Administration

Biden turns focus to winter storm with Texas trip

President Biden is set to travel to Houston Friday to meet with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) and local leaders after a rare bout of severe winter weather left dozens dead and millions without power for multiple days.

The visit will mark Biden's third official trip as president and his first to a disaster-stricken area. In addition to addressing the storm response, he's also expected to visit a facility distributing COVID-19 vaccines. 

The White House says Biden will spend much of the day with Abbott, who has faced significant criticism for how the state handled the storm. More than 4 million people were without power for days as temperatures plunged below freezing and many were eventually left without water as well. Louisiana and Oklahoma suffered significant storm damage as well. 

"They'll be surveying the damage and I'm sure [Biden will] be getting an update and briefings from him directly," White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Thursday.

Biden is also expected to meet with Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner (D), his office told The Hill. Biden is scheduled to tour the Harris County Emergency Operations Center. He and first lady Jill Biden are also expected to visit a local food bank. 

The trip will be Biden's first public appearance to highlight the impact of last week's winter weather. While he has signed emergency declarations, remained in touch with state officials, and received regular updates, the president has taken a largely behind-the-scenes approach to addressing the storm. 

The winter storm is one of several crises that Biden has encountered in his first month in office. Biden has spent much of his time focusing on the response to the pandemic, which has killed more than 500,000 Americans, and working to get his $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief proposal passed by Congress.  

Biden has declared a major disaster in Texas and on Thursday declared a major disaster in Oklahoma, freeing up more federal resources for 16 counties in that state that were impacted by the severe winter weather.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) sent supplies including generators, meals, liters of water, and blankets to assist residents in Texas and other states. 

Biden's decision to meet with Abbott, whom he has twice spoken to since the storm, reflects his effort to put aside partisanship and work on issues of common concern. Former President Trump often did not meet with Democratic governors when he traveled to their states, though he did receive an update on wildfires from California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) when he visited the state last September.

No lawmakers are joining Biden on Air Force One, but he is expected to meet with Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Democratic Reps. Sylvia Garcia, Sheila Jackson Lee, Al Green and Lizzie Pannill Fletcher while in Houston.

Psaki indicated Thursday that Biden would not focus on chastising leaders for problems in the handling of the crisis but rather on continuing relief efforts.

"There's plenty of time to have a policy discussion about better weatherization, better preparations, and I'm sure that's one that will be had. But right now, we're focused on getting relief to the people in the state, getting updated briefings, tapping into all of the levers of federal government," Psaki said.

In addition to facing heat for the failure of the state's power grid, Abbott was criticized for suggesting last week that renewable energy sources like wind and solar power were to blame for the power outages, despite evidence showing the outages were largely caused by a failure to winterize Texas's electric grid, which is overwhelmingly powered with fossil fuels. 

Earlier this week, four out-of-state members of the board of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the state's grid operator, resigned amid criticism of the entity's failures to prepare for the storms.

Biden and the first lady are also scheduled to tour a facility in Texas distributing coronavirus vaccines at NRG Stadium, as part of an effort to highlight his administration's partnership with states to boost availability of vaccines across the country.

"Jill and I will travel to Houston, Texas, to tour one of the first federal mass vaccination centers and to thank everyone involved." Biden said in remarks Thursday commemorating 50 million coronavirus vaccine shots. "This is an example of the kind of partnerships between federal, state, and local governments and public and private partners that is going to get this job done."

The Biden administration's immigration policies may also partially hang over his trip to Texas, where a facility at the southern border in Carrizo Springs was reopened temporarily this week to house migrant teenagers. The White House has defended the decision as a needed step due to the pandemic, but it nevertheless prompted criticism from immigration advocates and some Democrats. 

Psaki would not say Thursday whether Biden planned to address immigration on the trip to Houston.

"The president will be certainly speaking about COVID and addressing the pandemic, he will also be speaking about the impact of the storm on the people of the state," she said. "I know immigration is an issue on the minds of many people there, but I don't have anything to preview in terms of whether he will address it while he is there."

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