House GOP plans vote on fiscal cliff ‘Plan B’ despite Obama veto threat

WASHINGTON – The Republican-controlled House pushed ahead Thursday with a bill that would raise taxes on people earning over $1 million a year as hopes faded for a pre-Christmas deal between President Barack Obama and Speaker John Boehner to avert the so-called “fiscal cliff.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said lawmakers would return to the Capitol on the Thursday after the holiday as a grand bargain to avoid the automatic tax hikes and spending cuts proved elusive.

Across the Capitol, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said the GOP has the votes for a bill, dubbed “Plan B” by Boehner, aimed at upping the year-end pressure on Capitol Hill Democrats and Obama.

“We, as Republicans, have taken concrete actions to avoid the fiscal cliff,” Cantor insisted at a news conference. He expressed confidence the GOP leadership will have enough votes to pass the bill.

But the legislation looked to be a dead letter in the Senate and earned a White House veto threat.

The possibility of a ruined holiday and the absence of a deal left hard feelings all around. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell blamed the president and Democrats.

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“They’ve been playing Lucy and the football with the American people for months,” said the Kentucky lawmaker. “They’ve said no to every single proposal that’s been offered to avoid this tax hike – including their own. They’re running out the clock. Moving the goal posts. Sitting on their hands. They aren’t doing anything.

“Well, I say, ‘Enough.’ Enough. The time for games is over,” he said in remarks on the Senate floor.

On Wednesday, a confident Obama dismissed the GOP bill, telling reporters that he and Boehner were just a few hundred billion dollars apart on a 10-year, $2 trillion-plus deficit-cutting pact.

Republicans should “peel off the partisan war paint” and take the deal he’s offering, Obama said sharply at the White House. He noted that he had won re-election with a call for higher taxes on the wealthy, then added pointedly that the nation aches for conciliation, not a contest of ideologies, after last week’s mass murder at a Connecticut elementary school.

Obama continued to press for a comprehensive budget pact with Boehner to replace an economy-jarring set of automatic tax hikes and sweeping spending cuts to the Pentagon and domestic agencies set to take effect in January.

Boehner countered that the president will bear responsibility for “the largest tax increase in history” if he makes good on his veto threat.

But to a remarkable extent, the two sides have flip-flopped.

Republicans have for years argued that voting to renew most Bush-era tax cuts on income, investments and elsewhere, but allowing upper-end tax cuts to expire, would be a debilitating blow to the economy and small businesses. Now, they point to the 99-plus per cent of taxpayers who wouldn’t be affected by their latest plan.

For their part, Democrats who supported the million-dollar threshold not too long ago – including such lawmakers as Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. – have lashed themselves to Obama, who carries great leverage into the battle about the fiscal cliff, the price to pay for Washington’s chronic inability to address the deficit.

GOP leaders have also set a vote on a companion bill to replace across-the-board cuts in the Pentagon and some domestic programs with targeted reductions elsewhere in the budget, an attempt to satisfy defence-minded lawmakers and conservatives eager to vote for spending cuts.

That measure, which passed the House in May only to be ignored by the Senate, would cut food stamps, benefits for federal workers and social services programs like day care for children and Meals on Wheels for the elderly. It would spare the military from a $55 billion, 9 per cent automatic budget cut next year that is punishment for the failure of last year’s deficit-reduction “supercommittee” to strike a deal. It also would protect domestic agencies from an 8 per cent cut to their day-to-day operating budgets next year, but would leave in place a 2 per cent cut to Medicare providers.

With Christmas approaching, Republicans also said they were hopeful the tax measure could quickly form the basis for a final bipartisan “fiscal cliff” compromise once it arrives in the Senate.

Democrats, in the majority in the Senate, gave no indication of their plans.

On paper, the two sides are relatively close to an agreement on major issues, each having offered concessions in an intensive round of talks that began late last week.

But political considerations are substantial, particularly for Republicans.

After two decades of resolutely opposing any tax increases, Boehner is seeking votes from fellow Republicans for legislation that tacitly lets rates rise on million-dollar income tax filers. The measure would raise revenue by slightly more than $300 billion over a decade than if all of the Bush-era tax cuts remained in effect.

Boehner won a letter of cramped support from anti-tax activist Grover Norquist during the day. Norquist’s organization, Americans For Tax Reform, issued a statement saying it will not consider a vote for the bill a violation of a no-tax-increase pledge that many Republicans have signed.

The talks have stalled even though Obama and Boehner have each made concessions that would seem to bring them to the brink of agreement. Obama is now seeking $1.2 trillion in higher tax revenue, down from the $1.6 trillion he initially sought. He also has softened his demand for higher tax rates on household incomes so they would apply to incomes over $400,000 instead of the $250,000 he cited during his successful campaign for a new term.

