Lawmakers scramble for 'musical chairs' to view Biden's first Capitol speech

The president’s speeches at a joint congressional session have a historic tradition, but Democrats are especially excited this spring after clenching their teeth for four years while former President Donald Trump made speeches – and bombastic broadsides – under the dome. (Some boycotted Trump State of the Union addresses altogether.)

When Biden finally makes his debut later this month, any legislature’s inability to witness the action in person could cause sore feelings in the Democratic caucus. Some members make a big deal of the President’s speeches; For one, MP Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) is known to arrive in the state of the Union early to cordon off prime real estate along the aisle of the house’s chamber.

“I don’t blame you for being disappointed. But given the medical restrictions and concerns about the president and the size of the chamber, you have no choice,” said Steny Hoyer, chairman of the house majority, in a brief interview.

Jackson Lee told POLITICO that “we have all expressed an interest” in attending the event, although it is unclear whether she will be able to get her usual front-and-center seat.

“We will follow the instructions,” she said. “It will be musical chairs.”

While seats are in high demand for Democrats, many Republicans in the House plan to simplify things by not showing up. Consecutive retreats are held in Florida at the House GOP Conference. Some members plan to only stay the whole week instead of going back to Washington for Biden’s speech. The House is expected to be absent this week – a time that is already capping the number of lawmakers who will be in Washington.

Still, some Republicans said they hope to leave on April 28th. That includes Rep. Tom Cole, a senior Republican who works with Democrats to issue bills and said he would attend if he could get a ticket.

“I’d like to go, but it will be limited. It’s actually my birthday so it would be very nice to go. It’s always an honor to be invited to something by the president,” said the genius Oklahoman.

Kevin McCarthy, the minority chairman of the House of Representatives who has not spoken to Biden since inauguration, also said he plans to attend the speech. And other GOP lawmakers, who said they hoped to go too far, complained about the strict attendance limits, noting that a majority in Congress is now vaccinated.

“I think it’s a huge disadvantage for the American people,” said freshman Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.). “It’s a big thing for everyone in the White House, regardless of party affiliation. … The best you can do is do this together and do it during the session of Congress.”

“It’s a tradition that should be honored no matter who is in charge,” she added.

Typically, a president’s joint address to Congress is a formal affair with a lot of pomp and hoopla. Supreme Court judges and cabinet officers march through the statue hall into the Chamber of the House, followed by members of the Senate and House as lightbulbs burst and reporters ask questions.

This year it is still unclear how the tickets will be distributed and details are currently being worked out. However, the legislature expects that at least members of the leadership of both parties and chambers will receive first dibs. Some members predicted that committee chairs and senior members would also receive an invitation; One legislature considered that names might be pulled out of the hat to determine the rest of the guest list.

“The speaker is thrilled to see the President make his first speech in office,” Pelosi Deputy Chief of Staff Drew Hammill said in a statement.

Limited seating isn’t the only change from this year’s address. Legislators will not be able to bring guests, a practice members have long used to make political statements, or in some cases Pull stunts. Each participant must also wear masks on the floor.

Security will remain particularly strict even after several fatal incidents on the hill this year. Biden’s speech has been labeled a “national security event,” which means that intelligence will be responsible for coordinating security, as opposed to Capitol officials alone. And spokeswoman Nancy Pelosi set up magnetometers outside the doors of the House’s chamber in response to the deadly January 6 riot.

“I’m not worried about that,” said Rep. Tim Ryan, Ohio, whose committee oversees the Capitol’s security funding, when asked about potential security concerns prior to the high-profile address.

The smaller area didn’t do much to dampen the buzz around the speech. While Biden has appeared at Democratic events online and brought smaller groups of lawmakers to the White House, April 28 will be the first real opportunity for most members to see Biden in the flesh since taking over the Oval Office.

While some Democrats may be disappointed if they don’t cut tickets, they also understand why the pandemic-related precautionary measures still exist. They hope that the situation will normalize again next year.

“It’s a difficult situation,” said Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.). But “I’m glad it happened. This is just one of those times: We are dealing with this reality. None of us take it too personally.”

Some members took advantage of the situation to show that the tough year of the pandemic did not hurt their sense of humor. Joke MP David Cicilline (D-R.I.): “If it’s based on merit, I definitely get one.”

MP Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) Said she was only grateful to witness the speech – no matter where she sees it from.

“I’m super excited to see it,” she said, “and if that’s on my couch next to my kids, I’m looking forward to it.”

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