January 13, 2011

Maine's delegation supports mixed seating for State of the Union

By Scott Monroe

When lawmakers gather for President Obama’s State of the Union address Jan. 25, they should sit together regardless of their political affiliation, instead of separated into two distinct factions.

Maine’s Congressional delegation today came out in support of that proposal, which was made in a letter drafted Wednesday by Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., intended for House and Senate leaders.

U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, D-2nd District, announced today that he had added his name to the letter, making him the first of Maine’s delegation to do so.

In an interview, Michaud said that he hoped the proposal would get wide support as a tangible sign of needed bipartisanship.

“I’m in my ninth year, and every State of the Union we have it’s Republicans on one side and Democrats on the other,” Michaud said. “It’s a good way symbolically to move forward. As elected officials, we’re supposed to lead.”

Why is a change in seating needed? Michaud cited the November midterm election, in which Republicans were swept back to majority power in the House and also made gains in the Senate. He also cited the shooting rampage Saturday in Arizona by a lone gunman that left six dead and U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords hospitalized from a gunshot wound to the head.

In the wake of the shooting, President Barack Obama has urged national unity and a toning down of political rhetoric.

According to the letter Michaud has signed, the “partisan seating arrangements at the State of the Union addresses serve to symbolize division instead of the common challenges we face in securing a strong future for the United States.”

“As we all know, the tenor and debate surrounding our politics has grown ever more corrosive — ignoring the fact that while we may take different positions, we all have the same interests,” the letter states. “This departure from statesmanship and collegiality is fueled, in part, by contentious campaigns and divisive rhetoric.

“Beyond custom, there is no rule or reason that on this night we should emphasize divided government, separated by party, instead of being seen united as a country. The choreographed standing and clapping of one side of the room — while the other side sits — is unbecoming of a serious institution. And the message that it sends is that even on a night when the President is addressing the entire nation, we in Congress cannot sit as one, but must be divided as two.”

According to a November 2010 report from the Congressional Research Service report, lawmakers may sit where they please during the address.

“Aside from reserved places for leadership, seats in the chamber are not assigned to members,” the report states. “Anytime during the day, House members may claim a seat for the evening’s address. However, they must remain physically in the seat to retain their place for the speech.”

Following Michaud’s announcement, the other three members of Maine’s delegation also expressed support.

Willy Ritch, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat, said this afternoon that the congresswoman hadn’t yet signed the letter but she intended too, perhaps later in the day.

“She thinks it’s a good idea for Democrats and Republicans to sit together, and she’s going to sign that letter,” Ritch said.

Kevin Kelley, spokesman for Republican Sen. Susan Collins, said today Collins also intended to sign the letter but had not yet.
Collins, according to Kelley, had suggested that very idea back in 2000 to then-Senate Republican leader Trent Lott, but the proposal didn’t happen.

“Americans want our two parties to come together and reach agreements in an atmosphere of mutual respect and good faith,” Collins said in a statement issued late today. “Partisanship only produces gridlock. This simple gesture demonstrates to the American people that we are willing to work together to get the job done.”

Katie Bruns, spokeswoman for Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe, said the senator also intended to sign the letter.

Michaud, who is known as a moderate, said the “bipartisan” seating would serve to further foster cooperation among Democrats and Republicans.

“The more you have a chance to sit down with your colleagues, particularly across the aisle, you realize you have a lot in common,” Michaud said. “I think we could gain a lot from sitting with our colleagues from the other side of the aisle. We do have a lot of the same interests.”

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