With the election finally behind us, President Obama and Congress will now try to set partisanship aside and cut a major deal on taxes, spending and entitlements.
Good luck on that, right?
The good news — which is also the bad news — is that they have enormous incentive to succeed. Without a new law, taxes are set to jump by $400 billion at the start of the year and federal spending will be slashed by $200 billion. If allowed to take full effect, those steps have the potential to set off another deep recession. So the future looks much like the past, with weeks of drama, confrontation, intrigue and brinksmanship looming between Democrats and Republicans, between the House and Senate and between Congress and the White House.
The same can be said of two Georgia Republicans, U.S. Rep. Tom Price of Marietta Roswell and U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss. Over the next three to six months, they’ll be watching each other very closely, and their interactions have the potential to directly affect the course of national politics.
Chambliss is a conservative Republican, but on fiscal issues he has been more willing than many of his GOP colleagues to consider compromise with Democrats. Much as he dislikes higher taxes, he seems to fear soaring debt even more. He has taken a leadership role in the Gang of Eight, a group of four Republican senators and four Democratic senators who have been talking and plotting for at least two years to try to reach agreement on how to slash the deficit.
The day after the election, for example, at a moment when the rest of the nation was still trying to digest what happened, Chambliss joined other gang members on a conference call to plot their course once Congress reconvenes on Tuesday. There’s a lot of skepticism about whether they can succeed, but they represent one of the few forums in which Republicans and Democrats are actually trying to reach consensus.
The broad outlines of a deal are no secret. As a matter of politics and simple math, the only way to significantly reduce the deficit is to increase tax revenues and decrease spending. You do both, or you do nothing. It’s as simple as that. Democrats who are protective of entitlement programs and the safety net have to be willing to make cuts in those programs in return for higher tax revenue, particularly from more affluent Americans. Republicans who have refused to consider higher taxes have to be willing to soften that stance in return for entitlement reform.
Which is where Price comes in.
The former physician from Marietta is one of the most conservative members of Congress and continues to reject the notion of compromise with Democrats. Last week, for example, House Speaker John Boehner made the logical point that with the president’s re-election, ObamaCare is now certain to survive. But in an interview on Fox News Sunday, Price refused to make that concession, insisting that Republicans will continue to fight it at every turn.
Price has also decided to seek the chairmanship of the House Republican Conference, the No. 4 position in the House hierarchy. There too, he is bumping heads with Boehner, who has thrown his support behind the conference vice chair, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington.
If elected conference chair, McMorris Rodgers would become the only woman in a major leadership role in the House GOP. (For example, none of the 21 House committees is chaired by a woman.) That’s a major image problem for a party having serious trouble attracting female voters. McMorris Rodgers is also more moderate than Price, who is trying to rally fellow House conservatives to his cause.
The race between Price and McMorris Rodgers — to be decided in a secret ballot among House Republicans — will be watched as a test of Boehner’s strength and influence within his caucus. Price is considered the underdog, but should he win, it would bode poorly for Boehner’s ability to deliver his caucus on important budget votes in the next few months.
However, if Price loses, that too could have a serious impact on the national debate over revenue and spending. If his ambitions are frustrated in the House, Price becomes much more likely to take on Chambliss in the 2014 Republican Senate primary. His strategy would be to hang the dreaded RINO nametag around the neck of Georgia’s senior senator, depicting Chambliss as a sellout to the GOP cause.
So every time Chambliss is quoted in the media over the next few months as seeking a “balanced” approach to our debt problem, Price will take note. Every time Chambliss appears in public alongside Senate Democrats preaching compromise, a potential campaign commercial will be born.
And both men, I suspect, will be keeping very close tabs on things here at home, through polling and phone calls, trying to determine just how much leeway Georgia Republicans are prepared to give Chambliss in the budget debate.
Should a backlash develop among the GOP base here at home, the senator may be forced to decide whether addressing a major national challenge is worth significant risk to his political future.
– Jay Bookman