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 SchumerDemocrats will need to explain if they shut government down over illegal immigration White House: Trump remarks didn't derail shutdown talks Schumer defends Durbin after GOP senator questions account of Trump meeting MORE (D-N.Y.) and Tom CoburnThomas (Tom) Allen CoburnRepublicans in Congress shouldn't try to bring back earmarks Republicans should know reviving earmarks is a political nightmare Former GOP senator: Trump has a personality disorder 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 CantorEric Cantor: Moore ‘deserves to lose’ If we want to make immigration great again, let's make it bipartisan Top Lobbyists 2017: Hired Guns 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 McCaskillNSA spying program overcomes key Senate hurdle Senate campaign fundraising reports roll in Dems search for winning playbook 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 UdallDemocratic primary could upend bid for Colorado seat Picking 2018 candidates pits McConnell vs. GOP groups Gorsuch's critics, running out of arguments, falsely scream 'sexist' 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 FrankenPawlenty opts out of Senate run in Minnesota EMILY’s List president: Franken did 'right thing for Minnesota' Dem pledges to ask all court nominees about sexual harassment history under oath MORE (D-Minn.) sidled up to a row that included Sens. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioOvernight Cybersecurity: Bipartisan bill aims to deter election interference | Russian hackers target Senate | House Intel panel subpoenas Bannon | DHS giving 'active defense' cyber tools to private sector Senators unveil bipartisan push to deter future election interference Puerto Rico's children need recovery funds MORE (R) and Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonSenate campaign fundraising reports roll in Week ahead: Tech giants to testify on extremist content Puerto Rico's children need recovery funds 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 FoxxGOP bill scraps voter registration requirements for colleges GOP looks to scrap Obama-era rule on college credit hours Veterinarians need loan forgiveness program 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 ScottImpeachment looms over Dem choice on Judiciary Overnight Regulation: FCC, FTC unveil plan to police internet after net neutrality repeal | Justices turn down case on LGBT worker rights | Dems seek delay of new tipping rule | Industry sues over California drug pricing law Overnight Finance: Scorekeeper says House tax bill won't pay for itself | Fight over Treasury's analysis of tax plan | GOP worries about tax bill's unpopularity | What's ahead in year end spending fight 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 FlakeMcCain rips Trump for attacks on press Bipartisan group to introduce DACA bill in House Flake's anti-Trump speech will make a lot of noise, but not much sense 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 FranksThis week: Time running out for Congress to avoid shutdown Woman accuses New York state senator of sexual misconduct Womack wins initial support to become Budget chairman 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 WilsonState Department faces mounting cyber threats A Department of Energy foundation: An idea whose time has come Tillerson’s No. 2 faces questions over State cyber closure 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 McConnellSessions: 'We should be like Canada' in how we take in immigrants NSA spying program overcomes key Senate hurdle Overnight Finance: Lawmakers see shutdown odds rising | Trump calls for looser rules for bank loans | Consumer bureau moves to revise payday lending rule | Trump warns China on trade deficit 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 BachmannPawlenty opts out of Senate run in Minnesota US ambassador repeated debunked claim that Abedin has 'egregious' ties to Muslim Brotherhood Bachmann considering running for Franken's seat 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