Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) abruptly pulled out of the bipartisan "Gang of Six" negotiations last week and seemed to signal that a comprehensive deal would not be reached any time soon. His departure underscores the great divide between Republicans and Democrats regarding deficit reduction and reform of government entitlement programs. His absence also puts pressure on remaining "Gang" members to reach a resolution.
The remaining five members are Senators Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), Kent Conrad (D-ND), Mike Crapo (R-ID), Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Mark Warner (D-VA). Durbin is assistant majority leader and Conrad is the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee.
"These guys have worked hard, and we had 80 percent of some significant things the country needs to do," Coburn said. "But right now, I don't see us solving what needs to be solved."
Soon after hearing of Coburn's exit from the negotiations, Conrad released a statement, saying, "At many points, we've hit rough spots; I hope this is just that. The group is facing tough issues. But it has faced tough issues before and continued to work."
According to some reports, tension within the group had been simmering for some time, and Coburn became increasingly frustrated with the group's lack of focus on making significant cuts to the Medicare health program. Coburn passionately pushed to cut an additional $130 billion on top of the $400 billion recommended by President Obama's deficit-cutting commission. Some say the tension between the liberal Durbin and the conservative Coburn also contributed.
Biden's Bipartisan Group Continues Talks
Now all eyes have turned to the debt talks conducted by Vice President Joe Biden among another group of bipartisan legislators. This group, meeting over the last two to three weeks in the hopes of striking a deal on raising the debt-ceiling limit while also cutting the deficit, may now be the only game in town.
Should they be successful, it may be because their focus is much tighter. While the "Gang of Six" considered issues like Medicare reform and overhauling the tax code, Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ) said, "We are not going to have time to do all of that in the relatively short time the debt ceiling has to be acted upon."
The Vice President stated last week that he's only looking for a "down payment" on deficit reduction in order to get the group to agree to raise the country's debt ceiling limit prior to its August 2 trigger date.
Senate Republicans Defeat Judicial Nominee
Senate Republicans last week engineered the first successful filibuster of a judicial nominee since 2005, handing President Obama the first judicial defeat of his presidency. The final vote on the nomination of 39 year-old Goodwin Liu to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals was 52-43, eight votes short of the 60 needed to overcome the filibuster. In terms of partisan break-down, one Republican voted with Democrats to open debate on the nomination, while one Democrat voted against.
The crux of Republican opposition to the University of Berkeley professor's nomination centered on what Republicans considered Liu's liberal views on social issues, such as same-sex marriage and affirmative action. The GOP also maintained that many of his writings espouse judicial activism from the bench, and many were upset with Lui's comments about Supreme Court Justice Sam Alito during Lui's nomination hearing.
Meanwhile, Democrats maintained that Liu was well suited for the bench. They pointed to his academic credentials and maintained that his legal philosophy was mainstream. Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin (D-IL) maintained that opposition to Liu's nomination was purely and plainly political.
The move has the potential of re-opening painful old wounds in the Senate when it comes to the debate regarding the filibustering of judicial nominations. Washington insiders say there is bound to be lingering resentment that the six-year peace has now been broken.