WASHINGTON – Northwest lawmakers from both parties welcomed President Joe Biden’s message of unity after he and Vice President Kamala Harris were sworn in Wednesday in an inauguration full of historic firsts.
Biden, 78, became the oldest president ever to take the oath of office and Harris the first Black, Asian and female vice president.The midday swearing-in ceremony took place on the same Capitol balcony that was swarmed just two weeks earlier by supporters of former President Donald Trump, who sought to overturn the election results and broke with tradition by refusing to attend his successor’s inauguration.
In his inaugural address, Biden repeated the calls for civility and reconciliation that defined his candidacy.
“We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal,” Biden said. “We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts, if we show a little tolerance and humility, and if we’re willing to stand in the other person’s shoes, as my mom would say.”
Sen. Mike Crapo, an Idaho Republican, said he appreciated Biden’s promise to “fight as hard for those who did not support me as for those who did.”
“He did what I hoped he would do,” Crapo said. “He repeated his pledge to be the president for all Americans and acknowledged that we have some deep divisions in our country.”
“I think that if President Biden truly seeks to bring together different factions and different perspectives in the country as we move forward to govern, that will be very well received,” he added. “It will be the best thing he could do for the country.”
Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Washington Democrat, was similarly approving of Biden’s first official remarks as president.
“I thought he emphasized the right tone,” Cantwell said. “There’s a lot to be hopeful about in the future. Just because you have setbacks or challenges … it doesn’t mean that you can’t go and work together to preserve the great thing that we have in the United States of America, which is a free and open society with free and fair elections.”
Biden’s campaign promise to “restore the soul of the nation,” once derided by critics as backward-looking, gained salience after Jan. 6, when Trump’s months-long effort to overturn the results of an election he lost culminated in a violent insurrection at the Capitol that left dozens injured and five people dead, including a police officer.
The former vice president and veteran senator kicked off his campaign in April 2019 by criticizing Trump’s failure to unequivocally condemn the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, organized by white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups. The day of Jan. 6 saw some of the same groups invade the very platform from which Biden delivered his speech.
“I know speaking of unity can sound to some like a foolish fantasy these days,” Biden said. “I know the forces that divide us are deep and they are real, but I also know they are not new. Our history has been a constant struggle between the American ideal that we’re all created equal and the harsh, ugly reality that racism, nativism, fear, demonization have long torn us apart. The battle is perennial and victory is never assured.”
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Republican from Spokane, said she hoped Biden’s calls for unity would translate to more cooperation between congressional Democrats and Republicans.
“I thought that they were good words, he set a good tone, and now it’s a matter of how he decides to lead,” McMorris Rodgers said. “I hope that we can have a working relationship. The nature of politics suggests that we’re not going to always agree on solutions – we will have policy differences – but I’m committed to doing the hard work of legislating.
“When I call for unity, I’m not calling for uniformity, but it is recognizing that we can come together – that we can respect each other’s different backgrounds, experiences, ideas – and come together seeking the best for each other.”
McMorris Rodgers, one of just two House Republicans who reversed course after the Jan. 6 violence and voted to certify the Electoral College results, echoed Biden’s calls for the country to come together after the pro-Trump mob ransacked the Capitol.
“In the midst of all of this, it’s such an important time for leadership,” she said. “It’s such an important time for leaders to be delivering a message of … hope and healing. That’s what I believe we need as a country right now.”
Rep. Russ Fulcher, a Republican who represents North Idaho, said he welcomed Biden’s message but worried the new president’s legislative agenda and day-one executive orders suggest he may be more inclined to compromise with his own party’s progressive wing rather than with Republicans.
“Frankly, I thought it was quite good,” Fulcher said. “His theme on unity was well received, and it was words that I think a lot of people wanted to hear.”
“His actions – or at least what he was planning on doing immediately – didn’t seem to align with that,” Fulcher said. “It makes me wonder if his compromise is with the far left, as opposed to with Congress or the nation as a whole.”
Fulcher said he also hopes Democrats in Congress take Biden’s message of unity to heart and work across the aisle in the House, where a narrow Democratic majority can pass legislation without GOP support. In the Senate, Democrats seized the narrowest of majorities after Harris swore in three new Democratic senators Wednesday, but a rule requiring a 60-vote majority to pass most legislation makes bipartisan cooperation less optional.
Of all the members in Washington and Idaho’s congressional delegations, Fulcher was the only one who opposed certifying Biden’s Electoral College wins in any state.
Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, opened the Tuesday confirmation hearing of Biden’s nominee to lead the State Department with a lesson he said he learned from a decades-long friendship with a Democratic colleague in the Idaho legislature, echoing the new president’s plea for civility.
“If we treat each other with kindness and respect, we get things done,” Risch said. “We always got things done in Idaho, and I hope that as we go forward, that we will do likewise here.”
Crapo said he shared concerns that Democrats, who hold narrow majorities in both the House and Senate along with control of the White House, will try to cut GOP lawmakers out of legislating.
“It will truly require a significant effort on his part to lead in a way that reconciles the differences, not just between the parties but the differences we have in our society,” Crapo said. “There will obviously be a temptation, as there always is when one party controls both the executive and the legislative branch entirely, for them to simply do their agenda.”
