Nelson: Eliminate partisan seating in Senate

Similar to how lawmakers convened during the State of the Union address, lawmakers should no longer sit according to party in the Senate chamber, a centrist Democratic senator said Wednesday. 

Sen. Ben Nelson (Neb.) said that eliminating the Senate's traditional partisan seating arrangement would be meaningful first step in fostering better cooperation between Republicans and Democrats. In that spirit, Nelson riffed on the words of former President Reagan in a statement Wednesday.

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"I hope colleagues will join me and say, 'Get rid of this aisle!' he said. "Let’s close the partisan divide and let the Democrats, Republicans and Independents all sit together."

Nelson is looking to capture momentum from President Obama's State of the Union address, when dozens of Republicans and Democrats found "dates" to sit with from the opposite party, instead of separating themselves as usual.

It's unclear if Nelson's proposal will gain traction, but the push could appeal to voters in his home state of Nebraska. Nelson faces a tough reelection race in 2012 in the red state, and Nelson has long tried to reach out to independents and conservatives.

Should Nelson's plan be implemented, it would reverse nearly two centuries of tradition. The partisan seating arrangement, with a few exceptions, has been in place since the body convened in the Old Senate Chamber starting in 1810. 

But Nelson said lawmakers would be better served sitting by state or by alphabetical order, "or some other way that erases the partisan divide."

Should the idea gain enough steam, Nelson said he would officially propose it in a joint letter to Senate leaders.

"We’ve already gone through the exercise of last night so it should not be difficult to get others to sign onto the idea," he said.

Some lawmakers expressed skepticism of the State of the Union seating, including Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.)

"We don't have seating assignments for most of our members. They can sit anywhere they want to," he said Sunday. “More important than the appearance of sitting together is what we do together. And the American people are more interested in actual accomplishments on a bipartisan basis here in the next six to nine months than they are with the seating arrangement at the State of the Union."