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 SchumerRyan goes all-in on Puerto Rico Cruz's dad: Trump 'would be worse than Hillary Clinton' With Ryan’s blessing, lawmakers press ahead with tax reform talks MORE (D-N.Y.) and Tom CoburnTom CoburnGOP faces existential threat Sanders tops 2016 field in newly deleted tweets The Hill's 12:30 Report 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 CantorWis. Republican launches long-shot bid to oust Ryan Republicans who vow to never back Trump NRCC upgrades 11 'Young Guns' candidates 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 McCaskillDem senators: Slash executive pay at pension plans seeking benefit cuts Bill would target retaliation against military sexual assault victims Senate Dem takes on drugmaker: ‘It’s time to slaughter some hogs’ 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 UdallEnergy issues roil race for Senate Unable to ban Internet gambling, lawmakers try for moratorium Two vulnerable senators lack challengers for 2016 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 FrankenJudiciary Dems seek hearing on voting rights Senate passes resolution honoring Prince Senators aim to bolster active shooter training MORE (D-Minn.) sidled up to a row that included Sens. Marco RubioMarco RubioClinton video uses words of GOP rivals against Trump Kasich quitting presidential race Trump: GOP critics can come back after my 'two terms' MORE (R) and Bill NelsonBill NelsonFCC box plan raises alarms among House Judiciary leaders Three more Republican senators to meet with Supreme Court nominee This week: Congress on track to miss Puerto Rico deadline 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 FoxxDannenfelser: ‘Active antagonism’ on International Women’s Day Wilson endorses Foxx as next House Education chairman House votes to start No Child Left Behind talks with Senate 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 ScottLabor chief knocks GOP 'waste of time' on fiduciary rule Overnight Regulation: Biz groups flock to White House to change overtime rule House panel votes to overturn Obama's financial adviser rule 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 FlakeMany Republicans uninterested in being Trump’s VP: report Senate confirms Obama's long-stalled ambassador to Mexico McCain fundraiser faces felony drug charges in Arizona 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 FranksSupreme Court wrestles with corruption law House GOP reignites push for budget plan John Bolton PAC pours more cash into GOP campaigns 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 WilsonOvernight Cybersecurity: Fight over feds' hacking powers moves to Congress New House caucus will help keep hackers out of cars Defense authorization bill would elevate Cyber Command 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 McConnellThe Hill's 12:30 Report Garland confirmation vital to fair consideration of SCOTUS cases GOP urged to confirm Supreme Court nominee after Trump win 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 BachmannGOP operative Ed Rollins joins pro-Trump super-PAC Michele Bachmann trolls Clinton on NYC subway Michele Bachmann breaks out dance moves 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