He also has offered more than $800 billion in spending cuts over a decade, half of it from Medicare and Medicaid, $200 million from farm and other benefit programs, $100 billion from defence and $100 billion from a broad swath of government accounts ranging from parks to transportation to education.

In a key concession to Republicans, the president also has agreed to slow the rise in cost-of-living increases in Social Security and other benefit programs, at a savings estimated at about $130 billion over a decade.

By contrast, Boehner’s most recent offer allowed for $1 trillion in higher taxes over a decade, with higher rates for annual incomes over $1 million. His latest offer seeks about $1 trillion in spending cuts.

Some facts about northern Ontario’s massive Ring of Fire mining deposits

MARTEN FALLS, Ont. – Some facts and figures about a massive mining deposit in northern Ontario known as the Ring of Fire.

Location: An area 500 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay, Ont., in the James Bay lowlands, in the traditional territories of several First Nations. Chromium is the Ring of Fire’s main claim to fame, but there are also proposals to mine nickel there, and hopes for copper, zinc, gold and palladium. There are about 100 mining companies with holdings in the Ring of Fire, but only 35 of them are actively exploring, and just two of them have actually proposed mining.

Chromite: Ore containing chromium used to make ferrochrome, the “stainless” in stainless steel. It has a very high melting point, high corrosion resistance, and when exposed to air it reacts to form a thin protective oxide surface layer that prevents rusting.

Demand: Growth in emerging markets such as China has ensured that the market for stainless steel is somewhat stable for the coming years. China buys about half the world’s ferrochrome. About 14 per cent of the world’s chromium is consumed in the United States, although there is almost no domestic production, making the Ring of Fire deposit look attractive.

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Supply: About 70 per cent of the world’s chromium reserves are in South Africa and Zimbabwe, with additional resources in Finland, Kazakhstan, Turkey, India and Brazil. The global market for ferrochrome is dominated by South Africa, Kazakhstan and India. It is also supplied through recycling. The earth is rich with chromite, and world resources of shipping-grade chromite are already sufficient to meet world demand for centuries.

Environment: The Ring of Fire area is pristine, having never experienced industrial development before, making it one of the last intact, original forests on the planet. Its muskeg – sponge-like ground cover that frequently gives way to lakes and rivers – is notoriously difficult to build on. The wetlands are home to half of Canada’s largest rivers. The area supports many species at risk, including lake sturgeon, bald eagles, yellow rails, black terns, woodland caribou and wolverines. The massive expanse of peat is a major carbon sink for Canada.

Potential: Stainless steel in North America has long been produced with imported ferrochrome. The Ring of Fire deposits represent the most significant chromite discovery made in North America, and possibly one of the largest chromite discoveries in the world.

Sources: Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada; Government of Ontario.

Minister blasts bridge firm after ice pelts down on cars, injures two people

COQUITLAM, B.C. – British Columbia’s transportation minister has slammed the international contractor that built the newly-opened Port Mann Bridge, saying the forced closure of the span, only weeks after it opened, is an intolerable situation and that the firm should have been aware of potential problems.

More than 100 insurance claims were filed after chunks of ice pelted down onto vehicles from the bridge’s suspension cables during a snowstorm on Wednesday. Two people were injured and the bridge, which links the Vancouver area to populous southern suburbs, was closed for several hours.

“We will not live with the bridge in that way,” Mary Polak told a news conference.

“When you purchase a product in a store, when you build a bridge for $3.3 billion, you believe that it will work. You expect it will work. When it doesn’t work you seek for redress to that. You seek for someone to refund your money or you seek for someone to resolve the problem.”

Polak said that’s what the province will be doing.

“Taxpayers will not be on the hook for this and we will ensure that we have a bridge that is safe for the travelling public to use and that an event like this has a permanent solution to see that it doesn’t happen again.”

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Polak said her ministry was “alive” to snow and ice being a potential problem on the bridge before it was built and there were specifications in the contract to address the concern.

“Clearly, what we saw yesterday shows that they did not meet those requirements.”

The bridge was built by Kiewit-Flatiron General Partnership. The company said in a statement it was working to figure out where the problem is and find a solution quickly.

“We’re very concerned about the recent weather issues impacting motorists on the Port Mann Bridge,” said the statement from Thomas Janssen, director of external affairs for the company.

“With the recent severe weather conditions, it’s evident there is an issue that needs to be closely reviewed and addressed.”

The Crown agency that operates the bridge will pay the deductibles of drivers whose vehicles were damaged in the incident. Tolls for travellers who crossed the bridge between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. Wednesday will also be waived.

