Supreme Court halts COVID-19 vaccine rule for US businesses

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court has stopped a major push by the Biden administration to boost the nation's COVID-19 vaccination rate, a requirement that employees at large businesses get a vaccine or test regularly and wear a mask on the job.

At the same time, the court is allowing the administration to proceed with a vaccine mandate for most health care workers in the U.S. The court’s orders Thursday came during a spike in coronavirus cases caused by the omicron variant.

The court's conservative majority concluded the administration overstepped its authority by seeking to impose the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's vaccine-or-test rule on U.S. businesses with at least 100 employees. More than 80 million people would have been affected and OSHA had estimated that the rule would save 6,500 lives and prevent 250,000 hospitalizations over six months.

“OSHA has never before imposed such a mandate. Nor has Congress. Indeed, although Congress has enacted significant legislation addressing the COVID–19 pandemic, it has declined to enact any measure similar to what OSHA has promulgated here,” the conservatives wrote in an unsigned opinion.

In dissent, the court's three liberals argued that it was the court that was overreaching by substituting its judgment for that of health experts. “Acting outside of its competence and without legal basis, the Court displaces the judgments of the Government officials given the responsibility to respond to workplace health emergencies," Justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor wrote in a joint dissent.


Seditious conspiracy: 11 Oath Keepers charged in Jan. 6 riot

WASHINGTON (AP) — Stewart Rhodes, the founder and leader of the far-right Oath Keepers militia group, and 10 other members or associates have been charged with seditious conspiracy in the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol, authorities said Thursday.

Despite hundreds of charges already brought in the year since pro-Trump rioters stormed the Capitol in an effort to stop the certification of President Joe Biden's 2020 election victory, these were the first seditious conspiracy charges levied in connection with the attack on Jan. 6, 2021.

It marked a serious escalation in the largest investigation in the Justice Department’s history – more than 700 people have been arrested and charged with federal crimes – and highlighted the work that has gone into piecing together the most complicated cases. The charges rebut, in part, the growing chorus of Republican lawmakers who have publicly challenged the seriousness of the insurrection, arguing that since no one had been charged yet with sedition or treason, it could not have been so violent.

The indictment alleges Oath Keepers for weeks discussed trying to overturn the election results and preparing for a siege by purchasing weapons and setting up battle plans. They repeatedly wrote in chats about the prospect of violence and the need, as Rhodes allegedly wrote in one text, “to scare the s—-out of” Congress. And on Jan. 6, the indictment alleges, they entered the Capitol building with the large crowds of rioters who stormed past police barriers and smashed windows, injuring dozens of officers and sending lawmakers running.

Authorities have said the Oath Keepers and their associates worked as if they were going to war, discussing weapons and training. Days before the attack, one defendant suggested in a text message getting a boat to ferry weapons across the Potomac River to their “waiting arms,” prosecutors say.


COVID-19 pill rollout stymied by shortages as omicron rages

WASHINGTON (AP) — Two brand-new COVID-19 pills that were supposed to be an important weapon against the pandemic in the U.S. are in short supply and have played little role in the fight against the omicron wave of infections.

The problem, in part, is that production is still being ramped up and the medicines can take anywhere from five to eight months to manufacture.

While the supply is expected to improve dramatically in the coming months, doctors are clamoring for the pills now, not just because omicron is causing an explosion of cases but because two antibody drugs that were once the go-to treatments don’t work as well against the variant.

“This should be a really joyous time because we now have highly effective antiviral pills,” said Erin McCreary, a pharmacist and administrator at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. “Instead, this feels like the hardest and most chaotic stretch of the pandemic.”

The pills — and other COVID-19 drugs, for that matter — are being carefully rationed, reserved for the highest-risk patients.


In Washington, a day of snapshots of divisions and futility

WASHINGTON (AP) — There was a closed-door huddle by an embattled President Joe Biden with his own party's senators, apparently for naught. An eyebrow-raising speech on the Senate floor by a recalcitrant Democrat. And a defiant news conference by the top House Republican.

Each event occurred Thursday. None was helpful for Democrats. And all were snapshots from a day that underscored the divisiveness and futility washing over a largely gridlocked Washington during this jaggedly partisan time.

“I hope we get this done. The honest to God answer is I don’t know whether we can get this done,” Biden admitted to reporters after a lunchtime meeting with Senate Democrats, where he sought support for the party's latest foundering priority: voting rights legislation.

Biden said that even if the voting measure failed — as seemed certain — he'd stay in the fight “as long as I have a breath in me.” Even so, the day's events illustrated his limited political capital at a time when his polling numbers are in the dumps and Democrats have almost no margin for error in a Congress they control by a hair’s breadth.

Biden's party is focusing much of its energy these days on the voting rights bill and an investigation of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol by supporters of then-President Donald Trump trying to prevent lawmakers from certifying his reelection defeat. Both efforts are running headlong into GOP opposition.


RFK assassin Sirhan Sirhan will remain in prison

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Sirhan Sirhan, who assassinated presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, was denied parole Thursday by California’s governor, who said the killer remains a threat to the public and hasn’t taken responsibility for a crime that altered American history.

Kennedy, a U.S. senator from New York, was shot moments after he claimed victory in California’s pivotal Democratic presidential primary. Five others were wounded during the shooting at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.

Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has cited RFK as his political hero, rejected a recommendation from a two-person panel of parole commissioners who said Sirhan, 77, should be freed. The panel’s recommendation in August had divided the Kennedy family, with two of RFK’s sons — Douglas Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. — supporting his release, and their siblings and mother vehemently opposing it.

