In his first formal news conference, Biden sketched his goals and reflected on the mission he was assigned by American voters in the middle of the worst domestic crisis in decades when he won a resounding victory last fall amid the pandemic.
He touted the passage of his massive Covid relief bill, but leaned on his characteristic empathy to connect with people who aren’t yet celebrating. “There are still too many Americans out of work, too many families hurting, and we still have a lot of work to do,” Biden said.
On the issue that is consuming the Beltway, he signaled that he may well set off an extreme political showdown by seeking changes to Senate rules to drive the Democratic agenda into law. But the President also made clear that any such move will only happen when he is ready.
His timetable — which gives him room to seek bipartisan solutions on other issues first — may dash liberal hopes that abolishing the Senate filibuster, which Republicans will use to try to stifle his presidency, is imminent.
The filibuster conundrum became even more central Thursday after Georgia passed a new law suppressing minority and Democratic votes that may only be reversed by a huge voting rights bill waiting in the Senate.
While his $1.9 trillion Covid rescue bill delighted progressives, Biden also made clear that he knows that his own coalition is broader than just liberal Democrats clamoring for sweeping left-wing lawmaking.
The President laid out a theory as to why he was elected last November — to stop the pandemic and to act as a pragmatic, non-divisive fixer of address America’s problems. With that in mind, he signaled his next agenda items will be infrastructure and jobs bills on which he seeks GOP votes.
“It’s a matter of timing. As you’ve all observed, successful presidents better than me have been successful in large part because they know how to time what they’re doing,” Biden told masked reporters in the East Room of the White House.
The President gave the distinct impression that he was seeking to enact as much of his agenda as possible through traditional means, even in a 50-50 Senate with a shaky Democratic coalition, before trying the nuclear option of killing the filibuster — the custom requiring 60 votes for major legislation.
“Successful electoral politics is the art of the possible. Let’s figure out how we can get this done and move in the direction of significantly changing the abuse of even the filibuster rule first,” Biden said, hinting at his preference for incremental change despite saying that he agreed with former President Barack Obama that the filibuster “was a relic of the Jim Crow era.”
Biden is operating in an environment where several moderate Democrats, whom he cannot afford to alienate with such a narrow Senate majority, are opposed to abolishing the filibuster entirely and are uneasy with aspects of the massive voting rights bill already sent by the House to the Senate.
Biden’s caution isn’t just about him trying to live up to his own calls for unity and bipartisan solutions, which he believes helped him to defeat a President who was unable to martial the power of the US government to tackle the great crisis of the age. It also reflects the political reality that a more aggressive approach, which would falter without building support from the public first, could also split his party.
Biden commits to halting GOP incursion on voting rights
Biden, however, also left a strong impression, that ultimately, and if necessary, he would be willing to contemplate the removal of the filibuster, a step that would ignite unrestrained partisan warfare.
Agreeing with Obama that the rule is a remnant of institutionalized racism, he described GOP efforts to curtail access to the ballot in multiple states, which will disproportionately affect Black Americans, as “sick” and “pernicious.”
When the President was asked whether he was concerned that his party might lose control of the House and Senate in 2022 if Democrats aren’t able to pass federal voting rights legislation, he said his bigger concerns was about the motives of those who are trying to scale back those rights.
“What I’m worried about is how un-American this whole initiative is,” he said.
Given the strength of that reaction, Biden’s comment on the possibility of ditching the filibuster — his most forward-leaning yet — took on extra significance.
“If we have to, if there’s complete lockdown and chaos as a consequence of the filibuster, then we’ll have to go beyond what I’m talking about,” he said.
On the same afternoon that Biden was speaking, Georgia’s GOP-controlled legislature passed a sweeping bill that would vastly limit access to the ballot, including curtailing the use of drop boxes and making it a misdemeanor to give food or water to voters waiting in line at the polls. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, signed the bill into law on Thursday evening.
The legislation is one of dozens of bills to make voting more difficult that have been introduced in more than 40 states following GOP losses in the 2020 presidential race and US Senate contests. The GOP efforts to limit voting in Georgia have been among the most closely watched because former President Donald Trump went to great lengths to overturn the election results in that state as he propagated lies that the election was stolen from him.
Biden said in the coming months, he plans to devote his energy to figuring out how to pass the US House legislation, known as the “For the People Act,” which would counter some of the restrictive state measures that he said he believes many Republican voters will oppose.
