Colorado’s members of Congress divided over Biden’s State of the Union

State of the Union
President Joe Biden departs after delivering his first State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the Capitol, Tuesday, March 1, 2022, in Washington. (Sarahbeth Maney/The New York Times via AP, Pool)

President Joe Biden delivered his first State of the Union address Tuesday night, hoping to reset his domestic agenda in the face of the seemingly-waning pandemic and rising prices, and to present a clear foreign policy vision for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Going into the speech, Democratic Senator John Hickenlooper said these issues, as well as climate change, were what he wanted to hear Biden talk about. He also wanted to hear the president’s vision for the next year “and here’s how it’s going to make your life better.”

He got that and more.

Overall, Colorado Democrats liked what Biden had to say, while Republicans found the speech lacking.

Biden opened by talking about Ukraine. Democratic Rep. Diana DeGette thought the president “projected strength we need during this time of international crisis” as well as leadership. While Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet described it as a “rousing defense of democracy.”

“I’m really glad he started that way. And I’m really glad he ended on a message of unity — a unity agenda around opioids, mental health, ending cancer and veterans,” Bennet said, noting it was the first time in a while that he remembered a State of the Union address ending with a genuine standing ovation from members of both parties.

Hickenlooper added he thinks Biden is doing a remarkable job of leading the world on this issue. He said Biden was attacked for not imposing sanctions on Russia sooner, but the Senator said that approach gave Biden time to rally a global response.  

“He had to wait and allow our allies to come together and own sanctions, and be willing to shoulder their responsibilities and join in on the sections,” Hickenlooper said. “We see Switzerland is no longer neutral, did you ever think that would happen? No. But Joe Biden did that.”

On the domestic side, the president touted the economic benefits from the American Rescue Plan and the bipartisan infrastructure bill, as well as how the economy has strengthened during his time in office, while also acknowledging challenges remain, in particular rising gas prices and an increase in inflation.

APTOPIX State of the Union
Jabin Botsford, Pool via AP
President Joe Biden delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the Capitol, Tuesday, March 1, 2022, in Washington, as Vice President Kamala Harris and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi of Calif., look on.

The president announced that the U.S was working with 30 other countries to release 60 million barrels of oil from reserves around the world, including 30 million from the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve, to help make up for lost Russian supply.

On inflation, the president directed his message to the companies producing goods: “Lower your costs, not your wages. Make more cars and semiconductors in America. More infrastructure and innovation in America. More goods moving faster and cheaper in America. More jobs where you can earn a good living in America. And, instead of relying on foreign supply chains – let’s make it in America.”

Democratic Rep. Ed Perlmutter says these steps could help. “That’s one thing that will help us, we won’t have these kinds of [supply] disruptions. And it will also be good for employment.”

Biden’s call to combat climate change and pass “proven measures to reduce gun violence,” struck close to home for Rep. Joe Neguse, whose district suffered terrible wildfires and the King Soopers mass shooting last year. “I thought the president’s willingness to speak truth to power about the various measures we know can save lives — everything from universal background checks…to removing the liability protections  for gun manufacturers — I thought was compelling, and certainly resonated with me and will resonate with my community.”

For DeGette, it was Biden’s call to cut the cost of prescription drugs that particularly stood out, specifically his focus on capping the price of insulin. When Biden highlighted one of his guests for the evening, 13-year-old Joshua Davis, who suffers from Type 1 diabetes, DeGette admitted “tears came to my eyes.” Her daughter also has the condition, and her family has experienced the rising cost of insulin firsthand. 

“This issue is a real issue that affects millions of US families. It was gratifying to hear him talk about it,” she said. And she added she hopes it gives a boost to legislation she’s proposing to cut the prices of the drug.

Republicans find fault: "light on solutions, heavy on spending"

But if Democrats were generally supportive of Biden’s address, Republicans remained sharply critical.

Republican Rep. Ken Buck said ahead of the speech that “there are a lot of things he has to address that he has ignored in his first year and a half.” He wanted Biden to speak to the rise in crime in much of the country and the situation at the U.S. southern border.

But Buck added what he really wanted to hear Biden say was that he would open the floodgates on fossil fuel development in America, as a way to counter Russia, while also helping Americans.

“We should be producing natural gas in Colorado,” he said. “We should be shipping it to our European allies and we should be driving down the cost of buying gasoline in this country. So I’m really hoping that he talks about fossil fuel production in America.”

To hammer home that point, Republican Rep. Lauren Boebert wore a black shawl that had the words “Drill, Baby, Drill” written on it. She said on social media that the address was “light on solutions, but heavy on spending.”

State of the Union
Win McNamee/Pool via AP
Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., wears an outfit reading "Drill Baby Drill" as she arrives in the chamber of the House of Representatives before the State of the Union, Tuesday, March 1, 2022, in Washington.

Biden did not talk about increasing fossil fuel production, which would run counter to his goals on climate, although his administration did step up sales of leases on public lands last year, compared to the Trump administration. 

The president did call for funding the police and talked about increasing border security and fixing the immigration system.

Those proposals were met with something more than skepticism by Republicans. GOP Rep. Doug Lamborn commented via Twitter, “How can he say we need to fix the southern border with a straight face???”

As for Biden’s plan to combat inflation, Buck noted the supply chain is only part of the issue; instead he pointed to the massive pandemic relief bills as a major part of the problem. 

“You can’t pump trillions of dollars into the economy and expect to not have inflation, so we’re getting what everybody knew we’d get when we passed these huge spending bills.”

The night was not without controversy, sparked by the delegation’s most controversial member.

While Biden was talking about support for veterans, in particular the long-term health consequences of burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan that he said have put many veterans “in a flag-draped coffin,’’ Boebert heckled the president, shouting out, “You put them in. Thirteen of them.” The remark was a reference to the 13 U.S. service members killed at the Kabul airport during last summer’s withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Boebert’s remarks drew a chorus of boos from other lawmakers, and Biden went on to say his son Beau Biden, who died from brain cancer, was one of the veterans.

Boebert defended her remarks through social media, saying “she couldn’t stay silent.”

But Democratic Rep. Jason Crow condemned the outburst. 

“During a moment where the president was trying to honor our fallen…a very somber moment that both Republicans and Democrats were recognizing and reflecting on, she took it upon herself to sow politics and try to interrupt the president’s speech, which was entirely inappropriate, and certainly a stain on her,” he said.

Boebert’s interruption was reminiscent of GOP Rep. Joe Wilson’s “You Lie” moment during former President Barack Obama’s first joint speech to Congress in 2009. It was also a glaring note of partisanship, during a speech that had several rounds of bipartisan applause.