When Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, announced in 2012 that she would not seek re-election, she cited strident partisanship as the main reason to end her 33-year career. Judy Woodruff talks with Snowe more about what prompted her retirement and how she's working to resolve the bitter divide in American politics.
JUDY WOODRUFF: The past few years have seen more gridlock in Washington and politics nationally than at any other time in memory. From the fights over health care reform and the debt limit to the so-called fiscal cliff, the two parties have seemed like separate armed camps.
Is it possible for lawmakers to bridge the partisan divide?
We put that question to former Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine. She's now a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center and she's co-chair of the group's Commission on Political Reform, charged with making the system work better.
Sen. Snowe, thank you for joining us.
You were -- as I added it up, you were in politics for, what, three or four decades.
Why would you take on this task after you have retired?
FORMER SEN. OLYMPIA SNOWE, R-Maine: Well, you know, it's interesting.
I have often said, you know, at my age, you face enough drastic change. You're not seeking more. But I decided if I was going to continue in the political arena, perhaps I should contribute in a different way, given the polarization that's occurred, and most exponentially over the last few years. It has truly gotten worse.
You could see the slow, steady erosion of what was happening and evolving. But it had clearly gotten worse to the point that we're no longer solving problems and most especially the big problems facing this country. So, I thought I could add my voice on the outside to encourage people to demand bipartisanship, to understand the value of bipartisanship and consensus-building in the political arena.
What is the purpose of public service? It's to solve problems for the people you represent and certainly in the United States Senate, thinking about your state and thinking about your country as well.
JUDY WOODRUFF: What would you consider fixing the problem, or at least making some improvement in the problem? What would be a better way of operating in the Senate?
OLYMPIA SNOWE: Well, just looking at the last two years, I mean, I think it's a template. But it had been happening even before that, obviously.
But just over the last two years, when we had, you know, some very serious problems, from the debt ceiling, take that, for example. You know, we didn't grapple with that issue at the very beginning in Jan. 2011. And we waited until the 11th hour in Aug. of 2011 to the final hour in the deadline. And, ultimately, the country experienced the first downgrade in its history of its credit rating.
And that's going to cost, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center, which I'm a senior fellow, $20 billion dollars over the next 10 years. And yet we knew the implications and ramifications of deferring, delaying, and obfuscating that kind of action. And so then you look at no budgets, and I know the Senate has finally passed a budget. And, obviously, it has to be reconciled, but for the first time in four years.
We didn't address any of the major questions over the last two years. We just neglected, you know, the interests of the country.
JUDY WOODRUFF: What can be done about it?
OLYMPIA SNOWE: I think the American people have to demand change.
And what I have been saying in my speeches all over the country is that it's time for all of us to provide rewards for those who are willing to engage in bipartisanship and working across the political aisle and providing a political penalty for those who don't.
I mean, after all, if you see the emergence of groups on both sides, from the Tea Party to Occupy Wall Street, I mean, how did they get mobilized? Through social media and through the Internet. And the same can be true for those who want to see their country work and want their political system to work.
I mean, they're fearful about the future, simply because they see the debilitation of the political process in Washington. It really has frustrated, but it's angered people. It's made them fearful about the future.
JUDY WOODRUFF: You know, with all due respect, Senator, I hear many analysts say, yes, the problem is on both sides, but more of the problem is with your party, with the Republicans.
In fact, respected political scientists Norman Ornstein and Tom Mann wrote a back last year. The thrust of it was that it's the Republicans who have been the most ideologically extreme, the least willing to compromise, the most dismissive of the other party. How do you see that?
OLYMPIA SNOWE: Well, you know, I don't disagree with them that, certainly, Republicans, you know, have also induced where we are today in terms of the partisanship and more filibusters. I would agree with that.
You know, I didn't -- I don't support all of the filibusters. I think there were instances that were legitimately, when the majority leader doesn't allow the minority to offer amendments. So the whole process has broken down in the United States Senate.
