USA

"There are still troubled times" in parts of the country, but the US economy is strong and "there's no doubt that things are getting better," President Bush said at Owens Community College in Toledo, Ohio. The stop was the first in a two-day, three-state tour to promote job-training and counterterrorism proposals that Bush outlined in his State of the Union address (above) Tuesday night. He also called on Congress to make his tax cuts permanent and argued that the nation is safer thanks to US-led military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. The president also said Americans should "defend the sanctity of marriage" through a constitutional amendment, if necessary, to overturn recent court decisions on same-sex unions. (Story, page 1; editorial, page 8; opinion, page 9.)

Bush's tax cuts helped companies but have created few jobs, Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota said in his party's formal response to the State of the Union address. The improving economy generated 1,000 jobs last month, Daschle said, while 3 million have been lost since Bush took office. Other Democrats criticized the president for being hypocritical for proposing job-training grants through community colleges after pursuing deep cuts to educational and job-training programs in the past two years.

The Environmental Protection Agency may override state officials in enforcing costly provisions of the Clean Air Act, a narrowly divided Supreme Court ruled. The 5-to-4 decision marked a rare victory for federal rules over state rights by the High Court, and was hailed by environmental groups. The ruling overturns a decision by Alaska regulators that would have eased antipollution requirements for operators of zinc and lead mines.

Builders began construction on 1.85 million homes last year, the strongest activity since 1978, the Commerce Department reported. In addition, construction activity increased 1.7 percent in December, defying analyst forecasts of a 6 percent drop. Record low interest rates fueled a boom in the housing market, which in turn played a key role in the US economic resurgence, economists said.

A fire at a retirement home near Maryville, Tenn., killed three people and injured a dozen more, several of them critically. No hydrant was available at the private facility, operated by Home Away from Home Inc., so firefighters created a makeshift pool, adding salt to prevent it from freezing. It was the second deadly blaze at a home for the elderly in the state in four months.

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