‘We are not adversaries’: Sen. Tim Scott offers GOP rebuttal to Biden’s 1st address to Congress

WASHINGTON- Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina delivered Republicans’ rebuttal to President Joe Biden’s first joint address to Congress Wednesday night, taking aim at COVID-19 restrictions while praising the GOP and Donald Trump’s previous efforts to restore the U.S. economy. 

Scott, who is the only Black Republican in the Senate, served as the face of the party after Biden addresses the nation. Considered a potential 2024 presidential candidate, Scott is a leading GOP voice on race and criminal justice reform, and he is popular with both the pro-Donald Trump and moderate wings of the party.

Scott first addressed the COVID-10 pandemic, criticizing health restrictions that sent children out of classrooms. 

"Locking vulnerable kids out of the classroom is locking adults out of their future," he said.  "Our public schools should have reopened months ago. Other countries’ did. Private and religious schools did. Science has shown for months that schools are safe."

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Scott lauded Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and vaccination efforts. 

"Thanks to Operation Warp Speed and the Trump Administration, our country is flooded with safe and effective vaccines. Thanks to our bipartisan work last year, job openings are rebounding," he said. 

He also gave credit to the GOP for the country’s economy before the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Just before COVID, we had the most inclusive economy in my lifetime," he added. "The lowest unemployment ever recorded for African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asian-Americans. The lowest for women in nearly 70 years. Wages were growing faster for the bottom 25% than the top 25%."

"That happened because Republicans focused on expanding opportunity for all Americans," he said.

Scott blasted Democrats for not working with Republicans to rebuild the country’s infrastructure.

"They won’t even build bridges to build bridges," he said. "Less than 6% of the president’s plan goes to roads and bridges.

Scott also rejected Biden’s consideration of adding more Supreme Court justices, keeping abortions legal and aiding undocumented immigrants at the border. "Weakening our southern borders and creating a crisis is not compassionate," he said.

The senator ended by addressing the country’s racial and political divide, saying it does need healing. 

"We are not adversaries. We are family," he said. 

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Brought up by a single mother who worked backbreaking hours as a nursing assistant, the 55-year-old Scott has spent a decade in Congress representing South Carolina. 

Scott, among only 11 Black senators in history, has used riveting Senate speeches to detail his own distressing encounters with the law. He's described being pulled over 18 times while driving since 2000 and being stopped by a U.S. Capitol security officer who didn't recognize him as recently as 2019, even though Scott was wearing a senator's lapel pin.

However, the senator said he believes Democrats have weaponized the racial divide to further isolate themselves from the GOP by refusing to support Republican-led bills. 

Scott pointed out that he tried to pass a police reform bill last year, but Democrats shot it down, saying it was inadequate. Scott’s package restricted police chokeholds, while Democrats wanted to ban them outright.

"Race is not a political weapon to settle every issue the way one side wants," he added. 

Scott said he believes the country still needs healing.

"Nowhere do we need common ground more desperately than in our discussions of race," he said. "I have experienced the pain of discrimination. I know what it feels like to be pulled over for no reason, to be followed around a store while I’m shopping."

"Here me clearly, America is not a racist country," he continued. "It’s backwards to fight discrimination with different types of discrimination and it’s wrong to try to use our painful past to dishonestly shut down debates in the present."

At the same time, Scott has remained a party loyalist who seldom makes waves and, like many Republicans, often avoided publicly criticizing Trump. Scott voted against removing Trump from office after the then-president's House impeachment on charges of fomenting the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, saying later, "The one person I don’t blame is President Trump."

Scott, from North Charleston, South Carolina, nearly dropped out of high school. He tells of a life-changing turnabout after befriending a businessman who became a mentor and stressed the value of hard work.

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After graduating college, he entered the insurance and real estate businesses and was elected to the Charleston County Council. He was a co-chairman of the 1996 reelection campaign of Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., an overt segregationist decades earlier. When Scott was elected to the House in 2010, his closest GOP primary rival was Thurmond's son Paul.

Then-Gov. Nikki Haley appointed Scott to the Senate in 2013 when Sen. Jim DeMint resigned. Scott was easily elected to complete DeMint's term in 2014 and to his own six-year term in 2016, and is a favorite for reelection next year.

Scott joined Haley in 2015 when she announced the removal of the Confederate flag from the State House following the 2015 Charleston church massacre. The decision infuriated some conservatives. A White supremacist killed nine Black parishioners in that shooting.

RELATED: House passes George Floyd Justice in Policing Act

Scott spoke out in the past against some of Trump's racially offensive remarks and actions in measured tones. He said the president's "moral authority" was compromised when Trump described "very fine people on both sides" after violence erupted between neo-Nazis and counter-demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.

Scott has long championed old-school conservative ideas such as tax breaks for companies investing in poor communities and federal aid that families could use for private schools. He has a solidly conservative voting record, backing Trump's Supreme Court nominees and the failed drive to repeal President Barack Obama's health care law.

The senator is also the lead GOP negotiator as the two parties seek an accord on legislation overhauling police procedures. The issue has long eluded compromise despite national attention fanned by last year’s killing of George Floyd, a Black man, and this month’s conviction of a former Minneapolis police officer in his slaying.

In March, the House passed  The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. The bill would ban chokeholds and "qualified immunity" for law enforcement and create national standards for policing in a bid to bolster accountability.

The Senate has not voted on it yet.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. This story was reported from Los Angeles.