Glasgow revels in Bolt buzz and warm glow

The Glasgow Commonwealth Games proved to be much more than just 'Friendly' as Scottish culture, sport and six-times Olympic champion Usain Bolt combined to create a memorable 11-day event.

The success of the Games was assured with the golden seal of approval from Bolt, the world's most recognisable athlete, whose cameo in Jamaica's sprint relay triumph lit up Scotland's biggest city.

Inevitably, Bolt stole the show, providing one of the images of the "Friendly Games" as he returned home with a gold medal from his maiden Commonwealth appearance.

The Games provided few truly jaw-dropping sporting moments, but they will be remembered for the spirit in which athletes and visitors from the 71 Commonwealth nations and territories were greeted by crowds determined to enjoy the party.

"In my view, they are the standout Games in the history of the movement," Commonwealth Games Federation chief executive Mike Hooper said.

"The way in which the people of Scotland and Glasgow have embraced the Games right from the get-go has been incredible."

With England's double Olympic champion Mo Farah pulling out, it was left to the world's fastest man Bolt to provide the glamour and boost TV ratings but there was no shortage of quality on show, from the netball courts, to the judo mats, the swimming pool and the velodrome.

After reportedly making disparaging remarks about the Games, eight-times world champion Bolt did not disappoint when he finally arrived at the Hampden Park track to rapturous cheers from a capacity crowd.

"It's always great to have fun with the fans. They made the Games what it was. They are so warm, even when I was cold they were always warm," Bolt, the 100 and 200 metres world record holder, said of his time in Glasgow.

Having anchored Jamaica to victory in the 4x100 relay to give the crowd the result they craved, Bolt continued his Scottish charm offensive by donning a tartan hat and scarf while performing his 'lightning bolt' celebration and posing for selfies with ticket holders.

"I'm happy for the fans and I'm happy to get my Commonwealth gold medal. It (the Commonwealth Games) was always on my to-do list," Bolt said. "Other than the weather it's been brilliant."

There were few incidents to mar the feast of sporting action but two failed drugs tests did cast a shadow.

Nigeria's 16-year-old weightlifter Chika Amalaha was stripped of her gold medal after failing a doping test and Botswana's former 400m world champion Amantle Montsho also tested positive for a banned substance.

HEART-WARMING STORIES

But among the 6,500 athletes representing 71 mostly former British colonies, there were many heart-warming stories.

Kiribati celebrated its first Commonwealth medal after guitar-strumming David Katoatau won weightlifting gold while compatriot Taoriba Biniati fought another woman for the first time as women's boxing made its Games debut.

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Cyclist Muhammad I’maadi Abd Aziz, Brunei's only athlete at the Games, enjoyed his lonely ride and the balti boys, Muzahir Shan and Mohammed Qureshi, co-owners of a curry house in Glasgow, formed part of Pakistan's first lawn bowls team.

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At the other end of the scale, Olympic champion Chad le Clos of South Africa secured the biggest individual medal haul of the Games with seven podium finishes in the pool, including two golds. For Australia's Sally Pearson, the Games offered a chance of redemption.

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Vilified by Athletics Australia head coach Eric Hollingsworth for her decision to miss a pre-tournament training camp with her team mates in Glasgow, Pearson stormed to gold in the women's 100m hurdles to defend the title she won in Delhi four years ago.

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The Australian swimming team dominated, winning 57 of 133 medals on offer at the Tollcross Swimming Centre, and breaking the only world record during the Games in the women's 4x100 freestyle relay, beating a time set by the Netherlands in the now-banned bodysuits in 2009.

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The Australian team could not stop England topping the medals table with 58 golds, surpassing their arch-rivals for the first time since 1986 when the Games were last held in Scotland.

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Among the gold rush for England was three-times world champion Nick Matthew, who resorted to 'caveman' tactics to retain his squash title in an epic final against compatriot James Wilstrop and secure the highest honour in a sport still excluded from the Olympic programme.

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Diver Tom Daley successfully defended his 10m platform title with a stunning performance, combining power and finesse to add to the silver he won in the synchronised event.

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At the Chris Hoy velodrome, Olympic cycling champion Laura Trott overcame a kidney infection to win the women's 25km points race, but it was not all good news for England as 2012 Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins had to settle for silver on his return to the track in the team pursuit.

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Cycling ended on the rainy streets of Glasgow on Sunday in the road race, where Welshman Geraint Thomas overcame a late puncture in treacherous conditions to claim gold and provide late drama on the last day of the Games.gl

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Australia's Gold Coast will host the Commonwealth Games in 2018. The south-eastern Queensland city has a lot to live up to.

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(Editing by Ed Osmond and Martyn Herman)

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U.S. CDC says it 'may never know' how bird flu mishap occurred

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention "may never know" how a fairly harmless form of bird flu was cross-contaminated with a dangerous bird flu strain before it was sent to a laboratory outside of the CDC, an agency spokesman said on Monday.

That's because most of the materials used in the experiment to culture the virus were discarded shortly after they were used by the scientists performing the work, which occurred in March, CDC spokesman Tom Skinner told Reuters.

The CDC disclosed the bird flu incident as part of an internal investigation into the agency's mishandling of live anthrax in June, potentially exposing dozens of its own lab workers to the pathogen.

While no humans fell ill as a result of the bird flu breach, CDC Director Dr Thomas Frieden has called it “the most distressing" in a series of safety breaches at the agency because of the public risk posed by the virus.

Researchers at a high-security CDC influenza lab learned of their mistake in May. The contaminated bird flu samples had been sent to poultry researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who noticed their chickens all died.

It took another six weeks before the incident was reported to top brass at the CDC in early July, triggering an outside inspection of CDC labs that concluded on Friday.

Federal investigators are trying to piece together how it was that the laboratory never reported the incident up the chain of command.

Skinner said a key regulatory violation occurred when the CDC failed to properly document what it sent to the high-security biocontainment lab at the USDA.

"We thought we were sending H9N2," a far less dangerous form of bird flu, Skinner said. "We didn't know it was cross-contaminated."

Skinner said cross-contamination often can occur if improperly disinfected instruments come in contact with a growth medium, the material used to grow up the organisms, or if infected growth medium is inadvertently used.

"The mediums and all of the materials that were used to grow up this particular virus - all of that material likely has been discarded. We may never know exactly how cross contamination occurred," he said.

Skinner said outside investigators from the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) concluded its investigation into the bird flu mishap on Friday.

Frieden has pledged to make sweeping changes to improve safety measures at CDC labs handling dangerous bacteria and viruses. It has shut down the two labs involved in the anthrax and bird flu incidents and has suspended the transfer of samples from high-security labs until their safety procedures are reviewed.

The agency is also assembling a group of outside experts to advise on biosafety. That panel could be announced later this week, Skinner said.

(Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen; Editing by Michele Gershberg and Diane Craft)

Hacking experts build device to protect cars from cyber attacks

Two security experts who a year ago exposed methods for hacking the Toyota Prius and Ford Escape say they have developed technology that would keep automobiles safe from cyber attacks.

At last summer's Def Con hacking conference in Las Vegas, the two researchers, Chris Valasek and Charlie Miller, described ways to launch dangerous attacks, including manipulating the brakes of the moving Prius and the Ford Escape.

Valasek, director of vehicle security research at the consulting firm IOActive, told Reuters on Tuesday that he and Miller will show off a prototype vehicle "intrusion prevention device" at next month's Black Hat hacking conference in Las Vegas.

They built the device with about $150 in electronics parts, though the real "secret sauce" is a set of computer algorithms that listen to traffic in a car's network to understand how things are supposed to work. When an attack occurs, the device identifies traffic anomalies and blocks rogue activity, Valasek said.

The two well-known computer experts decided to pursue the project because they wanted to help automakers identify ways to defend against security vulnerabilities in their products.

"I really don't care if you hack my browser and steal my credit card," Valasek said. "But crashing a car is life or death. It is dramatic. We wanted to be part of the solution."

The research the two have released on the Ford and Toyota cars, as well as work by other experts on different types of vehicles, has raised concerns that somebody might one day try to replicate their work to launch a real-life attack.

Yet the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said in a statement on Tuesday that it is not aware of any incidents of consumer vehicle control systems having been hacked.

The auto industry has beefed up efforts to identify and mitigate potential cyber security risks over the past few years.

“Cyber security is a global concern and it is a growing threat for all industries, including the automotive," said Jack Pokrzywa, manager of global ground vehicle standards with SAE International, a group that represents industry engineers.

Pokrzywa declined to comment on the specifics of the new technology from Valasek and Miller, though he said "Any viable solution reducing cyber threats is a step in the right direction.”

A representative for Ford said she had no immediate comment on the device. Officials with Toyota could not be reached for comment.

(Reporting by Jim Finkle in Boston; Editing by Richard Valdmanis and Dan Grebler)

U.S. scientists to map interior of Mount St. Helens volcano

A series of explosions set off by a team of scientists were expected to rattle Washington state's Mount St. Helens on Wednesday as researchers map the interior of the volcano, whose 1980 eruption was the deadliest in U.S. history.

Mount St. Helens, about 95 miles (150 km) south of Seattle and 50 miles (80 km) north of Portland, erupted in an explosion of hot ash in May 1980, spewing debris over a wide area, killing 57 people and causing more than a billion dollars in damage.

Scientists from across the United States are trying to get a better handle on the magma stores and internal workings of the 8,300-foot (2,530-meter) volcano to improve warning systems prior to eruption.

"Mount St. Helens and other volcanoes in the Cascade Range threaten urban centers from Vancouver to Portland," lead scientist Alan Levander of Rice University in Houston said in a statement.

"We'd like to better understand their inner workings in order to better predict when they may erupt and how severe those eruptions are likely to be," he said.

