Soccer-Argentina beat Dutch in shootout to reach final

Argentina's Sergio Romero saved two penalties in a 4-2 shootout win over the Netherlands to seal their first World Cup final place in 24 years after the first ever goalless semi-final at the end of extra time on Wednesday.

Romero plunged low to his left to save the first penalty kick from defender Ron Vlaar and then made a superb stop from Wesley Sneijder as Argentina's jubilant fans went wild at the Corinthians arena.

The pressure of scoring the winning penalty kick fell to Argentina substitute Maxi Rodriguez who slotted high past Jasper Cillessen, with the Dutch keeper failing to emulate the heroics of backup Tim Krul in their quarter-final win over Costa Rica.

Twice champions Argentina now travel to Rio de Janeiro for Sunday's final against old rivals Germany, who thrashed hosts Brazil 7-1 in the other semi-final in Belo Horizonte on Tuesday.

It will be a repeat of the 1986 and 1990 finals and the first time the same two teams will have faced each other three times in the title decider.

"...I'm really happy with everything," goalkeeping hero Romero said in a televised interview. (Penalties) are a question of luck, that's the reality... I had confidence in myself and, fortunately, everything turned out well."

Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella added: "I'm very happy because we reached the final and now we will see what we can do. We will give everything as usual, with humility, work and 100 percent effort."

Disappointed Netherlands winger Arjen Robben told Dutch TV: "It hurts but we gave it our all this evening and it's grim going out in this way... I have to be proud of these guys..."

CAUTIOUS START

With Brazil's harrowing defeat still fresh in the mind, caution was the watchword of a tactical first half as both sides felt each other out and battled for possession across the pitch in a defense-dominated encounter short on entertainment.

Nigel de Jong, best known for his chest-high kick on Spain's Xabi Alonso in the 2010 final which the Dutch lost, completed a remarkable recovery from a groin injury to play in midfield and clearly had orders to shadow Argentine playmaker Lionel Messi.

Argentina had equalled their longest winning streak at a World Cup with their 1-0 victory over Belgium in the quarter-finals, but all five of those wins were by one-goal margins and they were even less creative without the injured Angel di Maria.

Four-time World Player of the Year Messi, who was kept quiet by his standards, did test Cillessen with a free kick early on while Ezequiel Garay stooped to head a corner over the bar under pressure from Vlaar but chances were few in a dire first half.

The second period was equally cautious as the Dutch failed to record a shot on target for the entire 90 minutes before Arjen Robben burst into the box in the dying moments, only to be denied by Javier Mascherano's well-timed block.

Argentina substitute Rodrigo Palacio missed a gilt-edged chance in the second period of extra time when he broke clear and his tame header was held comfortably by a relieved Cillessen before Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir called for the shootout.

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Netherlands defender Vlaar said of his missed attempt: "In the penalty I wasn't nervous I, concentrated. It had to go in and it didn't.

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"We didn't get that many chances (during the game). We could have created more chances, but we didn't. We didn't get the chance to score and that's a shame.

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Argentina substitute Sergio Aguero, who converted his penalty in the shootout, said of their victory: "It means so many things, a lot of people didn't think that Argentina would be in the final, but we know what a good team we have."

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(Editing by Ken Ferris)

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Romero the hero as Argentina edge Dutch in shootout

Argentina's launched himself left and right to save two penalties in a 4-2 shootout win over the Netherlands on Wednesday that sealed the South Americans' first World Cup final appearance in 24 years.

After the teams battled to a 0-0 draw in the first ever goalless semi-final, Romero plunged low to his left to save the first kick from Dutch defender Ron Vlaar, then flew high to his right to palm away Wesley Sneijder's effort.

The pressure of scoring the winning penalty kick fell to Argentina substitute Maxi Rodriguez, who picked power over placement and, while Jasper Cillessen got a hand to the ball, it ricocheted up off the underside of the bar and into the net.

Twice champions Argentina now travel to Rio de Janeiro for Sunday's final against old rivals Germany, who thrashed hosts Brazil 7-1 in the other semi-final in Belo Horizonte on Tuesday.

It will be a repeat of the 1986 and 1990 finals and the first time the same two teams will have faced each other three times in the title decider.

Goalkeeping hero Romero, who clutched the ball tight as he spoke to reporters after the game, put his saves down to a lot of self-belief and a little luck.

"...I'm really happy with everything," he said in a televised interview. "(Penalties) are a question of luck, that's the reality ... I had confidence in myself and, fortunately, everything turned out well."

While Romero basked in the limelight, Cillessen's head hung low as he was consoled by his team mates.

The Dutch first-choice keeper has never saved a penalty in his professional career, which may have been behind coach Louis van Gaal's decision to replace him with Tim Krul for the quarter-final shootout against Costa Rica.

But after Van Gaal used up his substitutions on outfield players during the 120 minutes of regulation and extra time, he had no choice but to go with Cillessen for the shootout.

Van Gaal, whose brave decision to bring in Krul against Costa Rica proved a masterstroke, said he would have called upon his big stopper Krul once again if he had had the choice.

"If I had had the opportunity to substitute Jasper I would have done that, but I had already used three substitutes so I couldn’t do that," the Dutch coach said.

SHOOTOUT LOTTERY

With Brazil's harrowing defeat still fresh in the mind, caution was the watchword of a tactical first half as both sides felt each other out and battled for possession across the pitch in a defense-dominated encounter short on entertainment.

Nigel de Jong, best known for his chest-high kick on Spain's Xabi Alonso in the 2010 final which the Dutch lost, completed a remarkable recovery from a groin injury to play in midfield and clearly had orders to shadow Argentine playmaker Lionel Messi.

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Argentina had equalled their longest winning streak at a World Cup with their 1-0 victory over Belgium in the quarter-finals, but all five of those wins were by one-goal margins and they were even less creative without the injured Angel di Maria.

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Four-time World Player of the Year Messi, who was kept quiet by his standards, did test Cillessen with a free kick early on while Ezequiel Garay stooped to head a corner over the bar under pressure from Vlaar but chances were few in a dire first half.

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The second period was equally cautious as the Dutch failed to record a shot on target for the entire 90 minutes before Arjen Robben burst into the box in the dying moments, only to be denied by Javier Mascherano's well-timed block.

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Argentina substitute Rodrigo Palacio missed a gilt-edged chance in the second period of extra time when he broke clear and his tame header was held comfortably by a relieved Cillessen before Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir called for the shootout.

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Vlaar, who took the first spot kick, said nerves did not affect him and that his penalty simply was not good enough.

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"It really hurts, a dream which gets put out," he said. "In the penalty I wasn't nervous, I concentrated. When you take one you have to score, and that didn't happen, so it wasn't good enough."

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After Vlaar's miss, Arjen Robben scored for the Dutch, Romero then made a stunning save from Sneijder before Dirk Kuyt scored the Netherlands' fourth kick.

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Argentina made no mistake from the spot with Messi, Garay, Sergio Aguero and Rodriguez confidently firing home.

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"A competition is about first place, everyone knows that, being fifth or sixth is nothing," said Van Gaal.

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"I didn't have the feeling in the second half that we would lose. And when it comes to penalties you know it's a lottery."

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The Netherlands are now left to play Brazil in the third place playoff match in Brasilia on Saturday.

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(Editing by Ken Ferris)

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Sterling lashes out at wife in trial over $2 bln Clippers sale

Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling lashed out at his estranged wife following her court testimony on Wednesday in a trial over the $2 billion sale of the NBA team.

Sterling, 80, who is fighting to scuttle the deal his wife Shelly Sterling negotiated with former Microsoft Corp Chief Executive Officer Steve Ballmer, lashed out at his wife when she approached him after her testimony.

"Get away from me, you pig!" Sterling growled, startling his wife who had said she moved to gain control of the family trust that owns the Clippers out of concern for his mental health.

"Shelly, how could you lie?" the real estate billionaire added before apologizing to Judge Michael Levanas for disturbing court.

Shelly Sterling, 79, last month asked Los Angeles Superior Court to confirm her as having sole authority to sell the professional basketball franchise after her husband vowed to block the NBA-record sale.

Donald Sterling was banned for life by the NBA in April for private racist remarks that were taped and published

Shelly Sterling testified at the probate trial that she had her husband mentally evaluated after he gave a rambling television interview in May shortly after the ban.

"I couldn't believe it and I started crying," Shelly Sterling told the court. "I felt so bad. I couldn't believe that was him."

Shelly Sterling had her husband evaluated by two physicians who determined that he has early-stage Alzheimer's disease and was unable to conduct his own business affairs, handing her control of the trust and the Clippers.

"It was just totally out of context and reality," Shelly Sterling added while being questioned by her lawyer. "I thought for his health and my own health that he ought to be tested."

Levanas will decide whether Shelly Sterling acted in accordance with the family trust, and if Donald Sterling's move to revoke the trust after the deal with Ballmer would invalidate the sale.

Donald Sterling's attorneys say he was misled by his wife into submitting to medical examinations.

In his second day of testimony, Sterling, who was often combative with his own lawyer questioning him, said that his wife moved to assert authority of the trust because she was afraid that the league would seize the team.

"My wife is terrified, frightened to death. She can't sleep because she's afraid the NBA will take everything away," Sterling said. "Her motivation was that she scared out of her mind. She cried every night."

The sale to Ballmer has been tentatively approved by the league but must be voted on by other team owners. The trial, however, will not conclude before the deal's July 15 deadline.

