President Joe Biden hand-picked the audience for his speech to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday in a decision that some Republicans are condemning as partisan.
The president reportedly limited the number of people who could be in the House chamber for his first formal address to Congress to 200 select “pre-screened individuals” including legislators, Supreme Court justices, cabinet members, and others invited by Biden and the First Lady.
While many legislators are already vaccinated against the virus, the administration reportedly limited the capacity due to COVID-19 protocols and forced some such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and White House staff to stay home.
“Most of our staff, if not all of our staff, will be watching virtually,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters. “We’re determining how we can, of course, engage the public and ensure we highlight some of the incredible stories of people who have been helped by the president’s policies and proposals. But it will not look like or feel like, in many ways, what past joint addresses have.”
Restricting who can be in the chamber during the address, Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas noted, is historically unusual and unprecedented.
“Searching House precedents which are catalogued as far back as 1789, it does not appear there are any instances of a restricted small group of Members of Congress being favored with an exclusive invitation to a Joint Session. Though the Speaker even brought a Member with COVID into the House Chamber to insure she had enough votes to be reelected Speaker, she now claims to want to protect everyone from that same virus. A majority of us with immunity to COVID were not invited,” he said in a statement.
Others in the GOP also took issue with Biden limiting chamber capacity and choosing who should be allowed to attend in-person.
“It’s interesting when it came to like, coming together to impeach Donald Trump for the second time after he was out of office, they put 100 senators in the same room sitting just inches apart for hours at a time over five or six days,” Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida told Fox News. “Apparently, COVID was not an issue then but now, of course, for something like this, well, we can’t have that many people in a room sitting next to each other.”
Gohmert hinted that Biden and his team might “fear Congressional reaction to this Administration’s radical, divisive, socialist agenda” which is why they chose only specific people to sit in on the speech.
“Their replacement of Constitutional devotion with optics and a gaslighting narrative continues to be their modus operandi,” he said, recalling how Democrats physically took over the House floor in 2016 in an effort to force the then-Republican majority to vote against Second Amendment rights. “They are constantly setting new patterns for divisiveness and this is yet one more.”