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Thursday, 12 December 2013 01:54

A look at the congressional budget agreement

   A proposed congressional budget agreement would avoid a government shutdown in January and set spending for defense and domestic programs. It would:

   —Establish overall non-war-related discretionary spending for the current fiscal year at $1.012 trillion and $1.014 trillion for fiscal 2015. Discretionary spending is the money approved by Congress each year for agency operations. The House budget level had been $967 billion and the Senate $1.058 trillion for the year that runs through next Sept. 30. Fiscal 2013 discretionary spending was $986 billion.

   —Ease the across-the-board "sequester" spending cuts by $63 billion over two years, split between defense and domestic programs. In the current fiscal year, defense would be set at a base budget of $520.5 billion and domestic programs at $491.8 billion.

   —Increase airline security fees from $5 to $11.20 for a typical round-trip ticket starting July 1, 2014. That would raise $13 billion over 10 years. Current fees are $2.50 per leg with a maximum fee of $10 for a round-trip with connecting flights or $5 for a nonstop round-trip fare.

   —Reduce retirement benefits for working-age military retirees. The cost-of-living adjustment would be modified equal to inflation minus 1 percent. The changes would be phased in, with no change in the current year, a 0.25 percent reduction in December 2014 and a 0.5 percent decrease in December 2015. The change would not apply to retirees who left the service because of disability or injury. It would apply to retirees under the age of 62. The change would save $6 billion.

   —Increase by 1.3 percentage points the pension contributions paid by federal civilian workers hired after Jan. 1, 2014. Raise $6 billion.

   —Restrict access to Social Security death records to prevent identity thieves from filing fraudulent tax returns. Save $269 million.

   —Raise premiums paid by corporations to the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corp. to guarantee pension benefits. Raise $8 billion.

   —Eliminate a requirement that the Maritime Administration reimburse other federal agencies for additional costs associated with shipping food aid on U.S. ships. Saves $731 million.

   —Cancel $1.6 billion in unobligated balances in Justice and Treasury Department funds that seize assets from criminals.

   —Cap the maximum government payment for contract employees at $487,000, indexed to inflation. Agencies could make exceptions for scientists, engineers and other specialists.

   —Give the Treasury Department greater access to prison data to prevent prisoners from claiming improper payments. Saves. $80 million.

   —Approve a U.S.-Mexico agreement on oil and gas exploration in waters outside their exclusive economic zones.

   —Permanently extend a requirement that states receiving mineral lease payments contribute to the federal government's administrative costs. Saves $415 million.

   —Extend Bureau of Customs and Border Protection user fees. Raises $7 billion.

Published in National News
Wednesday, 11 December 2013 04:50

AP-GfK poll: Low approval of Congress, Obama

WASHINGTON (AP) — Heading into a congressional election year, Americans hold Congress in strikingly low regard, and nearly two-thirds say they would like to see their House member replaced, a new poll finds.

 

Even though Americans are feeling somewhat better about the economy — and their personal finances — elected officials in Washington aren't benefiting from the improved mood, the Associated Press-GfK poll found.

 

President Barack Obama's approval rating was negative: 58 percent disapprove of the job he's doing as president, while 42 percent approve.

 

Obama isn't running for office again, however, whereas all 435 House seats and one-third of the Senate's seats are on the ballot next November. And nearly 9 in 10 adults disapprove of the way lawmakers are handling their jobs.

 

The low opinions of Congress don't necessarily signal major power shifts next year in the Republican-controlled House and Democratic-controlled Senate. House Democrats need to gain at least 17 net seats to claim the majority. But many House districts are so solidly liberal or conservative that incumbents can withstand notable drops in popularity and keep their seats.

 

Republicans hope to gain six Senate seats overall to retake control of that chamber for the last two years of Obama's presidency.

 

On one major issue, most Americans continue to favor providing a path to legal status for millions of immigrants living here illegally. Fifty-five percent support it, and 43 percent oppose. The Senate passed a major immigration bill that would provide a legalization path. But the House has sidelined the issue so far.

 

Despite the relatively low opinions of Congress and Obama, the national mood is not quite as bleak as it was in October, when partisan stalemate led to a 16-day partial government shutdown and fears of a possible default.

 

More Americans now say things are heading in the right direction and the economy is improving, the AP-GfK poll found. But those figures are still fairly anemic, below 40 percent.

 

Congressional approval stands at 13 percent, with 86 percent of adults disapproving. That sentiment holds across party lines: 86 percent of Democrats, 88 percent of Republicans and 84 percent of independents disapprove.