Ballmer can walk away from the agreement at that date or extend it for another 30 days.

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His attorney, Adam Streisand, said outside court that he was confident the sale would be completed.

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The NBA has said it could seize the Clippers and put the franchise up for auction if the deal is not approved by Sept. 15.

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(Reporting by Eric Kelsey; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

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Merck nausea drug works in children in late-stage trial

Merck & Co Inc said its drug for treating chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting, Emend, was shown to be more effective than a placebo in a late-stage trial in children.

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The company said it plans to file for marketing approval for Emend in the U.S. for the new pediatric formulation in the second half of 2014.

Merck said 51 percent of patients getting Emend showed no vomiting, no retching and no use of rescue medication for nausea and vomiting 25 to 120 hours following the beginning of chemotherapy, compared to 26 percent of those on a placebo.

More than 70 percent of cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy suffer from nausea and vomiting that may result in a delay or discontinuation of treatment.

Prolonged nausea and vomiting can also lead to weight loss, dehydration and malnutrition.

Emend is already approved for treating chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting in adults and had global sales of $507 million in 2013.

Tesaro Inc's experimental drug Rolapitant, if approved, will compete with Emend.

(Reporting by Shailesh Kuber and Esha Dey in Bangalore; Editing by Saumyadeb Chakrabarty and Joyjeet Das)

Modi pitches India's frugal space prowess at rocket launch

Newly elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a pitch for India to be the world's low-cost space technology supplier after witnessing the launch of a rocket carrying five satellites from France, Singapore, Germany and Canada on Monday.

The Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle's mission bolstered India's goal of capturing a large slice of the global satellite launch industry, estimated to be worth around $55 billion over the next decade.

Deviprasad Karnik, spokesman for the Indian Space Research Organization, said all five satellites had been placed in orbit.

Modi said India's space program put it in an "elite global group of five-six countries today. This is one domain in which we are at the international cutting edge, a domain in which we have pushed beyond mediocrity to achieve excellence."

So far, India has launched 40 satellites for 19 countries, many of them advanced nations. Although that is a source of pride for Modi, the nationalist leader underscored that India still needed to improve its space capability.

India, he said, had to construct new launch infrastructure and extend launch capabilities to heavier satellites.

"India has the potential to be the launch service provider of the world. We must work towards this goal," he said.

India sent its first spacecraft to Mars last November, which set it on course to be the first Asian mission to reach the red planet. If successful, it will join a small club of space agencies to have explored Mars.

That mission's cheap price tag of 4.5 billion rupees ($75 million) prompted Modi on Monday to remark that it cost less than the budget of the Hollywood science fiction film Gravity.

"Even today our program stands out as the most cost effective in the world," said Modi. "Our scientists have shown the world a new paradigm of frugal engineering and the power of imagination."

"A GIFT"

Modi has championed a more assertive foreign policy since taking office in May. He invited members of the South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) to his inauguration in an unprecedented step and chose Himalayan neighbor Bhutan as his first foreign trip.

That regional focus now extends to more space cooperation. On Monday, Modi pledged to develop a SAARC satellite dedicated "to our neighborhood as a gift from India".

Although Modi made no mention of China, Beijing's program is far ahead of India's, with bigger rockets, more launches and equally cost-effective missions.

India launched its space program five decades ago and developed its own rocket technology after Western powers levied sanctions for a 1974 nuclear weapons test. Five years ago, its Chandrayaan satellite found evidence of water on the moon.

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However thrifty, India's space program has drawn criticism in a country dogged by poverty and power shortages and in the grip of its longest economic slowdown since the country embarked on free market reforms in 1991.

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Modi, however, said he believed that space technology offered many applications. "Space may seem distant but is an integral part of our daily life today," he said. ($1 = 60.0650 Indian rupees)

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(Reporting by Sruthi Gottipati; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Ron Popeski)

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Deep frozen testicle tissue used to produce babies in mice

Scientists have for the first time produced live offspring from testicle tissue that has been cryopreserved, or deep frozen, and say a similar technique might one day be used to preserve the fertility of boys facing cancer treatment.

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In a study published in the journal Nature Communications on Tuesday, Japanese researchers said their experiments using mice led to eight healthy offspring being born from sperm produced by previously frozen and thawed testicle tissue.

"The cryopreservation of testicle tissue may be a realistic measure for preserving fertility," the team, led by Takehiko Ogawa of Japan's Yokohama City University Association of Medical Science, wrote in the study.

Infertility is one of the adverse side effects of certain types of cancer treatment, and, as cure rates for childhood cancers are increasing, fertility has become an important concern for patients and their families.

Freezing sperm itself to preserve it for future use is only possible for boys who have reached puberty, so scientists have been seeking ways of helping prepubescent boys have a chance of producing their own children even after cancer treatment.

Ogawa and colleagues said they had previously developed an organ culture system that can induce complete spermatogenesis — the process by which sperm is produced by the testes — in mice.

In this latest experiment, they cryopreserved the testicular tissues of newborn mice, either by slow-freezing or vitrification — a specialized fast-freezing technique.

After thawing, the tissues were cultured - or grown in a lab dish - and spermatogenesis induced. The scientists found the thawed tissues was able to produce sperm just as efficiently as comparable unfrozen sperm tissue.

The team then used micro-insemination — where sperm is deposited directly into immature egg cells — with tissues that had been cryopreserved for more than four months.

This lead to eight offspring in total, they said, and the offspring grew healthily and were also able to reproduce.

"This strategy presents a potential method for preservation of fertility but will require further work before it can be translated into humans," Ogawa's team wrote.

(Reporting by Kate Kelland; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

Nature journal retracts stem cell paper citing 'critical errors'

A stem cell paper published by a team of Japanese and American scientists in the influential journal Nature has been retracted due to "several critical errors", the journal said on Wednesday.

The research, which when published in January was described as game-changing by many experts in the field, was subsequently investigated by Japan's RIKEN scientific institute, which "categorised some of the errors as misconduct", Nature said.

The paper, led at RIKEN by Japanese researcher Haruko Obokata, detailed simple ways to reprogram mature animal cells back to an embryonic-like state, allowing them to generate many different types of cells.

The results appeared to offer a promise that human cells might in future be simply and cheaply reprogrammed into embryonic-like cells - in this case cells dubbed Stimulus-Triggered Acquisition of Pluripotency, or STAP, cells - suggesting a simple way to replace damaged cells or grow new organs for sick and injured people.

Obokata initially staunchly defended her work in the face of serious doubt and criticisms, but last month agreed to retract the papers.

Nature confirmed the retraction on Wednesday, saying "multiple errors impair the credibility of the study as a whole.

"Ongoing studies are investigating this phenomenon afresh, but given the extensive nature of the errors currently found, we consider it appropriate to retract both papers," it said.

Charles Vacanti of Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard University in the United States, who was a co-author on the paper, conceded in a statement that "multiple errors" had been found, and agreed the work should be withdrawn.

"In science, the integrity of data is the foundation for credible findings," he said. "I am deeply saddened by all that has transpired, and after thoughtful consideration of the errors presented in the RIKEN report and other concerns that have been raised, I have agreed to retract the papers."

Stem cell experts, who at the time expressed excitement about Obokata's findings, said they were disappointed at the outcome.

"The STAP technology, indeed, sounded too good to be true," said Dusko Ilic, senior lecturer in stem cell science at King's College London. "I hoped that Haruko Obokata would prove at the end all those naysayers wrong. Unfortunately, she did not."

PEER REVIEW

According to the original Nature papers and briefings given by Obokata in January, she and her team took skin and blood cells, let them multiply, then subjected them to stress "almost to the point of death" by exposing them to trauma, low oxygen levels and acidic environments.

The Japanese-U.S. team said that within days they found the cells had not only survived but had also recovered by naturally reverting to a state similar to that of an embryonic stem cell.

These stem cells were then able to differentiate and mature into different types of cells and tissues, they said.

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But other research teams around the world were unable to replicate the research, and within weeks questions were raised about the validity of the findings.

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RIKEN, a semi-governmental research institute, launched an investigation and in April said it had concluded "this was an act of research misconduct involving fabrication".

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Chris Mason, an expert in regenerative medicine bioprocessing at University College London, said the incident exposed flaws in the peer-review process whereby fellow scientists are asked to review and comment on scientific studies before journals accept them for publication.

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"This ... highlights that the peer review process does not end at the recommendation to publish a paper, but continues with even greater rigour by a wide range of experts in their laboratories and increasingly across social media," he said.

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"Final validation is the reproduction of the data by independent scientists. This final step is the most important step in the entire peer review process."

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(Editing by Janet Lawrence and Sonya Hepinstall)

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Stinging rebuke: 'bone-house wasp' builds nest with ant corpses

Here's some useful advice for the world's ants: Whatever you do, stay away from the "bone-house wasp."

Scientists said on Wednesday they have identified a new species of spider wasp in southeastern China with grim conduct unlike any other creature. It crams the outermost chamber of the nests it builds for its offspring with piles of dead ants.

The female wasps do not hunt the ants for food, instead using the carcasses apparently to frighten off nest invaders.

"Most of the ant specimens belong to a big ant species with a powerful sting. So the female wasp has a certain risk of getting injured or killed," said Michael Staab, a biologist at the University of Freiburg in Germany, whose study was published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE.

Centuries ago, the Aztecs and other Mesoamerican civilizations erected in their cities massive skull racks displaying stacks of the severed heads of sacrificial victims as well as sculpted skulls - monuments certain to inspire dread.

