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Last updated: Friday, March 27 2015 05:19 PM

White House unveils plan to fight antibiotic-resistant germs

Friday, March 27 2015 03:51 PM

Carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE) bacteria is pictured in this medical illustration provided by the Centre of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The UCLA Health System said seven patients were infected with a potentially deadly, drug-resistant strain of bacteria and that nearly 200 more might have been exposed to it. Photo by Reuters.

Carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae, a drug-resistant strain of bacteria that patients at the UCLA Health System were exposed to in February, is pictured in this medical illustration provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Photo by Reuters.

WASHINGTON — The White House on Friday announced a five-year plan to fight the threat posed by antibiotic-resistant bacteria amid fears that once-treatable germs could become deadly.

Repeated exposure to antibiotics can lead germs to become resistant to the drugs, so that they are no longer effective. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that drug-resistant bacteria cause 23,000 deaths and 2 million illnesses each year in the United States.

The World Health Organization said last year that bacteria resistant to antibiotics have spread to every part of the world and might lead to a future where minor infections like strep throat could kill. Antibiotic resistance also threatens animal health, agriculture, and the economy.

In an interview with WebMD, President Barack Obama said over-prescribing antibiotics is a serious problem.

“Studies have consistently shown that a lot of America’s antibiotic use is unnecessary,” he said. He said he hopes his plan will create a system to show real-time rates of antibiotic use and where cases of drug resistance are being reported. “If we can see where these drugs are being over-prescribed, we can target our interventions where they’re needed most.”

The White House’s overall goal is to prevent and contain outbreaks of infections at home and abroad. It’s aiming to maintain the ability of current antibiotics to fight illnesses and develop new treatments.

The plan is the result of an order Obama signed in September forming a task force on the issue. Obama also has asked Congress to nearly double its funding to fight antibiotic resistance to $1.2 billion.

Critics said the White House needs to go further, particularly in terms of the antibiotics used in animals processed for meat. The Food and Drug Administration has already successfully encouraged many drug companies to phase out the use of antibiotics used for animal growth promotion. But advocacy groups have called on the agency to limit other uses of animal antibiotics as well, such as for disease prevention when holding animals in crowded conditions.

“Once again, the administration has fallen woefully short of taking meaningful action to curb the overuse of antibiotics in healthy food animals,” said New York Democratic Rep. Louise Slaughter, a microbiologist who has sponsored legislation to stop routine antibiotic use in animal farming.

“With 80 percent of the antibiotics produced in the United States being used in agriculture mostly for prevention, any meaningful solution to the looming antibiotic resistance crisis must begin with limits on the farm — and trusting a voluntary policy that lets industry police itself will not bring about real change,” she said.

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Gwen’s Take: Getting on with it

Friday, March 27 2015 03:12 PM

Photo by New York Times

Robin Toner was the first woman to hold the position of national political correspondent for The New York Times. She died in 2008. Photo by New York Times

A friend of mine lost his wife to cancer six years ago. When she passed away, their twin children were 12 years old.

Next year, daughter Nora is off to Brown; and son Jake is off to the University of Chicago. Their mother, the late New York Times reporter Robin Toner, would be more than proud.

This week, a couple hundred people gathered for dinner in Washington to honor her memory. Hillary Clinton spoke (Robin met husband Peter Gosselin when both were covering the ill-fated Clinton health care plan for different newspapers in 1993). The rest of us swapped stories about how tough and funny Robin was.

She also put the fear of God into candidates. (Secretary Clinton remembered how Robin would fix her with a simple stare and tip her head to the side when she was pressing for the answer to a question.)

She did whatever was needed to file the story. In the years before Wi-Fi and coffee shop hot spots, she would stop motorcades, if necessary, to find a landline from which to send her story back to the Times.

She was a fabulous gal pal. Any woman who was toughing it out with the boys on the bus could compete with Robin by day, and swap stories about men and children and life-work balance by night. She sent me roses when I was hired by The New York Times.

Shortly after Robin’s shocking death at age 54, her husband and her alma mater realized that there were journalism prizes that honored investigative reporting, wartime bravado and presidential and congressional coverage – but none that prized the kind of smart political reporting at which Robin excelled.

The Robin Toner Prize now fills that void. Happily, this year’s recipient was Dan Balz, the chief correspondent for The Washington Post.

Dan is that rare creature that people swear does not actually exist in Washington. He is smart. He is fair. And he is elegant. I challenge you to find a reporter (or a politician, for that matter) who does not respect him.

His coverage for The Washington Post has provided a template for what political reporting should be. He shies away from opinion, but never fails to provide fresh analysis. He watches candidates up close as well as far away. He embraces social media, but has not become ensnared by it.

I should also say Dan was the national editor when I covered my first presidential campaign for the Post back in the day. He taught me a lot, with patience and insight. He made me laugh on a daily basis. I still learn something new every time he sits down at the Washington Week roundtable. The applause for him at the Toner dinner was heartfelt and sustained.

The Toner twins won the night when they presented the award to Dan, offering their memories of a mother they lost too soon. And Peter, who has worked overtime to create and sustain the prize, won our hearts when he confided that he and others who have lost a loved-one are often advised to “Get over it.”

He hasn’t gotten over it, he said. But he and the children have gotten on with it.

He could have been talking about today’s news industry or our political coverage, or our obsession with covering new things by old standards. Get on with it.

At that moment, I could hear Robin’s voice in my ear. And she was laughing.

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3 reasons why Harry Reid’s retirement matters

Friday, March 27 2015 01:43 PM

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid announced he will not seek re-election in 2016. Photo by Joshua Roberts/Reuters

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, seen at the Capitol on March 17, announced he will not seek re-election in 2016. Photo by Joshua Roberts/Reuters

The retirement of any top party leader in Congress will have tremendous ripple effects. But here are three reasons why Harry Reid’s retirement is especially notable.

1. This will be the first Senate change in leadership in more than a decade

For Democrats, when a new leader steps in in 2017, it will be 12 years since Reid took over. The former boxer became the top Democrat in the Senate in 2005, after Tom Daschle was defeated by immediate up-and-comer (and now No. 4 Republican in the Senate) John Thune. You can see one of Reid’s first news conferences as leader here.

For the Republicans, Mitch McConnell rose to become Republican leader in 2007, after Bill Frist retired. For the eight years since, McConnell and Reid’s approaches to leadership have determined the course of the Senate. And, with the chamber regularly positioned as the decisive body in U.S. government (by nature of its 60-vote threshold), the two men have determined the course of many of the major issues facing the United States.

And they have been in power longer than any two-term president.

2. Republicans just gained a big boost in the next fight for the Senate

Democrats have a numbers advantage in the 2016 Senate battle, with Republicans defending 24 seats compared with the ten Democratic seats on the ballot. But Reid’s retirement could give Republicans an increased chance of a takeover in Nevada.

The Democratic leader is known as a determined and tough-to-beat competitor with significant support in his home state. Two of his 2010 campaign ads are good examples: He ran a positive spot titled “Determination” and a pushback ad against opponent Sharron Angle titled “Pathological”.

Now with Reid off the ballot, Republicans’ general odds in Nevada (which were already significant) just improved. That said, it will depend on the candidates. And there is no clear frontrunner among Republicans for the Silver State Senate fight. Many Republicans would like to see Governor Brian Sandoval run, but it’s not clear that he is interested.

