Thursday, June 18, 2009

'Cash-for-Clunkers' Bill Passes

'Cash-for-Clunkers' Bill Passes in Bid To Revive Car Sales
Trade-In Plan Set for Obama's Signature

The Senate approved a $1 billion program yesterday to give vouchers to consumers who trade in their gas-guzzling clunkers for more fuel-efficient models -- a move that dealers hope will revive slumping auto sales.

Congressional leaders attached the legislation to a $106 billion spending bill to fund troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. The spending bill passed by a 91 to 5 vote but not before some Republican lawmakers unsuccessfully sought to strip the measure from the bill.

"Let's not add a billion dollars of unnecessary debt," said Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) during the Senate floor debate.

Dealers, unions, trade groups and automakers have been lobbying for months for the legislation in hopes that it would stop the streak of dismal U.S. auto sales.

"The simple fact is that we need to get Americans into car showrooms, and this is the bill that will do it," Rep. Candice S. Miller (R-Mich.), a co-sponsor of the legislation, said in a statement.

The auto sales program, which offers vouchers of up to $4,5000, now moves to the White House for the president's signature. President Obama has repeatedly encouraged Congress to pass a so-called cash-for-clunkers bill.

Consumers would be able to start using the vouchers as soon as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration finalizes the rules -- a process that must conclude within 30 days of the president's approval.

Under the program, trade-in vehicles, 1984 models or newer, must have average fuel economy of no more than 18 miles per gallon. And the new car or truck must get better gas mileage than the one that was scrapped.

The payoff grows depending on the difference in the fuel efficiencies of the old and new cars. For instance, a new car getting at least 4 more miles per gallon than the old car will be eligible for a $3,500 voucher. A new car getting at least 10 more miles per gallon would get a $4,500 voucher.

To guarantee vehicles are actually roadworthy -- and not just sitting on cinder blocks -- trade-ins must be registered and insured to the same owner for at least a year.

Speaking on the Senate floor, Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) said the program "will provide a much-needed boost to the automobile industry."

The legislation's funding would last through the end of the fiscal year, Nov. 1. But some lawmakers are already pushing to expand the program.

Several other countries, such as China and Italy, have offered similar trade-in vouchers. And lawmakers point to the success of Germany's program as indication that vouchers can turn dismal auto sales around.

At the end of the program's first month, sales in Germany were up 21 percent from a year before. During the same period, U.S. sales slumped 41 percent.

Dealers applauded the Senate's action yesterday, and some got additional good news. GM said it had decided to keep 60 of the more than 1,000 dealers with whom it had sought to terminate agreements. The reversals were made after the automaker corrected financial information that was used to evaluate which stores to keep.

The company, which is operating under bankruptcy protection, declined to name the individual dealers.

Judge to review Cheney interview in CIA leak case

NEDRA PICKLER Associated Press

A federal judge said Thursday that he wants to look at notes from the FBI's interview with former Vice President Dick Cheney during the investigation into who leaked the identity of a CIA operative.

U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan's decision to review the documents followed arguments by Obama administration lawyers that sounded much like the reasons the Bush administration provided for keeping Cheney's interview from the public.

Justice Department lawyers told the judge that future presidents and vice presidents may not cooperate with criminal investigations if they know what they say could become available to their political opponents and late-night comics who would ridicule them.

"If we become a fact-finder for political enemies, they aren't going to cooperate," Justice Department attorney Jeffrey Smith said during a 90-minute hearing. "I don't want a future vice president to say, `I'm not going to cooperate with you because I don't want to be fodder for 'The Daily Show.'"

Sullivan said the Justice Department must give him more precise reasons for keeping the information confidential than they had in previous court filings.

Cheney agreed to talk to FBI agents in June 2004 as they were investigating the leak of former CIA operative Valerie Plame's identity to reporters the year before. Her name was revealed after her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, criticized the Bush administration's prewar intelligence on Iraq.

