— From wire reports

Spending bill — With less than an hour to spare, the Senate late Friday backed legislation averting a government shutdown as coal-state Democrats retreated on long-term health care benefits for retired miners but promised a renewed fight for the working class next year. The vote was 63-36 and sent the stop-gap spending bill to President Barack Obama for his signature ahead of a midnight deadline. It came hours after Democrats dropped threats to block the measure in hopes of using the shutdown deadline to try to win a one-year respite for 16,500 miners facing the loss of health care benefits at year’s end. Instead, the legislation provides benefits at a cost of $45 million for four months.

Syrian fighting — Nearly two weeks into a crushing blitz, Syrian forces and their allies have taken control of nearly all of what was once an opposition stronghold in eastern Aleppo, touching off a new wave of evacuations Friday and raising concerns about hundreds of men who have disappeared and are feared to have been seized by the government. A flood of civilians streamed out on foot in the wake of the relentless campaign by forces loyal to President Bashar Assad to drive rebels from their rapidly crumbling enclave. They joined tens of thousands who have fled since Nov. 26, seeking shelter from the nonstop bombardment and crippling siege.

‘Pizzagate’ shooting — For conspiracy theorists, the bizarre rumors of “pizzagate” didn’t end when a man brought a gun to a Washington restaurant this week in a misguided attempt to rescue nonexistent child sex slaves. Instead, the shooting sparked discussion that the conspiracy runs deeper. On blogs, YouTube channels and internet radio shows devoted to conspiracy theories, the arrest of Edgar Maddison Welch on Sunday was just the latest “false flag,” a term for a cover-up or distraction orchestrated by the government or other powerful figures. The persistent belief in the false-flag theory shows just how stubborn fabricated conspiracies can be, according to experts. According to police, Welch drove to a restaurant called Comet Ping Pong to investigate the “pizzagate” rumors that Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, and other Washington insiders were harboring child sex slaves there. Police said Welch fired several shots inside the pizzeria on Sunday with a military-style rifle but surrendered peacefully after he found no evidence of a secret pedophilia ring.

Grad students unionizing — Graduate students at Columbia University voted to unionize this week, after the National Labor Relations Board ruled in August that students who work as teaching and research assistants have a federal right to unionize. The vote to unionize was 1,602-623, according to the United Auto Workers, which will represent some 3,500 Columbia graduate students. While graduate students at Columbia were elated Friday, Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, said the university might delay negotiating until President-elect Donald Trump appoints members to the labor board, which could reverse itself on the issue.

Zika transmissions — Four months after Zika put Florida on alert, Gov. Rick Scott announced Friday that mosquitoes were no longer actively transmitting the virus in South Florida, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lifted its strictest advisory urging pregnant women not to travel to South Beach, a popular tourism destination. Instead it suggested caution. The number of locally transmitted Zika cases in the Miami area has dropped sharply, a result of both the county’s aggressive control efforts and the weather. The county is preparing for the next Zika cycle, which is expected when the rains arrive in early summer.

Gambia’s election — The fate of the presidency in Gambia took a peculiar turn Friday night when the longtime incumbent appeared on state television to announce he was rejecting the results of last week’s vote that ousted him. He also called for new elections. President Yahya Jammeh rattled off accusations of voter irregularities, from transposed numbers in tabulations to missing numbers that he said left in question the results of the election that handed the presidency to Adama Barrow. Thousands of Gambians celebrated after Jammeh, known for a repressive and eccentric regime criticized by human rights groups, conceded.

Defense secretary — On his last planned trip to Afghanistan as defense secretary, Ash Carter said Friday that the United States remained committed to the country even as the war has worsened. The unannounced visit by Carter was part of his “round-the-world trip to thank deployed U.S. troops for their service over the holidays” as well as meet with allies, the Pentagon said. In Afghanistan, Carter’s remarks were seen as an attempt to quell concerns over how the transition in Washington could affect the U.S. presence in Afghanistan at a time when Afghan forces have shown the need for sustained help.

Israel and conversions — After years of obfuscation and a dispute concerning an esteemed New York rabbi who converted Ivanka Trump, Israel’s rabbinical authorities announced this week that they would convene to establish clear criteria for recognizing Orthodox conversions done abroad. The rabbis also said that under the new criteria, Ivanka Trump’s conversion, which had been in some doubt in Israel, likely would be considered legitimate. More broadly, advocates of the rabbinical change said they hoped the outcome of the discussions, to start in coming days, would resolve an issue that has long vexed Israel’s relationship with U.S. Jewry.

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