Chambliss' long quest for debt pact starts to pay off

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 20, 2011 

WASHINGTON — Sen. Saxby Chambliss always knew the Gang of Six was close to breaking major ground on a plan to help solve the nation's debt crisis, if only he could get his friend, Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn, back to the table.

Chambliss often would think about this as the men tucked into their dinners at restaurants in the H Street neighborhood, an edgy stretch of bars and row homes in the shadow of Capitol Hill. Between bites the Georgia Republican would look across the table, regard Coburn — who bolted from the Gang of Six in May because he didn't think its plans to cut health care spending went far enough — and think, "We have to get him back."

As President Barack Obama continues negotiating with congressional leaders of both parties, it remains unclear how much of the Gang of Six's plan to cut roughly $3.7 trillion from the budget over the next 10 years will make it into final legislation.

But the story of how Chambliss, a little-known senator and once a reviled figure, not only resuscitated his political career but also breathed new life into bipartisan debt talks is a quintessential Washington comeback tale. It's also an example of how, in the U.S. Capitol's hallowed halls, progress sometimes comes from unlikely and quiet alliances born from extreme circumstance.

Chambliss, who along with Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., created the Gang of Six, relied on a trademark brand of stubbornness — the same trait he used to quietly claw his way back from persona non grata among Capitol Hill Democrats — to become one of the architects of a bipartisan debt-resolution effort that's received a nod even from Obama.

It was nearly a decade ago that Chambliss launched a widely criticized campaign advertisement against Democrat Max Cleland — a decorated Vietnam War veteran and triple amputee — an ad that, to this day, the Georgia senator defends. It was only a few years ago that he narrowly survived re-election in an end-of-year runoff.

And it was only a few months ago that Chambliss, the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, insisted he'd seen early copies of authentic photos of al Qaida leader Osama bin Laden's dead body, even after all signs seemed to suggest that the photos were fake.

It's been a long, hard road to where he is now.

Along the way, Chambliss said, "I've matured into the office."

The Gang of Six was born from the ashes of Obama's bipartisan Simpson-Bowles deficit commission, a group composed, in part, of several of the eventual Gang of Six members and similarly tasked with resolving the nation's mushrooming debt. When the Obama administration stalled on taking up the group's recommendations, Chambliss and Warner quietly reached out to a few members on both sides of the aisle and agreed to use the commission's report as a framework to help jump-start legislative efforts.

Ultimately, Chambliss and Warner were joined by four commission members who backed its final report: Democrats Kent Conrad of North Dakota and Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin of Illinois, and Republicans Mike Crapo of Idaho and Coburn.

In the beginning, the Gang of Six met privately once or twice a week, and things seemed to be going well. The group hashed out such issues as trimming domestic spending in areas such as defense and farm subsidies and increasing tax revenues by $1 trillion by closing tax loopholes while eliminating the controversial alternative minimum tax.

Hackles were raised and smoothed over, often at Chambliss' urging.

Chambliss and Warner tested the waters in March, when they traveled to Warner's home state of Virginia and told members of the business community that resolving the debt crisis would require sacrifice from everyone. Corporate America would have to do its part by giving up highly prized tax breaks.

"For a Republican to put revenues on the table is significant. For a Democrat to put entitlements on the table is significant," Chambliss told the gathering.

The group reported periodically to a broader group of about 25 senators who signaled interest in joining a serious bipartisan plan. In March, some of them dined at a Capitol Hill steakhouse with Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, the co-chairmen of the bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform.

Things were swimming along as the group appeared close to completing a proposal. Then, in May, Durbin and Coburn butted heads over the Oklahoma senator's insistence on an additional $100 billion in Medicare cuts. Coburn left the group in frustration and eventually released his own plan to cut the budget by $9 trillion.

"There was a period of time when the group was stagnant. They dug in their heels and started pontificating," said Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., who's been friends with Chambliss for nearly 50 years. "It was frustrating."

During more than six months of negotiations, Chambliss always had maintained that the group needed three members from each party in order to strike a balance.

The departure of Coburn, who's also friends with Obama, threw things off-kilter and ramped up the political pressure for the group's other two Republicans in standing behind the plan.

For months, the group tried subtly to "provide cover for the president to enter the fray," according to David Walker, a former U.S. comptroller general who, as founder of the Comeback America Initiative, a research center that focuses on fiscal issues, has met with Republican and Democratic leadership, the Gang of Six and the White House.

But it was dealt a blow, Walker said, when Obama named Vice President Joe Biden to lead talks on decreasing the debt.

The Biden-led talks soon crumbled as well, and the tone of debt discussions between leaders on Capitol Hill and the White House took a sharp turn.

Still, even when Beltway insiders relegated the Gang of Six to the graveyard of numerous fizzled bipartisan debt negotiations, Chambliss continued to schedule countless dinners, made phone calls and helped negotiate more than $100 billion in health cuts to woo Coburn back to the table.

"He gave the Gang of Six life when it was about to die," said longtime friend Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

But breathing life into the Gang of Six may come at a cost.

Chambliss hails from a solidly red state, and some conservative pundits there criticized his work on the Gang of Six.

"Knowing him and his personality, he's really impressed me and surprised me in the role he played here," Walker said.

"He did what he thought was right and he took a lot of heat for it, especially from his own caucus," Walker said. "There are some that don't want to think of any additional revenues and some that don't want there to be any compromise between now and the 2012 elections."

Chambliss walked stiffly as he emerged from Tuesday's meeting, in which nearly half the Senate attended a briefing on the Gang of Six's proposal. Coburn was back on board.

Chambliss' face was taut and he largely stood in the background, allowing other senators to have their day in the sun as the group basked in the initial positive feedback from lawmakers.

Only later, with his back turned to the throng of reporters clamoring for interviews from high-profile senators, did Chambliss allow himself the briefest of smiles.

"It was a great reaction," he said.

(William Douglas contributed to this report.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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