VA chief pledges to improve care

WASHINGTON - Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson told skeptical House members yesterday that he would work hard to improve veterans' care and would take personal responsibility for implementing a presidential task force's recommendations on how to do so.

Nicholson generally defended the award of hefty bonuses to top VA officials. Those officials crafted a budget that fell $1 billion short and have been accused of jeopardizing health care, but he said many VA employees could get higher salaries in private business.

"We recognize our shortcomings," Nicholson told the House Veterans Affairs Committee.

Among the task force's proposals are computerized storage of patient information, better collaboration between the Pentagon and VA, and added brain-injury screenings. - AP

White House warns on bargaining rights

WASHINGTON - The Bush administration warned the House yesterday that a bill to authorize Homeland Security Department programs would face a veto if it gave the agency's 170,000 employees greater collective-bargaining rights.

The White House said eliminating the current personnel system would "diminish the department's ability to respond quickly to security threats and would negatively impact the security of the nation."

The bill, which approves $39.8 billion for Homeland Security programs in the budget year that starts Oct. 1, passed the House yesterday, 296-126, sending it to the Senate.

The labor dispute was a major sticking point when Congress decided in 2002 to consolidate 22 agencies into the new department. - AP

Pentagon forming Language Corps

WASHINGTON - The Pentagon is setting up a civilian Language Corps, a cadre of about 1,000 foreign-language speakers who can help the government in times of war and emergencies.

In a three-year pilot program, the Pentagon will recruit volunteers and do testing to see whether such a program would work. If successful, a permanent corps could be developed, said Robert Slater, who heads the Pentagon personnel office's security education program.

The global antiterror effort has made the U.S. military and other agencies aware of their shortage of people who speak Arabic and other languages. The languages to be included in the pilot program have not been chosen. - AP

Elsewhere:

An Amtrak train yesterday hit an SUV stuck on railroad tracks west of Modesto, Calif., killing six people inside the vehicle, officials said. No train passengers or crew were injured.

Seven-term Rep. Martin Meehan (D., Mass.) said yesterday that he would leave Congress July 1, as he prepares to become chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Lowell. A special election for his seat will be held within 160 days of his leaving.

A Hollywood, Fla., police detective pleaded guilty yesterday to helping escort what he thought was a heroin shipment in a corruption sting where undercover FBI agents posed as mobsters.