Politics & Government

Chambliss: Gang of Six will try again to repair nation's debt

WASHINGTON — Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., co-chairman of the "Gang of Six" — a bipartisan group of senators who proposed a debt solution months ago — said Tuesday the group has renewed its effort but now faces complex procedural challenges, a toxic election-year climate and tepid leadership support.

"Anytime you go into a presidential election year the political pressure gets ratcheted up. We knew this during all of 2011," Chambliss said Tuesday. "But waiting 'til after the election makes no sense at all, and the best way to get major legislation forward is in a divided government."

The failure this month of Congress' so-called supercommittee — the bipartisan panel of lawmakers that was supposed to cut at least $1.2 trillion from looming federal deficits — further complicates the Gang of Six's efforts to pick up the pieces, Chambliss said in an interview Tuesday with McClatchy. The group had hoped to rely on the supercommittee's framework for cuts, but that committee's members were unable to agree on the best way to reduce the nation's debt.

The supercommittee's failure means $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts will kick in January 2013. Half of those cuts will come from defense and the other half from domestic spending.

"Now that the debt commission has completely failed we're in the process of taking our basic proposal... looking at what was done in the spring and during the debt ceiling vote and take out any duplications," Chambliss said, adding that he doesn't have a definitive timeline for filing legislation.

The legislative task of putting such a package together is immense, especially on the tax side, said Randall Strahan, a political science professor at Emory University.

"That's not something you can pull out of your hat and run to the floor and pass," he said.

Earlier this year, the Gang of Six, co-led by Chambliss and Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., worked behind the scenes for months to craft a plan to cut roughly $3.7 trillion from the budget over the next decade.

Their proposal would trim domestic spending in such areas as defense and farm subsidies, would reform entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security, and would increase tax revenues by $1 trillion by closing tax loopholes while eliminating the controversial alternative minimum tax.

Unlike the supercommittee, which would have been able to put forth legislation that bypassed the traditional committee process, the bulk of the Gang of Six's plan would have to go to House and Senate committees which could mean lengthy delays as lawmakers bicker over cuts.

Then there is this political reality: Some lawmakers won't want to touch issues as controversial as raising taxes and cutting entitlement spending — both of which are core parts of the group's plan — during an election year.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., a member of the group, has publicly said Democrats may reject proposals to cut entitlement spending. However he and other Democrats in the group agree those cuts are necessary to help balance the budget.

"I think this group is definitely working against the political tide right now," Strahan said. "However, I think any plan that got the support of both Durbin and (Republican Oklahoma Sen. Tom) Coburn would have some possibility for providing a framework for some sort of bipartisan agreement. It is conceivable that might be some sort of package that could get through the Senate. The sticking point might be the House."

Conservative House members will likely balk at the group's proposal to increase some taxes, and liberals would likely reject attempts at aggressive entitlement reform, Strahan said.

Chambliss previously weathered blowback from conservatives in his state for his participation in the bipartisan group.

"It's hard to imagine endorsing a package with $1 trillion in new taxes is going to endear him to the Republican base in Georgia," Strahan said. "In that respect, it is a sign of political independence on his part. This may reflect his judgment of the severity of the problem."

While both Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell have been supportive of efforts to craft bipartisan solutions to the nation's debt, they both have been cautious about endorsing the Gang of Six's plan — citing that the proposal is not yet in legislative form.

"I say, put it in bill form, have it scored, bring it to me and I'll have a look at it. But other than that, it's just happy talk," Reid told reporters Tuesday.

Said Chambliss: "It is safe to say leadership on both sides on both sides have not been embracing of the Gang of Six effort."

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