Mixed Messages From Congress At State Of The Union Address On Ukraine, COVID-19

Mixed Messages From Congress At State Of The Union Address On Ukraine, COVID-19

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Even Hamilton Beach couldn’t make enough mixers to keep up with the mixed messaging on Capitol Hill this week. 

Congress initially seemed divided about COVID protocols before President Biden’s State of the Union speech. All House and Senate members were invited this year – compared to the 200 last year due to the pandemic. Initial guidelines dictated members had to sit spaced apart in the chamber. Even some members would sit in the gallery above rather than on the floor. No handshakes or backslapping. All members had to have a negative COVID test and wear a mask to take part.

Democrats hold the majority in the House and Senate. President Biden is a Democrat. Democrats faced a conundrum. They’re trying desperately to ease the nation into some degree of normalcy and demonstrate a path out of the pandemic – especially ahead of the midterms. A fully-masked State of the Union speech would not present that optic. 

In a memo, House Sergeant at Arms William Walker declared that lawmakers who refused to don a mask or adhere to other protocols risked getting kicked out of the speech.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Kamala Harris talk as President Biden, center, speaks during a State of the Union address at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, March 1, 2022. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

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We now live in the age of performative politics and TikTok. One could only imagine how some GOP lawmakers would have relished the opportunity to make a scene getting bounced from the speech over COVID practices. Such dramatics would go viral and resonate in some conservative districts. Republicans would embrace casting blame on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who they criticize regularly for “locking down the Capitol.” The House Ethics Committee has already fined Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., more than $100,000 for failing to wear a mask in the House chamber. 

The Ethics Committee just announced this week that the Sergeant at Arms Office fined Greene for three violations alone on January 20.

But the Capitol Attending Physician along with many other jurisdictions, began to dial back masking mandates on March 1, the day of the speech. 

And so, no masks were required for State of the Union. Sure. A few wore masks on their own. Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., “because we all need to remember that the immunocompromised and those over 60 remain at higher risk of severe illness.” He said it was important to wear a mask “for those who are vulnerable.” 

Reps. Al Green, D-Tex., and Jim Langevin, D-R.I., were also spotted with masks.

So, the State of the Union speech seemed and looked kind of normal. It wasn’t completely full. Congressional officials only permitted about 600 persons in the chamber. They can typically pack in 1,600 for a completely bulging State of the Union in a non-pandemic period.

Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., left, and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., right, scream “Build the Wall” as President Biden delivers his first State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the Capitol, Tuesday, March 1, 2022, in Washington.  (Evelyn Hockstein/Pool via AP)

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But everyone was back to handshakes and up-close chats. President Biden lingered in the chamber for 17 minutes after his remarks concluded, signing copies of the speech and talking with lawmakers.

Unartfully, Democrats got the political optic they needed.

But something else happened on State of the Union day which never unfolded before during the pandemic. A record six lawmakers tested positive for COVID.

Reps. Dwight Evans, D-Penn., Pete Aguilar, D-Calif., Jamie Raskin, D-Md., Suzan DelBene, D-Wash., Ted Deutch, D-Fla. and Sen. Alex Pad

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