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State of the Union seat squatters get front-row access to president -- and the media


Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee and Eliot Engel camped out hours before the speech Wednesday night. (Linda Davidson/Washington Post)




President George W. Bush talks with Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., far left, after his 2007 State of the Union address. (Rich Lipski/The Washington Post)

Those casual handshakes between the president and congressfolk at the State of the Union? Anything but spontaneous -- and like so many other things in politics, snagging one of the prime seats on the aisle requires forethought, strategy and endurance.

Some savvy members -- Reps. Eliot Engel, Sheila Jackson Lee, Jean Schmidt -- are regulars who get plenty of camera time and, if they're lucky, a hug or brief chat from the commander-in-chief.

"For members of Congress who cannot afford television commercials, the State of the Union speech and a well-positioned seat allows a member to be seen in their district at work," Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. told us a few hours before the address. "In the 15 years I've been in Congress, we hear from more constituents -- 'We saw you at the State of the Union!' -- than any speech that a member will deliver in the course of the entire congressional session. And if you are fortunate enough to have president engage you while he's walking, your constituents often say, 'What were you and the president talking about?'"

Jackson wasn't on the aisle Wednesday night (his daughter is in the hospital with pneumonia), but Engel, informal dean of the SOTU sitters, was in attendance, as he has been since he was elected 22 years ago.

The rules are simple: There's no assigned seating in the House chamber, so it's first-come, first-served -- and no staffers are allowed as seat warmers. But an informal system has developed: Members arrive early in the day, put down a placard or briefcase to hold a seat, and can come and go -- but even that doesn't guarantee the spot. So the smart ones arrive early and essentially camp out; Engel showed up 12 hours before Wednesday's speech.

Said Jackson: "I was down there for a vote at 2 p.m. and all those seats were gone."

The payoff can be huge. "This is the coup de grace -- to be able to sit on the aisle," said Rep. Michele Bachmann, who made national news in 2007 when she grabbed and kissed George W. Bush, then wouldn't let go. "It really is."

By The Reliable Source  |  January 28, 2010; 1:02 AM ET
Categories:  Politics  
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