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Pandemic casts shadow over Biden's first address to Congress

Pandemic casts shadow over Biden's first address to Congress
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No packed groups of lawmakers cheering or booing the president’s every word. No headline-grabbing guests watching from above. And no mask-free faces in the audience.

The COVID-19 pandemic will make President BidenJoe BidenFauci says school should be open 'full blast' five days a week in the fall Overnight Defense: Military sexual assault reform bill has votes to pass in Senate l First active duty service member arrested over Jan. 6 riot l Israeli troops attack Gaza Strip Immigration experts say GOP senators questioned DHS secretary with misleading chart MORE’s first address to Congress Wednesday unlike any presidential speech before as lawmakers come together for one of their biggest gatherings since the virus upended life on Capitol Hill more than a year ago.

Nearly 14 months ago, then-President TrumpDonald TrumpProject Veritas surveilled government officials to expose anti-Trump sentiments: report Cheney: Fox News has 'a particular obligation' to refute election fraud claims The Memo: What now for anti-Trump Republicans? MORE delivered his State of the Union address to a packed House chamber, mentioning the coronavirus once in a paragraph about working with China “to safeguard our citizens from this threat.”

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Members of Congress on Wednesday will be spaced apart and wearing masks in accordance with the House’s COVID-19 protocols, imagery that will underscore how the pandemic is still gripping the nation despite the availability of vaccines and hope for inching back toward a semblance of normalcy.

“It will be its own character,” Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOvernight Defense: Military sexual assault reform bill has votes to pass in Senate l First active duty service member arrested over Jan. 6 riot l Israeli troops attack Gaza Strip Hillicon Valley: Colonial pipeline is back online, but concerns remain | Uber, Lyft struggle with driver supply | Apple cuts controversial hire Ocasio-Cortez on Taylor Greene: 'These are the kinds of people that I threw out of bars all the time' MORE (D-Calif.) said of the speech. “We went from 1,600 people to 200 people. That is a different dynamic, but it has its own worth.”

Unlike previous presidential addresses — when nearly all 535 members of Congress, a stream of Cabinet officials, guests, Supreme Court justices and reporters packed onto the floor and viewing galleries above — attendance in the chamber on Wednesday night will be sparse.

Roughly 200 people total will be in attendance on Wednesday night and anyone, including lawmakers, who doesn’t have a ticket to attend is being urged to avoid going near the House chamber after 5 p.m., with Capitol officials clamping down on crowds due to pandemic and security concerns.

How lawmakers scored tickets varied by caucus. Senate Democrats said they had a lottery system, while Republicans largely described theirs as first come, first served, though senior members of the caucus were given preference.

Because of the space restrictions, some members said they passed on attending so that their colleagues could go.

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Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineSenate Democrats ramp up push to limit Biden's war powers Sweeping election reform bill faces Senate buzz saw How leaving Afghanistan cancels our post-9/11 use of force MORE (D-Va.) said he took himself out of the running but would be “glued to the TV.”

“There was a request that we need to limit the number,” Kaine said.

House Minority Whip Steve ScaliseStephen (Steve) Joseph ScaliseRoy to challenge Stefanik for Cheney's old position Stefanik shake-up jump-starts early jockeying for committee posts Freedom Caucus Republican says Cheney was 'canceled' MORE (R-La.) is among the more high-profile lawmakers who won’t be going because he wants to give a first-term Republican the chance to experience a presidential address.

“There are not many of us that are going to be able to go because they’re limiting it pretty dramatically,” Scalise said. “There are a lot of people that haven’t been before that want to go.”

Lawmakers can’t bring guests, although some have announced “virtual” guests instead to tout notable constituents in their districts.

Pelosi, who normally has a box of seats available to fill, announced Tuesday that Kenneth Tai, the chief health officer at a community health center in San Francisco, will be her virtual guest.

The footprint from other branches of government is also being scaled back dramatically, with most Cabinet and executive officials watching remotely.

First lady Jill BidenJill BidenJill Biden, Jennifer Garner go mask-free on vaccine-promoting West Virginia trip Masks shed at White House; McConnell: 'Free at last' First Latina since 2005 wins Teacher of the Year award MORE will attend in person, but she will not be accompanied by guests who are normally selected to highlight priorities of the administration.

A spokesperson for the Supreme Court confirmed that Chief Justice John Roberts is the only one of the nine justices invited to attend given the restrictions.

Gen. Mark MilleyMark MilleyOvernight Defense: Former Navy secretary reportedly spent .4M on travel | Ex-Pentagon chief Miller to testify on Jan. 6 Capitol attack | Austin to deliver West Point commencement speech Trump's Navy secretary spent over M on travel during pandemic: report Overnight Defense: US may keep training Afghan forces in other countries | Defense chief tight-lipped on sexual assault decision | 'Swift' return to Iran deal possible, US says MORE, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is expected to represent the collective body of military leaders, while Defense Secretary Lloyd AustinLloyd AustinOvernight Defense: Military sexual assault reform bill has votes to pass in Senate l First active duty service member arrested over Jan. 6 riot l Israeli troops attack Gaza Strip Military sexual assault reform bill has votes to pass in Senate First active duty service member arrested over Jan. 6 riot MORE and Secretary of State Antony BlinkenAntony BlinkenProgressive groups call for Biden to denounce evictions of Palestinians as 'war crimes' Why women make great diplomats — tales from a 'tough-girl negotiator' The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden expresses optimism on bipartisanship; Cheney ousted MORE will be the only members of Biden’s Cabinet in attendance. 

