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Bipartisanship May Not Extend Beyond Seating

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Sen. Mark Udall’s proposal to have Members sit in bipartisan groups during the State of the Union speech has received a lukewarm response.

Even if Members of Congress do cast aside protocol and abandon party-line seating during President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address next week, the showing of bipartisanship is unlikely to last long.

Senate Republicans and Democrats have paired up in support of a proposal from Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) that calls for Members to sit in bipartisan groups for the president’s yearly address to Congress, but House lawmakers have been less willing to buck tradition.

“Five minutes after the speech, when they’re all on the cable nets in Statuary Hall, they’ll all be ripping the president,” a former Senate Democratic staffer opined. “Sitting next to each other may promote civility for the moment, but it’s not going to change how Washington operates.”

While some are stepping forward to embrace Udall’s suggestion that bipartisan pairs sit together during Obama’s speech, others are gearing up for a partisan debate over repealing the health care law.

In the House, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said he supports Udall’s idea, but aides caution his endorsement is not a party position.

Democratic Rep. Jane Harman (Calif.) called Udall’s idea “inspired,” but she acknowledged that healing the partisan wounds from the 2010 election cycle will take more than a reformed seating arrangement. Still, Harman said it was a start.

“I’m hopeful that the carnage in Tucson really is a teachable moment,” Harman said. “And as one who thinks bipartisanship produces better policy, at least I personally am going to see how to make what might have been a one-night stand into a more permanent relationship.”

Harman said she was not reaching out to colleagues to encourage them to sit alongside Members of the opposite party. She also said she did not have a Republican partner to sit beside, but she is planning to view Obama’s speech from the right side of the aisle.

“Members of Congress choose where to sit at the State of the Union,” said Michael Steel, spokesman for Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).

Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) echoed Steel’s remarks, saying he supports the current rule that allows Members to sit on either side of the aisle.

A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the Nevada Democrat supports Udall’s proposal and plans to follow up with McConnell to talk further about the idea in the near future.

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