USA

Consumer spending rose a solid 0.4 percent in January and disposable income (what's left after taxes) by 0.8 percent, the Commerce Department reported. Lower federal income taxes and raises for government and military personnel were reasons cited for the increases. In other economic indicators, the Internal Revenue Service reported that the average federal tax refund was about $100 ahead of last year and retail gas prices rose another 6.9 cents to an average of $1.75 per gallon during the past two weeks, the widely watched Lundberg Survey reported. The price is a penny less than at the same time last year.

The California grocery workers' strike, which began Oct. 11 and was the longest in US history, ended as union members ratified a new contract Sunday. About 59,000 workers at almost 900 Kroger, Albertsons, and Safeway stores were idled by the 4-1/2-month strike and lockout, which may have resulted in $1 billion in lost sales. The central issue in the dispute was the cost of healthcare coverage, which members of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union will begin paying in the the final year of a three-year contract. The chains felt compelled to gain the concession in the face of rising competition from nonunion rivals such as Wal-Mart, which flexed its grocery muscle Monday by purchasing a Brazillian chain.

By signing stopgap legislation, President Bush averted a possible shutdown of federal highway offices nationwide and a furlough of almost 5,000 staffers. His approval followed the Senate's, which last week authorized a two-month extension of highway spending at last year's level, buying more time to hammer out a new, long-term highway and transit blueprint. An earlier extension, needed to sustain hundreds of construction projects, expired Sunday.

Hoping to snag possible terrorists before they board US-bound planes, the Homeland Security Department plans to place American inspectors in foreign airports in a program under development, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Seven Russians held at the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, were handed over to the Moscow government, the Pentagon announced, without providing details. Their transfer leaves about 640 inmates suspected of of ties to terrorism at the base.

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