Senators meet in effort to avoid fiscal cliff

Last year, a group of Republican and Democratic U.S. senators, known as "The Gang of Six," united in an effort to put forth a bipartisan debt reduction proposal. Nancy Cordes checks in on their progress.

This week, a bipartisan group of eight senators is meeting to try to keep the nation from going off the "fiscal cliff" at the end of the year.

The three days of meetings will take place from Tuesday through Thursday at Mount Vernon in Virginia, a Senate source confirms to CBS News. They will involve four Republicans and four Democrats. The Republicans are Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, Mike Crapo of Idaho, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, and Mike Johanns of Nebraska. The Democrats are Michael Bennet of Colorado, Kent Conrad of North Dakota, Dick Durbin of Illinois, and Mark Warner of Virginia.

Warner is hosting the meeting for the group, which was known as the "Gang of Six" before the addition of Johanns and Bennet. Alan Simpson, who was co-chair of The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform that released a debt reduction plan in 2010 (also known as the Simpson-Bowles commission), will also attend the meetings.

Separately, Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee has been meeting on the side with Bennet to work toward a solution.

The most recent iteration of the Gang of Six worked last year to move Congress toward a deficit reduction deal, but was unable to craft an agreement that the parties could agree to. It came up with a $3.7 trillion deficit reduction plan based on the recommendations of the Simpson-Bowles commission, but left many of the details to congressional committees and never submitted final legislation.

The new, extended meetings are an opportunity for the senators to dig deep into the issues at hand while the Senate is out of session, according to Senate sources. In the past, the group's meetings have lasted for only an hour or 90 minutes before lawmakers had to break for votes or other obligations. These meetings are designed to allow for more time for discussion. The senators do not expect to emerge from this week's extended meetings with a proposal, but they hope to create a framework for the exceedingly difficult task of getting a deal through a polarized and contentious Congress after the November elections. 

Congress' failure to come up with a deal last year helped create a major component of the "fiscal cliff" - which includes the so-called "sequestration" cuts set to go into effect at the end of the year. Back in 2011, the parties were engaged in a standoff over raising the debt ceiling. Republicans would only agree to raise that debt ceiling in exchange for a deal to significantly reduce the deficit.

Since they were unable to come up with a deal in the short term, lawmakers instead came up with a plan: Set up a bipartisan, 12-member "supercommittee" made up of House and Senate members to find $1.2 trillion in additional cuts. (This group, confusingly, is separate from the Gang of Six.) Lawmakers mandated that if they failed, nearly across-the-board cuts would kick in at the end of the year. The idea was that because both parties did not want that to happen, they would come to a deal.

They didn't. Now the United States faces the prospect of $500 billion in defense cuts as well as major, non-targeted cuts to education, medical research and other domestic programs.

And that's just one part of the cliff. There's also the scheduled expiration of tax cuts enacted in 2001 and 2003 under President George W. Bush, and the expiration the payroll tax holiday enacted under President Obama. (Those are the big expiring tax breaks, but there are others set to expire too; the specifics are detailed here.) According to the Tax Policy Center, going off the cliff would affect 88 percent of U.S. taxpayers, with their taxes rising by an average of $3,500 a year. Many economists, as well as the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, say the combination of spending cuts and tax hikes that are set to take effect would tip the economy into a new recession. 

Discussion of the fiscal cliff is expected to dominate Congress during the lame-duck session following the presidential election. The "Gang of Eight" now starting to meet is keeping its deliberations largely private in an effort to minimize outside pressure.

It faces an uphill battle. Even if the group, which has no direct power over its colleagues, manages to craft a deal that gets through the Senate - no easy task when it takes 60 votes to overcome a filibuster - it also must pass through a Republican-dominated House that has shown an aversion to compromise, particularly when it comes to raising taxes. (The White House, of course, also has to be on board.) Democrats generally want to extend the Bush-era tax cuts for all but the highest-income Americans; Republicans generally want to extend them for everyone, including the highest earners.

House Speaker John Boehner said last week that he is reticent to get behind a sweeping deficit deal during the lame duck session, arguing that "I'm not sure it's the right thing to do -- have a lot of retiring members and defeated members voting on really big bills." The most likely scenario at the moment seems to be that lawmakers will craft a short-term deal to avert reaching the cliff for a few months - and then hope they can hammer out some sort of agreement during the new Congress, possibly with the help of the Gang of Eight.

With reporting by CBS News Capitol Hill Producer John Nolen.