I think more than anything else is what institutionally has occurred in the Senate. Yes, it started certainly with the Republicans instigating more filibusters . And, you know, it becomes tit for tat over the time. It depends on which position each side is in. If the majority becomes the minority, the minority becomes the majority, they use each other's tactics.
And so the point where the process wasn't working, nothing is happening in the committees to build up on legislation, to work on legislation, and no amendments. So the whole process had shattered. And this falls to both sides. And there's no question the Republicans have that responsibility, as well as Democrats, to make the system work.
JUDY WOODRUFF: But what is it? I mean, in the mind -- if you were again a member -- and you were a member of Congress for a long -- for, as we said, several decades.
OLYMPIA SNOWE: Right.
JUDY WOODRUFF: You're hearing many in your own party say to you, back in your district or back in your state, don't compromise. Stand on principle.
And then you see polls perhaps that show most Americans want Washington to work. And you think it should work. But then there's really no pressure on you to work with the other side, because you're not rewarded for that. You may not get reelected if you work for the other side. How do you see that tension?
OLYMPIA SNOWE: Right.
And I think there has to be changes in that sense, I think, even at the local levels, in terms of, you know, opening up primaries and so on, so that, you know, elected officials -- and redistricting, for that matter, for the House of Representatives have more independent commissions.
But I think, absolutely, the fact is, if you had a process that was working, you know, and you had amendments, and people on both sides had the opportunity to weigh in, the rank and file, then you can say, listen, I tried to modify this legislation, make changes, make it better, this is what I was able to accomplish, and let the process work, and then you can explain to your constituents, you know, what you're able to support and the reasons why.
But now, when you say it's all or nothing, it becomes the parliamentary system that it has been, at least over the last two years, where both sides are working in unity and political blocs, rather than letting the -- especially in the Senate.
And I say it's for the leadership too and for the president. I mean, frankly -- and, sometimes, it's in the interest of the leaders to centralize the decision-making in their hands and concentrate it there, rather than allowing the rank and file to build support for various initiatives.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally, let me ask you another question about your own party, the Republicans.
OLYMPIA SNOWE: Yes.
JUDY WOODRUFF: The leadership of the party recently conducted what they called an autopsy to look at what went wrong in the election. And they said a lot of it was just communicating with the voters.
But others are looking at it and saying it's some of the beliefs in the Republican Party that are out of the mainstream. Right now, on gun control, which is an issue before the country, your party is the party that's basically saying we don't need any more restrictions on guns.
How do you see your party?
OLYMPIA SNOWE: Well, I think that there's no question the Republican Party has had a serious problem.
I remember writing an op-ed piece last summer, before the national convention, in fact, on what they needed to do, but, even then, in many ways, almost too late for the perceptions that had already been embedded about the Republican Party, which many of them are realistic, I mean, too rigid, too inflexible, too intolerant, too, you know, exclusive.
Certainly, as a Republican within the -- as a Republican member of the Senate and having been a Republican almost all my life, I have seen what has changed in the Republican Party. It wasn't the party that I joined, obviously, or served during my time in office.
But that doesn't mean to say it can't change. And they're recognizing that. But it's going to be more than communications, absolutely. It has got to be the policies. They have got to understand what the average person needs in America. They have got to be more tolerant, and not -- and be more inclusive in reaching out to people.
And, obviously, that's why they have lost women and lost Hispanics. We know the list. Not surprised by it, just because they know they have been intolerant of diversities within the party. So, how is it they can be tolerant of views outside of the party? So, that's what's got to change. And people understand what's happened within the Republican Party. And they're going to have to change.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And does that include on gun control?
OLYMPIA SNOWE: Well, that's one of the issues.
I mean, obviously, I mean, everybody -- I think, basically, that's more or less -- more regional and geographic than it is even partisan. And I know that from my own state, for example. But I think that certainly they have to look at those issues as well and see what is it that makes reasonable, practical sense in this day and age and what occurred in the horrific event in Connecticut at Sandy Hook?
JUDY WOODRUFF: Former Sen. Olympia Snowe, we thank you.
OLYMPIA SNOWE: Thank you.