President Obama’s jobs speech next Thursday will mark his first address to a joint session of Congress since his Jan. 25 State of the Union address.
And next week, as in January, Congress will be faced with a choice: Will lawmakers of both parties sit side-by-side as they did during the president’s last address, which came three weeks after Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) was shot in Tucson?
Asked by ABC News on Thursday about the possibility of bipartisan seating, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), a member of the bipartisan “supercommittee” tasked with devising a plan to reduce the country’s debt, said he thought the idea had merit.
“We may well,” Van Hollen told ABC News’ Jon Karl when asked whether lawmakers of different parties might seek to sit together during the president’s address. “Last time I sat with a couple of my colleagues from Florida – (Rep.) Connie Mack (R) and some others. So, I thought that was a good example to set. I hope we will do it again.”
Leaders in both chambers have yet to weigh in on the idea. But just as in January, members next week are free to sit wherever they like: There’s no official seating plan for any joint session of Congress.
Traditionally, members of each party have sat on opposite sides of the aisle in the House chamber during a joint session as they do during regular sessions. That changed in January, when a plan for bipartisan seating – originally proposed by the centrist Democratic group Third Way – gained traction among lawmakers who sought to demonstrate unity in the wake of the Tucson shooting.
On the night of Obama’s 2011 State of the Union, most lawmakers did sit with members of the other party. The plan received positive reviews from many members, some of whom joked that the arrangement led to fewer instances of lawmakers leaping to their feet to applaud the president.
“We got up a lot of the time together, and sometimes we got up separately, but overall, we didn’t get up as much, and that’s pretty good,” Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who sat next to Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), said as he left the House chamber after the address.
This time around, though, there’s likely to be sharper disagreement among members of both parties on the substance of Obama’s speech – he’s delivering remarks focused squarely on jobs and the economy, rather than an address more broadly laying out his yearly agenda.
And judging from the partisan kerfuffle accompanying the simple matter of setting a date for the speech itself, it would appear that any move to express bipartisan goodwill is not the first thing on most members’ minds.
Still, Van Hollen’s remarks Thursday may rekindle the bipartisan-seating conversation ahead of both chambers’ return to Washington next week — and the decisions lawmakers make when it comes to where they sit could provide a window into the coming debate as the debt supercommittee begins its work.
On Thursday afternoon, some members were objecting to the idea of being present in the chamber itself for Obama’s speech, let alone sitting next to a member of the other party.
“Instead of being a prop of another one of the President’s speeches, next Thursday I will fly home to IL to talk to real job creators,” freshman Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.) said via Twitter. He added: “The President needs to stop the speeches & talk to real people. They create jobs, not White House paper-pushers and bureaucrats.”