WASHINGTON — They were viewed as perhaps the last best hope for compromise on the giant thorny budget issues that have Washington deadlocked, but the Senate's "Gang of Six" now stands in disarray after Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., bolted the group in frustration.
In the wake of Coburn's exit, lawmakers and budget analysts were left to wonder: If this group of three Democrats and three Republicans couldn't reach common ground on tough budget and debt issues after months of closed-door bargaining, who could?
The gang's breakup illustrates how wide the partisan divide is in Washington, and how difficult it is to bridge in an era of fiercely partisan and ideological politics. And that's dangerous for the nation at a time when failure to achieve budget compromise and raise the nation's debt ceiling could spook financial markets and endanger the economic recovery.
"I still think they were the only game in town," said Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a bipartisan group that promotes fiscal discipline. "Compromise is in very short supply — it just doesn't exist. It's 24-7 campaign mode, and the point of campaigns is not to come together. It's to beat the other side."
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Bixby holds out hope that Coburn will return to the gang and equated his leaving to members of rock bands, sick of each other, breaking up but later getting back together for a reunion tour .
"I'm looking for rays of hope here," he said. "Maybe we'll have a revival of the Gang of Six in the fall."
Coburn on Wednesday shooed reporters away, saying, "You can read about it in the paper. I'm not going to talk about it anymore. I'm on sabbatical."
Though he's left the Gang of Six, Coburn said Wednesday that he isn't abandoning attempts to cut the federal debt. He said that soon he'd unveil his own plan to cut deficit spending by $9 trillion over 10 years, though he provided no other details. His office said he's likely to release his plan in about three weeks.