Sen. Coburn pulls out of 'Gang of Six' debt talks
Share with others:
WASHINGTON -- The already-weak prospects for a bipartisan debt-reduction deal this year dimmed further Tuesday, when a Republican member of the Senate's "Gang of Six," Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, withdrew after months of private negotiations amid differences over changes to Medicare.
"He is disappointed the group has not been able to bridge the gap between what needs to happen and what senators will support," said a Coburn spokesman, John Hart. "He has decided to take a break from the talks."
While Mr. Hart's statement said the talks were at "an impasse," it left little doubt Mr. Coburn did not expect to return.
"He still hopes the Senate will, on a bipartisan basis, pass a long-term deficit-reduction package this year," Mr. Hart said. "He looks forward to working with anyone who is interested in putting forward a plan that is specific, balanced and comprehensive."
The talks are separate from negotiations begun recently between the White House and congressional leaders on reducing the debt. But the progress of the Gang of Six was seen as a harbinger of whether the parties could come together and compromise on spending and taxes.
Two other Republicans in the gang, Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss and Idaho Sen. Michael D. Crapo, for now remain in the group along with three Democrats, North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad, the Budget Committee chairman; Illinois Sen. Richard J. Durbin, the assistant majority leader; and Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, organizer along with Mr. Chambliss of the 5-month-old effort. The five met for about four hours Tuesday and agreed to meet again today.
Chambliss spokeswoman Bronwyn Lance Chester said, "The group continues to meet." Mr. Crapo, too, "continues to work toward a deal with the group and remains hopeful that a resolution can be reached," said spokeswoman Susan Wheeler. "The group is facing tough issues, but it has faced tough issues before and continued to work on the issue."
The six senators had met for dinner Monday, and their discussion was described as impassioned at times after Mr. Coburn came with new demands for $130 billion in additional Medicare spending reductions over the coming decade. The group agreed to meet all afternoon Tuesday, but Mr. Coburn arrived at Mr. Warner's office before the others and left before they arrived.
Mr. Coburn has been considered by many to be the linchpin for the other Republicans as they faced pressures from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.; antitax activist Grover G. Norquist; as well as other conservative groups to quit the effort and not compromise with Democrats on any plan that would raise revenues. Yet Mr. Coburn's involvement was always seen as fragile given his reputation as an independent thinker with little experience at compromise.
Colleagues in recent days had wondered whether he would withdraw after a Senate Ethics Committee report on the conduct of former Nevada Sen. John Ensign implicated Mr. Coburn, a friend of Mr. Ensign's, for helping to arrange controversial payments to the husband of Mr. Ensign's former mistress. One controversy was enough, without inviting more by reaching a bipartisan budget deal, the thinking went.
The six senators have been trying since December to write into legislation the recommendations made that month by a majority of the members of President Barack Obama's bipartisan fiscal panel.
The goal was a bill that would save more than $4 trillion over 10 years, and still more in years beyond that, through a mix of caps on annual domestic and military spending, cost-saving changes to Medicare and Medicaid, and an overhaul of the tax code.
That overhaul would end many tax breaks and loopholes and use the higher revenues to lower tax rates for individuals and corporations and reduce annual deficits. The plan would also overhaul Social Security to make it solvent for 75 years.
Mr. Coburn, along with Mr. Conrad, Mr. Durbin and Mr. Crapo, were members of the commission majority. After its report, they accepted the bipartisan invitation of Mr. Warner and Mr. Chambliss to try to write a bill that could be a model for bipartisan compromise between the White House and Republicans.
The Obama administration was wary of the effort, believing that it started from a position too far to the right, but encouraged the show of bipartisanship.
First Published May 18, 2011 12:06 am