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Got a date? Mixed seating at State of Union

Bipartisan move follows calls for more civility in politics

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WASHINGTON - Civility or just silly, the push to mix Republicans and Democrats through the audience of President Barack Obama's televised State of the Union address spread across Capitol Hill on Monday, fueled by signals that Americans want to see more cooperation among the nation's leaders.

Hatched last week by Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., the idea caught fire over the weekend after a poll showed a big majority of the public wanting lawmakers of both parties to sit together at the presidential address. A spirited round of private phone calls and e-mails among lawmakers followed, and by Monday at least five dozen House members and senators had announced they had bipartisan dates for the big dance.

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The result could be helpful to Obama as he delivers what is effectively the first speech of his re-election campaign. Rather than serving the traditional visual of the president's party popping up on one side of the chamber for dozens of standing ovations, the applause will be more evenly spread, perhaps giving the illusion of wider acceptance.

But many Republicans, too, accept the basic intent of the new seating plan.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., told reporters that he would be more than happy to sit with his Democratic counterpart, Steny Hoyer of Maryland. He suggested that if working more productively together is everyone's goal, "maybe the sitting thing is a first step.

"If nothing else, it shows we are trying," said Rep. Paul Gosar, a freshman Republican from Arizona who will be sitting next to Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md. "That's a gesture that the American people really want to see."

It may be fleeting. Good manners for an hour on television carry no guarantees for the political battles that loom over health care and federal spending during the two-year presidential election cycle that effectively kicks off with Obama's speech from the well of the House.

And for some — influential interest groups, for example — the drive to mix it up now, in the raw aftermath of the Tucson shootings that left six dead and Rep. Gabrielle Giffords critically wounded, under the gaze of the victims' friends and family members who will be seated in the gallery, is offensive for its implication.

"The left has been promoting the idea that the tone in politics is one of the reasons why we had this tragedy in Arizona," said Brian Darling, director of government relations for the conservative Heritage Foundation. "This (seating idea) has spun out of that line of reasoning."

In truth, members of Congress are more than civil to each other in private, regardless of party affiliation. They play football and softball together. They travel to exotic locales and war zones in "codels," or congressional delegations. They have similar work lives as elected members of Congress, which for many means spending days or weeks at a time away from home.

So it's not much of a stretch for most to sit elbow-to-elbow with people who are members of the other party. Even so, the sprinkling of Republicans and Democrats across the chamber Tuesday night will be a carefully calibrated affairs, more like prom dates than political marriages.

There were signs that symbolism matters.

A CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey released Friday indicated that 72 percent of the public says Democratic and Republican lawmakers should sit together at the State of the Union.

Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University, said a civil evening would distinguish lawmakers from the divisiveness of the past two presidential addresses to Congress.

In 2009, Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., brought Obama's speech on health care reform to a screeching halt by shouting, "You lie!" Last year, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito made a dismissive face when Obama scolded the court for a 5-4 ruling on campaign finance law.

At this point, Baker said, "anything that contributes to creating the impression that Democrats and Republicans are not mortal enemies is a good thing."

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Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., a co-founder of the House's civility caucus, said the prospect of bipartisan seatmates was the buzz on the trip back to Washington. The congressional women's softball team, she said, might sit together.

"But really, for the average citizen, they don't give a rip where we sit," Capito said in an interview.

Rep. Heath Shuler, D-N.C., a former professional football player, said he may sit with other lawmakers who are fans of the game.

Bipartisan seating arrangements are far more common among collegial senators. Hill denizens joked Monday that the king and queen of the ball might well be Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and John Thune, R-S.D. Odd couple Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Tom Coburn, R-Okla., announced earlier that they would be a pair.

The Tucson massacre and the call for civility would be the thematic underpinnings of the evening.

"I think it's tragic that we have to have an event like that to bring us back to reality," said Gosar.

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

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