While Washington bickers noisily over cutting a small slice of the federal budget, Sens. Mark Warner, D-Va., and Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., launched a campaign Monday to convince the public that merely cutting spending will do little to tame the $14 trillion national debt.
The nation will be "up the creek" economically, Mr. Warner told a crowd of more than 200 lobbyists and business leaders in Richmond, unless Congress and the White House come together in support of highly unpopular measures such as raising taxes and overhauling Social Security and Medicare.
Even as partisan rancor has crippled congressional debate in recent years, Mr. Warner and Mr. Chambliss have entered talks with four other senators from both parties in hopes of forging a compromise that could lead to a more affordable government.
The town hall meeting was part of an emerging effort to build support beyond the Beltway for possible steps that have so far been deemed politically suicidal, such as asking business owners to give up tax breaks and workers to put off retirement until age 69.
"Everything is on the table," Mr. Chambliss said. "For a Republican to put revenues on the table is significant. For a Democrat to put entitlements on the table is significant. But Mark and I believe and know in our hearts that the only way we're going to solve this problem is to have a dialogue about these issues."
The group, which has taken to calling itself the Gang of Six, includes some of the Senate's most influential members -- men with close ties to President Barack Obama and GOP congressional leaders.
In addition to Mr. Chambliss and Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who are friends of House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, the group includes Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, a close adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.; Kent Conrad D-N.D., the Senate Budget Committee chairman; and Richard Durbin, D-Ill., the No. 2 Senate Democrat and a close Obama ally. Mr. Warner is a former governor who famously balanced Virginia's budget.
The payoff for their efforts, the senators say, would be a more prosperous economy -- and a reduced threat that the United States would face the kind of debt crisis that has sparked painful reforms in Greece and some other European countries.
"The picture needs to be painted for the American people that change is coming," Mr. Coburn said. "The question is, are we going to have it in a concerted, planned-out manner, or are we going to have it in a firestorm?"
The group has been meeting weekly, as about 30 other senators are watching from the sidelines to see whether the talks produce a politically viable deficit reduction plan they can back. They include Senate veterans like Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and newcomers like Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., a freshman facing her first re-election campaign next year.
Ms. Klobuchar called the Gang of Six "an island of rationality" in a sea of denial about the nation's fiscal problems. "We have a significant number of people that really are interested in doing the right thing," she said. "And we still have not given up hope that we can do this."
Ms. Klobuchar helped launch the deficit reduction effort about a year ago, when Mr. Obama was pushing Congress to increase the legal limit on government borrowing. She and 13 other senators led by Mr. Conrad and Judd Gregg, R-N.H., withheld their votes and demanded that the president create a commission to tackle the problem.
Republicans -- and some Democrats -- scorned the panel, dismissing it as a gimmick intended to give Democrats a talking point for midterm elections. But when the panel started meeting, the task's urgency quickly became apparent.
Several commission members pointed to testimony in late May by University of Maryland economist Carmen Reinhart as particularly compelling. Ms. Reinhart and her co-author, Harvard economist Kenneth Rogoff, analyzed more than 200 years of data on 44 countries and found that "growth deteriorates markedly" when total government debt exceeds 90 percent of the economy. Total U.S. government debt exceeded 90 percent of gross domestic product last year.
Last summer, Mr. Warner and Mr. Chambliss held educational sessions for Senate moderates, slowly expanding their circle of support.
In January, after 11 of 18 fiscal commission members voted to endorse an ambitious plan to cut annual deficits by $4 trillion by 2020, Mr. Warner and Mr. Chambliss then suggested to Mr. Durbin, Mr. Conrad, Mr. Crapo and Mr. Coburn -- all fiscal commission members -- that they continue the panel's work with the goal of forcing debate in the Senate.