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WASHINGTON IN BRIEF

Saturday, September 15, 2007

FDA Chief Warns Staff About Possible Layoffs

The head of the Food and Drug Administration alerted the agency's employees at the end of the workday yesterday that 2,000 of them could get layoff notices as early as next Friday if Congress does not renew the user fees for drugs and medical devices.

In his agency-wide memo to the staff, FDA Commissioner Andrew C. von Eschenbach said he was confident that lawmakers would renew the user fees that help fund the agency's work. But he added that he also wanted them to know that a consequence of the fees' nonrenewal would be a reduction-in-force notice. The layoffs would take effect 60 days after the issuance of such a notice.

"All parties fully understand the importance of meeting the September 21st deadline [to renew the fees] because no one underestimates or fails to appreciate the disruption and demoralizing impact that even the threat of a RIF is having on you and your families," von Eschenbach wrote.

The commissioner said that FDA and congressional staff members were working around the clock to finalize the legislation.

Clash Looms Over Plan For Children's Health

House and Senate Democratic leaders are on the verge of a deal to expand the State Children's Health Insurance Program, setting up a major confrontation with President Bush, senior congressional aides said.

The insurance program, a federal-state partnership that covers about 6 million children, will expire Sept. 30 unless Congress and the president agree to extend it.

House and Senate Democratic leaders are nearing agreement to spend around about $35 billion more on the program over five years, aides said. The figure is significantly below that approved by the House but is close to the amount that cleared the Senate this summer by a veto-proof 68 to 31 vote.

The new funding would expand the program to serve more children whose parents' incomes put them well above the poverty line. The proposed expansion has drawn a veto threat from Bush, who wants the emphasis to remain on the poor.

Less Religious Freedom In Iraq, U.S. Reports

Religious freedom has sharply deteriorated in Iraq over the past year because of the insurgency and violence targeting people of specific faiths, despite the U.S. military buildup intended to improve security, a State Department report said.

The Annual Report on International Religious Freedom found that the violence is not confined to the well-known rivalry between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. "The ongoing insurgency significantly harmed the ability of all religious believers to practice their faith," said the report, released by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

John V. Hanford III, the department's ambassador at large for international religious freedom, told reporters: "What we're dealing with in Iraq is really a security situation that makes it difficult for religious practice to occur in a normal way."

The report, covering July 2006 through June, does not mention the August suicide bombings that killed 520 people -- mainly members of the Yazidi community, a Kurdish-speaking religious minority. The bombings were blamed on the group al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Ethics Law Toughens Rules for Lawmakers

President Bush signed legislation that requires lawmakers to disclose more about their efforts to fund pet projects and to raise money from lobbyists. Backers call the measure the biggest ethics reform in decades.

The new law requires lawmakers seeking targeted spending projects, or earmarks, to divulge their plans in advance. Lawmakers and political committees must identify lobbyists who raise, within a six-month period, $15,000 or more for them by bundling campaign donations from many people.

The law, drafted by congressional Democrats in response to lobbying scandals that sent two former lawmakers to prison, bars House and Senate members from taking gifts from lobbyists or their clients. Former senators and senior executive branch officials will have to wait two years before lobbying Congress; former House members will have to wait one year.

Senators and candidates for the White House or the Senate who use private planes will have to pay their full share of the cost. House members and candidates are barred from accepting trips on private airplanes.

Conferences Cost Justice Dept. Millions

It cannot rival the Pentagon's $600 toilet seat, but the Justice Department's $4 meatball is noteworthy, too.

An internal audit showed that the department spent nearly $7 million to plan, host and send employees to 10 conferences over the past two years. This included paying $4 per meatball at one lavish dinner and spreading around an average $25 worth of snacks to each participant at a movie-themed party.

More than $13,000 was spent on cookies and brownies for 1,542 people who attended a four-day "Weed and Seed" conference in August 2005, according to the audit by Inspector General Glenn A. Fine. And a "networking" session replete with butterfly shrimp, coconut lobster skewers and Swedish meatballs at a Community Oriented Policing Services conference in July 2006 cost more than $60,000.

The report, which looked at the 10 priciest Justice Department conferences between October 2004 and September 2006, was ordered by the Senate Appropriations Committee.

The Justice Department's management and administration office promised to prevent future extravagances of the sort that Fine's auditors turned up.

Six of the 10 conferences were approved by the department's Office of Justice Programs, whose head, Assistant Attorney General Regina Schofield, resigned this week.

It could not immediately be determined whether the report had anything to do with that.

-- From News Services

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