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Bipartisanship May Not Extend Beyond Seating

Even if Members of Congress do cast aside protocol and abandon party-line seating during President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address next week, the showing of bipartisanship is unlikely to last long.

Senate Republicans and Democrats have paired up in support of a proposal from Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) that calls for Members to sit in bipartisan groups for the president’s yearly address to Congress, but House lawmakers have been less willing to buck tradition.

“Five minutes after the speech, when they’re all on the cable nets in Statuary Hall, they’ll all be ripping the president,” a former Senate Democratic staffer opined. “Sitting next to each other may promote civility for the moment, but it’s not going to change how Washington operates.”

While some are stepping forward to embrace Udall’s suggestion that bipartisan pairs sit together during Obama’s speech, others are gearing up for a partisan debate over repealing the health care law.

In the House, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said he supports Udall’s idea, but aides caution his endorsement is not a party position.

Democratic Rep. Jane Harman (Calif.) called Udall’s idea “inspired,” but she acknowledged that healing the partisan wounds from the 2010 election cycle will take more than a reformed seating arrangement. Still, Harman said it was a start.

“I’m hopeful that the carnage in Tucson really is a teachable moment,” Harman said. “And as one who thinks bipartisanship produces better policy, at least I personally am going to see how to make what might have been a one-night stand into a more permanent relationship.”

Harman said she was not reaching out to colleagues to encourage them to sit alongside Members of the opposite party. She also said she did not have a Republican partner to sit beside, but she is planning to view Obama’s speech from the right side of the aisle.

“Members of Congress choose where to sit at the State of the Union,” said Michael Steel, spokesman for Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).

Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) echoed Steel’s remarks, saying he supports the current rule that allows Members to sit on either side of the aisle.

A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the Nevada Democrat supports Udall’s proposal and plans to follow up with McConnell to talk further about the idea in the near future.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) made it clear he was less interested in whom he’s sitting with than in what the president would say in his speech.

“While I don’t know yet who I will be sitting next to, I do know that I am going to be in the chamber listening to the president, wanting to hear from him specifics as far as his desire to work with us on spending cuts and reforms,” he told reporters Tuesday.

Usual custom calls for Boehner, in his capacity as Speaker, to sit next to Vice President Joseph Biden on the dais during Tuesday’s speech. While those two already form a bipartisan pair, few others on the House side have expressed a willingness to participate in the show of unity.

As Roll Call went to press, just 15 House Members had announced their support for Udall’s idea, with Rep. Sue Myrick (N.C.) becoming the first Republican to do so in an announcement Tuesday.

Members of the Blue Dog Coalition, including Reps. Heath Shuler (N.C.), Mike Ross (Ark.) and Jim Matheson (Utah), have also backed the idea.

On the Senate side, 28 Members have said they will break from tradition and sit beside a political opposite during Obama’s speech. Supporters include some of the chamber’s most noted partisans, including Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), as well as moderates such as Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Mark Pryor (D-Ark.).

Udall began pushing the idea last week in the days following the devastating shooting in Tucson that left Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) in critical condition. The tragedy sparked calls for more civility and less partisanship in Washington, D.C., which Udall said could be accomplished at least symbolically with a bipartisan showing during the State of the Union address.

Aides from both sides of the aisle have complained that some of those Members supporting Udall are the same partisan firebrands who contribute to the heated rhetoric in the Capitol. One House Democratic leadership aide said the best chance for halting heated debates and launching bipartisan relationships will have to come from the new freshman class.

“When you’re trying to change something so institutional, sometimes it’s going to take the folks who aren’t accustomed to it to make that change,” the aide said. “It’ll be interesting to see if this is something the freshman Members, particularly the Republicans, will make happen.”

Democrats suggested that as the newly minted majority party in the House, Republicans may want to show a united front against Obama during the speech by sitting together.

After the speech, the Democratic aide said, the GOP “will have to decide whether compromise is in their political interest.”

“Two weeks ago it wasn’t, but perhaps now that’s different,” the aide said in reference to the Tucson shooting and subsequent calls for bipartisanship.

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