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Saxby's troubles mirror Cleland's

Wherever he is, Max Cleland must be smiling. Sen. Saxby Chambliss appears in trouble. Many of Chambliss' grass-roots constituents are mad at him; his corporate patrons are less than thrilled at his performance in Washington, and he faces re-election next year.

Chambliss has many of the same headaches Cleland suffered nearly six years ago - problems that allowed Chambliss to wrest one of Georgia's U.S. Senate seats from Cleland after only one term.

Remember how Max got into trouble? Here is the simplified version: Democrat Cleland had to decide whether to obey Big Labor's wishes to establish a Transportation Security Administration with employees that could be unionized or to adopt a more Georgia-friendly anti-union stance.

Cleland obeyed his party's Senate leadership. He chose the union road and held out for a labor-friendly TSA, allowing Republican challenger Chambliss to hint strongly that Cleland was giving aid to terrorists.

Now, after ousting Cleland, Chambliss finds himself in a similar bind over immigration reform. First, he seemed to favor the Senate immigration bill endorsed by President Bush and most of Chambliss' big-business pals.

Who could argue against a bill that would keep cheap labor plentiful for agribusiness, construction and carpet manufacturing? The home folks could and did argue against it, passionately.

In fact, the folks back home exploded with anger. "Why should lawbreaking immigrants receive rewards and amnesty?" Georgians demanded. Saxby tried to explain.

"Lawyer talk," they snarled. So Chambliss, along with Sen. Johnny Isakson, modified a page from John Kerry's playbook. Chambliss voted, in effect, to scuttle the bill that he first smiled upon - and then blamed Democrats for dumping the measure.

Chambliss' Democratic challenger Dale Cardwell immediately staked out his unequivocal opposition to the Senate bill or any other succor for the 12 million illegals now in the country.

"It is horribly unfair to the tens of thousands of world citizens who have waited for long periods of time to simply be allowed to work in the United States. Why should (illegal immigrants) who can access a natural land bridge be given an advantage over, say, Eastern Europeans?" declared Cardwell. "If Congress is advocating turning its back on fundamental American values, I'm going to fight with all I have to stop it."

There must be an echo in here. Cardwell sounds like Chambliss from six years ago, only on another issue. As the sniping from Democrats begins, Chambliss must be looking over his shoulder for signs that an ambitious Republican may challenge him in the GOP's senatorial primary next summer.

Of course, the senior senator could get a breather from the current battle. Immigration may have become too hot for Congress to handle until after the 2008 election, which means it may cool as a front-burner issue in the coming months.

Then what? Will immigration reform simply become one more put-off item that the next administration and Congress must engage, along with the Iraq war, climate change, Social Security-Medicare overhaul and universal health care?

Each one of those topics is loaded with controversy and political pitfalls.

In the last century, Georgians elected two giant senators - Richard Russell and Sam Nunn - who could have risen to president, except they were hobbled by parochial issues, usually dealing with race.

Ironically, at the beginning of the 21st century, our two current senators may find themselves perpetually barred even from Senate leadership positions because they also must march to a different tune from the national mainstream.

The race issue is off the table, but the political landscape is more divided, complicated and dangerous than it ever was during the Russell and Nunn eras. Georgia and other Old Confederate states appear more fervently conservative on more items than ever, even at the peak of the civil rights struggle.

To survive representing Georgia in Washington, just saying no to everything may be the best policy, even better than agreeing on all issues with a president who was once the toast of the Peach State.

Voting no on a big national issue seldom comes back to haunt a lawmaker, but over-yesing an increasingly unpopular president can be resurrected and second-guessed repeatedly.

Syndicated columnist Bill Shipp writes on Georgia politics. E-mail him at shipp1@bellsouth.net. Have any thoughts about this column? Share them with us at letters@gwinnettdailypost.com. Letters should be no more than 200 words and are subject to approval by the publisher. Letters may be edited for style and space requirements. Please sign your name and provide an address and a daytime telephone number. Address letters for publication to: Letters to the Editor, Gwinnett Daily Post, P.O. Box 603, Lawrenceville, GA 30046-0603. The fax number is 770-339-8081.