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Former Lawmakers Discuss Challenges for New Congress

January 4, 2007 at 6:40 PM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF, NewsHour Special Correspondent: And for that, we’re joined by four former congressional insiders, all of whom are familiar with the promises and the language that accompany each new session of Congress.

John Breaux served 18 years as a Democratic senator from the state of Louisiana. Slade Gorton also served for 18 years as a Republican senator from Washington State. Vic Fazio spent 20 years as a Democratic congressman from California. And Anne Northup, Republican from Kentucky, spent 10 years in the House.

Gentlemen and Ms. Northup, thank you for being with us.

I want to begin by asking you all kind of a basic question: What is your definition of a successful session of Congress? Congressman Breaux? Senator Breaux?

FORMER SEN. JOHN BREAUX (D), Louisiana: Used to be both. I think they started very well. I think that the early indications, both in the House and the Senate, give me great hope that it can be a success.

They’re talking to each other; they’re talking about working together. I think you saw Mitch McConnell said, “We’re not always going to agree, but we’re going to work together.”

You’ve got two experienced leaders in the Senate in Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid. And I thought you saw things in the House today where Nancy Pelosi was reaching out to John Boehner, and John Boehner was very kind to her.

I mean, that’s the beginning of a successful Congress.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So your definition is, what, everybody gets along?

JOHN BREAUX: I think that it shouldn’t be personal. I think they can differ on policy, but you shouldn’t make the policy so difficult that you can’t even continue to talk and work together.

I think, in the past, we lost that. I think the House lost it, certainly in the last two years. They didn’t even talk to each other. When I was in the House, a long time ago, Tip O’Neill and Bob Michel used to talk all the time, and they got things done because they talked.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator Gorton, Republican, how do you define — I mean, what’s your idea of a session of Congress where things get done?

FORMER SEN. SLADE GORTON (R), Washington: A successful session of Congress will allow people to state what their differences are, but it will also allow them the ability to compromise those differences.

And if we make major steps forward toward energy independence, if we restore some of the trust in Congress by genuine ethics reforms, if they seriously consider the problems facing Social Security, and if they are able to deal with the most difficult problem of all — the war in Iraq — on a relatively bipartisan fashion, that will be a successful Congress.

I think it has started well in the Senate, probably better in the Senate than in the House, simply because the minority has so many more rights. And any attempt to rush a purely partisan agenda, you know, runs into the right of unlimited debate.

And Senators Reid and McConnell are both wise and are both skillful. I believe that the possibility that they will do a good job and do their part toward a successful session is excellent.

I hope the same is true in the House. I do agree with the minority that setting out the first 100 hours without allowing anyone, Republican or Democrat, even to propose an amendment is not in keeping with the kind of bipartisanship we’d like to see.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I want to get to that in a minute. But before I do, I want to ask all of you that question. Is your measure for what is a successful session of Congress the same as what you just heard from Senator Gorton?

FORMER REP. VIC FAZIO (D), California: I think generally, but every Congress is different. And, of course, when you have divided government in Washington, when you have a Republican president and a Democratic Congress, you probably have different hurdles that you have to get over in order to reach agreement on fundamental needs of the people.

Initially, the Democrats are out to try to show their voting public, the center that joined the Democratic Party and elected them, that they got the message about the needs of the middle class, dealing with everything from gasoline prices, to the need for energy independence, to dealing with those long-neglected minimum wage requirements.

All of those things that will be part of the first 100 hours are important. But beyond that, it’s the immigration issue. It’s the entitlement reform, including Social Security. It’s the issues that we know only get resolved in a bipartisan way.

And I think the president will frankly have an awful lot to say about how successful this Congress will be. And the Democrats, of course, need it to be successful, as they sort of become well-known again to the American people, who have really not seen much from the Democrats until recently.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Congresswoman Northup, you most recently left the Congress. You were there just until, what, a few days ago, literally. Do you see it that way? I mean, as somebody who’s served in this modern Congress, if you will, and yet a Congress that was seen as so bitterly divided along partisan lines?

FORMER REP. ANNE NORTHUP (R), Kentucky: It is bitterly divided, but that doesn’t mean that there can’t be changes. It doesn’t mean that people can’t work in a more open system and more straightforward system, a system where people can work across the aisle, express their differences and their commonalities, and come to a conclusion.

I do worry that the last two years there was a lot of feeling among the Republican majority that everything the other side did was set to set a stage in order to put the Republicans on the defensive, and so there’s a lot of bitterness, underlying bitterness about the last two years that are left that could come and haunt that effort, but I’m hopeful that people who love this country will all come to the conclusion that we can work together and find better solutions.

