WASHINGTON – Beware of politicians quoting poll numbers. That was one lesson from the White House health policy conference Thursday as lawmakers in both parties cherry-picked survey results, ignored contrary findings and presented public opinion, which is highly nuanced on these questions, as a slam-dunk.
Claims, counterclaims and statistics flew through the room in the daylong talkfest by President Barack Obama and lawmakers from both parties. Some didn’t hold up to the facts. Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada suggested his party hasn’t been preparing to do an end-run around the normal legislative process to pass a health care bill, when in reality this option is very much in play. Obama squabbled with a Republican senator over what his initiative might do to health premiums, and had a superior command of the facts.
A look at some statements in the meeting and how they compare with reality:
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky: “I think it is not irrelevant that the American people, if you average out of all of the polls, are opposed to this bill by 55-37. And we know from a USA Today-Gallup poll out this morning they’re opposed to using the reconciliation device, the short-circuit approach that Lamar referred to that would end up with only bipartisan opposition, by 52-39.”
Reid: “Last Monday, a week ago Monday, all over America, the results were run from a poll done by the Kaiser Foundation. It was interesting what that poll said. Fifty-eight percent of Americans would be disappointed or angry if we did not do health care reform this year — 58 percent. Across America, more than 60 percent of Republicans, Democrats and independents want us to reform the way health care works. Is it any wonder?”
Obama: “When you poll people about the individual elements in these bills, they’re all for them.”
McConnell’s device of averaging polls to come up with a precise result is dubious. Because polls are often taken at different times, with different sample sizes, margins of error and ways of wording their questions, combining them may not yield a valid result. McConnell aides cited CNN, NPR and Quinnipiac polls taken at various times in January.
The Republican leader and others on his side ignored a variety of findings in recent surveys, such as the one suggesting most people want Washington to act on rising medical costs and shrinking coverage — and trust Obama and the Democrats more than Republicans to do it.
Even so, the Kaiser survey cited by Reid was hardly a cheer for what Democrats have come up with so far, although there was no telling that from his remarks. Less than one-third wanted Congress to send Obama a final version of the legislation approved by the House and Senate.
More than 40 percent wanted Washington to put health care on hold or pull the plug. Overall, people were split 43-43 for or against health care legislation. That’s in keeping with other surveys that have found Americans evenly divided or leaning against Obama’s effort, even while wanting something done about the system. Specific parts of the plan tend to be more popular than the package, as the president said, even if they’re not “all for them.”
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.: “The Congressional Budget Office report says that premiums will rise in the individual market as a result of the Senate bill.”
Obama: “No, no, no, no. Let me — and this is an example of where we’ve got to get our facts straight.”
Alexander: “That’s my point.”
Obama: “Here’s what the Congressional Budget Office says: The costs for families for the same type of coverage that they’re currently receiving would go down 14 percent to 20 percent. What the Congressional Budget Office says is that because now they’ve got a better deal, because policies are cheaper, they may choose to buy better coverage than they have right now, and that might be 10 percent to 13 percent more expensive than the bad insurance that they had previously.”
Both are right, but Obama offered important context that Alexander left out.
The nonpartisan analysis estimated that average premiums for people buying insurance individually would be 10 to 13 percent higher in 2016 under the Senate legislation, supporting Alexander’s point. But the policies would cover more, and about half the people would be getting substantial government subsidies to defray the extra costs.
As the president said, if the policies offered today were offered in 2016, they would be considerably cheaper under the plan, even without subsidies. One big reason: Many more healthy young people would be signing up for the coverage because insurance would become mandatory. They are cheap to insure and would moderate costs for others.
Moreover, the analysis estimated that the people getting subsidies would see their costs cut by more than half from what they pay now.
Obama: “We’ve tried to take every cost-containment idea that’s out there and adopt it in this bill.”
THE FACTS: A number of money-saving ideas have been watered down or excluded entirely.
The Congressional Budget Office estimated the government could save 41 billion over 10 years by capping jury awards in medical malpractice lawsuits — an idea promoted by Republicans but opposed by trial lawyers, who have traditionally been heavy contributors to Democratic politicians. The forecast savings are far higher than were anticipated when the nonpartisan budget office studied the issue in the past. But Obama and congressional Democrats have not gone along with caps.
Also, the budget estimated the government could save nearly 19 billion over 10 years by “bundling” Medicare payments to hospitals. Under this proposal, the government would make a single reimbursement covering a patient’s hospital stay and post-surgical care instead of paying separately for each procedure or visit.
Obama initially embraced the measure but Congress and the White House ended up settling for weaker steps like demonstration projects that won’t yield savings anytime soon.
Alexander called on Obama to “renounce this idea of going back to the Congress and jamming through” the bill with only Democratic votes. He was talking about a parliamentary process Congress can use called “budget reconciliation,” which would prevent Senate Republicans from blocking health care legislation. In response, Reid denied that was his intent, saying, “No one has talked about reconciliation.”
Talk about the use of the reconciliation process, which Republicans view as an assault on their rights as the Senate minority, has been in the air for months, and Reid himself has been part of that conversation. In a Nevada political talk show, “Face to Face with John Ralston,” Reid said on Feb. 19 that he planned to use the reconciliation process to pass a pared-down health care bill. And answering reporters’ questions about the process this week, Reid said Republicans “should stop crying about reconciliation. It’s done almost every Congress, and they’re the ones that used it more than anyone else.” On the latter point, Reid was right.
THE CLAIM: Obama’s opponent in the 2008 presidential election, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., sharply criticized the president for his failure to hold public health care negotiations earlier. He noted that “eight times you said that negotiations on health care reform would be conducted with the C-SPAN cameras. I’m glad more than a year later that they are here. Unfortunately, this product was not produced in that fashion. It was produced behind closed doors.”
THE FACTS: McCain is right. Thursday’s session fulfilled a promise Obama broke before he kept it. Several times in the 2008 campaign Obama vowed to hold open negotiations in reworking health care. But once in office, Democrats in the White House and Congress conducted negotiations as usual, making multibillion-dollar deals with hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, other special interests — and each other — in private. And beyond Thursday’s televised session, there is no indication Obama or the congressional Democrats plan further open talks.
Associated Press writer Erica Werner contributed to this report.
Archive for February 2010
WASHINGTON – Beware of politicians quoting poll numbers. That was one lesson from the White House health policy conference Thursday as lawmakers in both parties cherry-picked survey results, ignored contrary findings and presented public opinion, which is highly nuanced on these questions, as a slam-dunk.
LOS ANGELES – Tim Urban tripped up his second shot at “American Idol” fame.
The shaggy-haired 20-year-old singer, who served as a last-minute replacement for 25-year-old shoe salesman Chris Golightly in the top 24 semifinalists, was derided by the Fox singing contest’s judges for his screechy rendition of OneRepublic’s “Apologize” during Wednesday’s episode featuring performances from the top 12 male semifinalists.
“We absolutely made the right decision the first time around by not putting you through based on that performance,” proclaimed Simon Cowell.
Urban, a college student from Duncanville, Texas, wasn’t alone. The panel didn’t praise the retro style of 20-year-old college student Tyler Grady from Nazareth, Pa., on The Guess Who’s “American Woman.” They also weren’t down with the acoustic take on Fall Out Boy’s “Sugar We’re Going Down” from 24-year-old father Andrew Garcia of Moreno Valley, Calif.
“It was too serious, too indulgent and not original enough,” said a particularly ruthless Cowell.
Other chastised crooners included 24-year-old theater actor Todrick Hall from Arlington, Texas, and 21-year-old college student John Park from Evanston, Ill. The judging panel was put off by Park’s performance of Billie Holiday’s “God Bless The Child” and admonished Hall for his transformative take on “Idol” winner Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone.”
“You never want to take a song and completely obliterate it,” warned Randy Jackson.
The criticism also extended to chirpy 19-year-old high school student Alex Lambert from North Richland Hills, Texas. Cowell deemed Lambert’s rendition of James Morrison’s “Wonderful World” as the “most uncomfortable performance of the night.” The insults weren’t limited to tunes. Ellen DeGeneres playfully teased Lambert for keeping his “mullet” hairdo.
“If it’s uncomfortable for you, it’s uncomfortable for people watching,” Cowell advised Lambert.
Perhaps the only contestant Cowell championed Wednesday was low-key 23-year-old paint sales clerk Lee Dewyze from Mount Prospect, Ill. The tough-as-nails judge attested to fighting for Dewyze, who stumbled through Snow Patrol’s “Chasing Cars.” Cowell called it “the best performance by a mile,” but Jackson decided the performance was “too rangey for me.”
Among those who dodged ridicule were 26-year-old personal trainer Michael Lynche of Astoria, N.Y., and 16-year-old high school student Aaron Kelly of Sonestown, Pa. Jackson applauded Kelly’s “huge voice” on Rascal Flatts’ “Here Comes Goodbye” while Kara DioGuardi admitted it was “a little depressing in here” until Lynche performed his version of Maroon 5’s “This Love.”
The uneven outing from the top 12 male semifinalists followed an evening of equally rocky performances from the top 12 female semifinalists Tuesday. The two female and two male contestants with the lowest viewer votes are slated to be eliminated live Thursday.
Fox is a unit of News Corp.
On the Net:
NEW YORK – Apple’s iTunes has sold its 10 billionth tune.
