Former Senators Talk About Finding Common Ground Politics in Washington, D.C. can be a nasty, full-contact sport. Two former Senators, George Mitchell, a Democrat, and Alan Simpson, a Republican, talk about moving past the partisanship.
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Former Senators Talk About Finding Common Ground

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Former Senators Talk About Finding Common Ground

Former Senators Talk About Finding Common Ground

Former Senators Talk About Finding Common Ground

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Politics in Washington, D.C. can be a nasty, full-contact sport. Two former Senators, George Mitchell, a Democrat, and Alan Simpson, a Republican, talk about moving past the partisanship.


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

This evening, as the nation's Capitol hosts one of the great constitutional ceremonials, the president of the United States will enter the House chamber and grip hands on both sides of the aisle as he makes his way to the rostrum and bask for a few moments in a standing ovation. Then, once he begins to speak, half the room will seat on its hands when he reaches an applause line while the other half rises to cheer.

Just about everyone in this city says the partisan divide is deeper and more bitter than ever. And politicians of both parties agree who's responsible - the other party, of course. All this week, NPR News presents a special series called Crossing the Divide. Our topic today: partisan politics on Capitol Hill.

We've invited two former senators who were not shy about throwing a rhetorical elbow or two at the other side of the past, to talk about finding the light of comity, civility and compromise after they left office. Later in the program, A.O. Scott of the New York Times joins us to discuss this year's Oscar nominations. But first, Crossing the Political Divide.

We want to hear from you. What is the engine of partisan politics? What principles cannot be bargained? Is there a line between what's good for the party and what's good for the country? Our number here in Washington: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail:

Our guests distinguish themselves both in and out of office. Democrat George Mitchell served as a senator for Maine and as the majority leader of the United States Senate. He joins us from our bureau in New York. Senator Mitchell, good to speak with you.

Mr. GEORGE MITCHELL (Former Democratic Senator, Maine; Former Senate Majority Leader): Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And with us from the studios of Big Horn Radio Network in Cody, Wyoming, former Senator Alan Simpson, who served as the Republican whip at the same time George Mitchell was majority leader. Senator Simpson, thanks for coming in today.

Mr. ALAN SIMPSON (Former Republican Senator, Wyoming; Former Republican Whip): It's a great treat. Wait till I get to finish with you, George.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIMPSON: He's a great man, George Mitchell. It'll be fun. Shoot away.

CONAN: Well, let me ask Senator Mitchell. You two were both rivals in the Senate leadership for what? About six years or so. What's the worst thing Alan Simpson ever did to you, George Mitchell?

Mr. MITCHELL: Oh, he chewed me out a few times for various sins that I committed. But in reality, Alan and I had a good personal relationship, as I did with Bob Dole, who was the Republican leader during the six years that I was a majority leader. And to this day, Bob Dole and I have never had a harsh word passed between us either privately or publicly. And Alan and I have retained a cordial and good personal relationship.

CONAN: And Alan Simpson, can you say the same thing? That you got along pretty well and no problems with leader Mitchell?

Mr. SIMPSON: No. I served for 10 years as assistant leader, and George and Dole were the majority leaders, and we - I only remember one time I watched George - I was watching on the monitor, and I thought he's been very genial there. And then I turned in the words and I thought, my Lord. I rushed out to the floor and I believe I accused George of wretched excess. And he came to the floor, he said, what do you mean by that? Well, I said it seemed like that at that time. But let me see, Wendell Ford and I were the back channel. He was the assistant leader under George. Wasn't he the whole time, George?

Mr. MITCHELL: Yes, he - Alan Cranston briefly at first, then Wendell.

Mr. SIMPSON: And those were the men I worked with. When there'd be impasse with George or Dole - which was not often - I'd go to Wendell or to Alan Cranston and they'd say what's going on here? And I'd say, let me give you the real reason. In Washington, there is reason for everything and then there's a real reason. I would dig that up. They would dig it out for me, and then they'd go back to George or Bob, and we get things resolved.

CONAN: Yeah. As soon as you truly understand what the other guy wanted or didn't want, then things were easier.


Mr. SIMPSON: Yeah. And then trust and respect are - I think - the missing links. I trusted George Mitchell. I trusted Wendell Ford. I trusted Al Cranston. I didn't have to agree with them, and I respected them. That's a good start.

