Gang of Six talks heat up as White House debt-ceiling negotiations melt down

Talks among the remaining members of the Senate’s Gang of Six have gained new momentum as negotiations between President Obama and congressional leaders have faltered.

The five active members of the gang met for two and a half hours Wednesday evening in the office of Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) for a pizza and pasta dinner and to make a push for a deal.

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The sixth member, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who had taken a hiatus from the group, said he is thinking about returning, and has given the group a new round of deficit-reduction proposals to consider.

Aides to the Gang of Six participants — who have taken to calling the members “Five Guys” since Coburn left — worked late into the night to put their progress into writing.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), one of the members of the group, said he and his colleagues made a lot of progress Wednesday. Several members also met earlier in the day.

“We’ve worked tonight, made a lot of progress,” he said Wednesday. “We got people reducing things to writing tonight, and ... we’ll see when we get back together tomorrow if people want to go forward.”

The remaining members of the gang are Conrad, Warner, Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.), Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) and Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho).

Several of them met twice again on Thursday, in the morning and again after lunch.

“We still think we have the only realistic approach that will make a significant dent in the problem,” Warner said Thursday. He then corrected himself to say that the gang’s appeared to be the only significant approach to debt reduction.

Walking to the afternoon meeting, Conrad flashed a draft document dated July 14 and said the group has put six months of “good work” into the draft.

“This is it,” he said.

He said the group is ready to move forward but is waiting for a final sign-off from the Republican members.

“Nothing’s final until everything’s final,” he said. “If you don’t have agreement to go forward, you don’t have an agreement.”

Conrad said his colleagues “have done serious homework” and have put together problem-solving strategies that rival the work of Obama’s fiscal commission, on which he sat.

One possible path would be to put their work into a legislative package that could be announced soon and brought to the Senate floor as a series of amendments.

Chambliss and Warner met Wednesday afternoon with woman Senate colleagues to brief them on the recent progress.

As Obama and GOP leaders scold one another in private meetings — accounts of which have leaked publicly — the Senate’s women have banded together in hopes of finding a pragmatic way forward. 

The woman senators requested Wednesday’s meeting to determine the progress of the gang’s talks.

Members of the gang hope they can persuade a broader group of colleagues to buy into their efforts, which have spanned months and included countless hours of meetings.

Conrad said members of the group have gathered “several times a week” in recent weeks, and that he would welcome Coburn’s return.

Coburn said Wednesday that he is contemplating coming back to the group, and that he had floated a new round of deficit-cutting proposals to the group and is waiting on the response before deciding to rejoin.

He recently announced a proposal with Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) to cut Medicare costs through a variety of reforms, such as raising the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67.

Coburn did not attend Wednesday evening’s meetings.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), who attended the Wednesday briefing, said the gang’s work is being held up by Coburn’s absence.

“Until there’s a Gang of Six, it’s hard to be a gang of 60,” she said.

The talks have appeared to gain momentum as the prospect of Obama and GOP leaders reaching a grand bargain to reduce the deficit by $3 trillion or $4 trillion becomes increasingly unlikely.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) accused Obama of abruptly walking out of a meeting late Wednesday after the president gave Cantor what a Democratic source described as a “dressing-down.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he had lost hope of a far-reaching deal to reduce annual deficits.

“After years of discussions and months of negotiations, I have little question that as long as this president is in the Oval Office, a real solution is unattainable,” McConnell said Tuesday morning.

Obama and congressional leaders are negotiating a solution to raise the debt limit by Aug. 2, while the remaining Gang of Six members are focused on a long-term deficit-reduction package separate and apart from the debt ceiling.

Those paths could cross, however, if Obama and GOP leaders cannot agree to raise the debt limit because of entrenched disagreements over how to reduce the deficit.

If a bipartisan group of senators can put together a framework to save the federal government $3 trillion to $4 trillion over the next decade, it could be incorporated into a debt-limit deal. But with less than three weeks until the deadline, time is running out on such a complicated maneuver.

“They are working on an extension of the debt limit,” Conrad said. “[The Gang of Six is] working on a plan to deal with the debt. That is a different thing. At some point there may be some connection, but we have not been working on an extension of the debt limit.”

Updated at 9:12 p.m.