Highlights from Washington:

Military $, nukes, the media

* The Senate voted yesterday to provide $70 billion for U.S. military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, handing a victory to President Bush and his GOP allies on Capitol Hill. Bush was ready to sign the bill, assuming the war funding clears the House today.

* President Bush has approved "a

significant reduction" in the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile, cutting it to less than one-quarter its size at the end of the Cold War, the White House said yesterday.

* The Federal Communications

Commission, overturning a 32-year-old ban, voted yesterday to allow broadcasters in the nation's 20 largest media markets to also own a newspaper. Another new FCC rule would stipulate that no one company can control more than 30 percent of the cable TV market.

NASA knows why gauge failed,

but not when shuttle will fly

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - NASA traced fuel gauge failures in shuttle Atlantis' tank to a bad connector, and a top manager said he did not know how long it would take to replace the part or when the spaceship might fly.

The erratic shuttle fuel gauges - part of a critical safety system - forced back-to-back launch delays this month. Until yesterday's tanking test, NASA had been aiming for a Jan. 10 liftoff of Atlantis with a European space station lab.

* In orbit, spacewalking astronauts helped pinpoint the source of a flawed mechanism in the International Space Station's power system. But they unearthed few clues involving an even bigger problem with a fouled rotating joint for the solar wings.

Conn. mall's Santa complains

he was groped by a woman

DANBURY, Conn. - A Santa Claus at Danbury Fair mall says that a woman who sat on his lap was naughty, not nice. "The security officer at the mall said Santa Claus has been sexually assaulted," police Detective Lt. Thomas Michael said of the weekend complaint.

Sandrama Lamy, 33, was charged with sexual assault and breach of peace. She was released on a promise to appear in court on Jan. 3.

Police quickly found and identified Lamy because the woman was described as being on crutches. A call seeking comment was returned by a woman who said: "It's a false report and I don't have any idea."

Police did not give the name of the Santa, but they said he is 65 and felt bad because children were waiting to see him. "He was apparently shocked and embarrassed by the whole incident," Myles said.

A spokeswoman for Cherry Hill Photo in New Jersey, the company that coordinates Santas for Danbury Fair, declined to comment yesterday.

Ariz. set to get tough on firms that hire illegal immigrants

LOS ANGELES - The legal effort to block what is widely considered the nation's toughest law against employers who hire illegal immigrants may be headed for a setback in Arizona after a federal judge said yesterday that he was not inclined to stop the law from going into effect Jan. 1.

Judge Neil V. Wake said that the business and civil rights groups that had challenged Arizona's law had erred by not initially suing the county attorneys who will enforce the law, which he suggested protects the rights of law-abiding workers.

The hearing was part of a feverish legal effort to block the law, which penalizes employers who knowingly hire illegal workers by suspending their business license on a first offense and revoking it for a second.

Judge says adoptive couple

told news media a big fat lie

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - A man who gained national media attention by claiming he was not allowed to adopt a baby because of his weight was awarded temporary custody of the child, but the judge chided him and his wife, saying they knew the primary reason the boy had been removed from their home had nothing to do with obesity.

Gary and Cindy Stocklaufer had violated adoption law when they failed to obtain some required paperwork when the baby was moved into Missouri from another state, Jackson County Circuit Judge John R. O'Malley said in his order, which he made public yesterday.

After their petition to adopt the baby, Max, was denied in July by another judge, the couple publicly said it had been because Gary Stocklaufer weighed 550 pounds at the time. The 35-year-old underwent gastric bypass surgery for free from a Dallas clinic in August after the publicity and has lost about 200 pounds.

Teen goes on a Pacific cruise, then an urgent chopper ride

SAN DIEGO - A teen whose appendix ruptured at sea got safely to shore yesterday after the Navy airlifted her from a cruise ship for emergency surgery.

Laura Montero, 14, fell ill aboard the Dawn Princess cruise ship off the coast of Baja California. The Bahamian-registered ship sent out a distress call Friday that was answered by the USS Ronald Reagan, which was on training maneuvers about 500 miles away.

Montero appeared to be doing well as she gave a brief interview with reporters at Rady Children's Hospital in San Diego. "I'd like to thank the captain of the Dawn Princess, the surgeon and the crew and everyone on the USS Ronald Reagan," she said, flashing a shy grin. She said she was usually "a tiny bit" scared of heights but hadn't been nervous when she was hoisted on a flat stretcher into the 'copter that came to fetch her. *

- Daily News wire services