To see the other stars of the State of the Union Tuesday night, you had to look up — way up, to the visitors’ gallery circling the room above President Barack Obama’s head.
Lawmakers, no longer content to be a formal — and sometimes hostile — backdrop to the president’s big speech, have found a way to grab more attention by loading the House gallery with guests chosen to embody various political points.
Presidents, of course, have been using their guests this way since Ronald Reagan.
But this year’s noticeable increase in lawmakers embracing the tactic added to the partisan mood surrounding Obama’s first State of the Union address to a Congress where Republicans control both houses.
Mixed among the family members and hometown heroes lined up to go through metal detectors Tuesday night, holding golden-edged tickets with their assigned seats, were visitors chosen to make a point about immigration law, Cuba policy or voting rights.
The White House’s guests pointedly included Ana Zamora of Dallas, a college student brought to the U.S. illegally as a child who can stay under Obama’s executive actions on deportation — an Obama policy congressional Republicans are trying to overturn. That prompted Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, to fire off a tweet criticizing Obama for “inviting a deportable to sit in place of honor” with first lady Michelle Obama.
But, as usual on State of the Union night, some moments transcended partisanship.
Republicans and Democrats alike rose to applaud when Obama said he stood united with the people of Paris after terrorist attacks there. More than two-dozen lawmakers held up pencils symbolizing free speech, in sympathy with the victims of the attack on the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo.
At other moments, applause was noticeably one-sided, with Democrats jumping to their feet while Republicans sat stonily. That lead Obama to quip, after bragging about economic progress, “This is good news, people.”
The entire chamber applauded Alan Gross, an American who was imprisoned in Cuba for five years and released last month as Obama announced that he was restoring diplomatic ties with Cuba.
Inviting Gross to sit behind the first lady helped Obama showcase the historic move. Republicans countered by bringing Cuban democracy activists bitterly opposed to lifting Cold War-era isolation of Cuba.
“Engagement with (President Raul) Castro only strengthens the Castro regime and weakens Cuba morally,” one of those guests, Jorge Luis Perez, known as “Antunez,” told reporters before the speech. Perez, who was jailed for 17 years in Cuba, was a guest of House Speaker John Boehner.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., invited an activist who believes her father, Oswaldo Paya, was killed in a rigged car accident by Cuban government officials because of his years of gathering signatures on a petition seeking free elections.
Rubio said he hoped Rosa Maria Paya’s presence in the gallery would remind Obama that “her father’s murderers have not been brought to justice, and that the U.S. is now, in fact, sitting at the table with them.”
Gross, who was imprisoned while working in Cuba as a government subcontractor, and his wife, Judy, were among 22 guests invited by the Obamas.
Others include astronaut Scott Kelly of Houston, who’s going back to space in March. Kelly, the twin of retired astronaut Mark Kelly, received a bipartisan standing ovation.
Then there’s 13-year-old Malik Bryant of Chicago. He came to Obama’s attention after writing a letter to Santa through a charity that gets Christmas gifts for students in poor and violent neighborhoods. Bryant’s request: “I just wanna be safe.”
Democratic lawmakers’ guests included a 103-year-old voting rights activist, Amelia Boynton Robinson, who was beaten while marching outside Selma, Alabama, in 1965. She was invited by Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., brought Emma Sulkowicz, a Columbia University student who has raised awareness about sexual assault by carrying a mattress around campus.
Associated Press writers Darlene Superville and Matthew Daly contributed to this report.
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