By Senate Producer
NBC News
updated 9/14/2010 6:15:13 AM ET 2010-09-14T10:15:13

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.

On Aug. 5, the Senate passed the largest child nutrition bill in history, affecting what students eat every day in public schools. On that same day, the chamber also authorized $600 million for border security and confirmed more than 100 ambassadors, judges, U.S. attorneys, and members of the military.

Each was approved unanimously, and it was all over in a matter of minutes. And you probably didn't hear much, if anything, about it.

"I think that there’s a lot more good going on here than what appears," said Sen. George Voinovich. Of all the senators serving their final months in Congress, it's the Republican from Ohio who speaks with the most passion about the Senate’s little-noticed productivity.

  1. Interview transcripts
    1. The Exit Interviews: Sen. George Voinovich
    2. The Exit Interviews: Sen. Judd Gregg
    3. The Exit Interviews: Sen. Byron Dorgan
    4. The Exit Interviews: Sen. Chris Dodd
    5. The Exit Interviews: Sen. Jim Bunning
    6. The Exit Interviews: Sen. Sam Brownback
    7. The Exit Interviews: Sen. Kit Bond
    8. The Exit Interviews: Sen. Bob Bennett
    9. The Exit Interviews: Sen. Evan Bayh

No doubt, the Senate could use an overhaul on how it addresses the nation’s problems, Voinovich said. But he rejects the public’s perennial views of a “do-nothing” Senate, blaming that perception on the media’s focuse on the bills that provide the most political drama.

“It’s just like everything else in life. If you want to accentuate the negative, you can,” Voinovich said. “And I think [the media] should do a better job explaining to them what really goes on here.”

Unanimous consent
The bills and confirmations mentioned above were passed through unanimous consent, or, in Senate-speak, “UC.” This fast-track procedure is how the majority of the Senate’s business gets done.

Many bills passed by UC are non-controversial — for instance, the naming of federal buildings and the commemoration of notable events. But an analysis by PolitiFact reported that during an 18-month period in 2007 and 2008, 58 percent of "non-trivial, binding bills" were passed through UC.

Once a bill has passed through a committee, where most of the Senate’s bipartisan work is done, a path can be laid for quick passage once a legislator reaches out to his or her 99 colleagues.

“We can get on the telephone and call offices and, if nobody objects to it, it gets passed,” Voinovich said, describing the practice with cadence of a commander giving orders to his troops.

“Maybe one or two people might have a problem with it. You flush them out on the telephone. You go see them. You tweak it a little bit — boom — it gets done.”

Rules rule
Measures passed by UC generally go unnoticed — they’re usually done at the end of the day. But more substantive, high-profile bills are subject to the Senate’s obscure rules, complicated procedures, and decades-old precedents.

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It’s a diet designed by the body’s founders to slow legislative consumption and digestion. Unlike the House, it’s designed to protect the minority party from being steamrolled.

Most notable and often frustrating, the senators say, is the rule allowing any one senator to filibuster or block any piece of legislation. To break a single filibuster is usually a three-day process that requires 60 votes. And on controversial bills, that routine is often repeated several times.

When Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., arrived in the Senate in 1993 after serving in the House for 11 years, he was struck by how much power a single senator can wield.

Video: Outgoing senators give exit interviews to NBC News (on this page)

“I jokingly call it ‘100 bad habits’ because every single senator has their own prerogative to say two words — 'I object' — and either slow the process down or stop the process,” Dorgan said.

Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., staged such a one-man blockade in March, knotting up an extension of unemployment benefits for four days over objections about the bill’s cost. He says that the rules reflect the founders' intention to make the Senate the more deliberative of the two chambers, but he concedes that being on the other side of a procedural hurdle can be maddening.

“Sometimes it drives me crazy because of the slowness,” Bunning said.

While they are frustrating to old and new senators alike, Senate historian Don Richie says the rules can also be empowering, especially when the political pendulum swings them back into the minority party.

“If something comes up that they don’t like, they can object,” he says. “And that means every single U.S. senator is a powerful player.”

