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Isakson running for 2016 re-election, but wants GOP Senate majority now
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U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., speaks at the Statesboro Herald on Monday. - photo by SCOTT BRYANT/staff

U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., has bumper stickers already printed with a new logo for his 2016 re-election bid, but is currently campaigning for shorter-term goals of having Republican candidate David Perdue join him in the U.S. Senate and for Republicans to gain a majority there.

In town Monday, Isakson was interviewed at the Statesboro Herald office and then spoke to the Statesboro Rotary Club, among other stops.

Regardless of whether Tuesday's general election or a possible runoff sends Perdue or Democrat Michelle Nunn to the Senate in January, Isakson, after 10 years in the Senate and soon to turn 70, will then be Georgia's senior senator. With Sen. Saxby Chambliss retiring and Rep. Jack Kingston departing after his unsuccessful Senate run, Isakson also becomes Georgia's senior Republican in Congress.

"With what has got to come up the next six years, I think it's important to try and retain that leadership for six more years," he said. "It's up to the voters, but if I didn't run, you wouldn't have a chance to retain it."

With two years still to go in his current term, Isakson's decision to seek a third term potentially extends his Senate career to 18 years. This reveals one difference between him and the Republican vying to become junior senator. Perdue supports term limits, including a 12-year maximum for senators.

But Isakson observes that voters have the opportunity "the first Tuesday of every November, every even-numbered year" to limit congressional tenures.

"If we have better participation of the voters in sending a clear signal to those who are the problem, we'd have better results, but an arbitrary term limit where you end somebody's term after two terms, all you do is you get rid of the good people, and the bad people just go run for another office," he said.

While unabashedly hoping for a Republican majority, Isakson, in answer to questions, also talked about a need for the parties to work together. Republicans are unlikely to end up with more than 53 Senate seats, he said. That would mean an even closer balance than the current situation, in which there are 55 Democrats and 45 Republicans in the Senate.

But it would give Republicans control of both chambers of Congress, which he calls a balance in working with President Barack Obama.

"When you have an equitable balance of power between the legislative and executive branches, the only thing either one can do to move the country forward is find agreement on a bill," Isakson said.

Going non ‘nuclear'
If Republicans win the majority, the first thing they should do, Isakson said, is eliminate the "nuclear option" that Democrats led by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada adopted in 2013. No actual weapons are involved. It was a rule change that allows presidential appointees, not including Supreme Court nominees, to be confirmed by a 51-vote bare majority, without the 60 votes usually required to end debate.

"If we take the majority in November, whatever majority we have, it won't be 60," Isakson said. "It will be between 50 and 53, probably. So if we repeal the nuclear option, then we'll have to get six or seven or eight Democrats to go with us to do anything. We've got to be true to what we've been complaining about."

Current Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky would become majority leader, and Isakson said McConnell will support returning to the rule that requires a 60-vote majority. Democrats, Isakson said, would "look like absolute fools" if they oppose the change.

"Which I realize they're fully capable of doing," he added. "So are we."

Five goals, 150 days
With a newly won majority, the Republicans would need to accomplish five things in the first 150 days in 2015, Isakson said.

"If we do them, it will be the beginning of a long dominance, I think, in the Congress," Isakson said. "If we don't do them, then we'll be in the same hole the Democrats are in, and there'll be a revolution in a couple of years."

First, he said, Congress should fix the Sustainable Growth Rate formula used to determine how doctors are reimbursed for Medicare.

"Those are five tough votes," Isakson said. "Why are they tough? Fixing the Sustainable Growth Rate to fix the reimbursement rate for doctors so everybody doesn't quit Medicare will cost $145 billion. We've got to find that money, that's No. 1."

Second, he said - although he had mentioned it first - Congress should work out a plan, including spending cuts, to raise the debt ceiling above the current $17 billion.

"Those two things have been pending for years," Isakson said. "We keep kicking everything down the road until now we've got to do something."

To be clear, he says he will never support raising the debt ceiling without offsets in the form of spending cuts.
Third, Congress should return to passing a budget.

"By April 15 we have to pass a budget," Isakson said. "Obama has chosen not to do budgets. We've complained about that, and we've got to do that."

Fourth, closely related to the budget, is passing 12 appropriations bills. Traditionally, there are appropriations bills for each of 12 areas assigned to subcommittees, but Congress has not passed these bills in at least five years. Unable to agree on spending plans in advance, Congress has instead relied on continuing resolutions.

Fifth, the Highway Trust Fund that supplies money for construction and repairs is running out of money. Isakson said it will go out of business by May 31. The Department of Transportation's graphs of the situation can be seen at www.dot.gov/highway-trust-fund-ticker.

Because the fund is based on a per-gallon fuel tax, its revenue has declined with decreased consumption, even in years of higher gasoline prices. Democrats such as U.S. Rep. John Barrow of Georgia's 12th Congressional District have also talked about fixing this as a priority.

In his remarks to the Rotary Club, Isakson did not say anything about Perdue or gaining a GOP majority. There, he talked about national security and Georgia agriculture.
Isakson called the Islamic State terrorist organization, also known by the acronyms ISIS or ISIL; the disease Ebola; and the federal debt the three greatest current threats to national security.

Medicare and Social Security must be addressed as part of efforts to control the debt, Isakson said in the Herald interview.

He favors changing the formula for inflation-based Medicare and Social Security increases from the current regular Consumer Price Index basis to a "chained CPI" approach, which would generally result in smaller increases.

Isakson also supports raising the age of full Social Security eligibility for future generations. For his grandchildren, now ages 4-10, the retirement age might be 70, he said. Isakson is part of the first bracket for whom the age was 66 instead of 65, under legislation signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1983. It will be 67 for Americans born in 1960 and later.

"You can fix the Social Security actuarial liability problem by moving out eligibility and not hurt anybody who's currently collecting," Isakson said.

He also reported that he would become Senate Veterans Affairs Committee chairman under a GOP majority.

Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9454.

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