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'Gang of Six' may solve U.S. debt mess

By John Avlon, CNN Contributor
  • John P. Avlon: Senators from both parties meeting on U.S. debt woes
  • He says everything should be on the table -- and all should be represented
  • Avlon says coverage tends to be dominated by conflict and the extremes
  • In a divided government, progress can only come from compromise, he says

Editor's note: John Avlon is a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for The Daily Beast. He is the author of "Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America."

New York (CNN) -- Washington has been preoccupied with the prospect of a federal government shutdown. Protesters from the Tea Party to the pro-union Wisconsin activists disproportionately dominate our debates. We cover the political car crash but not the constructive conversation.

But brace yourself, there just might be a hope for bipartisanship in the Senate when it comes to dealing with the deficit and the debt.

The heroes of this story are the so-called Gang of Six. The group is led by Democrat Mark Warner and Republican Saxby Chambliss, who are joined in meetings by Senate veterans of the president's deficit reduction panel -- Republicans Tom Coburn and Mike Crapo and Democrats Kent Conrad and Dick Durbin. The group's off-site negotiations have attracted more than 30 of their Senate colleagues.

This runs counter to the conventional wisdom and is a sign of the strength of the center at a time when the activist extremes of both parties too often seem to be calling the shots. The fact that bipartisan Senate groups are invariably called "The Gang of..." -- comparing them to anti-Maoist conspirators -- says volumes about the hyperpartisan culture of conformity in Washington.

But we're also seeing one of the benefits of divided government, that constructive compromise is essential to the success of legislation. The all-or-nothing approach is a sure loser. And we literally can't afford to delay action on dealing with the deficit and the debt.

Every day the United States adds $4 billion to our national debt. We need to raise the debt ceiling this spring or America will default on its payments to creditor nations like China, which is using U.S. interest payments to fuel its rise while we borrow money to just pay for benefits to an aging population.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. Mike Mullen has described our national debt as the greatest national security threat facing our nation, and it's easy to see why: The world's biggest debtor nation cannot remain the world's sole superpower indefinitely.

But despite the urgency, to date there has been stalemate. Republicans ran on reducing the deficit and the debt in 2010, but every Republican House member appointed to the deficit reduction panel led by Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles ultimately declined to support its recommendations, including new House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan. Liberal Democrats have been quick to describe modest proposals like raising the retirement age to 69 in 2075 as a "war on the middle class." Neither side seems determined to write a new chapter in "Profiles in Courage."

In recent weeks, we've watched heated debates in Congress over cuts to discretionary domestic spending, which accounts for 12% of the budget, with government shutdowns hanging in the balance. This is not only the most difficult way to cut spending; it can be counterproductive in terms of slowing the recovery. Bending the long-term cost curve with entitlement reform and tax reform would do far more to reduce the deficit and the debt. Current recipients won't be hurt and proven effective programs can stay funded -- it's actually less pain for more gain. It just takes political courage to take the leap together -- and most politicians act like they would rather fear-monger and point-fingers.

That's why it's heartening to see senators trying to act like adults. As Chambliss said, "For a Republican to put revenues on the table is significant; for a Democrat to put entitlements on the table is significant." He's right, the bottom line is that everything needs to be on the table and everyone needs to be at the table.

The leaders of the bipartisan Gang of Six can give political cover to this practical reality: We can't cut or tax our way out of this problem alone. Now the time has come to move from talks to specific proposals, putting the principles of deficit reduction into legislative language.

There is an appetite for this next step that extends well beyond the Gang of Six itself to a plurality of senators -- especially those centrists facing tough re-elections in 2012, from Democrats like Claire McCaskill and Jon Tester to Republicans Scott Brown and Olympia Snowe. But the clock is ticking -- the closer we get to the next round of elections the less likely Congress is to take action on deficit and debt reduction. Meanwhile, the hardcore partisans on both sides -- and the White House -- wait for others to lead.

"The Gang of Six has stepped into the leadership vacuum created by the House GOP's lemming-like rush for the ideological cliffs, and President Obama's reluctance to embrace the recommendations of his own Deficit Commission," said Will Marshall of the Progressive Policy Institute. "Sen. Warner and his colleagues are working closely with the Simpson-Bowles team to broaden support for the commission's approach, which is the only bipartisan game in town," Marshall said.

"The bipartisan Senate group that is focusing on fiscal responsibility and sustainability is a positive example of members who are dedicated to progress over partisanship," adds former Comptroller General David Walker, currently director of the Comeback America Initiative. "Their efforts should be applauded and expanded over time."

There is a larger dynamic at work that is worth appreciating -- the recognition that the most exciting and substantive work in American politics is occurring when leaders from opposite sides of the political aisle put aside their differences to work on issues of common cause.

The Chambliss-Warner partnership follows in the model of Simpson-Bowles. We've even seen this kind of pragmatic but principled partnership achieve successful breakthroughs on social issues like same-sex marriage, where former Bush v. Gore opponents Ted Olson and David Boies worked together to overturn Proposition 8 in California. It all follows a consistent centrist formula -- define the common ground that exists on a given issue and then build on it. That's how we move our nation not left or right, but forward.

But these efforts need your support. People who have the courage to reach across the political aisle spend much of their time taking buckshot from both sides. The activist base of their own party too often condemns any compromise while the establishment from the other party sees a once and future opponent and declines their support.

But if you're part of the 93% of Americans who say they want to see less partisan fighting in Washington, it's time to stand up and support efforts like the Gang of Six. Send the message that you want to see more senators have the courage to join in the cross-aisle talks. It's one way to counteract what might be called the "Charlie Sheen-ification" of political coverage -- rewarding bad behavior with attention while ignoring responsible efforts to actually solve problems. Encouraging efforts like the Gang of Six is the antidote.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John P. Avlon.