Monday, March 25, 2013

Has Obama's Mideast trip changed the game on the ground?

President Obama wrapped up his four-day visit to the Middle East after helping Israel and Turkey end a three-year diplomatic dispute. That, in turn, will help the region deal with the civil war in Syria. NBC's Andrea Mitchell reports.

TEL AVIV — The verdict among Israeli pundits was unanimous: if President Barack Obama was an Israeli politician, he'd be a shoo-in to lead the liberal left.
His call for the Israeli government to halt Jewish settlement building in the West Bank, for a Palestinian state, his recognition of Israel's historical claim to the land and his demand for a secure Israel, is all straight out of the playbook of what remains of Israel's left.
His speech to Israeli students Thursday, who were carefully vetted to make sure they were in political agreement with him, was greeted numerous times by applause and a few standing ovations. And while many Israelis may have disagreed with the content of the speech, Obama's sincerity was felt by all.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP
US President Barack Obama, left, listens to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their visit to the Children's Memorial at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, Israel, on Friday.
Obama drew a clear parallel between the Passover story of Jewish slaves fleeing Egypt and fighting for their rights, and the African-American struggle out of slavery and fight for their rights. That bond of shared experience, and the genuineness of his feelings, really came through.
So when Obama insisted that "all options are on the table" to stop Iran's nuclear program, he sounded convincing. And when he moved on to demand that Israel stop building settlements and make tough decisions to reach peace with the Palestinians, his words met with a more receptive audience.
For many Israelis, Obama won their hearts and their minds, but as one said to this reporter: "What now?"
Any closer to peace talks?Are Israel and the Palestinians closer to peace talks than they were before Obama came? Did the fine words add up to momentum?
That will be up to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to discover when he returns to Jerusalem Saturday to try, as so many have before him, to kick-start the peace process.

President Obama spoke to an audience of more than 2,000 Israeli citizens at the Jerusalem Convention Center and stressed the necessity of peace between Israel and Palestine.
Overall, Obama's message had something for everyone.
The first half of Obama's speech, in which he confirmed Israel's right to the land, pleased Israel's right wing. The second half, in which he called for compromise with the Palestinians and a Palestinian state, pleased the left wing.
When he said this is a Jewish democratic state, Jews were thrilled and Palestinians were furious.
When he said Israel will not survive as a Jewish democratic state with settlements on Palestinian land, Palestinians were thrilled and many Israelis were furious.
But after trying to be all things to all people, Obama departed leaving behind a question: What just happened? Was there any American commitment to get started with the talks?
Israelis charmed, Palestinians insultedThe answer is: no. The message was: we are here to help, but first you have to do the work. In other words, nothing changed, beyond people’s impression of Obama as a leader.
Israelis were encouraged that Obama really does like them; Operation Charm worked.
But Palestinians were left fuming, and many say they were insulted.

President Obama, alongside and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, says the U.S. remains "deeply committed" to the creation of an independent and sovereign state of Palestine.
They complained that he mentioned a Jewish rocket victim by name, but didn’t mention any of the many Palestinian victims, or the approximately 4,500 prisoners in Israeli jails. He visited the grave of two Israeli icons, Theodor Herzl and Yitzhak Rabin, but refused even to walk by the shrine to Yasser Arafat. He did not repeat the Palestinian demand that Israel stop building settlements as a condition for peace talks.
In short, Palestinians got very little, and Israel got a bit more.
At least, that's what the public saw.
Big brother still calling the shotsThere was at least one big surprise from the backroom talks between Obama and Netanyahu that should go a long way toward improving frayed ties between two important U.S. allies in the region.
After three years of refusing to do so, Netanyahu called his Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan Friday to apologize for "any error" that may have led to the deaths of nine Turkish activists during a 2010 raid on a boat off the Gaza Strip.
The two agreed to normalize relations — a major breakthrough. It means the two big U.S. allies can now resume military cooperation, which should help to contain the spillover of the Syrian civil war in the region — and lessen Israel's isolation in the volatile region.
What isn't known yet is what was agreed to behind closed doors about how to deal with the twin threats of Iran and Syria.
In the press conference that followed their discussions, both sides seemed satisfied with the current degree of military and intelligence cooperation on both subjects.
But did Obama leave with the certainty that Israel would not interfere with the American timetable for dealing with the Iranian threat?
We don’t know more than we knew before, which is that impatient little Israel can't do much without their more patient bigger brother.
But at least, after this visit by the American president, the brotherly relationship appears more credible than before.

U.S. Senate Approves Budget

WASHINGTON—The Senate early Saturday passed its first formal budget in four years, defining Democrats' fiscal principles for the next, uncertain stage of Washington's battle over debt, spending and taxes.

Alex Brandon/Associated Press
The setting sun is reflected in the windows of the U.S. Capitol, on Capitol Hill, Friday.
The Democratic-drafted budget, approved narrowly a couple hours before dawn, calls for almost $1 trillion in new taxes over the next decade to help reduce the deficit. Although the budget is nonbinding and isn't likely to become law, it fleshes out Democrats' vision of a plan to reduce the deficit while protecting safety-net programs. The Senate passed the budget 50-49, largely along party lines.
"The solution to our fiscal challenges will not be found in deep cuts to programs that vulnerable families depend on," said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray (D., Wash.) as she closed debate on the blueprint.
Republicans said the plan did too little to reduce the deficit, especially compared with House Republicans' plan to balance the budget in 10 years. "Honest people can disagree on policy, but there can be no disagreement on the need to change our debt course," said Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the Budget Committee. "The House budget changes our debt course, while the Senate budget does not."
The Senate approved the budget after voting on a slew of amendments stretched through the night. Among them, the Senate Friday adopted an amendment aimed at giving states more authority to collect sales taxes from out-of-state Internet retailers.
The budget plan was opposed by four Democrats who are up for re-election in 2014: Sen. Max Baucus (D., Mont.), Kay Hagan (D., N.C.), Mark Pryor (D., Ark.) and Mark Begich (D., Alaska). All of the Senate's Republicans voted against the plan and Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D., N.J.) didn't vote.
Congress will be out of town for a two-week spring recess after three months of budget wrangling in which Congress passed a major tax increase, raised the federal debt limit, allowed $85 billion in spending cuts to take effect and enacted a bill to keep the government operating through Sept. 30.
But the end of that flurry of activity is just the beginning of the next, more amorphous phase of budgeting. It isn't clear whether or how Democrats can bridge the vast differences between their Senate budget and the version passed by the Republican-controlled House Thursday. The GOP budget enshrines conservative fiscal principles that are anathema to Democrats, raising no taxes and making substantial cuts in Medicare and other safety-net programs.
It is unlikely that the differences will be resolved in textbook legislative fashion—through a House-Senate conference committee to negotiate a compromise. Instead, lawmakers predict any big budget deal would emerge from high-level negotiations with the White House. President Barack Obama has tried to reach out to Republicans who might be willing to work with him on a deficit-reduction deal that includes both tax increases and spending cuts. So far, nothing concrete has come of those efforts.
But members of both parties said that passage of the two budgets was a precondition to further progress, allowing both parties to speak to their political base before talking further with each other.
"No budget is going to be perfect for everyone, but this is a credible, important first step in the process," said Sen. Mark Warner (D., Va.), a Senate Budget Committee member who has supported deeper spending cuts in bipartisan deals. "I look forward to moving to the next stage."
The next pressure point comes this spring and summer, when Congress will have to raise the federal debt limit or else let the U.S. Treasury run out of cash to pay its bills. House Republicans say they won't approve any debt increase unless it is paired with matching budget cuts. House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) has said his party's lawmakers will meet immediately after Congress returns in April to begin discussing what their price will be for raising the debt limit.
However, Mr. Obama has said he won't negotiate over that must-pass measure, and Republicans have been gun-shy about reviving their past strategy of threatening to delay a debt-limit increase to get their way.
Whenever or however a deal takes shape, the big questions are whether Mr. Obama is able to offer cuts in Medicare and other entitlement programs that are drastic enough to open the way for Republicans to compromise on taxes. And if so, whether there are enough Republicans open to including tax increases to build a majority without GOP leaders who are adamantly opposed.
The budget debate in the Senate laid bare the deep partisan divisions over numerous issues. Many amendments were rejected along strict party lines and were of little consequence because the entire budget is a nonbinding measure and destined not to become law.
Buried in the partisan onslaught, however, are two important tax proposals that came to test votes in the Senate for the first time. The first, passed Thursday, called for repealing a tax on medical devices that is part of Mr. Obama's health-care law; it passed by a wide bipartisan margin with support from many Democrats whose states are home to big device manufacturers.
The Senate approved an amendment that called for making it easier for states to collect sales tax from online retail sales. The measure opened divisions within both parties: Senators representing states that have sales taxes supported the amendment, while those from states that don't allied with online retailers in opposition to it.

