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No designated survivor set for Biden’s address before Congress

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White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday that there will be no designated survivor during President Biden’s address before the joint session of Congress, since most of the Cabinet won’t attend.

The “designated survivor” is a tradition that dates back to the Cold War, according to the Constitution Center. The term refers to a person who is chosen to not attend the president’s address before the joint session of Congress so that they are able to take over the government if catastrophe strikes.

The Presidential Succession Act of 1947 created a line of succession if the president dies or is incapacitated. First to take office would be the vice president, followed by the speaker of the U.S. House (Nancy Pelosi) and the president pro tempore of the U.S. Senate (Patrick Leahy). 

The next people in line are in the Cabinet: The secretary of state (Antony Blinken), the treasury secretary (Janet Yellen), the defense secretary (Lloyd Austin), attorney general (Merrick Garland), secretary of the interior (Deb Haaland), secretary of agriculture (Tom Vilsack) and so on. Because all those people are usually present for the speech, the White House usually names a designated survivor. 

But Psaki said Tuesday that since only Blinken and Austin will be at the speech, they won’t be naming a designated survivor. Vice President Kamala Harris, first lady Jill Biden, second gentleman Doug Emhoff and Pelosi will also be in attendance, Psaki said. 

It’s unclear if Leahy will be in attendance. A spokesperson told Politico that he would be in attendance, but Leahy told reporters on Tuesday that he has “got to think about” whether he’s attending. Leahy said if he didn’t attend, he’d be the designated survivor. 

If Leahy isn’t at the Capitol, then Yellen would be the person highest in the presidential line of succession who is not attending. Her office confirmed on Tuesday she would not be at the Capitol. 

The first time the designated survivor was named was 1981, when the White House named then-Education Secretary Terrel Bell as designated survivor. Since then, a designated survivor is named during the president’s joint session address, State of the Unions and inaugurations. Last year, then-Interior Secretary David Bernhardt was the designated survivor. 

Mr. Biden’s address before the joint session of Congress will be “invitation-only for a limited number of members of Congress,” according to a memo last week from acting House Sergeant at Arms Timothy Blodgett. House Minority Whip Steve Scalise said Monday that he wouldn’t be attending because he gave his ticket to a member who hadn’t been before. 

Any members who have not received an invite from their congressional leadership “will not be permitted in the Capitol after 5 p.m.,” according to a copy of the memo obtained by CBS News.   

Kathryn Watson and Sarah Ewall-Wice contributed reporting.

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