SALT LAKE CITY - President Joe Biden evoked the memory of his late son and praised leaders from both parties for unifying behind veterans Thursday as he and Utah's Republican governor paid tribute to a year-old law that is delivering the largest expansion of veterans benefits in decades.
The president and Gov. Spencer Cox visited the George E. Wahlen Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center to promote the PACT Act, which is intended to improve health care and disability compensation for exposure to toxic substances, including burn pits that were used to dispose of trash on military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan.
More than 348,000 veterans have had their claims approved in the last year, and about 111,000 who are believed to have toxic exposure have enrolled in health care.
"Everything you can imagine is thrown in these pits and incinerated," Biden said. "The waste of war, tires, poisonous chemicals, jet fuels and so much more. Toxic smoke, thick with poison, spreads through the air and into the lungs of our troops."
He said that when troops exposed to burn pits came home — "many of them the fittest and best-trained warriors we ever sent anywhere" — they were not the same.
The issue of veterans care is personal for Biden. He’s long believed that the brain cancer that took the life of his eldest son, Beau, was caused by exposure to burn pits while he served overseas in the Delaware National Guard. The president's voice caught as he again noted during Thursday's ceremony that Beau Biden had lived "about 400 yards" from a large burn pit during the year he was stationed in Iraq.
Biden sought to share the credit for the act, noting it cleared Congress with bipartisan support while calling it part of his "unity agenda."
"Don’t tell me we can’t get things done when we work together," he said.
The president is winding up a three-state Western swing in which he has been combining events focused on achievements from his first term with campaign fundraisers aimed at helping him win a second in next year's election.
But the empathetic, deeply personal tone Biden struck Thursday and his praise for bipartisanship were departures from stops earlier this week in Arizona and New Mexico, when he criticized Republicans for failing to support legislation to combat climate change and to increase domestic spending.
Cox also said he wasn't afraid to work across party lines. He noted that some people wondered if a Republican governor would welcome a Democratic president and responded, "I think it’s insane that we’re having those conversations." The remark drew applause.
The expansion of benefits has pleased advocates but tested the Department of Veterans Affairs, which has been racing to add staff to handle the influx of applications. The backlog of disability claims, meaning they've lingered for at least four months without a decision, is expected to grow from about 266,000 now to 730,000 in April.
VA Secretary Denis McDonough told The Associated Press in a recent interview that the department is ahead of its internal projections and working to process veterans' claims faster.
"Now that we’ve urged them to come in and file their claims, we want them to continue to have a good experience with us by getting a timely response back to those claims," he said. "That’s the biggest challenge."
Although there’s no deadline to apply, anyone who files a claim or simply signals the intent to do so by Monday could collect payments retroactive to last year if the claim is approved. The original cutoff date was Wednesday, but officials extended it because of technical difficulties with the VA website.
Later Thursday, at a fundraiser for his reelection campaign in Park City, Biden entered a crowded home in the style of a mountain lodge, with high ceilings and large windows looking out on mountain vistas. Greeted with applause, he joked that it "must be the altitude."
The president said that as he rides to events around the country, he sees supporters cheering but also, in some areas, "flags saying Trump with" (and here Biden spelled out a profanity) "and little kids standing there." Some children have even given him an obscene gesture as he passed, he said.
He said it's his job to bridge those divides. "If we can’t bring people together, we’re done," Biden said.
Biden also told the fundraiser "we have China to deal with" and called that country "a ticking time bomb in many cases" but also made clear he wasn't looking for a fight.
"They’ve got some problems," he said. "And that’s not good because when bad folks have problems they do bad things."
On Wednesday, Biden signed an executive order to block and regulate high-tech U.S.-based investments going toward China, reflecting an intensifying competition between the world’s two biggest powers.
The president's visit to Utah was shadowed by violence. Only hours before Biden arrived in the state on Wednesday, FBI agents fatally shot a man suspected of threatening to kill Biden as they tried to serve a search warrant at the man's home in Provo, about an hour's drive south of Salt Lake City. The man had posted online Monday that he had heard Biden was coming to Utah and made fresh threats against the president, according to court documents.
Before Utah, Biden declared a new national monument near the Grand Canyon on Tuesday in Arizona and slammed Republicans for not doing more to combat climate change. His next stop was Albuquerque, New Mexico, which included a fundraiser and a visit to the future site of a factory for building wind towers. The facility had previously produced Solo cups and plastics, but has been shuttered in recent years.
Biden is trying to convince voters that his economic policies, which include tax credits for clean energy, have resulted in new jobs and lower inflation as he runs for reelection. But at Thursday's fundraiser, he suggested that a sweeping social spending package that he helped champion through Congress last year, the Inflation Reduction Act, may have been misnamed.
"I wish I hadn’t called it that because it has less to do with reducing inflation than it has to do with providing alternatives that generate economic growth," Biden said. "And so, we’re now in a situation where, if you take a look at what we’re doing in the Inflation Reduction Act, we’re literally reducing the cost of people being able to meet their basic needs."
Associated Press writer Will Weissert contributed to this report from Washington.