Only 200 people were allowed in the House chamber to hear President Joe Biden’s first joint address to Congress, and the sparse attendance produced a low-key event that lacked the energy and spectacle typical of the annual speech.
“It was muted,” Rep. Kevin Brady, a Texas Republican, said after the speech. “Normally, there is so much energy in the room. The chamber is packed. Obviously, that wasn’t the case because of the unusual social distancing.”
Fellow Texas Rep. Beth Van Duyne said of the room: “It was low energy and — and quiet.”
She added: “I think people were waiting for something to be said and were sorely disappointed.”
Biden rarely raised his voice during the hourlong address, and his quiet delivery was interrupted only occasionally by very brief applause by the Democrats.
Democrats praised the speech, which touted the accomplishments of the administration’s first 100 days and laid out plans for more big spending on infrastructure, child care, and education.
“Tonight, President Biden spoke to the country with confidence and conviction, seriousness and resolve, realism about the challenges we face and optimism about America’s future,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat, said after the speech.
Lawmakers were spaced apart on the House floor and up in the viewing galleries, many sitting further apart than the 6 feet in spacing dictated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In the front of the chamber, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer had a row of seats to himself while to his left sat Chief Justice John Roberts, both men rapt with attention during Biden’s speech, but only Schumer clapped and rose to his feet frequently during the address.
To Schumer’s left, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell also sat alone in a row. The Kentucky Republican did not move during the speech and kept his hands folded in his lap the entire time.
Biden’s former political opponent Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent and socialist, sat in a second row by himself, clapping and occasionally standing up to applaud.
Republicans and Democrats sat on separate sides, the GOP remaining seated most of the speech, while Democrats were on their feet to applaud Biden when he touted the achievements of his first 100 days. He made repeated references to the COVID-19 aid package and the $1,400 stimulus checks.
Lawmakers were spaced at least three chairs apart, leaving the chamber resembling the end of a legislative vote after most of the members have gone back to their offices rather than the scene of the most important address of the year.
While there was plenty of clapping, there were not enough lawmakers in the chamber to provide the thunderous applause that a president typically enjoys, at least from his own party, during the annual joint address.
The quiet was occasionally broken by cellphone messaging sounds and phones ringing. First lady Jill Biden and Doug Emhoff, the husband of Vice President Kamala Harris, were the only dignitaries in an entire 50-seat area of the viewing gallery, and their lonely claps stood out in the empty section.
Biden staffers imposed strict rules for attending the speech, which was delayed well beyond the typical January or February delivery.
Everyone who entered the chamber needed to prove either full vaccination or produce a negative COVID test. Reporters were limited to 20 in the chamber, down from 200 who typically report on the event in person. To obtain a ticket, attendees also had to submit to a brief interview with a House medical doctor to ensure they had no COVID symptoms.
No media were allowed to stake out the chamber afterward to get reactions from the lawmakers, breaking years of tradition.
Lawmakers were limited to 60 senators and 80 House members, divided evenly between the parties. Only Roberts attended from the high court, and just a few members of Biden’s own Cabinet were there.
In the chamber, people were spaced far apart. There appeared to be room to accommodate many more, even with 6-foot spacing imposed.
At the end of the speech, Biden stuck around. The quiet allowed him to stay and chat with lawmakers, making the event look all the more like an everyday legislative vote. Biden gathered in the well with more than a dozen Democrats. The scrum crowded around the president despite the social distancing rules imposed during the speech.
He then stopped to chat with Rep. Barbara Lee and others.
By then, every Republican had left the chamber.
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