U.S. evolves on same-sex marriage


  • The president and the nation have shifted perspectives on same-sex marriage

  • Supreme Court ruling on California's same-sex marriage ban a critical test

  • Growing public support for gay marriage give proponents hope for change

Washington (CNN) -- The nation's growing acceptance of same-sex marriage has happened in slow and painstaking moves, eventually building into a momentum that is sweeping even the most unlikely of converts.

Even though he said in 2008 that he could only support civil unions for same-sex couples, President Barack Obama nonetheless enjoyed strong support among the gay community. He disappointed many with his conspicuously subdued first-term response to the same-sex marriage debate.

Last year, after Vice President Joe Biden announced his support, the president then said his position had evolved and he, too, supported same-sex marriage.

So it was no small matter when on Thursday the Obama administration formally expressed its support of same-sex marriage in a court brief weighing in on California's Proposition 8, which bans same-sex weddings. The administration's effort was matched by at least 100 high-profile Republicans — some of whom in elections past depended on gay marriage as a wedge issue guaranteed to rally the base — who signed onto a brief supporting gay couples to legally wed.

Obama on same-sex marriage: Everyone is equal

Then there are the polls that show that an increasing number of Americans now support same-sex marriage. These polls show that nearly half of the nation's Catholics and white, mainstream Protestants and more than half of the nation's women, liberals and political moderates all support same-sex marriage.

According to Pew Research Center polling, 48% of Americans support same-sex marriage with 43% opposed. Back in 2001, 57% opposed same-sex marriage while 35% supported it.

In last year's presidential election, same-sex marriage scarcely raised a ripple. That sea change is not lost on the president.

"The same evolution I've gone through is the same evolution the country as a whole has gone through," Obama told reporters on Friday.

Craig Rimmerman, professor of public policy and political science at Hobart and William Smith colleges says there is history at work here and the administration is wise to get on the right side.

"There is no doubt that President Obama's shifting position on Proposition 8 and same-sex marriage more broadly is due to his desire to situate himself on the right side of history with respect to the fight over same-sex marriage," said Rimmerman, author of "From Identity to Politics: The Lesbian and Gay Movements in the United States."

"I also think that broader changes in public opinion showing greater support for same-sex marriage, especially among young people, but in the country at large as well, has created a cultural context for Obama to alter his views."

For years, Obama had frustrated many in the gay community by not offering full-throated support of same-sex marriage. However, the president's revelation last year that conversations with his daughters and friends led him to change his mind gave many in that community hope.

Last year, the Obama administration criticized a measure in North Carolina that banned same-sex marriage and made civil unions illegal. The president took the same position on a similar Minnesota proposal.

Obama administration officials point to what they see as the administration's biggest accomplishment in the gay rights cause: repealing "don't ask, don't tell," the military's ban on openly gay and lesbian members serving in the forces.

Then there was the president's inaugural address which placed the gay community's struggle for equality alongside similar civil rights fights by women and African-Americans.

"Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law, for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal, as well," Obama said in his address after being sworn in.

In offering its support and asserting in the brief that "prejudice may not be the basis for differential treatment under the law," the Obama administration is setting up a high stakes political and constitutional showdown at the U.S. Supreme Court over a fast-evolving and contentious issue.

The justices will hear California's Proposition 8 case in March. That case and another appeal over the federal Defense of Marriage Act will produce blockbuster rulings from the justices in coming months.

Beyond the legal wranglings there is a strong social and historic component, one that has helped open the way for the administration to push what could prove to be a social issue that defines Obama's second term legacy, Rimmerman said.

The nation is redefining itself on this issue, as well.

Pew survey: Changing attitudes on gay marriage

The changes are due, in part, to generational shifts. Younger people show a higher level of support than their older peers, according to Pew polling "Millennials are almost twice as likely as the Silent Generation to support same-sex marriage."

"As people have grown up with people having the right to marry the generational momentum has been very, very strong," said Evan Wolfson, president of Freedom to Marry, a gay rights organization.

That is not to say that there isn't still opposition.

Pew polling found that most Republicans and conservatives remain opposed to same-sex marriage. In 2001, 21% of Republicans were supportive; in 2012 that number nudged slightly to 25%.

Conservative groups expressed dismay at the administration's same-sex marriage support.

"President Obama, who was against same-sex 'marriage' before he was for it, and his administration, which said the Defense of Marriage Act was constitutional before they said it was unconstitutional, has now flip-flopped again on the issue of same-sex 'marriage,' putting allegiance to extreme liberal social policies ahead of constitutional principle," Family Research Council President Tony Perkins said in a statement.

