ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
Most lawmakers in Washington are thinking about one thing these days, the spending bill that will keep the government from shutting down. But one small group of senators is thinking long term about how to deal with the government's mounting debt in a decade or more.
Democrat Mark Warner and Republican Saxby Chambliss took their effort on the road today, addressing a Chamber of Commerce group in Richmond, Virginia.
NPR's Scott Horsley was there.
SCOTT HORSLEY: 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.
Democratic Senator Mark Warner of Virginia 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.
Senator MARK WARNER (Democrat, Virginia): If you keep coming back to this 12 percent, and that's the only focus, then programs that have provided real value, you know, are going to potentially be fully eliminated or dramatically cut back. I think everybody recognize 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.
HORSLEY: That means looking at Defense, entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security, and a wide variety of tax incentives.
Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss says to get a long-term handle on the government's budget, those are the areas Congress needs to look at. He and Senator Warner are leading an unusual bipartisan effort to do just that.
Senator SAXBY CHAMBLISS (Republican, Georgia): For a Republican to put revenues on the table is significant. For a Democrat to put entitlements on the table is significant. The only way we're going to solve this problem is to have a dialogue about all of these issues, because there is no silver bullet.
HORSLEY: That was also the conclusion reached by the president's deficit commission. And for the last few months, Chambliss and Warner have been quietly working to turn the commission's blueprint into legislation.
Along with two Democrats and two Republicans who served on the commission, they've been dubbed The Gang of Six, that's despite Chambliss' objection that gangs are for making mischief. The group had remained pretty low key until today, when Warner and Chambliss made a presentation to a Chamber of Commerce forum in Richmond, Virginia.
Just as all parts of the budget have to be on the negotiating table, Warner says, both Republicans and Democrats have to be sitting around it.
Sen. WARNER: 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 somebody 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.
HORSLEY: The idea is Republicans will be more willing to raise tax revenue and Democrats more willing to tinker with Social Security if there's a sense sacrifice is being shared. The senators were questioned today about the shape of that sacrifice. They hinted that defense spending might be reduced, at some cost to Virginia's economy, and 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, he's encouraged 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.
Mr. DAVID ADDISON: 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. We have to deal with it now.
HORSLEY: Warner admits 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, though, he and Chambliss are not being ignored. Chambliss adds lawmakers can't afford to do nothing.
Sen. CHAMBLISS: If we don't do it, then those people that buy our bonds, i.e. the Chinese, are going to dictate to us exactly how we do it. And I don't think there's any American that wants to see that happen, and certainly no member of Congress who wants to see that happen.
HORSLEY: Today's presentation was a first step towards building support in the business community for a real debt-cutting program, even as the details of that program are still being filled in.
Scott Horsley, NPR News, Richmond.