Bipartisan Seating at State of the Union Pairs Odd Couples, Friendly Foes

BY Maureen Hoch  January 25, 2011 at 4:11 PM EDT

Amid new calls for political civility after the Tucson shooting, Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, have led a campaign for a bipartisan seating plan at Tuesday’s State of the Union — reversing a tradition that usually sees members sit on opposite sides of the aisle during the president’s address. The idea was first presented by the centrist Democratic group Third Way.

The plan has led to a few rare pairings. We’ve asked the NewsHour’s political team to help us recap a few of those “odd couples” and give them a rating of high — for very unusual political partners — to low for those lawmakers who regularly work or collaborate together. For a full list of known seating partners, check The Hill, which has compiled a roster.

Nearly 60 lawmakers signed on to a letter supporting the plan for bipartisan seating, so expect more duos to be announced.

If you notice any more unusual seating partners, please leave your tips in the comments section.

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.

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medium.jpgBoth Thune and Gillibrand are on the rise as power players in their parties. Thune is a possible contender for a 2012 White House run and Gillibrand handily won a special election in 2010 for her Senate seat from New York.

Quoted: “Sen. Thune and I are working on an earmarks bill that’s about transparency, and it puts earmarks on a searchable database. So I just called him and asked him if he’d like to go to the State of the Union. He said he would,” Gillibrand said of the seating arrangement.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.

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high.jpgCoburn threatened to derail Schumer’s 9/11 first responders bill, which will provide health care aid to rescue workers who have suffered long-term effects from toxic materials at the World Trade Center site, over spending concerns. A bipartisan deal rescued the bill, but at a lower rate of funding.

Quoted: “I’ve already asked Tom Coburn … to sit next to me. He’s graciously agreed,” Schumer said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “And I think if Coburn and Schumer can sit next to each other, then probably just about everybody can.”


Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La.

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low.jpgWhile these lawmakers are on different sides of the aisle, they work together on the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee and aren’t considered sharp political adversaries.

Quoted: “I asked one of my best girlfriends to be my date for the night,” Landrieu told The New York Times of her choice of Snowe. “Of course, we share the Small Business Committee.”

Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md.

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medium.jpgMcCarthy is the House majority whip and Hoyer is the minority whip for the Democrats in a chamber that just changed party control to the GOP.

Quoted: “You know what? Steny Hoyer and I try to talk quite often,” McCarthy said. “I would enjoy sitting next to him.” And from Hoyer: “I expect you to see a visual symbolism of the willingness to reach across and sit with one another.” As two of the fiercest political players in town who both have to deliver the votes when it counts the most, these two men have more in common than their ideological differences might suggest.

Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Penn. and Sen. Bob Casey, D-Penn.

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medium.jpgCasey will sit next to the freshman senator, who defeated Democrat Joe Sestak in the 2010 election to fill the seat long held by Republican-turned-Democrat Sen. Arlen Specter.

Quoted: “I find if you know someone a little bit or have a relationship with them, it’s possible you can disagree without being vitriolic — disagree without being personal or too aggressive,” Casey said.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M.

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low.jpgBoth hailing from Southwestern states, McCain and Udall are known to be personal friends. Udall’s brother, Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., who helped launched the call for a bipartisan seating plan, will sit in McCain’s usual seat. Udall is the nephew of former Arizona congressman and presidential candidate Mo Udall, who was a very close friend of McCain’s.

Quoted: “Look, this whole thing is a good idea. I think it’s been a bit overblown,” McCain said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “But the fact is it’s a good thing to do. Why not? The Udalls, for example, have been close friends … for many, many years. So let’s sit together.”

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.

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medium.jpgGrassley and Wyden are part of a bipartisan group of lawmakers pushing to end the Senate’s so-called “secret holds” — a practice that allows one or more lawmakers to anonymously prevent a motion from reaching a vote.

Quoted: Grassley told his Twitter followers: “My date for State of Union is Sen Wyden. My partner in fight agst secret holds. He invited.”

Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.

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medium.jpgDurbin is the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat. Kirk is a centrist Republican and veteran of the House who fought off a tough election challenge from state treasurer and Obama-insider Alexi Giannoulias in November 2010 in the race to fill President Obama’s old Senate seat.

Quoted: “I’m bringing the popcorn; he’s bringing a Coke with two straws,” Durbin said on Fox News Sunday. “Just kidding, of course.”

Rep. Lois Capps, D-Calif., and Rep. Sue Myrick, R-N.C.

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medium.jpgAccording to The Hill newspaper, Capps approached Myrick to be seat-fellows due to their work together on the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the Cancer Caucus.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla,. and Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla.

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medium.jpgNelson told a meeting in Tampa Bay that he invited the newly elected Rubio, favored by Tea Party enthusiasts among others in his bid for the seat in the 2010 midterms, to sit together during the speech.

Quoted: “I know it’s important to me and to Marco that the two of us have the basis of a personal friendship, and that’s always been the tradition of the two senators from Florida,” Nelson told Politics Daily.

Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., and Rep. Pete King, R- N.Y.

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high.jpgThe two lawmakers from New York got into a shouting match last summer on the House floor over the 9/11 first responders bill. According to Politico, King’s wife suggested the two sit together, calling them two of the “biggest loudmouths” in the House.

Quoted: “To me, this is really stretching the outer limits of civility for Weiner and I to be sitting together,” King told Politico. “He wants to sit on the GOP side with me, so I guess for one night he can pretend he’s in the majority.”
Adds Weiner: “It’s a nice thing. I’m going to be sitting on the Republican side, so not only will Peter King be my date, he may be my security detail also.”

And a few lawmakers are still on the hunt for the perfect pair as evidenced by this tweet Monday from Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah:

“So I don’t have a date to SOTU. Oh, how it is to be the ugly conservative. I see Rep. Issa is “going with” Rep. Towns. Towns was choice 1.”

Not taking part so far: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell who said Sunday he would “sit where I usually sit.” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said that the plan should be given “serious consideration.”

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has invited House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to sit with him during the speech. The former Speaker of the House tweeted that while she thanked the GOP leader for his offer, she had already invited Rep. Roscoe Barlett, R-Md., to be her seating partner:

“I thank @GOPLeader for his #SOTU offer, but I invited my friend Rep. Bartlett from MD yesterday & am pleased he accepted.”

Speaker Boehner has the most prominent bipartisan seating arrangement as he will be next to Vice President Joe Biden over the president’s shoulders for the duration of the speech.

The NewsHour will have live coverage of Tuesday’s State of the Union both on-air and online. Stay tuned.