But there are signs of movement even among some high profile Republican leaders

Top Republicans sign brief supporting same-sex marriage

The Republican-penned friend of the court brief, which is designed to influence conservative justices on the high court, includes a number of top officials from the George W. Bush administration, Mitt Romney's former campaign manager and former GOP presidential candidate Jon Huntsman.

It is also at odds with the Republican Party's platform, which opposes same-sex marriage and defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

Still, with White House and high-profile Republican support, legal and legislative victories in a number of states and polls that show an increasing number of Americans support same sex-marriage, proponents feel that the winds of history are with them.

"What we've seen is accelerating and irrefutable momentum as Americans have come to understand who gay people are and why marriage matters," Wolfson said. "We now have a solid national majority and growing support across every demographic. We have leaders across the spectrum, including Republicans, all saying it's time to end marriage discrimination."

CNN's Peter Hamby, Ashley Killough and Bill Mears contributed to this report.

Read More..

Man slain on way to dialysis treatment: police

WGN-TV: Man fatally shot while waiting for ride to dialysis treatment.

A 72-year-old man was shot and killed in his gangway on the Far South Side early Saturday morning as he left a home for dialysis treatment.

The man's grandson was inside and heard the shots that killed his grandfather, who was identified by family and the Cook County medical examiner's office as William Strickland, of the 400 block of East 95th Street.

The man was shot about 3:30 a.m. and pronounced dead about 4 a.m., according to authorities.

The motive appears to be robbery, police said, but detectives are still investigating.

Detectives remained at the scene, across from Chicago State University, into the morning.

Police taped off the northeast corner of 95th Street and Eberhart Avenue, surrounding the two houses between which the man was killed.

Neighbors said Strickland had lived in the neighborhood for more than 30 years. He was described as friendly and willing to lend a helping hand, neighbors and friends said.

"He was just there for us," said Theolene Shears, 84, who has lived in the area since 1965. "He was a very nice neighbor. We couldn't ask for a better neighbor."

Shears said she was inside her home when she heard the shots.

"All I heard was three shots. Bang, bang, bang," she said.

Strickland, who went to dialysis three times a week, had been undergoing treatment for about five years, Shears said.

"He seemed to be very happy about it. The way he talked it was like a little social club," Shears said, adding that he eased her own concerns about potentially having to receive treatment.

He preferred to go early on Saturdays to get it out of the way, she said.

Strickland leaves behind a daughter, three grandchildren and a pet Chihuahua, said Shears.

"He was a good man," said Joshua Miles, 14, a friend of the family "He would help you out if you needed help."

"He always kept you laughing," he said.

Twitter: @peternickeas

Twitter: @nsnix87.com

Read More..

Strong data lifts Wall Street, trumps sequester fears

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Stocks edged higher on Friday as strong economic figures more than offset growth concerns out of China and Europe and as investors shrugged off expected across-the-board U.S. goverment spending cuts.

Stocks opened sharply lower as Asian factories slowed and European output fell, but most of the losses disappeared after a report showed U.S. manufacturing activity expanded last month at its fastest clip in 20 months.

U.S. consumer confidence also rose in February as Americans turned more optimistic about the job market.

With government budget cuts set to begin on Friday, President Barack Obama blamed Republicans for failure to reach a compromise to avert the cuts, known as sequester. Investors, who have had plenty of time to prepare, appeared not too worried about the immediate impact.

"Despite the headlines, the drama and the finger pointing, the U.S. economy can still expand and as long as you see expansion, (equity) markets can go higher," said Quincy Krosby, market strategist at Prudential Financial in Newark, New Jersey.

Krosby said the market was also looking ahead to next week's government payrolls report. A stronger jobs market points to stronger consumer spending, an important component for economic growth. Separately, a government report on Friday said consumer spending rose in January as Americans spent more on services.

The Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> rose 38.09 points or 0.27 percent, to 14,092.58, the S&P 500 <.spx> gained 3.4 points or 0.22 percent, to 1,518.08 and the Nasdaq Composite <.ixic> added 7.68 points or 0.24 percent, to 3,167.87.

For the week so far, the Dow is up 0.7 percent while the Nasdaq and S&P are up 0.2 percent.

Equities continue to attract investors in an environment of low interest rates due to an accommodative monetary policy. The Dow is less than 1 percent away from its all-time intraday high of 14,198.10. Declines have been shallow and short-lived, with investors jumping in to buy on dips.

Intuitive Surgical jumped 8.3 percent to $552.18 after Cantor Fitzgerald analyst Jeremy Feffer upgraded the stock, saying the more than 11 percent slide in the stock on Thursday was a gross overreaction to a news report.

Groupon Inc surged 9 percent to $4.94 a day after the online coupon company fired its chief executive officer in the wake of weak quarterly results.

