By Mark Felsenthal WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration warned states on Tuesday that federal highway funds will be largely depleted in August, limiting the money states can expect to pay for road and bridge projects this summer. The political stalemate in Congress over transportation spending means drivers will have to endure more potholes and detour around more unsafe bridges, delaying commutes, excursions and the delivery of products to market. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx told states the government will slow federal reimbursement for highway repairs in August as the U.S. Highway Trust Fund drops below a critical threshold next month. Foxx, and later, in a separate speech, President Barack Obama, urged Congress to replenish the fund by ending tax breaks and using the revenues to set aside money to repair the nation's infrastructure.
Ratings company Moody's on Tuesday slashed Puerto Rico's debt rating by three notches into even deeper junk status after the US territory passed a debt-restructuring law. Moody's Investors Service cut the rating to "B2" from "Ba2" and said the outlook was negative, indicating further downgrades were possible. Now dubbed the "Greece of the Caribbean," the archipelago is, like Greece, reeling under massive debt. In a bid for debt relief, the Puerto Rican authorities recently adopted a law that allows for the restructuring of part of its debt by allowing public corporations to defer or reduce payments on outstanding payments, to the detriment of creditors.
Washington backed calls for voters in Hong Kong to be given a say in nominating their next leader after half a million protesters marched through the city's streets on Tuesday. "We support Hong Kong's well-established traditions and basic law protections that include internationally recognized freedoms such as freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression," State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said. "We believe that an open society with the highest possible degree of autonomy and governed by the rule of law is really essential for Hong Kong's stability and prosperity," she told reporters, risking the ire of China. Waving colonial-era flags and chanting anti-Beijing slogans, Tuesday's protest was the largest since Hong Kong was handed back to China by Britain in 1997, organizers said.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said Tuesday his country would not give up on Russia's controversial South Stream gas pipeline project as it was key to securing the country's energy supplies. The crisis in Ukraine has made the planned pipeline bringing Siberian gas to the European Union -- bypassing Ukraine -- a new focus of tensions between Moscow, Brussels and Washington. "We will not allow ourselves to get into a situation that our gas supplies depend on Ukraine," Orban told reporters after talks with his Serbian counterpart Aleksandar Vucic. "Hungary will build up South Stream as it will secure our energy supplies," he said.
A hugely controversial Russian law banning curse words in films, theatre, the media and arts came into force on Tuesday, part of a Kremlin-backed drive to play up traditional values and root out swearing. The legislation, wich was signed off by President Vladimir Putin in May, imposes hefty fines on offenders -- up to 2,500 rubles ($72) for individuals and up to 50,000 rubles ($1,460) for businesses. The legislation does not spell out what constitutes profanity but the law is widely seen to be targeting Russia's hugely potent lingua franca of obscenities known as "mat". Many ridiculed the legislation, saying efforts to outlaw what essentially is an inalienable part of Russia's culture will fail.
In a victory for two small upstate New York towns, the state’s highest court on Monday upheld their local bans on fracking, the bitterly contentious method in which high-pressure water and chemicals are used to extract subterranean natural gas. It is a decision that many observers say could reverberate through New York’s energy industry for years to come, as it affirms the “home rule authority” of towns and local communities, granted by the state’s constitution, allowing them to forbid fracking (also known also as hydraulic fracturing) and other forms of gas drilling within their borders. Drilling companies sued the municipalities, saying only the state had the power to regulate gas drilling. The decision comes, too, as more than 100 municipalities from Pennsylvania to New Mexico have passed similar bans and moratoriums on fracking, according to FracTracker, a national nonprofit that compiles data on the oil and gas industry.
The United States Tuesday welcomed a historic shift by Japan to expand the role of its military by reinterpreting the terms of the nation's US-imposed constitution. "We have followed with interest the extensive discussion within Japan on the issue of exercising its right under the UN Charter to collective self-defense," State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said. "We welcome the government of Japan's new policy regarding collective self-defense and related security matters." After months of political horse-trading and browbeating of opponents, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said his cabinet had formally endorsed a reinterpretation of rules that have banned the use of armed force except in very narrowly-defined circumstances.
The White House Tuesday called on Israel and the Palestinian Authority to preserve security cooperation, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu mulls action against Hamas after the murder of three Israeli teenagers. The Obama administration also backed Israel's claims that the Islamist group was to blame for the killings, and reiterated a call for restraint on both sides. Israel has vowed to hunt down the militants it believes are responsible for the killings, which were followed by Israeli raids on Hamas targets in Gaza earlier in the day. White House spokesman Josh Earnest reiterated President Barack Obama's outrage over the killings and call for both sides to avoid destabilizing action, expressed on Monday in a written statement.
WASHINGTON (AP) — Their Senate majority in peril, anxious Democrats have seized the Supreme Court decision that some companies need not provide birth control to women as fresh evidence of the GOP's "war on women" — an argument they hope will energize female voters who could decide the balance of power on Capitol Hill.
The declaration of an Islamic caliphate in parts of Iraq and Syria is a direct challenge to Al-Qaeda and could set off a dangerous contest for the leadership of the global jihadist movement, experts say. "This competition between jihadists could be very dangerous," said Shashank Joshi of the London-based Royal United Services Institute, warning that Al-Qaeda may look to make a "spectacular" show of force. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) announced on Sunday it was establishing a caliphate in parts of Iraq and Syria where it has seized control.
The Sunni militant onslaught in Iraq has created "an extremely volatile and dangerous situation for children," a top UN official warned Tuesday. There were "disturbing reports" of the recruitment of child soldiers and other "grave violations" against minors in the conflict, said Leila Zerrougui, the UN special representative for children and armed conflict. The jihadist group leading the Iraqi offensive had since 2011 been on the United Nation's black list in particular because of its attacks against schools, Zerrougui noted. It accuses seven national armies and 50 armed groups of using child soldiers -- including Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and Syria.
US Secretary of State John Kerry reiterated Tuesday Washington's calls for Central American cooperation in addressing the plight of tens of thousands of illegal child migrants making their way to the United States. The rapid surge in unaccompanied children making the dangerous journey, most of them from Central America, has prompted US officials to talk of a "humanitarian crisis" and to issue reminders the vast majority of the minors will be deported. Kerry met with Salvadoran President Salvador Sanchez Ceren and Guatemalan President Otto Perez plus Honduran Foreign Minister Mireya Aguero in Panama City.