House approves
$16.3 billion measure to overhaul VA health care system

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The House overwhelmingly approved a landmark bill Wednesday to refurbish the Veterans Affairs Department and improve veterans’ health care.

The 420-5 vote sends the bill to the Senate, where approval is expected by Friday.

The $16.3 billion measure is intended help veterans avoid long waits for health care, hire more doctors and nurses to treat them and make firing senior executives at the VA easier.

The measure includes $10 billion in emergency spending to help veterans who can’t get prompt appointments with VA doctors to obtain outside care; $5 billion to hire doctors, nurses and other medical staff and about $1.3 billion to lease 27 new clinics across the country.

The House vote came one day after the Senate confirmed former Procter & Gamble CEO Robert McDonald to lead the sprawling agency, which provides health care to nearly 9 million enrolled veterans and disability compensation to nearly 4 million veterans.

Congress eases veterans cleanup toward passage but keeps up other fights

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Eager to begin a monthlong break, Congress leavened its customary heavy partisanship on Wednesday with a pinch of compromise, advancing legislation to repair the deeply troubled Department of Veterans Affairs and working to clear funds for highway construction at home and missile defense in Israel.


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Yet old habits proved unbreakable less than 100 days before elections with control of Congress at stake. House Republicans hastened to authorize an official lawsuit accusing President Barack Obama of failing to enforce the health care law. And gridlock loomed on the administration’s call for billions to cope with a surge in young immigrants pouring into the U.S. illegally from Central America.

"Stop being mad all the time. Stop just hating all the time," Obama lectured lawmakers from afar in Kansas City, Missouri, in a speech that was particularly harsh on Republicans. "Come on. Let’s get some work done together."

There was a modest amount of progress on compromise legislation during the day, and hopes in both parties for considerably more before a scheduled adjournment on Thursday.

On a vote of 420-5, the House overwhelmingly approved a compromise bill to clean up the scandal-soiled VA, where some officials are accused of covering up long delays in patient care. The $16.3 billion measure would allow veterans to get outside care if they live too far from a VA health facility or face a delay of longer than 30 days in getting an appointment.

As Israel steps up Gaza operation, strikes hit UN shelter for refugees, shopping area

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) -- Israeli strikes hit a crowded shopping area in Gaza City Wednesday, hours after tank shells tore through the walls of a U.N. school crowded with war refugees in the deadliest of a series of air and artillery attacks that pushed the Palestinian death toll above 1,360 in more than three weeks of fighting.

The bloodshed came on the heels of an escalation by both sides fighting in the embattled coastal territory, further dimming prospects for a sustainable cease-fire despite international diplomatic efforts.

The attack on the U.N. school in the Jebaliya refugee camp was the second deadly strike on a U.N.compound in a week. Tank shells slammed into the compound before dawn, said Adnan Abu Hasna, a spokesman for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, UNRWA, which is sheltering more than 200,000 people displaced by the fighting at dozens of U.N. schools across Gaza.

Gaza health ministry official Ashraf al-Kidra said at least 17 people were killed and about 90 wounded in the school strike. Four of the dead were killed just outside the school compound, two in their home nearby and two in the street, after returning from pre-dawn prayers, their relatives said.

The Israeli military said it fired back after its soldiers were targeted by mortar rounds launched from the vicinity of the school.

Vast Israeli support for Gaza war eclipses and silences dissenters

JERUSALEM (AP) -- Despite Israeli casualties and world criticism, a near-consensus in Israel supports the government’s conduct of the Gaza war, views Hamas as the aggressor and considers outsiders’ moralizing as hypocritical, ignorant or both. And in an echo-chamber fed by ubiquitous updates on Hamas rocket and tunnel attacks, the minority of local voices that do agonize over Gazans’ suffering are being silenced in a way rarely seen in a country long proud of its spirited, democratic debate.

A series of recent opinion polls have shown robust support for the war, reflecting years of frustration over rocket fire from Gaza and a new fear of Hamas’ network of tunnels that stretch well into Israel and imperil communities along the border. Opposing views, coming primarily from leftist activists and intellectuals, have been met with threats, insults and charges of treason both in social media and face-to-face.

"We are faced with the false, anti-democratic equation that argues that aggression, racism and lack of empathy means love of the homeland," wrote Israeli author Etgar Keret in the Yediot Ahronot newspaper. Opinions that do not encourage "the use of power," he added, are derided as "nothing less than an attempt to destroy and annihilate Israel as we know it."

"They want to kill us. We have no choice," said 39-year-old Jerusalemite Gil Yair, referring to Hamas. "They are holding a gun to our head and we have to take control of the situation."

More than 1,300 Palestinians have been killed in the fighting since July 8, according to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry. On the Israeli side, 56 soldiers have been killed as well as three civilians. Still, several polls this week have shown strong majorities in Israel supported the war and prepared to go on.

