Isakson attempts to create clout in a time of reduced influence

If you were watching C-SPAN on Thursday, you saw mild-mannered Johnny Isakson test-drive a new style of Washington politics.

He got angry. In public. As best he could, anyway. “I think I was respectful. I tried to be,” Isakson said afterwards.

In the short-term, whether the senator’s tactics bear fruit could mean a great deal in terms of economic development – here and on the Georgia coast.

More broadly, Isakson’s strategem could also foretell a shift in how the U.S. Senate does its business – bringing into public view many of the negotiations and sidebar discussions that, in the past, have been conducted behind closed doors.

Earlier this year, Georgia officialdom was crushed when a federal budget proposal emerged from the White House without any of the $685 million needed deepen the Port of Savannah – despite a bipartisan push led by Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and Gov. Nathan Deal.

The dredging operation is the top business priority for the state, bar none. Isakson and the rest of Georgia’s delegation weren’t just disappointed. They were furious.

But a ray of hope appeared with the resignation of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, the woman in charge of Obamacare. To replace her, President Barack Obama named Sylvia Burwell, his budget director.

Burwell is the woman who applied the brakes to funding for the Port of Savannah in March. And Isakson would have a seat on both of the Senate committees that would hear from the nominee.

It is hard overstate how much the business of Congress has changed in just the last seven years. In the old days, federal cash for the Savannah harbor expansion wouldn't have been a problem to begin with. A budget earmark slipped in by Isakson, Senate colleague Saxby Chambliss, or an influential House member would have solved the problem.

That possibility disappeared with the rise of the tea party movement.

In the old days, a senator could put a private hold on a presidential nominee until his demands were met — the public need never know. But last year, Majority Leader Harry Reid deployed the so-called “nuclear option,” changing Senate rules to prevent Republicans from effectively blocking confirmation of the president’s nominees by requiring 60-vote margins.

“She can’t be filibustered, and you really can’t put a hold on her,” Isakson said.

The only option left to Georgia’s junior senator was a public campaign – a kind of guerrilla warfare conducted through the Senate committee system.

On the day Burwell was nominated, Isakson let the White House know that he would be asking some tough questions when she appeared before Congress – questions that had nothing to do with her future supervision of Obamacare.

Among the many things that the White House prizes about Burwell are her reputation for competence and her unanimous Senate approval last year as director of the Office of Management and Budget.

Isakson politely threatened both that day. The president’s nominee called him within a few hours. Over the phone and in person, Burwell and Isakson have talked about the Port of Savannah for the last few weeks.

On Thursday, Burwell made her first congressional appearance as the next HHS secretary, before the Senate committee that oversees federal health care policy. It was the kind of event that provokes those overused comparisons to kabuki theater.

Senators were given five minutes each to question the nominee, and to bash or praise the Affordable Care Act, depending on their party affiliation.

Isakson departed from the script. His purpose was to put on public record at least a portion of the private conversations he has had with Burwell.

“There’s no challenge that I have before me as a U.S. senator that is more important – including your confirmation – than getting the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project done in my state,” Isakson began. “I don’t want you leaving OMB until I know that we’re going to be able to move forward with the Savannah harbor project.”

Burwell assured Isakson that she and her boss held the port project in high esteem. She appeared to throw the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which would oversee the dredging, under the bus. The Corps has $60 billion in backlogged projects that require the re-approval of Cogress, she said – implying that Savannah had been caught up in a larger bureaucratic fight.

There was no blood on the ground, but Isakson had made his point. Immediately after the hearing, Isakson got a phone call. Top lawyers from the OMB will be in his office on Tuesday.

"That's a good sign. We raised the visibility of the Savannah project in the United States Senate today," Isakson said by phone afterwards – on his way to the airport. He was to give the commencement address at the University of Georgia, his alma mater, the next day.

Even later Thursday, House and Senate negotiators announced they had reached agreement on a water resources bill that includes provisions designed to erase any further objections to the Port of Savannah dredging.

Burwell will appear before the Senate Finance Committee on Thursday – a sign that the White House is in a hurry to see her confirmed.

Isakson will be among her interrogators, and again it’s unlikely any of his questions will be about Burwell’s next job.

At least in one way, clout can be a lot like luck. When it’s been drained away, sometimes you’re required to make your own.