The Senate opened formal debate Thursday on Texas jurist Priscilla Owen - the nominee who will test the Democrats' ability to continue blocking judges with filibusters. A day earlier, more than a dozen senators failed to work out a deal to head off a showdown over President Bush's controversial judicial appointments.

In a bill passed Thursday, Republicans on a House committee retreated from a sweeping ban on women in combat support and service units. Instead, they put into law the Pentagon's policy barring women from direct ground combat operations. The House Armed Services Committee approved the narrower provision after Democrats, along with the Army, said the amendment rammed through a subcommittee last week would close nearly 22,000 jobs to women, undermine morale, and hamper operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Senate is working on its own Defense Department bill.

President Bush said Wednesday the administration is creating a special corps of federal workers that will deploy quickly to help foreign governments in crisis. Citing the lengthy and difficult task of setting up the US-run occupation government in Iraq after Saddam Hussein's ouster, Bush is proposing $100 million next year for a new conflict

response fund and $24 million for a new State Department office that will coordinate US government efforts to support emerging democracies.

The Bush administration announced Wednesday that, for the second time in five days, it is imposing limits on the amount of clothing China can ship to the US. The new restrictions apply to cotton and manmade shirts, trousers, and blouses.

Fans of "Star Wars" packed movie theaters Thursday, beginning with 12:01 a.m. showings, to be among the first wave to see "Episode III - Revenge of the Sith," the out-of-sequence sixth and final episode of the seminal science fiction series created in 1977 by George Lucas. Tickets for the long-awaited opening went on sale last month.

The commissioners of pro baseball, basketball, and hockey said Wednesday they want stricter drug policies and told Congress they have concerns about a "one-size-fits-all" steroid-testing law that would govern all pro sports in the US. The group testified before the House Commerce trade and consumer protection subcommittee about the proposed Drug Free Sports Act.

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