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 the Congress works?
A: People come up here and watch the Senate floor or watch on CSPAN, and only see one or two senators on the floor — and they can’t understand how the place works. Well, the place doesn’t work in floor debates. The place works in committee hearings, in conference meetings, in one-on-one contact among senators. Everybody watches or monitors what goes on on the floor, but I don’t know that I've ever won any votes by my totally compelling, brilliantly reasoned arguments on the Senate floor.
I've gotten a lot of things done and I've worked it out in one-on-one meetings or in committee meetings — which are open to the public but nobody goes. And that's where you get the work done.
Q: What do you find to be the hardest part of working in the Senate?
A: The schedule and the time commitments. The time away from family, time away from home, from Missouri.
When my son was playing Little League baseball I was watching his baseball game, they called me, I had to come in to vote for the disastrous tax bill that George H.W. Bush was passing. I voted for it. He had a grand-slam homerun and won the game for the team.
And I left the game and came in – and missed it.
Then when I was running [for re-election] — it must have been 1998 — my son, Sam, was a great football player for St. Albans [in Washington, D.C.]. Played offense and defense. He was named honorable mention, All American in high school, defensive back. But he was a big horse as a running back. And I was marching in a campaign parade in Kirksville, Missouri. And after it was over Bill Frist called me — because his kids went to the same school. He said, “You missed Sam’s career day.” He ran for 238 yards, scored two touchdowns and had all kinds of defensive tackles, kicked off, punted, did everything. I missed the whole thing.
Q: What piece of legislation did you work on that made you the most proud?
A: I guess the biggest, most recent fight was on Protect America Act and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). And the technology changed and it inadvertently pulled in electronic conversations between, for example, terrorists in Afghanistan and Iraq, because the way the technology worked.
So we had to change it. And we knew there was a real problem. Several of us had went on a CODEL and met with General McChrystal at the time. He was in Iraq with an unnamed operation. And we said, “What can we do?” He said, “You have to change FISA. And it is critical. Because if I learned that Osama bin Laden was down the street I could blow up the house. I could have a sniper pick him off when he came outside – but I couldn’t send him an email or call him on his cell phone and say ‘We got you surrounded, come on out and talk to us.’” But he said the implications were far bigger than that because when the constraints in that law kicked in they were shut out from getting the electronic surveillance they needed.
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And it so happened my son, at that time, was leading a sniper platoon for the Marines in Fallujah — so I had a little interest, personal interest in making sure he had that information. But in terms of our battle against al Qaeda and other terrorists, that was huge.
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: Well, working across the aisle I have long had the “odd couple” relationship with Barbara Mikulski, we worked so closely — at the time — on VA/HUD bills; now Patty Murray and I work very closely together.
On children’s issues I worked with Chris Dodd on the Family Medical Leave; Teddy Kennedy on some great children’s health issues; Hillary Clinton on early childhood education.
One of my favorite stories about Teddy Kennedy: on another bill I was offering an amendment – may have been on a FISA bill or something – that he didn't like. And we had an argument.
And then he got up and started ranting and raving. And he was making up facts. So I got up and I ranted and raved and I made up facts that answered his made-up facts.
And after it was over we sat down, had a quorum call, and I went over and clapped him on the back and said, “Teddy, I knew what you were doing. You were making up facts — so I made up [facts.]” And he was roaring laughing.
And we had our arms around each other, we were laughing. We walked out and the damn press corps came down and said, “What was that all about?” I said, “We’re good friends, we respect each other. But I told him he was making up facts, so I was making up facts.” And we got a laugh.
But, Teddy Kennedy, man. When he took you on it was powerful, but that's what made it fun.
Q: During your time as a senator, who do you consider to be the most effective or politically savvy legislator?
A: Politically savvy? I give lots of credit to our Leader, Mitch McConnell. I’d say on the other side there are a lot of people who are very politically savvy. Didn't agree with him, but George Mitchell was.
If I really needed to get something done I would go to get Barbara Mikulski behind me. I’m always trying to get her on my side — she can bring Democrats. Dianne Feinstein, with whom I work closely on the intel committee.
They are extremely 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: Well, from the family standpoint… missing my son’s ball game.
