President Obama will command center stage Wednesday when he outlines a plan to cut popular programs such as Medicare and raise taxes on upper-income Americans to tame the $14.3 trillion national debt. But six lesser-known senators may have a better chance of commanding the votes needed for action.
The "Gang of Six," as they are known, is close to offering a deficit-reduction plan more specific than what Obama plans to talk about this week. It would be the only bipartisan plan in Congress, written by liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans.
The gang leaders, Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia and Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, outlined the need for major action Monday before the Rotary Club of Atlanta. Today, they'll be back in Washington for more private meetings.
"We hope this week to make the progress we need to close the deal," said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the Senate's assistant majority leader. He said a plan from three Democrats and three Republicans "could be a game changer" that "might set the stage for some broad agreement."
As Congress prepares to vote this week on $38.5 billion in spending cuts for 2011 that averted a partial government shutdown over the weekend, plans for trillion-dollar savings are proliferating:
- An 18-member bipartisan commission called in December for nearly $4 trillion in spending cuts and tax increases over the next decade. It included four of the Senate gang's members: Durbin; Kent Conrad, D-N.D.; Tom Coburn, R-Okla.; and Mike Crapo, R-Idaho. The Bipartisan Policy Center think tank went further, calling for almost $6 trillion.
- Last week, Republicans, who control the House of Representatives, produced a plan that they said would cut nearly $6 trillion in spending. The plan, written by Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, calls for major cuts in Medicare and Medicaid, and it would cut taxes and include small reductions in defense spending.
- Obama's speech at George Washington University and the Gang of Six proposal soon thereafter will complete the picture, giving lawmakers a range of options for what would be the biggest deficit-slashing package in at least 14 years.
"Everybody's going to have some skin in the game," Warner said. "We don't need another commission. ... We need to move forward."
The slide show he and Chambliss presented to the Rotarians on Monday was intended to boost their case for action this year. Without action, they said, the national debt will be on a par with Greece by the end of the decade. Congress must vote to raise the government's debt ceiling by early July or risk an unprecedented default.
The Gang of Six approach is based on Obama's commission, which called for a mix of spending cuts and tax increases. Obama never endorsed the plan, and his proposed 2012 budget called for only $1.1 trillion in deficit reduction over 10 years.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said the president knows much more is required.
"The speech will once again demonstrate the president's seriousness about deficit reduction," Carney said.
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