Bickering lawmakers to try rubbing elbows

Reuters News
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Posted: Jan 19, 2012 6:14 PM
Bickering lawmakers to try rubbing elbows

By Thomas Ferraro

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Facing record-low approval ratings from Americans weary of congressional gridlock and elections in November, lawmakers want to show voters that really, they do get along after all.

Scores of Republican and Democratic lawmakers plan to cross the aisle and mingle with their opponents during President Barack Obama's State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress next Tuesday, officials said on Thursday.

Skeptics say recent history suggests that the display of collegiality by nearly 140 of the 535 lawmakers during the nationally televised prime-time speech will be little more than that - a display.

Analysts point to the oddity of Republicans and Democrats trying to show voters bipartisanship during an election year, when both parties are expected to campaign aggressively, and negatively, to win control of both chambers.

And then of course there is Congress' recent track record on bipartisanship.

Dozens of Republicans and Democrats sat next to each during the last State of the Union, in a fleeting display of unity after Democratic Representative Gabrielle Giffords was gravely wounded in a shooting.

"What followed was one of the nastiest and least productive years in the entire history of Congress," said Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia, predicting more of the same this year.

"It's always better to be civil than not, but we now have irrefutable proof of what this little technique actually accomplishes: Nothing," he said.

Until last year, there was a strict, although unofficial, tradition of lawmakers seating themselves by political party in the House chamber to hear the president's speech - an annual event that has become a competition to see which side can out-perform the other with either applause for the president's remarks or stony silence.

But in the months after Democrats and Republicans broke the mold and mingled during Obama's 2011 State of the Union, both parties fought bitterly in a long-running battle over taxes and spending. The fighting brought the U.S. government to the brink of shutdown three times and a near default.

WINDOW DRESSING?

As a gridlocked Congress struggles to pass even basic legislation, public confidence in the House of Representatives and Senate has plunged to record lows.

The call for bipartisan seating as a move toward comity was first made last year by Democratic Senator Mark Udall and Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski after the Giffords shooting. The two senators are again helping lead the charge for a bipartisan display at next week's speech.

The idea also was embraced by several groups, including Third Way, a centrist think tank, and No Labels, a public advocacy group, and even more lawmakers are planning to participate this year.

No Labels, which is compiling a list of lawmakers intending to join in the bipartisan show next week, said there are 136 such members and the number is expected to grow as Obama's speech nears.

"By no stretch do Senator Udall and I believe this gesture will put an immediate halt to the argument culture rampant on Capitol Hill, but it is a step in the right direction when it comes to opening up the lines of communications," Murkowski said of this year's State of the Union plans.

Paul Sracic, a political science professor at Youngstown State University, said lawmakers must do more than sit together.

"This is just window-dressing," Sracic said. "It is a cost- free way to appear bipartisan, without actually having to vote in a way that might actually cause difficulty in your district."

(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan)