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White House raps Republicans over ambassadorial logjam

The White House blamed Senate Republicans for putting US national security at risk by thwarting the swift confirmation of a long list of President Barack Obama's ambassador picks -- some to hot-spot nations. National Security Advisor Susan Rice said 48 of Obama's nominations for ambassador overseas were pending and awaiting confirmation by the chamber. "I am focused every day on keeping our country secure and our citizens -- at home and abroad -- safe," said Rice in a White House blog post. Rice said a quarter of US ambassadors in Africa were awaiting Senate confirmation, even as extremist threats, like the Boko Haram Islamist group, pose rising national security risks.

US: Thai coup repressive, likely to last

WASHINGTON (AP) — Thailand's recent military takeover is more repressive and likely to endure longer than the last military coup eight years ago, a senior U.S. official said Tuesday.

Cochran leads in early Mississippi returns

WASHINGTON (AP) — Six-term Sen. Thad Cochran grabbed an early lead over tea party favorite Chris McDaniel Tuesday night in a bruising, costly Mississippi primary runoff that exposed deep divisions within the Republican Party.

West readies package of sector sanctions on Russia

WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States and its European allies are finalizing a package of sanctions on Russia's key economic sectors that could be levied as early as this week, though the package might be delayed because of positive signals from Russian President Vladimir Putin, administration officials and others close to the decision-making said Tuesday.

Biden: Gay rights takes precedence over culture

WASHINGTON (AP) — Seeking to mobilize a global front against anti-gay violence and discrimination, Vice President Joe Biden declared Tuesday that protecting gay rights is a defining mark of a civilized nation and must trump national cultures and social traditions.

Obama, Boehner come together at White House to celebrate golf

U.S. President Barack Obama and Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner made a rare joint appearance on Tuesday at the White House to celebrate a common love: golf. Boehner, who has opposed a lot of the Democratic president's legislative initiatives, joined him and Vice President Joe Biden on stage for a reception to honor the 2013 Presidents Cup at the White House. Golf great Tiger Woods stood near them. "I am joined by two of my favorite golf partners, the Vice President, Joe Biden, and the Speaker of the House, John Boehner," Obama said in brief remarks.

Tea Party takes on veteran Cochran in Mississippi runoff

By Jonathan Kaminsky CANTON Miss. (Reuters) - Voting concluded in a bitter Senate primary contest in Mississippi on Tuesday between a veteran U.S. senator who has steered billions of dollars to his impoverished state and a conservative challenger backed by the insurgent Tea Party movement. The election, a runoff between Senator Thad Cochran and state Senator Chris McDaniel, became a multimillion-dollar referendum on the direction of the Republican Party. Senior Republican lawmakers in Kentucky, Idaho and Texas, aided by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups, have turned back primary challengers who argued that the incumbents are too willing to compromise with President Barack Obama and his fellow Democrats. He has channeled billions of federal dollars to Mississippi for highways, disaster relief and other projects.

Lawmakers slam veterans health bill cost estimate

By David Lawder WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Cost estimates of up to $50 billion a year for a veterans emergency medical care bill drew sharp criticism on Tuesday from lawmakers who said they were grossly inflated and would complicate negotiations over final details of the legislation. The measure, with slightly differing versions passed by both the Senate and House of Representatives, would allow veterans a two-year period to seek private care at the Department of Veteran Affairs' expense if forced to endure long waits at the agency's facilities or if they live more than 40 miles away. House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller said Republicans on a negotiating panel want to find savings to offset the costs of the measure, but they believe the Congressional Budget Office estimates are unrealistic. The non-partisan CBO issued a preliminary estimate that these provisions would cost the Department of Veterans Affairs $35 billion through 2016, and if left in place therafter would about $50 billion a year.

Obama, Biden make calls on Ukraine with truce in peril

Vice President Joe Biden spoke with Ukraine's president Tuesday after pro-Russian insurgents downed an army helicopter against ceasefire orders from their commander, the White House said. The chopper downing, in which nine Ukrainian soldiers were killed, could torpedo hopes that Ukraine's Western-backed President Petro Poroshenko -- having ordered a one-week unilateral ceasefire Friday that the rebels accepted on Monday -- will be able to negotiate an end to 11 weeks of violence that has claimed 435 lives, according to UN figures and an AFP count. Biden "offered condolences for the deaths of Ukrainian service members, including the shooting down of a Ukrainian transport helicopter in eastern Ukraine," a White House statement said of the third call with Poroshenko in as many days.

Congress honors MLK, 50 years of Civil Rights Act

Holding hands and singing "We Shall Overcome," US lawmakers on Tuesday marked the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act by conferring Congress's highest honor on the late Martin Luther King. A 2004 resolution accorded the Congressional Gold Medal to the civil-rights icon and his wife, Coretta Scott King. "Through their actions, their speeches and their writings, they have created the climate for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and President Lyndon Johnson signed these two pieces of legislation into law," said House Democrat John Lewis, himself a civil-rights icon who worked alongside King in the 1960s.

