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Tuesday, 10 December 2013 02:42

Obama to get help from former top Clinton aide

   WASHINGTON (AP) — John Podesta, a former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton and a trusted Democratic operative, will join the White House staff as a senior counselor to President Barack Obama, two persons familiar with the move said late Monday.

   Podesta will take his place at the White House at a critical time for Obama as his health care law tries to shake itself off from a disastrous enrollment rollout and as the president seeks to re-establish his agenda going into a midterm election year.

   Podesta is the founder and former president of the Center for American Progress, a Democratic think tank with close ties to the White House.

   The New York Times first reported Podesta's move. The two persons familiar with the development confirmed it to The Associated Press on the condition they weren't named because the announcement was not official.

   Podesta, 64, is well respected in political circles both as a strategist and a policy thinker. He would likely step into the role played by Pete Rouse at the White House, who is expected to leave soon after serving as a counselor and, for a time in 2010, as acting chief of staff for Obama.

Published in National News

   WASHINGTON (AP) — The "Piano Man" who became one of the world's best-selling artists of all time with such hits as "Just the Way You Are," ''Uptown Girl" and "Allentown" was awarded the nation's highest honor Sunday for influencing American culture through the arts.

   Billy Joel joined Carlos Santana, Herbie Hancock, opera star Martina Arroyo and actress Shirley MacLaine in receiving the Kennedy Center Honors. All have been playing music, dancing or singing since they were children — and never stopped.

   Tony Bennett opened the tribute to Joel's long career and his songs written so often about ordinary people.

   "Billy Joel is no less than the poet, performer, philosopher of today's American songbook," Bennett said.

   Don Henley sang "She's Got a Way" and Garth Brooks sang a medley of "Only the Good Die Young," ''Allentown," and "Goodnight Saigon," joined by a choir of Vietnam veterans. Joel has explained he wrote "Saigon" because he wanted to write a song about the soldiers' experience.

   Rufus Wainright sang "New York State of Mind" and led the audience in a finale of Joel's original hit, "Piano Man."

   Joel said the honor stands apart from his six Grammys.

   "This is different. It's our nation's capital," he told The Associated Press. "This is coming more from my country than just people who come to see me. It's a little overwhelming."

   The 64 year old musician born in the Bronx has been playing the piano since he was a boy, growing up on New York's Long Island. There was always music in the house, he said. His mother sang. His father played the piano.

   Impressing girls, though, is what hooked Joel into making a career of music, he said.

   President Barack Obama saluted the honorees Sunday night, and top entertainers offered tribute performances for each honoree. The show will be broadcast Dec. 29.

   "The diverse group of extraordinary individuals we honor today haven't just proven themselves to be the best of the best," Obama said. "Despite all their success, all their fame, they've remained true to themselves — and inspired the rest of us to do the same."

   After criticism in recent years that the Kennedy Center Honors had been excluding Latinos, the first song this year was in Spanish. Fher Olvera, the lead singer of the Mexican rock band Mana, led off with a medley of Santana tunes, "Corazon Espinado," ''Black Magic Woman" and "Oye Como Va" for a tribute to the 66-year-old Santana.

   An immigrant from Mexico who began learning English from American television, Santana is one of only a few Latinos who have received the honor so far. He first picked up the guitar after hearing blues and rock 'n' roll on the radio, and he wanted to be like his mariachi musician father. His family moved to San Francisco. By the age of 22, he was playing at Woodstock.

   In a tribute, musician Harry Belafonte joked that something should be done about Mexican immigration because he'd been overshadowed by Santana's fusion of rock, blues, African and Latino sounds. Santana is perhaps best known for his album "Supernatural" that won nine Grammys.

   "Now Carlos is a citizen of the world. He belongs to all of us," Belafonte said. "Carlos, you haven't transcended race and origin. Really, who of us has? You continue to be informed by the immigrant experience on the journey to the great American dream."

   Before the show, Santana said he'd never been to the Kennedy Center before but the award stands apart for him because it came during the Obama administration.