The wasps may be doing something comparable.

"It might work similarly to the skull racks, just not by vision but by scent. The ant chamber may give the wasp's nest the scent of a fierce ant colony - and the nest is thus avoided by natural enemies," Staab said.

The scientists gave the previously unknown species a fittingly macabre name: Deuteragenia ossarium, or "bone-house wasp," after an ossuary, a depository for the bones of the dead.

"Our discovery gives a striking example of the fascinating strategies of offspring protection that have evolved in animals, particularly in insects," Staab said.

Staab said when he first saw one of the ant-filled chambers, he also thought of the ancient Great Wall of China, which protected the Chinese Empire from attacks by enemies just like the ant wall protects the wasp's offspring from nest invaders.

Michael Ohl, a biologist and entomologist at the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin, added: "We don't know of any similar behavior in the animal kingdom, where dead bodies of another species are used to protect the offspring."

The wasps, discovered in subtropical Chinese forests during a forest diversity study, are black with a brown spot on their wings. Females are up to six-tenths of an inch long (15 mm). The males are a bit smaller and have a white spot on their faces.

Adults feed on pollen and nectar. But the females hunt spiders larger than themselves as food for their offspring, unleashing a paralyzing sting and then dragging or flying the victim to the nest.

The wasps build nests in hollow, above-ground cavities in forest vegetation like the empty tunnels of wood-dwelling beetle larvae. The nest consists of a series of individual cells made by the females, each containing a single wasp egg deposited on a paralyzed spider that will serve as food for the larvae.

The outermost chamber that seals off the nest from the outside world is where the wasps build a special vault packed with the ant corpses.

(Reporting by Will Dunham; Editing by Tom Brown)

NASA carbon dioxide-hunting telescope reaches orbit

An unmanned Delta 2 rocket blasted off from California on Wednesday, carrying a NASA science satellite to survey where carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas tied to climate change, is moving into and out of Earth’s atmosphere, a NASA Television broadcast showed.

The 127-foot-tall (39-meter) rocket lifted off at 2:56 a.m. PDT (5:56 a.m. EDT/0956 GMT) from Vandenberg Air Force Base, located about 150 miles (240 km) northwest of Los Angeles, and headed south over the Pacific Ocean.

The launch was timed so that NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory, or OCO, would end up at the front of a train of polar-orbiting environmental satellites that cross Earth’s equator every afternoon.

A launch attempt on Tuesday was called off because of a problem with the launch pad’s water system, which is needed to mitigate high temperatures and suppress acoustic vibrations of launch. Technicians replaced a failed valve, clearing rocket manufacturer United Launch Alliance, a partnership of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, for a second launch attempt.

Scientists have been waiting since 2009 for OCO to reach orbit. The original satellite was lost in a launch accident.

"We felt awful about this situation," Michael Miller, vice president of Orbital Sciences Corp, which built the satellite and the now-retired Taurus booster, said of the previous delays.

"We're very happy to see this new day," Miller said at a post-launch news conference.

OCO 2 is NASA's first mission dedicated to studying carbon dioxide, said Betsy Edwards, program executive at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

"This makes it of critical importance to the scientists who are trying to understand the impact of humans on global change," Edwards said at a prelaunch news conference.

Every year about 40 billion tons of carbon end up in Earth’s atmosphere, an amount that is increasing as the developing world modernizes, said atmospheric scientist Michael Gunson of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

Roughly half of the carbon is re-absorbed by forests and the ocean, a process that is not well understood.

"Understanding the details of those processes will give us some insight into the future and what’s likely to happen over the next decades, even if we continue to consume more and more fossil fuels and emit more and more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere,” Gunson said.

From its orbital perch 438 miles (705 km) above Earth, the spacecraft will collect hundreds of thousands of measurements daily. Its path around the planet will take it over the same spot at the same time every 16 days, allowing scientists to detect patterns in carbon dioxide levels over weeks, months and years.

“It’s really the fate of carbon dioxide once it’s in the atmosphere that we’re trying put our finger on,” Gunson said.

The $468 million mission is designed to last at least two years.

(Editing by Bill Trott)

Gene from extinct human species fortifies high-altitude Tibetans

How do Tibetans thrive in high-altitude, low-oxygen conditions that would make others wither? Well, they may have received some help from an unexpected source.

Scientists said on Wednesday many Tibetans possess a rare variant of a gene involved in carrying oxygen in the blood that they likely inherited from an enigmatic group of extinct humans who interbred with our species tens of thousands of years ago.

It enables Tibetans to function well in low oxygen levels at elevations upwards of 15,000 feet (4,500 meters) like the vast high plateau of southwestern China. People without this variant would be apt to develop thick blood, leading to high blood pressure, heart attacks, strokes, low-birth-weight babies and higher infant mortality.

This version of the EPAS1 gene is nearly identical to one found in Denisovans, a lineage related to Neanderthals - but is very different from other people today.

Denisovans are known from a single finger bone and two teeth found in a Siberian cave. DNA testing on the 41,000-year-old bone indicated Denisovans were distinct from our species and Neanderthals.

"Our finding may suggest that the exchange of genes through mating with extinct species may be more important in human evolution than previously thought," said Rasmus Nielsen, a computational biology professor at the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Copenhagen, whose study appears in the journal Nature.

Our genome contains residual genetic fragments from other organisms like viruses as well as species like Neanderthals with which early modern humans interbred. The researchers called their study the first to show that a gene from an archaic human species has helped modern humans adjust to different living conditions.

"Such exchange of genes with other species may in fact have helped humans adapt to new environments encountered as they spread out of Africa and into the rest of the world," said Nielsen.

Asan Ciren, a researcher with China's BGI genomics center, added, "The genetic relationship or blood relationship between modern humans and archaic hominins is a hot topic of the current paleoanthropology."

The researchers said early modern humans trekking out of Africa interbred with Denisovans in Eurasia en route to China. Their descendants harbor a tiny percentage of Denisovan DNA.

Genetic studies show nearly 90 percent of Tibetans have the high-altitude gene variant, along with a small percentage of Han Chinese, who share a common ancestor with Tibetans. It is seen in no other people.

The researchers conducted genetic studies on 40 Tibetans and 40 Han Chinese and performed a statistical analysis showing that the gene variant almost certainly was inherited from the Denisovans.

The gene regulates production of hemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen. It is turned on when blood oxygen levels drop, stimulating more hemoglobin production.

At elevations above 13,000 feet (4,000 meters), the common form of the gene boosts hemoglobin and red blood cell production, causing dangerous side effects. The Tibetans' variant increases hemoglobin and red blood cell levels only modestly, sparing them these effects.

(Reporting by Will Dunham; Editing by Grant McCool)

Launch pad glitch delays liftoff of NASA carbon-hunting satellite

The launch of an unmanned Delta 2 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California was called off less than a minute before liftoff on Tuesday when the pad’s water system failed, a live NASA Television broadcast showed.

The rocket, built and flown by United Launch Alliance, a partnership of Lockheed Martin Corp and Boeing Co, was due to lift off at 2:56 a.m. PDT (5:56 a.m. EDT, 0956 GMT) from a launch pad that had not been used in nearly three years.

The pad’s water system is needed in case of a fire and to help suppress potentially damaging acoustic vibrations from launch.

The rocket carries NASA’s $465 million Orbiting Carbon Observatory. Built by Orbital Sciences Corp, it is designed to measure where carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas tied to climate change, is moving into and out of the atmosphere.

United Launch Alliance had just 30 seconds to get the rocket off the launch pad to properly position the OCO satellite at the front of a train of polar-orbiting spacecraft that passes over Earth’s equator at the same time every afternoon.

“As we only have a 30-second launch window, launch will not be occurring this morning,” said NASA launch commentator George Diller.

The launch was tentatively rescheduled for Wednesday, but engineers first have to track down the cause of the water system problem, he added.

(Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)

Scientists find how magic mushrooms alter the mind

Scientists studying the effects of the psychedelic chemical in magic mushrooms have found the human brain displays a similar pattern of activity during dreams as it does during a mind-expanding drug trip.

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Psychedelic drugs such as LSD and magic mushrooms can profoundly alter the way we experience the world, but little is known about what physically happens in the brain.

In a study published in the journal Human Brain Mapping, researchers examined the brain effects of psilocybin, the psychedelic ingredient in magic mushrooms, using data from brain scans of volunteers who had been injected with the drug.

"A good way to understand how the brain works is to perturb the system in a marked and novel way. Psychedelic drugs do precisely this and so are powerful tools for exploring what happens in the brain when consciousness is profoundly altered," said Dr Enzo Tagliazucchi, who led the study at Germany's Goethe University.

Magic mushrooms grow naturally around the world and have been widely used since ancient times for religious rites and also for recreation.

British researchers have been exploring the potential of psilocybin to alleviate severe forms of depression in people who don't respond to other treatments, and obtained some positive results from early-stage experiments.

In the United States, scientists have seen positive results in trials using MDMA, a pure form of the party drug ecstasy, in treating post-traumatic stress disorder.

DREAM-LIKE STATE

People who use psychedelic drugs often describe "expanded consciousness", including vivid imagination and dream-like states.

To explore the biological basis of these experiences, Tagliazucchi's team analyzed brain imaging data from 15 volunteers who were given psilocybin intravenously while they lay in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner.

