Correction to This Article
This article about the Senate's Gang of Six deficit-reduction talks incorrectly described Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) as the Senate majority leader. He is the minority leader. The article also incorrectly identified Carmen Reinhart as a University of Maryland economist. Reinhart, no longer affiliated with the university, is a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

'Gang of 6' senators launch public campaign to support deficit reduction

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 8, 2011

RICHMOND - While Washington bickers noisily over cutting a small slice of the federal budget, Sens. Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat, and Saxby Chambliss, a Georgia Republican, launched a campaign Monday to convince the public that merely cutting spending will do little to tame the $14 trillion national debt.

The nation will be "up the creek" economically, Warner told a crowd of more than 200 lobbyists and business leaders in Richmond, unless Congress and the White House come together in support of highly unpopular measures such as raising taxes and overhauling Social Security and Medicare.

Even as congressional debate in recent years has been crippled by partisan rancor, Warner and Chambliss have entered quiet talks with four other senators from both parties in hopes of forging a compromise that could lead toward a more affordable government.

The town hall meeting was part of an emerging effort to build support beyond the Beltway for possible steps that have so far been deemed politically suicidal, such as asking business owners to give up tax breaks and workers to put off retirement until age 69.

"Everything is on the table," Chambliss said. "For a Republican to put revenues on the table is significant. For a Democrat to put entitlements on the table is significant. But Mark and I believe and know in our hearts that the only way we're going to solve this problem is to have a dialogue about these issues."

The group, which has taken to calling itself the Gang of Six, includes some of the Senate's most influential members, men with close ties to President Obama and GOP congressional leaders.

In addition to Chambliss and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who are personal friends of House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), the Gang of Six includes Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), a close adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.); Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee; and Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate and a close Obama ally. Warner is the former governor who famously balanced the Virginia budget.

The payoff for their efforts, the senators say, would be a more prosperous economy - and a reduced threat that the United States would face the kind of debt crisis that has sparked painful reforms in Greece and some other European countries.

"The picture needs to be painted for the American people that change is coming," Coburn said. "The question is, are we going to have it in a concerted, planned-out manner? Or are we going to have it in a firestorm?"

The group has been meeting weekly, while about 30 other senators are watching from the sidelines to see whether the talks produce a politically viable deficit-reduction plan they can back. Supporters include Senate veterans such as Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and newcomers such as Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), a freshman facing her first reelection campaign next year. Klobuchar called the Gang of Six "an island of rationality" in a sea of denial about the nation's fiscal problems.

"We have a significant number of people that really are interested in doing the right thing," she said. "And we still have not given up hope that we can do this."

Klobuchar helped launch the deficit-reduction effort about a year ago, when Obama was pushing Congress to increase the legal limit on government borrowing. She and 13 other senators, led by Conrad and Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), withheld their votes and demanded that Obama create a commission to tackle the problem.

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