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WASHINGTON – To see the other stars of the State of the Union Tuesday night, you'd have to look up — way up, to the visitors' gallery circling the room above President Barack Obama's head.
Lawmakers, no longer content to be a formal — and sometimes hostile — backdrop to the president's big speech, have found a way to grab more attention by loading the House gallery with guests chosen to embody various political points.
Presidents have been using their guests this way since Ronald Reagan. But this year, the tactic has become noticeably more popular with lawmakers.
That's adding to the partisan mood surrounding Obama's first State of the Union address to a Congress in which Republicans control both the House and Senate.
For example, Obama is showcasing his move to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba by inviting Alan Gross, a U.S. government subcontractor released last month after five years as a prisoner in Cuba. He'll be among the guests sitting with first lady first lady Michelle Obama.
Meanwhile, Republicans are bringing guests to showcase their opposition to reversing the Cold War policy of isolating Cuba.
House Speaker John Boehner invited two visiting leaders of the non-violent Cuban resistance movement — Jorge Luis Perez, known as "Antunez," who was jailed for 17 years in Cuba, and his wife, Yris Tamara Perez Aguilera.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., is bringing a democracy activist who believes her father, Oswaldo Paya, was killed by Cuban government officials because of his years of gathering signatures on a petition seeking free elections.
"While I disagree with the president's new Cuba policy, I hope Rosa Maria Paya's presence on Tuesday night will at least remind him that her father's murderers have not been brought to justice, and that the U.S. is now, in fact, sitting at the table with them," Rubio, who is considering his own run for the presidency, said in a statement.
The Obama administration has advocated for investigation of Paya's death in a 2012 car accident that his family says was rigged. But the administration is moving quickly with new openings to Cuban President Raul Castro. On Wednesday, talks in Havana will begin exploring how quickly the U.S. and Cuba can open embassies in each other's capitals.
Democratic lawmakers' State of the Union guests include a 103-year-old voting rights activist, Amelia Boynton Robinson, who was one of the civil rights marchers beaten outside Selma, Alabama, in 1965. She was invited by Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., is bringing Emma Sulkowicz, a Columbia University student who has sought to raise awareness about sexual assault by carrying a mattress around campus.
Some lawmakers, led by Democratic Rep. Gwen Moore of Wisconsin, are trying to organize a nonpartisan gesture from the House floor during Obama's address.
They are encouraging Congress members to hold up pencils in support of freedom of speech and in solidarity with the French after the terrorist attacks on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.