What a Biden Administration Might Mean for Washington, From Immigration and Environment to COVID-19

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In his first week in office, President Joe Biden swiftly signed a stack of executive orders intended to make a break from the Donald Trump era.

And as Biden moves forward, Washington state residents are likely to see a dramatic — if not surprising — sea change in national policy expected to trickle out of the nation's capital all the way to the Pacific Northwest.

The policy shifts range from a national distribution strategy for a COVID-19 vaccine and more pandemic relief, to reversals on immigration and environmental policy, and perhaps even a nationwide infrastructure package.

The new presidency comes along with Democratic control of Congress, and a U.S. Senate majority that elevates Washington Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell to influential committee chair positions. Those positions allow the senators powerful positions to oversee policy on everything from schools and health care to aviation, rail and roads, and to make sure Washington state issues get attention.

"I think it's fair to say that Washington is better positioned right now in terms of the change of a national government [than in] in years," said Cornell Clayton, director of the Thomas S. Foley Institute for Public Policy and Public Service at Washington State University.

The dynamics have Democratic elected officials hoping for strong action on a range of their priorities.

"We are for the first time going to have a president who actually understands how serious this virus is and how deeply engaged the federal government has to be in terms of utilizing every tool," said U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Seattle.

On the other side of the aisle, Washington State Republican Party Chairman Caleb Heimlich said he appreciated Biden's calls for unity in his inaugural address.

"It's going to be really telling in the coming days how President Biden chooses to govern," said Heimlich, pointing to the president's speedy executive orders. "And if he chooses to govern by executive authority, I don't think that's going to bring the country together."

Here's a look at what a Biden administration may mean for Washington residents:

COVID-19 aid and vaccine distribution

Biden plans to launch a nationalized vaccine rollout, ramped-up testing and aid to states.

That ambitious push comes as the pandemic reached yet another grim milestone last week, with more than 400,000 Americans dead.

The vaccine rollout comes with Biden's new proposed $1.9 trillion coronavirus aid package. It includes funding to help reopen schools; assist state and local governments facing budget shortfalls; provide rental assistance and small-business relief; and provide $1,400 direct payments to individuals.

With Democrats holding the slimmest of majorities in Congress, it's doubtful the whole package will pass, Clayton said. But, "Something will come through, for sure."

Democratic state lawmakers have said they are hoping for a robust aid package.

With Washington state's vaccine rollout having started slowly, GOP House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox of Yelm said he hopes the federal government can help on that front.

"Let's continue to put the pressure on improving the rollout of vaccines," he said.

Democratic House Speaker Laurie Jinkins of Tacoma said Biden will have "a competent approach to delivering vaccines throughout the country" and actually show "an interest in the health of Americans across the country." Biden has announced a goal of administering 1 million vaccinations a day.

Democratic state lawmakers still hope for aid to state and local governments to fill budget gaps created by the pandemic.

But state Sen. Shelly Short, R-Addy, said she hopes any new federal dollars will go not to governments, but to "job creators, our family-owned businesses, our employees."

Transportation and infrastructure

Washington officials have for years talked about the need for additional transit and road projects as well as new water infrastructure.

And while the former president campaigned on and talked about delivering a big federal infrastructure package, a deal between the president and majorities in Congress never materialized.

Here, state lawmakers have been discussing a new statewide transportation package, including the replacement of the Interstate 5 bridge over the Columbia River between Washington and Oregon, and Snohomish County's aging Highway 2 trestle.

Sen. Rebecca Saldaña, D-Seattle, said she hopes the federal government will help fund those projects, as well as improvements to multimodal and clean-energy projects.

"Hopefully we'll have a partner that's willing to build back better, and that will invest in green infrastructure and transportation," said Saldaña, vice chair of the Senate Transportation Committee.

There are also needs around the state for water- and wastewater-infrastructure projects that a Biden administration could address, Wilcox said.

Cantwell said last week that she expects to join with the Biden administration in pushing for the sort of national infrastructure that has stalled in recent years. The committee she is set to chair oversees a range of transportation topics, from roads, rails and buses to commercial airplanes.

Environment and climate

Shortly after being sworn in Wednesday, Biden moved to rejoin the Paris climate accords, which commit 195 nations and other signatories to set goals to reduce carbon emissions.

The office of Gov. Jay Inslee, whose signature priority has been fighting climate change, said they will push for the Biden administration to address carbon emissions in various ways.

Inslee's office will "advocate for bold climate action and restore the United States' role as a global leader on fighting the existential threat of climate change," according to spokesperson Mike Faulk. And the office "will fight to reinstate strong emissions standards and clean car standards, eliminate tax subsidies for fossil fuels and providing incentives for renewable energy projects.

"We'll also push for more funding for Puget Sound and salmon recovery," added Faulk in an email.

Cantwell and Murray also sent a letter to Biden last week requesting that he approve the repeated requests Inslee made to Trump for a major disaster declaration and federal assistance resulting from last fall's wildfires. The fires destroyed more than 600,000 acres and hundreds of homes and businesses.

Immigration policies

The Trump era was defined by attempts to restrict immigration, deport undocumented immigrants and keep out visitors from many Muslim countries.

The Biden administration moved swiftly last week with executive orders to reverse the travel ban and protect Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. In Washington state, large numbers of immigrants help fuel both the high-tech industries and the labor-intensive agricultural sectors.

Jayapal said she expects to see a strong immigration reform bill from Biden, who has said he will lay out "a clear road map to citizenship" for 11 million people living in the U.S. unlawfully, and create permanent protection from deportation for young migrants, known as "Dreamers," under the DACA program.

Raul Garcia, a GOP candidate for governor who lost in the August primary and is considered more of a moderate in his party, said he hopes for a deal on immigration reform.

"When I ran for governor, one of the things that differentiated me from the other Republican candidates is that I wanted immigration reform.

"I even went on to say that I think that we should find a way for those people who have been here for 20 years, working hard, paying taxes and trying to be Americans, and not committing crimes, to find a way for them to be sponsored, as Ronald Reagan did," said Garcia in an interview. "I think it's only fair that these people get a chance."

Economy and trade

Jayapal, who chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said she expects Biden to embrace a $15 minimum wage — a policy the president has already put in his proposed COVID-19 relief package — as well as the hiring of 600,000 long-term care workers and 100,000 public health workers.

Biden is unlikely to get a new national minimum wage that high, Clayton said, and Washington state already has one of the highest such laws in the nation at $13.69 per hour.

But increasing the national minimum wage by any measure would benefit Washington, Clayton said. As other states increase their base wages, he said, "it'll make Washington look more competitive."

On trade issues, Biden is expected to move away from the former president's emphasis on tariffs. That move could benefit Washington agricultural industries and its technology sector, Clayton said.

Seattle Times staff reporter Nina Shapiro contributed to this report.

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