CONAN: Senator Mitchell, did things work that way from your perspective? Trust with the issue?

Mr. MITCHELL: It is a major issue. There's no doubt about that. They did work very well. In fact, Neal, for the first couple of years that I was Senate majority leader, we had a truly outstanding working relationship. President Bush was in office, the Democrats control the Senate and the House. And we passed a large number of bills with bipartisan cooperation: the Clean Air Act -a major revision - the Americans with Disabilities Act. After the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska, we ended decades of congressional gridlock and passed a comprehensive Oil Liability Act. We reauthorized vocational education, low-income child care.

And so, we did a lot of things to get it. We had our disagreements, of course. They were many and often. But because we maintained a personal respect and a cordiality between us, we were able to overcome the differences - not let them get out of hand personally, because in the Senate, you know, you're going to have to come back another day on another issue.

CONAN: And I was wondering, Senator Simpson. Did it worked better when there was divided government, where there's a Republican president and a Democratic House? Or did it worked better when one party controlled the whole thing?

Mr. SIMPSON: Well, it's heresy right now, but it does work better when there's a balance out there. And I think you're going to see that happen here. I've talked to Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell, and George knows them both as well as I do. They really do mean it when they say they're going to try to make things work. They're a couple of old pros. And then down below, in the assistant leader, you got two real pros who know that politics is a contact sport. You got Dick Durbin and Trent Lott.

Now, you're going to see some things that will happen that will be good. In my mind, I thought that the last Congress really didn't do very much. And now, you're going to see them do things. And it pulls the president toward that center more than before, and I think it will be very good.

CONAN: And, George Mitchell, is it better when one party controls both houses of Congress and the White House, getting its agenda through? Or does it work better when there's divided government?

Mr. MITCHELL: I think right now, better divided. But, of course, it depends upon the circumstances, the timing, and the individuals. I don't think you can establish a general rule that holds in all circumstances.

I wanted to say, commenting further on what Alan said, Neal. When I was elected Senate majority leader, the very first person I went to see was Bob Dole, who was the Republican leader. Within a very short time - I mean the same day, within a matter of a couple of hours - I went to his office, talked to him, and essentially what I said to him is look. These are very tough jobs. It's extremely difficult to get anything done in the Senate under the best of circumstances. And if we end up having a slugging match between the two of us and get into personal disagreements, it'll be personally uncomfortable as well.

So we developed what we thought works - rather simple, but important standards for behavior. How will you treat each other? Not try to embarrass the other. Not trying to surprise them, things like that. And it made a huge difference.

I frankly thought it was pretty tough at that time, but it's obviously got much tougher now. And there's a tremendous burden on Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell. As Alan has pointed out, they're both outstanding, and I hope that they're be able to pull it back together a little bit.

Mr. SIMPSON: George, let me just say you'd be fascinated. I visited with Harry several months ago, and he said with some angst - he said, do you know that I've been the Democratic leader all these years, and I've only been into the White House one time to visit one on one with the president of the United States? I think that's tragic. And I don't think that's George W. I think it was the handlers. And you can't operate a government that way. That won't work.

CONAN: Let's get some listeners in on the conversation. Our guests are former senators George Mitchell and Alan Simpson. Our number here in Washington: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is And let's begin with Ann. Ann's calling us from Walnut Creek in California.

ANN (Caller): Hi.


ANN: Well, you know, first of all, let me say that they're supposed to be partisan. But not partisan for partisanship's sake. And, you know, the only way to get legislation through in some instances is to get everybody in the particular party that is promoting the legislation behind it. And then if it's possible to persuade some of the opposition to help back it, fine.

But I think that spending a lot of time, you know, discussing the awfulness of the tone of Congress is - you know, I think now that the balance has changed, if we have fairness, if we have a fairer situation, I think that the ship will right itself. But I don't think we should ever aim for comity and, you know, pleasantness over getting needed legislation through.

Mr. MITCHELL: Well, in response I'll say I don't believe either Alan and I ever suggested that. In fact, as we both pointed out, there were many differences along the way. The question is how do you conduct yourself when there are differences? And I think you can have reasonable and reason disagreement.

