A half-dozen Republican and Democratic senators are trying to forge an agreement on how to bring down the U.S. government deficit.
Their private talks, which started with a chat on the Senate floor last year between Democrat Mark Warner of Virginia and Republican Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, may serve as a template for bipartisan pairings likely to drive much of what gets done by Congress through the 2012 elections.
Warner, who co-founded a company that became Nextel Corp., now Sprint Nextel Corp., and Chambliss, who as a member of the Armed Services Committee has promoted defense spending, are among a handful of senators working to turn the recommendations of President Barack Obama’s deficit commission into a legislative package of tax revisions and spending cuts.
Among the approaches the group is discussing, according to an account in the Wall Street Journal confirmed yesterday by an aide familiar with the talks, is a trigger mechanism whereby tax increases and spending cuts would automatically kick in if Congress didn’t cut federal expenditures or take other steps to rein in the deficit.
Democratic Senator Kent Conrad of South Dakota, the Budget Committee chairman and a member of the negotiating group, said the lawmakers are taking “a double-track approach,” though he declined to give details on the discussions.
“The first effort is to put together a comprehensive plan that really does bring down the deficit and the debt,” he said, “but we’re also considering a fail-safe mechanism to encourage Congress to make specific decisions.”
It’s unclear whether the idea will have enough support to be put in legislative form, much less be enacted.
The federal debt is approaching $14.3 trillion, its current legal limit.
Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Democrat and a member of the negotiating group, said on Feb. 16. that the lawmakers would like to find “agreement in a matter of weeks.”
The new makeup of Congress -- with Republicans ruling the House and Democratic Senate control reduced in November’s election to 53-47 -- gives these and other bipartisan efforts the chance to shape much of what happens on Capitol Hill, and help determine how productive Obama can be in the second half of his term.
Little Groups, Big Issues
“Centrists of both parties are forming little groups to try and tackle big issues,” said Jim Kessler, a former Senate Democratic aide who co-founded Third Way, a Washington-based think tank. “Nothing can get to the president’s desk without a substantial amount of Republican support, so virtually all legislation is going to involve negotiation and compromise. These small groups can take the lead.”
It was small talk between Chambliss and Warner last year on the Senate floor that turned serious and led the two to team up to focus on the deficit and debt, Chambliss said.
The pair has joined with the senators who served on Obama’s deficit panel -- Durbin, Conrad and Republicans Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Mike Crapo of Idaho -- to craft a legislative proposal.
“We’re going to need folks like Saxby and I who said, ‘You know, this is the time to check our Democrat and Republican hats and recognize that we’ve got to get this fixed,’” Warner said in a Bloomberg Television interview on Jan. 31. “Everybody’s got to have some skin in the game.”
While Warner and Chambliss eschew the comparison, their crew bears similarities to the so-called gang of 14, a group of seven Republican and seven Democratic senators who teamed in 2005 to avert a partisan showdown over changing the rules for blocking judicial nominees.
“History tells us with divided government, we can get a lot of things done,” Chambliss said in an interview. The government’s fiscal picture “has gotten so serious that Republicans and Democrats alike, I think, agree that we’ve got to solve the problem.”
Other areas are ripe for compromise, say senators in both parties and their aides, including energy and trade policy.
Independent Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, who caucuses with Democrats, has teamed with Republican Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget under former President George W. Bush, on legislation to reinstate trade negotiating authority for the Obama administration. The bill would express Congress’s support for passing pending trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama.
“People who haven’t traditionally worked together will find reason to work together,” said Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, a veteran of unofficial bipartisan cliques that in past years have cut deals on taxes and other matters.
Last month, Nelson proposed doing away with the aisle that cuts down the center of the Senate chamber, dividing Democrats from Republicans. His idea, which hasn’t been acted upon, was aimed at sustaining the cross-party comity that marked Obama’s State of the Union address, when many Republicans and Democrats broke with decades of tradition to sit together in the House chamber.
“I’m hopeful the mood will continue. There’s common ground to be found,” Nelson said.
Senate Democratic and Republican leaders demonstrated as much last month when they cut a deal to limit the use of stalling tactics, known as the filibuster, to block the chamber’s work.
The new dynamic could lead to gridlock as much as cooperation, particularly on the most politically sensitive issues such as health care. One challenge facing dealmakers is the reduction of their ranks in the 2010 elections.
The Senate’s roughly 15-member Democratic centrist group lost two leaders -- Senator Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, defeated in November, and Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana, who retired. That has left Delaware Senator Tom Carper in charge for now.
Senate Republicans known for reaching across the political aisle now number only about a half-dozen, including Maine Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown and Indiana Senator Richard Lugar. Snowe and Lugar both face potential primary 2012 challenges from fiscally conservative Tea Party activists.
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