The Senate is split 50-50, which somewhat complicates Democrats’ attempts to pass President Joe Biden’s agenda. Most major legislation requires 60 votes to pass in order to overcome the chamber's legislative filibuster threshold, which would require 10 Republicans to join with all 50 Democrats.
No easy feat, even in a less heated, partisan environment. And while calls to eliminate the filibuster seem to grow day in and day out, President Joe Biden and a number of key moderate lawmakers have thus far resisted those entreaties.
But it’s not the first time the chamber has been evenly divided. The same math bedeviled lawmakers almost twenty years ago. Those who were in charge then are offering suggestions now about governing in times of stark division.
“For God's sake, talk to each other,” Trent Lott, a former Republican senator from Mississippi who was Majority Leader in early 2002 when the Senate was last evenly divided, said in an interview with Spectrum News.
“And number two, quit trying to do stuff that's hard and impossible," Lott continued. "Do the stuff that can get done.”
Democrats today narrowly control the House of Representatives and hold power in the Senate only because Vice President Kamala Harris can break ties.
Despite their tenuous grip, Democrats are intent on finally passing President Joe Biden’s long-delayed domestic agenda, seeing it as their last chance before the 2022 midterm elections that could see Republicans regain one or both houses of Congress.
Democrats have been huddled for days trying to broker compromises that would satisfy divergent philosophies.
At stake is a $1 trillion bill that already passed the Senate, which would reshape much of the national physical infrastructure, including roads, bridges, ports, commuter rail, broadband and other public works projects.
Another bill currently under negotiation is said to be pegged at around $2 trillion after the initial price tag of $3.5 trillion proved too large for moderates in the caucus to stomach. It would address the nation’s social safety net and climate change while potentially raising taxes on the wealthy.
Moderates have urged the House to pass the smaller infrastructure bill immediately, giving Democrats something to tout in their mideterm campaigns. But progressives have threatened to sink the infrastructure bill if the two measures are not passed in tandem.
Again, no easy feat for Congressional leaders to tackle.
Lott, 80, is hardly the person to give Democrats advice. But he is pained that the collegiality he sought while in charge seems elusive today. He clearly takes it seriously, although his word choices aren’t always the model of decorum.
“Now everybody's dug in there," Lott said. "They can't pass gas up there anymore. And just they need to find a way to get the Senate to be the great deliberative body and a body that can act.”
Lott, now principal and director at a Washington, D.C., lobbying firm, thinks fondly of some of the traditions he championed, including bipartisan dinners with spouses and Seersucker Thursdays, when senators would wear near-matching suits, mugging for the cameras.
“Dianne Feinstein, [Democratic] senator from California, came to me and said, ‘Hey, can the women of the Senate participate in the Seersucker Thursday?’" Lott recalled. "I said, 'Sure!' But a lot of it was just to know each other and have fun.”
To be sure, while today’s politics can seem particularly nasty, bipartisanship is not dead.
The infrastructure bill, for instance, passed the Senate over the summer with 19 Republicans, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Still, Lott notes an “inappropriate” willingness for senators today to take to the floor and “basically call each other names.”
“Over the years, what has happened is the Democratic Party has moved further and further and further to the left," Lott said. "The Republican Party has moved far to the right, and it has made it almost impossible to get things done.”
Lott’s talk of bipartisanship may prompt some eye-rolling from Democrats, who recall he led the Senate during the impeachment trial of Bill Clinton, to take just one example. Lott says he inherited the matter from the House, and notes Clinton was ultimately acquitted.
That next week, “I got a call from President Clinton," Lott recalled. "He wanted to talk to me about a bill that he was in hopes we could move. Never mentioned what had happened. And we went on, we got things done.”
As for where he stands within his own party, Lott distances himself from former President Donald Trump, who continues to have an outsized hold on Republicans as he promotes falsehoods about the 2020 election.
“You have to quit fighting the last election to get some things done before you get into the next election, for heaven's sake,” Lott said.
“It's time to move on from the past,” he added, noting he’s impressed with potential presidential candidates Ron DeSantis, Florida’s governor, and former Vice President Mike Pence, whom Trump famously attacked for presiding over the Jan. 6 Congressional certification of the presidential results, which were now infamously disrupted by the deadly Capitol riot.
As for regrets, Lott notes not being more “diligent” in questioning the wrong intelligence that led to the U.S. invasion of Iraq and 2003.
And then there’s a speech Lott gave in 2002, when he praised Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who was marking his 100th birthday. Thurmond ran for President on the segregationist Dixiecrat ticket in 1948.
Lott said at the party: “When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had of followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years, either.”
The uproar led Lott to resign his post as the Senate’s Republican leader. He has since apologized.
“I finally, you know, subscribe to the theory, you don't get in trouble for what you don't say,” he said.
Watch Trent Lott's full interview with Spectrum News Chief National Political Reporter Josh Robin above.