In an interview with CNN's Dana Bash, former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle reflect on their years in Congress and on how they dealt with high-pressure negotiations.
DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: All right, Senator, thank you so much for doing this this beautiful day. You remember that building behind you, the one with the dome?
BASH: Now I remember when I covered you two. You were the Senate Republican leader; you were Democratic leader. It used to be – I used to stand in the hall as a reporter outside the meeting that you used to have when you were trying to cut a deal. And it was just a question of when would the deal happen and what would it look like. Now it’s will they get a deal? What’s changed?
FMR. SEN. TRENT LOTT (R), MISSISSIPPI: Times are different. There’s a lot of things that are going on that are different now. News media is more omnipresent. And all the new social media, the traveling back and forth, and different personalities. You know, Tom and I had our difficulties. Sometimes we get involved in a little revisionist history, like everything was just perfect, but we had our ups and downs.
BASH: I was there; I know it wasn’t.
LOTT: It wasn’t perfect. And I still am convinced that hopefully at least that they’re going to come to an agreement. There’s an argument that you don’t want to make it too early because that gives people that may not be too happy with it more time to undermine it. And so the tempo and the time is important.
But it’s just different times, different people. And it’s never easy, but this one has been particularly time.
FMR. SEN. TOM DASCHLE (D), SOUTH DAKOTA: Partly our experience is also that we were crisis-driven. We had huge crises. We had the impeachment of the President and we had 9/11. And we had the Amtrak (ph) attacking the office.
And anytime there’s a crisis of that magnitude, it does bring people together a little bit easier, to bring caucuses and individuals, and provide some direction in ways that we don’t really have today.
BASH: But isn’t this a crisis? Getting ready to go off a fiscal cliff that every economist, right and left, has said will bring the company back into recession?
LOTT: Well, it could be but we’re not there yet. And when you do have a crisis, not only do the American people come together, they expect your leaders and all of your members of Congress to come together. You know, the most, the highest favorable rating of the Senate history was in the month right after 9/11, and it was because we were working together and our members were working together.
Yes, we’re facing a crisis but we’re not there yet. I hope nobody’s advocating the crisis, for the effect it might have. And the temporary solution is not that difficult. The real grand bargain, which would have to come next year involving real broad-based tax reform and entitlements and mandatory programs – reforms – will be a lot tougher. They’ve got to find a way, though, to get over this hurdle.
DASCHLE: And there has to be lines of communication. You have the institution that creates mechanisms by which people can talk. One of the things that we did that I really regret that we didn’t do more often was the whole joint caucuses, where members could talk among themselves without the cameras and without the public scrutiny, where you really could be candid. We don’t do enough of that today. We didn’t do it enough, I don’t think – we were leaders and I wish we’d done it more. And I certainly wish we’d do it more now.
LOTT: And when we did it, I remember I did it three times when I was majority leader, it’s because the ox was in the ditch. We were having problems. We couldn’t figure out how to move forward with things we had to do. Trying to get a treaty approved, you get all the Senators in the room, give them the intelligence briefing or give them an opportunity to express themselves or reach an agreement – it has an amazing effect when you do that.
BASH: I mean, it’s kind of basic. It’s just talking, right?
DASCHLE: Yes, it’s just talking but it’s also – you know, the other time, and I really remember we had some very productive moments was when we shut the cameras off during, unfortunately, during the impeachment hearing. People came to the hearing (ph) and they poured their hearts out. They really talked in a very candid way. And unfortunately as much as - important to have transparency and media scrutiny, there are times when not having media, so people can open up, be more expressive and more honest with each other, really can make a difference. I don’t think do enough of that either.
LOTT: But Dana, Dana, I do think they’ve reached a point where they need to quit talking to each other through the media and talking about whole parties and the President and the leaders of Congress. Some of our most effective results came when we sat down at a conference table with – sometimes with the President or at least with the Chief of Staff or his O&B director, with our key budget people, and we really talked about alternatives and hammered it out.
I don’t know how much that’s occurring. And it’s time. They do need to it pretty quickly.
BASH: And you know, it doesn’t seem like it is. The fact that in this crisis that we’re in, or in this situation, that the President and the Speaker can go week without even talking to each other. Does that blow your mind, given your experience?
