- Venezuela's Chavez still has "severe" respiratory problem
- U.S. House chooses Boehner as speaker again despite dissent
- Wave damage, flooding found on beached Shell drill ship
Posted: 03 Jan 2013 06:48 PM PST
CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is still suffering a "severe" respiratory infection that has hindered his breathing as he struggles to recover from cancer surgery in Cuba, the government said on Thursday.
The 58-year-old socialist leader has not been seen in public nor heard from in more than three weeks. Officials say he is in delicate condition after his fourth operation in just 18 months for an undisclosed form of cancer in his pelvic area.
"Comandante Chavez has faced complications as a result of a severe lung infection," Information Minister Ernesto Villegas said in the latest official update on the president's condition.
"This infection has caused a breathing insufficiency that requires Comandante Chavez to comply strictly with medical treatment," the communiquÃ© added, giving no further details.
Vice President Nicolas Maduro had earlier returned to Venezuela on Thursday after visiting Chavez in hospital as rumours swirled that the president could be close to death.
Flanked by senior government figures including Diosdado Cabello, the head of the National Assembly, Maduro toured a coffee production plant in Caracas - the type of visit that the president made frequently before he fell ill.
"He is conscious of the battle that he's in, and has the same fighting spirit as always, with the same strength and energy as always, with his confidence and security," Maduro said. "We're going to be alongside him with the same strength and the same energy."
Maduro said Cabello, Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez and Chavez's elder brother Adan, among others, had all been with the president in the Havana hospital.
Venezuelan bonds rallied to five-year highs earlier on Thursday on rumours that Chavez's health had taken a turn for the worse. Foreign investors generally hope for a more business-friendly government in Venezuela, and its assets have rallied in recent months on news of his illness.
In scenes that recalled Chavez's hours-long televised visits to building sites, hospitals and oil refineries, Maduro told workers at the nationalized Fama de America factory that there was no "transition" taking place in the country.
"The only transition in Venezuela is the transition to socialism," he said in comments carried live by state television.
"It began six years ago, ordered by Comandante Hugo Chavez as chief and president, elected, re-elected and ratified, much as it pains the bourgeois hucksters and the right, who have done so much damage to our fatherland."
Chavez's abrupt exit from the political scene would be a huge shock for the South American OPEC nation. His oil-financed socialism has made him a hero to the poor majority but critics call him a dictator.
His condition is being watched closely by Latin American allies that have benefited from his help, as well as investors attracted by Venezuela's lucrative and widely traded debt.
'MAKE NO MISTAKE'
Chavez is still set to be sworn in on January 10, as spelled out in the constitution. If he were to die or had to step aside, new elections would be held within 30 days, with Maduro running as the ruling Socialist Party (PSUV) candidate.
While the constitution gives January 10 as the start of a new presidential term, it does not explicitly state what happens if a president-elect cannot take office on that date.
Top PSUV officials have suggested that Chavez's inauguration could be postponed - while the opposition says any delay would be just the latest sign the former soldier is not fit to govern.
Cabello said the "Chavismo" movement was in pain but remained resolute, and he issued a warning to the opposition: "Make no mistake about these people or this revolution. It is going to cost you very, but very, dearly," he said.
On Saturday, Cabello will likely be re-elected as head of the Chavista-dominated National Assembly, a key post that could see him assume Chavez's role temporarily while new elections are called should the president have to step down.
In the past Cabello has been considered as a rival of Maduro, but the pair have been at pains to deny that. Their appearance side-by-side at the coffee factory on Thursday looked to be the latest effort to project a unified front.
Last year, Chavez staged what appeared to be remarkable comeback from the disease to win re-election to a new six-year term in October despite being weakened by radiation therapy. But he returned to Cuba for more treatment within weeks of his win.
Officials have said he suffered unexpected bleeding and then a respiratory infection after a six-hour operation on December 11. That respiratory infection caused further complications, they have said, without giving more details.
The head of the opposition's Democratic Unity coalition, Ramon Aveledo, has accused the authorities of breaking a pledge to keep Venezuelans informed about Chavez's health.
And one opposition leader suggested on Thursday that legislators should form an official commission to visit Cuba and assess the president's condition for themselves.
Maduro hit back in his televised comments, saying the public had been provided with updates almost every day, and he accused Aveledo of orchestrating a campaign of misinformation.
"We have no doubt Mr. Aveledo is behind the campaign of sick rumours that began on Twitter and Facebook," Maduro said.
(Editing by Kieran Murray and Lisa Shumaker)
Copyright © 2013 Reuters
Posted: 03 Jan 2013 06:38 PM PST
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Despite a rocky few weeks during the "fiscal cliff" fight, John Boehner won re-election as speaker of the House of Representatives on Thursday and will again lead Republicans as they take on the White House over federal spending.
Boehner defeated House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi 220-192 in a vote on the opening day of the 113th Congress and vowed to use his second term to shrink the national debt of $16 trillion (10 trillion pounds) to prevent it from "draining free enterprise."
The Ohio congressman narrowly avoided the embarrassment of having to go to a second round of voting, as 12 conservatives held back their support for him. It was the closest margin of any speaker vote since 1997.
