ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Extra unemployment benefits expire today, so millions of Americans who've been using that money to get by during the pandemic are losing $600 a week. There are negotiations over a new rescue package, but a deal seems far off. Our next guests know what it's like to look for consensus in a divided Congress. Claire McCaskill served as a Democratic senator for Missouri, and Jeff Flake was a Republican senator from Arizona. Both left Congress last year. And it is good to have both of you here. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
CLAIRE MCCASKILL: Thank you, Ari.
JEFF FLAKE: Nice to be on.
SHAPIRO: Are either of you surprised that Congress couldn't pass another deal before the supplemental unemployment benefit ran out?
MCCASKILL: Well, I will just say no.
SHAPIRO: You're both responding with a laugh here.
MCCASKILL: It kind of - it was easy to see this train wreck coming.
FLAKE: Right. No matter how long - I think Speaker Pelosi was saying, why wasn't this negotiated months ago - we always go to the deadline in the Senate and the House on these kind of matters. It always goes to the deadline.
SHAPIRO: But that has real consequences - right? - in this case, actually going past the deadline. I mean, what do you think the harm is, and is that something that Congress should, you know, feel badly about, try to change, do something about?
MCCASKILL: Yeah. We can laugh at the dysfunction because if you don't laugh, you have to cry. But this dysfunction is painful for our country. There are real people who are frightened and afraid of the economic circumstances they find themselves in through no fault of their own. So the fact that we have gotten so divided and so partisan that they can't even come close to a deal on the day that these important benefits are expiring, no wonder people are mad at Washington. You know, how could you not be?
SHAPIRO: Sen. Flake?
FLAKE: No, agreed. I mean, particularly when you're in a pandemic, that should bring people together, I think, on a scale that you don't usually have. So - and in particular on the testing issue and some of the things we need to defeat this pandemic. At least, even if there's disagreement on the numbers and where we ultimately end up, we ought to be able to agree on those things. It should be easy.
SHAPIRO: Let me ask you both about another topic, which is the future of the filibuster in the Senate. At the funeral of Congressman John Lewis yesterday, President Obama said he supports changing this rule so the Senate can pass reforms like making Election Day a holiday and automatic voter registration.
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BARACK OBAMA: And if all this takes eliminating the filibuster, another Jim Crow relic, in order to secure the God-given rights of every American, then that's what we should do.
SHAPIRO: You both served in a Senate with the filibuster. What do you think of this idea?
FLAKE: Well, I think it's a terrible idea. I think the filibuster is one of the last institutions that brings the parties together.
FLAKE: The requirement to get 60 votes, you know, is a good thing in the Senate. It's the only way you have policies and legislation that endures. And so I hope that it doesn't go away. Every party that is in the majority but doesn't have 60 votes is frustrated by the filibuster. But I think it's served us well over the years in terms of getting a compromise on policy.
SHAPIRO: You just heaved a big sigh, Sen. McCaskill. You want to elaborate on that sigh?
MCCASKILL: Well, I think Jeff's right to one extent. If we go to 51 votes, if we go to a bare majority, then whichever party is in power is going to pass law. And then that law is going to immediately get changed when the other party is in power. So from where I sit, for example, severe restrictions on the ability of a woman's right to choose, that will become law if the Republicans were to take over again if you didn't have to have 60 votes. Some really good things would happen as far as I'm concerned if you only had to have Democratic votes if we were in control of the Senate. But that door is going to swing both ways, so it's going to take away the certainty and the longevity of laws, particularly on things like health care, where people need to have stability and certainty about what benefits are going to be available to them.
SHAPIRO: So I hear you saying without saying it that if the filibuster didn't exist, the Affordable Care Act would've been repealed already.
MCCASKILL: Correct. And we would have...
MCCASKILL: ...Had other really draconian, conservative things happen when the Republicans had both houses and the presidency. It's great when it's all on your side of the ledger. But when it's on the other side of the ledger, you lose any ability to try to find that elusive middle in that area of compromise.
FLAKE: Well, it will lead to pendulum swings in terms of politics. If Democrats take over the Senate and then eliminate the filibuster and there's a Democrat in the White House as well, you can almost guarantee that two years later, they would swing back - at least in the Senate, and likely the House as well - much like after Obamacare was passed in 2010. And so you have these swings, wild swings back and forth and no policy that, you know, has a consensus or endures. And that's not a good thing.
SHAPIRO: Control of the Senate is in the balance this election. Sen. Flake, you opposed President Trump's policies while you were in the Senate. Do you think that Republicans who have, in many instances, enabled those policies and implemented those policies should stay in the majority?
FLAKE: Well, you can look at individual races and make your own conclusions. I like divided government. It seems to be the best government that we have. Right now, if the election were today, I think Republicans would be swept out, certainly out of the White House, and out of the Senate as well. And it just baffles me that more of my colleagues don't seek a little more independence from the president because in states like Arizona and elsewhere, you're going to need that if you're going to win statewide. So I think if the election were today, we'd be swept out.
SHAPIRO: Sen. McCaskill, what do you say to that?
MCCASKILL: I think it'd be terrific if the Republican majority were swept out (laughter).
MCCASKILL: I believe there should be a high price to be paid for the capitulation of the Republicans in the Senate to Donald Trump. He's blown up the values of this country. I think it would be important for politicians to pay the ultimate price for not having the courage to speak up when they know this president is doing real damage to our standing in the world and to the values on which this country was founded on.
SHAPIRO: Let me end by asking you about President Trump's tweet yesterday suggesting changing the date of the election, which, of course, he doesn't have the power to do, but which was rejected by many powerful Republicans. Is that the sort of thing that we should take seriously and be concerned about, or is it the kind of thing that we should dismiss as a tweet designed to distract from bad GDP numbers, for example?
FLAKE: I think it was definitely designed to distract. However, it ought to be taken seriously and ought to be one more reason why the president ought to be turned out and not reelected. But it was good to see prominent Republicans and others stand up and say, no, we're not going there.
MCCASKILL: Yeah. You know, we have outrage fatigue. And there is so much that's outrageous. We're just worn out. But this is - really should be in the Hall of Fame of outrage. This is what dictators do. This is what autocrats do. This is what they're doing in Hong Kong right now. And the hypocrisy of some Republicans that are remaining silent and hiding behind their staffs or hiding period to not speak up and say, no, outrageous that a president of the United States would suggest changing the date of an election, that's one of the reasons I think they will go down in defeat in the fall along with President Trump.
SHAPIRO: Former Sen. Claire McCaskill, Democrat of Missouri, and former Sen. Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona. Thank you both for talking with us.
FLAKE: Thanks for having us.
MCCASKILL: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.