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Analysis, background reports and updates from the PBS NewsHour putting today's news in context.

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    AUSTIN, Texas — An avid Twitter user, Donald Trump has attracted more than his fair share of trolls. Now, he may be ready to name one of them to the Supreme Court.

    Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett is on the list of 11 potential high court justices the presumptive Republican nominee plans to vet to fill the seat of late Justice Antonin Scalia if he’s elected to the White House. The Republican Willett has a reputation as a strong conservative with an ironic sense of humor, and his Twitter presence is so pronounced that Texas’ Legislature last year named him honorary “Tweeter Laureate.”

    One problem, though: Willett has repeatedly used Twitter — and his famously biting wit — to mock Trump.

    Last summer, Willett used his Twitter account, @JusticeWillett, to take a swipe at Trump’s conservatism, tweeting: “Can’t wait till Trump rips off his face Mission Impossible-style & reveals a laughing Ruth Bader Ginsburg.” Supreme Court Justice Ginsburg is famously liberal.

    Willett has poked fun at Trump’s plan to build a wall the length of the U.S.-Mexico border and stick Mexico with the bill: “We’ll rebuild the Death Star. It’ll be amazing, believe me. And the rebels will pay for it.”

    And he laughed about the controversy over Trump University: “Low-energy Trump University has never made it to #MarchMadness. Or even to the #NIT. Sad!”

    Willett was also fond of using props to reinforce his displeasure with Trump, like a weeping religious icon over the message “Trump to ‘the evangelicals’ __ ‘I’ll be the best thing that’s ever happened to them.'” Willett added a postscript to that message: “Happy Easter everyone!”

    He also gleefully tweeted a chart featuring the separation of the three branches of government after a February Republican debate, when Trump mistakenly spoke about Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito “signing” a bill.

    Willett even used an unflattering haiku to scoff at whom Trump might name to the Supreme Court — which could be himself, as it turns out.

    Mobbed by reporters Wednesday when he showed up at a Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s book signing in Austin just as news of Trump’s high court short list was breaking, Willett giggled at the attention. He said he was “exercising judicial restraint” by not commenting and left.

    Meanwhile, Willett began trending on certain corners of Twitter, as word of his past Trump criticism on social media spread.

    Willett was appointed to Texas’ highest civil court in August 2005 by then-Gov. Rick Perry, who ran for president against Trump and was also one of his harshest critics — but now says he’s changed his mind. Willett won re-election to six-year terms in 2006 and 2012.

    “I’m the most avid judicial tweeter in America, which is like being the tallest Munchkin in Oz,” Willett told The Associated Press last year, after the state Legislature saluted his social media prowess.

    Willett sometimes tweets 10-plus times per day, but insisted then that he is ever-cautious, careful not to discuss issues that could come before his court. That same restraint might have served him well when it came to Trump’s potential Supreme Court.

    SUBSCRIBE: Get the analysis of Mark Shields and David Brooks delivered to your inbox every week.

    The post One of Trump’s potential court nominees has a history of mocking him on Twitter appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: “Hunger is the handmaid of genius.” That’s Mark Twain.

    In this latest edition to the “NewsHour” Bookshelf, Jeffrey Brown explores the long, complicated tale of Twain’s own life, and how one of America’s greatest writers was also a pioneering stand-up comic.

    JEFFREY BROWN: In 1894, at age 59, Mark Twain was the highest-paid writer in the land, a national celebrity, author of “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” “Huckleberry Finn,” “The Prince and the Pauper,” and a slew of other books that are still required reading more than 100 years after his death.

    But he was also nearly broke, after several investments and business projects went bust.

    A new book captures what happened next, “Chasing the Last Laugh: Mark Twain’s Raucous and Redemptive Round-the-World Comedy Tour.” It tells of Twain’s travels and performances across the American West, to Australia and New Zealand, India and South Africa.

    I joined author Richard Zacks recently at one of Mark Twain’s favorite Washington, D.C., haunts, the historic Willard Hotel and its Round Robin Bar.

    So, we know Mark Twain had a lot of talent, but what probably many of us — and I didn’t know — was one of his greatest talents was losing money.

    RICHARD ZACKS, Author, “Chasing the Last Laugh”: Extraordinary, a genius at it.

    He lost money with the Paige typesetter. He lost money setting up his own publishing company. And he lost enough money to go deeply in debt at the point in his career when he thought he was just going to retire as America’s greatest writer.

    JEFFREY BROWN: Already very famous, a lot — so much behind him, ready to glide out.

    RICHARD ZACKS: He was greedy. He wanted to get paid higher royalties. And he was convinced that, if he owned the publishing house, he could pay himself 90 percent royalties.

    The trouble was that he so mismanaged the publishing house, that there was no money left to pay him any royalties.

    JEFFREY BROWN: So this was a point in his life where he really didn’t want to be performing anymore. Right? That was behind him.

    RICHARD ZACKS: Right. He wanted to kind of a literary giant. And he said — not wanting to go on stage, he said, once an audience has seen you stand on your head, they expect you to remain in that position. And he felt it was humiliating.

    JEFFREY BROWN: He went out big time, right, the biggest ever.

    RICHARD ZACKS: Right. Right.

    It’s the first time a stand-up comic has ever done a round-the-world tour. And he didn’t know how he would be received, because he was a little on the tail end of his career. So, here he is going out there, and he is going to Australia, New Zealand, well, India, and his performing style is so dangerous.

    He would put a hand like this, stand there dressed in an evening suit, and talk in a very low-key — very, very slowly.

    JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. So this is not stand-up comedy, the way we think of it, joke after joke after joke. This is storytelling. So what made it work?

    RICHARD ZACKS: The delivery is almost unique.

    I think he was a once-in-a-millennium humorist. He wrote about the boatman on — the Arab boatman charging so much to cross the Sea of Galilee, that they understood why Jesus learned to walk on water.


    JEFFREY BROWN: OK, that’s a little quick — that’s a good joke. Right?

    RICHARD ZACKS: Yes. He didn’t do that much of that.

    JEFFREY BROWN: Right. But he would spin out these stories for a long time. Right?

    RICHARD ZACKS: Excellent point.

    He did seven-to-15-minute stories. He did 90 minutes total. He had three full performances memorized, three 90 minutes. And I’m telling you, audiences were gasping for air.

    JEFFREY BROWN: And he’s building and building and building.


    RICHARD ZACKS: He’s building and building, and there’s drama, and you don’t see it coming. Right. How are you going to make that work?


    JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. Yes.

    All right, so, Australia, New Zealand, India, South Africa, give me one place or example that grabbed you in your research that you loved.

    RICHARD ZACKS: It’s just so easy to pick.

    India. He adored the glamour, the exoticness. And he rode elephants in India. And he got what I would consider the greatest perk in the history of celebrities perks. They set aside 35 miles of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway that he could use as personal roller coaster. I mean, who gets that?

    JEFFREY BROWN: This is very steep, through the mountains, yes.


    RICHARD ZACKS: Yes, it’s 7,000-foot elevation. They had zigzag — four places were so steep, they had to reverse the train and zigzag it.

    And Twain goes down with his family in a handcar, open canvas seats, no seat belts we’re told about, and the only thing that can stop them is a hand brake. And some of the drops are over 1,000 feet. He said it was rousing, tingling pleasure, the best day of the entire trip.

    JEFFREY BROWN: You know, one of the pleasures of this story is that, while it’s begun out of poverty in a sense, almost, or trying to fight it off, he lives a really high life, right, I mean, only the best hotels, the cruise ships, the train trip.

    RICHARD ZACKS: He is such a contradiction, which is I think is why he is so unbelievably funny.

    He wanted to be a man of the people, and he wanted to live the most aristocratic life. He wanted to be the funniest man, and he wanted to be a literary giant. He travels around the world to pay off debts, but because his wife was an heiress, he thought she should stay at the absolute best hotel in every city.

    And he burned up like maybe a quarter of his potential profits on hotel and first-class steamer tickets.

    JEFFREY BROWN: And he wanted to be, in the end, a great writer, right, not a kind of clown act or anything like that.

    RICHARD ZACKS: Exactly.

    JEFFREY BROWN: Did he feel like he got there?

    RICHARD ZACKS: I think he had mixed feelings about whether he got there, because he is always referred to as the great humorist. It really irritated him that he wasn’t accepted.

    And the interesting thing is that he chose as his best book to his dying day “Joan of Arc,” “Joan of Arc,” “Personal Recollections.”

    JEFFREY BROWN: A book that nobody would even — most of would not remember that he wrote.

    RICHARD ZACKS: Right. He sometimes said “Huckleberry Finn” to certain audiences, but he more often in the final years said “Joan of Arc.”

    And Livy had no doubt. His wife was convinced “Joan of Arc” was his greatest book.

    JEFFREY BROWN: You had to spend several years with him. What came out about his personality or his life? What did you come to like most?

    RICHARD ZACKS: What I came to like most was the unbelievable humor, the ability to rephrase things. “Few of us can stand prosperity, another man’s, I mean.”

    I mean, Twain lived at those fringes. And he had like an inner battle between his inner riverboat gambler and his inner Joan of Arc. And it was like — it was fascinating.

    JEFFREY BROWN: The end of this trip is where that famous line that we remember, right, my — “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”

    RICHARD ZACKS: I love this story.

    So, Twain is living in seclusion in London, and he is writing his book. And The New York Herald reports he is dying in poverty. And the rival paper, The New York Journal, says — sends a telegram and says, if Twain dying in London in poverty, send 500 words. If Twain has died in poverty, send 1,000.

    And so the reporter naively hands the telegraph to Twain, to Twain’s servant, who carries it upstairs, and Twain scribbles a note. And he says: “Reports of my illness grew out of my cousin’s illness. Reports of my death was an exaggeration.”

    It has changed to, “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”

    And one more point. He was more irritated by the report of the poverty than he was of the death. The death, he can handle. Everyone dies, but that he had died in poverty, he was furious.

    JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the book is “Chasing the Last Laugh.”

    Richard Zacks, thanks so much.

    RICHARD ZACKS: Thank you. It was great.

    The post Step aside Seinfeld — meet Mark Twain, the stand-up comic appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    JUDY WOODRUFF: Mount St. Helens in Washington state is one of the most well-monitored volcanoes on the planet, and with good reason. It’s still active.

    And more than three decades to the day after it launched a stunning and destructive display of lava and ash, it continues to transform a region and its ecology. Even now, scientists are still learning about the aftermath, and how some life is emerging from the ashes.

    Science correspondent Miles O’Brien has the story, part of our new weekly series about exploring the Leading Edge of science.

    MILES O’BRIEN: Thirty-six years after its spectacular, deadly eruption, Mount St. Helens still rumbles and bears scars from that earth-shattering day.

    But hike down the slopes, away from that jagged crater just a little, and you will see Mother Nature hard at work. And there’s a good chance you will bump into a team of scientists led by John Bishop. He is an evolutionary biologist at Washington State University-Vancouver.

    JOHN BISHOP, Washington State University-Vancouver: The goal of our research is to understand how plant and animal communities reform after a catastrophic disturbance.

    MILES O’BRIEN: Bishop is one of a select group of researchers studying this rebound from a volcanic eruption. Back in 1980, Mount St. Helens had given scientists all kinds of clues that a big disturbance was brewing.

    Two months before it blew, the volcano was venting huge amounts of steam and there was a series of earthquakes. Even with all those ominous signs, the eruption was larger than anyone predicted. It happened at 8:32 on the morning of May 18, 1980. An earthquake caused the north face of the mountain to collapse.

    JOHN BISHOP: After that, it uncorked an explosion that was directed horizontally, and leveled the forest to 13 miles out from the volcano.

    MILES O’BRIEN: The eruption column of volcanic ash and gas rose 80,000 feet, while a tsunami of 1,800-degree gas and rock raced down the valley at 450 miles an hour, a so-called pyroclastic flow.

    JOHN BISHOP: Anything biological that was remaining after the landslide would’ve been completely vaporized. It was just a barren landscape, gray and pumice-colored.

    MILES O’BRIEN: It killed every living thing in a 230-square-mile area. What was left was akin to a moonscape; 57 people died. Some remains were never recovered.

    Bishop and his team have had a front-row seat as nature got busy bringing this place back to life. They wanted to know where it begins and how it takes root. Here, it started with these purple flowers. Alpine lupine were the first plants to return. For many years, they were pretty much the only game in town. But as they went through their life cycles over several seasons, they created soil from the volcanic ash.

    And that made it possible for woody plants, like the Sitka willow, to find a home. They are how a forest gets started, but it hasn’t been easy for them.

    JOHN BISHOP: One of the things we have realized about these willows is that they’re not getting big. That’s important, because they create habitat for birds and mammals. We have learned that these landscapes are characterized by extreme instability in the populations of the plants and animals that colonize them.

    MILES O’BRIEN: In a recovering ecosystem like this one, where just a few species have managed to regain a toehold, even seemingly insignificant pests can play an outsized role in how the landscape bounces back. These weevils are an invasive species with a particular taste for the Sitka willow.

    JOHN BISHOP: Any stem larger than about one centimeter is usually destroyed by this weevil, and the effect of it is to keep these plants small, not let them form the architecture that’s needed for bird and mammal habitat.

    MILES O’BRIEN: But Bishop says it’s important to remember we are still early on in what will be a very long game. He says the plants and insects will battle it out over time, and eventually the ecosystem will become more diverse, more stable, and this will be a forest again.

    JOHN BISHOP: When I’m out there working on the pumice plain, you know, one moment, I will look around, and I will be stunned by the amount of vegetation and the number of birds that are present. But then, the next moment, I step back and I think, there is hardly anything here.

    We’re centuries away from replacing the old-growth forest that was there.

    MILES O’BRIEN: Mount St. Helens is the perfect place to test an important question in ecology. Life does go on, but how? John Bishop will keep looking for the answer here, unless Mount St. Helens awakens and reboots the landscape once again.

    Miles O’Brien, the “PBS NewsHour.”

    The post From Mt. St. Helens’ volcanic ashes, Mother Nature rebuilds appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    JUDY WOODRUFF: Of the three remaining candidates for president, only Democrat Bernie Sanders was on the campaign trail today, this the day after two Democratic primaries.

    In Kentucky, an official winner has still not been called, but Hillary Clinton holds a razor-thin lead over Sanders. The Vermont senator did win in Oregon, but he remains the underdog for the party’s presidential nomination.

    The drawn-out primary battle is sparking tensions between Sanders himself and party leaders, an issue he tackled last night during a stop outside Los Angeles.

    SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (VT-I), Democratic Presidential Candidate: The Democratic Party is going to have to make a very, very profound and important decision. It can do the right thing, and open its doors, and welcome into the party people who are prepared to fight for real economic and social change.


    SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: I say to the leadership of the Democratic Party, open the doors. Let the people in.


    JUDY WOODRUFF: Meanwhile, presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump, who easily won Oregon’s GOP primary, held a highly publicized meeting today with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, that on top of the names that his campaign unveiled today of potential Supreme Court nominees in a potential Trump presidency.

    He also discussed what’s behind his sharp tone that he often takes on the trail in an interview last night with FOX’s Megyn Kelly.

    DONALD TRUMP (R), Republican Presidential Candidate: I have been saying during this whole campaign that I’m a counterpuncher. You understand that. I’m responding.

    Now, I then respond times maybe 10. I don’t know. I mean, I respond pretty strongly. But in just about all cases, I have been responding to what they did to me. So, it’s not a one-way street.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: And while the contest for president gets most of the attention, it could also have a ripple effect down the ballot. There are 34 U.S. Senate seats up for grabs this election cycle, and, of those, seven are considered now a toss-up.

    These include the open contests in Nevada and Florida, where Harry Reid and Marco Rubio have announced they’re not seeking reelection.

    To discuss all this, we’re joined by Stuart Rothenberg, founding editor and publisher of The Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report. And David Wasserman. He’s the House editor for The Cook Political Report.

    And we welcome both of you to the program.

    STUART ROTHENBERG, The Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report: Thanks, Judy.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Stu, let me start with you.

    Remind us why it matters who has a majority in the Congress. We spend so much time on the presidential race.

    STUART ROTHENBERG: Right. We have spent so much time covering the race and talking about the race.

    But when you get down to it, after the election is over, the president is going to have to work with the House and the Senate if they’re going to deal with any fundamental issues. And they have had a hard time on big issues like tax reform, immigration and the like because the Congress and the president haven’t worked well.

    So, knowing what is going on in Senate races and the House, who is getting elected, I think it tells us something about what is going to happen after the November elections in the next Congress.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let’s talk about both the House and the Senate and start with the Senate. But, Stu, I’m going to focus on that with you.

    We listed, what, 34 seats are up.


    JUDY WOODRUFF: This year, seven considered toss-ups. Is there some rhyme or reason to those that are most vulnerable? Where are they? Who are they?

    STUART ROTHENBERG: Well, most of these — most of these seats are Republican seats.

    Remember, 24 of the 34 seats are Republican seats. These are Republican seats, Republicans who were elected six years ago. That makes them the class of 2010, if you remember that election, Judy. And I know you do. That was the first Obama midterm. Voters were angry, frustrated. Many Republicans thought the president had gone too far too fast. And they wanted to send a message, send a message to Barack Obama by electing Republicans to the Senate.

    And they did that in many swing states and even one Democratic state, Illinois, where Mark Kirk won in a surprising election just because of the contest.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: So, now they are coming back.

    STUART ROTHENBERG: And now they’re up, in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Ohio. These are all swing states. And given the polarization of the country and the polarization in these states, it’s not surprising. When you get swing states, you get competitive elections.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Dave Wasserman, give us a big picture of the House of Representatives. You have got 435 seats in the House. How many of those are considered vulnerable, up for grabs?

    DAVID WASSERMAN, The Cook Political Report: Well, today, we only consider 36 districts to be competitive. And really Democrats need 30 to get a majority. Right now, Republicans have a 247-to-188-seat advantage. That is the largest majority they have had since 1928, since Herbert Hoover was elected.

    And the question is whether Democrats can really tie Republican incumbents and candidates to Donald Trump. And that is easier said than done. Last fall, we were talking about both party leaders suggesting major seats in jeopardy for Republicans if Trump were the nominee. Now both parties are taking a more cautious approach, because, after all, Trump, he doesn’t have a coherent ideology.

    He doesn’t have a voting record. A lot of Democrats are saying now that they might have had an easier time running against Cruz, because at least they have that playbook written.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: So, in other words, it’s not as clear that he is the automatic detriment for some of these Republicans; is that what you are saying?

    DAVID WASSERMAN: That’s true.

    Well, and I think Democrats will pick up seats. They could pick up somewhere between 10 and 15 seats if the elections were held, let’s say, next Tuesday. Those next 15 to 20 seats get really hard for Democrats to pick up, because not only have filing deadlines passed in a majority of districts, so Democrats didn’t have the opportunity to convince candidates to get into some of these races against Republicans.

    But also Republicans have a huge advantage in terms of having drawn the lines in 2010. So there really aren’t a vast number of targets. If there are any targets for Democrats, it’s districts with high Latino shares, where you could see a spike in turnout against Trump, or districts with high levels of well-educated voters, where Trump could perform unusually poorly for a Republican.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: And let’s pick up…


    JUDY WOODRUFF: Stu, yes, go ahead.

    STUART ROTHENBERG: I believe there are 26 districts where there are a Republican congressman who just was carried by Barack Obama.

    There are five, on the other hand, five Democrats sitting in Romney districts. So the Republicans have much greater risk. There are more Republicans sitting in what ostensibly are swing Democratic districts, but not enough so the Democrats have an easy chance of picking up 30 seats.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: So, back to the Senate for a moment, Stu, is there a pattern here? We know that each member is running on his or her — or each senator running on his or her own record.

    STUART ROTHENBERG: Yes. Well, they are going to try to run on their own record.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: But how much of it is there a Trump effect are you seeing?

    STUART ROTHENBERG: Well, I think, since so many of these are swing states — Illinois is a heavily Democratic state. Mark Kirk got elected because of unusual circumstances, so he is a little different.

    But Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Florida, New Hampshire, and Ohio are all classified as presidential swing states. And they have in most cases Republican incumbents. Florida is an open seat.

    But the question is, can the Republican incumbents here run their own races, or are they going to be defined by Donald Trump? And if you are Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire or Rob Portman in Ohio, your problem is, every morning that you get up, a reporter is going to shove a microphone in your face and ask you, what do you think about what Donald Trump said yesterday?

    JUDY WOODRUFF: For House members, Dave Wasserman, it is a little bit different, isn’t it? They are not as high-profile, obviously, on a statewide basis. It’s more in their district, but they can get swept up in this as well.

    DAVID WASSERMAN: That’s true. And it may make it even more difficult for them, because they have even less time to communicate with voters and separate themselves from the top of the ticket in an environment where the presidential race is getting all the attention and it is the main event.

    And so, for example, in New Hampshire, in the Senate race with Kelly Ayotte, she said that she will support the nominee of the Republican Party, but she won’t endorse. That is kind of a move of jujitsu that is difficult for a lot of voters in New Hampshire to understand.

    And a lot of Republicans in the House are dealing with the same kind of conundrum.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: There were some — I think a number of people were scratching their heads over what is the difference between support and endorse.


    JUDY WOODRUFF: I want to ask you both, though, about a couple of developments today.

    Stu, the — Bernie Sanders really getting into what seems like a difficult disagreement with the Democratic National Committee over how soon he should pull back, get out.


    JUDY WOODRUFF: He is saying every voter needs to vote. Is this something that…


    JUDY WOODRUFF: … have a consequence?


    As the Democratic race continues, Bernie Sanders seems to be ratcheting up the rhetoric. And to the extent that he does that, it risks some Democratic core groups turning out in November, since he is, frankly, unlikely to be the nominee.

    And what is one of his biggest groups?; 18-to-29-year-olds, young voters. Are they going to turn out for Hillary Clinton? And if they don’t, if they don’t turn out for her, they are not going to be able to vote for these Democratic candidates in swing states.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Dave Wasserman, the other story we reported is Donald Trump announcing his potential Supreme Court nominees, potentially, if he is elected president.

    I don’t think we have ever seen anything like this. Is this the kind of thing that could have legs as a story, as an impact on voters?

    DAVID WASSERMAN: This seems to be the year of gimmicks. Right?

    Ted Cruz announcing his vice president before wrapping up the nomination, Donald Trump announcing his Supreme Court picks before even overtaking or coming close to Hillary Clinton in some national polls.

    I think most voters, when they go to the polls in November, are going to be more concerned about the temperament, the readiness of the candidates, who will bring about the best kind of change that they want in November or the most change, rather than particular people that they want to see on the Supreme Court.

    Most people understand that Donald Trump is going to nominate a conservative, Hillary Clinton is going to nominate a liberal justice.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, gentlemen, it is great to you have both.

    Dave Wasserman, Stu Rothenberg, thank you very much.

    STUART ROTHENBERG: Thanks, Judy.

    The post Presidential primary brawl overshadowing crucial Congressional contests appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    The sign of the Department of Veteran Affairs is seen in front of the headquarters building in Washington, May 23, 2014.      REUTERS/Larry Downing   (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY) - RTR3QKNG

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    JUDY WOODRUFF: But, first: medical care for U.S. military veterans, who two years — we remember, two years ago, the Department of Veteran Affairs was overtaken by news reports of poor care for the people it’s supposed to serve.

    Wait times to see doctors in some places stretched for months, and some VA staff covered it up. A number of reforms followed, but now those very reforms are in the spotlight.

    Hari Sreenivasan has the story.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: A few minutes ago, Secretary Shinseki offered me his own resignation. With considerable regret, I accepted.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: The resignation of VA secretary Eric Shinseki, secretary of veterans affairs and a decorated former chief of staff, was one of the most visible signs of a crisis that gripped the VA in 2014.

