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Former Sen. Trent Lott: Republicans should pivot towards a positive agenda

October 21, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., believes the tactics used by Republicans during the shutdown were "not wise." Lott joins Judy Woodruff to begin a series of conversations about the future of the GOP. They discuss the importance of getting work done and what issues could help reunite the party.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: We turn now to politics and the fallout from the 16-day government shutdown.

Tonight, we’re launching a series of conversations about where the Republican Party goes from here.

We talk with former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, a Republican from Mississippi. He’s now a senior fellow with the Bipartisan Policy Center and a senior counsel at the law firm Patton Boggs.

I spoke with him a short time ago.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Former Senator Trent Lott, welcome to the “NewsHour.”

TRENT LOTT, former R-Miss.: Glad to be back, Judy.

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JUDY WOODRUFF: So, conservative activist Richard Viguerie quoted over the weekend as saying, what is going on in your party right now is a civil war.

How do you see it?

TRENT LOTT: Well, we don’t need a civil war.

We need to focus on, what is a good agenda for growth in America? And we need to focus on how we can add some more Republicans to the House, but particularly in the Senate, so we would control both bodies. So I think what we need to do is to focus on the positive and quit attacking each other.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, right now, you have factions in your party, I mean, all the way from the Tea Party to folks who sympathize with the Tea Party all the way to some moderates — a few moderates in the…

TRENT LOTT: It is tougher now, Judy, than it used to be.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So…

TRENT LOTT: But, you know, leadership, you — I always had to deal with that too.

I had — you know, sometimes, the more moderate members of my caucus were reluctant to do some of the things we wanted to do on tax cuts or, you know, defense issues. And in the House, of course, you have got some very young and very conservative people that feel strongly that Obamacare is going to be a disaster for the country.

And they certainly have made that point. But I think the important thing now is to pivot to what is a positive agenda that Republicans believe in and will advocate and will take the American people, and so then, if you are incumbent or if you are a more, shall we say, establishment Republican — that is a dirty term, I guess — that you have got an agenda you can talk about that will appeal to everybody.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is it a dirty term, a dirty word to say mainstream, establishment Republican?

(LAUGHTER)

TRENT LOTT: Well, you know, I have been accused of all of those, although I was conservative before a lot of these people were born.

I have a very conservative philosophy. But, also, I admit that I have a philosophy of trying to get things done. And I think that’s what you need to talk about. There are a lot of things we need to be doing in government and in America that — that’s not happening right now.

For instance, the really big news in America today is in the energy area. Just recently, we surpassed Russia as the number-one energy-producing country in the world. It’s about national security, it’s about jobs, it’s about growth.

Why don’t they take up a major energy bill? Just one example.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, right now, you do have members — and I’m sure you know this — in the Tea Party saying, we still want to defund and do away with the president’s health care law.

TRENT LOTT: Well…

JUDY WOODRUFF: And they’re not — I mean, they’re not focused on some of these other issues.

TRENT LOTT: Well, they should be.

And I agree with them. I would have voted against Obamacare. And I would vote to repeal it right now or delay it a year. I mean, even the president just came out today and said, look, it’s a mess. He’s not happy with it either.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But was it worth shutting down the government and…

TRENT LOTT: I don’t think so. I thought that the tactics that were used were not wise.

The place that Republicans should focus on is, what are we going to do to help the economy to grow? The people out here in the real world, they still are worrying about how are they going make a living, are they going to be able to get a job? And that is what the focus should be.

But, also, the thing that unites Republicans is controlling the size of the federal government and controlling spending. It is out of control. The debt ceiling this next year, if they don’t get some spending restraint, will go up another trillion dollars.

That is a big problem for our grandchildren. So that’s what I think they should focus on, instead of — it’s not enough just to say no to Obamacare. I would like to repeal it, but it’s not going to be repealed as long as the Senate Democrats are in charge and Obama is in the White House. So, they have made their point. They don’t like Obamacare.

They have tried a lot of different types of ways to deal with it. They fought the good fight, but that fight is over. So now what are they going to do?

JUDY WOODRUFF: But do you think — I mean, how do you bridge these differences, though, Senator Lott? Because we hear what you are saying, but you still have these very conservative members of the party who are saying, we’re going to continue to fight on Obamacare. And we not only want to — want to limit government spending. We want to shrink the size of government dramatically.

TRENT LOTT: Yes, well, I agree with that. I do want to shrink the size of government.

What we need is an agenda to address the problems that we have. For instance, the president mentioned that we needed to do a farm bill. Well, some people sneered at that. I mean, that is the biggest thing on the agenda? Well, as a matter of fact, the farm bill has a lot of reforms in it. It does reduce the amount of farm subsidies that are paid out. It does have major reform in food stamps.

That — both of those are important. But we do need a farm policy in America. I have already mentioned energy. They need to deal with, how much are they going fund the government? They should be passing appropriations bills. They should pass defense authorization.

We still have military men and women in the field. And the combination of how much we’re spending and the sequester is having a real problem on the defense capabilities of our country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, if you were to have a conversation right now with Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and some of the House members who agreed with his strategy, what would you say to them?

TRENT LOTT: Well, I would say, you felt very strongly. You made your case. That fight, though, you will always be looking for a way to put some controls on Obamacare or eventually repeal it, but you need to focus now on what can be done in a positive way.

What are some good things that America should be doing now? That group might not like what I’m about to say. But there’s a bill that is going to be moving in the House soon called the Water Resources Development Act. We have bridges and highways and ports and harbors and water and sewer systems all over America that are collapsing.

They create jobs.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Infrastructure.

TRENT LOTT: Infrastructure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And this is something the president…

TRENT LOTT: Now, I don’t agree with the infrastructure that Obama talks about. He wants a little bank which will become a slush fund.

No. You need to clearly say it’s going to go for this particular port, it’s going to go for a water system in Jackson, Michigan, or Jackson, Mississippi. That is something people would say, it’s tangible. You could see a result. It would create jobs.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But if they don’t agree with you and others who believe in that, then, how does — can the party really come together?

TRENT LOTT: Well, remember now, I went through this in 1995 when we had the shutdown. I didn’t think it was a good idea then either.

We came out of it, and what did we do to go forward? We developed a positive agenda. We had welfare reform. We had — a balanced budget legislation that was passed. We passed safe drinking water. Who is opposed to safe drinking water? Portability of insurance. We pivoted and went to a positive agenda.

And the net result was, we picked up two — a gain of two seats in the Senate. So what I would urge them to do is, what are you for now, as young Republican House members? What would you do if you were in the majority? If you can’t repeal Obamacare or reform it right now, what else would you do? And get on that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We hear you. Former Senator Trent Lott, thank you for being with us.

TRENT LOTT: Thank you, Judy.