The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

McCarthy excuses Republicans who heckled Biden, calls them ‘passionate’

President Biden, with Vice President Harris and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) at the dais behind him, delivers his State of the Union address on Tuesday. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) on Wednesday excused fellow Republicans who heckled President Biden during his State of the Union address, saying they were “passionate.” But he suggested that the smarter play would be not to “take the bait” from Biden.

McCarthy’s comments came during a Fox News interview after a clip was played from Tuesday night’s speech in which Biden said “some Republicans” want to require new votes to authorize Social Security and Medicare every five years. The president was referring to a plan by Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) that would require such votes on all legislation.

Biden’s line was met with yelling by Republicans, including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), who called Biden a “liar.”

“Fox & Friends” co-host Steve Doocy noted that polling showed that independent voters were turned off by the heckling and asked McCarthy what happened.

“Well, the president was trying to goad the members, and the members are passionate about it,” McCarthy said.

McCarthy accused Biden of saying “something he knew was not true” and reiterated that House Republicans are not seeking to cut Social Security or Medicare.

Still, McCarthy counseled: “We need to be smart. Don’t take the bait.”

President Biden spoke to Congress and the nation on Feb. 7 in an economy-focused State of the Union address. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post, Photo: Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

The GOP heckling came despite McCarthy’s reminder to Republicans earlier Tuesday to behave during the president’s address. Hours before the speech, McCarthy 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.”

Greene and other Republicans defied their leaders and engaged in catcalls and jeering. As Biden spoke about the fentanyl crisis, Rep. Andrew Ogles (R-Tenn.) yelled, “It’s your fault!”

Tuesday night’s reaction by Republicans has been widely compared to an episode 14 years ago when Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) shouted, “You lie!” during a speech on health care by President Barack Obama to a joint session of Congress.

Wilson promptly apologized, saying in a statement: “While I disagree with the President’s statement, my comments were inappropriate and regrettable. I extend sincere apologies to the President for this lack of civility.”

More on the 2023 State of the Union address

The speech: President Biden used his 2023 State of the Union address to emphasize popular ideas from job creation to health care, pitching himself as a friend of ordinary Americans. Here are a few takeaways and a fact check of Biden’s speech.

A combative night: Midway through the State of the Union address, the room turned feisty as some Republican lawmakers began booing Biden. In one of the most disruptive moments of the night, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene yelled toward Biden: “Liar!” There was also a harsh exchange between Mitt Romney and Rep. George Santos. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy excused the hecklers, saying they were “passionate.”

The Republican response: In her rebuttal to the State of the Union address, Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders accused Biden of caring more about “woke fantasies” than Americans’ economic concerns and called him “unfit to serve."