3. As a result, the operation of the Senate could change

The Reid and McConnell era has been marked by two leaders steeped in Senate tradition, and more importantly, Senate procedure. Both have wielded the Senate Rules as their primary tactical and political tools. That is not an original concept, but the Reid and McConnell decade has taken the procedural fight to a new level where rules and tactics have determined not just broad fights but day-to-day operations of the Senate.

While both parties have ably blocked each others’ legislation, Reid is known for particularly clamping down on the number of amendments allowed to reach the floor for debate and votes. His office has long argued that this was not entirely by choice and was in response to Republicans’ refusal to allow most bills to move forward.

This brings us to the possible change ahead. Reid’s top two deputies have long been Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, and Chuck Schumer, D-New York. Both are students of procedure and tradition, but it’s not clear if they would continue Reid’s approach should either take over his position. In recent years, Schumer has become a regular liaison with Republicans, organizing bipartisan talks aimed at compromise. Durbin is known as an issues and policy expert whose floor speeches tee up Democratic positions in easy-to-understand, engaging language.

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Little vetting of pilots for mental health, U.S. experts say

Friday, March 27 2015 01:31 PM

A pilot sits inside the cockpit of Airbus A321 during boarding for the Germanwings flight 4U9441, formerly flight 4U9525, from Barcelona to Dusseldorf March 27, 2015. The German pilot believed to have deliberately crashed a plane in the French Alps killing 150 people broke off his training six years ago due to depression and spent over a year in psychiatric treatment, a German newspaper reported on Friday. Photo by Albert Gea/Reuters

A pilot sits inside the cockpit of Airbus A321 during boarding for the Germanwings flight 4U9441, formerly flight 4U9525, from Barcelona to Dusseldorf March 27, 2015. The German pilot believed to have deliberately crashed a plane in the French Alps killing 150 people broke off his training six years ago due to depression and spent over a year in psychiatric treatment, a German newspaper reported on Friday. Photo by Albert Gea/Reuters

WASHINGTON — Despite U.S. and international regulations requiring that airline pilots be screened for mental health problems, little effective, real-world checking takes place, pilots and safety experts say.

The crash of Germanwings Flight 9525 into an Alpine mountain, which killed all 150 people aboard, has raised questions about the mental state of the co-pilot. Authorities believe the 27-year-old German deliberately sought to destroy the Airbus A320 as it flew Tuesday from Barcelona to Duesseldorf.

In the U.S., the Federal Aviation Administration requires that pilots receive a physical exam from a flight surgeon annually or every six months depending upon the pilot’s age. The International Civil Aviation Organization, a U.N. agency that sets global aviation standards, also requires that pilots receive a periodic medical exam including a mental assessment.

Technically, doctors are supposed to probe for mental problems, but pilots said Thursday that’s usually not how it works.

“There really is no mental health vetting,” said John Gadzinski, a captain with a major U.S. airline and former Navy pilot. In 29 years of physicals from flight surgeons he’s never once been asked about his mental health, he said.

Bob Kudwa, a former American Airlines pilot and executive who maintains his commercial pilot’s license, said: “They check your eyes, your ears, your heart — all the things that start going bad when you get older. But they don’t do anything for your head, no.”

There also is no confidential reporting, Gadzinski said. “If you had a mental health issue, you certainly wouldn’t tell your flight surgeon about that because it goes right to the FAA,” he said.

Pilots are also required to disclose existing psychological conditions and medications on health forms they fill out themselves for the FAA. Failure to do so could result in a fine of up to $250,000. The forms include questions about whether a pilot is depressed or has attempted suicide, Gadzinski said.

“Is this really the best way? Ask the guy who is mentally ill if he’s mentally ill and if he says ‘no’ then, hey, we’re good to go?” he said.

Europe has a single standard for pilot medical exams. “These medical assessments are done by doctors with a specialty in aviation health. … They know what to look for, physically and mentally,” said Richard Taylor, a spokesman for the United Kingdom’s Civil Aviation Authority.

Lufthansa, which owns the regional airline, has no knowledge about what have might have motivated co-pilot Andreas Lubitz “to take this terrible action,” said Carsten Spohr, the chief executive of Lufthansa.

Airlines typically ask pilots to take mental health screening exams when they apply for a job, but follow-up after hiring is cursory at best, experts say.

“If you’ve got 12,000 or 15,000 pilots like American Airlines has … every now and then you’re going to get a crackpot no matter how hard you try,” Kudwa said.

Video by PBS NewsHour

When that happens, other pilots who fly with the unstable pilot “sooner or later (are) going to let the boss know and then a check airman will be flying with him” to see if there is a problem, he said.

A check airman is an airline pilot who monitors the skills of other pilots by flying with them and watching how they perform. Still, check rides prompted by mental health concerns are rare, Kudwa said.

“You try to get these guys who are on the edge out of the program, but even in my career I ran into guys where I thought, ‘How did he get through the system?'” said Kudwa, who was with American for 28 years. “Or people change. Or, as we see in today’s environment, people get radicalized by social media.”

U.S. airline pilots generally receive training from their airlines about every six months to keep flying skills sharp. At that time, the chief pilot or check pilot monitoring their performance often asks pilots a few questions about their emotional stability, said John Goglia, a former National Transportation Safety Board member and aviation safety consultant.

“It’s very, very loose,” Goglia said. “It’s easy to get around that because it’s not a mental health professional who is asking the questions … ‘Is everything all right at home? Are you fighting with your wife? Are you kicking the kids and dog?’ It’s not much. It’s usually pilots looking at pilots.”

Associated Press writer Danica Kirka contributed to this report from London.

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Senate veteran Harry Reid announces he won’t seek re-election

Friday, March 27 2015 01:25 PM

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 13: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) leaves the Capitol building on October 13, 2013 in Washington, DC. Congress continues to struggle to find a solution to end the government shutdown, which is currently in its 13th day. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid announced today that he won’t seek re-election next year. Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid announced Friday he will not run for another term in 2016, saying he wanted to focus on bringing Democrats back to power in the Senate rather than his own re-election.

Reid, 75, lost his role as majority leader — the Senate’s top job — when November’s elections swept the Republicans into control. He suffered a personal setback on New Year’s Day, falling while exercising and suffering serious bruises and a lasting injury his right eye.

In a statement, the Nevada Democrat said the recovery period gave him to think about his political future.

“We have to make sure that the Democrats take control of the Senate again,” he said. “And I feel it is inappropriate for me to soak up all those resources on me when I could be devoting those resources to the caucus, and that’s what I intend to do.”

Reid, first elected to the Senate in 1986, was considered one of the most vulnerable Democrats in a swing state. He turned back a challenge in 2010 and was sure to face an aggressive, big-money attack by Republicans if he ran again.

His announcement is expected to set in motion a scramble in the Senate’s Democratic leadership lineup between his top two deputies, Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York and Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois.

Schumer, the third-ranking Democrat, issued a statement praising Reid for “his strength, his legislative acumen, his honesty and his determination.”

As majority leader, Reid thrived on behind-the-scenes wrangling. For eight years, he guided the Senate through a crippling recession and the GOP takeover of the House in the 2010 elections, which sparked years of bitter partisan battles and congressional gridlock.

Since returning to work after his fall, Reid has struggled to regain sight in his right eye, appearing in the Capitol in bandages and then with his eye shielded by tinted glasses. He told The Associated Press early this month that the injury was “a tremendous inconvenience,” but nothing more, and not enough to stop him from seeking re-election.

“I’ve had black eyes before,” said Reid, who was an accomplished amateur boxer in his youth.

In his statement, Reid cited the need to ” be more concerned about the country, the Senate, the state of Nevada than about ourselves. And as a result of that I’m not going to run for re-election.”

