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   LOS ANGELES (AP) — A judge in Los Angeles ruled Thursday that a lesbian Army veteran and her spouse should be entitled to disability benefits given the recent Supreme Court ruling that struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act.

   U.S. District Judge Consuelo Marshall said that a federal code defining a spouse as a person of the opposite sex is unconstitutional "under rational basis scrutiny" since the high court's decision allowing legally married gay couples the right to health care benefits.

   "The court finds that the exclusion of spouses in same-sex marriages from veterans' benefits is not rationally related to the goal of gender equality," in the code, Marshall wrote in her four-page ruling.

   The Department of Veterans Affairs denied an application from veteran Tracey Cooper-Harris and her spouse seeking additional money and benefits that married veterans are entitled to receive. Cooper-Harris suffers from multiple sclerosis and receives disability benefits.

   She and Maggie Cooper-Harris got married in California during the brief period in 2008 when same-sex unions were legal in the state. The plaintiffs' attorneys had said previously the couple would receive about $150 more a month in disability payments, and Maggie Cooper-Harris would be eligible for about $1,200 a month in survivor's benefits if her wife died.

   The Justice Department had asked for Cooper-Harris' case to be tossed out on the grounds that veterans' claims can only be heard by an administrative Board of Veterans' Appeals. But Marshall said the case could move forward.

   The law on VA benefits specifically defines spouse and surviving spouse as someone of the opposite sex, which has prevented same-sex married couples from accessing such benefits as enhanced disability or pension payments.

   In a letter to Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H. earlier this month, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said no court had deemed the provision unconstitutional, nor has Congress taken up a bill to change the definition of spouse. He noted, however, that if spousal definitions were determined to be unconstitutional, the agency would be prepared to update its policies.

   The Defense Department has said that same-sex spouses of military members will be eligible for the same health care, housing and other benefits enjoyed by opposite-sex spouses starting Sept. 3.

 
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United Nations experts are investigating the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria as the United States and allies prepare for the possibility of a punitive strike against President Bashar Assad's regime, blamed by the Syrian opposition for the attack. The international aid group Doctors Without Borders says at least 355 people were killed in the Aug. 21 attack.

 

Here's a look at key Syria developments around the world Thursday and Friday amid heightened tensions over potential military action:

 

SYRIA:

 

Assad said his country "will defend itself against any aggression," signaling defiance to mounting Western warnings of a possible punitive strike. U.N. chemical weapons inspectors toured stricken rebel-held areas near the Syrian capital of Damascus for a third day.

 

BRITAIN:

 

The British Parliament voted down endorsing military action against Syria, despite a strong push by Prime Minister David Cameron to support potential U.S. strikes against Assad. British Defense Minister Philip Hammond confirmed that the country's forces would not be involved in any strike.

 

FRANCE:

 

The French military is ready to commit forces to an operation in Syria if President Francois Hollande approves it, Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said. Hollande, who met with the head of the Syrian opposition, stopped short of announcing a military intervention.

 

UNITED NATIONS:

 

A meeting of the U.N. Security Council's permanent members ended quickly with no sign of progress on an agreement over Syria's crisis. U.N. experts in Syria are expected to leave the country Saturday.

 

ISRAEL:

 

Thousands of Israelis crowded gas-mask distribution facilities to get free masks, fearing Israel could be targeted in retaliation by Syria if it is attacked. A mob forcibly took gas masks from a distribution center in Jerusalem on Wednesday. Officers were deployed to maintain order Thursday in Haifa, where more than 5,000 people waited for protective kits.

 

TURKEY:

 

Officials placed Turkey on alert against possible chemical attacks from Syria and stocked food and gas masks along their shared border. Bunkers were designated in seven border areas to protect people in the area.

 

IRAN:

 

President Hassan Rouhani said his country will press forward with efforts to ward off military action by the U.S. and its allies against the Tehran-backed Syrian regime.

 

UNITED STATES:

 

White House officials said President Barack Obama was preparing for the possibility of launching unilateral American military action against Syria within days, after the British Parliament rejected sending that country's forces to support a military strike. Obama also spoke by phone with Republican House Speaker John Boehner, who has asked the president to make a sharper case on the legal justification for any military strike in Syria and its objective. The administration shared intelligence with lawmakers aimed at convincing them Syria's government used chemical weapons in last week's attack.