Biden also will face pressure from more left-wing Democrats like Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Seattle lawmaker who leads the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
“As I watched our president and vice president take the oath of office,” Jayapal said in a statement, “I thought about all of those who persisted and resisted over the last four years. Today is only possible because of them – because of all of us.
“That organizing does not end today; it is all the more important now that we have a Democratic White House, Democratic Senate and Democratic House.”
The streets of the nation’s capital were eerily quiet during the inauguration, with few of the revelers who would normally flock to the city to catch a glimpse of a new president. In response to the violence of Jan. 6, tall fencing topped with razor wire was installed around the Capitol, White House and National Mall, and some 25,000 National Guard troops patrolled the streets along with police and federal agents.
Despite the security presence and restrictions on gathering, Terri Pickens, a 48-year-old mother from Boise, traveled to Washington with her children to celebrate Biden’s inauguration and the effect it will have on her family’s future.
“I am optimistic because now I don’t have to worry about my daughter having less rights than I do,” Pickens said. “My children now are going to be living in the same world that we all know, where women’s rights are important and LGBTQ rights are important.
“We came dangerously close to losing everything we love as a country. The reason I can’t be on the National Mall is because they tried to take that from us, and I will not stand by and watch my democracy die.”
The lawmakers who attended the swearing-in ceremony also remarked on the unusual sight of an inauguration without hundreds of thousands of spectators on the National Mall. In their place were nearly 200,000 small American flags.
“My hat is off to the men and women of our police and armed services, who have done a fantastic job of securing the Capitol,” Crapo said, “but it is sad that we had to have that kind of security presence at an inauguration. I think that it was historic and unique to have an inauguration in this context, but I hope that it will be the last time we ever have to.”
Sen. Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat who has attended several inaugurations since she was first elected in 1992, said Wednesday’s ceremony was special despite the lack of spectators.
“This, even more than any past inauguration with huge crowds, was about the people of this country,” Murray said. “The pandemic we’re living in, the economic crisis we’re living in, the people who have been looking for a government that actually works for them. Even though the people were not able to be in front of us, the vision of a president being inaugurated who is going to work for them, to me, was very important and very vivid.”
Despite the sparse crowd and security concerns, Cantwell said, it was important for the ceremony to go ahead to show the resilience of America’s political system after Trump and his allies spent months undermining trust in the election and stormed the seat of American democracy.
“I think everybody wanted to emphasize the building, in and of itself, as a symbol of the country’s democracy,” she said. “Having it there as the backdrop and to say to people, ‘Yeah, we’re here and our democracy is here.’
“One of the hallmarks of our democracy is free and fair elections and the transition of power from one party to another. All those former presidents being there on the stage to celebrate that is a very unique aspect of American government.”
Former Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama attended the ceremony, as did outgoing Vice President Mike Pence. Trump, in a fitting coda to a tenure defined by eschewing the norms of the presidency, skipped the event and held his own departure ceremony at Joint Base Andrews just outside Washington.
Before a final trip on Air Force One to his resort in Palm Beach, Florida, Trump touted his accomplishments and told a crowd of supporters, “We’ve left it all on the field.”
The departing president, who has claimed he won “every single state” and refused to recognize Biden as the legitimate winner of the election, boasted that he had won “75 million votes and that’s a record in the history of sitting presidents.”
While it is technically correct that no incumbent president had won as many votes as Trump’s 74.2 million, Biden received a total of 81.3 million and won the Electoral College by a total of 306 to 232.
Trump – who has said he may run for president again in 2024 – thanked his staff, supporters and “all of the great people of Washington, D.C., all of the people that we worked with to put this miracle together.”
“We love you. We will be back in some form,” Trump said. “Have a good life.”
Fulcher said he expects Trump’s reputation will improve with the benefit of hindsight, as people appreciate the period of economic growth he oversaw and the deal his administration brokered to restore diplomatic ties between Israel and several Arab nations.
“He really did accomplish a lot of things,” Fulcher said. “No one really understands the gravity of the peace in the Middle East; I don’t think many people really appreciate the accomplishments pre-COVID with economic performance and the reduction in regulations.”
In a final use of his executive power, Trump pardoned 73 people and commuted the sentences of 70 more late Tuesday night, including erstwhile adviser Steve Bannon and rapper Lil Wayne. Bannon was charged in August with defrauding donors through a crowd-funded effort to purportedly raise money for Trump’s wall on the southern border with Mexico.
In one of his first official acts as president soon after arriving at the White House on Wednesday afternoon, Biden signed 17 executive orders to overturn some of his predecessor’s signature policies and take swift action against the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed more than 400,000 Americans.
The executive actions included halting Trump’s ban on travel from mostly Muslim-majority countries, cutting off funds for construction of the wall on the southern border and recommitting the U.S. to the Paris climate accord. Biden also restored protections for the immigrants known as “dreamers” who entered the country illegally as children.
Cantwell offered particular praise for Biden’s moves to combat the coronavirus, including halting the U.S. departure from the World Health Organization the Trump administration set in motion, restoring an Obama-era global health office in the White House and mandating mask-wearing for interstate travel and on federal property.
Biden and Harris also unveiled an ambitious legislative plan Wednesday to overhaul the U.S. immigration system, following the release last week of a plan to increase federal spending to counter the pandemic. They capped off their first day in office with an appearance on a televised “Celebrating America” primetime special.
Freelance reporter Nico Portuondo contributed to this story in Washington, D.C.
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