U.S. budget setback hits shares, euro

LONDON (Reuters) - European and Asian shares weakened on Friday and both the euro and gold slipped, as a new setback in talks to avert a U.S. fiscal crisis stoked investor nerves.

A proposal from Republican leader John Boehner to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff failed to get support from his party on Thursday, casting fresh uncertainty over talks to avoid across-the-board tax hikes and spending cuts that could push the U.S. economy into recession in 2013.

The worries prompted selling in European shares as trading resumed, with the FTSEurofirst 300 <.fteu3> index of the top European stocks down 0.4, albeit still on course for a fifth straight week of gains.

"The market is still too complacent and the odds are increasing that a (U.S. budget) deal will not get done in the immediate future," Saxo Bank Chief Economist Steen Jakobsen said.

"That leaves European equities (in terms of earnings multiples) vulnerable to the negative exposure of the fiscal drag and even a compromised deal is going to do very little to structurally reform anything," he added.

London's FTSE 100 <.ftse>, Paris's CAC-40 <.fchi> and Frankfurt's DAX <.gdaxi> were down 0.3-0.5 percent following a 0.7 percent tumble in Asian stocks <.miapj0000pus>, and futures prices pointed to sharp falls Wall Street later.

Anxiety was exacerbated by weaker-than-expected German data which showed consumer morale dropped for the fourth month running to its lowest level in more than a year.

The combined worries helped push up German government bonds and the dollar <.dxy>, both traditionally favored by risk adverse investors.

The euro eased back to just over $1.32, trimming some of the gains it has seen this week as euro zone sentiment continued to improve.

Gold was also caught up in the U.S. disappointment, slipping $1.38 to $1,645.76 an ounce, putting it near a four-month low and on track for its steepest weekly drop since June.

(Reporting by Marc Jones; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

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Douglas wins AP female athlete of the year honors

When Gabby Douglas allowed herself to dream of being the Olympic champion, she imagined having a nice little dinner with family and friends to celebrate. Maybe she'd make an appearance here and there.

"I didn't think it was going to be crazy," Douglas said, laughing. "I love it. But I realized my perspective was going to have to change."

Just a bit.

The teenager has become a worldwide star since winning the Olympic all-around title in London, the first African-American gymnast to claim gymnastics' biggest prize. And now she has earned another honor. Douglas was selected The Associated Press' female athlete of the year, edging out swimmer Missy Franklin in a vote by U.S. editors and news directors that was announced Friday.

"I didn't realize how much of an impact I made," said Douglas, who turns 17 on Dec. 31. "My mom and everyone said, 'You really won't know the full impact until you're 30 or 40 years old.' But it's starting to sink in."

In a year filled with standout performances by female athletes, those of the pint-sized gymnast shined brightest. Douglas received 48 of 157 votes, seven more than Franklin, who won four gold medals and a bronze in London. Serena Williams, who won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open two years after her career was nearly derailed by a series of health problems, was third (24).

Britney Griner, who led Baylor to a 40-0 record and the NCAA title, and skier Lindsey Vonn each got 18 votes. Sprinter Allyson Felix, who won three gold medals in London, and Carli Lloyd, who scored both U.S. goals in the Americans' 2-1 victory over Japan in the gold-medal game, also received votes.

"One of the few years the women's (Athlete of the Year) choices are more compelling than the men's," said Julie Jag, sports editor of the Santa Cruz Sentinel.

Douglas is the fourth gymnast to win one of the AP's annual awards, which began in 1931, and first since Mary Lou Retton in 1984. She also finished 15th in voting for the AP sports story of the year.

Douglas wasn't even in the conversation for the Olympic title at the beginning of the year. That all changed in March when she upstaged reigning world champion and teammate Jordyn Wieber at the American Cup in New York, showing off a new vault, an ungraded uneven bars routine and a dazzling personality that would be a hit on Broadway and Madison Avenue.

She finished a close second to Wieber at the U.S. championships, then beat her two weeks later at the Olympic trials. With each competition, her confidence grew. So did that smile.

By the time the Americans got to London, Douglas had emerged as the most consistent gymnast on what was arguably the best team the U.S. has ever had.

