Why the Gang of Six Could Be the Best Hope to Rescue the Country from Its Red Ink Crisis

Senators work quietly behind closed doors on debt reduction.

ByMatthew Jaffe
April 12, 2011, 5:16 PM

April 13, 2011 -- Somewhere between the left – President Obama's speech today on debt reduction – and the right – House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan's budget proposal – lies a middle ground: a bipartisan group of senators working quietly to strike a deal on how to rein in the country's soaring deficit.

They are called the Gang of Six: Democrats Dick Durbin of Illinois, Kent Conrad of North Dakota, and Mark Warner of Virginia and Republicans Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, and Mike Crapo of Idaho.

For the past few months the six lawmakers have sought to come up with a plan to slash the nation's deficit by $4 trillion over the next decade. For the most part, they have been tight-lipped about their internal deliberations.

"These discussions are at a sensitive point, and the six senators are very, very close to agreement on a framework for moving forward," a Democratic aide told ABC News. "It appears unlikely that it will occur until after we return from the upcoming recess."

A few clues were offered Monday when Chambliss and Warner spoke at an event in Atlanta.

"Neither side's got all the answers in this debate," Warner said, according to CNN. "The idea that we can do this on simply one side of the balance sheet – well, it's just a spending problem… no, it's just a taxing problem – isn't the case. If we're not looking at both sides of the balance sheet we should not even start this discussion."

Tax and Spend

In recent years, Republicans have repeatedly argued that Democrats spend far too much money.

"We all know we have this problem not because we tax too little, but because we spend too much," the Senate's top Republican, Mitch McConnell, said Tuesday. "There's no way to tax our way out of this problem. In my point of view, taxes are not on the table because we don't have a revenue problem. We have a spending problem."

Across the aisle Democrats contend that the GOP's unwillingness to raise taxes is keeping money in the hands of the rich, not in government coffers.

"Even today, while they say we've got a deficit problem – and we do and we need to do something about it – they don't want to get rid of the subsidies to the oil and gas companies and they continue to want to give the folks at the very top big tax cuts," Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, said Sunday on "This Week."

Because the Gang of Six is bipartisan, its talks may present the best chance for a divided Congress to reach an agreement on what both sides believe is one of the nation's most pressing problems.

Cutting Medicare, Social Security?

If the Gang of Six does manage to reach an agreement on a plan, it is likely to address hotly-contested issues like reforming entitlement programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security and revamping the country's tax code. It is also expected to propose further reductions in domestic discretionary spending.

"Some of you are scratching your heads, saying, 'Gosh, that means mortgage interest deduction, charitable deductions, all corporate deductions.' And that's right," Chambliss said in Atlanta, according to CNN. "Every time you add one of those tax expenditures back, you've gotta pay for it."

Budget Deal: 'Gang of Six' Senators Work Behind Scenes

On Capitol Hill, paying for it has been a forgotten detail in recent years as the country's deficits have soared to record levels. The Treasury Department announced Tuesday that in March the federal government racked up a $188 billion deficit. With lawmakers currently touting $38 billion in spending cuts in the new bipartisan budget deal to fund government operations for the next five months as a "historic" achievement, making drastic cuts to reduce a $14 trillion debt could be a tall order.

The fight over the $38 billion in cuts almost resulted in the first government shutdown in 15 years. Imagine what a fight over $14 trillion could do.

"In the eight days leading up to the budget deal, we racked up $54 billion in new debt – way more than the proposed cuts," Sen. David Vitter, R-Louisiana, pointed out on Facebook Tuesday. "And when you look at the details of the cuts, even that $38 billion isn't real. We must do far better."

When President Obama delivers his speech this afternoon at George Washington University in the nation's capital, he could go a long way towards outlining a vision for how to stabilize the country's fiscal situation. And pundits on both sides of the political aisle agree that Paul Ryan's 2012 budget proposal was a bold effort, whether they agree with it or not.

But ultimately, the best chance for serious action on the country's debt crisis could come from a group of six senators, quietly meeting on Capitol Hill. Of course, they will have to reach a deal first. And then that deal will have to gain traction among politicians focusing more and more on next year's elections.

If nothing else, it could be a start – and that, at this point, is sorely needed.

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