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Yesterday evening Senator Claire McCaskill (D) met with a small group of Missouri political bloggers for a conversation at her Kansas City office. Blue Girl (They gave us a republic… and Show Me Progress), Sean (Fired Up!), and I were in attendance. Eli Yokley (PoliticMo) was unable to attend due to the heavy snowfall.

Senator McCaskill spoke with us and answered questions on the record for almost an hour in her office conference room.

Senator Claire McCaskill (D).

The first part of our conversation covered the deficit and debt, newly elected Representative Vicky Hartzler (r) and earmarks, spending caps, filibuster reform, secret holds, getting a bipartisan date for the State of the Union address, and moderate republicans.

The transcript:

Sean (Fired Up!): [….] …Where do you see things going next?

Senator Claire McCaskill (D): Well, there have been a lot of, um, proposals and discussion and maybe some compromises as it relates to how we deal with the deficit and the debt. I think that clearly, um, was on a lot of folk’s mind in, in this election. And I think that the Republican majority in the Senate [sic] is gonna dictate that a significant amount of our time is spent on that. And that, and the Republicans in the Senate, I mean, we’ve got pretty evenly divided Senate now. I think that what we’ll have, um, uh, I’m hopeful that the lame duck is an indication that some of the moderate Republicans are willing to participate again. What we saw during the lame duck was moderate Republicans, you know, I watched Dick Lugar on the START Treaty. I watched, um, him, you know, work the START Treaty and I watched some of the moderates coming to him immediately and saying, yes, we’re for it, and how that kind of began to get critical mass. It’d been a long time since we’d seen that. Um, it, and the more evenly divided Senate means that they can’t just point fingers, especially now, with, with the House. So, one of two things is gonna happen. Either the House will overreach and nothing will happen, or, uh, the public will begin to react if the House does overreach and that will put more pressure on the Senate to try to come up with some reasonable compromises then, that then will go back to the House to see if they’ll accept or reject them. And I just don’t know how, how [many] rigid ideologues have been elected. I assume they’re pretty rigid ideologues in the House, but I don’t know that for a fact, I mean.  I was surprised when Vicky Hartzler told me that she would take earmarks, she would seek earmarks, so.

Sean: Yeah, they change their opinions pretty quickly on the deficit and everything else, with…

Senator Claire McCaskill (D): Yeah, well, the hundred billion dollars they said they were gonna cut, let’s see if they do it. [crosstalk] And if they do, we’ll look forward, we’ll see if they are willing to make specific cuts, um.

Blue Girl (Show Me Progress and They gave us a republic…): Shake the couch cushions at the Pentagon.

Senator Claire McCaskill (D): Well, that was what  I, that’s what I liked about the Sessions/McCaskill proposal, was that it, um, was a spending cap not on discretionary domestic alone, but defense.

Blue Girl: Yeah.

Senator Claire McCaskill (D): And we got every single Republican to vote for a cap on spending. Defense spending. And that’s what was so frustrating to me, that I couldn’t convince my caucus that this was an, an incredible opportunity for us to take the mantle of being responsible about spending because it wasn’t a cut, it was a cap. It was similar to what we had during the nineties and, you know, how [crosstalk]…

Blue Girl: What did you not like about the nineties, the peace or the prosperity?

Senator Claire McCaskill (D): Yeah, right. Right, so, it, um, it, I think that we’ll get, I’m gonna continue to work on the Sessions/McCaskill spending and I’ll think we’ll get it passed. The question is, will that be enough for this Congress? Or will they want more, uh, will they want a more aggressive cap? And, um, we’ll see. Okay.

Blue Girl: One in nine federal judgeships, first question here, uh, they, you know, Congress, the hundred eleventh adjourned before the Senate could even consider hundreds of bills, uh, nothing’s been getting done, uh, this did not happen because it takes sixty votes to break a filibuster but because the minority can force the entire Senate to waste up to thirty hours ever, ever, every time the Senate holds a vote. What reforms do you support to stop this obstruction of even the most uncontroversial business?

Senator Claire McCaskill (D): Um, well the good news is that we did get twenty-two of them through, um, judges through, uh, by, by unanimous consent right before we adjourned. So, that’s good. Um, I do think the secret hold thing is really important because if you own it then you gotta explain it. And what happens is these guys hold these things secretly and then they, of course, vote for the nominees when they’re for, forced to.

Blue Girl: Right.

Senator Claire McCaskill (D): So, you having the ability just to gum things up without anybody ever taking ownership is a huge problem. I am optimistic that we are gonna get the rule change on secret holds.  Um, I think that is really hard for the other side to justify as they’re preaching transparency and accountability. I don’t know how they don’t accept a change in the rules to do away with the secret hold. And I think you do away with the secret hold it has an amazing ability to clean some of this stuff up. Now, do we make the changes in the filibuster? I would love to see the people who are filibustering have to be the ones to produce the forty. I’d love to see the people who are doing the filibustering have to hold the floor. I’d love for the people to see an actual filibuster.

Blue Girl: Yeah.

Senator Claire McCaskill (D): Instead of the procedural  way they’ve done it,  which is they quietly object and then they kind of skulk off and the majority is left there to hold the floor and, and for the thirty hours and the staff [crosstalk] is there and so [crosstalk]…

Blue Girl: They should read about the Polish Sejm.

