State of the Union 2011: Lawmakers Cross Aisle, Sit Together, Make History

Bipartisan seating plan yields unusual bedfellows in show of civility, unity.

January 25, 2011, 6:03 PM

WASHINGTON, Jan. 25, 2011— -- Members of Congress have sat divided by party at State of the Union addresses for the past 100 years. But tonight dozens of lawmakers cast history and tradition aside with a mixed seating arrangement meant to symbolize a renewed commitment to civility and bipartisanship.

Democrats crossed the aisle to stake out positions in Republican territory on the right side of the House chamber, while some Republicans ventured for seats among Democrats on the left. The mixed crowd of blue and red ties and pant suits created an unprecedented scene from wall to wall.

The integrated seating plan, first proposed by Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., following the Tucson shooting, drew at least 59 formal sponsors on a letter laying out the idea and yielded an array of surprising bipartisan seating partners.

Udall linked with conservative South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, while liberal Minnesota Sen. Al Franken joined conservative Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss.

Other surprising pairings included conservative Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn and liberal New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, who had vehemently sparred over a bill to provide aid to 9/11 first responders and the Democrats' health care overhaul package passed last year.

"I think if Coburn and Schumer can sit next to each other, then probably just about everybody can," Schumer said Sunday on CBS's "Face the Nation."

New York Reps. Anthony Wiener and Peter King, who also have a history of partisan public wrangling, sat together on the right side of the chamber -- a move King, a Republican, described was "stretching the outer limits of civility."

"It's a nice thing. I'm going to be sitting on the Republican side, so not only will Peter King be my date, he may be my security detail also," Wiener told Politico last week.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi arrived with Maryland Republican Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, after she had to gently decline a request by Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor to be his date. Cantor later paired with fellow Virginian, Democratic Rep. Bobby Scott.

The speech also united several members of split-party state delegations, including those with Tea Party-sponsored freshmen.

Florida Tea Party-darling and newcomer Sen. Marco Rubio sat with his Democratic counterpart, Sen. Bill Nelson.

Illinois Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin rendezvoused with conservative Senate newcomer Mark Kirk. And, senior Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey paired with freshman Sen. Pat Toomey for the occasion.

For a more comprehensive look at who sat with whom, click HERE.

The mixed seating plan created a prom-like atmosphere on Capitol Hill ahead of the speech, with members courting colleagues from across the aisle and asking them on "dates."

"When I was in high school, I always waited too long before the prom to ask for a date, so I haven't done that yet," Connecticut independent Sen. Joe Lieberman said Sunday on "This Week." He ended up seated in a bipartisan scrum of Sens. John McCain, Tom Udall and John Kerry.

"'Who are you going with?' reminds me a little bit of eighth grade," Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski said earlier today. "I've got a double date and we'll see how that works out."

Murkowski, who had planned to sit with Democratic Sens. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland and Sen. Daniel Akaka of Hawaii, had to leave tonight's State of the Union because her son was hospitalized for an emergency appendectomy, her spokesman said.

Republican Leaders Eschew Seating Plan

Still, with 535 members of Congress attending the joint session, the number who had publicly committed to the display of comity was a relatively small fraction. And some made clear that they would sit where they always have: among members of their own party.

"I'm heading to the right," Rep. Tim Scott of South Carolina told ABC News' "Top Line" today.

"Southern boy from North Charleston, South Carolina, we sit to the right, we even lean to the right. So at the end of the day I'm going to the right," he said.

House Speaker John Boehner did not weigh in publicly on the seating proposal. But he ended up sitting beside Vice President Joe Biden on the speaker's platform, consistent with tradition.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had only said that the plan should receive "serious consideration" but did not publicly reveal plans to partner with a Republican ahead of the speech.

"More important than the appearance of sitting together is what we do together," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who did not cross the aisle for the State of the Union address. "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."

McConnell and other GOP aides have noted that lawmakers have always been free to sit where they want and that this year was no different. Seating for the speech is first come, first served, and it's likely many members simply sat next to colleagues of the opposite party whether they wanted to or not.

But while some questioned whether the seating plan signaled true willingness to tone down rhetoric and openness to legislative compromise, many lawmakers said it couldn't hurt.

"It is a symbolic gesture, but why not start with a symbolic gesture?" Murkowski said. "Why not start off this new 112th Congress with a gesture, an effort, to try to come together even for just a couple hours?"

"If we can't sit together on an important night like this, how can we face the challenges that the country has?" Udall asked. "We're committed to having the kind of debates around here where you can disagree without being disagreeable."

ABC News' Matthew Jaffe and Jonathan Karl contributed to this report.

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