Lawmakers scramble for ‘musical chairs’ to view Biden’s first Capitol speech

Presidential addresses to a joint session of Congress are a historic tradition, but Democrats are particularly excited this spring after four years of gritting their teeth while former President Donald Trump delivered speeches — and bombastic broadsides — beneath the dome. (Some boycotted Trump’s State of the Union addresses altogether.)

When Biden finally makes his debut later this month, the inability for every lawmaker to experience the action in person could cause sore feelings inside the Democratic caucus. Some members make a big deal out of presidential addresses; Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), for one, has been known to arrive early to the State of the Union in order to lock down prime real estate along the center aisle of the House chamber.

“I don’t blame them for being disappointed. But given the medical constraints, and the concerns about the president, and given the size of the chamber, you have no choice,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said in a brief interview.

Jackson Lee told POLITICO that “all of us have expressed our interest” about attending the event, though it’s unclear whether she’ll be able to nab her usual front-and-center spot.

“We’ll be adhering to whatever the instructions are,” she said. “It will be musical chairs.”

While seats are in high demand for Democrats, many House Republicans plan to make things easier by not showing up. The House GOP Conference is holding back-to-back retreats in Florida, with some members planning to just stay for the whole week rather than trek back to Washington for Biden’s speech. The House is scheduled to be out of session that week — timing that already limits the number of lawmakers who will be in Washington.

Still, some Republicans said they hope to go on April 28. That includes Rep. Tom Cole, a senior Republican who works with Democrats on spending bills and said he would attend if he could get a ticket.

“I’d love to go, but it’s going to be limited. It’s actually on my birthday, so it’d be very nice to go. It’s always an honor to be invited to anything of the president’s,” the genial Oklahoman said.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy — who hasn’t spoken to Biden since the inauguration — also said he plans to attend the speech. And other GOP lawmakers who said they hoped to go too lamented the strict attendance limits, noting that a majority of Congress is now vaccinated.

“I think it’s a great disservice to the American people,” said freshman Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.). “It’s a big deal for anyone in the White House, regardless of party affiliation. … The best thing you can do is to do that together, and do it while Congress is in session.”

“It’s a tradition that should be honored no matter who is in charge,” she added.

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