When Paul D. Ryan and Joseph R. Biden squared off during a vice presidential debate at a small Kentucky college four years ago, perhaps the last place they expected to meet again would be seated above the House floor for President Barack Obama's final State of the Union address. But in the moments before the president began a speech about ending partisanship, the Republican speaker and the Democratic vice president chatted amiably for several minutes.
Around them the House chamber buzzed with a hundred conversations. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack gravitated to the bright red sweater-vest of Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, with Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, joining them. Republican presidential hopeful Marco Rubio of Florida, back in Washington tending to senatorial duties, ended up chatting and laughing with Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. Graham has returned to the Senate full time, of course, having pulled the plug on his own 2016 White House bid.
When Obama arrived, it took him five minutes to make his way down the aisle, with the House and Senate Sergeants-at-Arms, both former secret service agents, clearing a path through cameras and lawmakers' outstretched arms. As he approached the lectern, an impromptu chant broke out.
Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., described a rush of members trying to shake Obama’s hand as he entered the chamber, including his whole row of his colleagues. “Initially [California Democratic Rep.] Judy Chu and I were firmly told by the Sergeant of Arms that we couldn’t stand in the front rows, but through a little ingenuity we found our way to an area where the escort committee normally would sit and we stood in their place,” Takano said. “A number of members had found similar ways to get enough proximity to the president to touch him and shake his hand.”
Takano also described the chant that ensued as the president was walking toward the podium: “I started chanting unexpectedly, and I found myself [in] a little bit of nostalgia, I started saying, ‘Fired up!’ I screamed it out loud and then [Tennessee Democratic Rep.] Steve Cohen in the other section heard it and he said, ‘Ready to go!’ I said, ‘Fired up!’ and a few more members joined in and we had a section that was nostalgically chanting.”
The boisterous mood continued as Obama began his speech, at least for the Democrats. The crowd laughed as the president joked about keeping his speech short, saying,"I know some of you are antsy to get back to Iowa." Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, was holding campaign events in New Hampshire Tuesday, but other presidential contenders showed up.
And the entire room roared in approval as the president announced Biden's role in a new national campaign to cure cancer. "Because he's gone to the mat for all of us, on so many issues over the past 40 years, I'm putting Joe in charge of Mission Control," Obama said. "For the loved ones we've all lost, for the family we can still save, let's make America the country that can cure cancer once and for all."
Biden's son Beau was among the family lost to brain cancer in 2015.
There was widespread applause when Obama praised the strength of the American military, but a call for action to authorize the use of force against ISIS got a decidedly more mixed reception. The same could be said for his praise of the thawing of relations with Cuba.
Republican Sens. Pat Roberts of Kansas, Cory Gardner of Colorado and Tim Scott of South Carolina sat together, a symbolic show of strength against Obama's commitment to shut down the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and possibly move terror suspects to facilities in the senators' states.
Moments after Obama's comments on Gitmo, the three senators released statements on-line. "The intention to send terrorists to the mainland is just another of the Obama Administration's misguided strategic national security decisions," Roberts said. "Closing Guantanamo will never endear radical Islamic fundamentalists to America. It will simply move these detainees and their security risks north, to one of the communities in our states."
House members more than senators appeared to read along with the speech though some lawmakers from each chamber could be spotted taking notes.
That included, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who is attending her last State of the Union in office, having announced she is retiring at the end of the Congress. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat, stood in a side aisle for much of the speech with a copy of the prepared remarks, pen in hand.
As the speech ended, the crowd — Democrats and Republicans alike — rallied to the president's closing declaration that through all the challenges the state of the union itself remained strong. Then Obama made what could well be his final exit from the House chamber, once again shaking hands and kissing cheeks.
Perhaps more than Obama himself, Biden seemed to revel in the event, sticking around far longer than his boss to mingle with lawmakers such as Democratic Reps. Jim Langevin of Rhode Island and Sam Farr of California, embracing Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., just before making his exit.
Bridget Bowman contributed to this report.
Contact Lesniewski at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at @nielslesniewski.
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