WASHINGTON – Two Boston bombing survivors and Jason Collins, a 12-year NBA player who came out as gay last year, will sit among the White House’s guests at Tuesday’s State of the Union speech. Accompanying First Lady Michelle Obama, they join a list that includes Obamacare proponent Gov. Steve Beshear (D-Ky.), the first female CEO of General Motors and a first responder to a tornado that ripped through Moore, Okla., in May, the White House announced.
Presidents frequently cite guests in the first lady’s box to reinforce their State of the Union themes. They are often referred to as “Lenny Skutniks,” a term named after a government employee lauded in President Reagan’s 1982 State of the Union for helping rescue a plane crash victim.
But the White House is not the only one doling out invitations. Members of Congress can also invite a guest, and, as is true with the first lady’s guests, these invites are often used to make a point.
This year, several House Democrats, for example, are inviting unemployed guests, hoping to illustrate the need for extending long-term unemployment insurance. On the other side of the aisle, Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.) plans to bring the father of a Navy SEAL killed during the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. The GOP has criticized the Obama administration’s handling of that raid.
To highlight the debate on income inequality, an issue President Obama is expected to address, Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Lakewood) invited a McDonald's employee who struggles to support two children on an $8 hourly wage. And to emphasize the pitfalls of Obamacare, Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Texas) will attend with Chad Henderson. He’s the student who, back in October, told several media outlets he had enrolled his father and himself for new health insurance when, in fact, he had never actually signed up.
“Chad Henderson is Obamacare personified,” Stockman said in a statement. “He pushed Obamacare on other people but refused to buy it himself because he would pay more. He’s practically a Democrat member of Congress.”
In a year that saw the botched rollout of Obamacare’s online insurance marketplace, the GOP hopes to draw attention to the president’s signature health law, hosting a news conference Tuesday with House Republicans and “Americans who have been negatively affected by Obamacare.”
Not surprisingly, many Democrats are taking the opposite approach, using their guest passes to stress the legislation’s achievements. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) will attend with a small-business owner who recently enrolled for a new plan through the new online marketplace. White House invites went out to a physician’s assistant no longer denied coverage for a preexisting condition and Beshear, who, as governor, helped set up Kentucky’s insurance market and expanded Medicaid.
One of the more recognizable guests will be conservative radio host Sean Hannity. Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) told Breitbart News he invited the Fox News personality as part of an “ongoing effort to encourage him to become a resident of Texas, where he'd be so much more appreciated.”
After comments from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo that there is no room for “extreme conservatives” in his state, Hannity said that he wants to leave the “United Socialist State of New York.”
During Obama’s past speeches, the first lady’s guests have included a Sandy Hook Elementary School teacher and the intern who helped save former Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-Ariz.) during the 2010 Tucson shooting.
Altogether, more than 20 people will sit in the first lady’s box, including two Obama administration officials —Jill Biden, Vice President Joe Biden's wife, and senior White House advisor Valerie Jarrett.
In a bid to highlight the need for comprehensive immigration reform, which picked up new momentum this week, the White House invited activist Cristian Avila, who was brought to the country illegally at 9 years old, to join the first lady. For 22 days in November, Avila, 23, fasted as part of a demonstration on the National Mall urging Congress to act on reform legislation.
Joey Hudy, who caught the eye of the president in 2012 when he used a homemade cannon to launch a marshmallow across the East Room of the White House, was also invited. At 16, Hudy is Intel’s youngest intern and was invited as “part of a growing community of young people, adults and entrepreneurs who are designing and building things on their own time,” according to the White House statement.
Additional guests include Vice Adm. Michelle Howard, who will become the Navy’s first female four-star admiral next week; a mother with nearly $90,000 in student loan debt; and an Atlanta bookkeeper who convinced a gunman not to attack an elementary school.
[For the Record, 9:46 p.m. PST Jan. 29: An earlier version of this post said Sanchez represents Garden Grove, not Lakewood.]
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