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Inside Politics: Democrats want Sandy bill done by Christmas

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Democrats are trying to push a $60.4 billion emergency spending package for Superstorm Sandy victims through Congress by Christmas. Republicans are responding: Not so fast.

The Senate opened debate on the aid measure Monday, seven weeks after the storm swept up the East Coast, causing extensive damage in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

Several Republicans say they're sympathetic to Sandy victims, but they favor a smaller aid package for the moment and suggest cutting other federal programs to pay for parts of it. They say some measures in the bill — including money for salmon fisheries in Alaska, new government care and an Amtrak expansion project — smack more of congressional pork than disaster aid.

TREASURY

Overseas investors appear confident in U.S. debt

Foreign ownership of U.S. Treasury securities rose to a record level in October, a sign that overseas investors remain confident in U.S. debt despite a potential budget crisis.

Total foreign holdings of U.S. Treasurys rose to $5.48 trillion in October, the Treasury Department said Monday. That was up 0.1 percent from September. Still, the increase of $6 billion was the weakest since total holdings fell in December 2011.

China, the largest holder of U.S. government debt, increased its holdings slightly to $1.16 trillion. Japan, the second-largest holder, boosted its holdings by a smaller amount to $1.13 trillion. Brazil, the country with the third-largest holdings, increased its total to $255.2 billion.

The new figures show that investors are still seeking the perceived safety of U.S. Treasurys, even as lawmakers and President Obama remain at odds over whether to raise the U.S. borrowing limit as part of a broader budget deal.

But economists also said the slowdown in purchases of Treasury securities suggests that investors are more willing to buy other debt, including from European governments. That might indicate that fears of a financial catastrophe in Europe are easing.

The federal government is expected to hit its borrowing limit of $16.39 trillion by the end of December. Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner has said he would resort to the same financial maneuvers he used in the last debt standoff in 2011 to keep the government from defaulting on its debt.

But these operations will buy only a few weeks' time, until late February or early March. By then, the government will face the prospect of a first-ever debt default if Congress doesn't raise the debt ceiling.

MONTANA

Court rejects gay couple request as 'overly broad'

HELENA — The Montana Supreme Court on Monday rejected an "overly broad" request that gay couples be guaranteed the same benefits as married couples.

The court wrote in Monday's 4-3 decision Monday that a lower court was within its discretion when it earlier dismissed the request. But the Supreme Court left the door open for the gay couples to modify their request and try again.

A Helena district court judge dismissed the six couples' case last year after state prosecutors argued that spousal benefits are limited by definition to married couples. A voter-approved amendment in 2004 defined marriage as between a man and a woman.

District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock based his ruling in part on the state's marriage amendment and also said that an order to force state lawmakers to write new laws would violate the separation of powers.

The majority justices upheld that decision. The court wrote that the gay couples want the court to intervene "without identifying a specific statute or statutes that impose the discrimination they allege."

James Goetz, the attorney for the couples, said in April arguments before the high court that his clients were not asking for the right to marry. But they are entitled to make the same decisions about their families' health care and finances as married couples under the Montana Constitution, and the state's refusal to expressly provide those rights is discriminatory, he said.

Assistant Attorney General Mike Black responded that the couples' demands were overly sweeping and they do not cite the specific laws that would have to be changed.

CALIFORNIA

NRC slaps Japanese company on nuke work

LOS ANGELES — Federal inspectors have identified new questions related to California's troubled San Onofre nuclear power plant.

A Nuclear Regulatory Commission report says a Japanese company that manufactured the plant's troubled steam generators failed to meet requirements with some equipment it's using to test possible long-term repairs.

NRC inspectors who visited Mitsubishi Heavy Industries found workers failed to verify that more than 1,000 tubes being used in generator models to explore potential fixes matched specifications for tubing in the California generators.

It raises the possibility Mitsubishi is looking for fixes on the wrong-sized equipment.

The plant between San Diego and Los Angeles has been dark since January after a tube break released a trace of radiation. Investigators later found heavy wear to hundreds of generator tubes.

Mitsubishi had no immediate comment Monday.

From wire dispatches and staff reports

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