Reid said his role leading the Senate Democrats is “just as important as being the majority leader” and he would remain focused on that for the nearly two years left in his term.

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Cockpit voice recorder captures dramatic descent of Germanwings flight

Thursday, March 26 2015 10:50 PM

A black box voice recorder from the German Airbus operated by Lufthansa's Germanwings budget Airbus A320 crash is seen in this photo released March 25, 2015 by the BEA, France's Bureau d'Enquetes et d'Analyses (Air Accident Investigator). Photo by BEA/Handout via Reuters

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GWEN IFILL: The recovery of bodies and wreckage from downed Germanwings Flight 9525 continued today, as investigators announced a startling finding, that the pilot in control of the plane when it crashed into mountainous terrain did so intentionally; 150 people lost their lives.

Jonathan Rugman of Independent Television News filed this report from near the crash site.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: Threading their way through alpine pass, these are the relatives of those who died in these mountains two days ago. They want to be close to their loved ones’ last living moments, however awful those moments are. The countryside here is remote and splendid, though now scarred by disaster.

And no one here is calling this an accident anymore. This was always going to be really difficult journey for these families to make, made even more difficult by the revelation that the co-pilot appears to have crashed the plane deliberately, killing himself and 149 other people. It was this mangled cockpit voice recorder which gave up his secret. It seems the co-pilot locked the captain out of the cabin and then steered the plane into its final descent.

The prosecutor handling this investigation talking of deliberate intent to destroy the aircraft.

BRICE ROBIN, Marseille Prosecutor (through interpreter): The most plausible and possible interpretation for us is that the co-pilot refused to open the door to the cockpit to the flight captain and activated the button to start the descent.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: The prosecutor described the flight’s final 10 minutes. He said the captain left the cockpit, perhaps to use the bathroom, leaving the co-pilot alone at the controls to start the plane’s descent.

The captain is heard pleading to be let back in, but there is no response, the only cockpit noise, the sound of the co-pilot breathing normally, with passengers heard screaming just before the moment of impact.

The co-pilot was Andreas Lubitz, a 28-year-old German, relatively junior with over 600 hours of flying experience, not on the police radar and, we are told, with no known link to terrorism. Cockpit doors have been strengthened since the September the 11th attacks, but this Airbus video shows how flight crew should be able to open the door from the outside on a keypad, though, crucially, that code can be overridden with a lock switch inside the cockpit for up to five minutes, and that’s what experts believe happened on Tuesday morning.

This was as close to the crash site as relatives reached today, the national flags of those killed unfurled in honor of the missing dead.

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How well do we know the pilots who fly our planes?

Thursday, March 26 2015 10:45 PM


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GWEN IFILL: Today’s revelations have spurred serious concerns over safety and flight protocols, ranging from cockpit access and security to pilot training.

NewsHour aviation specialist Miles O’Brien joined me a short time ago to talk about all of us this via Skype.

Miles, thanks for joining us.

It seems the question that everyone is asking tonight is, how could this happen?

MILES O’BRIEN: Yes. It’s probably more in the realm of psychiatry and psychology than aviation in some respects.

But you have to look at the big picture here, Gwen, and the system that is facing tremendous demand and a lot of cost pressure. A lot of pilots are required to fill these seats and fly these aircraft. There’s a pilot shortage most everywhere you look in the world right now. Meanwhile, the pay for pilots is very low. So there’s a lot of pressure on the airlines to get people in these seats quickly.

And you have to ask the question if the whole vetting process, which we have relied on for generations in aviation, if that has somehow been short-circuited and we just don’t know the people flying airplanes as well as we used to.

GWEN IFILL: Describe the rules for cockpit access normally.

MILES O’BRIEN: Well, since 9/11, everything changed, of course. We reinforced the cockpit door. And it’s not anything you can easily barge through. That’s the design.

The way it works is, when you go out, the person behind the locked cockpit door really has all the authority. You have to acknowledge somebody trying to come in and unlock the door. There is a component of this, though, that does afford access to the cockpit if there was an incapacitated crew.

If both crew members or one crew member were passed out and unable to respond, through a series of steps, you could gain access to the cockpit, but as long as the person on the other side of the door in the flight deck doesn’t want somebody in, you can keep them out.

GWEN IFILL: You started talking about this being almost a psychological exercise. What does the age and experience level of this pilot have to do with this investigation? We know he’s 28 years old. We know he had a lower-than-normal flying record. But does that mean anything as they begin to get to the bottom of this?

MILES O’BRIEN: Well, you know, there’s no black box for the human being, and I’m not equipped to psychologically analyze what might or might not have been going on inside this person’s mind, but I do know this, that the industry has remained safe over the years through a long, slow apprenticeship.

And that has been sped up in recent years. And concurrent with that, there’s been tremendous pressure on the airlines to make a buck. It’s a very difficult business. And there’s a lot of pressure to keep the salaries of pilots low. So you have to wonder, you know, is the process not selecting the best people for the job? And are we, in fact, not training them quite up to standards we prefer because it’s, frankly, cheaper?

GWEN IFILL: And it’s a self-policing question about whether a pilot who has responsibility for so many lives is in the mental state to fly.

MILES O’BRIEN: Exactly. I mean, basically, when you get hired at an airline, they do a psychological test. And that’s the last you get of a psychological test. The first-class medical done by medical examiners every six months doesn’t include a psychological test. They might say, hey, how you doing, that kind of thing, but nothing much more beyond that.

So, the system took care of itself. Back in the days, we had three-person crews. We had largely military crews. There was a sieve, a vetting process which really distilled who ended up in the cockpit. And there were fewer cockpit seats to fill, after all, which took care of this situation. So, now that this is a different environment, the airlines and the regulators perhaps need to look at a psychological component and vetting these people in a different way.

GWEN IFILL: So, now that we have seen this crash site, which is horrific, and so many little pieces, how does the investigation proceed going forward?

MILES O’BRIEN: Well, we have the big pieces.

If you had to pick one black box to find, the cockpit voice recorder in this case is the one. So I think, you know, some of the key information that we need is in there. It would be nice to have the flight data recorder just to corroborate what we have heard about control inputs by the remaining flight crew member, but this goes back to an ongoing issue in the industry.

We have the capability, the technology. There’s no reason why when a plane is nonresponsive for as long as 10 minutes that we can’t somehow get a view inside that cockpit, cameras in the cockpit, and streaming data from the aircraft so we know what’s going on. There’s no reason not to do this, except for money.

And, once again, that brings us back to our theme.

GWEN IFILL: Miles O’Brien joining us by Skype, thank you so much.

MILES O’BRIEN: You’re welcome, Gwen.

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News Wrap: Indiana Gov. Pence declares HIV public health emergency

Thursday, March 26 2015 10:40 PM


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JUDY WOODRUFF:  Closer to home, communities across Oklahoma and Arkansas are cleaning up today after being hit by this season’s first round of tornadoes. Twisters ripped through both states yesterday, killing at least one person in Tulsa. The storms flattened homes and businesses, toppled power lines, and caused multiple injuries.

Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin toured the damage in Moore, a town hit hard in 2013 by a powerful twister that killed 24 people.

GOV. MARY FALLIN, (R) Oklahoma: We have been down this road before. We know what to do. And I’m just very grateful that we have so many people that worked so hard over the night to make sure that people were safe, to make sure they weren’t injured, and then to certainly make sure that we keep our roads and highways blocked off from power lines that were down and make sure that the traveling public was also safe.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Fallin declared a state of emergency in 25 Oklahoma counties. Tens of thousands of residents are still without power.

