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Retiring Sens. Snowe, Bingaman: Political Center Is Disappearing

March 21, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
After years of serving in the Senate, Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe and New Mexico Sen. Jeff Bingaman have announced their retirements. They both sat down with Gwen Ifill to discuss their departures and their concerns that the political middle ground is disappearing in Washington.
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MARGARET WARNER: Finally tonight, two veteran senators, Maine Republican Olympia Snowe and New Mexico Democrat Jeff Bingaman, are retiring. Both have expressed concern that the political middle ground is disappearing in Washington.

Gwen Ifill sat down with them earlier today.

GWEN IFILL: Sen. Snowe, Sen. Bingaman, thank you so much for joining us.

You have both worked together on issues ranging from energy to health care.

Would you say, Sen. Snowe, that you represent the sensible center?

SEN. OLYMPIA SNOWE, R-Maine: I do.

It’s the willingness to work, come to the middle, to sort through the issues and try to reach a resolution, recognizing that the issue you’re working on is important. And the question is, how do you get there from here, and try to sort through the issues. And that’s critically important, and having the impetus to do it, not just to be predisposed to one position, and that’s it.

GWEN IFILL: Sen. Bingaman, you voted more party-line than Sen. Snowe has over the years, and yet you are still defined also as a moderate in this setting. How would you define that?

SEN. JEFF BINGAMAN, D-N.M.: The only way that happens in this Senate, in this Congress, and really most of the Congresses that I have served in is if you have bipartisan support.

We just — we have always been — I think when I came to the Senate, the Republicans were in charge of the Senate. Then the Democrats took charge. Then the Republicans took charge, then the Democrats, and back and forth. I think it’s gone back and forth about six or seven times in the 30 years I have been here.

So you have to have bipartisan support to get anything done, particularly with the Senate rules.

GWEN IFILL: Except that now, more than ever, it seems as if the Senate, in particular in the House as well, are moving away from that idea of bipartisan agreement and support, and that anyone who veers from the party line is considered to be unreliable.

SEN. OLYMPIA SNOWE: Well, what’s happened is, is that each side puts up their party positions.

And that’s the point that I have been making is that you have to get beyond that. Once they don’t prevail, are you then willing to work out a resolution to the key question that’s before the Senate? And that’s what it’s all about.

And the Senate really was designed as an institution for consensus-building, working on issues and trying to resolve those differences. But to become irreconcilable — because, once the party positions don’t prevail, then there’s no impetus to move forward to reach a different result.

GWEN IFILL: And you think things are irreconcilable now?

SEN. OLYMPIA SNOWE: I don’t.

I think it’s all a matter of changing human behavior. And I think that’s the bottom line. People have to step back and think, what is the purpose of the United States Senate? What is the objective of serving in public office?

I happen to believe it’s problem-solving, that I have come here to solve problems. That’s why I have been in public office for virtually 40 years and — because I believe that we have an obligation, a responsibility to address the issues that come before your state or for your country.

GWEN IFILL: Sen. Bingaman, does it seem to you like things are stuck?

SEN. JEFF BINGAMAN: Well, I think what’s happened is that the whole country has become much more polarized politically, and you have — the media’s polarized.

You have — if you are of one point of view, you know which channel to watch. If you’re of another point of view, you have a different channel you want to watch. And I think that that is being reflected in the Congress. And the Congress is more polarized. And then you have a lot of people running for office on a platform that they will not compromise once they get to Washington, they will stick to their guns.

And, of course, our system of government was designed so that you’ve got to compromise, or you can’t. . .

GWEN IFILL: Is it that people won’t compromise because they can’t or won’t compromise, or because, politically, they can’t afford to compromise?

SEN. OLYMPIA SNOWE: Well, it’s an interesting question, because what Jeff mentions is true. What’s happening in the Congress is reflective of the country as a whole.

I mean, we look at states are they red or blue or purple or whatever, which I think is unfortunate, because we don’t look at the country as a whole in its entirety. And people say to me, well, why won’t you work together for the common good of the country? Now, the whole issue, unfortunately, with compromise is that people, you know, view it with disdain, somehow that it’s viewed as capitulation of your principles. And it’s not.

GWEN IFILL: Now, you’re both leaving. If you — you can be free to say whatever you want here. What would you do to make it work, if you could?

SEN. JEFF BINGAMAN: Well, I think there’s no single fix to the problem.

Our problem right now is, you have got — you have got, what, 90-some-odd percent of the folks on the Republican side have signed a pledge that they’re never going to raise revenue or raise taxes. Now, that makes it very difficult to get agreement on a approach to reining in the deficit, when you add in the Democratic demands.

