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Lawmakers cross aisle to sit with adversaries during Obama speech

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Congress on Tuesday replaced the usual State of the Union partisan see-saw with the political version of Whack-a-Mole - scattered lawmakers standing and applauding amid their unmoved colleagues.

The experiment in civility - the product of calls for comity after this month's shooting on Tucson, Ariz. - featured lawmakers crossing the aisle to sit with their partisan adversaries, temporarily blurring party lines, but it's unclear whether it will have any lasting effect on the way Congress does business.

Even President Obama seemed to recognize the fleeting nature of the experiment.

"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," he said.

Still, for one night, the partisan differences were blurred.

In one poignant move Tuesday, the Arizona delegation sat together and left a seat empty in honor of their colleague Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was one of more than a dozen injured when a gunman opened fire at an open-air meeting she was holding with constituents in Tucson earlier this month.

Her open seat was between Rep. Jeff Flake, one of the more conservative members of the chamber, and Rep. Raul M. Grijalva, one of the more liberal ones.

With more than three dozen applause lines, there was plenty of time to see the clash of parties, though they were more muted than in past years.

The speech itself didn't help matters, plodding along so slowly that one woman in the diplomatic corps, sitting in the back row of the side usually dominated by Democrats, nodded off repeatedly during the speech.

But the seating did seem to produce interesting conversations between lawmakers. Two Texans, Rep Michael C. Burgess, a Republican, and Rep. Al Green, a Democrat, repeatedly joshed each other and kept up a running commentary.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican, sat with Rep. Robert C. Scott, a Virginia Democrat, while Rep. David Dreier, California Republican, sat with Rep. Maxine Waters, California Democrat.

Other pairings included House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi sitting with Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, Maryland Republican, with Rep. Judy Chu, a California Democrat, on his other side.

Mr. Bartlett gave the two women each a piece of Dove chocolate, his favorite kind. He said he knew Mrs. Pelosi liked dark chocolate, too.

"I was between two attractive ladies, so I was a lucky man," he said.

The seating chess moves extended beyond the House floor and into the public galleries, where Speaker John A. Boehner invited children involved in a D.C. voucher program to watch the speech - and listen to whether President Obama would give them a reprieve.

Democrats and Mr. Obama have severely curbed the program, arguing the money is better used elsewhere, but Mr. Boehner has vowed to fight to restore the program, saying it will be a key test of Mr. Obama's willingness to work with Republicans.

"It's an honor to be asked by the speaker, to be dignified and let our faces speak words," said Virginia Walden-Ford, executive director of D.C. Parents for School Choice. "I'm a strong believe in when people see the faces of their constituents, or children or parents or whatever, then it's really hard to say we can't do what's best for them."

In keeping with the tone of the speech, the gallery seating proved less controversial than in past years.

In 2006 anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan, the guest of Rep. Lynn Woolsey, was ejected and arrested for refusing to cover up an anti-war T-shirt. Soon after, Rep. C.W. "Bill" Young's wife, Beverly, was asked to leave because she was wearing a pro-troops T-shirt.

The next day Mr. Young, a former chairman of the Appropriations Committee who along with his wife regularly visited wounded troops at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, angrily denounced the move on the House floor.

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