Howard Baker, a former Senate majority leader and presidential contender known for his ability to achieve compromise across the political aisle, died on Thursday. Baker became the first Republican leader of the Senate in 26 years when he took the reins in 1981. He later went on to serve as chief of staff for president Ronald Reagan, to whom he lost the Republican nomination in 1980. Current Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who took to the Senate floor to announce Baker's death, hailed him as "one of the Senate's most towering figures."
By Elvina Nawaguna WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration said on Thursday it would tap Treasury funds to bolster the construction of affordable rental housing and extend the life of a program aimed at helping homeowners avoid foreclosure. The announcement by Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew was timed to coincide with the fifth anniversary of the Making Home Affordable program, an Obama administration initiative launched at the height of the economic crisis in 2009 to revitalize the housing sector and curb runaway foreclosures. According to Treasury Department, more than 1.3 million homeowners have modified their mortgages under the program, reducing monthly payments by about $540 a month. Lew also said the administration would use money from the Treasury Department's Federal Financing Bank to help housing finance agencies fund the construction of more affordable rental housing.
The White House asked lawmakers Thursday for $500 million to train and equip vetted Syrian rebels, in what would be a significant escalation of US involvement in a conflict that has spilled into Iraq. Following several signals in recent weeks by President Barack Obama's administration -- and months of pressure from lawmakers like Senator John McCain -- the White House said it intends to "ramp up US support to the moderate Syrian opposition." The request is part of a $1.5 billion Regional Stabilization Initiative to bolster stability in Syrian neighbors Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, and to support communities hosting refugees. The proposed funding would serve "vetted elements of the Syrian armed opposition to help defend the Syrian people, stabilize areas under opposition control, facilitate the provision of essential services, counter terrorist threats and promote conditions for a negotiated settlement," the White House said in a statement.
Australians Richard Laslett and Collin Gunther waited 37 years to say "I do" to one another. The couple finally got their chance on Thursday in Toronto, at a mass wedding that brought 115 gay and lesbian couples together, as part of the city's World Pride Week. The pairs from around the world gathered in the garden of a midtown Neo-Gothic castle to "celebrate the power of love," Toronto interim Mayor Norm Kelly said. "You settle into a relationship," added Laslett.
The United States removed Swaziland from a lucrative trade pact Thursday due to concerns over workers' rights, as it allowed Madagascar back in after the island restored democracy. President Barack Obama pointed to Swaziland's use of force against demonstrations and lack of recognition of labor unions as he removed the impoverished kingdom from the Africa Growth Opportunity Act, which offers preferential access to the US market for goods from some 40 sub-Saharan nations that meet political and economic standards. US Trade Representative Michael Froman said Washington hoped to work with Swaziland on improving conditions so it could return to AGOA. "The withdrawal of AGOA benefits is not a decision that is taken lightly," Froman said in a statement.
Argentina moved a step closer to defaulting on its debt Thursday after a US federal judge refused to freeze an order for it to pay off hedge funds holding $1.3 billion in bonds. Argentina though continued to negotiate with the hedge funds to avoid being forced into default, pledging to make good on its debts
By David Alexander WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House sent Congress a 2015 war-funding request on Thursday of nearly $60 billion, a drop of $20 billion from the current fiscal year after President Barack Obama decided to withdraw all but 9,800 troops from Afghanistan by Dec. 31. Obama, in a letter to the House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, asked for $58.6 billion for the war in Afghanistan and other overseas military activity, the smallest Pentagon war-funding request in a decade. ...
At least two people were killed and 26 injured on Thursday when celebrations to mark Madagascar's independence triggered a stadium stampede. "There are two dead and 26 injured," Jean Claude Razafimahandry, a hospital director, told AFP. He said the rush was caused by "overcrowding at the entrance of the Mahamasina stadium" in the capital Antananarivo. Madagascar, which recently returned to democracy following a coup in 2009, was celebrating 54 years since its independence from France.
Jihadists from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant bolstered their presence Thursday in the Syrian town of Albu Kamal on the border with Iraq, a monitoring group said. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the move came a day after members in the town of Al-Qaeda's franchise in Syria, Al-Nusra Front, pledged loyalty to ISIL, giving it control over both sides of the frontier. ISIL, which aspires to create an Islamic state that straddles Iraq and Syria, has spearheaded a lightning jihadist offensive that has already captured swathes of territory north and west of Baghdad. Pro-ISIL militants posted videos on YouTube showing a convoy of cars and trucks entering Albu Kamal and flying the jihadists' black flag.
Ukraine's new Western-backed leader said on Thursday he was ready to make a peace deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin that could end a separatist insurgency convulsing his ex-Soviet state. President Petro Poroshenko's decision to extend an olive branch to the Russian strongman came just a day before he signs the final chapters of a historic EU agreement that nudges his country toward eventual membership and pulls it firmly out of Moscow's reach. The EU accord lies at the heart of a conflict on the eastern edge of Europe that pits the Kremlin against Western powers and ethnic Russians against Ukrainian speakers in the splintered but strategic nation of 46 million. "I am ready to make peace with anybody," Poroshenko said in an interview aired late Thursday by CNN.
Most Americans want the United States to do less overseas, with the question of the country's global role divisive across the political spectrum, a survey said Thursday. Six in ten said the United States should focus more on home and less overseas, according to a wide-ranging study of US political views by the Pew Research Center. Some 71 percent of Americans classified by the survey as "steadfast conservatives," who tend to be religious and traditional, said that the United States should focus less abroad. Most liberals also supported an active US role overseas, but the strongest opposition came from Americans identified as "hard-pressed skeptics," who lean toward President Barack Obama's Democratic Party but are generally low-income and distrustful of government.