Apple said Thursday that its online music store crossed the threshold Wednesday when 71-year-old Louie Sulcer (SUL’-sir) of Woodstock, Ga., bought “Guess Things Happen That Way” by Johnny Cash.
iTunes had promoted the 10 billion mark and celebrated the milestone by giving Sulcer a 10,000 iTunes gift card.
Introduced in 2003, iTunes became the top overall music retailer in the U.S. in 2008.
NEW YORK – Despite calls from leading Democrats to step aside, New York Gov. David Paterson says he won’t drop his election bid amid a growing scandal surrounding accusations of domestic violence against a key aide.
Speaking in New York City Thursday night, Paterson said he will talk to key New York Democrats but for now he’s continuing his campaign to be elected governor. Paterson rose to governor in 2008 when former Gov. Eliot Spitzer resigned in a prostitution scandal.
Paterson also says he will cooperate fully with an investigation into contact his administration had with a woman who accused his aide of domestic violence. No criminal charges were ever brought after the Halloween 2009 confrontation.
Gormley reported from Albany, N.Y.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.
ALBANY, N.Y (AP) — Calls for Gov. David Paterson to abandon his election bid mounted Thursday as the state attorney general announced he would investigate whether the administration or state police committed a crime in talking to a woman who had filed a domestic violence report against a top aide to the governor.
Paterson’s top criminal justice Cabinet member resigned Thursday over the burgeoning scandal, saying conduct by the state police was “distressing” for an administration that has devoted itself to reducing domestic violence.
Elected officials and other candidates for office clamored for Paterson to end his campaign — formally launched just five days ago — as the turmoil mushroomed around longtime adviser David Johnson. A police report detailed in The New York Times discusses a confrontation between Johnson and a woman over her Halloween costume.
The New York Times reported Wednesday on court papers showing a phone call between state police and the woman. Paterson’s office acknowledges he talked to the woman but says she placed the call, and a spokesman for the governor denied anyone tried to keep the woman from pursuing a domestic violence case.
The state police said in a news release that they won’t comment on any aspect of the case during the investigation by the office of Andrew Cuomo, the popular attorney general whom many would like to see run as the Democratic candidate for governor instead of Paterson.
The Paterson administration asked Cuomo’s office to investigate the matter, and the attorney general’s office said it would look into whether crimes or other wrongdoing were committed. The state police said Cuomo asked the agency not to open its own internal probe.
Rick Lazio, a Republican candidate for governor, said Cuomo should tell New Yorkers if any of his staff gave the Times any information for the Johnson story.
“Today, you ordered the state police to halt any internal investigation into its role surrounding their handling of this matter for fear that they would protect their own interests over the truth,” Lazio said in a written statement. “If you do not disavow any connection to this story the same conflict of interest would be present and any findings of your investigation would be immediately called into question.”
Criminal Justice Services Commissioner Denise O’Donnell abruptly quit Thursday afternoon, saying state police Superintendent Harry Corbitt had assured her his agency was not involved in the confrontation involving Johnson.
Corbitt denies misleading O’Donnell. He said that he told her state police weren’t involved in the investigation, not that they hadn’t contacted the woman.
Paterson’s office had no immediate comment about O’Donnell’s resignation or on increasing pressure for him to call off his candidacy. Paterson has been resisting calls from fellow Democrats not to seek a full term, and some saw O’Donnell’s departure as a sign the administration was tottering.
“That’s a very serious blow,” state Sen. Bill Perkins, a Democrat who represents Paterson’s old state Senate district in Manhattan’s Harlem neighborhood, said of O’Donnell’s departure. “She has been loyal, so the Cabinet, so to so speak, is falling apart.”
Paterson faces a big test before his scheduled campaign announcement in Harlem, his home district, on Sunday. Black Democratic leaders, key supporters for any political campaign, are trying to schedule a Saturday meeting with Paterson that could force him to contend with whether to continue his underfunded shot at a full term, according to a Democratic adviser who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Perkins is among top Democrats who want the governor to end his candidacy for a full term this fall. Paterson was lieutenant governor when Eliot Spitzer’s resignation in a prostitution scandal elevated him in March 2008.
“What we are learning is unacceptable, and the viability of his candidacy is obviously crippling,” Perkins told The Associated Press, calling the reports “very, very serious allegations.”
“To the extent that he can govern, he can best govern without the campaign and by focusing on the needs of the community,” he said.
Rep. Steve Israel, a fellow Democrat and longtime congressional member from Long Island, said it’s time for friends to be straight with Paterson.
“I think it’s become apparent that he should not seek election and should announce it soon,” Israel said. “And sometimes friends have to speak unpleasant truths.”
Rep. Nita Lowey, a Westchester Democrat, said that if “these very serious allegations” are true, “the governor should no longer be in office.”
“Aside from the allegations, the political reality is the governor cannot be an effective candidate or official for New York,” she said.
Republican Chris Cox, running for Congress on Long Island, also called for Paterson to step aside.
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, considered the most powerful official in Albany, said he wants an investigation of the role of the governor and state police in the Johnson matter.
“That investigation must address at whose direction and with whose knowledge members of the governor’s security detail were acting when they contacted the victim,” Silver said.
O’Donnell said in a written statement that it doesn’t matter to her what was said in the contact with the woman.
“The fact that the governor and members of the state police have acknowledged direct contact with a woman who had filed for an order of protection against a senior member of the governor’s staff is a very serious matter,” she said. “These actions are unacceptable regardless of their intent.”
The behavior is “particularly distressing” for an administration that prides itself in combatting domestic violence, she said Thursday, adding that she wrote to Paterson that she couldn’t “in good conscience” remain in his administration.
Johnson, 37, has worked for Paterson for more than a decade, beginning when Paterson was a state senator. Johnson began as an intern as part of Paterson’s effort to help youths with arrest records stemming from the crack epidemic in Harlem at the time.
The turmoil stems from a Halloween 2009 argument between the aide, David Johnson, and a woman, according to a police report. The woman told police Johnson was angry about her costume, choked her, tried to rip the clothing from her body, and pushed her up into a mirror.
New York City Police returned to the home on Nov. 4 on a follow-up visit as part of their domestic violence prevention program. No other incidents were reported. She had no visible injuries and was not taken to a hospital. On Nov. 9, police served David Johnson with an order of protection.
Two people familiar with the investigation identified the woman as Sherruna Booker, 40, with a home address in the Bronx. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly. No telephone number was listed for her.
Her lawyer told The Associated Press in an e-mail that he would have a statement soon but did not elaborate. He declined repeated attempts to reach him by telephone and visits to his office and home.
This week, Paterson suspended Johnson without pay.
After hearing of the Halloween confrontation, O’Donnell said, she met with Corbitt.
O’Donnell has overseen all homeland security and criminal justice agencies including criminal justice, the Office of Homeland Security, the Division of State Police, the Department of Corrections, the Division of Parole and the State Emergency Management Office, among others.
Paid 165,000 a year, she worked on a national investigation that developed crucial evidence against Timothy McVeigh, who was convicted of orchestrating the deadly 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building.
Associated Press writers Colleen Long in New York and Michael Virtanen and Michael Hill in Albany contributed to this report.
WHISTLER, British Columbia – Years from now, when Julia Mancuso reflects on these Olympics, she will always have two shiny silver medals to make her smile — and a whirlwind, sour final 24 hours to make her wince.
A simple account of the way her Vancouver Games ended must include Thursday’s eighth-place finish behind Viktoria Rebensburg of Germany in the giant slalom, an event Mancuso won four years ago at Turin.
Ah, but there is so much more:
The public fascination with exactly how much ill will there might be between Mancuso and U.S. teammate Lindsey Vonn. The dashing of Mancuso’s medal chances in the giant slalom when her first run Wednesday was interrupted because she left the starting gate not knowing that Vonn, of all people, was crashing ahead of her. And the deep sadness that came later Wednesday, when she learned that a friend from back home in Squaw Valley, Calif., professional free skier C.R. Johnson, had died at age 26 in a fall at the resort.
“It’s been a long couple weeks,” Mancuso said.
Begin with the topic that’s produced the most buzz on the mountain, one Mancuso insisted Thursday has “been taken a little out of proportion”: her feelings toward lifelong rival Vonn.
On Wednesday, Vonn said she was “hurt” by “some negative things” Mancuso had said about her at these Olympics. She was referring to Mancuso’s comments about Vonn drawing a lot of attention from the media and within the U.S. team.
Mancuso sought to defuse the situation Thursday, calling two-time World Cup overall champion Vonn “the greatest female American skier we’ve had” and making sure everyone realized she did not blame Vonn for their dual misfortune in the giant slalom.
“It’s just funny the way the universe works. I saw Lindsey after, and I know that she felt really sorry, and you know it’s really not her fault, of course,” Mancuso said. “And so, for that to be sort of out there — that had nothing to do with anything about our relationship. Like I said before, the way that it came across, that it was a media attention fight or something like that, is just ridiculous.”
When the pair crossed paths later Wednesday, Vonn apologized for the way things went on the hill.
As for the interest in their off-slope interaction, Vonn’s husband, Thomas, said Thursday: “I think it’s kind of silly. They have a cordial relationship. They’re competitors on the hill and want to beat each other. But they leave it on the hill. When they’re off the hill, they’re fine. I don’t see a problem there.”
