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A Warm Welcome for the British PM

By Ben Pershing

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown spoke on friendly ground Wednesday, drawing frequent applause from a joint meeting of Congress for calling America "an inspiration to me and to the whole world" and for thanking President Obama "for giving the world renewed hope in itself." But perhaps the biggest ovation came when Brown paid tribute to one of the Senate's own.

"Northern Ireland is today at peace, more Americans have health care, more children around the world are going to school, and for all those things we owe a great debt to the life and courage of Sen. Edward Kennedy," Brown said. After the applause for that line died down, members jumped back out of their seats to cheer again - some even saying "Oooh!" - when Brown revealed that "Her Majesty the Queen has awarded an honorary knighthood" to "Sir" Kennedy.

The Massachusetts Democrat himself was not present for the address but his son, Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) was, and the younger Kennedy went forward to greet Brown after the speech concluded.

Overall, Brown's half-hour address was interrupted 27 times with applause, plus two ovations before he spoke and one after. (A note on semantics: Brown addressed a "joint meeting" of Congress, not a "joint session." The former is used to receive foreign leaders, while the latter is typically used only for State of the Union addresses.)

Brown's speech was studded with references to the economic crisis and the importance of the U.S. and Britain combining forces to confront it. Much of the address had bipartisan appeal but there were several instances where Democrats leapt up to applaud and Republicans were much more tepid in their response.

That was true when Brown said "wealth must help more than the wealthy ... riches must enrich not just some of us but all," when he called for "rules and standards" that would "apply to every bank, everywhere, all the time" and when he hoped "the peoples of the world can come together in Copenhagen this December to reach a historic agreement on climate change."

Brown drew loud applause from both parties when he proclaimed: "There is no old Europe, no new Europe, there is only your friend Europe," and when he called the American people "every bit as optimistic as your Roosevelts, your Reagans and your Obamas."

He also praised the U.S.-U.K. alliance as "a partnership of purpose," an interesting choice of words given that White House press secretary Robert Gibbs caused a brief stir this week when he referred to the "special partnership" between the two countries rather than the "special relationship." (Brown did circle back to reference the "special relationship" in the final stanza of his speech.)

As is the case during State of the Union addresses, a few lawmakers made a special effort to get an aisle seat in the House chamber so they could shake Brown's hand. The members who jostled either before or after the speech to greet Brown or ask for his autograph was an eclectic bunch, including Reps. Dale Kildee (D-Mich.), Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio), Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) and G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.).

How many members of Congress actually attended the address? There were hardly any empty seats visible in the House chamber, but that doesn't really tell the whole story. Just as they use tuxedo-clad "seat fillers" to make sure the room always looks packed during the Academy Awards ceremony, so to do non-lawmakers mix in with the real ones here in order to ensure that visiting dignitaries like Brown don't look out upon a chamber studded with unused chairs.

No one actually takes attendance for members of the House and Senate, but Capitol Briefing could see at least several dozen staffers or guests sitting in seats usually occupied by lawmakers. There were no-shows on both sides of the aisle, but the Republican side looked to be particularly well-stocked with civilian attendees.

Brown's appearance brought forth a diverse press corps, as British, Irish and even French reporters, along with a colorful assortment of photographers -- planted themselves in the House press gallery before the speech. Much of the British press has covered Brown's visit so far - particularly his appearance at the White House yesterday -- as something of a disappointment, but visiting reporters seemed impressed with the pageantry and the warm welcome he got inside the House chamber today.

By Ben Pershing  |  March 4, 2009; 1:25 PM ET
Categories:  House , Senate  
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Kudos to Prime Minister Brown for telling the truth about protectionism. Protectionism would not benefit the majority of people in this country or in the world and would excelerate the downturn. I wish politicians on this side of the Atlantic would show similar courage. Thanks, Mr. Prime Minister!

Posted by: RealChoices | March 4, 2009 9:19 PM | Report abuse

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