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Bipartisan Seating Backers Press On Despite Increased Rancor

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Sen. Mark Kirk plans to sit with Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin at this year's State of the Union address.

Jim Manley — who spent 21 years on Capitol Hill, most recently as a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) — applauded Members’ desire to reduce partisanship. But he called bipartisan seating at the State of the Union “an exercise in futility” that will do nothing to reduce polarization in Congress. The myriad partisan battles of 2011, culminating in the year-end fight over the extension of the payroll tax holiday, bolster Manley’s argument.

“I don’t want to sound to cynical,” he said. “But while I strongly support the idea that Members need to get to know each other better — after all it’s harder to demonize an opponent after having dinner with them once or twice — this is feel good symbolism that’s not going to amount to anything.”

Third Way, on its Internet homepage, has dubbed the effort “#sittogether.”

Jim Kessler, a senior vice president for policy at the think tank, conceded that bipartisan seating during the president’s annual address to Congress is largely symbolic and unlikely to change the tone in Washington any time soon. But Kessler believes there are several benefits that make the practice worthwhile.

A 25-year veteran of Capitol Hill politics, Kessler argued that seemingly insignificant efforts to bring lawmakers from opposite sides together could, over time, improve relationships and lead to a reduction in partisan tensions. And, Kessler added, the image sends a powerful message given that the State of the Union is nationally televised and viewed by millions of Americans.

“I’m not naïve,” Kessler said. “We didn’t expect this to change the way Congress was going to act toward each other. It’s 80 minutes out of a year. But we wanted to have at least a moment where, in the eyes of Americans, Washington looks like adults.”

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