WASHINGTON -- A bipartisan group of senators that has been meeting behind the scenes during the past several months is emerging as the focal point in a battle over spending with no obvious end in sight. The gang met again Tuesday morning and Democrats uninvolved with the group were tipped off about the talks at a lunch with colleagues later in the day.
Five of the six key members of the group are the usual suspects: Budget hawk Kent Conrad (N.D.) and wheeler-dealer Mark Warner (Va.) on the Democratic side, joined by conservative Republicans Mike Crapo (Idaho), Saxby Chambliss (Ga.) and the Dr. No of the Senate, Tom Coburn (Okla.).
The sixth man is Dick Durbin (Ill.), the Democratic whip whose liberal bona fides make him an unlikely ally of the deficit hawks. A Durbin aide said that the number-two Senate Democrat has joined the group's negotiations so that progressives have a seat at the table, arguing that such discussions would be taking place with or without liberal input.
Durbin has been closely enough involved that other senators have begun to call him and the other three senators who voted to approve the presidential deficit commission recommendations "D-triple-C" -- Durbin, Conrad, Coburn and Crapo.
Chambliss told HuffPost that Durbin is serious about the talks, but has defended liberal priorities. "Obviously, there's some very serious issues that are very important to him and his constituency, and he's a strong advocate for that," Chambliss said.
The Georgia Republican said Durbin is not acting as a proxy for the White House. "Dick is his own guy in this," he said. "He has been very constructive and we've had a good dialogue. Dick understands how serious the problem is, as all of us do."
Liberal groups have heard similar sentiments before, however, and are worried that Durbin's involvement and his close ties to President Barack Obama means he'll be willing to compromise on core principles.
"We are not pleased that an otherwise good senator is getting on board with the Alan Simpson train to the end middle-class America," said Levana Layendecker of Democracy For America, a million-member group that originated with Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign.
DFA has been pressing Durbin not to agree to cuts to Social Security or other entitlements, which led to a meeting between group members and a Durbin staffer in Illinois. Before the meeting, the staffer pulled the organizer, Dr. Pamella Gronemeyer, aside and said, "Don't worry, it won't affect you," referring to possible cuts to Social Security, she told HuffPost.
"I was taken aback. I'm not talking about myself. I'm talking about my kid and other people's kids," she said. "I don't care if it affects me. That's not how I make my decisions. It's not about me. It's the right thing to do. Anybody whose parents lived through the depression knows what it can be like."
Liberal anger at Durbin's vote for the deficit commission report and at his subsequent willingness to negotiate underscores the difficulty senators from each party will face in reaching some kind of agreement. Democrats are hoping Republicans overreach and propose draconian cuts that can be used against them, while Republicans have slammed Democrats for not backing enough cuts or tackling entitlements. "I don't know how, frankly, you do something like entitlement reform unless you've got presidential leadership," said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), who is considering his own shot at the Oval Office.
The political popularity of entitlement programs has both parties urging the other to jump first, assuring each other that, seriously, we'll right behind you. "There are Republicans up here who want to work on entitlement reform," Thune said. "We are available, willing and ready to do that. But the president has got to lead on this issue."
"We have got to cut some appropriations, but if you look at it, the big problem is the entitlements, and of course they are very popular. People depend on them," said Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), who is retiring at the end of 2012. "Everybody is waiting, but some of us have to be willing to step forward and put forth some proposals."
Privately, however, Republicans acknowledge that it would be a political blunder to get ahead of them on entitlement cuts. "Why would the president introduce [entitlement cuts] in his budget? When he didn't mention it in his SOTU address it wasn't a surprise. We wouldn't have done it either," a top Senate GOP aide said. "Look at what happened to Paul Ryan, how he got attacked as soon as he addressed entitlement reform in his roadmap."
"Let's vote on the Paul Ryan plan," said one giddy Democratic senator, relishing the thought of putting Republicans on the record in favor of eviscerating Medicare and Social Security.
Stopgap funding for the federal government is set to run out in early March, but Warner, Conrad, Chambliss and Coburn all told HuffPost their gang is not trying to put out a proposal by such a deadline.
It's also not clear that any agreement is possible. "It's very hard to forecast how this comes together," Conrad said. "We're not tied to a particular timetable." HuffPost asked if he meant "how" or "whether."
"Both," said Conrad.
Warner was more optimistic about the possibility of compromise, at least in the long term. "I think even you guys will be surprised by the number of senators that are going to be engaged," he told a group of reporters in the Capitol, adding that it will take time. "This is a structural deficit problem and it's going to take beyond one year's options" to fix," he said.
The gang of six senators formed from a hybrid of two separate groups that had been working toward writing deficit reduction legislation. Durbin had teamed with Crapo to try to revive the deficit commission's recommendations after they failed to garner the necessary votes to advance to a vote on the House or Senate floor. In December, Durbin met with a second group, led by Chambliss and Warner, that had a similar goal and included at least 10 Democrats. The group now comprises roughly 20 members from both sides of the aisle, said senators familiar with the negotiations, but Warner and Chambliss have been deputized to meet with Durbin's group and report back.
"We're kind of one and the same," said Chambliss of the two groups. "They were part of our group and now we've kind of boiled it down to picking those four guys' brain and getting their ideas."
The idea is to find $4 trillion in deficit reductions over the next decade, as the deficit commission did. The exercise, however, need not be complicated: According to the Congressional Research Service, extending the Bush-era tax cuts over the next decade will add $5.05 trillion to the deficit.