The gang is back together again.
A bipartisan group of senators convened on Tuesday to take a shot at crafting an expansive deficit-reduction deal that would allow the country to avoid the looming tax hikes and automatic spending cuts of the fiscal cliff. Known informally as the "Gang of Eight," the senators kicked off a three-day series of meetings in Mount Vernon, Va. to discuss the possible contours of a bargain.
But it's unclear whether they'll have any more success in bringing Congress to a deal this time around.
The original "Gang of Six" met in 2011 with the same goal of crafting a bipartisan plan on the long-term deficit. That group brought together Republican Sens. Tom Coburn (Okla.), Saxby Chambliss (Ga.), and Mike Crapo (Idaho) with Democratic Sens. Mark Warner (Va.), Majority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.), and Senate Budget Committee Chair Kent Conrad (D-N.D.). This year, the group has two new members, Michael Bennet (D-Co.) and Mike Johanns (R-Neb.).
On Tuesday, seven of the group's eight members met with Alan Simpson and Erksine Bowles, who led the president's deficit reduction commission, according to sources familiar with the meeting. (Durbin did not attend the meeting but participated remotely.) The Simpson-Bowles plan inspired the original Gang of Six's $3.7 trillion deficit-reduction proposal, which combined entitlement and spending cuts with $1 trillion in new tax revenue, assuming the Bush tax cuts for those with incomes over $250,000 would expire.
The group released that framework in July, just as Republicans were demanding deficit reduction in exchange for raising the debt limit. But it was essentially dead on arrival in Congress: The tax revenue target was anathema to Republicans who pledged to reject tax hikes. And with no members from the House or the party leadership, Gang of Six had no direct leverage to affect the central negotiations taking place between House Speaker John Boehner and President Obama.
There are even more moving parts this time around, as a grand deficit bargain was never struck. But the underlying dynamics haven't changed: The group of senators remains an adjunct to the central negotiations on the fiscal cliff, which few expect to begin in earnest until after the election. "Until the House has a similar conversation, or any signs that they want to talk, you can't consider it anything more than preliminary," says Stan Collender, a former Democratic staffer on the House and Senate budget committees.
Sources familiar with the group say that no breakthroughs were made at Tuesday's gathering. But in the event that it does come out with a new bargain, there's still a chance it could have an impact on future negotiations by setting new goalposts for the parties.
Even if it can't come up with a deal, the Gang of Eight's meetings still have symbolic value at a time when campaign politics have precluded the rest of Congress from acting, even as warnings about the fiscal cliff's dire impact have mounted. "It's a chance to show they're trying to do something," says Collender. "If the leadership isn't going to provide any opportunity, they're going to do it themselves."
Lori Montgomery contributed to this report.