    It started when Dr. Sam Foote at the Phoenix branch of the VA blew the whistle on the incredibly long waiting times for veterans to see doctors at his facility. Dr. Foote told reporters, including Gwen Ifill, that the hospital’s director manipulated the data to make the waits seem much shorter.

    DR. SAM FOOTE, Former Director, Phoenix VA Health Care System: We were doing pretty well until about 2010, and then the demand just ramped up. And rather than own up to the problem, the VA decided to cover it up, because there’s no incentive for Washington to get good numbers.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: The VA inspector general found that Phoenix-area veterans seeking care had to wait an average of 115 days, almost four months, for a first appointment. And 1,700 veterans were kept off any official waiting list, and were at risk of being lost or forgotten.

    Other investigations found this type of problem existed at many VA hospitals throughout the United States. The president and Congress vowed to fix the problem. One of the reforms authorized veterans to go to doctors in private practice if they couldn’t get timely appointments at the VA.

    But, according to recent reports, the wait times with the new system are just as long as they were before the reforms were implemented.

    And with me now to tell us about this new system, but plagued by old problems, is Quil Lawrence. He covers veteran issues at NPR.

    So, Quil, this was supposed to be the fix. Why is the fix broken?

    QUIL LAWRENCE, NPR: Well, it goes back to that moment of scandal. There was a sense of urgency in Congress. And some political rivals, Jeff Miller, Republican of Florida, and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who is now much better known, from opposite ends of the spectrum came together with this plan to get all of these veterans, this backlog who were waiting for care, to see private doctors.

    It was supposed to be a simple plan. With a card, they could go and use — it seemed at first that they would just be able to go into a private clinic and present this card and get care.

    But what was given to the VA was a law to set up a whole new network to get care for anyone who had been waiting 30 days or was 40 miles away from a VA clinic. And Congress gave the VA just 90 days to set this up. They tried to — they first thought they might be able to do it themselves, decided they needed to go outside to get some private contractors to set up the system more quickly.

    And only two of the 57 companies they approached to try and do this were willing to give it a shot. The result has been really just an extra layer of bureaucracy that a lot of veterans tell me makes them wait even more than they were waiting before or just as much. Wait times haven’t gone down.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: So, give me some examples.

    You and other public media reporters around the country have been talking to some of these people impacted by this. What happens to them and what is their process like?


    Yes, NPR is cooperating with member stations around the country. We have been looking into this for several months. I went down to Pennsylvania and talked to Bishop Small. He’s a Navy veteran who has some terrible chronic pain issues in his legs.

    He had been trying to get physical therapy for awhile. When are you in this much pain, it can sometimes cause depression. He hasn’t been able to find work. And he thought the Choice Program would be perfect for him. He had been told that it was going to take him more than 30 days to get an appointment at his local VA.

    And after calling the third-party companies, calling and calling and calling, the first place they sent him to informed him they were no longer participating in the Choice Program. This is one of the problems they have had. They can’t seem to set up a network. And the network participants are getting paid so slowly that some of them drop out. They just don’t want to participate in the Vets Choice Program anymore.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: So, the doctors aren’t getting paid, and perhaps that is a reflection on how quickly they are calling these folks back.


    Yes, we spoke to another veteran in Montana, Tony Lapinski. He’s an Air Force veteran. And he was also just waiting around. He had a growth in his spine. He didn’t know what it was. He thought it might be nothing, thought it could be the sort of thing a doctor would tell him later, well, this is cancer. If you had come to us sooner, we could have done something.

    When he finally was able to see a specialist, he found out that the VA wasn’t paying these people on time. And this has caused another knock-on problem with this program, is that some veterans, when their providers don’t get paid by the VA, these providers try and bill the veterans.

    And hundreds of vets have had their credit ratings slashed because the VA isn’t paying the doctors who gave them care.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, so what happens now? Clearly, trying to set up an entire health care network in 90 days, we should maybe learn from that. But what are members of Congress trying to do? Are there any new reform efforts to try to fix the fix?

    QUIL LAWRENCE: Yes, there are efforts under way to consolidate all the VA’s many programs for care outside the VA system.

    Those are happening now. There had been a goal to get them done by Memorial Day. I’m now hearing that is unlikely. But there is also a lot of resentment in Congress among people who drafted this that the VA hasn’t moved quickly enough on it, that it’s now a year-and-a-half in, and it is still not really delivering on what it promised to be.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: What about the veterans themselves? It seems that getting care, after what they have been through, and the delay after delay after delay, maybe contributes to even more problems of depression or perhaps worse health care outcomes because they couldn’t see someone soon enough.


    And I should say I have spoken to some vets who use this program and had no problem with it. But we have also just heard loads of complications. We talked to a veteran in San Diego, a Navy veteran named Amanda Wirtz. And she said she was in so much pain from complications related to a tumor this January, that she was near suicidal.

    She tried to get an appointment through Veterans Choice, and the best they could do was give her an appointment two months out. We found that some veterans are actually trying the Choice Program, and then it takes so long that thousands and thousands of them are returning to the VA and just saying, well, the appointment I would get here would be faster.

    Overall, wait times at the VA are worse than they were when this program started. They say that’s because of a huge influx of demand. But the assessments, outside assessments of this program are that it just hasn’t moved the needle.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Quil Lawrence of NPR, thanks so much.

    QUIL LAWRENCE: Thank you.

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    A member of the force assigned to protect Libya's unity government stands on a road leading to where the government has their offices, in Tripoli, Libya March 31, 2016. REUTERS/Ismail Zitouny       TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RTSCYLD

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    JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to Libya.

    Chaos has gripped the North African nation since the fall of Moammar Gadhafi, with at least two governments and multiple factions simultaneously vying for power. Now there’s word of wholesale atrocities by Islamic State forces in the coastal city of Sirte.

    Fighter jets flying for Libya’s U.N.-backed government are bombing around Sirte, and allied ground forces are pushing back as well to stop Islamic State militants from expanding beyond their stronghold there; 120 miles of the Central Libyan coastline in and around Sirte has been under the militant group’s control since early 2015.

    Nearly two-thirds of Sirte’s 80,000 people have fled, and been forced to rely on humanitarian aid.

    MAN (through translator): The nationalities of ISIS fighters are all foreign, Tunisians, Egyptians, Sudanese. They came in and created a state of fear and terror for the people and families, so we fled. And they’re all foreigners. None of them are Libyans. We fled with nothing.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Now come disturbing details of what’s happening inside Sirte in a Human Rights Watch report based on interviews with those who left. It tells of dozens of beheadings by sword, floggings and crucifixions, fathers forced to marry off their daughters to ISIS fighters, and all females over the age of 10 forced to wear the conservative black cloak, the abaya.

    On Monday in Vienna, Secretary of State John Kerry announced an agreement to arm the internationally recognized government in the fight against ISIS, also called Da’esh:

    JOHN KERRY, Secretary of State: The international community will support the Presidency Council as it seeks exemption from the U.N. arms embargo to acquire those weapons and bullets need to fight Da’esh and other terrorist groups.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: But it won’t be easy. The U.S. commander in Africa, General David Rodriguez, said yesterday it’s hard to tell which of many armed groups have aligned with the U.N.-supported regime and which have not.

    And we take a closer look at those groups and what the United States is doing in Libya.

    I’m joined now by Frederic Wehrey of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He was a military attache to the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli during the George W. Bush administration, and he visits the country regularly.

    Fred Wehrey, welcome back to the program.

    FREDERIC WEHREY, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: Great to be here.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Remind us again how Libya got to this state, two warring governments the same time, multiple fighting groups.

    FREDERIC WEHREY: Well, ever since the fall of Gadhafi, there has been a governance vacuum.

    I mean, the country has split into civil war since 2014, two governments, two sets of militias. There is this new U.N. unity government in Tripoli that is still very weak, but the eastern faction doesn’t recognize it. So you have got this vacuum. And that is a ripe condition for the Islamic State to insert itself, as they have in the town of Sirte.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: So, how strong is ISIS, the Islamic State, in Libya right now?

    FREDERIC WEHREY: The estimates are about 3,000 to 6,000 fighters, bolstered by foreign volunteers from abroad. And they control about 120 miles, strip of coastline in the center.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: And how big a threat does that represent, given everything else going on in Libya?

    FREDERIC WEHREY: It’s destabilizing to the country’s growth. It’s also a threat to Europe and especially neighboring states. We have seen the Islamic State in Libya plot attacks against neighboring Tunisia.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: And so, well, let’s back off a little bit here and go back to the role of the United States. You just mentioned NATO.

    What does this mean? The U.S. was out of Libya. Then it was in, out. Where is the U.S. right now in Libya?

    FREDERIC WEHREY: Well, the U.S. is really behind this new unity government in Tripoli. And they are obviously focused on the Islamic State threat.

    But I think, more broadly, the U.S. wants to ensure that this government succeeds, that we don’t repeat the mistakes that we made after the fall of Gadhafi. But, of course, the first priority is protecting this government and then helping it fight the Islamic State.

    And I think that’s going to be done through some training, through assistance, through the lifting of the arms embargo, as we heard.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: But we also — we heard Secretary Kerry say the U.S. is going to be arming the right government. But we also heard the general say it’s not clear which group is which, on which side. How confusing is it?

    FREDERIC WEHREY: Well, this is — it is very confusing. This is the problem we face in all of these states where we’re fighting the Islamic State. Who do you partner with?

    In the case of Libya, there is no unified government, there is no unified chain of command, there is no unified army. So, you have got to pick among these militias. And it is a very dangerous game, because you don’t know who you are dealing with. Those militias may turn against you. They may turn against one another.

    So, a great risk is that, by arming them, we could actually fuel the civil war. So, I think the general is very right in proceeding quite carefully.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you do that? How does the United States do that?

    FREDERIC WEHREY: Well, there’s been reports now of U.S. special operations on the ground. And what they are trying to do is assess these militias, their capacity, their will, who are they aligned with, before they begin training and assisting them.

    But you have got to vet them for human rights violations. You have got to recruit the right ones. But, more importantly, you have got to make sure that they are under the control of a democratic government.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you think should be done, Fred Wehrey? Is it your sense that this is a formula that is going to move in the right direction?

    FREDERIC WEHREY: I think the U.S. has learned a great deal from the mistakes they made. And I think they’re proceeding quite cautiously. I think the right approach is to really support the legitimacy of this new government. This has to be a Libyan-led fight.

    One of the things that really amazed me when I was in Libya was the amount of sort of societal resilience in Libya against the Islamic State. This was a foreign entity. People don’t want it. The Libyans want to move forward with their government, with their economy. And so the U.S. has to harness that momentum.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, that’s what I was trying to get at, as you know, because we see ISIS a factor in so many countries in the region. How do you tell the difference between countries where ISIS can overwhelm what is on the ground there, and where the forces against it can be stronger?

    FREDERIC WEHREY: Yes, I mean, I think we shouldn’t be overly alarmist about the Islamic State in Libya. I mean, they are sort of boxed in the central region. They can still do a lot of damage. But it’s not to the extent that they are in Iraq, say, or Syria.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Bottom line, Fred Wehrey, what is at stake here for the United States?

    FREDERIC WEHREY: Well, I think what is at stake is the success of the sort of toppling of the Gadhafi government, I mean, the security of important allies in the region, the security of Europe. It’s all wrapped up together. So, there is a lot at stake.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: And Europe is very much a part of this. We haven’t — I haven’t asked you about that, but that is very much a…


    FREDERIC WEHREY: Right. They are, absolutely. I mean, they are directly affected by it.

    There are reports of…

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Because of refugees?

    FREDERIC WEHREY: Well, because of refugees, then also the potential plotting of terrorist attacks on Libyan soil against Europe.

    So, the French are reportedly on the ground with their special operations. So are the British. The Italians have really committed to helping this government, to help train that new Libyan military.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, it is a complicated story, but it’s an important one for us to follow.

    Fred Wehrey, thank you very much.

    FREDERIC WEHREY: Thanks for having me. Thank you.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Appreciate it.

