WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden began his State of the Union address Tuesday — his first to a divided Congress — with an appeal to bipartisan priorities, but later criticized parts of the GOP agenda and got a sense of Republicans’ appetite for conflict during one combative stretch.
Biden opened the 72-minute speech with an olive branch to congressional Republicans, listing several items he’d worked with the party on during the past two years. He highlighted laws passed to spend $1.2 trillion on infrastructure, boost semiconductor manufacturing and make electoral reforms.
He also called for congressional Republicans to work with Democrats and his administration for the next two years. Expanding access to opioid-related addiction treatment and strengthening the fight against fentanyl trafficking, as well as blocking overcharges on items like resort and airline fees, should be bipartisan priorities, he said.
“To my Republican friends, if we could work together in the last Congress, there is no reason we can’t work together in this new Congress,” he said.
But Biden also commended Democratic laws that passed without Republican support and pledged to veto several policies favored by some Republicans, including a nationwide abortion ban and the repeal of a bill that caps the price of insulin for Medicare recipients.
And he called for legislation Republicans may be unlikely to support, including a bill to protect LGBTQ Americans under the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
“Let’s also pass the bipartisan Equality Act to ensure LGBTQ Americans, especially transgender young people, can live with safety and dignity,” he said.
In the aftermath of the death of Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man, at the hands of Memphis, Tennessee, police, Biden proposed a renewed focus on police reforms.
The depth of the partisan divide Biden sought to overcome showed as he discussed the debt limit negotiations.
The president blasted GOP members’ willingness to allow the U.S. to default on its debt to force spending cuts and a proposal to force a vote to reauthorize Social Security and Medicare every five years — inciting cries of outrage from many Republicans present, most prominently Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene.
“You lie! Liar!” shouted Greene, as many GOP lawmakers booed and yelled “No!”
GOP U.S. Sens. Rick Scott of Florida and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin have endorsed requiring periodic votes to continue Social Security and Medicare. Biden didn’t mention the senators by name Tuesday, and acknowledged that they were perhaps a minority of their party.
But some Republicans in the U.S. House chamber Tuesday booed at the perceived attack, prompting Biden to declare the programs safe.
“Well, I’m glad to see it,” he said. “I enjoy conversion.”
Lawmakers also shouted at Biden about illicit fentanyl entering the U.S. over the Southwest border.
“Fentanyl is killing more than 70,000 Americans a year,” Biden said after recognizing New Hampshire father Doug Griffin, whose 20-year-old daughter died of a drug overdose in 2014. Griffin was invited as a guest of the first lady.
“It’s your fault,” several GOP members yelled.
Biden emphasized his work on bipartisan issues, saying he passed 300 bills in the last two years that had support from both parties.
Those measures include a reauthorization of a law to strengthen enforcement of violence against women, a law to recognize same-sex marriages, a law to tweak the electoral process and the infrastructure law he championed. That law helped fund airport improvements in Atlanta and Portland, Oregon, among 20,000 other projects.
He highlighted a few issues that he thought both parties could work to address.
Following another year of record drug overdose deaths, Biden for the second year in a row highlighted battling the opioid crisis as one of the main pillars of his “Unity Agenda” — policy areas where the president says both parties can join together.
Biden promised to increase drug detection machines at the border, to work with carriers like FedEx to inspect more packages and to enforce strong penalties for traffickers.
Officials seized nearly 15,000 pounds of illicit fentanyl last year, with the vast majority coming into the U.S. via land border crossings, according to the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol.
Biden vowed to work with Congress to more strictly classify illicit synthetic fentanyl-related substances under the Controlled Substances Act, a proposal that has been re-introduced this Congress.
Veterans, mental health
Also falling under Biden’s Unity Agenda: Combating homelessness and pressing health issues for America’s veterans, and addressing the nation’s mental health crisis.
The president touted a bipartisan law that expands benefits for veterans who were exposed to open burn pits in Afghanistan and Iraq, Agent Orange in Vietnam, and other toxic substances in other geographic theaters.
