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House Republicans seek to trade debt deal for repeal on military pensions cut

WASHINGTON — The House will vote Wednesday to extend the government’s borrowing authority into 2015 in exchange for reversing a cut to the pensions of working-age military veterans that Congress approved just two months ago to try to trim the budget deficit.

The plan, presented to House Republicans on Monday evening by their leaders, represents a dramatic reversal for the House after three years of using the debt ceiling to extract major spending cuts and conservative policy changes. In this instance, the debt ceiling deadline — looming at the end of this month — will be used to reverse the only difficult spending cut included in a budget and deficit-reduction deal reached in December.

For its part, the Senate voted Monday evening to take up a bill that reverses the same spending cut.

The moves on both sides of the Capitol illustrate how difficult it will be to wring savings from automatic government programs — like pension and health care “entitlements” — which are swelling with an aging population but remain politically untouchable. The cut to veterans’ pensions, embraced by Pentagon officials alarmed by the swelling costs of military benefits, sliced 1 percentage point from the annual cost-of-living adjustment for working-age veterans, with a one-time increase at retirement age to make up for lost ground.

It was to save nearly $7 billion over the next decade and was hailed by Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the deal’s chief Republican negotiator and chairman of the House Budget Committee, as a step toward reining in growing federal programs.

But the cut received bipartisan condemnation even before the budget passed Congress. National veterans’ organizations denounced it, and Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the majority leader, awarded authorship of the measure’s repeal to Sens. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mark Begich of Alaska, Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, four of the most endangered Democrats up for re-election this year.

House Republican leaders argued that the measure they were championing would not add to the deficit. That is because it would extend to 2024 a 2 percent cut to Medicare health care providers that already is in effect until 2023. Budget hawks said that amounted to trading new spending now for the promise of cuts far in the future.

—Jonathan Weisman, The New York Times

Shortages of critical drugs continue to vex doctors

Despite efforts by the Obama administration to ease shortages of critical drugs, shortfalls have persisted, forcing doctors to resort to rationing in some cases or to scramble for alternatives, a government watchdog agency said Monday.

In recent years, drug shortages have become an all but permanent part of the U.S. medical landscape. The most common shortages are for generic versions of sterile injectable drugs, partly because factories that make them are aging and prone to quality problems, causing temporary closings of production lines or even entire factories. The number of annual shortages — both new and continuing ones — nearly tripled from 2007 to 2012.

Dr. Douglas C. Throckmorton, a senior FDA official who deals with shortages, said in written testimony released Monday that 66 percent of production disruptions that led to shortages were caused by quality problems and efforts to fix them.

Economic factors are also contributing to the shortages. Narrow profit margins are making some drug companies reluctant to invest in fixing old production facilities.

—Sabrina Tavernise, The New York Times