Here are today's top stories from The Associated Press.
Pope Francis ushers in new style of papacy: picks up luggage, thanks hotel staff, pays bill
VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis put his humility on display during his first day as pontiff Thursday, stopping by his hotel to pick up his luggage and pay the bill himself in a decidedly different style of papacy than his tradition-minded predecessor who tended to stay ensconced in the frescoed halls of the Vatican.
The break from Benedict XVI's pontificate was evident even in Francis' wardrobe choices: He kept the simple iron pectoral cross of his days as bishop and eschewed the red cape that Benedict wore when he was presented to the world for the first time in 2005 — choosing instead the simple white cassock of the papacy.
And in his first Mass as pope, Francis showed how different he would be as a pastor, giving an off-the-cuff homily about the need to walk with God, build up his church and confess — at one point referring to children building sand castles on the beach.
It was a far simpler message than the dense, three-page discourse Benedict delivered in Latin during his first Mass as pope in 2005.
The difference in style was a sign of Francis' belief that the Catholic Church needs to be at one with the people it serves and not impose its message on a society that often doesn't want to hear it, Francis' authorized biographer, Sergio Rubin, said in an interview Thursday with The Associated Press.
TSA administrator tells Congress that plan to allow small knives on planes will be implemented
WASHINGTON — The head of the Transportation Security Administration says the agency will allow passengers to carry small knives onto planes despite a backlash against the proposal.
TSA Administrator John Pistole told a House committee Thursday that he doesn't believe small folding knives would enable a terrorist to take over a plane and that finding and eliminating them is time-consuming.
Pistole says that screeners find 2,000 small knives a day on passengers or in their carry-on bags, with each incident requiring two to three minutes to deal with.
Several lawmakers at the hearing say they don't see much difference between the knives and the box cutters used by 9/11 terrorists.
On to 2016: Conservative Republicans hear hopefuls
OXON HILL, Md. — America's conservatives are searching for Mr. or Mrs. Right.
And there's no shortage of hopefuls. Officeholders and other Republicans are jockeying to fill a leadership void this week as talk of the party's future dominates hallway discussion at a conservative summit.
Activists gathered at the Conservative Political Action Conference say they want a leader brash enough to protect conservative orthodoxy and open-minded enough to help the Republican Party change its image: white, old, and male.
After a second straight presidential loss, the party is trying to find a way forward.
But there are divisions even among the activists at the conservative conference — just as with Republicans across the nation. Some worry that the party may become too inclusive in the name of winning elections.
As Senate panel debates fiscal plan, Obama meets for third day with lawmakers on Capitol Hill
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama said he had "a great conversation" with Senate Republicans on Thursday, the third stop in his ice-breaking tour of the Capitol this week on the budget and other contentious topics.
The 90-minute meeting with GOP rivals, senators said, featured exchanges on the budget, the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline, tax reform and the regulatory burden on businesses.
"He was very candid. He certainly understands that you can't fix the country without adjusting entitlements to fit the demographics of our country," said Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., referring to benefit programs like Social Security and Medicare. "We'll see where we go from here, but it was a great meeting."
Obama then walked across the Capitol to meet with his House Democratic allies, capping visits this week to the Democratic and GOP conferences of both House and Senate.
Thursday's meetings came as a key Senate panel moved toward party-line approval of a fiscal blueprint that would only modestly trim the budget deficit while protecting safety net programs from slashing cuts proposed by Republicans.
Thousands of illegal immigrants freed from jails in budget cuts
WASHINGTON — After weeks of denials, the Obama administration acknowledged Thursday that it had, in fact, released more than 2,000 illegal immigrants from immigration jails due to budget concerns during three weeks in February. Four of the most serious offenders have been put back in detention.
The administration had insisted that only a "few hundred" immigrants were released for budgetary reasons, challenging a March 1 report by The Associated Press that the agency had released more than 2,000 immigrants in February and planned to release more than 3,000 others this month. Intense criticism led to a temporary shutdown of the plan.
The director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, John Morton, told a congressional panel Thursday that the agency had actually released 2,228 people from immigration jails over the course of three weeks, starting February 9, for what he described as "solely budgetary reasons." They included 10 people considered the highest level of offender.
After the administration had challenged the AP's reporting, ICE said it didn't know how many people had been released for budget reasons but would review its records.
Morton, who testified with two other agency officials, told lawmakers that the decision to release the immigrants was not discussed in advance with political appointees, including those in the White House and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. He said the pending automatic cuts known as sequestration was "driving in the background."