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WASHINGTON (AP) — These days, it sounds like an improbable fairy tale: politicians with deeply differing visions of America setting aside disagreements to reach a grand compromise on a critical issue.

That's exactly what happened in 1790, when the Founding Fathers overlooked their parochial interests — and defied their staunchest backers — by agreeing, for the good of the fledgling union, to put America's capital in a neutral place along the Potomac River.

Would the same outcome happen today? Fat chance.

In this polarized and partisan era, Washington careens from one crisis to the next even as the country faces huge problems that threaten its standing in the world. With power divided on Capitol Hill, bipartisan solutions are necessary. And yet, while both Democrats and Republicans talk a lot about compromise — a cross-the-aisle, solutions-driven approach — few seem willing to give ground to fix what ails the nation.

The latest example is the stalemate over deep budget cuts set to take effect Friday, absent a bipartisan deal. The cuts likely will inconvenience average Americans and may slow the nation's fragile economic recovery. Both sides are dug in on their ideological positions. President Barack Obama and his Democrats want more tax increases, while Republicans demand more spending cuts.

This is the fifth fiscal standoff since this period of divided government began in 2011, when Republicans took over the House while Democrats continued to control the Senate. In the other cases, both sides reached mini-deals to avert immediate crisis — only to ignore the larger issues. Skyrocketing debt and persistent deficits. Rampant waste, fraud and abuse. Budget-busting Social Security and Medicaid programs.

Why does Washington get so caught up this cycle of panic — whether manufactured or real — only to ultimately put a Band-Aid on the country's biggest gushers without ever mending the underlying wounds?

Politicians have little incentive to take the risk of working with the opposing party to reach solutions that will fundamentally fix a problem. They operate in a system that makes it hard to roll the dice because they're putting their own jobs on the line. Robust Republican and Democratic parties — and their conservative and liberal activists, whose voices drown out the centrist Americans seeking remedies — usually rebuke them rather than reward them.

"Rebels, risk takers and creative thinkers are marginalized early and are seldom promoted up the ladder of local/state/national politics," says David A. Drupa of the Society for Risk Analysis.

These days, he says, politicians seem to be allowing the short-term benefit for themselves — winning re-election — drive their decision-making, without getting far enough along in their return-on-investment analysis to examine the long-term benefit for the nation.

"They're trying to win the next battle, the next matchup, the next race, at all our peril," Drupa says.

Both parties promise to use their bank accounts to protect lawmakers who stick with their ideological positions, and punish those who don't. Deep-pocketed groups on the far right and far left also go after those deemed unfaithful.

At the same time, party leaders have proven extraordinarily successful in drawing congressional boundaries in a way that actually discourages House members from collaborating and all but ensures their re-elections if they don't. Most districts are stocked with hard-core Republicans and Democrats who typically will vote for lawmakers only if they demonstrate consistent party loyalty.

So the easy thing for lawmakers to do is just that. It's much harder to meet in the middle.

Thus, when Washington's players do end up compromising on the meaty matters, it's usually in a piecemeal way that kicks the larger problems to future generations. Those who dare to try to solve the big problems typically find they lack the juice, lose re-election or get so fed up with the gridlock that they retire.

All this is precisely what George Washington worried would happen if the country devolved into factions.

"He thought political parties would tear up the union and it wouldn't survive," says Willard Sterne Randall, a biographer and historian who has written several books on the Founding Fathers.

The first president's fear of factionalism was so great that he decided on a second term as Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, whose political bases were businessmen and farmers, respectively, battled over competing visions for the union.

Yet while they differed, they also compromised when necessary — as they did during the "Dinner Table Bargain" that resulted in Washington becoming the nation's capital instead of New York, Philadelphia or elsewhere.

"They weren't at each other's throats politically. They could get together on a major issue," Randall says. "They wanted the union to survive, so they compromised where they had to for the good of it. That's the kind of tone there was. They were pragmatic idealists, and in Congress now, they are ideologues."

So how do we get back to those more reasonable roots?

The Democratic and Republican parties are strong, and they probably won't face serious threats from third parties in the near future. They certainly won't eliminate gerrymandering unless voters force it.

So maybe it's time for something radical, or at least radically reasonable. Maybe this is the moment for a few of the frustrated Americans in the middle — many of whom reject the extremes, complain about stalemate and fear for the nation's future — to take a risk.

