Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Presidents use their State of the Union speeches to send a message to Congress, but lawmakers are increasingly using their guest tickets to send a message right back at him.

For last night’s address, Rep. Jim Langevin, Rhode Island Democrat, invited actor Michael J. Fox, whose campaign commercials in favor of expanded embryonic stem-cell research may have helped Democrats win control of the Senate.

From the other side of the aisle, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, California Republican, invited the wife of a U.S. Border Patrol agent whom the administration prosecuted for a shooting incident involving a suspected drug smuggler.

Meanwhile, Adrian M. Fenty, who as D.C. mayor would usually sit in first lady Laura Bush’s box, refused as a protest against the District’s lack of a voting representative in Congress. But the Democrat was present, as the guest of new House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat.

“This has gotten to be such a big production about everything other than the address,” said one Senate aide. “It’s become a forum for everybody who wants to air grievances to a national audience rather than a forum to hear from the president on the state of the union.”

Mr. Rohrabacher, who has been a vocal critic of President Bush’s immigration plans, said inviting Monica Ramos “sends a powerful message” to the Bush administration.

Ignacio Ramos, Mrs. Ramos’ husband, and fellow agent, Jose Alonso Compean, have been imprisoned for shooting a drug-smuggling suspect in the buttocks after he assaulted one of them, dumped nearly 800 pounds of marijuana along the Rio Grande and then fled into Mexico. They are serving 11- and 12-year sentences, respectively.

“As these two fine men sit in federal prison cells unjustly, I am put in the position of consoling a devastated wife whose life has been destroyed, instead of having the opportunity to reward these men and their families for their brave service as law-enforcement officers,” Mr. Rohrabacher said.

Mr. Langevin, a quadriplegic and disabilities advocate who has pushed for broader stem-cell research, said he tries to invite guests who have a high profile on big issues. In 2005, he hosted Dana Reeve, wife of actor Christopher Reeve.

“Michael will help to further Chris and Dana’s legacy and underscore for the president just how serious I am about pursuing the promise of stem-cell research,” Mr. Langevin said after issuing his invitation to Mr. Fox.

A guest invited by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat, to highlight the health plight of his father, a September 11 emergency worker, learned that his father died last night just before the speech, according to the Associated Press.

The most coveted invitation at a State of the Union address is to sit in the first lady’s box.

As mayor of the host town, Mr. Fenty would sit with her by tradition. But instead he joined a host of Democratic luminaries in Mrs. Pelosi’s section. The new speaker invited former House Speakers Tom Foley and Jim Wright, both Democrats; Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley; Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa; and Bruce Gordon, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Because of the way the chamber is situated, Mrs. Bush, sitting to the president’s left, looked directly at Mr. Fenty and Mrs. Pelosi’s other guests as her view across the chamber.

Among Mrs. Bush’s 24 guests this year was Dikembe Mutombo, a pro basketball player and recently naturalized U.S. citizen who spends his off-season working to improve conditions in his native Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Mr. Mutombo, who played basketball at Georgetown University, towered over Mrs. Bush as he stood after the president recognized him.

“He came to Georgetown University on a scholarship to study medicine — but Coach John Thompson got a look at Dikembe and had a different idea,” Mr. Bush said, drawing a giant smile from Mr. Mutombo.

The president also pointed out Wesley Autrey, who saved the life of a man who fell onto the subway tracks in Harlem. Mr. Autrey pulled the man into a space between the rails as the train went by.

In the past, Mrs. Bush has hosted then-Afghan Interim Authority Chairman Hamid Karzai; the then-president of the Iraqi Governing Council, Adnan Pachachi; and a military German shepherd bomb-sniffing dog who had been deployed to Iraq.

The tradition of recognizing guests was started by President Reagan in his first State of the Union speech in 1982, when he acknowledged the presence of Lenny Skutnik, who just 13 days before had dived into the Potomac River to rescue a victim of the Air Florida plane crash.

Last year, the guest who garnered the most attention was anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan, who was arrested for demonstrating in the Capitol and removed from the House gallery minutes before Mr. Bush spoke. She was the guest of Rep. Lynn Woolsey, California Democrat.

The public galleries in the House have 623 seats occupying the tops of two sides and the wall the president faces. All but a few seats were taken, and the chamber was so packed that dozens of ticket holders ended up sitting on the steps in the aisles between the seats.

Not everyone gets into the act with his tickets.

Both Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, gave tickets away to other offices who needed extra tickets.

And many offices offer tickets to mayors or other officials from back home.

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