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OPEC to meet about falling oil prices, Congress plans hearings on crisis, Bush to lift visa requirements, Social Security payments to increase, Gates contacts lawmakers with Iraq deal.

• "Oil prices dropped below $70 a barrel for the first time in 14 months Thursday, prompting the OPEC cartel to call for an emergency meeting next week to establish some stability in prices that have plummeted recently after rising for months," the New York Times reports. "While prices revived slightly early on Friday, oil prices have tumbled by nearly $40 a barrel in just three weeks as indications grow that demand for energy will slow along with weakening economies around the world."

• "Financial institutions ran to their lender of last resort for record amounts of cash in the latest week... Federal Reserve data showed on Thursday," Reuters reports. "Banks and dealers' overall direct borrowings from the Fed averaged a record $437.53 billion per day in the week ended October 15, topping the previous week's $420.16 billion per day."


• "As two financial giants, Citigroup and Merrill Lynch, reported fresh multibillion-dollar losses on Thursday, the industry passed a grim milestone: All of the combined profits that major banks earned in recent years have vanished," the New York Times reports. "Since mid-2007, when the credit crisis erupted, the country's nine largest banks have written down the value of their troubled assets by a combined $323 billion."

• "Switzerland extended urgent help Thursday to its storied banking industry as the government acknowledged that even the world's biggest wealth needed protection from the tumult gripping the global financial system," the Times reports. "Less than a week after Europe and the United States coordinated moves to ease the crisis, the Swiss government said it would take a 9 percent stake in UBS, the financial giant that has been among the hardest hit by losses from American subprime mortgage debt, and provide it with 6 billion Swiss francs ($5.36 billion) in capital."

• "A day after New York's attorney general criticized bonuses and other payments made by the American International Group, the insurance giant agreed to allow its spending habits to be reviewed," the Times reports. "The attorney general, Andrew M. Cuomo, said on Thursday that A.I.G. would also cancel 160 conferences and other events that would have cost more than $8 million and would provide information on compensation, bonuses and other payments to determine whether the payments were proper."


• "September housing starts are expected to slip to an 880,000-unit annual rate from 895,000 in August," the Wall Street Journal (subscription) reports. "There are some signs that the rate of decline is slowing."

Congress: Hearings Planned On Financial Crisis

• "Congress has slated a wave of hearings on economic, finance and regulatory issues, reflecting Democrats' growing ambitions in the final weeks of the 2008 election campaign," the Wall Street Journal reports. "The schedule crests next week when six different House committees plan to hold eight hearings."

• "The Pentagon's chief weapons buyer on Thursday cancelled one of the most coveted combat helicopter programs because of ballooning costs," The Hill reports. "Pentagon acquisition chief John Young decided to terminate the troubled Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter (ARH) program after cost overruns put the program on pace to greatly exceed its initial $6.2 billion estimate and triggered a congressionally mandated review."

Washington: Bush To Lift Visa Requirements For Several Countries

• "The Bush administration plans to remove visa requirements for the citizens of seven allied countries, congressional aides said Thursday," AP reports. "President Bush will announce Friday that Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and South Korea will be added to the U.S. visa waiver program as early as next month."


• "The Environmental Protection Agency" on Thursday "tightened the regulatory limit on airborne lead for the first time in 30 years, lowering the legal maximum to a tenth of what it was on the grounds that it poses a more serious threat to young children than officials had realized," the Washington Post reports.

• "An Afghan construction company and eight of its employees filed a federal lawsuit against Falls Church-based DynCorp International, alleging that the large government contractor engaged in fraud, threatened workers and took $2.5 million worth of equipment and materials that belonged to it," the Post reports.

• "Alaska Republican Sen. Ted Stevens took the witness stand" Thursday "afternoon to defend himself against charges he lied on Senate financial disclosure forms by failing to disclose gifts," CongressDailyAM (subscription) reports. "In a strong voice, Stevens, 84, said the financial disclosure forms he signed were truthful and answered, 'No sir,' when asked by defense lawyer Brendan Sullivan if he schemed to hide $250,000 in home improvements by not disclosing them."

• "Federal safety officials have found several passenger aircraft engines with damaged and missing parts and urged the Federal Aviation Administration on Thursday to order inspections of all similar engines," AP reports. "The engines are a commonly used model made by Pratt & Whitney and are on a large number of Boeing 757 planes."

• "The Environmental Protection Agency and Occupational Safety and Health Administration have among the most restrictive policies in the federal government on releasing scientific information to the press and public, according to a 'report card' being issued today by the Union of Concerned Scientists," the Washington Post reports. "The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, by contrast, do a commendable job of making scientific research and expertise available, the report said."

Nation: Social Security Payments To Increase

• "Social Security checks are going up $63 a month for the typical retiree -- the largest increase in more than a quarter century but likely to seem puny to the millions who have been watching in horror as Wall Street lays waste to their retirement nest eggs," AP reports.

