Eleven Months After Proposing that Republicans and Democrats Sit Together at State of the Union, Sens. Murkowski and Udall Sit Together to Discuss State of Bipartisanship in Washington, DC

“I’m not convinced the people of this country really want more messaging,” Murkowski states. “I think what they want is some governing.”

WASHINGTON, DC – Nearly eleven months after they broke with tradition by proposing that Republicans and Democrats sit next to each other at the State of the Union Address, Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Senator Mark Udall (D-CO) sat down together yesterday morning at a breakfast discussion hosted by The Ripon Society to discuss the state of bipartisanship in Washington as Congress attempts to complete its legislative business and adjourn for the year.

The discussion was billed as a discussion of “Energy Security and the Search for Common Ground.” But as the two Senators began their remarks, it became clear that their focus was less about the challenges they are working on as leaders of the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, and more about the political obstacles that are making it more difficult to address these challenges and preventing both parties from reaching common ground.

“We are sitting here a week before Christmas trying to figure out what the exit strategy is,” Murkowski stated. “I think it’s fair to say that we are at that point where politics has completely consumed where we are. It’s not policy that we are dealing with. And it has put us in a position where not much good, I think, is coming from it. How many messaging votes have we had in the past month only to be able to say, ‘By gosh, as Republicans, we’re not going to raise your taxes!’ Or, ‘By gosh, as Democrats we’re going to protect the middle class!’ I’m not convinced the people of this country really want more messaging. I think what they want is some governing.

“As I was coming over here this morning, Tom Coburn was on C-SPAN, and Tom was speaking about the fact that he has self-imposed term limits. And he said, ‘You know, sometimes around here we focus on what’s best for our political interest rather than the interest of the country.’ I think we are at that point as we are approaching a presidential election. You have so many decisions that are being made simply based on the politics of the moment and what is coming forward in these campaigns. I think that is unfortunate. I think it is a situation, again, where we are forgetting who it is that we represent. We are focusing on our parties rather than the people of Alaska or the people of Colorado.

“I think to a certain extent, my write-in campaign last year allowed for a little bit of a release, if you will. When you are not your party’s nominee and you are kind of in a hybrid no-man’s land in the middle, the expectations from your base are perhaps different. I look now at my base and say it’s everything from that hardcore libertarian miner that lives out in the middle of nowhere to the lifelong Democrat teacher and everybody in between. And I think that is a good thing for us to recognize that that is our base — those people in Alaska that come from all corners.”

In his remarks, Udall stated he also draws inspiration from the people he represents, and echoed Murkowski’s comments about the political dysfunction that has descended onto Washington, DC.

“When you stand on top of a mountain in Colorado — or Mount McKinley — and you look out over the state of Colorado,” Udall stated, “there are people down in those towns and cities trying to do the best with their lives, provide for their children, and pursue the American dream. I really try to have that inform what I do as a Senator and what I did in the House. It’s hard, as Lisa pointed out, because there are so many countervailing pressures here. And it’s so tactical. I was reminded my Dad used to say, ‘Football coaches and politicians are a lot alike. To be in either one of those disciplines, you have to be smart enough to understand the game and dumb enough to think it’s important.’ The point I’m trying to make is that we get so tactically oriented here. Play to play, does it really result in us winning the game — much less having a successful season in Washington?

“There are some things I think we should do. We ought to have talking filibusters. We ought to have as many competitive House Districts as we could possibly have; I think that would really drive a different way by which the House operates. I think a return to regular order would make a lot of sense. If you think of the power being concentrated in the Leadership as opposed to the Chairmen, Chairwomen, and the Committees themselves, I think that’s actually led to more of a focus on power, instead of product. I was meeting with a group of businessmen in Colorado recently, and they got on me about why we can’t make deals like the business community does. I tried to explain to them that in some ways, power is more seductive than profits believe it or not. But in the end, how are you using that power? What is the reason that you want to hold it?

“I don’t think I’m sharing any philosophies you all don’t hold as well. The Ripon Society is based on the Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt approach, but I’d like to hear some of your ideas on how we can make this town work in ways that we all want it to work because there is so much at stake. Let me end on this: [you know] the old saying that academic politics are so vicious, because so little is at stake. I think our politics are so vicious because we’ve forgotten how much was at stake.”

When asked how lawmakers in Washington could go about breaking the political logjam, Murkowski pointed to the lack of relationship-building among lawmakers as a good place to start.

