Senators gather to dish the deficit

Ben Pershing
Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Fresh off an election in which the ballooning budget deficit weighed heavily on voters' minds, a huge bipartisan majority of senators agreed last week on a tax-cut package that would add hundreds of billions of dollars to the national debt.

But two of the 81 senators who backed that deal - Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) - want it known that bipartisanship isn't achievable only when everyone's getting a tax cut.

Chambliss and Warner are the leaders of a new, informal gathering of senators who have been meeting periodically since the summer to discuss ways to curb the deficit. The group includes more than 20 senators, with a roughly even partisan split.

They have brought high-profile guests into their discussions, including Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke and former U.S. comptroller David M. Walker.

What unites the group is the belief - shared by President Obama's bipartisan deficit commission - that there is no "silver bullet" to fix the country's fiscal woes.

"The way you do it is put everything on the table," Chambliss said Wednesday, appearing with Warner before a group of reporters.

Now that the deficit commission's report is out - with controversial recommendations that include raising the retirement age for Social Security and cutting military spending - Chambliss and Warner plan to introduce the report as a "legislative vehicle" early in 2011, with a goal of finding a binding compromise by the end of next year.

"It is critically important to get a plan in place in the next 12 months" before the presidential election year, Chambliss said, even if the actual implementation of the plan is another year or more down the road.

Like the deficit commission's report, the work of the Chambliss-Warner group is non-binding. Senators need not swear any oath to join, and they haven't vowed to stick together on any particular votes or issues. They have agreed to what Warner called "a cease-fire on immediately criticizing each other's ideas."

"We're not starting with folks on the far right or the far left taking shots at this," Chambliss said. "We're starting with a group that's in the middle, and we're growing out."

Recent Senate history is littered with stabs at public bipartisanship, including the "Gang of 14," which banded together in 2005 to prevent a meltdown over filibustered judicial nominations, and the "Gang of Six" on the Senate Finance Committee, which attempted to negotiate a health-reform bill last year.

Warner and Chambliss bristle at any such comparisons.

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