Tulsa World: Bipartisan gesture has odd mix

Jan 26, 2011
In The News

WASHINGTON – Capping off a week of unusual media attention, Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn and New York Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer finally made it official on Tuesday.

The political odd couple sat together in the House Chamber to hear President Barack Obama deliver his annual State of the Union address.

Coburn and Schumer entered the House chamber together and took seats on what is usually viewed as the Republican side.

Coburn took the aisle seat on their row, which put him in position to greet Cabinet members and other dignitaries.

That seat also gave him the opportunity to underscore the bipartisan tone of the evening when the president came down the middle aisle.

In keeping with their relationship, which dates back to their early days in the Senate, Obama greeted Coburn with an enthusiastic handshake, and the two embraced.

Coburn and Schumer were not the only lawmakers from different parties making the bipartisan gesture, which some called a kind of date night on Capitol Hill, but their pairing probably generated as much coverage as any other.

"If Coburn and Schumer can sit next to each other, then probably just about everybody can,” Schumer said recently on CBS’ "Face the Nation.”

He credited Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., for getting him and others to ignore the tradition of sitting with those in their own parties, explaining that he took the initiative and called Coburn.

Even though Schumer has managed to get more than a little mileage out of the invitation, he conceded that it is symbolic.

Still, he expressed hope that the move will lead to a more civil tone.

Coburn, perhaps a little more reticent on the subject, said on NBC’s "Meet the Press” recently that trouble occurs when "we start looking at motives rather than differences of ideology.”

"Some of the problem in our country is, is we talk past each other, not to each other,” he said.

As others planned to cross the political divide and sit together, Sen. Jim Inhofe said he was not having any part of it and described the move to participate as a mistake for his fellow Republicans.

Inhofe also dismissed the lasting impact of what even supporters concede is a mostly symbolic gesture.

"It’s one blind date,” the Oklahoma Republican quipped.

Inhofe described the gesture as a mistake because the American people watching the annual presidential address from home will not be able to tell that Republicans do not support some of the proposals Obama includes in the speech.

For example, when the president calls for specific environmental regulations and Democrats stand up and applaud, he said, television viewers will not be able to tell that Republicans oppose such a policy.

Inhofe said that regardless of whether the president is a Democrat or a Republican, he is always proud to show his support or opposition to certain proposals.

He said the Democrats who had suggested that he sit with them were those he routinely works with on issues such as transportation.

Oklahomans in the House also joined in the effort by sitting together.

"Over the years, our delegation has historically worked together for the betterment of the state and its economy and will continue to do so in the future,” Republican Rep. John Sullivan said.

Rep. Dan Boren, the only Oklahoma Democrat in Congress, agreed that the delegation has a strong and positive working relationship.

"In the wake of the recent shooting in Arizona, it is important that elected officials from all parties promote civil discourse and demonstrate to constituents back home that we can work from different ideological perspectives while still respecting each other’s differences,” Boren said.

"In that spirit, it was an honor to sit with and share the president’s address this evening with Congressman Frank Lucas and the rest of the Oklahoma delegation."

Lucas expressed hope that the gesture of bipartisanship will inspire both sides of the aisle to work together on real solutions.

Republican Rep. Tom Cole described the delegation as a "great example of the bipartisan cooperation I hope to see more of in this Congress.”

Cole left the House before the speech ended. An aide said his view was obstructed so he left the chamber to watch the speech in the cloakroom.

Udall had said in a letter to his constituents that "the simple act of walking across the aisle to sit with our colleagues from the opposite party can become more powerful than any number of words we might use to bridge our differences in Washington.”

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