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Hopes for ‘Gang of Six’ Wane

The much-hyped “gang of six” is on the verge of being left behind.

Democratic and Republican leaders have never been overly enthusiastic about the bipartisan group and have already started looking for other ways to cut a deal on the budget and raising the debt limit.

And with the group still unable to reach an agreement despite months of negotiations, Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad said Tuesday he is prepared to go forward in his committee with a budget blueprint of his own as soon as next week.

The North Dakota Democrat presented a draft blueprint that calls for $4 trillion in deficit cuts over the next decade to the Democratic Conference on Tuesday, but it was not clear whether he will get the blessing of Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.), who is worried Democrats will lock themselves into positions that might make it harder to negotiate with Republicans.

Conrad said the group’s talks haven’t yet produced a deal, although he still hopes they will. In the meantime, he’s obligated as Budget chairman to move forward anyway.

“I’m running out of time,” Conrad said.

Reid, with an eye on upcoming bipartisan budget talks with the House and the White House, appeared wary of the proposal. In a press conference after the lunch, Reid joked that Conrad showed Senators “lots of charts.” But Reid said he told his caucus to hold off signing on to any specific plan “until we know what the endgame is … until we really know where we are heading.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said that bipartisan debt limit talks to be led by Vice President Joseph Biden are more likely to be successful than the gang of six’s efforts.

“Those talks are beginning Thursday and will in my view lead to some kind of conclusion, because as you know the clock is ticking,” he said.

Asked if that meant he had a lack of faith in the group, McConnell replied, “It’s not a question of faith. If you are looking for a result … the only way I can conclude that something is likely to get to a result anytime soon is in these debt ceiling talks.”

Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) is McConnell’s point man for negotiating with Biden, while Conrad has been negotiating with less senior Republican Sens. Saxby Chambliss (Ga.), Tom Coburn (Okla.), and Mike Crapo (Idaho), along with Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.).

Coburn spokesman John Hart minimized the significance of Conrad’s budget blueprint, as well as whether the group is successful in crafting the final deal to cut the deficit.

“Any plan that doesn’t have 60 votes is irrelevant,” he said. “Dr. Coburn doesn’t care who gets us there or who the process helps or hurts politically. If we don’t tackle our debt crisis we’re all toast.” Sixty votes are needed to avoid a filibuster.

But one senior Democratic aide said Tuesday that there is a sense of urgency for the gang of six to reach a deal but that the Members also believe that they still have time because of new estimates showing the government may not breach the debt limit until as late as Aug. 2.

“We’re not getting left behind at all, but we’re conscious of our place and are trying to get the timing right,” the aide said.

Conrad’s budget would simply be an opening salvo for negotiations with the House.

“Conrad is facing intense pressure to do something on the budget,” the aide said. “He’s got to produce something.”

The aide argued that Conrad’s budget could end up providing a bridge to a broader deal rather than undercutting it. Conrad said his budget blueprint does not touch Social Security but in general follows the plan proposed by the co-chairmen of the president’s fiscal commission last year. He added that it would raise revenue but could do so while still cutting tax rates overall and getting rid of tax loopholes. That idea has been largely embraced by Democrats but has split Republicans, some of whom simply call it a different kind of tax increase.

Conrad’s plan also includes cuts to Medicare and Medicaid, he said, although the cuts are far smaller than those proposed by the House.

Reid ripped the House budget blueprint, as well as a proposal from Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) that would mandate deep cuts in spending. That proposal has already gotten the backing of Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.).

Sen. Benjamin Cardin, a member of the Budget Committee, said there is a desire to do a budget soon. And although he would prefer a bipartisan agreement, he said, they cannot wait if one doesn’t materialize quickly.

“The pressure’s on us to move,” the Maryland Democrat said. “I think we need to give direction to our committees.”

Cardin also said that Democrats are concerned that a successful negotiation with Senate Republicans will not be enough for House GOP Members, who have rallied around an austere budget.

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