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    Photo by Getty Images

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    JUDY WOODRUFF: Let’s return now to one of the biggest moves made by the Obama administration to affect Americans’ take-home pay. Those are new rules on overtime.

    The changes effectively mean that 12 million more workers could qualify for time-and-a-half after working 40 hours a week. That includes four-million-plus whose duties make them eligible with a higher salary threshold and many others considered previously exempt from overtime.

    William Brangham interviewed the secretary of labor from the White House earlier today.

    WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Welcome, Secretary Perez.

    Why this change? And exactly what kinds of workers are you trying to help?

    THOMAS PEREZ, Secretary of Labor: Sure.

    This change is designed to fortify two basic pillars of the Fair Labor Standards Act, which is really the crown jewel of worker protection. Number one is middle-class jobs should pay a middle-class wage. And, number two, when you work extra, you should be paid extra.

    And the problem we’re solving here, William, is that over the course of time, the threshold that differentiated people who were exempt employees, that is, exempt from overtime eligibility, vs. people who are overtime eligible, it hasn’t kept up with the cost of living.

    And so it has really, really diminished its purchasing power. And then, secondly, in 2004, the Bush administration issued a new rule. And they, frankly, took virtually all the leverage away from workers and gave it to businesses. And that’s why you have workers working 70 hours a week managing retail stores and other stores, and making $25,000, $30,000 a year, which was basically at minimum wage.

    So, we’re trying to fix that problem by doubling the threshold from $23,000 to $47,000 and change.

    WILLIAM BRANGHAM: A number of industry groups have criticized these rules. And I would like to address some of their concerns.

    One is the argument that employees will simply reclassify some salaried workers into hourly workers to avoid paying them the overtime. They argue that these rules could then mean a demotion for millions of workers.

    THOMAS PEREZ: Well, actually, I just met with a group of people, the vice president and I, in Ohio, a remarkable employer that has 600 employees, national footprint.

    And, actually, one of the things he did was, he converted their managers to hourly employees. And guess what happened? They’re making more money. And when you talk to their employees who are managers, who are making more money, they feel pretty good about themselves.

    And so this notion that suddenly workers are going to feel diminished stature, we did a lot of outreach on this. And, you know, that — that wasn’t our experience. And employers have a lot of flexibility. If you are making $40,000 now, and the new threshold is $47,476, you can still call that worker a salaried $40,000 employee who’s overtime eligible.

    So they are still a salaried employee. The business owner that the vice president and I met with, they made a different choice and it worked for their workers. Flexibility is the watchword of the Fair Labor Standards Act and this new overtime rule.

    So, employers have plenty of options.

    WILLIAM BRANGHAM: There is another concern, that employers might cut back a worker’s hours to avoid paying them overtime, or they might just lower wages to compensate if they have to pay it.

    Could these rules end up triggering a pay cut?

    THOMAS PEREZ: Well, you know, we — in 2004, there was the rule put in place by the Bush administration, and employers were faced with this. And I hear this criticism that they’re actually going to reduce their wages.

    Well, then it stands to reason that that should have happened in 2004 as well. But, at least to the best of my knowledge, it didn’t. And here’s why it didn’t then and it won’t now. These are the most valuable employees in many people’s work forces. They open the store. They close the store. They hire. They fire. They go to the bank and deposit the money.

    They are the glue that keeps the organization together. Rational employers don’t take the glue that keeps the organization together and then cast them aside. And that’s inconsistent with a sound business practice.

    And so I appreciate the concerns, but, you know, the economy is out of balance because so many managers have lost their leverage. And we’re trying to restore that leverage.

    WILLIAM BRANGHAM: I mean, it’s not just industry that has raised questions. Some leaders in higher education and nonprofits have also expressed a fear about what this could do to their work force as well.

    THOMAS PEREZ: Well, we have done a lot of discussion with higher ed. And what they learned when we would discuss this issue with them is, they have remarkable amounts of flexibility that they were unaware of.

    We had someone from higher ed say, oh, my God, my teachers work 70 hours a week, and now have I to pay them overtime. Well, actually, that’s not true, because the Fair Labor Standards Act exempts teachers, it exempts research assistants, it exempts wide categories of employees.

    I heard from a public university about all the challenges of compliance, but they were unaware of the fact that public universities can give comp time, in lieu of overtime pay, for these workers. And when they heard that, you should have seen them. The lightbulb be went off.

    And so I think there is a pretty good road map for compliance for folks in higher ed. And I would note this, William, which is that, you know, over 50 percent of the 4.2 million workers who are going to directly benefit from this rule have a college degree. And over 80 percent have some college.

    I always thought the mission of higher ed was to help prepare workers so that they can be productive citizens and punch their ticket to the middle class. So, you know, it’s a little inconsistent to have that mission and then say, well, hey, wait a minute, we shouldn’t be raising wages of our graduates, especially when I see the salaries of, like, the football coach at a couple of the universities that came to talk to us.

    When you pay them five, six, seven million dollars a year, you ought to be able to figure out a way to make sure that the person who manages the cafeteria in one of your halls can get a middle-class salary.

    WILLIAM BRANGHAM: All right, Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, thanks very much for joining us.

    THOMAS PEREZ: Thank you.

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    U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump arrives for a meeting with former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in New York City, U.S. May 18, 2016.  REUTERS/Brendan McDermid - RTSEWH3

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    JUDY WOODRUFF: Good evening. I’m Judy Woodruff.

    On the “NewsHour” tonight:

    THOMAS PEREZ, Secretary of Labor: If you work extra, you should be paid extra, and middle-class jobs should pay a middle-class wage.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: We talk with the secretary of labor, Tom Perez, about the Obama administration’s ambitious overtime pay ruling, which aims to help millions of workers earn more money.

    Then: Bernie Sanders takes Oregon, while Hillary Clinton claims victory in Kentucky with less than a 1 percent winning margin.

    Also ahead: an update on the chaos in Libya, as the U.S. weighs arming the fledgling government.

    And 36 years after Washington’s Mount St. Helens erupted and turned a forest into rubble, scientists are watching how an ecosystem can grow from nothing.

    JOHN BISHOP, Washington State University-Vancouver: Anything biological that was remaining after the landslide would’ve been completely vaporized. It was just a barren landscape, gray and pumice-colored.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: All that and more on tonight’s “PBS NewsHour.”


    JUDY WOODRUFF: In the presidential campaign, Republican Donald Trump released a list of potential nominees for the U.S. Supreme Court if he’s elected president. He named 11 federal and state judges, eight men and three women, all of them white. In a statement, Trump said the list is — quote — “based on constitutional principles with input from highly respected conservatives and Republican Party leadership.”

    The country’s top intelligence official warns that foreign hackers are spying on presidential candidates. James Clapper, the national intelligence director, says there’ve been signs of cyber-attacks on the campaigns, as there were in 2008 and 2012. His office said the motives range from philosophical differences to espionage.

    There is word from Nigeria that the first of the long-missing Chibok girls has been found. The military says she was rescued yesterday in a remote forest with a baby. More than 200 girls were abducted by Boko Haram militants just over two years ago. None has been seen since, until now. The rescued girl says that a few have died, but most are still captive.

    To Asia now and in Sri Lanka. Rescuers used sticks and even bare hands today to dig for victims and survivors after mountains of mud buried their homes. More than 220 families were missing in a hard-hit district located in the central part of the island nation.

    Olivia Kinsley of Independent Television News reports.

    OLIVIA KINSLEY: Another life claimed by these massive mudslides caused by torrential rain that has been hammering Sri Lanka for days. Hundreds of thousands of people have had to abandon their homes. Entire villages have been buried. Bodies are being pulled from the mud. Those still alive, and still stranded, are being rescued one by one.

    MAJ. GEN. SUDANTHA RANASINGHE, Sri Lanka: We are — developed, established five relief centers, and in the five relief centers, now there are over 1,300 people, displaced people who are being sheltered. And the government is looking after them.

    OLIVIA KINSLEY: With more rain on the way, they’re putting out sandbags in the towns, but for low-lying villages, the water and the devastation has been unstoppable. With rescuers struggling to reach those in some of the worst affected areas, the death toll will surely continue to rise.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Search parties found 17 bodies before they suspended operations for the night.

    China today played down its ongoing military exercises along its coast facing Taiwan. The defense ministry said the drills are not aimed at any specific target. They began just days before Taiwan inaugurates a new president, who leans toward independence from China. Beijing regards Taiwan as a renegade province, and has never ruled out using force to bring it back into the fold.

    The Chinese also condemned a U.S. move to slap duties of more than 500 percent on imported flat steel. It is used in car bodies and appliances, and China has a glut of it. The U.S. says Beijing is dumping the steel and hurting American firms. And, on Wall Street, the Dow Jones industrial average lost three points to close at 17526. The Nasdaq rose 23, and the S&P 500 added a fraction.

    Still to come on the “NewsHour”: millions more Americans eligible for overtime under new labor standards; documented atrocities in an ISIS stronghold in Libya; billions of dollars later, why VA wait times are actually getting worse; and much more.

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    U.S. dollar bills are seen on a light table at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Washington, November 14, 2014.    REUTERS/Gary Cameron/File Photo - RTX2BDR2

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    JUDY WOODRUFF: The federal regulations governing overtime pay are changing for the first time since 2004. The U.S. Labor Department says its final rule, issued today, will be a boon to middle- and lower-income workers. Business groups say, in fact, it’s going to hurt those very employees.

    The new rule means another 4.2 million workers will be eligible for overtime pay. Vice President Joe Biden hailed the move at an event today in Columbus, Ohio.

    VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: We have got to right this ship, and this is a very important piece of doing it, because millions of people are going to start to get paid, not more than they deserve, what they deserve. And mark my words. The benefit is going to be beyond the compensation.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Under the change, the salary threshold to qualify for time-and-a-half pay goes from $23,660 a year to more than $47,000. The Obama administration says it will boost wages by $12 billion over the next decade.

    Thanks mainly to inflation, the number of full-time workers who currently qualify for overtime has plunged sharply, from 62 percent in 1975 to just 7 percent today. The restaurant and retail industries will see the greatest effects from the new regulation, and they’re strongly opposed.

    David French is with the National Retail Federation.

    DAVID FRENCH, National Retail Federation: By executive fiat, the administration is effectively demoting millions of workers from salaried exempt employment to hourly and likely hourly non-exempt employment. In the real world, these changes are not going to benefit the workers they are promising overtime to. This is really a bait and switch.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Some university officials have also warned they may have to raise tuition or scale back services to abide by the new guidelines.

    And in a statement today, Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan vowed to fight the overtime rule. He said — quote — “This regulation hurts the very people it alleges to help. Many small businesses and nonprofits will be unable to afford skilled workers and be forced to eliminate salaried positions.”

    The rule takes effect December 1. After that, the salary threshold will be automatically updated every three years.

    We will have an interview with the secretary of labor right after the news summary.

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    WASHINGTON — The Pentagon says two Chinese fighter jets flew within about 50 feet of a U.S. Navy reconnaissance plane Tuesday in international airspace over the South China Sea.

    The Pentagon characterized the incident as an unsafe intercept and said it is being reviewed.

    A U.S. military official says the two Chinese J-11 fighters flew out to intercept the U.S. EP-3 Aries aircraft and came so close that they forced the pilot to descend a couple hundred feet in order to avoid a collision. The U.S. surveillance plane was conducting routine operations in the region.

    The official says the incident took place in the northern part of the sea, south of Hong Kong. The official was not authorized to discuss details of the incident publicly, so spoke on condition of anonymity.

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    A woman walks past a giant fake mosquito placed on top of a bus shelter as part of an awareness campaign about the Zika virus in Chicago, Illinois, United States, May 16, 2016.  Photo by Jim Young   REUTERS

    A woman walks past a giant fake mosquito placed on top of a bus shelter as part of an awareness campaign about the Zika virus in Chicago, Illinois, United States, May 16, 2016. Photo by Jim Young REUTERS

    When an outbreak strikes, the Epidemic Intelligence Service is the calvary. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ships this branch to the front lines, where they investigate the causes and set up defenses.

