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Official: Enforcing fire safety codes would close Capitol

The U.S. Capitol and its office buildings "probably would be closed down" if fire safety codes were strictly enforced, the official responsible for Congress' health and safety testified Tuesday.

The architect of the Capitol, Alan Hantman, estimated four years of design work and 10 additional years of construction might be needed to bring the domed building in compliance with fire safety standards. Congressional office buildings could comply sooner but not for several years, he said.

A report last week by Congress' Office of Compliance said the lives of lawmakers, their staffs and visitors were being jeopardized. Congress until 1995 exempted itself from health, safety and environmental laws that were applied virtually everywhere else.

Bringing the building up to code has been hampered by the need to preserve historic features of the Capitol, where construction began in 1793; by the inability to evacuate buildings to undertake major construction; and the lack of a staff trained in fire safety issues.

Senate votes down bid

to restrict some lenders

The Senate rebuffed an attempt by some Democrats on Tuesday to make it harder for high-interest, storefront lenders to collect debts from people who have filed for bankruptcy relief.

The Senate voted, 53-44, to reject an amendment proposed by Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., that would have prohibited lending businesses charging more than 100 percent annual interest in recovering debts from consumers in bankruptcy proceedings.

A partisan dispute over a minimum wage increase and tax breaks for small businesses, meanwhile, threatened to delay final Senate passage of legislation that would make it more difficult for people to erase their debts through bankruptcy.

The House approved bankruptcy overhaul legislation last May by a veto-proof margin, 313-108.

Also . . .

CIA DIRECTOR DEFENDS ACTION: CIA Director George Tenet insisted Tuesday he took "decisive action" when faced with an investigation's finding that former Director John Deutch violated security by working on secret material at home. His decision to strip his former boss of his security clearances proved that he acted properly, Tenet said. He denied the investigation was deliberately delayed, despite a CIA inquiry that suggested he and other top agency officials acted to slow down the process. Deutch, a former deputy defense secretary who spent 38 years in public service, was CIA director from May 1995 to December 1996. When leaving his CIA post, agency technicians on routine checks at Deutch's home found 31 classified documents on a CIA-issued computer not configured for work with secret documents.

PUERTO RICO TRAINING TO RESUME: Puerto Rico has agreed to permit the U.S. Navy to resume limited training on the island of Vieques and said it would help clear the bombing range of protesters who want the Navy to leave. The agreement, following months of negotiations, also calls for a referendum that would give islanders two choices: let the Navy resume use of the range on its own terms _ including the use of live bombs _ or require the Navy to cease all training by May 1, 2003. That is two years earlier than the Navy previously indicated it was willing to give up what it calls the "crown jewel" of its Atlantic training sites.