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Washington Digest

Friday, April 3, 2009

HHS

Sebelius Appears Unhurt by Tax Error

An $8,000 tax error does not appear to be jeopardizing the confirmation of Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D) as secretary of health and human services.

In a Senate Finance Committee hearing Thursday, no mention was made of Sebelius's payment of back taxes, even though a similar problem scuttled the nomination of President Obama's first choice for the job, former senator Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.).

Late Tuesday, Sebelius acknowledged that she and her husband mistakenly claimed a mortgage deduction and did not have proper paperwork for a few charitable contributions. The couple paid the back taxes and interest after an auditor spotted the errors.

In a statement, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) warned that he takes "tax matters very seriously," but he did not press Sebelius.

The potentially contentious subject of abortion also did not arise, despite complaints from the religious right that Sebelius has an "egregious record" on the issue.

Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) was hoping for a vote by the Senate before lawmakers leave this weekend for a two-week recess, but some Republicans suggested they may demand more time.

The hearing offered a glimpse into the upcoming debate over health-care reform. Baucus urged Sebelius to endorse his proposal to require that every American have health insurance. Sebelius sidestepped the controversial idea, known as an individual mandate, but agreed that every American should be covered.

Lawmakers on the panel debated whether the restructuring of the U.S. health-care system ought to include a new government-sponsored insurance plan for people who have difficulty buying private coverage. Several Republicans expressed reservations with the idea, particularly if it allows the government to set payment rates.

Sebelius said 30 states take that approach with insurance offerings for government employees.

-- Ceci Connolly

INTERIOR

Salazar Predicts Offshore Projects

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said the United States could dramatically expand its offshore renewable-energy projects, citing a new analysis from the Minerals Management Service and the U.S. Geological Survey.

"More than three-fourths of the nation's electricity demand comes from coastal states, and the wind potential off the coasts of the lower 48 states actually exceeds our entire U.S. electricity demand," Salazar said at a meeting in Arlington sponsored by 25x'25, a renewable-energy advocacy group.

The report -- which noted that the government still faces gaps in information about the extent of offshore fossil fuel and renewable energy potential, along with these activities' environmental impacts -- estimated that wind projects could provide at least 20 percent of coastal states' electricity needs.

But Richard Charter, a consultant for Defenders of Wildlife, said the study failed to factor in the "immense dollar values represented by commercial and sport fisheries, ocean ecosystems, national parklands, tourism uses, and the habitats for marine wildlife that rely completely on clean, ecologically productive coastal waters."

-- Juliet Eilperin

VETERANS AFFAIRS

Some Veterans to Get $250 From Stimulus

The Department of Veterans Affairs says it will issue a one-time payment of $250 to qualifying veterans as part of its stimulus spending.

VA announced it will spend more than $1.4 billion in stimulus money as part of President Obama's economic recovery plan. Funding will also go to hire and train 1,500 temporary claims processors to help reduce a six-month backlog in disability claims.

The $250 payments will be issued as early as June 2009. To be eligible, a veteran must have received a qualifying compensation between November of last year and January.

-- Associated Press

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