WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden signed a blizzard of executive orders Wednesday on the coronavirus, immigration and climate change — launching a 10-day cascade of directives reversing the policies of his GOP predecessor as Democrats pushed for even more sweeping and prompt legislative action.
The most pressing of his priorities are measures to combat the ongoing deadly coronavirus pandemic. Biden signed executive actions to require masks on all federal grounds and asked agencies to extend moratoriums on evictions and on federal student loan payments.
He urged Americans to don face coverings for 100 days while reviving a global health unit in the National Security Council — allowed to go dormant during the Trump administration - to oversee pandemic preparedness and response. Biden also began to reverse several steps taken by former president Donald Trump by embracing the World Health Organization, revoking the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline and rejoining the Paris climate agreement.
Biden, who enters the White House during a time of historic crisis, said Wednesday he wants to move quickly to address the country’s big, urgent problems with a spirit of unity and national purpose. The pandemic has killed 400,000 Americans, the economy has shed millions of jobs and just two weeks ago, thousands of rioters stormed the Capitol in an attempt to overturn the results of the Nov. 3 election, which Biden won by 7 million votes.
In his first appearance from the Oval Office, Biden said his administrative actions were “all starting points” as he signed a sampling of the executive orders.
“I think some of the things we’re going to be doing are going to be bold and vital,” he said in brief remarks. “And there’s no time to start like today.”
The freshly-inaugurated president’s rush to roll back some of Trump’s most controversial policies reflected the years of pent-up frustration among Democrats that they had been largely powerless to stop an administration that espoused policies they vehemently opposed.
Acting expeditiously, Democrats said, was particularly vital as the nation continues to battle a once-in-a-century pandemic that continues to kill thousands of Americans a day and batters the fragile economy.
“We’ll press forward with speed and urgency, for we have much to do in this winter of peril and possibility,” Biden said in his inaugural address. “Few periods in our nation’s history have been more challenging or difficult than the one we’re in now.”
But the new White House, as well as its Democratic allies on Capitol Hill, are keenly aware that expansive policy changes they want to implement in the first months of Biden’s presidency will also require the assent of Congress, and almost certainly the support of some Republicans, particularly in the Senate.
Some of his actions drew swift criticism from GOP lawmakers who had largely endorsed the policies of Trump, if not the former president’s rhetoric and style.
“President Trump created the best economy in the world by limiting bureaucratic regulations and President Biden should seek to build on this success instead of diminishing it,” said Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., the ranking Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “Government does not know best, the American people do.”
Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, the No. 3 Senate Republican, stressed that Biden’s inaugural address was one of “unity and it’s important to govern that way as well.”
Most of the 17 directives that Biden signed Wednesday had been signaled previously by Biden or staff members. Taken together with the two legislative plans he has sent to Congress — coronavirus relief and an immigration overhaul — the orders highlight Biden’s immediate priorities, while sending a message that his administration plans to reengage on the global stage.
Jen Psaki, the new White House press secretary, noted that the 15 executive actions and two additional agency directives were far more than the two orders Trump signed on his first day four years ago.
GOP lawmakers were particularly critical of the Biden administration’s decision to roll back key energy and climate regulations of his predecessor, arguing that doing so would ultimately cost jobs.
Biden’s “policies from Day One hurt American workers and our economy,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va. Pointing to the Biden administration’s climate actions, she continued: “This virtue signaling comes at the expense of low-income and rural families that rely upon industries opposed by liberal environmental groups.”
Biden’s coronavirus legislation is already facing stiff challenges in Congress, as Democrats hold only narrow majorities in both chambers and Republican support is still needed to pass most bills in the Senate. The White House nonetheless hopes to court a smaller circle of influential GOP lawmakers, particularly senators, and had reached out to key Republicans such as Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska to get their input on their virus aid plan.
“It’s going to require, I think, a fair amount of debate and consideration,” Murkowski said Wednesday. “But he’s made it clear that this is his initial priority. I don’t disagree with that.”
Biden White House officials have emphasized the need for Congress to approve his larger relief package, which would extend unemployment benefits; dole out an additional $1,400 in stimulus payments for millions of Americans; and devote tens of billions of dollars to economic needs such as rental, housing and food assistance, among other measures.
But acting Wednesday on his own, Biden asked the Education Department to consider extending a freeze on both interest and principal payments for federal student loans until Sept. 30, while requesting that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention extend a moratorium on evictions that expires after this month to at least through March.
He also asked three key agencies — the Department of Veterans Affairs, Agriculture and Housing and Urban Development — to extend foreclosure moratoriums for federally backed mortgages under their purview through at least the end of March.
“These are emergency measures that will help to make sure that no American is put in the place of having to make the decision to pay their student loan payment or put food on the table in the short term and will help to provide some near-term relief,” said Brian Deese, the new director of the White House National Economic Council.
On immigration, Biden signed an order repealing the ban on travel from several majority-Muslim nations, while nullifying the Trump administration’s directive that attempted to exclude the counting of noncitizens from the U.S. census.
Another action called on the Department of Homeland Security to continue an Obama-era initiative protecting “dreamers” from deportation and issuing them work permits as long as they qualified under the requirements laid out when the program, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, began in 2012. Biden also will end the national emergency over the border that Trump declared as a way to circumvent Congress when lawmakers would not grant him funding for his wall.
On climate change, Biden signed an order revoking the permit, issued by the Trump administration, that allowed for the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline and to rejoin the Paris climate accord. The United States will officially be part of the 189-country climate agreement in 30 days.
On racial equity issues, Biden rescinded the “1776 Commission” established by the Trump administration, which the outgoing president framed last year as a “pro-American curriculum that celebrates the truth” about U.S. history but that the incoming administration says tries to erase the racial scars of America’s past.
Biden plans to continue rolling out executive orders in coming days. According to guidance shared with Capitol Hill, he plans to issue administrative actions relating to the coronavirus on Thursday and economic relief on Friday. A “Buy American” action will come Monday, and an order addressing racial equity issues will follow Tuesday.
He will announce actions on climate change on Jan. 27, health care on Jan. 28, immigration on Jan. 29, and international affairs and national security on Feb. 1.
Upcoming executive actions will revoke the ban on transgender people from serving in the military, as well as reversing the so-called global gag rule that blocks U.S. aid to organizations abroad that perform abortions or offer counseling on the procedure, Psaki said.
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The Washington Post’s Jeff Stein contributed to this report.