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Bipartisan Seating Backers Press On Despite Increased Rancor

Like a slowly budding romance, advocates of bipartisan seating at the State of the Union insist Capitol Hill’s latest feel-good exercise is more than just empty political symbolism and helps lawmakers develop lasting, effective cross-party relationships.

But since the practice was first introduced for last year’s annual presidential address to Congress, Democrats and Republicans have fought bitterly over almost everything. The government nearly shut down in the spring, soon after President Barack Obama’s 2011 State of the Union, and risked a default in the summer when the two parties nearly failed to agree on raising the debt ceiling.

Still, proponents of bipartisan seating, while conceding its short-term failure, haven’t lost faith.

“Social connections lead to policy changes,” Sen. Mark Kirk said Wednesday in a telephone interview. Last year, the Illinois Republican sat with Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.); this year Kirk’s State of the Union date is Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), whom he called his best friend in the Senate.

Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), who spearheaded the bipartisan seating arrangement in 2011, defended the practice as productive. He said Members from opposing parties have few other opportunities to interact. Udall and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who plan to sit together during Tuesday evening’s speech, are advocating that bipartisan seating be adopted permanently.

Udall said it is important to show the country at such a high-profile event that the two parties are capable of getting along, if only for an evening. “I’m realistic,” he added. “I understand that one night sitting together in the House chamber won’t bridge the philosophical differences between us.”

The idea for bipartisan seating at the State of the Union was hatched last year by Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank, in the wake of the January 2011 shooting that targeted Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) during a constituent event in Tucson, Ariz. The idea caught on as a way to reduce partisan tensions following the hard fought 2010 elections.

This year, more than 100 Members have found dates from the opposite party for the State of the Union, and many have signed a letter to Congressional leaders requesting that partisan seating, in which Democrats and Republicans sit on opposite sides of the House chamber during the president’s address, be ended. But exactly what bipartisan seating might accomplish tangibly remains unclear — particularly in an election year in which control of the Senate is at stake.

Jim Manley — who spent 21 years on Capitol Hill, most recently as a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) — applauded Members’ desire to reduce partisanship. But he called bipartisan seating at the State of the Union “an exercise in futility” that will do nothing to reduce polarization in Congress. The myriad partisan battles of 2011, culminating in the year-end fight over the extension of the payroll tax holiday, bolster Manley’s argument.

“I don’t want to sound to cynical,” he said. “But while I strongly support the idea that Members need to get to know each other better — after all it’s harder to demonize an opponent after having dinner with them once or twice — this is feel good symbolism that’s not going to amount to anything.”

Third Way, on its Internet homepage, has dubbed the effort “#sittogether.”

Jim Kessler, a senior vice president for policy at the think tank, conceded that bipartisan seating during the president’s annual address to Congress is largely symbolic and unlikely to change the tone in Washington any time soon. But Kessler believes there are several benefits that make the practice worthwhile.

A 25-year veteran of Capitol Hill politics, Kessler argued that seemingly insignificant efforts to bring lawmakers from opposite sides together could, over time, improve relationships and lead to a reduction in partisan tensions. And, Kessler added, the image sends a powerful message given that the State of the Union is nationally televised and viewed by millions of Americans.

“I’m not naïve,” Kessler said. “We didn’t expect this to change the way Congress was going to act toward each other. It’s 80 minutes out of a year. But we wanted to have at least a moment where, in the eyes of Americans, Washington looks like adults.”

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