    A fortnight ago, these disease detectives assembled for their annual conference, and it felt like the first day at Harry Potter’s Hogwarts. Some senior leaders donned their versions of wizard cloaks — military-style uniforms — and met with recruits around coffee tables and in hotel conference rooms. A special group of EIS officers met with journalists behind closed doors. The topic: Zika virus.

    Microcephaly is an extreme scenario — it’s a bullhorn screaming out “something’s gone very wrong with brain development.”“So, I’m Peggy,” said Margaret Honein, epidemiologist and chief of the CDC’s birth defects branch, as well as one of the leaders of the agency’s Zika response.

    Remember last month when the CDC officially confirmed that Zika causes head-shrinking microcephaly and other birth defects? Honein co-authored the report.

    Honein was accompanied by three second-year EIS officers who had “made outstanding contributions to the CDC’s Zika response,” she said. All three, like most of their class, had the rare experience of responding to two global epidemics — first Ebola and now Zika — within their brief, two-year EIS tenure.


    Titilope Oduyebo is an obstetrician and gynaecologist (OB/GYN) who joined the response a week before the CDC activated its Zika Emergency Operations Center in late January. She is charged with updating the agency’s advice on Zika for pregnant women and providing guidance to state health departments. Romeo Galang in an OB/GYN who specializes in how infectious diseases alter the course of pregnancy. These skills landed him in Puerto Rico early this year, as disease cases climbed precipitously. Morgan Hennessey is a disease data tracker who started looking into Zika in 2014, before the epidemic began, as part of his research with the arbovirus (mosquito-borne virus) disease division. He joined the EOC in February 2016.

    These four experts had untold insights into this outbreak, and we had questions.

    Getting worse or getting better: What happens next for this outbreak?

    Weekly reported cases of dengue virus (blue), chikungunya virus (yellow), Zika virus (green) and microcephaly pick) in Pernambuco State, Brazil from 2015-2016. Chart by the Pan American Health Organization; data by data by Pernambuco State Secretary of Health

    Weekly reported cases of Zika virus (green), dengue virus (blue), chikungunya virus (yellow) and microcephaly pick) in Pernambuco State, Brazil from 2015-2016. Chart by the Pan American Health Organization; data by data by Pernambuco State Secretary of Health

    The Zika virus outbreak is waning or rising depending on location.

    Brazil’s outbreak is heading toward halftime. In 2015, cases of the mosquito-borne disease peaked in late March, right as South American summer ended. This pattern has repeated this year. Pernambuco State, the epicenter of Brazil’s outbreak, recorded a peak number of newly reported cases (~1,000 suspected and confirmed) during the last weeks of February. The numbers have waned as temperatures cooled, sliding toward 200 new cases per week in late April. But overall, the Brazilian Ministry of Health has reported 91,000 local cases of Zika as of late March.

    Other South American nations have witnessed similar swings, according to Honein, who said Colombia’s surge started in back in October and November. The World Health Organization stated that Colombia’s outbreak appeared to peak in late February, and “is now in decline.”

    Further north, the opposite trend has painted the Caribbean, where Zika infections continue to swell.

    Colombia's reported cases of Zika virus disease (green line; suspected and confirmed) and neurological syndromes (blue columns) between week 32 of 2015 (early August) to week 17 of 2016 (late April). Chart by Chart by the Pan American Health Organization; data by Colombia Ministry of Health

    Colombia’s reported cases of Zika virus disease (green line; suspected and confirmed) and neurological syndromes (blue columns) between week 32 of 2015 (early August) to week 17 of 2016 (late April). Chart by Chart by the Pan American Health Organization; data by Colombia Ministry of Health

    As of last week, Puerto Rico’s Health Department is reporting about 100 confirmed cases per week. The U.S. territory is heading toward its warmer rainy season, when mosquitoes tend to flourish, so more cases are expected. The U.S. territory has recorded 945 confirmed infections since their outbreak began late last year. Models predict Florida and Texas to be most at risk for Zika outbreaks this summer, but neither state has experienced a locally transmitted case.

    Gulang said one of the major challenges in Puerto Rico is keeping local doctors up-to-date on the latest guidance. A thousand cases is a solid groundswell, but many island residents still haven’t encountered Zika in their communities.

    WATCH: Its economy in shambles, Puerto Rico also stares down the Zika virus

    “These doctors are concerned about what should they do should those numbers increase…and all of a sudden patients start beating down the doors,” Gulang said. “Or like with any physician ordering tests, they wonder how do I interpret it, how fast will I get it back and what should I tell my patient.”

    One solution is clinician outreach sessions, where members of the CDC or Puerto Rico Department of Health travel around the island and educate 30 to 40 doctors at a time. “Most think about surveillance as data extraction, pouring through medical records. What I wasn’t expecting, though, was how interactive it was going to be with the clinicians there,” Gulang said

    What about sexual transmission? Sex could spread Zika to all four corners of the Earth, right?

    Nope, Hennessey said. Based on the data, he doesn’t think sexual transmission of Zika can sustain itself without mosquito transmission.

    Every now and then you’ll see a few cases of sexually transmitted, but not a majority of cases.“By and large, it’s going to be mosquitos. Every now and then you’ll see a few cases of sexually transmitted, but not a majority of cases,” Hennessey said.

    Of the 503 Zika cases confirmed in continental U.S., only 10 have been linked to sexual transmission. All involved males transmitting to female or male partners. Oral sex (mouth to penis) occurred in some cases, but it remains unclear if the virus passed via this route or via open-mouth kissing.

    The CDC recommends that men practice safe sex or abstain for at six months if they’ve been diagnosed with Zika or at least eight weeks if they’ve recently traveled to a Zika-hit area but have shown no symptoms.

    One case points to Zika infection lasting up to two months in semen, but the actual time window remains unresolved. A study in April found Zika virus’s structure remains intact at high temperatures — up to 104 degrees Fahrenheit — which is a sharp contrast to its cousin, dengue. This resilience may explain why Zika virus can survive in the relatively harsh conditions of semen, saliva and urine.

    How many Zika-infected infants will develop birth defects?

    Five-month-old twins, Laura (L) and Lucas lie in their bed at their house in Santos, Sao Paulo state, Brazil April 20, 2016. Among the mysteries facing doctors in Brazil battling an epidemic of the little-known Zika virus are cases of women giving birth to twins with only one suffering from microcephaly, a birth defect associated with the disease. Photo by Nacho Doce/REUTERS

    Five-month-old twins, Laura (L) and Lucas lie in their bed at their house in Santos, Sao Paulo state, Brazil April 20, 2016. Among the mysteries facing doctors in Brazil battling an epidemic of the little-known Zika virus are cases of women giving birth to twins with only one suffering from microcephaly, a birth defect associated with the disease. Photo by Nacho Doce/REUTERS

    It’s easy to see the numbers and pictures of underdeveloped infants and wonder, “Is this going to happen to me?”

    “Right now, we don’t know the absolute risk for a woman if she gets infected during pregnancy,” Oduyebo said. “However, we have seen babies being born that have had good outcomes. There are ways to protect yourself, and I think that part of the public story is missing.”

    The question is, how many infants will have good or bad outcomes?

    So far, Honein said only two studies have addressed this question with confidence, but their results vary dramatically. A preliminary report from Rio de Janeiro found 29 percent of pregnancies hit by Zika showed abnormalities. In contrast, a retrospective examination of French Polynesia’s 2013-2015 outbreak puts the microcephaly rate closer to 1 percent.

    Let’s unpack these numbers because they’ve been quoted frequently, and such a massive difference in outcomes — 1 versus 29 percent — can brew anxiety.

    The French Polynesia study tries to assess the island chain’s levels of microcephaly before and after the Zika arrived. They surveyed blood samples and surveillance records to estimate how many people caught the virus for every week of the outbreak. The researchers estimate 31,000 people sought medical attention virus during the outbreak, but only eight cases of microcephaly were recorded. Math models pointed to the first trimester as the most vulnerable period for catching Zika, and the team estimated 1 per 100 Zika-stricken of these pregnancies might yield microcephaly.

    The Brazilian study examined a smaller number of cases — 88 pregnant women with Zika infections — but directly examined at developing fetuses using ultrasound. The “29 percent” represents 12 fetuses with any signs of abnormalities, but the defects weren’t limited to microcephaly. Only 5 percent — 4 pregnancies — showed distinguishable signs of microcephaly.

    The CDC is trying to nail down Zika’s birth defect risk levels, Honein said. But this discrepancy between microcephaly and other Zika-related birth defects raises another question:

    Is the general public focusing too heavily on microcephaly?

    Jackeline, 26, holds her son who is 4-months old and born with microcephaly, in front of their house in Olinda, near Recife, Brazil, February 11, 2016. Photo by Nacho Doce/REUTERS

    Jackeline, 26, holds her son who is 4-months old and born with microcephaly, in front of their house in Olinda, near Recife, Brazil, February 11, 2016. Photo by Nacho Doce/REUTERS

    Honein said microcephaly is an extreme scenario — it’s a bullhorn screaming out “something’s gone very wrong with brain development.” It’s so rare, especially in the context of infectious disease, that she said many folks on her team had reservations when Brazilian officials began tying Zika to a microcephaly spike last autumn.

    Microcephaly “is so difficult to monitor. I think we were all very skeptical,” Honein said. Plus, before the outbreak, Brazil’s rate of microcephaly — 0.5 cases per 10,000 births — was low compared to other regions, suggesting the condition had been underreported. “Experts say that they would have expected to see around ten times that number on the basis of typical frequencies seen elsewhere,” Declan Butler wrote for Nature Magazine in March.

    All kinds of cells in the brain seem to be infectedMicrocephaly may signal a more insidious problem, according to Honein. She spotlights a subset of Brazil’s microcephaly cases that exhibited a fetal disruption sequence.

    Here’s what happens. The brain develops fairly normally for a period of time, but the viral infection seems to interrupts things, and the skull collapses. Extra folds of skin builds up as the head shape warps. The excess scalp skin is joined by fluid, which tends to fill in the areas where brain tissue has been destroyed.

    “This is a pretty unusual clinical presentation to see, and a very severe outcome,” Honein said. “We’re seeing, in some babies at least, a very high level of brain destruction.”

    The latest mouse models, where the disease can be tracked cell by cell, back this idea. Three reports published last week show Zika virus can harm early embryonic neurons in mice. As Columbia University microbiologist Vincent Racaniello wrote about one study from Brazil: “The infected mice also had ocular abnormalities similar to those that have been observed in babies with congenital Zika virus syndrome.”

    “These papers are really convincing because of the parallels in human fetal brains,” University of Michigan virologist Katherine Spindler told PBS NewsHour. She listed enlarged ventricles and smaller brains as examples.

    Plus, the virus doesn’t stop after attacking the earliest neurons, as another of the three studies found Zika can hit post-mitotic — a.k.a. adult — neurons too.

    “All kinds of cells in the brain seem to be infected,” Spindler said.

    Mice aren’t humans, so these studies should be accepted with caution, but the trends may factor into Guillain–Barré syndrome, which primarily afflicts adults.

    Oh right, what’s happening with Guillain–Barré syndrome?

    Of the 58 countries and territories with ongoing Zika outbreaks, 13 have noticed an increase in Guillain-Barré syndrome. Most experts, including Spindler, blame an autoimmune reaction, wherein the body’s microbial defenses mistake human tissue as the virus.

    NPR recently documented 2 people struggling to recover from Guillain-Barre

    But alternative theories are emerging.

    “What I’m hearing is that in Brazil, the majority of people with Guillain-Barre are not showing the usual immunological pattern,” said Scott Weaver, director of the Institute for Human Infections and Immunity at the University of Texas Medical Branch. This pattern involves human antibodies being formed to target the myelin sheath of neurons.

    These results aren’t published yet, but they may indicate “more direct damage by the viral infection than is typical in most Guillain-Barre triggered by other viral infections,” Weaver said.