On Wednesday, geophysicists from across the United States were to begin running seismic waves through the volcano's interior by firing "shots" at the mountain to install mapping instruments deep underground.

The instruments will help create a sort of CAT scan on the interior and will "illuminate the architecture of the greater Mount St. Helens magmatic system from slab to surface," according to researchers from the project, called Imaging Magma Under St. Helens, or iMUSH (imush.org/)

A total of 23 boreholes 80 feet (24 meters) deep were to be installed by July 31, said researcher Steve Malone.

"These shots are done at night to give the best chance of recording good signals without other vibrations being present such as from wind or vehicle traffic," Malone said.

Residents living near Mount St. Helens were unlikely to feel the shots because of their depth, but their insertion approximates a magnitude 2 earthquake, scientists said.

In May, the U.S. Geological Survey said that magma levels were slowly rebuilding inside Mount St. Helens, but there was no sign of an impending eruption.

(Reporting by Victoria Cavaliere; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Sandra Maler)

Paracetamol no better than placebo for low back pain, study finds

Paracetamol, a painkiller universally recommended to treat people with acute low back pain, does not speed recovery or reduce pain from the condition, according to the results of a large trial published on Thursday.

A study published in The Lancet medical journal found that the popular pain medicine was no better than placebo, or dummy pills, for hastening recovery from acute bouts of low back pain or easing pain levels, function, sleep or quality of life.

Researchers said the findings challenge the universal endorsement of paracetamol as the first choice painkiller for lower back pain.

"We need to reconsider the universal recommendation to provide paracetamol as a first-line treatment," said Christopher Williams, who led the study at the University of Sydney in Australia.

Lower back pain is the leading cause of disability worldwide. In the United States alone, costs relating to the condition are estimated to be more than $100 billion a year.

Currently, every back pain treatment guideline in the world recommends paracetamol as the first-line analgesic and Williams said this was despite the fact that no previous studies have provided robust evidence that it works in this condition.

In his trial, 1,652 people from Sydney with acute low back pain were randomly assigned to receive up to four weeks of paracetamol, either in regular doses three times a day, or as needed, or to receive placebos. All those involved received advice and reassurance and were followed up for three months.

The results showed no difference in the number of days to recovery between the treatment groups - with the average time to recovery coming out at 17 days for each of the groups given paracetamol, and at 16 days for the placebo group.

Paracetamol had no effect on short-term pain levels, disability, function, sleep quality, or quality of life, the researchers said, and the number of patients reporting negative side effects was similar in all groups.

Christine Lin, an associate professor at the George Institute for Global Health and the University of Sydney who also worked on the study, said the reasons for paracetamol failing to work for lower back pain were not well understood.

"While we have shown that paracetamol does not speed recovery from acute back pain, there is evidence that paracetamol works to relieve pain for a range of other conditions, such as headaches, some acute musculoskeletal conditions, tooth ache and for pain straight after surgery," she said in a statement about the findings.

"What this study indicates is that the mechanisms of back pain are likely to be different from other pain conditions, and this is an area that we need to study more."

Experts who were not directly involved praised the study but cautioned that guidelines should nevertheless not be changed on the basis of a single piece of research.

"More robust and consistent evidence, including verification of the results in other populations, is needed," Bart Koes and Wendy Enthoven from the Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands wrote in a Lancet commentary.

They also called for more studies on whether other simple analgesics could add extra benefits on top of giving advice and reassurance to patients.

(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

NASA puts out call for satellite communication services – on Mars


Dogs are capable of feeling jealousy: U.S. study

Dogs are a man's best friend, and research released on Wednesday says canines want to keep it that way.

Dogs are capable of feeling a basic form of jealousy, according to a study published in the PLOS ONE scientific journal.

The research, said to be the first experiment on canine jealousy, could redefine the view that the complex emotion of envy is a human construct, said Christine Harris, University of California, San Diego psychologist and an author of the study.

The owners of 36 small dogs were asked to do three things in the test - shower affection on a plush animatronic dog, shower affection on a plastic jack-o-lantern pail and read a children's book aloud - while ignoring their pet.

Researchers then watched how the dogs reacted.

Roughly 80 percent of the dogs pushed or touched their owner when they were coddling the toy, almost twice as often as when the owner played with the pail and about four times as often as when the owner was reading.

A quarter of the dogs even snapped at the toy, which barked, whined and wagged its tail, while the owner was playing with it. Only one dog snapped at the pail and the book.

"We can't really speak to the dog's subjective experiences, of course, but it looks as though they were motivated to protect an important social relationship," Harris said in a statement accompanying the study.

The research, based on a similar study to gauge jealousy in infants, suggests dogs and possibly other animals exhibit a primordial form of the emotion, the study said.

Researchers said jealousy may have evolved as a way for paired animals to protect their sexual relationships or for baby animals to compete for food and affection from their parents.

They said it also may have developed in dogs during their long domestication by humans.

"Humans, after all, have been rich resource providers over our coevolution," they wrote in the study.

Understanding jealousy is an important scientific task, they wrote, noting that jealousy is often considered a cause of homicides across cultures.

(Reporting by Curtis Skinner in New York; Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Sandra Maler)

Paracetamol no better than placebo for low back pain, study finds

Paracetamol, a painkiller universally recommended to treat people with acute low back pain, does not speed recovery or reduce pain from the condition, according to the results of a large trial published on Thursday.

A study published in The Lancet medical journal found that the popular pain medicine was no better than placebo, or dummy, pills for hastening recovery from acute bouts of low back pain or easing pain levels, function, sleep or quality of life.

Researchers said the findings challenge the universal endorsement of paracetamol as the first choice painkiller for lower back pain.

"We need to reconsider the universal recommendation to provide paracetamol as a first-line treatment," said Christopher Williams, who led the study at the University of Sydney in Australia.

Lower back pain is the leading cause of disability worldwide. In the United States alone, costs relating to the condition are estimated to be more than $100 billion a year.

Currently, every back pain treatment guideline in the world recommends paracetamol as the first-line analgesic and Williams said this was despite the fact that no previous studies have provided robust evidence that it works in this condition.

Tim Salomons, a pain expert at Britain's University of Reading whose own research has found that cognitive behavioral therapy could be used to treat chronic pain, said this latest study showed the challenge of treating the condition.

"It is vitally important we continuously challenge conventional wisdom about treating pain," he said in an emailed comment. "Even though paracetamol has a good safety profile, every drug has side effects. If the drug is not doing what it is being prescribed to do, pain patients might be better off without."

In Williams' trial, 1,652 people from Sydney with acute low back pain were randomly assigned to receive up to four weeks of paracetamol, either in regular doses three times a day, or as needed, or to receive placebos. All those involved received advice and reassurance and were followed up for three months.

The results showed no difference in the number of days to recovery between the treatment groups - with the average time to recovery coming out at 17 days for each of the groups given paracetamol, and at 16 days for the placebo group.

Paracetamol had no effect on short-term pain levels, disability, function, sleep quality, or quality of life, the researchers said, and the number of patients reporting negative side effects was similar in all groups.

Christine Lin, an associate professor at the George Institute for Global Health and the University of Sydney who also worked on the study, said the reasons for paracetamol failing to work for lower back pain were not well understood.

"While we have shown that paracetamol does not speed recovery from acute back pain, there is evidence that paracetamol works to relieve pain for a range of other conditions, such as headaches, some acute musculoskeletal conditions, tooth ache and for pain straight after surgery," she said in a statement about the findings.

"What this study indicates is that the mechanisms of back pain are likely to be different from other pain conditions, and this is an area that we need to study more."

Experts who were not directly involved praised the study but cautioned that guidelines should nevertheless not be changed on the basis of a single piece of research.

"More robust and consistent evidence, including verification of the results in other populations, is needed," Bart Koes and Wendy Enthoven from the Erasmus Medical Centre in the Netherlands wrote in a Lancet commentary.

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They also called for more studies on whether other simple analgesics could add extra benefits on top of giving advice and reassurance to patients.

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(Editing by Robin Pomeroy and Catherine Evans)

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Researchers practice living on Mars - without leaving Earth

For the past four months, a team of researchers have been living in a mockup Mars habitat on a Hawaiian volcano practicing isolated living on the Red Planet.

For the most part, expedition leader Casey Stedman and his five crewmates have stayed inside their 1,000-square foot (93-square meter) solar-powered dome, venturing out only for simulated spacewalks and doing so only when fully attired in mock spacesuits.

"I haven’t seen a tree, smelled the rain, heard a bird, or felt wind on my skin in four months,” Stedman wrote in a blog on Instagram. Stedman is a U.S. Air Force Reserve officer, graduate student at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Worldwide.

“We are simulating a long-duration mission on Mars, with a focus on crew psychology in isolation,” the crew said during an online interview with Reddit on Sunday.

Crewmembers, who include a NASA chemical engineer and a neuropsychologist at the Fort Wayne Neurological Center in Indiana, have been isolated from direct human contact and have been eating dehydrated and shelf-stabilized foods.

“We’ve basically been subsisting on mush. Flavorful mush, but mush nonetheless,” crewmember Ross Lockwood wrote on Instagram. Lockwood is finishing a doctorate in physics at the University of Alberta.

The habitat, which is outfitted with waterless composting toilets, is basically self-sustaining except for a water resupply and wastewater recovery every two- to three weeks.

Communications with the outside world have been time-delayed to match the 20-minute travel time of radio waves passing between Earth and Mars. In addition to a battery of daily psychological surveys, the researchers tend to science projects and other studies, including expeditions outside the habitat to scout Mars-like features on Hawaii's Mauna Loa volcano. The landscape is similar to a region on Mars known as Tharsis. For fun, there are movies, board games and exercise, Lockwood told Reddit.

