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. On Tuesday night, Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn called it quits. Still unclear, though, is whether his departure proves fatal to a grand debt-reduction bargain between Republicans and Democrats.
It was already clear things had hit a rough patch in the Gang of Six even before Coburn made it official that he was leaving the group. Hours earlier, another member of the group, Georgia Republican Saxby Chambliss, was asked why this group had failed to agree on a debt reduction proposal.
"When you get down to the few issues that are really the game changers, that's when it gets tough," he said. "And that's kind of where we are."
On Wednesday, Chambliss acknowledged that losing one of the three Republicans in the Gang of Six makes everything much harder.
"Obviously, without Sen. Coburn in our group, I think it's fair to say that we're slowed down significantly," Chambliss said. "And I would hope we can convince Tom to come back in the fold."
On Wednesday, Coburn said he was on "sabbatical" from the group because they had "reached an impasse."
Asked if there are irreconcilable differences, he said: "I don't know. But I'm not going to keep banging my head for right now. I got other things I wanna do."
Grover Norquist, who heads the anti-tax lobbyist group Americans for Tax Reform and has been having a public spat with Coburn, says he's glad the Oklahoma Republican is stepping away from the group.
Norquist accuses Coburn of reneging on a pledge made seven years ago not to raise taxes — Coburn has said reducing the deficit may require increasing tax revenues.
"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 Republican elected officials is not to raise taxes to pay for the size of government that Obama wants," Norquist says.
Still, it appears it was Coburn's insistence on bigger cuts in entitlement spending that ultimately prompted him to quit.
"To Tom's credit," says Chambliss, "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."
The Biden Group
The aim of the Gang of Six 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 Sen. Jon Kyl is in that group, which he says is quite different from the Gang of Six.
"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," Kyl says. "Whereas, of course, our discussions at the Blair House are."
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell has thrown his weight behind the efforts being made by the Biden group.
"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," McConnell says. "If it reaches a decision, obviously we'll be recommending it to our members."
Republicans say that most likely won't happen until shortly before Aug. 2, the absolute deadline for raising the debt ceiling.