Here’s the way another U.S. skier, Sarah Schleper of Vail, Colo., assessed the Vonn-Mancuso dynamic after finishing 14th in the giant slalom, “Well, they’re just both really passionate about ski racing and being on the top of the podium. They love winning, and I mean, we all want to be there, too.”
Vonn, who lives and trains in Vail, came to the Olympics as a focal point because of all of her recent success, including 31 World Cup race wins, the most by a U.S. woman. She was a key part of NBC’s promotional campaign and graced the cover of Sports Illustrated’s Vancouver preview issue.
Mancuso, meanwhile, was not viewed as a serious medal favorite heading to Whistler, having not been on a World Cup podium in two years, in part because of hip surgery and back problems. Asked last week about being under the radar, she said: “I think that our ski team, in general, deserved a little more attention, because a lot of the media was all about Lindsey, and I think that we have a lot of great girls on our ski team.”
Now Mancuso’s Olympics are over, because she declined to take a spot in Friday’s slalom. Vonn will compete, trying to add to her downhill gold and super-g bronze while wearing a plastic brace to protect the pinkie she broke in Wednesday’s tumble.
What the 25-year-old Mancuso had a hard time comprehending Thursday was the way the defense of her Olympic GS title went by the wayside. Vonn’s wipeout Wednesday happened right as Mancuso was kicking out of the starting gate with a shorter-than-usual interval because of driving snow and dense fog; officials were hoping to squeeze everyone in before the course deteriorated too much.
“I can’t say, honestly, it was fair, but there’s nothing I can do about that,” Mancuso said Thursday. “And I know that everyone here at the Olympics is doing the best that they can, and safety always comes first, so I really just had to do my best with the circumstances.”
Mancuso was forced to stop her race, make her way down to the finish area, then hitch a ride on a snowmobile back to the top. Even that was an adventure: About halfway up, she was told the snowmobile couldn’t go all the way. Mancuso managed to talk her way past that roadblock, only to get to the start area and realize she didn’t have her credential. That issue resolved, too, a weary Mancuso finally got her first run in, but was 18th, 1.30 seconds behind the leader.
Bad weather forced the second run to be postponed, and while Mancuso turned in Thursday’s third-best time, it was nowhere near enough to contend for a medal to add to those she earned in the downhill and super-combined. Instead, she finished 0.55 second behind Rebensburg’s two-run time of 2 minutes, 27.11 seconds. Slovenia’s Tina Maze won the silver, and Austria’s Elisabeth Goergl the bronze.
“I can’t wonder ‘What if?'” Mancuso said. “It’s just really a crazy situation that I can’t even wrap my head around.”
Even more difficult to deal with was what happened to her pal Johnson, a former X Games competitor who fell and hit the back of his helmet on rocks while skiing at Squaw Valley on Wednesday. She recalled hanging out with him at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics and spoke glowingly of his love for skiing and pushing limits.
As she spoke, Mancuso’s voice cracked, and tears welled in her eyes. She paused a couple of times, turning away from reporters to compose herself.
“Coming here today for me, after everything yesterday, was just, like, ‘Go out there and love skiing,'” she said.
Draining as Wednesday and Thursday were, Mancuso chose to concentrate on the happier events of her third Winter Games while she prepared to head home.
“Really, it’s better than I could have imagined,” she said. “After winning my gold medal in Torino, at the end of 2006, it was like, ‘You know what? This is what … my career’s all about, is going to the Olympics and performing under the Olympic (spotlight). There were some unlucky things happening with my other races, but I really feel like sometimes, in ski racing especially, luck just has to be on your side.”
AP Sports Writer Pat Graham contributed to this report.
President Obama and Democratic and Republican members of Congress spent most of the day Thursday debating the future of the American health care system: who it will cover, how it will do that, and how much it will cost. The historic bipartisan health care summit lasted almost seven hours. Though substantive and important, even President Obama had to admit that the long discussion probably didn’t make the most interesting television — but there were a few moments that have grabbed a lot of attention, including an unusual story by Representative Louise Slaughter.
You probably didn’t have time to watch the seven hours of debate, but we did. So we thought we’d put together a quick guide to the moments that mattered in today’s historic bipartisan health care summit.
1. Tons of personal stories: Throughout the day, Democrats tried to emphasize the human cost of our current system with lots and lots of personal anecdotes. President Obama recounted his worries as a parent and witnessing his mother’s wrangle with insurance industry bureaucrats as she was dying of cancer. Sen. Harry Reid told the story of a constituent named Jesus whose child couldn’t get health insurance because of a cleft palate.
But no story was more jolting than the one shared by Rep. Louise Slaughter.
“I have a constituent that you won’t believe and I know you won’t, but her sister died,” said Slaughter. “This poor woman had no dentures. She wore her dead sister’s teeth, which of course were uncomfortable and did not fit. Do you believe that in America that’s where we would be?”
2. Obama and Alexander dispute CBO analysis: One of the main themes struck by the Republican leadership today was that the health care reform bill passed by the House and Senate should be scrapped altogether in favor of starting over. To make this point, Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander stated that, according to analysis he cited that was done by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), “for millions of Americans, premiums will go up.”
President Obama countered that Alexander’s claims of widespread premium increases were “just not the case” and “not factually accurate,” and that the CBO’s analysis found that insurance premiums would decrease 14-20% but Americans would choose more expensive plans because of the better prices.
So who was right? Well, according to an AP fact check, both were, though the report notes that “Obama offered important context that Alexander left out,” specifically that the policies would cover more and that about half of Americans covered would receive “substantial government subsidies” to offset added costs.
3. Obama and McCain tussle: It took almost two and a half hours for any real fireworks to come out of today’s health care summit, but when it finally came his turn to speak, Sen. John McCain went on the attack. He scolded the Democrats for what he called “unsavory” deals conducted by their leadership. President Obama fired back at his 2008 election opponent by saying, “We’re not campaigning anymore. The election is over.”
McCain, to his credit, took the president’s rhetorical arrow in stride, responding, “I’m reminded of that every day.”
Obama tried to move the conversation away from the past controversial deals and process, and toward the substantive argument.
4. The looming possibility of reconciliation: John McCain spoke again in the second half of today’s summit, directly questioning President Obama about what he called “the elephant in the room.” He demanded to know whether or not the Democrats in the Senate would pursue a strategy of using the reconciliation process to pass a bill with a normal 51-vote majority and avoid the filibuster that usually requires 60 votes. Republicans strongly oppose doing so, arguing that, though it’s been used on major policies in the past (George W. Bush’s tax cuts, Bill Clinton’s welfare reform), it shouldn’t be used on policies this significant.
Obama refused to take it off the table, arguing that Americans care less about the legislative process than the results of the bill, and that they expected an up or down vote on reform.
5. Obama and Cantor go toe-to-toe: One could argue that the most testy exchanges of the afternoon took place not between the president and Sens. McCain and Alexander, but between the president and Rep. Eric Cantor. Cantor, who had copies of the bills that have already passed the House and Senate stacked in front of him, received a mild scolding from the president for using the legislation as a “prop.”
“Let me just guess, that’s the 2,400-page Democratic bill,” Obama said, later adding, “These are the kinds of political things we do that prevent us from actually having a conversation.”
Obama and Cantor then crossed swords when the congressman stated that the costs of the plan would result in millions losing their coverage.
“When you start to mandate that everyone in the country has insurance … there are consequences to that,” Cantor said. “We just can’t afford this. This government and businesses can’t afford it.”
Obama countered that the estimated 8 to 9 million people who would walk away from employer-sponsored coverage would do so because they could get a “better deal” elsewhere.
6. Everyone loves Tom Coburn: Throughout the summit, many Democrats name-checked attending Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, a licensed physician. Coburn scored points early on by arguing that fraud and abuse in Medicare and Medicaid were prime culprits driving up medical costs. But Democrats turned the criticism somewhat to their advantage, complimenting Coburn’s points repeatedly. Obama, who once worked with Coburn in the Senate on a bipartisan ethics law, was quick to agree with the good doctor, assuring him he understood his concerns and pointing to provisions in the House and Senate bills that attempt to address the problem. Following suit, Democratic senators like Chuck Schumer and Kent Conrad returned to “Tom” and his sensible prescriptions time and again. Everybody loves Tom. Later McCain challenged Obama on medical malpractice lawsuits, arguing litigation against doctors and hospitals is a main driver of health care inflation. So-called “tort reform” is a holy grail of sorts for the GOP. Obama has previously voiced his openness to the topic. But today he made his biggest overture yet to finding a compromise. His potential olive branch? Tom Coburn’s proposal for medical malpractice limits.
— Brett Michael Dykes is a contributor to the Yahoo! News blog. Andrew Golis and Thomas Kelley also contributed to this report.
MARJAH, Afghanistan – Afghan officials raised the national flag over Marjah on Thursday, asserting government control even as Marines searched for militant holdouts. Kabul also confirmed the arrest of another top Taliban leader — part of a roundup that could further strain the insurgent movement.
About 700 men in turbans and traditional caps gathered in a central market for the flag-raising ceremony, during which Abdul Zahir Aryan was installed as the top Afghan official in this town of 80,000 in Helmand province. The provincial governor told the crowd that authorities were eager to listen to requests from the townspeople and provide them with basic services that they didn’t have under the Taliban.