“We don't have a lot of spare time, but I count work as part of the fun as well. Planning EVAs (spacewalks), preparing food, even chores - these are all enjoyable activities,” he said.

The operational part of the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation mission, known as Hi-SEAS 2, wraps up on Friday, but it will take months to synthesize all the findings.

The point of the project is to create guidelines for future missions to Mars, the long-term goal of the U.S. human space program.

“Hopefully, when we send humans to Mars, we will have done enough missions like HI-SEAS that we'll remember to bring the really important stuff, like extra toilet paper,” mission support team member Gary Strawn said on Reddit.

The simulation, which is funded by NASA and overseen by the University of Hawaii, began on March 28.

(Editing by Bernard Orr)

Keryx drug improves phosphorus, iron in kidney patients: trial

A pivotal trial of Keryx Biopharmaceuticals Inc's experimental drug Zerenex showed that it improved levels of serum phosphorus and iron in patients on kidney dialysis, according to results published on Thursday.

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The trial involved 441 patients, according to the Journal of the American Society of Nephrology, which published the results.

Over the four-week efficacy assessment period, mean serum phosphorus for Zerenex patients dropped by 2.2 milligrams per deciliter compared with placebo patients, the trial showed.

Most patients with kidney disease that requires dialysis need chronic treatment with phosphate-binding agents to lower and maintain serum phosphorus at acceptable levels.

The study found that, if approved, Zerenex would be the only phosphate binder that also increases iron stores, reducing the need for other drugs to treat anemia.

Side effects experienced by patients treated with Zerenex included diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and constipation. Serious adverse events were reported in 39.1 percent of the Zerenex patients and 49 percent of patients in the control group.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which earlier this year cited manufacturing information as the reason for a three-month extension of its review of Zerenex, is expected to decide by Sept. 7 whether to approve the drug.

(Reporting by Deena Beasley; Editing by Jan Paschal)

Scientists to excavate Wyoming cave with trove of Ice Age fossils

Scientists will begin excavation early next week of an ancient Wyoming sinkhole containing a rare bounty of fossil remains of prehistoric animals, such as mammoths and dire wolves, preserved in unusually good condition, researchers said on Thursday.

   The two-week dig, set to begin next Monday under the direction of Des Moines University paleontologist Julie Meachen, marks the first exploration of Natural Trap Cave in north-central Wyoming since its initial discovery in the 1970s.

At that time, scientists found that the 85-foot-deep cavern formed a natural repository for a rich fossil record that may date back as far as 100,000 years, but a full-scale expedition into the sinkhole has not previously been attempted.

  The cave, formed by the collapse of limestone bedrock at the base of the Bighorn Mountains, became a tomb for thousands of ancient mammals that stumbled into the 15-foot-wide mouth of the sinkhole, then concealed by vegetation, and plunged to their deaths.

  Conditions in the underground chasm, which widens to 120 feet at its base, are cold and damp, offering a degree of preservation for fossils generally associated only with those found frozen in ice in Siberia and the Arctic, Meachen said.

  "They fell into a refrigerator," she said of animals such as camels, American lions, cheetahs, woolly mammoths and short-faced bears.

  Meachen will lead a team of international scientists as they rappel from the outer rim of the cave's opening – covered for decades by a metal grate installed by federal land managers – to the depths below, where they will load fossils into buckets to be hoisted to the surface.

  Analysis of recovered fossils is expected to provide new insights into the climate, diets and genetic diversity of North American mammals that disappeared during the Ice Age extinction of more than 10,000 years ago.

   Meachen said there may also be an opportunity to draw inferences tied to an emerging theory that the mass extinction was linked more to overhunting by humans, whose appearance in North America coincided with a die-off long thought to be influenced mostly by climate.

  Meachen said she had trained at a rock-climbing gym for the descent and the more arduous ascent, also by rope, but remained leery of entries and exits from the cave.

  "I'm scared out of my wits," she said.

(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman from Salmon, Idaho; Editing by Curtis Skinner, Steve Gorman and Clarence Fernandez)

Bayer says Nexavar fails in breast cancer study

German drugmaker Bayer said a Phase III trial of cancer drug Nexavar in patients with advanced breast cancer did not meet its primary endpoint of delaying the progression of the disease.

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The study, called Resilience, evaluated Nexavar in combination with chemotherapeutic agent capecitabine, in women with HER2-negative breast cancer.

Oral drug Nexavar, which Bayer is developing jointly with Amgen, is approved for use against certain types of liver, kidney and thyroid cancer.

Study details are expected to be presented at an upcoming scientific conference.

(Reporting by Ludwig Burger; Editing by Kirsti Knolle)

Evidence suggests babies in womb start learning earlier than thought: study

Babies in the womb show evidence of learning by their 34th week, three weeks earlier than previously thought, new research has found.

"It really pushed the envelope" in terms of how early babies begin to learn, lead researcher Charlene Krueger, associate professor at the University of Florida's College of Nursing, said on Thursday.

The study, published in the journal Infant Behavior and Development, followed 32 women from their 28th through 38th weeks of pregnancy in an investigation to pinpoint when the ability to learn emerges.

Krueger had the women repeat three times out loud a set 15-second nursery rhyme, and do it twice a day for six weeks. The selected rhyme was previously unknown to the mothers.

The fetuses’ heart rates were monitored at 32, 33 and 34 weeks as they listened to a recording of a female stranger recite the rhyme.

By the 34th week, Krueger said, the heart rates of the tested fetuses showed an overall slight decline while listening to the recording, compared with a control group of fetuses whose heart rates slightly accelerated while listening to a recording of a new nursery rhyme.

Krueger said a decelerating heartbeat has long been associated with a fetus recognizing something familiar, compared with an accelerated heartbeat response to a novel sound or experience.

"We cautiously concluded, because it was not statistically significant, that learning emerged by 34 weeks gestational age," she said.

At that point, the mothers stopped reciting the rhyme to their babies who were tested again at 36 and 38 weeks.

"At 38 weeks we confidently concluded the fetus could remember the rhythm of that nursery rhyme, which was four weeks after the mother stopped reciting the rhyme," Krueger said.

"The deeper and more prolonged response (at 38 weeks), the more confident I felt that learning had gone on," she said.

Krueger said the findings have implications for the care of pre-term babies in neonatal units. She said she next wants to experiment with placing recordings of the mothers’ voices in the babies’ cribs so they will benefit from positive impacts of their mothers’ voices.

“What it really shows is how sophisticated the interaction is between a mother and her infant,” she said.

(Editing by David Adams and Matthew Lewis)

Researchers practice living on Mars - without leaving Earth

For the past four months, a team of researchers have been living in a mockup Mars habitat on a Hawaiian volcano practicing isolated living on the Red Planet.

For the most part, expedition leader Casey Stedman and his five crewmates have stayed inside their 1,000-square foot (93-square meter) solar-powered dome, venturing out only for simulated spacewalks and doing so only when fully attired in mock spacesuits.

"I haven’t seen a tree, smelled the rain, heard a bird, or felt wind on my skin in four months,” Stedman wrote in a blog on Instagram. Stedman is a U.S. Air Force Reserve officer, graduate student at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Worldwide.

“We are simulating a long-duration mission on Mars, with a focus on crew psychology in isolation,” the crew said during an online interview with Reddit on Sunday.

Crewmembers, who include a NASA chemical engineer and a neuropsychologist at the Fort Wayne Neurological Center in Indiana, have been isolated from direct human contact and have been eating dehydrated and shelf-stabilized foods.

“We’ve basically been subsisting on mush. Flavorful mush, but mush nonetheless,” crewmember Ross Lockwood wrote on Instagram. Lockwood is finishing a doctorate in physics at the University of Alberta.

The habitat, which is outfitted with waterless composting toilets, is basically self-sustaining except for a water resupply and wastewater recovery every two- to three weeks.

Communications with the outside world have been time-delayed to match the 20-minute travel time of radio waves passing between Earth and Mars. In addition to a battery of daily psychological surveys, the researchers tend to science projects and other studies, including expeditions outside the habitat to scout Mars-like features on Hawaii's Mauna Loa volcano. The landscape is similar to a region on Mars known as Tharsis. For fun, there are movies, board games and exercise, Lockwood told Reddit.

“We don't have a lot of spare time, but I count work as part of the fun as well. Planning EVAs (spacewalks), preparing food, even chores - these are all enjoyable activities,” he said.

The operational part of the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation mission, known as Hi-SEAS 2, wraps up on Friday, but it will take months to synthesize all the findings.

The point of the project is to create guidelines for future missions to Mars, the long-term goal of the U.S. human space program.

“Hopefully, when we send humans to Mars, we will have done enough missions like HI-SEAS that we'll remember to bring the really important stuff, like extra toilet paper,” mission support team member Gary Strawn said on Reddit.

The simulation, which is funded by NASA and overseen by the University of Hawaii, began on March 28.

(Editing by Bernard Orr)

Rocket blasts off with U.S. ‘neighborhood watch’ spy satellites

An unmanned Delta 4 rocket blasted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Monday with a pair of U.S. military satellites designed to keep watch on other countries’ spacecraft.

The 206-foot (63-meter) tall rocket, built by United Launch Alliance, a partnership of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, lifted off at 7:28 p.m. EDT and blazed through partly cloudy skies as it headed into orbit, a United Launch Alliance live webcast showed.

Launch of two satellites for the U.S. Air Force’s recently declassified Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program, or GSSAP, had been slated for July 23, but was delayed one day to resolve a technical issue with ground support equipment and then three more times by poor weather.

Once in orbit, the GSSAP satellites, built by Orbital Sciences Corp, will drift above and below a 22,300-mile (35,970-km) high zone that houses most of the world's communications satellites and other spacecraft.

General William Shelton, head of Air Force Space Command, likened GSSAP to a “neighborhood watch program” that will keep tabs on other countries’ satellites.

