Nation digest 10/29/03

Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Fed holds main short-term interest rate at 1 percent

WASHINGTON -- The Federal Reserve held a main short-term interest rate at a 45-year low Tuesday, an effort to keep the economic resurgence moving forward.

Fed chairman Alan Greenspan and his Federal Open Market Committee colleagues -- the group that sets interest rate policy in the United States -- kept the federal funds rate at 1 percent. The funds rate, the interest that banks charge each other on overnight loans, is the Fed's primary tool for influencing the economy.

Fed policy-makers believed currently low short-term rates "can be maintained for a considerable period."

Durable-good orders rebound in September

WASHINGTON -- America's factories saw orders for big-ticket goods rebound in September, a fresh dose of good news for manufacturers and a harbinger of better times ahead for the economy as a whole.

The Commerce Department reported Tuesday that new orders for "durable goods" -- costly manufactured products expected to last at least three years -- rose by 0.8 percent last month.

The bounce-back in demand comes after new orders for durable goods dipped by 0.1 percent in August.

Excluding orders for transportation equipment, which can swing widely from month to month, all other orders for durable goods rose by 1.2 percent in September, marking the fifth consecutive monthly increase.

Defendant in Brooklyn Bridge plot gets 20 years

ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- A terror defendant accused of plotting to cut through the cables that support New York's Brooklyn Bridge was sentenced to 20 years in prison Tuesday by a judge who refused to let him withdraw his guilty plea.

Iyman Faris was sentenced to 15 years for aiding and abetting terrorism, plus five years for conspiracy.

According to prosecutors, Faris, 34, traveled to Pakistan and Afghanistan, carrying out low-level missions for terrorists.

Although he is alleged to have investigated the possibility of using a gas cutter to burn through the Brooklyn Bridge's suspension cables, Faris ultimately recommended through e-mail messages to his contacts against that option, which he described as "unlikely to succeed."

Witness thought sniper victim had killed herself

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. -- Ralph Sheldon heard an explosion, then saw a woman slumped over on a bench, blood pouring from her head. He thought she must have committed suicide, because there was nobody else around.

"A girl just shot herself," he told a 911 operator in a call from a restaurant nearby.

Sheldon took the stand Tuesday and the 911 recording was played for the jury at the murder trial of sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad.

Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo are accused in the sniper attacks that killed 10 people and terrorized the Washington area for three weeks last year.

Muhammad, 42, is on trial only for the shooting of Dean Harold Meyers at a gas station in Manassas, Va. But prosecutors are presenting evidence from the other shootings because they must prove multiple killings to convict Muhammad on one of the death-penalty charges against him.

Sheldon testified about the shooting of 34-year-old Sarah Ramos outside a shopping center in Montgomery County.

The retiree testified in a shaky voice that he was putting a letter in a mailbox when he heard "a huge explosion," turned and saw Ramos' bloodied body on the bench.

Senate confirms Utah governor as EPA chief

WASHINGTON -- The Senate confirmed Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt as head of the Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday, filling a four-month vacancy with a lopsided vote that did not reflect the efforts by some Democrats to turn his nomination into a referendum on President Bush's environmental policies.

By a vote of 88-8, senators backed Bush's choice of the Utah Republican to head the nation's lead agency for enforcing environmental rules. Leavitt said he will start the job at EPA on Nov. 6, a day after he resigns as governor.

Leavitt will be replaced as Utah governor by Republican Lt. Gov. Olene Walker.

The first task, Leavitt said, will be to earn the trust and confidence of EPA's 18,000 employees.

Solar flare may disrupt satellites this week

Scientists again warned that communications on Earth could be disrupted this week by another spectacular eruption on the surface of the Sun and that it might even hamper firefighting efforts in California.

"It's headed straight for us like a freight train," said John Kohl, a solar astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass. "This is the real thing."

Predictions are it could strike Earth's magnetic field by midday today.

The explosion of gas and charged particles into space from the corona, the outermost layer of the sun's atmosphere, isn't harmful to people. But it can knock out satellite communications, which some emergency crews are relying on in battling California's wildfires.

Most adoption firms take applications from gays

NEW YORK -- About 60 percent of the nation's adoption agencies now accept applications from gays and lesbians, though resistance remains strong among many church-affiliated agencies, a new survey by a leading adoption institute says.

Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, predicted the holdouts would grow fewer in number as more homosexuals try to become parents.

"We started out near zero, and just within the last decade we're up to 60 percent," Pertman said. "The reality on the ground is way outpacing the policy debate."

Debate over parenting by gays has been an important element in the broader dispute over whether to permit same-sex marriage.

-- From wire reports

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