By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 26, 2011; 1:28 AM
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.
"I'm an old mountaineer," said Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), a former Outward Bound leader. "I think that the aisle that divides us has become as high as a mountain. And it's time to climb that mountain and look out upon America all together."
Lawmakers from both parties said they hoped the Tucson rampage would inspire sustained cooperation. Out for many Republicans, at least for now, are rhetorical bombs such as "job-killing Obamacare," used to describe the Democrats' health-care overhaul. In is bipartisanship: talk of bipartisan breakfasts and bipartisan lunches and bipartisan chats about bipartisan interests.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and the Democrat he replaced in that position, Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (Md.), shared a rare private lunch Tuesday, eating egg-salad sandwiches in Hoyer's office.
"Oftentimes at the State of the Union, it becomes more a situation where the attention is not focused on the president's words, but who's standing up, who's sitting down, who's sitting there with their arms across their chest," Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) told reporters Tuesday. "That's not what the State of the Union should be about. So let's come together for an hour or two. And if for nothing else, sit together with a colleague that perhaps we don't know as well and be part of a process that I think is good for all of us."
Tuesday night's event unfolded against the emotional backdrop of the Tucson tragedy. Obama mentioned the shooting at the outset of his remarks, and all around the chamber were stirring reminders of the bloodshed.
Two of Arizona's representatives, Jeff Flake (R) and Raul M. Grijalva (D), saved an empty seat for their absent colleague, whose condition was upgraded from serious to good Tuesday night. Peter Rhee, the trauma surgeon at University Medical Center who treated Giffords, joined first lady Michelle Obama in her box, as did the parents and brother of Christina Taylor Green, the 9-year-old who was killed in the shooting. When Obama mentioned Christina, her brother, Dallas, 11, rubbed the back of his emotional father.
Daniel Hernandez, the University of Arizona junior who used his first-aid training to help keep Giffords alive, also joined the first lady on what happened to be his 21st birthday.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said he wants to continue and even expand the bipartisan breakfasts he has been hosting with Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.), an independent who often caucuses with Democrats.
"Senators spend almost all of our spare time in team meetings during which we talk about what we're going to do to each other," Alexander told reporters. "We'd like to have other occasions to get together where we'll talk about what we might work on together."
But it was lost on no one that Alexander had just emerged from the weekly closed-door, Republican-only luncheon. As chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, Alexander presides over the meetings. And on Tuesday, over beef and couscous, the attendees talked about freezing federal spending and how to defeat the Democrats' agenda.
Staff writers Felicia Sonmez, Shailagh Murray and Paul Kane contributed to this report.