WILMINGTON, Del. - It's hardly the grand entrance Joe Biden might have dreamed of. The president-elect is arriving in the nation's capital Tuesday, ready to assume power as the nation reels from the coronavirus pandemic, soaring unemployment and grave concerns about more violence as he prepares to take the oath of office.
Biden, an avid fan of Amtrak, had planned to take a train into Washington ahead of Inauguration Day, but scratched that plan in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
He'll instead fly into a military airbase just outside the capital and motorcade into fortress D.C. — a city that's been flooded by some 25,000 National Guard troops guarding a Capitol, White House and National Mall that are wrapped in a maze of barricades and tall fencing.
Biden, who ran for the presidency as a cool head who could get things done, plans to issue a series of executive orders on Day One — including reversing President Donald Trump's effort to leave the Paris climate accord, canceling his travel ban on visitors from several predominantly Muslim countries, and extending pandemic-era limits on evictions and student loan payments.
Trump won't attend Biden's inauguration, the first outgoing president to skip the ceremony since Andrew Johnson more than a century and a half ago. Trump remained out of sight in the White House on Tuesday with a bare announced schedule. Aides said he had recorded a farewell message and was consulting with advisers on final-hour pardons and grants of clemency.
Trump plans to depart from Washington Wednesday morning in a grand airbase ceremony that he helped plan himself.
Aides say that Biden's first event in Washington, along with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, will be to take part in an evening ceremony at the Reflecting Pool near the Lincoln Memorial to honor the nearly 400,000 American lives lost to COVID-19.
Inaugural organizers on Monday finished installing some 200,000 small U.S., state and territorial flags on the National Mall, a display to represent the American people who couldn’t come to the inauguration, which is restricted under the tight security and Covid restrictions.
It's also a reminder of all the president-elect faces as he looks to steer the nation through the pandemic with infections and deaths soaring.
Out of the starting gate, Biden and his team are intent on moving quickly to speed up the distribution of vaccinations to anxious Americans and pass his $1.9 trillion virus relief package, which includes quick payments to many people and an increase in the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
Biden also plans to unveil a sweeping immigration bill on the first day of his administration, hoping to provide an eight-year path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million people living in the U.S. without legal status. That would be a major reversal from the Trump administration’s tight immigration policies.
But Biden's legislative ambitions could be tempered by the hard truth he faces on Capitol Hill, where Democrats hold narrow majorities in both the Senate and House. His hopes to press forward with an avalanche of legislation in his first 100 days could also be slowed by an impeachment trial of Trump.
As Biden prepared to make his way to Washington, five of his Cabinet picks were appearing on Tuesday before Senate committees to begin confirmation hearings. Treasury nominee Janet Yellen, Defense nominee Lloyd Austin, Homeland Security nominee Alejandro Mayorkas, Secretary of State nominee Antony Blinken and Director of National Intelligence nominee Avril Haines were being questioned.
Aides say Biden will use Wednesday's inaugural address — one that will be delivered in front of an unusually small in-person group because of virus protocols and security concerns — to call for American unity. To that end, he extended invitations to Congress' top four Republican and Democratic leaders to attend Mass with him at St. Matthew's Cathedral ahead of the inauguration ceremony.
As Biden presses bipartisanship, he's also facing pressure from his left to go big right away, with the progressive wing of the Democratic Party calling on Senate Democrats to help by doing away with the chamber's filibuster.
"We are glad President-elect Biden is ready to start addressing the desperate needs of the American people and put forth a Covid aid proposal which begins to address the many issues we face," the progressive groups Justice Democrats, Sunrise Movement and New Deal Strategies wrote in a memo on Monday. "We hope ten Senate Republicans will support it, but are not holding our breath. The big question is, what happens when Republicans block Biden?"
In a measure of how nervous the capital city has become, U.S. Capitol Police on Monday briefly locked down the Capitol complex and paused inaugural rehearsals after a fire broke out at a nearby homeless encampment.
Biden transition officials, including incoming Homeland Security adviser Liz Sherwood-Randall and the deputy attorney general nominee, Lisa Monaco, held a videoconference with acting heads and career staff from national security agencies to discuss the security situation surrounding Inauguration Day.
Harris played down any personal security concerns, saying she was "very much looking forward to being sworn in."
"I will walk there, to that moment, proudly with my head up and my shoulders back," Harris told reporters on Monday after volunteering at a food bank with her husband to mark the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
Madhani reported from Chicago. Associated Press writers Darlene Superville and Alexandra Jaffe contributed reporting.
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