Posted Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2011, at 11:27 AM
The odd thing about Congress's new enthusiasm for bipartisan seating at the State of the Union is that its proponents are selling it as an antidote to theatrics.
"I think we agree that the State of the Union has become more like a high school pep rally," said Sen. Mark Udall (D-Col.), who originated this concept with a letter to his colleagues, "and we want to change the tone."
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who fended off a Tea Party coup in her state to become only the third senator elected as a write-in candidate, said that she had floated the idea to some college-age Alaskans. They were bullish on it.
"One of them said, 'That would be wild,'" said Murkowski. "And I asked: 'Wild in a good way?'"
Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), a freshman who said he wants to honor the recovering Gabrielle Giffords, said he was sitting with Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings. "I think we've gotten to the point where we stand to elevate every point," he said, bemoaning how the items that would produce cheers from Democrats and Republicans had become predictable.
"If you watch C-Span," said Rep. Heath Shuler, "it looks like people are going for Oscar awards. I'm not aware of any congressman getting an Oscar award from C-Span."
Udall has been leading an effort to reform the filibuster in the Senate -- an effort that,
according to Sam Stein
, is falling fall short of what liberals wanted. I asked him if this State of the Union push was an acknowledgement that the filibuster would not be reformed to the degree that Democrats had been hoping, in a vote that could happen today.
"Yes," said Udall.
That was all he said at first, giving Murkowski a chance to say that "all of us believe that this is a good first step." But he returned to the mic to clear this up.
"There's certainly some general support for ending the practice of secret holds," said Udall. "I think there's a general sense that we ought to expedite nominations to the executive branch and district court judges. I know the minority has a legitimate case to be made about the amendment tree being filled, and I have a set of proposals that I think will meet the concerns of the minority. But this certainly stands on its own. I hope it will ripple through the rest of what we do."
This was the only question about a specific Senate vote, though. This presser, generally, was a chance for the members and senators to muse about partisanship. One question to Murkowski: What role did the media play in Democratic-Republican tension?
"When we don't choose our words carefully, and then the media chooses to pass them around, build them up in a way that isn't intended," she answered. "We all have a responsibility to choose our words. The media does share some of the blame, as they choose to further the tension that is caused by those words. It's far more interesting to focus on the partisan drama than some of those efforts that prove we are working together."
Murkowski took the most questions, embracing the idea with both arms while challenging the media not to focus too much on the optics of who was sitting next to who.
"It is a symbolic gesture," said Murkowski, "but why not start off with a symbolic gesture?" Expanding on this point: "There are no cooties to be had between Republicans and Democrats."