State of the Union Bipartisan 'Date Night' Update


Annie Groer


With President Obama's State of the Union address just hours away, the bipartisan seat-mate scramble continues apace.

House Republican Whip Eric Cantor says he's asked Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to sit with him, but his frequent adversary Tweeted her regrets. "I thank @GOPLeader for his #SOTU offer, but I invited my friend Rep. [Roscoe] Bartlett from MD yesterday & am pleased he accepted."

And four proponents of mixed seating held a Capitol Hill news conference Tuesday morning to explain why they're in favor of crossing the aisle.

Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), who proposed the idea two weeks ago to minimize political rancor, said if members couldn't even join forces for one night, how could they possibly face such challenges as the economy and energy policy.

He said he would walk in with Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and then they'd split up. Udall would head for the GOP side of the House chamber and Murkowski would join the Democrats. With numerous lawmakers mixing it up, he said, "that leads to a sense we are in this together."

Murkowski conceded that bipartisan seating is "symbolic," but added, "Why not start off this new 112th Congress with a gesture, an effort to try to come together if even for just a couple of hours?" It's time to show the world "there are no cooties to be had" by sitting with political rivals. She also suggested the media focus less "on some of the partisan drama" and more on Democrats and Republicans who work together. In what might be interpreted as both a show of Polish American pride and a copy editor's nightmare, Murkowski will pair off with Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.).

Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) noted that the "the world is watching tonight" and that "far too often you will see members trying to get their Oscar awards on C-SPAN" using overblown rhetoric and harsh language.

Freshman Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), who plans to sit with Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), called for fewer reflexive floor demonstrations during Obama's speech, and urged members to "really mean it when we do stand."

As for intemperate language, especially in the wake of the Jan. 8 Tucson shooting rampage that left six dead and more than a dozen injured, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), Udall said, simply, "Sticks and stones can break bones, but words can do real damage."

Maybe so, but the whole notion of bipartisan seating has become ripe for satire, much of it featuring dance metaphors that range from "prom date" to "freshman mixer."

Since Udall began his push for crossing what he called the congressional "Continental Divide," members' wives, Capitol Hill staffers and, of course, journalists (I plead guilty) have been offering suggestions for odd-couple pairings and groupings, while lawmakers themselves have taken to announcing their choices on Twitter, talk shows, at news conferences and in hometown interviews.

Debbie Dingell, whose husband, Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich), is the longest-serving (55 years) politician on Capitol Hill, told him he should sit with Rep. Aaron Schock, R-Ill, who at 29 is the youngest member of the House. Instead, the former chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee chose the current GOP chair and fellow Michigander, Rep. Fred Upton.

A number of freshmen, including Sens. Chris Coons (D-Del.) and John Boozman (R-Ark.), also will form bipartisan pairs.

CNN's ever-festive Jeanne Moos called the spectacle "State of the Date," and bestowed the title "prom king and queen" on tall, handsome Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) and the blond and lovely Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, (D-N.Y.), the subject of a recent Vogue magazine profile.

Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), who infamously shouted "You lie!" at Obama during the president's 2009 health care speech to Congress, Tweeted about his SOTU menage-a-trois with two Democratic colleagues on the House Armed Services Committee: Rep. Susan Davis of California and Del. Madeleine Bordallo of Guam. He'll gallantly cross over to their side of the aisle.

Despite a pair of polls last week showing that a majority of Americans favor bipartisan seating for the 9 p.m. presidential address, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), a co-founder of the House civility caucus -- yes, there is such a thing -- told the Associated Press that "really, for the average citizen, they don't give a rip where we sit."

Perhaps not, but Debbie Dingell, the House spouse who years ago organized annual bipartisan family picnics and retreats, thinks red state/blue state socializing is good for lawmakers and thus good for the nation. "It's very hard to demonize people you know," she told me. "The next step for members who are sitting together for the State of the Union is to go out for dinner."

Udall said there is talk in the Senate of holding monthly bipartisan lunches.

Still, Murkowski had one last suggestion for covering the State of the Union: Do not pay excessive attention to "who's sitting with who. It reminds me a little bit of junior high. . . . The focus should be on the president, not where everybody ends up sitting."