GWEN IFILL:  The governor of Indiana declared a public health emergency today to help contain an HIV epidemic. Rural Scott County near the border with Kentucky has recorded 79 new HIV cases since January. All were tied to intravenous drug use of the prescription painkiller Opana.

Republican Mike Pence is against needle exchange programs, but made an exception and authorized a short-term program.

GOV. MIKE PENCE, (R) Indiana:  This is all hands on deck. This is a very serious situation. We will not only contain the spread of this virus, but we are going to speed relief and medication to people that have been affected by it. And we’re going to arrest its exposure. And, through an aggressive law enforcement effort, we’re going to find the people that are responsible.

GWEN IFILL:  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended needle exchange to help keep the number of HIV infections at bay. But state health officials still expect the number of cases to increase as more people are contacted.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Department of Justice officials have arrested two Illinois cousins, both of them National Guardsmen, on charges they were joining Islamic State fighters. One man was arrested at a Chicago airport last night, and was allegedly leaving for Egypt to join the militant organization. The cousins allegedly told an undercover FBI agent they had plans to attack an Illinois military facility.

In Iraq, the battle to take back the city of Tikrit from Islamic State militants lost the support of Shiite militias today. But it comes a day after the U.S. joined airstrikes on the city.

In Washington, General Lloyd Austin, the head of U.S. Central Command, told a Senate committee the U.S. demanded the Iranian-backed militias leave before the U.S. got involved.

GEN. LLOYD AUSTIN, U.S. Commander, U.S. Central Command:  And I would like to just highlight, sir, that three tours in Iraq commanding troops who were brutalized by some of these Shia militias, I will not and I hope we never coordinate or cooperate with Shia militias.

GWEN IFILL:  Austin went on to say there are now about 4,000 Iraqi forces, commandos and police fighting for the city, with American help.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  U.S. and Iranian officials went back to the negotiating table in Switzerland today, with a nuclear agreement deadline looming.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, have significant gaps to overcome before March 31. Negotiations have already been extended twice over the past two years.

GWEN IFILL:  More than 1,000 civilians have been killed by the militant group Boko Haram this year. Human Rights Watch said they died in attacks from Northeast Nigeria, to neighboring Cameroon, Chad, and Niger. Ahead of this weekend’s elections, the Nigerian government has brought in mercenaries from South Africa and the former Soviet Union to push the militants back.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Back in the U.S., stocks on Wall Street extended their losses for a fourth day. The Dow Jones industrial average lost 40 points to close at 17678. The Nasdaq fell 13 points, and the S&P 500 slipped nearly five.

GWEN IFILL:  The 15th century monarch King Richard III received a proper burial today in Leicester, England. Royalty, religious leaders and the archaeologists who discovered Richard’s remains in a parking lot in 2012 were all in attendance. The long-lost king died in battle in 1485, and was buried without a coffin in a church that was later destroyed. Scientists identified his remains by his distinctively curved spine, radiocarbon dating and DNA tests.

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Yemen chaos takes another sharp turn with Saudi airstrikes

Thursday, March 26 2015 10:35 PM

Shi'ite Muslim rebels hold up their weapons during a rally against air strikes in Sanaa

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JUDY WOODRUFF: The chaos in Yemen has taken another dramatic turn, as neighboring Saudi Arabia entered the fight against rebels in that country with airstrikes.

The operation began overnight, as Saudi jets flew from the Sunni kingdom’s southern desert and bombarded military targets in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa, the goal, drive out Shiite Houthi rebels who’ve taken over much of the country.

The Saudi ambassador to the U.S. announced the campaign last night in Washington.

ADEL AL-JUBEIR, Ambassador, Saudi Arabia: We will do whatever it takes in order to protect the legitimate government of Yemen from falling and from facing any dangers from an outside militia.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The strikes flattened a number of homes, killing at least 18 civilians. Residents were left searching through piles of rubble for survivors.

Jonathan Bartolozzi of Mercy Corps is in Sanaa, and spoke with the NewsHour via Skype.

JONATHAN BARTOLOZZI, Mercy Corps: People were woken up by explosions. When people found out that it was actually a foreign military intervention, people were quite shocked. We had a situation where targets — the military targets that they were aiming for are specific. So, the actual city center did not see a lot, or actually any at all.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Thousands of Houthi supporters took to the streets of Sanaa, protesting the Saudi airstrikes. But at a separate rally in the southern city of Taiz,, scores of Yemenis cheered the action.

The Saudis are joined in the effort by other Persian Gulf nations, as well as Sudan, Jordan, and Egypt. Those nations back Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who’s been in the port city of Aden since fleeing Sanaa last month. Today, Hadi left the country under Saudi protection and arrived in Riyadh.

SAMEH SHUKRI, Foreign Minister, Egypt (through interpreter): It was an obligation to answer the call of President Hadi. Egypt has announced its political and military support to Yemen and also to join the coalition through air, naval forces and land if the matter calls for it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The head of the Arab League added his backing.

NABIL AL-ARABY, Secretary General, Arab League (through interpreter): It took place after the failure of all trials to stop the Houthi coup d’etat, after their persistence to take escalated steps against the constitutional legitimacy and the national Yemeni will.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Meanwhile, the Houthis’ key supporter, Iran, denounced the strikes. Yemen became the latest flash point in a long-simmering conflict between Tehran and Riyadh for regional dominance.

Iran’s foreign minister:

MOHAMMAD JAVAD ZARIF, Iranian Foreign Minister (through interpreter): Military action, especially military action from outside Yemen against territorial integrity and against the Yemeni people, will have no result but bloodshed and slaughter of the people.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The U.S. authorized logistical and intelligence help for the campaign, but, at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, the top general overseeing U.S. operations in the Middle East had few answers.

GEN. LLOYD AUSTIN, Commander, U.S. Central Command: I don’t currently know the specific goals and objectives of the Saudi campaign, and I would have to know that to be able to assess the likelihood of success.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The chair of the committee, Arizona Republican John McCain, said the airstrikes stemmed from a — quote — “total absence of U.S. leadership.”

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What’s driving Saudi airstrikes in Yemen?

Thursday, March 26 2015 10:30 PM


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JUDY WOODRUFF: Joining me now to shed some light on what these new developments mean for the already smoldering Sunni-Shia split in that region are David Rothkopf. He’s editor and CEO of “Foreign Policy” magazine. And Trita Parsi, he’s president of the National Iranian American Council and author of “Single Roll of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy With Iran.”

And welcome to both of you.

TRITA PARSI, National Iranian American Council: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David Rothkopf, what prompted the Saudis and their allies to get involved militarily? Al-Qaida has been causing unrest in Yemen for some time. What’s different now?

DAVID ROTHKOPF, Foreign Policy: Well, I think what’s different now is the rise of the Houthis, the gradual takeover of a very significant portion of the country, the fact they’re allied with Iran, which, as you noted, is the principal rival of the Saudis in the region, and the fact that Yemen has a very long border with Saudi Arabia, so that if, in fact, this country became a satellite of the Iranians, it would pose a real strategic threat to the Saudis.

I also think the other thing that’s driving it is that the Saudis and the GCC countries, the Egyptians and the others that are involved, don’t really feel that the United States or any other foreign power is going to have the ability to help stabilize this. And so they had to take some action on their own.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Trita Parsi, is — would a Houthi takeover in Yemen pose a strategic threat to Saudi Arabia?

TRITA PARSI, President, National Iranian American Council: Well, absolutely.

