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Senate group offers $3.75 trillion deficit cuts

Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-ND) talks to the media after the Senate's "Gang of Six" meeting on healthcare reform in Washington
Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-ND) talks to the media after the Senate's "Gang of Six" meeting on healthcare reform in Washington

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A bipartisan group of senators on Tuesday revived an ambitious budget plan that could provide new ideas for breaking the impasse in Congress over raising the nation's credit limit by August 2.

President Barack Obama threw his support behind the proposal by the "Gang of Six" senators, saying it was broadly consistent with his approach on reducing debt and deficits.

Obama urged Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a fellow Democrat, and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell to start "talking turkey" about it.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, one of the six Democratic and Republican senators who have been working since December on a deficit-reduction plan, said the proposed $3.75 trillion in savings over 10 years contains $1.2 trillion in new revenues.

The group briefed about half of the 100-member Senate and "the response was very favorable," Conrad told reporters.

He said the group asked fellow senators to take 24 hours to look at the proposal and "report back to us."

According to an executive summary of the plan, it would immediately impose $500 billion in deficit cuts, cut security and non-security spending over 10 years with spending caps, make the Medicare and Medicaid healthcare programs operate more efficiently and abolish the Alternative Minimum Tax.

Asked whether the plan could become part of urgent negotiations that link deficit reduction to raising the U.S. government's borrowing authority by August 2, Conrad said: "Could the two get married? Could they get combined at some point? I'm sure that's possible."

But leaders must first find out whether the proposal has enough support in the Senate, he said.

But a senior Senate Democratic aide said, for now, "there are no discussions" on incorporating Gang of Six ideas into legislation to raise the debt limit beyond $14.3 trillion.

TAXES AT ISSUE

Conrad was quick to say that while there are $1.2 trillion in new revenues, the overall plan envisions a $1.5 trillion tax cut that would be achieved through broad tax reforms.

Most Republicans, especially Tea Party members in the House of Representatives, have vowed to block any revenue increases.

The Senate group's hope has been that if the three conservative Republican members embrace revenue increases, the idea could catch fire among other Republicans in the Senate and House -- especially if popular but expensive entitlement programs such as Medicare also shoulder some cuts.

In another politically risky move, the Gang of Six plan would achieve significant savings in healthcare programs, Conrad said. The specific spending cuts would be decided later by congressional committees.

Conrad said a separate measure would reform the Social Security retirement program to stabilize its finances for the next 75 years.

The effort got a boost as conservative Republican Senator Tom Coburn rejoined the group after taking a "sabbatical" in mid-May amid heavy disagreement over Medicare spending cuts. It was not yet clear how Coburn's concerns have since been addressed.

On Monday, Coburn unveiled his own plan to cut $9 trillion in deficits over a decade, including nearly $1 trillion in revenue increases.

Revenue proposals are not likely to include income tax rate increases. Instead, they could center on repealing or rolling back special tax favors such as those for ethanol blenders and companies that operate corporate jets, as well as preferential tax treatment for fund managers.

Those specific decisions likely would be up to House and Senate tax-writing committees, along with broader tax reform questions.

(Editing by John O'Callaghan)

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