In The Chamber: Joe Wilson, Joe Lieberman And The Politics Of The Standing O
The House chamber was on edge before President Obama's State of the Union address began Wednesday night. It's typical to have ambulances on hand when Congress meets at night, and not unusual to have bomb-sniffing dogs clear the building throughout the day when the President visits the Capitol, but the State of the Union also brought squads wearing hazmat suits and gas masks to the hallway above the Congressional Visitors Center.
The gas masks, however, may have been on simply to protect personnel from a mysterious, sewage-like smell -- attributed by guards to wet insulation -- that's permeated much of the building all week. "No pictures," one of the suited men said, hustling reporters past as he strapped on his gas mask.
Once lawmakers made it into the chamber itself, it was shockingly cold. "This is by far the coldest it's ever been," for the State of the Union, said New York Times reporter Carl Hulse, who's been covering Congress for 30 years. Some legislators wrapped themselves in blankets or coats; others, like Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) shivered or held their arms crossed when seated.
It was standing-room-only near the back of the chamber, with Rep. Jerry Nadler (N.Y.) and other members forced to stand in the aisle. Behind them stood a small army of excited congressional pages.
The temperature in the room rose as Obama spoke, but unlike the last time he addressed Congress, tempers among lawmakers remained mostly cool. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito appears to have upset protocol by expressing his disagreement with the president under his breath, and there was a brief disturbance when an unidentified man seated with the diplomatic corps tried to get Obama's attention by shouting, "Mister President," but Republican legislators were on their best behavior -- there was no repeat of South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson's "You lie!" moment from September. House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (Va.) simply wore a tight smile throughout most of Obama's address; Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.) followed along with the text of the speech and took notes.
While he took his place almost exactly where he stood back in September, Wilson seemed to take great care not to stand out this time. He made sure to applaud at every applause point that garnered significant Republican support, but otherwise remained seated, expressionless and silent, usually with his hands in his lap.
Before the address began, Wilson spent some time chatting with Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the diehard global-warming denier whose skepticism earned an allusion in Obama's address.
A cheer went up for Sonia Sotomayor during the Supreme Court's entrance, and First Lady Michelle Obama got three cheers when she arrived. White House economic adviser Larry Summers shook as many hands as he could, including a long reach to Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.). After taking a beating from Congress earlier in the day, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner got a fresh endorsement from the president, who put both hands on Geithner's shoulders when he made his entrance. Geithner later shared a laugh with House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) and shook hands with Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Bob Menendez (D-N.J.).
As for Obama, he earned sustained applause from a majority of the chamber some 91 times. That includes 58 standing ovations, with Republicans actually joining 40 of them. Conspicuously, however, there was no response when Obama paused for what he seemed to think was his first applause line of the night. During his initial discussion of the economy, the room remained silent when he said "the worst of the storm has passed."
Now and again, a few Republicans joined the Democratic applause for lines that left the rest of their colleagues stony-faced. Reps. Mary Bono Mack (Calif.) and Joseph Cao (Louis.) joined the Democratic clamor for high-speed rail, while Susan Collins stood to applaud "rebates to Americans who make their homes more energy efficient."
Likewise, some Democrats declined to join the GOP cheer when Obama called for more nuclear power plants and offshore drilling, House Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) remained seated when Obama vowed to veto spending he deems unnecessary, and Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.) sat and texted through the standing ovation for the President's proposed repeal of capital gains taxes on small business investment.
Two Democrats who often stood when the Republicans did were seatmates Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), the two greatest roadblocks to health care reform in the Senate Democratic Caucus. Nelson and Lieberman seemed to be having fun together: At various points during Obama's address, Nelson leaned over and whispered to Lieberman, who invariably laughed. When Obama implored Congress not to "do what's necessary to keep our poll numbers high, and get through the next election instead of doing what's best for the next generation," Lieberman elbowed Nelson with a grin.
Neither man chuckled, however, when Obama challenged the conceit that "our political system is too gridlocked, and we should just put things on hold for a while." Nelson steepled his fingers, while Lieberman looked away, rubbing his face. "How long should we wait?" Obama asked. "How long should America put its future on hold?" While the vast majority of Democrats applauded, Nelson's hands were in his lap and Lieberman's were clasped firmly together. Later, while Obama pushed for final passage of a unified health reform bill, Nelson popped a piece of gum into his mouth and started to chew.
Nelson was also one of only a handful of Democrats who didn't join in the standing ovation for the prospective repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," remaining seated and silent.
There were a few GOP holdouts who refused to applaud when Obama said Congress shouldn't "walk away" from the ever-growing number of Americans suffering without health insurance, including Sens. Jim DeMint (S.C.), David Vitter (La.) and George LeMieux (Fla.).
The most awkward ovation of the night came when Obama said "we all hated the bank bailout," prompting what looked like The Wave as lawmakers on both sides of the aisle took their time deciding whether to stand and clap but mostly decided not to do so for very long.
There was also some tension between the House and the Senate. The House has already passed a jobs bill. Obama urged the Senate to do likewise, yielding a standing ovation from Democrats and the cry from one female House Democrat, "Do something!"
Throughout the chamber, there was a low grumble when Obama suggested the assembled politicians use "common sense" to solve the nation's problems. Republicans and some Democrats laughed when the president claimed he'd kept lobbyists out of policymaking jobs or federal commissions.
Give both parties credit for team spirit, though. When Obama said second place is unacceptable for the United States, legislators responded with a standing ovation and the chant, "We're number one! We're number one! We're number one!"