In Idaho and California, Biden points to wildfires to push for big rebuild
President Joe Biden on Monday pointed to wildfires burning through the West to argue for his $3.5 trillion rebuilding plans, calling year-round fires and other extreme weather a climate change reality the nation can no longer ignore.
“Even some of my less believing friends are all of a sudden having an altar call,” Biden said of those who have sought to minimize the risks posed by climate change. “They're seeing the Lord.”
The president spoke during a briefing from officials in California's emergency services office. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who faces a recall vote Tuesday and was set to appear with Biden later Monday in Long Beach, participated. Biden was also setting out on an aerial tour of fire damage.
Newsom said the emergency center had become his office because fire season has “just kept going," as he amplified points Biden made in California and at an earlier stop in Idaho.
“This has been a hard year and a half,” Newsom said.
In Boise, Idaho, earlier Monday, Biden sought to boost support for his big rebuilding plans, saying every dollar spent on “resilience” would save $6 in future costs. And he said the rebuilding must go beyond simply restoring damaged systems and instead ensure communities can withstand catastrophic weather that doesn’t strike based on partisan ideology.
“It’s not a Democrat thing. It’s not a Republican thing. It’s a weather thing," he said. "It’s a reality. It’s serious and we can do this.”
The president's two-day Western swing comes at a critical juncture for a central plank of his legislative agenda. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are working to assemble details of the infrastructure-plus plan — and how to pay for it, a concern not just for Republicans. A key Democratic senator said Sunday that he will not vote for a package so large.
The president issued his plea about climate change during a briefing at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, which coordinates the government's wildfire response.
He noted that wildfires start earlier every year and that this year they have scorched 5.4 million acres. “That's larger than the entire state of New Jersey,” Biden said.
“The reality is we have a global warming problem, a serious global warming problem, and it's consequential, and what's going to happen is, things are not going to go back," he said.
With stops in Idaho, California and Denver through Tuesday, Biden aims to link the increasing frequency of wildfires, drought, floods and other extreme weather events to what he and scientists say is a need to invest billions in combating climate change, along with vastly expanding the nation's social safety net.
The president argued for spending now to make the future effects of climate change less costly, as he did during recent stops in Louisiana, New York and New Jersey — all states that suffered millions of dollars in flood and other damage and scores of deaths after Hurricane Ida.
Biden also praised firefighters for the life-threatening risks they take, and discussed the administration's recent use of a wartime law to boost supplies of firehoses from the U.S. Forest Service's primary supplier, an Oklahoma City nonprofit call NewView Oklahoma.
In deep-red Idaho, several opposing groups leveraged Biden’s visit as a way to show resistance to his administration. GOP gubernatorial candidates, an anti-vaccine organization and a far-right group were among those urging people to turn out against the president.
More than 1,000 protesters did so, gathering in Boise before Biden arrived to express displeasure with his coronavirus plan, the election and other issues.
Chris Burns, a 62-year-old from Boise, said, “I’m against everything Biden is for.” Burns was especially displeased with a sweeping new vaccine mandate for 100 million people that Biden announced last week. “He’s acting like a dictator,” Burns said.
Biden is on his first trip to the west in office, a visit primarily aimed at drumming up support for the $3.5 trillion spending plan.
From Boise, the president flew to California to survey wildfire damage and speak more broadly about the federal response. Newsom greeted him at the airport.
Biden also planned to promote his economic agenda in Denver on Tuesday.
The White House is trying to turn the corner after a difficult month dominated by a chaotic and violent U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the surging delta COVID-19 variant that have upended what the president had hoped would mark a summer in which the nation was finally freed from the coronavirus.
Biden acknowledged over that his polling numbers have dipped in recent weeks, but argued his agenda is “overwhelmingly popular” with the public. He said he expects his Republican opponents to attack him instead of debating him on the merits of his spending plan.
Besides the Republican opposition in Congress, Biden needs to overcome the skepticism of two key centrist Democrats in the closely divided Senate. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona have expressed concerns about the size of the $3.5 trillion spending package.
Manchin said Sunday, “I cannot support $3.5 trillion,” citing in particular his opposition to a proposed increase in the corporate tax rate from 21% to 28% and vast new social spending envisioned by the president. Manchin also complained about a process he said feels rushed.
The 100-member Senate is evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. Given solid GOP opposition, Biden's plan would fail to clear the Senate without Manchin and Sinema's support.
The climate provisions in Biden’s plans include tax incentives for clean energy and electric vehicles, investments to transition the economy away from fossil fuels and toward renewable sources such as wind and solar power, and creation of a civilian climate corps.
The stop in Idaho, a state Biden lost by more than 30 percentage points last year, offered Biden a deep-red backdrop to argue that climate investments should be a priority across party lines. Idaho and California have seen wildfire season turn into a year-round scourge.
The Biden administration in June laid out a strategy to deal with the growing wildfire threat, which included hiring more federal firefighters and implementing new technologies to detect and address fires quickly. Last month, the president approved a disaster declaration for California, providing federal aid for the counties affected by the Dixie and River fires. He issued another disaster declaration for the state just before Monday's visit aimed at areas affected by the Caldor Fire.
Superville reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Rebecca Boone and Keith Ridler in Boise and Aamer Madhani in Wilmington, Del., contributed.