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News Briefs II

Senate Kills Campaign Finance Reform Legislation

The Washington Post

The Senate Thursday again blocked action on legislation to tighten the nation's campaign finance laws, dooming its last flickering chance for passage this year.

Unmoved by House approval of a similar measure last month, Republican foes of the bill held firm as the bill - for the second time this year - won support of a majority of senators but fell eight votes short of the 60 needed to force it to passage.

Democratic backers of the bill vowed to continue pushing for approval of the measure before Congress adjourns next month. "We will proceed on the issue this year until we get the job done," said Wisconsin Sen. Russell D. Feingold, chief Democratic sponsor of the bill, indicating he intends to bring it up as an amendment to other legislation.

But its main Republican sponsor, Arizona Sen. John McCain, abandoned his attempt to attach the measure to a "must-pass" spending bill for next year and said he would renew his fight this year only if the legislation started picking up support.

"We will prevail over time on a bipartisan basis," McCain told the Senate. "I will never give up on this fight so long as I am a member of this body." But he said he was reluctant to disrupt the business of the Senate when there was no chance of prevailing.

Thursday's vote was 52 to 48, with the same seven Republicans who supported the bill earlier in the year joining all 45 Democrats to cut off a filibuster led by top GOP leaders, including Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss.

New Electrical Vehicles Can Be Recharged in Minutes

Los angeles

General Motors and Southern California Edison on Thursday unveiled a new recharging technology that juices up an electric vehicle in minutes rather than hours, making the time investment for refueling more like that for conventional cars and trucks.

With GM's new Magne Charge technology, an electric vehicle can be 80 percent charged in less than 15 minutes, a significant improvement over the three or more hours that most recharging setups require.

Electric vehicle devotees insist that the recharge, though still taking somewhat more time than most of us spend at the pump, might some day make driving an electric vehicle more convenient than its gasoline-powered cousins.

"This is extremely important when you put it in the context of our local air-quality problems in Southern California," Barry Wallerstein, acting executive officer of the South Coast Air Quality Management District, said at a news conference.

"This will help us along that path to clean air."

The new charging system "knocks down a couple of the perceived barriers" to driving an electric vehicle, said Bill Van Amburg, spokesman for Calstart, a Pasadena, Calif.-based nonprofit corporation that helped sponsor the project.

"We all have heard the naysayers who said that electric vehicles would never be practical, that they just don't have the range that people want," Van Amburg said.

But with the new system, the car can be charged "in about the time to go and get a cup of coffee and walk back out, unless you get a triple latte or something," he quipped. "There's only a cup of coffee between you and the next time you take the car out."

The system achieves its dramatic reduction in charging time because it is more than seven times more powerful than standard chargers - 50 kilowatts vs. 6.6 kilowatts.

Cheng Cheng the Panda Gives Birth to Twins

Los Angeles Times

The babies were weeks overdue, and until hours before their birth, nobody even knew for sure if the mother was pregnant. But after days of nail-biting and pacing - by both Cheng Cheng the panda and her keepers - the gentle-looking bearlike creature gave birth Thursday morning to twins.

Giant pandas, one of the world's fastest-fading species, are also among the most mysterious. The black-and-white China natives are called "living fossils" because of the way their breeding patterns have failed to evolve.

Their reproductive habits, including a unique "free-floating" egg that keeps scientists guessing, still perplex experts armed with the most modern technology.

Only about 1,000 pandas are left in the world - Cheng Cheng's offspring increased the global panda population by 0.2 percent - and as their natural habitat in China's high-altitude bamboo forests shrinks, so do their chances of perpetuating the species.

"Left to their own devices, extinction of the panda is inevitable," says scientist Wang Pengyan, the deputy director of the Wolong Panda Preserve in western China. "Our job is to extend the time that pandas will be in the world."

This means everything from artificial insemination and test-tube babies created from the eggs of a dead panda to a new, ambitious attempt to clone pandas. Such efforts are exacerbating conflicts between environmentalists and scientists - and have launched a race between cloning specialists East and West.

Critics say that genetic manipulation should be a last resort. But in the meantime, pandas need to work on their chemistry. Not only is the female extremely picky about her mate, she only goes into heat once a year, and then only for about 72 hours. To make matters worse, males, especially the ones in captivity, are not known for their sexual prowess. Not only are their sexual organs undeveloped - about thumb-sized - but they are not always sure how to use them.

"He may think he knows what he's doing, but he can't really tell," says Zhang Guiquan, the assistant director of the Wolong preserve, in Sichuan province. "He may try her ear, or wherever, until he finally figures it out or she gets irritated and walks away."