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Biden address to Congress could be pushed back for Covid relief promotion

Details about when — and how — the major speech will be done are still being worked out.
Image: President Biden Participates In Roundtable Discussion On The American Rescue Plan.
President Joe Biden holds a roundtable meeting with people who will benefit from the Covid-19 pandemic relief checks that are a part of the American Rescue Plan on March 5, 2021, in Washington, D.C.Samuel Corum / Getty Images

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden will spend some time promoting his Covid-19 relief package — expected to pass Congress within days — before turning to lay out his next legislative priorities, administration officials tell NBC News, potentially pushing his first address to Congress as late as April.

The logistics of the address, which is already shaping up to be one of the most delayed for a first-term president, are still being worked out — from the precise timing to what the event looks like. Congressional officials continue to weigh security and safety protocols involved with bringing the most senior government officials together in one indoor location in the midst of a pandemic — and so soon after the Jan. 6 breach of the Capitol.

“Our hope is to be able to do it in the well of the House,” the official added. “But there are a lot of factors that go into determining whether we’re able to.”

One certainty is the audience of lawmakers, who will be pared back and spaced out.

“We are in the middle of a global pandemic, and of course any joint session speech would look different than the past,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Friday, adding that the White House has been working closely with congressional leaders on the plans.

Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., the House majority whip, told NBC News that the seating arrangement for the speech could look similar to how lawmakers from the House and the Senate gathered for the official counting of electoral votes in January — with some members seated in the galleries.

But he also raised the possibility of a “hybrid” State of the Union address in which the White House could add virtual viewing aspects across the country, as it did for its convention and the inauguration.

“The technology is such that a real good State of the Union address done in a hybrid fashion will be a significant benefit to people all across the country,” Clyburn said. Members of Congress who might not be able to attend in the House chamber “could have hybrid events in their states and their capitals,” he added.

Top Biden advisers see the joint session address as a key moment to pivot from the so-called “rescue” package to his “Build Back Better” recovery agenda. The goal is to make the speech forward looking and focused on the president’s economic recovery plans.

Biden has yet to make a decision, however, on whether his next legislative priority will be a narrowly tailored infrastructure bill, which could garner Republican support, or sweeping legislation that encompasses his Build Back Better agenda and includes an infrastructure component.

The White House also has not yet put forward a “skinny budget,” which is typically a precursor to a president’s first address to a joint session of Congress. That budget is likely to be released in a few weeks.

The process has been delayed by a lack of cooperation from the Trump administration during the transition, when Biden officials struggled to get information on baseline budget numbers and supplementary proposals, as well as a setback in the confirmation of the president’s budget director.

Biden is pushing for Shalanda Young, his nominee as deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, to be confirmed, so she can serve as the acting director until he makes a decision on a permanent nominee.

With the Senate set to pass the Covid-19 relief bill this weekend, and the House likely to follow as soon as Tuesday, the White House is strategizing about a high-profile bill-signing event that would be followed by other public events designed to continue promoting benefits of the plan to people across the country.

The White House announced Friday that Biden will visit a small business that has benefited from the Paycheck Protection Program on Tuesday and travel to Baltimore on Wednesday for an event with the CEOs of Johnson & Johnson and Merck following their announcement of an agreement to partner in producing J&J’s single-dose Covid-19 vaccine.

Biden himself told fellow Democrats this week that it was critical to keep promoting the legislation even after they pass it — citing lessons learned from 2009 after passage of the Recovery Act.

“The economists told us we saved America from a depression. But we didn't adequately explain what we had done. Barack was so modest he didn't want to take a victory lap,” he said at the House Democratic retreat. “Each piece isn't just defensible, it's urgent and overwhelmingly supported by the people. It's good policy and it's good politics.”