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Udall Says Bipartisan Seating At State of the Union The 'New Tradition.'

Lawrence Jackson
Executive Office of the President (Public Domain)
The 2011 State of the Union.

Next week President Obama will give – what could be – his final State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress.  Colorado Senator Mark Udall is urging members of Congress to find a 'date' from the opposite party and sit with them at the address. 

Last year 6o members took the pledge. This year, the Senator is doing it again. And the idea is taking hold.  

It used to be that members of Congress drew lots to determine seating for this annual event. By the time President James Polk spoke in 1845, seating was determined on a first-come, first-choice basis. And so began the tradition of each party sitting together on opposite sides of the chamber, although back then, the Whig party sat to the speaker’s left, and Democrats to the right.

Congressional tradition dictated this bipartisan seating arrangement for nearly 100 years. But in 2010, the contentious and bitter partisan climate, coupled with the shooting of Senator Gabriel Gifford in Arizona, saw The Third Way, a centrist think tank pen an open letter to congress. It sought civility and a return to bipartisan cooperation. 

Jim Kessler, the group's Senior Vice President for Policy, says the idea was simple. "We made a moderate proposal, that at least for this one hour, when the president is speaking, instead of being two warring parties on opposite sides of the room we sit together and listen to what the President has to say."

Colorado Senator Mark Udall, a Democrat and good friend of Gabrielle Giffords quickly  took up the cause  during last year’s the State of the Union speech. He says the tone of previous State of the Unions was staunchly partisan, which concerned him. “It had turned into a spectacle as you know, and when the president speaks to the country, I think we owe it to him and ant the country to draw our own conclusions and to not turn it into a run of the mill sporting event frankly.”

Udall now wants to make this a permanent change with all State of the Unions, and since there is no rule dictating seating arrangements, he says there’s no reason not to make bipartisan seating the ‘New Tradition.’

“The challenges are significant right now, we have to remind ourselves in any way possible, we play for the red white and blue team, we don’t just play for the red team or the blue team, and traditions chance and some traditions are eternal but there’s no where written in the Constitution that the parties have to sit separately at the state of the union. 

However, the camaraderie seen with the first bipartisan seating arrangement during last year’s State of the union, has largely evaporated.  Recent showdowns between democrats and republicans over the debt ceiling and controversial recess appointments by President Obama have brought partisan tempers to new levels.

So how could sitting next to a member of differing political persuasion for one hour each year, change the tone of Washington? 

Jim Kessler says, its as simple as getting to know your neighbor. “Nothing can done without agreement from both sides. Its’ very hard to make a deal with a stranger. It’s much easier to make a deal with someone you know, that you’ve conversed with and you’ve had a relationship with. So there are hurdles to getting this done, but I think it could be a good thing and right for the moment.”

 And for his part, Senator Udall concedes there is something to be said about standing up for a parties beliefs, and going to bat for its ideals. But there are times when putting partisanship aside matters. 

"One thing I’ve learned in Washington -there are plenty of times to play team there,  but there are less and less to play for the big team, the team that matters, the red white and blue team.  In the days when we had a lot more time together, as citizens as Americans, it made some sense to go to the state of the union to shout and cheer for our president or jeer the president of the other party, this is a night that doesn’t happen but once a year and I think it’s important for us to remember what our overall responsibilities are and that’s to the United States and our title.”

Udall has invited Alaskan Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski to be his date at next Tuesday’s State of the Union, and as of Monday morning, over 50 members of congress have pledged to sit across party lines. With just a week to go before this year’s address, it remains to be seen if bipartisan seating will become the new tradition, or another fading fad.