Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jen Psaki, February 23, 2021
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room Washington D.C. February 23 12:05 P.M. EST
MS. PSAKI: Okay. I have a few updates for all of you at the top.
Today, President Biden will meet with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. President Biden's first phone call, as you all know, was to — to a foreign leader was to the Prime Minister, and it's a fitting testament that with this bi- — that this is his first bilateral meeting. The President will highlight the strong and deep partnership between the United States and Canada as neighbors, friends, and NATO Allies.
Both leaders will review joint efforts in areas of mutual interest and establish a roadmap for an ambitious and whole-of-government approach on issues such as recovery from COVID-19, a sustainable and inclusive economic recovery, tackling the climate crisis, advancing diversity and inclusion, bolstering security and defense, and strengthening global alliances.
Vice President Harris, along with the Secretaries of State, Defense, Treasury, Transportation, and Homeland Security, and the Special Presidential Envoy for Climate will also be participating in the bilateral session with their Canadian counterparts.
Today, the President will also meet virtually with a group of black essential workers to thank them for their critical roles during the pandemic and to discuss how to encourage vaccinations.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the corresponding economic crisis are devastating black communities. While black Americans comprise 13 percent of the U.S. population, they represent nearly 24 percent of age-adjusted deaths from COVID-19. The President also looks forward to discussing how his American Rescue Plan will deliver immediate relief to the participants, their communities, and the American people by keeping frontline workers on the job with $350 billion in emergency funding for state and local governments; providing $1,400 per-person checks to working families; and investing $160 billion in supplies, testing, vaccinations, and public health workforce to defeat the virus.
Today, on his weekly governors call with America's governors, our COVID Coordinator, Jeff Zients, announced the fifth consecutive week of supply increases. States will now receive 14.5 million doses this week, up from 8.6 million doses per week when the President took office. That's an increase in vaccine allocations of nearly 70 percent during the Biden-Harris administration.
The Retail Pharmacy Program has also performed well, despite the winter storm. We announced last week an increase of 1 to 2 million doses. And the — our COVID Coordinator, Jeff Zients, I should say, conveyed to the governors we will increase that allocation by 100,000 doses this week.
Thanks to the President's efforts, we are also on track to have enough vaccines for 300 million Americans by the end of July. And we continue to encourage Americans to mask up, respect social distancing, and abide by the public health guidelines.
One more update from here. Actually, sorry, two more updates.
On the winter storm: Yesterday, FEMA announced that Texas homeowners and renters in 31 additional counties who suffered damage from the winter storm may now apply for individual disaster assistance. The 31 additional counties join the 77 counties previously approved for individual disaster assistance.
In Texas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma, sheltering operations continue to decrease, power and transportation are back to normal, and water restoration continues.
However, 9.8 million people are affected by water system outages and remain under boil water notices. Over 9 million liters of water have been delivered or are en route. There are over 200 locally managed water distribution sites supported by local, federal, private sector, and donated resources.
Finally, the — I have one travel announcement, which you all have been asking about. We, of course, remain in close touch with state and local elected officials to monitor the recovery. And, on Friday, the President and the First Lady will travel to Houston. The President will meet with local leaders to discuss the winter storm — relief efforts, progress toward recovery, and the incredible resilience shown by the people of Houston and Texas.
While in Texas, the President will also visit a COVID health center where vaccines are being distributed. Clearly, there are still more details of the trip coming together, and as we have those, we will make those available to all of you.
Q: Thanks, Jen. Two questions. S&P reported this morning that home prices are up 10 percent over the past year. We've seen inventories of homes for sale at record lows. And that means first-time buyers aren't able to make the step into housing that's been a bedrock of middle-class identity. What is this administration doing on housing affordability? What do you deal with — do with runaway prices?
MS. PSAKI: Well, the President is committed to ensuring homeownership is something that more Americans can participate in. He knows owning a home is a key measure of building generational wealth, and he's already taken steps through executive actions to help provide some security to Americans struggling to keep their homes in the midst of this crisis by extending foreclosure and forbearance moratoriums.
The American Rescue Plan would also provide $10 billion for the Homeowners Assistance Fund to help struggling homeowners keep up.
And as part of the broader Build Back Better agenda, which I know you're all eager to hear more about, one of the tenets he is of course interested in is looking for ways to increase the supply of affordable housing, making it easier for more people to buy homes.
Q: And then, you've been asked repeatedly about how we should properly memorialize the deaths from the coronavirus. After last night's service, has this administration given any more thoughts in terms of how to honor the dead?
MS. PSAKI: Well, first, I don't know — I watched last night, and I'm pretty — you know, I've seen a lot of presidential events, and I found myself getting choked up when I watched the events happening on the television screen in my office last night.
And the President and the Vice President will continue to look for ways to memorialize the lives that have been lost and remember the families.
