Saxby Chambliss appears to be a ripe target for President Barack Obama on the grand bargain: He's a retiring Republican senator who for years has been eager to cut a large-scale deficit deal.
But will he and other GOP senators buck their party's leadership in order to strike a deal with the White House?
"It's not going to happen," Chambliss told POLITICO. "We're not going to negotiate; that's the leaders' role."
As the White House tries to circumvent party leaders and talk to rank-and-file Republican senators, those same senators are saying they're not prepared to freelance without the buy-in from their party's leaders on a deficit-reduction package. The hesitance -- expressed by a host of senators whom Obama has personally reached out to in recent days -- underscores the steep climb for a major deficit deal despite the renewed optimism in Washington.
"You can't ignore the fact that the leadership plays a key role here -- probably the key role," said Nebraska Sen. Mike Johanns, another retiring Republican, who, like Chambliss, attended last week's highly publicized dinner with Obama at The Jefferson hotel.
"We're not going to go around leadership," said another dinner attendee, Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.). "This is about having a broad-based dialogue to get to solutions. It absolutely includes leadership."
Any grand bargain talks won't be tied to this month's deadline to pass a continuing resolution to avert a government shutdown. As that fight is settled, the budget process will begin to take shape, starting with the release of House GOP and Senate Democratic budgets this week and intensifying during this coming fight this summer to increase the debt ceiling.
But the comments inject a dose of reality into the deficit talks that are certain to get more attention in the coming months. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, along with House Speaker John Boehner, have been adamant that they won't agree to raise tax revenues and that future debt talks should focus on slashing federal spending. Obama, on the other hand, has been just as adamant: No deficit deal can be done without higher taxes.
The White House hopes it can eventually persuade enough Republicans to pressure their leaders to reverse course when a tax-and-spending package begins to move. But if there aren't enough GOP senators willing to buck their party's leadership, the chances for a major package that includes new taxes appear to be grim unless the leadership begins to show a new openness to raise revenues and the White House agrees to cut deeper into entitlement programs like Medicare.
"He should know that he can't go around the Republican leadership," said Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, a deal-making Republican who spoke with Obama for about 15 minutes by phone last week. "I mean whatever we do, Mitch McConnell will have to be in the middle of."
Don Stewart, McConnell's spokesman, pointed to a statement the GOP leader recently made in which he insisted he wouldn't be party to a closed-room negotiation and instead called for regular order, in which congressional committees would vote on legislation before floor debate.
"I will absolutely not agree to increase taxes," said McConnell, who has taken an increasingly tough line on taxes ahead of his 2014 reelection battle and after he cut the fiscal-cliff deal with Vice President Joe Biden.
Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said Obama "got his tax hikes" during the new year's fiscal cliff deal that included higher taxes on upper-income taxpayers while ending a Social Security payroll tax cut. The speaker, too, has refused to negotiate directly with Obama after his past efforts to reach a compromise drew sharp rebukes from some on the right.
"The revenue issue is closed," Steel said.
Jay Carney, the White House spokesman, said repeatedly last week that the president is "not naive" about the challenges ahead, and he said there's "no question" that congressional leadership will be central to future debt talks. But, he noted, that the president is reaching out to Republicans who have publicly indicated a willingness to compromise and said the White House was looking to build a "caucus of common sense" on the Hill.
At the dinner last week, Obama kicked off the meeting with opening remarks and circulated the broad outlines of his publicly unveiled plans to cut future deficits by $4 trillion over 10 years, according to meeting participants.
Like a congressional hearing, each of the 12 GOP senators had a chance to speak about their concerns one at a time, in what was described by all parties as a positive discussion. Republicans said they were heartened by Obama's suggestion that he would begin to make speeches laying out the deficit problems more explicitly, including from expensive programs like Medicare.
But by no means were the talks a sign that the group of senators were any closer to a deal, participants said. And Obama will certainly get a sense of that when he makes a rare trek to the Capitol this week to meet with the larger House and Senate Republican conferences.
"This wasn't a negotiation," said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who was at the dinner. "It was a necessary first step in building relationships in actually accomplishing things."
"I don't think anybody is expecting that some big fiscal solution is going to occur over the next month or six weeks," said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), another participant. "There wasn't any congealing around a way forward."
The exact process of how the budget talks will play out remains to be seen. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) plan to release diametrically opposed visions of how to right the country's finances in their budget plans this week. Both are expected to include fast-track deficit-cutting provisions in their proposals to avert a Senate filibuster.
But succeeding in pushing through a filibuster-proof plan -- potentially to raise taxes and overhaul entitlements -- would require Murray and Ryan to reach a consensus that would be approved by both chambers, an extremely tall order. The real pressure to make a deal could come if the automatic spending cuts -- known as the sequester -- begin to spark voter outcry. That may not happen until late spring or the summer, just as negotiations to raise the debt ceiling begin to take shape.
Hoeven said there's a "four-to-five month" window where Obama will need to stay directly engaged in the legislative process, rather than return to making speeches bashing Republicans.
Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), who has repeatedly called for Senate floor debate over the Bowles-Simpson deficit-reduction plan, said there's appetite for a grand bargain, but he said "the agreement has to come between the speaker and the president."
"If they can come up with a deal that Boehner is comfortable with, I could probably support that," Heller said.
And for that reason, Republican leaders aren't too worried for the moment about defections in their ranks.
"Zero," Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) said when asked if there were any concerns about GOP senators defecting.
Asked if there were any situation in which he'd back higher revenues in a deficit deal, Cornyn had the same answer: "Zero."
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