Gap Inc rose 2.7 percent to $33.81 after reporting fourth-quarter earnings that beat expectations and boosting its dividend by 20 percent, while Salesforce.com Inc posted sales that beat forecasts, sending shares up 7.2 percent to $181.41.

Chesapeake Energy Corp fell 1.7 percent to $19.81 after the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission escalated its investigation into the company and its Chief Executive Aubrey McClendon for a controversial perk that granted him a share in each of the natural gas producer's wells.

(Reporting by Rodrigo Campos; Editing by Kenneth Barry)

Read More..

Frustrated McIlroy walks off course at Honda

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. (AP) — Rory McIlroy abruptly walked off the course Friday at the Honda Classic, telling reporters who followed him to his car he's "not in a good place mentally."

He later said it was more dental than mental, releasing a statement that he couldn't concentrate because of a sore wisdom tooth.

The surprising departure raised serious questions about golf's No. 1 player with the Masters just more than a month away. McIlroy has played only four rounds in three tournaments this year, and this was a clear sign of frustration.

McIlroy was asked three times if anything was wrong physically and said there was not.

"There's not really much I can say, guys," he told three reporters before he drove away. "I'm not in a good place mentally, you know."

McIlroy already was 7-over par through eight holes of the second round when he hit his second shot into the water on the par-5 18th at PGA National. He shook hands with Ernie Els and Mark Wilson and was headed to the parking lot before they even finished the hole.

Els also hit into the water on the 18th and was complaining to a rules official about the muddy conditions of the fairway when he realized McIlroy was through.

"I was dropping my ball and I realized he wasn't dropping his ball," Els said. "I thought maybe his ball crossed further up (the hazard). When I hit my fourth shot, he just came up and said, 'Here's my card. I'm out of here.'"

About an hour after he left, McIlroy released a statement that pinned his withdrawal on dental problems.

"I have been suffering with a sore wisdom tooth, which is due to come out in the near future," McIlroy said. "It began bothering me again last night, so I relieved it with Advil. It was very painful again this morning, and I was simply unable to concentrate. It was really bothering me and had begun to affect my playing partners."

He was seen eating a sandwich on the 18th fairway.

McIlroy apologized to the tournament, saying he had every intention of defending his title at the Honda Classic. He said on Twitter he was "gutted."

"I'm a great fan of Rory's, but I don't think that was the right thing to do," Els said.

Told about McIlroy's statement about the sore wisdom tooth, Els softened his stance, not wanting to judge another player's pain.

"I didn't see anything, but if he had a toothache, that's what it is, you know?" Els said. "Hey, it's tough. If you ask him how he's feeling now, he's obviously feeling terrible for what's happened this morning."

"I didn't notice anything," Wilson said. "He wasn't playing the way the world No. 1 plays normally. Didn't hit the ball where he wanted to, and he's a true gentleman, though. He ... wasn't treating Ernie and myself in a different way. He was upset with his golf and I guess he had enough for the week."

McIlroy, coming off a year in which he won a second major in record fashion, already set himself up for scrutiny when he left Titleist to sign an equipment deal with Nike that was said to be worth upward of $20 million a year.

Nike introduced him with blaring music and a laser show in Abu Dhabi, but it's been all downhill from there.

McIlroy missed the cut in the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship with rounds of 75-75. He took a four-week break, and then was eliminated in the opening round of the Match Play Championship to Shane Lowry in one of the most poorly played matches of the round.

McIlroy played 36 holes with Tiger Woods at The Medalist on Sunday and said Tuesday it was no time to panic.

"Even though my results haven't revealed it, I really felt like I was rounding a corner," McIlroy said. "This is one of my favorite tournaments of the year and I regret having to make the decision to withdraw, but it was one I had to make."

It looked more like McIlroy was sinking than rounding the corner, not difficult to do on a course with so many water hazards. And he found plenty of them.

McIlroy, who opened with a 70, hit two poor chips that led to double bogey on No. 11, and a wild tee shot to the right led to a bogey on the 13th. His round really unraveled on the par-4 16th, when he hit his tee shot to the right and into the water, took a penalty drop and then came up short of the green and into the water again. He made a 6-foot putt for a triple bogey.

He three-putted from 40 feet, running his first putt about 10 feet by the hole, for a bogey to go 7 over. And then came the approach on the 18th that found water for the third time on his short day.

McIlroy is scheduled to play next week in the Cadillac Championship at Doral, which has no cut, and then the Houston Open. But on the first day of March, he has completed only four rounds of competition.

Els said the attention on McIlroy was sure to increase.

