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Most Inland Northwest lawmakers won’t attend Biden’s pared-down address to Congress

UPDATED: Wed., April 28, 2021

In this Jan. 6, 2021 photo, the House Chamber is empty after a hasty evacuation as rioters tried to break into the chamber at the U.S. Capitol in Washington. President Joe Biden’s first address to Congress is an invite-only affair, and no guests allowed. The restrictions for Wednesday’s event are due to COVID-19 safety protocols, but will have the added security benefit of a limited number of people inside the Capitol for the president’s first major indoor event since he took office just weeks after the Jan. 6 insurrection. The fence is still up around the U.S. Capitol, and the National Guard is still there.  (J. Scott Applewhite)
In this Jan. 6, 2021 photo, the House Chamber is empty after a hasty evacuation as rioters tried to break into the chamber at the U.S. Capitol in Washington. President Joe Biden’s first address to Congress is an invite-only affair, and no guests allowed. The restrictions for Wednesday’s event are due to COVID-19 safety protocols, but will have the added security benefit of a limited number of people inside the Capitol for the president’s first major indoor event since he took office just weeks after the Jan. 6 insurrection. The fence is still up around the U.S. Capitol, and the National Guard is still there. (J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON – When President Joe Biden addresses House and Senate members at the Capitol on Wednesday, marking his first 100 days in office, it will be a far cry from the usual address presidents give to a joint session of Congress near the start of each year.

Presidents typically address a crowd of nearly 1,000 in the House chamber – 100 senators, 435 House members and six nonvoting delegates, plus an array of government officials and guests – in January or February, a chance to tout an administration’s accomplishments and lay out its plans and aspirations for the year ahead.

Wednesday’s event, meanwhile, will have room for just 200 attendees as a result of COVID-19 precautions, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said April 14. Party leaders were charged with issuing invitations as they saw fit. The address is also taking place during a week when the House is in recess and many of its members are in their home districts.

Of the four senators who represent Washington and Idaho, only Idaho GOP Sen. Jim Risch will attend the address, according to his office. Spokespeople for Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Spokane, Rep. Dan Newhouse of Sunnyside and North Idaho’s Russ Fulcher said the Inland Northwest Republicans will not attend.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., will watch the address remotely despite being part of party leadership. While lawmakers normally invite guests to the in-person event, Murray will tune in with four virtual “guests,” including Rodney Cawston, chairman of the C onfederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation’s Business Council.

Fulcher and nine other House Republicans wrote a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California on April 19, asking the Democratic leader to reschedule Biden’s address to a day when the House is in session and all members of Congress are allowed to attend.

“We understand the need to prioritize the safety of Members,” the Republicans wrote, “and believe strongly that with the right precautions and social distancing measures a space designed to accommodate almost 1,000 individuals can operate at about 50 percent capacity to safely accommodate all members of the House and Senate who attend.”

Newhouse spokeswoman Amanda Fitzmorris said the central Washington Republican was not invited but would tune in remotely.

“It’s odd that President Biden is choosing to restrict access to an event aimed at reaching across the aisle,” Newhouse said in a statement. “It’s clearly not COVID-related as many members are vaccinated and are already interacting with one another during votes. I look forward to hearing what the President says and whether he will attempt to bridge the partisan divide that’s been growing over the first 100 days of his term.”

Biden also is breaking with tradition by addressing Congress more than three months into his term. While a commander-in-chief traditionally gives a State of the Union address only after his first year in office, former President Donald Trump spoke before a joint session of Congress on Feb. 28, 2017, just over a month after he took office, and former President Barack Obama addressed lawmakers Feb. 24, 2009.

The timing of the speech aims to highlight the first 100 days of Biden’s presidency, during which the White House and congressional Democrats have focused on passing a $1.9 trillion pandemic relief and economic stimulus package Congress passed in March with only Democratic votes. After offering a message of unity at his inauguration, Biden’s willingness to eschew bipartisan negotiations has frustrated Republicans.

“I’m disappointed President Biden has failed to fulfill his promise of working in a bipartisan manner,” Newhouse said. “I hope, for the sake of our country, that he will come to the table, embrace real solutions, and negotiate in good faith as we work to solve the many issues facing the United States.”

The president plans to use Wednesday’s prime-time speech to sell the public on an ambitious set of legislative goals he has laid out in his first 100 days. His legislative priorities are grouped into two clusters, the roughly $2 trillion infrastructure and jobs plan he unveiled March 31 and the $1.8 trillion American Families Plan he will introduce Wednesday night.

“Combating the COVID pandemic was priority one for the Biden administration,” Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said in a statement. “Their laser focus helped secure more resources to fight the pandemic with vaccines and fight the high unemployment, economic downturn with stimulus checks and benefits for those who lost their jobs.”

“Now President Biden is bringing the same laser focus to the infrastructure package, which will put Americans back to work, grow our economy for the future, and secure America’s competitiveness.”

A spokeswoman for Sen. Mike Crapo, Melanie Lawhorn, said the Idaho Republican objects to the Biden administration “turning previous broadly bipartisan pandemic relief into a partisan wish-list spending spree rather than addressing the targeted needs of Americans most in need, as well as proposals to raise taxes in the middle of an economic crisis.”

Biden’s new proposal will include making preschool and community college free, helping low- and middle-income families with child care costs, creating a national paid family and medical leave program, and expand food assistance to low-income families, according to a document the White House shared with reporters Tuesday.

The White House plan would also extend several tax cuts as part of the stimulus bill passed in March, including an expanded Child Tax Credit that will send most parents monthly payments of $250 to $300 per child. Those payments are set to begin in July.

In the remainder of his term, Biden and his congressional allies will have to choose between two options: negotiating bipartisan deals with Republicans or using a process known as budget reconciliation to sidestep the 60-vote majority needed to pass most legislation in the Senate and advance their priorities with only Democratic votes.

In a call with reporters Tuesday, Murray signaled her party was ready to act alone to enact its priorities unless Republicans get on board with Biden’s agenda, which GOP lawmakers decry as too expensive.

“We will work with our Republican counterparts if they will work with us to move this forward,” Murray said. “But at the end of the day, if they cannot or will not work in a way that ensures that we really address the needs of the American people, we will be forced to look for a way to do this as Democrats.”


Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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