Veteran homelessness fell by 11% last year, according to the White House, and the Veterans Affairs Department is slated to expand mental health resources, including establishing peer-to-peer support programs and hiring more clinicians.
The call for improving veteran health care was a rare part of the speech that won compliments from Republican members. Senate Veterans’ Affairs ranking Republican Jerry Moran of Kansas praised Biden for signing the bill.
“Supporting our veterans is a mission that should always break through the gridlock in Congress,” Moran said in a post-address statement.
Iowa Republican U.S. Rep. Ashley Hinson also said she was encouraged by Biden’s reference to veteran mental health and pledged to work toward it.
Mental health resources for everyday Americans, including students, are also expanding, Biden said.
Biden touted the passage of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act that created grants for schools to establish trauma-informed youth mental health programs and other health services.
The 2022 law was brokered by a bipartisan group of 20 senators last summer in the evenly divided Senate following the May mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, that claimed the lives of 19 students and two teachers.
‘Finish the job’
Biden also commended bills Democrats passed without Republicans, especially the landmark climate, health and taxes legislation that passed along party lines last year. He vowed to fight any effort to undo them and to “finish the job” on some contentious policy areas.
Some Republicans wanted to repeal the climate, health and taxes law, he said, pledging to veto any such reversal.
That law capped the cost of insulin at $35 a month for Medicare patients. He called for Congress to expand that cap to people on private insurance plans.
“Every day, millions need insulin to control their diabetes so they can stay alive,” Biden said. “Insulin has been around for 100 years. It costs drug companies just $10 a vial to make, but, Big Pharma has been unfairly charging people hundreds of dollars — and making record profits. Not anymore.”
He also called for more resources to fight climate change, which he called “an existential threat” that affects Republican and Democratic states alike.
And he called for a “billionaire minimum tax” to require wealthy people be taxed at a rate no lower than working-class professions and closing more tax loopholes.
Congress should also pass a ban on assault weapons, he said, bringing sustained applause from Democrats.
And, with the family of 29-year-old Nichols, who died after being brutally beaten by Memphis police, in the audience, Biden asked Congress to “finish the job” on police reform.
Among the many guests were RowVaughn and Rodney Wells, the mother and stepfather of Nichols, who were invited by the White House and Democratic Rep. Steven Horsford of Nevada, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus.
“They had to bury Tyre last week,” Biden said as the couple stood. “As many of you personally know, there’s no words to describe the heartache or grief of losing a child. But imagine, imagine if you lost that child at the hands of the law.”
Nichols’ death last month just three days after his beating by police has renewed calls from Democrats and the White House for police reform.
Biden called for more training for police and to hold them to a higher standard, and for Congress to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, a bill that passed the House twice when it was under Democratic control. The bill faltered in the Senate.
“Just like every cop when they pin on that badge in the morning has a right to be able to go home at night, so does everybody else out there. Our children have a right to come home safely,” Biden said.
He said that “when police officers or police departments violate the public trust, they must be held accountable.”
Economy and democracy
Biden extolled progress he said the country has made since he came into office two years ago on issues related to the economic recovery from the pandemic and on defending democratic norms.
He touted a strong economic recovery after the COVID-19 pandemic, including job growth and a record-low unemployment rate.
The economy added more than 500,000 jobs last month, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ January report. The national unemployment of 3.4% is a 50-year low, Biden said.
“The story of America is a story of progress and resilience,” he said in the opening minutes of the speech.
“Two years ago, our economy was reeling. As I stand here tonight, we have created a record 12 million new jobs — more jobs created in two years than any president has ever created in four years. Two years ago, COVID had shut down our businesses, closed our schools, and robbed us of so much. Today, COVID no longer controls our lives.”
The average price of gas has dropped $1.50 since its peak last summer, Biden said. Republicans often note it is still higher than when he took office.
