As Prospects for a Grand Debt Deal Fade, Gang of Six Shapes Plan B

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At a White House meeting on July 7 when President Obama told congressional leaders he wanted a grand bargain on deficit reduction, Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Senate Democrat and a member of the bipartisan so-called Gang of Six, began to suggest that the gathered leaders look at the Gang’s work as a starting point for a deal. That’s when Obama cut him off. Top White House and congressional leaders were not included in that group, Obama told Durbin, and they are the primary negotiators now. The President is probably regretting those words.

White House talks have all but collapsed. And on Tuesday, the Gang of Six – rejoined by Senator Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican who’d left the group in mid-May – announced a plan that’s emerging as the best chance for a large deficit reduction package before the Aug. 2 deadline to raise the debt ceiling. “You have six of the most respected members, including three of the most conservative Republican Senators, who worked for six months and have come up with a recommendation that will reduce our debt by nearly $4 trillion,” Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the Senate No. 3 Republican, told reporters on Capitol Hill, “This is a very important step and therefore I support it.”

Alexander was not the only one. The plan was welcomed by a bipartisan crowd of 50 Senators in a closed-door morning meeting and lauded by Obama at a press briefing on Tuesday. “We now are seeing the potential for a bipartisan consensus,” Obama said. “It will be hard; it will be tough. There’s still going to be a lot of difficult negotiations that have to take place in order for us to actually get something done.”

But on Capitol Hill, hope for a grand bargain on deficit reduction, even as the Gang of Six comes tantalizingly close to a deal, has been fading. Not everyone is enamored with the Gang of Six’s plan. A handful of Senators, including arch-conservative Jim DeMint, Budget Committee ranking member Jeff Sessions, and Vermont liberal Bernie Sanders, have expressed misgivings. And with 13 days left before the U.S. begins to cut services to avoid defaulting on its debt, the window for passing a massive bill is rapidly closing. “I like the Gang of Six proposal in the sense that it’s balanced and it makes a lot of sense, but we have a few number of days left,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus. “Frankly, anything is possible, but you’ve got to look at the probabilities in life and the probabilities here do not mesh with the possibilities.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid warned the President at the beginning of July that it would take substantial time to draft and assess a large bill. And the bigger the package, the more time the Congressional Budget Office needs to score it. A deal of the size that Obama and House Speaker John Boehner were envisioning at the time – a $4.5 trillion package – would need to be agreed upon not by the July 22 deadline Obama had first laid out, but by July 15, Reid said. As an example, Reid noted that the Affordable Care Act took nearly a month to draft and score — and that bill was one-fifth the size.

If Obama and Boehner were to announce a deal on Wednesday, bill-writers worked around the clock and not a single Senator objected, something might squeak through by Aug. 2. But in order for that to happen, House Republicans would have to agree to revenue increases, House Democrats would have to agree to entitlement benefit cuts, both chambers would need to sign off on tax reform, and Sisyphus would have to finish pushing the boulder up the hill. All of that is not easily done in 13 days.

The biggest challenge remains the House. These days, legislation is more easily passed through the Senate – and that’s really saying something about the level of dysfunction. The House, in fact, is acting a lot like the upper chamber, with Boehner now in charge of herding the cats, as Trent Lott might put it. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan told the Washington Examiner that he’s been drafting legislation on “hunches” of what a deal might look like for more than two weeks. The White House has been negotiating with Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor since the weekend. In an encouraging sign, all sides remain mum on the substance of the talks, though Boehner’s staff said on Monday that “there is nothing like a ‘grand bargain’ on the table.”

Even the Gang of Six acknowledges that their talks are not yet advanced enough to offer a quick solution ahead of the debt ceiling deadline. Though they have a rough framework, they have not drafted any legislative language or even fully agreed to a final plan. “This Gang of Six process isn’t in any way going to affect what happens between now and Aug. 2,” says a Democratic staffer familiar with the Gang’s work.

Senator Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, on Tuesday suggested passing a one-month debt ceiling extension to give drafters time to put together a Gang of Six bill. But  Obama has threatened to veto any short-term debt limit hike, passage in both chambers is by no means assured, and special interest groups on the left (MoveOn) and the right (Americans for Tax Reform) were quick to voice opposition before the details of the Gang’s framework were even announced.

A grand bargain may be dead, but that doesn’t mean the Gang’s of Six’s work was for naught. As Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell draft a Plan B for raising the debt ceiling, some of the Gang’s ideas will likely be included, Reid told reporters on Tuesday. That bill would pass a short-term extension with $1 trillion plus in cuts and form a bipartisan, bicameral commission to find another $1 trillion plus in savings by the middle of next year. If the commission were to fail to find the savings, the fallback would be a politically embarrassing vote for Democrats along the lines of what McConnell has suggested. The Gang’s work gives the commission a head start on potential areas of agreement. Such compromises could even expand beyond the $1 trillion mandate, transforming the Gang of Six’s deal into something that looks, well, akin to a grand bargain.

With reporting by Zach Cohen in Washington.