- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 29, 2009

HIGHWAY FUNDING

House to replenish trust fund

The House, doing some billion-dollar housekeeping before it leaves for the August recess, is taking up legislation to keep recession-hit federal programs that support highway projects, state unemployment insurance and mortgage loans from running dry.

“It’s just that they’re all running out of money, and we have to do something before we leave in August, so we’ll do that,” House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, said Tuesday.

The package, scheduled to be addressed Wednesday, would add $5 billion to the federal highway trust fund, the pot of money that provides states about $40 billion each year for roads, bridges and other infrastructure projects. The money would come from the general treasury fund and would keep the trust fund solvent through September.

The trust fund, made up of money coming from federal taxes that drivers pay at the gas pump, is projected to run dry next month. It has been depleted in recent years because Americans are driving less in the poor economy and switching to more fuel-efficient vehicles as gas prices rise. Also, lawmakers leery of tax increases have not raised the fuel tax - 18.4 cents a gallon, 24.3 cents a gallon for diesel - since 1993, despite inflation and soaring construction costs.

AIR SAFETY

NTSB: Bolster jets against birds

The risk of commercial airplanes crashing because they’ve struck large birds is increasing and design standards should be strengthened so that aircraft can withstand the collisions, federal safety officials said Tuesday.

The National Transportation Safety Board voted to recommend the Federal Aviation Administration revise its standards, which require airframes be able to withstand a collision with a 4-pound bird and that airplane tails be able to withstand an 8-pound bird. The recommendation didn’t include engines.

The airframe standards were established in the 1970s, but thanks to environment protections, populations of most large bird species in North American have been increasing. Many of the species of greatest concern have average weights double or triple the current standards.

Air traffic also has increased dramatically, with annual takeoffs and landings in the United States forecast to surpass 1 billion a year by 2020. That means more planes and more large birds sharing the skies.

SENATE

Specter dabs eyes, quashes rumors

Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania ignited a new round of speculation about his health when he remarked that his eyes and nose were running as a side effect of chemotherapy. A spokeswoman quickly said Mr. Specter has not suffered a recurrence of cancer or undergone the treatment in more than a year.

The 79-year-old senator, who switched earlier this year from Republican to Democrat and is up for what’s expected to be a tough re-election fight, made the comment Tuesday during the Judiciary Committee’s deliberations on Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court.

“If you see me dab at my eyes, I’m not sad,” Mr. Specter said. “It’s chemotherapy, and I’ve made the Kleenex industry wealthy. But I’m glad to say that I’m fit as a fiddle, ready for re-election, I’m not infirm in any way, just a little consequence of chemotherapy. But I make that comment because people wonder about it.”

Mr. Specter has twice survived cancer since his first diagnosis of Hodgkin’s disease in 2005. He suffered a recurrence in April 2008 and underwent 12 chemotherapy treatments that ended in mid-July that year.

HEALTH CARE

Obama, wife have ‘living wills’

President Obama says he and first lady Michelle Obama each have “living wills,” but he hopes it will be a long time before either one has to put them to use.

Living wills allow very sick or terminally ill people to specify how they want to be cared for before they become incapacitated.

Mr. Obama commented Tuesday at an online forum on health care sponsored by the AARP. He was answering a question from a North Carolina woman who said she had heard that everyone eligible for Medicare would be visited and told to decide how they want to die.

Mr. Obama said he thought a provision in one of the bills pending in Congress was intended to encourage people to prepare living wills and make it easier for them to do so.

GAO

Postal Service at risk, report says

The Government Accountability Office on Tuesday added the Postal Service to its list of high-risk federal agencies in need of change.

The post office has been struggling with a sharp decline in mail volume as people and businesses switch to e-mail for personal contact and to online bill-paying. The agency is facing a potential nearly $7 billion loss this fiscal year despite a 2-cent increase in the price of stamps in May, and cuts in staff.

“There are serious and significant structural financial challenges currently facing the Postal Service,” the GAO said.

“New technology is profoundly affecting services in both the private and public sectors, including traditional mail delivery. Compounded by the current recession, the volume of mail being sent is dropping substantially,” Gene L. Dodaro, acting comptroller general, said in a statement.

The report called on the Postal Service to work with Congress and other organizations to develop and implement a restructuring plan.

MEDICINE

U.S. halts study of sickle-cell drug

The government has stopped a study of a potential treatment for certain sickle-cell disease sufferers a year early because of a big increase in serious side effects.

At issue is whether the same ingredient that powers the impotence pill Viagra could treat a leading killer of sickle-cell patients, a kind of lung damage called pulmonary hypertension.

A particular dose of sildenafil, sold under the brand name Revatio, is approved to treat general pulmonary hypertension, but not in sickle-cell patients, because doctors didn’t know how it would react in them. The National Institutes of Health was sponsoring a study at nine U.S. hospitals and one in London to try to answer that question.

An early safety review found more than a third of sildenafil users had serious side effects, compared with 8 percent of patients given a dummy pill, the NIH announced Tuesday.

Most of the side effects were episodes of severe pain called sickle-cell crises, bad enough for hospitalization. NIH said no deaths were associated with the drug.

JOB SAFETY

Epidemiologist tapped for OSHA

The White House says President Obama plans to nominate an epidemiologist to head the government’s workplace-safety agency.

The White House on Tuesday said David Michaels is Mr. Obama’s choice to lead the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, commonly known as OSHA. The position also makes him an assistant secretary in the Labor Department.

Mr. Michaels is a professor at the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services. He previously worked in the Clinton administration, focusing on the health of workers and neighbors of nuclear-weapons facilities.

The OSHA position requires Senate confirmation.

From wire dispatches and staff reports

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