Thursday, December 3, 2009


White House shows decorations

The White House is celebrating Christmas with recycled ornaments, natural materials and, of course, a gingerbread White House. The 390-pound work of culinary art is covered in white chocolate and has a marzipan replica of family dog, Bo.

“Reflect, Rejoice, Renew” is the theme for the Obama family’s first Christmas in the White House.

Previewing the holiday decorations Wednesday, first lady Michelle Obama said the theme was chosen because her family spends the holidays reflecting on its blessings, rejoicing in the company of friends and family, and renewing their commitments to each other and causes they believe in.

“I wanted to continue that part of the tradition during our first holiday season at the White House,” she said at an event where she also thanked more than 90 volunteers from 24 states who since last weekend logged about 3,400 hours transforming the mansion into a Christmas wonderland.


Homebuyer plan would up payment

Homebuyers insured by the Federal Housing Administration would have to provide more cash up front and meet higher credit scores under an Obama administration plan to protect the financially stretched agency.

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan told a House committee Wednesday that the administration wants borrowers to have a stronger equity position on their loans. One possibility would be raising the current 3.5 percent down-payment requirement. Proposed legislation in Congress would raise the down payment required to 5 percent.

Mr. Donovan also wants to reduce seller inducements, such as offers to pay closing costs, to no more than 3 percent of the purchase price. Mr. Donovan said the current 6 percent level creates incentives to inflate the appraised value of property.

The steps aim to get homeowners more invested in their property and therefore less likely to default on loans or, in Mr. Donovan’s words, to make sure FHA borrowers have more “skin in the game.”


Carp fear drives call to close locks

CHICAGO | Fears that giant, voracious species of carp will get into the Great Lakes and wipe out other fish have led to rising demands that the government close the waterway connecting the lakes to the Mississippi River - an unprecedented step that could disrupt the movement of millions of tons of iron ore, coal, grain and other goods.

The dispute could become an epic clash of competing interests: commerce, environmentalists and fishermen.

Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm and five environmental groups threatened on Wednesday to sue the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to force it to temporarily shut three shipping locks near Chicago because of evidence that Asian carp may have breached the electrical barrier that is supposed to hold them back from the lakes.

The environmental groups went further than the governor and said the Great Lakes and the Mississippi should be permanently separated to avert what Ms. Granholm called “ecological disaster.”

Col. Vincent Quarles, commander of the Corps’ Chicago district, said the agency is considering all options but would not close the locks without first studying the possible effects.


Envoy contradicts State Department

UNITED NATIONS | The United States is not seeking a civilian coordinator for Afghanistan, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations said Wednesday, apparently contradicting the State Department.

“This is not an American proposal,” Ambassador Susan E. Rice told reporters at the United Nations about plans to appoint an official tasked with helping Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government improve the country’s security and economy.

“We are not advocating, at this stage, the appointment of a high representative.”

Her comments came a day after the State Department said the United States both favored the idea and was seeking support from NATO allies.

“It’s a way for us to better support the efforts of Afghanistan to provide for its own security and … provide a better economic future for the Afghan people,” State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said.


Mexico discovers San Diego tunnel

SAN DIEGO | The Drug Enforcement Administration says Mexican authorities discovered an incomplete tunnel that extends into San Diego and is equipped with a lift system, ventilation and lighting.

The DEA said Wednesday that the tunnel runs nearly 1,000 feet from its entry in Tijuana, Mexico, including 860 feet into the United States. There is no exit on the U.S. side.

The DEA says Mexican authorities arrested more than a dozen people inside the tunnel Wednesday. No arrests have been made in the United States.

The tunnel reaches a depth of 90 to 100 feet and authorities think it has been under construction for about two years.


Prairie dogs fail to make danger list

BILLINGS, Mont. | Black-tailed prairie dogs were denied protection under the Endangered Species Act on Wednesday after federal officials concluded the once prevalent species shows signs of rebounding.

Decades of poisoning, shootings, the plague and loss of habitat to agriculture are blamed for a dramatic drop in prairie dog numbers since the early 1900s, from roughly 1 billion animals to an estimated 24 million today.

In 2007, the New Mexico-based environmental activist group WildEarth Guardians petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the animal as threatened or endangered.

But the agency said Wednesday the population is slowly spreading despite continued pressure from sickness and deliberate killings.

“They reached a low point in approximately 1961 and have bounced back pretty good since then,” said Joy Gober, the Fish and Wildlife biologist who drafted the decision.

A representative of WildEarth Guardians said a federal court challenge to the ruling was likely.


Parents seek help in custody disputes

U.S. parents separated from their children by foreign authorities pleaded Wednesday to Congress to make custody battles a diplomatic priority with nations such as Japan and Brazil.

Japan has come under growing U.S. criticism for its strict rules in custody disputes. Japanese courts generally award children to only one parent, usually the mother, and almost never grant custody to foreign parents.

Paul Toland, a Navy commander who was living in Japan, said his estranged Japanese-born wife seized their daughter Erika in 2003 and has since denied him access. U.S. lawmakers called it a kidnapping, but Japanese courts sided with the mother.

“Nothing is more important and deep-seated in this world than a parent’s love for his child,” Mr. Toland told the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, a congressional panel.

“Equally important is a society’s responsibility to ensure that their most vulnerable citizens, their children, have the opportunity to know and love their parents,” he said.

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