The volunteers were scanned under the influence of psilocybin and when they had been injected with a placebo, or dummy drug. The researchers looked at fluctuations in what is called the blood-oxygen level dependent (BOLD) signal, which tracks activity levels in the brain.

They found that with psilocybin, activity in the more primitive brain network linked to emotional thinking became more pronounced, with several parts of the network - such as the hippocampus and anterior cingulate cortex - active at the same time. This pattern is similar to when people are dreaming.

They also found that volunteers on psilocybin had more disjointed and uncoordinated activity in the brain network that is linked to high-level thinking, including self-consciousness.

"People often describe taking psilocybin as producing a dreamlike state and our findings have, for the first time, provided a physical representation for the experience in the brain," said Robin Carhart-Harris of Imperial College London's department of medicine, who also worked on the study.

"I was fascinated to see similarities between the pattern of brain activity in a psychedelic state and the pattern of brain activity during dream sleep, especially as both involve the primitive areas of the brain linked to emotions and memory."

(Reporting by Kate Kelland, editing by Mark Trevelyan)

Would you rather sit and think or get shocked? You'd be surprised

So you say all you want to do is to take a few minutes to sit down and think without anyone or anything bugging you? Maybe that is true. But you might be in the minority.

A U.S. study published on Thursday showed that most volunteers who were asked to spend no more than 15 minutes alone in a room doing nothing but sitting and thinking found the task onerous.

In fact, some of the volunteers, men in particular, in one of the 11 experiments led by University of Virginia researchers preferred to administer mild electrical shocks to themselves rather than sit and do nothing.

"Many people find it difficult to use their own minds to entertain themselves, at least when asked to do it on the spot," said University of Virginia psychology professor Timothy Wilson, who led the study appearing in the journal Science. "In this modern age, with all the gadgets we have, people seem to fill up every moment with some external activity."

Nearly 800 people took part in the study. Some experiments involved only college students. The researchers then broadened the study to include adults who live in the same area.

They went to a church and farmer's market to recruit people from a variety of backgrounds and ages up to 77. And they got the same results: most participants regardless of age or gender did not like to be idle and alone with their thoughts.

In some experiments, college volunteers were asked to sit alone in a bare laboratory room and spend six to 15 minutes doing nothing but thinking or daydreaming. They were not allowed to have a cellphone, music player, reading material or writing implements and were asked to remain in their seats and stay awake. Most reported they did not enjoy the task and found it hard to concentrate.

Researchers then had adult and college student volunteers do the same thing in their homes, and got the same results. In addition, a third of volunteers cheated by doing things like using a cellphone or listening to music.

The researchers did an experiment to see if the student volunteers would even do an unpleasant task rather than just sit and think. They gave them a mild shock of the intensity of static electricity.

Volunteers were asked whether, if given $5, they would spend some of it to avoid getting shocked again. The ones who said they would be willing to pay to avoid another shock were asked to sit alone and think for 15 minutes but were given the option of giving themselves that same shock by simply pushing a button.

Many did no, especially men: Two-thirds (12 of 18) administered at least one shock. One did it 190 times. A quarter of the women (six of 24) gave themselves at least one shock.

"I think they just wanted to shock themselves out of the boredom," Wilson said. "Sometimes negative stimulation is preferable to no stimulation."

(Reporting by Will Dunham; Editing by Grant McCool)

Is volatile fuel used in racing cars a new power source for ships?

Methanol, a fuel used to power light aircraft and racing cars, is being tried out as alternative for ships, highlighting its potential in an industry under pressure to cut emissions.

From next year, shipping firms will have to cut polluting sulphur emissions in vessels going to parts of Europe and North America, sparking a race for alternatives to standard diesel between fuel sources such as methanol and liquefied natural gas.

As well as being considered a green fuel, methanol is potentially cheaper and more plentiful than diesel or LNG.

But it is trickier to handle than some fuels, such as diesel, due to its lower flashpoint -- the temperature where it vaporizes and could ignite -- so needs care to prevent fires.

"Compared with LNG as an alternative shipping fuel we see methanol in an early stage of development," said Thomas Wybierek, a shipping analyst at Norddeutsche Landesbank.

Methanol is currently more costly than diesel and less efficient to burn, though prices could come down as new projects to produce it come on stream.

South Korean and Japanese shipyards recently won the first orders for ships running on methanol. Engines, using 95 percent methanol and 5 percent diesel, are being developed and should be delivered in mid-2015, said engine builder MAN Diesel & Turbo.

"From a risk perspective I can't see that methanol has any drawbacks as compared to LNG," said Joanne Ellis at Swedish maritime transport consultant SSPA, which is working on one of two research programs looking at methanol as a marine fuel.

Methanol can be stored in existing tanks on ships and since it is not kept under pressure will not expand and explode in the way LNG could, she said.

Because LNG is super-chilled it also needs special tanks and could freeze ship equipment or cause injuries if it leaked.

Draft safety guidelines should be finalised this year for ships powered by fuels with low flashpoints such as methanol, the U.N.'s International Maritime Organisation (IMO) said.

RACE WITH LNG

There are about 50 LNG-fuelled ships operating globally, excluding dual-fuel LNG carriers. This will double with around 55 LNG-fuelled ships on order as firms in emission control areas opt to use LNG to comply with tougher IMO rules on emissions.But a lack of LNG refueling infrastructure at ports and the tanks needed to store it on ships, taking up space for cargo, are obstacles to its wider use, some experts say.

On the other hand, methanol can be stored in existing fuel tanks and transported to port by road tanker. It is usually produced from natural gas, though can also be made from biomass, carbon dioxide and even household rubbish.

Total methanol demand was 66 million tonnes in 2013, data from consultancy Jim Jordan and Associates showed, while demand for marine diesel was 372 million tonnes, according to OW Bunker, a supplier of the fuel.Shipping firms will have to cut emissions of sulphur dioxide in emission control areas in Europe and North America from the current 1 percent to 0.1 percent from next year under IMO rules.

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Global IMO curbs will lower emissions to 0.5 per cent in 2020 or 2025 from the existing 3.5 percent.The controls have led shipping firms to consider alternative fuels as methanol, which is sulphur free and has low levels of nitrogen oxide, as well as low-sulphur diesel and LNG.Methanol is cheaper than LNG, which costs between $900 and $1,100 a tonne, including port and storage costs, according to maritime services consultant Poten & Partners.

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Methanol is priced at $460-$560 per tonne, but twice as much needs to be burnt to generate the same energy as marine diesel, said Michael Teusch, business development manager at Danish catalysts firm Haldor Topsoe. Marine diesel costs about $600 a tonne, though with low sulphur it is much more expensive.

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TANKERS AND FERRIES

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Japan's Minaminippon Shipbuilding Co., and South Korea's Hyundai Mipo Dockyards Ltd are building seven methanol-fuelled tankers due to be completed in 2016.

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Three of the vessels, costing $140 million in total, will be owned by Japan's Mitsui OSK Lines, the company said.

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The ships have been chartered by Canada's Waterfront Shipping Company, a subsidiary of Methanex Corporation, the world's top supplier of methanol.

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There is also a trial, partly financed by the European Commission, starting early next year using methanol to help power a ferry. If successful a fleet of methanol-powered ferries could be operating in Europe and Scandinavia by 2020.

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George Cambanis, who heads Deloitte's Global Shipping and ports group, said that the host of players involved in various biodiesel projects for ships from engine manufacturers to ship safety classification society Lloyd's Register meant methanol was likely to be used more in the future.

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"How soon the future comes is anybody's guess," he added.

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(Editing by Ed Davies)

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NASA to send 3D Google smartphones for robots to space station

Google smartphones with next-generation 3D sensing technology are about to blast into orbit, where they will become the brains and eyes of ball-shaped hovering robots on the International Space Station.

NASA plans to use the handsets to beef up its Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites, or SPHERES, which could eventually take over daily chores for astronauts or even handle risky duties outside of the vessel.

The phones, part of Google's Project Tango augmented reality initiative, will be aboard a cargo spacecraft scheduled to launch on July 11.

Inspired by a scene from the movie Star Wars where Luke Skywalker spars with a hovering globe, the soccer-ball sized robots can be guided around the space station's microgravity interior, propelled by tiny blasts of CO2 at about an inch per second.

When NASA sent its SPHERES to the space station in 2006 they were capable of precise movement but little else. In 2010, engineers at NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, looked for ways to make the devices smarter.

"We wanted to add communication, a camera, increase the processing capability, accelerometers and other sensors. As we were scratching our heads thinking about what to do, we realized the answer was in our hands," Smart SPHERES project manager Chris Provencher told Reuters in an interview last week. "Let's just use smartphones."

They bought phones at Best Buy and altered them by adding extra batteries and a shatter-proof displays before sending the handsets to the space station, where astronauts used Velcro to attach them to the side of the SPHERES. That gave the robots a wealth of new sensing and visual capabilities - but still not enough to move around the station as easily as the engineers wanted.

Looking to improve the robots, NASA recently turned to the experimental smartphones Google created to encourage innovation in its push for consumer mobile devices that can make sense of space as easily as people do.

The Project Tango handsets include a motion-tracking camera and an infrared depth sensor similar to Microsoft's Kinect add-on for the Xbox. The sensors will detect sharp angles inside the space station and create a 3D map that lets the SPHERES navigate from one module to another.

"This type of capability is exactly what we need for a robot that's going to do tasks anywhere inside the space station," Provencher said. "It has to have a very robust navigation system.”

