President Joe Biden’s first joint address to Congress couldn’t have looked any more different than the one delivered by his predecessor just over a year before.
Biden’s hopeful rhetoric on Wednesday echoed in a mostly empty — and fully masked — chamber in yet another mark of the pandemic that has gripped the nation for 14 months. Instead of colorful guests flown in from home, the House’s galleries were reserved for socially distanced lawmakers, only a fraction of whom could watch the speech in person.
It’s not just the pandemic. For a half mile in any direction, the Capitol was a fortress with police blocking roads and a fence still up around the building sacked by rioters nearly four months ago. National Guard troops patrolled virtually every entrance, on top of more security within the chamber itself — a glaring reminder of this year’s deadly insurrection more than 100 days earlier.
But in other ways, Biden’s first speech to Congress represented a return to political monotony to the dozens of senior lawmakers sitting before him after four years of Donald Trump. The carefully scripted speech — laden with policy jargon and subtle overtures to key party factions — is a stark departure from Trump’s hyperbolic assertions and made-for-TV surprises, such as last year’s mid-speech military spouse reunion or the accolades for late radio host Rush Limbaugh.
Instead, the most-viral moment from Biden’s speech may have been a snoozing Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) caught on the C-SPAN camera.
“It was weird,” explained Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) afterward. She said it was difficult to understand Biden during the speech. “He was very soft spoken I think through a lot of it too. Very low energy. It was a disjointed laundry list of wishes.”
Biden nodded to the odd setting, the empty seats and the masks throughout the House chamber.
“While the setting tonight is familiar, this gathering is just a little bit different. A reminder of the extraordinary times we are in,” Biden said while addressing the chamber, where even senior senators sat tucked away in the corners of the upper gallery, three seats apart.
“It was very odd to be in the House chamber. Even as a House member I never sat in the gallery,” said Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.). “But it was so normal to hear somebody give the joint address … who was trying to lead the country and not stick their finger in the other side’s eye.”
Lawmakers, almost all of whom were vaccinated, couldn’t resist fist bumps and hand shakes as they gathered together in a bicameral fashion for the first time since approving the election results on Jan. 6.
Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) sought out political ally Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell for a handshake and a quick word as McConnell strolled into the House chamber. She also dapped up Biden as he made his way into the chamber. And Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) bro-hugged Biden as Biden walked to the lectern.
Still, the coronavirus remained one of the biggest procedural obstacles for Capitol officials as they planned the speech. Every member who sat inside had faced strict rules to enter — either proof of a Covid vaccination or a test within 48 hours. Even lawmakers that have ditched their masks inside in recent days, like Cruz or Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), had theirs fastened as they headed into the House chamber.
Even in a year when cross-aisle relationships have decayed since the Jan. 6 insurrection, Biden’s speech saw none of the political vitriol that accompanied Trump’s most recent speech to Congress. Trump delivered that address one day before the Senate acquitted him of several charges by House Democrats, and relations were so frosty between him and Speaker Nancy Pelosi that Trump refused to shake her hand. The speaker ripped up her copy of the president’s speech on camera immediately after he finished.
Biden’s policy-heavy speech was largely designed as a sales pitch for his ambitious infrastructure and social program proposals — including a nearly $4 trillion spending plan that was unveiled earlier Wednesday.
But it was also a long-overdue celebration for Democrats as they welcomed Biden for his first major in-person Hill event since becoming president, after more than a year of Zoom campaigning. It was also a chance to revel in the party’s success after passing a $2 trillion pandemic recovery bill last month, without a single GOP vote. Biden repeatedly touted the bill in his speech
“This may be the first joint address that covered vaccinations, but I’m very glad it did. And it made me feel very good,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
The Republican disinterest, or in some cases, disdain, for Biden’s agenda was clear on the floor Wednesday. GOP lawmakers sat mostly stone-faced as the president laid out his plans for a behemoth spending plan, which would reverse some of their own tax cuts to pay for it. There were some exceptions, of course, including ending cancer — a line that drew bipartisan applause.
“I’m trying to think of what Republicans clapped for. Buy America, a few other things,” said Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.). But when Biden said “don’t bet against America,’ I think even Kevin McCarthy was standing.”
There was little enthusiasm among Republicans as Biden called for bipartisan action on issues from police brutality to gun control to LGBT rights to protecting Dreamers. Overall, it was once again an opportunity for Republicans to question Biden’s commitment to bipartisanship.
“He’s said it before: You’ve got to judge people not by their words but by their actions. So we’ll find out soon enough whether he’s sincere,” said Senate Minority Whip John Thune.
Biden’s challenges were also clear on his own side. His calls for a $15-an-hour minimum wage, for instance, drew loud applause on the floor, though the policy lacks support from eight Democratic Caucus members of the Senate. Democrats also stood and cheered loudly as Biden called for allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices — though his administration has privately drawn complaints after leaving it out of his proposal earlier Wednesday.
Still, some things stayed the same. Democratic Rep. Rosa DeLauro — a long-time friend of Biden’s — was among the first to pull him aside after the speech for a chat. House Majority Steny Hoyer spent several minutes chatting up fellow appropriator, Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) before the speech. A group of House Democrats who call themselves the “Pink ladies” were seen taking selfies.
“There were 200 people in the chamber, and there are usually 1400, to give you an idea what a contrast it was,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). “There was energy, but there were not a lot of players in the room.”