Biden offers traditional address in eerie setting

The last time House and Senate lawmakers gathered together in the chamber was Jan. 6, when Republicans tried unsuccessfully to overturn Joe Biden’s election victory — an effort that led to a deadly attack on the Capitol by a mob of Donald Trump’s loyalists.

The echoes of that harrowing rampage were tough to miss Wednesday night, when Biden, on the eve of the 100th day of his presidency, delivered his first joint address to Congress in the same House chamber, with many of those same lawmakers sitting in the audience.

“As we gather here tonight, the images of a violent mob assaulting this Capitol — desecrating our democracy — remain vivid in our minds,” Biden said near the end of his 65-minute address. “The insurrection was an existential crisis — a test of whether our democracy could survive. It did. But the struggle is far from over.” 

Wednesday’s event was historic. Seated behind Biden on the dais, Vice President Harris and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) broke through another glass ceiling in becoming the first two women to share that stage since the tradition of annual presidential addresses began.

Yet the highly anticipated speech, typically an adrenalized affair in a room teeming with lawmakers and other Washington luminaries, was much sleepier this year, reflecting the unprecedented precautions put in place in response to the threat of two very different hazards: outside violence and the COVID-19 pandemic. 

At an event that usually features 1,600 people, only about 200 were in attendance. And the eerie emptiness of the night — on stark display every time the C-SPAN cameras panned over the chamber — was instantly recognized by lawmakers in both parties. 

“It’s strange,” Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.) texted from inside the chamber. “Because it’s almost cavernous, it seems quiet.”

Still, she said it was an honor to receive one of the few invitations and a “privilege to witness history in these turbulent times.”

Biden’s speech was a tightrope act, shifting between efforts to satisfy liberal Democrats, largely with calls to expand public benefits, and stay true to his promise — at least rhetorically — to reach across the aisle for Republican support on major legislation. 

“We can do whatever we set our mind to — if we do it together,” he said in a rousing conclusion that strayed from the script of his prepared remarks. 

Yet the thinned-out audience featured some of his more biting GOP critics, who wasted no time hammering the president, some of them in real time on Twitter. 

There was Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), the first-term firebrand who had called Jan. 6 the GOP’s “1776 moment.” House Freedom Caucus leaders Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) and Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), two Trump loyalists who had led the charge to stop the election certification, were on hand. So was House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who had barricaded himself in his office as he frantically phoned Trump and begged him to call off the assault on the Capitol.   

“House rules require a mask when speaking at the podium, Mr. President,” read one of Boebert’s many tweets during Biden’s address.

“I miss President Trump,” she wrote in another, before loudly unfurling a Mylar emergency blanket and putting it over her lap.

But there were also Republicans on hand who condemned the Capitol riot — and Trump’s role in it. House Republican Conference Chairwoman Liz Cheney (Wyo.), one of 10 Republicans who voted to impeach Trump in January, went out of her way to shake hands with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who in a floor speech had called Trump “morally responsible” for the Jan. 6 attack.  

Moments later, Cheney fist-bumped Biden as he walked down the aisle to the dais.

The contrast between Biden and his more polarizing predecessor could not be more stark. At the State of the Union address just a year ago, Pelosi was so furious with what she called the “manifesto of mistruths” she ripped up a copy of Trump’s speech as he stood a few feet away.

If he did anything during his speech, Biden lowered the temperature in the Capitol — and in Washington. At one poignant moment, the president personally thanked McConnell for naming a cancer research bill after his son, Beau Biden, who died of brain cancer. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle applauded the line.

“There are some figures in politics who are not only polarizing, they are easy to demonize or even despise. Joe Biden is not one of those people,” Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), who worked for Biden when he was a senator, told The Hill. “Try though they might, Republicans can’t really hate him. And they can’t really successfully demonize him, because what he’s doing has broad public support.”

The remnants of the attack of Jan. 6 remain in high evidence on Capitol Hill, even more than three months after the assault. An eight-foot fence is still in place around the Capitol complex; National Guard troops are still protecting the building, though in smaller numbers than before. And Capitol Police put on standby dozens of officers in riot gear in preparation for any potential violence at the Capitol on Wednesday.

Pelosi, who’d insisted on an in-person briefing with the Capitol’s top security officers on Monday, said the coronavirus was the greater threat than another external attack. She deflected the GOP criticisms surrounding her decision to limit lawmaker attendance and bar all guests, saying she was only following the recommendations of the Capitol physician — “something that we cannot defy.” 

And for those lawmakers who remain reluctant to get inoculated, she offered both a rebuke and an enticement.  

“The more people get vaccinated, hopefully, the more people can be in a room,” Pelosi said in an interview with MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell a few hours before Biden’s speech.

Some lawmakers were coy about how they nabbed a coveted ticket.

“I could say I know the right people. I could say that I’ve got connections. I could say that I got lucky. I could say that pixie dust was showered on me,” Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.) joked before the speech. “Occasionally, good things happen.”

Tags Biden address to Congress Capitol breach Coronavirus COVID-19 Donald Trump Frederica Wilson Gerry Connolly Jim Jordan Joe Biden John Garamendi Kevin McCarthy Lauren Boebert Liz Cheney Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi
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