At the Capitol, a new normal greets Biden
By Emily Cochrane
President Joe Biden arrived at the Capitol on Tuesday for a State of the Union address that was supposed to mark something of a return to normalcy, with pandemic restrictions easing as coronavirus cases fall and memories of the Jan. 6 riot fading with more than a year’s time.
But even as the Capitol settled back into its old ways, there were hints of the extraordinary challenges that have racked Biden’s presidency and the country: lawmakers seated far apart and some absent after testing positive for the coronavirus; a security fence and National Guard patrols that were a reminder of the specter of political violence; and members wearing blue and yellow in solidarity with Ukraine as Russian bombs fell in the country while they gathered.
“Last year, COVID-19 kept us apart,” said Biden, who entered the House chamber to a standing ovation from Democrats, chanting his name. “This year, we are finally together again.”
With Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States seated as a guest of honor above, Biden tried to conjure a sense of unity, telling his audience that despite political differences, they were bound together by “an unwavering resolve that freedom will always triumph over tyranny.”
Lawmakers in both parties applauded, waving Ukrainian flags across the chamber.
There were plenty of divisions on vivid display, particularly as Biden turned to domestic issues. Multiple right-wing Republicans, including Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Lauren Boebert of Colorado, maintained a steady stream of audible criticism, boos and eye-rolling as Biden spoke.
As Biden described soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan in flag-draped coffins, Boebert could be heard shouting, “You put them in — 13 of them,” in an apparent reference to the 13 U.S. service members who died in August in an attack outside the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan.
It was a jarring moment that came just as Biden was recalling the death of his son Beau Biden from brain cancer, and the possibility that the illness was tied to exposure to toxic burn pits during his service in Iraq. Democrats booed Boebert’s outburst.
Hours before escorting Biden into the chamber, Rep. Victoria Spartz, R-Ind., a Ukrainian American, delivered a tearful and at times angry speech, condemning what she described as a “genocide” in the country of her birth and heaping criticism on Biden for his response.
“This is not a war. This is genocide of the Ukrainian people,” Spartz said, her eyes filling with tears. “They’re bombing civilians nonstop, day and night.”
Like many of the lawmakers on Capitol Hill for the speech, she was dressed in the colors of her native flag. Women wore coordinated jackets and dresses, while others sported elaborate yellow and blue pins. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, crafted a sunflower pin out of yellow quilting fabric and scraps of blue swimsuit material, an aide said. Some men wore patterned ties, or tucked a yellow and blue pocket square into their jackets.
In the weeks before Biden’s speech, House Democratic women had discussed wearing bright colors “symbolizing hopefulness and exuberance,” as Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, put it. But as Russian troops began to invade Ukraine, they prioritized yellow and blue, she said, as a colleague handed her a yellow sweater to offset her blue dress.
During Biden’s joint address in 2021, Escobar had declined a ticket to sit in the gallery of the House chamber, the emotions and trauma of hiding from the mob in the very same spot still too raw at that moment. Just under a year later, she said, “it feels like we’ve turned a corner in many ways.”
Days before the speech, Dr. Brian P. Monahan, the attending physician at the Capitol, said masks would no longer be required in the House, making them optional regardless of vaccination status for the first time in more than a year. Instead, lawmakers, staff aides and reporters were required to provide proof of a negative coronavirus test before being allowed into the chamber.
Five Democrats subsequently announced they would miss the speech because of positive tests, offering their regrets and promises to watch remotely. With lawmakers distanced across the visitors’ gallery overlooking the House floor, their guests attended virtually, rather than in Washington. (A few guests were seated in the box reserved for Jill Biden, the first lady.)
Rather than the usual blitz of cameras and lights in the stately Statuary Hall just off the House floor, cameras were farther away across the complex, sitting in office buildings and overlooking an empty hall where reporters, lawmakers and staff members straggled through to pick up their tickets.
Seats were carefully assigned through the chamber, largely foiling the small corps of lawmakers who typically devote hours to staking out aisle seats for a televised chance to shake the president’s hand.
But multiple lawmakers still scurried over to greet members of the administration as they entered. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-Va., made a point of sitting on the Republican side, beside Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah. As they waited for the president to appear, lawmakers snapped selfies and embraced on the House floor, chatter filling a more sparse chamber.
With convoys of protesting truckers headed toward Washington, a black fence once again circled the complex and the Capitol, a building still closed to the general public more than a year after the attack by a mob of supporters of former President Donald Trump. National Guard troops were dispatched to the area, while officials strategically positioned military vehicles and closed off neighboring streets.
But even with the restrictions, some lawmakers said the speech was offering them a glimpse of Washington tradition that they had not had a chance to witness during the first year of this Congress — particularly first-year lawmakers.
“This year, it’s just a whole different thing. It’s still pretty surreal that I get to be in the room,” said Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo. She wore a red shirt with the number 18,000 printed in white, an estimate of the number of pending petitions for clemency and a reference to her push to get Biden to begin granting such requests.
“It’s up to us to think about and to bring forward the issues of our communities, and carry that with us into rooms like that,” Bush said. As Biden discussed giving more funds and resources to the police, she made a point of pointing at her shirt.