DASCHLE: Well, I think it’s fair to say that the more you talk, the more chance you have at success. And it’s just a rule of conversation, rule of communication, that you’ve got to build trust. And trust doesn’t come haphazardly. It really has to be built over time. And that trust has to happen really at times when there isn’t a crisis. That’s why I think having regular meetings and conversation when there’s no crisis, when you can build trust and a friendship and a relationship that allows for better dialogue and far more consequential deal-making can occur when a crisis does come up.
LOTT: But you know, they – if they could do some of the other things, it looks like they may get it eventually, but two weeks ago, they had none of the defense authorization bill. Finally, they had a debate, they had a discussion, they got a vote, they’re in conference. They haven’t gotten the agriculture bill. They couldn’t get a cyber-security bill. I think that’s part of this building of trust when you work on bills that are really – cyber-security is not partisan. But it’s difficult. But you’ve got to find a way to do that. And when you do things like that, then it makes it easier to do the other, bigger things, like the budget.
But I do think that the time is now. Part of what’s going on here is the personalities and, you know, there’s still maybe a little bit of the aftermath of the election. Without, I don’t want to overplay his end, but Clinton was very garrulous and he’d get on the phone, he’d talk to you. Sometimes if he’s saying he wanted to do things that Tom didn’t particularly like or I would like, but he was doing it. And his staff, his Chief of Staff, was up here. I hope they’ll find a way to do that right away.
BASH: Do we need more Presidential leadership? Does it come down to that right now?
DASCHLE: Well, there are a lot of things we need. You know, I saw a Tea Party ad last night, you know, warning people of, you know, urging their congressman to stand their ground. And you know there are influences that are going on, as Trent said, post-election, that I think are influential (ph).
People get worried about getting a primary if they don’t toe the party line. And that’s, that I think has a real negative effect in creating the kind of climate you need for making deals and getting the kind of compromise that’s so critical.
BASH: And that really is a problem, isn’t it? For both parties. More, probably, for Republicans. Is that, in all candor –
LOTT: (INAUDIBLE) primary consideration.
BASH: Exactly. Is that, in all candor, part of what is preventing that trust from forming, that Republicans are just worried about taking the chance to vote on a compromise because they’re worried about their right flank and the Democrats are worried about their left?
LOTT: It’s probably a bigger problem with Republicans but I remember there was a Senator from Arkansas a couple years who had a tough primary. She won but it led – probably contributed to her seat.
But, you know, it’s hard sometimes when you’re a leader to also know when to be a follower. Whether we like it or not, this is really going to come down to the best judgments of the President and the Speaker. He’ll be, both of them will be consulting with their players in both parties, in both bodies, but you’ve got to give them a little latitude to see what they can come up with. You may not be able to live with it, but everybody’s taking up positions right now and frankly it’s making a conclusion more difficult by some of the things that’s been said on both sides of aisle.
I hope that they will both put that aside. I think I sensed just in the last days maybe things were quieting down a little bit at the top, which maybe means they’re communicating even more.
DASCHLE: This is really a reset moment. I call this period between now and, say, the end of February a reset moment where you can create a different environment. And this will be the test. If we reset, it’s going to have to happen around the fiscal cliff first, because that’s the first order of business.
But there are a lot of other issues out there that could be addressed if we could really create a new climate. And whether we do in part depends on the success of this effort right now.
LOTT: I view next year as a big window of opportunity where the Congress and the President can deal with some issues that have been neglected, whether it’s getting agriculture done or energy legislation as well as the big tax reform and (INAUDIBLE) reforms.
But how they deal with this moment, how they get through the end of the year, will have an effect on all of next year and I hope they won’t miss this opportunity.
BASH: Welfare reform, the budget deal, the list goes on of really hard things that you were able to do when you were both leaders working on opposite sides of the table, on opposite sides of the aisle. Do you think you could’ve gotten those things done in this climate?
DASCHLE: Well, it’s an impossible question to answer. I – it’s much harder right now, there’s no question about it. As we said, we had things that happened to us that augmented our opportunity to – the crises we talked about a minute ago. It was a different time. We didn’t have forces within the party that were generating the kind of pressure on members that you have right now.
So I think that times are so different, but I think we did a good job and I think, you know, you just have to look at that in the context of the time in which we did that job.
BASH: Would you be worried about getting a primary challenge from the right, if you were –?