Prof. Tom Brown, an engineering professor at the University of Calgary known to his students as Dr. Ice, said he’s confident the problem can be fixed.

Brown has worked on offshore oil rigs and Prince Edward Island’s Confederation Bridge and said sometimes, problems slip through despite the best work by experts.

“This is certainly a concern because I would kind of imagine that the conditions under which it occurred, the atmospheric conditions in Vancouver, could well occur again,” he said in an interview.

“I don’t know what the fix will be, but it’s certainly a fixable problem.”

Brown said cold weather, high humidity, precipitation and wind all play roles in allowing ice to form on the bridge cables and eventually fall off. The ice bonds to the cold cables and when the wind whips up, it starts a vibration on the cables that eventually knocks loose the ice.

Brown said Vancouver’s rapid temperature fluctuations from cold to warm can also break off heavy ice chunks as they begin to melt.

Last January, the Tacoma Narrows Bridge near Seattle was shut down due to falling ice from bridge cables on a Kiewit-built bridge.

Alice Fiman, a spokeswoman at the Washington state Department of Transportation, said the problem was called “weather-related” at the time.

Fiman said Kiewit completed construction on the twin suspension bridges in 2007, and since then the span has been closed only once due to falling ice.

Mike Proudfoot, CEO of the Transportation Investment Corporation which operates the bridge, said the bridge is a significant crossing, the second-longest cable-stayed bridge in North America.

Building it required a “certain expertise.”

“We have the best firms in the world engaged in the design and delivery of this project, both as the original designers and as the independent checkers.”

Proudfoot said provisions had been made to prevent such snow accumulations.

“It hasn’t transpired as expected,” he said.

Possible solutions to the problem include heating the cables, the use of vibrations or coatings, as well as manual and mechanical methods for removal.

“We expect some answers on that very shortly.”

The Port Mann Bridge opened eight lanes Dec. 1 and was touted to slash commute times of up to an hour for some people.

Cars and small trucks crossing the Port Mann are electronically assessed an introductory $1.50 toll, but the levy will rise to $3.00 per crossing by next December, with varied rates applying to larger trucks and motorists using special passes.

– With files from Dirk Meissner in Victoria

Latin jazz musician Bobby Sanabria, who led protest against Grammys, feels like a winner

NEW YORK, N.Y. – Bobby Sanabria already feels like a winner.

The Latin jazz musician, who led the protest against the Recording Academy when it downsized from 109 to 78 categories last year, is nominated for best Latin jazz album – one of the awards that had been eliminated but returns at the awards show next year.

“We’re very proud,” Sanabria said in a recent interview. “It just places emphasis on the importance of this uniquely American art form. … Of all the forms of music that are still getting recognition from the Grammys, this is one of the most disenfranchised forms because it isn’t part of mainstream culture.”

The Recording Academy announced in June that it would reinstate the best Latin Jazz album award and added two others, bringing the total number of awards 81.

Sanabria’s nomination in the category for “Multiverse,” along with his Big Band, is his third time competing in the field. His band’s song, “Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite for Ellington,” is also nominated for best instrumental arrangement; the nomination goes to arranger Michael Philip Mossman.

Bronx-born Sanabria said he’s excited that the best Latin jazz album was restored, but he hopes the others come back as well.

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“CD sales are down, so the more categories we have, it’s just good business,” he said.

The Academy shook up the music industry when it announced in April 2011 that it would downsize its categories to make the awards more competitive. That meant eliminating categories by gender, so men and women compete in the same vocal categories. Artists like Herbie Hancock, Paul Simon and Bill Cosby complained, and Sanabria led the group that filed a lawsuit, which was dismissed.

The 55-year-old drummer and percussionist said that the Grammys cut is a sign of the dying appreciation of jazz and blues music in American culture.

“We live in age now where DJs are more respected than musicians and I have nothing against DJs . but there’s something to be said for the artistry of a human being taking a musical instrument and performing at a virtuosic level on it, and it takes years of dedication,” he explained. “I read something that in New York City they’re having trouble filling the demand for DJs for New Year’s Eve, and that used to be the night all musicians worked. That isn’t the case anymore and something needs to be changed in the culture, and the Grammys can help in that respect with categories like (best Latin jazz album) . and the classical music categories.”

Sanabria’s latest album is a mixture of sounds, and he said he has his parents to thank for diversifying his musical exposure. He wants to win the Grammy so that they can witness it.

“(They are in) their eighties now and they’re not in good health (and) they were the impetus for me,” he said.