   "It's really supreme because the award is being given to me by a black man. If it wasn't like that, I would say just send it to me," Santana said. "But since it's Mr. Barack Obama, I definitely had to make myself present and say from the center of my heart, 'you are the embodiment of our dreams and aspirations.'"

   Hancock, 73, got his start at the piano at age 7 while growing up in Chicago. Soon he was playing Mozart and discovered jazz in high school. He joined the Miles Davis Quintet in 1963 and later set out to create his own sounds, fusing jazz, funk, pop, gospel, soul and the blues. He has won an Oscar and 14 Grammy Awards so far.

   Bill O'Reilly of Fox News led the tributes for Hancock.

   "I know, I'm surprised too," he said.

   Hancock stands out as a "remarkable American" and "remarkable artist," O'Reilly said. Though he said he's no expert on music, "I just know what I like."

   Jazz greats Terence Blanchard, Wayne Shorter, Jack DeJohnette and others played a tribute for Hancock's work. And Snoop Dogg took the stage and brought some rap into the mix to celebrate Hancock's influence on the birth of hip-hop.

   "Herbie we love you, baby," he said. "Thank you for creating hip-hop."

   Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor led the tributes for a singer she met while a judge in New York City.

   "I'm here for the diva," she said. "Now we justices are fond of using words precisely. Long before diva took on a different meaning, it meant the most celebrated of female opera singers."

   Arroyo found opera while imitating the singers outside an opera workshop when she was growing up in Harlem. Soon she was signing a contract with New York's Metropolitan Opera and had a breakthrough with "Aida" in 1965. She went on to star in the great opera houses of London, Paris and Vienna.

   For MacLaine, her longtime friend Kathy Bates took the stage and praised her work on stage and screen.

   "Your humanity informs your work," she told MacLaine who was seated in a box with the president. "We think you're magnificent now and forever."

   MacLaine, 79, has been acting for six decades ever since she began ballet at age 3. Her film debut came in 1955's "The Trouble with Harry," directed by Alfred Hitchcock, and she won the Oscar for best actress for "Terms of Endearment" in 1983. More recently she's been playing a role in "Downton Abbey" on PBS.

   MacLaine's younger brother Warren Beatty also has won a Kennedy Center Honor, making them the first brother and sister to both receive the honor.

   MacLaine said the award is like a homecoming because she grew up in the Washington area.

   "My life as a professional was etched here in the Washington School of Ballet," she said, but now, "everyone wants to know about 'Downtown Abbey,' never mind the last 60 years."

Published in National News
Tuesday, 26 November 2013 02:50

Obama pushes back against critics of Iran deal

   WASHINGTON (AP) — Pushing back hard, President Barack Obama forcefully defended the temporary agreement to freeze Iran's disputed nuclear program on Monday, declaring that the United States "cannot close the door on diplomacy."

   The president's remarks followed skepticism of the historic accord expressed by some U.S. allies abroad as well as by members of Congress at home, including fellow Democrats. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, one of the fiercest opponents of the six-month deal, called it a "historic mistake" and announced he would be dispatching a top envoy to Washington to try to toughen the final agreement negotiators will soon begin hammering out.

   Obama, without naming names, swiped at those who have questioned the wisdom of engaging with Iran.

   "Tough talk and bluster may be the easy thing to do politically, but it's not the right thing to do for our security," he said during an event in San Francisco.

   The weekend agreement between Iran and six world powers — the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany — is to temporarily halt parts of Tehran's disputed nuclear program and allow for more intrusive international monitoring. In exchange, Iran gains some modest relief from stiff economic sanctions and a pledge from Obama that no new penalties will be levied during the six months.

   Despite the fanfare surrounding the agreement, administration officials say key technical details on the inspections and sanctions relief must still be worked out before it formally takes effect. Those talks will tackle the toughest issues that have long divided Iran and the West, including whether Tehran will be allowed to enrich uranium at a low level.

