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News Briefs, part 2

Senate Approves Massive Southern California Quake Aid

Los Angeles Times

The Senate overwhelmingly approved a record $8.6 billion for Southern California earthquake relief yesterday and sent the aid bill to conference with the House for final congressional passage, which is expected Friday.

Prodded by California Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, the Senate ended a lengthy debate over how the government would pay for the aid and voted 85-10 to approve the measure.

"The clock is ticking and the people are needful," Feinstein declared at one point.

Swift action is essential to put the emergency measure on President Clinton's desk before lawmakers depart this weekend for a 10-day midwinter recess. Clinton's signature on the law would keep federal funds flowing to Southern California as the region recovers from the Jan. 17 quake that killed 61 people.

After the vote, the two California senators voiced gratitude. "This puts us on the road to recovery," Feinstein said.

Senate and House negotiators were scheduled to meet early Friday to reconcile more than 125 differences between the Senate and House versions of the bill. But they were expected to agree quickly on final language and to ratify it later Friday.

House Offers Federal Employees $25K Buyouts to Avoid Layoffs

washington post

The House decided yesterday to allow federal agencies to offer employee buyouts of up to $25,000 to speed the government's downsizing and avoid layoffs caused by budget constraints.

Under the bipartisan compromise approved yesterday by a 391 to 17 vote, the bill would mandate a work-force reduction of 252,000 jobs and would ensure that federal workers do not take the bonus and then quickly return to government service.

"We feel it critically important to get the work-force reductions locked into law as soon as possible," Rep. Timothy J. Penny, D-Minn., said. "We feel it entirely appropriate that these work-force reductions be tied to this buyout legislation because the buyout legislation makes it possible to achieve roughly 40,000 personnel in work-force reductions in each of the next six years."

The Clinton administration, as part of its "reinventing government" initiative, first sought buyout authority last year. But the bill stalled when Congressional Budget Office estimates showed that workers taking retirement early would cost the government an extra $519 million over the next five years.

Under the bill, agencies could offer federal employees who voluntarily resign or take early retirement a bonus amounting to $25,000 or normal severance pay, whichever was less.

Clinton Administration Frees Airwaves for Commercial Use

Los Angeles Times

The Clinton administration freed up a slice of the nation's airwaves yesterday for new commercial communications technologies and proposed that an even bigger chunk of government-controlled airwaves be relinquished for future commercial use.

The changes, which could begin as early as this summer and continue into the next decade,could help the government raise billions of dollars by nearly doubling the proportion of the airwaves it could make available to businesses for wireless phone, data, video transmission and other telecommunications services.

Such mobile communications services represent one of the fastest-growing segments of the $300 billion telecommunications industry. Telephone and computer engineers, among others, are rushing to develop products that will allow users to send and receive faxes, voice, video and other information from devices as portable and unobtrusive as a wrist watch.

The freeing up of airwaves was proposed after the Coast Guard, Department of Energy and other government agencies agreed -- after a year of bitter negotiations -- to relinquish control over 200 megahertz of valuable radio frequency.

Macy's Withdraws Controverial Black History Exhibit

The Washington Post

Michaela Cooper was browsing at the R.H. Macy & Co. department store at Pentagon City in a Virginia suburb last Friday when she stumbled across something that she said left her in "shocked disbelief."

Cooper, who is African-American, said the glass display cases at the store contained such disturbing items as a "Mammy" cookie jar, a ceramic figure of a black man with a white woman sitting on his knee and liquor bottles that depicted dark-skinned men tap-dancing.

She was furious, as were other customers and Macy's employees who saw the exhibit of black historical memorabilia and collectibles. Macy's had organized the display as part of a Black History month display intended to honor black Americans -- but many saw it instead as a painful reminder of the country's Jim Crow past.

Shocked at the strongly negative response, Macy's hurriedly removed the exhibit, banishing all traces of it to a back room by Friday evening, less than 24 hours after it went up.

Macy's officials apologized for their failure to include explanatory materials. "Those pieces were displayed without proper signage, and people didn't understand what the artifacts and memorabilia were doing in the cases," said Macy's spokeswoman Gloria Kreisman.

She said that Macy's intention was to create a display that would highlight the rich history of black Americans, and that no offense had been intended. "Our motivation was of the highest level," she said.

Macy's does not plan to restore the exhibit, substituting a display of antique photographs of black Americans, playbills and concert programs.