in the best position to modify votes, but it's difficult. The counting is conducted in public, and there are multiple people checking every step. It'd be possible for the first scrutineer, if he were good at sleight of hand, to swap one ballot paper for another before recording it. Or for the third scrutineer to swap ballots during the counting process. Making the ballots large would make these attacks harder. So would controlling the blank ballots better, and only distributing one to each cardinal per vote. Presumably cardinals change their mind more often during the voting process, so distributing extra blank ballots makes sense.

There's so much checking and rechecking that it's just not possible for a scrutineer to misrecord the votes. And since they're chosen randomly for each ballot, the probability of a cabal being selected is extremely low. More interesting would be to try to attack the system of selecting scrutineers, which isn't well-defined in the document. Influencing the selection of scrutineers and revisers seems a necessary first step toward influencing the election.

If there's a weak step, it's the counting of the ballots.

There's no real reason to do a precount, and it gives the scrutineer doing the transfer a chance to swap legitimate ballots with others he previously stuffed up his sleeve. Shaking the chalice to randomize the ballots is smart, but putting the ballots in a wire cage and spinning it around would be more secure -- albeit less reverent.

I would also add some kind of white-glove treatment to prevent a scrutineer from hiding a pencil lead or pen tip under his fingernails. Although the requirement to write out the candidate's name in full provides some resistance against this sort of attack.

Probably the biggest risk is complacency. What might seem beautiful in its tradition and ritual during the first ballot could easily become cumbersome and annoying after the twentieth ballot, and there will be a temptation to cut corners to save time. If the Cardinals do that, the election process becomes more vulnerable.

A 1996 change in the process lets the cardinals go back and forth from the chapel to their dorm rooms, instead of being locked in the chapel the whole time, as was done previously. This makes the process slightly less secure but a lot more comfortable.

Of course, one of the infirmarii could do what he wanted when transcribing the vote of an infirm cardinal. There's no way to prevent that. If the infirm cardinal were concerned about that but not privacy, he could ask all three infirmarii to witness the ballot.

There are also enormous social -- religious, actually -- disincentives to hacking the vote. The election takes place in a chapel and at an altar. The cardinals swear an oath as they are casting their ballot -- further discouragement. The chalice and paten are the implements used to celebrate the Eucharist, the holiest act of the Catholic Church. And the scrutineers are explicitly exhorted not to form any sort of cabal or make any plans to sway the election, under pain of excommunication.

The other major security risk in the process is eavesdropping from the outside world. The election is supposed to be a completely closed process, with nothing communicated to the world except a winner. In today's high-tech world, this is very difficult. The rules explicitly state that the chapel is to be checked for recording and transmission devices "with the help of trustworthy individuals of proven technical ability." That was a lot easier in 2005 than it will be in 2013.

What are the lessons here?

First, open systems conducted within a known group make voting fraud much harder. Every step of the election process is observed by everyone, and everyone knows everyone, which makes it harder for someone to get away with anything.

Second, small and simple elections are easier to secure. This kind of process works to elect a pope or a club president, but quickly becomes unwieldy for a large-scale election. The only way manual systems could work for a larger group would be through a pyramid-like mechanism, with small groups reporting their manually obtained results up the chain to more central tabulating authorities.

And third: When an election process is left to develop over the course of a couple of thousand years, you end up with something surprisingly good.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bruce Schneier.

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Man charged with 9 robberies after chase, shooting in Bucktown

A man shot by police in the Bucktown neighborhood during a chase has been charged with a string of armed robberies he was wanted for, according to authorities.

Jesus Rosas, 23, is charged with nine counts of armed robbery, two counts of attempted armed robbery, four counts of aggravated assault to police and four counts of attempted murder, according to police.

Rosas was wounded by police Tuesday night after officers followed his SUV from near a downtown robbery, authorities said. Police said the driver tried to run over officers after backing into a squad car on Milwaukee Avenue just north of North Avenue.

Police shot him in the busy six-corner intersection and he was taken to Stroger Hospital with a gunshot wound to the arm. Rosas lives in the 10300 block of South Muskegon Avenue in the South Deering neighborhood.

