Minority Whip Steny Hoyer has floated his own proposal for House leaders of both parties to sit together at the State of the Union address.
The Maryland Democrat declined to detail specifics of his proposal, saying Republicans had not yet accepted it, except to say that he expected he would sit next to Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and that Assistant Democratic Leader James Clyburn (S.C.), Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson (Conn.) and Caucus Vice Chairman Xavier Becerra (Calif.) each would sit next to a Republican “counterpart of theirs” under his proposal in an area of the floor that “makes sense.”
The seating arrangement he proposed, would indicate that lawmakers “want to come together in a symbolic way, which is easy.”
“In a much, much more difficult way, hopefully we will be able to come together in a substantive way to reach compromises,” Hoyer said.
Following the Jan. 8 shootings in Tucson, Ariz., that wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), there has been a push for lawmakers to break from the tradition of partisan seating at the State of Union address, which President Barack Obama is slated to deliver at 9 p.m.
Earlier Tuesday, an aide to Majority Leader Eric Cantor said the Virginia Republican had invited Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to sit next to him. But Pelosi tweeted Tuesday that she had invited Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.) to sit next to her and that he had accepted.
Hoyer drew a distinction between Pelosi and Cantor — saying their specific leadership roles might make them want to sit on their party’s side of the chamber — and other, lower-ranking members of House leadership.
“The leaders on either side have a spot, and they’re the leaders of their party, and they’re in a position where — we are in session after all — so they’re in a position where they may well want to sit where the leaders usually sit,” he said. “The rest of us are a little more flexible because we’re not the leaders, and we’re not sitting at the leaders’ post if something happens on the floor that needs to be responded to, either by the Majority Leader or the Minority Leader.”
Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) said Hoyer also told Members at a Monday morning Caucus meeting to find a Republican seatmate.
“He met with a small group and was highly suggestive and even made reference in Caucus. He said, ‘Look, this is the right thing for us to do,’” Shuler said following a press conference Tuesday. “He encouraged Members, he sure did.”
The message, Shuler said, came loud and clear.
“He said ‘Hey, find someone that you either know well or would like to get to know,’” Shuler said. “And I think that’s solid, strong leadership. But we need it with everyone, both sides.”
Leaders of the Center Aisle Caucus circulated a “Dear Colleague” letter calling on Members to convene “as an undivided body for the State of the Union address.”
“We plan to sit with our colleagues from across the aisle during the address, and we hope that many other members will join us,” the letter states. “There is no better way to show that we are united as a country than to break the invisible barrier that has traditionally separated members of the two parties.”
The caucus is chaired by Reps. Russ Carnahan (D-Mo.), Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.), Timothy Johnson (R-Ill.) and Christopher Murphy (D-Conn.).
Shuler, a member of the Blue Dog Coalition who challenged Pelosi for Minority Leader, noted that he often works across party lines and easily settled on sitting with Rep. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) for Tuesday’s address. He said he hopes the bipartisan seating arrangement is the start to more cross-party interactions this year.
“When the American people realize we’re all together and we’re working together and we can display that tonight and also display that moving forward, then that actually gets our approval ratings out of a ditch,” Shuler said.