WASHINGTON – Arizona lawmakers agreed with President Joe Biden’s call in his State of the Union address Tuesday to secure American borders and fight fentanyl trafficking, but they disagreed on how to get there.
It was just one of many areas where Republicans and Democrats in the state’s congressional delegation, even when they agreed on a topic, appeared to view the state of the union through different lenses.
“In his last State of the Union, President Biden promised to secure the border, yet the border is still wide open with historic numbers of illegal migrant crossings,” said Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, in a prepared statement after the address. “It is time for President Biden to put aside partisanship and work with House Republicans to restore safety, freedom, and prosperity to Arizonans and Americans across our nation.”
Bipartisanship was one of the main themes of Biden’s address, which ran about 73 minutes and touched on everything from the border to national security, police reform, gun control, climate change and affordable health care, among other issues.
But lawmakers could not even get through the speech without partisan, and sometimes angry outbursts, that evolved into a give-and-take between the president and the chamber that is rarely seen in such addresses.
Those included boos from the GOP side of the aisle, shouts calling Biden “liar” when he charged that some Republicans want to sunset programs like Medicare and Social Security – and one member who drew hisses by shouting, “It’s your fault,” when Biden talked of fentanyl deaths.
Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Phoenix, said after the address that the hollering was “rude” and “unbecoming,” while Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Tucson, tweeted during the speech that Republicans need to “come to the table with solutions and talk or sit down.”
For his part, Biden took it in stride, often responding to the jeers with challenges of his own or brushing them off. When Republicans shouted down his claim that they wanted to sunset Medicare and Social Security, he welcomed it with an impish, “I tell you, I enjoy conversion.”
“So folks, as we all apparently agree, Social Security and Medicare is off the books now, right?” he said.
Biden spent much of the address on a litany of achievements from the first two years of his presidency. Those included investments in infrastructure, measures to encourage domestic manufacturing – especially semiconductors – caps on prescription drugs like insulin, and moves to reduce the cost of education.
He boasted that the country has reached historically low levels of unemployment and added 12 million more jobs.
“Amid the economic upheaval of the past four decades, too many people have been left behind or treated like they’re invisible,” Biden said. “Jobs are coming back, pride is coming back, because of the choices we made in the last two years. This is a blue-collar blueprint to rebuild America and make a real difference in your lives.”
But Arizona Republicans said Biden’s triumphal tone overlooked inflation and the skyrocketing prices of gas and groceries that families are facing as a result.
“President Biden failed to mention that American families are poorer today than they were even a year ago,” said Rep. David Schweikert, R-Fountain Hills, in a prepared statement. “With inflation in the Phoenix-Scottsdale area remaining among the highest in the nation, my Republican colleagues and I are working to stop this administration’s failed policies and provide solutions to lower the cost of living for American workers.”
Where Republicans saw failure, Arizona’s Democrats praised the economic successes of the past two years, along with the administration’s work to lower health care costs.
“Tonight, I was glad to hear President Biden highlight our bipartisan CHIPS law that will create tens of thousands of good-paying jobs in Arizona, many of which won’t require a four-year degree,” Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., said in a statement. “For years, Republicans and Democrats talked about bringing manufacturing jobs back to the United States. We actually got it done.”
The past two years have seen a House and Senate under Democratic control. With the GOP now enjoying a slim majority in the House, Biden’s vision for the next two years – a vision that includes a fourfold increase in the tax on stock buybacks and further caps on prescription drugs for seniors – face longer odds.
Biden called on lawmakers to help “finish the job” that they started over the past two years – a job Republicans said will be much harder than the administration is letting on.
One of those jobs is the need to address what one Arizona lawmaker called a tragic “explosion” in fentanyl. Rep. Juan Ciscomani, R-Tucson, said in the GOP’s Spanish-language rebuttal to Biden’s address, that the number of American deaths from fentanyl overdoses is a crisis that’s “only gotten worse.”
“Deadly drugs like fentanyl continue to take thousands of lives and destroy families,” Ciscomani said. “In my home county in Southern Arizona, fentanyl overdoses are the number one cause of death among young people – outpacing car crashes. But sadly, this is happening across the country.”
Arizona Republicans were especially angry over illegal immigration and claimed America is in a national security crisis, with some renewing calls for a border wall. State Democrats, on the other hand, pointed to immigration reform as the way to solve the border crisis.
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz., said in a statement that it’s time the government improves security in a way that protects Arizonans and ensures “the fair and humane treatment of migrants.” Rep. Greg Stanton, D-Phoenix, said it is possible to have a border that is both secure and welcoming.
“I’m really happy that he (Biden) talked about comprehensive immigration reform and improved border security,” Stanton said. “I can’t wait to work with him on both those things because you shouldn’t have one without the other. We need both.”
In a videotaped response to the address Wednesday, Grijalva echoed Biden, saying that in order to address the issues that hurt Arizona and the rest of the country the most, lawmakers need to “finish the job in a bipartisan way.”
“You want to deal with the opioid crisis and fentanyl, let’s get together and talk about it,” Grijalva said. “You want to do something right about immigration, something humane and something that really deals with the issue of immigration and the crisis at the border, let’s work together on it.”