Former President Jimmy Carter on Wednesday called the divide among Republicans and Democrats in Washington "unprecedented," and said President Barack Obama should hold private meetings with GOP leaders to make sure the gap doesn't grow.
Carter said the biggest bipartisan breakthrough during his presidency was the Panama Canal treaty in 1978, which returned control of the passage to Panama two decades later. Carter, a Democrat, had to work with then-Senate Minority Leader Howard Baker, a Republican, to get the treaty ratified.
Carter said that divisive vote may have cost Baker the Republican nomination for president in 1980.
"It was the right thing to do even though it negatively impacted my future in politics," said Baker, who was in Atlanta for the unveiling of his photo collection at the Carter Library and Museum.
The two said the bipartisan victories in the 1970s are a stark contrast from the hostility over health care and other issues that now engulfs the two parties and frustrates voters.
"The hard partisanship and division that now exists is unprecedented," Carter said.
Baker, from Tennessee, added that "collegiality is virtually nonexistent in the Senate now."
"You've got to have a decent respect for the other person's point of view. There's a fair chance he's right. And it appears that doesn't exist now," Baker said. "The idea of the benefit of the doubt appears to be missing."
The two politicians conceded they don't always reach a consensus, but said they were grateful to reach an accord on the Panama treaty, which critics said at the time would threaten national security. Baker said he still receives letters every week from voters saying they'll never forgive him for his vote.
"But that's OK," he said with a smile, "because I haven't forgiven them either."
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