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Members of the “gang of six” may have more than 30 Senate supporters and the kind of cooperative spirit needed to forge a historic deal on the deficit, but without leadership backing, it’s unclear what, if anything, the bipartisan group can do to advance its cause.
“We are not players right now. All we can be is influencers,” said Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), a member of the gang of six.
The larger group of Senators, led by Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), is nevertheless trying to leverage its numbers. The group has been meeting to explore what it can do to encourage the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction to go beyond its mandate and identify more than $1.5 trillion in deficit savings over 10 years.
The interest in the group stems from a frustration among rank-and-file Members who want their voices heard on the deficit issue, sources said. The group is also looking to lay down a marker for possible legislative action on a big budget package next year if the super committee doesn’t achieve a larger deal. But the Senators may be hampered by election-year politics, which tend to encourage doing little or nothing.
Warner and Chambliss are both members of the gang of six, which unveiled a deficit reduction plan in July that would cut the deficit by $4 trillion over 10 years.
But nothing ever came of the plan. Instead Congressional leaders — who never embraced the group — decided to create the joint committee as part of a deal to raise the debt limit. The super committee is tasked with approving its own package by Nov. 23, and House and Senate votes must occur on that plan by Dec. 23. If it fails to produce a plan, mandatory cuts in discretionary spending will take place beginning in 2013.
Though the gang of six had been meeting since early this year, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) seemed to never miss an opportunity to downplay the group’s work, saying during debt ceiling negotiations that talks involving either Vice President Joseph Biden or the president himself were where a compromise would emerge. And a proposal to give any group of 10 or more Senators a vote on a deficit proposal if the super committee failed to produce a plan was axed from the final debt limit deal. No member of the gang of six was appointed by either Reid or McConnell to the super committee.
Congressional leaders have been traditionally wary of freelancers who work outside the standing committee system. They “tend to like things to go in regular order,” a Senate Democratic aide said.