Nation & World News

Lawmakers Announce $17 Billion Deal Intended To Fix VA System

By Eyder Peralta on July 28th, 2014 | Last updated: July 29, 2014 at 10:53 am

This post was updated at 3 p.m. ET:

House and Senate negotiators unveiled a $17 billion plan Monday to address the crisis in care for veterans.

The agreement would provide $10 billion to allow veterans to be treated outside the Veterans Affairs system, if they’ve had trouble getting appointments within it. More than two dozen clinics would be leased around the country, with $5 billion spent to hire additional doctors, nurses and other medical personnel at the VA.

The bill “makes certain that we address the immediate crisis of veterans being forced onto long waiting lists for health care,” said Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., at a news conference with Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., his House counterpart.

Our original post continues:

The Washington Post reports the deal struck by the chiefs of the House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs committees would “provide funding to hire more doctors, nurses and other health-care professionals.” The New York Times says the deal calls for new facilities, upgrading the scheduling system and allowing “veterans who live far from a V.A. facility or who face wait times that exceed a certain duration to see private doctors, and have those visits paid for by the government.”

As we’ve been reporting, the VA has been engulfed in controversy over allegations that the agency falsified documents and allowed sick veterans to languish in its bureaucracy.

Quoting an unnamed aide, Politico writes that the deal struck by Sanders and Miller will touch “both the short-term and long-term needs of the VA.”

However, NPR’s Ron Elving tells Morning Edition that this may only be “an agreement to agree.” There are still many unanswered questions — the big one is how Congress would pay for a bill like this.

Politico explains:

“While Sanders and Senate Democrats prefer the bill’s costs to be treated as emergency spending, there is a strong push from Republicans to raise revenue or make other cuts to offset the bill’s costs as much as possible.

“Even before the deal was struck, lawmakers like Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) were pressing to make sure there was a clear portrait of the bill’s final price tag before it gets a vote in either chamber. The Senate’s original bill flew through the chamber before the Congressional Budget Office could give a precise estimate of the bill’s fiscal impacts. The CBO’s preliminary numbers contained the eye-popping estimate that veterans seeking additional care could cost the government an additional $50 billion a year, a number that was disputed by some senators.”

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Book News: The Clash Of The Comic(-)Cons

By Annalisa Quinn on July 28th, 2014 | Last updated: July 29, 2014 at 10:53 am

The daily lowdown on books, publishing, and the occasional author behaving badly.

  • The nation’s biggest comic book convention has issued a cease-and-desist letter to the nation’s third-biggest comic book convention over the use of the name “Comic Con,” The Associated Press reports. A lawyer for San Diego’s Comic-Con wrote to the Salt Lake City Comic Con (whose name doesn’t have a hyphen): “Attendees, exhibitors and fans seeing use of ‘Comic Con’ in connection with your convention will incorrectly assume that your convention is in some way affiliated with [ours].” In a statement quoted by the AP, Salt Lake Comic Con co-founder Dan Farr said, “We’re puzzled why Salt Lake Comic Con was apparently singled out amongst the hundreds of Comic Cons around the country and the world.” And the story notes that Salt Lake event co-founder Bryan Brandenburg says San Diego Comic-Con tried and failed to trademark “Comic Con” in 1995. [On a related note, check out this report on cosplay from NPR's Petra Mayer from San Diego's Comic-Con.]
  • “One Saturday night, Tsukuru and Haida were up talking late as usual when they turned to the subject of death.” — Slate has an excerpt of Haruki Murakami’s upcoming book, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.
  • Alice Bolin writes about Joan Didion, Los Angeles and sensationalism in an essay in The Believer: “It seems that murder stories inspire Didion with a special dread: attempting to lay thematic order over dumb chaos and cruelty starkly and distastefully reveals the cheapness of narrative.”

