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Senate Shakeup

May 30, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Now, an assessment of the coming power change in Washington brought on by the declaration of independence by Republican Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont. It comes from five former Senators: Republicans John Danforth of Missouri, Hank Brown of Colorado, and Warren Rudman of New Hampshire; two Democrats: David Boren of Oklahoma, and Dale Bumpers of Arkansas. Senator Danforth, could you imagine your ever doing what Jim Jeffords did?

FORMER SEN. JOHN DANFORTH: No, I couldn’t. There were times, particularly in the early ’90s when they could make it very tough on Republicans who didn’t absolutely tow the line in the Senate, particularly in the Tuesday lunches where Republicans got together and were given pep talks about what the party line was. And if you were on the wrong side of the party on an issue, they could make it very, very tough. There were times when I thought, "gee, if they don’t want me, why be here?" But I never for any long period of time considered leaving the party.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Boren, could you do it?

FORMER SEN. DAVID BOREN: I could, I seriously thought about it at one time, and thought if I ran for reelection I might run as an independent, because I felt what the center of American politics was being left out. As Jack had said, when you’re part of a group and they very often talk about winning for the team, let’s win for the party, and it doesn’t coincide with your view about what’s best for the country, it is very, very difficult. And I used to go home at night sometimes very discouraged, feeling very unpopular in the building.

JIM LEHRER: Because you were a Democrat among Democrats?

FORMER SEN. DAVID BOREN: I was a Democrat among Democrats, but I was an Oklahoma Democrat. I was trying to represent my own convictions, the people that had sent me there, elected me. And I honestly felt, and I’m sure it’s true in both parties, that both of those luncheons on Tuesday, the real discussion was how can we win for the Democratic Party, and the other room, how can we win for the Republican Party. And I remember once in frustration saying — and Senator Mitchell was one of those leaders who let us all speak our mind. He was wonderfully respectful to all of us of all points of view. He said, "does anybody want to put something on the on the agenda next week?" I said maybe the national interest, we haven’t talked about that in a while, but that was really as close as I came to publicly expressing my frustrations.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Rudman, could you do it?

FORMER SEN. WARREN RUDMAN: I don’t think so, for purely practical reasons. I think to truly be effective in the Senate you really have to be a member one of the two major parties. Even if you were an independent organized with the Democrats or the Republicans, I don’t think you could get very much done. And I also have to say, as you know, I disagreed with my party on numerous occasions.

JIM LEHRER: You were a moderate Republican from a New England state, similar to Vermont.

FORMER SEN. WARREN RUDMAN: That’s correct, but I never got treated in the way that evidently Jim feels he was treated. And remember, this is a different time. I left the Senate in 1992. I served under men like Howard Baker and Bob Dole, and I was telling my colleagues here before we came on, I remember Howard Baker on occasion in a situation where a Republican really did us harm on a vote and people wanted retribution and Howard said, "no, he may be our opponent today, but he will be our ally tomorrow." So I would have difficulty doing that.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Brown, could you ever switch parties?

FORMER SEN. HANK BROWN: I never felt intimidated by the actions of others, and frankly I don’t think that happens in the Senate to any significant degree. They’re not talking about disciplining people or taking a wear their chairmanships. I don’t think that was Senator Jeffords’ concern. Obviously he is able to speak for himself on it, but Jim for 20 years had a liberal voting record, one that reflected his conscience. So I think for him, it wasn’t a switch in terms of how he felt.

JIM LEHRER: But for you personally, I mean, are you such a Republican that you couldn’t conceive of anything that would ever happen– I don’t mean similar to what happened to Jim Jeffords– anything that would cause you to change parties?

FORMER SEN. HANK BROWN: Oh, I think people of good conscience can change parties. When you’re in elective office, there’s a different factor, that is you make a commitment to your constituents on how you’ll vote to organize the Senate or House, and that’s a very important vote, one where your commitment is important. For me personally, I never felt intimidated either in the legislature, or the U.S. House or Senate, in a way by party considerations that would cause me to change a vote or change a party. But I suspect each of us as an individual and perceive things differently.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Bumpers, could you imagine a situation where you would no longer be a Democrat?