I think the panic you have seen in Saudi Arabia is to some extent understandable in their rivalry with the Iranians. Twenty years ago, the Saudis essentially had encircled Iran. They were funding the Taliban in Afghanistan. They were funding elements in Pakistan. They were funding most of the Wahhabi mosques that were built in Central Asia. And Iran was also checked by Saddam Hussein.

Twenty years later, it’s pretty much the opposite. Iran has more influence in Afghanistan and in Iraq and in Syria than the Saudis do. And now the Iranians also have a foothold right in Saudi Arabia’s backyard in Yemen. It’s not difficult to understand that they’re panicking, but the question is whether what they’re doing right now is actually going to be able to advance their interests.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what do you think?

TRITA PARSI: Well, I think what you have — the problem you have in the Middle East right now is that you have a significant diplomacy deficit.

We’re not going to be able to see any stabilization in Syria or in Yemen unless the Saudis and the Iranians find a way to be able to talk to each other, rather than to fight each other through proxies.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, I want to ask you about that, David Rothkopf. But you did mention that the Saudis worry that the U.S. and others wouldn’t be willing to stand up to Iran. The U.S. is supporting the Saudi effort, though, aren’t they?

DAVID ROTHKOPF: Well, in theory, they’re supporting them, although your clip a minute ago noted that the senior U.S. general didn’t really know what the Saudis were up.

Meanwhile, yesterday, despite the administration’s statements to the contrary, the U.S. actually was flying air support missions for the Iraqis. And the Iraqis, of course, in their fight against ISIS are very close aligned to the Iranians. Meanwhile, in Switzerland, we’re negotiating with the Iranians on a nuclear deal that many, including the Saudis, see as a potential rapprochement with the Iranians.

And so we seem to be on both sides of this, and that, of course, is one of the reasons that the Saudis are extremely uncomfortable right now, as are essentially all of our other traditional allies in the region.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And that’s what makes this hard to understand, Trita Parsi.

Let’s look at it from the other perspective, from the Iranian perspective. How committed are they to the Houthi rebels? How involved are they in Yemen?

TRITA PARSI: It’s not clear how committed they are, if this is just something that they’re doing to essentially punish the Saudis, because there is a sentiment in Iran that the Saudis have been going out after Iran for quite some time.

The sanctions against Iranian oil would never have been successful had it not been for the Saudis replacing Iranian oil on the markets. The Saudi support for the Sunni insurgency in Iraq that really started the sectarian fight, all of these things, the Iranians believe, have been done by the Saudis against Iran without carrying much of a cost for the Saudis.

If this is just something to punish the Saudis, the commitment may not be that extensive. It’s part of either a larger strategic move by the Iranians or an effort to be able to further come across as a protectorate of all Shiite populations in the region, then the commitment is probably going to be a bit stronger.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you see Iranian intentions, David Rothkopf?

DAVID ROTHKOPF: Well, I think it’s clearly part of a strategy.

The past couple years of chaos in the Middle East have benefited the Iranians more than any other country, as Trita noted, in Yemen, in Iraq, in Syria, with Hezbollah in Lebanon, with Hamas in Israel. They are standing to gain. And right now, if they end up with a deal that relieves sanction, allows them to get a little bit more cash in their pockets, they can strengthen their hold on the region and end up considerably stronger at the end of this.

And the Saudis and the others do not see the same kind of opportunities for them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, what about that? And do you see this — Trita Parsi, do you see what’s going on right now in Yemen affecting those Iranian nuclear talks?

TRITA PARSI: I don’t think it’s going to have a significant impact on those negotiations. If anything, it may make it more clear that there is a need for a nuclear deal there, so that the United States and Iran actually can start talking about regional developments, because, so far, that’s been off the table.

But I would also caution against a view that the Iranians some way, somehow are taking over the region. Yes, the Iranians have been able to take advantage of chaos that has existed, which is rooted frankly in the invasion of Iraq, much better than others have. But the idea that this is turning into some sort of Iranian hegemony is a view that is held in Saudi Arabia, but I don’t think it’s an accurate view.

It is driven by the sense of panic that the Saudis are having because so much has gone against Saudi interests in the last 20 years, which have very little to do with Iran and have much more to do with general geopolitical trends.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just finally, David Rothkopf, American interests in all of this, both of you have referred to this. How much should the U.S. be worried at this point about what has developed — what is developing in Yemen?

DAVID ROTHKOPF: Well, I think we should be worried about what’s developed in Yemen as a symptom of what’s going on in the region.

For the first time in history, effectively, every single country in the Middle East, with the exception perhaps of Oman, is involved in a war. And that, of course, creates the conditions where wars can spread, where conflicts can get escalated, where our interests can really suffer.

And right now, there is no sign that we or any of our allies have any ability to influence these outcomes in any significant way. This is a very, very dangerous moment for the U.S. interests in the region, as it is for the countries in the region themselves.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Very quickly, Trita Parsi?

TRITA PARSI: I think David is right. But I think it’s also important to note that the true leadership that is needed here is to drive a new diplomatic initiative and bring all of the different parties to the table.

In the past, the United States has had difficulties doing this because the Saudis refuse to come to the table if the Iranians were there. I think it’s become increasingly clear all major powers have to be at the table in order to be able to find a new equilibrium in the region through diplomatic means, rather than thinking that it can be achieved through military means.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Trita Parsi and David Rothkopf, we thank you both.


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Are investors pumping up another housing bubble in Florida?

Thursday, March 26 2015 10:25 PM


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GWEN IFILL: Home prices continued their climb back during the past year, even in some of the cities that took the hardest hits during the housing crash.

But economics correspondent Paul Solman found there’s a much more complicated picture behind the numbers.

Here’s his story, part of our ongoing reporting Making Sense, which airs every Thursday on the NewsHour.

PAUL SOLMAN: In Fort Myers, Florida, realtor Marc Joseph’s welcome bus tour, an overview of the local housing market every Wednesday morning. And shades of the last real estate boom here, things are heating up.

MARC JOSEPH, Founder, Marc Joseph Realty: The time to buy is now because inventory is tightening up.

PAUL SOLMAN: Of course, in real estate-speak, now is always the time to buy.

MARC JOSEPH: If you’re questioning if it’s the right time to buy, it is definitely the right time to buy.

PAUL SOLMAN: That was Marc Joseph five years ago, when we first met him, on what he then called Foreclosure Tours R Us, taking rubbernecking retirees around the wreckage of Southwest Florida’s spectacular real estate crash.

MARC JOSEPH: December of 2005, up here, we hit $322,000 as the average median sales price. Since December ’05, it came straight down. For the entire last year, we have been hovering at a leveling off of between $85,000 and $90,000 over the entire last year.

PAUL SOLMAN: That was spring 2010, 24,000 foreclosure cases then backlogged in the county court. Too bad we didn’t buy, because five years later, the median sales price has more than doubled, to nearly $200,000.

But Joseph’s job is to move the product.

MARC JOSEPH: It’s location, it’s the timing, and it’s the price.

PAUL SOLMAN: Like this bank-owned foreclosure, last sold for $218,000 in 2005, still 50 percent off today.

MARC JOSEPH: This is concrete block. I cannot reproduce this for $109,000.

PAUL SOLMAN: Or this one, last sold for $246,000 in 2005.

MARC JOSEPH: It’s 32 cents on the last sales price because I’m only asking $77,000. So when somebody says, are there deals still out there, this is a deal. They’re paying $85,000 for vacant lots in this neighborhood to put up homes.

PAUL SOLMAN: Small wonder, says Joseph, that investors large and small are now jumping in, buying houses to rent out, or renovate for resale.