Notable Books Coming Out This Week:

  • Yelena Akhtiorskaya’s messy, charming debut novel Panic in a Suitcase follows a Ukrainian Jewish immigrant family in their journey from the cramped apartments and grey beaches of Odessa all the way to the cramped apartments and grey beaches of Brighton Beach in Brooklyn, N.Y. The Nasmertovs try to leave Odessa behind but find that they “hadn’t ventured bravely into a new land, they’d borrowed a tiny nook at the very rear of someone else’s crumbling estate to make a tidy replication of the messy, imperfect original they’d gone through so many hurdles to escape, imprisoning themselves in their own lack of imagination.”
  • Sgt. Lester Ferris is stationed on the fictional island of Mancreu, trying to keep a semblance of order while island society disintegrates around him. After meeting a comics-obsessed teenager, he decides to try to turn things around in the guise of Tigerman. For NPR, Jason Sheehan calls Tigerman the “kind of good that makes you wonder why every book isn’t this smart and joyous and beautiful and heartbreaking; that makes you a little bit pissed off that you ever gave away bits of your life to reading worse books, and sad that so many trees get wasted on authors with less grace, less surety, less confidence than this man who can throw comic books, video games, post-colonial guilt, the longing ache of the childless, murder, tea drinking and mystical tigers all together in a big hat, shake it vigorously, and draw from the resultant, jumbled mess something so beautiful.”
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Vincenzo Nibali First Italian In 15 Years To Win Tour De France

By Scott Neuman on July 27th, 2014 | Last updated: July 27, 2014 at 2:40 pm

Vincenzo Nibali has officially won this year’s Tour de France, becoming the first Italian cyclist to do so since 1998 with a ride past fans lining Paris’ Champs-Elysees.

As we reported on Saturday, Nibali, riding for Astana Pro Team, had worn the yellow jersey through most of the three-week competition that had been marked by bad weather and the relatively quick elimination of some of the favorites.

On an overcast Sunday in the French capital, Nibali rode past the Arc de Triomphe on his way to the winner’s podium.

The New York Times sums up his victory, acknowledging that “To some extent, Nibali benefited from the misfortune of others.

“Chris Froome, the defending champion from Britain, quit early in the three-week race after three crashes in the miserable rain and cold that made the Tour sometimes seem as if was being run in the early spring. Then Alberto Contador, who has won the Tour three times although his 2010 title was stripped for doping, hit a sinkhole and broke his leg, again on a damp and chilly day.

“But Nibali, 29, … did not cruise to a win by default. He won four stages of the Tour. Three of them came in each of the mountain ranges the ranges the Tour traversed this year: the Vosges, the Alps and the Pyrenees. All of the wins were decisive.

“Adding to the list, Nibali, wore the yellow race leader’s jersey 19 of the 21 stages.”

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U.S.: Satellite Images Show Russian Rockets Hitting Ukraine

By Scott Neuman on July 27th, 2014 | Last updated: July 27, 2014 at 5:42 pm

Update at 4:05 p.m. ET.

The U.S. State Department has released satellite images it says back up the assertion by Washington and Kiev that Russian forces are firing artillery into eastern Ukraine in support of separatists.

In a four-page document titled Evidence of Russian Shelling into Ukraine, released Sunday, blast marks from rocket launches in Russia and craters in Ukraine can be seen, the State Department says.

The document also shows “self-propelled artillery only found in Russian military units, on the Russian side of the border, oriented in the direction of a Ukrainian military unit within Ukraine.”

It also states that: “Russia-backed separatists have used heavy artillery, provided by Russia, in attacks on Ukrainian forces from inside Ukraine.”

The images are attributed to the U.S. Director of National Intelligence and were taken between July 21 and July 26, officials say — days after the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.

According to The Associated Press, they “claim to show multiple rocket launchers fired at Ukrainian forces from within Ukraine and from Russian soil. One image shows dozens of craters around a Ukrainian military unit and rockets that can travel more than 7 miles.”

The release of the satellite images comes after the U.S. said last week that it had obtained “new evidence” that Russian forces were firing artillery across the border, a charge that Kiev has made repeatedly and loudly in recent days.

It also comes as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry reportedly agreed in a telephone conversation Sunday on the importance of a cease-fire in eastern Ukraine, according to Reuters.

In a Russian Foreign Ministry statement carried by the news agency, Moscow describes the crisis in Ukraine as an “internal conflict.”

A readout of the conversation issued by the State Department says Kerry “urged Foreign Minister Lavrov to stop the flow of heavy weapons and rocket and artillery fire from Russia into Ukraine, and to begin to contribute to deescalating the conflict.”

The secretary of state “did not accept Foreign Minister Lavrov’s denial that heavy weapons from Russia were contributing to the conflict,” it said.

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Judges Overturns D.C. Ban On Handguns In Public

By Scott Neuman on July 27th, 2014 | Last updated: July 27, 2014 at 12:40 pm

A federal judge has overturned a District of Columbia ban on carrying handguns in public, concluding that the Second Amendment protects a person’s right to firearms outside the home.

