In Brief: September 29, 2021

Big pressure on Biden, Dems to trim $3.5T federal overhaul

WASHINGTON — Pressure mounting, President Joe Biden and Democrats in Congress strained Tuesday to trim back his potentially historic $3.5 trillion government overhaul to win support from two key holdout senators ahead of make-or-break deadlines for votes.


With Republicans solidly opposed and no votes to spare, Biden canceled a Wednesday trip to Chicago that was to focus on COVID-19 vaccinations so he could continue working on a deal, according to a White House official granted anonymity to discuss the planning.

Democrats are poised to adjust the huge measure’s tax proposals and spending goals to meet the overall size demanded by party colleagues Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. The two say Biden’s plan is too big but are publicly quiet about a number they can live with.

The president met separately with them Tuesday at the White House, making apparent progress before a Thursday test vote.

As the legislation comes into focus, the adjustments will follow —child care subsidies could be offered for several years, or just a few. Funding to expand health care programs could start later or end sooner. Tax hikes on corporations and the wealthy may be adjusted. And provisions to fight climate change or curb prescription drug prices could change.

Pfizer vaccine for kids may not be available until November

WASHINGTON — Pfizer has submitted research to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on the effectiveness of its COVID-19 vaccine in children but the shots may not be available until November.

The company said Tuesday it provided health regulators with data from a recent study of its vaccine in children 5 to 11 years old. Officials had said previously they would file an application with the FDA to authorize use in the coming weeks.

Once the company files its application, U.S. regulators and public health officials will review the evidence and consult with their advisory committees in public meetings to determine if the shots are safe and effective enough to recommend use.

That process may mean the shots may not be available until closer to Thanksgiving, according to a person familiar with the process but not authorized to discuss it publicly. But it is possible that, depending on how quickly the FDA acts, the shots could become available earlier in November, the person said.

The drugmaker and its partner, Germany’s BioNTech, say they expect to request emergency use authorization of their vaccine in children ages 5 to 11 “in the coming weeks.” The companies also plan to submit data to the European Medicines Agency and other regulators.

North Korea says hypersonic missile made 1st test flight

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea said Wednesday it successfully tested a new hypersonic missile it implied was being developed as nuclear capable, as it continues to expand its military capabilities and pressure Washington and Seoul over long-stalled negotiations over its nuclear weapons.

The missile test early Tuesday was North Korea’s third round of launches this month and took place shortly before North Korea’s U.N. envoy accused the United States of hostility and demanded the Biden administration permanently end joint military exercises with South Korea and the deployment of strategic assets in the region.

A photo published in North Korea’s state media showed a missile mounted with a finned, cone-shaped payload soaring into the air amid bright orange flames. The official Korean Central News Agency said the missile during its first flight test met key technical requirements, including launch stability and the maneuverability and flight characteristics of the “detached hypersonic gliding warhead.”

The North’s announcement came a day after the South Korean and Japanese militaries said they detected North Korea firing a missile into its eastern sea. The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command said the launch highlighted “the destabilizing impact of (North Korea’s) illicit weapons program.”

North Korea last week made offers to improve relations with the South if certain conditions are met, apparently returning to its pattern of mixing weapons demonstrations with peace overtures to wrest outside concessions.

Haiti plans to hold elections next year

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Struggling with political turmoil and the aftermath of an earthquake, Haiti’s prime minister said Tuesday that he plans to hold a referendum to modify the country’s constitution by February, and he hopes to organize presidential and legislative elections early next year.

In an interview with The Associated Press at his official residence, Ariel Henry dismissed opponents who accuse him of wanting to stay in power and said that mistrust is one of the biggest challenges he faces.

The referendum is a priority, Henry said, because the current constitution is rejected by a majority of political figures and civil society leaders. He said an electoral council that will be responsible for setting dates has yet to be named after he recently dissolved the previous provisional council.

From wire sources

“The elections must be held as soon as possible,” he said as he lamented the lack of trust among Haitians. “People don’t believe what is being said.”

Just hours after he spoke, members of the provisional council that Henry dissolved issued a statement saying they plan to contest the prime minister’s actions and accused him of violating Haitian law because only a president has the power to dismiss them. The council added that it will continue to work on organizing the upcoming elections.


A jury convicted R. Kelly; will his music face consequences?

NEW YORK — Will a criminal conviction do to R. Kelly’s music what years of ugly allegations couldn’t?

It’s unlikely that Monday’s moment of justice — when a federal jury in New York found the 54-year-old R&B superstar guilty of all nine counts in a sex trafficking trial — will mean much for his fans, given all the awful things they had learned already, some observers say.

