- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 16, 2009

CONGRESS

Democrats plan debt stopgap

The No. 2 Democrat in the House said Tuesday that Congress will pass a two-month, $200-billion-plus increase in the government’s ability to borrow as one of its final acts before closing shop for Christmas.

It’s a change of plans for Democrats, who had hoped to enact a far larger increase of up to $1.9 trillion to avoid having to cast another unpopular vote to increase the debt limit before next year’s midterm elections.

But Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, said the two-month increase is all that can get through the notoriously slow-moving Senate before year’s end. In another change of plans, the debt-limit increase will be considered on its own merits and won’t be added to a $626 billion measure funding the Pentagon’s budget and military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Treasury Department has said that the borrowing limit must be increased before Dec. 31.

The current debt cap is $12.1 trillion and Democrats had discussed raising it to as high as $14 trillion. But that plan fell apart amid opposition from about a dozen Senate Democratic moderates, who say they will refuse to vote for a debt-limit increase unless it is accompanied by legislation to establish a new bipartisan task force to come up with a plan to curb the deficit.

FORT HOOD

Information falls short, Lieberman says

Sen. Joe Lieberman, who heads a Senate oversight committee, chided the Obama administration Tuesday for not providing information to lawmakers probing the Fort Hood killings.

The Connecticut independent said his homeland security panel still has not received the personnel file of Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, the Army psychiatrist charged in the Nov. 5 shooting spree in Texas that left 13 people dead.

Mr. Lieberman and other committee members met behind closed doors with Pentagon officials to discuss the military’s procedures for collecting and sharing information about U.S. service members who might be a threat to others.

The briefing could have been open, Mr. Lieberman said, but the Defense Department refused to testify in public.

Lt. Col. Jonathan Withington, a Pentagon spokesman, said the Defense Department is following normal procedures when Congress has an interest in a subject related to a criminal investigation. But providing Maj. Hasan’s personnel file is prohibited by privacy laws, he said.

SECURITY

Surprised couple meet president

The White House is once again explaining how uninvited guests wound up shaking hands with President Obama.

This time, a Georgia couple hoping to tour the White House ended up at an invitation-only Veterans Day breakfast.

White House officials said the couple mistakenly showed up a day early and were allowed into the breakfast because there were no public tours available. They said the couple, Harvey and Paula Darden of Hogansville, Ga., were properly screened for security.

Mr. Darden, however, said there appeared to be a mix-up. No one told them about the breakfast, he said, and the Dardens thought they were starting their tour until they were ushered into the East Room and offered a buffet.

INFORMATION

Panel on secrecy backs single system

A presidential task force on government secrecy has recommended creating a new governmentwide system for categorizing sensitive information to reduce confusion about exactly who should know what.

The recommendations were issued Tuesday by the panel ordered by President Obama to study how the federal government categorizes and defines its secrets. The task force efforts were led by the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security.

Currently, so-called sensitive but unclassified information can be labeled under more than 100 categories, that range from “law enforcement sensitive” to “contractual sensitive information” to “sensitive water vulnerability assessment information.”

JOBS

Home insulation ‘sexy,’ Obama says

President Obama said Tuesday that home insulation “is sexy,” his newest appeal for Congress to pass incentives for homeowners who make their homes more energy efficient.

“Here’s what’s sexy about it. It saves money,” the president said at a Northern Virginia Home Depot store. He was joined at the outlet by members of Congress representing Virginia and labor and business leaders involved in services to lower use of natural resources consumed by homeowners.

Calling insulation the in-thing, Mr. Obama’s pitch was part of a broader administration push to lower the nation’s 10 percent unemployment rate.

CELL PHONES

Text messages soar to 110 billion

A U.S. Census Bureau report says Americans sent at least 110 billion text messages last year, double the previous year.

The nation’s 270 million cell phone subscribers each typed out an average of 407 messages.

That includes teens who send thousands of messages a month, balanced out by older folks who might not even know how to text on their phone.

Researcher Amanda Lenhart at the Pew Internet and American Life Project said the average teen sends more than 2,000 text messages per month. About two-thirds of all teens use text messaging.

Meanwhile, there are those who still use their cell phones to talk, using their voices. But the average length of a cell phone call dropped to about two minutes, the shortest chat time since the 1990s.

TAXES

Federal workers owe IRS $3 billion

Federal workers owed the government at least $3 billion in back income taxes in 2008, just as federal tax revenue started to decline from the recession.

More than 276,000 federal employees and retirees owed back income taxes as of Sept. 30, 2008, according to data from the Internal Revenue Service. The $3.04 billion owed was up from $2.7 billion owed by federal employees and retirees in 2007.

Among Cabinet agencies, the Department of Housing and Urban Development had the highest delinquency rate, at just over 4 percent. The Treasury Department, which includes the IRS, had the lowest delinquency rate, at 0.98 percent.

Overall, the 9.7 million federal workers included in the data had a delinquency rate of 2.9 percent.

The IRS doesn’t provide a comparable delinquency rate for income taxes paid by the public.

SAFETY

U.S. recalls Roman shades

The government and the window-covering industry on Tuesday recalled more than 50 million Roman-style shades and roll-up blinds because of the risk children may be strangled by the cords.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission said five deaths and 16 near-strangulations from Roman shades have been reported since 2006, while three deaths connected to roll-up blinds have been reported since 2001.

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