White House press secretary Jen PsakiJen PsakiBiden says he and GOP both 'sincere about' seeking infrastructure compromise The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Colonial pays hackers as service is restored Colonial paid hackers almost M in ransom: report MORE also said that there would be no designated survivor because most of the Cabinet will not be at the Capitol. Treasury Secretary Janet YellenJanet Louise YellenGOP governors move to cut unemployment benefits as debate rages over effects Judge rejects GOP effort to block tax provision in Biden stimulus bill Growing inflation is Biden's hidden tax on working Americans MORE — who is fifth in the presidential line of succession — is the highest-ranking official not attending the speech in person.

Beyond the coronavirus restrictions, the speech will be marked by other historic firsts.

At the start of the address, the first Black House sergeant-at-arms, William Walker, will announce the president’s arrival and escort him down the center aisle.

Biden will wear a mask while he walks down the aisle but remove it while delivering his address.

“While the speech will of course look and feel different from past years, the president will preserve a few traditions, including the walk down the center aisle that we have seen presidents do for many years,” Psaki said.

And when Biden takes the podium, two women will be seated directly behind the president during a joint address for the first time: Pelosi and Vice President Harris, who are also both the first women to serve in their respective roles.

For many senators, it will be the first time they’ve gathered in the House chamber since Jan. 6, when dozens of Republicans tried to challenge Biden’s win in key states and a pro-Trump mob breached the Capitol. Biden, according to Psaki, is also meeting with career staff who were at the Capitol on Jan. 6 in advance of the speech.

Republicans have bristled at both the timing of the event, since it comes during a week that the House is out of session, as well as the coronavirus-related restrictions.

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A group of House Republicans sent Pelosi a letter last week urging her to reschedule the joint address, arguing that the dual roadblocks are “unprecedented” and would “undermine the very spirit of our representative, constitutional Republic.”

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin McCarthyRoy to challenge Stefanik for Cheney's old position Stefanik shake-up jump-starts early jockeying for committee posts Why Cheney was toppled, and what it says about the GOP and Trump's claims MORE (R-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOn The Money: Biden, Senate GOP take step toward infrastructure deal as other plans hit speed bumps Senate GOP to give Biden infrastructure counteroffer next week Masks shed at White House; McConnell: 'Free at last' MORE (R-Ky.) are both planning to attend, but Sen. John CornynJohn CornynGOP split on counteroffer to Biden's spending Police reform talks hit familiar stumbling block CNN asks Carol Baskin to comment on loose Texas tiger MORE (R-Texas), an adviser to McConnell, floated that he might skip the event.

“It sounds like Speaker Pelosi doesn’t want us to attend,” Cornyn said. “I’m thinking about just watching it on TV. I’ll have a great seat, right in front of my TV set.”

Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneGOP split on counteroffer to Biden's spending Senate GOP dismayed by vote to boot Cheney Top Democrat: FCC actions are a 'potential setback' to autonomous vehicles MORE (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, estimated that the Senate GOP caucus has 30 seats in the House chamber on Wednesday night but that “there are a number of our members that prefer to watch it from their offices.”

Biden has attended dozens of presidential speeches in the House chamber — first as a member of the Senate and then as a fixture behind then-President Obama as vice president.

On the precipice of the 100-day mark of his administration, Biden will likely take a victory lap on what he’s already managed to accomplish. Polls indicate the public gives Biden high marks on his handling of the pandemic, namely for enacting the $1.9 trillion relief package that included $1,400 stimulus checks and overseeing the distribution of more than 200 million vaccines.

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But he’s also expected to use the address to lay out his next proposal: a package totaling around $1 trillion that would cover child care, universal pre-kindergarten and community college.

He’s also likely to call for expanding health care coverage and for police reform, as well as detail his plan to pay for his sweeping legislative packages by raising taxes on the wealthy and corporations.

Republicans in the House and Senate have been pre-butting Biden’s speech by accusing him of veering to the left and failing to follow through on promises of bipartisanship.

Sen. Tim ScottTimothy (Tim) Eugene ScottPolice reform talks hit familiar stumbling block Biden adds pressure to congressional talks with self-imposed deadlines Republicans can win back control in 2022 — if they don't 'cancel' themselves first MORE (R-S.C.) will deliver the party’s formal response after Biden’s address. While Scott was tight-lipped on Tuesday about what he plans to say, he joked that his preparation has involved “lots of ice cream and cookies and sitting on the couch.”

“From my perspective, you figure out who your audience is, you figure out what you want to say, you try to find a way to say it well. And you lean into who you are,” Scott said.

Morgan Chalfant contributed.