ANN: Well, I agree with you, but unfortunately for a few years that has not been happening. And unfortunately, in terms of trusting each other, I think that that's going to have to be up in the air for a long time until - unless and until people reach a point where they feel they can do that again.

Mr. MITCHELL: That may be the case, but I still think it is possible to establish relationships which vindicate the competitive system we have rather than impede it. We believe in competition. We believe it in business and sports, and, of course, it ought to exist in politics because we're best served - particularly in a large and diverse country like ours - when competing points of view are considered or can be heard, but the question is…

ANN: May I ask you a question?

Mr. MITCHELL: … the context in which they're raised and discussed. Yes, go ahead.

ANN: May I - a lot of people have argued that it's always best to split your vote so that you're voting for a Senator, let's say, in, you know, Democrat, and…

CONAN: A Republican president.

ANN: Right, exactly. Now, I argue with people that this is exactly the wrong thing to do, that you should vote for the party that has the goals, you know, closest to your own, because otherwise, we'll never be able to legislation through. And what do you think?

CONAN: Alan Simpson, why don't you go first?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIMPSON: You haven't heard me say anything, have you? Well, I tell you, first of all, I never traded a vote. If you trade a vote, you get two bad bills. I never played that game. I can only tell you that - I watched George Mitchell in the Clean Air Act. He dragged everyone of us in a room and he said, what do you want here? I want to know the heaviest thing on your bosom, and I'll just tell you we'll consider it. I don't know that you'll get it, and he took Democrats and Republicans for weeks into that room, and we came out with a splendid piece of legislation under the Clean Air Act.

All I know is that you can talk about all the theory and everything in the world, but nothing works until you learn how to compromise an issue without compromising yourself. I never voted the straight party line. I never followed the Wyoming Republican platform, because I thought some of it was stupefying. And I seem to get along all right. I never lost an election. You have to - you have to use your own brain. You have to use your own gut, and that doesn't mean you stand in line. I think the worst offenders are rubber-stampers of an administration.

CONAN: Ann, thanks for the call. More with Senators Mitchell and Simpson when we come back from a break. I'm Neal Conan. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Today, we continue the NPR special series Crossing the Divide with a look at Capitol Hill.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #1: Voters don't like gridlock.

Unidentified Man #2: They certainly want more moderation.

Governor ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER (Republican, California): Government does not have to be gridlocked.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: You can explore NPR's Crossing the Divide series online, and you can submit your stories about conflict, cooperation and compromise. That's at You'll also find a State of the Union preview by Don Gonyea on our home page. With us are two men who know a little something about partisan politics in Washington, as well as getting past partisan politics in Washington: Alan Simpson, a former Republican Senator from Wyoming, George Mitchell, a former Democratic Senator from Maine. Of course, you're welcome to join the conversation. What principles cannot be bargained? Is there a line between what's good for the party and what's good for the country? 800-989-8255. E-mail is

And let me ask you gentlemen both: We understand a lot of the dynamic and how it operates in terms of the House of Representatives, where more and more seats are drawn so that there's safe Republican seats or safe Democratic seats, and therefore whoever's the incumbent in a Democratic seat has to worry about a primary challenge to their left - a Republican, a primary challenge to the right. The House of Representatives gets more ideological, more divided. In the Senate, though, Senators represent large and diverse populations. They only have to run once every six years. Why is partisanship getting worse in the Senate do you think, George Mitchell?

Mr. MITCHELL: A lot of members have been elected to the Senate from the House, rather than adapting to the customs and traditions of the Senate. They brought with them the customs and conditions of the House, where it is much more partisan. And, of course, in the House - because it's such a large body -leadership is centralized, and you really don't need the minority. The majority can act pretty much on its own. You can't do that in the Senate. You really do need the minority. Unless you have more than 60 percent, which is unusual in our country and certainly now - when the country's about evenly divided - you have to work with the other party. It's an imperative, even if that's not your inclination, because 41 Senators can stop anything from happening in the Senate.

CONAN: And Alan Simpson, as he just said, you need 60 votes in the Senate. In the House, you need half plus one.