During Rosas’ last heist, he took $200 from the Subway near Chicago Avenue and State Streets while dressed in all black clothing, according to a police report. He pointed a small black handgun at a female staffer and demanded in Spanish that she give him all the money and that he needed it for his kids and family, the report said.

After she complied, he said he was sorry and fled southbound on State, the report said.

He was spotted by officers working an armed robbery mission who were given his description. Rosas was shot once in the arm by a police sergeant when he drove the SUV in the sergeant’s direction, the report said. 

Robberies linked to him usually occurred between 11:30 p.m. and 2:15 a.m. They included hold-ups within two hours of each other at 2200 N. Lincoln Avenue and 300 W. Chicago Avenue early in the morning of Feb. 6.
Twitter: @rosemarysobol1
Twitter: @peternickeas

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Cameroon, Nigeria officials deny French hostages freed

YAOUNDE (Reuters) - The fate of seven French tourists seized in Cameroon by suspected Nigerian Islamist militants was unclear on Thursday after government officials denied French media reports that they had been freed.

The hostages, four children and three adults, were captured this week while on an excursion to the Waza national park near Cameroon's border with Nigeria.

Several French media reported earlier on Thursday that the hostages had been found alive in a house in northern Nigeria and freed.

"The hostages are safe and sound and are in the hands of Nigerian authorities," BFMTV quoted a Cameroon army officer as saying.

"This is a crazy rumor that we cannot confirm. We do not know where is it coming from," Cameroon Communications Minister Issa Tchiroma Bakary said by telephone from the capital Yaounde.

Sagir Musa, a spokesman for Nigeria's military, told Reuters the report was "not true."

Kader Arif, France's minister for veterans' affairs, told parliament on Thursday that the seven hostages had been released but retracted his statement minutes later, saying he had been quoting media reports and there was no official confirmation.

It was the first case of foreigners being seized by suspected Islamist militants in the mainly Muslim north of Cameroon, a former French colony.

The region is seen as being within the operational sphere of Nigerian sect Boko Haram and another Islamist militant group, Ansaru.

The threat to French nationals in the region has grown since France deployed thousands of troops to nearby Mali to root out al Qaeda-linked Islamists who took control of the country's north last year.

The kidnapping in Cameroon brought to 15 the number of French citizens being held in West Africa.

French diplomatic sources said the government would not confirm the hostages had been released until it had physical proof, or until they were in French hands.

(Reporting By Emile Picy and Nicholas Vinocur in Paris; Additional reporting by Joe Brock in Abuja and Bate Felix and John Irish in Dakar; Editing by Pravin Char and Tom Pfeiffer)

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Wall Street little changed after data, Fed minutes on tap

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Stocks were little changed on Wednesday after housing and inflation data pointed to a continuation of modest economic improvement and ahead of the minutes from the Federal Open Market Committee's January meeting later in the session.

Groundbreaking to build new U.S. homes fell 8.5 percent in January but new permits for construction rose to a 4 1/2-year high while producer prices rose in January for the first time in four months.

The data should enable the Fed to maintain its easy monetary policy in its efforts to stimulate the economy.

Later in the session, investors will look to the minutes from the Fed's January meeting for any indication as to how long the current monetary policy will remain in effect.

"It's hard in any given data point to take a strong conclusion that we are moving dramatically forward, but over time, clearly things are getting better," said Robert Lutts, chief investment officer at Cabot Money Management in Salem, Massachusetts.

Lutts described an economy that was addicted to stimulus.

"The bottom line is the economy is on heroin today and we will at one time move to a diluted form of heroin, but it's very important for people to remember we are still on an unbelievably aggressive, never-seen-before accommodative policy and this economy is going to improve."

The S&P 500 <.spx> is up more than 7 percent for the year, fueled by legislators' ability to sidestep an automatic implementation of spending cuts on tax hikes on January 1, better-than-expected corporate earnings and modestly improving economic data that has been tepid enough for the Fed to maintain its stimulus policy.

The Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> dropped 5.99 points, or 0.04 percent, to 14,029.68. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.spx> lost 2.60 points, or 0.17 percent, to 1,528.34. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.ixic> shed 3.12 points, or 0.10 percent, to 3,210.48.

U.S. oil and gas producer Devon Energy Corp reported a fourth-quarter loss as it wrote down the value of its assets by $896 million due to weak gas prices. Shares dipped 1.6 percent to $59.60.

OfficeMax Inc and Office Depot Inc shares were halted as the companies announced a merger agreement. An earlier online statement of the deal was pulled down as an agreement had not yet been struck.

Toll Brothers Inc lost 4 percent to $35.43 after the largest luxury homebuilder in the United States, reported first-quarter results well below analysts' estimates.

SodaStream dropped 3.2 percent to $50.79 after the seller of home carbonated drink maker machines posted fourth-quarter earnings and provided a 2013 outlook.

According to Thomson Reuters data through Tuesday morning, of the 391 companies in the S&P 500 that have reported results, 70.1 percent have exceeded analysts' expectations, compared with a 62 percent average since 1994 and 65 percent over the past four quarters.

Fourth-quarter earnings for S&P 500 companies are estimated to have risen 5.6 percent, according to the data, above a 1.9 percent forecast at the start of the earnings season.

(Reporting by Chuck Mikolajczak; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Nick Zieminski)

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Armstrong facing Wednesday deadline with USADA

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Lance Armstrong is facing a Wednesday deadline to decide whether he will meet with U.S. Anti-Doping Agency officials and talk with them under oath about what he knows about performance-enhancing drug use in cycling.

The agency has said Armstrong's cooperation in its cleanup effort is the only path open to Armstrong if his lifetime ban from sports is to be reduced.

Armstrong has given mixed signals about whether he plans to talk with USADA officials. Armstrong attorney Tim Herman previously suggested Armstrong would not meet with USADA before the agency's original Feb. 6 deadline. The two sides then agreed to give Armstrong another two weeks to work out an interview with investigators.

Armstrong previously denied using performance-enhancing drugs, but in January admitted doping to win seven Tour de France titles.

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Obama can't kick his legacy down road

By Gloria Borger, CNN Chief Political Analyst

February 19, 2013 -- Updated 2122 GMT (0522 HKT)

President Obama has a small window of opportunity to get Congress to act on his priorities, Gloria Borger says.


  • Gloria Borger: Prospect of deep budget cuts was designed to compel compromise

  • She says the "unthinkable" cuts now have many supporters

  • The likelihood that cuts may happen shows new level of D.C. dysfunction, she says

  • Borger: President may want a 2014 House victory, but action needed now

(CNN) -- So let's try to recount why we are where we are. In August 2011, Washington was trying to figure out how to raise the debt ceiling -- so the US might continue to pay its bills -- when a stunt was hatched: Kick the can down the road.

And not only kick it down the road, but do it in a way that would eventually force Washington to do its job: Invent a punishment.

Gloria Borger

Gloria Borger

If the politicians failed to come up with some kind of budget deal, the blunt instrument of across-the-board cuts in every area would await.

Unthinkable! Untenable!

Until now.

In fact, something designed to be worse than any conceivable agreement is now completely acceptable to many.

And not only are these forced budget cuts considered acceptable, they're even applauded. Some Republicans figure they'll never find a way to get 5% across-the-board domestic spending cuts like this again, so go for it. And some liberal Democrats likewise say 8% cuts in military spending are better than anything we might get on our own, so go for it.

The result: A draconian plan designed to force the two sides to get together has now turned out to be too weak to do that.

And what does that tell us? More about the collapse of the political process than it does about the merits of any budget cuts. Official Washington has completely abdicated responsibility, taking its dysfunction to a new level -- which is really saying something.

We've learned since the election that the second-term president is feeling chipper. With re-election came the power to force Republicans to raise taxes on the wealthy in the fiscal cliff negotiations, and good for him. Americans voted, and said that's what they wanted, and so it happened. Even the most sullen Republicans knew that tax fight had been lost.

Points on the board for the White House.

Now the evil "sequester" -- the forced budget cuts -- looms. And the president proposes what he calls a "balanced" approach: closing tax loopholes on the rich and budget cuts. It's something he knows Republicans will never go for. They raised taxes six weeks ago, and they're not going to do it again now. They already gave at the office. And Republicans also say, with some merit, that taxes were never meant to be a part of the discussion of across-the-board cuts. It's about spending.

Here's the problem: The election is over. Obama won, and he doesn't really have to keep telling us -- or showing us, via staged campaign-style events like the one Tuesday in which he used police officers as props while he opposed the forced spending cuts.

What we're waiting for is the plan to translate victory into effective governance.

Sure, there's no doubt the president has the upper hand. He's right to believe that GOP calls for austerity do not constitute a cohesive party platform. He knows that the GOP has no singular, effective leader, and that its message is unformed. And he's probably hoping that the next two years can be used effectively to further undermine the GOP and win back a Democratic majority in the House.

Slight problem: There's plenty of real work to be done, on the budget, on tax reform, on immigration, climate change and guns. A second-term president has a small window of opportunity. And a presidential legacy is not something that can be kicked down the road.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gloria Borger.

Part of complete coverage on

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Jesse Jackson Jr., Sandi Jackson expected to plead guilty today

Jesse Jr. and Sandi Jackson have arrived to court in Washington where they are expected to plead guilty to federal charges

WASHINGTON — Former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., and his wife, former Chicago Ald. Sandi Jackson, arrived at federal court in Washington, D.C. this morning, where they are expected to plead guilty to federal charges connected to the spending of more than $750,000 in campaign cash to buy luxury items, memorabilia and other goods.

Neither responded to shouted questions from reporters as the two stepped out of a black SUV and entered the U.S. District Court building. Sandi Jackson walked ahead of her husband, carrying a satchel. Jackson Jr. looked up with reporters yelled questions but said nothing and looked down as he went into the building.

Minutes later, his father the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. and other family members walked through the front entrance of the courthouse, their arms linked together.

Attorneys familiar with public corruption investigations said the amount of campaign cash allegedly converted to personal use in this case is the largest of any that they can remember.

Jackson Jr., who has been largely out of the public eye for eight months, is to appear in court at 9:30 a.m. Chicago time. His wife is to appear at 1:30 p.m. Chicago time. Both Jacksons will stand before U.S. District Court Judge Robert Wilkins.

Sentencing is not expected for several weeks. Jackson Jr. faces up to five years in prison, while she faces up to three years, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia.

Jackson Jr., 47, was in the House of Representatives for 17 years until he resigned last November. Sandi Jackson, 49, was a Chicago alderman from 2007 until she stepped down in January.

He is charged with conspiracy in a case involving a $43,350 men’s Rolex watch, nearly $9,600 in children’s furniture and $5,150 in cashmere clothing and furs, court papers show. She is charged with filing false tax returns for six years, most recently calendar year 2011.

When separate felony charges were filed against them Friday, their attorneys said the two would plead guilty.

Prosecutors also are seeking a $750,000 judgment against Jackson Jr. and the forfeiture of thousands of dollars of goods he purchased, including cashmere clothing, furs and an array of memorabilia from celebrities including Michael Jackson, Bruce Lee and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

Jackson Jr. began a mysterious medical leave of absence last June for what was eventually described as bipolar disorder. Though he did not campaign for re-election, he won another term last Nov. 6 while being treated at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. He left office two weeks later, saying he was cooperating with federal investigators.

Married for more than 20 years, the Jacksons have a 12-year-old daughter and a 9-year-old son. The family has homes in Washington and on Chicago’s South Side.

Washington defense attorney Stan Brand, the former general counsel of the House of Representatives, said Tuesday that Jackson Jr.’s case involved the largest sum of money he’s seen in a case involving personal use of campaign money. “Historically, there have been members of Congress who either inadvertently or maybe purposefully, but not to this magnitude, used campaign funds inappropriately,” he said.

