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Inaugural Luncheon A Bipartisan Mixer Packed With Formality, Tradition

President Obama dined with lawmakers at the Capitol in the traditional inaugural luncheon on Monday. Within hours, Obama and congressional Republicans will be back at it over the debt ceiling, spending cuts and a possible government shutdown.

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After the inauguration ceremony today came the inaugural luncheon, held every four years in Statuary Hall of the Capitol. Imagine a wedding reception where someone gets a little creative with the seating chart. As NPR's Tamara Keith reports, the luncheon was one big mixer for a sprawling bipartisan group.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: As with so many things on this day, the luncheon was packed with formality and also tradition. The linens were cream with brown and teal polka dots, which matched the teal accent plates. The centerpieces spilling over with bold orange flowers. The menu, lobster tails, bison and a Hudson Valley apple pie with sour cream ice cream, aged cheese and honey. And at the front of the room, two large crystal vases.

REPRESENTATIVE ERIC CANTOR: The vases are the finest quality full lead crystal from Lenox china and crystal.

KEITH: That's House Majority Leader Eric Cantor who presented these traditional gifts from the American people.

CANTOR: At this time, my wife Diana and I invite the president and Mrs. Obama and vice president and Dr. Biden to join us in looking at the beautiful vases.

KEITH: The room, Statuary Hall, where the luncheon was held, used to be where the House of Representatives met before the Civil War. As he gave his toast, House Speaker John Boehner talked about the room's horrible acoustics to make a larger point about the need for leaders in Washington to hear each other.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: It's a century and a half, and many architectural improvements later, and we gather in the Old Hall to better hear one another and to renew the appeal to better angels.

KEITH: There's just something about Inauguration Day that seems to make politicians want to hear those better angels. President Obama hit the same note in his remarks at the luncheon.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I recognize that democracy's not always easy. And I recognize there are profound differences in this room. But I just want to say thank you for your service. And I want to thank your families for their service, because regardless of our political persuasions and perspectives, I know that all of us serve because we believe that we can make America for future generations.

KEITH: When the luncheon was winding down, the president walked out of the room and into the ornate Capitol Rotunda. The first lady and vice president were there with him, as were congressional leaders from both parties. They paused together in front of a large bust of Martin Luther King Jr. - on this the King Holiday - before moving on.

As members of Congress and the executive branch filed out of Statuary Hall, the mood was friendly and upbeat. The menu did also feature a Finger Lakes Dry Riesling and a California sparkling wine.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN KLINE: It's not a day for a partisan fight.

KEITH: Minnesota Republican Representative John Kline says he was seated between two Democratic senators, and they talked about wanting to get things done.

KLINE: It's nice to have an opportunity to sit and talk, and to not sharpen the partisan knives and have this feeling of celebration, which, I think, there was in the room. I didn't see anything other than that.

KEITH: There will be plenty of opportunity to sharpen those partisan knives starting, oh, maybe as early as tomorrow. This week, House Republicans plan to bring up a bill to extend the debt ceiling into May and to push the Democratic-controlled Senate to pass a budget, something that hasn't happened in four years.

Congressman Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat, also seemed reluctant to dwell on that fight, though, as he left the luncheon.

REPRESENTATIVE CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: Hey, look. The luncheon was great. I mean, really. I mean, it was - I think there was a genuine spirit of the need to work together. You know, hopefully it will last.

KEITH: When one Republican senator was asked how long he thought the buzz of bipartisanship coming out of the inauguration would last, he looked at his watch. Tamara Keith, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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