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Senate committee abandons the chamber's traditional seating chart

WASHINGTON—Traditions die hard in the U.S. Senate, but one expired largely unnoticed Wednesday in a small corner of the Capitol.

It didn't go unnoticed in the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, however.

To foster more bipartisanship, the committee changed the seating arrangements so that senators, instead of sitting divided by party and staring at each other from across the room, now sit side by side.

Democrats next to Republicans, of all things. What will they think of next?

But the Senate columns didn't crumble and the Capitol dome didn't crack. A few senatorial faces went blank, however, when members walked into the hearing room and looked helplessly around for their nameplates.

Sen. Thomas Carper, D-Del., stood in the doorway behind the horseshoe-shaped dais looking from side to side, unsure of which way to turn. His aide, who had trouble finding her own spot minutes earlier, finally caught her boss' eye and vigorously pointed to his new perch.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., the committee chairman, made the change at the suggestion of Sen. Claire McCaskill, a freshman Democrat from Missouri. But with only four committee members present when Lieberman kicked off the meeting, he joked, "I hope the new seating arrangement has not discouraged people to attend."

Indeed, McCaskill was a bit startled that an offhand suggestion suddenly became policy and turned the place topsy-turvy. She apologized for any undue "stress" it caused the Senate staff.

"It was as if lightning had struck the building and that the glass and the panes were shaking," she said. "It was really just a suggestion, and I didn't stomp my feet or demand change."

Whether this new era of good feeling in the homeland security committee will spread throughout the Senate is doubtful. Physically divided government on Capitol Hill started in the 1840s. But the idea has supporters from both sides.

Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the ranking Republican on the committee, told Lieberman she was "happy to sit either on your left or your right." Collins was now to his right. When she was chairman before last fall's election, she was to his left. Wait. Did she mean . . . ?

Whatever. If nothing else, it was another freshman lesson.

"You know," McCaskill said, "I've learned in the short time I've been here, that when they say in the United States Senate, `It's always been done that way,' they really s mean it."

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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