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Inside Politics

- - Wednesday, September 21, 2011

SENATE

Panel OKs limited funds for high-speed rail

The Democratic-led Senate Appropriations Committee has voted to provide $100 million to build high-speed rail lines, a small portion of what President Obama has proposed for one of his economic priorities.

The panel voted by voice Wednesday to include the money in a $110 billion transportation and housing bill for next year.

The bill's author Sen. Patty Murray, Washington Democrat, included nothing for high-speed rail in the original measure, citing budget constraints.

But senators backed an amendment by No. 2 Senate Democratic leader Richard J. Durbin of Illinois adding the money. He said it would come from unspent money in past home district projects called earmarks.

In the Republican-run House, a subcommittee has approved legislation that denies any of the $8 billion Mr. Obama wants for high-speed rail next year.

JUSTICE

Judge tosses challenge to election monitoring

A federal judge has dismissed a challenge to election monitoring for racial discrimination required under the Voting Rights Act.

U.S. District Judge John Bates ruled against Shelby County in Alabama, which sued the Justice Department to stop the monitoring mostly across the South.

The county said it should no longer need federal approval before changing even minor election procedures such as moving a polling place or redrawing school district lines.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was extended in 2006 for 25 years. It relies heavily on evidence of past discrimination to determine which state, county and local governments should be covered by the "pre-clearance" requirement for election changes.

Judge Bates said that when Congress was renewing the law, it found that discrimination in those jurisdictions still existed.

JUSTICE

Biden: Thorough review under way concerning costs

In the wake of revelations about $16 muffins at Justice Department law enforcement conferences, Vice President Joseph R. Biden on Wednesday said all federal agency heads have been directed to "conduct a thorough review of how they are spending taxpayer dollars" on such meetings.

Mr. Biden said Office of Management and Budget Director Jacob J. Lew, at the direction of President Obama, ordered the review, adding that in the meantime all conference-related activities and expenses must be approved by the deputy secretary or an equivalent chief operating officer of each agency.

He said the plan will ensure that "those at the very top will have to account for these expenses."

Mr. Biden described as "very troubling" a report by the Justice Department's Office of Inspector that the department and several of its agencies had engaged in "extravagant and wasteful" spending on food, beverages and event planning for hundreds of law enforcement conferences including paying $16 each for muffins.

Once the OMB-ordered review is completed, Mr. Biden said he will reconvene all agency heads at the next Campaign to Cut Waste Cabinet meeting in December, and ask each and every one of them what they are doing to get on top of conference-related expenses and cut waste in this area and in other parts of their operations.

WHITE HOUSE

Veto threat lobbed over pollution bills

The White House threatened on Wednesday to veto the latest attempt by House Republicans to thwart pollution regulations, saying the GOP-backed bill would delay and undermine critical health protections.

The Republican-controlled House is set to debate and vote on the legislation later this week. The bill sponsored by Rep. John Sullivan, Oklahoma Republican, requires the president to set up a Cabinet-level committee to examine the cumulative toll of Environmental Protection Agency rules on electricity and gas prices, electric reliability and jobs. Republicans also plan to tack on a measure to slow for years regulations intended to curb mercury and other toxic pollution from power plants and to reduce smokestack emissions that blow downwind into other states.

Republicans say the analysis is needed to prevent regulations from doing unnecessary harm to the economy. But Democrats have argued that the bill fails to account for the benefits of environmental regulations, such as the savings from avoided doctor and emergency room visits.

The White House — which earlier this month delayed issuing stricter smog standards, citing economic reasons — said such reports were redundant and costly.

From wire dispatches and staff reports