With Deficit Plan Revived, Senate Gang of Six Gains Traction — and a Nod from Obama

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Jason Reed / Reuters

Updated, 2:18 p.m.

An ambitious deficit reduction framework crafted by the Senate’s bipartisan Gang of Six earned two key endorsements on Tuesday as President Obama called it “broadly consistent” with what he wants from negotiations to raise the debt ceiling and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the No. 3 Republican in the upper chamber, fully embraced the plan.

In a press briefing on Tuesday afternoon, Obama hailed the package, said to call for $500 billion in immediate deficit reduction and $4 trillion in savings over the next decade, as a “very significant step” toward breaking Washington’s deficit reduction deadlock. “I want to congratulate the Gang of Six for coming up with a plan that is balanced,” he said, praising the mixed coalition as an indication that Democrats are willing to live with long-term entitlement cuts and that Republicans are coming around on revenue increases. “We are now seeing the potential for a bipartisan consensus.”

The Gang of Six has been quietly working for months on a grand bargain to stem the tide of federal red ink. Their efforts have often been discounted: first in mid-May when Oklahoma Republican Senator Tom Coburn abandoned the group’s talks and then again when Senate leaders seemed to dismiss their work in favor of negotiations led by Vice President Joe Biden. But after the Biden talks collapsed and recent White House negotiations stalled out with no deal, the Gang of Six is now hoping that their labors can become the basis of a wider bipartisan deal. Coburn rejoined the talks this week, after putting out a long-shot plan of his own that would slice a whopping $9 trillion off the budget.

The six Senators — Republicans Coburn, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Mike Crapo of Idaho, and Democrats Dick Durbin of Illinois, North Dakota’s Kent Conrad and Virginia’s Mark Warner — briefed a bipartisan group of 42 Senators on Tuesday morning. Alexander endorsed their proposal at that meeting.

The Gang has remained mum about the details of their plan, though sources say they worry that even if it passes the Senate, the House might find aspects of it unpalatable. It likely includes some revenue increases, which conservatives in the lower chamber have so far been unwilling to accept. Conrad, the Chairman of the Budget Committee, has always said the plan would be loosely based on the President’s deficit reduction commission, which would flatten and widen rates while closing tax breaks that would bring hundreds of billions of dollars of new revenues into federal coffers.

The plan has gained new momentum in the wake of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s suggestion that Republicans abandon any attempt at tying spending cuts to the debt ceiling vote and instead just hold three politically tough votes for Democrats. But regardless of resistance in the House or Obama’s pat on the head, the Gang of Six still faces significant obstacles to resolving the debt ceiling debate in time to meet an Aug. 2 deadline — their grand bargain will take time to finalize, draft and assess. In a matter of days, McConnell’s backdoor strategy may be the last plan standing.