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Biden, pope to talk virus, climate, poverty at Vatican

ROME (AP) — Hours after arriving in Rome, President Joe Biden will meet with Pope Francis on Friday at the Vatican, where the world's two most notable Roman Catholics plan to discuss the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change and poverty.

The president takes pride in his Catholic faith, using it as moral guidepost to shape many of his social and economic policies. Biden wears a rosary and frequently attends Mass, yet his support for abortion rights and same-sex marriage has put him at odds with many U.S. bishops, some of whom have suggested he should be denied Communion.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki, in previewing the visit, said she expected a "warm and constructive dialogue" between the two leaders.

"There's a great deal of agreement and overlap with the president and Pope Francis on a range of issues: poverty, combating the climate crisis, ending the COVID-19 pandemic," Psaki said. "These are all hugely important, impactful issues that will be the centerpiece of what their discussion is when they meet."

National security adviser Jake Sullivan said the president and pontiff would meet privately, then hold talks with expanded delegations. Biden is visiting Rome and then Glasgow, Scotland, for back-to-back summits, first a gathering for leaders of Group of 20 leading and developing nations and then a global climate conference. 

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EXPLAINER: What's so big about the G20 besides economies?

ROME (AP) — The Group of 20 has morphed from its creation in the late 1990s as an international body to grapple with financial crises into a forum for addressing urgent problems like worldwide vaccine access and climate change. Whether the G-20's structure suits helping to respond to the evolving needs of our times will be put to a test when the leaders of the world's largest economies hold their first face-to-face summit of the COVID-19 in Rome this weekend. 

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WHO'S IN THE FOLD?

The Group of Seven industrialized nations - which was the Group of Eight for a few years before Russia's suspension over its annexation of Ukraine's Crimea Peninsula — is likely the better known "G" grouping. The Group of 20 folds in all seven: Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States. Other members include a dozen other countries, established powerhouses as well ones with fast-growing economies: Argentina, Australia, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, South Korea, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, South Africa and Turkey. The European Union is the 20th member, and since the EU consists of 27 nations – including three in the G-7 -- the G-20 actually represents the interests of considerably more than countries. 

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Medicaid issues, not Medicare's, get fixes in Biden budget

WASHINGTON (AP) — Medicaid issues are turning up as winners in President Joe Biden's social agenda framework even as divisions force Democrats to hit pause on far-reaching improvements to Medicare. 

The budget blueprint Biden released Thursday would fulfill a campaign promise to help poor people locked out of Medicaid expansion across the South due to partisan battles, and it would provide low-income seniors and disabled people with more options to stay out of nursing homes by getting support in their own homes. It also calls for 12 months of Medicaid coverage after childbirth for low-income mothers, seen as a major step to address national shortcomings in maternal health that fall disproportionately on Black women.

But with Medicare, Democrats were unable to reach consensus on prescription drug price negotiations. Polls show broad bipartisan support for authorizing Medicare to negotiate lower prices, yet a handful of Democratic lawmakers—enough to block the bill—echo pharmaceutical industry arguments that it would dampen investment that drives innovation. Advocacy groups are voicing outrage over the omission, with AARP calling it "a monumental mistake." Some Democratic lawmakers say they haven't given up yet.

The immediate consequence: Without expected savings from lower drug prices, Medicare dental coverage for seniors is on hold, as is vision coverage. The Biden framework does call for covering hearing aids, far less costly. Also on hold is a long-sought limit on out-of-pocket drug costs for Medicare recipients.

While Medicare has traditionally been politically favored, Medicaid was long regarded as the stepchild of health care programs because of its past ties to welfare. Just a few years ago, former President Donald Trump and a Republican-led Congress unsuccessfully tried to slap a funding limit on the federal-state program. 

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Baldwin shooting highlights risks of rushed film production

NEW YORK (AP) — The fatal shooting by Alec Baldwin on a movie set has put a microscope on an often-unseen corner of the film industry where critics say the pursuit of profit can lead to unsafe working conditions.

With a budget around $7 million, the Western "Rust" was no micro-budget indie. The previous best-picture winner at the Academy Awards, "Nomadland," was made for less. But the New Mexico set where Baldwin shot cinematographer Halyna Hutchins had inexperienced crew members, apparent safety lapses and a serious labor dispute.

For some in the business, the failures reflect larger issues in a fast-evolving movie industry.

"Production is exploding, corners are being cut even more and budgets are being crunched down even more," said Mynette Louie, a veteran independent film producer. "Something's got to give."

The shooting happened at a busy time: Production is ramping up following the easing of pandemic restrictions. Streaming services are increasing demand for content. And all the while, the industry is wrestling with standards for movie sets.

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In Afghanistan, a girls' school is the story of a village

SALAR, Afghanistan (AP) — Mina Ahmed smears a cement mixture to strengthen the walls of her war-ravaged home in rural Afghanistan. Her hands, worn by the labor, are bandaged with plastic scraps and elastic bands, but no matter, she welcomes the new era of peace under the Taliban. 

She was once apprehensive of the group's severe style of rule in her village of Salar. But being caught in the crosshairs of a two-decade long war has granted her a new perspective. 

Taliban control comes with limits, even for women, and that is alright, the 45-year-old said. "With these restrictions we can live our lives at least."

But she draws the line on one point: Her daughters, ages 13, 12 and 6, must go to school. 

