If you think the 112th Congress was a weak, unproductive bunch, you’re not alone. Saxby Chambliss agrees with you.
“Unfortunately that’s the way it feels inside, not just outside,” Georgia’s senior senator told me over coffee at his Cobb County office Tuesday. “Harry Reid’s leadership [in the Senate] leaves a lot to be desired, and the in-your-face stuff that the president’s thrown at us has gotten a lot of backs up on our side, in both the House and the Senate. You throw the presidential election in there and it just kind of all came together, and nothing got done.”
Readers who are not GOP partisans would probably add House Republicans to Chambliss’ list of Washington’s bad actors. But after spending the past few years working with a handful of his fellow senators to fashion a big, bipartisan deal to reform the federal tax code and reduce spending, to no avail, Chambliss conveyed disdain for the way the Jan. 1 agreement to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff came about. And he blamed President Barack Obama.
“He was pretty open about the fact that, ‘Look, if we go off the cliff, if you guys don’t give me what I want, if we go off the cliff, I’m going to get what I want. And then I will spend the first three weeks of January beating the heck out of Republicans, and then I’ll present my plan of [tax cuts for those earning] $250,000 or less and dare you guys to vote against it.’ That’s just not the way that you get major things accomplished.”
What Obama did accomplish — higher taxes on some high earners — bought little time before the next showdown. By March, Congress and the president will face a trio of expirations: the debt ceiling, the delay in automatic budget cuts known as sequestration, and the temporary funding Congress has enacted in lieu of a budget for almost three years now.
“Some people might argue that the debt ceiling is the least pressure point [of the three] because you’ve got to pay your bills,” Chambliss said, “and that’s what [Obama] keeps saying, that ‘I … dare you to not allow us to pay the bills that you’ve incurred.’
“Well the fact is, the Democratic Congress incurred the bills. This administration incurred the bills. The Republicans have been in charge of the House for two years; this money was basically spent in the two years before that when you look at the stimulus package and the other spending that he put in place to create the massive deficits. So for him to come out and say, ‘You guys are obligated to pay your bills’ — I didn’t vote for any of that stuff.”
Because the debt ceiling isn’t really about whether to default on the national debt — the Treasury takes in far more revenue than it needs to make debt payments — the more likely short-term alternative to raising the debt ceiling is a federal government shutdown. (Which is not to suggest there would be no consequences, or only mild ones, for taking that route.)
Chambliss said he hopes it doesn’t come to that, but once again he put the onus on the president. In the past, he noted, Obama has embraced both the need to reform entitlements and a ratio of $3 of spending cuts for every $1 of tax increases.
“If [Obama's] serious about that, then … the likelihood of a shutdown would certainly be minimized. If he gets his back up and says, ‘We’ll only do this if we get more revenue,’ then I’d say the chances of a shutdown are pretty good. … If he wants to get serious, show the world marketplace that we are going to lead in this area, he’ll have that opportunity. If he doesn’t, then something dramatic has got to happen, and a shutdown could be it.”
Chambliss is up for re-election next year, and it’s no secret tea partyers and Democrats alike are eyeing his seat for a possible challenge. “I’ve never backed off from a fight,” he said. Fine, but does the bitterness in Washington ever make him think twice about running again?
“This is an eight-year decision for me. It’s two years [campaigning] plus six years” in office, he said. “And if I thought the next eight years were going to be filled with contentious debates and the wrong way to govern that we have just gone through in the last two months, it would have a significant impact on my decision. But yeah, right now my plans are to run.”
– By Kyle Wingfield