Georgia ReportNews

Chambliss and Isakson Are the Grownups in the Senate

The great shutdown of 2013 finally ended last week with Congress voting to raise the debt ceiling and prevent the federal government from defaulting on its obligations to pay bills it had already incurred.

As the shutdown dragged on, we saw a fascinating role reversal in how the two major parties conducted themselves. Democrats held firm and refused to vote for any legislation that would only reopen the government if the president agreed to repeal or defund the Affordable Care Act. Republicans demanded that Obamacare be killed as the price of avoiding default, but eventually they caved to the Democrats.

That’s very unusual. As we’ve seen in both Congress and the Georgia General Assembly, it’s typically the Republicans who maintain strict discipline and vote in unison on major issues. Democrats, a more diverse bunch, are usually harder to keep in line on important votes.

The fracturing of the Republican bloc in Congress was reflected in how the members of Georgia’s delegation voted on the resolution to end the shutdown. In the Senate, where it passed by an 81-18 margin, Sens. Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss were among the Republicans voting for passage. When the measure went to the House, it passed 285-144 with the opposition votes cast entirely by Republicans. Those voting against it included all of Georgia’s House Republicans:  Paul Broun, Phil Gingrey, Jack Kingston, Tom Graves, Doug Collins, Tom Price, Lynn Westmoreland, Rob Woodall and Austin Scott.

This was a situation where Chambliss and Isakson had to be the adults in a room full of angry, screaming toddlers.  Both of the senators oppose Obamacare, but they also recognized that President Obama would never yield to demands that the health insurance program be defunded.

“The president’s made it pretty plain that [Obamacare is] non-negotiable,” Chambliss said before the final votes were taken. “In my opinion, that was not a very good strategy to start with, and folks got backed into a corner on that.”

Rather than push the nation into a default that could wreck the financial markets and cause another recession, the Georgia senators voted to raise the debt ceiling.

“Those who thought the shutdown was a good idea now know it’s not a very good idea. In fact, it’s a dumb idea,” Isakson observed.

Isakson may be the one who suffers the most, politically, for the vote he took to end the shutdown.  Republican primary voters could punish him severely if he runs for another term in 2016. (Chambliss isn’t running again, so he had a free pass.)

The person who did the most to enhance his standing among tea party conservatives was Graves, who fought harder than anyone to force the shutdown. It was Graves and his friend, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who introduced companion bills in July to require the defunding of Obamacare.  

“We must seize the moment and permanently delay the entire law,” Graves said. “Congress can do this. We control the purse strings and can protect taxpayers from funding Obamacare.”

Graves kept pushing the argument that Republicans could actually kill Obamacare if they just shut down the government long enough and kept threatening to put the country into default.  

In the real world, it was obvious Graves’ bill would go nowhere in a Senate with a Democratic majority—and that is what happened. Senate Democrats refused to vote on Graves’ bill or any other measures to repeal Obamacare. As the shutdown progressed and Republican poll numbers crashed, the GOP leadership gave up and a deal was worked out to end the mess.

There will be another deadline in mid-January when Congress will again have the choice of funding the government or shutting it down. Chambliss and Isakson may again have to take on the roles of being the adults in the room.