WASHINGTON — Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are hopeful that a plan unveiled Tuesday by the Gang of Six to trim $3.7 trillion in deficits will serve as the basis for compromise in the heated debates raging on Capitol Hill.
The Gang of Six, a bipartisan group of senators co-led by Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., and Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., worked behind the scenes for nearly six months to come up with a budget compromise.
In recent days, the group finalized a plan to cut roughly $3.7 trillion from the budget over the next decade. Members would trim domestic spending in such areas as defense and farm subsidies, would reform entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security and would increase tax revenues by $1 trillion by closing tax loopholes while eliminating the controversial alternative minimum tax.
"The complexity of the issue is evidenced by the fact that it took the six of us so long," said Chambliss who, in recent weeks, as other bipartisan debt talks failed, redoubled efforts to help finalize the group’s plan.
The proposal stays largely clear of addressing raising the debt ceiling, but Tuesday Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he might be open to taking parts of the Gang of Six’s proposal and pairing it with a plan to raise the nation’s debt limit. Doing so might resolve some lawmaker concerns, said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass who called the plan’s prospects “very hopeful.
President Barack Obama also praised the plan Tuesday afternoon as the type of bipartisan cooperation that’s needed on Capitol Hill to help resolve the impasse over the debt crisis.
“The problem we have now is we're in the 11th hour, and we don't have a lot more time left,” Obama said. “The good news is that today a group of senators, the Gang of Six, Democrats and Republicans put forward a proposal that is broadly consistent with the approach that I've urged.”
The plan suggests that there are members of both parties who recognize the need to be serious about reducing discretionary spending, both in domestic spending and defense, tackle health care spending and entitlements in a serious way, and increase additional revenue, Obama said.
“For us to see Democratic senators acknowledge that we've got to deal with our long-term debt problems that arise out of our various entitlement programs and for Republican senators to acknowledge that revenues will have to be part of a balanced package that makes sure that nobody is disproportionately hurt from us making progress on the debt and deficits, I think is a very significant step,” Obama said.
The gang — which also includes Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota and Assistant Majority Leader Richard Durbin of Illinois, along with GOP Sens. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Mike Crapo of Idaho — is one of several Washington efforts seeking to forge compromises on budget issues to bring down the nation’s ballooning debt.
“In the next 24 hours, you are going to see a significant portion of the Senate come behind this,” said Coburn as he exited the meeting Tuesday morning. “I think 60 people will support this.”
Coburn, one of the group’s most conservative members, bolted from the group in frustration in May because he didn’t think plans to cut entitlement spending went far enough. His departure threatened to unravel the group’s efforts and ramped up the political pressure for the group’s other two Republicans, Chambliss and Crapo, in standing behind the plan.
On Tuesday, however, Coburn appeared to be back on board — enticed, in part, by more than $100 billion in healthcare savings. He and some of the 50 other senators present at the meeting said that the Gang of Six’s bipartisan approach could prove as a model for resolving congressional deadlock.
“I absolutely believe this is the way we can solve this issue,” said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas. “This is a way to go forward to do the work we need to do.”
Several senators, including Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said they would support bringing the Gang of Six’s plan to the floor.
The plan takes the behind-the-scenes debt talks “out of the corner and brings it to the table,” Isakson said.
However, as lawmakers digest the plan’s details, some say the Gang of Six’s plan hits some false notes.
“In light of their rhetoric, it remains unclear whether Democrats will support even the modest cuts in this proposal,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala, the ranking Republican on the Senate budget committee. “What is clear is that this proposal achieves nowhere near the amount of cuts necessary to bring our budget into balance, but settles merely for ‘stabilizing’ our debt as it continues to increase year after year.”
Some liberal groups also were skeptical.
“While details are sketchy, the Gang of Six proposal appears to ask seniors, the middle class and the poor to bear the burden of deficit reduction, with cuts to Social Security benefits, billions in stealth cuts to be named later, and no real effort to make corporations and millionaires pay their fair share,” said Justin Ruben, Executive Director of MoveOn.org.
Last week, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., unveiled a plan to raise the debt limit by $100 billion in three phases — a “last option” proposal that will likely face opposition by tea party-backed House Republicans. McConnell said he hasn’t had a chance to decide how he feels about the Gang of Six plan.
However, the extent to which the plan will influence the ongoing debt debate remains to be seen. The White House and congressional leaders still are frantically trying to work out a deal that will raise the federal debt limit while cutting future federal budget deficits.
Reid also was cautious.
“It is something we have to look at closely,” Reid said. “It’s my intention to be as encouraging and helpful to the Gang of Six as I can.”
(McClatchy White House correspondent Lesley Clark contributed to this report.)