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President Joe Biden, in his first trip to Texas since taking office, toured Houston on Friday to size up the aftermath of the state's recent winter weather crisis and promote the national coronavirus vaccination campaign.
“We will be true partners to help you recover and rebuild from the storm and this pandemic and economic crisis," Biden said during a late afternoon speech outside NRG Stadium, the site of a vaccination mega-center. He promised his administration is in it "for the long haul."
Biden hailed the mega-center — one of three federally backed mass vaccination clinics in Texas — as a key part of his strategy to have 100 million vaccine doses administered in his first 100 days in office. The country reached the halfway mark Thursday.
"The more people get vaccinated the faster we'll beat this pandemic," Biden said, reassuring Americans that the vaccines are "safe and effective" and cautioning that it is still "not the time to relax" measures such as social distancing and mask-wearing.
Gov. Greg Abbott, who joined Biden in Houston, said Thursday his office is looking at when it could lift all statewide orders related to the pandemic. That would include the statewide mask mandate that Abbott issued last summer. He said an announcement could be coming "pretty soon."
Biden on Friday spoke from a parking lot outside the stadium, in front of a FEMA trailer and a row of health care workers who administer vaccines.
His arrival came days after a deadly winter storm devastated Texas, leaving millions without power and water and in subfreezing temperatures for multiple days. As Biden traveled across Houston, state lawmakers were holding their second day of committee hearings in Austin to get to the bottom of the catastrophe. On Thursday, committee members spent over 12 hours grilling the state's public regulators and energy grid officials over the crisis.
That tension did not play out Friday in Houston — nor was it expected to. Even before Biden's trip, the White House had suggested the president was more focused, at least for now, on getting relief to Texans and learning more about the recovery rather than discussing how Texas could have been better prepared.
On the flight to Houston, Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, Biden's deputy national security adviser, told reporters there is a need going forward for the federal government, states and the private sector to incentivize building the "kind of resilient infrastructure that we can truly depend on in the future." Sherwood-Randall avoided prescribing specific proposals for Texas but noted the state made the decision to have its own grid and that meant that it lacked the "kind of backup in terms of supply or generation capability that they needed to have in this crisis."
Before Biden spoke near the vaccination facility, he toured the Harris County Emergency Operations Center, where the county judge, Lina Hidalgo, explained how the building "has been our home away from home for five months" — first due to the pandemic and then during the winter freeze. Biden told officials they have a "hell of an operation here."
"It's probably the best one in the country," the president said, according to a pool report. "You're saving peoples' lives. As my mother would say, you're doing God's work."
As Biden saw the Emergency Operations Center, first lady Jill Biden and Cecilia Abbott volunteered at the Houston Food Bank, packing bags for a program that provides food to students on weekends who depend on school meals during the week. After the president was done at the Emergency Operations Center, he met up with his wife to tour the food bank and meet with volunteers.
Politically, the trip marked Texas Republican leaders' first face-to-face encounter at home with a new Democratic president whose policies they have vowed to resist. And Biden is aware — during a virtual meeting with a group of governors Thursday, he told Abbott, "I don't want to ruin your reputation, but I look forward to coming down tomorrow, to Houston, to be with you."
During his speech, Biden noted he met earlier in the day with Abbott and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn — two "conservative Republicans."
"I'm a Democratic president," Biden said. "We disagree on plenty of things — there’s nothing wrong with that — but there are plenty of things we can work on together. One of them is represented right here today — the effort to speed up vaccinations."
The Houston vaccine center is set to serve 6,000 people a day. The two other mass clinics are in the Dallas area.
Abbott said Thursday he planned to use Biden's visit to press him to expand his major disaster declaration in Texas. Last week, Abbott asked for the declaration to cover all 254 counties, but Biden initially approved it for only 77. He added 31 more counties on Monday and 18 more Friday.
At the Emergency Operations Center, Nim Kidd, chief of the Texas Division of Emergency Management, presented a color-coded map of the state that showed which parts still were not under the declaration, according to a pool report. He explained that the crisis created hurdles for local officials to promptly submit the data that is used to add counties to the declaration.
While Cornyn joined Biden in Houston, the state's junior senator, Ted Cruz, did not. He spoke Friday morning at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Florida. Cruz was neither invited to accompany Biden in Houston, nor did he request to do so, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters en route to the city.