Mon January 24, 2011

New State Of The Union Question: Found A Date Yet?

The State of the Union address is a solemn affair. The president lays out his goals and accomplishments before a gathering of the powerful from across the government: Supreme Court justices, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and, of course, Congress.

It's serious business. But this year it's earned a new nickname from pundits and lawmakers alike: Date night!

To show their commitment to bipartisanship, some senators and representatives have pledged to sit with a member of the other party while listening to the president's speech.

It may sound trivial, but to people who watch Congress like a sport, this will be riveting. It's like the Dallas Cowboys and the Washington Redskins hanging out for a post-game beer. Coke and Pepsi, talking bottle tops. Mozart and Salieri, comparing compositions.

Crossing The Aisle — Literally

Now, to understand just how different this will be, you have to know how things usually work. First of all, the House of Representatives does not have assigned seating — ever. In fact, says Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, if you watch the House on any normal day, the lawmakers milling around don't often sort themselves by party.

"Sometimes it comes down to region — the Pennsylvania corner, the Massachusetts folks are here. Sometimes it's the Hispanic Caucus is here and the Black Caucus," she says. "Just depends on what the conversation is at the moment."

There is, though, a Democratic side and a Republican side. And on the night of the State of the Union, lawmakers always sit on their side, barring a lack of seats. The president enters the House through the aisle down the middle of the two sides. And that, by the way, is the aisle lawmakers cross when they "cross the aisle" to work with someone from the other party.

On Tuesday night, there will be a significant amount of aisle-crossing. Sen. Dick Durbin, the Democratic whip, is pairing up with a colleague from his home state.

"My new Senate Republican colleague from Illinois, Mark Kirk, and I are going to sit together," he told Fox News. "I'm bringing the popcorn; he's bringing the Coke with two straws. I'm just kidding, of course."

And the quintessential middle-America Republican, Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, will sit with the quintessential East Coast Democrat, New York Sen. Chuck Schumer.

"We hope that many others will follow us," Schumer said. "Now, that's symbolic, but maybe it just sets a tone and everything gets a little bit more civil."

'It Really Doesn't Matter'

The idea does have its critics.

"You know, there's a lot of talk these days around here about where members of Congress are going to sit during the State of the Union address," Indiana Republican Mike Pence said recently on the House floor. "Well, I've been in Congress for 10 years and I learned a long time ago, it doesn't really matter where you sit — it matters where you stand."

And Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell brushed off the idea this weekend, saying people can certainly mix it up, if they want.

But Coburn, the Republican from Oklahoma, told NBC the two parties often don't approach each other with respect. "We talk past each other, not to each other," he said, and sitting together just might help.

Of course, Pelosi pointed out that, as speaker, "I had been sitting next to Vice President Cheney for a long time."

Because for the last two years of the Bush administration, divided government put leaders of both parties on the dais for the State of the Union.

And now, with President Obama in the White House and a Republican majority in the House, divided government has returned. So the epic rivalry of Republicans versus Democrats continues. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.