President Joe Biden speaks to members of Congress after speaking to a joint session of Congress Wednesday, April 28, 2021, in the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol in Washington. (Michael Reynolds/Pool via AP)

‘Congress should act,’ Biden tells lawmakers near and far

‘Congress should act,’ Biden tells lawmakers near and far

WASHINGTON — The roar of applause that typically greets a new president entering the House chamber softened Wednesday to just a few hundred hands clapping as Joe Biden arrived to deliver his first joint address to Congress under strict coronavirus restrictions and tight security at the Capitol.

Usually an electrifying evening, this initial address from Biden was a more subdued affair, reflecting a country, and a Congress, only starting to emerge from the challenges of a lifetime.

Members of Congress took their seats, name cards spacing them out just a few to each row, some filling the visitor galleries because no guests were invited.

There was no crush of centre-aisle lawmakers crowding to shake Biden’s hand, though he did fist-bump Chief Justice John Roberts and accept a hug from former rival Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator.

No co-ordinated splashy fashion statements as even members of Congress are partly working from home. Masks were required, along with a negative COVID-19 test or proof of vaccination. Democrats outnumbered Republicans, who largely skipped the event.

Yet even with the diminished mood, one of the most striking parts of Biden’s address to Congress was his nod to the very House and Senate lawmakers who, even in their absence, will make or break the new administration’s ambitious agenda to rebuild America.

“Congress should act,” Biden told them over and over again.

As House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced Biden’s arrival, standing with Vice-President Kamala Harris behind the president in a portrait of two women in power the country had never seen, it was a reminder that Congress will determine whether his sweeping $4 trillion proposals to invest in America and revive the role of government will come to pass.

Unlike his recent predecessors, Biden is a veteran of the legislative process and appears eager to reengage Congress as a co-equal branch in governing.

When President Donald Trump addressed Congress, he largely relied on the sheer force of his personality to muscle his ideas into law, with mixed success. With soaring speeches, President Barack Obama ultimately worked around a resistant Congress using his “pen and phone” to push a second-term agenda through executive actions.

“Let’s get to work,” Biden told Congress.

Biden is personally courting lawmakers with gusto, inviting them to meetings at the White House and sending his advisers to Capitol Hill, as he tries to nudge the narrowly split Congress to join his massive effort to reinvest in America.

Biden said he welcomes Republican ideas, but “doing nothing is not an option.”

The few Republicans attending, including Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell, did not rise to applaud.

“The president, he can put together whatever laundry list he would like to see Congress act on,” said Frances Lee, a professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton, “but in the end, it will be Congress deciding what to take up.”

Security was tight, with National Guard troops still stationed at the iconic building almost four months after rioters stormed inside, trying to save Trump’s presidency. Five people died in the Jan. 6 riot and its aftermath, including a protester shot by police outside the very House chamber where Biden spoke.

Just about 200 of the 535 members of Congress were invited to attend, far from the 1,600 who typically crowd the House chamber on an often celebratory night for the new president. Roberts was the only Supreme Court justice there. A few top military brass came.

While Democratic lawmakers jockeyed for seats, with senators entering a lottery, many Republican lawmakers declined to attend, a protest of sorts as they pan the president’s first 100 days in office and cede the evening to the rival party.

Their absence left McConnell and House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy to represent the GOP side of the aisle, which created a lopsided sense of support inside the chamber.

“I’ll have a great seat — right in front of my TV set,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who was staying home.

Still, it’s the rank-and-file members of Congress who will ultimately decide on the size and scope of Biden’s proposed infrastructure and human capital investments in the American Jobs and American Families plans.

Congress was able earlier this year to swiftly approve Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill on party-line votes, and Biden thanked the Senate, in particular, for approving a virus-related hate crimes act.

At one poignant moment he spoke directly to McConnell, saying he would never forget the time the Republican encouraged him to name a cancer research bill after Biden’s late son, Beau. “It meant a lot,” the president said.

But holding Democrats together or reaching across the aisle to Republicans will prove more daunting on issues including election reforms, gun control, policing law changes and immigration.

McConnell has dismissed Biden’s approach as a “bait and switch” presidency — one that promised bipartisanship with Republicans but that is going it alone with a very Democratic, if not progressive, agenda.

The president’s proposals include massive investments that Republicans argue are stretching the definition of infrastructure — electric vehicle charging stations for the automobiles of the future, as well as the construction of new veterans hospitals, child care centre services and other facilities. As investments in families, there are promises of free preschool for 3- and 4-year-old children, free community college and tax breaks that send as much as $250 a month to households with children.

Together, Biden’s two proposals would be paid for by raising the corporate tax rate from 21% to 28% and hiking taxes on the wealthiest 1% of Americans earning above $400,000.

“Behind President Biden’s familiar face, it’s like the most radical Washington Democrats have been handed the keys,” McConnell said ahead of the speech.

