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Protesters Unlikely to Crash State of the Union

Despite Atmosphere, Little Action Expected

Despite a tumultuous year of demonstrations around the country, Time magazine’s 2011 person of the year — the protester — may sit out a prime opportunity tonight.

President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address looks to proceed without a hitch today as no large activist groups, from the tea party to the Occupy movements, have organized protests in Washington, D.C.

Though some 20,000 protesters took to the National Mall on Monday for the anti-abortion March for Life, there was no indication they would stick around to voice their indignation for Obama as he addresses Congress.

Occupy DC, meanwhile, had no public plans to follow up last week’s occupation of the Capitol’s West Front with a mid-speech sit-in, although some smaller-scale protests might take place.

“We don’t have anything planned,” Occupy DC spokeswoman Sara Shaw said from the group’s McPherson Square encampment. “It could definitely change if we get some people together to hash out a plan.”

Nonetheless, when the president travels down Pennsylvania Avenue, the security posture of the Capitol complex gets an adrenaline shot, and today will be no different.

Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer, who will accompany Obama into the House chamber, said the FBI briefed him and his House counterpart, Paul Irving, on Friday and that the two security officials have been coordinating through the weekend.

“The great news is there’s no specific threats about the State of the Union,” Gainer said. “We have enough personnel, enough technology, enough coordination up on the Hill to meet all hazards, whether it’s weather or terrorists.”

Multiple streets will be closed around the complex at 7 p.m., creating a two- to three-block traffic buffer zone around the Capitol. Capitol Square on the building’s East Front will be limited to authorized and credentialed pedestrians only.

As usual, public and staff-led tours will finish for the day at noon and tour buses will be rerouted.

In addition to the closures, Capitol Police officers are ready to act in case protesters decide to show themselves during the speech, a spokeswoman said.

“It’s the case every day,” Capitol Police spokeswoman Sgt. Kimberly Schneider said. “USCP’s security plans are flexible enough to allow us to modify them as necessary so that we can respond to any situation that requires it at any time.”

As for protests in the chamber, that’s a bit harder to predict.

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ presence in the chamber might foster a more civil tone than during past State of the Union addresses, especially because uncivil rhetoric was shunned after the Arizona Democrat was shot a little more than a year ago.

She will be sitting between Arizona Reps. Jeff Flake (R) and Raúl Grijalva (D), who last year flanked an empty seat to signify her presence. Bipartisan seating in general could have the effect of averting any “You lie!” moments during this speech.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, however, said that while the seating might look good from the outside, it is doing little to foster comity among Members and even less to mend relations with the White House.

“The White House has dropped the ball as far as a White House that works with the Hill,” the Virginia Republican said, pointing to former Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder (D), who “had us to the [governor’s] mansion all the time” when Cantor was a state legislator, without “a lot of fanfare, not a lot of [reporters] down there.”

“I do think there is some sort of desire to see the Congress get along better,” Cantor said. “This, perhaps, in the eyes of some, is the manifestation of that. I think there are a lot more meaningful ways of achieving that going forward.”

John Stanton contributed to this report.

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