As Deficit Looms, 'Gang Of Six' Seeks Compromise

Sens. Mark Warner (D-VA, left) and Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), shown before the start of President Obama's State of the Union address in January. The two senators are part of the so-called Gang of Six — a bipartisan group that hopes to break a deadlock and reduce the federal deficit. i i

hide captionSens. Mark Warner (D-VA, left) and Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), shown before the start of President Obama's State of the Union address in January. The two senators are part of the so-called Gang of Six — a bipartisan group that hopes to break a deadlock and reduce the federal deficit.

Evan Vucci/AP
Sens. Mark Warner (D-VA, left) and Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), shown before the start of President Obama's State of the Union address in January. The two senators are part of the so-called Gang of Six — a bipartisan group that hopes to break a deadlock and reduce the federal deficit.

Sens. Mark Warner (D-VA, left) and Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), shown before the start of President Obama's State of the Union address in January. The two senators are part of the so-called Gang of Six — a bipartisan group that hopes to break a deadlock and reduce the federal deficit.

Evan Vucci/AP

Most lawmakers in Washington are preoccupied these days with paying the government's bills for the next couple of weeks or the next six months. But the real problem is the much larger debt looming in the distance.

That's why a small, bipartisan group of senators, dubbed the "Gang of Six," has been meeting to focus on the longer term and how to deal with the government's mounting debt.

Two of those senators — Mark Warner (D-VA) and Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) — took their effort on the road Monday, addressing a Chamber of Commerce group in Richmond, Va.

'There Is No Silver Bullet'

The budget battle raging in Washington right now, with Republicans insisting on deep spending cuts and Democrats struggling to defend favored programs, is focused on just one small corner of the fiscal field.

Most of what's at stake is discretionary spending not tied to national security. Warner says that includes a lot of popular programs, from NASA to children's nutrition. But it's only about 12 percent of the federal government's budget.

"If you keep coming back to this 12 percent, and that's the only focus, then programs that have provided real value are going to potentially be fully eliminated or dramatically cut back," says Warner. "I think everybody recognizes that we've got to get our deficit under control, and that means you've got to broaden the debate to where the money's at."

That means looking at defense, entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security, and a wide variety of tax incentives.

Chambliss says that to get a long-term handle on the government's budget, those are the areas Congress needs to look at.

"For a Republican to put revenues on the table is significant. For a Democrat to put entitlements on the table is significant," Chambliss says. "The only way we're going to solve this problem is to have a dialogue about all these issues, because there is no silver bullet."

That was also the conclusion reached by the president's deficit commission. And for the past few months, along with two Democrats and two Republicans who served on the commission, Chambliss and Warner have been quietly working to turn that blueprint into legislation.

Shared Sacrifice

Just as all parts of the budget have to be on the negotiating table, Warner says, both Republicans and Democrats have to come to the table.

"At the end of the day, it is about trust. It's about making sure that at some point you're going to have to link arms with someone and take a jump. This will not happen unless there's a grand enough bargain that everybody feels they've got some skin in the game."

The idea is that Republicans will be more willing to raise tax revenue, and Democrats more willing to tinker with Social Security if there's a sense that sacrifice is being shared.

The senators were questioned Monday about the shape of that sacrifice. They hinted that defense spending might be reduced — at some cost to Virginia's economy — and that some popular tax breaks on things like mortgage interest might be scaled back, though probably not eliminated.

Virginia banker David Addison said after the meeting that he's encouraged that Warner and Chambliss are working on a plan to curb the federal debt. But he wonders if their colleagues in Congress have the political will to move forward.

"I think we're moving in the right direction, but it's definitely going to require more cooperation and more realization that this is the issue," said Addison. "We have to deal with it now."

Warner admits that his fellow senators were initially skeptical of the debt-cutting effort. And he's still not sure many lawmakers are betting on the project. At least he and Chambliss are not being ignored, though.

Chambliss adds that lawmakers cannot afford to do nothing.

"If we don't do it, then those people who buy our bonds, i.e., the Chinese, are going to dictate to us exactly how we do it," he says. "And I don't think there's any American that wants to see that happen. And certainly there's no member of Congress who wants to see that happen."

'Gang Of Six' Embraces Spirit Of Cooperation

The bipartisan group, made up of three Democrats and three Republicans, spans the ideological spectrum. The idea is for both sides to come to the negotiating table willing to make sacrifices — including cutting defense spending, entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security, and popular tax incentives — in order to reduce the federal deficit.

