WASHINGTON — If this have been a traditional 12 months, Representative Steve Cohen, Democrat of Tennessee, might need spent hours main as much as President Biden’s first address to a joint session of Congress camped out within the House chamber amongst a small however decided tribe of lawmakers often called “aisle hogs.”
Their objective, on certainly one of Washington’s largest nights, is normally to attain the handful of seats smack in the midst of the political mosh pit greatest positioned for shaking arms with the president — and being seen on nationwide tv — as he parades in and out. Mr. Cohen, an avid sports activities fan, as soon as even acquired President George W. Bush to signal a Memphis Tigers hat on his manner down the aisle.
But on Wednesday morning, as congressional leaders ready for a really irregular pandemic-era speech, neither Mr. Cohen nor some other lawmaker was anyplace in sight. House leaders had locked the chamber shut, blocked off coveted aisle seats to stop crowding and drastically slashed attendance to about 200 folks, from the standard 1,600.
Those with out tickets have been urged to remain far-off because the Secret Service and National Guard members positioned the Capitol on a safe lockdown for the primary joint session of Congress since Jan. 6, when a pro-Trump mob stormed the constructing and despatched lawmakers fleeing for his or her lives.
The tableau was “a little strange,” Mr. Cohen allowed, “but then the whole presidency has been strange.” Mr. Cohen stayed house and watched on TV as an alternative.
For these watching from afar, Mr. Biden’s first State of the Union-style speech proceeded roughly as regular on Wednesday, with formal bulletins of the president’s arrival, congressional leaders escorting him and an extended deal with delivered from the walnut rostrum in entrance of a big American flag. But inside a Capitol nonetheless reeling from the Jan. 6 riot and hobbled by strict pandemic protocols, certainly one of Washington’s most acknowledged rituals unfolded virtually as if on mute.
There have been no candlelight dinners for senators and their spouses or cocktail receptions for House members and their company. Instead of handed hors d’oeuvres, Speaker Nancy Pelosi distributed boxed dinners to the 40 or so House Democrats allowed to attend from her Capitol workplace suite. Statuary Hall, transformed most years right into a raucous, marble-columned spin room, sat empty and quiet for many of the day.
Inside the chamber, the place most years lawmakers often drown out the president’s speech with thunderous applause, the brand new president stared out at a socially distanced crowd so sparse that snippets of commentary might be heard throughout the room throughout lulls. Besides lawmakers, exterior attendance was restricted to Ambassador Hersey Kyota of Palau, the dean of the diplomatic corps; Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.; Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Jill Biden, the primary girl; the secretaries of protection and state, Lloyd J. Austin III and Antony J. Blinken; and a few dozen members of the press.
Those who have been allowed to attend have been instructed to put on masks to protect in opposition to spreading the coronavirus, and they sat with a number of empty seats between them. Just a few members nonetheless managed to seize a fast fist bump or handshake as Mr. Biden entered, together with Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the No. 3 Republican who’s embattled in her personal celebration for having voted to question former President Donald J. Trump.
“People can’t see if you’re scowling or smiling — they just can still see if you’re sleeping, unfortunately,” Senator John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 2 Republican, instructed reporters. He deemed it “a very unusual, I think, experience for everybody.”
The rigorously managed calm papered over lots of the divisions and wounds nonetheless festering from the final joint session, when hundreds of supporters of Mr. Trump violently overpowered the police and broke their manner into the constructing as Congress met to formally depend the 2020 electoral votes.
Mr. Biden strode into the chamber by the identical doorways legislation enforcement officers barricaded, weapons drawn, because the rioters bore down. Some of the identical lawmakers who voted to overturn his victory have been seated inside, underscoring how badly divided Congress and the nation stay 100 days into his presidency.
Still, Mr. Biden, a 36-year Senate veteran, went out of his technique to present his ease within the Capitol, joking that he was “almost home” being again within the constructing and twice calling out Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the minority chief, by his first title.
Democratic leaders, keen to advertise Mr. Biden’s first 100 days in workplace and formidable jobs plan, spent the day attempting to gin up a number of the typical hubbub. Ms. Pelosi went on cable information to level out that historical past could be made later within the night when she and Vice President Kamala Harris took their seats straight behind Mr. Biden. Never earlier than have each the speaker of the House and the vice chairman been girls.
“It’s about time,” she instructed MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell.
When the second got here, the 2 girls bumped elbows, and Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, captured the historic second along with his digital digital camera.
Republicans fired off information releases condemning Mr. Biden’s plan, accusing him of getting deserted his pledge to unite the nation in favor of liberal priorities. For lots of them, the strict restrict on attendance was a welcome excuse to skip a stuffy night at work pretending to take heed to a president whose insurance policies they detest.
But others insisted on being there, arguing that the democratic course of labored greatest when the opposing events may meet nose to nose.
“The best way to critique him is to show up and directly hear what the president has to say,” stated Senator Dan Sullivan, Republican of Alaska.
Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, who was tapped by Republican leaders to ship their formal rebuttal to Mr. Biden’s speech, was characteristically calm as he flitted across the Capitol between prep periods. His routine for the massive night time: “Lots of ice cream and cookies and sitting on the couch, hanging out a little bit.”
The sparse numbers might have been for one of the best. Security was tight for guests attempting to get by the ring of fencing that has encircled the Capitol constructing for the reason that January assault and the hundreds of National Guard troops patrolling the perimeter. And although the architect of the Capitol moved a metallic detector put in exterior the House chamber to spare Mr. Biden the indignity of passing by it, different attendees have been funneled by safe checkpoints.
Between the added layers of safety and well being protocols, there was no room for the standard crowds of company invited by the president, the primary girl and members of Congress to sit down within the chamber. Representative Katherine M. Clark of Massachusetts, the No. 4 House Democrat, was amongst those that invited a visitor from her district to affix her nearly as an alternative, an expertise she conceded was nothing like the fun of being bodily current within the Capitol.
“It’s a good refresher of how incredible it is to work in this building, to see these iconic figures that you work with and get used to, when you see it through someone’s eyes, like a guest,” she stated.
The few lawmakers who acquired to attend in individual acquired extra entry to the president than even essentially the most formidable aisle hogs do in regular years. After Mr. Biden ended his speech and the applause had subsided, he lingered as he made his manner out of the chamber. As Democrats and a number of Republicans swarmed him and snapped photographs, the president provided fist bumps and leaned in for quiet conversations, savoring his last moments within the chamber whilst his safety element urged him onward.