From a bird's eye view, the village of Salar is camouflaged against a towering mountain range in Wardak province. The community of several thousand, nearly 70 miles from the capital Kabul, serves as a microcosm of the latest chapter in Afghanistan's history — the second round of rule by the Taliban — showing what has changed and what hasn't since their first time in power, in the late 1990s.

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Biden vs Macron: First meeting since submarine dispute

ROME (AP) — One of President Joe Biden's toughest meetings at the G-20 summit may be with the leader of America's oldest ally: France.

Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron will huddle Friday in Rome while Paris is still seething over a secret U.S.-British submarine deal with Australia, which left France in the lurch and rattled Europe's faith in American loyalty.

The two men have talked twice since then and their first face-to-face meeting since the scandal broke in September marks the latest American effort to try to smooth things over.

Macron is expecting Biden to make a new "commitment" to supporting French anti-terrorist operations in the Sahel region of Africa, according to a top French official. France has been seeking greater intelligence and military cooperation from the U.S. in the Sahel.

Biden and Macron are set to discuss new ways to cooperate in the Indo-Pacific, a move meant to soothe French tempers over being excised from the U.S.-U.K.-Australia partnership that accompanied the submarine deal. Other topics on the agenda include China, Afghanistan, and Iran, particularly in light of the latter nation agreeing to return to the nuclear negotiating table next month.

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G20 leaders to tackle energy prices, other economic woes

ROME (AP) — Leaders of the Group of 20 countries gathering for their first in-person summit since the pandemic took hold will confront a global recovery hampered by a series of stumbling blocks: an energy crunch spurring higher fuel and utility prices, new COVID-19 outbreaks and logjams in the supply chains that keep the economy humming and goods headed to consumers. 

The summit will allow leaders representing 80% of the global economy to talk — and apply peer pressure — on all those issues. Analysts question how much progress they can make to ease the burden right away on people facing rising prices on everything from food and furniture to higher heating bills heading into winter. 

Health and financial officials are sitting down in Rome on Friday before presidents and prime ministers gather for the G-20 Saturday and Sunday, but the leaders of major economic players China and Russia won't be there in person. That may not bode well for cooperation, especially on energy issues as climate change takes center stage just before the U.N. Climate Change Conference begins Sunday in Glasgow, Scotland.

Here's a look at some of the economic issues facing G-20 leaders:

THE PANDEMIC RECOVERY

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In the middle of a crisis, Facebook Inc. renames itself Meta

OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Like many companies in trouble before it, Facebook is changing its name and logo. 

Facebook Inc. is now called Meta Platforms Inc., or Meta for short, to reflect what CEO Mark Zuckerberg said Thursday is its commitment to developing the new surround-yourself technology known as the " metaverse." But the social network itself will still be called Facebook. 

Also unchanged, at least for now, are its chief executive and senior leadership, its corporate structure and the crisis that has enveloped the company.

Skeptics immediately accused the company of trying to change the subject from the Facebook Papers, the trove of leaked documents that have plunged it into the biggest crisis since it was founded in Zuckerberg's Harvard dorm room 17 years ago. The documents portray Facebook as putting profits ahead of ridding its platform of hate, political strife and misinformation around the world.

The move reminded marketing consultant Laura Ries of when energy company BP rebranded itself to "Beyond Petroleum" to escape criticism that the oil giant harmed the environment. 

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'Everything is at stake' as world gathers for climate talks

More than one world leader says humanity's future, even survival, hangs in the balance when international officials meet in Scotland to try to accelerate efforts to curb climate change. Temperatures, tempers and hyperbole have all ratcheted up ahead of the United Nations summit.

And the risk of failure looms large for all participants at the 26th U.N. Climate Change Conference, known as COP26.

Six years ago, nearly 200 countries agreed to individualized plans to fight global warming in the historic 2015 Paris climate agreement. Now leaders will converge in Glasgow for two weeks starting Sunday to take the next step dictated by that pact: Do more and do it faster.

It's not easy. Except for a slight drop because of the pandemic, carbon pollution from the burning of coal, oil and natural gas is increasing, not falling.

Between now and 2030, the world will spew up to 28 billion metric tons (31 billion U.S. tons) of greenhouse gases beyond the amount that would keep the planet at or below the most stringent limit set in Paris, the United Nations calculated this week.

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State Dept. urges investigation of Myanmar military torture

SYDNEY (AP) — The U.S. State Department expressed outrage and demanded an investigation on Friday after The Associated Press reported that Myanmar's military has been torturing detainees in a systemic way across the country.

The United Nations' top expert on human rights in Myanmar also called for strong international pressure on the military. And lawmakers in Washington urged Congress to act in the wake of AP's investigation, which was based on interviews with 28 people, including women and children, imprisoned and released since the military took control of the government in February.

"We are outraged and disturbed by ongoing reports of the Burmese military regime's use of 'systematic torture' across the country," the State Department said, using Myanmar's other name, Burma. "Reports of torture in Burma must be credibly investigated and those responsible for such abuses must be held accountable." 

AP's report, which included photographic evidence, sketches and letters from prisoners, along with testimony from three recently defected military officials, provides the most comprehensive look since the takeover into a highly secretive detention system that has held more than 9,000 people. The AP identified a dozen interrogation centers in use across Myanmar, in addition to prisons and police lockups, based on interviews and satellite imagery.

Security forces have killed more than 1,200 people since February, including at least 131 detainees tortured to death. 

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