House Republicans are divided on whether the raucous heckling of President Biden during his State of the Union address on Tuesday night was inappropriate — or whether it helped them effectively communicate their position to the American public.
Many Republicans thought the uproar in response to Biden’s comment accusing Republicans of wanting to sunset Social Security and Medicare was justified, blaming the president for “instigating” a desired reaction that would put Republicans in a bad light. But some expressed doubts about the rowdiness that followed.
The claim about Social Security was the first to draw such an audible reaction from Republicans, who are fighting for spending cuts as a condition of raising the debt ceiling and seeking to sell those cuts to the American public.
“He started off, I thought, wonderfully. … But then you can’t stand up there and blatantly lie,” Rep. Lisa McClain (R-Mich.) said. “So as much as I wish we had had more decorum, OK, you are instigating that behavior. So it starts with the leader.”
Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) also put the blame on Biden.
“The president was trying to goad the members, and the members are passionate about it,” McCarthy said on Fox News Wednesday morning. “But the one thing that the president was saying was something that he knew was not true.”
Though Republicans have sought for decades to privatize Social Security and cut Medicare — and Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) released a proposal last year to sunset all federal programs after five years — McCarthy has repeatedly said that cuts to entitlement programs are “off the table” in debt ceiling talks, which he launched with Biden last week.
Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.) said while he thought the president deserves respect, he understands why some members found it difficult to “uphold decorum.”
“The office of the president deserves respect, period, agree or disagree,” he said.
“I got a little uneasy in my seat and pretty frustrated listening to some of the allegations that are just patently false,” Graves added.
Once the vocal pushback started, though, it didn’t stop. Later in the speech, some Republicans chanted “secure the border” and Rep. Andy Ogles (R-Tenn.) yelled “It’s your fault” when Biden mentioned fentanyl deaths.
Some thought the uproar went too far.
“I think it’s important that proper decorum be addressed not only in the chamber, but everywhere we go. And we should hold ourselves to a higher ground,” said Rep. Dave Joyce (R-Ohio), chair of the more centrist Republican Governance Group. “That’s something we shouldn’t engage in, and we should at least show the respect that’s due and owed [to] the office of president when he comes to our chamber to speak.”
The most high-profile of the hecklers Tuesday night was Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), a conservative firebrand who stood and yelled that Biden was a “liar” when the president accused Republicans of wanting to eliminate Social Security and Medicare.
The episode was reminiscent of Rep. Joe Wilson’s (R-S.C.) outburst during the State of the Union in 2009, when he shouted “you lie” to protest then-President Obama’s claim that Democrats had no designs to provide health care to undocumented immigrants.
House Democrats formally reprimanded Wilson on the floor, and the South Carolina Republican quickly apologized for letting “my emotions get the best of me.”
Greene is conceding no such fault.
“I let him know exactly how the people feel. I got more text messages last night and this morning than I did on my — probably winning both elections,” Greene told reporters outside the Capitol on Wednesday. “So, no, I have no regrets.”
McCarthy is just starting negotiations with Biden on the debt limit fight, and he projected ahead of the address that Republicans would be civil and not play “childish games” during the State of the Union.
Republican members were reminded in a morning conference meeting that there would be hot mics and cameras, and McCarthy pledged that he would not rip up a copy of Biden’s speech — in reference to then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) tearing in half a copy of former President Trump’s speech.
While McCarthy, in his Fox interview, largely defended the hecklers, he also expressed some disappointment that they had taken “the bait” in the form of Biden’s entitlements jab.
“We need to be smart,” he said. “Don’t take the bait.”
Greene, however, had other ideas.
“I wasn’t goaded into anything,” she said. “I was reacting based on how the American people feel. They’re fed up with President Biden. And I don’t have any problems with Speaker McCarthy; he’s doing a great job.”
She said McCarthy has not spoken to her since Tuesday’s speech.
Multiple times, McCarthy appeared to be shushing his conference as they jeered Biden — gestures captured by the C-SPAN cameras for the public to see — and some moderate Republicans praised the Speaker for trying to keep his conference in order.
“Kevin McCarthy’s, I think he’s doing a great job of trying to be a statesman, stand above the fray,” moderate Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) said. “I’ve been impressed with what he’s been doing since he won the Speaker’s fight on Jan. 7.”
It remains to be seen whether the rowdy response will affect debt ceiling negotiations, but initial polling and research show a largely positive reaction to Biden’s speech, while independents were turned off by the back-and-forth — not welcome signs for Republicans.
A CNN flash poll found 72 percent of adult viewers, including 67 percent of independents, had a very or somewhat positive reaction to Biden’s speech.
Lee Carter, president at the communications consulting firm Maslansky + Partners, said in an analysis of live voter opinion data on Fox News that when Biden was heckled while talking about fentanyl and the border, both Republicans and Democrats gave the speech a grade of a “B” – but independent voters put it at a “D.”
“The independents were really turned off by the whole exchange, and that’s one of the themes that you saw for the night,” Carter said. “The way that the Republicans behaved really did turn off a lot of independent voters.”
“What people were saying over and over again was, there should be some amount of decorum. You can fight back, you can slap back, there’s a lot of other times and places to do it,” Carter said. “They just didn’t like the sort of coliseum feel that was happening last night.”
Mychael Schnell and Aris Folley contributed.