Senator Claire McCaskill (D): Uh, yeah. So, so, um, but the question is, are we willing to break what has been traditional precedent in the Senate and change the rules by a simple majority vote? And once we do that then we need to realize that it can always be done. And that means that the Republicans could do the same thing if they took the majority in two years. And we have to realize the rules they may want to change may not be as reasonable and modest as the rule changes we want. [crosstalk]

Michael Bersin, Show Me Progress: But does, but does anybody expect that, you know, given their past behavior that they wouldn’t do that anyway?

Blue Girl: Yeah.

Senator Claire McCaskill (D): I think it’s really hard for them to do that anyway. I think it’s very hard. I think, um, it’s, it’s, uh, it’s kind of what happened with the nuclear option. As you remember, there was a group of Republicans that wanted to do this when Democrats, uh, were blocking Bush’s judicial nominees. And it was in fact a group of moderate Republicans that said, no, we’re not gonna do this. And it didn’t happen. If it had happened I don’t know, you know, we probably would have had some significant rule changes along the lines that a lot of people are talking about now. You know, the Republicans make the point, and it is a valid point, how often we fill the tree. Um, we have fi
lled the tree a lot. We have not given the Republicans an opportunity to offer amendments and so it’s almost like an escalating warfare here. Um, and the reason that we fill the tree is because they’re, I think the leadership thought it was a good idea to keep us from having to waste time on voting on amendments that were not germane. What I affectionately call the gotcha amendments.  And [crosstalk]…

Blue Girl: Poison pills.

Senator Claire McCaskill (D): The, yeah, poison pills. Um, at the end of the day. It’s probably what you signed up for when you go to the United States Senate, that you’ve got to cast difficult votes. And I’m one of the senators that is encouraging leadership to not always fill the tree, to allow open amendment process. Um, so, we’ll see what happens on the rules. But I, I’m gonna be surpri, we’ve all signed  a letter  saying we want these rule changes. And I am supporting these rule changes. And I’m hopeful these rule changes happen. Um, but if they don’t I think we’ve got to, you know, decide, um, how far are we willing to go and what are the consequences of that long term for the Senate and for the minority, not just in the current scenario.

Blue Girl: Are you gonna sit across the aisle at the State of the Union?

Senator Claire McCaskill (D): You know, I, it’s funny because it’s now there’s this pressure to get a date.

Blue Girl: [laughter]

Senator Claire McCaskill (D): A Republican date. So I’m busy casting about for my republican date. I feel like I’m back in high school.

Blue Girl: Yeah.

Senator Claire McCaskill (D):  Um, you know, I , I, uh, I’ve, I’ve asked Susan Collins but, you know, I sent her an e-mail. I said, Susan, are you already taken?

Blue Girl: [laughter]

Senator Claire McCaskill (D):  You know, uh, would you be willing to be my date for the State of the Union? So, we’ll see. I think what you’re gonna see is a lot of people now kind of, you know, sitting with Republicans and it being much more mixed. I hope so. I think it would be a good thing.

Blue Girl: I want to see Barney Franks sit by Joe Wilson.

Senator Claire McCaskill (D):  Well, I don’t know that that will happen, but…

Blue Girl: Oh, I would pay cash money.

Senator Claire McCaskill (D):  [laughter] I don’t know that that will happen. But, you know, let’s hope this isn’t just a, like a hula hoop, you know, let’s hope this is just not a fad, that we can keep some of this going. Because the vitriol is pretty bad.

Blue Girl: Yeah, yeah.  Crazy doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

Senator Claire McCaskill (D):  Right.

Blue Girl: Uh, how ’bout, uh, Republicans have shown a willingness to cooperate with Democrats hen it’s in their interest to do so. Do you see any pressure at all on Republicans from their base or elsewhere to work cooperatively with Democrats on solving problems, or are the incentives all the other way, tempting Republicans to make the next two years a repeat of the last two by jockeying for position in twelve and stopping Democrats in their tracks?

Senator Claire McCaskill (D):  Well, I think, um, people need to remember that some of the Republicans that were elected were not elected from red states. Um, you have Pat Toomey from Pennsylvania, you have Mark Kirk from Illinois. I mean, imagine how Mark Kirk feels. If he goes out to Washington and has a very aggressive I follow the Republican party no matter what, you know, I’m, I’m all for the right wing agenda, he has real problems in Illinois. So, um, what, what really gets compromise is an evenly divided Senate with a healthy number of moderates in both parties. Uh, the moderate Republicans increased somewhat. Now, we lost some moderate Republicans in primaries. But Lisa [Murkowski] survived.  You, you know, you’ve got Olympia [Snowe], You’ve got Susan [Collins]. Now you have, you know, Scott Brown who’s got to face election in Massachusetts. You’ve got Mark Kirk who has to face an election in, uh, Illinois. You’ve got Toomey who has to face an election in Pennsylvania. So, as you look at those states, um, I have to believe that those people are going to be willing to cooperate and compromise, try to see if we can find some common ground. I think, I’m more optimistic today than I was a year ago….

Transcripts of the remainder of our conversation will follow over the next few days.

Here are the links to the rest of the transcripts:

Part II

Part III

Part IV