What the State of the Union Was Like Inside the Chamber

Some members of the audience were a lot more engaged than others.

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 20: U.S. President Barack Obama delivers the State of the Union address on January 20, 2015 in the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC. Obama was expected to lay out a broad agenda to address income inequality, making it easier for Americans to afford college education, and child care. (Photo by Mandel Ngan-Pool/Getty Images)
National Journal
Jan. 20, 2015, 6:41 p.m.

Tues­day’s mostly pre­dict­able, made-for-TV State of the Uni­on held little in the way of sur­prises. But in­side the House cham­ber, a few can­did mo­ments from a cap­tive audi­ence — one that was al­tern­ately ex­cited, dis­trac­ted, even sleepy — ad­ded up to a more in­ter­est­ing scene.

Long be­fore the ar­rival of Pres­id­ent Obama — and his pen­ul­tim­ate ad­dress be­fore Con­gress — the cham­ber was filled with chat­ter­ing law­makers, some clearly more eager than oth­ers to spend a Tues­day night at work.

As sen­at­ors filed in, a hand­ful of new mem­bers re­ceived warm greet­ings from their former House col­leagues. A smat­ter­ing of Demo­crats stood to ap­plaud Sen. Gary Peters. House Minor­ity Whip Steny Hoy­er found Sen. Shel­ley Moore Capito and put his hands on her shoulders.

Soon after, Obama made his way down the aisle to shake hands with law­makers — mostly Demo­crats — who had long be­fore staked out the plum seats in his path­way. Rep. Cheri Bus­tos, said to be con­sid­er­ing a bid for Obama’s old Sen­ate seat, leaned in to give the pres­id­ent a kiss.

Even­tu­ally, Obama quieted the gal­lery and star­ted his speech. A hand­ful of mem­bers quickly oc­cu­pied them­selves with their smart­phones. Oth­ers, like Sen. Bill Cas­sidy, stu­di­ously took notes.

Reps. Paul Ry­an and Fred Up­ton — who chair two of the House’s most power­ful com­mit­tees — leaned in to share com­ment­ary and jokes with each oth­er, trad­ing banter throughout the night.

On the Demo­crat­ic side, mem­bers oc­ca­sion­ally sup­ple­men­ted their ap­plause with props. Rep. Bill Pascrell, a mem­ber of the Con­gres­sion­al Ukrain­i­an Caucus, waved small Ukrain­i­an and Amer­ic­an flags at a men­tion of sup­port for that coun­try. Rep. Al Green waved a note­book over his head throughout the night dur­ing stand­ing ova­tions, and Rep. Lor­etta Sanc­hez waved some pa­pers to sup­port Obama’s mes­sage on vot­ing rights.

Re­pub­lic­ans were mostly more sub­dued, but they did burst in­to ap­plause at Obama’s re­quest for trade pro­mo­tion au­thor­ity. A few Demo­crats stood in sup­port, while Rep. Rose De­Lauro — among Obama’s many Demo­crat­ic op­pon­ents on trade — smiled and slowly shook her head.

The fre­quent ap­plause wasn’t enough to keep every­one awake. At one point, Su­preme Court Justice An­thony Kennedy had to rouse col­league Ruth Bader Gins­burg with his el­bow.

Po­si­tioned between Sens. Marco Ru­bio and Jeff Flake, Sen. Kirsten Gil­librand found her­self stand­ing alone more of­ten than not, but she made sure to lean down and whis­per to each one dur­ing sus­tained peri­ods of clap­ping. She also urged Capito to stand dur­ing a call for equal pay for wo­men, but the Re­pub­lic­an was firm in her chair.

Mid­way through the speech, at a men­tion of the ter­ror­ist at­tacks in Par­is, 25 to 30 law­makers — mostly on the Demo­crat­ic side — raised pen­cils to show solid­ar­ity with the slain Charlie Hedbo car­toon­ists. A hand­ful raised them again at a men­tion of free speech.

As the speech wound down, Obama called for unity. “I still be­lieve that we are one people,” he said, and Rep. Louie Gohmert, per­haps Obama’s most vo­cal crit­ic in Con­gress, was the first to stand and ap­plaud. When he spoke out for gay rights, at least a pair of Re­pub­lic­ans — Reps. Car­los Cur­belo and Ileana Ros-Le­htin­en — ap­plauded quietly in their chairs.

With a few minutes re­main­ing in the speech, Rep. Tim Huel­skamp made a dash for the exit. Be­fore the ap­plause for Obama’s fi­nal line had died down, dozens of his col­leagues were right on his tail, beelin­ing for the wait­ing TV cam­er­as in Statu­ary Hall.

Plenty of oth­ers stayed be­hind to get a mo­ment with Obama as he worked his way out of the cham­ber. Even vet­er­an mem­bers like Reps. Joe Crow­ley and Vir­gin­ia Foxx were not shy about re­quest­ing auto­graphs. And minutes after Obama wound down his speech by say­ing he had “no more cam­paigns to run,” Sens. Marco Ru­bio and Ted Cruz lingered in the aisle to share a laugh, each no doubt hav­ing con­tem­plated what the State of the Uni­on would look like from the pres­id­ent’s per­spect­ive.

COR­REC­TION: An earli­er ver­sion of this story in­cor­rectly de­scribed House Minor­ity Whip Steny Hoy­er’s re­ac­tion to Pres­id­ent Obama’s call for trade pro­mo­tion au­thor­ity dur­ing the State of the Uni­on ad­dress. Hoy­er ap­plauded, but did not stand up while do­ing so.

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