About the series: With a sour economy and an increasingly anxious American public, the workings of Washington are inextricably linked to electoral politics headed into this year’s midterms. NBC’s Ken Strickland sat down with nine lawmakers who will depart from the Senate after this year. Together, they represent 158 years of Senate service and offer unique insights into how the Senate works and how it has changed. Read more about the series here.
Q: What things do you think are most misunderstood by the public about being a senator or how Congress works?
A: What I find is most people have a civics book understanding for how Congress works and how a bill moves. But what I don’t think is understood well is how relational it actually [is] … Most people — when I came in here — they would lament about how members don’t get to know each other because now a good portion of the Senate commutes back and forth from home. And once you get here you’re working full tilt and you just scatter to the four corners of the country. And so the relationships aren’t built like they used to be when people moved to Washington, stayed here, socialized. That has an impact on the system working or not working.
The classic that I think about, actually, is the impeachment trial of Bill Clinton. The whole Senate’s meeting together in the Old Senate Chamber trying to figure out “how do we move forward with this?” Because we hadn’t had an impeachment trial in 100 years here. It’s important that it be conducted fairly for the country. The Senate’s to sit as the jury—that’s the way the Constitution had set it up—and we wanted to have a fair process. And yet partisan bickering is what it was. One side generally looks at it and says, ‘this is a witch hunt’ and the other side says, ‘well, the guy deserves it.” But you have to remove yourself from the partisanship and get yourself into more of a judicial role. You’re a jury in that setting.
And so we’re chewing through this in the old Senate chamber, and at one point in time Ted Kennedy stands up and says something about, ‘we’ve got to conduct this fairly for the country and I think the process ought to be this.’” Phil Gramm pops up immediately and says, ‘Senator Kennedy is right and we can do this.’” And immediately the Majority Leader says, ‘okay, I’m going to appoint to two of you to come up with the process for us to move this on forward.’”
And there was enough of a relationship between Phil and Ted--completely different perspectives, pretty similar styles--that they could do that. And there was enough trusting in the relationships there of other members towards the two of them that they could negotiate that. It was one of the laments on this health care bill. A lot of people were saying that if Ted Kennedy were here we wouldn’t have had a partisan of a health care debate as we just came through.
That’s what I mean by a couple of examples of relation[ships], how the place actually moves and works. The structure is there. You have to get through the spots. But at the end of the days the system is still made up of people. And people that have to work together or not and make it move or not move.
Q: What do you find to be the hardest part of working in the Senate?
A: For me personally, it’s being away from my family. They stay in Kansas and I commute here. When I’m here I’m away from my family. For me personally that’s the hardest part of it…. It’s a rare weekend that I don’t make it home. Now I may go somewhere in between, make a stop somewhere else, but most weekends I make it home.
Q: What piece of legislation did you work on that made you the most proud?
A: The human trafficking bill that Paul Wellstone and I did in 2001, probably. It was the first human trafficking bill that had been done. There have since been a number of different ones done. Paul and I came at this from different perspectives. His wife Sheila was seeing Ukrainian women show up at battered women’s shelters in Minnesota. This is after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the fall of communism. And I was hearing about the human trafficking from issues in the Sudan and then also in other places around the world.
We had groups from the far left, far right, and in between. And we came together on a real scourge and dealt with it in legislation, subsequent legislation, and really drove or were part of a global movement to address a really ugly thing that’s going on. There’s just a lot of human trafficking that’s taking place. It’s criminal, it’s brutal, it’s deadly, and there’s a lot of it.
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Q: Who are the senators from the other side of the aisle with whom you enjoy working the most? Who do you consider a "worthy opponent" in debate?
A: Dick Durbin’s a worthy opponent on any debate. He’s very intelligent, quick. Knows his facts and puts them forward well. If you’re going to debate him it was going to be a tough debate and you better be ready to go. I always thought that… over the years, because he’d be a frequent floor debater.
I enjoyed working with Paul Wellstone. I enjoyed working with Ted Kennedy. I think because I felt like if I could agree, if we could get something work out, if there was a topic that had passion for both of us and we could work out the details, I felt like we could get a bill through… getting bills through here is really hard just because the systems is built to stop things. It’s not built to pass, it’s built to stop things. And so I would often go as far to the ideological left as I could reach in getting a partner on a topic that they would have some passion on… So they would push, I would push and felt like if we could get it agreed to it would probably make it through.