The program "will bolster our ability to discern when adversaries attempt to avoid detection and to discover capabilities they may have which might be harmful to our critical assets at these higher altitudes," Shelton said during a speech in February that unveiled the once-classified program.

GSSAP also will track orbital debris, which could pose a threat to operational satellites. Current ground-based radar systems and telescopes can monitor objects that are bigger than about 4 inches (10 cm) in diameter. The trash includes spent rocket bodies and the remains of a satellite that China exploded in 2007 as part of a widely condemned anti-satellite missile test.

The Air Force currently tracks about 23,000 pieces of space junk.

Costs and technical details of the GSSAP program were not released. The rocket also carries a small secondary satellite that will be used for engineering tests.

The Air Force mission bumped NASA’s debut test flight of its Orion deep space capsule, which also will fly on a Delta 4 rocket. NASA’s launch is now targeted for December.

(Reporting by Irene Klotz in Mojave, California; Editing by Eric Walsh)

NASA's Mars rover sets off-Earth, off-road distance record

NASA's decade-old Mars rover Opportunity has set a new off-Earth, off-road distance record, logging just over 25 miles (40 km) on the surface of the Red Planet to surpass the benchmark set in 1973 by a Russian probe on the moon.

Opportunity, which arrived on Mars in January 2004, a few weeks after its now-defunct rover twin Spirit, was built to drive only about a single kilometer but has continued to operate far beyond its design capabilities.

Earlier this year, the aging but intrepid rover, a six-wheeled vehicle about the size of a golf cart, found evidence that fresh water once pooled on the surface of Mars, reinforcing similar discoveries made by a newer, larger probe Curiosity, on the other side of the planet.

On Sunday, the robot rover advanced another 157 feet (48 meters) as it continued along the rim of a Martian crater, putting Opportunity's total odometer at 25.01 miles (40.25 km), according to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Pasadena, California.

By comparison, the Soviet Union's Lunokhod 2 rover drove about 24.2 miles (39 km) in less than five months after landing on Earth's moon on Jan. 15, 1973, JPL said. The manned lunar rover driven by astronauts of the Apollo 17 mission logged 22.2 miles (35.7 km) in 1972.

"Opportunity has driven farther than any other wheeled vehicle on another world," JPL's Mars Exploration Rover Project Manager John Callas said in a statement.

Opportunity still has miles to go. Scientists said they plan next to direct the rover to a nearby Martian valley that would extend its accumulated operating distance to 26.2 miles, the traditional length of a marathon.

(Reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Nick Zieminski)


Octopus mom protects her eggs for an astonishing 4-1/2 years

If someone were to create an award for "mother of the year" in the animal kingdom, a remarkably dedicated eight-limbed mom from the dark and frigid depths of the Pacific Ocean might be a strong contender.

Scientists on Wednesday described how the female of an octopus species that dwells almost a mile below the sea surface spends about 4-1/2 years brooding her eggs, protecting them vigilantly until they hatch while forgoing any food for herself.

It is the longest known egg-brooding period for any animal, they wrote in the scientific journal PLOS ONE.

The scientists used a remote-controlled submarine to monitor the deep-sea species, called Graneledone boreopacifica, off the coast of central California.

They tracked one female, recognizable by its distinctive scars, that clung to a vertical rock face near the floor of a canyon about 4,600 feet (1,400 meters) under the surface, keeping the roughly 160 translucent eggs free of debris and silt and chasing off predators.

This mother octopus never left the oblong-shaped eggs - which during the brooding period grew from about the size of a blueberry to the size of a grape - and was never seen eating anything. The octopus progressively lost weight and its skin became pale and loose. The researchers monitored the octopus during 18 dives over 53 months from May 2007 to September 2011.

Bruce Robison, a deep sea ecologist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in Moss Landing, California, said this species exhibits an extremely powerful maternal instinct.

"It's extraordinary. It's amazing. We're still astonished ourselves by what we saw," Robison said.

Most octopus females lay a single set of eggs in a lifetime and die shortly after their offspring hatch. The newborn of this species are no helpless babies. The long brooding period enables the hatchlings to come out of their eggs uniquely capable of survival, emerging as fully developed miniature adults able to capture small prey.

At this tremendous depth, there is no sunlight - the only light comes from bioluminescent sea creatures - and it is very cold - 37 degrees Fahrenheit (3 degrees Celsius). "It may seem nasty to us, but it's home to them," Robison said.

During the brooding period, the mother octopus seemed to focus exclusively on the welfare of the eggs.

"She was protecting her eggs from predators, and they are abundant. There are fish and crabs and all sorts of critters that would love to get in there and eat those eggs. So she was pushing them away when they approached her," Robison said.

"She was also keeping the eggs free from sediment and was ventilating them by pushing water across them for oxygen exchange. She was taking care of them," Robison added.

This species measures about 16 inches (40 cm) long and is a pale purple color with a mottled skin texture. It eats crabs, shrimp, snails - "pretty near anything they can catch," Robison said.

(Reporting by Will Dunham; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

Lead in teeth holds secrets of person's origins, research shows

The lead in human teeth holds clues about where a person grew up and can help criminal investigators and archaeologists working with old or decomposed corpses, according to a University of Florida researcher.

Because lead ore deposits around the world differ, and as young people's teeth absorb traces of the metal in the environment, the region where a person grew up can be distinguished through lead analysis of a tooth, said geologist George Kamenov.

His study on the topic will appear in the August issue of Science of The Total Environment, a peer-reviewed journal.

"If you were born in Europe and then came to the U.S., yes, I will be able to see that," Kamenov said. "I was born in Bulgaria so I have the European ... signal."

Kamenov said he has worked with law enforcement officers on cold cases, with lead analysis helping investigators narrow their focus.

In addition to aiding authorities in identifying bodies, the analysis can help archaeologists locate human remains on an historical timeline, he said.

The impact of leaded gasoline used from the 1920s through 1980s is also reflected in the teeth, which can help narrow a body's age, Kamenov said.

Teeth can reveal whether a person spent formative years in the United States versus Europe, South America, Australia or other broad regions, he said.

Beyond lead, Kamenov said that analysis of oxygen in bones, which regenerate every seven to 10 years, can pinpoint where a person spent the past decade. Other chemical elements in hair and nails provide information about the person's location over the previous several months, he said.

(Reporting by Barbara Liston; Editing by Jonathan Kaminsky and Sandra Maler)

Fly Fido to the moon in space send off for deceased pets

A Texas company is offering a unique send off for beloved pets by placing a portion of their cremated remains in a capsule and blasting them off into space.

Celestis Inc, which has provided memorial space flights for human remains since 1997, will launch its first commercial pet memorial spaceflight in October 2014 with the remains of a blue merle Australian shepherd, named Apollo, the company said.

The pet services, such as one dubbed Earth Rise, start at $995 and include having the pet’s remains into flown into space on a commercial flight and returned to the owner.

The space send-off options go up to $12,500, which allows the pet’s remains to be launched into deep space or to visit the moon.

Memorial service are available before blast off and families can witness most of the launches, depending on location, the company said.

"Our pet service flights are an idea that’s been a long time coming," Celestis Chief Executive Charles Chafer said.

(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Bill Trott)

How do you make a bird? Shrink a dinosaur for 50 million years


How do you make a bird? Shrink a dinosaur for 50 million years

Large flesh-eating dinosaurs evolved into small flying birds, but it did not happen overnight.

An international team of scientists on Thursday described an extraordinary evolutionary process that unfolded over a period of 50 million years in which a lineage of carnivorous dinosaurs shrank steadily and acquired numerous traits that led to the first appearance of birds.

The researchers, using techniques developed by molecular biologists to reconstruct virus evolution, examined 1,500 anatomical traits in 120 different dinosaurs from the theropod group. These bipedal meat-eaters included giants like Tyrannosaurus rex and Giganotosaurus as well as the lineage that produced birds.

"Our study measured the rate of evolution of different groups of theropod dinosaurs," said lead researcher Michael Lee, a paleontologist at the University of Adelaide and the South Australian Museum.

"The fastest-evolving group also happened to be ancestral to birds. So, ultimately, the most adaptable dinosaurs proved to be the best long-term survivors, and surround us today in their feathered splendor," Lee explained.

The earliest known bird was the crow-sized Archaeopteryx, which lived in Germany 150 million years ago. It was characterized by primitive traits like teeth, a long bony tail and the absence of a bony, keeled sternum where flight muscles attach, as well as some attributes shared with modern birds.

"What was impressive was the consistency of the size change along the dinosaur-to-bird transition - every descendent was smaller than its ancestor. The lineage was continually pushing the envelope of life at a smaller body size, little by little, over 50 million years," Lee said.

The researchers completed a family tree of this dinosaur lineage and their bird descendants. These dinosaurs decreased in size from about 440 pounds (200 kg) to 1.7 pounds (0.8 kg) in 12 discernible steps.

Aside from sustained miniaturization, this lineage also benefited from new traits such as feathers, wishbones, wings, shorter snouts and smaller teeth. The study found that this lineage acquired evolutionary adaptations at a rate four times faster than other dinosaurs.

"The dinosaurs most closely related to birds are all small, and many of them - like the aptly named Microraptor - had some ability to climb and glide," said study participant Gareth Dyke, a paleontologist at Britain's University of Southampton.

The decrease in body size may have helped dinosaurs in the lineage that evolved into birds to take advantage of certain ecological niches that would have been off-limits to their larger relatives and to experiment with unique body shapes.

"It would have permitted them to chase insects, climb trees, leap and glide, and eventually develop powered flight," Lee said.

The changes may have helped these creatures to survive the cataclysm that doomed the other dinosaurs - an asteroid that struck Earth 65 million years ago, Lee said. Flight, for example, would have allowed them to cover vast territory in search of suitable habitat, and warm-bloodedness would have buffered them against climate changes, he said.

