ATLANTA -- The fiscal cliff could create at least one casualty even if it is averted, Sen. Saxby Chambliss.
The current lame-duck session of Congress is focused on lessening the economic impact of the federal tax hikes and spending cuts that are due to take effect Jan. 1. The White House predicts average taxpayers would see more than $2,000 added to what they owe, and economists warn that a recession could result.
Of course, Congress could simply repeal the law creating the fiscal cliff, but it’s trying to come up with other revenues and spending reductions that will have less sting but still somehow reduce the federal deficit just as effectively. Democrats want to do it by boosting tax rates on the rich with less aggressive trims to non-defense spending eased in over time. Republicans want to focus more on spending -- specifically Medicare and Social Security -- and milder tax increases by paring back some deductions.
The cliff was created to force a bipartisan committee of the U.S. House and Senate to negotiate in good faith on deficit reduction. When it failed, the time bomb of drastic measures began ticking.
Chambliss, Georgia’s senior Republican in the Senate, predicted that the cliff’s threat would be effective at spurring the so-called Super Committee. The mega committee was modeled after one he participates in nicknamed the Gang of Eight that’s made up of senators from both parties looking for a compromise each side can live with. So far, the Gang has fostered a dialog and genuine appreciation for each side’s concerns but no more in the way of tangible results than the Super Committee.
Since he became a Gang member, so to speak, Chambliss has been saying for years that he was willing to close some loopholes in the tax code, but he’s always brushed off suggestions that doing so amounted to a tax increase. Of course, people who use those deductions may see it differently.
Then last month, he flatly acknowledged that he was willing to renege on a pledge he made as a beginning candidate not to vote for a tax increase.
“I care about my country more than I do about a 20-year-old pledge,” he said.
The comment is creating a firestorm in Washington and here in Georgia where the senator is up for re-election in two years.
Considering conservative Republicans have the majority in Georgia, Chambliss is taking a political risk to talk of tax increases. The no-tax-increase pledge has been vital to many candidates’ success.
Now, Chambliss could have ducked this controversy. He’s neither in the leadership, the Senate’s majority party nor the House of Representatives where revenue bills must originate.
The real negotiations are between President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner.
So, Chambliss could wait to see what the speaker and president come up with, which might not require going back on the pledge if the plan is to delay or defuse the cliff instead. Or, if a tax boost is inevitable, he could explain his vote by saying it was the only way to get the spending cuts that would be popular here at home.
Sometimes in Congress, especially in the Senate, those with safe seats have played the statesman by taking unpopular positions to give cover to their less-secure colleagues. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., does that a lot.
But Chambliss can’t claim to be so secure. After all, he was booed at the state GOP convention for advocating immigration reform. And he was forced into a runoff four years ago against a poorly funded, uncharismatic Democrat that most observers considered more liberal than the electorate.
Tea Party members and abortion opponents have been steadily calling for people to challenge Chambliss ever since.
To defend his position, he penned a column last week for newspapers to use. In it he argued he continues to hew the conservative line.
“My voting record as a member of the House, and now as a member of the Senate, confirms that I am not in favor of tax increases. I have never supported or voted for tax increases, and I don’t intend to start now,” he wrote.
But, he added, nothing can be accomplished in the currently divided federal government without compromise.
“To accomplish anything in Congress requires that Republicans and Democrats come together -- for the good of the country. That means neither side will get everything it wants,” he wrote.
He also makes a distinction between eliminating deductions and raising taxes. The deductions, he says, are merely plumbs for special interests, and as long as tax rates don’t rise, he’s not raising taxes.
A rule in politics is that the shortest message wins. Distinguishing between raising tax revenue and raising tax rates is unlikely to fit on a bumper sticker.
After seeing so many of his colleagues picked off in Republican primaries by more conservative challengers, Chambliss has to recognize that he’s taking a risk. He argues he’s doing it for the good of the country.
Political junkies though are enjoying watching him juggling dynamite to see if he has the considerable skill needed to succeed.