Here's How A Bipartisan Plan To Rein In The Nation's Debt Could Work

When Alan Simpson recently told a couple of reporters to “pray for the Gang of Six,” the quick-witted former Wyoming Republican senator wasn’t just tossing off another memorable quip. Instead, Simpson, co-chairman of the president’s deficit commission, was conveying his concern that the work of the “gang”—three Republican and three Democratic senators—may be the last best chance this year for passage of a bipartisan proposal to rein in the debt and deficit.

Other senators echoed Simpson’s hope the group will succeed, even as they signaled, between the lines, some scepticism about whether the gang can actually deliver a proposal that will overcome institutional and other hurdles to win broad support.

“My view is surely to encourage them,” Senator Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, a senior member of both the Finance and Budget Committees, said in an interview. “The only way any changes are going to be done around here—and everybody knows that changes have to be done on Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security—it’s going to have to be done in a bipartisan group.”

“Given the [sweeping ideological] makeup of the gang of six, they would bring a lot of credibility if they come out with a proposal,” Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., said. “The worst thing we can do is to turn this into a partisan political fight because in the end the country will suffer because we won’t have done what we need to do.”

The competing deficit reduction plans advanced by President Obama and GOP Budget chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., take markedly different approaches, neither of which has a chance of gaining support from the other party. Not one Democrat supported Ryan’s proposal to slash spending and overhaul Medicare and Medicaid last week when the Republican-controlled House voted to approve the plan.

Ryan and other Republicans have blasted the president’s plan to cut domestic and defence spending and allow Bush-era tax cuts for high income earners to expire as falling far short of the dramatic steps needed to stop the country’s ever-increasing flood of red ink.

Enter the Gang of Six. Amid the partisan fireworks, the six senators, whose views span the political spectrum, have been meeting quietly and regularly for several months, daily and sometimes even more than once a day, to try to hammer out a proposal.

The six are: Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., and two GOP members of the fiscal commission, Mike Crapo of Idaho and Oklahoman Tom Coburn, as well as Democrats Dick Durbin of Illinois and Kent Conrad of North Dakota, who served on the fiscal panel, and Mark Warner of Virginia.

The specifics of their deliberations are closely held, other than comments that they are building on the work of the bipartisan fiscal commission co-chaired by Simpson and Erskine Bowles, chief of staff to President Clinton. Its belt-tightening approach of spending cuts and tax and entitlement reform would result in an estimated savings of $4 trillion through 2020.

Other efforts to deal with the issue, including negotiations between Vice President Biden and congressional leaders beginning next month, may overtake the gang’s efforts. “There comes a point, and we’re getting close to it, where our relevance will be judged by our timeliness if the group doesn’t act soon after returning from the Easter recess,” said Durbin, Senate majority whip and the most liberal member of the gang, in a press conference last week.

Among other obstacles are the persistent jealousies of committee chairmen and other senior senators unwilling to yield their jurisdiction over taxes and Social Security. “This is a very territorial place,” Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., said in an interview. “There is no question that the gang of six in some sense is a challenge to normal committee jurisdiction, but it depends on what they recommend.”

Republicans insist they will not accept any revenue increases, while Democrats say that spending cuts alone will not be enough to reverse the festering fiscal issues.  Asked how the two parties might bridge their differences on taxes, Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Col., noted that the fiscal commission won bipartisan support for its approach that includes “a recommendation of about two-thirds cuts and one-third dealing with the revenue side.”

But when pressed on conflicts between the parties, Coburn said on Fox News Sunday, “The point is, how do we have a system that’s fair, that protects the social safety net, and at the same time will generate economic activity and growth in government revenues?…What everybody on my side is worried about is, OK, if you agree to this, how are you going to make sure that the spending cuts stay there? And that’s the problem.”

Even as the six senators hash out how to approach taxes—with hints that they will pursue tax reform with many deductions eliminated and tax rates reduced—the gang also is poised to include Social Security as part of its effort to advance a “comprehensive” proposal that also includes changes to Medicare and Medicaid. That combination is a potent, even explosive, political mix that will require lawmakers to take risks. Will they?

Members of the group recognise that their proposal is sure to anger constituencies on both ends of the political spectrum. Warner said on CBS News Face the Nation on Sunday that the six are “going to make everybody mad with our approach—Democrats, Republicans, independents—because  we’re touching every part of the problem, all the entitlement programs, looking at how you make Social Security more sustainable.”

Durbin noted that many Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., insist that Social Security must not be touched. “I have argued within the Gang of Six (my job in the Senate Democratic caucus is a lot easier if Social Security is not in there), but my Republican friends would say, ‘and our job in the Senate Republican caucus is a lot easier if revenue is not in there,'” he said at a recent breakfast hosted by Bloomberg.

The Illinois lawmaker explained his parting company with liberal orthodoxy and playing a role in tackling this combustible set of issues to get the country on a sustainable fiscal path: “Sitting through 10 months of Bowles-Simpson I finally came to a conclusion: ‘Durbin, the old liberal arguments are not sustainable in this situation when you are borrowing 40 cents out of every dollar you spend for food stamps, and education and missiles, for that matter. And so you had better start thinking about a new paradigm.'”

Despite the obstacles, members of the group are surprisingly upbeat that they can pull off the difficult job of developing a proposal that will make a difference. “There’s a good chance that we’ll be able to come up with a bipartisan agreement that people can swallow,” Coburn predicted on Fox News Sunday. “Nobody is going to like what we come up with. The left isn’t going to like it and the right isn’t going to like it. And that’s one thing that would be an indicator that is probably the best compromise we’re going to be able to get.” 

This post originally appeared at The Fiscal Times.

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