U.S. evolves on same-sex marriage


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obama on same-sex marriage: Everyone is equal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pew survey: Changing attitudes on gay marriage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top Republicans sign brief supporting same-sex marriage

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

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

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

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

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

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Rescuers end effort to find body of man presumed dead in sinkhole

SEFFNER, Florida -- Florida rescue workers have ended their efforts to recover the body of a man who disappeared into a sinkhole that swallowed his bedroom while he slept in a suburban Tampa home, and the house will be demolished, a public safety official said on Saturday.

Jeff Bush, 36, who is presumed dead, was asleep when the other five members of the household who were getting ready for bed on Thursday night heard a loud crash and Jeff screaming.

Authorities have not detected any signs of life after lowering listening devices and cameras into the hole.

"Our data has come back, and there is absolutely no way we can do any kind of recovery without endangering lives of workers," said Hillsborough County Fire Rescue spokeswoman Jessica Dam.

The sinkhole also has compromised the house next door, officials said Saturday.

Officials planned to let family members, accompanied by firefighters, into the threatened  home for about 20 minutes to gather some  belongings, Hillsborough County Fire Rescue spokesman Ronnie Rivera told reporters Saturday.

She said demolition of the home would begin early on Sunday.

Bush's body hadn’t been removed by Saturday afternoon and the ground near the home was still "very, very unsafe," Rivera said at a televised press conference Saturday.

"At this time we did some testing and we determined that the house right next to the house that’s actually damaged is also compromised by the sinkhole," Rivera said.

Jeff's brother, 35-year-old Jeremy Bush, jumped into the hole and furiously kept digging to find his brother.

"I really don't think they are going to be able to find him," Jeremy said on Saturday. He "will be there forever."

A small memorial of balloons and flowers for his brother had formed near the house on Saturday morning.

"I thank the Lord for not taking my daughter and the rest of my family," he said.

Jeremy himself had to be rescued from the sinkhole by the first responder to the emergency call, Douglas Duvall of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office. When Duvall entered Jeff Bush's bedroom, all he saw was a widening chasm but no sign of Jeff.

"The hole took the entire bedroom," said Duvall. "You could see the bed frame, the dresser, everything was sinking," he said.

Norman Wicker, 48, the father of Jeremy's fiancee who also lived in the house, ran to get a flashlight and shovel.

"It sounded like a car ran into the back of the house," Wicker said.

"There is a very large, very fluid mass underneath this house rendering the entire house and the entire lot dangerous and unsafe," Bill Bracken, the head of an engineering company assisting fire and rescue officials, told the news conference late on Friday.

"We are still trying to determine the extent and nature of what's down there so we can best determine how to approach it and how to extricate," Bracken said.

After suspending the search overnight, it resumed at daylight on Saturday, with engineering consultants trying to determine the extent of the collapse so that a perimeter boundary can be established for setting up heavy equipment for future excavation.

Several nearby homes were evacuated in case the 30-foot wide sinkhole got larger but officials said Friday it only appeared to be getting deeper. Soil samples showed that the sinkhole has compromised the ground underneath a home next door, engineers said Saturday.

The residents of that house were allowed 20 minutes in their home on Saturday to gather belongings. Firefighters and residents formed an assembly line to move items out of the house into SUVs and trucks.

Rescue officials said that in addition to soil samples, they were focusing on engineering analysis, ground penetration radar and other techniques to determine the extent of the ongoing collapse. Listening devices were being used to detect any evidence of life although Bush was presumed dead.

The Bush brothers worked together as landscapers, according to Leland Wicker, 48, one of the other residents of the house.

The risk of sinkholes is common in Florida due to the state's porous geological bedrock, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. As rainwater filters down into the ground, it dissolves the rock, causing erosion that can lead to underground caverns, which cause sinkholes when they collapse.


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Wall Street advances as data outweighs budget cuts

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Stocks advanced modestly on Friday, leaving the S&P 500 with slight gains in a volatile week as strong economic data overshadowed growth concerns in China and Europe and let investors discount the impact of expected government spending cuts.

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

Consumer sentiment also rose in February as Americans turned more optimistic about the job market.

