The Gang of Eight bipartisan senators who are trying to prevent the country from going over the fiscal cliff reunited this week for the first time since the elections for a series of back-to-back get-togethers, where taxes on the wealthiest Americans emerged as a big focus of discussion.
They met for dinner on Monday night, then for breakfast on Tuesday followed by a mid-morning meeting in the Senate.
Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, a member of the group, said in an interview on Tuesday after the meetings that the election results were obviously disappointing for Republicans, but sensed that in the postelection atmosphere there was a compelling desire for the parties to come together to reach a resolution.
“There’s a strong understanding of the crisis that we still face and willingness to dig in and try to find a solution,” he said. “There is a very sincere and still a strong desire for people to try to come together.”
Unless Congress acts, the nation is on a collision course to fall back into a recession. The mix of expiring tax breaks and pending spending cuts set to go into effect Jan. 2 would reduce the deficit but would also deal a blow to an already fragile economy.
The Gang of Eight members have not been officially sanctioned by leadership to try to negotiate a deal, and do not include House members, but the group meets frequently and the senators hope that if they can reach a compromise it could help influence negotiations and prevent the tax hikes and spending cuts from kicking in. In particular, they could play a role in helping to devise a framework that sets up a process to achieve more comprehensive tax and spending reform next year to replace the automatic budget sequester.
Crapo said that members were sizing up the situation against the backdrop of the new political reality.
“Regardless of how the election had turned out it would have had an impact and it did. I think that’s just given us some additional clarity on what the climate will be here in Washington and what the structure of the House, the Senate, and the White House is,” Crapo said. “We continue to work together to try to help first of all identify a strong comprehensive solution but also to work with the political structure that we have in place right now, to ensure we help facilitate reaching that kind of deal rather than any other type of outcome.”
Republicans and Democrats are sharply divided over the top tax rates. Crapo said that the issue was a hot topic of debate.
“Of course the president’s whole reelection has put that issue back into play,” he said. “I continue to push the notion that we get out of the old paradigm of debating tax rates and get into the paradigm of reforming the code with the broadening of the base and the reducing of the rates.”
Despite his optimism, Crapo had a hard time pointing to tangible progress.
“That’s hard to gauge,” he said. “For the last year, we have been close but there are still huge issues that we need to deal with. I don’t know how to characterize that any better.”
An aide to a gang member said that a senator called recent meetings fruitless and is frustrated by lack of progress.
Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Michael Bennet, D-Colo., emerged from the meeting strolling together deep in conversation, followed a short while later by Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va. All of them declined to comment.
Later in the day, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., acknowledged lack of progress in the gang talks but said he is not ready to call the effort a failure.
“I wish we had accomplished more but we’re still working on it,” Durbin said.
Dan Friedman contributed contributed to this article.
This article appears in the November 14, 2012, edition of NJ Daily.