ATLANTA --- Sen. Saxby Chambliss is taking steps that could redeem his standing with conservatives and put him in positions of historic significance.
Though the Republican from Moultrie won re-election two years ago, it only came after a rare, statewide runoff with the considerably more liberal Democrat Jim Martin, a close call for an incumbent. Although Democrat Barack Obama was riding a national landslide to the White House over Republican John McCain, Georgia supported McCain, but Chambliss drew far fewer votes than McCain.
Chambliss, while proclaiming himself a conservative, angered the right wing with several of his positions. First, he sided with then-President George Bush on immigration policy that many conservatives described as amnesty. Chambliss did an about-face after hearing the boos at the state Republican convention.
Chambliss was also on the defensive for the generous producer subsidies in a farm bill passed while he was chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. Those complaints didn't come from his south Georgia base, but anyone running statewide in Georgia has to pay attention to the vote-rich suburbs of Atlanta, Augusta and Savannah.
Finally, he voted for the bank bailout.
Votes against the federal stimulus packages and health reform have helped him regain some support from the right. Now he has given up his position as ranking minority member on the Agriculture Committee in the new Congress for the same post on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
"I did the last farm bill -- carried the ball on it. And it's probably time for somebody with other ideas to lead that process in 2012," he said.
Intelligence is familiar territory for Chambliss. In the House, he was chairman of an intelligence committee and won a seat on the Senate panel as a freshman because of his House experience. The House slot helped woo conservatives in his first run for Senate.
If Republicans gain a majority in the Senate, Chambliss would be in line to serve as the committee's chairman.
Another effort could have even more impact. He is working with Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., to lead a bipartisan group of 20 senators seeking to radically cut federal spending and close tax loopholes by enacting the recommendations of the Bowles-Simpson National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. Warner was his seatmate on "date night" at the State of the Union speech.
Their moment could come in March when the federal government exhausts its legal capacity to print money. When Congress votes to extend the debt limit, Chambliss and Warner want to use that as leverage to get commitments for deep spending cuts.
The resulting cuts could spell the effective end of the New Deal and the Great Society in one fell swoop, according to Bob Greenstein, executive director of the liberal Center for Budget & Policy Research.
"This will be the most fought-over budget debate since I came to Washington in 1972," he said.
In December, Chambliss made his case on the Senate floor.
"Our fiscal house is in disarray," he said. "Our budget process is broken, and future generations will end up paying the price if we continue to ignore the difficult decisions required to fix things that this grave threat to this country's fiscal stability."
He noted that federal spending now amounts to nearly one-quarter of the gross domestic product, with a debt approaching $24 trillion.
His December speech was to serve notice that he and Warner were gaining enough followers to force action.
House Republicans are also planning to use the debt-ceiling vote as a club to pound out spending, which could either trump Chambliss and Warner or help them by making them the moderate, bipartisan option.
Walter Jones is the Atlanta bureau chief for Morris News. He has been covering Georgia politics since 1998. He can be reached at email@example.com, (404) 589-8424 or MorrisNews on Twitter.