By Alexander Bolton and Erik Wasson - 05/18/11 12:37 AM EDT
Sen. Tom Coburn dropped out of the Gang of Six talks on Tuesday, casting a devastating blow to a group once seen as representing the best shot for a bipartisan deal to reduce the deficit.
Coburn (R-Okla.) cited differences over entitlement spending, saying the three Republicans and three Democrats in the group had been unable to bridge differences over Medicare and Social Security.
“We’re at an impasse,” Coburn continued. “There’s no reason to sit and talk about the same things over and over and not get any movement.”
The loss of Coburn, the most conservative member of the group, could be fatal. To be relevant, the bipartisan group needed to produce a deficit plan that could attract Republicans. Winning the endorsement of Coburn was critical because of his serious conservative bona fides and willingness to take on his own party and conservative activist Grover Norquist on the issue of taxes.
Coburn had been willing to consider raising tax revenue by eliminating tax breaks as part of a deficit-cutting deal so long as it was combined with spending cuts and reforms to Social Security and Medicare. This had put him in a dust-up with Norquist, the activist behind a pledge Republican lawmakers have taken to raise no taxes.
Coburn had voted for the recommendations of President Obama’s fiscal commission, which were the basis for the Gang of Six’s work.
More recently, Coburn found himself mentioned in a Senate Ethics Committee report on Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), who resigned after an affair with the wife of an aide. The report said Coburn acted as an intermediary in a financial arrangement Ensign made with former aide Doug Hampton.
Other group members vowed to move forward despite Coburn’s defection, which in a statement from Coburn’s office was described as a “break.”
“Sen. Conrad intends to continue to work with this group and others to achieve the deficit-reduction package that this country so clearly needs,” said Stu Nagurka, a spokesman for Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.).
Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), another member of the group, insisted it would continue to be relevant because it is seeking a comprehensive solution to the deficit. He differentiated the group’s work from separate talks aimed at reaching a deal to reduce the deficit while raising the nation’s $14.3 trillion debt ceiling by August.
Even Coburn said there’s a small chance the talks could resume at some point in the future.
“We’re at a point where we can’t bridge that gap. If we can ever get to a point where we can bridge it, then I’m sure they’ll resume,” he said of the talks.
The other group members are Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) and Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Mike Crapo (R-Idaho).
Durbin predicted Monday that the group would hold a “make or break” meeting this week.
The possible end of the Gang of Six came the same day as new signs of the deep divisions among Senate Democrats over taxes.
Conrad has been unable to produce a budget resolution — it is now more than a month late — because of the fight over taxes.
Conrad said Tuesday that he has no immediate plans to mark up a budget. “I’ll say something later — not today, probably,” Conrad said. “There are a lot of conversations under way.”
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) cast doubt on whether Conrad’s effort will succeed. “I don’t know there is going to be a Conrad budget,” he said.
Conrad responded to strong criticism from liberals on the Budget Committee last week by presenting a draft budget plan to colleagues with a 50-50 mix of spending cuts and tax increases.
That represented a move to the left from President Obama’s budget plan, which suggested a three-to-one ratio of spending cuts to tax increases.
To win a majority vote, Conrad can’t afford a single defection on the Budget panel, which is made up of 12 Democrats and 11 Republicans.
One Democratic senator told The Hill that the 50-50 ratio of spending cuts to tax increases in Conrad’s proposal is causing “heartburn” among Democrats on the panel, as is the way the plan pays for the Medicare “doc fix.”
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), a centrist on the panel facing reelection next year, has raised concerns about advancing a budget plan with as much as $2 trillion in tax increases over the next 10 years.
This story was originally posted at 4:17 p.m. and updated at 8:37 p.m.