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Without Dealmakers, Can Congress Compromise?

Sep 25, 2011
Originally published on September 26, 2011 2:08 pm

What does it mean when a dealmaker backs away from the leadership table?

Amid news that a sharply divided Congress is embroiled in yet another budget battle, and the country once again faces the possibility of a government shutdown, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) announced last week that he's giving up his leadership position in the Republican caucus.

"The rarest privilege of being a senator is your autonomy. You're free to do whatever you want to do," he told Weekend Edition Sunday. "When you go to the leadership table you exchange some of your independence for the seat at the leadership table. I'm giving that up to get my independence back."

Alexander is known for a willingness to work with Democrats on tough issues. With just days for both Democrats and Republicans to reach an agreement or risk another eleventh-hour vote to avoid a government shutdown on Oct. 2, that loss of leadership might have a huge impact.

This time, the bickering is over the latest stopgap spending bill. House Republicans want more than $1 billion in spending cuts to offset spending for disaster relief; Democrats are opposed.

The impasse has echoes of this summer's protracted debt-limit debate and it's indicative of the dysfunction in Congress.

"What troubles me now is that the institution itself is being trashed," Ross Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University, told Weekend Edition Sunday host Audie Cornish. "Every time we have one of these crises ... it causes the public to see Congress in a much more negative light."

In the past year, many senators known to cross the aisle have retired or stepped down, including Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT) and Sen. Bob Bennett (R-UT).

Compromise 'A Four-Letter Word'

Bennett was a three-term U.S. senator before Tea Party activists helped oust him in the last election. He's now a senior policy adviser with the firm Arent Fox, along with his former Senate colleague Byron Dorgan (D-ND).

Bennett tells Cornish that these days he sees senators come in from the House — where attitudes are usually more partisan — and start off a Senate term not appearing to want to be dealmakers.

"But after two or three years, [they] turn into dealmakers," he said. "I'm hoping [the] situation will not be permanent."

Dorgan says he thinks the attitudes in Congress have changed partly as a result of interest groups that give politicians an ultimatum between their principles and compromise.

"Because if you compromise, that's a four-letter word; it means you've decided not to stand on your principles," Dorgan says. "That has caused all kind of problems."

Crises Spur Cooperation

Bennett recalls one of the most contentious issues he faced during his last term in Congress: the Troubled Asset Relief Program.

He says when Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke told Congress that he had run out of tools to fix the economy, "all partisanship ... disappeared very quickly."

At times, it seems only crisis points drive bipartisanship, but Bennett says he's optimistic.

"My hope is, my history tells me, [the] bitter partisanship we're seeing right now won't necessarily be permanent," he says.

Bennett says it might take another crisis or that political imperatives might change among the electorate.

"You talk about tea parties; we've seen this kind of thing before," he says. "Last time it was led by Ross Perot. And everyone predicted it would overwhelm the system.

"There were some adjustments, but it didn't. But people got about the business of Congress again after all the anger died down."

Citing the acrimonious debate over raising the nation's debt ceiling, Dorgan says the key is to get back to legislating.

"There's no preordained destiny that this country will always do well," he says. "It needs some tender loving care these days; for people to work together to fix what's wrong."

Ideally, he says, lawmakers will recognize the need to compromise.

"Compromise is the way things get done," he says. "It's the lubrication of democracy: where two people who disagree decide to come together and reach consensus for the good of the country."

Bennett cites McConnell saying that the best time to solve big problems is when you have divided government.

"That is, a Democrat in the White House, Republicans in control of Congress. Both parties [have a] stake in the outcome, responsibility for what happens," he says. "Neither party can attack the other because both were involved."

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AUDIE CORNISH, Host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

A sharply divided Congress is embroiled in yet another budget battle. And once again, the country faces the possibility of a federal government shutdown. This time, the bickering is over the latest stopgap spending bill. House Republicans are demanding more than $1 billion in spending cuts to offset spending for disaster relief. Democrats are opposed. Both sides have just days to reach an agreement - or risk another eleventh-hour vote - to avoid a government shutdown October 1st.

This latest impasse has echoes of this summer's protracted debt-limit debate, and it's indicative of the dysfunction in Congress - the partisan gridlock that keeps both sides from compromising.

That's why another bit of news caught our eye this past week. Republican Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, someone known for a willingness to work with Democrats on tough issues, announced he is giving up his leadership position in the Republican caucus. He explained why on NPR's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

CORNISH: The rarest privilege of being a senator is your autonomy. You're free to do whatever you want to do. And when you go to the leadership table, you exchange some of your independence for the seat at the leadership table. I'm giving that up to get my independence back.

CORNISH: So what does it mean when a deal maker backs away from the leadership table? We put that question to Ross Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University who has worked for both Republican and Democratic senators.

ROSS BAKER: I console myself occasionally, that things in the past have got to have been worse. And...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: Somewhere, at some point.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BAKER: Right. I, you know - unfortunately, you conjure up the worst image - is, you know, the 1850s. And you don't want to go there.

CORNISH: Right. Didn't someone actually draw a sword at that point?

BAKER: Oh, they did.

CORNISH: Right.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BAKER: Poor Charles Sumner was beaten on the floor of the Senate.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BAKER: But - and I kind of think about the McCarthy period, for example. And, you know, that was a terrible time for Congress in general, but for the United States Senate in particular. But the McCarthy period was one in which individual careers were ruined. What troubles me now is that the institution itself is being trashed, that every time we have one of these crises - like the summer debt extension crisis, or the current continuing resolution crisis - it causes the public to see Congress in a much more negative light. And looking at the public opinion polls on the job performance of Congress is just totally disheartening.

