- Former Senate leaders kept open line of communication during negotiations
- Ex-Democratic leader Tom Daschle: Times of crisis made it easier to form consensus
- Internal pressures on those who seek compromise are greater now, both men say
- Ex-GOP leader Trent Lott says Republicans will eventually give in, but timing is crucial
Secret conversations on the balcony. A special phone line for instant and direct communication. These are some of the tools former Democratic leader Tom Daschle and former Republican leader Trent Lott used to forge bipartisan consensus and compromise when they ran the Senate a little more than a decade ago.
In a joint interview in the shadow of the Capitol, Daschle and Lott reminisced about bridging partisan differences to get things done -- instructive for today's leaders talking past each other as the fiscal cliff approaches.
"We both decided that there were going to be times when we really needed to call each other immediately and not go through staff. And it was so urgent that when that phone rang, we knew we had a matter that had to be addressed right away. So we installed these phones and used them occasionally, and I never got a busy signal when I called," said Daschle, breaking out in laughter.
Lott recalled, "Sometimes I would get up from my desk and I would go down the hall and I would come in the back door of Tom's office and we would talk. And he would come down to my office. I mean, it's a little thing, but sometimes if the leader says, 'I don't want to do that, it looks like I'm conceding to him.'
"Usually when I went to see Tom was when I was going to admit I had made a little mistake," Lott said with a sheepish grin.
For six years, the two led the Senate from opposite sides of the aisle as majority leader and minority leader -- depending on which party had control.
As reporters covering Congress during those years, it used to be that we stood outside negotiations waiting to see what any given deal would look like. Now things are so partisan and divisive, it's always an open question about whether there will be a deal at all -- especially with the fiscal cliff.
"There's a lot of things that are going on that are different now," Lott said. "News media (are) more omnipresent. And all the new social media, the traveling back and forth, and different personalities.
"I still am convinced that hopefully at least that they're going to come to an agreement. There's an argument that you don't want to make it too early because that gives people that may not be too happy with it more time to undermine it," Lott said.
Daschle added he believes it was easier to form consensus during their tenure because there were so many times of crisis: the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton, the attacks of 9/11, the anthrax attack on Daschle's office.
"Anytime there's a crisis of that magnitude, it does bring people together a little bit easier, to bring caucuses and individuals, and provide some direction in ways that we don't really have today," Daschle said.
'We're not there yet'
But isn't falling off the fiscal cliff and possibly into another recession a crisis?
"It could be, but we're not there yet," Lott said.
"I do think they've reached a point where they need to quit talking to each other through the media and talking about whole parties and the president and the leaders of Congress. Some of our most effective results came when we sat down at a conference table with -- sometimes with the president or at least with the chief of staff or his (Office of Management and Budget) director, with our key budget people, and we really talked about alternatives and hammered it out," Lott continued.
Daschle added: "There has to be lines of communication. You have the institution that creates mechanisms by which people can talk. One of the things that we did that I really regret that we didn't do more often was the whole joint caucuses, where members could talk among themselves without the cameras and without the public scrutiny, where you really could be candid. We don't do enough of that today. We didn't do it enough, I don't think -- we were leaders and I wish we'd done it more. And I certainly wish we'd do it more now."
He also said a lesson he learned from being a successful deal maker was to have open dialogue at all times, not just during tough negotiations.
"Trust doesn't come haphazardly. It really has to be built over time. And that trust has to happen really at times when there isn't a crisis. That's why I think having regular meetings and conversation when there's no crisis, when you can build trust and a friendship and a relationship that allows for better dialogue and far more consequential deal-making can occur when a crisis does come up," Daschle said.
Both men admit internal party pressures on leaders and rank-and-file members who move toward compromise are much more intense than when they were in charge a decade ago.
Would Lott be worried about a primary challenge if he were still in office?
"It would be tough to deal with some of the views you have to deal with, but you know it's called leadership. You've got to be prepared to really lead, and sometimes you have to do the best you can and then try to convince your conference or your caucus to go along with you," Lott said.
Timing on agreement is crucial politically
As far as the fiscal cliff negotiations go, Lott made it clear he believes fellow Republicans eventually will give in to President Barack Obama on raising tax rates for the wealthy, at least a little bit. But he said the timing -- when to do that -- is crucial politically.
"(There) will come a moment when the speaker is going to have to make a decision on that and the president is going to have to make a decision what he is going to do to return on the spending, but they need to do it in concert. It's like directing the orchestra. You've got to have the winds and the brass come together," Lott said.
For his part, Daschle said his party will make hard choices on safety net programs it holds dear, such as Medicare and Medicaid.
"I think Democrats are prepared to work on entitlements, but there's two ways of doing it. You can just cut and shift the costs onto somebody else, or you can really redesign the programs and improve them. And I think that's really the essence of what we've got to do. Let's redesign these programs to make them work better, not just shift the program costs onto somebody else," Daschle said.
Lott added that he learned in his six years as Senate GOP leader it's important to know when to lead and "when to be a follower."
"Whether we like it or not, this is really going to come down to the best judgments of the president and the speaker. Both of them will be consulting with their players in both parties, in both bodies, but you've got to give them a little latitude to see what they can come up with," Lott said. "You may not be able to live with it, but everybody's taking up positions right now and frankly it's making a conclusion more difficult by some of the things that's been said on both sides of aisle."
Both men said they hope the two sides reach a deal on the fiscal cliff, not just because of the very real implications for the economy but because of how critical these talks are for setting the tone for the president's next term.
"This is really a reset moment," Daschle said. "I call this period between now and, say, the end of February a reset moment where you can create a different environment. And this will be the test. If we reset, it's going to have to happen around the fiscal cliff first, because that's the first order of business. But there are a lot of other issues out there that could be addressed if we could really create a new climate. And whether we do in part depends on the success of this effort right now."
The two men genuinely became friends during their time leading the Senate.
It's hard to imagine the current Senate Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid and Republican leader Mitch McConnell having the kind of relationship in which they share information or cut deals during secret talks out on a Capitol balcony.
"Maybe more than we know," Lott said, smiling.