More Than $60 Billion in Relief

Approved for Hurricane Victims

President Bush and Congress moved on multiple fronts to rush fresh relief to people afflicted by Hurricane Katrina, vowing to get cash directly into the hands of victims while enacting an unprecedented spending package to feed and house evacuees, rebuild schools and bridges, and begin clearing out the vast rubble.

Just a day after Bush's Wednesday request, the House voted 410 to 11 to approve $51.8 billion for relief, and the Senate followed suit hours later 97 to 0, bringing the total approved in the past week to $62.3 billion, with more to come.

But bipartisan consensus on dispensing federal dollars did little to obscure the growing political rift over how to investigate what both sides consider the bungled initial response to one of the worst natural disasters in the nation's history. Congressional Democrats rejected a Republican plan for a GOP-led joint House-Senate panel to look into the response.

Bush has been criticized for reacting too slowly to Katrina's devastation. A Pew Research Center survey found that 67 percent of Americans think Bush could have done more to respond to the storm. The survey placed his overall job approval rating at 40 percent, down 10 points since January and an all-time low in that poll. A poll by Zogby America also recorded its lowest-ever approval rating for Bush, 41 percent.

-- Peter Baker and Amy Goldstein

Additional developments about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina can be found on A1 and A22.

Annan Is Sharply Criticized

Over Oil-for-Food Program

A U.N.-appointed panel investigating corruption in prewar Iraq's oil-for-food program delivered a scathing rebuke of Secretary General Kofi Annan's management of the largest U.N. humanitarian aid operation and concluded that his son Kojo took advantage of his father's position to profit from the system.

Former U.S. Federal Reserve chairman Paul A. Volcker, the head of the independent inquiry committee, said blame for the program's failure was shared by the Security Council, other members of the United Nations and Annan's senior advisers. Volcker told the 15-nation Security Council that it and Annan must change the way they do business or face a loss of worldwide public support.

"Our assignment has been to look for mis- or mal-administration in the oil-for-food program, and for evidence of corruption within the U.N. organization and by contractors. Unhappily, we found both," Volcker told the council.

Senior U.N. officials said they hoped that Volcker's report would bring an end to a painful 18-month probe of the $64 billion program, which investigators concluded was so poorly managed that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was able to rake in $1.7 billion in kickbacks from participating companies and $11 billion in oil-smuggling profits.

Wednesday's report said the panel found no evidence that Kofi Annan had interceded to steer lucrative Iraqi oil contracts to a Swiss company that had put his son on its payroll and no conclusive proof that he knew of his son's activities.

-- Colum Lynch

Over Time, Mutations Develop

In Embryonic Stem Cells

Human embryonic stem cells, treasured by researchers because of their potential to help rejuvenate ailing organs, do not remain as ageless and perpetually unblemished as scientists thought, according to new research.

As with ordinary cells, stem cells accumulate significant numbers of mutations over time, including several that could cause them to become tumors.

The findings, reported by an international team of scientists, could bolster those who have urged President Bush to allow the use of federal money to create fresh stem cell colonies.

Embryonic stem cells, obtained from days-old human embryos, can morph into all kinds of tissues. They divide repeatedly in laboratory dishes, churning out self-replenishing colonies indefinitely.

Researchers hope to harvest batches of the cells periodically from master colonies and turn them into tissues for transplantation into patients.

But the longer that stem cells are cultivated -- and the more cell divisions they undergo -- the more mutations build up in their genes, Aravinda Chakravarti of Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions and his colleagues reported in the journal Nature Genetics.

Previous efforts found little evidence of changes, leading some scientists to conclude the cells were largely protected from the ravages of everyday genetic wear and tear.

-- Rick Weiss

Schwarzenegger to Veto

Same-Sex Marriage Bill

The California Assembly voted Tuesday to allow gay and lesbian couples to marry, making the state's legislature the first in the nation to deliberately approve same-sex marriages.

But Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger quickly ended the prospects for the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act when he announced Wednesday that he will veto the legislation. He said the issue should be decided by California's courts or its voters.

Schwarzenegger had to weigh retaining the support of his GOP base against the risk of alienating many Democrats who voted for him in 2003.

The act, which passed the assembly after a vehement floor debate, would have recast the state's legal definition of marriage as a union between two people rather than a union between a man and a woman. The state Senate passed the bill the week before.

Advocates of the bill argued that the legislation fit into California's sense of itself as a trendsetter for the rest of the country. In 1948, the California's Supreme Court became the first state court to strike down a law prohibiting interracial marriage. And California in 1976 was among the first states to repeal sodomy statues.

But opponents, including Republican conservatives, have argued that the law must be stopped in the nation's most populous state because it constitutes another assault on the sanctity of the family. Californians passed a defense of marriage act in 2000 -- which defined marriage between a man and a woman.

-- Joe Dignan and John Pomfret

Health Effects From Chernobyl

Not as Severe as Expected

The long-term health and environmental impacts of the 1986 accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine, while severe, were far less catastrophic than feared, according to a major new report by eight U.N. agencies.

The governments of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, the three most affected countries, should strive to end the "paralyzing fatalism" of tens of thousands of their citizens who wrongly believe they are still at risk of an early death, according to the study.

The 600-page report found that as of mid-2005, the accident had caused fewer than 50 deaths directly attributable to radiation, most of them among emergency workers who died in the first months after the accident. In the aftermath of the world's largest nuclear disaster, there were numerous predictions of mass fatalities from radiation.

The report also said that nine children had died of thyroid cancer but said the survival rate among the 4,000 children in the region who developed thyroid cancer has been 99 percent. An expected spike in fertility problems and birth defects also failed to materialize, the study found.

-- Peter Finn