    Weaver’s team is working with several other teams, including pharmaceutical companies and researchers at the National Institutes of Health to develop a Zika vaccine. The NIH expects a small vaccine trial — 80 subjects — to start in September, with a broader rollout in the early part of 2017.

    If Zika behaves like its cousin Chikungunya and other flaviviruses, then the main onslaught of the America’s Zika epidemic might be over. But a vaccine would still be valuable because viruses like Zika, Chikungunya and dengue never disappear for good, especially in the tropics. A Zika vaccine may offer protection for those living in these areas, as well as anyone who may wish to travel there…like, say…for the upcoming Olympics.

    Should people be worried about the Rio Olympics?

     A competitor takes part in the Men's Decathlon Pole Vault at the 2016 Rio Olympics Test Event, May 16, 2016. Photo by Ricardo Moraes/REUTERS

    A competitor takes part in the Men’s Decathlon Pole Vault at the 2016 Rio Olympics Test Event, May 16, 2016. Photo by Ricardo Moraes/REUTERS

    Depends on who you ask. Some experts say the games must not proceed, given the risk of spreading the virus to new locations. Last week, the head of the World Health Organization advised that pregnant women avoid traveling to Brazil, but stopped short of saying the games should be canceled.

    “You don’t want to bring a standstill to the world’s movement of people,” WHO director Dr. Margaret Chan said, according to the Associated Press. “This is all about risk assessment and risk management.”

    Daniel Lucey, a infectious disease specialist at Georgetown University, agrees with the WHO for a few reasons. First, the Olympics are being held in the wintertime, when mosquitoes are decreased in number. The specific location is also an advantage. The games are confined to Rio de Janeiro, which lies outside the tropics, so it’ll be even cooler. Plus he feels confident that public health officials are making every effort to eradicate mosquitoes in Rio.

    “I’m personally going to go there myself, so I’m as confident as I can be that they’re going to do everything that they can with national, international health.”

    Lucey said when it comes to Zika and international travel, people should have more concerns with an overlooked outbreak off the northwest coast of Africa.

    Starting in October 2015, Cabo Verde (Cape Verde) experienced a surge of Zika virus. More than 7,000 suspected cases struck the island between then and early March — 165 involved pregnant women. The nation’s health minister announced its first case of microcephaly on March 15, and two more followed soon after.

    “These are the first and only cases of Zika-linked microcephaly ever reported anywhere in the continent of Africa,” Lucey said. Zika originated in Uganda in 1947, but no one reported birth defects during early outbreaks of the African strain or with the subsequent Asian strain that hopped over to the Americas. It’s unclear which strain caused Cape Verde’s flare up, Lucey said.

    Cape Verde also has strong travel ties with Guinea-Bissau and other West African nations where the tropical mosquito carriers of Zika live in heavy abundance.

    The situation bothers Lucey because it echoes the early stages of West Africa’s Ebola epidemic, wherein the international community was slow to react.

    “It’s not a verbal exercise. It’s people’s lives. Babies’ lives and welfare are at stake.”

    The post How many Zika-infected infants will develop microcephaly and other FAQs appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    An EgyptAir plane is seen on the runway at Cairo Airport, Egypt in this Sept. 5, 2013 file photo. Photo by Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters

    An EgyptAir plane is seen on the runway at Cairo Airport, Egypt in this Sept. 5, 2013 file photo. Photo by Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters

    An EgyptAir airplane flying from Paris to Cairo with 66 passengers aboard disappeared from radar and is feared to have crashed in the Mediterranean Sea early Thursday morning.

    Flight 804 vanished from radar at about 2:45 a.m. local time after it entered Egypt’s airspace at an altitude of about 37,000 feet.

    According to Egyptian officials, the airplane crashed and a search for debris was underway, reported the Associated Press. Egyptian Prime Minister Sherif Ismail told reporters it was too early to say whether a technical problem or a terror attack caused the plane to crash, according to the AP. “We cannot rule anything out,” he said.

    EgyptAir map

    The pilot, who has more than 6,000 hours of flying experience, reported no problems while the airplane was cruising. The last contact the pilot made was about 10 minutes before the plane dropped off radar, reported Egypt’s state-run newspaper Al-Ahram.

    Friends and relatives gathered at Cairo International Airport and Charles de Gaulle Airport, where the airplane departed, to learn more.

    An unidentified woman waits outside an EgyptAir in-flight service building, where relatives and friends of passengers who were flying in an EgyptAir plane that vanished from radar en route from Paris to Cairo are being held, at Cairo International Airport in Egypt on May 19. Photo by Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters

    An unidentified woman waits outside an EgyptAir in-flight service building, where relatives and friends of passengers who were flying in an EgyptAir plane that vanished from radar en route from Paris to Cairo are being held, at Cairo International Airport in Egypt on May 19. Photo by Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters

    The passengers included 30 Egyptians, 15 French, two Iraqis, one Briton, one Kuwaiti, one Saudi, one Sudanese, one Chadian, one Portuguese, one Belgian, one Algerian and one Canadian. There were 10 crew members aboard.

    The disappearance followed an incident in March in which an Egyptian man hijacked an EgyptAir plane and diverted it to Cyprus. The man was taken into custody, and no passengers were harmed.

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    Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders addresses the crowd during a campaign stop at the Bowling Green headquarters in Bowling Green, Kentucky, May 4, 2016. REUTERS/John Sommers II  - RTX2CUWM

    Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders addresses the crowd during a campaign stop at the Bowling Green headquarters in Bowling Green, Kentucky, May 4, 2016. REUTERS/John Sommers II – RTX2CUWM

    WASHINGTON — Bernie Sanders is winning sympathy from an unlikely ally: Donald Trump.

    The presumptive Republican presidential nominee is seizing on Sanders’ refrain that the Democratic Party is stacked against him, shutting out his supporters and rigging the rules to favor Hillary Clinton.

    In rallies, tweets and interviews, Trump has made Sanders’ plight a frequent talking point.

    “Bernie Sanders is being treated very badly by the Democrats — the system is rigged against him,” Trump tweeted Wednesday. “Many of his disenfranchised fans are for me!” This followed Sanders’ victory in the Oregon primary, with a Kentucky contest too close to call.

    As Trump tries to make common cause with Sanders backers attacking their own party, Sanders’ path to the nomination has narrowed to the nearly impossible and campaign donations have plummeted. He’s putting forward a long list of grievances with the Democratic Party as the reason for his declining fortunes. And he’s threatening that unless the system is changed, Republicans — like Trump — will win over working-class voters.

    The central target of his ire: Democratic National Committee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

    “We can have a long conversation about Debbie Wasserman Schultz, just about how she’s been throwing shade on the Sanders campaign from the very beginning,” Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver said on CNN.

    Schultz aside, Clinton has won over broad majorities of minority and female voters, giving her the lead not only in delegates but in the popular vote. But that reality hasn’t swayed Sanders, whose heavy emphasis on party functionaries and arcane political rules is a notable change for a candidate who’s long focused on curbing income inequality, regulating Wall Street and eradicating the influence of corporate money in politics.

    Sanders and Trump have both seen themselves as victims of a system stacked against them by the establishment. It’s a complaint Trump has put behind him now that he’s vanquished his rivals and come within reach of a nomination-clinching delegate majority. But Sanders and his supporters are simmering, if not boiling over, with that grievance now.

    “I’ve been receiving phone calls from all over the U.S. — profane, sexist, they threatened my life, they’ve threatened my family,” said Nevada Democratic Party chairwoman Roberta Lange. “I feel threatened everywhere I go.”

    Those protests, though, are rooted in rules that were set months, if not years, ago — long before Trump and Sanders caught fire with the independents and first-time voters who’ve fueled their rise. Both were tripped up by Byzantine party statutes that govern how nominees are chosen.

    When Trump saw Ted Cruz begin to outmaneuver him in the hunt for delegates, Trump started railing against a “rigged” and “crooked” electoral system that he said favored the will of party bosses over millions of Republican voters. And Trump frequently linked his fate with that of Sanders, expressing disbelief that Sanders could win one primary after the next and still be losing to Clinton.

    While the Republican system’s rigging was more “sophisticated,” he said, the Democrats’ system was just as bad, because of its use of hundreds of superdelegates — the party insiders who can declare their support for any candidate regardless of who wins primary contests.

    In Nevada, chair throwing, shouted profanities and even death threats to party leaders marked a meeting of the state party on Saturday. Sanders supporters accused Lange of stacking the rules against them. But those rules were approved by the state party’s full board weeks ago, party officials said.

    Clinton backers say the Sanders supporters simply do not understand the process.

    “I cannot see anything that’s within the jurisdiction of the rules committee that has any impact on who’s the nominee,” said former Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank, a Clinton backer charged by the DNC with heading up the convention rules committee. “He just got mad at me because some of the criticism that I’ve made of his legislative record.”

    But Weaver said on MSNBC on Wednesday that “clear structural impediments” block the rise of insurgent candidates like Sanders and prevent new voters from joining the party.

    Sanders says he will fight hard to defeat Trump, whether or not he captures his party’s nomination.

    Clinton, who is on a firm path to clinching the nomination within weeks, faces the prospect of winning back Sanders supporters, many of whom are feeling increasingly alienated.

    That hasn’t gone unnoticed by Trump. His campaign sees winning over angry Sanders supporters and other disenchanted Democrats — particularly in states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio — as key to victory.

    In recent days, Trump has begun to suggest that Sanders should mount a third-party campaign. “He should run as an independent!” tweeted Trump on Monday. “Run Bernie, run.”

    The idea is not rooted in sympathy, though, but in Trump’s conviction that such an independent effort would siphon votes from Clinton in the fall and help make him president.

    The post Trump more than happy to agree Sanders is getting a raw deal appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Students take their seats for the diploma ceremony at the John F. Kennedy School of Government during the 361st Commencement Exercises at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts May 24, 2012.   REUTERS/Brian Snyder

    Students take their seats for the diploma ceremony at the John F. Kennedy School of Government during the 361st Commencement Exercises at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts May 24, 2012. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

    What if lowering student debt was as easy as sending students a letter?

    Indiana University officials say borrowing by undergraduates at the school has dropped 18 percent since 2012. That’s when the university began sending students annual letters that estimate their total loan debt and future monthly payments, as part of a push to boost their financial literacy.

    Inspired by the results at IU, Indiana last year began requiring all colleges that accept state aid to send letters. Nebraska followed with a similar law this spring.

    Republican Rep. Casey Cox, the author of the Indiana legislation, says he gets phone calls from officials in other states interested in the idea. And U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly, an Indiana Democrat, has proposed requiring the federal Department of Education to keep a list of financial literacy best practices, perhaps including student loan letters.

    A growing number of students need to borrow — and borrow heavily — to finance their college educations. And giving them more information about their debt may help change their borrowing habits. Research suggests that students say no to loans when they’re told how much they’re borrowing and how loans could weigh on them in the future.

    But the approach carries risks, too. In some cases, borrowing less may make it harder for students to graduate. They might have to spend more time working and less time studying. Or they might opt for less expensive institutions that do less to guide them.

    Although IU officials think financial literacy makes a difference, they haven’t actually proven that the letters — or any other initiative — drove borrowing down.

    “From a research perspective, we haven’t gotten to the point where we can say it had an impact,” said Victor Borden, professor of educational leadership and policy studies at IU Bloomington. He and a team of researchers are scouring data to find out exactly what worked.

    Students Who Borrow Too Much
    Cox, the author of the Indiana law, is one of the youngest members of the Legislature. The 30-something is still paying off his law school loans.

    He said he was inspired by his alma mater’s efforts and his own memories of how tempting it was for students to borrow as much as possible. “At a young age, you may not really understand the consequences of that debt,” he said.

    Some students may not know they’re borrowing at all. Researchers at the Brookings Institution, a centrist Washington, D.C., think tank, dug into federal survey data in 2014 and found that over a quarter of first-year college students with federal student loans didn’t know their loans came from the federal government. About half of those students had no idea they were borrowing money to pay for college.

