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Former GOP Senate Leader On Washington: 'There's Very Little Middle'11:15
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Former Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott pauses while speaking to the media after a meeting with US President George W. Bush at the White House in Washington, DC, 02 October 2007. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
Former Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott pauses while speaking to the media after a meeting with US President George W. Bush at the White House in Washington, DC, 02 October 2007. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
This article is more than 6 years old.

Partisan division in Congress is not new, but "it used to have a big center - it was purple," former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott told Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson.

Lott is now at the law firm Squire Patton Boggs.

"If you look at it now, there's very little middle," Lott said. "The Democrats have moved left, and the GOP right."

Interview Highlights: Trent Lott

On what has changed in the Senate

"I had some very conservative members, but most of the time my challenge as majority leader was on the more moderate side of the senators - making sure that senators like Jim Jeffords of Vermont and Olympia Snowe of Maine and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania voted with the Republicans. But also, I worked very hard at staying connected to Democrats on the other side of the aisle. Now, members of the Senate hardly cross the center aisle. Maybe is just the people, maybe it’s the times, but I used to go across the aisle. Sometimes Tom Daschle, who was my counterpart on the Democratic side in their leadership position, didn’t particularly like it, but I’d go over there and work with people like Senator John Breaux, who has been my partner since I retired. He was a Democrat, but he was a more moderate Democrat; he was one I could talk to on a lot of issues."

"There was a clear center, sort of a purple. If you look at that now, it’s gone white. There’s very little middle."

"If you look at the makeup of the Congress, particularly the Senate, there was a clear center, sort of a purple. If you look at that now, it’s gone white. There’s very little middle. The Democratic party has moved significantly to the left, the Republican party has moved to the right, as a whole, both of them. And then you have people way out on the flanks who can really mess things up.

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"One senator can cause a lot of problems by putting a hold on a nominee or by getting up and threatening to filibuster or actually filibustering. It makes it very tough for the leaders to get the job done. But also, I think it’s important that leaders communicate. It’s important that President Obama, if he wants a trade bill, he’s gonna have to engage. He’s gonna have to talk directly to the senators. I used to talk to Bill Clinton all the time when I was the majority leader. And when I was the whip in the house in the '80s, I could call President Reagan any time of the day and get him on the phone and say, ‘Mr. President we’re working on the cruise missile issue, we’ve got problems with these five or six congressmen. Would you please call and try to convince them?’ That kind of thing doesn’t happen now."

"Everyday they’re trying to figure out: how can I get to be the majority leader or chairman of the committee? When what they should be doing is: what can I do for my state and my country today?"

On how the relationship between Congress and the president has changed

"When you’re a leader, you can’t just quit and go away if you don’t get your way once or twice - you gotta come back. Bill Clinton was dogged. When we finally got the budget agreement between a Republican Congress and the Democrat President Clinton, it was a long negotiation, but we got an agreement, we got a balanced budget and surplus. The best thing that I had to do, or deal with, when I was majority leader was that I had a leader on the other side of the aisle - Tom Daschle from South Dakota - that I could talk to. We were actually friends. I tried my best not to surprise him, and sometimes if I overplayed my hand I’d actually go to his office and say, ‘Hey Tom, I didn’t do that exactly right. Let’s put that behind us and let me see what I can do to be helpful to make up for that.’”

On his thoughts on the 2016 presidential race

"I feel inspiration for Marco Rubio, quite frankly. I think he’s got a great message. I think there’s a certain Reagan-esque atmosphere around him. The fact that he’s Hispanic is a political plus, but that’s not why I’m attracted to him. I just think he’s a dynamic young man who’s got a wonderful message.

"I don’t really know Governor Walker personally. I like a lot of what he says and a lot of what he’s done. I've, of course, been pretty close to the Bush family and I’m watching Jebb. I’m not committed to any of them. I think if Kasich gets in, I’m long time friends with John, he’s been successful at everything he’s done... He’s done a great job as Governor of Ohio, took a state that was really in debt and now they've got a balanced budget, they've got a huge rainy day fund, he’s cut taxes, but he’s also got a heart."

On the Singing Senators group he started as majority leader

"They don't really know each other. They don't socialize. It affects your conduct."

"You can’t beat barber shop quartet singing. Music has been an important part of my life. I’ve been singing all my life. I sang with a group all through college, same four guys, called the Chancellors. We sang together for 50 years until our bass, my roommate, Federal Judge Alan Pepper passed away a couple years ago.

"And then in the Senate, one of the things I tried to do when I was in the leadership position was loosen up the Senate a little bit. The Senate is a little bit too stodgy, a bunch of old guys in blue suits. So I did a number of things to try and loosen it up a little bit and show the American people that we’re people too, and have a little fun. And so that’s why I created the Singing Senators and we did a CD called ‘Let Freedom Sing.’ And I have a Scotish background, so I established April 6th as Tarten Day in America... I was the first Senator, as best as we can determine in the history of the Senate, to wear a kilt on the floor of the Senate. And Kit Bond, senator of Missouri, said it was the ugliest legs he'd seen on the floor of the Senate. But those things, you can honor your heritage, you can have a little fun and enjoy each other company, and actually it can help you legislate. That's one reason why I don't think they're doing what they should be doing now. They don't really know each other. They don't socialize. It affects your conduct."

Guest

  • Trent Lott, senior counsel at the law firm Squire Patton Boggs. He's a former Senate Majority Leader, Senate Republican Whip and House Republican Whip.

This segment aired on April 21, 2015.

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