State of the Union Guests Range from Obama's DREAMers to Benghazi Dad

WASHINGTON – The list of those invited by members of Congress to attend the State of the Union address – usually an assemblage of teachers, military veterans and various constituents – has received a boost this year with the addition of Sean Hannity, the radio talk show host who is anything but a supporter of President Obama and his policies.

Hannity, who recently drew attention as a result of his vow to leave New York where Gov. Andrew Cuomo has made him and other conservatives feel unwelcome, was invited to the generally staid affair by Rep. Louis Gohmert (R-Texas), a frequent guest on Hannity’s show who shares his views.

Hannity, who hammers Obama on a daily basis over issues ranging from Obamacare to Syria and back again, could use the appearance as an opportunity to schmooze with future colleagues – he recently voiced an interest in running for Congress.

“The answer is yes, I’d think about it,” he said in response to a recent Facebook post asking if he might ever seek elective office. “I’m leaving New York as you know … so it would either be in Texas or Florida.”

While some lawmakers like Gohmert search for notable invitees, most State of the Union guests are relatively unknown to the general public. Each member of Congress is afforded a single ticket for a guest of their choice to sit in the gallery of the House of Representatives where the address is delivered before a joint session of Congress.

Another notable invitation, this one from Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), has been extended to Charles Woods, father of Navy SEAL Ty Woods, who was one of four people killed with Ambassador Chris Stevens during a terrorist attack on the diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, 2012.

Woods has been critical of the Obama administration over Benghazi, raising questions about the administration’s reaction to the tragic incident. Bridenstine is among those lawmakers calling for the establishment of a select congressional committee to investigate the attack, review the available intelligence and determine responsibility.

Legislation to create the select committee, sponsored by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), has attracted 180 cosponsors but no action has been taken.

Most lawmakers opt for public officials back in their district, military personnel, or a private citizen who has achieved a noteworthy goal. In an increasing number of instances, lawmakers are looking to make a political statement. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), who will deliver the traditional minority response to Obama’s address, is urging fellow GOP representatives to invite “American people who are being left behind by this president’s policies.”

“The stories of hardworking Americans will help us offer a compelling, articulate response to the State of the Union,” Rodgers said in an email circulated to GOP lawmakers.

“Whether it is a mom struggling to find a job, a senior worried about access to doctors or a high school student with dreams to create the next Uber, the stories of hardworking Americans will help us offer a compelling, articulate response to the State of the Union,” Rodgers said.

Meanwhile, some House Democrats are urging their colleagues to invite guests who represent the face of the nation’s unemployed. Reps. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) and Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.) are urging lawmakers to focus on problems associated with the failure of Congress to extend unemployment insurance, which led to about 1.6 million jobless being eliminated from the rolls.

"Watching the State of the Union with a constituent struggling to get by without unemployment benefits would demonstrate that while we may disagree on the specific course of action to take, we are all concerned about the problem and committed to coming to a solution," Pocan and Lowenthal wrote in a letter addressed to both Republican and Democratic lawmakers.

Another issue that has led to invitations, one likely to be addressed by the president, is immigration. Five Democratic members of the Illinois House delegation -- Reps. Luis Gutiérrez, Mike Quigley, Jan Schakowsky, Brad Schneider and Bill Foster -- have each invited an advocate for immigration reform. Two of those on the list are undocumented.

“This year, we joined together to invite people whose stories illustrate the importance of immigration reform and to make clear that passing comprehensive immigration reform should be at the top of the to-do list,” the members announced in a joint statement.

The lawmakers all have been active in working toward immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for the 11 million illegal immigrants already on American soil. The Senate has passed legislation but the Republican-led House continues to mull the issue, with a majority of GOP lawmakers opposing the granting of citizenship.

Estefania Garcia and Maria Torres, college graduates and “DREAMers” – the term given to those brought illegally into the country as young children, named so for the DREAM Act that attempted to legalize them – are the two undocumented workers who have been invited. They have benefitted from an Obama administration program that provided them with a two-year deportation reprieve and permits them to work in the U.S.

Garcia works for a nonprofit that offers services to families while Torres works for an organization that helps people navigate the immigration system. Joining them will be immigration reform advocates who fasted on the National Mall in an effort to adopt immigration reform.

Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.) also is hoping to make a statement on immigration, inviting Lucas Codognolla, another DREAMer who recently graduated from the University of Connecticut.

“It's a moral issue," Himes told a small crowd at a recent meeting with constituents.

