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Wednesday December 08, 2021

Kamala Harris becomes first woman to briefly US hold presidential powers

US President Joe Biden went in for his medical check-up on the eve of his 79th birthday during which Harris was given the powers

By AFP
November 19, 2021
US Vice President Kamala Harris speaks on stage at the Chase Center before President-elect Joe Bidens address to the nation November 7, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware. — AFP/File
US Vice President Kamala Harris speaks on stage at the Chase Center before President-elect Joe Biden's address to the nation November 7, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware. — AFP/File

WASHINGTON: President Joe Biden transferred power to Vice President Kamala Harris for a historic one hour and 25 minutes Friday while he was being sedated for a colonoscopy as part of a regular health check.

However briefly, Harris became the first woman to hold presidential power in the United States. She is already the first female vice-president.

The White House press office said that official letters to Congress declaring the temporary transfer of power were sent at 10:10 am (1510 GMT).

"The president resumed his duties at 11:35 am," (1635 GMT), the White House said in a statement.

Press Secretary Jen Psaki tweeted that Biden had spoken with Harris and his chief of staff and "was in good spirits." He remained at the presidential facility at Walter Reed hospital to complete "the rest of his routine physical."

The oldest person to hold the presidency in US history, Biden went in for his medical check-up on the eve of his 79th birthday.

The White House described the appointment as a "routine annual physical." It was Biden's first since taking office in January.

Despite the administration's stressing that there was nothing unusual in the hospital visit, Biden's departure by motorcade from the White House early Friday was announced at the last minute.

His public schedule, issued the previous night, listed only the traditional ceremony to "pardon" a turkey ahead of Thanksgiving and departure for a weekend at home in Delaware.

Because Biden was being anesthetised during the colonoscopy, he had to hand over power under the constitution, putting Harris, 57, temporarily in charge of the US armed forces and nuclear weapons arsenal.

Harris made an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic Party nomination in 2020, before being picked as Biden's running mate. While holding the temporary presidential reins she continued to "work from her office in the West Wing," Psaki said.

Psaki noted that a similar temporary transfer of power, "following the process set out in the Constitution," had been carried out when president George W. Bush underwent the same procedure in 2002 and 2007.

Psaki said that a written "summary" of the findings from the president's exam would be released "later this afternoon."

Any details on Biden's health are sure to be closely watched, given speculation on whether he will stand by his stated intention to seek a second term in 2024.

Biden pledged before his election a year ago to be "totally transparent" with voters about all aspects of his health.

'Vigorous'

In a letter released by his election campaign in December 2019, Biden's physician had described him as "a healthy, vigorous, 77-year-old male, who is fit to successfully execute the duties of the presidency."

Biden does not smoke or drink, and prior to his election worked out at least five days per week, according to the letter.

He was vaccinated early on against COVID-19, and received a booster shot in September.

The health check comes at a crucial moment in his presidency, with the House of Representatives voting to send Biden's huge "Build Back Better" social spending agenda to the Senate for approval. Earlier this week, Biden signed into law another package to fund the biggest national infrastructure revamp in more than half a century.

The twin victories come after weeks of falling approval ratings for Biden and setbacks for his Democratic Party ahead of next year's midterm elections when the Republicans are widely predicted to take control of at least the lower house of Congress.

After returning from hospital, Biden was due to participate in the annual custom of issuing a presidential "pardon" to a turkey, with the bird being spared from next week's Thanksgiving meals. He was then due to fly for the weekend to his family home in Delaware, where he will celebrate his birthday Saturday.