   Iran insists it has a right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, and many nuclear analysts say a final deal will almost certainly leave Iran with some right to enrich. However, that's sure to spark more discord with Israel and many lawmakers who insist Tehran be stripped of all enrichment capabilities. British Foreign Secretary William Hague said he expects the deal to be fully implemented by the end of January.

   European Union officials say their sanctions could be eased as soon as December. Those restrictions affect numerous areas including trade in petrochemicals, gold and other precious metals, financial transfers to purchase food and medicine, and the ability of third countries to use EU-based firms to insure shipments of Iranian oil again.

   The groundwork for the accord was laid during four clandestine meetings between U.S. and Iranian officials throughout the summer and fall. An earlier meeting took place in March, before Iranians elected President Hassan Rouhani, a cleric who has taken more moderate public stances than his predecessor. Details of the secret talks were confirmed to The Associated Press by three senior administration officials.

   The U.S. and its allies contend Iran is seeking to produce a nuclear bomb — of particular concern to Israel, which fears an attack — while Tehran insists it is merely pursuing a peaceful nuclear program for energy and medical purposes.

   Even with the criticism, for Obama the sudden shift to foreign policy presents an opportunity to steady his flailing second term and take some attention off the domestic troubles that have plagued the White House in recent weeks, especially the rollout of his signature health care law. Perhaps with his presidential standing — and the strength of the rest of his term — in mind, he made sure on Monday to draw a connection between the nuclear pact and his long-declared willingness to negotiate directly with Iran.

   "When I first ran for president, I said it was time for a new era of American leadership in the world, one that turned the page on a decade of war and began a new era of engagement with the world," he said. "As president and as commander in chief, I've done what I've said."

   Later, at a high-dollar fundraiser in Los Angeles, Obama said he will not take any options off the table to ensure Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon.

   However, he added, "I've spent too much time at Walter Reed looking at kids 22, 23, 24, 25 years old who've paid the kind of price that very few of us in this room can imagine on behalf of our freedom not to say that I will do every single thing that I can to try to resolve these issues without resorting to military conflict."

   The temporary accord is historic in its own right, marking the most substantial agreement between Iran and the West in more than three decades. The consequences of a permanent deal could be far more significant, lowering the prospects of a nuclear arms race in the volatile Middle East and perhaps opening the door to wider relations between the U.S. and Iran, which broke off diplomatic ties following the 1979 Islamic revolution.

   However, Obama and his advisers know the nuclear negotiations are rife with risk. If he has miscalculated Iran's intentions, it will vindicate critics who say his willingness to negotiate with Tehran is naive and could inadvertently hasten the Islamic republic's march toward a nuclear weapon. Obama also runs the risk of exacerbating tensions with key Middle Eastern allies, as well as members of Congress who want to deepen, not ease, economic penalties on Iran.

   Despite Obama's assurances that no new sanctions will be levied on Iran while the interim agreement is in effect, some lawmakers want to push ahead with additional penalties. A new sanctions bill has already passed the House, and if it passes the Senate, Obama could have to wield his veto power in order to keep his promise to Tehran.

   Even some members of Obama's own party say they're wary of the deal struck in Geneva.

   "I am disappointed by the terms of the agreement between Iran and the P5+1 nations because it does not seem proportional," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., a close ally of the White House. "Iran simply freezes its nuclear capabilities while we reduce the sanctions."

   The Senate's Democratic majority leader, Harry Reid, was noncommittal on the subject of sanctions on Monday. On NPR's Diane Rehm Show, he said that when lawmakers return from their Thanksgiving break, "we will take a look at this to see if we need stronger sanctions ... and if we need work on this, if we need stronger sanctions I am sure we will do that."

   Some lawmakers are also concerned about concessions the world powers made to Iran on its planned heavy water reactor in Arak, southwest of Tehran. Two congressional aides said that under the terms of the agreement, international monitors will not being able to watch live feeds of any activity at Arak and will instead retrieve a recording from the preceding day during each daily inspection.

