With the end of session looming and no energy deals in sight, the Senate "Gang of 20" met for one last time Wednesday night, scrambling to rewrite a proposal that has yet to win support from the top Senate leaders in both parties.
Emerging from their latest meeting in a Senate office building, the group's leader, Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), told Politico that the bipartisan group of ten Republicans and ten Democrats had cut more than $20 billion from the cost of the package, bringing it down to about $60 billion. The bill still includes offshore oil drilling _ with the critical revenue sharing provisions for states _ as well as incentives for alternative energy and conservation.
"We have a proposal we're going to shop around on both sides," Conrad said. "I feel very good."
Yet Conrad added that it wasn't clear whether Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) or Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) would sign off on the proposal. Even though the coalition has garnered plenty of positive publicity for being so bipartisan in its negotiations, Republican leaders have begun to warn their own members that the tax provisions will be troublesome to conservatives.
Conrad was quick to point out on Wednesday night that there is now "no net tax increase" in the bill, but it's not clear whether that will be enough to buy off support from rank and file Republicans skeptical of cutting deals with Democrats right now.
"We're still committed," Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) insisted as he left the meeting. And Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), admitted that "we're still working on it."
Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), another member of the group, was optimistic but added that "there are a lot of complicating factors" that will make a true deal tough to sell in the Senate.
The ultimate fate of this coalition may become more clear tomorrow when Republican and Democratic leaders scrutinize the proposals and decide whether they want to have a bipartisan deal in this election season or rip it apart and go to their separate corners just six weeks before the election.
Patrick O'Connor contributed to this story.