From the Los Angeles Times:
For months, as a group of senators known as the “Gang of Six” secretively holed up in the Capitol, their unusual bipartisan meetings frequently included some version of the doomsday speech.
It’s the one given by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), portending calamity about the nation’s debt crisis, making Democrats in the room squirm.
“I say, ‘Tom, not the doomsday speech again,'” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate and one of the six, recounting the group’s exchanges.
Yet Durbin has grown to appreciate the dire warnings. As months have gone by, the widely differing viewpoints of the senators — three Republicans, three Democrats — may have begun to meld.
The group is working the way Washington had long been known to operate: a small collection of would-be dealmakers engaging in the political give-and-take necessary to craft an agreement with broad bipartisan appeal. But the rise of political polarization in recent years has made rare what was once routine legislative horse-trading.
For now, the group’s deliberations are largely secret. But its proposals are expected to include changes in the government’s most costly programs — defense, the healthcare safety net and Social Security — as well as the closure of tax loopholes.
Members of the group say they do not expect their recommendations to calm the deficit debate, which got louder last week with President Obama’s unveiling of his own plan and House approval of a GOP proposal that would dramatically change Medicare.
“Let me assure you, we’re going to make everybody mad with our approach — Democrats, Republicans, independents — because we’re touching every part of the problem,” one of the six, Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), said in a recent CBS interview.
Already, the group’s three Republicans — Coburn, Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Sen. Michael D. Crapo of Idaho — have endured barbs from their party’s conservative flank.
Grover Norquist, an anti-tax activist and head of Americans for Tax Reform, warned in a stern letter that support of a deal that included tax policy changes “would most likely be a violation of your Taxpayer Protection Pledge.” The pledge is a commitment his group asks Republicans to sign when they run for office.
But the three GOP senators said they would not be subdued. “Our pledge is to protect taxpayers, not special interests,” Coburn, Chambliss and Crapo replied.
At the same time, the political left has taken shots at the three Democrats — Durbin, Warner and Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota.
Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada has insisted that no changes to Social Security be on the table. The group apparently has ignored that plea, saying every facet of the deficit problem must be examined.
Last week, as the debate heated, the six sequestered themselves for hours. They work without a chairman, away from the sting of their “tea party” and liberal wings, as they push toward an agreement.
Together, they constitute a representative swath of the Senate:
Warner is a millionaire former telecommunications executive and onetime Virginia governor, now part of a new generation of senators. Brokering this deal could make the moderate Democrat a rising star.
Warner and Chambliss launched the Gang of Six, and they have visited each other’s states as they’ve taken their ideas on the road. Chambliss is friends with House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), and his role as a member of the gang comes after years of criticism from Democrats for his 2002 campaign to oust former Democratic Sen. Max Cleland, in which he questioned whether the incumbent, a Vietnam War veteran and triple amputee, was committed to national security.
Durbin is among the Senate’s more liberal members. His work in the Gang of Six has reinforced his position as a party leader after Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, the No. 3 Democrat, overshadowed him at times.
Coburn, the sometimes prickly conservative known to colleagues as “Dr. No,” has little to lose: He has said this is his final term in the Senate. The same goes for Conrad, the fiscal guru and chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. Crapo is trusted by Senate conservatives.
The group has proved resilient. When Obama harshly criticized the 2012 budget plan by House Republicans last week, some observers feared it could splinter the six senators, but they continued meeting.
Dozens of senators have expressed interest in a bipartisan accord. Democratic senators up for reelection next year are particularly interested in debt-reduction strategies, an issue that has energized independent voters.
Still, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate’s Republican leader, has said his top priority is to make sure Obama is a one-term president. That could become less likely if Obama presides over a landmark budget deal.