WASHINGTON -- Influential Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) "decided to take a break" from the bipartisan "Gang of Six" budget negotiating team Tuesday, citing an impasse in the effort to agree on substantial spending cuts.
"He is disappointed the group has not been able to bridge the gap between what needs to happen and what senators will support," said Coburn spokesman John Hart. "He has decided to take a break from the talks."
Some Democrats have been predicting the gang's demise ever since one of its leaders, Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) -- one of the six members -- announced he'd start moving ahead with his own proposal. Conrad said Tuesday he'd announce plans to proceed soon.
Coburn's departure could all-but deep-six the Six, since Conrad's budget plan could overtake it. And Vice President Biden also has been leading bipartisan talks aimed at conquering the deficit impasse, talks that Senate Republican leaders think are more likely to lead to Democratic concessions, said a Democratic aide close to the talks. A GOP aide confirmed the leadership pressure on the group, but noted that Coburn has a long history of resisting such advances, from backing a coup against then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich to challenging Republican leadership on earmarks.
The aide said that Coburn had been extremely close to agreeing to a deal before a recent two-week recess, but returned with five new demands that hadn't been discussed before. On Monday, the aide said, Coburn asked for an immediate $130 billion in cuts to Medicare, on top of the $400 billion that had already been agreed to. Democrats refused and Coburn left the talks as a result, said the aide.
A Republican aide close to the talks said that Coburn's additional Medicare demand stemmed from the program's trustee's report, which was issued Monday morning and showed it running out of money by 2024, five years sooner than had previously been forecast. But he said that characterizing the demands as new missed the point of the talks, which explicitly put everything on the table.
The erstwhile Gang of Six will meet as five tomorrow, the Democratic aide said.
But Coburn could still get back in, Hart suggested.
"He still hopes the Senate will, on a bipartisan basis, pass a long-term deficit reduction package this year," Hart said. "He looks forward to working with anyone who is interested in putting forward a plan that is specific, balanced and comprehensive."
Coburn may have other issues on his mind, though.
Two aides close to the talks said that Democrats suspect the Oklahoman's decision is related to pressure he has come under as a result of his involvement in the sex scandal that prompted Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) to resign. The watchdog group that filed the original ethics complaint against Ensign also thinks Coburn should be probed.
The GOP aide rejected as ridiculous such speculation, suggesting that if he were truly concerned about the issue the best way to distract attention from it would be to achieve consensus with the Gang of Six, which is much beloved by the mainstream media.
Sens. MIke Crapo (R-Idaho) and Saxby Chambliss (R-Georgia) were supposed to make one last-ditch effort to get Coburn to stay in the gang, but apparently failed.
This story was updated to include additional details.