But our view here is that the best memorial we could offer to those who have lost their lives to COVID is to end this pandemic and reduce the numbers — the number of others who would otherwise perish and the number of families who will be impacted. And that's our focus now.
And when we have this crisis behind us — we're at war, as we've — as we've said many times — we will consult broadly on the proper way to mark this horrible loss of life. And certainly we're open to that, but at this point of time, our focus is on the pandemic and saving more lives.
Q: Thank you. Does the White House have a plan B if Neera Tanden doesn't work out? And could you give us a sense of what that looks like?
MS. PSAKI: Well, the White House's focus, the President's focus is on working toward the confirmation of Neera Tanden to lead — to be the OMB director. That is our focus.
Q: And could you say anything about Gene Sperling or Ann O'Leary, who have also been floated recently?
MS. PSAKI: There's one candidate to lead the budget department, and her name is Neera Tanden. And I can give you a brief update though on, kind of, the outreach that's happened. And I know there's been a couple of questions along those lines.
She has had 44 meetings now with senators of both parties. She's spoken with 15 senators from both parties since Friday. Some of those were repeats of people she had spoken with previously. But as I noted yesterday, she's committed to rolling up her sleeves, having those conversations, answering questions as they come up, reiterating her commitment to working with people across the aisle, and also sharing some of her own experience of working with people of different viewpoints.
Q: And just really quickly, on the Supreme Court decision to allow Trump's tax returns to be shared with New York prosecutors, I just wondered if you had a reaction.
MS. PSAKI: Sure. There's been reporting through many — many of your sources, probably yours as well, of multiple other ongoing investigations, so we're not going to comment on this specific ruling.
The President did make clear on the campaign trail that the American people expect and deserve transparency from their President. That's why he released over two decades of his own tax returns.
Q: And just one more.
MS. PSAKI: Oh, go ahead. Go ahead.
Q: On the Canada meeting, I just wanted to see if you could say a little bit more about what Biden plans to bring up with Trudeau, and also what his view is of this decision by Canada recently to make Facebook pay for news content.
MS. PSAKI: Well, the President's focus for — of the meeting will be to continue to discuss ways for them to work together on multiple levels on the crises that are facing both countries, whether it's COVID-19 or getting our economy back. There's obviously a long bilateral relationship and an important one, hence the first bilateral meeting.
I'm not sure — I don't have anything on that particular — I don't have any reaction in particular on Canada's announcement. I can talk to our team and see if there's more to provide on that front.
Okay. Go ahead.
Q: On the outreach to senators by Neera Tanden, you said it's 44? Fifteen since Friday?
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
Q: Do you know if that includes Senator Manchin, Senator Collins, Senator Portman, among those who said yesterday, at least, that they hadn't heard from her?
MS. PSAKI: It includes a number of Republicans. Obviously, Republicans are — or any members, I should say — can — are free to share whether they've communicated with her or other nominees, or not. But we're not going to read out specific names from here.
Q: Has the President made any calls to senators for her nomination?
MS. PSAKI: The President is in touch with a range of members of Congress about issues ranging from the American Rescue Plan to his nominees. I don't have any other calls, though, to read out from him either.
Q: So that's a maybe?
MS. PSAKI: That is: I don't have any more calls to read out.
Q: Okay. On Keystone XL, I know that's one issue that will come up today. Obviously, the Canadian Prime Minister feels differently about this than the President does.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
Q: Administration officials said that this decision, which was a day-one decision, had essentially used the Obama administration's assessment as the reason to go back — I believe is what they said.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
Q: There was no other reason to explore it. There is an economic effect though, of course, now: 11,000 people had jobs connected to this in the United States at least. What does the White House say to those people, to the Canadian workers, who now are going to be out of a job if this pipeline is indeed shut down?
MS. PSAKI: Well, let me first say that it was the Obama-Biden administration when the assessment was done and done by the State Department at the time. And the President was very consistent through the campaign, and even before then, about his view that that — that it should be revoked. And he had conversations, of course, with the Prime Minister about it. The Prime Minister raised his concerns directly with the President — has previously — and he's, of course, welcome to today.
But the President made clear that this is a commitment he's — he has made in the past, that it's not in the interest of the United States, and that we want to try to address our climate crisis while also creating good-paying union jobs.
And he has a — he has a plan. He has talked about his plan, I should say, on the campaign trail to create millions of clean energy jobs. And he is eager to continue to work with the policy team and outside stakeholders and experts on delivering on that in the months ahead.
But he believes you can do both. And he has been consistent about his opposition to the Keystone pipeline.
Q: And then the Senate has launched this inquiry into the Capitol assault on January 6th. You know that the House is going back and forth on the composition of a potential commission that would look into this further.
There are proposals that include the President appointing some of those positions to the — to a commission. Does the White House have any opinion on that? Is he weighing in at all with lawmakers as they put that together?