FORMER SEN. DALE BUMPERS: I can’t, but in the case of Jim Jeffords, I’ve watched Jim Jeffords, who is a man of much conscience I always thought. And I’ve watched him and I have to tell you over the years I wondered why he stayed in the Republican Party.

JIM LEHRER: Did you ever talk to him about it?

FORMER SEN. DALE BUMPERS: I did not. And at times… He’s a very approachable man. I don’t mean to say that. But that would have been presumptuous, in my opinion, to talk to him about something like that. I wouldn’t have felt comfortable doing that, but he didn’t agree with anything. But when you think about choice, on the patient’s bill of rights, on the tax bill, he didn’t agree on anything. And I think when you consider the way Jeffords felt, the question ought to be, how could he not do it?

JIM LEHRER: Well, Senator Danforth, Senator Lott who is the current majority leader and about to become the Senate minority leader, said today that what Jim Jeffords did was a coup of one, and that he in effect trumped the will of the American people, in other words by changing the control of the Senate. How do you view that?

FORMER SEN. JOHN DANFORTH: I think that’s right. I don’t think it should be up to one Senator to change the whole makeup of the Senate. The control of the Senate is a decision made, I think, by all of the people of our country. And for one Senator to decide to bolt parties and do it, I really think that’s kind of nervy.

JIM LEHRER: Nervy, nervy meaning he shouldn’t have done it?

FORMER SEN. JOHN DANFORTH: I think he should not have done it. I think I understand the dynamics behind it. I think the Republican Party has to broaden itself. I think it’s a shame that we don’t have Jim Jeffords in the Republican Party to provide us with the breadth that we had when I first went to the Senate. But having said that, do I think that it’s right for a single Senator having been elected in one party to change the control of the Senate by changing on his own? No, I don’t think that’s right.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Boren?

FORMER SEN. DAVID BOREN: I think it’s right for him to do that if that’s what h conscience led him to do. I think we can overestimate what this has done. It hasn’t really changed the political dynamic very much. Let’s be honest about it. Neither party has a mandate, we had a virtual tie in the Senate, you don’t have a workable majority by either party in the House, you have a group of moderates who can swing either way in both political parties. You had as close to a tie in the presidential election as you can get. What we really have is coalition government. People will admit that. You have to form a coalition on every issue. There’s not suddenly a Democratic majority in the Senate. You have four or five Democrats who are moderates who are apt to vote with Republicans on some issues; you’re still going to have to reach out and bring some Republicans to form a majority; on every issue a new coalition has to be built. So this isn’t a sea change. This isn’t dramatic. The party that will gain the most from us is the party that learns the lesson that what the American people most want right now is bipartisanship. George Bush as Governor of Texas won high marks for bipartisanship, for working with the legislative leaders of another party. It could be ironic that this may, in a sense– and I see the White House as trying to decide how to react to this– this may be a blessing in disguise for the President who once again has to operate in a very openly bipartisan fashion as he reaches out to leaders of the other party.

JIM LEHRER: You see this as not that big a deal?

FORMER SEN. WARREN RUDMAN: I agree with some of what David said, but I disagree with most of it, not surprisingly. If politics were a Richter Scale, this would be a nine. This is an upheaval of the most serious measure. For instance, look at two committees: Jesse Helms replaced by Joe Biden; Orrin Hatch of the Judiciary replaced by Pat Leahy — changes dynamics of a number of things including nominations, foreign policy. In addition to that, Tom Daschle will now set the agenda. President Bush could tend up what he wanted to send up, and he had a House and Senate that would act on it. No more. I agree to this extent, that this is a slim majority. It will take a reaching out of the President, something that he’s had a lot of experience doing, and I think he can do it. But the bully pulpit becomes very important. There’s another side of this, which we haven’t talked about. It could benefit the President in this way. If things go awry in the next 18 months, he’s at least got someone to blame.

