Talk Of SOTU Musical Chairs Mounts, But Proof Of Civility Will Come In Healthcare Repeal Debate

The idea of Democrats and Republicans breaking precedent, and sitting side-by-side at President Obama’s upcoming State of the Union address appears to be gaining traction as a way to demonstrate unity in the wake of the attack on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and more than a dozen others last week in Arizona.

But a more substantive sign of the increased civility in public life Obama called for Wednesday will come even sooner, as House Republicans plan to push forward next week with a repeal of healthcare reform that they postponed in the aftermath of the Tucson shooting that left six dead and Giffords (D-Ariz.) fighting for her in a hospital bed.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) is embracing a proposal first suggested by Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) that would break with the usual tradition of members of Congress separated by party on opposite sides of the chamber during the speech, which will be nationally televised.

Instead, lawmakers would sit together regardless of party “as a symbolic gesture signifying unity and better reflecting the communities they represent,” according to a statement on Udall’s website.

In his remarks at the Tucson memorial service in remembrance of the shootings, Obama called for all sides to tone down their heated rhetoric and to demonstrate a greater civility in government.

“I believe that members of both parties can symbolize our common citizenship and common interests by sitting together to hear the president’s remarks, rather than divided across the aisle by party,” says Hoyer, the second-ranking House Democrat. “A gesture like this won’t make partisanship disappear, nor should it—democracy is built on strong disagreements between the parties. But this gesture, which was first suggested by the independent group Third Way and supported by Senator Mark Udall, should help end the political theater of repeatedly seeing one side of the aisle rise in applause, as the other sits still. We must always consider ourselves Americans first, and Democrats or Republicans second. It is my hope that this new tradition can remind us that, no matter what our differences, we all come to Congress with the nation’s best interests at heart.”

However lawmakers ultimately decide their seating arrangements for the State of the Union, next week’s planned vote to repeal last year’s landmark healthcare reform law will be a surer test of whether political leaders will heed the president’s call for increased civility.

The repeal vote is expected to be contentious. Democrats and Republicans will essentially be refighting one of the most vituperative debates in recent years. This time, Democrats will be defending one of their signature achievements during Obama’s first two years in office. Republicans will be seeking to undo legislation that they bitterly opposed last year, when they were in the minority.

Debate last year ahead of the passage of the reform law became so rancorous that some Democratic lawmakers reported being the object of of racial and homophobic slurs used by anti-reform protesters gathered at the time outside of the Capitol.

Republicans this week reportedly have promised that they would encourage a more-civil debate this time around, mindful of the Arizona tragedy.

Some Democrats had hoped House Republicans would have delayed the repeal vote until after the Jan. 25 State of the Union, but the GOP is moving ahead more quickly.

“I would hope that we would let some time go by before we get back on track with this conversation, but it’s their call,” Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) told the Washington Post. But, he also said that “even if they do, if the tone of it is civil, then it’s okay.”

The publisher of the news site On The Hill, Scott Nance has covered Congress and the federal government for more than a decade.

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