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Biden's Joint Address To Congress Will Have Smaller Crowds, Less Fanfare

Heightened security imposed after the Jan. 6 riot looms over President Biden's speech to Congress Wednesday, as does the COVID-19 pandemic. About 200 people will attend the event, which ordinarily would have seen 1,600 people.
Carolyn Kaster
Heightened security imposed after the Jan. 6 riot looms over President Biden's speech to Congress Wednesday, as does the COVID-19 pandemic. About 200 people will attend the event, which ordinarily would have seen 1,600 people.

Traditionally, a presidential joint address to Congress is marked by a packed House chamber with a guest list that can total 1,600 people, including members, high-ranking officials and their guests.

That won't be the case Wednesday night.

"This administration is very conscious of COVID and wants to set an example for the country," said Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent who caucuses with Democrats. "So we're going to be indoors and I'm sure there will be strong social distancing."

It will mark Biden's first joint address to Congress, and it will be unlike any other modern presidential speech before lawmakers thanks to pandemic restrictions and security requirements put in place after the Jan. 6 insurrection.

For starters, a small fraction — 200 — of the usual crowd will attend in person and spread apart in seats on the chamber floor and in the gallery. The crowd will largely be comprised of lawmakers, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, along with a mix of members from both parties who were not allowed to invite guests.

Senate Democrats held a lottery to adhere to the new requirements, a congressional aide told NPR, while several Senate Republicans said they used a "first come, first served" approach.

On the House side, some members said it was a matter of landing an invitation, such as Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., but in some cases were unclear about the mechanics of the process.

"I'm not asking about the specifics, I just know that I'm going," DeLauro recently told a Capitol Hill reporter.

Still, those Democrats who do attend are hoping to hear Biden hit their preferred talking points.

"I hope the president talks about child care as infrastructure and makes a commitment to put in the resources necessary so that every child and every parent in America will have access to high quality, low cost child care," said Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. The president is expected to unveil his American Families Plan during the speech.

As far as the limits on attendance, Warren agrees.

"Congress should be following the CDC guidelines," Warren said.

First lady Jill Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, second gentleman Douglas Emhoff, a few Cabinet officials and Chief Justice John Roberts are among others who will attend, according to White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki. The secretaries of defense and state are among those White House officials expected to attend, Psaki added.

Biden will do a traditional entrance walk down the center aisle of the House chamber, but he'll wear a mask until he delivers his speech, she added.

"While the speech of course will look and feel different from past years, the president will preserve a few traditions," Psaki said.

Pelosi says it will be a different dynamic with the smaller crowd, but it will have "its own wonderful character." Pelosi said she also received a detailed security briefing ahead of the event.

"I wish I had had this briefing, you know, before Jan. 6, but we insisted on knowing every detail of it," Pelosi told a Capitol Hill pool reporter. "Actually most of our, shall we say, limitations, spring from COVID — not as much from security."

Security officials have said there will be limited access to the Capitol complex and parking on Wednesday night. The Capitol continues to be surrounded by a temporary fencing perimeter with a few designated entrances guarded by security personnel at the checkpoints.

"I feel very safe being there. I've told my colleagues that," Schumer, who said he's been briefed on the plans as well, told reporters. "They are doing a very good job. There's lots of different levels of security."

The address was designated a National Special Security Event, which directs the Secret Service to oversee much of the planning. The agency is working with U.S. Capitol Police and other area law enforcement, officials said.

For example, the D.C. emergency operations center will be activated Wednesday, along with the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department joint operations command center, said Chris Rodriguez, director of the Washington D.C. Homeland Security and Emergency Agency. And D.C. will have representatives at all of the federal operations centers.

"We've been coordinating with the U.S. Secret Service, the U.S. Capitol Police since the joint session date was announced," Rodriguez said.

Several Republicans said they'll attend as well, including Sens. Mitt Romney of Utah, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John Kennedy of Louisiana.

"I don't know why, I just want to go. I think. Got nothing else to do," Graham joked with reporters. "No, I want to hear the president. I think we should go, if we can, out of respect for the office and him."

Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., says he'll be ready to take on one tradition, which is to rebut Biden's remarks afterward with his party's message.

"You figure out who your audience is, you figure out what you want to say, you try to find a way to say it well. And you lean into who you are," Scott told reporters.

As is one tradition in such cases, Iowa Republican Sen. Joni Ernst argued the rebuttal will be a highlight of the night.

"So at least we can finish out the night tomorrow evening with a level of optimism that I think many Americans are really hungering to hear," Ernst said.

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Claudia Grisales is a congressional reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk.