From vitriol to civility: Should parties sit together at State of the Union?

Sen. Mark Udall is proposing that Democrats and Republicans sit together at President Obama's State of the Union address as a practical first step toward more civil political discourse.

Mamta Popat/AP
A boy walks past a large American flag recovered from ground zero after the 9/11 attacks, outside the entrance at the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church for the funeral of 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green Thursday, Jan. 13, in Tucson, Ariz.

Will Republicans sit with Democrats during President Obama’s State of the Union address Jan. 25?

That’s what Sen. Mark Udall (D) of Colorado is proposing. On Wednesday he called for ending the tradition whereby Democrats sit on one side of an aisle in the House chamber, where the speech occurs, while GOP members of Congress sit on the other.

In the wake of the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords many lawmakers are calling for more civil US political discourse. Sitting together might be a practical first step toward that goal, according to Senator Udall.

The traditional partisan seating divide is a “negative symbol of the divisions in Congress,” he said.

At least two other Democratic Senators have indicated they think this is a good idea, said Udall. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs made it sound like Mr. Obama might approve, too.

“Maybe not having a physical aisle separate us would be a good thing as we talk about the state of our Union,” said Gibbs.

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Will this actually happen? It’s possible. But by making the proposition himself, Udall makes the idea seem, well, Democratic, with a capital “D.” His chances of actually getting lawmakers to cross the aisle might have been better if he had convinced a Republican to make the proposal with him.

And here’s a little secret about the State of the Union seating chart: There isn’t one. Yes, there’s a roped-off section for senators down front in the House chamber, as well as places for diplomats and Supreme Court justices. But within the senatorial section, there are no assigned seats. And among the larger House crowd, it is general admission. Any lawmaker can grab any spot they want in the House section after the doors open for the daily session.

There’s a catch, though. “They must remain physically in the seat to retain their place for the speech,” notes a Congressional Research Service report on the tradition of State of the Union addresses.

So it’s like getting a good spot on the Capitol lawn for the July 4 concert by the National Symphony. Get there early, and bring snacks and magazines.

The bottom line here is that nobody is stopping Senator Udall from sitting down with his GOP brethren. He should just do it, if he really thinks it’s a good idea. Walk over and sit down next to, say, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. Strike up a civil conversation on whether Obama’s health reform should be repealed.

OK, maybe they should stay away from political hot topics such as that. But many people in their high school experience have witnessed a moment where a jock, say, got up from his or her usual table in the cafeteria and took their tray over to the computer nerd table and sat down, just to make a point about unity. (Or vice versa, with a nerd moving to the athletes’ section.)

Would it kill a bunch of Washington grown-ups to do the same thing?

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