White House to Gang of Six: Wrap up work on deficit-reduction plan

Senate Democrats and the White House are pressuring Republican members of the Gang of Six to reach an agreement on a deficit-reduction package so it can be used as a credible alternative to the budget unveiled last week by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), according to Senate sources.

Ryan’s plan calls for a cost-slashing overhaul of Medicare and Medicaid, and Democrats want to have a deficit-cutting alternative that would keep the structure of Medicare intact while increasing tax revenue and cutting defense spending.

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“They’re impatient and I don’t blame them,” said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), a member of the Gang of Six, when asked about the White House’s efforts to push the talks along. “Let’s look back at the healthcare debate. There was a study group there that never finished.”

The group’s discussions have already dragged on for five months, holding up the Senate Democratic budget plan. Ryan’s proposal is expected to pass the House on Friday.

“I don’t think the White House is frustrated, but they’re ready” for an agreement, said a senior Senate Democratic aide.

White House officials indicated to reporters over the weekend that the Gang of Six might announce a deal this week. But two members, Sens. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.), immediately pushed back when they spoke at a Rotary Club lunch in Atlanta on Monday.

A source close to one of the Gang of Six members said President Obama’s speech Wednesday at George Washington University on deficit reduction was a not-so-subtle effort to light a fire under the bipartisan talks.

Obama announced that Vice President Joe Biden would begin meeting regularly with Democratic and Republican congressional leaders in early May to craft a package with the goal of reducing long-term deficit spending by the end of June.

“There comes a point, and we’re getting close to it, when our relevance will be judged by our timeliness,” Durbin said.

Treasury Department officials estimate July 8 is the outside limit for increasing the nation’s $14.3 trillion debt ceiling.

Administration officials envision Biden working with a group of 16 lawmakers — four from each party from each chamber — in pursuit of a deficit-reduction agreement.

Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), a member of the Gang of Six, questioned the president’s decision to put Biden in charge of deficit-reduction talks while the Senate group is still working.

“It’s a little confusing because we already had the fiscal commission,” he said. “I thought it would have been better for the president, with more specificity, to determine if any parts of the fiscal commission report were parts he could support.”

Durbin said that if the Gang of Six wants to be relevant, it needs to make a proposal before Congress debates a debt-limit increase.

The Illinois Democrat told reporters Wednesday that a deal could be announced during the last week of April, but Republican members of the group have resisted timelines.

Chambliss told The Hill that getting something done before the end of April “might be optimistic.”

A bipartisan Senate plan based on the recommendations of Obama’s fiscal commission would give Democrats powerful ammunition to resist the House-passed budget resolution.

Democrats want to make big cuts to the Defense Department budget and raise taxes in addition to cutting discretionary and mandatory spending programs.

An agreement from the Gang of Six could be helpful — it is working off the recommendations of the fiscal commission, which called for cuts to security spending and annual limits for war spending. The commission also suggested raising tax revenues by $785 billion over 10 years by reforming the tax code to eliminate targeted tax breaks.

Obama took a step toward embracing the fiscal commission’s plan by inviting the co-chairmen of the panel, former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles and former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), to the White House on Thursday.

Ryan’s plan, compared to the commission plan, doesn’t go beyond cutting $78 billion from the Pentagon’s budget — a number that Defense Secretary Robert Gates has already proposed. It would slash taxes by $2.9 trillion over the next decade.

Democrats fear they may lose political leverage if they allow the Gang of Six talks to drag on, giving Republicans a chance to mold the debate in the absence of a legislative plan that includes their priorities.

That’s how the healthcare debate played out in 2009. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) spent months in private talks with Republican Sens. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Mike Enzi of Wyoming and Olympia Snowe of Maine, but ultimately failed to reach an agreement.

Republicans gained the upper hand in the public debate during those months as Democrats struggled to articulate their legislative vision in the absence of a concrete plan.

Republicans immediately criticized Obama’s vision for cutting the deficit as lacking details.

“I don’t think he had a lot of detail yesterday except for tax increases,” Crapo said.