Into the maelstrom: US coastal population grows as storms intensify

Seth Wang / AP File
Foundations and pilings are all that remain of brick buildings and a boardwalk in Atlantic City, N.J., on Oct. 30, 2012, after they were destroyed by Superstorm Sandy.

The percentage of the U.S. population living in counties adjacent to coastline has reached nearly 40 percent in recent years, meaning more of us are exposed to extreme — and extremely costly — coastal storms such as Sandy and Isaac, according to a government report released Monday.
These coastal counties account for less than 10 percent of the U.S. land area, excluding Alaska, meaning that this growing population is packing into a finite amount of space, one that's increasingly threatened by rising seas, storm surge flooding and damaging winds.
"The real issue is the density, the density is growing enormously," the report's editor, Kristin Crossett of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Ocean Service, told NBC News.
The density in coastal counties is more than six times greater today than corresponding inland counties and that density is forecast to grow faster than the country as a whole. If the current trends continue, the report notes, the U.S. coastal population will reach 134 million in 2020, up from 123 million in 2010.
"The costs of natural disasters are increasing exponentially," Mike Beck, lead scientist with The Nature Conservancy's Global Marine Team, told NBC News.
Coastal counties are the regions at the highest risk from natural disasters, "and we, the rest of the U.S. public, are underwriting the risks for the people who live in those areas," he added. "That's why, for example, the national flood insurance protection program is in as deep as debt as it is."
Beck noted that over the past several decades more than 16,000 properties in Florida have experienced repetitive losses under the insurance program, meaning that taxpayers have paid more than once to help them rebuild. More than 1,000, he said, have received help four or more times.
It's not all beach houses and waterfront condos, either. Many of the properties in direst need of assistance are owned by people who can't afford to move. Although poverty in coastal counties is about equal to poverty in landlocked parts of the U.S., those who live below the poverty line often find themselves in low-lying areas most vulnerable to storm damage.
"The land that is cheapest in coastal counties is the stuff that is most highest risk, that is regularly flooded," said Beck. "That is where we have our poorest populations."
The population numbers and trends outlined in the new National Coastal Population Report — which NOAA released with the U.S. Census Bureau — should help guide policymakers who shape regulations governing coastal development, the government agency noted.
The Nature Conservancy, for example, is spearheading a program on coastal resilience that advocates things such as protecting coastal wetlands from development and the rebuilding of natural defenses, such as oyster reefs along the Gulf Coast.
Wetlands and oyster reefs, he noted, serve as the first line of defense against oncoming storms and are some of the natural features that attract people to the coast in the first place.
"You might say people love the coast almost too much," Beck said, but "we can reduce risk to people and property and our overall national budget by building more sensibly."

FBI aiding in 5-state search for missing Brown University student

NBC Connecticut
Brown University student Sunil Tripathi has been missing for more than a week.
A student from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island has been missing for more than a week and the Federal Bureau of Investigation is helping in a five-state search, according to the Providence Journal.  
Sunil Tripathi, 22, of Pennsylvania, was last seen on Friday, March 15 on the campus of the Ivy League university, according to the Journal, and the search has expanded to Connecticut, Boston, New York and Philadelphia.
His family said Sunil’s wallet, ID cards, credit cards and cell phone were found in his room.
“Our concerns are first and foremost with Sunil and his family,” Margaret Klawunn, vice president for student life and campus services at Brown, said in a statement posted on the university’s Web site.
“We are hopeful that by encouraging the Brown community to help spread the word that Sunil will be located.”
Tripathi grew up in Bryn Mawr, Pa., and has been living in Providence since 2008, according to Brown University, where he is a philosophy major and a talented saxophonist.
Tripathi’s sister, Sangeeta Tripathi, has offered her contact information for further, 917-774-9208.
A Twitter account, @findingsunny, and a Facebook page have been set up to help with the search. 
If you have any information or think you've seen him, call police.

Broke and ashamed: Many won't take handouts despite need
Sat Mar 23, 2013 6:52 PM EDT

On college campuses, many students striving to make the grade don't have enough food to eat. Trying to tackle this challenge, colleges are now bringing food pantries onto campuses, hoping to help students through these tough times. NBC's Diana Alvear reports.

NBC News
Ashyle Horton, 22, was reluctant take help from a University of Arkansas food pantry because of the stigma of need. That program, like others, works to decrease the shame of seeking assistance.

By JoNel Aleccia, Senior Writer, NBC News

Ashyle Horton had volunteered in the past for the program that runs the University of Arkansas campus food pantry, but showing up as a client was an entirely different experience.

“I was very fearful and nervous,” said Horton, 22. “It felt so weird going to a food pantry to get help.”

