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Get ready for Comity Central, or something approaching a massive Congressional date night as pairs and groups of Republicans and Democrats cozy up in adjoining seats for President Barack Obama's State of the Union speech.
No sooner did Third Way, a centrist think tank, float the notion of muting partisan cheering and jeering through open seating after the Tucson shooting rampage that severely wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) than Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) jumped all over it.
"There is no rule or reason that on this night we should emphasize divided government, separated by party, instead of being seen united as a country," he wrote to colleagues.
Dozens of lawmakers eager to appear bipartisan, if only for a few hours, answered the call. They range from New York Reps. Anthony Weiner, a Democrat, and Peter King, a Republican, whose wife called the duo the "biggest loudmouths" in the House, to the bipartisan Congressional Women's Softball Team.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) will attend with Sen. John Thune (R-S.D), while Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) will become an item for the night.
"I think if Coburn and Schumer can sit next to each other, then probably just about everybody can," Schumer said on CBS' "Face the Nation."
Intra-state Senate duos include Florida's Bill Nelson, a two-term Democrat, and Marco Rubio, a GOP freshman and tea party darling. "I know it's important to me and to Marco that the two of us have the basis of a personal friendship, and that's always been the tradition of the two senators from Florida," Nelson told Politics Daily.
Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey, a Democrat will sit with freshman Republican Sen. Pat Toomey.
Ditto for the Illinois twosome, Democrat Dick Durbin and GOP newcomer Mark Kirk.
Moreover, Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) promises to behave Tuesday night; last year he yelled "You lie!" at Obama in midspeech. No indicator yet who'll be next to him.
Certainly sitting with opponents is an easy, no-risk way for lawmakers to score civility points, said a spokesman for one House Democrat, who sought anonymity in return for cynical candor.
"It's not like a freshman mixer," the aide said. "It's probably more a way of getting some good press back home, but I think it will also be interesting to see the dynamic of how the speech is received. Members will be on better behavior. You won't have all that standing up and cheering by some while others stay in their seats. . . . I don't think a lot of new friendships will be forged. They will be sitting with people they already know."
Naturally the idea is ripe for satire. I had visions of mutant congressional e-dating: "Cap-and-trade Democrat seeks pro-life Republican for one-nighter," or "Tea Party budget hawk in search of immigration dove for possible friendship." The possibilities are limitless.
"Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader, could sit with new Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.), who tried to hire as his chief of staff a woman who called Pelosi 'garbage,'" suggested Dana Milbank of The Washington Post. "Attorney General Eric Holder would naturally be joined by Rep. Darrell Issa (who has called President Obama's 'one of the most corrupt administrations' in history.) Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan would sandwich Sen. Jeff Sessions, who led the opposition to their confirmations."
Humor aside, the new civility is apparently fine with voters. A recent CNN/ORC poll showed 72 percent of the public favor bipartisan seating, with only 22 percent preferring traditional separation by party. Though all demographic groups like cross-pollination, Democrats and independents are much more likely to favor it than Republicans, says CNN Polling Director Keating Holland. A Fox News survey has slightly lower numbers, with 56 percent of respondents saying it's a good idea and 39 percent finding it "silly."
If history is an indicator, Rep. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) will find himself a Republican buddy. As chair of the Center Aisle Caucus, he encourages bipartisan relations "to try to create and repair some friendships, and I think that does make a difference. I think if you know more people on the other side of the aisle you're much less likely to yell at them in the context of a political debate."
There are conflicting reports on the seating plans of the Colorado delegation. The Denver Post has all seven House members -- four Republicans and three Democrats -- attending as a bloc. "Last year I went over and sat on the Republican side," Rep. Jared Polis told the Post. This year he'll be among homeys of both parties. The New York Times puts Democratic Sens. Michael Bennett and Udall with the state's GOP members.
Whatever the arrangements, logistics may be tricky for groups, given that some lawmakers stake out a seat on the center aisle hours before the 9 p.m. speech, the better to be seen on TV and to shake hands with the president, Cabinet members and Supreme Court justices.
But not everyone thinks the new civility is such a great idea.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell did not seem wowed when asked about it on "Fox News Sunday," saying he was going to sit where he usually does, at the Republican leadership table.
"More important than the appearance of sitting together is what we do together," he said. "And the American people are more interested in actual accomplishments on a bipartisan basis here in the next six to nine months than they are with the seating arrangement at the State of the Union."
Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.) told radio host Scott Hennen that Democrats "don't want civility. They want silence from the Republicans. And the sitting together being kissy-kissy is just another way to try to silence Republicans, and also to show -- to keep the American people from seeing how few of them there are in the U.S. House now. Then when people stand up . . . what the Democrats are going to be doing when Barack Obama spews out all his venom, then, um, if they're scattered throughout all the Republicans, then it won't be as noticeable as if we're sitting apart."
New York Magazine's on-line "Daily Intel" column also thought it eliminated an important element for those watching the annual event.
"A neat separation of the parties allows the American people to see, in real time, their positions on the president's agenda and the issues of the day," the Daily Intel column said. "It's actually very informative and helpful to be able to easily assess which proposals the Republicans and Democrats support, respectively, through the decision to applaud. It also allows us to identify the few party-bucking independent thinkers who, every so often, stand up to clap while the rest of their colleagues remain seated."
Such visuals won't work in "one big bipartisan hodgepodge" because that "brief chamber reaction shot on TV becomes nearly impossible to decipher."
That said, this state of the union speech could provide the most interesting viewing since Nancy Reagan started the tradition of putting everyday heroes in the First Lady's gallery.
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