WASHINGTON — They were viewed as perhaps the last best hope for compromise on the giant thorny budget issues that have Washington deadlocked, but the Senate's "Gang of Six" now stands in disarray after Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., bolted the group in frustration.
In the wake of Coburn's exit, lawmakers and budget analysts were left to wonder: If this group of three Democrats and three Republicans couldn't reach common ground on tough budget and debt issues after months of closed-door bargaining, who could?
The gang's breakup illustrates how wide the partisan divide is in Washington, and how difficult it is to bridge in an era of fiercely partisan and ideological politics. And that's dangerous for the nation at a time when failure to achieve budget compromise and raise the nation's debt ceiling could spook financial markets and endanger the economic recovery.
"I still think they were the only game in town," said Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a bipartisan group that promotes fiscal discipline. "Compromise is in very short supply — it just doesn't exist. It's 24-7 campaign mode, and the point of campaigns is not to come together. It's to beat the other side."
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Bixby holds out hope that Coburn will return to the gang and equated his leaving to members of rock bands, sick of each other, breaking up but later getting back together for a reunion tour.
"I'm looking for rays of hope here," he said. "Maybe we'll have a revival of the Gang of Six in the fall."
Coburn on Thursday shooed reporters away, saying, "You can read about it in the paper. I'm not going to talk about it anymore. I'm on sabbatical." That last statement indicated at least a theoretical possibility that he might rejoin the deliberations in time.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, who with Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho are now the lone Republicans in the group, said, "We need six." Chambliss is under heavy pressure from conservatives in his home state not to compromise, and Coburn's presence gave him cover. Crapo, in a statement, indicated that he's ready to continue with the gang's work.
"Our fiscal challenges are too great to stop working toward a comprehensive, bipartisan solution," Crapo said. "I intend to keep working in good faith on these issues, because we have made too much progress to stop now."
The gang — which includes Democratic Sens. Mark Warner of Virginia, Kent Conrad of North Dakota and Assistant Majority Leader Richard Durbin of Illinois — was one of several Washington efforts seeking to forge compromises on budget issues to bring down the nation's ballooning debt.
A bipartisan presidential debt commission co-chaired by former Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., and former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles produced a compromise plan last fall that won bipartisan support from a majority of its members. But President Barack Obama largely ignored its recommendations in proposing his fiscal 2012 budget this year.
Vice President Joe Biden currently presides over a group of three senators and three leading members from the House of Representatives who are grappling behind closed doors with budget issues, but compromise so far is elusive.
"Why should it surprise anybody?" said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "It's amazing for six senators — three from each party — to organize. This is the era we're in, the era of hyper-polarization."
It's also an era fueled by a voracious 24-hour cable TV news cycle and talk radio stations filled with ideological commentators, as well as hungry social media — Twitter, YouTube, blogs — that can spotlight a politician's words and deeds online or on the air almost instantly. Any hint of deviation by them from their supporters' hard-line positions risks serious political blowback.
"It gets unfiltered messages out. There used to be filters, now you get the diamonds with the trash," Sabato said. "That makes it hard for politicians. They have to worry about their base constantly."
Indeed, social media were lit up Wednesday over Coburn’s departure from the Gang of Six. Ryan Ellis, the tax policy director of the conservative Americans for Tax Reform, couldn’t hide his glee.
“I love the Roll Call headline: “gang of six collapses in on itself,” Ellis Tweeted Wednesday. “god, I can’t read that enough times.”
In an interview, Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, called the group a farce, a phony beard to make liberal Senate Democrats seem like moderates in the eyes of voters. He said compromise is an antiquated, romantic notion of “old people” who remember when both political parties had liberal and conservative wings in the 1950s, '60s, and '70s.
"Its phony baloney, the two parties are sufficiently going in two different directions," Norquist said. "Everything's partisan that matters. The whole sense of why can't we do what we used to? Because the world's changed."
Unfortunately however, Washington can't get anything done unless either one party dominates both Congress and the White House, or else the two parties compromise.
Still, together or torn asunder, the Gang of Six's work will live on, said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. A veteran of other failed congressional gangs on climate change and overhauling the nation's immigration system, Graham said this gang may not produce a comprehensive body of work, but its recommendations could find their way into future legislation.
"Still, bipartisanship is required to get big things done," Graham said.
(Erika Bolstad of the Washington Bureau contributed.)
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