Quantcast

Any pause in harsh political rhetoric may be short-lived

Associated Press | 1/18/2011, 6:56 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Despite President Barack Obama’s appeal for civility, history suggests any move toward cooler political rhetoric after the Arizona shootings will soon fade. An early test will come Jan. 25, when some lawmakers are asking Democrats and Republicans to sit side by side for Obama’s State of the Union speech, rather than splitting the House chamber by party as usual.

Initial reactions to that idea on Capitol Hill were not encouraging, especially from the Republican side. A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said House members may “sit where they choose.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., had no comment on the suggestion, which was offered by Democratic Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado. Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., signaled he might be open to the idea but wanted more discussion. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., embraced it.

In a sometimes-emotional speech last Wednesday night in Tucson, Obama implored Americans to reflect on the fatal shootings at Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ outdoor forum, but “not on the usual plane of politics and point-scoring and pettiness that drifts away with the next news cycle.”

A lack of civility did not cause the tragedy, he said, but “only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to our challenges as a nation.”

The White House last week said it was interested in Udall’s proposal to have Democrats and Republicans intermingle when they sit for this month’s big speech by Obama.

“The choreographed standing and clapping of one side of the room —  while the other side sits —  is unbecoming of a serious institution,” Udall said in a letter. As the nation reels from the six fatalities in Tucson and the severe wounding of Giffords, he said, Congress has a chance “to bring civility back to politics.”

House Republicans have rejected the Democrats’ request to postpone next week’s vote to repeal the Obama-backed health care law, the focus of harsh political commentary, and occasional violence, for the past two years.

National tragedies in recent years have led to calmer political rhetoric only briefly, if at all.

Leaders of both parties vowed to unite the nation after an anti-government militia movement sympathizer killed 168 people by bombing a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995. Seven months later, a partisan budget impasse led to a temporary government shutdown. The public mostly blamed House Republicans, and the incident helped catapult President Bill Clinton to re-election.

In 2001, a few hours after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, lawmakers from both parties sang “God Bless America” on the Capitol’s steps. “Democrats and Republicans will stand shoulder to shoulder to fight this evil,” said House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.

But the parties returned fairly quickly to quarreling and strong-arm tactics on domestic issues, then split over the Iraq war. Hastert oversaw a GOP push to add a prescription drug benefit to Medicare in 2003. It culminated in a much-criticized predawn House vote in which the roll call was held open for hours while party leaders pressured colleagues to vote ‘yes.’