The study was published in the journal Science.

(Reporting by Will Dunham; Editing by Gunna Dickson)

Grimm choice: Tax fraud trial could dog NY re-election campaign

This fall, when Representative Michael Grimm asks New York voters to send him to Washington for a third term in Congress he may be splitting his time between the campaign trail and a courtroom where he is due to face tax evasion charges.

Grimm, a Republican and former FBI agent who represents parts of the city's Staten Island and Brooklyn boroughs, was indicted in April on charges of fraud, perjury and conspiracy tied to his restaurant, Healthalicious.

Last week, prosecutors asked a federal judge to start his trial in October, weeks ahead of the Nov. 4 election.

But a flurry of headlines about his business dealings is just one of the problems facing Grimm, who hails from one of New York City's rare Republican-leaning districts.

He was caught on camera in January threatening to throw a reporter off a balcony in the U.S. Capitol, saying: "I'll break you in half. Like a boy."

Grimm is far from the first U.S. politician to seek re-election under a legal cloud. But his behavior has turned off some voters who supported him in 2012, including attorney Harold Weinberg, 56.

"It's disturbing that a politician thinks he's above the law," Weinberg said while riding the Staten Island ferry to Manhattan. Calling the threat to the reporter "equally disturbing," Weinberg said he was unlikely to vote for Grimm in November.

Grimm's opponent, Democrat Domenic Recchia, Jr, a former City Council member, has jumped on the tax issue.

"Hard-working men and women ... deserve a congressman they can be proud of, someone who isn't so preoccupied with defending himself in court that he neglects the people he swore to represent," Recchia said in a statement.

Grimm, who denies the charges, declined to comment.

LOW EXPECTATIONS AND "BAD" BEHAVIOR

Other voters said they were inclined to overlook the criminal trial and the threatening outburst, saying they admired the compassion Grimm showed after the devastation in 2012 from Superstorm Sandy, which killed 24 people on Staten Island.

"Elected officials are called to a higher standard. It's never right. But they're human," said Jennifer Towles, a 61-year-old college fundraiser, who said Grimm had her vote for the third election in a row because of his storm response.

If history is any guide, many voters be equally forgiving.

Pennsylvania Representative Raymond Lederer won re-election in 1980 while facing a bribery indictment. Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy won re-election in 1970, and six more terms, after pleading guilty to leaving the scene of the Chappaquiddick Island car accident that left a young woman dead.

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A sense of a personal connection by voters often trumps other factors, said Michael Genovese, a political science professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

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"While Congress is unpopular as an institution, voters remain surprisingly loyal to their own member of Congress," he said.

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Even if Grimm were to be convicted on the charges he now faces, he could remain on the November ballot - and serve in Congress. But he could face punishment in Congress, including the risk of being expelled, censured, reprimanded, fined or stripped of his House voting rights.

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Politicians who have served time have been known to make comebacks.

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Former Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards, who spent six years in the House of Representatives and then eight years in prison for racketeering, is the front-runner in his bid to return to Congress, a recent poll shows.

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Convictions can even give candidates a boost. South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks was a slavery advocate convicted of assault and re-elected in 1856. Voters seemed to like that he used his cane to beat up an abolitionist colleague.

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Vermont Representative Matthew Lyon, convicted of sedition, won re-election from his prison cell in 1798.

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"The public has such low expectations of government in general, and Congress in particular, that a congressperson doing something 'bad' isn't really new information and therefore not damaging," said Justin Holmes, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Northern Iowa.

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(Editing by Leslie Adler)

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Representative Cantor to resign House seat early

Representative Eric Cantor said on Friday he will resign his seat effective Aug. 18, months earlier than expected following a stunning defeat in a Republican primary election.

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Cantor, who on Thursday stepped down from his leadership position in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, said he had asked Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe to call a special election to coincide with November's congressional elections.

Such a race would allow the winner to take office immediately, rather than in January when the next Congress convenes, he wrote in a column in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

"I want to make sure that the constituents in the 7th District will have a voice in what will be a very consequential lame-duck session," Cantor told the newspaper in an interview, referring to the period between the election and start of the new Congress.

It also would give the winner some seniority over the rest of the new class elected in November, he wrote.

Cantor, who was elected to the House in 2000 and served as House majority leader since 2011, unexpectedly lost to a Tea Party-backed college economics professor in June. The defeat stopped Cantor's bid for an eighth term but he had been expected to serve out his current term through December.

The Virginia lawmaker did not reveal his plans once he leaves office.

(Reporting by Eric M. Johnson; Editing by Jeremy Gaunt and Bill Trott)

Chicago budget gap to shrink, but pension payment spike looms

Chicago said its budget deficit was on track to shrink to just below $300 million in 2015, but a state-mandated increase in pension payments would expand gaps in the future.

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The projected $297 million operating fund deficit, the lowest for the city in seven years, is based on $3.22 billion in revenue and $3.52 billion in expenses, according to an annual financial analysis that Chicago released late on Thursday.

The projection assumes continued economic growth and a return to normal revenue trends, which were affected by this year's severe weather, a statement from Mayor Rahm Emanuel said. Meanwhile, higher expenses were mainly due to increased salaries and wages under collective bargaining agreements.

“While a $297 million budget shortfall is substantial, we are making progress in righting the city’s financial ship,” the mayor said in the statement.

A looming $500 million increase in pension payments to Chicago's police and fire retirement systems would inflate the deficit to as much as $1.2 billion in 2016 and $1.5 billion in 2017, according to the financial analysis.

Pension contributions, which are funded out of property taxes and total $478 million in 2014, would rise to more than $1 billion a year for the third-largest U.S. city.

The report said an Illinois law requiring the payment increase did not include cost-saving reforms or a gradual funding increase. Without reforms, it said, the law "puts retirees, taxpayers, and critical city services at risk."

Earlier this year, the Illinois Legislature did pass changes requiring both Chicago and workers to increase pension contributions to the city's municipal and laborers' retirement systems. The law also ties cost-of-living adjustments for pensions to inflation while skipping the adjustments in certain years. The constitutionality of cuts to public worker pensions in Illinois is currently being litigated in a state court.

On Wednesday, the Chicago City Council approved a plan to increase an emergency services surcharge on phones to free up money in the operating fund to make the higher pension payment to the two funds.

Chicago's four pension funds were only 37 percent funded at the end of 2013, and the unfunded liability totaled $19.2 billion, according to the analysis.

Severe pension funding problems have led Moody's Investors Service to cut Chicago's credit rating four notches to Baa1 since July 2013.

The budget analysis showed Chicago's payments on its outstanding bonds for airports, water and sewer, and capital improvements growing to $1.7 billion in 2017 from $1.56 billion in 2014. Debt service on general obligation bonds paid out of the operating fund "will increase significantly from current levels in future years due to growth from anticipated issuances and the way in which the city’s debt is structured," the report said.

Emanuel is scheduled to present his fiscal 2015 budget to the city council in October. Chicago's fiscal year begins on Jan. 1.

(Reporting by Karen Pierog; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)

Corruption trial of former Virginia governor to hear from businessman

The federal jury hearing the corruption trial of former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell on Friday saw a racy email his wife sent to a businessman, a communication defense attorneys said was proof that the two were having an affair.

Lawyers for McDonnell's wife, Maureen, said at the start of the trial that the couple's marriage had been unraveling at the time they accepted gifts from a businessman they said Maureen McDonnell had a "crush" on.

But the businessman, witness Jonnie Williams, has insisted in three days of testimony that the relationship was strictly mercenary, with him offering $165,000 in gifts and loans in hopes of getting help for his company Star Scientific Inc, a nutritional supplement maker.

McDonnell, 60, and his wife are charged with 14 counts of corruption and bribery for allegedly accepting gifts and loans from Williams in exchange for supporting his former company, now known as Rock Creek Pharmaceuticals.

Maureen McDonnell's attorney on Friday showed the jury at U.S. District Court in Richmond an email his client sent to Williams on Aug. 23, 2011, the day an earthquake rocked the U.S. East Coast.

"I just felt the earth move, and I wasn't having sex!" wrote the former First Lady of Virginia.

"That (email) was funny," Williams said with a laugh.

Defense attorneys tried to distance the former governor from Williams, saying the interaction was primarily between the businessman and Maureen McDonnell.

Williams was granted immunity in exchange for his testimony.

If convicted, the McDonnells could face more than 20 years in prison and a large fine.

'BUSINESS ARRANGEMENT'

Williams has asserted that romance was never part of his arrangement with the McDonnells.

"They weren't my personal friends," he testified. "It was a business arrangement."

Williams has testified that he gave the former governor a Rolex watch worth upward of $7,000 and took his wife on a $20,000 shopping spree in New York, all in an effort to persuade them to help promote his products.

While on the stand, Williams described being asked by Virginia State Police investigators if he would be willing to "wear a wire" during a conversation with the governor.

"I stopped the meeting right there, because I felt I needed to call my lawyers in Washington," Williams said. "I thought the governor was in trouble - and I thought I could be, too."

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Lawyers for McDonnell, a Republican who had once been viewed as a possible White House contender, and his wife have contended that accepting the gifts was unseemly but not illegal.

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McDonnell's four-year gubernatorial term ended in January.

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(Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Bill Trott, Diane Craft and Gunna Dickson)

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Massachusetts lawmakers pass bill tightening state gun laws

Massachusetts lawmakers on Friday tightened the state's already strict gun laws by passing a measure that gives police chiefs authority to turn down a resident's requests to buy a rifle or shotgun if they believe the person may be a danger.

House lawmakers overrode objections from gun-rights advocates in the state Senate who had opposed the measure, worrying that police chiefs could abuse the authority to deny firearms to law-abiding citizens.