The graduating senior says she desperately needed the pasta, rice and other staples on the food bank shelves, but she worried that others might judge her, that they would think she ought to be able to get by on her own.

“I never thought that I would be struggling as much as I have this year,” said Horton, whose already-stretched income dropped abruptly when her hours were cut at the disability services agency where she works.

Suddenly, she found herself among the 50 million people in the U.S. who live in food-insecure households each year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Pushing past the stigma of need was a hurdle for Horton — as it is for many who find themselves in that situation, says Angela Oxford, director for the Fayetteville school’s Center for Community Engagement.

Oxford is among the ranks of local, state and federal experts — officials from program managers to academic researchers — who work to reduce the onus of needing help.

Amber Kelsall, a volunteer at the University of Portland State's student food pantry, on helping students in need.

“There is a stigma in that people just want to be able to take care of themselves,” Oxford said. “People don’t want to have to get assistance.”

Across the U.S., safety-net programs aimed at reaching the nearly 1 in 7 Americans living in poverty struggle to reach those in need. Food stamp enrollment climbed to record levels following the recent recession, with nearly 48 million participants in December 2012.

Still, 1 in 4 people who are eligible for food stamps don't sign up, on average, the USDA says. Participation drops sharply in certain subgroups, as well. Only 34 percent of seniors and 60 percent of working poor households who could receive food stamps actually do, the USDA says.

That’s largely because of the perceived shame of taking a hand-out, researchers say.

“Stigma seems to be a big barrier to participation,” said Colleen Flaherty Manchester, an assistant professor of management at the University of Minnesota who studies the issue. “We find it to be quite substantial.”

In fact, psychological barriers appear to be three times greater than time costs — the effort and hassle it takes to enroll — in determining whether people seek benefits, Manchester said.

“I think it has to do with feelings of reduced self-efficacy, reduced self-esteem, psychological pressure from going against the social norm,” she said.

Angela Oxford, the director of the center for community engagement for the University of Arkansas describes how the campus food pantry was created.

Federal officials have tried to tackle the stigma issue in recent years. First they gave the Food Stamp Program a catchy new name -- SNAP, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Then they traded conspicuous food stamp coupons for discreet electronic benefit cards.

The USDA now runs cheery radio ads touting SNAP as a nutrition program, not a welfare plan, and the agency has worked to ease red tape and to reach out to underserved populations.

As a result, some experts say that stigma about receiving benefits is less than it was a dozen years ago, when states like New York erected complicated barriers to simply apply for the aid.

“I think stigma in general has been falling as a quotient in affecting social behavior,” said Thomas Fomby, a professor of economics at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, who has just launched a research project into the causes of hunger in North Texas.

Others, however, say there’s still considerable room for improvement.

“Have you ever been to a DHS office?” asked Oxford, referring to state department of human services offices. Even with improvements, potential participants may face long lines, complicated paperwork and embarrassing questions about income and assets.

But critics of the federal food program believe that it should be more difficult to get government benefits. They take aim at SNAP's ballooning numbers and its $78 billion a year cost.

Portland State University student Leaf Zuk tells NBC's Diana Alvear he was embarrassed when he first came to the school's food bank —and discusses what he feels is an unhealthy stigma associated with poverty in America.

“It remains a program that discourages work, rewards idleness and promotes long-term dependence,” the conservative Heritage Foundation’s Robert Rector and Katherine Bradley wrote last summer.

Other critics argue that it should be the role of churches and charities, not the government, to provide food to people in need.

That would include the Arkansas campus food pantry, which is one of 50 college and university programs that have sprung up nationwide. There, as elsewhere, the emphasis is on offering help without rubbing it in, Oxford said.

No one will eyeball a student’s laptop and cell phone and figure that he or she is a rich kid trying to scam the system, she said. Students can apply discreetly online for food, there’s rarely a long waiting line — and they don’t get standard-issue boxes of food. Instead, clients are allowed to choose the foods they want from the pantry shelves.

“That’s part of the dignity piece,” Oxford said.

For Ashyle Horton, her need for the food pantry may end with graduation this spring. She has applied for City Year, a national service program, and she hopes to pursue a master’s degree after that. But her months of accepting pasta and rice from the pantry have given her more empathy for others in that situation, she says.

"I don’t like to tell people when I’m in need,” she said. “I like to help other people.”

Obama wraps up Holy Land visit at Bethlehem church after Holocaust tribute

Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP
U.S. President Barack Obama and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas walk in the Church of the Nativity during their visit to the West Bank city of Bethlehem on March 22, 2013.
Jason Reed / Reuters
Obama meets Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III (3rd left) during a tour of the Church of the Nativity.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP
Obama walks out of the Hall of Remembrance at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem.
By Matt Spetalnick and Ali Sawafta, Reuters
President Barack Obama made a pilgrimage on Friday to Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of Jesus.
At the Church of the Nativity, Obama ducked to enter through its small Door of Humility. Manger Square, the plaza in front of the church, was almost deserted except for security personnel.
Earlier, Obama visited Israel's most powerful national symbols, paying homage at the Holocaust memorial and the graves of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, and Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister assassinated in 1995 by an extremist Jew over peace moves with the Palestinians.
Wearing a Jewish skullcap, Obama rekindled an eternal flame at the Yad Vashem memorial next to a stone slab above ashes recovered from Nazi extermination camps after World War Two.
"We have a choice to acquiesce to evil or make real our solemn vow - never again," Obama said.
Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images
Obama tours the Hall of Names at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, alongside Avner Shalev (right), Chairman of the Yad Vashem Directorate, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Uriel Sinai / Getty Images
Obama pays his respects in the Hall of Remembrance at Yad Vashem after Marines laid a wreath on his behalf.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP
Obama listens to Netanyahu during their visit to the Children's Memorial at Yad Vashem.
Jason Reed / Reuters
Obama walks with Rabbi Israel Meir Lau in the Hall of Remembrance at Yad Vashem.

Italy court to decide whether Amanda Knox should be tried again for murder

In the six years since Seattle student Amanda Knox was tried for murder in Italy, she was convicted, spent four years in jail, and was finally acquitted. In a new twist, prosecutors are asking the court to try the case again. NBC's Michelle Kosinski reports.

ROME -- Italy's highest court was set to decide whether to overturn the acquittal of American student Amanda Knox in the murder of her roommate.
Knox and her then-boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito were both convicted and then acquitted of Meredith Kercher's 2007 murder in Perugia, Italy, where they were students.
Knox spent four years in prison after being found guilty.
Small-time drug dealer Rudy Hermann Guede, an acquaintance of Knox's, was also convicted and was jailed for 16 years.
Prosecutors argued that Knox and Sollecito killed Kercher after a drug-fueled sexual assault.
Oli Scarff / Getty Images
The long legal saga of Amanda Knox, an American student accused of the violent death of her roommate, British student Meredith Kercher, has made headlines around the world since it began in Perugia, Italy, in late 2007.

