- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 18, 2009

LEGISLATION

Congress struggles with war funding

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Wednesday that this is the last time Congress will go through the ordeal of passing an off-the-books, expensive bill to fund two wars. It may also be one of the more difficult.

The House, with almost no Republican support, on Tuesday barely approved a $106 billion emergency spending measure that includes $80 billion to sustain military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan through this budget year ending Sept. 30.

Republicans supported the war funds but objected to other parts of the bill, particularly $5 billion to open up a U.S. line of credit for an International Monetary Fund loan program for poorer countries hit by the world recession.

The war-spending bill sailed through the Senate on a 86-3 vote last month, but passage of the House-Senate compromise worked out last week could be more of a challenge.

Sen. Judd Gregg, New Hampshire Republican, is expected to raise a point of order against a provision that would provide $1 billion for a “cash for clunkers” program, which would give consumers government rebates when they trade in old vehicles for more fuel-efficient models. It takes 60 votes in the Senate to waive a point of order.

TRIAL

Businessman says fees were bribes

ALEXANDRIA | A Kentucky businessman testified Wednesday that he paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in “consulting fees” to the wife of a former Louisiana congressman that were nothing but thinly veiled bribes.

Vernon Jackson, who ran a Louisville telecommunications firm called iGate Inc., was the first witness to testify in the bribery trial of William J. Jefferson, a Democrat who represented parts of New Orleans until losing his re-election bid last year.

Jackson is also one of the trial’s most important witnesses. Out of numerous bribery schemes that prosecutors say Mr. Jefferson orchestrated, the one involving Jackson was the most advanced and involved the largest payments.

Mr. Jefferson has pleaded not guilty to soliciting bribes, racketeering, money laundering and other crimes. In opening statements, defense attorney Robert Trout told the jury that some of Mr. Jefferson’s deals might be considered unethical, but are not illegal under federal bribery laws.

Jackson pleaded guilty in 2006 to paying more than $400,000 in bribes to Mr. Jefferson and was sentenced to more than seven years in prison. He stands to receive a reduction in his sentence in exchange for his testimony against Mr. Jefferson.

SENATE

Feinstein defends security agency

The National Security Agency has not committed flagrant violations of the rules governing surveillance of American e-mails and phone calls, the chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence said Wednesday.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, was responding to a story in the New York Times that said the agency had conducted more widespread intercepts of private U.S. conversations in 2008 and early this year than has previously been acknowledged.

“Everything that I know so far indicates that the thrust of the story - that there are flagrant actions essentially to collect content of [American e-mails] - is just simply not true, to the best of my knowledge,” Mrs. Feinstein said at a Senate hearing Wednesday.

Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, also questioned the story’s accuracy.

The newspaper article quoted Rep. Rush D. Holt, New Jersey Democrat, who chairs the House Select Intelligence Oversight Panel, as being very concerned about the extent that conversations were collected.

NASA

Launch to moon set for Thursday

NASA plans to launch an unmanned rocket to the moon Thursday, the first such mission in a decade.

The space agency announced plans for the launch Wednesday after deciding to postpone a space shuttle mission because of a hydrogen gas leak. The timing for the moon mission couldn’t be set until NASA knew whether the shuttle plans would go forward.

The robotic moon probes will hunt for hidden ice. The mission will cost $583 million. NASA has three split-second times to try to launch the Atlas V rocket carrying the two lunar probes at 5:12 p.m., 5:22 p.m. and 5:32 p.m.

NASA spokeswoman Ashley Edwards said the weather forecast is good for launch.

From wire dispatches and staff reports

CONGRESS

Cell phone tax repeal sought

Company-issued cell phones might feel like a tether to the office even in workers’ off-hours. The phones also are a taxable fringe benefit, and the Obama administration wants to change that.

The administration has asked Congress to repeal the widely ignored tax on the personal use of company cell phones, saying it is outdated and difficult to enforce. The request Tuesday came a week after the Internal Revenue Service caused an uproar when it sought ideas for how better to enforce the law.

A 1989 law says workers are supposed to count the value of personal calls on a company cell phone as taxable income. The cell phone tax, however, can be a pain for workers who increasingly use mobile devices for texting, e-mailing and browsing the Internet - sometimes for work, sometimes for personal use.

AGRICULTURE

Forest Service gets new leader

Montana forester Tom Tidwell is the new head of the U.S. Forest Service.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Wednesday that Mr. Tidwell succeeded Gail Kimbell, who had led the Forest Service since 2007. Mr. Tidwell began his new duties Wednesday.

Mr. Tidwell, 54, is a 32-year Forest Service employee who most recently supervised national forests through northern Idaho, Montana and the Dakotas. A native of Boise, Idaho, he began his career at the Boise National Forest and has since worked in eight national forests.

He has worked at all levels of the agency, from district ranger to forest supervisor and legislative affairs specialist in the Washington headquarters.

Michael Francis, acting vice president of the Wilderness Society, called Mr. Tidwell a good choice. He said Mr. Tidwell has been a strong supporter of protecting wild lands, including roadless areas in remote forests.

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