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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) -- A U.S. Army general accused of sexual assault was set to plead guilty to three lesser charges Thursday in a move that his lawyer says will strengthen his position going into trial.

Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair plans to enter the plea before opening statements scheduled for the morning in his court martial at Fort Bragg. The primary accuser in the case is a female captain who claims Sinclair twice forced her to perform oral sex and threatened to kill her family if she told anyone about their three-year affair.

Sinclair still faces five charges including sexual assault in his trial before a jury of five two-star generals. The former deputy commander of the 82nd Airborne could be sentenced to life in prison if convicted on the most serious charges.

Sinclair's lawyer Richard Scheff said the general will plead guilty to having improper relationships with two other female Army officers and to committing adultery with his mistress, which is a crime in the military. He will also admit violating orders by possessing pornography in Afghanistan and to conduct unbecoming of an officer and a gentleman.

Scheff said in an interview that his client is taking responsibility for his actions, but also strengthening his legal position. The general had previously entered pleas of not guilty to all eight charges.

By admitting guilt on the three charges for which there is the strongest evidence, the married father of two narrows the focus of the upcoming trial to charges that rely heavily on the testimony and credibility of his former mistress.

"The government now has a big problem," Scheff said in an email. "It took pathetically weak assault charges and put a fancy wrapper around them. We just tore the wrapper off. The prosecution team no longer gets to distract us with salacious details about acts that aren't even criminal in the civilian world. All they're left with is a crime that never happened, a witness who committed perjury, and a pile of text messages and journal entries that disprove their claim."

The case against Sinclair, believed to be the most senior member of the U.S. military ever to face trial on sexual assault charges, comes as the Pentagon grapples with a troubling string of revelations involving rape and sexual misconduct within the ranks. Influential members of Congress are also pushing to remove decisions about the prosecution of sex crimes from the military chain of command.

The defense will present evidence at trial that the female captain lied under oath during a pretrial hearing in January about her handling of old iPhone containing messages between her and the general. Lawyers for Sinclair have painted the woman as a scorned lover who only reported the sexual assault allegations after the general refused to leave his wife.

The Associated Press generally does not identify those who say they were sexually assaulted.

The captain testified that on Dec. 9, shortly after what she described as a contentious meeting with prosecutors, she rediscovered an old iPhone stored in a box at her home that still contained saved text messages and voicemails from the general. After charging the phone, she testified she synced it with her computer to save photos before contacting her attorney.

However, a defense expert's examination suggested the captain powered up the device more than two weeks before the meeting with prosecutors. She also tried to make a call and performed a number of other operations.

Three additional experts verified those findings.

During a pretrial hearing, a top Pentagon lawyer testified that the lead prosecutor assigned to the case for nearly two years, Lt. Col. William Helixon, had urged that the most serious charges against Sinclair be dropped after he became convinced the captain had lied to him about the cell phone. Helixon was overruled by his superiors and then removed from the case last month, after suffering what was described as a profound moral crisis that led to his being taken to a military hospital for a mental health evaluation.

The case now heads to trial with a new lead prosecutor, Lt. Col. Robert Stelle, who said in court this week he doesn't care what his predecessor thought about the weakness of the evidence.

It is highly unusual for an officer of flag rank to face criminal prosecution, with only a handful of cases in recent decades. Under military law, an officer can only be judged at trial by those of superior rank - ensuring that Sinclair's jury will be comprised of five major generals.

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Follow Associated Press writer Michael Biesecker at WWW.TWITTER.COM/MBIESECK .

© 2014 THE ASSOCIATED PRESS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. THIS MATERIAL MAY NOT BE PUBLISHED, BROADCAST, REWRITTEN OR REDISTRIBUTED. Learn more about our PRIVACY POLICY and TERMS OF USE.

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SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- A new survey of the nation's college freshmen has found that the percentage attending their first-choice school has reached its lowest level in almost four decades, as cost and the availability of financial aid have come to play an influential role in decisions of where to enroll.

The annual survey released Wednesday, conducted by UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute, found that while more than three-quarters of those who started college last fall were admitted to the school they most wanted to attend, only 57 percent ended up going to their top school. That was the lowest rate in the 39 years that the institute has asked first-time freshmen if they enrolled at their dream college.

Kevin Eagan, the institute's interim managing director and an assistant professor at UCLA, said the cost of attending college appears to be largely responsible for the decline. A record 46 percent of students reported that cost was a very important factor in where they ended up, compared with 31 percent nine years ago. Meanwhile, the share of respondents who said being offered financial aid was a crucial factor in the decision to enroll at their current campus reached 49 percent - an all-time high.

"The difficult financial decisions that students and their families have to make about college are becoming more evidence," Eagan said. "Colleges that can reduce net costs to families are gaining an edge in attracting students."

Although many colleges are turning to online courses as a way to reduce costs and the time it takes to earn a degree, the survey showed that the idea was not very popular with students. Fewer than 7 percent indicated there was a very good chance they would take an online course offered by their college. The percentage was twice as high, however, among students at historically black colleges and universities.

Other key findings:

- A career in business remained the top post-college path among first-time freshmen, with 13 percent expressing interest in pursuing a career as an entrepreneur, accountant, executive, manager, consultant or administrative assistant or in the fields of human resources, sales and marketing, finance, real estate and sports management. Ten percent said they want to be doctors; 7 percent engineers; 5 percent classroom teachers; 4 percent actors, artists and musicians; and 3 percent lawyers or judges.

