Lawmakers invite shooting victims’ families to Obama’s annual address

Lawmakers are lining up their dates for Tuesday’s State of the Union address, but it’s their guests who may get more attention.

Several lawmakers have invited the family members of shooting victims to listen to President Obama lay out his agenda for his second term, which is expected to include a call for stricter gun control laws.

Joining the lawmakers’ guests will be the parents of 15-year-old Chicago shooting victim Hadiya Pendleton. Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton and Nathaniel Pendleton will be seated in first lady Michelle Obama’s box, according to a White House official. Hadiya Pendleton, who performed at the president’s inauguration, was shot and killed in Chicago last month. The first lady attended her funeral on Saturday.

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One of the nation’s most high-profile shooting victims, former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), will attend, along with her husband, Capt. Mark Kelly, as the guest of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Ron Barber (D-Ariz.), who replaced her in Congress, according to a Giffords aide.

Giffords and Kelly have established a political action committee, Americans for Responsible Solutions, dedicated to reducing gun violence. Giffords was shot in the head at a Tucson constituent meeting in 2011.

Meanwhile, several Democratic lawmakers have invited someone affected by a gun tragedy as their guest to the speech. 

Reps. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.), Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.), Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), and David Cicilline (D-R.I.) are leading the effort, and will hold a press conference with Mayors Against Illegal Guns on Tuesday afternoon.

Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) is bringing Theresa Hoover, whose son was killed in the Aurora, Colo., theater shooting in 2012, while Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) is bringing Emily Nottingham, whose son was killed in the Tucson, Ariz., shooting.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced last week that a mother and daughter from Newtown, Conn., would be her guests at the speech.

Pelosi received a letter from the girl, who does not attend Sandy Hook Elementary School — the site of the December shooting that resulted in the deaths of 27 people, including 20 children — and invited her and her mother to the speech.

Other lawmakers are busy lining up their “dates,” which is what members have nicknamed the bipartisan seating arrangement that has taken place at the last two State of the Union addresses. 

Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) came up with the idea in 2011 in response to the Tucson shootings, and several lawmakers stepped across the aisle to sit with members from the other party.

For the past two years, several lawmakers have tweeted and announced their dates in the days leading up to the address, but that hasn’t been the case this year.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who has joined Udall in calling for the bipartisan seating, said she isn’t worried.

“I don’t think you’re seeing as many of the advance notice of the dates,” she said, because it’s becoming normal for lawmakers to sit that way. “And my hope, and I think Sen. Udall shares this, [is that] we get to the point we just don’t even think about it on State of the Union.”

She added: “I think it will just be kind of the natural inclination when you get in there, kind of look around and say ‘Where do I want to be and who haven’t I talked to recently?’ ” 

Murkowski will be sitting with Udall, as she did last year. 

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) invited freshman Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) to be her “date,” although there’ll be “no corsage,” she quipped to The Hill.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) will be sitting with his good friend Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill). The two were supposed to sit together for the speech in 2012, but Kirk missed the address as he was recovering from a stroke.

Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) will sit with his home-state 

colleague Republican Rep. Don Young, and Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) is going with Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.). Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) is going with his Republican colleague, Rep. Randy Forbes (Va.).

One thing that changed when the bipartisan seating began is the tradition among some lawmakers of holding a seat along the aisle the president walks down on his way to the podium.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) was known for marking her turf early in the day so she would be sure to get a handshake from the president and thus appear on TV. But not any more.

She said the rules have changed so that lawmakers can no longer leave their stuff in a seat early in the day and then come back later for the speech. 

“You have to actually put your buns down on the seat and stay there,” she told The Hill. “And I just have so many other responsibilities.”

She added: “And let me tell you, people are vicious there. They will get you out of there.”

It’s a tradition she says she misses.

“I would love it because my folks back home would see it and I’d wear a red jacket, and now I’ll be wearing boring black or gray.”

Taylor Seale and Alex Lazar contributed.

Staff get Capitol ready for big night

While lawmakers are organizing their guests and dates for the State of the Union, staff in the Capitol are getting the building cleaned and polished for the big night.


The Architect of the Capitol’s (AoC) office takes the lead in getting the building ready, which includes installing media stands and extra power supplies throughout the Capitol, including the House gallery, the chamber itself and Statuary Hall, where reporters wait to interview lawmakers after the address.

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In the House chamber, where lawmakers from both chambers will sit with members of the Cabinet, Supreme Court justices and other guests, the AoC adds extra seats and monitors the temperature to ensure it doesn’t get too warm with all the television lights on.

Staff also coordinate with the Secret Service, Washington Metro Police, U.S. Capitol Police and other agencies for security surrounding the event.

“After the inauguration, it really seems like a piece of cake,” Senate Sergeant at Arms Terrance Gainer told The Hill of the preparations.

Gainer will be working his seventh State of the Union. He, House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Architect of the Capitol Stephen Ayers will greet President Obama when he arrives at the Capitol and take him to a holding room to await his entrance.

“You get to witness the president interact with the leaders of the House and Senate,” Gainer said of the waiting room, adding that he’s never seen a president appear nervous.

Last year’s speech holds a special memory for Gainer. It was the night of his granddaughter Catherine’s eighth birthday, and the president signed a card for her after he gave his address.

“He stopped and wrote a card to her,” Gainer said, adding that they sent the card, along with a picture of Obama signing it, to Catherine.

Gainer, Irving and Ayers are part of the group that escorts Obama into the chamber. And it’s Irving who makes the famous pronouncement: “Mr. Speaker, the president of the United States.”

He gets some practice in before the speech, when he makes the announcement a few times during a sound check to ensure the microphone levels are correct.

But he doesn’t have a warm-up routine, according to the office of the House Sergeant of Arms, because he has escort duties. 

“He really does not have time to think about it until he is standing at the main door of the House Chamber,” said a spokesman for the office.

Gainer and Irving get some of the best seats in the House on the big night.

“I watch it from about four feet away from the president,” Gainer said.

And, after the speech is done, they help bring the president out of the chamber.

“The best thing we try to do is stay out of the picture and make a hole for him when he needs to move,” Gainer noted.

“The members and the VIPs are all pretty good about this. After the speech it’s pretty jubilant.”

And when it’s all done, life in the Capitol gets back to normal. 

“You go back and take a deep breath and look at the next day’s schedule,” Gainer said.