President Obama passes over Rep. Eliot Engel, who has made it a point to be perfectly positioned in the center aisle to greet the president at every State of the Union since 1989.
On television, it looked like the ultimate Beltway nightmare come true.
In the scrum of glad-handing and back-slapping that accompanies the president’s State of the Union entrance, Representative Eliot Engel (D-NY), who had been saving his seat for most of the day, got passed over by President Obama for a handshake on Tuesday night.
But there will be no boo-hooing in his Bronx district for this veteran lawmaker, who has attended 24 State of the Union addresses. In fact, Engel claims television watchers — including NBC Nightly News host Brian Williams — got it wrong saying a snub ever occurred in the first place.
And he couldn’t be happier.
“I was very surprised when I was told afterwards, ‘The president walked by you,’” Engel told NBC News on Wednesday. “He shook my hand with his left hand.”
“I was very shocked when they said to me that he walked by me, because he didn’t,” the congressman said.
Indeed, video coverage of the president’s procession down the aisle did cut to a shot that blocked the view of both men’s hands just as the president passed Engel – making it look to everyone at home as though Obama passed Engel by and left him to exchange a few words with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.
But Engel tweeted at Williams, MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell and NBC News on Tuesday night: “No swing and miss. Shook POTUS’ left hand as I introduced [Rep. Gloria Negrete McLeod (D-CA)] to him. The streak continues. #ny16.”
The encounters between the president and lawmakers on the way to the podium typically last a few seconds at the most.
Engel is one of a group of legislators somewhat unkindly called the “aisle hogs” or “aisle huggers” – congressmen and women who lay early claim to seats along the aisle. Seats are awarded first come, first served basis, and whiling away the hours before the president’s 9 p.m. entrance has become a routine for some intent on getting the best seat in the house.
But Engel says he was able to get plenty of work done on Tuesday after making his way to the chambers at 10 a.m. to lay an early claim to an aisle seat.
“It’s not a day that I’m stuck in my seat,” Engel said. There’s also a code of ethics observed among early arrivers, Engel said, as one or another of them leaves the chamber to walk around or conduct business: “You leave, they watch your seat. They leave, you watch their seat.”
This year, the speaker’s office sent a note to members of Congress tightening up some of the rules regarding seat-saving. Calling dibs with a jacket or stack of papers would no longer be enough, according to the note.
“Members are requested to be on the floor and seated no later than 8:25 p.m.,” read a note from the Speaker of the House’s office to members. “As has been the practice in the past, Members will not be allowed to reserve seats prior to the joint session by placement of placards or personal items. Chamber Security may remove these items from the seats. Members may reserve their seats only by physical presence following the security sweep of the Chamber.”
To Engel, his quick squeeze with the president remains all about the voters in the district where he’s lived since he was 12 years old.
“The frosting on the cake is my constituents enjoy it,” Engel said. “I found that when I did it initially, which was a total fluke, I found people in my district coming up to me saying, ‘I saw you on TV, you were great, I saw you with the president.”
And on the way out, Obama stopped and signed a campaign poster for Engel.