WASHINGTON – A sparsely packed chamber. No special guests. Everyone in masks.
President Joe Biden’s address to a joint session of Congress was unlike any in modern history due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With no more than 200 folks permitted for an event that can hold up to 1,500, an event known for its glad-handing cadence and rousing moments was destined to be subdued.
“While the setting tonight is familiar, this gathering is very different – a reminder of the extraordinary times we are in,” Biden said, acknowledging the scene before him of strategically spaced lawmakers.
President Joe Biden addressed a joint session of Congress for the first time after nearly 100 days into his presidency.
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The few dozen lawmakers who attended were assigned to specific seats and couldn’t move once they were in place. Some sat in the balcony of the chamber, known as the gallery, usually reserved for guests.
Despite the partisanship that normally resides in the U.S. Capitol, the vibe before the speech was relaxed and amicable, with members fist-bumping each other and gathering in small clusters – all wearing masks as required by House rules.
Two veterans – Republican Tom Cole of Oklahoma and Democrat Steny Hoyer of Maryland – chatted while sitting next to one another before Hoyer had to leave to join the escort team that would usher Biden into the House chamber.
Some members took selfies with each other. Some sat quietly scrolling through their phones as they waited for senators to make their way in. Wyoming Republican Liz Cheney, the GOP caucus chair, traded friendly words with South Carolina Democrat James Clyburn.
The brown leather seats were marked either with the name of a lawmaker or a paper sheet saying no one could sit there.
Underscoring the socially distanced feel of the event, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, standing in for the nine-member court by himself, fist bumped Army Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who also was his respective group’s sole representative.
With an appreciative bow to the cheering lawmakers, Jill Biden took her seat near second gentlemen Doug Emhoff in the first lady’s box that would normally be packed with special guests the president would introduce during key inflection points of his speech. This time, they were all watching virtually.
But even those who were in the gallery near Biden got no more than a wave and a few words from a socially safe distance.
Not every lawmaker was itching to attend Biden’s speech.
Florida GOP Sen. Marco Rubio opted not to even try, saying the security protocols alone would have been a “hassle.”
“If it was a normal State of the Union, I would definitely go,” he told Capitol Hill reporters Tuesday. “I figured if I’m gonna sit in the last row at the top balcony, why don’t I just watch it on TV? I probably hear better.”
The speech, which falls just before his 100th day as president, was the first time Biden has addressed Congress since entering the White House. He spent much of his remarks selling his $1.8 trillion plan to boost programs for families, students and children and a $2.3 trillion jobs and infrastructure plan. Both need congressional approval.
It was the third role Biden has played in such speeches – and the first time he was the one delivering it. He attended many of them during his 36 years as a senator from Delaware starting with President Richard Nixon. Then, for eight years, he sat behind President Barack Obama on the dais as his vice president.
Early on in his speech Wednesday, he paid homage to his vice president, Kamala Harris, the first woman to hold that position and, as a result, the first woman to preside over the Senate during a presidential address.
“Madam Vice President,” Biden said as he turned to her. “No president has ever said those words from this podium, and it’s about time.”
That drew one of the few bipartisan standing ovations, along with his call to end cancer, his plea to Americans to “get vaccinated now,” and his salute to wife, Jill, at the beginning of his address.
A smaller crowd also highlighted the security in the chamber.
Plainclothes security stood guard at every doorway, a reminder that the Capitol still was recovering from the damage inflicted on Jan. 6 by a pro-Trump mob intent on stopping the ceremonial tabulation of the Electoral College votes affirming Biden’s victory in November.
When he was finished with his roughly 70-minute speech, Biden gathered with Democratic lawmakers near the well of the house as they gave him congratulatory praise.
And then he bumped their fists.