New seats but no spats on congressional date night despite hoopla

After all the hoopla and the last-minute fretting, congressional date night – also known as this year’s State of the Union address – went off without a hitch.

Sens. Charles SchumerCharles SchumerImpact, incidence of Chinese currency controls largely overblown GOP's leaked 'repeal and replace' plan is the scorpion striking the frog Schumer: Trump wants to take 'two by four' to media MORE (D-N.Y.) and Tom CoburnTom CoburnCoburn: Trump's tweets aren't presidential The road ahead for America’s highways Rethinking taxation MORE (R-Okla.) exchanged laughs and whispers in adjacent seats, while the House whips, Reps. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), ribbed each other over when to applaud a few rows back. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) sat across the chamber from her scorned counterpart, Majority Leader Eric CantorEric CantorGOP shifting on immigration Breitbart’s influence grows inside White House Ryan reelected Speaker in near-unanimous GOP vote MORE (R-Va.), but neither seemed to be holding a grudge.

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All in all, the grand experiment of bipartisan seating contributed to a less boisterous atmosphere in the House chamber Tuesday night, as Republicans and Democrats rose to their feet a bit more tentatively but more often together in the ritual ovations that interrupted President Obama’s address.

“I think it felt less like a sporting event,” Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire McCaskillThe Hill's 12:30 Report Senate confirms Zinke to lead Interior GOP hasn’t reached out to centrist Dem senators MORE (D-Mo.) said after the speech, summing up the mood. “I mean, this isn’t a team sport. This is government.”

First proposed by Sen. Mark UdallMark UdallElection autopsy: Latinos favored Clinton more than exit polls showed Live coverage: Tillerson's hearing for State The rise and possible fall of the ‘Card’ in politics MORE (D-Colo.), the idea for Democrats and Republicans to sit together had gained so much traction by the time of Obama’s speech that it appeared most lawmakers had found at least one cross-party buddy to sit next to in the chamber. Many lawmakers paired off by state, with Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) joining Empire State colleagues Reps. Anthony Weiner (D) and Charles Rangel (D), and California Rep. David Dreier (R) finding a spot next to Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.).

For others, the pairings seemed more spontaneous. When Sen. Al FrankenAl FrankenUber is on a collision course with regulators and lawyers Overnight Tech: FCC chief rails against net neutrality | Websites go down after Amazon cloud trouble | Uber CEO caught arguing with driver | Xbox launches subscription service Senate Dems hit FCC chairman on consumer data risks MORE (D-Minn.) sidled up to a row that included Sens. Marco RubioMarco RubioRubio: Lack of GOP consensus on healthcare is not a 'weakness' Overnight Finance: Trump budget faces GOP resistance | House panel blocks Dem effort on Trump's business ties | Corporate giants at odds over border tax Rubio defends foreign aid amid proposed cuts MORE (R) and Bill NelsonBill NelsonSenate confirms Zinke to lead Interior Senate confirms Wilbur Ross as Commerce secretary A guide to the committees: Senate MORE (D) of Florida, he played some musical chairs. “Ok, let’s go Democrat, Republican, Democrat, Republican,” Franken exclaimed as Rubio shuffled seats to accommodate him.

Two members who represent the opposite ideological poles, conservative Rep. Virginia FoxxVirginia FoxxA guide to the committees: House Repeal without replacement: A bad strategy for kids GOP members offer resolution to repeal 'blacklisting' labor rule MORE (R-N.C.) and liberal Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.), were chatting and laughing together throughout the lead-up to Obama’s arrival.

Cantor, whose offer to sit next to Pelosi was rejected earlier Tuesday, found a seat next to Rep. Bobby ScottBobby ScottA guide to the committees: House Repeal without replacement: A bad strategy for kids House Dems press Trump for details on ObamaCare order MORE (D), his Virginia colleague.

The seating arrangement took on a more poignant symbolism for the Arizona delegation, which sat together but left an empty seat between Reps. Jeff FlakeJeff FlakeDem senator pushes back against GOP efforts to rescind internet privacy rules Dem super PAC ads pressure GOP senators to back independent Russia probe Week ahead: Net neutrality supporters rally on rule's second anniversary MORE (R) and Raul Grijalva (D) to note the absence of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D), who is recuperating from the gunshot wound she suffered during the massacre in Tucson.

Flake arrived early to secure eight seats for his state’s delegation, including the empty seat for Giffords and seats for Reps. Trent FranksTrent FranksGOP rep: Nuke could enter US hidden in marijuana bales A guide to the committees: House Flynn puts FBI director back in spotlight MORE (R) and Grijalva.

“It was nice to sit with my colleagues; I really enjoyed that,” Flake told The Hill afterward.


Most members honored Giffords and the other victims of the shooting by wearing black and white ribbons on their lapels.

Obama acknowledged Giffords and made a glancing reference to the symbolic seating effort inspired by his call for renewed civility. “What comes of this moment,” the president said, “will be determined not by whether we can sit together tonight, but whether we can work together tomorrow.”

Tuesday’s speech contained none of the distractions that marked Obama’s last two addresses to a joint session of Congress. In September 2009, Rep. Joe WilsonJoe WilsonDemocrats urged to be 'respectful' during Trump address Five things to watch for in Trump’s address A guide to the committees: House MORE (R-S.C.) yelled “You lie!” at the president during his speech on healthcare, and one year ago, Obama’s denunciation of a recent Supreme Court decision on campaign finance prompted Justice Samuel Alito to shake his head and mouth the words “Not true,” a gesture caught by television cameras.

Alito was absent Tuesday night, but five of his colleagues attended: Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

Obama greeted each of the justices as he walked to the rostrum, and a handful of Cabinet secretaries and members of the Senate Judiciary Committee came to chat with them before the speech.

Keeping with tradition, the justices sat silently throughout the address, applauding only at statements that honored American troops serving overseas and at the conclusion of the address.

Ginsburg, at 77 the oldest justice on the Court, appeared to have trouble staying awake throughout the speech. At one point, Roberts whispered to Kennedy, who then lightly nudged Ginsburg when she was nodding off. A few minutes later, as Ginsburg sat with her head bowed, Breyer did the same.

Despite the new seating chart, some traditions of the pomp-filled State of the Union endured. As he has for years, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) secured a spot by the center aisle, where he could shake hands with the president and his Cabinet. Engel leaned in to trade words with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, a former governor of Arizona, as she made her way to her seat.

“One of my sons graduated from the University of Arizona in Tucson and [Napolitano] knows my son through some of my discussions with her and I mentioned that he finally graduated,” Engel told The Hill after the address. “So she congratulated me.”

For the millions of Americans watching on television, the State of the Union probably sounded the same but looked a bit different than it has in past years. The frequent interruptions for applause did not separate the chamber into two halves, but they did separate seat-mates. Pelosi leapt to her feet several times when the Republican sitting next to her, Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (Md.), kept his seat. And Schumer’s repeated ovations seemed to have an impact on Coburn, who rose slowly and reluctantly out of his chair on a few occasions when Sens. Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellTrump, GOP huddle to plot strategy after speech Schumer to Trump: Get your own 'act together' before blaming Dems GOP hasn’t reached out to centrist Dem senators MORE (R-Ky.) and Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) stayed seated in the row ahead of him.

“Sen. Coburn and I - we clapped together on many things and clapped apart on a few things, but it was few,” Schumer said afterward.

Rep. Michele BachmannMichele Bachmann'Real Housewives' producer 'begging' Conway to join cast Ex-rep admires furs amid PETA inaugural gala Why Republicans took aim at an ethics watchdog MORE (R-Minn.), who delivered a response on behalf of the Tea Party Express, stood much less than her fellow Republicans. At several points during the address Bachmann was only one of about a half-dozen members who remained seated.

Jordy Yager contributed to this report