‘Gang of Six’ May Break Through Debt Ceiling Stalemate

Congress took a step forward in its negotiations over a debt ceiling plan Tuesday – which is noteworthy in a month of grinding gridlock. Both of Alaska’s Senators are encouraged by the proposal by a group of three Democrats and three Republicans calling itself the “Gang of Six.”  One of the Senate’s most conservative members, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma just rejoined the Gang after dropping out two months ago. And President Obama is also urging that it get some consideration.

Senator Lisa Murkowski left a Republican lunch meeting with one word about how she’s feeling:  invigorated.

She says even though the Gang of Six plan is far from a done deal, this moment is more promising than what she’s seen.

“I’m feeling better today than I have in a long time. By all rights I should be jet lagged and I feel pretty good.”

Murkowski has warned that not raising the debt ceiling by the August 2 deadline could be catastrophic to financial markets and leave the U.S. without enough money to make Social Security payments or send out paychecks to the military.

The Gang of Six plan would cut the deficit by $3.7 trillion over a decade. Murkowski says the big question is if the details can be hammered out – and agreed upon – by Congress in the two weeks left until the U.S. risks defaulting.

“We’ve got a looming deadline in front of us. Here in the senate we seem to operate best when we’ve got time constraints. So we’ve got the time constraints, we’ve got the ideas out on the table, let’s get it done.”

Both Murkowski and Senator Mark Begich attended a briefing Tuesday morning outlining the Gang of Six plan. Members of both parties left the meeting showing enthusiasm that has not been seen in the Capitol in weeks.

Senator Begich says while he prefers a plan that he helped craft, put forth by North Dakota Senator Kent Conrad, he’s willing to move forward.

“There’s elements I like, there’s some elements I don’t like. At the end of the day, is there a melding of these to get us to a final budget deal, yes. The problem is people have to get serious around here. And actually do it.”

While Alaska’s senators are in a flurry of meetings this week, Congressman Don Young is not in Washington. He is in Alaska attending a fishing trip fundraiser for a charity named for his late wife, Lu Young. It benefits Alaska Native families battling cancer.

Neither Senator Murkowski nor Begich would weigh in on whether Young should be in Washington, but Murkowski said she’s focused on hunkering down and having a voice in the debt debate.

“There’s a lot that comes about in this place by critical mass. And even though I might not be attending the WH meetings, there is something each one of us can be doing in terms of giving support, encouragement, asking the questions, pushing and prodding, and we all need to be here.”

Murkowski points to the little-known role the Senate women may have played. She says last week Republicans and Democrats called on the Gang of Six members to brief them of their progress.  The group of fifteen women was opinionated, asked questions, and proved to be a good sounding board, according to Murkowski.

“I  have to wonder if the group of women senators had not gotten together last week and said, ‘we’ve got to kick start this thing,’ if we hadn’t gone and asked for that briefing, would they have come forward and said maybe it is time to put this out.”

Senator Mark Begich agrees that it’s not just taking crucial votes – although that’s big on his priority list – it’s also the process of talking with colleagues, hammering out the fine details, and putting heat on leadership not to waste any more time.

“Each person has to make their own decisions of what their own priorities are. I would love to be back there with him. But as a member of the Budget Committee and someone who sits in leadership trying to craft some of this result, I have a responsibility to be here.  Despite the fact that tomorrow’s my anniversary and my son’s birthday is in six days, I’d have a rather priority to be there, but this we’ve got to get done.”

Murkowski says she’d also like to be up in Alaska, but is prepared to stay in the capital.

“I think where we are right now is as critical to any time as I’ve been here. I want to go back home this weekend because it’s the weekend we’re all going to be honoring Ted Stevens. There’s probably nothing I could do that would honor Ted Stevens more than making sure that the needs of our country are attended to. I think Ted would understand why I’m not in Alaska this weekend.  If we need to be here we need to be here, so.”

Senate and House leadership are calling for members to work through this coming weekend.

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