WASHINGTON >> The blue and yellow brought the room together.
Some lawmakers wore blue and yellow outfits. Other pinned blue and yellow ribbons to their lapels. When the flags of Ukraine were handed out to lawmakers, some tucked them into their suit coats like pocket squares.
For a nation bitterly divided at home, the fight for Ukraine’s survival against the Russian invasion was pulling the U.S. Congress together.
As President Joe Biden delivered his first State of the Union address, it was the first time all members of Congress were invited to the House chamber since the COVID-19 outbreak and the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection by a mob of the former president’s supporters largely closed the Capitol to the public.
Partisan tensions remain high. Political differences run deep. But through much of Biden’s address, there was a remarkable commitment from Democrats and Republicans to muster a show of U.S. support for the Western-style democracy.
“My fellow Americans, last year COVID-19 kept us apart. This year we’re finally together again,” Biden said, as he opened his address.
“Tonight we meet as Democrats, Republicans, independents, but most importantly, as Americans, with the duty to one another, to America, to the American people, to the Constitution and an unwavering resolve that freedom will always triumph over tyranny.”
Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States, Oksana Markarova, was welcomed with a standing ovation when the president introduced her, and she waved her country’s flag from the visitors gallery. She was hugged by first lady Jill Biden, who invited her to the president’s evening speech.
The event, usually held in January, provides the president an opportunity to outline his agenda for the year ahead. Indeed, the Constitution requires the president “from time to time” to give Congress information on the state of the Union.
For Biden, this first State of the Union speech arrived amid the backdrop of a war, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and a number of legislative defeats for the Democratic president and his allies on Capitol Hill.
Signs of partisan tensions flared as soon as Biden touted his $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package, which not a single Republican supported as Democrats passed it through Congress last year.
“It worked,” Biden said loudly, as Republicans murmured boos and Democrats jumped to their feet to applaud — Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer eagerly jumping twice to clap approval.
In one of the most dramatic outbursts of the evening, Republican Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado blamed Biden for the deaths of 13 service members killed in the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan.
“You put them in — 13 of them,” Boebert yelled. At the time, Biden was talking about the death of his son, Army Maj. Beau Biden, and legislation to support veterans exposed to toxic fumes from military burn pits used to get rid of waste and equipment.
While his administration’s response to Russian aggression in Europe has been met with rare and remarkable bipartisan support — House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy tucked one of the flags in his suit jacket — the division between the two parties in Congress is palpable, even among factions of Democrats.
One Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who almost singularly tanked Biden’s “Build Back Better” domestic agenda of social spending and climate change programs, sat on the Republican side of the aisle.
Several Republican lawmakers skipped the speech altogether. Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida said he didn’t want to engage in the “theater” of coronavirus protocols when all attendees were required to have a COVID-19 test. Several Democrats tested positive and had to stay home.
Biden began his speech focusing on the crisis in Ukraine, a moment of common ground that drew a number of standing ovations from Republicans.
As the evening moved from foreign to domestic policy, the partisan divide deepened — Democrats cheering Biden’s long list of legislative priorities, from voting rights to free community college, while Republicans sat silently, some mouthing their displeasure.
And no applause was as loud or in unison as when the president said: “The answer is not to defund the police,” when talking about his plans to address gun violence and police brutality. One Republican, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, stood with her party and yelled, “Yes!”
Biden thanked retiring Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer — he put his hand on his heart and acknowledged the applause — and urged confirmation of his nominee, federal judge Ketanji Brown Jackson.
But as he charted the year ahead, even Biden’s suggestion they could come together on his “unity agenda” fighting opioid addiction, boosting mental health, helping veterans and ending cancer may face difficulty in the harshly divided Congress.
“Unfortunately, the state of our union is not good,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. “President Biden is not rising to the moment.”
The audience inside the House chamber was much larger than the 200 allowed last year due to pandemic restrictions but much smaller than the usual 1,600 that typically includes special guests of lawmakers who this year were not granted extra tickets. The first lady’s other guest was Frances Haugen, the former Facebook employee who exposed what the company may have known about damage caused by its social media platforms.
The address followed a much more limited joint address Biden delivered last year, shortly after his inauguration amid the fast-spreading Delta variant of the coronavirus and his predecessor Donald Trump’s second impeachment over the Capitol insurrection.
This year, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi welcomed every member of Congress to attend, but with some COVID-19 restrictions in place. In the last week, the mask mandate was dropped as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced new guidelines.
For some, including Rep. Lou Correa, D-Calif., it was their first time sitting in the House visitor galleries since they sheltered there during the Jan. 6, 2021, siege, when Trump supporters attacked the Capitol trying to stop Congress from certifying Biden’s election.
But Biden also had conflicts to sort through within his own party. Progressive Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., delivered the Working Families Party response, in which she called out Biden and Senate Democrats for not passing his $1.8 trillion social spending plan last year.
The speech by one Democrat to a Democratic president’s address was the latest example of the inner fighting among factions of the majority party, most recently between centrists and progressives like Tlaib.