Among his competition for best Latin jazz album, Sanabria will battle one of his students from New York’s The New School, Manuel Valera of the New Cuban Express. He said he’s excited to see his student get this kind of recognition, and hopes other young adults will learn to appreciate jazz music’s importance. On Feb. 8 and Feb. 9, a day before the Grammy Awards in Los Angeles, Sanabria is performing a concert special – “Family Concert: What is Latin Jazz?” – at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York.

“Without blues and jazz, you have nothing. There’s no Beyonce, there’s no Jay-Z, there’s no Katy Perry, there’s no Aerosmith,” he said. “It’s the foundation of American music and it’s sad that it isn’t being taught as part of the history curriculum at every public school.”





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‘Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol’ returns to the air this holiday season

TORONTO – For many families, watching classic TV specials like “How The Grinch Stole Christmas,” “Rudolph-the Red-nosed Reindeer” and “A Charlie Brown Christmas” have become as much a part of the annual holiday tradition as putting up the tree.

Saturday night, NBC re-broadcasts a program that actually pre-dates that trio of ’60s specials: “Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol.”

The hour-long holiday offering premiered on Dec. 18, 1962 and featured the voice of Jim Backus – a veteran character actor best known as wealthy castaway Thurston Howell III on “Gilligan’s Island” – as nearsighted cartoon curmudgeon Mister Magoo.

The character first appeared in a 1949 theatrical cartoon produced by United Productions of America, an independent film house that ushered in a new, starker graphic style in the 1950s. UPA went on to produce cartoons featuring Gerald McBoing-Boing. The two UPA stars were teamed in “Magoo’s Christmas” as Scrooge and young Tiny Tim.

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Like the Charlie Brown and Grinch specials, Magoo took advantage of a conflux of talent available for such an undertaking. Theatrical shorts had all but disappeared from movie theatres, putting talented animators and background artists out of film work and into the still relatively new world of television. Abe Levitow, who worked with Chuck Jones at Warner Bros. in the ’50s on Bugs Bunny and Roadrunner cartoons, directed the Magoo Christmas special.

Besides Backus, the voice talent on “Magoo’s Christmas” included TV veteran Morey Amsterdam (Buddy on “The Dick Van Dyke Show”) and Jack Cassidy, a busy actor who was the father of “Partridge Family” pop star David Cassidy. Veteran cartoon voice-over star Paul Frees, who did everything from Boris Badenov to the Little Green Sprout in the Green Giant commercials, can also be heard as Fezziwig and others.

Critics praised the special when it was first released, especially the songs by the Broadway team of Jule Styne and Bob Merrill, whose next hit was “Funny Girl.”

“Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol” established the formula that made the other animated ’60s specials such perennial hits. Besides being a collaboration of great musical and artistic talent at mid-century, it was based on a classic work, in this case, being “freely” (and actually quite faithfully) adapted from Charles Dickens’ novel. “Charlie Brown,” of course, took its lead from Charles Schultz’ “Peanuts” newspaper strip. “The Grinch” was the brainchild of children’s author Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss).

“Rudolph” had more commercial roots. It was written as a poem in the “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” tradition by Robert L. May for the U.S. department store Montgomery Ward. May’s brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, adapted the poem into a song. Singing cowboy Gene Autry recorded it and it went on to sell over 25 million copies.

The network broadcast revival of “Magoo” after 50 years begs the question as to why something newer hasn’t replaced all these chestnuts. Why is Christmas on TV still analog in a digital world?

Perhaps all these specials – like repeated airings of even older movies such as “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Miracle on 34th Street” -are cherished as reminders of a simpler, more innocent time. Another factor may be that today’s animated icons – “The Simpsons,” “Family Guy,” “South Park” – are more apt to deconstruct Christmas than celebrate it. Perhaps irony doesn’t go down as well as eggnog at this time of year.

“Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol” may have been the first animated special created for television but other TV offerings came first. “I Love Lucy” and “The Honeymooners” both did black-and-white Christmas-themed episodes.

One of the very first series to air a Christmas episode may never be seen on TV again. “Amos ‘n’ Andy” was a huge hit on radio in the ’30s and ’40s but was eventually criticized for being racist. A folksy tale about African Americans, it was written and performed on radio by white men – Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll.

By the time it came to television in the early ’50s, black performers Alvin Childress, Spencer Williams and Tim Moore portrayed central characters Kingfish, Amos and Andrew H. Brown.

The Christmas episode – in which Amos sits by his daughter’s bedside and explains the Lord’s Prayer – was first performed on radio in the early ’40s. When it aired on television in 1952, Andy played a department store Santa. Thus when Santa was first seen on an American TV series, he was an African American.

“Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol” airs Saturday at 8 p.m. ET on NBC and Global.

Bill Brioux is a freelance TV columnist based in Brampton, Ont.