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Housing starts dropped 11.9 percent in March to an annual rate of 947,000 units, the lowest in 17 years and well below the 1.02 million economists had forecast, the Commerce Department reported Wednesday.

During the past four years, the Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services has suspended or fired 800 employees for abusing mentally or developmentally disabled individuals, state officials said Tuesday. That's about 7 percent of the full-time employees at 13 state schools. Critics of the system said the actions point to a culture of abuse or neglect; an institutional spokeswoman said they reflect strict standards.

The House voted down legislation Tuesday that would have provided funding for states to switch from machine voting to paper ballots. Concerns about mechanical glitches in recent elections led to the proposal.

Federal prosecutors have filed a brief arguing that the solitary confinement of Ali al-Marri, a suspected enemy combatant, is safe and humane, and provides him exercise opportunities and Islamic books. The brief responds to a complaint by Marri's attorneys that his 1,700 days of isolation at a Columbia, S.C., prison is detrimental to his health.

NASA will extend its European-backed Cassini mission to Saturn by two years, which will allow the unmanned probe to make 60 more revolutions around the ringed planet. The spacecraft has beamed back 140,000 images since 2004.


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