WASHINGTON — Lawmakers gathered Tuesday at the heavily secured U.S. Capitol for President Joe Biden’s first State of the Union address — some wearing blue and yellow ribbons and lapels in support of Ukraine — as attention turns from challenges at home to the intensifying war overseas.
It’s the first time all members of Congress are invited to the House chamber since the COVID-19 outbreak largely shuttered the Capitol and the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection by a mob of the former president’s supporters tried to stop Biden’s election. Masks are optional now but the security fencing is up, a stark reminder of the nation’s divisions.
The challenge for the president, and the lawmakers listening from the chamber, will be to address the crisis abroad while confronting the difficulties still at home.
“I think every person in this country understand that what happens in the world has a direct impact with what happens here,” said Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., ahead of the speech.
The event, usually held in January of each year, provides the president an opportunity to outline his agenda for the year ahead, a tradition launched by George Washington’s written message more than 200 years ago.
For Biden this first State of the Union speech arrives amid the backdrop of a war, after Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, and following a number of legislative defeats for the Democratic president and his allies on Capitol Hill.
The audience inside the House chamber is much larger than the 200 allowed last year due to pandemic restrictions but much smaller than the usual 1,600 that typically includes special guests of lawmakers who this year were not granted extra tickets.
Instead, Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States, Oksana Markarova, and Frances Haugen, the former Facebook employee who exposed what the company may have known about damage caused by its social media platforms, joined as invited guests of First Lady Jill Biden during the speech.
Several Republican lawmakers skipped the speech altogether. Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida said he didn’t want to engage in the “theater” of coronavirus protocols when all attendees were required to have a COVID-19 test and practice social distancing. Some Democrats tested positive and had to stay home.
Biden began his speech focusing on the crisis taking place in Ukraine.
But while his administration’s response to Russian aggression in Europe has been met with rare and remarkable bipartisan approval, the division between the two parties in Congress is palpable, even among factions of Democrats.
One Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who almost singularly tanked Biden’s “Build Back Better” domestic agenda of social spending and climate change programs, sat on the Republican side of the aisle.
While Biden touts a roaring economy and low unemployment rates, Republicans will be waiting to call him out on inflation that has hit a 40-year record high, the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the politics around mask and vaccine mandates.
“His only mandate was to govern from the middle. In his inaugural address, President Biden promised to do just that: To unite and to heal, ” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the floor Tuesday afternoon. “But for the past year, he and his administration have often behaved like they’re trying to fail their own test.”
McConnell was joined by his GOP counterparts in the House, who called for Biden to make a “course correction” after what they called “a year of reckless spending.”
The address follows a much more limited joint address Biden delivered last year, shortly after his inauguration amid the fast-spreading Delta variant of the coronavirus and his predecessor Donald Trump’s second impeachment over the Capitol insurrection.
This year, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi welcomed every member of Congress to attend, but with some COVID-19 restrictions in place. Initially, Pelosi, in consultation with the Capitol physician, had a requirement for members to get tested one day before the address and wear a mask.
But in the last week, the mask mandate was done away with as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced new guidelines.
Other Republican lawmakers, including Rep. Chip Roy of Texas, agreed with Rubio, saying he too would not be attending.
“I’m healthy, so I won’t be taking a test for COVID… so I won’t be attending the #SOTU,” Rep. Thomas Massie R-Ky., said in a tweet Tuesday.
But Biden also has conflicts to sort through within his own party.
When he finishes his address Tuesday night, progressive Rep. Rashida Tlaib plans to deliver the Working Families Party response, in which she is expected to call out Biden and Senate Democrats for not passing his $1.8 trillion social spending plan last year.
The planned speech by another Democratic member to a Democratic president’s address is the latest example of the inner fighting among factions of the majority party, most recently between centrists and progressives like Tlaib.
Story by Farnoush Amiri and Lisa Mascaro. Associated Press writer Darlene Superville contributed to this report.