Today’s Courier Herald Column:
There was a time when being a Georgian in D.C. meant something. The names of Russell, Talmadge,and Nunn had enough political gravitas behind them to change a debate in D.C. In the United States Senate, seniority is currency, and these gentlemen banked plenty. Russell served 38 years, Talmadge 24, and Nunn 25.
Beginning with Republican Senator Mack Mattingly’s 1980 election, Georgia sent a series of short timers to D.C. Mattingly lost to Wyche Fowler who lost to Paul Coverdell. Coverdell won re-election but died an untimely death soon after. Zell Miller finished out the term of Coverdell but chose not to seek re-election. Upon Sam Nunn’s retirement, Max Cleland served one term before being defeated by Saxby Chambliss.
So why the history lesson? Senators Chambliss and Isakson are the first two Georgia Senators to serve simultaneously beyond their first term since Jimmy Carter was President. As these two are gaining seniority, Georgia is gaining clout.
Roll Call, the Washington political news outlet, reported yesterday that Isakson is likely to be tapped for a coveted spot on the Senate Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over Social Security, Medicare, and many issues of taxation. Given the
current fiscal policy debates regarding deficits and debt, it’s where the action will be.
Chambliss, with two additional years over Isakson in seniority, was recently promoted to Ranking Member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and would likely be the committee chairman if Republicans are able to take control of the chamber during the 2012 elections. Chambliss also has the added cachet of being one of House Speaker John Boehner’s best friends, positioning him as a man who can get deals done between the House and Senate.
Both men also have a penchant for working across party lines to craft deals within the Senate. Chambliss has currently taken point with a “Gang of Six” to craft a long term budget solution which will forge a plan to cut spending, but also may increase revenues to the treasury. This, and past involvements with similar groups on immigration reform and energy independence, occasionally earn both Senators the ire of the far right, with occasional grumbles of a primary challenge coming from the more inflexible partisans.
Isakson, however, was able to generate one of the highest margins of victory by statewide candidates in November’s elections, also avoiding primary opposition. This is significant, as 2010 was a year which saw some establishment Republican Senators like Bob Bennett of Utah defeated in primary challenges, and other establishment candidates like Florida Governor Charlie Crist defeated by Marco Rubio for Florida’s open Senate seat.
Isakson, to his credit, worked the TEA Party portion of the Republican base actively, if not somewhat quietly. Rather than hiding in DC or among “safe” Republican groups, Isakson attended many TEA Party meetings, often unannounced, and addressed criticisms of his time in DC head on. He was able to turn detractors into supporters, and returned to DC with a relatively united base despite an anti-incumbency mood.
Chambliss will not stand for re-election until 2014. After needing a runoff to defeat Democratic challenger Jim Martin in 2008 – a Democratic wave year – he is also actively courting and seeking to mend fences with portions of the Republican base that
were less than enthusiastic about his candidacy last time around.
Yet, it will remain to be seen how working to solve long term structural problems with America’s tax system and entitlement programs sits with both TEA Party groups who want no new taxes or revenue streams, and a larger cross section of voters who don’t want changes to current entitlement programs. Politically, it’s not a desirable situation. But it’s one that does require leadership, and to exert that leadership, it helps to have clout.