• "Record low auto sales and the financial crisis are spurring fresh merger talk about the Big Three U.S. automakers in a new global consolidation round while the sales rot is also impacting suppliers and car retailers," Reuters reports. "General Motors, Ford and Chrysler, seeking to maximize cash returns while battling with a declining home market due to high petrol prices and an economic recession, are expected to put brands both in the United States and overseas up for sale or to seek tie-ups to slash production costs."

• "The collapse of U.S. financial markets is forcing deep cuts in local police agencies and stoking fears among police chiefs that mass home foreclosures are bringing more crime to suburbs," USA Today reports. "Problems created by the financial meltdown are starting to touch everything from police response times to unsolved crimes."

• "Highway alert signs that warn motorists nationwide of delays and hazards could start to display a new, potentially distracting feature -- advertising," USA Today reports. "The California Department of Transportation may become the first state to puts ads on its alert signs along state and federal highways."

• "The Fox News Channel brought in a big name from a rival Thursday when it announced that it had signed Glenn Beck, the host of a widely viewed talk show on Headline News, a sister network of CNN," the New York Times reports. "Mr. Beck, who has frequently raised hackles in liberal circles with his acerbic conservative commentary, will host a new talk hour on Fox News from 5 to 6 p.m. weeknights."

Iraq: Gates Lobbies Lawmakers With Iraq Deal

• "Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice briefed senior lawmakers" Thursday "on a draft agreement that covers U.S. forces in Iraq, as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki prepared to submit the document to its first political test in Baghdad," the Washington Post reports. "U.S. negotiators in Iraq, along with Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker and Gen. Ray Odierno, the U.S. commander there, will go over the text of the proposed accord with senior Senate and House aides this morning in a video conference at the White House."

• "Al-Qaeda in Iraq's alleged No. 2 leader, who the U.S. military said died this month after a gun battle with American forces in northern Iraq, was a Swedish citizen designated as a terrorist by the United States, the United Nations and the European Union, a U.S. official said Thursday," the Post reports. "The intelligence official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Muhammad Moumou, 43, a Moroccan native, was the man U.S. military officials in Baghdad identified Wednesday as Abu Qaswarah."

• "Qassim Frez, a senior Iraqi civil servant, has a problem officials in Washington might envy," the Post reports. "Iraq has piled up tens of billions of dollars from oil sales, and its bureaucrats are struggling to spend the windfall."

• "Former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright said Thursday the Iraq war has created damaging consequences for U.S. diplomacy, but Washington should not agree to a specific deadline for withdrawing troops in the midst of conflict -- something proposed last year by the candidate she now supports, Sen. Barack Obama. 'I never was for a date certain... In Bosnia, we gave a date certain, and then we couldn't get out and that undercut our credibility,'" Albright told the Washington Times in an interview.

World: Airstrike Kills Afghan Civilians, Officials Say

• "A NATO airstrike on Thursday on a village near the embattled provincial capital of Lashkar Gah killed 25 to 30 civilians, Afghan officials in the area said," the New York Times reports. "While NATO confirmed that an airstrike had taken place in the area, where Taliban fighters have been battling NATO forces, it said that the reports were being investigated and that the command was 'unable to confirm any civilian casualties.'"

• "With stock markets" in Russia "down more than two-thirds from their May highs and continuing to fall, almost all of Russia's billionaires -- men and women who made their fortunes in the transition to capitalism after the Soviet Union's fall -- are hurting," the Washington Post reports. "According to one analysis, the wealth of the top 25 on the Forbes Russia list has plunged nearly $240 billion in the past five months."

• "Leaders of the 27-nation European Union pledged Thursday they will stick to a pricey plan for deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, saying the recent meltdown of financial markets must not deter efforts to combat global warming," AP reports.

• "Israeli troops shot and killed a Palestinian man during a clash in the West Bank before dawn on Thursday, the third such fatality in three days, according to Palestinian officials," the New York Times reports. "The Israeli Army said all three had been holding firebombs or preparing to hurl them when they were shot."

• "The Food and Drug Administration will establish its first office in China before the end of the year as part of a broader plan to assure the safety of imports from the developing world," AP reports. "FDA Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach on Thursday laid out a plan to place more than 60 food and drug regulators worldwide over the next year, with a particular focus on India, Latin America and the Middle East."

• "China was silent on media freedom" today, "the expiry date of special Olympic regulations that had officially allowed foreign journalists to report freely in most of the country for nearly two years," Reuters reports. "Local governments across China, which once had to approve any visit by overseas correspondents to their regions, said they would still follow the temporary rules in the short term."

Campaigns: Rivals Share A Meal And Laughs

John McCain and Obama traded humorous and good-natured jabs at the annual Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner in New York on Thursday night. Earlybird's Campaign News section has more.

Commentary: A Democratic 'Super Majority'?

• While two major newspapers, including the Washington Post, endorse Obama, fears on the rise about a possible major shift in government ideology in Earlybird's Pundits & Editorials section.

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