If judges reject the prosecutors' argument that the acquittal should be thrown out and a new trial ordered, Knox's acquittal will be final.
"The only way the evidence could be characterized was absent, non-existent, inconclusive and unreliable," said Theodore Simon, Knox's defense attorney.
The scant DNA evidence initially linking Knox and Sollecito the murder was later found to have likely been contaminated. Defense attorneys argued that Guede was the sole killer and that the acquittal was justified.
Since her release from prison in 2011, Knox has resumed her studies in Seattle.
Knox and Sollecito did not appear in court Monday.
Italy's supreme court, which originally was expected to make a decision on Monday, has postponed their ruling until Tuesday.
Amanda Knox leaves prison after murder conviction overturned
Knox heads home from Italy; prosecutor to appeal verdict

In Cyprus deal, Russia may have the last laugh

Europe won this round. But Russia may have the last laugh.

As part of a $13 billion deal to a bail out a pair of bloated Cyprus banks, European officials Monday won the Nicosia government’s backing for a painful “haircut” on bank accounts that will inflict maximum financial pain on Russian companies and wealthy depositors who have long used the tiny island nation as a tax shelter.

The last-minute deal, reached just hours before a European ultimatum to cut off the country’s financial lifelines, is aimed at reining in a Cypriot banking system that had gorged on tax-dodging oligarchs and failed Greek bonds.

The agreement ends a week of street protests in Cyprus, long lines at withdrawal-limited cash machines, and a tense geopolitical standoff after European officials made the unprecedented demand that ordinary Cypriot savers share in the cost of any bank bailout.

Under the final terms, accounts of under $130,000 will be spared. But the concession will shift the financial pain even more heavily to large accounts, many of which hold roughly $30 billion in assets belonging to Russian companies and wealthy individuals. Under the revised terms, large account holders now stand to lose as much of 40 percent of their money – four times the original proposal.

Russian leaders – who last week rejected pleas from Cypriot officials for an alternative financial lifeline – were understandable unhappy with the final deal.

"The stealing of what has already been stolen continues," Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev reportedly told a private meeting of government officials.

In their public response, Russian officials have been more measured. The government signaled Monday it would help backstop the European bailout by refinancing a 2011 loan with a lower interest rate or by extending repayment deadlines.

Despite widespread anger over a plan widely denounced in Moscow as “bank robbery,” the Russians have reason to soften their public stance.

For one thing, Moscow and Nicosia still enjoy deep economic and political ties that go well beyond the latest tug-of-war with Europe. Cyprus represents an important strategic location in the Mediterranean, even more so as the future of Russian ally Syria grows more uncertain.

Russian energy companies are also eyeing large, recently discovered deposits of natural gas in Cyprus.

"It's a mistake to think that it's a very special class of rich people [that have their money in Cyprus]," said Cyprus' finance minister, Michael Sarris, early Monday. "Russians have their lawyers, accountants or their families and friends in Cyprus, so our relationship can withstand a shock like this."

While the European bank bailout will be painful for individual haircut victims, the overall losses are relatively small – less than 1 percent of total deposits in the Russian banking system.

By stepping back from the turmoil, Russia can now watch European leaders struggle with what promises to become an even bigger money pit. Having helped break the banking system in Cyprus, Europe now owns it.

It’s not clear how much more cash will be needed to finish the job. As part of the bailout, Cyprus’ second largest bank, Laiki , was sold for parts to the Bank of Cyprus, the country’s largest. Laiki’s toxic assets will be sold off over time – assuming any one wants them.

The financial hole in Cypriot banks may yet deepen further as skittish depositors head for the exits once they eventually are allowed to get their hands on their money. Confiscating large chunk of existing accounts will make new depositors think twice about handing their money over to a Cypriot bank.

On Monday, there was still no official timetable for ending an ongoing bank “holiday.” Bailout terms also include yet-unspecified restrictions on future withdrawals.

By standing on the sidelines, Russia has also left European leaders with an even bigger mess to clean up. Though the Brussels bailout may succeed in shrinking bloated Cypriot financial system, it will trash the Cypriot economy, which relies heavily on its banking sector for jobs and tax revenues.

After busting Cyprus' banks, European officials acknowledged that the tiny nation - with an economy smaller than Vermont's - now faces a painful recession that will require an even bigger Brussels bailout in fairly short order.

“The near future will be very difficult for the country and its people and the (European) Commission will do everything possible to alleviate the social consequences of this economic shock,” Europe's Commissioner for Economic Affairs, Olli Rehn, told reporters after the deal was announced.

European leaders face even bigger headaches beyond tiny Sypruis. Their new “bail-in” strategy - forcing bank depositors to pay for a bail-out - hasn’t gone unnoticed in much larger countries, like Italy and Spain, with much larger banks and economies. Despite those two countries’ limited trade and finance links to Cyprus, the wider bailout backlash could create a much bigger mess for Europe

The worry is that depositors in those banking systems – which are far too large for Europe to backstop – could stage a slow-motion bank run to move their cash out of the reach of Brussels bureaucrats. Bank stocks in Italy and Spain were down sharply Monday.

Beyond the financial impact, the political backlash to the Cypriot bailout may be even more damaging to the long-run prospects of a unified Europe.

For the past two years, resentment has been growing in struggling southern countries like Greece, Spain, Italy – and now Cyrus – over harsh economic demands from their wealthy northern neighbors – lead by Germany.

Recent elections have only widened that political divide. In Italy, for example, voters recently rejected Brussels-friendly candidates in favor of an anti-euro, comic-turned-politician, Beppe Grillo, and former prime minister, Silvo Berlusconi, a colorful media tycoon convicted of tax evasion.

The result is that Italy has yet to form a new government with the legal authority to negotiate with European leaders.

“We’re talking about the third biggest euro zone economy - basically a political system currently frozen because of this huge populist movement,” said Jim O’Neill, chairman of Goldman Sachs Asset Management. “They seem to be saying, ‘We have had enough.’” That is not an easy thing to solve at all.”

Woods wins Bay Hill, ascends to No. 1 world ranking

ORLANDO, Fla. – Even after a 20-hour weather delay, even after a brief surge by Rickie Fowler, the outcome here at Bay Hill seemed predetermined, not least because Tiger Woods is the best closer in sports not wearing pinstripes.
No, it’s because golf’s new king looks an awful lot like the old one – pumping his fist and twirling his irons and holing clutch putts. Everything you remember about Red Shirt.
“It feels really good,” Woods said, reclining in a chair in the winner’s news conference, wearing the customary blue blazer. More than 30 text messages had arrived on his phone within minutes of his two-stroke victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. He tapped out thank-you notes as fast as his fingers allowed.