CORNISH: What does this mean, going forward, for more deal making? You know, I look at the number of senators who left the Senate last year - who retired or stepped down - and quite a few of those guys were people who would have crossed the aisle to make big legislation happen. I just wonder, going forward, is this kind of another little signal out there that the deal makers are going the way of the dodo?

BAKER: Democrats and Republicans, both. People like Senator Dodd from Connecticut, who was well-known as a bipartisan character; Senator Bob Bennett from Utah, whose sin against party orthodoxy seems to have been some conversations he had with a Democrat about an alternative to the Obama health-care plan. And he, of course, was deprived of the Republican nomination in Utah in a party caucus, which basically was attended by a handful of people.

BOB BENNETT: Well, I'm flattered. I was glad to hear people say nice things about me.

CORNISH: We called Bob Bennett about that assessment. The former senator served three terms as a Republican representing the State of Utah before Tea Party activists helped oust him in the last election. Before that, Bennett was counsel to Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell. These days, he's a senior policy adviser with the firm Arent Fox.

So, too, is his former Senate colleague Byron Dorgan. Dorgan, a Democrat, represented the State of North Dakota as a congressman and senator for three decades - half that time, in key leadership posts - before retiring from the Senate earlier this year. We caught both men on the road - Bennett, near Phoenix, Arizona; Dorgan, in Miami, Florida. We asked them if they see a trend of deal makers leaving the Senate. First, former Senator Bob Bennett.

BENNETT: Well, it would certainly appear to be that way. If you'd look at the new senators coming in, and the attitudes of the senators they replaced, that you could say yeah, the culture is changing fairly dramatically. But I would point out that I have seen senators come in from the House, where the attitudes are much more partisan usually, and start off their Senate term very, very rigid that they're not going to be deal makers. And after two or three years, they turn into deal makers. So I'm hoping that the situation will not be permanent.

CORNISH: Senator Dorgan, what's your assessment of how the nature of deal making has changed?

BYRON DORGAN: Well, I think it's changed partly as a result of some of the interest groups that say to the politicians, look, you got to be with us on this. And, you know, you can't compromise. They say, are you going to stand for your principles or are you going to compromise? Because if you compromise - that's a four-letter word - it means you've decided not to stand on your principles. That has caused all kind of problems.

I mean, Bob Bennett and I have worked together - he's a Republican; I'm a Democrat - we've worked together for a long time and did so amicably and hopefully, in the interest of the country. That is not always the case these days. I just really think that we need much more bipartisanship, and much more compromise.

BENNETT: I go back to one of the most contentious experiences we had while I was there, in my last term. And that is TARP...

CORNISH: And that's the Troubled Asset Relief fund that was supposed to help bail out banks.

BENNETT: Right. And when the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board and the secretary of the Treasury jointly come before the Congress and say to you: We have four days before there is a major meltdown. And then Chairman Bernanke said: I have run out of tools; there's nothing I can do to avert this disaster, it's all up to you. All of a sudden, with those of us on the Banking Committee who worked on fashioning the details of TARP, all partisanship went out - disappeared very quickly. We sat in that room - Chris Dodd as the chairman of the Banking Committee, I was there as the senior Republican on the issue - and there was very, very little partisanship. When we were facing a disaster, we got together and we solved the problem.

W: We are not leaving here for the recess until this bill is passed. We pledge to you jointly, as leaders, we will get this done.

CORNISH: But at the same time, Senator Bennett, it seems as though it is crisis points only these days that drives bipartisanship. We have to, literally, be on the brink of shutdown, disaster, markets being harmed before there's real action.

BENNETT: Well, I will grant you that. But my hope is, and my history tells me, that the bitter partisanship that we're seeing right now won't necessarily be permanent, that there will be time to - maybe it will another crisis, or maybe it will just be recognizing that political imperatives change among the electorate.

We talk about the tea parties - we've seen this kind of thing before. Last time, it was led by Ross Perot. And everybody was predicting that it was going to overwhelm the system. There were some adjustments, but it didn't. And people got about the business of Congress again, after all of the anger that surrounded the Perot movement had died down. So it's going to be very hard to make any firm, long-term predictions of what would happen. Right now, it doesn't look too good.

CORNISH: Senator Dorgan, I wonder what this means for the lawmakers who have always been very good at legislating - at the act of writing laws, of building compromise. It seems as though the emphasis is so much more on the big campaigners and the big fundraisers.

DORGAN: Well, that's true. I mean, the fact is there's not much legislating being done because, you know, you go for months on a debate about whether or not we should default on our debt as a country. I mean, unbelievable to me that would have been a part of a debate, but it was. And we actually had people suggesting the country should default on its debt. So, I mean, there's not a lot of traditional legislating being done. But we do need to get back to that. And let me just say - I mean, there's no preordained destiny that this country will always do well, and always be what we expect America to be.

It needs some tender, loving care these days - for people to work together to try to fix what's wrong because we've got a lot of people out of work; a lot of people have lost hope. And this Congress, neither side is doing very well in serving the public's interest. And so my hope is things will change, and everyone will recognize the urgency at this point.

CORNISH: So ideally, one day a compromise will no longer be a four-letter word...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DORGAN: Let's hope not.

CORNISH: ...in the Senate, right?

DORGAN: Compromise is the way things get done. It's the lubrication of democracy, where two people who disagree decide to come together and reach consensus for the good of the country.

BENNETT: I have heard Mitch McConnell say repeatedly and publicly that the best time to solve big problems is when you have divided government - that is, a Democrat in the White House, and the Republicans in control of Congress - which means that both parties are going to end up with a stake in the outcome, responsibility for what happened. And neither party can attack the other because both were involved.

CORNISH: Former senators Bob Bennett and Byron Dorgan. We spoke to them as lawmakers are at an impasse over a bill to keep the government running after September 30th. Senate Republican and Democrats reconvene tomorrow to try and reach a deal. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.