Mr. SIMPSON: Well, you can crush them out over there, and you have to make a body work with 435 members. But I agree with George totally. I watched it. I was there and watched the venom come from the House. A 40-year - 40 years under one party - and now I'm not talking - it would have been the same had it been 40 years under the Republican Party over there. There becomes arrogance. You had minority members who put in an amendment. The staff member looks at it and says yeah, you know, I think the boss'll like this. We'll just take your name off of it and he'll use it. Better tear up your press release, it goes back home.

Finally, they just - the ones who are in power decided they'd had enough. They couldn't stand all that excess, so they came. And then those who hadn't been in power - and I could name their names, so could George - they brought that - they would look across - I remember I was given Dale Bumpers a hug one day. We were laughing about some joke. Somebody in my party said, I saw that. I said, saw what? Well, you're over there - you and Bumpers slapping each other on the back. I said, yeah, he's a pal of mine. And they said, God, he said I can't believe it. Now that's how the House members dealt.

CONAN: Which I guess gives life to the old saying that Senators look at each other and say the other party, that's the opposition. The House of Representatives, that's the enemy.

Mr. MITCHELL: Well, they think the same of us.

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. SIMPSON: There's great suspicion there.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Isabelle, Isabelle with us from Hamilton, New Jersey.

ISABELLE (Caller): Hi.


ISABELLE: I think the big problem right now is not so much between the Republicans and the Democrats, but it's between the ideological approach to politics versus the pragmatic approach. So when you have people like, you know, Alan Simpson, or Christine Todd Whitman - who have a more pragmatic approach to politics - they can discuss with democratic - Democrats. Whereas when you have very ideological person like President Bush or like Sam Brownback, for example, it's more difficult to come to a compromise because their point of view is based on ideology, not on reality.

CONAN: I would suspect, to be fair, that there are probably a few Democrats who have an ideology of their own, too, but…

ISABELLE: Yes, I agree. I couldn't think of one, though.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Okay. George Mitchell - not to say that you're one.

Mr. MITCHELL: Well, both political parties obviously are blends of ideology and pragmatism. Too much of one and not enough of the other is a recipe for the absence of success - first in getting elected, and then getting anything done when you're elected. The challenge is to understand and stand by the basic principles that you have while reaching compromise to the extent possible. That requires, of course, a recognition. This is an extremely large and diverse country with only two major political parties - quite unusual in democratic societies, most of which are smaller, less diverse and have more political parties under the parliamentary system.

So that means you really have to have the interests of the country as a whole and be willing to compromise - hopefully not your basic principles. Sometimes they come into irreconcilable conflict. Then you have to end up letting the majority decide.

CONAN: Alan Simpson, when you hear a politician say of course we want to reach compromise with the other side, but I won't sacrifice my principles, does that suggest to you that they're not going to budge much?

Mr. SIMPSON: Sure does. And I practiced law in real life. So did George. I did tell him once after a rather heated discussion, I said George, I'm glad I never had to practice law before you when you were a judge. And he said you're very right. I thought, man, I'm getting out of here. Anyway, he'll remember that. But the national interest is a critical thing, and sometimes that's forgotten. But your question was - after I was jollying along - was specific. What was it again?

CONAN: We were talking about, you know, when somebody says I'm not going to compromise…

Mr. SIMPSON: Yeah, the principle. Oh, that was a good one, because what I was saying about my practice - when someone would come in and just, you know, their neck muscles all bulged out in their eyeballs saying, you know, I want you to take this case. This is a matter of principle. And I'd listen for a half hour and see that I was dealing with a zealot. The zealot is one who, having forgotten his purpose, redoubles his efforts. And I said, you know, I don't try cases on principle. I try them on evidence. So show me a guy that's continually talking about principle, and I'll show you a guy I want to watch out for.

That doesn't mean I don't have principles. But, I mean, all of them blend in to reality. And when a person says it's the principle of the thing, I don't care what the facts are, it's the principle - boy, I tell you, those are tough guys to legislate with. And don't forget what we're there for. We're not there to be emperor or king or president. We're there to legislate, to do the nation's laws in a way that is understandable. That's our purpose.

CONAN: Isabelle, thanks for the call.

ISABELLE: Can I add one thing?

CONAN: Sure.

ISABELLE: I've lived in Wyoming - actually, I met Senator Simpson at his niece's wedding in 1990 in Laramie, Wyoming.

