WASHINGTON – In his first State of the Union address to a divided Congress, President Joe Biden emphasized unity. House Democrats, however, spotlight chaos and dysfunction within the GOP that have made that goal nearly impossible.
Biden began his speech Tuesday evening by recounting moments of bipartisanship over the past year, and making a plea for continued collaboration across the aisle.
“To my Republican friends, if we could work together in the last Congress, there’s no reason we can’t work together and find consensus on important things in this Congress as well,” Biden said.
“Fighting for the sake of fighting, power for the sake of power, conflict for the sake of conflict, gets us nowhere.”
Democrats painted a different picture of the relationship between parties in Congress. House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) spoke of a “clear contrast between democrats who get stuff done” and “a group of chaotic, dysfunctional, and extreme MAGA Republicans who want to turn back the clock.”
“We believe in competency over chaos. There’s not a more important message,” added Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), during a press conference ahead of the president’s address.
Republicans, however, pushed the onus back on the president.
“It’s a nice message that Biden will try to spin. He’s going to spin to say we’re chaotic and things like that” Rep. Blake Moore (R-Utah) told Medill News Service. “That is fundamentally wrong.”
The 15 rounds of ballots required to elect Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) as speaker demonstrated some of the stark divisions in the first month of the 118th Congress. In the process of winning the gavel, McCarthy made concessions to the far-right members of his caucus, bolstering their power and prominence.
Ahead of Biden’s speech, McCarthy asked that the president not use the phrase “extreme MAGA Republicans” in referring to Trump-supporting members of the House GOP. The president honored that request but still had to confront heckles from several far-right Republicans.
About halfway through his remarks, the president was met with boos and shouts of “Liar!” from Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and other Republicans after stating that some members of the party want to sunset Medicare and Social Security benefits.
“I love conversion,” the president rebounded, before commanding a unified standing ovation when he called for support for senior citizens.
Since the new Congress began, Greene has continued to gain more mainstream prominence. The congresswoman, who once claimed wildfires in California were started by Jewish space lasers and that the Parkland school shooting was a “false flag” operation, presided over the House for the first time on Monday.
Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) believed “extreme MAGA Republican” to be a “very apt phrase” to describe Greene, she told Medill News Service.
“We see people who were engaged in the insurrection, engaged in white supremacy, and engaged in non-democratic actions preside over the House of Representatives, it’s absurd,” Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.) told Medill News Service. Biden addressing extremism is “vitally important,” said Coleman.
Tuesday evening, Biden also focused on denouncing political violence prompted by the so-called Big Lie of a stolen election in 2020.
“Just a few months ago, an unhinged Big Lie assailant unleashed political violence in the home of the then-speaker of the House of Representatives, using the very same language the insurrectionists used as they stalked these halls and chanted on Jan. 6.,” Biden said, referring to the attack on Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s husband in December. “For the last few years our democracy has been threatened and attacked, put at risk.”
Democracy, the president stressed, is the most fundamental pillar of “rebuilding America.”
“With democracy, everything is possible. Without it, nothing is,” he added.
Rep. Troy Carter (D-La.) remained optimistic that bipartisanship could emerge despite some of the verbal sparring during the State of the Union.
“I’m hopeful we can change that. I think the president struck a very good chord to talk about unity,” Carter said.
Whether Democrats and Republicans are willing to work together will take center stage in negotiations surrounding raising the debt ceiling and other key issues in coming weeks. On Wednesday, there was already a combative hearing on Twitter’s 2020 decision to block a story about Hunter Biden, where Greene was an outspoken participant.