Military's 'Don't ask' report to released
WASHINGTON, Nov. 30 (UPI) -- The U.S. Defense Department's long-anticipated report on the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy is being prepared for release Tuesday to lawmakers.
Pentagon officials will distribute advance copies of the report on the policy barring gays and lesbians from openly serving in the military and brief staff members of the House and Senate Armed Services committees, CNN reported.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen also will conduct a news conference at the Pentagon about the report and why they support changing the "don't ask, don't tell" policy.
The report includes a poll of active-duty military and families, and lays out how the Defense Department can implement the policy change if Congress votes for a repeal.
Co-author Army Gen. Carter Ham said the report was the most comprehensive personnel policy assessment in the Defense Department ever, CNN reported.
The Senate Armed Services Committee has scheduled hearings Thursday and Friday. A member of the committee is Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has criticized the report, saying it should have asked whether a policy change was the right thing to do, instead of how a change should be implemented.
U.S. Senate votes down earmark ban
WASHINGTON, Nov. 30 (UPI) -- The U.S. Senate Tuesday defeated a proposal that would have banned congressional earmarks for two years.
Thirty-nine senators voted in favor of the ban, offered by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., while 56 members voted against the measure that would have effectively barred funding for infrastructure projects, community development and local law enforcement grants, The Hill reported.
Coburn offered the ban as an amendment to a food safety bill, which later passed on a 73-25 vote.
Senate Republicans already passed a voluntary ban on earmarks in their caucus over objections raised by several GOP senators.
In floor debate Monday, Coburn said the ban was the only way to rein in out-of-control spending. He did not speak Tuesday. However, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who supports the ban, hinted of the issue in remarks on the debate over tax cuts, The Hill said.
"Republicans have heard the voters loud and clear," McConnell said. "They want us to focus on preventing a tax hike on every taxpayer, on reining in Washington spending and on making it easier for employers to start hiring again."
Democrats said the earmark process has been made transparent.
"We have put in place the most dramatic reform of this appropriations process since I've served in Congress," said Majority Whip and Appropriations Committee member Dick Durbin, D-Ill. "There is full disclosure in my office of every single request for an appropriation. We then ask those who have made the requests to have a full disclaimer of their involvement in the appropriation, so it's there for the public record. This kind of transparency is virtually unprecedented."
Bill to extend jobless benefits tough sell
WASHINGTON, Nov. 30 (UPI) -- A U.S Senate bill that would reauthorize jobless benefits for about 800,000 out-of-work Americans faces an uphill battle for approval, observers say.
Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., said in a statement the legislation would reauthorize benefits for nearly 800,000 long-term unemployed who are about to exhaust their benefits next week, as well as extend benefits for 2 million more facing the same fate at the end of the year, CNN reported Tuesday.
Federal jobless payments, which last up to 73 weeks, take effect after state-funded 26 weeks of coverage expire. These federal benefits are divided into tiers, and the jobless person must apply to move into a new tier.
The House of Representatives already failed to pass a bill that would have given the unemployed workers another three months to file for the extended jobless benefits. The deadline is Tuesday.
"Unemployment benefits are the only lifeline many workers in Montana and across the nation have left in this tough economy," Baucus said in his statement. "These benefits help millions of Americans put food on the table and roofs over their heads -- pumping money into our economy and helping to create jobs."
However, the bill faces stiff resistance from Republican lawmakers, political observers note. The key bone of contention is the potential cost of extending the benefits, which amounted to a total of $319 billion over the past three years.
Baucus did not specify how much the bill would cost. CNN said calls to the senator's office weren't immediately returned.
About 14.8 million Americans are unemployed, with about 6.2 million of them out of work for at least 27 weeks, CNN reported. About 8.5 million people are collecting unemployment insurance.
Removing orphaned boom anchors problematic
NEW ORLEANS, Nov. 30 (UPI) -- Government and oil industry officials say they're considering a pilot program that would remove anchors used to secure oil spill boom in the Gulf of Mexico.
Thousands of the anchors that held boom in the gulf and nearby waters during the BP oil spill are in limbo and have become a hazard for boats plying the waters, The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune reported Tuesday.
The problem with the 75-pound 3-foot high anchors, some residents and local officials say, is a lack of permits to trace who placed the anchors and who is responsible for their removal.
"BP should have made sure the people they had working for them pulled those anchors along with the boom," Raymond Melerine, whose fishing net was snagged by an anchor and his boat tossed side to side, told The Times-Picayune.
After a few months of discussions, members of the Unified Command -- the multi-agency organization responsible for oil spill response -- met last week and the U.S. Coast Guard agreed to back a pilot program that would remove a small number of the anchors in a controlled process to evaluate the program's effectiveness, officials said.
Pending U.S. Corps of Engineers permitting, the effort informally called the "Orphan Anchor Program," could begin in a few weeks, authorities said.
Most people The Times-Picayune interviewed said BP should be financially liable for removal of oil spill boom anchors, but BP hasn't agreed to such payments, state and local officials said.
"What they (BP) put into our waters, they should remove," St. Bernard Parish President Craig Taffaro said. "It's the least they could do in the efforts to restore our coast."
American nears year mark in Cuban custody
HAVANA, Nov. 30 (UPI) -- The fate of a U.S. citizen jailed in Cuba for nearly a year without being charged remains unresolved, parties involved in the matter say.
Friday marks the one-year anniversary that Alan Gross was taken into custody for illegally bringing Internet devices to Jewish groups. Cuban officials said he brought spy equipment, The Miami Herald reported Tuesday.
Gross's wife, Judy, said she wasn't totally prepared for his appearance when she visited him in July.
"He looked like a 70-year-old man all hunched over. He looked pale, his cheeks were sunken in; his posture was humped over. He was dragging one of his feet. That was pretty shocking," she said, adding that he had ulcers and gout.
The Cuban government recently rejected his family's plea for a humanitarian release, insisting the case proceed as any other case.
"It remains in the same situation. It still hasn't concluded. It's still being worked and when it finishes, the answer will be given," Maj. Gen. Dario Delgado Cura said. "This adheres to Cuban law. There's no problem. Everything moves ahead as was foreseen."
"I find it frustrating that Cuba has not charged Alan Gross but even more frustrating that the U.S. has not taken the steps which could have led to his release," said John McAuliff, who operates a foundation that helped normalize relations with Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. "The fundamental problem is mutual respect and sovereignty."
A U.S. official told the Herald Cubans are trying to use Gross as a pawn in bilateral relations, adding that the United States isn't "going to play that game."
Stormy weather plagues South
COLLEGE STATION, Pa., Nov. 30 (UPI) -- The gulf coast from southern Louisiana to Georgia and the Florida panhandle Tuesday braced for strong thunderstorms, damaging winds and hail.
Monday night severe storms in Mississippi produced at least one tornado, downed trees and knocked out power for thousands of residents.
The tornado touched down in Yazoo County, Miss., damaging a courthouse but causing no injuries, the Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger reported.
Vicksburg Mayor Paul Winfield told the Clarion-Ledger the storm dumped large amounts of rain on the town.
"We had some heavy rain and flash flooding," Winfield said.
Entergy, Miss., reported some 2,000 power outages after the storm moved through the area.
The storm traveled northeast from Lake Charles, La., through the Jackson, Miss., metro area.
The violent thunderstorms were expected to move eastward Tuesday night through northern Florida to North Carolina, Accuweather.com forecast.