Rival lawmakers begin talking to each other and seem eager to heed Obama's suggestion to keep it going.
By Allison Sherry
In the end, it wasn't about low-level staffers saving seats with coats and bags on chairs.
It was about Colorado lawmakers taking hour-long shifts prior to Tuesday's State of the Union address to ensure they could sit together -- Republican Reps. Cory Gardner and Mike Coffman and Democrats Ed Perlmutter and Diana DeGette hanging out with reading material and each other.
In their time together, DeGette and Coffman talked about cutting the deficit. Perlmutter and Gardner, after talking about Chicago Bears quarterback and former Colorado State University Ram Caleb Hanie, chatted about a bill Gardner wants to introduce that fits into Perlmutter's financial-services committee.
"We're sitting here together," Gardner said, shortly before the president's address. "We absolutely will talk about things."
The gesture of Republicans and Democrats sitting together Tuesday started out as a facile idea pitched to 535 members of Congress by a nonpartisan group and championed by Sen. Mark Udall, an Eldorado Springs Democrat.
In two short weeks, in the wake of a shooting rampage that killed six people at a political event in Arizona, it blossomed into a national conversation about why politics has gotten so nasty and what, if anything, leaders could do to take it down a notch.
President Barack Obama applauded the idea but said actions had to follow the bipartisan spirit.
"What comes of this moment will be determined not by whether we can sit together tonight but whether we can work together tomorrow," he said in his address.
Udall said his idea was inspired, in part, by what happened in Arizona and in part because he has his own mixed political family.
Dozens of lawmakers decided to pair up.
All of Colorado's House members, four Republicans and three Democrats, and Sen. Michael Bennet, a Denver Democrat, sat together. Udall sat with Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., a conservative lion who supported Bennet's opponent last fall.
"One of the lessons I learned in the election is that people in Colorado are serious about seeing us work together," Bennet said. "Tonight, I sat between Cory Gardner and Doug Lamborn, and they were very nice to me. I hope they think I was nice to them."
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., sat with Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., joking about the rivalry between their alma maters -- the University of Missouri and the University of Kansas, respectively.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., sat with Sens. Tom Udall, D-N.M., John Kerry, D-Mass., and Joe Lieberman, I-Conn.
Earlier Tuesday, Mark Udall compared repairing the corrosive nature in Washington to climbing Colorado mountains.
"I'm an old mountaineer, and I think the aisle that divides us has become as high as a mountain," he said at a press conference with Democrat and Republican colleagues. "I think we all agree that if we can't sit together in an important night like this, how are we going to face big challenges?"
Some people have poked fun at the gesture, calling it the Beltway's "kumbaya" moment and writing about the "dates" lawmakers had with each other Tuesday.
But observers say easy-to-understand gestures such as this mean something to the average voter.
"The public is tired of partisanship," said University of Colorado political scientist Ken Bickers. "They'd like to see Congress and the president work together to solve problems rather than to engage in arm wrestling."
Colorado lawmakers said they hope the civility wafting through the Capitol will mean something when tackling meatier -- and admittedly harder-to-solve -- problems.
"It's too early to tell," Perlmutter said when asked whether the new Congress will act differently. "Last year on the Republican side of the aisle, they took a pretty uniform decision to say 'no.' It was a good political position to be in, but it wasn't a good position for compromise."
Gardner, a Yuma Republican, said accomplishments in 2011 will be less about what is said Tuesday "and more about what happens tomorrow and in the following days. "Our challenges are so enormous, we've got to work together to cut spending, and that is going to take members of the whole House to make it happen."
One notable Coloradan who did not attend was Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. He was chosen as the one Cabinet member to skip the address so that the government would continue to function if a catastrophe were to strike the House chamber.
"More than ever, our focus must be on job creation, getting our nation's fiscal house in order, and reforming the broken ways in Washington. I believe we will continue to lead the global economy only if we can find ways to unleash innovation, invest responsibly and create jobs here at home."
Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo.
"The president's emphasis on working together to fulfill the shared aspirations we have for our kids and our country was spot on. . . . It's time to change the tone in Washington and start having a serious conversation about how to make our country more competitive, strengthen our public schools and slow our rising deficits and mounting debt."
Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo.
"The president tonight outlined a strategic approach to examine our nation's government -- and thus its spending -- in a targeted manner to reconfigure programs that have lost their way, while supporting those that truly work for the American people and our nation. Doing so will finally begin to reduce our deficit and create a lasting government that is leaner, smarter and more efficient."
Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo.
". . . I am proud that (Obama) highlighted Bruce Randolph in Denver and our state's success in education reform, which we hope to replicate across the state and nation. I am also thrilled that the president focused on critical areas of education reform, particularly the Race to the Top program, and immigration reform and the DREAM Act."
Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo.
"(Obama's) call for more 'investment' is nothing more than more government stimulus. We don't need to be spending more money on high-speed rail that goes from somewhere to nowhere. . . . We've got to stop out-of-control spending and reduce government barriers to job creation."
Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Colo.
"There needs to be a fundamental change in the way we do business in Washington. It's time to transform words into action -- get people back to work, cut spending and reduce the size of government."
Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo.
". . . I am concerned the president used the word 'invest' as a euphemism for 'spend.' My Republican colleagues and I will not allow this president to continue his failed economic policies. More government spending will only take money out of the private sector and hurt our nation's job creators."
Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colorado Springs
"I will work to make sure we are smarter and more efficient in our use of energy. . . . It will allow us to transform the way we power our country and reduce our dependence on foreign oil. Quite simply, this is good for jobs, good for national security and good for the environment."
Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo.
"The president pledged to improve the economy by lowering government barriers, but at the same time he tried to sell us on his plan for further 'investment' in our economy. I'll call that as I see it: a code word for billions of dollars of more spending, and anyone can see that adding to the $14 trillion deficit will do nothing to create jobs or grow the economy."
Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo.