Democrats selected Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland Thursday to be House majority leader, spurning Rep. Nancy Pelosi's handpicked choice moments after unanimously backing her election as speaker when Congress convenes in January. Pelosi had endorsed Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania, but he came up well short in a vote of his colleagues, 149 to 86.

For the first time in six years, the number of Americans struggling with hunger fell in 2005, the Agriculture Department said of a drop from 38 million to 35 million. The department also acknowledged Wednesday it made more than $2.8 billion in improper payments to farmers in fiscal 2006. The majority were due to missing or incomplete paperwork.

A congressional advisory panel Thursday questioned China's willingness to be a more responsible international player and less focused on its "own narrow national interests." The panel urged US trade officials to press complaints against China in the World Trade Organization.

Gen. John Abizaid, the top US commander in the Middle East, warned Congress Wednesday that the American "troop posture [in Iraq] needs to stay where it is," and that an early withdrawal on a set timetable would only lead to an increase in sectarian violence.

Al-Jazeera English, the spinoff of the Arabic-language news network based in Qatar, made its long-delayed launch Wednesday, but did so in the US without any major television distribution. Viewers could receive the signal via the GlobeCast satellite.

Richard Causey, the former chief accounting officer of Enron Corp., on Wednesday became the last executive to be sentenced in the company's scandalous fall. A federal district judge in Houston ordered him to serve 5-1/2 years in prison.

Reader's Digest Association Inc. and its flagship magazine were sold Thursday for $l.6 billion to buyout firm Ripplewood Holdings.

Southern tornadoes that have overturned tractor-trailers and uprooted trees tore into North Carolina Thursday, killing at least six people.

At the National Book Awards in New York Wednesday, two major winners were thematically linked by the Great Plains. Richard Powers won for his novel "The Echo Maker," a work on the nature of human intelligence set in Nebraska. Nonfiction winner Timothy Egan wrote "The Worst Hard Time," a history of the 1930s Dust Bowl. Also, poet Adrienne Rich accepted the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.

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