State of the Union 'Date Night': Lawmakers Court Seating Partners, Some to Go Stag

More than 50 lawmakers endorse bipartisan seating plan for State of the Union.

ByDevin Dwyer
January 24, 2011, 10:12 AM

WASHINGTON, Jan. 24, 2011— -- "Who are you going with?" has become the hottest question asked of lawmakers on Capitol Hill, one day before a joint session of Congress convenes for President Obama's State of the Union address.

Colorado Democratic Sen. Mark Udall's simple and largely symbolic proposal for colleagues to cross the aisle and sit side-by-side Tuesday has cast the evening as something of a "date night," with many members of Congress courting the perfect partner and some promising to go stag.

Republicans and Democrats have traditionally sat together en masse on their respective sides of the aisle. But in the wake of the Tucson, Ariz., shootings two weeks ago, many lawmakers have sought ways to project a greater sense of unity and civility before the U.S. public.

More than 50 lawmakers have so far signed on to Udall's bipartisan seating plan, and several couples announced their pairings Sunday.

"Who's your date?" ABC News' Christiane Amanpour asked Texas Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison Sunday on "This Week."

"I don't have a date," Hutchison replied.

"Kay, I'm available," interjected North Dakota Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad.

The two will now sit together.

Meanwhile, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said he had successfully courted conservative Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn.

"I've already asked Tom Coburn ... to sit next to me. He's graciously agreed," Schumer said Sunday on CBS' "Face the Nation."

"And I think if Coburn and Schumer can sit next to each other, then probably just about everybody can."

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., tweeted that she would join Sen. John Thune, R-N.D. And GOP Arizona Sen. John McCain has said he would sit next to New Mexico Democratic Sen. Tom Udall.

"No business would divide their aisles so that you have girls on one side or boys on the other," Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "We should have Democrats and Republicans sit with each other. And we should be running the Senate that way instead of going to our own corners of our boxing arena."

She plans to sit with Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions.

The State of the Union is also uniting members of split-party state delegations, including several with Tea Party-sponsored freshmen members.

Florida Tea Party-darling Sen. Marco Rubio is expected to sit with his Democratic counterpart, Sen. Bill Nelson. Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin will rendezvous with conservative Senate newcomer Mark Kirk. And, senior Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey will pair with freshman Sen. Pat Toomey for the occasion.

Nebraska's Sens. Ben Nelson and Mike Johanns have also announced they will sit side-by-side Tuesday night.

Some members have said they're still working on a "date" for the speech.

"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. "I'm going to be on the phone today."

Lieberman is rumored to be courting Homeland Security Committee colleague Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine.

Seating Plan Embraced by Minority of Members

Still, with 535 members of Congress attending the joint session, the number of those who have committed to the new display of comity are a relatively small fraction, with some insisting they'll sit where they always have; among members of their own party.

"If people want to mix it up, they certainly can. We don't have seating assignments for most of our members," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has said he will not be sitting on the left side of the aisle, in an interview on Fox News.

"More important than the appearance of sitting together is what we do together. 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 is no different. Seating for the speech is first come, first served, and it's likely many members will be sitting next to colleagues of the opposite party whether they want to or not.

House Speaker John Boehner and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi have not yet weighed in publicly on the seating proposal. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has only said that the plan should receive "serious consideration."

A recent CNN poll found more than 70 percent of Americans support mixed seating of Republicans and Democrats for the State of the Union address.

ABC News' Matthew Jaffe contributed to this report.

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