  • Mark Warner (D-VA)

    Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) compares the deficit to a ticking time bomb. "It's not a question of if we're going to address this issue. It's a question of when," he says.
    Charles Dharapak/AP

    Moderate Democrat, elected to the Senate in 2008
    Previous Elected Office: Governor of Virginia, 2002-2006
    Committees: Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs; Budget; Commerce, Science and Transportation; Rules and Administration; Intelligence; Joint Economic Committee
    On The Deficit: Warner says the deficit is a ticking time bomb. In order to tackle the problem, he says, both sides need to be willing to sacrifice. "At the end of the day, it is about trust. It's about making sure that at some point you're going to have to link arms with someone and take a jump. This will not happen unless there's a grand-enough bargain that everybody feels they've got some skin in the game."

  • Saxby Chambliss (R-GA)

    Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) says he and Virginia Democrat Mark Warner have been talking regularly with roughly two dozen Senate colleagues about tackling the deficit.
    Charles Dharapak/AP

    Conservative Republican, elected to the Senate in 2002
    Previous Elected Office: U.S. House of Representatives, 1995-2003
    Committees: Intelligence; Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry; Armed Services; Rules and Administration; Special Committee on Aging
    On The Deficit: In an interview with NPR earlier this year, Chambliss said he would be willing to consider eliminating tax deductions to help bring down the deficit. "I've never voted for a tax increase and certainly hope I never have to vote for one. What I want to do, though, is create a system that is much simpler and is much fairer, and at the end of the day will allow revenues to be generated in companion with the reductions in spending on mandatory programs as well as discretionary, will move us in the direction of saving $4 trillion over the next 10 years."

  • Dick Durbin (D-IL)

    Senate Majority Whip Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) speaks during a Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday to discuss the constitutionality of the new health law.
    Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

    Liberal Democrat, elected to the Senate in 1996
    Previous Elected Office: U.S. House of Representatives, 1983-1997
    Committees: Appropriations; Judiciary; Foreign Relations; Rules and Administration
    On The Deficit: Durbin said last month he hopes the president will consider entitlement reform as a way to help bring down the deficit. "We are trying to put together, the six of us, are trying to put together a common agreement that is as inclusive as the deficit commission. If we do that and we offer it to the caucus, on both sides of the aisle, and we have the necessary votes, I think we can sit down with the president and win his support."

  • Kent Conrad (D-ND)

    Sen. Kent Conrad (D-ND) speaks during a press conference on Capitol Hill on Jan. 26, 2011.
    Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

    Moderate Democrat, elected to the Senate in 1986
    Previous Elected Office: North Dakota's tax commissioner, 1981-1987
    Committees: Budget (chairman since 2006); Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry; Finance; Indian Affairs; Intelligence
    On The Deficit: Conrad, along with fellow "Gang of Six" members Crapo, Coburn and Durbin, served on the president's bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. According to The Associated Press, all four voted to support the panel's recommendations on lowering the deficit. Those recommendations included raising the Social Security retirement age, cutting future benefit increases and eliminating popular tax breaks like the mortgage interest deduction. "We are on a course that will lead to a financial disaster," said Conrad. "And it is our responsibility to bring the country back from the brink. It is our obligation, and it's got to start here."

  • Tom Coburn (R-OK)

    Sen. Tom Coburn, shown on Capitol Hill in this June 2010 photo.
    Susan Walsh/AP

    Conservative Republican, elected to the Senate in 2004
    Previous Elected Office: U.S. House of Representatives, 1995-2001
    Committees: Finance; Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs; Judiciary
    On The Deficit: Coburn says Americans and lawmakers of all political stripes need to be willing to compromise in order to tackle the deficit. "America needs to understand there is not a luxury for politics anymore. It is time for us to get our act together. We're at war on three fronts right now: Iraq, Afghanistan and the financial tsunami that is facing us."

  • Mike Crapo (R-ID)

    In this Nov. 2, 2010, file photo, Sen. Mike Crapo speaks in Boise, Idaho.
    Matt Cilley/AP

    Conservative Republican, elected to the Senate in 1998
    Previous Elected Office: Idaho state Senate, 1984-1992; U.S. House of Representatives, 1993-1999
    Committees: Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs; Budget; Environment and Public Works; Finance; Indian Affairs
    On The Deficit: During a Senate Budget Committee hearing in January, Crapo said the government must consider both spending cuts and revenues to lower the deficit. "I personally very strongly believe that all aspects of the spending and revenue side of the equation must be on the table."

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