Brand said that when the dollar figure involved is low, a lawmaker may be fined and ordered to reimburse the money. “This is so large, the Department of Justice decided to make his case criminal,” he said.

Other attorneys said they could not remember a bigger case of its kind. Washington attorney Ken Gross, a former lawyer for the Federal Election Commission, said: “Directly dipping into your campaign coffers, and spending money on personal items, I can’t recall a case where it involved this much money.”

Brand once represented another disgraced Illinois Democratic congressman, Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, who in 1996 pleaded guilty to two counts of mail fraud. Rostenkowski was later represented by attorney Dan Webb, who is Sandi Jackson’s counsel.

Rostenkowski, who died in 2010, entered his pleas and received his punishment in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia — the same venue on the Jacksons’ calendars on Wednesday.

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Bulgarian government resigns amid growing protests

SOFIA (Reuters) - Bulgaria's government resigned on Wednesday after violent nationwide protests against high power prices, joining a long list of European administrations felled by austerity during Europe's debt crisis.

Prime Minister Boiko Borisov, a former bodyguard who swept to power in 2009 on pledges to root out corruption and raise living standards in the European Union's poorest member, now faces a tough task to prop up eroding support ahead of a probable early election.

Wage and pension freezes and tax hikes have bitten deep in a country where living standards are less than half the EU average and tens of thousands of Bulgarians have rallied in protests that have turned violent, chanting "Mafia" and "Resign".

On Tuesday, 11 people were hospitalized - including one man bleeding heavily from the head - and 11 arrested after protesters threw flares at police, who fought demonstrators with shields and truncheons.

"I will not participate in a government under which police are beating people," Borisov, who began his career guarding the Black Sea state's communist dictator Todor Zhivkov, said as he announced his resignation on Wednesday.

Parliament is expected to accept the resignation later in the day.

The spark for the protests was high electricity bills, after the government raised prices by 13 percent last July. But it quickly spilled over into wider frustration with Borisov's domineering manner and unpredictable decision making.

The prime minister made sacrifices in an attempt to cling on, sacking his finance minister, cutting power prices and risking a diplomatic row with the Czech Republic by punishing foreign-owned companies, a move that conflicted with EU norms on protection of investors and due process.

Borisov's rightist GERB party is the dominant faction in parliament but will not take part in talks to form a new government, Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov said, indicating that an election planned for July will now be held early.

"He made my day," student Borislav Hadzhiev, 21, in central Sofia said, commenting on Borisov's resignation. "The truth is that we're living in an extremely poor country."


GERB's popularity has held up well and it still leads, just, in the polls, largely because budget cutbacks have been relatively mild compared with those in many other European countries. Salaries and pensions were frozen rather than cut.

But the last opinion poll, taken before protests grew last weekend already showed the opposition Socialists were nearly tied with the ruling party and analysts said the protests had boosted the Socialists' chances.

Unemployment in the country of 7.3 million is far from the highs hit in the decade after the end of communism but remains at 11.9 percent and average salaries are stuck at around 800 levs ($550) a month.

Millions have emigrated in search of a better life, leaving swathes of the country depopulated and little hope for those who remain.

The measures announced this week has also put the country on a collision course with the EU and financial investors without easing the tension at home.

Czech Prime Minister Petr Necas demanded an explanation from Bulgaria and accused it of "politicizing" the power sector by threatening to revoke the electricity distribution license of central Europe's largest listed company CEZ, 70 percent of which is owned by the Czech state.

There have also been fines for another Czech company, Energo-Pro and Austria's EVN.

The precedent is unlikely to encourage other foreign investors, who already have to navigate complicated bureaucracy and widespread corruption and organized crime if they want to take advantage of Bulgaria's 16-percent flat tax rate.

"The resignation is the only responsible move," said Kantcho Stoychev, an analyst with pollster Gallup International. "It also gives Borisov some legitimacy to stay in political life in the future, despite the violent police actions last night."

(Additional reporting by Angel Krasimirov; editing by Patrick Graham)

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