Waiting Wednesday morning on the steps of the U.S. Capitol for Joe Biden to be sworn in as president, Rep. Brendan Boyle reflected on what happened in that exact spot two weeks ago.
The inauguration felt “surreal” to the Northeast Philadelphia Democrat because it shared a space that had been site to a violent insurrection that left members of Congress sheltering from a pro-Trump mob seeking to stop the certification of the 2020 election.
“Literally, where I was sitting, two weeks ago is where hand-to-hand combat was taking place between those rioters and members of the U.S. Capitol Police,” Boyle said. “When you think of the last two weeks, but you also think of the last four years, it made this, I believe, the most emotional inaugural in my lifetime.”
The vibe, Boyle said, was “pride, joy, and relief.”
“There were a lot of people, especially on my side of the aisle, who were so nervous and afraid that this day wouldn’t come,” he said. “The destruction and the ugliness of the last four years has done real damage to our country. That will take a while to dig out from the deep hole that we’ve been in. But today is the beginning of that.”
Sen. Bob Casey, a Democrat from Biden’s childhood hometown of Scranton, acknowledged the political whiplash of a contested presidential election, followed by the insurrection and then another impeachment of Donald Trump.
“The common denominator, the glue that strings together all those events and insults is the former president,” Casey said. “The good news today is we can start a brand-new chapter.”
Casey said hearings on Biden’s cabinet appointments, legislation to reinvigorate the economy, and efforts to stem the pandemic will run on parallel tracks with a Senate trial for Trump, who was impeached for inciting the Capitol insurrection.
“I just think in terms of common sense and democracy, how do you allow someone to engage in that kind of conduct as the leader of the country and not have some accountability?” Casey said. “The accountability should not be extinguished because you’ve left office.”
Casey said he also hopes the Senate and House act to censure members who supported overturning the election results based on false fraud claims, including eight of nine Republican House members from Pennsylvania.
Members of Congress went through extraordinary measures to reach their seats on the west side of the Capitol. They were required to take COVID-19 tests on Monday or Tuesday, present the results, and then undergo a health screening Wednesday before passing through metal detectors.
Rep. Madeleine Dean was in Washington but watched the ceremony on television as she prepared for the Senate trial. Dean, a Montgomery County Democrat, was appointed last week as an impeachment manager by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Dean found it to be “a day of such joy” as she focused on the task ahead. An impeachment conviction in the Senate would likely prompt a vote barring Trump from ever holding federal office again.
“Sure, he seeks unity for our country. But he knows that we have to remember,” Dean said of Biden. “We don’t have the luxury of saying let’s just let bygones be bygones when Americans attacked Americans, when an American president incited that attack on his own government, on his own vice president.”
Dean, whose mother-in-law died from COVID-19 in May, said Biden set the right tone on the pandemic.
“That tells you everything you need to know about this man,” Dean said. “There’s a time to mourn and there’s a time to dance. There’s a time to face the truth and then there’s a time to unify.”
Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, a Bucks County Republican, called it “unfortunate” that Trump flew to Florida rather than attend Biden’s inauguration, a breach in long-standing tradition.
Fitzpatrick predicted the U.S. Supreme Court will have to rule on the “open legal and constitutional question” of whether a former president can be convicted in an impeachment proceeding.
“There’s no question it’s unfortunate for President Biden,” Fitzpatrick said. “The first 100 days are by far the most important of any administration because it determines if there is going to be momentum or not. And you really want some positive, bipartisan momentum.”
Fitzpatrick said he hopes infrastructure investment — an issue that became a running political joke during Trump’s presidency — would reemerge as a bipartisan way to rebuild the nation while creating jobs.
Sen. Pat Toomey, a Lehigh Valley Republican, commended Biden in a statement for “his call for national unity, and his assurance to those who did not support him that he will nevertheless be president for all Americans.”
Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, a Delaware County Democrat, was impressed with Biden’s call for unity because it didn’t attempt to look past the insurrection that left the Capitol scarred, and five dead.
“He didn’t say let bygones be bygones,” she said. “He said we have to unite behind the truth. We have to unite behind shared American values.”
Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, a Chester County Democrat, heard in Biden’s address “poetry and prayer,” giving her hope that her party and Republicans can find a way to work together after a contentious four years.
“I think of the resilience of this country,” she said. “We have gone through everything in the last four years, from a government that was shut down when I was sworn in, to a pandemic to social and racial unrest to a coup attempt.”
Rep. Dwight Evans, a Philadelphia Democrat, said that Biden is “as realistic about the challenges that we face as anybody.”
“But he has the eternal optimism that we can bear these issues if we work together,” Evans said. “That’s the key.”