Briefs: Congress OKs relief bill

The Washington skyline is seen at dawn with from left the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, and the U.S. Capitol.(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, file)

Associated Press

The $900 billion pandemic relief package now goes to President Donald Trump for his signature

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Congress passed a $900 billion pandemic relief package that would finally deliver long-sought cash to businesses and individuals and resources to vaccinate a nation confronting a frightening surge in COVID-19 cases and deaths. 

Lawmakers tacked on a $1.4 trillion catchall spending bill and thousands of pages of other end-of-session business in a massive bundle of bipartisan legislation as Capitol Hill prepared to close the books on the year. The bill approved Monday night went to President Donald Trump for his signature, which was expected in the coming days.

The relief package, unveiled Monday afternoon, sped through the House and Senate in a matter of hours. The Senate cleared the massive package by a 92-6 vote after the House approved the COVID-19 package by another lopsided vote, 359-53. The tallies were a bipartisan coda to months of partisanship and politicking as lawmakers wrangled over the relief question, a logjam that broke after President-elect Joe Biden urged his party to accept a compromise with top Republicans that is smaller than many Democrats would have liked.

The bill combines coronavirus-fighting funds with financial relief for individuals and businesses. It would establish a temporary $300 per week supplemental jobless benefit and a $600 direct stimulus payment to most Americans, along with a new round of subsidies for hard-hit businesses, restaurants, and theaters and money for schools, health care providers and renters facing eviction. 

The 5,593-page legislation — by far the longest bill ever — came together Sunday after months of battling, posturing and postelection negotiating that reined in a number of Democratic demands as the end of the congressional session approached. Biden was eager for a deal to deliver long-awaited help to suffering people and a boost to the economy, even though it was less than half the size that Democrats wanted in the fall.

Still stuck: 1,500 France-bound trucks stranded in England

LONDON — More than 1,500 trucks were stranded in England on Tuesday morning amid fears that Britain could face food shortages if travel restrictions put in place to slow the spread of a new strain of the coronavirus aren't lifted soon. 

Dozens of countries around the world have slapped tough travel curbs on the U.K. in recent days: From Canada to India, nations banned flights from Britain, while France barred the entry of trucks from the country for 48 hours from late Sunday while the strain is assessed.

Home Secretary Priti Patel told BBC radio that the British government is "speaking constantly" with France to achieve a swift resolution in order to get freight moving again. In the meantime, trucks were piling up in Kent, the county in southeast England that is home to some of the most popular cross-Channel ports.

Patel said 650 vehicles were lined up on the main highway into the Port of Dover, while another 873 had been redirected to the nearby disused Manston Airport.

"It's in both our interests, both countries to ensure that we have flow, and of course there are European hauliers right now who want to be going home," she said.

Barr undercuts Trump on election and Hunter Biden inquiries

WASHINGTON — Undercutting President Donald Trump on multiple fronts, Attorney General William Barr said Monday he saw no reason to appoint a special counsel to look into the president's claims about the 2020 election or to name one for the tax investigation of President-elect Joe Biden's son.

Barr, in his final public appearance as a member of Trump's Cabinet, also reinforced the belief of federal officials that Russia was behind a massive hack of U.S. government agencies, not China as the president has suggested.

Barr is leaving the Justice Department this week, having morphed from one of Trump's most loyal allies to one of the few members of the Cabinet willing to contradict the president openly. That's been particularly true since the election, with Barr declaring in an interview with The AP that he had seen no evidence of widespread voting fraud, even as Trump continued to make false claims about the integrity of the contest. 

The president has also grown particularly angry that Barr didn't announce the existence of a two-year-old investigation of Hunter Biden before the election. On Monday, Barr said that investigation was "being handled responsibly and professionally."

"I have not seen a reason to appoint a special counsel and I have no plan to do so before I leave," he said, adding that there was also no need for a special counsel to investigate the election. 

Congress takes aim at climate change in massive relief bill

WASHINGTON — The huge pandemic relief and spending bill includes billions of dollars to promote clean energy such as wind and solar power while sharply reducing over time the use of potent coolants in air conditioners and refrigerators that are considered a major driver of global warming.

The energy and climate provisions, supported by lawmakers from both parties, were hailed as the most significant climate change law in at least a decade.

"Republicans and Democrats are working together to protect the environment through innovation," said Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

"This historic agreement includes three separate pieces of legislation that will significantly reduce greenhouse gases,'' Barrasso said, citing measures that promote technologies to "capture" and store carbon dioxide produced by power and manufacturing plants; reduce diesel emissions in buses and other vehicles; and authorize a 15-year reduction of hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, that are used in everything from cars to air conditioners. HFCs are considered a major driver of global warming and are being targeted worldwide.

"All three of these measures will protect our air while keeping costs down for the American people,'' Barrasso said. 

Air Force: Blacks are more likely investigated, disciplined

WASHINGTON — Black service members in the Air Force are far more likely to be investigated, arrested, face disciplinary actions and be discharged for misconduct, according to a new report that looked at racial disparities across the service.

