Most of us rang in the New Year at some sort of festive gathering. Senator Saxby Chambliss rang in the New Year preparing to vote on the latest solution to avert fiscal crisis in Washington. It was a bit less than festive. The votes were cast in the first hours of 2013.
Now the senator is back in Georgia during a scheduled Senate break. He's meeting with constituents and press talking about the vote as well as the upcoming additional deadlines Washington must meet in order to keep things moving. I was granted some time with him to talk on Tuesday morning.
Regarding the vote on tax rates January 1, Chambliss is generally pleased with the positive points of the bill while still conceding it is an "ugly product." He, like most Republicans who voted for it, emphasizes that this bill has ended the discussion on taxes and claims a victory on the matter. The temporary "Bush tax cuts" are now permanent with income tax rates the same for 99.1% of all taxpayers. He notes that this is something Republicans were unable to do when they held majorities in both the House and Senate as well as the White House.
The challenge now moves to a set of deadlines over a six-week period. The debt ceiling must be raised by mid-February. Sequestration cuts which will affect the military the hardest are scheduled for March 1 if not renegotiated, and Congress has only appropriated a Continuing Resolution to fund the government's activities through the end of March.
These deadlines change the subject to spending when looking at deficit reduction, especially in the eyes of Chambliss. "We are through with taxes," he said emphatically while noting that Congress' attention now must be on making the hard choices on what and how to cut.
The choices of what to cut will not come easy, with Chambliss being quite direct that most of us will feel some sort of "pain." There will, of course, be political resistance - even from Republicans. "People don't like to feel it," he conceded, noting that many of the areas that will be cut serve people across political and ideological lines.
Asked how we get there, Chambliss spoke mostly in frameworks, as he and his Senate colleagues have been doing for some time with an approach to a grand bargain. Baselines must be something that become a discarded concept if real cuts are to be made. He detailed how Congress traditionally looks at spending on a projected year over year increase - the baseline. Thus, if Congress had projected spending in one area was going to increase 5%, and they appropriated only an increase of 2%, it is currently considered a cut. Chambliss believes Congress and the American people have to learn to accept that this is not a cut, but start understanding that programs and departments will see something like 98 cents for every dollar spent the previous year, rather than just trying to make the increase smaller.
Because the process has been stalled and delayed for the last two years, Chambliss now says the target for savings over 10 years must be increased to $5 trillion, up from the previous target of $4 trillion. Key to long-term deficit reduction is to get more people working and adding them back to tax rolls. Tax reform will be integral to longer-term discussions on the subject. He expects to see bipartisan agreement on some measures from the corporate side, with a goal to incentivize companies to repatriate foreign cash holdings and reinvest back here at home.
Despite acknowledging that Congress has grown bitterly partisan, making it tougher to work across the aisle, Chambliss does believe that he and his Senate colleagues can come together on a spending plan that will achieve their goals. He remains circumspect about finding an agreement in the House, where Democrats are more averse to entitlement reform than their Senate counterparts and several Republicans are likely to withhold their votes favoring more and deeper cuts to whatever will be agreed upon.
All in all, Chambliss' tone is serious but not negative. "I came here to solve problems," he said without hesitation or hint of regret, even looking forward to the waiting list of issues that must be tackled after a resolution to immediate fiscal issues. He notes that immigration reform, long-term tax reform and national security issues will all likely have to be dealt with in this Congress.
The New Year started with Chambliss working on the floor of the Senate. It looks like he'll have plenty to keep him busy for some time to come.
Charlie Harper, author and editor of the Peach Pundit blog, writes on Georgia politics and government; www.peachpundit.com.