In a 19-page ruling that was written on Thursday, but only released late Saturday, Judge Frederick J. Scullin Jr. ordered the city to allow residents to carry handguns — a milestone in a case that has been dragging on for five years.

“There is no longer any basis on which this court can conclude that the District of Columbia’s total ban on the public carrying of ready-to-use handguns outside the home is constitutional under any level of scrutiny,” Scullin of the District of Columbia District Court said. “Therefore, the court finds that the District of Columbia’s complete ban on the carrying of handguns in public is unconstitutional.”

By way of background, The New York Times notes: “In 2008, the Supreme Court struck down the District of Columbia’s all-out ban on handguns on the basis that it violated the right to bear arms guaranteed by the Constitution’s Second Amendment. An appeals court in 2011 required handguns to be registered.”

The Associated Press says the challenge, Palmer v. District of Columbia, came shortly after the city rewrote its gun laws following the landmark 2008 decision.

AP says: “New rules allowed residents to keep guns in their homes but required that they be registered. Gun owners now have to take a safety class, be photographed and fingerprinted and re-register their weapons every three years. Those requirements have also been challenged in court but were upheld by a federal judge in May.”

It was not immediately clear if the D.C. government would appeal the decision.

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Birth Of 100-Millionth Person In Philippines Greeted With Joy, Concern

By Scott Neuman on July 27th, 2014 | Last updated: July 27, 2014 at 11:41 am

The Philippines on Sunday welcomed its 100-millionth citizen — a baby girl named Chonalyn who was born at a hospital in the capital, Manila.

Juan Antonio Perez III, executive director of the Commission on Population, announced the official milestone after the birth at Jose Fabella Memorial Hospital, which has one of the busiest maternity wards in the world. The 6-pound Chonalyn arrived shortly after midnight Manila time.

The Associated Press describes the baby “[wrapped] in a blanket and pink bonnet and cradled by her beaming mother.” It says “Chonalyn was showered with a cake, infant clothes and other gifts by health and population commission officials at a hospital ceremony.”

But the celebration is mixed with concern in the Philippines, a predominately Catholic country with one of the fastest growing populations in Asia. Many in the country struggle to meet the basic necessities of life.

“We are faced with the challenge of providing for all 100 million Filipinos,” Perez acknowledged about the otherwise happy event.

In response to that challenge, millions of Filipinos are forced to work abroad as healthcare workers, construction workers, household maids and au pairs in places such as Saudi Arabia, Hong Kong, Europe and North America. The money they send home as “foreign remittances” provides a lifeline to the Philippine economy.

“The government can no longer give them jobs. That’s the reason why many are leaving the country,” Ben de Leon, president of the Forum for Family Planning and Development, is quoted by Xinhua as saying.

The AP quotes the United Nations Population Fund as saying that the population milestone offers both challenges and opportunities to the Philippines, which is the world’s 12th most populous country.

“It is important to emphasize that population is not merely a matter of numbers, but of human rights and opportunities,” says Klaus Beck, the UNPF’s Philippines representative.

With 54 percent of its population under the age of 25, the Philippines needs to provide the young with education, job opportunities and skills, he says.

Ernesto Pernia, a former lead economist for the Asia Development Bank, told American Public Radio’s Marketplace in 2012 that the Philippines “is already beyond its carrying capacity.” That same year, Philippine President Benigo Aquino III signed a law directing government health centers to provide free access to contraception, but the measure was challenged in court by representatives of the Roman Catholic church.

However, earlier this year, the country’s Supreme Court upheld the 2012 law.

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Libyan Conflict Rages After U.S. Shuts Embassy

By Scott Neuman on July 27th, 2014 | Last updated: July 27, 2014 at 3:41 pm

Updated at 12:05 p.m. ET.

Clashes between renegade Libyan army troops and Islamist-led militias have killed at least 38 people, including civilians, in and around the eastern city of Benghazi. The fighting comes a day after the U.S. temporarily shuttered its embassy in Tripoli and evacuated diplomatic personnel to neighboring Tunisia, citing security concerns.

The Associated Press quotes an unnamed security official as saying the fighting has been between forces loyal to Gen. Khalifa Hifter and Islamist militias that started Saturday and has continued through early Sunday morning.

According to AP: “The official said commando forces regained control of four military camps captured by Islamist militias in the past few days. Health officials say rockets fired during the fighting hit civilian homes, causing casualties and wounding dozens of people.”

