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Biden State of the Union address hits at Republicans prompting shouts from lawmakers

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden offered an olive branch — and a scolding — to Republicans in his State of the Union Address on Tuesday, talking back as they heckled him from the floor of the House of Representatives they now control.

A tense exchange during the traditionally decorous event highlights the partisan rancor Biden will need to overcome to accomplish anything with the new Congress — including just raising the debt ceiling to avoid a catastrophic default on U.S. debt.

Biden faced a chorus of "boos" and scattered shouts of "liar" and worse from Republicans when he accused the party of wanting to "sunset" Social Security and Medicare as part of debt ceiling negotiations.

"Anybody who doubts it, contact my office, I'll give you a copy of the proposal," Biden said, adding he was "politely not naming" the GOP lawmakers who he said wanted to end the programs.

Clearly taken aback at first, Biden regained control of the situation by saying, somewhat facetiously, that the outcry showed both parties want to keep the entitlement programs out of debt ceiling talks.

"As we all apparently agree, Social Security and Medicare is off the books now, right?" Biden said. "Alright, we've got unanimity."

It was a radically different tone than how Biden began his speech — by congratulating the Republican Speaker Kevin McCarthy on his election, setting a bipartisan tone for the rest of his speech.

“The people sent us a clear message. Fighting for the sake of fighting, power for the sake of power, conflict for the sake of conflict, gets us nowhere,” Biden said. “That’s always been my vision for the country: to restore the soul of the nation, to rebuild the backbone of America: the middle class, to unite the country. We’ve been sent here to finish the job.”

Facing widespread concerns about his age and health, the 80-year-old president spoke energetically and at a rapid clip before slowing down and adopting a more intimate tone. He leaned into the microphone as he alternated between making eye contact with lawmakers in the room and speaking directly to the camera — and viewers at home — while occasionally making some of his now-familiar verbal flubs.

He went off script, deviating from his prepared remarks to criticize Republicans for wanting to repeal the Inflation Reduction Act.

With Republicans now in control of the House, Biden has little hope of advancing any major legislation.

But the president — who predicted during his campaign that Republicans would have an "epiphany" after former President Donald Trump left office — said the two parties can still find places to work together to get things done.

“Speaker, I don’t want to ruin your reputation, but I look forward to working with you,” Biden joked to McCarthy.

Biden’s speech will help lay the groundwork for his 2024 re-election campaign, addressing Congress for the first time since he declared the end of the coronavirus pandemic emergency.

"As we gather here tonight, we are writing the next chapter in the great American story, a story of progress and resilience," Biden said. "When world leaders ask me to define America, I define our country in one word: Possibilities."

Biden plans to highlight areas where cooperation may be possible, such as countering China — though many Republicans are unhappy with how he handled the Chinese spy balloon — promoting U.S. manufacturing, and regulating powerful technology companies.

"America used to make nearly 40% of the world’s chips. But in the last few decades, we lost our edge," Biden said of computer chips. "We came together to pass the bipartisan CHIPS and Science Act. We’re making sure the supply chain for America begins in America. ... With this new law, we will create hundreds of thousands of new jobs across the country."

Biden promoted federal money that Washington is pumping into congressional districts across the country to support new infrastructure projects.

He called particular attention to how the major spending packages he signed into law is helping communities in rural and economically struggling communities, arguing Democrats are the ones doing the most to help blue-collar workers. 

"Amid the economic upheaval of the past four decades too many people have been left behind or treated like they’re invisible. Maybe that’s you watching at home. You remember the jobs that went away," 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."

While Biden focused on bipartisan cooperation, the State of the Union is one of the highest-profile events he will do all year and is a key opportunity for him to speak directly to American voters before formally announcing his re-election campaign, which is expected to come this spring. 

Drawing on themes that helped Biden win the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination and then the general election, the White House said the president said America emerging stronger than ever from the twin crises that marked his inauguration two years ago — the pandemic and the Jan. 6 insurrection.

But he sought to remind Americans about the pains of the pandemic, which has faded from many minds. Americans ranked “dealing with the coronavirus” last out of more than 20 issues asked about in a recent Pew survey, which found that economic concerns were far more prevalent. 

“We are the only country that has emerged from every crisis stronger than when we entered it. That is what we are doing again,” Biden said. “Two years ago, COVID had shut down our businesses, closed our schools, and robbed us of so much. Today, COVID no longer controls our lives. And two years ago, our democracy faced its greatest threat since the Civil War. Today, though bruised, our democracy remains unbowed and unbroken.”

The speech is likely to draw smaller audiences than Biden’s earlier addresses to Congress or those of his predecessors, but the president and his team have spent days preparing, including over the weekend at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland.