Our old pal Vladimir Putin, due for a visit here Friday with his buddy President Bush, chatted amiably with a dozen American journalists he'd invited down to his dacha on Saturday. Everything was going well until someone mentioned Chechnya.

Putin bristled, as he often does when someone challenges him on Chechnya. (Think of Larry and Moe when Curly says "Niagara Falls," and you get the picture.) One of the reporters quoted from a speech to the Helsinki Commission last week by Steven Pifer, deputy assistant secretary of state for Europe, who condemned "deplorable violations of human rights" by Russian forces and the terrorists, and said the problem threatens U.S.-Russian relations.

Russia's "conduct of counter-terrorist operations in Chechnya fuels sympathy for the extremists' cause and undermines Russia's international credibility," Pifer said.

"I wouldn't like to comment on mid-level State Department officials," Putin sniffed, according to our man in Moscow, Peter Baker. "I'll let Colin [Powell] deal with him," said Putin, a former KGB thug and now champion of democracy. "He's a pro and a very decent man. . . . But we have a proverb in Russia -- in every family there will be somebody who is ugly or retarded." (Pifer declined to comment yesterday.) Then Putin started warming up to the subject (remember Larry and Moe, "Slowly I turned, step by step"), started complaining about "double standards," and then went off on a rant about U.S. human rights abuses in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, Baker reported, and complained that U.S. officials had met with Chechen representatives, which he equated to meeting with al Qaeda figures.

And this guy's an ally?

Place Your Bets

Thomas A. Scully, head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and Loop favorite for his charming late-night e-mails berating staff and contractors, is expected to announce he is jumping to the private sector maybe within a month, according to an article yesterday in the Hill.

The newspaper named Atlanta's Alston & Bird law firm, which recently signed former Senate majority leader Robert J. Dole for its local office, as Scully's most likely new home, though it listed several other firms he has talked to.

No, no, no, Scully told our colleague Amy Goldstein yesterday. "I'm not going to go anyplace," he said. "I'm a hell of a long way from going anyplace. I've been talking to law firms off and on for two years, but I'm not making any decisions . . . . I am firmly committed to getting this Medicare bill done, which is my Number 1 through 10 priority."

As of yesterday, five would get you 10 he's outta there by Christmas. Even odds on Alston & Bird.

Time to Move On

Speaking of top officials leaving the Department of Health and Human Services . . . Jerome M. Hauer, the agency's top bioterrorism expert, is leaving to work with an emergency response team at George Washington University called the Response to Emergencies and Disasters Institute. Hauer came from New York City, where he was a top terrorism expert to Rudolph W. Giuliani. He starts the new gig on Nov. 1.

Scuttlebutt at HHS is that Hauer, acting assistant secretary for public health and emergency preparedness, may have figured that, with HHS Secretary Tommy G. Thompson most likely leaving at the end of the first term, his time was running short.

Adding Insult to Injury

Congress looks to be moving this week to change a practice that has annoyed and angered folks in the military for more than 20 years. Seems that most military personnel receive $8.10 a day as a food allowance -- not exactly an extravagance.

But under current rules, injured troops who are hospitalized -- and able to receive free gourmet hospital food -- must reimburse the government for that $8.10 allowance. This didn't seem right to Staff Sgt. William L. Murwin, who was injured in Iraq after an Iraqi kid dropped a grenade into his Humvee.

The explosion sent Murwin to the hospital for 26 days and left him a partial amputee. After the Marine reservist got back home to Nevada in July and to his job as a sheriff's deputy, he was hit with a bill for $210.60 for his hospital food.

This didn't seem right to Rep. C.W. Bill Young (R-Fla.) either. Many service members "will be handicapped for the rest of their lives," he told the St. Petersburg Times, "and we're asking them to pay $8.10 for their food!"

So Young and his wife, Beverly, who has been active in helping injured military personnel, paid Murwin's bill, and Young introduced a measure a few weeks ago to change the law so service members injured in combat or training won't be charged for food.

He has inserted language in the fiscal 2004 defense appropriations measure, expected to be approved today by the House, which would soon stop the bills from going out for one year. Young has 193 co-sponsors on legislation to change the law.

Steven Pifer, deputy assistant secretary of state for Europe, condemned Russian rights violations.