Congress opts for bipartisan seating for State of the Union speech

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 24, 2012 

WASHINGTON — The partisan atmosphere in Congress has become so poisonous it's reached the point where Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski and others are touting the fact they'll be sitting with a member of the opposite party when the president gives his State of the Union speech today.

Murkowski has been the chief Republican proponent of the bipartisan date idea in the Senate, an arrangement that started last year after calls for greater for civility in Congress after the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Colorado Democratic Sen. Mark Udall is the main champion of the arrangement in his party, and will be sitting with Murkowski for the speech.

Another 182 of the 535 members of Congress, including all the Alaska delegation, have also signed on to sit next to a member from the other party.

So does it really matter where these guys are sitting for a speech one night a year, particularly when Congress has so many actual issues it hasn't been able to deal with, like the massive deficit?

William Galston, a co-founder at the nonpartisan group No Labels, said his outfit has been pushing the seating as part of a much more ambitious overall effort to get members of Congress to work together. He's heard the complaint that it's trivial where lawmakers sit down.

"The seating is the beginning. If it's the end, then it doesn't accomplish much, but if it's the beginning of something larger it could be very important," said Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Alaska Democratic Sen. Mark Begich is going to be sitting with Maine Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe. Alaska Republican Congressman Don Young, who last year attended his first State of the Union Speech since 1974, will be back this year. Young plans to sit next to Hawaii Democratic Rep. Mazie Hirono.

Murkowski, who won a write-in election in 2010 with the help of independents and Democrats after losing in the Republican primary, said the seating arrangement isn't a solution but it's something.

"By no stretch do Senator Udall and I believe this gesture will put an immediate halt to the argument culture rampant on Capitol Hill, but it is a step in the right direction when it comes to opening up the lines of communication," she said.

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