The atmosphere should be refreshingly different in the House chamber tonight as President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address. In a departure from tradition, Republicans and Democrats will be sitting together instead of among members of their own political parties. While it is a symbolic gesture, the new seating arrangement sends a nice signal that it is possible to establish a new tone in Washington.
Florida Sens. Bill Nelson, the veteran Democrat, and Marco Rubio, the new Republican, plan to sit next to each other. That is a particularly welcome sign, because Florida senators have a long history of working together for the state regardless of party affiliation. For example, the state's senators previously have combined to help screen candidates for the federal bench and secure support for restoration of the Everglades. There is no reason that Nelson, who faces re-election next year, and Rubio cannot continue that cooperation for the benefit of the state even as they disagree on issues such as health-care reform.
In the past, the partisan cheering sections have detracted from the president's annual address to the nation. One side cheers the president from its political party while the other side sits stone-faced or frowning. And who can forget Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., shouting, "You lie!" during Obama's 2009 health care speech. That sort of outburst is not expected to be repeated tonight in the wake of a national conversation on restoring civility to political debate following the Tucson shootings.
Give credit to Sen. Mark Udall, a Colorado Democrat, for persuading members of both parties to try something different. There will be some odd couples. Sen. Chuck Schumer, the New York Democrat, will sit next to Sen. Tom Coburn, the Oklahoma Republican. Members from opposite parties from within delegations from states such as Illinois and Pennsylvania will sit next to each other. It may be the political version of finding a date to the prom without falling in love. But there is a point to it.
The State of the Union had devolved into a political pep rally when the goal is for the president to deliver a policy-oriented address to the nation. Changing the seating, of course, does not suggest Republicans will immediately embrace Obama's agenda or even that they will be clapping along with Democrats tonight. But Americans expect the president and members of both parties in Congress to work together to move the nation forward. To do that, they have to build relationships and talk to each other even as they have profound disagreements.
Appearances matter. If Republicans and Democrats can sit next to each other tonight, next time they just might share a meal or co-sponsor legislation.