Retiring lawmakers reflect on remaining challenges

Monday, November 26, 2012 - 12:40pm

When the new session of Congress begins in January, most of the faces on Capitol Hill will be the same - incumbents in both the House and the Senate overwhelmingly won re-election in November.

Yet before ballots were cast, thirty-five members of Congress had already said they wouldn't be returning to Washington in 2013. The number of retiring lawmakers was the highest since 1996, and the list included some formidable - and famous - members of the legislative branch. All will be watching from the sidelines as their former colleagues attempt to find solutions to both major legislative problems, and Congress' own dismal approval ratings.

Four of those lawmakers - Rep. Barney Frank, Sen. Joe Lieberman, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Sen. Jon Kyl - said in a discussion aired Sunday they were walking away from a body mired in gridlock. But they disagreed on whether to accept blame for the congestion themselves.

Frank, the Massachusetts Democrat first elected in 1980, said some of the responsibility for that gridlock rests on voters who elect representatives with differing views.

"People themselves are eternally gridlocked," Frank told CNN chief political correspondent Candy Crowley on "State of the Union." "We hear from people, 'Cut the deficit, expand Medicare.' We get a very inconsistent set of messages from them."

Frank, whose thirty-two years representing the Bay State's fourth district will be remembered partly for his candor, said he wasn't remorseful at leaving an unpopular Congress. "I don't feel guilty at all and I don't feel badly," he said, saying lawmakers "do our best."

"I'm not troubled by our inability to do what some of them want us to do, which is impossible," Frank said.

Lieberman, the independent from Connecticut who was first elected as a Democrat in 1988, said he did feel badly that Congress' approval ratings have sunk in his years as a lawmaker.

"I think the public is right to have an unfavorable view of what's happening here, because we're not getting our work done. We're not getting the work done that they sent us here to do," said Lieberman, who ran as an independent in 2006 after losing a Democratic primary contest.

Part of that work, he said, is developing a plan to avoid the upcoming fiscal cliff - a combination of steep budget cuts and tax increases that would go into effect at the end of the year if Congress doesn't find a way to reduce the federal deficit. Unlike some of his colleagues, who have predicted with confidence that a deal will be struck, Lieberman said the possibility of a compromise is "not a done deal and it's not a certainty."

"If Congress does nothing, which Congress has gotten pretty good at doing these days, we'll go over the fiscal cliff," the Connecticut lawmaker said.

Kyl, who is leaving after three terms in the Senate, forecast a solution to the fiscal cliff that would last only through the end of the year - but that would avoid the major economic catastrophe triggered by the sweeping budget cuts.

"I think it's likely that there will be a solution that's not a final solution, by any means, not a big solution, but will get us through the end of the year, into next year, with a plan for trying to deal with these issue," Kyl said.

Hutchison, the longest serving female Republican in the Senate, also speculated a long-term agreement on avoiding the fiscal cliff wouldn't be reached by the end of the year, but that eventually some kind of deal would be struck.

"Do I think we're going to do everything by the end of this year? Probably not. But I think we will not have a fiscal cliff, we will have a plan, hopefully, to go forward. And we will have a blueprint. And we will set the stage for long-term," she said.

Hutchison, like Frank, said she personally didn't feel badly about serving in a body so unpopular with the American people.

"I know I'm doing a good job and I know my constituents know it," she said, conceding it was "a disappointment" that people rate Congress so poorly in polls, while still electing lawmakers whose positions are often at odds.

"I think people do like, individually, the people they're electing," the Texas Republican said. "But they don't like what they see in the whole, which is gridlock. But that is because America is also gridlocked."

Kyl said he was uneasy with critics using broad strokes to characterize the entire body.

"I'm a little troubled, sometimes, by the thoughtlessness of some people who are quick to criticize anybody without differentiating between those who are trying to do their best," the Arizona Republican said.

"But it's hard to argue with the American people, generally, when they look to Washington and see the, you know, the mess that we're in right now," he continued. "It is all so true, as everyone here has said, that to some extent, that reflects the will of the American people. We want it both ways. But we work for the American people. And they're not devoting their whole lives to solving these problems, as we are. We're supposed to be better than we are. To that extent, they have a good point."

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