National editor's pick of the top news stories in the nation and world at this hour:
President Barack Obama and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell both said they were close to an agreement Monday to avert the so-called "fiscal cliff," but it was not yet a done deal. Under the broad outlines of the emerging deal, Democrats and Republicans reportedly would agree to let the tax rate rise to 39.6 percent for individuals earning $400,000 and households making $450,000. Estates would be taxed after the first $5 million at 40 percent, up from 35 percent, and emergency jobless benefits would be extended, officials familiar with the negotiations said. The biggest sticking point was what to do about automatic spending cuts set to take effect Jan. 1, with Republicans seeking to delay them for two or three months. The proposed deal would also prevent a 27 percent cut in payments to Medicare doctors and would extend for five years a series of tax credits, including one that helps pay for college. One tax increase that isn't being addressed is the payroll tax for Social Security, which will rise from 4.2 percent to 6.2 percent on the first $113,700 in earnings.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has a blood clot between her brain and her skull, near her right ear, but her doctors say she is making excellent progress and they expect a full recovery. Clinton spent a second day at a New York hospital on Monday, under observation for a blood clot stemming from a concussion she sustained in a fall while battling a stomach virus. Clinton, 65, who is seen as a leading candidate for president in 2016, was hospitalized Sunday when the blood clot was discovered during an exam. Doctors said Sunday she would be treated with anticoagulants and remain hospitalized for two days.
Venezuelans were openly speculating that President Hugo Chavez would not survive Monday after his vice president said he faces new complications from a respiratory infection and described his condition as "delicate." Chavez's allies asked the country to pray for him, and the government canceled a New Year's Eve concert in downtown Caracas featuring popular Venezuelan bands because of his condition. Vice President Nicolas Maduro, whom Chavez has designated as a successor, appeared weary and grim as he spoke in a televised address Sunday from Havana, Cuba, where Chavez underwent cancer surgery three weeks ago. Maduro made the unexpected trip to Cuba Saturday, putting Energy Minister Hector Navarro in charge of government affairs. "The situation does not look good. The fact that Maduro himself would go to Cuba, leaving Hector Navarro in charge, only seems understandable if Chavez's health is precarious," said David Smilde, a University of Georgia sociologist and analyst for the Washington Office on Latin America.
A 31-year-old woman who thought it would be "cool" to push a man to his death off a New York City subway platform has a history of arrests and psychiatric troubles. Police say Erika Menendez's family has often called them because she was not taking her medicine and was out of control. She has been arrested for drug possession, and she pleaded guilty to assaulting a man in 2003. According to the Queens district attorney's office, Menendez said she shoved Sunando Sen because she blamed "Muslims, Hindus and Egyptians" for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. "I pushed a Muslim off the train tracks because I hate Hindus and Muslims -- ever since 2001 when they put down the twin towers I've been beating them up," Menendez was quoted as saying to police. She also told them, "There is no reason. I just pushed him in front of the train because I thought it would be cool." During her arraignment in criminal court in Queens, Menendez laughed so hard that the judge asked her attorney to make her stop. She was ordered to undergo a psychiatric exam.
An Afghan man imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, described by the CIA as a "tough, seasoned jihadist," is also quite the comedian, judging from several letters released by his lawyer that show surprising familiarity with western pop culture. "I like this new song Gangnam Style. I want to do the dance for you but cannot because of my shackles," wrote Mohammed Rahim al-Afghani to his lawyer, Carlos Warner. Mohammed, who is multilingual but has never been to the United States, says he has adopted a banana rat as a pet and asks that guards leave his "friend" alone, saying, "They need to chillax." U.S. officials say Mohammed was a translator and assistant for Osama bin Laden who helped him escape from Afghanistan. His lawyer says his short dispatches from the Camp 7 prison-within-a-prison at Guantanamo humanize him. "Just think that he's doing this under all the restrictions that's he's under down there," Warner said. "He has an incredibly good sense of humor." In one note, Mohammed expresses doubt that Fox News is really "Fair and Balanced," saying that if it were, it "would not have to say it every five minutes." He also asks for help from Howard Stern, saying, "If he is the 'King of All Media' he can help me."
The Wire, a summary of top national and world news stories from the Associated Press and other wire services, moves weekdays. Contact Karl Kahler at 408-920-5023; follow him at twitter.com/karl_kahler.