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President Biden To Address Joint Session Of Congress For The First Time

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

President Biden will deliver his first address to a joint session of Congress later tonight, and it will be unlike any before it because of COVID-19 rules and extra security, too, given that insurrectionists stormed the Capitol just a few months ago. We're joined now by NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith, who has a preview.

Welcome back, Tam.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Thank you.

CORNISH: I want to start with the content. The speech comes on the president's 99th day in office. He has a bit of a record to talk about. What's expected?

KEITH: He's going to look back at the crises he inherited and argue that America is in a better place than it was in January. You know, a speech to a joint session of Congress is a really big platform, and Biden has something to sell. He's rolling out a new proposal called the American Families Plan. And this is the first time that he's going to talk about it. Press secretary Jen Psaki spoke on CBS this morning.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEN PSAKI: Now's the time to be bold. The American Families Plan as part of that plan. But he is also going to talk about police reforms we needed, the need to put gun safety measures in place, immigration. That's all going to be in his speech tonight too.

KEITH: The White House released a few excerpts from the speech, including this. Quote, "we have to prove democracy still works, that our government still works and can deliver for the people." And a big part of that is his case for new spending to rebuild the middle class.

CORNISH: We're going to discuss some of that with White House economist Heather Boushey in another part of the program. But with you here, can you give us a little bit more detail about what's in the new plan?

KEITH: These are policies that have long been on Democratic wish lists - paid family leave, child care, universal pre-K, free community college. It's aimed at reducing inequality in the economy, and it's big. It includes about a trillion dollars over 10 years in new programs and 800 billion in new tax cuts for low- and middle-income Americans. And to pay for it, there are tax increases on the very wealthy. While many of the ideas are popular with the public, it would certainly be a huge lift to get such a massive rethinking of the economy and social safety net through this very narrowly divided Congress where Democrats barely have control. And I want to remind you that just last month, Biden proposed about $2 trillion in spending on more traditional infrastructure and jobs.

CORNISH: You talked about the atmospherics earlier. Walk us through what we can expect as a result.

KEITH: Yeah. So normally, there would be about 1,600 people in the chamber. Tonight, it's only going to be about 200. Chief Justice John Roberts will be the lone representative for the Supreme Court. Only two Cabinet members will be there, meaning there's no need for a designated survivor. Also not in the room - the first lady's guests. These are people who are traditionally invited to embody some of the themes of the speech, and they'll get a call-out from the president. They're gathering ahead of time on Zoom and include a young immigrant nurse, a child care provider and a gun violence prevention advocate.

Before he gives the speech, President Biden will meet privately on Capitol Hill with some career staff who were working the day of the January 6 insurrection. And then he will walk down the center aisle, as is traditional. He will be wearing a mask up on the rostrum. He will remove the mask. And seated behind him for the first time in U.S. history will be two women, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Kamala Harris.

CORNISH: We've both covered so many of these, and the crowd and how they're received is such a big deal - right? - what's happening there. How do you think this could affect the speech?

KEITH: Yeah, watching the crowd is how you watch the speech in a way, but that is not what is going to happen this time. There's unlikely to be that roar of applause that we're used to hearing. I talked to Neil Bradley at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He worked on the Hill for a long time and has been to many of these addresses. And he, too, is having a hard time imagining what it will be like.

NEIL BRADLEY: It's all about, you know, who stands up? Who sits down? You know, it's a Democratic president. Is there anything that the Republicans stood up and applauded? You know, and you'll have a little bit of that, but it'll be very different.

KEITH: Now, this will not be President Biden's first address to an awkwardly vacant room. You might remember he delivered his convention acceptance speech in a darkened room with basically, like, 30 reporters sitting there with laptops. So without all of the clapping and cheering or certainly with less of it, perhaps the speech will be shorter. I don't know.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Tamara Keith joining us from the White House.

Thank you.

KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.