In his decision, Newsom said the assassination was “among the most notorious crimes in American history,” Aside from causing Kennedy’s then-pregnant wife and 10 children “immeasurable suffering,” Newsom said the killing “also caused great harm to the American people.”

It “upended the 1968 presidential election, leaving millions in the United States and beyond mourning the promise of his candidacy,” Newsom wrote. “Mr. Sirhan killed Senator Kennedy during a dark season of political assassinations, just nine weeks after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder and four and a half years after the murder of Senator Kennedy’s brother, President John F. Kennedy.”


Biden chooses 3 for Fed board, including first Black woman

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden will nominate three people for the Federal Reserve's Board of Governors, including Sarah Bloom Raskin, a former Fed and Treasury official, for the top regulatory slot and Lisa Cook, who would be the first Black woman to serve on the Fed's board.

Biden will also nominate Phillip Jefferson, an economist, dean of faculty at Davidson College in North Carolina and a former Fed researcher, according to a person familiar with the decision Thursday who was not authorized to speak on the record. The three nominees, who will have to be confirmed by the Senate, would fill out the Fed's seven-member board.

The nominees would join the Fed at a particularly challenging time in which the central bank will undertake the delicate task of raising its benchmark interest rate to try to curb high inflation, without undercutting the recovery from the pandemic recession. On Wednesday, the government reported that inflation reached a four-decade high in December. Inflation has become the economy's most serious problem, a burden for millions of American households and a political threat to the Biden administration.

Raskin's nomination to the position of Fed vice chair for supervision — the nation's top bank regulator — will be welcomed by progressive senators and advocacy groups, who see her as likely to take a tougher approach to bank regulation than Randal Quarles, a Trump appointee who stepped down from that post last month. She is also viewed as someone committed to incorporating climate change considerations into the Fed's oversight of banks. For that reason, though, she has already drawn opposition from some Republican senators.

A Harvard-trained lawyer, Raskin, 60, previously served on the Fed’s seven-member board from 2010 to 2014. President Barack Obama then chose her to serve as deputy Treasury secretary, the No. 2 job in the department.


Businesses react to ruling against Biden vaccine mandate

For companies that were waiting to hear from the U.S. Supreme Court before deciding whether to require vaccinations or regular coronavirus testing for workers, the next move is up to them.

Many large corporations were silent on Thursday's ruling by the high court to block a requirement that workers at businesses with at least 100 employees be fully vaccinated or else test regularly for COVID-19 and wear a mask on the job.

Target's response was typical: The big retailer said it wanted to review the decision and “how it will impact our team and business.”

The Biden administration argues that nothing in federal law prevents private businesses from imposing their own vaccine requirements. However, companies could run into state bans on vaccine mandates in Republican-controlled states. And relatively few businesses enacted their own rules ahead of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration requirement, raising doubt that there will be rush for them now.

In legal terms, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority said the OSHA lacked authority to impose such a mandate on big companies. The court, however, let stand a vaccination requirement for most health care workers.


The heat stays on: Earth hits 6th warmest year on record

Earth simmered to the sixth hottest year on record in 2021, according to several newly released temperature measurements.

And scientists say the exceptionally hot year is part of a long-term warming trend that shows hints of accelerating.

Two U.S. science agencies — NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — and a private measuring group released their calculations for last year's global temperature on Thursday, and all said it wasn’t far behind ultra-hot 2016 and 2020.

Six different calculations found 2021 was between the fifth and seventh hottest year since the late 1800s. NASA said 2021 tied with 2018 for sixth warmest, while NOAA puts last year in sixth place by itself.

Scientists say a La Nina — natural cooling of parts of the central Pacific that changes weather patterns globally and brings chilly deep ocean water to the surface — dampened global temperatures just as its flip side, El Nino, boosted them in 2016.


EXPLAINER: Why didn't China send troops to aid Kazakhstan?

BEIJING (AP) — China gave strong verbal backing to Kazakhstan’s leader for his deadly crackdown to quell violent unrest, but stood aside as Russia sent in special forces troops.

Resource-rich Kazakhstan, on China's western border, has economic and strategic importance for Beijing and is an important link in its “Belt and Road" infrastructure initiative to expand its global trade and political influence in rivalry with the U.S. and its allies.

China's response to the crisis underscores how it prefers to influence outcomes with verbal assurances and offers of assistance, without committing troops.

“The growing closeness between Russia and China means we can expect more rhetorical support for Moscow’s overseas ventures, particularly when they go up against Western geostrategic aims," said Rana Mitter, an Oxford University China expert.

“However, China remains extremely reluctant to deploy People's Liberation Army troops outside its own territory, except in areas such as U.N. peacekeeping operations, as it would contradict its constant statements that unlike the U.S., China does not intervene in other countries’ conflicts," Mitter said.


Manatee feeding experiment starts slowly as cold looms

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — An unprecedented, experimental attempt to feed manatees facing starvation in Florida has started slowly but wildlife officials expressed optimism Thursday that it will work as cold weather drives the marine mammals toward warmer waters.

A feeding station established along the state's east coast has yet to entice wild manatees with romaine lettuce even though the animals will eat it in captivity, officials said on a news conference held remotely.

Water pollution from agricultural, urban and other sources has triggered algae blooms that have decimated seagrass beds on which manatees depend, leading to a record 1,101 manatee deaths largely from starvation in 2021. The typical five-year average is about 625 deaths.

That brought about the lettuce feeding program, part of a joint manatee death response group led by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It remains a violation of state and federal law for people to feed manatees on their own.

“We have not documented animals foraging on the lettuce,” said Ron Mezich, chief of the joint effort's provisioning branch. “We know manatees will eat lettuce.”

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