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News Briefs, part 1

Senate Panel Rejects White House Bid for More Defense Money

Los Angeles Times

The Clinton administration's emergency bid for $2.6 billion to finance military operations from Haiti to Kuwait suffered a setback Thursday as a key Senate panel effectively denied the request, ordering the Pentagon to use monies from elsewhere in its budget instead.

By unanimous vote, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved legislation that would force the Defense Department to raid other defense programs to pay for its contingency operations, and then limit such transfers to $1.9 billion - less than Pentagon says it needs.

The measure, backed by both Republicans and Democrats, was designed to blunt a House-passed proposal that would give the Pentagon $3.2 billion - $600 million more than the administration had asked - and would pay for half of the total by cutting domestic programs instead.

But it also would deal a double-whammy to the Pentagon, which already has cut into its training and readiness budgets to pay for the military operations. Military leaders say they must have more funds by mid-March or they will be forced to cut operations even further.

The bipartisan support for the Senate bill underscored the sharp differences between Senate and House Republicans on key elements of the House GOP's "Contract With America," which had called for increasing the administration's defense budget.

Although the Senate bill would cut some domestic programs as well, panel members made it clear they had included them only to serve as a chip for bargaining with the House and would probably jettison them when the measure goes to a House-Senate conference committee.

Although the committee voted Thursday to restore some of the House-passed cuts that the administration had opposed - such as $190 million in aid to Russia - it also would slash Pentagon spending for environmental cleanup of military bases and subsidies for new technology.

Defense Secretary William J. Perry has vowed to stage a vigorous fight for the continuation of all three programs, and the White House is opposed to many of the cuts that both bills would make in domestic spending, including subsidies for clean coal technology.

Use of Antiseptic in Newborns Can Prevent Blindness, Researchers Say

Los Angeles Times

Applying a form of the common antiseptic Betadine to the eyes of newborn children could prevent as many as 10,000 cases of blindness and hundreds of thousands of severe eye infections each year worldwide, researchers report Thursday.

Silver nitrate or antibiotics are commonly used in the United States and Europe to prevent such infections, but the drugs are too expensive to be used in developing countries and can themselves trigger inflammations. Most such countries thus use nothing at all, leading to widespread eye infections and blindness.

Drs. Sherwin Isenberg and Leonard Apt of the Jules Stein Eye Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, report in the New England Journal of Medicine that trials on more than 3,000 newborns in Kenya show that povidone-iodine, the generic name for Betadine, is both safer and more effective than silver nitrate and antibiotics for preventing eye infections, yet costs only pennies per application. Bacteria also do not seem to develop resistance to it, as they do to antibiotics.

Eye infections after birth are called neonatal conjunctivitis and they are usually caused by exposure of the infant to bacteria or viruses in the mother's vagina. The incidence varies widely, ranging from about 1.6 percent or less in the United States to 23 percent in Kenya, where nearly a third of women suffer venereal infections.

Compared to the normal rate of 23 percent of untreated infants developing infections, 17.5 percent of those treated with silver nitrate developed infections within the first month after birth, compared with 15.2 percent of those treated with erythromycin and only 13.1 percent of those treated with povidone-iodine.

But the biggest difference was cost, Apt said. A vial of silver nitrate that will treat a few infants costs $7, while the same amount of povidone-iodine costs 10 cents.

Man Gets Third-Strike Term Of 25-to-Life for Pizza Theft

Los Angeles Times

Jerry Dewayne Williams was sentenced to prison for 25 years to life Thursday under California's "three strikes" law for stealing a slice of pepperoni pizza.

The 27-year-old Williams sat silently as Torrance Superior Court Judge Donald F. Pitts levied the sentence, citing Williams's five prior felony convictions, his habit of finding trouble, and the 1994 "three strikes" law as reasons for the punishment. Before announcing the sentence, Pitts had denied a defense motion filed by Williams' attorney, Deputy Public Defender Arnold T. Lester, which argued that a 25 years to life sentence for stealing a piece of pizza constituted cruel and unusual punishment.

Williams, a 6-foot-4 warehouseman, was arrested near Craig's ice cream shop at the Redondo Beach Pier last July. He and a friend, prosecutors would contend, somewhat intoxicated and possibly playing a game of Truth or Dare, approached four youngsters dining on an extra large pepperoni pizza. Both of the men asked for a piece, and when they were told no, each took a slice anyway.

In January a jury found Williams guilty of petty theft. Typically a misdemeanor, that charge was bumped up to a felony because of his prior convictions for robbery, attempted robbery, unauthorized use of a motor vehicle and possession of a controlled substance.

Williams has become a poster-child of sorts for forces who say the "three-strikes" law is uneven, needlessly punitive and so costly the public will eventually have to reconsider it.

"No matter how many pizza thieves it sends to prison, this law is not going to make our streets safer," said Allan Parachini, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union.