USA

Threatened with a federal indictment, the accounting firm Arthur Andersen LLP called the move "a gross abuse of government power," saying it was prepared to agree to "meaningful alternative sanctions" for shredding Enron documents. As yesterday's 9 a.m. deadline passed, the company was refusing to plead guilty to obstruction of justice charges, and at press time, none had been announced. A guilty plea would amount to "a death penalty," the Chicago-based firm said in a letter to the Justice Department Wednesday, because the Securities and Exchange Commission bars felons from conducting public audits.

In a preview of battles for Supreme Court nominees, the Senate Judiciary Committee was expected to reject President Bush's choice for a federal appeals court post. Democrats on the panel all have said they will vote against Charles Pickering (above), a Mississippi judge whose record has come under fire from liberal activists. On Wednesday, Bush accused Democrats of "standing in the way of justice" for blocking a vote in the full Senate, where Pickering likely would win approval.

A Scottish appeals court's decision to uphold an ex-Libyan intelligence agent's conviction in the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing won praise from the White House. "The United States government welcomes the decision," spokesman Ari Fleischer said, adding that US sanctions against Libya would remain in place. At a specially convened court in the Netherlands, Abdel Basset al-Megrahi was sentenced to life in prison last year for the 1988 bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 270 people. (Story, page 9.)

The current account deficit, the broadest measure of foreign trade, fell slightly to $417.4 billion last year, the Commerce Department reported. The 6.1 percent dip, from $444.7 billion in 2000, marks the first improvement in six years, but it's also the second-highest deficit on record. The data came a day after Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan told a conference in Hawaii that the economy appears to have ended its slide, while cautioning that a strong recovery is uncertain.

A plan to require automakers to build vehicles that average 36 miles per gallon by 2015 was rejected by the Senate Wednesday. The auto industry and unions lobbied heavily against the proposal, saying it would have cost millions in a highly competitive market. Instead, lawmakers gave the Transportation Department two years to develop new rules on fuel efficiency – without specific mileage targets.

A deadly chain-reaction collision involving as many as 100 vehicles closed a section of I-75 in Georgia, south of Chattanooga, Tenn. A local official said at least two people died and police at the scene reported numerous injuries. The crash occurred during the morning rush hour on the foggy highway.

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