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Dispatches The Buzz (Publick Occurrences)

Not with taxpayer money

Anticipating a ruling at the Supreme Court that would be to doctor-assisted suicide what Roe vs. Wade was to abortion, the House of Representatives April 10 voted overwhelmingly to bar the use of federal funds to carry out such so-called mercy killings. A White House spokesman said the president will not oppose the legislation. Of the 16 who voted against the measure (398 voted in favor), most argued that Congress instead should commit taxpayer dollars for mental-health treatment. "It does nothing to address the real problems in our society that cause people to seek suicide or assisted death," said Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.). What the bill does address are the intentions of officials in at least one state, Oregon, which legalized assisted suicide last year, who have said they will use Medicaid money to fund euthanasia. Rep. Ralph Hall (D-Texas) said a bad court ruling could "open up the Treasury to every Dr. Kevorkian all across this country."

Three strikes you're out

Why isn't once enough? Angry senators April 8 grilled FBI Director Louis Freeh about government guidelines that say online child pornography distributors or recipients can commit the crime twice without being pursued by federal agents. In an interview with The Washington Post, deputy FBI director William J. Esposito said officials drew up the guidelines in order to make the distinction between distributors and those who are merely "curious." Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), who chaired the committee hearing, said before the hearing he does not understand why FBI agents "should wait around. Pornography that involves one child is just as harmful as pornography that involves three." Mr. Freeh said the law is sufficiently strict as to "support a conviction" on one violation, but said the agency needed more money to find and prosecute pedophiles on the Internet. The FBI's "Innocent Images" operation began in 1994. As of March 5, agents have made 91 arrests and helped win 83 felony convictions. But the investigation has identified 3,978 individuals who have engaged or attempted to engage in child pornography or child pornography solicitation crimes online. Mr. Freeh said that only 455 of those cases "are actively being worked as criminal investigations."

Washington in brief

Senator uncovers more snoops at IRS. For the second year in a row, the congressional General Accounting Office revealed more than 1,000 cases in which Internal Revenue Service employees may have taken an unauthorized and illegal peek at taxpayers' records. The GAO report spans fiscal 1994 and 1995. The previous report covered 1993 and turned up more than 1,300 IRS employees accused of using computer files to browse tax data. IRS officials promised "zero tolerance" for snoops after the first report. "I don't know what kind of new math they're using, but that doesn't sound like zero tolerance to me," said Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio), who released portions of the new GAO report April 8. So far, according to the IRS, 23 employees have lost their jobs, 349 have faced some form of disciplinary action, and 472 others have received counseling. Such snooping is unlawful but carries no criminal penalties. Sen. Glenn and others are proposing laws to enact criminal penalties. Social Security Administration, fearing snoops, shuts down website--for now. Some senators complained April 9 that a government website that provides taxpayers easy access to their personal records may not be secure. Social Security officials pulled the plug and promised to study the security issues over the next two months before reopening the site. Immigration official suspended pending corruption probe. The State Department provided no details, but acknowledged April 7 that a U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service employee is the target of a "very serious" inquiry. Hong Kong radio named the official as James DeBates, who is on administrative leave with pay pending the outcome of a joint investigation by the U.S. Justice Department and the Hong Kong Independent Commission Against Corruption. The radio said the two agencies want to look into charges of possible corruption and abuse of authority. President Clinton reviews welfare-to-government-work efforts. In the first meeting of 1997 of the full Cabinet, the president April 10 said that over the next four years, the government should place 10,000 welfare recipients in federal jobs--including jobs at the White House. "We have all got to take responsibility to see that the jobs are there so that people can leave welfare and become permanent members of the workforce," Mr. Clinton said. Officials at the meeting reviewed numerical, agency-by-agency hiring goals and timetables.

