Behind the scenes: How California's delegation spent State of the Union day

January 13, 2016
In The News

It's morning on Capitol Hill, and President Obama is many hours from taking the podium to deliver his final State of the Union address. Rep. Janice Hahn isn't quite early enough to get the best seat in the house, but she settles in for a long day.

In the hallways of the Capitol, members are enjoying a light legislative schedule. There are scant committee meetings, freeing lawmakers to give personal tours to their invited guests and family, rather than leaving the task to interns.

California's delegation seems to have more activity than usual, thanks in part to Obama's plans to highlight gun violence and the Dec. 2 attacks in San Bernardino.

As the clock ticks toward the president's arrival, Rep. Jerry McNerney records a video to detail the "State of California's 9th District."

Hahn (D-Los Angeles) had secured a seat three spots from the aisle, popping out briefly to attend a committee hearing and attend a meeting in her office while leaving a piece of paper with her name and photo to save the seat. Hahn said those who get the 16 most visible seats often let colleagues reach over for a handshake. Her Democratic colleague, Rep. Al Green of Texas, arrived at 6:30 a.m. for his spot, she said.

Around noon the chamber had already been chilled in preparation for the hot camera lights and the hundreds of people that would attend, and Hahn took a break to thaw by the fire roaring in the Speaker's Lobby.

"Basically, I'm staying close to the House floor to see if I can keep that seat," Hahn said. "I'm getting a tremendous amount of work done, I'm getting to read my emails, I've worked on a couple speeches I'm giving, my staff is in constant communication. Actually it's kind of nice to sit there with nine hours ahead of you and do work on the House floor."

Saving a seat apparently paid off when supporters told Hahn she had been spotted on cable news.

Several California Democrats ended up with seats near the aisle, including Reps. Karen Bass of Los Angeles, Linda T. Sanchez of Whittier and Judy Chu of Monterey Park.

At the end of the night, C-SPAN viewers were able to catch several Californians chatting with Obama, with cameras broadcasting every moment as he left the House floor.

"Thanks again for coming to San Bernardino," said Rep. Pete Aguilar, the Redlands Democrat who represents the area. "That was an inspiring speech," Hahn told the president. "You and I are leaving together," retiring Rep. Lois Capps (D-Santa Barbara) said to Obama, referring to this also being her last State of the Union.

Several Republican members sat together. Reps. Ken Calvert of Corona, Paul Cook of Yucca Valley and Dana Rohrabacher of Costa Mesa shared a row, with Tom McClintock of Elk Grove behind them.

Tending to business

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles) used his day to plot out the work ahead. He gave interviews to reporters and met with White House officials to talk about immigration raids that have been taking place since Christmas. House Democrats are scheduled to hold their policy retreat soon, and Becerra was busy organizing it between events and the House's two votes.

Some members use the day to focus on their district or topics they care about.

Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Turlock) took to the House floor to urge the secretary of the Army to reconsider a March decision barring members of the World War II-era Women Airforce Service Pilots from being buried in Arlington National Cemetery. More than 1,000 WASPs flew combat missions in the war.

"This decision flies in the face of our nation's efforts to recognize, reward and treat honorably the contributions of all of our veterans. These women deserve the same honor bestowed upon hundreds of thousands of their fellow service members," he said.

Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough) spoke on the House floor about sexism in science.

Speier also used the slow legislative day to give her invited guest, Dr. Bennet Omalu, a chance to speak with members and staff about the issue for which he's best known.

Omalu is the forensic pathologist and neuropathologist who first published findings on the impact of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, on football players. He is portrayed by Will Smith in the recently released film "Concussion."

In his own personal address to constituents, McNerney (D-Stockton) outlined his legislative goals for the year, including introducing legislation to address California's drought.

Meanwhile, Rep. David Valadao (R-Hanford) chose social media to look back on his 2015 legislative accomplishments.

A somber reception

As the sun set, Aguilar held a reception in his office for members and the guests they brought who were affected by the San Bernardino shooting.

Aguilar invited San Bernardino Police Chief Jarrod Burguan, San Bernardino County Sheriff John McMahon and Loma Linda University Medical Center emergency department nurse James Parnell to be his guests. Annemarie Teall, the 911 dispatch supervisor who took the call during the San Bernardino shooting and coordinated emergency response, was a guest of Rep. Norma Torres (D-Pomona), a former emergency dispatcher herself.

Rep. Mark Takano (D-Riverside) invited the family of Damian Meins, a Riverside man killed in the attack. His widow and two daughters were there.

Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Palm Desert) brought Dori Smith, a volunteer with the California chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.

Those guests looked on during the speech as the first lady's box told a silent story: Michelle Obama was seated next to a seat left empty to represent victims of gun violence.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) also held a reception for Democrats and their guests in her office before the speech.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and her husband, Richard Blum, attended a dinner hosted by the Secretary of the Senate before heading to the speech, her staff said.

Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield), Pelosi and Becerra were among the lawmakers given the task of escorting the president into the chamber. Becerra said most members along the aisle are more interested in shaking the president's hand than greeting the House colleagues they see nearly every day.

"It's kind of exciting," he said. "It's a fun little thing to do."

The escort committee gets a few minutes to welcome the president privately before he enters the House chamber. But they don't get any glimpses of the speech, Becerra said.

"We might get some early hints about where they are going, and a number of members will try to chime in and give the White House some suggestions of things to say or where to go, but I think most members probably don't have a clear sense of the actual remarks until right before he delivers them," he said.

And then the reactions begin

After the speech, many members of Congress go to Statuary Hall outside of the House chamber, where a mob of journalists wait to get their initial reaction.

Other members skip the crush and release statements, some of which arrive in reporters' email inboxes before the president even begins speaking. Then members head to receptions on and off Capitol Hill.

Several members of California's delegation participated in the Los Angeles Times' Snapchat project asking them to grade the president.

Bass and Tony Cardenas (D-Los Angeles) each scheduled telephone town halls shortly after the speech to get constituent reaction.

Rep. Sam Farr (D-Carmel) stopped by Statuary Hall as he left the chamber and his last State of the Union. He too is leaving office.