Johnny Isakson: Common Ground

To work effectively in the new Congress, Georgia's junior senator will draw on his early experience.
Consensus Builder: In the wake of the 2006 Democratic takeover of Congress|!!| Senate Republicans are likely to turn to Georgia's junior Senator Johnny Isakson|!!| who's renowned for his ability to work with both parties

Longtime Republican Johnny Isakson was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2003, after three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, 17 years in the Georgia General Assembly and three years as chairman of the state board of education. His reputation is that of a consensus builder, skilled at working with colleagues from both parties.

Just weeks after the November elections that gave Democrats control of both houses of Congress, Georgia Trend Editor Susan Percy talked to Isakson in his Atlanta office. Here are excerpts from that interview.

GT: What’s the new Congress going to be like?

Isakson: It’ll be like every Congress. It’ll be interesting. Every election every two years in the country has changes, sometimes big, sometimes small. But there’s definitely a change in power, and with that comes all kinds of interesting intrigue that will bring about a lot of excitement.

GT: What will your legislative priorities be?

Isakson: I have taken a strong position and introduced legislation on illegal immigration and immigration reform. It was defeated last year. The bill that finally passed the Senate never was taken up in the House. Now there are a lot of people reaching across, back to me, to what we tried to do, making border security a trigger for any legal status and ensuring that the border is secure. I think that position now has an excellent chance to prevail, so I’m already in preliminary meetings with leaders of the Senate on the immigration issue. That is still the pre-eminent domestic issue.

There is no question that elections have ramifications and consensus on the election in November was that the turnover was probably founded in discomfort with the war – not the fight against the terrorists, but the protracted nature of the conflict in Iraq. There’s no question that charting a course and establishing benchmarks for measurable accomplishment in Iraq is going to be a major dominating factor in the first six months of next year [2007].

GT: What does new immigration legislation need to address?

Isakson: There are five things that have to be done. And if you don’t do any one of them, you might as well not do the other four. Those five things are: Yes, there are places where we have to establish barriers, where geographically it’s very easy to smuggle people. That’s the fences and the roads. Second, you need 24/7 “eyes in the sky,” unmanned aerial vehicles patrolling in the air to let us know when people are coming across. You need 6,000 customs and border patrol agents to have the manpower necessary to patrol and enforce a 2,000 mile border. You have to have detention facilities so we stop the practice of catch and release. That’s where when you catch somebody coming across and tell them, “Bad boy, now go home” and you release them and they hide in the brush and go right back over when you leave. And then, lastly, we’ve got to have a verifiable ID for every form of visa so American businesses and American law enforcement, when they’re given a document, can verify, [and] so we can end this forgery business that is proliferating what appear to be legal documents that these illegals are using to get across the border.

GT: Is it possible to make all these things happen?

Isakson: Oh, yes. I tell everybody, “Don’t tell me that the country that in 1969 landed a man on the moon can’t secure its own borders in 2007.” It’s a $6.2 billion proposition to do everything I’ve just outlined. Now $6.2 billion is a lot of money, but it’s a fraction of what it’s costing this country in our emergency rooms, our public schools, our criminal justice system and our law enforcement system to deal with the illegal immigrants.

GT: Is there enough bipartisan support?

Isakson: What I just outlined needs to be the trigger. The trigger is a reform of immigration. You can’t secure the border and not say what you’re going to do with those who are already here anymore than you can grant those that are here amnesty and not secure the border.

GT: How would you deal with people who are already here illegally?

Isakson: After those items [listed above] are in place and operational and the border secure, you can then tell the people that are here illegally that they have a year to come forward, clear the terrorist watch list, the felony list, the Interpol list, [and] prove that they or their head of household are employed. Give them a two-year temporary permit, renewable as long as they’re a law-abiding citizen and as long as they maintain employment. Then you also establish a new guest worker program with the new biometric secure ID, so that as we need workers to come in, they come in the legal way, not the illegal way. Lastly, you don’t grant them a pathway to citizenship. We have a pathway to citizenship. It’s called legal immigration. If someone wants to get in line and go about it the right way and do it legally, that’s fine. But we don’t need to create a bypass for someone who came here illegally.

GT: How do you feel about your ability to work with a Democratically-controlled Senate?

Isakson: Well, experience is a great teacher. When I was elected minority leader – Republican leader – in the Georgia House, there were 19 Republicans and 161 Democrats. I understand being in the minority. And I understand that no man accomplishes anything on his own merit, but you do so by getting a collection of people to come together on common ground. That’s the way I’ve always operated. I much prefer operating in the majority, but operating in the minority, especially in the U.S. Senate the way the rules are set up, it’s still all about consensus building.

GT: President Bush has banned federal funding for embryonic stem cell research on all but the 20-something stem cell lines that were in existence in 2001, and he vetoed a bill last summer that would have allowed the funding. Would you talk about your efforts to find a compromise on embryonic stem cell research, which many scientists believe could lead to cures for diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s – and whether you intend to pursue that in the new Congress?

