Once a year, on a winter morning, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) changes his routine. Rather than going to his desk in the Rayburn House Office Building, the 11-term Congressman makes his way to the House chamber.
Arriving no later than 9 a.m., Engel takes a seat along the center aisle and waits. And then he waits some more.
He will spend the next 12 hours anticipating the moment when the president of the United States will enter the room to deliver his annual address. Engel, along with dozens of other House Members, will rise from that coveted perch on the aisle, thrust his hand toward the president and finally reach the goal: the moment when the leader of the free world will smile, shake it and say hello.
Its a great celebration, Engel says. I have been there to greet every president in the 22 years that Ive been there, whether Democrat or Republican, because the president is the president of all of us.
Securing an aisle seat is no easy task. House rules state that there is no assigned seating in the chamber and that staffers cannot save seats for their bosses. Over the years particularly after President Lyndon Johnson moved the television broadcast of the State of the Union to prime time in 1965 more and more Members have attempted to secure an aisle seat. The trend has especially caught on in recent years. During President George H.W. Bushs tenure, Engel says, he would arrive in the chamber at 6 p.m. and be able to secure an aisle seat. Now he must arrive 12 hours before the 9 p.m. speech.
Whats happened through the years is that youve got to get there earlier and earlier because more people come, Engel says. You have to be there yourself, so instead of coming to the office, I go to the floor and I wait.
Twelve hours in the chamber without a phone or computer may seem like a waste of time, but Engel says he actually gets a lot of work done. He opens letters, does a lot of reading and even hosts a few meetings from his seat on the aisle.
You dont have to stay glued to your seat. You can get up and walk around, he says. Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio) was looking out for my seat and I was looking out for hers when each of us would get up to walk around. That was contributing to bipartisanship on the floor.
Engel and Schmidt are often joined on the aisle by other Members such as Reps. Dale Kildee (D-Mich.), Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) and Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), none of whom could be reached for comment. Bachmann, however, was responsible for one of the most noteworthy aisle interactions in recent memory when in 2007 she embraced, kissed and held onto President George W. Bush for more than 30 seconds.
Engel, who settles for a handshake, says there is a certain camaraderie among the early birds.
What we do is, after a while, we kind of have a little bit of a picnic, he says. We pass around some snacks.