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Brown to cross aisle for presidential address

ON HER OWN Niki Tsongas will attend the president’s speech alone. “Frankly,” she said. “I haven’t been looking for a date.” ON HER OWN
Niki Tsongas will attend the president’s speech alone. “Frankly,” she said. “I haven’t been looking for a date.”
By Mark Arsenault and Matt Viser
Globe Staff / January 25, 2011

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WASHINGTON — Senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts, a Republican, plans to sit with Senator Thomas R. Carper, a Delaware Democrat, at tonight’s State of the Union speech, one of many across-the-aisle pairings planned by lawmakers to show civility and bipartisanship in the aftermath of the Tucson shootings earlier this month.

Democrats and Republicans traditionally sit in starkly defined blocs during the speech, which become evident when half the room rises to celebrate a partisan applause line while the rest sit on their hands. This year, Senator Mark Udall, a Colorado Democrat, suggested something new — some cross-party mingling as a symbol of bipartisanship.

In response, dozens of lawmakers have announced plans to cross the aisle to sit with political adversaries, including liberal Senator Charles Schumer of New York, a Democrat, and conservative Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, a Republican.

A new seating arrangement is not expected to neutralize the highly charged political atmosphere, though it is a sign that lawmakers are trying to rebuild relationships following the shootings Jan. 8 that killed six and wounded Representative Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona.

In his second State of the Union, President Obama will talk about jobs and the economy and ways to reduce the deficit while still investing in science, education, and infrastructure. The president is expected to build on the theme of bipartisanship amid signals that he is repositioning toward the political center on economic issues and remaking his administration to strengthen ties to businesses.

The Bay State’s House delegation generally supports the overtures toward business, including the high-profile appointment of former banker William Daley to be White House chief of staff.

Representative Michael E. Capuano, Democrat of Somerville, said he has “no problem whatsoever’’ with Obama’s business-friendly moves. “The allegation or implication that progressives are antibusiness is both wrong and offensive,’’ he said.

Capuano said it is too early to tell whether the White House is undergoing a political shift, starting with the tax deal that Obama struck with Republicans last month, which many liberals opposed. “The tax proposal was a significant pivot; I understand what he was doing and I didn’t agree with him,’’ Capuano said, adding that there are not enough signals yet to determine whether Obama will tack to the right.

Lawmakers hoping to make a statement of civility had better arrive early to the House chamber where Obama will deliver the address, advised Representative Edward J. Markey, a Malden Democrat. While the Senate has assigned seats, “the way we operate in the House is more like a Southwest Airlines flight,’’ he said. “There’s a first-come, first-served quality.’’

Members who want to shake the president’s hand as he enters the chamber — a moment broadcast live on all the major networks — arrive hours in advance of the speech to stake a claim to a chair on the aisle.

Markey said he will roam the chamber for an empty chair next to colleagues he is friendly with, regardless of party.

Brown and Carper bonded last year during a congressional trip to overseas war zones. Brown’s office confirmed yesterday he would sit with Carper but declined to elaborate.

Only a few Bay State House members interviewed yesterday had lined up a specific Republican to sit with.

“As of right now, I don’t yet have a date to the prom,’’ admitted Representative James P. McGovern, a Worcester Democrat. “I’m available, though. I feel like I’m back in high school.’’ McGovern asked one Republican friend, Representative Jo Ann Emerson, of Missouri, to sit with him at the speech but was told Emerson will miss the event after slipping on ice and breaking her arm.

Representative John W. Olver, an Amherst Democrat, hasn’t arranged a bipartisan partner but thinks he can find one when he gets there.

Representative Niki Tsongas, a Lowell Democrat, will attend the speech alone. “Frankly,’’ Tsongas said, “I haven’t been looking for a date.’’ She said she plans to arrive 30 minutes early and will wander the Republican section for a seat.

Representative Richard E. Neal, a Springfield Democrat, is planning to sit with Representative Jim Duncan, a Tennessee Republican. Their offices are next to each other and they’ve been friends for years. Representative John F. Tierney, a Salem Democrat, has arranged to sit with Representative Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona, according to Tierney’s office.

Newcomer William R. Keating, a Quincy Democrat, has no plans to sit with any particular Republican. But he pointed out that he’s no stranger to working with Republicans and met many during a congressional retreat in Williamsburg, Va. “Not only have I sat with people,’’ he said. “I’ve square-danced with people in Williamsburg. It doesn’t get any closer than that.’’

Capuano has no plans to sit with any specific lawmakers tonight. “I am probably going to do what I’ve done in every State of Union I’ve been to since I’ve been there: stand in the back,’’ he said. “I will stand with anyone who wants to stand with me.’’