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US economy barely grew in 4th quarter, revision shows

Breathe a tiny sigh of relief, if not exactly contentment: the U.S. economy grew just barely in the last quarter of 2012.

Output expanded at an annual rate of just 0.1 percent, which is basically indistinguishable from having no growth at all and is far below the growth needed to get unemployment back to normal. But at least the economy did not shrink, as the Commerce Department had originally estimated last month, when the first report suggested that output contracted by an annual rate of 0.1 percent.

The department’s latest estimate for economic output, released Thursday, showed that growth was depressed by declines in military spending (possibly in anticipation of the across-the-board spending cuts set to begin Friday) and the amount that companies restored their stockroom shelves.

“The good news with business inventories is that what they take away in one quarter they tend to add to the next,” said Paul Ashworth, senior U.S. economist at Capital Economics, referring to the measure of this restocking process. “So there’s a good chance that first-quarter numbers will be better than originally thought.”

The output growth number was revised upward from the original estimate partly thanks to updated, and improved, data on business investment and net trade. Imports were lower than previously reported and exports were higher.

Economists expect that government spending will continue to drag on the economy this year, especially if Congress does not avert the spending cuts, which would shave around 0.6 percentage point off growth. Many are hoping that even if the cuts go through, Congress will reverse them in short order.

—Catherine Rampell, The New York Times

After pledging loyalty to successor, Benedict leaves Vatican

VATICAN CITY — Benedict XVI ceased to be pope at 8 p.m. local time (2 p.m. Eastern) Thursday when his resignation took effect, leaving the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church vacant while its leading clerics consider who should succeed him.

Benedict left the Vatican by helicopter Thursday afternoon to spend the final hours of his scandal-dogged papacy and the first of his retirement at a summer residence used by popes for centuries. Onlookers in St. Peter’s Square cheered, church bells rang and Romans stood on rooftops to wave flags to see him off as he flew from Rome to the summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, a hilltop town southeast of the city.

More carillons heralded his arrival there, and he was greeted by a vivid contingent of silver-suited firemen, gendarmes in red capes, and bishops in black and pink.

Addressing cheering well-wishers from a window at the residence, he said: “Dear friends, I am happy to be with you! Thanks for your friendship and affection! You know this is a different day than others.”

Earlier in the day, in one of his concluding acts, Benedict addressed a gathering of more than 100 cardinals who will elect his successor, urging them to be “like an orchestra” that harmonizes for the good of the Roman Catholic Church. From a gilded throne in the Clementine Hall of the Apostolic Palace, the pope thanked the cardinals collectively, and then rose to greet each of them individually.

Many of them were appointed to their powerful positions as so-called princes of the church by Benedict or by his predecessor, John Paul II, and are seen as doctrinal conservatives in their mold.

“Among you is also the future pope, whom I promise my unconditional reverence and obedience,” Benedict told the cardinals.

—Rachel Donadio, The New York Times

Reauthorization of Violence Against Women Act passes

WASHINGTON — The House voted Thursday to pass the Senate’s bipartisan reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, in a big victory for President Barack Obama and Democrats in Congress.

The legislation passed on a vote of 286-138, with 199 Democrats joining 87 Republicans to push the reauthorization of the landmark 1994 law, which assists victims of domestic and sexual violence, across the finish line.

Though the reauthorization passed the Senate earlier this month with 78 votes — including those of every woman, all Democrats and just over half of Republicans — a version unveiled by the House last Friday immediately came under sharp criticism from Democrats and women’s and human rights groups for failing to include certain provisions offered in the Senate bill.

The House bill excluded specific protections for gay, bisexual or transgender victims of domestic abuse — eliminating “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” from a list of “underserved populations” that face barriers to receiving victim services — and stripped certain provisions regarding Native American women on reservations.

Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the majority leader, had committed to passing the legislation in the House only with bipartisan support. On Tuesday night, with House Democrats firmly united against the Republication version, the House Rules Committee approved a bifurcated process to consider the Senate legislation; on Thursday, the House first voted on its substitute amendment and then, when that version failed to pass, it took up and passed the Senate version.

On Thursday, Democrat after Democrat stood on the House floor, urging their colleagues to reject what they said was the weaker House version and to vote for the underlying Senate-passed bill.

Rep. Gwen Moore, D-Wis., a victim of domestic and sexual violence, spoke passionately about the need to pass the Senate’s reauthorization bill.

—Ashley Parker, The New York Times