Briefs: The crucial Senate vote gets extra boost from Alaska's Lisa Murkowski

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, pays respects as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg lies in repose under the Portico at the top of the front steps of the U.S. Supreme Court building on Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2020, in Washington. Ginsburg, 87, died of cancer on Sept. 18. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Pool)

Associated Press

The fast-track confirmation process is like none other in U.S. history so close to a presidential election

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett won crucial backing Saturday when one of the last Republican holdouts against filling the seat during an election season announced support for President Donald Trump's pick ahead of a confirmation vote expected Monday.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, declared her support during a rare weekend Senate session as Republicans race to confirm Barrett before Election Day. Senators are set Sunday to push ahead, despite Democratic objections that the winner of the White House on Nov. 3 should make the choice to fill the seat of the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Barrett's nomination already appeared to have enough votes for confirmation from Senate Republicans who hold the majority in the chamber. But Murkowski's nod gives her a boost of support. Only one Republican, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, is now expected to vote against the conservative judge.

"While I oppose the process that has led us to this point, I do not hold it against her," Murkowski said.

The fast-track confirmation process is like none other in U.S. history so close to a presidential election. Calling it a "sham," Democrats mounted procedural hurdles to slow it down. But the minority party has no realistic chance of stopping Barrett's confirmation, which is set to lock a 6-3 conservative court majority for years to come. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., noted the political rancor, but defended his handling of the process.

"Our recent debates have been heated, but curiously talk of Judge Barrett's actual credentials or qualifications are hardly featured," McConnell said. He called her one of the most "impressive" nominees for public office "in a generation."

Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York warned Republicans the only way to remove the "stain" of their action would be to "withdraw the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett until after the election." 

With the nation experiencing a surge of COVID-19 cases, Democrats made several unsuccessful attempts to force the Senate to set aside the judicial fight Saturday and instead consider coronavirus relief legislation, including the House-passed Heroes Act that would pump money into schools, hospitals and jobless benefits and provide other aid. 

Majority Republicans turned aside those efforts and kept Barrett's confirmation on track.

Trump to escalate campaigning as Biden steps up own travel

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump plans to intensify an already breakneck travel schedule in the final full week of the presidential campaign, overlooking a surge of coronavirus cases in the U.S. and a fresh outbreak in his own White House.

Trump is expected to hit nearly a dozen states in his last-ditch effort to recover ground from Democrat Joe Biden, including Sunday's trip to Maine and Tuesday's to Nebraska. Both states award electoral votes by congressional district and could be crucial in a tight election. He will hold 11 rallies in the final 48 hours alone.

Biden, too, plans to pick up his travel schedule, aiming to hit the six battleground states the campaign sees as key to his chances, some with socially distanced in-person events and others with virtual events. On Tuesday the former vice president is traveling to Georgia, a state that hasn't voted for a Democratic presidential candidate in more than a quarter-century but where polls show a tight race.

The final week of the campaign is colliding with deepening concerns about a public health crisis in the U.S. Trump is eager for voters to focus on almost anything else, worried that he will lose if the election becomes a referendum on his handling of the pandemic. Biden is working to ensure the race is just that, hitting Trump on the virus and presenting himself as a safer, more stable alternative.

The stakes were clear this weekend as the White House became the locus for a second outbreak of the virus in a month. Several close aides to Vice President Mike Pence tested positive for the virus, including his chief of staff, Marc Short. Pence, though, was insistent on maintaining his aggressive political calendar, even though he was deemed a "close contact" of his adviser, claiming the privileges of being an "essential employee."

Fear and anxiety spike in virus hot spots across US

Preslie Paur breaks down in tears when she thinks of her state's refusal to mandate face masks.

The South Salt Lake City, Utah, woman can't work at her special education job due to an autoimmune disease. Her husband, also a special ed teacher, recently quit because his school district would not allow him to work remotely to protect her and their 5-year-old son, who has asthma.

"I feel forgotten," Paur said. "We're living in a world we no longer fit in. We did everything right. We went to college, we got jobs, we tried to give back to our community, and now our community is not giving back to us. And I'm very scared."

As President Donald Trump barnstorms the swing states, often downplaying the coronavirus pandemic before largely unmasked crowds, the nation continues to lurch toward what his opponent Joe Biden, citing health experts, warned will be a "dark winter" of disease and death.

White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows told CNN on Sunday that "we're not going to control the pandemic." Asked why, he said it's "because it is a contagious virus just like the flu."

Feeding Houston's hungry

HOUSTON  — In car lines that can stretch half a mile, (0.8 kilometers), workers who lost jobs because of the coronavirus pandemic and other needy people receive staggering amounts of food distributed by the Houston Food Bank. On some days, the hundreds of sites supplied by the country's largest food bank collectively get 1 million pounds.

Among the ranks of recipients is unemployed construction worker Herman Henton, whose wife is a home improvement store worker and now the sole breadwinner for their family of five. They tried to get food stamps but were told they only qualified for $25 of federal food assistance monthly.

"As a man, as a father, as a provider I felt at a low point. I felt low," Henton said as he waited in his car near West Houston Assistance Ministries, which gets food from the Houston Food Bank for its care packages aimed at helping feed families for a week. "In this type of situation there's nothing you can really do."

Distributions by the Houston Food Bank now average about 800,000 pounds (363,000 kilograms) daily after reaching the unprecedented 1 million pound mark for the first time in the spring, a level that the organization still delivers periodically. 

Before the coronavirus struck, the group's average daily distribution was 450,000 pounds (184,000 kilograms), said Houston Food Bank President Brian Greene. 

Wary of angering public, Iran has few ways to contain virus

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — As coronavirus infections reached new heights in Iran this month, overwhelming its hospitals and driving up its death toll, the country's health minister gave a rare speech criticizing his own government's refusal to enforce basic health measures.

"We asked for fines to be collected from anyone who doesn't wear a mask," Saeed Namaki said last week, referring to the government's new mandate for Tehran, the capital. "But go and find out how many people were fined. We said close roads, and yet how many did they close?"

Namaki's speech, lamenting the country's "great suffering" and "hospitals full of patients," clearly laid the blame for the virus' resurgence at the government's door — a stark contrast to the usual speeches from officials who point the finger at the public's defiance of restrictions. 

But one day later, the minister had a vastly different message.

"We should not cause panic for people in vain," Namaki said in a speech carried by the semi-official ISNA news agency. "We should never announce that we don't have empty (hospital) beds. We do have empty beds."

Californians see power shutoffs as winds, fire danger rise

SAN FRANCISCO — Hundreds of thousands of Californians lost power as utilities sought to prevent the chance of their equipment sparking wildfires and the fire-weary state braced for a new bout of dry, windy weather.

More than 1 million people were expected be in the dark Monday during what officials have said could be the strongest wind event in California this year.

It's the fifth time this year that Pacific Gas & Electric, the nation's largest utility, has cut power to customers in a bid to reduce the risk that downed or fouled power lines or other equipment could ignite a blaze during bone-dry weather conditions and gusty winds. On Sunday, the utility shut off power to 225,000 customers in Northern California and planned to do the same for another 136,000 customers in a total of 36 counties.

"This event is by far the largest we've experienced this year, the most extreme weather," said Aaron Johnson, the utility's vice president of wildfire safety and public engagement. "We're trying to find ways to make the events less difficult."

The National Weather Service issued red flag warnings for much of the state, predicting winds of up to 35 mph (56 kph) in lower elevations and more than 70 mph (113 kph) in mountainous areas of Southern California. The concern is that any spark could be blown into flames sweeping through tinder-dry brush and forestland. 

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