WASHINGTON — If this had been a standard yr, Consultant Steve Cohen, Democrat of Tennessee, may need spent hours main as much as President Biden’s first address to a joint session of Congress camped out within the Home chamber amongst a small however decided tribe of lawmakers referred to as “aisle hogs.”
Their aim, on one in every of Washington’s largest nights, is normally to attain the handful of seats smack in the midst of the political mosh pit finest positioned for shaking palms with the president — and being seen on nationwide tv — as he parades out and in. 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.
However on Wednesday morning, as congressional leaders ready for a really irregular pandemic-era speech, neither Mr. Cohen nor every other lawmaker was wherever in sight. Home leaders had locked the chamber shut, blocked off coveted aisle seats to stop crowding and drastically slashed attendance to about 200 folks, from the same old 1,600.
These with out tickets had been urged to remain distant because the Secret Service and Nationwide 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 “just a little unusual,” Mr. Cohen allowed, “however then the entire presidency has been unusual.” Mr. Cohen stayed residence 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 handle delivered from the walnut rostrum in entrance of a giant American flag. However inside a Capitol nonetheless reeling from the Jan. 6 riot and hobbled by strict pandemic protocols, one in every of Washington’s most acknowledged rituals unfolded nearly as if on mute.
There have been no candlelight dinners for senators and their spouses or cocktail receptions for Home members and their friends. As an alternative of handed hors d’oeuvres, Speaker Nancy Pelosi distributed boxed dinners to the 40 or so Home Democrats allowed to attend from her Capitol workplace suite. Statuary Corridor, transformed most years right into a raucous, marble-columned spin room, sat empty and quiet for a lot of the day.
Contained in the chamber, the place most years lawmakers ceaselessly 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 could possibly be heard throughout the room throughout lulls. In addition to 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 Employees; Jill Biden, the primary woman; the secretaries of protection and state, Lloyd J. Austin III and Antony J. Blinken; and a few dozen members of the press.
Those that had been allowed to attend had been instructed to put on masks to protect in opposition to spreading the coronavirus, they usually sat with a number of empty seats between them. A couple of members nonetheless managed to seize a fast fist bump or handshake as Mr. Biden entered, together with Consultant Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the No. 3 Republican who’s embattled in her personal occasion for having voted to question former President Donald J. Trump.
“Folks can’t see for those who’re scowling or smiling — they only can nonetheless see for those who’re sleeping, sadly,” Senator John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 2 Republican, informed reporters. He deemed it “a really uncommon, I believe, expertise for everyone.”
The fastidiously managed calm papered over most 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 rely 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. A number of the similar lawmakers who voted to overturn his victory had been seated inside, underscoring how badly divided Congress and the nation stay 100 days into his presidency.
Nonetheless, Mr. Biden, a 36-year Senate veteran, went out of his strategy to present his ease within the Capitol, joking that he was “nearly residence” being again within the constructing and twice calling out Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the minority chief, by his first identify.
Democratic leaders, keen to advertise Mr. Biden’s first 100 days in workplace and bold jobs plan, spent the day attempting to gin up among the typical hubbub. Ms. Pelosi went on cable information to level out that historical past can be made later within the night when she and Vice President Kamala Harris took their seats straight behind Mr. Biden. By no means earlier than have each the speaker of the Home and the vp been ladies.
“It’s about time,” she informed MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell.
When the second got here, the 2 ladies 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 a lot of of them, the strict restrict on attendance was a welcome excuse to skip a stuffy night at work pretending to hearken to a president whose insurance policies they detest.
However others insisted on being there, arguing that the democratic course of labored finest when the opposing events might meet head to head.
“The easiest way to critique him is to indicate up and straight hear what the president has to say,” mentioned 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 evening: “A lot of ice cream and cookies and sitting on the sofa, hanging out just a little bit.”
The sparse numbers might have been for the very best. Safety was tight for guests attempting to get by the ring of fencing that has encircled the Capitol constructing because the January assault and the hundreds of Nationwide Guard troops patrolling the perimeter. And although the architect of the Capitol moved a steel detector put in exterior the Home chamber to spare Mr. Biden the indignity of passing by it, different attendees had been funneled by safe checkpoints.
Between the added layers of safety and well being protocols, there was no room for the same old crowds of friends invited by the president, the primary woman and members of Congress to sit down within the chamber. Consultant Katherine M. Clark of Massachusetts, the No. 4 Home Democrat, was amongst those that invited a visitor from her district to affix her just about as an alternative, an expertise she conceded was nothing like the fun of being bodily current within the Capitol.
“It’s refresher of how unimaginable it’s to work on this constructing, to see these iconic figures that you just work with and get used to, if you see it by somebody’s eyes, like a visitor,” she mentioned.
The few lawmakers who acquired to attend in particular person acquired extra entry to the president than even probably 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 some Republicans swarmed him and snapped photographs, the president provided fist bumps and leaned in for quiet conversations, savoring his ultimate moments within the chamber whilst his safety element urged him onward.