Boehner keeping close watch on Gang of Six negotiations

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is keeping close watch on the Gang of Six, the bipartisan Senate group that could force House Republicans to take tough votes on tax reform.

Republican Sens. Saxby Chambliss (Ga.), Tom Coburn (Okla.) and Mike Crapo (Idaho) met with Boehner Thursday afternoon to discuss the Gang of Six talks, which could produce a bipartisan deficit-reduction plan in early May.

One source characterized the meeting as “a status update.”

The three senators are the GOP side of the “gang.” Sens. Kent Conrad (N.D.), Dick Durbin (Ill.) and Mark Warner (Va.) are the three Democrats.

If the group reaches an agreement, it will likely include a plan to reform the tax code in a way to generate hundreds of billions of dollars in new tax revenues for the government.

Coburn, the most outspoken GOP member of the group, has spoken out in favor of tax reform and battled conservative critics who oppose any reform that would increase the net burden on taxpayers.

Conservatives expect that Boehner would try to put the breaks on any deficit-reduction deal that raised the net level of taxation.

“Since he’s signed a pledge to never vote for a bill like that, he would probably tell them it's not a good idea,” Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, a group vehemently opposed to tax increases, said of the meeting between Boehner and Gang of Six members.

An agreement by the Gang of Six to reduce the federal deficit by cutting discretionary spending, reforming entitlements and reshaping the tax code has a good chance of attracting broad support in the Senate.

Chambliss, Coburn and Crapo have solid conservative credentials and are respected in the upper chamber for their policy acumen.

Durbin, Conrad and Warner wield strong influence in their caucus.

If the six lawmakers reach a deal, it might draw support from the mainstream of both parties, paving the way for Senate passage.

But Senate passage of a deficit-reduction package that raises $750 billion to $1 trillion in tax revenues through reform of the tax code would put the chamber on a collision course with the House.

“Speaker Boehner has never voted for a tax increase, and that isn’t going to change,” Michael Steel, Boehner’s spokesman, told The Hill last month.

House Republican leaders, however, may have a difficult time resisting a bipartisan deficit-reduction plan from the Senate if President Obama throws his weight behind it.

The Gang of Six is putting together an agreement that would be based largely on the work of the Bowles-Simpson deficit-reduction panel, which Obama endorsed this past week.

Obama outlined his own vision for deficit reduction at George Washington University Wednesday, acknowledging his approach “borrows from the recommendations of the bipartisan fiscal commission that I appointed last year.”

Obama is eager for the Gang of Six to wrap up its negotiations, and he put pressure on the group to speed things along by announcing his decision to tap Vice President Joe Biden to head bipartisan deficit-reduction talks on the Hill starting next month.

There’s growing concern that the Gang of Six negotiations may drag on without reaching a deal, similar to the laggardly healthcare negotiations that Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) led for months in 2009. Those talks ultimately proved fruitless and sapped political momentum from healthcare reform.

“They’re impatient and I don’t blame them,” Durbin said of the president and his advisers in a Thursday interview. “Let’s look back at the healthcare debate. There was a study group there that never finished.”

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who became a fierce opponent of the healthcare reform legislation, kept close tabs on the three Republicans who met Baucus in 2009: Sens. Olympia Snowe (Maine), Chuck Grassley (Iowa) and Mike Enzi (Wyo.).

Snowe, Grassley and Enzi characterized their frequent conversations with McConnell as status updates, but Democrats suspected that McConnell was holding them back from striking a deal.

Conservatives such as Norquist expect that Boehner would try to put the brakes on a deficit-reduction deal that would raise taxes and force a tough vote on members of his caucus.

Senate insiders say that it’s natural that Chambliss would meet with Boehner because they are close friends from their days of service together in the House. Coburn and Crapo also served with Boehner in the 1990s.

But their shared history doesn’t mean they see eye-to-eye on fiscal issues — Coburn and Crapo voted against the budget deal Boehner crafted with Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to cut nearly $40 billion from 2011 spending levels.

Boehner declined to comment on the meeting with the Gang of Six members when asked about it afterward during a hallway interview. Chambliss said “no comment” when queried on his way from the meeting to the Senate Intelligence Committee room.

A spokesman for Coburn and a spokeswoman for Crapo also declined to comment.

Durbin said Democratic Gang of Six members have given status updates to Obama.