Tom Coburn speaks at an event in Oklahoma City. | AP Photo

‘I I don’t see us solving what needs to be solved’ right now, Coburn told POLITICO. | AP Photo Close
By DAVID ROGERS & MANU RAJU | 5/17/11 4:12 PM EDT Updated: 5/18/11 5:10 PM EDT

The Gang of Six lost its strong blocker on the right Tuesday, as Sen. Tom Coburn pulled out of the bipartisan deficit reduction talks and predicted no meaningful deal can be reached until Democrats accept a greater share of savings from government benefit programs.

“These guys have worked hard, and we had 80 percent of some significant things the country needs to do,” the Oklahoma Republican told POLITICO. “But right now, I don’t see us solving what needs to be solved.”

Coburn’s departure adds to the pressure on the remaining five to show real progress this week, and Democrats took heart that Republican Sens. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Mike Crapo of Idaho are still active in the discussions, which will continue Wednesday.

“At many points, we’ve hit rough spots; I hope this is just that,” said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.). Crapo’s office used similar language expressing hope for a resolution. “The group is facing tough issues,” the statement read. “But it has faced tough issues before and continued to work.”

But the loss is ominous, and Chambliss signaled that to make a deal work, Coburn would have to be brought back into the fold.

“We’ll continue to get together because there’s still ideas,” Chambliss said. “But there won’t be a proposal by five of us. It’s got to be six of us.

“I want Tom Coburn [to be] a part of this. He’s been with us 10 months on the debt commission and debate, now five months in this discussion, and he needs to be a part of it.”

One of the strongest political partners in the deficit reduction effort, Coburn is often the most mercurial as well, and Tuesday’s departure followed several weeks of mood swings over the prospects for a deal — and tensions with Democrats over what Medicare savings can be achieved.

Yet for all that, he avoided fanfare Tuesday after investing so much time in the effort. Arriving shortly before a 2:30 p.m. meeting of the six senators, Coburn came without staff and appeared to stay less than 10 minutes, walking past a single reporter outside without comment.

“We’re at an impasse. There’s no reason to talk about the same things over and over and not getting any movement,” he said later. “It’s just a recognition that we can’t get there.”

“I’m not planning on participating at this time. If things change, I will.”

Chambliss, who arrived for Tuesday’s meeting with Conrad and stayed after Coburn left, is distressed by the ups and downs of the talks. The Georgia Republican remains important because of his commitment to the effort and his friendship with Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). But if either Chambliss or Crapo were to pull out, it would be virtually impossible for the other to remain. That would erase in turn what many still see as the Senate’s last, best chance of getting consensus on a broad-based deficit reduction plan to match the $4 trillion, 10-year target set last December by the presidential debt commission.




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