She posted the team's highest score on all but one event in qualifying. She was the only gymnast to compete in all four events during team finals, when the Americans beat the Russians in a rout for their second Olympic title, and first since 1996. Two nights later, Douglas claimed the grandest prize of all, joining Retton, Carly Patterson and Nastia Liukin as what Bela Karolyi likes to call the "Queen of Gymnastics."

But while plenty of other athletes won gold medals in London, none captivated the public quite like Gabby.

Fans ask for hugs in addition to photographs and autographs, and people have left restaurants and cars upon spotting her. She made Barbara Walters' list of "10 Most Fascinating People," and Forbes recently named her one of its "30 Under 30." She has deals with Nike, Kellogg Co. and AT&T, and agent Sheryl Shade said Douglas has drawn interest from companies that don't traditionally partner with Olympians or athletes.

"She touched so many people of all generations, all diversities," Shade said. "It's her smile, it's her youth, it's her excitement for life. ... She transcends sport."

Douglas' story is both heartwarming and inspiring, its message applicable those young or old, male or female, active or couch potato. She was just 14 when she convinced her mother to let her leave their Virginia Beach, Va., home and move to West Des Moines, Iowa, to train with Liang Chow, Shawn Johnson's coach. Though her host parents, Travis and Missy Parton, treated Douglas as if she was their fifth daughter, Douglas was so homesick she considered quitting gymnastics.

She's also been open about her family's financial struggles, hoping she can be a role model for lower income children.

"I want people to think, 'Gabby can do it, I can do it,'" Douglas said. "Set that bar. If you're going through struggles or injuries, don't let it stop you from what you want to accomplish."

The grace she showed under pressure — both on and off the floor — added to her appeal. When some fans criticized the way she wore her hair during the Olympics, Douglas simply laughed it off.

"They can say whatever they want. We all have a voice," she said. "I'm not going to focus on it. I'm not really going to focus on the negative."

Besides, she's having far too much fun.

Her autobiography, "Grace, Gold and Glory," is No. 4 on the New York Times' young adult list. She, Wieber and Fierce Five teammates Aly Raisman and McKayla Maroney recently wrapped up a 40-city gymnastics tour. She met President Barack Obama last month with the rest of the Fierce Five, and left the White House with a souvenir.

"We got a sugar cookie that they were making for the holidays," Douglas said. "I took a picture of it."

Though her busy schedule hasn't left time to train, Douglas insists she still intends to compete through the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016.

No female Olympic champion has gone on to compete at the next Summer Games since Nadia Comaneci. But Douglas is still a relative newcomer to the elite scene — she'd done all of four international events before the Olympics — and Chow has said she hasn't come close to reaching her full potential. She keeps up with Chow through email and text messages, and plans to return to Iowa after her schedule clears up in the spring.

Of course, plenty of other athletes have said similar things and never made it back to the gym. But Douglas is determined, and she gets giddy just talking about getting a new floor routine.

"I think there's even higher bars to set," she said.

Because while being an Olympic champion may have changed her life, it hasn't changed her.

"I may be meeting cool celebrities and I'm getting amazing opportunities," she said. "But I'm still the same Gabby."


AP Projects Editor Brooke Lansdale contributed to this report.

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Intrepid Museum, Home of Shuttle Enterprise, Reopens after Hurricane Sandy Closure

NEW YORK — The Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum — the home of the retired space shuttle orbiter Enterprise — reopened this morning (Dec. 21) for the first time since Hurricane Sandy left the converted aircraft carrier here in disrepair.

After a brief ribbon cutting ceremony with a group of school children from the Bronx, the museum and flight deck, housing the Enterprise, opened to the public after a six-week hiatus.

The space shuttle and museum on Manhattan’s west side sustained damage during the late October hurricane, and while the museum isn’t fully operational quite yet, the damage to the space shuttle was minimal, however dramatic looking, officials said.

The tip of Enterprise’s vertical stabilizer, the back tail resembling a whale’s dorsal fin, tore off when the inflatable pavilion fell down around it. However, it broke on a seam, making it a relatively simple repair, said Intrepid’s president, Susan Marenoff-Zausner.