LOTT: It would be tough to deal with some of the views you have to deal with, but you know it’s called leadership, Dana. You’ve got to be prepared to really lead, and sometimes you have to do the best you can and then try to convince your conference or your caucus to go along with you. But Tom and I had problems more than once within our own conferences or caucuses. Probably not like it is now, but you’ve got to – why are we here? Why are they here? Is it just about getting reelected? Or is it just about party or your ideology? It shouldn’t be. You know, you can always make the statements, you can grandstand, but at some point, you’ve got to make a decision.
And some of these even look small like safe drinking water and portability insurance matter huge amounts. I got flack about some of the stuff we did in those other areas. But it is tough now, but we’re – these are the time that try man’s souls, it’s also a time to make leaders.
DASCHLE: I’ve heard people say in the last couple of days, Republicans and Democrats, that the time has come for us to put our country ahead of our party. And that’s really what it’s going to take – putting the country ahead of the party, dealing with these issues not with concern about the next primary or the next election but as the old expression goes, the next generation gives us that opportunity.
LOTT: It is. And you know, Dana, the solution is so evident. Everybody –
BASH: What is it?
LOTT: Well, I’m not going to try to write the –
BASH: Why not?
BASH: If you were the leaders –
LOTT: We know what the Republicans are going to have to do in terms of revenue.
BASH: Which is?
LOTT: Without specificity of how much over here, what to pull, or what rate, and we know what the President and Democrats are going to have to do. They’re going to have to deal with the spending side, and they’re not going to be able to get it all down, but they’re going to have to get some commitment now to get over the looming fiscal cliff and lay a predicate for the bigger, tougher stuff that will come next year. It’s not –
DASCHLE: We’re at 24 percent spending, we’re at 16 percent revenue, we’ve got to bring those two closer together. And that’s how you get a balanced budget and ultimately that’s how you get fiscal responsibility. You got to bring those two together. You’ve got to raise revenue, you’ve got to cut spending, and it can be done.
BASH: I know it’s very easy to say from the outside now when you don’t have all the forces and all the pressure that you did when you were leaders, but let’s just pretend that you’re the Republican leader still and you’re the Democratic leader still and you have to cut this deal. Is it just as simple as just meeting in the middle? You’re going to come up on revenues and you’re going to come up on spending cuts?
DASCHLE: It’s not. First of all, you don’t have the time to deal with all of the complexities of an agreement that would get you there in the short time you’ve got. So the best you can do seems to me is to create a framework within which all of the blanks can be filled in at a later date. But you’ve got to address the realization that unless some agreement is reached prior to January 2nd we could really see some economic consequence. So it’s creating the framework and then agreeing to fill in all of the details as the next few weeks come forward.
BASH: But do Democrats have to just bite the bullet and realize they’re going to have to cut entitlements? Do you think they don’t want to do?
DASCHLE: I think Democrats are prepared to work on entitlements, but there’s two ways of doing it. You can just cut and shift the costs onto somebody else, or you can really redesign the programs and improve them. And I think that’s really the essence of what we’ve got to do. Let’s redesign these programs to make them work better, not just shift the program costs onto somebody else.
LOTT: And there will be big debates about that and disagreements about how to do it, but that’s also why we’ve got to get over this hurdle now and to do that in a sensible way. The type for reforms that you need on the entitlements and the mandatory spending programs will take time and disagreements and sacrifices. I think on the revenue side, everybody’s going to have to give some.
But and some people say, oh look they’ve done very little, they just kick the ball down the field. But they ought to do enough to show that they’re serious, there are some ways that they can try to put some limits or mandates or time limits on when something – which for instance I don’t think they should let the tax reforms over till 2014. I think the ought to try to put some time limits on that so we can get it done next year.
DASCHLE: I think so too.
LOTT: If you get it in 2014, you’re in the next election.
BASH: And while we’re on what’s happening as we speak, do you think Republicans should just understand or admit that they’re going to have to raise rates for the wealthiest Americans to get a deal?
LOTT: There will come a moment when the Speaker is going to have to make a decision on that and the President is going to have to make a decision what he is going to do to return on the spending, but they need to do it in concert. It’s like directing the orchestra. You’ve got to have the winds and the brass come together.
BASH: Or maybe hold hands and jump off the cliff together?
LOTT: It would be more fun on the way down if you have company.
DASCHLE: Gives new meaning to another cliff.