NASA's phones have been split open so that the touchscreen and sensors face outward when mounted on the robots. They also include space-tested batteries and plastic connectors to replace the Velcro.

Google wants the technology showcased by Project Tango to become ubiquitous, helping retailers create detailed 3D representations of their shops and letting gamers make their homes into virtual battlegrounds.

It also teamed up with LG recently to launch a Project Tango tablet to encourage developers to experiment with its features.

(Reporting by Noel Randewich; Editing by Ken Wills)

Study paves the way for a blood test to predict Alzheimer's

British scientists have identified a set of 10 proteins in the blood that can predict the onset of Alzheimer's and call this an important step towards developing a test for the incurable brain-wasting disease.

Such a test could initially be used to select patients for clinical trials of experimental treatments being developed to try to halt progression of Alzheimer's, the researchers said, and may one day move into routine use in doctors' clinics.

"Alzheimer's begins to affect the brain many years before patients are diagnosed (and) many of our drug trials fail because by the time patients are given the drugs the brain has already been too severely affected," said Simon Lovestone of Oxford University, who led this work from King's College London.

"A simple blood test could help us identify patients at a much earlier stage to take part in new trials and hopefully develop treatments," he said.

Alzheimer's is the most common form of dementia, a brain-wasting disease which in 2010 was estimated to be costing the world $604 billion a year. The fatal disease affects 44 million people worldwide, with the number set to triple by 2050, the campaign group Alzheimer's Disease International says.

Several big pharma firms including Roche, Eli Lilly, Merck & Co and Johnson & Johnson, are pursuing various approaches to get to the root cause of Alzheimer's and try to find treatments to halt its progression.

Yet over the past 15 years, more than 100 experimental Alzheimer's drugs have failed in trial. Lovestone and other experts believe this may be because drug trials are conducted too late, in patients whose condition has already gone too far.

A predictive test for use before people develop symptoms would help researchers select the right people for drug trials, and help show whether the experimental drugs are working.

SEARCH FOR ALTERNATIVE TEST

Previous studies have found that PET brain scans and tests of lumbar fluid can be used to predict the onset of dementia from people with a less severe condition known as mild cognitive impairment (MCI), but these tests are expensive and invasive, so scientists are keen to develop a cheaper, simpler blood test.

MCI includes problems with day-to-day memory, language and attention. It can be an early sign of dementia, or a symptom of stress or anxiety.

Around 10 percent of people diagnosed with MCI develop dementia within a year. Apart from regular assessments to measure memory decline, there is currently no accurate way of predicting who will or won't develop dementia.

For this study, published in the journal Alzheimer's & Dementia, Lovestone's team used blood samples from 1,148 people - 476 with Alzheimer's, 220 with mild cognitive impairment and 452 elderly controls without dementia. They were analyzed for 26 proteins previously found to be linked with Alzheimer's.

The team found 16 of these 26 proteins to be strongly associated with brain shrinkage in either MCI or Alzheimer's and then ran a second series of tests to see which of these could predict which patients would progress from MCI to Alzheimer's.

With this second series, they found a combination of 10 proteins capable of predicting with 87 percent accuracy whether people with MCI would develop Alzheimer's disease within a year.

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Experts in the field welcomed the results but said they should be replicated in larger studies before an Alzheimer's blood test could be rolled out for use in doctors' clinics.

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"The results reported today are interesting, but as the authors point out there is still a very large amount of work remaining until a usable blood test for Alzheimer's disease becomes available," said Adrian Pini of the MRC Center for Developmental Neurobiology at King's College London.

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James Pickett, head of research at the Alzheimer's Society, said the research "does not mean that a blood test for dementia is just around the corner".

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"These 10 proteins can predict conversion to dementia with less than 90 percent accuracy, meaning one in 10 people would get an incorrect result," he said. "Accuracy would need to be improved before it could be a useful diagnostic test."

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(Reporting by Kate Kelland; Editing by Tom Heneghan)

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Russia test launches first new space rocket since Soviet era: Interfax

Russia test launched its first new design of space rocket since the Soviet era on Wednesday, Russian news agencies quoted a source at the country's northern Plesetsk cosmodrome as saying.

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"The launch has taken place," the source was cited by Interfax as saying of the new generation Angara rocket, a vital part of President Vladimir Putin's efforts to revive Russia's once-pioneering space industry.

(Reporting by Alissa de Carbonnel, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Celgene's spondylitis drug misses main goal in trial

Celgene Corp said a drug being tested to treat a type of arthritis that affects the spine failed to meet the main goal in a late-stage trial, sending the company's shares down 3 percent premarket.

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The drug, Otezla, failed to show improvement of at least 20 percent at week 16 when tested on patients with ankylosing spondylitis, or arthritis of the spine, compared to those on a placebo, the company said. [ID:nBw6S6bVra]

The company said an analysis of the data showed "meaningful efficacy" in a large subset of patients with early-stage disease at week 24.

Celgene said it would continue the study unchanged based on a recommendation by an independent data monitoring committee.

The drugmaker also said it planned to start another late-stage trial for further data analysis.

Otezla is already approved by U.S. health regulators for treatment of adults with active psoriatic arthritis and is being studied for use in psoriasis and other indications including Behcet's disease and Crohn's disease. [ID:nL2N0MI1ED]

Ankylosing spondylitis affects the joints in the spine and the pelvis. It can cause rigidity in the vertebrae that may result in a hunch-forward posture.

The company's shares were trading at $84.31 before the bell after closing at $85.72 on the Nasdaq on Tuesday.

(Reporting By Penumudi Amrutha; Editing by Sriraj Kalluvila)

U.S. judge declines to dismiss charges against ex-Connecticut governor


Obama says U.S. committed to cooperating with China

U.S. President Barack Obama said the United States is committed to building a "new model" of relations with China that is defined by cooperation and the constructive management of differences.

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"The United States welcomes the emergence of a stable, peaceful, and prosperous China," Obama said in a statement issued by the White House as officials from both countries began high-level annual talks in Beijing.

"We are committed to the shared goal of developing over time a 'new model' of relations with China defined by increased practical cooperation and constructive management of differences," he said.

"We remain determined to ensure that cooperation defines the overall relationship."

(Reporting by Lesley Wroughton; Writing by Koh Gui Qing; Editing by Dean Yates)

Obama shoots pool in night out on the town in Denver

A man shouted "get that man a beer" and sure enough, President Barack Obama soon had a cold pint in his hand and prepared to play billiards with Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper.

This Tuesday night out on the town in Denver, which included slices of pizza with a group of people who had written to him, was Obama's way of escaping the confines of Washington, where partisan gridlock reigns supreme.

It was a case of "the bear is loose," the president's own description of the times when he is able to break free of the trappings of Washington and experience what everyday Americans see.

Of course that's nearly impossible with the crowds that are attracted to his every move and his security detail. Shaking hands with dozens of bystanders along a Denver street, the "bear" came face-to-face with a person wearing a horse's head mask, in honor of the Denver Broncos NFL football team.

Inside Wynkoop Brewing Company, a local brewery that prides itself as being 337 steps from the Colorado Rockies' Coors Field, Obama met with Hickenlooper, a Democrat, and they took sips from pint glasses of Railyard Ale amber beer as dozens of people snapped selfie photos.

Moving over to the green felt billiards table, Obama and Hickenlooper faced off. It was slow going at first.

"He's leaving me nothing," Obama said, a mock complaint at the position on the table he was left with after an errant Hickenlooper shot.

But then Obama began sinking balls and Hickenlooper could not.

"Uh oh!" Obama said of an errant Hickenlooper shot, and pretty soon the president was waving over to the TV cameras to make sure they had recorded his victory.

Denver was Obama's first stop on a three-day trip out of Washington that will also take him to Texas. It is mostly aimed at raising money for Democratic candidates in the November congressional elections.

But on Wednesday, he will meet in Dallas with Texas Governor Rick Perry, a Republican who has been sharply critical of Obama's handling of the crisis involving tens of thousands of unaccompanied children who have crossed into Texas from the border with Mexico.

(Editing by Matt Driskill)

Disgraced former New Orleans Mayor Nagin due for sentencing

Disgraced former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin was set to be sentenced by a federal judge on Wednesday on 20 corruption charges that could land him in prison for two decades.

A jury in February found Nagin guilty of charges that include bribery, wire fraud, conspiracy, money laundering and tax evasion, all in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Nagin stirred national controversy with his erratic behavior after Katrina in 2005 breached floodwalls and inundated New Orleans, killing at least 1,500 people and leaving tens of thousands homeless.

Prosecutors have asked for a stiff sentence of about 20 years, while Nagin's attorney, citing his lack of a criminal record, has urged leniency.

Prosecutors said the combined value of the bribes, which included personal parties, private jet rides and first-class airfare for a family shopping trip to New York, totaled more than $500,000.

During the 10-day trial, prosecutors portrayed Nagin as a mayor on the take, granting favors for bribes that included tons of free granite delivered to a kitchen countertop company he ran with his sons.

Testifying on his own behalf, Nagin flatly denied taking any bribe.

A former cable TV executive elected in 2002 on promises of running an ethical government, Nagin won re-election four years later.

According to prosecutors, he immediately began seeking money from contractors to fund the struggling family business.

Nagin's attorney, Robert Jenkins, said after the guilty verdict that the former mayor would appeal his conviction.

Any appeal will likely be complicated by the defense not moving during the trial to have the evidence against Nagin ruled too weak for a conviction, said Herbert Larson, an expert on federal criminal law at the Tulane University Law School.

