WASHINGTON – Maybe it was all a pipe dream — the idea that a "Gang of Six" from across the Senate's ideological spectrum could solve the nation's deficit despite enormous obstacles placed in their way by President Barack Obama and leaders of both parties.
The remaining five are opting to plug ahead, but they may just be marking time after the departure of conservative Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, the crucial cog if the gang was ever going to be able to sell a deal.
Coburn, one of the few Republicans with enough tough-on-spending "street cred" to wage a fight with anti-tax purists, provided vital political cover for Republicans even thinking about raising revenues as part of a bipartisan grand bargain that would include cuts in benefit programs that Democrats hold sacred, like Medicare and Social Security.
So when he dropped out of the Gang of Six group on Tuesday — he says he's taking a "sabbatical" and may rejoin it later — it was a major, perhaps fatal blow to hopes for a comprehensive approach tackling the deficit problem before the 2012 elections.
"He makes it more difficult to gain the kind of broad support you would hope for on the Republican side because Tom Coburn's highly regarded in our conference," said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio.
Coburn exited after Democrats rejected his demand for about $130 billion more in Medicare cuts beyond the $400 billion already on the table. That prompted Coburn to pronounce the emerging package a bad mix of spending cuts to tax increases.
The politics were lousy as well. It became apparent to Coburn that Democrats could get behind an emerging agreement a whole lot easier than Republicans could. The anti-tax sentiment in the GOP is simply too strong, while lots of Senate Democrats are eager to demonstrate they're tough on spending.
The Gang of Six, now down to five, was trying to craft a deficit-slashing plan along the lines of the 10-year, $4 trillion package that Obama's deficit commission put together last year. Basically, the plan called for a dollar in higher taxes in exchange for every $3 in cuts to government spending and benefit programs. The nation's $14.3 trillion debt would continue to grow, but at a much slower pace.
The commission plan got good reviews from deficit hawks but a chilly reception from the White House and leaders in both parties.
But the idea driving the Gang of Six was that an agreement within the group — whose members include a leading liberal in Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and one of the most prominent conservatives in Coburn — would provide the catalyst to swing dozens of more senators behind their work.
"The Gang of Six ... was designed to force the idle — not gridlocked — Senate, and then the House and the president, to enact a long-term deficit-reduction package," Coburn wrote in a Washington Post op-ed on Thursday.
One of the reasons the group was noteworthy was that its GOP members — Coburn, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia 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.
If senators at the liberal and conservative edges of their respective parties could agree, the thinking went, a wide swath in the middle would follow.
"Coburn and Durbin are the two key players in the group," said former Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., who retired from the Senate last year. "From a philosophical standpoint they represent polar opposites, and if they agreed on something ... then you we have a real core for bipartisan action. So yes, (Coburn's) critical."
The gang's remaining five senators — the other two Democrats are Mark Warner of Virginia and Kent Conrad of North Dakota — pledged to soldier on without Coburn. But what was already an uphill climb seems to have gotten a lot more steep.
The glass-half-full take on Coburn's departure is that it could make it easier for the remaining five to get an agreement. Selling it without Coburn is another matter.
For starters, both Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., have long opposed the Gang of Six approach. McConnell ruled out tax increases; Reid and Obama made it clear they have no appetite for tackling shortfalls in Social Security before the 2012 election. That opposition, coupled with the enormous difficulty in confronting the dangerous politics of taxes, Medicare and Social Security, may have doomed the group from the start.
Instead, the leadership apparatus of both parties as well as Obama have embraced a working group led by Vice President Joe Biden to come up with spending cuts to attach to must-do legislation to allow a government that's now borrowing 40 cents of every dollar it spends to continue to do so.
"The Republican leadership has reservations, as does the Democratic leadership, about stepping onto these very highly charged political issues as we basically begin a presidential campaign," said Gregg, who also was a member of Obama's deficit panel. "The White House does too. They have not been too constructive in the exercise."
Meanwhile, the Group of Six Minus One meets again on Monday.
Chambliss, R-Ga., said the group's goal remains "to get a long-term deficit reduction plan that would work and that could be sold to 60 members of the Senate, period."
Chambliss, however, is in for more political heat now that Coburn's out of the gang. He got a taste on Wednesday.
"Together, their bipartisan plan will raise Americans taxes massively over the next few years and do nothing to solve the very real crisis of Social Security and Medicare," conservative activist Erick Erickson wrote in a blog post. "Every once in a while the stupid party and evil party get together and do something both stupid and evil. They call it bipartisanship. It looks pretty much like what Saxby Chambliss is orchestrating."
EDITOR'S NOTE — Andrew Taylor has covered Congress since 1990.