Senators Prompt HHS Probe

Congressional auditors are set to investigate Senate complaints that well-respected senior managers have been pushed out of their jobs in the inspector general's office at the Department of Health and Human Services.

Three senators -- Max Baucus (D-Mont.), John B. Breaux (D-La.) and Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) -- asked the General Accounting Office yesterday for a complete management review, including productivity and morale, under HHS Inspector General Janet Rehnquist.

Investigators for the Senate Finance Committee are also looking at allegations of questionable travel, promotions and spending, although these have not been corroborated, they said.

Rehnquist was appointed by President Bush in August 2001, though the position is considered nonpartisan. She is the daughter of William H. Rehnquist, chief justice of the United States.

In a letter to the GAO, Rehnquist said she welcomed the review. "I am confident that your findings will further illustrate our many successes," she wrote.

The inspector general is charged with ensuring that HHS programs, including Medicare, Medicaid and welfare, do not waste money or flout rules. The office conducts independent investigations, audits and evaluations.

Grassley said he has heard "numerous allegations" from whistle-blowers in the inspector general's office. Insiders have complained about 19 senior-level staff changes since Rehnquist took over, including the departure of all six deputy inspectors general. All were due to involuntary retirement and reassignments, Grassley said, adding that five of the six former deputies had 30 years or more of experience.

HHS spokesman Bill Pierce said Rehnquist is doing a "great job when it comes to fraud investigations." He added that no one should assume the allegations are true, including reports about turnover in the office.

Bush to Sign Defense Bill

President Bush will sign a $355 billion military spending bill today , giving the Pentagon a nearly $40 billion boost as it prepares for possible war with Iraq, the White House said.

Bush sought the military buildup for the war against terrorism, and officials said he would sign the largest-ever defense budget bill at a Rose Garden ceremony.

Despite its $37.5 billion increase for the Pentagon -- the biggest since the Cold War -- the fiscal 2003 spending bill agreed by congressional negotiators is $1.6 billion less than Bush had wanted.

Bush also sought a $10 billion contingency fund for unforeseen war costs, but lawmakers denied that in this bill. They said that could be included in a supplemental measure that Congress would have to approve to fund a war to disarm and possibly oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Analysts say such a war could cost more than $100 billion.

Bush will also sign a $10.5 billion military construction bill at the ceremony.

-- Compiled from reports by the Associated Press and Reuters