Working in a bipartisan fashion

Former Sen. Jon Breaux
(D) Louisiana
[Democrats] may be even able to open it up somewhat in this first 100 hours, because they know the American people sent a message. And the message is: Let's get something done and quit bickering and fighting all of the time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Given that bitterness, Senator Breaux, that Ms. Northup just cited, why are you as optimistic as it sounded like you were just a minute ago, based on what you're seeing?

JOHN BREAUX: Because we had an election. I mean, one of the big issues in the election is that the American people were saying, "We want a Congress that works. We want a Congress that doesn't fight all the time and get nothing done, except blame each over for failure."

So if the members want to get re-elected, and the Democrats want to maintain the majority, and the Republicans want to ever have a chance again of becoming a majority party, they're going to have to react to what the people were saying.

And that is, we want a cooperative Congress that can get things done and not just fight all the time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, you know these Democrats. You know so many of them who are still serving. Did they get the message?

JOHN BREAUX: Oh, I think so. I mean, I think clearly -- look in the Senate. I mean, we're talking about working together in a bipartisan fashion. I think they're off to a very good start.

I think Nancy Pelosi has reached out to John Boehner. And I think, after they get through the first 100 hours, they're going to have an open process. And they may be even able to open it up somewhat in this first 100 hours, because they know the American people sent a message. And the message is: Let's get something done and quit bickering and fighting all of the time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How much of a problem is it, Senator Gorton? You cited, what, several, and even Charlie Rangel told Margaret Warner a few minutes ago, he agrees that it's a problem that his Democratic leadership has not opened up for hearings. How much of an obstacle is that going to be?

SLADE GORTON: I hope that it will be a temporary obstacle only. I was very encouraged by the fact that Charlie Rangel was, in part at least, disagreeing with his own speaker, very, very respectfully.

And if that spirit prevails in the House, there's a real chance to be bipartisan, because really what it means is that there are differences, obviously, among members and between parties. Both sides have to have the opportunity to present their point of view.

And in the Senate, they can pretty much enforce that. And if it turns out that Democrats are allowed by Republicans to bring up their agenda and have it debated, and the Republicans are allowed by Democrats to put forth alternatives and to have their agenda debated, I think you're likely to have a successful session, because no one will feel shut out of the process.

I do want to say that Vic mentioned an issue that I should have mentioned earlier, and that is, if this Congress can solve the problem of immigration, both in the future and the problems of the millions of people who are here unlawfully at the present time, this Congress could be a success just with that problem solved and very little else. He was right to bring that issue up.

President's role in Democrat plans

Former Rep. Vic Fazio
(D) California
The president's popularity will affect his ability to move the country one way or the other in whatever issues come to him for approval, for veto. I think he will rediscover his veto pen.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Congressman Fazio, you've got an agreement there from a Republican friend of yours. The fact that there is such a thin margin for Democrats in the Senate, and not such a huge margin for Democrats in the House, and the fact that this president relatively unpopular, according to the public opinion polls right now, what effect does that have on the ability of a Congress to get its work done?

VIC FAZIO: Well, obviously, the president's popularity will affect his ability to move the country one way or the other in whatever issues come to him for approval, for veto. I think he will rediscover his veto pen.

But at the same time, this is a president who wants a legacy. He hasn't got a very long list of accomplishments, and I do think he will want to, through Hank Paulson, his secretary of the Treasury, reach out to the Congress. I know he's already done that -- Paulson and Rangel have been meeting -- to see whether there isn't some common ground that can be found on a whole range of issues.

You know, when we've had presidents of one party and the Congress of the other, we've accomplished some great things. The original Social Security fix back in the '80s, the tax reform of the mid-'80s, with Reagan on one hand and Tip O'Neill on the other, Bradley, Gephardt, Kemp-Roth.

There are ways in which this Congress can accomplish a great deal, if they're thinking of the broader goal that both the president and the Congress have of showing the American people that they really can govern.

That's what the frustration level is all about. And both parties need to understand that, to meet that head-on, they've got to compromise and come together on these major issues that have been festering.

Moving beyond 'residual bitterness'

Former Rep. Anne Northup
(R) Kentucky
I'm thrilled, I have to tell you, that there is a woman as a speaker. It does move women ahead. And it's thrilling, I think, to all of the women that are trying to carry forward.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Congresswoman Northup, again, you're the one who most recently left this body. What advice would you give to President Bush, in terms of how he deals with this 110th?

