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News Wrap: Illinois moves to cut pension benefits, raise retirement age

December 3, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: The president sought to shift the focus today away from what’s gone wrong with implementing the health care law to what’s gone right. He said the benefits are being overlooked amid problems with the Web site and policy cancellations. But insurers still warn they’re getting unusable data. We will have a full report on the president’s new P.R. push right after the news summary.

The University of Notre Dame is suing again over the health care law’s mandate to cover birth control for students and employees. School officials went to court today arguing they are being forced to violate Roman Catholic teachings. A federal judge dismissed a similar suit last year, saying the school wasn’t yet facing imminent penalties under the law.

A federal judge has cleared the city of Detroit today to proceed with its bankruptcy filing and shed up to $18 billion in debt. It’s the largest public bankruptcy in U.S. history. The judge turned aside challenges from unions, pension funds and retirees who stand to have benefits cut.

Later, retiring Mayor Dave Bing called for all parties to work together.

DAVE BING, mayor of Detroit, Mich.: We have got to start changing the conversation. And we can’t think that bankruptcy is the worst thing that ever happened to us. It can help us now because it will allow us once again to deal with the things that should have been dealt with over the last 20 or 30 years. The city cannot go forward with the kind of debt and liabilities that we had on our balance sheet.

GWEN IFILL: Detroit’s emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, has said the city is now using 40 cents of every dollar collected to pay its debts. He warns that figure could rise to 65 cents without bankruptcy relief.

Illinois moved today to make major cuts in retirement benefits for thousands of state employees and retirees. The legislature approved a bill that also raises the state retirement age. It is the latest effort to help erase the state’s $100 billion pension shortfall, worst in the nation. The governor has said he will sign the bill.

The House voted today to renew a longstanding ban on plastic firearms that can evade metal detectors and X-ray machines. The Republican-sponsored bill passed on a voice vote, extending the ban another 10 years. Democrats supported the measure, even though they wanted greater restrictions.

Virginia Congressman Bobby Scott said the guns should contain metal parts that cannot be detached.

REP. BOBBY SCOTT, D-Va.: The law has a critical loophole that may enable and encourage the production of firearms that may escape detection. Under the statute, someone may produce a plastic firearm which is detectable only because it has a metal component, which is not essential for the operation of the firearm, but is easily removable by the firearm user seeking to avoid detection.

GWEN IFILL: The Senate could take up the bill on Monday, when it returns from Thanksgiving recess. The existing ban expires on Tuesday.

On another issue, the House decided to spend the money that air travelers accidentally leave at security checkpoints. All those coins added up to more than a half-million dollars in 2012. Under the Loose Change Act, it will go to nonprofit groups that run airport lounges for military personnel and their families. The bill now heads to the Senate.

In Japan, visiting Vice President Joe Biden rebuked China for imposing an air defense zone over islands that Tokyo also claims. He said the U.S. is deeply concerned. The vice president travels to China tomorrow. We will focus on what’s fueling the tensions in the East China Sea later in the program.

Protests eased today in Thailand, as the prime minister ordered police to avoid new confrontations with demonstrators demanding her ouster. Days of violence had left four people dead and more than 250 hurt.

We have a report from Jonathan Sparks of Independent Television News from Bangkok.

JOHN SPARKS: For three days, anti-government protesters and the Thai police waged war in the center of Bangkok. Today, however, the barricades came down and the two sides shook hands.

Flowers were exchanged and tears were shed, and the police got out of the way. The protesters had tried to take this government complex by force. This morning, however, they simply walked in.

PHONGNOI SIMORA, protester (through interpreter): I think we have won. It feels like victory. I think we have 90 percent won it now.

JOHN SPARKS: But there was a problem: The protesters may have occupied the lawn outside the prime minister’s office, but Yingluck Shinawatra was still the prime minister.

Until a few hours ago, this area was one of the most protected areas in the country, but it is now rammed with anti-government protesters declaring a victory of sorts. It’s a bit like an opening day fete, all very festive people.

Protest leaders accuse the government of corruption, and they’re promising far-reaching reform, but they’re not prepared to wait for the next election.

THAWORN SENIAM, protest leader (translated): Normally, we give them power for four years, but they have used it in the wrong way. They’re corrupt, so the people want the power back.

JOHN SPARKS: The decision by the police to dismantle the barricades has come as a surprise. They’d spent days defending key government ministries, so I asked them, why?

POLICE MAJ. GEN. PIYA UTAYO, Center for the Administration of Peace and Order (through interpreter): We did this so we could talk to each other and reduce tensions, but we are not going to let the protesters do whatever they like. This decision was made to avoid further confrontation.

JOHN SPARKS: For the country’s prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, a small measure of relief is expected, with the nation now preparing for the Thai king’s birthday on Thursday. She’s asked people to use the time to brainstorm.

But the leaders of this protest, as well as their followers, are in no mood to negotiate. We watched at the Ministry of Finance, which they have occupied for several weeks, as volunteers were trained to resist and besiege. They are organized and committed to their cause, and they seem increasingly determined.

GWEN IFILL: The Ukrainian government survived a no-confidence vote in Parliament today. That followed days of angry protests after Ukraine’s president shelved a landmark trade deal with the European Union. Thousands of pro-E.U. demonstrators rallied outside the Parliament building today. They vowed to continue their fight to overthrow the government.

The United Nations’ food agency is warning that hundreds of thousands of people in Congo will lose their food aid. The World Food Program said today it’s received just a quarter of the money it needs to feed more than four million Congolese through 2015. Eastern Congo, in particular, has been ravaged by repeated armed rebellions.

The driver of a New York commuter train that derailed Sunday was nodding off just before the crash that killed four people. A rail union leader says engineer William Rockefeller told him that he had nodded and then caught himself, but it was too late. The National Transportation Safety Board is interviewing Rockefeller as part of its probe.

In economic news, home prices — the Big Three Detroit automakers reported a resurgence in auto sales last month. Chrysler said today it had 16 — a 16 percent jump in sales. General Motors saw a 14 percent increase. And Ford sales were up 7 percent. Toyota and Nissan had double-digit gains, but sales were down at Honda and Volkswagen. Large pickup trucks were among the best sellers.

Home prices rose just slightly in October. It’s the latest sign that the market is stabilizing after a big run-up in prices over the past 12 months. And on Wall Street today, stocks fell again amid concerns that holiday spending is falling short. The Dow Jones industrial average lost 94 points to close at 15,914. The Nasdaq fell eight points to close at 4,037.