    Students can be confused for a number of reasons. Their parents may be handling the financial aid details, for example. The way student loans are packaged and disbursed doesn’t help, said Andrew Kelly of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative-leaning Washington think tank.

    A few months after a student sends a financial aid application to the federal government, an award letter arrives from the college, which may knock a chunk of money off the tuition bill — or cover it entirely. “It just kind of arrives, like manna from heaven,” Kelly said of financial aid.

    Behind the scenes, two things happen: The government calculates how much the student’s family can afford to pay for the education. And the college calculates the total cost of attendance, including living expenses. Both of those calculations determine how much federal and state need-based grants, work-study aid and loans the student can receive. The college may provide scholarships, too.

    Students usually accept whatever aid colleges award them without questioning whether they could live more cheaply — and borrow less. And, Cox has said, some students may borrow extra money to fund a better lifestyle.

    The temptation to borrow too heavily may be particularly strong for part-time students, who can borrow the same amount for living expenses as full-time students. The students may end up borrowing for many years, racking up more debt or even hitting federal loan limits before they manage to graduate.

    More Information May Help
    When the news broke that borrowing at IU had fallen, students there told Bloomberg the loan letters had spurred them to avoid debt by working more, looking for scholarships, and avoiding spending on living expenses like new cellphones.

    But it’s not clear that IU’s letters are driving the decrease in borrowing. The letters were part of a bigger push to educate students about money that included counseling, a podcast, and a new website that offers quizzes and calculators. The university also has changed its financial aid process to make it easier for students to say no to loans.

    Before all the financial literacy work began, said Phil Schuman, the university’s director of financial literacy, “I don’t think students actually knew they had the option to take less.”

    IU also has been pushing its 94,000 undergraduates to enroll in 15 credits each semester — the pace necessary for graduation in four years. “It might not necessarily be that students are taking out less money each semester, but that they’re graduating on time,” Schuman said.

    Across IU’s seven main campuses, 42 percent of full-time students seeking a bachelor’s degree graduate in four years, up from 38 percent five years ago according to the latest data. This past year, the cost of attendance — including tuition, fees, room and board —ran to $21,412 for in-state IU students.

    A team led by IU’s Borden will use statistical analysis to parse all the factors that could be affecting borrowing, from the availability of state grants to student wealth. They will try to determine whether the financial aid letters, the literacy push, or the change in loan processing did the most to lower overall debt. The university made other changes during the period, such as increasing institutional grant aid, which also could have made a difference.

    Other research shows that a combination of letters and counseling can change students’ borrowing and academic behavior.

    Montana State University students with high debt who received letters alerting them to that debt and encouraging them to seek counseling borrowed an average of one-third, or $1,360, less the next semester, according to a 2015 analysis by Montana State and Federal Reserve researchers.

    The students went on to take more credits and earn better grades the following semester, the study found. The same research team found in a forthcoming study that students who received the letters were 2 percentage points more likely to switch to a major associated with higher-paying jobs.

    Students with lower grades tended to switch their majors to business, while students with higher grades tended to switch to majors in science, technology, engineering or math.

    The federal government mandates that students undergo counseling twice, once before they receive loans and once after they leave the institution. (Most colleges provide this information online.) The Indiana and Nebraska laws don’t require colleges to add additional counseling, although many colleges already offer services similar to IU’s.

    Students Who Borrow Too Little
    Yet student loan letters can also have a downside. They can deter students from taking out loans they really need to finance their education.

    “It’s just a really complex issue,” said Robert Kelchen, an assistant professor at Seton Hall University who studies student debt. “The policy discussion is that students need to borrow less. And the reality is that some students may be able to borrow less, but some may need to borrow more.”

    Students may choose to work their way through college to graduate debt-free. But by working rather than studying, they may find it harder to graduate on time — or to graduate at all.

    “The one thing we don’t want is students who are so stressed about their finances they can’t focus on their academics,” Schuman said.

    Whether a student is borrowing too much or too little depends on a range of factors, from family wealth to the chosen degree and whether the student graduates, said Kelly of the American Enterprise Institute. “Someone who borrows the maximum amount for a solid program at a community college or a four-year college and finishes — it’s hard to say that they overborrowed,” he said.

    Schuman said he has had to tell students that debt isn’t necessarily a bad thing, particularly when they’re working toward a degree that will lead to a high-paying job. He recently talked to a chemical engineering major at another institution who had about $10,000 in debt and was scared it was too much. “She was going to be fine!” he said.

    This story was produced by Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts.

    The post What happens when colleges warn students about loan debt? appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Hillary Clinton on Thursday said that she “will be the nominee” of the Democratic Party, her most direct prediction to date on the outcome of her still-simmering primary battle with Bernie Sanders.

    In an interview on CNN, Clinton issued an unusually blunt analysis of the primaries, saying she would defeat Sanders and clinch the Democratic presidential nomination this summer.

    “I will be the nominee for my party,” Clinton said.

    Clinton is widely expected to beat Sanders, who began as a long-shot White House contender last year but has built a surprisingly strong candidacy in recent months. Clinton needs less than 100 delegates to secure the nomination, and could reach the figure by early next month.

    Still, her prediction on Thursday grabbed headlines because Clinton has been reluctant in the past to alienate Sanders’ network of mostly young and liberal supporters.

    The former Secretary of State will need Sanders voters on her side in a general election matchup against Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican Party nominee.

    Clinton’s comments could signal a tougher approach to Sanders as the primary season winds down. The Vermont senator has pledged to take his campaign all the way to the Democratic National Convention in July, a move that has angered Clinton allies and party leaders who want Clinton to focus on Trump.

    The ongoing battle with Sanders has effectively forced Clinton to run against two opponents at once, something her campaign had been hoping to avoid.

    In the CNN interview, Clinton took a direct shot at Trump as well, saying “he is not qualified to be president of the United States.”

    Clinton decried Trump’s “irresponsible, reckless dangerous comments.”

    “Based on the way he has behaved and how he has spoken and the policies he has thrown out there, I think it adds up to a very troubling picture,” she said.

    The interview came two days after the final Democratic primary contests in May. Sanders carried Oregon on Tuesday, while Clinton appeared to win Kentucky by a narrow margin.

    SUBSCRIBE: Get the analysis of Mark Shields and David Brooks delivered to your inbox every week.

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    This video is not currently available. | Listen to the Audio

    HARI SREENIVASAN: Finally, another installment in our Brief But Spectacular series, where we ask interesting people to describe their passions.

    Tonight, we hear from hip-hop artist Jared Pellerin, who’s better known by his stage name, Pell, on how beauty can be born of hardship and what he discovers making music he calls experimental soul.

    PELL, Recording Artist/Producer: Sometimes, I feel like a true masterpiece is made from making a mistake beautiful.

    I first started making music when I was around 16 in Jackson, Mississippi, because I was forced to move there after Hurricane Katrina with my brother and mother.

    I remember making friends by making music because, being in a new social situation, it’s always a good thing to be able to identify yourself with something, and I identified myself as an artist.

    I have a lot of musical influences, Kanye West, Pharrell William, Frank Ocean, Stevie Wonder. I listen to Stevie when I feel like I’m in love or I feel like I want to do better in the world, because there’s a lot of positivity in his music.

    I would describe my music as experimental soul. And some of the best music to me is that that comes out of accident. Maybe that one drum hit that didn’t sound right, if left in there and mixed the perfect way, can provide the ear candy for a classic.

    “Runaway” is one of my favorite tracks, because it deals with having to leave something that you know and chasing your own path and dream. That’s how you get the message.

    “That’s how you get the message, when I no longer can text you. Hear our past on every record because it’s way too hard forgetting. All the teachings in the world can’t force another lesson, that it’s better you’re a ghost within my presence. But I still remember you just as a blessing, I’m confessing.”

    Being in the music industry, you are confronted with a bunch of challenges creatively, because you will have people telling you what you should be talking about, when the goal of an artist is to tell their story.

    I should try to challenge myself to bring something new to the culture, because that’s how it keeps pushing forward. The way music streaming is now and the trends that it’s starting to show in our listeners’ attention, I feel that people are more receptive to singles and not listening to albums as much.

    When you drop an album, you’re not dropping a bunch of loose singles. You’re dropping a cohesive story or a cohesive body of work sonically that you want somebody to be able to digest, sit with, maybe play a few times. It takes a lot to make an album. You’re putting your whole soul into a body of work that is something that needs to be enjoyed in its completeness.

    And when you take away that aspect and you want to, you know, pitch this single or this single, and not really have anybody focus on the album, you take away from what the point of the music is, you know?

    What’s up? My name is Jared Pellerin, AKA Pell. And this is my Brief But Spectacular take on experimental soul.

    HARI SREENIVASAN:  Jared’s is just one in our Brief But Spectacular series.  You can find that on our Web site at PBS.org/NewsHour/Brief.

    The post Pell tells his story through trial, some error — and lots of ‘experimental soul’ appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Oklahoma Republican Governor Mary Fallin makes remarks before the opening of the National Governors Association Winter Meeting in Washington, in this February 22, 2014 file photo.  REUTERS/Mike Theiler/Files - RTSF1FL

    Oklahoma Republican Governor Mary Fallin makes remarks before the opening of the National Governors Association Winter Meeting in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 22, 2014. Oklahoma state legislators approved a bill Thursday that would make abortion a felony for physicians in the state and sent the bill to Fallin’s office.

    A measure that Oklahoma state legislators approved Thursday would make abortion a felony for physicians, with potential penalties that include removal of their medical license and a maximum prison sentence of three years.

    The state House approved the measure in April with a vote of 69-15 and sent it to the Senate, which passed it today with a vote of 33-12. Senate Bill 1552 now goes to Gov. Mary Fallin to sign or veto, although it will automatically become law should Fallin do neither, Politico reported.

    Previous state laws forbid the practice of abortion by non-licensed practitioners. Under the proposed law, abortion would fall within the state’s definition of “unprofessional conduct” for physicians, making the procedure illegal to practice.

    Abortions that would “preserve the life of the mother” or to remove a miscarriage are exempt. There is no exemption for cases of rape or incest, and any physician who practices abortion would be blocked from obtaining or renewing their medical license, according to the bill.

    Republican Sen. Nathan Dahm, R-Broken Arrow, who co-authored the bill, said that state government is responsible for protecting life in the state. “Since I believe life begins at conception, it should be protected, and I believe it’s a core function of state government to defend that life from the beginning of conception,” Dahm said.

    Critics of the bill have called it unconstitutional and a violation of the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, that legalized abortion in the country. Sen. Ervin Yen, a Republican and the Oklahoma state Senate’s only physician, said the bill was “insane.”

    The bill joins hundreds of other state measures restricting abortion that have been proposed across the country since the beginning of 2016. Overall, U.S. states introduced 411 abortion-restricting bills between January and mid-April and enacted 21 of those measures, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

    Last month, Fallin signed a bill that banned intact dilation and evacuation, a method used in second-trimester abortions, making Oklahoma the second state to outlaw the procedure. Kansas had previously banned the same method last year.

    The post Oklahoma lawmakers pass bill making abortion a felony for doctors appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Photo courtesy Harvard University

    Photo courtesy Harvard University

    Editor’s Note: Done with the private sector, but not ready to retire? A Harvard fellowship program gives high-powered baby boomers the tools and knowledge they need to take on a second career in the social sector. Economics correspondent Paul Solman traveled to Harvard University to talk with the program director and participants like Lynne Wines. A former bank executive, Wines came to Harvard looking to scale and fine-tune a program to get businesses to hire more more “neurodiverse” employees — that is, people with Asperger’s, autism, dyslexia, post-traumatic stress disorder, Tourette’s — people whose brains are “wired differently,” she says.

    The following conversation has been edited for clarity and length. For more information, tune in to tonight’s Making Sen$e report, which airs every Thursday on the PBS NewsHour.

    — Kristen Doerer, Making Sen$e Editor

    Paul Solman: What was your career before this?

    Lynne Wines: I’ve been in banking for 35 years.

    Paul Solman: And why did you switch?