 ”Starting in January we’re going to start building scaffolding around the shuttle for two purposes,” Marenoff-Zausner said. “One is to fix the vertical stabilizer, a piece [of which] came off right at a seam so we’re very fortunate that it’s a very easy fix. But then, we’re going to cover it with a fabric for protection in the winter.”

Enterprise’s new home

Enterprise arrived at Intrepid this June, and first went on public display in July. [Spaceship Enterprise Barges Into Bayonne | Video]

The museum is in the process of crafting a new pavilion to house Enterprise that should be ready sometime in the spring. But until then, the Enterprise will be shielded from the elements with a fabric covering and other protective measures around the orbiter’s windows and more exposed parts. Until the scaffolding is built next month, Enterprise will remain exposed and easily seen from the pier next to the Intrepid.

The Enterprise, which never flew to space, was used as a prototype to test the space shuttle design during glide flights in the 1970s. The orbiter has been exposed to rough weather many times before, but Marenoff-Zausner said that the shuttle is now a national artifact and needs to be kept in the best condition as possible. Although Marenoff-Zausner said she is confident that Enterprise is safe from any further inclement weather, she is worried that the shuttle’s paint job could start chipping.

The pavilion and shuttle were reasonably well protected during Sandy, but the strength of the storm was so unexpected that even five days of preparation didn’t prevent the museum from sustaining damage, officials said. Although the generators responsible for keeping the Enterprise pavilion inflated were raised two extra feet off the ground, the hurricane’s 4-to-6-foot (1.2 to 1.8 meters) rush of floodwater still left them submerged. Once the transformers blew, the pavilion deflated, and part of the shuttle’s vertical stabilizer detached.

“When the pavilion came down,” Marenoff-Zausner said, “it acted as a protective shield over all the equipment so we were able to get in there literally the next day and start mobilizing and get all the equipment out.”

And it was lucky that they did, she said. The next week, New York was hit with a snowstorm that compounded the issues already facing the city in the wake of the hurricane.

Repairing the damage

Most of the damage to the museum from Sandy was contained in the visitor’s welcome center, which still isn’t open. Six feet of water (1.8 meters) flooded the building and ruined the floors and merchandise in the gift shop.

Despite the damage, Marenoff-Zausner is confident that the Enterprise pavilion and the rest of the museum will be up and operational by 2013′s Fleet Week — a week in early September when U.S. Marine and Navy corps dock in New York City.

Enterprise is one of four retired space shuttle orbiters to be installed in museums recently. Its sister spacecraft Discovery, Endeavour and Atlantis — NASA’s three remaining space-flown orbiters — are at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum outside of Washington, D.C., the California Science Center in Los Angeles, and the Kennedy Space Center Visitors Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., respectively.

Follow Miriam Kramer on Twitter @mirikramer or SPACE.com @Spacedotcom. We’re also on Facebook & Google+

Copyright 2012 SPACE.com, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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Madness in the air in Washington

National Rifle Association Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre calls on Congress to pass a law putting armed police officers in every school in America.


  • David Gergen: After election, there were hopes partisan tension would fade

  • He says this week we've seen a complete breakdown on the fiscal cliff

  • The NRA doubled down on its anti-gun-control rhetoric despite Newtown, he says

  • Gergen: We're seeing the character assassination of a hero, Chuck Hagel

Editor's note: David Gergen is a senior political analyst for CNN and has been an adviser to four presidents. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he is a professor of public service and director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. Follow him on Twitter.

(CNN) -- What in the world is gripping Washington? Everywhere one turns -- from finances to guns to nominations -- there is madness in the air.

With time rapidly running out, efforts have collapsed to reach a major agreement on federal spending and taxes before year's end, and both Congress and President are leaving town for the holidays. At best, they will return next week and construct a small bridge over the "fiscal cliff"; at worst, they won't. But who knows?

David Gergen

David Gergen

And that's a big part of the problem -- no one can be confident that our national leaders are still capable of governing responsibly. And in the process, they are putting both our economy and our international reputation at risk.