   The aides were not authorized to provide details of the agreement and demanded anonymity.

   On the positive side, Michael Desch, a political science professor at the University of Notre Dame, compared Obama's diplomatic overtures to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's secret outreach to China in the 1970s, which paved the way for the historic opening of U.S. relations with the Asian nation.

   "Then, as now, critics complained that the U.S. was in danger of being hoodwinked by a radical and violent regime that was playing us for a sucker," Desch said. "An opening to Iran could potentially not only contain its nuclear program but set the stage for broader changes there as well."

Published in National News

   WASHINGTON, Ill. (AP) - Gov. Pat Quinn says he's received a phone call from President Barack Obama after fatal storms hit Obama's home state.

   Quinn spokeswoman Brooke Anderson said Monday that Quinn received the call on his cellphone while touring damage in the central Illinois community of Washington.  The community was among the hardest hit. The White House confirmed the call, saying Obama relayed concern and expressed gratitude for the responders.

   Quinn gave Obama an update on the damage, relief efforts and emergency response. Quinn was with Washington Mayor Gary Manier, who also spoke to Obama.

   Authorities say six people died in Sunday's storms when tornadoes flattened homes and caused severe damage. So far seven counties have been declared state disaster areas.

Published in Local News

WASHINGTON (AP) - State insurance commissioners are voicing serious concerns about President Barack Obama's plan to stave off cancellations for people whose individual policies don't comply with the new health care law.

 

   In a statement Thursday, the National Association of Insurance Commissioners warned that the president's decision could undermine the new insurance markets being created under his overhaul law.

 

   Louisiana Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon, president of the group, said Obama's proposal could lead to higher premiums and market disruptions next year and beyond. It may also be unworkable as a practical matter.

 

   A Republican, Donelon was speaking on behalf of the organization.

 

   ------

 

   Bowing to pressure, President Barack Obama on Thursday announced changes to his health care law to give insurance companies the option to keep offering consumers plans that would otherwise be canceled.

 

   The administrative changes are good for just one year, though senior administration officials said they could be extended if problems with the law persist. Obama announced the changes at the White House.

 

   "This fix won't solve every problem for every person, but it's going to help a lot of people," the president said.

 

   He acknowledged that "we fumbled the rollout of this health care law" and pledged to "just keep on chipping away at this until the job is done."

 

   He also promised to work to regain the trust of the American people.

 

   "I think it's legitimate for them to expect me to have to win back some credibility on this health care law in particular and on a whole range of these issues in general," he said.

 

   Obama has been under enormous pressure from congressional Democrats to give ground on the cancellation issue under the health care overhaul, a program likely to be at the center of next year's midterm elections for control of the House and Senate.

 

   It's unclear what the impact of Thursday's changes will be for the millions of people who have already had their plans canceled. While officials said insurance companies will now be able to offer those people the option to renew their old plans, companies are not required to take that step.

 

   The main industry trade group, America's Health Insurance Plans, said Obama's offer comes too late and could lead to higher premiums, since companies already have set 2014 rates based on the assumption that many people with individual coverage will shift over to the new markets created under Obama's law.

   Karen Ignagni, president of the industry group, didn't speculate on whether companies would extend coverage for those threatened with cancellation, but warned in a statement that "changing the rules after health plans have already met the requirements of the law could destabilize the market and result in higher premiums for consumers."

   Insurance companies will be required to inform consumers who want to keep canceled plans about the protections that are not included under those plans. Customers will also be notified that new options are available offering more coverage and in some cases, tax credits to cover higher premiums.

 

   Under Obama's plan, insurance companies would not be allowed to sell coverage deemed subpar under the law to new customers, marking a difference with legislation that House Republicans intend to put to a vote on Friday.

 

   Only last week, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told a Senate panel she doubted that retroactively permitting insurers to sell canceled policies "can work very well since companies are now in the market with an array of new plans. Many have actually added consumer protections in the last three-and-a-half years."

 

   Republicans were unimpressed with the changes.

