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A thick blanket of snow fell over much of the Midwest, leaving 22 inches in Chicago - and almost topping the record 23 inches of the city's 1967 blizzard. The snowstorm hit parts of Iowa, Missouri, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio with some strong winds - up to 60 m.p.h. in Chicago. Farther south, some 50,000 Arkansas homes were without power Saturday night, after 100,000 lost electricity during an ice storm Friday. Hazardous travel conditions were blamed for at least seven highway fatalities and for stranding thousands of airline passengers. Above, a worker uses a chain saw to clear trees away from toppled power lines in Little Rock, Ark. The nation's murder rate fell in 1997 to a level last seen 30 years ago, the Justice Department reported. The rate was 6.8 murders per 100,000 people - the lowest since 6.2 per 100,000 in 1967. The rate was down from a high of 10.2 per 100,000 in 1980. In 1950, the murder rate was 4.6 per 100,000. The sharp increase in killings in the late 1980s and much of the subsequent decline can be attributed to a rise and fall in gun violence involving young people, the report said. Nonetheless, it noted that firearm killings by people 18-to-24-years old increased from about 5,000 in 1980 to more than 7,500 in 1997. President Clinton proposed the first major increase in defense spending in a decade, calling for a $12 billion boost next year and for a six-year infusion of $100 billion in new Pentagon spending. The $12-billion increase for the next fiscal year would combine $4 billion in new money and $8 billion available from the defense budget as the result of lower-than-forecast inflation and fuel prices. If passed, it would mark the first time since 1991, the year of the Gulf War, that defense spending rose above the inflation level. Vice President Al Gore mailed papers to the Federal Election Commission to establish a presidential-campaign committee for the 2000 election, staff chief Ron Klain said. Gore is the third Democrat to form a committee to seek the party's nomination. Former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey and Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota had already established exploratory committees for possible presidential bids. Last week Arizona Sen. John McCain filed papers with the FEC, becoming the first Republican to take formal steps toward a 2000 presidential bid. Bad weather threatened the launch of three probes designed to explore the surface of Mars. There was only a 30 percent chance the Mars Polar Lander and two smaller craft would make it off the launch pad at Cape Canaveral Fla. late Sunday afternoon, a US space-agency weather officer said. The Mars Polar Lander is scheduled to set down about a year from now near the planet's frigid southern pole to search for signs of water. It will carry a camera, a robot arm for scooping up Martian soil, a mini-laboratory, and a weather station. A four-day freeze that struck California shortly before Christmas caused damage estimated at $591 million. It has reportedly ruined much of the citrus crop, closed down most packing houses, and led to thousands of layoffs. In the San Joaquin Valley alone, some 65 packing houses can employ up to 15,000 pickers and packers.

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