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As State of the Union nears, Congress plays musical chairs

The talk in the West Wing may center on what President Obama plans to say Tuesday. But on Capitol Hill, it's all about the seating — who will be next to whom.
Senate Panel Holds Hearing on Affect of Oil Spill on Small Business
Sens. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and Mary Landrieu, D-La., confer during a hearing of the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee.Scott J. Ferrell / Congressional Quarterly/Getty Im
/ Source: The New York Times

Mary from Louisiana asked Olympia from Maine because they are BFFs, but had a backup in Bob from Tennessee in case she was rebuffed. Kirsten from New York went the Sadie Hawkins route and asked John from South Dakota, and thus the deal between two members of the Senate with seriously good hair was sealed.

The talk in the West Wing may center on what President Obama plans to say on Tuesday in his State of the Union address to Congress about the still-ailing economy, or United States-China relations, or his education agenda. But here on Capitol Hill, the talk for the last few days has been all about the seating for the president’s speech and just who will be next to whom.

Ever since Senator Mark Udall, Democrat of Colorado, pushed for lawmakers of both parties to mix it up rather than sit among their own in the House chamber as if the other side has cooties, there has been a mad scramble among lawmakers for just the right partner.

Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, was early out of the box, saying he would sit next to his political antipode, Senator Tom Coburn, the conservative Republican gentleman from Oklahoma.

Others are doing it by delegation; for instance, Colorado’s two Democratic senators and its four House Republicans will assemble as a group. Illinois’s bipartisan Senate duo, Richard J. Durbin and Mark Steven Kirk, will be joined at the seat, as will the one from Pennsylvania, Bob Casey and Pat Toomey.

Sometimes the link is shared interests, which in Washington does not mean cooking or cycling but committee assignments.

“I asked one of my best girlfriends to be my date for the night,” Senator Mary L. Landrieu, Democrat of Louisiana, said of her choice, Senator Olympia J. Snowe, Republican of Maine. “Of course, we share the Small Business Committee.”

“I had backups in case she said no, like Corker or Isakson,” Ms. Landrieu said, referring to Senators Bob of Tennessee and Johnny of Georgia. “These are really great guys. So, we may do a triple date.”

Others who have paired off include Senators Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, and John Thune, Republican of South Dakota, generally considered two of the more well-coiffed and attractive members of the Senate.

The idea of mixing and mingling was originally advocated by the centrist group Third Way after the Tucson shooting that left Representative Gabrielle Giffords, a moderate Democrat from Arizona, critically wounded and spurred calls for a more civilized political discourse.

Mr. Udall quickly embraced it as a way for lawmakers to create new signs of civility visible to the public. It would be a stark contrast from previous years when the two sides of the aisle appeared to be listening to different speeches from different presidents, with Republicans leaping to their feet at the mention of tax cuts, for example, and Democrats embracing pledges of support for social programs.

Since mere moments after the idea was broached, lawmakers have also found themselves under steady questioning from the news media — local and national — demanding to know just whom they plan to sit with. It has made for some pressure, perhaps even some sweaty palms, in finding an available partner.

“Steny Hoyer and I try to talk quite often,” Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the No. 3 House Republican, told reporters, making his availability quite clear. “I would enjoy sitting next to him.”

Not everyone, though, is feeling the vibe.

“I already believe very firmly that it is a trap and a ruse that Democrats are proposing,” Representative Paul Broun, a conservative Republican from Georgia, said in a radio interview. Other Republicans have also scoffed at the idea as childish and irrelevant, calling it an effort to muzzle Republicans and prevent them from expressing reservations about Mr. Obama’s speech.

Asked whom the Republican Senate leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, would sit with, his spokesman, Don Stewart, said, “Whoever sits next to him.”

President George Washington delivered his first regular Annual Message to a joint session of Congress in New York City on Jan. 8, 1790. Thomas Jefferson decided to put his message to Congress in writing in 1801, a practice that was followed by subsequent presidents until Woodrow Wilson traveled to the Capitol to deliver his personally to a joint session of Congress in 1913, restoring a tradition that has continued.

Both parties agree that in recent years the event has become something of a partisan pep rally as the strictly divided seating arrangement in the House — originated in the mid-1800s between Whigs and Democrats — took hold.

Some forced bipartisan fellowship has taken place behind presidents as they gave their addresses, as Democratic speakers of the House and Republican vice presidents — and vice versa — have taken their seats. This year’s version will feature the bipartisan duo of Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, the new Republican House speaker.

Despite his having no choice in his seatmate, Mr. Biden embraced the new gesture, telling House Democrats at their retreat in Maryland on Friday that while it was a small step, it might be an important one.

“Hopefully it has the effect of generating the beginnings of a slightly different atmosphere,” Mr. Biden said. “Because, folks, if we don’t change it, if we don’t begin to get some kind of cooperation among us, I’m not sure how we deal with the dilemma the American people insist and have a right to insist on us dealing with.”

This article, , first appeared in The New York Times.