Biden to Face Sea of Empty Seats in First Speech to Congress
(Bloomberg) -- Only about 200 people will be inside the House chamber on Wednesday when President Joe Biden delivers his first address to a joint session of Congress, a vivid illustration of how much the Covid-19 pandemic has altered even the most firmly established Washington traditions.
Rather than a chamber packed with lawmakers and guests, attendance even by House members and senators is to be severely limited due to pandemic protocols and security precautions.
The exact number of attendees is not yet decided, but there will be little more than 200 people in the chamber for Biden’s speech, according to two House officials with knowledge of the plans. Lawmakers won’t be allowed to invite guests.
The House chamber has enough seats on its floor and in galleries to accommodate about 1,100 people, and its capacity can be further expanded with temporary seats and standing room, one official said. Normally, about every seat would be filled for a presidential address to a joint session, including all 535 members of Congress and their guests.
Wednesday’s event is the equivalent of a State of the Union address, though technically presidents don’t deliver that speech until their second year in office.
Eight of the nine Supreme Court justices usually attend the address, as well as the all but one of the president’s cabinet and dozens of journalists.
The first lady also attends with several guests, often people the president wants to highlight in his speech.
This year, there will be a single representative of the U.S. Supreme Court on hand, and as of Friday morning, there were no plans for any Biden cabinet members to attend. First lady Jill Biden’s office didn’t immediately reply to a question about whether she’ll be in the chamber on Wednesday.
“Most of our staff, if not all of our staff, will be watching virtually,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Friday. She said she was unsure whether Jill Biden would attend, but that the first lady would not have “the traditional box” of seats in the gallery.
“We’re determining how we can, of course, engage the public and ensure we highlight some of the incredible stories of people who have be helped by the president’s policies and proposals,” Psaki said. “But it will not look like or feel like, in many ways, what past joint addresses have.”
She said it will be up to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to decide whether audience members at the speech must be vaccinated against the coronavirus.
Democratic and Republican leaders from both chambers have been allotted a small quota of invitations to hand out to their members. There are no votes scheduled in the House next week, so some of the members selected to attend will be traveling from their home districts to Washington for the event.
Some of the lawmakers who will attend will not be permitted in seats on the House floor, and instead will be assigned to areas in the gallery above for social distancing. Only about 20 members of the media will be permitted to physically attend.
Democratic Representative Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas -- known for typically arriving in the chamber hours before a presidential address to get an aisle seat and a chance to greet the president first-hand -- said she was waiting for details on who can attend.
As has been the practice for the past two decades, the joint session has been officially designated a National Special Security Event, giving the Secret Service lead-agency status in coordinating, planning and exercising security.
Special credentialing procedures for attendees, as well as Covid testing or proof-of-vaccination requirements, are to be part of the run-up to the event.
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