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As House Republicans heckle, Biden serves it back

While Thursday’s State of the Union contained some contentious moments — particularly when President Biden discussed the southern border and Republicans’ tax cuts — his fourth address to Congress went largely without the major disturbances seen in previous years.

At several points, Biden went back and forth with lawmakers — something that used to be a rarity. But in each moment, Biden looked to capitalize on the interruptions, using the heckling to pivot into Democratic talking points.

In perhaps the most tense exchange of the night, Biden condemned Republicans’ decision to reject a bipartisan bill that included border security provisions after former president Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, came out against it.

As Biden chastised Republicans, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) yelled out “Say her name!” in reference to Laken Riley, a 22-year-old nursing student whose killing last month led to assault and murder charges against an undocumented migrant in Georgia. Greene also was wearing a shirt that read “SAY HER NAME LAKEN RILEY.”

Biden then paused his remarks and lifted up a pin Greene had handed him earlier as he walked to the dais.

“Laken Riley,” Biden said, repeating what Greene was shouting at him. “An innocent young woman who was killed by an illegal.”

With that, Greene’s heckling appeared to stop, while other Republicans chanted

Biden then tried to turn the moment to his advantage. After saying his heart went out to Riley’s parents — noting that he has lost two of his children — he called Congress to send him the bipartisan border security bill.

“I would respectfully suggest … my Republican friends owe it to the American people: Get this bill done,” he said. “We need to act now.”

Then, he addressed Trump directly.

“If my predecessor is watching, instead of playing politics and pressuring members of Congress to block the bill, join me in telling the Congress to pass it,” he said. “We can do it together.”

In the chamber, Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), who led Senate negotiations on the failed bill, nodded.

It was clear from the beginning of the night that Republicans would seek to provoke the president on the issue of immigration. Earlier on Thursday, House Republicans, with the support of 37 Democrats, passed a bill named for Riley. The measure would require the detention of any migrant who commits theft or burglary.

Earlier in the night, Greene made a show of taking out a red “Make America Great Again” hat, emblazoned with a “Trump 2020” logo, and wearing it in the chamber. While lawmakers are not allowed to wear hats on the floor, Greene kept the hat on. Moments later, the House’s sergeant-at-arms asked her to take off the hat. Democrats, meanwhile, chanted, “No hats on the floor.”

At another point, Democrats began chanting “Four more years!” Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) replied with a more muted chant of “Trump, Trump, Trump.” And two lawmakers, Reps. Max L. Miller (R-Ohio) and Michael Bost (R-Ill.), left the speech when Biden said the state of the union is strong, and that he expects to win again in 2024.

When Biden said that, during the coronavirus crisis, Trump “failed in the most basic presidential duty that he owes to American people the duty: to care,” Rep. Derrick Van Orden (R-Wis.) yelled out: “Lies!”

And Republicans booed loudly when Biden said that it was them who enacted a tax cut for the ultrawealthy during the Trump administration.

At their response, Biden’s eyebrows shot up.

“Oh no, you guys don’t want another $2 trillion tax cut?” he said with a smile. “I kinda thought that’s what your plan was. Well, that’s good to hear.”

It mirrored an exchange in last year’s speech, when Greene yelled out “Liar!” after Biden chided Republicans for floating the possibility of cuts to Social Security and Medicare. Others followed. But Biden responded by saying, “We all apparently agree, Social Security and Medicare is off the books now, right? … We’ve got unanimity.” (The exchange was one of several outbursts from Greene last year, who also interrupted Biden’s speech, yelling, “China’s spying on us!” and “Secure the border!”)

Presidential addresses to Congress used to be muted, bipartisan affairs, with disturbances kept to a minimum. But that trend changed in September 2009, when President Barack Obama addressed Congress to make his pitch for what turned into the 2010 Affordable Care Act. Obama used parts of the address to try to debunk rumors about the bill, including one about undocumented immigrants receiving government-funded insurance through the proposed law.

“You lie!” Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) shouted in response.

The outburst stunned the chamber. A week later, the House passed a resolution, largely on party lines, admonishing him for the remark.

In 2022, Boebert drew criticism when she interrupted Biden when the president brought up his late son, Beau Biden, an Iraq War veteran who died of brain cancer in 2015. Biden was calling on Congress to pass legislation to aid veterans exposed to toxins while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan — a problem he said leads to cancers “that would put them in a flag-draped coffin” and believes contributed to Beau’s death.

Boebert interrupted him then, yelling: “You put them there. Thirteen of them!”

She appeared to be referencing the 13 troops killed during the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Immediately, Democrats booed. Some yelled, “Kick her out!” The next day, Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the House speaker at the time, said Boebert and other Republicans who heckled Biden during his address should “just shut up.”

That topic returned to focus Thursday night, when a guest also caused a brief interruption during the speech. Rep. Brian Mast’s (R-Fla.) guest, Steve Nikoui, was escorted out of the House gallery after yelling: “Remember Abbey Gate! United States Marines!” He is the father of Marine Lance Cpl. Kareem Nikoui, who was one of the 13 U.S. service members killed in a suicide attack in 2021 during the final days of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

And it wasn’t only Republicans who tried to get a message across to Biden.

Democrats demanding a cease-fire in Gaza and calling for the United States to stop supplying arms to Israel — including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Delia C. Ramirez (D-Ill.) — held small signs reading, “Lasting ceasefire now” and “Stop sending bombs.” Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), the only Palestinian American member of Congress, and Reps. Cori Bush (D-Mo.), Summer Lee (D-Penn.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) also held the signs and donned kaffiyehs.



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