Lawmakers know how to repel. But how about rappel?

Saturday, January 15, 2011

It's not exactly the lion lying down with the lamb, but at this month's State of the Union address, the Democrat will sit down with the Republican.

And that, in itself, is miraculous.

On Thursday and Friday, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) became the latest lawmakers to call for Democrats and Republicans to sit together, boy/girl/boy/girl style, for the president's speech, joining a movement of lawmakers started by Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) and including such partisan warriors as Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).

For Udall, whose late father, Mo, represented an area of Arizona that includes what is now the district now held by Gabby Giffords, it is just the start. Next, Udall wants Democrats and Republicans to join each other on an Outward Bound retreat. (Think Orrin Hatch and Barbara Mikulski carrying a canoe, or Bernie Sanders and David Vitter tethered together as they rappel down a cliff - but more about that later).

Cynics will say Udall's cross-aisle kumbaya for the State of the Union is just a symbol. But "sometimes," Udall told me, "the image you present helps cultures change." And that's not just talk: Udall will put his derriere where his mouth is. "I'll sit with Joe Wilson," he offered. No lie!

With 16 members already endorsing the bipartisan seating plan, and others sure to follow, we can start to think about potential pairings. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader, could sit with new Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.), who tried to hire as his chief of staff a woman who called Pelosi "garbage." Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner could make room on his left and right for Reps. Kevin Brady (R-Tex.) and Tom Price (R-Ga.), both of whom called for Geithner's resignation.

Attorney General Eric Holder would naturally be joined by Rep. Darrell Issa (who has called Obama's "one of the most corrupt administrations" in history). Supreme Court justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan would sandwich Sen. Jeff Sessions, who led the opposition to their confirmations.

To keep things lively, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), who wants people "armed and dangerous" to fight the energy bill, should sit with Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), an energy bill author. Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell would probably want to be near Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), who made funny faces at McConnell during a debate.

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), who accused Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) of "advocating for Mexico rather than the United States," should sit between Grijalva and the actual Mexican ambassador. And Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-Tex.), who shouted "baby killer!" on the House floor, should be chaperoned by Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) of the Pro-Choice Caucus.

Assuming that goes well - and how could it not? - it will be time to plan the Outward Bound trip. Amy Saxton, an Outward Bound spokeswoman, had some trepidation about soft lawmakers joining the program. "I'm unfortunately continuing to picture Jimmy Johnson on 'Survivor,' " she said. Other problems would be the rules against alcohol and cigarettes - but "I'd make an exception for Boehner," Saxton offered. And he could get a real tan.

The best wilderness "Codel" would probably be the sailing trip, in which a group of lawmakers - say, Charlie Rangel and the members of the House ethics committee - would spend seven days on a sailboat, eating canned meat, sleeping beneath tarps on deck, taking no showers and using a toilet without privacy.

Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.), who invoked bestiality and necrophilia in opposing a hate-crimes bill to protect homosexuals, would be told to take a hike - above 9,000 feet, with Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.). Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.), who wants to abolish the Fed, would be advised to jump in a lake, as part of a canoeing trip with Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke in which they portage their canoes and share an open-pit latrine.

The three-week glacier adventure would be for hard cases: Global warming denier Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) would be paired with Environmental Protection Agency administrator Lisa Jackson, and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who wishes to abolish the Education Department, would be escorted by Education Secretary Arne Duncan. While there, they could engage in "trust falls" (falling backwards in hopes your partner catches you) and rappelling (where a mistake by the rope holder, or belayer, can cause a fatal fall).

Udall, a former Outward Bound guide, has bravely offered to put his own life in the hands of Sen. Jim DeMint, the Tea Party leader who already thinks "there's more bipartisanship than we need in the Senate."

"Team me up with DeMint!" Udall challenged.

Let's give Udall's idea a try. If it works, our leaders will learn to trust each other. If it goes poorly, there will be a lot of special elections.

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