Updated at 11:40 a.m. on January 13.
Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., is hoping for a literal demonstration of bipartisanship to combat a political dialogue that, he says, “has become more hateful and at times violent.” He wants members of Congress to tear down the invisible wall in the House of Representatives chamber and sit side by side, Democrats next to Republicans, during the State of the Union.
Udall proposed the idea -- originally the brainchild of moderate think tank Third Way -- in a “Dear Colleague” letter to the Senate that he also sent to the House and Senate leadership.
“Beyond custom, there is no rule or reason on this night we should emphasize divided government, separated by party, instead of being seen united as a country,” Udall wrote. “The choreographed standing and clapping of one side of the room -- while the other side sits -- is unbecoming of a serious institution. And the message that it sends is that even on a night when the president is addressing the entire nation, we in Congress cannot sit as one, but must be divided as two.”
Obama’s past addresses to joint sessions of Congress -- this will be his fourth -- have seen partisan friction. During Obama's first State of the Union, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito was seen mouthing “not true” when Obama criticized the high court's ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. And during the president’s speech about health care reform in September 2009, Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., infamously yelled, “You lie!” at Obama.
"It’s an interesting idea," said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs in today's briefing. "We’re not going to remove the disagreement in politics. We’re going to have debates soon. But maybe not having a physical aisle separate us would be a good thing as we talk about the state of our union."
Udall said he hopes that such a seating arrangement will “begin to rekindle the common spark that brought us here from 50 different states and widely diverging backgrounds to serve the public good.”
Third Way -- whose honorary co-chairs include the likes of Udall, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., and notably, the wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz. -- proposed the idea in a letter to congressional leadership on Monday. The think tank also offered two other ideas to promote bipartisanship: holding off-the-record bipartisan retreats and setting aside funds for members to travel to the district or state of someone from the other party.
“They will not mend our economy or win a war,” Third Way President Jonathan Cowan wrote, “but they can help you make some progress in restoring a sense of common purpose in the institution you lead.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this report misstated the name of Third Way President Jonathan Cowan.