US health reform bill clears last hurdle

US Congress has put the final touches on President Barack Obama’s historic health overhaul, passing a set of technical changes to the legislation that will define his political legacy.

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Following a 56-43 Senate vote, the House of Representatives voted 220-207 for the free-standing package of fixes, four days after approving the underlying bill by a 219-212 margin.

Obama, who triumphantly signed the main measure into law on Tuesday, was expected to sign the changes within days and pursue his efforts to sell the wary US public on the legislation ahead of November mid-term elections.

Changes not major

The newly passed measure does not radically alter the president’s plan to extend health coverage to some 32 million Americans who currently lack it, but makes the legislation more politically palatable to the House.

No Senate Republicans voted for the bill, while three Democrats — Ben Nelson of Nebraska, and Arkansas Senators Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor — voted against it. Republican Senator Johnny Isakson of Georgia was out sick.

The House of Representatives approved the so-called “reconciliation” changes on Sunday after passing the main bill, but Senate Republicans successfully challenged some measures in the smaller measure, forcing another House vote.

On the floor of the House, Republican Representative Mike Pence made a last-gasp appeal to his colleagues to “repeal Obamacare.”

Insurance company slammed

Shortly before the vote, Democrat George Miller insisted however that with the bill’s passage, “the benefits for Americans start right now.”

“We promised to do what’s right for the American people, not for insurance companies,” he said, adding that the legislation puts health security “in the hands of every American family.”

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi brought the gavel down on the final vote at about 9:00 pm (0100 GMT Friday), to cheers and some jeers from the floor.

The overhaul, Obama’s top domestic priority, would bring the United States closer than ever to universal coverage and curb insurance company practices like dropping people who get sick and denying coverage for preexisting illnesses.


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Blair on Brown, booze and battlescars

Tony Blair does not regret the Iraq war despite the “nightmare” it unleashed, but feels “desperately sorry” for those who died, the former British prime minister said in memoir.

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“A Journey”, Blair’s account of his decade in Downing Street from 1997 to 2007, also includes an unprecedented attack on his “strange” successor Gordon Brown, whose premiership he branded a disaster.

It details the personal toll the job took on him, including his use of whisky, gin and wine as a “prop”, the “animal” feelings he had for his wife, and his relationship with the royal family after princess Diana died.

But it is Blair’s decision to take Britain into the US-led invasion of Iraq that lies at the heart of the 718-page book.

He suggested he had wept over the soldiers and civilians killed in the thrust to overthrow Saddam Hussein, writing: “Tears, though there have been many, do not encompass it.

“I feel desperately sorry for them, sorry for the lives cut short… to be indifferent to that would be inhuman, emotionally warped.”

But he reiterated that he “can’t regret the decision to go to war,” adding: “All I know is that I did what I thought was right.”

He also acknowledged that the turmoil that followed the March 2003 invasion was far worse than anticipated.

“The aftermath was more bloody, more awful, more terrifying than anyone could have imagined,” he said. “I can say that never did I guess the nightmare that unfolded.”

In a BBC interview to publicise the book, Blair said the international community should now be prepared to consider taking military action against Iran if it develops a nuclear weapon.

“I am saying that I think it is wholly unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapons capability and I think we have got to be prepared to confront them, if necessary militarily,” he said.

Blair also gave candid insights on the “huge strain” life in Downing Street put on him, his lawyer wife Cherie and their four children, the youngest of whom was born while he was in office.

He used alcohol as a “prop” to relax and was “at the outer limit” of the regular intake limit advised by doctors.

“Stiff whisky or G & T (gin and tonic) before dinner, couple of glasses of wine or even half a bottle with it,” Blair wrote. “So not excessively excessive. I had a limit. But I was aware it had become a prop.”

He also wrote in intimate detail about one night with Cherie when he was preparing to try for his party’s leadership.

“On that night of 12 May 1994, I needed that love Cherie gave me, selfishly” he wrote.

“I devoured it to give me strength, I was an animal following my instinct, knowing I would need every ounce of emotional power and resilience to cope with what lay ahead.”

The memoirs also feature revelations about high-profile figures, with Blair admitting he was a “sucker” for princess Diana but that Queen Elizabeth II had treated him with “hauteur” in the days after Diana’s death in 1997.

He told of “trying” visits to Balmoral, the royal family’s Scottish retreat, when the queen had donned rubber gloves to do the washing up after the royals’ traditional barbecue for staff and guests.

Elsewhere, Blair made public as never before the private tensions which simmered between him and the “maddening” but “brilliant” Gordon Brown, his long-serving finance minister and successor as premier.

He described Brown — who was ousted in May elections — as a “strange guy” with “zero” emotional intelligence, and had thought his premiership would be “terminal” for the longest-running Labour government in British history.

“It is easy to say now, in the light of his tenure as prime minister, that I should have stopped it; at the time that would have been well nigh impossible,” Blair wrote.

Blair, who reportedly received a 4.6 million pound (5.6 million euro, 7.2 million dollar) advance for the book, will donate all proceeds to the Royal British Legion, a charity helping war veterans.

His memoirs are being published in English worldwide this week and translation rights have been sold to 17 territories.

Within hours of its release, online seller Amazon said “A Journey” was ranked first on its British bestseller list, and by Wednesday night bookseller Waterstone’s said it had become their fastest selling autobiography.

Blair himself was in the United States, having been invited to a White House dinner by US President Barack Obama in his role as Middle East peace envoy.


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Century-old whisky recovered from ice

Five crates of whisky and brandy belonging to polar explorer Ernest Shackleton have been recovered after being buried for more than 100 years beneath the Antarctic ice.

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The spirits were excavated from beneath Shackleton’s Antarctic hut which was built in 1908.

“To our amazement we found five crates, three labelled as containing whisky and two labelled as containing brandy,” said Al Fastier of the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust, who previously believed there were only two crates.

“The unexpected find of the brandy crates, one labelled Chas Mackinlay & Co and the other labelled The Hunter Valley Distillery Limited Allandale are a real bonus.”

Some of the crates have cracked and ice has formed inside which will make the job of extracting the contents delicate.

However, Fastier said the trust was confident the crates contained intact alcohol, given that liquid could be heard when the crates were moved.

The smell of whisky in the surrounding ice also indicated full bottles of spirits were inside, albeit that one or more might have broken.

Richard Paterson, master blender at Whyte and Mackay, whose company supplied the Mackinlay’s whisky for Shackleton, described the find as “a gift from the heavens” for whisky lovers.

“If the contents can be confirmed, safely extracted and analysed, the original blend may be able to be replicated,” he said.

“Given the original recipe no longer exists this may open a door into history.”

Shackleton’s expedition ran short of supplies on their long trek to the South Pole from Cape Royds in 1907-1909 and they eventually fell about 100 miles (160 kilometres) short of their goal.

No lives were lost, vindicating Shackleton’s decision to turn back from the pole, first reached in 1911 by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen.

Shackleton’s expedition sailed from Cape Royds hurriedly in 1909 as winter ice began forming in the sea, forcing them to leave some equipment and supplies — including the whisky — behind.


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FIFA bows to goaline technology pressure

England and Mexico received a fulsome apology from FIFA President Sepp Blatter on Tuesday over refereeing errors during their World Cup last 16 matches, while announcing that FIFA would discuss the introduction of goal-line technology at a meeting next month in Cardiff.

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The Swiss was reacting to two incidents on Sunday when England’s Frank Lampard had a goal disallowed even though it was clearly over the line in the clash with Germany, which would have made it 2-2. The Germans went on to win 4-1.

Mexico were also left aggrieved when Argentinian striker Carlos Tevez was clearly offside when he scored their first goal and it was made worse when the incident was shown on the big screen.

Referee Roberto Rosetti was unable to disallow the goal as he is forbidden to take into account such evidence. Argentina went on to win 3-1.

Blatter sorry

“Personally I deplore it when you see evident referee mistakes but it’s not the end of a competition or the end of football, this can happen,” said Blatter.

“The only thing I can do is yesterday I have spoken to the two federations (England and Mexico) directly concerned by referees mistakes.

“I have expressed to them apologies and I understand they are not happy and that people are criticising.

“I apologised to England and Mexico. The English said ‘thank you’ and accepted that you can win (some) and you lose (some), and the Mexicans bowed their head and accepted it.

Blatter said that the only technology that would be discussed would be goalline technology.

This, however, would have made no difference to the Mexican game or indeed to the incident when Thierry Henry’s handball set up what proved to be the crucial goal in the France v Ireland World Cup play-off last November.

“The only principle we are going to bring back for discussion is goal-line technology,” said Blatter.

“Football is a game that never stops and the moment there was a discussion if the ball was in or out, or there was a goal-scoring opportunity, do we give a possibility to a team to call for replays once or twice like in tennis?

“For situations like the Mexico game you don’t need technology.

“Its obvious that that after what we have experienced so far it would be a nonsense not to reopen the technology topic in July (21-22) in Cardiff.”


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