Dueling narratives will be on display in audience of State of the Union

President Biden delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, February 7, 2023.

The campaign trail is taking a detour through Capitol Hill this week.

As President Biden delivers his State of the Union speech Thursday to a divided Congress and an anxious country, he’ll be staring into an audience embodying two explosive issues that have fueled the partisan tensions inside and outside of Washington — the border crisis and women’s reproductive health.

Republicans have focused their guest list on the fallout from the migrant surge at the southern border, highlighting an issue that’s dogged the Biden administration and threatens to be the president’s top vulnerability in November.

Democrats, meanwhile, are inviting a host of advocates for women’s reproductive health that include those impacted by abortion bans and prominent supporters of in vitro fertilization (IVF) — an effort designed to highlight the toppling of Roe v. Wade and the conservative state restrictions that have arrived in the wake of that decision.

The dueling narratives in the House chamber will reflect the broader national gulf between the two parties while calling attention to a pair of radioactive issues certain to play an outsized role in deciding the outcome of November’s elections for Congress and the White House alike. 

For Biden, the high-stakes speech presents both political opportunity and potential pitfalls, as the unpopular president seeks to use the bully pulpit to promote reproductive health freedoms, which energize his liberal base; defuse concerns over the border crisis, which animate conservative voters; and reverse his tanking approval rating heading into the general election, where he’s all but certain to face off once again with former President Trump.

The contrast on the House floor Thursday will be hard to miss.

GOP leaders have railed against Biden’s handling of the nation’s border for years — impeaching Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas last month — and are lining up guests to bring the border battle from their districts into the Capitol. 

Rep. Elise Stefanik (N.Y.), chair of the House Republican Conference, has invited a Border Patrol agent. Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) and Reps. Anthony D’Esposito (R-N.Y.) and Nicole Malliotakis (R-N.Y.), are jointly hosting New York Police Department officer Zunxu Tian and Lt. Ben Kurian, the two officials who were attacked by a group of migrants near Times Square in January. 

And Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) has urged Biden to use the speech to honor Laken Riley, a 22-year-old nursing student found dead last month in Athens, Ga. Police have charged an undocumented immigrant with murder. 

On the Democratic side, the State of the Union audience is chock-full of reproductive health champions. 

Rep. Lori Trahan (D-Mass.), a co-chair of the Democrats’ messaging arm, has invited the director of reproductive surgery at Boston IVF, where Trahan had undergone five years of treatment in order to bear her two daughters. 

Rep. Colin Allred (D-Texas) is bringing a Dallas-based obstetrician-gynecologist who was forced to leave Texas to have an abortion after her fetus was found to have a lethal condition. 

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) will bring Elizabeth Carr — the first person to be born via in vitro fertilization in the U.S. — as his State of the Union guest.

And Rep. Katherine Clark (Mass.), the Democratic whip, has invited Amanda Zurawski, a Texas woman who says she nearly died after being denied care during serious complications with her pregnancy. 

“[I]t is a privilege to host a woman whose story so powerfully illustrates what’s at stake for America: whether we will continue to be a nation defined by liberty for all,” Clark said in a statement.

Both sides think they have a winning issue on display.

The Republican focus on border security comes after a string of polls cemented immigration as the top issue on the minds of voters this cycle. A Gallup survey released last month found that 28 percent of Americans see immigration as the most important problem facing the country today, up from 20 percent in January. The second-ranking topic, the government, trailed by 8 points at 20 percent, followed by the “economy in general” at 12 percent.

Immigration has also emerged as a weak spot for the president. Biden’s approval rating when it comes to his handling of immigration is 28 percent, according to Gallup, lower than marks he receives for the situation in Ukraine, the economy, foreign affairs and the situation in the Middle East.

Republicans are looking to highlight those dismal dynamics through their guests at Thursday’s speech.

“During Border Patrol Agent Budlong’s sixteen-year tenure, he has witnessed the devastating impact of Joe Biden’s irresponsible border policies,” Stefanik said in a statement, citing her guest, Brandon Budlong.

The posturing comes after immigration has proved itself to be a salient issue on the campaign trail and inside the Capitol.

Last month, Rep. Thomas Suozzi (D-N.Y.) bested his Republican opponent in the special election to succeed former Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.) through a campaign that leaned heavily into the topic of immigration, flipping the red seat blue.

Before that, Republicans on Capitol Hill torpedoed a bipartisan border security agreement — at Trump’s urging — in part out of concern that clearing the legislation would hand Biden a win in an election year and undercut one of their main talking points on the campaign trail, signs of how important Republicans see the issue of immigration in the 2024 cycle.

“Let me tell you, I’m not willing to do too damn much right now to help a Democrat and to help Joe Biden’s approval rating,” Rep. Troy Nehls (R-Texas) told CNN before the agreement was unveiled. “I will not help the Democrats try to improve this man’s dismal approval ratings. I’m not going to do it. Why would I? Chuck Schumer has had H.R. 2 on his desk since July. And he did nothing with it.”

Across the aisle, Democrats think they have their own winning issue in promoting access to women’s reproductive health. That debate has always carried enormous power at the polls, but it’s resonated even more strongly since the summer of 2022, when conservatives on the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, which had enshrined abortion rights nationwide for the five decades previous. 

Following that ruling, GOP-led states around the country wasted little time scaling back abortion rights with more stringent laws, which have led to cases where doctors are refusing to perform the procedure even when the life of the mother is at risk. 

More recently, Alabama’s Supreme Court ruled that embryos created by in vitro fertilization are, legally speaking, children — a decision that prompted several IVF clinics to halt the procedure, sparked outrage among Democrats, and forced Republicans on the defensive, scrambling for ways to ensure that IVF treatments remain legal without alienating conservative opponents of the procedure. 

The focus on reproductive health has proven effective for Democrats in the past. 

In the 2022 midterms, polls and election experts had predicted a red wave that would flip control of the House to the Republicans — with a considerable majority — and perhaps also grant them the Senate. Instead, Republicans squeaked out a House victory, with just a four-seat majority, while Democrats retained control of the upper chamber — surprise results that were broadly seen as a referendum on the toppling of Roe just months earlier.

That trend continued through 2023, when Democrats — despite Biden’s unpopularity — rode the abortion issue to a series of state election victories in Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky. It’s a streak they’re hoping to duplicate in November.

“Republicans told us that Dobbs was just the beginning,” Clark said. “Their mission is clear: a nationwide abortion ban.”

The Hill on NewsNation

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