WASHINGTON – Can lawmakers all just listen to the president — even for one night?
Recent history is not assuring. Republican Rep. Joe Wilson shouted “you lie!” at President Barack Obama when he was giving a joint speech to Congress in 2009. Eleven years later, Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi ripped up a copy of President Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech as she stood behind him on the House rostrum.
Partisan tensions have only deepened on Capitol Hill since Pelosi’s defiant act last year, which came days before the Senate acquitted Trump in his first impeachment trial. Since then, the U.S. Capitol has been through the Jan. 6 insurrection, a second impeachment of Trump and another acquittal.
Trust between the parties, and between members themselves, has cratered as Joe Biden prepares to address the House and the Senate for the first time in his presidency.
While Trump often added a reality TV star’s drama to his congressional addresses, Biden — who has spent most of his adult life in government service — has the chance to play the elder statesman. Lawmakers in both parties say Wednesday’s address to Congress presents an opportunity for him to push past some of the antics and anger, for a few hours at least.
“I think the tension is high, but the one person who can cool the temperature in the room is Joe Biden,” especially if he reaches across the aisle, said former Rep. Tom Rooney of Florida, a Republican who retired two years ago and has expressed frustration about the decline of congressional decorum and civility.
Biden’s first speech to Congress — called an “address to a joint session of Congress” instead of a “State of the Union,” as is customary in a president’s first year — will already be unlike any other, as attendance will be limited due to COVID-19 safety protocols.
With the House out of session for the week, many, if not most, House Republicans are expected to skip the event, increasing the chances that Biden will be speaking to a mostly friendly audience of Democrats. The Senate is in session, but some Republicans from that chamber are expected to skip as well — Texas Sen. John Cornyn said Monday that he's thinking of watching the speech on TV because “it sounds like Speaker Pelosi doesn’t want us to attend.”