President Obama greets Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.) before his 2011 State… (Shawn Thew / EPA )
Reporting from Washington — Like an estranged married couple trying to reignite the spark, lawmakers again will pair off in bipartisan couplets at the president's State of the Union speech on Tuesday — making another show of goodwill after a year of bad blood.
As of Friday more than 160 members of Congress had agreed to mix it up in the House chamber for the Tuesday speech, eschewing the traditional seating chart: Democrats to the left of the rostrum, Republicans on the right.
The move revives last year's effort, which came amid calls for civility and cooperation in Congress after the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.).
The spectacle of bipartisan co-mingling at last year's speech was striking. Gone was the visual of half the room rising to applaud the president while the other side sat in disapproval. Instead, observers saw lawmakers jumping to their feet while their seat mates sat still — a somewhat more awkward scene.
After the speech, the legislative session quickly devolved into endless partisan battles that led to few accomplishments, near-shutdowns of government, historic low approval ratings — and no love lost between the parties.
Lawmakers, with the urging of outside groups, are giving it another go. This time with feeling.
"I'm not giving up. I'm going to keep pushing the reset button," said Sen. Mark Udall, the Colorado Democrat who, with Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, is championing the effort in the Senate. The two are sitting together.
The conciliatory efforts have made the speech more of a spectator sport, with who sits with whom a subject of speculation. A bipartisan group called No Labels is tracking the pairings on its website, complete with high school yearbook-style photos — and a checklist of the members still not committed to attending with a date.
Early couples include Reps. Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.) and Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove), who happen to lead the bipartisan Congressional Morocco Caucus; Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Mark Steven Kirk (R-Ill), moderates both; Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine); and Reps. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Louie Gohmert (R-Texas).
"Though we rarely agree politically, Carolyn is a delightful person to know, to interact with and to count as a friend," Gohmert said in a statement.
The true drama is in the unlikely pairings. Last year, Udall made a show of bringing conservative firebrand Sen. Jim DeMint, (R-S.C.). He and DeMint, Udall confessed, were already friendly from morning workout sessions in the Senate gym.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, the Democrats' lead attack dog, sat with Sen. Tom Coburn, the Oklahoma conservative known as "Dr. No."
This year's lineup is trickling out slowly, and the odd couples are few. As of Friday, neither Schumer nor Coburn was committed.
No Labels has included bipartisan seating on a broader list of initiatives aimed at making Congress work better. The group plans to issue report cards, grading members on their support for a "Make Congress Work" platform aimed at getting along.
The platform includes agreeing not to wage a negative campaign against a colleague; attending monthly, off-the-record bipartisan meetings; supporting a five-day workweek for Congress to encourage more interaction in Washington; and adhering to a ban on pledges to special-interest groups.
"Believe me, they will not get a very high score if they participate in mixed seating and turn their back on everything else," said William Galston, a co-founder at No Labels and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "We're on to the distinction between pointless symbolism on one hand and a real commitment to change on the other."