Musical Chairs: Lawmakers Consider Crossing the Aisle to Watch State of the Union Address

A call for mixed party seating at the State of the Union is gaining support.

January 13, 2011, 9:05 PM

Jan. 14, 2011 — -- In the wake of Saturday's mass shooting in Tucson, Ariz., a Democratic senator's call for both parties to sit together -- rather than divided by party -- at President Obama's upcoming State of the Union address appears to be gaining momentum.

Lawmakers from both sides of the political aisle Thursday evening backed Sen. Mark Udall's, D-Colo., idea.

On the right, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., signed on to the mixed-seating proposal. Independent Joe Lieberman of Connecticut voiced support for it, too.

On the left, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., did the same.

Noting that members of Congress have "a responsibility to set an example of less-ugly, less-divisive debate," Hoyer said the State of the Union is a potential opportunity "to recommit ourselves to approaching our public life with the respect and honesty that our serious, shared problems demand.

"I believe that members of both parties can symbolize our common citizenship and common interests by sitting together to hear the president's remarks rather than divided across the aisle by party," Hoyer said. "A gesture like this won't make partisanship disappear, nor should it -- democracy is built on strong disagreements between the parties. ... "But this gesture ... should help end the political theater of repeatedly seeing one side of the aisle rise in applause, as the other sits still.

"We must always consider ourselves Americans first, and Democrats or Republicans second," he added. "It is my hope that this new tradition can remind us that, no matter what our differences, we all come to Congress with the nation's best interests at heart."

Just hours later, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Udall's idea demands "serious consideration," but Reid did not go as far as Hoyer in backing the plan.

"I appreciate Sen. Udall's thoughtful suggestion and believe it is worth serious consideration," Reid said. "We need to look for more ways to be bipartisan. This morning, I spoke with Democratic Whip Hoyer and Sen. McConnell about the proposal and we will discuss it further next week. After this tragedy, it's important for our country see that we all stand together as Americans, and this could be one way to demonstrate that."

However the reaction of Republican leaders has been less than enthusiastic.

A spokesman for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., noted that members of Congress can sit wherever they want during the joint session.

A Senate GOP aide also emphasized that point, noting that seating is not dictated by any rules, but rather by a first-come, first-served basis, so members don't have to agree en masse to Udall's idea. If certain members choose to cross the aisle and sit with the other party, then that is a personal decision that they are free to make, the aide said.

Ultimately, a decision from lawmakers to sit together at the State of the Union might not be anything more than an attempt to convince Americans that they have dialed down their bitter partisanship. But if they choose to put aside their party ties and sit with each other on Jan. 25 -- rather than divided on either side of the House chamber -- then that message could prove symbolically important.

As Udall said Wednesday, "It's a simple step, but an important one that will go a long way in bridging our political divide."