"I didn't think much of the equipment change. We've all made equipment changes before," said Els, who has used three brands of clubs to win majors. "I think there was a bit of criticism somewhere, and then I think he's furthering responding to that, and I think he's got a bit of pressure coming on him that way. I thought he played quite well yesterday. I thought he was pretty close to playing good golf, and unfortunately this morning ... hopefully he gets it together. We've got next week, got four rounds there. Such a talented player, he'll get it figured out."

It was the second straight year one of golf's biggest stars failed to finish a tournament on the Florida swing. Woods withdrew after 11 holes on the final round at Doral last year because of tightness in his Achilles tendon, raising questions about the seriousness of his recurring leg injuries. He won Bay Hill two weeks later.

McIlroy at least drove off from PGA National without a helicopter camera following him.

Read More..

Syria war is everybody's problem

Syrians search for survivors and bodies after the Syrian regime attacked the city of Aleppo with missiles on February 23.


  • Frida Ghitis: We are standing by as Syria rips itself apart, thinking it's not our problem

  • Beyond the tragedy in human terms, she says, the war damages global stability

  • Ghitis: Syria getting more and more radical, jeopardizing forces of democracy

  • Ghitis: Peace counts on moderates, whom we must back with diplomacy, training arms

Editor's note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review. A former CNN producer and correspondent, she is the author of "The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television." Follow her on Twitter: @FridaGColumns

(CNN) -- Last week, a huge explosion rocked the Syrian capital of Damascus, killing more than 50 people and injuring hundreds. The victims of the blast in a busy downtown street were mostly civilians, including schoolchildren. Each side in the Syrian civil war blamed the other.

In the northern city of Aleppo, about 58 people -- 36 of them children -- died in a missile attack last week. Washington condemned the regime of Bashar al-Assad; the world looked at the awful images and moved on.

Syria is ripping itself to pieces. The extent of human suffering is beyond comprehension. That alone should be reason enough to encourage a determined effort to bring this conflict to a quick resolution. But if humanitarian reasons were not enough, the international community -- including the U.S. and its allies -- should weigh the potential implications of allowing this calamity to continue.

Frida Ghitis

Frida Ghitis

We've all heard the argument: It's not our problem. We're not the world's policeman. We would only make it worse.

This is not a plea to send American or European troops to fight in this conflict. Nobody wants that.

But before we allow this mostly hands-off approach to continue, we would do well to consider the potential toll of continuing with a failed policy, one that has focused in vain over the past two years searching for a diplomatic solution.

U. S. Secretary of State John Kerry has just announced that the U.S. will provide an additional $60 million in non-lethal assistance to the opposition. He has hinted that President Obama, after rejecting suggestions from the CIA and previous Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to arm Syrian rebels, might be ready to change course. And not a day too soon.

The war is taking longer than anyone expected. The longer it lasts, the more Syria is radicalized and the region is destabilized.

If you think the Syrian war is the concern of Syrians alone, think about other countries that have torn themselves apart over a long time. Consider Lebanon, Afghanistan or Somalia; each with unique circumstances, but with one thing in common: Their wars created enormous suffering at home, and the destructiveness eventually spilled beyond their borders. All of those wars triggered lengthy, costly refugee crises. They all spawned international terrorism and eventually direct international -- including U.S. -- intervention.

The uprising against al-Assad started two years ago in the spirit of what was then referred to -- without a hint of irony -- as the Arab Spring. Young Syrians marched, chanting for freedom and democracy. The ideals of equality, rule of law and human rights wafted in the air.

Al-Assad responded to peaceful protests with gunfire. Syrians started dying by the hundreds each day. Gradually the nonviolent protesters started fighting back. Members of the Syrian army started defecting.

The opposition's Free Syrian Army came together. Factions within the Syrian opposition took up arms and the political contest became a brutal civil war. The death toll has climbed to as many as 90,000, according to Kerry. About 2 million people have left their homes, and the killing continues with no end in sight.

In fairness to Washington, Europe and the rest of the international community, there were never easy choices in this war. Opposition leaders bickered, and their clashing views scared away would-be supporters. Western nations rejected the idea of arming the opposition, saying Syria already has too many weapons. They were also concerned about who would control the weaponry, including an existing arsenal of chemical and biological weapons, after al-Assad's fall.

These are all legitimate concerns. But inaction is producing the worst possible outcome.

The moderates, whose views most closely align with the West, are losing out to the better-armed Islamists and, especially, to the extremists. Moderates are losing the ideological debate and the battle for the future character of a Syria after al-Assad.

Radical Islamist groups have taken the lead. Young people are losing faith in moderation, lured by disciplined, devout extremists. Reporters on the ground have seen young democracy advocates turn into fervent supporters of dangerous groups such as the Nusra Front, which has scored impressive victories.