Woods appears happy again. Perhaps that’s because of his newly confirmed relationship, to skier Lindsey Vonn, or maybe his return to championship form. It was natural to wonder if Tiger could ever truly be happy again without both.
By capturing his third title of the season Monday (and second in his last two starts), Woods has won six of his last 20 PGA Tour starts. Six of his last 20 – that’s an absurd winning percentage of 30 percent, slightly above his career average of 27 percent.
“I feel like this is the Tiger I grew up watching,” Keegan Bradley said.
More absurdity: Woods has captured 41 PGA Tour titles on seven courses, Bay Hill included. Forty-one wins – or, in other words, as many victories as Phil Mickelson has enjoyed during his Hall of Fame career, and seven more than Vijay Singh, and 19 more than Ernie Els.
This will mark Woods’ 624th week at world No. 1 – or 12 years, more than half of Rory McIlroy’s lifetime.
“I don’t think that’s his ultimate goal,” said his caddie, Joe LaCava, of reaching world No. 1, “but it’s certainly a nice bonus.”
Technically, Woods’ reign atop the world order may last all of a week, even if it feels like we experienced a seismic shift in the golf landscape Monday. Next week, McIlroy could regain the No. 1 spot in the world with a victory in Houston, the continuation of a generational tug-of-war that shapes the sport. But this has the distinct feel of a vintage Tiger year. Your move, kid.
That mentality alone drives home the fact that we’re light years from Oct. 30, 2010, when Woods last held the No. 1 ranking. At the time he was less than a year removed from the tabloid-fueled scandal that ruined his family life, shattered his public image and precipitated a brief downturn in his game.
He suffered a stunning loss to Graeme McDowell at his own World Challenge. A year later, he injured his Achilles’ tendon at the Masters, forcing him to withdraw from The Players, skip the U.S. Open and British Open, and then bomb out at the PGA. In November 2011, he was ranked 58th in the world.
It was a “perfect storm,” Woods said. He was making a swing change, and he was hurt, and he couldn’t devote any time to practice the new motion. Were there any doubts about whether he would ever win again, or reach world No. 1? Please. When he’s healthy, and when he’s making putts, he wins.
“If I get healthy, I know I can play this game at a high level,” he said. “Once I got there, then my game turned.”
Last year was decidedly more Tiger-like, and that resurgence began here, at Arnie’s place, where Woods won a full-field PGA Tour event for the first time in 923 days (this was his eighth victory at Bay Hill, matching a Tour record for most wins in an event). He would win two more times, at Memorial and Congressional, but was strangely absent in the major championships, when he didn’t break par in eight weekend rounds. They were bizarre disappearing acts.
“Maybe my game wasn’t quite consistent enough to be there at that point,” he said.
Now, though, his mind is no longer clouded with swing thoughts. He’s more confident, the motion more ingrained. On the range Monday morning, in a brisk and steady crosswind, Woods worked through each club in the bag, wedge through driver, swinging each in perfect balance and rhythm. His swing coach, Sean Foley, stood some 50 yards away and watched Hunter Mahan, another of his pupils. For the last half hour of his warm-up, Woods’ only interaction with Foley was a fist bump on the putting green before heading to the third tee for the restart. He’s self-sufficient.
For Woods, the resumption of the final round produced little stress, at least until he needed to hole a 7-foot par putt on 11. A hole later, and after watching Rickie Fowler drain a 37-footer to pull within two shots of the lead, Woods buried a 27-footer, raising his putter skyward as he walked toward the cup.
“That’s just the competitor he is,” Fowler would say afterward. “He just finds a way to make a putt and keep things going.”
The biggest swing of the day came on the 16th hole. Two behind as he played his second shot into the par 5, Fowler rinsed his approach from 188 yards – and eventually carded a triple-bogey 8 – setting the stage for a Woods exclamation point.
He didn’t disappoint, hitting a drawing 8-iron from a perfect lie in a fairway bunker to 35 feet to set up an easy birdie and open a three-shot cushion. After a two-putt par on 17 and conservative bogey on the 72nd hole, he finished at 13-under 275, two shots clear of Justin Rose (70).
“It was going to happen,” Bubba Watson said of Woods’ reascension to the No. 1 spot. “He had injuries. He’s had a lot of things going on in his life. But he’s the greatest golfer ever.”
But there was work to be done, of course, even after three victories last season. In the offseason Woods knew he needed to sharpen his scoring clubs – last year, he was 102nd or worse in greens in regulation from 75-100 yards, 100-125 yards and 125-150 yards. This year, he ranks no worse than 69th in those categories.
Woods had four eagles all of last year. This week alone, he made three.
And after a tip from Steve Stricker at Doral, Woods’ putter has also learned to cooperate in crunch time. He led the field in strokes gained-putting. Prior to Monday’s restart, he was 11 of 12 on attempts from 10 to 20 feet. Tweeted Paul Azinger, “Most pros won’t make 10 putts that long in a month.”
“He’s playing well,” Fowler said. “You know when another guy is playing well and he’s on top of his game, he’s got a little something.”
“He’s won three of his four stroke-play events here in the U.S.,” LaCava said. “If you’re paying attention, you probably have to look over your shoulder (now) a little bit, right?”
Inevitably, the conversation now shifts to the majors, as it always does with Woods. Perhaps it’s just a statistical anomaly, but in the three years that he has won three PGA Tour events before the Masters – in 2000, ’03 and ’08 – he has not gone on to wear the green jacket. In two of those three years, however, he went on to win majors. Talent triumphed.
Woods hasn’t won a major since 2008, the Masters since ’05. Until he wins major No. 15, until he resumes his ascent up Mount Nicklaus, questions will remain. That’s the gift and the curse of an in-form Tiger.
When asked the last time he felt this good heading into Augusta, Woods said flatly, “It’s been a few years.”
Indeed, everything about his game is starting to look like old times.

Bar Refaeli roils: Is supermodel a super Israeli or simply a shirker?

Vincent Kessler / Reuters, file
Model Bar Refaeli arrives at the screening of the film "The Beaver" at the 64th Cannes Film Festival in May, 2011.

By Martin Fletcher, Correspondent, NBC News

TEL AVIV, Israel -- As the beautiful face of a nation, supermodel Bar Refaeli has few rivals. So Israel’s foreign ministry thought it was on to a winner this month when it picked the blond, blue-green-eyed, willowy, tall and curvy Refaeli to lead a public relations campaign highlighting Israel’s world-beating technologies.

Instead, it sparked a bitter controversy about just who is a 'real' Israeli. The Israeli army attacked the proposal, saying that the 27-year-old Sports Illustrated cover girl was a draft dodger and a bad example to Israel’s youth.

"I wish to turn your attention to the negative message that could be delivered to Israeli society," an army spokesman wrote to the foreign ministry.