 

   House Speaker John Boehner, speaking in advance of the president's announcement, insisted it was time to "scrap this law once and for all."

 

   "You can't fix this government-run health care plan called Obamacare ," he said. "It's just not fixable."

 

   Obama, for his part, made clear he would continue to fight ongoing attempts to sink the whole program, saying, "I will not accept proposals that are just another brazen attempt to undermine or repeal the overall law and drag us back into a broken system."

 

   "We're going to solve the problems that are there, we're going to get it right, and the Affordable Care Act is going to work for the American people," he pledged.

 

   While the White House deals with the cancellation issue, the administration is also promising improvements in a federal website so balky that enrollments totaled fewer than 27,000 in October in 36 states combined. The administration had said in advance the enrollment numbers would fall far short of initial expectations. After weeks of highly publicized technical woes, they did.

 

   Adding in enrollment of more than 79,000 in the 14 states with their own websites, the nationwide number of 106,000 October sign-ups was barely one-fifth of what officials had projected - and a small fraction of the millions who have received private coverage cancellations as a result of the federal law.

 

   The administration said an additional 1 million people have been found eligible to buy coverage in the markets, with about one-third qualifying for tax credits to reduce their premiums. Another 396,000 have been found eligible for Medicaid, which covers low-income people.

 

   Administration officials and senior congressional Democrats expressed confidence in the program's future. "We expect enrollment will grow substantially throughout the next five months," said Sebelius, who is in charge of the program.

 

   "Even with the issues we've had, the marketplace is working and people are enrolling," she added.

 

   Despite the expressions, the White House worked to reassure anxious Democrats who are worried about the controversial program, which they voted into existence three years ago over Republican opposition as strong now as it was then.

 

   Obama said he regretted the political grief he'd caused members of his own party who'd backed him on the health care law.

 

   "There is no doubt that our failure to roll out the Affordable Care Act smoothly has put a burden on Democrats, whether they're running or not, because they stood up and supported this effort through thick and thin," he said.

 

   Senate Democrats arranged a closed-door meeting for midday Thursday in the Capitol with White House officials, who held a similar session Wednesday with the House rank and file. Ahead of that meeting, Obama planned to speak from the White House about new efforts to help Americans receiving insurance cancellation notices.

 

   So far, five Senate Democrats are on record in support of legislation by Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., to make sure everyone can keep their present coverage if they want to. The bill would require insurance companies to continue offering existing policies, even if they fall short of minimum coverage requirements in the law.

 

   The measure has little apparent chance at passage, given that it imposes a new mandate on the insurance industry that Republicans will be reluctant to accept.

 

   At the same time, a vote would at least permit Democrats to say they have voted to repair some of the problems associated with the Affordable Care Act, as many appear eager to do.

 

   In a statement, Landrieu said Sens. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Mark Pryor of Arkansas were now supporting the legislation, as is Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California. All but Feinstein are on the ballot next year.

 

   Across the Capitol, majority Republicans in the House set a vote for Friday on legislation to permit insurance companies to continue selling existing policies that have been ordered scrapped because they fall short of coverage standards in the law.

 

   While House passage of the measure is assured, each Democrat will be forced to cast a vote on the future of a program that Republicans have vowed to place at the center of next year's campaign.

 

   Democratic Rep. Mike Doyle of Pennsylvania, who voted for the initial Obama health care bill, said Thursday that members of his caucus want an opportunity to go on the record in support of allowing people to keep the insurance they had.

 

   Doyle told MSNBC in an interview that at a White House meeting Wednesday, House Democrats told Obama about "the frustration level that many of us have" with the health care roll-out.

 

   Doyle said Democrats warned Obama that "if you don't give us something by Friday" to fix the insurance cancellation problem, then many Democrats are likely to vote for the pending House bill sponsored by Republican Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan, which would accomplish that goal.

 

   The promise of keeping coverage was Obama's oft-stated pledge when the legislation was under consideration, a calling card since shredded by the millions of cancellations mailed out by insurers.

