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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

A bipartisan group of senators known as the Gang of Six has been trying for months to strike a deal on deficit spending and the debt. Now, that sextet may be over. Last night, Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn called it quits. It's still unclear, though, whether his departure proves fatal to a grand debt reduction bargain between Republicans and Democrats.

NPR's David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA: It was already clear things had hit a rough patch in the Gang of Six even before Senator Coburn made it official he was leaving the group. Hours earlier, I'd asked another gang member, Georgia Republican Saxby Chambliss, why this group had failed to agree on a debt reduction proposal.

Senator SAXBY CHAMBLISS (Republican, Georgia): When you get down to the few issues that are really the game changers, that's when it gets tough, and that's kind of where we are.

WELNA: Today, Chambliss acknowledged that losing one of the three Republicans in the Gang of Six makes everything much harder.

Sen. CHAMBLISS: Obviously, without Senator Coburn in our group, I think it's fair to say that we're slowed down significantly. And I would hope we can convince Tom to come back in the fold.

WELNA: I caught up with Coburn today as he rushed from a hearing to his office and asked him if he would return to the fold.

Is this a temporary departure from the group?

Senator TOM COBURN (Republican, Oklahoma): We'll see. It's just, I'm on sabbatical right now. We'll see what happens.

WELNA: And why on sabbatical?

Sen. COBURN: Because we've reached an impasse.

WELNA: Are there irreconcilable differences?

Sen. COBURN: I don't know. But I'm not going to keep banging my head for right now. I got other things I want to do.

Mr. GROVER NORQUIST (President, Americans for Tax Reform): I'm glad he's stepping away from it.

WELNA: That's Grover Norquist. He heads the anti-tax lobbying group Americans for Tax Reform, and he's been having a public spat with Coburn. Norquist accuses the Oklahoma Republican of reneging on a pledge made seven years ago not to raise taxes since Coburn has said reducing the deficit may require increasing tax revenues.

Mr. NORQUIST: I think the taxpayers in the country have made it clear to Mr. Coburn and to the other senators that the goal of taxpayers and of Republican elected officials is not to raise taxes to pay for the size of government that Obama wants.

WELNA: Still, it appears it was Coburn's insistence on bigger cuts in entitlement spending that ultimately prompted him to quit.

Again, Georgia Republican Chambliss.

Sen. CHAMBLISS: To Tom's credit, he's hung in tough and made good arguments but felt like we had reached a point that he could no longer engage in discussions. So hopefully, we can ultimately get all of us back in the same room and get these tough issues resolved.

WELNA: The group's aim is to implement recommendations for long-term debt reduction made by the Bowles-Simpson presidential deficit commission.

Meanwhile, another bipartisan group of six lawmakers has been meeting at Blair House with Vice President Biden with a more immediate goal: striking a deal to raise the debt ceiling. Arizona Republican Senator Jon Kyl is in that group, which he says is quite different from the Gang of Six.

Senator JON KYL (Republican, Arizona): Their theory always was if we can get something, whenever we can get it, we'll try to go with it. But it's not tied to the debt ceiling, whereas, of course, our discussions at the Blair House are.

WELNA: Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell has thrown his weight behind the efforts being made by the group being led by the vice president.

Senator MITCH McCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky; Senate Minority Leader): I think that's a step in the right direction. And the Biden group is the group that can actually reach a decision on a bipartisan basis. And if it reaches a decision, obviously, we'll be recommending it to our members.

WELNA: Republicans say that likely won't happen until shortly before August 2nd, the absolute deadline for raising the debt ceiling.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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