Leon Panetta on the Art of Compromise Leon Panetta, the California Democrat who left Congress to become President Clinton's chief of staff, reflects on changes in partisan political behavior over the past four decades.
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Leon Panetta on the Art of Compromise

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Leon Panetta on the Art of Compromise

Leon Panetta on the Art of Compromise

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If two parties reached a compromise that neither likes, is it a victory for both parties or a grudging loss?

Not an easy question in Washington. Congress went into the Memorial Day recess after approving a war-spending bill of almost $120 billion. But without a troop withdrawal deadline, the bill was opposed by a majority of House Democrats. And many in both parties, who voted for the bill, were practically holding their noses. Senate leaders reached a compromise of their own. Theirs was on immigration, but the deal is under fire from forces on both sides of the issue.

Joining us to discuss the back and forth of political compromise is Leon Panetta, who was a member of Congress for 16 years and White House chief of staff during the Clinton administration. He joins us from member station KAZU in Pacific Grove, California. Welcome, Mr. Panetta.

Mr. LEON PANETTA (Former Democratic Representative, California): Nice to be with you, John.

YDSTIE: Did the Democrats have any choice but to give in to the president and fund the troops, at least, until the end of September?

Mr. PANETTA: Well, welcome to the challenges of governing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PANETTA: As a majority, I think that they didn't have a choice because the president, obviously, was not going to compromise on the most important issue that they were struggling for, which was to try to get a timeline for a withdrawal. And I really think that the bottom line was they were not going to cut off funding for the war.

YDSTIE: How much of a political price do you think the Democrats are going to pay for both disappointing the activists and their own party but also, I guess, the majority of American, who the polls now show want a deadline for withdrawal?

Mr. PANETTA: You know, in the short term, I'm sure there's going to be a lot of anger but this battle is not over. The funding that was passed only provides funding through September.

YDSTIE: Let's move on to the immigration bill. There are both Democrats and Republicans who are threatening changes in that bill that its sponsors say will disrupt this fragile tradeoff of enforcement and reform that they have put together. How hard is it going to be to hold this compromise together?

Mr. PANETTA: If we're going to do anything about immigration in this country, you have to do it on a comprehensive basis. When I was in the Congress, I was involved in the compromise that passed during the Reagan administration, in which we had to deal with enforcement issues, legalization issues, whether or not we would provide a temporary worker program - same kind of issues that they're confronting today.

But the bottom line is that you're not going to deal with immigration reform without looking at each of those elements. And that's what this compromise represents. In the end, it's the only solution you can get past the Congress. And frankly, it's a solution that's needed for this country.

YDSTIE: You, in Congress, when the Democrats held control there and there was a Republican in the White House, was compromise as difficult then as it is now?

Mr. PANETTA: You know, looking back on it, it just seems to me that it might have been a little easier. I am not sure why.

YDSTIE: Maybe it's the years that have passed, scars that have healed.

Mr. PANETTA: Well, in part, it's the years that have passed. But, in part, I think it's the reality that Washington is probably more partisan today than it ever has been - certainly, in the 40 years that I've been involved in politics. So I think there was a greater willingness on the part of both Democrats and Republicans to work together to try to govern the country.

YDSTIE: Leon Panetta is found and director of the Panetta Institute, a public policy think tank in Seaside, California. He's a former member of Congress and chief of staff in the Clinton White House.

Thanks very much, Mr. Panetta.

Mr. PANETTA: Nice to be with you, John.

(Soundbite of music)

YDSTIE: This is NPR News.

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