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Deficit Hawks See Opening

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
Sen. Tom Coburn is a member of the “gang of six,” a group of lawmakers searching for a path to a deficit reduction deal. Some members of the group have discussed holding new talks in the wake of the failure of the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction.

Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) began working on legislation to roll back the sequester even before the super committee failed last Monday. They continue that work now, even though the president has said he will veto any repeal that does not replace that amount with more deficit reduction savings.

The trigger of automatic cuts was designed to make both parties squeamish, but given that the cuts will not begin until January 2013, perhaps the discomfort will grow as that date, along with the November elections, draws nearer.

"You think it's difficult, wait until you hear what's going to be said about you as a Member of Congress if you destroy the Defense Department because you can't do the most basic things," Graham said Tuesday. "The question is: Who should be fired? If the Congress can't find a way to reduce the deficit by $1.2 trillion over the next decade which is a drop in the bucket should the consequence of our failure be destroying the Defense Department? Gutting the military? Firing people in the industrial complex? ... Or should we be fired?

"If you wanted to fire anybody because we couldn't get to $1.2 trillion, I would pick us, not the military," the South Carolina Republican said, before expressing optimism that some bipartisan group, or even the gang of six, could come up with a solution.

Neither Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) nor Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has ever been warm to the gang of six. Reid reiterated Tuesday that if the group wanted to contribute, its members would come forward with legislation.

"What I've said to my caucus, and I'm saying it to you here, if someone has a proposal about reducing the deficit, the debt, here's my suggestion: Put it in bill form, in writing, not all these happy statements about what people think can be done," Reid said, noting that the three GOP members of the group sent him a letter during the super committee debate pledging not to raise taxes. "I say, go get a bill done, get it scored, bring it to me and I'll take a look at it."

Multiple Senate leadership aides suggested that if Reid were more publicly encouraging of the gang's efforts to produce a bill, it might actually help the party's message. Because the gang's outline includes tax increases as well as entitlement reforms, a "balanced package" would require sign-off from the group's Republicans and yet again pin the GOP in the position of having to defend itself or exhibit an openness to tax reform.

But whatever the battle be it messaging or policy it will have to wait until next year. Congress' calendar is packed with expiring provisions, including a bill to keep the government funded, the payroll tax holiday, tax extenders and unemployment insurance.

In the interim, it appears everyone will just keep discussing the potential for future discussions.

"Somebody's got to be working on plans," Conrad said.

Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report

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