With $85 billion in government budget cuts set to begin, President Barack Obama blamed Republicans for failure to reach a compromise to avert the cuts, known as sequester. But the stock market appeared to have already priced in the failure by legislators to reach an agreement.

"We were able to dig out of that hole, but not make any great strides on it either," said Peter Jankovskis, co-chief investment officer at OakBrook Investments LLC in Lisle, Illinois. "We will probably be in a holding pattern pending some big development on a broader budget deal."

The Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> gained 35.17 points, or 0.25 percent, to 14,089.66 at the close. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.spx> added 3.52 points, or 0.23 percent, to 1,518.20. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.ixic> advanced 9.55 points, or 0.30 percent, to 3,169.74.

For the week, the Dow rose 0.6 percent, the S&P 500 edged up 0.2 percent and the Nasdaq gained 0.3 percent.

The slight gains for equities came during a volatile week that saw markets decline on Monday after uncertain Italian elections, only to rebound in the next two sessions as Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke defended the central bank's stimulus measures.

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

Intuitive Surgical jumped 8.5 percent to $553.40 after Cantor Fitzgerald analyst Jeremy Feffer upgraded the stock, saying the stock's slide of more than 11 percent on Thursday was a gross overreaction to a news report.

Groupon Inc surged 12.6 percent to $5.10 a day after the online coupon company fired its chief executive officer in the wake of weak quarterly results.

Gap Inc rose 2.9 percent to $33.87 after the clothing retailer reported fourth-quarter earnings that beat expectations and boosting its dividend by 20 percent, while Salesforce.com Inc posted sales that beat forecasts, driving its stock up 7.6 percent to $182.

Chesapeake Energy Corp fell 2.4 percent to $19.67 after the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission escalated its investigation into the company and its Chief Executive Aubrey McClendon for a controversial perk that granted him a share in each of the natural gas producer's wells.

Volume was modest with about 6.72 billion shares traded on the New York Stock Exchange, NYSE MKT and Nasdaq, slightly above the daily average of 6.5 billion.

Advancing stocks outnumbered declining ones on the NYSE by a ratio of about 17 to 13, while on the Nasdaq, seven stocks rose for about every five stocks that fell.

(Editing by Jan Paschal)

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AP sources: Flacco agrees to Ravens deal

Joe Flacco is staying in Baltimore.

The Super Bowl MVP quarterback agreed Friday to a new contact with the Ravens, two people with knowledge of the deal told The Associated Press.

Terms were not immediately available, but Flacco was expected to get a long-term contract close to the $20 million average salary Drew Brees earns with New Orleans.

The people spoke on condition of anonymity because the agreement has not officially been announced.

Fox Sports first reported the new deal.

Flacco played out his rookie contract last season for $6.76 million and led Baltimore to the NFL championship.

The 28-year-old Flacco is the only quarterback to win a postseason game in each of his first five pro seasons. He had a spectacular playoffs and Super Bowl this year, throwing for 11 touchdowns with no interceptions.

He also holds the record for playoff road wins with six.

Before the Super Bowl, Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti expressed confidence that Flacco would be the Ravens' quarterback of the future.

"We've never lost a great, great franchise player from the beginning," Bisciotti said. "I'm just very comfortable that it will get done."

On Friday, it did.

Flacco was a first-round draft pick in 2008 out of Delaware and one of the most consistent postseason winners in NFL history.

Flacco said after the Super Bowl victory over San Francisco that he expected to be back in Baltimore. He made sure of that Friday, coincidentally hours after the franchise tag figures for 2013 became known.

Had Flacco been franchised, he would have earned at least $14.896 million this season.

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Syria war is everybody's problem

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frida Ghitis

Frida Ghitis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

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

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New budget crisis begins after Washington fiscal talks fail

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

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

"This is not going to be an apocalypse,” Obama told reporters at the White House  Friday. "It's just dumb. And it's going to hurt. It's going to hurt individual people, and it's going to hurt the economy overall."

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

Democrats predict the cuts, known as "sequestration," could soon cause air traffic delays, furloughs for hundreds of thousands of federal employees and disruption to education.

While the International Monetary Fund warned that the belt tightening could slow U.S. economic growth by at least 0.5 of a percentage point this year, that is not a huge drag on an economy that is picking up steam.

