Midway through the State of the Union address, the room turned feisty as some Republican lawmakers began booing President Biden. Some pointed fingers toward his position at the center of the House chamber. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) stood and yelled at him: “Liar!”
It was a remarkable display of partisan animosity, one that illustrates the challenges gripping a deeply divided Washington. And it put on vivid display the power of Greene as leader of the Outburst Caucus — and the struggles that House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has in controlling the behavior, let alone the votes, of his conference.
Hours before the speech, McCarthy (Calif.) and other Republican leaders had told lawmakers during their weekly conference meeting that all eyes would be on them as Biden delivered his remarks, according to people in the room for the meeting who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss it freely.
That guidance echoed a similar message sent out by Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.): “Cameras are always on and microphones are always hot.” Before the speech, Republicans did not anticipate any outbursts, and McCarthy had said Monday that he would not shred the president’s speech as then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) did with President Donald Trump’s.
But about 40 minutes into his speech, Biden turned to one of the most contentious current topics facing Congress. Halfway through a speech that was by turns folksy and feisty — and contained more than a hint of swagger — he looked to the Republicans sitting in the chamber to his left, chiding them for a lack of specificity in their approach to cutting the budget.
Their decisions under Trump, he said, added more to the national debt than any president, triggering boos from Republicans.
“They’re the facts!” Biden responded. “Check it out. Check it out!”
It was one of a number of moments in which he was heckled in the chamber, and he seemed to relish the open exchanges that broke out in the House chamber and played on national television. McCarthy, sitting directly behind Biden and in view of the cameras, several times appeared to shush his colleagues.
As Biden mentioned potential cuts to Social Security and Medicare — and how some Republican-backed proposals could lead to cuts in the entitlement programs — it triggered one of the most disruptive moments of the night, and loud protests that had been kept at bay for much of the speech were unleashed.
Greene stood up, jabbed her finger, and yelled toward Biden: “Liar!” Others followed. It was one of several outbursts from Greene who interrupted Biden’s speech by yelling, “China’s spying on us!” and later, “Secure the border!”
Biden, seeming both perplexed and energized by the sudden shift in the room, responded by saying, “Anyone who doubts me, contact my office … I’ll give you a copy of the proposal.” He emphasized that it was “not a majority” of Republicans who support such a plan and that it probably was not “even a significant” portion of them.
At least one Republican lawmaker yelled, “Then don’t say it!”
“I enjoy conversion,” Biden quipped, suggesting that minds in the room had changed on the topic.
After some of the commotion had died down, Biden said that everyone in the room apparently agreed that “Social Security and Medicare is off the books! We got unanimity!”
“So tonight, let’s all agree — and apparently we are — and stand up for seniors,” Biden added, after which most in the chamber stood up. “Stand up and show them! We will not cut Social Security! We will not cut Medicare! Those benefits belong to the American people. They earned it … If anyone tries to cut Medicare, I’ll stop them. I’ll veto it … But apparently it’s not going to be a problem.”
Biden’s focus on Social Security and Medicare was one of his chief arguments during the midterm elections. He often pointed to a plan from Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) that was aimed at cutting the federal deficit with a proposal to “sunset” all federal programs after five years, meaning they would expire unless renewed.
Scott’s plan does not specifically say Social Security or Medicare will expire, but it recommends that “all federal legislation sunsets in 5 years.”
Some top Republicans had suggested that Scott’s approach was unwise — “That will not be part of the Republican Senate majority agenda,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said when Scott’s plan was released — but that didn’t stop Biden from trying to make Scott the face of the GOP.
More recently, Biden has said that Republicans need to offer more specifics about which programs they want to cut. He has accused them of being vague even as they threaten not to raise the debt limit without budget cuts.
“Some of my Republican friends want to take the economy hostage,” he said during the speech.
After the speech, House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.) said Biden was wrong to keep associating his party with wanting to cut those programs. “He tries to keep spreading this false narrative about getting rid of Social Security and Medicare,” he said. “And I think by the end he finally acknowledged it’s not true, but he was trying to imply something about Republicans. That’s just not true.”
The back-and-forth in the chamber was a discordant note and had the feel of the rambunctious, free-flowing nature of the British Parliament at question time with the prime minister, rather than the traditionally more stately setting of the presidential address.
Much of Biden’s earlier portions of the speech was focused on seemingly bipartisan basics — blue-collar job growth, boosting American manufacturing, promoting infrastructure projects — that dared Republicans not to stand. And through much of it, McCarthy remained seated.
McCarthy and Greene have come a long way since the Georgia congresswoman was elected to the House in 2020. McCarthy’s defense of her when Democrats stripped Greene of her committee assignments ultimately led to the two forging a closer relationship. She was a vocal supporter of his bid for speaker, but it wasn’t enough to ensure an easy path to the gavel for the California Republican.
While McCarthy ultimately won by hashing out deals, he remains beholden to the splintered factions of the conference. Greene’s display against Biden underscored that tenuous grip — that McCarthy couldn’t contain an ally, even after he and other GOP leaders warned lawmakers not to hastily react to Biden during his speech.
“He did, frankly, lie, talking about Republicans and Social Security and Medicare,” Greene said in a video she released after the speech.
“We have not talked about cutting Social Security and Medicare … We’re not,” she said. “So we called him out on the House floor. I called him a liar because that’s what Joe Biden is.”
She went on: “Joe Biden doesn’t know anything he’s talking about. That’s the state of our union.”
The Washington Post’s Leigh Ann Caldwell, Liz Goodwin and Marianna Sotomayor contributed to this report.