Bipartisan Seating Kicks Off Year With Positive Symbolism

Photo and Story by Libby Casey, APRN – Washington DC

Tonight’s State of the Union Address has members of Congress reaching across the aisle and has Alaska’s Congressman attending for the first time in decades.

Senator Lisa Murkowski says her plan to sit with members of the opposing party at tonight’s State of the Union may be symbolic, but she asks why not kick off the year with positive symbolism?

“Why not start off this new 112th congress with a gesture, an effort to try to come together, even if just for a couple hours as we show not only respect for the elected leader of our nation when he comes to address us in this joint session, but respect for the institution,” Murkowski said.

Murkowski admits she was skeptical at first when Democratic Colorado Senator Mark Udall approached her earlier this month with the idea of showing bipartisan unity at tonight’s State of the Union address.  But she says the enthusiastic reaction of some of her young staffers inspired her.

“One of them said that would be wild.  And I said wild in a good way? And without question he said yeah, you should.  You should do this,” Murkowski said. “So maybe we should get out of our conventional skins every now and again, come out and do something that indicates to the rest of the country that we’re not afraid to sit next to one other, there are no cooties to be had Republican between Democrats.”

Alaska’s Republican Senator held a press conference on Capitol Hill Tuesday with Udall and two members of the House – one Democrat and one Republican.  Together they’re leading the charge to sit regardless of party tonight, breaking the tradition of D’s on one side of the House chamber, and R’s on the other during the President’s annual address.  So far more than 50 members have signed on to their plan, and dozens more are expected to mix up their seating arrangements tonight.

Senator Udall says he hopes it’s just the start of bipartisan efforts in the year ahead.

“And I think we all agree if we can’t sit together on an important night like this, how can we face the real challenges the country has,” Udall said.

Udall told reporters to “stay tuned” for more on how he hopes to work across the aisle with Murkowski and others across.

Tonight’s gesture was inspired by the shooting and attempted assassination earlier this month of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

Udall says it’s a chance to stop bipartisanship just for the sake of disagreeing and fighting.

“What happened in Tuscon setting aside blame, because I think this was a very troubled young man in Tucson, it was a warning to all of us, it was a wake-up call,” Udall said. “We’ve all quietly said to each other, Republicans to Democrats, Ds to Rs, etc, the rhetoric is getting out of control and it could have an affect.”

Senator Murkowski says political leaders and the media share responsibility in not stirring up the pot just for the sake of creating anger and drama.  And she says the story of who’s going together to the State of the Union should fade into the background when President Obama takes the podium tonight and begins his speech.

“It’s like who’s going to the prom and who’s wearing what dress.  And to a certain extent this has been a little bit of a dating show, you know who you going with reminds me of the 8th grade,” Murkowski said. “I’ve got a double date; we’ll see how that works out.  But I do hope it’s not so much of a focus on who’s sitting next to who, but really allowing those of us who are in the chambers focused on the president’s words, as we should be.”

“It should be the content of the speech, and not necessarily where everyone ends up sitting.”

Murkowski’s “double date” is with Maryland Democrat Barbara Mikulski and Hawaii Democrat Daniel Akaka.

Senator Mark Begich plans to sit with a couple other Senators and Alaska Congressman Don Young in what will be Young’s first trip to the State of the Union since his freshman term in office, back in 1974.

Young says he usually skips the speech and watches from home because he has concerns about security when so many leaders, from the President to members of Congress to the Supreme Court are gathered under one roof.

Young’s spokeswoman, Meredith Kenny, says it was a Democrat: his colleague in natural resource issues Nick Rahall of West Virginia who convinced Young to set aside his own tradition and go tonight.

Photos: (Top) Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) joined with Rep. Health Shuler (D-NC), Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ), and Senator Mark Udall (D-CO) to call for bipartisan seating at Tuesday’s State of the Union address. (Right) Rep. Don Young and Sen. Mark Begich share a laugh after the State of the Union address at Young’s observation that he was in high demand as a seatmate after 37 years of skipping the speech. The two Alaskans sat together and agreed on some of the speech’s highs and lows. (Left) Senator Mark Begich and Representative Don Young sit together in December of 2008.

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