USA

In Wednesday night's State of the Union address, President Bush is expected to lay out the key elements of his domestic agenda, such as an energy bill and limits on medical malpratice lawsuits. The main focus, however, is expected to be on privatizing Social Security, a proposed restructuring that Democrats in Congress vigorously oppose. On Monday, Senate minority leader Harry Reid of Nevada and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi preemptively came out against overhauling Social Security and called on Bush to draft an "exit strategy" for US troops in Iraq. The two also will deliver their party's response after Wednesday night's address.

Greatly increased combat death benefits to the families of US troops who die in Iraq, Afghani-stan, and future war zones will be part the 2006 budget proposal Bush submits to Congress next week, the Pentagon said Monday. The proposal will pay the spouses or other surviving relatives an extra $250,000. The current "death gratuity" of $12,420 would be increased to $100,000 and enhanced by a government-provided $150,000 life insurance policy.

California's youth prison system agreed Monday to meet a Nov. 30 deadline to lay out its plan to adopt a mostly reward-based policy. The shift of focus comes a year after national experts found draconian conditions throughout the state's youth correctional system.

Connecticut's on-again-off-again execution of Michael Ross was delayed for at least a month Monday after the confessed serial killer agreed to have his mental competency examined. Ross's execution was postponed three times last week.

Construction spending rose sharply last year, when total private residential activity jumped 14 percent to $542.7 billion, the biggest gain in a decade, the Commerce Department said Monday. Sales of new and previously owned homes climbed to all-time highs in 2004, buoyed by low mortgage rates that are expected to climb this year.

Prof. Ward Churchill, who provoked a furor by comparing 9/11 terrorism victims to Nazis in a published essay, resigned as chairman of the ethnic studies department at the University of Colorado, Monday. He will, however, retain his teaching position, the school said. Hundreds of relatives of Sept. 11 victims have vowed to protest his Feb. 3 speaking appearance at Hamilton College in New York, but the latter said it will not withdraw his invitation.

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