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Gang of Six Gone Bust?

4:47 PM, May 17, 2011 • By MICHAEL WARREN
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After much fanfare about a coming bipartisan budget agreement in the Senate, it looks as though rumors that the so-called Gang of Six had fallen apart may be true. Bloomberg reports:

A bipartisan “Gang of Six” senators is unlikely to reach agreement on a proposal to reduce the government’s long-term budget deficits, Senator Tom Coburn said today.

Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican and member of the group, said his colleagues remain “just too far apart on basic issues.”

Other senators in the group seeking a budget accord in Washington said an agreement remains within reach.

The group has been working privately for months trying to achieve an agreement on a combination of tax increases and spending cuts to reduce the deficit. Its negotiations have been closely followed in part because its members come from across the ideological spectrum of the Senate.

The very existence of the group was the ostensible reason the Senate Budget Committee had not yet voted on a FY2012 budget, even while the statutory deadline of April 15 has long since passed and the Republican House passed its own budget over a month ago. The Senate Democrats decided not to bring President Obama's own budget proposal to a vote, and Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is unlikely to bring either the House budget or Pat Toomey's (R-Penn.) proposal to the Senate floor.

So with no other budget options, the Senate Budget Committee, chaired by Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), still has the responsibility of bringing up a budget for a committee vote. After Conrad's original draft proposal was criticized by his fellow Democrats as being too conservative, the Budget chair reintroduced a modified version of his plan to his caucus colleagues, which was reportedly more warmly received by the liberal wing for its plan to reduce the deficit with a "50-50" approach ($2 trillion in spending cuts, along with $2 trillion in tax hikes). But as the Hill reports today, that budget proposal is still on shaky ground, with no committee mark up in sight:

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) says he has no immediate plans to mark up a budget, as members of his committee continue to disagree over spending cuts and tax increases.

Conrad said he has additional meetings scheduled with his colleagues Tuesday afternoon and will make an announcement in the coming days on a possible markup. 

“I’ll say something later — not today, probably,” Conrad said. “There are a lot of conversations under way.”

Conrad hasn't been able to move forward because, on the closely divided Budget Committee, he'll need all 12 Democratic votes to pass any budget. A Republican aide tells me that Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who caucuses with the Democrats and who sits on the Budget Committee, is likely holding up Conrad's bill. Sanders was reportedly unsatisfied with Conrad's original draft proposal because of its emphasis on spending cuts over tax increases. On the flip side, Conrad could risk losing the support of more moderate Democrats, such as Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who are both facing reelection next year. (Ben Nelson told Roll Call today that he doesn't support any tax hikes.)

Conrad could, however, afford to lose Sanders's vote if he were able to pick up a Republican on the committee with a more amenable compromise. But it's doubtful a budget will materialize anytime soon: It's been over two years (748 days exactly) since the Senate has passed a budget.

UPDATE: Andrew Stiles of NRO reports that it's now pretty much a certainty: Oklahoma Republican senator Tom Coburn announced he plans to "take a break" from the Gang of Six talks.

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