But I would say that recently I had a long discussion with Eric Holder. So I asked him point-blank, I said, “I am worried that you're going to go back and reopen criminal cases [on those] who have been involved in the CIA’s interrogation program. Would you do that?” He said, “No, not unless circumstances change completely.”
Well, I voted for him and then he started a whole list of actions by the Department of Justice, which I believe have significantly crippled our intelligence community and turned the CIA into a CYA. He went back and opened up the whole range — and he’s told everybody that the CIA is now under criminal review. That has put all of our intelligence-gatherers, who ought to be out on the forefront, in a reflexive, protect-your-neck mode. I regret voting for Sarbanes-Oxley and a few other things, but that one probably had the biggest impact.
Q: What is the state of your political party?
A: Well, we’re still not loved. But the nice thing about it is that we’re less disliked than the other party. And we’re trying to get out and let people know what we stand for.
And people back home say, “Why don’t you talk about all these things?” I said, “I do, every day on the floor, on radio.” But, you know, they don’t get the word.
But right now I guess the Republican Party is going into the November election as being the best looking one in the whole ugly bunch.
Q: Pundits, experts, and even some members of Congress say this period is the most partisan they’ve ever seen. Do you agree?
A: Oh, it’s gotten more partisan since I've been here. I was a Republican governor with 70 percent Democrats in both houses of the general assembly in Missouri. And my last term I finally figured it out: the legislature, the general assembly leadership got all of their bills passed and — funny — I got all of my bills passed. We had a good, close working relationship.
Got up here, much more partisan. George Mitchell launched a very partisan effort to take down Bush 41. He was successful. Newt Gingrich came back and launched a partisan effort and took over the House. And then we got the Senate back.
And after the 2000 election the Democrats were so mad about the Bush victory that they set up what they called a “war room,” and literally it became two armed camps. We fought back.
And now, with the overwhelming partisan majorities, we’re shut out. We’re not shut out on the appropriations committee debates; we can work on that.
Bills get passed with total disregard of the minority. Granted, we didn't have 41 votes, so they passed — all last year — they passed bills with no Republican support or maybe one or two.
Now on the House side, whoever is in the majority often steamrolled the minority. And we used to like to think that the minority could participate in the process over here — and it does happen at the committee levels. But at the leadership level, it's just a firefight.
Q: You’ve secured millions of dollars in earmarked projects for your home state of Missouri. But the earmark process now carries such a negative connotation. What’s your take on earmarks?
A: When I was governor I saw so much money coming to Missouri that some bureaucrat in the bowels of the administration had said, “This is how you're going to spend the money in Missouri.” I said, “The hell it is. I'm listening to the people out here. That’s not the way we need to spend that money.” Totally frustrating. That just drove me nuts.
I came up here having done what I’d always done as governor. In a campaign I had traveled to every county in the state, all 114. We set up good constituents service: “Tell us what the problems are” — and worked with them on solutions.
So when the people at home come to me and say, “Look, here’s a project, we put money into it, this is what it’s going to do, this is how we’re going to create jobs, make the community better, but we need some money to do it.” And I put federal money — which is appropriate for that use — into that project.
And it builds on successful projects that have been crafted and decided by the community with the leadership, or the educational institutions with their leadership as being very important.
We only earmark about 2 percent of the discretionary money going back to the states. When we don’t do it, it’s earmarked by some bureaucrat who has probably never even been west of the Potomac, much less west of the Mississippi.
And when we do an earmark it’s public. If somebody disagrees with it they can fight us. I’ll be happy to defend it on the floor.
I had a heck of a fight in the highway bill because I put money into a bridge across the Mississippi River. And John McCain said, “This is a highway bill, what are you doing putting in bridges?” And I said, “My good friend from Arizona lives in a very dry state, but if you live in Missouri and want to go from North Missouri to South Missouri, or from Missouri into Illinois, you better have a bridge unless you have pontoons on your boat or pretty strong flippers and you want to swim.” He took me on for that.
But we have a constitutional responsibility to appropriate the money, Article 1, Section 8 and 9. So long as it’s transparent, we have guidelines we follow and it’s laid out there.
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