Internal and external pressures
The Senate rules, with a few tweaks, have remained the same for centuries. But just within the past decade, many factors outside the Capitol have changed the way senators vote, legislate, and campaign.

It’s what Dorgan calls “the bleacher section.”

“Some of this game is played to either please or avoid causing problems with the bleacher section,” he said, referring to the newfound surge of cable television, political radio programs, internet blogs, and outside groups — many of which align with a political party.

Ritchie says those outside factors influence a fundamental tenet of legislating in the Senate. “Every piece of legislation is a matter of compromise,” he explained. And if someone in the “bleachers” equates compromise with disloyalty, a senator can be bombarded with negative ads, stories, commentary, or protest.

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“It’s only a very small percentage of the voters who are engaged in all of this, but it’s also a very small percentage of the voters who show up to vote in primary elections and who show up in mid-year congressional elections,” he said. “So a politician who’s concerned about being re-elected — which is all of them — has to be concerned about the more extreme factions in their parties.”

And Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, says those voters' appetite for action has only grown over time. "The tolerance of the American people for a timeframe for solving problems has gotten shorter and shorter and shorter."

Political pressure does not just come from those outside the Senate pushing inwards. Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., said he’s experienced internal pressure from his own party leadership. A moderate, he voted with his party about 72 percent of the time during the last Congress, according to The Washington Post, placing him second behind Nebraska’s Sen. Ben Nelson on the list of Democrats who break most frequently with their party.

Video: Outgoing senators give exit interviews to NBC News (on this page)

The pressure "is pretty constant," he said. "And it’s gotten more so over the years, where any deviancy from party orthodoxy is viewed as an act of betrayal or a lack of moral fiber.”

Bayh added that it can be difficult to stand before his entire caucus and express an opposing view. “But it’s necessary for them to hear it.”

Voinovich, who votes with his party about 71 percent of the time, said he’s refused to engage in "horse-trading" — voting with his party in exchange for some benefit.

Beating the odds
Controversial bills working their way through the Senate illustrate in dramatic fashion the difficulties of moving legislation: the complex rules and the various internal and external pressures.

But, some senators say, the odds can be beaten.

“It is a tough system,” said Republican Sen. Sam Brownback, “but it generally ends up working for the overall will of the people.” (Brownback limited himself to only two terms in the Senate and is now running for governor of Kansas.)

The passage of an economic stimulus, as well as health care and financial reform bills, suggest the Senate works, though the senators don’t always work together.

“[It may] seem like gridlock but this was a very productive Congress,” Ritchie said. “It’s given the President a lot of what he’s asked for.”

The TARP vote
Sen. Chris Dodd ushered the health care and financial reform bills through the Senate as the chairman of the health and banking committees, respectively. But he points to the emergency bill to address the 2008 fiscal crisis as the best example that the Senate can work in a bipartisan manner and clear the highest hurdles.

It was September 2008. The Democrats controlled Congress; George W. Bush occupied the White House; and Barack Obama and John McCain were engaged in the final months of an historic campaign for president. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke had come to Capitol Hill to deliver dire news and make a dramatic request: the national financial system was teetering on the brink of collapse and needed to be rescued with hundreds of billions of dollars. And fast.

“To me that was the moment when people came together,” Dodd said. “Here was a moment of significant crisis, where we only had a few days to act.”

In less than two weeks, the Senate negotiated and passed a 169 page bill with a $700-billion price tag. It passed with strong bipartisan support, 75-24.

“This is the way government’s supposed to work, folks, and it did,” Sen. Judd Gregg, N.H., said the day after the vote. Along with 33 other Republicans, Gregg supported the measure in the face of blistering public outcry against it.

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Dodd said he knew it was a tough vote for those Republicans. “There were people who voted that night that I knew that by voting for this were probably sealing their political fate — in fact, in a couple of cases that's exactly what happened, or part of the reason why they lost.”

Sen. Bob Bennett, a close friend of Dodd’s, is a case study. Two years after he backed the legislation, he was rejected by his own party during Utah's GOP primary. His opponents skewered him for supporting what they called the “bank bailout bill.”

Looking back, Bennett says he knew his support could jeopardize his reelection, but he has no regrets. “You don’t make the difference if all you do is stand on the sideline with the crowd cheering slogans,” he said. “Make the difference. Cast the vote. And if you lose your seat, you’ve kept your conscience.”

Msnbc.com's Carrie Dann contributed to this story.

Coming on Wednesday: Are some senators too old to effectively serve their constituents? Candor from some of the departing senators makes it clear that the issue of aging members remains — as Senate Historian Don Ritchie calls it — “a big problem … and it’s not new.”

Interactive: The exiting senators

NBC’s Ken Strickland sat down with nine senators departing the upper chamber this year. A look at the legislative lives of Chris Dodd, Sam Brownback, Bob Bennett, Evan Bayh, Jim Bunning, Kit Bond, George Voinovich, Byron Dorgan, and Judd Gregg.

By NBC's Ken Strickland and Carrie Dann | Link |

Video: Outgoing senators give exit interviews to NBC News

  1. Closed captioning of: Outgoing senators give exit interviews to NBC News

    >>> there's a broad consensus among voters that the 111th congress is too partisan to get anything worthwhile done, but ask the veteran senators leaving and you'll get a different story.

    >> ken stricklin conducting exit interviews with nine of the outgoing senators. ken is here with us with some of these interviews. i'm sure when the cameras are off and they don't have to worry about re-election, a will the of these senators could open up. what surprised you most?

    >> first of all, consider the wide range of people leaving. you have like chris dodd , who's been there for 30 years. bob bennett , who was voted out by his own party. kit bond . judd gregg . a lot of republicans are going to tell you they are just heartbroken about this guy leaving. and for them to sit down without the camera, which completely changes the dynamic, and talk about topics, partisanship, regrets, gave a view that really bucks the view of the way washington works. the first question was about partisanship.

    >> what's interesting, last week, you were saying that on the issue of the partisanship, there was one change that all of the senators cited. one big change that happened with the gallery. both in actuality and sort of virtually.

    >> we're going to do a four-part series and tomorrow, we talk about this as well. it's what byron dorgan referred to as the bleacher section. 24-hour cable, blogs, the surge of outside interest groups . that basically conflicts with compromise. the senate, the way the rules are set up, it forces people to compromise. but these outside groups see any type of compromise or caving as disloyalty and there start the protests.

    >> we saw that this weekend when boehner said he might be open to voting for middle class tax cuts. we talk about this issue of partisanship, the conventional wisdom seems to be that the current congress has the most visit rollic than ever. one interview with senator bayh -- clearly saying as bad as it feels now, you've got to have a sense of history.

    >> these interviews provides context. something we don't always get. judd gregg , he talked about 1980 when he was a republican in the democratic house when reagan had come in. he told this great story that -- would take a truckload of manure and dump it every day. to get a better perspective, i talked to a senate historian, don richy. he had to remind me of something important, which is that in the '60s and '70s, the two parties were split internally. republicans had a liberal wing and democrats had a significant conservative wing, but the voters, over time , changed that.

    >> so, it actually brings up this point, the idea that in the good old days, there was compromise. that's just simply because the voters hadn't caught up with the national identities of both parties and so now, the reason you don't have this is because conservative democrats came from the southern states and the liberal republicans come from states, blue states in the northeast, which now all elect mostly democrats.

    >> another idea chris dodd mentioned, he said partisan politics is what made the place. he said what we need is more comity. not to be confused with comedy. just more cooperation between the two parties. he said you go back to 1776 , when they formed this country, they were at each other's throats.

    >> and this other thing people say a lot is that a jet travel , which is really minimized the civility of the chamber because now members who might spend more time in washington and end up socializing with other members, they go home on the weekends. might be good for democracy, might be good for their interactions with voter, but perhaps not for their own relationships.

    >> even at the end of the day , when the rules get in the way, when the bleacher section roars too loud, it's really the personal relationships across the aisle. i think on wednesday we'll tell a story about kennedy and phil graham .

    >> interesting. ken stricklin with an eye opening exit interview . something we wish we could have gotten on camera. thanks very much. read more of ken's exclusive exit interviews, politics.msnbc.com, including full transcripts of the interviews.

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