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News Briefs

Huge Winter Storm Puts East Coast on Ice


The first major snow and ice storm of the season moved up the East Coast on Thursday, forcing schools and airports to close, sending cars and trucks skidding on slick roads and snapping power lines.

Fog in some places added to the hazards of driving as the National Weather Service warned of reduced visibility and possible whiteouts caused by heavy snowfall.

So far the storm, which crossed the southern Plains earlier in the week, then moved from the Texas Panhandle to Virginia on Wednesday before continuing to the Northeast, has killed at least 18 people -- mostly in motor vehicle accidents.

At least 76 accidents were reported Thursday on the New Jersey Turnpike alone, and more than 1.6 million homes and businesses were without electricity from the Carolinas to Oklahoma.

In Durham, N.C., faculty members and their families carrying sleeping bags took refuge at Duke University’s Law School, which has its own generator, said Erwin Chemerinsky, a visiting constitutional law professor from the University of Southern California.

Chemerinsky said the only food available was at a nearby Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise, where people waited 90 minutes in line to be served. He said his family planned to spend Thursday night in sleeping bags at the school.

Typical of the problems facing many commuters was Lisa Rafanelli’s tense journey to her job as an art history teacher at Manhattanville College in Westchester County, N.Y. It is usually less than an hour’s drive from New York City.

“It took me two hours to get there and 2 1/2 hours to get home,” she said after parking her snow-covered car in an East Side Manhattan garage. “There were a lot of people stranded on the side of the road.”

Report Says Mars Too Cold, Dry to Spur Life


A new look at the bumps, basins and flow channels on distant Mars suggests the red planet, though sometimes awash with water, has been too cold and too dry to ever get life going, a team of scientists said Thursday.

Their report, published in the journal Science, is the latest salvo in a long-running academic battle, the Dry-Marsers vs. the Wet-Marsers. The Wet-Marsers point to the planet’s landforms and channels as suggestions that small pockets on Mars may still be wet with ultra-salty water. If so, then life may have had a chance.

The latest blast from Dry-Marsers comes from planetary scientist Owen Toon’s team at the University of Colorado. Their article in Friday’s issue of the journal Science says the planet did experience brief wet episodes, kicked off by periodic impacts of huge icy comets and asteroids and perhaps from water frozen into the Martian soil as permafrost. But, they said, the damp intervals lasted just long enough to carve river-like channels and flood the landscape, quickly followed by the return of cold, dry conditions.

“There apparently were some brief warm and wet periods on Mars,” planetary scientist Teresa Segura, a graduate student member of the University of Colorado team, explained. “But we believe that through most of its history Mars has been a cold, dry planet,” and thus an inhospitable place to nurture life.

Delay on FEC Pick Irks McCain


Sen. John McCain accused President Bush Thursday of breaking a written promise to speedily appoint a Democrat to the Federal Election Commission, reigniting their roiling feud just as McCain is about to regain the post of chairman of the Senate commerce committee.

McCain (R-Ariz) said he will “assume all future assurances and promises by this administration to be quite possibly insincere.” In an interview, he said the White House had delayed the appointment as part of an “orchestrated and systematic undermining” of the campaign finance legislation that he long championed and Bush belatedly and grudgingly supported.

The FEC is writing regulations to implement the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law and the current commissioners have approved several loopholes. Supporters of McCain’s proposed appointee, ethics lawyer Ellen Weintraub, say she would vote for stricter limitations.

A White House official said Thursday night that Bush plans to appoint Weintraub Friday morning -- less than 24 hours after the FEC finished the bulk of its work on the law. McCain called the timing cynical.

“The Bush administration has broken their word on an issue that has been of transcendent importance to me, and that’s hard to get over,” said McCain, who ran against Bush in the Republican primaries of 2000. “It will be harder for them to do business with the Senate, since a lot of it is done by handshake.”

McCain -- who was not invited to the ceremony when Bush signed the measure into law -- could launch investigations of the administration when the GOP takes over the Senate in January and he regains the chairmanship of the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

The White House made a deal with McCain in July to appoint Weintraub to the FEC. Weintraub, a former Democratic counsel to the House ethics committee, was the choice of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) Until the deal was struck, McCain was holding up nearly 100 of Bush’s judicial and administrative nominations.

Even as the senator was voicing his anger, the FEC Thursday adopted a disputed regulation that McCain and his allies say epitomizes the kind of loophole that Weintraub might have prevented. McCain and groups such as Common Cause and the Center for Responsive Politics say the new regulation will let federal candidates control the spending of unlimited amounts of corporate, union and special interest “soft money” in the early stages of federal campaigns. A key goal of the McCain-Feingold law is to bar the national parties and federal candidates from raising and spending soft money.