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Former Lawmakers Discuss Challenges for New Congress

With Democrats in control of Congress for the first time in 12 years -- a comfortable majority in the House but a thin lead in the Senate -- former Republican and Democrat lawmakers sort through the political lexicon and discuss what's ahead.

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  • 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.


    So your definition is, what, everybody gets along?


    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.


    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.


    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.


    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.

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