WASHINGTON – A top Republican senator in the bipartisan "Gang of Six" seeking agreement on a plan to cut the deficit by $4 trillion over the next decade dropped out of the group on Tuesday, saying that his colleagues weren't willing to cut enough from benefit programs like Medicare.
Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma said he doesn't see how the group can reach agreement and that he would stop participating in its discussions.
"It's got to be balanced. And I didn't perceive where we were was balanced," Coburn said.
"I'm not planning on participating at this time," he added. "If things change, I will."
The closely watched group has been working for months on a sweeping plan to wrestle the deficit under control through a mix of new tax revenues and cuts across a wide swath of the federal budget. Supporters hoped for a bipartisan deficit-cutting plan that might gain momentum despite the partisanship consuming Capitol Hill.
The group will continue to meet without Coburn, several members said. But it's plain that major obstacles remain.
One of the reasons the Gang of Six was noteworthy was that its GOP members — Coburn, Chambliss and Mike Crapo of Idaho — were willing to agree to revenue increases of about $1 trillion over the coming decade as the price for getting Democrats to accept cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.
"The only way we get out of this problem is increasing revenues," Coburn said.
The group was united behind the idea — shared by President Barack Obama's debt commission and a wide variety of lawmakers and outside budget experts alike — that the recipe for cutting the deficit requires both increased tax revenues and cuts to Medicare and Medicaid, the rapidly growing federal health care programs whose costs threaten to swamp the government in coming years.
The group's plan was expected to closely track the debt commission's plan for $3 in spending cuts for every $1 in tax revenue increases over the coming decade. They called for a fundamental rewrite of the tax code that would lower income tax rates, paid for by scaling back dozens of popular tax breaks, including deductions for mortgage interest and charitable contributions.
But Senate leaders in both parties were always cool to the effort, and Republicans controlling the House have said all along that they would never consider tax increases.
The group's negotiations have been going on for five months, with numerous ups and downs. At various points it looked like they were close to agreement. But as they've gotten to central issues like Medicare, agreement has proven elusive.
A congressional aide familiar with the talks said Democrats were angry that Coburn had brought 11th hour demands on new Medicare cuts to the table. The cuts proposed by Coburn would be immediate and affect current beneficiaries, something that even House Republicans did not propose in their budget blueprint. The aide required anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the talks.
Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, a member of the group, said the group will meet again on Wednesday despite the departure of Coburn. The other Democrats participating are Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad of North Dakota and Mark Warner of Virginia.
"Our fiscal challenges are too great to stop working toward a comprehensive, bipartisan solution," Warner said. "I intend to keep working in good faith on these issues because we have made too much progress to stop now."
Coburn was a member of Obama's debt commission and voted for that panel's plan in December. So were Crapo, Durbin and Conrad, who also supported its plan.
The impasse within the Gang of Six comes as Senate Democrats appear increasingly unlikely to pass a fiscal blueprint using arcane budget procedures. The annual congressional budget is a nonbinding blueprint that sets a cap on the amount of money available to the Appropriations committees to write the 13 annual spending bills and can in some years set the stage for more significant follow up legislation.
"The Democrat-led Senate cannot continue to stonewall the budget process," said Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the top Republican on the Budget panel. "The American people deserve to see an honest plan."
However, there's virtually no chance that — even if Senate Democrats could resolve differences within the party — the Democratic-controlled Senate and the GOP-dominated House could reach agreement on a budget plan.