Bipartisan Gang of Six plan would need quick support for cuts, taxes

Even if the Gang of Six, a bipartisan group of senators, can agree on how to cut the federal deficit, their plan will land with a deathly thud on Capitol Hill unless lawmakers in both parties quickly support it.

For weeks Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and fellow Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.), Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) have worked to fashion a plan based on recommendations from the fiscal commission led by former White House Chief of Staff  Erskine Bowles and former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.).

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It isn’t clear whether their plan — details remain under wraps — will have a better chance than others of becoming the basis for a grand deal capable of garnering the necessary 60 votes. That would require lawmakers to shrug off opposition from the ideological wings of both parties and overcome other obstacles.

“I think the Gang of Six plan is as popular as it’s ever going to be right now because it’s not written down,” anti-tax activist Grover Norquist told The Hill.

That’s just about the only thing he and self-described socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) agree on. Sanders dismissed the group, saying, “Nobody in America outside of the Beltway knows about the Gang of Six or cares about the Gang of Six.”

Republicans risk offending conservative, anti-tax activists who helped elect their House majority and could usher in a GOP Senate in the next election. And Democrats must find a path than meets President Obama’s call to cut the deficit but also does not alienate liberal supporters, who have warned party leaders against cutting Social Security or other entitlements.

Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, has already clashed with Coburn over reforms that could show up in a Gang of Six plan.

Norquist and other tax hawks suspect that lower marginal tax rates and the elimination of deductions will be used to sugarcoat tax hikes. Coburn has suggested that is likely, and dismisses charges that this would violate ATR’s “Taxpayer Protection Pledge” that he and other Republicans have signed.

“Which pledge is most important?” the senator asked on NBC’s “Meet the Press” last Sunday, “the pledge to uphold your oath to the Constitution of the United States or a pledge from a special-interest group who claims to speak for all of American conservatives, when in fact, they really don’t.”

Sanders has led the left against many proposals the bipartisan group could produce, particularly changes to Social Security, that he and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) have criticized. Sanders has sponsored a “sense of the Senate” resolution to declare Social Security off-limits in budget talks.

“It is incomprehensible to me that anybody would talk about Social Security about the issue of deficit reduction,” said Sanders, “I would hope that the Democrats remain strong. I think that’s what the American people want.”

There is a long tradition of small groups of senators working together to forge bipartisan deals on major issues, but senators are now more willing to try to block deals they dislike, said David King, a lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

Says King: “Something like the Gang of Six has been around since the beginning of the Senate … what’s distinctive is that everyone sees them, and external pressure is being brought to bear.”

Even if the Senate passes the Gang of Six plan, the House is likely to give it a chilly reception. There, Republican leaders see their 2012 budget, authored by Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), as preferable.

“We’ve set the bar in this debate,” said Michael Steel, a spokesman for Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).

Republicans, including Boehner, are watching to see what’s produced by the Gang and by talks led by Vice President Joe Biden. But the Speaker and many conservatives are skeptical of tax changes that raise extra revenue.

“His message was pretty clear that tax hikes are going to be a non-starter,” Steel said. “Our budget calls for revenue-neutral tax reform, but we’re not interested in increasing the size of government through the tax code.”

Andy Roth, director of government relations for the Club for Growth, added, “You’re just not going to get this Gang of Six thing through the House of Representatives. It would obviously destroy the Republican brand significantly and that would harm their electoral chances.”

Republicans running for president would add to the difficulties of the Senate group if they shunned a deal as a way of winning conservative primary voters. Former Minnesota GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty gave Boehner a headache when he urged lawmakers to vote down a 2011 spending agreement.

And although most members of the Gang of Six are politically invulnerable — Conrad and Coburn say they won’t seek reelection, while Durbin and Chambliss come from relatively safe seats — it’s tougher for others to embrace compromise.

Strengthen Social Security, an advocacy group, organized hundreds of events around the country during the congressional recess to show lawmakers that cuts to Social Security would be unacceptable.

“Whenever the opponents of the program go after it, they pay in the next election,” said Nancy Altman, co-director of the coalition. “I think that if they come up with a bipartisan deal, my guess is they’ll all pay at the ballot box.”

The Biden talks aren’t expected to fare better. Boehner’s office acknowledges that Republicans are skeptical of those talks — the House and Senate GOP sent only one delegate each — since Obama wouldn’t even embrace the recommendations of his own Bowles-Simpson commission.

A further obstacle to a long-term deal is an imminent Dem-GOP battle over spending cuts attached to any increase in the federal debt ceiling.

But there is at least one person in Washington — the most important person of all — who is anxious for the Gang of Six to make progress.

Obama said last week: “I think the work that’s being done in the Senate with Democratic and Republican senators could end up having that kind of balanced approach. I’m looking forward to seeing what they come up with.”