“I think it is important also to recognize that there’s got to be a level of reaching out,” the Alaska Senator said. “There’s got to be a level of communication. Right now, there is pretty limited interaction between the Administration — the White House — and where we are sitting over here at the Capitol. Everyone’s got their own domain, their own turf, and they are trying to make their deal. You do that and you get three different deals, and you’re not going to get anywhere.

“It’s when we figure it out and say this is something that we’ve got to make happen. But it’s tough if you haven’t had that hand extended for a long period of time and then, when I need you, I’m going to pick up the telephone. This is why I think it’s so important — whether it’s in the Senate or across the chamber there to the House — that we do more relationship-building; that we know and understand not only what your party’s politics are, but that you love to climb mountains. I love to climb mountains. We’ve got more in common than just talking about renewable energy. It’s a lot tougher to poke a finger into the eye of somebody that you know. You know that they are a good parent, they love their dog.

“It all sounds pretty trite, but the fact of the matter is that we put up a lot of walls around here. And the more walls you put up, the more insulated you are, and the easier it is to spew the rhetoric. Because it’s like, ‘I don’t know you anyway. I don’t care what I say. I don’t care how you feel about what I say.’ And that rhetoric, as Mark said, traps us. Everything that we can do — like the little Secret Santa thing. We chuckle about it, but it’s a step.”

Udall concurred.

“Lisa put her finger on it when she said you could go on TV in this town and blast one of your colleagues and never have to look at that person eye to eye,” the Colorado Senator stated. “This is a small town where actions, consequences, and relationships matter. In the end, I do think this is about the relationships of people — as it is in any institution. You can look at the rules and try to understand the situation that you’re in. But literally, if you got on TV and said something hateful about a person and you have to see them on the main street — which is the tunnel under the Capitol or the Senate — I think that’s going to give you pause.

“The point that Lisa was making was that we don’t have that kind of interaction because of the pressures of fundraising. The jet airplanes are a curse, as is air conditioning. As you know, the diplomatic corps used to receive hazard pay for being stationed in Washington, DC … I think we both feel that when we go home we get a sense of reality and a dose of realism.

“When I’m home, that is where I’m taking my inspiration. From the small towns to the big cities — Alaska only has one, but in Colorado people are making local government work. Thank God for Federalism, frankly — although we do need a national set of policies for energy, education, and immigration. But that is where I take my inspiration from and that’s why I’m an optimist. And I always will be.”

Udall concluded his remarks with a recommendation – that people read a Pulitzer Prize winning book that, he said, while written more than 50 years ago, still remains very relevant today.

“I think one of the most powerful books written about public service is John Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage. He outlines people that not only lost their political careers, but also lost their status and their economic standing in life because they took very difficult stances. I think it ought to be required reading for all of us because we’re not on this Earth for very long. Our political fortunes aren’t really as important as what we add back into them.

“Burke, the famous English parliamentarian conservative, put it quite well when he said, ‘Your representative owes you more than his industry. He owes you his judgment. And if he sacrifices his judgment to your opinion, then he betrays you.’ I think that’s really the challenge that we’ve always had, whether it be President Adams or President Lincoln or Roosevelt or the Senators that I’ve been so honored to join and serve the country with. I think that’s what this boils down to — it’s about relationships, and putting your country, literally, before your stance in life.”

“And respect for one another,” Murkowski added. “I don’t think we focus on respect enough — respect for your opinion.”

“I may come at it from a different perspective,” she continued, “but I respect that this is your opinion. You represent a constituency that is perhaps different than mine, and sometimes I think we fail in the respect category. And when we fail to respect one another, we fail to respect the institution that we are part of. When we fail to respect the institution, we shouldn’t be surprised when we look at opinion polls and see that Congress’s approval rating is about 9 percent … I think we’ve got to work to rebuild that respect.”

To view Murkowski’s and Udall’s complete remarks at The Ripon Society breakfast discussion yesterday morning, please click on the link below:

The Ripon Society is a public policy organization that was founded in 1962 and takes its name from the town where the Republican Party was born in 1854 – Ripon, Wisconsin. One of the main goals of The Ripon Society is to promote the ideas and principles that have made America great and contributed to the GOP’s success. These ideas include keeping our nation secure, keeping taxes low and having a federal government that is smaller, smarter and more accountable to the people.