LOTT: It’s easy for us now that we’re not in there. And I don’t want to do anything to be critical or undermine what they’re trying to do, but it sure needs to be done. It needs to be done now.
BASH: Just a couple more questions. You all had a hotline, a special phone. Tell me about that.
DASCHLE: Well, we both decided that there were going to be times when we really needed to call each other immediately and not got through staff. And it was so urgent that when that phone rang, we knew we had a matter that had to be addressed right away. So we installed these phones and used them occasionally and I never got a busy signal when I called.
LOTT: We used them the morning of 9/11.
DASCHLE: Yes we did.
BASH: Did you really?
LOTT. Yeah. Basically said, hey Tom, it’s Trent. I think we’d better get out of here.
LOTT: So sometimes staff didn’t particularly like it when we talked, but also sometimes I would get up from my desk and I would go down the hall and I would come in the back door of Tom’s office and we would talk. And he would come down to my office. I mean it’s a little thing, but sometimes if the leader say "I don’t want to do that, it looks like I’m conceding to him." Usually when I went to see Tom was when I was going to admit I had made a little mistake.
LOTT: Sorry about that. It was a –
DASCHLE: We’d also have these balcony moments when we really didn’t want anybody around we’d step out on our balconies and talk very privately.
BASH: Kind of like this.
DASCHLE: Kind of like this. Exactly.
BASH: And how you did it?
LOTT: Well, the one I remember of course is when we made the budget and tax deal with President Clinton that led to a balanced budget and surpluses. And it was, to my people, oh you know that was so easy you and you and the President all working together. It’s great, and oh by the way, what about Tom? Where was he in all this? And he wasn’t always happy with some of the conversations going on. But I do remember that the President, the morning we came to a conclusion he called and was still pushing for more money for a particular area. And I finally said, Mr. President my problem is Pete Domenici, the Chairman of the Budget Committee from New Mexico ,and John Kasich, the Charman of the House Budget Committee, won’t go any further. This is as far as we can go. And we’d already added some money and he was not happy with that, but later on in the day Erskine Bowles called and said, and he probably called Tom too, and said okay we’re ready to go.
DASCHLE: We holed up in the Oval Office for a long time.
LOTT: Yeah, I waited from about 10:30 till 4:30 to get the call. And Tom wasn’t too happy about the call being made, but we got it done.
BASH: But the fact is, you were sitting in the Oval Office. There’s been one meeting with the leaders, one, since the election.
BASH: Well you were, right, but you had members of the White House staff in your office constantly.
LOTT: Sure. They came all the time. It was a much more of a free flow. I don’t know why that doesn’t happen as much now. I mean, Rubin, Secretary Rubin, Secretary of the Treasury, I can remember sitting at my conference table after we’d made an agreement on something – it was a tax bill of some kind I’m sure – and he said, "I didn’t leave a thing on the table did I?" And I said, "Mr. Secretary, yes but I’m not going to tell you what it was."
DASCHLE: The one I remember the most, I remember that very vividly, but I also remember going through a very difficult historic moment in impeachment. We were meeting in the old Senate chamber and we really had no idea how we were going to proceed because it hadn’t happened in 100 years. And of all people Bill Graham and Ted Kennedy came up with a procedural compromise right on the spot that really allowed us to move forward. And were it not for that compromise, between a conservative and a liberal, I’m not sure where it would have all gone. But we were in the room together, and those compromises come when those circumstances present themselves.
LOTT: I remember one more thing about that too is that we left that meeting, the alternate chamber, Tom and I agreed we were going to go up to the press gallery and tell them what had happened. And we said something to the effect of, "Are you sure you understand what we just agreed to?" And the other said, "No, not exactly."
And we agreed that we would put Ted Kennedy in, and (INAUDIBLE) Gordon and a mixture of Democrats and Republicans in the conference room, and write it out. We knew we had an agreement. We just had to be a little –
DASCHLE: Didn’t know what it was.
BASH: Got to start somewhere.
LOTT: Sometimes that’s the way you had to do it, that’s right. Everybody left all euphoric and then we were trying to figure out how we were going to implement it.
BASH: This is terrific. Is there anything else either of you wants to add? Any memories?
LOTT: Good to see you again. Always glad to be with my friend Tom Daschle.
BASH: Well, if nothing else, I hope that our viewers and Americans will see that it is possible. It is possible to get along. And you guys are friends. Nice to see. Thank you both for doing this.