3 long-time Putin allies among 8 people hit with new sanctions

BRUSSELS (AP) -- The European Union targeted Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle for the first time Wednesday for the Kremlin’s actions in Ukraine, subjecting three of his long-time associates to EU-wide asset freezes and travel bans.

A total of eight people were added to the EU’s sanctions list for allegedly undermining Ukraine’s sovereignty or profiting from Moscow’s takeover of Crimea, the EU’s Official Journal showed. Three companies were also blacklisted.

Among the individuals was Arkady Rotenberg, Putin’s former judo partner and a major shareholder of the civil engineering company Giprotransmost. The company has received a public contract to conduct a study on building a bridge from Russia to Crimea, the EU said.

Also targeted was Yuri Kovalchuk, a longtime Putin acquaintance identified by the EU as co-founder of the Ozero Dacha, a cooperative society bringing together influential individuals around Russia’s president. Kovalchuk is also the chairman and largest shareholder of Bank Rossiya, which has opened branches in Crimea since its unilateral annexation by Russia.

The third Putin ally on the sanctions list was Nikolai Shamalov, another Ozero Dacha co-founder and the second largest shareholder in Bank Rossiya.

Almost 2 weeks after Ukraine crash, clashes again prevent experts from reaching bodies

DONETSK, Ukraine (AP) -- Almost two weeks after Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was blown out of the sky, the remains of some passengers are feared rotting in the 90-degree (32-degree Celsius) midsummer heat, deepening the frustration of relatives desperate to recover the bodies of their loved ones.

Fighting between Ukrainian forces and separatist rebels has kept away international police charged with securing the site, a sprawling area of farmland and villages. And until it’s secured, there is no way for forensic experts to gather up any remaining bodies or collect debris for analysis.

Even the rebels -- who initially oversaw the collection of more than 200 of the 298 bodies in a disorganized, widely criticized effort -- have stopped their work, saying attacks from the Ukrainian military have forced them to focus on defending themselves.

It remains unclear exactly how many bodies remain and what condition they are in after being exposed for so long to the elements. Dutch officials are adamant there are still bodies to be recovered, and Prime Minister Mark Rutte has said repeatedly that bringing them back is his government’s top priority.

But Dutch officials were gloomy Wednesday about the prospects of reaching the site any time soon.

Police: Sleeping boy, 8, dies after being hit by bullet that pierced wall of Detroit home

DETROIT (AP) -- Sporadic gunfire isn’t an unusual sound in the Brewster Homes public housing complex in Detroit, but booming noises that shook Tenesha Higgins early Wednesday morning were way too close.

Numerous shots were fired at an apartment building, with one piercing a wall and hitting an 8-year-old boy who was sleeping. The child -- who Higgins described as a "good boy" who loved playing baseball -- died 45 minutes later.

"I haven’t been to sleep. I don’t feel safe at all. I didn’t go to work today. I didn’t want to leave my baby," Higgins told The Associated Press as she and other women huddled together hours after another night of violence in a city struggling mightily to reduce its crime rate.

The boy’s name wasn’t released by police, but The Detroit News and Detroit Free Press identified him as Jakari Pearson.

No arrests were made, but police were speaking with a "person of interest" in the case, Detroit Police Officer Adam Madera said.

Bank scandal blackens name of powerful Portuguese family, possibly ruins international empire

LISBON, Portugal (AP) -- Portugal’s Espirito Santo family business survived wars, dictatorship, revolution and family feuds for almost 150 years. Now, one of Europe’s last banking dynasties is being stripped of its wealth and influence amid accounting irregularities, huge unreported debts, record losses at the family bank and a police investigation.

The scandal bears the hallmarks of the recent European financial crisis, and the difficulties at Banco Espirito Santo -- for years Portugal’s largest private bank -- sent a shiver through global markets this month as investors feared Europe’s closet contained more skeletons. Portugal was one of the main casualties of the eurozone’s debt woes when it needed a 78 billion-euro ($105 billion) bailout in 2011 to avoid bankruptcy.

Banco Espirito Santo’s sudden difficulties turned out not to be systemic, however. At their root, it seems, is one man’s hubris.

The spotlight has fallen on Ricardo Espirito Santo Salgado, the family patriarch and, until recently, chief executive of the bank it controlled. Authorities suspect Salgado of money laundering, fraud and forgery. After daylong questioning by an investigating magistrate last week, Salgado was released on 3 million euros ($4 million) bail.

Adding to the pressure, Banco Espirito Santo on Wednesday reported a half-year loss of 3.58 billion euros, its worst-ever result. Its share price fell 10.6 percent, to an all-time low of 0.35 euros ($0.47), on the Lisbon stock exchange even before the results were announced. The stocks have lost more than half their value since mid-June, relegating Banco Espirito Santo to the country’s third-largest bank by market capitalization. Though it is not expected to go bust, the losses could make the bank a takeover target.