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Week In Politics: Ted Cruz Criticized For Traveling To Cancún Amid Deadly Texas Storm

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The lights are mostly back on in Texas. Millions of households went dark as cold weather gripped the state this week. But running water is still a problem. Many Texans don't have it and have to boil it, if they do, to stay safe. We have a report on the ground from Texas elsewhere in the program. Right now, NPR senior Washington editor and correspondent Ron Elving joins us, and not from Cancun. Thanks very much for being with us, Ron.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: First, does the cold in Texas and the failure of the state's electrical grid make climate change an issue in this oil-producing and oil-enriched state?

ELVING: This was a system failure in Texas this week due to weather everyone knew could happen, but few really thought ever would. So they did not design the Texas grid - which, by the way, is independent from the national grid - to deal with this much demand in the wintertime. Now, they do have some renewables in Texas. And it turns out some of their wind turbines froze up this week because they had not been winterized, as they are routinely in Alaska or the Dakotas. So this gave the Texas governor and the fossil fuel people a chance to throw shade on renewables like wind and solar.

But, Scott, the main failure of energy supply this week in Texas was in the traditional sources the state still relies on for the great majority of its energy - coal, natural gas and nuclear - where freeze-ups in pipelines and controls knocked out far more capacity. So we saw this week now how storms are getting stronger and how poor planning and reliance on fossil fuels can be deadly under extreme conditions.

SIMON: And I have to ask about Senator Cruz's decamp to the Ritz Carlton in Cancun, but just for 10 hours. The denunciation was searing. He's back, we hope, with his poodle, Snowflake, who became celebrated after being left behind in the house. Now, Senator Cruz has criticized Democrats for going to fancy restaurants or vacationing during the pandemic. But I want to ask a contrary question of you, Ron. Can a U.S. senator, separate from a mayor or governor, really do much on the ground in a weather crisis?

ELVING: It's pretty limited. A senator can ask the White House for disaster declaration. That happened. A senator can go back to Washington and vote for emergency relief funds. And certainly Senator Cruz can do that in this case, although he hasn't always been a big fan of relief for other natural disasters outside of Texas. One study out yesterday said he voted against five in his first four years when he was first a senator, including one for Hurricane Sandy.

But sometimes the senator can address a specific situation, such as the lack of ventilators in Colorado last year. And, of course, the senator wants to be where his constituents are suffering. But the brunt of the burden, Scott, is on state and local officials and the national bureaucrats, such as the ones at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is on the ground in Texas now.

SIMON: President Biden addressed the Munich Security Conference yesterday and said, quote, "America is back." But America first didn't start with Donald Trump. I mean, he - some of the most popular things he did was assail foreign wars and pull U.S. troops home from overseas. There's always been a strain of isolationism in America. Is President Biden discounting that, especially at a time of grave economic problems?

ELVING: The phrase America first was very popular, as you suggest, in the U.S. before we entered World War II. And we heard it again 60 years later when it was the campaign slogan for the third-party candidate Pat Buchanan in the year 2000. So the domestic appeal of isolationism is anything but new. But Trump truly surprised a lot of our oldest allies by actually making it policy in many ways, threatening to leave NATO and weakening other alliances as well.

SIMON: Nice to see Perseverance land on Mars, wasn't it?

ELVING: Indeed. You know what, Scott? They named this mission Perseverance for a reason. It's a word with real meaning for the folks at NASA. And right now, I think we can all share in celebrating that idea and that meaning.

SIMON: NPR senior Washington editor and correspondent Ron Elving, thanks so much.

ELVING: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.