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New traditions take hold for State of the Union address

WASHINGTON -- Some new traditions have taken hold amid the familiar rituals of a State of the Union address, and they seem to have a common goal: drawing some of the spotlight away from the president and to his audience.

The newest push on the part of lawmakers revolves around a clothing accessory - an attention-grabbing orange lapel pin that more than three dozen lawmakers will wear to signify their intent to “put their country first - ahead of party.”

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The initiative by members of the self-described “Problem Solvers Caucus” is sponsored by the group No Labels, a nonprofit group involving Democrats, Republicans and independents, and is the latest attempt to restore some collegiality in the polarized atmosphere in Washington these days.

Another common clothing accessory was a green ribbon being worn by many lawmakers - mostly Democrats – in recognition of the Newtown, Conn., school shooting victims.

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Also this year, Democrats and Republicans are again coupling up to sit side by side during the speech, breaking from the traditional partisan seating arrangements on the House floor.

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Democratic Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado and Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska promoted this year’s pre-Valentine’s Day pair-off, a notion first pushed years ago by the centrist Democratic group Third Way.

“We believe that with your help, we can make this a permanent tradition,” Udall and Murkowski wrote in the letter to Senate and House leaders. “Although our political discourse often falls short of what the country expects, we are all United States senators and congressmen.”

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For other members, seating concerns are more about location - particularly for Rep. Eliot L. Engel. The New York Democrat has garnered media attention each year by camping out early to grab an aisle seat in the center of the chamber, so that he is guaranteed some national exposure when the president passes through en route to the speaker’s rostrum.

This year, he had a high-profile new colleague joining him. Among the half a dozen House members seated along the center aisle more than two hours before the speech was to begin was Texas Rep. Joaquin Castro. He’s perhaps best known as the twin brother of San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, the keynote speaker of the Democratic National Convention last year.

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PHOTOS: President Obama’s past

On the digital front, both the White House and the congressional Republican leadership are promoting their own “second screen” experiences - interactive websites where video of the presidential address will be paired with live graphic and text updates.

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Rep. Steve Stockman of Texas, a Republican making his return to Congress after serving a single term in the mid-1990s, plans his own interactive feature tonight – a live tweeting response to Obama’s address with the hashtag #youlie. It’s an effort inspired by Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina’s infamous outburst at a September 2009 Obama speech to a joint session of Congress.

Stockman is also making headlines this year for his invited guest for the speech: gun rights activist and former rocker Ted Nugent.

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Michael.memoli@latimes.com

Twitter: @mikememoli


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