Taliban fighters still control about 25 percent of the 80-square-mile (200-square-kilometer) area in and around the town nearly two weeks after U.S. and Afghan forces launched their attack to seize Marjah, a major Taliban logistics and supply center and the largest community in the south under insurgent control.
Marines and Afghan soldiers slogged through bomb-laden fields of northern Marjah on Thursday in search of an estimated 100 Taliban and foreign fighter holdouts — the last significant pocket of insurgents left in the town. Progress was slowed by difficult terrain with no roads, few tracks and many hidden mines.
Several residents told Marines that the Taliban were falling back and trying to delay the allied advance with hidden bombs.
“I’d expect they can’t keep this up for long,” said Capt. Joshua Winfrey, a company commander in the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment. He predicted the insurgents will soon hold their ground and fight.
Despite the insurgent holdouts, enough of the town has been secured for NATO and Afghan authorities to begin the most difficult part of the mission — restoring local government and rushing in public services to win the confidence of the population to dry up support for a Taliban return.
Aryan, the chief administrator, cannot work out of the main government building because the Taliban rigged it with bombs and booby traps.
“When an area has been liberated and cleared, then we provide governance immediately, we provide development assistance, we provide the local community with a better livelihood,” NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said at an alliance meeting in Spain. “The current operation in Helmand province will serve as a role model for further operations.”
The loss of Marjah comes as the Taliban is reeling from the arrests of key figures, including their No. 2, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who was picked up this month in Pakistan.
Two Pakistani intelligence officers told The Associated Press that nearly 15 senior and midlevel Taliban figures have been detained in Pakistan in recent weeks. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t supposed to release the information.
An Afghan government spokesman, Siamak Herawi, said Thursday that Pakistani officials had told Afghan authorities that the top Taliban commander for eastern Afghanistan, Mullah Abdul Kabir, was among those taken into custody. Kabir’s arrest last week had been rumored for days, but Herawi’s comment was the first on the record by an official of either country.
NATO troops have taken over Marjah before, only to withdraw and leave the town under the control of corrupt and ineffectual administrators who alienated the townspeople and enabled the Taliban to come back.
International officials are keenly aware of the challenges, including the possibility that old-style regional powerbrokers could interfere, using their political clout to install inept cronies in the local administration and divert funds earmarked for the town.
“There is the influence they will seek to have over appointments, and we have to accept the political realities. These guys have some influence,” said Mark Sedwill, NATO’s senior civilian representative in Afghanistan.
Aryan is an outsider from the town of Musa Qala in northern Helmand who has spent much of the past decade in Germany. Western diplomats say they hope this will be an asset because he doesn’t have ties to warlords. But it could also mean he doesn’t have the local allies needed to stand up to regional power brokers.
The former governor of Helmand province said that bringing in an outsider will alienate local elders and drive them back toward the Taliban.
“The people will become frustrated and lose their hope and they will start to go toward the other option, which is the Taliban,” Sher Mohammed Akhunzada said.
Helmand Gov. Gulab Mangal is trying to prevent this by bringing influential Marjah leaders together into an oversight committee to help make decisions that affect the town.
The first priority is a road linking Marjah to the nearby provincial capital of Lashkar Gah, said Frank Ruggiero, the top U.S. civilian representative for southern Afghanistan.
In addition, more than 2,000 area residents have signed up for day-laborer jobs aimed at getting money in their pockets quickly. Seed is ready for distribution at the end of the month to jump-start agriculture in an area that has long depended on the opium-poppy crop.
U.S. researchers have identified five health clinics that supposedly exist. If they do, doctors and nurses must be recruited and the buildings renovated.
Still, NATO says the number of residents returning to Marjah is increasing and shops in the more secure areas have opened, selling telephones and computers along with fresh fruits and vegetables. Tips from residents about hidden bombs are up 50 percent, NATO said in a statement — a sign they’re willing to cooperate with international and government forces.
At least 13 NATO troops and three Afghan soldiers have been killed during the offensive, according to military officials. Eighty NATO troops have been wounded, along with eight Afghans.
At least 28 civilians have been killed, including 13 children, according to the Afghan human rights commission.
The deaths occurred even though NATO says its priority is protecting civilians through strict rules to prevent casualties.
Vogt reported from Kabul. Associated Press Writers Amir Shah and Deb Riechmann in Kabul, Kathy Gannon in Lashkar Gah, Noor Khan in Kandahar, Munir Ahmed in Islamabad, Pakistan, and Slobodan Lekic in Palma de Mallorca, Spain contributed to this report.
WASHINGTON – The Associated Press has learned that the House ethics committee has concluded that Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel knowingly accepted Caribbean trips in violation of House rules that forbid hidden financing by corporations.
A congressional source familiar with the findings but not authorized to be quoted by name said at least four of members of the Congressional Black Caucus on the trips in 2007 and 2008 have been exonerated.
Rangel is one of the most influential members of Congress because the committee he chairs writes laws setting tax rates and oversees Medicare and Social Security benefits. The decision is certain to raise questions whether he can continue that role in an election year in which Congress must deal with several expiring tax laws.
PHILADELPHIA – A slow-moving winter storm packing heavy, wet snow and potentially flooding rain spread over the Northeast on Thursday, disrupting air traffic and closing schools. Utility companies braced for possible widespread power outages overnight due to high winds and toppled trees.
The strongest wind and heaviest snow was forecast for late Thursday and early Friday, with a foot or more of snow and high winds expected from southeastern Pennsylvania, into New Jersey and New York and up to parts of New England.
Parts of western Maine received nearly a foot a snow Thursday, while Philadelphia received a dusting. About 4 inches of snow fell in New York City, where a man was killed by a falling snow-laden tree branch in Central Park — one of at least three deaths being blamed on the storm.
In parts of southern and mid-coastal Maine more than 3 inches of rain had fallen and forecasters say some areas could get more than 7 inches. The Presumpscot River in Westbrook was expected to crest at 9 feet over flood stage by Friday afternoon. The river in the flood-prone New Hampshire town of Goffstown was nearing flood stage and residents were told to prepare for possible evacuation.
Hundreds of flights were canceled at major East Coast airports.
The latest blast of winter was expected to linger more than 24 hours, meaning more headaches Friday. More snow is predicted for much of the region Saturday, too.
The National Weather Service put much of the East Coast under wind advisories and warnings until 7 a.m. Friday. The agency warned that winds could blow steadily between 20 and 30 mph in some areas, with gusts of 55 mph or higher in coastal and mountainous areas.
Even coastal New England, which was seeing rain but nothing like the 18 inches of snow expected in some parts of northern New Jersey and upstate New York, was under coastal flood watches.
While forecasters can predict the snow totals and what that will mean — slippery roads, a snow day for the kids — it’s trickier to know whether winds might create havoc.
“Your tree may fall down; your neighbor’s may not,” said Kristina Pydynowski, a meteorologist for AccuWeather, a private forecasting company in State College, Pa.
She said dense, wet snow weighing down trees would make it more likely for strong winds to knock them down. And power will probably be hardest to restore in areas where heavy snow keeps repair crews at bay.
In upstate New York, a storm that hit the area with up to 2 feet of snow Wednesday left some 150,000 homes and businesses without power. About 49,000 utility customers remained without power late Thursday, most in the Hudson Valley.
Nearly 2,000 utility customers in New Jersey were without electricity Thursday afternoon as state was hit by its fourth major storm of the winter.
The fifth of an inch of snow that fell in Pittsburgh by early afternoon Thursday was enough to break the city’s record for the snowiest month since record keeping began in 1884.
In snow-weary Philadelphia, this winter had set a seasonal record of more than 70 inches of snow even before the first flakes fell. The city and New Jersey had only recently finished cleaning up from the two blizzards that deposited more than 3 feet of snow a few weeks ago.
Airlines canceled hundreds of flights across the Northeast. Officials at Philadelphia International Airport said nearly one-fifth of the flights scheduled there for the day had been scratched. The prediction of strong winds was the main reason, said airport spokeswoman Victoria Lupica.
Thousands of schools across the region either closed or let out early. New York State Police attributed two traffic deaths to the weather.
In Allentown, Pa., 52-year-old Jim Yourgal put on knee-high snow boots and trudged three miles to his job as a valet at an orthopedic center. He figured he wouldn’t be driving home in a foot of snow. His dedication was no big deal, he said.
“What else am I going to do, read a book at home? I can do that on the weekend,” he said.
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Michael Rubinkam in Allentown, Pa., Randy Pennell and Joann Loviglio in Philadelphia, George Walsh in Albany, N.Y., Shawn Marsh in Trenton, N.J., and Kiley Armstrong and Ula Ilnytzky in New York City, along with AP Airlines Writer Joshua Freed in Minneapolis.
NEW YORK – Michael Douglas’ troubled son Cameron was denied bail and a chance for outpatient addiction treatment Thursday as he awaits sentencing in a federal drug-dealing case.
Wearing dark-blue federal prison garb, the screen scion said nothing during the hearing at a Manhattan federal court. He briefly greeted his mother, Diandra, and other supporters as he was taken back to jail. His father did not attend the hearing.
Douglas, 31, pleaded guilty in January to selling large amounts of methamphetamine and cocaine out of a trendy Manhattan hotel. He faces a minimum 10-year prison term at his sentencing, set for April 14.
Defense lawyers argued that Douglas should get 1 million bail in the meantime so he could get intensive treatment they said wasn’t available behind bars, according to court documents.
