‘Gang of Six’ tackles debt

Bipartisan group feels parties’ heat, but thinks compromise fix workable

WASHINGTON – For months, as a group of senators known as the “Gang of Six” secretively holed up in the Capitol, their unusual bipartisan meetings frequently included some version of the doomsday speech.

It’s the one given by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., portending calamity about the nation’s debt crisis, making Democrats in the room squirm.

“I say, ‘Tom, not the doomsday speech again,’ ” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate and one of the six, recounting the group’s exchanges.

Yet Durbin has grown to appreciate the dire warnings. As months have gone by, the widely differing viewpoints of the senators – three Republicans, three Democrats – may have begun to meld.

“He has convinced me,” Durbin said recently. “This is serious, and if we don’t do something, and do it quickly, bad things can happen, in a hurry.”

Amid the earsplitting and hyper-partisan debate over debt, spending and deficits, the Gang of Six has been toiling quietly, aiming to present lawmakers with a middle course next month.

The group is working the way Washington had long been known to operate: a small collection of would-be dealmakers engaging in the political give-and-take necessary to craft an agreement with broad bipartisan appeal. But the rise of political polarization in recent years has made rare what was once routine legislative horse-trading. The six stand as something of an anomaly in today’s Washington. They might also represent the Capitol’s best hope for resolving one of the nation’s biggest long-term problems.

For now, the group’s deliberations are largely secret. But its proposals are expected to include changes in the government’s most costly programs – defense, the health care safety net and Social Security – as well as the closure of tax loopholes.

Members of the group say they do not expect their recommendations to calm the deficit debate, which got louder last week with President Obama’s unveiling of his own plan and House approval of a GOP proposal that would dramatically change Medicare.

“Let me assure you, we’re going to make everybody mad with our approach – Democrats, Republicans, independents – because we’re touching every part of the problem,” one of the six, Sen. Mark R. Warner, D-Va., said in a recent CBS interview.

But the six senators do hope that over time, Congress may follow their approach. They have steered clear of public squabbling, even while each side bends the other to its point of view. The Democrats have accepted the need for spending cuts and reforms in entitlement programs. The Republicans have agreed that changes in tax policy must be included.

Already, the group’s three Republicans – Coburn, Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho – have endured barbs from their party’s conservative flank.

Grover Norquist, an anti-tax activist and head of Americans for Tax Reform, warned in a stern letter that support of a deal that included tax policy changes “would most likely be a violation of your Taxpayer Protection Pledge.” The pledge is a commitment his group asks Republicans to sign when they run for office.

But the three GOP senators said they would not be subdued. “Our pledge is to protect taxpayers, not special interests,” Coburn, Chambliss and Crapo replied. “To do so, we must analyze every aspect of the federal budget, including the tax code.”

At the same time, the political left has taken shots at the three Democrats – Durbin, Warner and Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota.

Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada has insisted that no changes to Social Security be on the table. The group apparently has ignored that plea, saying every facet of the deficit problem must be examined.

“Our hope and prayer is that then the people of good will from both parties will basically check their Democrat hat and check their Republican hat and say, ‘Let’s take this on,’ ” Warner said.

Last week, as the debate heated, the six sequestered themselves for hours. They work without a chairman, away from the sting of their “tea party” and liberal wings, as they push toward an agreement.

Together, they constitute a representative swath of the Senate:

Warner is a millionaire former telecommunications executive and onetime Virginia governor, now part of a new generation of senators. Brokering this deal could make the moderate Democrat a rising star.

Warner and Chambliss launched the Gang of Six, and they have visited each other’s states as they’ve taken their ideas on the road. Chambliss is friends with House Speaker John Boehner, and his role as a member of the gang comes after years of criticism from Democrats for his 2002 campaign to oust former Democratic Sen. Max Cleland, in which he questioned whether the incumbent, a Vietnam War veteran and triple amputee, was committed to national security.

Durbin is among the group’s more liberal members. His work in the Gang of Six has reinforced his position as a party leader after Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, the No. 3 Democrat, overshadowed him at times.

Coburn, the sometimes prickly conservative known to colleagues as “Dr. No,” has little to lose: He has said this is his final term in the Senate. The same goes for Conrad, the fiscal guru and chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. Crapo is trusted by Senate conservatives.

The group has proved resilient. When Obama harshly criticized the 2012 budget plan by House Republicans last week, some observers feared it could splinter the six senators, but they continued meeting.

Dozens of senators have expressed interest in a bipartisan accord. Democratic senators up for reelection next year are particularly interested in debt-reduction strategies, an issue that has energized independent voters.

Still, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate’s Republican leader, has said his top priority is to make sure Obama is a one-term president. That could become less likely if Obama presides over a landmark budget deal. Then again, McConnell tapped Coburn to deliver last weekend’s GOP radio address.

“I know there isn’t a problem we can’t solve if we do it together,” Coburn said then. “But the only way we can solve them is to put our political careers on the line and stop engaging in petty political attacks.”

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