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Senate Deficit ‘Gang’ Tests Clout of Bipartisan Teams

Senator Mark Warner
Senator Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

(Corrects Conrad’s home state in fifth paragraph in story that moved Feb. 17.)

Feb. 17 (Bloomberg) -- It started with a casual chat on the Senate floor.

Now Democratic Senator Mark Warner of Virginia and Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia are leading a bipartisan group trying to forge an agreement on tackling the country’s debt, which is approaching $14.3 trillion.

Warner, who co-founded a company that became Nextel Corp., now Sprint Nextel Corp., and Chambliss, who as a member of the Armed Services Committee has promoted defense spending, are among a handful of senators working to turn the recommendations of President Barack Obama’s deficit commission into a legislative package of tax reforms and spending cuts.

Among the approaches the group is discussing, according to an account in the Wall Street Journal confirmed today by an aide familiar with the talks, is a trigger mechanism whereby tax increases and spending cuts would automatically kick in if Congress didn’t cut federal expenditures or take other steps to rein in the deficit.

Senator Kent Conrad of North Dakota, the Budget Committee chairman and a member of the negotiating group, said they’re taking “a double-track approach” though he declined to give details on the discussions.

“The first effort is to put together a comprehensive plan that really does bring down the deficit and the debt down, but we’re also considering a fail-safe mechanism to encourage Congress to make specific decisions,” said Conrad, a Democrat.

‘Getting Close’

It’s unclear whether the idea would gain traction or have enough support to make it into legislative form.

“I think we’re getting close,” Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Democrat and a member of the negotiating group, said yesterday. He said the group would like to find “agreement in a matter of weeks.”

The new makeup of Capitol Hill -- with Republicans ruling the House and Democratic Senate control reduced in November’s election to 53-47 -- gives these and other bipartisan efforts the chance to shape much of what happens in Congress over the next two years and help determine how productive Obama can be in the second half of his term.

“Centrists of both parties are forming little groups to try and tackle big issues,” said Jim Kessler, a former Senate Democratic aide who co-founded Third Way, a Washington-based think tank. “Nothing can get to the president’s desk without a substantial amount of Republican support, so virtually all legislation is going to involve negotiation and compromise. These small groups can take the lead.”

Small Talk

It was small talk between Chambliss and Warner last year on the Senate floor that turned serious and led the two to team up to focus on the deficit and debt, Chambliss said.

The pair has joined with the senators who sat on Obama’s deficit panel -- Durbin and Conrad, as well as Republicans Tom Coburn on Oklahoma and Mike Crapo of Idaho -- to craft a legislative proposal.

Warner, in a Bloomberg Television interview on Jan. 31, said “We’re going to need folks like Saxby and I who said, ‘You know, this is the time to check our Democrat and Republican hats and recognize that we’ve got to get this fixed.’ Everybody’s got to have some skin in the game.”

While Warner and Chambliss eschew the comparison, their crew bears similarities to the so-called gang of 14, a group of seven Republican and seven Democratic senators who teamed in 2005 to avert a partisan showdown over changing the rules for blocking judicial nominees.

‘Dr. No’

The deficit-reduction group is politically more diverse, including Durbin, a proponent of government stimulus to spur the economy, and Coburn, known to his colleagues as “Dr. No” for his willingness to block spending bills.

“History tells us with divided government, we can get a lot of things done,” Chambliss said in an interview. The government’s fiscal picture “has gotten so serious that Republicans and Democrats alike, I think, agree that we’ve got to solve the problem.”

Other areas are ripe for compromise, say senators in both parties and their aides, including energy and trade policy.

Independent Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, who caucuses with Democrats, has teamed with Republican Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget under former President George W. Bush, on legislation to reinstate trade negotiating authority for the Obama administration. The bill would express Congress’s support for passing pending trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama.

‘Reason to Work Together’

“People who haven’t traditionally worked together will find reason to work together,” said Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, a veteran of unofficial bipartisan cliques that in past years have cut deals on taxes and other matters.

Last month, Nelson proposed doing away with the aisle that cuts down the center of the Senate chamber, dividing Democrats from Republicans. His idea, which hasn’t been acted upon, was aimed at sustaining the cross-party comity that marked Obama’s State of the Union address, when many Republicans and Democrats broke with decades of tradition to sit together in the House chamber.

“I’m hopeful the mood will continue. There’s common ground to be found,” Nelson said.

Senate Democratic and Republican leaders demonstrated as much last month when they cut a deal to limit the use of stalling tactics, known as the filibuster, to block the chamber’s work.

McConnell, Reid

Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said his party would use the filibuster less often, while Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said he would be more open to Republican amendments.

“I think we’re going to find in this Congress a lot more bipartisanship,” Reid said.

The new dynamic could lead to gridlock as much as cooperation, particularly on the most politically sensitive issues such as health care. One challenge facing dealmakers is the reduction of their ranks in the 2010 elections.

The Senate’s roughly 15-member Democratic centrist group lost two leaders -- Senator Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, defeated in November, and Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana, who retired. That has left Delaware Senator Tom Carper in charge for now.

Senate Republicans known for reaching across the political aisle now number only about a half-dozen, including Maine Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown and Indiana Senator Richard Lugar. Snowe and Lugar both face potential primary 2012 challenges from fiscally conservative Tea Party activists.

In the 435-member House, the ranks of fiscally conservative Democrats known as “Blue Dogs” now number only about 24 -- about half as many as before last year’s elections.

To contact the reporter on this story: Julie Hirschfeld Davis in Washington at   or Jdavis159@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at msilva@bloomberg.net

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