An inside look at the 2011 Prom of the Union

Jeff Winkler Contributor
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The only things missing were the corsage and flowers.

Dozens of members from both chambers took up the call to make this year’s State of the Union a special one by sitting next to colleagues from the opposing party instead of splitting along party lines. As the days closed in on the big night, the State of the Union looked more and more like the Prom of the Union.

“To a certain extent this has been a little bit of a dating show,” said Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski. “It reminds me a little bit of eighth grade.”

As the Bipartisanship Under The Dome dance approached, high-profile couples paraded through the corridors side-by-side: McCain & Kerry, Franken & Paul, Reid & Conner, Grassley & Wyden, Schumer & Coburn,  McCarthy & Hoyer and scores more.

Walking toward the House floor, Republican Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley looked like he’d grudgingly picked up his date, Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, at the last minute. Wyden, however, was beaming.

A reporter called out to the awkward couple, “Are you sitting together?”

“WE ARE!,” replied Wyden.

“Is this your date?” the reporter asked.

Wyden turned around and through a mile-wide smile exclaimed again:  “WE ARE!”

For some though, the march toward civility ended in broken hearts.

When Majority Leader Eric Cantor asked Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to escort him to the speech, she publicly snubbed him in classic high school fashion — a single, devastating tweet. Not to worry: It wasn’t long before the heartbroken Cantor rebounded with fellow Virginian, Democrat Bobby Scott.

With the couples paired, the party kicked off around 6:30 p.m. as intrepid members staked their claims in seats along the aisle where they could bask in the brief glow of C-SPAN cameras. Florida Democratic Rep. Frederica Wilson strolled in around 7:00 to hold her seat with a giant cowboy hat.

Other members filled up the room over the next few hours, with the president’s cabinet, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and six of the nine Supreme Court Justices not far behind. Obama — the Prom King two years running —  made his entrance just after 9:00 p.m.

With so much focus on the seating arrangement, it’s a wonder anyone listened to a word he said. As it turns out, there was more focus on the president’s speech, less House floor tweeting, and even less partisan cheering.

Because of Congress’ bipartisan slowdance, the president couldn’t rely on half  the room jumping up in celebration at his every word. Members at times looked unsure of whether they should stand up and clap, forcing them to pay attention and play it straight. Blackberry distractions were scarce and the showboating element, the mainstay for so many years, all but disappeared.

“I think the president reached across the aisle,” said Nebraska Democrat Sen. Ben Nelson. “In fact, there was no aisle!”

Only once did a member on the floor have the nerve to shout out. When Obama called for an end to federal tax subsidies to oil companies, one unknown voice yelled, “They’re all international!” (It wasn’t Joe Wilson, no lie!)

The real question is whether all the talk of civil bipartisanship will ever last, but hope did spring. At least momentarily.

During the president’s speech, liberal Democrat Dennis Kucinich dropped his pen, which went skipping into the middle of the aisle. Texas Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert — Kucinich’s polar opposite in the House — sprang out of his seat, scooped up the pen, reached across the aisle, and placed it in Kucinich’s hand.

“Thank you,” Kucinich said, perhaps the last words either will speak to the other for years.

Although the bipartisan seat-pairing was symbolic, it had the potential to usher in an new era of civility and  muzzle hyperbolic partisan sniping.

“I believe a lot of members thought this was a good approach and maybe we’ll find ourselves doing it over and over again,” said Texas Democratic Rep Sheila Jackson Lee.

Georgia Republican Rep. Paul Broun quietly disagreed.

“Mr. President, you don’t believe in the Constitution,” wrote Broun from his office during Obama’s speech. “You believe in socialism.”

Maybe Lee was right. Trying it again next year couldn’t hurt.

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