In another coordinated effort, members of the Louisiana Republican delegation are looking to draw attention to another issue the president is expected to broach: Obamacare. Rep. Steve Scalise, chairman of the Republican Study Committee, a conservative caucus within the House GOP delegation, and Rep. Bill Cassidy are inviting constituents who are critical of the healthcare law.

Scalise invited Aaron Hirsh, an information technology consultant, who says his health insurance was canceled and that the replacement policy requires higher premiums. Hirsh maintains his policy was canceled because it failed to meet the minimum standards established by the Affordable Care Act.

Cassidy, a physician looking to unseat Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) in the November election, has invited Larry Katz, the owner of six diners who testified before the Senate Small Business Committee, chaired by Landrieu last year, that he would have to provide 65 employees with health coverage under Obamacare or pay a $2,000 per employee fine. He further said his company doesn’t qualify for governmental subsidies.

“Larry owns several Dots Diners across southeast Louisiana and has first-hand experience with the problems of the Affordable Care Act,” Cassidy said. “He estimates that Obamacare will cost his business over $50,000 a year to implement. The impact of Obamacare on small-business owners and their employees is a reality check on what the administration says about Obamacare.”

Rep. Roger Williams (R-Texas) hopes to make a statement by inviting Sgt. Alonzo Lunsford, a survivor of the 2009 Fort Hood shooting massacre.

“It is a shame that President Obama has allowed all of the victims and survivors of the Fort Hood shootings to be denied the benefits and compensation awarded to troops injured in combat. Even after a guilty verdict was delivered this summer, the White House has yet to act on behalf of the victims of this heinous act of terror. I hope the president will make good on his promise to take care of these men and women.”

It is not the first time a Ft. Hood shooting victim has attended the State of the Union address. In 2010 Obama brought in Kimberly Munley, the Fort Hood police sergeant who shot Nidal Hasan, the Army psychiatrist convicted and sentenced to death for killing 13 service members, an unborn child, and a Department of Defense civilian employee as well as wounding 32 others.

Munley said the president promised victims would be taken care of but she now maintains they have been neglected – leaving many to pay for medical treatment out of their own pockets.

Williams and Rep. John Carter (R-Texas) are sponsoring legislation to ensure victims receive the benefits and military awards they deserve along with labeling the shooting as a terrorist attack.  

Other lawmakers are likewise inviting those who have served this country. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) has invited Eric Marts, a wounded warrior who hosts a Fargo, N.D., radio program that focuses on improving the lives of veterans.

“Eric’s story is about a man who is selflessly committed to serving our country, who has sacrificed much and overcame great obstacles,” Heitkamp said. “Eric continues to serve and has made it his life’s mission to make life better for those who sacrifice so much for us.”

While a member of the Army National Guard, Marts, a master sergeant, was deployed to Iraq for 22 months. He hit a roadside bomb while on patrol outside Fallujah. That explosion caused a deterioration of his vision which led to total blindness. Determined to continue to serve, Marts is focused on helping veterans and their families.

Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) has asked Wayne Telford, a Vietnam veteran whose daughter, Air Force Tech Sgt. Brooke Leigh Caffrey, committed suicide in 2012.

Telford has worked to raise awareness about veteran suicides and served on a panel of veterans, mental health experts and service providers that Bennet convened to develop ways to address the issue.

A number of local officials are expected. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) has invited Washington, Ill., Mayor Gary Manier as part of an effort to get FEMA to change its funding for local governments faced with disasters.

FEMA this month declined to provide aid to several Illinois communities that suffered heavy tornado damage during last November's tornadoes, maintaining that an assessment determined the damage didn’t meet federal requirements.

Kirk and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) objected in a letter asking for a change in FEMA's disaster zone valuation.

“Having seen firsthand with Mayor Manier the devastation that November's deadly tornadoes caused, it's time for a serious reevaluation of FEMA's methodology for providing Public Assistance,” Kirk said. “Hundreds of families in Mayor Manier's community were displaced due to these storms, and FEMA should treat all communities fairly when a disaster strikes."

“I'm excited to have the opportunity to attend the State of the Union as Sen. Kirk's guest,” Manier said in a statement. “Sen. Kirk toured our city a few days after the tornadoes hit, and continues to be a fierce advocate for our community's recovery efforts. I'm grateful for his friendship and help.”

Perhaps one of the more interesting invitations extended this year during an era of intense partisanship comes from Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), the former president of the conservative Club for Growth, who asked York, Pa., Mayor Kim Bracey, a Democrat and Obama supporter, to be his guest.

A Toomey spokesman said the invitation to Bracey, who tries to work with Democrats and Republicans alike, is a simple nod to bipartisanship – something in short supply on Capitol Hill these days.

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