President Obama’s call on Wednesday for a bipartisan group of lawmakers to craft a compromise deficit-reduction plan by July left lawmakers wondering if he aimed to obliterate or aid an existing bipartisan group already carrying out the same task.
In a speech outlining his own deficit-reduction plans, Obama did not mention the “Gang of Six” senators, who have spent months haggling in an effort to craft bipartisan legislation. Like the deal the president said he wants, the group’s proposal will be based on December recommendations by the heads of a bipartisan fiscal commission who Obama appointed.
Like Obama, Gang of Six members want a proposal ready for consideration alongside a vote expected before July 4th to raise the federal debt ceiling. Many lawmakers believe the increase will not pass unless paired with such a plan.
No real deficit-reduction plan, with entitlement and tax code changes included, can get off the ground in a divided Congress without the bipartisan backing the gang would provide. Obama's proposal, late and partisan in GOP eyes, threatens to substitute a Democrat-dominated process that never wins the required GOP buy-in.
With more than a month between the expected release of senators’ plan—they hope to propose legislation next month—and the president's, gang backers are hoping Obama’s proposed process will increase support for their plan, but worry it will undermine it.
“We already had the president’s commission to evaluate this and come up with a proposal. It’s not clear to me whether he has decided that he wants to create a new commission or if he wants to use the benefits of that to create a new negotiating table or what,” said Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, a member of the Gang of Six.
“I would just say that was a little perplexing and leave it at that,” Crapo said.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., another GOP member of the group, will not comment on Obama’s speech, a spokesman said. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., called Obama’s speech disappointing and said the senators will continue to work toward a deal.
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., offered a terse reaction. “Our bipartisan group of six Senators continues to work for a comprehensive solution to our nation’s debt,” Durbin said. “The president’s speech makes it clear that he is committed to the same goal.”
Other members of the group are Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D.
Republicans panned Obama’s proposal on Wednesday as too vague, too late, and too partisan. Many argued that in attacking House Republicans’ budget proposal, Obama upset delicate congressional efforts, hurting chances of a compromise plan passing the House and leaving Chambliss, Coburn, and Crapo dangling, with a harder task of bridging the increased gap between parties.
Obama’s “partisan criticisms and demagoguery represent a missed opportunity to show true leadership," said Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., who has worked to promote the Gang of Six efforts.
That view does not appear limited to Republicans. "No partisan proposal—from either Democrats or Republicans—will solve our nation’s problems,” said Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. a frequent Obama critic.
But Obama’s approach could fill a gap if the gang fails to agree on a plan, which the senators said is possible. Backers also hope the group’s proposal will get a boost from the talks, led by Vice President Joe Biden, that the president said will start in May.
“The Gang of Six is still the only game in town,” said Jim Kessler, vice president for policy at the centrist group Third Way.
On Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., appointed Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, and Finance Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., to the 16-member bipartisan commission that Obama wants to hammer out a deal. In a statement, Reid, made sure to praise the work already done by the gang.
"I also appreciate the good work being done by the three Democratic senators in the Gang of Six, Senators Dick Durbin, Kent Conrad, and Mark Warner, and the contributions they continue to make towards our shared goal of responsible deficit reduction," Reid said.
Kessler said the talks that Obama wants will likely include gang members and noted both groups would rely on the fiscal commission. Obama met on Thursday with the commission’s former heads, Erskine Bowles, President Clinton’s for chief of staff, and former GOP Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming.
To cut a deal, aides familiar with gang talks say, Democrats must agree to at least a long-term reduction in the age of Social Security eligibility. Republicans in exchange would okay some version of the sweeping elimination of tax deductions proposed by Bowles and Simpson.
That formula appears to diminish the odds that a gang deal or any similar bipartisan plan can pass either chamber. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., have said they will not entertain any plan that raises taxes, presumably including by eliminating deductions. On the other side, Reid and many Democrats insist the plan should not alter Social Security benefits.
By forcing leadership to the table, Obama’s approach can help the gang by inserting their plan into a higher-level process that bears it forward toward passage, and make leadership opposition harder, Kessler argued.
“You could see a plan coming together that could get 65 or 70 votes,” he said, despite putting chances of passage at “about 40 percent.”
Simpson sounded less hopeful when he addressed several reporters at Obama’s speech on Wednesday. “Pray for the Gang of Six,” he said.