Congress Drops Bids

To Pass Highway Bill

Congress abandoned attempts to pass a new six-year highway and transit bill yesterday, and voted instead to extend the current transportation program until next May 31.

Lawmakers could still act on the long-term bill when they return for a post-election session Nov. 15, but that is considered unlikely. The stopgap legislation authorizes $24.5 billion in federal grants to states for highway building over the next eight months, a slight increase over the spending rate in 2004.

But the extension bill was stripped of $11 billion worth of "high-priority" highway projects for congressional districts contained in a House version of the long-term measure passed earlier this year. A bipartisan House majority had supported $284 billion worth of highway and transit spending in the long-term bill.

Rep. James L. Oberstar (Minn.), ranking Democrat on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, blamed the breakdown of negotiations on the White House and the Senate.

VA Nurses May Get

Flexible Schedules

Nurses at veterans hospitals could opt for more flexible schedules under a bill the House passed to address a shortage of nurses.

The bill proposes three alternative schedules designed to attract and retain more nurses at Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals:

* Nurses who work three regularly scheduled 12-hour shifts in one week, for a total of 36 hours, would be paid as though they had completed a 40-hour week.

* Nurses working seven regularly scheduled 10-hour shifts in a two-week period would be paid for 80 hours.

* Nurses working full time for nine months could choose to get paid over 12 months.

"Offering more family-friendly schedules is critical to keeping experienced nurses employed in the VA," said Rep. Robert Simmons (R-Conn.), chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee's health subcommittee.

The bill passed 411 to 1. Rep. Nick Smith (R-Mich.) was the lone member to vote against it. Identical provisions are being considered by the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and could be attached to another bill by the end of the year.

EPA Disputes

Its Watchdog's Report

The Bush administration's push to ease a clean-air rule hampered the settlement of pollution lawsuits against utilities, according to a report by a federal agency's watchdog office Thursday.

The Environmental Protection Agency said the findings by its inspector general were inaccurate, misleading and based on a misunderstanding of the agency's enforcement activities.

The internal report also said enforcement officials at the EPA strongly argued that the rule changes would set such lenient requirements so as to jeopardize the prosecution of many cases.

The changes in the clean-air rule -- known as new source review -- were issued in October 2003. They are on hold pending the resolution of a federal suit challenging the changes.

The rule requires utilities to install new pollution-control equipment whenever they make major changes at a plant or conduct maintenance that results in increased emissions.

Companies had made the case to the government that the rules were interpreted so narrowly that they hindered expansion and routine maintenance.

China Accuses U.S.

Of Endangering Peace

After a meeting with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, China's top diplomat accused the United States yesterday of endangering peace in the Taiwan Straits by selling weapons to Taiwan.

With Powell standing at his side, Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing said his government believes the U.S. sales interfere with China's "peaceful efforts toward the resolution of the Taiwan question."

-- Compiled from reports

by staff writer Dan Morgan

and news services