Biden talks intensify; Gang of Six considers options

By Dan Friedman and Humberto Sanchez

June 21, 2011

As the budget talks led by Vice President Joe Biden continue this week, the seemingly defunct Gang of Six is exploring whether to continue its work, disband or seek a lifeline from other senators.

The Gang of Six, which is working on a comprehensive deficit reduction plan based on recommendations from President Obama's deficit commission, is seeking a way to remain relevant despite the likelihood that they will not take substantive action ahead of an agreement from the Biden group.

The group was dealt a blow in May when Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said he would take a break from the talks after clashing with Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., over Coburn's efforts to seek more savings from Medicare than recommended by the president's commission. The group has been redubbed by some as "Five Guys."

Without Coburn the remaining Republican members are unwilling to negotiate toward a potential deal, according to gang members and their staff.

One possible way forward would be a letter of support signed by a significant number of Democratic and Republican senators that would give cover to the remaining GOP gang members to continue to negotiate. The letter would be similar to one signed by 64 senators in March. The remaining members of the group have briefed over 20 senators in recent week.

An aide familiar with the talks said members will discuss if "we need a proposal with a bow on it to get to a letter, or do we need a show of hands for releasing" an outline of the proposal the group was close to agreeing to before Coburn's exit.

But the group's options are limited. Both Reid and McConnell have asked their members not to endorse any deficit reduction plan before the Biden talks conclude.

"There is a level of paralysis," said a senior staffer tracking the gang talks. "Stalemate, stalemate, stalemate."

Meanwhile, the group of six lawmakers led by Biden embarks on another round of intense meetings this week beginning Tuesday afternoon, as it looks to make big strides on a deficit reduction package that can pass Congress and win votes to raise the debt ceiling.

Meetings are scheduled for Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday afternoons, and come after the group met three times last week and set a deadline of July 1 to reach an agreement in principle.

Congressional leaders are pushing the group to do so well ahead of August 2 when the Treasury Department has said it would exhaust its borrowing authority.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has said that he believes the group should work through any congressional recesses to help bring about a deal more quickly. The House is on recess next week, while the Senate will be in session.

Republicans and Democrats remain at odds over including taxes in the plan. Republicans oppose raising taxes as a way to reduce the deficit and are more focused on limiting spending. Democrats, who are in agreement on including spending cuts, also want tax increases, such as closing special interest loopholes.

The White House would not say whether it would accept a short-term debt ceiling increase as a stopgap measure if the Biden talks fail. The idea was floated by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on CBS's Face the Nation this weekend.

"I don't want to negotiate the resolution to the debt ceiling vote from here," White House press secretary Jay Carney said on Monday.


By Dan Friedman and Humberto Sanchez

June 21, 2011

http://www.govexec.com/oversight/2011/06/biden-talks-intensify-gang-of-six-considers-options/34204/