The U.S. State Department recently listed the Nusra Front, which has close ties to al Qaeda in Iraq and a strong anti-Western ideology, as a terrorist organization.

Meantime, countries bordering Syria are experiencing repercussions. And these are likely to become more dangerous.

Jordan, an important American ally, is struggling with a flood of refugees, as many as 10,000 each week since the start of the year. The government estimates 380,000 Syrians are in Jordan, a country whose government is under pressure from its own restive population and still dealing with huge refugee populations from other wars.

Turkey is also burdened with hundreds of thousands of refugees and occasional Syrian fire. Israel has warned about chemical weapons transfers from al-Assad to Hezbollah in Lebanon and may have already fired on a Syrian convoy attempting the move.

Lebanon, always perched precariously on the edge of crisis, lives with growing fears that Syria's war will enter its borders. Despite denials, there is evidence that Lebanon's Hezbollah, a close ally of al-Assad and of Iran, has joined the fighting on the side of the Syrian president. The Free Syrian Army has threatened to attack Hezbollah in Lebanon if it doesn't leave Syria.

The possible outcomes in Syria include the emergence of a failed state, stirring unrest throughout the region. If al-Assad wins, Syria will become an even more repressive country.

Al-Assad's survival would fortify Iran and Hezbollah and other anti-Western forces. If the extremists inside the opposition win, Syria could see factional fighting for many years, followed by anti-democratic, anti-Western policies.

The only good outcome is victory for the opposition's moderate forces. They may not be easy to identify with complete certainty. But to the extent that it is possible, these forces need Western support.

They need training, funding, careful arming and strong political and diplomatic backing. The people of Syria should know that support for human rights, democracy and pluralism will lead toward a peaceful, prosperous future.

Democratic nations should not avert their eyes from the killings in Syria which are, after all, a warning to the world.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Frida Ghitis.

Read More..

Fiscal talks fail, U.S. stumbles toward steep cuts

The U.S. government stumbled headlong on Friday toward wide-ranging spending cuts that threaten to hinder the economic recovery, after President Barack Obama and congressional leaders failed to find an alternative budget plan.

The cuts, locked in during a bout of deficit-reduction fever in 2011, can only be halted by agreement between Congress and the White House.

A deal proved elusive in talks at the White House on Friday, meaning that government agencies will now begin to hack a total of $85 billion from their budgets between Saturday and October 1. Financial markets in New York shrugged off the stalemate in Washington.

Democrats predict these cuts could soon cause air traffic delays, furloughs for hundreds of thousands of federal employees and disruption to education and law enforcement.

The full brunt of the automatic cuts will be borne over seven months, and Congress can stop them at any time if the two parties agree on how to do so.

But Obama was resigned to budgets shrinking.

"Even with these cuts in place, folks all across this country will work hard to make sure that we keep the recovery going, but Washington sure isn't making it easy," he said after meeting Republican and Democratic congressional leaders.

Given the absence of a deal, Obama is required by midnight to issue an order to federal agencies to reduce their budgets in a process known as "sequestration." The White House budget office must send a report to Congress detailing the spending cuts.

The Dow Jones Industrials were up 45 points after midday, recovering from earlier losses on encouraging manufacturing data.


In coming days, federal agencies are likely to issue 30-day notices to workers who will be furloughed.

"Not everyone will feel the pain of these cuts right away. The pain though will be real. Beginning this week, many middle class families will have their lives disrupted in significant ways," Obama told journalists in the White House.

"We will get through this. This is not going to be an apocalypse," he said.

Democrats insist that the solution include bringing in additional revenue through closing what they call tax loopholes that largely benefit the wealthy and U.S. corporations. Republicans reject this approach.

"The discussion about revenue, in my view, is over. It's about taking on the spending problem," House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner said on leaving the meeting.

Moving to head off a new budget crisis later this month, Boehner said the Republican-led House would move a "continuing resolution" to fund government through the rest of the fiscal year. "I'm hopeful that we won't have to deal with the threat of a government shutdown," he said.

The International Monetary Fund warns that the cuts could slow U.S. economic growth by at least 0.5 of a percentage point this year, hitting the global economy.

The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office predicts 750,000 jobs could be lost in 2013 and federal employees throughout the country are looking to trim their own costs.

"The kids won't go to the dentist, the kids might not go to the doctor, we won't be spending money in local restaurants, local movie theaters," said Paul O'Connor, president of the Metal Trades Council, which represents some 2,500 workers at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine.

In the absence of any deal at all, the Pentagon will be forced to slice 13 percent of its budget between now and September 30. Most non-defense programs, from NASA space exploration to federally backed education and law enforcement, face a 9 percent reduction.

