WASHINGTON — After years of wrangling, members of the bipartisan group of senators known as the Gang of Eight have all but given up on a deficit reduction breakthrough and now say the best they can do is offer ideas for the one fiscal negotiation that will truly matter: talks between President Barack Obama and House Speaker John A. Boehner that begin in earnest today.
Another fruitless meeting this week of the Senate group has only raised the pressure ahead of the White House session between the president and congressional leaders.
"It was great. We had a lot of doughnuts," said Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the Senate's second-ranking Democrat and the most powerful member of the gang that was once seen as the best hope for a budget deal that could draw support from both parties.
Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., who has been negotiating with Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said it was time to squelch such side negotiations, lest they undermine Obama and Boehner.
"There's eight individuals, well-meaning and trying to get a deal, and it shows you how hard it is," Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. and an original member of the Gang of Eight, said of the apparent impasse. "And it's gotten harder after the election. As you might imagine, positions have hardened."
The efforts by such freelance negotiations were once seen as a bottom-up way to push leaders on Capitol Hill and in the White House toward the political center. But, Bennet said, time has run out. Now lawmakers from both parties say they need a solution imposed from the top.
Today Obama will meet with Boehner; Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the House Democratic leader; Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate majority leader, and Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader in the Senate, to formally begin deficit negotiations. White House officials say Obama is likely to extend another invitation for next week, after he returns from a trip to Asia and before Thanksgiving.