Separately, 23 Egyptians working in the capital, Tripoli, were killed when a rocket hit their home on Saturday, Egypt’s state news agency reports.

NPR’s Leila Fadel says that “[rival] militias in the capital continue to fight for control of the international airport.”

Reuters notes: “In the last two weeks, Libya has descended into its deadliest violence since the 2011 war that ousted Muammar Gaddafi.”

Warplanes hit militant positions belonging to Ansar al-Sharia and another militant group in Benghazi, the news agency says.

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Fighting Near MH17 Crash Site In Ukraine Thwarts Investigators

By Scott Neuman on July 27th, 2014 | Last updated: July 27, 2014 at 2:40 pm

Updated at 1:00 p.m. ET.

Dutch experts charged with investigating the downing of a jetliner over eastern Ukraine have cancelled plans to reach the wreckage site amid fighting in the area between government forces and rebels.

NPR’s Corey Flintoff reports from Donetsk, that as the fighting continues, “Ukrainian government troops appear to be gaining ground against the pro-Russian paramilitaries who control the wreckage site.”

“Government troops are reported to be advancing on a key town north of Donetsk, and there is continued fighting on the edge of Donetsk itself,” he says.

The BBC reports:

“The investigators, who are currently in Donetsk, have struggled to gain access to the rebel-controlled crash site, despite a truce between Ukrainian troops and separatist forces.

“‘There is fighting going on. We can’t take the risk,’ said Alexander Hug, of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

“‘The security situation on the way to the site and on the site itself is unacceptable for our unarmed observer mission,’ he added.”

The BBC says shelling was reported near the town of Grabove close to the MH17 crash and that rebels have prevented journalists from reaching the site. Ukrainian government forces are reportedly nearby.

Since Flight MH17 crashed on July 17, killing all 298 aboard, access to the debris field has been hampered by gun-battles between Ukrainian forces and rebels blamed for shooting down the plane with a surface-to-air missile.

The latest snag in reaching the plane follows an announcement by Malaysia’s prime minister that an agreement had been reached with the rebels to let international police and investigators access the site.

Most of the passengers on the flight were Dutch and the Netherlands is leading the probe into the cause of the crash.

Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department on Sunday released satellite imagery it says proves Russian forces have fired rockets and artillery into eastern Ukraine in support of the rebels.

Moscow, which has been on the receiving end of U.S. and European ire for its backing of the Russian-speaking rebels, has reacted angrily to the latest round of EU sanctions, with the Kremlin saying the move will hamper cooperation and undermine the fight against terrorism and organized crime.

Reuters also quotes Russia’s Foreign Ministry as accusing the U.S. “of contributing to the conflict in Ukraine through its support for the pro-Western government in Kiev.”

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Israel Resumes Gaza Offensive As Hamas Offers New Cease-Fire

By Camila Domonoske on July 27th, 2014 | Last updated: July 28, 2014 at 12:41 am

Update at 10:05 p.m. ET:

The U.N. Security Council has agreed on a statement calling for “an immediate and unconditional humanitarian cease-fire” in Gaza, reports the Associated Press.

A meeting is scheduled at midnight to adopt it. The AP has more:

The presidential statement, obtained by The Associated Press, says the humanitarian cease-fire would allow for the delivery of urgently needed assistance. It urges Israel and Hamas “to accept and fully implement the humanitarian cease-fire into the Eid period and beyond.”

The statement also calls on the parties “to engage in efforts to achieve a durable and fully respected cease-fire, based on the Egyptian initiative.”

Rwanda, the current council president, announced agreement Sunday night on the presidential statement and the immediate meeting. It was drafted by Jordan, the Arab representative on the U.N.’s most powerful body.

Our original post continues:

Israel has resumed military operations in the Gaza Strip after offers, counteroffers and accusations surrounding the establishment of a new 24-hour humanitarian truce seemed to go nowhere.

After a 12-hour cease-fire that ended on Saturday, there had been talk of extending the truce, but at first, Hamas reportedly rejected the offer. But by Sunday afternoon, Israel time, the Islamist group had reportedly agreed to a 24-hour cease-fire to coincide with the beginning of Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim holiday that ends the holy month of Ramadan.

But Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking on CNN Sunday, accused Hamas of breaking its own cease-fire.

“It’s continuing to fire at us as we speak,” Netanyahu said, adding that Israel “will take what ever action is necessary to protect our people.”

