WASHINGTON — The mounting challenges at the border crashed President Joe Biden's first formal news conference Thursday afternoon, derailing White House hopes of keeping the event focused on the administration's response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The White House had made an advance effort to spotlight Biden's efforts to address the pandemic, with a string of vaccination logistical funding announcements in the hours before it began. The president began the event by detailing a new vaccination target, after his initial goal of 100 million vaccines was reached last week.
"Today I'm setting a second goal, and that is: we will, by my 100th day in office, have administered 200 million shots in people's arms," Biden said. "I know it's ambitious, twice our original goal, but no other country in the world has even come close."
But Biden was quickly pressed to detail actions he is taking to address a surge in undocumented migrant children arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border, and was not asked any direct questions about the pandemic.
Biden said his policies were not the cause of an increase in children arriving at the border as Republicans have claimed, instead blaming former President Donald Trump for neglecting Central America while in office and for implementing policies that led to overcrowding in facilities at the border. Biden said that the seasonal uptick in migration that occurs each spring before the deadly summer heat was also reason for the increase in migrant children arriving right now.
Biden repeated his administration's message that most people arriving at the border were being turned away: "The only people we are not going to let sitting there on the other side of the Rio Grande by themselves with no help are children," he said.
The Biden administration has faced pressure from journalists to allow greater access to border facilities where migrant children are being held. The president said Thursday he would "commit to transparency" once his policies were in place, but did not provide a timeline for doing so.
Biden for the first time expressed some willingness to consider overhauling the filibuster rule in the Senate, which effectively requires 60 votes for legislation to pass. The rule looms over Biden’s entire agenda, threatening to derail his legislative goals due to Republican opposition in a Senate split 50-50.
Biden said that the filibuster was being "abused in a gigantic way" and repeated his support for a "talking filibuster," which would require senators to keep talking in order to block legislation, making it more difficult for a minority party to block bills.
Then he said he would be prepared to express his support for further steps. “If there’s complete lockdown and chaos as a consequence of the filibuster, then we’ll have to go beyond what I’m talking about," Biden said.
Biden also put the burden of bipartisanship on congressional Republicans, saying that they "are going to have to determine whether or not we want to work together, or they’ve decided that the way in which they want to proceed is to just divide the country, continue the politics of division."
While the president was pressed for updates on a number of issues — ranging from gun reform to immigration reform — Biden said that much of his time in office so far has been focused on addressing the coronavirus pandemic and that legislative successes were often a "matter of timing."
"The fundamental problem is getting people some peace of mind so they can go to bed at night and not stare at the ceiling wondering whether they lost their health insurance, whether they’re going to lose a family member," Biden said. "So we’re going to move on these [other issues] one at a time, try to do as many simultaneously as we can, but that’s the reason why I’ve focused as I have."
Biden plans to focus next on his infrastructure agenda, which he is slated to announce in detail next week at an event in Pittsburgh.
During the press conference, which lasted a little over an hour, Biden said it would "be hard to meet" a May 1 deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, the date named in an agreement the Trump administration reached with the Taliban last year. He also said it was his "expectation" that he would run for re-election in 2024, but that he has "never been able to plan four-and-a-half, three-and-a-half years ahead for certain."
Asked whether he was worried that Democrats could lose control of the House and Senate in the midterm elections should a push to pass federal voting rights legislation fail, Biden called Republican efforts to restrict voting in numerous states "sick."
"What I'm worried about is how un-American this whole initiative is," he said.
Biden had gone longer without holding a formal news conference than any first-term president in decades, breaking with a longstanding tradition of taking questions from White House press corps at a dedicated event within the first month of office. His decision to delay the event drew criticism from some, who pointed to his campaign promise to lead the most transparent administration in history.
Thirty reporters attended the news conference, a smaller number than normal due to distancing measures in place for the coronavirus pandemic.