Q: During your time as a senator, who do you consider to be the most effective or politically savvy legislator?
A: Jon Kyl did a really good job of presenting a case and moving issues. John McCain probably is one of the more effective legislators, getting things on through the process. I always thought too, and this may seem kind of odd, Richard Shelby was just an effective guy a lot of times at stopping things. It worked a lot more quietly but nonetheless quite effectively.
Orrin Hatch does a nice job of being effective, either getting things through or getting things stopped. I remember when we got that human trafficking bill moving, we had a divided Congress at that point and time. And it was one of the few trains that actually appeared like it was going through. He caught us—caught the conference committee and wrapped us up in knots until we added one of his things on it. Boy, that was a good move because we had no way of moving. I was really in a full nelson. We weren’t going to go anywhere until we had his thing in it. Now I was fairly new legislator. I don’t know where that move came from but it was sure effective.
Q: You have one day of your Senate life to live over again and change a professional choice that you made, maybe a vote. Which one is it and why?
A: Term limits? I don’t regret that one. My staff may regret that one.
Q: What is the state of your political party?
A: Full of promise. After the Bush years the Republican Party brand had gone down. A lot of it was the president, but it [was also] two wars and eight years and the economy just went and tanked.
But President Obama has given us a chance to represent ourselves to the public because the public’s looking at President Obama and … he’s going to change the country to the left. But the country is a center right country. It’s upset, very upset about where he’s going.
So it’s like their giving the Republicans another chance to present themselves to the public… where on fiscal issues, on how would you run the country? So I see very hopeful times.
I think the crop of governors coming in, particularly Republican governors coming in, will have big piece of how that presentation takes place ... I think that’s where we get the chance to represent ourselves.
I always think that the party that offers the most hope and ideas for the future is the party that wins. I think we’ve got a real chance of presenting a new set of hope and ideas. It’ll be still themed on conservatism and markets and structure of family—support for family. I think we’ve got a real hopeful moment.
Q: Pundits, experts, and even some members of Congress say this period is the most partisan they've ever seen. Do you agree?
A: I don’t know that it is. It might be. Usually when people make those sort of statements they’re doing it to say that the system isn’t working because it’s so partisan.
I love serving in the government. I love serving in the Senate. A lot of times, people make those comments on their way out the door. I don’t want to tell people I think it’s a partisan environment and that’s why I’m leaving. That ain’t why I’m leaving.
I’m leaving because I gave a term limits pledge, because otherwise I think it’s a fabulous country. It is a tough system, but it generally ends up working for the overall will of the people. And if the people don’t like it, they change who they put in it.
So I don’t know if you can really say it’s the most partisan.
I do think the Obama agenda is the furthest left agenda we’ve seen since probably LBJ and the Great Society. And the differences have been that instead of him trying to go center-left, he’s gone—in my estimation—more left. He’s shown the country a much more aggressive liberal, more European style agenda, and that’s on a center-right country. And I think that’s what’s created more of the division and partisanship. i
Q: You limited yourself to only two terms. Do think there should be term limits in the Senate?
A: You’ve got a country of over 300-million people and you can find 100 competent people to do these jobs year in, year out. And you ought to have a change of blood and a change of ideas. I think that would be very healthy in the system if it took place. Now whether it’s two or three terms that you want to put it at? That would sure be open to adjustment for me on that.
I think it’d be a good thing for the Supreme Court, if you had a regular turnover of people in that body because it affects the whole country. And whenever a seat comes open, it becomes this clash of titans because you may put somebody who’s going to be there for 30 or 40 years.
We work through it and we’ve been able to work through it. And the country can vote people out—and does. And you’re seeing that this election cycle for sure. The country addresses term limits itself too. Like right now, you’ve got an atmosphere where a lot of people are saying, ‘I want to get a new crop of people in.’” You could see -what - 20 new faces in the Senate this next time around? Which would be a huge turnover in the Senate. The country does do it, but still I think we’d be better off if we had term limits across the board.
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