 

Democrats have a slim edge as the party Americans would prefer to control Congress, 39 percent to 33 percent. But a sizable 27 percent say it doesn't matter who's in charge.

 

In a sign of public discontent, 62 percent of registered voters say they'd like someone new to win their congressional district next year, while 37 percent support their incumbent's re-election.

 

That's a worrisome trend for incumbents' campaigns. Four years ago, polls by NBC News/Wall Street Journal and Marist found fewer than half of Americans wanting their own representative ousted.

 

When elected officials are dropped from the equation, the public mood brightens a bit, the new poll found. The share of adults saying things in this country are heading in the right direction has climbed 12 percentage points since the government shutdown, to 34 percent. Still, almost twice as many, 66 percent, say things are heading the wrong way.

 

Independents, who can be crucial in general elections when persuaded to vote, share the modestly growing optimism. Whereas 82 percent of independents said the country was headed in the wrong direction in October, the number now is 69 percent.

 

Ratings of the economy have also improved since October. Still, 68 percent of adults say the U.S. economy is in bad shape, down slightly from 73 percent in October.

 

More adults now say they expect improvement in their household's financial standing in the coming year: 30 percent, compared with 24 percent in October. More also say it's a good time to make major purchases, although the number is an unimpressive 19 percent.

 

Megan Barnes of Columbia, Md., is among those who see an uptick in their own finances but give scant credit to politicians.

 

"I think the economy seems to be fairly stable, and for my family in the future, it's going to be OK," said Barnes, 32, a stay-at-home mom married to a software engineer.

 

She said she strongly disapproves of Congress and leans toward disapproval of Obama.

 

In Congress, Barnes said, "I'd like to see people put their jobs on the line to get things done, and not worry about the next election." A moderate Republican, Barnes said she would like to see someone replace her congressman, Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings.

 

As for Obama, she said it's troubling that he seemed to know little about the National Security Agency's spying on international allies or the serious problems in the rollout of his sweeping health care law. "He also doesn't seem to really work with the Congress a lot, even with his own party, to build consensus and get things done," Barnes said.

 

Americans have grown skeptical of some of the personal attributes the president relied on to win re-election in 2012. The new poll finds just 41 percent think he's decisive, 44 percent see him as strong and 45 percent call him inspiring. On honesty, he's lost ground since October. Now, 56 percent say the word "honest" does not describe Obama well.

 

Nearly half of American adults have an unfavorable impression of Obama, and 46 percent have a favorable impression.

 

The AP-GfK Poll was conducted Dec. 5-9 using KnowledgePanel, GfK's probability-based online panel. It involved online interviews with 1,367 adults. The survey has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points for all respondents.

 

Using probability sampling methods, KnowledgePanel is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. Respondents to the survey were first selected randomly using phone or mail survey methods and were later interviewed for this survey online. People selected for KnowledgePanel who didn't otherwise have access to the Internet were provided with the ability to access the Internet at no cost to them.

 

___

 

Online: AP-GfK Poll: http://www.ap-gfkpoll.com .

Published in National News

   KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) - Former Missouri Congressman Ike Skelton, a champion of the military who served 17 terms in the U.S. House before losing a re-election bid in 2010, has died. He was 81.

   Skelton died Monday at Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington, Va., surrounded by family and friends, including longtime colleague Russell Orban.

   The cause was not immediately released, but Orban says Skelton entered the hospital a week earlier with a cough. Oban confirmed Skelton's death to The Associated Press.

   The Lexington, Mo., native was a Democrat and former chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

   Skelton lost to Republican Vicky Hartzler in 2010 in western Missouri's 4th Congressional District. He then joined the law firm of Kansas City-based Husch Blackwell, working in its offices in Kansas City and Washington.

 
Published in Local News
Tuesday, 01 October 2013 11:48

Lt. Governor Kinder eyeing Congressional run

CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo. (AP) - Missouri Republican Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder is moving toward a possible Congressional race.

The Southeast Missourian reported Tuesday that Kinder has formed a congressional exploratory committee for the 8th Congressional District. He says the committee's purpose is to forecast support for his potential candidacy. Kinder is serving his third term as lieutenant governor

Republican Jason Smith, of Salem, currently represents the 8th Congressional District. Smith beat out Kinder and several others earlier this year for the Republican nomination to replace U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson after she resigned. Smith was picked by an 84-person committee of local Republican leaders.

Missouri's 8th Congressional District appears on the 2014 ballot.

