WASHINGTON — Within days of a shooting at a political gathering in Arizona that killed six, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, was among the first members of Congress to call for more civil political discourse.
She did so by urging her colleagues to pick a seatmate from the other party for the president's State of the Union speech -- a call to action that, by all accounts Tuesday night, was a resounding success.
"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're not afraid to sit next to one another, there are no cooties to be had between Republicans and Democrats," she said Tuesday at a press conference with her partner in the mixed-party seating initiative, Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo.
Her adage proved apt for Republican Rep. Don Young, who attended his first State of the Union address since 1974, and clearly was cootie free. Young was such a popular seatmate he had to fend off lawmakers trying to squeeze into the seats he had saved for his Democratic friends, including Sen. Mark Begich.
Begich, taking Murkowski's lead, had invited Young to the speech. The two Alaskans hung out in the rear of the House chamber, with Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., between them. Like a trio of schoolboys, the senator and the two congressmen rarely stopped grinning -- although Young judged the speech "a little flat."
Begich, the Alaska delegation's only Democrat, praised the no-nonsense, pro-jobs, "winning the future" theme of the president's speech, which called for making America more competitive globally, growing the economy by developing energy resources, and freezing some non-security federal spending for the next five years.
Begich said he thought the speech focused more on policy than "pomp and circumstance." But he praised the president's call for innovation.
"The China example he gave is right on," Begich said. "We developed the technology when it came to solar panels; they're developing it in China now. It makes no sense for us to be second-best when it comes to innovation."
Murkowski and Udall initiated the call for civility and mixed-party seating following the Jan. 8 shooting in Tucson that wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., and killed six people including a federal judge.
Murkowski called for people watching the speech to focus on the content of the president's remarks, rather than who had which seatmate. She left the speech early because her son needed an emergency appendectomy.
Both Young and Begich said they listened carefully when the president talked about energy goals in the speech. The goals included a proposal to double the amount of energy used from clean-energy sources, from 40 percent of overall energy consumption to 80 percent by 2035.
That "expansive" clean-energy standard will include solar, wind and natural gas as well as nuclear and clean coal technology with carbon sequestration. Promoting such a mix -- especially expensive nuclear plants -- is intended to create an atmosphere that gets businesses to invest, and get money off the sidelines, the White House said.
But the two were left cold by Obama's call for eliminating tax breaks for energy companies. Their seatmate, Rahall, clapped boisterously while both Begich and Young just smiled and looked at each.
"We have heard this before, and have not supported it twice in his last two budgets," Begich said. "This is problematic, we think, for the oil and gas industry."
Young said he liked the president's call for reorganizing government. He was especially appreciative of Obama's joke that the Interior Department is in charge of salmon in freshwater, and the Commerce Department in saltwater. But Young called the president's proposed spending freeze "a populist approach" that won't cut the deficit.
"'Just cut spending is the easy answer that does nothing and seems to be the phrase that everyone is throwing around lately as if it's the answer to our economic woes," Young said. "It is not. Just cutting the spending will not get us out of the hole; the same way cutting back your expenses doesn't magically pay your credit card bill every month."
Young said that only by reducing regulation and increasing production -- particularly of oil and gas -- will the country be competitive with China and other emerging economies.
As for his overall impression of the evening, Young said it was well worth the 37-year hiatus.
"I have to tell you something," Young said. "By being absent for so long, I was wanted."
"In a positive way, he wasn't on a poster!" Begich joked.
"It was fun," Young said. "We had a good time."