The foreign ministry’s private response to the military was to mind its own business. As diplomats, though, their public reaction was phrased more carefully: "Bar Refaeli ... is considered one of the most beautiful women in the world and she is widely recognized as Israeli. There is no reason to dredge up the past when we are dealing with a public diplomacy campaign of this kind."

The dispute hit a nerve.

With compulsory conscription of three years for men and two years for women, army service is traditionally seen as a social equalizer and the glue that holds the society together. But today, about half of Israeli women don’t serve and about a third of men don’t. In both cases, these numbers are made up of Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews who are excused, as well as those who are exempt for a variety of medical and other reasons.

Yehuda Raizner / AFP - Getty Images, file
An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man waits to cross the street opposite a billboard featuring Israeli supermodel Bar Refaeli advertising lingerie in Tel Aviv in Nov., 2009.

Refaeli’s case, however, was particularly provocative.

She stated that she did not want to serve because it would obstruct her career. Then, when obliged by the system, she reportedly evaded service by marrying a family friend and getting an exemption as a married woman. It was widely reported in Israel that she got a divorce as soon as her exemption was accepted.

That didn’t win her many friends. But her beauty did, as did her liaison with one of the world's most eligible bachelors, film star Leonardo DiCaprio.

Refaeli is very popular. So much so that sometimes it seems like everyone in tiny Israel has claimed acquaintance with her or her family. She also routinely espouses Israeli causes like calling for the release of Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, who has languished in American jails for 28 years. She never fails to support Israel in any forum and when at home she hangs out on the beach like anyone else.

But according to the army, the fact that she didn't serve in the army disqualifies her from representing her country. For them, she is not a true Israeli.

And that is exactly the message the foreign ministry is trying to do away with. The diplomats want to dispel the notion that Israel is merely a military success story. They want to highlight Israel’s many other achievements in the field of technology, where Israel shines, to show the world that it is more than just a country in conflict.

So who is the 'perfect' Israeli? Refaeli in a bikini or Refaeli in battle fatigues?

It is a metaphor for a country seeking peace yet is mired in conflict -- a nation in transition and struggling to define itself. 

Martin Fletcher is the author of "The List,""Breaking News" and "Walking Israel."

Report: Gay player “strongly considering” coming out

 Getty Images
When it comes to the NFL’s willingness to accept an openly gay player, some think that the absence from the NFL of an openly gay player proves the league isn’t ready.
Under that standard, the NFL may soon be ready.  Ready or not.
Mike Freeman of reports that “a current gay player is strongly considering coming out publicly within the next few months — and after doing so, the player would attempt to continue his career.”
Per Freeman, the player fears the reaction not from within the locker room, but from homophobic fans.  And that’s a legitimate concern; the combination of paying for a ticket and supporting a team and consuming a little alcohol (or a lot) turns normal people into loud, classless, profane jerks who will do and say anything to get under the skin of the members of the visiting team.  And sometimes the members of the home team.
We’ve been discussing the issue of gay NFL players with folks in and around the game for the past several weeks, and the consensus is that, because sexual orientation isn’t obvious, a gay football player will be inclined to remain discreet, because football players ultimately are just that — football players.  They want to play football, and the fame/notoriety/whatever that comes from coming out will serve only to keep the focus on something other than football.
Most players don’t want to create distractions, for any reason.  Players who aren’t stars fear that, if they create distractions, the team will choose another player of relatively equal skill who doesn’t draw attention away from the team.
Team is the key.  Most football players are committed to that concept.  Drawing attention to themselves undermines the philosophy of team first.
But this doesn’t mean a player who perhaps sees his career ending won’t consider the boost that may come from coming out.  That’s why the precise language of Freeman’s report is intriguing.
“The player would attempt to continue his career” after coming out, Freeman writes.  This suggests that the player may not currently have a team, or that the player believes he may not make it onto the final 53-man roster of the team for which he currently plays.
We’re reluctant to apply cynicism to what would be a watershed moment for pro sports, but it would be naive to assume, given the team-first focus of football, that a gay player thinking about coming out of the closet hasn’t considered both how the move could hurt him and how it could help him.  For a marginal player who may be on his way out of the league, the indirect benefit of coming out could be getting another chance to play from a team that chooses to embrace diversity — or that doesn’t want to be perceived as shunning it.
Regardless of the motivation or the timing, it will require significant courage for any current NFL player to come out.  And we hope that the decision by one gay NFL player to embrace who he is will prompt more to do the same, immediately thereafter.  That way, the distraction will be diluted and those who would begrudge people the ability to simply be who they are would have reason to quickly get past an issue that has no bearing on a person’s football ability.
To protect lands, Obama designates five new national monuments
Handout / Reuters
President Barack Obama announced Monday that he will designate five locations, including Patos Island Lighthouse at the San Juan National Monument in Washington, and others around the country as national monuments to protect large tracts of land and historical sites, a White House official said.

By Andrew Mach, Staff Writer, NBC News

President Barack Obama signed proclamations Monday designating five locations around the country as new national monuments to protect large tracts of land and historical sites, a White House official said.

The locations range from a 240,000-acre expanse in New Mexico's high desert and the town green in Dover, Del., to an archipelago in Washington, a historical home in Ohio and a park in Maryland.

“These sites honor the pioneering heroes, spectacular landscapes and rich history that have shaped our extraordinary country,” said Obama. “By designating these national monuments today, we will ensure they will continue to inspire and be enjoyed by generations of Americans to come.”

Handout / Reuters
Watmough Bight on Lopez Island at the San Juan National Monument in Washington is seen.

Similar to a national park, the sites, located in Delaware, Maryland, New Mexico, Ohio and Washington, can be designated as national monuments directly by the president without congressional approval, under the Antiquities Act.

Conservationists and lawmakers said the new monuments are expected to promote economic growth in the local communities through tourism and outdoor recreation.

"Our state will now welcome the many economic opportunities that surround a new national monument and can help boost local businesses and create jobs," Delaware Senator Tom Carper told Reuters.

“There’s no doubt that these monuments will serve as economic engines for the local communities through tourism and outdoor recreation – supporting economic growth and creating jobs," Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said.

The president designated the First State National Monument in Delaware, which spans three historical areas: the Dover Green, the New Castle Court House complex and the Woodlawn property in Brandywine Valley. The site tells the story of the early Dutch, Swedish, Finnish and English settlement of the colony of Delaware, and it will be the state's first designation.

The president also designated Rio Grande del Norte National Monument in New Mexico, which contains stretches of the Rio Grande Gorge and extinct volcanoes that rise fro the Taos Plateau. The area is known for its spectacular landscapes and recreational opportunities like rafting, fishing and hiking and serves as an important habitat for many birds and wildlife. 

Handout / Reuters
Minnie's Beach, Active Cove on Patos Island at the San Juan National Monument in Washington is seen.

