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After Biden emphasizes unity in State of the Union, Northwest lawmakers’ reactions reflect ongoing division in Congress

UPDATED: Tue., March 1, 2022

WASHINGTON – After President Joe Biden delivered a message of unity to Congress in his first State of the Union address Tuesday night, reactions from Northwest lawmakers suggested partisan division will persist even as the COVID-19 pandemic wanes and Americans rally behind Ukraine in the face of Russia’s invasion.

Despite entering the day with historically low approval ratings, Biden drew applause from Republicans and Democrats alike throughout the speech as he emphasized shared goals such as supporting Ukraine’s sovereignty, keeping schools open and bipartisan legislation to boost U.S. job growth. On issues where approaches are more contentious, such as fighting crime and fixing the U.S. immigration system, the president suggested a middle ground is possible.

Addressing the virus that has killed nearly 1 million Americans, Biden urged unity instead of the partisan division that has intensified during the pandemic.

“We have lost so much to COVID-19,” he said. “Let’s stop looking at COVID-19 as a partisan dividing line and see it for what it is: a God-awful disease. Let’s stop seeing each other as enemies and start seeing each other for who we are: fellow Americans.”

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said Biden “did a good job of focusing on a lot of things that we all know are important to our constituents.”

“I really appreciated his outline of taking really strong steps to hold Russia accountable and bringing our country and the globe together on that effort,” Murray said. “And I thought he sent an especially strong message that after we passed one of the largest middle-class tax cuts in history just last year, that we are going to double down now on fighting to lower costs for families.”

Biden spent the first quarter of his speech, which lasted more than an hour in total, focused on the response by the United States and its allies to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, including a coordinated sanctions regime that has united Western nations to isolate Russia. But Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., said she didn’t hear enough about the crisis from the president.

“It fell flat,” McMorris Rodgers said. “I wanted to hear more on Ukraine. I wanted to hear him really lay out how were are going to stop Putin’s continued aggression and takeover of Ukraine. I also felt like he did not address inflation, the rising cost of everything right now in America.”

While the entire global economy is experiencing inflation tied to pandemic-induced supply shortages, prices are increasing in the United States at a rate not seen in 40 years. In his address, Biden touted the strong economic growth the nation has seen since he took office but acknowledged Americans aren’t seeing the full benefits of that growth because of rising prices.

“Inflation is robbing them of the gains they might otherwise feel,” Biden said. “I get it. That’s why my top priority is getting prices under control.”

The president said inflation has been driven mainly by shortages in key goods, such as the microprocessors used in manufacturing cars and electronics, that have caused prices to spike. He proposed addressing the problem by fixing those shortages while taking other steps to reduce costs for Americans in the meantime.

Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, said he had very different reactions to two distinct parts of Biden’s speech: on Ukraine and everything else.

“On Ukraine, you’ve got to say that he is moving in the right direction,” Risch said. “For weeks we’ve been trying to get him to put the sanctions on and the kinds of things that they have done since the invasion started.”

The Idaho senator also hailed the presence of Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States, who attended the address as a guest of First Lady Jill Biden. Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he planned to speak with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Wednesday.

For the rest of the speech, Risch said he expected Biden to articulate a clearer course correction in light of his approval ratings, which hit a low of 37% in a Washington Post-ABC News poll released Feb. 27.

“I thought that he would try to make a reset,” Risch said. “It was flat. It was rambling. There was no reset announced. All he did was talk about more of the same.”

Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, said he appreciated Biden’s focus on bipartisan action but found the speech lacked specifics.

“To be fair, he hit a lot of the high points,” Newhouse said. “He mentioned many of the concerns that we have, but it was aspirational at best. There were few details.”

“You can talk in flowery language about what you’d like to see happen, but how we’re going to get there is another thing.”

The event marked a cautiously optimistic moment more than two years into the pandemic, coming as mask and vaccine requirements were being rolled back across the country amid steady declines in coronavirus cases, even as the death toll from COVID-19 approached 1 million Americans.

Face masks were optional in the House chamber for the first time since July 2021, but five lawmakers missed the event after testing positive for the coronavirus, including Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Sammamish.

Ten months after Biden addressed a joint session of Congress with just 200 lawmakers present due to COVID-19 restrictions, all 535 members of the House and Senate were invited Tuesday. With the room at half capacity, however, not all lawmakers were seated on the House floor as usual. Newhouse, who sat in the gallery above the floor, said he had trouble hearing Biden.

Unlike in past years, lawmakers were not allowed to invite guests, but some chose to honor “virtual guests.” In a virtual event before Biden’s address, Murray highlighted four Washington women who spoke in support of the Democrats’ agenda. McKyndree Rogers, a mother of two and preschool worker from Spokane Valley, called for legislation to lower the cost of child care.

McMorris Rodgers of Spokane was one of several House Republicans who spoke in an event Thursday afternoon entitled “the REAL State of the Union,” where she called for stricter border security measures to limit the flow of fentanyl and other illicit drugs into the country.

McMorris Rodgers led a group of GOP lawmakers, including Newhouse, who introduced a bill Tuesday that would boost domestic oil and gas production to improve U.S. energy security and eventually reduce European countries’ dependence on Russian fossil fuels.

“This is how we shut down Putin’s war chest,” McMorris Rodgers said. “Stand by Ukraine, empower our allies, protect our national security and create jobs here at home.”

Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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