A starting point is the final report of the federal deficit commission, released in December. The plan cut federal spending by $4 trillion over 10 years, in part by eliminating tax breaks. President Obama barely referenced the plan in his State of the Union address, nor have many party leaders.
But senators who served on the commission are continuing their discussions – largely outside of formal leadership channels – to test prospects for consensus. “It’s too important to just let it go,” says Sen. Tom Coburn (R) of Oklahoma, who cohosted an early morning meeting of some 40 senators on Tuesday.
A commission member, Senator Coburn surprised fellow conservatives by voting for the final report in December, which included both the spending cuts that conservatives are calling for as well as tax increases that they oppose. Sens. Kent Conrad (D) of North Dakota, Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois, and Mike Crapo (R) of Idaho – also commission members – are leading ongoing discussions. Many participants are reluctant to discuss the policy issues on the record, beyond noting the urgency of reining in soaring deficits.
“There’s consensus forming around the math, if not yet the method of dealing with the problem,” says an aide close to the talks.
At a time when leaders on both sides of the aisle are talking openly about prospects of a government shutdown, this revival of bipartisan activity marks a break with past practice, but one that participating senators say is a necessity.
“The members of the deficit commission who voted for the final report and some other senators are meeting to see if there is any way we can work together,” says Senator Durbin, who is the Senate majority whip, but not participating in that capacity. “It’s going to be a painful exercise, but we need to do it.”
Other joint ventures across party lines on the debt include:
- Sens. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee and Claire McCaskill (D) of Missouri introduced legislation on Feb. 1 to lower federal spending back to a 40-year historic level of 20.6 percent of GDP – down from the current level of 24.7 percent.
- Sens. Mark Warner (D) of Virginia and Saxby Chambliss (R) of Georgia founded an ad hoc working group on deficit reduction in December. They are discussing turning the deficit commission's report into legislative language, including trillions in spending cuts and an overhaul of the tax code that will require sacrifices of all Americans.
- Senator Coburn and Sen. Mark Begich (D) of Alaska on Feb. 3 introduced a bill that would rescind earmarks – or funds appropriated for member projects – that are at least 90 percent unused nine years after being appropriated. The House voted to ban earmarks in spending bills for fiscal year 2012, but Senate majority leader Harry Reid has defended the practice as an essential congressional prerogative. Sponsors say the measure could save taxpayers than $500 million. “We have to leave no stone unturned as we work to reduce the deficit,” Senator Begich said in a statement.
House and Senate leaders have staked out positions on debt and spending that are far apart: House Republicans are fixed on spending cuts, but no tax increases. Senate Democrats say that spending cuts in a recession will derail the recovery. In a press briefing on Thursday, majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada repeated his claim that Social Security is "not contributing a dime to the deficit" and should not be touched.
With partisan gaps that wide, a government shutdown this year appears more and more likely, says Stan Collender, a federal budget analyst with Qorvis Communications in Washington. He sees the rise of independent, bipartisan ventures as a bid to break out of that scenario. “You’ve got the rank-and-file saying: 'We don’t trust the leadership to carry this. We’re going to see what’s doable and bring it to the leadership,' " he says.
Similar bipartisan efforts by the so-called Gang of 14 broke a deadlock over filibusters of President Bush’s judicial nominations in 2005.