- - Wednesday, April 27, 2011

SENATE

Reid: Add deficit ‘cap’ mechanism

The leader of the Democrat-controlled Senate said Wednesday that any legislation increasing the government’s ability to borrow more money to meet its obligations should contain a cap on how big the deficit can be in any given year.

Majority Leader Harry Reid said the mechanism would involve a new law binding Congress to reduce the deficit. The Nevada Democrat didn’t give further details, but several proposals on Capitol Hill would trigger automatic spending cuts or tax increases if Congress can’t meet spending or deficit targets.

“You would just have a law that says we have to do it,” Mr. Reid said. “There are all kinds of triggering mechanisms.”

Mr. Reid also said he would schedule a Senate vote on a controversial House GOP plan to slash the deficit. The plan by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, calls for a fundamental overhaul of Medicare for future retirees - those presently 54 years old or less - by transforming it from a program in which the government pays doctor and hospital bills into a voucherlike program in which the federal government subsidizes purchases of private insurance policies.

Raising the so-called debt limit - presently $14.3 trillion - is by far the most pressing question facing Congress and President Obama. The measure is required to avoid a first-ever default on U.S. obligations that would rattle financial markets.

FDA

Panel backs hepatitis drug

Federal health experts are recommending approval for a highly anticipated drug from Merck to treat hepatitis C, based on studies showing it cures patients at a higher rate than drugs used for more than 20 years.

A Food and Drug Administration panel of experts voted unanimously, 18-0, in favor of Merck’s boceprevir tablet as an effective treatment for hepatitis C, which affects an estimated 3.2 million Americans.

The agency is not required to follow the group’s recommendation, though it usually does. A final decision is expected mid-May.

On Thursday the panel will review a similar drug from Vertex Pharmaceuticals. Both of the new drugs block the enzyme that helps the hepatitis virus reproduce.

Panelists said the drug is largely safe, but noted side effects including anemia and lower blood cell counts.

FBI

Report: Probes face troubles

FBI agents have had trouble investigating cyber-attacks involving national security because they lack the needed technical expertise or are often transferred or diverted to other cases, according to a government report released Wednesday.

Sensitive U.S. government computer networks are under regular attack from hackers seeking to steal classified material or to cripple critical operations. About 19 percent of the FBI’s cyber-agents focus on national security cases.

Some cyber-agents complained they did not have the proper experience to investigate such cases, were assigned to other matters or were rotated between offices too often, according to a report by the Justice Department’s inspector general.

“Because national security intrusion cases are highly technical and require a specific set of skills, new cyber-agents are often not equipped to assume responsibility of a national security intrusion investigation,” the report said.

Further, field agents do not have enough tactical analytical support for those cases, “hampering their ability to connect the dots in an investigation and to determine those responsible for intrusions,” it said.

The FBI in 2007 issued a plan for agents to become experts for cybersecurity investigations with 12 core courses and expected them to complete it along with on-the-job training in five to seven years. The number of agents who have completed the course work was not made public in the report.

SENATE

Reid: Quick vote set for subsidies

President Obama’s top ally in the Senate is promising a quick vote to repeal billions of dollars in government subsidies enjoyed by big oil companies every year.

Majority Leader Harry Reid said the Senate will turn as early as next week to Mr. Obama’s proposal to repeal tax breaks for the oil and gas industry. Mr. Obama wants to use that $4 billion a year to invest in alternative energy in an effort to reduce the country’s dependence on foreign oil.

Gasoline prices are at $4 a gallon in many parts of the country.

At first, GOP House Speaker John A. Boehner seemed willing to consider repealing some of the big oil tax breaks. The Ohio Republican has since backed away from the idea

INDIANA

Lawmakers OK voucher plan

INDIANAPOLIS | Indiana lawmakers have approved a bill creating the country’s broadest private school voucher system. That hands Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels a huge victory in his aggressive education agenda as he considers a 2012 presidential run.

The Republican-controlled House voted 55-43 Wednesday to approve a voucher plan that would allow even middle-class families to use taxpayer money to send their children to private schools. The plan is the most controversial part of Mr. Daniels’ sweeping education agenda that also includes merit pay for teachers, restrictions on teacher collective bargaining and expanded charter schools.

The successes come as Mr. Daniels prepares to declare whether he’ll run for the White House. The governor has said he’ll announce his decision sometime after the legislative session ends Friday.

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