When Republican Trent Lott sat down for lunch with Democrat Tom Daschle on Monday afternoon, mere hours before voters shellacked President Obama and his party in the midterm elections, it was more than just two former Senate gladiators getting together to reminisce about old times.
Despite their many differences over the years, Lott and Daschle managed to find a way to work together during the bruising days of the Clinton and Bush administrations, where everything from impeachment to Iraq caused deep divisions between the parties.
“He and I are whispering back and forth,” Lott told me of his conversations with Daschle.
The two still keep in close touch and are now working back channels to try to get Obama and incoming House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to see that a divided government does not have to mean that the government comes to a screeching halt.
“Tom and I went through this situation on both sides,” said Lott, who was the Senate majority leader while Daschle was minority leader. “We’ve been through three different iterations of circumstances where we found a way to get things done.”
When Republicans took control of Congress in 1994, President Bill Clinton was still able to get a balanced budget and major welfare reform.
Lott and Daschle later hammered out a historic power-sharing agreement when George W. Bush was elected in 2000 with a 50-50 Senate. They ended up passing the president’s tax cuts and signature No Child Left Behind education reform law, among other big initiatives.
And finally, after Bush’s party lost both chambers to Democrats in the 2006 midterm elections, Lott worked with Daschle’s successor, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, to come together to pass many of the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations for intelligence reform and the first increase in the federal minimum wage in a decade.
“There are things you can do together,” Lott said. “It doesn’t have to be blood and guts every day. The rhetoric is over, now what are you going to do?”
It’s the question hanging over Obama: What will he do next? And besides Lott, there are other senators who served with him on Capitol Hill who believe he will follow in the footsteps of Clinton and retool his message and move to the center.
“I think it is really incumbent on him to try and work with the Republicans,” said former Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Florida. “Everyone talks about almost a reset button. You have to recognize you’re not going to get it all your way. And the country is better for it.”