Fresh poison

President Barack Obama had rightly hoped that the elections would clear the air; they haven't. If anything, the recent squabbling over the federal budget has injected fresh poison into relationships and dimmed prospects for other bipartisan agreements in the next few years, starting with hopes for a "grand bargain"in 2013.

John Boehner and Eric Cantor, the House GOP leaders

The President insists he remains an optimist, but if he and Republicans can't agree on how to bring the nation's finances under control -- something fundamental to the welfare of the country -- why should we have faith they will succeed on other important issues like energy, education, immigration and gun safety?

As the blame game heats up, Republicans are sure to pay the biggest price with the public. It was bad enough that they lost the message fight, letting themselves be painted as protectors of the wealthy. But it was inexcusable when they revolted against House Speaker John Boehner in his search for a way forward: that only reinforced a narrative that the Grand Old Party has fallen hostage to its right wing -- a narrative that already exacted a huge price in the fall elections.

Most voters -- I am among them -- believe the country needs a center-right party but will not support an extremist party.

President Obama is certainly not blameless in these financial talks. Early on, he overplayed his hand, alienating rank-and-file Republicans. Like Boehner, he has been more accommodating recently, offering concessions on taxes and entitlement spending that narrowed the negotiating gap between the parties, even as his leftward allies fretted.

Still, Boehner has a point in arguing that what Obama now has on the table comes nowhere close to what the he was advocating in the election season: a ratio of 2.5 dollars in spending cuts to 1.0 dollars in tax increases.

The buck stops on the President's desk, so that ordinarily one would expect him to take the lead in these final days before January 1. For reasons that are still unclear, he instead chose in his press statement late Friday to toss responsibility for negotiations next week into the laps of Congressional leaders.

Perhaps he has reached a quiet understanding with Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid that the two of them can work out a stripped-down agreement. Let's hope so. But as we enter the holidays, it appears to be a mess. And time is quickly running out.

The NRA in denial

As if Friday weren't gloomy enough, the National Rifle Association weighed in with its long-awaited response to the horrors of Newtown, Connecticut. There had been hints that the NRA would offer a more conciliatory stance. Just the opposite: they doubled down.

Incredibly, Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the NRA, called for putting armed police officers in every school. Isn't that what parents of every six-year old have been longing for: to have their child studying and playing under the watchful eye of an armed guard? Has LaPierre visited an elementary school classroom in recent years? If so, he would know his idea would be repulsive in most schools.

Just as strikingly, the NRA response refused to acknowledge and address the beliefs of a majority of Americans in recent polls that the U.S. needs tougher laws in favor of gun safety. Americans aren't saying no one should have guns or that the 2nd Amendment should be gutted but they are demanding a national conversation to see what can be sensibly done. It is hard to have a conversation when one side won't talk.

Character assassination

Meanwhile, in a less noticed but important saga in Washington, we are once again watching the character assassination of a public servant of honor and distinction.

Chuck Hagel served America with valor as a sergeant in the Vietnam war, earning two Purple Hearts. He was a popular Republican senator from Nebraska who paid close attention to international affairs and is now co-chair of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, serving with another former Senator, David Boren.

Ever since Hagel's name arose as a top candidate to become the next Secretary of Defense, he has been pilloried for statements and stands he has taken in the past. Is it legitimate to question his positions on Israel, Iran, and on gays? Absolutely. But what is grossly unfair is to misstate them, saying that he is against sanctions on Iran when in fact he has argued in favor of international sanctions, not unilateral sanctions (which don't work). As someone who strongly favors Israel, I am also deeply troubled by the way he has been misrepresented as virtually anti-Semitic.

Nor is this a fair fight. Hagel is in no-man's land because his name is prominently mentioned but he hasn't been formally nominated, so the White House isn't rushing to the barricades to support him.

The signals from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue were that the Secretary of Defense nominee would be announced in a package with the Secretary of State. The President has now gone ahead with John Kerry but the absence of a Defense nominee has now left Hagel dangling in the breeze, a piƱata.