Isakson: “Compromise” is not the correct word. The president said he wouldn’t sign a bill that involved the destruction of an embryo that could be implanted. Well, that was what the bill that was introduced last year did. It allowed embryos to be donated by the parents; then they would be used for embryonic research, but they would be destroyed in the process. We have operating at the University of Georgia right now three embryonic stem cell lines – all, by the way, in the original 22 that do receive federal funding. They are stem cells that were derived from the byproducts of the in vitro fertilization process but not from a viable embryo. So if there is a moral and ethical question – which there is – on destroying a viable embryo whether donated or not, but you can derive a stem cell from what everybody knows is not a viable embryo, then that’s not a compromise. That’s another way to further the research without compromising the ethics.

GT: Can you explain?

Isakson: In vitro fertilization principles determine what is freezable or implantable in terms of the first three to seven days after fertilization and what after that period of time is a by-product, meaning it does not have either the mass or all the components to be a viable embryo. It’s that third category which are discarded because they’re not implantable and they’re not freezable and therefore they are not embryos that could go to term and become a human being. There are strong feelings on both sides.

I respect the moral question. I also respect the desire of those with Parkinson’s and spinal cord injury where there’s hope in embryonic stem cell research. If you can accomplish both – respect for the ethical question and the furtherance of the research, then it seems to me that it’s a pretty smart thing to do – particularly if there are already three lines in operation funded by the NIH under the president’s original directive. This is not, “We think we can do it.” We know it’s being done right now. I’m going to introduce my legislation and try to get it a chance to be heard.

GT: On the war in Iraq, is it likely that some resolution or solution will emerge in the new Congress?

Isakson: People forget we had three goals when we went into Iraq. Depose Saddam Hussein, give the Iraqis the chance to establish a constitution and [hold] free elections, and then train their military to a state where they were capable of defending themselves. We have accomplished the first two. It’s the third one that has been very difficult.

We’re just going to have to establish benchmarks where the Iraqis take over certain responsibilities so that we have a measurable way that we determine the progress of that final phase. One of the things that frustrates me so much about this whole issue is that we never were nor are we now fighting the Iraqi people. We are defending the Iraqi people and to a certain extent free people around the world against terrorists. Iraq just happens to be the battleground where that’s taking place.

GT: Do you think the American public is inclined to be sufficiently patient?

Isakson: The results of the election were a manifestation of the frustration with the protracted nature of the conflict. But I think that anybody who reads that as “Well, let’s just come home and stop fighting terrorists” – that’s not what the message was. The message was “We need a measurable accountability system in Iraq to measure progress and ultimately accomplish the goal of bringing our troops home.”

If you look at the Democrats – they ran against the war but never offered an alternative. That’s because the alternative is a difficult question. Everybody recognizes that if we leave without finishing the job then the terrorists win. They don’t have to beat us; they just have to have us quit. The American people don’t want us to quit, but the American people do want the Iraqi people to take over more of the responsibility. They do want us to establish measurable benchmarks.

GT: What’s your reaction to the attempt by US Airways to take over Delta?

Isakson: Delta is a great airline, a great asset to our state. I have worked very closely with them for two years watching a determined management team and a most determined team of employees from bottom to top – pilots to baggage handlers and everybody in between, sacrifice, cooperate, work long hours and see themselves through some dark times. They’ve turned that airline around, and they have every right to exit bankruptcy and flourish. And I’ll do everything to see to it that they do so alone. This offer is nothing more than US Airways recognizing that if they could make that deal they would steal an airline. We’re not going to let them steal Delta. Delta will emerge from bankruptcy a strong potent force and Hartsfield-Jackson will be at the center of that traffic.

GT: Would you talk about the “No Child Left Behind” initiative?

Isakson: In 2001, when Bush became president, he asked me, along with eight other people, to write his vision of “No Child Left Behind,” and we did. And it passed in a bipartisan fashion. That is now up for re-authorization in 2007, and it’s very important that it be authorized. There are people who have differences of opinion, but it has worked. Inner-city minority poor and rural poor children are testing better in math and English and reading comprehension. Schools are measuring progress individually, not by averaging collectively. It needs some tweaking, no question – there are some things on non-English speaking kids, on special needs kids that need to be redone. But it’s absolutely essential that we do it.

GT: You have a long history of public service.

Isakson: I love Georgia and I love helping people. The people of Georgia have given me a lot of opportunities to do that. It is really fun to be a part of improving the lives of the people you live with every day. I enjoy that part of it tremendously. It has its frustrations, but it has its great moments of joy.

GT: There’s been speculation that you might run for governor in four years.

Isakson: The problem with speculators is when they have a slow news day they try and dream up things to write about. I haven’t had any conversations with anybody about that. The people of Georgia have given me a great six-year opportunity and I am looking forward to fulfilling that and hopefully continuing to serve them for many years to come, as long as the good Lord lets me keep my health.

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