January 20, 2012

It’s date night on Capitol Hill again — also known as the State of the Union address.

Following last year’s unusual decision to do away with partisan seating, many lawmakers are once again lining up colleagues from the other party to sit with for President Obama’s address. The idea is to show that the two sides can sit together for an hour or so without elbowing each other.

However, whatever hijinks or photo ops ensue Tuesday night, they probably won’t create any lasting bipartisan goodwill. That’s what last year’s seating gimmick showed, anyway. From the moment the idea took off last January, in the wake of the tragic shootings in Tucson, there were awkward stops and starts. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) couldn’t figure out whom to sit with, particularly after House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) turned him down because she’d already made arrangements with a different Republican.

Eventually, Cantor sat with a Democrat from the Virginia delegation, Rep. Bobby Scott, but it did little to foster a spirit of cooperation. By the fall, after contentious negotiations on raising the debt ceiling, Cantor was branded the “face of Republican obstructionism” by Democrats and Obama.

Still, many lawmakers liked the mixed-seating idea and are set to reprise it, creating oddball couples such as Sens. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) and Mary Landrieu (D-La.), who are planning to sit side by side Tuesday. They have worked together to restore the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill . . . and on not much else.

In retrospect, a close examination of last year’s seating chart serves as a telling preview of the year ahead. Here’s a look at four “couples” from the 2011 State of the Union address who served as predictors of how the year would unfold — the sort of couples we’ll be looking for Tuesday to see what 2012 may have in store for Congress.

Kevin McCarthy and Steny Hoyer

The House majority whip and minority whip, respectively, had their first close encounter last year during Obama’s speech, beginning what would become semi-regular discussions designed to save the House from complete peril. Often rebuffed by a rump group of several dozen Republicans — some dubbed them the “Apocalypse Caucus” — McCarthy (Calif.) regularly could not get a majority from within his own GOP conference for critical legislation. There were just too many rebels. So he turned to Hoyer (Md.) to see how many Democratic votes he could deliver to save the day — and he usually did.

Charles E. Schumer and Tom Coburn

This was about as odd a senatorial duo as went on a date last year: Schumer, the liberal from Brooklyn, and Coburn, the arch-conservative doctor from Muskogee, Okla. Unfortunately, their date didn’t lead to any lasting bond. Coburn became a high-profile member of the “Gang of Six” effort to strike a grand bargain to trim at least $4 trillion from future government borrowing. Behind the scenes, Schumer became the lead pit bull opposing the Gang, arguing that the group was going to cut too much from Medicare and Social Security. Angry at what he considered Democratic reluctance to dig into those entitlement programs, Coburn stormed out of the talks in May. The Gang eventually produced a set of principles but no legislation.

Jeb Hensarling and James E. Clyburn

Once the debt-ceiling deal was approved in August, the “supercommittee” went to work, with the goal of finding at least $1.2 trillion in additional savings. Hensarling, the Texas Republican who is No. 4 among House leaders, and Clyburn, the South Carolina Democrat who is No. 3 in his party’s leadership, were among the 12 lawmakers on the bipartisan panel. Whatever they talked about during last year’s SOTU address, it didn’t help during these negotiations. Along with Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.), Clyburn was seen as an obstacle to any deal that cut entitlements. Hensarling, the GOP co-chairman, could not get the group to really jell. Its members spent the final weeks in small huddles away from Hensarling and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the other co-chairman. Just before Thanksgiving, the supercommittee admitted it had failed.

Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell

No, the Senate’s majority leader and minority leader didn’t sit together last year. They sat directly across from the aisle from each other; neither brought a date from the opposing party. It was an omen of the partisan rancor to come. Consummate Senate insiders, McConnell (R-Ky.) and Reid (D-Nev.) played key roles in some spending fights and wrote much of the language for the debt deal that averted a national default. But their relationship grew more bitter throughout the year, culminating in a shouting match on the Senate floor in October. By the time the holidays rolled around, some senators tried to cheer things up with a bipartisan Secret Santa. More than 60 senators took part, exchanging gifts at a party. But McConnell and Reid were nowhere to be found. They declined to participate in the gift-giving fun.

kanep@washpost.com

Paul Kane covers Congress for The Washington Post.

For more on Congressional squabbles, read “Five myths about the debt ceiling.”

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