By Michael Hernandez
WASHINGTON (AA) - US President Joe Biden sought to rally supporters and challenge his political adversaries Tuesday evening, telling Republicans to join with him as he seeks to unite the country to meet its most pressing challenges.
Speaking from the rostrum in the House of Representatives for the first time since Republicans took control of the chamber following November's midterm elections, Biden turned to House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, saying in apparent jest, "I don't want to ruin your reputation, but I look forward to working with you."
The light-hearted exchange and repeated appeals for Republicans to help "finish the job" on a number of major policy priorities stood in stark contrast to Biden's repeated efforts to put Republicans on notice on several issues facing the country as he delivered nationally-televised remarks during his second State of the Union address.
He was quick to spar with the party amid an ongoing impasse with House Republicans over raising the national debt ceiling, accusing Republicans of attempting to hold the nation hostage in order to claim wins on their priorities.
The debt limit is essentially the amount of money the country is allowed to borrow, and if it is not soon raised, it could lead to the US defaulting on its debt with potentially dire implications for the global economy.
Biden said his administration has reduced the national debt by $1.7 trillion over the past two years, calling it "the largest deficit reduction in American history" while placing blame for the current situation squarely with his Republican predecessor.
"From the previous administration, the American deficit went up four years in a row. Because of those record deficits, no president added more to the national debt than my predecessor. Nearly 25% of the entire national debt that took over 200 years to accumulate was added by just one administration alone, the last one," Biden said in reference to former President Donald Trump.
The comments drew an outcry among Congressional Republicans, but Biden was unmoved, asking rhetorically, "how did Congress respond to that debt? They did the right thing. They lifted the debt ceiling without preconditions or crisis. They paid American bills to prevent an economic disaster. So tonight I'm asking Congress to follow suit."
"Let's commit here tonight, the full faith and credit of the United States of America will never, ever be questioned," he said.
Biden said that instead of increasing taxes on the wealthiest Americans and corporations to reduce debt, some Republicans are seeking to eliminate Medicare and Social Security, two key social safety net programs that provide financial assistance to those in retirement. "I won't let that happen," he said.
Americans pay in to the programs with each paycheck they receive, and the president's suggestion that Republicans are eyeing to axe them drew a raucous chorus of jeers from across the aisle as some Republican lawmakers shouted "liar!"
"As we all apparently agree, Social Security and Medicare is off the books now," he said after the Republican denials.
Beyond the partisan bickering, the president appealed for the nation to unite to achieve its goals, saying that while American democracy is "bruised," it "remains unbowed and unbroken."
"As I stand here tonight, I have never been more optimistic about the future of America. We just have to remember who we are," he said.
Much of the president's address was devoted to domestic affairs, but Biden turned to China and Ukraine for short remarks, maintaining that Washington would continue to stand behind Kyiv in its efforts to push Russia out of its territory.
"Ambassador, America is united in our support for your country. We will stand with you as long as it takes," he said after acknowledging Kyiv's envoy to Washington, Oksana Markarova, who was in attendance for the night's address.
On China, the president continued to maintain that the US would not shy away from competition, saying the issue should unite the nation. But in what appeared to be a reference to last week's downing of a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon after it transited across much of the US, Biden said "if China threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country, and we did."
The incident has further deteriorated already strained US-Sino relations, with Beijing saying the US response was "unacceptable and irresponsible."