By a Slim Margin, House

Passes Trade Agreement

The Central American Free Trade Agreement won House approval by the narrowest of margins, delivering a hard-fought victory to President Bush while underscoring the nation's deep divisions over trade.

The 217 to 215 vote came just after midnight Thursday morning in a dramatic finish that highlighted the intensity brought by both sides in the battle. When the usual 15-minute voting period had expired at 11:17 p.m., no votes outnumbered yes votes by 180 to 175, with dozens of members undeclared. Ignoring Democratic protests, House Republican leaders kept the voting open for another 47 minutes, furiously rounding up holdouts in their own party until they had secured just enough to ensure approval.

The House vote was effectively the last hurdle -- and by far the steepest -- facing CAFTA, which will tear down barriers to trade and investment between the United States, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.

To win, the White House and GOP congressional leaders had to overcome resistance from dozens of Republican members who were also loath to vote for the agreement because of issues including the perceived threat to the U.S. sugar industry and more general worries about the impact of global trade on U.S. jobs.

-- Paul Blustein and Mike Allen

Amid Frustrations, Unions

Make a Break From AFL-CIO

Two of the nation's largest and most powerful unions resigned from the AFL-CIO on Monday, fracturing the 50-year-old federation as the labor movement struggles to stem decades of decline and lost influence in both the workplace and the political arena.

The withdrawal of the 1.7 million-member Service Employees International Union, the biggest union in the AFL-CIO, and the 1.3 million-strong International Brotherhood of Teamsters is a blow to the political clout and finances of the AFL-CIO, according to an array of labor leaders. Together, the two unions pay $20 million in annual dues toward the AFL-CIO's $120 million budget.

Labor leaders expect two other unions, also in league with the dissidents, to join the breakup. Together, the four unions represent nearly one-third of the AFL-CIO's 13 million members.

The leaders of the breakaway faction said they are taking flight because of distress over what they described as the AFL-CIO's ineffectiveness in stopping the long-term decline in union membership and making labor more relevant to the challenges of the modern workplace.

"Our world has changed, our economy has changed, employers have changed. But the AFL-CIO is not willing to make fundamental change," said Andrew L. S. Stern, president of the fast-growing SEIU. Stern has been the leader of the movement to break up the central labor federation, and his defection Monday was the culmination of over more than three years' work in building an insurgency.

AFL-CIO president John J. Sweeney, 71, was reelected to a fourth term on Wednesday.

Hours before cheering delegates gave Sweeney another term, the convention approved a $4 million dues increase and the creation of a fund "to combat raids by diffaffiliating unions."

Leaders of the United Food and Commercial Workers and Unite Here, a union of hotel, restaurant and garment workers, are deliberating over whether to join the walkout in coming days. In addition, the Laborers' International Union and the United Farm Workers of America are considering following suit.

-- Thomas B. Edsall

Scientists Report Finding Cells

To Restore Egg Production

A team of Harvard scientists is claiming the discovery of a reservoir of cells that appear capable of replenishing the ovaries of sterilized mice, possibly providing new ways to help infertile women have babies.

While cautioning that more research is needed to confirm that similar cells exist in women and that they can safely restore fertility, the researchers said the findings could revolutionize the understanding of female reproduction and the power to manipulate it.

"This may launch a new era in how to think about female infertility and menopause," said Jonathan L. Tilly, a reproductive biologist at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston who led the research. The report appeared in Friday's issue of the journal Cell.

Other researchers agreed that the findings could have profound implications, but several expressed skepticism, saying many key questions remain about whether the researchers have proved their claims.

Tilly said he was confident of his findings, which could, for example, enable women to bank egg-producing cells when they are young in case they have health problems that leave them infertile or for when the women are older.

The discovery could also lead to ways to prevent, delay or reverse menopause, perhaps by stimulating dormant cells in the bone marrow or "tweaking" the ovaries to accept them, Tilly said.

Because the cells appear to be a particularly versatile type of adult stem cell, they could provide an alternative to those obtained from embryos, avoiding the political and ethical debates raging around the use of those cells.

-- Rob Stein

Four Scout Leaders Killed

In Accident at Jamboree

Four adult scout leaders from Alaska were killed at Fort A.P. Hill on Monday afternoon in an electrical accident that occurred as they were setting up camp at the Boy Scout Jamboree, a gathering of thousands of scouts and leaders from throughout the world, officials said.

Two others, a scout leader and a contract worker, were injured in the accident, which occurred between 4:30 and 5 p.m., said a spokeswoman for the jamboree, which is held here every four years and opened Monday.

The leaders were from the Anchorage area, an official of the scouts' Western Alaska Council said.

Boy Scouts national spokesman Gregg Shields called the accident the organization's worst disaster in the 68-year history of jamborees.

He identified the Scout leaders who were killed: Ronald H. Bitzer, 58; Michael J. Shibe, 49; and Mike Lacroix, 42, all of Anchorage; and Scott E. Powell, 57, of Perrysville, Ohio.

-- From Staff Reports

Fines Considered for Pilots

Who Stray Over D.C.

Pilots who violate restricted airspace over Washington would be liable for civil fines of as much as $100,000 under legislation introduced by Republican and Democratic House leaders.

Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said he and Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) want to toughen penalties for pilots who breach a 16-mile "no-fly zone" around the capital. Their bill would also fine pilots as much as $5,000 if they ignore rules in a wider Air Defense Identification Zone that extends as much as 50 miles from the capital.

Many lawmakers have voiced displeasure at false alarms and panicky evacuations of Capitol offices prompted by violations of the unique multi-agency air defense system over Washington. Evacuations followed incursions by a Beech King Air 350, registered to Standridge Color Corp. of Social Circle, Ga., on June 29, a small Cessna on May 11 and a state police plane carrying Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher (R) to former president Ronald Reagan's funeral in June 2004.

Members also warned that errant pilots face a danger of being shot down.

Phil Boyer, president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, said the organization wants to fend off stricter penalties and is working with lawmakers to address the problem. Homeland security officials reported that 3,495 incursions of D.C. airspace and 166 violations of the no-fly zone have occurred since January 2003.

-- Spencer S. Hsu