‘Five guys’ struggle for deficit relevance

The five remaining members of the Senate’s erstwhile Gang of Six deficit negotiators are struggling to stay relevant and pleading with Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) to rejoin the group. 

Coburn dropped out of the bipartisan group in mid-May, citing unwillingness on the part of Democratic members to sufficiently include Medicare in negotiations. The two Republican and three Democratic senators remaining want him back before the initiative fades away.

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Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) was set to have dinner with Coburn Wednesday night.

“I ask him back at least once a day. I haven’t done my duty, if I don’t do that,” Chambliss said. 

“These have been very tough negotiations for five and a half months. We all have our patience to wear a little thin and Tom hit the frustration level a couple of weeks ago. What he said is he’s taking a sabbatical, and I hope he comes back,” Chambliss said.

Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), another of the Senate “five guys” still talking, said Chambliss and Sen. Mike Crapo (Idaho), the two Republicans, continue to resist producing a plan unless Coburn returns. He said he has not heard of plans to replace Coburn. 

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) hinted that Coburn could be replaced if he continues to resist and if the plan attracts strong enough bipartisan support. 

“I hope he comes back, too, but we’ve also got lots of other members in both parties that are encouraging us,” he said. “There are lots of other Democrats and Republicans who are interested in this conversation.”

He emphasized that the perfect cannot be the enemy of the good and stressed to reporters that many of Coburn’s ideas remain in the package after the latest group meeting on Tuesday.

Standing next to Warner, Chambliss said, “It is important that at the end of the day … we have a strong bipartisan group, and I hope that Tom Coburn is a member of that when we conclude and make our presentation.”

Coburn said he was frustrated by Democrats’ determination to leave Medicare off the table. The House of Representatives has backed a budget that would turn Medicare for future seniors into a system of subsidies for private insurance companies. The move has handed Democrats a great campaign issue, and many are now reluctant to consider any trimming of Medicare benefits

Conrad this week said that two issues had kept the group from a final deal. Coburn was also under pressure from anti-tax advocates not to agree to tax increases.

Chambliss said the group is not trying to come up with something to attach to the debt ceiling.

Warner said the group is not in conflict with talks on the debt-ceiling issue being led by Vice President Biden, but he worries that if those talks fail to produce significant deficit reduction, the bond markets could look unfavorably on the U.S.

“I don’t know how big this window is,” Warner said.

Chambliss said that to get significant enough savings you need to raise revenue and tackle entitlements. 

“I don’t know if [the Biden talks] are going to do that or not,” he said.

He acknowledged that Social Security reform has been one of the thorny issues in the talks. Asked about specific tax loopholes the group would close, Chambliss said that the group intended to leave the details of tax reform up to the Senate Finance Committee.

Chambliss revealed at a Wednesday Economic Club of D.C. event that the deal the Gang of Six had been looking at would cut deficits by $4.7 trillion over 10 years. He said that if it produced growth as expected, by lowering tax rates, then the deficit reduction could be $5 trillion to $6 trillion.

This is greater than the $4.3 trillion over nine years that the president’s deficit commission recommended, he said. 

Chambliss cautioned that the deal was not finalized, and Warner cautioned that the scoring was not complete. 

Warner said that plan needs to deal with Medicare but said the group was discussing ways to tackle its problems other than the House-passed budget. 

“There are different ways to look at Medicare than the approach Congressman Ryan took. I don’t think that’s going to be successful,” he said. 

The other member of the “five guys” is Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).