- More students think that peers who entered the United States illegally as children should have the right to a public education. This year, 41 percent agreed with the statement that such immigrants should be denied an education, a drop of 16 percentage points since 1996, when the institute first included the question in the survey in 1996.

- Freshmen students also showed strong support for gay men and lesbians who want to adopt children. More than 83 percent said they think gay people should have the right to adopt.

- While college campuses are often thought to be hotbeds of radical politics, only 3 percent of the survey respondents described their political leanings as far-left, and only 2 percent as far-right. More students, 46 percent, regarded their political beliefs as middle-of-the-road, while 28 percent saw themselves as liberal and 21 percent conservative.

The survey was based on the responses of 165,743 first-time, full-time students at 234 four-year colleges and universities. The responses were statistically weighted to reflect the broader population of such students - approximately 1.5 million at 1,583 four-year schools across the U.S.

© 2014 THE ASSOCIATED PRESS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. THIS MATERIAL MAY NOT BE PUBLISHED, BROADCAST, REWRITTEN OR REDISTRIBUTED. Learn more about our PRIVACY POLICY and TERMS OF USE.

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Republicans are dismissing President Barack Obama's new $3.9 trillion budget as nothing more than a Democratic manifesto for this fall's congressional campaigns, but the fiscal plan is taking hits from another quarter too — anti-deficit groups.

Obama on Tuesday sent lawmakers a 2015 budget top-heavy with provisions that have little chance of becoming law. They included $1 trillion in tax increases — mostly on the rich and corporations — and a collection of populist but mostly modest spending boosts for consumer protection, climate change research and improved technology in schools.

It even trumpeted $2.2 trillion in 10-year deficit reduction, though most of the proposed savings, including fresh tax boosts plus cuts in government payments to Medicare providers, seemed long shots to make it through Congress. Almost one-third came from claiming savings from the end of U.S. fighting in Iraq and troop withdrawals from Afghanistan.

That meant the budget's clearest impact was political: feeding Democrats' election-year narrative that they are trying to help narrow the income gap between rich and poor while creating jobs. Republicans, who see tax cuts as the surest way to help the economy, pounced.

"The president has once again opted for the political stunt for a budget that's more about firing up the president's base in an election year than about solving the nation's biggest and most persistent long-term challenges," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

"This budget isn't a serious document, it's a campaign brochure," said House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis.

Obama and his Democratic allies saw things differently.

"It's a road map for creating jobs with good wages and expanding opportunity for all Americans," the president said while visiting an elementary school in the nation's capital. He added that his plan would help curb budget deficits with higher taxes on the wealthy and other savings, "not by putting the burden on folks who can least afford it."

Despite those words, pressure for lawmakers to take serious swipes at budget shortfalls has faded.

After four years of record-setting annual deficits that each exceeded $1 trillion, the budget gap dropped to $680 billion in 2013 and could continue downward. Obama's budget projects shortfalls of $649 billion this year and $564 billion in 2015.

A bipartisan compromise curbing agency spending for the next two years, combined with the usual election-year pressures to avoid politically risky steps, has further diluted lawmakers' desires to tackle the problem.

But Washington groups that press to control budget shortfalls argue that the government's long-term fiscal problem remains.

They argue that retiring baby boomers and ever-rising health costs threaten to swamp revenues in the long run, running federal debt to levels that are hard to sustain without risking economic problems. Even with Obama's proposed savings, the government would still run up $4.9 trillion more in debt over the coming decade, on top of more than $14 trillion it already owes.

"The longer we wait, the more painful the changes will be," said Maya MacGuineas, a leader of the bipartisan Fix the Debt Campaign. "We can't let election-year malaise be an excuse for inaction on such an important issue."

"Stabilizing the debt over the long term is a key part of any sound fiscal policy and viable economic strategy for America," said Michael A. Peterson, president of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation.

In a nod to controlling the budget, Obama's fiscal plan proposes to live within a compromise spending limit for agencies reached in December between Ryan and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray, D-Wis.

But on top of that, Obama proposed $55 billion in additional spending priorities, divided evenly between defense and domestic programs. These include repairs for bases and more weapons purchases for the military, plus domestic programs like upgrading national parks and increasing grants to schools that train students for jobs.

Obama would pay for the entire add-on by limiting tax breaks for retirement benefits of the wealthy, cutting some farm subsidies and boosting airline passenger fees — none of which have realistic chances of enactment this year.

Without that extra money, Pentagon spending would be $496 billion in 2015, the same as this year. The Pentagon plans to shrink the Army from 490,000 active-duty soldiers to as few as 440,000 over the coming five years, the smallest since just before World War II, reduce ship purchases and take other steps that defense hawks in Congress are unhappy with — especially since Russia's takeover of Ukraine's Crimea region.

Obama's budget also calls for $302 billion for roads, mass transit and railroads over the next four years; doubles to $1,000 the maximum earned income tax credit for childless low-income workers; and spends $66 billion over the next decade for preschool programs for all 4-year-olds.

Tobacco taxes would rise an additional 94 cents per pack, up from their current $1.01. A corporate tax overhaul would quickly yield $150 billion as loopholes were tightened on U.S. companies doing business abroad, and other companies and financial institutions would face $56 billion over 10 years from a new fee.

None of those proposals are going anywhere quickly on Capitol Hill.

___

Associated Press writer Andrew Taylor contributed to this report.

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