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POLITICAL NOTEBOOK

Obama’s clean air plan to focus on coal plants

FBI director Robert S. Mueller III described why security officials are reluctant to change the surveillance program during a hearing on Wednesday.

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FBI director Robert S. Mueller III described why security officials are reluctant to change the surveillance program during a hearing on Wednesday.

WASHINGTON — President Obama is planning a major push using executive powers to tackle the pollution blamed for global warming in an effort to make good on promises he made at the start of his second term. “We know we have to do more — and we will do more,” Obama said Wednesday in Berlin.

Obama’s senior energy and climate adviser, Heather Zichal, said the plan would boost energy efficiency of appliances and buildings, expand renewable energy, and use the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate heat-trapping pollution from coal-fired power plants.

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Zichal, speaking at a forum hosted by The New Republic in Washington, said that none of the proposals would require new funding or action from Congress, which has shown no appetite for legislation that would put a price on carbon dioxide after a White House-backed bill to set up a market-based system died in Obama’s first term.

The plan, with details expected to be revealed in coming weeks, comes as Obama has been under increasing pressure from environmental groups and lawmakers from states harmed by Hurricane Sandy to cut pollution from power plants, the largest source of climate-altering gases. Several major environmental groups and states have threatened to sue the administration to force cuts to power plant emissions. And just last week, former vice president Al Gore, a prominent climate activist and fellow Democrat, pointedly called on Obama to go beyond “great words” to “great actions.”

It was unclear whether the White House’s plans would include controls on existing power plants. An administration official, who was not authorized to comment on the plan by name, said the White House was still considering it. But since the administration has proposed action on future power plants, the law would probably compel it to tackle the remaining plants, or it would be forced to through litigation.

FBI director warns against changes to NSA surveillance

WASHINGTON — Robert S. Mueller III, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, warned Wednesday that dismantling the National Security Agency’s once-secret program that is keeping records of billions of domestic phone calls by Americans would slow down investigators as they seek to stop terrorist attacks.

Testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Mueller addressed a proposal to require phone companies to retain calling logs for five years — the period the NSA is keeping them — for investigators to consult, rather than allowing the government to collect and store them all. He cautioned that it would take time to subpoena the companies for numbers of interest.

“The point being that it will take an awful long time,” Mueller said.

General Keith B. Alexander, the director of the NSA, had hinted at a House hearing Tuesday that he was evaluating changes to the domestic calling log program and that he would report back to Congress on the advantages and disadvantages of changing it. He also raised the issue of “speed in crisis.”

In his testimony, Mueller provided more details about why national security officials were reluctant to take such a step. First, he said, under current law companies are not required to retain such records, and some dispose of them much sooner than five years. Second, rather than being able to instantly query the complete database to see who a suspect has been in contact with, he said, investigators would have to present legal paperwork to a half-dozen carriers and wait for them to gather and provide the records.

Lawmakers pressed Mueller to explain what attacks, if any, had been prevented by the NSA program. Mueller referred to newly declassified information linking the program to a case in which several men in San Diego were discovered to have sent about $8,500 to Al Shabab, a terrorist group in Somalia.

Specifically, he said, the NSA identified a terrorist-linked phone number in East Africa and decided to run the number against the domestic calls database, discovering that the suspect number had been in contact with a telephone number in San Diego. Investigators then obtained an individual warrant to start monitoring that line.

“That is one case where you have 215 standing by itself,” he said, referring to Section 215 of the Patriot Act, the statute that a secret court ruling has said permits the vast collection of calling logs.

GOP education bill would give states more power

WASHINGTON — House Republicans on Wednesday finished their rewrite of President George W. Bush’s prized No Child Left Behind Act, sending to their colleagues a bill that would strip Education Secretary Arne Duncan and his successors of power and give more authority to the states.

Members of the Republican-led House Education and the Workforce Committee scrapped vast pieces of the existing education law in favor of an alternative they branded the Student Success Act. The updated version would allow state and local school chiefs — not Washington — to decide if students are being well served.

Democrats on the panel objected to the proposed revision, saying it shirks Washington’s role in guaranteeing support for poor and minority students. They offered their own rewrite but it did not advance out of the GOP committee.

The revamped education plan was expected to head to the full House for a vote in coming weeks. Reducing Washington’s role in education is an important plank for the GOP’s base.

Party leaders were eager to show Tea Party supporters they were delivering on promises, such as vows to protect states from Washington imposing achievement benchmarks known as the Common Core State Standards.

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