MARIETTA - Senator Saxby Chambliss defended his call for raising more tax money if it comes with spending cuts and gradually pays off debt, a stance that has become harder to hold among other Republicans.
Chambliss used a Saturday breakfast meeting with fellow Republicans north of Atlanta to defend comments he made in a recent TV interview, saying he cared more about the country than an anti-tax pledge that he signed years ago with anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist's Americans For Tax Reform.
That remark set off speculation that Chambliss would face a Republican primary challenger when he runs for re-election in 2014.
Chambliss said he would support eliminating some tax deductions and credits if Democrats agreed to spending cuts and overhauls in entitlement programs, including government-funded health care programs. Chambliss said he wants to keep some form of tax deductions for charitable giving and mortgage interest. He compared the U.S. debt to a household mortgage.
"Well, that's a violation of the pledge because I say we've got to pay down our mortgage with some of that money," Chambliss said. "If we don't pay down our mortgage, guess what happens? The debt keeps going up and up and up."
Chambliss' fiscal philosophy has come under scrutiny as Republicans negotiate with President Barack Obama, a Democrat, to determine whether the government will avoid a year-end package of tax increases and spending cuts that some fear could throw the economy into recession.
Any tax increase would be deeply unpopular with some in Georgia's conservative GOP.
Just before Chambliss publicly broke with Norquist, a political aide for former GOP gubernatorial candidate Karen Handel said she was considering running for his seat.
Conservative radio show host and pundit Erick Erickson announced on air that he was considering calls to challenge Chambliss, though he has since ruled it out. When asked whether he might run, U.S. Rep. Tom Price told a reporter that it was "completely premature" to consider it. He did not rule it out.
"I think that you sent me to Washington to think for myself," Chambliss said. "And I want to vote the way you want me to vote. I don't want to be dictated to by anybody in Washington as to how I'm going to vote on anything and when I say I care more about my country more than I do a 20-year-old pledge, I sincerely mean that."
Chambliss received sustained applause from the roughly 100 people who listened to his remarks. Some strongly backed him.
Arthur Gardner, an Atlanta attorney, asked Chambliss if the GOP's position against raising taxes was hampering its ability to negotiate a long-term agreement to bring down the debt.
Gardner said in an interview that he believed the national debt was a greater financial threat than the extra taxes he would pay under a Chambliss-style plan.
"It's playing a big role in it, no question about it," Chambliss said, noting that opposition to tax increases was strongest in the House of Representatives. "A lot of those guys are just firm in that and being somewhat inflexible."
Despite supporters like Gardner, Chambliss may still face political problems.
Just before he took the podium, the head of the Cobb County Republicans warned the audience against compromise with Democrats. Drew Holley, 27, of Kennesaw said he would support a more conservative GOP candidate in a primary against Chambliss. He accused Chambliss of campaigning as a supporter of small-government but not voting that way in Congress.
"His rhetoric doesn't match his actions," Holley said.