Briefs: Safe harbor law locks Congress into accepting Joe Biden's win

A nurse administers the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at Guy's Hospital in London, Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020. U.K. health authorities rolled out the first doses of a widely tested and independently reviewed COVID-19 vaccine Tuesday, starting a global immunization program that is expected to gain momentum as more serums win approval. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein, Pool)

Associated Press

'I feel so privileged to be the first person vaccinated against COVID-19,' said 91-year-old Margaret Keenan

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Happy Safe Harbor Day, America.

Other than Wisconsin, every state appears to have met a deadline in federal law that essentially means Congress has to accept the electoral votes that will be cast next week and sent to the Capitol for counting on Jan. 6. Those votes will elect Joe Biden as the country's next president.

It's called a safe harbor provision because it's a kind of insurance policy by which a state can lock in its electoral votes by finishing up certification of the results and any state court legal challenges by a congressionally imposed deadline, which this year is Tuesday.

"What federal law requires is that if a state has completed its post-election certification by Dec. 8, Congress is required to accept those results," said Rebecca Green, an election law professor at the William & Mary law school in Williamsburg, Virginia.

The Electoral College is a creation of the Constitution, but Congress sets the date for federal elections and, in the case of the presidency, determines when presidential electors gather in state capitals to vote.

UK's first vaccine begins Tuesday

LONDON — British health authorities rolled out the first doses of a widely tested and independently reviewed COVID-19 vaccine Tuesday, starting a global immunization program that is expected to gain momentum as more serums win approval.

The first shot was given to Margaret Keenan, who turns 91 next week, at University Hospital Coventry, one of several hospitals around the country that are handling the initial phase of the program on what has been dubbed "V-Day." As luck would have it, the second injection went to a man named William Shakespeare, an 81-year-old who hails from Warwickshire, the county where the bard was born. 

"I feel so privileged to be the first person vaccinated against COVID-19," said Keenan, a former jewelry shop assistant, who wore a surgical mask and a blue Merry Christmas T-shirt decorated with a cartoon penguin wearing a Santa hat and red scarf. "It's the best early birthday present I could wish for because it means I can finally look forward to spending time with my family and friends in the New Year after being on my own for most of the year."

The first 800,000 doses are going to people over 80 who are either hospitalized or already have outpatient appointments scheduled, along with nursing home workers. Others will have to wait their turn.

Public health officials have asked the public to be patient because only those who are most at risk from the virus will be vaccinated in the early stages. Medical staff will contact people to arrange appointments, and most will have to wait until next year before there is enough vaccine to expand the program. 

Feds passed up chance to lock in more Pfizer vaccine doses

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump aims to take credit Tuesday for the speedy development of forthcoming coronavirus vaccines, even as his administration is coming under scrutiny for failing to lock in a chance to buy millions of additional doses of one of the leading contenders. 

That decision could delay the delivery of a second batch of doses until manufacturer Pfizer fulfills other international contracts.

The revelation, confirmed Monday by people familiar with the matter, came on the eve of Trump's plans to host a White House summit aimed at celebrating the expected approval of the first vaccine later this week. His administration is seeking to tamp down public skepticism over the vaccine and secure a key component of the Republican president's legacy. 

The focus was to be on the administration's plans to distribute and administer the vaccine, but officials from President-elect Joe Biden's transition team, which will oversee the bulk of the largest vaccination program in the nation's history once he takes office Jan. 20, were not invited.

Pfizer's vaccine is expected to be endorsed by a panel of Food and Drug Administration advisers as soon as this week, with delivery of 100 million doses — enough for 50 million Americans — expected in coming months. 

Medics juggle surgery backlogs and virus fight

PARIS — Chatting before they go under the knife, the two women picture their lives after surgery. Caroline Erganian hopes to be rid of her pain. Lolita Andela imagines being able to be active with her kids. 

After multiple false dawns, they scarcely dare believe that their Paris hospital, no longer monopolized by COVID-19 patients, is once again able to perform their intestinal tucks to treat chronic obesity. When the pandemic was burning through France's health system, the women's surgeries were repeatedly pushed back. But after months of waiting, their turn has now come.

Lying on a gurney, ready to be wheeled into the operating room, Erganian, a retired secretary, tells the surgeon: "I'm doing this surgery to have a better life. So I'm enthusiastic, not a bit scared."

"A new start," replies the surgeon, Lara Ribeiro Parenti, thrilled to be back at work with her scalpel. "This is what we know best and what we enjoy doing. It's a renewal, a new start, for us, too." 

For these women, yes. But many thousands of others in France and other European countries hardest-hit by the pandemic are still waiting for medical procedures that could change their lives and improve their health, but which were deemed nonessential when the virus ripped through hospitals. 

Biden picks Lloyd Austin as secretary of defense

WASHINGTON — President-elect Joe Biden will nominate retired four-star Army general Lloyd J. Austin to be secretary of defense, according to four people familiar with the decision. If confirmed by the Senate, Austin would be the first Black leader of the Pentagon.

Biden selected Austin over the longtime front-runner candidate, Michele Flournoy, a former senior Pentagon official and Biden supporter who would have been the first woman to serve as defense secretary. Biden also had considered Jeh Johnson, a former Pentagon general counsel and former secretary of homeland defense.