Sudan war-zone bombing may be 'starvation' policy, says Amnesty

Intensified bombing in Sudan's war-torn South Kordofan may be part of an attempt to starve the population, Amnesty International said on Wednesday. The air raids in recent weeks are "unprecedented in their scale and impact," the London-based watchdog said, citing human rights monitors. In the last week of May, 59 bombs fell in and around Kauda, a stronghold of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N), Amnesty said in a briefing paper. Between May 15 and 22, Sudan's air force dropped around 200 bombs over the agricultural area of Tangal in Umm Durain district, severely disrupting the planting season, it said.

Washington state moves to keep recreational pot from kids

By Bryan Cohen SEATTLE (Reuters) - Washington state, which is moving forward on allowing stores to sell pot for recreational use, will require child-resistant packaging on marijuana products and prohibit images that could appeal to minors, Governor Jay Inslee said on Tuesday. Voters in Washington state and Colorado in 2012 became the first in the nation to legalize recreational marijuana at the state level, and Colorado has allowed sales of the drug at retail stores for adult consumers age 21 and older since the beginning of the year. The drug is still banned under federal law, but officials with the U.S. Department of Justice say they will not interfere with states' efforts to regulate and tax it, provided state officials are able to meet a minimum set of requirements that include keeping it away from children. "If we fail to act, this effort to legalize recreational marijuana could be in some doubt," Inslee said.

Bolivia's new clock runs left, an homage to Southern peoples

Bolivia's congress has a new clock -- and its numbers run counterclockwise, in homage to the people of the southern hemisphere, local authorities said Tuesday. The new bronze clock replaces a traditional time piece with Roman numerals on the legislative building in the heart of La Paz, which was first inaugurated in 1905. News of the backwards clock surprised residents in the capital and prompted a demand for explanations from opposition lawmakers in congress -- whose majority is held by the socialist party of President Evo Morales, an indigenous Aymara and a leader of Latin America's hard left. Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca, also an Aymara, told the ABI press agency that the new clock aimed to show "it was time to recover our identity."

Kerry arrives for NATO talks on Ukraine, Iraq

US Secretary of State John Kerry huddled with European allies ahead of key NATO talks Wednesday, after a whirlwind visit to Iraq aimed at shoring up Iraqi unity. Shortly after flying in on a US military plane from northern Iraq, Kerry met late Tuesday with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton as well as other European partners and "discussed the grave security situation in Iraq." They also talked about "efforts to de-escalate tensions in Ukraine and efforts to support the political process in Libya," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said. With crises boiling over in Ukraine and Syria, the Sunni jihadist offensive in northern Iraq has added new urgency to an already packed NATO agenda, with ministers also due to discuss efforts to wind down the war in Afghanistan.

Jagland re-elected as Council of Europe head

The Council of Europe said Tuesday that Thorbjoern Jagland had been elected to a second five-year term at the head of the pan-European body that has recently played an active role in the Ukraine crisis. Jagland, a 63-year-old Norwegian, beat off competition from former German justice minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger to win another mandate at the head of the rights body. It is the first time since the Council of Europe was established in 1949 that a secretary general has been re-elected. Jagland has played an active role in trying to ease the crisis in Ukraine, making several visits to Kiev as the unrest threatened to spiral into all-out war in Europe.

US Army officer named as new commander for Afghanistan

Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel on Tuesday nominated an army officer who commanded troops in volatile eastern Afghanistan to take over command of the US-led force in the country. General John Campbell was named to succeed General Joe Dunford as head of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which is now in the midst of a major withdrawal, the Pentagon said in a statement. The international force will withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of the year, with a small contingent of 9,800 US troops and a few thousand soldiers from NATO allies due to remain on the ground in 2015. Campbell previously led troops in the 101st Airborne Division in eastern Afghanistan in 2010-2011, when US forces were engaged in heavy fighting with Afghan insurgents.

Rice rebukes Russia, Brunei, Uganda over gay rights

A top aide to President Barack Obama Tuesday singled out nations including Russia, Uganda and Brunei as the worst transgressors against gay rights -- and warned governments everywhere must outlaw discrimination. National Security Advisor Susan Rice told a forum of Lesbian, Gay, bi-sexual and transgender (LGBT) activists at the White House that the choice to love a partner of the same sex was a fundamental human right. "In many places, allies and supporters of the LGBT community are also penalized," Rice said.

White House raps Republicans over ambassadorial logjam

The White House blamed Senate Republicans Tuesday for putting US national security at risk by thwarting the swift confirmation of a long list of President Barack Obama's ambassador picks -- some to hot-spot nations. National Security Advisor Susan Rice said that 48 of Obama's nominations for ambassador overseas were pending and 26 were already on the Senate's executive calendar and eligible for full confirmation by the chamber. Rice also said that 16 of the 26 were foreign service officers -- in a preemptive strike at administration critics who have complained some ambassadorial picks are Obama cronies and fundraisers who have proven themselves a political liability in several botched confirmation hearings. "I am focused every day on keeping our country secure and our citizens –- at home and abroad –- safe," said Rice in a White House blog post.