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There won’t be a designated survivor selected from President Biden’s cabinet to sit out his first speech to Congress on Wednesday — discontinuing a typically buzzy choice for the person to lead the free world if the Capitol is attacked mid-speech.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday the decision was rendered unnecessary because only two of Biden’s 15 cabinet secretaries will attend the pandemic-limited event in the House of Representatives.
A 1947 law says that if the president and vice president both die, the House speaker — currently Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — becomes president. Pelosi is expected to attend Biden’s speech.
Third in line is the Senate president pro tempore, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). It’s unclear if Leahy, 81, will attend due to a COVID-19-driven cap of approximately 200 attendees, which will allow only about 60 of 100 senators to attend.
Biden’s Secretary of State Tony Blinken — fourth in line of succession — will attend the speech, as will Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who is sixth in line.
If Leahy attends Biden’s joint address and the Capitol suffers a calamity, the new president will be Brooklyn-raised Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, who is 74 years old and a former chairperson of the Federal Reserve.
Yellen would be the first female and first Jewish president, as well as the sixth New Yorker, following former President Donald Trump and the Roosevelts.
“There does not need to be a designated survivor because the cabinet will be watching from their offices or home,” Psaki said at her daily press briefing.
Psaki confirmed that Vice President Kamala Harris, her husband, Douglas Emhoff, first lady Jill Biden, Blinken and Austin will attend the speech.
Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts will represent the judicial branch instead of the traditional larger delegation of justices.
“There will not be a first lady’s box as there has been historically,” Psaki added, repeating another key distinction. Guests of the first lady often serve as presidential props to underscore and humanize policy objectives.
“While the speech will of course look and feel different from past years, the president will preserve a few traditions, including the walk down the center aisle that we have seen presidents do for many years,” Psaki said.
“He will of course be wearing a mask for that. He’ll remove the mask when he delivers his speech.”
Psaki said that before the speech, Biden will meet with “the career staff who were at the Capitol on January 6” during the riot that disrupted certification of his victory in the Electoral College.
The term “designated survivor” entered the pop lexicon in 2016, when the hit ABC show of the same name first aired. In it, Keifer Sutherland’s character, the secretary of housing and urban development, is tapped to sit out the annual speech — then suddenly becomes the president when the chief executive and every other member of the line of succession are killed in a terror attack. The show ran through 2019.
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