They said at a hearing earlier this month that he was yearning for treatment for a yearslong heroin addiction, in part so he could present himself at sentencing as a person on the road to reform.
The son of an Academy Award winner and grandson of Hollywood icon Kirk Douglas, Cameron Douglas has appeared in films including 2003’s “It Runs in the Family,” starring his father and grandfather.
Still, his problems stem from “a very dysfunctional upbringing” marked by parental absences and difficulties grappling with his family’s fame, defense lawyer Daniel M. Gitner said at the Feb. 11 hearing.
“He didn’t benefit from his celebrity,” defense lawyer Nicholas M. DeFeis added then.
Douglas pleaded guilty to a charge that generally requires defendants to be held without bail until sentencing, and prosecutors said he shouldn’t get special consideration. U.S. District Judge Richard A. Berman agreed Thursday.
He said Douglas’ needs were being addressed in jail, and he didn’t think outpatient treatment “is likely to be successful or to resolve Mr. Douglas’ long-term addiction issues.”
ORLANDO, Fla. – Despite calls to free or destroy the animal, SeaWorld said Thursday it will keep the killer whale that drowned its trainer, but will suspend all orca shows while it decides whether to change the way handlers work with the behemoths.
Also, VIP visitors who occasionally were invited to pet the killer whales will no longer be allowed to do so.
“We’re going to make any changes we have to to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” Chuck Tompkins, chief of animal training at SeaWorld parks, said a day after a 12,000-pound killer whale named Tilikum dragged a trainer into its pool and thrashed the woman to death as audience members watched in horror.
Talk-radio callers, bloggers and animal activists said Tilikum — which was involved in the deaths of two other people over the past two decades — should be released into the ocean or put to death like a dangerous dog.
Tompkins said that Tilikum would not survive in the wild because it has been captive for so long, and that destroying the animal is not an option either, because it is an important part of the breeding program at SeaWorld and a companion to the seven other whales there.
Dawn Brancheau, a 40-year-old veteran trainer who adored whales, was rubbing Tilikum from a poolside platform when the 22-foot creature grabbed the woman’s ponytail in its jaws and pulled her in. Witnesses said the whale played with Brancheau like a toy.
“He kept pushing her and poking her with his nose,” said Paula Gillespie of Delaware, who saw the attack from an underwater observation point. “It looked like she was just totally caught off guard and looked like she was struggling.”
She added: “I just felt horrible because she’s someone’s daughter, mother. I couldn’t stop crying.”
The killer whale shows have been put on hold at SeaWorld’s three parks in Orlando, San Antonio and San Diego. Tompkins said they will not resume until trainers understand what happened to Brancheau. He also said trainers will review safety procedures and change them as needed.
He would not give details on what might be changed, but he said he does not expect visitors to the theme park to see much difference in the killer whale shows, in which trainers swim with the animals, ride on their backs and jump off of them.
There is virtually no contact between visitors and the orcas at SeaWorld shows, said Fred Jacobs, a spokesman for the SeaWorld parks. But in the past, VIP guests occasionally were allowed to come down to the edge of the pool and touch the whales. That will no longer be permitted, Jacobs said.
Because of Tilikum’s size and history of aggressive behavior, visitors were not allowed to get close to the whale, and trainers were not permitted to climb into the water with the animal. They were only allowed to work with him from a partially submerged deck.
Tompkins defended SeaWorld’s use a whale that had already been blamed in the deaths of two other people.
“We didn’t ignore those incidents,” Tompkins said. “We work with him very, very carefully. We did not get in the water with this animal like we do with other killer whales because we recognized his potential.”
Brancheau’s older sister, Diane Gross, said the trainer would not have wanted anything done to the whale. “She loved the whales like her children. She loved all of them,” said Gross, of Schererville, Ind. “They all had personalities, good days and bad days.”
In a profile in the Orlando Sentinel in 2006, Brancheau acknowledged the dangers, saying: “You can’t put yourself in the water unless you trust them and they trust you.”
One of SeaWorld’s most popular shows — about a child who wants to grow up to be a killer whale trainer — could have been inspired by Brancheau herself.
A trip to SeaWorld at age 9 instilled a desire in her to work with marine animals. She attended the University of South Carolina and majored in psychology, but got a job at a New Jersey park after graduation, working with dolphins and sea lions. She was hired at SeaWorld in Orlando in 1994.
Tilikum was one of three orcas blamed for killing a trainer in 1991 after the woman lost her balance and fell into a pool at a Sealand theme park near Victoria, British Columbia.
In 1999, the body of a naked man was found draped over Tilikum at SeaWorld in Orlando. Officials said the man had stayed in the park after closing and apparently fell into the whale tank. An autopsy found he died of hypothermia. Officials also said it appeared Tilikum bit the man.
A few months after the 1991 death in Canada, SeaWorld asked the National Marine Fisheries Service for permission to “import and temporarily house” Tilikum in Orlando, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.
In a 1992 letter, the federal agency said SeaWorld wanted to move Tilikum to Orlando “for the purpose of providing medical treatment and care that is otherwise unavailable in Canada at this time.”
The letter did not mention the whale’s role in the deadly attack. But the agency criticized the theme parks, saying “prudent and precautionary steps necessary for the health and welfare of Tilikum were not taken by Sealand or SeaWorld.”
Animals parks are inspected at least once a year by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to make sure the animals are being treated humanely and getting proper nutrition and veterinary care. Online records for the three SeaWorld parks going back to 2007 show only minor violations, such as paper feeding trays accidentally dropped into an exhibit.
None of the violations had anything to do with the park’s whales.
“For the most part, they run a top-notch facility, and they take very good care of their animals,” USDA spokesman Dave Sacks said.
Howard Garrett, co-founder and director of the Washington-based nonprofit Orca Network, has studied killer whales for nearly 30 years and said the creatures are not considered dangerous to humans, even though they are highly efficient predators in the wild.
“In their natural habitat, there is no record of any harm to a human anywhere,” Garrett said.
He said Tilikum was probably agitated before Wednesday’s attack, possibly from some kind of clash with the other whales.
Gary Wilson, a professor at Moorpark College’s exotic animal training program, said it can be difficult to detect when an animal is about to turn on its trainer.
“One of the challenges working with any animal is learning to read its body language and getting a feel for what’s going on in its mind,” he said.
Associated Press writers Brian Skoloff reported from Orlando, Fla.; Lisa Orkin from Miami; Mitch Stacy from Tampa, Fla.; Noaki Schwartz from Los Angeles; Mitch Weiss from Charlotte, N.C.; and Kelli Kennedy from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Bob Springer from APTN also reported from Orlando.
WASHINGTON – Who said the 2008 presidential campaign was over? President Barack Obama upbraided his former Republican rival, Sen. John McCain, on Thursday for resorting to political “talking points” at a health care summit Obama organized in hopes of bridging the divide between the two parties.
After McCain used his time to complain that Obama reneged on a campaign promise to bring “change in Washington,” the president bluntly told the Arizona Republican that “we’re not campaigning any more. The election is over.”
McCain retorted that he’s “reminded of that every day.”
Nearly two years after his defeat, McCain is facing a primary challenge from the right in his bid for a fifth Senate term. Former Rep. J.D. Hayworth, a conservative who hosted a radio talk show, is challenging the 73-year-old incumbent, who has an uneasy relationship with his party’s right.
McCain has been displaying his Republican credentials, railing against Democrats for finalizing health care legislation behind closed doors despite Obama’s promise of transparency for health care negotiations.
He also derides special deals in the health care bill to benefit people, and the lawmakers who represent them, in Nebraska, Louisiana, Connecticut and Florida.
“I hope that that would be an argument for us to go through this 2,400-page document, remove all the special deals for the special interests and favored few, and treat all Americans the same under provisions of the law, so that they will know that geography does not dictate what kind of health care they would receive,” McCain told Obama.
McCain said Obama promised better governance during the campaign “and what we got was a process you and I both said we would change in Washington.”
During the summit’s afternoon session, Obama and McCain had a more good-natured exchange.
McCain criticized a provision of the Senate bill that spared 800,000 seniors in Florida from benefit cuts in the Medicare Advantage program, the private insurance under the umbrella of the government program.
“Why should we carve out 800,000?” McCain asked.
“I think you make a legitimate point,” Obama responded to a surprised McCain.
“Thank you very much,” McCain said, amid smiles and laughter.
There doesn’t appear to be any love lost between the two candidates who faced off for the presidency in 2008.
Taking his turn to speak at this morning’s historic bipartisan summit on health care reform, Sen. John McCain launched into a spirited attack on President Obama and the Democrats in Congress. He cited “unsavory” deals made by Democratic leadership in the Senate, argued that Obama had broken his promise to have previous health care negotiations live on C-Span and called on President Obama to “start over.”
(Videos provided by ABC News. Watch more at ABC News.)
President Obama didn’t take kindly to McCain’s attack, saying bluntly to McCain “We’re not campaigning anymore. The election is over.”
Chuckling, McCain responded “I’m reminded of that every day.”
(Videos provided by ABC News. Watch more at ABC News.)
Obama tried to move the conversation back to the policy discussion at hand, saying “We can spend the remainder of the time with our respective talking points going back and forth, [but] we were supposed to be talking about insurance.”