Obama also designated the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument on Maryland's Eastern Shore that honors the escaped slave who helped lead others to freedom.

The site includes Stewart’s Canal, dug by hand by free and enslaved people between 1810 and the 1830s, and where Tubman learned important outdoor skills when she worked in the nearby timber operations with her father, the White House said.

Rounding out the new monuments are: the Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument in Ohio, which honors the distinguished officer in the United States Army who was the third African American to graduate from West Point and the first to achieve the rank of Colonel; and the San Juan Islands National Monument in Washington state, home to a number of historic lighthouses and cultural resources and fossils dating back 12,000 years.

Obama has previously designated four places as national monuments, including the home and headquarters of the United Farm Workers of America leader César Chávez and Colorado's Chimney Rock, known for its rich history of Native American culture.

Hunt for bogus war heroes uncovers thousands of hoaxers
By Bill Briggs, NBC News contributor

During the past decade, some 4,000 men have been exposed while posing as combat warriors to fool women, scam federal benefits and reap undeserved praise. But the latest fake veteran to be uncloaked and convicted will carry an unofficial military rank to prison: “Captain Obvious.”

Pinellas Country Sheriff's Office
Danny Crane

Danny Crane, 32, earned that colorful moniker from the man — an actual wounded veteran — who used his two basement computers and a loose, national network of fellow amateur sleuths to unravel Crane’s lies and ultimately hand him to federal prosecutors. Crane, who lived in the Tampa area, was sentenced March 14 to one year and one day in federal prison.

“His uniform was all wrong. The discharge papers he posted online were wrong. His mannerisms were wrong. The only thing he had right were his tattoos. He was Captain Obvious,” said retired Army Staff Sgt. Fred Campbell, one of 10 veterans who operate a virtual detective agency called Guardian of Valor.

“For four months, I was eating, sleeping and crapping Danny Russell Crane. My wife was getting sick of hearing about it,” said Campbell, who lives in Tennessee and has paralysis on one side, sustained as a result of his military service. He is not paid for his online investigation work. “Most of these guys do it for the hero worship. They see the accolades veterans get. So they just wake up one morning and say, ‘Hey, I was a member of the Black Sheep Squadron!’”

Crane, who served less than three months in the Army — never in combat — conned the Department of Veterans Affairs out of $7,000 by claiming he was half blind, had once been shot in the back, suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and had 24 metal plates inserted in his face. In public, he routinely wore two Purple Hearts, a Distinguished Flying Cross and an Air Medal — none of them earned. Assistant U.S. Attorney Amanda Kaiser said Crane concocted the persona of “the most decorated man in Florida.”

“But in our world, the Danny Crane case is not unusual,” said Mary Schantag, a Marine widow who lives in Missouri and operates the Fake Warriors Project. Since launching that veteran-vetting venture on a shoe-string budget in 1998, Schantag said her nonprofit group — along with partners at similar sites — has revealed more than 4,000 hoaxers who falsely claimed military service or battlefield glory. It’s unclear how many of those 4,000 frauds later were prosecuted. A VA spokesman said such cases are not tracked by the agency.

“We had 22 phonies in 1998. I can get 22 in 48 hours right now,” Schantag said. “It’s all day, every day.”

Courtesy Guardian of Valor
When Danny Crane appeared in public wearing Ray Ban sun glasses and a Class A Uniform, veteran-hoax hunters knew he was almost certainly a fake. That look is not military protocol. Crane was sentenced earlier this month to a year in federal prison.

Yet she complained that federal and state agencies often choose not to pursue charges against the bogus veterans, saying: “The lack of prosecution and substantial penalties drives us all crazy.”

'Out of sync'
The Supreme Court last June struck down the federal Stolen Valor Act, which prohibited people from falsely claiming they had been awarded a military honor. A majority of justices ruled that invented battlefield brags should be protected by the First Amendment right of free speech. The behavior becomes criminal fraud, however, if the mock vets obtain money or gifts from charities or from the government by using their ruse.

Like Campbell, Schantag is intimate enough with military protocol to be able to quickly spot imposters who may post their boasts on social sites like Facebook or who show up to speak at veterans’ ceremonies. For example, Crane simultaneously wore a Class A Uniform and Ray Ban sunglasses, which Schantag called “out of sync.”

Courtesy of Mary Schantag

Before his passing last year, Chuck Schantag, a Marine corporal wounded in Vietnam, spent more than a decade working with his wife to expose fake veterans.

And like Campbell, she uses Internet background searches and files Freedom of Information Requests with government agencies to corroborate a suspicious veteran’s claimed history. She also taps her personal connections with Navy SEALS, Army Special Forces, even military chaplains to double check her detective work.

“We make sure everything is square before we put these guys out there as frauds,” Campbell said. “We make sure they are 100 percent full of crap before we say anything negative toward them. We don’t do it to say, ‘Ha, Ha, I just took this guy down.’ We do it for the 18- and 19-year-olds who have lost every limb on their body but still go on.”

Last year, Schantag’s husband, Chuck, a Vietnam veteran wounded in 1968, passed away. Ferreting out military scammers had become one of his life’s passions. He was trying to sniff out an apparent new fraudster when he died. That case remains under scrutiny.

“He wanted history to be right,” said his widow. “He was a Marine through-and-through. For every lying Marine we found out there, that guy was messing up his Corps.”

Obama urged to step in to fix VA backlog
Booted and banned: Former US troops battle to come home
New military medal for drone pilots under fire

Powerball mystery: Officials say winner has yet to claim big prize

N.J. State lottery official Carole Hedinger tells members of the media she and her staff are still waiting for the winner — or winners — of the fourth-largest Powerball jackpot in history, who purchased the ticket at Eagle Liquors in Passaic, to come forward and claim their prize.
New Jersey lottery officials announced Monday that the winner of one of the largest Powerball drawings in history -- $338 million -- has yet to come forward.
The newly-minted multi-millionaire bought the lucky ticket at Eagle Liquors in Passaic, N.J., according to Carole Hedinger, executive director of the New Jersey Lottery. 
"We are waiting for the winner, or winners, to contact us," Hedinger told reporters at a press conference at lottery headquarters in Lawrenceville, N.J. "Whoever they are should sign the back of that ticket immediately and keep it in a safe place."
"Most people take their time, seek professional advice, and wait to know exactly what they're doing before they come in," Hedinger added.
The winning numbers in the Saturday drawing were: 17, 29, 31, 52, 53, 31.
Lottery officials said the windfall was the fourth-largest jackpot in Powerball history. The winner stands to net a $221 million lump sum payout.
Hedinger said reports that the sole winning ticket was sold at a Bordentown, N.J., gas station were erroneous.
"Somebody called the place in Bordentown and claimed to win a ticket, and perhaps somebody jumped to a conclusion," Hedinger said.
NBC News' Becky Bratu contributed to this report.

