- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 2, 2009

LEGISLATION

House to vote on estate tax

Next year had been shaping up as a great year to get a big inheritance — no federal taxes on it. Congress, however, has other plans for the few wealthy heirs expecting a big boon. Uncle Sam may take a 45 percent cut after all.

Under current law, the federal estate tax is scheduled to temporarily disappear next year before returning in 2011 at an even higher rate. But the House is expected to vote as early as Thursday on a bill that would permanently extend the current top rate of 45 percent on estates larger than $3.5 million.

Estates smaller than $3.5 million would continue to be exempt from the tax, and married couples, with a little estate planning, could exempt a total of $7 million from the tax. That leaves less than 1 percent of all estates subject to the tax this year.

The Senate is considering similar legislation, though senators are busy trying to overhaul health care, meaning they will probably have to scramble to address the estate tax by the end of the year.

GUANTANAMO

France, Hungary take detainees

The Justice Department says it has sent a Guantanamo detainee to France, and one to Hungary.

The transfers immediately followed the handover of two other detainees to Italy to face trial on terrorism charges.

The United States sent Saber Lahmar to France. In 2008, a U.S. judge had ordered him released from Guantanamo, after originally being held on suspicion of plotting to attack the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo.

The other man, a Palestinian, was sent to Hungary, but U.S. officials would not identify him.

The four transfers to European nations leave 211 detainees still at the detention center. Since 2002, at least 500 detainees have been released.

DEFENSE

Northrop pulls out of tanker bidding

Northrop Grumman Corp. said Tuesday it won’t bid on a major contract to make a new Air Force tanker plane unless the Defense Department changes the rules.

Northrop has been sparring for years with Boeing Co. over a contract worth at least $35 billion to build the new Air Force tankers.

The Pentagon had circulated a draft of its request for proposals. Northrop said it asked for revisions on Nov. 4. But the Pentagon said the revisions would not be included, according to a letter sent Tuesday from Wes Bush, Northrop’s president and chief operating officer, to Ashton B. Carter, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics.

Without those changes, Northrop Grumman “cannot submit a bid” for the tanker program, Mr. Bush wrote.

The Pentagon’s preliminary request includes what Los Angeles-based Northrop called a “clear preference” for a smaller plane with limited flexibility. Critics have said the request appeared tailored for Boeing, which is based in Chicago.

The initial Pentagon request “places contractual and financial burdens on the company that we simply cannot accept,” Mr. Bush wrote.

In a written statement, the Defense Department said it regretted “that Northrop-Grumman and Airbus have taken themselves out of the tanker competition and hope they will return” when the request for proposal is issued, which it expects in January. Northrop’s partner, Airbus, is owned by Paris-based European Aeronautic Defence & Co.

EPA

More tests set for ethanol boost

The Environmental Protection Agency wants more tests to determine whether car engines can handle higher concentrations of ethanol in gasoline before deciding whether to increase the blend requirement from 10 to 15 percent.

The EPA said Tuesday that two tests indicate engine performance would not be harmed by the higher ethanol blend. But it wants more tests in order to be sure. In a letter to a pro-ethanol group, the EPA said it won’t make a decision until next year after all the testing is completed.

Growth Energy, which petitioned to increase the 10 percent blend standard, called the EPA letter “a strong signal” that it will increase the requirement. But a group representing oil refiners applauded the call for more studies.

SAFETY

U.S. fines firm in pipeline blast

The Transportation Department said Tuesday it has fined the El Paso Corp. and a Colorado subsidiary $2.3 million for safety violations in connection with a pipeline explosion in Wyoming three years ago that killed one worker and sent a giant fireball hundreds of feet into the air.

The fine is the largest it has levied against a pipeline company, the department said.

On Nov. 11, 2006, a bulldozer used on construction of the Rockies Express Pipeline project ruptured a buried 36-inch natural gas pipeline owned by an El Paso subsidiary. The rupture caused an explosion and fire that scorched 600 acres. The bulldozer operator - Bobby Ray Owens Jr., 52, of Louisiana - was killed.

The accident occurred southwest of Cheyenne about two miles north of the Colorado border in a rural area with no structures nearby.

An investigation by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration found the pipeline hadn’t been located and marked according to federal safety regulations, the department said.

AFGHANISTAN

Sen. Nelson floats war-bonds idea

Sen. Ben Nelson, Nebraska Democrat, said Tuesday that war bonds would be one way to finance a new “surge” in Afghanistan.

“There isn’t any miraculous way to pay for it, but some have suggested - and I think it’s worth considering - whether or not you have war bonds,” Mr. Nelson said.

“I don’t know whether you can raise enough money, I don’t know what capital is out there to be able to do that, but I start off thinking that we’d be better off to borrow from ourselves than to borrow from China,” he added.

War bonds, which Washington last turned to in World War II, could be a way for the United States to borrow from its own citizens instead of from giant overseas creditors like rising-power China.

“I think that’s a great idea. It’s an interesting idea. Everybody has got to contribute a little bit to this effort because it’s important to all of us,” said independent Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut.

From wire dispatches and staff reports

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