WASHINGTON — Trent Lott never saw partisanship permeate the very fabric of Congress during his 35-year tenure there the way it divides Capitol Hill today, the former Senate majority leader lamented on Wednesday.
Today's bitter partisan culture is a long cry from his days serving leaders of the "Greatest Generation," said Lott, a Mississippi Republican who served in the House of Representatives from 1973 to 1989, and in the Senate from 1989 to 2007.
On a panel discussing the potential for renewed bipartisanship in Congress, Lott blamed the 1960s and '70s culture of rebellion, when the nation's current leaders grew up, as the principal cause of division in Congress today. The panel also included former House Speaker Tom Foley, D-Wash., former House Minority Leader Bob Michel, R-Ill., and former Rep. Martin Frost, D-Texas.
"It's not the rules. It's not the institutions. The problem is us," Lott said. "The generational leaders now are those that came out of the '60s and '70s, which were turbulent times — you had Vietnam, the civil rights movement, Watergate, impeachment — we became such partisan warriors."
While Lott practiced plenty of hard-edged partisan politics in his day, he also often cut deals with Democrats. In those days, he said, it was normal to have a friendly dinner with members of the opposing party.
"Our leaders were very different people — it was people like Bob Michel and Tom Foley and others in the House," Lott said. "It just had a different feel to it — there was a respect for chain of command; there was a respect for the institution. I know Bob had it and exhibited it."
Lott, now a lobbyist, grew accustomed to a bipartisan culture soon after he began his political career in 1968 as an administrative assistant to Rep. Bill Colmer, a Mississippi Democrat. Lott said he frequented the medicine room of the Capitol, where Colmer, House Speaker John McCormack of Massachusetts and others convened to play late-night games of gin rummy.
"My job was to pour the bourbon and light the cigars," Lott said. "These guys talked — Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal."
One problem complicating today's political climate, Lott said, is that lawmakers stay in Washington as little as possible and don't get to know each other well, and working across the aisle on legislation therefore becomes more difficult.
Frost attributed the flight of lawmakers from Washington to the deluge of information swamping the public in a media-saturated age.
"Members are much more pressed to be back in their districts," he said. "It's hard to spend all your time here . . . because people know more now. They want to talk to you, they have very strong opinions and a good deal of misinformation on top of that."
Foley criticized congressional leaders for giving their party members an incentive to be hostile toward their counterparts from the other party.
"That's the way business is done. If you're not able to do that, you're gonna hear it from your leaders," Foley said. "That's the way to make money — you have to be seen as a strong supporter of a particular group or interest."
Responsibility to ease partisan tensions falls on congressional leaders, the panelists agreed.
They conceded that leaders of the majority party are expected to help pass the president's agenda during the first two years of his term, but said that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., will have an opportunity to improve relations with Republicans after this fall's congressional elections.
Foley said that an embryonic impulse for bipartisanship has begun to emerge, as Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has said he won't help the Nevada Republican Senate nominee, Sharron Angle, campaign against Reid, realizing the potential for what Foley called "bad blood" should Reid prevail and return as Democratic leader of the Senate.
Lott offered hope that a new class of politicians might one day return to late-night card games among friends from both parties.
"When this generation changes, the next generation could be susceptible to maybe a little bit more bipartisan effort," Lott said. "The solution is leadership. Men and women of good will have got to step up and say, 'We have to stop this.'"
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