WASHINGTON -- Borrowing an idea from a centrist-Democratic think tank, Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) is urging members of Congress to commingle, in a bipartisan fashion, during the president's upcoming State of the Union address.
In a "dear colleague" sent out on Wednesday, Udall wrote that instead of sitting "in our usual partisan divide" when President Barack Obama appears before the dual chambers on January 25, "let us agree to have Democrats and Republicans sitting side by side."
Beyond custom, there is no rule or reason that on this night we should emphasize divided government, separated by party, instead of being seen united as a country. The choreographed standing and clapping of one side of the room - while the other side sits - is unbecoming of a serious institution. And the message that it sends is that even on a night when the President is addressing the entire nation, we in Congress cannot sit as one, but must be divided as two.
The proposal, which originated with the group Third Way, is a high note in kumbaya symbolism, meant primarily for the viewing audience and not the lawmakers themselves.
That said, State of the Union addresses and other presidential speeches before both chambers of Congress have become stages for some of the more prominent political confrontations in recent memory. There was Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) calling Obama a liar. There was Obama lashing out at the Supreme Court as they sat and watched at last year's address. Earlier, there was the infamous cold shoulder that Obama supposedly gave then-Sen. Hilary Clinton during the 2008 Democratic primary.
As for how to implement a bipartisan seating arrangement, no one is quite sure who is responsible. Lawmakers could, technically, do this themselves. The custom of splitting down the aisle appears to have simply developed over time, aided in part by the growing interest in and audience for the forum.
"According to our research," a Udall staffer told The Huffington Post, "there's no evidence that the parties have ever sat together, but there are anecdotal reports of individual members sitting with the other side."
The following is a copy of Udall's letter:
Dear Majority Leader Reid, Speaker Boehner, Minority Leaders McConnell and Pelosi:
We, the undersigned members of Congress, believe that partisan seating arrangements at State of the Union addresses serve to symbolize division instead of the common challenges we face in securing a strong future for the United States.
As we all know, the tenor and debate surrounding our politics has grown ever more corrosive - ignoring the fact that while we may take different positions, we all have the same interests. This departure from statesmanship and collegiality is fueled, in part, by contentious campaigns and divisive rhetoric. Political differences will always generate a healthy debate, but over time the dialogue has become more hateful and at times violent. But now the opportunity before us is to bring civility back to politics. It is important to show the nation that the most powerful deliberative bodies in the world can debate our differences with respect, honor and civility. We believe that it is not only possible, but that it is something that nearly all members of Congress truly desire. To that end, we suggest setting a small, but important, new tradition in American politics.
At the State of the Union address, on January 25th, instead of sitting in our usual partisan divide, let us agree to have Democrats and Republicans sitting side by side throughout the chamber. Beyond custom, there is no rule or reason that on this night we should emphasize divided government, separated by party, instead of being seen united as a country. The choreographed standing and clapping of one side of the room - while the other side sits - is unbecoming of a serious institution. And the message that it sends is that even on a night when the President is addressing the entire nation, we in Congress cannot sit as one, but must be divided as two.
On the night of the State of the Union address, we are asking others to join us - House and Senate members from both parties - to cross the aisle and sit together. We hope that as the nation watches, Democrats and Republicans will reflect the interspersed character of America itself. Perhaps by sitting with each other for one night we will begin to rekindle that common spark that brought us here from 50 different states and widely diverging backgrounds to serve the public good.
With respect and admiration,