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Republican-controlled House votes to kill a Medicare cost panel

WASHINGTON — In a rebuff to President Barack Obama, the Republican-controlled House passed a bill Thursday to abolish a Medicare cost control board created by the new health care law.

The bill, approved by a vote of 223-181, provoked a full-throated debate on the merits of the law, the Affordable Care Act, on the second anniversary of its signing by Obama.

In dozens of speeches, congressional supporters and opponents of the law previewed arguments that will be made next week when the Supreme Court hears a challenge to its constitutionality filed by 26 states.

The Obama administration, eager to showcase benefits of the law for consumers, said it had found that insurance rate increases affecting more than 42,000 people in nine states were unreasonable.

Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services, reviewed the rates using authority provided by the new law. She said Thursday that insurers should rescind the increases, issue refunds to consumers or publicly explain their refusal to do so.

Insurers said the higher rates were justified by rising medical costs.

The stated purpose of the new panel, the Independent Payment Advisory Board, is to “reduce the per capita rate of growth in Medicare spending.” Spending cuts recommended by the 15-member board would take effect automatically unless Congress voted to block or change them.

—Robert Pear, The New York Times

In Oklahoma, Obama declares pipeline support

RIPLEY, Okla. — President Barack Obama stood in a red-dirt field before acres of stacked pipeline pieces Thursday to illustrate his support for expedited construction of the southern half of the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline. But his public declaration of support for the project has pleased neither the industry and its Republican supporters nor environmentalists.

Obama’s appearance here near the oil town of Cushing, known in the industry as the nation’s pipeline crossroads, was intended to blunt months of criticism from Republicans in Congress and on the presidential campaign trail of his decision in January to reject for now construction of the pipeline’s northern leg from Alberta, in Canada, to Cushing. The attacks have gained resonance as gasoline prices have spiked, and congressional Republicans have sought to force action.

“Unfortunately, Congress decided they wanted their own timeline,” Obama told an invited audience of about 200 people. “We’ve told the company that we’re happy to review future permits. And today, we’re making this new pipeline from Cushing to the gulf a priority.”

—Jackie Calmes, The New York Times

US intelligence report warns of global water tensions

WASHINGTON — The U.S. intelligence community warned in a report released Thursday that problems with water could destabilize countries in North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia over the next decade.

Increasing demand and competition caused by the world’s rising population and scarcities created by climate change and poor management threaten to disrupt economies and increase regional tensions, the report concludes.

Prepared at the request of the State Department, the report is based on a classified National Intelligence Estimate completed in October that reflected an increasing focus on environmental and other factors that threaten security. An estimate reflects the consensus judgment of all intelligence agencies.

While the report concluded that wars over water are unlikely in the coming decade, it said that countries could use water as political and economic leverage over neighbors and that major facilities like dams and desalination plants could become targets of terrorist attacks. Coupled with poverty and other social factors, problems with water could even contribute to the political failure of weaker nations.

The public report, unlike the classified version, did not specify countries at greatest risk for water-related disruption but analyzed conditions on major river basins in regions with high potential for conflict — from the Jordan to the Tigris and Euphrates to the Brahmaputra in South Asia.

—Steven Lee Myers, The New York Times

Sergeant to be charged in
Afghan killings

Staff Sgt. Robert Bales will be charged Friday with 17 counts of murder and various other charges, including attempted murder, in connection with the March 11 shooting deaths of Afghan civilians, a senior U.S. official said Thursday.

Bales, who is 38 and had been serving his fourth combat tour overseas, is expected to be charged in a military courtroom at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., where he is being held.

He is accused of walking away from his remote base in southern Afghanistan and killing 16 civilians in a nighttime attack. The Army has not suggested a motive publicly.

A lawyer for the soldier, John Henry Browne, said this week that Bales did not remember some events at the time of the shooting. Brown has also said that the sergeant’s behavior could be affected by post-traumatic stress disorder or from a concussion he suffered during a vehicle rollover in Iraq. Browne was not present at the hearing Thursday, but the sergeant was represented by an assistant to Browne, Emma Scanlan, and a military defense lawyer.

The shooting, most likely the deadliest war crime by a single U.S. soldier in the decade of war that has followed the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has further frayed the relationship between the U.S. and Afghan governments. Earlier this year U.S. military personnel burned Qurans at an Afghan base, an act that prompted public protests and a series of killings.

—William Yardley, The New York Times