Sun January 16, 2011

Crossing The Aisle, Literally, For State Of The Union

The seating chart for the president's upcoming State of the Union address may look a little different this time around.

Traditionally, Democrats and Republicans sit on opposite sides of the House Chamber for the speech, but this past week, Colorado's Sen. Mark Udall suggested the parties integrate the seating.

It's not a rule that parties have separate seating arrangements, Udall tells Weekend Edition's Liane Hansen, it's just a custom.

"It's a custom that's in some ways understandable," he says. But given the tragedy in Tucson and the elevated rhetoric of the last couple years, Udall thinks it's time for lawmakers to come together -- at least symbolically.

"One way to present a symbolic front to the country," he says, "would be to sit together and change that custom."

Sitting on opposite sides of the chamber goes back decades, but Udall notes there have been exceptions, like the Committee on Homeland Security led by senators Joe Lieberman and Susan Collins. Members of that committee sit in an "intermixed fashion," he says, "so there's no hard-and-fast rule that we can't sit together."

Some of the best seats for the State of the Union address are the ones on the aisle -- it's a better chance to shake hands with the president. To avoid a lunchroom scramble where senators save seats for each other, Udall recommends an orderly procession.

"Each one of us could walk over with a fellow senator from the other party," he says. Each pair of senators could then alternate heading left and right to reach their seats. "It could happen just organically."

Udall says he's received support for the idea from both parties, with both Democratic and Republican senators saying they'll participate in a new seating arrangement. Whether they do or not, Udall is committed.

"Normally, my custom would be to take a left and go sit on the Democratic side of the House Chamber, but I'll take a right," he says.

"I predict there'll be a lot of senators who will join me." Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.