WASHINGTON – They are a different kind of representatives.
Those filling the visitors' gallery high above the House during President Barack Obama's State of the Union speech Tuesday night are not elected like their lawmaker hosts. But they are faces of American politics, culture and tragedy circa 2014.
Ushered into the secure gallery overlooking chamber ablaze in broadcast lights, the guests occupying what's been called the "heroes' gallery" represent the horror of Benghazi, a television show about duck calls and an American imprisoned in North Korea. They are the faces of success or struggle under Obama's signature national health care policy. All have bit roles in the looming midterm elections — or perhaps, the 2016 presidential race — chosen by their congressional hosts to make well-publicized points as the tweets fly.
However heroic, Congress' gallery guests Tuesday night represent:
— Duck Dynasty: Look for the bearded face of Willie Robertson, CEO of Duck Commander and star of the A&E show. He's the guest of Rep. Vance McAllister, Louisiana's new Republican congressman, who said in a statement that he looks forward to "bringing some diversity to our nation's Capitol." Willie is the son of Phil Robertson, who was temporarily suspended from the show after making anti-gay remarks.
— Benghazi: Rep. Jim Bridenstine, R-Okla., is hosting Charles Woods, father of Ty Woods, a Navy SEAL killed in the terrorist attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya. Bridenstine said in a statement "I am honored to host the father of a true hero." The Sept. 11, 2012 attack and the Obama administration's response to it is a politically charged subject ahead of the 2014 midterms and the 2016 presidential election, when Hillary Clinton, who was secretary of state at the time of the attack, is a possible presidential contender.
— Struggle under "Obamacare:" Republican leaders have urged their members to host people for whom Obama's signature national health care law is a burden. House Speaker John Boehner's guests are business owners from his Ohio district. They include David Lippert, president of Hamilton Caster & Manufacturing Company in Hamilton, Ohio, who complains "Obamacare" is limiting his efforts to expand his business.
— Success under "Obamacare:" Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida is hosting small business owner Martin West, whose wife Melinda was diagnosed with Stage 4 Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma. In December, West signed his family up for health insurance under the new law and "now have the peace of mind of knowing they cannot be dropped from their health insurance due to a pre-existing condition," Wasserman Schultz said in a statement.
— New Jersey Bridge controversy: Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J., is hosting Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich. Officials are examining whether key appointees of Gov. Chris Christie ordered traffic lanes in Fort Lee leading to the George Washington Bridge closed because the mayor wouldn't endorse the Republican governor's re-election campaign. Like Clinton, Christie is a possible presidential candidate in 2016.
— Troubles with North Korea: Democratic Congressmen Rick Larsen of Washington and Charles Rangel of New York say they're hosting Myunghee Bae and Terri Chung, the mother and sister of Kenneth Bae, an American imprisoned in North Korea since 2012.
— Unemployment Benefits: Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., is hosting a laid-off steamfitter named Brian Krueger who lost his unemployment benefits. Obama and congressional Democrats pushed to extend the federal benefits for the long-term unemployed for another three months. But they couldn't reach agreement with Republicans.