Trent Lott's advice to Mitch McConnell: 'Deal sternly' with GOP obstructionists

'I wouldn’t put up with some of the stuff that they’re doing,' said Lott, a former Republican Senate majority leader, speaking at a Monitor breakfast with Tom Daschle, a Democratic former Senate majority leader.

Michael Bonfigli /The Christian Science Monitor
Former Senate Majority Leaders Tom Daschle, Trent Lott of the Bipartisan Policy Center and Center President Jason Grumet. speak at the St. Regis Hotel on Thursday in Washington, DC.

From a former Republican Senate majority leader to an incoming one, Trent Lott has this advice for Mitch McConnell: Deal “sternly” with renegade conservatives and quickly “coopt” new GOP senators so they don’t drift over to the obstructionist side of the party.

That’s important to breaking the gridlock in Congress, according to Mr. Lott, the former senator and majority leader from Mississippi. His advice was dittoed by another former senator and majority leader, Democrat Tom Daschle of South Dakota. Both spoke at a Monitor breakfast on Thursday. 

Through their engagement with the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, the two have been promoting ways to return Congress to a more productive era. 

When they were both in leadership positions under President Clinton, they passed welfare reform, a balanced budget, some tax reform, telecommunications reform, and safe drinking water legislation, among other issues. Under President George W. Bush, they dealt with the 9/11 attacks and the anthrax scare that followed.

“The leadership is going to have to find a way to deal sternly with some of these members…. I wouldn’t put up with some of the stuff that they’re doing,” said Lott. He characterized last year’s partial government shutdown – spearheaded by tea party favorite Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas – as a “fraud.”

It’s harder to reward and punish members of a caucus when earmarks are no longer available as sticks and carrots, Lott admitted. But Senator McConnell of Kentucky “is a very smooth operator.” He pointed to McConnell’s close relationship with Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky – also a tea party icon and a potential presidential candidate – as an example of how to work with senators who would rather stand their ground than find common ground.

Meanwhile, he said, the incoming majority leader should quickly deputize people to work with the new Republican senators,  bring them in the loop and close to leadership, “to make sure they don’t slip away from them” to the right flank.

Senator Daschle agreed: “The more you can include, the more you can engage, the more you can bring them in … the more likely it is that those stand-your-ground types will look at the advantages of finding common ground.” 

Lott and Daschle also spoke highly of McConnell’s stated goal to return the Senate to “regular order” – to give power back to committee chairs, to allow amendments from both sides to come to a floor for a vote, and to work a full work week. Of all the leaders in Washington, Lott said, he’s setting “the right tone.”

Change in Washington “begins at the top,” Lott said and he encouraged President Obama to engage more with Congress. House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio needs to “move aggressively” to keep his conference going in the right direction, turning more often to Democrats for votes. 

As a House or Senate leader, he said, “You can follow your conference or you can lead your conference, and if you just follow them, you’ve got trouble.”

When asked what the task is now for Sen. Harry Reid (D) of Nevada, who is moving from Senate majority leader to head up the minority, Daschle said, “I think it’s to lead; I think it’s to find ways to achieve some common ground.”

Daschle said he was encouraged by Reid’s recent comment that he would not pursue pay back.

“It’s in Harry Reid’s interest to accomplish as much as he can in the final two years of the Obama administration,” he said. It’s also in Congress’s interest. 

Gridlock, he said, has shifted power away from Congress – exactly the complaint that Republicans have about what they characterize as the president’s power grab. And dysfunction undercuts the American message overseas that democracy is the model to follow. 

Both men pointed to an array of issues ripe for compromise: taxes, immigration, health care, energy. In the end, congressional leaders may find more support for compromise from lawmakers than many think, added Jason Grumet, the president of the Bipartisan Policy Center.

“The people who are absolutely the most frustrated with Washington are members of Congress,” he said. “This is not what they signed up for.” 

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