Gang of Six closes in on deficit deal

Gang of Six negotiators are close to striking a deal on a deficit-reduction package, according to Senate sources. 

White House officials and Democrats are pressing for the six negotiators to wrap up their talks by the Easter recess beginning on April 16.

ADVERTISEMENT
There is no deal yet, however, and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) has made clear that he will not be held to an arbitrary timeline. 

Coburn has also insisted that a broad deficit reduction package include Social Security reform, something that Democratic negotiators such as Sens. Kent Conrad (N.D.) and Dick Durbin (Ill.) argue should be handled separately. 

The six principals, who also include Sens. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.), held marathon talks last week and came very close to finishing a deal, according to Senate sources. 

Speaking at a Rotary Club of Atlanta lunch on Monday, Warner and Chambliss said the Gang of Six should be able to reach an agreement within the next 30 days as the “window closes” on the opportunity to influence the debate, The Wall Street Journal reported. 

There is concern about unveiling a deficit-reduction package this week, when other major budget events will suck up much of the media’s attention.

In a speech Wednesday, President Obama is scheduled to lay out a broad plan for balancing the budget through tax increases and entitlement reforms. 

The House is expected on Thursday to consider a budget sponsored by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) proposing to cut $5.8 trillion over the next decade. Much of the savings would come from turning Medicaid into a block-grant program. 

The House and Senate will also vote this week on a budget deal struck late Friday that would cut nearly $40 billion from the 2011 budget. 

By waiting until lawmakers return to Washington during the first week of May, the Gang of Six’s package, which is based largely on the recommendations of Obama’s fiscal commission, might command more attention.

One Senate aide close to the talks downplayed the likelihood of a deal by week’s end. 

“We won’t be dropping anything this week,” said the source. 

One of the thorniest disputes with the Gang of Six is over Social Security. Obama could give Democratic negotiators a push toward including Social Security reforms in the package if he calls for it on Wednesday. 

Liberal advocates have been assured by Democrats that a Senate deficit-reduction package will not cut deeply into social programs for low- and middle-income families.

“I am hearing that it might be this week; they were very close last week,” said Nancy Zirkin, executive vice president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, which helped organize a recent rally on Social Security at the Capitol. 

“What I heard last week is that they’re going to protect low- and moderate-income folks,” Zirkin said. “Cuts aren’t going to be made unless revenues are raised also. There is a sensible way of doing this.”

Obama could give the Gang of Six negotiators some guidance by outlining what reforms he could ultimately accept. Senate sources familiar with the talks say the president and his advisers have had a minimal role in the talks so far. 

Some Democrats would like to have a centrist Gang of Six deal this week to serve as a contrast with the Ryan budget plan, which would cut corporate tax rates and not touch defense spending beyond what Defense Secretary Robert Gates has proposed. 

Democrats and liberal advocacy groups say Obama has an opportunity to draw a sharp contrast with Ryan’s budget plan. Some of them question whether he is willing to take a hard-line stand after the recent debate over House-passed spending cuts that nearly shut down the government. 

“His speech is an opportunity to set up that contrast. It would be a very terrible thing if he missed that opportunity and instead laid out a plan to cut Medicare and Social Security,” said Justin Ruben, executive director of MoveOn.org. 

Ruben and other progressives don’t think Obama spoke out forcefully enough against H.R. 1, the House-passed spending plan for the rest of 2011.  

“Do I think the president needed to be much clearer about what the Republicans were doing and the fact that Republicans were proposing deep cuts to middle-class and poor folks and willing to shut down the government over it? Absolutely,” he said. 

Democrats were hampered in their negotiations with House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) by the lack of a Senate-passed appropriations bill for the rest of the fiscal year. 

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) evened the playing field somewhat by putting H.R. 1 to a vote to show that it could not pass the upper chamber. But even to the end, Boehner stressed that Senate Democrats had failed to produce a credible alternative spending plan. 

The Gang of Six could give the Senate a credible long-term deficit-reduction plan, although it would likely offend the chamber’s liberals and strongest conservatives. 

Chambliss on Monday called Ryan’s plan unworkable because it cuts spending drastically but does not raise taxes, something Democrats say must be part of any long-term deficit reduction package, according to Bloomberg News. 

Until the Gang of Six plan comes out, liberal groups have decided to focus their firepower on Ryan’s plan. 

MoveOn.org is planning to hold rallies outside corporate headquarters around the nation to highlight the GOP plan to lower the corporate rate when social programs for the needy are on the chopping block. The group will hold other events in congressional districts over the April recess. 

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights plans to mobilize thousands of constituents to call Congress on Wednesday and Thursday to protest Ryan’s budget plan.  

“This will be a major mobilization,” said Robert Borosage, of the Campaign for America’s Future. “Ryan ends Medicare and Medicaid as we know it and does further damage to education programs.”

Bernie Becker contributed to this report.