MARC JOSEPH: People are taking money out of their retirement plans, and they’re making a move. I’m seeing it every day.

PAUL SOLMAN: Jim Gandhi, down from Toronto, was primed to pounce.

JIM GANDHI, Toronto: We’re used to $300 a square foot. When we look at something below $100 a square foot, I mean, it’s mind-boggling.

PAUL SOLMAN: Debbie Abdale hails from Buffalo, New York.

DEBBIE ABDALE: You’re going to make a lot more money doing this than leaving your money in stocks or bonds or annuities.

MARC JOSEPH: If you have cash, you are king right now.

PAUL SOLMAN: In fact, cash bidding wars are erupting.

MARC JOSEPH: Cash. Everybody’s on the same page now. Please watch your step getting off.

So, guys, what you have is a two-bedroom, one-bath, $101,000.

PAUL SOLMAN: How much can you rent this out for?

MARC JOSEPH: This is $900, $950 to $1,000. You may even get $1,200 because of the desirability of where you’re at.

PAUL SOLMAN: This is going to seem like I’m just your straight man or something, but why wouldn’t anybody do that?

MARC JOSEPH: That’s what I ask myself every day.

CHRIS TAMBURELLO, Boston: Because it comes with the couch.


PAUL SOLMAN: Younger Gen Xers and older millennials may recognize the one celebrity on the bus, Chris Tamburello, C.T., of MTV’s “Real World” and other reality shows. What was he doing here?

CHRIS TAMBURELLO: I’m interested in buying a few of those rentals on the lower end and finding me a fixer-upper to live in, and just kind of making my little castle, you know, my little piece of paradise.

PAUL SOLMAN: There were fixed-up fixer-uppers on the bus tour, two former foreclosures already being flipped. This one’s now on the market for $279,000, this one for $399,000, higher prices that demand higher rents to justify as investments.

But, says foreclosure expert Daren Blomquist, the renters are plentiful.

DAREN BLOMQUIST, Vice President, RealtyTrac: These are displaced homeowners who still often need a place to live, but they can’t qualify to buy, and so for now they are renters.

LAURA NEGRON: People like myself that are still trying to get their credit back in shape.

PAUL SOLMAN: We met Laura Negron in 2010, translating for Marc Joseph in a cash-for-keys transaction, a sort of voluntary eviction.

LAURA NEGRON: It’s kind of intimidating and scary that someone would just offer you $1,500 to get out of your house. It hits home.

PAUL SOLMAN: It hit home because Negron herself was in default on her mortgage, hadn’t made a payment in nearly a year.

LAURA NEGRON: My husband was out of work for eight months.

It’s been hard. I’m sorry.

PAUL SOLMAN: Today, Negron still works for Marc Joseph, has been promoted to real estate agent.

LAURA NEGRON: We had to short-sale our house. We did a bankruptcy.

PAUL SOLMAN: And are you going to buy in the next year or two?

LAURA NEGRON: Absolutely. Can’t wait.

PAUL SOLMAN: Boomerang buyers like Laura Negron are further stoking the market, says Daren Blomquist.

DAREN BLOMQUIST: We are seeing a first wave of buyers who lost their homes to foreclosure now qualifying and being able to purchase again. But the irony is that, in some markets, they may have been priced out because of the big investors who’ve come into those markets and propped up prices.

PAUL SOLMAN: Very big investors.

MARC JOSEPH: We have large hedge funds in our area buying up mass amounts of houses, renting them out, and then they take them in big pools and they sell them up to the New York Stock Exchange, to the REITs, the real estate investment trusts.

PAUL SOLMAN: What Joseph senses is, to put it bluntly, another bubble in the making.

MARC JOSEPH: To go from $85,000 to $200,000 in five years?  My fear is the people that are in those homes, if they don’t make their rent payments…

PAUL SOLMAN: See you later.

MARC JOSEPH: We have a lot of see-you-laters.

PAUL SOLMAN: And a lot of investors losing a lot money.

Daren Blomquist isn’t worried yet.

DAREN BLOMQUIST: But if the momentum can’t be stopped in terms of that home price appreciation of 10, 20, 30 percent a year, that’s where we’re going to very quickly get into that danger zone for a housing bubble. And, unfortunately, human nature is such that a lot of times that momentum carries farther than it should.

MARC JOSEPH: Show of hands. How many people are investors here, please?

PAUL SOLMAN: And even if momentum isn’t a problem, there could be another glut if Florida’s so-called shadow inventory suddenly hits the market.

MARC JOSEPH: You have to go out and check a property to see if it’s vacant or if it’s occupied.

PAUL SOLMAN: Florida leads the nation in zombie foreclosures, where the owner can’t be found, may even have died. It leads in actual foreclosures, 300,000 cases pending, 20,000 new cases a month.

Another 500,000 Florida homeowners are at least three months behind in their payments, technically delinquent. And hundreds of thousands of modified mortgages and home equity loans are about to balloon in payments. Is Marc Joseph predicting another crash?  He wouldn’t dare. And neither would we. But loans requiring only 3 percent down are now back, he says, and:

MARC JOSEPH: It’s a big scary thing, because we are getting almost to where we were in 2005 at $317,000. And if we get there, how does that schoolteacher, how does that fireman, how does that police officer, how do they buy a house when it’s $317,000?

Oh, we’re going to get creative. We’re going to give them zero down, no income verification loans. And here we go again. No, we can’t do that.

PAUL SOLMAN: This is PBS NewsHour economics correspondent Paul Solman reporting from one of the disaster areas of the last crash, Fort Myers, Florida.


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House approves permanent fix for Medicare doctor payment

Thursday, March 26 2015 10:20 PM

John Boehner Holds Weekly Press Conference At Capitol

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GWEN IFILL: In Congress today, a rare and significant bipartisan agreement. The House of Representatives overwhelmingly agreed to repair Medicare. For over a decade, doctors have faced repeated threats of pay cuts. But this new deal would permanently end the uncertainty.

Plus, it put House Speaker John Boehner and Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi in the rare position of being on the same side.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER, Speaker of the House: This will be the first real entitlement reform that we have seen in nearly two decades. And that’s a big win for the American people.

REP. NANCY PELOSI, House Minority Leader: I just have confidence that the quality of what we have done, what has been crafted in the House is really a good bipartisan initiative.

GWEN IFILL: Here to explain the deal and how it would work is Mary Agnes Carey of Kaiser Health News.

Mary Agnes, there have been 17 patches, fixes, temporary fixes for this over the years. It’s not a new problem. What changed this time?

MARY AGNES CAREY, Kaiser Health News: A couple years ago, members of the House and the Senate, bipartisan member of the relevant committees, came together and decided a policy on how to move forward to pay Medicare physicians.

But they could never find the money to fix it. So, now what’s happened is, there has been bipartisan agreement, as you say, in the House to simply say we’re not going to finance some of this repeal of the Medicare payment formula — that’s about $141 billion — to the deficit.

There are some things they are financing, but they have simply decided this is a hole that’s never created, it’s not one we have to fill, and we agree to just not finance it.

GWEN IFILL: And is part of what the fix is that they’re paying doctors for quality of care, rather than the quantity they provide?


The current payment formula had incentivized providers, physicians to simply do more services. And so what the repeal does is takes a five-year path to doing exactly what you say, paying physicians on the quality of the care they provide, rather than the quality — the quantity, rather.

GWEN IFILL: Well, not only that, but there is a financial piece. The temporary fixes they kept passing, that was actually more expensive than a permanent fix.