The White House should now move early next week -- by announcement or by leak -- to settle this by making a decision. Whether or not the President nominates Hagel, he should put a stop to the defamation by recognizing Hagel as a patriot with an independent mind and a long record of honor. If selected as Secretary, Hagel would be a very fine member of the national security team.

One had hoped that the shootings at Sandy Hook would draw us together. Sadly, they haven't. Now, perhaps the blessings of the holidays and a brief moment to take a breath will lift our sights. Surely, this madness should not continue into the New Year.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Gergen.

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Capture of jail escapee ends with bang, thud

The parents of the man who owned the townhouse where prison escapee Joseph Banks was found talk to the Tribune. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune)

The spectacular escape from Chicago's high-rise federal jail — the first in nearly 30 years at the facility — fueled theories that convicted bank robber Joseph "Jose" Banks had a sophisticated plan to elude capture with hundreds of thousands of dollars in loot he had stashed away.

But in the end, Banks was hiding in a predictable spot less than five miles from the South Loop jail and was betrayed by someone who had spoken with the fugitive and was able to give authorities his exact location, a law enforcement source said. When he was captured, Banks had no cash, weapon or cellphone, and he was wearing some of the same clothes he had on when he escaped three days earlier, the source said.

Banks, who along with a cellmate scaled down some 15 stories of the sheer wall of the Metropolitan Correctional Center using a rope fashioned from knotted bedsheets, was taken into custody on the North Side by FBI agents and Chicago police about 11:30 p.m. Thursday. He was holed up at the home of a boyhood friend in the 2300 block of North Bosworth Avenue, just blocks from his former apartment and Lincoln Park High School, which he attended in the 1990s.

The second escapee, Kenneth Conley, also a convicted bank robber, remained at large Friday.

Neighbors on the quiet block where Banks was discovered described hearing the loud bang of a flash grenade — designed to stun anyone inside a residence without causing serious injury — followed by agents and officers swarming the Fullerton Court Apartments just west of the DePaul University campus.

Within minutes, agents led Banks away in handcuffs and dressed in a T-shirt and shorts.

"We heard a big boom first," said the Rev. Baggett Collier, who lives in the complex. "We thought a transformer burst or there was a traffic accident. … I went out and I saw (Banks). He was cuffed. His head was down. I didn't hear him say anything. They got him into the wagon peacefully. The police were pretty calm bringing him out."

Hours later, Banks shuffled into a federal courtroom dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit and shackled at the waist and ankles with thick, padlocked chains. The slightly built former fashion designer answered questions from U.S. Magistrate Judge Sidney Schenkier softly and politely — a sharp contrast to his defiant behavior during his trial last week on bank robbery charges in the same federal courthouse.

Banks, a prolific bank robber dubbed the Second Hand Bandit because of the used clothing he wore during his holdups, was charged with one count of escaping federal custody that carries a sentence of up to five years in prison on conviction. He also faces sentencing in March for his conviction last week for two bank robberies and two attempted holdups.

Prosecutors objected to any bond being set on the new charge, suggesting matter-of-factly that Banks was a "flight risk" and a danger to the community. Banks' attorney, Beau Brindley, did not argue for his release.

After the brief hearing, Brindley called his client a "mild-mannered" person whose statements at trial were misconstrued as threats toward the court system.

"This is not a violent person," Brindley told reporters in the lobby of the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse. "He's a talented artist and clothing designer."

Banks' cousin Theresa Ann Banks said in a telephone interview Friday that he never tried to contact her or anyone else in the family during his short time on the run. Family members were still trying to piece together conflicting information they were getting on the circumstances of his arrest, she said. Asked who lived in the home where her cousin was found, she replied, "Maybe a friend."

Theresa Ann Banks said the family has spent the past few days scared for his safety, especially since he had been described as "armed and dangerous."

"He's not the bad guy they've made him out to be," she said of her cousin. "He's soft and gentle, and he has a good heart."

Banks and Conley were last accounted for in the jail at 10 p.m. Monday during a routine bed check, authorities said. About 7 a.m. the next day, jail employees arriving for work saw ropes made from bedsheets dangling from a hole in the wall near the 15th floor and down the south side of the facade.

