COVID a wild card as Biden prepares for State of the Union

President Joe Biden hopes to use his upcoming State of the Union address to push the pandemic into the country’s rearview mirror. But it could turn into yet another disruptive display of national tensions and frustration at trying to move past COVID-19.

Biden’s March 1 speech to Congress will play against what Vice President Kamala Harris called “unease” over the persistence of COVID and growing public impatience to get back to normal after two years of restrictions. pandemic. Even Democratic-led state and local governments are lifting restrictions as cases, hospitalizations and deaths drop.

However, the State of the Union setting – Capitol Hill – remains one of the most disrupted workplaces in the country, a kind of ground zero for the culture wars over ongoing restrictions and safety concerns since. the uprising of January 6, 2021.

Proxy voting in the House allows lawmakers to work from home and not travel to the office and has been extended through March. Visits and visits to the office are limited. GOP lawmakers have racked up thousands of dollars in fines for violating mask-wearing mandates on the House floor.

Seating for Biden’s first speech at a joint session of Congress last April was limited to about 200, or about 20% of the usual capacity for a presidential presentation. White House officials say protocols for Biden’s next will be determined by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Pelosi said last week that lawmakers were aiming for “fuller participation” than last year, including inviting all members of Congress. She said, “I think people are ready to pivot in a way that shows the American people that we’ve been largely vaccinated here.” But participation, she added, will depend “on the Capitol doctor.” In an interview on the eve of the 1/6 anniversary last month, Pelosi said she hopes the Capitol, which has remained closed in part for security reasons, will reopen soon.

Republicans, meanwhile, have been increasingly vocal about removing restrictions on Capitol Hill. In the Senate, more than half of GOP lawmakers signed a resolution this week calling on Congress to lift all virus rules and reopen to visitors.

“From stores to places and most workplaces and schools, the rest of the United States has reopened, and it’s time for the Senate to do the same,” said Senator Bill Hagerty, author of the resolution.

Although the Capitol and other federal properties set their own rules, the District of Columbia’s indoor mask requirement for most indoor gatherings and businesses is to be lifted the same day as Biden’s address, the White House. , for its part, says it will set rules for the resort based on advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

There is no indication that Pelosi is ready to lift the House bedroom mask guidelines, which she maintained last year even when the CDC relaxed indoor mask-wearing requirements for people fully vaccinated before the emergence of the Delta variant.

The White House has taken extraordinary precautions to prevent Biden from contracting the virus, including requiring high-quality masks in his neighborhood and limiting his travel and attendance at large events.

In addition to members of Congress, the State of the Union audience traditionally includes Cabinet members, military leaders, Supreme Court justices, diplomats and other invited guests. Whether or not Pelosi has decided whether or not to send out invitations to Washington’s diplomatic corps and other guests who normally fill the galleries for the address is unclear. A speech before a full chamber would be by far the densest audience of Biden’s presidency to date.

The debate over mask-wearing and vaccination rules has become a major front in the country’s culture wars, breaking down along regional and political lines. Scenes of maskless celebrities enjoying the Super Bowl – when school children in some jurisdictions are required to wear masks even when outside during recess – have drawn criticism for unfairness.

Some Biden allies worry the Capitol scene could add fuel to the fire, or that conservative anti-mask Republicans will use the speech for a stunt or protest.

More broadly, federal officials are racing to finalize new, more flexible national guidelines on mask-wearing and other policies before Biden takes the stage in the House Chamber at 9:01 p.m. “We want to give people a break from things like mask-wearing when those measures are better, and then have the ability to achieve them again, if things get worse,” said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC. She said the revised guidelines, to be coordinated with a broad administration plan for the “next phase” of the virus response, are expected to arrive around the end of February.

Administration officials expect this new strategy and message to feature prominently in Biden’s speech as pandemic fatigue becomes more pronounced.

The White House sees his speech — in concert with the expected easing of virus limits — as an opportunity to help stem the erosion of public trust in his leadership. According to an AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll last month, just 45% of Americans said they approved of Biden’s handling of COVID-19, down from 57% in December and 66% in July.

There is a growing clamor on both sides.

“This is an opportunity for the president to recognize the challenge we’ve faced over the past few years, but also to recognize that we’re going to have to learn to live with COVID, and we know how to do that,” the rep said. democrat. Ami Bera, California doctor. In an interview, Bera said he hoped Congress would roll back some of its boundaries, including its mask mandate, and that Biden could speak to an audience that symbolized the end of the emergency phase of the pandemic.

“It’s a real pulpit of intimidation and the president could use it to move the country to a more normal space,” he said. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell this week criticized the Democrats’ approach, saying they only recently changed their tune due to shifts in public opinion. “The only science that has changed in the last two weeks is political science,” he said. “The only data that has changed in the last two weeks is the polling data from the Democrats.”

(This story has not been edited by the Devdiscourse team and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

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