Chambliss, Isakson in spotlight

For the big items on Congress’ agenda, the road to becoming law just might run through Georgia. Well, two Georgians in particular: Republican Sens. Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss.

Isakson made the television rounds last week after helping arrange a dinner at the White House for Republican senators and President Barack Obama. A day later, he and Chambliss — who dined with Obama and another group of GOP senators last month — helped break a Republican filibuster to start debate on a gun-control bill.

This week, a group of senators plans to introduce a massive overhaul of the nation’s immigration system. Chambliss and Isakson initially supported a similar bill in 2007 before turning on it, and the effort fell apart; their reactions will be closely watched once again.

Chambliss, who is retiring next year, is well-known for his work with U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat, on a major deal to tame future deficits. Politico reported Thursday that the deficit gang could be making a comeback — and Isakson could be on it. An Isakson spokeswoman said it’s “speculation” at this point but did not dismiss the report outright.

The two Georgians occupy an intriguing space in the current Senate. Hardly the squishiest of moderates, they are nonetheless now known for a willingness to reach across the aisle.

The American Conservative Union has given Chambliss a 92 percent lifetime rating, while Isakson checks in at 87.5 percent. Chambliss has a lifetime 83 percent from the fiscally minded Club For Growth, while Isakson has a 78 percent. On both of those key measuring sticks for the Right, the two senators scored lower last year than their lifetime stats — suggesting a concern that they are slipping.

The Republican Party has moved to the right during their times in Congress, and the Senate has become more populated with younger, more conservative tea party adherents in recent years. So far this year, Texas Republican Ted Cruz has personified the take-no-prisoners approach.

But the mold does not fit all newer senators. Witness Florida’s Marco Rubio, who won his seat by driving Charlie Crist out of the Republican Party, becoming the lead dealmaker on immigration reform; and Pennsylvania’s Pat Toomey, who used to go “RINO” hunting (Republican in Name Only) as head of the Club For Growth, striking a deal on gun background checks.

The tea party got those two elected, but they also represent swing states. Georgia could soon become one, too, as growing ranks of Yankee transplants and minorities give Democrats hope for the future.

Isakson and Chambliss have much different political calculations to make as the Big Three issues move forward. Chambliss has decided not to seek re-election next year, while Isakson has insisted he will run again in 2016 — though many Georgia Republicans are expecting (and in some cases hoping) he will follow Chambliss into retirement.

So far, their “betrayal” of the Republican base has been mostly talk. It’s Chambliss talking about higher taxes with Warner, or Isakson talking other Republicans into dinner with the president, or both of them voting to start talking on the floor of the Senate about new gun laws.

The talk has put them in the spotlight and made them the subject of intense internal and external lobbying. Such is the life of a swing vote.

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