When President Joe Biden makes his first formal speech before Congress as president on April 28, he’ll be lacking one of the biggest trappings of such appearances: a full house.
Rep. Steny Hoyer, the second-ranking Democrat in the House and in charge of the floor schedule, told reporters Wednesday Biden’s speech will have limits on how many people can be in attendance, a factor likely to tamp down some of the raucousness and pomp usually seen.
“There will be limited attendance required because of COVID-19 and the number of people that you can gather together in a relatively small setting,” Hoyer said in his weekly conference call with members of the press.
The House of Representatives chamber will be used for the address and while it seats 435 representatives regularly, extra room is made for joint addresses to allow for senators, U.S. Supreme Court justices and cabinet members to attend, in addition to guests in the packed galleries above the floor.
Hoyer said that won’t be the case this year, but he gave no specifics on how much more limited attendance will be.
“I don’t know specifically and I don’t want to talk about specific numbers but maybe there will be a limited number of members from House, from the Senate, the Supreme Court, the ambassador corps and from other entities,” Hoyer said.
Biden will be able, Hoyer said, to bring guests, allowing him to continue a tradition since the 1980s of having presidential guests that may be singled out for applause during the speech. In 2020, then-President Donald Trump had the Presidential Medal of Freedom given to now-deceased rightwing radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh during the speech.
While it will be his first appearance before a joint congressional session as president, Biden has attended many such sessions before and was on the dais behind Barack Obama as Obama’s vice president in the last Democratic administration.
Typically, such a speech would come ahead of a White House budget release and be used to outline major proposals the administration planned to push in the year ahead. But this one is coming late, as the White House and a Democratic Congress said they wanted to wait until at least the $1.9 trillion economic stimulus bill was finished before scheduling the speech. Now, there is no date yet for the first Biden budget release and the speech will occur close to Biden’s 100th day in office, a period his White House had set as the deadline for meeting several goals.
Hoyer said the administration was on board with the limited attendance policy.
“The president and his people have health concerns and therefore limitation concerns. So that is part of the equation of how many people will be able to be physically in attendance at the address,” he said.
Another factor in keeping attendance down will be the House will be out of session that week and not called back to Washington, Hoyer said. The Senate is scheduled to be in session that week, though.