JIM LEHRER: And he didn’t before.

FORMER SEN. WARREN RUDMAN: And he didn’t have anyone to blame, except himself. So obviously if he picks the issues correctly and builds coalitions, fine. If he attempts to bully it through, they’re going to have some trouble. So I guess my feeling is there’s enormous change here. This cannot be underestimated. But it can be overcome by a strong, charismatic president that knows how to use that office.

JIM LEHRER: How do you see the magnitude of the change Senator Bumpers?

FORMER SEN. DALE BUMPERS: Well, I think it’s monumental in one way, Jim. I agree with David Boren, you’re not going to see any 51-49 votes. That’s very unusual.

JIM LEHRER: You wouldn’t have before either?

FORMER SEN. DALE BUMPERS: No. The change, as Warren has said, is in studying the agenda. The majority leader won’t even bring up bills that the Republicans divinely want him to bring up.

JIM LEHRER: And they can’t do anything about it?

FORMER SEN. DALE BUMPERS: They can offer a bill as an amendment on anything coming through. But when it comes to the agenda, that’s a great power. You think about Joe Biden replacing Jesse Helms, that’s a sea change.

JIM LEHRER: In what way? Give me an example of how that could change things.

FORMER SEN. DALE BUMPERS: For example, in my opinion you’re not going to have all those United Nations debates going on in that committee. You’re not going to be… He will not have the ability just to say, "I don’t like the President’s nominee to the State Department so we’re not going to hold a hearing on it." Joe Biden will hold hearings, they’ll vote in the committee and they’ll have the majority votes, and it’ll go to the floor; they’ll have to filibuster it to stop it. I mean, it’s a big, big power that Joe Biden will have, that Pat Leahy will have, that Senator Levin and the Defense Department, you think about what sea change that is to have Carl Levin setting the agenda in the Armed Services Committee rather than John Warner, and that’s not to denigrate John Warner, but he’s from Virginia which is all defense.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Brown, How do you see the magnitude of this? On the Brown scale, where is this?

FORMER SEN. HANK BROWN: This is probably a 9.5, maybe more than a nine. It’s a 9.5 if you look at Judiciary, because you think you’ll see a lot of judges that are not going to get hearings, or if they have hearings, they’ll be much delayed. You’ll have far fewer votes; you’ll have many judgeships simply not filled because of the delays, and both parties have delayed the other President’s nominees. The Democrats probably been a little more effective at it and I suspect you’ll see Patrick Leahy very effective at it. I think it’ll make a big difference in what’s investigated, and I suspect the number of subpoenas that will go to executive departments is going up tenfold with this move, but let me suggest something. I think one of the great strengths of the American system that makes it better than the British is that we do allow people to vote their conscience, even to do extreme things such as Senator Jeffords, I think, is fairly described as doing. We do accept the fact that you can buck your party’s leadership or even change parties and somehow as Americans we kind of respect that. I wish Jim hadn’t have done it. But I think it’s one of the strengths of American system that we allow people to vote their conscience. A lot of good things as well as bad have happened because people voted their conscience.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Danforth, let’s pick up on that point. Forget now the immediate thing and the committees and all of that, the power in the Senate today. What is it going to do to individual Senators? Is it going to change? In other words, "Jim Jeffords did this and look what happened. I as an individual Senator can do…" Is it going to change the attitude?

FORMER SEN. JOHN DANFORTH: No, I think this is a very different type of situation, because Senators do vote their own consciences, they should vote their own consciences. The difference in this is that one Senator changed the control of the Senate. That is highly unusual.

JIM LEHRER: But I’m not talking in necessarily about voting either. I’m just talking about the attitude that a Senator might have as a result that Jim Jeffords did this thing, and he’s on the cover of all the magazines. He is now – he became – out of nowhere – has become a national figure from now to eternity.