 

   Obama apologized last week for the broken promise, but aides said at the time the White House was only considering administration changes, rather than new legislation.

Published in National News

   WASHINGTON (AP) — Now is when Americans start figuring out that President Barack Obama's health care law goes beyond political talk, and really does affect them and people they know.

   With a cranky federal website complicating access to new coverage and some consumers being notified their existing plans are going away, the potential for winners and losers is creating anxiety and confusion.

   "I've had questions like, 'Are they going to put me in jail if I don't buy insurance? Because nobody will sell it to me,'" said Bonnie Burns, a longtime community-level insurance counselor from California. "We have family members who are violently opposed to 'Obamacare' and they are on Medicaid — they don't understand that they're already covered by taxpayer benefits.

   "And then there is a young man with lupus who would have never been insurable," Burns continued. "He is on his parents' plan, and he'll be able to buy his own coverage. They are very relieved."

   A poll just out from the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation documents shifts in the country in the month since insurance sign-ups began.

   Fifty-five percent now say they have enough information to understand the law's impact on their family, up 8 percentage points in just one month. Part of the reason is that advertising about how to get coverage is beginning to register.

   "The law is getting more and more real for people," said Drew Altman, the foundation's president. "A lot of this will turn on whether there's a perception that there have been more winners than losers. ... It's not whether an expert thinks something is a better insurance policy, it's whether people perceive it that way."

   The administration is continuing its efforts to influence those perceptions. On Wednesday, Obama will meet with volunteers in Dallas who are helping people enroll in health insurance plans. Cabinet officials are also expected to make stops around the country in the coming weeks to encourage people to sign up for insurance even as the website problems persist.

   A look at three groups impacted by the law's rollout:

   ___

   LOSING CURRENT PLAN

   The Obama administration insists nobody will lose coverage as a result of cancellation notices going out to millions of people. At least 3.5 million Americans have been issued cancellations, but the exact number is unclear. Associated Press checks find that data is unavailable in a half the states.

   Mainly they are people who buy directly from an insurer, instead of having workplace coverage. Officials say these consumers aren't getting "canceled" but "transitioned" or "migrated" to better plans because their current coverage doesn't meet minimum standards. They won't have to go uninsured, and some could save a lot if they qualify for the law's tax credits.

   Speaking in Boston's historic Faneuil Hall this past week, Obama said the problem is limited to fewer than 5 percent of Americans "who've got cut-rate plans that don't offer real financial protection in the event of a serious illness or an accident."

   But in a nation of more than 300 million, 5 percent is a big number — about 15 million people. Among them are Ian and Sara Hodge of Lancaster, Pa., in their early 60s and paying $1,041 a month for a policy.

   After insurer Highmark Inc., sent the Hodges a cancellation notice, the cheapest rate they say they've been able to find is $1,400 for a comparable plan. Ian is worried they may not qualify for tax credits and doesn't trust that the federal website is secure enough to enter personal financial information in order to find out.

   "We feel like we're being punished for doing the right thing," he said.

   Their policy may not have met the government's standards, "but it certainly met our minimum standards," Hodge added.

   "The main thing that upsets us is the president ... said over and over and over again: If you like your health plan, you will be able to keep your health plan, guaranteed."

   There's a chance the number of people getting unwanted terminations may grow. In 2015, the law's requirement that larger companies provide health insurance will take effect. It's expected that a small share of firms will drop coverage, deciding that it's cheaper to pay fines imposed under the law.

   ___

   GAINING COVERAGE

   Before the law's online health care markets launched Oct. 1, the administration estimated nearly 500,000 people would enroll for subsidized private insurance within the first month. Despite high consumer interest, a computer system beset by gremlins has kept most from doing so.

   The administration refuses to release enrollment numbers until mid-November, when a crash program of computer fixes may be showing results. The numbers are expected to be disappointingly low; officials acknowledge as much.