Colorado Department of Corrections via Reuters
Evan Spencer Ebel died Thursday, March 21, in a shootout with police in Decatur, Texas.

Same gun used in killing of Colorado prisons chief and Texas shootout, authorities say

Colorado authorities said Monday that the same gun a white supremacist fired in a gunbattle with Texas police last week was also used in the shooting death of Colorado's prisons director.
Texas police killed Evan Spencer Ebel, 28, after a high-speed chase Thursday through Decatur, Texas.
He is also considered a suspect in the death of Tom Clements, executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections, who was shot at his home near Denver last Tuesday, Colorado authorities say. He is believed to have shot and killed a pizza delivery man and used his uniform to get to Clements' front door without raising suspicion.
Monday's ballistics report "goes well beyond" Texas officials' determination last week that shell casings at the scene of the shootout were from the same type of ammunition, the Colorado Springs Metro Crime lab said in a statement.

Ebel had been paroled in January from a Colorado prison, and there is strong evidence to connect him to a white supremacist prison gang called the 211 Crew, which experts say demands that some of its members commit crimes once they leave prison.

Same-sex marriage's big day in court: What's at stake?

J. David Ake / AP
Bundled against the cold in Washington, people wait in line Friday so they can get into the Supreme Court for oral arguments next week on challenges to the Defense of Marriage Act and California's Proposition 8.

By Miranda Leitsinger, Staff Writer, NBC News

It's going to be a big week for the Supreme Court as justices hear two landmark same-sex marriage cases on consecutive days.

One is a challenge to the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (more commonly known as DOMA), which bars federal recognition of same-sex marriages. The other is a challenge of California's Proposition 8, a ban on same-sex marriage that was approved by voters in 2008.

Here are answers to some of the key questions being asked about these cases -- which could have huge implications for hundreds of thousands of gay families, dozens of state laws and even the national political landscape.

Why is the Supreme Court hearing these cases now?

The Prop. 8 case and several different challenges to DOMA have slowly wound through lower courts over the years. Observers predicted justices would take one of the DOMA challenges but they didn't expect them to grab the Prop. 8 case, too. The thinking is that the justices feel it’s time to address the question of same-sex marriage, so they now have a state and a federal challenge (interestingly, the DOMA case they selected, United States v. Windsor, was the newest of the bunch).

Why are they being heard so close together?

The cases are related because they both address whether gays and lesbians have the right to wed. The federal case is more focused on the benefits that same-sex couples are denied under the Defense of Marriage Act, while Prop. 8 centers around the right to marry. Ultimately, though, gay marriage supporters say they are both about whether gays and lesbians are treated differently because of their sexual orientation.

Could the Supreme Court legalize gay marriage everywhere?

The court can go many ways in its ruling in the California case. It could maintain the narrow focus that a federal court had in overturning Prop. 8, when it ruled that a fundamental right like marriage can't be granted and then taken away (couples were briefly allowed to wed in 2008 in the Golden State before voters approved Prop. 8, ending the practice).

Alternatively, the high court could say state prohibitions of same-sex marriage are unconstitutional, opening the door for gays and lesbians to wed in states where that's banned. Another possibility is that the justices could overturn the lower court's decision and reinstate the ban on gay marriage.

They could also say the group bringing the challenge doesn’t have standing. Yeah, that’s a lot of possibilities.

In the DOMA case, the justices also could address the constitutionality of gay marriage or they could find that the federal government should not be in the marriage business at all and instead leave that up to states to regulate.

If I’m a married gay couple, should I be worried that one of these rulings could affect my marriage?

No. It's highly unlikely the Supreme Court would make any ruling that negatively affects laws permitting same-sex marriage in the nine states plus the District of Columbia that allow gays and lesbians to wed. There’s mostly just upsides for already-wed couples.

For example, if the court decides DOMA is unconstitutional, couples would then receive all of the benefits that have been denied to them under that federal law, such as the right to file joint taxes, the protections of the Family Medical and Leave Act, and the ability of surviving spouses to access veterans’ benefits. Edie Windsor, the DOMA plaintiff, said she had to pay some $363,000 in federal estate taxes after her wife died, a bill that she wouldn't have had if they were a heterosexual couple.

Could ministers be forced to preside over gay weddings?

It does not seem so. At this point, most of the laws allowing same-sex marriages or civil unions provide exceptions for religious institutions that object to the ceremonies (New Jersey's civil unions bill does not have such a provision but the state's attorney general has given a clear opinion that such groups would be). This is a key area of concern often expressed by opponents of same-sex marriage.

What about civil unions? Why can't states just have those instead of same-sex marriages?

Well, six states do, and other states, like California, allow for domestic partnerships (these often guarantee the same rights and responsibilities as marriage). The Obama administration, in a legal argument it submitted calling for the end of Prop. 8, said creating such a parallel system was only meant to deny the “marriage” label and was therefore discriminatory against gays and lesbians. Opponents say these kinds of legal arrangements help preserve traditional marriage while giving gays and lesbians a path to be legally recognized as a couple.

I'm confused: civil unions, domestic partnerships, same-sex marriages?

Yes, a patchwork of state laws and constitutional amendments govern marriage across the country.

What does the anti-gay marriage camp argue?

They say the tradition of marriage is thousands of years old and defines a male-female union. They also argue that the state has an interest in promoting traditional families, and that procreation can only happen between a man and a woman. Finally, they say decisions about who can marry should be left up to the voters, not judges or lawmakers.

When are we going to hear from the justices?

In June, stay tuned.

I feel like a lot has been going on around these issues the last month or so. Is that right?

Yes, with the Supreme Court deadlines to file legal briefs in the cases, dozens of businesses, scholars, health experts, religious groups, gay and lesbian advocacy organizations, NFL players and the Obama administration have weighed in.

More than 131 Republicans, almost all out of office and some who once opposed same-sex marriage, submitted their argument on why gays and lesbians should be allowed to wed. Former President Bill Clinton recently penned an op-ed saying DOMA, which he signed into law, was unconstitutional and should be repealed. Days later, Hillary Clinton publicly announced her support for gay marriage, with some observers suggesting this may signal her presidential ambitions for the 2016 campaign.

Any idea how the justices will go?

Nothing is for sure (look at last year's health care decision), though pundits believe Justice Anthony Kennedy could be the swing vote. Some observers think DOMA's days as federal law could be over, but what the justices decide to do with Proposition 8 -- the California gay marriage ban -- is impossible to predict.


Gay rights timeline: Key dates in the fight for equality

Couples leading Prop. 8 fight: We are very excited to have the end in sight

Rush to the altar: Public figures proclaim support for gay marriage before
Supreme Court arguments