"We seek not to be the safest state in the nation but strive to make our communities the safest in the world," said House Speaker Robert DeLeo, a Democrat.

The bill now goes to Governor Deval Patrick, a fellow Democrat, who supports tightening the state's gun laws.

The measure broadens the authority of police, who were already allowed to deny sales of handguns to people who failed background checks. The new measure gives a police chief 90 days to petition a court to deny a firearms identification card to someone the chief believes to be unfit.

"This is an egregious violation of your Second Amendment rights," gun-rights lobbying group the National Rifle Association said in a statement released shortly before the bill's passage during a legislative session that went past midnight.

The group said it objected mainly to the firearms ID card provision, saying the bill "does contain some favorable provisions to gun owners."

The measure would allow people with restrictions on their gun licenses to seek judicial review and also declassifies self-defense spray as ammunition.

(Editing by Scott Malone and Bill Trott)

Tape emerges of Clinton discussing bin Laden day before 9/11 attack

Former President Bill Clinton said he "could have killed" Osama bin Laden in remarks to an audience in Australia the day before al Qaeda's 2001 attacks on the United States, according to an audio tape that emerged this week.

Clinton and officials from his administration have expressed similar sentiments both before and after the Sept. 11 attacks that killed more than 3,000 people but the recording appears to have attracted attention because he was speaking less than 36 hours before al Qaeda hijackers would board four airliners for attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

On the tape Clinton said he declined to pursue one opportunity to kill bin Laden in Afghanistan because it would have risked killing hundreds of civilians.

"And I'm just saying, you know, if I were Osama bin Laden -he's a very smart guy. I spent a lot of time thinking about him. And I nearly got him once," Clinton can be heard saying as people in the audience laugh.

"I nearly got him," Clinton continues. "And I could have killed him but I would have had to destroy a little town called Kandahar in Afghanistan and killed 300 innocent women and children and then I would have been no better than him. And so I didn't do it."

The recording was made with Clinton's knowledge by Michael Kroger, the former head of Australia's Liberal Party, at a speaking engagement in Melbourne on Sept. 10, 2001, Kroger told Australia's Sky News, which broadcast the 30-second excerpt.

Kroger told Sky News he only recently recalled he had the recording.

The 9/11 Commission Report recounts an episode in December 1998 where Clinton's administration considered a cruise missile strike to kill bin Laden, the Saudi Arabian founder of al Qaeda, after learning he would be in Kandahar. The strike was not launched because of a fear that perhaps 300 other people could be killed or injured, the report says.

Clinton left office about nine months before the Sept. 11 attacks but had focused on Bin Laden as the mastermind of the bombings of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998 that killed more than 200 people.

A U.S. special forces military team killed bin Laden in a 2011 raid in Pakistan.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Bill Trott)

U.S. asks appeals court to reconsider Obamacare subsidies ruling

The U.S. Justice Department asked a federal appeals court on Friday to reconsider its July 22 ruling that poses a major setback to the Obamacare health insurance overhaul as it could limit the availability of federal health insurance subsidies for millions of people.

In the ruling last month, the appeals court said the subsidies, which help people afford health insurance, may only be paid in states that have their own online health insurance exchanges. There are 36 states that lack their own exchanges, which are a central feature in the Obamacare system.

Five million people could be affected, analysts have estimated, if subsidies were to disappear from the federally created marketplaces that have been set up in the states that did not set up their own exchanges.

In the court filing, the government, as expected, asked the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to review the three-judge panel's decision.

If the court agrees to rehear the case, oral arguments will likely be held later this year, possibly delaying any consideration of the issue by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Government lawyers wrote in the court filing that the July decision, if left intact, would "impose a severe hardship" on people who currently get the subsidies in the form of tax credits. The appeals court's ruling led to "harsh and illogical results," the government lawyers' court filing said.

The decision to rehear the case will be made by the court's 11 active judges. Following a series of appointments to the court made by President Barack Obama, the court's Democratic appointees have a 7-4 majority.

The three-judge panel that ruled in July was split 2-1, with two Republican appointees in the majority.

Separately, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, ruled in favor of the Obama administration in an identical challenge.

The plaintiffs in that case said on Thursday they are planning immediate U.S. Supreme Court review of that ruling, but further action in the Washington appeals court could deter the justices from taking the case at such an early stage.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh, Meredith Mazzilli and Bernard Orr)

Senator Grassley probes U.S. CFTC's spending on office leases

A U.S. lawmaker has launched an inquiry into the amount of money the Commodity Futures Trading Commission spends on leases, expressing concern that the derivatives regulator is wasting taxpayer money on underutilized space.

In a July 31 letter to the CFTC, U.S. Senate Iowa Republican Charles Grassley requested records detailing how much the agency has been spent and whether it has taken steps to reduce the amount of unused space it leases.

"The purpose of this letter is to state our concerns with how the agency has managed its resources in the past, and to learn how the agency plans to better manage these resources in the future," Grassley wrote.

The CFTC's inspector general released a report in June that concluded the CFTC had paid millions of dollars for office space in Kansas City, Missouri, that was vacant. The report said that of $5.3 million the CFTC was paying for the 10-year lease, $3.6 million was for unused space.

For an agency with a $215 million budget, the watchdog concluded the expense was a waste and asked the CFTC to review all of its leases. The CFTC acknowledged in the report that some space was not used, but said it would be unwise to get rid of excess space.

That is because the CFTC won broad authority in 2010 to police the over-the-counter derivatives market. The CFTC said it was hoping Congress might increase its budget to hire more staff, who would require space.

Grassley said that while he was concerned about the Kansas City lease, he also had "serious questions" about how the CFTC manages leases for other offices.

He pointed to data showing that of 1,352 seats in long-term leases at four office locations, only 922 seats were occupied.

In the CFTC's Washington, D.C. headquarters, he said, the agency added two floors and a hearing room, which increased rent by about $255,000 per month averaged over 10 years.

"The CFTC spends $48,000 per month for the hearing room area alone but, according to agency documents, the space is hardly used," Grassley wrote.

A CFTC spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Grassley's inquiry.

The CFTC is not the only regulatory agency whose leasing decisions have been called into question. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is being scrutinized over a multi-million facelift on its rented headquarters. [ID: nL2N0PD0WX]

The Federal Reserve and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission have faced criticism in the past over leasing decisions.

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Additional reporting by Douwe Miedema)

N.J. Governor Christie creates public pension study commission

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie on Friday created a panel to recommend reforms to the state's pension and health benefits for retired public employees.

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The panel of experts will be charged with "thinking big and being bold when it comes to developing recommendations for how New Jersey can create a sustainable retirement and health benefits system," Christie's office said in a statement.

The governor began calling for a new round of pension reform in February but has yet to lay out specific proposals. New Jersey's Democratic legislative leaders had worked with Christie, a possible 2016 Republican presidential candidate, to craft 2011 pension reforms.

Those changes mandated annual increases in the state's pension contribution to make up for years of skimping, with a target for reaching the full actuarially required contribution of $4.8 billion in fiscal 2018.

But in May, citing financial constraints, Christie slashed $904 million from the state's contribution to the pension system for fiscal 2014. Using his budget veto powers, he then pushed through a $1.57 billion reduction for this year's budget as well. The reductions are the subject of ongoing lawsuits filed by union members.

Christie will name pension study commission members in the coming days, spokesman Michael Drewniak said in an email. The commission is supposed to report its findings to Christie within 30 days.

The panel will examine a "soon-to-be-completed" review of potential reforms being conducted by the state's Treasury department. It will also look at reforms in other states and private sector retirement benefits.

State Senate President Steve Sweeney said on Friday that by slashing state pension contributions, Christie had broken a promise to fund the system.

"The problems will be fixed if he simply keeps his word and provides the appropriate funding," Sweeney said in a statement. "Until the governor decides to keep that commitment, there will be no further discussion between us on pensions."

(Reporting by Hilary Russ in New York; Editing by Richard Chang)

Judge: Florida to redraw congressional maps by Aug. 15

A Florida judge on Friday set a deadline of Aug. 15 for state lawmakers to redraw U.S. congressional district maps that he ruled were unconstitutional.

Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis also held open the possibility of delaying the election for the affected districts. The general election is on Nov. 4.

Lewis had ruled that two of the state's 27 districts for the U.S. House of Representatives must be redrawn because Republican leaders had conspired to rig the boundaries to protect the party's majority in Washington.

It was not immediately clear if Republican leaders could slow down any changes during an election year by appealing the decision.

“Time is of the essence,” Lewis wrote in his six-page order. “It is necessary to get a revised map in place and for me to consider additional evidence as to the legal and logistical obstacles to holding delayed elections for affected districts in 2014.”

The League of Women Voters of Florida, which successfully sued the state for illegally favoring incumbents in its 2012 congressional redistricting plan, argued it still is possible to fix the boundaries, even though absentee ballots for the August primary already have been sent out.

"Floridians deserve a chance to go to the polls and cast their votes on constitutional maps," said Deirdre Macnab, the group's state president.

A spokesman for Republican House Speaker Will Weatherford said legislative leaders are studying the ruling.

The case focused on congressional districts represented by Democrat Corrine Brown and Republican Daniel Webster and a requirement approved by voters in 2010 that prohibited legislators from favoring or protecting incumbents.

Lewis ruled that lawmakers conspired with consultants to pack black voters into Brown's district, which meanders from Jacksonville in north Florida to Orlando in the central part of the state. That left adjoining districts, including Webster's, heavily white and Republican.

