Why is conservative Senator Chambliss moving toward the center?

When asked about Paul Ryan’s deficit plan, one senator straightforwardly disapproved: “What he seeks to do is balance the budget over about a ten-year period simply by reducing spending. And you can’t do that.” When asked if some people were going to pay more in taxes, the senator added, “You bet.” Such a response was not unique, but the source of the opinion was surprising: conservative Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia. In recent months, while other Republican senators have shored up their conservative bonafides, Chambliss has moved to the center on budgetary issues, risking his re-election, Republican solidarity on Capitol Hill, and the wrath of the anti-tax lobby.

Chambliss’ centrist leanings began last year, when he and Virginia Democrat Mark Warner became deficit-reduction allies. “We started a process to educate ourselves,” Warner told Roll Call. “The size, scope and imminence of the problem … made us say, ‘Hey, we gotta both get out of our comfort zones.’” The pair sat together at the State of the Union, held joint appearances in their home states, and recruited four other senators—Democrats Kent Conrad and Dick Durbin and Republicans Mike Crapo and Tom Coburn—to become a “Gang of Six,” determined to figure out how to slash the federal budget. “It’s just a great group,” says Jim Kessler, vice-president for policy at the think tank Third Way. “[The three Republican members] aren’t RINOs”—Republicans in Name Only—“they all have excellent relations in the caucus and have generally voted with the leadership.” The group promises to put out a plan modeled on the final report of President’s Fiscal Commission.

Chambliss’s shift sharply contrasts with those of fellow Republican Senators. Utah Senator Orrin Hatch quit a “Gang of Seven” working on a bipartisan health care compromise, withdrew his support for the DREAM Act, and now calls Utah Tea Party leaders several times each week. Another Senate colleague, Lindsey Graham, completely reversed his position on climate change within a matter of months and went from calling the Tea Party “unsustainable” to wooing Tea Party favorites like Rand Paul and Nikki Haley. Nor does Chambliss have the support of Republican congressional leaders: Senate Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner have said they will oppose any tax deal with net tax increases.

In Georgia, right-wing activists are intent on challenging Chambliss in the 2014 Senate primary. “I can tell you that tea party activists have been very disgruntled for some time about Senator Chambliss,” Atlanta Tea Party co-founder Debbie Dooley wrote in an e-mail, “and this just intensifies the desire to see him defeated.” Chambliss lacks the electoral security of Coburn or Crapo, who both won re-election with over 70 percent of the vote. Chambliss, on the other hand, only beat his Democratic opponent by 3 percentage points on Election Day before winning a run-off vote a month later. Despite these signs of discontent, Phil Kent, a conservative pundit and media consultant in Georgia, says that most conservatives in the state still trust him. “They recognize that Chambliss is a fiscal conservative,” he says. “It’s like Nixon going to China. There’s wariness, but also optimism.”

Yet, in Washington, Chambliss faces determined opposition—spurred mainly by his attitude toward taxes. In February, Americans for Tax Reform (ATR) President Grover Norquist wrote an open letter to the three Republican senators in the Gang of Six, warning that support for a deal that included closing breaks and deductions in the income and corporate tax codes “would most likely be a violation of your Taxpayer Protection Pledge.” The three responded with their own open letter, claiming that any increase in tax revenue would come from pro-business policies. On Monday, when I told Norquist about Chambliss’s criticism of the Ryan plan, he was surprised at the Georgia senator’s stance: “Before the Ryan budget came out, I could understand the frustration with what the Republicans were offering. Ryan’s budget makes the Gang of Six irrelevant—there isn’t room for that anymore.”

But, if Chambliss and the Gang of Six remain relevant (last month, 64 Senators sent a letter to the president praising the group), they will change the debate over debt reduction and the power dynamics among Republicans on Capitol Hill. Since the beginning of Obama’s administration, Republicans have voted in lockstep against the president. Yet, “if there’s a major budget agreement [within the Republican Party],” says Kessler, “there’s no doubt it helps the President politically and may even seal his re-election.”

Successfully staring down Americans for Tax Reform would have similar, large-scale ramifications. Ever since conservatives abandoned George H.W. Bush for breaking his “read my lips” pledge, Republican legislators have considered it politically essential to sign no-tax pledges. “If you break that [no-tax] pledge and survive,” suggests Kessler, “that’s the end of ATR.” Chambliss, though, is admirably determined to put politics to the side: “I hear my critics; I pay attention to my constituents,” he told The New York Times. “But you’ve got to do the right thing and what’s best for the country.”

James Downie is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic.

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