An Undivided State of the Union?

President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2010.
President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2010.

In the wake of President Obama's call for a more productive discourse following the Tucson tragedy, Democratic Senator Mark Udall of Colorado is urging members of the House and Senate to end the practice of divided seating along partisan lines during the State of the Union address.

"At the State of the Union address, on January 25th, instead of sitting in our usual partisan divide, let us agree to have Democrats and Republicans sitting side by side throughout the chamber," he said in a letter to the leaders of both chambers of Congress Thursday.

"Beyond custom, there is no rule or reason that on this night we should emphasize divided government, separated by party, instead of being seen united as a country," he continued. "The choreographed standing and clapping of one side of the room - while the other side sits - is unbecoming of a serious institution. And the message that it sends is that even on a night when the President is addressing the entire nation, we in Congress cannot sit as one, but must be divided as two."

House Democratic Whip Steny H. Hoyer released a statement endorsing Udall's proposal.

"I believe that members of both parties can symbolize our common citizenship and common interests by sitting together to hear the president's remarks, rather than divided across the aisle by party," he said. "... We must always consider ourselves Americans first, and Democrats or Republicans second."

There are critics of the proposal, among them New York Magazine's Dan Amira, who sees value in the divided seating arrangement.

"Unity is great, sure, but apart from the entertainment value, there is an important practical reason to maintain the State of the Union's partisan seating arrangement," he writes. "A neat separation of the parties allows the American people to see, in real time, their positions on the president's agenda and the issues of the day. It's actually very informative and helpful to be able to easily assess which proposals the Republicans and Democrats support, respectively, through the decision to applaud. It also allows us to identify the few party-bucking independent thinkers who, every so often, stand up to clap while the rest of their colleagues remain seated."

It's not yet clear how much support there is for the plan from Congressional leaders. Michael Steel, spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, responded to the proposal with a statement suggesting the Speaker may be trying to stay out of it: "Members of Congress choose where to sit at the State of the Union," he said.

Udall's proposal was proposed on January 10th by Third Way, which bills itself as a "think tank that creates and advances moderate policy and political ideas." It also has the support of the Washington Post, which editorialized in favor of the idea Tuesday.

"This would be a gesture, but gestures matter," the newspaper said. "Partisanship has a place and a purpose, yet the State of the Union address ought to be a moment that transcends such instincts. Merely rejiggering the congressional seating chart will not end the reflexive partisanship of modern politics. But it could not hurt to have lawmakers intermingled instead of sitting with - and being egged on by - their teams."

CBS News Capitol Hill Producer John Nolen reports that four members of the House and nine members of the Senate, including Arizona Republican John McCain, have signed onto Udall's letter.