State of the Union Shuffle: The Powerful go to Prom

Charles Schumer and Tom Coburn
Sen. Tom Coburn,R-Okla., left, talks with Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2011, prior to the start of President Barack Obama's State of the Union address.
AP/Charles Dharapak

For one night, anyway, Congress looked like the friendliest school dance you could imagine - albeit with a few more wrinkles.

In the wake of the Tucson tragedy, lawmakers took up Democratic Sen. Mark Udall's call to abandon the tradition of sitting on separate sides of the aisle at the president's State of the Union speech. And quite a tradition it was: The separate seating arrangement began back in 1845, when the Democrats and the Whigs first decided that they didn't want to have to share an armrest. Special Coverage: State of the Union 2011

Yet this year lawmakers strained to prove that they were eager to cross the aisle - physically, at least. In truth, the mixed seating arrangement was little more than a symbolic gesture - a temporary reprieve from the acrimony that has become the default setting in Washington.

But as symbolic gestures go, Congress could have (and certainly has) done worse. The rush for dates in the run-up to the speech - who was going to sit with whom? - prompted countless comparisons to a high school prom. Speaker Nancy Pelosi's decision not to accept House Majority Leader Eric Cantor offer to sit with him - she said she already had a date - prompted jokes around Washington that Cantor was going to have to settle for that weird girl who just transferred last semester. (He ended up finding a date in Democratic Rep. Robert C. Scott of Virginia.)

John McCain and John Kerry
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., right, and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. are seen on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2011, prior to the start of President Barack Obama's State of the Union address in . (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
AP Photo/Evan Vucci
By 5:00 p.m. Eastern this afternoon, two-thirds of the Senate had confirmed to CBS News they had a bipartisan date, along with a number of members of the House. Some sat with their state delegations, while others sought out their ideological opposites, most notably New York Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer and Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn. Perhaps the king and queen of the bipartisan prom were South Dakota Republican Sen. John Thune and New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who are universally recognized as having perhaps the best hair in the Senate.

And as the members milled about on the floor before Mr. Obama arrived to deliver the speech, you could feel the love in the air. Perhaps most striking was the scene of two vanquished presidential nominees - Sens. John McCain and John Kerry - standing together as though all of the rancor between their parties, the anger and recriminations and accusations, were water under the bridge.

They aren't, of course. Even as Mr. Obama was delivering the speech, House Speaker John Boehner's office was emailing reporters emails claiming the president's "claims" didn't hold up to scrutiny. Tomorrow, House Republicans will hold the first of many planned hearings to investigate the Obama administration, and few expect the GOP to hold back simply because they spent an hour sitting next to someone from the other side.

The reality is this: Republicans and Democrats have divergent ideologies and different supporters, and so long as ours remains a lobbyist-infected system in which getting elected means keeping your side's deep-pocketed donors and special interests happy, one night of relative comity won't change a thing.

But on Tuesday night, they got to pretend otherwise. Mr. Obama opened his speech with a call for civility in the wake of the Tucson tragedy - and, in fitting with the atmosphere, optimism that it's not just a pipe dream.

"What comes of this moment is up to us," he said. "What comes of this moment will be determined not by whether we can sit together tonight, but whether we can work together tomorrow. I believe we can. I believe we must."

It's hard to imagine that many in the room, including Mr. Obama, would be so starry eyed in the clear light of day. But for one night, lawmakers got to see themselves as they want to see themselves: Not as ideological warriors or compromised strivers but as serious men and women ready to roll up their sleeves, unencumbered by the baggage they had to bring with them to get into office.

It's a fantasy, of course. But isn't that what prom is all about?

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