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Trade Deficit at 16-Month High in July

The trade deficit reached a 16-month high in July as oil prices hit a record, the government said Thursday.

A separate report said that prices of imports other than petroleum dipped slightly last month, an encouraging sign that inflation may have slowed in August. And the Labor Department reported that the number of Americans remaining on unemployment rolls last week stayed near a five-year high, another troubling sign for the labor market.

The United States imported $62.2 billion more in goods and services than it exported in July, a 5.7 percent increase from June, the Commerce Department reported.

Imports were up 3.9 percent to $230.3 billion for the month, largely because of the surging cost of foreign petroleum and oil-derived products. Americans bought more foreign-made industrial goods, capital goods and foods and beverages, but cut back on purchases of foreign automobiles and consumer goods.

July exports totaled $168.1 billion, a 3.3 percent increase from June. Demand rose for motor vehicles, consumer goods and industrial products.

Health Care Issue, Not Quite Hot, Remains Strong

When Rep. Tom Price spoke to the Roswell Kiwanians the other day, the first three questions concerned health care. When he appeared four days later before the Sandy Springs Rotarians, no one asked about it at all.

As energy and the economy consume more of the country’s political discourse, health care is an issue that can seem to vacillate in importance by the day, the place and the audience.

It remains a significant presence in virtually every congressional district, including this well-heeled Atlanta suburb represented by Price, a second-term Republican. In some contests, particularly those where Democrats smell blood, it has been placed front and center. But in others it has become less distinct, absorbed by the electorate’s broader anxiety over the economy and displaced by the urgency of high-cost gasoline and the housing crisis.

“Energy has kind of taken the wind out of — no pun intended — all sorts of other things,” Price said, campaigning in his district, which was once represented by Newt Gingrich. “But health care is still in the top three issues, and it is for every single demographic group.”

With Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton on the sidelines, health care is also receiving somewhat less emphasis in the presidential race, although each campaign is busy stoking fears about the other’s proposals.

Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee, is arguing that Sen. John McCain’s plan to end the tax bias against those who buy insurance individually, and to replace it with health care tax credits for all, would increase costs for many consumers and leave others underinsured.

McCain, the Republican nominee, is charging that Obama’s proposal, which would allow the privately insured to maintain their coverage while creating a heavily subsidized government plan for the uninsured, would “force families into a government-run health care system.”

Advocacy groups, meanwhile, are spending tens of millions of dollars on advertising to keep the issue at the forefront of the 2009 congressional agenda.

U.S. Finds Rampant Errors by Commercial Tax Services

Nearly two out of three commercial tax preparers who are not registered with the IRS the majority of all tax preparers — failed to fill out accurate federal returns for their clients during a small clandestine survey last spring, a government report said Thursday.

The report, by the independent oversight arm of the Internal Revenue Service, covered only those paid preparers who are not enrolled with the IRS.

Tax preparers are not required to be licensed or to enroll with the IRS, and there are 300,000 to 600,000 who are not, according to an estimate in 2003 by a separate agency, the National Taxpayer Advocate.

There are no national certification standards for tax preparers, and anyone, regardless of their training, knowledge or credentials, can prepare returns for a fee.

By contrast, about 41,000 preparers — typically certified public accountants or financial planners, tax lawyers and actuaries — have taken exams and undergone training that allow them to enroll with the IRS as preparers or agents.

Poland Warned by Russia on Pact

Making his first visit to a European Union country since the war with Georgia last month, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, told Polish leaders Thursday that their decision to place a U.S. missile defense base on Polish territory posed a threat to Russia’s security.

“We cannot fail to see the risks emerging as a result of U.S. strategic forces coming close to our borders,” Lavrov said at a joint news conference with his Polish counterpart, Radek Sikorski. He also dismissed the U.S. insistence that the missile shield was meant to counter threats from countries like Iran. “We are certain this system in Europe can have no other target for a long time to come but Russia’s strategic forces,” he said.

Relations between Russia and Poland worsened after Polish leaders signed the missile-defense accord, which will allow the base, with the United States days after Russian forces rolled into Georgia.

Lavrov softened his criticism on Thursday by saying that he did not believe that Poland itself would threaten Russia, and that he wanted to hold more talks on improving relations.

Sikorski told Lavrov that Poland wants to develop a strategic relationship with Russia.