The House chaplain wore a Ukrainian-blue blouse. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), who worked in Kyiv as an FBI agent, handed out Ukrainian flags while Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), whose district has a strong Ukrainian American community, distributed blue and yellow ribbons.
Oksana Markarova, Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States, looked down on the House floor, a guest of first lady Jill Biden, who had a sunflower, the national flower of Ukraine, sewn to the sleeve of her dress. And the lead-up to the president’s most anticipated speech each year was dominated not by what was happening in Washington but by a convoy of Russian tanks in Ukraine.
“Let each of us here tonight in this chamber send an unmistakable signal to Ukraine and to the world,” Biden said early in his remarks. “Please rise if you are able and show that yes, we the United States of America stand with the Ukrainian people.”
In a country that has few unifying moments, members from both sides of the aisle repeatedly stood and applauded together in support of Ukraine, or when he announced that the United States was closing its airspace to Russian planes.
Biden delivered the remarks in the third year of covid-19, a week into a European ground war, and a year after rioters attacked the U.S. Capitol just before he took office.
If last year marked the collision of the rituals of democracy and the pandemic that gripped much of American life, this year illustrated a return, however haltingly, to some kind of normalcy.
It showed that Congress, like most of the country, is eager to move past the pandemic. Few wore masks, even in a room where some Republican members have been fined thousands for not wearing masks in the past, in violation of previous policies.
“Last year covid-19 kept us apart,” Biden said. “This year we are finally together again.”
But despite the opening moments of unity for an ally under attack and the waning presence of the pandemic in the chamber, the political tensions and fissures in the nation were still evident. When Vice President Harris walked into the room, few Republicans applauded.
When Biden criticized a $2 trillion tax cut passed under then-President Donald Trump, he got loud jeers from Republicans — at which point Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) stood to applaud, awkwardly, before other Democrats joined him. When Biden touted the infrastructure package that passed last year, the Republicans who voted for it stood while many others remained seated.
Sen. Joe Manchin III, the conservative Democrat from West Virginia who has derailed some of the Biden administration’s top priorities, sat on the Republican side. At times he would stand alone to applaud Democratic policies. But it was also obvious when he didn’t stand with his party, when Biden called for passing the child tax credit or when he spoke at length about his remedies for inflation.
Some in the chamber — including Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Lauren Boebert (R-Colo..) — seemed to mock the president as he spoke, laughing at some lines, mouthing retorts at others, and tweeting in real time. “Here’s another way to fight inflation,” Boebert wrote on Twitter. “Resign.”
As Biden made a reference to troops who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan — and been exposed to toxic chemicals and “a cancer that would put them in a flag-draped coffin” — Boebert screamed out, “You put them there. Thirteen of them!” It was an apparent reference to the 13 U.S. troops who were killed amid the chaotic withdrawal of Afghanistan last year.
Democrats began booing and one shouted, “Kick her out!”
Biden on Tuesday night again had the image of how significantly political representation is shifting, with two women seated behind him: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Harris. It would presumably be the last time that Justice Stephen G. Breyer would sit in the chamber as a Supreme Court justice, and, if Biden’s nominee is confirmed, next year in his spot will be the first Black female justice in U.S. history.
At the beginning of his speech last year, Biden noted the historic nature of having two women in the immediate frame behind him. But in one indication of its normalcy, it went unremarked upon this year.
Last year, both Harris and Pelosi — along with everyone in the chamber — were wearing masks, in compliance with covid protocols. In one visible symbol of the rapidly shifting pandemic policies, congressional members were not required to wear masks this year. They were required to test ahead of time, which prevented at least three members — Reps. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.) and Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.) and Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) — from attending after they tested positive.
Earlier in the day, Pelosi said that she didn’t plan to wear a mask, saying it was up to everyone to make their own judgments.
“If I had little children or if I were around little grandchildren, I would, because some of them would not be vaccinated,” Pelosi said on MSNBC. She would also wear a mask if she had a condition that made her “susceptible” to the coronavirus.
In a memo Sunday night, Brian Monahan, Congress’s attending physician, told lawmakers that mask-wearing “is now an individual choice option.” A mask mandate for many indoor places issued by D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) was also lifted on Tuesday.
Most in the chamber chose not to wear masks, a rare sight over the past two years. But even the limited covid protections still in place were a source of some tension. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said that he was too busy to get tested ahead of time, so he did not attend the speech.
“Let’s stop seeing each other as enemies and start seeing each other for who we really are: Fellow Americans,” Biden said, getting applause from both sides of the aisle. “We can’t change how divided we’ve been. But we can change how we move forward — on covid-19 and other issues we must face together.”
The chamber this year was far fuller than it was last year, when it had a small fraction of the 1,600 people normally in attendance.
Congressional members who attended were assigned seats in the chamber, an atypical sight in what is often a free-for-all for the best aisle seats, with the best visibility in home districts and the best opportunity to greet the president. Still, most members were spaced apart, with empty seats between many of them.
Most members could not invite guests, but Jill Biden had a viewing box that included second gentleman Doug Emhoff and Valerie Biden Owens, the president’s sister.
The White House also brought nearly a dozen other guests whom Biden pointed to during the speech, including Joshua Davis of Midlothian, Va., a seventh-grader and advocate for people with diabetes; Refynd Duro of Galloway, Ohio, a nurse who has been treating covid-19 patients; and Frances Haugen of Iowa City, a former Facebook lead product manager on civic misinformation.
Last year, the building was still raw after the Jan. 6, 2021, riots. Now, trials are beginning for some of those who participated, and congressional investigations are ongoing. There was still a heavy security presence, with the Secret Service and other federal and local authorities ready for possible demonstrations and disruptions ahead of the speech.
But a rally that was held to protest pandemic-related restrictions — one that was based on the “Freedom Convoy” that occupied downtown Ottawa for weeks — drew only a few dozen people on Tuesday afternoon.
Biden’s attempts to strike a moderate tone and policy approach often drew muted applause, but his comments about policing stood out as a moment that may resonate beyond Tuesday night.
At one point, he referenced police funding, weighing in on a debate that his party had over how to address police violence and shootings that were often directed at Black men.
“We should all agree: The answer is not to defund the police,” Biden said. “The answer is to fund the police with the resources and training they need to protect our communities.”
Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.), a leading advocate for overhauling police practices, pointed with displeasure to her shirt displaying the blocky number 18,000, which her spokeswoman said was meant to represent the number of federal clemency petitions currently languishing.
Greene stood in a rare moment of support for something Biden said.
“That’s right!” she yelled.