U.S. Senators, not House members, cross aisle for Obama speech

Reuters News
Posted: Feb 13, 2013 1:25 AM

By Rachelle Younglai and David Lawder

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - As President Barack Obama laid out his second-term agenda to Congress on Tuesday, Senate Democrats and Republicans made another attempt to show they were willing to set aside partisan differences by sitting next to their ostensible rivals.

First-time Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren, who repeatedly angered Republicans when she was working for the Obama administration, sat between Republican Senators Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.

Democrat Charles Schumer of New York sat between Republicans John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. The three are part of a bipartisan Senate group crafting legislation to overhaul the U.S. immigration laws.

By contrast, members of the House of Representatives seemed inclined to remain seated by party.

"That's just showmanship when people do that," Republican Representative Scott Garrett said of the Senate's more chummy approach.

"We need more than showmanship on that. We need substance. We haven't gotten that from the administration," said Garrett who sat at the back with a former New Jersey lawmaker.

Republicans and Democrats have traditionally sat on opposite sides during the State of the Union address, but senators began to mingle their seating charts after former Democratic Representative Gabrielle Giffords was gravely wounded in a shooting in 2011. They continued it in 2012 despite a bitter election campaign.

To some observers, the partisan sniping seemed less this year.

"What stood out for me was the tone. It wasn't in-your-face partisan," said Senator Angus King, newly sworn-in independent from Maine who caucuses with Democrats. "I saw (Senate Republican leader) Mitch McConnell on his feet a couple of times."

There were no partisan outbursts like in September 2009, when a Republican representative shouted "you lie" at Obama during a joint session of Congress while the president was speaking about healthcare reform.

But while there were big Republican standing ovations for sections on bringing troops home, immigration reform and reforms to reduce long lines at voting booths, the applause from Republicans was more tepid on more liberal agenda items such as gun control and gay rights.

Some lawmakers said they preferred to avoid a false sense of cooperation.

"The last two years I heard a lot about that. I didn't even hear the rumor on that this year," said Republican James Lankford of Oklahoma, who sat with the Republican leadership team.

"There's nothing wrong with sitting with members of the other party. But when it becomes I am going to do my press release to show how bipartisan I am because of who I sat next to... It's just for show," he said.

(Reporting by Rachelle Younglai; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)