Political Deja Vu: Remembering that Other Gang of Six…

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Count me among those skeptical that a new deficit summit/commission/gang will produce bipartisan consensus – and not just political theater. It’s no big secret what needs to be done to reduce the nation’s debt – raise taxes, cut spending or do both. While the details of what gets cut and who gets taxed are open to negotiation, it’s obvious which political party favors which approach. The political divide in Washington is deep and bridging it in 2011 seems like a Herculean task.

But there are a few lessons that can be drawn from Washington’s last intractable debate: health care reform.

Simply convening bipartisan groups alters the course of a debate. In addition to the Simpson-Bowles commission and the bipartisan deficit working group Joe Biden will head up this year (with a kickoff summit at Blair House), a group of 3 Republican and 3 Democratic senators is also working on a debt reduction proposal. The group’s eerily familiar name, The Gang of Six, reminds one of the 111th Congress’s health care debate when a group made up of Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee tried to forge an agreement behind closed doors that could garner widespread support. This previous group, which was disbanded after the health care debate grew increasingly divisive in the August 2009 town halls, still authored the framework for what became the Affordable Care Act.

What eventually became law was most similar to the draft that emerged from the Senate Finance Committee, the only version deemed acceptable by a Republican in Congress, Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe. The Finance bill was the least liberal of all the congressional committee bills, in large part, because of the work of the Gang of Six.

Of course, many liberals hated this and felt that President Obama made a huge mistake allowing the Gang of Six to take up so much time and space, especially because the public now views health care reform as a purely partisan effort. Giving Republicans a seat at the negotiating table didn’t lead to any political advantage – Democrats still shoulder whatever blame there is – although I’d argue that, in many ways, it produced better and more balanced policy in the end. This time around, liberals are worried that Obama is setting up the left boundary of the debate too close to the center.

Long after the health care Gang of Six was disbanded, President Obama spent 7.5 hours moderating a February 2010 health care summit at Blair House. In the end, he got little return for his time. For a day or two, he was able to project the image of a level-headed mediator and the White House was able to claim that it gave Republicans a chance to be heard. Some philosophical differences between the right and left were exposed. But Obama also got into a tiff with John McCain at the summit; he dodged Rep. Paul Ryan’s (mostly true) accusations about budget gimmickry in the health care bill.

Maybe Joe Biden will do better. But even if he doesn’t, some progress toward bipartisanship has already been made. There’s plenty of reason to doubt that a deal will emerge in the end, but there is some reason for hope. The deficit reduction Gang of Six has yet to issue its report and, thanks to the 2010 midterms, Republicans and Democrats actually need each other to get something done this time.