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AP News in Brief at 11:04 p.m. EST

Houston concert deaths spur calls for independent review

HOUSTON (AP) — The Houston police and fire departments were deeply involved in safety measures for the music festival where a surging crowd killed eight people, playing key roles in crowd control measures, on-site security staffing and the emergency response. The police chief even says he met with the headlining performer before the show.

Now the city's police department is leading the criminal investigation into how the deadly chaos erupted during Friday night's performance by rapper Travis Scott.

While a prominent local official is calling for a separate, independent review of the tragedy, experts in crowd safety say an investigation by neutral outsiders could help the city avoid potential conflicts of interest and promote transparency.

Houston Police Department spokeswoman Jodi Silva declined to comment on questions about whether its close involvement in the event created a conflict or if it considered handing the probe off to an outside agency. Such decisions are often made in investigations like police shootings.

“All of the information we have available to put out at this time has been placed out on Twitter,” Silva said.

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US reopens to international travel, allows happy reunions

SAN DIEGO (AP) — Parents held children born while they were stuck abroad. Long-separated couples kissed, and grandparents embraced grandchildren who had doubled in age.

The U.S. fully reopened to many vaccinated international travelers Monday, allowing families and friends to reunite for the first time since the coronavirus emerged and offering a boost to the travel industry decimated by the pandemic. The restrictions closed the U.S. to millions of people for 20 months.

Octavio Alvarez and his 14-year-old daughter zipped through a pedestrian crossing in San Diego in less than 15 minutes on their way to visit his mother-in-law in California.

“It’s a big feeling,” said Alvarez, 43, who lives in Ensenada, Mexico, a two-hour drive from San Diego. Prior to the pandemic, his family would visit California twice a month. The emotional cost of the border restrictions were “very high,” he added.

American citizens and permanent residents were always allowed to enter the U.S., but the travel bans grounded tourists, thwarted business travelers and often keep families far apart. Travelers must have proof of vaccination and a negative COVID-19 test.

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Biden asking Democrats do so much with so little in Congress

WASHINGTON (AP) — Rarely have the leaders of Congress been asked to do so much, with so little, as in navigating President Joe Biden’s big domestic vision into law.

Reaching for FDR-style accomplishments with slimmer-than-ever Democratic majorities has been politically messy at best, arduous at worst, and about to become even more daunting for the president and his party.

Fresh off passage of Biden's $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, Democrats are reviving his even bigger $1.75 trillion package for expanding health, child, elder care and climate change programs. Anxious to show voters a deliverable after dismal election results last week, the party's congressional leaders will try to muscle the massive bill past staunch Republican opposition in an ambitious, if fraught, undertaking beyond almost any other in modern American history.

“There’s just no good precedent for what Democrats are seeking to do, and I really wouldn’t be surprised to see them fail,” said Frances Lee, the associate chair of the Politics Department at Princeton University

“I can’t think of any parallel. I mean, I can think of some big bills, but nothing this big."

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Government: Vaccine rule should remain while cases play out

The Biden administration framed its vaccine mandate for private employers in life-and-death terms Monday in a legal filing that sought to get the requirement back on track after it was halted by a federal court.

Its filing in response to a stay issued over the weekend by the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said there is no reason to rush into a ruling on whether the halt should be made permanent because the vaccine mandate won't take effect until Jan. 4. Stopping the mandate from taking effect will only prolong the COVID-19 pandemic and would “cost dozens or even hundreds of lives per day,” lawyers for the Justice and Labor departments said.

As of Sunday, the seven-day rolling average for daily new deaths in the U.S. was 1,151, but it's not clear what role a future vaccine mandate for private businesses would play in reducing that figure.

The mandate would apply to private businesses with more than 100 workers. Employees who do not receive the shots by Jan. 4 would be required to wear a mask and be tested weekly for the coronavirus. Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules issued last week create exemptions for workers citing religious objections and for those who do not interact in-person with coworkers or customers, as well as those who work only outdoors.

More than two dozen Republican state attorneys general, businesses, religious groups and conservative associations sued on the grounds that the federal government does not have the right to make the regulation, partly because COVID-19 is not a workplace-specific danger.

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Feds urge schools to provide COVID-19 shots, info for kids

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Biden administration is encouraging local school districts to host clinics to provide COVID-19 vaccinations to kids and information to parents on the benefits of the shots as the White House looks to speedily provide vaccines to those ages 5 to 11.

First lady Jill Biden and Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy visited the Franklin Sherman Elementary School in McLean, Virginia, on Monday to launch a nationwide campaign to promote child vaccinations. The school was the first to administer the polio vaccine in 1954.

The visit came just days after federal regulators recommended the COVID-19 vaccine for the age group. The White House says the first lady will visit pediatric vaccination clinics across the country over the coming weeks to encourage the shots.

“The vaccine is the best way to protect your children against COVID-19,” she told parents in the school’s cafeteria, after touring a clinic in the gymnasium that vaccinated 260 students. “It’s been thoroughly reviewed and rigorously tested. It’s safe. It’s free. And it’s available for every child in this country, five and up."

At the same time, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona are sending a letter to school districts across the country calling on them to organize vaccine clinics for their newly eligible students. The officials are reminding school districts that they can tap into billions of dollars in federal coronavirus relief money to support pediatric vaccination efforts.

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Jan. 6 panel subpoenas 6 more Trump associates in probe

WASHINGTON (AP) — Further expanding its probe, the U.S. House committee investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection has issued subpoenas to six additional associates of former President Donald Trump who were closely involved in his efforts to overturn his defeat in the 2020 election.

