WASHINGTON – If this were a normal year, Democrat of Tennessee Representative Steve Cohen might have spent hours delivering President Biden’s first address at a joint congressional session held in the Chamber of the House under a small but determined trunk of lawmakers which are known as “gang pigs.”
Your goal on one of Washington’s biggest evenings is usually to get the handful of seats in the middle of the political mosh pit best suited to shaking hands with the president – and being seen on national television – while he is get in and out. An avid sports fanatic, Mr. Cohen once got President George W. Bush to sign a Memphis Tigers hat on his way down the aisle.
But on Wednesday morning, as congressional leaders were preparing for a very unusual pandemic-era speech, neither Mr Cohen nor any other lawmaker was in sight. The leaders of the house had closed the chamber, cordoned off the coveted aisle seats to prevent a crowd, and drastically reduced the attendance from around 1,600 people to around 200 people.
Those without a ticket were urged to stay far away as members of the Secret Service and National Guard left the Capitol for the first joint session of Congress since Jan. 6, when a pro-Trump mob stormed the building and lawmakers on the run sent, put your life on a safe lock.
The tableau was “a little strange,” allowed Mr Cohen, “but then the whole presidency was strange.” Mr. Cohen stayed home and watched television instead.
For those watching from afar, Mr Biden’s first Union-style speech on Wednesday was more or less normal, with formal announcements of the president’s arrival, congressional leaders accompanying him and a lengthy address preceded from the walnut pedestal a large American flag was held to him. But in a capitol still ravaged by the January 6 riot and ravaged by strict pandemic protocols, one of Washington’s most famous rituals unfolded almost silently.
There were no candlelight dinners for Senators and their spouses or cocktail receptions for members of the House and their guests. Instead of starters, spokeswoman Nancy Pelosi distributed boxing dinners to the 40 or so House Democrats who were allowed to attend from her Capitol office suite. The statue hall, which in most years was converted into a noisy spin room with marble columns, stood empty and quiet for most of the day.
In the chamber, where lawmakers often drowned the president’s speech with thunderous applause for most years, the new president stared at a socially distant crowd that was so sparse that comments could be heard throughout the room when it was quiet. Outside the legislature, outside presence was limited to Ambassador Hersey Kyota of Palau, the dean of the diplomatic corps. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr .; General Mark A. Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Jill Biden, the first lady; Defense and State Secretaries Lloyd J. Austin III and Antony J. Blinken; and a few dozen members of the press.
Those who were allowed to attend were instructed to wear masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, and they sat with several seats left in between. A few members still managed to get a quick punch or handshake when Mr. Biden entered, including Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the No. 3 Republican contested in her own party for standing on the indictment former President Donald J. Trump has voted.
“People can’t see if you’re scowling or smiling – unfortunately they can still see if you’re sleeping,” South Dakota Republican Senator John Thune, No. 2 Republican, told reporters. He thought it was “a very unusual experience for everyone”.
The carefully controlled silence was marked by many of the divisions and wounds that had emerged from the last joint session when thousands of Mr. Trump’s supporters forcibly overpowered the police and made their way into the building as Congress met to officially count the votes for 2020.
Mr. Biden entered the chamber through the same doors that police officers had barricaded with guns drawn when the rioters pressed themselves down. Some of the same lawmakers who voted to overturn his victory sat inside, underscoring how strong Congress and the country are still 100 days in its presidency.
Even so, Mr. Biden, a 36-year-old Senate veteran, went out of his way to demonstrate his lightness in the Capitol. He joked that he was “almost home” when he got back in the building, and twice called Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the minority leader by his first name.
Democratic leaders anxious to promote Mr. Biden’s first 100 days in office and ambitious employment plan spent the day getting to grips with the hustle and bustle. Ms. Pelosi went on cable news to suggest that later that evening, when she and Vice President Kamala Harris took their seats directly behind Mr. Biden, history would be made. Never before have both the House Speaker and the Vice-President been women.
“It’s about time,” she told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell.
When the moment came, the two women bumped their elbows and Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, captured the historic moment on his digital camera.
Republicans fired press releases condemning Mr Biden’s plan, accusing him of abandoning his promise to unite the country in favor of liberal priorities. For many of them, strict attendance restrictions were a welcome excuse to skip a stuffy evening at work pretending to be listening to a president whose politics they detest.
Others, however, insisted on being there, arguing that the democratic process worked best when the opposing parties could meet face-to-face.
“The best way to criticize him is to show up and hear directly what the president has to say,” said Senator Dan Sullivan, Republican of Alaska.
South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, tapped by Republican leaders to formally refute Mr. Biden’s speech, was characteristically calm as he scurried through the Capitol between preparatory sessions. His regime for the big night: “Lots of ice cream and biscuits and sit on the couch, hang out a bit.”
The sparse numbers were perhaps the best. Security has been tight for visitors trying to get through the ring of fence that has encircled the Capitol since the January attack and for the thousands of National Guard troops patrolling the edge. And although the Capitol architect moved a metal detector installed outside the chamber of the house to spare Mr. Biden the unworthiness of passing through it, other participants were escorted through secure checkpoints.
Between the additional layers of safety and health protocols, there was no room for the usual crowd of guests invited by the President, First Lady, and members of Congress to sit in the chamber. Massachusetts Representative Katherine M. Clark, House Democrat No. 4, was among those who instead invited a guest from her district to virtually join her. One experience she conceded was none other than the thrill of being physically present in the Capitol.
“It’s a good refresher on how amazing it is to work in this building, to see these iconic characters you work with and to get used to seeing it through someone else’s eyes, like a guest” , she said.
The few lawmakers who were allowed to attend in person had more access to the president than even the most ambitious gang pigs in normal years. After Mr. Biden finished his speech and the applause subsided, he paused as he walked out of the chamber. As Democrats and a few Republicans swarmed around him and took photos, the president offered punches and leaned over for quiet conversation to enjoy his final moments in the chamber, even as his security detail kept pressing.