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State of the Union Bipartisan Seating: Comity Central for Lawmakers

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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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Its amazing how many people you talk to say we should vote them all out of office and start over. It just may happen.

March 23 2011 at 10:56 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

Now that Obama and the Dems were shellacked in the mid-term elections, they want to be friends. They even use the AZ tragedy to attempt to plant blame on the right, urging us to tone down the rhetoric. I wonder if Obama and frenzied Dem clappers will humiliate the Supreme Court this year? I hope Joe Wilson shouts out when Obama lies as often as the liberals booed GWB during his speeches. The Dems didn't offer civility when they ran the show, and shouldn't expect it now.

January 24 2011 at 3:40 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply

It is very interesting what we think our congress should do. Personaly, I really don't think it makes any difference what party the congress is, it's all about power. Rather than do the job required in a timely manner, it is show time on all the friverlous garbage, cudos for things that make them look good. We should know that making the right decisions for the country will not appease the entitlement community, nor the people that belive the government should have "touchy feely" feelings. I belive we need a govt of law, enforced or removed if not enforcable. This is a country of fifty individual states joined by a common cause, not to be strangeled by unfair and unjust federal govt. Take a look at what is happening to the country and why it is happening. Rather than make definate laws that can be understood by the populace, they all make laws that can be manulipulated for their own gain.
Rather than play musical chairs, lets cut congress to four months a year, cut their wages accordingly and if they don't get their work done, don't pay them. Get them a room at Motel 6, 25 dollars a day for food and a bus pass. Am I the stupid one?

January 24 2011 at 12:36 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

OK People, it's time to quit blaming Obama for the mess he inherited from G. Bush and B. Clinton. The crappy economy was already in place when Obama took office. The real problem in the US is big business sending all the jobs overseas so they can capitalize on the cheap labor in China, Taiwan, etc. They don't even have to pay import taxes on the stuff because it is "US" goods even though made in China. US industy is in the toilet because of this cheap labor tactic. I say repeal NAFTA and all other laws of that ilk and get back to reality. I told everyone who would listen that our economy would fall as soon as NAFTA was passed.

January 24 2011 at 12:23 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply

Representative Joe Wilson was right "Obama is a Liar! Maybe it wasn't the time and place to say it in the state of the union address, but it is all true, "Obama is a liar.

January 24 2011 at 12:11 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply

Americans must understand that all the politicians in Washington have always been part of the same "club"...seating doesn't matter one bit after the show is over. They all pretty much get along out of the glare of the media spotlight. They just have different ideologies and world views which is not a bad thing at all. The partisonship is just part of the process in Washington when one group wants a bill and the other is opposed to it. I can't believe Americans fall for this media hype!!

January 24 2011 at 10:25 AM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply

Everything I needed to know about ObamaCare I learned when Obama & Congress exempted themselves from it.

January 24 2011 at 10:11 AM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply

Both parties get sillier and sillier. Now we come to something verging on the silliest! Why don't they all just sit in each other's laps. I'm certain that would solve all of the problems of this nation. If they think all of this coziness is going to placate Americans who are fed up with government shenanigans they are dumber even that we all thought. Goody two shoes actions coupled with lies just won't cut it anymore!

January 24 2011 at 9:53 AM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

Just one more superficial fraud intended to persuade the nation that Congress is serious about working together for the best interests of the People.
It's a joke and I look forward to Comedy Central reminding us of that.

Let them sit as State representatives all session, then it would be more meaningful.

January 24 2011 at 9:42 AM Report abuse +17 rate up rate down Reply

Thank you Mr. Udall...You have done the State Of Colorado proud once again! One of the reasons I voted for him is because he put the country ahead of the party...I can't ask for more than that.

January 24 2011 at 9:23 AM Report abuse -6 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Bobbie's comment

This is so phony and all for show. Does anyone believe that Schumer's civility is anymore than hollywood theatrics? The manner in which Schumer and Weiner discuss Republicans is offensive. Obama is pretending to dissuade THE APPEARANCE OF non-partisan antics and we are supposed to believe this? Very funny. This is all part of O's reelection campaign, as with hiring Immelt to promote business (what a joke---he has ruined GE), quoting the bible at the Tucson Memorial...Oh yeah. Now the prez and his wife put their hands over their heart during national anthem. Yet, it's illegal to say the pledge of allegiance at school...or even appear to be praying. That's reform for you. Preposterous.

January 24 2011 at 9:49 AM Report abuse +19 rate up rate down Reply

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