The leak touched off a lengthy inquiry that led to Cheney's former top aide, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, being convicted on charges of obstruction of justice and lying to investigators. During his trial, jurors found that Libby lied to the FBI and a grand jury about his conversations with reporters. Bush commuted Libby's sentence, and he never served prison time.

Libby was the only person charged in the case. No one was charged with leaking Wilson's name.

In July 2008, the liberal watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the Justice Department seeking records related to Cheney's interview in the investigation. The Justice Department declined to turn over the records, and CREW filed a lawsuit in August.

The Justice Department reported in court filings that it found three documents totaling 67 pages that related to the watchdog group's FOIA request, but said the documents were exempt since they were part of a law enforcement matter and their release could interfere with future cases. They also said the interview contained classified material and that presidential communications were shielded to allow candor with the president and his advisers.

CREW argued that the public has a right to know the role that Cheney played in the leak and why he was not prosecuted.

Libby told the FBI in 2003 that it was possible that Cheney ordered him to reveal Plame's identity to reporters. The prosecutor in that case, Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald, said in his closing remarks at Libby's trial that there was a "cloud" over Cheney's role in the case.

Fitzgerald told members of Congress who also sought the information that Cheney set no conditions about the use of his interview with investigators.

A Cheney spokeswoman declined to comment on the case.

Report on Bush Policy May Come In 'Weeks' FINALLY!

Probe Is Focused On Interrogation Program's Approval

By Carrie Johnson Washington Post

A Justice Department report focusing on possible ethics violations by Bush administration lawyers who approved waterboarding of terrorism suspects is still "a matter of weeks" from release, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. told lawmakers yesterday.

At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Holder said that officials in the department's Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR), which investigates allegations of attorney misconduct, are reworking the 200-page draft report and incorporating comments from lawyers who have been the focus of the investigation.

The conclusions of the five-year-long probe are hotly anticipated because they could shed new light on the interplay between the Bush White House, the Justice Department and the CIA in formulating an interrogation policy that critics assert included torture.

Key Senate Democrats and left-leaning interest groups yesterday exhorted Holder to pick up the pace. Sens. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) pointed out that the former government lawyers whose conduct is at issue had submitted their arguments six weeks ago.

"The American people have a right to know how the U.S. Justice Department came to issue legal opinions approving acts of cruelty that shocked the world, damaged U.S. moral authority and harmed efforts to combat terrorism effectively," Human Rights First and more than a half-dozen other activist groups wrote. "We urge you to release the OPR report now and send a clear message that transparency in government and adherence to the law are core American values as well as key assets to U.S. national security."

But the attorney general, apparently trying to lower expectations, cautioned lawmakers that the acting chief of the OPR, Mary Patrice Brown, was carefully examining the materials and that they eventually would require extensive declassification, adding even more time to the release date.

"One of the things that I think we want to do is to declassify as much of this report as we can so that when people read it, either in this body or the general public, they'll have a full feeling for what it is our lawyers in the Office of Professional Responsibility dealt with and what is the basis for the conclusions that they reach," Holder said.

Obama administration officials generally have advocated looking forward to new initiatives, rather than spending attention and scarce resources finding fault with their predecessors. The White House agenda already is packed with reforms to health care and foreign policy and other initiatives, so delaying a conversation about alleged torture that could inflame Republicans and polarize voters may be a desirable political move, analysts said.

A draft version of the report earlier this year recommended disciplinary referrals to state bar associations for two of the former department lawyers, John C. Yoo and Jay S. Bybee, but their supporters say the men acted in good faith based on their view of the anti-torture statutes. The conduct of another lawyer, Steven G. Bradbury, is also under review.

Independent experts disagree about the likelihood that the bar associations will bring cases against the men, and the statute of limitations in Pennsylvania, where Yoo is licensed, has expired.

Criminal charges against the lawyers are unlikely, legal experts say, so the ethics report is one of few avenues to legal reckoning for officials who blessed or developed the Bush interrogation policies. Last week a federal judge in California allowed a former detainee to go ahead with a lawsuit alleging that Yoo violated his constitutional rights.