What if they stepped forward as candidates with a promise that they'll do only what they think will solve the country's big problems, regardless of what it could mean for their political careers? What if they rejected the strict adherence to orthodoxy that party bosses demand? What if they promised to only serve one term, choosing explicitly to put the country's future over their own?

And then, by not going to Congress primarily to get re-elected, they just might end up with a surprising reward: getting re-elected.

Wouldn't the country — not to mention this supposedly neutral city on the banks of the Potomac — be better for it?

___ EDITOR'S NOTE — Liz Sidoti is the national politics editor for The Associated Press. Follow her on Twitter:
WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Barack Obama is arguing that looming government-wide spending cuts could idle military resources like naval aircraft carriers, while Republicans are criticizing the president for taking his arguments outside Washington instead of staying to work out a plan before Friday's deadline.

The president planned to appear Tuesday at Virginia's largest industrial employer, Newport News Shipbuilding, which would be affected by cuts to naval spending. Obama warned Monday that if the so-called sequester goes into effect later this week, the company's "workers will sit idle when they should be repairing ships, and a carrier sits idle when it should be deploying to the Persian Gulf."

Obama urged Congress to compromise to avoid the cuts, but there has been no indication the White House and congressional Republicans are actively negotiating a deal. The last known conversation between Obama and GOP leaders was last week, and there have been no in-person meetings between the parties this year.

Obama wants to replace the sequester with a package of targeted cuts and tax increases, while Republican leaders insist the savings should come from reduced spending alone.

Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, chair of the House Republican Conference, criticized Obama for traveling to southern Virginia rather than up the street to Capitol Hill to come up with a solution.

"We need the president to stop campaigning for higher taxes, come back here to Washington, D.C., and lead," McMorris Rodgers said during a news conference Monday with GOP leaders.

"We're very concerned about the impact of the sequester. This was President Obama's idea," she said Tuesday in an appearance on "CBS This Morning."

"The Republicans, almost 300 days ago, put forward our plan," she said. "There's a smarter, better way to do it," Rodgers said.

The sequester was designed as an unpalatable fallback, meant to take effect only if a congressional super-committee failed to come up with at least $1 trillion in savings from benefit programs.

The White House has warned the $85 billion in cuts could affect everything from commercial flights to classrooms to meat inspections. The cuts would slash domestic and defense spending, leading to furloughs for hundreds of thousands of workers.

In Virginia alone, the White House says, about 90,000 civilians working for the Defense Department would be furloughed for a cut of nearly $650 million in gross pay. The White House also says the sequester would cancel maintenance of 11 ships in Norfolk, as well as delaying other projects around the area.

The Navy has already delayed a long-planned overhaul of the USS Abraham Lincoln at Newport News Shipbuilding as a result of the budget uncertainty, and other plans call for delaying the construction of other ships.

Obama planned to travel Tuesday with two Virginia congressmen, Democrat Bobby Scott and Republican Scott Rigell.

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., offered a potential way out of the stalemate Monday by indicating he was open to raising tax revenue if Obama offered to overhaul big-ticket entitlement programs. Many Republicans say they are done raising revenue after letting taxes on top earners increase in December.

"I'll raise revenue. Will you reform entitlements?" Graham said in a challenge to the president on CNN. "And both together, we'll set aside sequestration in a way that won't disrupt the economy and hurt the Defense Department."
ALMATY, Kazakhstan (AP) -- World powers began a new round of high-level talks with Iranian officials Tuesday, trying to find a way out of a yearslong tussle over Tehran's nuclear program and its feared ability to make atomic weapons in the future.

Few believe the latest attempt to forge a compromise will yield any major breakthroughs, but negotiators are optimistically casting it as a stepping stone toward reaching a workable solution.

Officials described the latest diplomatic discussions as a way to build confidence with Iran as the country steadfastly maintains its right to enrich uranium in the face of harsh international sanctions.

"The offer addresses the international concern on the exclusively peaceful nature of the Iranian nuclear program, but it is also responsive to Iranian ideas," said Michael Mann, spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who is leading the negotiations. "We've put some proposals forward which will hopefully allow Iran to show some flexibility."

Mehdi Mohammadi, a member of the Iranian delegation, said Tehran was prepared to make an offer of its own to end the deadlock but will resist some of the West's core demands.

The Obama administration is pushing for diplomacy to solve the impasse but has not ruled out the possibility of military intervention in Iran to prevent it from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Israel has threatened it will use all means to stop Iran from being able to build a bomb, potentially as soon as this summer, raising the specter of a possible Mideast war.