 

Published in Local News

   WASHINGTON (AP) — Congress is holding its first public hearing about U.S. plans for military intervention in Syria as President Barack Obama seeks to convince skeptical Americans and their lawmakers about the need to respond to last month's alleged sarin gas attack outside Damascus.

   Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey were to appear before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday. A classified briefing open to all members of Congress was to take place as well.

   The president's request for congressional authorization for limited military strikes against Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime is at the heart of all the discussions planned in Washington over the next several days as Obama sends his top national security advisers to the Capitol for a flurry of briefings. And with the outcome of any vote in doubt in a war-weary Congress, Obama was to meet Tuesday with leaders of the House and Senate armed services committees, the foreign relations committees and the intelligence committees.

   Obama won conditional support Monday from two of his fiercest foreign policy critics, Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

   A congressional vote against Obama's request "would be catastrophic in its consequences" for U.S. credibility abroad, McCain told reporters outside the White House following an hour-long private meeting with the president.

   But despite Obama's effort to assuage the two senators' concerns, neither appeared completely convinced afterward. They said they'd be more inclined to back Obama if the U.S. sought to destroy the Assad government's launching capabilities and committed to providing more support to rebels seeking to oust Assad from power.

   "There will never be a political settlement in Syria as long as Assad is winning," Graham said.

   After a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, polls show most Americans opposed to any new military action overseas. That reluctance is being reflected by senators and representatives, some of whom say Obama still hasn't presented bulletproof evidence that Assad's forces were responsible for the Aug. 21 attack that U.S. intelligence says killed 1,429 people, including more than 400 children. Others say the president hasn't explained why intervening is in America's interest.

   After a Labor Day weekend spent listening to concerned constituents, Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said the administration needed to make its case on these points, if only to counter the misinformation and conspiracy theories circulating about Obama's plans.

   "Several people asked me if we were only interested in getting Syria's oil," Coons, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. "It's important that Americans get the facts."

   Petroleum is hardly the most pertinent question. Even before Syria's hostilities began, its oil industry contributed less than half a percent of the world's total output. And Obama has expressly ruled out sending American troops into Syria or proposing deeper involvement in the Arab country's violent civil war.

   But such queries are a poignant reminder of the task awaiting the administration as it argues that the United States must exert global leadership in retaliating for what apparently was the deadliest use of chemical weapons anywhere over the past 25 years.

   Obama has insisted he was considering a military operation that was limited in duration and scope. The White House said Monday that Obama was open to working with Congress to make changes in the language of the resolution, which Congress was expected to begin considering next week.

   In a conference call Monday with House Democrats, several members of Obama's own party challenged the administration's assertions.

   In a post on his website, Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Minn., reflected a view shared by at least some of his colleagues: "I am vehemently opposed to a military strike that would clearly be an act of war against Syria, especially under such tragic yet confusing circumstances as to who is responsible for the use of chemical weapons."

   Their skepticism is shared by many tea party Republicans and others, whose views range from ideological opposition to any U.S. military action overseas to narrower fears about authorizing the use of force without clear constraints on timing, costs and scope of the intervention.

   The most frequent recurring questions: How convinced is American intelligence about the Assad regime's culpability for the chemical attack, a decade after woefully misrepresenting the case that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction? And how does a military response advance U.S. national security interests?

   Pressuring the administration in the opposite direction are hawks and proponents of humanitarian intervention among both Democrats and Republicans who feel what Obama is proposing is far too little.

   Obama's task is complicated further because he is leaving for a three-day trip to Europe on Tuesday night, visiting Stockholm, Sweden, and then attending an economic summit in St. Petersburg, Russia.

   The simple case for action is the administration's contention that the sarin gas attack violated not only the international standard against using such weapons but also Obama's "red line," set more than a year ago, that such WMD use wouldn't be tolerated.

   Intervening in Syria's conflict is no light matter, however. Having claimed more than 100,000 lives in the past 2½ years, the fight has evolved from a government crackdown on a largely peaceful protest movement into a full-scale civil war scarily reminiscent of the one that ravaged Iraq over the last decade. Ethnic massacres have been committed by both sides, which each employ terrorist organizations as allies.

   Since Obama's stunning announcement Saturday that he'd seek congressional authority, dozens of members of Congress have issued statements. Most have praised the administration for its course of action, and several have suggested they are leaning one way or another. But precious few have come out definitively one way or another.

   McCain said he believed many members were still "up for grabs."

