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The nation's trade deficit soared to a record $19.44 billion in February as exports fell and imports of cars, consumer items, and other manufactured goods hit new highs, the Commerce Department reported. The rise in the deficit was significantly greater than Wall Street economists anticipated - and surpassed January's record $16.8 billion. Trade gaps with Japan, Western Europe, and Mexico widened in February; deficits with China and Canada narrowed slightly.

A Georgia case that could change the way states care for the mentally disabled was to be heard today by the Supreme Court. The justices will decide whether the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act requires states to integrate into society peersons diagnosed as mentally incapacitated.

The Energy Department and its contractors showed "a lack of attention" to grave security risks at nuclear-weapons laboratories despite nearly two decades of warnings, congressional investigators reported. In testimony prepared for a House Commerce subcommittee hearing, the General Accounting Office said it had issued 32 reports since 1980 warning of lax security at the labs - and made nearly 50 recommendations that were mostly neglected.

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The Senate voted unanimously to award Rosa Parks a Congressional Gold Medal, four decades after she refused to surrender her bus seat to a white man in Montgomery, Ala. - helping to spark the civil rights movement. Passage by the House was a foregone conclusion - and President Clinton was certain to sign the measure, bestowing Congress's highest civilian award on the civil-rights pioneer.

A spokesman for Rep. Jim Saxton (R) of New Jersey confirmed he was in Belgrade on a business trip despite the US and NATO bombing campaign against Yugoslavia. The spokesman said Saxton would consult with House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R) before making public the details of his visit, which reportedly took members of Congress and the State Department by surprise. The official Yugoslav news agency reported Saxton met with the Yugoslav foreign minister.

Washington officials selected Feb. 29, 2000, for the state's presidential-primary election. They said it would help the state compete with others that are moving up their primary dates, hoping to attract more attention from candidates. Arizona, North Dakota, and Virginia will also hold primaries Feb. 29. Democratic National Committee (DNC) rules forbid states except Iowa and New Hampshire from holding presidential primaries or caucuses before March 7. The DNC recently threatened not to seat 25 percent of South Carolina's delegates to the party's nominating convention after that state selected Feb. 26 for its primary.

As wildfires roared through the Everglades, scientists warned that drought threatened parts of the South and Midwest. Farmers in those regions - many of them are already hurting from last year's lengthy dry spell - are bracing for another tough year. Climate experts blame the conditions in part on La Nia, which is generated by cold water in the Pacific. The Florida wildfire had devoured 130,000 acres of the Everglades and was threatening another 40,000, state officials said.

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