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 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 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.
Coburn on Wednesday 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 possibility that he might rejoin the deliberations in time.
Though he has left the Gang of Six, Coburn said Wednesday that he isn't abandoning attempts to cut the federal debt. He said that soon he would unveil his own plan to cut deficit spending by $9 trillion over 10 years, but he provided no other details. His office said he's likely to release his plan in about three weeks.
Meanwhile, Coburn said he wasn't pressured out by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., but did not give a reason for quitting.
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 pressure from conservatives in Georgia not to compromise, and Coburn's presence gave him cover. Crapo, in a statement, indicated he's ready to move forward.
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 reduce the nation's debt.
A bipartisan presidential debt commission co-chaired by former Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., and Erskine Bowles, former President Bill Clinton's chief of staff, 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 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.