Congress prepares for 'strange' and 'extraordinary' presidential address

More than 1,600 typically attend, but this year only 200 may be in the chamber.

April 28, 2021, 5:25 AM

In a normal year, Rep. Adriano Espaillat, D-N.Y., would be camping out in the House chamber for a coveted seat for President Joe Biden's first address to Congress on Wednesday.

But because of the coronavirus pandemic, he's lucky to be in the room.

"I would love to give him an elbow, but not in a bad way," he joked.

Biden's address to a joint session of Congress, usually a celebratory gathering of official Washington, has been reshaped by COVID-19 and lingering concerns about security after the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.

Members of Congress stand up to applaud as President Barack Obama speaks during his final State of the Union to a joint session of Congress in the House Chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, Jan. 12, 2016.
Al Drago/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images, FILE

The House chamber, usually filled with more than 1,600 people, will hold just 200 spaced-out attendees this year in order to allow for social distancing. Everyone in attendance will wear a mask, though Biden will take his off to address lawmakers.

"It will be its own character, it will be its own wonderful character," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Tuesday about the speech.

President Joe Biden speaks at the White House in Washington, April 20, 2021.
Evan Vucci/AP, FILE

While first lady Jill Biden and second gentleman Doug Emhoff will be in attendance, they will not be joined by any White House guests -- who usually feature prominently in the president's speech.

Chief Justice John Roberts will represent the entire Supreme Court and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley will attend in place of Biden's full team of military advisers.

And there won't be a designated survivor this year, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday, because Biden's Cabinet secretaries will be watching from home or their offices.

On Wednesday evening, members of Congress -- who enjoy floor privileges for life -- will not be allowed in the House without a ticket, which have been distributed by top congressional leaders.

In the House, Pelosi first offered seats to her leadership team, senior lawmakers and committee chairs.

"We're pleased to sit where everyone will be the most safe," Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, a senior lawmaker who usually stakes out an aisle seat, told ABC News about being able to attend the event.

Vice President Joe Biden arrives before the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Jan. 12, 2016.
Pool/VCG/Corbis via Getty Images, FILE

Republicans in both chambers have distributed their tickets on a more ad-hoc basis, with some senior members giving up their seats to freshmen who have never heard a presidential address to Congress in person.

"If it was a normal state of the union, I would definitely go," Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said. "If I'm going to sit in the last row at the top balcony, why don't I just watch it on TV?"

Senate Democrats decided who will attend the speech at random by drawing lots, according to Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii.

Wednesday night will be Biden's fourth trip to the Capitol as president -- and the first time he'll set foot in the House chamber since taking office.

It will also be the first time that many House lawmakers will return to the chamber gallery, where some of them sheltered in place in January when pro-Trump rioters swarmed the Capitol.

"I'm sure I will have some strong emotions because that was such a dramatic moment for all of us," Rep. Ann Kuster, D-N.H., told ABC News. "Most of us … thought we were going to die that day in the chamber."

President Donald Trump delivers the State of the Union address in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives on Feb. 04, 2020, in Washington.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images, FILE

Biden's speech to a socially distanced House chamber will be "strange" and "extraordinary," said Dr. Lara Brown, director of the George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management, because he'll be speaking to Americans grappling with generational health and economic crises in such an unconventional setting.

"Does the president shake people's hands? I mean, presumably everyone (in the chamber) will have been vaccinated at this point," she said. "But would you want that model to be shown?"

It will also be a historic night for another reason, she noted: For the first time, a president addressing Congress will be flanked by women -- the first female vice president and House speaker.

"It's clearly one of the lasting images of the night," Debbie Walsh, the director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, told ABC News. "Young girls can see someone in one or both of these women that looks like them."

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