ATHENS — U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss said Monday that it was the prospect of eight more years of “ugly” governance — not fear of losing a Republican primary — that fueled last week’s announcement that he would not seek a third term in 2014.
“That’s just not what I want to be involved in for the next two years and six years after that,” Chambliss told reporters after his first public appearance since deciding to retire. Georgia’s senior senator also said he would not involve himself in a GOP primary to pick his successor.
”That list is going to be so long. Folks who are interested in this job — they need to follow me for a couple weeks before they make their decision. It is not an easy life,” he said.
By a coincidence of timing, the long-scheduled event required Chambliss to introduce his partner in the “Gang of Six” negotiations over reducing the nation’s $17 trillion debt — U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia.
Warner had planned a detailed PowerPoint presentation. Instead, the morning event became a celebration of the bipartisan partnership that fueled tea party hostility toward Chambliss in Georgia and guaranteed him a primary challenge next year.
Warner, a former governor of Virginia who himself has not decided whether to seek re-election to the Senate in 2014, lavished praise on Chambliss for the risk he took.
“There was no rational, political upside for a safe, sitting Republican senator from a state like Georgia to be willing to step up with a Democrat and say, ‘We need to go out and tell the truth,’ ” Warner said. “It’s going to be Georgia’s loss, and it’s going to be America’s loss.”
“But that doesn’t mean we don’t have two more years to kick some tail up in Washington,” he added.
Chambliss set a tighter deadline, declaring that a deal to reform the U.S. tax code, increase federal revenue, yet cut spending and entitlements, needs to be passed before the start of the 2014 election season. “We’ve got a window of 11 months here,” Chambliss said.
Chambliss and Warner provided glimpses into the 3-year-old, odd-couple partnership that has seen both men battle their separate political bases and their leadership. “I have spent more time with [Warner] over the last two years than I have with my wife,” Chambliss quipped.
Chambliss credited his Virginia colleague with providing support in the face of bitter opposition among some factions of the GOP. “When you’re a Republican and you have a Democrat come over and say, ‘Hey, things are going to get better’ — that’s what public service is all about,” he said.
Warner, the co-founder of the cellphone company that became known as Nextel, acknowledged that he has been the more boisterous member of the duo. “Saxby and I are two very different people. He’s the epitome of the Southern gentleman — courtly, calm, relaxed. The way he starts each day is, ‘Well, Mark, did you take your Ritalin today?’ ”
Both men expressed frustration that their joint activity has become something seldom seen in Washington. “It shouldn’t be that much of a rarity that a Democrat and a Republican, who have big issues on a lot of other issues, can come together for the good of the country,” said Warner, who told students in the audience that bipartisanship needs to be encouraged from the ground up.
“If you’re a Democrat, go support a Republican who’s willing to [increase] revenue,” Warner said. “If you’re a Republican, go support a Democrat who’s willing to [trim] entitlements.”
The lecture was sponsored by Keith Mason, the former chief of staff of Gov. Zell Miller — who, when he served in the Senate, expressed similar frustrations with Congress. Afterward, a question-and-answer session with reporters was preceded by a series of local officials who praised Chambliss. “Realistic” was the most common adjective.
Chambliss acknowledged the shower of accolades with a thank-you and a wince. “This is not a funeral, now, guys,” he said.
The Georgia senator said that, though freed from any electoral pressure, he would not change his message over the next two years. ”I think it may surprise some people, particularly my critics, to know that I’m not going to change my principles, I’m not going to change my philosophy,” he said. “Now that I’m not running, I’m going to say exactly the same thing on fiscal issues I’ve been saying for 2 1/2 years.”
Chambliss said his decision to retire wasn’t based on any fear of 2014. “The one thing I was totally confident of was my re-election. This was not a two-year decision for me,” he said. “I raised $13 million for the election in 2008. I was going to have to raise more than that this time around. I knew that I’d be able to do it.”
But dissatisfaction began to brew inside him after the 2011 fight over the debt ceiling — which produced the “fiscal cliff” deal that required Congress to come to terms with the debt or face automatic spending cuts and tax increases. One was “ugly,” Chambliss said. The deal to avoid the fiscal cliff, reached only on Jan. 1, was “really ugly.”
“It was not a lot of fun to go through, and I did not think it was the way to govern,” he said. “I can see that the next six months of this year is going to be the same sort of political arena.”
Chambliss, 69, said he had no stomach for enduring that kind of frustration until 2020.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider