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 (Chuck) Ellis SchumerOvernight Finance: Trump signs repeal of auto-loan policy | Justices uphold contracts that bar employee class-action suits | US, China trade war 'on hold' Free traders applaud Trump as China tariff threat recedes The Hill's 12:30 Report — Sponsored by Delta Air Lines — Frenzy over Kennedy retirement rumors | Trump challenges DOJ MORE (D-N.Y.) and Tom CoburnThomas (Tom) Allen CoburnMr. President, let markets help save Medicare Pension insolvency crisis only grows as Congress sits on its hands Paul Ryan should realize that federal earmarks are the currency of cronyism 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 Ivan CantorThe Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by CVS Health — Trump’s love-hate relationship with the Senate Race for Republican Speaker rare chance to unify party for election Scalise allies upset over Ryan blindside on McCarthy endorsement 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 Conner McCaskillCalif. gov candidates battle for second place Senate panel advances Trump's CIA nominee Five votes to watch in fight over Trump's CIA nominee 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 Emery UdallSenate GOP rejects Trump’s call to go big on gun legislation Democratic primary could upend bid for Colorado seat Picking 2018 candidates pits McConnell vs. GOP groups 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 FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart Franken100 days after House passage, Gillibrand calls on Senate to act on sexual harassment reform Eric Schneiderman and #MeToo pose challenges for both parties Senate confirms Trump judicial pick over objections of home-state senator MORE (D-Minn.) sidled up to a row that included Sens. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioRubio: Kaepernick deserves to be in the NFL Congress — when considering women’s health, don’t forget about lung cancer Anti-Maduro Venezuelans not unlike anti-Castro Cubans of yore MORE (R) and Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonTed Cruz and Bill Nelson give NASA a reality check on privatizing International Space Station Overnight Defense: Senate confirms Haspel as CIA chief | Trump offers Kim 'protections' if he gives up nukes | Dem amendments target Trump military parade Hillicon Valley: Lawmakers target Chinese tech giants | Dems move to save top cyber post | Trump gets a new CIA chief | Ryan delays election security briefing | Twitter CEO meets lawmakers 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 Ann FoxxImmigration fight threatens GOP farm bill Ryan, GOP scramble to win support for controversial farm bill House to vote on farm bill with food stamps revamp next week 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 ScottRobert (Bobby) Cortez ScottSupreme Court upholds agreements that prevent employee class-action suits House Dems call for a vote on ObamaCare stabilization bill Top House, Senate Dems warn administration on short-term insurance 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 FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakePressure rising on GOP after Trump–DOJ fight’s latest turn Sarah Sanders: ‘Democrats are losing their war against women in the Trump administration’ Trump yuks it up to deflect Senate critics 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 FranksHarold (Trent) Trent FranksFreedom Caucus bruised but unbowed in GOP primary fights Eric Schneiderman and #MeToo pose challenges for both parties The Hill's 12:30 Report 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 WilsonAddison (Joe) Graves WilsonDems target Trump administration's use of military planes in defense bill debate Trump's effort to secure the border is making America safe again Legal immigrants can commend Trump on his efforts to end illegal immigration 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 McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSenators near deal on sexual harassment policy change Blankenship third-party bid worries Senate GOP Overnight Finance: Trump signs repeal of auto-loan policy | Justices uphold contracts that bar employee class-action suits | US, China trade war 'on hold' 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 Marie BachmannBachmann won't run for Franken's Senate seat because she did not hear a 'call from God' Billboard from ‘God’ tells Michele Bachmann not to run for Senate Pawlenty opts out of Senate run in Minnesota 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