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The House easily approved a deal to help veterans hammered out by Florida GOP Rep. Jeff Miller (left) and independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont (AP)

House Approves $16 Billion Plan To Improve Health Care For Vets

by Alan Greenblatt
Jul 30, 2014

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The House voted Wednesday to approve a bill that would address widespread problems with health care for veterans.

The vote in favor of the $16.3 billion package was 420 to 5.

The problems veterans have had obtaining care has drawn national attention in recent weeks. A White House investigation into problems at Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals found "significant and chronic systemic failures."

House and Senate negotiators unveiled a package to address the problems on Monday. The deal provides $10 billion for veterans to see private doctors if they live far away from VA facilities or have to wait more than two weeks to get an appointment.

The package would also provide $5 billion to hire additional medical staff to address crowding problems at VA facilities themselves, with $2 billion more devoted to opening new offices and expanding existing programs.

"The Department of Veterans Affairs is in the midst of an unprecedented crisis caused by corruption, mismanagement and a lack of accountability across the board," Florida Republican Jeff Miller, who chairs the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said in a statement. "VA is in need of reform, and I applaud my colleagues in the House for passing legislation to do just that."

The Senate is expected to approve the measure before leaving for the summer recess at the end of the week.

On Tuesday, the Senate unanimously confirmed former Procter & Gamble executive Robert McDonald to lead the Veterans Affairs Department.

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Speaker John Boehner makes his way to the House chamber on Wednesday (AP)

House Votes To OK Lawsuit Against Obama

by Alan Greenblatt
Jul 30, 2014

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The House voted Wednesday to authorize a lawsuit against President Obama, claiming that he has overstepped the limits of his executive authority.

The vote to allow Speaker John Boehner to sue Obama was 225 to 201. Five Republicans voted no, while no Democrats voted in favor of pursuing the lawsuit.

Republicans say that Obama exceeded his constitutional authority by unilaterally deciding to delay the employer mandate for insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act.

Boehner said that Obama shouldn't be able to pick and choose which laws he will faithfully execute.

"By circumventing Congress, the president's actions have marginalized the role that the American people play in creating the laws that govern them," said Texas Republican Pete Sessions, who chairs the House Rules Committee. "Specifically, the president has waived work requirements for welfare recipients, unilaterally changed immigration laws, released the Gitmo Five without properly notifying Congress — which is the law — and ignored the statutory requirements of the Affordable Care Act."

Democrats decried the GOP's move. The lawsuits may serve to energize constituents of both major parties — or at least be useful for fundraising appeals, as NPR's S.V. Date reports.

Democrats have attempted to cast it as part of the broader partisan effort to undermine the president. "The lawsuit is a drumbeat pushing members of the Republican Party to impeachment," said New York Democratic Rep. Louise Slaughter.

Boehner denied his caucus has any plans to impeach the president.

Obama, as he has for weeks, dismissed the vote as a "political stunt.

"The main vote that they've scheduled for today is whether or not they decide to sue me for doing my job," Obama said earlier Wednesday.

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Bulleit is one of 50 different brands a food blogger says is using whiskey from an Indiana factory. (Mike McCune/Flickr)

Why Your 'Small-Batch' Whiskey Might Taste A Lot Like The Others

by NPR Staff
Jul 30, 2014 (All Things Considered)

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It's a good time to be a whiskey maker, and craft whiskeys are all the rage, with names like Bulleit, Redemption, Templeton and George Dickel.

But according to a report on The Daily Beast, some of those producers tossing off hazy, golden adjectives like "hand-crafted," "small-batch" and "artisanal" are, well, not. There's a factory in Indiana churning out massive quantities of beverage-grade alcohol, and some distilleries are just buying it and putting it in their pretty bottles.

Steve Ury is an attorney by day and Recent Eats blogger by night who is tracking where the good stuff comes from. He tells All Things Considered's Audie Cornish that over 50 different brands from different companies appear to be bottling whiskey from this big Indiana factory, which goes by the name of MGP — Midwest Grain Products.

Ury says that one of the tell-tale signs on the bottle is the wording. "Does it say it is 'distilled' by that company, or does it say it's 'bottled by' or 'produced by' that company? That sounds like a small difference, but it has a big legal meaning."

He also looks for the recipe because the Indiana distillery uses 95 percent rye, which is very distinct. That's a red flag that it might be from Indiana.

As for the taste, Ury notes that different barrels taste different. "Sometimes they blend it with other whiskeys; sometimes they put it in a barrel that previously held port or rum to give it a slightly different flavor," he says. "Sometimes they'll filter it. But there's a commonality of flavor of these MGP ryes because they are so distinct."

As The Daily Beast notes, one brand called WhistlePig Straight Rye Whiskey based in Vermont has gotten a lot of hype. It launched in 2010. Ury looked at the source of the whiskey and when it's supposed to be aged. So is there a discrepancy?

Ury says WhistlePig launched with a 10-year-old whiskey, made from barrels of whiskey from Canada, and sold it as the company's own rye whiskey.

"Now there's nothing inherently wrong with that," says Ury. "The only problem is that a lot of these companies aren't very clear that they're getting their whiskey from other places. WhistlePig, for instance, if you dig, you can find out that the label says in very small print 'a product of Canada,' but in their publicity they talk a lot about their Vermont farm, and about being a Vermont product."

According to Ury, all this murky sourcing makes it tough for the distilleries that really are small batch.

"When there's a distillery down the street that's marketing whiskey made by a big distillery that's 10 years old, it's very hard for a small player who is trying their best to make the whiskey. And then once they make it, they have to sit on it for four or six or 10 years to get that age on it," he says.

So we had to ask Ury: Given what you've learned, what do you drink?

