Gang Ready to Jump Into Action if Obama-Boehner Talks Fail

Stacy Kaper

After two years of near-weekly meetings, countless conference calls, breakfasts, and dinners spent batting back and forth deficit-reduction ideas, the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” senators is shifting its focus, now that the deadline for a fiscal-cliff deal is just days away.

Instead of trying to craft its own deal, the group is putting its considerable energy toward encouraging a budget compromise between House Speaker John Boehner and President Obama, according to aides of the senators. Should Obama and Boehner arrive at a deal, the group will seek to rally momentum for its passage on Capitol Hill—where it may need considerable help—although it’s questionable how much cover the senators could give a package that might come under siege from both conservatives and liberals in the House who blanch at a tax-hike/entitlement-cut deal.

The gang has not held a formal meeting since Nov. 13 and has no plans to do so, aides say. But that doesn’t mean its members aim to sit idly by as the nation careens toward a fiscal precipice.

Their group has weighed in on debates over tax and entitlement reform since the Simpson-Bowles deficit-reduction commission ended its work two years ago without the votes needed to send its blueprint to Congress, and the eight senators are heavily invested in getting a resolution. Should the top-level leadership talks collapse at the eleventh hour, the gang could swing back into high gear.

“If too long goes by without progress, you could begin to see reengagement by others in the Senate who want to see a solution,” a GOP aide said.

For now, the gang is staying out of the spotlight, leaving the negotiating to the two men at the center of it all: Boehner and Obama.

“The negotiations at this point are almost exclusively being done by the president’s team [and] the speaker’s team, so many of the rest of us who have ideas and suggestions are kind of standing down and are letting those guys kind of go at it,” Sen. Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat and the gang’s unofficial ringleader, told a radio station last week.

Individual members of the group have made an impact, though. When Sen. Tom Coburn , the Oklahoma Republican who is one of the Gang of Eight and also sat on the Simpson-Bowles commission, expressed openness to revenue increases, his comments helped break the ice on the GOP side.

The gang had already begun shifting its goals when the senators last met before Thanksgiving. As soon as the first big fiscal-cliff meeting between Obama and congressional leaders was announced, several members, including Sens. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and Mike Johanns, R-Neb., said publicly that those talks should be the main focus.

“The game plan right now is to let the negotiations between Boehner and Obama play their course and give them some room to do what they need to do,” said an aide to a member of the group.

If the leaders strike a deal, the eight senators will try to rally support for it. The gang also includes Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Kent Conrad, D-N.D., Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., and Michael Bennet, D-Colo. 

It’s unclear how much influence the gang will wield. Because they never offered a plan of their own, the senators do not represent a broad, unified view and have no obvious constituency. 

“It’s insane to think the gang is going to have any meaningful role in this,” a Senate aide said. “They are eight guys who have been talking for two years and can’t agree to anything.”

Another reason for the gang’s lack of juice is that the Senate has long been more inclined toward bipartisanship. 

The GOP-led House is expected to be the tougher nut to crack, and the gang has limited weight with that chamber. Of the eight, Chambliss is considered the closest to Boehner, so he can offer support, but House Republicans will not necessarily follow the lead of Senate Republicans. 

“I don’t really see the Gang of Eight as having much sway with convincing House Republicans to come aboard,” said Sarah Binder, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution. “The stepping back of the Gang of Eight is a recognition that it is not more ideas that are needed here. It’s, how do you sell this to a sufficient number of House Republicans so that Boehner can sign off on a deal?”