Today’s bipartisan summit is in many ways a direct response from the White House to previous criticisms similar to McCain’s. President Obama proposed a bill this week that did not include some of the deals that made the Senate bill so unpopular and the White House hopes that today’s debate will alleviate voter concerns about a lack of transparency in the process.
Update, 3:01 PM ET: In a debate over federal deficits, McCain and Obama just tangled again. McCain interrupted the proceedings to angrily reiterate his opposition to a deal to give extra protections to seniors in Florida on Medicare Advantage payments. If we’re so worried about costs, McCain said, “why in the world would we carve out 800,000 people in Florida that would not have their medicare advantage cut?” Obama nodded in agreement and, apparently to McCain’s surprise, simply said “I think you make a legitimate point.”
PREVIOUSLY: Early focus of health care summit personal stories, approach to crisis
— Andrew Golis is the Editor of the Yahoo! News blog
NEW YORK – You wanted that spacious seat in the exit row but someone beat you to it. Or you reserved a seat online, but checked in for the flight and found your seat was given to another passenger. There’s a trick to getting a coveted seat and preventing it from being given away.
Here are some suggestions on how to get the best seat and hold onto it.
SPACE TO STRETCH
You’re booking a flight online, and you want to get the best seat possible. But it looks like the coveted emergency exit row is full. Not necessarily, says Matt Daimler of SeatGuru.com.
Seats in the exit rows generally open up only 24 hours before a flight. So you can’t get them when you book, but you can snatch them when you check in online. But you’ll want to check in as soon as possible: there are cases in which frequent fliers can get preferred access.
And remember, emergency exit rows are not ideal for families. Passengers have to be at least 15 years old to sit in these rows.
If you are lucky enough to grab an emergency exit row seat, select a seat in the second row, Daimler says. In planes with two rows for emergency door access, the front seats generally don’t fully recline.
Another option for extra space? The bulkhead seats. These are the seats at the front of each section of the plane — so you won’t have to deal with anyone reclining in front of you. But not all bulkhead seats are created equal.
Because the bulkhead seats face a wall, some often offer space for the knees but not enough space to stretch your legs. Some planes — generally those with a first-class section _have a cut out in the wall that allows for your legs to extend.
Bulkhead seats in first-class often are not desirable seats because they don’t offer enough legroom. This is why sometimes, Daimler says, you might find a better seat in coach.
BY THE NUMBERS
When booking a seat, pay attention to a little number the airlines call seat pitch, especially if you’re tall. The legroom factor, which generally hovers around 31 inches for domestic flights, is listed on SeatGuru.com for numerous aircraft types at every major airline. You can also check other small, but important details, such as whether the seat you’re about to book is too close to a restroom.
Some seats within a single plane cabin have different seat pitch. By way of comparison, United’s economy plus section has more legroom than its regular seats, but about the same as JetBlue’s standard seats.
“So many people shop by price (when choosing a flight),” Daimler says. “This is when a little homework really goes a long way.”
You’re preparing for a long flight, and you’re hoping to move up to business or first class? There aren’t any magic bullets here. The keys: Fly a lot and be nice.
The most effective way to raise your chance of an upgrade without paying through the nose is to join frequent flier programs and rack up points, says Jami Counter, senior director of TripAdvisor Flights.
Aside from that, a potential upgrade will require a little charm. Many people underestimate how much power that overworked gate agent actually has, says Counter. An agent has the power to choose whom to upgrade, and in some cases, whom to bump. So make airline workers your allies: When you reach the gate, ask the agent if any seats have opened up in the front of the plane.
For a fee that ranges between 50 and several hundred dollars — much cheaper than the difference in price when you book — you’ll be able to move on up.
ODDBALL SEAT ISSUES
Sometimes you book on a travel site like Expedia or Orbitz, but you check in the day before your flight and you don’t have a seat. Why does this happen?
According to an Orbitz spokeswoman, most airlines only allow about 75 to 80 percent of their seats to be booked before flight time. If you’re booking too close to your flight, you might be out of luck.
The remaining seats are issued at the airport on the day of departure. Airlines will then move people around to accommodate families who aren’t seated together or people with disabilities and special needs.
Another reason you might not end up with the seat you booked? Sometimes an airline will change an aircraft at the last minute due to weather or an operational issue. If the aircraft changes, seat assignments may need to be adjusted.
Some airlines also keep more seats or rows for premium travelers. You won’t always know which seats these are when you book. This is especially common on seats on a codeshare flight — where one airline sells tickets but the flight is operated by another. (Example: you booked a US Airways ticket but the flight is actually operated by United.)
How can you prevent it? There isn’t a lot you can do to avoid being moved around by an elite frequent flier. But to ensure you have the seat you booked on a travel site, visit the airline’s Web site after you book. If the site doesn’t reflect your seat request, call the airline and see if you can make a reservation over the phone.
It wouldn’t be the airline industry without extra fees. Counter of TripAdvisor says passengers should be prepared for a new charge on the horizon: a seat selection fee. Allegiant and Spirit already do this. United and JetBlue charge for roomier seats.
The one time a seat fee didn’t work? In the summer of 2001, when American removed some seating from the cabin and announced it would charge extra for “more room throughout coach.” It didn’t fly. The airline reinstalled extra rows of seats in 2005.
BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. – Less than a year after dethroned Miss California USA Carrie Prejean stirred up controversy with her remarks against gay marriage, a similar war of words is brewing in Beverly Hills.
Beverly Hills Mayor Nancy Krasne said Wednesday she is outraged over a Miss California USA contestant who is claiming to represent the city in the upcoming pageant and who spoke out against same-sex marriage in recent media interviews.
Krasne said in a statement that 23-year-old Lauren Ashley does not live in Beverly Hills or represent the city in any capacity. Krasne said she was shocked to see statements made by a beauty pageant contestant under the name of Beverly Hills, “which has a long history of tolerance and respect.”
Ashley recently told Fox News and other media outlets that same-sex marriage goes against God and the Bible.
Keith Lewis, a K2 Productions stage director for the Miss California USA pageant, told the Los Angeles Times that contestants choose the area they represent and Ashley chose to compete as Miss Beverly Hills in November 2010.
A phone listing for Ashley could not be found.
Krasne said the city has contacted Miss California USA pageant officials to determine ways to formally prevent any beauty contestants from claiming the title of Miss Beverly Hills in the future.
Ashley’s comments came just months after Prejean, the former Miss California USA 2009, reached a confidential settlement with pageant organizers on dueling lawsuits over her outspoken stance against gay marriage.
Prejean sued Miss California USA organizers in August for libel, slander and religious discrimination. She accused them of telling her to stop mentioning God even before her controversial remarks against gay marriage.
Prejean was fired in June after pageant officials accused her of missing events, an allegation she denied. The pageant later countersued Prejean.
Prejean said she was dethroned because she said during the Miss USA pageant that gays shouldn’t be allowed to marry.
PALMER, Alaska – A judge on Thursday approved child support for Bristol Palin and set a trial date to force the issue along, while urging her and the father of her son to work out a resolution outside of the courtroom.
Judge Kari C. Kristiansen encouraged Palin and Levi Johnston, both 19, to work with a judge who specializes in such matters in a settlement conference and not go to trial. She set a court date for Sept. 23-24.
Kristiansen approved child support for Palin retroactive to the day the child was born. That amount still needs to be determined.
Bristol Palin is seeking nearly 1,700 a month in child support to care for their son, Tripp. She had asked for retroactive payments to the boy’s birth, or 19,232 total. That does not include 4,400 Johnston has already paid in child support.
Palin, a daughter of former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, attended the 20-minute child support hearing in Palmer Superior Court, but her former fiance did not appear or participate by phone.
Kristiansen told Rex Butler, Johnston’s lawyer, that it would have been better if his client had participated.
Her pregnancy was announced just days after her mother, then governor of Alaska, was tapped by GOP presidential candidate John McCain to be his running mate. Palin and Johnston, a current Playgirl cover model, broke up shortly after Tripp’s birth in December 2008.
Palin’s lawyer has complained that Johnston hasn’t been forthcoming with his income. Attorney Thomas Van Flein previously asked that subpoenas be issued to obtain information on payments made to Johnston by Playgirl and media companies such as CNN, Entertainment Tonight, Vanity Fair, the National Enquirer, Star magazine and Insider.
Johnston has said he wasn’t paid for many of the media interviews.
A judge hasn’t ruled on the request.
The court is determining the amount of child support based on Johnston’s adjusted gross income, which is estimated between 100,000 and 105,000. Johnston has said his income from the entertainment field can be erratic.
The judge on Thursday encouraged Butler to get his client’s financial information to the court, saying it was past due. She granted issuing subpoenas to get that information.
Van Flein said he had “every confidence” that the child support issue would be resolved in the next two weeks.
PARIS (AFP) –
An iceberg the size of Luxembourg knocked loose from the Antarctic continent earlier this month could disrupt the ocean currents driving weather patterns around the globe, researchers said Thursday.
While the impact would not be felt for decades or longer, a slowdown in the production of colder, dense water could result in less temperate winters in the north Atlantic, they said.
The 2550 square-kilometre (985 square-mile) block broke off on February 12 or 13 from the Mertz Glacier Tongue, a 160-kilometer spit of floating ice protruding into the Southern Ocean from East Antarctica due south of Melbourne, researchers said.
Some 400 metres (1300 feet) thick, the iceberg could fill Sydney Harbour more than 100 times over.