Biden also called on U.S. oil companies to produce more domestic oil, prompting laughs from the GOP side of the aisle. Republicans have routinely criticized the president for policies they say have discouraged oil and gas production.
Biden also praised the condition of U.S. democracy. He came into office mere weeks after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. While that event remained a stain on the nation, Biden said similar attempts to subvert the nation’s system of government have not followed.
“And two years ago, our democracy faced its greatest threat since the Civil War,” he said. “Today, though bruised, our democracy remains unbowed and unbroken.”
Still, he called the current moment “an inflection point” and noted the danger of political violence like that committed against Paul Pelosi, the husband of former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who was in the chamber as a guest of first lady Jill Biden.
Shouts of opposition
Despite Biden’s calls for unity and Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s promise that GOP lawmakers would remain civil during the address, several outbursts could be heard from the Republican side.
One of the loudest and most raucous moments was when Biden accused some in the GOP of wanting to cut entitlement programs as part of a negotiation to raise the debt ceiling.
“Some of my Republican friends want to take the economy hostage — I get it — unless I agree to their economic plans. All of you at home should know what those plans are,” Biden said. “Instead of making the wealthy pay their fair share, some Republicans want Medicare and Social Security to sunset.”
That led to shouts from Greene and others, which evoked then-U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson’s outburst during a joint address to Congress by President Barack Obama in 2009. Wilson’s episode was considered a shocking breach of decorum, and he apologized for it that night.
But Greene doubled down in a video posted to social media following the speech, and none in her party rushed to criticize the Georgia firebrand, demonstrating how difficult Biden’s call for bipartisanship will be to realize.
Greene also called out to Biden “China spied on us” at the mention of the rival nation. The Georgia Republican carried an inflated white balloon through the halls of Congress shortly before Biden’s address, using the stunt to draw attention to the Chinese surveillance balloon spotted across the U.S. last week and shot down by the Air Force just off the coast of South Carolina Saturday.
Ukraine funding request
As the one-year anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine approaches, defending the Eastern European nation again featured in Biden’s address.
Last year’s State of the Union occurred just days after Russia’s February 2022 attack.
The Pentagon has directed just more than $29 billion in defense and security assistance for Ukraine in the past twelve months, including a roughly $2 billion weapons package Friday.
Biden pledged to continue supporting Ukraine “as long as it takes.”
“Putin’s invasion has been a test for the ages. A test for America, a test for the world. Would we stand for the most basic of principles? Would we stand for sovereignty? Would we stand for the right of people to live free or tyranny? Would we stand for the defense of democracy?” Biden said. “… One year later we know the answer, yes we would and we did.”
Both sides of the chamber rose to their feet and applauded when a moment later Biden pointed up to the gallery to recognize Ukraine ambassador Oksana Markarova.
National abortion ban
Biden made a brief mention of abortion rights in the first State of the Union after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year overturning Roe vs. Wade. He noted that more than a dozen states began enforcing “extreme abortion bans.”
Congress should pass a law to reinstate nationwide abortion rights, he said, adding that he would veto a national abortion ban, if it passed.
Reactions from GOP hostile
Members of Congress’ reception to the address fell along predictable party lines.
Congressional Democrats largely praised the effort, including the sections on jobs, abortion rights, clean energy and health care.
But Republicans also found much to criticize. Some statements indicated no speech Biden could have given would have won them over.
“President Biden is filled with more hot air than the China spy balloon,” House Oversight and Accountability Chairman James Comer, a Kentucky Republican, said in a statement. “Deflate the rhetoric and the facts reveal President Biden’s policies have created crises on every front.”
Much of the Republican agenda in Biden’s first two years in Congress and the states has focused on classroom teachings about racism in the U.S., transgender rights, abortion and other cultural issues.
Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders focused on those issues in the official GOP response.
“The Biden administration seems more interested in woke fantasies than the hard reality Americans face every day,” she said. “Most Americans simply want to live their lives in freedom and peace, but we are under attack in a left-wing culture war we didn’t start and never wanted to fight.”