“The lines have already been drawn,” said Jem Aswad, deputy music editor for the trade publication Variety, who has been covering R. Kelly for 20 years. “The people that are going to listen to R. Kelly’s music are still listening to it. I don’t think a guilty verdict is going to change their minds.”

Still, advocates hope the criminal conviction brings a moral reckoning.

Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement, understands how irresistible the music of R. Kelly can be for people who grooved to songs like “Ignition,” but said, “People should just have a second thought about the message that it sends.”


On climate change, Biden $3.5T plan making up for lost time

WASHINGTON — As President Joe Biden visited one disaster site after another this summer — from California wildfires to hurricane-induced flooding in Louisiana and New York — he said climate change is “everybody’s crisis” and America must get serious about the “code red” danger posed by global warming.

In many ways, the president is making up for lost time.

Biden and Democrats are pursuing a sweeping $3.5 trillion federal overhaul that includes landmark measures to address climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions in what would be the most consequential environmental policies ever enacted, after years of fits and starts.

Sidelined after the former administration withdrew from the landmark Paris climate accord — the 2015 global effort to confront climate change — the U.S. has returned to the arena, with Biden promising world leaders in April that the U.S. would cut carbon pollution in half by 2030.

But following through on Biden’s climate goals depends in large part on passage of the Democratic package, and it will take the White House’s heft to close the deal between centrist and progressive lawmakers, including disputes over its climate provisions.


South Dakota AG reviewing Noem’s meeting with daughter

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — South Dakota’s attorney general said Tuesday he is reviewing concerns from state lawmakers over a meeting Gov. Kristi Noem held last year that included both her daughter and a state employee who was overseeing her daughter’s application to become a certified real estate appraiser.

“I have been contacted by concerned citizens and legislators,” Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg said in a statement. “I am actively reviewing their concerns and I will be following the steps prescribed in codified law in relation to those questions.”

Ravnsborg didn’t immediately respond to a question about what steps he might take. The attorney general is tasked under state law with issuing legal opinions to lawmakers.

The Associated Press reported Monday that Noem held the meeting shortly after the state agency had moved to deny her daughter the license last year. Noem’s daughter eventually received her license four months later. Afterward, the state employee who directed the agency was allegedly pressured to retire by Noem’s cabinet secretary. The state employee, Sherry Bren, eventually received a $200,000 payment from the state to withdraw the complaint and leave her job.

Ethics experts said the episode raised concerns that the governor had abused the power of her office.


Couple celebrating 50th anniversary died in train derailment

SAVANNAH, Ga. — Don Varnadoe spent months watching videos about train trips on his office computer in preparation for a special cross-country vacation to celebrate his and Margie Varnadoe’s 50th wedding anniversary.

He phoned his co-workers in coastal Georgia, where he sold real estate for decades, from the first leg of their trip Friday to let them know it was turning into a dream vacation.

“He had called the office and said how excited they were,” said Robert Kozlowski, managing broker at Coldwell Banker Access Realty in the port city of Brunswick. “They were in Washington, D.C., and headed west.”

A day later, the couple died when an Amtrak train they were on derailed in rural Montana.

They were among three people who died along with a 28-year-old Illinois man named Zachariah Schneider, according to the Liberty County Sheriff’s Office in Montana. Schneider was a software developer and big Green Bay Packers fan. He was traveling to Oregon with his wife, Rebecca Schneider, who survived and filed a lawsuit Tuesday against Amtrak and BNSF Railway.



Theranos CEO wooed investors while lab director saw trouble

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Fallen Silicon Valley star Elizabeth Holmes convinced media mogul Rupert Murdoch and other billionaires to invest in her biotechnology startup despite warnings its unconventional blood tests were dangerously unreliable, according to evidence presented Tuesday during her criminal trial.

The revelations emerged during the eighth day of a high-profile trial revolving around allegations Holmes duped investors, customers and unwitting patients as CEO of Theranos, a company she founded after dropping out of college in 2003 when she was 19.

Holmes briefly became a Silicon Valley sensation while peddling the premise she had invented a breakthrough technology scan for an array of health problems using just a few drops of blood taken with a finger prick.

But Adam Rosendorff, a medical doctor who oversaw Theranos’ clinical laboratory from September 2013 through November 2014, drew a darker picture Tuesday while testifying as witness for the federal government prosecutors trying to convince a jury to convict Holmes on 12 counts of fraud.

Holmes, 37, has pleaded innocent, maintaining she poured nearly 15 years of her life pursuing a great idea that simply didn’t pan out. She could be sentenced to 20 years in prison if convicted.

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