JONATHAN CHAIT MAY 18, 2011
Tom Coburn, one of six Senators working on a bipartisan agreement, split off yesterday. My immediate reaction was that the deal is now dead. But I'm not so sure. Philip Rucker and Lori Montgomery of the Washington Post report that Coburn had begun abandoning his previously negotiated positions:
Those close to the talks said trouble has been brewing for weeks. Earlier this month, the group appeared to be tantalizingly close to an agreement. But then, Democratic sources said, Coburn started bringing up new issues at every meeting, or demanding that old ones be reconsidered.
For example, Coburn began pressing for sharper cuts to Social Security than had been previously agreed to, according to sources familiar with the talks who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the private nature of the negotiations. And during a three-hour session late Monday, the sources said, Coburn demanded deep and immediate cuts to Medicare that went beyond anything previously proposed.
On Tuesday morning, Coburn called Durbin to say he was dropping out.
What caused Coburn to suddenly start jacking up his demands? Jackie Calmes of the New York Times suggests the exploding John Ensign scandal exposed him to more risk than he could handle at once:
The six senators met for dinner on Monday and their discussion was described as impassioned at times after Mr. Coburn came with new demands for $130 billion in additional reductions in Medicare spending over the coming decade. The group agreed to meet all afternoon on Tuesday, but Mr. Coburn arrived at Mr. Warner’s office before the others and left before they arrived. Mr. Coburn has been considered by many to be the linchpin for the other Republicans as they faced pressures from the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky; the antitax activist Grover G. Norquist and various conservative groups to quit the group and not compromise with the Democrats on any plan that would raise revenues.
Yet Mr. Coburn’s involvement was always seen as fragile given his reputation as an independent thinker with little experience at compromise.
Colleagues in recent days had wondered whether he would withdraw after a report from the Senate Ethics Committee on the conduct of former Senator John Ensign of Nevada implicated Mr. Coburn, a friend of Mr. Ensign’s, for helping to arrange controversial payments to the husband of Mr. Ensign’s former mistress. One controversy was enough without inviting more by reaching a bipartisan budget deal, the thinking went.
I suppose this means the group can get back to the table. But that doesn't mean they can get an agreement through the House. If Mitch McConnell is trying to kill it, it probably means the House leadership will do the same, and that means it will die.