Barack Obama
J. Scott Applewhite  /  AP
President Barack Obama speaks at a memorial service for the victims of Saturday's shootings at McKale Center on the University of Arizona campus in Tucson, Ariz., on Wednesday.
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updated 1/14/2011 10:09:23 AM ET 2011-01-14T15:09:23

Despite President Barack Obama's appeal for civility, history suggests any move toward cooler political rhetoric after the Arizona shootings will soon fade.

An early test will come Jan. 25, when some lawmakers are asking Democrats and Republicans to sit side by side for Obama's State of the Union speech, rather than splitting the House chamber by party as usual.

Initial reactions to that idea on Capitol Hill were not encouraging, especially from the Republican side. A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said House members may "sit where they choose."

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., had no comment on the suggestion, which was offered by Democratic Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado. Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., signaled he might be open to the idea but wanted more discussion. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., embraced it.

Video: Gregory: Obama’s speech ‘seized’ the moment (on this page)

In a sometimes-emotional speech Wednesday night in Tucson, Obama implored Americans to reflect on the fatal shootings at Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' outdoor forum, but "not on the usual plane of politics and point-scoring and pettiness that drifts away with the next news cycle."

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A lack of civility did not cause the tragedy, he said, but "only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to our challenges as a nation."

The White House on Thursday said it was interested in Udall's proposal to have Democrats and Republican intermingle when they sit for this month's big speech by Obama.

"The choreographed standing and clapping of one side of the room — while the other side sits — is unbecoming of a serious institution," Udall said in a letter. As the nation reels from the six fatalities in Tucson and the severe wounding of Giffords, he said, Congress has a chance "to bring civility back to politics."

House Republicans have rejected the Democrats' request to postpone next week's vote to repeal the Obama-backed health care law, the focus of harsh political commentary, and occasional violence, for the past two years.

Looking back at the effects of other recent tragedies
National tragedies in recent years have led to calmer political rhetoric only briefly, if at all.

Leaders of both parties vowed to unite the nation after an anti-government militia movement sympathizer killed 168 people by bombing a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995. Seven months later, a partisan budget impasse led to a temporary government shutdown. The public mostly blamed House Republicans, and the incident helped catapult President Bill Clinton to re-election.

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Video: Lawmakers back at work after shooting tragedy (on this page)

In 2001, a few hours after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, lawmakers from both parties sang "God Bless America" on the Capitol's steps. "Democrats and Republicans will stand shoulder to shoulder to fight this evil," said House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.

But the parties returned fairly quickly to quarreling and strong-arm tactics on domestic issues, then split over the Iraq war. Hastert oversaw a GOP push to add a prescription drug benefit to Medicare in 2003. It culminated in a much-criticized predawn House vote in which the roll call was held open for hours while party leaders pressured colleagues to vote yes.

If anything, partisanship has worsened since then. Last year's health care law was passed despite unanimous Republican opposition. Giffords, who voted for the bill, received threats, saw her district office vandalized and said she worried about the consequences of menacing debate.

The House appears more sharply divided now. The Republicans' 63-seat gain in last fall's elections came mainly at the expense of moderate Democrats, making the Democratic caucus smaller but more liberal.

"The parties, especially in the House, are much more divided now," said Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz. And with a few congressional Republicans defeated in last year's primaries by tea party candidates, Abramowitz said, some GOP lawmakers will not want to risk being seen as willing to work with Democrats.

Last week, the Washington-based "Civility Project" disbanded after only three of Congress' 535 members signed a pledge to treat their adversaries with respect.

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Lanny J. Davis, a Democratic lawyer and co-founder of the bipartisan project, said Thursday that lawmakers in both parties "want to reserve the right to be angry and uncivil."

Davis, who counseled the Clinton White House, said irresponsible partisan sniping won't stop until leaders of both parties reprimand abusers from their own side, not their opponents'. He said Obama should publicly ask liberal commentators such as MSNBC's Keith Olbermann to stop attacking conservatives such as Fox News' Bill O'Reilly.

'Sister Souljah' moments
"If there is going to be a change, there has to be more Sister Souljah moments," Davis said. He was referring to a 1992 campaign speech in which Clinton angered some blacks, an important Democratic base, by criticizing violent and racially tinged hip-hop songs and their singers.

