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Originally published Friday, September 23, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Capital Watch

House bill allows Head Start to consider religion in hiring

The House voted yesterday to let Head Start centers consider religion when hiring workers, overshadowing its moves to strengthen the preschool...

WASHINGTON — The House voted yesterday to let Head Start centers consider religion when hiring workers, overshadowing its moves to strengthen the preschool program's academics and finances.

The Republican-led House approved a bill that lets churches and other faith-based preschool centers hire only people who share their religion, yet still receive federal tax dollars. Democrats blasted that idea as discriminatory.

Head Start provides comprehensive education to more than 900,000 poor children.

Overall, the House bill would insert more competition into Head Start grants, require greater disclosure of how money is spent and try to improve collaboration among educators in different grades. A similar measure is pending in the Senate.

The House passed the bill 231-184; only 23 Democrats voted for it. In the Washington state delegation, all Democrats voted no on the legislation; Republicans Cathy McMorris and Dave Reichert voted yes; Doc Hastings did not vote.

Panel OKs rewrite of species protections

A House committee yesterday approved a sweeping rewrite of the Endangered Species Act that would hand major new rights to property owners while limiting the federal government's ability to protect plant and animal habitats.

The bill by House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo, R-Calif., would bar the government from establishing "critical habitat" for species where development is limited and set deadlines for property owners to get answers from the government about whether their development plans would hurt protected species.

If the government doesn't answer in time, the development could go forward. If the government blocks a development, the property owner would be compensated.

Pombo's committee approved the bill on a 26-12 vote; it now goes to the full House.

3.1 million apply for Medicare subsidy

About 3.1 million people have applied for the extra assistance the government will give poor people when Medicare's prescription-drug benefit kicks in Jan. 1, the agency said yesterday.

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Officials estimate the subsidy will average about $2,100 per low-income Medicare recipient; for some, it will cover all of their premiums and deductibles.

The additional help is for those whose incomes are at 150 percent of the poverty level or below, about $1,200 a month for an individual or $1,600 a month for a couple. The value of assets, such as savings accounts and investments, must be less than $11,500 for singles or $23,000 for couples.

About 15 million people are believed to be eligible for the extra help. About half will be automatically enrolled because of participation in other government programs.

Senate votes to boost spending for veterans

The Senate yesterday approved a big boost in the budget for veterans' medical care.

The measure, approved 98-0, would increase spending by 21 percent, or about $4 billion, to $23.3 billion, for the budget year that begins Oct. 1. More veterans are seeking care, and the cost per patient is on the rise.

About $2 billion of the increase was in response to a midyear request by the Bush administration. It was added to the budget as emergency funds not subject to the $843 billion budget set for the annual appropriations bills.

The Veterans Affairs Department acknowledged in April that it had underestimated medical-care costs. Congress reacted by approving an additional $1.5 billion in emergency funds for the current budget year.

Data-mining proposal is dropped

U.S. homeland-security planners are dropping a controversial proposal to use commercial databases to help identify airline passengers who may pose a security threat, government officials said yesterday.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) said its long-delayed upgrade of a computerized passenger-screening program will move forward later this year without the data-mining component, which has been criticized by privacy watchdogs, congressional investigators and others.

The government's Secure Flight program will instead rely on information that passengers give airlines when they buy a ticket, including full name and date of birth. TSA hopes to screen 1.8 million passengers a day with Secure Flight.

Compiled from The Associated Press and Reuters

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