Calling for detente in the partisan political atmosphere in the wake of the Arizona shooting, Sens. Charles Schumer and Tom Coburn announced Sunday that they would break with tradition and sit next to each other during the upcoming State of the Union address.
By joining the effort led by Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) to abandon party divisions in the seating for the Jan. 25 address, Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he and Coburn (R-Okla.) are trying to help engender a more cooperative and less partisan atmosphere.
“We’re going to sit together [at] the State of the Union, and we hope that many others will follow us,” Schumer said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “Now that’s symbolic, but maybe it just sets a tone and everything gets a little bit more civil.”
Udall circulated a letter last week asking colleagues in both chambers to support the seating idea in a gesture toward fostering civil political discourse. Members traditionally sit aligned by political party during the address, with Republicans on the right side of the House chamber and Democrats on the left. A handful of Members have stood behind Udall’s proposal, including Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).
Coburn, a conservative from Oklahoma, said that Members need to refocus on the work in Congress and address concerns in a more substantive way in light of the shooting this month in Tucson that killed six people and injured Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and 12 others.
“Some of the problem in our country is that we talk past each other, not to each other,” Coburn said on “Meet the Press.” “Chuck and I have been able to work on multiple bills because we sit down, one on one, and work things out. And what we need to do is have more of that, not less of it.”
Like Schumer, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand called the suggested seating arrangement “a symbol” that could help create a more civil tone in Congress just as Republicans gear up to push legislation in the House to repeal the health care law.
“What you’re going to create is an image of the Congress deciding that we are going to work as a body, not two separate sides. And that’s a very good place to start,” the New York Democrat said during an appearance on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
Gillibrand told “Meet the Press” on Sunday that Giffords is using both sides of her body, breathing on her own, opening her eyes, and communicating that she understands what she’s hearing and seeing as she recovers from a gunshot wound to the head. She is not, however, able to talk yet, Gillibrand said.
“It’s an extraordinary amount of progress for a woman who sustained such a horrific injury that she did,” Gillibrand added. Doctors at University Medical Center in Tucson, where Giffords is being treated, will give their next full update on her condition Monday.
Members are still trying to strike a balance between voicing their points of view and avoiding heated tones, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz said Sunday on “Face the Nation.”
“I don’t plan to debate my values and the principles of my constituents any less vigorously,” the Florida Democrat said, while noting that Members have room to change their tone.
She criticized House Republicans for using the words “job killing” in the name of their health care repeal bill and called on the GOP to change the name.
Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who also appeared on “Face the Nation,” did not say whether he would join Udall’s effort to sit with Members from the opposite party during the State of the Union. The fiscal conservative echoed the theme of the day about using the tragedy in his home state to hit the restart button on Capitol Hill, and he praised Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) for postponing the vote on the repeal bill by a week in the wake of the shooting.
The House is set to begin consideration of the health care repeal bill Tuesday with a final vote Wednesday.
“I think you’ll see a more civil debate than you would have had otherwise,” Flake said. “I’m not sure the substance of the debate will change that much. I think Republicans are committed to repealing the law in the House obviously. But I do think that the tone will change, and that’s a good thing.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.