It could also disturb the area's exceptionally rich biodiversity, including a major colony of emperor penguins near Dumont d'Urville, site of a French scientific station, according to the scientists.
“The ice tongue was almost broken already. It was hanging like a loose tooth,” said Benoit Legresy, a French glaciologist who has been monitoring the Metz Glacier via satellite images and on the ground for a decade in cooperation with Australian scientists.
The billion-tonne mass was dislodged by another, older iceberg, known as B9B, which split off in 1987.
Jammed against the Antarctic continent for more than 20 years, B9B smashed into the Metz tongue like a slow-motion battering ram after it began to drift.
Both natural cycles and manmade climate change contribute to the collapse ice shelves and glaciers.
Tide and ocean currents constantly beat against exposed areas, while longer summers and rising temperatures also take a toll.
“Obviously when there is warmer water, these ice tongues will become more fragile,” said Legresy, who works at the Laboratory for Geophysics and Oceanographic Space Research in Toulouse, southern France.
The Metz Glacier Tongue, fitted with GPS beacons and other measurement instruments, could provide crucial insights into how these influences should be apportioned.
“For the first time, we will have a detailed record of the full cycle of a major calving event — before, during and after,” he said.
Since breaking off, the iceberg — along with the newly mobile B9B, which is about the same size — have moved into an ajoining area called a ploynya.
Distributed across the Southern Ocean, ploynyas are zones that produce dense water, super cold and rich in salt, that sinks to the bottom of the sea and drives the conveyor-belt like circulation around the globe.
If these icebergs move east and run aground, or drift north into warmer climes, they will have no impact on these currents.
“But if they stay in this area — which is likely — they could block the production of this dense water, essentially putting a lid on the polynya,” Legresy explained.
The Metz Glacier Polynya is particularly strong, and accounts for 20 percent of the “bottom water” in the world, he added.
Eventually, the icebergs will die a natural death, but their lifespan depends on where they go.
Adrift, they could melt in a could of decades. If they remain lodged against the Antarctic landmass, they could persist far longer.
SANGER, Calif. – A California homicide detective died Thursday and a police officer was in critical condition after they were shot during an investigation in a rural area of Central California, authorities said.
The suspected shooter, who has not been identified, then barricaded himself inside his mobile home and kept firing on law enforcement officials in an ongoing standoff, authorities said.
“We lost a good deputy sheriff today,” Fresno Sheriff Margaret Mims said.
Mims said the shooter was also suspected of arson and another shooting. He opened fire when deputies and a state fire official arrived at his mobile home to serve warrants in those cases, she said.
A neighbor reported hearing hundreds of shots.
The suspect lived at the residence with his wife, but it was unclear if any other people were inside the home, she said.
Mims said authorities had not had any contact with the suspect in the ongoing standoff, and it wasn’t clear if he was still alive.
Another wounded Fresno County deputy was in stable condition after the shooting. The names of the three officers were not immediately released.
The wounded police officer from Reedley was responding to a call for backup after the deputies had been shot, Mims said.
Mary Novack, who runs a convenience store across from the home under siege, said she saw several deputies and fire officials arrive Thursday morning. They used a loudspeaker to repeatedly demanded someone inside surrender then smashed down the door, she said.
She saw some of the deputies go inside before hearing gunfire.
“Oh my god, somebody’s going to be dead,” Novack recalled thinking at the time.
Novack said she later saw an officer on the ground.
Jim Stone, 46, who lives about 100 feet from the surrounded home, said he was evacuated after the shooting erupted. Stone said he heard what sounded like hundreds of shots.
Associated Press Writers Lisa Leff in San Francisco and Garance Burke in Fresno contributed to this report.
WASHINGTON – Giving no ground, President Barack Obama and Republican leaders fought forcefully for their competing visions of historic health care reform Thursday in an exhausting, often-testy live-on-TV debate. Far from any accord, Obama signaled the Democrats were prepared to push ahead for an all-or-nothing congressional vote.
The marathon, 7 1/2-hour session did reveal narrow areas of agreement on the topic that has vexed Congress for months and defied U.S. leaders for decades. But larger ideological differences overwhelmed any common ideas, all but cementing the widely held view that a meaningful bipartisan health care bill is not possible as time grows short in this election year.
Obama rejected Republican preferences for starting over, discussing the issue much longer or dealing with it in a limited, step-by-step fashion.
“We cannot have another yearlong debate about this,” Obama declared. “I’m not sure we can bridge the gap.”
Party officials said March is probably the last chance to act.
It has been more than a year since he proposed his overhaul, which would be important to virtually all Americans in remaking the way they receive and pay for health care. The version he embraces, basically tracking legislation passed by the Senate, would expand health coverage to some 30 million people who lack it and stop insurance companies from dropping people for questionable reasons or denying coverage to people who have certain illnesses.
Obama and the Democrats portray the current situation as a major crisis, with tens of millions of people left with no health insurance at all and health care costs threatening to bankrupt the nation. The Republicans see problems as well, but seek more modest steps to deal with them and say Obama’s plan would run up the federal deficit — despite his claims to the contrary.
Obama strongly suggested that Democrats will try to pass a sweeping overhaul without GOP support, by using controversial Senate budget rules that would disallow filibusters. And then, he said, this fall’s elections would write the verdict on who was right.
Democratic leaders tried to portray Republicans as hypocrites for denouncing parliamentary tactics they, too, have used. Democratic leaders hope to embolden colleagues who worry about re-election races in the face of polls showing substantial dislike for the party’s approach.
The Democrats-only strategy could face particularly strong resistance in the House, where 39 party members voted against an Obama-backed health care bill last year.
Democratic officials confirmed Thursday that the White House has developed a slimmed-down health care plan as a possible “Plan B” fallback.
But that contingency also faces problems, including possible defections from House liberals who insist the overhaul must be expansive. Democratic officials conceded it’s possible that no health care legislation will pass this year, which would leave their candidates with little to show while Republicans claimed a big win.
At Thursday’s summit, Rep. Eric Cantor, the No. 2 House Republican, agreed with Obama that “we have a very difficult gap to bridge here.” But he differed strenuously about resolving it. “We just can’t afford this,” he said of the 1 trillion, 10-year proposal. “That’s the ultimate problem.”
Cable news networks carried long portions of the summit, which featured 38 lawmakers sitting around a square table heaped with documents and notepads. They spoke of arcane issues such as insurance “rescissions” between sharp partisan exchanges. Moderator Obama, looking annoyed at times, interrupted Republicans fairly often, and a few of them interrupted him back.
At one point, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky accused him of shortchanging the GOP on opportunities to speak.
With the conversation veering between mind-numbing detail and flaring tempers, the two sides held onto long-entrenched positions.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., derided Obama’s plan. “This is a car that can’t be recalled and fixed,” he said, “and we ought to start over.”
Alexander challenged Obama’s claim that insurance premiums would fall under the Democratic legislation. “You’re wrong,” he said. Responded Obama: “I’m pretty certain I’m not wrong.”
Democratic officials said House and Senate leaders will confer with colleagues in coming days or weeks to see if they have enough votes to push a far-reaching bill through both chambers with no GOP help.
Republicans repeatedly pressed Obama to renounce the possibility of using “budget reconciliation” rules to push the Democratic plans through the Senate without allowing GOP filibusters. Obama brushed them off, saying they seemed more interested in process than substance.
Americans want a decision on health care, the president said, and most of them think “a majority vote makes sense.” Democrats control 59 of the Senate’s 100 seats, one vote short of the number needed to halt bill-killing filibusters.
Top Democrats described the summit as the beginning of the end of their long push to overhaul health care, a bid rocked by raucous, conservative-dominated forums last summer that threw Democrats on the defensive. Eyeing the November elections, rank-and-file Democratic lawmakers are desperate to resolve the debate and focus on jobs and economic revival.
“If nothing comes of this, we’re going to press forward,” Democratic Senate Whip Richard Durbin told reporters during a break in the summit. “We just can’t quit.”
One of the sharpest exchanges occurred between Obama and Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican he defeated for the presidency. As McCain criticized numerous provisions in the Democrats’ plan, Obama said, “we’re not campaigning anymore. The election is over.”
McCain laughed and said, “I’m reminded of that everyday.”
At another point, McCain refused to yield to Obama, saying, “Can I just finish please?”
Obama ribbed Cantor, the House GOP whip, for bringing to the table the 2,400-page Senate bill, which the Virginia congressman described as too costly, bureaucratic and intrusive. Obama called it a political prop, and said health care is a complex issue that can’t be reduced to snippets.
Republicans repeatedly noted that polls suggest Democrats are on the wrong track. A USA Today/Gallup survey released Thursday found Americans, by 49 percent to 42, lean against Democrats forging ahead without any GOP support. Slightly more than half oppose the idea of Senate Democrats using budget rules to bar filibusters to stop the bill.
Congressional aides said top Democrats will take a few days to gauge the summit’s impact on the public and, perhaps more importantly, on moderate House members who are likely to determine whether any health care bill will pass.
If the effort fails, Democrats may try a scaled-back plan to insure about 15 million more Americans, rather than 30 million. Among other things, the plan would require insurance companies to let people up to age 26 stay on their parents’ health plans.
The summit participants noted a handful of areas where the two parties seem largely to agree. They include barring insurers from dropping customers who become sick, ending annual and lifetime monetary limits on health insurance benefits and letting young adults stay on their parents’ health policies to their mid-20s or so.
