The melodrama that is the “gang of six” took another turn Wednesday as the five remaining members looked to salvage their talks — even though their moment may have already passed.
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) walked away from the talks Tuesday, but the two Republicans and three Democrats who are left met for about an hour Wednesday and agreed to keep meeting.
“This has been a roller coaster,” Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) told reporters. “But we’ve made way too much progress to not keep moving forward.”
Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) agreed they would continue the dialogue.
However, it’s far from clear how they can move forward in any meaningful way.
Indeed, a budget deal that the bipartisan group had been hoping to craft for months was losing steam long before Tuesday’s meltdown.
Even though 64 Senators signed a letter of general support for the group earlier this year, the political winds seem to have turned against it.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) vowed to block any cuts to Social Security — a key plank of the group’s package. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) both said revenue increases of any kind were off the table — another key plank.
President Barack Obama, meanwhile, never embraced the group’s work, nor his fiscal commission’s plan, which the group had been using as a basis for its talks. Obama further marginalized them by calling for a new panel headed by Vice President Joseph Biden. That group has had several meetings but is currently on hiatus while the House is in recess.
Sources familiar with the gang of six’s talks said the two sides had gotten very close to a global deal that included cuts to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and discretionary spending, as well as more revenue. But Coburn insisted on deeper, faster cuts, including an extra $130 billion from Medicare, which Democrats were unwilling to accept.
Coburn, meanwhile, wasn’t in a rush to rejoin the talks. “I’m on sabbatical,” he said, adding that he might return to the talks if there was movement.
“They knew it was coming,” Coburn said of the other Members. “We had several weeks of areas where I had expressed concerns.”
Coburn said he doesn’t begrudge the other Republicans in the group, Chambliss and Sen. Mike Crapo (Idaho), for continuing to negotiate. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) also has been involved in the talks.
“If they can work out something that’s agreeable to me, I’ll look at it. I may be back. But the point is I didn’t see it. When I talked to Dick Durbin, we both agreed we were at an impasse. He actually said it at our Monday meeting. I thought about it overnight and said, ‘You’re right,’” Coburn said.
Chambliss, for his part, said Coburn’s support remains “crucial.”
He added, “I still want Tom Coburn involved in our process.”
Even if Coburn had stayed engaged and the group came up with a deal, it could have been dead on arrival, some Senators said.
Republicans, in particular, said that increasing revenues wouldn’t fly, even if overall tax rates were lowered.
“I think that’s part of the reason why they weren’t able to reach an agreement,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said of the plan to increase revenues. “That’s definitely off the table.”
“I think it would have been very, very hard to get the Republicans in the House to go forward,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said. “That’s been my view all along, that if they came up with something that was quote ‘balanced,’ in the sense that it had spending cuts and revenues increases in it, that would be DOA in the House.”
Several moderate Democrats expressed hope that the talks could get back on track.
“I had a lot of hope invested in it, as I think a lot of people did,” Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) said. “You had Democrats prepared to support spending cuts and Republicans prepared to support revenue increases, and that’s got to be the way it goes.”
Others theorized that Coburn left because of forces outside the group.
“I think that Sen. Coburn was under immense pressure from Grover Norquist and some of those folks who are in denial about whether or not we’ve got to look at tax expenditures and revenue,” Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said. “I still want to hold out hope that he’ll come back and continue to work on it. He is somebody who has, for all the right reasons, a lot of credibility on this subject, and I think we’re going to need him in the negotiations.”
But some conservative Republicans, who have been skeptical of the talks from the beginning, cheered.
Coburn’s fellow Oklahoma Republican, Sen. James Inhofe, said he was “very happy” Coburn had pulled out. The group “made people believe that the problem was a bipartisan problem and it wasn’t,” he said.
McConnell reiterated that he sees the Biden talks as the vehicle for reaching a deficit reduction deal.
“They’re the ones where the president is at the table and only the president can sign something into law,” he said.