(Writing by Letitia Stein; Editing by Doina Chiacu and Bill Trott)

Q&A: U.S. Justice Ginsburg on Hobby Lobby, gay marriage, retirement

In an interview (here) with Reuters late on Thursday, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 81, was not just defiant about calls for her retirement. A former women's rights advocate appointed to the court in 1993 by President Bill Clinton, Ginsburg also had plenty to say about how the Court's controversial Hobby Lobby decision highlighted a gender gap among her fellow justices, why gay marriage will continue to face court challenges, and why a woman might not be her ideal successor. Excerpts:

THE GENDER GAP

Q: The Court issued a string of decisions this term that might hurt women, and you’ve complained specifically about the Hobby Lobby case that said for-profit employers can cite religious reasons to opt out of birth control coverage under federal law. Do you think the majority is going backwards, even though there are now three female justices?

A: Not on this issue. Their blind spot (on women) has been there (in past cases). Some of my colleagues are sensitive to the criticism that the court has gotten on Roe v. Wade. I thought Hobby Lobby was inexplicable. Whatever your religious beliefs you don’t foist them on your employees.

Q: What difference does it make to have three women justices? (Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined the nine-member bench in 2009 and 2010, respectively.)

A: I think it has made an enormous difference in the perception of the court, (for spectators) sitting out there and seeing Sonia and Elena participate very actively in the colloquy.

GAY MARRIAGE

Q: Are you surprised at how quickly the same-sex marriage dispute is heading back to the Supreme Court since last year's ruling in the Windsor case. (The 5-4 decision in U.S. v. Windsor extended federal spousal benefits to same-sex married couples.)

A: I am not surprised by the change (in attitudes among people). I’ve never seen social change come so fast. This is different from race, where there was such a marked separation. People lived in communities that were white or black. Here, it’s your neighborhood ... your child... people in your own community.

Q: Do you think the court would be ready to invalidate state bans on same-sex marriage?

A: I won’t make predictions. You know that there are two themes in (Justice Anthony) Kennedy’s (Windsor) opinion: One about liberty and dignity (of individuals) ... On the other hand, he talks about marriage being in the state’s domain … Those don’t point in the same direction.

FINDING A SUCCESSOR

Q: Do you worry about who will succeed you when you do retire?

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A: No. I worry about what’s in front of me.

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Q: Do you think you should be replaced by another woman?

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A: No. There are some women I definitely would not want to succeed me ... but a man like David Souter, that would be great.

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(Reporting By Joan Biskupic. Editing by Andre Grenon)

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Obama says that after 9/11, 'we tortured some folks'

President Barack Obama said on Friday the CIA "tortured some folks" after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and that the White House had handed over to Congress a report about an investigation into "enhanced interrogation techniques."

"We did a whole lot of things that were right, but we tortured some folks. We did some things that were contrary to our values," Obama told a White House news conference.

Obama's comment was a reaffirmation of his decision to ban the use of interrogation techniques such as waterboarding shortly after he took office in January 2009.

The administration of President George W. Bush, Obama's predecessor, authorized the use of harsh questioning techniques of militant detainees in the wake of the 9/11 attacks after deciding they did not amount to torture. Obama told reporters the techniques were used because the United States was afraid more attacks were imminent.

"It's important for us not to feel too sanctimonious in retrospect about the tough job that those folks had," he said. "A lot of those folks were working hard under enormous pressure and are real patriots."

Obama also said he had full confidence in CIA Director John Brennan despite a revelation the agency spied on a U.S. Senate committee investigating its interrogation techniques.

(Reporting by Roberta Rampton, Steve Holland and Mark Felsenthal; Editing by Sandra Maler and Peter Cooney)


U.S. Congress backs more visas for Afghans who worked with troops

The U.S. Senate passed legislation on Friday authorizing 1,000 more visas for Afghan civilians who worked with American troops and diplomats - often risking their lives - sending the measure to the White House for President Barack Obama to sign into law.

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The bill, passed unanimously, expands the 2009 Special Immigrant Visa program to 4,000 from 3,000 visas. The House of Representatives passed the measure, also unanimously, on Wednesday.

The measure is intended to assist Afghans who worked for Americans, mostly as interpreters and guides, during the 13-year-long war and to ease the difficult process of getting visas to come to the United States.

Many of the Afghans have had to go into hiding while waiting for visas because the Taliban views them as traitors to their homeland because they worked for the United States.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Ken Wills)

Republicans revive U.S. border security bills to speed deportations

Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives sought to patch over another deep rift and pass revised border security legislation on Friday, hoping to persuade voters they are acting to tackle the growing crisis over child migrants from Central America.

Tougher language in the twin bills would make it easier to deport migrant children, add money to deploy National Guard troops at the border with Mexico and largely reverse President Barack Obama's policy of deferring action against minors brought to the United States illegally by their parents.

The changes were intended to satisfy conservative House Republican lawmakers who withdrew their support on Thursday amid a revolt instigated by Senator Ted Cruz, the Tea Party firebrand from Texas. In an embarrassing defeat, House Speaker John Boehner canceled a vote on Thursday after support collapsed.

The revised bills are due to be considered by the House on Friday night. But even if they pass, they have virtually no chance of becoming law. The U.S. Senate is certain to ignore them after failing to advance its own $2.7 billion border funding measure.

Obama, calling the new House language "extreme and unworkable," vowed a veto on Friday.

With the border legislation still unfinished as Congress prepares to leave Washington for a five-week recess, Obama said he would shift funds from other accounts to pay for enhanced border security and the care and feeding of thousands of detained migrant children.

"I'm going to have to act alone because we don't have enough resources," Obama told reporters. "We've already been very clear. We've run out of money."

One of the House bills proposes $694 million in additional funding for border security and to care for children from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador who have flooded over the border in recent months. The latest version adds $35 million to reimburse states that deploy National Guard troops to secure the border.

The other bill aims to speed the return of children to their home countries while also reversing much of Obama's two-year-old policy that suspended deportation efforts against children brought to the United States illegally by their parents before mid-2007.

A key demand of many Republicans was to stop the administration from admitting child migrants into the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Many Republicans blame that program for encouraging families in Central America to send unaccompanied minors on treacherous journeys to the U.S. border.

In a reversal, the measure would prohibit those who have already been given a reprieve from deportation from renewing their status when it expires after two years.

The revived House vote, expected on Friday evening, is largely aimed at aiding Republican lawmakers' re-election efforts by allowing them to claim that they acted to stop the flow of illegal immigrants, while Obama and Senate Democrats stood idle.

The child migrant crisis, with nearly 60,000 minors arriving at the U.S. border since October, has become an increasingly hot topic ahead of the mid-term elections in November.

"This will change the immigration debate and it will change the decisions that are made by people in Central America," Tea Party-backed Representative Michelle Bachmann said of the revised legislation, which she now supports.

The Republicans have been trying to present a united front against Obama to energize Republican voters ahead of the November elections, including a move this week to sue him in federal court for allegedly overstepping his legal authority.

But Thursday's vote collapse laid bare the same deep divisions between the Republican party's establishment and its conservative Tea Party wing that led to last year's bitter fight over a government shutdown.

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The Republican vs. Republican feud could worsen in September, when Boehner will have two hot-button issues to navigate through the House: a return to the border funding issue and a stop-gap spending bill to keep government agencies open in the new fiscal year.

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This week's dust-up in the House may give Democrats a new opening to remind voters - and Democratic donors - of the Tea Party's influence over Republicans.

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They also attacked the revised Republican plan as putting at risk the children of undocumented immigrants, often known as "dreamers," who have grown up in the United States. The Republican push could aggravate immigrant communities that have been hoping for comprehensive reforms.

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(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan and Mark Felsenthal; Editing by Doina Chiacu, Bill Trott, Frances Kerry and Ken Wills)

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Border security bill clears procedural vote in U.S. House

A $694 million bill to further secure the U.S. border with Mexico, amid a flood of Central American migrants, cleared a procedural vote in the House of Representatives on Friday.

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By a vote of 218-191, the Republican-controlled House paved the way for debate and a final vote on passage of the bill later on Friday.

No Democrats voted in favor of advancing the controversial legislation.

(Reporting By Richard Cowan and David Lawder; Editing by Sandra Maler)

Obama says that after 9/11, 'we tortured some folks'

President Barack Obama said on Friday the CIA "tortured some folks" after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and that the White House had handed over to Congress a report about an investigation into "enhanced interrogation techniques."

"We did a whole lot of things that were right, but we tortured some folks. We did some things that were contrary to our values," Obama told a White House news conference.

Obama's comment was a reaffirmation of his decision to ban the use of interrogation techniques such as waterboarding shortly after he took office in January 2009.

The administration of President George W. Bush, Obama's predecessor, authorized the use of harsh questioning techniques of militant detainees in the wake of the 9/11 attacks after deciding they did not amount to torture. Obama told reporters the techniques were used because the United States was afraid more attacks were imminent.

"It's important for us not to feel too sanctimonious in retrospect about the tough job that those folks had," he said. "A lot of those folks were working hard under enormous pressure and are real patriots."

Obama also said he had full confidence in CIA Director John Brennan despite a revelation the agency spied on a U.S. Senate committee investigating its interrogation techniques.

(Reporting by Roberta Rampton, Steve Holland and Mark Felsenthal; Editing by Sandra Maler and Peter Cooney)

U.S. House passes border-security funding bill to speed deportations

Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives voted on Friday to crack down on Central American migrants, including unaccompanied children, who are flooding to the U.S. border with Mexico, as lawmakers passed a $694 million border security bill.

The 223-189 vote came one day after conservative Republicans balked at an earlier version of the measure, exposing a deep rift between Tea Party activists and more mainstream Republicans.

In passing the retooled bill, the Republican-led House ignored a veto threat from the White House. But with the Senate already on a five-week summer recess, this measure will advance no further at least until September.

"We couldn't go home (for recess) and not have a decision," said Representative Kay Granger of Texas, who helped draft the original bill.

