At Least 1 GOP Senator Might Skip Joe Biden's Congressional Address

President Joe Biden's first speech before Congress is gearing up to be unlike any other in modern history, and in era of increased partisanship, Biden's audience will likely not include many Republican lawmakers.

COVID-19 safety protocols will mean that Biden's address to a joint session of Congress will be limited in attendance. Although the Senate is in session next week, at least one Republican senator, John Cornyn, said he might watch the speech on TV because "it sounds like Speaker Pelosi doesn't want us to attend," the Associated Press reported.

Neither lawmakers or the first lady can bring guests, and with the House out of session for the week, most House Republicans are not expected to attend.

"It'll look different, but from his vantage point, it still is an opportunity to speak directly to the American people," White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Monday. "We are looking for ways to engage with the American public, whether it's through viewing parties or ways to communicate about what the president is proposing. But it won't look or feel or sound like it has in the past."

The White House said that the president's primary focus is on voters, not those in attendance—or not in attendance—at the address.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Jen Psaki
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki speaks during the daily press briefing at the White House on April 26, 2021, in Washington, D.C. President Joe Biden is scheduled to deliver his first address to a joint session of Congress this Wednesday night. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Can lawmakers all just listen to the president—even for one night?

Recent history is not assuring. Republican Representative 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 January 6 insurrection, a second impeachment of Trump and another acquittal.

Trust between the parties, and between members themselves, has cratered as 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 said 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 Representative Tom Rooney of Florida, a Republican who retired two years ago and has expressed frustration about the decline of congressional decorum and civility.

Members of the Biden team have made no secret of their strategy to bypass GOP lawmakers and seek a solid foothold of support from Republican voters. They note that their policies are generally popular, and the result, so far, appears to be less resistance from GOP supporters. An AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs poll in March found that 60% of people approve of Biden's performance on the economy, including a relatively strong 25% of Republicans. About half of Republicans approve of how Biden has handled the pandemic.

Because Biden's team believes the policies are popular, they've been more willing to invite public debate with Republicans. It can feel like a return to greater civility, even if Republicans are still grumbling about his proposals.

David Barker, director of American University's Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies, said Biden's speech might not move policy, but "it may help him with a few voters around the edges, putting Republicans in swing districts in a bit of a squeeze" to explain why they are voting against his plans.

Even Wilson, who is still in Congress, is encouraging Biden to reach out across party lines.

"Working across the aisle is essential for Congress in order to do what is best for American families," Wilson said in a statement. He noted that he apologized to Obama's White House after his 2009 outburst and has proposed bipartisan legislation since.

Still, Wilson's words a decade ago were a harbinger of a more partisan era on Capitol Hill, which increasingly attracts politicians more concerned with fame than legislation. Rude or outspoken behavior is often rewarded with popularity, TV appearances and fundraising dollars.

Rooney, who was elected the year before Wilson interrupted Obama's speech, said that respectfully listening to the president, no matter the party, used to be the norm. He recalled that he would follow party leaders' signals, not even standing up to clap unless they did.

"We've gone from extended standing applause to outbursts where people might be able to make news in the room themselves, and then raise money off that," Rooney said.

Representative Jim Himes (D-Conn.) said the scene on the floor can feel tense, and "you sort of wonder who's going to do what next." But he predicted this year's speech will be calmer, not only because of the reduced numbers, but because Biden is different than his predecessors.

While Trump was combative and Obama was often cerebral, Himes said, Biden connects well with others in a way that could potentially "transcend partisanship and calm tempers" in Congress.

"I honestly believe the best thing Joe Biden can do is to do what Joe Biden usually does, which is to speak from his heart," Himes said.

And his advice to colleagues? "Tone down the Oscar-winning performances."