   A different prong of Obama's coverage expansion seems to be doing fairly well. It's an expanded version of Medicaid, embraced so far by 25 states and the District of Columbia. An informal survey of 14 of those states by The Associated Press shows that at least 240,000 people had enrolled in or applied for the expanded safety-net program as of the third week of October.

   Private coverage is what interests Cecilia Fontenot of Houston, a part-time accountant in her early 60s. She has diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Though she manages well, she has been unable to find affordable insurance. Under Obama's law, insurers will not be able to turn away people with medical problems or charge them more.

   Fontenot gave up on HealthCare.gov and instead applied through a call center on Oct. 19.

   "They said it may take a while because so many people had called in," Fontenot explained. "I'm a very patient person, and I'm looking forward to getting that insurance."

   She wants a plan that covers a better diabetes drug than the one she can afford now by paying out of pocket. Her doctor has also recommended a high-tech imaging test for a breast lump.

   ___

   WONDERING WHETHER COVERAGE WILL CHANGE

   Americans are still divided over the Affordable Care Act, with negative views outweighing positives. But they also lean against repealing it. The final judgment may be in the hands of people who now have employer-provided health insurance. They're about half the population, and they've noted Obama's assurances that their coverage won't be disrupted.

   Up to now, the changes for employer plans have been incremental. They tend to expand benefits, not take things away.

   For example, young adults can stay on a parent's coverage until they turn 26. Employers cover women's birth control as a preventive service, free of charge. Screening tests such as colonoscopies are also free.

   But cost control provisions, mainly a tax on expensive insurance plans that starts in 2018, are converging with the long-standing push by employers to tame health costs. Some companies have raised deductibles and copayments for employees, saying they need to scale back to avoid tangling with the coming tax. Others are giving employees a fixed amount of money to shop in private health insurance markets that resemble those created by the law.

   Expect cutbacks to be blamed on the law. Sorting out whether that's warranted may be difficult.

   "What the Affordable Care Act did was give companies a very convenient excuse to say 'Oh, gosh, we really have to get serious about insurance costs,'" said Paul Keckley, an independent health benefits consultant. "I think there's a bit of a bob and weave. The ACA was a convenient excuse for doing what (corporate) human resources departments have been calculating to do for years."

Published in National News
Thursday, 31 October 2013 02:35

After unity, Obama faces Democratic pushback

   WASHINGTON (AP) — Just two weeks after President Barack Obama saw his Democratic Party put up an unyielding front against Republicans, his coalition is showing signs of stress.

   From health care to spying to pending budget deals, many congressional Democrats are challenging the administration and pushing for measures that the White House has not embraced.

   Some Democrats are seeking to extend the enrollment period for new health care exchanges. Others want to place restraints on National Security Administration surveillance capabilities. Still others are standing tough against any budget deal that uses long-term reductions in major benefit programs to offset immediate cuts in defense.

   Though focused on disparate issues, the Democrats' anxieties are connected by timing and stand out all the more when contrasted with the remarkable unity the party displayed during the recent showdown over the partial government shutdown and the confrontation over raising the nation's borrowing limit.

   "That moment was always going to be fleeting," said Matt Bennett, who worked in the Clinton White House and who regularly consults with Obama aides. "The White House, every White House, understands that these folks, driven either by principle or the demands of the politics of their state, have to put daylight between themselves and the president on occasion."

   Obama and the Democrats emerged from the debt and shutdown clash with what they wanted: a reopened government, a higher debt ceiling and a Republican Party reeling in the depths of public opinion polls.

   But within days, attention turned to the problem-riddled launch of the 3-year-old health care law's enrollment stage and revelations that the U.S. had been secretly monitoring the communications of as many as 35 allied leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel. And with new budget talks underway, Democratic Party liberals reiterated demands that Obama not agree to changes that reduce Social Security or Medicare benefits even in the improbable event Republicans agree to increase budget revenues.

   The fraying on the Democratic Party edges is hardly unraveling Obama's support and it pales when compared to the upheaval within the Republican Party as it distances itself from the tactics of tea party conservatives. But the pushback from Democrats comes as Obama is trying to draw renewed attention to his agenda, including passage of an immigration overhaul, his jobs initiatives and the benefits of his health care law.

