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Tucson Tragedy Looms Over Obama Speech

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WASHINGTON (AP) — An empty seat among Arizona’s Republican and Democratic lawmakers. The gaze of a child’s grieving parents. The solemnity of a president and warring lawmakers promising, for the moment, to come together in peace.

The heartbreak of the Jan. 8 Tucson shootings will be reflected throughout the House chamber Tuesday evening when President Barack Obama delivers the annual State of the Union address.

At the podium, Obama is expected to speak in healing tones to a nation and a Congress still grappling with what role, if any, fiery political rhetoric played in sparking the mad attack not three weeks earlier that left six people dead, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords with a bullet wound to the head, and six others injured.

Behind Obama: the new Republican Speaker of the House, John Boehner, sworn into his position second in line to the presidency less than a week before the shootings.

In the audience: a new Congress dominated in the House by Republicans, sitting elbow-to-elbow with political opponents rather than in the traditional arrangement with Republicans to the president’s left, and Democrats to his right. Many in both parties will be wearing black-and-white lapel pins, signifying the deaths of Tucson victims and the hopes of the survivors.

In the well of the House: Chief Justice John Roberts and six members of the high court, quieting speculation that only Democratic appointees to the court would attend.

Not attending: Justice Samuel Alito, who last year mouthed the words “not true” in response to Obama’s criticism, is spending this week as “jurist in residence” at the University of Hawaii law school. Justice Clarence Thomas, too, will be absent. He has said he doesn’t attend the annual address because it has become partisan.

The Arizona delegation will sit together, around an empty seat to signify Giffords’ absence.

“It is a reminder of how we have to work to bring down crime, how we have to work to build an environment of civility where we can disagree without leading to violence,” senior presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett said Tuesday on NBC’s “Today” show.

Conservatives chafe at comments connecting political rhetoric and the Tucson tragedy. But even they are mixing it up with Democrats in an effort to build collegiality.

Through senior aides, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor late Monday invited Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi to sit with him for the address. Tuesday, Pelosi declined, tweeting her thanks to the Virginia Republican and saying she had already asked Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md.

Dozens of other pairings have been sought and accepted: Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., will sit with John Thune, R-S.D. And Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., will sit with Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., near the rest of that state’s grieving delegation.

And overhead in the gallery: faces of the tragedy.

Attending will be John and Roxanna Green, the parents of 11-year-old Dallas and the late Christina Taylor, the 9-year-old girl born on 9/11 and killed in the Tucson attack. There, too, will be Daniel Hernandez, the Giffords intern who helped clear the wounded congresswoman’s airway and held her until medics arrived.

Meanwhile, the alleged gunman, Jared Lee Loughner, has pleaded not guilty in the attacks.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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