A senior U.S. official at the talks said Monday that some sanctions relief would be part of the offer to Iran but refused to elaborate. The new relief is part of a package that the U.S. official said included "substantive changes."

The official acknowledged reports earlier this month that sanctions would be eased to allow Iran's gold trade to progress, but would neither confirm nor deny they are included in the new relief offer, and spoke only on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive diplomatic talks more candidly.

In a statement before the talks began Tuesday, the Interfax news agency cited Russia's envoy as saying the easing of sanctions was possible only if Iran can assure the world that its nuclear program is for exclusively peaceful purposes.

"There is no certainty that the Iranian nuclear program lacks a military dimension, although there is also no evidence that there is a military dimension," Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said.

China's Foreign Ministry said diplomacy offered the only route to resolve the dispute and called for all sides to show flexibility.

"We think the Iranian nuclear issue is very complicated and sensitive. All parties should have firm confidence in peacefully resolving the issue through dialogue and negotiation and take an objective and pragmatic attitude," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a daily briefing in Beijing.

Members of the Chinese and Iranian delegations met at a bilateral session before the main talks got under way.

Interfax cited an unidentified Iranian delegation member as saying Iran might also hold one-on-one talks with Russia, but ruled out direct negotiations with the United States in Almaty.

Officials from both sides have set low expectations for a breakthrough in Almaty - the first time the high-level negotiators have met since last June's meeting in Moscow that threatened to derail the delicate efforts.

While Mann acknowledged the Almaty talks would unlikely lead to a firm, he insisted that it remained an important stepping stone toward a definitive solution.

"We're not interested in talks just for talk's sake. We're not here to talk, we're here to make concrete progress," he said.

The first session talks are being held in private at a hotel in Almaty, Kazakhstan's largest city, and were deemed so sensitive that reporters were not allowed on the premises Tuesday save for a small handful of TV cameras and photographers allowed to watch Ashton greet Saeed Jalili, secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council.

The opening round Tuesday afternoon lasted 2 1/2 hours.

Tehran maintains it is enriching uranium only to make reactor fuel and medical isotopes, and insists it has a right to do so under international law. It has signaled it does not intend to stop, and U.N. nuclear inspectors last week confirmed Iran has begun a major upgrade of its program at the country's main uranium enrichment site.

Over the last eight months, the international community has imposed harsh economic sanctions on Iran that U.S. officials said have, among other things, cut the nation's daily oil output by 1 million barrels and slashed its employment rate. Western powers have hoped that the Iranian public would suffer under sanctions so the government would feel a moral obligation to slow its nuclear program.

The six world powers - United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany -want Iran to suspend enrichment in its underground Fordo nuclear facility, and to ship its stockpile of high-grade uranium out of the country.

Mohammadi said that the shuttering of Fordo was "out of the question."

Negotiators hope that easing some of the sanctions will make Tehran more agreeable to halting production of 20 percent enriched uranium - the highest grade of enrichment that Iran has acknowledged and one that experts say could be turned into warhead grade in a matter of months.

Mohammadi said Iran would only agree to that stipulation on the condition of UN Security Council sanctions being suspended.

But an analysis released Monday by the International Crisis Group concluded that the web of international sanctions have become so entrenched in Iran's political and economic systems that they cannot be easily lifted piece by piece. It found that Tehran's clerical regime has begun adapting its policy to the sanctions, despite their crippling effect on the Iranian public. Doing so, the analysis concluded, has divided the public's anger "between a regime viewed as incompetent and an outside world seen as uncaring."

Iran has been unimpressed with earlier offers by the powers to provide it with medical isotopes and lift sanctions on spare parts for civilian airliners, and new bargaining chips that Tehran sees as minor are likely to be snubbed as well. Iran insists, as a starting point, that world powers must recognize the republic's right to enrich uranium.

A disciplinary hearing is underway this week to determine if a St. Louis police suspended for allegedly assaulting a suspect should lose his job or be reinstated.

The incident happened at the Lumiere Place Casino last July. Officer Charles Proctor is accused of using excessive force while arresting trespassing suspect Jermaine Lacy.

Police department lawyer, Jessica Liss is arguing that Proctor used excessive force, racial slurs and obscenities during the arrest.

Proctor's lawyer, Chet Pleban, says Lacy faked his injuries and just wants to profit from a police brutality lawsuit he has filed.

Lacy is expected to testify Tuesday.
Tuesday, 26 February 2013 04:28
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