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White House says Biden is 'eager' to go to Texas, possibly as soon as this week

A car comes to an intersection in an area with no power in Austin, Texas, on Feb. 16, 2021.

SERGIO FLORES/THE WASHINGTON POST

By PAULINA FIROZI AND AMY B WANG | The Washington Post | Published: February 21, 2021

As some have suggested that President Joe Biden should travel to Texas as it faces the fallout from last week's winter storm, the White House said he is "eager" to visit and could head there "as soon as this week."

"He is eager to go down to Texas and show his support," said White House press secretary Jen Psaki on ABC News's "This Week" on Sunday. "But he's also very mindful of the fact that it's not a light footprint for a president to travel to a disaster area. He does not want to take away resources or attention. And we're going to do that at an appropriate time in coordination with people on the ground."

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, a Democrat, said Sunday that Biden "certainly can come now."

"We certainly would welcome him," Turner said on CBS News' "Face the Nation," adding, "He would not be a distraction, neither a burden."

The vast majority of at least 58 deaths linked to the Arctic outbreak have occurred in Texas, according to tracking by The Washington Post. Biden has signed a major disaster declaration that will allow much of the state to tap vast reserves of federal aid, the White House said Saturday.

Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson, a Democrat, said Saturday the declaration would "help our city recover."

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The storm, which has killed people in at least eight states, also knocked out power for millions across Texas. But for some, the lights stayed, and they are now facing jaw-dropping electric bills from some of the state's increasingly popular variable-rate plans, which have charged thousands of dollars for a few days of power as wholesale energy prices soared.

Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, who thanked Biden for granting the disaster declaration, suggested federal assistance would be used to help those facing spiking power bills.

"The current plan, is, with the federal assistance, to be able to help the homeowners both repair — because we have a lot of water leaks, a lot of water damage, pipes bursting — but, also, their electricity bills as well," McCaul said Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union."

He said the federal assistance is "what Texas needs right now so desperately. A lot of people are hurting right now."

Turner said he doesn't think consumers should be saddled with astronomical power bills.

"For these exorbitant costs, it's not the consumers who should assume that cost," he said on "Face the Nation." "They are not at fault for what happened this week. The bills should go to the state of Texas."

Texas's deregulated electrical grid triggered mass outages that left residents in the nation's second-largest state trapped without heat for days in freezing homes.

Some Texans on variable-rate electricity plans, which offer a potentially lower-cost alternative to traditional fixed-rate energy payments, had service through the storm. But the bills skyrocketed. One company, Griddy, said it was forced to raise its prices as much as 300 times the normal wholesale rate, meaning a typical $2-a-day household would face more than $600 in daily charges.

Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, said Saturday that he was convening an emergency meeting with state lawmakers to discuss the spikes, saying in a statement that "it is unacceptable for Texans who suffered through days in the freezing cold without electricity or heat to now be hit with skyrocketing energy costs."

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which manages about 90 percent of the state's electric load, also faces a state investigation and two lawsuits arguing that its failure to prepare for extreme cold left residents freezing and in the dark.

The White House's disaster declaration followed similar state-of-emergency notices in Louisiana and Oklahoma, which will allow the general public and business owners to apply for temporary-housing grants, home-repair loans and other emergency aid.

It offers individual assistance to 77 of 254 counties, including the areas around Houston, Dallas and Austin, but does not cover the entire state.

Abbott said Saturday that the White House's "partial approval is an important first step," and the White House said more counties could be covered as government officials continue assessing the damage. In recent days, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has provided generators, food, water and other supplies statewide.

Asked about the partial declaration on "This Week," Psaki said Sunday that the White House has been in "very close touch with Governor Abbott."

"What happens here is the governor requested a federal disaster declaration. The president asked his team to expedite that. And FEMA determined where the counties should be — where it should focus the immediate resources, where the counties that are hardest-hit, so that they can make sure they get to the people in most need," she said.

The Washington Post's Brittany Shammas, Marisa Iati and Drew Harwell contributed to this report.