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Even Biden’s ‘unity’ agenda could be tough going

Biden pitched bipartisan support, Republicans groused about 'short shrift'

President Joe Biden delivers his State of the Union address to Congress on Tuesday.
President Joe Biden delivers his State of the Union address to Congress on Tuesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

President Joe Biden, understanding he will have to juggle differing priorities from a divided Congress, made just a handful of new requests to lawmakers in his State of the Union address.

Biden’s speech was more about the laws he and the previous Congress enacted than what he hopes to accomplish with the one he addressed in the House chamber Tuesday night. 

But he still laid out some policies he hopes the divided Congress will address. Among the most achievable are proposals Biden calls his “unity agenda.” 

Those include: providing housing assistance to veterans; enacting a universal cap on out-of-pocket insulin costs; more resources for cancer research; expanding on recent mental health laws; and combating the opioid epidemic. 

While Republicans acknowledged interest in some of those ideas, they were mostly too annoyed with jabs Biden threw their way to entertain much talk of bipartisanship. 

“I was so disappointed because I keep hoping that the guy’s gonna have a rational moment where he’s willing to work with us to get some things done that really need to be done for the American people,” House Republican Policy Committee Chair Gary Palmer, R-Ala., said. “It really felt like he was bullying us.” 

Republicans also took note that Biden only made cursory mention of some of their top priorities. 

“He gave short shrift to the border and immigration,” Rep. Mike Lawler, R-N.Y., said. “He gave short shrift to the challenges we’re dealing with China.”

Democrats talk opportunity

With many Republicans in a sour mood, Democrats were mostly the lawmakers talking about the bipartisan opportunities from policy ideas Biden mentioned.

“I saw tonight everyone stand when he said we should leave no veteran unhoused and ill-fed,” House Veterans’ Affairs ranking member Mark Takano said. 

The California Democrat said Republicans also stood when Biden touted the bipartisan law enacted last Congress to provide more generous health and disability benefits to veterans exposed to toxins during their service. 

While Republicans voted for it, Takano said, it was “Democratic leadership that made that happen” and “it took veterans sleeping on the steps of the Senate to get that done.” He indicated that may not bode well for the prospects of quick action on veterans housing policy with Republicans now in control of the House. 

Takano said he’s worried GOP plans to cut spending could impact veterans programs.

“I don’t want to pit homeless veterans against toxic-exposed veterans,” he said. “I don’t want a ‘Hunger Games’ within veteran programs, and I certainly don’t want to pit veterans against other Americans.”

While Biden referred vaguely to “helping veterans afford their rent,” White House aides said earlier Tuesday that his forthcoming budget request will propose that Congress “pave the path to an entitlement” for veterans housing assistance. 

Republicans generally oppose creating new entitlement programs that are categorized as mandatory spending because Congress has less oversight over those programs than discretionary spending. 

Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., said he is not sure how Republicans will receive Biden’s veterans housing push, but he thinks it’s a good idea that will help address affordable housing shortages for more than just veterans. 

“If you create more dedicated veterans housing, that frees up units for other people.”

‘A lot of momentum’

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., was pleased to hear Biden advocate for antitrust legislation, an issue she’s long championed and one she hopes Congress can finally pass this Congress. 

“It has a lot of momentum,” she said, citing key Senate Republicans who are backing it. But Klobuchar acknowledged that Speaker Kevin McCarthy may be an obstacle, as she said tech lobbyists seem to have his ear. 

“I noticed that he stood for the protection of children on the internet,” she said. “That is a whole group of bills that we have passed. And the second piece of it we’ll be doing something on competition policy. You just cannot continue to have companies that have, like Google, 90 percent market share and then no rules of the road.”

House Energy and Commerce member Kat Cammack, R-Fla., said Biden’s pledge to hold Big Tech accountable was encouraging. But she didn’t reference the type of competition policies that Klobuchar is pushing as she noted Republicans are interested in data protection for consumers.

“The trick is going to be putting a bill together that not just survives Congress but will avoid a veto when it gets to his desk,” Cammack said. “It’s not enough just to say that we care about data and privacy, particularly when it comes to our kids. We actually have to put that together while respecting private companies’ interests.”

Democrats also are hoping that Biden’s renewed push to overhaul policing laws will gain traction. 

“When he spoke about it, Republicans stood up and applauded, so I think there are opportunities in the House and the Senate to get some form of police [accountability legislation] done,” Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, said. 

Family members of several Black men killed by police attended the State of the Union as lawmakers’ guests. One was the mother of Tyre Nichols, whose killing has brought the issue back to the forefront. Texas Republican Rep. Monica De La Cruz embraced her after the speech but declined to commit to supporting a policing overhaul. 