MARY AGNES CAREY: Right. Those came in at $170 billion, for example, the fixes that you talk about that have happened for the last 12 years. The actual repeal this time is $141 billion.

GWEN IFILL: So, that’s how they ended up on the same side?

MARY AGNES CAREY: That’s part of the way they ended up on the same side.

And, also, there are also other provisions that attracted votes in that bill, for example, two years of additional funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, more money for community health centers that enjoy bipartisan appeal, and also an extension of some Medicare policies, including one that permanently extends a program to help low-income beneficiaries pay for their Part B premiums.

GWEN IFILL: Were doctors a powerful force in finally getting this done?  I mean, they must not have liked the uncertainty from year to year to year.

MARY AGNES CAREY: No, they didn’t.

Think about, if you’re a physician and you take a lot of Medicare patients — and most doctors do take Medicare patients — every year, you’re sitting down trying to figure out how Congress was going to pay you. Were they going to cut you? Were you going to get a three-month patch, or a three-month fix?

And so this created kind of a full-court press from the physician community and other patient communities and providers as well to say to Congress, fix this once and for all.

GWEN IFILL: Does this fix have any effect on the Affordable Care Act? Is there a connection?

MARY AGNES CAREY: In the sense of moving Medicare to being a provider of more quality care, it certainly does.

There’s programs in the Affordable Care Act that look at things called accountable care organizations, where providers work together to improve care or bundle payment or trying to reduce preventable hospital re-admissions, to make Medicare a more efficient provider of medical care.

GWEN IFILL: Now, of course, what we had today was passage in the House. The president has signaled that he will sign it. Today, he actually praised John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi, which also never happens.

But the Senate still looms. Some Senate Democrats have been unhappy with just the compromise you were talking about, which is for the children’s health program, saying they want it to be extended longer.

MARY AGNES CAREY: Right. They would like four years of additional funding.

And there is also some concern about other ways they’re financing the package, including asking wealthier Medicare beneficiaries to pay more for than coverage, and starting in 2020 putting some limits on these very — they call them the first dollar supplemental Medigap policies. They’re questioning, why should seniors pay so much for a Medicare physician payment fix?

So you might hear some of those concerns on the Senate floor.

GWEN IFILL: What is the timing?  This thing is do April 5? It’s supposed to expire April 1?

MARY AGNES CAREY: April 1, that’s right.

So, in theory, if a final fix isn’t passed, a replacement formula isn’t passed by April 1, doctors would see a 21 percent payment cut. But here’s something that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which oversees Medicare services, could do. They could hold those claims for about two weeks.

And, as we know, the House has already left on a two-week break. The Senate is in the middle of fighting over their budget resolution for the next fiscal year. They’re expected to go tomorrow. So, while they may not take action on it now, they could take action on it when they return.

GWEN IFILL: But it sounds like they’re really closer to a deal now than they have ever, ever been.

MARY AGNES CAREY: Closer than ever before.

GWEN IFILL: Mary Agnes Carey from Kaiser Health News, thank you, as always.

MARY AGNES CAREY: Sure. Thank you.

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How one Afghan woman rose from dressmaker to policy insider

Thursday, March 26 2015 10:15 PM


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JUDY WOODRUFF: The brutal murder by a mob in Afghanistan last week of a 27-year-old woman named Farkhunda has sparked worldwide outrage and concern for the plight of all Afghan woman. This week, a delegation of female Afghan leaders accompanied President Ashraf Ghani on his official visit to Washington.

Among them, Kamila Sidiqi, whose story reached the United States in the 2011 bestselling book “The Dressmaker of Khair Khana.”  It chronicles her bold efforts to create a dressmaking business that supported her neighborhood during years of Taliban rule.

NewsHour special correspondent Gayle Tzemach Lemmon happens to be the author of that book. She brings us an update now on her remarkable subject.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: The last time I saw Kamila Sidiqi, she was a successful businesswoman in Kabul with more than a dozen employees. Then she started a dried fruit business and launched a taxi company.

Yet here she is today on the streets of Washington, D.C., having risen to even greater heights. She’s now deputy chief of staff to the president of Afghanistan, handling technology, finance, admin and hiring in the office of the president.

Her journey has taken her from a teenager trying to survive during the Taliban years to the presidential palace today.

You always believed that your hard work would pay off, even in those times when there were real regulations  and rules against women being out in the public sphere.

KAMILA SIDIQI, Afghan Presidential Deputy Chief of Staff: Yes, I’m very grateful the recognition that I have received from my work today, and work with the office of the president.

It’s only and also if someone work very hard and have belief and confidence, I’m sure they can work in the office of president, and they can work any place they want.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: Sidiqi’s journey began in the days of Taliban rule, when women weren’t permitted to work or go to school or even to leave the house without a male chaperone. Determined to support her family and with few options left given the Taliban’s rules, Sidiqi turned to business.

She learned to make dresses. And from one dress she sewed to help her family survive, she built a living room business that provided jobs and an income to girls and women all around her neighborhood.

And what did those times teach you?

KAMILA SIDIQI: To be more confident, that we can — if we want to work and have commitment, we can bring some change.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: That change is not easy in a country where violence against women remains rampant, child marriage is entrenched and female literacy rates remain well below 50 percent. The past decade has brought progress, more than three million girls in school and women as police officers, teachers and lawmakers.

Alongside that progress, however, is the looming uncertainty of insecurity.

Do you ever get worn down by security situation, or by when a big attack happens, or when the headlines are tough, or when you see what’s happening right now with protests on the street? Do you ever question your commitment?

KAMILA SIDIQI: Sure. I have a good feeling for my country. I am always concerned about all this accident, and it happen in my country every day.

All Afghan people are concerned, and I’m also very concerned about these things that happen, but I love my country. I have commitment.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: Sidiqi remains committed to her country, in part because she never really left. Even during the civil war, she stayed in school, despite rockets falling from street-by-street trench warfare all around her.

Like so many other Afghans, she stayed behind to build the best life she could, despite growing up amid three decades of war. At a dinner this week for President Ghani, Secretary of State John Kerry paid tribute to Sidiqi’s achievements.

JOHN KERRY, Secretary of State: I met her on my first trip to Kabul when I was secretary of state, and she is a very brave entrepreneur who started her own business in her home at a time when the Taliban kept all women off the street.

And I would like to honor her also, if everybody would — where is she?


GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: Sidiqi had in fact missed the dinner in order to attend a street vigil in Washington for Farkhunda, the young Afghan woman murdered by the mob in Kabul last week.

Sidiqi’s visit to Washington has been a whirlwind of interviews, White House meetings, and conferences, including this one at Georgetown University featuring Afghan women leaders.

KAMILA SIDIQI: Today, we have a lot of opportunity. If someone wants to establish a business, it’s very easy to go and register a company and do a business.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: Your father had nine girls and two boys and made sure that every one of them was educated. Is education a personal issue for you because of that?


As you know that, today, I am working in the office of the president. That’s all because of my father and my mother, that they gave us a chance and in such difficult times in Afghanistan. And they always focus for the education of their children. In this case, it’s not only important in my family. It’s important in my country.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: Is there anything that gives you concern or things that keep you up at night worrying about the future?

KAMILA SIDIQI: Security, security of my country, especially those people that they are living in the very remote area and very different provinces, that there is no good life for a woman. Security is important for us, and I’m concerned about it.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: Well, we talked years ago. You went on a bus down south to do a presentation wearing your burqa, and you were talking to a mullah, I think, who said, if I knew my daughter would turn out like you…


KAMILA SIDIQI: Yes, you remember that. It was in Kandahar, when I provided training. And in Kandahar, it was a gender training and business. And that was his comment about me. And he say — he promised me that, I will give much and I will give my support for my girl to be like you in the future.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: Do you think about yourself as a role model?

