- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 30, 2005

When President Bush enters the House chamber Wednesday night on his way to deliver his State of the Union speech, one of the first congressmen to shake his hand will be a Democrat.

Rep. Eliot L. Engel, a liberal from New York, is among the lawmakers from both political parties who come early each year to claim prime places so they can greet the arriving president and, incidentally or not, be seen by their constituents on national television.

“They often have to get there hours in advance to get these seats by the aisle,” said Norman Ornstein, a congressional expert with the American Enterprise Institute, a nonpartisan think tank. “Some members of Congress squeal in delight when the president comes by and shakes their hand and recognizes them and everyone can see it on television.”

Among the other members who are usually by the aisle when a president of either party comes in are Reps. Mark Foley, Florida Republican; Cynthia McKinney, Georgia Democrat; and Sheila Jackson-Lee, Texas Democrat.

The backslapping gantlet of good will is among the rituals of the annual address. Every president is escorted by a bipartisan group of congressional leaders and welcomed physically and loudly — if not always sincerely — by members on both sides of the political aisle. As the president walks to the well of the House, Democrats are on his left and Republicans are on his right. From both sides, well-wishers hug and pat and grip the hands of every president.

In their own chamber, every senator has his or her own desk. But in the much larger House, there are no assigned seats. For joint sessions, extra chairs are brought in to accommodate the visiting senators. For the State of the Union, even more places are needed for the Cabinet and Supreme Court. All this crowding requires House members to stake out a strategic seat if they want to press presidential flesh.

During his eight terms in Congress, Mr. Engel has always made a point of being by the aisle to greet each president — regardless of political affiliation, said Gary Meltz, his spokesman. The veteran lawmaker regards the address as an historical and patriotic occasion and still enjoys being a part of it, Mr. Meltz said.

“He gets a kick out of it,” Mr. Meltz said. “He has always made it a priority. My boss believes there are certain days when party takes a back seat, and we come together as Americans.”

A more subtle way for an obscure member to ensure a TV appearance is to sit in focus range of another lawmaker who is sure to rate a reaction shot during the speech. This time, for instance, key seats will be near Sen. John Kerry, the losing Democratic presidential candidate from Massachusetts.

Except for congressional leaders, most members don’t have a national TV following beyond the faithful but relatively few C-SPAN viewers. The State of the Union address is among the rare occasions when America tunes into Congress.

“So this is one of those little perks that underscores or justifies your position,” Mr. Ornstein said.

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