Mixing style and substance at State of the Union speech

WASHINGTON–For Connecticut lawmakers, President Obama’s State of the Union speech was a political mixer both in style and in substance.

Rep. Chris Murphy made a new Republican friend. Sen. Richard Blumenthal exchanged tidbits about the commute to Washington with one of his new Senate colleagues from New England. And Rep. Joseph Courtney exchanged jokes, gossip, and even some serious policy talk, with a Republican counterpart on the House Agriculture Committee.

As for the president’s speech, Connecticut lawmakers said there were plenty of attractive policy proposals, and a few less-than-desirable ones, packed into the hour-plus address. But everyone found something to like, particularly the call for more comity and the emphasis on revving up the economy.

“This was a speech that included a lot of initiatives that were not just playing to the Democratic members,” said Courtney, D-2nd District. “It was pretty careful and finely tuned to the new reality that’s there.”

That “new reality” included a dramatically reconfigured seating arrangement. State of the Union speeches are usually highly-charged, partisan affairs, with lawmakers divided into opposing, even warring, camps. Each side takes turns offering applause–or stone-cold stares–as the president runs through his remarks.

This time, lawmakers mixed it up, picking seat-mates from across the political spectrum and making for a notably different atmosphere in the House chamber. The proposal was first offered up by the centrist group Third Way, as an avenue to foster more civility and bipartisanship.

And it certainly led to some fresh efforts to reach across the aisle. But it also gave tonight’s gathering the air of a high-school prom night more than a political event. There’s been a mad scramble over the last few days to find a “date,” not of the opposite sex but of the opposite party.

Some lawmakers simply sat with their home-state colleagues. But that wouldn’t have worked too well for Connecticut’s delegation–all Democratic except for Sen. Joseph Lieberman, who was elected as an independent but caucuses with Democrats anyway.

Murphy, D-5th District, had originally planned to sit with Rep. Tim Johnson, R-Ill. They’ve worked together in the Center Aisle Caucus, a moderate group. But Johnson came down with a bug at the last minute, leaving Murphy feeling a little jilted.

“I kind of feel like my prom date cancelled on me at the last minute,” Murphy said. But when he entered the House chamber, he quickly hooked up with a new date–Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md. Harris, a doctor and conservative freshman who campaigned against the Democrats’ health care law, gained notoriety when he expressed outrage that his federal health benefits wouldn’t take effect for a month after he took office.

Murphy said they didn’t talk about health care, but did have serious exchanges about deficit reduction and federal spending when Obama raised those issues in his speech.

“Rep. Harris and I had an ongoing dialogue throughout the speech about our reactions to certain parts,” Murphy said. It ensured, he said, that he and others got a “different perspective than you normally would.”

Courtney agreed, saying he and his seatmate, Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson, a Republican from Pennsylvania, had a pleasant and lively discussion that otherwise might never have happened.

The two men don’t agree on much. Thompson voted for health reform repeal last week, Courtney against; Thompson voted for deep spending cuts on Tuesday, Courtney against.

But they both have dairy farmers in their districts, and both now serve on the House Agriculture Committee. So that was enough to bring them together–at least for one presidential speech. During the lulls, they talked about everything from the Chicago mayor’s race to agriculture conservation.

“It was very different having members from the other side there,” Courtney said. “It actually was healthy.”

For freshman Sen. Richard Blumenthal, this was his first State of the Union speech, so he didn’t have anything to compare it to. But he connected with another freshman from New England, Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, for the event.

Because they were among the last to enter the chamber, they had a hard time finding two open seats together.

“There was no room at the inn on the Republican side, and then I almost had to sit in the lap of the Ambassador to Malta,” Blumenthal said of their seat scramble. “But we were determined to sit together,” and eventually found places near the front of the chamber.

He said they talked about cases they had worked on together (they are both former state attorneys general) and Afghanistan. Ayotte just traveled to the conflict-ridden country and Blumenthal’s son will likely be deployed there in the coming months.

“It created a spirit of camaraderie and a lot of jokes about the prom,” Blumenthal said. He said he and Ayotte “stood together to applaud more often than I thought we might–supporting the troops, keeping faith with veterans, providing more jobs, building the economy.”

As with other Connecticut lawmakers, Blumenthal gave Obama’s speech high marks. “He really gave voice to a spirit of national purpose,” he said. The most powerful part, he said, was Obama’s linkages-between, for example, stronger education and more jobs and a cleaner environment and a juiced-up economy.

Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, said he, too, particularly liked those elements.

“I thought it was forward-looking,” Himes said of Obama’s remarks. “I loved the emphasis on innovation and education. It’s important for the country and really important for my district.”

And he didn’t mind that the president “offered up some old Democratic sacred cows for the other side,” like specific spending cuts and calling for a hard look at entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security.

Courtney said he wasn’t sure how Obama’s call for a five-year discretionary spending freeze would jibe with his call for new investments in education, green energy, and other areas. He said for now he would reserve judgment, waiting for the White House budget to be released next month “to better understand how all that works.”

But he said the overall tone of the speech was right on target. “I was really glad he talked about how we need to get our confidence back and believe in the country’s future,” Courtney said. “There’s a lot of doubt that has crept into the country’s psyche as a result of this recession… It was great that he was trying to demonstrate that there’s a plan here to get us back in our groove.”

Murphy said he applauded Obama’s call for “targeted investments,” combined with overall spending restraint.

But he said he would have liked to hear the president talk more about reviving America’s manufacturing base and rewarding companies “that keep jobs here,” instead of promoting free-trade agreements that “frankly have a history of sending jobs out of this country.”

The one thing Himes took issue with was Obama’s assessment of the Afghanistan conflict.

“He was more optimistic about our progress and prospects in Afghanistan than I think he had a right to be,” he said. “I think there’s a deeply uncertain outcome there.”

As for the seating arrangement, Himes said, “I didn’t participate in the bipartisan prom-date deal.” While it added to the civility in the chamber, he thought it got far more attention than warranted.

Himes wasn’t the only one who passed up the opportunity to cozy up to a GOP counterpart.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, didn’t try in advance to find a GOP partner. Her spokeswoman, Kaelan Richards, declined to say why. But while DeLauro didn’t sit next to a Republican, she got the next best thing: a conserative Democrat, Rep. Mike Thompson, of California. 

And Rep. John Larson, D-1st District and chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, apparently couldn’t find a suitable Republican seat-mate.

One prospect-Texas Rep. Jeb Hensarling, chair of the GOP conference-didn’t pan out. (Hensarling had already paired up with Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., who is also a member of the Democratic leadership.) So Larson sat where he usually does-at the Democratic leadership table, next to Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif.

Connecticut’s king of bipartisanship, Lieberman, who has many friends and enemies in both parties, ended up sitting next to a Democrat: Sen. Tom Udall, D-New Mexico.

But they were part of a foursome that also included Lieberman’s longtime Republican pal, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and John Kerry, D-Mass.

Whether Tuesday night’s bipartisan “date night” will translate into any concrete consensus is far from certain. But lawmakers said it was a good start, not to mention a fun evening out.

“The circumstance of my seating arrangement allowed me to make a new and potentially important friend tonight,” Murphy said. “He’s someone I won’t be afraid to look to” on new legislative initiatives.

Said Courtney: “Just spending a little time next to each other and talking… I think will be helpful. We really do need to find more opportunities to interact, and I think this was a good way to do it.”