But Republicans stuck to their main talking points. “The American people want us to scrap this bill,” said House GOP Leader John Boehner of Ohio, reaching over and touching the massive Senate legislation.
As darkness neared, McConnell also urged Obama to “start over with a blank piece of paper.”
Associated Press writers Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, Erica Werner, Ben Feller, Jennifer Loven and Natasha Metzler contributed to this story.
Celebrities aren't the only ones giving their babies unusual
names. Compared with decades ago, parents are choosing less common names for
kids, which could suggest an emphasis on uniqueness and individualism, according
to new research.
Essentially, today's kids (and later adults) will stand out
from classmates. For instance, in the 1950s, the average first-grade class of
30 children would have had at least one boy named James (top name in 1950),
while in 2013, six classes will be necessary to find only one Jacob, even
though that was the most common boys' name in 2007.
The researchers suspect the uptick of unusual baby names
could be a sign of a change in culture from one that applauded fitting in to
today's emphasis on being unique and standing out. When taken too far, however,
this individualism could also lead to narcissism, according to study researcher
Jean Twenge, of San Diego State University.
Baby naming history
The results come from an analysis of 325 million baby names
recorded by the Social Security Administration from 1880 to 2007. The research
team figured out the percentage of babies given the most
popular name or a name among the 10, 20, or 50 most popular for that year and
sex. Since it wasn't required that people get a social security card until
1937, names before that time may not be random samples of the population, the
Results showed parents were less likely to choose those
popular names as time went on. For instance, in the late 1800s and early 1900s,
about 5 percent of babies were named the top common name, while more recently
that dropped to 1 percent.
About 40 percent of boys received one of the 10
most common names in the 1880s, while now fewer than 10 percent do.
For girls, the percentage with a top-10 name
dropped from 25 percent in about 1945 to 8 percent in 2007.
Similar results were seen for the top-50 names.
About half of girls received one of the 50 most popular names until the
mid-20th century. Now, just one in four have these names.
(A list of top-10 baby names by year, and their popularity, can be found here.)
This trend in baby-naming didn't show a constant decrease.
Between 1880 and 1919, fewer parents were giving their children common names,
though from 1920 to the 1940s common names were used more often than before.
Then, when baby
boomers came on the scene, so did more unusual names.
The biggest decrease in usage of common names came in the
1990s, said Twenge, who is also an author of “The Narcissism Epidemic:
Living in the Age of Entitlement” (Free Press, 2009) and “Generation
Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled – and
More Miserable Than Ever Before” (Free Press, 2007).
The results held even when the researchers accounted for
immigration rates and increasing Latino populations, which could bring
relatively less common names into the mix.
“The most compelling explanation left is this idea that
parents are much more focused on their children standing out,” Twenge told
LiveScience. “There's been this cultural shift toward focusing on the
individual, toward standing out and being unique as opposed to fitting in with
the group and following the rules.”
The positive side of individualism, Twenge said, is that
there is less prejudice and more tolerance for minority groups. But she warns
that when individualism is taken too far, the result is narcissism.
“I think it is an indication of our culture becoming
more narcissistic,” Twenge said.
Past research has shown that back in the 1950s parents
placed a lot of importance on a child being obedient, which has gone way down.
“Parenting has become more permissive and more child-focused and [parents]
are much more reluctant to be authority figures,” Twenge said.
As for whether these unusually named kids will have
personalities to match is not known.
“It remains to be seen whether having a unique name
necessarily leads to narcissism later in life,” Twenge said. “If that
unique name is part of a parent's overall philosophy that their child is
special and needs to stand out and that fitting in is a bad thing, then that
could lead to those personality traits.”
The research, which is detailed in the January issue of the
journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, also included Emodish M.
Abebe of SDSU and W. Keith Campbell of the University of Georgia in Athens.
Most Popular Baby Names in History
Best and Worst Moms in Comics
Didn't Know About You
Original Story: Parents Choosing More Unusual Baby Names Now
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Snow leaves thousands of homes without power
Thousands of people across Scotland have been left without power overnight after heavy snow brought down electricity lines on Thursday.Scottish and Southern Energy said about 5,000 homes – mostly in Perthshire and some in the Highlands – would still not have electricity by Friday morning. The firm said about 20,000 homes across the country were affected on Thursday, but supplies were restored to 15,000. Severe weather is set to continue to affect parts of Scotland on Friday. A spokesman for Scottish and Southern said its engineers would resume work at first light. He said conditions meant workers struggled to get access to the fallen lines. On Thursday, heavy snow caused travel disruption across the country. Rail services between Aberdeen and Inverness, Perth and Inverness and Glasgow and Fort William were affected and hundreds of drivers were left stranded on the A9 in Perthshire, some for up to 12 hours. The A9 is still closed between the Broxden and Keir roundabouts.
David Mills bribery conviction quashed by appeals court
British tax lawyer David Mills has had a bribery conviction quashed by Italy’s top appeals court.The judge said the current trial was beyond the limit for prosecution set by Italian law. The estranged husband of UK minister Tessa Jowell denied the offence but was convicted in 2009 of taking a 400,000 bribe from Italy PM Silvio Berlusconi. The ruling means a parallel corruption case against Mr Berlusconi could also now be dropped. In a separate trial, Mr Berlusconi denies allegations of corrupting Mr Mills. Tax havenAfter his conviction in February last year, Mills was ordered to pay 250,000 euros (222,000) to the Italian government for damage to its image. He had also faced four-and-a-half years in jail. The Cassation Court’s decision to overturn the verdict comes after a Milan court rejected an earlier appeal in October against the conviction. Mr Mills, who separated from former Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell in 2006, was one of Mr Berlusconi’s consultants on offshore tax havens. After the successful appeal ruling, the Briton’s lawyer said: “We are satisfied. This is a decision that recasts the verdict issued by the Milan appeals court.” In a statement, Mr Mills said he would now be able to “get back to a normal life”. “I am very relieved that this saga has finally now come to an end,” he said. “I am grateful beyond words to my family and friends who knew I was innocent and have supported me all the way through and to my wonderful lawyer.” The prosecution had alleged Mr Berlusconi had paid Mr Mills for not revealing details of offshore companies during two previous trials in 1997 and 1998, in which the lawyer had appeared as an expert witness for the prime minister. The charges stemmed from a letter Mr Mills sent to a British accountant in 2004, in which he said the 400,000 payment had come from “Mr B”. The alleged offence was said to have taken place in November 1999. Mr Mills initially admitted having received money from Mr Berlusconi “in recognition” of the evidence he had given, but later said the money had come from Italian shipping magnate Diego Attanasio. Prosecutor Gianfranco Ciani maintained Mr Mills took the bribe, but said the conviction should be overturned because the statute of limitations had expired.
Call for automatic phone filters
By Dominic Casciani
Games consoles and mobiles should be sold with parental filters switched on to limit children’s exposure to sexual imagery, a Home Office review says.The study says that children are increasingly being exposed to material their parents do not know about. The report calls for tougher regulation of sexual imagery in adverts and a ban on “lads’ mags” for the under-16s. Author Dr Linda Papadopoulos said there was a clear link between sexualised imagery and violence towards girls. The report says all the available research shows that children in the UK are being exposed to an ever-increasing amount of “sexualised” material in the media and that parents had limited opportunities to prevent it. The material, said the report, ranged from the growth of lads’ mags and pornography on mobile phones, through to big-name fashion brands using sexual imagery to advertise clothes targeted at young teenagers. ‘Distorting perceptions’The report said this “drip-drip” exposure was distorting young people’s perceptions of themselves, encouraging boys to become fixated on being macho and dominant while girls in turn presented themselves as sexually available and permissive. One outcome had been the rise of sexual bullying in which girls felt compelled to post topless or naked pictures on social networks, it added. “Unless sexualisation is accepted as harmful, we will miss an important opportunity … to broaden young people’s beliefs about where their value lies,” said Dr Papadopoulos, a psychologist.
The report’s 36 recommendations include calling for games consoles, mobile phones and some computers to be sold with parental controls already switched on. This would allow families to automatically filter which on-demand services and online material their children can use. Dr Papadopoulos said there should also be symbols to show that a published photograph had been digitally altered – such as pictures of celebrities manipulated to make them appear thinner. Lads’ mags should be sold only to over-16s, a recommendation aimed at moving them closer to top-shelf, adult pornography. The report also recommends giving the Advertising Standards Authority the power to act against sexualised imagery appearing within commercial websites, such as provocative photo-shoots used by clothing chains targeting teenagers. Link to violenceDr Papadopoulos said: “The evidence gathered in the review suggests a clear link between consumption of sexualised images, tendency to view women as objects and the acceptance of aggressive attitudes and behaviour as the norm. “Both the images we consume and the way we consume them are lending credence to the idea that women are there to be used and that men are there to use them.” The review forms part of the Home Office’s broader attempts to have a louder public debate about how to combat violence against women and girls. Both Labour and the Conservatives are examining the issues. Tory leader David Cameron said earlier this month that he would clamp down on irresponsible advertising targeted at children. Home Secretary Alan Johnson said: “We know that parents are concerned about the pressures their children are under at a much younger age, which is why we have already committed to a number of the recommendations in this report. “Changing attitudes will take time but it is essential if we are going to stop the sexualisation which contributes to violence against women and girls.”