Mr. SIMPSON: Heaven's sake.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ISABELLE: But also, I've lived in Wyoming, Nevada, Kansas, and now we live in New Jersey. And the other - my other remark is that, in fact, there is a huge difference between regions within the United States. And sometimes that difference is as big as between the parties, I think. So in New Jersey, Republican is very different from a Nevada Republican. And so if they can compromise within the party based on those regional differences, I think it is also possible to compromise between the parties.

CONAN: Well, I'm glad you said you lived in Wyoming, because I knew that wasn't a Jersey accent.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ISABELLE: No, I fear it's a French accent.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIMPSON: I don't think it's Wyoming, either.

ISABELLE: It's a (unintelligible).

Mr. SIMPSON: But it sounds very nice. It is French. I love the French. I'm not one of those who would have changed the name of French Fries. I wouldn't have had anything to do with that.

ISABELLE: But I discovered the United States in Wyoming. I went to Wyoming on an exchange program, and so my first impression of the United States was Wyoming. And I still love Wyoming.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIMPSON: Well, I love you. Thank you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ISABELLE: Okay, bye-bye.

CONAN: Thanks very much. Senator Mitchell, after you left office, you were among those who helped broker the Good Friday Peace Agreement between Britain and Northern Ireland and the various parties within Northern Ireland. Talk about crossing the divide. Any lessons from that experience that a politician here might be able to use?

Mr. MITCHELL: Well, it was obviously a very different circumstance. Words were flying in the U.S. Senate, but bullets and bombs were flying there. People were dying. And there's a different political imperative. But it still did require people who were able to compromise in a way that at least they did not feel violated their basic principles. Let me give you, Neal, a domestic example -which we've already referred to briefly - on what I mean by principle and compromise. We tried to get a Clean Air bill for about 10 years. President Reagan was opposed to it in principle. He genuinely believed it was a mistake, and we couldn't move the bill.

President Bush took office, and he said he favored the concept of Clean Air legislation and that made it possible. President Bush the first deserves credit for what happened because he changed the debate from whether there'd be a bill to what was in it. Now, we had a long period of several months, as Alan described, at very painstaking negotiations and discussions.

But we reached an agreement because both sides believed in principle that a legislative result was necessary, although they disagreed on the details of it. That contrasted with President Reagan, who in good faith was opposed to the view that there should be any legislation. That's the point I mean. You have a fundamental position on an issue. Once you get agreement on that you can work out the details, as we did.

CONAN: As you -

Mr. SIMPSON: Yes, but -

CONAN: Go ahead, Alan.

Mr. SIMPSON: But George had a fascinating relationship with Senate Robert Byrd. There wasn't one of us in either party who didn't respect that man and still do to the highest order. But he was very disturbed about the Clean Air Act. And here he was in George's own party, and I watched George. He could not only work with the opposition, he could work with the opposition within his own party.

And let me tell you, the opposition within your own party is not as visible, but just as wretched and intense as the two-party struggle.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller in. This is Bob. Bob's calling us from Columbus, Ohio.

BOB (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

BOB: A lot gets made today about the role of campaign contributions and money and politics. I was wondering if you gentlemen could comment about how much it's changed since you were in office. How much difference does it really make on a day-to-day basis when you're actually working in the Senate. And just on, you know, what you make on that aspect of politics today.

CONAN: Senator Mitchell?

Mr. MITCHELL: In a word, the system stinks. There's too much money in the system. Too much effort goes into raising money. I recall when I was Senate majority leader - this was 12 years ago - I used to get a dozen, 15 calls every morning. You can have a vote. Please don't have a vote between noon and one because they got a fundraising luncheon. Please don't have a vote between four and five.

It has a direct effect on the system, because for one thing it takes a lot of time, effort away from legislating. You do need some funding. There is a fundamental disagreement, I think, on how best to approach it. But everybody feels a little bit soiled and demeaned by the process now, and certainly those who have to go around raising the money, at least for the most part, feel that way in my experience.

Mr. SIMPSON: You're going to see the most wretched begging and groveling in these next months as they're all going to reject all types of federal funding. But we are trying to do something and George knows the players. Bill Bradley and I and Warren Rudman and Bob Kerry are the national co-chairmen for Americans for Campaign Reform. It's called the six-buck solution and it's how to leech money out of this system.

