- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The bipartisan State of the Union experiment appears to be waning.

Shocked by the January 2011 assassination attempt on then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, hundreds of House and Senate lawmakers vowed to sit together for President Obama’s State of the Union address that year as a symbol of their intent to lower the heat in politics.

But three years later, despite calls from the movement’s leaders to make it a permanent tradition, fewer lawmakers crossed the aisle Tuesday night, leaving the chamber once again a partisan seesaw.


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There were some exceptions, particularly in the Senate, where the newly minted legislative team of Sens. Dean Heller and Jack Reed hooked up. The Nevada Republican and Rhode Island Democrat made waves over the last two months by partnering to try to pass an extension of federal unemployment benefits, with Mr. Heller bucking many in his own party to work with Democrats.

“Thx for crossing the aisle!” Mr. Reed said in a Twitter message after Mr. Heller announced they’d paired up to listen to the address.

And Sen. David Vitter, Louisiana Republican, sat with Sen. Tom Udall, New Mexico Democrat, saying they hoped to highlight their joint work on chemical safety.


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Bipartisan seating was the brainchild of Mr. Udall’s cousin, Sen. Mark Udall, a Colorado Democrat who this year urged colleagues to keep the effort going.

“Permanent bipartisan seating at the State of the Union address would be one small way to bridge the divide and to encourage members to find bipartisan solutions to our nation’s problems. Please join us in moving this tradition forward,” he wrote in a letter signed by Sen. Lisa Murkoswki, Alaska Republican, and two Arizona lawmakers, Republican Rep. Matt Salmon and Democratic Rep. Ron Barber, the latter of whom won Ms. Giffords’ seat after she resigned.

But one Republican aide said the idea has faded after it became clear the new seating arrangement was sapping some of the energy in the chamber.

In the old days, the president’s more partisan proposals would be met with standing ovations from his own party, occupying one side of the aisle, while the others sat on their hands. Bipartisan proposals were met with unanimous applause.

It was an easy shorthand for voters to see which proposals had legs, and which were doomed to be ensnared in gridlock.

Jason Grumet, president of the Bipartisan Policy Center, said the bipartisan seating may have served a role over the last few years, and may return again in the future. But he said it’s less important than having lawmakers gathering in the same room to hear from the president.

“The dignity of the event matters, and getting the full body to support different ideas matters,” he said. “Sitting together I think was a clever, nice idea. I expect that there will be different versions of that and you’ll see it wane and it’ll come back a few years later. I think it is not nearly as important as the structural ritual of the evening.”

He said it’s more important that the members of Congress listen to the president with respect, and not break the dignity of the evening with outbursts.

In 2009, when Mr. Obama addressed a joint session of Congress on health care, Rep. Joe Wilson, South Carolina Republican, shouted “You lie!” in the middle of the president’s speech.

That outburst, coupled with the Giffords shooting in 2011, helped spawn the bipartisan seating movement in the first place as a way to cool the heated debates in Washington.

Mr. Obama himself made that appeal as he opened his 2011 address, acknowledging Ms. Giffords’ absence and saying the shooting “reminded us that no matter who we are or where we come from, each of us is a part of something greater — something more consequential than party or political preference.”