“I’m convinced that we’ll be able to stop this, because it is the most pernicious thing. This makes Jim Crow look like Jim Eagle. I mean, this is gigantic — what they’re trying to do,” Biden said. “It cannot be sustained. I’m going to do everything in my power, along with my friends in the House and the Senate, to keep that from becoming the law.”
Remarkably, given the fact that the US is still averaging 1,000 deaths and more than 50,000 new Covid-19 cases a day, Biden was not asked a single question about the pandemic. In a way, that was a signal of his success in tackling the defining issue of the first year of his presidency — as he doubled his vaccination goal for his first 100 days after already bypassing 100 million shots in arms. Reporters were more interested in the new challenges facing Biden — like the influx of child migrants over the southern border and the stalemate over firearms reform after yet another string of mass shootings. The President said he would fix those problems but needed time, as he stuck to his script.
“When I took office, I decided that — it was a fairly basic, simple proposition, and that is I got elected to solve problems,” Biden said. “And the most urgent problem facing the American people, I stated from the outset, was Covid-19 and the economic dislocation for millions and millions of Americans.”
Biden outlines steps to slow migrants at the border
Biden’s effort to portray himself as a reasonable problem solver dedicated to practical solutions also extended to his point-by-point description about how his administration is trying to handle the influx of migrants at the US-Mexico border. His team has rejected efforts by reporters to portray the recent surge in border crossings as a crisis. And on Thursday, Biden repeatedly faulted Trump and the prior administration for dismantling the systems that he said would have allowed the government to handle the increase in migrants, particularly of unaccompanied minors.
He seemed amused by a reporter’s suggestion that more migrants are coming across the border now because he is viewed as a more benevolent leader than his predecessor. Rejecting that explanation, he insisted that the current pattern tracks with the increase in migrants that was occurring before the pandemic in 2019.
“It happens every single, solitary year: There is a significant increase in the number of people coming to the border in the winter months of January, February, March,” Biden said, adding that those months are the time when migrants can travel “with the least likelihood of dying on the way” in the heat of the desert.
But interviews that CNN has conducted with people who recently migrated across the border have demonstrated that there is a perception that Biden’s administration will be more lenient than the Trump administration — and the desperate conditions in some parts of Latin America are clearly contributing to what appears to be an increase in migrants trying to enter the United States.
Still, Biden pointed to the endemic problems in migrants’ home countries that lead them to leave, including hunger, natural disasters, poverty and gang violence, and said Trump helped trigger the current situation by cutting the more than $700 million aid plan that he helped negotiate as vice president, which sent money into Central America, including to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, to address what he called the root causes of migration to the US. (Trump did say he was eliminating the aid to Northern Triangle countries in March 2019. But the State Department restored some of the funding that he planned to cut in October 2019).
Trump “dismantled all the elements that exist to deal with what had been a problem and has… continued to be a problem for a long time,” Biden said, blaming the Trump administration for not providing adequate funding to the Department of Health and Human Services that would allow them to quickly transfer unaccompanied minors out of Customs and Border Protection facilities “where they should not be,” Biden added.
Biden said his administration is now focused on trying to rebuild the system so it can handle the rising number of migrants. But he insisted that the “overwhelming majority of people coming to the border and crossing are being sent back.”
He said that includes the “vast majority” of families that are attempting to enter this country, as the US tries to work out an agreement with Mexico to take more of them back. But that was not the case in February, the last month for which full data is available. Published Customs and Border Protection data for February shows that 7,915 migrants who were part of a “family unit” on the southwest border were expelled under the Title 42 pandemic expulsion policy — only about 41% of the 19,246 family-unit members who were in “encounters” with US officers that month.
Biden said the administration is also acting more quickly to try to contact the family members of minors under the age of 18, who often arrive with a phone number of a relative in the United States. Under the new system, he said, officials will attempt to call that number within 24 hours to begin a verification process to safely unite the child with relatives in an effort to reduce the population of children in CBP custody as quickly as possible.
Even though Biden has said he is committed to transparency and leveling with the American people, he would not immediately commit to allowing journalists access to the overcrowded Border Patrol facilities that are housing children in jail-like conditions.
“I will commit to transparency as soon as I am in a position to be able to implement what we are doing right now,” he said, alluding to the plans to move children to more suitable conditions. “This is being set up, and you’ll have full access to everything once we get this thing moving.”
When pressed on when that would be, Biden did not have an answer. “I don’t know, to be clear,” he said.