State of the Union: Biden faces hecklers on a rough night for Kevin McCarthy

Biden comes out swinging, Marjorie Taylor Greene makes a fashion splash and George Santos is all by himself

By Rae Hodge

Staff Reporter

Published February 8, 2023 2:08AM (EST)

US Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) and Republican members of Congress react as US President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address in the House Chamber of the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on February 7, 2023. (JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)
US Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) and Republican members of Congress react as US President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address in the House Chamber of the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on February 7, 2023. (JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy made vague efforts to control the raucous outbursts by members of his Republican caucus during President Joe Biden's 2023 State of the Union address Tuesday. But lured into the fray by Biden's surprisingly punchy delivery, fringe members of the GOP herd let loose an array of howls and heckles that the speaker couldn't hold back. So much for "institutional norms" and the comeback of politics as usual.

In the days before the SOTU, reporters nudged McCarthy about whether he would indulge himself by ripping up his paper copy of Biden's speech at its conclusion, mimicking then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi's theatrical gesture at the conclusion of Donald Trump's 2020 speech. 

McCarthy didn't take the bait. In a Tuesday tweet and accompanying video, the speaker tried to strike a statesmanlike pose — something of a stretch, perhaps, for this man and this moment.

"I don't believe in the theatrics of tearing up speeches," McCarthy said. I respect the other side, I can disagree on policy. But I want to make sure this country is stronger, economically sound, energy independent, secure and accountable."

McCarthy even issued a veiled warning to his caucus, not that it accomplished much.

"We're members of Congress," he told CNN's Manu Raju. "We have a code of ethics of how we should portray ourselves, that's exactly what we'll do. We're not going to be doing childish games."

But we're a long way from 2009, when Rep. Joe Wilson, a South Carolina Republican, was slapped with a formal rebuke by members of his own party after interrupting Barack Obama's speech by shouting "You lie!"

And McCarthy's efforts to prevent a repeat of last year's infamously sloppy State of the Union did absolutely nothing to lower the temperature, suggesting that partisan jeering and heckling have become the new normal. 

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., never exactly a shrinking violet, was among the star hecklers last year (along with her then-friend Rep. Lauren Boebert, who barely survived the 2022 midterms.) At first, Greene's 2023 efforts seemed focused on tweeting about Twitter.

That didn't last long. By the time Biden addressed calls by some Republicans to cut Medicare — like those from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin — Greene was on her feet again, in a startling white outfit with a fur-trimmed collar.

"Lots of booing, finger waving on GOP side as Biden says GOP wants to cut Medicare, Social Security. [Greene] — wearing a huge fur coat — standing up and shouting from back of chamber 'Liar!'" Politico's Sarah Ferris tweeted.

Biden displayed unusual agility in his responses, although he had some of his customary problems with mispronunciation and slightly slurred speech. (The president rehearses his speeches carefully to correct for a lifelong speech impediment.) He landed a number of jokes and on several occasions commanded a standing ovation from both parties, as when he announced new standards that "all construction materials used in federal infrastructure projects" must be manufactured in the U.S.

But the Kumbaya moments were short-lived, and soon Biden was back to fielding jeers.

"End the mandates!" shouted Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., when Biden spoke on COVID-19 recovery efforts.

Several Republicans began jeering when Biden discussed plans to slow the flow of fentanyl into the country. "Close the border!" Greene shouted during the rumbling. "It's coming from China!" (The U.S. and China are not bordering nations, but perhaps those were discrete thoughts.)

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

Politico's Rachel Bade caught a rare break in McCarthy's otherwise stony facade when he "visibly shushed his members to pipe down."

That came after Biden's somber anecdote about a young woman's fentanyl overdose death, when Rep. Andy Ogles, R-Tenn., called out, "It's your fault!"

In an interview with Politico's Olivia Beavers shortly thereafter, Ogles did not retreat. "He has left our border wide open and allowed our streets to be flooded with drugs," the Tennessee Republican said. "Meanwhile 60% of women and children are raped trying to cross. Yes, it's his fault." (No source for that rape claim was cited.) 

After appearing to glare in Ogles' direction and mouthing for others to shush, McCarthy rose from his seat, lips pursed, to join Vice President Kamala Harris in applauding Biden. 

Some of the political drama on Tuesday night was virtually silent. 

Before Biden's speech began, as the procession of officials from all three branches of government filled the House chamber, all eyes were on Rep. George Santos, the embattled New York Republican with a largely fictional résumé, as he apparently had a tense exchange with Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah.

"Looks like Mitt Romney just said something to George Santos that Santos did not like," tweeted Ben Jacobs.

"I'm told Sen. Mitt Romney said to Rep. George Santos: 'You don't belong here,' according to a member who witnessed the tense exchange," CNN's Melanie Zanoma reported.

Ben Siegel of ABC News engaged in a little amateur lip-reading: 

"'What an asshole,' Rep. Santos appears to mouth to a colleague as a few senators — Manchin, Sinema, Romney — walk by him into the chamber." 

Bryan Metzger noted a frosty parade past Santos' aisle seat as Vice President Harris, along with senators of both parties, including Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., Steve Daines, R-Mont., and Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., all avoided shaking his hand.

As Dr. Jill Biden, the first lady, entered the chamber to bipartisan applause, Santos declined to clap and retreated, spending much of the president's speech apparently tweeting on his cell phone. Possibly he was venting his spleen at Romney:

Santos' final faux pas came when Biden announced a policy to cap insulin prices at $35 for seniors on Medicare. It would be reasonable for a congressman from a largely suburban district with many older residents to stand and applaud, but Santos did so before realizing he was the odd man out — other Republicans weren't clapping, as Matt Fuller of the Daily Beast tweeted. Then he sat back down, alone in a crowd.

By Rae Hodge

Rae Hodge is a science reporter for Salon. Her data-driven, investigative coverage spans more than a decade, including prior roles with CNET, the AP, NPR, the BBC and others. She can be found on Mastodon at