    Lynne Wines: I have run several commercial banks throughout the state of Florida. And after I sold the last one that I ran in 2014, I decided it was time to do something else with my life.

    Paul Solman: And not just golf.

    Lynne Wines: Definitely not golf, nobody wants to play golf with me!

    Paul Solman: So what were you thinking about as a next career?

    “What got me most excited was either mentoring other people who worked within my companies or giving back to the community.”

    Lynne Wines: I’ve always been involved in the community. And really what got me most excited was either mentoring other people who worked within my companies or giving back to the community. A friend of mine who had attended Harvard as an adult in his 60s sent me a link to the Advanced Leadership Initiative Program. And as soon as I saw it, I knew it’s what I wanted to do.

    Paul Solman: Did you have a specific project or perspective project in mind?

    Lynne Wines: I was already working on a project with a business partner in Florida on advocating for the neurodiverse population — particularly advocating for employment for neurodiverse adults, because there are so few services for adults. That’s the project I brought with me to try to scale and fine-tune and make more successful.

    Paul Solman: What do you mean by neurodiverse?

    Lynne Wines: So the concept of neurodiversity is that all brains are wired differently. We all think differently, we all learn differently, we all react differently. And yet many of our institutions, including many of our employers, educators and the military, are designed for one type of thinking. And what we want is for people to understand and open their hearts and minds to people who think differently. The neurodiverse population that we are focusing on includes people that have Asperger’s autism, dyslexia, post traumatic stress disorder, Tourette syndrome, ADHD — those types of cognitive disabilities.

    Paul Solman: Do you think of them as disabilities or just diversity?

    Lynne Wines: Well, that’s a great question, and it really depends. Some people self-identify as disabled, and they can get some benefit from that. It also depends on the severity of their thinking and the way they perform in different circumstances. Other people don’t want to identify with that at all.

    “It’s a matter of being able to train the employers to understand that they many not interview the same as you and I would interview… But that doesn’t make them not valuable employees.”

    And there are some brilliant people. Almost 50 percent of people on the Asperger’s and autistic spectrum, which is considered autism today, have average to above average IQs. And many of them have graduate degrees, and it’s a matter of being able to train the employers to understand that they many not interview the same as you and I would interview, they may not take a written test the same, and they may not behave in certain social circumstances, the way that we would. But that doesn’t make them not valuable employees. And so our focus is really to educate employers.

    Paul Solman: So what is the project? What is the business?

    Lynne Wines: We are creating online modules that are training programs. We really are in a very embryonic stage at this point, but certain people, like CEOs and HR executives, we would go and train one-on-one. And then we might train line managers in a seminar environment. We or other associates in the company would probably train workers through online modules. And it’s a training on acceptance, awareness of differences and not perceiving somebody’s differences in a negative light.

    Paul Solman: What would the teaching be like? How would you be sensitizing me to a person with whom I wouldn’t naturally or normally be comfortable?

    Lynne Wines: Alright, so let’s take somebody with Asperger’s who may not be comfortable making eye contact in an interview. Many of us who have hired and interviewed people throughout our careers, we consider eye contact important.

    Paul Solman: Crucial.

    “I think many of us consider ourselves to always be in a learning environment, that’s why a lot of us are successful — we’ve always been learning.”

    Lynne Wines: Well, this person could have a very high IQ and be very gifted at a particular skill, but they might not make eye contact in an interview. So that is something that we would try to help people understand. We would also help the HR director understand that somebody with dyslexia may not be able to take a written test or submit a written application, but they may be the best employee that they ever had.

    Paul Solman: What was it like going back to school after a successful career?

    Lynne Wines: I think many of us consider ourselves to always be in a learning environment, that’s why a lot of us are successful — we’ve always been learning. But to be back in an academic environment is very unique and to live in what feels like a cocoon of academia here is freeing.

    The post One former bank executive’s quest to make the workforce more ‘neurodiverse’ appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Speaker of the House Paul Ryan speaks to reporters in the U.S.Capitol in Washington, U.S. May 19, 2016. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque  - RTSF10M

    At a news conference immediately after the vote, House Speaker Paul Ryan denied knowledge about the vote-switching. Photo by REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

    WASHINGTON — Democrats shouted “Shame! Shame!,” but seven Republicans switched their votes under pressure from House leaders Thursday and defeated a measure to protect gay rights.

    “They literally snatched discrimination from the jaws of equality,” Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney said.
    The final vote was 213-212 after the chaos on the House floor. That was enough to defeat an amendment by Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-N.Y., aimed at upholding an executive order that bars discrimination against LGBT employees by federal contractors.

    Maloney and other Democrats were incensed. “They literally snatched discrimination from the jaws of equality,” Maloney said.

    He said he had approached Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., as McCarthy worked on GOP colleagues to vote against the measure. McCarthy told Maloney to get back on his side of the aisle.

    “I told him, ‘What side am I supposed to stand on in support of equality?'” said Maloney, New York’s first openly gay congressman. “It was disgraceful.”

    McCarthy rejected the assertion that Republicans unfairly held the vote open to prevail. “Was that a long time? So the answer is no,” he said.

    Maloney’s amendment would have prohibited the use of taxpayer dollars to violate President Barack Obama’s executive order barring discrimination.

    He was trying to include it in a spending bill following passage late Wednesday of a defense policy bill that included a provision Democrats said would overturn the executive order. Republicans said the measure was simply a restatement of religious liberties from the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and they bristled at Democratic criticism.

    “There are some people who are emotional … that’s beyond the pale. They can say whatever they want to but that’s beyond the pale,” said Rep. Bill Flores, R-Texas, asked about Democrats saying Republicans were a party of hate. “This country has a First Amendment that protects religious liberties, and that’s all we were doing is protecting that.”

    House Speaker Paul Ryan, at a news conference immediately after the vote, denied knowledge about the vote-switching.

    “This is federalism. The states should do this. The federal government shouldn’t stick its nose in this business,” said Ryan, R-Wis. GOP aides said adding the amendment would have jeopardized passage of the underlying spending bill for military construction and veterans, imperiling the House appropriations process just as it’s beginning.

    The vote for Maloney’s amendment peaked at 217, beyond the majority needed for passage, before it began a sporadic decline. Members of the Republican leadership whose job is to round up needed votes were stalking the House aisles where GOP lawmakers seat, and they openly pleaded for support.

    “Need two more votes,” Rep. Steve Russell, R-Okla., said loudly as he prowled among Republicans.

    Democrats were outraged, loudly chanting as their leader, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, yelled up from near the well of the House at her members, shouting at them to vote down the underlying bill.

    In the end, 29 Republicans joined 183 Democrats backing the gay rights amendment, but it was not enough.

    Democrats were quick to publicize the name of the Republican vote-switchers: Reps. Darrell Issa, Jeff Denham, David Valadao and Mimi Walters of California; Greg Walden of Oregon; Bruce Poliquin of Maine; and David Young of Iowa.


    Associated Press writers Alan Fram and Mary Clare Jalonick contributed to this report.

    The post Amid shouts of ‘shame,’ House GOP defeats gay rights measure appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    A woman carries bags while walking in a commercial area with stores either closed or offered for sale in San Juan, Puerto Rico, July 31, 2015. Puerto Rico will miss a payment on debt due August 1, the governor's chief of staff said on Friday, an event that will be considered a default by investors as the commonwealth lurches towards what could be one of the largest U.S. municipal debt restructurings in history. The island faces a number of debt payments that day but had signaled in recent weeks that it may miss the $58 million payment on Public Finance Corporation (PFC) bonds. REUTERS/Alvin Baez  - RTX1MMK6

    A woman carries bags while walking in a commercial area with stores either closed or offered for sale in San Juan, Puerto Rico, July 2015. Puerto Rico, mired in a decade-long recession, already has missed several payments to creditors. Photo by REUTERS/Alvin Baez

    WASHINGTON — House Republicans and Democrats reached a rare, election-year deal with the White House to try to rescue Puerto Rico from $70 billion in debt as millions of Americans in the cash-strapped U.S. territory struggle with the loss of basic services.

    A revised House bill introduced late Wednesday would create a board to help manage the territory’s financial obligations and restructure some debt. Negotiations between the Obama administration and House Speaker Paul Ryan’s office helped finalize the legislation.

    It is a “fair, but tough bipartisan compromise,” Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said.

    Ryan, R-Wis., said the legislation would avoid an eventual taxpayer bailout.

    The island’s businesses have shuttered, schools lack sufficient resources like electricity and some hospitals are limiting treatment or drugs.
    Puerto Rico, mired in a decade-long recession, already has missed several payments to creditors. A $2 billion installment, the largest yet, is due July 1.

    The island’s businesses have shuttered, schools lack sufficient resources like electricity and some hospitals are limiting treatment or drugs. Puerto Rico’s governor used a state of emergency this week to protect one public agency from lawsuits.

    Further complicating Puerto Rico’s outlook is the Zika virus, which has hit the territory of 3.5 million people hard. More than 700 cases have been reported; Zika can cause severe birth defects.

    Like U.S. states, Puerto Rico cannot declare bankruptcy. The legislation would allow the control board to oversee negotiations with creditors and the courts over reducing some debt.

    The compromise “achieved a restructuring process that can work,” House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said.

    A vote could happen next week in the Natural Resources Committee. The panel’s chairman, Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah, had to cancel a vote last month amid objections from both parties.

    Since then, Bishop and Ryan have worked to win over conservatives who worry the rescue might set a precedent for financially ailing states. Democrats, too, had to be persuaded the control board wouldn’t be too powerful and debt restructuring too difficult.

    Some of the House’s most conservative Republicans appear willing to support the deal. Republican Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, a native Puerto Rican and member of the fiscally conservative Freedom Caucus, spoke favorably of the effort.

    “What I have seen so far, I believe this is a good bill that will get a majority of Republican support and will actually go through both houses of Congress,” Labrador said, stopping short of a full endorsement.

    The Senate hasn’t yet acted. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has said the chamber is waiting for the House to move first.

    Disagreements over how the board would be appointed held up negotiations over the past week. The bill would empower President Barack Obama to select all but one of the members from lists provided by congressional leaders. Anyone Obama picks from outside that list must be confirmed by the Senate.

    In a nod to Democrats, the final bill also removes a provision that would have transferred federal land on the nearby island of Vieques to Puerto Rico’s government. But Puerto Rico would be allowed to temporarily lower federal minimum wage requirements for some workers, which Democrats have opposed.

    Still, Puerto Rican Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla said the bill still isn’t “consistent with our country’s basic democratic principles.” He wants a less powerful board that can’t fully control the island’s finances.

    Under the legislation, the control board would require Puerto Rico to create a fiscal plan. That includes directing the territory to provide adequate funds for public pensions, which the government has underfunded by more than $40 billion.

    Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, looking ahead to the territory’s June primary, said the legislation favors Wall Street over the island’s people.
    The Obama administration has pushed to make pensions a priority. That has creditors worried they would take a back seat to pension obligations. Bishop says the control board is designed to ensure all are paid.

    While supportive, Lew’s statement said: “Congress must stand firm and resist calls from financial interests to undermine this effort every step of the way — in committee, on the House floor and in the Senate.”

    Others were less positive. Dan Holler, Heritage Action for America’s spokesman, said the conservative group is “very skeptical” that the bill is now more conservative.

    Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, looking ahead to the territory’s June primary, said the legislation favors Wall Street over the island’s people.

    “We must stop treating Puerto Rico like a colony and start treating the people of Puerto Rico with the respect and dignity that they deserve,” Sanders said.

    More than 200,000 people have left Puerto Rico in the past five years, as the island’s financial problems worsened after setbacks in the wider U.S. economy.

    “I hope every member of Congress will bear in mind that the collapse of the bill could mean the collapse of Puerto Rico’s government,” Pedro Pierluisi, Puerto Rico’s representative in Congress, said.


    Associated Press writer Danica Coto in San Juan, Puerto Rico, contributed to this report.

    The post To save Puerto Rico from drowning in debt, House strikes deal with White House appeared first on PBS NewsHour.


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