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Lawmakers scramble for ‘musical chairs’ to see Biden’s first speech on Capitol Hill

Presidential speeches to a joint session of Congress are a historic tradition, but Democrats are especially excited this spring after four years of gritting their teeth as former President Donald Trump gave speeches – and explosive flanks – under the dome. (Some have boycotted Trump’s State of the Union speeches completely.)

When Biden finally makes his debut later this month, the failure of every lawmaker to experience the action in person could cause painful feelings within the Democratic caucus. Some members make a big deal out of presidential speeches; Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), for her part, is known to arrive early in the State of the Union to lock down prime real estate along the House bedroom center aisle. .

“I don’t blame them for being disappointed. But given the medical constraints and concerns about the president, and given the size of the chamber, you have no choice, ”House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said in a statement. brief interview.

Jackson Lee told POLITICO that “we have all expressed our interest” in attending the event, although it is not clear if she will be able to find her usual place in the foreground.

“We will abide by whatever instructions are given,” she said. “They will be musical chairs.”

While seats are in high demand for Democrats, many House Republicans plan to make things easier by not showing up. The House GOP conference holds back-to-back retreats in Florida, with some members planning to stay all week rather than returning to Washington for Biden’s speech. The House is expected to be out of session that week – a schedule that already limits the number of lawmakers who will be in Washington.

Still, some Republicans have said they hope to go on April 28. This includes Republican Tom Cole, a senior Republican who works with Democrats on expense bills and has said he would attend if he could get a ticket.

“I would love to go, but it’s going to be limited. It’s actually my birthday, so it would be very nice to go. It’s always an honor to be invited to anything from the president,” said the brilliant Oklahoman.

Minority Parliamentary Leader Kevin McCarthy – who has not spoken to Biden since the inauguration – also said he plans to attend the speech. And other GOP lawmakers who have said they hope to go too far lamented the strict participation limits, noting that a majority of Congress is now vaccinated.

“I think this is a huge disservice to the American people,” said first-year rep Nancy Mace (RS.C.). “It’s a big deal for anyone in the White House, regardless of party affiliation. … The best thing you can do is do this together, and do it while Congress is in session.

“It is a tradition that must be honored, whoever is responsible,” she added.

Typically, a president’s joint speech to Congress is a formal affair with a lot of pomp and hype. Supreme Court justices and Cabinet officials march through Statuary Hall into the House chamber, followed by members of the Senate and House, as flashes of lightning and reporters cast questions.

This year, it’s still unclear how the tickets will be distributed, and details are currently being worked out. But lawmakers expect, at a minimum, the leadership of both parties and chambers to get the first dibs. Some members predicted that the chairs and senior committee members would also mark an invitation; one lawmaker thought the names might be taken out of a hat to define the rest of the guest list.

The limited seating won’t be the only twist in this year’s rhetoric. Lawmakers will not be able to bring in guests, a practice members have long used to make political statements or, in some cases, shoot stunts. Each participant will also have to wear masks on the floor.

Security will also be particularly tight following several deadly incidents on the Hill this year. Biden’s speech was referred to as a “national security” event, which means the Secret Service will be responsible for coordinating security, as opposed to just those on Capitol Hill. And President Nancy Pelosi erected magnetometers outside the doors of the House chamber in response to the deadly January 6 riot.

“I’m not worried about it,” said Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), whose committee oversees Capitol Hill security funding, when asked about potential security issues ahead of the high-profile speech.

The smaller scope didn’t do much to dampen the buzz around the speech. As Biden has appeared online at Democratic events and transported small 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 he took over. resumed the Oval Office.

While some Democrats may be disappointed if they don’t do the ticket reduction, they also understand why pandemic precautions are still in place. They hope things will get back to normal by the State of the Union next year.

“It’s a tough situation,” said Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.). But “I’m glad it’s happening. It’s just one of those times: we’re dealing with this reality. None of us take it too personally.

Some members took advantage of the situation to show that the difficult year of the pandemic did not shatter their sense of humor. Rep. Jokingly David Cicilline (DR.I.): “If it’s merit-based, I will clearly have one.”

Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) Said she would just be grateful to attend the speech – no matter where she is viewing it from.

“I’m super excited to watch it,” she said, “and if it’s on my couch sitting next to my kids, I can’t wait to see it.”

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