And the Democrats, there are folks on the Democratic side who absolutely will not discuss any changes in entitlement programs. And that makes it difficult, too. So we’ve got to find a way that we can bridge those gaps and people can recognize that some compromise is required.

GWEN IFILL: Sen. Snowe, I hereby grant you a magic wand. What’s the fix?

SEN. OLYMPIA SNOWE: Well, we could — return to transparency and accountability would really, I think, build confidence in the integrity of the outcome of the legislative solution.

But we don’t have that anymore. It’s a closed door. It either comes to the floor without going through a committee. It’s crafted behind closed doors. We have up-or-down votes. It’s sort of similar to the House. I feel like I’m back in the House of Representatives. You have up-and-down votes. Have an open amendment process. Have people air their views.

And, sometimes, when you have that opportunity, you might not agree on everything in the package, which you might not because — if it’s a big package — but, at the end of the day, so, you know, I’ve made my voice heard on behalf of my constituents, and the ultimate result is something that I now can support, even if it’s not everything that I wanted.

GWEN IFILL: You’re a Democrat, you’re a Republican. You don’t agree on a lot of fundamental issues, foundational, as some people would say, issues because of your party affiliation. Yet, in your departure, in your leaving this institution, do you make the center a little bit more soft? Does the center go away even more with your departure?

SEN. JEFF BINGAMAN: Well, it depends on who replaces us.

I tend to think that — I can’t speak for Olympia’s circumstance in Maine, but, in New Mexico, I hope we elect someone who is moderate and willing to work for the best interests of the country. I hope we can do that. And I assume that she has the same hopes for her state.

SEN. OLYMPIA SNOWE: That’s true.

And, as you know, I made a statement as to my concerns about what is transpiring in the Senate in terms of the dysfunction and how important it is. And that’s something. . .

GWEN IFILL: But, when you leave. . .

SEN. OLYMPIA SNOWE: Yes.

GWEN IFILL: . . . doesn’t the dysfunction have a chance to take greater hold with your absence?

SEN. OLYMPIA SNOWE: Well, you know, my concern is that it’s not going to change on the short term. And that’s what I had to consider at where I am in my own life and adding six years as to whether or not it’s going to change.

I’m going to speak on those questions on the outside, but I am concerned that the lines have drawn. I mean, the analyses that have been done recently about ratings of various — of all of us as senators, whether conservative or liberal and so on, back in 1982, there were 58 senators that came between the most conservative Democrat and the most liberal Republican. And, today, there are none.

So there’s not much of a center. And we have to decide that the institution has to not only solve problems, but the American people have to give rewards to those people and individuals who are willing to work across party lines. There are no political rewards for that today.

GWEN IFILL: Sen. Bingaman, if you have to give a piece of advice to your successor about how to get the Senate back to the middle, to talking to agreement, to compromise, what would that advice be?

SEN. JEFF BINGAMAN: Well, my advice would just be to reach out to people of the other party and try to get — I think Olympia’s right, that you don’t get any credit, particularly with voters in your state, particularly in the primary process, for reaching out to the other party.

And, in fact, it’s a real liability in some cases to do that. But I think it’s important that senators run on a platform that they’re going to come and work on solving problems, and not that they’re going to come and dig their heels in and refuse to compromise.

GWEN IFILL: Sen. Snowe?

SEN. OLYMPIA SNOWE: Yes. And I would agree with that.

And, certainly, the advice I would give to my successor or to anybody who serves in elective office at any level, and certainly in the United States Senate, which is an institution that was designed by our founding fathers to build those bridges, I would certainly recommend being open and listening and talking to people with whom you disagree, not to just the people with whom you agree, because at the end of the day, you can’t solve a problem if you’re not talking to people that disagree with you.

And I say that to my own constituents. And I think the frustration that exists across this country is a legitimate one, from the standpoint whether it’s Occupy Wall Street or Tea Party, is that we have failed to address the key questions at this consequential moment in the life of America. And I think that’s the manifestation of all that frustration, anxiety, and anger, and antipathy towards Washington and Congress.

GWEN IFILL: Are you optimistic?

SEN. OLYMPIA SNOWE: I just hope that, in the aftermath of this election, that people will come together and be determined to focus on those issues, and make a material difference, because the American people are fearful.

And I have traveled the country, and I have heard — and certainly in my state, they’re fearful. They’re more worried about the inability of the elected officials in Washington to get together and to collaborate. They can’t understand it. And America has always been a country that can deal with big problems. I mean, that’s really the essence of our greatness.

GWEN IFILL: Retiring Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, thank you very much for joining us.

And Sen. Olympia Snowe, retiring, of Maine, Republican, thank you.

SEN. OLYMPIA SNOWE: Thank you, Gwen.