Both sides still hope the other will either be blamed by voters for the cuts or cave in before the worst effects predicted by Democrats come into effect.

No matter how Obama and Congress resolve the 2013 battle, this round of automatic spending cuts is only one of a decade's worth of annual cuts totaling $1.2 trillion mandated by the sequestration law.

Read More..

Wall Street drifts after two-day run, Dow record in sight

NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. stocks edged higher on Thursday with investors hard-pressed to lift indexes to multi-year highs despite strong economic data.

The U.S. economy ticked up in the fourth quarter, reversing an earlier estimate showing contraction, and a drop in new claims for unemployment benefits last week added to a string of data that suggests the economy improved early this year.

Still, the positive revision to GDP data was expected and the claims continue a trend that is baked into prices. The market lacks catalysts as it digests its recent move higher, according to Kevin Caron, market strategist at Stifel, Nicolaus & Co in Florham Park, New Jersey, where he helps oversee $120 billion in assets under management.

"That's why I think you're seeing a fairly listless trading environment today," Caron said.

The Dow was within striking distance of a record high after a more than 7 percent year-to-date run. The Dow transports index <.djt>, seen as a bet on future growth, is up almost 13 percent this year and hit a record intraday high Thursday before turning slightly negative.

The Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> rose 14.79 points or 0.11 percent, to 14,090.16, the S&P 500 <.spx> gained 3.12 points or 0.21 percent, to 1,519.11 and the Nasdaq Composite <.ixic> added 9.13 points or 0.29 percent, to 3,171.39.

The Dow's intraday record, set October 11, 2007, stands at 14,198.10.

The S&P 500 has gained more than 2 percent in the past three sessions.

Equity markets suffered steep losses earlier in the week on concerns over the impact of an Italian election on the European economy, but bounced back on strong data and recent comments by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke that showed continued support for the Fed's economic stimulus policy.

J.C. Penney Co Inc slumped 17.9 percent to $17.38 after the department store reported a steep drop in sales on Wednesday. Groupon Inc also slumped on weak revenue, with the stock off 20 percent at $4.76.

Cablevision shares tumbled nearly 10 percent after the cable provider took a $100 million hit on costs related to Superstorm Sandy and posted deeper video customer losses than expected.

Mylan Inc shares were on track to close at their highest ever after the generic drugmaker posted a 25 percent rise in fourth-quarter profit and said it will buy a unit of India's Strides Arcolab Ltd. Shares were last up 3.8 percent at $29.66.

Investors were keeping an eye on the debate in Washington over U.S. government budget cuts that will take effect starting Friday if lawmakers fail to reach agreement on spending and taxes. President Barack Obama and Republican congressional leaders arranged last-ditch talks to prevent the cuts, but expectations were low that any deal would emerge.

With 93 percent of the S&P 500 companies having reported results so far, 69.5 percent have beaten profit expectations, compared with a 62 percent average since 1994 and 65 percent over the past four quarters, according to Thomson Reuters data.

Fourth-quarter earnings for S&P 500 companies are estimated to have risen 6.2 percent, according to the data, above a 1.9 percent forecast at the start of the earnings season.

(Reporting by Rodrigo Campos, additional reporting by Ryan Vlastelica; Editing by Nick Zieminski)

Read More..

Syria war is everybody's problem


  • NEW: The European Union clears the way for nonlethal aid to Syrian rebels

  • NEW: Britain's foreign secretary says the UK will announce new aid soon

  • The U.S. announced food and medical aid to fighters, plus $60 million in administrative aid

  • Aid is needed because of Syrian regime's "continued brutality," U.S. secretary of state says

Rome (CNN) -- The United States stepped further into Syria's civil war Thursday, promising rebel fighters food and medical supplies -- but not weapons -- for the first time in the two-year conflict that has claimed more than 60,000 lives and laid waste to large portions of the country.

Secretary of State John Kerry said the aid would help fighters in the high-stakes effort to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a conflict that has already spawned an enormous humanitarian crisis as refugees flee the fighting.

The ongoing fighting also poses the persistent threat of widening into a destabilizing regional crisis, including concerns that Hezbollah, Iran or others could gain control in Damascus after al-Assad's government falls.

"The United States' decision to take further steps now is the result of the continued brutality of a superior armed force propped up by foreign fighters from Iran and Hezbollah, all of which threatens to destroy Syria," Kerry said after meeting opposition leaders in Rome.

Kerry didn't say how much that aid would be worth, but did announce that the United States would separately give $60 million to local groups working with the Syrian National Council to provide political administration and basic services in rebel-controlled areas of Syria.