The impending nomination of Austin was confirmed by four people with knowledge of the pick who spoke to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity because the selection hadn't been formally announced. Biden offered and Austin accepted the post on Sunday, according to a person familiar with the process.

As a career military officer, the 67-year-old Austin is likely to face opposition from some in Congress and in the defense establishment who believe in drawing a clear line between civilian and military leadership of the Pentagon. Although many previous defense secretaries have served briefly in the military, only two — George C. Marshall and James Mattis — have been career officers. Marshall also served as secretary of state.

Like Mattis, Austin would need to obtain a congressional waiver to serve as defense secretary. Congress intended civilian control of the military when it created the position of secretary of defense in 1947 and prohibited a recently retired military officer from holding the position.

China condemns new US Hong Kong sanctions, Taiwan arms sale

BEIJING — China on Tuesday lashed out at the U.S. over new sanctions against Chinese officials and the sale of more military equipment to Taiwan. 

The U.S. actions are part of what critics see as an effort by the Trump administration to put in place high-pressure tactics toward Beijing that could make it more difficult for President-elect Joe Biden to steady relations. 

The Cabinet's office for Hong Kong affairs expressed "strong outrage and condemnation" over the sanctions leveled against 14 members of the standing committee of China's legislature, which passed a sweeping Hong Kong National Security Law earlier this year. 

Foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying, meanwhile, demanded the U.S. cancel its latest arms sale to Taiwan and said China would make a "proper and necessary response." 

Hua also condemned the new sanctions, saying China would "take resolute and forceful countermeasures and resolutely defend its sovereignty, security and development interests."

Chuck Yeager, 1st to break sound barrier, dies at 97

Retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Charles "Chuck" Yeager, the World War II fighter pilot ace and quintessential test pilot who showed he had the "right stuff" when in 1947 he became the first person to fly faster than sound, has died. He was 97.

Yeager died Monday, his wife, Victoria Yeager, said on his Twitter account. "It is w/ profound sorrow, I must tell you that my life love General Chuck Yeager passed just before 9pm ET. An incredible life well lived, America's greatest Pilot, & a legacy of strength, adventure, & patriotism will be remembered forever."

Yeager's death is "a tremendous loss to our nation," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement.

"Gen. Yeager's pioneering and innovative spirit advanced America's abilities in the sky and set our nation's dreams soaring into the jet age and the space age. He said, 'You don't concentrate on risks. You concentrate on results. No risk is too great to prevent the necessary job from getting done,'" Bridenstine said. 

"In an age of media-made heroes, he is the real deal," Edwards Air Force Base historian Jim Young said in August 2006 at the unveiling of a bronze statue of Yeager. 

Trump thought courts were key to winning. Judges disagreed.

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump and his allies say their lawsuits aimed at subverting the 2020 election and reversing his loss to Joe Biden would be substantiated, if only judges were allowed to hear the cases. 

There is a central flaw in the argument. Judges have heard the cases and have been among the harshest critics of the legal arguments put forth by Trump's legal team, often dismissing them with scathing language of repudiation.

This has been true whether the judge has been appointed by a Democrat or a Republican, including those named by Trump himself.

The judicial rulings that have rejected Trump's unfounded claims of widespread voter fraud have underscored not only the futility of the lame-duck president's brazen attempt to sabotage the people's will but also the role of the courts in checking his unprecedented efforts to stay in power.

On Monday, U.S. District Judge Linda Parker threw out a lawsuit challenging Michigan's election results that had been filed two days after the state certified the results for Biden. Parker, appointed by President Barack Obama, said the case embodied the phrase "This ship has sailed." 

UK-EU talks near collapse ahead of Johnson Brussels trip

LONDON — Britain and the European Union warned Tuesday that talks on a post-Brexit free-trade deal are teetering on the brink of collapse, with just over three weeks until an economic rupture that will cause upheaval for businesses on both sides of the English Channel.

Officials downplayed the chances of a breakthrough when Prime Minister Boris Johnson heads to Brussels for face-to-face talks with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in the next few days.

With negotiators deadlocked on key issues after months of tense talks, German European Affairs Minister Michael Roth said the bloc's confidence in Britain was hanging in the balance.

"What we need is political will in London," said Roth, whose country currently holds the EU's rotating presidency. "Let me be very clear, our future relationship is based on trust and confidence. It's precisely this confidence that is at stake in our negotiations right now.

"We want to reach a deal, but not at any price," Roth told reporters before chairing videoconference talks among his EU counterparts.

Everest is a bit higher than past measurements

KATHMANDU, Nepal — China and Nepal jointly announced a new official height for Mount Everest on Tuesday, ending a discrepancy between the two nations. 

The new height of the world's highest peak is 8,848.86 meters (29,031.7 feet), which is slightly more than Nepal's previous measurement and about four meters (13 feet) higher than China's.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his Nepalese counterpart, Pradeep Gyawali, simultaneously pressed buttons during a virtual conference and the new height flashed on the screen. 

The height of Everest, which is on the border between China and Nepal, was agreed on after surveyors from Nepal scaled the peak in 2019 and a Chinese team did the same in 2020. 

There had been debate over the actual height of the peak and concern that it might have shrunk after a major earthquake in 2015. The quake killed 9,000 people, damaged about 1 million structures in Nepal and triggered an avalanche on Everest that killed 19 people at the base camp.

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