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Biden vies to overlook elephant in the room, bolstering ‘unity agenda’

The president is expected to promote compromise in a speech Tuesday night to a divided Congress.

WASHINGTON (CN) — Addressing a divided Congress for the first time Tuesday night at the State of the Union, President Joe Biden will skip over topics that lead to division and instead focus on areas for possible compromise between Democrats and Republicans. 

The speech outlined to reporters Tuesday morning by White House aides continues and advances the so-called unity agenda that Biden broached in his first State of the Union. While touting what his administration has achieved over the last year for veterans and mental health, in ending cancer as well as the opioid crisis, Biden will say there are new benchmarks in each area to conquer. 

Biden was able to push legislation for his unity agenda last year despite some hiccups in the closely divided Senate. It’s not clear whether he can do so again with Republicans now in control of the House. The White House said Biden will use his executive authority to accomplish some of these new initiatives, but he believes compromises with a divided Congress are still on the table. 

“Across all four pillars of the unity agenda, the president is laying out full commitments to take additional administrative action using the authority that we have today, building on the work that we've done over the last two years, and he's also calling on Congress to take additional steps,” Christen Linke Young, deputy assistant to the president for Health and Veterans Affairs, told reporters. “In all four pillars of the unity agenda, there are components of action that require Congress and components that we will continue to work on ourselves.” 

In the midst of his search for common ground, Biden's agenda doesn't completely avoid topics known to stoke partisan rancor. 

Biden’s mental health initiative targets Big Tech companies and teens' use of social media. The president will urge lawmakers to come together to impose transparency requirements for Big Tech platforms and put limits on targeted advertising and collection of Americans’ data. He will ask Congress to take further measures to protect young users, including enactment of a ban on online advertising that targets children. 

As for Biden's mental health initiatives, the Department of Education will provide $280 million in grants to hire more mental health care professionals in schools. Biden will ask his administration to make new rules that prevent insurance plans from creating barriers to accessing mental health providers. These initiatives will also include a focus on recruiting in the behavioral health workforce. 

Expanded access to mental health services is also central to Biden's response to military and veteran suicide. The White House said Biden’s forthcoming budget will also aim to ensure greater access to housing for low-income veterans. 

To tackle the opioid crisis, Biden wants fentanyl blocked from entering the United States. These efforts will focus on the southwest border where Biden wants to put 123 new large-scale scanners to increase border patrol’s inspection capacity. Biden will also encourage Congress to pass a proposal that permanently schedules all illicitly produced fentanyl-related substances into stricter regulations and criminal penalties. 

“This is not a red state problem or a blue state problem, this is America's problem,” Dr. Rahul Gupta, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, told reporters. “[Biden] believes it's going to take all of us, all of us working together.” 

The White House highlighted strong diplomatic relationships as a key to preventing fentanyl shipments from landing on U.S. soil. 

“The president has been so forward-leaning whether it's talking with President Lopez Obrador in Mexico, or President Xi in China," Gupta said, noting that it is in China where the precursors of chemicals are largely being shipped out, and in Mexico where fentanyl production is booming.

“So that's part of the diplomatic push that the president is going to be calling on," Gupta continued, "to ensure that we're working with these countries to hold illicit actors accountable in their countries.” 

In an effort to expand access to treatment for opioid addiction, Biden will ask Congress on Tuesday to throw out rules preventing doctors from prescribing treatments. Biden also proposes giving law enforcement tools to prevent the flow of drugs like fentanyl. 

Biden will also be asking Congress to step up cancer research investments, to reauthorize the National Cancer Act, and to take action to prevent Americans from smoking. 

“We have seen that we can deliver on these priorities and make life better for Americans by working together with members of Congress of both parties across this whole agenda,” White House spokeswoman Kate Bedingfield told reporters. “What you'll hear him talk about in today's State of the Union is a desire to keep moving forward on that work to build on these historic bipartisan achievements over the last year and continue working with members of Congress of both parties to deliver results for the American people.” 

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