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Leaders Disregard ‘Gang of Six’

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. 

The lack of a blessing from leaders makes it unlikely, even if the group managed to rally around a single plan, that the full Senate would consider the package, according to a Senate GOP leadership aide.

Beyond Senate hurdles, House Republicans have said they would oppose the kinds of tax increases that would likely need to be part of the deal to reach the
$4 trillion in deficit reduction desired. Similarly, House Democrats have pledged to block cuts to entitlements that have also been discussed among the group’s supporters.

“This is a chamber exercise,” the Senate Republican aide said. “It would be dead on arrival in the House.”

Several lawmakers have expressed their frustration that the super committee limits their influence because only 12 Members of Congress will be involved. Freshman Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) recently introduced legislation that would require the super committee to hold all its meetings in public.

Members of the gang of six are involved with the bigger Warner-Chambliss group, but there are varying opinions about how much the group can do, if anything. The Warner-Chambliss group is working on a statement of purpose, said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), an original gang of six member.

“We are close,” Durbin said of the Warner-Chambliss group. Durbin said he plans to continue to attend the group’s meetings but not as a representative of leadership.

Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), also a gang of six member, said he wants the group to present its plan to the super committee. The panel is currently holding hearings.

“I certainly hope that opportunity arises,” Crapo said. He added that he has spoken privately with other Senators about presenting a plan to the panel, but to his knowledge, no official request has been made.

“In a sense, our proposal and our ideas are already out there and on the table, but I would like to discuss with them in detail the broader picture and how far we need to go,” Crapo said.

Warner, when asked what avenues were open to the group to pursue its goal, would only say, “Stay tuned.”

Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) — who has attended meetings of the Warner-Chambliss group but not in his capacity as Republican Conference chairman — said the best thing that the group has going for it is its numbers.

“When you have about a third of the Senate that have agreed on principles … that is a pretty good start toward creating consensus that could support a big step by the super committee,” Alexander said. “I don’t think we ought to write their bill for them, but we ought to say to them, if you take a big step, we are going to do our best to help you succeed.”

But Coburn is frustrated that Congress isn’t doing what it needs to in order to address the deficit problem, and while he wishes the super committee well, he isn’t expecting a result that addresses the problem.

The super committee’s mandate “doesn’t fix anything,” Coburn said. “What it does is just kicks the can down the road. My hope is that they do something and that is really significant for our country. But we’ll have to wait and see. And I am not sure we can have that much of an influence on them because it’s controlled by the leadership.”

Crapo said that ultimately the gang of six and the Warner-Chambliss group want to keep the process going and, to that extent, they have been a significant part of the debate.

“This committee … is a formal authorized committee of Congress,” Crapo said. “We were a part of the process that moved us in this direction, and we are now a part of the process of moving us” toward a bigger deficit deal.

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