The Ticket

What you need to know about the ‘Gang of Six’

Chris Moody, Yahoo News
The Ticket

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(AP)

Who are they?

The so-called Gang of Six is a bipartisan group of three Democrats and three Republican senators tasked with drafting a realistic proposal to reduce the nation's debt and rein in the deficit that can pass the Congress and avoid President Obama's veto pen. Here's a breakdown of the gang members.

Democrats:

• North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee.
• Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, Senate Majority Whip
• Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, member of the Senate Budget Committee.

Republicans:

• Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss, member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.
• Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo, member of the Senate Budget Committee.
• Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, member of the Senate Finance Committee.

Their Proposal

The group has outlined a plan to cut spending by $3.7 trillion over the next decade that includes a major overhaul of the tax code and alterations to the way the federal government pays for Social Security and Medicare. By eliminating loopholes and write-offs in the tax code, the proposal would beef up the Treasury's coffers by more than $1 trillion, gang members say.

Also, the plan would immediately reduce the marginal income tax rate, abolish the alternative minimum tax, create an entirely new set of tax brackets and slash $80 billion from defense.

The group unveiled the plan's details for the first time this week.

"It is probably the only plan that is going to ever pass--or some combination of it," Coburn told Bloomberg TV this week. "This is the first step in a long process for this country to get our finances back under control. $3.7 trillion is a lot of money, but it is not enough yet--but it will buy us the time to get us down the road a little further to make additional changes that are going to have to be made."

President Obama hailed the plan Monday as the "balanced approach" to deficit and debt reduction he has encouraged for months.

"We now have a bipartisan group of senators who agree with that balanced approach," Obama said. "And we've got the American people who agree with that balanced approach."

The plan is the result of months of intense behind-the-scenes negotiations that have seen many fits, starts and reversals. But  the group now believes it has bounced back to offer up a blueprint that could change the way the federal government does business for decades.

The Backstory

With the August 2nd deadline to raise the debt ceiling looming, Obama dispatched Vice President Joe Biden and his team to meet with congressional leaders earlier this summer to find a compromise that would convince Republicans to raise the nation's $14.3 trillion debt limit. Led by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Republicans refused to raise taxes under any circumstances. Democrats insisted on what they called a "balanced approach" to solving the problem that would include a blend of spending cuts, tax increases on high income earners and reducing the number of tax credits and loopholes. The meetings ended when Cantor abruptly left the talks in June.

With those negotiations at a standstill, Obama stepped in. For two weeks, the president called congressional leaders to the White House for negotiations that ultimately dissolved.

Long before Republicans began negotiations with the White House, however, the Gang of Six had met privately in the Senate to hash out a long-term deficit reduction plan to put the country on a more fiscally sustainable path. While they remained quiet about the details surround the plan, they worked for months toward a proposal to slash $4 trillion from the federal budget over ten years. There was hope that between Obama's call for increased taxes and the Republican demand for lower spending, the group could arrive at a palatable compromise.

For a while during the spring, the probability for a plan appeared to be high. National headlines blared that a deal was imminent: "Gang of Six closes in on deficit deal," The Hill newspaper wrote in April. "'Gang of Six' Approaches Compromise on Deficit Proposal," a Roll Call headline read two weeks later.

Details were scant, but they had a framework: The deal would include reforming the nation's entitlement programs, such as Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare; there was talk of reducing spending on discretionary programs; and even Coburn was considering closing tax loopholes. Members of the group said they were drafting a plan that could "save our country."

The Defection

Just as the group appeared to be on the cusp of a deal, it all came crashing down when Coburn announced in May that he was dropping out of the talks. The senator from Oklahoma claimed that Democrats had refused to cut enough from welfare programs.

"We're at an impasse," Coburn later said.

Stinging from the loss of Coburn, who was arguably the strongest backer of the 'gang' strategy in the Republican caucus, the group continued to meet on a weekly basis. In June, the quintet opened the doors of their private discussions to a broader group of senators from both parties.

At this point, the focus on debt reduction shifted from the group toward the Biden-led talks and the meetings between Obama and congressional leaders.

The Reunion

During that time, however, Coburn stayed close to his Republican colleagues in the old group. As Politico reported, Coburn met with Chambliss, the group's GOP leader, on a daily basis. As the talks at the White House deteriorated, Chambliss convinced Coburn to return. He agreed, and the others welcomed him.

With only weeks to go before the debt ceiling deadline, the Gang was back, with a plan in hand.

The Prospect Ahead

It's still yet to be seen if the latest plan will gain traction in Congress. And the likelihood that Congress can actually pass some version of the Gang's plan seems quite remote at this late hour. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, which determines the cost of all bills, still needs to score the plan, a process that can take several days. And from that point, a bill to institute the Gang's proposals would require lengthy debate in congressional committees, and then on the chamber floors and finally, a vote.

"It's not ready for prime time," Durbin said this week.

Lawmakers may be able to buy themselves more time for a long-term proposal that both parties can find palatable via a short-term extension--even though President Obama has ruled out that option in earlier stages of the debt-ceiling talks.

Still, the cuts promulgated by the Gang of Six, after months of drama and fraught negotiations, at least gives lawmakers a theoretical starting point--something more than the grinding pace of debt-limit negotiations has yielded in Washington thus far.

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