Washington (CNN) – At 8 o'clock this morning, 13 hours before President Obama was scheduled deliver the State of the Union address, Rep. Elliot Engel, D-NY, arrived in the House chamber to secure an aisle seat, in order to shake the president's hand when he enters.
Though this year he says he arrived earlier than ever before, saving a seat for a presidential grip and grin has been a ritual for Engel for more than twenty years – since George H. W. Bush's first appearance before Congress.
"To me its a great celebration of American democracy," said Engel, standing outside the House chamber for a brief break during his long day of waiting.
Engel is part of what has became a small group of what he calls a "cast of characters" who come early to get on prime time television with the president. Others include Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-TX, and Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-IL.
Full coverage: President Obama's State of the Union address
This year, Engel said congressional officials sent a notice that they were tightening the rules for seat saving – warning that lawmakers were not permitted to come early, put tape on a seat, and then not come back until later in the evening.
That means only the truly committed who stay in the vicinity can prevail.
"You hang around, you're in and you're out...you've got to go to the bathroom," said Engel.
The New York Democrat insists he is still able to do his work. He holds meetings in the Rayburn room just outside the House chamber, and uses one of three computers available to lawmakers in the House ante room.
Engel says his constituents "love it."
"Six months from now, someone will say to me, 'Congressman I saw you on TV,' and I'll think it was in a brilliant interview...what was I saying?
And they'll say 'no no you were shaking the presidents hand.' That's what they remember."
Engel says when George W. Bush was president he got pressure to break his ritual and not shake the president's hand to protest the Iraq war. Engel said he refused.
"It's an honor to shake the hand of the President of the United States, no matter who it is," said Engel.