Outgoing Sen. Chambliss talks debt, immigration reform and hard-headed partisanship

GWEN IFILL: A new Congress arrives in Washington after the new year, even as many veterans head out.

Tonight and tomorrow, we talk to two of them, one Democrat and one Republican, about what they found here and what they now leave behind.

We begin tonight with Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia.

Judy conducted this exit interview a few days ago.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator Chambliss, thank you for talking with us.

So, you…

SEN. SAXBY CHAMBLISS, (R) Georgia: Sure. Good to be with you.

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: You are retiring just as your party is about to take over the majority in the Senate, a new opportunity to work on some of the issues you care the most about. No regrets?

SEN. SAXBY CHAMBLISS: No regrets whatsoever, Judy.

I'm happy as I can be for my colleagues in the Senate. They are going to be in the majority next time around. But, you know, it's — there comes a time when you need to make a decision what your future needs to be relative to staying in public service or moving on to the next chapter and let new ideas and fresh ideas come forward.

So I made the decision at the right time. I'm very happy with it, but I'm surely happy for my colleagues too.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, one of the issues that I know you cared a lot about is the federal debt, not to be confused with the deficit, which has been shrinking pretty dramatically in the last year or two, but the debt which is about I think $18 trillion right now.

You spent a lot of time with a bipartisan group of senators, the so-called gang of six. You came up with a proposal that would have involved tax reform, cuts in government spending, changes in so-called entitlements. That didn't fly. Are your expectations that there is going to be serious — a serious move to address the debt now?

SEN. SAXBY CHAMBLISS: Well, Judy, here we are, fixing to start a new session of Congress, and, within the first six months, they're going to have to raise the debt ceiling again.

I'm very hopeful that the new majority that comes in is going to say OK, guys, we have got to get serious about this. And if they're going to get serious about it, it's not rocket science. It's what it is going to take to solve this issue of this debt. You do have to cut spending. You have got to reform entitlements and you have got to increase revenues through changing the tax code.

You just simply can't do one, which we have tried with sequestration just to cut spending. It doesn't work. You can't do it by raising taxes. You have got to have a combination of those three items that Bowles-Simpson, Domenici-Rivlin, as well as gang of six said needed to be done.

And we can increase revenues without raising taxes through major reforms of the tax code. I really hope that the next majority in Congress is going to take this serious and they're going to move forward with the foundation, frankly, that the gang of six laid.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But we know that members of the Congress in both parties have been resistant, Democrats resistant to go along with some of the spending cuts, Republicans reluctant to go along with some of the tax changes you talked about.

I just want to ask you, Senator. You said — in your final farewell remarks on the floor of the Senate, you spoke in a very moving way about your friendships with other senators, both Democrats and Republicans. And you mentioned, for example — I mean, I was struck by what you said about Senator Mark Warner. You said you had spent hundreds of hours together working on this debt issue.

What is it about the rest of the Senate, members of the Senate that makes it so hard for them to work across party lines?

SEN. SAXBY CHAMBLISS: Well, this is not easily done.

The hard and tough votes that are going to have to be made are not going to be politically popular. But, you know, we didn't get sent to Washington to make the easy votes. Members get elected to the Senate to take those hard and tough votes and to make those tough decisions, Judy.

Until we get the mind-set to do that, I think it's going to be very difficult to see it done.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And do you think it's harder to get it done than it was when you — than it was when you first entered the Senate 12 years ago?

SEN. SAXBY CHAMBLISS: You know, that's a good question.

What we saw when I first got to the Senate was still a lot of that not just working across the aisle, but working across different parts of the country. We had a lot of Democrats and a lot of Republicans who really wanted to see things done and they would compromise on the numbers or compromise on policy without compromising on principles.

And I worked very closely with Ted Kennedy. Now, Ted and I were at opposite ends of the political spectrum, but we worked very hard to come up with some solutions on immigration issues, the H-1B and L-1 visa issues. And we found the right compromise.

And those are the kind of liberals and Republicans that have to come together somewhere in the middle to find that sweet spot. And we saw that 12 years ago. You don't see much of it now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But what do you say to those members who are saying, but wait a minute, what I'm hearing from my constituents is they want me to stick to principles, they're not interested in having me go and find compromise with the other party?

SEN. SAXBY CHAMBLISS: Well, we saw that with the government shutdown, Judy. And I would like to think that that is still fresh in the minds of those members of the Senate who will be coming back, as well as in the minds of the general public.

Nobody wins in a government shutdown. And that is where we're headed if we're just so hard-headed that we're going to — everybody on the hard right is going to stay there, everybody on the hard left is going to stay there, and not willing to come towards the middle some.

You don't have to — you don't have to compromise on principle, but you can sure compromise a little bit on policy and a little bit on numbers, and, wow, we could really provide the leadership that the world remembers and that the world is so starving for today.

JUDY WOODRUFF: One last question on a particular issue, and that's immigration reform. Do you expect to see the Congress move on immigration reform in the near term?

SEN. SAXBY CHAMBLISS: Well, there's going to be a huge debate on that issue, in my opinion.

I mean, the president's laid his marker out there. And now you're seeing a lot of criticism on the president issuing the executive order on immigration. But the fact of the matter is, Congress didn't act. I would have preferred for the president to say, OK, Congress, here's what I'm going to do on the 15th of April if you don't make a decision to come together on immigration reform. This is what — this is what is going to happen.

I think that would have forced their hand. He didn't do that, so I hope what we don't see is just simply trying to tear down what he did,but take what he did and build on it. Make changes to it if you disagree with it. But our system is broken. We have got to find a solution to this immigration situation in our country.

I do think now is the time to do it. And I would love to see them do it right out of the box as a new majority.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator Saxby Chambliss, no doubt, many of your colleagues are listening to your words of advice.

We thank you.

SEN. SAXBY CHAMBLISS: Thank you, Judy.

GWEN IFILL: Tomorrow, we turn to the other side of the aisle, to one of Nancy Pelosi's departing top lieutenants, Representative George Miller, a Democrat of California.

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