Granger said the measure would serve as a marker for negotiations in September to resolve the humanitarian crisis that has seen nearly 60,000 children from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala arrive illegally since October to escape criminal drug gangs and poverty.

House Democrats complained that the legislation would too speedily return children to dangerous conditions in their home countries. President Barack Obama called the Republican bill "extreme" and "unworkable."

Later on Friday, the House also passed a separate bill reversing Obama's 2012 policy suspending deportations of some undocumented residents who were brought to the United States as children years ago by their parents.

The measure also would bar Obama from expanding this policy, possibly to parents of children who already qualify.

The tougher language in the twin bills would make it easier to deport migrant children and add money to deploy National Guard troops at the border with Mexico.

The changes were intended to satisfy conservative House Republican lawmakers who withdrew their support on Thursday amid a revolt instigated by Senator Ted Cruz, the Tea Party firebrand from Texas.

On Thursday, the Democratic-controlled Senate failed to advance its own $2.7 billion border funding bill, as Republicans lined up to stop it on a procedural vote.

With Obama's $3.7 billion border funding request rejected by Congress, but no alternative legislation presented to him for signing into law, Obama said he would shift funds from other accounts to pay for enhanced border security and the care and feeding of thousands of detained migrant children.

"I'm going to have to act alone because we don't have enough resources," Obama told reporters. "We've already been very clear. We've run out of money."

Friday's action capped a day of bitter debate over U.S. immigration policy.

With the two votes, the House went on record in favor of accelerating the return of children to their home countries while also reversing much of Obama's two-year-old policy that suspended deportation efforts against children brought to the United States illegally by their parents before mid-2007.

The measure would prohibit those who have already been given a reprieve from deportation from renewing their status when it expires after two years.

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The child migrant crisis has become an increasingly hot topic ahead of the mid-term elections in November that will determine control of Congress next year.

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The Republicans have been trying to present a united front against Obama to energize the party's voting base, including a move this week to sue him in federal court for allegedly overstepping his legal authority.

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Republicans may have papered over their differences for now, but they could resurface after the summer break when negotiations intensify.

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Boehner in September will have two hot-button issues to navigate through the House: a return to the border funding issue and a stop-gap spending bill to keep government agencies open in the new fiscal year starting on Oct. 1.

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This week's dust-up in the House also may give Democrats a new opening to remind voters - and Democratic donors - of the Tea Party's influence over Republicans.

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They attacked the revised Republican plan as putting at risk the children of undocumented immigrants, often known as "dreamers," who have grown up in the United States. The Republican push could aggravate immigrant communities that have been hoping for comprehensive reforms.

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(Additional reporting by Mark Felsenthal; Editing by Doina Chiacu, Bill Trott, Frances Kerry and Ken Wills)

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Late to the party, Obama seeks bigger U.S. Africa role

Ask Major-General Wayne W. Grigsby Jr., the top U.S. military officer in Africa, how he thinks U.S. and European-backed African troops are faring in their war on Islamist militants in Somalia, and his answer comes back smartly: "Pretty darn good!".

But when "son of Africa" U.S. President Barack Obama hosts 50 African leaders in Washington this week, the admiration may be less than mutual. Many Africans feel America is lagging behind China and others in its engagement with their continent.

The Aug. 4-6 U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, billed by U.S. officials as a first-of-its-kind event, looks like a belated imitation of Africa gatherings hosted in recent years by China, India, Japan and the continent's former colonial master Europe.

The world's richest nation has been slow coming to the party of an economically rising Africa, long dismissed as a hopeless morass of poverty and war, but now offering investors a huge market for everything from banking and retail to mobile phones.

"The United States has fallen perhaps a little bit behind in the race to win African hearts and minds. So I think this is an attempt to compete with the likes of China and the European Union," said Christopher Wood, an analyst in economic diplomacy at the South African Institute of International Affairs.

The top U.S. diplomat for Africa, Linda Thomas-Greenfield bridles at suggestions that the Obama administration is playing catch-up. "Absolutely not," she said.

"Our relationship with Africa is a very strong historic relationship ... We see this as an opportunity to reaffirm that to African leaders," she said in a pre-summit conference call.

CHINA RACES AHEAD

China overtook the United States as Africa's biggest trade partner in 2009. Its leaders have criss-crossed the continent, proffering multi-billion dollar loans, aid and investment deals.

From Malabo to Maputo, Africa is studded with signs of Beijing's diplomatic and commercial outreach: Chinese-built roads, bridges, airports, stadiums, ministries and presidencies.

Since 2009, Obama, despite his African blood through a Kenyan father, has been a far less frequent visitor. His first substantial trip to the continent was only made last year.

Washington's many embassies in Africa - imposing concrete fortresses built to protect against angry mobs or terrorist attacks - project a cautious engagement from an Obama administration highly sensitive to a home public which has no appetite for overseas interventions after Iraq and Afghanistan.

Even U.S. Army Major-General Grigsby, surrounded by F-18s, C130 transports, helicopters and Humvees at his Camp Lemonnier toehold in the turbulent Horn of Africa, acknowledges the U.S. military's "small footprint" on a continent where flaring Islamist insurgencies are stirring international concern.

Security, governance and democracy will be on the agenda when Obama engages the leaders in an "interactive" discussion on Wednesday, following business talks with U.S. CEOs on Tuesday and discussions about health and wildlife trafficking on Monday.

Presidents Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Omar Hassan al-Bashir of Sudan are among a few left off the invitation list because they are not "in good standing" with Washington for failing to respect human rights and democracy.

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Presidents Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia and Ernest Bai Koroma of Sierra Leone have dropped out because of the deadly Ebola epidemic ravaging their nations. Thomas-Greenfield said ways of fighting the outbreak would be discussed at the summit.

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TRADE IN FOCUS

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Some concrete initiatives are expected from the meeting.

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The United States will announce nearly $1 billion in business deals for the region, increase funding for peacekeeping in six African countries and boost food and power programmes.

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Uppermost too will be Obama's strong recommendation for Congress to renew the African Growth Opportunity Act, or AGOA, a 14-year-old trade programme giving most African countries duty-free access to U.S. markets that expires on Sept. 30 next year.

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Total U.S. two-way trade in Africa has actually fallen off in recent years, to about $60 billion in 2013, far eclipsed by the European Union with over $200 billion and China, whose $170 billion is a huge increase from $10 billion in 2000, according to a recent Africa in Focus post by the Brookings Institution.

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While African leaders are keen on the AGOA renewal, Robert Besseling, Principal Africa Analyst, Economics and Country Risk, at IHS consultancy, said some are seeking better terms of trade.

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"Some countries are sceptical about AGOA because it is oriented towards the U.S. companies and can be politically manipulated," Besseling said. For example Swaziland was cut from AGOA last month due to U.S. concerns over democracy there.

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Obama officials are hoping to leverage U.S. corporations like General Electric Co, Caterpillar Inc and Procter & Gamble Co into more business opportunities in Africa amid intense competition from across the globe.

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"In the boards of directors of big global U.S. companies, more and more people are raising their hands at meetings and saying 'why aren't we in Africa?'," said Toby Moffett, a former Congressman from Connecticut and a senior adviser at law firm Mayer Brown LLP, who has represented African governments.

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Orji Uzor Kalu, a Nigerian businessman with oil, tourism and other interests in West Africa, echoed such complaints. "I'm not seeing the effort the U.S. made in Asia, they're not making the same effort in Africa," Kalu said from his Washington D.C. home.

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BUILDING SECURITY, DEMOCRACY

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Pointing to an Africa map showing hotspots like Somalia, Major-General Grigsby toes the line of a cautious security policy that involves keeping U.S. "boots on the ground" to a minimum while financing African peacekeeping and local training.

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"My responsibility from a regional approach is to assist my East African teammates to be able to neutralize violent extremists and conduct their crisis response," Grigsby told Reuters at the Africa Command's Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa, where some 3,500 U.S. service personnel are based.

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Obama said last year during his Africa trip his country put "muscle behind African efforts" to fight Islamist militants or brutal warlords in the Sahel, Central Africa and Somalia.

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Although French forces did the heavy lifting on the ground in driving back an offensive by al Qaeda-allied Islamists in Mali in 2012, Washington has stepped up training African armies and deploying surveillance drones - to Niamey and N'Djamena besides those already operating over the Horn of Africa.

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Some of the latest U.S. initiatives have clearly played to American domestic opinion and social media campaigns, such as sending a specialist team to help Nigeria search for the more than 200 schoolgirls kidnapped by Islamist group Boko Haram.

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While U.S. officials say Washington remains influential, it may no longer wield the diplomatic clout it once had in Africa when it was squaring up to the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

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Many noted how Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, an ally in turbulent central Africa, went ahead in February with signing into law tougher penalties against homosexuality, ignoring an appeal from Obama who warned it would "complicate" relations.

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This kind of diplomatic slap in the face "shows they have to reboot the relationship" with Africa, IHS's Besseling said.

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On Friday, Uganda's constitutional court struck down the law, citing procedural irregularities.

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African leaders have made clear they do not take kindly to moral lectures from Western leaders. By contrast, Beijing's pledges of aid and investment come with "no-strings attached".

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But Moffett believes the U.S. insistence on democracy and good governance, which U.S. officials say will be re-affirmed at the summit, reflects a real transformation underway in Africa.

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"President (Obama) can actually say, with a straight face, that the trajectory across Africa ... (is) towards more democracy, more adherence to rule of law, more transparency, more judicial independence, less corruption.

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"The Chinese guys don't give that speech," Moffett said.

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(Additional reporting by Phil Stewart, Steve Holland and Lesley Wroughton in Washington, Edmund Blair in Nairobi, David Lewis in Dakar, Nomatter Ndebele, Siyabonga Sishi and Joe Brock in Johannesburg; Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Gareth Jones)

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