Pandemic casts shadow over Biden’s first address to Congress

The House chamber
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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 Biden’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 Trump 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.”

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 Pelosi (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.

Sen. Tim Kaine (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 Scalise (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 Biden 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 Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is expected to represent the collective body of military leaders, while Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken will be the only members of Biden’s Cabinet in attendance. 

White House press secretary Jen Psaki also said that there would be no designated survivor because most of the Cabinet will not be at the Capitol. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen — 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.

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 McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) are both planning to attend, but Sen. John Cornyn (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 Thune (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.

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 Scott (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.

Tags Antony Blinken Biden address to Congress Donald Trump Janet Yellen Jen Psaki Jill Biden Joe Biden John Cornyn John Thune Kevin McCarthy Lloyd Austin Mark Milley Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi Steve Scalise Tim Kaine Tim Scott
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