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Legislators pairing off for bipartisan seating at Obama speech

By Tom Cohen, CNN
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State of the Union address preview
  • NEW:Republican Sen. Grassley tweets about his "date" for the speech
  • Democrats and Republicans will defy traditional segregated seating
  • At least 20 legislators say they'll sit with someone from the other party
  • The revised seating plan is a symbolic display of bipartisan intentions

Washington (CNN) -- Will Tuesday be "Date Night" in Congress for President Barack Obama's State of the Union address?

Democratic and Republican legislators are pairing off to sit together for the annual speech in a symbolic gesture of bipartisanship, and some of the combinations so far are intriguing.

Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the epitome of East Coast liberalism, and Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, a symbol of conservative intransigence, are putting aside their differences to cross the political aisle for a night, Schumer said Sunday.

"I think if Coburn and Schumer can sit next to each other, then probably just about everybody can," Schumer told the CBS program "Face the Nation," adding: "It's true it's symbolic, but let's not forget (that) oftentimes in history, symbols influence reality."

Another conservative Republican, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, told the same program he would be sitting with Democratic Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico, a longtime friend. And Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa tweeted Sunday that his "date" for the speech will be Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon.

The idea of Democrats and Republicans sitting together for the speech, instead of being segregated on different sides of the House chamber, was first raised by Colorado Sen. Mark Udall, a Democrat and the cousin of New Mexico's Udall.

Now more than 20 legislators have said they will break tradition by sitting next to members of the other party.

Previewing the State of the Union

McCain called it "a good idea," but also said it was "a bit overblown." One benefit he hoped for was fewer of the automatic standing ovations by Democrats for a Democratic president, or Republicans for any right-leaning proposal Obama might endorse in the speech.

"I frankly think the cheerleading side of it has detracted from the ability of any president, Republican or Democrat, to speak continuously to the American people without so many interruptions," McCain said. "I think there will be plenty of interruptions, and it doesn't matter where you sit, but it might be nice to have a few less."

Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the second-ranking Democrat in the chamber, told "FOX News Sunday" that he and newly elected Republican Sen. Mark Kirk from his home state would sit together on Tuesday.

"I'm bringing the popcorn; he's bringing a Coke with two straws," Durbin said. "Just kidding, of course."

Others are not so enthusiastic. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said on FOX that he would sit in his usual Senate seat.

"If people want to mix it up, we don't have seating assignments," McConnell said. "The American people are more interested in actual accomplishments ... than seating arrangements for the State of the Union."

For any paparazzi photographers, one of the pairings provides all the necessary elements to set tongues wagging. Two of the most photogenic senators -- Republican John Thune of South Dakota and Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand of New York -- say they will sit together.

CNN's Shirley Henry contributed to this story

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