Here are today's top stories from The Associated Press.
Obama seeks to put a personal touch on "fiscal cliff" talks
FALLS CHURCH, Va. — President Barack Obama, trying to put a personal touch on "fiscal cliff" negotiations, visited a northern Virginia family's basement apartment Thursday to press his hard-line on tax rate increases for the wealthy.
"We're in the midst of the Christmas season," Obama said, sitting at a table in the Santana family's Falls Church, Va., home. "I think the American people are counting on this getting solved. The closer it gets to the brink, the more stress there is going to be."
Obama and lawmakers have until the end of the year to avert across-the-board spending cuts and tax increases. The president reiterated the firm stance he has taken in recent days, warning that he's willing to let that economy-rattling double whammy take effect if Republicans don't drop their opposition to higher tax rates for the wealthy.
"Just to be clear, I'm not going to sign any package that somehow prevents the top rate from going up for the folks in the top 2 percent," Obama said. "But I do remain optimistic that we can get something done that is good for families like this one and is good for the American economy."
The president's quick trip — just a 15 minute drive from the White House — was part of an effort to rally public support for his tax proposals. The family whose home he visited is one of many that shared their stories online, at the White House's urging, of how they would be hurt if their taxes went up at the end of the year. The president will also travel to Detroit on Monday.
South Carolina Republican Sen. Jim DeMint resigning to take over at Heritage Foundation
COLUMBIA, S.C — Republican U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, a tea party favorite known for bucking party leaders to back challenges to centrist veterans he didn't view as conservative enough, said Thursday he was resigning to take the helm of a conservative think tank.
The South Carolina lawmaker said in a statement he was stepping down to become president of the Heritage Foundation. His office said his resignation is effective Jan. 1.
DeMint was first elected to the Senate in 2004 and easily re-elected six years later. He previously served in the U.S. House of Representatives for three terms.
"I'm leaving the Senate now, but I'm not leaving the fight. I've decided to join The Heritage Foundation at a time when the conservative movement needs strong leadership in the battle of ideas," DeMint, 61, said in a statement.
Egypt's president offers nothing to defuse political crisis after six die in clashes
CAIRO — Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi offered nothing concrete to defuse the country's worst political crisis in nearly two years in a nationally televised speech late Thursday, refusing to rescind a disputed constitution drafted by his allies or his decrees giving him near absolute powers.
A night after thousands of his supporters and opponents fought pitched battles outside his Cairo palace that left at least six dead and nearly 700 injured, he angrily accused some of the opposition protesters of serving remnants of the old regime. He vowed never to tolerate anyone working for the overthrow of his "legitimate" government.
Some among the thousands of opposition protesters gathered near his palace raised their shoes in contempt as they listened to him. Others broke into the iconic Arab Spring chant of "the people want to topple the regime."
He also invited the opposition to a "comprehensive and productive" dialogue starting Saturday at his presidential palace, but he offered no sign at all that he might offer them any meaningful concessions.
The opposition has already stated that it would not enter a dialogue with Morsi unless he first rescinds decrees giving him nearly unrestricted powers and shelves the constitution draft hurriedly adopted by his Islamist allies.
In Syrian capital, labyrinth of security checkpoints, blast walls keep residents under siege
Instead of a quick half-hour trip home from her class at Damascus University, Lama Issa said she now must maneuver through security checkpoints, army tanks and blast walls — a two-hour journey that is often terrifying.
That's the new price of an uneasy security these days in the Syrian capital, the seat of power for President Bashar Assad.
Rebels have set their sights on the city of 1.7 million, and fighting on the outskirts is raising fears that Damascus soon could be facing the most brutal battle of the Syrian civil war.
"All these checkpoints make me feel like we're under occupation. Yet I have to remind myself that these are Syrian soldiers," Issa, a 22-year-old architecture student, told The Associated Press in the capital.
It is largely through a massive security clampdown that Assad maintains his grip over much of the capital. But the checkpoints and clogged traffic are adding to Syrians' woes, including power cuts lasting several hours a day, shortages of heating fuel and diesel and long lines for bread. Many city streets and squares are teeming with soldiers.
NATO moves toward missile deployment on Syria border amid chemical weapons fears
BEIRUT — As fears grow in the West that Syrian President Bashar Assad will unleash chemical weapons as an act of desperation, NATO moved forward Thursday with its plan to place Patriot missiles and troops along Syria's border with Turkey to protect against potential attacks.
Assad's regime blasted the move as "psychological warfare," saying the new deployment would not deter it from seeking victory over rebels it views as terrorists.
The missile deployment sends a clear message to Assad that consequences will follow if he uses chemical weapons or strikes NATO member Turkey, which backs the rebels seeking his ouster. But its limited scope also reflects the low appetite in Western capitals for direct military intervention in the civil war.
The U.S. and many European and Arab countries called for Assad to step down early in the uprising but have struggled to make that happen. Russia and China have protected Assad from censure by the U.N. Security Council, and the presence of extremists among the rebels makes the U.S. and others nervous about arming them.
In Dublin, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton joined Russia's foreign minister and the U.N. peace envoy to the Arab country for three-way talks that suggested Washington and Moscow were working toward a common strategy as the Assad regime weakens.
Police search Iowa wildlife area where hunters found 2 bodies believed to be missing cousins
EVANSDALE, Iowa — Investigators scoured a rural wildlife area in northeastern Iowa for clues Thursday after hunters found dead bodies believed to be those of two young cousins who vanished in July.
Even as they waited for confirmation of the bodies' identities, agents involved in the kidnapping investigation of Lyric Cook and Elizabeth Collins searched for possible evidence near the Seven Bridges Wildlife Area. One of the girls' mothers and community members appeared to be resigned to the tragic news that the bodies were the girls, which would shift the case to a death investigation.
"We are all grieving. We hurt for the families and believe me it touches the community deeply because it is a small community," said Jeff Rasanen, pastor of the Faith Assembly of God Church in Evansdale. "It's a sad time. We were just praying for a much better outcome."
Bremer County Sheriff Dewey Hildebrandt said officers from his agency, the FBI, the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation and Black Hawk County were processing the area where hunters found the bodies Wednesday afternoon. He said more information about the investigation would be released at a news conference Thursday afternoon. News photographs from the scene showed teams of officers looking in ditches along roads, fields and woods.
The county-owned wildlife area is popular for hunting and fishing and is intersected by the Wapsipinicon River. It is about 25 miles from Evansdale, the town of 4,700 people where 10-year-old Lyric and 8-year-old Elizabeth disappeared July 13 while riding their bikes.
Software company founder McAfee denied asylum in Guatemala
GUATEMALA CITY — Software company founder John McAfee was hospitalized Thursday after being denied political asylum in Guatemala, and his lawyers said they were making a last-ditch effort to keep him from being flown back to Belize for questioning about the killing of a fellow American expatriate.
McAfee told The Associated Press that he had suffered chest pains overnight but didn't believe he had suffered a heart attack. A government doctor who examined him agreed, saying McAfee's heart rhythm and blood pressure were normal, and he appeared to be suffering from high stress.
McAfee was moved from an immigration center to a police-run hospital Thursday afternoon after Guatemalan authorities said McAfee's request for asylum had been denied. They did not explain why. Shortly after the decision was announced, McAfee issued a plea on his blog for the public to petition Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina to let him stay.
"Please email the President of Guatemala and beg him to allow the court system to proceed, to determine my status in Guatemala, and please support the political asylum that I am asking for," the post read.
McAfee's legal team said they were preparing to appeal the denial of asylum to the country's constitutional court, a process that could give McAfee perhaps another day or two in Guatemala. The court would have to issue a decision within 48 hours. McAfee also began complaining of chest pain, prompting authorities to prepare to move him from the immigration center where he had been held overnight.