Daniel Estrin, reporting from Jerusalem for NPR, says “Initially, Israel was adhering to a 24-hour ceasefire of its own, but called it off after Hamas fired rockets.”

On CBS’ Face the Nation, the Israeli premier also accused the Palestinians of using civilians as “human shields” and that despite growing concern over the dead in the 19-day offensive, said Israel would not flinch from the operation.

Gaza Health Ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Kidra says the total number of Palestinian dead stands at 1,032, including 236 children, with 6,233 wounded. Israel says 45 of its citizens, mostly soldiers, have been killed in the fighting as well as a guest worker from Thailand.

Natanyahu told CBS that Israel is not targeting civilians but that Hamas wants a high civilian body count as a propaganda tool for international media.

The White House issued a readout of conversation between President Obama and Netanyahu on Sunday, saying the president “underscored the United States’ strong condemnation of Hamas’ rocket and tunnel attacks against Israel and reaffirmed Israel’s right to defend itself … [and] also reiterated the United States’ serious and growing concern about the rising number of Palestinian civilian deaths and the loss of Israeli lives, as well as the worsening humanitarian situation in Gaza.”

The initial 12-hour cease-fire had begun on Saturday morning, giving Gaza residents the chance to stock up on supplies after a nearly three-week Israeli offensive against Hamas militants. Israel then offered a four-hour extension, which Hamas rejected.

Hamas resumed attacks shortly after the initial cease-fire expired at 1 p.m. ET Saturday (8 p.m. Israeli time), firing rockets and mortars at several communities in southern Israel, as NPR’s Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reported from Jerusalem.

Then late Saturday night, Israel’s security Cabinet voted to extend the cease-fire for an additional 24 hours, until midnight Israeli time on Sunday. But as NPR’s Emily Harris reported from Gaza, Hamas did not accept the terms of the truce.

“An Israeli government official said troops will remain in Gaza during an extended cease-fire and will keep destroying tunnels, weapons and other infrastructure used by militant groups,” Harris reported for our Newscast unit. “Hamas’ spokesman said in a statement it will not accept any cease-fire that doesn’t include Israeli troops withdrawing from Gaza.”

Israel, meanwhile, will only accept a cease-fire that allows soldiers to remain in Gaza and destroy dozens of tunnels the IDF has located, reports The Associated Press.

The IDF says that after midnight Saturday, during the proposed truce extension, about a dozen rockets were fired toward Israel; the rockets caused no casualties or damage, according to the AP.

In addition to the rocket fire, Israel’s military says one of their soldiers was killed by a mortar during the cease-fire, Reuters reports. In total, IDF reports 43 Israeli soldiers killed in the conflict and three civilians.

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Ukrainian Troops Said Poised To Retake Rebel-Held Donetsk

By Scott Neuman on July 26th, 2014 | Last updated: July 26, 2014 at 3:40 pm

Ukrainian forces were reportedly advancing on rebel positions near the key eastern town of Donetsk on Saturday, as they try to retake the separatist stronghold.

Donetsk is the region where Malaysia Airlines MH17 was shot down on July 17, killing nearly 300 people. Pro-Russian rebels have been blamed for downing the plane and they have hampered international efforts to access the site of the wreckage.

The Washington Post says: “Government troops are currently battling rebels in the nearby town of Horlivka and have blocked all roads leading out of Donetsk to prevent the insurgents from replenishing supplies and fighters or escaping, said Andriy Lysenko of the Ukrainian Security and Defense Council. Once Horlivka is under Ukrainian control again, he said, the army will move to retake Donetsk, a city where pro-Russian separatists have held sway for months while declaring it the Donetsk People’s Republic. The Ukrainian military has ousted rebels from 10 surrounding villages and towns in the past week.”

According to the AP, the move comes “as Ukrainian forces appear to have gained some momentum recently by retaking control of territory from the rebels. But Russia also appears to becoming more involved in the fighting, with the U.S. and Ukraine accusing Moscow of moving heavily artillery across the border to the rebels.”

As we reported earlier this week, the U.S. has said it has “new evidence” that Russian forces were lobbing artillery across the border and that Moscow was planning to ship powerful multiple rocket launcher systems to the pro-Russian separatists fighting in eastern Ukraine.

NPR’s Corey Flintoff, reporting from Donetsk, says Ukrainian officials have been accusing Russian troops for days of firing across the border

“The allegations come as separatists appear to be losing ground in the face of a Ukrainian offensive,” Corey says.

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