Obama was resigned to government budgets shrinking.

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

At the heart of Washington's persistent fiscal crises is disagreement over how to slash the budget deficit and the $16 trillion national debt, bloated over the years by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and government stimulus for the ailing economy.

Obama wants to close the fiscal gap with spending cuts and tax hikes, but Republicans don't want to concede again on taxes after doing so in negotiations over the "fiscal cliff" at the New Year.

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

The billions of dollars in cuts that go into effect on Saturday will probably be phased in over the coming weeks and months. Agencies from the Pentagon to the Department of Education have begun making plans to notify employees who will have to take unpaid days off.

Administration officials say the cutbacks in staffing will affect everything from air-traffic control to border security, preventive health screenings and prosecution of criminal cases. The automatic cuts were harsh by design, meant to force Republicans and Democrats into a bigger budget deal that reduces deficit spending.

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

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

The Justice Department has already sent notices of furloughs that will begin April 21 at the earliest to some 115,000 workers, including at the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Unlike previous fiscal dramas, the sequestration fight is not rattling Wall Street.

U.S. stocks rose moderately on Friday, with the Dow Industrials closing up 35 points, as data showed manufacturing expanded at its fastest pace in 20 months in February. Despite being up more than 7 percent this year, and near a record high, the discord in Washington has not prompted traders to cash in gains.

"Most of us believe that sequestration is not something that will make us fall off the cliff, since the cuts will be worked in relatively slowly," said Bill Stone, chief investment strategist at PNC Wealth Management in Philadelphia.

Poll shows GOP beraing blame

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Wall Street ends flat after late fade; S&P up for fourth month

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Stocks ended flat on Thursday, giving up modest gains late in the session, denying the Dow a chance to inch closer to all-time highs.

The S&P 500 still managed to close out February with a fourth straight month of gains. JC Penney Co Inc was the day's biggest loser, falling 17 percent to $17.57 after the department store operator reported a steep drop in sales.

The U.S. economy grew slightly in the fourth quarter, a turnaround from an earlier estimate showing contraction, and a drop in new claims for unemployment benefits last week added to a batch of data suggesting the economy continues its sluggish improvement.

The Dow was within striking distance of its record high after a year-to-date advance of more than 7 percent. The Dow's record closing high, set on October 9, 2007, stands at 14,164.53, while the Dow's intraday record high, set on October 11, 2007, stands at 14,198.10.

The Dow Jones Transportation Average <.djt>, seen as a bet on future growth, is up 12.9 percent this year, and the 20-stock index hit a record intraday high earlier on Thursday.

"To push through to new highs, you would have to see consistent positive economic data in the U.S. and have Europe stabilize - those are two pretty big requirements," said Jeff Morris, head of U.S. equities at Standard Life Investments in Boston.

"It wouldn't surprise me to see us bounce around as we have the past couple of weeks," Morris added.

Volume was low for most of the session until quarterly index-rebalancing activity hit the tape at the very close of trading.

After a strong January with gains of more than 5 percent, both the Dow and the S&P 500 found gains tougher to come by in February. Minutes from the Federal Reserve's January meeting sparked concerns that the central bank may pull back on its stimulus measures sooner than expected, while looming U.S. budget cuts and turbulent Italian elections tempered investors' aggressiveness.

But concerns about Fed policy were eased by testimony from Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke before a congressional committee earlier this week, as he defended the policy of buying bonds to keep interest rates low to boost growth, despite worries some have about possible inflation.

The Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> shed 20.88 points, or 0.15 percent, to 14,054.49 at the close. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.spx> lost 1.31 points, or 0.09 percent, to 1,514.68. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.ixic> fell 2.07 points, or 0.07 percent, to end at 3,160.19.

For the month, the Dow rose 1.4 percent, the S&P 500 gained 1.1 percent and the Nasdaq advanced 0.6 percent.

Limited Brands and Netflix ranked among the best-performing consumer stocks. Shares of Limited Brands, the parent of retailers Victoria's Secret and Bath & Body Works, gained 2.3 percent to $45.52. The stock of video streaming service Netflix climbed 2 percent to $$188.08.

