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The Night Congress Learned To Couple-Skate

The idea that members of Congress would tout their commitment to bipartisanship by sitting together Tuesday night struck some as inspired — and others as insipid. But the gesture may have helped President Obama more than anyone.

Based on appearances alone, viewers of Obama's State of the Union speech could be forgiven for thinking that the president's words were hitting home more than usual inside the hall.

That's because, instead of the standard partisan sight of half the chamber standing to applaud while the other half sat on their hands and looked like they were chewing on Sour Balls, on Tuesday night the ovations looked less one-sided.

The audience for the State of the Union is usually self-segregated, with Democrats on one side of the aisle and Republicans on the other. But not this year. The shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords prompted lawmakers to call for mixed seating, and the idea quickly gained traction.

With more than 50 bipartisan pairs — and even trios, quartets and whole softball teams — sitting together, this wasn't a night to nod off and simply copy your neighbor's reaction.

The event also gave us a glimpse of politicians' social side. In recent days, tweets and stories burst forth to announce each new pairing.

And there were some shockers: Reps. Peter King and Anthony Weiner, famous for getting after each other on television, surprised many by sitting together — an idea that King said came from his wife. They talked to Morning Edition co-host Steve Inskeep:

And Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Tom Coburn (R-OK), who often find themselves at odds, also set a date.

As Sen. Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, said a few hours before the speech, "Maybe we do need to get out of our conventional skins every now and again and come out and do something that indicates to the rest of the country that we are not afraid to sit next to each other, that there are no cooties to be had."

Murkowski watched the speech side by side with Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat.

The bottom line: During the State of the Union, it didn't look like Obama was preaching to the choir — but it didn't look like half the members of Congress had been dragged to the event by their heels, either.

Skeptics will be forgiven for not anticipating a new Era of Good Feelings in the wake of the Tucson tragedy. But the shift in seating was at least a nod to bipartisanship.

As President Obama said in his speech, "What comes of this moment is up to us. What comes of this moment will be determined not by whether we can sit together tonight, but whether we can work together tomorrow."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.