But Biden is also changing the definition of bipartisanship, as his administration argues that the proposals are popular with Republican voters, despite resistance from Republicans on Capitol Hill.

In that, the president may have had all the audience he was looking for Wednesday as he spoke not just to the lawmakers he needs to pass his agenda, but also to the voters who will influence them to act — or not.


Associated Press writers Mary Clare Jalonick and Alan Fram contributed to this report.

Lisa Mascaro, The Associated Press


Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Paul Harris, owner of Tribe restaurant downtown, said a lot of the blame for the latest restrictions that will close outdoor patios on Sunday can be blamed on those not obeying health regulations and the government for failing to enforce the rules.
Photo by Paul Cowley/Advocate staff
Restaurant owners frustrated by patio shutdowns

Outdoor patios must stop serving by midnight Sunday to stem rising COVID infections

The City of Red Deer said Wednesday that some outdoor activity rentals will be available starting Monday for households only. (Advocate File Photo)
City of Red Deer outlines activities available as new provincial COVID-19 restrictions set in

There will be limited recreation activities available across the City of Red… Continue reading

As of Friday, Alberta has under 10,000 active COVID-19 cases. (Image courtesy CDC)
Alberta reports 2,271 new COVID-19 cases, Red Deer cases rise slightly

Across Alberta, there are 666 people in hospital with COVID-19, including 146 in the ICU

‘Love, Oran’ is a documentary feature made by Red Deer-raised filmmaker Colin Scheyen. It’s about hidden letters, found in a Woodlea home after 70 years, revealing a family secret. (Screenshot by Advocate staff).
Hidden letters reveal secrets of Red Deer family in a new documentary film

‘Love, Oran,’ by filmmaker Colin Scheyen is showing at Edmonton’s NorthwestFest

Red Deer Rebels’ three graduating players, Josh Tarzwell (left), Chris Douglas (middle) and Ethan Anders (right) will all move on to new opportunities next season. (Photo by ROB WALLATOR/Red Deer Rebels)
‘It was a rollercoaster’: Rebels’ graduating players look back on wild season

The nerves. Even three-and-a-half-years later, Josh Tarzwell still remembers the nervousness he… Continue reading

Jets beat Flames 4-0 to snap seven-game losing streak and clinch playoff spot

Jets beat Flames 4-0 to snap seven-game losing streak and clinch playoff spot

Team Canada skip Kerri Einarson, left, directs her teammates, lead Briane Meilleur, right, and second Shannon Birchard, against Estonia at the Women's World Curling Championship in Calgary, Alta., Wednesday, May 5, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Canada’s Einarson extends win streak to four games at world curling playdowns

Canada’s Einarson extends win streak to four games at world curling playdowns

CF Montreal head coach Wilfried Nancy, left, talks with midfielder Lassi Lappalainen during the second half of an MLS soccer match against Columbus Crew, Saturday, May 1, 2021, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The game ended in a 0-0 tie. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Canadian MLS teams try to make best of relocation

Canadian MLS teams try to make best of relocation

Damian Warner, of Canada bronze, smiles during the medal ceremony for the decathlon at the World Athletics Championships in Doha, Qatar, Friday, Oct. 4, 2019.  THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Nariman El-Mofty
Decathlete Damian Warner says being a dad has brought balance and new perspective

Decathlete Damian Warner says being a dad has brought balance and new perspective

Toronto Blue Jays' Vladimir Guerrero Jr. gestures rounding third base after hitting his third home run against the Washington Nationals during the seventh inning of a baseball game Thursday, April 27, 2021, in Dunedin, Fla. (AP Photo/Mike Carlson)
Blue Jays shuffling back to Buffalo starting June 1

Blue Jays shuffling back to Buffalo starting June 1

Bedard, Wright lead Canadians into gold-medal game at U18 championship

Bedard, Wright lead Canadians into gold-medal game at U18 championship

Canada players are seen prior to the match against Costa Rica as part of the 2021 CONCACAF Futsal Championship in Guatemala City, Guatemala in this Wednesday, May 5, 2021 handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, CONCACAF, Straffon Images, Norvin Mendoza *MANDATORY CREDIT*
Canada loses to Costa Rica but advances at CONCACAF Futsal Championship

Canada loses to Costa Rica but advances at CONCACAF Futsal Championship

Yukon Premier Sandy Silver addresses the audience at the Yukon Government swearing in ceremony, in the Yukon Government Legislature foyer, in Whitehorse, Monday, May 3, 2021. The Yukon government says travelers who can prove they've been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 will no longer be required to self-isolate when they enter the territory beginning May 25. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Kelly
Yukon to lift requirement of 14-day self-isolation for arriving travellers on May 25

Yukon to lift requirement of 14-day self-isolation for arriving travellers on May 25

Most Read