Last December, Sens. Saxby Chambliss and Mark Warner held a news conference on the need for a bipartisan plan to combat the federal deficit.
Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) noted that they worked closely to clear the way for the 2007 farm bill, and the duo teamed up again on the “gang of 20” bipartisan group on energy. Chambliss also worked on bipartisan efforts on immigration.
Chambliss said that’s the reality of being effective in the Senate.
“I take the attitude I wasn’t sent here to just vote ‘no’ for the next two years,” he said.
Chambliss and the other “gang” members — Conrad, Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.), Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) — were buoyed recently by a letter from 64 Senators — 32 Republicans and 32 Democrats — praising the gang of six and urging Obama to lead on a deficit-reduction plan including tax reform.
The gang actually started much smaller, with a conversation on the Senate floor between Warner and Chambliss last year during a lull in votes.
“When we started this, it was kind of the two of us and it was a human interest story,” Warner said. “Then it became six and then 64 on the letter.”
“We started a process to educate ourselves,” Warner said. “The size, scope and imminence of the problem ... made us say, ‘Hey, we gotta both get out of our comfort zones.’”
The group is going to include a provision to require that any extra revenues coming into the Treasury as a result of faster economic growth go to deficit reduction and lower tax rates, not more spending, Chambliss said.
“That is a key ingredient in our proposal,” he said. “If you get additional money into the Treasury, historically, Congress will spend it. ... We’ve got to make sure that conservatives understand it’s not going to be available to be spent.”
The public also has to be sold on the concept. Chambliss said wealthy people have told him they would be OK with paying more taxes if it would reduce the deficit, but not for more spending.
“On both ends, salesmanship has to take place,” Chambliss said.
Republicans also need to understand that a plan such as the proposal by House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to cut $6 trillion from spending alongside more tax cuts simply won’t fly, Chambliss said.
“It’s a serious proposal, but it’ll never pass the Senate,” Chambliss said.
Warner and Chambliss have forged the type of bipartisan relationship that is somewhat of a throwback to more collegial times.
“All of these partnerships start with trust,” Warner said. “I trust him and I know he’s got the country’s interests first. There’s a lot of folks in the Senate who are always first to the microphone. I think Sen. Chambliss is somebody who when he talks, people listen.”
And he praised Chambliss for sticking to the tax reform idea. “He’s really been a rock,” he said.
Warner said Chambliss has been more deliberative and patient and has a better sense for how to develop a coalition.
“He understands the rhythms of the Senate. ... I’m much more impatient.”
Chambliss said his approach is to ask experts what is needed and work to build bipartisan bridges so they can become law.