The two had put clothing and sheets under blankets in their beds to throw off guards making nighttime checks and removed a cinder block to create an opening wide enough to slide through, authorities said.

The FBI said a surveillance camera a few blocks from the jail showed the two, wearing light-colored clothing, hailing a taxi at Congress Parkway and Michigan Avenue. They also appeared to be wearing backpacks, according to the FBI.

The daring escape was an embarrassment for the U.S. Bureau of Prisons and a rarity for the Metropolitan Correctional Center, where the only previous successful escape took place in 1985. A high-ranking employee in the facility told the Tribune this week that video surveillance had captured the men making their descent, but that the guard who was supposed to be watching the video monitors for suspicious activity may have been called away on other duties.

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Egypt's constitution seen passing in referendum

CAIRO (Reuters) - Egyptians voted on a constitution drafted by Islamists on Saturday in a second round of balloting expected to approve the charter that opponents say will create deeper turmoil in Egypt.

After a first round last week in which unofficial results showed 57 percent of those who voted approved the constitution, the opposition cried foul, saying a litany of alleged abuses meant the first stage of the referendum should be re-run.

But the committee overseeing the two-stage vote said their investigations showed no major irregularities in voting on December 15, which covered about half of Egypt's 51 million eligible voters.

Islamist supporters of President Mohamed Mursi, who was elected in June, say the constitution is vital to moving Egypt towards democracy two years after Hosni Mubarak was overthrown in a popular uprising. They say it will help restore the stability needed to fix an economy that is on the ropes.

If the basic law is passed, a parliamentary election will be held in about two months.

However, the opposition says the constitution is divisive and accuses Mursi of pushing through a document that favors his Islamist allies and ignores the rights of Christians, who make up about 10 percent of the population, as well as women.

"I'm voting 'no' because Egypt can't be ruled by one faction," said Karim Nahas, 35, a stock market broker, heading to a polling station in Giza, a province included in this round of voting which covers parts of greater Cairo.

Polling stations opened at 8 a.m. (0600 GMT) and close at 7 p.m. (1700 GMT) though voting could be extended as it was last week. Queues formed at some polling stations around the country.

Unofficial tallies are likely to emerge within hours of the close, but the referendum committee may not declare an official result for the two rounds until Monday, after hearing appeals.

Shahinaz Shalaby, a housewife, said she would be voting "yes" even though she disagreed with some clauses. "We feel our voice matters," she said, adding that a "yes" vote would not stop protests but "then it will stabilize afterwards".

Cairo districts covered in the first round voted "no", but overall the vote in that round was in favor.

Analysts expect another "yes" vote on Saturday because it covers rural and other areas seen as having more Islamist sympathizers. Islamists may also be able to count on many Egyptians who are simply exhausted by two years of turmoil.


But, even if it is approved, the opposition say it is a recipe for trouble since the charter has not received broad consensus backing from the population. They say the result may go in Mursi's favor but will not be the result of a fair vote.

"I see more unrest," said Ahmed Said, head of the liberal Free Egyptians Party and a member of the National Salvation Front, an opposition coalition formed after Mursi expanded his powers on November 22 and then pushed the constitution to a vote.

Citing what he said were "serious violations" on the first day of voting, he said anger against Mursi and his Islamist allies was growing: "People are not going to accept the way they are dealing with the situation."

At least eight people were killed in protests outside the presidential palace in Cairo this month. Islamists and rivals clashed on Friday in the second biggest city of Alexandria, hurling stones at each other. Two buses were torched.

Mohamed Beltagy, a senior official in the Muslim Brotherhood, the group that propelled Mursi to elected office, said the constitution was crucial to holding a parliamentary election and setting up the essential institutions of state.

"What is the catastrophe of this constitution?" he asked the assembly which drafted the document, during a sitting on Friday that was called to challenge opposition criticism of the text.

Opponents, who had earlier quit the drafting assembly saying their voices were not heard, were invited but stayed away.

The vote was staggered after many judges refused to supervise the vote, meaning there were not enough to hold the referendum on a single day nationwide.

The first round was won by a slim enough margin to buttress opposition arguments that the text was divisive. Opponents who include liberals, leftists, Christians and more moderate-minded Muslims accuse Islamists of using religion to sway voters.

