WASHINGTON – All members of Congress are being invited to attend President Joe Biden's upcoming State of the Union address, crowding the House chamber for the first time since the outbreak of the pandemic as the White House tries to nudge COVID-19 toward the nation’s rear-view mirror.
It's a further step toward normalcy, yet the big annual speech a week from next Tuesday could still turn into a new and disruptive display of national tensions and frustration over trying to move past the pandemic.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office released the guidelines Thursday from the Sergeant at Arms' office in consultation with the Office of the Physician.
Violations of the guidelines for social distancing and mask wearing during the event “will result in the attendee's removal," the memo said. Everyone will be required to be virus-tested ahead of time —- rules that have been flouted by some lawmakers who have spurned pandemic guidelines. No guests will be allowed.
Some Biden allies are fretting that the Capitol scene could add fuel to the fire, or that anti-mask conservative Republicans could use the speech for some stunt or protest.
Biden's chief of staff Ron Klain, on Capitol Hill to meet Thursday with Senate Democrats, left the private lunch saying, "I think people are looking forward to the State of the Union.”
Biden’s address to Congress will play out against what Vice President Kamala Harris has called a “malaise” over the persistence of COVID and growing public impatience to get back to normal after two years of restrictions. Even Democratic-run state and local governments are lifting restrictions as cases, hospitalizations and deaths decline.
However, the State of the Union setting — Capitol Hill — remains one of the most significantly disrupted workplaces in the country, something of a ground zero for culture wars over the lingering pandemic restrictions and security concerns from the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection.
Pelosi indicated last week that lawmakers are aiming for “fuller participation” than last year, when attendance was limited. She said, “I think the people are ready to pivot in a way that shows to the American people we largely have been vaccinated here.”
Seating for Biden’s first address to a joint session of Congress last April was capped at about 200 — about 20% of usual capacity for a presidential presentation.
Though the Capitol and other federal properties set their own rules, the District of Columbia’s indoor mask requirement for most indoor gatherings and businesses is to be lifted on the same day as Biden’s address, the White House says it will be going by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance.
All year, the White House has taken extraordinary precautions to keep Biden from getting the virus, including requiring high-quality masks in his vicinity and limiting his travel and participation in large events.
In addition to members of Congress, the State of the Union audience traditionally includes Cabinet members, Supreme Court justices and military leaders. It’s not yet clear if they will be invited. Thursday's memo included congressional staff and invited press.
A speech to a full House chamber would be by far the densest audience of Biden’s presidency to date.
The debate over rules on wearing masks and getting vaccinated has become a major front in the nation’s culture wars, breaking down along regional and political lines. Scenes of mask-less celebrities enjoying the Super Bowl — when schoolchildren in some jurisdictions are required to wear masks even when outside at recess — have drawn criticism for unfairness.
Federal officials are racing to finalize new, more flexible national guidance on mask-wearing and other policies before Biden steps up to the rostrum in the House chamber at 9:01 p.m.
“We want to give people a break from things like mask-wearing, when these metrics are better, and then have the ability to reach for them again, should things worsen,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, said Wednesday.
She indicated the revised guidelines, to be coordinated with a broad administration plan for the “next phase” of the virus response, should come around the end of this month.
Administration officials expect that new strategy and message to figure prominently in Biden’s speech as pandemic fatigue becomes more pronounced.
The White House sees his speech — in concert with the expected loosening of virus limits — as an opportunity to help stem an erosion of public confidence in his leadership. According to an AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll last month, just 45% of Americans said they approved of Biden’s handling of COVID-19, down from 57% in December and 66% in July.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell this week criticized the Democrats’ approach, saying they only recently changed their tune because of shifting public opinion.
“The only science that’s changed in the last two weeks is the political science,” he said. “The only data that’s changed in the last two weeks is Democrats’ polling data.”
As the Capitol remains largely off-limits to most visitors, shuttered from the start of the pandemic in 2020 and still closed in part for security reasons stemming from last year's insurrection, lawmakers have pushed for a re-opening.
Pelosi said at the start of the year she hoped to have it reopened soon.
But that's not fast enough for some. “It’s remarkable that all 535 members of Congress and other government VIPs will be permitted to gather together for President Biden’s State of the Union address, and yet the U.S. Capitol and Senate office buildings remain closed to the American people," said Sen. Bill Hagerty, R-Tenn., whose spokesman has been called for an interview by the committee investigating the attack on the Capitol.