Published in National News
Thursday, 29 August 2013 02:33

Congress seeks answers from Obama on Syria

   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.

Published in National News
Wednesday, 26 June 2013 02:50

U.S. House approves compromise bridge name

   Local political leaders are it calling an impressive display of bipartisan support and compromise.  The U.S. House on Tuesday voted to name the new Interstate-70 bridge over the Mississippi River as the "Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge."  

   Missouri lawmakers had wanted to name the span after the Cardinal's legend.  Illinois lawmakers had wanted to name the bridge to honor veterans.  Tuesday's 395-to-2 House vote would do both.  

   The measure now moves on the U.S. Senate.

Published in Local News

CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo. (AP) - Candidates to replace U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson in Missouri's 8th Congressional District will debate next month at Southeast Missouri State University.

The university announced Tuesday that the 90-minute live debate will air at 6:30 p.m. May 28 on KFVS-TV. It also will be webcast on the Southeast Missourian's website.

All four candidates running in the June 4 special election will participate. They are Jason Smith, a Republican; Steve Hodges, a Democrat; Bill Slantz, a Libertarian; and Doug Enyart, the Constitution Party. Because seating is limited, tickets will be distributed by each candidate's campaign headquarters.

Missouri's 8th District stretches from the outer suburbs of St. Louis south to the Missouri Bootheel and west to the Ozark hills.

Emerson resigned in January to lead a national association of rural electric cooperatives.

Published in Local News

   WASHINGTON (AP) - A congressional investigation finds that specialty pharmacies like the one that triggered a deadly meningitis outbreak last year have little state oversight.

   The report being released Monday by House Democrats shows that most states do not track or routinely inspect compounding pharmacies and that pharmacy boards in nearly all 50 states lack the information and expertise they need.

   Missouri and Mississippi were the only two states that require permits or licenses and also the only ones with complete data on how many facilities they had.

   None of the states indicated that they track whether pharmacies sell compounded drugs across state lines or in large quantities. Twenty-two states said they do not keep histories of problems.

   Compounding pharmacies mix customized medications based on doctors' prescriptions. There have been calls for more federal oversight.

 

Published in Health & Fitness
POPLAR BLUFF, Mo. (AP) -- Democratic Party leaders from southeast Missouri picked state Rep. Steve Hodges on Saturday to run in a special election to replace resigned U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson in the GOP-leaning 8th District.

The Southeast Missourian reported that he earned 39 votes during his party's meeting in Poplar Bluff. De Soto funeral home director Todd Mahn got 27 votes, and former Blodgett mayor Markel Fitchpatrick earned only two votes.

Hodges, 64, of East Prairie, is a former grocery store owner and high school sports referee who spent a dozen years on a local school board and first won election to the Missouri House in 2006. Only after other likely candidates bowed out did he belatedly enter the race Wednesday night to run in a June 4 special election against Republican state Rep. Jason Smith, who was nominated by his party last weekend.

In accepting the nomination, Hodges recalled his son Andrew's valedictorian address at West Point. "He said opportunities sometimes only come along once in your life," Hodges said. "And he said it's your choice to decide whether to accept that opportunity or let it pass. I thought about it a great deal for several days this week and I thought I think God is presenting this as an opportunity for me. So I need to decide whether this is something I should take advantage of or let pass by because it's not going to happen again."

Missouri's 8th District stretches across 30 counties, from the outer suburbs of St. Louis south to the agricultural-base of the Missouri Bootheel and west to the rolling Ozark hills. The district's residents are the poorest and least educated in Missouri, with a median household income of less than $36,000 and more than 85 percent lacking bachelor's degrees. For 32 years, much of the area had been represented by either Bill Emerson or Jo Ann Emerson, who succeeded her husband after he died in 1996. Jo Ann Emerson resigned Jan. 22 to become president and CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. Although of opposite political parties, Hodges praised the Emersons and vowed to continue their legacies of supporting labor and agriculture. He also stressed the need to balance the budget.

Hodges described Smith, the Republican nominee, as a friend and said he hoped to conduct the campaign as friends. "That was the way I was reared," he said. "But in politics as Gov. (Jay) Nixon has said, `There is no second place.' There are only winners and losers, and I hope to give you a winner."

Smith, an attorney, farmer and real estate partner, won a special election to the Missouri House of Representatives in November 2005. Because of term limits, Smith, 32, is now one of the most senior members of the chamber. After serving as majority party whip, his colleagues elected him in January as House speaker pro tem - the No. 2 ranking position.
Published in Local News
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