‘Gang’ of Senators Looks to Overcome Partisanship to Fix Debt, Deficit Issues


In the spectacular oceanside city of Monterey, Calif., this week, I spent several fascinating hours with two former U.S. senators who told fond stories about Congress but decried the lack of civility in the place where they spent a collective 42 years. At two forums sponsored by the Panetta Institute for Public Policy, founded over a decade ago by CIA Director and Secretary of Defense nominee Leon Panetta, and his wife Sylvia Panetta, I interviewed Evan Bayh, Democrat of Indiana, who declined to run for re-election last year after two terms, and John Warner, Republican of Virginia, who stepped down after five terms, in part because he dreaded a Tea Party-like challenge from the right wing of his own party.

Both Bayh and Warner are unsparing in their assessment of the partisan divide that they argue has all but taken over Washington and the nation’s politics, to a degree never seen before. Warner recalled his early days in the Senate when members from different parties got to know one another and each other’s families, and there was a feeling of camaraderie that transcended political labels. Bayh noted his father, former Sen. Birch Bayh, also a Democrat from Indiana, was once asked by the Republican Senate leader Everett Dirksen what he could do to help him win re-election.

Nowadays, Warner said, the need to raise millions of dollars just to get a campaign for Congress off the ground, and the power that that gives activists at the extremes of the political spectrum, has helped drive away moderates. Bayh deplored the tendency to demonize and impugn the motives of those in the other party, even to challenge their patriotism, making compromise harder. Both spoke of increased power in the hands of party chiefs in the Congress, giving them leverage to reward and punish members who don’t vote the party line.

All this matters, they said, because it is making it so much harder — impossible at times — to reach consensus on the most important issues facing the country, from health care and education, to the rising national government debt, now pegged at $14 trillion.

Having talked with Bayh and Warner, and hearing their pessimistic view of partisanship run amok in American public life, a view that squares with what I’ve observed in Washington over recent years, it was somewhat surprising Thursday to sit down with a handful of sitting senators — from both sides of the aisle — who are working together to address the long-term debt challenge.

The so-called Gang of Six came together last summer, after Republican Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Democrat Mark Warner of Virginia (no relation to John Warner) began to have conversations about their shared frustration with the lack of progress on the federal fiscal picture. They’ve been working unusually quietly behind the scenes since then — almost no leaks to the press — with two more Republicans, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Mike Crapo of Idaho, and two more Democrats, Assistant Senate Majority Leader Dick Durbin of Illinois and Kent Conrad of North Dakota.

On Thursday, with Coburn having just dropped out — citing a temporary impasse — the remaining members of the Gang, minus Conrad who was called away at the last minute, sat down with me for their first public group discussion of what they are working on. The venue, a forum organized by the non-partisan Peter G. Peterson Foundation, was a day-long look at the status of efforts to address the federal deficit and especially the exploding debt. What these four senators told me and the Peterson audience is that they are working hard — sometimes meeting every day in a week — to come up with a proposal that will win enough votes to pass Congress and be signed by President Obama. Each confirmed that “everything” is on the table: spending cuts and revenue increases.

Watch the discussion (starts at 26:52; interview begins at 28:17).

According to Crapo, “We are making progress and we are doing something I haven’t seen in the U.S. Senate in a long time: sitting down as Republicans and Democrats to try to bridge the differences between the two parties on the phenomenally broad issues of our day, from Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid to spending (defined as) discretionary including defense to revenues, and to the enforcement to stop Congress from getting around it.”

Asked why they have the confidence to believe their fellow Senators would go along with what they recommend in the current bitterly partisan environment, Crapo and Durbin described the encouragement they’re getting from both Democratic and Republican colleagues and from people around the country. Durbin told me, “we are receiving encouragement from both political parties not to quit. They understand our process is the only hope, a bipartisan process where people are giving on both sides, trying to reach a common goal, putting aside our own politics.”

Despite outside attacks from groups like Americans for Tax Reform, led by conservative Grover Norquist, who has excoriated the Republican participants for even considering tax increases, and general skepticism that anything meaningful will come of their efforts, since even short-term fiscal agreements have been bitterly contentious, Sen. Mark Warner said he believes their efforts can ultimately pay off when people see that “the burden is equal,” that “everyone will have skin in the game.”

Chambliss insisted that the group has known all along how hard it will be to sell what they come up with to the rest of their colleagues in the Senate and the House. He said after months of work, and real progress, the group is now grappling with “major issues” and “that’s why it’s so difficult.” He wouldn’t forecast when they will have something to announce: “All four of us would like to say next week. We are not there. But when we do, it will be a plan everyone dislikes, because all of America will have to share in the sacrifice if we are to get the debt under control.”

It doesn’t sound pretty, but the fact that they’re doing the almost unheard-of thing in Washington — working seriously across the aisle to solve a big problem — can give hope to those who despair over the common political narrative about our federal government, that it is defined and controlled by the split between the two parties.

Doubts are abundant that they’ll reach agreement, and, if they do, that it’ll fly politically. We’ll see.