"The problem is not whether the majority approves, it is that they rallied the people in the name of the religion," said Mustafa Shuman, who is among dozens of people who have been camped outside Mursi's palace in Cairo in protest.

Islamists, who have won successive ballots since Mubarak's overthrow albeit by narrowing margins, dismiss charges that they are exploiting religion and say the document reflects the will of a majority in the country where most people are Muslim.

(Additional reporting by Tamim Elyan; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Andrew Osborn)

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US fines Toyota again for delayed safety reports

The U.S. government has slapped Toyota Motor Corp. with a record $17.4 million fine for failing once again to quickly report problems to federal regulators and for delaying a safety recall.

The fine from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the agency that monitors vehicle safety, is the maximum allowed by law. It's the fourth fine levied against Toyota in the past two years for similar infractions, and it's the largest single fine ever assessed against a car company over safety defects. In 2010, Toyota paid a total of $48.8 million in fines for three violations.

The latest infraction raises questions about whether the fines are big enough to deter automakers that withhold information from NHTSA, and whether the government agency can do enough to stop repeat offenses. The fine, announced Tuesday, is a tiny fraction of Toyota's earnings. The company, which this year regained its position as the world's biggest automaker, posted a $3.2 billion profit in the third quarter alone.

Toyota said it agreed to pay the penalty without admitting any violation of the law. It also pledged to strengthen data collection and evaluation to make sure it takes action more quickly.

"We agreed to this settlement in order to avoid a time-consuming dispute and to focus fully on our shared commitment with NHTSA to keep drivers safe," Ray Tanguay, the company's chief quality officer, said in a statement. A spokesman at the Toyota's U.S. offices in Torrance, Calif., did not answer further questions.

The latest fine stems from a June recall of SUVs from Toyota's Lexus luxury brand. About 154,000 of the 2010 Lexus Rx 350s and RX 450h models were recalled because the driver's-side floor mats can trap the gas pedal and cause the vehicles to speed up without warning. The problem was similar to troubles from 2010 that prompted a series of embarrassing safety recalls by the company.

Toyota has recalled more than 14 million vehicles globally to fix sticky gas pedals and floor mats. The recalls tarnished the company's sterling reputation for reliability and cut into sales. Recently its sales have rebounded as it appeared to put the safety problems in the rear-view mirror.

But NHTSA said Tuesday that Toyota failed to report acceleration problems in the Lexus SUVs within five business days of discovering them, as required by U.S. law. The agency said it began investigating the SUVs early this year after receiving complaints from consumers. In May, the agency contacted Toyota about the problem, and it took the company a month to report 63 incidents of floor mats trapping gas pedals, NHTSA said.

"With today's announcement, I expect Toyota to rigorously reinforce its commitment to adhering to United States safety regulations," U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in the statement.

Toyota, NHTSA said, agreed in a settlement to make internal changes to comply with U.S. laws. The agency said it will keep watching consumer complaints and will make sure automakers obey the law.

"Every moment of delay has the potential to lead to deaths or injuries on our nation's highways," NHTSA Administrator David Strickland said in the statement about the fines, which are civil penalties and not criminal.

In an August interview, Jim Lentz, Toyota's highest-ranking U.S. executive, told The Associated Press that the company was obeying the law in giving information to NHTSA.

"The fact of reporting every quarter all the information that we have on any type of inspection or problems we've had with vehicles, they get reported to NHTSA," said Lentz, president and CEO of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. "The question is in NHTSA's eyes, should the recall have been done earlier or not might be a different story. That I really can't comment on."

In 2010, Toyota paid two $16.4 million fines and one $16 million fine, all for reporting violations. NHTSA said at the time that the company didn't report problems with sticking gas pedals in a timely manner, nor did it report problems with floor mats trapping gas pedals. Toyota also told NHTSA that a recall of commercial trucks in Japan for a steering problem did not affect U.S. vehicles. But a year later, the company recalled similar vehicles in the U.S.

Next year, the maximum fine NHTSA can assess will double to $35 million.
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