Deficit Reduction Grand Deal Unlikely as Coburn Quits ‘Gang of Six’ Talks

BY David Chalian  May 18, 2011 at 8:56 AM EDT

Sen. Tom Coburn; photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., is a member of the so-called “Gang of Six.” Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

The Morning Line

The quest for a bipartisan solution to the country’s short- and long-term deficit problems got a lot tougher Tuesday when Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., walked away from the negotiating table.

Sen. Coburn is one of three Republicans senators in the so-called “Gang of Six,” who for several months have been working at turning the recommendations put forth by the President Obama’s fiscal commission into passable legislation.

The New York Times’ Jackie Calmes writes up the statement from Sen. Coburn’s office:

“He is disappointed the group has not been able to bridge the gap between what needs to happen and what senators will support,” said a Coburn spokesman, John Hart. “He has decided to take a break from the talks.”

The Washington Post’s Phil Rucker and Lori Montgomery report on the cause of his departure:

“Coburn began pressing for sharper cuts to Social Security than had been previously agreed to, according to sources familiar with the talks who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the private nature of the negotiations. And during a three-hour session late Monday, the sources said, Coburn demanded deep and immediate cuts to Medicare that went beyond anything previously proposed.”

The remaining five members of the gang — Republicans Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Michael Crapo of Idaho, and Democrats Kent Conrad of North Dakota, Richard Durbin of Illinois and Mark Warner of Virginia — are expected to continue to meet Wednesday and beyond, but Sen. Coburn’s departure is a critical signal that a bipartisan consensus on how to reduce the deficit by $4 trillion over the next 10 years may prove elusive.

The White House has always appeared supportive but somewhat skeptical that the “Gang of Six” would come to a deal. The breakdown now puts more pressure on Vice President Joe Biden to strike a deal in the bipartisan, bicameral negotiations he’s been leading, which are aimed at taking a first significant stab at long-term deficit reduction without trying to resolve all of the differences on major entitlement programs.

GINGRICH’S BAD WEEK ROLLS ON

Wednesday marks the third day in a row that former House Speaker Newt Gingrich finds himself battling headlines about the rough rollout of his candidacy and the fallout from his “Meet the Press” appearance on Sunday.

The Washington Post: “Gingrich’s bumpy start deepens doubts about his presidential candidacy”

POLITICO: “Gingrich campaign fights for its life”

On Tuesday, he called to apologize to Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who drafted the GOP budget plan that Gingrich suggested was “right-wing social engineering” and “radical.” Gingrich also reasserted to the budget committee chairman that he would have voted for his proposal.

The former House speaker also went on Fox News Tuesday night and refused to answer Greta Van Susteren’s questions about the $250,000 to $500,000 owed to upscale jeweler Tiffany & Co. listed on his wife’s financial disclosure form a few years back.

Gingrich and his wife, Callista, also suffered the indignity of a protester showering them with glitter at a Minneapolis book signing event Tuesday.

There’s no doubt that Gingrich’s week is a textbook lesson on how not to roll out a presidential campaign. The candidate himself expressed uncertainty on Sunday’s “Meet the Press” whether or not he has the discipline to make it through the daily rigors of modern presidential campaign.

Gingrich continues his 17-city Iowa campaign swing this week. Watching him attempt to pull out of this tailspin will tell us a lot about the candidate and whether or not his campaign is a major league operation.

SANTORUM VS. MCCAIN

Rick Santorum certainly raised eyebrows Tuesday when he challenged Sen. John McCain’s assertion that enhanced interrogation techniques such as water-boarding — or simulated drowning — did not lead to finding Osama bin Laden.

“This idea that we didn’t ask that question while [alleged 9/11 mastermind] Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was being water-boarded, he doesn’t understand how enhanced interrogation works,” the former Pennsylvania senator said of his GOP colleague in a radio interview.

“I mean, you break somebody, and after they’re broken, they become cooperative. And that’s when we got this information. And one thing led to another, and led to another, and that’s how we ended up with bin Laden.”

That Santorum would engage Sen. McCain in a debate on this particular issue, and insist he “doesn’t understand” how the techniques work, seems a bit of a head-scratcher, considering how the Arizonan is a Vietnam War hero who was tortured for nearly five years while being held as a prisoner of war.

Santorum’s comments came less than a week after Sen. McCain delivered impassioned remarks on Senate floor arguing against the use of such techniques, saying such actions “compromise our deepest values” as a country.

In the case of Mohammed, Sen. McCain said the interrogation measures actually produced “false and misleading information.”

UP IN SMOKE

Republican presidential candidate Gary Johnson picked up the endorsement of country singer-songwriter Willie Nelson Tuesday.

“I am truly gratified to have the endorsement of such a legendary entertainer and champion for individual rights as Willie Nelson,” the former New Mexico governor said in a statement.

Nelson, who has been arrested multiple times for marijuana possession, most recently last year, supports legalization of the drug, which is also a key issue of Johnson’s campaign.

“I advocate legalizing marijuana. Control it, regulate, tax it,” Johnson said in the first GOP debate held earlier this month in South Carolina.

We’ll have to wait and see if Nelson joins Johnson on the road or cuts a campaign ad for the candidate a la Chuck Norris and Mike Huckabee in 2008.

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