   The computer troubles that befell the start of health insurance sign-ups have caused the greatest anxiety. Republicans pounced on the difficulties as evidence of deeper flaws in the law. But Democrats, even as they defended the policy, also demanded answers in the face of questions from their constituents.

   "The fact is that the administration really failed these Americans," Rep. Allyson Schwartz, D-Pa., told Medicare chief Marilyn Tavenner at a hearing this week. "So going forward there can be just no more excuses."

   In the Senate, 10 Democrats signed on to a letter seeking an unspecified extension of the enrollment period, which ends March 31. "As you continue to fix problems with the website and the enrollment process, it is critical that the administration be open to modifications that provide greater flexibility for the American people seeking to access health insurance," Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., wrote.

   Another Democratic senator, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, has called for a one-year delay in the requirement that virtually all Americans have health insurance or pay a fine.

   Democrats who have talked to White House officials in recent days describe them as rattled by the health care blunders. But they say they are confident that the troubled website used for enrollment will be corrected and fully operational by the end of November.

   The spying revelations also have created some tensions between the administration and Democrats. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and until now a staunch supporter of the NSA's surveillance, called for a "total review of all intelligence programs" following the Merkel reports.

   She said that when it came to the NSA collecting intelligence on the leaders of allies such as France, Spain, Mexico and Germany, "Let me state unequivocally: I am totally opposed."

   With Congress renewing budget talks Wednesday, liberals have been outspoken in their insistence that Democrats vigorously resist efforts to reduce long-term deficits with savings in Social Security or Medicare. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an independent who usually votes with Democrats, has been the most outspoken, saying he fears a budget deal will contain a proposal in Obama's budget to reduce cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security and other benefit programs.

   Obama, however, has proposed that remedy only if Republicans agree to raise tax revenue, a bargain that most in the GOP firmly oppose. Moreover, leaders from both parties as well as White House officials have signaled that budget talks are looking for a small budget deal, not the type of "grand bargain" that would embrace such a revenue-for-benefit-cuts deal.

Published in National News

   WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama has signed a measure into law reopening the federal government and averting a potential default.

   The White House says Obama signed the bill early Thursday, hours after the House gave final approval.

   The White House budget office has already instructed federal workers to plan to return to work Thursday morning.

   The measure restores funding for the government through Jan. 15 and extends the nation's borrowing authority through Feb. 7.

   The partial government shutdown started Oct. 1. The U.S. was to reach its debt limit Thursday if no deal was reached.

   As the deal neared final passage in the House Wednesday, Obama said it was now time for leaders in Washington to win back the trust of Americans that was lost during the debt-and-spending crisis.

Published in National News

   "Hopeful," that's how Congresswoman Ann Wagner describes Thursday's meeting between GOP leaders and President Barack Obama.  

   The two sides got together to discuss the government shutdown and the looming debt ceiling deadline.  The St. Louis County Republican was one of 18 GOP lawmakers who attended the 90-minute meeting at the White House.  

   Wagner told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that toning down the rhetoric that has accompanied the dispute was one area where both sides agreed.   "We can't be fear-mongering and talking in ways that make our markets react," she said. 

Published in Local News

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — A rodeo clown has performed for the first time since a controversial State Fair rodeo act that mocked President Barack Obama.

The Jefferson City News-Tribune reports that rodeo clown Tuffy Gessling hammed it up for the crowd during a pro bull riding event Friday in Jefferson County.

Beforehand, Gessling said everything has been very overwhelming and that he's surprised people took offense to the politically themed skit. It featured another clown wearing an Obama mask, while Gessling made comments — including "We're gonna stomp Obama" — to the crowd.

Gessling says the skit had been performed before, and that several past presidents' faces were placed in similar scenarios. Gessling had other shows scheduled between his State Fair and Jefferson City appearances, but they were canceled.

Published in Local News
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