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Congress headed for more conflict over budget

The nation’s sharp disagreements over taxes and spending are on a re-routed collision course, as Senate Democrats launch a plan that includes new taxes and House Republicans vow to speed up their plan to balance the federal budget with spending cuts alone. The Republicans’ new approach would require even deeper cuts in social programs than they pushed last year. Liberals denounced those earlier plans as severe and unfair, and they say the new version would be worse. The new commitments by House and Senate members stem from the ongoing dispute over raising the federal debt ceiling. The House voted Wednesday
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New Pentagon challenge: Where to put women in battle

The Pentagon‘s decision to lift the ban on women serving in combat presents a daunting challenge to top military leaders who now will have to decide which, if any, jobs they believe should be open only to men. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is expected to announce Thursday that more than 230,000 battlefront posts — many in Army and Marine infantry units and in potentially elite commando jobs — are now open to women. It will be up to the military service chiefs to recommend and defend whether women should be excluded from any of those more demanding and deadly positions,
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John Kerry faces confirmation hearing from his own committee

Democratic Sen. John Kerry, on a smooth path to confirmation as secretary of state, is likely to face friendly questioning when he testifies before the committee that he’s served on for 28 years and led for the past four. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman will sit at the witness table Thursday when he appears before the panel, a month after President Barack Obama said he wanted him to succeed Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Clinton is stepping down. The five-term Massachusetts senator is widely expected to win overwhelming bipartisan support from his colleagues, and that notion was reinforced
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Harry Reid may allow vote on assault weapons ban

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, signaled on Tuesday that despite earlier indications to the contrary, he may allow a vote on a possible ban on assault weapons. Reid, a longtime gun-rights advocate from Nevada, recently indicated he would not permit a vote because the Republican-led House of Representatives was unlikely to go along with such a prohibition. But after a weekly meeting with fellow Senate Democrats, Reid told reporters he expects “to have a free amendment process” on gun legislation. That process could result in other Democrats proposing a possible resurrection of a 10-year ban on semi-automatic assault
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Hillary Clinton to face skeptical Congress on Libya attack

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton faces tough questions in her long-awaited congressional testimony concerning the assault on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. Clinton is the sole witness Wednesday at back-to-back hearings before the Senate and House foreign policy panels on the September raid, an independent panel’s review that harshly criticized the State Department and the steps the Obama administration is taking to beef up security at U.S. facilities worldwide. Clinton had been scheduled to testify before Congress last month, but an illness, a concussion and a blood clot
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Debt limit vote vote set for House; Obama expected to sign

A measure to extend the U.S. debt limit for nearly four months moved closer on Tuesday to a vote and the White House said the president would sign the bill if it cleared Congress, easing uncertainty that could have threatened the U.S. economy. The debt limit “suspension,” which would allow the government to borrow money until May 19, is due to come to a vote in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives on Wednesday without amendments. House Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions of Texas said he believed the measure would achieve “near unanimous support” from the House Republican caucus, which would
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Gay activists: Nice talk Mr. President, now where’s the action?

President Barack Obama’s emphatic gay-rights advocacy in his inaugural address thrilled many activists. Yet almost immediately came the questions and exhortations as to what steps should be taken next. “I was very moved,” said Jon Davidson, legal director of the gay-rights group Lambda Legal. “But there’s a lot more to do in the four years to come. … It’s not like everything is fine.” Items on the activists’ wish list include appointment of America’s first openly gay Cabinet member, steps to curtail unequal treatment of same-sex couples in the military and an executive order barring federal contractors from workplace discrimination
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Obama promises tough, liberal stance on fiscal issues

President Barack Obama devoted one word — “deficit” — to the issue that brought Washington to the brink of fiscal crises time and again during his first term. But it was the paragraph that followed in his inaugural address that foreshadowed what’s to come — more hard bargaining and more last-minute deals driven by Obama’s own conviction that he now wields an upper hand. “We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit. But we reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this
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House GOP wants vote to extend debt limit until May 19

Republican leaders in the House of Representatives have scheduled a vote on Wednesday on a nearly four-month extension of U.S. borrowing capacity, but the bill does not specify a dollar amount. Legislative language released by the House Rules Committee on Monday said the bill aims “to ensure complete and timely payment of the obligations of the United States Government until May 19, 2013.” The legislation is a strategic move by House Republicans to avoid a fight over the looming federal debt ceiling and shift their negotiating leverage for spending cuts to other fiscal deadlines. The U.S. Treasury expects to exhaust
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Smaller crowds but same excitement for Obama’s second time around

Schoolteacher Patricia Cooper gazed out at the many hundreds of thousands of people lining the National Mall, moments after Barack Obama had been sworn in for the second time as president. “The media kept saying there were going to be so many fewer people,” said Cooper, 51, from Upper Marlboro, Md. “But look out there!” she beamed. “We still have a pretty big crowd.” True, the crowd was roughly half that of Obama’s momentous inauguration in 2009, and the sense of history, and pure excitement, far less potent. But despite a more sober national mood, there was plenty of enthusiasm
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