The House will stick to its scheduled committee work week at the end of the month since “relatively few” lawmakers will be allowed to attend President Joe Biden’s April 28 joint address to Congress due to COVID-19 precautions, Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer told reporters Wednesday.
“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,” the Maryland Democrat said on his weekly press call. “And although the House chamber is a large chamber, it is a relatively small setting.”
Speaker Nancy Pelosi sent a letter to Biden late Tuesday inviting him to give his first joint address to Congress on April 28, and the president accepted. A president’s first joint address would typically be held in February, but extra planning was involved this year because of the coronavirus pandemic and security concerns after the Jan. 6 insurrection on the Capitol.
Hoyer said he has a “general idea” of how many people will be invited to attend, but declined to get into specific numbers as those decisions are still being finalized.
“There will be a limited number of members from the House, from the Senate, from the Supreme Court, from the ambassador corps and from other entities,” he said. “President Biden clearly will be able to have people present, guests present. There will be representation of the Cabinet present, but there will be severe restrictions because of the very limited number.”
Pelosi has said previously that congressional leaders would be looking to the Capitol physician and House and Senate sergeants-at-arms for guidance on how many people could gather safely in the House chamber for the joint address.
Some of that guidance is still being finalized, but decisions so far include having lawmakers sit in the House galleries overlooking the chamber in addition to the floor to allow for more social distancing, according to a Capitol official involved in the planning.
The gallery seating is typically reserved during joint addresses for lawmaker and presidential guests, but this year House and Senate members will not be allowed to bring guests, the official said.
As Hoyer noted, Biden will still be allowed to have guests but it’s not yet clear if his invite list will be curtailed because of the pandemic.
Typically every member of the House and Senate, all nine Supreme Court justices, several ambassadors and all but one member of the president’s Cabinet are invited to attend the president’s annual joint address before Congress, filling the seats of the House chamber.
One Cabinet member is always absent, serving in the role of “designated survivor” in case of a tragic attack since all others in the presidential line of succession attend the joint address.
Hoyer said he did not feel the need to call the full House into session that last week of April.
“We will not feel it necessary to have a session because there will be relatively few House members who will be in attendance, relatively few Senate members, although I think the Senate is in session that week,” he said. “And, of course, we’re working that week. We’re just working in committee.”
Members not allowed to attend in person will likely watch the address on television, like the rest of America, Hoyer said.
Media access to the joint address will also likely be limited to provide for social distancing, but the House and Senate press galleries have not yet made those decisions.
In a typical year when all lawmakers are invited to attend the joint session, many funnel out into Statutory Hall where reporters and television cameras are gathered for their instant reaction on the president’s speech.
Hoyer said he expects many members not present this year to still make themselves available to the media.
The joint address will fall on Biden’s 99th day in office, so the president will likely use his speech to tout what he’s accomplished during his first 100 days and what he hopes to get done in the remainder of his first year.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Wednesday that Biden has been “eager” to address a joint session of Congress since his inauguration.
“Certainly you can expect that he will talk about all of the priorities and his commitment to building the economy back better, getting the pandemic under control, addressing the challenges we face around the world, but as we get closer and the speech is written, we’ll have more of a preview,” she said.
Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.