If the abruptness with which the “Gang of Six” appeared to collapse Tuesday took many on Capitol Hill by surprise, the end result – much like the national debt crisis that the bipartisan group of lawmakers had been working for months to tackle – was not all that hard to anticipate.
For starters, the group’s apparent failure makes it only the latest chapter in Congress’s tortured history of bipartisan “gangs,” most of which toiled for months only to turn up empty-handed.
As news of the group’s unraveling made the rounds Tuesday night, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) noted that he himself has been a member of many failed “gangs,” and “by their nature, they’re contentious.”
“They’re trying to do things that are difficult; they’ve been working for months,” Graham said of the Gang of Six. “I appreciate their effort, and if it works out, I would give a lot of attention to their work product. I respect this kind of bipartisan effort. And if it fails, that just happens sometimes.”
Another “gang” veteran, Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), said the breakdown in the talks simply underscores that the issue of the country’s debt is “very difficult to solve.”
“I guess I’m not surprised,” Nelson told reporters, adding that rather than making him pessimistic, Tuesday’s news “helps make the point that I just gave and that is, it’s really difficult; it’s hard to bring people together on the issue.”
And exactly one week before the negotiations reached an impasse, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) publicly dismissed the group, projecting that any progress on the debt-ceiling issue would come from the other “Gang of Six” – the sextet of bipartisan, bicameral leaders meeting regularly with Vice President Joe Biden and other administration officials in talks at Blair House.
So does the “Gang of Six” stalemate mean that bipartisan cooperation is out of reach?
On the one hand, the collapse of a tight-knit group that had much invested in a debt-limit solution casts doubt on whether the Blair House talks will be able to succeed where the Gang fell short.
The six senators had been meeting weekly on the debt issue, even going so far as to take their show on the road. And in a sign of his own personal stake in the negotiations, Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) told ABC’s Jon Karl last month, “I certainly hope this leads to a result, because otherwise I’m going to have wasted five years of my life.”
By contrast, the congressional negotiators engaging in the Biden-led talks not only lack any sort of long-term personal engagement with each other on the issue but also are arguably a more partisan lot than the “Gang of Six” senators.
But, two factors suggest that the Biden talks may now be more promising than the “Gang of Six’s.”
The Blair House group is now the only game in town -- thus upping the stakes – and, as this year’s deal on averting a government shutdown showed, sometimes the threat of a looming crisis is the main ingredient in forging a bipartisan deal.
As Graham noted Tuesday, when it comes to tackling an issue as tough as the national debt, often the only path forward is a bipartisan one.
“On the big issues, you’ve got to have bipartisanship,”Graham said. “The debt commission was a bipartisan document; the vice president’s group is bipartisan; the Gang of Six is bipartisan. If all three of them fail to produce a product, we’re screwed.”