In contrast, shares of Groupon Inc fell on weak revenue, with the daily deals company's tumbling 24.3 percent to $4.53.

Cablevision slumped 9.6 percent to $13.99 after the cable provider took a $100 million hit on costs related to Superstorm Sandy and posted deeper video customer losses than expected.

On a positive note, Mylan Inc gained 3.6 percent to $29.61 after the generic drugmaker posted a 25 percent rise in fourth-quarter profit and said it will buy a unit of India's Strides Arcolab Ltd.

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

Volume was modest with about 6.81 billion shares traded on the New York Stock Exchange, NYSE MKT and Nasdaq, slightly above the daily average of 6.46 billion.

Advancing stocks slightly outnumbered declining ones on the NYSE by 1,518 to 1,446. On the Nasdaq, the decliners had a slight edge, with 1,247 shares falling and 1,201 stocks rising.

(Reporting by Chuck Mikolajczak; Editing by Jan Paschal)

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Syria war is everybody's problem


  • NEW: France considers sending Syrian rebels night-vision gear and body armor, a source says

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

  • The statements after European Union loosens restrictions to allow nonlethal aid to rebels

  • The U.S. will also send non-lethal aid to rebels for first time, plus $60 million in administrative aid

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

Meanwhile, European nations began to explore ways to strengthen rebel fighters that stop short of arming them after a European Council decision allowing such aid to flow to Syria.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Islamist Influence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Additional aid possible

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

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

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

A diplomatic official at the French Foreign Ministry told CNN that France is studying the possibility of supplying night-vision equipment or body armor.

"It is in the scope of the amendment," the official said.

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

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

READ: Syrian army in Homs is showing strains of war

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

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

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

Humanitarian crisis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

READ: Syrian war is everybody's problem

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

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Groupon founder Andrew Mason fired; shares jump

Groupon on Thursday ousted its CEO, company co-founder Andrew Mason, replacing him with two current directors amid increasing heat about the deal site's disappointing financial performance.

In a letter to employees, Mason said he was fired, with a playful and self-deprecating addition: "If you're wondering why ... you haven't been paying attention."

"From controversial metrics in our (initial public offering) to two quarters of missing our own expectations and a stock price that's hovering around one quarter of our listing price, the events of the last year and a half speak for themselves," Mason continued. "As CEO, I am accountable."

As far back as November, Groupon and Mason were forced to respond publicly to a report that he would lose his job. Reports surfaced at the time that Groupon's board was considering replacing Mason with a more experienced CEO to lead the Chicago-based daily deal company's turnaround.  

The board said it's searching for a permanent replacement. For now, Executive Chairman Eric Lefkofsky -- an original investor -- and Vice Chairman Ted Leonsis will share the task.

The company said its earnings expectations for the first quarter and full year outlined on Wednesday remain unchanged.

Investors appear to applaud Mason's departure, driving shares up in after-hours trading after a brutal regular session in which the stock lost a quarter of its value. Shares had plummeted in continuing fallout from a weaker than expected earnings report and forecast on Wednesday. The stock jumped 8 percent after hours on the news and was at $4.70, up nearly 4 percent, at 5:26 p.m.

Mason, a 32-year-old Northwestern University graduate, has come under fire for a series of missteps including controversy during its IPO and not finding a quick enough solution for its financial struggles.

Arvind Bhatia, a senior research analyst at Sterne Agee who recently upgraded Groupon to a "buy" with a $9 price target, said he expected Mason to have a few more quarters to prove himself, but the plummeting stock price likely forced the board to make a move.

"I think the reaction to the stock pushed them over the edge," Bhatia said. "It was basically saying that the market is not giving Andrew a vote of confidence, and I think the board took that message seriously."

Groupon, which was founded in 2008, was once a red-hot company that sparked a number of deal site competitors by marketing discounts on local services such as spas and restaurants to millions of online subscribers.

It turned down a nearly $6 billion buyout offer by Google in 2010 that at the time was thought to undervalue the company. A year later, it ended its first day as a public company worth $16 billion.

But it has lost about three-quarters of its value since it went public. On Thursday, its market capitalization was less than $3 billion, according to Capital IQ.

