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.