The committee's chairman, Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson, said in a statement Monday that the panel is demanding testimony and documents from former Trump campaign officials and others who participated in a “war room” ahead of the siege and strategized about how to halt the certification of Joe Biden’s victory.

Thompson said the committee had issued new subpoenas to Bill Stepien, manager of Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign; Jason Miller, a senior adviser to the campaign; Angela McCallum, national executive assistant to the campaign; John Eastman, a lawyer who advised the former president; Michael Flynn, a former national security adviser to Trump who talked with Trump ahead of the insurrection; and Bernard Kerik, who the committee says paid for hotel rooms that served as command centers ahead of Jan. 6.

“In the days before the January 6th attack, the former president’s closest allies and advisers drove a campaign of misinformation about the election and planned ways to stop the count of Electoral College votes," Thompson said. "The Select Committee needs to know every detail about their efforts to overturn the election, including who they were talking to in the White House and in Congress, what connections they had with rallies that escalated into a riot, and who paid for it all."

The subpoenas come after the panel has already demanded documents and testimony from several other Trump advisers — some who have cooperated and some who have not. The House voted last month to hold longtime Trump ally Steve Bannon in contempt after he refused to comply with his subpoena. Trump himself is fighting the probe in court.

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'A mass loss of control': Answers sought in Houston concert

HOUSTON (AP) — When rapper Travis Scott's sold-out concert in Houston became a deadly scene of panic and danger in the surging crowd, Edgar Acosta began worrying about his son, who wasn't answering his phone.

He called hospitals and police, who told him his son was not on the list of victims from the Astroworld festival. They were wrong: Axel Acosta Avila, 21, was among the eight people who died Friday night at the outdoor festival that was attended by some 50,000 people and is now the focus of a criminal investigation.

On Monday, authorities released the names of the dead as they continued looking into what went wrong when a crush of fans pressed forward after Scott took the stage. Houston's police chief said Monday he had met with Scott before the rapper's performance on Friday about safety concerns but did not elaborate about what, specifically, concerned him.

“They told me, Mr. Acosta, your son is not on the list so you don’t have to worry about anything. He's not on the list of dead people or injured people” said Edgar Acosta, whose family is among those suing organizers of the festival.

“I told them, ’Well, he didn’t spend the night at his hotel, so I’m worried about him.'”

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SpaceX returns 4 astronauts to Earth, ending 200-day flight

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — Four astronauts returned to Earth on Monday, riding home with SpaceX to end a 200-day space station mission that began last spring.

Their capsule streaked through the late night sky like a dazzling meteor before parachuting into the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Pensacola, Florida. Recovery boats quickly moved in with spotlights.

“On behalf of SpaceX, welcome home to Planet Earth,” SpaceX Mission Control radioed from Southern California.

Their homecoming — coming just eight hours after leaving the International Space Station — paved the way for SpaceX's launch of their four replacements as early as Wednesday night.

The newcomers were scheduled to launch first, but NASA switched the order because of bad weather and an astronaut's undisclosed medical condition. The welcoming duties will now fall to the lone American and two Russians left behind at the space station.

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EXPLAINER: What comes next after Nicaragua's election

MEXICO CITY (AP) — Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega holds a commanding lead in results from Sunday’s election against a field of little-known challengers. Ortega’s strongest potential competitors weren't on the ballot and are in jail.

Victory would give Ortega his fourth consecutive five-year term as president.

His government has grown increasingly heavy-handed since massive protests began in April 2018. The demonstrations were violently put down by police and government agents. Authorities continue pursuing those involved.

Ortega has said the protests of 2018 were a foreign-backed coup plot. Three dozen opposition leaders, including the potential candidates, arrested since June have essentially been charged with treason and accused of working to overthrow the government. Analysts see little likelihood Ortega will soften in his next term.

WHAT HAS THE INTERNATIONAL REACTION BEEN TO THE ELECTION?

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US charges 2 suspected major ransomware operators

WASHINGTON (AP) — A suspected Ukrainian hacker has been arrested and charged in the United States in connection with a string of costly ransomware attacks, including one that snarled businesses around the globe on the Fourth of July weekend, U.S. officials said Monday.

Yaroslav Vasinskyi was arrested last month after traveling to Poland, according to the Justice Department, which also announced the recovery of $6.1 million in ill-gotten funds from a Russian national who was separately charged and remains sought by the FBI.

Both men are alleged to be affiliated with the prolific Russia-based REvil ransomware gang, whose attacks have compromised tens of thousands of computers worldwide and yielded at least $200 million in ransom payments, said Attorney General Merrick Garland. Victims have included the world's largest meat processor, JBS SA, and a technology company called Kaseya, which was hit in a holiday weekend attack last July that the company said affected between 800 and 1,500 businesses that relied on its software.

The coordination of multiple agencies across the Biden administration amounted to perhaps the most high-profile response yet to a blitz of ransomware attacks that officials say continues to threaten national security and the economy. Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco appeared to foreshadow Monday's announcement in an interview with The Associated Press last week, saying that “in the days and weeks to come, you’re going to see more arrests" as well as more seizures of illicit ransomware proceeds.

Speaking at a news conference Monday, she said, “We have been using every tool at our disposal and leveraging every authority we have to hunt down and hold accountable cybercriminals wherever they seek to hide."

News from © The Associated Press, 2021
The Associated Press

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