Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.), left, and Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) lead the current Gang of Eight. (Mary Calvert/AP)

Lawmakers eager to tackle a serious policy issue — and to perhaps boost their profile — often find that it’s best to join a gang.

In the current debate over how to avoid a series of automatic spending cuts and tax increases, a bipartisan group of senators has met occasionally for almost two years to work on proposals to restore the nation’s fiscal health. The clique began with six members, briefly shrank to five and has since grown to include eight lawmakers — earning it a nickname, the “Gang of Eight.”

There is a rich history of congressional gangs, including the “Gang of Seven” freshmen House Republicans who made hay of the House banking scandal in the early 1990s and forced long-sought ethics reforms. In 2005, a bipartisan “Gang of 14” negotiated a compromise that ended a years-long logjam in the confirmation of several federal court nominees. A “Gang of Six” in 2009 unsuccessfully sought to negotiate a bipartisan compromise on health-care reform.

The current gang is led by Sens. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) and Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), who started talking in early 2011 shortly after the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles Commission failed to earn enough support in Congress. Instead of abandoning the panel’s recommendations, the group embraced politically risky proposals, including calls to end corporate tax loopholes, force wealthier seniors to pay more for Medicare and raise the Social Security retirement age.

At its inception, Warner and Chambliss joined with four senators who sat on the commission and enjoyed close personal relationships with GOP congressional leaders or President Obama: Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) (close to Obama), Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), who is close to House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). Coburn briefly abandoned the talksbut later rejoined, and the group has added Sens. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) and Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.).

After months of talks, the gang agreed to a 10-year, $3.7 trillion deficit reduction plan that would immediately slash $500 billion in government spending and allow legislative committees to find additional savings by overhauling entitlement programs and rewriting the tax code. The goals mirrored Simpson-Bowles by forcing deep spending cuts, significantly reducing Medicare spending and reforming Social Security to keep it solvent for another 75 years.

Ultimately, dozens of senators — described by one as “a mob of 50” — endorsed the plan. But the group never earned full support from Senate leaders and House Republicans, who were negotiating competing proposals with Obama. Regardless, Obama heralded the gang’s plan as “broadly consistent” with his own plans — a move that contributed to the collapse of secret talks with Boehner to strike a compromise.

Despite failing to reach a deal last year, the gang never entirely disbanded. It began meeting again just weeks before Election Day, beginning with three days of closed-door talks at George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate in Virginia with Alan Simpson and Erskine B. Bowles. Chambliss has joined with other Republican senators in recent days to say they won’t be bound by campaign pledges to oppose any tax increases — possibly signaling a broader GOP shift in the making.

The “Gang of Eight” doesn’t have a seat at the table in negotiations between the White House and Congress, but it could become influential in securing bipartisan support for a final deal.

About this series

This is part of an occasional series of stories that will try to make sense of the nation’s “fiscal cliff” crisis by looking at the players, their positions and the issues at stake.

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