The scrutiny of Groupon was tremendous, given the "high-flying" nature of the company and the culture created and fostered by Mason, observers said.

That culture turned from a lovable quirk to a major liability as the company ran into controversy over its poorly received Super Bowl ads two years ago and a series of missteps before its IPO. Then, within months of its public debut, it disclosed an accounting flaw that forced it to restate financial results.

The larger question surrounding Groupon -- the long-term viability of its basic business model -- remains. The company has been expanding offerings beyond its core daily deals, where growth has slumped.

On Wednesday, the company posted a fourth-quarter net loss of $81.1 million, or 12 cents a share, missing Wall Street's expectations for a profit. Revenue for the quarter was up 30 percent, in line with analysts' views.

Groupon also warned Wednesday that its turnaround would take time, suggesting it will likely cut employees and overall expenses.

Tribune reporter Robert Channick contributed.

GRPN Chart

GRPN data by YCharts

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Wall Street gains on Bernanke comments, S&P above 1,500

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Stocks rose on Wednesday, with major indexes posting their best daily gains since early January, as Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke remained steadfast in supporting the Fed's stimulus policy and data pointed to economic improvement.

In a second day before a congressional committee, Bernanke defended the Fed's buying of bonds to keep interest rates low to boost growth. The market's jump of more than 1 percent also came on better-than-expected data on business spending plans and the housing market.

Bernanke's remarks helped the market rebound from its worst decline since November and put the S&P 500 index back above 1,500, a closely watched level that has been technical support until recently. The Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> closed at a level not seen since 2007 as it again pulled within striking distance of an all-time high.

Speaking before the House Financial Services Committee, Bernanke downplayed signs of internal divisions at the Fed, saying the policy of quantitative easing, or QE, has the support of a "significant majority" of top central bank officials.

Bernanke removed a headwind from markets arising from concerns the Fed's quantitative easing might end earlier than anticipated. Doubts about the Fed's intentions had broken a seven-week streak of gains by stocks.

"The Fed continues to encourage risk-taking in markets, which is a powerful tool that makes the danger not being long stocks, not in being too long," said Tom Mangan, a money manager at James Investment Research Inc in Xenia, Ohio.

The Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> was up 176.32 points, or 1.27 percent, at 14,076.45. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.spx> was up 19.07 points, or 1.27 percent, at 1,516.01. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.ixic> was up 32.61 points, or 1.04 percent, at 3,162.26.

Pending home sales jumped 4.5 percent in January, three times the rate of growth that had been expected. While orders for durable goods fell more than expected in January, non-defense capital goods orders excluding aircraft - a closely watched proxy for business spending plans - showed the biggest gain since December 2011.

About 74 percent of stocks traded on the New York Stock Exchange closed higher while 64 percent of Nasdaq-listed shares closed up.

The S&P turned very slightly higher on the week, recovering from the index's biggest daily drop since November on Monday. That drop came on concerns over Italy's election, as well as over sequestration - U.S. government budget cuts that will take effect starting on Friday if lawmakers fail to reach an agreement on spending and taxes.

The index had climbed 6.3 percent for the year before pulling back on concerns about Fed policy and inconclusive elections in Italy, which rekindled fears of a new euro zone debt crisis.

"While the rally remains intact and there are reasons to be long-term bullish here, there are also reasons to not be surprised if we get a correction," said Mangan, who helps oversee $3.7 billion.

In earnings news, Priceline.com gained 2.6 percent to $695.91 after reporting adjusted earnings that beat expectations. TJX Cos Inc jumped 2.5 percent to $44.75 after the retail chain operator posted higher fourth-quarter results.

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

Target Corp offered a cautious outlook for consumer spending in 2013 following a weak holiday quarter. The stock dipped 1.1 percent to $63.32.

First Solar Inc plunged 14 percent to $27.04 after failing to give a full-year earnings and sales outlook, though it also swung to a quarterly profit.

Groupon Inc plunged 21 percent to $4.70 after the bell after reporting its fourth-quarter results.

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

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

About 6.23 billion shares changed hands on the New York Stock Exchange, the Nasdaq and NYSE MKT, slightly below the daily average so far this year of about 6.48 billion shares.

(Editing by Nick Zieminski and Kenneth Barry)

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