An Exit Interview With Ohio Sen. George Voinovich

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All Things Considered has been conducting exit interviews with some members of Congress who'll be leaving when the new House and Senate are sworn in next week. Today, host Robert Siegel speaks to Sen. George Voinovich, an Ohio Republican, who served two terms in the Senate after having been governor of Ohio and mayor of Cleveland.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

We've been conducting some exit interviews with members of Congress who will be leaving when the new House and Senate our sworn-in next week.

Today: Senator George Voinovich, Republican of Ohio. Senator Voinovich served two terms in the Senate. That was after having been governor or Ohio and mayor of Cleveland. Welcome to the program, Senator.

Senator GEORGE VOINOVICH (Republican, Ohio): Im glad to be with you this afternoon.

SIEGEL: In your farewell address to the Senate earlier this month, you spoke of the bipartisanship thats still evident off the Senate floor. Conventional wisdom has it that bipartisanship cooperation in the Senate is at a low. Is that wrong?

Sen. VOINOVICH: Well, I think it is in terms of, quote, "controversial issues." But a lot of good things get done in committee. And I was just going over my record during the last 12 years and it's amazing the number of bills that I got passed by consent. In other words, they come out of committee and then what you do is you ask to have them hotlined. And if nobody objects, they pass. And the public is not aware of some of the really good stuff that we get done through consent.

And, of course, when we get into the major issues, I think the partisanship has become a lot worst than it's ever been.

SIEGEL: But isnt it not just major issues? I mean, today we heard about recess appointments for some pretty big ambassadorships. One to Syria, presumably a nomination that couldnt get through committee. There have been so many filibusters that next week, there's going to be a move, mostly by junior Democrats, to change the rules - change the rules on cloture and filibuster.

If you were still a senator next week, would you be in favor of it? Would you support a change or oppose a change?

Sen. VOINOVICH: No, I wouldnt support it. I think the Senate is a different body than the House of Representatives. And each senator should have the opportunity to put a hold on a piece of legislation. And I have been one of those that has supported that they explain exactly why they have a hold on it and it's public.

Ive never had a secret hold on one piece of legislation as a member of the United States Senate.

SIEGEL: But if there are hundred senators who cover the ground from Bernie Sanders of Vermont to Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, it seems like the ability of any individual to put a hold on something is guaranteed logjam all the time.

Sen. VOINOVICH: No, it's not. It's basically the leaders, many times when there's a hold, will sit down and theyll try to work it out. And I think that those that are supporting this ought to remember that all likelihood in 2012 -and your listeners should know this - in all likelihood, the Senate will shift to Republican.

We've got 10 members up and I think the Democrats have 23. So I have every reason to believe that the Democrats are going to be in the minority, and theyll be screaming for having the right to filibuster.

SIEGEL: I just want to ask you about something that I know is of great concern to you, which is the debt, the annual deficits that mount. On the one hand, it seems to be as good as mom and apple pie this year to be against the size of the federal debt. On the other hand, for several years, the Congress, presidents of both parties, majorities that both parties have held in either house have been approving spending, cutting taxes, going to war without paying for it. There really hasn't seemed to be all that much concern about (unintelligible)

Sen. VOINOVICH: I agree with you.

SIEGEL: where's the disconnect here?

Sen. VOINOVICH: Well, the disconnect is that too many of my colleagues are not willing to take short term pain for long term gain. Too many have not been willing to do without certain things and unwilling to pay for it. The thing that was missing in the past, frankly, is a lot of the public didn't understand how bad things really were. And when I - I'll never forget, I was in Brussels at the German marshal Brussels forum and they were talking about the U.S. putting a lot more money into NATO and so forth.

And I just basically told them, I said, you know, we've been the sugar daddy of the world for 60 years. And what you don't understand is last year, we borrowed 42 cents on every dollar that we spent. A hush went over the room. When I mention that same statistic in speeches that I give, people, a lot of them, didn't understand this. Now, they do.

SIEGEL: But if people have not been tuned in to this or haven't gotten the scale of the borrowing, in theory, you can excuse the House of Representatives. They're always running for election and they're the people's House and the people dont get it. The upper chamber is supposed to be the wise people of the republic who temper those judgments.

Sen. VOINOVICH: I agree with you.

SIEGEL: And the Senate should have been there, don't you think?

Sen. VOINOVICH: Well, I think that we did in terms of the recommendations that came out of the debt commission - 60 percent of the Senators supported it. I'm gonna tell you something. Whoever the next president of the United States -either gonna be Obama or somebody else - if Obama expects to be the next president of the United States and get re-elected, then he is going to level with the American people and say, just as I did when I was governor.

We're gonna have to cut back on our spending, we're gonna have to increase our taxes, but we're gonna do it as part of tax reform so that the taxes that we have will have the least impact on people's willingness to save and least impact on our growing our economy. But it's time for us to do what needs to be done and has to be done, in my opinion, next year.

SIEGEL: Let me just ask you before you go. For the next couple of days, you still belong to one of the most exclusive clubs in the world and pretty soon it's, you know, back to being Mr. Voinovich of Cleveland. What's that going to be like, not to have an entourage of aids following you down the corridors and, you know, people listening on your every word?

Sen. VOINOVICH: Well, nobody's ever listened on my every word.

(soundbite of laughter)

Sen. VOINOVICH: And let me tell you something, that being a Senator is, in terms of perks, is a big demotion from being governor or from being mayor of the city of Cleveland. In fact, my neighbors, when I got to be elected to the Senate, said the neighborhood now is not as safe as it used to be 'cause at least when you were home when you were governor, you'd have the state patrol out in front. When you were mayor, you had a cop car out in front.

SIEGEL: Well, I hope youll enjoy life after. Senator Voinovich, thanks a lot for talking with us.

Sen. VOINOVICH: I'm glad to do it.

SIEGEL: George Voinovich, senior Senator from the state of Ohio, Republican whos retiring.

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