For the first time in US history, the executive branch has been led by a woman, albeit only for one hour and 15 minutes.
Vice President Kamala Harris on Friday became the third person — and the first woman — to serve as acting President of the United States after President Joe Biden temporarily transferred the powers of the presidency to her while he underwent general anesthesia for a colonoscopy at Walter Reed National Military Medical Centre in Bethesda, Maryland.
Before undergoing the procedure, Mr Biden signed a pair of letters to Senate president pro tempore Patrick Leahy and ouse speaker Nancy Pelosi in which he invoked section three of the 25th Amendment, which allows a sitting president to temporarily relinquish the powers of his or her office. That provision is separate from section four, which has never been invoked but is meant to remove a president who has become incapacitated and therefore unable to execute the office.
After doctors finished the procedure, Mr Biden transmitted letters to Mr Leahy and Ms Pelosi indicating that he had re-assumed the powers of the presidency.
According to a White House spokesperson, Ms Harris’s period as acting president began at 10.10am on Friday and ended at 11.35am.
Two other presidents – Ronald Reagan and George W Bush – have made use of the same constitutional provision on three prior occasions.
Mr Reagan, the oldest person to serve as president until Mr Biden was sworn in at age 79, relinquished the powers of his office to then vice-president George HW Bush from 11.28am to 7.22pm on 13 July, 1985 when he underwent surgery for colon cancer.
Mr Bush’s son, George W Bush, twice transferred the powers of the presidency to vice-president Dick Cheney when he underwent colonoscopies in 2002 and 2007.
“As my staff has previously communicated to you, I will undergo this morning a routine medical procedure requiring sedation. In view of present circumstances, I have determined to transfer temporarily my constitutional powers and duties to the vice-president during the brief period of the procedure and recovery,” Mr Bush wrote in a letter to then Senate -president pro tempore Robert Byrd and house speaker Dennis Hastert.
“Accordingly, in accordance with the provisions of section three of the 25th Amendment to the United States Constitution, this letter shall constitute my written declaration that I am unable to discharge the Constitutional powers and duties of the office of President of the United States. Pursuant to section three, the vice-president shall discharge those powers and duties as Acting President until I transmit to you a written declaration that I am able to resume the discharge of those powers and duties”.
In a similar letter, Mr Reagan claimed that he was not required by the constitution to transfer the powers of the presidency to the elder Mr Bush while under anesthesia, but said he was nonetheless doing so under an agreement with the then vice- president.
Mr Reagan had previously failed to invoke the amendment before going under anesthesia after he was shot outside the Washington, DC Hilton in 1981, leading to confusion about who had been in charge of the country while he was undergoing surgery to treat his wounds.
Mr Biden’s decision to transfer the powers of the presidency to Ms Harris while sedated for a medical procedure revives a practice that was halted during Donald Trump’s term.
While Mr Trump underwent a colonoscopy during a November 2019 visit to Walter Reed, he reportedly refused to undergo general anthethesia so he would not have to sign a letter to allow then vice-president Mike Pence to serve as acting president during that time.
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