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Political Scene

- - Thursday, March 10, 2011

ARIZONA

Giffords will watch spouse's shuttle launch

HOUSTON | Rep. Gabrielle Giffords has shown so much progress in her recovery from a bullet wound to the head that friends and family are making plans for her to attend the launch of her husband's space shuttle mission next month in Florida, a person close to the family told the Associated Press on Thursday.

The person spoke on the condition of anonymity because the family and doctors have not yet publicized the decision. A news conference is scheduled Friday morning at the Houston hospital where Mrs. Giffords is undergoing rehabilitation.

Mrs. Giffords was shot in the head Jan. 8 at a political event outside a supermarket in an attack that killed six people and wounded 12 others.

ECONOMY

Unemployment rate down in 24 states, up in 10

The unemployment rate fell or held steady in 40 states in January, the latest sign that hiring is strengthening throughout the country.

The Labor Department said Thursday that the unemployment rate fell in 24 states, the most in seven months, and remained the same in 16. The unemployment rate rose in only 10 states. In December, the rate fell in 15 states and rose in 20.

Employers added to their payrolls in 35 states in January, up from only 15 in the previous month. That's the most to report higher payrolls since October.

Nationwide, employers added 63,000 net jobs in January, and the unemployment rate fell sharply to 9 percent from 9.4 percent. The rate ticked down last month to 8.9 percent and employers added 192,000 net jobs.

GUANTANAMO

Senators push tough law on detainees

Six senators, led by John McCain, Arizona Republican, say a tougher, more comprehensive military detention policy is necessary to fill the void created by two years of what they call the Obama administration's inconsistent approach.

The lawmakers proposed legislation Thursday that would keep open the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; impose restrictions on transferring detainees to foreign countries, and push for military commissions, not civilian trials, for detainees.

President Obama announced Monday the resumption of military trials after a two-year halt. The administration reiterated its desire to close the military prison in Cuba.

Joining Mr. McCain were independent Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and four Republicans — Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Scott P. Brown of Massachusetts, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia.

TSA

Group: Body scanners 'unreasonable' search

A privacy rights advocacy group told appellate judges Thursday that the use of full-body scanners as a first line of defense at airport security checkpoints is an "unreasonable search" in violation of passengers' civil rights.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center wants to stop the Transportation Security Administration from using the scan that shows a naked image of a passenger's body as a primary means of screening. EPIC says the policy is a violation of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution and laws protecting privacy and religious freedom and is asking the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington to require the agency to make a new rule with input from the public before it goes into effect.

The government says it has privacy safeguards in place, such as measures to protect travelers' identity from agents viewing the images, which it says make the searches reasonable and "minimally invasive."

Government attorney Beth Brinkmann told the three-judge panel hearing the first oral arguments on the case that Congress has given TSA responsibility to protect the traveling public from evolving threats using the latest technologies and "should not have to stop every five minutes for comment and rulemaking."

The judges showed some skepticism that they have the authority to require TSA to make a new rule and noted that passengers can always choose a pat-down from TSA agents instead of going through screeners.

CAMPAIGN

Trump: U.S. lacks presidential leadership

NEW YORK | Real estate mogul Donald Trump says he is more serious than he's ever been about a possible run for president.

Mr. Trump appeared at a New York news conference Thursday with Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili to announce a luxury development project there. Mr. Trump praised Mr. Saakashvili's stewardship of that country and said he wished there were comparable leadership in the United States.

Mr. Trump reiterated his plan to announce in June whether he will seek the Republican nomination to challenge President Obama in 2012.

Mr. Trump said he has great relationships with business and political leaders around the world.

FHA

Obama housing aide steps down from post

David Stevens, a key adviser to President Obama on housing policy, said Thursday that he plans to step down as head of the Federal Housing Administration in mid-April.

Mr. Stevens, a former mortgage banker who took office in July 2009, has overseen an agency that has become an increasingly large prop for the battered U.S. housing market. FHA insures about one-third of all new home purchase loans, compared with less than 4 percent before the housing bust, according to industry publication Inside Mortgage Finance.

He steps down just as a debate heats up over how much support the government should provide the housing market over the long term.

"This is just the right time to transition and to get some fresh legs here," Mr. Stevens told Reuters in a brief telephone interview.

He was instrumental in drafting three proposals released by the Obama administration last month for eventually replacing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the mortgage finance giants the government seized at the height of the financial crisis.

Mr. Stevens served as a senior vice president for single-family loans at Freddie Mac from 1998 to 2005.

PRISONS

Federal prisons out of execution drug

COLUMBUS, Ohio | U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. says the federal prisons department has run out of a key execution drug and is exploring alternatives, dashing states' hopes of obtaining a federal supply of the drug.

Mr. Holder said the lack of sodium thiopental is a serious concern that the government is analyzing.

Mr. Holder wrote a March 4 letter to states that was obtained by the Associated Press. In it, he says federal officials are looking at options, including changes to federal execution procedures.

The immediate impact of the federal shortage is minimal. A lawsuit is challenging the federal government's injection procedures, and the U.S. government has not executed anyone since 2003.

FEDERAL RESERVE

Stocks lift wealth; companies amass cash

Americans' wealth grew 3.8 percent in the final three months of 2010, boosted by gains in stock portfolios. Companies, meanwhile, added to their cash stockpiles, which reached their highest point in more than a half-century.

The Federal Reserve says household net worth rose to $56.8 trillion in the October to December quarter, even though the value of real estate holdings fell. The gain last quarter exceeded the 2.6 percent increase in net worth in the July to September period.

So far this year, stocks have risen more than 3 percent.

Net worth is the value of assets such as homes, checking accounts and investments, minus debts such as mortgages and credit cards.

Americans' net worth still would have to rise an additional 16 percent to reach its pre-recession peak of $66 trillion.

From wire dispatches and staff reports