(The Hill) – House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) had said that Republicans would not play “childish games” during President Biden’s State of the Union address on Tuesday. While it started as a cordial event, by the end, the speech had some of the rowdiest pushback from an opposing party in recent memory.
House Republicans started the day with a reminder that there would be hot mics and cameras all over the House floor leading up to and during the address, according to a person in the room.
McCarthy told CNN that Republicans would portray themselves in line with the congressional “code of ethics,” and that he would not play “childish games like tearing up a speech” – a reference to former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) ripping in half a copy of a State of the Union from former President Trump.
McCarthy and other Republicans shook Biden’s hand as he entered the room. And at the start of the address, Republicans kept decorum on par with years of State of the Unions past.
That changed around the halfway point.
Interruptions abounded in response to Biden saying that some Republicans want to sunset Social Security and Medicare. A highly unusual back-and-forth on policy ensued as Biden ad-libbed through his speech, ending with apparent agreement to keep the entitlement programs intact.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) could be heard calling Biden a “liar,” along with other Republicans.
At a later point, cries of “secure the border” rang out.
When Biden mentioned fentanyl and the border, Rep. Andy Ogles (R-Tenn.) yelled: “It’s your fault!”
“That was a very visceral moment for me,” Ogles later told The Hill, mentioning his former involvement in the human trafficking space. “He could close that border with the stroke of a pen, and he hasn’t had the courage to do it.”
McCarthy – who is eager to strike a spending cuts deal with Biden as a condition of raising the debt ceiling – could be seen appearing to shush his conference at multiple points during the speech.
Ahead of the speech, Greene defended the idea of Republicans vocally opposing Biden.
“People stand up and clap for the President. I think we can stand up and oppose things he’s saying,” Greene said. “Just like a sports team, right?”
Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) said that the Republicans responded appropriately in some areas, such as to Biden’s Social Security comments. But he said that Greene, who stood and pointed at Biden during her jeers, went too far.
“It’s inappropriate because it then can hurt,” Cramer said. “Our brand is moral authority.”
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said she was not surprised by the outbursts, calling House Republicans a “volatile, sort of scrappy” group, and praised Biden for how he handled the outbursts.
“He didn’t let it get to him. He’s with this twinkle in his eye and a smile on his face, and he owned the room,” Klobuchar said.
McCarthy did not answer reporter questions about the outcries as he left the chamber.
State of the Union addresses have included boos and outbursts in the past. Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) shouting “You lie!” at former President Obama in 2009. Last year, Greene and Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) stood to shout at Biden during his address.
But the extent and frequency of heckles amped up to a new level on Tuesday.
“I’m not one that’s into cat calls, but I understand the emotion that’s involved in that when you hear the President of the United States saying something that he knows is simply not true,” said Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.), the vice chair of the House Republican Conference. “There is no Republican that I know of, and certainly not one on Capitol Hill, who has ever suggested sunsetting Social Security and Medicare.”
Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) independently released a lengthy policy plan in 2022 that called to either sunset or re-authorize all federal legislation in five years. Democrats quickly pointed out that could include Social Security and Medicare.
But Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), sharply pushed back on Scott and on the idea of sunsetting Social Security and Medicare.
“Rick Scott’s plan is not the House Republicans’,” Johnson said. “I can tell you that is not the party’s position.”
Though some Republicans have floated entitlement reform ideas like raising the Social Security retirement age, McCarthy has repeatedly said that changes to entitlements are not on the table during debt limit negotiations. Republicans have called for discretionary spending cuts as a condition of raising the debt limit, with an expected early June deadline.
“He tries to keep spreading this false narrative about getting rid of Social Security and Medicare. And I think by the end finally acknowledged, it’s not true,” said House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.). “At the end of the day, we’ve got to have honest negotiations about how to get spending under control in Washington, how to strengthen Social Security and Medicare.”
Ahead of the State of the Union, House Republicans organized a “media row” filled with conservative news outlets like Fox News, the Washington Examiner, Breitbart, One America News Network and more. The setup took place in a room that had been recently named after Pelosi.
Greene entered the media row Tuesday afternoon with a large white helium balloon, in reference to the suspected Chinese spy balloon that floated across the U.S. last week before being shot down – using the prop to criticize Biden for not shooting down the balloon earlier. She did not try to take the balloon into the chamber.
As House Republicans escalated their pushback to Biden this year, one firebrand took a lower-key track than in the past.
“Well, I won’t be bringing a white helium balloon, if that’s what you’re asking,” Boebert said earlier in the day when asked if she had any protest planned for the State of the Union, before Greene had emerged with her own balloon.
She wore a dress that said “Drill Baby Drill” during last year’s State of the Union, and covered her lap with a silver “space blanket” during his address in 2021. But this year, Boebert’s protests did not stand out from those of her House GOP colleagues.
Al Weaver contributed.