KAMILA SIDIQI: I hope. Let people judge.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: For the NewsHour, I’m Gayle Tzemach Lemmon in Washington.

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Poet’s novel turns young sports lovers into book lovers

Thursday, March 26 2015 10:10 PM


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GWEN IFILL: Finally, March Madness continues this evening with the next round of the NCAA playoffs, known as the Sweet Sixteen.

With so many eyes following the excitement on the court, we turn to story of how one writer used basketball to inspire children to read.

Jeffrey Brown has more, our latest conversation from the NewsHour Bookshelf.

JEFFREY BROWN: Up and down the courts, a drive to the hoop, a fast break in the other direction. Middle school boys and basketball, and, well, why not poetry? They come together in “The Crossover,” a novel in verse about twin brothers obsessed with basketball. It’s won this year’s Newbery Medal, the highest honor in young adult literature.

KWAME ALEXANDER, Author, “The Crossover”: Josh Bell is my name, but Filthy McNasty my claim to fame. Folks call me that because my game is acclaimed, so downright dirty, it will put you to shame.

JEFFREY BROWN: Its author is 46-year-old poet, writer and literary activist Kwame Alexander. At the St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes School near his home in Northern Virginia, he told us of his own obsession, introducing boys to the joys of reading.

KWAME ALEXANDER: You want to reach all kids. You want to reach librarians and teachers. But you often hear that boys don’t read or boys are reluctant readers.

Well, I believe that they don’t have anything that’s relatable. Basketball, sports is the hook, but once you get them hooked, family, love, friendship, brotherhood, you know, jealousy, all the things that girls are interested in, all the things that we’re interested in. We’re all interested in the same things, but I think sometimes with boys you have got to — you have to reach them a different way.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, a novel in verse, right? You are trying to reach boys, you say, especially, particularly, and you’re giving them poetry.

KWAME ALEXANDER: Right. Right. Poetry.


KWAME ALEXANDER: Right. No, you’re dead on.

And that’s why the book got rejected 20-plus times.


KWAME ALEXANDER: Because you have got this sports book and you’re writing in poetry? We don’t — there’s a disconnect.

So, how do we hook kids who are reluctant readers? Well, poetry is a vehicle. I believe it can be the bridge, Jeffrey, to take our kids to a more higher level of appreciation for language and literature.

JEFFREY BROWN: “The Crossover” tells of a year in the life of a close-knit African-American family, the traumas of adolescence and sibling rivalry, the illness of a loving father.

It also shows the sometimes subtle ways that race plays a role in the boys’ lives.

The mother tells her son about being careful about how young black men shouldn’t show real anger in public. Are you conscious of messages in a sense or just showing us life? Or how did it work?

KWAME ALEXANDER: Yes, that’s interesting, because, when I wrote it, I often hear that question. There’s a strong race element as it relates to the way they’re trying to raise their boys or when the father gets stopped by the police.

And I never thought about that when I was writing it. It didn’t come to mind that the mother was talking to her young black boy and saying, you know, you’re going to — if you’re angry, you’re going to end up like this. It was just, you know, a mother trying to tell her child that you need to have a little bit of joy in this world. You need to find a little bit of peace.

And if that story can relate to a young black boy, as it should, then great. If it can relate to a young Asian boy, then great. But I think the idea is that we want our children to be interested in positivity and not necessarily negativity.

“Having great physical beauty and appeal, as in every guy in the lunchroom is trying to flirt with the new girl because she’s so pulchritudinous, as in, I have never had a girlfriend, but if I did, you better believe she would be pulchritudinous, as in, wait a minute, why is the pulchritudinous new girl now talking to my brother?”

JEFFREY BROWN: You’re a poet. But you had to make decisions about what kind of poetry, right, how to — so there’s rhymes.


JEFFREY BROWN: There’s stuff that sounds like rap.


JEFFREY BROWN: There’s a lot of free verse.


JEFFREY BROWN: How did you think about that?

KWAME ALEXANDER: There’s haiku.

JEFFREY BROWN: There’s haiku.

KWAME ALEXANDER: There’s list poems. There are these vocabulary poems.

See, I’m in love with poetry. And there are so many different forms of poetry. And I believe I wanted to have that sort of variety, that sort of diversity of verse, so that kids could sort of figure out what they were interested in and what they could latch on to and perhaps mimic some of these poems themselves.

JEFFREY BROWN: That message isn’t lost on teachers and librarians across the country, who have seen children drawn to “The Crossover,” such as this seventh grader in Wellesley, Massachusetts.


KWAME ALEXANDER: This is the next thing that I do when I’m writing a poem.

JEFFREY BROWN: Kwame Alexander himself gets into classrooms frequently, working with students through his Book-in-a-Day program. He’s also taken those efforts overseas, leading a delegation to Ghana in 2013 to distribute books, build a library and train teachers.

KWAME ALEXANDER: I don’t believe that writing is just pen to paper or finger to laptop. Writing is active. Writing is action. Writing is activism. Writing is being part of the world. And that’s what I like to do.

I like to inspire and show teachers and children that poetry, on a more general level, is cool, is fun. And I like — I think I have learned how to do that to a certain degree.

Wow. Ooh.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you say it’s cool? What do you do?


“I got up this morning feeling good and black, thinking black thoughts. I did black things, like played all my black records and minded my own black business. I put on my best black clothes, walked out my black door, and, lord have mercy, white snow.”

I show them. I don’t need to tell you that it’s funny, that it’s cool. That was a poem by Jackie Earley. It’s called “1,968 Winters.”

So I model what poetry can do.

Three lines of the haiku. The last line always has to be the ah-hah.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Kwame Alexander, congratulations, and thanks for talking to us.



The post Poet’s novel turns young sports lovers into book lovers appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

Astronaut Scott Kelly to return to space for one year

Thursday, March 26 2015 09:58 PM

NASA Astronaut Scott Kelly is seen inside a Soyuz simulator at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center (GCTC), Wednesday, Mar. 4, 2105 in Star City, Russia. Image Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

NASA Astronaut Scott Kelly is seen inside a Soyuz simulator at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center (GCTC), Wednesday, Mar. 4, 2105 in Star City, Russia.
Image Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

On Friday, 51-year-old astronaut Scott Kelly, who has flown three previous space missions, will return to the International Space Station where he will remain for a year. A whole year.

Joining him on the long mission will be Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko.

Long-term space travel can do a number on the human body, causing muscle atrophy, bone loss and changes to the eyes. The space travelers’ sleep patterns, behavior, cognitive function, gut microbes and vision will be closely monitored during this time. From NASA:

“Functional studies will examine crew member performance during and after the 12-month span. Behavioral studies will monitor sleep patterns and exercise routines. Visual impairment will be studied by measuring changes in pressure inside the human skull. Metabolic investigations will examine the immune system and effects of stress. Physical performance will be monitored through exercise examinations. Researchers will also monitor microbial changes in the crew, as well as the human factors associated with how the crew interacts aboard the station.”

Meanwhile, Kelly’s twin brother, Mark Kelly, a retired NASA astronaut, will undergo a number of comparative tests on the ground.

Both Kelly and Kornienko told the Washington Post that they’d miss nature the most:

“Kornienko expects to miss flowing water — stuff he can swim in, not the floating globs he’ll deal with in space — and Kelly will miss the outdoors of his Houston home. “

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