Obama won widespread praise for Wednesday's speech in Tucson. But he has been known to indulge in partisan digs himself. He regaled audiences last year with a parable about unhelpful Republicans, standing on the sidelines and "sipping on a Slurpee," while Democrats tried to pull the economy from the ditch where the GOP drove it.

And last February, Obama hosted a bipartisan health care summit that had virtually no bipartisan warmth.

When Sen. John McCain, whom Obama had defeated to win the presidency, condemned the overall health care debate, Obama sharply reminded him, "We're not campaigning anymore. The election's over."

And now the 2010 election is over, with Obama's party suffering huge losses. Republicans feel emboldened, Democrats are surly, and a horrific shooting in Arizona may do little to change the dynamics.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Gregory: Obama’s speech ‘seized’ the moment

  1. Transcript of: Gregory: Obama’s speech ‘seized’ the moment

    GEIST: Could be the end of the road . NBC 's Chuck Todd , thank you very much . David Gregory is moderator of " Meet The Press ." David , good morning.

    DAVID GREGORY reporting: Hey, Willie.

    GEIST: President Obama had a difficult task the other night in Tucson of comforting the people of that city, and indeed of the country. But also he tried to calm the political debate . How did he do on both counts, David ?

    GREGORY: Well, I think by all accounts he did very well. You hear compliments for him on both the left and the right, everyone across the political spectrum . And Chuck alluded to it. I mean, he did two things, which is to give voice to what people around the country have been feeling. This is something that affects people and families whether you knew the victims or not very deeply. And second, I think he took the country to a place that it didn't even know that it needed to go, talking about words that heal, not words that wound. Talking about being as big as this moment requires in our political life , in our political discourse around the country. So I think it was a moment that all agreed that he seized and kind of charts a path for where Washington and frankly the rest of the country can go.

    GEIST: David , I think we all agree civility's a worthy goal, but as Chuck just said in his piece it is back to business. The Republican House takes up the repeal of President Obama 's signature health care reform law. Why should this time be any different? Why will the conversation change?

    GREGORY: Look, I -- you know, cynicism is warranted, this is Washington after all. I think Washington can do a great job elevating moments like this to become a national moment of reflection, but Washington is also really capable of wasting these moments as well. If there's some hope, as it were, in the middle of a time here and now leading up to the State of the Union address where this spirit can be tapped into again, as Chuck alluded to, the president will do it again in the State of the Union and talk that way. We are about to have another health care debate. It doesn't have to be the way it was. There are even moves by Senator Tom Udall of Colorado during the State of the Union to have both parties sit together instead of sitting apart. I mean, these are small gestures, but ultimately it's about how the debate moves forward. We're going to have big debates about the role of government in our lives, government spending, health care and the like. It's a question of do people really want to make that turn?

    GEIST: And of course, David , Sarah Palin has been right in the middle of this conversation, even linked by some of her critics to the shooting because of some of her rhetoric. There was, of course, no evidence for that at all. Now getting some criticism for that Facebook statement she put out on the same day of the memorial. What is the long-term impact, David , on her political brand?

    GREGORY: You know, it's so difficult to gauge that because we don't know where she's headed politically other than being a really big political star, really. You know, everybody talks in terms of a potential run for the presidency for her. We just don't know if that's where she's headed. We just know at the moment she has huge political impact. I think the criticism of Sarah Palin would be that she made it more about her than it needed to be. That she was speaking to perhaps a narrow band of supporters who wanted to settle scores here after being linked to all of this in a way that was not supported by any evidence. That she didn't take an opportunity to go bigger as the president did and talk about this political moment that we're in independent of what happened in Tucson in terms of how we talk to one another. So I think that's a criticism that will carry with her. And, look, she has carried for a long time this ability -- or this question about whether she can step outside that narrow band of supporters and reach a wider audience.

    GEIST: And, David , I imagine these will be among the topics of conversation on Sunday's " Meet the Press ."

    GREGORY: No question about it, Willie . We have a special roundtable dedicated to these questions about our political discourse moving forward. Martin Luther King 's birthday. Al Sharpton will join our roundtable, Tim Shriver as well. But we'll begin with the program, with the debate about Washington , the debate over gun control. Senators Schumer and Coburn join me for that discussion.

    GEIST: All right, David Gregory , thanks so much.

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