Wrapping up a two-day, three state trip along the Mississippi River, President Bush was in New Orleans Tuesday, touting his economic agenda and stepping up pressure on the Democrat-led Senate to pass "fast track" trade promotion authority legislation. The measure passed in the House by a single vote last month. Above, Bush speaks to Future Farmers of America and workers Monday at a feed mill in Aurora, Mo.

In the next few days the administration will free $221 million in Afghan government assets frozen in 1999, a senior official said. The assets of the Afghan Central Bank, much of which are held in gold by the Federal Reserve, were seized after Taliban leaders refused to hand over Al Qaeda militants linked to the 1998 attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission may step in to win back pay or other help for workers who have signed away the right to sue their employers, the Supreme Court ruled. The 6-3 decision clarifies the reach of the EEOC and curbs the ability of employers to keep workplace disputes out of the courts. The agency is "master of its own case," and free to decide for itself whether it is in the public's interest to pursue a given lawsuit, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the majority. (Story, page 5.)

The high court today is to take up the insurance industry's challenge to what experts call the most promising legal reform in healthcare: independent medical review of HMO disputes. In recent years, 42 states have adopted laws that give patients a right to a second, independent opinion if their HMOs refuse to pay for medical treatment. Under these statutes, a state can force an HMO to pay for treatment if it's concluded that the treatment was needed. The Supreme Court voted in June 2001 to hear the insurance industry's appeal in an Illinois case where independent review was upheld.

Retail sales edged down by a smaller-than-expected 0.1 percent in December as consumers showed resilience in the face of the recession and rising unemployment. The tiny decline reported by the Commerce Department stemmed mainly from a 4.2 percent drop in gasoline sales, reflecting lower prices at the pump. Sales of sporting goods and building supplies also fell, but many other categories, such as home furnishings and clothing, recorded solid gains.

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