"I'm an adventurer, so I like to try a little bit of everything," he says. "I drink plenty of whiskey from MGP in Indiana. In fact, I have some favorites from there. And I'm a fan of WhistlePig, and I'm a fan of High West, and I'm a fan of Willett. It's not so much a matter of its tasting better or worse, it's more a matter of the consumer knowing what they're getting, and understanding why something might taste a certain way, and why something might taste differently."

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Assembly-line workers at the Chrysler plant in Sterling Heights, Mich. The economy is getting good marks in the latest data, but some worries about the job market continue. (AP)

Job Worries Linger, But The Economy Is Looking Good

Jul 30, 2014

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Five years after the Great Recession ended, where are we with this recovery?

On Wednesday, the Commerce Department and the Federal Reserve both answered by saying, in effect:

We're in a sweet spot — growing at a decent rate with good reason for optimism.

Or as the Fed blandly put it, "economic activity will expand at a moderate pace."

President Obama, speaking on the economy in Kansas City, Mo., was more effusive.

After a brutal recession, "we have fought back. We have got back off our feet, we have dusted ourselves off," Obama said. "Construction is up. Manufacturing is back. Our energy, our technology, our auto industries — they're all booming."

Most economists agree the signposts are pointing up. New numbers provide evidence that "the economy is healthy and will continue to grow at an above-average rate in the second half of this year and into 2015," IHS Global Insight chief U.S. economist Doug Handler said in his written assessment.

The upbeat day started with the Commerce Department saying GDP, or gross domestic product, rose at a robust 4 percent pace during April, May and June.

Economists were relieved to see the key measure of all goods and services rebound after a dismal winter. Back in January, February and March, when frigid temperatures and unusual snowstorms kept many shoppers at home, the economy shrank by 2.1 percent.

But then consumers came out of hibernation. Most economists had predicted a springtime bounce back of 3 percent, and were surprised to see the surge to 4 percent.

When the past 12 months are tallied together, growth evens out to about 2.4 percent over the period, a moderate pace.

Economists were still chewing over the GDP report when another important announcement came out at 2 p.m.

Federal Reserve policymakers ended their regularly scheduled meeting by saying "economic activity rebounded [and] labor market conditions improved, with the unemployment rate declining further."

But it wasn't all rosy. The Fed also noted that the job market remains slack. As a result, the central bank will continue to try to make it easier to borrow. The goal is to help businesses expand and hire more.

The extra stimulus is still needed because "a range of labor market indicators suggests that there remains significant underutilization of labor resources," the Fed said in its statement.

So the central bank will stick with its current program of buying bonds to help spur growth, but will continue to "taper" it down until an end date in October. For now, the Fed will cut its monthly bond purchases by an additional $10 billion, pushing the total down to $25 billion. Back in 2013, the amount was $85 billion a month.

Interpretation: The Fed is committed to taking its foot off the economy's gas pedal. But the move will continue to be very gradual, and it has no plans yet to pump the brakes by intentionally raising interest rates.

Some economists don't like that supergradual approach. One critic is Charles Plosser, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. As one of the Fed policymakers, he cast the sole vote in dissent because he disagrees with the Fed's plan to keep short-term interest rates near zero for "a considerable time." The fear is that such low rates might allow the economy to overheat and generate inflation.

But Fed Chair Janet Yellen remains more worried about jobs than inflation. Earlier this month, she expressed her concerns about the labor market and said "the recovery is not yet complete."

On Friday, everyone will get fresh ammo to continue this debate: At 8:30 a.m., the Labor Department is scheduled to release the July labor report. If the unemployment rate falls significantly from its current 6.1 percent level, it will strengthen the hand of critics who say it's time to push interest rates back up to higher, more normal levels.

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An injured man is carried to an ambulance following a strike in Gaza City's Shijaiyah neighborhood on Wednesday. (AP)

Amid Confusion, 17 Killed By Shelling At Market In Gaza

by Alan Greenblatt
Jul 30, 2014

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It may have been a tragic case of confusion.

The Israel Defense Forces declared a four-hour humanitarian cease-fire on Wednesday. But the army said it did not apply where soldiers were already engaged and that residents who had evacuated should not return to those areas.

According to Gaza's Health Ministry, at least 17 Palestinians were killed and around 200 more were wounded when shells hit a street market in Gaza City's Shijaiyah neighborhood, "which residents thought was temporarily safe but which the Israelis considered part of an active combat zone," The New York Times reports.

Palestinians were given only about a half-hour's notice of the cease-fire.

"It was a little unclear exactly what the cease-fire meant," NPR's Emily Harris reports from Gaza.

She was nearby. "We heard some shelling and then we saw a thick, wide, black cloud rising above the skyline," she said on All Things Considered. "It's not clear exactly what explosives hit, whether it's mortars or rockets or artillery."

Harris noted that many of the area's shops have been closed and shuttered throughout most of the conflict.

"It's an area that's come under intense bombardments over the past three weeks," she says. "And Israel told everyone to leave there about 10 days ago because it's an area that they say that a lot of militants operate from there."

More than 1,300 Palestinians, mostly civilians, have been killed during the 23-day-old conflict. Israel has lost 56 soldiers and three civilians.

The Israeli army said that Hamas fired dozens of rockets into Israel Wednesday, reporting no injuries or damage. Hamas said the number was far fewer.

Israel's Security Cabinet met for four hours on Wednesday and ordered the army to continue its offensive in Gaza. An Israeli official told the Jerusalem Post that the operation has led to "significant achievements on the ground" and is damaging Hamas' "strategic apparatus."

As we reported earlier, at least 20 people were killed, according to Palestinian health officials, when a shell struck a United Nations-run school Wednesday morning in Gaza.

Both the U.N. and the White House have condemned that attack.

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