Such motions are crucial for revisiting those arguments on appeal, Larson said.

"I don't think there are many if any viable avenues for an appeal for Ray Nagin," Larson said.

Jenkins did not immediately return messages seeking comment.

As he sought re-election the year following Hurricane Katrina, Nagin, a black politician who previously enjoyed strong support from both black and white voters, seemed to take a racially divisive approach to his campaign, urging residents to rebuild a "chocolate New Orleans," referring to its majority black population.

He now lives in Frisco, Texas.

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(Editing by David Adams and Sandra Maler)

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U.S., China ink coal, clean energy deals but climate differences remain

The United States and China on Tuesday signed eight partnership pacts to cut greenhouse gases that will bring the world's two biggest carbon emitters closer together on climate policy, but fundamental differences between the two sides remain.

Consensus between the United States and China will be a crucial part of any new global climate pact to replace the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, but they have long struggled to come to an agreement on how the costs of cutting greenhouse gases should be distributed among rich and poor nations.

Speaking in Beijing during the latest round of the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Wednesday that the two sides remained committed to "close dialogue" on climate change negotiations.

"The significance of these two nations coming together can't be understated.  We are working hard to find a solution together that can have an impact on the rest of the world."

The deals, which involve companies and research bodies, were signed in Beijing ahead of a two-day visit to China by top Obama administration officials, including Kerry, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.

The signing was attended by Xie Zhenhua, vice chairman of China's influential economic planner, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), Todd Stern, the lead U.S. climate treaty negotiator at the U.S. State Department, Obama adviser John Podesta and Lee Zak, director of the U.S. Trade and Development Agency.

In one of the memoranda of understanding (MOUs), China's Huaneng Clean Energy Research Institute, a subsidiary of state-owned power company China Huaneng and Washington-based Summit Power Group agreed to share information on clean coal power generation technology.

Huaneng is part of a Chinese consortium operating a 400-MW pilot integrated gasification combined cycle plant in Tianjin.

Under the pact, Huaneng will share information with Summit Power, which is expected to soon break ground on a similar project in Texas after it secures engineering and procurement support from Petrochina and Chinese engineering firm Huanqiu Contracting and Engineering.

The MOU is expected to be signed on Wednesday in Beijing.

Summit, in turn, will share information and technology for recovering oil from captured carbon.

"This (pact) accelerates sharing of information on carbon capture and storage for power," said Julio Friedmann, deputy assistant Secretary for Clean Coal for the U.S. Department of Energy.

The partnership will be a boon to both countries, said Laura Miller, a former mayor of Dallas who now manages the Texas Clean Energy Project.

"We will be sharing expertise, years of development experience and non-proprietary technology on both projects, all while making giant steps forward for the world's environment," she said in an interview.

Another project partners West Virginia University with Yanchang Petroleum on an industrialized demonstration of ultra-cleaning technology in northern Shaanxi province.

The University of Kentucky, another coal state university, will partner with Shanxi Coal International Energy Group and Air Products and Chemicals Inc on a project feasibility study for a 350MW supercritical coal-fired power plant that can capture 2 million tonnes of CO2 a year.

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STICKING POINTS

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At a news briefing in the Chinese capital on Wednesday, the NDRC's Xie welcomed the closer partnership of the world's top two CO2 emitters, but said more was needed in areas such as technological cooperation.

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"Developing countries are most concerned that they get funds and technological support from developed countries," he said. "On this issue, we are still having great difficulties and we have to put forth more effort."

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China has led the way in trying to persuade developed countries to set up financing mechanisms to help poorer nations cut emissions and adapt to climate change.

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The issue remains a major stumbling-block in talks on a new global accord, with the United States and others reluctant to commit funds.

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Stern, the U.S. climate negotiator, said the United States didn't disagree with China that there should be a differentiation in responsibilities between developing and developed countries, but that using old definitions for those labels established in 1992 was a sticking point.

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"I've had long and detailed conversations on this subject with vice chairman Xie and others," he said. "We don't quarrel with the basic concept."

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Xie told Chinese media on Tuesday that wider two-way talks would include a special high-level meeting on climate change, focused on discussing domestic and international policies and possible cooperation.

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The U.S. delegation is in China for the sixth round of the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, which are high-level meetings on cooperation in areas from security to agriculture.

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(Additional reporting by Lesley Wroughton, Kathy Chen and David Stanway in Beijing; Editing by Ros Krasny, Clarence Fernandez and Jeremy Laurence)

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China, U.S. say committed to managing differences

China and the United States need to manage their differences, the leaders of both countries said on Wednesday at the start of annual talks expected to focus on cyber-security, maritime disputes, the Chinese currency and an investment treaty.

The two-day talks in Beijing, called the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, will be an opportunity for the world's two biggest economies to dial down tensions after months of bickering over a host of issues, experts have said.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew chair the U.S. delegation, with Vice Premier Wang Yang and top diplomat Yang Jiechi leading the Chinese side.

President Xi Jinping said Sino-U.S. cooperation was of vital importance to the global community.

"China-U.S. confrontation, to the two countries and the world, would definitely be a disaster," he told the opening ceremony at a government guesthouse in the west of the city.

"We should mutually respect and treat each other equally, and respect the other's sovereignty and territorial integrity and respect each other's choice on the path of development."

Escalating tensions between China and some countries in the South China Sea and with Japan in the East China Sea as well as U.S. charges over hacking and Internet spying have provoked ire on both sides of the Pacific in recent months.

In a statement released as the discussions began, U.S. President Barack Obama said the United States was committed to building a "new model" of relations with China that is defined by cooperation and the constructive management of differences.

"The United States welcomes the emergence of a stable, peaceful, and prosperous China," Obama said. "We remain determined to ensure that cooperation defines the overall relationship."

A senior U.S. administration official said discussions between Kerry and senior Chinese officials included candid discussions over human rights, maritime disputes and cyber espionage.

"The Secretary made the case to the Chinese for the wisdom of getting back to work in the cyber working group," the official said, referring to talks which were suspended in May when the U.S. charged the five Chinese military officers with hacking.

"He made clear that we are very much of the view that these issues are sufficiently important to warrant us rolling up our sleeves and tackling them."

MARKET-DRIVEN YUAN

Despite deeply interconnected business ties and two-way trade worth more than half a trillion dollars a year, Beijing and Washington have deep differences over everything from human rights to the value of the Chinese currency, the yuan.

Washington has begun to push for China to move to a market-driven exchange rate.

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"We support China's efforts to allow the market to play a more decisive role in the economy and rely more on household consumption to drive China's economic growth. Moving to a market-determined exchange rate will be a crucial step," Lew said at the opening ceremony.

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Critics say China artificially suppresses the value of the yuan to protect its exporters, an accusation China has always denied.

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Chinese Finance Minister Lou Jiwei defended the country's currency interventions, saying it was difficult to take a hands-off approach when it came to the yuan, given an unsteady economy and abnormal capital inflows.

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"The U.S. side has constantly raised the issue about whether intervention is no longer needed in our foreign exchange policy," Lou told reporters at a briefing. "But we say it's difficult when the economy has yet to fully recover, and cross-border capital flows are not normal."

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He said he hoped U.S. authorities could do their part to keep the U.S. economy growing at a steady clip, and that Washington should be mindful of the spillover effects of its ultra-loose monetary policy.

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"The normalization of U.S. monetary policy has drawn wide attention," Lou said. "We hope the U.S. side can act prudently."

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The annual talks, now in their fifth year, have yielded few substantive agreements, in part because relations have grown more complex with China's increasing military, diplomatic and economic clout. Still, U.S. officials have underscored the importance of the discussions to help ensure the relationship doesn't drift toward confrontation.

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Xi said both countries should strengthen cooperation in fighting terror and speed up talks on a bilateral investment treaty to reach an agreement at an early date.

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The United States hopes the treaty will loosen Chinese restrictions to allow for a more level playing field for U.S. companies in China. Chinese officials say they hope it will help drive China's own domestic reforms.

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The U.S. official said Kerry explained U.S. viewpoint on the East and South China Sea disputes, emphasizing neither was "a situation in which countries should or can be permitted to act unilaterally to advance their territorial claims".

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Washington has not taken sides in the disputes but has been critical of China's behavior in the potentially energy-rich South China Sea, where the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan have overlapping territorial claims with China.

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Beijing, though, views the United States as encouraging Vietnam and the Philippines to be more aggressive in the dispute, and of backing its security ally Japan in the separate spat over uninhabited islands in the East China Sea.

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Kerry reiterated that the United States was not seeking to "contain" China.

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"We have a profound stake in each others success," he said. "I can tell you that we are determined to choose the path of peace and prosperity and cooperation, and yes, even competition, but not conflict."

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(Additional reporting by Kevin Yao; Writing by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Dean Yates and Raju Gopalakrishnan)

Boehner calls U.S. Republican highway funding plan 'really solid'

U.S. Republican House Speaker John Boehner said on Wednesday he welcomes a plan to extend U.S. highway funding until May 31, 2015, from House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp and hopes to see it pass the House of Representatives in the next two weeks.

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"I think Chairman Camp and the members of the Ways and Means Committee have a really solid bill to help pay for the shortfall, if you will, in the Highway Trust Fund for the next eight or nine months," Boehner told reporters.

Camp's $10.9 billion plan would be paid for with some fund transfers and revenue-raising measures, including $6.5 billion in new revenue from "pension smoothing," an accounting move that allows companies to delay contributions to employee pension plans. This boosts short-term corporate profits, producing more tax revenue collected by the U.S. Treasury.

