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Masks, distanced applause: Small crowd planned for Biden's first speech to Congress

28 April 2021 - 12:57 By Reuters
US President Joe Biden holds a bipartisan meeting on the American Jobs Plan at the White House in Washington DC on April 19 2021. File photo.
US President Joe Biden holds a bipartisan meeting on the American Jobs Plan at the White House in Washington DC on April 19 2021. File photo.
Image: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

In his decades in elected office, President Joe Biden attended dozens of his predecessors' joint addresses to the US Congress, but the scene he faces when he takes the podium at the House of Representatives on Wednesday will look very different.

Just 200 people, mostly lawmakers plus a handful of representatives of other arms of government and select family members, will attend the masked, socially distanced speech, in a nod to the Covid-19 pandemic that has not fully released the nation from its grip.

That is a far cry from the 1,600 officials, friends and guests who typically gather for a presidential speech.

“It will be its own character, it will be its own wonderful character,” said House of Representatives speaker Nancy Pelosi, a fellow Democrat. “We went from 1,600 people to 200 people. That is a different dynamic, but it has its own worth.”

First lady Jill Biden will be in attendance, as will Douglas Emhoff, Vice-President Kamala Harris's husband. US chief justice John Roberts and the chairperson of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen Mark Milley, will also attend, a Capitol official involved with the planning of the event said.

Harris, in her role as president of the Senate, and Pelosi will be seated immediately behind Biden — the first time two women have held those positions of power during a presidential address.

Less than half of the 535 members of Congress will be allowed to attend, based on health guidance from the House physician.


The two parties in Congress handled their limited allocations of tickets differently. Senate Democrats held a lottery for their members, with Mazie Hirono scoring one of the coveted seats. Bernie Sanders, one of Biden's rivals for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, also said he would attend.

Republicans were less enthusiastic about the seats. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy plans to attend, but his No 2, Steve Scalise, said he was giving his ticket to a newly elected colleague.

“A lot of the freshmen want to go, and they haven't been before,” Scalise said.

Among other prominent Republicans who said they were not planning to attend was Senator Josh Hawley, who, along with many of his counterparts in the House, voted on January 6 to try to block Biden's election victory, hours after supporters of then-president Donald Trump, fired up by his false claims the 2020 election had been marred by fraud, stormed the Capitol.

One Republican senator who did say he would be in the room was Lindsey Graham, a vocal Trump ally and a colleague of Biden when the president was a senator.

“I just want to go. Got nothing else to do,” Graham joked to reporters. Turning serious, he added: “I want to hear the president. I think we should go if we can, out of respect for the office.”