Let me tell you. Here I was, the assistant leader, trying to arrange things on the floor, and I'd get those same calls. Well, I got to be in L.A. tonight, I got to be in Detroit. Finally, I remember George and Dole got to the floor one night late and said, you know, I believe you're getting paid to show up here. Boy, they were testy.

Mr. MITCHELL: God, I was glad to watch it.

Mr. SIMPSON: And they said you're getting paid to show up and vote and this is absurd.

And then they would say to me, now, you're going over to the Republican headquarters and here's a list. And you're going to call those people today and tell them to come to the president's dinner. And I said no I'm not. They said, why not? I said I don't like to do it and I won't do it. Well, what will you do? You're a good Republican.

I said when they come, herd them up in a room and I'll talk with them. Make them ask questions for half of the day. But I'm not going to do any of it. I think it's disgusting and it makes it look like, it's like - I think it was Mondale or Frist said it looks like hell and it is. It stinks.

Mr. MITCHELL: Neal, if I could just add. I think the most devastating and negative aspect of the current system is the corrupting effect on public confidence in government and in the legislative process. Far too many Americans - I don't know the percentage - but many of them believe that their legislators are beholden to their campaign contributions, not to the people who elected them. And the two groups are really completely identical.

And as a result, they're constantly suspicious and don't have the kind of public trust that I think is necessary in an effectively functioning democracy.

CONAN: Bob, thanks very much for the call.

We're talking with former Senators George Mitchell of Maine and Alan Simpson of Wyoming. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's talk with Jim, and Jim's calling us from Oklahoma City.

JIM (Caller): Hi, thanks for having me on.

CONAN: Sure.

JIM: I was wondering if either of the two senators would like to comment on this thought I've had for a while. And that's the effect of religious fundamentalism in party politics. Senator John Danforth has been on this program relatively recently talking about that. And I think it's important to consider because reasonable people are certainly willing to compromise what they see as their political stances.

I think it's probably extremely difficult for people to think of themselves as compromising their religious viewpoint. So when people in public office think that they're serving the will of the deity, it strikes me as extraordinarily difficult to hammer out the kind of let's get in a room and see that needs to be done sorts of things that have to happen in a -

CONAN: Pragmatism sort of goes out the window, yeah.

JIM: In a democracy. Yeah. I mean George Washington said many times that, you know, that the worst thing for the republic is idealists and zealots. So I'm wondering if the guests could comment on that.

Mr. SIMPSON: Alex Simpson, why don't you go first? We have a couple of minutes left. Let George Mitchell finish up.

Mr. SIMPSON: Okay. I'll take a short one. Jack Danforth is a very dear friend, one of the wonderful I guys I worked with in the Senate. I think his book is critically important to read. There is a difference between the, quote, stereotype of religious right and people who are deeply religious. And I think it's kind of tough to tar them. I happen to be pro-choice and I believe in, seriously, in gay/lesbian issues.

And so I'm not a true conservative. See, I would've flunked the course. The saliva test of purity is what destroys people in this area. But I think you want to be careful when you use religious right versus, you know, some guy who just, you know, saying the Lord made me do this and I can't help it.

I don't know I - I'm rambling but I can tell you that when you have zealots on both sides and they're getting pumped up on one side by Rush Limbaugh or Al Franken on the other, you got problems in River City.

CONAN: And Senator Mitchell, I can understand your problems when Senator Simpson considers that short.

Mr. MITCHELL: Well, we don't have a religious test for office and we ought not to have a religious test for people participating in the political process. The challenge is not so much for the public, it's for the political leaders and the political parties. We want people to enter politics. And if some enter for their own personal reasons and religious - and want to advocate those objectives, that's their right and they ought to have the right to do so.

But the questions is do political leaders have the wisdom and the strength and the courage to tell people what they think they ought to be - what the politician feels is the right course to approach and the party's. I don't think you should say people can't participate if they - whatever sector belief or practice they pursue. The challenge is for strength and wisdom in leaders who are able to say yes when they should and no when they ought to.

CONAN: Jim, thank you.

Mr. SIMPSON: Amen, brothers and sisters, amen.

CONAN: And that's all the time we've got. Senators, thank you so much. We'll be back with Oscars. This is NPR News.

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