WASHINGTON — The two senators are friends from opposite parties, both proven legislators with glittery political pedigrees who are leaving Congress on their own terms at the end of this year.
Yet Senators Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee, and Tom Udall, Democrat of New Mexico, fundamentally differ on what it would take to get the dysfunctional Senate back on track, illustrating how hard it will be to restore legislative productivity to a struggling institution.
Mr. Alexander, a former governor, cabinet secretary, presidential candidate and university president, said that senators would be making a fatal mistake if they eliminated the filibuster, which he sees as the essence of the chamber.
“It would basically destroy the Senate,” Mr. Alexander, a three-term senator, said in an interview, crediting the procedural weapon with forcing compromise. “It would be a second House of Representatives. The freight train of the people would run through every two years depending on whatever the fever was.”
Mr. Alexander said he found it particularly odd that Democrats wanted to abolish a tactic that has served them so well as the minority party.
“They have used it to their enormous advantage over the last six years,” he said. “They have been protected.”
Mr. Udall, a member of a storied political family from the West who served as attorney general in his home state, has been trying to gut the filibuster almost since he got to the Senate in 2009 after five terms in the House. He said he saw the 60-vote threshold to advancing bills as an impediment to coming up with answers for the existential problems of the moment, such as climate change.
“Our founders would have been outraged at the idea that the Senate should be run as a supermajority institution,” said Mr. Udall, who is departing after two Senate terms. “Let’s focus on rules that allow the majority to move forward. At the end of the day, 51 votes. That is what works for the American people. And it has accountability built into it.”
He said he feared for the next four years as he sees Republicans digging in against the incoming administration as they did against President Barack Obama beginning in 2009.
“I am already worried about what I see, and us not coming together around this new president and his team and not giving him a chance to succeed,” said Mr. Udall, who has been mentioned as a contender to be interior secretary or to fill another post in the Biden administration, a prospect he said he would welcome.
Party control of the Senate will be decided in two Georgia runoffs on Jan. 5. No matter the outcome there, Democrats who had threatened to abolish the filibuster to advance a sweeping legislative agenda would probably lack the votes to do so even if they took charge in a 50-50 Senate with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris providing the tiebreaking vote. But the focus on the filibuster reflects a frustration from both parties that little is getting done in a Senate that in Mr. Alexander’s view, is, at minimum, underachieving.
“I think the Senate is far from reaching its potential given the talent on its team,” said Mr. Alexander, diplomatically assessing a chamber that has since 2015 been under the control of his friend of 50 years, Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky.
Mr. Alexander has stood out in the Senate as one of the few go-to brokers able to deliver big bipartisan deals. He did so in 2016 with the 21st Century Cures Act, which provided more than $6 billion for new medical research, and again this year by steering a major conservation funding law with the help of Mr. Udall, a champion of public lands, and others.
Mr. Alexander said he believed the Senate was the victim of today’s “internet democracy,” where the fire and immediacy of partisan combat draws all the attention and whatever legislation is moving along is pushed into the background in the split-screen capital.
“On one side are the tweets and the confirmation hearings, but on the other side are the Great American Outdoors Act and the 21st Century Cures Act,” he said. “Abraham Lincoln used to write a hot letter and put it in a drawer for 30 days. President Trump has a hot thought and we know about it 30 seconds later.”
“It makes it difficult to work in the middle, which the Senate is supposed to do,” he said.
Perhaps the best measure of how far the Senate has fallen is the dearth of amendments considered on the floor, which is devoted mainly to judicial confirmation votes. Senators used to fight it out over their bills. Now, with senators unwilling to take politically risky votes, even the few pieces of legislation that are produced are typically prepackaged in leadership suites and put on the floor with little opportunity for senators to propose or debate changes.
Ever the Tennessean, Mr. Alexander compared it to “joining the Grand Ole Opry and not being allowed to sing.” But he said the problem was not with the rules; it is with senators who reflexively block their colleagues from bringing up amendments, effectively shutting down the Senate. What is needed, he said, was a change in behavior by senators, who must learn to show the “restraint” necessary to allow debate and the political courage to vote no when they oppose something — rather than stifle it outright.
But Mr. Udall was having none of the idea that a behavioral adjustment was all that was necessary.
“I don’t buy the statement that the rules are fine, that we just need to change the people or we need the people to change themselves or we just need to get better leaders when the institution hasn’t worked for decades,” Mr. Udall said. “This system is broken, and I don’t think there is any doubt of that.”
He has pushed a sweeping top-to-bottom overhaul of a political system he considers corrupted by huge, undisclosed donors and has persuaded all of his Democratic colleagues in the Senate to sign on to it — no easy task. Though it had no chance of advancing in a Republican-controlled Senate, the provisions on tightening campaign finance laws, ending gerrymandering, imposing lobbying restrictions and simplifying voter registration are the types of changes a Democratic-controlled Senate might pursue. Mr. Udall said he believed that bold changes were needed to shake Congress out of stasis and allow lawmakers to attack the challenges facing the country.
“We can right this ship and make it so Republicans and Democrats can work together and do the things we need done for the planet and country,” Mr. Udall said.
Despite their differences, Mr. Udall and Mr. Alexander respect each other after serving together on the Rules Committee and airing their conflicting views. Mr. Udall remembered that Mr. Alexander was the first senator to invite him and his wife to dinner upon his joining the Senate.
Now they will step aside and let others try to rescue the Senate as they watch from outside the institution they revere, despite its obvious failings.
“I’m going home to east Tennessee and I’m going to turn the page,” Mr. Alexander said. “For about 50 years, I have had at least one of the best seats in the house.”