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A government report released on Wednesday showed U.S. bankruptcy filings in 2003 were barely changed from record 12-month highs reported three months earlier. Personal bankruptcies for 2003 were up 5.6 percent to 1.63 million from last year while business filings fell 9.1 percent to 35,037, according to data from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. The bill would make it harder for individuals judged able to pay some of their bills to wipe out all of their debts. Instead, they would be put on a five-year repayment plan.

Banks, retailers, credit card companies and auto lenders say the legislation would stop consumers from running up massive debts only to turn to the courthouse and file for bankruptcy to avoid their repayments. Consumer advocates, labor unions and civil rights and women’s groups say the measure is needlessly harsh on people already hit by job uncertainty, while rewarding businesses such as credit card companies that aggressively market consumer loans.

The number of Americans filing for initial jobless benefits rose modestly last week, in line with market expectations, a government report showed on Thursday. First-time claims for state unemployment insurance benefits rose to 350,000 in the week ended Feb. 21, up 6,000 from an unrevised 344,000 the prior week, the Labor Department said.

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