the Mood in the Chamber

A spirit of camaraderie, at least for a while

Lawmakers wore black-and-white ribbons Tuesday night in honor of the victims of the Tucson shooting, including one of their own, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.).
Lawmakers wore black-and-white ribbons Tuesday night in honor of the victims of the Tucson shooting, including one of their own, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.). (Melina Mara)

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 26, 2011

As bright lights illuminated the House chamber Tuesday for the annual rite of Washington officialdom, the trauma surgeon and the congressional intern who saved the life of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords 17 days earlier joined the first lady in the gallery. Down below, a single seat in a sea of brown leather chairs sat empty, a somber tribute to the recovering Arizona Democrat.

And the nation's partisan warriors laid down their swords and pinned black-and-white ribbons memorializing the Tucson victims over their hearts. Then they settled in with their dates for the night: Democrats with Republicans, Republicans with Democrats.

The Jan. 8 assassination attempt on Giffords at a constituent meet-and-greet in Tucson ushered in promises of a new era of civility in American politics. With both houses of Congress and top officials of the federal government gathering under one roof for the first time in a year, President Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday evening offered an early test of whether the nation's political leaders would live up to their pledges to change the harsh political discourse.

By doing away with a century-old tradition of sitting with their own party and instead mixing with the opposite camp, lawmakers signaled that they could be more civil. The bipartisan pairs moved down the aisle like young couples at a roller rink, awkward but giddy.

But the question remained whether this would prove to be only a fleeting moment - and whether lawmakers might soon revert to their more comfortable partisan positions as the tough battles over the federal debt and spending begin in earnest.

Before the night was over, there were signs of a return to more typical political roles. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), a Washington leader of the conservative grass roots, remained seated when others in her party were moved to join Democrats in applause for Obama's remarks.

As soon as Obama finished his speech, Bachmann darted out of the chamber to deliver what she billed as the tea party response - distinct from the official Republican response by Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), chairman of the House Budget Committee.

"For two years, President Obama made promises, just like the ones we heard him make this evening, yet still we have high unemployment, devalued housing prices, and the cost of gasoline is skyrocketing," Bachmann said in her televised address.

The orchestrated marriage of Republicans and Democrats, at least in seating arrangements, left many lawmakers visibly hesitant about when and how to respond. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) held his arms across his chest through parts of the speech. When Obama called on the parties to work together, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) whispered to McCain, who then grabbed the arms of his chair and pulled himself to his feet.

When Obama spoke of innovation and "outbuilding" the rest of the world, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) joined Democrats in applause, but his seatmate, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), stared straight ahead.

But there was more bipartisan applause than in recent years - at simplifying the tax code and making American businesses competitive again.

Some lawmakers hoped the evening's newly civil tone would extend to the daily rhythms on Capitol Hill.

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