READ: U.S. weighing nonlethal aid to Syrian opposition

That's on top of $50 million in similar aid the United States has previously pledged to the council, as well as $385 million in humanitarian assistance, Kerry said.

"This funding will allow the opposition to reach out and help the local councils to be able to rebuild in their liberated areas of Syria so that they can provide basic services to people who so often lack access today to medical care, to food, to sanitation," he said.

Islamist Influence

That aid is partly an effort to hem in radical Islamist groups vying for influence in Syria after the fall of al-Assad, a senior State Department official told CNN.

"If the Syrian opposition coalition can't touch, improve and heal the lives of Syrians in those places that have been freed, then extremists will step in and do it," the official said.

Sheikh Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, president of the Syrian National Council, said concerns about Islamist influence had been overstated.

"We stand against every radical belief that aims to target Syria's diverse social and religious fabric," he said.

READ: Inside Syria: Exclusive look at pro-Assad Christian militia

U.S. officials hope the aid will help the coalition show what it can do and encourage al-Assad supporters to "peel away from him" and help end the fighting, the official said.

The opposition council will decide where the money goes, Kerry said.

But the United States will send technical advisers through its partners to the group's Cairo headquarters to make sure the aid is being used properly, the senior State Department official said.

Additional aid possible

The European Council carved out an exception in its sanctions against Syria on Thursday to allow for the transfer of nonlethal equipment and technical assistance for civilian protection only.

The council didn't specify what kind of equipment could be involved.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Friday on Twitter that his country would be pledging new aid because "we cannot stand still while the crisis worsens and thousands of lives are at stake."

In the United States, President Barack Obama is thinking about training rebels and equipping them with defensive gear such as night vision goggles, body armor and military vehicles, according to sources familiar with the discussions.

The training would help rebels decide how to use their resources, strategize and maybe train a police force to take over after al-Assad's fall, one of the sources said.

READ: Syrian army in Homs is showing strains of war

Kerry did not announce that sort of aid Thursday, but said the United States and other countries backing the rebels would "continue to consult with each other on an urgent basis."

An official who briefed reporters said the opposition has raised a lot of needs in the Rome meetings and the administration will continue to "keep those under review."

"We will do this with vetted individuals, vetted units, so it has to be done carefully and appropriately," the official said.

Humanitarian crisis

The conflict began with demands for political reform after the Arab Spring movement that swept the Middle East and Africa, but descended into a brutal civil war when the al-Assad regime began a brutal crackdown on demonstrators.

At least 60,000 people have died since the fighting began in March 2011, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said in early January.

Another 940,000 had fled the country as of Tuesday, while more than one in 10 of Syria's 20 million residents have been forced to move elsewhere inside the country because of the fighting, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said.

The situation is nearing crisis proportions, with the dramatic influx of refugees threatening to break the ability of host nations to provide for their needs, Assistant High Commissioner Erika Feller told the U.N. Human Rights Council on Tuesday

"The host states, including Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Egypt and the North African countries, have been exemplary in their different ways, but we fear the pressure will start to overwhelm their capacities," she told the council, according to a text of her remarks posted on the United Nations website.

Al-Khatib said it's time for the fighting to stop.

"I ask Bashar al-Assad for once, just once, to behave as a human being," he said. "Enough massacres, enough killings. Enough of your bloodshed and enough torture. I urge you to make a rational decision once in your life and end the killings."

READ: Syrian war is everybody's problem

Jill Dougherty reported from Rome, and Michael Pearson reported and wrote from Atlanta. CNN's Elise Labott also contributed to this report.

Read More..

Pope Benedict quits Vatican with promise to obey successor

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Benedict left the Vatican on Thursday after pledging unconditional obedience to whoever succeeds him to guide the Roman Catholic Church at one of the most crisis-ridden periods in its 2,000-year history.

The first pope in six centuries to step down, Benedict flew off in a white Italian air force helicopter for the papal summer villa south of the capital where he took up temporary residence.

As the helicopter took off, he sent his last message on Twitter: "Thank you for your love and support. May you always experience the joy that comes from putting Christ at the center of your lives".

Bells rang out from St Peter's Basilica and churches all over Rome as the helicopter circled Vatican City and flew over the Colosseum and other landmarks to give the pontiff one last view of the city where he is also bishop.

"As you know, today is different to previous ones," he told an emotional, cheering crowd holding balloons and banners after he arrived in the small town of Castel Gandolfo.

"I will only be the supreme pontiff of the Catholic Church until 8 p.m and then no longer. I will simply be a pilgrim who is starting the last phase of his pilgrimage on this earth."

He then turned and went inside the villa, never to be seen again as pope.

"I wanted to see him for the last time. I hope his successor follows in his footsteps. I feel very moved to be here," said Giuseppe Ercolino, a 19-year-old student from a nearby town.