(Reporting By David Lawder; Editing by Bill Trott)

Boehner: Obama border funding plan needs study, wants enforcement

U.S. House Speaker John Boehner said on Wednesday that Republicans needed to study President Barack Obama's $3.7 billion emergency spending request for border security before passing judgment on it.

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Boehner told reporters he would wait for House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers and a House border security working group to make recommendations on the request but emphasized that he wanted strong steps taken to secure the border and enforce immigration laws.

"If we don't secure the border, nothing's going to change," Boehner said. "And if you look at the president's request it's all more about continuing to deal with the problem. We've got to do something about sealing the border and ending this problem so that we can move on with the bigger questions in the immigration debate."

(Reporting By David Lawder)

Bill allowing parole for young offenders advances in Massachusetts

Massachusetts legislators passed a bill that would grant people convicted of first-degree murder while under age 18 a chance at parole after serving at least 20 years of their sentence.

The bill, which was approved late Tuesday, comes after rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court and Massachusetts' highest court that found imposing life sentences without parole on juvenile offenders to be unconstitutional.

The state’s court, saying that juveniles’ brains are fundamentally different from those of adults, ruled that youth convicted of first-degree murder should be sentenced as if convicted of second-degree murder - a life-term, with parole eligibility after 15 to 25 years. That sentencing method remains in effect until this bill or another addressing the issue becomes law.

Senate approval of the bill by a vote of 37-2 follows House approval of a similar measure last month. Governor Deval Patrick, a Democrat, has not indicated if he will sign it.

Supporters of the Senate bill noted it does not guarantee parole to juvenile offenders but offers them the chance to plead their cases before a board. Undeserving applicants still will "never see the light of day," said Will Brownsberger, a Democrat who serves as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The Senate blocked an effort to impose a 35-year minimum sentence before parole could be granted.

"The crime and its penalty must be proportional," said Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, a Republican who had backed that measure.

The House and Senate bills on Wednesday move toward a conference committee charged with working out a compromise bill.

(Editing by Scott Malone and Bill Trott)

Gun control group sues Kansas governor over gun rights law

A gun violence prevention group sued Kansas Governor Sam Brownback and the state's attorney general on Wednesday, challenging a one-year-old state law on the grounds that it violates the U.S. Constitution by nullifying federal laws aimed at reducing firearms violence.

"Neither the Kansas legislature, nor any state legislature, is empowered to declare federal law 'invalid,' or to criminalize the enforcement of federal law," the lawsuit said.

The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Kansas City, Kansas, naming the governor and Attorney General Derek Schmidt as defendants. The group is seeking a permanent injunction prohibiting enforcement of the Kansas law.

Brownback, who signed the law in April 2013, vowed to defend the measure, called the "Second Amendment Protection Act."

"The right to keep and bear arms is a right that Kansans hold dear," Brownback, a Republican, said in a statement. "It is a right enshrined not only in the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution, but also protected by the Kansas Bill of Rights."

The law says that firearms made in Kansas are not subject to any federal law or regulation, including a gun or ammunition registration program. It also provides a nullification clause, deeming "void and unenforceable" any laws or regulations that the state deems to be a violation of the Second Amendment.

According to the complaint, the Kansas law violates provisions that give final power to interpret the U.S. Constitution to federal courts, not state legislatures. The Brady group also said the law is contrary to a 1958 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found any state law claiming to nullify federal law as unconstitutional.

Jonathan Lowy, director of the legal action project at the Brady Center, said that the law in Kansas is contrary to public safety and common sense, and that it is part of a larger campaign by the gun lobby to eliminate restrictions on guns.

"It should be called the 'Gun Violence Preservation Act,'" said Lowy.

The law allows for the unregulated manufacture and sale of Kansas firearms, firearm accessories and ammunition, and allows for the purchase of weapons with no background checks or records kept, and would allow for the sale of Kansas handguns to people as young as 18, the lawsuit said. It also would make it a crime for local police to refer gun crimes to federal agencies for prosecution, the lawsuit states.

Last year, a federal appeals court struck down a 2009 Montana law that sought to prohibit federal regulation of guns made in that state.

Lawmakers in Missouri have been trying to pass a similar measure. Last year, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon, a Democrat, vetoed one such measure.

Former New Orleans Mayor Nagin gets 10 years in corruption case

Former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin was sentenced on Wednesday to 10 years in federal prison for corruption during the critical years of rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in 2005.

A jury in February found Nagin, a Democrat, guilty on charges including bribery, wire fraud, conspiracy, money laundering and tax evasion.

Nagin, 58, stirred national controversy with his erratic behavior after Katrina breached floodwalls and inundated New Orleans in 2005, killing at least 1,500 people and leaving tens of thousands homeless.

Citing Nagin's devotion to family and commitment to helping New Orleans, U.S. District Judge Helen Ginger Berrigan said a shorter prison term than that recommended under federal sentencing guidelines was warranted.

She ordered Nagin to turn himself in to begin serving his sentence by Sept. 8. With good behavior, and barring any appeals, Nagin could get out of prison after about 8-1/2 years.

Berrigan also ordered Nagin, who prosecutors say accepted bribes valued at over $500,000, to pay about $84,000 in restitution to the Internal Revenue Service.

Addressing reporters outside the courtroom, prosecutor Matthew Coman, who had sought a stiffer sentence, thanked community members who had come forward to help the prosecution build its case.

"What Ray Nagin did was sell his office," Coman said, as supporters of the former mayor sought to shout him down.

During the 10-day trial, prosecutors portrayed Nagin as a mayor on the take, granting favors for bribes that included tons of free granite delivered to a kitchen countertop company he ran with his sons.

Nagin, a former cable TV executive elected in 2002 on a promise of running an ethical government and re-elected four years later, made no apologies in a brief courtroom statement in which he thanked the judge for her professionalism. Nagin, who has never acknowledged taking bribes, declined to comment as he left the courthouse.

His attorney, Robert Jenkins, said after February's guilty verdict that Nagin would appeal his conviction.

Any appeal will likely be complicated by the defense not moving during the trial to have the evidence against Nagin ruled too weak for a conviction, said Herbert Larson, an expert on federal criminal law at the Tulane University Law School.

Such motions are crucial for revisiting those arguments on appeal, he said.

"I don't think there are many if any viable avenues for an appeal for Ray Nagin," Larson said.

(Reporting by Kathy Finn; Writing by Jonathan Kaminsky; Editing by Jim Loney and Eric Beech)

Obama raises money for Senate Democrat Udall - without Udall

What if President Barack Obama came to your fund-raising event and you did not attend?

That's what happened on Wednesday in Denver when Obama raised money for Colorado Senator Mark Udall, a Democrat who is facing a stiff challenge to re-election in November.

His non-attendance raised questions as to whether he did not want to appear personally with Obama as he tries to fight off a tough challenge from Republican U.S. Representative Cory Gardner. Udall's seat could be key in the Republican drive to capture control of the U.S. Senate.

Udall's campaign said the senator was not able to be at the event because he needed to be in Washington to vote for the Senate confirmation of Julian Castro as housing secretary.

Castro sailed through on a bipartisan 71-26 vote.

"Due to last-minute votes and legislative activity, Mark will be unable to make the trip back to Colorado on Wednesday," Udall's campaign said. "Mark is grateful for the president’s support, and had hoped to welcome him to Colorado in person, but his responsibilities to serve Colorado in the Senate come first."

Obama, whose 2008 Democratic presidential nominating convention was in Denver and who won Colorado in 2008 and 2012, made no mention of the fact that Udall was not there when he spoke to the fund-raising crowd.

He urged Colorado voters to have the same urgency for Udall's race as they felt about his race in 2008.

"Mark Udall is a serious person who is trying to do the right thing. ... He's not an ideologue. He doesn't agree with me on everything. But he believes in the core idea that I think should be what Democrats are all about, this idea that if you work hard you should be able to make it."

Obama also acknowledged a difficult environment this election year.

"Every race across the country is going to be challenging, including this one," said Obama, blaming Republicans for blocking much of his agenda.

Obama was introduced at the campaign luncheon by former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, a former Colorado senator.

"We're in a tough tough race here in Colorado because the Tea Party has decided this is Ground Zero for this election in 2014. We're not going to let the Tea Party take the United States Senate," Salazar said.

(Additional reporting by Gabriel Debenedetti in Washington; Editing by Caren Bohan and Steve Orlofsky)

Senate confirms Julian Castro as housing secretary

The U.S. Senate on Wednesday confirmed Julian Castro to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development, placing the San Antonio, Texas mayor at the top of the agency in charge of housing during a sluggish recovery in the sector.

Castro, a Democrat who was nominated by President Barack Obama, was confirmed on a roll call vote of 71 to 26 in the Democratic-led Senate. The 26 senators opposed to his nomination were Republicans.

"We will allow more responsible Americans to achieve the dream of home ownership," Castro told a news conference, thanking the Senate for its bipartisan support.

He said he will resign his post as mayor of the seventh most populous U.S. city when a new mayor is selected by the city council, which should be in the next two weeks.

Castro will replace Shaun Donovan, who has been tapped to lead the White House's Office of Management and Budget.

Castro, who has the backing of industry groups such as the Mortgage Bankers Association and National Association of Realtors, has been praised for his housing and development programs in San Antonio, including revitalizing its downtown.

