Senators ‘encouraged’ as Gang of Six deficit talks resume, minus Coburn

One day after the departure of a key Republican senator threatened to derail the bipartisan Gang of Six talks aimed at producing a comprehensive deficit-reduction plan, the group’s remaining five members emerged from an hour-long huddle Wednesday sounding an optimistic note and pledging to meet again Thursday.

“We had a very constructive meeting today; we intend to meet again tomorrow, and we’re going to keep working,” Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (N.D.), one of three Democrats in the working group, told reporters after Wednesday’s meeting. “I think that’s a summary of what we’re going to say at this moment, and I think all of us are encouraged.”

In addition to Conrad, the group’s other four remaining members are Sens. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) and Mike Crapo (R-Idaho).

The bipartisan group was dealt a serious blow Tuesday when Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) withdrew from the talks, citing an “impasse” with Democrats over entitlement spending.

But there were signs Wednesday that Coburn might return to the group if it could make substantial progress on some of his key proposals, including deeper cuts to entitlement programs.

“Look, the problems in front of our country are real, and if they can work something out that’s agreeable to me, I’ll look at it,” Coburn told reporters Wednesday afternoon, describing himself as “still on sabbatical.”

A spokesman for Coburn said the Oklahoma Republican also plans to “put out his own marker” that would cut $9 trillion over the next decade by trimming entitlement, defense and discretionary spending as well as increasing revenue. “He believes it’s time to go sacred-cow-tipping,” spokesman John Hart said.

Chambliss said the remaining members had no intention of replacing Coburn with another Republican, and Conrad cautioned against making any assumptions about the makeup of the group.

“I don’t think you should make any conclusion about what the number might be,” Conrad said.

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