Politics & Policy

Gang War

Senator Tom Coburn (R., Okla.)
Senator Coburn eyes a big deal on the debt.

On the third floor of the Capitol, in a cramped, dusty hallway, Senator Tom Coburn (R., Okla.) pulls a key out of his pocket and opens the door to his hideaway office — a windowless, low-ceilinged room that’s decorated with a burgundy couch, an old computer, and a couple of chairs.

These days, Coburn tells me, he spends many late evenings in similarly hidden spots, huddling with more than a dozen senators, both Democratic and Republican. But these private talks aren’t bull sessions: They’re part of a renewed push for a “grand bargain” — a debt-reduction deal.

A year ago, Coburn recalls, he and a handful of senators — “the Gang of Six” — settled on a $3.7 trillion debt-reduction package that included $1 trillion in new revenues, mostly from eliminating various tax deductions. President Obama promptly endorsed the proposal, but it went nowhere.

Coburn and fellow gang members, including Democrat Dick Durbin of Illinois, were disappointed, but they weren’t finished. Ever since, they have continued to meet. And after the November election, he says, they may be ready to unveil a revamped plan for tax and entitlement reform.

A growing cadre of Senate Republicans, Coburn reports, is expressing genuine interest in the gang’s work. Tennessee’s two GOP senators, Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, have been publicly supportive, as have Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Senator Mike Crapo of Idaho.

Beyond those names, Coburn says, there is a broader group of “ten to 15” Republicans that is waiting in the wings. “They are ready to belly up to the line and get a deal done,” he says. Should Democrats agree on a series of entitlement cuts, “you can expect even more from our side.”

Coburn does not expect any serious debt-reduction legislation to be considered on the floor until the lame-duck session, so the gang’s goal between now and then is to make sure that their revised plan is finalized and, more important, fully understood by Senate colleagues.

That won’t be easy, Coburn acknowledges, since it will require him to challenge resistant members of both parties. Many of Coburn’s fellow Republicans, for example, remain wary of his push to axe certain tax loopholes, since it could be construed by conservatives as a tax increase.

Across the aisle, Coburn’s Democratic allies are also having a tough time corralling members. Entitlement reform petrifies liberals, and Coburn’s personal friend, President Obama, has avoided becoming involved in the latest incarnation of debt talks, to the senator’s chagrin.

“Their angle is that they have to make us look like we’re hurting old people,” Coburn says. “Of course, not fixing Medicare and Social Security right now actually hurts old people more, because when you go to fix it, you’re going to have make severe changes in order to save it.”

But at least in Durbin, an Obama confidant, Coburn has a partner. “Dick gets the big picture, he’s showing courage,” he says. The brusque Oklahoma doctor and the Illinois legislator have been in consultation for months, looking ahead and strategizing a lame-duck legislative agenda.

Coburn — the author of The Debt Bomb, a scathing and frank new book about the country’s fiscal future — will spend the summer making his pitch, to Republicans in particular, about the urgency of addressing entitlements and the tax code now, not in the middle of a fiscal crisis.

“We can build consensus,” Coburn says. The best-case scenario, he says, would be for Congress to agree to scrap the current tax code, and then rebuild parts that have wide bipartisan support, such as the deductions for charitable contributions and for primary-residence mortgages.

Sacrifices will have to be made, Coburn cautions, in order to make any deficit deal viable, especially by the end of the year. As a longtime fiscal conservative, Coburn would prefer to keep rates as low as possible. “But will Republicans have to compromise on revenue? Yes,” he says.

“The well-to-do are okay paying some more taxes as long as the taxes are going to pay down the debt, not going to grow the government,” Coburn says. Coburn hopes that if a deal includes major entitlement reforms, as well as slight revenue increases, Republicans won’t run for the hills.

That kind of talk may not please Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, but Coburn doesn’t care. At this point in the debate, he says, with the country’s finances deep in the red, becoming mired in debate about minor revenue increases misses the point.

“Those of us who have been butting up against Grover aren’t for an increase in tax rates. I’m actually for a net decrease,” Coburn says.”But you can’t say you want a net decrease and negotiate. You want to get something that gets you somewhere close, to get the country moving.”

“Look, we’ve got to do something,” Coburn says. “Americans are looking for leaders and they don’t see them, on either side. Can Romney talk about the real problems? I don’t know. I hope so. But we’ve got to continue to work, so that later this year, we can agree on a solution.”

– Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.

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