When President Joe Biden speaks to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday, it will look different than presidential addresses in years past with the event taking place amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and heightened security concerns in the wake of the January 6 Capitol attack.
The joint session will be designated a National Special Security Event and there will be a limit on the number of lawmakers in the chamber due to Covid-19 protocols, a Capitol official involved in planning told CNN. Lawmakers will be seated in the upstairs gallery in addition to the House floor and guests will not be permitted. A total of about 200 people are expected to be allowed in the House chamber.
Even the date and timing of the address was affected by the pandemic. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sent a letter earlier this month inviting Biden to speak to Congress after previously saying that she was waiting to make a decision on extending an invitation due to concerns over the coronavirus pandemic.
Pelosi said she feels confident about the security for the address when asked by a reporter and went on to say, “Most of our, shall we say, limitations spring from Covid not as much from security in terms of the narrow number of people.”
Asked if she’s worried it will change the character of the event, Pelosi said, “it will be its own wonderful character. No I’m not worried at all.”
Biden won’t be required to wear a mask while speaking on Wednesday, however. House rules require anyone speaking in the chamber to be wearing a mask, but that doesn’t apply to Biden because the rules only pertain to lawmakers, according to a senior Democratic aide.
The rule, which took effect on January 4, similarly didn’t apply to then-Vice President Mike Pence when he presided over the congressional certification of Biden’s victory on January 6.
The House Sergeant at Arms sent a letter on Friday to members’ offices, which noted that due to Covid and safety protocols, the joint address is invite-only with invitations extended to a limited number of lawmakers. Sources familiar told CNN that Capitol Police initially asked for fencing to remain in place until the address to a joint session of Congress.
It’s unclear how many lawmakers per party will attend. House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell both are expected to attend.
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Senate Democrat, told reporters Monday, “I understand it’s going to be selective seating, so I hope I’m there.” Asked if he’s going, he replied, “I don’t know. I don’t know if I made the cut.”
Sen. John Thune, the Republican whip, told reporters that he thinks each Senate caucus will receive 30 invitations to the joint address, and each House caucus will receive 40.
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham told CNN “yes” he plans to go to the address. The South Carolina senator made clear that he isn’t sure yet how the ticket situation will work, but he wants to go. “I want to hear the President,” Graham said. “I think we should go if we can out of respect for the office and him.”
As tickets are limited, the Democratic caucus is holding a lottery for members who are interested in attending Biden’s speech, multiple senators including Brian Schatz of Hawaii and aides told CNN. It’s intended to be a way to make it fairer for those who want to attend.
The letter from the House Sergeant at Arms stated that if a lawmaker does not receive an invitation from congressional leadership, he or she will not be allowed inside the Capitol after 5 p.m. ET on the day of the address.
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Many, though not all, congressional lawmakers have been vaccinated. CNN confirmed last month that 189 Democrats out of 219 in the House have been vaccinated, and 53 House Republicans out of 211 have been vaccinated.
In another sign of how the setup will be different this year, first lady Jill Biden won’t have a traditional viewing box at Biden’s joint session address as coronavirus restrictions limit capacity in the chamber for the speech, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Friday.
Jill Biden will attend the address to Congress, but – due to increased Covid protocols and decreased attendance – she will not be bringing guests to sit with her, Jill Biden’s press secretary Michael LaRosa told CNN.
This story has been updated with additional developments Tuesday.
CNN’s Ali Zaslav, Lauren Fox, Manu Raju, Ted Barrett, Michael Warren, Daniella Diaz, Kate Sullivan and Zachary Cohen contributed to this report.