The Gang Falters: Coburn Breaks from Deficit Negotiations

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Sen. Tom Coburn (left)

Senator Tom Coburn on Tuesday said that he’s “taking a break” from the Gang of Six, the Senate group that has been trying for months to reach a bipartisan deal on deficit reduction. The Oklahoma Republican’s withdrawal likely dashes any hopes that the three Democrats — North Dakota’s Kent Conrad, Dick Durbin of Illinois and Virginia’s Mark Warner — and two remaining Republicans — Idaho’s Mike Crapo and Georgia’s Saxby Chambliss — can draft legislation acceptable to both parties.

Their plan, still in development according to Conrad, is largely based on a blueprint crafted last year by President Obama’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, which laid out $4 trillion in cuts and $180 billion in tax hikes over the next decade. But the rift between parties over deficit reduction has widened in recent weeks. Republican leaders are insisting that a crucial vote to raise the debt ceiling be offset by cuts totaling at least $2 trillion. Democrats have countered with an offer of $200 billion in cuts over the next decade – leaving both sides a long way from common ground.

Many had hoped that the Gang of Six would be the group to find a middle path, but Coburn’s withdrawal Tuesday is a sign that they won’t be the ones to do it. Coburn, who is retiring after this term, seemed like the Democrats’ best bet for a lasting partner — his fiscal conservative credentials are iron clad and he’s been willing to take on members of his own party who are vehemently opposed to any net revenue increases. So far, most GOP leaders have ruled out tax hikes as part of any deal. Though Coburn declined to name any specific sticking points that might have prompted his break from the Gang of Six, Chambliss said the group has struggled in “closing the gap” between spending cuts and revenue increases.  “We can’t bridge the gap between what actually needs to happen and what people will allow to happen,” Coburn told reporters Tuesday afternoon. “I am discouraged.”

For weeks, the Gang of Six negotiations have appeared tenuous. Conrad originally said he would release his own plan the first week of May if the group failed to reach an agreement. But that deadline passed and the talks continued. “I’ve always said we’re not working on a timeline,” Crapo told reporters Tuesday. “We get a deal when we get a deal.” The groups leader says they’ll soldier on.  “Senator Conrad intends to continue to work with this group and others to achieve the deficit reduction package that this country so clearly needs,” a spokesman for the North Dakota Democrat wrote in an e-mail.

Obama recently started his own bipartisan deficit reduction group led by Vice President Joe Biden and tasked with producing a compromise package that can be married to the contentious debt ceiling vote. With the Gang of Six at loggerheads, even GOP leaders started placing a premium on Biden’s group. “With all due respect to the Gang of Six,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters last week, “the discussions that can lead to a result between now and August are the talks being led by Vice President Biden.” Now that Coburn is breaking with the Gang of Six, the pressure is building on that group to deliver.

Conrad is still likely to release the details of whatever plan his Senate gang was close to delivering before talks collapsed. And that could inform the basis of a deal for Biden’s group. But it’s not impossible that the Gang of Six returns.  They “need some time to reevaluate,” said Chambliss. When asked if they would continue without Coburn as a Gang of Five, he was emphatic: “No. We will continue as a Gang of Six.”