The report by the Air Force inspector general, released Monday, said Black members of the Air Force and Space Force are less likely to be promoted to higher enlisted and officer ranks, and one-third of them believe they don't get the same opportunities as their white peers. And it concluded that "racial disparity exists" for Black service members, but that the data did not explain why it happens.

The report comes as the Pentagon struggles with a broader effort to expand diversity within the ranks. The Defense Department last week endorsed a new slate of initiatives to more aggressively recruit, retain and promote a more racially and ethnically diverse force. And it called for a plan to crack down on participation in hate groups by service members and draft proposed changes to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. 

The Air Force IG report outlined data for racial inequities that have long been suspected. It said that a large number of Black service members reported experiences with bias and racism. And while those reports were difficult to validate within the study, the review concluded that it was "reasonable to conclude that individual acts of racism have occurred in the Department of the Air Force."

One Black squadron commander who was interviewed, for example, said the only mentoring he received throughout his career was from other Black leaders. And he said at times Black service members make one mistake, and it ends their career.

US public school enrollment dips as virus disrupts education

Fearful of sending her two children back to school as the coronavirus pandemic raged in Mississippi, Angela Atkins decided to give virtual learning a chance this fall.

Almost immediately, it was a struggle. Their district in Lafayette County didn't offer live instruction to remote learners, and Atkins' fourth grader became frustrated with doing worksheets all day and missed interacting with teachers and peers. Her seventh grader didn't receive the extra support he did at school through his special education plan — and started getting failing grades.

After nine weeks, Atkins switched to home schooling.

"It got to the point where it felt like there was no other choice to make," she said. "I was worried for my kids' mental health."

By taking her children off the public school rolls, Atkins joined an exodus that one state schools chief has warned could become a national crisis. An analysis of data from 33 states obtained by Chalkbeat and The Associated Press shows that public K-12 enrollment this fall has dropped across those states by more than 500,000 students, or 2%, since the same time last year.

Vaccine injury claims could face bureaucratic 'black hole'

Lost in the U.S. launch of the coronavirus vaccine is a fact most don't know when they roll up their sleeves: In rare cases of serious illness from the shots, the injured are blocked from suing and steered instead to an obscure federal bureaucracy with a record of seldom paying claims.

Housed in a nondescript building in a Washington, D.C., suburb, the Countermeasures Injury Compensation Program has just four employees and few hallmarks of an ordinary court. Decisions are made in secret by government officials, claimants can't appeal to a judge and payments in most death cases are capped at $370,376.

George Washington University law professor Peter Meyers has followed the program for years and bluntly calls it a "black hole," obtaining federal documents this summer showing it has paid fewer than 1 in 10 claims in its 15-year history.

Vaccines historically provide broad protection with little risk but come with side effects just as any other drugs. Few unexpected adverse effects have been reported in the early days of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine distribution in the U.S., though an Alaska health worker suffered a severe allergic reaction that included shortness of breath.

But experts are concerned that with the sheer volume of people expected to get coronavirus vaccines in the U.S. — more than 200 million — even a successful rollout with relatively few ill effects could be enough to swamp the program.

Senator: Treasury Dept. email accounts compromised in hack

WASHINGTON — Dozens of email accounts at the Treasury Department were compromised in a massive breach of U.S. government agencies being blamed on Russia, with hackers breaking into systems used by the department's highest-ranking officials, a senator said Monday after being briefed on the matter.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., provided new details of the hack following a briefing to Senate Finance Committee staff by the IRS and Treasury Department. 

Wyden said that though there is no indication that taxpayer data was compromised, the hack "appears to be significant," including through the compromise of dozens of email accounts and access to the Departmental Offices division of the Treasury Department, which the senator said was home to its highest-ranking officials. In addition, the breach appears to involve the theft of encryption keys from U.S. government servers, Wyden said.

"Treasury still does not know all of the actions taken by hackers, or precisely what information was stolen," Wyden said in a statement.

It is also not clear what Russian hackers intend to do with any emails they may have accessed.

California desperately searches for more nurses and doctors

SAN FRANCISCO — Since the coronavirus pandemic took hold in the U.S., Sara Houze has been on the road — going from one hospital to another to care for COVID-19 patients on the brink of death. 

A cardiac intensive care nurse from Washington, D.C., with expertise in heart rhythm, airway and pain management, her skills are in great demand as infections and hospitalizations skyrocket nationwide. Houze is among more than 500 nurses, doctors and other medical staff California has brought in and deployed to hospitals that are running out of capacity to treat the most severe COVID-19 cases. 

Her six-week assignment started Monday in San Bernardino, about 60 miles (97 kilometers) east of Los Angeles, and she anticipates working 14-hour shifts with a higher-than-usual caseload. San Bernardino County has 1,545 people in hospitals and more than 125 are in makeshift "surge" beds, which are being used because regular hospital space isn't available. 

"I expect patients to die. That's been my experience: they die, I put them in body bags, the room gets cleaned and then another patient comes," Houze said.

Much of California has exhausted its usual ability to staff intensive care beds, and the nation's most populated state is desperately searching for 3,000 temporary medical workers to meet demand. State officials are reaching out to foreign partners in places like Australia and Taiwan amid a shortage of temporary medical workers in the U.S., particularly nurses trained in critical care.

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