In this year's State of Union, seating could blur party lines

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 21, 2011 

WASHINGTON — Oh, for the good old days on Capitol Hill, like nearly 200 years ago when Congress was one big happy family.

James Monroe was president and the country was on a high after claiming victory over the British in the War of 1812. True, there was only one major political party at the time, which kept squabbling to a minimum. But political cooperation was in. Partisan acrimony: out.

Historians call it the Era of Good Feelings.

Flash-forward now to the Congress of today, the Era of I-Hate-Your-Guts-And-Want-To-Rip-Your-Lungs-Out-You-Unpatriotic-Jerk.

Weary of a climate that has grown so toxic that Congress should earmark money for a political Hazmat team, some lawmakers have a solution.

When President Barack Obama comes to Capitol Hill Tuesday night to deliver the State of Union speech to a joint session of Congress, Democrats and Republicans should sit together, not in opposing camps of red and blue.

The opposing camps idea has been the tradition since 1913, when Woodrow Wilson became the first president since Thomas Jefferson to personally deliver the annual speech to Congress.

"It's a simple step, but an important one that will go a long way in bridging our political divide," said Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado, the Democrat who suggested the new seating chart.

Indeed. An overwhelming majority of the public thinks so, too, according to a new CNN/Opinion Research Poll. Some 72 percent of respondents want the lawmakers to make nice.

But given how nasty things have been between the two parties, the whole idea brings to mind Bill Murray's line from "Ghostbusters": "Dogs and cats, living together! Mass hysteria!"

John Green, the director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron, said Congress is game to try to turn down the heat, but he advised lowering expectations about the long-term outcome.

"Call it the 'Evening of Good Feelings,'" he said.

But any change from the usual State of the Union drama might be welcome.

Lawmakers "cheer and boo," Green said. "It's more like a football game."

Some have been caught "tweeting" during the president's speech. Many hightail it to the House chamber early in the day to secure a seat on the aisle; the better to shake hands with the president and preen for the cameras.

"The place is mobbed," Senate Historian Donald Ritchie said.

Congressional decorum, though, hit bottom in 2009, not during a State of the Union speech, but at another joint session of Congress when Obama spoke about health care. Rep. Joe Wilson, a South Carolina Republican, now famously shouted at the president: "You lie!"

Udall's idea grew out of the soul-searching about the ugly state of political debate following the Arizona shootings two weeks ago. Six people died and 13 others were wounded, including Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

Reaction to his effort has varied. Some lawmakers have basically said, "Whatever."

"I think everybody ought to get to sit where they're happy sitting," said freshman Republican Rep. Mike Pompeo of Kansas. "I'm very focused on what the people back home are talking to me about, and very few are talking to me about where I'm going to sit at the State of the Union."

Others have already made plans to experience the moment together, like Illinois' two senators, Republican Mark Kirk and Democrat Dick Durbin.

Rep. John Culberson, a Republican from Texas, and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Democrat from Florida and one of the party's most frequent cable TV defenders, will be seatmates as well.

"I guess I asked him out on a date," she said on MSNBC. "And he said yes. So I am going to go sit on ... what is normally the Republican side of the aisle."

Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri is still sitting by the phone. She "reached out to several Republican colleagues, but hasn't got a 'date' yet," said aide Maria Speiser.

North Carolina Republican Howard Coble, meanwhile, has too many suitors. Several Tar Heel State Democrats apparently crave his company.

Actually, there's no hard and fast rule about seating, just tradition. Parties have been corralling themselves on either side of the center aisle since before the Civil War for debates and joint sessions of Congress.

A few times in the Senate when one party had more lawmakers than chairs to put them in, the majority annexed a row or two from the other side's turf.

But during the Era of Good Feelings nearly two centuries ago when everybody generally played nice, there was no need to search for bipartisanship.

"I would say this is more a symbolic gesture, which I certainly respect," Sen. Pat Roberts, a Republican from Kansas, said of the effort to blur party divisions Tuesday night. "I think the American public is a little tired of symbols. But I always reach my hand across the aisle and hope it won't come back with some fingers missing."

(Lesley Clark and Barbara Barrett contributed to this article.)

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