In an emotional farewell to cardinals on Thursday morning in the Vatican's frescoed Sala Clementina, Benedict appeared to send a strong message to the top echelons of the Church as well as the faithful to remain united behind his successor, whoever he is.

"I will continue to be close to you in prayer, especially in the next few days, so that you are fully accepting of the action of the Holy Spirit in the election of the new pope," he said. "May the Lord show you what he wants. Among you there is the future pope, to whom I today declare my unconditional reverence and obedience."

The pledge, made ahead of the closed-doors conclave where cardinals will elect his successor, was significant because for the first time in history, there will be a reigning pope and a former pope living side by side in the Vatican.

Some Church scholars worry that if the next pope undoes some of Benedict's policies while his predecessor is still alive, Benedict could act as a lightning rod for conservatives and polarize the 1.2 billion-member Church.

Before boarding the helicopter, Pope Benedict said goodbye to monsignors, nuns, Vatican staff and Swiss guards in the San Damaso courtyard of the Holy See's apostolic palace. Many of his staff had tears in their eyes as the helicopter left.

Benedict will spend the first few months of his retirement in the papal summer residence, a complex of villas boasting lush gardens, a farm and stunning views over Lake Albano in the volcanic crater below the town.

Benedict will stay until April when renovations are completed on a convent in the Vatican that will be his new home.


With the election of the next pope taking place in the wake of sexual abuse scandals, leaks of his private papers by his butler, falling membership and demands for a greater role for women, many in the Church believe it would benefit from a fresh face from a non-European country.

A number of cardinals from the developing world, including Ghanaian Peter Turkson and Antonio Tagle of the Philippines are two names often mentioned as leading candidates from the developing world who listen more.

"At the past two conclaves, the cardinals elected the smartest man in the room. Now, it may be time to choose a man who will listen to all the other smart people in the Church," said Father Tom Resse, a historian and senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University.

Read More..

Wall Street climbs on Bernanke, economic data

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Stocks rose 1 percent on Wednesday as Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke remained steadfast in his support of the Fed's stimulus policy and data pointed to economic improvement.

In his second day before a congressional committee, Bernanke repeated testimony in which he defended the Fed's policy of buying bonds to keep interest rates low in order to promote growth and bring down the unemployment rate.

Adding to the positive tone was economic data which showed a gauge of planned U.S. business spending in January recorded its largest increase in just over a year and contracts to buy new homes neared a three-year high last month.

Bernanke's remarks supporting the Fed's stance before a Senate panel on Tuesday helped the market rebound from its worst decline since November. The S&P 500 <.spx> is now back above 1,500, a closely watched level that has been technical support until recently.

"By and large you can track the turn in the market yesterday and today with Bernanke. He is just adamant," said Keith Bliss, senior vice-president at Cuttone & Co in New York.

"It doesn't matter what the Fed minutes tell you, he is going to keep refilling the punch bowl until we get unemployment down below 6 percent."

The S&P 500 had climbed 6 percent for the year and came within reach of all-time highs before the minutes from the Fed's January meeting were released last Wednesday and raised questions about whether the Fed may slow or halt its economy-stimulating measures soon.

An Italian bond auction that drew solid demand reassured investors after this week's inconclusive elections in Italy, which rekindled fears of a new euro zone debt crisis.

The Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> gained 140.15 points, or 1.01 percent, to 14,040.28. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.spx> climbed 16.80 points, or 1.12 percent, to 1,513.74. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.ixic> advanced 38.18 points, or 1.22 percent, to 3,167.82.

In earnings news, discount retailer Target Corp appeared poised for a solid showing in the first quarter and forecast a higher profit for the full year after a weak performance in the key holiday season. The stock dipped 1 percent to $63.44.

But Dollar Tree Inc jumped 12.5 percent to $46.21 after reporting a higher quarterly profit as shoppers spent more and the chain controlled costs.

TJX Cos Inc advanced 1.7 percent to $44.40 after the owner of the low-price T.J. Maxx and Marshalls chains posted higher fourth-quarter results and said it plans to expand its chains abroad and domestically this year and introduce e-commerce.

The S&P retail index <.spxrt> climbed 1.6 percent.

With 93 percent of the S&P 500 companies having reported results so far, 69.5 percent beat profit expectations, compared with a 62 percent average since 1994 and 65 percent over the past four quarters, according to Thomson Reuters data.

Fourth-quarter earnings for S&P 500 companies are estimated to have risen 6.2 percent, according to the data, above a 1.9 percent forecast at the start of the earnings season.

(Reporting by Chuck Mikolajczak; Editing by Kenneth Barry)

Read More..