Inside the Chamber: A Subdued State of the Union

President Obama’s State of the Union address this year was unusually tepid, with even the Democrats looking unimpressed and disinterested.

The entire seat of the U.S. government sat inside the House chamber for the annual address, but there was not much energy in either the Democrats’ support or the Republicans’ opposition.

The two parties mixed up their usual seating this year for the first time, in a symbolic gesture of bipartisanship.

The Democrats who sat on the Republican side of the aisle were easy to spot because they were the only ones who stood up when Obama called for more government spending and raising taxes.

And the Republicans on the Democrats’ side were easy to spy when they stood up alone when Obama called for an end to earmarks and for tax reform. The GOP responded particularly enthusiasticaly when Obama called to “simplify the system. Get rid of the loopholes. Level the playing field.”

“And use the savings to lower the corporate tax rate for the first time in 25 years– without adding to our deficits,” said Obama, who was wearing heavy makeup for TV.

After the speech, Sen. Rob Portman (R.-Ohio) told HUMAN EVENTS that “I was most encouraged about tax reform. Saying we need to lower the rates, get rid of some of the preferences, and help spur economic growth. And you saw from the response, Republicans will get behind tax reform.”

Freshman Rep. Kristi Noem (R.-S.D.) told HUMAN EVENTS after the speech that Obama “gave a lot of insight into his goals to simplify the tax code. We’ll definitely take him up on that.” However, she added, “the devil is in the details.”

The first time that the Democrats stood up alone was when Obama started using the word “innovation.” Innovation is code word in Obama’s world for new government programs, so the Republicans stayed glued to their seats. 

Also, the Democrats also stood in unison when Obama talked about giving amnesty to illegal aliens, which, codified in the DREAM Act, never got through the Senate last year.

But, the Democrats were most engaged and applauded loudest when Obama asked Congress to stop trying to repeal his beloved health care law. “Instead of re-fighting the battles of the last two years, let’s fix what needs fixing and move forward,” he said, in an appeal to keep ObamaCare entact.

Otherwise, the Democrats’ standing ovations slowed to a whimper. When Obama called to “eliminate the billions in taxpayer dollars we currently give oil companies,” four Democrats popped up, including Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) and Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.).

About six Democrats around the room stood up when the President called to “make permanent our tuition tax credit worth $10,000 for four years of college.”

Since 1911, the House and Senate have sat by their party affiliation on opposite sides of the aisle for the State of the Union address. This year, the mixed seating arrangements created some funny mishaps, as well as some endearing sights.

The entire Arizona delegation — Republicans and Democrats — sat together in two rows toward the back of the Democrats’ side. They left one seat empty in honor of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) who was shot in the head by a deranged gunman several weeks ago. Her empty seat was between Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.).

Many of the Members of Congress wore a black and white ribbon on their lapel to show support for Giffords and the other victims of the Arizona shooting. Also, in First Lady Michelle Obama’s box in the gallery were the hero intern Daniel Hernandez and Giffords’s surgeon Dr. Peter Rhee.

As for the Senate leaders, they stuck to their usual seats. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who told me earlier in the day that he planned to “sit with myself”, actually sat with the rest of his Democratic leadership in the third row on the Democrats’ side.

Literally across the aisle, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) sat with his leadership team on the same row on the Republican side. If you could take that aisle out, Reid and McConnell would actually be sitting next to each other. But, let’s not go crazy with all this bipartisan talk.

The House leaders mixed up their seating assignments. Of course, Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) has the primo seat directly behind the President and next to Vice President Biden.

The former Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), sporting a bright red pantsuit, was demoted to a regular seat on the Democratic leadership table on the House floor. Pelosi had earlier rejected an invitation by Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) to be his seat mate.

Instead, Cantor sat at the Republican leadership table with Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.). Scott and Cantor laughed together during the few times when both stood and applauded for the same issue.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) was the only Democratic leader to sit on the Republican side. Hoyer sat with House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.)

Other seating changes showed the confusion of the historic switcheroo.

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) entered the Chamber and walked to the Republican side with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). After looking up and down an aisle, he then turned around and sat on the Democrats’ side. After the speech, I asked him about the abrupt switch. 

“I came in with Rand Paul and the usher pointed us to the Republican side,” Franken told HUMAN EVENTS. “But we couldn’t find two seats together. There was one end seat next to [fellow New York Democrat Senator] Kirsten Gillibrand, so I said ‘you take this side.’”

Then, Franken left Paul to sit on the Democratic side. He kept his bipartisan seating position by sitting between between Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.). To be clear, I asked Franken, “So you switched then back to the Democrats side because you couldn’t find a seat on the Republican side?”

“There were no sides!” said Franken.

Other odd bedfellows sitting together on the Republican side were Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). After the speech, I asked Schumer how it felt to sit on the Republican side of the aisle. “It was fun. Tom Coburn and I actually get along,” Schumer told HUMAN EVENTS. Asked how their seating came about, Schumer said that they promised to sit together on NBC last weekend.

Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) sat on the Democrats’ side between two from his California delegation, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.).

The new Republican senator from New Hampshire, Kelly Ayotte, headed to the furthest aisle on the Democrats’ side, but could not find an empty seat. She was directed by an usher to sit in the front row behind the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but she begged off that prime spot.

Ayotte, wearing a bright red suit, was re-directed to sit on an extra, fold-up chair that was put literally in the aisle. She looked like she was forced to sit at he children’s table. So much for the best of intentions….