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BIPARTISAN BUDGET AGREEMENT NEARS FINAL PASSAGE

Wednesday, 18 December 2013 11:02 Published in National News

WASHINGTON (AP) — A modest, bipartisan budget pact designed to keep Washington from lurching from fiscal crisis to fiscal crisis and to ease the harshest effects of automatic budget cuts is on the brink of passing the Senate Wednesday.

The Senate is on track to clear the bill for President Barack Obama's signature after a 67-33 vote Tuesday in which it easily hurdled a filibuster threshold.

The measure would restore $45 billion, half the amount scheduled to be automatically cut from the 2014 operating budgets of the Pentagon and some domestic agencies, lifting them above $1 trillion. An additional $18 billion for 2015 would provide enough relief to essentially freeze spending at those levels for the year.

The bill advanced with the help of 12 Republicans, several of whom promised to oppose the measure in Wednesday's final vote because it fails to take on the nation's most pressing fiscal challenges. It would barely dent deficits that are predicted to lessen in the short term but grow larger by the end of the decade and into the next.

One provision, cutting the inflation increases of pensions for military retirees under the age of 62, was proving to be especially unpopular. Members of the military are eligible to retire after 20 years at half pay. The provision was included in the bill at the direction of House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis.

"We had to look at how we could find compromises," said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray, D-Wash., who negotiated the bill with Ryan. "There's things in this I like and there's things I don't like."

The deal is a step toward restoring the trust of Americans who feel their government isn't working, and also toward restoring lawmakers' faith in each other, Murray told CNN on Wednesday.

Top Democrats said they would revisit the change in military pensions, which raises $6 billion over 10 years, before it takes effect in two years. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., said the cut could reduce by $80,000 the lifetime benefit of a soldier who retires in his or her early 40s.

In a document defending the cut, Ryan's staff called pensions to middle-aged military retirees "an exceptionally generous benefit, often providing 40 years of pension payment in return for 20 years of service" and noted that "most begin a second career after leaving the military."

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., who faces a potentially tough re-election campaign next year, promptly announced she would seek to repeal the military pension cut. The proposed pension cut has drawn howls of protest from senators with large military presences in their states.

"I promise you this. If we don't fix it now, not only are we going to review it, we are going to fix it," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said. "How could any commander in chief sign a bill that does this?"

Shaheen was joined by more than a dozen other Democrats in announcing legislation to restore the military retirement benefits and make up the money by closing a tax loophole on offshore corporations.

The bill caps a sometimes chaotic year in Washington that began with a January deal to avert a "fiscal cliff" of automatic spending cuts and expiring Bush-era tax cuts. The year also featured brinksmanship over the federal debt limit and a 16-day partial shutdown of the government sparked by Republicans in a futile attempt to curb implementation of the Affordable Care Act.

The budget agreement allows lawmakers to claim a modest accomplishment as they leave a bitterly divided Washington.

It sets the stage in January for the pragmatic-minded House and Senate Appropriations committees to draft a trillion-dollar-plus omnibus spending bill combining the 12 annual appropriations bills for the budget year that began Oct. 1. It would provide $1.012 trillion for the fiscal 2014 year already underway, a $45 billion increase over what would be required under the penalty imposed by a 2011 budget deal.

Agency budgets totaled $986 billion in 2013 after automatic cuts called sequestration were imposed, causing numerous furloughs, harming military readiness and cutting grants to local school districts, health researchers and providers of Head Start preschool care to low-income children, among numerous effects.

Due to the design of the automatic cuts, even with the boost the Pentagon still would see its non-war 2014 budget essentially frozen at 2013 levels, while domestic agencies would see an increase of about 4 percent. But those levels remain well below what was envisioned in the 2011 budget pact.

The cuts would be replaced with money from things such as higher airline security fees, a requirement that new federal workers pay more toward their pensions, the 1-percentage-point cut in the pensions of working-age military retirees and premium increases on companies whose pension plans are insured by the federal government.

INDIA DIPLOMAT SAYS SHE FACED CAVITY SEARCH IN NYC

Wednesday, 18 December 2013 11:01 Published in National News

NEW DELHI (AP) — An Indian diplomat said U.S. authorities subjected her to a strip search, cavity search and DNA swabbing following her arrest on visa charges in New York City, despite her "incessant assertions of immunity."

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described the diplomat's treatment as "deplorable."

The case has sparked widespread outrage in India and infuriated the government, which revoked privileges for U.S. diplomats to protest her treatment. It has cast a pall over India-U.S. relations, which have cooled in recent years despite a 2008 nuclear deal that was hailed as a high point in the nations' ties.

Devyani Khobragade, India's deputy consul general in New York, was arrested Thursday outside of her daughter's Manhattan school on charges that she lied on a visa application about how much she paid her housekeeper, an Indian national.

Prosecutors say the maid received less than $3 per hour for her work.

In an email published in India media on Wednesday, Khobragade said she was treated like a common criminal.

"I broke down many times as the indignities of repeated handcuffing, stripping and cavity searches, swabbing, in a holdup with common criminals and drug addicts were all being imposed upon me despite my incessant assertions of immunity," she wrote.

An Indian official with direct knowledge of the case confirmed to The Associated Press that the email was authentic. The official, who spoke anonymously because of the sensitivity of the case, said India's priority now is to get the woman returned home.

"India's top demand right now is: Return our diplomat," he said, adding that Khobragade, who was released on $250,000 bail, would have to report to police in New York every week.

Khobragade was arrested by the U.S. Department of State's diplomatic security team and then handed over to U.S. marshals in New York.

The U.S. Marshals Service confirmed Tuesday that it had strip-searched Khobragade and placed her in a cell with other female defendants. It described the measures as "standard arrestee intake procedures."

The case has touched a nerve in India, where the fear of public humiliation resonates strongly and heavy-handed treatment by the police is normally reserved for the poor. For an educated, middle-class woman to face public arrest and a strip search is almost unimaginable, except in the most brutal crimes.

Prosecutors say Khobragade claimed on visa application documents she paid her Indian maid $4,500 per month, but that she actually paid her less than $3 per hour. Khobragade has pleaded not guilty and plans to challenge the arrest on grounds of diplomatic immunity.

Marie Harf, U.S. State Department deputy spokeswoman, said Khobragade does not have full diplomatic immunity. Instead, she has consular immunity from the jurisdiction of U.S. courts only with respect to acts performed in the exercise of consular functions.

If convicted, Khobragade faces a maximum sentence of 10 years for visa fraud and five years for making a false declaration.

The fallout from the case was growing. India retaliated against U.S. diplomats with measures that include revoking diplomat ID cards that brought certain privileges, demanding to know the salaries paid to Indian staff in U.S. Embassy households and withdrawing import licenses that allowed the commissary at the U.S. Embassy to import alcohol and food.

Police also removed the traffic barricades near the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi in retaliation for Khobragade's treatment. The barriers were a safety measure but India said they clogged up traffic.

On Wednesday, dozens of people protested outside the U.S. Embassy, saying Khobragade's treatment was an insult to all Indian women.

In New Delhi, the lower house of Parliament had to be temporarily adjourned Wednesday after lawmakers noisily demanded that it adopt a resolution against the United States.

Arun Jaitely, leader of the opposition in the upper house, said the government had to register its "strongest protest" to the U.S. government for the "lack of respect for India." He called for a review of India's relations with the United States, a demand that was vociferously seconded by many lawmakers.

Commerce Minister Anand Sharma said the arrest was a "matter of national outrage." He promised angry lawmakers that the government would make an official statement in Parliament on the incident.

Harf said Tuesday that federal authorities would work on the issue with India.

"We understand that this is a sensitive issue for many in India," she said. "Accordingly, we are looking into the intake procedures surrounding this arrest to ensure that all appropriate procedures were followed and every opportunity for courtesy was extended."

LUCKY LOTTO TICKETS SOLD IN ATLANTA, SAN JOSE

Wednesday, 18 December 2013 11:00 Published in National News

ATLANTA (AP) — Two lucky winning tickets were sold in Tuesday's near-record $636 million Mega Millions drawing: one at a tiny newsstand in Atlanta, and the other more than 2,000 miles away in California.

The lucky Georgia ticket was sold at a Gateway Newsstand in Atlanta's affluent Buckhead area, Mega Millions Executive Director Paula Otto said.

Newsstand owner Young Soolee grinned as she arrived Wednesday morning at the shop off the lobby of the Alliance Center office building. The newsstand — a small, long shop with one register that can hold perhaps 10 people at a time — is frequented by workers at the office building, which sits across the street from an upscale mall.

"I'm so excited and so happy now," Soolee said. "I love my store and the customer now."

Some media outlets reported that Soolee would receive money as the owner of the store that sold a winning ticket. But Georgia Lottery spokeswoman Tandi Reddick said Wednesday that's not the case. She said Soolee won't get any bonus beyond the 6 percent commission all retail outlets received based on lottery sales.

"They do have the distinction of being known as the lucky store now, and that's always great news for them," Reddick said.

The winner has 180 days to claim the prize, Reddick said. The clock began ticking Tuesday. Lottery officials in Georgia will release basic information about the winner, including name and city of residence. Like the policies for store owners receiving bonus money, the number of days and anonymity for the winner varies by state, Paula Otto, Mega Millions lead director, said in an email.

Buckhead is a financial center of Atlanta and one of its largest neighborhoods, a vast northern area known for upscale shopping centers such as Lenox Square and Phipps Plaza, both a short walk from the store that sold the winning ticket. The Alliance Center is home to a variety of offices — lawyers and financial services professionals, even the Brazilian Consulate General.

The California ticket was sold at Jennifer's Gift Shop, which sits along San Jose's tree-lined Tully Road, amid a cluster of Asian restaurants. The store's owner, Thuy Nguyen, told KNTV he doesn't know who the bought the winning ticket, but it's likely someone he knows — most of his customers are his friends. "I feel good! I don't even know, I can't sleep tonight," Nguyen told the station.

The winning numbers in the drawing were: 8, 14, 17, 20, 39; Mega Ball: 7.

The jackpot was the second-largest lottery prize in U.S. history. It started its ascent Oct. 4. Twenty-two draws came and went without winners, Otto said.

Otto said $336 million in tickets were sold for Tuesday's drawing — they had projected $319 million.

"Sales were a little better than we'd anticipated," Otto said. "It was a fun run; it was our first holiday run for either of the big jackpot games."

The winners can choose to be paid over time or in a cash lump sum, Otto said. Based on the $636 million figure, the winners would receive $318 million each over time or $170 million each in cash.

Mega Millions changed its rules in October to help increase the jackpots by lowering the odds of winning the top prize. That means the chances of winning the jackpot are now about 1 in 259 million. It used to be about 1 in 176 million, nearly the same odds of winning a Powerball jackpot.

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