But without a challenger from inside his party, Boehner's re-election was never in doubt even though he has struggled to control an unruly group of fiscal conservatives in his caucus.
True to form, the often emotional Boehner shed a tear or two as he took the gavel and spelled out the challenges ahead.
"Our government has built up too much debt. Our economy is not producing enough jobs. These are not separate problems," Boehner said.
"At $16 trillion and rising, our national debt is draining free enterprise and weakening the ship of state."
Questions were asked about Boehner's speakership when conservative Tea Party-backed lawmakers delivered him a stinging defeat in December by rejecting a proposal of his during talks with President Barack Obama to raise taxes on millionaires.
Boehner also came under fire for voting on Tuesday for a compromise deal to prevent the U.S. economy from falling off the so-called fiscal cliff and for being slow to approve aid for victims of Superstorm Sandy in the Northeast.
A TOUGH JOB
"Being speaker today is no bargain, I tell you," Republican Representative Peter King of New York told MSNBC's "Morning Joe."
Widely seen as having lost the "fiscal cliff" fight with Obama by accepting tax increases, congressional Republicans are keen for a rematch and they will get the chance soon.
Debate is likely to be fierce when lawmakers deal with planned spending cuts for military and domestic programs that are due to start in February. Around that time, Congress is likely to take up the thorny issue of extending the "debt ceiling" - the limit of how much the federal government can borrow.
Boehner was the Republicans' front man in fiscal talks with Obama but stepped aside for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell who struck a dramatic New Year's Eve deal with Vice President Joe Biden.
The stress of recent weeks seems to have got to Boehner, who cursed at Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid at the White House twice after a meeting last week, according to Senate aides.
Reid had accused the Republican of running a "dictatorship" in the House and being more interested in keeping his speakership than in cutting a fiscal deal.
The son of a bar owner, Boehner had a tough upbringing. He shared one bathroom with his 11 siblings and worked in the family business while still a child.
He was elected speaker after the 2010 midterm elections when a Tea Party surge helped Republicans take the House from the Democrats.
Pelosi, his predecessor and now Democratic minority leader, presented the gavel again to Boehner on Thursday just after he won re-election.
"I know all too well that we will not always agree," Pelosi said. "But I hope, with all my heart that we find common ground that is a higher, better place for our country."
Fellow Republicans, not Democrats, have been landing some of the toughest blows on Boehner, notably New Jersey Governor Chris Christie who launched a tirade against the speaker for postponing an anticipated vote on a $60 billion storm aid package for the victims of Sandy.
King, who was among Boehner's critics, was more forgiving on Thursday after the speaker agreed to abruptly reverse course and set a timetable to approve the storm relief.
"John is really a voice of reason in our conference, despite some of the things I said yesterday," King told NBC's "Today."
Seeking to explain the difficulties of Boehner's job, Representative Hal Rogers, a Kentucky Republican, borrowed a line from fellow southerner Bill Frist, who once described leading Republicans in the Senate as: "It's a lot like being a caretaker of a cemetery â— a lot of people under you but nobody listens."
(Additional reporting by Samuel P Jacobs, David Lawder and Susan Heavey. Writing by Alistair Bell; editing by Christopher Wilson)
Copyright © 2013 Reuters
Posted: 03 Jan 2013 06:14 PM PST
ANCHORAGE (Reuters) - The Royal Dutch Shell drill ship that was tossed by high winds and grounded off an Alaska island on New Years Eve has suffered some damage from waves and flooding, but so far has not spilled any of the 155,000 gallons of fuel and other petroleum products aboard, officials managing the emergency response said Thursday.
Salvage experts were flown to the stricken Kulluk on Wednesday and Thursday, officials said at a news conference in Anchorage.
"Today we can confirm that the Kulluk remains upright and stable and there is no evidence of sheening in the vicinity," Sean Churchfield, Shell's Alaska operations manager and the company's emergency-response coordinator, said at the news conference.
The salvage crews found "some wave damage to the topside of the vessel" and several breached hatches that caused water damage inside, Churchfield said. Generators had also been damaged, he said, and new generators might have to moved in to provide power to move the vessel.
It remains unclear how serious the damage is or how long it will take to move the ship away from its site, Churchfield and other officials said. Churchfield said he could not comment on how the Kulluk grounding would affect Shell's 2013 drilling plans.
Coast Guard Captain Paul Mehler III said that, at his request, marine-casualty investigators were on their way to Alaska from the Coast Guard's Centre of Excellence in New Orleans. Findings from the Coast Guard investigation will be made public, Mehler said.
Area residents have expressed concerns about conflicts with upcoming commercial fishing seasons and traditional food-gathering activities, state and local officials said. A particular concern is the vulnerability of a nearby historical site, they said.
The Kulluk is grounded near an important cultural site for the region's native Alutiiq people, who are concerned about protecting the area's values to their heritage, state and local officials said.
Sitkalidak Island was the site of a notorious 18th century massacre in which Russian colonial forces killed hundreds of Alutiiq men, women and children.
The site, called "Refuge Rock," is "probably the most culturally significant place" for residents of the nearby village of Old Harbour, said Duane Dvorak, a community liaison from the Kodiak Island Borough.
(Editing by Jonathan Weber and Matt Driskill)
Copyright © 2013 Reuters
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