Signs of unity in a divided Congress

Last Updated: Wed, Feb 13, 2013 04:30 hrs

President Barack Obama's State of the Union address on Tuesday night produced fleeting moments of bipartisanship in a divided Congress.

Republicans sat with Democrats. Republicans hugged Democrats. Republicans even warmly greeted a Democratic president.

After Obama slowly walked down the center aisle, he made a special effort to talk to Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., who only returned to Washington last month after suffering a massive stroke. Their handshake looked a bit like a fist bump; the president gave Kirk a thumbs-up.

The tradition of the president's address to the joint session of Congress packs the House chamber, with lawmakers rising in unison to cheer and applaud on issues all can agree on such as support for Mideast ally Israel, or sitting silently in opposition.

The six Supreme Court justices in attendance along with the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff neither applauded nor stood. It was their way of showing nonpartisanship in a highly partisan Washington. Skipping the speech were Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

Kirk sat with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and joining the two was freshman Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., who lost both legs and use of her arm during the Iraq war. Congress' two tax writers, Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., and Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., also sat side by side, as did Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who is stepping down after four years as CIA director and Pentagon chief, got a hug from McCain when he entered the chamber. Secretary of State John Kerry also was got smiles and pats on the back when he saw his former Senate colleagues.

But for all the friendly displays, lawmakers and their offices churned out a steady stream of criticism, with Republicans questioning where was Obama action on the Keystone XL pipeline or House Speaker John Boehner's criticism that the president's "so-called green-energy agenda has wasted millions and shipped jobs overseas."

The most boisterous moment of the night came when Obama pressed for votes on tougher gun control legislation to honor the memory of the fallen.

"Each of these proposals deserve a vote in Congress," the president said. "If you want to vote no, that's your choice. But these proposals deserve a vote."

Many Democrats chanted loudly, "vote, vote."

In the audience was former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was wounded in a deadly 2011 attack during an event in her Arizona district. Kaitlin Roig, a first-grade teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., was among two dozen White House guests.

Several lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats, wore green lapel ribbons to remember the victims of the deadly shooting last year at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

Like college basketball fans camping out overnight for tickets to the game, lawmakers arrived hours before the speech to secure seats on the aisle that would give them a chance to greet the president — and be seen on television during the slow walk into the House chamber. Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., got a prime aisle seat.

The speech is part pep rally, part celebrity-watching and turns lawmakers into gleeful viewers, snapping photos of the president with cell phones.

In the House visitors' galleries, an American lineup of guests listened intently, from rocker Ted Nugent to crooner Tony Bennett.

Among those in attendance was Cardinal Donald Wuerl of the Washington Archdiocese. His presence was a reminder of an upcoming vote of major significance — for the next pope.

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