“I’m a mother of two children, and my heart goes out to her as a mother myself, and I can’t imagine losing a child. And so I wanted to give my condolences to her because that goes far beyond partisan politics,” De La Cruz said, while adding, “There is always an opportunity to work together in a bipartisan way.”

Insulin cap

Biden spent part of the speech touting the climate, tax and health law Democrats enacted last Congress. That included a $35 cap on insulin copays, but because of the limitations of the budget reconciliation process they used to skirt a Senate filibuster, it only applies to Medicare, not to the private market. 

“Let’s finish the job this time,” Biden said. “Let’s cap the cost of insulin at $35 a month for every American who needs it.”

Lawmakers in both parties are interested in passing legislation to do that.

“It’s really dumb not to do what the overwhelming majority of your constituents want. And I think people are sick and tired of the greed of the pharmaceutical industry, and the insulin companies in particular,” Senate Health, Labor, Education and Pensions Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said. “I hope Republicans come on board.”

His GOP counterpart on the HELP panel, ranking member Bill Cassidy, R-La., said the insulin cap is “a policy that could win but you’ve got to do the effort of explaining to people why it’s a good thing.”

Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., who has authored legislation to expand the cap to the private market, said he’s willing to work with any Republicans interested in the issue. He noted he was encouraged by legislation Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., recently introduced.

Hawley, who applauded the president for mentioning the issue, said his bill would lower the insulin cap for Medicare to $25 and extend it to the private market. He said he’s working to get more Republicans on board and is optimistic it’s something that could get 60 votes needed to pass the Senate.

“I think it’s hard to explain to people why Big Pharma should get all these profits when the cost of insulin hasn’t gone up,” he said.

House Republicans could prove more of an obstacle. Energy and Commerce Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., said in a statement that “mandating a cap on insulin copays fails to address the root cause of insulin prices” and “will lead to higher premiums for all seniors, and if he gets his way, all Americans.”

Instead, Rodgers advocated for a model former President Donald Trump pushed to bring insurers and drugmakers together “to voluntarily agree to offer drug plans capping seniors’ insulin costs.”  

‘Finish the job’

Biden also made pleas for Congress — “to some of you at least,” he ad libbed — to “finish the job” on other policies Democrats fell short of the votes needed to include in their climate, tax and health law. 

Those asks include permanently expanding more generous health insurance premium subsidies and expanding coverage to states that fall in the 2010 health law’s Medicaid gap and enacting a new tax on billionaires. 

But there’s zero chance Republicans will support any of those policies. Biden even acknowledged that some Republicans want to repeal the law, which Democrats dubbed the “Inflation Reduction Act,” prompting Republican cheers. 

Biden said “that’s okay,” but issued a warning for any Republicans who try to repeal the law that it may be the last thing they get to do in their congressional careers. 

“As my football coach used to say, lots of luck in your senior year,” he said. 

The lawmakers leading the effort to repeal Democrats’ signature policy achievement in full are from safe Republican districts and unlikely to face political consequences for that proposal. 

A few Republicans asked about that remark said they didn’t hear it. 

Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., who negotiated most of that law with Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, said he thought it was a “good comeback.” 

“I think that what [Republicans] should do is take credit, because a lot of the bill that I wrote there was based on input they’ve had for the last five years,” Manchin said. 

Social Security, Medicare 

Biden also drew a strong Republican reaction –— this time loud boos and jeers — when he accused them of trying to go after Social Security and Medicare. After seeing the GOP deny the claims, Biden claimed there was “unanimity” on not touching the popular entitlement programs, which drew a bipartisan standing ovation, although some GOP lawmakers remained seated. 

The back-and-forth started when Biden spoke about a Republican proposal to “sunset” Social Security and Medicare. That was a reference to a platform Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., who led the party’s campaign arm last cycle, put forward that mentioned sunsetting those programs every five years so Congress would have to reauthorize them and ensure they’re fiscally sustainable. 

Scott said Biden’s characterization of his plan was “a lie.” 

“I’ve been clear I don’t support any reduction in Social Security, Medicare benefits,” he said. “But that’s exactly what’s gonna happen if we don’t get our fiscal house in order because we’re gonna run out of money.”

Several other Republicans expressed their frustration that Biden continued to mischaracterize their party’s position on the matter. That’s why they said they audibly reacted to stop him from continuing that line of attack. 

“He at least acknowledged at the end that Republicans want to strengthen Social Security or that there is no plan to get rid of it,” House Majority Leader Steve Scalise said. “We need to strengthen it.”

Justin Papp, Caitlin Reilly, Avery Roe, Paul V. Fontelo, K. Sophie Will, Olivia M. Bridges, Mark Satter, Benjamin J. Hulac, Daniela Altimari, Kate Ackley and Herb Jackson contributed to this report. 

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