He is expected to push the Obama administration's plan to shutter mortgage finance giants Fannie Mae ( id="symbol_FNMA.OB_0">FNMA.OB) and Freddie Mac ( id="symbol_FMCC.OB_1">FMCC.OB), an effort that has so far stalled in Congress.

"Julián has lived the American Dream in his own life, and I’m confident he will help Americans across our country seize their own piece of that dream for themselves and their children," Obama said in a statement.

Some Democrats see Castro, a Latino, as a rising star in the party, and his new position puts him a step closer to a potential 2016 vice presidential run.

A graduate of Stanford University and Harvard Law School, Castro, 39 became the youngest mayor of a major U.S. city when elected in May 2009. He gained national prominence when he delivered the keynote address at the 2012 Democratic National Convention.

Castro told lawmakers during his first nomination hearing in June the current U.S. housing finance system was not working well for Americans and that he would support their reform efforts.

He said he would ensure taxpayers would not be on the hook again if another housing crisis struck, as they were when the government rescued Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae in 2008.

Castro also said he would ensure the Federal Housing Administration, a troubled government mortgage insurer under HUD that was forced to take $1.7 billion in taxpayer funds last year, would not need another rescue.

As the top U.S. housing official, he would be tasked with making homeownership more affordable for low-income buyers.

The FHA, which aims to help first-time and low-income borrowers, raised its mortgage insurance fees to bolster its finances. That action locked out thousands of potential buyers, and it now faces pressure to bring the fees down.

Castro told lawmakers it was possible to balance FHA's mission of helping low-income borrowers with the need to keep it financially sound.

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"My perspective, whether it relates to the requirements for down payments or other measures, is that we achieve this balance to stay within the mission of the FHA - the historic mission to ensure that first-time home buyers, that folks of modest means who are creditworthy, that they have the opportunity to reach the American dream of homeownership," Castro said last month.

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(Reporting by Elvina Nawaguna; Additional reporting by Jim Forsyth in San Antonio; Editing by Paul Simao and Eric Walsh)

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Congress seen unlikely to block threatened New York transit strike

Congress will likely not intervene to prevent a threatened strike this month that would shut down the Long Island Rail Road, the country's largest commuter rail system, a U.S. representative from New York said on Wednesday.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority and a coalition of eight unions representing LIRR workers have been negotiating for four years to try to reach a contract deal.

The winding down of a cooling-off period in the talks allows the 5,400 unionized workers to walk off the job on July 20, which would leave some 300,000 daily commuters without train service.

The MTA's chief executive, Thomas Prendergast, asked the region's lawmakers whether Congress would move to block a walkout.

"We made it clear that this is up to the state to resolve," said Republican Representative Peter King, who represents a Long Island district served by the railroad.

King added, however, that the local delegation would consider taking action if a strike occurred.

Congress has several options to address the possible strike.

It could allow the strike to proceed and then pass a resolution ending it and implement a settlement, or require mediation or arbitration. Congress could also vote to extend the cooling-off period, or do nothing.

The MTA launched a communications blitz on Wednesday to alert riders of possible service disruptions. In newspaper ads and on its website, the MTA told LIRR passengers to plan to work from home or carpool.

There will be a limited number of buses available, although they would not be able to accommodate all of LIRR's daily riders, the agency said.

"Expect roadways to be extremely congested and usual commute times to be significantly longer," the MTA said.

In its latest proposal, the MTA offered a 17 percent wage increase over seven years with higher contributions for medical insurance and pensions made by future employees, both sides said.

The unions have asked for a wage hike of 17 percent over six years without such concessions for future employees.

The union coalition was not immediately available for comment.

(Reporting by Laila Kearney; Editing by Barbara Goldberg, Eric Beech and Peter Cooney)

Obama request for border money gets wary reception

Congressional Republicans on Wednesday cast a skeptical eye on a White House request for $3.7 billion to address an influx of child migrants at the U.S. border while President Barack Obama met with top critic Texas Governor Rick Perry.

Obama is battling political pressure from supporters and opponents alike to halt a growing humanitarian crisis along the Texas border with Mexico.

His request for emergency funds on Tuesday was the most aggressive step yet by his administration to take care of the children who have come from Central America illegally while accelerating the process to have them deported.

The money, however, must be approved by the Democrat-controlled Senate and Republican-led House of Representatives. Republicans, who have pressed the White House to do more to tackle the crisis, gave the proposal a wary reception.

“The House is not going to just rubber-stamp what the administration wants to do," said Representative Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida, who is a member of Speaker John Boehner's border crisis task force.

Republican Representative Mick Mulvaney criticized the funding request and suggested foreign aid should be docked to pay for it.

"I think it’s a charade. I think the president has set it up to make it look as though the only reason he’s not enforcing the border is because he doesn’t have the money. And that’s not accurate," Mulvaney said.

"If we approve it – and I’m not giving an indication that I would support voting for it – the first step would be to actually find a way to pay for it. Maybe we take foreign aid from the countries who are helping to contribute to this difficulty."

The White House counters that Obama's record on border enforcement is robust, and many of his Democratic supporters say the president has been too strict about deporting undocumented immigrants who have integrated into U.S. society.

The child migrant crisis has made the debate over immigration reform even more divisive. Without government action, the administration projects more than 150,000 unaccompanied children under the age of 18 next year could be fleeing rampant poverty and drug- and gang-related violence in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

Vice President Joe Biden called the presidents of all three countries on Wednesday to discuss the issue.

More than 52,000 unaccompanied minors from the three countries have been caught trying to sneak over the border since October, double the number from the same period the year before.

PERRY MEETING

Obama, who has lambasted House Republicans for not passing a bill to reform U.S. immigration laws, is now in the tricky political position of needing their support to address the child migrant issue even while he mulls executive action to help other illegal immigrants who have been in the country for years to stay.

Obama flew on Tuesday to Denver, where he played pool and drank beer with Governor John Hickenlooper.

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He flew to Texas later on Wednesday to see Perry, a high-profile critic of the White House and potential Republican presidential candidate in 2016.

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After a back-and-forth about whether they would meet at the airport, the Texas governor greeted Obama upon arrival in Dallas and flew with him by helicopter to a meeting with local officials and religious leaders to discuss the border crisis.

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The president will deliver a statement about the humanitarian crisis from Texas at 6:45 p.m. EDT.

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Despite his travel to the state, Obama has no plans to visit the border as many lawmakers - even within his own party - have called on him to do.

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“He can drink a beer, he can play pool, but he doesn’t have time to travel 242 miles from Austin down to the border or 500 miles from Dallas down there,” Democratic Representative Henry Cuellar of Texas told MSNBC television. “He can get on Air Force One and be down there at the border pretty quickly if he wanted to ... he’s the president.”

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(Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell, Susan Heavey, Steve Holland and Richard Cowan; Editing by Caren Bohan and Jonathan Oatis)

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Utah to appeal gay marriage ruling to U.S. Supreme Court

Utah's attorney general will appeal directly to the U.S. Supreme Court over last month's ruling by a federal appeals court that backed gay marriage in the conservative, heavily Mormon state, his office said on Wednesday.

An appeal by Utah was widely expected after the June 25 decision by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit in Denver that the state could not prohibit same-sex couples from marrying. That ruling was put on hold pending Utah's appeal.

The office of Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes said he would petition the Supreme Court in the coming week, and that the state's measure banning gay marriage was presumed to be constitutional "unless the highest courts deem otherwise."

Utah had the option of asking the entire 10th Circuit appeals court to review the ruling or taking the case directly to the nation's top court.

The June 25 decision was the first time a regional federal appeals court had made such a ruling in the year since the Supreme Court ordered the federal government to extend benefits to legally married same-sex couples.

The Supreme Court is in recess and will not consider petitions filed this summer until the fall. If the justices take up Utah's case, it would likely be heard in early 2015 with a decision by the end of next June.

Gay marriage briefly was legal in Utah after a federal judge ruled in December that a state ban on gay matrimony violated the Constitution. That decision was put on hold by the Supreme Court pending appeals but not before more than 1,300 same-sex couples married. Their status remains in limbo.

There are now 19 states, plus the District of Columbia, where same-sex marriage is legal. In another nine states, including Utah, federal judges have struck down bans on same-sex marriage but the rulings have been put on hold pending appeal.

Several other same-sex marriage lawsuits are moving toward the Supreme Court's justices and two others, testing bans in Oklahoma and Virginia, already have been heard by appeals courts.

Rulings in those are expected any day, and the Supreme Court could wait to decide whether to take up the Utah case until other appeals come in.

The Mormon church, which wields big political and social influence in Utah, says it has always supported traditional marriage and a culture of respect, and it hopes the nation's highest court will uphold that view.

Reyes' announcement came after gay marriage supporters delivered a petition signed by nearly 4,000 Utahns to Governor Gary Herbert's Salt Lake City mansion demanding that the state drop any appeals.

Billie Christiansen attended with her 11-year-old daughter and said that if she could, she would ask Herbert not use state tax dollars to hurt innocent people.

"These families have just as much love, just as much hope as every other family," said Christensen, who also has a gay son.

In a separate case, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito on Wednesday denied a request from a Pennsylvania county clerk who was seeking a stay of a district court decision that allowed gay marriage to go into effect in the state. In that case, the state declined to appeal the lower court's decision.

(Additional reporting by Joan Biskupic and Lawrence Hurley in Washington; Writing by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Sandra Maler and Will Dunham)