Dana Milbank
Opinion writer March 29, 2011

Sen. Tom Coburn, the Oklahoma Republican who received a perfect 100 percent rating from the American Conservative Union last year, does not frequently find common cause with Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat who received a perfect zero. But the nation’s future may depend on an alliance between them.

Both are members of the “Gang of Six,” a self-proclaimed group of Democratic and Republican senators negotiating a long-term budget deal to resolve the $14 trillion debt crisis. Their model for a solution is the Bowles-Simpson debt commission proposal, which Coburn and Durbin, both panel members, supported. It’s a long shot, but with luck these lawmakers will agree in the coming weeks on a plan to cut entitlement spending and to increase taxes — the unpleasant but essential ingredients of any attempt to tackle the deficit.

Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the nation’s capital. He joined the Post as a political reporter in 2000. View Archive

The resistance from both sides will be intense; after all, the much smaller effort to cut spending in the current fiscal year has brought threats of a government shutdown. And nobody will feel the pressure more than the group’s most conservative member, Coburn, and its most liberal, Durbin. The success of the Gang of Six depends on this political odd couple: whether Durbin, the No. 2 Senate Democratic leader, can persuade Democrats to accept some Social Security cuts and whether Coburn, a doctor, can overcome Republicans’ anaphylactic response to tax increases.

Coburn was already at work on this task on Tuesday, firing off a letter to a one-time ally, Grover Norquist, the Muppet-like leader of Americans for Tax Reform and the self-
appointed enforcer of anti-tax orthodoxy. Norquist’s group had accused Coburn of violating the “Taxpayer Protection Pledge.”

Coburn responded by accusing Norquist of supporting “wasteful spending and a de facto tax increase.” He charged the activist with a “profoundly misguided embrace of progressive, activist government” as well as “excessive spending and unsustainable deficits.” Coburn suggested that the activist “realign your organization with its own charter.”

The proximate cause of this unusual brawl on the right was a Coburn proposal, opposed by Norquist, to do away with a tax break for ethanol producers. But it was really part of the larger fight over debt reduction.

Coburn voted for the debt commission’s plan to cut the deficit by $4 trillion over 10 years through spending cuts and elimination of tax breaks — and for this he was rewarded with an item on Norquist’s Web site titled “The Two Faces of Senator Tom Coburn.”

The senator, however, refused to be bullied by Norquist’s orthodoxy police. He said Norquist was “demanding that Senate conservatives violate their consciences and support distortions in the tax code that increase spending and maintain Washington’s power.” Coburn said it was not the job of “party operatives” to “determine how to address our unsustainable spending and deficits, which present an existential threat to the nation we love so dearly.”

It takes some bravery to stand up to Norquist, but Durbin has an even tougher job, because his opposition comes from within his own Senate Democratic leadership team. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid flatly ruled out changes to Social Security, telling MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell: “Two decades from now I’m willing to take a look at it, but I’m not willing to take a look at it now.”

Reid and other Democratic lawmakers held a rally on Monday calling on Congress to “back off Social Security.” Sen. Chuck Schumer (N.Y.), a rival who has so far bested Durbin in the Reid succession battle, opposes the Group of Six on the grounds that it’s bad politics for Democrats. Sen. Max Baucus (Mont.), chairman of the Finance Committee, opposes the Group of Six because it trespasses on his turf.

Durbin is almost always a reliable partisan. On the Senate floor, he routinely carries his party’s message, speaking directly to the gallery and the TV cameras. On Tuesday morning, he was orchestrating another partisan stunt: He waved his family’s 150-year-old Lithuanian Bible for the cameras as he kicked off a hearing on Muslims’ civil rights — a session designed to rebut House Republicans’ hearing examining Muslim radicalization.

But on Social Security, Durbin hasn’t yielded to the party line. Though he has warned that including Social Security cuts could doom the agreement, he has not made excluding them a condition of his support. Indeed, Durbin already voted for the debt commission package that included Social Security cuts, even though he correctly predicted at the time: “My vote will be widely criticized.”

For Durbin and Coburn, the criticism is only beginning.

danamilbank@washpost.com