FORMER SEN. JOHN DANFORTH: I think from the other side of the question is, will Republicans be as likely to be hectoring of their colleagues, to be exclusive of their colleagues, to woodshed their colleagues as a result of this? I would hope that Republicans would learn the lesson that we have to be a big tent party. We can’t have walls on the tent, as I think we have right now. I’m not sure we’ve learned that lesson. I wish it were true, but I’m not sure of that.

FORMER SEN. DAVID BOREN: Surely, Jim, if there is a lesson here, it isn’t just how you act in the Senate, it’s a lesson on where the whole country is. The country really is centrist. The country is really composed of a moderate majority. The American people are fed up with anything, it’s partisan bickering. They don’t want any more of it. They don’t want it to return. I would suggest that the party that’s going to profit the most from this change– and it’s too early to tell– will be the party that reaches out, tries to form a moderate consensus that is viewed as least partisan. If my fellow Democrats take this opportunity to be very partisan, to try to stop the President from doing what he wants to do, they’re going lose in the long run because people don’t want one party to be fighting the other. If the President reaches out to the Democratic majority and says, "we’re going to do things together, let’s do it together," the side that appeals the most to the center that is the least partisan will have the most to gain from the situation.

JIM LEHRER: The side that appeals to the center has the most to gain here, Senator Bumpers? Are you Democrats on the rack here too?

FORMER SEN. DALE BUMPERS: I’m not sure I agree with David on that. When it comes to partnership, that’s a beautiful thing to talk about on the floor of the Senate and in public speeches or at the Jefferson Jackson dinner or whatever…

JIM LEHRER: Or on the NewsHour.

FORMER SEN. DALE BUMPERS: Or Jim Lehrer’s NewsHour. It depends on people like partisanship if things are going their way. It’s only when they’re not going their way that they call for bipartisanship. Because if it’s not going their way, then they see partisanship as the culprit.

JIM LEHRER: What is your view of this, Senator Rudman, that some conservative Republicans have suggested very straight, "good- bye Jim Jeffords, get out of here. This is great. We’re the party of the conservatives, they’re the party of the liberals, good-bye."

FORMER SEN. WARREN RUDMAN: If they want to say that, they’re going to be a dwindling party, because I agree with the way the country is, the country is in the center.

JIM LEHRER: You can’t govern from off on the right or off on the left?

FORMER SEN. WARREN RUDMAN: I don’t believe so. And let me just add this. If there’s a wake up call here for the Republican Party, it is simply this. There are a number of people in the House and in the Senate who are what we call moderates. That’s because maybe they’re conservative on fiscal issues and foreign policy issues.

JIM LEHRER: That’s what they called you – that’s what they called you, both of you.

FORMER SEN. WARREN RUDMAN: But, you know, if you look at our voting records, we were probably 95% as the same as people who were called conservatives, but we tend to differ on social issues such as abortion, school prayer and so forth. The lesson is that with the people that I look at up there the Republican leadership– and I’m sure the White House recognizes this– is going to have to reach out to people and try to be much more inclusive, as Jack Danforth as said. If they don’t, I see the potential of more abuse happening.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, Senator Brown, that the Republicans should go after people who are not of the conservative bent and keep them in the party, Jim Jeffords and others like him?

FORMER SEN. HANK BROWN: Well, I think they followed a pattern of that in the past and it’s part of why they’ve recruited so many Democrats to do the opposite thing, that is switch over to Republicans. They have courted them. Frankly, as I look back over the last decade or two of the Senate, you haven’t had people take them to the woodshed. I don’t mean that people haven’t had comments, perhaps Jack had people make comment to him that he took offense to, but I haven’t seen people lose their chairmanships or be kicked out of the party. And I suspect both parties, particularly with them being closer, are not going to do that. I think you’re going to see both parties reach out, and I think Senator Boren is correct, with President Bush reaching out, trying to develop bipartisan atmosphere, the Democratic leadership needs to take his hand, or they’ll be injured by the failure to follow up.

JIM LEHRER: All right, we have to leave it there. Thank you all five very much.