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Support Slim for ‘Gang of Eight’

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) continue to keep their distance from a bipartisan group of eight Senators who hope to solve the fiscal issues facing Congress in the coming lame-duck session.

The group — originally known as the “gang of six,” but now composed of four Republicans and four Democrats — has never been able to come to agreement on the biggest issues affecting the deficit, primarily entitlement reform and taxes. Consequently, it has not been able to produce a bill, nor create buy-in for its policy specifics from at least 60 Senators, the number needed to overcome a filibuster.

Sources inside and outside the group are dubious that it will come to agreement. Moreover, Reid and McConnell have been waiting until after the November elections to decide whether to extend the expiring Bush-era tax cuts or how to replace automatic spending cuts set to take effect in January. And they’re certainly not endorsing a product that doesn’t yet exist, or negotiating with a group that they have both publicly dismissed in the past as futile or unnecessary.

“Nothing has changed,” one senior GOP leadership aide said. “The only thing that’s different is that [Senate Budget Chairman] Kent Conrad is not going to be a Senator next year and they’re going to need to find a new member for the group.”

Conrad was one of the founding members of the gang of six, along with Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.), Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Mike Crapo (R-Idaho). The six lawmakers will meet Wednesday at Mount Vernon, George Washington’s historic Virginia estate, along with Sens. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Mike Johanns (R-Neb.). The former chairmen of the president’s commission on deficit reduction, former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles and ex-Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), will also be in attendance.

The much-publicized closed-door retreat is happening in lieu of the group’s regular recess conference call because all of the members will be in the Washington, D.C., area that day, according to sources.

After last August’s debt deal made it less relevant, the group continued to work sporadically, without producing a legislative compromise on which its members could all agree. There have been large presentations to dozens of Senators to recruit new support and even new members. But the effort hasn’t been without its problems: Coburn walked away from the group at one point last year, citing differences with Democrats, such as Durbin, over Medicare.

Reid told CQ last week that he thinks the group’s members are doing “serious” work. And he pointed to it as an example of ongoing bipartisanship, even as he explained he would not be reaching out to Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) or other Republicans before the elections.

“The one thing I will say about the gang, the one thing they contributed to this is that they showed there are Senators of both parties willing to sit down and talk about this at a time when no one was engaging in bipartisanship post-health care,” another GOP aide said.

But admiration does not translate into legislation. Leaders have been leery of getting behind the group’s work.

The Majority Leader has publicly spurned the gang of six multiple times, and McConnell has never supported it.

“As the Leader made clear many times, there can be no solution without the President’s involvement and leadership,” McConnell spokesman Don Stewart said in an email in response to the recent wave of news surrounding the group. “Sadly, the President has been notably absent from any serious conversation about reducing our national debt. And while the Leader has encouraged Republican members to seek solutions, and is aware that many members are discussing potential solutions, these efforts are still in the early stages and he has not endorsed any particular effort over another. He does not believe that raising taxes should be considered a solution to an out of control spending problem. And remember, until there is legislative text and a CBO score, it will be impossible to form an opinion on the merits of any particular proposal.”

Both leaders have practical reasons for steering clear of anything that might look like an endorsement of the group’s efforts. The acknowledgement by Coburn and other Republicans affiliated with the group that revenue raisers are on the table puts McConnell in a difficult spot with much of his Conference, which has largely refused to entertain any policy proposal that could be called a tax increase.

Reid too, tends to be an institutionalist who favors the formal committee structure for building bipartisan support for legislation. He also has plenty of rank-and-file Democrats who don’t like the potential changes to Medicare the gang may end up proposing.

Many other Members are working independently to produce alternatives to the sequester, the across-the-board discretionary spending cuts triggered by the failure of last fall’s super committee.

Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), for one, has mostly been working out of his Capitol Hill office in recent weeks, holding meetings with Warner and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, among others.

Talks continue, even if the structure of a possible deal remains just as difficult to conceive as ever.

Sam Goldfarb and Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.

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