ANNE NORTHUP: Well, I think the president will reach out to all of the leaders on both sides of the aisle, but especially the Democrats that are now in charge, and try to establish some sort of an agenda that will help us deal with the most pressing problems.

Again, I think the sort of residual bitterness -- in all honesty, you know, I arrived in 1996, and I can tell you, until I left several days ago, I mean, the Democrats complained bitterly about the Republicans and how they took control of Congress. They felt like they had been so partisan and created rancor for political reasons.

I think there's a lot of that feeling that's left over in the Republicans now with the outcome of the elections. And I hope that Nancy Pelosi -- I'm thrilled, I have to tell you, that there is a woman as a speaker. It does move women ahead. And it's thrilling, I think, to all of the women that are trying to carry forward.

But I hope that she also can change the manner in which she has led in the past and be more conciliatory. There are other members in the Democrat leadership that are already moving in that direction, but I haven't seen that from the speaker.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, from your perspective, Senator Breaux, do you agree that she needs to change -- Nancy Pelosi needs to change her approach?

JOHN BREAUX: Oh, I don't know. I think the election was about change. I think the American people spoke very strongly that they wanted a Democratic House and a Democratic Senate. So, in essence, that's the big change that we've already had.

I think Nancy Pelosi is a veteran. She's going to know how to work. She has a very unique caucus on the Democratic side. She has the Blue Dog Caucus, of about 44 members. She has the Congressional Black Caucus and Hispanic Caucus. She's going to have to compromise within her own caucus in order to have and create a majority.

So she's going to have to work the system as a professional.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And are you saying that hasn't happened before now?

JOHN BREAUX: Well, we just got -- this is the first day. I mean...

JUDY WOODRUFF: No, but I mean in terms of...

JOHN BREAUX: And I think there are other signs that are very encouraging. And I think that -- I mean, she's going to have to work with the Republicans, as well as the Democrats within her own caucus, to create a consensus, to create something that can create a majority.

So I think she's going to be forced to, and I think she's certainly capable of creating those type of coalitions to create a majority.

The next two years

Former Sen. Slade Gorton
(R) Washington
It is also necessary for the president to recognize what happened in this election and perhaps pay more attention to the views of members of both parties in both houses, if we're to end up having a successful Congress and a successful next two years.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just quickly, we've only got a few minutes left, Senator Gorton, what are the markers that you're going to look for that determine whether this Congress, this president are going to be able to work together, they're going to get the people's business done?

SLADE GORTON: Well, first, in the Senate that I know best, I'm going to look for a Democrat who will succeed to the role that John Breaux himself played.

When he was there, he was the epitome of a bridge-builder. He was willing to listen to people on both sides, and he was willing to try to come up with constructive ideas that brought them together.

That's necessary, both on the Democratic side and the Republican side. It's necessary in both houses.

But it is also necessary for the president to recognize what happened in this election and perhaps pay more attention to the views of members of both parties in both houses, if we're to end up having a successful Congress and a successful next two years.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, just quickly, do you think he'll do that?

SLADE GORTON: I think he will. I think he will, because I think he wants to have a legacy. And the only way he'll have a positive legacy is to have something that he can show that happened and that it will only happen if both parties agree.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Congressman Fazio?

VIC FAZIO: I think Nancy Pelosi is a charming individual. I think she knows what her task is. She's already begun to reach out to John Boehner. They're meeting on a regular basis, something that hasn't occurred for many, many years on the Hill, just to talk about the needs of the members on the calendar.

She's kept the administrative leadership of the House in place. She's tried to give transition funding to the people who are losing their jobs today. She understands she's got to reach out.

And I think that trust will be built day by day, and I know that she intends to use her early months to build back the trust that she needs to have in order to really get people working together again.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Congresswoman Northup, do you give Speaker Pelosi credit for the same things Congressman Fazio was just spelling out there?

ANNE NORTHUP: You know, I do think that, first of all, she's very intelligent, and she's very talented, and very articulate. And I think that she understands the process well enough that she will make the adjustments, I hope, that she needs to make.

But I think that she has come into being the speaker much like Newt Gingrich does, by being -- much like Newt Gingrich did, by being very aggressive against the majority party when they were in the minority. And that does leave scars, as we saw with Newt Gingrich.

And if you learn from that lesson, it's that you have to remake yourself after you become the speaker.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we are going to leave it there. Representative Anne Northup, Senator Slate Gorton, Representative Vic Fazio, Senator John Breaux, it's good to see all of you. And we thank you for being with us.

VIC FAZIO: Thank you, Judy.

JOHN BREAUX: Thank you, Judy.

SLADE GORTON: Thank you.