"No doubt" about it

A federal appeals court panel upheld the California Civil Rights Initiative, which bans race- and sex-based preferences in public hiring, contracting, and education. The initiative, approved by 54 percent of state voters in November, had been blocked by a federal district judge who ruled that because CCRI ended some preferences but not others--such as for veterans--the measure appeared to violate the constitutional guarantee of equal protection under the law. But a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court disagreed: "There is no doubt [the initiative] is constitutional" because it serves the "ultimate goal of the equal protection clause, [which] is to do away with all governmentally imposed discrimination based on race and [sex]." The court panel strongly criticized the action of Judge Thelton Henderson, the lower-court judge who blocked the initiative: "A system [that] permits one judge to block with the stroke of a pen what 4,736,180 state residents voted to enact as law tests the integrity of our constitutional democracy." CCRI opponents, including the American Civil Liberties Union, plan an appeal. President Clinton, who had ordered his Justice Department to oppose CCRI, said it's time to "regroup" and search for innovative ways to continue race and sex preferences. n Under the weather Following days of 60-degree temperatures, a springtime blizzard with wind gusts up to 70 mph lashed the northern plains, knocking out power and closing hundreds of miles of highways in Wyoming, Montana, Nebraska, and the Dakotas. Drifts piled up to 20 feet high. But the huge snowstorm wasn't the worst of it. Melting snow from previous storms turned into floods, creating the area's worst flooding in a century and inundating communities along the Minnesota-North Dakota state line. The Red River, backed up by vast sheets of ice, crested near 38 feet, more than 20 feet above flood stage.

Coming to America

The United States now has the highest percentage of immigrants since the 1930s. According to a new Census Bureau report, nearly one person in ten living in the United States is foreign-born. In contrast to America's earlier immigration waves, when most of those entering the United States came from Europe or Canada, most of the immigrants now coming to America are from Asia (27 percent) or Mexico (also 27 percent). Twelve percent come from other parts of Central or South America. California has the largest foreign-born population, with immigrants--both legal and illegal--now making up 25 percent of the state's population.

Killer girls

A Colorado jury found 16-year-old Jennifer Tombs guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced her to life without parole. When her mom went away for a church retreat last September, she left Jennifer with a neighbor, Latanya Lavallais. Jennifer wanted to go out with friends, and when Ms. Lavallais said no, the girl shot her five times in the back of the head. In New York, a jury sentenced the country's youngest murder defendant to seven years to life for helping to kill her grandmother. The murder took place two years ago when Wendy Gardner was only 13. She helped plot the killing, which her boyfriend carried out. After the murder, the two stuffed the body into the trunk of a car and drove around town, spending money they had stolen from her. Prosecutors said the teenage couple then returned to the room where the killing took place and had sex. The boyfriend, convicted last year of second-degree murder, is in prison.

Violence and diplomacy

In the West Bank, daily street battles--at least one of them deadly--continued between Palestinian youths and Israeli soldiers over construction of a new Jewish neighborhood in Arab-claimed East Jerusalem. Speaking to reporters, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused the Palestinian Authority, headed by Yasser Arafat, of at least five violations of the Oslo peace agreement, including a failure to annul the portion of the Palestinian Charter calling for Israel's destruction. In his meeting with Mr. Clinton, the Israeli prime minister suggested the United States sponsor a Mideast summit to help get the stalled Israeli/ Palestinian peace process back on track--a suggestion the president dismissed as "premature." At week's end, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright met with Palestinian officials at the State Department to discuss how to revive the peace process. She described the situation in the Middle East as "unpredictable and dangerous."

Bitter pill

Days after pro-life groups urged American consumers to boycott an allergy medicine made by a German drug company that produces the abortion drug RU-486, the company announced it will stop making the controversial abortion-inducing pill. Roussel-Uclaf, a subsidiary of the pharmaceutical giant Hoechst AG, said it will hand over patents to the pill to a new company being created by one of the drug's developers. Hoechst said the $1.6 billion it earns in America each year isn't worth risking over the $3.5 million in annual revenues generated by European sales of RU-486. "This product can no longer be part of the strategy of an international company," a Hoechst spokesman said. But the transfer of RU-486 to another company will not halt introduction of the drug to the United States, slated for later this year. Roussel-Uclaf gave up American rights to the drug two years ago to the New York-based Population Council.

