It’s over. The abrupt withdrawal this week of hard-charging conservative Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okl., from a bipartisan “Gang of Six” senators trying to hammer out a deal to rein in the nation’s debt badly undercut the group’s influence and once again highlights the demise of bipartisanship in a town where brinkmanship has become the preferred tactic in budget deals.
What made the group so unique was that three conservative Republicans senators, including Coburn, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Mike Crapo of Idaho ,were willing to at least talk about the possibility of raising tax revenues as well as slashing spending to reduce the deficit – an approach considered heresy in most Republican precincts. Although the group continues to solider on without Coburn, questions about the continued relevance of the “Gang of Six Minus One” reverberated across Capitol Hill.
“It’s not even a side show—it’s a coffee club at this point,” a veteran Republican Senate staffer said of the gang in an interview with The Fiscal Times.
“I know them all, and I just didn’t see them getting together,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, ranking member of the Finance Committee. “Let’s face it: Republicans know that if we increase taxes in any way, the Democrats will spend it. They won’t pay down the deficit. And if you don’t have tax increases, they won’t go along with it.”
Hatch’s comment reflects the high level of distrust between the parties that pervades budget negotiations. Just last month, amid much acrimony and posturing, GOP leaders struck a deal with the White House to avert a government shutdown with just hours to spare. Now conservative Republicans are threatening to force a default on U.S. debt unless the administration agrees to a major deficit reduction plan as part of legislation to raise the debt ceiling.
The gang of six, a group whose views span the ideological spectrum, tried to bridge the political and ideological chasm and put an end to the brinksmanship that constantly keeps the nation’s capital on edge. Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., and Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., provided the moderate to liberal counterbalance to the group.
The gang appeared close to striking an agreement, but the talks abruptly collapsed this week after Democrats rejected Coburn’s last-minute demand for deper cuts in Medicare. Coburn had come under attack from conservative Republicans, including anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, for violating his previous no-new-taxes pledge. Coburn further distanced himself from the group Wednesday when he revealed plans to offer his own plan for $9 trillion in deficit reductions over the next decade, or more than twice what House Republicans and President Obama have advocated.
Today, Coburn pronounced the efforts of the Gang of Six a failure and blasted the Senate leadership for not doing more to try to work out a compromise. “It is not realistic to expect six members to pull the Senate out of its dysfunction and lethargy,” Coburn wrote in a Washington Post op ed. “Some will ask why we should have more hope in an open, deliberative process, in which all senators are engaged, when a dedicated few did not succeed . . . It’s time for the Senate to earn its reputation as the world’s greatest deliberative body and help lead that effort.”
Coburn wrote that Senate inaction—for which he says Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., bears “special responsibility”—forced the self-appointed gang to take action. “The public rightly prefers spending cuts over revenue increases, but numerous polls indicate the vast majority of Americans would support the only type of plan that would ever make it out of Congress and be signed into law: one that favors spending cuts over revenue increases but includes both.”
The gang has used the recommendations of President Obama’s fiscal commission as the blueprint for a deal to cut the deficit by $4 trillion over the next decade through a combination of spending cuts and revenue increases. But Coburn wanted more.
A source familiar with the talks confirmed that he came to a meeting of the Gang on Monday seeking $130 billion in extra cuts to Medicare—an amount that topped the $400 billion that the fiscal commission had recommended. Durbin, the Senate Majority Whip and the most liberal member of the gang, rejected that proposal because, he concluded, it would result in immediate cuts to current Medicare beneficiaries even beyond what House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., is seeking in his controversial proposal.
Coburn shortly thereafter decided to end his participation in the talks. “It became clear we would not be able to produce a balanced, specific and comprehensive deal that would improve on, and in some ways meet, the standard set by the [fiscal commission],” he wrote.
The Oklahoma senator promises in the coming weeks to put forward “my own proposal that puts everything on the table and cuts $9 trillion in spending over the next decade.”
Still the implication of Coburn’s words is that the toxic partisan atmosphere makes it difficult for bipartisan action because Senate leaders are more interested in scoring political points than in debating serious issues. Coburn’s sentiments are echoed by long-time Senate observers who note that gangs have a poor history of success. “Gangs like everything else are a victim of the general level of polarization in the Senate,” said Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University. “The kind of take-no-prisoners maneuvering and tactical activities that go on always happen in the Senate.”
And this gang faces other challenges. Even if it were to reach a comprehensive deal, the unicameral group would have to sell it to the White House, the polarized House, and the rest of the Senate, where virtually all Republicans adamantly oppose tax hikes and most Democrats oppose large spending cuts just as fiercely.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., already had delivered a tough shot, when he all but dismissed the gang’s efforts last week. He said the separate talks between Vice President Joe Biden and congressional leaders over the debt are meaningful and implied the gang is a sideshow.
“With all due respect to the Gang of Six or any other bipartisan discussions going on on this issue, the discussions that can lead to a result between now and August are….the talks being led by Vice President Biden,” McConnell told reporters. “In that meeting is the only Democrat who can sign a bill into law.”
Some observers speculate that McConnell doesn’t like the notion of a gang cutting a budget deal independent of the leadership and over which he had no input or control. “Any time gangs form in the Senate, they undercut the leaders,” Baker said. “Leaders don’t like to be undercut, whether by committee chairs or by ad hoc groups of senators.”
McConnell’s back-of-the-hand treatment to the gang, coupled with growing restiveness back home among some of the constituents of the members of the group, make it especially difficult to succeed. Take Chambliss, who, along with Warner, the former Virginia governor, organized the gang shortly after the fiscal commission issued its report last November.
As The Washington Post reported, the low-key Chambliss, 67, who served four terms in the House and is close to Speaker John Boehner, is getting hammered on conservative talk radio shows for betraying his principles by participating in a group that is considering additional revenue as a way to deal with the debt.
Such potshots at the Georgia senator come despite the fact that he is rated (tied) as the most conservative senator, according to National Journal’s annual ratings for 2010. Still, when asked in a brief interview last week whether he was feeling the pressure of unhappiness among his GOP colleagues, Chambliss said: “You get used to the way this place works. I don’t worry about the pressure.”
Meanwhile, Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, who assiduously eschews the spotlight, continues to accentuate the positive even in the wake of Coburn’s departure. In a statement Wednesday he said, “the group is facing tough issues, but it has faced tough issues before.” Ideologically, Crapo, who is close to McConnell, tied Chambliss (and 6 others) as the most conservative senator in 2010. A Harvard Law School graduate, Crapo told The Fiscal Times last month that the group’s biggest challenge would be “special interest politics”—the various groups that are ready to attack “any major reform proposal.”
When asked about Americans for Tax Reform president Norquist’s slashing criticism of the three Republicans in the Gang of Six for considering revenue hikes as part of a comprehensive deal, Crapo dismissed it as “background noise.”