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Making history, Harris briefly becomes first US woman to hold presidential power

‘Another chapter in that history for many women, young girls across the country,’ says White House after hour-long transfer of authority while Biden was under anesthesia

Vice President Kamala Harris speaks at the Tribal Nations Summit in the South Court Auditorium on the White House campus, on Tuesday, November 16, 2021, in Washington, DC. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Vice President Kamala Harris speaks at the Tribal Nations Summit in the South Court Auditorium on the White House campus, on Tuesday, November 16, 2021, in Washington, DC. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

WASHINGTON (AFP) — A smiling United States President Joe Biden returned Friday to the White House from an extended medical checkup during which US Vice President Kamala Harris briefly assumed the presidency while he was under anesthesia.

“I feel great,” Biden, wearing his trademark aviator sunglasses, said after disembarking from the Marine One helicopter. “We’re in great shape.”

The White House said a “comprehensive written summary” of the results from the president’s medical exam would be made public Friday.

While the visit at Walter Reed hospital was described as a routine, once-a-year exam, the requirement for Biden to transfer power while sedated during a colonoscopy made history.

However briefly, Harris became the first woman to hold presidential power in the US. 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 EST. “The president resumed his duties at 11:35 am,” the White House said in a statement.

“Today that was another chapter in that history for many women, young girls across the country,” Press Secretary Jen Psaki said, noting Harris’ trailblazing role.

The oldest person to hold the presidency in US history, Biden’s check-up took place on the eve of his 79th birthday.

US President Joe Biden waves as he walks out of the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center after a physical exam, on Friday, November 19, 2021, in Bethesda, MD. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Although the administration stressed 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, causing surprise.

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 anesthetized 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 then-US president George W. Bush underwent the same procedure in 2002 and 2007.

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.

Vigorous

In a letter released by his election campaign in December 2019, Biden’s physician 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.

US President Joe Biden pardons the national Thanksgiving turkey, Peanut Butter, in the Rose Garden of the White House, in Washington, DC, on Friday, November 19, 2021. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

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.

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