Communist tyranny

Despite a scathing human-rights report from the State Department and visits to Beijing by top U.S. officials, repression of Christians in China continues unabated. On April 10, the United States and a group of European nations submitted a resolution to the United Nations Human Rights Commission criticizing China for its "persecution ... [of] persons who have peacefully availed themselves of their freedom of assembly, association, expression, or religion." As China's communist government prepares to retake control of Hong Kong, the territory's government-in-waiting announced plans to outlaw political groups with foreign ties, require police permission for public protests, and give local officials power to dissolve any group deemed damaging to national security. A top official with the future Hong Kong government said the changes are necessary to "strike a balance between civil liberties and social stability, personal rights and social obligations, individual interests and the common good." Hong Kong reverts from British to Chinese control July 1.

End of the road?

In Zaire, rebels trying to overthrow President Mobutu Sese Seko captured the country's second-largest city. Trying to hold on to power, Mr. Mobutu, a dictator who has ruled the nation for 31 years, declared a state of emergency and imposed military rule. Although Mr. Mobutu is a long-time defender of U.S. interests in Central Africa, the Clinton administration stepped up pressure on him to step aside, though the White House stopped short of calling on him to resign.

Rehabilitating Newt

The Republican leadership in the House is starting to show a willingness to fight--and it's not just Majority Whip Tom DeLay's pushing and shoving match with Wisconsin Democrat David Obey that almost came to fisticuffs on the House floor last week. Speaker Newt Gingrich surprised the White House April 9 by announcing that the Republican Congress would pass a tax cut bill before the end of this year. White House officials were condescending: "He has a charm offensive underway with the far right, and we understand that," said presidential spokesman Mike McCurry. "But at some point, in order to get business done, he has to come back to the center of the political spectrum and work with those, like the president, who are in the center." No, he doesn't. Anyone can cut a deal. Leaders are expected to lead, and Mr. Gingrich's failure to do so for virtually the first quarter of the year is at the core of the GOP's problems. So is the Speaker on the mend? Columnist Cal Thomas thinks so. Mr. Thomas noted Mr. Gingrich's weight-loss regimen (14 down, 25 to go), his recommitment to tax cuts, and his turning to prayer. "I pray before every speech," Mr. Gingrich told Mr. Thomas. "Publicly, I'm not a very religious person, but ... if I wasn't prepared to subordinate myself to the best understanding of what God wants to have happen, I couldn't do this. It's much too hard." Some conservative Christian leaders remain skeptical. Rep. David McIntosh (R-Ind.) says Mr. Gingrich is "moving in the right direction"--the Speaker is talking again about defunding the National Endowment for the Arts and supporting efforts to pressure the president into signing the partial-birth abortion ban--but "people are skeptical and want to see the action." That's the key to recovery: fighting on principle, not trying to win a popularity contest with the president he cannot win.

That's why he's called Starr

First Lady Hillary Clinton took to the airwaves to ridicule the investigation of Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth Starr as a spacy search for a "fictional conspiracy." She appeared April 9 on a liberal Washington-based radio talk show and said the effort to steer hundreds of thousands of dollars in business to felon and friend Webster Hubbell was an act of compassion, not a hush-money payoff. Mr. Hubbell, who spent more than a year in federal prison for defrauding law clients, has refused to cooperate with the Whitewater probe. She derided suggestions that payments to Mr. Hubbell of more than $500,000 from the president's top-dollar donors and longtime friends were keeping him quiet. She called those allegations "part of the continuing saga of Whitewater, you know, the never-ending fictional conspiracy that, honest to goodness, reminds me of some people's obsession with UFOs and the Hale-Bopp comet some days." Earlier that day, the U.S. Attorney in Little Rock indicted an Arkansas lawyer on 31 counts of laundering $380,000 in methamphetamine profits, portions of which he funneled to the Democratic National Committee and President Clinton's 1993 Inaugural Committee. The lawyer, Mark Cambiano, says he's innocent.