State of the Union Date Night on Capitol Hill

Jan 24, 2012 6:00am

It’s a date.

Tonight more than 190 members of Congress will sit with a member of the opposing party — sitting together for the second straight year rather than divided to listen to President Obama’s State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress in what has casually been dubbed “date night” on Capitol Hill.

Republicans and Democrats have traditionally sat separately on their respective sides of the aisle. But in the wake of the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona last year, members of Congress teamed up for the first time, projecting a greater sense of unity and civility in politics.

Following a year that could go down as one of the fiercest and most partisan years on Capitol Hill in recent memory, the proposal for another bipartisan, mixed seating arrangement was envisioned again this year by Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., at the one-year remembrance ceremony of the Tucson shooting earlier this month.

“It’s a symbolic gesture,” Udall spokeswoman Tara Trujillo said. “It was a nice moment of bipartisanship last year. The tradition is more divisive than anything and there’s no reason to continue it. It helps change the climate at least for a day.”

Some members of Congress quickly got on board, but the enthusiasm and luster of last year’s novel idea seemed to be missing.

While some members of Congress took to Twitter, Facebook and released statements announcing who they have chosen as their date to sit with at tonight’s address, the popular “who are you going with?” question wasn’t heard as often in the halls of Congress this year compared to last year.

“Proud to sit w/my friend @SenJohnMcCain for State of the Union next week; we can’t afford to let #bipartisanship be a dirty word in DC #SOTU,” Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., tweeted.

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords will sit on the Democratic side between Reps. Jeff Flake, a Republican, and Raul Grijalva, a Democrat. At last year’s State of the Union address, shortly after Giffords was shot and wounded, Flake and Grijalva flanked an empty seat reserved for the congresswoman.

Like last year, there are also some odd-couple pairings in the mixed-seating chart this year.

Freshmen Reps. David Cicilline, D-R.I., and Nan Hayworth, R-N.Y., co-chairs of the bipartisan Common Ground Caucus, will sit next to each other.

“The State of the Union address is an opportunity for all of us in Congress to show a spirit of cooperation among members of both parties,” Cicilline and Hayworth wrote in a joint statement. “In the weeks ahead we can join together to bring back ‘made in America,’ eliminate burdensome regulations for small business owners, and get our economy on the right track to put millions of our unemployed citizens back to work.”

Sens. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., and Mary Landrieu, D-La., will also sit side-by-side.

Reps. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., and Bob Latta, R-Ohio, have decided to sit together. So have Reps. Michael Grimm, R-N.Y., and Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif. Sometimes the relationship that helps create the match can be obscure. Donnelly and Latta serve together on the Congressional Steel Caucus, while Grimm and Sanchez serve together on the Congressional Morocco Caucus.

“There is far too much partisan bickering at a time in which Congress should be solely focused, in a bipartisan way, on getting America’s economy back on track,” Donnelly said.

In some cases, lawmakers are opting to sit with a member from their state from the opposing party.

Arkansas Reps. Steve Womack, a Republican, and Rep. Mike Ross, a Democrat, sat together at last year’s State of the Union and plan to do it again this year. Sens. Bob Casey, D-Pa., and Pat Toomey. R-Pa., announced their mixed seating with a nod to their constituents’ concerns.

“Pennsylvanians want their lawmakers to work together to solve problems,” Casey said in a statement.

“As the second session of the 112th Congress begins, sitting next to each other is a small but worthwhile step toward setting a civil and cooperative tone for the challenging work ahead of us,” Toomey added in a statement.

One senator, however, will be without his date.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., was to have paired up to sit with Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill. But now Kirk will not attend the speech as he recovers in Chicago from a stroke this weekend.

“While I’ll miss him at the State of Union tomorrow night, I promised Mark that I will keep his seat warm,” Manchin said in a statement Monday.

A bipartisan delegation of members from upstate New York will also to sit together. Democrats Brian Higgins, Bill Owens, Kathy Hochul, and Paul Tonko will sit with Republicans Tom Reed, Ann Marie Buerkle, Chris Gibson, and Richard Hanna.

“While this is a small step toward bipartisanship, I believe Congress has a historic opportunity to come together and work for what is best for New York and the rest of the nation,” Owens said. “I hope to continue working with members of both parties to create opportunities for New York’s working families and small business owners.”

Matt Bennett, spokesman and senior vice president of the think tank Third Way, which has teamed up to boost participation in the mixed seating, says that this year may be slightly different than last year because the Giffords shooting seemed to inspire an “organic” moment.

“We did it in the wake of the shooting because such overwhelming sent that dig and civility had to be restored,” Bennett said but said that is a message that still should resonate. “It is a very public display of civility on a night when Americans are paying a lot of attention and given how far Congress has fallen in the opinion of most Americans this gesture of good will we think is important.”

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