 

RUSSIA:

 

Russia's foreign ministry asked the U.N. to continue its inspection of places where chemical weapons might have been used in Syria. A foreign minister spokesman said the team should inspect three other locations, including a suburb of Aleppo, where the government in Damascus alleges the rebels have used poisoned gas.

 

GERMANY:

 

A poll by ZDF television found that a majority of Germans oppose Western military intervention in Syria and don't want their country to provide backing for any U.S.-led strike.

 

LEBANON:

 

Lebanese Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour said any international military action against Syria would pose a "serious threat" to the security and stability of the region, particularly Lebanon.

 

EGYPT:

 

Egyptian foreign minister Nabil Fahmy said his country strongly opposes military action against Syria and would not support possible punitive strikes by the U.S. and its allies.

 

ROMANIA:

 

Romania's foreign ministry told its citizens in Syria to leave the country "as soon as possible." They were told to get out via Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.

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   WASHINGTON (AP) — Wary of another war, congressional Republicans and Democrats pressed President Barack Obama to explain why the U.S. military should attack Syria and involve Americans in a deadly civil conflict that has roiled the Mideast.

   "What is the intended effect of the potential military strikes?" House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, wrote the president on Wednesday as the drumbeat of war grew louder.

   Exasperated members of the House and Senate said the president has failed to make a case for U.S. military action against Syria despite the administration's conclusion that the Syrian government carried out a large-scale chemical weapons attack against civilians last week.

   The administration signaled Wednesday that it would act against the Syrian government even without the backing of allies or the United Nations in response to the alleged chemical weapons attack outside the Syrian capital of Damascus on Aug. 21.

   Some lawmakers insisted that Obama, despite his standing as commander in chief, cannot unilaterally order military action against Syria without congressional authorization.

   The president said in a PBS interview Wednesday that he had not made a decision about how the United States would respond.

   In his letter, Boehner underscored that he has been supportive of administration policy to date as Obama has called for Syrian President Bashar Assad to resign and insisted that the use of deadly chemical weapons would be a gross violation of international norms.

   Boehner wrote that in light of the administration's contention that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons against its people, Obama should provide "a clear, unambiguous explanation of how military action — which is a means, not a policy — will secure U.S. objectives."

   The administration was planning a teleconference briefing Thursday on Syria for leaders of the House and Senate and national security committees, U.S. officials and congressional aides said. Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, complained in a letter to Obama on Tuesday that informal briefings and conversations with administration officials have focused on the general situation in Syria and included no discussions of steps being considered or a comprehensive strategy.

   Boehner asked Obama to "personally make the case to the American people and Congress for how potential military action will secure American national security interests, preserve American credibility, deter the future use of chemical weapons, and, critically, be a part of our broader policy and strategy."

   The speaker also pressed the president to provide a legal justification for any U.S. military action.

   There was no immediate reaction from the White House to Boehner's request.

   In the House, 98 Republicans and 18 Democrats have signed a letter to Obama demanding that he seek congressional authorization for any military action against Syria. The letter written by Rep. Scott Rigell, R-Va., argues that intervention without a direct threat to the United States and without Congress' approval would be unconstitutional.

   Washington Rep. Adam Smith, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, cautioned that an attack might be ineffective and draw the United States into the Syrian civil war, now in its third year.

   "Simply lashing out with military force under the banner of 'doing something' will not secure our interests in Syria," Smith said in a statement.

   Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he informed the administration that he could not support any military strike against Syria unless Obama presents a detailed strategy to Congress and provides a defense budget to support any action.

   An increasing number of lawmakers have asked what would be the end result of U.S. military intervention against a Mideast country where the Assad government and rebel forces have struggled for more than two years, with an estimated 100,000 killed and millions displaced.

   "The war in Syria has no clear national security connection to the United States and victory by either side will not necessarily bring into power people friendly to the United States," Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said.

   In his letter, Boehner raised 14 questions that he asked Obama to answer, including what the administration would do if Syria retaliates against U.S. allies in the region, whether the administration would launch additional military strikes if the initial ones proved ineffective and what was the intended effect of such a step.

   Boehner alluded to the 10-plus years of fighting in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks and the need for the administration to have strong public and congressional support for U.S. involvement in a Mideast war.

   "Our military, as well as their families, deserve to have the confidence that we collectively have their backs — and a thorough strategy in place," the speaker wrote.

Read more...

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